At the end of the day yesterday, as we were eating dinner at the only open restaurant in Elk River (an old logging town turned hunter’s vacation paradise), my seven-year-old son, Ranjan, said, “This was the best Sunday I’ve ever had in my entire life.”
We had decided on a whim to go see Elk Creek Falls. I came home around noon from taking the kids to Sunday school. Ranjan attended Jewish Sunday school, and I took the three-year-old, Samir, to a little Hindu “baby chanting” class while we waited for Ranjan to be done. Who would have thought we’d find both a Jewish community and a Hindu community here in this little college town in northern Idaho? I tried not to think about the fact that we might soon have to move away.
I’d brought home Ranjan’s Sunday-school friend, Elliot, for the afternoon. My husband, David, was sweeping out the garage, so we left the car in the driveway and got out. It was a sunny, breezy day, and the yard was dappled with yellow aspen leaves. With the yellow leaves still on the trees, it looked like the whole place was suffused with sun. I remembered this from last year, soon after we’d moved into this house—the beautiful aspen leaves in the yard, making fall so golden. The air was fresh, too. The field-burning, which made everything smell hot and smoky, must be finished.
“I think we’re going to be OK,” David said. He’d spent the morning paying bills. We were on the edge with our finances because David’s job had been downgraded to part-time, although he still spent all day at the office, trying to wrestle things into shape. Since then I had been looking for work but had yet to land a job. “I know things will be turning around with me really soon,” he said, dragging the recycling boxes away from the wall and sweeping behind them. He shoved the boxes back and moved on to sweep between the kids’ wheeled toys.
I stood in the driveway. I was reluctant to leave the sunshine to step into the dark garage. I hated being up in the air like this, not knowing what was going to happen with our finances or our lives. My dad always said, “These Americans love to take risks.” I resented his stereotype. Dad acted as though he’d just come over from India recently, as though he hadn’t been living in Ohio for almost 40 years, as though he didn’t finally become an American citizen himself ten years ago. Still, Dad was right in the sense that David took a big risk in leaving his tenure-track job in D.C. to take the helm of a new regional economic development organization out here. I had been nervous about David’s decision. I was more like my dad in the sense of being risk-averse. But I’d also wanted to get out of D.C. Unfortunately, shortly after we’d arrived the economy tanked, much of the funding for the organization dried up, and if David couldn’t raise more money he’d be out of a job entirely within months.
“Let’s rake leaves!” Ranjan shouted. He and Elliot ran for the rake, which was leaning against one wall of the garage.
“Me too!” Samir yelled. I had to separate the three of them and get them to agree to take turns. I gave Samir and Elliot brooms to use in the meantime. They all ran out on the lawn and began pushing leaves around.
“At least we’re here for the time being,” I said. We’d worked so hard to leave DC, to sell our overpriced little house and leave behind terrorism threats, crime, air pollution, bad schools, and awful traffic. We’d made it. We had bought our house, our wonderful spacious house with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms and actual closets! “Maybe we’ll get lucky and we won’t have to move again.”
“We’re already lucky,” he said. “Don’t worry so much. Let’s go somewhere today and enjoy this beautiful weather.”
We decided on Elk Creek Falls. I went inside to call Elliot’s mother to tell her of our plans, and to pack some lunch and snacks. David got the kids buckled in and took his place behind the wheel.
The drive was beautiful, the black road unwinding like a ribbon between the yellow fields and hills. I breathed and tried to will myself to be calm. We’ll be OK, we’ll be OK. As we drove, the dark pine-covered hills in the distance stayed still, never seeming to come closer to us.
“We’d have to drive for hours from D.C. to get to anyplace like this,” David said.
The kids were quiet in the back, listening to Raffi on the CD player singing about six little ducks that he once knew. There were almost no other cars on the road. At one point, a light yellow field rose up against the sky and that was all there was out that side of the window: the luminous field on the hill against the pale blue sky. I almost pointed it out to everyone. But I didn’t. Let people enjoy it on their own, I thought, without my exhortations to look and to appreciate.
“I’ve got a new idea for fundraising,” David said. “With the foundations drying up like this, we’ve gotta get creative.”
I didn’t really want to think about David’s work. It was too depressing. But I said, to be supportive, “That’s great.” David launched into his idea, which involved some sort of new internet tool.
I passed back sandwich quarters as the kids requested them. “Do you want peanut butter and jelly, or cheese and mustard?” I called.
The pine trees were black and green around us. We drove through little towns that hardly made a mark on the landscape, a few low houses and long metal buildings and then the town was gone. I was still amazed at the fact that we were in Idaho, of all places!
Just before we reached the town of Elk River, we saw a sign for Elk Creek Falls and turned down a gravel road into the Clearwater National Forest. “We’ll have to wash the car
again,” David said. There were so many gravel roads in Idaho. You went on an afternoon trip and came back with your car caked in dust.
“I want to help!” Samir shouted.
“Will you hold the hose for me?” David asked.
“Yes. I’m a big boy!”
We parked and got everyone out of the car. I carried the bag with water and snacks. Ranjan and Elliot raced each other to the toilets, where they took turns in the men’s shack. Samir hopped around clutching his crotch.
“Don’t you want to use the potty?” I coaxed.
“Don’t have to,” he said.
“Sure you do. Come on. I’ll help you.”
“No.” He ducked out of my grasp.
“He can go in the woods,” David said.
Samir pulled down the front of his pants, held his penis out, thrust forward his pelvis, and whizzed expertly onto the plants outside the toilet buildings. Then the three boys trotted down the path through the trees.
David took the bag of snacks from me and grasped my hand. “How are things going with you?” he asked. “We hardly get a chance to talk.”
“I’ve been sending out applications.” I kicked at a stone as we walked. I didn’t want to tell him that I’d been applying for work all over the country. He was still determined to stay here.
“Any news about that marketing job at the university?”
“If I’d had any good news, I would have told you about it already.”
David was silent. I didn’t mean to snap at him. I had pinned a lot of hopes on that marketing job, which would pay enough, with David’s part-time income, to keep us here. I had trouble being optimistic about my future, the way he usually was with his future.
“I’m just afraid,” I said.
“Afraid of what?” Now David sounded exasperated.
“You know. About our finances.”
“Things are going to be fine. I’ve got that big grant coming in soon. We can hold out until then.”
“That grant isn’t big enough for you to get paid for full-time work. And what happens when that runs out?”
“You worry too much,” David said. He tried to put an arm around my waist, but I veered out of his grasp.
“You don’t worry enough,” I retorted.
“Worrying isn’t going to help. The universe will take care of us.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“It’s a beautiful day,” David said. “We’re in the woods. The kids are happy. We all have enough to eat. We have a roof over our heads.”
I sighed. We’d had this same conversation so many times, with no resolution. He was right that worrying wouldn’t help, but his cheerfulness bugged me. How could he be so happy when it was his fault we were in this mess? He’d wanted this job, even though he knew it was risky. Yet I couldn’t have the satisfaction of pinning all the blame on him. I had to admit that I’d wanted to leave, too. I’d imagined that our new life would be a kind of paradise. How had paradise turned into just the usual stress and anxiety?
“Isn’t there some god you can pray to?” he asked. “Who’s that Hindu god who gets rid of obstacles?”
“Ganesha,” I said.
“Why don’t you say a prayer to Ganesha.”
We had just learned a prayer to Ganesha during Samir’s Sunday school.“Shri Vakratunda, Mahakaaya,” I began. Samir looked around at the familiar words and tune. I didn’t want to continue. I didn’t get the sense that Ganesha cared whether or not I had obstacles in my path.
“Sing it, Mommy,” Samir urged.
“Shri Vakratunda, Mahakaaya,” I started again. “Koti Surya, Samaprabha.” I didn’t feel like going on. The song stuck in my throat.
“Sing it!” Samir shouted.
“Not now,” I said. “You sing it, if you want to.”
David stopped, let go of my hand, and took the camera out of his jacket pocket. Immediately all three children were flailing themselves at him.
“Me! I want to take a picture!”
“My turn! Give it to me!”
David held the camera above his head. “The batteries are almost out,” he said. “Daddy will take the picture. Go stand over by that big fallen tree.”
The kids clambered up on the log and David held the camera out, centering the kids in the frame. The camera whirred.
“Let me see! Let me see!” They were flailing themselves at him again.
David squatted down, the camera in his palms, and they all hunched over it. I looked over David’s shoulder too. Cute—the three of them, with their jackets in primary colors, against the brown and green of the woods.
“I want to take a picture!” Samir wailed.
“The batteries will run out,” I reminded him. Whenever we let Samir have the camera, he ran around with it like a maniac, shooting his feet, the sky, the table legs. David slipped the camera back in his pocket.
Samir glared at us for a moment, then grasped my hand and continued walking. The older boys were ahead. Ranjan shouted, “Cadabra!” Elliot began making shooting noises with his mouth. They were apparently playing an imaginary Pokemon game, without the cards.
“I can take a picture with my wiener,” Samir said. He put one hand down his pants and pulled up the organ in question.
“Put your wiener back in your pants,” I said. I had no idea why he was so fascinated by his penis. He attributed all sorts of sentient characteristics to it. I didn’t recall Ranjan ever doing that.
“My wiener has an eye,” he informed me, still grasping it.
“Yes,” I said. “Put it back. It’s not polite to take your wiener out in public.”
He wiggled it up and down. David started laughing, and I gave him the evil eye.
“Time to say bye-bye.” I helped Samir tuck his tiny penis back into his underwear. He trotted away to join the older boys. David caught my eye and grinned. I smiled back and rolled my eyes. David grasped my hand and swung it as we walked along.
Up ahead, all three boys were squatting down and looking at something on the ground.
“Look! A monster worm!” Elliot shouted.
When we reached the boys, they were observing the progress of a woolly-bear caterpillar across the forest path.
“That’s a woolly-bear,” I said. “See how it has a red band across the middle?”
“A what? A wildebeast?” Elliot asked.
“Haven’t you ever seen a woolly-bear? Are they not so common anymore?” I straightened up to look at David.
He shrugged. “I think they’re more common back east. It’ll turn into an Isabella Tiger moth.”
“Like Isabella in my class?” Ranjan asked. He and Elliot both started giggling.
As we walked down through the trees, we began hearing the falls crashing in the distance, very faint at first. The kids ran ahead, stopping to listen, looking around corners to find it.
At the lookout we saw white water falling into a black onyx pool at the bottom, all set among the yellow grass, dark pine trees and black basalt rock. The kids climbed on the railings, and I held Samir’s arm as he tried to imitate the older boys. “Be careful,” I shouted above the din of the waterfall. “Don’t fall down the ravine.”
“If he fell, he’d go rolling and bumping all the way down,” Ranjan observed.
I imagined what it would have been like to have come across this waterfall without the benefit of trails or railings. Had Lewis and Clark seen this? Just a waterfall suddenly in the wilderness.
We had our snack there, sitting on a leaning bench: apple slices, crackers, and cookies.
“I brought honey.” I unzipped a plastic bag, within which was a plastic container of honey.
“Really?” David asked. “Why?”
“Rosh Hashanah is coming up.” I always kept better track of Jewish holidays than David did.
“We had apples and honey at Sunday school,” Ranjan said. He dragged a piece of apple through the honey in the bowl and lifted it, dripping, into his mouth. A string of honey fell onto his jacket. He wiped it with a finger and licked his finger.
David selected an apple slice, dabbed it in the honey, and offered it to me. “We’ll have a sweet year,” he said. “And then I’ll get to say, ‘I told you so.’”
“Be my guest.” I leaned over and took a bite of the apple David held. The honey was sweet and smooth on my tongue.
We walked back up. David fed the kids bits of cookies every so often to keep them going. David thought this was very funny, that the kids could be persuaded to walk—even run—up the hill a certain distance for another crumb of cookie. There were no whole cookies left at that point.
We went to the Elk River Café for dinner, where we were the only customers. The café was in a little shack, with old saws decorating the walls. One of the saws was painted with an animal scene. All three kids ordered chicken strips. Ranjan asked the server what shape of French fries would be served. “I like the straight kind,” he said. “With no skin.”
“I’ll make sure to straighten ’em out for ya,” she said, and winked at us. After putting in our order, she brought out paper cups full of crayons. Samir scribbled industriously on his paper placemat, Ranjan drew a giant woolly-bear caterpillar, and Elliot worked on a portrait of his mother, with black hair, round circles of pink on her cheeks, and her lips puckered, ready to give him a kiss.
When the food arrived, Elliot made a concoction out of ketchup, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing. A white-haired man in a stained apron came out to visit with us. “Everything OK, folks?”
“Try my sauce,” Elliot said.
The cook stepped agreeably to Elliot’s side, picked up a French fry, dipped, bit, and looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Terrific!” he proclaimed. Elliot beamed.
It was just after the cook ambled back into the kitchen that Ranjan declared the day to be the best Sunday he’d ever had. David agreed. At first I was somewhat astonished by Ranjan’s words. How could this day be so wonderful when we had such a big problem looming over our heads?
Then, looking at my son’s clear face, filled with calm certainty, I realized that we’d done a good job of shielding our kids from our troubles. Ranjan had no doubt that a day in the woods with a friend was about as good as it got.
On the drive home the sun was setting and since we were driving west we had a long sunset. The sky was blue above us, turning to glowing yellow ahead as the road met the horizon. As we drove, the black pine trees rose past us like black lace against the fading blue sky. Raffi sang about snow falling on Douglas mountain.
It had been a wonderful day, as Ranjan had said, and I thought, what if we died now, like in that movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where they crashed their car after having a perfect evening dancing?
But we didn’t die. We got back to town, dropped Elliot off, apologized to his parents for bringing him home so late (7:45, as opposed to 7:00, which we’d promised). Then we went home and got ready for bed.
By 9:30 of the next morning, I was back at my desk scouring the employment sites of universities, organizations—anyone who might need marketing help. Ranjan was at school, Samir was at his morning preschool, David was at his office. I got an e-mail from a place in Arkansas, asking to set up a phone interview, and I did an exhaustive Google search of the town before replying with convenient times. Then, just after I’d hit the send button, I received an e-mail from the marketing department of the University of Idaho, telling me that while my credentials were impressive, they had chosen another candidate.
I deleted the e-mail reflexively, then un-deleted it. I wondered whether to forward this to David. I decided to let him work in peace. I closed my eyes. Ganesha, please help. I don’t know what to do. I felt like a bit of a fool, praying only when things got difficult. Would Ganesha hold that against me?
I opened my eyes and looked out the window. It glowed with bright leaves. I stepped to the windowsill and looked down, and saw that our back lawn, and everyone else’s backyard as far as I could see, was covered in gold.
Judges’ comments: “Perfect Sunday” was one of the stories that we picked for Honorable Mention then replaced with “Two Gurus” in the end. We both felt that “Perfect Sunday” showed a lot of promise.
Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s first published story appeared in India Currents in 1992. Since then her stories have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. Her novel, And Laughter Fell From the Sky, will be out in 2012 from HarperCollins. She is also the author of novels for children, and nonfiction reference books. She lives in northern Idaho.