By: Sowmya Sarikonda and Krishna Parbhakar
I was always poor. With every new day, the uncertainty of whether I would have a meal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner weighed heavily upon me yet it never really held me back. Be it the trek I had to do everyday till the Mississippi river to get clean and potable water or be it on my birthday, when my mother would prepare a special “cake” for me, by stacking together two-cent biscuits and how I would patiently wait for the biscuits to become soggy in water before blowing out the candles and making a wish. Then, to share the joy with my family, I would divide the eight biscuit layers stacked in two rows into equal portions for everyone. Every year, the cake remained the same and so did my wish. All I wanted was for my dad to have a good job that he loved and my mother to have enough money to cook whatever she wanted. My father was a compassionate man, who toiled day and night to earn a few cents that he could as a fisherman . He was tall with a top hat that made him look even taller. My mother had a slender physique with visible collarbones and protruding ribs that resembled thin sticks. Despite her frame, there was nobody as vibrant and bright as her. As for my younger sister, she was wise for her age. She made me the responsible person I am today. She ensured I tidied up my place, completed all my chores and woke up early enough to finish all of my unfinished work.
One day my mother was home, tending to my sister and I. Usually, she was at the deck helping my father catch fish or at the market selling them. But today was Easter, a day of celebration, and we spent it tidying up our modest one-room dwelling, which proved to be an effortless task. When my father came home, we were hoping to surprise him with a warm fish dinner. We usually had fish every night, but today mother made the meal extra warm with pepper on top. So we waited and waited. It was eight o’clock. Generally, my father came home by seven, but we decided to wait even though the fish was getting cold. It was nine, ten…. eleven. Still, my father did not return home. My mother told us to wait, as she went to the river to look for him. My sister and I waited. We watched the fish as it stared back with its cold eyes as if it was taunting us to eat it, but we kept our temptation in check. We would only eat when our mother and father returned.
My mother returned with my father and two other men by her side. Her hair was disheveled. She looked like she had aged a decade in just an hour. She was not my mother. My mother never cried, no matter what the situation was. She always had a smile on her face. That very moment, I knew what had happened. My father was dead. The day after that, a man in a white suit and a weirdly shaped necklace came. He told us that my father had died because of a heart attack. From that day onwards, I was committed to be like that man so that no one else had to lose their loved one like I did.
Despite being poor, my mother sent me to school. She once told me, “If we had money, I could have saved your father. Learn, go to college, and get a job. An actual job that pays you so much money, that you could even fool something as powerful as death once or twice.” She would wake me up at four in the morning to do the chores I hated. I would like to get to school as quickly as possible. But I knew my mother and sister couldn’t do everything on their own, so I woke up, even though I despised it, and helped them by doing my share of chores.
My teacher wasn’t very nice either. If our shorts got above our knees she would hit us with her two-inch-thick stick every day till our mothers stitch us new shorts. If we got a question wrong, she would make us dance in front of the class. If we did poorly on a test, she would invite us to scoop the poop of her donkey which constantly had diarrhea. Thankfully I never had to meet her donkey because I figured I have enough work at my own house to do, so I might as well study and do well in my exams. Even in the classroom, I was constantly vigilant about my behavior and would answer some questions so that I didn’t end up as a laughing stock in front of my class.I remember this one time during my first parent teacher meeting, my teacher called my mother to the school and complained about my misconduct. But I was on my best behavior during classes so as to not make my mother worry. As soon as my mother sat, my teacher went on about how I was very interruptive and would sometimes answer questions before she even finished reciting the whole chapter. Oh how my mother’s eyes lit up hearing my praise, even though it was more of a complaint.
Finally, many strenuous years later, I graduated high school. Like a cherry on top, I had exceptional grades. I was ready to go to college, but we didn’t have enough money. My mother worked overtime. Even my sister stopped going to school so that we could save money for my college fees. Still, we didn’t have enough money. Finally, two days before college admissions were about to end, my mother came home with more money than I had ever seen. But I noticed something was missing. Her wedding ring was gone. She had sold it! However, it was still not enough money for my college admission. But I still took the money, promising my mother that it was enough. Little did I know that it would be my worst mistake to leave my sanctuary and go to an urban jungle.
So, the next day I took a taxi to Chicago.I tried explaining to my mother that a taxi was too expensive, but she would have it no other way. She said that I deserved it and that there was no way I could go all the way to Chicago on foot. Before leaving, my mother pulled me to the side. She sounded like she used to when I was young. She told me when I return from college in a few years, my sister would have to get married. So I should study hard, become a great doctor, and earn a lot of money.
Time went so slow in the taxi that mere hours felt like a couple of days. It was one of the most luxurious things I had experienced. I had already sent letters to every college on the south side of Chicago, begging them to financially support my tuition. However, most of the colleges did not reply back to me and those which did only reverted back with a negative feedback. My last hope was to go to the admissions office and show them how much I needed this seat. When I finally set foot in Chicago, I started traversing from one college to another. Yet, all of them only saw me as a scrawny little boy. Not a scholar who was capable of making advances in the field. Not a student who could bring a name to their university. Not a kid with the money as well as the brains, who could be a blessing to their institute.
After the last rejection letter was thrown on my face, I went wandering around the streets of Chicago, looking for a shred of hope in the midst of those grim faces. As I went with the flow of the crowd, I stubbled right into a pub. I had never drank before but people said it was supposed to make you feel good, even at the worst of times. I chugged a beer like I was thirsty for it all my life. Even though I couldn’t see it right now, I felt like there was hope. I just had to find it. A bit in all of this chaos.
I left a tip for the barista and made my way outside. As I swayed back and forth, I tried to focus on anything that would get me money. Right then, in front of me was a man cutting apples with a knife. Unable to think clearly, there was just one thought in my mind- how all of his organs could get me a decent lump of money. But there was this lingering voice, an echo begging me not to take a step forward.Yet ignoring it all, I made my way to the man, as, even the slightest idea that I could have enough to go to college was tempting enough. With every step I took,my confidence grew. A part of me screamed that what I was thinking wasn’t fair. The man did not deserve it. ‘But what about me?’, the other side retorted,the one wanting to fulfill the little kid’s birthday wishes. “I deserve better than this! I have had enough. it’s my chance now.” he said.
With that, I walked to the man. And just like that, my fingers laced around the knife. As the man looked up, confused at what was happening,the knife came hurtling down. I knew I was doing something wrong. I wanted to stop time at that point or reverse it. I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t. It was too late. The knife had already cut through his neck like hot butter. After that, it all went blank.
Hours passed until I finally woke up, locked in a cell. The room was completely white. In front of me was a policeman, talking to someone. And then I saw her. My mother, with tears in her eyes. As her eyes met mine, I felt as if the walls were crumbling around me. She had nothing to say to me. After losing my father, I should have known what it felt like to lose someone. How could I forget how much life a cost? I had lost her trust. Even more than that, I had lost her. Tears streamed down my cheeks. What had I done? I was supposed to go to college, get a good job, and see my sister as a blushing bride. But I lost it all the moment I decided to pick up that knife.
Without looking at me, my mother said, “When your teacher told me you were quick to answer, I was proud that I taught my son the value of education, but now I must say that I don’t have a son anymore. He died when he picked up that knife. I have nothing more to say to you.”Now I am poorer than the poorest man. With no one to live nor any reason to live for, I lost all that I had and now nothing could ever give any of it back to me.