by Minglu Zeng
Mom had always said: “Destiny; all are destined.”
“What do you mean Mom? What is destiny?” I would ask.
“Destiny is the road under your feet.” was mom’s reply.
“But isn’t it true we blaze our own path?” I remembered someone had said so.
Mom shook her head and uttered: “Quite the opposite: Your feet are led by the bumpy road. After you are through as many roads as the bridges I’ve been through, you will see what I mean.”
Her words never made sense to me as a child, but when I grew older I started to get some taste of it. Maybe it was because I had been shaped by my own journey. So much of our lives were being pushed along like a little toy boat in the great big ocean.
I came to the United States for a different reason than most. I didn’t come for a green card, a fancy house, curiosity or even money. I came to this country solely to look for my brother Dakun. Eight years ago he had left for the USA without even saying goodbye to anyone in the family. One of his co-workers at the stone cutting company told us that my brother had paid to be smuggled to the United States on a container ship.
I knew how dangerous these passages for undocumented immigrants can be. My heart ached for my brother, and it was as if he had vanished from the face of the earth. His absence left a hole inside me. Although it was a long expensive path to America, it was my only hope to find some trace of my brother. Even though I feared for the worst I would not stop until I found some answer.
I finally made it to America. At first I had no skills yet everything was expensive. I managed to work my way through college. After that, not sure if it was destiny just like mom had said, or if it was God’s graceful arrangement, before I had to go through a long bumpy road, a medium-sized company hired me.
For three years the company was doing pretty well. During my fourth year things started going from bad to worse. A couple of our biggest customers went out of business as the economy worsened. In China we have a saying that a fire at the city gate affects the fishes in the moat.
At a routine meeting, my boss Brian who was always very upbeat and full of confidence looked depressed and sullen. I asked him what was wrong and he told me that his friend Tom had just gone bankrupt. I was stunned. Brian was always talking about his rich friend Tom. Tom owned lots of buildings including a big shopping center. He even had a huge white boat in the harbor where Brian was always talking about going on. When my boss talked about his friend Tom, it was like a celebrity he was proud to have as a friend. Tom’s bankruptcy deeply affected him and I could see worry in his face.
In the middle of November although business was bad, the company still managed to have the annual employee reward conference. The conference was held in the club up the hill as usual. Someone told me the club was struggling also and offered a decent discount just to have the business.
I walked through the fancy rooms and everyone was dressed up as usual. I saw many of the co-workers were already there. People gathered in small groups quietly chatting to each other. It wasn’t the loud boisterous room it normally was. Waiters still walked around with fancy appetizers but things just felt different. People still laughed at the jokes and put on pretenses that everything was normal but it didn’t seem natural at all.
The noises in the hall did not keep me from noticing the music of the piano. I noticed for some reason even the piano player in the corner seemed to have a somber tone to his songs
“Meilu!” someone called from behind, I didn’t have to turn around to recognize my boss Brian.
“Hi Brian!” I turned around to greet him.
“Did you see the man playing the music in the corner?” Brian asked in a hushed voice.
“Yes I did,” while turning around to get a look to figure out why Brian was talking about him, I saw a man in a non-descript black suit sitting beside the red curtain and playing. He kept his head down, playing with total attention to his fingers as he played.
“He is my friend Tom.” Brian whispered.
I couldn’t believe it.
He explained how Tom’s assets were seized in an investigation and literally was playing the piano for food money. The boat, the houses, everything was gone with creditors fighting over what was left.
I took a deep breath and looked at him playing on the keyboard. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have fallen so far, from a millionaire to the position of a servant. Maybe it was simply like mom had described, a feeling of peace after knowing one’s own destiny.
I walked over towards the forgotten corner — I doubted there was anyone paying attention to the music Tom was playing so devotedly.
“You play great!” I complimented him. Tom lifted his head and looked up at me for a second, his strong features and demeanor impressed me. He gave me a quick thank you, without skipping a note. He looked back up with a polite smile and said “I like to play music. I have fallen in love with it.”
His eyebrows were thick and face had rugged angles, and he had an air of importance to him. The corners of his dropped slightly downward just enough to draw focus to his toughness. Brian was a strong man. It made sense to me that his good friend was of the same type of person.
“I know this song.” I uttered, recognized the song to be “If you are going to San Francisco”. I really loved that song.
“Have you been to San Francisco?” he asked.
“Did you wear flowers?” Tom asked flashing a smile across his face. He had a very charming smile indeed. I shook my head and felt a little embarrassed.
He continued, “I was in San Francisco one Christmas and met a Chinese girl. Unforgettable.”
Suddenly I felt like re-visiting San Francisco and strolling through Chinatown. I especially wanted to wear some flowers in my hair.
A month had passed and I was just returning from a short vacation and the first winter storm of the year blew in. The red maple leaves were falling and I walked through the sidewalk covered in wet leaves to my building. As I pushed open the door something didn’t feel quite right at work. I followed my instincts and walked over to Brian’s office.
The door was closed and the light was off. Something was wrong… I was in a daze when co-worker Rebecca called to me. I walked over quietly with a feeling of foreboding. The first words out of her mouth were “Something big has happened!” I inquired, “What big thing?” Somehow it felt colder inside, like an icy wind was blowing through the office. Rebecca continued, “Brian was laid off!”
I was totally shocked. “What?! How could that be?”
Well, anything was possible I thought to myself. That night I had a dream about Brian. I dreamt we met in a distant beautiful place, almost at the ends of the earth. It was scenery that I could not even reach with my imagination. The dream ended with a shining star dropping right in front of us…
That day I attended the weekly department meeting for the first time without Brian. I was upset by it and some strange feeling came over me. I didn’t listen to what the others had to say and all I could think of was Brain and Tom: Tom must still be playing his “San Francisco” up on the hill. I had no idea where Brian was and what he was doing.
With just a few days before Christmas I had to finish some last minute gift buying. I drove to the big mall in town and followed a group of shoppers into my favorite store.
The crowd seemed to part and slow just enough to see a Santa Claus with a long white beard. He had a beautiful red suit and really looked the part. He waved to the shoppers while handing out coupons. “Merry Christmas!” he shouted out. I walked over with a smile and reached out for one of the coupons.
Just then his hand stopped. All of a sudden I realized that the voice of the Santa Claus sounded familiar. I looked at him and from behind the beard I could recognize him.
“Brian!” I called out. “Merry Christmas Meilu!” The Santa Claus responded with deep voice. He placed two colorful coupons in my hand as he grabbed me.
I gazed at him and replied: “Thank you Brian! But you…” Cutting me off he said, “I’m fine. I really like this job. I have fallen in love with it.”
Oh, doesn’t that sound familiar?
“I see, thanks Brian. You do the same, have a Merry Christmas and a lucky happy New Year!” I wished him. Good luck was what he needs and this was the time for me to wish him the very best!
We said our goodbyes as the mall Santa turned away to other customers. His white beard was fluttering as he waved his hand and talked to attentive little children. He was all smiling.
I was choked up that point and couldn’t speak out after that. I had only bought a few things and had forgotten to use the coupons. As I drove back home there were lights up along the streets. The colorful lights captured the season perfectly. The little red and green lights wrapped around the trees were sparkling in the night.
I entered my little house and as I brought in the presents I looked at the coupons from the mall. The two little coupons had festive holiday patterns on them. They seemed to reflect the spirit of the season and I could almost picture the white beard of the Santa Claus from earlier in them.
It was Christmas Eve, and once again it was raining. The cold wind was blowing and trying to get into the house. I started a fire in the fireplace as the house started to get cold. The fire was cracking as dreamlike music of angels was played “Glory…Glory…”
“rat-a-tat”Somebody was knocking on the door.
Who could it be? I knew that all of my friends were away for the holiday.
“Whose there?” I asked, peering through the keyhole in the door. I could see a figure in the dark but couldn’t make anyone out. “Whose is it?” I asked a second time.
“Little Lu, it’s me, Dakun.” a voice replied.
“Dakun? Dakun who?” I replied as I began to tremble.
“Your elder brother.”
My heart almost leaped from my throat as I swung the door open. “Brother, is it really you?” I asked. As he smiled I could see it really was him standing before me; he was really truly my brother Dakun whom I had been looking for 8 years!
“How did you find me? How did you get here? How come …” I started throwing out sentences.
From his pocket he pulled out a wrinkled slip of paper. I could see that his hand turned rosy from the cold. He passed the small piece of paper to me. The paper was so old and worn that it was falling apart. As I looked it over I could hardly believe it, it was the missing person ad that I had placed seven years ago!
Since placing the ad I had moved. By that piece of paper Dakun found my old neighbor and was able to trace me all the way here!
“Come in quickly brother. It’s cold outside!” I hurried him inside.
“How is mama?” he asked as his voice trembled. On his forehead there were now thick wrinkles I had never seen before. My eyes were tearing up as I said, “Mama often goes to the church near the children’s center. She has become a bit of a fatalist.”
Just then there was a loud sound from the roof. Startled, Dakun looked up to the ceiling.
“It was just a pine cone falling from the trees in the yard.” As I spoke, I felt warm streams of tears rolling down my cheeks.
That night I boiled a tasty bowl of steamed chicken soup for my elder brother. As he ate he told me how much he had missed my cooking.
I did not get a chance to tell my elder brother how much I had missed him. I watched him eat and images of the old days when we were together were flashing through my brain just like a movie…
That night we called our mother who was on the other side of the big ocean. When she heard that I had found Dakun alive she was so overwhelmed that she could hardly string her words into sequence. She reminded me Dakun’s feet had been injured when he was in China. She wanted me to apply some medicine together with wine to warm up the area and help with the blood circulation — A treatment she handed down from mother to mother for as far back as anyone knew. She had been doing that to Dakun up until he disappeared without warning…
She told me that she was also listening to the holy music of Christmas. Our mother spoke and spoke until the sobbing stopped her from speaking further.
“Mom, you…” I said.
“I am OK. I am simply way too happy.” She said. She did not mention anything about fate that day.
“People say if Heaven had feeling it would grow old,” Dakun said to himself. Then all of the sudden he grabbed the phone from me and said to mother “Mom, do not believe in fate. Just believe the Heaven never closes the door!”
The rain was now pouring down outside. Hearing the sound of water coming down I thought of Brian and Tom and I thought of the winters that Dakun and I had spent in China. Those cold days were on my mind and I wondered why the biggest holidays in the American and China both fell in the coldest season.
A fire was burning inside the fireplace as the music continued, “Joyful, Joyful…”
Editor’s Note on Happy Encounter in a Rainy Christmas Night:
Happy Encounter in a Rainy Christmas Night is not the first piece of Minglu Zeng’s work published by Eastlit. Previous work includes: