Are you with us?

When Jackson finally fell, he fell hard. In the middle of the train station, below the escalators and between the sliding door and marble pillars, Jackson tumbled onto the freshly mopped, shining stone floor. There was little to hold onto, his fingers clutching at the air as he counted the seconds to his unfortunate landing. He was in his sixties, his balance deteriorating alongside his eyesight.

He lay helpless as people walked through by the dozens into their afternoon lives. Finally, a young woman stopped and tried to help Jackson up before realizing he was bleeding. He curled up like a ball, the shock of his fall refusing to allow pain into the gash across his forehead.

“I’ve called an ambulance. They should be here soon.” the woman said to Jackson, who was clutching a tissue handed by a passerby across his forehead.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Jackson heard a man say.
“So sad,” A woman said as she walked by.
“Doesn’t look good. The guy looks quite old, too,” he heard another passerby mutter.

Jackson lay back down, covering his eyes and forehead with his arm. He was seeing little flashes of light and his ears closed to the sounds around him. He looked down at his blood covered hands before he crawled up into a ball again.

He awoke to a hand shaking him across the shoulder. A large crowd had gathered, and paramedics had arrived. A few young people were filming the incident on their phones.
“Looks like I’m a celebrity now,” Jackson said jokingly, the blood rushing to his head as he sat up.
“Hey, hey, are you with us?” a medic asked coldly. “What is your name?”
“Jackson Atherton,” Jackson replied without hesitation.
“How did you fall?” the medic asked.
“I don’t really know,” he replied. “I must have lost my balance.”
“We’re going to take you to the hospital to make sure it’s nothing serious,” the medic stated firmly.
“I don’t have insurance. I can’t afford ambulances. Women and ambulances,” Jackson said. The medics stared at him blankly. They whispered to each other with their backs turned when Jackson suddenly stood up, covered in blood and ready to leave. The crowd stepped back alarmed.
“You can’t leave. You have to come with us,” the medic said again.
“Who will pay for this?” Jackson asked. He thought of running away but he knew he wouldn’t get far in his condition.
“You’ll figure something out,” the medics took Jackson by the arm.

People applauded, and Jackson smiled as they walked away.
“Told you I’m a celebrity.”, he said to the medics.
“Maybe your new-found fame can help pay for your troubles,” the medics replied dryly before loading him into the ambulance.

Business as usual

He would appear every couple of days, wheeling his produce cart through our little alleyways. I would hear him shouting and from inside the house, I would run to the window to watch him work. The grandmothers, wives and maidservants would rush outside and purchase their usual quota of bananas, apples, and other necessities. It was easier to buy our fruits and vegetables from him than to visit the corner store, where fresh items were hard to come by.

He would bring vegetables on Tuesdays and fruits on Thursdays. When he didn’t show, sometimes for a few days at a time, he was scolded by the neighborhood women only for them to be reminded that he had to visit his hometown further off inside the country a few times each year. I always wanted to know where he went when he disappeared, where he was originally from, and what he would do on his vacations, but I never had the courage to do more than embarrassingly buy fruits and vegetables from his carts. He was a man of few words, focused on his sales, and I could not imagine hindering from our usual script.

As time wore on, so did his cart. He usually made little fixes and changes to the old wood but kept the cart covered, choosing to display his amenities instead. In the summer, he would bring ripe mangoes but often, he would have only a few left as he reached the back end of our neighborhood. During the monsoon, he would appear in a raincoat, gently lifting the plastic tarp to exhibit the seasonal delights. Sometimes, we tried our best to mimic his howling with the other kids, but we would just end up in tears of laughter within seconds. We could never truly attain the high pitch and accompanying authority required to stir the neighborhood.

By the beginning of the 21st century, there were big changes on the horizon. Supermarkets appeared, new high rises were constructed, and shops were revamped and retooled one after the other. Food was being delivered home, grocery stores were modernized to look like Anytown, USA, and marketing was fiercer and more competitive than ever.

He showed less and less over the weeks and months until eventually, he stopped showing up completely, as did most of the others who would deliver from door to door in our neighborhood. I asked around about what happened to the travelling salesmen, but usually got vague answers. Everyone just moved on. I imagined him rolling his cart back to his native village, where things had probably changed but not as dramatically, and working the small alleys of his hometown, shouting away his specialties into the early evening sky.

Chain Letters

When the fence went up around the outskirts of our village, I did not think much about it. It was not our personal property and had little to do with me. I still had my relatives and family, the ones who would protect me from the dangers of the outside world.

I would play with my friends, leaping and bounding through the thickened sand dunes dragging my fingers over the metal chain links. I was told not to touch the fence for fear that I would cut my finger across the protruding metal. It was an adventure to run across the sands. We even tried once to dig to the bottom of the fence but one of the adults from our village came over running and shouting.
“If you ever try that again, I’ll shoot you myself,” he thundered before turning us back to our homes.

When guards started patrolling the other side of the fence, we would always run over to the edges of our side, pointing in excitement. I made friends with one of them, who offered me pencils, smiles, and whatever he could wherever I saw him. I asked him once why he carried a gun.
“Have you killed any bad guys? I have one just like that,” I told him boldly, pointing at his gun and smiling, trying to show off. He didn’t smile back for the first time since I had met him. I forgot to tell him mine was plastic.

The links in the fence felt thicker as I grew older, less malleable to the touch of my fingers and more stubborn, more fixed than they seemed when I was a child. There were holes through the fence that were patched up with reinforced metals, and more warning placards as the years went on. Once the watch towers went up, we stopped visiting the outskirts of our village. It was unnecessary and unsafe. My parents scolded me when I told them I had a friend on the other side. I wasn’t allowed to go back to the fence until I was much older.

I recently visited the area. There were no guards on duty and the towers seemed all but abandoned. The holes in the chain links were not patched. I wanted to run back and call all of my old friends to tell them it was safe, that we could go back there, that there was no more danger. I looked down at my phone but I had no one to call who would share in my excitement. There were hardly any people left anymore in my village.

In between the rain drops

I wasn’t sure if she knew I existed or if she was sure that I didn’t. I would walk past everyday like clockwork. She happened to be on my route to work and appeared in a hundred fragments, every day more beautiful than the next. I was usually dressed the same, in my work clothes having achieved a false sense of purpose in my walk. My intents and ambitions had long faded and I wasn’t sure if there was any fire left within my dulled, tired eyes.

Still, I would walk and look over, embarrassed but mostly curious. Beauty had long surpassed my understanding. I stared without knowing, giving away what little I could hide from the world in those moments steeped in my slow march. She was a clear patch on a day where clouds were the norm. I thought I could appreciate her like wind blowing through on a warm day at the beach, just enough to let me know that there was a little hope yet to spark a small fire in my belly and bring back the beat to my slowly ticking but long-buried heart. All I ever had to do when I saw her was straighten my shoulders and come out of my slouch, just for a few seconds so I could stand tall and walk past absorbing the rays of beauty the day had to offer.

The Sun, Moon, and Stars

When I was a young boy, I made many friends from many different castes, backgrounds and religions. Truck drivers from the north would let me hop into the front seat and honk the loud horn. Shopkeepers from the west would give me treats and send me on my way. The other children, regardless of their backgrounds, would always attend my birthday parties and bring presents. I managed to convince everyone onto my side without doing much. There was, however, a workman who lived near our home who I could never befriend.

He strode as thin as a bean pole, usually with a sickle, or an axe, or shovel, and always wearing a brown uniform. He would cover his head with a rag to carry stones or buckets or other items on top of his head. I could never bear to look into his eyes for more than a couple of seconds. The first few times that I saw him walking down the small asphalt road, I just stared. He was lanky and strange.

One day, he caught me playing with a shovel left behind in the office workers shed. I quickly put it back where it belonged, but he laughed.
“So, you think you can dig a hole? How deep do you think you’ll get before you get tired?”, he asked. I didn’t know what to respond but foolish pride took over and I claimed I could dig to the other side of the earth.
“Show me,” he said.

Before long, I was tired, but I had dug a hole with the man watching. It was the same height as me and not very wide. When I looked up, he was standing over me. He kicked a little mud into the hole.
“Have you ever been buried alive?” he asked. His watery grey eyes peered into mine. I was frightened.
“No,” I said.
“I was, once.” he said. “Every time I tried to dig up the mud and throw it out, they threw twice as much in,” he said. He was still standing over me looking down. I couldn’t think of what to say. I wanted to get out.
“Wha…what did you do?” I managed to blurt out.
“I stopped fighting until they thought I was buried and gone. Then, I clawed my way out later,” he said, looking more frightening than ever. “I was about as old as you were.”
I scrambled my legs together, using the force of my hands to propel myself and jump out. I ran until I got home.
My last memory of him standing there is with a shining religious pendant dangling off his chest, just before I darted.
“You barely dug a few feet,” he had said, laughing as I ran.

I told a friend about the incident and he laughed.
“Man, don’t you know his story? He was beaten badly in the ’92 riots. They said he went crazy. I think he’s harmless. But I’d stay away from them if I was you.”
“Who is them?” I asked sincerely, and slightly worried.
My friend was a few years older. He put his arm around my shoulder.
“You have many friends,” he said, consoling me. “Don’t worry about that man.”


We spoke a language that was strange to them. When the words came out, very few understood what was being said. We liked it that way until there were few of us left, few of us who really understood what it meant to be what we were. Time heals all wounds, but the scars remain underneath your clothing, in places where no one can see, where there is little left to show what we once were.

Aside from a few phone calls and sporadic letters that arrived postmarked months prior to their actual arrival, as if needing to be quarantined to sterilize their contents, we stopped making contact. We never saw each other like we used to. I heard recently that some of our ancestors and our history made it into the mainstream media and we were even honored with our own museum exhibit. Most of us wanted to kept quiet but there was an uproar about our exploitation. We called each other under the guise of the controversy stemming from our backyards. It was really to hear words and sounds that never came across our televisions, words we never saw printed in the paper, that we rarely felt anywhere anymore but in our hearts.

What keeps us going

In the middle of the afternoon, on the winding route hugging the coast, he got a flat tire. The car broke down between his workplace and home. There was little Denis could do but wait for help. He had lost his spare tire a long time ago and his tool kit was sporadically filled with a few, but not enough tools. It was a second-hand car, bought and wrought through hours of low wage work. It was a miracle that it had lasted for as long as it did.

He decided to sit on the hood of his car, using what he had left of the minutes on his cell phone plan to call upon friends who might offer him a ride home. No one answered. He lit up a cigarette and watched the cars drive by one after another. Denis looked over the cliff out into the waters. The waves, the rustling of the trees along the coast, the sprinkles of water being carried up to the road by the wind kept him busy for a while.

Afternoon turned to evening and there was little sign of help. His hands had dried from the cold air shifting down the coast. He had little to rush home to but being broken down over the cliffs, uninvited, as if an intruder to the side of the road was not what Denis had planned. His cellphone blinked and ran out of battery just as the last of the sun had set over the calmed waters. He stepped out onto the emergency lane and began walking. There was no more point in waiting.


They told me to never go past the outposts that led into the hills. I was safe where I was and was to live there for the rest of my life. Our days were spent in fear of going past the mud trails and into the wild. We were like a valley, surrounded by our people, our songs, our stories, and our way of life. Our view of the horizon was simply covered by hills and the hours of sporadic sunshine that dropped in through the different times of the year.

Every so often, when people grew frustrated and an air of despair swept through like a poisonous gas, someone would talk of escape. They threatened to leave, to head out into the unknown but it never happened. We would listen and console them, but we knew there was nothing anyone could do. We lived our lives the only way we knew how, but always knowing the hills were watching through day and night. We knew there was something beyond them in the distant horizon but as we grew older, it terrified us less and less.


Alone in my toll booth, I saw many people pass through on the course of their lives. I saw cars, I saw trucks, and bikes but mostly, I saw people in a rush. In the mornings, they dropped their coins and bills into my hands in a hurry and drove past to work. I would have to hear the occasional complaint about long lines and traffic jams but after a while, I couldn’t get myself to care too much. I sometimes offered apologies but usually, I stared blankly until the drivers would grunt or growl and drive through.

I didn’t know where they were going but they were headed somewhere over into the western part of the state. I never saw the same face twice, even though many of the cars going through were identical. During the rush hours, the impatient faces would look down the packed rows in anticipation of getting through. I always felt as if they saw me as a sort of gatekeeper and extortionist getting in the way of their lives. I was the unnecessary outpost between their lattes and their work, their families and their nights, wherever they happened to go to in the city.

At night, I was usually alone, and the cars were fewer, speeding through the regulated toll lanes in a fury. I would serve the occasional car and hand over a receipt but most of the vehicles were fitted with access passes allowing for a faster crossing. Sometimes, tourists would ask for directions. I would help them if I could but I would usually refer them to the gas station a mile down the road. I always knew where they were going but sometimes, there just wasn’t enough time to get the message across. The cars behind were always in a hurry to get through to the other side.

What makes us happy

Nothing ever made Benny happy. It seemed that he had forgotten how to enjoy the little things and the big things always escaped him. He always stated a logical cause behind his misery and a well calculated reason for his dissatisfaction. He complained about petty details, usually nothing that was ever life threatening or seemingly of any consequence. It never bothered me much, but I wondered how he could waste his time on such trivial matters. I also never understood how there could be someone in the world so unnecessarily miserable until I met him.
He complained and whined so much that I asked him once “Benny, what makes you happy?”
He smiled.
“I’ve never really thought about it but I’m glad you asked,” he said. “Happiness itself would make me happy. That’s the obvious answer. I guess it’s a combination of chemicals and feelings and what not. Let’s not get into that. But I know it’s not at the bottom of a bottle and I won’t ever find it in a paycheck. I guess I don’t really know. I know what makes me unhappy. A lot of this makes me unhappy,” he said.
“A lot of what, Benny?”, I asked, confused.
He looked at me like I was stupid.
“I guess if I think about it, complaining. Complaining makes me happy,” he said, wondering if I would be satisfied with his answer.
I stood there confused. I didn’t want to ask him anything else after that.