by Sudha Balagopal
Dad calls on Sunday morning. ‘Come have lunch with me.’ His ebullience pings an alarm in my brain.
I can’t decline. ‘I’ll bring something. Or, we can go out.’
‘I’m cooking,’ he says.
‘You don’t know how.’ I’m gentle, wary of his emotions.
‘No problem. I’ll ask Mom.’
My breath canters through me.
‘What’s our son’s favourite lunch?’ I hear.
Mom answers, ‘Lasagna.’
‘What ingredients do I need?’ he asks.
‘Lasagna noodles, spaghetti sauce, spinach, ricotta cheese, mozzarella . . .’ she continues.
Mom had the kind of voice that boomed; she never whispered. Now, it comes across the line with a tonal quality I wish would be poorer.
‘Are you ready for this?’ I ask Dad.
I mean his new life.
‘Mom will guide me. Just come. Noon?’
When I ring Dad’s doorbell, he doesn’t answer immediately.
‘Sorry, I was talking to Mom.’
He hasn’t run out of questions—yet.
The rich aroma of tomato sauce and garlic bread fills the apartment. Pain knots my intestines, I want to double over. Instead, I breathe, swallow.
There’s nobody. No body.
Her voice issues from the Mombot, the machine disguised as a ceramic woman. It sits in the middle of the dining table, no higher than a six-inch vase. The dress is pink, the hair dark like Mom’s used to be.
No sooner does Mom finish her long drawn-out answer than Dad asks the machine another question. While the ten-minute response continues, Dad takes the lasagna out of the oven. When he straightens, I notice the buttons on his shirt are misaligned, matched with the wrong buttonholes.
Superior electronics have been faithful to the timbre of Mom’s voice. There’s no hint of the illness she endured. She narrates the story of her high school graduation, how she nearly missed it. ‘Never should have kissed that silly Roy who gave me mono. Thank God I recovered, and thank God I met you that first day of college.’
When she was alive and healthy, Dad wanted peace and quiet. ‘Allow me to read,’ he’d grumble. Or, he’d snap, ‘Will you let me balance the checkbook in peace? Go water your flowers or something.’
She’d walk away in a huff and complain to her plants.
‘Can we turn this off ?’ I suggest.
I want to say, it’s a machine to record personal history for posterity. Someday, my children will know their grandmother.
Dad spent hours and hours asking her questions, recording the answers into the machine. The engineer who created the marvel said Dad could ask a thousand questions. He did.
‘What’s the best dessert to serve after lasagna, ice-cream or chocolate cake?’ he asks Mom.
The lasagna tastes like Mom’s; I cannot swallow more than a few morsels. I don’t want dessert.
‘The machine needs a break,’ I say.
I decide he cannot be well.
I look at the balcony. The plants need sustenance. I pick up the watering can and sprinkle like Mom used to.
When I walk back inside, I notice the flowers are facing indoors, toward the Mombot.
Mom believed in talking to her plants.
Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction appears in Jellyfish Review, Vestal Review, Right Hand Pointing and Dime Show Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com