By Jack Galmitz
When they entered the subway station, John went through the turnstile first. He turned around to join Betty, but she gestured that her fare card did not work and she would have to replenish it at the token booth. John was not happy. He went downstairs and waited for the train and his wife.
An unusually long time elapsed, and neither the train nor his wife appeared. While he chanted a mantra of forgiveness to pass the time and to purify himself of negative emotions, the thought occurred to him that he had better find his wife. There had been a suspicious looking vagrant at the station and he had imposed himself on some of the people by begging for money.
When John got upstairs, he found his wife in agitated conversation with a police officer. The man was tall and heavyset, and asked her for identification. His partner, short and clean-shaven, was issuing a summons to an elderly Chinese woman and was explaining the nature of the summons through a bystander who was acting as an interpreter.
“What’s going on?” John asked in disbelief. “That’s my wife,” he explained to the officer. “What’s happened?”
The police officer grinned, thinking John was only trying to be funny, but when he realized that John was serious he explained that Betty had walked under the turnstile without paying.
“It’s not possible,” John said. “Betty?”
Betty was trying to explain that she had swiped her card at the turnstile and that it had taken her fare but not allowed her ingress. The police offer explained that she was yelling at the token-booth clerk to let her pass through the gates for free and without permission had simply ducked under the turnstile without paying her fare right in front of the officer’s eyes.
John looked down. He knew his wife was headstrong, with little respect for authority, but he could not believe that for the price of a $2 fare his wife had walked under a turnstile right in front of two police officers.
Betty continued to remonstrate and the police officer, already feeling the heat of the day, told her to relax. John joined in for her sake and told her to listen. The officer wanted identification. Betty opened her purse to show him that she had left the house without any. He looked doubtful. He asked her name and took down her address and telephone number. When he asked if she was employed and she answered “no, not now. I’ve gotten old,” he looked at her with renewed doubtfulness. After a pause, he asked the same information again to test her honesty. John felt like he was going to die.
“Have you ever been summonsed before or been arrested,” the police officer asked, and at that point John read the name on the officer’s uniform: Bowl.
“No, never,” Betty said, a bit shaken. “Never.”
Officer Bowl took his partner, Officer Ormond, aside and discussed the case. Then Officer Ormond went outside of the subway gate and called over his portable phone.
“Do you have to verify…” John began to say, but stopped when he saw Officer Bowl turn up his chest in pride.
A few tense moments passed and John was as hot as the congested air was in the underground station. He was stupefied that his wife could turn a day’s outing into an investigation of her possible criminal activities. Without turning his head, he said to her, “Now, I know why your son is the way he is. It’s you.”
Then, both officers stood above them and Officer Ormond told Betty to approach him. While he explained to her the nature of her crime and the penalty and how she could request a hearing if she chose to, John looked over at the token booth clerk to see what sort of a man would cause a sixty-two year old woman such trouble. The man felt John’s stare and returned it with the glint of his eyeglasses. But, the man’s righteousness was no match for John’s. He had to turn away and face the long, empty tunnel.
When Betty received the summons in her hand, the two of them walked down the stairs to the train. John was not talking and did not talk the rest of the way into Chinatown. Towards the end of the ride he simply could not control himself.
“Give me the ticket,” he snarled. When she handed it over, he placed it in his wallet. “I won’t have you ruining my credit on top of everything else,” he said. “I know you. You won’t pay the summons and the City will keep adding on fines and penalties until I owe them my life savings.”
When the train reached Canal Street they got off. John walked in sullen silence up the subway stairs to the street and kept walking, Betty silently following. There were great crowds on the street and they threaded their way through them as if they were abutments on an obstacle course. John felt such contempt that for a time he felt no regard for others, and oddly enough he noticed that others made way for him in a way they hadn’t in years.
When they reached Mott Street at the top of the hill, John slowed down and Betty caught up, like the slowly reforming body of a dragon dancer on New Year’s Day. It was congested at this corner with barely room for movement, but gradually everyone shifted into a new place and the landscape changed.
Betty looked at John and said “do you want to eat something? You must be famished.”
It felt to John as if a blast of air-conditioned air had escaped from an enclosed store and cooled down the steamy August New York street. He was noncommittal, but managed to huff out “where?”
“What about the Dim Sum restaurant on Mosco?”
He didn’t answer, but made his way down the street to the restaurant. At the Church of the Transfiguration, a few elderly people were exiting. John had to wait for them to pass, as they showed no sign of yielding to him. He looked over at the small alleyway on Mosco. There was a homeless man lying on the concrete street, shirtless and rubbing his own body in an insinuating way as he talked to himself. John thought that’s what comes of a life of pleasure and turned to make sure Betty was close beside him.
It was crowded in the restaurant and they waited for a table. It didn’t take long though for one to be vacant and they sat down in the corner by the window. Betty was solicitous in a way to which he was unaccustomed, but he didn’t disapprove of the attention. She began to stand to shout at the waitresses’ lack of attention, but he told her to sit down and be patient. A young waitress took their order: two yellow bean buns and tea. Betty poured the tea and replenished it when it was empty. The waitress placed the bean cakes on two small plates. The steamed cakes were not particularly good and John made faces as he chewed. He did finish off the pot of hot black tea with relish, though, and looked out the window at all the passersby.
“Do you want something else, John?” Betty asked as she ate.
“No,” was all he said.
When she finished, Betty got the check and went to pay. John had already stepped outside to have a cigarette. When she came outside, he started walking and she followed until they reached Baxter Street and the small art gallery they used to frequent. The man remembered John and was happy to see him again after a long absence.
“How have you been, my friend?” the man asked.
“Oh, alright. Working hard.”
“What can I show you today?” the man asked as he did some pasting onto a piece of rice paper.
“Nothing?” the man asked in surprise.
“We brought a painting that we would like you to frame.”
With that Betty took out the brush painting she had rolled into the pages of an old newspaper and spread the painting out for the man to see.
The man looked over the painting to see its quality and colors and the directions the lines took. “Pretty good,” he offered as he lit a cigarette and blew out some smoke. “Where does the artist come from?”
“Hanzhou,” said Betty, her pride in her birthplace showing slightly. “He was a friend,” she added.
John looked at the painting more closely than he had before. It was a traditional scene-- a branch with a bird and one blossom. But, the painting had a high concentration of simplicity to it that was intriguing. The branch was bare, save for its scaly texture that was indicated by some rough, dry strokes of the brush. The flower was marine blue, a cup filled to the brim with the sky. The bird was yellow-bellied, its head turned as it regarded something that was not depicted.
“Wait,” the man said and disappeared into the clutter of shelves and frames and materials in the back. He came out holding some patterns for a frame, bolts of Chinese silk embroidery of different hues and shades. He looked at the painting one more time and tried a green the color of late summer. He placed the painting on top to see the contrast and looked to John and Betty for their opinion. They were non-committal, although the frame held promise. He took another sample, of a lighter green of early summer and this penetrated them more deeply. It was closer. He looked himself and took away the cloth. He then put the painting over a pattern of brown silk that was the color of the earth of a rice field after the water has drawn up into the plants. “Ah,” the man said in satisfaction, and his feelings were shared by John and Betty.
“How much?” John asked, not wanting to lose a sense of proportion, as the painting was not an exquisite one and he didn’t want to pay too dearly for a frame. The man took out a pencil and scrap paper and began to do some calculations. After he completed the counting, he subtracted for a discount and said “two-hundred.” John looked at Betty, who was demure as always about such things. “Okay,” said John. “When can we pick it up?”
“Next week,” the man promised. “I have a number of framings I have to do. Okay?”
“Okay,” said John. “Fine.”
John and Betty said goodbye and left and the sound of a bell tinkling followed them out the old wooden door. They traversed their way through the dense streets of Chinatown at mid-afternoon, John stepping out of everyone’s way as was his habit. They made their way to the subway and waited on the platform for the train. A man with a fine beard was playing his erhu [fiddle] at the station, with his old straw hat placed on the floor for donations. It was a countryside song, lamenting and stirring, and a few people placed coins in his hat.
On the ride home, John and Betty sat in a corner seat and let the rhythm of the train rock them. People got on and people got off. John and Betty didn’t say much to one another. They had developed the quiet that comes from long association and were more like one person than two, the way the branch, the blossom, and the bird in their painting were done with one hand.
Photo "pen and ink" courtesy of Angyal Évi.
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