The stranger (2)

January 31, 2010


Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4



Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .


He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. Though supplying a name didn’t remove the label of stranger, the old man’s—Zhen Cun—revealed certain intimacies to me, that he’d been born in the spring and hailed from a more moderate climate, perhaps Shanghai, and therefore was left-handed, wore fashionable spectacles while he read, and preferred gelatinous noodles over the thin rice noodles that was the pride of our area, likely he never set foot inside the restaurants clustered on Old Division Street, where bowls tilted forward and back between tables and mouths and soup spilled into laps, where talk was interrupted by spittle wads, toothpicks, empty contemplations of the teacup, and greetings between friends burst into unfailingly explicit digressions about the previous night’s sexual escapade or that morning’s strenuous bowel movement, a guttural world, in other words, of the familiar. No, Zhen Cun’s meals would contain respectful hesitations, lacquered spoons, and caged parakeets twittering in the corner of the restaurant’s most private dining room, which one would reach through a long, dark labyrinth of dimmed hallways that gave one the impression of traveling through the body of a magnificent beast, a dragon, say, in which case the restaurant would be called Golden Dragon and its chef’s special the Triple-Headed Dragon Delight, only instead of the room being located in the belly of the beast, it sat on top of the head, the eyes—grand windows containing the fire color of the room—opening out onto the river.

But that the old man was standing in the street crying like a child also told me that he was much older than I could ever imagine a man to be, though how old I couldn’t decide until I looked into his eyes, or rather until his eyes met mine and told me the rest of the story that his name was unable to reveal. He was staring at his hand, the curled fingers resembling larval segments, the wrist as slender as mine though spotted with rot, the forearm a dark, winter tree branch that extended toward me as though of its own accord, reluctantly, tremblingly, not meant to grab or to startle but to seek relief, or absolution.


“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .


“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .


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