The sound of thunder echoed in the distance, though David couldn't say for certain that it wasn't the rumbling of a train passing the station several blocks away. It had been a particularly muggy summer. Rain fell three days a week - so often that every crosswalk had become its own shallow, muddy pond and mosquitoes outnumbered the residents of his city by a factor of ten.
David stood at the crosswalk, staring at one such puddle with disgust from his lofty perch of two inches shy of six feet off the ground. It was an average height in New York, but tall for an asian. He wondered idly how tall his father had been. His mother didn't like talking about David's father, who had broken his promise to join his newly pregnant wife in America before his child was born.
David was unclear on the finer details, but after seventeen years, he'd realized that it was a mundane story. His father's business (some kind of manufacturing plant in Hangzhou) had, by some good fortune, become profitable. He had met another woman and pretended that his wife and son on the other side of the world didn't exist. David knew that his father had two more children by this other woman, but he was unsure of how old they were.
His mother worked at a clothing factory six days a week and on Saturday mornings, she worked at a jiulu, a sit-in restaurant which served tea and dimsum for six long hours of brunch. She was one of those ladies who pushed around the dimsum carts from table to table and told guests what sorts of dimsum were in the little round bamboo containers in her cart, an unholy amalgamation of a waitress and a circus barker.
David had quietly applied for a part time job, but when he excitedly told his mother that he'd been hired so she could finally stop working at the jiulu and have a day of rest, she had been incredibly angry.
What sort of son would not focus on his schooling in favor of spending time peddling wares in a game shop? Did it appear like they were short on money - when he took three classes a week at their local cram school, piano lessons and whatever else he wanted to try learning? What was difficult about being a waitress; she might have been getting on in age, but did she look fifty? Was he unaware that the jiulu was his cultural heritage, the first incarnation of the modern restaurant which originated from their hometown of Hangzhou, which had been known as Li'nan in the Song dynasty? Surely he could not have been as scatterbrained as to have forgotten the poem about-
Where was Alice?
There was no visible lightning - but the thunder sounded again, closer than before. David had been waiting at the street corner for nearly ten minutes now. Rain had not actually begun falling, but the windshields on the cars parked in neat parallel rows as far as the eye could see had misted over. There was the sound of screeching tires and a muted crash in the distance. David winced.
A pair of small, soft palms clamped themselves over his eyes, plunging him into darkness. Whatever hand sanitizer or lotion she'd used smelled floral and fruity and was momentarily overpowering.
"Asian driver no survivor," Alice said, dragging her vowels with a horribly exaggerated and, if he were to be entirely honest, faintly offensive accent.
David extracted his face from her hands and turned around, thoroughly perplexed. "What?"
Alice pointed up the street to the scene of the crime, then paused and the corners of her lips turned upwards. "Two minivans collided - dead center, license plate to license plate, both trying to turn left at a busy intersection in Brooklyn. What country were the drivers from, and how many green cards can they produce in total?"
David stared at her, shaking his head in disbelief. He tried to keep the grin off of his face.
Alice stood a head shorter than him. Her blonde hair had been tied up in a loose ponytail which ended between her shoulder blades. She had the habit of pushing bangs, dark as the night, away from her eyes. He supposed that it was late enough in the summer that she'd be too busy on college applications to spend time at a hair salon to bleach her hair again.
"How are you doing today, shimei?"
Alice groaned. "You were in my kung fu class for six months. Don't say that out loud, it's embarrassing."
David gave her the smarmiest smirk he could manage. "But I have nothing but concern for my shi-"
Alice gave him a glare that could freeze water.
She was of slender build, as he was - as most first generation Chinese Americans were. Her face was classically pretty - with big brown eyes, long lashes and high cheekbones. When she smiled, her dimples showed. She was wearing a light grey shirt with a breast pocket, a pair of jeans shorts, and a meticulously white pair of Nikes. Alice was idly swinging a small, nondescript umbrella - the sort which sold easily in dollar stores during these weeks of rain.
Slung over her back was an assuredly waterproof case for an instrument, at least two thirds her height.
"Thanks for showing up," Alice finally said, as they meandered side by side towards the local branch of the public library a few blocks away. "Everyone else said they were busy."
"Was I the last person you asked?"
She turned to face him sharply and then realized he had been joking. She sighed. "No one wants to pretend they care about someone playing a song they've never listened to on an instrument they'd never heard of at a talent show hosted at a library which probably revoked their card for forgetting to return a Harry Potter book when they were nine." Alice was always some combination of witty, long winded and confrontational but David could tell she was genuinely disappointed.
"Their loss. Everyone knows the Brooklyn Public Library has the best air conditioning." It was actually true, too. It was cool, dry and quiet in the library, and it smelled like books, unless someone decided to bring in a gyro from one of the food carts on the corner outside, or the librarians didn't have the heart to evict the homeless who wandered in once in a while.
To David's surprise, Alice leaned into him, slipping her forearm around his, locking their elbows together. "Thanks," she said. They'd never been too close, even though they'd known each other for four years and took the same train every morning for an hour to get to school at the heart of the city. He supposed she'd wanted to hold someone's hand but didn't want to give him the wrong idea, so she'd chosen the option with at least some plausible deniability. Unfortunately, it was a little difficult to walk like this.
Also, David was almost certain she was dating someone. With this in mind, he pulled a little further away from her with each footfall until they found themselves trudging awkwardly ahead as the rain picked up to a slight drizzle. Both of them had sped up slightly and neither had spoken in what felt like an eternity, even if they'd only walked a block. When they crossed the final intersection to the street where the library resided in a squat building painted a dull, metallic grey, David felt a palpable relief.
"I get it," Alice said, just loud enough for him to hear. She drew in a deep breath to let loose a sigh but didn't bother. She pulled at the handle to one of the deceptively heavy doors to the library and a rush of cold air pushed past them into the midday humidity.
There were at least sixty branches of the Brooklyn Public Library - more than there were police precincts but less than there were fire stations. Two or three branches were legitimately enormous buildings with collections unique and expansive enough that an entire system of request and acquisition had been set up so every University in the greater metropolitan zone could borrow volumes not present on their campuses.
This branch, in the neighborhood where David had grown up - a stone's throw from the park where he'd learned to play basketball as a kid, and three buildings down from his dentist - was more of a community center with a collection roughly the size of a chain bookstore in volume. What the library provided, however, which no bookstore could likely match, was a library card. It doubled as an account which provided access to the arteries and veins of the greater catalogue of books in the entire system - and not just the books which belonged to the public library. With the help of a librarian at the reference desk, you could loan books from the universities as well.
David wondered if anyone at this branch had requested anything from the greater collection in the last month. The libraries across the city were an oft-celebrated example of education available to the general public for free, within the limit of returning borrowed books on time, but they were even more important places to the communities they were a part of. They were day care programs. They were after-school programs. They held classes to teach seniors basic competence in electronic devices, classes on how to draft resumes and classes which taught English to immigrants of all ages.
Every six weeks or so, this particular branch hosted a talent show. That was why David and Alice were here.
When the library wasn't hosting an event, there was a deep silence - a sort of contemplative silence that led to people lowering the volume of the music playing in their earbuds so as not to disturb anyone else. Even though barely anyone ever participated in the talent show, it still lifted the weight of this silence. Few sat in the folding chairs which had been set up for the audience in front of the stage - demarcated by a table dragged over from the reading area which functioned as a podium of sorts.
Alice pinched David's sleeve and pulled lightly, pointing at the reference desk. Those who spent a lot of time in the library were not quite so affected by the tides of the times and still spoke only when completely necessary. The pair drifted over to the corner where the reference desk was. The sign up sheet had been taped onto the counter. It had been drawn up haphazardly on a word processor. The printer clearly had been low on toner. There were three names listed and the last performer was Alice Chow, in a neat, precise, cramped blue ballpoint.
"I signed up a few days ago," Alice explained. She pointed over to the stage, where a veritably miserable boy had placed a portable electric keyboard onto the table; he appeared unable to find an outlet within reach of the cord. There were no librarians in sight, so the boy's embarrassed mother had directed her anger onto the boy. David identified her speech as some subdialect of Cantonese, which he could barely understand to begin with.
David turned to ask Alice if she knew what language the woman was speaking, but Alice had actually vaulted over the counter of the reference desk and was digging underneath it. "What are you doing?" he hissed.
"Volunteered here for a summer a few years back, there should be an extension cord down here somewhere."
David leaned over the counter to peer at the floorspace behind the reference desk and realized that so few people requested books from the main catalogue that the librarians had elected to use the reference desk area as a storage space for all sorts of miscellania which seemed just useful enough to not count as garbage.
"Found it," Alice said, holding up wiring which, as advertised, was probably older than David. It had probably been bright yellow once upon a time, but the plastic had faded to a speckled, splotchy grey.
The woman who had been castigating the boy, probably her son, on the stage had lost all semblance of volume control, drawing the concerned glances of not only the small handful of people who were sitting on the folding chairs in front of the stage but every single person in the library. In the corner of his eye, he saw the librarian at the checkout and reservations desk by the exit stand up in alarm.
David realized the librarian was not staring at the angry mother but at Alice, who was in the process of flipping herself over the counter again.
The extension cord caught onto what must have been a pile of books from the faint thump. When she pulled the wire free, a dust cloud rose over the counter from within the reference desk like an active volcano. By the time she'd stopped sneezing, the librarian was already seated again. David supposed the librarian had recognized Alice or at least realized she'd gone behind the reference desk for a good reason.
The situation at the stage had gone from bad to worse. The mother, who had clearly been battling the demons of her embarrassment even before everyone in the library began staring at her, looked a hair's breadth from striking her son in anger.
David and Alice looked at one another with a shared sense of sympathetic pain. The thread of unreasonability and social blindness, primary complaints of many children who had been born and raised in the schools and libraries and parks of these shores, was all too easy to recognize.
The woman spat out words at the boy which would have been clear even if they didn't sound almost the same in Mandarin, which David did speak. "Apologize to them."
The boy raised his gaze from the floor. The boy looked at the librarian at the checkout desk who did not appear to notice anything was amiss, at the old Italian men in a far corner staring in disdain, and finally to Alice, who was holding the extension cord at him expectantly. The boy stared at it, disgust clearly visible, before he realized what it was and grabbed it.
"Thanks," he muttered, as he busied himself with a deliberate slowness. The boy deliberately looked at nothing but the wiring and outlet and the keyboard. He was trying to hold a particular expression on his face, something which he must have thought was a tepid medium between impassive and earnest. The pity returned.
That was the face of someone who desperately wanted to avoid adding another lecture about poor attitude with what was sure to be on the docket when the boy and his mother returned home. It was also the face of someone who desperately needed to use the bathroom and the train was just close enough to home so that it wasn't worth it to get off the train early. David was familiar with both sensations.
"Apologize," his mother hissed.
The boy opened his mouth to refuse, then shut it, looking around the library again, but it was Alice who bailed him out again.
"Forget it," she said softly in Cantonese, which sounded a little different to what the woman spoke, but it was clear she understood. "Birds have short memories and there’s little value in teaching them to sing a song you hate."
The woman sighed and turned away, sitting. She stared at her hands which she folded in her lap. Now that she wasn't angry, she just looked dejected and a little lost. As her son worked his way halfheartedly through a Mozart Sonata, she took surreptitious glances at the four or five people around her. They had not spared her a glance since the shouting had stopped.
Three of them were on their phones and one of them, a middle aged man, seemed to feel guilty about it, because he would quickly pocket it, listen for twenty or thirty seconds, grow bored, check his phone and remember why he'd put it away to begin with.
David was disappointed. After the whole ordeal, some fairy tale-esque sense of justice made him idly hopeful that the boy would be incredibly good, but that wasn't the case. The boy sped up at random times and slowed down in others, consistent with the difficulty of the piece. While it was the only possibility when it came to simply playing the incorrect notes, the boy didn't even seem to notice that he'd made any mistakes whatsoever.
Eventually, the boy got through the third movement of the Sonata and enthusiastically banged out the final chord with splayed fingers and missed around half the correct notes, ending the performance with the grace and finesse consistent with everything else that had happened. The boy stood up and gave a sincere bow, smiling from ear to ear. David and Alice clapped politely, prompting the rest of the audience to put their phones down and do the same.
Alice pinched the bridge of her nose, clearly exasperated by the boy and his mother. The mother appeared to have fully recovered from whatever emotional strain she was under and was now tapping her foot impatiently. The boy unplugged his keyboard from the extension cord and tucked the electric keyboard under his arm. They had put on their jackets, gathered their bags and were halfway to the exit in less than a minute. Some of the wiring from the keyboard trailed behind the boy.
Alice stared at the boy's retreating back and at the extension cord, then gently set her instrument, still in its case, down onto the table. She unplugged the cord, rolled it up carefully and took it back to the reference desk. She stowed it somewhere behind the counter, sneezing twice as it kicked up another dust cloud.
She sighed audibly. After dusting off her hands with palpable relief, she walked over and sank into the chair that had previously been occupied by the boy.
Alice unzipped the case and slid what David recognized to be a guqin out onto the table, then shoved the case off the side. It landed with a soft whump and slowly crumpled. She didn't spare it another glance as she began to tune the strings, one at a time.
"This instrument," she began, speaking just loudly enough for the small audience to hear her clearly, "is known as a guqin, one of the instruments of antiquity from the far east. The most direct translation would have me call this an 'old piano', but I think you'd describe this as more of a tabletop guitar."
She continued to tune the guqin briskly. "In some traditions, including the one I've learned, the musician will give a short introduction to the song."