The position was meant to be temporary, covering for the receptionist at a dental clinic while she visited family for four weeks. Though it was July, for my first day I selected a full-sleeved black turtleneck and nylon pants. Heat puffed up my neck and sweat slickened my chest as soon as I dressed, but I was seventeen then and didn’t own office clothes.
An unfamiliar shoe box was waiting for me outside the bathroom door. I removed the lid, littered the floor with tissue paper. Inside, a pair of black pumps, trimmed with eyelets. A gift from my parents for my first day. I slipped my feet inside. My heels pinched, my toes too.
The apartment was noisy with my mother’s kitchen sounds. Water shooting from the faucet, a bag crumpling and closing, the pot lid knocking into place. A shuffle from sink to fridge, the thud of a hard landing, an inexplicable sigh. Through the living room, past my unmade bed on the pull-out sofa, I presented myself, newly shod, at the kitchen entrance. My mother evaluated my clothing, ladle clutched in her right hand, with more care than I had given myself in the mirror. Two weeks before, when I showed her the admissions letter to New York University, she held it shyly with both hands. “And I didn’t even complete the tenth standard,” she said.
She returned the ladle to the pot on the stove. The bubbling liquid would eventually yield a creamy lentil stew, my favorite, for dinner after my first day at work. Her nightgown swayed at her ankles, blue with four-petaled white flowers. Twenty years later, she still has not replaced it, though the fabric is aged and translucent and moves over her bones like a dyed casing. “Remove the shoes,” she said. She held up three chili peppers, the color of dried blood. “Don’t move.”
I held my breath. She waved the peppers head to toe, casting around me a long necklace of spiced aroma. She threw the peppers into an open flame on the stove, and they released a hissing smoke, proof that any evil thoughts had been burned. I opened my mouth, and she sweetened my lips with jaggery.
“Papa?” I asked.
The door to my parents’ bedroom was ajar. My father lay shirtless on a mattress resting on a box spring, facing a window that overlooked the grounds. The building we lived in was one of thirty in the complex, each with forty units. Upon arrival, my mother and father had boasted to our Delhi relatives: “What haven’t we got! A basketball court, a tennis court, a park just for the children, and a swimming pool that anytime is ours to use!” In reality, the number of residents outnumbered the capacity of the grounds. Once, we had visited the pool, an experience so unpleasant—“Even Delhi traffic can’t compare!” my father declared—not even the temptation of a sweltering day drew us to return.
My mother crawled across the mattress on her knees. Her mouth hovered above my father’s ear, his hair curling tenderly under her breath. I cringed automatically.
“Smriti is leaving for work,” she whispered, nudging his shoulder. “Are you awake?” He wouldn’t be, of course. My father finished his night shift after the birds started singing, slept for four hours, then returned to the road for his day shift. He kept himself awake with coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and my mother’s parathas, stuffed with more green chilies than potatoes. “They remind a man he’s alive,” he said to her, too often and too loudly. A refrain I found tired, but my mother still blushed.
My father dragged himself out of the sheets as if he had been faking sleep for his own amusement. He stared in confusion until he saw how I was dressed and the shoes.
He planted thick hands on my shoulders, a grin plastered on his face. I shook a little under the weight. “Work hard,” he said. “And if you are lucky, have a good day.”
I hurried to the bus stop, wishing for the car. A year before, my father had replaced it with a utility van, so he could take on larger deliveries. He opened a new bank account for the extra money. He showed me the statements when they came in the mail. “That’s your education,” he said, stabbing the growing number with his index finger. “Your future.”
The bus rode down Oak Tree Road, past the throng of Indian stores and restaurants. Most of them hadn’t opened yet. The people who owned these places lived above the stores. The bus stopped before a beauty parlor; the shifting curtain in the window above revealed two women, one tidying the bed, the other ironing a shirt.
Fifteen minutes later, the bus arrived across from a stumpy building where the office was located. The door was locked. I waited in the shade of a tall hedge, sweltering at the neck. Many people passed, mostly women. I stared at each of them hopefully, and they stared back with empty faces. I didn’t know what the receptionist looked like or her name. I had never met her or Dr. Seth, the owner of the practice. He had hired me over the phone.
The receptionist appeared exactly three minutes before eight. By that time, sweat had seeped through my bra, droplets were rolling uncomfortably from my stomach to the waist of my pants, and the area around my throat was a wet sauna. I longed for a tall glass of cold water—or two or three. When the receptionist found me, wilting under the bush, she appeared unimpressed.
“I’m Pony,” she said. “Are you the replacement?”
I nodded, too eagerly. A thick bead of sweat dropped from my forehead to the ground. Pony removed a stuffed key chain from her purse, and I joined her at the door, anticipating a cold blast of air.
“My name’s not actually Pony.” She picked through the key chain, pulling back each key carefully. “I wore ponytails all through school, and the name stuck. Though look at me now.” She pointed at the bob swinging above her jaw. Her attention turned to my collar. “Trying to hide something?”
“I was your age once.”
I flushed when I understood. I pulled down my soggy collar and revealed unblemished skin. She looked disappointed and finally unlocked the door.
Pony flicked a light switch. I joined her behind the reception desk. The air was cool but not the icy blast I had hoped for. I shook out my sweater, blowing some breeze over my heated skin. I felt sweatier now than I had outside.
Pony dropped her purse below the desk, then turned on the small computer sitting in the corner. “You have a boyfriend?” she asked. Her eyebrows were thin, made of pencil, and they rose at the end of every question. I shook my head. “I had a boyfriend when I was your age. How old are you?”
“I remember what that was like.” The computer booted, and while Pony entered the password, I took in my surroundings. Two gray filing cabinets stood in the back, bearing a stack of empty folders, in red, yellow, and blue. A paper cutter and a label machine sat beside them. A telephone hung from the wall next to the reception window, and an appointment book was open to this week’s schedule. The names were written in small print in pencil, with phone numbers underneath, and there was an appointment every half hour. D’Souza, Kalanathy, Singh, Singh, Warren, Patel, Sinha, Patel, Vargas... Most of the names had tick marks beside them. A couple had asterisks. The first appointment was in half an hour.
“I’ve already pulled the folders for today’s patients.” Pony pointed to the stack beside the appointment book. “They are in the correct order, but that will change as the day goes. First come, first serve. I think we have a new patient too...”
The phone rang. “BS Dental Care,” she said, rolling her eyes. My father had mentioned Dr. Seth’s first name—Bhavyam or Bhavyansh or Bhavin—that’s right, Bhavin. “Pamela speaking. How may I help you?” Her eyes locked on mine. “She’s here, perfectly on time.” I lowered my eyes. “That’s my plan. I’ve got it covered. See you soon.”
“That was the boss,” Pony said, hanging up.
“What time does he come in?”
“Usually at ten.”
“Oh.” I checked the appointment book again. “But the first patient...”
“A cleaning. The hygienist will take care of it. And there’s other doctors who help part-time. His wife’s a dentist, too, did you know that? Worked here for six months, then she got knocked up and stopped coming in. Can you imagine?”
“Want to see the rest of this place?”
A wall separated the reception from the dental work area. Three dull turquoise chairs formed a line across one long room, separated by dividers, and at the end, shoved into a corner, was a small X-ray machine. Pony didn’t know the names of any of the instruments, but she knew that Chair Number Three was preferred for longer operations, Chair Number One for younger patients, and Chair Number Two for cleanings. A door next to Chair Number One led to an office, a long room with Dr. Seth’s desk and files on one end, and by the door, a small table for breaks and meals.
That day, I learned as much about Pony as I did about covering the front desk. She had three kids, two boys and a girl, and she was leaving for four weeks to meet her boyfriend’s family in Phoenix. “Fingers crossed,” she said, wiggling her ring finger. Her boyfriend was a plumber named Eric. She said he was the only half-decent man she’d ever known.
For the first part of the day, she gave me the filing to do and the appointment reminders and had me practice using the label machine, which was finicky and liked to skip letters. But when I was done with that, she wouldn’t show me how to do the claim forms or answer any questions about the insurance companies or anything more complicated than a head-scratch. I didn’t figure out why until I remembered the hints Dr. Seth had dropped during the interview, about keeping me around for more shifts in the future. “I’m going to school after,” I assured her. “I won’t even be in New Jersey. I’m just trying to save some money.”
“You’re a doll,” Pony said, embarrassed and pleased. “I have three kids. You know how it is.” I didn’t, but she didn’t care about that.
At lunch we ate burgers at the McDonald’s across the street and then visited the urologist’s office next door. She told me the plan as we were walking over. While she distracted the receptionist, I pocketed some pens and a deck of Post-it notes. Then we visited the pediatrician’s office, where I met Dr. Govind and his lollipops. While he gave me a tour, Pony swiped a few folders and notepads. I was surprised that stealing was so easy.
We surveyed our loot back at the office. She must have noticed the look on my face. “Don’t get on your high horse. You haven’t tried getting Dr. Seth to order us some pens.”
The day started at eight and ended at seven. After the dentists and patients left, Pony organized the magazines in the waiting area into stacks and set the chairs tight against the wall. She said that cleaning up at the end of a day was like putting down a period at the end of a sentence. A burly man three times her size—Eric, I supposed—knocked on the door. After Pony left, I put away the pens and receipts and patient files and at the last minute I decided to return to the front desk and calculate how much money I would be making at this job and if it was worth the trouble.
I stared at the small number, though I had already decided the number didn’t matter. I thought, these days, only of New York, though any city would have satisfied. The train from Iselin to Penn Station was an hour, but Iselin had not benefited from the proximity. Here, every shop, restaurant, and house had the ragged, worn look of those who worked too hard for too little and knew only how to get by. The look of my parents, though I felt guilty thinking it. The most interesting ten dollars I could spend in Iselin was over dosas at Udupi Palace, whose owners my parents sometimes invited home for chai and biscuits. New York City sidewalks were older and dirtier and more broken than the sidewalks of Iselin because so many people had taken a chance on New York sidewalks. There was no taking chances in Iselin because there was nothing to take a chance on.
The front door jarred open, and I positioned the pen like a knife. But it was only a cleaning lady. A heavy-set, elderly woman who looked too gray to be pulling a bucket of water. “I’m sorry,” I said, standing.
“You okay. Sit.” Ignoring me, she continued toward the patient area. Her knees shook as she dipped the mop under the chairs. Feeling too much like I was eavesdropping, I entered Dr. Seth’s office to gather my things. But then I thought it might be rude to leave so soon after her arrival.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked.
“No, I am working,” she said.
I didn’t want tea but made the tea because I had said I would, and a few minutes later, she joined me in the break room with a vacuum. She stopped me from throwing out the tea bag. “Can be used again,” she said. “I will drink, not now, later.” I wrapped it up in a paper towel and she slipped the tea bag inside a pocket.
“You go home. Too late for a pretty girl.”
“Thank you.” I picked up my purse. “See you tomorrow.” She throttled the vacuum and jabbed her finger at the carpet. “I do my job properly, you don’t see me.”
I wanted to work at Wegman’s or Shop-Rite or even the Dairy Queen, the places where my friends worked, most of them since the start of high school. But my father never gave permission, not even for the money. He refused to let me work anywhere that wasn’t behind a desk. My friends could afford to work at such places because their parents worked behind a desk, he said.
But my father had the wrong idea about BS Dental Care, and he had never met Dr. Seth. A short, balding man born without a chin, as if God knew that the man he grew up to be would be so dull and insignificant he’d have no need of one. He wore the same thing every day: pleated dress pants and an off-white button-up that he then covered up with a blue-green smock. The hygienists and I joked that Dr. Seth could be the keynote speaker at a conference about the uselessness of optimists. I hadn’t met his wife—the hygienists called her Mrs. Dr. Seth—but she was the reason his phone rang a minimum of eight times a day. Most of the time he picked up, but when he couldn’t, she called the front desk, and I had to explain to her the exact procedure he was in the middle of before she would let me go.
Every morning at eight-fifteen, Dr. Seth called the dental office from home, claiming he would arrive at ten, but he showed up fifteen to thirty minutes late, hurrying through the door in small, quick steps like there was a short rope tied between his ankles. After a week and a half, it became clear his tardiness was due to his wife’s concern over his son’s nonexistent illnesses. He cycled through patient after patient and ate his lunch standing at his office door because he booked patients every half hour, a policy he refused to change.
He didn’t care about the problems this caused. Pony never taught me how to deal with patients whose appointments were an hour late or how to tell a patient that the doctor wouldn’t be able to see them at all, and we would have to reschedule for a different day, when their appointment would likely be late again. She never warned me about a patient barging in through the reception door and planting himself in a chair, refusing to leave until Dr. Seth had pulled out the tooth rotting through his gums.
Dr. Seth said the practice couldn’t afford to turn patients away. After a week of pulling patient files, I discovered why. Folder after folder revealed notices of overdue payments—from a year before, two years before. And still, the doctor continued to see these patients.
When it was time for me to receive my first paycheck, Dr. Seth passed me an envelope stuffed with cash. There was no pay stub, no summary of deductions, only roughed-up twenty-dollar bills. I didn’t care about the money the government lost. I had the evidence I needed to make the case to leave BS Dental and start applying for jobs elsewhere.
I had to wait days before I caught my father between shifts and presented the bills. He picked through the twenties one by one, as if they might carry a clue. He removed a twenty, which he handed to me, and closed the envelope, setting it aside to be deposited. “He must have his reasons,” my father said.
“A lot of the patients pay cash, hundreds of dollars he pockets right in front of us, and he is always charging different rates for the same service. And some of the patients pay nothing at all. Something’s not right.” I described to him how few supplies the office had, how Pony cut corners, not mentioning my role.
My father lumbered to the kitchen. He had just returned from a night shift, and I made nothing of his slow movements, his limbs heavy from want of sleep. “Savita Auntie says he’s a good man,” he said. Savita Auntie lived in our building, a patient of Dr. Seth’s. She was the one who had told my father the position was available. “He’s Indian,” she had said, by way of recommendation. “Not many dentists who are Indian around here.”
“He’s nice.” Though I wasn’t sure. “That’s not what I mean.”
My father downed a glass of water, then another. He left the glass in the sink and wiped his hands on the washcloth. “Always finish what you start, Smriti.”
One day, Dr. Seth called me into his office. He was sitting behind his desk, a rare occurrence. His hands were folded in front of his cell phone, silent for once, as if he were about to pray. He asked me to find him a magazine file, or he asked his cell phone, since he refused to meet my gaze. “We don’t have one,” I said.
“Look properly,” he said, in a sharp tone that didn’t suit him. It gave him an air of deeper awareness that did not sit well with the bumbling, tardy, inefficient, useless man I supposed him to be. I searched the front desk, in the drawers and under the desk, and then the supply closet, which contained more dental supplies than office supplies. Why did he want a magazine file? He never used his office.
“I checked everywhere,” I told him, crossing my arms. “We don’t have any.”
“Fine,” he snapped, so loudly the patients could hear. “I’ll do your job when I am done with mine.” He left his phone and stormed to Chair Number Three. The patients in the waiting area glowered in my direction. All of them were annoyed at me, even though it was Dr. Seth who had arrived an hour late. Shaking, I stared at the appointment book, all the patients whose appointments I had to cancel because Dr. Seth had told me this morning he wouldn’t come in on Thursday because of “family appointments.”
The very handsome husband of a patient walked to the window. It was unfair, I decided, to be berated by good-looking people. I didn’t give him a chance to speak. “I know you’ve been waiting a while, but I can’t make things go any faster. One of our doctors canceled”—a lie—“and we are behind schedule.”
He smiled, revealing perfect teeth, his stubble more attractive in comparison. “That’s okay. I am wondering, do you have an empty box? A small one?”
“Yes.” In my confusion, it sounded more like a question. I found a box in the storage room and brought it to him.
“And a blade?” I remembered the patient who had forced his way to Chair Number One. But if this man was going to put the knife to anyone’s throat, it should be the doctor’s, so I gave him the blade we used for opening packages.
The man returned to his chair with blade and box. He set the box on his lap and began carving. I checked his wife’s file: Sunali Takkar. She was in for a root canal. The man returned to the front, holding what resembled an upright magazine file, except it was made from cardboard. “My kid likes to draw on them,” he said. “Just keep the box taped, and it’ll last.”
I turned the box over and over, trying to understand it. It was the kind of thing my father would do—use a screwdriver to open up a machine, any machine, when it stopped working, and then use his wits to get it started again. The kind of thing he would do, anyway, before he started working twenty-hour days. I placed it under the desk, where it wouldn’t be damaged.
The Takkars were the last to leave, and because of the husband’s earlier help, I paid more attention to the couple’s conversation with Dr. Seth.
“Two more appointments,” Dr. Seth said to me. “One week apart.”
“And then we’ll be done?” Takkar said. His wife waited beside him, one cheek swollen.
“After the last session we’ll know.” Dr. Seth moved to leave, but Takkar stepped in his way.
“How much, total?”
“Comes to...” Dr. Seth rubbed his forehead, like a magician in the middle of a trick. “Five hundred.”
Takkar’s handsome forehead crumpled. Dr. Seth looked away, nodding to the beat of some ridiculous song. “No, not five hundred. I am getting it mixed up. Three hundred. And we accept in installments. You have a baby coming?”
Takkar’s wife bowed her head, embarrassed. “A baby boy.”
“How old is your other one?”
“Two. Walking on his own now. He can say a few words too.”
“Very good. I have a three-year-old.” Dr. Seth rapped the counter. “Two more appointments, and you are set. Smriti, set up their installments. Fifty today?” Takkar nodded. “Good.”
After they left, I brought Dr. Seth the cash and showed him the magazine file Takkar had crafted. “Smart man,” he said, setting it aside. He had already forgotten what he needed it for.
At the start of the third week at the dental office, I woke up to find my father curled in his bed in the shape of a claw opening reluctantly, murmuring in sleep about his deliveries. The room smelled of soiled clothing and the sweat of a cornered animal. When he coughed, brown phlegm dribbled from the corners of his mouth. Between our schedules, I hadn’t seen him for a few days. “He was saying he is feeling down,” my mother said. Her hands fluttered. “But just a cold.”
I called the warehouse manager to tell him my father was going to miss his next shift.
“Will he be back tomorrow?” Rafael was shouting, his voice drowned by trucks and machinery. I carried the phone to my parents’ bedroom. My mother was now rubbing mustard oil on my father’s back, on his arms, the rounds of her hand the same rounds she made when she fell to her knees on the kitchen floor and scrubbed out dirt with a cloth and bucket. My father didn’t wake up once.
“I don’t know.”
Rafael was quiet. “Okay, he’s off today and tomorrow. But tell him I can’t hold his routes past Friday.”
Before leaving for work, I wiped the sweat off my father’s brow, then kissed his forehead. “Feel better,” I whispered, confident he would.
That day, I had a new plan for dealing with Dr. Seth. When he arrived, late of course, I greeted him with a “Good morning” and asked if I could make him coffee. It was easier than grunting about the four waiting patients. As for the patients, I spoke to them as if the delays and inefficiencies were part of the plan and to be expected. They were not annoyed. They had come prepared with newspapers and magazines and books. The mothers brought homework, worksheets, and textbooks, to be completed by their children in the waiting room. A woman with a toddler asked if I had any crayons, and I handed her a pencil, along with paper for the child to draw on.
The day passed quickly and in a rush. I had no reason to worry about my father; my mother was with him. Around six o’clock, she called. “Smriti?”
“How are you?” I spoke cheerfully, using the same high tone I had with the patients. “How’s Papa?”
“The doctors are taking him away,” she said, “and they won’t say anything. I am saying to them he is fine, but they are not understanding me...” A patient knocked on the reception window. I threw up an index finger, then closed the window.
“Where are you?” I asked, my voice dropping. She didn’t hear me because she couldn’t stop speaking. Dr. Seth appeared. I pointed at the phone.
She was rambling, something about his heartbeat, a local clinic, and paramedics. “They are asking questions, and I don’t know what they are meaning.” She was crying now.
“Are you in an ambulance? Where are you?” The chair beside me shifted, and Dr. Seth’s familiar blue-green smock appeared in the periphery.
“No, no, I am at the hospital, I have been here one hour already. Now they are taking him away, they are saying ICU, ICU. I don’t know what they are saying, they are wanting to know about medication, I am saying to them he is not taking any medication, he doesn’t have even a fever, but they are not understanding.”
The more frantic she became, the calmer I felt. There were leagues between each word I spoke. “Which hospital?” After a few tries, I finally learned the name.
I returned the phone and turned to Dr. Seth. He was leaning back, his hands steepled on his head. “It’s my father.”
“You need to go?”
“I have to.” I glanced at the waiting room, crowded with patients.
He returned to the other side of the counter. “Then you must,” he said, without meeting my eyes.
Ten minutes later, I was in a taxi, on my way to John F. Kennedy Medical Center.
The hospital parking lot was deserted, though it was full of cars, and I passed no one in the hallways. You’d think the cars had arrived on their own.
I found my mother in the waiting area outside the doors to the ICU. She was in the tunic she reserved strictly for house wear, clutching her purse. When she heard me call, she rose. “They gave me these papers.” She held out a sheaf of forms.
“What did the doctor say?”
She shook her head. “I said to wait for you.”
To enter the ICU, we had to pick up a phone and explain why we were here. A beep sounded and the doors swung open. The nurse’s station was in front of the doors, and a nurse named Jill was in charge of our father. She wanted to know “the patient’s medical history.” I translated her questions to my mother, and I translated my mother’s answers back. “How is he?” I asked. “What’s the doctor saying?”
“The doctor is with your father. They are still working to stabilize him. We were waiting on his medical history. I’ll get this to her.”
“About this insurance form.”
“Just fill it out and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“Is there a separate form if we don’t have insurance?”
“Is that it then?” The nurse tapped a pen against her lips. “Is that why you didn’t bring him in?”
“The clinic your mother called. They told her to call the hospital. Why didn’t she just bring him in?”
“We didn’t know how sick he was. He didn’t even have a fever. The doctor didn’t say... what’s wrong with him? Is he going to be here long?”
“His lungs are full of fluid and his organs are in shock. So yeah, he’s going to be here a while. Now it’s a waiting game, for the lab results to come in and tell us exactly what’s going on. We’ll call you when the doctor’s in.”
Around eleven, I woke to Jill shaking my shoulder gently. She told us the doctor had inserted a tube in my father’s throat and hooked him up to an oxygen machine to help him breathe. The tube was emptying his lungs, but we were allowed to visit.
Dark-green fluid was percolating out of him in pearl-sized drops. His whole body was blanched, pasty like wet flour. Already, a spray of black and white hairs was spreading across his cheeks. A sedative dripped into his arm, keeping him asleep, and I wondered if he was dreaming under his twitching eyelids.
I found two styrofoam cups and filled them with cold water. I passed one to my mother. Tears rolled unevenly into her glass as she drank.
My mother and I took a taxi back to the apartment complex, to sleep and collect fresh clothes. There were no streetlights to guide the way, only the beams of the cab and some faintly glowing signs in shop windows. The buildings in the apartment complex jumbled together, indistinguishable. The taxi circled a few times before we finally found the one we lived in.
Upstairs, I scrubbed my face with water and soap. My skin was pink when I was done. My mother hadn’t moved. She was still seated on the edge of the sofa, holding her head like it was a heavy weight. “I am not going to work tomorrow,” I said.
She rapped her head against her hands. “He didn’t say a word. Should I have—but I didn’t know, I swear, I didn’t know.” She clenched her stomach. The sounds coming from her frightened me. All I wanted to do was cower or run. “Smriti, say something. Is it? Is it my fault?”
I answered too quickly. “I don’t—I don’t know, maybe. How would I know?”
The night ticked forward, and my mother didn’t remove her face from her hands. I should have walked toward her, sat beside her, held her, but I kept my feet fastened to the floor. There was a part of me that didn’t want to take back what I had said, a part of me that was greedy and ashamed.
She combed her fingers through her hair. “What would your father say?”
“You skipping work, making excuses.”
“This is different. The doctors might—”
“It’s no different. We will carry on.” My mother was not stern by nature. On her, hardness was a costume, a comedy act.
“But what if you need my help?” She jerked up from the sofa.
“I am not a child,” she said. “I am the mother, not you.”
The next morning, my head pulsed from lack of sleep when I opened the practice. A gauze had slipped in between me and the rest of the world. I called Rafael as soon as I entered, before the first patient arrived.
“Sorry about your dad, miss, but I can’t hold his routes. If I could I would, I’m telling you. Say what, have him call when he’s better. I’ll get him something.” He didn’t say good-bye before hanging up, just “sorry” once, then a beat later, “sorry” again. My father had said Rafael was a good man.
Dr. Seth arrived fifteen minutes late, rushing in small steps toward his office to don his smock. “All right?” he called, like he was asking about my bus ride.
“Yes,” I muttered after a while. He turned away. It was too late to say anything else. I called in the first patient and directed her to Chair Number Two. The day passed in a fog, all the faces I encountered blurring, all the conversations I had like I wasn’t making them, like I was someone else. At seven, after Dr. Seth left, I collected my things, not bothering to clean up, no time for Pony’s satisfaction of placing periods at the ends of sentences, and I called a taxi to take me to the hospital, to doze while my father breathed wheezily from a tube, startling awake every few minutes when the machines monitoring him beeped to life.
It took three days for the lab results to come in. The doctor said my father had developed bacterial pneumonia, a severe case. “He should have come in as soon as the symptoms began,” she said. “He’s lucky he got here when he did.” She said his body had tried to fight the illness but became “septic.” That confused me, conjured images of sewers, of my father’s body poisoned by putrefaction. I thought of the rot the tubes were pulling out of his lungs and gagged.
“What does it mean?” my mother asked me. “He is okay?”
“The doctor said she knows now what medicine to treat him with.”
“That is good? He will get better?”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure. The doctor had given no such assurances. She had been careful to say they had identified the bacteria and knew how to treat it, but she had made no promises about his recovery or the quality of his condition. When I got home, I looked up septic shock. It had nothing to do with sewers, just toxins that shut down organs, blocked the passage of oxygen to the brain. If not caught quickly enough, dire.
The hospital cafeteria overlooked the parking lot. We had formed a habit of eating our dinners in a corner, where I watched the setting sun glare off the hoods of cars, while my mother prayed. She and I had both abandoned our bowls of soup.
Upstairs, the nurses were emptying my father’s throat. I tried not to think about it, but that only made me think about it more. The long tube scratching the walls of his chest, his esophagus and his throat raw as the nurses yanked it out.
An hour later, we rode the elevator back to the fourth floor, to the ICU. The room was curtained. A woman in a glittery blouse was standing outside.
“Are you Mr. Kumar’s family?” We nodded. “I am the social worker. Could we talk?”
The woman introduced herself as Stefanie Timmins. She directed everything she said to my mother, and my mother leaned in, as if getting closer would help her understand. “I need to discuss next steps. The doctors have just told me Mr. Kumar is no longer intubated—”
“How is he?” I asked. “Is he awake?”
“You haven’t seen him yet?”
“We were just about to—”
“This will just take a few minutes. Before we release Mr. Kumar, we need to know his aftercare situation.”
“What do you mean? We are his family. We are going to take care of him.”
Ms. Timmins nodded. “He was in your care when he was admitted?”
“Me and my mother.”
Ms. Timmins flicked a glance at my mother. “Does your mother speak English?”
“I am going to need you to translate to her what I am saying.”
“I have been translating.”
She raised up her hands. “I understand this is very stressful. I have a son your age, and this can’t be easy on you. I am just trying to help.” She rustled her papers. “He is coming off the sedatives now, and we’ll have the PT come in tomorrow morning to do an evaluation.”
“Why does he need a physiotherapist?”
Ms. Timmins cleared her throat. “Your father has been in a hospital bed for over a week. He is going to need rehabilitation to return to full health.”
“But he’ll return to full health?”
“The hospital will provide the best possible care. We have some questions about the living situation. Do you live in a house?”
“Is there an elevator?”
“That’s going to be a problem. In his condition, he may not be able to handle stairs for some time. We may recommend him for inpatient care in that case...”
My mother shook my arm. “What is it? What is she saying?”
“Just wait,” I told her. “What does inpatient care mean?”
“He’ll have to be admitted to a clinic to work with a skilled nurse.”
“He can’t come home?”
“It’s not that we aren’t letting him come home, Miss Kumar. Your home isn’t accessible.”
“But if we had an elevator, you’d let him come home.”
“Yes, and also a home that is accessible, wheelchair-friendly.”
“What do you mean? Is he going to be in a wheelchair?”
“Possibly. Temporarily. There’s no way to know how long. This all depends on his recovery. My job is to make sure you are prepared for all possibilities. I am here to help with the patient’s transition back to normal life.”
Ms. Timmins breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s right.”
After Ms. Timmins left, my mother and I returned to the hospital room. My father’s oxygen mask was gone, replaced by two small tubes below his nostrils, whistling whenever he exhaled. One of the machines behind the bed was missing.
We stood on either side of him. His eyes were closed, but he shifted restlessly, his body awake to the dry, cool air of the hospital, the uncomfortable smell of things that were scrubbed too clean.
My mother rested her hand on his. His fingers curled, about to close around hers, but they stalled halfway, stuck in a half-curled position. He opened his eyes. They blinked heavily at nothing, then closed again.
On my last day at BS Dental Care, after the final patient left, I wrote a short report for Pony, longhand on a yellow notepad. I told her about the major insurance claims we were waiting on, the papers a patient hadn’t brought in, the installment plans that required follow-up. When I finished, I visited the restroom. The red dot on the phone was blinking when I returned. I checked the voice mail.
“Hello, Smriti, this is Pony. My flight for tomorrow was canceled! Can you believe it? These fuckers. And they won’t get us on another one until the next day, maybe longer. What do they care about real people’s lives? I’m going to be a day late, maybe even two. You can cover me, right? Let Dr. Seth know for me. You’re a doll!”
I returned the phone slowly, the idea forming in my mind, circling around the first bill from the physiotherapist. My heart thudded when I heard my name.
I entered Dr. Seth’s office. “Did you call me, Dr. Seth?”
I thought he would ask me about the phone call, who it was. But he just handed me my envelope, satisfyingly bulky. I held it, my heart slowing. It was a voice mail, and he would never know.
“Dr. Seth, I wanted to say, if you still need me to cover the front desk, if Pony can’t do it...”
“What do you mean?”
“Uh, you said, about wanting me to work shifts in the future.”
“I remember. But you told me you couldn’t.”
I flexed the envelope, picturing the bills rippling inside. I thought of Pony and her three kids. “I am available, any day you want.”
He squinted through his glasses. “What about New York?”
“I’ve decided to wait a year or two. Get a bit more experience first.” Replenish the bank account. Start over.
Dr. Seth nodded, slowly. “That’s good news for me. I’ll call you when we need you.”
“Thanks, Dr. Seth.” I returned to the front desk. My breath stalled as I rechecked the voice mail. I made myself listen to the message. I couldn’t go through with it if I didn’t listen to it all the way to the end. Then I pressed “7” to delete.
The following morning, I lay in bed, dressed for work. I closed my eyes when the phone rang at eight forty-five. My mother picked it up, her voice echoing toward me. She appeared at the door. She was dressed for outside, preparing for a visit to the inpatient clinic, to my father. “It’s Dr. Seth,” she said. “He wants to know if you can work today.”
I took the phone and listened to him explain. “No one’s picking up at the practice. I’ve tried calling for half an hour now.”
“Pony’s not there?”
“She isn’t. Maybe she decided to stay in Arizona. You’d think she’d have the decency to... we’ve got patients waiting.”
“She and Eric were really close,” I said.
He paused. “She was a good receptionist, but a bit too friendly, I always felt.”
Oh, Pony. “I don’t... I don’t know about that, Dr. Seth. I better leave, though, if I want to get there on time.”
My mother was watching from the kitchen. “You’ve got work today?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Maybe for longer, too.”
“That’s good. That will help.”
The only permanent member of BS Dental Care was Dr. Seth. Everyone else was temporary, even the patients, who, as soon as they acquired steady incomes and jobs with insurance, upgraded to dentists in townships with names like Freehold. BS Dental Care was a terminal, and as its secretary, I met many people searching for an exit at my reception window.
People like Indu and Priya, hygienists and sisters who had agreed as teenagers that dentistry was the most secure form of living. Once they saved enough, they planned to start a joint practice specializing in orthodontics. Indu was the taller of the two at six feet, and the one who planned to become the orthodontist. Priya, two inches shorter, though she was older, wanted to remain a hygienist and handle the finances. They had thick, tree-like bodies. They should have been models. Their favorite actress was Tabu, one of the tallest actresses in Bollywood. When there was the rare lull between patients, they would come by the reception area and sing me her most famous song in twin voices.
“Mujhe rang de… Mujhe rang de… rang de… rang de…”
Two years I knew them. They had such plans. Then they married within six months of each other, left the practice, and I never heard from them again.
Or Sanjay, who was a bachelor and had completed two degrees in Delhi before moving to New Jersey in his middle age. Because his degree in dentistry was not valid in this country, he was doing a third, but Dr. Seth gave him patients anyway, in exchange for a higher chair fee. His mother, a stooped, widowed woman who walked like a pigeon, rode the bus for an hour to bring him lunch. They retreated into the break room and closed the door, which no one else did. One day, through a crack of the door, I saw her opening the clips of the tiffin and pulling out bowls of dahl, raita, and pickle. She broke off pieces of bread and dipped them in the dahl and then fed him each piece. He held her hand, before taking a bite, as if he might swallow her fingers by mistake.
And Pony. I heard that she and Eric married and moved to Phoenix. That’s what I prefer to believe. When she returned that morning, explaining tearfully the message she had left, the years she had worked here, the income she so desperately couldn’t afford to lose, Dr. Seth must have had some inkling. I was too young then to know how to hide what I didn’t want the world to know. Something of my guilt must have shown on my face, drawn out like worms after a rainfall, because I saw its recognition so clearly reflected in Pony’s face before she slammed the office door. And yet Dr. Seth never said a word. He kept me on, until I left him too.