She stood there in the nightie she rarely extricated herself from; she just stood there, this exasperating woman, glancing coyly at M. For the 437th time, he found himself wondering when he would be rid of her. The feeling persisted as she fluttered her eyelids and murmured, I can't give you my clothes to take to the laundry! (Implying thereby, I can't have you stuffing those frilly little things I wear into the machine, though of course what I'm really trying to do is put the thought of them, of me in them, into your mind).
This, after saying so often to M, let me know when you're doing a wash, I have some clothes too. But now that he was ready to go, here she was at her simpering worst. Everything about her annoyed M: that lace-bedecked nightie, her false falsetto, her sudden presence in the lonely life he had taken so long to get accustomed to again. And what was her name, really?
Why did she call herself Shaila when the mail that came for her was addressed to Rita? Then this foolish simper. What was she trying to do, seduce M? Yet her eye-fluttering was never seductive, only annoying. Surely she could see how much she irritated him?
So she stood there in her nightie. M looked at her, then shrugged. Whatever, he said. Hefted his bag on his shoulder and left.
What was her name, anyway?
That morning ten days ago, M had woken to the insistent, needling sound of the phone. Ring after ring it went on, defying his hungover hope that staying in bed would make it stop.
Butch Hancock had been in particularly eloquent form the night before, and M, on his stool at the smoky rear of the Cactus Cafe, had nursed his usual longneck through every meaning-tinged ballad. "I keep wishin' for you," sang Butch at one point, and it was what M might have said, it was what he invariably thought as his nightly beers went down, and as always, it made
him ache. Yearn. Teary.
Not for the first time, M came home determined to make the call. This time. That one call. But beer-bolstered resolve lasts only so long, and he had soon cooked up the reason du jour -- it's late, she's asleep, there's wrestling to watch on TV, what else? -- not to pick up the phone. It barely fooled him, but there it was. M flopped into bed to let the beer, the sorrow -- was that what he felt now, sorrow? Sorrow for something lost? -- and the remaining resolve fade away as he slept.
So a phone that would not stop ringing was entirely the wrong start to the day.
He grabbed at it finally. A voice, a female voice. For a dreamlike moment before it began a babble, Butch's words raced through M's mind again. "I keep wishin' for you." Was this, could it be ... ? Then the babble burst forth as M realized, no, it could hardly be. He listened in growing confusion as the falsetto gushed in his ear. Something about searching through the phone book for Indian names, finding K -- M's roommate -- listed, I'm in trouble and need help so I called, is K at home?
M shook his head to clear it of many longneck memories and, thick-voiced, grunted: No, he's away in India.
Well, said the voice, I *am* in trouble and you must also be Indian (and you deduced that from the few beer-and-sleep-laced words I've mumbled? thought M idly) so won't you help me?
The words were coming at him faster than he could comprehend. M shook his head once more and grunted again: Hold on, let's try this from the beginning. Who is this? What do you want? What's this all about?
By the third question, he noted to himself with an irrelevant pride, his voice wasn't so woolly any more.
But in his ear now, silence. Somehow, M knew: an outraged silence. She had stopped abruptly. Well? M prompted after a few seconds. So? Who is this anyway?
A theatrical sniff gurgled over the lines, a small sob nipping at its heels. You don't believe me? asked the falsetto. You don't believe I need help? You can't see that I'm in trouble?
Sleep now just another memory, M sat up. The theatricality rang faint warning bells, but he left them to chime at the back of his mind. OK, he asked, what trouble?
Her name was Shaila (she said). Married in Madras last year -- one of those shotgun-thank-you-ma'am-back-on-the-plane-fast-as-you-can weddings. Usual several-month visa wait during which hubby-dear called occasionally and wrote not at all. Eventually she flew to Dallas to join him. So far, reflected M, a story as old as the Himalayas. Nor were the next details particularly unusual. When I got here, she wailed, he treated me very badly (sob)! He made me work so hard in the house (sob)! He even had a girlfriend (sob sniff)! An *American* girlfriend!
That last, said in a tone crafted to elicit commiseration from M. A girlfriend, she meant, was already bad enough. But this was an American one! Wouldn't every self-respecting Indian shudder at the thought? Not me, M wanted to say.
On she went. I couldn't take it any more. So yesterday when he was at work, I ran away and caught a bus to Austin. Now I'm at this motel and I can't afford it. I need a place to stay for a few days. Will you help me?
So, thought M, I have a choice. There's the theatricality. There's the fact that this woman is willing to unload intimate details of her life on a complete stranger. I can heed those reservations and hang up right now. But what if she's actually in trouble? So, thought M, I really don't have a choice. I have to help. Well, it's only "a few days", can't hurt. All right, he said, cutting through the babble that hadn't stopped while he mused. Tell me where the motel is. I'll come get you.
Thus came Shaila.
At the office next day, M made some discreet calls to Dallas. Her story checked out in its essentials: husband existed, worked where she said he did, lived where she said they did.
But if the story held up, she herself rang more alarm bells all the time. From Day One, she played the lost defenceless woman. It was tiresome on Day One, but she went at it Day after exasperating Day. And the way she so quickly settled in, M could see she was looking at the long term. Not just "a few days." Within a week, there were letters, official-looking ones too,
arriving for her. A week! How had she told all her correspondents the address so quickly? Or had she planned this for some complex and inexplicable reason? Besides, the letters were all addressed to "Rita." Why Rita, M asked, you told me Shaila. More simpering and a subdued giggle -- but no answer. M didn't know how to insist on an answer.
Yet even with all that ... there was a woman in the house again.
And so M remembered, caressed the memories, and ached. The playful early mornings, the walks with the dog, the bird-watching strolls, the fingers that touched as they brushed past each other. That intangible feminine touch -- colours, sheets, occasional lone flower in a vase -- in their home. The electricity, but also the comfortable companionship.
It turned slowly. Work drew him in, later and later each day, consuming not just energy, but thoughts and emotions as well. Walks with the dog became hurried five-minute affairs that even told on the poor animal: with the lack of exercise, his once-glowing coat grew patchy and dull. Mornings were rushed, no longer playful, no time for playful. And one afternoon at his desk, M realized it had been months since they had been bird-watching. Something they both loved, that had brought them together. How had it come to mean so little? Why was he so strangely empty of regret?
When did the magic fade? Where had it gone?
With her, too, it came on slowly. Just fatigue, she said at the start. One visit to the doctor led to more, then to test after test. M went with her those first few times, then buried himself back in his work. He sensed she was dejected that he would not come, did not even know what was going wrong with her; dejected most of all that they had moved so far apart. He knew her depression and her illness, whatever it was, were connected. But again, he was strangely unable, unwilling, to care. To cope?
Her health slipped in step with their marriage. There was only one possible finish line, and one day, they were there. Home from work, and she was gone. Bags, clothes, books, everything. There was a note, though. "Things have grown so bad with us," she had written in that curling hand he once loved. "You can do something to change that. Here's a number. I dare you to call and find out what's happened to me. For God's sake, show me that you care!"
Was it sarcasm? Her way to shame him for his indifference? If so, it had worked. M felt the shame all right. But he couldn't call. Days, then months passed. At times he wondered, is it too late?
So on long longneck evenings at the Cactus, M heard greater meaning in every song. That night that Joe Ely was in husky, memory-drenched voice: "As far as I can discern," he sang, "love asks for love in return." Yet again, M came home from a song sure he would make the call. The call she had dared him to make, pleaded with him to make. Love does ask for love in return, he wanted to tell her. I know that now. I need you now. Where are you now?
By thick-voiced morning, resolve had dissolved. As it always did. As he knew it would.
It had been their place, the Cactus. *Their* place. Where they went so they could return to *their* home, know it was *their* home, all over again. And now? Just a prelude to an inability to call. Just a place for longnecks.
A woman in the house again, and she brought all these memories back. It was too late for many things, M knew, but not for the memories. Yet they returned almost by omission. For this Shaila was so infinitely distant from one who had filled this space before.
Back from the Cactus another beer-soaked night, three cops on the doorstep. Waiting for him. You know a Rita? they asked.
Well, yes, she has been here for some days now, but I don't really know her.
Never mind, they said. What do you know about her husband in Dallas?
Nothing at all, said M. Except that she ran away from him because he was ill-treating her.
Well, they said, he's disappeared from his job with a pile of company cash. We found a letter from your address in his home.
Come in then, said M, fully sober by now, you should speak to her yourselves.
Inside, she had vanished. Bags, letters, lacy nightie and all; as if she had never been. M looked around in amazement, looked at the cops, shrugged, and also shrugged off the quick but irrelevant thought: this is the second time. The second one who's left.
Many explanations later, the cops finally freed of suspicions and gone, the emptiness of the house -- welcome though it was -- apparent, M was suddenly and clear-headedly aware: this time, right now, the resolve had not died.
He picked up the phone. Woke her up. Tell me, Doctor. What happened to my wife?