The engine shuddering to a stop woke me. “Where are we?”
Mother sighed, but eventually pulled out her well-creased map of Arizona. “Here.” She stabbed her finger at the paper.
“Can we walk the rest of the way?” I peered out the window at the desolate landscape. We might as well be on the moon.
“No. We haven’t even crossed the border into Nevada yet, Vijaya.”
Mother and I were already wearing our saris and our delicate sandals. We were going directly to my aunt Varsha’s house to have our hands and feet decorated with henna. All the first cousins would be there. We left directly after Mother got off work, so we wouldn’t be late.
“So, we’re not going to make it.”
“Don’t say that,” Mother said. “We’ll make it eventually. They’ll have to understand.”
But the mehndi—the beautiful, intricate henna! It was my favorite part. I fought against the knot in my throat, against all the terrible things I wanted to say about this stupid, old car.
The two-lane highway snaked along a barren ridge. A dusty bank rose steeply to our right, and dropped away in a cliff to our left. Mother pulled out her cell phone and flicked a long nail across the screen.
A tapping sound at the window made us both jerk.
A man stood, bent at the waist. He wore a thin, button-down shirt and dark dress pants. He looked Indian, but his skin was black as an African.
Mother reached across the seat to roll down the window.
“Car trouble?” The man’s accent was thick.
“Where did you come from?” Mother asked.
“Back there.” He pointed vaguely behind us.
“I didn’t see you.”
“Sorry to frighten you. Do you want me to take a look?”
“Would it be too much trouble?” Mother’s accent shifted as she spoke, like it always did when she was with other Indians. Back home, surrounded by only her non-Indian friends, her accent all but disappeared.
“No trouble at all.” He smiled—a rich, warm smile, I thought.
“I don’t have any money to pay you,” Mother said.
He swatted her concern away and rounded the front of the car, whistling through his teeth.
Ten minutes later he was back at the window. “Just a small problem of the carburetor. You may drive now.”
“It will work?” Mom turned the key in the ignition and the engine responded with a purr.
“Good as new,” the man said, displaying dazzling white teeth.
Mother nodded. “Thank you.” She hesitated. “Will you have any trouble getting where you’re going? I could….”
“No trouble at all.” His head bobbed once. “Goodbye.”
He started back up the freeway. I watched him over my shoulder. He moved purposefully, stepping over kicked-up gravel in his sandaled feet.
Mother watched him leave, her eyebrows contracted.
“Ready?” She didn’t wait for a reply before setting the car in gear. She checked the lane before pulling onto the highway, but there were no other cars. Not a single car had passed since we stopped.
We drove in silence, until I had the courage to ask, "Mother, who was that man?"
Mother opened her mouth to answer, when the scream of sirens rushing up behind us interrupted her.
She pulled onto the shoulder again, her lips moving in prayer. But the cars whooshed past. There were three, followed by an ambulance.
It was only when they careened to a stop, forming a barricade of flashing lights in our path, that my body went rigid with fear.
Mother fumbled with the door latch. She stepped out of the car as the policeman approached. “What happened?” she asked.
I tumbled out of the backseat and wrapped my arms around Mother’s waist. Her warm skin smelled of sandalwood. The beaded silk of her sari scraped my cheek.
“Sink hole,” the policeman said. He was a white man in a uniform, wearing sunglasses like someone on television. “Went down about ten minutes ago. We’re estimating it ate up about five hundred yards of road.”
Behind the lined up cars, I could make out the edge of the crevasse, a deep, jagged fissure.
“You folks hold tight,” the policeman continued. “We’ll have to close the highway, set up a detour.”
Mother caressed the back of my hand with her thumb. Then she turned slowly to look behind.
Perhaps we both expected the Indian gentleman to appear. But no one was there. Only the empty highway, extending for miles in a dusty haze, and the gaping hole ahead.