S H O R T S T O R Y
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL
b y o z z i e n o g g ~ o m a h a , n e b r a s k a
HARRY PRESSED the soles of his Nikes onto the running board, grabbed the door handles with both hands and flattened his body tight against the side of the limousine. His breath fogged the window of the back door.
Behind the wheel, Sims adjusted the rear-view mirror and, turning slightly, slid open the partition that separated the driver's seat from the back. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Garfield, sir," he said over his shoulder, "but do you think it prudent for us to start for the airport with the lad still glued, as it were, to the vehicle?"
Mr. Garfield's jaw tightened on his cigar. He rolled down the window of the back door. "Let go of the handle and get out of the way, Harry. Sims can't drive with you plastered to the car like that."
Harry stuck his shaggy, blond head in through the open window. "It'll happen this time, too," he said to his father. "You'll miss my birthday. Just watch. You won't get back in time for my birthday."
"Yes, we will," said Mr. Garfield. "We promise."
"Cross our hearts and hope to die, Harry, honey," said Mrs. Garfield from the shadows at her husband's side.
"That's what you always say, and then you go and get lost for weeks in the Casbah or kidnapped by Colombian pirates or caught in some workers' uprising in Turkey. You've missed every single one of my birthdays so far."
"Oh, Harry," said Mrs. Garfield, "that's simply not true. In Turkey it was an earthquake. The workers' uprising was in Spain."
"At least let me come with you this time. We could celebrate in the jungle."
"A tiger shoot is for grownups, Harry," said Mr. Garfield. "A tiger shoot is no place for a nine-year-old boy."
"Harry is ten, Otis," Mrs. Garfield said.
"I'm eleven," said Harry. "I'm going to be twelve."
Mr. Garfield worked the cigar to the other side of his mouth. "Even so, you don't belong in the bush. You belong at home with cook and Sims. Now, move your head, Harry. I can't roll up the window with your head in the way like that."
Harry didn't budge. "With your luck, you'll get attacked by a crazed cobra. Or bees. In science we read that swarms of bees have been known to attack entire Punjab villages and kill everything that breathes."
The tip of the cigar glowed bright red. "Damn it, Harry, you leave me no choice." Mr. Garfield pounded on the partition. "Move it, Sims."
"If you insist, Mr. Garfield, sir." Sims turned on the motor. The car inched forward.
"You watch," said Harry. "This time it'll be bees."
Mr. Garfield pried Harry's fingers off the door and rolled up the window. "Step on it, Sims."
Harry jumped off the running board and trotted along beside the car. "This time you'll get attacked by bees and miss my birthday and I'll wind up with a stupid model of the stupid Taj Mahal."
The car picked up speed. Harry stumbled after it, kicking gravel at the rear bumper. "Well, do us all a big favor," he screamed as the car raced ahead of him. "Don't send me a model of the Taj Mahal. There's no room up there to put any more of those stupid models, anyway." The car skidded through the iron gates at the end of the driveway and disappeared.
Harry turned and ran back to the Garfield house. He raced up the wide stone steps, through the front door, over the marble foyer, past the billiard room, the screening room, the library and the trophy room, and then took the stairs past the second and third floors and crawled up the ladder and through the trap door into the attic.
In one corner, neatly stacked, were several hundred back copies of the New York Times Travel Section. The rest of the attic's sprawling space was filled with replicas of the world's most famous tourist attractions. They stood, side by side, their gardens, windowpanes and frescoes, their chandeliers, dungeons and doorknobs, perfect in every detail.
"Aw, jeez," Harry said, as he squeezed himself around the Kremlin and stepped carefully along the lush terraces of Machu Picchu, "it's like a cockeyed theme park for dwarves." Harry headed for the Alhambra. Its walls glowed pink as birthday frosting and a light shone from one of its arched windows. Harry walked over the ramparts, past the tiled fountains and banyan trees and through the Court of Lions. The guards bowed and tipped their lances as he entered the Great Hall. In the candlelight, a woman sat on silk brocade cushions. She stood when she saw Harry.
"Is it over, Master?" she asked.
"For now, yes."
"And the enemy?"
"They escaped. They were trapped for a moment, but they escaped again."
The woman moved closer and gently lifted the pale, damp hair away from Harry's eyes. She put her hand on his chest. "Ah, Master. You are wounded."
"Only a little. You know they can't really hurt me."
"Let me bring you something to eat. And some wine."
"Later, perhaps. Right now, I just want to sleep. I'm so very tired." Harry lowered himself to the cushions on the marble floor and curled up on his side.
"Would you like me to stay with you, Master?"
"Yes, please. Yes. I would like it very much if you stayed with me."
The woman lay down by Harry. She rubbed his back and smoothed his hair and sang him a lullaby.
The Pyramids shimmered in the moonlight. Harry could make out Sims's figure, sitting on the Great Wall of China. A silver tray gleamed on the floor by Sims's feet.
"You gave it your all, as usual, Master Harry. It was a noble effort. Perhaps next time you should lie down right under the wheels. Surely, that would stop them." Sims pushed the tray closer to Harry. "Cook thought you'd be ready to take some nourishment by now."
Harry lifted the silver lids and poked at one of the dishes. "What is this stuff?"
"Cook's reinterpretation of classic Indian cuisine, I believe. It's hard to determine, exactly, but it reminded me, somewhat, of Navratan Biryani."
Harry took a bite. "I bet I know what it is," he said. "I bet I know what it is, now."
"It's not Navratan Biryani?"
"I bet they go away and don't want to come home," said Harry, spitting the mouthful onto the roof of the Louvre, "because the food around here is so rotten."
Mr. and Mrs. Garfield's tendency to travel abroad and not get back in time for Harry's birthday started when the boy was only ten months old. It was then that they'd gone on an expedition to Ulan Bator and been trapped in their yurts, along with their guides, their ponies and some jugs of fermented yak milk, by an unseasonable sandstorm in the Gobi.
"And so," Mrs. Garfield had cabled from Karakoram, "since this means we'll miss your first birthday anyway, we've decided to push on into China. So have cook make you some Egg Foo Yong, Harry, honey. Millions of toothless Cantonese babies gum it down every day. See you soon. Kiss. Kiss."
Several weeks later, the model of the Great Wall arrived at the Garfield residence, along with a note asking Sims to "please put this together for our little precious."
When Harry was almost five, he asked his parents if they could go abroad at a different time of year.
"That way," he said, "we can all have our cake and eat it, too."
Though pleased with this display of logic from one so young, the Garfields were, nonetheless, not moved to change either their habits or their tickets, and flew off to climb El Misti. Mrs. Garfield, due either to a faulty piton or her insistence on wearing high-heeled wedgies, lost her footing on an escarpment. While she lay in traction in Arequipa, Harry's fifth birthday came and went, the model of Macchu Pichu came and went into the attic and Peruvian Antichucos were served at dinner.
Shortly before Harry's seventh birthday, and despite his warnings of inevitable doom, the Garfields sailed for Greece where, true to Harry's predictions, they were met by a volcanic eruption "from which," Mrs. Garfield had reported by overseas phone, "we barely, and I mean just barely, escaped with our lives. Well, our nerves are absolutely shot, Harry, so you'll understand if we hop over to Corfu to relax for a few weeks. I know this means missing your birthday again, but we're sending you a little something to make up for it. And be sure cook makes you some Moussaka. All the children in Greece just gobble it up. See you soon, Harry, honey. Kiss, kiss."
When the 'little something' arrived, Sims and Harry hauled the box up to the attic and dumped the contents on the floor. Marble columns clattered and rolled everywhere. Some days later, when Harry took the model to Show and Tell, the teacher said, "Oh, look, boys and girls. The Parthenon. Who knows who built it, and when?"
"Sims and I did," Harry answered. "Last week."
The predictability of the Garfield's trips abroad lent predictability to Harry's life, as well. Whenever his parents were globe-trotting, Harry moved his napkin ring from the Garfield dining room into the kitchen. There, he and Sims ate cook's country-appropriate meals and monitored all the network newscasts on a bank of television sets mounted over the ovens, ever on the alert for reports of any catastrophes that might interfere with the Garfield's scheduled return. At breakfast, Sims would read the foreign newspapers while Harry followed his parent's itinerary.
"Well," said Sims, one morning toward the end of the tiger shoot, "just exactly where are we today, Master Harry, and what are we seeing and doing?"
Harry propped the itinerary against a stack of badly burnt dosa pancakes.
"It's Day 29. They're in camp. At leisure. Sounds like a bore. I'm glad I'm not there."
"Bravo, Master Harry."
Sims folded the Panchayati Raj Gazette and stacked it neatly on top of the Chandigarh Tribune. "I've read every inch of them," he continued, "and there are no reports of monsoons, cyclones, avalanches, mudslides, tidal waves, famine, fire, drought, epidemic or military coup having befallen the Indian sub-continent. It would appear they are going to make it this time." With that, Sims tossed the newspapers into the trash.
The telephone rang.
"Garfield residence," answered Sims. He paused. "It's the overseas operator," he said, handing Harry the receiver and gingerly pulling the newspapers out of the trash. "Perhaps an item on killer bees escaped me."
Even before Harry got the phone to his ear, he could hear his mother's voice. "Harry? Oh, you'll never guess where we are, Harry."
"I don't have to guess. The itinerary says you're in camp. At leisure."
"Well, we are at leisure in a way, I suppose. There's not much to do in jail."
Harry covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "They're in jail." Sims refolded the newspapers and put them back in the trash.
Mrs. Garfield was still talking. "So, you can imagine how excited he was, after all these weeks, to have finally bagged one. But then, when we got closer, we saw it wasn't a tiger after all. It was a cow. Your father had shot a sacred cow, Harry."
Harry covered the mouthpiece with his hand again. "My father shot a sacred cow."
"The possibilities life offers one are truly infinite, Master Harry."
"And so," Mrs. Garfield went on, "after a lot of discussion, they lowered the sentence to ten days in jail, 200 rupees, a bath in some holy city plus the purification rites, all of which is reasonable, I suppose, for shooting a sacred cow."
"I don't believe any of this," Harry said to his mother.
"Of course you don't. You were brought up in a different culture. But Hindus do believe it and if they're happy worshipping cattle, well, that's their business. Don't be a bigot."
Harry hung up the phone. "Maybe you should give them the benefit of the doubt, Master Harry," said Sims. "This is much closer than they've ever come before."
"This isn't horseshoes we're playing here," said Harry. He banged out of the kitchen and bounded up the stairs to the attic.
Harry stood by the Panama Canal. A white ship, its flags moving gaily in the breeze, steamed into the channel. Men and women leaned over the mahogany railings. Children ran from one side of the ship to the other, pointing and shouting, as the boat went up, up, up. A woman, holding a baby, waved at Harry. Harry waved back. "Where are you going?" he shouted into the breeze.
"Home," said the woman. "We're going home." The baby waved his fat, pink fingers as the boat went down, down, down and slid out to sea.
Harry walked past Stonehenge, through the Piazza San Pietro and up the stairs of St. Peter's. He moved down the marble aisle of the basilica, past the cherubs and crypts, and entered the confessional. He knelt down and folded his hands. The small door in the wall by Harry's head slid open. "Bless me, Father," said Harry, "for I have sinned."
"Say what?" came the voice from the other side of the wall.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Harry repeated, louder.
"What you done?"
"I don't know. I keep asking myself that same question, Father, but I still don't know."
Two eyes peered at Harry through the opening in the wall and then darted away. "You busted a window?"
"You sass your teacher?"
"You smoke or drink or do that other naughty stuff?"
"I'm only eleven, Father."
"Don't stop some," crowed the voice. "Now, if you not doin' any actual badness yourself, maybe you the victim of guilt by association. You hang out with any low-lifes?"
Harry thought for a moment. "Yes."
"My parents. My parents make promises that they never keep."
"Uh-huh. Uh-HUH. Now we gettin' someplace. You tellin' me your momma and daddy pay no mind to nothin'? Come and go as they please? Boogaloo 'round the Golden Calf of Life, so to speak?"
"More like a cow, actually."
A COW!" wailed the voice. "Ooooo-WHEE! A cow is waaay bigger trouble than a measly calf. Lordy, Lord! You in it now, for sure, boy. The sins of the daddies is powerful stuff. They be hangin' round your neck 'til doomsday. You a marked man."
"But that's not fair, Father."
"Make no never mind. You still gonna suffer. Shoot! Even if you innocent, you still gotta pay. Now, go direct to jail. Do not pass go. And do not collect no 200 rupees. Oooo-WHEE!" The door in the wall slid shut with a bang.
Harry stood up and massaged his knees. He walked out of St. Peter's, down the stairs and pushed open the door to the kitchen. A large crate, marked FRAGILE, stood by the refrigerator. "It arrived while you were upstairs, Master Harry."
Harry looked at the postmark. "They sent this on day one. Before they even knew they were going to be arrested."
"Consider it a case of Pavlov's dog, Master Harry. Conditioned response, and all that."
Sims and Harry dragged the crate up to the attic. They shoved Topkapi closer to the Pyramids and stood the Great Wall on its end.
"I told them it was crowded up here," said Harry. "I asked them not to do this anymore." Inside the crate, carved white marble domes and spires poked up through the shredded paper. "It's the Taj Mahal, alright. I specifically told them, don't send the stupid Taj Mahal."
"Psychiatric literature tells us that deeply rooted behaviors are difficult to modify, Master Harry."
Harry and Sims pulled the blueprints out of the crate, unrolled them on the floor, and, following the plans, began laying the red sandstones in long, straight rows. Piece by piece, they built the marble platforms and arranged the design, like a chessboard, in the floor of the main courtyard. They bolted together the burial crypts, hung the silver doors and attached the emerald and ruby studded canopies. Then, Harry spread out the lagoons. He cemented the reflecting pools in place while Sims planted cypress trees and lotus flowers in the gardens. Slowly, the walls grew taller and taller. Slender minarets and delicate spires were screwed into the proper slots. Windowed cupolas rose in every corner of the building. Harry and Sims unwrapped boxes of jewels -- jasper, lapis, bloodstone -- and glued them to the marble walls, looped them around the curved arches. The day moved from afternoon to night, and in the changing light of the attic, the Taj Mahal moved from pink to red, to soft gray and yellow and finally, to the color of cream.
In the gloom, his eyes narrow as slits, Harry lifted the great dome from the crate and dropped it onto the roof. Sims nailed a small wooden door in the wall by the main gate, clipped a few weeds from around the lotus beds and pulled a lever. The fountains hiccuped, bubbled and then settled into a gentle, whooshing spray.
"Well, there you have it, Master Harry. The Taj Mahal. A rather extravagant expression of love, don't you think?"
"I think they don't know what love means."
"Ah, well. I was referring to the emotion that resulted in the original building." Sims got up and brushed the dust from his trousers. "My stomach tells me it's well past dinner time. I'm told that Curried Mutton, Chicken Vindaloo and Marinated Pomphret Kabobs are the menu choices tonight."
"My choice is to stay up here until the smoke clears."
"Stay as long as you like, Master Harry. They say the Taj Mahal speaks a different language in the moonlight. They say in the moonlight it is a truly magical place." Sims backed down the ladder and pulled the trap door closed behind him.
Harry lay on his stomach and stretched. Then, slowly, he stood up and paced around the Taj Mahal. Beggars and lepers moved aside to let him pass. A blind woman reached out to him but he ignored her bony hand as he walked through the tall, main gate and into the walled garden. He stopped by the pools that lay shimmering on the grass. When he looked into the water, his eyes shone back at him like emerald lamps. His hair looked white. Harry saw the reflection of the moon rising just over his shoulder. He moved from the pools to the small stand of cypress trees and waited in the warm shadows.
Mr. and Mrs. Garfield, trailed by wisps of cigar smoke, barged through the gate and marched past the pools and fountains. Their turbaned guide, his white garments flapping around his ankles, followed.
"You have now before you the edifice of the Taj Mahal," said the guide. "The King Shahjahan commenced it to building in 1632 and concluded the same in 1657 or about."
"Oh, Otis," said Mrs. Garfield. "I feel like the heroine in a Sabu the Elephant Boy movie."
"Fine. Now, let's go. All we need is for those people in Benares to give away our room." Mr. Garfield flicked his cigar ashes into one of the pools.
Harry crept from the cypress grove and tiptoed behind his parents.
"The Taj Mahal," the guide continued, "is standing on a sandstone base on a marble platform. Its minarets are so cleverly blending into the compositions that you are scarcely believing they rise 130 foots in tallness."
"You could have fooled me," said Mr. Garfield. He handed the guide two rupees.
No one noticed Harry's presence.
"Now," the guide continued, "is coming the very good part."
"Grr-aunch," said Harry.
The Garfields spun around.
"GRR-AUNCH! OOO-OUGH! GRR-AUNCH!"
Mrs. Garfield screamed. Mr. Garfield bit down hard on his cigar. The guide sank into the lotus position and shut his eyes. "Do not be fearful. He is just a cub. Calmly pretend to not be seeing him and he is for surely going straight away."
"But I thought they always traveled with their mothers," Mrs. Garfield said. "You don't suppose his mother is lurking around here, do you?"
With one lightening movement, Harry pounced on his mother and toppled her to the ground. Harry took three gulps and every bit of Mrs. Garfield, down to and including her pigskin pumps, was gone.
The guide handed one rupee back to Mr. Garfield.
"Oh, shit," said Mr. Garfield as he dashed inside the Taj. The guide, somewhat hampered by his tangled dhoti, scampered after him. "What now?"
"Now," said the guide, "is the mausoleum itself. The eyes is irresistibly drawn upwards to the great dome, like a marble sky, directly underneath which are locating the twin tombs."
Harry bounded up the steps. Mr. Garfield and the guide ran behind the carved marble screen that guarded the tombs. "Shit," said Mr. Garfield again, as he watched Harry come closer. "This must be what they mean when they say the writing's on the wall."
"Truly," the guide whispered, pointing to the inscriptions above their heads. "The writings on the wall is many verses from Koran, plus further adornments of jasmine blossoms and leafs."
Harry stared through the grillwork. Then he vaulted over the top, landed on his father's shoulder and began chewing the lapel of his safari suit.
Mr. Garfield's cigar glowed red as the rubies in the dome. "Of all our other excuses for missing the kid's birthday, I bet this one'll be the hardest for him to swallow."
"OOO-OUGH! GRR-AUNCH! GRR-MMMMMMMMM-AUNCH!"
It was very quiet. Only the gentle rustle of the cypress trees disturbed the Agra night. "Om. Om," mumbled the guide. "Ommm-me. Ommm-my. Ommm." He carefully picked a few khaki threads from Harry's cheek, brushed the ashes from Harry's chin and fled.
Swaying slightly, Harry turned and moved through the hallways of the Taj Mahal. He walked through the garden and out the main gate, along the mist-covered Jumna River, down the ladder to the third floor and into the kitchen. Sims sat at the table, finishing his dinner.
"So, Master Harry. How was the moonlight on the Taj?"
"You were right, Sims. In the moonlight, it's a totally magical place."
"Cook left you some Curried Mutton, Master Harry. I'm afraid it's uncharacteristically underdone, but by now you could probably eat anything."
"Right again, Sims."
And Harry let out a small, satisfied belch.
This short story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the E-2ink Award
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