Congratulations to Reena Shah, winner of the 19th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition! Her flash fiction piece, "Hari Om Senior Center," bested over 3,500 other entries to win the prize, which includes $3,000 in cash, a trip to the Writer's Digest Annual Conference in New York City and more.
Her winning story is featured here.
Hari Om Senior Center
Baby says here is better. More company. More care. More wipe and feed and roll to one side. Button to push for fall. Button to push for sit up in bed. For change sheets that stink of own urine.
I say no matter. You go. Be at party. Do hot yoga. Go to work. Wear short dress that only causes trouble.
Most days I wake up to smell of Sheela’s big sandas while Sheela herself still snoring soundly in neighboring bed. I hold breath in case death needs help. No luck.
Tuesday is Aarti day. They wheel us out to common room to stare at cheap temple. Vishnu so tiny like back up dancer to Shiv. I face garden, which is really parking lot. Someone gives me finger cymbals so I can add noise to out-of-tune devotional singing.
Nurses line up lumpiest majis in front for best view. I make sure their backs are turned before I bark. Just tiny “woof.” Mamta lifts chin from chest and drops it. Jyoti starts cymbaling.
I bark again. More howly this time. Cause small disturbance at nurses’ station. Guyanese with hairy arms looks up. Eyes dining room. Mamta still hunched. Jyoti clapping cymbals like toddler.
When nurses go back to paying no attention I growl. Guyanese puts hands on wide hips and scowls. This time, eyes settle on me. I pick up cymbals and join cling clang.
Tuesday is also Jain lunch day. No onion, no garlic, no ginger. No taste. Ketan married to Jain woman who he calls “Honey-Hona.” Thirty years I hate her quietly.
When lunch tray comes I don’t even look because Tuesday is also when Baby visits from Manhattan. She makes big show and gives gifts to Guyanese, old costume jewelry in new boxes, then rolls me out to fake garden. “Ammi! Look how sunny for you!” As if sun does not rise every day.
Baby thinks I am saint, that her ammi is all shanti shanti because whole life I smile and say no problem. Sell gold bangles to go to America? No problem. Want love marriage? No problem. Make kitchdi with stinking olive oil instead of wholesome ghee? Koi vandho nahi.
I hear her on phone sometimes with Brahmin husband who drinks daru every night. Black label-flack label. Says she wishes they had extra bedroom. Wishes I remembered more. How at least I have Guyanese who makes sure I sit in TV room in Jewish section and do arm up/arm down like stupid monkeys.
Baby thinks I’m always smiling but really fake teeth are just too big to properly close mouth.
Today Baby brings my favorite treat – avocado toast topped with methi masala. I fold my arms and wait for Baby to start fussing and begging until avocado turns to sad brown mush.
But she hardly takes notice. “Ammi, you won’t believe our luck,” she says and tells me Ketan is getting divorce. No more Jain daughter-in-law? My heart gives small jump. My mouth twitches. I almost smile, and Baby looks at me hopeful. But who cares if Ketan no longer married to woman who talks too loud and sits on his lap during family parties? I stare at toast like a deaf/dumb and Baby nearly cries.
Once Baby leaves, I rush to eat toast before Guyanese wheels me away.
Back in room, Sheela is filing her nails. Like she big film star. Like her panties are not same diaper I tugged up Chumpak’s legs for eight years. She wears lipstick as if her face does not scare small children like rest of ours. Allowed to stay in room all day because she is like many sacks of grain.
At night she clutches diamond pendant in fist. Who knows why she does not give away all diamonds to daughters. To wear here for me? Behenchod. Whole life I not curse and now I say behenchod. I look at real Sheelas in filmy magazines, same magazines I not let Baby read in high school. Push on their small, hard nipples.
Before sleep, I tell Sheela stories. Nurses cook daal in chicken broth to make tasty. If Medicaid misses payment they put you on footpath.
Sheela’s eyes grow round. Like infant with no knowledge.
Tomorrow, I’ll stop. Stop taunting Sheela, Stop eating Baby’s treats. Bandh. Finished.
But tonight I make big fat howl like street kutaro having babies. Bigheaded ones like Ketan and Baby and my one other that died. How she tore me open and still I held her.
Guyanese rushes in. I drop chin and fake sleep so instead she yells at Sheela. “What is wrong with you? Why you making such a ruckus? You’ll wake up all these tired ladies.” I hear Sheela whimper and feel small pleasure.
At first I am dreaming. Feel hands on my arms and legs lifting me out of bed like I am Rani Victoria. Like I am a girl again. Bells ringing like temple bells in Mumbai breeze. Like subziwallah calling my name, telling me he have best okra and tomato for sale. How he touches my hand. How it rings and rings inside me.
But then I am in chair with feet dangling because whoever it is forgot footrest. Wheels me out to car park where sky is night blue.
I see Mamta. I see Laxmi and Jyoti. No Guyanese. Just night nurses who rush around like birds.
Smoke fills common room. Fire from no good aarti.
I grip armrest to look behind me.
Where are fire trucks? Why is no one throwing water? Why, when Sheela is still inside with melting plastic gods? Though I care not, I feel pain in chest. Sheela alone and stupidly asleep. Baby who we named Rhea because Champak loved rivers. Rhea, who was born after dead baby came and went like rains. I open my mouth and raise my face to the moon, howl like it can hear me. I see her, little ghost I made myself.
Reena Shah feeds the subconscious level of her brain that she uses to write by remaining mindful and present of the everyday moments of her life. Even when going through her daily tasks, Shah makes an effort to remain aware of the moment so that when she sits down to write, she is ready to get lost in her imagination without distraction.
Shah chatted with Writer’s Digest from Costa Rica, where she is living with her husband and two sons on a one-year leave of absence from her job as an elementary school teacher. Shah revealed her secrets to writing every day and how she feeds her creative brain.