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Who is the caretaker hiding in the shadows of the Martha's Vineyard mansions he tends?
Back in India, Ranjit Singh commanded an elite army squad. But that was years ago, before his Army career ended in dishonor, shattering his reputation. Driven from his homeland, he is now a caretaker on the exclusive resort island of Martha's Vineyard, looking after the vacation homes of the rich and powerful. One harsh winter, faced with no other choice, he secretly moves his family into the house of one of his clients, an African-American Senator. Here, his wife and daughter are happy, and he feels safe for the first time in ages. But Ranjit's idyll is shattered when mysterious men break into the house. Pursued and hunted, Ranjit is forced to enter the Senator's shadowy world, and his only ally is Anna, the Senator's beautiful wife, who has secrets of her own. Together, they uncover a trail of deception that leads from the calm shores of the Vineyard to countries half a world away. And when his investigation stirs up long forgotten events, the caretaker must finally face the one careless decision that ruined his life- and forced him to leave India.
A gripping tale of hidden histories, political intrigue and dangerous attractions, A. X. Ahmad's The Caretaker introduces a new hero for our times: an immigrant caught between two worlds and a man caught between two loves.
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A. X. AHMAD was raised in India, educated at Vassar College and M.I.T., and has worked as an international architect. As Amin Ahmad, his short stories and essays on immigrant life have been published in The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, The New England Review, Narrative Magazine and The Good Men Project. He was a finalist for Glimmertrain's Short Story Award, and has been listed in Best American Essays. He lives in Washington, D.C, where he teaches writing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Senator’s wife is late. Very late.
Ranjit Singh stands beside his battered Ford truck and squints down the long, empty line of Beach Road. There is no sign of Anna Neals’s silver Mercedes. Only seagulls coast through the evening sky, their shrieks drowned out by the waves crashing across the road.
He turns and looks at the gray-shingled liquor store behind him, wondering how much longer it will be open. It is mid-December, and shops close early during the off-season on Martha’s Vineyard. If he loiters in the empty parking lot, the Edgartown cops will surely notice him, and that’s the last thing he wants.
If anybody else were an hour late, he would have left. But Anna Neals isn’t just anybody, she is the wife of Clayton Neals, the longest-serving African-American senator. He has worked for her all summer, trimming hedges and building stone steps down to her private beach. When she called this morning, he heard her warm, melodious voice and instantly agreed to meet her.
But she is now an hour and ten minutes late. Damn it.
Ranjit leans against the green flatbed truck, feeling the warm metal against his aching back. Though the gold cursive painted on the door says SINGH LANDSCAPE COMPANY, he’s the only employee, and his six-foot frame has been bent over all day, raking piles of red and yellow leaves. Before driving over to meet Anna, he changed into a red turban and his cleanest army surplus sweater—the epaulettes torn off—and even tried to clean his cracked fingernails, then gave up. The long summer of landscaping has seamed them with dirt.
A car speeds down Beach Road and feathers into the parking lot, but it isn’t hers, it’s a rust-eaten blue Mercury, its front bumper held on with duct tape. In the backseat, caged in by a mesh partition, is a thick-muscled black dog wearing a black leather collar.
The car screeches to a halt and a heavyset man in a red plaid shirt emerges from the passenger seat, mumbling something to the driver. Plaid-shirt walks toward the liquor store with a rolling gait, like a sailor unused to dry land.
Hunters, probably on a day trip from the Cape. Ranjit looks down at his watch: five minutes, no more; as it is, he is late picking up his daughter from her school.
He stares across the road at the cold, angry ocean. When he first came to the island with his wife and daughter six months ago, the water was warm and shimmering, the beaches were lined with parked cars, and long-tailed kites fluttered in the hot sky. All summer and into the fall he’d worked as a landscaper, feeling his unused muscles stretch and harden, feeling the hot sun beat down on him, and felt a kind of peace.
But now winter is upon them and the tourists are all gone. The ice-cream parlors and clam shacks have closed, and the migrant workers—the Jamaicans and Bulgarians and Czechs—have left. Even the sky feels like a gray bowl jammed over the island.
Worse, all the landscaping jobs have ended. For the millionth time Ranjit wonders how he is going to survive the winter months. Food and gas here are so expensive, and lately, the furnace in their old house has been cutting out abruptly. If it dies, he just won’t have the money to get it fixed.
He needs to find another job soon, or else he’ll have to return to Boston and work in Lallu Singh’s cramped, overheated Indian store, and the thought of going back there makes him sick.
An hour and a quarter late. The Senator’s dark-eyed wife definitely isn’t coming, and hope fades away, replaced by a deep disappointment. Forget it.
He strides toward the liquor store for a nip of Bacardi to dull his mind before heading out. At the doorway he slows down, and can’t help looking over his shoulder one last time.
Someone slams right into him.
The man in the plaid shirt staggers and clutches a case of beer to his chest. A tall bottle of bourbon balanced on top of it falls and hits the asphalt with a crack. Its neck shears off and it rolls away slowly, the golden liquor glugging out.
The dog in the back of the car barks once, a sound from deep within its chest.
“ Aww, crap. Look what you’ve done.” Plaid-shirt’s voice is slurred with alcohol. Despite his thick stubble, he has the face of a spoiled child, his high forehead framed by long, uncombed blond hair. “That was a thirty-dollar bottle of Jack.”
Ranjit stands motionless. “I’m sorry, sir, but you walked into me.”
The man stares at him out of blue, blameless eyes, taking in his red turban, his mustache and full beard.
“Hey, what are you, some kind of Arab?”
“I’m a Sikh from India. Sir, I said I was sorry.”
“Sorry, huh? Well, that bottle cost me thirty bucks. Thirty American dollars.”
There is no mistaking the menace in the man’s voice. There must be no trouble. No trouble and no police. Taking out his wallet, Ranjit counts out a ten and some singles.
“This is all I have.”
“This ain’t worth shit.” Plaid-shirt grabs the bills and turns toward his car. “Hey, you see this bullshit?”
A pale face stares out at Ranjit from the driver’s seat, younger, but with the same washed-out blond hair. This man has a blue-black fish tattooed on each forearm.
“I got an idea,” the tattooed man says, waving at the broken bottle. “You clean up that mess you made, and we might accept your apology.”
His words are followed by the metallic chuck-chuck of a shotgun being racked. A blued barrel appears in the car window, pointed right at Ranjit.
Time stops. As it used to in combat, all noise drains away and the world shrinks to the two men in the empty parking lot. Ranjit is bound to them now by words and actions, bound till something changes.
The tattooed man in the car smiles, showing yellowed teeth. “Come on. Clean it up.”
The shotgun doesn’t waver. It’s a Remington 870 with a twenty-eight-inch hunting barrel, probably loaded with birdshot. At this range the pellets will rip his face to shreds.
There is no choice. Ranjit’s hands are shaking with rage as he bends down and reaches for the broken glass. Under his breath he mutters a prayer.
The truly enlightened ones
Are those who neither incite fear in others
Nor fear anyone themselves …
Glass shards are everywhere, glinting in the fading light, and the sharp smell of alcohol stings his nostrils.
The tattooed man in the car watches him, finger tensed on the shotgun trigger. The dog caged in the backseat paces and growls. Plaid-shirt places the carton of beer on the hood of the car and leans back unsteadily, lighting up a cigarette.
A sliver of broken glass slices into the ball of Ranjit’s thumb. He gasps as warm blood puddles into the palm of his hand.
Plaid-shirt chuckles. “ Aww, look at him. He’s bleeding.”
The tattooed man in the car joins in the laughter, the shotgun barrel wobbling with hilarity.
Ranjit’s neck burns with shame.
The truly enlightened ones
Are those …
“Come on, towel-head. My beer’s getting warm.”
Fuck it. Ranjit reaches for the jagged neck of the bottle, calculating his moves. The dog is caged in, not a threat. Go for the man, grab the shotgun barrel and twist it aside. Jam the jagged glass into his throat, hear him burble and beg.
He straightens up, the glint of glass in his hand. There is a sudden screech of tires and a car door slams like a rifle shot.
“What the hell is going on here? Ranjit, are you okay?”
Anna Neals’s silver Mercedes is parked askew. She takes long strides toward them, her boots thudding angrily against the asphalt. Her dark face is hidden behind blank aviator shades, her straightened, jaw-length hair fluttering in the breeze. She’s wearing jeans torn at the knees, a silver down jacket, and thick glass bracelets that clank as she walks.
She is shouting now. “Jeff? Norman? Is there a problem here?”
The two hunters’ faces redden. The shotgun disappears from the window, but the dog barks loudly and flings himself at the door.
Anna doesn’t flinch. “Control that dog. I said, do we have a problem here?”
“No problem, Mrs. Neals. No problem at all.” Plaid-shirt picks up his case of beer and ducks around the side of the car. “Hey, your husband is a hero. Stood up to those damn Koreans. Showed ’em.”
“I’ll pass on your compliments. Now leave before I turn you in for hunting illegally. Open season for waterfowl is over.”
Nodding his head, Plaid-shirt stumbles into the car. The dog’s nose is pressed against the rear windshield as the car squeals out of the lot, accelerates down Beach Road, and disappears in a blue haze of exhaust.
The only sounds are the crashing of the waves and Anna’s angry breathing.
Standing up, Ranjit squeezes the pressure point below his thumb to stop the bleeding. He doesn’t want the Senator’s wife to make a fuss.
“Anna, it was my fault. I bumped into that man, I was helping him clean up…”
“I know those two, they’re real losers. You don’t have to put up with their crap. This is America.”
He presses the base of his thumb. People are always saying to him, “This is America.” What the hell does it mean?
“Please, I’m okay. These things happen. People see my turban…”
But the truth is that he had been unprepared. During his two years in Boston he’d been taunted in Southie, almost beaten up in the North End—but on the Vineyard things have been different. Blacks and whites mingle easily here, and a brown man in a turban is smiled at, a sign of the island’s easy tolerance.
Anna is shivering, from the cold or from anger, he can’t tell.
“Those morons and their pit bull. Let me see that cut.”
Ignoring him, she grabs his wrist, pushes her shades onto her head, and holds his thumb up to the light. She’s almost his height, striking-looking rather than beautiful, her short, boyish haircut emphasizing her long neck and high cheekbones. It is her eyes that draw him in, black as night, so dark that her stare can be disconcerting. Today the skin around them is puffy, and he realizes, with a shock, that she has been crying.
“You won’t need any stitches. It’s a clean cut.”
She pulls a white cotton handkerchief from her pocket, tears off a strip with her teeth, and bandages his thumb, the wrapping tight and professional. Noticing his appraising look, she smiles, and deep dimples appear in her cheeks.
“Surprised? I used to go hunting with my father. He’d get hurt, and I’d bandage him up. I’ve had a lot of practice fixing up men.”
When she’s done, the bandage is wrapped so tightly that his thumb throbs like a drumbeat.
A cold wind blows in from the ocean and she shivers and hugs herself. “Ranjit, I’m sorry I’m so late. I didn’t think you’d still be here.”
He remains silent, waiting for her explanation.
“Clayton arrived this afternoon. Unannounced.”
“The Senator’s here? But I saw him on television just last night, he was at a press conference in Washington—”
“Yeah, well,” Anna says, “he flew in from D.C. a few hours ago. He said he’d had enough of the press.”
She stands in front of him like a hurt child, hugging herself tightly. He wants to lean forward and wrap his arms around her. Instead, he doesn’t move an inch.
“Anna, why did you want to see me?”
She takes a deep breath. “Look, I wanted to say that I’m really sorry. I owe you an explanation for my behavior that day. I was really upset, and believe it or not, you helped me. But…”
He feels the sharp disappointment again. “It’s all right. I understand.”
“You do? You’re kind to say that.” There is a silence and then she continues, her tone brisker. “Listen, I was thinking. Are you still staying here through the winter? Or are you heading back to Boston?”
“I’d like to stay here. I hated it in Boston.”
“Well, I talked to Clayton, and we need a caretaker for the house. Our regular guy just broke his leg. You can start now, and we’ll pay you through next spring. What do you think?”
She smiles and removes a strand of hair that has blown into the corner of her mouth.
He is stunned. It’s impossible to get a job as a caretaker on the island; only old, trusted Vineyarders get to take care of rich people’s houses. And a steady paycheck means that he can stay here through the winter, maybe even move to a house where the heating actually works.
“It’s not a lot of work. Close up the house, shovel snow, check for leaks. What do you say?”
He nods slowly. “Okay, Anna—thank you. I’ll take the job.”
She jingles car keys in her coat pocket and looks away. “Go see Clayton tonight, he’ll fill you in. I better get going. I’m catching the evening ferry to the mainland.”
“I need a change of scene. The last few months have been so … taxing. But I’m not going far, just to the house in Boston.”
There seems to be nothing else to say. They turn and walk to Anna’s car, its engine still purring, the soft wail of jazz coming from inside. Ranjit knows that the silver Mercedes Kompressor costs more money than he has earned during his two and a half years in America.
She stops, a hand on the door handle. “You’re sure you want to stay here? It’s brutal in the winter. I lived here off-season as a child, almost went mad with boredom.”
He nods. “I’ll be all right. I’m used to the cold.”
“I thought India was hot? Tropical?”
“No. We have mountains too, high ones. With snow and ice.”
She smiles apologetically, and her cheeks curve into dimples again. “I should have known that. Us dumb Americans, huh?”
She puts a hand on his arm, a touch so soft that it’s barely there. She gets into the Mercedes, slams the door, and swings the car out onto the road. The powerful engine growls, and she’s gone.
The pink neon sign in the liquor store window suddenly blinks out. An elderly man emerges from the store and begins to chain the front doors together.
Ranjit kicks the glass shards aside and hurriedly climbs into his truck. What had he expected from the likes of Anna Neals? She is a senator’s wife, and he is just another servant here. Things might have been different if … but there’s no point in thinking like that.
The adrenaline rush has subsided. He feels cold and nauseous, and blasts the heater before leaning back and closing his eyes. If Anna had arrived a few minutes later, he would have killed that man. He imagines sharp glass entering the man’s soft throat, the screams of a butchered animal …
Taking a deep breath, he remembers what the doctors back home had said: The instincts are there, they don’t go away. Anything can trigger them: a loud sound, a movement in the periphery, a threatening shadow. The key is to not follow through, to short-circuit the impulse.
Like the doctors taught him, he breathes deeply and imagines a calm, peaceful place. An image of the Golden Temple at Amritsar gradually takes shape: it sits in the center of the sacred lake, its golden dome burnished by fading sunlight, and from within it he can hear the sound of kirtans being sung.
He is a boy again, following his mother down the long causeway leading to it, the marble warm under their bare feet. It is his father’s death anniversary, and they have come to the temple to pray. Underneath the threadbare dupatta that covers her head, Mataji’s face is pale, exhausted from crying all day, but she grows calm as she sings the evening prayers. The words float in the air, old and comforting.
A faint, putrid smell tickles h...
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