Three Trains / Three Stories

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  2230 hrs | 14 February 2018
 North East Line | Boon Keng – Serangoon

They don’t have anymore chickens at Boon Keng!

Chickens?

No more chickens! I went to two NTUCs already this evening. 

It’s an old lady, dressed in a cheongsam top and a slim black pant. She’s carrying many plastic shopping bags, an umbrella and her cracked leather wallet.

Aiyah, my feet hurt, going up and down like that. I’m 64 years old, still have to do this. But what to do? Chinese New Year, right?

She’s looking right at me. Still, I’m reluctant to engage. I’m reading Don Quixote and it’s getting quite exciting. On page 52, the hapless hidalgo is about to be beaten up by a gang along with Rocinante (his horse) and Sancho Panza (his “squire”).

I’m going to try one last time at Serangoon. They have a big NTUC there, some more it’s 24 hours.  Do you know what time the MRT closes down? 

I tell her that I’m not so sure, but that I did hear that there would be an extension of hours because of the holiday. I don’t think she’s heard me because she goes on about the chickens.

I don’t need an uncooked chicken. Even ready-made one will do. They have that now in NTUC, you know? Roast pork also have. You know, last time when my kids were still around, I would never buy this kind, the ready-made kind. Everything cook from scratch. Roast chicken lah. Dumplings. Pen cai. You like pen cai?

Yes, my grandmother makes it every year. 

I also. Last time lah. This kind, can only eat once a year. Long time ago, I will buy how many cans of abalone, you know! Sometimes five cans, six cans, no problem! Will always ask my sons to help me buy early before no stock. All the other special ingredients also. Nian gao, must buy. Also last time, aunty also make pineapple tarts and love letters for all my friends. Good hor?

She’s on a roll now; she won’t stop.

I even know how to make yu sheng myself. Last time where got people buy yu sheng? So expensive now! My daughter loves yu sheng. Nowadays young people don’t like. You like? 

Not really.

You see! But my daughter loves it. I will make big big platters last time for family, to give to neighbours, but especially for my daughter. She loves it, but she isn’t here anymore.

Where is she, aunty?

She stops for a moment, breaks eye contact with me. I think I’ve crossed a line, but her facial expression shifts quickly and she starts to talk again.

Not here lah. All not here. Daughters and sons – all not here. That’s why I just need to buy those ready-made chicken. One can already. Can last for a few days. Don’t worry about aunty. Just need to try at Serangoon. One more time. Okay, my stop already. Bye! Happy Chinese New Year…

 


 

  1400 hrs | 15 February 2018
         North East Line | Outram Park – Dhoby Ghaut

The balloon is in the shape of a cupcake and a little girl is reaching for it. She has blue eyes & strawberry blonde hair and she giggles as she presses her palm against a glass panel riddled with sticky fingerprints, the only thing separating her from her shiny prize. She can’t be more than five.

It’s tied to the bag of a teenager, the pink string looped around the handle twice. Like everyone else on the train, the teenager’s eyes are glued to her phone screen. I peer above the pages of Don Quixote (I’m on page 83 now), transfixed by the girl’s tiny fingers as they make their way towards the stretched, silvery plastic. At one point, they get dangerously close and she turns to her left to grab her brother’s arm. Regarde moi! Regarde moi!

The boy, with his wavy blonde curls and toothy smile, looks a lot like his sister but only twice as mischievous. I glance right and see that they come in a set of four – sister, brother, mother, father – blond and pretty, riding the MRT at 2pm on Chinese New Year eve. They look out of place in a train carriage full of people dressed up in stiff New Year clothes, slightly rumpled in their cotton t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses.

I realise I’ve been staring in their direction too long when the boy starts making faces at me. He sticks his tongue out, his fists curled up in two circles around his eyes. He’s making fun of my glasses! The cheek. I close my book, wiggle my face so that my glasses bounce up and down my nose. He giggles.

Parlez-vous anglais?

I don’t know where that came from – I haven’t spoken French properly in years. Even the boy is taken aback. It’s now his turn to tug on his mother’s shirt. She looks at me, smiles and motions for him to speak to me. He says shyly:

Un peu… un peu d’anglais.

Très bien! Et moi… Je parle un peu français…

My French is elementary, but I have their attention now – even the girl has abandoned her balloon pursuit. The kids start speaking very quickly and excitedly and the mother, who can speak a little bit of English, translates the questions. Like a game, and to everyone’s amusement, I try to recall the little French I know from two university classes to answer them.

They ask where you learn French.

J’étudie français… how do you say “in” in French? Er… “dans”? J’étudie français dans mon université.

Fantastique! Oh… they ask, you go to France before?

Oui, Paris! 

I hold out three of my fingers to indicate that I’ve been to Paris three times (also, I’ve forgotten how to say “thrice” in French) but it’s too late, the kids make a face at the sound of the capital’s name. Even the father, who has been sitting there silently with his newsboy cap tilted at an angle, shakes his head. The mother laughs.

We don’t like Paris. Ce n’est rien. We live… à l’est, près de la suisse? Better, much better.

Uh oh. I’m not surprised. Parisians are the only French people who like Paris. I talk a little more with the mother and make faces at the kids in between to keep them entertained. By now, even the people around us are hanging onto our stilted sentences, entranced by this odd encounter, listening in.

I find out that the family has been in Singapore for five days but that they will soon make their way to Indonesia to “hike mountains”. They love the outdoors, especially the boys They also love how hot Singapore is, but admits that it is too crowded to be pleasant, much too crowded.

Is there like…une fête? La célébration?

The mother gestures around her, at everyone in their best clothes, packed like sardines in a tin can in the middle of the afternoon. Before I can even attempt to explain Chinese New Year to her, we’ve arrived at their stop. Dhoby Ghaut. The mother announces that it is time to go and the father tips his cap towards me. The kids wave at me and proudly exclaim:

Goodbye! Goodbye!

To which I respond heartily:

Au revoir! 

It has been five, very surreal minutes. The atmosphere in the cramped train carriage seems a little lighter. Before the family disembarks, the mother turns to me and says this:

Your French is not so good…. but thank you so much! Au revoir!

Well, one thing’s for sure. They are definitely French.

 


 

2330 hrs | 25 February 2018
            North South Line | Orchard – Link to Shaw Theatres

Hi, what’s your name?

Stacy.

My name’s Kenny. I’m 74 years old. Do you like The Carpenters?

Of course I do!

You remind me of Karen Carpenter. Very lovely, but I think you should lose the glasses because they make you look old, you know what I mean?

Oh dear. I’ll make a note of that.

Listen, I’ll play a song for you. You know, “On Top of the World”? Maybe after that – and I hate to be a bother – you could help me out with my rent?

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Why Don’t You Dance?
Raymond Carver, 1938 – 1988

In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom— nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.

His side, her side.

He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.

The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed.

The buffed aluminium kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, and a few feet away from this stood a sofa and chair and a floor lamp. The desk was pushed against the garage door. A few utensils were on the desk, along with a wall clock and two framed prints. There was also in the driveway a carton with cups, glasses, and plates, each object wrapped in newspaper. That morning he had cleared out the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the home. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.

Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either.

“It must be a yard sale,” the girl said to the boy.

This girl and this boy were furnishing a little apartment.

“Let’s see what they want for the bed,” the girl said.

“And for the TV,” the boy said.

The boy pulled into the driveway and stopped in front of the kitchen table.

They got out of the car and began to examine things, the girl touching the muslin cloth, the boy plugging in the blender and turning the dial to MINCE, the girl picking up a chafing dish, the boy turning on the television set and making little adjustments.

He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.

The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.

“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said.

“How is it?” he said.

“Try it,” she said.

He looked around. The house was dark.

“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.”

She bounced on the bed.

“Try it first,” she said.

He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head.

“How does it feel?” she said.

“It feels firm,” he said.

She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.

“Kiss me,” she said.

“Let’s get up,” he said.

“Kiss me,” she said.

She closed her eyes. She held him.

He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”

But he just sat up and stayed where he was, making believe he was watching the television.

Lights came on in the houses up and down the street.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if,” the girl said and grinned and didn’t finish.

The boy laughed, but for no good reason. For no good reason, he switched the reading lamp on.

The girl brushed away a mosquito, whereupon the boy stood up and tucked in his shirt.

“I’ll see if anybody’s home,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s home. But if anybody is, I’ll see what things are going for.”

“Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less. It’s always a good idea,” she said.

“And, besides, they must be desperate or something.”

“It’s a pretty good TV,” the boy said.

“Ask them how much,” the girl said.

 

The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market. He had sandwiches, beer, whiskey. He saw the car in the driveway and the girl on the bed. He saw the television set going and the boy on the porch.

“Hello,” the man said to the girl. “You found the bed. That’s good.”

“Hello,” the girl said, and got up. “I was just trying it out.” She patted the bed.

“It’s a pretty good bed.”

“It’s a good bed,” the man said, and put down the sack and took out the beer and the whiskey.

“We thought nobody was here,” the boy said. “We’re interested in the bed and maybe in the TV. Also maybe the desk. How much do you want for the bed?”

“I was thinking fifty dollars for the bed,” the man said.

“Would you take forty?” the girl asked.

“I’ll take forty,” the man said.

He took a glass out of the carton. He took the newspaper off the glass. He broke the seal on the whiskey.

“How about the TV?” the boy said.

“Twenty-five.”

“Would you take fifteen?” the girl said.

“Fifteen’s okay. I could take fifteen,” the man said.

The girl looked at the boy.

“You kids, you’ll want a drink,” the man said. “Glasses in that box. I’m going to sit down. I’m going to sit down on the sofa.”

The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.

 

The boy found two glasses and poured whiskey.

“That’s enough,” the girl said. “I think I want water in mine.”

She pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.

“There’s water in that spigot over there,” the man said. “Turn on that spigot.”

The boy came back with the watered whiskey. He cleared his throat and sat down at the kitchen table. He grinned. But he didn’t drink anything from his glass.

The man gazed at the television. He finished his drink and started another. He reached to turn on the floor lamp. It was then that his cigarette dropped from his fingers and fell between the cushions.

The girl got up to help him find it.

“So what do you want?” the boy said to the girl.

The boy took out the checkbook and held it to his lips as if thinking.

“I want the desk,” the girl said. “How much money is the desk?”

The man waved his hand at this preposterous question.

“Name a figure,” he said.

He looked at them as they sat at the table. In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.

“I’m going to turn off this TV and put on a record,” the man said. “This record player is going, too. Cheap. Make me an offer.”

He poured more whiskey and opened a beer.

“Everything goes,” said the man.

The girl held out her glass and the man poured.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very nice,” she said.

“It goes to your head,” the boy said. “I’m getting it in the head.” He held up his glass and jiggled it.

The man finished his drink and poured another, and then he found the box with the records.

“Pick something,” the man said to the girl, and he held the records out to her.

The boy was writing the check.

“Here,” the girl said, picking something, picking anything, for she did not know the names on these labels. She got up from the table and sat down again. She did not want to sit still.

“I’m making it out to cash,” the boy said.

“Sure,” the man said.

They drank. They listened to the record. And then the man put on another.

Why don’t you kids dance? he decided to say, and then he said it. “Why don’t you
dance?”

“I don’t think so,” the boy said.

“Go ahead,” the man said. “It’s my yard. You can dance if you want to.”

Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway. They were dancing. And when the record was over, they did it again, and when that one ended, the boy said. “I’m drunk.”

The girl said, “You’re not drunk.”

“Well, I’m drunk,” the boy said.

The man turned the record over and the boy said, “I am.”

“Dance with me,” the girl said to the boy and then to the man, and when the man
stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open.

 

“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.

“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.

“Let them watch,” the girl said.

“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?”

He felt her breath on his neck.

“I hope you like your bed,” he said.

The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer.

“You must be desperate or something,” she said.

 

Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.


 

It’s the 1980s. Therein lies slivers of the distressed, suburban, American life. Unpleasant middle-aged men, twice-divorced, drinking themselves to death and completely abandoned to the drudgery of the working class existence. Linoleum kitchen floors, the air thick with the smell of Crisco & cigarettes & cheap whisky. Wives & mistresses, equally dissatisfied. Dirty motels and pools filled with green muck. Loneliness, loneliness, always loneliness.

Collections like these sadden & confuse & intrigue me all at the same time. Carver’s short stories remind me of Bukowski or Saunders because all of them induce the same feeling. I can’t quite put a finger on what that is, but I know it feels familiar – do you know what I mean? That hollow, empty sound that echoes throughout your body. It’s an education & sometimes, a reflection.

Anyway, Carver’s masterful short stories have kicked off this year’s reading list well. Here’s the rest of it:

  1. Fresh Complaint – Jeffrey Eugenides
  2. About Love & Other Stories – Anton Chekhov
  3. In Praise of Shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki
  4. Koel – Jen Crawford
  5. 32 Yolks – Eric Ripert
  6. The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything – James Martin
  7. The Unaccompanied – Simon Armitage
  8. Blood, Bones & Butter – Gabrielle Hamilton
  9. Love that Moves the Sun & Other Stars – Dante Alighieri
  10. The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood
  11. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
  12. Pastoralia – George Saunders

I used to read 50 – 60 books a year but this number has dwindled drastically in the last few years. Adulting is tough, guys! So I’m setting the bar a little lower in terms of numbers but reading a little wider in terms of genre – Russian classics, chef biographies, religion & philosophy books, & a lot more American lit. I can’t wait.

Hope all of you are still finding time to read, no matter how busy you are.

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