“Imagine,” Winnie says looking out at the gloom that evening near Bleecker Street. “Imagine that there are two kinds of time.”

I sigh, not really able to imagine time in any form, waiting for him to go on.

“You’re seated on a large stone in the middle of a mountain brook.”

           Outside the streets are slick with fog that had rolled in late in the day. A sheen of wet grim on the black road, a few damp huddled figures leaning into the wind walking southeast. The wind is kicking up debris, bits of papers the size of gum wrappers or the little fortunes inserted in the sugar cookies they serve over in Chinatown.

“Okay,” I said looking out the café window. “Two kinds of time.”

They weren't really Chinese, those cookies. They came from out West. Chester the American had explained this to me and to Winnie not long after taking us to eat at his favorite Chinese place on Pell. Thirty years ago, or so, a zealous Japanese baker in San Francisco invented the “fortune cracker” and gave them away for free to the poor bums gazing into his window but had no money. Hagiwara, Chester said, might have been his name. A zealous Christian, Hagiwara inserted little handwritten biblical quotes in the dough to encourage lost souls to read the Bible. The crackers were immediately copied by Chinese restaurant owners to appeal to wealthier San Franciscans, to draw them into Chinatown, and then just months later the cookies began turning up all over Los Angeles, the West Coast’s appetite for Asian novelty for Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Annie May Wong talkies growing right along with the cookies.

           Chester explained all this grandly, his mop of blonde hair flopping off to one side. He had been out West, to LA and San Francisco. Effusive about it all, he’d said to Winnie and me, though I think he was appealing mostly to Winnie, that we should all go out by train for “a month or two” and “tour California.” Winnie loved the idea.

The streaked window pane inches from my nose displays a layer of our own reflection and the shadowy figures in the café. The waiter is a specter of black vest and white shirt mirrored in the dark glass, his swift movements somewhere behind us.

           I look at Winnie in profile now. He’s followed my gaze, looking out at the street. “Pavel, imagine being there, in the middle of a mountain brook,” he says forcing me back into his brain. I nod and mutter an almost inaudible ‘dah.’

“Okay, mountain brook.”

           “You have your back to the water that sweeps around you and you don’t know what will appear bobbing across the surface from behind your back and on either side, you’re facing down the mountain, you see? What is gliding out past you on either side is nearly in reach but only for a second, floating away.” Winnie takes another sip of his beer, a thin, weak American lager he uses to chase the whiskey.

           “Whatever it is, you want to catch onto it, to lift it from the river, to catch it. It’s flotsam, but it tempts you, slipping effortlessly away on the eddy. Downstream it goes, and from the side you see another and when you look back to the first thing, it has disappeared downstream, it’s gone from where you were looking.”

           “What is flotsam?”

           “Oh, god Pavel, it could be one of your drawings, one of your best nudes. It could be a scrap of cellophane wrapper, rubbish, anything. Something to snatch up like that.” And Winnie raises his left hand and pretends to grab a phantom from thin air, like he’s catching a June bug. The table jiggles and his beer spills a little.

           “My drawing is flotsam? It is ruined! Soaking wet, I use ink you know. It is running everywhere.” I pull a handkerchief out and throw it at the bottom of his beer glass sitting in a little pool of foam.

           Winnie laughs. I take another slug of whiskey. And he slowly daubs up the spill. He and I have both learned to drink Rye since coming to America. But this practice of chasing is not something I have adopted from my new country.

           “Dah, I understand. I am facing backwards to time, I am facing the past.”

           “Exactly Pavel. That’s it!”

He’s happy to have his audience again. “You have no idea what is heading down toward you. Your back is to the flow. You can’t see what’s coming, only its arrival. And you have perhaps less time to see what it is that so intrigued you, but you try to stay with it as it shrinks in the distance. The moment of its passing is peripheral and then it recedes down the valley, bobbing up and down and growing faint. But before you can know anything more, something else has just passed you on the other side.”

           “And then?” I catch a glimpse of my own face in the window, my eyebrows have become quite bushy, expressive tufts like that new Hollywood cartoon character, the silly hunter who tries to kill the duck. Winnie takes a slug of whiskey and then another sip of beer and wipes his lips.

           “And then nothing, same thing, it just moves away from you out of sight. But yes, there’s another kind of time.”

           The black vested waiter passes looking at the stain on the wooden table and wipes his rag over the space between us, he has a nice face, a prominent nose, clear and healthy skin. His thin black hair is smoothed back over his skull with gel. I fold my handkerchief up and stuff it in my jacket pocket. “May I bring you something to eat gentlemen?” We decline. He looks as if he is going to ask something more, but Winnie makes no eye contact with him. The waiter absent-mindedly taps the pocket of his black vest, and shoots me a glance. I smile and he retreats. 

           “Now you’re looking upstream Pavel.”

           “I’m on the same rock? In the middle of the stream?”

           “Yes, yes, you’re still there, same rock, but now you’re facing up the valley. You can see all the water coming down toward you. A single mountain stream, it gurgles over rocks…”

“It what?”

“Gurgles, like the sound, Pavel. It gurgles over the rocks and earth. But, and here’s the point, the water reaching you and the large rock you’re seated on, courses past on either side.”

           I think I prefer this view, uphill, though it strains my neck. I shift my body on the hard wood chair and stretch and gaze up past Winnie’s head. I look at the tan paneling of the café wall and the little light fixture with sculpted glass so dusty its spectrum of orange glow is rather like the colors in Guillaumin’s Sunset at Ivry.

           “So, I am looking up toward a mountain range and this water coming down is spring water and I can drink it?”

           “Well, yes, have it any way you like Pavel, but there could be a herd of mountain goats up there shitting in the waters of your idyll.”

           I take an anti-sceptic slurp of Rye. “Have you explained all this to Chester? Why can’t this flotsam be his poems?” Winnie ignores my retort and presses on.

“The point is that you are now seeing whatever flotsam that comes down toward you, getting larger more distinct, and so you can plan, you can look up and anticipate, you can know what’s coming at you.”

           This idea is appealing, and I think may be why I prefer this view.

           “Like looking into the future?”

           “Yes, you have it! But think of this, too, Pavel: all that this stream carries you is lost once it has passed you. You are constantly seeing the new and have no time for the past. The past doesn’t exist, only the present.” Winnie pauses and pushes his index figure around the tabletop counterclockwise where the beer stain is still its darkest.

           “So, who is up there in the mountain? Who is dropping all this rubbish, including my best drawings, into the water?”

           Winnie smiles and drinks, and looks back out to the windy street, now empty of pedestrians and darker than before.

           “Two kinds of time, Pavel. Which one do you prefer?”

           “The second.”

           “Of course, then despite this Russian flirtation with being Asian, you are as European as the rest of these people,” and he frowns, his hand flits casually sideways indicating everyone in the place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, the Western world.

           Winnie and I met three months earlier. It was mid-summer, my studio was hot and so I went out to Central Park like everyone else and ran into Chester who had modeled for me several times for free. Chester introduced me to his new English poet friend, Wynstan. “Like Churchill?” “No, call me Winnie,” he’d said.

So, two poets and a painter get into one little paddle boat. Like one of those American jokes. How many artists does it take to sink a boat in Central Park? We fell immediately into talking over one another, but Chester was our genteel American host. He paid for the boat and took off his shirt and paddled us about with me balanced up at the bow and Winnie at the stern.

That was when Winnie told us about China, having just come back from there the year before. He and an English pal named Christopher he’d been to university with had thought they could pose as war correspondents when war broke out, and sure enough they got some London rag to pay their passage. Winnie told us that when they arrived sleepless in Hong Kong they’d hardly had time to unpack their bags when they were told that if they wanted to meet up with the Nationalist Army commander on the Pearl River up past Canton they’d better get the next packet ship headed inland. It was leaving within the hour and could be the last. Japanese gun boats were already strung out on the coast nearby and were lobbing shells at whatever they fancied obliterating along the shoreline. “Target practice,” he’d said. The Japanese could just as easily turn their guns at boat traffic passing by on the river.

           “And there they were,” Winnie had said. “The Japanese decks hands, clear as day, heads down swabbing and cleaning and marching around two by two on their gunships, totally ignoring us. We just steamed past them on our way to meet up with their enemies, to discover the secrets of their horrifying little war.” 

“Not so little,” Chester admonished, wiping sweat from his neck and chest. I had a hard time not looking at Chester, and I could see Winnie looking at me staring at Chester.

Later as we clambered back onto the quay, returning the boat and paddles, and handing over the seat cushions to the attendant, Winnie recalled more to the story. Upstream before they docked north of Canton he’d seen a British grandee on a wharf with his golf clubs driving little white balls off the embankment toward a black barge anchored a couple hundred feet away. Two or three naked boys were paid to dive in off the barge to retrieve the balls before the river current captured them. “Those balls were the only artillery to hit the Zhujiang that day,” he said.

I pull another sip from my whiskey glass, draining it. “Why did you give up the war correspondent job in Asia?”

Winnie smiles. “I was terrible at it. Christopher was much better. I told you about him?”


“He filed the exclusives with the newspaper. But we did manage to write the book together. They’d already paid us; we finished it. That was it. I came over here after it was published. Hardly learned a word of Chinese, or what the Japanese were really up to. It was a very confusing time.”

“Mandarin sounds very beautiful to me,” I say.

“We are all romantics when it comes to China, I suppose. But Pavel you didn’t choose the kind of time that exists in China.”


“The looking downstream kind of time.”

“Ah,” I am not entirely sure what he means. “Shall we get more drink Wynstan?” He frowns and I have said the name he does not prefer, but I know the answer to my question as soon as I ask it. He’s probably off to see Chester and wants to be sober for him.

“The Chinese are looking downstream. You’re looking upstream, Pavel.”

I shrug like an apology, knowing he’s right. It is a battle that must be won every day. To not regret coming to America, to live looking to the future. It was good coming here. I convince myself most days it would be more difficult to win this battle back home.

“I have to be going,” he says, and pulls himself up in his chair. “I’ll come by the studio tomorrow, yes?” I smile back at him and do not argue.

“Of course, comrade, of course. I will be there.”

He nods and rises quickly, gives me no time to be jealous. He places his hand on my shoulder and then disappears behind me out the door of the café. Shooting past like his flotsam, he’s suddenly gone. I turn slowly back to the window and over my shoulder I glimpse what could be him, a shadow there on the pavement, getting smaller, moving away, leaning into the wind.

July 14, 2020 18:55

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


J Acheson
14:38 Jul 19, 2020

Don't no where that e went in the word grime....


Show 0 replies
J Acheson
19:21 Jul 14, 2020

This story takes place in Greenwich Village, and like the previous submission, is set in the late 30s.


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.