Excerpt from Erica Plouffe Lazure’s “Proof of Me and Other Stories”

 

“Object Lessons,” by Erica Plouffe Lazure

In the remotest region of Bihar, on the dustiest of backstreets of Bodh Gaya, dozens of children surrounded Juniper Weaver as she attempted to track down what she hoped was their school. But no one could tell her, exactly, where to find it. Still, little boys in hand-me-down soccer shirts, big sisters with babies hoisted on their hips, and a gaggle of other cheerful kids skipped and chattered alongside her, chanting “school!” or “Michael Jackson!” or “Hello, madam!” in steady, repetitive ribbons of sound, a record of all the English words they’d picked up and internalized in their relatively short lives. Snot invariably crusted just above their wide smiles; some had eyes rimmed with kohl, like the hollows of jubilant skeleton heads, absorbing and reflecting the summer sun. Their hands were filthy from a day’s worth of play, except for traces of shimmery pink on their fingernails, a treat from some other Western tumbleweed who’d delighted in applying girly-pink polish, each tiny digit now the sole remainder of the visitor’s fading and transient attention.

But Juniper had not brought with her nail polish but rather sixteen dozen pencils to offer the local kids, although she had plenty of finger lacquer back in her studio in Boston. She loved the possibilities of a simple single pencil and a sheet of paper gave her, for nearly nothing. Ever since her first term in art school, she’d decided on principle to buy only inexpensive and scrap art supplies, spurred by the expectation that she’d actually pay forty dollars for a tube of phthalo blue paint. Her aesthetic of “cheap art” scavengery helped to establish her voice and vision as a collage artist: trafficking in discarded tar paper and turpentine, charcoal briquettes and corrugated cardboard and ancient magazines and peculiar packaging culled from the recycling bin, yarn from old sweaters, X-rays, thrift shop ledgers and photos: all of it trimmed and pasted and hand-stitched together in a desire to take the old and discarded and to make it new. Make it relevant. Make it Art. And, of course, in India, she’d found no shortage of newspaper clippings filled with tightly-kerned Devanagari and bright placards of Hindu deities that graced the grills of Tata trucks or advertised themselves as serene guardians on packaging for sandalwood soap or bags of rice. She’d save each scrap of color or texture as the fodder for future collages, tuck it all away in a plastic sleeve, feeling a bit like a bird gathering scraps, piece by piece, for its messy, haphazard nest.


Freshly kicked out of her study abroad summer ashram program for an unfortunate and spectacularly public run-in with illicitly procured ganja and a large bottle of Tuborg, Juniper decided to take the first train bound for Bodh Gaya—the Center of the Universe, she’d heard more than once. Suddenly solo and in a village that felt more like a city, given the legions of monks and nuns and pilgrims from all over the world who’d staked a claim at the site of the historic Buddha’s enlightenment, Juniper decided it was time to make good on her pencil delivery to a local elementary school. She’d lugged the gleaming golden Dixon Ticonderogas all the way from Boston, sharpened each one herself, and welled with pride, thinking about her standing in front of a classroom amid rows of perfectly aligned desks, every child clutching a brand-new pencil, notebooks open, following her in lockstep as she drew on the chalkboard the petals on a flower, the trunk of an elephant, each of their names in English. Saheli. Arjun. Maya.

“All things start with an idea written on the page,” Juniper liked to say to her classmates. “Poems. Songs. Designs. Art. Image. Blueprints. Two hundred pencils is two hundred possibilities. Two hundred poems or camels or robots or whatever.”

During the crowded train ride to Gaya, Juniper overheard a few other Western passengers discussing the Kali Bandits, throngs of men who, as devotees of the Hindu Goddess of Death, would roll out a massive log onto the lone connector road to Bodh Gaya in the middle of the night, and then attack any vehicle unfortunate enough to be traveling that route after dark.

“Sure, let’s blame the goddess for their looting,” Juniper had said to the other travelers, whose expressions told her the Kali Bandits were nothing to joke about. But she saw no logs or bandits as the tiny bus rolled into town midday and, after she’d settled into a closet sized-room at the cheapest hostel she could find, she unpacked her things and decided to find the village school.

“School?” she asked the children. They nodded. “Yes! School?” they repeated. But then her question “Where?” was met with giggles for an answer, peals of laughter ringing through the street. The hostel clerk gave her a simple, “School? Down the road. That way.” She’d walked “that way,” which happened to be toward the marketplace, just outside the sacred grounds of the bodhi tree. But still, no school. As she continued her search, she amassed the presence of even more children and it was all she could do not to dole out the pencils then and there on the street. But Juniper’s vision of herself inside a classroom, as Teacher, stopped her.

“School?” she asked a street-side tailor. He pointed her in the same direction as the hotel clerk, never once looking up from his work, the needle of his elegant vintage machine simultaneously puncturing and joining delicate strips of ruby-hued silk. She picked up a scrap of castoff silk and slipped it in her pocket.

 

For the first time, as she traveled solo, with no tether and no one here who knew her, Juniper felt like maybe she’d be able to start over fresh. For years she’d craved anonymity. Solitude. She’d sought to exist where no one knew her name, or where she grew up, or anything about her that she didn’t want them to know. She wanted to remember this feeling—of being no one from nowhere—when she returned to Boston, or to Mewborn, where everyone seemed to know her a little too well, knew her in ways that she did not want to be known. Who are you? she’d ask herself every morning, as she attempted to sit on a cushion before dawn, trying to void her rollercoaster thoughts, to void herself as the world knew her, to reprogram the makeup of her decidedly selfish and on-the-take attitude. Who are you, she’d ask herself, and who can you become, when no one knows who you are? She thought she’d found the start of an answer when she first arrived in Varanasi—to sit in an ashram and do nothing but try not to think—but perhaps the answer was here in the streets, responding in the moment to the logistics of travel, to the play and joy present in the children who trailed her, to enjoy the walk to the village school as much as the act of donating to the school itself.

The postcards she’d send back home to Mewborn every week were for the sole purpose of letting Shirley and Ma know that she was still alive, that she hadn’t got taken in by some “cult of crazies” as Ma had so delicately put it. But they were so wrapped up in their own little world of sitcoms and ancient magazines and animal rescue that Juniper often wondered whether the postcards home even mattered. Or was it simply a painful reminder, for Shirl especially, who’d been a bit “off” after Ma dropped her headfirst on the porch, of the life that she’d grown into on Penny Hill, that Juniper was living a life Shirl would never have?

It was no secret Juniper never quite fit in with the Ma and Shirl Show. The waist-high stacks of egg cartons and magazines guarding the entryway, the unopened mail and undusted furniture and the hazy rabbit-ears Sylvania, to say nothing of the stores of inedible food that no one ever threw away, always seemed like a physical extension of their family’s inner chaos. And when Juniper got to college, her art projects. Art taught her how to order that chaos, to make meaning of the stacks of objects Ma refused to toss. The collages she’d make from curbside finds and Oodles of Noodles packaging and Sears catalogs, 550 miles away from home, helped shift her perspective, and she returned to Mewborn for winter break ready to embrace her people and her past. To be curious about it rather than rail against it. But the ancient stagnant scent of Home confronted her as soon as she stepped through the threshold. The same food sat rotting in the fridge since she’d last seen it. And then there were the pair of cats whose dander seized upon her sinuses.

The next morning, hopped up on non-drowsy Benadryl, Juniper woke before dawn and decided that, instead of complaining, she’d choose to help with the clutter situation. As Ma and Shirl slept, Juniper spent the morning hauling garbage bags brimming with age-old cartons of milk, mystery leftovers, stalks of rotting vegetables and a few long-expired and crusted-over bottles of Texas Pete’s. In addition to the mealy-bugged flour sacks and expired boxes of Rice-A-Roni, Juniper found the red velvet cake box mix Ma promised to make for her 16th birthday. Juniper paused from her purge as a pang of nostalgia, or something like it, welled up. Surprised by how a seemingly innocuous box of cake mix could amass value, hold a memory, mean something, Juniper brought it to her bedroom and tucked it into her backpack.

As Juniper wiped down every shelf and countertop with bleach, and mopped and vacuumed the floor, she felt proud she could improve Ma and Shirl’s quality of life in this ratty little house they all called home. Love through action, she thought, tossing the stacks of Redbooks and Better Homes into boxes, setting aside a few interesting looking McCall’s and Sears catalogs for her collages, anticipating how glad Ma would be when she found the kitchen bright and tidy.

Instead, as she returned from the curb to drop off the last box of magazines, she heard, “What she done done with all our food?” And there launched an hours-long tirade and a torrent of accusations about stealing magazines and sneaking around and the money wasted by tossing “perfectly good food” and all the rest of it. Juniper wasn’t sure how her good intentions got so twisted in her mother’s mind. It was as though she’d somehow removed a part of Ma’s brain that morning and tossed it out onto the curb. And about an hour into the tirade, Juniper startled as it hit her: there was nothing she could do that would make Ma happy. She could have bought her a brand-new house and Ma would complain that it wasn’t her old one. It doesn’t matter what I do, Juniper thought, if everything I do upsets her. So I can do what I want. For the first time in her life, even as Ma raved on, her voice ricocheting through the neighborhood, and Shirl cowering on the front porch, yelling for them to stop, Juniper finally felt free.

 

  • . •   •

 

Accompanied now by an entire school’s worth of children, Juniper came across a small white cement building off the main dirt road and down a footpath. The children pointed and yelled “school! school!” But the heavy metal door was barred shut and padlocked. Through the bars on the window, Juniper spotted a few rows of bench desks, a cracked green chalkboard. A single naked bulb dangled from the ceiling. The kids looked up at her, expectant.

“School?” she asked.

“School!” the children responded, gleeful. Thumbs up. Mission accomplished. For show, she tried to open the door, then pantomimed a questioning gesture—arms bent at the elbows, palms up. “Why closed?” she asked. The kids chattered with each other in Hindi before one boy burst out, “No School, madam… Summer!”

Juniper sighed. Of course. It was, after all, July. She glanced inside the school once more, feeling the brunt of the sun on her peeling forehead, the weight of two hundred pencils in her shoulder bag. It was time to part ways with her entourage and recenter, to retool her plan to teach these children how to find their creativity. She walked further into the center of the village as the children, still chattering and laughing, pulled at her clothes, their tiny hands forming a massive daisy chain. Not far from the school, the pinging ring of what sounded like ice cream truck music filtered through the air. But it wasn’t an ice cream truck, but rather, a large man operating the smallest functioning Ferris wheel Juniper had ever seen. He was charging children a pisa each for a few go-arounds on his hand-made contraption, fabricated precariously from welded sheet metal and spare bolts and a mishmash of technicolor paint. An erector set on steroids. There was no motor. To make the ride work, another man hung from a lever on the Ferris wheel, leaping then pulling, again and again, using the force of his weight against the contraption as pairs of children sat hip to hip in the tiny booths, laughing with each jolt.

The children with Juniper stood spellbound by the Ferris wheel, clamoring for a pisa so they too could ride it, and Juniper could not help but think that this rickety contraption, though genius in its own right, wouldn’t pass any safety inspector’s code back home. She had no pisa but then remembered her pencils. Maybe I don’t need a school, she thought. I’ll rip out pages from my journal and make a school right here. And without a second thought, she reached into her shoulder bag and clutched a good fistful of pencils, ready to dole them out one by one as the Ferris wheel continued its cycle. But she barely had time to pull the pencils from her bag when she was inundated by children, who somehow understood, as all children do, that someone was giving something away. The Ferris wheel was all but forgotten as news of the golden 2B Ticonderogas spread, and within seconds, every last pencil in her bag was gone, her journal, gone and torn to shreds. But it did not stop the tiny, pencil-wielding hands from seeking out more. Juniper hoisted her bag above the children’s reach as they reached up and swarmed her, stabbing at each other, and then at her, with the pencils’ sharp tips. She couldn’t escape, and huddled into herself, protecting her torso from the gouging, as it hit her that nothing she could offer these children could satisfy what they actually needed. Not a pencil. Not a pisa. No amount of rupees or clothing or flip-flops or tissues or hairbrushes or bananas or nail polish. Not anything in her now-empty shoulder bag or in her luggage at the hostel or in her dorm room in Boston.

The children continued to stab at Juniper’s arms and hands, and stabbed other kids’ hands who wanted pencils, stabbed at pink lacquered fingertips that already clutched pencils but wanted more, stabbed at anything moving in this throng of destructive energy and desire. Juniper could not escape the chaos she’d created, could not tamp the shouting and the stabbing and the crying and sound of wood snapping as the stabbing and screaming continued and she imagined the ironic smirk that would come with the news back home if she were to be pulled under and trampled to death by a stampede of children and their pencils just down the street from the Center of the Universe. Murdered by her own idiot idealism. Teaching kids how to draw. What was she thinking?

Just then, the Ferris wheel man’s assistant leapt from his perch, grabbed a broom, and swooped it across the crowd of kids. He did not strike, but every kid felt the force of air pushing overhead and ducked. The second warning swoop worked, as the children unwillingly parted from the throng, their desire for pencils trumped by the prospect of getting swept away by the butt of a broom. Juniper called out an insufficient “Dhanyabad!” to the Ferris wheel man as she fled the crowd of children, tromping over dozens of broken pencils. A few kids clutched their pencils and continued to follow her, yelling “Madam!” “Fuck you!” “Pisa! Rupee!” “I love you!” in the thrill of the chase of a crazy white lady.

Down the twist and turns of yet another dusty alley, past the tailor who continued to sew his silk and past the bangle vendor whose thin metal bands shone like jewels, Juniper found herself gasping for air outside the doorway of a tiny statue shop. She could feel the heat of the day rise and surge as she took stock of the pencil scrapes welting her arms and hands. A small red stool beckoned from a darkened corner of the shop and she sat down as the last of the children, still in hot pursuit, raced past. She’d tried to do right by these kids, and where did it get her? Maybe living in the moment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, she thought. Maybe transformation is a bullshit myth. Maybe Juniper would always, at her core, be forced to be herself. That her nature was her own, and no journey to Boston or India or anywhere else would change that.

As Juniper caught her breath, her eyes adjusted to the shelves of soapstone and wooden carvings of nearly every Hindu god—Siva and Ganesha, Krishna playing the flute, Sarasvati with her veena and Durga riding a tiger, but no sign of Kali, her long tongue sticking out, a necklace of human skulls adorning her neck. She thought of the goddess’s devotees rolling out the massive log in the dead of night, willing to scavenge whatever they could from a van of wayward pilgrims. How do you ever come to decide that blocking a road with a log to loot and murder people is a good idea? Or, for that matter, smashing a bottle of beer against the wall of an ashram? Or refusing to toss food years past the expiration date?

On the shelves closest to Juniper, from floor to ceiling, sat dozens of identical serene Buddhas, man upon man upon sitting stone man. How many Buddhas in the world have there actually been? And how many could there be, Juniper wondered, if any of us chose to simply sit and sit and sit? Juniper reached up and held one of the buddhas in her hand, feeling its stony coolness, its satisfying weight, and placed it on the pencil gash on her left forearm. She stared down at its beatific gaze as it soothed her wound, and wondered how long the real Buddha actually sat in front of that famous tree before he felt something fundamental shift within him. But, as she slipped the stone Buddha into her shoulder bag, she knew that, for her, today was not that day.

Just then, a creaky, melodic voice filtered in the alleyway. Juniper stood, ready to flee, just as a young man appeared, holding a little metal tray containing four glasses of hot milk-tea.

“Welcome, madam, to my shop! You like some chai?”

Juniper breathed deep and sat down on the stool. “Sure. I would love a chai, thank you,” she said. She gestured around the shop as though she’d just arrived.

“You have some beautiful stonework here,” she said. “But tell me. Where do you keep your statues of Kali?”

 


Literature & Fiction

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