Jason and the Old Man
by Fanny Wong
(Queens, New york)
“Mom, I’m ready to go,” called Jason.
He had finished changing the water of the vase. He put the flowers back and set the vase on the little altar in front of Yeh Yeh’s 8” X 10” photograph. He dusted the area carefully with a cloth. Since Yeh Yeh died six months ago, Jason had been taking care of the altar. He missed his grandfather terribly. Justin, in eleventh grade was too busy with his activities and didn’t have time for this chore.
“Take the reusable grocery bags from the closet, Jason. I have a lot of shopping to do today," said Mom.
Every Saturday Jason looked forward to going to Chinatown to shop for food. He did not mind carrying his mother’s shopping bags. She let him pick favorite snacks: roast pork buns, egg custard tarts and bubble tea.
The streets in Chinatown were crowded with cars and pedestrians. His mother could not find the same exotic vegetables in the neighborhood supermarkets and always came here to shop. What fascinated Jason were the succulent ducks, chickens, even a whole pig hanging on big hooks in the windows. The skins were roasted to a glistening brown. Jason’s mouth would water just looking at them.
As they passed the newsstand carrying Chinese newspapers and magazines, Jason spotted an old man sitting on the sidewalk. His hair was long, white and matted. The face was lined, dirty and unshaved. Frayed and torn clothing wrapped his thin frame and he had sandals on his feet. He banged an empty can on the sidewalk. As Jason walked by, he could smell a musty odor. He pinched his nostrils together. The old man reached out his hand and touched Jason’s pants leg. Jason jerked his leg and kicked the old man’s hand. He caught up with his mother without looking back.
“The old man touched me,” he cried, “He touched me with his dirty hands. It’s disgusting! He smelled too.”
His mother looked back at the man and said, “Jason, he can’t help it. He’s homeless. He didn’t mean any harm.”
Jason looked back and was a little sorry that he had kicked the old man, who was looking up at other passersby, still banging his can. After his mother had finished shopping, she went to the bakery, which smelled of freshly baked goods. Today he picked buns filled with mashed sweet red beans.
They walked past the old man again on their way to the parking lot. He felt the old man’s eyes following him. Jason tried not to look at him.
On their way home, Jason asked, “Why is that old man homeless? Where does he sleep?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to be homeless in this cold weather. He looked quite weak to me.”
Jason helped Mom put away the groceries. He took out the Chinese chess set and put the pieces on the board. Last year in fourth grade, Yeh Yeh taught him how to play the game, showing him the moves and played with him week after week. Jason moved the pieces idly. Justin burst into the room.
“You should have seen how I saved the volley ball match, Jason,” said Justin as he grabbed the bun from Jason’s hand.
“Hey, that’s my bun!”
“I used up a lot of calories just now, let me eat it.”
“Justin, will you play Chinese chess with me? I haven’t played much since Yeh Yeh died. Dad doesn’t have time to play often with me.”
“I don’t have much time either, little brother.” Justin went into his room and closed the door with a bang.
All week, Jason found himself thinking about the old man who reminded him of his grandfather. Yeh Yeh didn’t speak much English and he didn’t speak much Chinese. They had fun together anyway. Yeh Yeh was skinny too but he had a twinkle in his eyes, a smile on his lips. This man looked so sad. Mon and Dad had always taught him that in Chinese culture, the young respected their elders, especially the old. Who was paying respect to this homeless man?
On Friday, Jason came home from school and rummaged in one closet and in another. When his parents came home from work, he was waiting for them.
“Dad, do you still want this pair of shoes? They look very old.”
“No, I don’t. What do you want to do with them?”
“I want to give them to a homeless man Mom and I saw in Chinatown last Saturday. He had sandals on his feet in this weather.”
“Yes, go ahead, that’s nice of you.”
“Mom, can I give him this extra blanket?”
“Yes, Jason.” She knew Jason was sorry about kicking the man. “If he’s still there.”
The next day, Jason was anxious to get going. As soon as they found a parking spot, Jason took a bundle under his arms and rushed to the newsstand. The old man was not there. Had he died from cold and hunger? Jason’s chest leaved up and down. His mother asked woman at the newsstand if she knew where the elderly man went. The woman shrugged her shoulders.
“You tried, Jason. That’s all you can do,” comforted his mother. “Now let’s go to this herbal shop your aunt recommended. I’ve never bought there before.”
Jason followed her morosely to an unfamiliar side street. They were half way down the block when Jason yelled, “Mom, he’s in front of this doorway!”
There he was, looking even skinnier than the week before. He looked at Jason and seemed to recognize him. Jason opened his bundle and handed the old man the pair of shoes and the blanket.
“I hope they fit,” he said gently. “Here’s a blanket to keep you warm.”
The old man stared at the shoes and blanket. He looked at Jason and his watery eyes crinkled into a smile. He had missing upper teeth and the other teeth had not been brushed in ages. He bowed three times and mumbled something in a low raspy voice.
Mom said, “Jason, go and buy him some buns and a cup of tea.”
Jason took the money, ran to the bakery and got three buns filled with roast pork and a cup of hot tea.
The old man ate one eagerly after bowing his head. His eyes were mistier than before. Jason enjoyed seeing him eat.
As they walked back to the car, Jason said, “Mom, can we buy him some food every Saturday?”
“Yes, Jason. If he’s still here.”
For a few Saturdays, Jason bought the old man something to eat. The man had the blanket around his shoulders and shoes on his feet.
One Saturday, Jason asked, “Mom, can you buy something for the old man this time? I’ll stay right here.”
“All right, Jason.”
After Mom went down the street, Jason took a small travel set of Chinese chess from his jacket pocket. He opened the board, put it on the sidewalk and dumped the pieces on it. He watched the old man open his eyes wide. Jason put the pieces in place. The old man broke into a grin. Jason moved a horse piece diagonally. He waited, looking at the man intensely. The old man looked at the board for what seemed a long time to Jason. Move the pieces the correct way, he pleaded silently. The man picked up a soldier and moved forward one step. After two more moves by the old man, Jason grinned at him.
“You know the game!” shouted Jason, “You still have your mind. We can play together.”
He heard his Mom’s startled voice, “What are you doing?”
“He knows how to play Chinese chess. He is not stupid.”
“You can’t play here on the street. Let’s go, I have a lot to do at home.”
Jason was so happy he didn’t argue. He put the chess set back in the box.
“We’ll play some other time,” he said, not knowing whether the old man understood him or not. He set the food on the sidewalk and followed Mom to the parking lot.
The steamed freshly killed chicken Mom bought that morning smelled delicious. There were scallions and ginger on top of the gleaming skin.
“This is good, Mom,” said Justin as he bit into the drumstick. “Why aren’t you eating, Jason?”
Jason looked at his family, took a deep breath and asked, “Can the old man move into Yeh Yeh’s room?”
His parents opened their mouths without uttering a word. Justin choked on his rice.
“Are you crazy? This man may have lice on him. He may be mentally sick. He could take Mom’s cleaver and chop us.”
Dad found his voice, “You can’t just pick a homeless man off the street into a home. He may be sick, he may be mentally ill. We just don’t know.”
Mom added, “He’s been at the same spot for weeks now. He doesn’t seem to be worse off than when we saw him the first time. At night he must have a place to sleep somewhere. He never speaks, I don’t even know which dialect he understands.”
Jason left the table, closed the door of his room and threw himself on the bed. Mom came in and sat on the edge of the bed. She rubbed his back the way he liked it.
“I know you miss Yeh Yeh a lot. We can’t just take the old man in. There are problems too big for us to solve.”
“Is there anything we can do?” said Jason as he turned over with a tear streaked face.
“You’re doing the best you can. He knows you’re a friend. Tell you what, next time. We‘ll bring him something more nutritious. We’ll bring him hot food, like diced chicken, chopped vegetable and rice. He can eat those without his front teeth.”
“He would like that,” said Jason, his face brightening.
Dad was listening at the door. He came in, patted Jason on the head.
“You can bring your chess set and play with him. I’ll call some social agencies and see what can be done for him.”
Justin peeked in and said, “I’ll come along next time. I want to meet your friend.”
Jason sat up and said, “Thanks Dad, I’ll bring a low stool so I won’t have to squat when we play.”
Jason put the chess set in his jacket pocket. As he passed Yeh Yeh’s altar on his way out to Chinatown, he looked at the photograph and mouthed the words, “Thank you for teaching me how to play Chinese chess.”