a story by Ujwal Rajaputhra
pictures by Brandon Yung
Slice of Life
Ma told me Mr. Tadan had returned to Yorkfield.
I was confused. It had been just short of a year since Dad sent me down to live here, so there wasn’t any way I could know a man as leathery and ancient as ‘Mr. Tadan.’
“Don’t bother him, Sutter.” Ma pulled a thick slice of rhubarb from the oven.
I inhaled the aroma from the windowsill. “I wasn’t going to. He looks like he could die any second.”
“The old timer’s been through a lot. He’s taken a vow of silence.”
“How old is he, exactly?”
“Eat your pie.”
I let the slice’s berry warmth lull me to sleep. The next day, Ma sent me to get some milk because we’d run out. Spring light melted Mr. Tadan’s yellow and purple flowers into buttery smears against his skyblue house. I skipped toward his rotting door and knocked. A papery face answered.
“I’m Sutter. From that house.” I pointed to our vomit-green one-story by the canal.
Mr. Tadan scowled.
“Could you lend us some milk, by any chance? We’re out and short on money.”
He scowled again, more deeply this time, and shut the door. The whipped air felt like a slap in my face. I ran back and told mom, but she shooed me off and sent me out again to retrieve the milk I’d set out for. I tried Mr. Parson’s. He was a retired mason and was laying sod on his lawn for an early storm. My request was met with a snarl, a wad of dipped tobacco, and brutish scoffing. After he’d completed his display of dominance, however, Mr. Parson returned from his house with a cool carton. Ma used some lingo for men like him: Outside, flimsy tin; Inside, summer gumbo.
She used the milk to bake a Chocolate Chess. I ate that, too – with a side of fried drumsticks and lumpy mashed potatoes. I looked out the pane as I ate. The sun had already retired alongside the other hermits of our community, but Mr. Tadan was strolling outside. When I asked Ma about him she said not to pry – that it was complicated. I took a final swig from the carton.
I was going to find out.
The annual Yorkfield parade wasn’t much of an experience. There were about fifty or something participants, two rusty tractors, and a school of various farm animals. Ma made candied nuts for the marching farmers. They filled the stale air with the heavy musk of honey molasses. Our neighbors pitched in, too: the Parsons tossed tobacco pits; Old Lady Margery fashioned a proud basket of sweltering chocolates; and Maria the Hispanic Attorney sung Mexican classics. Mr. Tadan, though, was nowhere to be seen. I chewed raisins on my drenched lawn and waited for the old man to scrabble out his den. Absence at the parade was almost taboo in Yorkfield. Ma said it was meant to commemorate the sickness that’d laid waste a decade ago, and the doctor that’d saved the lives of Yorkfield’s citizens – including hers. Not offering anything was spitting on the dead. Not showing up was another level of evil.
Mr. Tadan never made an appearance.
After the parade had concluded in a cloud of grey confetti, Ma told me to go and play outside if I wasn’t going to study, so I went for a run down the asphalt stretch. I spotted a familiar shadow by the damp crux where our dry town met the lush Frogtown Woods. Ma always warned me to steer clear of those woods – some droplet of Salem superstition that had trickled down the generations. It was Mr. Tadan, I was sure of it. His sickly frame shivered as he gazed into the dense herbage. My watch beeped a minute into my observation. He didn’t turn. Or flinch. I grasped the opportunity, dashing back home on the tips of my toes.
Ma made a hardy gumbo for supper and a slice of Shepard’s for dessert. The pie was crude, but it washed down well with a shot of milk. We’d run out again. She reminded me to pick up more before I went to bed.
I forgot the milk.
It turned out that the following day was occupied by interests other than the hunt for dairy. Like spying. I’d noticed that Mr. Tadan watered his flowers purples first, yellows second, and then purples again. Fredon the Mailman made a stop at the old man’s house. His burly arms struggled to remove an immense, cardboard box from the back of his cornflower van. It took five minutes and a trolley to wheel the package to Mr. Tadan’s door. The old man answered patiently, shrouded in beige overalls. The two then disappeared inside the house. I had almost finished my roasted cashews by the time the mailman returned and continued on his route. It was also only at that moment that I began to notice the wealth of Mr. Tadan’s home; the door and paint were in bitter condition, but inside I could make out a brilliant chandelier dangling with chains of crystals, and glowing chocolate furniture.
The old man watered his flowers one more time before departing for Frogtown Woods. He’d always return late at night, drenched in a fresh coat of sweat and limping from the plight of his journey. While washing the dishes for supper that evening, I asked Ma what about the woods could interest anyone. She was furious.
“Did you go into woods, Sutter?”
Her veiny arm lashed a towel at my face. Bits of grime flew into my eyes.
“You need to listen, Sutter!”
“Mr. Tadan goes in, though, no problem.”
She paused. “That’s different.”
“Why? What’s in there?”
“He just wants to live his last days in silence. He doesn’t need your teenage prying.”
A sickly taste furled in the back of my throat, and I prepared to yell. But then I saw that Ma was on the verge of tears.
“You need to listen, Sutter…”
Supper was quiet that night. I looked out the pane as I ate again, wolfing gobs of apple pie without any milk. Mr. Tadan left his home with a plaid shirt and a simple, collared jacket – right on schedule. I waited until Ma began to snore on the mat across from me. Then, I tiptoed out the door. His back had almost bled into the darkness completely when I got outside. I scampered around the dwarfed Elms that pricked the edges of the asphalt stretch. At the worst, he’d think I was a fox or coyote. The Parsons shot a timberwolf around here only last Friday.
Mr. Tadan stopped at the edge of the cul-de-sac. My heart hammered as he drilled his sight around the woods, barely missing me as I stalked his unsettling back. The old man began his advance fifteen-or-so minutes later. I soon found that the forest floor was littered with heaps of ungulate dung and vicious burrs. Mr. Tadan was awfully focused despite this; there were moments I’d split a lone branch or rustle a pile of leaves, but the old man wouldn’t falter, confident in his brisk pace. We reached the edge of the Elm horde by a late hour. Frogtown Woods ended at a crisp cusp, which was a surprise to me; Ma always said there was lavish vegetation sprawled out for miles, and danger I shouldn’t dare to unveil. But there was only grass – a broad expanse of it. It also seemed that the horizon was studded with an array of mysterious, clean-cut stones. Mr. Tadan didn’t slow down as he approached them. Soon, the cobble studs grew large and the old man’s strides shrunk. By the time I had solved the mystery of the situation he’d fallen to his knees. The gravestone in front of the crippled man was engraved:
Clarence Joseph Tadan, beloved son and father. (1948-1981).
Beside the stone were three more of the same clutch: one of a mother and wife named Matilda; a son and brother, James; a daughter and sister, Jesse. A bald, stocky man clad in a graveyard jumpsuit and shovel approached Mr. Tadan. The old man rose, his bloody eyes glossed under moonlight. The cemetery worker looked sad, too. Mr. Tadan hugged him, and he hugged back. There was an odd sensation of normalcy carried by the nighttime breeze; this was a routine to both of them – but I also knew then that their tears weren’t lying. I doubled-over a wrench in my gut. It was late, and I had to get back; Ma woke up early on Sundays to freshen up for mass. Before I took off, I chose to ignore that a pair of pained, scarlet eyes caught me in their sight.
Ma was still asleep when I crawled back into my covers. I hoped she wouldn’t wake up soon, and left the table empty of my breakfast plate.
I wasn’t that hungry for a change.
Mass seemed more abstract that Sunday. Hymns weren’t as lyrical, caught in the roar of the fierce summer winds. Pastor Nick had chalky circles under his eyes. I overhead Mrs. Parson speaking with Maria the Hispanic Attorney: some scandal with the pastor; an 11-year-old soprano for the Millville Youth Church Choir; Boston Globe and the Archdiocese. Ma didn’t badger me about the milk I’d yet to retrieve. I told her I wasn’t very moody for pie at the moment. She stared at me, wide-eyed.
“We don’t need milk right now, anyway.”
It was my turn to stare in confusion. We sat together on the windowsill. She smiled without direction, gazing at the sundipped squalor that was our neighborhood. On our porch stood a cardboard box almost as tall as our door. I went outside and noticed that there was one on every porch. Maria the Hispanic Attorney danced around hers, her saucy figure bouncing in time with an oil-slick doo. Mr. Parson was sipping a carton with a foreign smile on his tanned face. I paused, sunken in the sands of utter disbelief, before sense dragged me out; my fingers peeled the first cardboard flap and revealed a looming, eggwhite refrigerator. Within it rested three racks of Whole Milk cartons and a half-dozen glass bottles. Ma called behind me. There was a tenderness in her voice I barely recognized.
“Help bring it in, Sutter! We’re eating pie for supper.”
I grabbed a carton, and stared through the windows of the house that was becoming more mysterious by the day. Mr. Tadan wasn’t watering his flowers. Inside, he stood in front of a bronzed mirror. I could barely make out a stethoscope around his nape and an alabaster coast slung over his sloped shoulders – like he was sulking in the ritzy reflection of the past; the man who could save everyone but his own.
“Yeah, Ma.” I put the carton down. “Coming.”
Ujwal is a writer, artist, and rising senior from Montgomery, NJ. He has written more poetry than fiction — despite preferring the latter — and isn’t sure why. His ambiguity of identity is usually drowned under the tides of poor music taste and stormy midnight movie marathons. One day, Elon Musk will shuttle him to Mars, and Ujwal will gaze at the Earth wondering why he ever worried.