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A Cup of Tea and an Egg Roll

by Ron Van Sweringen

Buggs Morton turned the corner of 7th and R Streets, at the gateway to Chinatown. A swirl of sleet in the freezing air coated his eyelashes and the hairs protruding from his bulbous nose. Above him loomed a huge red arch in the shape of a pagoda, with dozens of brass bells ringing in the wind.

Buggs pulled his coat collar up and blew out a trail of frosty breath as he made his way along the deserted, snow-covered sidewalk. It had been a long day of trying to find places to stay warm, hopefully unnoticed. The cops rarely arrested street people; they just made you move on.

Red, green and blue neon signs shone through the night, one of them in the shape of a cup of tea with steam rising from it. The smell of egg rolls and fried rice coming from the two-story building was overwhelming: an unwelcome reminder from his stomach that he had not eaten since morning.

Buggs considered begging for some leftovers at the restaurant’s kitchen door in the trash-strewn alley, but he gave up the idea, remembering what had happened the last time he had tried it a few months ago. The old woman who opened the door had thrown a raw fish head at him with a piercing shrill. What bothered Buggs most was the large butcher knife in her hand and the way she kept poking it at him. No, he would do better at one of the Italian restaurants on Connecticut Avenue, across town.

Buggs was shivering, thinking of the long, cold walk ahead of him, when he was startled by a figure rushing out of the darkness. A young woman grasped his arm and pulled him toward an open doorway in the building. Her look of desperation when she said, “Help, my grandmother has fallen,” convinced him she was not a threat. “I can’t find her phone anywhere. She may have broken her hip.”

She led him up a narrow stairway and at the top, quickly knelt over the crumpled figure of an old woman. When Buggs entered the apartment, the old woman moaned and turned her face toward him, opening her eyes. She began jabbering excitedly, and the young woman’s efforts to quiet her were useless. The old woman continued her tirade, only now she began pointing her bony fingers at Buggs.

“What am I supposed to do?” asked Buggs.

“Please stay with my grandmother while I get my father from the restaurant,” the young woman pleaded.

Buggs sat across from the old woman, remembering the night he had first begged at the kitchen door. The only difference between now and then was that now she did not have a butcher knife in her hand. It was useless; the old woman’s son would throw him out when he heard his mother. Buggs stood up to leave.

The girl’s father and his daughter emerged from the stairs. “Wait,” the father said. “My mother begs your forgiveness. She says she treated you badly in the past and would atone for her actions now.”

Buggs was stunned when the man and his daughter bowed gracefully to him. The old woman jabbered at Buggs, giving him a wide, toothless grin.

“What did she say?” he asked.

“She says you are welcome to eat here whenever you are hungry. She hopes you try the Egg Foo Yong.”

Copyright © 2015 by Ron Van Sweringen

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