Unwanted Heroes – Part 3/4
2: The Letter
I stare at him in bewilderment as he strides out of the café. I cannot decide whether I admire or fear him and conclude that probably a bit of both is most prudent. Turning back to the counter, I see Tabitha watching me as she hands change to a customer. I feel a sharp wave of panic.
“So they’re onto me?” Her tone is flippant when it is just the two of us. “It’s the addiction, Will. Caffeine and a full moon. Such a fatal combination.” She raises her cup and flutters her eyelashes as she sips.
“Until Mr. Tzu shows up, we’ll have to rearrange the work roster,” I reply somberly. “I assume Ginny has been filling in for Mr. Tzu over the weekend, but you have more experience. You’re going to have to pull the shift opposite mine.”
“But then we won’t get to work together! Who’s going to train me, nurture my career, and bring out my full potential?” She does a credible job pouting like a spoiled child. Then stretching out her hands, she bows her head. “I’m still your humble apprentice, Will, my lord, my barista.”
I relax. “Be mindful of the Force, my young Padma,” I say in my best Yoda-ese, “and keep the fucking Beast clean. Remember, the coffee flows through the Beast.” If only my school counselor had let me pursue a career as a Jedi Knight. “Right now, you’re the only other person supremely qualified to run shifts,” I say, getting back to business.
“But what about the wines?” Tabitha asks.
“George and I will alternate,” I reply.
“You’re going to call him that to his face one day soon and I might not be around to protect you.”
We both laugh. The prospect of Carrot Face or George and I going a few rounds over Tabitha’s honor is amusing. George is a recent addition to our staff. He knows little about coffee but worked on a vineyard in Napa for a few years. He is skinny, spotty, awkward and … well you can probably guess his hair color.
“But you’re gonna work a lot of hours,” Tabitha says, concerned.
“It’ll only be for a few days. He’ll be back soon.” I hear the doubt in my voice.
I serve two businessmen, who take their drinks swiftly to a table—their discussion never stopping.
Tabitha shrugs. “I bet the bastard rented a sports car and is in Vegas denying his age. Men are jerks, you know.”
“How would I know that?” I roll my eyes.
“You’re a writer, Will. You must’ve noticed them. Jerks.” Tabitha manages a disdainful expression.
“I’m also a man—never mind. The other day when Mr. Tzu chewed you out, has that happened before?”
“No, I’m actually a wonderful asset to the business!” Tabitha replies, her voice feigning hurt, then she frowns. “Hey, Will, you’re worried, aren’t you? You’re not convinced he’ll be back in a day or so?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I wonder what made him crack.”
Tabitha shuffles and stares down at her scuffed Doc Martin boots.
“Tzu’s always been kinda tight, y’ know. Not big on the conversation, but he’s not a screamer either. That day, though, he was really pissed and not just because I failed to clean the Beast to his standards. He later chewed out Carrot Face after George quipped that, though it was his brother’s birthday, he was ignoring it as they weren’t close.
“Tzu heaped him a nasty lecture about family and loyalty. It wasn’t a fatherly rebuke either. Tzu was really pissed. I figured maybe it’s an Asian thing. They’re very family oriented.”
Tabitha puts down a wineglass that she’s been polishing and sighs. “Look, I don’t know Tzu. I’ve always been a bit scared of him ’cause he never talks or anything, so I’ve kinda kept my distance. You never know what’s going on in his mind. It’s intimidating. I’m not a barista or a wine freak like you. I’m expendable. As a woman, too, I feel vulnerable around him. Asians are pretty patriarchal, y’know, and I’m at the bottom of the food chain.”
“Yeah.” I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable. “Let’s get back to work.”
A few minutes later I see Tabitha hovering by Tzu’s desk in the back of the store. She’s holding a badly crumpled piece of paper and calls me over.
“Will, look. This letter appeared the morning Tzu wigged out on me and Carrot Face. It had been slipped under the door before we arrived to open the café. I picked it off the floor, but Tzu grabbed it from me and read it immediately. He had it in his hand or his back pocket all morning. Later, I saw him put it in his desk drawer.”
Hoping for a clue, I take the letter. It is dirty and creased, and I just stare at thick, black Chinese characters.
I return the letter to the drawer of Tzu’s desk. It will be here when he returns—probably tomorrow. But Tzu doesn’t return and as the week passes, the whole staff begins to worry for Mr. Tzu and our jobs.
Early Wednesday, an elderly Asian woman enters the café. She wears a thick heavy coat and a green-silk scarf covers her head probably to ward off the chill. I turn to serve her as she approaches.
“Will?” Her voice is unsteady and her English heavily accented.
“Mrs. Tzu?” I hazard a guess.
She nods. “Please, bring green tea and sit with me.” She shuffles over to an empty table. There is a heavy flow of customers. I don’t like the other staff members seeing me sit while they work, but this wasn’t presented as a request.
Mrs. Tzu sips the tea and stares at me. Her face looks tired and worn.
“I’m sorry about Mr. Tzu. I really am,” I say. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Husband will come back.” She nods as she says this but without conviction. “He says you are good boy. He says you can be trusted.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Tzu. That is high praise.” I am pleased to hear this. “I love my job and the coffee shop.”
“Good, good.” She nods. “You stay and run place. Mr. Tzu will soon return and give you reward. Okay?”
“Sure, Mrs. Tzu. Do you have any idea where he might be? Could he … could he have gone home to China?” Last night, I dreamed that he had returned there to die, but I don’t feel it prudent to share this.
“Mr. Tzu is American.” She shakes her head. “Left China as very small boy and feels no love for China. Love 49ers and Giants. For him, America is home.”
“What do your children think? Have you talked with other relatives?”
She again shakes her head. “I speak with children. Speak all the time. No brother or sister. This disappearance is very strange. He has gone before when very stressed. Has something in past, something from war.”
“So you don’t think he’s been kidnapped or anything? He doesn’t have any enemies, does he?”
She looks at me for a moment perhaps to see if I am joking. Then she leans forward, her expression serious. “Mr. Tzu is good man. Very fair. Many in city know him. All have high respect for him.”
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to imply—” I didn’t know what I didn’t mean to imply, and we both fall silent.
Then Mrs. Tzu leaned forward. “I am from China. Parents die during time of Long March, I think. Maybe later. China was chaos. Hard life then. I brought to US to stay with aunt. Meet Mr. Tzu in city. America is good but for me not home. Mr. Tzu is my home and so America is my home.”
She leans back and sighs. “49ers and Giants, they suck. Coffee not good either. Bad for Shen, for spirit. Green tea is good—keep you young.” She winks. Then she laughs, and I try to laugh with her.
I feel a wave of sympathy toward this brave woman who, like me, is far from her home. I swallow hard. “Mrs. Tzu. I don’t know where he is. I don’t really know him.” I’m getting repetitive perhaps feeling guilty that I haven’t tried to befriend him. “But maybe you could come into the café more and sit here to help look after the staff and customers?”
She flashes the briefest of smiles. “Thank you. Mr. Tzu is right. You are good boy. I go down to visit children in Ventura for few days. Help them not to worry.” She smiles and looks proud, so I think that they have invited her. Then she asks, “You good son to parents, yes?”
I’m a little bewildered by the change of direction but manage to say, “Despite the distance, I try. My father passed away about ten years ago, but I think they were always good to me. My mum’s still in England and I miss her—both of them, I guess.”
“Maybe you send mother flowers to show you think of her? Write letter. I come back and check, yes? After I return from Ventura.”
Write a letter—shit! The letter! I reach into my pocket but something stops me. Mrs. Tzu rises pushing down on the table as she straightens and shuffles out. I remain seated staring at her cup of still-steaming tea, which she hardly touched. Mrs. Tzu could probably have translated the letter her husband received on the day he flew at the staff, yet some strong impulse holds me back. I shrug. I can show her the letter another time.
I pick up her warm cup and hug it between my two palms. As I stare at the door she has just exited, I have a strong feeling that I am getting sucked into something that shouldn’t be part of my life yet unequivocally is. Shit! Maybe I should give up coffee for green tea. It’s bad for my Shen whatever that is.
Growing up in London, Alon Shalev has been a political activist since his early teens. He strives through his writing to highlight social and political injustice and to inspire action for change.
Moving to Israel, he helped establish a kibbutz where he lived for 20 years and served in the Israeli army.
Shalev then moved to the San Francisco Bay area and fell hopelessly in love with this unique city. Being new to the US, however, he was shocked to see so many war veterans on the streets. He regularly volunteers at initiatives such as Project Homeless Connect and the San Francisco Food Bank where he meets and talks with war veterans.
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