Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Winner of BOMB’s 2017 Fiction Contest
The stories I like best are often the ones that slip out of your grasp: you think you’ve got hold of the characters, the situation, the language, then something wriggles and the story vanishes like a fish in a flash of silver, swimming away from you to some place you can hardly imagine. Kristen Gleason’s “Mumbai” is one of those. It’s at home in this world and in another, a place of glasses-snatching thieves and living boats and one miraculous basketball, a place that feels real while you’re in it but which extends in shadowy directions not yet visited by actual people. It’s a story about love and blindness but also, for me, about the upswelling of the imagination, the way the world burgeons with mystery. I can’t tell you how it was done but I’m glad to have read it.
—Paul La Farge
When he could no longer stand her chatter—in France I made myself a dress of leaves stitched together with stems and I wore it by that river, the big one, the sludge, and that’s how I met many interesting boyfriends from the National Geographic Magazine—he left Nancy on the hotel roof with the chef from Mumbai. He regretted, only, that he would not hear the story of the shipwreck that the chef had promised to tell—I’ll say that I was holding a basketball when we went down. I’ll tempt you with that.
He walked up and up in the night, past the central church, down the alley redolent with paprika (smoked), through the neighborhood of scaling stone, stopping at the very top of the ridge to drink at the town trough. To the left was the warm sink of the crowded town, to the right the long beach. The living boats. Every shrimp on fire. Every foot. Every fist raised and full of fish, dripping with the fluids of fish. The construction site where inside was the perfect seat of moss, where he’d hoisted her body onto his and taken a seat and bounced it around on his lap without thinking of what would happen to the jade-green moss beneath him, which had ended as a stain on Nancy’s knees, not a breathing color anymore, not a color bursting with air.
To bend to the height of the trough was difficult. All his exertions had cost him. The water flowed thick from a hole in the wall and sometimes bubbled out as if the giant mouth of the place were pushing. He took a sip. On his knees he was nearer to the lemons. He picked one up and it was her fine round head. See, Isa, lemons. If you were here with me, we’d be in the basket. Come to the coast. Meet me after all.
Fine and round and pink, the body he’d left behind just. Impossible to stain. Useful. Like a ladder or a hutch. Or a bowl. What could cook there, what could brew, in the firm middle of her.
He wiped his mouth and looked around. Two old men raised their knees and removed their left shoes and sunk their left feet into the water inside the trough. For support, they held on to each other, arms across backs. Together they cooled their feet, and when they were done and dry they left each other without a word. Vacation was a yawning, what did it matter who sank by his side. Just a body after all, pink or not. Just a weight.
Nancy on the roof. Breathless on the roof. Nancy upside down. Nancy, a lake of eels. Isa, a ladder or a hutch. It wasn’t too late to feel it tonight. He started down the road to the long beach.
On his way he met no one. The sidewalk disappeared, and small stacked homes gave way to elaborate tricky ones that would not admit to a door. Between the road and the homes was a thin moat where the water ran swifter than sense and, as if suddenly zapped by the body he was not in, he tried to run along with it, faster and faster, his knees crying out, until the stream sank abruptly into the concrete. A scooter buzzed by and a soft hand stole his glasses off his face and the hand yelled, Aieeee, and disappeared. He was in the road. The middle of it. The dark road.
He followed what he thought was the edge, the safest place, until he saw the flames and the long string of light that meant he’d arrived at the beach. His foot touched the sponge of wood. The boardwalk was full tonight. He moved through a crowd of soft faces, smudged. He saw no personal landscape. This was tone without texture. Beige-brown. The color of slinking through the arcade that stretched between his competing desires.
A long skirt wound around his ankle. He stopped and shook it off and sat at a table outside of a café and felt the squirm of Nancy calling him back to the hotel—you wouldn’t believe what I’ve found to be true of men living in the north of the country, it’s shocking, I’ve found my shoes on fire, a whole pile of them, my pillows drained, my curios crushed, it’s daddy desire up there, guilty, I had to start calling myself Nancy—
This table is not empty, said a man.
He turned to the not-face, the beigebrown, and nodded. Excuse me. I didn’t see you there.
But you’re very welcome to stay.
I will, if you don’t mind.
Chato, I’ve lost my glasses.
A shame. But there are only so many roads home.
I’m on vacation.
Funny. You have what they call the tone.
So I’ve heard.
He smelled what he thought was a woman coming close. He did not turn around.
The waiter brought a bottle of wine and a bowl of round nuts. He couldn’t see to pour himself a glass but rolled the nuts, spiced and charred, into his mouth and held out his arm. Chato filled a glass and slipped it into his waiting hand. He took a sip of what he’d been given.
You’re here for the living boats? said Chato.
No, I don’t think so.
They were marvelous, once, before the boardwalk. Imagine the very first. Nature proved that she could play, that she could be a scientist too. But back then they were wild. Tricky. Not like the big blimps you see today, all lined up for the tourist’s chum. The whole thing is so indelicate.
You don’t like the beach.
Chato shuddered. No. I come for the women.
Me too. Any woman.
He took a longer sip of wine and closed his eyes and heard the distant whir that was the call of the living boats, so close to the real thing, but mournful, quickening.
Chato leaned over the bowl of nuts and the top of his head came into focus. A thin run of bowing hair, a silvery grass at dawn. Are you alone? Chato asked.
For the night.
You left her at the hotel?
She wouldn’t come.
Is that so?
He could not see the details of his companion’s expression, but he could see that Chato had turned around in his seat as if to search for someone else, someone truer, and he was moved to keep him at the table just a little longer, just until he could finish the wine and the nuts and prepare himself for the dark walk home to the hotel, where he would slip into bed and find, or not find, the body he’d left behind.
Well, there is no her. No single her.
Chato relaxed into his chair. There never is, he said. Or, there was once a girl we loved, one girl, but we couldn’t keep her, so we grew tentacles and attached ourselves to many frailer lives. Have I got you buried?
No, not me. There was never one for me.
Chato sighed and his sharp breath crushed any remaining primness between them. There was for me, he said. There was one.
Chato slid the bowl of nuts across the table. The string of light took shape against the darkening night. It was getting late. The boats had gone to bed many miles from the beach. The tourists were drinking, they had not washed. The spirits of fish, mangled, rebuking, floated alongside of them, swishing their deadly scent.
He could not stand it. He took one last nut and raised it to his mouth and saw that his fingertips were pink and he wiggled the tiny pink circles in the air in front of his face and thought: just heads, only heads.
Chato got up. Marrow dust, he said. Marrow from the long bones. The sweetest middle.
He got up too and, wiping the sticky dust on his pants, extended a hand to Chato. Good to meet you, he said.
Chato took his arm. Walk with me, Chato said. I can’t let this night go.
They moved together across the sponge of wood, through the crowd, the beige-brown smear, he held on tight. The arm he held was thick as Isa’s, stuffed, packed firm around the bone. The air, or the crowd, squeezed the two men together, he let the silver brush his cheek, he smelled the salty string of sea.
What can you see? asked Chato.
Yes and color and … tone.
That’s fine. I’ll get you halfway home. I’ve got an appointment at the trough.
It’s pleasant, actually, not to see very well.
We’ll go a little longer then.
At the edge of the boardwalk, he hesitated. At the end of the string of light. Chato patted him on the back. Just a little step down, he said. Hop it. Don’t be afraid.
Late at night, Isa, at the top of a hill he refused to climb, waved her mittened hand. Pink and round and risen, her head. High and light. Cream of the creamy mountain. She waved and waved and behind her came the curtain of green, the infolding flame, and it shone on the hill of snow, becoming pink, borrowing pink from her pink, draining her, was it, taking her away, it was, it was rouging itself at her expense, but he must not let it! He ran a short way up the mountainside, and she shook her head to make him stop and slid down the snowy slope on her sturdy butt and whispered: Be still or you’ll scare her away. She is only a glow.
He hopped onto the sand. Chato held his elbow. A delicate hop for a careful man, he said.
Slow going through the sand. Small suns setting down. Chato gave a squeeze.
Bonfires, said Chato. Youth!
They moved from the dark sand to the darker street.
It was somewhere here, where my glasses went.
I hope you’ve let them go, Chato said.
Together they climbed to the top of the ridge. Chato dipped the cup of his hand into the trough and drank and offered the cup to him and he drank too.
You can’t see them, said Chato, but they’re visible to me. The living boats are sleeping. Their breath makes a little cloud. It hangs there. I see it now.
He stared into the formless night and saw no distance. He reached behind him and felt a bench and sat down.
Chato sat beside him and rubbed his knee. Good, he said. Just a little longer.
Nancy won’t be waiting.
No, she won’t.
Chato scraped his feet over the ground. The cloud of the sleep of the living boats always puts me in mind of her, he said. The girl. There was one for me.
Oh? he said. He reached up to adjust the glasses that were not there and was surprised by the hollow dips of his eyes. Catalina, Chato continued. I met her thirty years ago. There was no boardwalk. Back then I sold lemons on the street. I’d heard news of the living boats, but I was up so late at the movies, every night at the movies. I couldn’t be bothered to see for myself. I was exhausted, I know that now. I was sick.
I met Catalina over lemons. She bought a bag. We liked each other immediately. She was demure, wore long woolen skirts that hung past her ankles, even in the summer, even to the beach.
We started seeing each other. Mostly during the day. How can I put this? At first you could ride the living boats. There were a few years when we were pre-humane and a ride on the boats was pretty cheap. We went, Catalina and I, to the dock, we paid, and when she went to hop on the boat, when she pulled her long skirt up, the boat spooked and swam away, and she fell into the ocean. She went under for a moment and popped up butt-first. Her skirt was all around. She wore nothing underneath. She was bare. There’s no excuse for what happened next—I pushed her down. With my boot, I pushed her back under the water. Do you know what it was like? Her bareness?
He sensed a change, the raising of the hackles of the ridge on which they stood. Chato pointed down the path. A head, pink and round and risen, came toward them through the night. High and spooky. It drifted side to side, it had no body, no body at all. He looked away.
It was just like that, said Chato. Just like a pink balloon. Joyful. Just a little mischievous. And I pushed it down.
The head came closer, and he could see that someone held it. A child. And the child was held by its parent, a mother. A pink balloon and a child and its mother.
At that moment, my life was split, Chato said. There was the time before The Push, and the time after. This is my daughter and this is my wife.
Chato took the pink balloon from his daughter. The two women walked ahead. Chato stood so still he was not there, only the balloon was there, the kind and simple head of the balloon, pink as ever, pink at night.
Do you know when I think of her now there is never a face. I cannot remember her face. I’m what they call a baby praying at a grave, when I think of her. He shook his head.
I’ll be late if I don’t go now. Nancy will wonder.
In the black hallway, he counted the doors. He scraped the key along the wood until he found its home in the knob. Nancy was asleep in the firm hotel bed. He brushed her dark hair off his pillow.
You’re back, she said.
You missed a wild night. The chef told his story.
And how did it end?
Nancy flipped on the light and threw the sheets off her body.
Well, he survived. He floated for fifty-one hours in the open water. It was his basketball! His basketball kept him alive. It was late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He came up on the deck to shoot some hoops and get some air and the ship suddenly turned on its side. The rest drowned. All the rest. Only he survived. Only the chef.
And do you know what else he said? Nancy.
He said that he didn’t feel anything for the ball. Not anything at all. Not grateful to it or thankful for its help. He said that to care for it, to love it, he would have had to think of it as a head. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t think of it as a head because if he thought of it as a head it would have had to have a body too, for him to actually care. But it couldn’t have a body because his imagination wasn’t good enough. And so he couldn’t care. He could never care for just a head. He couldn’t get attached to one. So the ball couldn’t be his friend or anything more. He just used it. He used it to stay alive, and when he was rescued he left it floating in the sea. We have to go to Mumbai. We have to go. He says it’s full. The city is full but it keeps on growing anyway. Somehow it keeps on growing. He says it’ll never stop. It’s magic, he says, the way it doesn’t explode.
Kristen Gleason was born in California. Her fiction has appeared in A Public Space, The White Review, Fence, and elsewhere.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.