Kiran Kaur Saini
Three decades had passed since Harminder Singh had heard that laugh. It was thirty years distant and it was another country, on the other side of the world, but there was no mistaking it. Lalbir Singh had a laugh like one imagined the Buddha would have. Even when they were youths, teenagers on the soccer team in Lahore, when Lalbir's fists pumped in the air as he ran back and forth in front of the goal, Lalbir Singh's laugh sounded like the guffaw of a fat prophet, wise beyond the span of a human lifetime.
Now, the fog was so thick on Seventh Avenue that Harminder Singh could not see to the other side of the street. First had come the slamming of a few car doors, the dim glow of a taxi cab's sign lighting up, a woman's voice like a single bell in the night, and then the rolling peal of Lalbir's laugh. Harminder could picture his towering figure stepping onto the curb, a bird-like, tinkling woman on his arm, wearing delicate gold bangles and a feathery gold necklace across her collarbones.
Harminder hesitated. In a way, he had the upper hand. He had clearly heard Lalbir Singh, but Lalbir Singh did not yet know he was there. It was like the perfect moment to score a goal. Harminder balanced on the balls of his feet without moving. If he did nothing, he would have the upper hand forever. Thirty years from now, he might run into Lalbir Singh again, far from here, and he might say, "Lalbir Singh! Weren't you in Greenwich Village late in New York in the wintertime? Weren't you getting out of a taxi cab?"
Lalbir Singh would be surprised, "How do you know that?"
But Harminder Singh would only say, "I think you went down into the Vanguard to hear a jazz band."
Lalbir Singh would say, "You are right!"
"You see, Lalbir," Harminder would say, "it's just like old times. I can still kick a goal past you when you aren't looking." And then he and Lalbir Singh would embrace and clap each other's shoulders and sit down together, share a drink, and reminisce the night away.
What would make it even better was if he could describe the woman Lalbir Singh was with. Harminder stepped lightly into the street. The fog was so think that when his foot left the curb, it landed in a deep puddle Harminder hadn't seen. His shoe filled instantly with water.
"Damnit," he muttered as his sock squished against his insole as he crossed the street.
On the other side of the avenue, a few American couples walked arm in arm. Harminder looked north and south but could not see Lalbir Singh. Over his head, the Vanguard's sign buzzed slightly. He peered into the darkness at the bottom of the stairs and started down.
"Fifteen dollars cover," said the man at the curtain.
"I just want to see if a friend of mine is here. Did a big man come in here? Tall, with a beard and a turban? And a small woman on his arm? It was probably a maroon turban. He always liked red."
"I don't know, man," said the bouncer, "but it's fifteen dollars to get in."
"Okay." Harminder shouted over the sound of the band. He pulled out his wallet and gave the man the last of his cash.
Inside the red and yellow light made Harminder squint after the cold darkness of the fog.
"Bar or table?" asked the waitress. Harminder looked at the jostling patrons at the bar. Lalbir was not among them.
"Did you see a big man come in here?" Harminder asked. "A big man with a beard and turban, probably in red? About my age?"
"I don't know," said the waitress. "Do you want a table?" She began to lead Harminder into the room.
"No," Harminder said. "Against the wall."
It was perfect. From here he would be able to see everything. He would memorize every detail: what band was performing, what songs they played, what solos were taken. He would memorizes how many waitresses, what they wore . . .
"Two drink minimum," the waitress said. "What'll you have?"
"Oh," said Harminder. He looked into his wallet. "Is a credit card okay?"
"I'll open up a tab." She took his card away and disappeared back towards the bar.
When he saw Lalbir Singh, he would recite every detail of the night. He would make Lalbir laugh like never before. Lalbir Singh would laugh so hard that tears would roll down his face. He would be a crying Buddha.
Harminder's beer came, and he began to sip it. The red and yellow light began to envelop Harminder like the fog outside. Yes, he was going to be responsible for giving Lalbir the best laugh of his life. He would be the one to give Lalbir Singh the laugh he would remember well into the twilight years of his old age.
Kiran Kaur Saini
's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Henfield Prize for Fiction, and a Pushcart nomination, as well as fellowship residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.