A Chinese Window
by Lou Gaglia
Besides the mouse that I’d already spotted, my new Brooklyn apartment was perfect, even though it was above a lawyer’s office near downtown, and the stairs creaked, and I had no bed. It felt good to be in my new stomping grounds, away from all the tripe that was my Long Island life—including old backstabbing tripe like my friend-since-kindergarten Al, and his new girlfriend, (my old one) Jeanette (who he can keep, bad-moods-out-of-the-blue and all).
I walked into a Chinese restaurant on Court Street my first night. I had an old Sherwood Anderson hardcover and was determined, between chews, to read “I’m a Fool”, the first of Sherwood’s stories in my long-unread book. I read half of the first sentence before the waitress set me up and took my order, which I’d already decided on—chicken with broccoli.
It turned out to be so good and the waitress was so friendly and pretty that I stuck around a while, reading and sipping tea, and then I noticed that a baseball game was showing above the bar up front. Too bad it was a Yankees game and not the Mets, but baseball was baseball.
I slowly sipped four cups of coffee so I could watch the whole game. A couple of guys, bloated and bleary at one end of the bar, stared at me. They seemed stuck to their chairs and attached to their beers. Maybe their dull gazes meant there was a rule about drinking coffee at a bar through a whole baseball game, but I didn’t care. I was enjoying every pitch.
The bartender was a Chinese lady (all the workers there were Chinese) who was pretty nice to me about drinking so many coffees, so I left her a good tip, and the owner was a nice guy, too, often asking me if my coffee was hot enough or good enough. I gave him the okay sign with my fingers each time he asked.
I began to relax at last, after this hurried move to Brooklyn, and the waitress smiled at me each time she passed the bar, like she knew I was making a big change in my life and was sure it was going to be terrific. It felt a little like when I went to Italy by myself over the summer, alone and seeing strangers all around, and glad of it. All I needed was a job so that the two thousand bucks I had in the bank wouldn’t run out so fast. I’d have done anything not to get stuck back on Long Island, and have my idiot friends tell me what an idiot I was.
One of the bleary-eyed guys at the end of the bar asked me, in a sarcastic way, how my coffee was.
“Pretty good,” I said, and smiled, but he just looked away like I’d blown the answer. The game ended, but I flipped the book open to “I’m a Fool” again. I read it through my sixth and seventh coffees, determined to finish it before I left and figure out what the narrator was supposed to be such a fool about.
My old ex-friend Al, dumb as a post for going with Jeanette—like I did for almost a whole year—was no match for my other Long Island friend Jeff, who went to Hofstra, majored in philosophy, and could out-argue anyone—especially his little sister or his mother. And when Jeff wasn’t arguing he was talking people’s ears off about IDEAS, analyzing everything, beating subjects to death, and then reincarnating them into something else. He was a pain, but he was still a pal. So I called him late that night, still awake from too many coffees and no place to sleep yet—without a bed and with a mouse peeking out at me from a different place every time I looked up. I didn’t want to sleep on the rug and then wake up in the middle of the night to find him nibbling at my nose.
So I called Jeff but was sorry almost immediately—first because I had to excuse myself to take my third straight leak, and second because I could hardly get a word in edgeways with him.
“So you’re in Brooklyn. Wow.” He breathed a laugh through his nose. “What are you doing there?”
“I like it. I like it here so far. I like—”
“But why? The city is garbage.”
“I like it. It’s pretty nice.”
“All this because of Jeanette, because of one—”
“Nothing to do with her. I just—”
“Okay…okay,” he said, smug, like he didn’t believe me but pretended he did. I started hating him—only three minutes into the conversation.
Then he asked me exactly where I lived because maybe he’d like to come out and see the sights of beautiful downtown Brooklyn. Well, I answered, the only sights I planned on seeing were newspaper ads for jobs, and maybe a furniture store for a bed—and maybe the Chinese restaurant down the block at night, I added, when he laughed through his nose again. I told him about the chicken and broccoli and the coffee and the baseball.
“I think I’ll take you up on that,” he said, and we planned for later in the week, getting straight the time and the day and the meeting spot before we hung up on each other. It was going to be good to see my old pal from Long Island, I thought later while making up a sleeping spot for myself on top of the kitchen counter. But I still couldn’t stand the guy.
It only took a day for me to luck into a job at the big bookstore up on Broadway and 11th. They sold old books and new books, and it was my job, according to the manager Rob, to pick up all the strays and the new ones that came in and stack them neatly on the shelves. Easy work. Rob only yelled at me once on my first day. He came to me while I was leafing through a Steinbeck and held a James Branch Cabell book up to my face. “Where does this go?” His little chin beard shook at me.
I noticed a coffee cake crumb on his beard, resting lightly on a longer-than-the-rest wisp. “I put it under ‘Branch Cabell’,” I said.
“The guy’s name is Cabell, not Branch.” He shoved the book into my hand.
I put down the Steinbeck. “I thought Branch.”
“All right.” I started to walk past him.
“Stack it first.”
“What? I am.”
“That book, the Steinbeck. Stack it.”
I stacked it, then silently sheeshed my way past him to re-stack all of the stupid James Branch Cabell books into the c’s.
After my first eight hours was done with, though, Rob came over to me while I was grabbing the Steinbeck book to buy.
“Good first day,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Rob.” Then as I walked past him I asked him what kind of middle name Branch was. He looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about.
I got a bed at last after only three days on the kitchen counter, but almost broke my back carrying it. I hadn’t really been looking for one because I’d been too busy learning how to stack James Branch Cabell’s books, and the kitchen counter wasn’t so bad to sleep on once I laid down some blankets underneath and called myself a baby when I complained that my ribs hurt.
Usually on my way home after work I passed through Chinatown and stopped for some Chinese food before heading over the Brooklyn Bridge. But after my third day I stopped to sit on a Henry Street stoop for a while, drinking a tea and reading the back of the Steinbeck book.
A guy walking up the bottom set of stairs leading from the cellar looked over at me and I said hi. Pretty soon we were talking about the weather, then baseball, then Long Island because that’s where I said I was from. He sat down on a step ahead of me and said he’d never been to “Long Guyland” (he pronounced it like that, I think as a joke), but had lived in that neighborhood his whole life. He was an old guy, maybe mid-thirties, a big sports fan (like me), and the super of the building whose stoop we were sitting on, even though he lived across the street. I stood up. “Sorry, do you have to sweep up or something?”
“No, I don’t gotta sweep up,” he scoffed, but held a little smile on his face for a while.
I had an extra tea in my bag so I offered him one. He took it, and looked at it like he was thinking about something. “Thanks,” he said, and we shook hands. He said his name was Jim and that the building we were sitting in front of, with a music school on the bottom floor, used to be a gym where some great neighborhood basketball games were played over the years.
“Now all you hear is a bunch of tubas playing all the wrong pitches,” he said.
“That stinks. I love basketball.”
Every other person on the street, it seemed, said hi to Jim in passing, or stopped to talk to him, but when the coast was clear, and we’d sipped some more of our teas, I told him that I lived in Brooklyn. It was pretty nice, I said, except for no bed and the mouse—although it could have been a bunch of mice who all looked the same, I added.
He laughed and we sat quiet for awhile; then he asked me if I wanted to take a walk. He wanted to bring some soda cans and clothes from downstairs over to the bridge for the homeless.
There were no homeless in sight under the Manhattan Bridge. They lived behind cardboard or wood planks—Jim said to keep the riff-raff away. He carried a big plastic bag of cans and another bag of clothes over to one section of wood planks, and dropped them in front. I looked around—no one headed our way in either direction—and took a deep breath, but the stench of urine walloped me, so my next breaths were shallow ones. Jim knocked hard on a plank and I fought not to step back.
A voice came from behind the planks, and Jim answered loudly, “I got a bag of cans and clothes. If I just leave ‘em out here there won’t be nothing left
A harsher voice answered, and Jim smiled and walked back, giving me a look as if to say, “What can I do if they don’t come out and take them?”
We headed back down Henry Street, and I thought he would go back to cleaning the music school building, and that I’d head over to the bridge for the walk home, but he stopped abruptly near the music school stoop. “You really sleep on the kitchen counter?”
“It’s not so bad.”
He looked at me and he laughed. “I know where there’s a bed. But I gotta call this guy Rafael who works over at the church. He’s got a truck. Maybe he’ll give us a hand.”
Two blocks away, on Catherine Street, we walked up six floors to an abandoned apartment. Rafael had the keys because he’d known the lady who’d lived there. I didn’t ask what happened to her.
“It’s one of those hospital beds,” Jim said. “Plug it in and it goes up and down.”
We carried it down the six flights, me and Rafael on the bottom end and Jim from above, even though he was smaller than both of us. Rafael breathed hard and my back zinged me by the time we were on the third floor. We had to keep putting it down. I felt at the heavy metal pieces built-in underneath and suggested that we leave it there or just take the mattress along. Rafael agreed, but Jim ignored us both, frowning. “Come on,” he said, and we struggled down the rest of the way and took another twenty minutes getting it into Rafael’s truck.
Rafael drove us over the Brooklyn Bridge. “That thing’s a monster,” I called to Jim who sat in the back. He smiled a little but didn’t answer.
Rafael took a look at my building when he pulled up. "No way," he said. His leg was hurt and he couldn’t take another set of stairs. "No way," he repeated.
“That’s all right, we got it,” Jim said, and I looked at him wide-eyed.
We fought with it up the two long flights, Jim above pulling and me below pushing, stopping to huff on the first landing.
“At least there’s carpeting,” I said, “so we have some nice cushioning for our feet.”
“But that means we can’t drag the damn thing up,” he said. “We gotta heave it clean.”
“Twelve more steps.”
Halfway up the second flight we had to stop again.
“Let’s just take it apart right here,” I said between deep breaths. “Unscrew everything and carry it up bit by bit. I’ll go buy a screwdriver.”
“Six…more…steps,” Jim said, his eyes set hard now, looking right at me. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” And we gripped underneath, lifting and stepping hard, stepping hard, stepping hard, wheezing (Jim’s face red) the last few steps, and finally resting it in the hallway against the wall. For a while we looked in turn at the size of the door, then at the bed, then at each other. Rafael called up to us that he had to go home, so Jim called down to go ahead. “And thank you!” he added as the glass door shut below.
We had to stand the bed up, curve one end in first, and break a little of the wood on the door frame to get it past the door post. Inside, we dragged it all the way to the bedroom.
“How about some food,” I said, hands on knees. “I know a place around the block. They have baseball on over there.”
“How about a beer?”
“It’s got both.”
Inside the restaurant, the waitress passed with someone’s dinner. She gave me a friendly hello, her bright eyes looking into me, tugging lightly at something near my stomach. I headed for a table in her direction but Jim went for the bar. The bartender served us food and beer, but I kept looking back at the waitress whenever she passed. I smiled even when she didn’t look over. Jim and I ordered one beer each, and we toasted the hospital bed, then Rafael, then his truck, and then the guys at the other end of the bar, because they looked lonesome. Then I toasted the Royals who were beating the Yankees at the moment, but Jim didn’t want to toast to that. Finally we settled down to eat and watch and talk baseball the rest of the time.
I nursed only one beer to Jim’s two or three, not wanting the waitress to see me drinking much. But it didn’t seem to matter, judging by her bright look. I liked her eyes. They were like little brown windows, telling me she liked me in no uncertain terms, but whether as waitress to tipper, friend to friend, friend to lover, lover to lover, or smart person to idiot, I had no idea. Maybe she smiled like that to anyone, even guys from Long Island like Al and Jeff. All I knew, as Jim and I left our tips and headed out, and then broke off— he across the Brooklyn Bridge for home, and me back over to Livingston Street— was that I liked her eyes. And the way she walked. And her slender arms. And maybe I had a new friend. And maybe two.
At the book store a woman climbed my ladder to get to a book, some Stephen King thing, but I told her I’d do it.
“Why don’t you put the k’s lower!” she screamed down at me.
I asked her to come down, please, that she wasn’t allowed up there, and she told me to “Buzz off, Nit-Wit!” in a snotty voice. I got mad and shook the ladder a little, and she wobbled a bit and cursed me out. So I shook the ladder harder and she lost her balance completely and fell, luckily only landing hard feet first before falling completely, rear-end down, into some near-empty boxes. She pulled herself up, shaking off a customer who tried to help her, and stomped to the front to look for the manager. Soon Rob appeared, his face tired.
“Get the lady’s book down,” he said quietly, and after I did he walked away with it. Later he told me if I ever did anything like that again, I’d be out of there. I nodded. But—he chuckled—he would have wanted to do the same thing. I broke a wide smile at that, but then he hollered, “But I wouldn’t do the same thing. So don’t you, either!”
And he left me standing there with knit brows.
Jeff met me on the corner of Livingston and Court Street, and I asked him where he’d parked because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. That was about the last thing I got to say, too, because after he talked about his parking difficulties and his stupid professors, and how confused everyone was about my leaving Long Island, and his joke about how the waitress greeted me when she’d set our places (“Hi, sailor,” he said to me after she’d gone), I hardly listened to him. I looked out the window and watched the people go by.
The waitress came back and I ordered quickly, and then studied her face as she took Jeff’s long order. No emotion, no smile—her windows closed to him, I beamed inside, watching her hand write on the pad.
Jeff wanted his food cooked a special way—not greasy, no MSG, just steamed, and he wanted the noodles off to the side, not in the plate. I looked out the window again, not hearing what else he wanted—maybe the tea pot placed just…so…in front of him.
Finally the owner came over, said hi to me, and asked if there was a problem.
“There’s no problem,” said Jeff.
“I just want chicken and broccoli,” I said.
“Look, I can order special, can’t I?” said Jeff. “Any good restaurant—”
“What’s on the menu is what we have,” said the owner. I looked over at the waitress who had drifted away. She stood motionless near the swinging kitchen doors.
“The menu is there,” the owner said, pointing, and he walked away.
Jeff smiled. “If they don’t bring what I want, I’m not paying.”
“What do you mean?”
But I wasn’t listening. I nodded instead, gazing out at the people passing, all kinds of them: working people hurrying for subways or taxis; people with shopping bags; others walking aimlessly. Students. Homeless. Little kids with their mothers. So many backgrounds and histories passed by that window. I sat back in my chair.
“I like it around here,” I said. “I like all the—”
But he cut me off by calling the waitress back over, and while he repeated his order I watched her eyes go blank. I wanted her to glance over, but she didn’t. Then the owner returned and gently motioned her aside.
“I will take your order,” he said.
“Yes, but if I don’t get what I want, I’m not paying.” Jeff sat back, smiling his challenge.
“Okay, just get out, just…out.”
I groaned and shook my head, standing up slowly, but Jeff stayed in his chair. The owner yanked at it and Jeff shot up and yelled into the owner’s face a steady stream of heated restaurant dos and don’ts, but the owner won the argument by saying nothing and not moving.
Jeff stormed past me, but I lingered so I could say sorry to the owner. “It’s not you,” he barked at me. I looked for the waitress but she was serving someone else.
Outside, Jeff glared into the restaurant. “You believe that crap? Damn chink threw me out.”
I looked away.
“Dinky crap,” he muttered.
“I never had trouble in there.”
He shrugged at me. “Maybe you’re blind,” he said.
Silent, I looked everywhere but at him. “I’m going home. Tired.”
So he’d come all the way out to Brooklyn for nothing, he remarked, and next time, he said, it was my turn to come out there. Call, he said, if I ever decided to grace the neighborhood with my presence.
“All right.” I turned and left him standing there fuming at the restaurant window front. And at home I made spaghetti with Ragu and sat near the window watching the people walk below.
On the Henry Street stoop after work, I drank tea and shook hands with Jim when he came by. I had an extra tea for him and he said thanks. “Next time I got it,” he said, and sat down. We talked sports for a while, and at least ten people stopped to say hello or talk to him in the half hour I sat there before we shook hands again and I rushed for the bridge and home.
I left the Steinbeck book in the apartment and even dressed up a little for dinner at the Chinese restaurant.
My heart jumped a bit when the waitress appeared at my table—and so my feeling for her was official—but she only glanced at me and smiled politely.
“Sorry about my friend last night,” I said.
“That is okay,” she said and turned to go, expressionless.
I re-read the menu, including the soup section twice, but she didn’t come back. I watched the people outside, and finally turned to the owner who sat near the bar staring over at me. When he didn’t wave back or move, I got up and went over.
“Sorry about my friend last night.”
“Where does he live?”
“What do you mean? Why?”
“Where does he live? Who is he?”
“Why? What happened?”
“You know what happened.”
I looked around for help. The bartender was looking at the TV. The waitress was nowhere. “I don’t know. It was about an order, right?”
“You know what happened. Don’t you see the window?”
He pointed to the side window which was boarded up. “Your friend threw a brick through my window.”
“You know he did. Last night.”
“I didn’t know that. I had no idea. You saw him do it?”
“I don’t have to see. I know. Where does he live? What’s his name?”
I looked at him, my mouth shut tight.
“Get out, then. Go.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go, just go.” He tried to spin me by my arm toward the door, but I shook it away.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I’m going. I didn’t do anything.”
I went, pacing out front before circling around to the broken window. I stared at it, shaking my head, my lips pressed together, remembering the early high school Jeff egging the house of a guy who’d stolen his girl.
Deep inside, through the unshattered section of window, I saw the waitress. She stood motionless near the swinging kitchen doors; and even though she didn’t look my way, I smiled to myself on my way back to Livingston Street, thinking of new friends.
LOU GAGLIA's work has appeared in JMWW, Prick of the Spindle, Breakwater Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Spilling Ink Review, Bartleby Snopes, and others. His first short story collection is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He teaches English in upstate New York.