November 13, 2020 § 1 Comment
Most everyone who reads this post had a terrible 2020. We couldn’t travel and lost those vacation deposits. We were isolated at home like political prisoners under house arrest. Visits to family and friends were highly curtailed. Worse, maybe you knew someone who passed because of all this. I can’t speak to your neck of the woods but New York city is not much without its bars, restaurants, museums, movie theaters, concerts and impulse clothing purchases.
Frankly, it doesn’t do any good to contribute to the babel of of discontent. So, in an effort to be affirmative, hopefully without coming across as sappy, I offer you a post that focuses on the positive things that happened to me in this dreadful year.
I survived skin cancer and a brain tumor all during a pandemic while the city of New York deteriorated into crime, chaos and sorrow. I endured three surgeries, four MRIs, daily radiation therapy and countless lab and doctor visits. If I did not have good insurance I would be buried in debt for the rest of my natural life, no matter how long I live on. My odds for a successful recovery were greatly increased just by my zip code and the access I have to the best health care in the whole world.
2020 is the Year of the Rat in the Chinese horoscope. Specifically, 2020 is the year of the Metal Rat. (No, not that one). Most of us in the West would consider a rat to be a fitting representative for a nasty 365 days but The Rat has a different meaning in Chinese culture. According to what I have gleaned from the interwebs, The Rat is “resourceful” and the Metal Rat, moreover, is “strong, determined, and resolute.”
The article above goes on to describe how the other signs will fair in 2020. Sheep like me will “be able to sail through 2020 with minimal problems.” I wouldn’t go that far (I kinda got sheared, ha! ha!) but I did lucky, like lotto winner lucky.
Even if you weren’t as fortunate as me, I hope you are alright and I urge you to be like a Metal Rat and get through the rest of the next month and half in one piece. See you in 2021 or, if you prefer, the Year of the Ox.
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
Thistle the Hampshire sheep was enjoying her ten minute break between performances of the dog show. She played sheep number 3 in the five sheep flock that was herded and separated by two champion border collies to the thrill and delight of tourists brought to the farm by the bus load.
She looked across the rolling green of the Irish countryside, past the quaintness of Glenbeigh village and out to the furious blue of the Atlantic. Her tiny sheep brain dreamed of her retirement and the sweet grass of Great Blasket Island where she would live out her final years. Little did Thistle know, after the spring shearing she would be sold for mutton chops.
March 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
Let me first apologize to anyone who was sent to this page as a result of an internet search for “losing belly fat”. Please feel free to keep reading but I feel it is fair to warn you that not one iota of scientific research went into writing this article.
The average 40-something male will probably attest to experiencing some increase in abdominal girth since their leaner 20s. This is due in large part to the sedentary lifestyle of middle age and some of the comfortable excesses it provides, we deserve you might say.
It is, however, also a natural part of the aging process caused to some degree by a decrease in testosterone production. (For the aforementioned seeking a flat stomach, perform another search for “Abs Over 40” and read, or be bombarded by, their sales pitch.)
Tragically, the natural course of things is in no way hindered by our passion and weakness for the greatest drink ever created: BEER.
The fact that BEER is loaded with calories is not news but it might be news to discover, despite what you’ve witnessed in bars during football season, that the consumption of BEER lowers testosterone levels. Worse, it stimulates estrogen production; men don’t necessarily turn into their dads.
This triumvirate of extra calories, lower testosterone and increased male estrogen creates the perfect conditions for growing a prize winning Beer Gut in your odious fat garden, proving once again that reap what we sow.
Many work very hard to counteract their love for BEER with diet and exercise. Others let nature take its visceral course. Whatever path you choose take heart in this Classic Country song Beer Gut while imbibing your favorite flavor.
February 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
The dream faded. My eyes opened on the green, segmented digits of my alarm clock. Abraham had been correct, I was indeed the chosen one, as evidenced by the envelope beside the clock. Unfortunately, if the hour on display was correct, the chosen one had very little left of the day to deliver it.
It wasn’t easy to get up and running, sick as I was. A few days prior an annoying tickle in the back of my throat went afoul before slithering down my windpipe to make trouble in my chest. In no time my lungs were producing a thick, yellow phlegm with the fetid taste of disease.
Nurse Girlfriend ordered a long soak in a tub filled with scalding water and eucalyptus scented bath salts. Instead, I poured myself three fingers of Lansdowne Rye. Liquor soothed a prickly itch that triggered violent coughing episodes and, unlike conventional medication, this remedy took immediate effect. My head had no sooner nested in the cool dimple of my pillow than I found myself dreaming of poor Abraham Lemon falling from his ladder, paint bucket and all. I stood over his prone body on the craquelure of Hartley’s & Grill parking lot. The agony, which glazed his normally piercing turquoise eyes, caused him to whimper when he spoke, “Wake up you idiot, you are the chosen one.”
A day after Abraham Lemon’s accident a get well card was passed between the trembling hands of Hartley’s regulars. Once the card had collected the requisite amount of signatures and best wishes it was passed to me for delivery to Darden University Hospital.
Outside Abraham’s room a powerful looking custodian was swabbing the floor. He paused to plunge his mop into a bucket of steaming water that wafted disinfectant. The piercing bouquet was just the irritant needed to induce an episode disturbing enough to bring a nurse out from hiding. L.N. White insisted I wear a surgical mask and so I entered Lemon’s room looking as if I was a member of the staff.
The bed closest to the window in room 3015 cradled the long, lean frame of Lemon, A. He looked to be as peacefully sedated as I had expected, however, I didn’t fully appreciate to what degree until he started talking. Over a period of time Lemon’s drunken patois had become intelligible to my ears but this was something new.
“I thought you said we’d have not to operate, doctor,” mumbled Abraham’s strungout voice box.
The plastic tubes of his IV rattled when he lifted a weak arm either to emphasize his objection or to protect himself from the scalpel.
“Abraham, it’s me. I ain’t the doctor.” I could feel the mask scratching my lips as I spoke.
To someone imbibing top shelf pharmaceuticals my mask proved an effective disguise. His drowsy eyelids were barely ajar and he regarded me through thin slits. I made another attempt at explaining who I was and why I was there without exposing him to my germs.
“Do you remember being on the ladder at Hartley’s?”
His pallid tinge brightened a bit with recognition.
“Hartley. Yeah, I know her. Hey, you know what? I work at a place called Hartley’s Bar & Grill. I cook…sometimes.”
“Sure, Abraham, I know, man. But they don’t call it that anymore. Remember? That is what caused the accident.”
His mouth stretched into a faint smile or a perhaps a scowl of pain. It was impossible to know for sure. I continued.
“They passed that law. The one that outlawed the word BAR in the name of any business that served alcohol.
I felt that Abraham was slowly regaining the use of his memory when a nurse, different than L.N. White, appeared from nowhere on a pair of silent white sneakers to take his pulse and check the flow of whatever cocktail he was being served. She gave me a perfunctory smile and disappeared carrying with her whatever sensibilities Lemon was beginning to reclaim.
“Anyway, Abraham,” I held up the envelope, “Hartley and them got you this card. Everybody signed it.”
“Hartley. You two getting by okay. How’s the kids?”
It was unnecessary to explain to him that neither Hartley nor children were involved in my life. I didn’t even respond. Abraham was in deep hibernation.
I placed his get well card on the rolling table beside a cup with a goose-neck straw and tray of untouched food and left 3015 for home.
Lemon’s near catatonic state and one more croupy spasm before leaving Darden’s parking lot had me contemplating my own course of medication. The two options I considered were cough syrup and such, available at Lipton’s Pharmacy, or a whiskey, available at Hartley’s. Both had their arguments.
The day was nearly done and lights were sparking into action everywhere against the encroaching night: street lights, headlights, house lights, store lights. People moving in windows looked like people on a television set.
The fat, red letters on Lipton’s sign were aglow, all but the P in pharmacy. They radiated into the darkness that the family owned apothecary was still proudly serving the community after sundown.
I slowed but did not stop.
I did not stop at Hartley’s either. The bar’s placard that swung by the roadside was glowing brightly. I could almost make out the strokes that Abraham’s brush had left in the white paint he had applied over the now illegal word. At least he’d finished the job, I thought, before the ladder, unstable on the clear glaze of ice, had slid from beneath him. In Abraham’s honor, Pete, the weeknight bartender, had placed on special a shooter he called Lemon Drops until Hartley put an end to what she considered insensitive.
At home Chef Girlfriend was stirring a pot of chicken soup she had promised her ailing honey.
“Where have you been, hon?” Chef Girlfriend left the bubbling cauldron and began chopping herbs.
“Hospital,” I wheezed, “had to deliver that card to Lemon.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Why didn’t you just give it to me. I work there, remember.”
I hadn’t thought of that until that exact moment and said as much.
“You’re going to catch pneumonia if you’re not careful. Speaking of which,” she pointed with the tip of the knife to a bag on the table, “I stopped at Lipton’s and picked you up some goodies.”
I was glad I did not make the stop and asked if she had noticed the sign with the missing P.
“Lipton’s Harmacy? Yea, there’s some irony for you. “I almost didn’t want to go in.” She gave me a big smile, “Funny, right?”
“It’s funny alright. There are a lot of funny signs out there now.”
She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
That a law intended to defend the public, or at least the public’s perpetually vulnerable morality, had sent a man to a hospital bed was not the type of cosmic paradox I felt worthy of acknowledging.
“Oh, nothing. What time’s dinner, babe?”
February 26, 2015 § Leave a comment
Sorry this card is late. It has been so cold here that on Friday afternoon Time itself froze, solid. When we finally got the old girl defrosted it was already Tuesday, you’re birthday, and this card was still not posted.
The circumstance was as surreal as the times that winter forced us on our backs to worm beneath the old house where copper pipes ran like bluish patina blood vessels in the frigid narrows of the crawl space.
A ceiling of raw oak floorboards
A floor of bare earth
Stalagmites of rat dung rising
Rusted nail stalactites looming
We pushed our bodies through the depths like some yet undiscovered subterranean species, vulnerable at all times to attack by wild creatures nesting in dark recesses.
With the warm air from the lungs of hair dryers connected to long umbilical cords of electricity we thawed the crystals of ice that clogged the water lines and emerged stiff and cold from the underworld with just enough time to eat breakfast before the school bus arrived.
Many happy returns
October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Socks are important. Be they the thick workaholics inside the boots of a day laborer or the stylish yet humble argyle on the feet of a day trader, our socks are a layer of armor against a chafing world. Sadly, a sock’s lifespan can be short and it is sad when a hole is discovered in the toe or heel of a favorite pair. Even worse is the abrupt loss of a good sock in its prime. In either case, without its twin the surviving stocking is condemned to live out the remainder of its days in a pile of dust rags, in a shine box, or maybe in the drawer of crazy aunt who doesn’t care what she wears.
I was discussing the plight of such raiment orphans with Dan Kilian who admitted having an emotional moment at the pathetic sight of one of his own that had lost its mate.
The following scenario tells one possible alternative for a sock that endures without its better half.
The Sock Puppet
The sock puppet wasn’t much of a puppet. There was no mouth stitched into the toe or button eyes sewn on. Really, there were no anthropomorphic features of any kind. He simply pulled an athletic sock over his fist and stretched it up his bare forearm so that the cuff with the three red stripes was just below his elbow.
His light colored garments did not enjoy the benefits of being separated from the dark fabrics on laundry day and as a consequence, regular washing in these unsegregated loads had tinged the original crisp white the color of a rainy day. Normal wear had painted a dark footprint on the sole and and had strained the elasticity so that the sock resembled loose skin.
He moved his wrist up and down bringing the puppet to life. His extended fingers gave what was roughly the head section a pronounced beak. With nothing to serve as eyes or mouth the creature took on the macabre appearance of a condemned man on the hangman’s scaffold, bobbing his hooded head in anticipation of the end.
The puppeteer’s attempt at ventriloquism was no better. He made no effort to obfuscate the movement of his own lips while the sock performed its routine in high pitched voice.
“Hi, everybody. I’m…” It paused and the head looked upward searching the heavens for a nifty stage name. It found no inspiration there and the puppet master demonstrated his mediocrity further, continuing: “…I’m Socks.”
The introduction was met with groans and rolling eyes from the audience who’d gathered.
“Oh, now wait one darn minute,” scolded Socks. “You know what you people need? I’ll tell you what. Imagination, that’s what.”
Mouths curled into unimpressed smirks at the pot regarding the kettle.
“You think it’s easy being a sock puppet? You think it’s all fun and games?”
“It hasn’t been fun so far,” someone shouted.
“Oh, a heckler, eh. Stuff a sock in it buddy!” Socks giggled at his own joke as the crowd grew restless and impatient grumbles began.
“I wasn’t always a puppet you know. But I lost my mate in a tragic laundry accident and I was forced to look for other work.”
“Was he your right hand man,” the heckler gibed on.
Ignoring: “Who’s going to hire a single sock? You might be surprised to learn there aren’t that many amputees out there. So I used my imagination and went into show business.”
“Well, as a sock that’s part of the act, wiseguy.”
October 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Every afternoon around 3 O’clock Chin-ten would make himself a cup of tea. He preferred Oolong and kept the tender, dried leaves in a red tin with the words Xian Cha printed on the front. On the back of the tin drawn in silhouette, a Chinese junk sailed towards the skyline of an exotic harbor city underneath a brief history of Xian Cha tea. Chin-ten had never brewed nor tasted Xian Cha. The container was empty when he purchased it for a dime at a garage sale some years ago.
Chin-ten had never sailed on a Junk either and the closest he’d ever been to an exotic port was New York harbor. Chin-ten was born and raised in Flushing where he owned and operated a framing shop. He lived above the shop with his wife Chu-li and when she was still alive they would have tea together every day at 3. He always told his wife as he scooped Oolong out of the tin that one day they would have to sample this recherché delight called Xian Cha but they never did.
A few months after Chu-li had passed away, Chin-ten hung a help wanted sign in the front window of his frame shop. While he could legitimately justify the need for an extra hand, he had to admit to himself that he was lonely working long hours all by himself. And despite his interactions with customers he worried that his isolation was having a negative effect on his sense of reality.
Of the several people who inquired only one seemed capable, a girl in her early twenties named Betty Wu. Betty claimed to be a foreign exchange student enrolled in art school and was studying museum restoration although Chin-ten suspected that she was somehow in the country illegally. The young girl was very pretty and reminded Chin-ten of his late wife in many ways but he asserted to himself that his decision to hire her was based solely on her qualifications: an interest in fine art as a career and previous experience.
She worked weekday afternoons to accommodate her morning class schedule and Chin-ten paid her in cash to avoid any embarrassing revelations of citizenship that could result in the loss of his only suitable candidate. Betty proved to be a reliable and tireless helper.
Chin-ten had never changed his afternoon routine and every day at 3 o’clock he brewed two cups of tea. Only now he shared them with Betty Wu.
Despite the positive changes that his new assistant brought, Chin-ten still missed his Chu-li terribly. He often thought the worst thing that could ever happen was to lose his wife and her passing had unfortunately proved him correct until one day when a customer visited Chin-ten’s shop with a collection of photographs to be framed.
On that morning, Chin-ten looked up from the wooden frame he was assembling when he heard the pleasant jingle of the tiny bell above the shop’s front door that announced the arrival of visitors. The doorway connecting the workshop and the showroom was covered by a heavy curtain. Chin-ten pushed it aside and stepped behind the counter where a young Asian man was standing. He wore overalls and baseball cap with the name Dragon Imports stenciled in gold letters on the crown.
“I wasn’t expecting a delivery,” said Chin-ten.
“Actually, I am dropping off some things from my boss to be framed, photographs,” the man responded, holding up a flat parcel.
The photos were sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. He placed the package on the counter and Chin-ten carefully peeled off the adhesive tape holding them together.
“It is unusual,” Chin-ten spoke as he worked, “Typically I present the customer with a choice of framing options in person.”
The man explained that the instructions were inside as Chin-ten removed the last of the tape.
Chin-ten lifted the top piece of cardboard using both hands. When he looked down at the exposed photographs he heard a loud gasp escape from his mouth. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck were on end and he felt the blood drain from his face. He stood motionless like a statue of a man removing the lid from a crate and amazed at the contents.
A sheet of paper had flown out of the packet and fluttered to the linoleum floor. The delivery person had gone to retrieve it and returned deeply concerned over Chin-ten’s reaction.
“What is it, are they damaged?”
He looked at the man, mouth agape, and immediately tried to compose himself and hide the look of shock that calcified his face.
“No, no. Everything is okay, okay.” He forced a smile as the man handed him the paper.
“These are the instructions.”
Printed on the paper was a list that detailed the type of molding, glazing and the color of mat board to be used to complete the framing job as well as who to contact when the work was finished.
“Do you need an estimate?” Chin-ten asked. His voice had the monotone inflection of a robot.
“My boss didn’t say but he wondered if the job could be done by tomorrow.”
Chin-ten cleared his throat to find a chipper tone, “It will cost extra for a rush the job but yes I will have it done by tomorrow.”
The bell rang a good-bye to the delivery man as he left. Chin-ten went to the front window and watched him cross the street to where he’d parked a panel truck with the company name Dragon Imports on the side. The man climbed in and drove away.
Chin-ten took the photos into his shop and spread them out on a worktable. He rubbed his eyes as if something was distorting his vision. He took a deep breath and looked at the assortment of 8 x 10 portraits once more. Chin-ten had framed dozens of glossy corporate headshots just like these. There were five in total, three men and two women, all wearing business clothes and bright, friendly smiles in front of a plain matte background. These were a product of an uninspired yet professional studio photographer and there was nothing exceptional about them, certainly nothing to provoke the reaction he’d displayed in front of the delivery person, except for the one that had been on top of the stack. Chin-ten held the photo in his trembling fingers and stared in disbelief at the face of his late wife Chu-li.
Why did this customer have a photo of his dead wife? Did she have a secret life of which Chin-ten was unaware, had she been involved in a cult, was she still alive? The questions were swarming in his head like a dark cloud of starlings when he heard the bell above the door. That would be Betty, he thought, and hurriedly collected the loose photos. He put them out sight, saying nothing about the matter when Betty stepped through the curtain.
That night Chin-ten found it difficult to fall asleep and when he did at last he slept fitfully, waking often before drifting off again. Around 4 a.m. he decided it was useless to stay in bed. In the kitchen he let the tap run until the water was cold and splashed a few handfuls on his face before putting the tea kettle on to boil. He walked downstairs to examine the mysterious photograph once more but to his astonishment, Chu-li was no longer in the picture.
Chin-ten was frightened that he was losing his mind and was unduly startled by the sudden, querulous whistle of the tea kettle that fractured the pall of silence. As he mounted the stairs the kettle was silenced as if it had been taken off the heat. When Chin-ten entered the kitchen he saw that Chu-li was steeping the tea.
“Don’t be frightened, Chin-ten. Here, I have made your tea.”
He began to stammer.
“No, Chin-ten, this is not a dream. I am real but I am a ghost.”
Chin-ten felt his knees weaken and he clutched the back of a kitchen chair for support. The legs made a dry scraping sound as he pulled it out from under the table to sit. She placed the cup in front of him and the steam rose from the hot liquid like an apparition. He hesitated, picked up the cup with a shaking hand, blew and took a sip to test the corporeal nature of the drink.
Chu-li took the seat across from him and spoke. Her breath was icy and her words made Chin-ten shiver.
The year she died, Chin-ten was to celebrate his 30th birthday and Chu-li wanted to give him a special present to commemorate this pivotal event. She had given it considerable thought but was unable to think of an appropriate gift until one afternoon at 3 when the two of them were having tea. In all the years that Chin-ten had been using that peculiar tin, he had never once tried Xian Cha tea and Chu-li was determined to find this alluring delight. Covertly, she examined the container and found a label on the bottom that gave the name of a company and an address: Dragon Imports, Java Street, Brooklyn, New York. There was no phone number listed so she went to the business in person.
Dragon Imports was located in a desolate and depressing section of the city surrounded by junk and scrap yards and a water treatment plant. She made the long trip from Flushing to Greenpoint by bus and walked the remaining distance from the bus stop to an unassuming warehouse on Java Street. The company was on the second floor of the building and she climbed a worn, rickety staircase to the office.
The cold, dimly lit room was large and smelled of mildew. It was cluttered with a divergent array of goods including anything from cookware and pottery to lamps and silk garments. The only congruity to this merchandise was that it might have been imported from the Far East. The space was unattended but there was button on the wall to push for service. Within seconds an old gentleman who introduced himself as the owner of Dragon Imports appeared from seemingly nowhere. His appearance was as impeccable as his politesse. At first he spoke to Chu-li in Mandarin but quickly changed to English when he realized by her expression that she did not understand the language.
When Chu-li explained why she’d had come and asked if she could purchase Xian Cha tea directly, the owner assured her that he would be happy to sell it to her but that it was very expensive. It was indeed exorbitantly priced and Chu-li demurred.
Seeing her disappointment, the man suggested another gift. He cited her husband’s appreciation for decorative containers and took from a shelf a Japanese puzzle box with a delicate marquetry that formed the shape of a serpent wrapping itself around the exterior. He commented on the fine craftsmanship and demonstrated the delicate complexities involved in finding the single combination to open the box by sliding hidden panels in the proper order. When he had removed the lid he held it up to Chu-li and she saw her reflection in a mirror affixed to the underside. The moment her eyes touched the glass she felt dizzy but she was unable to look away. She no longer recognized the swirling mosaics of multi-colored glass that had been her own eyes. The undulating kaleidoscopes peering out of the mirror slowly lost all color until they were finally lifeless black. It was over in manner of seconds and as the man withdrew the lid from Chu-li’s vision she saw that his lips were curled into a sinister grin. She left quickly, nearly falling down the staircase as the man’s hollow laugh chased after her.
In the months that followed Chu-li developed an illness that mystified her doctors. She presented with no other symptoms but high fever and extreme weakness. She became so debilitated that Chin-ten had her hospitalized and she was placed in an intensive care unit. Her condition deteriorated rapidly until one morning when a nurse shook Chin-ten awake from where he was sleeping in a waiting room chair. She whispered that Chu-li had slipped away.
“Chin-ten, the man at Dragon Imports steals souls. This theft of my being is what killed me. He uses these souls in Xian Cha tea; he grinds them up and mixes them into the leaves. The tea is sold to people who desire a new life. His customers are the terminally ill, the very old or the hunted criminal who is desperate for new identity.”
Chin-ten blew on his tea. He had wrapped both hands around the cup against the chill that gripped the small kitchen.
“What would you have me do, call the police? And tell them what? Do you know how crazy this sounds?”
“Chin-ten, there are many more like my soul being held prisoner in his puzzle box. We will lose our souls forever unless we can be freed.”
“But, I’m no shaman…witchdoctor…whatever you call it. How do you expect…”
The ghost of Chu-li smiled and said, “Simply find the puzzle box and open it, dear husband.”
Chin-ten woke early the next morning slumped on the kitchen table, the remaining tea cold in the cup beside him. He felt foolish for having fallen asleep in such a place and worried for a moment that he had started sleep walking. He convinced himself that Chu-li’s visit and her fantastic story had all been a dream and he castigated his ludicrous subconscious.
After he’d washed and dressed he went directly to his workshop. The photo of Chu-li was as it had been when it was delivered with her lovely face smiling out at him. Regardless of the odd nature of his situation, Chin-ten knew it would be of interest to the police.
Why would Dragon Imports be in the possession of a photo of his deceased wife? Perhaps something or someone there was responsible for her death. What about the other faces smiling up at him from the work table? Were they in danger, had something terrible befallen them as well. It was, as Chin-tin resolutely decided, a matter for the authorities to investigate.
The phone and the number for his precinct were in the front room. As he started in that direction he noticed something moving on the photos that stopped him short. At first he thought it was light refracting off the paper’s high gloss but instead it was the eyes of each person starting to change. Chin-ten watched astonished as each underwent the kaleidoscopic phenomenon that Chu-li had described before extinguishing to pitch black.
He set to work on the job immediately; he wasted no time in ridding his shop of whatever evil he had allowed across the threshold. He called the contact number in the instructions. The same delivery person as before arrived with the balance due and was gone before noon. When Betty Wu arrived he left her in charge of the shop with instructions to lock up if he hadn’t returned by closing time from his important errand.
By mid-afternoon Chin-ten was climbing the squeaky steps of Dragon Imports. The picture that Chu-li had sketched in his mind was so vivid that Chin-ten felt as if he had made this squealing ascent many times before and knew what to expect on the other side of the office door. The room was deserted and the raspy complaints of the corroded door hinges reported his entrance to no one. The dusky light of an expiring afternoon filtered in through large, grimy windows with chicken wire skeletons.
There was a small hole in the shabby wooden floor that allowed a glimpse of the world that bustled below him. From what Chin-ten could tell the business occupying the ground floor was some sort of sweatshop. There were bolts of colorful cloth printed with the characters of a popular cartoon and women hunched over whirring sewing machines.
Chin-ten surveyed the merchandise mounded on tables, stacked in bins and stuffed on shelves. Had Chin-ten known no different he would have guessed that Dragon Imports was the supplier of ridiculously cliché, Pan-Asian vendibles to every stall in Chinatown. Standing prominently in the morass of second-rate inventory was a bronze statue of a Chinese soldier from an ancient dynasty. Posted as a sentry in the absence of a shopkeeper, it followed Chin-ten’s movements with blind, patina eyes. Chin-ten focused on a wall of Japanese puzzle boxes of various shapes and sizes. They were cheap factory models with poorly applied lacquer and crooked decorative patterns; amid these imitations the object of his search was easy to spot.
The chest was simple but undeniably handmade by a master craftsman. The scales glistened along the back of the serpent coiling around the box. Its hypnotic ruby eyes flashed and its ivory fangs were poised to strike at whoever dared plunder the treasure it guarded.
“May I help you, sir?”
Chin-ten jumped, startled. He had not seen or heard anyone enter the room and he wheeled around abruptly to see an old man staring at him through a pair of wire rimmed glasses with thick, round lenses. He was short, at least a foot shorter than Chin-ten, and he wore a fine silk suit that was perfectly tailored to fit his lean stature. He stroked a perfectly trimmed goatee that was silver with age and Chin-ten could see that his long fingernails were immaculately manicured and tapered into sharp points. His head was bald but the skin was stretched tight across the shining dome of his skull and free of crease or livery blemishes.
Chin-ten was caught completely off guard. In his haste to get to Dragon Imports and find the puzzle box he had failed to invent a believable excuse for his visit, especially to a business hidden away in the nether folds of Brooklyn’s seedy belly. He blurted out, “Tea, I came to purchase Xian Cha tea.
The old man’s spectacles magnified his bright, inquisitive eyes and they narrowed as he scanned Chin-ten from head to toe as if shrewdly appraising the common appearance of a man seeking such an exceptional delectation.
“Of course. I am Mr. Tan. I am the proprietor of Dragon Imports and I perceive you to be a man of exquisite taste. How, may I ask, did you come to know of our tea?”
Chin-ten lied, “A business associate of mine. You understand, naturally, I cannot disclose a specific name.”
The old man grinned, “Naturally. And did he, your associate, disclose the value of our tea?”
“He said it was priced according to its value but no specific price was mentioned.”
Mr. Tan slid a wispy hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and produced what appeared to be a business card and held it forward. At first Chin-ten thought the owner suspected he was being deceived and this gesture politely implied that their business was concluded. The card that Chin-ten accepted was plain, however, except for a price in dollars written in neat script – outrageous.
“Today’s price,” said Mr. Tan.
Chin-ten tried to act nonchalant and handed the card back saying in a voice he hoped sounded insouciant, “That figure will not a problem.”
“Excellent. Please, this way.” Mr. Tan signaled for him to follow and he led Chin-ten to a second door that opened to a long, narrow hallway. “After you, sir.”
The polished hardwood floor that stretched the length of the brightly lit passageway shimmered like the surface of a pond beneath the midday sun. The exposed brick walls on either side had been painted fire engine red and seemed to pulse like hot blood coursing through an artery. Chin-ten heard the percussive taps of Mr. Tan’s spotless wingtips behind him as the two marched forward. They entered a rotunda with plain white walls, a floor of damask colored marble and a high vaulted ceiling finished entirely with gold leaf. A cincture of lights was concealed behind molding that ringed the junction of wall and ceiling illuminating the gilded canopy. The light radiating down washed the room in warm, aureate brilliance.
As in a museum gallery, framed portraits were hung around the entire circumference of the room below an individual brass picture light. There were, Chin-ten counted, 35 in total. Underneath each stood a podium in the style of an Ionic column with a fluted shaft and scrolls carved into the capital. Resting on top were rectangular packages wrapped in simple, Kraft paper. A palsied woman who looked to be in her seventies was the only other customer in the space. She was dressed in Chanel and supported herself with a walking cane.
Mr. Tan spread his arms in a gesture of presentation. “Please. You are free to browse our current selection. Each blend is one of a kind. I am positive you will find a tea to your liking.”
Chin-ten approached the portrait closest to him. It was the same style of photo as the five he’d framed earlier. The work matched his own although he did not recognize the handsome young man smiling back at him. Below the photo was a plaque listing the subject’s age, height and weight. The only other information was a manufacturing date and serial number that matched that which was printed on the packages of Xian Cha tea. He moved to the next, a beautiful young woman with the same information.
The woman across the room summoned Mr. Tan who went to assist. Mr. Tan placed her selection of tea in the shoulder bag she carried. Then he removed the photo from the wall above the empty podium and escorted her out of the room.
Chin-ten went quickly from portrait to portrait. He came to a stop in front of a familiar face. A caustic mixture of rage and bitter sorrow boiled inside him and he felt his eyes well. That there was no name to indicate who Chu-li had been in her past life served as a final ignominy. It was as if she had been a nameless victim of senseless genocide and interred in a mass, unmarked grave.
From far down the hallway he heard the snap of Mr. Tan’s hard soles on the wooden floor. They grew louder as he approached and soon his footsteps were reverberating off the cold marble until the ceased directly behind Chin-ten.
Chin-ten closed his eyes and in the darkness a motion picture flickered on a screen. In the film Chin-ten whirls, delivering a solid punch to the tender abdomen of Mr. Tan who doubles over in pain as he gasps desperately for the air forced out of his lungs. In a single motion Chin-ten grabs the defenseless head and brings his knee powerfully up into Mr. Tan’s face knocking the old man to the floor. Chin-ten kneels over the prostrate body and begins smashing the skull into the stone. The violent act creates wet, crunching sounds as the bone shatters and the insides spray out covering the floor with a gruesome impasto of blood and brains.
Chin-ten opened his eyes. Mr. Tan was waiting patiently with his hands folded in front of his chest and wearing a serene smile. He asked politely, “Have you found your perfect tea, sir?”
Chin-ten answered flatly, “No, none of these will do.”
Mr. Tan, in all sincerity, looked disconcerted that he could not meet a customer’s needs. He said with concern in his tone, “Please, take your time, perhaps another look.”
“No, none of these will do. But I will have that Japanese puzzle box you have in the front.”
This was met with silence.
“The one with the snake wrapped around it. I will have that one.”
Mr. Tan was calm but his polite smile had vanished and he spoke slowly in voice hardened by gravity, “That is not for sale, sir.”
“I will have it.” And Chin-ten was off and running down the throbbing red hall with Mr. Tan’s quick, clicking steps in pursuit.
In the front office Chin-ten seized the box from the shelf and at once realized he had no idea how to open it. When Mr. Tan caught up with him, Chin-ten was holding the box over his head and as the old man lunged to intervene Chin-ten slammed the box down on the sharp apex of the bronze warrior’s helmet. Mr. Tan screamed for him to stop. Chin-ten closed his eyes and the violent film played. He brought the box down again and again with all his strength until it splintered and broke open with a loud crack. He threw the mangled wreckage on the floor at Mr. Tan’s feet who knelt immediately, trying to mend the damage. As he did, shining globs of metallic liquid slithered out like mercury released from a smashed thermometer. Mr. Tan frantically tried to catch them but they eluded his desperate clutches and glided with the twitching hide of quicksilver through the hole in the floor. Tan crawled on all fours to hole and bent to peer into the sweatshop below. He lifted his head and his face twisted into a hideous scowl. He rose to his feet and pointed a lithe finger at Chin-ten and began cursing him in Mandarin and then in a dialect Chin-ten did not recognize. His complexion had flushed to deep crimson and drool oozed from the corners of his mouth as he spit out his inflamed diatribe. The man’s eyes, bright with rage, rolled back into his head, exposing the glistening, translucent whites, crisscrossed with crooked rivulets of grotesque, red veins. He bolted from the room, down the creaking steps in pursuit of what Chin-ten reckoned were emancipated souls.
Alone, Chin-ten returned to the gallery and collected the packages of tea on Chu-li’s pedestal like remains. He looked at here beautiful face once more and was gone.
In the anxious weeks that followed, Chin-ten fully expected to be paid a visit by the police with warrants of arrest for theft and destruction of property. He worried that Mr. Tan himself might come into the frame shop reinforced by ghoulish, satanic confederates seeking some sort of recompense or worse. But nothing happened and Chin-ten’s modest life returned to a normal routine. The only evidence that the absurd events ever took place was the tea. He kept it wrapped in the kitchen beside the tin of Xian Cha that he promised himself he would dispose of but had not.
One afternoon at 3 o’clock while Chin-ten was waiting for the water to boil, he took the tin from its place, flipped the can over and carefully read the back. He’d read the product description many times over the years but always with the detached attention of someone reading the insignificant information on the back of a cereal box while they ate breakfast.
Xian Cha, tea of the immortals…an ancient art of tea making…nourishes the soul…transform into a new person…
How long would it take? He wondered. He opened one of the Kraft paper packages and emptied the tea into the tin. He brewed a cup and took it downstairs to the frame shop where Betty Wu put down her work, eagerly accepting the refreshment.
“Is this different?” she asked after her first sip.
“Yes, it is something new. Something I think you will like.”
Betty Wu shrugged. “It tastes like green tea, Chin-ten. But it’s better than that Oolong you always make.” She winked at him and drank what would be the first of many cups filled with Xian Cha tea. In time all of the tea was gone and Chin-ten was reunited with his wife, Chu-li.
September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
As a boy I was an actor in the motion picture Jaws. Not the original but the sequel, Jaws 2. It wasn’t big role in fact it was a “bit” part. This pun sent the nameless, faceless strangers in my dream into a fit of laughter, rib clutching and thigh slapping. “’Bit’ part, did you hear that?” a few repeated, choking on hysteria.
A ticker tape parade was held in my honour and I rode down the valley of heroes in a Cadillac convertible sitting up high on the shining black metal skin with my feet resting on the leather seat and waving to a cheering crowd. Buckets of confetti transformed the mild spring day into a raging blizzard and long ribbons of ticker tape slithered through the air like flying snakes.
A marching band blared and I woke to the opening trumpets of Tchaikovsky’s fourth coming from the clock-radio on my night stand. I hit the snooze button and closed my eyes, groping in the darkness for the door that opened to the twisted, shadowy corridors and enigmatic chambers where obscure characters told better jokes.
August 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
The wind is up. A small tornado of dust twists a dervish down the street of packed earth. The town’s main thoroughfare is cleared of most activity by the sun in Arizona’s midday sky. Dogs pant beneath porches in the cool dimples they’ve dug in the dirt.
The louvred pine doors of the saloon squeak and flap; there stands Nate.
Addressing me at the bar: “Cowboy. There was a man come by the livery looking for you. I thought you might be getting a shave so I sent him to the barber. I told him if you weren’t there then sure enough you’d be here. And sure enough, here ye be.”
Me, not so much addressing Nate as my whiskey glass: “How could you be sure he knew who to look for? Saloons get crowded in hot weather. ”
“To be sure.” Nat regards the amount of elbows on the bar. “He freely admitted not knowing you on sight. So, I give him a description.”
Nat, with surprising eloquence, delineates my features.
Not a boy but no old timer. Less than 6 feet in boots yet still taller than a lady. Lean and wiry as opposed to outright skinny. Hair, full and brownish, not dark – a touch of blond in the sunlight, truth be told. Brows are prominent but it can’t be said of them to be bushy like burlier oafs and the dancing brown eyes beneath can give out a fierce stare sharp enough to pierce raw hide. A month away from the razor and the only hair on his face will be that which grows around the mouth and chin, a natural Van Dyke, if you will. Fair as the English gentry. He will be the cautious man. Expect no gregarious “Pleased to meet thees” or other such frivolous pleasantries. Once known from Adam, though, and trusted, he is true and faithful as your best hammer.
All smiles, proud of the portrait he has painted, asks: “How did I do, Cowboy? Can you picture thee.”
“I can, Nate, I truly can. It is if I were looking into a woman’s vanity. And I am flattered by your kind words and candor as to my character.”
“A pleasure, to be sure.” Modest: “The allusion to a hammer was my own device.”
Then he asks, pleased to have been of service, “And this fellow, did he find ye alright?”
“He did indeed, Nate. He did indeed.”
My drinking hand – glass, whiskey and all – motions in the direction of the table and chair overturned by the prostrate body beside it.
The louvred pine doors announce another. It is Uriah adjusting his beaver felt stove pipe knocked askew by the low doorway.
“Begin your undertaking, Uriah!” The bartender, wiping a mug, is anxious to remove the stiff before peak hours.
“I declare, Cowboy. If I’d have known this to be his grim business I would have left out a few details. I hope you don’t hold a grudge.”
“No, Nate. In fact, in your description I noticed one particular omission that worked in my favor.”
“I can’t think what that would be, Cowboy.”
I wink. “Cowboy shoots better when drunk.”