We based our first trip to India around getting to Hampi. It takes time to reach on India’s famously bad roads, and we’d see lots from the windows of our little tour group bus. That visit to Hampi coincided with a Nandi Purnima, an auspicious and joyous full moon holiday. Nandi is the bull who accompanies the god Shiva, and believers were adorning the statue of Nandi in front of the temple.
Out on the streets the crowds grew larger and deeper. At some point I lost sight of Uwe and the others from our group.
Events became more and more chaotic, and the crowds, snake handler and gigantic chariot of the god all made their way into my third book Grounded. I let a minor character named Kim take the trip I had….
“In the middle of the road a clump of pilgrims whispered among themselves, pointing. A man crouched in the dirt. He was perhaps thirty years old, mustachioed and handsome. Thick hair brushed across the white bands smeared on his forehead. He wore a peach-orange cotton shirt and pants. The man knelt, barefoot, on all fours on a rug. A big copper pot dappled with white streaks and red dots balanced on his shoulders. A string of beads wound around the pot’s lip. A long cobra slid clockwise over the beads, flicking an orange tongue. Hands darted out from the crowd to touch the snake and drop coins into the pot.” – from my book Grounded.
What Kim experiences left a permanent indelible mark on both of us.
Grounded is my third novel. My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out. Books make great gifts!
Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was honored as 2021 IAN Book of the Year Award Short Story Collection Finalist for the Independent Author Network and with a Red Ribbon by the 2021 Wishing Shelf Book Awards of England. In addition, The Trail Back Out was an American Book Fest 2020 Best Book Award Finalist: Fiction Anthologies. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the international 2020 Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts, as well as a Finalist for Greece’s 2021 Eyelands Book Awards.
Click here for my author page to learn more about me and purchase my books.
I’m a little slow sometimes. I recently realized that my new-and-improved wordpress website jadicampbell.com had a birthday in January and is now a year old. (Yes, I’m aware it’s already March!) So, what did I do with a year of blogging?
Last summer I lost my mother-in-law, an old friend, and my dad Bobbo, all within a shocking three-month period. Those were by far the hardest posts to write. But I discovered something: the most personal blog essays are the ones my readers (i.e., all of you) respond to most.
What you can look forward to in the Year of the Rooster: a huge blog thread for my father Bobbo that I’m calling The Animal Kingdom. Occasional notes about my volunteer work with refugees. Lots more quirky posts about places Uwe and I visit. And on-going musings about life, the Universe and everything in-between as I deepen the process of saying goodbye to those who have left.
May you find something here that makes you laugh, creates a spark of connection, and moves you enough so that you reenter your own life with a sense of touching upon mine. That would make the new year of blogging – and all the years to come – worthwhile. As Mae West says, “Come on up, I’ll tell your fortune.” 
They faced a long drive to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The tour office had assigned them a guide. Nupur was a tiny woman of four foot eleven inches and shining, thick black hair. Nupur wore a red dot between her brows and her sari like the robes of a queen.
Their minivan came with a driver and his son. Each time they reached a bad place on the dirt roads the small boy jumped out to assess it. Kim saw deep potholes and was glad for their combined care.
The sun beat down. They drove through parched countryside that needed the rain the monsoons would bring. Each home they passed had water sprinkled in the dirt before the door to keep down dust.
Finally, they reached Hampi, and Hampi looked nothing like the beaches of Goa. Hampi was the surface of the moon. The landscape consisted of huge sandstone boulders with the Tungabhadra River running through it. Here the Hindu god Shiva was the consort of Pampa, goddess of the river.
When they saw where the bus was heading, everyone gasped.
“Holy cows! Look at the tower!” Greg exclaimed.
The Virupaksha temple was a pyramid topped with a spire and a red flag. Impressive from a distance, up close the temple was gargantuan. It towered a hundred and fifty feet above their heads.
Architects had carved the creamy white stone into decorative levels. Exotic gods. Strange goddesses. Female figures spraddle-legged and touching themselves.
A gigantic wooden chariot was parked in the temple’s huge courtyard. Long yellow garlands draped the wagon. The top of the chariot hid under a multi-colored cloth. It ballooned out in wide stripes of reds, yellows, oranges and blues. High up, carved lions raised their paws and carved horses reared.
“Tonight this chariot will carry the god Shiva to the river for the Nandi Purnima,” Nupur informed them. “It’s a Nandi full moon. Nandi’s the bull who attends Shiva, so this is extra auspicious.”
The tour group left the minivan and gawked, mouths open.
Kim’s view was simultaneously filled and obstructed. The front courtyard and Hampi Bazaar Road were crammed with bodies. Worshippers raised their arms to touch Shiva’s massive chariot. Mandapams, porch-like structures once used for commerce or the homes of wealthy traders, lined the sides of the street. Pilgrims claimed spots in them, trying to find shade.
Women in brilliant saris walked past. Old crones with henna-patterned arms carried small children. Turbaned men sampled fruit from a pyramid of dates. An all-white cow rested serenely on a pile of garbage. A painted bus had parked in the dust; a pilgrim dozed on one of the seats with his bare feet sticking out through the open window.
Kim peeked in a shop selling cheap clothes and plastic sunglasses. When she turned, she banged her head on a string of water bottles hanging in the doorway. Sunlight reflected off the mirrored insets of embroidered bags and shirts in the next little shop.
She pushed on through the crowds, trying to spot her group. A couple in a patch of shade looked up as she walked past. Their oxen leant against the cool stones of an ancient wall. The bovine pair had their forelegs tucked under them. Their curved horns were painted crimson and capped in metal. Magenta pompoms with orange and blue tassels hung from the tips; a pile of cow shit steamed.
In the middle of the road a clump of pilgrims whispered among themselves, pointing. A man crouched in the dirt. He was perhaps thirty years old, mustachioed and handsome. Thick hair brushed across the white bands smeared on his forehead. He wore a peach-orange cotton shirt and pants. The man knelt, barefoot, on all fours on a rug. A big copper pot dappled with white streaks and red dots balanced on his shoulders. A string of beads wound around the pot’s lip. A long cobra slid clockwise over the beads, flicking an orange tongue. Hands darted out from the crowd to touch the snake and drop coins into the pot.
When Kim had told her friends back home about the tour, everyone was excited. “Wow! India! You’ll have incredible adventures! It has the most powerful spiritual energy. They say you go to India and come back changed.”
She’d responded with vague remarks; Kim was a reluctant pilgrim. She didn’t trust people who talked about India as a portal to enlightenment.
But Goa was too Western for her tastes after all. After ten days on the beach, she hungered for the real India… whatever that was. She wouldn’t experience more than a small chunk of the subcontinent. What did she expect, beach parties or yoga in ashrams? Goat curry, or moguls and the Taj Mahal? Ayurveda medicine, or Kashmir shawls? Nonviolent resistance, or gang rape and murder on a public bus? Castes and slums and hovels, or India’s headlong advances as a BRIC nation?
There was surely more than the mutilated saint of Goa’s Catholicism. “There are as many religions as there are people on the planet,” Gandhi had said. India was Hindu and as easily Muslim and Buddhist and Zoroastrian and Christian and Jain and Sikh and Baha’i and….
And, Kim reminded herself, India’s a mirror. Travelers who expect poverty and squalor find both in spades. Visitors seeking enlightenment find that, too. What am I here for? If I stay open minded, what’ll I find? She chewed the tip of her pen. Goa was Portuguese, she considered writing, and gorgeous ocean views, the rave scene and meals eaten in beach shacks. Every sentence sounded like factoids from a travelogue.
Keith starts a new conversation now that Glen has left the table. “So, you two have children?”
“Glen has a son. I have three kids of my own: two girls and a boy. They’re somewhere camping with their father this week. I’ve been going insane not knowing where they are or if they know yet. I can’t stop worrying about how my children will hear the news.
“I can’t even get them on the phone. We’re supposed to meet in Seattle, but since planes or trains are out of commission Glen and I are driving from California.”
Keith’s look travels from the wedding band on my hand up to my face. “I see,” he says slowly.
His wife’s next words surprise me again. “I don’t know the particulars (and I suspect I don’t need to) but clearly you and your young man love each other. That’s not a bad thing, Nicole. You’re right: the main thing right now is to reach your children and be with your family. Save the self-recriminations. The rest will sort itself out.”
I can’t speak. I want to thank her and can’t force any words out of my throat.
She’s standing beside my chair with a hand placed on my shoulder when I can bring myself to look back up. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Nicole.”
Joley and Cass watch us without blinking. They stay silent, listening intently as if they know something important is transpiring, as if it’s important that they understand.
We all watch Glen come back in the room. His eyes glitter and I can’t tell if it’s tears from missing Petey. Or being moved by the connection to these four people at the next table. Or a perfect storm of the lives and choices and events that led to Ocean Beaches and a candid conversation about the last time someone believed it could be the end of the world.
Keith smiles as Glen reaches our table. “After eighty plus years on this earth one thing I’m confident about is that answers are seldom pat. And they’re never what we first think. If only life were simple…. And if this is my last night on earth, I’ll have spent it with good people.”
We stand and everyone shakes hands, then hugs. “Don’t skip dessert. You have to try both the cheesecakes. Nectar and ambrosia, I’m telling you. That’s how this lovely evening’s conversation with you two all began,” his smile grows wider. “Life begins and ends happy when it involves food options!”
And with that grounding comment the four of them leave the dining room. Cass hands her grandfather his cane and takes his arm.
“The danger was all the candles. I’d set some on the back of the toilet and on the edge of the tub so people could see to use the facilities. And we placed an old candelabra in the living room. Lynn bent over it and just about lit her bangs on fire. After that just grownups were allowed to go near any candles or handle the lanterns or grill. Responsible adults only.” Her eyes focus far in the past.
“But it was like a party.” Keith contributes, “We were all together. The Robinsons were our best friends and our kids were all roughly the same ages and in the same grades and played together. If this was the end of the world, I was glad the kids were safe and well fed, I’d just eaten a great steak, and I was with the people I care for most. Although if I’m honest, if I remember right that steak had freezer burn. And it was cold outside; it was November. But I remember it this way, the best meal and one of the best nights of my life. Isn’t that funny?”
“Funny….” Sue’s voice trails off.
I don’t know if she considers it funny ha-ha or funny terrible. Maybe both. Cass and Jolie have finished their meals and sit. Their eyes move in their faces as they follow our conversation.
“We didn’t talk about what was happening. It’s not that it happened fast; just the opposite. It was all so gradual. Information kind of trickled out.”
Our own meals arrive, and they fall silent. The waiter leaves, Timber and I start to eat, and only then do they return to the story.
“On the drive home from work,” Keith continues, “I listened to the radio. And while no one reported it as a possible attack, I know that’s what I suspected. I was going to keep that to myself and not worry my family. But when I walked in the house I took one look at Sue’s face and knew that she was thinking the exact same thing. But all she asked was, ‘The city too?’ and before I could do anything more than nod a yes the kids burst through the door to tell me all about the lights in the whole neighborhood going out. We just kind of looked at one another over their heads and it was parents’ mental telepathy, as parents we were going to guarantee their last night on Earth was, like Lynn kept saying about the house being lit up with candles, ‘magic’. And, Jeff.” Keith takes a big swallow of water and resumes in a low pitch.
Timber leans forward to hear.
“He wanted to help. Together we filled a bunch of gallon jugs and pitchers with water. Then the sinks and the bathtub. Later when all the kids had gone to bed we sat with Jerry and Irene and had a night cap. They left and went back next door.”
“’I want to check on the kids,’ Jerry told you,” recalls Sue. “That night was the first time I thought of him as a good dad. Irene always had to haul him home once the two of you got going drinking beer or shooting the breeze out back.”
“Beer drinking doesn’t make someone a bad parent. But yeah, he liked his booze. A twenty-year old Scotch on the last night on earth isn’t a bad thing.”
Sue turns to the girls. “Cass, you referred earlier to Nine-Eleven. In 1965, the scariest thing was the not knowing. Nine-Eleven was a different story. With that one it was clear pretty quick who the enemy was. We used that information as an excuse to act out our lowest common denominators.”
Cass tenses. “Gram, you don’t really think that, do you?” It’s not a question; it’s a plea.
Timber, Sue, Keith and I exchange glances. Keith and Sue sit up a little straighter. “Never get old people rambling about the past,” Sue smiles at her granddaughter, asking forgiveness. “My story happened half a century ago, and kind of feels like more than a world away from what’s going on now. But it’s the same historic loop: humans scared this time we’ve blown it. But,” she folds the pleat in her cloth napkin, running an arthritic index finger along its seam, “maybe not. We’ll pull through. And the important thing is to be with the people you care about.”
“If you’ll excuse me.” Timber pushes his chair back and heads for the restrooms at the back of the restaurant.
Cass is eating too, but she pauses and frowns. “You mean Nine-Eleven when I was little?”
Her question reminds me of how I’d stumbled around an explanation about what happened with my daughters.
“No,” Keith shakes his head at her, “way earlier. Way before all your times. In the 1960s, there was a total black out on the East coast. No one knew what’d caused it. Information didn’t get out as fast. No computers, and no Internet.”
“It was 1965,” Sue states. “November. We were living in Connecticut. We’d just moved into this little ranch house, kind of a fifties bungalow, not quite a row house. A starter home, they called them. I loved our little house!” She beams with pleasure and places a hand on Keith’s for a second.
He smiles as he enjoys his sole.
“It had three bedrooms so the kids each got to have their own room, and a long back yard. Keith hung a hammock out there and we had a picnic table and a grill.”
Both eat as they reminisce. “The kids were little. They were outdoors with friends, playing.”
“Lynn and Jeffrey were, what, six and ten years old? Something like that.”
Sue nods. “I went to start dinner and the lights in the kitchen were out. The refrigerator light, too. I figured a power outage. Then our neighbor Irene Robinson knocked on the door; they had the same problem. So the two of us stood on the stoop trying to understand what had happened. It was getting dark and I was about to call the kids in when Irene said, ‘Shouldn’t the street lights be on by now?’ She was right; the streets were dark in any direction as far as I could look. Everything was.
“We realized it must be a blackout. I called the kids in to get ready for dinner. I figured I’d have Keith fire up the grill.”
Keith speaks up. “Lynn and Jeffrey would’ve eaten grilled hamburgers and hotdogs every night if they could.”
“And corn on the cob,” Sue adds.
I’m already nodding in agreement with both statements. My three kids are wild about meals outdoors on the picnic table. Louie prefers a good pork sausage to a hotdog, but he’ll eat a burger any chance he gets.
“My Petey, too,” Timber chimes in. He presses his foot against mine under the table and gives me a special smile. My stomach flutters and I smile back, our conversation in the car forgiven.
“Us too!” Jolie and Cass contribute.
Three generations represented by four adults and two almost adults in a fancy seafood restaurant agree: all children love summer meals.
“So there we were,” Sue resumes. “My freezer thawing as I stood and watched. Keith and I had a confab and decided we’d do a smorgasbord. Cook everything. To throw out perfectly good food isn’t just wasteful. It would have been sinful. Back then, people were frugal.”
“Of course, in the ‘sixties people worried more about food going bad. Stuff didn’t have shelf lives like they do today! Except Twinkies,” Keith adds.
His wife doesn’t miss a beat. “Hey. Don’t knock my emergency go-to snack in those days. Moms need one thing that never gets stale! So Keith starts the grill. I seem to remember there was a full moon that night…. I made an inventory of what we had to cook. About the same time Irene was back at the door. The Robinsons had the same idea. How about we combine meals? I’d been saving two T-bone steaks for special. God knows when I thought that evening was going to arrive. Anyway, the adults split them while the six kids ate burgers and hot dogs. Irene had giant turkey drum sticks and we rigged an aluminum packet with those and a can of tomatoes. Remember, Keith?”
“Yeah. It was messy.” His eyes are soft as he recalls a meal eaten more than half a century past.
Both old folks are silent for a minute as they relive the evening.
Timber and I are silent too. I relax into their memory.
Cass seems fascinated too. “You never told this story before, Gram. Neither has Mom. Did she understand there’d been a blackout?”
“I never explained. We never talked about it, not that night and not after.” Sue stares down at her meal and I’m shocked at how haggard her face grows. “That night I thought, This is it. The world’s coming to an end. Russia had invaded. Or Martians; didn’t matter which. When electricity on the eastern seaboard went out, it had to be a foreign attack. And if my government hadn’t been able to prevent that, I’d better get ready for the end. I was grateful to be with my family.” She’s somber, softer. “I knew I’d shield my children as long as possible. I told them the TV and radio weren’t working, and how about we treat it like an early Night before Christmas? It seemed that quiet to me, the full moon outside, the glow of coals in the grill out where Keith and the six kids were making s’mores.” Sadly, Sue adds, “Our son died in a car accident a few years later. That was still ahead of us.”
Marty Fuller worked his way around the table over to where I stood. He had on a cashmere sweater over gray slacks that exactly matched his graying hair. “Nicole! You made it!” He grasped my hand in an unfeigned welcome. Marty turned to my husband. “Like I asked last week: when are you coming back to us in Management?”
“Never!” Rich answered. “Life’s beyond the desk. It’s good to get out and see what the competition is up to!”
Marty took my glass before I could protest. “Let me top off that drink.” He replenished his too, and handed mine back with a smile.
“Nicole!” someone exclaimed, and I turned to say hello to Rich’s colleagues. Voices murmured. Should I measure the drinks by the alcohol content or the number of glasses? The room was too warm.
Marty was back. It dawned on me that my husband’s boss was flirting. The concept of Marty making a pass at me was absurd…so absurd I smiled back.
I looked through the open door of the conference room and the twinkling lights on the lobby’s Christmas tree glowed. Miranda stood by the window talking with a man. He turned, and it was Rich. My husband bent his head as he listened to what she was so earnestly saying.
Marty repeated my name.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I said, it’s nice to see you again. Rich tells me the shelter keeps you busy and that’s why you don’t come to many office functions. Do you have a lot of women staying there?”
“Women?” I was baffled. “Oh! I get it, you’re thinking of a women’s shelter!” I began to laugh and couldn’t stop. “Yeah, women and children and house pets. All those helpless creatures. No, no, no.” My head felt thick all of a sudden.
Marty observed me with concern.
“I run an an-nim-mal shelter,” I enunciated.
“Oh Christ! I knew that,” Marty said. “I feel like an idiot.”
I touched his hand with mine. “It’s okay.”
“You just don’t look like someone who works with strays,” and his direct look swam through my fuzzy vision to embrace my outfit. His fingers squeezed.
“Well,” I remarked inanely, and braced my free palm against the conference table.
He put an arm around me. “Dizzy?”
“Don’t tell me, that drink was a triple.” In the other room Rich shook his head again at Miranda. She put out a hand and he gripped her wrist, stopping her movement. Miranda’s arm dropped to her side and Rich turned. He crossed the lobby and came back in the conference room to where I leaned against mahogany.
Marty’s hold tightened as Rich came closer. My husband’s boss gave me a hug. “You’re a lucky bastard, Rich.” Reluctantly Marty removed the arm. “I think that last drink I made Nicole was a little strong.”
“You know holiday parties,” Rich agreed. “Everyone likes them strong.”
“I just need to get something in my stomach.” I turned to look for silverware. I got a plate of food and sat down; I couldn’t eat fast enough. When my plate was empty I rejoined them.
“Feeling better?” Rich asked.
“Ready for another?” Marty asked, before Rich could do the chivalrous honors. He mixed me a fresh gin and tonic. I took the proffered drink. “A toast to the coming year!” Marty proposed.
“Here here!” we all approved, and lifted our drinks. A young woman hung a bunch of bright berries with silvery green leaves over the doorway. “Time for mistletoe!”
I shook my head back and forth, trying to focus. Suddenly, I was furious. “Rich.” I pulled him over to a corner. I stared over the rim of my drink. “Would you say that you’re really a glorified ambulance chaser?”
“What? God no, of course not! Everyone needs insurance.”
I grasped his arm. “What’s your insurance?”
Rich looked at me sharply and decided I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. He drained his drink. “You and the kids, Nick. The four of you are all that stand between me and the void. You don’t get that? That’s what it is for any man with a family. I’ve told you a hundred times: the job’s a game. A game,” he quietly repeated. “I do it for what isn’t a game: you.”
My husband was oddly out of character and I didn’t like how serious he was. “Let me read the fine print.” I wiggled my eyebrows at him.
“Nick, let’s get out of here. We still have to get the kids and go to your folks’.”
“Oh come on.” I patted his solid butt. “Show me your holiday policy’s bottom line,” I giggled.
Rich rolled his eyes as he hugged me. “I love you when you try to drink. You’ll regret this later, but not before I take advantage of you! By the way, I think Marty hopes you’ll grant him sexual favors.”
“It would be a big favor!”
Rich laughed at my indignation and hugged me closer. “Did I ever tell you the one about how the woman boss chose which applicant to hire?”
As we headed laughing out the door I caught a glimpse of Miranda’s face. It wore a look of desperate tenderness. She saw me watching and held my eyes. Miranda stared at us (at Rich) and raised her hands to her temples, massaging them. Her gaze dropped as she went red. I wondered, looking at her expression, if she had a migraine.