Fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)


Life is Awesome

by Thaila Ramanujam

Adisu sits as still as a potted plant and scans the room through the corner of his left eye. He is between a man and a woman, all three in formal attire. The boy looks like a gingerbread man dressed in a vanilla colored three-piece suit. A red tie dangles in front of him but he does not understand the purpose of his attire. In the five years of his life he has never even known the touch of clothes on his upper body. Now he is trapped inside a silk shirt. He knows how a butterfly might feel if it was asked to return to its cocoon.

In slow motion, Adisu writhes inside his clothes and chews the tip of his tie. He has known this new world for all of two weeks and the two people sitting next to him, calling themselves Mom and Dad, for one additional week.

Everywhere there are strange whitewashed faces. Hard to understand the expressions when you look at them. Impossible to remember them when you look away.

"All rise," says the bailiff.

Everyone stands bolt upright. Adisu looks confused at this sudden surge of energy and impulsively stands on his tiny booted feet. His feet have been fighting the binding footwear since morning. He feels defeated.

Suddenly an elderly Judge sails forward and sits down. It must be a white God thinks Adisu. Here, in this new country, on the outer edge of the earth, and God does not seem to need any facemasks here.

In India, Gods did. Adisu had seen God once. Once, that he remembers vividly anyway.

This incident happened some time ago when his life had been altogether different. He was an abandoned street child back then. Roaming, bare-footed, bare-chested. His survival happened outside the temple grounds where tourists poured in huge busloads. Adisu had no use for Gods then. He doesn't now. He only needed the people who needed God.

Adisu had stolen a banana from a four-year-old girl who was lagging way behind her mother. A wandering monkey in turn stole the banana from him and scrambled across the streets. Adisu went chasing after the old monkey but it dodged him and wove its way through the thick crowd into the temple grounds. He ran after the monkey like his life depended on winning the banana back. The monkey took a moment or two to scratch a difficult to access part of its body, impulsively darted across the corridor and tucked the banana inside the nostril of a statue.

"Give it back, you mangy thief," Adisu yelled and tossed a stone at the monkey.

And that's exactly when Adisu noticed the face of God.

God stood there holding the coveted banana that the monkey had tossed in his delicate hands.

"You give it back now!" yelled Adisu. "Don't you know any other scrawny starving kid you can steal from?"

God stood still, unblinking and unwavering. Too proud to even voice a feeble protest when Adisu snagged the banana from him. Never said one word. Never clapped an eyelid once. And Adisu stared back at him.

Adisu stares at the Judge now.

"You may sit down," says the bailiff and every one obeys.

Adisu sits down on the edge of the seat ready to scoot when necessary.

His life in this new country has been an exercise in sitting or standing at a moment’s notice. Living within confined spaces, doing things everyone else did. He had freedom before. No one had given it to him then. But the Child Welfare Services sure took it away from him.

"The Cinnamon family may now approach the bench," announces the Bailiff. The man and a woman stand up, scoop Adisu off the chair and walk over to the judge's bench.

"Come here, boy," says the Judge. Adisu gets pushed closer to the man. And Adisu presses backwards with all the might that his skinny bones could muster.

"That's okay," says the Judge. "I won't hurt you."

His table displays a fine balance, a hammer, a chisel and bookends of Greek semi-clad figurines. The Judge swirls a brass globe with inlaid turquoise blue marble to characterize the various oceans.

"You were here a few days ago," he says to Adisu pointing vaguely to the globe, some where east of the Atlantic.

"And now ...," he says beaming, "we're lucky to have you here." He swirls the globe around and points west of the Atlantic.

Then he quickly arrests the dizzying rotation of the globe.

"My, this is a picture of you when you were there." The Judge's finger points vaguely to the east again.

"Now look at you, oh my!" His finger is decidedly west bound on the globe now.

He peers at Adisu through his glasses. His cheeks are filled with a colony of baby spiders and his eyes disappear when he smiles.

"Here I've a gift for you." He offers Adisu a stuffed pink flamingo.

"Oh, he understands a few words in English now," gushes the woman trying to inch her way towards the boy while he distances himself a few feet for every inch that she closes in on him. She takes the toy from the judge. "We're working on it now, eh Adisu?"

"Do you like it?" the woman asks Adisu, showing him the stuffed flamingo and shaking her head animatedly to indicate that this is simply a matter of opinion and tastes. There are really no right or wrong answers. Anything goes. He just needs to shake his head. But Adisu doesn't shake anything. He just walks over to the window and stares out.

"Let him be," says the man to the woman. "He is alright."

"Yes, it's okay," says the judge. "He's quiet alright."

The woman hugs the pink flamingo and they all get ready for a group photograph next to the window.

"Are you ready for the picture?" the judge asks Adisu. He takes off his glasses and his eyes vanish. The photographer aims, fusses a little and counts to three, three or four times, shuts the window shade and then explodes into a blinding flash. The judge opens the shade again and light floods in.

The man and the woman sign more papers and then more.

"Good, boy," says the judge. "Now you have yourself a mom and dad and your very own family."

"Mom?" Adisu thinks to himself.

"Congratulations," says the judge and asks to have one of the pictures for his own personal collection.

Adisu sees himself here in the courtroom and then there he is inside of a photograph, and shortly thereafter he disappears into the judge's pocket.

***

Adisu feels confused but mostly he feels hungry. His impulse is to go looking for food. Food is not going to come looking for him anyhow. He sits down to take off his shoes. A little boy needs to be in his usual and customary gear when he goes hunting. He is unable to untie the lace so he bites into it and starts pulling the knot with his teeth.

"Adisu," says his mom firmly. "No."

Dad squats next to him. Adisu shakes his head. Now this is his job. A boy's job.

"Okay, if you must learn it the hard way," says Dad standing up. The new Dad looks taller while sitting than anyone else he has seen. Standing up he disappears entirely into the sky.

Mom kisses Dad and tears roll down her cheeks. Mom is the huggable, all lovable kind. She hugs the postman, the neighbor's sick Chihuahua, bouquets of flowers and at certain moments, even throws out her arms in an attempt to hug the full moon.

"Come let's take the boy to the store," says Dad. "He can pick out his own things. Don’t hug him yet. Give him some time to warm up."

The new parents hold Adisu's hands. No one has ever held his hands before except to drag him into the child welfare services one night.

His new parents strap him inside a car seat.

"You are old enough grasshopper, but not heavy enough." Mother has a caressing voice.

"We need to fatten you up so we can get rid off this seat. Hungry?" Dad asks and rubs his belly.

"Adisu, can you say? I love you." The mother says. "Can you say I love you? Repeat after me, please. I LOVE YOU."

Adisu stares out the window. He is hungry.

Dad pulls Mom away from Adisu and helps her into the passenger seat. He then gets into the driver's seat and turns on tape music. "Now you have your own music system, grasshopper," he says. We've a bed that is shaped like an airplane. There is a TV in your room."

Rafi, the singer, picks up from where he had left off. Swim so wild and swim so free. Heaven above the sea below. There's a little white whale on the go.

The parents sing along with the tape, "There's little brown whale on the go." They start to laugh out loud. "Brown whale!"

Adisu scans the sidewalk. He is very hungry now.

Dad turns around and tickles the boy's feet. The cars swerves and Mom reaches out to the steering wheel and steadies the car.

"Hey, grasshopper, isn't life awesome?" Dad says loudly.

Adisus eyes search the sidewalks as the car flees by. Not one garbage can in view. How on earth is he going to find his food!

"He refused his breakfast again this morning," says Mom. She is putting away the freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

"Maybe we shouldn't force him," says Dad.

Adisu sits under the table. He chews on his collar. The baby blue collar in his shirt turns a deep sky blue with wetness.

"This life has surely got to be better than what he was used to," Mom says.

"Surely," says Dad. "Hope he appreciates it."

"Someday, he must. Gee, how could he not?" says mother. There are tears on her cheeks.

Dad peeks underneath the table. Adisu closes his eyes.

"Okay, I won't look at you," says Dad.

Adisu opens his eyes. He catches sight of a small stick-like creature with claws crawling by his side. The creature seems to be blind. Adisu wonders about this critter all alone. How old could he be? Was he also born in another country and brought here? He seemed as though he were blind bungling into things and retrieving and advancing at his own freewill. That was an idea. Adisu observed him keenly following his every move, trying to understand his every turn.

Mom's legs appear next to Dad's. "I read about kids like him, what I mean is, kids like him, I am not sure how to say this ..."

Mom always runs into dead ends with her words.

"Anyway these kids, you know," she says her voice quivering. "They eat whatever they can find. And what they eat would make you weep, Cy."

"I’ll take him fishing this weekend." Dad says with resolve. "We'll ease him in slowly. Poor fella."

Dad peeks underneath with a new burst of enthusiasm.

"Adisu, come on, let's hang out in the garage."

Dad picks him up by his arm. "You can be my helper."

Adisu dangles like a grasshopper on the talon of a bird of prey. He lets go of the boy next to his pickup truck. "Come on, hop in," he says. He taps on the side and imitates a jumping motion.

Adisu climbs over the tailgate of the truck and leaps over pushing himself off the sides like a gymnast.

"I could've popped the tailgate open for you."

Adisu looks around from his elevated angle. Life seems different from up above. It feels like he has his own exclusive terrain to stand on and not the ones shared by his new father and others. He does a little jig unnoticed.

Dad is busy cleaning his bicycle and pumping air into the tires. "One day we’ll all go on a bike trip." Adisu has become accustomed to words that mean nothing to him. It feels safe hidden inside the truck. A sudden surge of energy invades him and takes control of him, inside this confined space of the quarter panels. He sits in a corner of the box and brushes some dirt off with his feet. He does a little arm twisting, leg wagging, hip contorting move that he remembers seeing the movie actresses back home do on TV. His hips convulse and slice the space all around him. He whistles a tune in a low register. He quickly runs through a wide range of expressions—happiness, sadness, disgust, alarm, anger, peace—and watches the reflection of his face on the metal rim of the truck.

***

For Adisu's birthday party everyone collects at the Sea Oak Community Center. The new birth certificate with Diana and Cy Cinnamon as his parents says that Adisu was born exactly six years ago today.

A clown has arrived for their entertainment. Adisu sits on a chair by the table at his mom's recommendation. Someone is playing the piano but no one is listening. As a matter of fact no one is listening to anyone, it seems. Everyone is talking all at once. But no one is talking to Adisu.

They ask Mom, "So how is he coming along?" By the time Mom gets into gear with her answer, "Oh, he's awesome ..." the topic of interest shifts over to the merits of organic farming.

The gifts are passed to him. Amidst 'oohs' and 'aahs' Adisu peels off layers and layers of papers covering boxed toys of many shapes and sizes. He collects the ripped up wrapping paper and ties them into a round bundle with the ribbons.

"My, what a lucky boy," says Mom. "You can go outside and play with your toys."

"Maureen, ask Adisu to join you," suggests another mom. Maureen doesn't flinch and her mom doesn't follow through with her instructions. Instead she continues, "We're all so happy for you, Diana."

"Yes indeed. We’re blessed to have Adisu."

Dad is fixing a child's broken wagon. "Adisu want to play outside? Go on. Try to make some friends, man." 

Adisu walks through the courtyard towards the church adjacent to the community center. The now familiar voices of his new mom and dad recede into the distance. Adisu walks past little puddles of water. A few patches of grassy continents lie dispersed in their midst. A frog leaps into the sky and then just as suddenly crashes to the ground. Adisu dives and grabs him by his hind legs. Carrying his cargo, he runs all the way to the end of the playground. He effortlessly leaps over lakes and oceans of water. He plops the frog on a distant island. The frog looks bewildered at the sudden unexpected change of scene.

"You. Thief. Mean. Bad boy," says Adisu admonishing the frog severely. "Time out. No steal. Behave. Listen," he barks out the words. "Go. Thief. Liar. You, you, stupid." These are the words he hears from his school mates and he has memorized those words.

He kicks the frog's ample behind and sends him flying into the pond.

He wanders along aimlessly past the music room to the end of the field. Behind a fence he sees a maroon pickup truck parked right below the branch he is sitting on. Adisu listens patiently.

The footsteps approach closer and closer to him. He sits and he waits. There are no human voices to be heard. Adisu peeks below and suddenly he sees a few young children but no one is speaking. Instead they are using sign language to talk to one another. A man standing in front of them is signing to them and silently they respond. Conversations seem to happen without any spoken words.

Adisu watches mesmerized. The fingers of the children flutter like birds in flight.

He hears his dad's voice call out his name from behind him. He scrambles down the tree and rushes back to the Community center.

Out in the corner of the hall, his gifts are stacked up neatly. Adisu picks up the boxes.

"Want to load up the car?" says Dad briefly suspending his activity of popping balloons.

"You know where our blue car is parked. Saw you playing by there a while ago."

"Go on, you're a big boy," Mom chimes in. "Take the toys to our car."

Adisu runs outside lugging his boxed gifts. First he transports three. Then three more. Soon all of them.

Dad smiles. "Good boy, you're awesome."

Adisu runs behind the music room and tosses the boxes one after another over the fence. Then he climbs the tree that has now become familiar to him with its outstretched arms and swings over to the other side of the fence where he had seen the children gather in silence. The children still seem engrossed in their discussions substituting hands for lips and communicating all the while.

Adisu picks up his gifts, and tosses them one by one onto the flatbed of the maroon pickup truck. The kids don't see him fill their truck with his own gifts. They don't hear him. He doesn’t hear them. Adisu smiles.

***

Back at home, Adisu walks in holding the bundle of wrapping paper he had collected into a bundle.

"Want to play Go Fish?" asks Mom.

"Want to help me wash my car? Maybe play with your new toys?" asks Dad.

"We better let him rest for a while," the parents agree.

Adisu goes into his room and closes the door gently. He spreads out the wrapping paper on the carpet. A few rolled up pieces of scotch tape stick to his clothes like caterpillars. He picks them out carefully one by one and places them in the waste paper basket.

He peels off all his clothes and lies down on the wrapping paper, soft and slippery against his naked body.

"It's awesome," he says, trying to figure out what those words mean.

 
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