6/2/95by Donald Breckenridge
Sophia’s reflection shivered. I removed my hands from my front pockets and cracked my knuckles. She gently blew into the black coffee while holding the cup beneath her lips. I stood on the corner of Mott and Canal with a dozen Chinese women wile waiting for the light to change. She brought the coffee cup to her lips and took a careful sip. The women were all carrying light red plastic shopping bags. She placed the coffee cup on the kitchen table and the reflection of the circular fluorescent light on the ceiling glowed as it swayed back and forth on the surface of the black coffee. Carrot tops, fish heads, cabbages, apples, gladiolas, and dozens of other items sprouted from the tops of their bags. She wrapped her thin fingers around the cup, relishing its warmth. They were talking and gesturing as the light changed. She heard the same voice on the television in her aunt’s bedroom advertise the same sugar coated cereal for the third time in less than 15 minutes and shook her head. I crossed the street listening to the singsong voices of the women surrounding me. “Honey, will you please turn that down,” they were the first words that Sophia spoke that day. I stepped onto the sidewalk, stepped around a man who was pushing a hand truck stacked with crates of navel oranges into the crosswalk and smiled. “Part of a computer breakfast.” I never felt poor when I went up Mott Street. She cleared her throat as the volume on the voice of the animated leprechaun in her aunt’s bedroom was lowered. The shop windows were crammed with dried herbs that had long roots like the ends of my adoptive father’s scraggly beard. The wood pattern on the kitchen table swirled around the stillness of the light’s reflection in the coffee cup. Lethargic carp were flipping their tails in murky, overcrowded tanks. She peered into the cup and smiled at her distorted reflection. The bright color photos of pretty models wearing designer sunglasses were pasted in the shop windows. She wondered what her life would be like if her nose were really that fat. The roasted ducks were hanging on hooks that were pushed through their necks. Her lips curled around her face and looked like oversized sausages as she smiled. The stacks of skin care products neatly arranged below more photographs of pretty models. Her eyes reminded her of a frightened animal. The dozens and dozens of tiny pastries adorned with glazed strawberries and sliced peaches were lined up in the baker's window. A frowning overweight cartoon cat hung by its tail onto the words, ‘I hate Mondays,’ printed along the side of the coffee cup in large brown letters which were partially obscured by her fingers. Everything displayed on Mott Street could be a necessity. She looked at the toasted bagel smeared with butter on the small white plate next to the cup of coffee and decided that she wasn’t hungry. The sidewalk display of fresh fruits and vegetables were spilling out of their crates, forcing me to walk into the street that was jammed with slow moving cars and dozens of Chinese women carrying light red plastic shopping bags. She decided that she should eat it. I always avoided the shop where they sold live turtles out of the large blue garbage can. She tore off a small piece of the bagel, pinched it with her fingers and let the melted butter drain onto the small white plate. The turtles were piled at least three feet deep and you could hear them clawing the sides of the garbage can as they tried to escape before falling back onto each other. She couldn’t find good bagels in Albany, just frozen ones. I tried to buy all of them including the blue garbage can when my wife and I discovered the shop last summer. She placed the piece of bagel in her mouth and began to chew. I wanted to take them out to Far Rockaway on the subway. She burnt the crust of the bagel intentionally and felt satisfied with the way it crunched between her teeth. I would have carried them into the surf and dumped them into the sea. She swallowed and had another sip of coffee. I’m sure that the turtles would have been stunned as they slowly swam to freedom. Tiny drops of melted butter fell on the small white plate again. The stress of living out your last days in a garbage can with dozens of other turtles would have to be miserable, the worst ending imaginable. She thought about what they would wear this afternoon and decided that it should be something casual. When I asked the man at the shop how much he would sell them to me for he shouted something in Chinese. She placed another piece of bagel in her mouth and began to chew. Two men appeared behind him and began shouting at me in Chinese. She had a dress in mind for her daughter, but if she looked too formal it might make him feel uncomfortable. My wife pulled on my arm as they continued shouting and we quickly walked away. She had eaten half the bagel. I stepped of the curb at Hester Street and walked carefully between the traffic as it slowly passed through the intersection. The clock on the wall above the kitchen sink indicated that it was almost noon. A little Chinese girl with a cherub’s face sat atop an orange dinosaur and pouted as it jerked her back and forth while, ‘A turkey in the straw’ played. She decided to eat the other half of the bagel later and drank the lukewarm coffee down in two large gulps. The little girl’s grandmother stood in front of her and got her to smile by sticking out her tongue. Sophia stood up with her coffee cup in her right hand and walked towards the sink. My grandparents took me to the San Diego Zoo when I was a little older than the girl on the orange dinosaur. She placed the coffee cup in the empty sink and knocked a dried up halved lemon into the sink when she turned the hot water knob to the right. I was too young to remember going to the zoo but my adoptive father still kept a dozen black and white photographs I took of the monkeys in their cages. She held the coffee cup under the warm water, rinsed it out and then placed it in the wooden dish rack next to the sink. My grandfather liked to tell me the story about the time my grandmother held me close to the llama cage so I could get a better look at them and one llama stuck his head out between the bars and began munching on my hair. She turned the hot water knob to the left, removed the halved lemon opened the cabinet beneath the sink and tossed it into the garbage can. He died 11 years ago but I still remember the way he laughed and how his blue eyes sparkled as he told me about the llama’s big mouth and the way that I screamed. Her daughter sat at the edge of her aunt’s unmade queen-size bed wearing pink pajamas. A red Volkswagen Bug ran the light at the intersection of Grand and Mott. The slippers she wore looked like two white rabbits and had dirty gray soles. I stepped back onto the curb and the driver looked at me anxiously as our eyes met. The slippers had pink noses and eyes made of black buttons. The driver accelerated and then slammed on his breaks when the yellow cab in front of him came to a sudden stop. Sophia stood in the doorway as two huge animated robots shot guided missiles at each other on her aunt’s 32-inch color television. My adoptive father had a ’72 Cutlass with a V8 engine. “What, are you watching?” It could go 120 miles an hour. My friend Brandon got the Cutlass to exceed the speedometer one fourth of July morning when we were teenagers. “Transformers,” her daughter replied in a matter of fact tone, as her eyes remained glued to the television screen. I was slumped in the passenger's seat with a boom box on my lap that was blasting Wire’s Pink Flag album and chain smoking unfiltered Camels. Sophia took the remote off the edge of the bed and looked for the power button. There was an empty half gallon bottle of cheap red wine on the seat between us as we roared south through Virginia on I-95. “It’s a good show,” she whispered as the missiles collided. I hated to let him drive my father’s car but he had convinced me that I was too drunk to drive, “How many dead are alive!” There was a large explosion and then the robots fired another round of missiles at each other. I had to lean over and flash the high beams whenever a car appeared in the passing lane because he was afraid to take his hands off the wheel. Sophia sat on the bed next to her daughter and asked, “It is?” He would laugh maniacally as we passed another car and demand another drag off my cigarette. “Yes it is, now shhhh.” her daughter insisted as her eyes quickly returned to the screen. I had to put the cigarette between his chapped lips. “We have to get ready to leave.” The dotted lines on the highway became a blur as the speedometer’s needle trembled way beyond 120. “You’re going to meet your daddy today,” she still hadn’t found the power button. He looked like a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt that I had once seen in an encyclopedia with the cigarette jutting out between his teeth like that. “How do you turn this thing off?” When the left front tire blew out I had enough time to put on my seat belt before the car came to a complete stop. The screen went black before the missiles collided and she screamed, “Mommy!” There was no spare in the trunk and with 20 dollars between us we set out on a mile long walk to the only open gas station in Mechanicsville. “It’s not fair, I was watching that,” she wined and began to cry while trying to snatch the remote out of her mother’s hand. An overweight white teenager with long brown hair wearing a Yankees baseball cap, a Yankees T-shirt, gray sweat pants with the Yankees logo printed on them and a new pair of blue and gray Nike sneakers walked past me while singing, “I saw my baby sitting in the back of a Cadillac, oh yea.” Sophia held the remote away from her daughter and said, “We’re going to the park, you can play on the swings.” A human billboard; I could probably get a job doing that. Her daughter looked up with tears in her eyes and asked, “The swings?” I couldn’t do it in my neighborhood because I would get beaten up, but it might work in Midtown. She stood up on the bed and began jumping up and down while shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I want to swing!” A young woman walking a collie on a short leash bent over in front of me and put a light red plastic shopping bag on the sidewalk for her dog to shit into. She reminded Sophia of her father when she behaved that way, the sudden violent outbursts and abrupt reconciliation’s. The collie’s rear legs trembled as it squatted over the bag and its owner looked at me with defiance from behind her sunglasses as I walked past. Sophia pushed her onto her back and began tickling her below the ribs while saying, “My little monkey girl, my little monkey.” There were three well-dressed women sitting on a green bench in front of a new French café. Sophia pulled up her pink pajama top, placed her mouth onto her squirming stomach and blew hard. I made eye contact with the woman sitting in the center of the bench and she smiled at me as I walked by. Her daughter squealed with laughter as Sophia kept making farting noises on her daughter’s stomach. She had short blond hair, blue eyes, and a warm painted smile. “Mommy please stop or you’re gonna make me pee!” She was wearing a black beret, a white dress shirt with the top three buttons opened exposing a bit of her white lace bra, a black mini-skirt, no stockings, and high heeled black shoes with thick rubber soles. Sophia pulled off her daughter’s pajama top and said, “We have to take a shower young lady and get ready to meet your daddy.” She wouldn’t have smiled at me that way if she had been sitting there by herself; women like that always travel around in packs of three or more. Sophia slung her giggling daughter over her left shoulder and carried her towards the bathroom. If she was alone and did smile at me that way and I wasn’t married I would have removed my hands from my pockets and said something stupid to her like, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I can catch the D Train?” She placed her daughter on the tiled bathroom floors, removed the bunny slippers from her feet, pulled down her pajama bottoms, lifted her feet off the floor and pulled the pajamas off her ankles. I could have stated the obvious by saying, “It’s a beautiful day.” Her daughter yawned and Sophia asked, “Watching all that television really wore you out?” If I wasn’t wearing the watch Russell had given me I could have asked her if she knew what time it was. They stood in front of the full-length mirror in the bathroom and Sophia removed her white T-shirt and gray sweatpants as her daughter asked, “What does he look like?” Even if I was wearing the watch I could have asked her for the time; she looked like the sort of woman who would appreciate that. Sophia tossed the clothes into the hamper, looked at their reflection in the mirror and said, “A lot like you and me put together.” I would have smiled again as she told me that she didn’t know what time it was, however she could ask the host who just emerged from the opened door to apologize profusely for the long wait and inform her that her table was finally ready. “You have his eyes and his long monkey arms and long monkey legs.” She would insist that it was time for us to have lunch together and I would nod my head causally. Her daughter made a funny face at the mirror and asked, “Like this mommy, a monkey like this?” The host would have clapped his hands together and said, “Not a problem.” “No more like this,” Sophia said as she hunched over and let her arms dangle as her small breasts swayed in front of her. A waiter who had too much hair gel slicking back his thinning hair would seat us in a secluded corner and place menus on the table in front of us. Sophia placed her hand on the hot water knob and turned it to the right. She would remove her black beret, run her hands through her short blond hair, and say, “I’m famished.” The water sprayed out of the showerhead as she put her hand on the cold water knob and turned it to the right. She would smile and give me a playful wink. Sophia put her hand under the water, turned the hot water knob further to her right as her daughter stood in front of the mirror imitating a monkey. I would look over the menu and decide on the steamed mussels in white wine for starters. Sophia parted the dark blue shower curtain, stepped into the shower and said, “Come on in monkey girl.” She would compliment me on my choice and then ask if it would be all right if she ordered the steamed mussels as well. Her daughter poked her head between the shower curtain and grinned. “Why would I mind," I would ask nonchalantly and then quickly add, “you’re paying for it.” She stepped into the shower and asked, “Mommy, when are we going home?” A frown would slowly form on her painted mouth and then she would quietly say that she didn’t have enough money to buy me lunch. “Tomorrow morning sweetheart,” Sophia said as the warm water soothed her sore back. I would stand up quickly, toss the napkin down on the table with supreme indignation and say, “And what makes you think that I do!” She put her head back into the water and closed her eyes. I would quickly walk out of the restaurant, turn right, and storm up the block. “Can we get cable when we go back home?” I stood on the corner of Houston and Mott, thinking about a happy ending. “Absolutely not,” she said as she turned around and removed the shampoo bottle from the wooden rack below the showerhead. Perhaps we talked about her acting career over lunch? “Why not?” Yuck, actresses never know when to stop acting. “Because it’s a waste of time and money,” Sophia explained as she opened the cap on the bottle, held it upside down, and squeezed a small dollop onto her open palm. “It’s good, I like the way the scenes shift so abruptly,” she would say as she took a delicate sip on the Vouvray in her glass before she added, “You said that I might find it confusing but actually I think it’s totally engaging. You don’t believe in coincidence do you?” Sophia massaged the shampoo into her long hair while stepping away from the cascading water. “This seems very gratuitous,” I would reply and try to change the subject, “How’s the wine?” Her daughter stepped into the water and sang, “Rain, rain go away, come again some other day.” She would smile again and reply, “The finish is a little too sweet for shellfish. But it’s not gratuitous.”
DONALD BRECKENRIDGE is the Fiction Editor of the Brooklyn Rail and co-editor of InTranslation.