The city sirens sounded in Chinatown as Hattie Fong slurped up the first steaming spoonful of spicy pork noodles from the large black bowl—the Li Po Tuesday lunch special and Hattie’s go-to comfort food on blustery winter days. She looked up uneasily through her fogged up glasses at Lei Jing, her waitress, who was busy unpacking a box of fortune cookies at the counter, then suddenly remembered what day it was.
Noon on the dot, she thought, looking at the clock on the wall. It’s just the doomsday department testing its Cold-War-era air raid sirens in case of a tsunami or if N. Korea decides to drop an H-bomb on our fair peninsular city. Nothing to worry about, unless of course the sirens do not stop. Then logically we are all as good as dead, in which case there is really nothing to worry about.
It was Lei Jing—a fine young waitress and all-around expert on public warning systems, death and Daoism—who had first explained the city sirens to Hattie.
“If the sirens do not stop,” she remembered Lei Jing saying over morning tea, “they become, for all intents and purposes, a funeral toll. Then all you can do wait for death, with courage and dignity.”
Scooping up another steaming spoonful of spicy pork broth Hattie twirled the noodles into a fiery little ball with her chopsticks and, leaning over the bowl, slurped it up. There really was nothing better in the world than this delightful, Chinese concoction. She listened calmly to the city sirens, sniffling and sweating with pure joy. It brought to mind Orson Well’s infamous radio broadcast, the unintentional hoax that sent all of America into a state of hysteria back in the fall of ’38—
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program to bring you a special bulletin from Intercontinental Radio News . . . the bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach . . .
Hattie Fong—who made her living as a statistician, who’d lived her ordinary life by the book, that Great Big Book of No Surprises Please and had gone to great lengths to plan it down to the tittle so that it would be as predictable as possible—could appreciate how devastated the listeners of that broadcast must have felt, believing that the earth was in fact being invaded by Martians. Devastated not because the world was coming to an end, but because they didn’t see it coming. People could almost be okay with dying if they could just see it coming, if they could pencil it into a day planner and watch the clock lap up the hours until the last. Instead there was the unknown and for Hattie it was worse than death.
Lei Jing, from behind the counter, called out to Hattie with the familiarity reserved for regulars.
“Hey Fong, do you want more water to put out the fire?”
“You cannot extinguish this flame in my heart for you Lei Jing,” she said, a scraggly, noodle pirate beard dangling from her chin.
“Aiya!” she said, shaking her head.
She smiled flirtatiously at Lei Jing and stirred what was left of the spicy noodles with her chopsticks, listening to the city sirens rising and falling in time to the swirling eddy of oily pork broth in the bowl. From behind the counter Lei Jing brought a carafe of ice water to Hattie’s table and filled her glass.
“How were the noodles today?” she asked in Cantonese.
“There is no feast that does not come to an end,” said Hattie. “Can’t you hear the city sirens?”
“You should have been a Daoist, Fong. It would’ve eased your anxiety about life and death.”
“Fine, I’ll convert,” she said, guzzling water like a ventriloquist. “But can’t you hear the sirens?”
She indulged Hattie, put an ear to the mid-day air as if eavesdropping at a door that read:
Do Not Enter.
“The only thing that I can hear is Chef Yen-Lo-Wang calling,” she said. “Coming!”
At the edge of the table Lei Jing lay a little green plastic tray with the bill and a fortune cookie atop it before rushing back to the kitchen—her haste an act of filial piety.
The restaurant was busy for a Tuesday afternoon, but the other diners didn’t seem to notice the ominous wailing of the city sirens. They all just sat there calmly enjoying their Peking duck and their Beijing boiled dumplings and their pea and pork feet noodle soup. It worried Hattie all the more.
This isn’t a test, she wanted to scream. This is the real thing.
She paid the bill—laid a wrinkled ten and three crisp singles on the table, snatched up the fortune cookie and wandered cautiously out onto Kearny Street to see for herself what was happening.
Hattie turned her faced up to the sky, expecting to see the doomsayer—a thousand foot tidal wave crashing down on Chinatown or whistling rockets raining down fire to lay waste to all of San Francisco proper. But all that she saw was Coit Tower up on Telegraph Hill, standing solemn, cold and gray against the Northern California skyline, beyond it the tranquil bay. The neighborhood, too, was relatively serene, just your typical midweek foot traffic—bankers in their fine, bespoke suits on their lunch breaks, residents taking out the trash and walking their Pekinese, old Chinese men playing erhus on street corners. And tourists, always the tourists, who so loved dim sum, souvenirs from Chinese curio shops and photographs of the Dragon’s Gate.
“Right,” she said, reassured, looking warily over her shoulder.
She seriously considered going back to the office—her quarterly statistics report was due by Friday, close-of-business and her boss was a real stickler for deadlines. Now was really not a good time for the world to end. But she reconsidered, turned onto Jackson Street. And the city sirens followed closely behind.
Winding steadily toward Cooper Alley and Wentworth Place, her heart beat rapidly—the not-so-gentle incline, the greasy pork noodles and the incessant blast of the sirens an impromptu stress test on her delicate, 32-year old ticker. Her doctor did say that she should lose a few pounds, said that she should lay off of the fried egg rolls and the barbeque spare ribs. But even as her breathing grew shallow, she hadn’t any regrets. She was too busy enjoying the tangy aftertaste of spicy noodles in her mouth and wondering why panic hadn’t set in on the quiet streets of Chinatown, why it hadn’t occurred to anyone that a mass exodus was in order. It was only a powerful, Pacific Ocean gale battering the strings of red lanterns overhead and a sudden downpour that sent the people on the streets scrambling for shelter. Hattie walked on in the rain, evacuating afoot, convinced that the end—statistically speaking—was likely near.
On the sidewalk outside of the Cathay Bank a couple of tourists stood beneath a massive white umbrella—European tourists judging by the way they dressed and the lost, but optimistic looks on their faces. They were studying a damp and rumpled map of the West Bay Area.
“Excuzez-moi,” one of the tourists said to Hattie. “Euh, Fisherman’s Wharf, s’il vous plait?”Hattie pointed to the map. “You are here,” she said. “Take Columbus Avenue, passed Washington Square, onto Jones Street to the sea.” “Ah, oui” said the tourist. “Merci beaucoup, euh, thank you.”“And be sure to try the clam chowder,” said Hattie. “Tell me something, can you hear the sirens?” “Pardon, quoi?”“The sirens,” said Hattie. “Can’t you hear the sirens? “Que voulez-vous dire?” said the tourist, throwing up his hands. “Forget it,” said Hattie. “It doesn’t matter, not really.” She was lying to herself. She was afraid and wished that the sirens would stop. Just passed Zheng’s Tea House, the rain stopped and a heavy fog bank rolled into Chinatown. It unfurled dreamlike down on the waterfront, came billowed across The Embarcadero, all the way to Pacific Avenue before slipping up Beckett Street, Stockton Street and Grant Avenue. Hattie wandered blindly through it, getting turned around in it, lost like the French tourists back at the bank, but guided all along by voices—old men talking spiritedly about a distant relative arriving at SFO on a red-eye flight all the way from Shanghai. A pair of plucky old Laolaos bantering in Cantonese about mahjong strategy. And somewhere out there in all of that swirling mist, someone was playing an erhu, that most haunting and mournful of Chinese musical instruments. The street musician, wherever he happened to be, was not without talent, drawing the long, horse-hair bow skillfully to and fro across the two-stringed violin so that the sound-box resonated at a beautifully high and needling frequency. It sounded just like heaven to Hattie and, at least for the time being, the sound of the erhu silenced the city sirens. As she drifted deeper into the fog, a romanticized image of the erhu player hatched inside of her head. She pictured an old blind peasant musician in filthy nettle rags sitting atop the highest snowy peak of the Tian Shan mountain range, fiddling to the gods’ delight up above. An impression from one of those Song Dynasty landscapes—Wu on Misty White Mountain or the like. Lost as she was, Hattie followed the sound to Tang’s Canton Kitchen—the picturesque shop on the corner of Clay Street with the golden door, the fire-engine red façade and the row upon row of plump and crispy roasted ducks hanging in the window. The Erhu Player, an elderly Chinese gentleman in a knitted turtleneck sweater, corduroy pants, a communist party style hat and K-Swiss tennis shoes, was squatting there on a garden stool, fiddling to his heart’s sweetest content. “You play very well Uncle,” said Hattie. Politely the Erhu Player nodded and replied in song: “If Fong has already been born, then Fong must die.”“So it isn’t a test,” said Hattie. “It’s the real thing, isn’t it?”The Erhu Player closed his eyes and fiddled a tune that sounded like city sirens.“Ok, but wait,” said Hattie. “Wait.”Self-pity was vanity, but she couldn’t help herself. She started thinking of life’s particulars. Sunrise over the twin white spires of Saints Peter and Paul Church on Filbert Street, the childhood dream of visiting her Uncle Chén in Hong Kong, the Blue Chinese Wisteria Tree in bloom (she saw one once in the Domed greenhouse at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park), Li Po’s spicy pork noodle soup and love. She’d never been in love, but had secret feelings for Lei Jing, which felt very much like love. And then there was death. Life inevitably returned to death. The Chinese had a thousand different words for it. There was one word for the death of a king and another for the death of a commoner. One word for death in the prime of one’s life and another for death in old age. Another if you died for love and yet another if you died for country. And if you were a Daoist, like Lei Jing, you called it riding the crane. “Death is a Martian,” said Hattie. “An alien thing, approaching, fleeting. But ok, I’ll go.”Hearing this, the Erhu Player nodded and sang: “If Fong has already been born then she must live. Enjoy your life. It is later than you think.” “Yes, I will,” said Hattie. “Thank you Uncle.”She bowed in deference to the Erhu Player and rushed off giddily into the fog toward the Dragon’s Gate, thinking, First thing tomorrow I’ll go and see Lei Jing, bring her flowers, a bouquet of Blue Chinese Wisteria, and tell her how I feel.
About the Contributor
Alberto Ramirez graduated from UCLA with a degree in English literature. He has contributed work to Westwind Journal of the Arts, Angel City Review and Drabblez Magazine (forthcoming) and is the author of the novel Everything That Could Not Happen Will Happen Now (Floricanto & Berkeley Presses 2016), selected by Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club summer reading list 2017.
The Stranger - Albert Camus
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda