Ledo at night reminds me of a manic-depressive on the uphill swing. A diffused glow from flickering gas lamps lights the streets. Droves of women in brightly colored, intricately wrapped sarees blossom after dark, like night flowers. Bodies smelling of cumin and garlic spill out onto the street from stalls, selling fresh fish. Respectable men in their loose-fitting dhoti pants, followed by their wives with flowing dupatia veils, walk about, unrushed. Clusters of locals pause to chat while they wait for vendors to wrap their goods in newspaper. I walk among them, catching fleeting moments in their personal lives, not even noticed.
Transportable vegetable stands, covered with canvas tarps, hold shallow boxes of green and red chili peppers; mounds of translucent rice; and plump, purple eggplants of all sizes and shapes. A merchant in a palm-thatched hut sells goats that decorate his booth in layers of bloodied corpse: they’re sickening. My eyes significantly influence my stomach, so I decide to drink my dinner tonight. Within ten feet, they sell whiskey that tastes like rum. I buy some, then wander the bazaar for hours. Or is it minutes?
“Well, lookey who’s come out to play,” a southern drawl remarks. My gut twists the way a dish towel is rung dry.
“My man, looks like you’re hungry for something a little special tonight.”
I strain my eyes, adjusting to the shadows in the night, until I see Reginald’s toothy grin. “I know just where to find young, juicy meat to satisfy every aching part of a man’s body.” Reginald leers at a petite, childlike girl, the red dot on her forehead as riveting as her lustrous black eyes. She passes by, giving him a knowing smile. He arches his eyebrows, which ask me whether I’m interested. “They sure know what a man wants a girl to do.”
Alabama Earl and Lester have their arms around two young women—if they are old enough to be called that. They’re pretty, but I’ve never taken to a woman who paints herself to hide her real looks. “I’d like you to meet Deepa and Mira,” Earl says, always the gentleman in the group.
Lester, shy on words, beams, showing his satisfaction with the night’s conquests.
“We heard from Charles that you had a little run-in with our favorite bully tonight,” Reginald cuts in. “And I thought he had it in only for us.” He turns so only I can hear. “Today he got all chummy with Lester, then says, ‘Tell me what it’s like to fuck a bitch?’ And he wasn’t talking about no woman. That man is sick. Some day he’ll be in the wrong place at the right time, and not even God will be able to stop me.”
Behind us, Earl lets out a soft, appreciative whistle. “That boy is a magnet for a storm.” I follow his gaze.
A gaggle of clucking girls floats towards us like a cloud. In the middle, Charming Charles surrenders to their preening; each vying for him as though driven by a nesting instinct.
“Harry, what do you think?” he asks, spreading his arms wide to display his winnings.
One would have thought he’d want to share. But his eyes tell me to find my own party. “Impressive,” I say, without envy. “Catch you later after you’ve worn down your admirers.” Then I stick my hands in my pants pockets and wander into the thick of the crowd.
Spellbound, I watch the bickering of sellers and buyers the way one follows a political debate, back and forth. The smell of incense draws me towards a thin line of snaking smoke that dissolves without a trace into the night. Underfoot, blending into the ground, a woman sits cross- legged with a child cuddled tight in her arms. Her eyes beg as she reaches out to me with an upturned palm. I walk away, embarrassed.
All I can think about is when the night will be over. I see Bernie’s red crew cut bobbing above the others. In curt English, he barters with a Hindi speaker who sounds like a grieving parent unwilling to part with his only child. I push my way through the crowd just as Bernie takes possession of a Gurkha knife.
“Isn’t this a beauty?” Bernie asks. His eyes travel the length of the sickle-shape blade, swiping it through the air. A man with clenched fists hides his family behind him as he scolds Bernie in Indian dialect, most likely for almost decapitating his wife. Bernie wobbles but regains his balance, then, with the smell of undiluted alcohol on his breath, says “Jack off” just before he collapses to the ground.
I want to leave him there the entire night to sleep it off, but it would be inconsiderate to the others. With the same intensity of enthusiasm I’d have for cleaning out a latrine, I bend over to drag Bernie somewhere decent.
From above, someone offers, “I may not be able to give you a hand, but I do know a proper place for that young man.” Looking up, I see Reginald. Under the crook of one arm, he’s protecting the young girl with the red dot, and, possessively wrapped within his other arm, is an older woman, wearing experience in her face and body.
Reginald sees me studying the red dot, a third eye, on the girl’s forehead. The local brew leaves me squinting and refocusing on the young girl’s face, then moving down her body.
“Tell me these young little creatures don’t move a man,” he says.
A fuzzy memory of a night I hate to remember plants itself in my mind. I heard my ma screaming in their bedroom. We’d just gotten back from visiting the farm. My old man had stayed back to “look for work,” but I was afraid he’d drank what money he had, and knew what he could do to Ma in that condition. I wanted to go to bed, but knew Ma’d expect help. So I barged in on them—all three of them. I had never seen young, bare breasts before, but I knew what they did to men.
“Darling, she don’t mean nothing to me,” he pleaded with Ma, who went silent when I entered the room, tears streaking down her face. “You know there’s no woman for me but you,” he flattered her. “It’s just the drink and, and, sometimes I feel so lost.”
I grabbed his pants and shirt, stuffed them in his hands, then pulled him from the room and pushed him out the door. By the time I got back to the bedroom, the young girl had thrown on her clothes. “Get out!” I said, more calmly than I felt. “And tell him he’s never to come back, or I’ll kill him.” At the time, I was only ten years old. It was the height of the Depression, and the Dust Bowl took away the farm jobs we once had. I hated my old man for being a taker, but deep down I resented Ma equally for what she made me become.
“They move you into action,” I hear myself slur, and, with Bernie under one shoulder, I grasp his waist and drag him, half-walking, towards a side street.
We follow Reginald. At a plank-boarded building where loud, arguing soldiers are being calmed by soft-spoken men, we stop. A frail woman—or is it a man?—with bold, red lipstick and thick, fluttering eyelashes, leads us to a solitary cot in a back closet. When I turn around, only the young girl remains. There is something attractive, yet vulgar, about her.
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