Ten minutes before closing time, Rakesh sees his daughter enter the store. He is not in his own section, Kitchen Appliances, but in the neighboring section, Surveillance, where he has been fiddling with a pair of binoculars. He happens to be looking through the instrument’s wrong end and gets a miniature view: glossy black hair falls to the waist of a well-rounded figure; a piece of clothing throbs the color of tangerine. As he removed the lenses from his eyes, he finds it hard to breathe.
The jacket of tangerine is the same, but the girl is not.
… It has been fifteen hours since he knew where his daughter was.
I spent the first two-thirds of this story with a distracting voice in my head screaming, “Why don’t you call the police?” I even wondered if that was the point of the story, to show the culture clash between white America and immigrant New York. This wasn’t something I pulled out of thin air; the text gives evidence of his natural reticence: “He is not used to the sort of confessions his adopted countrymen are comfortable with, and apparently comforted by”. Add to that, knowing what can happen to people of color when the police are brought in, I wondered if Rakesh may have had more sociological reasons for not reporting Prithi missing. I still come back to that screaming voice in my head: do NYC police not even bother to look for missing teenagers these days? Does even asking the question mean I have crossed some threshold of super-cynicism?
But it seems none of this is what Durden had in mind when she wrote the story. She writes about it at length in a Glimmer Train essay (which contains what I would consider spoilers; I think the reader’s agony and confusion is part of the aesthetic experience here) and focuses on the problem of “good” characters. I’m not sure I need more than a widower father’s pain to make a story interesting, but apparently a moment of rudeness – a moment I barely even registered – is central to the story. I’m a very bad reader, running off in my own direction, asking questions about police.
Those questions are indeed muted two-thirds of the way through the story by events that turn this into what happens next and finally substitutes blue in for orange in a last scene so cinematic I can practically hear the closing music –plaintive strings, I think – as I watch the snow fall between the lines on the page.
I may not fully understand Rakesh, but I can feel the pain and confusion radiating from him. The conflict between a job he hates yet can’t afford to lose, and the search for his daughter. I understand him best when he describes, with apparent recognition and approval, a moment from his wife’s life, the life they had before moving to America:
After her father died from a heart attack in the midst of chores on the family farm, Rakesh had found his wife crying into a washcloth at the kitchen sink. Yet she had the presence to know when her own emotions were beside the point. She did not insist on cherishing a point of view.
He had no such distance. He could not point to a tree and say, simply, “That is a tree.” Whatever he was feeling engulfed whatever he came upon. The name of the thing was merely a kind of buoy, colorful but forlorn, a marker indulged by an immensity.
He reaches out for help in his own way. At a long-scheduled teacher’s conference at Prithi’s charter school, he’s surprised to discover they know her less than he does. When the conference ended after a few sentences, I found myself annoyed until Rakesh wondered why it only lasted three minutes (“Were he a parent of the leggy, fleece-wearing set, would he have pushed for more of the teacher’s time? Would he have gotten it?”); I’d thought the pacing of the scene was off, but it was painfully, shamefully accurate, and to great effect.
Like Rakesh, the story hesitated to reveal itself, but as I looked at it over and over, pulling quotes, re-reading passages, I discovered hints and signposts I’d missed at first. I want to call Rakesh and comfort him, but I fear that would only make him uncomfortable.