Giving Thanks

The familiar mosaic of West Valley blue swimming pools reflected a thick bed-fluff of clouds pulled down over the city to shade the outside world from the violation of the relentless sun. Around the city, the heating had been turned up. Blank glass buildings reflected black, pictures of turkeys hung on street lamps, and red and gold plastic leaves were hung in garlands around used car lots. Winter and Thanksgiving arrived in the desert.

At Gelson’s, side-stepping the desperate lungings of trolleys, Dani collected and paid for the buttermilk. She hefted Asha to her right hip and unlocked the car. Asha said, “Na na na.”

“Home now. Let’s go help Daddy with the table decorations.”

Dev assumed a zen-like state around the holidays. He revolved creatively around silverware and herb-scented candles. He was graceful and made everything look easy—unlike herself: hasty, untidy, uncoordinated and forgetful. All she’d had to remember was to make the bread and take care of Asha, and she’d forgotten about the bread while she was bathing Asha after a particularly emphatic diaper-overfill.

Dani knew about those who couldn’t forgive. Somewhere in the black catacombs of wall-scratched memories, her mother was still fleeing through the Burmese jungles, screaming curses over her shoulder at the Japanese. Dani was saved instead of the lost Sévres, Swedish whiskey tumblers, local servants and the largest compound in town. Her father, who had chosen to remain behind to support the resistance, was cursed for throwing away his life away in a prisoner of war camp instead of escaping to support his family.

Dani bubbled in the stew of her mother’s fear of colored people, including other Indians. Then there were her endless house-cleaning jobs so that Dani could wear a school uniform and attend Holy Cross High School in Kurla, Mumbai. Meanwhile, her mother’s chest infections grew worse.

She lived just long enough to see Dani win the scholarship. A month later, Dani walked through the American customs and immigration wearing jeans and a shalwar, each step further from the stories of the lost home in Rangoon, which had bloated with even more servants, fountains and silverware in each of her mother’s tellings.

She saw her mother in every person who seemed lost, who needed sympathy and a nice, hot cup of tea. She learned the different pitches of crying; those who cried on the intake of breath, those who sobbed huh-huh-huh; those who released their cries slowly, passionately, deep from their wounds, the swearers, the small-ornament throwers, those who see-sawed over her embroidered cushions and smeared snot surreptitiously, or so they thought. Understanding came to her like a slow corkscrew into a resistant cork. Lacking something meant you understood others who lacked. Lackées.

She found Dev at a party, unless it was he who found her. The circles under his eyes indicated his doctoral struggles. Although she didn’t know how to cook, she recognized someone who ought to eat large, nourishing meals. She gave him tea and bought samosas from an Indian restaurant. He was more careful with her cushions. Occasionally, he brought the samosas, or a Chinese take-out. He didn’t need anything else. His confidence was absolute, which contented her. She wouldn’t have to prop him up.

“Look, Asha. There’s that woman we saw on the way here,” Dani said. The squat woman,  her hands stuffed into a metallic-green baseball jacket, was still waiting at the bus stop outside Gelson’s. “Let’s give her something to be grateful for. Thanksgiving. Ha ha.”

Asha said, “Mama.”

Dani rolled down her window. “Can I give you a lift?”

The woman walked over, rolling to one side like a torpedoed submarine, opened the passenger door and sat in the car as if she’d been waiting specifically for Dani. “Northridge.” She banged the door shut. “Thanks,” she added, some invisible mother prodding her.

“It’s a cold day to be waiting for a bus. Are there any running?”

The woman looked at her as though she’d missed out on cerebral development. “Some.”

Asha, also social, said, “Ba-by.”

“This is my daughter, Asha.”

The woman nodded, didn’t look around to coo at Asha who, with almond shaped eyes and curly hair, was prime cooing material. Dani glanced sideways at the woman. Bitter-brown skin was folded between her brows, her mouth pulled in, still nodding.

The woman said, “You live here?”

“Near here. We don’t usually go to Gelson’s, but it’s closer than Ralphs. You work there?”

“Six year. Long way from Northridge.”

“I can imagine. Can you car-pool?”

Again the look as though Dani had missed the common sense gene. Having often been the target of ignorant remarks, Dani was mortified about producing the same.

“We don’t have car. None of us.” This was a tribe of car-less people somehow more noble, more capable. They could withstand earthquakes, floods, vandalism, landlords who were like Dani. They could make do with sheets of plastic, four poles driven into the ground, strips of cotton. Their army of shanties would rise up and march down to Woodland Hills.

The telegraph lines swooped across the roads as they drove through Northridge. The woman said, “Pull over here.”

Dani checked her rearview mirror. The road, like nearly all the roads in this neighborhood, was empty. She smiled over her shoulder at Asha, spread the smile to the woman. The woman was holding a  gun aimed at Dani’s stomach. “Money.”

Dani smiled into the gun. She kept both hands on the wheel. She thought, I can get her before she turns around for Asha.

“Money.” The woman’s voice had become high.

Dani kept her hands still. She thought, She’s never done this before. “It’s in my bag. My bag’s in the backseat.”

“Get it.”

“Don’t hurt the baby.”

“I don’t care your baby.”

Dani parked the car and turned around for her bag. Asha said, “Mama.” Dani smiled and touched Asha’s hand. “Ash-ash.”

Asha said, “Um mum-mum.”

“Get the money.”

“I’m getting it.”

“Don’t talk your baby. I don’t care your baby. I have many these thing.” The woman showed a handful of bullets and put them back in her metallic-green pocket. Dani sat with the bag on her lap. “Open slow.” Dani pulled out her wallet and offered it to the woman. She pulled back. “I don’t want all these. Just money.”

Dani handed over the bills, thirty-two dollars. The woman sat with the bills in her lap. “More.”

“That’s all I have.”

“Fifteen more.”

“I don’t have any more. I have some change.” She counted out eighty-seven cents.

The woman held the change tightly. “More.” She looked as if she’d got the courage up to ask for a raise. She lifted the pistol.

“We can find an ATM. How much do you need? Please don’t hurt us.”

“Why you carry so small?”

The pistol was shaking. The woman put it back in her pocket. The other hand was still fisted around the change. She cried, snorting back the phlegm. Dani fought the urge to put an arm around her.

A story in hiccups. Two missed work days because her youngest son was sick; short of rent money and the landlord wouldn’t accept a late payment.

They found an ATM and Dani withdrew three hundred dollars. The woman was furious in denial. Only forty-seven dollars. They compromised with sixty dollars since they couldn’t make the change. The woman made Dani write down her post box address so she could mail the back the difference.

Dani said, “How many children do you have?”

“Three. A girl, a boy, and Paulo small, like your.”

Dani felt the tears coming and tried to hold the woman’s hand, but the hard fingers drew away. They weren’t sisters. Asha started to cry.

“Take.” The woman put the pistol in Dani’s lap.

“I can’t take this.” It was Dani’s turn to be appalled. “We don’t have guns in the house. I have a baby.”

“I don’t care your baby. You don’t care my baby.” The angry skin between the brows was back and she had to raise her voice above Asha’s wails.

Again the denial of sisterhood, no crossing of race, class, any chasm which could have been bridged by that frantic maternal bonding seen in parks and Mommy and Me classes.

The woman stepped out of the car, the sixty dollars stuffed into her pants pocket. Dani tried once more. “What’s your name?” She thought it was pointless even as she spoke. She was only good for cash and as a repository for the gun.


Dani had expected Beatriz, Inés, Conseulo, Marisol. The woman shrugged one shoulder and walked away, a small undulating metallic-green hillock.

Dani turned the car around and drove fast. She slowed down on Nordhoff. No one was following her. The woman only had their post box address, not even their name. It was only as she turned on to Topanga Canyon, with Asha’s hungry cry settling into a serious bawl at every red light, that she realized the real problem sat in her lap, a dull, heavy, metal lump. She glanced down at it occasionally. She hadn’t touched it yet, not even to throw it into the passenger seat. What if it went off? She gingerly picked it up and placed it next to her bag on the front seat.

Through Asha’s screams, Dani shouted, “It’s ok, Ash-ash. We’re nearly home.”

As she pulled the car into the garage, Dev opened the back door, “Everything okay?” He heard Asha and came to get her from the car. “Hey, girly. It’s okay. Daddy’s here.” He called over his shoulder, “Come and look at the table.” He didn’t seem to notice they’d been away for hours, in a different country, a different time zone where the clock had stopped on the edge of a gun barrel.

While Dev fed Asha her watermelon and cereal, Dani walked around the table admiring the centerpiece. “You’ve outdone yourself. I love the tiger lilies.”

Dev put Asha down for her nap while Dani made sandwiches for lunch. He came into the kitchen and found her crying over the cucumber. “What happened?”

“We picked up someone at the bus stop. She had—she was a bit weird.”

“You picked up a stranger with Asha in the car?”

She couldn’t tell him. He’d call the police. Problem fixed. Dani washed the lunch plates. I am a middle-aged Indian woman with an eight month-old baby and a stolen gun.

In the night, pretending that she’d heard Asha crying, she tip-toed to the garage. She found the gun on the passenger seat and put it in the trunk, under the carpet that covered the spare tire. She had never held a gun before and the thought of finding out whether it was loaded and having to remove the bullets made her slam the trunk harder than she’d intended.

Back in bed, Dev said, “What are you doing?”

“I couldn’t remember if I’d put the diaper bag back in the car.”

She thought, I am a middle-aged woman who lies to her husband.

The following week a brown envelope, addressed in firm, round capitals, arrived at their post box address while the gun sat in the trunk, a hungry worm feeding on Dani.

In the days after, during the tumble of dressing and undressing, the arguments, the making up, the make-up removal, the gun lay under her thoughts like something moving in stagnant water. Occasionally, it bolted into her consciousness, like the squirrel she’d seen, half-run over, its back legs jumping.

In the garage, she opened the trunk and moved the carpet aside and looked at it. Dull, squat, ugly. It was one of those tv movie moments where the woman would say, “I don’t know why I just didn’t tell my husband about (jangled chord) the gun.”

She picked it up. It was heavy. How did people fire these things? She looked for something which might be a safety catch. She wrapped it in an old Oingo Boingo t-shirt of Dev’s and replaced it in the trunk.

“Come on Asha, let’s go to the park.” Asha gummed a kiss on Dani’s left ear. It’s all right for you, Dani thought. You don’t have a gun to get rid of. The sun moved in and out of the clouds as they drove out of the valley. After slowing down at a mini-mall, Dani pulled away, unable to see herself casually throwing a potentially loaded gun into a public garbage container. What if someone saw her? What if some child got hold of it?

She drove through Calabasas and got on the northbound freeway. She was singing a nursery rhyme to Asha when the maroon Excursion moved up behind them. Since there was plenty of room for maneuvering, Dani didn’t pay attention at first. Eventually she noticed the Excursion’s grill was closer. She looked in her mirror but couldn’t see who was driving. She took her foot off the accelerator. This usually encouraged tail-gaters to change lanes and overtake. The grill continued to approach. Dani glanced at her speedometer. Forty-five mph. Any closer and the grill would nudge her fender. The consciousness of what was in the trunk made her signal and pull over to the right lane. She watched the maroon Excursion plough ahead and wished the driver well of it. She laughed. If only the guy knew what was in her trunk.

She exited at Lost Hills and saw the Excursion waiting at the light in the right lane. She pulled up adjacent to it.

The woman leaned out to shout, “You coulda caused an accident.”

Dani rolled her window down. “I beg your pardon?”

“Take driving lessons, asshole.”

The light changed and the Excursion turned right. No you don’t. Dani veered into the right lane and chased the Excursion. The woman pulled over to the curb. Dani parked the Honda behind and jumped out. The woman stayed in her car, which meant Dani had to look up into her sunglasses hedged with gold and black corkscrew curls.

Dani took a breath. “You were tail-gating me.”

“Listen, bitch, I did you the courtesy of pulling over.”

“You call that a courtesy? I’ll show you courtesy.” Dani turned away and walked to the back of the Honda.

The woman opened her door and stepped out and then saw Dani standing with her hand on the trunk. She held her palms up, and backed away. “I’m sorry. Oh christ, you’ve got a kid in there. Look, I’m sorry. I’m leaving. Okay?” The woman got in her car, fumbled it into life and screeched away.

Asha was crying. Dani got in the back and held her until she quieted. “I’m sorry, Ash-Ash. I’m sorry.”

The drive home was slow and fast by turns, fast-forwarding through parts of Las Virgenes and Mulholland. What was she doing driving Asha around with a gun in the car? She thought, I am a middle-aged Indian mother with a cowboy complex.

She put Asha on the living room carpet with her milk bottle. She went into the kitchen, stood against the kitchen counter and cried into the tea-towel. It was time to tell Dev about the gun. The phone rang.

“Alenoushka.” The bitter-brown voice said the four syllables, hatred in every one of them. “You get your money?”

“Yes. How did you get this number?”

“You got the gun?”

Dani paused too long before she said, “No.”

Alenoushka made some gutteral noise which could have been scorn or pity. “One time before, that gun got in accident with someone. So they looking for it. I take it back.”

Dani had started crying again. “Who’s looking for it? Did you kill someone?”

Again the gutteral noise, but this time it sounded as though Alenoushka was clearing her throat. “I gotta go. I call you.” She hung up.

Dani threw up in the sink. Asha called, “Mama. Baba. Bye.”

When Dev arrived home he sent Dani to bed. “Baby blues hitting hard?” She thought, I’m going to tell him I nearly pulled a gun on someone. Instead, she told him a modified version which had the Excursion driver chasing her down Lost Hills. “You must be some kind of weirdo magnet. Did you get her plate number? We should report this. Chasing a car with a baby in the back? Jesus. Crazy bitch probably had a gun. You were lucky, sweetheart.”

Dani lifted the sheet and inhaled a thick smell, like some kind of metallic jam. She drew a bath and found two of the Release ‘n Relax sachets. She watched the swirl of dark brown granules and thought of blood.

The next morning, the squirming in her stomach was worse. She listened to Dev humming in the shower. When phone rang downstairs, she didn’t know whether to pick it up or stick her head over the toilet. She stood in the kitchen breathing hard into the receiver as if she’d been running.

“You know this street Yolanda and Roscoe? Near the hospital? There is a beauty salon. I meet you.”



Dani’s stomach jumped. Asha. Dev. “I can’t come now. I can come this afternoon.”

“No. My kids back from school in the afternoon.”

“Give me a couple of hours. I’ll meet you at ten.”

There was a sound as though a vacuum cleaner hose had been held to the phone and then, “Okay. Ten.” She hung up.

Dani called Flora who was free until lunchtime to take care of Asha. She knew why Alenoushka despised her. Rich people called the babysitter.

About an hour later, Flora padded in. Asha held her arms out and said, “Aya, aya.” Flora flipped her blue and blonde braid over her shoulder, scooped up Asha and went over to the stereo. Selecting Gypsy Kings and Basement Jaxx CDs, Flora nodded vaguely at Dani’s list of naps, yogurt and reminders about the diaper rash cream.

“I’ll be back by twelve.” She bent to kiss Asha, who didn’t seem to notice. “Bye, girls.”

Dani reversed out of the garage blinking away tears. It was good that Asha liked Flora. They would have a great morning, singing, telling stories, going to the park while she, the mother, delivered an illegal weapon back to the person who threatened her with it in the first place.

She drove on unfamiliar surface streets, imagining the gun was growing. The rear of the car would begin to sway and dip until she was stopped by the police and asked to open the trunk; the gun would lie there, the size of a small cannon, its fat mouth yawning obscenely up at them.

The streets had become wide, the tarmac gouged, the double yellow lines faded and chipped. The sun made everything look grey, shining a bare light onto an old face. Billboards offered unlikely opportunities and some, seeming ashamed, had started to peel themselves away. Trees leaned thin, bed-heads of leaves hanging desolate. Tight-faced stores seemed to elbow each other; small electrical appliances, lap top repairs, a pawnshop, a liquor store with the usual black iron bars and a lotto sign outside.

At the corner of Yolanda she pulled into a pink and green mini mall with five potted palms placed at intervals, like nervous girls at a party. Above the nail salon was a silver and black sign, Nail On Silver Girl. The mall was surrounded with pink paving in a vain attempt to distance it from the huddle of commerce on Roscoe. There was also a spa and mini gym with a discount offer for you and a friend. She had no money, but idly wondered if she could request a facial at gunpoint.

She breathed slowly. I will not turn the engine on. Alenoushka wouldn’t find her, a soft middle-class woman, sitting in her air-conditioned car. Instead, sweat ran down between her breasts and pooled around her stomach. Alenoushka appeared wearing a blue baseball jacket. The same lurching gait, the same eyebrow divided by a scowl.

“Let’s go. I tell you where.”

“Can’t I just give it to you here?” Dani recognized the pitying look. She turned out of the parking lot and prepared to lose count of the left and right turns.

She asked, “You’re not working today?”

“I work double shift sometimes so I stay home with Paulo. My neighbor take him so I can get you.”

Dani felt the invisible shifting and re-shifting of levels and weaves so that somehow everything could be accommodated. My neighbor downstairs, my cousin on the next block, a doctor’s appointment, an illness. She had Flora. If Flora couldn’t make it, then someone else would, perhaps even one of these cousins, these neighbors.

They parked outside the only two-storey building on a street with tottering, elderly blocks in afternoon colors; old red, dark pink, gray. Alenoushka  led Dani up two flights of concrete steps.

The building flowered on itself. The doors faced into a large, open courtyard. Bird feeders hung from palm trees, potted ferns and hanging baskets of flowers. Some of the trees reached up into the space between the doors on the second floor. The blue and gray tiles were wet from a recent hosing and Dani felt as though she’d stepped into a greenhouse. The faint shadow of painted over graffiti looked like strange, beautiful sea-plants.

Surprised, she said, “It’s lovely.”

Alenoushka made her gutteral laughing sound and dug out her keys. She opened the front door and a girl with a baby spoke in Spanish. Alenoushka took the baby, spoke back. Two young children, eating handfuls of Rice Krispies from a large bowl in front of the television, stood up and went out with the girl.

Alenoushka shifted the baby to her left shoulder and picked up a small, brown zip-top bag. “You put in here and bring to me.”

Dani pushed her black leather tote over her shoulder, swung the brown bag by its loop, and walked down to the car. After days of misery and indecision, it turned out to be simple. Put the gun in the bag and hand it over.

She got into the car and threw both bags onto the passenger seat. The brown bag’s lips split open and a plastic Vons bag shuffled out, cascading bullets across the seat and onto the floor. At the end of the street, the muzzle of a police car nosed around the corner. Dani pulled her dupata scarf off and flung it across the passenger seat. She started the car and pulled into the driveway just past the building. She inched her way along, scraping the bushes alternately on the left and right. In her rearview mirror, the police car eased past the building.

Behind the building a row of empty carports, sagged together, like the end of a Friday night’s drinking. She jerked to a stop and crammed the bullets back into the bag. Clutching the bag to her chest, she got out, opened the trunk and lifted the carpet. The t-shirt had shifted and she could see the gun’s nozzle. She stuffed the t-shirt bundle into the bag, zipped it shut, and shoved the whole thing into her tote.

She walked back into the courtyard, between the flowering plants and up through the calm green forest of Alenoushka’s building. The front door was unlatched. She called, “Hallo?” to let Alenoushka know she was back.

In a corner, a short man watched her. She had time to notice something shiny in his hand. The sneeze saved her. She covered her face immediately and made a big deal of retrieving a tissue.

“Hallo, you must be Mr., er, Mr.?”

The man slid out of the corner, hands in his pockets, the shiny thing concealed. He said one word. “You?”

“I’m Dani. I’m a friend.” She exaggerated her Indian accent, thrusting the foreign-ness in front of her like a flag.

“Who tell you to come here?” The voice was hoarse, the shiny nostrils dilating, sniffing her out.

Dani was bright. “Alenoushka.” She remembered a social worker friend telling her that if someone could be made to sit down, they were less likely to get angry or attack you. Breathe, breathe. Smile. Breathe. “May I sit down?”

He jerked his head. She sat and tried not to clutch the tote. He straddled one of the sofa arms. He should have looked ridiculous, his short legs barely reaching the floor, his ugly, white tennis shoes scuffing the carpet. Where was Alenoushka? Had she run off with the baby? What was she to do with this guy who could easily knife her, if that thing he had was a knife?

The man smiled at her, showing the uneven teeth of an old rat. “Very good. Very nice.” He stood up. “Now, you tell me what’s going on.”

Her stomach jumped.

“You think you so great? You come here pretending this and pretending that. You think I am stupid?” He kicked at her chair. “Who are you?” He kicked again.

She jumped up. She was taller. For one victorious moment, she let him feel that. She stood staring down at him, holding her bag against her. She could feel his small, thick anger bulging out at her, the grease on his neck was sweat. He smelled of fear and bullying.

Very quietly she said, “Take one step closer and I’ll tear your fucking balls off.” She felt the anger, unused, muscular, rearing up. She actually spat on his shoes. Her inner housewife recoiled.

His eyes widened and then he went very still. It was in this moment that something would happen. Her fingers closed around the gun. She didn’t need to lift it out. She could shoot straight through the bag, as long as it was loaded. Was it loaded?

He said, “You not so nice now.” He was almost complaining, but he was searching her to see if she meant it, if she could do it, whether she did have a gun in that bag.

The front door pushed open and Alenoushka stepped in. She looked at the man and stepped between him and Dani. She pulled the tote off Dani’s shoulder and the gun came out still in Dani’s hand, the head of a snake.

The man jumped, held both hands up. “Don’t shoot. I’m going” He edged out of the door and said to Alenoushka, “You rich friends all crazy. She shoot you one time. You see.”

Dani kept the gun aimed at the closed door. Alenoushka took it from Dani and put it back in the brown bag. She took Dani’s arm and led her to the kitchen. “Sit.” Dani sat. Alenoushka cut up an orange, put it on a plate and placed it on the table between them.

Alenoushka jerked her head towards the door. “My husband. He come here for money. You scare him good. Maybe he leave us alone some time.” She smiled at Dani.

Dani ate a piece of orange. It was sweet.

Alenoushka got up from the table. “Don’t get big big ideas. This gun will be vanish tonight.”

Dani picked up her tote. “I wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

“You tell you husband?”


Alenoushka shouted with laughter. “Rich people.” She shook her head and offered Dani more orange. “You know the way home? No?” She drew a map with on a torn piece of paper. Dani looked at the strange curving lines, like clouds, like the leaking eye of an egg yolk.

She rolled down the window to feel the breeze on her face, to smell the streets as she drove, to sense the change as she moved from one place to another. As she turned right, the smells altered. There was no more smell of earth and oil and something like burnt popcorn which had floated around the streets near Alenoushka’s block. Exhaust fumes blasted through the window and the fat breath of a bus passed her.

On Winnetka she caught the smell of green from a tree hanging off the back of a truck, its branches protruding from the black canvas. The wide roads had never looked so beautiful. But as the truck turned the corner the canvas snagged on a metal awning painted to look like pink lace. Some of the foliage tore off, clumps of leaves falling like dead birds, and the canvas was ripped away.

She turned onto Mulholland and the smell of cut grass filtered in along with the comfortable buzz of leaf blowers and lawn mowers. In a few minutes she would be holding Asha and breathing in the perfect smell of her baby hair. As she rounded the corner she let in the clutch a little too sharply and felt a sudden dislocation, a jolt between worlds, a sense of arriving somewhere strange, as if she were in the wrong place.