“family M”

Budi Darma, Translated by Tiffany Tsao

April 13, 2022 
The following short story is excerpted from Budi Darma's newly-translated collection, People from Bloomington. Darma was a novelist, short-story-writer, and literary critic. He received several national and international literary awards. Tsao is a literary translator and writer. Her translations have been awarded the PEN Presents and PEN Translates prizes. She holds a PhD in English literature from UC-Berkeley.

I’ve lived here for a long time, in this gargantuan building with its two hundred apartment units. I’m probably the only one who lives alone, with no wife or kids. So far, it hasn’t bothered me. Even though I’ve never wanted children myself, I don’t mind watching the kids on the playground on the building’s north side. I can see them from my window on the eighth floor. There sure are a lot of them. And since many of them have parents who decide to move after a matter of months, the kids in this building are always coming and going.

It often surprises me that so many people are unhappy about living here. Some say it’s too far from where their kids go to school, and some complain about the lack of public spaces nearby. Others express dismay that the building was built so close to the interstate, which means that the traffic is loud and it’s dangerous for children. And still more are annoyed because there are too many kids here, and it gets too rowdy as a result. And still others complain that the kids here are troublemakers— they get into fights and are a bad influence on their own kids. Sure, there aren’t any public spaces close by, but everyone who lives here owns a car. As for being inconvenienced because of their children—well, then, they shouldn’t have had any.

But my life has always been fairly peaceful. Or it was, until the day disaster struck. My car got scratched. Judging from the curves of the gash, I strongly suspected that some kid had deliberately taken a nail to my car. The little bastard.

Since the parking lot is located on the south side, and my apartment faces north, it wasn’t possible for me to watch my car from the window. And sitting in the parking lot all day was obviously out of the question. My first course of action was to storm to the building manager to complain. After offering an apology, he told me it wasn’t possible to monitor the parking lot day and night. In response to my anger, he said, well, I had signed a document taking full responsibility for my car if anything were to happen while it was parked there. When I asked why there was no one patrolling the parking lot, he said that there were no funds available to pay for a security guard. Moreover, he said, a poll had been circulated a few years prior about hiring a security guard and almost all of the tenants had opposed the idea. If there was a security guard, he said, then they’d have to raise rents, and most people weren’t willing to be hit with a rent increase.

So I decided to visit the parking lot more frequently. Sometimes I’d walk around acting normal, and sometimes I’d squat surreptitiously behind the rear end of someone else’s car. I felt the urge to wring the culprit’s neck, but more than ten days passed, and this daily occupation of mine failed to yield results. I even began keeping an eye on the kids playing on the north side of the building. If any of their movements seemed suspicious, I resolved to shadow them. I’d track them into the parking lot, where I’d catch them in the act and drag them to their parents to demand they take responsibility. Over time, I noticed there were two brothers who were always playing together. The older one must have been around eight, and the younger, between four and five. My guess was that they’d just moved in, and that’s why I never saw them playing with any other kids.

One day, I happened to glance out the window and saw the older brother punch another child. The kid responded in kind, and the older brother stumbled backward but quickly regained his footing and attacked again. An elderly man hurried over. The fighting stopped and was followed by what looked like an argument. The older brother kept pointing at the other kid and a bike lying on the ground nearby, and the kid kept pointing at the younger brother. Before long, they’d made their peace. The brothers resumed playing by themselves, and the other kid rode his bike around the playground. By the time I got downstairs, block several times to try to find them, but with no success.

Another afternoon, from my window, I saw the older brother fighting again—this time with a kid who’d been roller-skating a little while before. Someone had to intervene this time, too. And, as with the previous squabble, the older brother kept pointing at the other kid’s skates, and the other kid kept pointing at the younger brother. Once again, by the time I came downstairs, they had vanished. It was the same when I went in search of them—they were already gone.

A few days later, yet again, I saw the older brother fighting with someone. And as time went on, it became a pretty common sight—him fighting with another kid, or sometimes several children at once. My attempts to come face-to-face with the brothers always failed, as did my efforts to find out which apartment they lived in. But whenever I did see them, they were always dressed in clothes that were too old, or too big, or too small. And then one day I saw what led up to the older brother getting into another fight. This was how it went: The younger brother was running toward the stone benches in the middle of the playground area. From the way he ran, he appeared to be doing so against his brother’s orders. At that moment, another kid ran across his path. The two collided, and both of them fell. I could tell they were crying from their gestures. Another kid came over and tried to punch the little brother. The older brother came to the little brother’s defense, and this turned into a fight, which came to a swift end when someone came and broke it up. When it was over, the older brother carried his younger brother inside. As before, I had no luck finding them in person. Later, I came to realize that they never had any toys of their own, while all the other kids had bicycles, tricycles, roller skates, skateboards, balls, and the like.

Often, they’d just sit there, watching the other kids play. They did make friends eventually, and I saw that whenever someone lent them a toy, the older brother would always let the younger one play with it first. Whenever they borrowed a ball, for example, the older brother would let the younger brother have the first kick. Then I found out what disagreeable dispositions the pair of them had. The younger brother tended to monopolize toys that had been lent to him, which meant the owner would have a difficult time getting them back. As for the older brother—he was aggressive and would beat up other kids for no apparent reason.

One afternoon, at around five, I had to go get my TV fixed. I had called the repair shop and they’d told me to bring it in right away. I was so busy thinking about the TV that I forgot to keep an eye out while walking through the parking lot. It was full, as usual—there must have been around two hundred cars. It was only when I opened my car door that I discovered a new defect—a scratch of the same kind as before. That little bastard. I was looking around in search of who’d done it when I heard a kid yell, “No running! No running!” I hurried to where the sound was coming from and saw the younger brother tearing around, followed by the older brother telling him to stop. And when I got closer, I saw the little runt had a rusty nail in his hand. There was no doubt about it—he was the culprit! I grabbed him, and he began to struggle and cry.

“You mangy mutt!” I shouted. “Think you can get away with ruining my car, do you? Answer me! Come on, answer!” I shook the little punk hard.

When the older brother tried to intervene, I pulled his hair. He shrieked and tears sprang to his eyes.

“Hoodlums, eh? And the two of you are trying to destroy my car? Answer me, you mangy mutt!”

The older brother shook his head.

“So you deny it?”

The older brother continued shaking his head from side to side.

When asked, he said his name was Mark and that his little brother was Martin.

I told him to spill the beans about their parents. He replied that his father’s name was Melvin Meek and that they lived in apartment 315. His mother’s name was Marion, and both of his parents worked. He said that he and his brother had come to the parking lot to play and had looked inside my car to check the time on my dashboard clock. He said that he and his brother had to be back at their apartment by six at the latest, since their parents usually came home at around half past five. If he and his brother were late, he told me, then they got less food at dinner. The later they were, the less food they’d receive, until, if it came down to it, they wouldn’t get any dinner at all. It was while he’d been checking the time that his little brother had found the rusty nail near my car. I repeated my accusation several times, but the older brother continued to deny it.

Later that evening, when I went to their apartment and railed at Melvin Meek, he remained composed in the face of my anger. He told me that his son had already reported what had happened in the parking lot. And he added that Mark had omitted to mention that he’d picked my car rather than someone else’s to look inside because mine was the nicest one in the lot. If his son had indeed done wrong, he continued, then he offered his sincerest apologies. But to his mind, his son would never commit such a reckless deed.

“We’ve taught them to respect other people, to act in kindness, to be helpful, and not damage other people’s property,” he said.

As he spoke, Marion nodded, affirming every word.

I then told him that I frequently saw the boys fighting—that the youngest tended to monopolize the toys he borrowed and that the oldest tended to be aggressive toward others.

“There must have been good cause,” Melvin said firmly. “They wouldn’t fight anyone if there wasn’t. They only get into fights when somebody’s done them wrong. With Martin, well, the only reason he wants to monopolize whatever he borrows is because we don’t have much money. We can’t afford to buy him toys. Mark is in charge of handling this. As the eldest child, he’s responsible for returning all toys to their owners. I’ve also given him full authority to discipline Martin. If Mark does get aggressive, it’s always with good reason, of course. He hates it when people put him down. And I’ve often given him people my blessing to retaliate if anyone does so without rhyme or reason.”

Marion continued to affirm everything her husband said.

Melvin continued. “And, mind you, I’ve taught them personally, Mark especially, to take responsibility for their actions— to admit they’re at fault when they really are at fault, but to be ready to fight if they’ve been falsely accused.”

Yet again, Marion showed her support for her husband by way of vigorous nodding.

Later that evening, I phoned the resident manager (who takes care of matters if anything happens after the building management office closes at five) and informed him of my grievances concerning the misbehavior of Melvin Meek’s children. He stated that he couldn’t do anything about it and that if I was still ticked off, then by all means I should call the police. When morning came, I complained to the regular building manager. He replied in the same way.

From that point on, every time I saw Mark and Martin playing, I felt the urge to get myself a gun and shoot them in the arms and legs so they’d be crippled for life. I found out later that every Saturday and Sunday evening, they and their parents would play together without fail. They’d run around. They’d play on the swings and merry-go-round and monkey bars. They’d crawl in and out of the tunnel structure. I often saw Marion kissing the children and Melvin kissing Marion. I felt the urge to shoot them all in the arms and legs and cripple them for life. I even felt the urge to go downstairs with a machete and cut off their hands and feet. Oh, the urge was strong. Very strong indeed.

One day, I happened to see them in the parking lot. Melvin was in the lead, holding Marion’s hand, Marion was holding Mark’s hand, and Mark held hands with Martin, who was bringing up the rear. They all got into an old car. The paint was faded, there were dents everywhere, and the left headlight was smashed, probably due to some previous accident. Before driving off, Melvin kissed Marion. I thought to myself, How wonderful it would be if their car crashed while crossing the overpass, bequeathing them all with the gift of being maimed for life. But their heap of junk zoomed off, made a deft turn, and sped along the overpass without a hitch.

There was another time, a little before five in the evening, when I was walking down the emergency stairs because the elevators were broken. I had just reached the third floor when I caught a whiff of a foul smell. Upon arriving at the second floor, I realized the source. There was the younger brother, squatting, his expression one of agony, and the seat of his threadbare pants sagging around his rear. The older brother was trying to soothe him.

“You mangy mutt! Taking a dump, are you?” I yelled.

That urge arose: to get a machete and slice off their hands and feet, one by one, and leave them permanently crippled. The older brother swore up and down that his little brother had come down with cramps and had been forced to poop there because he hadn’t been able to reach the restroom in the lobby in time.

“Then why don’t you take a dump in your own apartment?” I growled.

The older brother explained that they’d tried to go back to their place, but their parents hadn’t come home yet and had forgotten to leave the older brother the key earlier that day.

After about of swearing and spitting, I continued downstairs and headed straight for the manager, who was already closing up the office. He listened to me, nodding, then called over a janitor named Jerry, who looked like he was getting ready to go home. Jerry replied in an easygoing way that he didn’t mind cleaning up after Melvin’s kid.

That night I rang up Melvin, cursing out his kid for what he’d done and berating him for keeping the key and locking his sons out of the apartment. After acknowledging repeatedly that he was at fault, he told me that he’d already phoned both the manager and the resident manager to say sorry, and that they’d accepted his apology. He continued, informing me that he’d also phoned Jerry to apologize and thank him, and that Jerry had forgiven him as well.

The next morning I laid into Jerry, cursing him for being so willing to clean up after Melvin’s kid.

Breezily, Jerry replied that, well, he hadn’t gone home yet, so what was the harm in taking on a little extra work? Anyway, he said, he and Meek were childhood friends. He went on to talk about how much he admired Meek, who’d become his neighbor back when they were kids in one of the older parts of town. Jerry himself had lived in this city his whole life and was only a janitor, while Meek had traveled to different states and had a much better job. This was because Meek had the better brain, said Jerry.

Then he started to leave, and just as he was about to turn into a corridor adjoining the hallway, he stopped, turned to me, and said, “Mark told me you were responsible for all the spit. Come on, now. You shouldn’t have done a thing like that. I mean, the kid had cramps and had to take a dump. That’s no reason to spit all over the floor, and the walls, and the emergency-stair handrails. That’s what I call an act of malicious intent. Don’t do that sort of thing again, okay?”

Naturally, when I saw the brothers, I laid into the older one. I was upset that he’d had the nerve to squeal on me to Jerry. My rage left the older brother unperturbed. He said he’d told Jerry because Jerry had asked and because his parents said he should never lie. Jerry would have known I was the one who spat everywhere, even if he hadn’t told him, the older brother said. This time, I felt the urge to get a pair of scissors so I could snip off his tongue and maim him for life.

After showering him with curses, I let him go. And for some reason, I felt thirsty, then annoyed at the fact that, even in a building as large as this one, without any public spaces nearby, there were no vending machines where you could buy a Coke. I walked out to the overpass, and what do you suppose I saw but a broken Coca-Cola bottle? If only, oh, if only the two brothers would fall on a broken bottle and slice their heads open on the jagged glass, I thought to myself.

This thought took root and spread when I read a notice announcing that the current resident manager was moving to Lexington, Kentucky; whoever wanted to replace him should get a form from the office and fill it out. The Town Apartment Association Board would select three candidates from the applicant pool, and the tenants in the building would vote to determine which one would become the new resident manager.

Two weeks later, the three candidates’ names were announced. I contacted all three and declared my dismay that there were no vending machines in a building as large as this where someone could get a Coke. I told each one that I’d vote for them if they gave this matter full consideration. Then, using Meek’s name, address, and, of course, a fake signature, I wrote to Coca-Cola’s office branches in Kokomo, Terre Haute, and Evansville, requesting that they hurry up and install some vending machines.

Since of all the candidates Larry Calbeck seemed the most interested by my proposal, I voted for him. Three days later, the election results were announced and it turned out to be David Dimmet who won. I phoned Dimmet immediately, urging him to consider what I’d suggested before. I didn’t know when they came to install them, but less than a week later I saw vending machines appear on floors three, six, nine, twelve, and fifteen. I then proceeded to imagine the great joy it would bring me to see the brothers slipping and injuring themselves on the broken bottle glass.

Before long, whenever I went out and everywhere I’d go—the corridors, the emergency stairwell, the elevators, the lobby, the lawn out front, the lawn out back, the parking lot, the playground, the grassy fields surrounding the building—the ground would be strewn with broken glass. I’d often see kids in groups drinking from the bottles before hurling them at the stone benches in the middle of the playground. Or smashing them on the merry-go-round, or the monkey bars, or wherever else. It was truly a happy sight.

But I wasn’t satisfied yet, for my greatest and grandest hope had yet to be fulfilled. I’d often see the younger brother bolting across the playground while other kids raced around on their roller skates and skateboards. The shame was, they never ran into him. I suppose the younger brother had gotten used to them and become adept at dodging danger when he saw it. It was also a shame that the older brother never got into any more fights. How gratifying it would have been if a brawl had broken out and the other kids had taken a bottle to his head.

Still, I was elated. For, whenever there were kids drinking Coke nearby, I could tell from the brothers’ expressions and gestures that they were suffering—they were apparently the only ones who never had money to buy any Coke for themselves. The brothers would merely stare at the other kids and, wistfully, draw near. And whenever the kids began having fun, whooping and smashing bottles, it was obvious the brothers never cheered along with all their heart. Indeed, as I watched them from my window, it became clear that it wasn’t just their clothes that were in a bad state, but their bodies as well. There were signs that they weren’t eating enough. As such, whenever any kids were eating cake, they’d start to inch closer.

That they didn’t have enough to eat was finally confirmed one day when I caught them peering into my car. The reason: I’d bought some cake, bread, and peanut butter, but had forgotten to take them up to my apartment. When I came back down, I saw the pair of them gazing at the food in my car, an intense longing on their faces. As I approached, they turned their gaze on me, as if begging me to have pity. When I opened the car door, the older brother confessed he was hungry. He said they’d been late coming home two days in a row, and as punishment, they’d been given less to eat.

“Oh, I see. So you kids want some of this food?”

They nodded.
“In that case, come with me,” I said.

So they did.

I walked over to the area where they kept the trash cans.

“You want all this food?” I asked.

They nodded again.

I asked which one they wanted first, and in unison they pointed at the cake. So, slowly, I proceeded to unwrap it. Their eyes shone with joy and I heard them swallow several times. And then, once I’d unwrapped the entire cake—the whole thing—I spat all over it and tossed it in the trash.

“Yeah, that cake sure looked delicious. Absolutely mouthwatering. And mm-mm, boy, did it smell good! It’s a shame it was too sweet. Your parents would sure get mad at me if you kids wound up with a toothache. So how about a peanut butter sandwich instead?”

They nodded. So I opened the jar of peanut butter, then “accidentally” dropped the jar. Naturally, it broke. Their eyes popped, as they had when I threw out the cake.

“Well, kids, the jar’s broken, so we can’t eat the peanut butter. I’d better throw it away.” And so I tossed the broken jar into the trash. “But we still have the bread. Do you want some?”

They exchanged glances before nodding.

“Hmm. Eating plain bread doesn’t seem very enjoyable. Maybe we should just wait until some other time and have peanut butter sandwiches then. Now that we don’t have any peanut butter, I might as well throw away this bread as well, huh?”

So then I tossed the bread into the trash can, but not before opening the bag and spitting inside it a few times.

That evening, I felt unsettled. I was just about to turn on the TV when I heard a knock on my apartment door. Two women stood before me, one holding a sheet of paper as the other began speaking at great length in a pontificating manner. She said the Coke machines had brought misery of epidemic proportions to the parents in the building. Just look at all the broken bottles scattered everywhere. Yesterday, a four-year-old girl had gotten a cut on her head after falling on some broken glass on the lawn beside the building. And earlier that day, a boy, age two and a half, had cut his hand on some bottle glass. Not only that, a lot of the children had begun demanding money to buy Coke from their parents. Just look at how they were behaving now. They’ve changed, she said. They amused themselves by hitting things with bottles and tossing the bottles anywhere, anyhow. Therefore, it was our collective duty, she told me, to reconsider the wisdom of installing these machines. For this reason, she continued, they were collecting signatures for a petition to present to the manager, so he would reevaluate the matter. If I was in favor of this, she said, please sign. And if I wasn’t, she said, no signature was required. I refused to let her have my signature on the grounds that it was the parents’ responsibility to mind their own children. I then phoned Dimmet, and he said the machines would be removed at once if that was really what the majority of the tenants preferred.

Meanwhile, the sun had set, but there were still a few kids playing outside. I went for a walk, heading in the direction of the parking lot. But once night fell, I circled around, taking a path leading through the trees and bushes toward the playground. Everything was dark. Then, at that very moment, I saw the younger brother pass by, running alone and crying in fright. It was the first time I’d ever seen the mangy mutt unaccompanied by his big brother. So, quickly, I crouched down and picked up a large rock. Once I was sure that I couldn’t be seen from any of the apartment windows, I made up my mind to strike the little mutt down. And once I was sure that I had a clear shot, I hit him from my spot behind the bushes. He let out a long scream. I slipped away, sprinting toward the tulip-tree grove.

I ran straight, then turned down a footpath, which led me to Gourley Pike. Then I slunk through a number of empty streets until I ended up downtown. And then I watched a movie. And I felt terrified. And guilty. And confused about whether I should go home after the movie or find somewhere else to stay for the night. At last, I decided to return home and act as if nothing had happened. And wouldn’t you know it, in this gargantuan building, it really did feel like nothing had happened. There were a few people who’d just come back from shopping and were waiting for the elevators. A few teenagers were playing ball in the lobby. And other people in the lobby were perusing various ads posted on the bulletin boards. Someone went over and put their own ad up before leaving again. It was like this until I reached my apartment: everyone in the building acted as if nothing had happened at all.

Yet, all that night, I was frightened and filled with guilt.

The next day, everything still continued on as usual. Only after I came home at about three was there any indication that something actually had happened the night before. Flyers had been put up in several conspicuous locations, announcing that a tragic event had occurred and that a blackhearted coward was to blame. A little boy named Edward Loveland—four and a half years of age, living in apartment 713—had been hit with a rock near the tulip-tree grove. The flyer went on to say that the boy’s parents had been frantic, but thanks to the help of a few wise, kindhearted souls, had finally been calmed down. The boy was then taken to the hospital, where his condition was declared stable. The flyer also stated that the parents, in great generosity of spirit, forgave the blackhearted coward who had hurt their child. But if such an incident were ever to occur again, the parents would take the matter to the police. The flyer bore no signature. On that same day, I discovered that all the Coke machines had been switched off. According to the small sign that had been affixed to each one, the whole lot would shortly be removed from the building. My hopes were dashed.

Yes, truly, my hopes were dashed. But, then again, maybe the Meeks wouldn’t stick around here for too long after all. During the Thanksgiving holidays, beginning on November 21, a lot of people were sure to leave town, returning only on November 26. Right before Melvin and his family left, I’d pour some sand in his gas tank and puncture his tire with a small needle so that it would take twenty-four hours for the tire to go flat. Just you wait, Meek. Just you wait. And so I waited until the time was right. I waited. And waited. And waited still more. I knew their usual parking spot well, and I knew for certain that the gas tank would be easy to locate and open.

But damn it all, in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, the parking lot became perpetually busy, day and night. A lot of people were there, examining their cars, patching tires, repairing brakes, fixing headlights, and so on. The first snowfall was predicted to happen over the holidays, and traffic outside the city was going to be incredibly busy, so everyone wanted to be positive that their car was in tip-top shape. By the night of the twentieth, a lot of people were already loading things into their cars. A few people even left town that night. And when I went to the parking lot the next day, to my great disappointment, Melvin’s car was already gone. Indeed, about a hundred cars must have left the parking lot that day. Once again, my hopes— all dashed.

I felt terribly alone. While it was true I didn’t have any friends, and while it was true that I often felt lonely, I’d never felt as lonely as I did then. That afternoon, I watched nearly forty cars pull out of the parking lot, and as night fell, another fifteen cars disappeared. Starting on the twenty-fifth, the cars began coming back, and they kept coming all through the twenty-sixth—morning, noon, and night. By the morning of the twenty-seventh, before the working day had even begun, the parking lot was full again, with around two hundred cars. But, as it turned out, Melvin’s car still wasn’t one of them. The twenty-eighth came: still no sign of it. The same for the twenty-ninth. The same for the thirtieth.

That afternoon, someone knocked on my apartment door. A pretty lady, neatly dressed and sweet-smelling, was standing there. She was holding a box with a newspaper clipping pasted to its lid. She asked if I’d read the Daily Herald-Telephone that morning. Not yet, I answered. She proceeded to tell me about how the Meeks had gotten into a traffic accident—a very bad one. They were currently being treated in the intensive care unit at the main hospital in Fort Wayne. Two of them were unlikely to make it, and as for the other two, well, even if they did survive, they’d be severely handicapped for life. Instead of everyone sending them flowers, it would be better if people pooled together to donate money. She then invited me to read the article pasted to the box. I only skimmed it, but I saw Melvin Meek’s name printed clearly. His address—apartment 315 in this building—was printed clearly, too. How I felt exactly, it was hard to tell. Upon opening the box, I saw it was filled with cash. I put in thirty-five dollars, still feeling confused. The woman thanked me and left to knock on another apartment door.

My confusion about my feelings persisted. With each step I took, I felt as if there were no floor beneath my feet. While eating, I’d sometimes find myself forgetting to chew, resuming only when I came to myself again. And after reading something, I’d often forget what I’d just read. After watching TV, I’d have no idea what I’d just watched. And before going to bed, I’d suddenly remember that I hadn’t turned off the stove. And I’d go back to bed, only to realize I hadn’t turned off the radio. And so on and so forth.

The next day, when I ran into the pretty woman wheeling around her donation box, she’d already forgotten who I was. And about a week later, while I was waiting for the elevator, I saw a boy walking toward me—by himself—and on the boy’s cheek was a scar. Then someone else came to wait for the elevator. When they asked the boy about it, I found out that the scar was the result of my previous actions. I kid you not: in terms of physique, height, and size, and the way he walked and the way he talked, he bore a striking resemblance to Melvin’s boy, who was probably about to die. When the elevator came, the boy asked me to press the seventh-floor button for him.

“So you live on the seventh floor, do you, kid?” I asked.

“Yes. In 713,” he replied.

If I’d happened to have any candy with me, I would have given him some.

Time rolled on. And little by little, spring cleared the winter away. I never saw the two women who’d circulated the petition about the Coke machines again. Perhaps they’d moved. Edward Loveland could still be found playing on his own. And sometimes I’d catch sight of the pretty lady who’d collected the donations for the Meeks—though, as before, she never recognized me.

Time kept rolling on, until one fateful afternoon, when the fire alarm suddenly began to ring. Quickly, I put on my shoes, grabbed my jacket, and ran down the emergency stairs. Other people were hurrying down the stairs, too. As I passed the fifth floor, I heard someone say that a kitchen in one of the sixth-floor apartments had caught on fire. Then I saw two police officers with fire extinguishers, hurrying up the stairs. All the while, the fire alarm kept on ringing.

Passing the second floor, I saw Mark with his little brother in his arms. Mark looked utterly exhausted. He kept stumbling, but each time he would try to steady himself once more. Meanwhile, Martin had his left arm and leg wrapped tightly around his older brother’s body—his right arm and leg were in casts. It looked uncomfortable. Someone offered to carry Martin, but both brothers declined.

Then I offered to carry Martin.

“He’s my little brother,” Mark replied. “As long as I have the strength, I’ll carry him.”

Then Martin said, “Mark is my big brother. As long as I can’t walk myself, let me rely on him.” For some reason, my eyes filled with tears.

Upon reaching the lobby on the first floor, as numerous as we were, we scattered: some to the front lawn, some to the lawns to the left and right of the building, and some to the playground. That was where Mark went, and I followed. As it turned out, their parents were already waiting for them, Marion sitting in a wheelchair, Melvin attending her. When they saw Mark come out of the building carrying Martin, Melvin ran, limping, toward them and took Martin from his brother’s arms. Mark ran to his mother. All the while, the fire alarm kept on ringing.

Some people came over from the front lawn and said, over there, they’d seen black smoke billowing from a window on the sixth floor. Melvin continued to carry Martin, and every now and then, the father and son would exchange kisses. And my eyes began to fill with tears again. When it was announced that the fire had been put out, people hurried back in. The Meeks waited for the flow of the crowd to lessen. And I waited for them. Mark was then given the choice of carrying Martin again or pushing Marion’s wheelchair. He chose to carry Martin.

As they approached the entrance steps, I offered to help lift Marion’s wheelchair inside, but both Melvin and Marion declined. In the end, Melvin, limping as he was, finally succeeded in getting the wheelchair up the steps and pushing it into the building. My offer to carry Martin was rejected yet again.

The next day I approached the building manager to ask if it would be a good idea to have a route that people in wheelchairs could take in order to reach the playground and the side lawns. I was aware that such a route existed already for the front lawn. The manager was delighted at my question, and after hunting through various folders, he showed me a document printed on letterhead, written just three or four days before.

“We’ve already brought the matter to the attention of the Town Apartment Association Board,” he said. “And not just wheelchair-accessible routes, but also a public restroom in the lobby for disabled people. I’m sure it won’t take long to be put into action.”

Sure enough, ten days later, the routes were in place, ready for Marion to use. And three weeks later, the handicapped restroom was ready as well.

Meanwhile, the days were growing longer and the sun was setting later. And all the kids began staying on the playground later and later as well. It might still be light outside even as late as eight. And after seven-thirty, the Meeks would always head outdoors together in order to play. The casts on Martin’s arm and leg had been removed. He limped, but could walk on his own, and sometimes he could manage a run. Marion remained in her wheelchair, and Melvin still had a limp. From what news I was able to glean, they would be handicapped for life. Eventually, I found out that they’d moved to an apartment on the first floor. That way, if anything happened (so I overheard from other people) they’d be able to get out quickly, without having to depend on the elevators. This made sense, for according to the safety guidelines I’d read, no one should use the elevators in case of fire.

Meanwhile, I never saw the pretty lady who’d collected donations for the Meeks again. She’d probably moved away. Dim-met moved, too, on account of him getting a new job. As before, a new resident manager was to be elected right away. I never saw Edward Loveland again either—the little boy I hit with a rock. Sure enough, the apartment where Edward used to live was now occupied by another family. Soon, the new resident manager was appointed. I didn’t recognize his name. The Meeks continued to be diligent in their visits to the playground. I often watched them from my window. And, as usual, they were always in accord.

One night, I saw news coverage on TV about a brand-new shopping mall that had opened in Indianapolis. There, onscreen, were several disabled people in motorized wheelchairs, zipping to and fro by themselves. The following morning, I made time to drive seventy miles out of town to downtown Indianapolis. When I got there, I was informed that such a wheelchair would cost three thousand dollars. How wonderful it would be if everyone chipped in again to buy such a chair for Marion, I thought. That same night, I phoned the resident manager. He told me that, actually, several others had expressed the same intention, but when the Meeks had gotten wind of it, they’d out-right refused. They’d said the help they’d received while they were at the hospital in Fort Wayne had been more than enough.

Eventually I stopped seeing the Meeks around at all. Their name was removed from the tenant list in the lobby. Around two weeks later, I saw a new name appear on the list. And when I passed by their old apartment, another family was already living there. From a conversation I overheard between Jerry and his friend, I found out that Melvin had gotten a much better job in a small city in North Carolina. From this same conversation, I also gleaned that Jerry had put in a request to be relocated to another apartment building, closer to where he lived. Sure enough, I eventually stopped seeing Jerry around as well. And other families, too, came and went. And the resident manager kept changing. And finally, even the building manager moved, after finding a better job.

And yet I remain. Still here. Still alone.

Bloomington, Indiana, 1979


From People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Budi Darma. Translation copyright © 2022 by Tiffany Tsao.

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