I wrote about Charlie a long time ago. It was one of the first pieces I’d ever tried, and I didn’t have the courage to show it to anyone. I still think of Charlie and his wife though, specially this time of year.
Charlie had the laundry store on Two-Hundred Street. The front was miniscule with room for only a counter, his abacus, and shelves of neatly wrapped shirts and tablecloths.
For years he was alone, his lights on late as he worked. And sometimes he’d show me a picture of his wife who was still in China, waiting to join him here. The photo was grainy, so it was almost impossible to see what she looked like, just a small woman looking out at me. Charlie would run his fingers over the edges and smile. “Someday,” he’d always say.
At last on a Thanksgiving week, that someday came. I couldn’t wait to see her. But for the first time, Charlie closed the store for two days: one to meet her at the airport, the second to show her the sights of Manhattan.
Finally, I met her the day before Thanksgiving. Bone thin and pretty, she knew only a few words in English, but she pulled on Charlie’s arm so he’d tell me the rice story.
He shook his head at me, grinning. He’d wanted to buy her a Welcome to America present and what she wanted was something she’d seen in the restaurant in New York: a forty pound bag of rice.
Charlie took her to see all the boxes of rice in the grocery store. “Not necessary, those heavy bags,” he’d said. “We can always buy rice here.”
She wasn’t convinced. “If you have the money, we’d have food for a long time,” she’d said. “We’d never be hungry. We’d be safe.”
He raised his arms. “What could I do?” he told me.
She took me by the hand into the back of the store where there was room only for their bed, the ironing board, and the forty pound bag of rice which they’d managed to drag home on the subway.
She patted the bag, smiling up at me. I could see how grateful she was.
I wonder where they are now. I do know that they worked together, that later they had twin boys, and they always seemed happy in that small shop together.
This year I’m cooking for our large family. I lugged the food home from Stop N’ Shop yesterday, forty pounds, I’m sure. I patted the turkey as I edged it into the crowded refrigerator, smiling, thinking of Charlie and his wife.
I’m grateful, too.