A.C. Jay


“Don't you remember” the rest of Morgan's question was drowned out by the street noise in lower Manhattan.

Claire burrowed deeper into her down jacket, tightened her scarf. Chilled to the bone, she felt certain they were on a fool's errand. “Remember what?”

The cacophony of cars, trucks, buses, blaring horns, squealing brakes, prevented Morgan from hearing her response.

She grabbed his hand.

He spied a narrow gap in the stalled traffic, tugged.

At the corner of Canal and Mott someone tripped, fell. A circle formed, shouting and kicking. A woman in a long coat broke the perimeter. With her fists she beat the person curled into a fetal position. The crowd clapped in sync with her blows. Claire turned, pulled back. Morgan followed.

In the shelter of a smoke shop Claire shuddered, “What in hell was that?”

“Hell indeed. Street justice.” Morgan squeezed her hand. “You O.K.?”

“Yeh, in a second. It looked like a mugging or kangaroo court”

Morgan nodded. “All that jumping up and down and kicking”

“Yeh. And what did that poor girl do?”

“Girl?” Morgan put his arm around her.“What girl? It was a boy.”

“She was wearing a skirt.”

“No. No. That was a jacket tied around his waist.” Not for the first time he wondered how clearly Claire understood the world she wandered through.

“A skirt.” She stamped her foot. “A short, dark skirt. I saw it.” His contrariness irritated. “And even if you think you saw a jacket it wouldn't make her a boy.”

“OK. short haired punk, torn jeans, boy's jacket. That's what I saw. I'm sticking with.”

“Whatever.” Smug to his eyebrows. Claire slipped out of his embrace. “What did the poor devil do?”

“Petty thief. Purse snatcher. The woman beating him tried to pry something out from under his shirt.”

Claire had her purse inside her jacket tucked under her arm. “Had enough?” She shivered. “I have. I'm.”

“Come on. The night's calling. We've got celebrating to do.” He grinned down at her, “Take a deep breath.” He reveled in being a city man, “Suck it all in.” He waved at the towering buildings, the bright blinking neon lights. They made him feel like captain and commander.

She had to shy away from the blinking. She shoved him. Smart as he was he was also obstinate and now clueless. She knew from his own telling of his own story he loved the city even if thirty years ago he'd abandoned it. By choice or priced out? She wasn't certain. She knew his wife detested the city. But like the exiled prince in a fairy tale, he said some day he'd be summoned home.

She'd never felt that way about any place. And this sentimental quest, to find their first restaurant, to revisit their origin story, baffled her. She tugged on Morgan's hand, “O.K. Which way? I'm”

Morgan pointed across the four lanes of traffic. At every turn she surprised. How could someone as willing to take risks as she was be stymied by the city's hurly burly. He curled his arm around her, edged her back into the crowd. The light changed. The crowd surged. A blast from a semi's air horn made Claire wince. As if responding to a personal challenge Morgan thrust his chin out. The semi's air brakes screeched. The massive truck shuddered to a halt. Dragon like it squatted across the pedestrian walkway. The crowd stalled, turned back on itself. Red seconds ticked down off the walk sign. Morgan spun Claire around, one hand on her back, steered her single file through the gap at the back of the truck. Claire held her breath. A delivery bicycle threaded the double yellow line almost clipped them. The walk light blinked red. A taxi horn threatened. Claire closed her eyes.

Safe on the other side, Morgan pulled her to him. “Happy Anniversary.”

She smacked him.

He pressed his cheek to the top of her hat. “It's a year isn't it?”

“You're crazy.” She smacked him harder. “Affairs don't have anniversaries”

“Since when?” He stepped back, peered down at her. “You just made that up.” He tucked his arm through hers. “Of course they do.”

“Stop. Enough. I'm freezing.” She stamped her foot. “Find me the damn restaurant.”

The first one on Mott street had a row of golden, gutted ducks hanging in the window. Trying to placate but without conviction Morgan gestured. Claire shook her head. In the mirrored entryway of the next one Claire squeezed his hand. He was doubtful but relieved. Her yes, yes rose in little puffs. She embraced the fragrant humid heat. She peeled off her gloves, unwrapped her scarf. A black suited Major D ushered them down the long, center aisle. She distinctly heard him say “Welcome back.” She nudged Morgan, “He recognizes us.”

Morgan laughed, wondered if she could be serious. The large over bright room was too hot. A sound system drummed music down on them. Claire wondered if it could be Dylan. Morgan wondered if they'd ever been in the place. White table cloths, multiple glittering chandeliers, the cliental exclusively Chinese mostly male. None of it felt familiar. The three Chinese men seated at the large round table where the Major D stopped looked up. Morgan beamed, “It's our anniversary.” Claire elbowed him. The man seated in the middle raised a small glass filled with a greenish liquid. The others grinned, nodded in unison.

A white aproned server set down a pot of tea and two cups. Claire said, “Do you have coke?”

The server said, “Rice?”

Claire nodded.

Morgan grinned, “Outside you were freezing.”

“Inside now.” She unzipped her jacket, peeled it off, set her cloth purse in her lap. “Ice and a big fan would help.”

The man seated closest to her pointed with his chopstick at a dumpling. Claire shook her head, smiled, “Thanks.” She pointed at the laminated menu, “Do you recommend anything?”

The men looked at each other. The man in the center raised his glass again, took a sip, bowed his head. The third man spoke a burst of Chinese.

“Sorry.” Morgan shrugged. “Sorry. We don't speak a word.”

“Silly. We speak many words, just not any of theirs.”

“Very helpful.” He laughed, “Certain to make huge international, if not linguistic, progress.”

“Don't overthink.” Claire opened the menu. He was so cocksure of himself. He failed her attempts at humor.

The waiter returned with a glass of coke with ice. “Ready order?”

Claire took a gulp of the coke, “What do you recommend?”

“Fish is good. Pigs knuckles. You like chicken. Eat chicken. Good for you.”

The waiter ticked off their order. Morgan called after him, “A fork, please. Bring a fork.”

Claire unwrapped her chopsticks “You ought to learn the Chinese for fork.” She winked to telegraph humor, made air quotes with her fingers. “Maybe like chopstick with antlers.” She splayed her fingers by her head.

“That's good.” He smiled. “I think I heard they build a lot of compound words, like in German the word for thimble is small metal hat for finger.” He saw her lower her eyes, added, “Something like that.” He poured tea for them. He wished she were smarter, no that wasn't it, better informed, not exactly that either. Just he wished she noticed things more clearly. “Think this is our original place?”

“It smells the same.” Claire nodded.

“That's a pretty low barrier.” Was she trying to be funny? “I don't recognize any of it.” He pointed to the chandeliers “And the place looks twice as big.” He reached for her hand. “Of course, all I remember is you. You were seated with that blond guy and I thought you were with him.”

“So right away you began hitting on me?”

“I was enthralled. And now,” He saluted her with his tea cup.

“Our anniversary.”

“Don't be clingy. That was our agreement. Your first dictum fuck freely. No commitment, no responsibility. That first night what you said was embrace the freedom.”

“Freedom doesn't prohibit celebration.”

“Cliché sentimentality. Beneath you.” She drank from her coke. “Anniversary implies someone is keeping count, keeping track. That ain't freedom. Freedom means no past and no future. Think of the Americans who harp on freedom how little they know about history and don't want to. That's freedom.”

He reached for her hand.

She balled hers into a fist. “To quote you completely to be free and to fuck is the good life.” She glanced across the table. The men showed no reaction.

He was flattered she remembered his exact words. Even if they stung at the moment. He liked affairs because they offered intimacy without the burden of any history.

Claire ran a finger down her sweating coke glass, “Besides if he knew I had another anniversary Todd would kill me.”

Morgan sipped his tea. She never mentioned him. When she did she made him sound strong. Once only she'd slipped and noted that he had little body hair. Was it discretion or the lack of observational skills.

Two waiters in white aprons brought their food.

Morgan speared a shrimp, held it aloft. “To the good life.”

With her chopsticks she offered him a piece of chicken. Two women nicely dressed one old enough to be the other's mother were chaperoned to the table. The Major D stacked the empty dishes in front of the three men, made room for the women, bowed. The older woman spoke Chinese to the man sitting next to her. He reached and slid the menu toward her.

Claire patted her mouth with her napkin, looked at the women, “Do you speak any English?”

The younger woman blushed. Eyes lowered, the older woman shook her head. Four of them spoke at once. The younger one remained silent.

Over their heads Morgan saw a commotion in the mirrored entry way. The Major D was holding back a tall man in a tan trench coat. Morgan poked Claire, “Look.” The man in the trench coat broke free, staggered a couple of steps into the restaurant. His long purple scarf was caught up under one arm. His coat was mis buttoned. He snatched his red hat off, waved it high above his head. A white aproned waiter stepped in front of him. A thin boy darted out from the man's trench coat. The boy was barefoot in dark patched pants. Morgan saw his narrow ribs through the holes in his ripped shirt. Everyone at their table turned to stare. The front of the restaurant erupted in shouting. The boy darted down the center aisle snatching at things. Morgan was certain he saw him grab the strap of a small white purse. Racing down the center aisle, the boy disappeared into the hallway to the kitchen and bathrooms. Two waiters their aprons flapping like skirts ran after him.

The three men at their table broke into rapid speech. Their hands chopped at the air. The elder woman clutched her purse on her lap. The younger woman said, “Po Rice.” She blushed “Call po rice.” In front near the register Morgan saw they'd pinned the tan coated man to the wall. In back, behind them down the hallway there was loud banging. A thick waisted man rushed by carrying the fire ax. More pounding. The sound of wood splintering. A teen girl long black hair in a tight braid wearing a blue silk dress stalked by on high heels. A door in the hallway crashed. Morgan half rose, “They've got him now.”

“Sit down.” Claire tugged on his sleeve. “You're making a spectacle of yourself. I hope they don't use the ax on him.”

“Why not?”

Claire's reply was drowned out. The two waiters, the thick man with the ax, a chef with a butcher knife3 rushed toward the front shouting.

Claire turned to the young woman. “What happened?”

She shrugged. “Boy not there. Boy not caught.”

It took half an hour before order was restored. Four policemen came, pummeled the tall man in the trench coat, took him away. Two women at separate tables were distraught. Their purses were among the things stolen. An announcement in Chinese over the sound system was not repeated in English. The young woman bowed her head, spread her hands palm down over the table. “No pay. No one no pay.” She got up and followed the older woman out. Moments later the three men left.

Morgan gestured at the food. “Eat up.” He grinned. “I'm betting it's free.”

Claire poked at the rice with her chopsticks. “What happened to the boy?”

“I don't know. Maybe he flushed himself. There must be an emergency exit back there somewhere.”

“An alarm would've sounded.”

“In all that noise and commotion we would never have noticed.”

“No.” Claire fished a piece of chicken out of the rice. “But they never would've missed it back there in the kitchen. No, alarm.”

“O.K. So you tell me where the boy is?”

“You noticed the police didn't go back there at all.”

Morgan nodded. “So.”

“By then the boy was long gone.”

“Yeh, flushed himself that's what I already said. Long gone but how?”

“He didn't go to the men's room.”

“Into the kitchen?”

“Not unless he had a confederate.” She put her chopsticks down. “He never went in the men's room. Stupid they're not. All that time, he was in the ladies room, changing himself into that teen girl with the long braid, silk dress and high heels.”

“You're serious.” Morgan stared.“Where are the purses? They got the man. What would be the point?”

“The man didn't do anything. He'll be released, free tonight.

They've got nothing on him. Want me to go to the Ladies?”

“Holy shit. You are serious.”

“Why not. You got a better idea?”

“Where'd the teen girl go?”

“No idea. That's exactly the point. Who even watched her leave.”


Claire stood. “Excuse me to powder my nose.”

Five minutes later she returned. “One purse, empty completely empty, stuffed in the tank. Nothing else. Anything else must have been flushed. Anything of value easy padding where it would be most needed under that sleek dress.”

“Jesus. Are you going to tell.”

“Tell who? Are you nuts? We.” She looked at him hard. “do not want to get involved.”

“But you figured it out.”

“So. And I'm smart enough not to get involved.”

“Smart enough yeh but have you figured out yet if we've been here before? Is this our place of origin?”

“Why. It doesn't really matter.”

“I don't believe you but it's complimentary. Happy anniversary.”

July 30, 2022 01:25

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