Debangel, nice tight writing! Jillstar, a great exercise. Here's my 30 minutes of clickety-clack, plus nine minutes to edit.
The Way to a Man’s Heart
Chen was 87 years old according to the Americans, the meiguo-ren, but in China he would have been eighty-nine. He knew that coming into this world on January 1st had made him one year old the minute he was born in a small village outside of Fujou, and since everyone is one year older when the New Year is celebrated, that actually made him two years old before he had been wrapped in a cloth and placed next to his mother.
He was feeling every year of his age today, as another Lunar New Year’s eve greeted him in the city housing on Pike Street on the outskirts of New York’s Chinatown. It took longer than usual for him to get out of the recliner his sons had bought him, turn off the television his daughter had bought, and find his cane. Cursing his slowness, he retrieved his warm coat—he had bought that one himself at the Salvation Army store on East Broadway. He located his keys—three of them—two for the front door and one for the lobby door. And, checking his pockets one more time, he felt the hung-bao, the red envelopes he would give to the children. Each red envelope—red for good luck—contained a single dollar.
It was six o’clock by the time he had walked the ten blocks to Catherine Street where his number one son, Ah-bo lived with his wife, three children and grandchildren—ay-yo, so many grandchildren in the three apartments. Ah-bo’s wife always had a mah-jongg game in progress, and the neighbors treated Ah-bo’s house like a public meeting place, knowing that for twenty-five cents a hand, they could play and drink tea all day long.
“Father, welcome. We have been waiting so long for you. Sit, sit, the food is coming.” Ah-bo’s wife was a large Szechwan woman with big teeth and a florid face, but she was the one who always checked his health on the telephone every day.
Grateful for the warmth of the kitchen, he let her take his coat and shake it out before putting it in the bedroom. There were only a half dozen mah-jongg players and he nodded to each of them, accepting their reverential greetings in return.
Ah-bo set a plate of cold meats and pickled vegetables on the table, and put a stack of plates and chopsticks down next to it. “Eat, father. You must try this. I bought it on Mott Street this morning.”
The cold appetizers were seized on by the guests while Ah-bo and his wife scurried back and forth from the stove to the table.
“Some whiskey?” Ah-bo’s son asked, pouring two inches of Hennesey into a water glass. “Now try the hacked chicken. It’s just the way you like it.”
Truly, the chicken was excellent, as were the shao-mai dumplings and the egg rolls whose wrappings were too thick and never quite the way he remembered them from China. Then came the beef and broccoli, the steamed sea bass, another glass of Hennessey and a cigarette while he took several deep breaths, and then the hot soup, several large lobsters, rice, another pork dish with snow peas, and a shrimp dish. Finally, the oranges, cut into wedges, were placed on the table and the dishes were removed.
It seemed that every five minutes another part of his extended family arrived, breathing heavily from the cold, and he would reach into his pocket to withdraw hung-bao and tenderly give one to each child. “Gung hsi fat tsay,” he would say to each child. “Good luck and prosperity.”
He looked carefully at his watch and saw that he was late. Almost eight-thirty! He would have to hurry. He said his goodbyes—shouted them over the crowd actually—and found his coat on the bed.
Ah-bing, his number two son, was six blocks away, toward the center of Chinatown on Bayard Street and up three flights of stairs. With difficulty, he got to the top of the final flight of stairs and banged on the door. Finally, it opened.
“Grandfather, come in!” his granddaughter said laughing at something she had just heard from inside the apartment. “We almost finish eating. You still in time.” His granddaughter was named—it took him a moment—Julie or Julia or something. She had an American name and always worked to teach him her English.
She took his arm, pulling him out of his coat, and sat him down at the tables that had been put together in the small living room. He recognized perhaps half of the twenty or so people seated and standing.
“Father, gung hsi fat tsay,” Ah-bing said bowing slightly and then putting a glass of whiskey in Chen’s hand. “Happy New Year. The year of the rabbit is good fortune. The year you were born.”
“Yes, I am a rabbit, and every year is filled with good fortune because I have two sons and a daughter.” He allowed himself to be ushered to head of the table and a plate of cold chicken was placed in front of him. It was good, perhaps a little spicier than Ah-bo’s, but excellent. This was followed by an overwhelming variety of dim sum and shao-lung bao dumplings. Then came the pork, the chicken, the beef, the fish, rice, the soup, the oranges. He allowed his glass to be refilled and he had two cigarettes as he greeted the children and placed a hung-bao in each tiny hand.
The room had become very, very warm and he couldn’t see the dial on his watch, but he knew it was late. Very late, and he had to go.
Too late, when he was on the street, he realized he had forgotten his overcoat, but the thought of climbing three flights of stairs to retrieve it was too much. He would walk fast, and it was only a few blocks to Mulberry Street—what everyone in Chinatown called It-aly Street because of the people there who ate nothing but pasta.
Ah-kiao, his only daughter, was pale and thin, but then she always had been. She was nervous and seemed to put all her money into gold rings and bracelets, but she had married well to a man who owned a restaurant that served the best steamed jao-dze dumplings in the city. He had the biggest gold watch Chen had ever seen and gave orders to his waiters in a loud voice.
“Father, we were worried about you,” Ah-kiao said as she hugged him at the door of the restaurant. “Where is your coat! Come, come, come. We are almost finished, but here is your place at the table. We are doing Fujien dishes as a special treat for you. Come and start with the noodles.”
“Father,” her husband said. “You honor us. Please, some scotch whiskey—the best single malt.” Ah-kiao’s husband thrust a glass into his hand and sat down next to him.
“Wait, the children,” Chen said. “I have hung-bao. Ask them to come here.” And with great dignity, he watched the shy children, the boisterous ones, the thoughtful ones and the indifferent as he put envelopes into each of their hands and accepted their thanks.
Later, how much later he didn’t know, he left the restaurant and breathed deeply, trying to empty his lungs of the hot, smoky air of the party. The night revived him as he stood on the corner of Canal Street to get his bearings. The meal had been truly excellent, but young people—everyone was younger than him—had their own good times to enjoy. In fact, he probably had given a red envelope to perhaps fifty children. He had a great deal of luck to pass around tonight. No matter that he would have no money until his Social Security came. He could each lunch for fifty cents at the senior center on Henry Street.
He thought for a moment more, calculating that he could walk down Canal for two or three blocks, and then go down Bowery—but no, it was shorter to go back to Mott Street. At that moment the stab of pain hit his chest. It was worse than he any pain he had ever felt. He sank slowly to his knees and tears came to his eyes.
The two patrolmen from the Ninth Precinct found him that way, on his knees in front of an herbalist store.
“Jeez, a helluva cold night for a bum to die on the street,” the tall one said, poking him with his nightstick to see if there was a response.
“Is there ever a good night to die?" said his partner. “The poor bastard doesn’t even have a coat. And he looks like he hasn’t eaten in days.”