“Cantonese” by Irving Greenfield

Frank Geron boards the Connection Bus every morning at about 10:15, except on those days when inclement weather keeps him apartment bound. He goes to the Barnes & Noble book store on Warren and Greenwich Streets where he spends a couple of hours reading whatever book catches his interest. He stops reading after about an hour or so, walks over to the Starbucks Café and orders a small coffee, without sugar. He adds milk to it before he brings it back to the table where his coat is draped over one chair and his Marine cap with “scrambled eggs” on the peak sits on top of his coat.

He drinks his coffee slowly; now and then he’ll buy a cranberry scone to have with the coffee. When he’s finished, he resumes his reading; but there are times when he just sits and allows his thoughts go where they will. At eighty-six, he has a lifetime of memories to call upon though he knows how unreliable they are because the passage of time that like a demonic metalworker bends and twists the reality of what once was into a memory. By noon, he is ready to leave, and writes the name of the book he was reading and the number of the page where he stopped into a small note book before puts on his cap and coat. On the way out, he deposits his empty cup and the napkin he used in the trash bin.

His days have the same rhythm, and his wife, Patricia, thinks his going to B&N is eccentric and has told him many, many times. And his answer is always the same, “If not now, when?” He is possessive of his time away from the apartment. It’s his personal oasis in the otherwise desiccated life of an old man.

But one Thursday morning when he boards the bus, he’s aware that there are fewer people than usual on it. Len, the driver, a black man, bids him, “Good morning.” And Frank answers in kind. He knows the driver and often speaks to him about fishing. Len owns a twenty –three footer and is an ardent fisherman. Frank relies on the uncertain memories of those times went he fished off of party boats out of CapTree or Sheepshead Bay. Despite the differences in their ages many of the fish stories are the same or have a similarity.

Frank moves back to the first double seat on the left side of the bus. From there it’s an easy movement, even with his cane, to quickly reach the door when his stop comes up. There are some people sitting behind him. Usually, there are more people on it, nannies with their charges, shoppers, who go to Whole Foods which is in the same building as B&N, but below it. There are also business men who work in the World Financial Center or other buildings nearby. But this morning there is only a mother, or maybe a nanny holding a beautiful three or four year old girl. Both are Chinese, as is the middle aged man sitting directly across from them and diagonally across from him.

The little girl gives Frank a bright smile and he smiles back. She is the incarnation of China Doll complete with green snow suit and pull over hat. Usually he’s oblivious to the conversations that swirl around him when he’s on the bus. Many of them are in Chinese, Cantonese, which he understands, having worked closely with Chinese interpreters and under-cover agents during the Korean War. He’ll often speak the language when he and Patricia go to a Chinese restaurant, surprising the waiters with his fluency.

He finds himself listening to what the Chinese man is saying to girl’s mother. The words are clear. “She is so beautiful now; she will be a beautiful woman.” The mother is silent, but she gives a slight nod. Then, he says without missing the proverbial beat, “I’ll give you twenty-five thousand US dollars for her.”

The mother’s brow furrows.

“I can go to thirty-five thousand,” he says.

She holds the child even more tightly than she did a few moments before and her brow is deeply furrowed. She looks at Frank. Her eyes plead with him.

It’s his turn to nod and as he does, he winks at her before he says, “Sixty-five thousand.” He knows what happens to little girls who are sold, bought, and sold and bought over and over again until they and wind up dead in the a street in Bangkok, Juarez or any other place where little girls never have a chance to grow up.

Surprised, the man faces him.

“I know what you said,” Frank says in Cantonese.

“I have to speak – “

“Listen, you get off at the next stop,” Frank tells him and takes out his cell phone, “or I call the police. Understand?”

The man reaches up and pulls the cord for the stop signal.

“I will remember you,” the man says threateningly as he leaves his seat.

“And I will remember you too,” Frank answers, pointing his cane at him.

“White devil,” he hisses, as he leaves the bus.

And Frank smiles, as all devils do when they know they’ve done something that satisfies them.

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