Two vignettes by Rajpreet Heir
Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself
Jagvinder Heir lives and writes only in uppercase. In the greatest picture in the history of the Heir family, he’s eighteen and flicking off the camera with both middle fingers. It’s a picture of optimism. It also reflects his checkered youth; Jagvinder grew up at a time in England when Indians were often treated as second class citizens. In the neighborhood where Jagvinder lived, he frequently had to fight to protect himself and his younger siblings. When he moved with his family to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1977 at the age of fourteen, he was relieved to start over. Jagvinder became Jack.
One autumn, five years after moving, Jack’s younger brother was taking a high school black and white photography class and asked Jack to pose on their back porch. Taken at eye-level, Jack stands off-center, to the left–and it was the last time he was on the left of anything. Jack grins under the brim of an Indiana University hat which he won in a contest from his job selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. You can’t see his eyebrow, but his thick mustache–probably the most impressive mustache of any college freshman at IU–is visible over his mouth and crooked teeth. Taken from the waist-up, his athletic 6′ 1″ frame fills the vertical picture. Jack is wearing a dark-sleeved white shirt with the Rolling Stones emblem over his heart. He’s fully become a Hoosier.
He liked Indiana as soon as he saw the open spaces, and large houses, cars and refrigerators, but he missed England for years. Jack had to write letters to cousins in England to learn about the results of the 1978 World Cup because the tournament wasn’t televised in America and because phone calls were too expensive. In his ninth grade class, no one had met an Indian with a British accent, so Jack told people he was darker because he came from the sunnier side of England. In gym, he was the last person picked for a game of American football, and when thrown the ball, he threw it back to the quarterback in confusion. When his math teacher held him after class to add his name to her roster, Jack noticed she put a W or B next to each student’s name for “black” or “white.” Next to his name, she put an X.
In the picture, he dismisses close-mindedness, poor grades, uncertainty, social etiquette, and his family’s past struggles. His gesture indicates that he could only be self-employed. This is his way of saying he’s gonna be somebody. Behind him in the picture are trees from his family’s first American home. Jack’s parents, born in rural Punjab farming villages, spoke only enough English to work manual labor jobs, but at this point, they’ve finally reached financial stability in America. They’re building.
Vacuum Cleaner Salesman
The meeting room at my dad’s office reveals everything I love most about him. Underneath the wooden podium, located at the back wall of the white-painted room that is twenty-five by forty feet, is a 1978 sales book containing the records for his first door-to-door vacuum cleaner sale. He started selling vacuums when he was fifteen, just one year after arriving in Indianapolis from England with his parents and younger siblings.
After graduating college, he bought his own office. If one of his salespeople arrives late for a morning meeting, my dad makes them stand in the corner next to the podium, with their face to the wall. If someone else arrives late, they stand behind the tardy salesperson in the same corner. During meetings, my dad might read everyone’s horoscope from the Indianapolis Star. On the carpeted floor of the room, and scattered around the chairs, are eight holes that used to be conduits for computer wires when someone else owned the building, but my dad uses them for a miniature golf course. The dartboard my brothers and I bought him hangs on the sidewall, a blackjack table is usually folded in the corner, and the wall cabinets have March Madness brackets taped to them in the spring. A Beatles CD is on a small round table.
When his sales people return from a day of knocking on doors throughout Indiana, possibly after making no money, and smelling like the houses they’ve been in–of coffee, dog fur, newspaper, and coins–my dad invites them to watch basketball on the pull-down projector screen, or place bets in euchre, darts, or putting contests. Most people quit after one day of what my dad has been doing for thirty-six years, so he stays late six days a week to meet his sales people and motivate them to return, or to congratulate them on selling. The meeting room shades my dad in saturated colors, the man who would arrive home after midnight, who would set his keys down on the kitchen table in a splayed octopus, and who would eat ham from our fridge by himself. One does not rise through the Midwest’s racial hierarchy coming home at 5pm.
Rajpreet Heir is a nonfiction MFA candidate at George Mason University. She lived in Indiana until graduating from DePauw University in 2012.