Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by Michelle Marie Martin

Edie on the Way Home

“How many?” shouted the man in an apron from the doorway at the top of the steps.

“Two!” answered a pair of platinum blondes.

Each group in the line replied with the number in their party. 

“One.  Table for one, please,”Edie announced with satisfaction.

Steady rain plop-plopped on Edie’s black umbrella.  Despite the weather, Chinatown was crowded on Saturday afternoon.  Lanterns bobbled back and forth, loose sheets of plastic laid on top of vendor cases billowed in the wind.  The line outside of Nat King’s Chinese Happy Restaurant went down a block of Mott Street.  Condensation on the windows clouded the patrons seated with their backs to the street, jackets over their chairs. Behind her two girls compared rental listings. A charming Manhattan closet, Edie thought, thinking of her old place.  What she wouldn’t give for it now, at least it had been all hers.

The couple in front of her huddled under their huge umbrella.  Edie gripped hers tight with both hands, trying to hold it steady in the wind.  Her husband gave her a large golf umbrella before the autumn rains began, but she was stubborn and continued to use the five-dollar street vendor model she’d picked up before they married.

One of the men in front of her turned around.  “Well, you’re not a blonde,” he said.  “But then again, I couldn’t stand the competition.”

Edie noticed white satin flowed beyond the hemline of his khaki trench coat.

He adjusted his blonde wig and pulled out a lipstick from his pocket.  He removed the cap and twisted the tube, “I am sooooo Fay!”

Edie laughed and thought he must be a handful.

His date smoothed back his dark hair, adjusted his black frame glasses and addressed Edie. “I guess we’re out of the running for the Fay Wray of the Day award.  No free appetizers for us.” 

“I come for the Nat King Cole tunes,” she said.

“And the dumplings,” he said.

The host reappeared at the top of the steps.  “Okay!” the man shouted.  “Room for one in back.”

“Good luck,” said Edie.  She pushed her way through the line, up the concrete steps and into the restaurant.

The cold dampness of the November storm on Edie’s cheeks quickly gave way to the steamy warmth of the crowded room.  The oily aroma of fried fish, the tang of green onions, hot sauce and the sour smell of beer hung in the air. Nat King Kong pounded away at the piano dressed in a faux gorilla fur vest with shiny black buttons.  Fay Wray look-a likes stood around his piano and sang along to “I Just Found Out About Love” in white, shimmery get-ups.

The man with the pad grabbed the pencil from behind his ear and pointed towards the back.  She followed his direction and walked across the black and white checkered floor, rain running off the tip of her closed umbrella.  She stopped and looked for an open table.

“Where?” she mouthed to the host, holding up her hands and shrugging her shoulders.

He walked over to a lone empty chair squeezed in between a row of diners at an already occupied small table.

The host pulled the wooden chair out.

“Nice lady sit with you, okay,” he said to the table’s occupant.  “Thank you.”

The guy at the table looked up at her. His eyes were the color of root beer.  His short dark, curly hair was streaked with gray.  He was Edie’s type:  arty, pale, nerdy with glasses and a Flaming Lips t-shirt.

He moved his Times off the table and said half heartedly, “Yeah, okay,” then he lifted the editorial section and continued to read.

 “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I can wait for another table.”

He peered up at her.  “No, it’s okay.  I’m used to it.  I know the rules here.  I’m Mike.”

 “Edie,” she replied.  She fastened the wet umbrella closed and propped it against a chair leg.  Fumbling with her coat, she tried not to elbow the diners on both sides of her, inches away. 

Mike folded the paper down and asked, “Would you like some help?”

“I’ve got it,” she said.  She grimaced while she pulled at the sleeves and finally pushed her coat onto the chair.  The ankles of her jeans were soaked.  She sat down, ran a hand through her hair and adjusted her turtleneck.  She quickly surveyed the other diners’ plates.

“Take your order?” asked a waiter impatiently.  He handed her a stained menu off another table, and asked, “You want dumpling?”

“Yes and the fish,” said Edie before the waiter cut her off.

“Dumpling and fish special, okay!” said the waiter.  He grabbed the menu and walked away.

Edie looked around the room. Plates overflowed with crispy noodles, deep green Chinese broccoli and whole fish, eyes and tails intact. The sounds of Nat King Kong rose above the din.  Dirty white walls were lined with photos of Nat King Cole and stills from “King Kong.”

“The owner is kind of obsessed with Cole and Kong,” laughed Mike.  He moved the napkin off the empty plastic plate to his lap.

A Fay Wray scream pierced the room.  Edie turned to see the animated blonde raise the back of her hand to her forehead and fall back, a faux faint, into a waiting man’s arms.  Edie rolled her eyes and looked back at Mike.  “I haven’t been here in a while,” she said.

“Tsing Tao,” the waiter said.  He slammed two cold bottles and cups on the table.

“I didn’t order beer, did you?” Edie asked.  She tried to catch the waiter; he ignored her.

 “No, but it’s better than 7-Up.”  Mike poured the beers into the tall green plastic cups.  “Do you live around here?”

“Upper West Side,” she said and took a sip of beer.  She leaned across the table.  “I used to come here on Saturday afternoons before I got married.  How about you?”

“Just up the street.  Noho,” he said.  “So, you’re married.”

“Two years.”  Edie wrapped her hands around the cup.

“Did you ever win the Fay Wray?”

“No, I’m a brunette, white washes me out and I can’t pull the screaming helpless female act.”

“Before the dye, Fay was a brunette like us.  You’re not a fan of the movie, are you?”

“Of a main character that spends her time being rescued by men?  No, not really.”

“Hey, it’s cheesy, I’ll give you that.  You do know the dialogue was written by a woman?”

“A long time ago,” replied Edie.

Dumplings and pork buns arrived with sauces, forks, chopsticks and tiny paper napkins.  Fish with fried garlic was placed in front of Edie.  Mike’s order, a smiling duck dressed in foil landed in front of him.  A bowl of steamed rice was stacked on top with two plates, straws and two more Tsing Tao’s.  They re-organized the table, opened the paper packages of chopsticks and dug in.  In between sips of beer and offerings of rice, they tasted off each other’s plates, salty and sweet sauces, crispy skin and warm noodles.  The conversation turned to some new restaurant in the East Village that Edie couldn’t quite catch the name of as they both tried to shout over the raucous noise.  Tea arrived with ceramic cups and was placed on the empty pork bun plate.  Underneath the tiny table their knees bumped and feet met as they tried to avoid the cold center pole of the table.  Edie remembered the excitement of wandering into unknown territory with a stranger, the freedom and empowerment of being on her own.

“So, are you happily married?” Mike asked.  He picked up his third beer, the fingers of his left hand close to hers.

“I miss first kisses,” she confessed with a sly smile.

Mike shook his head and looked down. 

“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked.

“Yeah, she’s working today,” he said as he looked up at her.  “And your husband?”

“Sleeping, watching football,” she said.  “I met a nice guy.  I was thirty-five.  Call it a social experiment,” Edie sighed and put down her chopsticks.

“Social experiment?” Mike sat back against his chair.  “Is he a good guy?”

“Yes,” she said, scanning the stills on the wall behind him.  “But that’s what marriage feels like for a woman.”  She pointed to an image on the wall behind Mike of a tiny Fay Wray in the massive palm of King Kong.

He turned to look.

Another Fay Wray scream ripped through the room.

Edie took a deep breath.  “It’s like I’ve been swallowed up by it.”

“Here we go,” Mike said and shook his head.  “Women are trouble.  You just can’t help yourselves.”  His hands became animated and his back stiffened.  “A nice guy comes along, you say ‘yes’ and then all you do is complain.”

“It’s not him.  It’s the institution.”  Edie pulled her hands back to the edge of the table.

“What’s wrong with it?  I was thinking of asking my girlfriend to marry me.  Is she going to be like you?”

Another Fay Wray screamed as Nat King Kong launched into “Dame Crazy.”

“I don’t know, I guess I’m just not used to it,” she uncrossed her legs and leaned in.  “It’s just that I’m not me anymore.  I’m just supposed to be somebody’s wife now.  I’ve fallen into a wife trap.”

“And he’s somebody’s husband,” said Mike.  “Is that so bad?”

“Yes and no.  He tries to take care of me.  Like this umbrella,” she picked it up from the floor.  “It’s my old crappy umbrella.  He gave me one of those huge sturdy ones that could house a family but I still use this one and get soaked.”

Mike had a confused look on his face.  “I gave my girlfriend an umbrella, a raincoat and galoshes.  Do you have a problem with a guy caring about you?”

“I can take care of myself,”

Mike raised his voice.  “C’mon, it’s just a freakin’ umbrella!”

Flustered, Edie raised a finger.  “I stood on my own two feet before I married.  Now someone has to give me an umbrella because they don’t think I can take care of myself with the one I already have?”

Mike sat back again and looked her in the eye.  “Is there something wrong with us for wanting to make your life better?  You’re in a solid relationship.  You’re wondering if you did the right thing by getting married?  He should be wondering.”

Edie paused.  “I’m not a bad person,” she said.

“I’m not implying that you are.  I hope my girlfriend isn’t,” he said.  He stood up and edged his way out from behind the table.  “Maybe you should have married an asshole who didn’t give a crap what kind of situation you got caught in.  You chose to get married.  You can go back to being on your own.  Whatever.  Just make a decision and get on with it.”  He opened his wallet and threw a couple of twenties down.  “You know, we’re scared of you.  We’re scared every day that you might walk out the door.  We’re scared of what might happen to you when you walk out the door.  It’s just what men are. I don’t think anything less of a woman who lets me take care of her.”

Edie handed back one of the twenties, looked Mike square in the eyes and took a deep breath. “But I think less of myself.”

“Hmmm,” Mike took a deep breath, leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I don’t think your husband fell in love with you because you could do everything yourself.  What are you giving up?  You have a lot to gain.”

“I know,” she said.  She placed her foot over the old umbrella and moved it closer to her chair.  Embarrassed, she stared down at the table and he walked away.

The busboy cleared the dishes from the table.  Wet rings from the chilled beer bottles were left behind.

“Fortune cookie, orange” announced the waiter as he dropped a small plate down with the check.  Edie studied the photo of Fay Wray and Kong.  Both looked completely bewildered.

“You finished?  I have ready table for two,” said the host.  “You pay at register.  Goodbye.”

Edie buttoned her coat and grabbed her soggy umbrella.  She pushed through the throng of drunken Fay Wrays, fish heads and the piano-playing Nat King Kong.  To the side of the piano was his headshot.  His real name was Warren.

The Chinatown markets were closing.  Crushed ice was splayed along the sidewalk.  Crates were piled up, and peels from rotten fruit were smashed on the concrete.  People grabbed persimmon, bok choy and eggplant out from underneath other shoppers’ hands.  Skinned birds hung by their legs swayed in the wind.  A large metal spoon scraped and clanged against the side of a wok.  The smell of garbage, beef and bamboo shoots, thick and greasy, cut through the cold that stung her nose.

Edie began to feel unsteady on her feet.  She was part of the throbbing crowd, pushed and shoved along, breathing in and out.  She moved toward the curb to try and escape.  Balanced between the sidewalk and the street, she became aware of the cold spine of the umbrella.  Her fingers were frozen, her arm tired, she tried to hold it up but she no longer had the strength to fight it.

A powerful gust of wind caught the umbrella and blew it inside out.  She stopped to re-adjust and was bumped from behind.  Her left heel slid on a patch of ice, and her right leg followed behind her.  As she flew into the air, she heard herself let out a scream like a helpless female, louder than it perhaps should have been, with a ‘please, somebody help me!” force behind it.  Her arms stiffened and her hands reached for the sidewalk below to break the fall and keep her head from slamming down first.  She landed flat on her tailbone, on the curb, the umbrella beside her. Alone, flat on the cement, her eyes fell closed. She noticed a tingling sensation, and her insides felt heavy.

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes to see three Chinese men staring down at her.

“You okay?” asked the youngest, as he extended his hand.

Edie looked up at the three men attending to her and took a deep breath.  She struggled to sit up and they immediately kneeled down beside her and hoisted her up to a seated position.

“Take it easy,” said the older one by her left side.  “No rush.”

She slowly nodded her head.  The band of her old, now broken umbrella was still on her wrist.

“You went for a ride with that,” said the third man on her right, vying for space with the black umbrella.  “It’s broken for sure now.”

She slid the strap of the old umbrella off her wrist and threw the old thing into the gutter. 

“Yea!” the three men exulted, fists in the air.

Edie started to laugh and the three gentlemen laughed with her.

“Out with the old,” said the man on her left.

“You ready?” asked the young Chinese man extending his hand again.

“I think so,” Edie said.  She wiped her hands on her coat and accepted his strong hand.  The two men gently lifted her up and she was back on her own two feet.

“Thank you.”  She straightened her coat and pulled the collar up to brace herself against the raw weather.

“You need new umbrella,” said the eldest.  He opened his, bowed and presented it to her.  “I share with my nephew.”

The rain had turned to drizzle and for a moment, she hesitated.  He looked her directly in the eyes and waited.  She considered his generous offer and finally raised his gift overhead.  “Thank you again,” she said.

They smiled, nodded and waited by her side until Edie finally took a step forward and began to make her way home.


BIO:  Michelle Marie Martin lives in Long Beach, CA with George and Pete. She loves Chow Fun and rarely uses an umbrella. An enthusiastic participant in the LBCC short fiction workshop, she is grateful for her ENG627 pals and deadlines.