“The Taj Mahal” was awarded third place in the 2006 short story contest by the on-line literary magazine Carve.
The Taj Mahal
If he had thought about it for a moment as he was picking up the rental car at the airport, Calderwood would have taken a different route — gone through Revere and avoided the Friday morning rush hour into Boston — now he’s stuck on the long ramp leading to the tunnel, the guy in the Mercedes on his left reading a newspaper, two teenage boys sharing a joint in the van on his right. It’s late January, windy and bleak, half a foot of snow on the porches and rooftops of the triple-deckers alongside the ramp, the kind of weather that makes Calderwood feel a little smug about living in Southern California. He turns on the radio. A panel of experts on NPR is discussing the latest round of fighting in the Middle East. He listens for a few minutes then presses the scan button. The boys in the van catch him watching them, and the driver grins, holding up the joint as if he were offering him a toke. Calderwood returns the grin. He’d like to roll down the window and ask the boy if he has a few extras he could sell him, something to help him make it through the weekend. Miles Davis plays a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” muted and melancholy, before the scanner jumps to another station but Calderwood goes back and finds it. The guy in the Mercedes nudges his car in front of Calderwood’s, though it’s hard to see what difference it will make. None of the lanes has moved more than a few car-lengths in the past five minutes. Normally, this kind of traffic would have Calderwood muttering and grinding his teeth, jockeying to keep the other driver from cutting in, but for now he’s relaxed, almost grateful for the delay. He hasn’t seen his parents in eight years; another hour or two isn’t going to make any difference. Truth is, they don’t even know he’s coming.
It takes half an hour to reach the tollbooths, another fifteen minutes to get through the tunnel. A few miles north of the city traffic thins out and picks up speed. Banks of crusted brown snow line the shoulders of the highway. Calderwood is cautious and stays in the right-hand lane. He hasn’t driven in road conditions like this since college. He wishes he had taken the advice of the clerk at the rental car agency and gotten a bigger car, something with more traction. Every time a truck passes his little Ford Escort starts to fishtail, a spray of slush from the truck’s wheels blinding him for an instant, his hands so tight on the steering wheel he can feel the muscles knotting in his arms and the back of his neck. There’s another long delay on 495 east of Lowell, a car upside down on the other side of the median. Calderwood is tired and hungry. He got stuck in a middle seat on the redeye from L.A. and couldn’t get any sleep; still, he doesn’t stop driving until he reaches New Hampshire and he feels like there’s no turning back. He’s going to have to come east again for the old man’s funeral in a few months, but this trip seems necessary, a matter of getting some things said before it’s too late. Maybe getting a few answers too.
At a Burger King on the outskirts of Nashua, Calderwood orders the number-three breakfast combo: an egg-and-sausage biscuit, hash browns and a large black coffee. The food is tasteless, but the coffee has a rich smoky flavor and he buys another cup to go. Back in the car, he swivels his head around and around, trying to ease the tension in his neck. His hands are getting itchy in the warm dry air. He considers calling his mother on his cell phone but doesn’t. Sometimes when he calls from California, she’ll say, “My goodness, Teddy, you sound like you’re right across the street,” her voice bright and full of hope. “Why don’t you come out and visit me?” he tells her, meaning it, and she says, “Oh, honey, you know I can’t.” It’s her decision, of course, and he doesn’t press her. She’s sweet and well-educated and slightly daft — she once called the police to report that her car had been stolen, only to remember that she’d left it at a neighbor’s and walked home — but in her own way, she can be just as stubborn as the old man. As stubborn as Calderwood himself — stubbornness being the most pronounced family trait, though even that, he’s amused to admit, is probably not something they could all agree on.
A car behind him honks. Calderwood jerks his head up and realizes he has begun to drift into the oncoming lane. He swerves back onto his side of the road and waves his thanks to the other driver. He turns up the radio and sings along, hoping to ward off the drowsiness, then finds himself in the middle of a different song, an empty patch of time gone by, and knows he needs to stop and rest. He pulls into a parking space at the far end of a strip mall. Pushing his seat back, he bunches his parka into a pillow and folds his arms across his chest.
When he wakes up, the clock on the dashboard says 11:43. He can’t remember what time he went to sleep, over an hour ago at least. His mouth is bitter with the aftertaste of coffee, his hands red and sore from an allergic reaction of some kind or maybe he’s just been scratching in his sleep. He pulls back onto the highway and cracks the car window, the cool air bracing him. At the turnoff for Peterborough, he hesitates, then detours into town. He parks outside a drugstore and goes in and buys a pack of peppermint Life-Savers and a bottle of lotion for his hands.
As he’s standing near the door rubbing the lotion on his skin, a woman comes up beside him and says, “Teddy?”
Calderwood flinches like a shoplifter caught in the act. She’s wearing a bright blue ski cap with a green pompom, gray-blond hair framing her broad face.