WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU

 

 

A long time ago she had been part of an entourage that traveled to India with the Beatles.  She had been invited.  It’s not exactly a known fact.  There were other people who tagged along and received terrific publicity, had their photo in Look or Life, wrote articles, books, gave interviews that generally exploited the Beatles, the Mahareeshi and India; for what that was worth.  Some forty years later, Mrs. Calcutta almost can’t believe it herself — she was there.  Another little known fact: there were two Mahareeshis on the scene.  The second Mahareeshi (dubbed the lesser Mahareeshi by Beatle George) had given her her new name:  Mrs. Calcutta.  Telling her: You are our mother and our father.  She had traveled to India as Katie Rose Klugen, and she left transformed.  Epic.

When you’ve been on the inside track of something that big, that momentous — historic, really; well there’s never again the need to worry about catching the last errant train.  India.  And she’d literally imploded, all blocks to her mystic pathways released.  Up till that point her life had been fairly humdrum.

~~~

 

Last year Mrs. Calcutta returned to this Queens neighborhood where she’d grown up.  Her elderly mother had fallen ill eventually passing from complications of pneumonia.   The two bedroom co-op left in the will.   There were no siblings.  Crumbly with age, nevertheless the roomy old place had a nice park view from a triple window in the living room, and was still furnished mostly with her mother’s things.  Some of them, like the red lacquer Chinese coffee table, pretty damned nice.

She ran her hand across the smooth-as-glass finish, remembering the story about her dad shipping it home to her mother, during the Second World War.  She pictured him in China haggling over the red table in a marketplace where chickens hung by string fastened to their ankles.  She wondered a moment if chickens were plentiful during that period?  Her dad had been in Army supply and knew how to get things.   After the war, he’d somehow procured this apartment; though decent housing in and around New York City had been scarce.  Then he left for good when she was about three or four.

Well, Mrs. Calcutta had options.  She could stay on in Queens or sell the place.  The town itself was becoming problematic.  Filthy.  An almost deliberate attempt to ruin what had been a green and grassy oasis just beyond city limits.  Accumulating trash along the curbs, graffiti showing up everywhere depressed her.  Most buildings had those steel window guards that clamped down at night to keep out the junkies.

In the mystical trade for many years, she had recently rented a small storefront on one of the main drags.  Minus a window guard, already hers had been smashed.  So much for the honor system, she’d thought.  Not that she had anything in particular against junkies.  These days, more than ever, she understood the great societal need for drugs; though it was probably half a lifetime since Mrs. Calcutta let even a mere joint rest between her lips.  Been there, done that was her stock reply.

Back then. When she was a petite waif-girl, skinny and flat chested with all those protruding bones.  Elbows, knees, chin, cheekbones.  Raffish hair chopped off in a pixie-cut, huge saucer eyes lined with kohl; eyes that took up a good deal of the surface area on her face.  Somewhat coincidentally (though Mrs. Calcutta believed in no such phenomenon) around that same time a certain artist was becoming rich and famous painting faces with impossibly large round eyes, faces that found their way onto greeting cards.

The summer after high school graduation, she’d hopped a plane to LA, ended up in Malibu, at this hip party where the Beatles happened to be partying.  Her face striking a chord with John Lennon.   He’d sniffed her hair like no tomorrow, wanted to know was she the face for the waif-faced model?  Eventually George got into the act, too, but later.  Each in his own way and his own time.   Even the flowing Mahareeshi in his robe was bewitched, inviting her to come along to India.  Sacred.  He’d murmured it into her third eye.

~~~

 

On a train that may have been traveling from Mirat to Ranpur, or Mayapore to Pankot, the Mahareeshi plucked another Mahareeshi practically out of thin air.  That second Mahareeshi seemed to float, materializing from out of the miniscule cloak room in the stuffy train compartment.  Naturally, being the Beatles, they had taken over all the first class walnut-paneled railroad cars.  Everything very British colonial, leftover from the days…  velvet train seats worn down to shiny, mirrors darkly mottled glass, bronze wall sconces and other accoutrements decayed and moldering.  Centuries of dust in the folds of the train curtains.  Not that anyone on that spiritual junket seemed to notice, or care.  Dirt!  Dust!  It was of no significance.

By way of explanation regarding the second Mahareeshi, George told her the lesser Maharesshi was a true Maharesshi all the same.

Ringo, juggling drum sticks in the bong-filled air, said fucking A more than once, as if to confirm the second Mahareeshi’s good standing.    

Paul sat alone and silent.  Brooding in his seat.  Or perhaps just sleepy.

John, in her memory, inexplicably missing from that moment.

At any rate, the lesser Mahareeshi, chubby in the way of the upper Mahareeshi, kept smiling and smiling.  He picked out Mrs. Calcutta to smile at from almost the first instant.  He bobbed up and down like a buoy.

There are other girls on this train, why don’t you smile at Marianne Faithfull? had crossed her mind.

Yet for all his intense cheer there was trouble brewing in his inkpot eyes.  He often looked cloudy and unsteady, mumbling in his native tongue, and sometimes he called her Mister Calcutta; once requesting she wear a necktie to bed.

At that, all the Beatles except Paul had burst out laughing.  Then Paul said How bloody original and told the lesser Mahareeshi to Give it a rest.   Then John told Paul:  You’re confusing things.  The lesser Mahareeshi continued to be confused throughout most of the journey.  India.  All very strange and wonderful.

Of course after a time things began winding down, as things are apt to.   Disagreements arose.  Where to chant, the hill or the garden?  Which foods to eat, who not to invite to dinner.

As for Mrs. Calcutta, some private arrangement had been worked out by John and George, though of the two, George came to her less frequently, engrossed as he was in what would become “Within You Without You.”  She’d heard those particular words spoken but didn’t know beyond them at the time.  

And, what of it?   She liked guessing.  Would it be John or George parting the mosquito netting that draped her bed?  Uncertainty making it all the more wondrous!  Two Beatles at her beck and call!  Or, she at two Beatle’s beck and call!  Either way, it was practically a spontaneous miracle (though Mrs. Calcutta did not believe in miracles).  Devising her own secret game, she placed roots in her ears to blot out their voices, keeping her eyes shut.  Revelation coming only with the kiss.

Then one night after a solid week of mud weather, the lesser Mahareeshi beat it out of the compound.  Who could blame him?   He’d been taking heaps of abuse from the upper Mahareeshi who fingered him for this or that infraction.  As minor as leaving the cap off the toothpaste!  His absence not discovered until morning.

By that time on the journey things had pretty much cooled across the board. The news services picking up and reporting trouble from within the enlightened circle.  Someone (disgruntled servant?) leaked information.  Someone banged a hole in Ringo’s snare drum.

In her opinion he handled the situation well.  No big deal was all he said.  Quietly, meditatively.  Though under that cool friendly exterior Ringo’s nerve endings never stopped jumping.  Mrs. Calcutta saw them doing a sort of jitterbug movement.  Sometimes they acted like ball bearings that kept trying but missing their connective point.

~~~

 

At last, the inevitable goodbyes.  She scarcely felt hers, though her mouth had opened appropriately, the right words poured out, her arms had extended to give and receive hugs.  Then Mrs. Calcutta flew away to Hong Kong.  She’d always dreamed of seeing the Chinese junk boats sliding through the harbor in a purple sunset.  She had money in her purse (a quite considerable sum) thanks to John and George. After a couple of weeks in a noisy flat in Kowloon, where the neighbors strung washing across the balconies, she packed for Macao.  She heard Macao called practically prehistoric and that sounded good; Kowloon under siege from street construction day and night.  One thing she had learned from India: she required the quiet breath.

Built low to the ground, and dusty, Macao had the feel of a Mexican border town.  What motivated Mrs. Calcutta to stay on a few years, she still can’t explain; but stay she did, operating a small truck stop café for people coming off the tour buses in need of light refreshment (after Macao she would put down stakes in seven major cities then broadly called The Orient).  Why that particular region of the world had called to her, she couldn’t say.

And, in all honesty, she couldn’t say she missed a one of them.  Not John, brilliant and ethereal.  Or sweetly sensitive George.  Or the other two Beatles who’d become lumped together like sticky oatmeal.   Elusive reasoning.   In fact, Mrs. Calcutta did not like saying the names of the other two out loud.  She also did not miss either Mahareeshi.  Her time spent in India was her own to claim.  Grown used to her new name, and deciding to keep it, while in Macao, she began noticing things differently.

It began with the people stepping down from the tour buses.  Many looked frustrated, unhappy, the elderly in particular who struggled with the somewhat steep bus steps, as if it meant life or death.  And she would look and immediately know everything.  Infancy down to their last rattling breath.  Spread out nice and orderly in front of her.

Besides the orange swizzle drinks, Chinese beer, and paper thin sandwiches, she had something else to offer people.  Tacking a sign onto the flimsy, termite infested veranda post:  MYSTICAL READINGS (free).

~~~

 

“I’m not sure about that,”  said Mrs. Calcutta.

At her storefront location in Queens, sitting opposite a fleshy, middle-aged male client, the table draped in batik-cloth, she was feeling squeezed.  The single room had required a separation so she hired a carpenter to partition off the waiting space from the consult space.  It turned out all wrong.  The waiting area now way too large, the consult area too tiny to comfortably accommodate both of them, a table, a pair of folding chairs.  Not to mention the man’s overt misery adding to the tight feeling.

For a moment her mind shifted to India.  Its open fields, wild and expansive, as seen from the train windows long ago.  She tried adjusting her chair but it was already smack against the partition wall.  The fake wood paneling with its flat bulbous knots like lips sucking air out of the space.  She took some quick breaths in and out.

She had once known the Beatles.  People passed this information along, it brought people in for a reading.  As the story goes, she had found her spiritual awakening in India on that pilgrimage.  What the heck!  It wasn’t quite like that.

The upper Mahareeshi, quickly growing bored with her, had wanted to toss her off the train.  Literally.  Every time he came within ten feet, she was forced to change cars.  It was exhausting.   He kept calling her idiot over virtually nothing.  Then he called her stupid idiot, all on account of a small fire (easily put out) after she accidentally dropped a match in the lavatory bin.  Everyone standing by benignly while she sobbed.  Even John and George, the train rocking, the Mahareeshi tearing into her.   Soon, maybe a day or so after, the appearance of the lesser Mahareeshi.  Nobody thought much of it.  Not then, not now.

The news services stalking the pilgrimage, had printed a most unflattering photo of her, half-kneeling in the fields beside a young spotted deer, her head tipped at an incongruous angle.

The headline read: Beatle Girl and Billy Goat, Is it Love? 

Goat?   

The implication was hideous.  The Beatles had found it funny.  The article went on to label her a typical American malcontent, mentioning the lavatory fire and hinting that she might be a pyromaniac with tendencies toward bestiality (she’d only wanted to hug the little deer).   In those days bad publicity did not magically convert to good publicity and cash.  When she thought of the deer now, she thought the timing unlucky.

Best to keep everything big secretive; that’s how to get through this life, she thought.  Now she was trying hard to smile at the unhappy man across the table.  Know the unknown and taste the unwelcome —  it had stayed with her all these years, a teaching from one of the Mahareeshis.  Most likely the upper Mahareeshi.

“Please, you have to tell me,”  the man said.  Across from her at the table he looked flushed and sweaty.  She noticed his bottom lip quivering.

Mrs. Calcutta shut her eyes to get away from him.  What could she say?  She couldn’t see his wife, Jodi Lynn.  The wife wasn’t coming across.  A woman he called a princess, and saying she was unfaithful to him.  He was certain.  But he came to Mrs. Calcutta to be one hundred percent sure.  Children are at stake, he told her.

She shook her head and opened her eyes.  “Sorry, I’m still not getting it.  I’ll give you back your money.”

“My money?”  He seemed about to break down.  If he fell against the partition wall, chances were pretty good he’d break that, too.  And if he took back his money, it would negate other things, important things, that she’d already confirmed.  Reducing the whole reading to a big fat zero.   Failure.   She wondered if his princess, Jodi Lynn, ever called him fatso?

Then probably the first time in forty years, Mrs. Calcutta thought of “Within You Without You.”  George’s words infiltrating the tight space.  What he called that space between us—  all his dreamy wall of illusion stuff.

She licked her dry lips.  If the man took his money back, he would leave with less than he came with.  He knew as much, too.  That she could see quite clearly.  Why the hell couldn’t she see the rest of his life?

With some difficulty he stood up in the tight space partially dragging the tablecloth along with him.  Embarrassed, he tried smoothing it; then ran a hand across his balding pate.  “You keep the money,” he told her.   “I’m going home now, to start to trust my wife.”

Maybe it was his hand moving the sparse hairs on his head that caused her insides to shiver.  Again she thought of India, its hills and softly blowing grasses.  Then John, George and the others crowded in, chanting, chanting, everyone as one.  Before the whole thing came loose.

She saw flames latch onto white bed sheets and heard a woman’s shrill laughter ring out.  “Does Jodi Lynn have a lot of red hair?”

His adams apple jumped, a kind of delirium in his throat.

“Long and red, real red, not dyed or anything.”   The man stood straighter.  “You can see her now?  It isn’t good, is it?”

“It isn’t good.  But it’s not forever,” said Mrs. Calcutta standing too.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Susan Tepper is the author of five published books. Her recent title The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a Novel in Stories. Tepper is a named finalist in story/South Million Writers Award 2013. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart, and once for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. www.susantepper.com

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6 Responses to Special Fiction Feature: Susan Tepper

  1. Gay Degani says:

    Wow, Susan, this is a fabulous story. I love it. Killer.

  2. Jayne Martin says:

    What a journey, both for Mrs. Calcutta and for the reader. Outstanding, Susan. I feel the need to play some Beatles tunes now.

  3. susan tepper says:

    Jayne, I think I’ll play me some Beatles tunes, too! Thank you Jayne!

  4. larry strattner says:

    This story touches on all of the things that have made me cynical yet it is poignant,engrossing and more than a little cathartic.

  5. Susan Tepper says:

    Larry, I just saw this comment from you 2 years after you wrote it. Serendipitous? I’m really glad you found this story more than a little cathartic. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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