Manpreet saw it first. She walked downstairs in her lavender-colored bathrobe, started the coffee brewing, drew open the kitchen curtains and there it was. A small, conical hill where the rusting swing set had stood for years, with what looked like an opening at its apex. A red and orange glow painted its top and steam rose in wisps into the already sticky morning air.
‘Honey?’ she called up. ‘You gotta come see this. I think someone’s built a volcano in our backyard.’
The swing set had been knocked violently onto its side, its beams warped, its plastic seats melted. Manpreet stood holding her cup of coffee with Raj at her side, both staring at it. He was wearing boxers and a Cheap Trick tee-shirt and a pair of her pink fuzzy slippers. He could never find his own.
‘It’s like that scene in Close Encounters,’ Raj said, ‘except this one’s in the yard, not the living room.’
The ground at the volcano’s base was torn up, the grass singed and blackened.
They walked around it, considering it from all angles, a jagged mound with clean, sloping sides, that rose to maybe five feet at its summit. Raj set his feet near the base and leaned over the rim. A strong draft of very hot air hit him in the face. Looking down into the opening, he saw an orange bubbling mass.
‘I think it’s active,’ he said.
‘Of course it’s active. How else could it have popped up overnight if it wasn’t active?’ She pinched his side and he squirmed. ‘You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you? Or one of your pals.’ She said ‘pals’ in a derisive, awkward voice that Raj knew really meant she was angry at not being invited to any of his so-called pals’ nights out—but they were only for pals, so how could she come? ‘This is the kind of stunt they’d pull.’
He jumped down. How could he have? He was asleep. With her, if she recalled. And how could one of his pals build a freakin’ active volcano overnight in their yard? It’d take a week at least, and one of them would have noticed. ‘Even in the movie,’ he said, ‘it took Richard Dreyfuss days and days, and that was a movie.’
‘This is real life,’ Manpreet said, though what she meant by this was unclear. Besides, she added, she didn’t know how, she just knew his pals; it was the kind of thing they’d do. She took a sip of coffee and said, ‘What are we gonna do with it?’
He looked up volcanoes on the internet and learned that one of their main functions was adding new landmass. That didn’t sound so bad, they could use extra room in the backyard. But he also learned that this was accomplished by obliterating old landmass, including any structures, which didn’t sound wholly positive for their house—and should people or animals be around during the eruption, their deaths often resulted, either through being burnt alive or asphyxiation.
‘Sounds like it’s got its plusses and minuses,’ Manpreet said. ‘Not a home run, maybe, but not a strike out, either.’
‘Says that even if there’s no eruption, the fumes released can sometimes be toxic.’
Their bedroom faced the backyard and overlooked the newly formed volcano, so they decided that starting that night, they’d sleep in the spare room which overlooked the street. This they had always reserved for a son or daughter, but as neither had appeared, and they were in their forties and had been married for twelve years, they concluded it was probably a safe bet that they wouldn’t be needing the room anytime soon.
At work that day, Raj told Jeff about the new volcano.
‘Is it active?’ Jeff said.
Raj said it was, as far as he knew.
‘An active volcano?’ Jeff said, in a voice which suggested he was looking at his co-worker in a totally new light. ‘In your backyard? This is something I’ve gotta see.’
Both men were sales associates at Smithtown Volvo, on the corner of Eldorado and Chesapeake. Raj had previously worked at the Chrysler dealership a quarter mile down the road, but hadn’t flourished there. Chryslers made little sense to him. He remained unable to encapsulate their qualities sufficiently; no single sentence held in it the engineering skill and ride experience of a Chrysler. The best he’d been able to come up with was ‘not too bad all around’. This hadn’t proved a winning turn of phrase. After pressure from his boss, he updated it to ‘not too bad all around, considering…’, leaving that last word hanging in the air between him and any prospective buyer, hoping it communicated all he left unsaid. This proved equally unhelpful. Raj’s sales figures, which had trekked steadfastly along a dismally low plateau, began a gradual descent into what Oscar, his boss, called the Valley of No Return.
The description Oscar used to fire him was ‘transitioning from frontline sales regiment into potential future purchaser capacity’, and after saying this, crushed Raj’s hand in his. Raj was escorted to his desk by two burly security guards who stood by, watched him pack his personal belongings and then walked him to his car. Everyone stood in a line behind the plate-glass wall of the dealership and waved goodbye. One of the guards said that Oscar had authorized him to tell Raj that should he be interested in purchasing a new vehicle, he was welcome back anytime.
At home, Raj told Manpreet he thought the extra security was appropriate, even though when he was first hired, Oscar had placed an arm around his shoulders and said he looked on Raj like one of his own sons. ‘People flip out,’ Raj said. ‘No reason at all. Maybe that’s what I would’ve done. Who knows?’ It felt good, he added, it felt protective and warm, like Oscar was looking out for him.
The night after he was fired, Manpreet let Raj watch re-runs of his favorite show, Columbo, on one of the retro channels. She didn’t like the show, didn’t like Peter Falk; there was nothing certain about him, he wandered from incident to incident untethered to any specific plan, to any solid line of inquiry. It was like he made it up as he went along, and it infuriated her that somehow he always got it right and caught the criminal. She suspected the show’s creators secretly knew who the culprit was before they even started writing and wrote each episode backwards, which in her view was cheating.
On Sunday, she made Raj accompany her to the gurdwara and watched to make sure he fully prostrated himself when he entered. Though she believed a person shouldn’t ask God for specific favors, she hoped a pious show on Raj’s part might help him secure a new job more quickly. At worst, it couldn’t hurt. It worked—God looked kindly on his request couched in terms of a non-request—for on the following Tuesday, he was offered a commission-only position at Smithtown Volvo. His new boss’s name was also Oscar, which made the transition easier, and the times he did confuse his old boss’s name with his new one’s, which he tallied mentally, no one noticed.
During his first drive, which he took so he could get a feel of the new vehicle he would be selling, he was reminded of the two burly guards the other Oscar had hired to accompany him off the Chrysler premises. In the Volvo, he felt as he had when he walked across the parking lot while his former colleagues waved at him from behind plate glass. A brand new catch phrase popped into his mind: ‘Owning a new Volvo is like driving along cocooned in an embrace of love and safety’.
It proved an effective closer, and accompanied with a subtle glance skywards, not only was his deeper message communicated, but the sale also almost guaranteed. At the Chrysler dealership, he’d merely shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, we’re all in this together, so why not buy this car, it’s a car after all, and isn’t that what you came here for? The gradually descending sales chart the other Oscar had watched with dismay began to change, under the gaze of the new Oscar, to a bracing ascent up the treacherous mountain paths of automotive sales stardom.
A new-found, and unfamiliar, self-confidence settled into Raj’s limbs. In the mornings, after he shaved, he looked at his reflection in the patina of steam on the mirror and recited, ‘You are Raj, soon to be Smithtown Volvo Salesman of the Month!’ At the summer office barbecue, which extended late into the evening, he found himself behind a tree kissing Susan, Oscar’s wife, with a hand inside her bra while her fingers cupped his balls. He forgot what happened next, his memory went completely blank, and when he saw her again in the office a week later, she smiled at him and walked on. It irritated him that she knew what had happened and he didn’t, and worse, that he couldn’t ask her, because he was sure that either way, whether they had attempted some sort of fumbled lovemaking or not, she’d be insulted by his not remembering. He smiled back and walked into the showroom.
As soon as Raj had seen the volcano in the backyard, his first thought was that it was somehow—exactly how he couldn’t say—a manifestation of the new-found power he felt in himself.
When Jeff saw it, he walked all the way around the perimeter and considered it. ‘It’s a volcano,’ he said definitively. He did what Raj had done that morning, which was to set his feet on the base of the slope, stare over the rim and look inside. ‘Fuck, it’s hot.’ He climbed down and Raj offered him a beer.
‘What are you going to do with it?’ Jeff said, as they stared at it from patio chairs, on their third beer each. The sky darkened, the soft, orange glow at the summit grew more vivid, bright sparks floated into the air and sailed away. Manpreet was still not home, which was unusual, and Raj was hungry.
Raj had no idea what he was going to do with it, or what anyone did with a volcano. ‘It just is, right?’ he said. Besides, he thought to himself, if it was a manifestation of his manly powers, then there was no reason to do anything with it; it was best just to let it be. ‘It’s like one of those water features people pay ten grand for, and we got it and we don’t have to pay, not even the water bill.’
Raj heard Manpreet in the house and voices, and she appeared leading behind her a short man dressed in a turban, with a long white beard and a ceremonial dagger hanging from a belt tied around his waist. Raj recognized him. It was the granthi from the gurdwara.
‘Hi, Jeff,’ she said. ‘This is Jake.’
Jake put his hands together and gave a quick bow to Raj and Jeff. ‘Hello, Raj. Hi, Jeff.’
‘He’s our priest,’ Manpreet said to Jeff.
‘I’m not really a priest,’ Jake corrected. ‘We don’t have priests, but it’s easier to say I am; people understand that.’
‘Like he said,’ Manpreet said. She offered Jake a beer and took one for herself.
‘So, this is it?’ Jake said, sipping the beer and walking around it just the way Raj and Jeff had done earlier. Like them, he climbed a short way up and peered inside.
‘Phew, it’s hot in there,’ he said, stepping down. ‘Got a blast full on, thought I was gonna lose my beard,’ he laughed.
‘What do you think?’ Manpreet said.
‘I think it’s a volcano.’
He shrugged. ‘I guess a puja couldn’t hurt.’ He turned to Raj: ‘Manpreet thinks it’s a sign from God, that your house is blessed, and we should hold an akhand path in thanks. It’s not a bad idea, but it could just be a volcano.’
‘What do you mean?’ Manpreet said. ‘Just a volcano?’
‘I mean, it is a volcano, or that’s what it looks like. Should probably get some rock guy in to confirm. I know a few who collect around here, gemstones and such, could hook you up, if you want. But more than that, a sign and stuff; your guess as good as, etc?”
‘Stuff?’ Manpreet sneered. ‘What’s stuff?’
‘You’re the God guy,’ Raj said. ‘Aren’t you supposed to know? I mean, if it’s just a volcano…’ he added, but stopped short.
‘What?’ Jake said.
‘Nothing,’ Raj said.
Jeff walked inside and pulled four fresh beers from the fridge and handed them around. ‘The cavalry,’ he said.
‘When does a God guy go around guessing?’ Manpreet asked.
Jake opened his beer and took a drink. ‘All the time. Part of the job description. It’s not like we have a hotline; just the same as you, no different. I guess the only difference is people think we know more than they do. For me, the whole point’s showing we don’t know anything different; just as dumb as everyone else, which if you think about it, can be liberating.’
‘Think about it?’ Manpreet said. ‘I don’t know why I bothered to bring you here.’
‘It’s a cool volcano; ain’t seen anything like it, not in someone’s backyard, that’s for sure.’ Jake added, ‘It’s like that scene in Close Encounters.’
‘I said that this morning,’ Raj said. He tapped his beer can against Jake’s and turned to Manpreet: ‘Didn’t I say that this morning?’
‘What,’ she said, ‘you want a medal?’
‘For stating the fucking obvious,’ Jeff snorted and began laughing in a loud, pig-like manner.
Everyone turned to look at him.
He calmed down and added, ‘I mean, it is obvious.’
‘The one in the movie was in the kitchen,’ Raj said.
‘No, it wasn’t, it was in the family room,’ Jake said. ‘I watched it last month, the Blu-ray box set.’
‘Which version?’ Jeff asked.
‘The special edition. I like that one better, because you get to see more of the aliens.’
‘Nothing like the original, in my opinion,’ Jeff said.
‘There’s a third version; it’s in the box with the other two. Spielberg did a director’s cut, though I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment on what makes it different.’
‘I don’t know why people won’t leave a thing alone. I tell you, if I ever meet George Lucas on the street, I will punch him on the nose and say that’s for Jabba the Hutt, you fat fuck.’
‘The special edition is better,’ Jake said.
‘What about that shit job Spielberg did on E.T.? No one ever talks about that as being better,’ the last two words spoken in a mocking whine.
‘Spielberg himself called that a mistake, said he wished he could undo it.’
‘Spielberg himself,’ Jeff jeered. ‘You know what he thinks, do you? Had a chat with him, did you?’
‘It’s in interviews.’
‘Oh, interviews. Like anyone believes what they read these days.’
‘This was on TV. It was him in person.’
Jeff made air quotes. ‘TV. Like that’s all one thing. You know how many channels there are.’
‘Exactly. Hundreds. So, like,’ air quotes again, ‘TV means something. Say something that means something and maybe I’ll listen.’
Jake stared at Jeff for a minute, then turned to Raj. ‘Any more beer?’
Raj walked into the kitchen and returned with fresh beers. They were still talking about Spielberg, but had gotten over their spat.
‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ Jeff said, opening his fifth can. ‘Now that’s a fucking line.’
Jake threw up his hands. ‘Check this out.’ He dropped his voice, ‘So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred and sixteen come out, sharks took the rest. June the twenty-ninth, nineteen forty-five.’
‘I’ll never put a life vest on again,’ Jeff said. He added, ‘Anyway, we delivered the bomb.’
Suddenly, Jake began to laugh.
‘What is it?’ Raj said.
‘George Lucas,’ he squeezed out. He put his beer down and grabbed his belly. ‘What Jeff said—I got it.’
‘Huh?’ Jeff said.
‘If you meet George Lucas…’ he attempted, but before he finished the thought, burst into fresh peals of laughter. He tried again, ‘If you meet George Lucas on the street, you’ll…’ and again collapsed into hysterics. Finally he got out, ‘Don’t you get it, George Lucas, the Buddha, if you meet…’ and he was off again.
No one got the joke, and Jeff said, ‘I didn’t say anything about some fucking bubba.’
‘Buddha,’ Jake corrected, but it was obvious that whatever joke he had tried was dead. He picked up his beer, finished it and asked if there was more.
‘In the fridge,’ Raj said, indicating the kitchen.
As he walked into the house, Manpreet said, ‘Waste of space.’
Jake returned and they stood and stared at the volcano. In the dark, the rim was circled with a red glow and sparks rose and vanished, like fireflies on a summer night. Jeff said it looked pretty, and asked if anyone had weed so he could roll a fat one, crank up some tunes, and zone the fuck out, watching it.
No one did, so he opened another beer.
‘The original,’ Manpreet said, softly.
‘What?’ Raj said. He could feel the heat of the volcano pulsing against his chest.
‘The only version worth watching,’ she said. ‘It worked for a reason. Artistic vision plus box-office constraints. I mean, who cares what the aliens look like?”
As the first tongue of molten lava tipped over the edge and flowed towards them, Manpreet took Raj’s hand and held it firmly. She knew all about his fling with Oscar’s wife. Susan had told her after their Wednesday morning Pilates class, and both women had laughed, actually laughed. She didn’t think she had it in her, to laugh at infidelity—but she had. She was a larger person than she could have guessed. Flames licked the surface of the burning liquid as it pooled around their sneakers, yet all four stood immobilized, in awe, perhaps, rigid in terror—who knows?—none saying a word as their feet became simmering islands. Jake took a drink, Jeff belched, Raj nodded in appreciation of the magnitude of the moment, Manpreet tightened her grip on his hand.
Years later, they were chiseled from the cool, hard rock, bodies trapped in a permanent rictus of agony, limbs stilled yet writhing. Onlookers marveled and often talked among themselves in hushed tones, as if in a church or movie theater, wondering why none had fled and commenting on the hypnotic power the glow of the volcano must have exerted. After some minutes, most walked on, while others stood and watched for hours.
Ranbir Sidhu's debut novel, Deep Singh Blue, was published last year by Unnamed Press and HarperCollins India.
Photograph by Alexandr Piragis