The coffee pot was empty. The office refrigerator was beginning to smell like feet. Charu took off his tie and tried to rub out the creases, when his co-worker, Ronald, laughing at the top of his lungs, entered the breakroom.
Charu kept his eyes low, as he pressed his tie against his leg. But Ronald’s voice grew louder and louder as he made jokes with his group who would follow him all around the office like it was high-school politics.
“So I was in New York this weekend and my god, all these fucking protestors took over the streets,” he said. “All that noise. I couldn’t take it. Me and my friends we got some whistles, you know, the really loud ones?” Already those around him were starting to laugh. Charu rolled his eyes, as Ronald continued with his story. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Ronald mimicked the protestors. “Let’s be serious. That guy was a fat fuck. All this black stuff. Just garbage. Heck, even I had a run in with the police once, but you don’t see anyone rallying for white guys like me, do you?”
Charu took a deep breath. He glanced. Ai and Rajesh were part of the group, which wasn’t a surprise to Charu. They were also the ones laughing the loudest.
“Am I right?” Ronald said.
At first, Charu, who was focused again on his tie, assumed Ronald was looking for further affirmation from his crew of so-called friends. “Am I right or what, Chaaaruuuu?” Ronald said.
Charu kept his head down, as he wrapped his tie back around his neck, and began to do the necessary knots. “It’s too early for this…” he said.
“Too early? Too early for what? We’re just talking here,” Ronald said. Charu could feel him inching closer. “All I’m saying is that Eric Garner could’ve lost a few pounds, you know. That’s all. Am I right or wrong?”
Again, members of the group chuckled. Rajesh laughed.
Charu narrowed his eyebrows at his own shoes, as his hands continued to tie his tie around his neck, as tight as he could without it hurting.
But Ronald’s voice echoed. “Why do you have to take everything personally?” he said. “It’s not like you’re related to that fat fuck, are you?”
Charu punched him in the nose. There was an audible gasp. Ronald tumbled back, and then tripped and fell onto the floor. Blood dripped down his chin and onto his hands. Ronald, with wide eyes, looked at the blood and then looked back up at Charu, who simply raised an eyebrow at the mess and walked out. Once he was at his desk, he could see the others helping Ronald up to his feet and bringing him tissues. Charu watched for a bit more, till someone in the cubicle in front of his also stood up to get a good view of what was happening.
. . .
When Charu told his friend Khalil about what he did, Khalil sighed. Even though Khalil lived in New York City (technically Queens), Charu could sense Khalil also rolling his eyes.
“You’re lucky he didn’t file a complaint about you…” Khalil said, as he and Charu spoke on the phone that same day. Charu was in his apartment in New Brunswick, gazing out the window at the other buildings that were starting to light up. There was an empty scaffold hanging from a top floor.
“He has too much of an ego,” Charu said.
“Are you still going for that promotion?” Khalil asked.
“Of course I am,” Charu responded. “Look. I may have overreacted. But still, I know what this is all about.”
“Okay, just checking, cause I don’t need you punching anymore white guys in the face, even though in a way, it does feel like cosmic justice…”
“Does this mean I can punch them in the butt?”
“In the butt? What?” Khalil laughed. “That’s insane!”
“Give them one good whack in the butthole,” Charu said, causing Khalil to laugh and even cough. Once they settled back down, Khalil told Charu to visit him.
“My uncle’s place has more space now,” he told Charu. “We cleaned out a whole lot of stuff from the other room so you should come by anytime you want.”
Charu agreed he would but when the time was right. After ending the conversation, Charu ate some cereal and prayed to Ma Kali, and after that, he watched some TV and imagined he was in the show.
. . .
Charu, who was Bengali-Indian-American (born and raised in East Brunswick to Bengali Indian parents), was one of the few people of color at the company. He knew that if he was able to get a promotion he could be in a better position to perhaps hire and bring in more black and brown faces. He also understood that even though he was a top employee, the promotion still depended on key moments. His supervisor told him and a few others about the owner coming in next week to ask them about their long-term visions for the company. Charu already finished his powerpoint and was adding the finishing touches each and every day, whenever he could find time. On Monday, Charu arrived extra early to work so he could make some more changes to the presentation, but just as he was sitting down at his desk, he was hit with an awful stench. He instantly stood back up, and walked around, thinking it was coming from somewhere else like perhaps the elevator. No one was else was at the office yet, so he took his time tracing the stench, and he followed it back to his desk.
Charu found a brown bag in one of the desk drawers. With a hand over his face and with tissues, he opened the bag and found what looked to be dog shit inside. He threw it out in the restroom, and washed his hands, over and over again. By the time he was done, his co-workers were at their desks. He walked back to his own and saw Ronald and his “friends” smiling at him. Charu didn’t react. He simply sat down, poured some disinfectant into the desk drawer, and went back to work. The next day, the internet and power cords for his computer were gone. He spent the morning looking for new ones and finally found some on the floor above theirs. Like before, he could see Ronald smirking and sharing his joy with those around him. As the week dragged on, papers from Charu’s desk were found shredded. Books he borrowed were dipped in hot water. By Friday afternoon, Charu had formed a plan.
. . .
After finishing his main assignments, Charu left work a few minutes early, got his car, and parked it across the street from their building. He watched as employee after employee walked out. Rajesh was the last one to step outside, and once he got into his own car, Charu turned on his engine and followed.
Charu followed Rajesh along Route 18, past New Brunswick, and even Jamesburg. Rajesh eventually stopped his car in front of a large white house. The street lights were on, although the sidewalks were all empty. Rajesh parked the car in the driveway and walked upto the front door with a bouquet of flowers. Charu watched from a block away. He zoomed in with the camera on his phone as Rajesh knocked, and a woman appeared. She beamed and threw her arms around him, and before she pulled him inside, Charu took a quick picture.
After taking the picture, Charu parked his car at the very end of the street, alongside a dozen others. It was around midnight when Charu noticed car headlights beaming through the dark. Charu quickly recognized the car and followed once more, this time all the way back up to Monroe Township. Rajesh stopped again at another house, and knocked on the door with a box of chocolates in his hands. Another woman greeted him, and Charu snapped an image of her arms around Rajesh’s shoulders.
Charu drank whatever coffee was left in his thermos and waited. Bits of sunlight peeked through the clouds as Rajesh left the house. Charu honked once Rajesh’s car was passing his on the street. Immediately, Rajesh hit the brakes, and Charu smiled at him. Rajesh’s eyes grew wide.
. . .
“What do you want?” Rajesh asked after Charu sat next to him in his car.
“I know you’ve been working on Ronald’s presentation,” Charu said, as he would glance at the houses around them and also at Rajesh.
Rajesh remained silent, as looked down at his feet.
Charu smiled. “Let’s go to your place,” he said, “I’ll drive.”
Rajesh’s apartment was the same size as Charu’s, although it had fewer windows. Charu instructed Rajesh to turn on his computer, which Rajesh did, without saying a word.
Charu then told Rajesh to open up the file for Ronald’s presentation. He stood over Rajesh as Rajesh silently clicked on the correct one and waited for it to download.
Once it filled the screen, Charu leaned over Rajesh’s shoulder and quickly examined each powerpoint slide. He told Rajesh what he needed. Again, Rajesh didn’t respond, but Charu simply looked at him and reminded him about the photos.
Rajesh stared at the screen.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be here all night to give you some moral support,” Charu said and collapsed on the couch. The seconds and minutes ticked away. Cars began to fill up the streets again. But just as the buses roared to life, Rajesh placed his hands on the keyboard and typed.
“It’s done…” Rajesh murmured.
Charu yawned and inspected the work. He thanked Rajesh, asked him if he wanted some breakfast.
Rajesh shook his head. Charu shrugged, and left.
. . .
On the day of the owner’s visit, about a dozen employees stood in the main conference room. The owner himself, a balding man who looked a lot like an overweight Hugh Hefner, was the only one sitting down. After Charu’s presentation, Ronald was next.
“This is what I think will not only continue our company’s success but take it to the next level,” he said, as the owner squinted at the screen, as his assistants took turns whispering in his ear.
At the start, Ronald’s presentation went smoothly. In fact, his slides were full of color and buzz words that were very eye-catching. However, just as he was getting into the facts of his proposal, the slides went blank.
Ronald apologized and tried clicking onto the next slide, but those as well included no extra information.
“Uh, I uh don’t know what’s going on,” he said, with sweat trickling down his face. “I uh I promise you that I had things on here,” he said and glanced at the others.
The owner had his eyebrow raised. His assistants stopped whispering in his ear.
Ronald kept clicking but nothing was showing. He kept trying until one of the supervisors got up and showed him the door.
Ronald tried to explain but stuttered and as he left, he looked at everyone in the room. Once he looked at Charu, he glared. But before he could say anything, the supervisor nudged him back into the hallway and shut the door.
Charu stood with everyone else, and listened to the owner’s main assistant, the one standing closest to him, talk about the needs of the company and so forth. Charu paid attention of course. But he couldn’t help but also stare and stare, till everyone turned into blurs.
. . .
At the end of the week, Charu decided to visit Khalil. Charu himself rarely travelled to New York, even though to most New Jerseyans, the city (as it’s called) is the holy grail (and for most New Yorkers, New Jersey is a freakish offshoot like a mutant growing in your left shoulder). Still, Charu needed a break, and so, on Friday night, he stood on the train platform, with his backpack slung over his left shoulder, and some gloves to protect his hands from the growing cold.
He tried to focus on something other than work but his mind kept bringing him back to the conference room, when it was just him and the owner, and the owner’s main assistant.
“We would like to know more about your background,” the owner’s assistant said, as the owner himself remained seated and didn’t say a single word throughout the conversation.
While trying not to be rude, Charu did his best to make eye contact with the owner and the assistant, who was an American of East Asian descent.
“I graduated from Rutgers University four years ago,” Charu said. “I have since been working here. First as a paid intern, and now as a part-time employee.”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” the assistant asked.
Again, Charu looked at the owner first. Charu had an answer that he believed in but he knew what he had to say.
“I see myself still working and being an asset for the company and still trying to bring in new clients,” he answered.
The owner stared, as Charu stood, and after a few seconds, the owner started to grin, and soon after, his assistant did as well.
“Where’s your camel, miss?” a group of drunk white men yelled and laughed at a woman wearing a hijab. The group of white men rushed through the train platform, laughing and yelling at whoever they could find. They also spat at the feet of an older man with a beard.
“Osama!” they yelled at Charu, “It’s my friend Osama!” One of them unzipped Charu’s bag from behind and just as he turned, another took out his notepad and pens and threw them against the wall. Charu rolled his eyes, and picked them up, and by the time they were gone, the train arrived.
Charu dusted off his notepad and found an empty seat by the window. The conductor made an announcement on what route the train would take.
“We will be stopping at Edison, Metropark, Rahway, Linden,” the conductor said through the loudspeaker inside the train, as Charu clenched his right fist. He looked out the window, as his nails dug into his skin and blood trickled down. “Elizabeth, North Elizabeth, Newark, and Secaucus, and finally, New York-Penn Station.”