Robert W. Paolinelli
705 Vallejo St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
THE POET AND
THE GOOD SOUP OF THE WIDOW CHANG
ROBERT WALLACE PAOLINELLI
Just above Grant Avenue on Green Street, in San Francisco, lived the poet on the first floor of an old wooden apartment building.
There were four units all in a row at the top of eleven stairs which ended at the wide landing at the four doors. The building had been designed in such a way that the first apartment on the left, which was the poet's, and the third apartment, (where the widow lived with her old companion) shared a common wall and back porch.
Because the walls were neither thick nor insulated, the activities in one apartment could be heard in the other, albeit somewhat muted.
Thus, the poet knew that the two women who lived opposite his wall ate their breakfast about eight a.m., had very few guests and so on. On warm days, when the back doors of the apartments were open, the poet could hear the very distinct voices of the women speaking in Chinese, a language he did not understand. The voice of the old woman was deep, raspy, often sharp. The younger woman's voice was high, clear and sweet.
Sometimes the two women would sing. The poet enjoyed these sporadic sings and had come to look forward to their rare occurrences. The songs, all in Chinese, usually consisted of two or three short songs and were soon over; but the young woman, as the poet had (also) come to learn, often sang softly or hummed to herself when the old woman took her morning nap.
On exceptionally quiet mornings the poet could hear every creak of the old woman's bed and her snoring. The younger woman was busy in the apartment, for there were always sounds of a swishing broom and the plops of a mop and the moving of furniture.
The poet did not mind the domestic and very human sounds of such close living; the filtered sounds and exotic aromas of cooking comforted him; the talking and the singing made him feel not so lonely, for he lived alone and this vicarious domesticity he shared with the Chinese women on the other side of the wall took a little of the loneliness he felt out of his life.
Once, the smells of good cooking and the sound of several ladies' voices from his neighbor's kitchen, inspired him to write a poem, which he submitted to a small, midwestern poetry journal and, it was published.
He liked the two women (but he was not good friends with them) and when he would see them outside he always greeted them and made way for them. The two women were always very reserved, almost shy with him. On those occasions, when he saw them and spoke some greeting to them, they always nodded and smiled cordially and sometimes answered his greeting with a soft word or two in their own language, but nothing more.
The poet enjoyed seeing his neighbors; he'd even been tempted to invite them in for coffee or tea; but, he reasoned, how would they communicate? It was the lack of a common language which prevented any social intercourse between them. The two women didn't speak English, or at least he had never heard them speak it.
The younger woman, perhaps in her thirties, was pretty, even if she didn't wear the latest fashions--so the poet had observed. He'd always seen her dressed in simple cotton dresses or skirts, which, nevertheless, did not hide her fine lines from his man's eye. Her shoes were common, usually black, low cut, with laces. Sometimes she wore sandals and the poet was always pleased when she did, for then he could see her well-proportioned feet and regular toes.
The poet lived on a modest income. He worked four days a week in a book store until midnight. His off hours he would dedicate to his poetry. The two women also had very modest incomes in the form of pensions. The poet assumed they had some outside income for neither of them had a routine which would indicate a regular job; he knew they received some kind of pension because all the mail boxes were in a row and sometimes the women's mail would be placed in his box by mistake and he'd seen the two official window envelopes: one from the U.S. Treasury, and the other from a labor union. The names read: Edith C.H. Chang and Rose T.L. Chang. But he didn't know which name belonged to the elder or which to the younger.
But name or no name, it was the younger woman to whom he was drawn. For three years he'd been attracted to her. There was no man with these women, and it was through simple deduction that the poet concluded that the younger one was either widowed or divorced and that the old woman was either the mother or mother-in-law to the younger.
He was correct. Edith Chiang Hsia was the daughter-in-law of Rose Tai Yi Chang. Chiang Hsia's husband died, unfortunately, on the afternoon of her thirty-third birthday. Her late husband had been a plasterer; one day he fell from an inside scaffold while working in the lobby of an office building on Sansome Street, in the financial district.
That had been three years before. Shortly after the funeral, in order to economize, Chiang Hsia and her mother-in-law took the smaller, less expensive apartment on Green Street, in North Beach. Mother-in-law Rose was not a well woman and especially after her son's death, her health worsened by the year. She walked with a cane; her joints ached because of arthritis; her blood pressure was high and she had mysterious chest pains and hacking coughs which no doctor had been able to diagnose.
Life with mother-in-law was hard on Chiang Hsia. Although she loved and respected the old woman, Chiang Hsia was sometimes resentful of the incessant demands the old woman made on her. Her resentments notwithstanding, Chiang Hsia's devotion to the old woman was genuine. After all, she thought: How would mother-in-law get along without me? Therefore, she lived to keep the old woman alive.
The widow, Chiang Hsia, had no living relatives; she had been an only child and her parents died when she was eighteen. She was living with a family in Taipei and worked as a clerk in a fabric shop when she met her husband to be, Henry, who had gone to Taiwan to visit relatives and to look for a wife, and a companion for his aged mother.
They were introduced by a mutual friend, and after a courtship that lasted just two weeks, she married him more out of wanting to belong to a family and to have, eventually, a family of her own, than out of genuine affection He took her back to San Francisco; but her life was not what she had expected it to be; she soon realized she had married out of loneliness and in haste; but she resigned herself to her fate and lived the life of dutiful wife and daughter-in-law. She now had only the old woman and a brother-in-law (who lived in Sacramento) and he rarely came to visit his old mother. Anyway, Chiang Hsia didn't like her brother-in-law who thought himself so superior to every one.
Chiang Hsia's world (even when her husband had been alive) was narrow and she knew it and that, too, she resented. When the late Henry Chang had been alive, she would get up every morning at five thirty a.m. and prepare his breakfast and pack a lunch for him; and after he'd gone to work, she would bring hot tea to her mother-in-law who was always at her worse until she had had her hot tea; and if by chance the tea was not hot enough, Rose would scold her daughter-in-law like some errant child; and those scoldings of mother-in-law hurt Chiang Hsia deeply, for she was mature and deserving of better treatment.
Nevertheless, the old woman's tea served and drunk, Chiang Hsia helped the old woman to dress. In spite of her years, Tai Yi was yet a little vain about her face, wrinkled that it was; often, with a shaking hand, she would paint her withered lips and powder her furrowed face and brush her wispy short hair, taking great pains to make certain the side part was straight.
When Tai Yi's son had been alive and working, he always paid for her visit to the beauty salon to have her hair washed, cut and (sometimes) tinted. How Rose missed those visits; not so much for the washing and the styling of her hair, but it was a place she could meet with other women her age and chat freely and laugh and boast of little things and, of course, the greatest pleasure of old women's talk--grandchildren.
Chiang Hsia, however, had given Rose no grandchildren. Two miscarriages and barren years had been Chiang Hsia's lot. This, then, was Rose's chief lamentation: lack of progeny from her daughter-in-law.
In the afternoon, weather permitting, they usually went for a walk and always to the same places: Portsmouth Plaza, where all the crones gathered to sun themselves and to gossip, and to Washington Square Park, where mother-in-law and daughter-in-law had to share benches with old Italians who (from the women's perspective) were always too loud in speech, waved their arms and sometimes jumped up and shouted in what seemed (to the women) angry voices.
There was yet another place they went: the Roman Catholic cathedral across from Washington Square, which Chiang Hsia always felt reluctant to enter, and it was only out of deference to her mother-in-law that she went to sit on the wooden benches of the pews. Mother-in-law Rose was not a Christian; she had no particular religion and Chiang Hsia wondered about the old woman's reason for wanting to go sit in that place. One day she asked and this is what Tai Yi said in response: "It makes me feel good to be in a place that is harmonious with my spirit." After that, Edith began to view the visits to Sts. Peter and Paul church in a different light and she began to like those times when her duties to her mother-in-law were put aside in the serene quietude of the cathedral; therein, deeply relaxed, Chiang Hsia would daydream of her childhood in Su-chow before her late family fled to Hong Kong, thence to Taiwan.
She had come to like the smell of burning candles, and the old Italian women on their knees mumbling their beads no longer seemed so strange to her. In truth, she began to admire the piety of the old Italian women, even if she didn't understand Christianity.
After their ritual walk, they would go home, have tea, rest, and Chiang Hsia would prepare dinner. At six o'clock, with an eye to her wristwatch, old Rose would turn on the small radio in the kitchen and listen to the Chinese language radio program which was the only station she ever listened to.
Sometimes a friend of Tai Yi's would stop by; but the visitor wouldn't stay long and by nine o'clock, or shortly thereafter, mother-in-law would go to bed leaving Chiang Hsia to clean up tea cups or to iron; then she would go to bed. And that was her routine, a dull, monotonous rut which numbed her spirit.
It was in Chiang Hsia's darkened bedroom, alone, that she let herself cry silently, letting her tears roll down her cheeks, soaking her loneliness into the pillow slip. Only there, in her private sanctuary, did she admit to the misery and the depth of her aloneness, and the wanting of friends who could teach her, comfort her, laugh with her; the wanting and the craving for the company of a compatible man tore at her, making her feel incomplete. But that was only one aspect of her loneliness. She felt like a prisoner, a prisoner of language, for aside from some individual words and a few common phrases she had managed to pick up, she could not speak English and she longed to speak to her adopted compatriots and learn about them and their ways. As far as English was concerned, she was almost a mute and that pained her. Henry had never taken an interest in talking to her in English, although he spoke good English; and she was never encouraged to take classes at the adult schools; for he reasoned that there was no real reason for her to learn to speak English, after all, she could buy anything or transact any business all in Chinese. The few times she had tried to convince her husband and mother-in-law that she should learn some English, their counter argument was always the same: Who would take care of mother-in-law when she was at school and what of the house?
Edith had no friends her own age who knew English, or who was in sympathy with her plight; everyone she knew was mother-in-law's friends, not hers. In the solitude of her weeping room, Chiang Hsia tried to wash away the sorrows she carried. To and fro her troubled mind went, going from worry to worry, disappointment to disappointment, hurt to hurt. "I was a good wife. Is it my fault I was not blessed with five sons?" The nights of her emptiness, dwelling on her barrenness, hung on her heart like a lump of bitter gall.
Often, after she'd wept, she would prop herself up on her pillow and daydream of good things happening to her. At those times of wish fulfillments, she could hear quite clearly the activities of the man who lived on the other side of her wall. The muted clickety-click-clack of his typewriter was soothing to her. She could even hear his music, too: Orchestras and choruses, solo pianos and harpsichords, violins, the likes of which she had never heard before--except through the wall.
She had to admit her neighbor's habits were decent. He never played his music so loudly that it was disturbing; and he was always so quiet himself. Surely, she thought to herself, he must be a teacher or a scholar, for she had often seen him with arm fulls of books and once, when his front door was open, and she and mother-in-law were walking to their door, she craned her neck to his open door and looked into his apartment with great curiosity and saw a bookcase against his wall and every shelf was filled with books! She'd never seen so many in any person's house in her whole life.
Many times she was of a mind to speak to him. But what would she say with her limited English? Moreover, she felt it was not correct for a widow to speak to men she did not know, especially since he was not a Chinese. However, he was her neighbor and one should cultivate a neighbor's friendship. But her shyness and cultural reservations and awe of mother-in-law always prevented her from opening an avenue to friendship with any potential friend, a friend with whom she could be open. With her mother-in-law, the needs of Chiang Hsia's soul were never satisfied; and it was this need she yearned to fill.
With mother-in-law conversation was never deep. They spoke about family things, or about people Chiang Hsia didn't know or about food or shopping or the few tidbits of news Mother Rose remembered from the evening radio news which Chiang Hsia was never really interested in and only half understood.
The poet was Called Anthony, and his family and good friends called him Tony. He was a solitary fellow and dedicated to letters; he was content to be a poet and a clerk in a Columbus Avenue bookshop where he made enough money to keep the wolf from the door and had enough freedom to indulge his poetic muse--which he did, often staying up until dawn or later reading, writing, thinking, loafing in those magically serene hours before dawn.
Working from four p.m. to midnight gave him the advantage of his mornings and afternoons. He was free to sleep or not sleep or roam about the neighborhood, stop at any one of the local coffee houses and chat with friends, go to one of the bakeries, buy a loaf of bread and take it to Coit Tower, sit, eat the bread and watch the activities in the bay, or, to stay home, listening to music or just losing himself in a poetic pipe dream. Sometimes he mused about his neighbor. She was a striking woman; there was something noble about her, that woman whose carriage was so erect and whose eyes averted every time he looked at her. There was in her a quality of natural refinement and warmth and mirth which he perceived intuitively each time they passed on the stairs. He also sensed some sorrow about her and that aroused his compassion and his curiosity.
Of late, Tony had grown lazy about his poetry; instead of invoking the muse, he sat about reading a thick tome on Alexander the Great's conquest of Asia. His nights were lost in history and his apartment was as quiet as a monk's cell.
On one such preciously quiet night, as he read of the great withdrawal by land and sea of Alexander's army, there came the sound of a hacking cough through the wall from the old woman's room. Tony had heard her terrible fits of coughing on other occasions, but he noticed the coughing tonight was louder and more fitful then usual, at this three a.m. hour. He put down his book and listened. The cough stopped; he heard the creaking springs, then a cry and a thud, then silence. He sat up in his chair. Came the plopf, plopf of hurried, slippered feet, a loud cry and hastily spoken words, which turned into muted weeping through the wall.
Both concerned and curious, he got up and did something he'd never done before: He put his ear to the wall. All he heard was weeping. Completely stirred, he left his apartment and went to knock on the door of apartment Three; but his knocks were not responded to, so he knocked louder, and he gave the doorbell a couple of rings.
A hall light went on and cautious foot steps came to the door.
A voice called in Chinese: "Who is there?"
Of course he did not understand, but he guessed the question.
"It is I, your neighbor, Anthony Tullio. I live in apartment One. I heard some noises and crying. Can I help you?"
Chiang Hsia only understood five of his words: Neighbor, apartment One, help you.
She recognized the voice on the other side of the door. At first she was afraid to open; he'd heard her weeping and had come to help and she needed help! It was her pressing need which allowed her to open the door to this stranger.
She was too shocked to worry about the old terry cloth robe she wore and her red eyes and mussed hair.
"Are you okay?" asked the poet.
She understood and nodded her head and at the same time beckoned him to enter. She led him timidly into the bedroom where he saw the old woman sprawled on the floor. Tony had seen a corpse or two in his day, so it didn't take him too long to realize the old woman was dead. Nevertheless, he knelt down and felt her wrist for a pulse; he palpated her carotid artery but felt nothing; he put his ear directly on her lips and listened for breathing and heard none; he even pressed his ear to her chest and listened for a heart sound, but heard none. Her vital signs had been stilled once and for all.
Anthony closed her eyes and folded the old woman's arms across her chest and picked her up, she was not heavy, and put her on the bed.
All the time Chiang Hsia stood in silence and in shock. She'd intuited that the old woman was dead; but the stranger's crossing of her arms and closing her eyes and putting her on the bed made her death a finality she could not deny, and the realization of her death felt like a hard blow to her stomach, and a sharp pain flashed through her bowels taking her breath away, and for a few moments she was suspended in a breathless, lifeless state; color drained from her face. When at last this condition of tension reached its peak, a great sigh escaped her, and with the sigh came release and a flood of tears.
Anthony went to her. "Sit, sit," he said in a soft voice as he motioned with his hand and she sat at the foot of the bed. Through her tears and anguish she saw his face and saw that he was a good man. Unashamedly, then, she buried her face in her hands and wept for her dead mother-in-law, but also for herself, for now she was truly alone in the world. She had no parents or other living kin; her husband was gone and now, too, her last link, her mother-in-law. She had no reason to live, and, at that moment, she felt so utterly alone and such a pitiful creature to herself, she wished that she too would just die.
Anthony felt a little uneasy watching and hearing her sob. He felt helpless with so much sorrow for he knew he could do nothing to assuage it,. Nevertheless, he stood close to her, his stranger's hand firmly on her shoulder and trying himself to keep from bursting into tears in commiseration with her.
Gradually Chiang Hsia's sobbing subsided into a whisper. She'd heard her neighbor speak to her in a comforting voice; she'd not understood his words, but she understood the source of them: His heart, and she was grateful to him for having stood by her.
Anthony, while she had wept, took a good look at her, and, in spite of her pain-filled face, he saw how comely was this woman with whom his was sharing such intimacy.
Her open lamentation came to an end. She stood up slowly and faced the body, looking into the old woman's face for a long time. When Chiang Hsia felt calmer, she turned to Anthony and spoke the only two words she knew which were fitting for her to utter, considering the circumstances: "Thank you," she said.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
She understood him; she wanted to answer but she could only smile. He smiled back and that made her feel better.
"Do you speak English?"
Again she understood his question and shook her head, no.
Anthony felt helpless for a moment. Here he was with a woman who would have to make funeral arrangements, but probably didn't know what to do. And then it struck him: He wasn't so sure himself what one did in these circumstances. But he would call the police as a start.
"Telephone. Where's the telephone?" he asked.
She took him to the kitchen. He called the police, to whom he explained the situation and said there was no attending physician and that a Chinese speaking person was needed.
A short time later there was a ringing of the door bell, Anthony went to the door. An official looking Chinese man who said he was from the coroner's office (accompanied by a uniformed policeman) greeted Anthony.
The coroner spoke good English and Chinese. After a brief examination of the corpse, the coroner sat in the kitchen with Chiang Hsia and talked to her for a while, helped her fill out some official form and left her a hand-written list of Chinese morticians. "That's all I can do," said the coroner to Anthony; and with that, he left, with the policeman.
Chiang Hsia's body felt numb all over as she lifted her bowed head towards the kitchen window where her eyes were greeted by a grey dawn of flimsy wisps of fog; and seated quietly under the window in the chair her late mother-in-law favored, was Tony, whom she had been unaware of for a long time; but when she saw him she had to clear her thoughts for a moment and remember who he was and what he was doing in her apartment.
Their eyes met and her first instinct was to avert her eyes; but she met his benign gaze with confidence and a peaceful heart. As she looked into his eyes she remembered, with embarrassment, that he had had to witness her demonstrations of grief--and he, a stranger! Grief was something private, only for family and close friends; but she had no family, and for a moment she felt close to this stranger for having been with her in the death room.
Slowly she closed her eyes and hugged herself for she felt cold and it was the coldness that she was feeling that made her aware of how she was dressed and was further embarrassed.
Anthony, feeling there was nothing more he could do, and, not knowing whether he was welcome to stay or not, made to leave. When, however, Chiang Hsia saw that he was about to go, she panicked, for now, more than ever, she needed human companionship--even that of a man with whom she could not speak. She practically jumped up from her chair and a single, emphatic word in English rushed from her lips: "Tea?" Without a word, she went to the stove, took the kettle to the sink and filled it with water. She tried unsuccessfully to light the old gas range; but her hands were shaking so much that Anthony, seeing her plight, got up, took the matches from her very gently, and lit the burner. She appreciated his help, but she nonetheless felt awkward for not being able to light the burner herself.
The tea was hot and refreshing after the unpleasant events of the night. Anthony pulled out cigarettes and offered her one but she refused, although she was tempted to take one and she shocked herself at such a thought--but she did bring him an ashtray.
It was while she was drinking her third cup of tea that she remembered her brother-in-law in Sacramento, the one she could not stand. She looked at the clock on top of the refrigerator; it was a little before six a.m. he would be just rising. She dialed.
A familiar voice spoke a sleepy, "Hello."
Anthony listened to the long conversation in Chinese which ensued. While she spoke, Chiang Hsia daubed her eyes with a finger. She said, "Bye, bye," in English and hung up.
"My brother-in-law," she said to him in Chinese, "will be here as soon as possible."
Anthony looked puzzled and shook his head. She was frustrated because she wanted to speak to him about what was happening to her, wanted to unburden her sorrows. She sighed, breathed deeply and mustered up enough courage to say in English, "Brother-in-law, hurry soon my house."
The phrase she uttered was probably the longest sentence in English she had ever spoken which did not have to do with food or shopping. For a moment she felt proud she'd been able to say something in English to someone and that someone understood the meaning of her words.
There was some soup in the refrigerator; she'd made it especially for the old woman. Without a word, she took the soup from the chill and heated it. In front of her neighbor she set a bowl and spoon. When the soup was hot she served it; but as she ladled out the soup, she wondered if he would like it; after all, it had ginger and pork rinds in it and she wasn't sure Americans ate either.
Anthony, both surprised and pleased, ate the soup with gusto, for he was genuinely hungry. She saw how so very pleased he was. She smiled and was herself pleased that he was enjoying the soup.
While he ate a second bowl, Chiang Hsia excused herself and went to her room to dress and to comb her hair and to wash her face. She was glad she had changed and had washed, for she was no sooner finished and back in the kitchen, when the doorbell rang and she knew it was her brother-in-law and perhaps his shrewish wife and what would they have thought of her in her bathrobe and pyjamas with an American man at her table?
Anthony felt the tension of suspicious looks of the brother-in-law and his wife as they entered the kitchen. He now knew he was no longer the good Samaritan, but an intruder into a private family affair. He did, however, introduce himself and said he was the next door neighbor; he'd put his hand out, but his hand was ignored by the brother-in-law. Chiang Hsia was mortified at her brother-in-law's uncalled for snub. She could not look Anthony in the face when he said, "I'll be leaving now. My sincere condolences, ma'am. If you need anything, just let me know."
She walked him down the hall to the door. At the door she put out her hand to make up for her brother-in-law's rudeness; and when he took her hand, she knew they would be friends.
How she survived the funeral and all the visits from her late mother-in-law's friends was still a wonder to Chiang Hsia. Two weeks later, as she sat in the quiet of her kitchen drinking her morning tea, she mulled over in her mind what to do with herself and with the old woman's shoes and clothing which she did not want. She would give them away to her late mother-in-law's friend if they wanted them.
As she sat thus, she heard music coming from her neighbor's apartment and that called up in her his kindness and helpfulness he had shown her and she wanted to return his kindness with another. But what could she do? She remembered he'd liked the soup. It came to her (in her simple way) to make a big pot of soup and give it to him. She made a mental shopping list and planned to go to Chinatown to buy ingredients as soon as she cleaned out mother-in-law's drawers and closet.
While she packed away the deceased woman's things in cardboard boxes, she heard the clickety-click-clack of the typewriter next door and the next sound she heard was Anthony's front door closing and his heavy footsteps going down the front stairs. The hour was only a little after nine a.m. He'll be back, for she had it in mind to present him with the soup before he went to work, and she knew he left for work around three-thirty, so there was no need to rush. But even as she had this thought, she wanted to hurry with the packing and go outside for fresh air and sunshine and walk with a light heart to the stores in Chinatown, where she would buy a freshly killed chicken, some ginger, black mushrooms, fresh egg noodles, and green onions. The recipe for this soup was a spontaneous one and was not at all like the soup she'd served him that first time in her kitchen. She just knew it would be a good soup and looked forward herself to having a sample of it.
When Chiang Hsia reached the bottom of the Green Street hill, instead of turning left on Grant Avenue, she turned right; she was halfway to Union Street before she realized she was going in the opposite direction than the one she'd intended to go. She stopped. Of course, she thought, this was the route mother-in-law always insisted on when we took our walk to Washington Square. "Why not?" she asked herself quietly. She'd not been on a walk since the funeral. She made her way to the park, and when she got there, she made a circuit of the benches the way she and mother-in-law used to do, eyeing the benches for the right place to sit.
As she ambled along she felt the loss of her late mother-in-law's company, and the light heartedness she'd known earlier left her. When she spied an unoccupied bench, she went to it and as she sat two tears rolled down her cheeks remembering her late companion whom she sorely missed.
Anthony left the post office and jay-walked to the park to sit for a while. He'd left his apartment earlier to have a cup of coffee and to mail off a book of poems to a national poetry contest which had a prize of five hundred dollars, and he felt a great confidence that his poems would win the prize. He was a relatively unknown poet; but he know his day as a recognized poet was not too far off.
Beneath a tall hanging willow he saw her; he slowed his pace and changed his direction towards her. She neither saw nor heard his approach so lost was she in her sad reminiscences.
"Hello, good to see you again," said the poet as he stopped a few feet from her. She looked up to him. What was she to do, she thought?
"Hello. You well?" she asked.
"I'm fine, fine," he said with a smile. "Mind if I join you?"
"Join?" she asked in puzzlement.
"Sit next to you--with you."
"Yes, yes; sit down, sit down," she replied, shifting her position as if to make room for him.
He sat about an arm's length from her.
"I was just coming from the post office and saw you sitting, so I thought I'd come by and say hello."
Chiang Hsia only understood every other word of his sentence; what she heard was this: "I coming post office; saw you sitting; I say hello." And she replied in English:--
"Not see you long time mother dead."
And he re-interpreted her words to mean, "I haven't seen you since my mother-in-law died."
He could see she was shy, but he felt welcomed, and seeing this was the first time he'd been with her alone and not under stress, he decided to stay and visit with her under the willow for as long as she stayed there; he didn't have much to do and he wanted some company, too.
She, in spite of her being just a little bit timid and anxious, was pleased he'd noticed her and that he had come to sit and talk, thereby relieving her of her loneliness.
Not wanting to call up any of the event which had brought them together that sad night, he avoided any mention of her late mother-in-law. "I don't know your name," he said, thinking that a neutral enough question.
"Name?" she said. he wanted to know her name! "My name Chang, Chiang Hsia."
He smiled because she had spoken very quickly and hadn't understood what she'd said except for Chang, which he'd remembered from the mail in his mail box.
"Would you please say your name again?"
She'd heard that question many times and was happy to have understood and she repeated her name, this time slowly. As she spoke, Anthony took out a pencil and a note book and wrote down what he'd heard.
"Chiang Sha," he said, not knowing he'd made a spelling error. She glanced down and saw the error and smiled. With hesitant lips she said, "Please," and pointed to his pencil and note book. She drew a line through his mistake and above it wrote the correct, transliterated spelling of her name, then handed him back his pencil and note book.
"You name?" she asked. She was somewhat embarrassed that she did not know his name.
"Tullio, Anthony Tullio.
She tried to reproduce his name, but what she said was: "Andoni Dulio."
Anthony laughed; she blushed, for she knew she'd not pronounced his name correctly. Chiang Hsia felt badly for having made the error; she did not even check the long face she made over it. Anthony saw the expression on her face and surmised the reason for it. "Try again," he said, flashing her a smile and scooting a few inches closer to her. But she closed her lips tighter in shame and slowly shook her head, no, from side to side. He would not have any of her no. He, therefore, encouraged her twice to have another stab at his name. Chiang Hsia, feeling she had to, somehow, retrieve her lost face, gave in; but his name would not be said correctly by her lips; she resolved, after this failure, that no amount of coaxing would get her to repeat his name. And she gave a stiff nod of her head, much in the manner of mother-in-law.
Again Anthony saw and sensed her ill-ease over this simple matter. "Well, then, call me Tony. Surely you can say Tony."
She looked at him very quickly with a darting of her adamant eyes, then turned away. Of course, she said to herself, I can say To-ni--but not now.
He smiled. "Tony; it's easy--just once. After all, we're neighbors."
She cast down her eyes to the ground. Tony lit a cigarette. The smoke reached her face and she wrinkled up her nose at the acrid smoke. The sniff of the smoke seemed to wake her up to her obstinacy; with that she realized there was really no reason for her rigid stance; so what if she'd not been able to reproduce the sound of his name correctly. So she turned to him and very slowly, very correctly said, "To-ni," accompanied by a gentle smile, so light, so slight and demure that Tony could hot help but be captured by it.
"Wonderful," said Tony; he reached over and offered her his hand; she wavered for a moment, then reached into his large hand and they closed their hands in a polite handshake; but in that proper grip there was the touching of two souls. They released their hands in bashful understanding.
English swallows flew in thick flocks over their heads; some boys were playing tag in the nearby meadow and their happy screams carried in the air. Old and young people were walking in the late morning; the church bells high in the steeples of Sts. Peter and Paul church rang out the hour. Chiang Hsia counted the strokes well knowing that if she wanted to make the soup she had better hurry along to her shopping; yet she lingered for some companionship; throwing a glance towards Tony, she smiled and nodded her head as if to confirm to herself the putting off of her shopping and asked him:--
"What you do?" and she mimicked the remainder of her question by putting her hands in front of her, moving her fingers as if typewriting.
"Ha! I bet you can hear me."
"I type poetry--a few short stories now and then."
She didn't understand his sentence. She shook her head, "No unastan"
"Poetry; I'm a poet."
But again she shook her head. He pursed his lips and thought a moment. She stared at his profile. "What a long nose he has," she said to herself.
At last, with a plan in mind to clear up the confusion of his calling, he turned to her: "Li Bai," he said, "Wang Wei, Han-Shan, Tu Fu, poets."
Was he trying to speak Chinese, she thought? What on earth was he saying? She shook her head in bewilderment.
"Poetry, poem, poets, Li Bai, Tu Fu," he said a little exasperated.
Ah, she thought, these are names. But how is it he knows Chinese names and what did those Chinese names have to do with his typing? She was more confused than ever and grimaced at her inability to comprehend. She decided then, that in spite of her liking his company, she would go shopping because speaking and trying to understand English were too painful. She pushed back the sleeve of her coat and looked at her wristwatch.
"Shopping, shopping; I go,: she said.
"When can I see you again?" he asked.
"See again? Me?"
"Hmm," she answered, a serious look on her face. "See me; eat soup; much for you because thank you," she said.
He puzzled at her strange syntax and had to think a bit on her words. He looked at her; she looked at him knowing she hadn't said the correct thing.
Tony smiled; he understood--or so he thought--a dinner invitation, for he answered:--
"What time shall I come over to your place to eat?"
She understood instantly that he had misinterpreted her words. How can I invite him into my house? That's not correct for a woman in my position. But how could she say to him otherwise? She had originally intended to simply knock on his door in the afternoon and present him with a pot of soup. But now that was all changed, for he thought she was inviting him into her kitchen to eat. Chiang Hsia was caught in a delicate balance of decorum and did not want to offend him. She thought for a moment.
"Five," she said, pointing to her wristwatch.
Tony looked glum for a second.
"Cannot come. Five o'clock, I work," he said in a stilted manner.
She breathed a silent sigh of relief. She was saved, yet for a moment she puzzled on how her good intentions could still come to pass. As much as she disliked to, she felt she was forced to a stratagem to avoid offending him. "Soup "Tomollow you come home,", she said, and with a nod of her head and a smile, she got up quickly. "Bye bye," she said, and, at the pace of a busy woman on her way to market, she walked away. About ten paces away, however, she shyly turned and waved to him and he waved back.
Tony sat on the bench trying to figure out what she meant by tomorrow when he came home.
Chiang Hsia purposely prolonged her shopping; she even had lunch at a small restaurant next to the movie theater on Jackson Street, something she rarely did; her lunch was a simple one and she ate very slowly, more so than usual to stretch out her time for she didn't not want to run into To-ni.
At three thirty, as usual, Tullio left his apartment and walked to the book shop. At about the same time, Chiang Hsia was walking up Grant Avenue carrying two shopping bags.
She set the chicken to boil to make her broth; the mushrooms were soaking to soften them and bring out their rich taste which blended in so well with chicken broth; with a sharp knife, she peeled and cut up the ginger. She opened a can of quail's eggs, which she put into a deep bowl. The quail's eggs were a spur of the moment purchase; she thought they would blend well into this special soup.
She knew his habits: A little past midnight he would be home, and to her mind it was tomorrow, and true to her word he would have his soup when he came home. She put the hot pot of soup in front of his door just a little after midnight, then shut off all her lights and went to bed.
Anthony looked down to the strange aluminum pot in front of his door. He knew what this gift was and he could smell its good smell. He knelt down and, taking off the cover, a puff of savory steam escaped.
"What a kind soul," he said out loud, in a soft, sincere voice as he turned to look at her door, but he felt a little sad and disappointed that she (for her own reasons) could not invite him to eat at her table as he had done the night her mother-in-law had passed away.
Nevertheless, once inside he, reheated the soup, sat at his kitchen table ate of the good soup. He guessed she had waited up, placed the soup at his door then went straight to bed and was probably asleep. But he was only half right. She was abed, true, but not sleeping. She had heard him close his front door and walk down the hall to his kitchen; she let her imagination flow and saw him eating the soup with pleasure; and that gave her pleasure. A man deserves a hot meal after work. She imagined him at some taxing job and she felt good that she was helping him to have a satisfying, late night dinner. A man needs someone to care for him if he is away at work. That thought made her feel sad for her neighbor, for he had no one taking care of him as she had once cared for her parents, Henry, then her mother-in-law, and she sensed that he must be needy and lonely, perhaps as needy and as lonely as she; but no one should be lonely, she reasoned, if it could be otherwise. With these thoughts, she drifted off to sleep and had a most pleasant dream.
At four a.m., tired from revising an extended poem, Anthony left his desk and went to the kitchen for some water and to munch on some grapes. As he sat, chewing the sweet fruit of the vine, he stared at the aluminum pot on his stove and recalled with pleasure, the fine surprise dinner he'd eaten just a few hours before. Now Tony understood her cryptic "Tomollow." And indeed it was the next day when he'd found the soup at his door; but what puzzled him was why she felt uncomfortable about inviting him to her home. After all, he mused, he was a man of integrity and his intentions were honorable, and intuitively he felt she really liked him--yet something was holding her back and it was something more than language. That there had been a language problem was very clear to him, and he saw how fragile was language and how things often get misinterpreted. He had misunderstood. She had wanted to say thanks in her way. Tony plumbed that; so his romantic, poetic fantasy of being invited to her table faded from his mind. He must now, however, reciprocate in some way. But what could he give her? Certainly not flowers; that was too forward; not candy--he didn't care for it much himself. He wanted to give her something practical; and wondered just what that might be. In any case, he had to return her pot. The hour being late, he prepared for bed; and his last thought, before falling asleep, was of the taste of ginger with the mushrooms and chicken and noodles and small quail eggs in the widow Chang's good soup.
The next morning, as usual, Chiang Hsia rose and put water on for tea. Now that Tai Yi was not with her, her duties were few and light; she only had to take care of herself. That realization truly struck home to her. She was free! She almost dropped her tea cup with this sudden awareness of her altered status. She squinted her eyes and looked around her kitchen with a puzzled look; everything in the kitchen seemed so strange, or rather she saw the kitchen with a new consciousness. Her heart beat quickened and she felt giddy with joy. She had no other responsibility other than to herself and if she was unhappy, she would have only herself to blame hereinafter. Pouring herself another cup of tea, she settled back in her chair, making herself just a little more comfortable and opened her eyes wide, again seeing the things in her kitchen; but they no longer had that sharp aspect; yet in her heart she still felt the impact of her morning tea realization and mused on her circumstances.
"What will I do?" she asked herself out loud; and in asking, her voice was clear and awakening, for as she spoke, her hitherto beclouded thoughts cleared, and she saw that since mother-in-law's death she'd been living only half awake. Her mind raced like a powerful wind and she saw all the paths she could follow; there was infinite possibility for change in her life; but, overwhelmed by all the possibilities, she turned to what she felt most comfortable with, the one which she felt was more suiting her nature: To be of service. Her whole life had been given in service: First to her parents, then to her husband and finally to her mother-in-law; but now there was no one, and that did not sit well with her; and, in spite of her freedom from responsibility, she felt it somehow wrong to be idle and overly concerned with one's own needs; that was selfish. Her widow's pension from the Plasterer's Union was enough to let her continue living the modest life she was accustomed to and which she liked. She didn't like ostentation but she was no miser, either; she was thrifty and had learned how to save and economize graciously without sacrifice to quality. How then, and what course would she follow in her new life? She did not want to take up some menial task at some production sweat shop sewing, as so many of her compatriots had. No. There was something else she wanted out of life; but she didn't know how to say what it was--but there was something. This was a deep question for which she had no immediate answer. but life must be lived day by day and dust accumulated in the corners and she had to keep busy lest she fall victim to too much thinking and neglect daily life.
As she was dusting off the old steamer trunk in her room, she opened it and took from it a large manila envelope; from the envelope she took a blue bank book. Mother-in-law had insisted she open an account the first time they met; Chiang Hsia always wondered about the strange, and very intimate advice her mother-in-law had given her those long years ago. "Always try to save something--and never tell you husband," had been the old woman's words. It was the only time Chiang Hsia felt that the old woman was more a confidant than a demanding, traditional mother-in-law.
Chiang Hsia opened the bank book and read the balance: $1,263.27, the result of almost ten years of small, secret deposits. But what now? What did she do with all this money now that she was at liberty to indulge herself? As she was about to put the savings book back in the large envelope, she grew curious about a long white envelope inside and she couldn't remember what was in it. As she unfolded the contents of the envelope, she remembered it was some official paper mother-in-law had given her to keep a long time ago and she never asked to see it. Chiang Hsia turned a page of the document; the words were very tiny and, to her, meaningless. Her eyes suddenly stopped scanning the page, for she saw her name, or rather her American name, the name mother-in-law told her she would take and use for convenience sake. Mother-in-law had seen the name some where, and told Chiang Hsia it suited her; the newly named Edith accepted the American name bestowed on her by the strong-willed Tai Yi. How could Chiang Hsia have done otherwise in those early days of her marriage under the dreaded tutelage of her mother-in-law? But now she wondered what her name on the document was doing in the middle of the page. She would ask someone, but who?
Once back in her kitchen Chiang Hsia washed her tea things, put on her coat and went for an early morning walk. Out of habit, she walked to Washington Square and strolled across the park, selected a bench, sat and pondered the idea of going somewhere. She would take a vacation. But where? She didn't know anybody in America to visit, and there was no one any place else to visit. She felt like an abandoned orphan.
The church bells called the hour of eight and the bells reminded her of the quiet times in the church, so thither did she go. A mass in Italian was being said; she slipped into a back pew and listened for a few minutes; but she'd come for quiet contemplation and the voice of the priest and the responding congregation disturbed the balance she sought. On the way back to her apartment, she bought a newspaper; she didn't know why, she just did.
It was when she sat again in her cozy kitchen with the strange newspaper in front of her that she felt the pangs of loneliness she'd been staving off, and that was why, she admitted, she had bought the newspaper: To keep her company. With lonely time on her hands she stared at the words on the front page; she turned the page and stared at another incomprehensible page. Thus, she sat the rest of the morning looking and turning pages of a newspaper she could not read. And then it struck her that she should make a concerted effort to study English.
The poet rose later than usual. The sun was long past its meridian and the hour for work drew near. Almost at the last minute he remembered the unwashed pot; but there was no time now; he would be late for work; the pot would have to wait. With that, he left. At nine p.m., Anthony took his lunch break in the back room of the book shop. While he ate a banana, he scrutinized the titles of a stack of newly acquired stock. Halfway down he saw it: The very present for his neighbor, an English-Chinese, Chinese-English dictionary.
That night, as he made his way home he had the dictionary in his hand, wrapped in a piece of tan paper tied with string.
In his kitchen he heated the last of the good soup. The night was warm, serene; he opened the back door to his not too wide porch, and the light from his kitchen showed the lichen covered concrete retaining wall which was his only view. A lone cricket chirped. Closing his eyes, he listened to the solitary singer and the winsome notes took him on a flight of fantasy of traveling to distant places: For a moment he was in Hawaii, basking in the sun; from there he transported himself on the magic of the cricket's song to the rugged mountains of Turkey and the ruins of the Hittites. His fantasy took him to the ends of the earth and back without leaving his home. Opening his eyes, he shook his head at his imagination, for the present state of his finances, at best, could take him only for a day trip across the bay.
Chiang Hsia, contrary to her habits, had taken a nap after her early dinner and woke up close to ten o'clock p.m. still dressed and not at all sleepy. For want of something to do, she swept the hall and mopped it. But still she did not feel sleepy. She swept her bedroom and folded some towels and put them away. Still not sleepy, she made some very weak tea, sat in the comfortable chair mother-in-law used to like, picked up an old Chinese newspaper and looked through it. As she did, she saw an ad which arrested her attention:--
"Winter or summer. Any time. Domestic or international travel. All arrangements made. Thirty-five years of experience. Let us please you. Golden Dragon Travel Agency. 1215 Jackson St. Tel. 555-6285."
"Hmm," she was once again sparked to take a little holiday. Just then she heard him come home. He usually tarried a few minutes in the front, then gradually made his way down the hall. She could hear him moving about directly to her right. She just knew he would be eating the remainder of her soup. She heard his back door open; quietly she got up and opened her back door which looked out at the same concrete retaining wall; she too heard the sound of that lone cricket and she, too, let it lull her into a private fantasy: Someplace--she sitting, looking at trees and water; feeling comfortable and needed by someone; the smell of good food cooking and the sound of children playing. What a pleasant reverie she was having as she stood at her door half in the kitchen. All was calm; the nap made her feel yet fresh; at that moment she was not unhappy. Spontaneous song rose up from her throat. Quietly she sang, more a hum than a song; she sang about the old fisherman in his boat, on the bay, watching the sea gulls and seeing the moon on the eastern hill. Her song finished, she let out a sigh of peace. And she remained standing there in the chiaroscuro of back porch and kitchen with her eyes closed, savoring the harmony all about her.
Tony was still in his kitchen when he heard the low singing coming from his neighbor's porch. He sat quietly listening to the undulating ligatures and feeling a great peace overcome him for the soothing quality of the graceful song. It was after the brief, but slowly sung song that he remembered her unwashed pot. Breaking the spell the song had created, he went to the sink and gave her already spotless pot a good scrubbing; he put his whole heart into washing that pot. While it drained, he fetched the dictionary. With the pot now dried in one hand, and the dictionary in the other, he went around the porch divider and knocked on the widow's open back door.
Chiang Hsia had long since returned, light hearted, to her chair; she heard the water running in his apartment, and as she made to sip her weak tea, she heard the footsteps and the knock; at first she was a little frightened; but she knew who it was; she got up quickly and called out: "To-ni?"
"The very same," he called back in his friendly voice as he boldly stepped into her kitchen and presented himself to her with a short bow. "I heard you singing," he said. She blushed; he'd heard her singing!
"I've come to return your pot," he continued, "and to thank you for the soup. It was very good." So saying, he handed her the pot; with momentary hesitation, she took the pot with her two hands.
"You welcome, welcome," she said.
He interpreted the two welcomes as an invitation to sit, so he pulled out a chair and sat himself down at the table to the surprise and perplexity of Chiang Hsia. He put the wrapped dictionary on the table. Tony leaned back in the chair; she stood in the middle of the kitchen still with the pot in her hands; there was a tinge of mutual embarrassment between them; each looked elsewhere other than to the other. Tony, in spite of his usually open nature, wondered if he'd blundered by calling at such a late hour unannounced. He shuffled in his chair; she saw the change of expression on his face. She did not want him to go, but she did not know how to ask him to stay. Nevertheless, he was on the verge of going himself--but not really wanting to go.
"Tea?" she asked.
He lifted his head and looked directly at her and saw the ingenuous smile on her lips and he understood.
"Yes; thank you; I'd love some tea."
He watched her put the water to boil and spoon tea leaves into a blue and white tea pot. Tony watched as does a painter watching people to gather impressions for shape, color and action; but instead of oils or pastels, he would paint with words. He would write a poem about her preparing tea.
She served him first and then herself; she even remembered to put out an ashtray.for him.
"The soup was very, very good. I just had the last bowl a while ago. I was really surprised when I got home--so here's a little something to show my appreciation,"he said, picking up the wrapped package and handing it to her. She'd seen him place the package on the table and she half knew it was for her; but she forgot all about it until it was suddenly offered to her. "Thank you," she said, as she took it and lay it before her. She was shy to open it then and there, but her curiosity got the best of her. With deft fingers, she untied the knot and unwrapped the paper; she saw and read the Chinese characters announcing a bilingual dictionary. She beamed; she didn't have a dictionary, and its coming to her just when she'd decided to do some serious studying, seemed propitious. What makes these coincidences happen, she silently questioned? "Thank you," she said again, as she picked up the book and turned to the Chinese portion. She read several characters on one page, then thumbed through random pages until she saw the character for profession. She put her finger on the English word and showed it to him. Seeing the word as a question, he took the book from her hands and found the English word, poet, and showed her the corresponding character; when she read it, a look of surprise passed her eyes and lips and now she understood about his typing and all his books. She felt not a little in awe of him, this learned man who was her good neighbor; she couldn't understand why he wanted to visit and give gifts to such a common woman as herself. All the time she was gazing at the character of her language and understanding, Tony was struck by poetic inspiration; through his mind flashed a short poem:
Woman making tea.
The steam hiding
her face, like a
cloud hiding the
Quickly he pulled out his note book, and as she looked on, puzzled at his fast action, he wrote the brief lines, then read it over silently, and let out an "Ah," then put his note book away in his pocket.
"What you do?' and she mimicked writing.
"I wrote a poem."
He thumbed the dictionary and pointed out the character for poem. she read it. "For you," he said.
She looked up from the lexicon amazed at what she'd just heard; a poem for her. Why? That was absurd; poets wrote poems for beautiful ladies. Nevertheless, she was touched.
"You," and she mimicked typing, "for me?"
"Type it? Sure. I'll do it now. I'll be back in a minute." Before she could grasp the gist of what he'd said, Tony was out the door; he was gone hardly long enough for her to realize he was not there when he returned and laid the newly typed short poem before her. There was no end to her pleasure; a bright girlish blush flushed her cheeks; and though she did not know what the poem said, she appreciated the gesture in a profound way, and, she liked the attention, too. She saw her name at the top of the page and felt proud of herself, something she'd not often felt.
There ensued a long silence between them, however, a relaxed silence wherein both respected the other's prerogative. It was in this silence that they communed, in spite of language.
There came to Chiang Hsia, in this gentle silence, a thought; but it was too bold, too much to ask of her poet neighbor. But her life, she knew, was changing and if she wanted to see more changes she would have to initiate a few herself; with that held firmly in her mind, she broke the mutual silence by picking up her dictionary and finding the words she needed and spoke them:--
"You teach me learn English?" Once said, she saw how easily it had been said and wondered why she'd not been more direct sooner.
Anthony thought for a moment about his; he saw no real obstacle to this request; but he was no English teacher. Nevertheless, the more he thought about it, the more inspired he became about the English lessons.
And so it was that their study began-- that very night where they stayed up almost until dawn studying. He jotted down the alphabet, and went over the sounds; he wrote and explained the verb to be, in the present indicative and the simple past; and she tried hard to pronounce and retain his lesson; however, fatigue began to fog her mind and all the words and what they meant were drifting away, giving way to sleep; she had difficulty keeping her eyes open; she truly regretted this sleepiness which a few hours before she had sought; she was enjoying her first lesson and her kind poet-neighbor's company. Fight as she did, she could not stay awake and, with great effort, she said in her best, newly acquired English: "I am to bed; cannot think; yourself to bed must sleep." Without another word, she got up and walked to her room. Anthony had been so taken by his new enthusiasm that he hadn't taken notice of his new student's fatigue until she told him. He was used to these late hours. He bade her goodnight and, as he left, he shut her kitchen light and closed her back door softly.
Chiang Hsia collapsed, gratefully, onto her bed fully clothed where she slept until the early afternoon.
Thus these two neighbors met both in the day and in the wee hours of the night, after Tony would return from work; and it got to be that she was preparing him little things to eat for work and she always made sure there was soup or a piece of chicken for a late snack when he came home from the night shift.
She insisted on using her American name and being called so. Edith, using her time well spent, was a conscientious student and learned quickly; her vocabulary expanded and, after several months they could carry on intelligent conversations, albeit there were confusions and misunderstandings.
One day, as both teacher and student sat, going over a present perfect tense, Tony's telephone rang; at first he ignored the rings not wanting to break the concentration of the lesson; but the persistence of the rings forced him to answer; and Edith, who was sitting in his front room saw the annoyed expression on his face turn, first to mild shock, then to great a smile until finally she heard him shout: "I can't believe it!" and he gave a little hop of joy; he spoke very quickly, too quickly for her to gather in the nature of his obvious joy; but she did her New York at least three times. He was positively ebullient as he hung up the telephone.
"Edith, I've just been informed that I've won a poetry competition and the five hundred dollar prize! I knew it would happen--I knew it!" He was nervously happy and he walked from one end of the room to the other several times. When finally he calmed himself, he very slowly explained his good fortune: He'd won and he was also invited to New York, if he could go, and that the poems would be published in the next issue of a very prestigious poetry quarterly. She was happy for him and congratulated him in two languages.
He telephoned his boss, explained the matter and said, considering the occasion, he was taking the night off. Roscoe, his boss, agreed, even invited him down for a drink to celebrate.
"I'll be there with bells on," said Tony, jubilantly; and he hung up.
"Edith, my boss has given me the night off, and, invited me out for a drink. Since this is a celebration, let's go out to dinner. How about it?"
She was touched at his invitation to celebrate his having won; she wanted to go, but deep inside she sensed restraint. She'd never been out socially with anyone who wasn't Chinese; she felt a little odd, and just knew that with this tall American as her escort, people would look at them with too curious an eye; and she wondered if she was strong enough for that.
"Well, what do you say? We can have a drink with Roscoe, then go to a restaurant and have a feast."
She wanted to be part of the celebration. She, therefore, put aside her cultural anxieties and chose to go because she wanted to be with Tony, and would not concern herself about what others might think.
"What time we go?" she asked.
He looked at his watch: 12;30 p.m. "How about five or so?"
She also looked at her wristwatch. Mentally she calculated the time it would take her to do what she was spontaneously planning.
"Knock my door six o'clock. Now I must to shop. See you later. Bye, bye."
A few hours later she returned in a taxi; she carried several parcels and the taxi driver carried a large potted plant with a wide red ribbon tied to a short trellis with Chinese characters written in gold expressing good wishes for having won the poetry contest.. Out of a box from a woman's shop, she took a new, modesty decollete dress, silver-grey in color and hung it on a hanger and admired it; from another , smaller box, she took a pair of low, matching shoes, the first she'd owned since before she was married. She'd bought new lingerie, too and firecrackers and the plant for Tony as a token of her esteem for him for having won the poetry contest.
She bathed and combed and brushed her hair and put on all of her new clothes. The heavy plant she placed in front of his front door; the fire crackers she tied to the end of an old mop handle and stuck it in a large separated seam on the bottom stair. The hour was close to six; she rang his doorbell, then ran down the stairs. Opening the door, Anthony saw the plant, saw her and the swift motion of her hand striking a match and igniting the firecracker fuse. She ran up the stairs and reached him as the first firecracker exploded, setting off another and another until the air was filled with the successive, deafening explosions of the small red bombs, which sent out great clouds of bilious smoke and shreds of exploded red paper, which fluttered to the stairs, landing at the feet of the poet who stood in great, but pleased surprise at the display made for him. When the fireworks were at their peak, Edith moved instinctively closer to Anthony. Tony felt her nearness; he reached his arm around her waist and drew her even closer to himself; they stood like that for a long time--even after the last firecracker had flashed watching the smoke dissipate--and she let him.
It was while Anthony was trying to decide where to place the large house plant that he knew he was feeling a great fondness for his neighbor that he'd never felt before. Moreover, when he saw her in her new dress and shoes and how her hair was combed, he couldn't help giving her compliments, which she had never received in her life. And she was so happy that he had noticed her new outfit, and the care she had taken to be outfitted for this very special evening out. She so appreciated his compliments and his warmth.
Edith had never been in any kind of bar in her life, and at first she felt uncomfortable. Tony, however, took her hand and held it for a while and that made her feel better. While the two men drank wine, she sipped a tall glass of orange juice which had a cherry in it and a slice of lime--a concoction all so new to her.
"I'll buy a hundred copies of the quarterly your poems will be published in and give you a little promotion party at the shop and you can autograph the copies for the customers. It's the least I can do for you, Tony--you've earned it. Here's to you, again," wherewith, Roscoe lifted his glass and toasted the poet. "Now tell me, are you going to New York to collect your prize and attend the dinner?"
"I'd love to go, Roscoe; nothing would give me greater pleasure, but the ironic thing is that the trip would cost me more than the prize money. They are not paying expenses, only the prize. My presence is at my own expense."
"Too bad; but don't give up, something will come up."
"That's right, one never knows. In case I do go, I'd like a week off."
"Sure, sure. Glad to help," said Roscoe.
Their conversation drifted onto other matters which Edith could not follow; but she understood about Tony's lack of money to go to New York and receive his prize in person. She felt it was a matter of a poet's honor to receive his reward in person, an event too special to simply wait for a common envelope to arrive by mail, much the way her widow's pension arrived every month. She would give this some thought.
The last of the wine was drunk. Roscoe shook hands with Edith and Tony, then left them.
"Well," asked Tony, "where shall we eat: Chinatown or North Beach?"
Edith was hungry and not too far from where they were was a fine Chinese restaurant, one fit for a poet's celebration, and it was to that place they went.
The restaurant was crowded with diners both occidental and Chinese, and Edith just knew everyone was looking at the odd couple they made standing, waiting to be shown to a table; she tightened in the shoulders a little and was almost embarrassed; but she held her head high and was proud. Once at their table Anthony helped her off with her coat and held her chair for her. She was thrilled, for no one had ever done that, although she had seen it happen many times. She had been looking at the waiter, and she knew by the way the waiter had moved his eyebrows that he disapproved of this east-west match and she felt certain he would be impudent and she would not allow that.
She saw that the waiter had only one menu in his hand and she used this as an immediate opening for control of the situation. For a moment she pretended she was her old mother-in-law, and, only half looking at the waiter, she snapped at him in Chinese: "Why have you brought only one menu? Can't you see there are two people. Please hurry and fetch another," with which, she turned her full face to Tony and began to speak to him in English, controlling every word to give the impression she knew the language well. Tony was unaware of the brave struggle for dignity that had just been played out before him.
With a studied eye, she ordered the best dishes; with extreme grace, she commanded the waiter to bring this or that. The food was delicious and they had a wonderful time; but Edith's joy was also an eye opening triumph, for she realized that she was a strong woman who could seize the moment and do it graciously and with forbearance. This was not only a joy, but also a good lesson for her to remember. And it was because of Tony that she had found this heretofore, unknown strength.
The hour was late, the street quiet. They had walked after dinner down Broadway to the Embarcadero, thence to the Greenwich Street stairs; by the time they returned to their apartment house, they were tired. He waited for her to unlock her door. She turned and looked at him.
"Thank you; good dinner, good time, good night."
Tony laughed. "You're a bit of the poet yourself."
"I don't unastan."
"Just thinking out loud. Well, I'm glad we were able to celebrate together." He moved closer to her and very gently took her in his arms and she let him; but she averted her lips when he tried to kiss her. They released from their embrace, each looking at each other's eyes knowing their deep feelings. Just as gently as he had taken her in his arms, she stepped back into her apartment, whispered another, "Good night," and eased the door closed.
As she pulled back the bed covers, she momentarily regretted her not having the power of magic to give her instant command of language to explain to a certain person the great affection brewing in a certain heart.
Tony's picture and a brief article about this having won the poetry contest appeared in the local paper. Edith felt proud to have found the article while going through the newspaper as part of her on-going study of English. She cut the article out and decided to save it in a special place. From the steamer trunk in her bedroom she removed the large manila envelope in which she kept her important papers; therein she put the article. The plain white envelope she'd spied several months before again came to her attention. She opened it and removed the paper mother-in-law had entrusted to her. A half year before she had only been able to read her name; but now she could read a little and she began to read the bold face type at the top of the page: CALIFORNIA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY. She understood the four words and knew, at last, what the document was. She scanned the small lines understanding groups or single words. But there appeared, in between the very small print, the numbers $50,000. She needed no grammar or vocabulary to understand that her late mother-in-law had made her beneficiary of the life insurance policy. She was stunned!
Edith sat on her bed and cried, thinking back on all those times she'd resented the old woman and her caustic words and sometimes rude ways. Obviously, for many years, Tai Yi, despite her rough ways, had been thinking of Chiang Hsia's future. After her cry, she uttered a quiet prayer of thanksgiving to whatever powers would hear her.
Edith was now a rich woman and the suddenness of knowing this made her reel, and for a little while she lay on her bed with closed eyes ruminating on her good fortune and in her rumination, she again saw her dream place of trees, water and the sound of children playing; only this time she saw Tony in that daydream too, and that sent shivers down her back.
After their midnight snack, and just before their lesson, she showed Tony the policy.
"You read it for me," she said.
With amazement, he read the cumbersome language of actuaries then, explained what he could understand to her.
"You'll be rolling in the dough, honey."
"You mean I get plenty money?"
"You bet--plenty money--and if you don't blow it, you're set for life. But first you've got to contact the agent," and Tony went on to explain and showed her the agent's name. She would go to him the very first thing in the morning. "I'll go with you if you want."
"Thank you for your offering, but I can handle myself," she said. She broke into a wide grin. "Now my time to celebrate," she said, still grinning, "I buy you dinner in good restaurant, enjoy my good fortune."
The agent was a pleasant fellow, and he assured Edith the policy was still in effect and it was only a matter of getting a death certificate which he would be glad to help her get.
By the time she walked out of the agent's office, her head was swimming and she felt unsteady on her feet. Therefore, she walked to Portsmouth Plaza, which was nearby, to sit and collect herself. Having given a great deal of thought to all her money, she had to admit she had no immediate need for a lot of money; she thought it very funny and gave out a muffled laugh. She looked around at the people sitting in the plaza and heard and saw children playing so freely; her thoughts turned to Tony and his inability to pay his way to New York to collect his prize at the presentation dinner. On the other side of the plaza was Jackson Street, and on that street she remembered was the Golden Dragon Travel Agency.
The next day she left her apartment with her bank book, going first to the bank, then to the travel agency. She could be seen counting out several hundred dollars.
That night, at another restaurant, as Anthony lit an after dinner cigarette, she reached into her purse and handed him a thin package wrapped in red paper. "For you," she said.
"For me? What could it be?" he said in surprise.
He broke the seal and unwrapped a ticket folder on which was embossed a golden dragon; inside was a round-trip air ticket to New York, and a hotel reservation confirmation.
Sweet heart, I can't take this from you."
"Yes; you take it; go to New York; have big dinner; get personal prize--not in mail. Poet have much honor. I am pleased to be your friend," and she shyly averted her eyes.
Tony was both touched yet uncertain about accepting her generous gift. But then, he reasoned, good things were happening in his life and she was part of his good fortune. As they walked home that night, they walked each with an arm around the other's waist; and though nothing was said, they knew they loved each other.
One evening, soon after his return from New York, and after a lot of thinking on the matter, Tony proposed marriage to Edith. She grew very serious and told him she would think about his proposal. On the third day of her mulling she consented. A week later they were married in a little chapel near Monterey, and, afterwards, they drove the coast highway on the first leg of their honeymoon.
On a small beach, where they had chosen to walk, Edith looked about her: Up in the hills, trees; to her right, the sea and not too far away was a family having a picnic; the smell of barbecuing food mingled with the smell of the sea, and children were playing and laughing nearby. She saw and heard and drew deeply into her the manifestation of her day dream come true. Together she and Tony walked hand in hand to the edge of the lapping waves and in supreme happiness they watched the glowing sun sink in the west.
Nevertheless, the old woman's tea served and drunk, Chiang Hsia helped the old woman to dress. In spite of her years, Tai Yi was yet a little vain about her face, wrinkled that it was; often, with a shaking hand, she would paint her withered lips and powder her furrowed face and brush her wispy short hair, taking great pains to make certain