Leave You With The Dead

By Daniel Sanchez

After four months I start smoking the cigarettes you left behind. The ones you stored in an old tin Fossil watch box, the one I gave you for our first “anniversary.” I threw it away. The box. Its tan color had started to fade into a sick yellow. I told myself a joke about how the color was appropriate at the time. Then I went and threw up.

I don’t use the word out loud. Not with my mom, who squeezes my shoulder and talks about how you were so young until I want to scream at her to stop saying “were.”

I don’t use it with your mother, who stares at me whenever we’re in the same room together. As if some part of you, some DNA might still be clinging to the skin of my face.

Forget about your father. Looking at him makes me feel calm. He’s already dead behind his eyes and I think he knows it. I imagine it must kill him to be dead and still not with you.

I use “gone,” or “passed,” or “away.” Or better yet, nothing at all.

This was all before I left for India and stopped answering everyone’s e-mails. Before I tossed the cell phone with the international plan into the fountain at the airport in Kuala Lumpur. The only people I talk to now are strangers and occasionally your father, whom I call whenever I come up against something cultural I can’t navigate. He always picks up on the first ring and always accepts the charges.

The calls all end the same way.

“She loved India even more than I do. Always wanted to go there. Now she is.”

“I know, Mr. Engel.”

“Thank you for doing this, Stephen.”

Then he starts to cry and I hang up the phone.

At moments like that, I try not to think about the urn locked up tight in my backpack. About how it’s full of your ashes.

Dead. Sometimes I say the word to myself over and over until I feel sick. Just to see if it will stick. It hasn’t yet.

You hid your cigarettes under the mattress on the side by the window. Your side. I guess you thought I wouldn’t find them there. Now, you’d probably make a crack about how I never made the bed.

“It was the last place I thought you’d look,” you’d say.

“I make the bed. Sometimes. On weekends.”

Then you’d pat my stomach dismissively and kiss me in that way you had that always made me forgive you. That way with tongue.

I never smoked before now. I used to ask girls for cigarettes outside bars as a way of starting a conversation, managed to never get around to lighting the things. My friends said I was smooth like that.

The first one – the first few – were kind of a project.

I waited until I got to Varanasi to start smoking them. Arriving at the main train station outside the city, I held on tight to the grips of my backpack as a million men with dark crinkly skin and sweater-vests made out of green doormats ran around me. Some shouted at me in Hindi or Tamil or whatever it is they speak in the north of India. Wait, it’s Hindi. You told me that.

One of these men with the natty sweaters took me by the arm and led me away from the crowd, shouting in quick confident bursts until we were out by the street and he was grabbing at my backpack. He’d brought me to a beaten up old truck that looked like it had been pancaked on both sides. A metal carriage covered in scratches and grooves with a yellow tarp covering it all. The sweater man tossed my backpack into the backseat and then motioned for me to get in next to it.

“Where you go?” he asked.

“The river.”

I closed my eyes for most of the trip. In the darkness, I practiced saying dead as the sound of car horns and screaming children and head-on collisions filtered in through the ruined tarp.

The driver was laughing at me when we reached the Ganges. I shrugged and put a hundred rupees into his hand. He shrugged back and took off without another word.

You told me that the whole taxi thing in India was a racket; said that we’d have to be careful when we traveled here. Drivers steered you to hotels that paid them commissions and purposefully got lost if you asked for something different.

But you were never here.

You were always full of facts about India. My last real memory of you, the last one before hospitals and tubes and – never mind.

We sat cross-legged together on the floor of the apartment. The shades were drawn because you couldn’t take the direct sunlight anymore. Everything was pale orange and gray and you adjusted your wig every time we stopped kissing. I didn’t want to. I was still so afraid to hurt you somehow. But you insisted. Your mouth, hot and wet against mine wouldn’t take no for an answer. You did that thing with your tongue.

We had something like fifteen guidebooks spread out in between us. Let’s Go and Lonely Planet and anything else I could find. You didn’t need any of them.

“Tell me more about India,” I said.

“If you ask for directions from an Indian,” you said, “they’ll tell you something even if they have no idea. They think it’s rude not to help.”

I searched your face for some hint of duplicity. The curve of your raised eyebrows, the speckles of green in your hazel eyes, betrayed nothing but amusement.

“Is that true?” I said finally, giving up.

You laughed in that way you had, joyous gasps of sound, and tumbling forward over the assembled knowledge in front of you, crashed into my body. Your lips found mine and somewhere in the jumbled collection of limbs, our hands clasped together.

Every day I walk to the river’s edge and smoke another one of your cigarettes. You’d saved up quite a few so I’m in no danger of running out. That too, had to be Indian. These little brown shoots of ebony and sweet tobacco that burn my throat and smell like candy. I sit on the stone steps that lead down into the water, the third or eighth up depending on the time of day, and fumble with a lighter.

“Do you need help with that?”

This was the first time I smoked one. An Indian man dressed in white robes stood on the steps beside me. He smiled and asked again in perfect English.

“I can’t get the fucking things to stay lit,” I answered.

“It’s called a Bidi,” he said.

I let him take both it and the lighter from me and watched as he held the end over the flame until it glowed bright orange. He took a drag, held it in, and then passed it back to me.

“Thanks,” I said, mimicking him. The smoke burned my throat and I closed my eyes to keep them from watering.

“You will get used to it.”

He sat down beside me and put his hands together. We looked out over the river, over the crumbling palaces and chattering monkeys. In the distance, I could see men in white underwear bathing themselves in the water. Further out, the sun began to dip below the skyline.

“Who do you talk to when you think?” I suddenly asked.

The man looked at me and nodded his head. In Varanasi, apparently, this was not such a strange question.

“I talk to myself,” he said. “Or to God, if I am troubled.”

I let his answer float out into the silence without a response. The air smelled like ash. Acrid and sharp, unlike the Bidi.

“And you?”

I looked at him, not returning his smile.

“I talk to my dead wife,” I answered.

My clothes don’t smell like you anymore, at least not the living you. Now they smell like everything else does in this city. Like death, sweat, and smoke.

I build up a routine for myself. I rise early with the sun, rubbing my eyes and forcing myself out of the uncomfortably thin mattress that I’ve been given to sleep on. As you would have wanted, I avoid the hotels and stay in a guest house. The walls of my room are stained yellow with damp, nature and the elements intruding into every corner. Sometimes at night when I try to sleep I hear the monkeys talking outside the window.

I walk down a narrow flight of stairs and exit out onto an even narrower street. Mornings are quiet as the inhabitants of the city move ghost-like around me on the way to their shops. Tourism is big here. Tourism and pilgrimage.

I buy some chai tea and chapatti bread from a street vendor and head down to the water. Varanasi is a crumbling skeleton of a city enveloped by fog in the early hours of the morning. I watch the sun rise slowly in the sky and pick at my breakfast with little interest. In the water below, grown men bathe in the decaying remnants of loved ones gone. Orange flowers float on the surface and I think about the baby again.

You told me about the markets before, but it’s not something I could really grasp with words. A market in India is what I imagine a feeding frenzy is for sharks: everyone going at once and nobody getting quite what they were expecting.

I had this idea that they were in a big square like they are in Italy. Here, though, they spill out in every direction like a flood of commerce. I go down one street only to find myself still in the same market, chased by the same little Indian kid that seems to speak every language known to man.

“You want to buy something, mister?” he asks.

“No hablo Ingles,” I mutter back and keep going.

“Mexico o Espana?”

“What? I mean, que?”

Then he tries to sell me batteries in Spanish. Or any other language I try.

But I ignore him and think about the baby. About how every time I come to the market, the same woman is waiting for me on the street by the river. She sits under the shade of a large Acacia tree, the only one I’ve seen in the city. Her frail body is covered in multi-colored rags and her eyes seem not to see me when I approach. We’ve encountered each other several times now, always with the same result.

She tries to hand me her baby.

The baby is a tiny thing, seemingly as frail and on the verge of blowing away as her mother. At least I assume it’s her mother. You always talked about wanting kids and I find now that the idea of them isn’t so scary. I walk up and stand by the woman, waiting for her to do what I know she’s going to do.

I called your father after it happened the first time.

“I’m standing right there and she just wants to pass it over to me. I think she asked for thirty rupees. Thirty rupees for her kid!”

“It’s part of the starving culture.”

“But you just don’t give up your kid.”

“You can’t even comprehend what their life is like.”

A pause. I never know what to say to things like that. There’s the worry that I’m being disrespectful to a culture I don’t understand. The feelings of guilt that I didn’t listen closely enough when you talked to me about this place you were so passionate about. And there’s the dread of what your father will say to fill the silence.

“Jamie always wanted two children. A boy and a girl.”

This is what he said last time.

“Ever since she was a little girl. She knew.”

“I have to go now, Mr. Engel.”

I hung up before he could say goodbye.

He doesn’t have to tell me that. I know. Even when you were lying sick in the hospital bed, wires criss-crossing your body in every direction, all our mutual dreams hanging limp in the air, you talked about it. You begged me to climb on the bed and impregnate you.

“So you’ll still have some part of me with you,” you said.

“Forget it. I’ll end up sitting on the front porch with a shotgun, paranoid about boys.”

You laughed. I did too.

I see the Acacia tree before I see the woman. I know she’ll be there, just as she always is. There are a thousand people in the market today and all I can see at first are the branches hanging over the street and smoke rising up into the hot summer air from dozens of different pans. I smell sweat and burning oil. Voices meld into one loud chorus of babble. The baby’s cries pierce through.

You wanted one. I think we would have brought it here young. So it could grow up in the world just like you always wished you had.

“Good morning,” I say to the woman as I approach her.

She looks up in my direction and I wonder again if she can see me or if she’s just following the sound of my voice. The child cries louder in her arms. It’s a little girl. She’s wrapped in an old cloth blanket that was probably white once. It’s all so maddeningly sad that I almost can’t take it.

Dead. I say the word to myself again. You’re dead.

The woman lifts the baby off her lap and extends her toward me. She begs in a language I don’t know and tears pool in her eyes. The droplets pan out into the wrinkles of her old-too-soon face. One word of English leaves her mouth. One word that I can understand.


I reach out and take the baby, holding her against my chest. She screams, the pudgy brown skin of her cheeks turning red.

“There, there now,” I whisper. “I won’t hurt you.”

I look down at the woman and she seems to collapse in on herself. Her eyes, lost, but fierce only a moment ago, turn dead like your father’s. Her job is complete.

The market buzzes around us and no one seems to notice this transaction. Holding the girl with one hand, I use the other to pull off my backpack. I can feel the weight of your ashes tugging on my shoulder from inside it.

“Hold on tight, ok?”

The baby grips my shirt with her tiny hands.

As carefully as possible, I unzip the backpack and pull your urn out. It feels suddenly lighter against the weight of a fully alive human being. I set it down in front of the woman and she immediately takes it in her hands, examines it.

The baby fits nicely into the space you left. I pack the dirty blanket tight around her so she won’t jostle and then I put the backpack on over my front. Like one of those bjorn things they have on the infomercials. She quiets down and looks up into my face, her eyes wide.

“It’s ok,” I whisper. “You’re alive. You’re safe.”

I turn away from the Acacia tree and mix into the market crowd. I don’t look back to see if the woman is watching, if she’s pried your urn open and realized that there aren’t thirty rupees inside. I walk away with our little girl.

And I leave you with the dead.


Daniel Sanchez is a fiction student in the Warren Wilson MFA program.  His work has been showcased by the New Short Fiction Series at the Beverly Hills Library. Mr. Sanchez has taken workshops at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. This is his first publication.  He lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Share |