The daughter hates this new country with its methodical streets and packed supermarkets, hates the way every inch of space has been scrubbed clean of character, hates her teacher who speaks to her slowly and loudly as if she is deaf instead of merely unfamiliar with a language that follows no logic. America is devoid of the chaotic magic of her homeland, devoid of any kind of magic. She tells her father, I would rather die than stay here one more day. Please can we go back to India.
The father barely hears her plea through the fog of exhaustion that has settled over him like a shroud. He drives two hours every morning to a small factory, where he crawls inside devices that churn out plastic bags while his fellow workers taunt him for the color of his skin and leave him in the maw of the machinery if he complains. He tells his wife, This is all for a better future. I may not see our daughter, but at least she will have a good life.
The mother hordes gold, hiding every piece of jewelry she received as a wedding gift and converting her family’s meagre savings to bars. In India, gold could turn to silver turn to iron turn back to gold, a strange alchemy of the air that twisted plans as they were made. But here she buys as much gold as she can and slips them into boxes filled with packing peanuts in the crawlspace and clothbound covers of books of Hindi poetry. She tells her daughter, When I die, check the whole house. You never know where you might find treasure.
The mother is right. Her daughter discovers real treasure in the dead of a Midwestern winter, when the snow has lost all novelty and the memory of warmth is failing. Her mother has brought back a paper grocery bag filled with books from the library’s bag sale, tattered copies of trade novels published decades ago with perfect white children on the cover, and cookbooks yellowed and warped with age worshipping someone named Betty Crocker.
But near the bottom, the daughter’s hand brushes against something soft and unmarred, and her fingers close instinctively around the prize. The cover has a glossy finish, and the pages are thick with the dreamlike scent of new books. Inside lie beautiful puzzles, the clean black grids printed against stark white paper, each puzzle a self-contained story far more interesting than her sixth-grade reading materials, with clearly spelled out rules and right answers. These are the first things to make sense in this godforsaken country. She immediately senses magic in these pages, a different sort of magic than that of her childhood, but magic nonetheless.
Tulips are pushing out in the small front yard of the townhouse by the time the daughter finishes the book. As she pencils in the answers to each puzzle, power washes through the page and she begins to understand the logic that governs her new world. Her teacher praises her growth on the second trimester report card, writing, Integrating nicely with other students and, Great progress towards normalizing speech patterns.
What she means, of course, is, Assimilating well. The teacher’s pride in her own tutelage drips from every word, an ode to her ability to scrub color from voices and culture from minds. Perhaps, as the teacher believes, it will help the daughter. Perhaps it will buy her an American job, a Caucasian husband, a white-picket fence. Or perhaps, unmoored from the people that look and sound like her, the daughter will waste away into nothing at all, a soft sigh in the ripping wind of progress.
But the daughter is not unmoored. She spends her evenings sitting in a hot pink plastic chair and drawing puzzles of her own with a thick No. 3 pencil onto wide-ruled notebook paper, all bought on discount at the local dollar store, a haven for the Indian community. She usually hates going there, watching her mother socialize while she waits impatiently by the cart, but now she brings paper and pencil and hopes her mother runs into another friend. She writes clues, painstakingly spelling out, The daughter preferred the black socks, or, The daughter went to bed after the mother. Her favorite clues are grouped, the family together and separated at the same time: Out of the mother, the daughter, and the father, one likes striped socks, one goes to bed last, and one is not a parent.
And if, the next day, her mother goes to bed before her and wears striped socks around the house, the daughter thinks nothing of it. Her mother has a headache from the sharp antiseptic supplies she uses to clean the homes of demanding white ladies, and she has not had time to do laundry, so striped socks are the only clean ones left. In India, the daughter could never use magic. She was simply an observer of the fleeting transformations that emerged from the chaos and slipped away again, watching with delight as a snake became a branch or a flock of birds materialized from thin air. It does not occur to her that here, a place steeped with the magic of stability and rules, she can harness it herself.
She loves making puzzles perhaps more than solving them. When she writes, the imaginary blurs into reality blurs into the imaginary in a gently pleasing manner, and an American normalcy seeps into her life. She makes friends, swaps lunches, watches Disney. Her puzzle about group project partners at school comes true, and she snickers at the tears her white classmates shed at being separated from their best friends. To her the pairs are perfectly balanced—orderly—so mean must be paired with nice, good with bad, smart with dumb. Every puzzle she writes makes instinctive sense, and she can barely remember the process of thinking up clues. They appear to her fully formed.
Her mother asks questions in stilted English, bemused by this new hobby, but the daughter cannot voice how it feels to create order in her puzzles. It’s a different order than the perfectly square yard of their home, or the perfectly lined homes on their street, or the perfectly clean streets in their town. This order does not wrap its hands around her throat and suffocate all life’s joy; it takes her by the hand and leads her away from her American hell.
She tries to explain anyways because she loves her mother. But the words, House, hands, choking, I love, I hate, do not come out quite right. It does not cross her mind to speak in anything other than English. That is the language of these puzzles.
Once her mother loses interest in the conversation, the daughter starts writing another puzzle. Out of the mother, the father, and the daughter, one is very smart, one is very stupid, and—
She has not seen her father in days. Her mother makes excuses for the fact that since moving to America her husband has barely seen his child for three hours a week, describing in great detail the sacrifices he makes to keep a roof over their head, food on the table, and other clichés taught in English learning programs. The daughter understands her parents’ division of labor, her father covering the essentials while her mother works to build up the all-important American Savings, but when her mother provides yet another justification for her father’s absence, all she can picture is him trapped comically within the factory, unable to come home. She imagines his belt tangled impossibly with a piece of machinery and giggles.
Out of the mother, the father, and the daughter, one is very smart, one is very stupid, and one is stuck inside a plastic-bag-maker.
The father comes home to find the kitchen table a mess, sheets of paper strewn about. His wife holds one such paper in her hand, shaking her head and sounding out unfamiliar words. What is this? he asks. What happened? His wife hands him the paper. An L-shaped grid and his daughter’s precise handwriting swim in and out of his blurring vision.
She’s writing, his wife says. I just don’t understand what it means. His muscles ache. He has been awake twenty hours. Children, he replies, shrugging his shoulders. He has not seen his daughter for far too long, pulling overtime at the factory, but this weekend he will. Just a few more shifts until then. How wonderful, this American concept of a weekend, a day off. He never once regrets moving his family here.
The following afternoon, as the daughter tries to trade her dry cheese sandwich with another classmate’s lunch, a tinny voice on the classroom loudspeaker calls her down to the principal’s office. She takes a notebook and pencil with her, and when she reaches the office, a woman in a tight blue skirt and white blouse says, Oh Hon, have a seat.
The daughter’s name is not Hon, but she obeys anyways. She begins drawing up another puzzle, naming her favorite character Hon. She includes the woman in the blue skirt, naming her Peacock. She adds her teacher and mother to round it all out. Today’s puzzle will be about favorite classes and favorite lunches.
Just as she writes her first clue—Hon does not like sandwiches—her mother rushes into the office. Tears pour down her face, eyeliner streaking grotesque black fingers onto her cheeks. She babbles in halting, gasping Hindi. The daughter flinches away. If anyone overheard them speaking in this foreign tongue, her friendships, written into tenuous existence like so much erasable pencil, would dissolve.
Why are you crying? she asks, enunciating each syllable so even her mother can understand.
Your father, her mother says in thick-accented English, and then the word that will follow them forever: dead.
At the funeral service, nobody from the father’s factory attends. Why would they? It was a freak accident for which they bear no responsibility, not the spotter who forgot to pull him out on time and left for his lunch break, trapping him inside the machine, or the newcomer who turned on the machine, not bothering with the lengthy safety procedures, or the rest of the staff that used to spend happy hours making fun of the stuffy immigrant. The company pays for the funeral, gives the widow a modest sum and even more modest condolences, and replaces the cog it lost.
After the ceremony, when the body has been taken for cremation, the mother goes home and tears through the house in a frenzied haze, unearthing gold jewelry and gold bars and silver pots given as farewell gifts by well-meaning relatives in India. The daughter trails her mother from room to room, already composing another puzzle in her head about each object, its age, and its value. The mother loads their life savings into the car and drives, slowly and carefully, to the strip mall’s Cash for Gold store.
She goes inside, leaving the daughter in the car. The daughter patiently draws herself a grid, then writes clues about gold earrings worth hundreds and gold bars worth ten times that. The numbers don’t look quite right, lopsided and alien, so she erases the numbers and pencils in larger ones, smaller ones, for fun. The changes are nearly as unruly as the transmutations of her homeland, and a pang of longing shoots through her. The puzzle comes together quickly, so she covers her answers and re-solves it to stave off boredom. Her mother comes out after an hour of haggling with huge stacks of cash and a cashier’s check worth far more money than she has ever seen in her life.
The store owner had not wanted to give in, but against the onslaught of this intermittently crying brown woman citing prices and rates and sums in fractured English, he slowly caved. As they were nearing a final price, he found himself suddenly moved by her plight. He emptied his store of money, withdrew his store’s reserve accounts, and handed all of it over to her. He will remember this experience for the rest of his life, and after the store has shuttered due to that day’s catastrophic loss, he will rant to his friends about entitled immigrants stealing from honest, hardworking Americans. Not one friend will point out that he used to swindle old people out of their gold for a living.
They will laugh at him for being tricked by a woman, and he will never reveal the truth: she did not trick him.
The mother enters the car and her daughter does not acknowledge her. Her daughter has not cried this whole time, too absorbed in her games to care that her father is gone forever. She slams the door, shouts, You value those puzzles more than your father’s life!
The daughter ignores her, embarrassed by the outburst although nobody else can hear them. How much did her mother really value his life? Her father was eaten by a machine, a death he could have easily died in India. What was the point of coming to America? she wants to ask her mother. You are stupid. Father was stupid. Let’s leave now while we still can. I am going to die here. But her mother has extended her hours at the cleaning company, opened a bank account, and become ever more determined to maintain this life.
When they get home, the daughter sits at the kitchen table as her mother orders pizza, one American experience that even she finds it difficult to hate. She picks up her pencil, wondering what puzzle she will construct next. She moves to draw a grid, but instead her hand writes, Consider the mother, the father, and the daughter: one alive; one dead—
She hesitates, uncertain what her clue will be. A shiver passes through her. She knows what she wants to say, but she finally suspects the power in her puzzles and fear bubbles inside her. The puzzles demand absolute truth, and the words are dragged out of her before she can stop them. Her pencil scratches against paper.
Consider the mother, the father, and the daughter: one alive; one dead; one dying.