Artwork by Dale Bridges
We carried the kitchen table to the living room so my mom and two sisters could fit. Mei set the coffee pot on a coaster, then placed the cups together in the middle, next to the pot. My sisters didn't know whether to take one or wait, so I took a cup myself and poured my coffee. Mei sat down and gave me a look, like she'd failed or something, and I shook my head and smirked a "who cares what they think" smirk.
Bonnie and Steven were playing in the bedroom. I listened to their voices and wondered how we could somehow arrange to keep the apartment, even though there was no room for all of us. If we moved, I would miss my walks to Columbus Park, to my many favorite Chinese bakeries, or up past Delancey Street to my old neighborhood, then to St. Marks Place and all the way to 14th street if I felt like walking more—then to the pool hall, just to a practice a couple of racks. And Mei would miss her parents, who lived on Mott Street, a ten-minute walk away.
But it was the courtyard downstairs I'd miss most of all, the long talks with Rita and the other older ladies on the benches, or kidding around with the neighborhood guys I used to teach or coach or play basketball with.
Steven squealed from the bedroom, then they both laughed. She was tickling him, maybe. Sarah looked back like it was an interruption, then began.
"We had to re-do Mom's will," she said, and I froze and stared at her, then at Francis, who was watching me. "The old lawyer died," Sarah went on, "and there was a fire in her office, and there are no hard copies of the will."
"A fire? Where's your copy, Mom?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know? Where is it?"
"I don't know," she said, irritated. "It's lost, it's lost."
"Lost?" I looked at them all, and they looked back at me.
"The new lawyer said the house can't be split the way it was outlined in the old will," Sarah said, "plus the fact that we had to take over the mortgage, in case Mom has to go into a nursing home—so the state can't take the house."
I stared at the coffee pot.
"You can talk to the lawyer if you like. He'll explain..."
I stood and told them all to leave, to finish their coffee and go home, and when they were gone, I wandered through my neighborhood while Mei stayed with the kids.
On Mott Street, I watched the faces of those who passed me, wondering about the history of their lives. I missed my father, who'd told me all about the original will, a gift to me and my sisters from our parents—a gift split three ways when the house would be sold. Now it had changed, and there would be nothing. There'd been a fire in the lawyer's office, after all, and Mom didn't know where her own copy was. And no hard copies anywhere.
I crossed Canal Street with a crowd and said aloud, "How the hell can a will be lost?" No one passing looked at me. "How do all copies burn? How are they not kept in the county office like every other damn will in the world?"
I stomped along Mott Street. Lost... burned... gone, just gone, a fire, all lost, and now it would be changed, and we would get nothing. My kids, nothing. My father's gift, taken. And the lawyer died, and her office burned down. Lost, said mom, my own mom.
And then, as I neared Delancey Street, I turned around. I had to get back to Mei.
I wandered down Elizabeth Street, watching more faces—beautiful faces, angry faces, tense faces, lost faces—then wound up in Columbus Park. I sat on the low wall on one side of the basketball courts and watched people shoot around. In front of me, three were playing against each other. The one with the ball had a teammate and the one who'd had the ball last played defense by himself. The best athlete of the three made some nice plays, and he smiled whether he made a mistake or made a good shot. The girl playing with them was talented, but she took too much time to release her shot, and she dribbled too much and got herself trapped a few times. But she was quick, and she played hard, and she stole the ball a lot.
I felt better watching them for a while, especially the tall one who smiled the whole time, and the girl. But I had to go back home. I had to go back and face Mei, who'd watched them leave in silence when I told them I was going out and that they should go home, the filled coffee cups still on the table. They'd looked at me, and I repeated, "Go home. Go home." And when they were outside the door, I said, "Don't even call me." And as they neared the elevator, I said, "And don't come back here." And when the elevator took a long time getting to them, I said, "Take the damn stairs, then!"
Later I saw my friend Jack on Chrystie Street. He was going to give some clothes to the shelter, so I said I'd go with him. He told me to go home to Mei and the kids, but I went with him anyway. On the way I told him what happened, and he shook his head. "Oh, man."
"They took away my father's promise, Jack. Just like that. Like sticking a knife—" I choked up a little.
"Let's drop these clothes off first. Then we can get a beer or two."
"I have to call Mei first."
"Or go home to Mei first," he said. "We can go out tomorrow."
I stood there, thinking. Then... "All right, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay then. Say hi to the kids for me."
They had wanted to live in the basement at first, Sarah and her husband, but after my father said no, they stopped talking to my parents until my father gave in. And then he helped build an upstairs for them, and they lived there.
I stopped a block from home, near Madison Street Park, and watched some kids hitting a ball around.
In our backyard, my father taught me how to hit. He threw ball after ball to me until I could hit them past him. And there were our trips to the slot car races. When my car kept flying off the track, he laughed and taught me how to slow down on the turns. And when I lived in Brooklyn and he drove me home after a visit, we had long talks in the car that always ended with a visit to the bakery on my block. And then, a few years ago, he died of a heart attack, and now Mom had lost her will. And the new lawyer said...
Then I was standing in the middle of the courtyard, not wanting to go upstairs to Mei but wanting to talk and talk with her all the same.
We couldn't ever move. And maybe that was a good thing. I had friends in the neighborhood, and so many places and people I loved there, none of them family.
In front of my building, I ran into Rita. She liked to feed the squirrels, and she always stopped me when I was walking with Bonnie. She loved to talk with Bonnie, and now with Steven, too.
"Where're the kids?"
"They're upstairs, Rita."
"Bring them down. I have something for them."
"Lollipops? No lollipops, Rita."
"No, no, that's bad for their teeth. I have Hershey's this time."
I laughed. "Okay. I'll bring them down."
"Bring them right away. I have to go upstairs soon."
So, I went upstairs, but Mei stopped me at the door and hugged me tight. We would be all right by ourselves, she said. We don't need anybody.
"I know," I said. "But that was my father's promise. I don't know what to do."
"Me, too," she said, hugging me harder.
The kids had come out of the kitchen and were watching us. I wiped at my eyes and smiled. "Rita has Hershey bars, kids. She's outside waiting. You ready?"
They were ready pretty quickly, and Mei came, too, and when I pressed the elevator button, the door opened right away, as if the car had been waiting there for us.