The Chanson Player (A Summer Story)
| One summer afternoon downtown Chicago, I’m about to finish a creamy cup of coffee in the elegant Hyatt Hotel lounge that is quite empty other than myself and a couple sitting in the back. As I pick up the white porcelain cup to give the last sip or two, a handsome gentleman in a light-gray suit strides in and calmly sits on the bench before the grand piano standing a few feet from me. From a tall French window behind him, the early twilight of the pastel pink and orange spills onto his auburn hair. Bathed in that twilight his handsome profile turns into a charming portraiture, like a French impressionist painting. |
Just when I pay my check, a gentle tune of Autumn Leaves starts to flow from the piano, his fine hands sliding over the keys. I decide to sit back and listen for a while before heading out to catch a cab to the airport. Outside, the Chicago River runs languidly into the arms of Lake Michigan while the music turns to La Vie en Rose, bringing back the tragic legend of Edith Piaf from the gentle strokes of the piano player.
While stroking the keys, he turns his shimmering eyes and ever so briefly smiles at me. Surprised, I smile back rather awkwardly. Then I hear someone say in a thin whisper, “Wonderful.” I realize it came from my lips. He turns, “Thank you … Is there anything you want me to play?” Surprised again, “I like everything you’re playing, but sorry, I can’t think of anything else now,” I say, sounding like I were in a confession booth with a priest. Then it occurs to me that he may have noticed me as a lone Asian woman sitting all alone like a wallflower, prompting to offer me a song as an act of sympathy. I am rather happily married and only minutes away from heading to New York.
Copyright © Therese Young Kim
As I calmly rise from the posh chair our eyes meet ever briefly again. “Thank you,” I say and turn to grab the handle of my wheeled luggage. Twilight has given way to the night and the lounge is filled with warm glow from the tulip lamps hanging on the wall. Just then, something came over me. I quickly dip into my purse and gently place three dollars on the shiny piano top. Immediately after, my cheeks start to burn with the realization that I might have committed a grievous faux pas, causing an embarrassment to the man with such a movie star presence. I ask myself if I should pick up the miserly three dollars to undo my mistake or add another three or something. Don’t, I cry inside, it would be worse if I did anything.
I turn my luggage around and head to the exit door, when I notice for the first time a throng of a dozen or so ladies sitting behind me, who look like roses in the garden, their high-heeled lily legs folded artfully and long tresses glowing golden under the tulip lamps.
Who are they and where are they from, I ask myself. They must have filed in ever so quietly while I was sitting tranced in the music. Like me, they’re not terribly young; unlike me, they exude a timeless elegance of a café society that I didn’t know still exists. Or, they might have flown in from Paris just to be with him tonight, all decked up and perfumed with L’air du Temps or Chanel No. 5. Whoever they are and wherever they are from, it is obvious that the piano player has an exquisite group of fans.
“Bon soir!” I hear him say when I reach the door. Feeling utterly out of place in my travel mode, I barely bid him a mousy “good-bye,” waving my hand like a wilted flower. Outside, cars are streaming by beaming their headlights. I approach the first cab waiting in front of the hotel, “O’Hare, please!”
Posted July 31, 2019 Copyright © Therese Young Kim
The Man with Golden Mane
It was a warm Saturday afternoon in July when I strolled up 9th Avenue toward St. Paul’s Church to sit in the quiet coolness before heading to the Central Park. The sun was shining gloriously over the Manhattan skyline, on the comely time-worn buildings alongside the streets and onto the little stores and green market stands. I sauntered up the asphalt streets that looked wider and airy with less traffic for the week-end, soon approaching the gray stone façade of the church. I walked up some twenty stone steps leading to the oak door wide open and shining in the color of autumn leaves.
As a freelance interpreter with hectic work schedule during the week, I enjoy dropping by the cavernous church and sit alone in one of the wooden pews where I don’t need to talk to anyone, let alone listen to them. There, I can feast my eyes on the faded murals bathing in the soft light streaming down from the stained-glass windows, then shadowing behind the flickering candlelight down below.
When I entered the church, I was met by the gentle trickling from the baptismal fountain near the entrance. There were only a few worshippers here and there sitting motionless like shadows in the pews. As I stood behind the marble fountain waiting for my vision to adjust from the sunny outside, a lump of golden light seemed to be moving up and down the aisle. It turned out to be a young man with long blond mane that was more of golden, fashioning a crumpled yellow shirt over faded jeans. If he were a girl, I would have described his hair as voluptuous, but he certainly looked like a man from where I was standing.
But what intrigued me was that he was moving up and down the aisle rapidly, handing out what looked like leaflets. By his hurried movement it was obvious that he wanted to make all the rounds to the very last person remaining in the church. But it was his peculiar movement that held my attention, reminding me of a clown. He walked hunched forward, lurching, and teetering on one leg while the other one dragged behind. Perhaps his legs are uneven, I thought, and yet he moved remarkably efficient that way.
Now the church nearly empty and seeing the young man head to the front area, I took a seat in the middle of an empty pew. He then stopped behind an elderly man kneeling in prayer in the first row and extended the leaflet to him over his shoulder. The man waved his hand as if he were fanning away a gnat. But the young man persisted, now holding up the leaflet before the man’s nose. The old man persevered without turning his head, sending the message in silence that he didn’t want to disturb the spirit he was seeking.
Now the young man quickly turned around and started to move in my direction. In reflex, thinking I’d be better leaving the church before he reached me, I rose and tiptoed my way down the aisle, all the while mindful that without warning he could lunge toward me despite his funny legs. Not losing him from my sight from the corner of my eye, I slipped into the side aisle. As he was extending the leaflet toward me from three feet away, I thought of taking it, at the same time wanting to run to the door, but I felt running would be too rash a behavior in the place of worship.
Before I knew, we soon turned like an odd pair of dancers, one waltzing forward like a clown, the other waltzing backward like a scorpion. In that mode I reached the bronze statue of Madonna cradling baby Jesus. Quickly I pirouetted and ducked behind it. At that point, as if disgusted with me, he also pirouetted away from me, and headed to the door and out of the church he went.
A bit flustered and mildly reeling from waltzing with the young stranger, I went back to my pew and sat awhile waiting for calm to return. Unable to attain it, I left the church, and stood on the top landing of the steps, catching the gentle breeze coming from the park. While I was standing there, to my utter surprise, I again saw the young man standing in the sidewalk below handing out leaflets to passersby, creasing his sun-kissed face into a smile. Two young ladies with lovely hair as blond and long as his, returned his smile, and accepted his leaflet without stopping.
After tiptoeing down the stone steps, I bypassed him and walked half a block when I felt a pang of guilt for having gone to such an extent to avoid him. It was not unusual to encounter people handing out leaflets or menus from takeout restaurants or stores around the area. Maybe he was trying to earn a few bucks despite his physical impairment. So I decided to turn back to get a leaflet from him when I nearly collided with him as he was walking briskly in my direction. This time he was vigorously eating an apple. Crunch, crunch, I could hear him biting into the apple twice in a row. Fortunately, he was so busy with his apple that he didn’t seem to notice me standing in front of him.
What surprised me was not the fact that he was eating the apple, but how straight and tall he walked, chewing. In fact, he was walking in such a grand posture that he made me believe he was a dancer, perhaps as good as those performing in Lincoln Center two blocks down. Not only that but his shirttail was neatly tucked in under his belt and he had no leaflets in his hand.
Perplexed, I quickly decided to dodge him again, now wondering if he was the same man I had waltzed with. I turned sharply away and crossed the street towards the Central Park. Still wondering if he was the same guy, when I reached the other side of the street I turned and peered at the young man from behind a fruit vendor. His apple finished, he pulled out his shirttail and wiped his mouth with it. Then he fished out a handful of leaflets from his back pocket, hunched his shoulders forward, and started to go up the church steps, teetering up on one leg and dragging the other behind him.
Amused no longer by the quirky act of the man in golden mane, nor curious about his leaflets, I started to ramble toward the park, letting my long white mane dance in the breeze.
Photo and Story by © Therese Young Kim, 2018
To Be Beautiful Again
The store is bright with florescent light, showering shelves of designer perfumes, cosmetics, medicines, toiletries and whatnot.
An elderly couple walk in. The frail, stooped man appears to be in his early nineties as he walks clinging onto the arm of the foot-taller woman in her late seventies. She is a blonde with her hair teased up like a cotton candy. Remnants of certain contours suggest she was once stunning, although her face has sagged into ample pouches around her chin and neck. Heavy swirls of rouge and uneven purple lipstick appear to have been applied in poor light.
The woman’s leopard hat projects a slightly decadent chic. Her black-leather boots have two-inch heels and creep tightly over her thick calves, revealing the lumpy knees below her tight buttery- leather black skirt.
The man’s over sized overcoat suggests he has shrunken considerably over the years as he stands before the sales counter with his lady, who is looking up at the sales clerk with a great anticipation. They seem glued to one another, straining up the neck rather painfully.
”What d’you want, ma’am?” asks the sales clerk, peering down the couple.
”I want a Lancôme lipstick!”
The sales clerk considers the woman’s purple lips and then pulls a tube of lipstick from the Lancôme section, removing the cap and holding up the exposed stick between her red-enameled fingertips.
“Is this the color you want, Ma’am?”
The woman narrows her eyes, and nearly sniffs the lipstick.
Looking exasperated by having stood for a considerable moment on his unsteady legs, the man turns his thin neck painfully toward his lady, as if he were dying to know the lipstick is the color she wants.
”HOU-nee, eez this leap-stick what you wan--?” From such a frail looking man, the voice sounds surprisingly loud.
Ignoring his question, the woman continues staring at the lipstick, seemingly suspended in indecision or in a reverie of some kind. The old man waits patiently in silence like a loyal dog, as if all that mattered in his remaining life was to find his lady the perfect lipstick.
Finally, she flutters her eyelashes overloaded with black mascara, as if she got a solution, opens her thin purse, and fishes out the old tube of lipstick. In her trembling hand, she brings the tube’s purple nub near the tube in the clerk’s hand and firmly announces.
”I want ex - AC - tly the color of this one!”
”Ma’am, this is in fact almost ex - AC - tly the color, except that the company has changed your color a little over the years.”
The woman tips her head to the side. Her man leans and moans into her ear, ”HOU-nee, she tells it’s almost ex - AC - tly the same color!” He then watches her purple lips longingly, waiting for assent.
He waits. And he waits, aware that she is determined to remain beautiful. A glimmer of hope lights up his blue eyes as if he was assured that there will be one more night to cuddle and be cuddled, breath to breath.
(Published in ROSEBUD as a Gardner winner, Issue 40)
By Therese Young Kim
New York, NY
Copyright © 2014
Behind the Blinds
The autumn sun is sinking behind a jagged Manhattan skyline like a huge Halloween pumpkin bleeding into a plum-pink twilight. Standing with a cup of honeyed jasmine tea behind my window on the top floor of a ten-story redbrick building, browned with the time, I’m listening to the seamless procession of Chopin’s Preludes streaming from my CD player in. The music, so elegant, languorous, and suffused with the colors of French impressionist paintings, I feel I’m in heaven in my cluttered studio apartment.Behind the Blinds
Just when I drank up the bottom nectar of the sweet tea remaining in the cup, and the music changing into a waltz, I notice a man moving behind a window of the high-rise twice taller than my building—taller, but it looks one dimensional and artless on its modern façade. There is another building separating us, which is a story lower than mine with a quaint-looking water tank, which looks like a plank turret standing on one side of the roof. Diagonally behind that tank, I can only see him in fuzzy profile from a distance, but clearly enough to recognize the man’s physique.
His large picture window standing somewhat parallel to my smaller one, I remember seeing him a few times behind that window before. Built stocky, he has closely-knit thick eyebrows under a crown of dark bushy hair over massive shoulders ― massive, but not in an athletic way. I imagine he may have patches of mossy chest hair that extend to the back of his shoulders and upper arms.
I now see him slowly pacing around the room, his frame a bit hunched forward like a bear looking for prey, clasping and unclasping his hands as if consumed in some sort of dark scheme. As I feel his intensity spilling on me through that distance, I narrow my glare over him like a sly fox. Dressed in a pair of dark baggy slacks and a loose shirt without a tie, I presume he could be a divorce lawyer, an accountant, or a theatrical director.
Before I know, he stops pacing and bends over a large briefcase on the floor, and pulls out what looks like a brown folder. As if he were aware of being watched by someone over his shoulder, but not once looking out the window, he moves ever cautiously. If he did look in my direction, I don’t think he could detect my small frame snug behind my partly drawn flimsy curtain. After a bit of hesitation, he sticks the folder under his armpit and walks to an adjoining room, which appears to be a bedroom with its own window.
In that room, I notice a small figure seated in an armchair. By the brownish long wavy hair flowing over the side of the chair, it is a young woman. He now walks to her, bends over, and says something. The woman nods, gets up from her chair, and walks to the window. She rolls down a blind, walks to the living room, and rolls down that window’s blind as well.
Although I no longer see them behind those closed blinds, I know that she is not the tall lithesome blonde I used to see in that apartment over the past six months or so. Every once in a while I’d notice the lovely blonde when she was there. She used to move around the dinner table behind the window, entertaining guests, occasionally waving her bare arms while she talked to someone, just like in a silent movie. Whatever the occasion, the couple usually had about six people around the table under a large chandelier that glowed in multiple hues, reminding me of a small cruise boat floating on the Hudson River on summer nights. I wasn’t even aware he had blinds then, since no one ever rolled them down.
But tonight, there is a new lady in that apartment ― a shorter brunette with a fuller figure ― and the blinds are lowered as if all that had been going on with his blonde was to be obliterated by his new brunette, who hurled down the blinds, like the curtain failing at the end of a play. All I see now is the pale metallic sheen from the closed blinds, reflecting the frailty of the night, of the human psyche, mocking me and my Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu.
"Behind the Blinds" was published in ROSEBUD #59 in 2015. It also appears at Tuck Magazine link: http://tuckmagazine.com/2017/04/05/fiction-8/)
By Therese Young Kim
New York, NY
Copyright © 2014
To the McDonald’s
It is noontime on a hot July weekday in midtown Manhattan. Cafés and delis bustle with lunchtime customers from nearby office buildings and from a construction site two blocks down. Car fumes and traffic noises mingle with warm summer haze hovering around a jagged skyline. About a dozen construction workers who spilled out onto the sidewalk with bags of sandwiches and cans of soda are sitting on the sidewalk against a building wall, legs outstretched, eating the lunch. In their dusty boots and soiled blue jeans and tee shirts, they’re in heaven, taking breaks in the secure ground level, away from the high scaffolding or the raised floors.
Just when I am about to turn the corner near Fleet Bank across the street, I hear someone yelling “Stop! Stop!” Quickly I turn and see a station wagon come to a sudden stop in the midst of backing from the curb. A little black boy in white shorts emerges from behind the rear tire of the station wagon and slumps onto the pavement. Immediately, one of the construction workers runs toward him. The boy looks no more than six years old.
“Are you hurt?” shouts the construction worker, and gently pulls the boy up by his arm from the pavement. The driver of the station wagon jumps out of his car, looking apprehensive.
“Are you okay?” the driver asks nervously as he approaches the boy.
The boy, looking surprised by the question, looks down his feet and shakes his spindly legs, one at a time, and gives an okay sign with two thumbs up, effortlessly, as if he had used that gesture many a time before. But then, his round brown eyes turn rounder realizing the attention showered by the two young white men who tower over him. Mystified by the child’s composure and calm, the driver keeps staring at him.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asks one more time, and, together with the construction worker, they turn the boy this way and that to check his legs. The boy winces with embarrassment and breaks into a peevish smile, revealing a couple of missing front teeth.
“I think he simply tripped over his sneakers,” says the construction worker. Relieved, the driver calls the boy a lucky boy, gets into to his car and drives off.
The construction worker remains and asks the boy where he was going. He points to the Fleet Bank across the street. The construction worker walks the boy across the street, into the bank, and speaks to a security guard. The guard leads the boy to a seating area, and the construction worker walks out of the bank and crosses back across the street. His fellow workers give him their thumbs-up, munching on their sandwich.
In the bank, an elderly black woman in gray cotton dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat walks from a teller’s window in a slow stride. She emanates an impression that she is not a stranger there. She used to come to the bank to cash her paychecks during the years she was working as an office cleaner in the area. Although retired for some time now, she still keeps her monthly routine visiting the bank to cash her modest pension and social security checks. She feels safer there than the uptown where she lives, especially with her grandson under her care while her daughter works during the day.
Checks cashed, she carefully stuffs the bank envelope into her brown handbag, slings it over her sloped shoulder, and clutches it to her chest. Satisfied with what she’s done, she narrows her eyes toward the seating area. The boy springs from the chair and runs toward her.
“Grandma! Grandma! Macdonal!” he calls out joyfully and points at the MacDonald across the street. Beaming with a smile, he stretches out his little arms and gives the woman a big hug, causing her pleasantly alarmed by this outburst of affection from the usually quiet boy. Unaware what had happened to her grandson while she was at the bank window, she slowly bends over and plants a kiss on his forehead.
“Yes, Davin boy, today IS your McDonald’s day!”
“Thank you, grandma!”
“You’re welcome, grandson!”
She gently takes hold of the boy’s hand and slowly heads to the door, her head getting heavy with an urgent disbursement to make for a new pair of sneakers for her grandson. It’s been a while since she had noticed the soles of his sneakers were eroding fast, causing him trip on the pavement. The boy, comforted by the assuring words of his grandmother, doesn’t say anything. Their hands locked together, the two walk quietly out of the bank, into the street and toward the yellow sign at McDonald’s with its smiling M.
("To the McDonald's" has been published in Tuck Magazine with a link: http://tuckmagazine.com/2017/04/05/fiction-8/)
By Therese Young Kim
New York, NY
Copyright © 2017