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Twenty-seven immaculately white teeth made to order, and yet not a single one serving any aesthetic purpose. This is what kept Shinji perplexed about Cassio for the last four years they’d been acquainted. Their walk back from the pond to the old quarter was always animated. Shinji had seen all of the Monty Python movies, writing down dialogues in his scrapbook that he would later recite to Cassio. He would watch Robin Williams’ stand up routines on repeat, pausing after each punch line so he could engrave it to memory. There were times Shinji would come wearing a cat mask and reenact the things that people found hilarious. Striking down keys of an imaginary piano, he’d asked Cassio with glee “Don’t you love it? This one crossed thirteen million hits!” On some days, Shinji would pull out a newspaper from his bag, sit cross-legged on the sidewalk and read aloud the headlines. “Scientists to study why Noah did not swat those two mosquitoes. Chickens hold a sit down protest, demanding their motives for crossing the road not to be questioned.” Shinji would often end up laughing at his own jokes. Cassio, at times, would gently nod in acknowledgement. Other times he’d simply shrug and continue walking. Then there were those rare occasions when Shinji would notice a glint appear in Cassio’s eyes, but a smile remained ever elusive. Cassio was seventy-four (although he refused to divulge his exact birthday), sixty-one years older than Shinji. He dressed sharply, complementing his button-up cardigans with a matching hat and wore thick, round-framed glasses. His teeth, barring five, were manufactured in a laboratory. He had been a presenter with the Public Radio until they decided to replace his show with what he described ‘fodder for degenerate minds’. When he did speak, it was usually about two things – his incredible knowledge of terrapins or his disappointment with the human race. In both cases, his arms would gesticulate with fervour yet his face would remain stoic.“Turtles aren’t slow, foolish boy. It’s their perception of time that is slow. So while it seems they are just waddling, in their heads they are setting Olympic records.” Shinji would chuckle watching him speak. “If my name were Cassius Clay, will you fear these hands more?” Cassio had retorted once on being probed about his real name, holding out his hands that had this tremor that comes with age. In those languid afternoons feeding turtles at the pond, Cassio would talk when he so desired. But he never refused to share with Shinji his supply of turtle treats – caterpillars, mushrooms, wild berries, earthworms, beetles, grubs and the days when it rained, snails. In turn, Shinji would scavenge the far ends of the Internet each day for the funniest things and served them to Cassio. Not that Cassio seemed to care, but Shinji couldn’t think of anything else he might need than perhaps a tiny dose of laughter. It was on the afternoon of another ‘Wild Berry Wednesday’. On his way back from school, Shinji tiptoed up to the bench and took his place next to Cassio. The turtles were already huddled near the edge. Cassio noticed that Shinji was wearing a sock on his right hand that had spectacled eyes and a big moustache drawn over. He gave him a brief inquisitive look before flicking another berry in the sparkle where sunlight touched water. “Good afternoon listeners,” Shinji spoke in a goofy baritone while hiding his face behind the sock, “This is your host Shinji and today we will meet the world’s most serious man. When God was texting instructions to the production floor for this particular specimen, he forgot the smiley face. Rumor has it that when he was born, clouds thundered to a woeful rendition of Elton’s John’s hit song Empty Garden.” Shinji held up a wooden stick for a makeshift microphone and began to sing, “I've been knocking but no one answers. And I've been knocking most all the day. Oh and I’ve been calling oh hey, hey Cassio…Can't you come out to play?" Peeved at seeing no reaction whatsoever, Shinji stood up to face Cassio, “Tell me Cassio, why is it so hard?” “What do you mean?” Cassio replied as he flicked another berry. “Even the teacher laughed when I wore a shower cap in class, but then when I came to see you, all you did was sneer. And last summer, I prepared the impression of an angry Al Pacino for an entire week, and your face…it barely moved a wrinkle.” For the first time there was frustration in Shinji’s voice, “Why won’t Cassio ever laugh?” Shinji sat down on the edge of the bench, and crossed his arms. He was sure it’s one of the things that Cassio would brazenly evade. “It’s like breathing, laughter, you know,” Cassio spoke after a long and uncomfortable silence, “When we are born, we all get an equal allocation of breaths. Over the years, we use them how we desire until we run out. People pray for longer lives but the only way is by breathing slowly. You know who else breathes really slowly? Turtles.” Shinji squinted his eyes, as Cassio continued, “Laughter works the same way. A fixed quantity that lies in deep cavities of our stomach. When we smile or laugh, a small portion is released each time. You can choose when or how much of it you want to let go, and then when you’ve exhausted your supply, it’s over, forever.” Shinji slumped back on the bench, staring intently beyond the tree line as his mind churned the meaning of what he had just heard. Cassio leaned back himself and saw Shinji. His lips were pursed tightly as his hands fiddled with the wooden stick. Shinji never noticed but Cassio’s eyes had that glint again as a smile momentarily swept across his face. As they walked back together in solemn silence, Cassio lifted his arm wanting to put it around Shinji, but decided otherwise.
Wild Berry Wednesday
By Ruchir Sachdev
 
A thousand words inspired
by Getty Images #873732-001
 
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Credit: Phil Borges
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