Harshita Mishra

The Tape Recorder

He rides in his 80s beat-up truck; a rogue metallic brown, tires kicking up wet gravel every morning as he rounds up the corner of this neighbourhood. He walks with a pompous gait-but not anymore pompous than the next trudging stranger-springy stride; sports a jacket over a sweater, has a bandana tied around his forehead, that old man. His hair, he would tell you, is intriguingly obnoxious. Thick and patchy. Grey and sparse. Curiously unruly and sporadically bald. The bandana is a paradoxical dig at his person. No one knows if he wears it to hide the wilderness on his head or rather, the absence of it.

But the point is not the old man or his hair. Because he is not the protagonist. Now the protagonist, the lead, the ultimate bread winner is ostensibly staying put in a house two kilometres down the road; probably whispering in strange baritones and well, sleeping. No, definitely sleeping. The protagonist is sleeping and perhaps would sleep when he is not sleeping because he doesn't leave the house; is too scared to leave the house, thinks he would die if he leaves the house. And because the protagonist is sleeping, the old man would resume his springy stride towards the lawn of the house of this family that's moving out in two days. They say they're leaving the country.

"You say you're leaving the country?" The old man grumbles to the woman in a fedora.
"Why, yes. The place doesn't have anything left for us here." The woman in the fedora speaks and sort of shrinks into herself. The old man unwittingly scratches at his snowy whiskers and mumbles something unintelligible. "Aqua? You want aqua?" She asks him, steps down the patio and plucks a bottle from the last piece of furniture they've put out; on sale, the family in this neighbourhood.
A coffee table.
The old man definitely doesn't need aqua or water or anything resembling either of those but the woman in the fedora beckons to him and he relents. He relents because it is water and not wine; white wine, a slick bottle of Chardonnay or Blanc or-the old man is a heavy drinker but he is trying to cut down, cut down not because he's an old man but because his wife and him have a row every which day over his heavy drinking so he drives around, because he can and she can't and the woman in the fedora has been having this garage sale for the last three days so he rides to her house and looks at the objects spread out for perusal.
"How much is the coffee table?" He asks her and just then a boy of twenty ambles out of the front door; a crumpled book in his hand and a sharpened pencil tucked into the fold of his ear. He kicks out the legs of a plastic folded chair and slumps into it, the air around him crackling with indifference.
"That would be twenty five, sir." The boy murmurs with his head shovelled into the book. The woman in the fedora nods at the old man, pats the boy-her son-on the cheek and disappears into the back where a few more people have started clumping together.

It is important to remember that the old man is not the protagonist. The protagonist stays put in a house a few miles down the street but oh, he is awake and fiddling with the remote of the TV. He sags into the couch, murmurs in strange baritones and stares unblinkingly at the screen; a dull black, white and grey conglomeration of figures scuttling about and buildings whipping past, a typical Charlie Chaplin classic. And because the protagonist is watching the television, the old man would resume paying for the coffee table he's promptly bought for his wife, in an attempt to placate her. He would present to her the coffee table and she would be folding and unfolding laundry and he'd go, 'look what I got' and she'd go, 'a washing machine, why not a washing machine' and he'd go, 'but this will go with the chairs' and she'd go, 'but what about my hands' and before he can go, she'd go, 'hands, what about my hands' and he'd plop down into a chair with defeat, sip on his beer and the wife would fold and unfold the laundry.

"Vomit, you're voluntarily buying vomit!" The woman in the fedora has a daughter of fifteen with pink hair and pink clothes and a haphazardly drawn moustache above her lip. She peers at the old man and imitates a two finger down the throat gag reflex, sharpies flopping around in her pocket.
"Excuse me?"
"The house puked and the lawn is soaked with vomit. Vomit that you people are buying from us." The girl squeals and guffaws and trips and squeals again. The old man nonchalantly dismisses her and asks the boy of twenty, 'what are you reading' and he says, 'Jack London' and the old man says, 'oh' and he says, 'oh' and the old man says, 'read that short story when I was young' and he says, 'to build a fire?' and the old man says, 'to build a fire' and he says, 'uh huh' and the old man says, 'the lad was very much a fool' and he says, 'building a fire under a snow decked tree, he sure was'.

"We're almost completely sold out!" The woman in the fedora reappears from the garage and twirls on her feet, giggles surreptitiously. The boy of twenty gawks at her and the girl with the fake moustache joins the scene and the family rejoices; the grass is definitely greener on this side.
"Mom, did you manage to sell the recorder?"
"Ah blimey! No one wants their hands on that ancient piece of trash."
"What kind of recorder is it?" The old man intervenes and the three turn around to peer at him.
"A cassette tape recorder?" The boy of twenty rumbles, flicks at his nose. The women saunter inside but only after the girl with pink hair fake gags at the old man; lips twisted in an ugly smirk.
"I'll take it."
"But you haven't even seen it."
"I'll take it."
"But you don't even know how much it costs."
"I'll-"
"Here you go." The boy dunks into a bag and peels out a tiny rectangular instrument with reels and wires and buttons, drops it into the old man's hands with a clunk.
"That'd be sixty." The old man palms his bandana clad forehead and kind of vibrates. Pulls out a wad of cash and tosses it into a toffee jar. Liquor, the money was for liquor but the old man is trying to cut down, or so he tells himself.
"Mind me asking what you gonna do with it?" The boy of twenty questions him almost imperceptibly, takes a swig from a bottle, the liquid reflecting a beautiful amber hue; not water, never water.
"Uhh the wind is loud these days and so is the city..." the old man trails off because his eyes are glued to the sloshing liquid which the boy of twenty is downing at a remarkable speed. The old man coughs and fiddles and composes himself.
"The city is...is loud and there's people, lot of people. My son..he likes sounds. The recorder might be of some use, you see because the wind is loud these days-
"Can't he just go out?" The boy of twenty stares at the old man.
"He doesn't...cannot leave the house. Thinks he will catch sick and die. Fears he'll run into someone and contract something, die. Get into an accident, die. Get shot or trampled, die."
"Sir, I'm sorry to hear that sir."
"Sounds...he likes sounds. He watches the television, sounds fascinate him."
"Well it's going to snow soon and I hope you can catch that."
The old man thanks the boy of twenty and starts to paddle back to his truck but the boy calls out to him.
"What's up with that bandana?"
The old man turns around, curls his fingers tightly around the tape recorder.
"Oh you see, my hair, I would tell you, is intriguingly obnoxious."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Harshita Mishra is a second year literature student at Delhi University. She works as an editor at All Ears. She perhaps likes reading more than she likes writing. Oh and she paints too because it aids her anxiety. She watches indie movies and listens to old obscure 80s bands well, because she can.