Sample text for Year of fire : stories / David H. Lynn.


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The sleepy sack of a man was waggling a strip of cardboard with her name on it as passengers wearily surged through the arrivals gate at Gandhi International Airport. Only now did Vera Kahn first suspect that perhaps, after all, she'd made a mistake by accepting this invitation. Next to the driver, a USIS bureaucrat-he could be nothing else-was craning his neck and failing entirely to see her as she approached. Ludicrously, he was still trying to spy something, someone else, over her shoulder, even as she dropped a heavy bag nearly on his toes.

"I'm Vera Kahn," she said with hardly any smile at all.

His pale eyes registered the problem in a series of stages he did his best to mask despite the very late hour. "I'm sorry?" he managed first, belatedly.

"Kahn. Vera Kahn. I'm your poet."

The poor man, straw-haired and tie-limp-Vera was glad he made sympathy so difficult-struggled not to say the obvious: that there must be some mistake. There had been a mistake. She was very well aware of it. She wasn't about to let him off the hook.

"Are we waiting for someone else," she asked, "or can we go? I'm pretty well shot."

"Right-okay. But can I see some ID first? You know, security's sake. It's standard procedure over here." Although he looked miserable and confused, struggling to maintain his official good cheer, not to mention his authority, Vera was impressed that he'd managed to improvise the lie at this hour. She handed him her passport.

He studied her photo. "Right. Okay!" he shouted more cheerfully to conceal his greater dismay. "Shankar, let's get a move on." With a nod, the driver shooed away a scatter of boys eager to help and, reaching for the bag himself, let her name drop to the floor, where it joined a ragged swirl of scraps even now being swept away as travelers and greeters, officials and porters and pickpockets dispersed into the Delhi night.



The air felt less tropical, less exotic than she'd expected as they emerged from the airport. It was plenty warm- laden with a muggy haze and wood smoke and the less acrid stink of burning cow dung. Vera felt a stab of disappointment. The irritability and disaffection she'd hoped would somehow magically lift on arrival in the East was instead merely chafing into a raw, weary restlessness.

"I'm Walter Tyson," said the American official more genially as he directed her toward a small red car parked in a reserved space. "I've read your work." Then he stopped lamely once more, doubting his own truthfulness.

"That's so thoughtful of you," said Vera Kahn, and left it at that as she climbed into the back of the Maruti. She knew he hadn't read her poetry, either the one book from a good press or the couple of smaller chapbooks she'd all but paid for herself. Not that the lie was intentional this time. No doubt he'd read, more or less out of a sense of duty-whose idea had it been to extend this invitation? She'd probably find out in the next day or so-some selection from the poetry of Veera Kahn, a black woman of almost precisely her own age who taught not at the small Catholic college in Southern California and not with the glorious view overlooking the ocean (this one of the few satisfactions of the common misunderstanding), but a few miles inland at the much larger school by the same name, but with a UC in front. It used to be that Vera would imagine the two of them getting together and giggling over drinks about their ongoing entanglements. But Veera had made it clear on the occasions when they did meet, usually by accident or confusion or someone else's sense of jolly fun, that she wasn't interested in playing pals. Never did she let on how she came saddled with such a name, Kahn. Being confused with a now middle-aged white woman of little fame could have done Veera's own career no particular good.

For twelve years, on the other hand, Vera had felt shadowed by the other woman's celebrity. Every professional charm coming her way- engagements to read, solicitations for new work, even the occasional call for a date by some friend of a friend- increasingly seemed tainted by this confusion of identity. She knew it wasn't true. Not entirely. But she'd grown used to spying similar symptoms of mistrust, disappointment, resignation that had flitted across Walter Tyson's brow. It hadn't grown easier. It had grown harder, especially of late.

So what should arrive on her desk in mid-August but an invitation from the United States Information Service to spend two weeks on a reading tour in India? Only eight weeks' warning. Someone even more prominent than Vera's near namesake must have canceled on them, not quite at the last minute. USIS Delhi scrambled. Hence, no doubt, the sloppy research, the mistake. She'd had to scramble too, bargaining with colleagues to cover her classes, with students to water her plants and feed her cats.

That look had been in the dean's eyes too when she requested permission- he'd grown used to such confusions between Vera and Veera. Not that he'd complain or admonish her: he was perfectly thrilled for the sake of the college reputation. Still, that knowing smile on his face. She ignored it; she loathed it- any doubt about the wisdom of taking the United States Information Service up on its offer, honest mistake or not, eased itself from her thoughts.

***

FIVE HOURS' sleep was all she could manage that first night, and Vera rose, woozy and disoriented. She was sniffling too. Apparently, a cold had stowed away for the journey. Most of the hotel's other guests had already breakfasted by the time she appeared in the dining room. Its tightly sealed windows overlooked the bright bustle of Connaught Circus-and shielded her from it. She'd been so eager, yet now she lacked the courage to venture immediately into the mayhem. Cranky, annoyed with herself, she sipped at a second cup of tepid coffee. Perhaps she'd been expecting too much of India, or of herself. She didn't want to be disappointed.

Oh, bullshit, she thought, pushing the cup away and staring out at a street of swarming scooter taxis, of buses spewing swathes of dark smoke, of pedestrians and peddlers and darting children with shoe-shine kits, all wrestling for advantage. Only a faint but constant bray of horns seeped through the windows.

A little past one in the afternoon, Walter Tyson appeared, freshly shaven and shirted, his face lacking any trace of the suspicion and discouragement it had betrayed a few hours earlier. No doubt he and the USIS staff had already made some calls. They'd discovered their own mistake. Like it or not, intended or not, it was Vera Kahn they'd invited, not Veera. And Vera had taken them up on it. Here she was, and at least she was a poet too. Perhaps some careful political calibration about race or fame, or both, had been vexed. No solving it now. A later program could be altered. Crossing the lobby, he smiled at her with an enthusiasm that went with the job. His face was pinkly tanned and round, faintly boyish. Vera smiled back.

But it wasn't so easy as that, of course. Tyson drove her to the American Center to meet the staff and check out the room where she'd be giving a first reading that same evening. With each of the senior officers, even with the librarian who'd already hidden away the copies of Veera's books specially ordered for the occasion and who, without question, had spent the morning trying to discover whether a single copy of Vera's book existed on the subcontinent, she spied or imagined spying in their eyes the smoke of disappointment that she was only she. They probably also suspected her complicity in the matter. Her anger flared. One young cultural liaison, lips glossy with color, hair in a careful bun, nearly got herself slapped.

What right, Vera forced herself to acknowledge, sagging a bit, had she to claim any innocence at all?

"Can I sneak away from here for a while?" she whispered to Tyson, tugging at his sleeve in a hallway.

"No problem," he said, apparently relieved to be asked so little.

She hadn't really intended that he escort her, but, on the other hand, she had no clue where to go or how to get there. He seemed well accustomed to the task. "Let's swing you through some of the national monuments," he offered as they climbed into the Maruti, "mostly built by the Brits. Then we can try the Old City-you'll like that."

She wanted to be filled with wonder and exhilaration. Yet the broad avenues and Edwardian monuments of New Delhi only soured Vera's mood still further. India Gate, the Parliament buildings, cracking pavement and peeling paint, waves of stench and billowing heat, a welt of mosquito bites just behind her knee, Tyson's enthusiasm-all nagged and niggled her into a raging petulance she hadn't felt since adolescence. She was aware of it and ashamed and unable to govern her own mood. Gritting her teeth, she nodded at each banality the man offered with a wave of his hand.

Slowly the car began tacking toward the north. They passed a railway station, teeming with solitary men wearing only strips of cotton wrapped around their waists, families besieged by bundles, and young Americans weighed down by enormous backpacks. The streets narrowed, traffic slowed, boys tapped on the car's fenders as they slid past. Vera's nerves were taut with exasperation. She struggled not to shriek at Tyson, demanding that he return her to the hotel, where at least it would be cooler and she could take a shower.


Copyright © 2006 by David Lynn

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