by Sudha Balagopal

‘You’re late.’ Gladys, the typist, examines my scrawny handwriting. She licks an ink-stained index finger, flips through the pages. ‘It’ll be twenty-four dollars for twelve pages. Six dollars extra for the rush job.’

Theo, my neighbor, referred Gladys. He didn’t say she’s expensive.

Gladys wears thick glasses; eyes hidden behind their unkind density. A desk crowds the tight room. I’m wedged into a chair, satchel on my lap. Stacks of papers overwhelm her table.

She takes a sip from a large mug. ‘Wait,’ she says. ‘I need clarifications.’ Her voice is raspy, like a smoker’s. The stench of stale coffee hovers.

I want to tell her many things: I cannot afford thirty dollars; my fingers hurt from writing all day; the professor expects a typed paper; I’ll have to drop the class if I receive another zero; international students must maintain the requisite credits; I don’t want to return to Calcutta, a failure.

Instead, I stare at sturdy shelves that display typewriters.

The gray Remington reminds me of unpleasant typing lessons with the corpulent Mr. Dutta back home. The cloying odor of his hair oil filled my nostrils as he leaned his considerable torso over my table. Every fifteen minutes he came by to remind me, ‘A, s, d, f, g h.’ Or, he said. ‘Qwerty, remember, qwerty.’

I didn’t complete the course. My college application declares a falsified typing speed of thirty words per minute.

The machines on Gladys’ shelves are arranged alphabetically, the green Olivetti between a sleek Corona and a sturdy Remington.

I wonder if Theo owns any of these brands. His machine makes comforting clickety-clacks interrupted by the rough phrrs of the carriage return. When I place my ear against the wall separating his apartment from mine, I learn things about him—when he eats, when he wakes, when he’s on the phone.

A scrap of paper taped on the Olivetti reads: ‘For sale.’

Gladys encircles phrases, flings the sheets toward me. ‘What are these words? Write them out in capital letters.’

I have six more papers due this quarter.

‘How much for that typewriter?’ I like green things: green grass, green parakeets, green mangoes.

Gladys drops her pen, clicks her tongue. It sounds like annoyance. ‘Fifty dollars if I type this paper for you, if not, sixty.’

I write her a check for sixty dollars.

The taillights of the bus disappear into the hush of dusk as I arrive at the bus stop.

I sit on the edge of the sun-heated, bird-dropping-stained bench for thirty minutes. Soon, a dust-laden wind rises, whistles through my hair—an impending Arizona monsoon storm.

I walk the two miles home. Gladys didn’t give me a case for the machine. A spritz of rain dampens my hair. Some drops land on the typewriter keys.

It’s 8:30 p.m. when I walk into my building. A party’s in full swing in the recreation room; strains of Funkytown battle the din—never mind it’s a Tuesday night. The banner on the wall outside the room reads, ‘Congratulations, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer: 7-29-1981.’

No one else seems to have a paper due.

My quail shrieks when I enter the apartment. I pick him up, caress his wings.

When he quiets, I put him back into his makeshift cage—an upside-down laundry basket.

Theo’s television is silent. Maybe we’ll hit our staccato keys in synchrony tonight. He and I held hands once, when we heard President Reagan was shot.

I place an ear against the wall, hear muffled voices, one male, one female. Occasional words waft. ‘Warm today . . . would you . . .’

I’m certain she’s willowy, with carefully tousled hair, a hint of moist color on velvet lips.

All night, I type. All night―between the metallic clacks and kerchunks—my ear’s trained for noises from next door.

All night, my bird is still, confused by the activity, the bright lights.

I re-read the paper with gritty eyes. Dr. E, my professor, will give me another zero.

As soon as it’s daylight, I call Gladys. The phone rings and rings. I imagine she needs her thick glasses to answer.

‘It’s early,’ she rasps. ‘What d’you need?’

‘The typewriter’s ‘I’ is broken, I mean, the letter ‘I’ doesn’t show up on paper.’

She clicks her tongue. It sounds like annoyance.

‘Just write the damned ‘I’ in.’

She hangs up.

Theo didn’t say she can be rude.

On the other side of the wall, his television’s tuned to Good Morning America.

I pick up my pen.

Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Split Lip Magazine, Funny Pearls, Macromic and Pidgeonholes among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2019.