Hello, My Dear
[wpaudio url=”/audio/december12/Vilhauer.mp3″ text=”listen to this story” dl=”0″]
Prema was glad she had not told Emmett about the email the woman had sent. He would have dissuaded her from inviting the woman home.
Prema had shown Emmett two other emails over the past few months. They had not been like the ones she got almost daily, with subject lines that said Dear trusty friend, Greeting and God bless, Your Miss Irina Pubutu, Attentions please, Please I long your urgent respond. One email she had shown Emmett had been about an orphanage in Bangladesh and the other had been from a Pakistani man with terminal lung cancer. I understand you want to do some charitable work, but don’t get duped, Emmett had said, as if he had some special knowledge she did not have. He said the emails were scams, and likely not even from the Indian subcontinent.
Prema stepped out onto the porch, hugging her shoulders against the cold, and scanned the white length of Breakneck Road. The air had the familiar, faintly tinny taste Prema associated with winter in Wyoming. The snow that had started early that morning was still falling. In the distance, Prema could see the light white dust that had blown onto the crimson rose-printed banner that her neigbbor, Mrs. Grant, had hung outside her front door. Every holiday was celebrated to its fullest in Cathaway, perhaps because there was not much else to do so far from any other sizeable town. January had not yet ended. The tinsel streamers, stars and nylon banners printed with the words ‘Welcome 2012,’ had only recently been put away, but Valentine’s Day preparations had already begun.
Valentine’s Day was when the porch renovation was scheduled to begin. Emmett had already contacted a contractor who would install thick glass and heating vents. The porch would become an inside space that could capture the cheerful sunlight Cathaway offered as consolation to the few residents who disliked the cold. Emmett said it would be a place Prema could sit even in deep winter, even though Prema doubted the possibility. She had not discussed the idea of putting off the renovation with him. She had wanted to meet the woman first, to verify her credibility, before broaching the matter with Emmett.
A dirty cream Chevy with ship-like lines crawled up the road and skidded to a stop in the driveway. Prema watched as a woman crunched over the snow to the porch steps. She looked as if she were a decade or so older than Prema, perhaps sixty-five.
“Hello, my dear,” the woman said. That had also been the subject line of the first email she had sent Prema.
Prema had decided to risk inviting the woman because she had not sent a mass-email. The email had been from a Sri Lankan to a compatriot. Now Prema felt she had been right. This woman was too prim and matronly to be a con artist.
“Janice Perera,” the woman said. She removed a glove and held out her hand. It was a plain-looking hand; although the nails were trimmed and clean, they did not look manicured. A gray coat was hanging over the woman’s slightly lopsided shoulders. “You must be Prema Mendis.”
“A long drive from Flanders,” Prema said, as she opened the front door. The smell of the pie Emmett had baked that morning still scented the house.
“Five hours,” the woman said, slipping her coat off her shoulders.
Prema shut out the cold and led the woman to the kitchen, reminding herself to be cautious; the woman was a stranger, however innocuous she seemed. She started the tea kettle. “So you said Colombo, Mrs. Perera?”
“Call me Janice,” the woman said, taking a seat at the counter. The tip of her nose was bulbous, which gave her face a slightly coarse appearance. The only makeup she had on was lipstick in a sober shade of brown. “Yes. And you?”
The earnestness in her face reminded Prema of a teacher she’d had in school in Colombo, a long time ago. The teacher’s name had been Miss Geraldine, and she had taught Grade Seven English. People had thought her eccentric, although maybe that had only been because she had ridden to school on a bicycle, wearing stout covered shoes that could have belonged to a man. In class, Miss Geraldine had been gentle, more likely than the other teachers to excuse girls for talking too loudly. Prema could imagine her saying, “Hello, my dear,” in her soft voice. In fact, now that she had thought of it, she was sure she could remember Miss Geraldine saying those words when she had gone up to the teacher’s desk one day.
Prema nodded. “Same here. I’ve been in Wyoming for eleven years, and for much longer in the U.S. But I’m sure you can still hear my accent, no?” She could hear her Sinhalese accent get heavier as she spoke. After three decades in the U.S., she had no problem speaking the American way, so she was surprised at the easy way she slipped into her old language patterns. It was good to let go.
“Ah, yes,” Janice said.
Friendly eyes, Prema thought, noticing the wrinkles that radiated towards the woman’s temples.
“You, of course, can’t tell,” Prema said, as she put out Emmett’s apple pie. “Not even a small accent. You speak Sinhala? Perera. That name could be Sinhalese or Tamil or Burgher …?” She said this although she was sure Janice was a Burgher. Janice did not look much different from anyone else in Cathaway, with her light brown eyes. There was a faint brownish tint in her skin, but Flanders, like Cathaway, was situated several thousand feet above sea level, so it would be difficult to avoid a tan.
“I used to speak a little Sinhala, but that was a long time ago,” Janice said. “I was ten when I came here. That is why I have no accent. I’m Burgher.” Then she added, “I am descended from the Dutch, you see.”
Prema paused in the act of reaching for the tea tin at the peculiar way Janice said this, as if Prema had never met a Burgher. Could Janice be so accustomed to meeting people who knew nothing about Sri Lanka that describing herself in this fashion had become second nature? It was possible, Prema thought. Flanders was twice the size of Cathaway, which had only five thousand three hundred people, but it was no doubt as insular a place.
“You still have family in Colombo?”
“No,” Janice said. “The few I have are mostly in England and Australia.”
“Yes, in Australia, I know there are big Sri Lankan communities,” Prema said, pouring water into the teapot. “That is where my sisters live now, in Sydney. They have plenty of people around from home.” She wondered whether to ask about the kinds of people Janice knew in Flanders. Janice’s email had mentioned that she had no children, so she could not have been part of a Parent Teacher Association. For years, that had been Prema’s main social outlet in Cathaway, outside work. But now the children were grown, and she had no reason to be on a PTA. Was this woman the type of person to join book clubs and township boards? Did she hold dinner parties? It would depend on her husband’s disposition, Prema thought.
The first time she had met Emmett, in the dimly-lit stacks in the Texas State University library, where he had been an assistant librarian, he had struck her as exuberant; later, she thought that had been because of his bushy eyebrows and the resonance of his voice. By the time she married him at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe eighteen months later, she had come to understand that he was a quiet man. She had got used to his shyness and did not mind it, although his reluctance to attend social events had already begun, by then, to narrow their circle of friends. Over the years, his reluctance had increased. His books and his skiing were what mattered to him. He was happy in Cathaway.
The woman started to rummage in her handbag, her head bent and her gray hair concealing her face. She extracted a picture from the bag and handed it to Prema. It was a photograph of a large white-walled house that lay partly in the shade of a tree with spreading branches. “The house I grew up in, in Colombo. It’s not in my family now, but I had the picture.”
Although the colors on the picture were faded, the design on the upstairs balcony railing, the size of the wood-framed windows, the shape of the roof and its terracotta tiles were strikingly familiar. They reminded Prema of houses she had passed every day as a schoolgirl. The scarlet flowers clumped on the tree branches and strewn on the ground marked the tree as a flamboyant like the one that had flourished outside the house in which Prema had grown up.
“I remember houses exactly like this,” Prema said. But there might be similar houses anywhere in the world, she thought. Then she wondered if she was being too suspicious. “Funny how I remember houses, when so many other things, I don’t remember,” she said, placing cream and sugar on the counter. “You remember so much more when you have someone to talk to about things.”
Janice nodded at that, stirring her tea. She took a piece of pie and set it on the plate Prema had put on the counter.
“The thing is,” Prema said. “I never cared for talking about Sri Lanka with people outside the family unless they were from home. Easier to fit in that way, no? Especially here in Wyoming. But now my children are grown and gone. And Emmett—my husband—is always either working or going up there.” She pointed at the mountain slopes spread out to the east. Emmett said the Wyoming landscapes were sublime. Sometimes Prema could see what he meant when she looked at the land stretching undisturbed to the horizon. But these days, she mostly saw how blank and white it was, and how thirsty the scrubby vegetation looked when the snow finally melted. She would have liked more trees, even if they blocked her view of the mountains. What wouldn’t she do to have a few bougainvilleas around? “Skiing, hiking. That’s what Emmett cares about nowadays. When he’s at home, a book keeps him happy if he’s not baking a pie. Not that I’m lonely.” She waved her hand at Mrs. Grant’s house in the distance, visible through the long living room window. “I’ve been here so long. I suppose I know a lot of people. But lately, I’ve been wishing I knew some people from home.”
Janice’s eyebrows had come together in sympathy. Prema could see that she understood. How easy it was to talk to her, she thought. “I used to know so many back in Houston, where Emmett and I met,” Prema said. “Well, not so many, I suppose. Maybe twenty, thirty. But we got together for dinners and lunches. Birthdays, graduations, public holidays. Any excuse to wear a sari. Can you imagine wearing a sari here? I haven’t seen a single resident from the subcontinent in all the time I’ve lived here. There, someone was always coming by for a chat, with fish buns or patties or milk toffee. I haven’t had any of those for a long time. What’s the point of making things only for yourself? Emmett is not so keen on them.” Her mouth watered, remembering the fish buns. She sighed. “Don’t you miss those things?”
“Oh, yes,” Janice said, looking at the photograph that lay on the counter between them.
“Maybe it’s age,” Prema said. “You know they say people get closer to their nature as they get older. These days, I find myself thinking a lot more about my school days back home.”
“I know the feeling. You can’t wait to go back and settle down,” Janice said.
That took Prema aback. “Oh, no, no, no. I can’t do that,” she said. “My children are in this country, grown and settling down. Emmett would not be happy there even if he found a job. Where would he ski? And I have been here too long myself to give up the conveniences. You know the last time I went back, ten years ago, how hard it was to find a shop nearby that had some printer paper?” She looked hard at Janice, who was stirring her tea again. “You want to go back and settle, even after so many years?”
Janice clutched her handbag to her chest. “No, no. That is not what I meant. Well, in some ways, I want to, even though it is impossible. Certainly I miss Sri Lanka,” she said. “There is no one in Flanders who would understand about where I grew up.”
It was because no one in Cathaway knew anything about Sri Lanka that Prema had recently asked Emmett, who managed the local public library, to acquire two books on Sri Lanka: a travel book and a history book.
“That’s what I am saying,” Prema said. “Emmett understands more than anyone else here, but not the same, no? He’s not Sri Lankan.”
Janice looked up, her fingers twisting the strap of her handbag. “He’s from here?” She looked around the room, and her eyes settled on a family picture in which Emmett stood, smiling and freckle-faced, between Prema and their three grown children.
“Yes,” Prema said. “Mendis is my maiden name. Of course, Emmett has visited Sri Lanka with me and the children several times. But the thing is, he doesn’t have the same connection. It’s the little things you miss, no? Tastes of things. Things people say. Smells. You know, no?”
“I am fortunate to have my husband,” Janice said. “Of course, there are no other Sri Lankans in Flanders. That is why we tried to find people in other towns. The next best thing to family.”
“How is he doing, your husband?” Prema said.
“As well as can be expected,” Janice said. She wiped the edge of her eye with a tissue she had produced. “He is worried, of course, because of the urgency of the situation. As I said, we have to find the money within the next two days. Otherwise it will be too late.”
“How did he get it in both eyes?” Prema said. “Unusual, no?” She knew something about retinal detachment because one of her co-workers had suffered from the condition a couple of years ago.
“Not so unusual for a man of his age, according to the doctor,” Janice said. “Even if we can save one eye….” She blew her nose softly. “I don’t know how we would manage if he goes blind.”
“I didn’t understand from your emails why he could not get help from his family. They are still in Sri Lanka you said?”
“To find money so quickly… they are not so well off, but yes, they are in Kandy. The house he grew up in wasn’t far from the Temple of the Tooth, where Lord Buddha’s tooth relic is kept.”
Prema stared at Janice. It was such a strange thing to say. Did she really think that Prema might not know about the Temple of the Tooth?
Janice’s fingers were clenched around the straps of her handbag. Her neck, above her lint-specked blue sweater, was rigid. She was nervous, Prema realized. It struck her that Emmett might have been right. She ran her mind back over the conversation she had just had. But had it really been a conversation? The woman had not said much. Had she been so eager to find someone from home that she had been gullible? Had the woman just shown up here after reading a book or a webpage on Sri Lanka?
“Tell me. Where did you live in Colombo exactly?” she said, keeping her eyes on the woman, who was fingering the string of small black beads looped around her throat.
“Colombo 7,” the woman said. Then she added, “The area called Cinnamon Gardens,” in a way that sounded again as if she were reciting from a history book or maybe a travelogue.
The woman had not touched her pie, Prema noticed. She put her own fork down. Here she had been rattling on, when the woman was probably not even from Sri Lanka. “What do you remember the most about Colombo?” she said, trying to keep her voice from sounding strident.
The woman stared down at her cup, which was standing in a small pool of tea that had spilled onto the saucer. “As you said, so many little things. These are things that are hard to put into words.”
Prema waited for her to say more. Minutes must have passed in silence. The woman only looked into her tea.
“Surely, you remember something,” Prema said.
The woman cleared her throat. “There were cannons on Galle Face green,” she said.
Prema remembered the old cannons clearly, left over from the days of the Dutch colonists, pointing out to sea. But those cannons had been pictured in the travel book that Emmett had ordered for the library. Out of all the things the woman could have remembered, why would she only mention something that was probably in every tourist book on Sri Lanka?
“I don’t think I can help you,” Prema said. She cleared the counter of the pie and the teapot. She took the woman’s half-full cup from the counter and placed it in the sink, not caring about her rudeness.
“Suddenly, this…” the woman said.
Prema did not look at her face. She gestured towards the door. “It’s getting late. I want to get some work done before my husband gets home from skiing.”
The woman got to her feet, holding her handbag to her chest. She followed Prema to the door. “You don’t believe me,” she said. “You are pushing me out because I can’t remember all the details of my childhood?”
Prema said nothing. She opened the door, letting in a blast of cold air.
The woman paused on the porch. “I can remember plenty of little things,” she said. “I remember the Cargills, in Fort. My parents bought two boxes of apples there one Christmas. There were six small apples to a box. It was the first time I ate apples.” She pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders. “But is my telling you that going to convince you that I am from Sri Lanka? Sometimes I myself am not sure where I am from. There or here.”
How well Prema remembered the Cargills store at Christmastime. How the bustle and noise of the street stopped suddenly when the store’s heavy doors closed. How chilly it had been in the air conditioned interior. How shiny the tins of English butter biscuits and the red cellophane-wrapped hampers of goodies had looked. She remembered apples there too, from when she had been very young, perhaps five or six. The apples had been small and pale pink, and so exotic that she had been afraid to touch them for fear of spoiling them. Now apples sat heaped in the fruit basket on the kitchen counter, a staple of her weekly grocery purchases. Their smell filled her house.
Prema joined the woman on the porch. The wind had risen, and eddies of snow were moving across the porch steps. “Look, I know what you mean,” she said.
The woman opened her handbag, sheltering it from the wind, and took out a sheaf of folded papers. “Here, if you want to see,” she said. “The report from the clinic. You can call the clinic if you want to verify his condition. I have given them permission.”
Prema took the papers, but she did not look at them. She looked at the woman’s shoulders hunched against the cold, and at her face, on which she saw the kind of fear and sadness she might see in anyone who needed help, whether they were from Colombo or Cathaway.
“Maybe you should wait until Emmett gets home.” She hesitated, unsure whether to wait outside with Janice or to invite her in again. But it would be too cold outside to wait. “Come in and sit,” she said. “When Emmett comes home, I will talk to him and see if we can spare some money for a loan. We had been planning a renovation project, but we might be able to postpone that for a little.”
She looked around at the porch, and at the familiar white expanse of the mountains ahead. Putting off the renovation would not be difficult. She was not sure she wanted it done anyway. Even glassed in and heated, the porch would always be between the inside and outside, she thought, never fully one or the other.