Weekdays, evenings, weekends she operates a day-care center in an immaculate large two-story brown shingle house. Dark, vivacious, pretty, and small, Saraswati has a penchant for gab and in the late afternoon may be found energetically sweeping the street with a short, handleless broom voluably reporting the latest neighborhood incident. This morning, she confides to me, a couple stopped by her fence —at a devilishly early hour— to admire her roses. Her tall tangerine rose trees are prize, her yard perfectly trim, her sidewalk spotless. As she speaks, images of dawn strolls admiring lovely city gardens roll through my mind until my reverie is abruptly interrupted by Saraswati's eyes wide and wild. Her head bobs, her dazzling 28-karat gold earrings jangle in the sun, and her low conspiratorial gentle phrases pitch into violent, high, strident shrills. She thrusts her head into mine —They had a basket and a pair of shears.— She reports that she yelled at them, cussed at them, and called the police. By now my sympathy has shifted to the flower thieves who fell prey to Saraswati's watchful eyes and bottomless wrath. I wonder if she is crazy. She is always calling the police, and her stories invariably unfold in the same way, starting with a description of a rather ordinary event, followed by an exploding engine of crude and repetitive curses. Last spring after an international terrorist was arrested, local news crews appeared on our street seeking the concrete bunker behind Saraswati's house where the alleged culprit lived twenty years ago. The reporters were refused entry, and several hand-printed NO TRESPASSING signs appeared on Saraswati's fences, gate, and front door. She told me that one reporter was so outraged by her lack of cooperation that he threatened her sexually, made vile gestures at her crotch, and shouted obscene epithets from the middle of the street. As she spoke to me, she was obliged to rapidly repeat each vulgar curse while her two tiny slack-jawed daughters clung to her Indian-print skirt. I watched them watch her. She sounded like gangsta' rap.
Finally, she lowered her voice in my ear to point out the young black hipsters who recently moved into the apartment next door. She said —They are dealing drugs— from the parked new model car in front of her house. She has already called the police.
The next time I see Saraswati, I wave, grin, nod. I am too tired to walk over and listen. It's both difficult and tiring to discern between her acumen and her paranoia. However, wave, grin, nod remains a sufficient foundation for friendship and soon after, she calls to ask if I can drive her to the hospital when she goes into labor. Her husband, who has been away in Pakistan for several months, is not scheduled to return until after her due date, and she may not be able to wait. I wonder why her —very good husband— cannot return a week early. Saraswati gives no hint that she resents his research taking precedent over delivery of their child. A brief time passes, and then one evening she telephones with the news that she is in labor —But it is not yet time.— Later, even in my sleep I prepare to go to the hospital, but when I see her again, she has already returned home with a new boy. She proudly reports —My husband arrived a moment before our son was born.—
Saraswati has resumed sweeping the street a week after childbirth, watching the neighborhood, reporting suspicious activities to the police. When she sees me, she throws her arms around me and enthuses to my mother who is visiting from Georgia —Your daughter is my very good friend.— Then she hugs and kisses my mother too. My mother is not an affectionate woman, but she is moved by the embrace of this vivacious, exotic woman. Insistently Saraswati ushers us into her house, a most welcome diversion.
The interior of Saraswati's house is painfully neat, the living room stuffed with plush violet velveteen sofas. There are vases of artificial roses on waxed teak tables, wall hangings of Hindu gods, and the sticky smell of incense. Mother exclaims over the decor although I know in her snotty heart, if it were the living room of a white woman, she would consider it tasteless and tacky. The beautiful little girls flit about the hallways like fairies, and Saraswati orders them in French to settle down. The lovely little baby lies sleeping in his crib. All the children are fairer than —black chicken— and the boy is fairest of all. Saraswati hands me the infant, and mother asks his name.
—Marvin— Saraswati beams as if she said —marvel.—
My mother has few inhibitions, a lifelong characteristic aggravated by age. —Marvin?— She is incredulous. —You named your baby Marvin?— Unrelenting. —You must think of something else to call him.—
Saraswati appears neither offended nor hurt. Rather, she seems relieved to speak frankly about her mistake and humbly admits that since he was born, she has discovered that Marvin is a —heavy— name. It is, however, her father-in-law's name, and —he is a very good man.— Then she tells us the baby's middle Sanskrit name which we hopelessly stumble over.
Later, I cautiously mention to my mother that her comments about the baby's name might have been indiscrete. I recall the text verbatim and mimic her tone of incredulity —Marvin? The baby's name is Marvin?—
Her giggle is sinister as she repeats her lifelong imperative that honesty is voicing one's frank opinion. I look at her in wonderment, having always found hers both amazing and distorted, evidence that she is smart but cruel. Her range and scope could make shudder, and I recall during girlhood her frequent, tragic lament over my —swarthiness— a word which she could barely bring herself to pronounce. No doubt it was her Southern genteel version of —black chicken— and prompted me like Saraswati to go far away.