By Moshe Mikanovsky

First published on The Nabu Review, Issue 003, Nov 4, 2018, Paragon Press

“Thank you dear,” the older man nodded, and sat down in the empty chair.

“You are welcome,” Liu said, adjusting in her new seat. The plastic felt cooler under her thin stockings. I should have worn a longer skirt, she thought, but still not in English. She hoped that would come too, someday.

Her attention was back at the open magazine in her hands. She loved glossy American magazines, and she enjoyed practicing her new home’s language reading them.

“You seem like a nice girl.”

Liu looked at him from the corner of her eyes. Her lips automatically curled up, her eyes with them. She was an expert in putting on the mask. Be the sweet girl. Smile. Her head tilted towards her chest, along with her entire body, curling in, protectively.

“You are, giving up your seat like that, that was sweet of you!”

“It’s O.K,” she said “I don’t mind.”

The man reached into his old backpack and took out a beaten plastic bag. She saw FARMER J written on it, the rest was obscured in a knot, the bag’s content unidentified.

“Where are you from?” he asked. Liu wasn’t used to his directness. People here have usually kept to themselves, and she preferred it that way.

“China,” she muttered.

“New here?” he continued.

“Two months,” her doll face was still on, looking at him obediently, but her hands fumbled through the glossy paged of the magazine.

“That’s beautiful! Welcome! Are you a student? or working here? Is your family back home? Or are they with you?”

“Em… I learn, em, English… and-”

His crooked bony fingers fumbled with the knot in the plastic bag, pulling it apart.

“I was a professor at University College, and had students from all over the world. But the best ones, I am telling you, were from China!” he proclaimed.

She nodded, the smile frozen on her face. She thought she would be able to read now FARMER J’s full name. The bag, she saw, was so crumpled that the ink was all gone.

“I had some brilliant ones from the Philippines too, oh, and India. One or two from Pakistan. And I tell you,” he straightened the bag, his hands caressing it gently, “the local kids, they were drinking too much!” In two quick movements, his hands twisted the bag tightly, looped it over and tied it back to its original form.

Liu gasped, but the man didn’t seem to notice.

“That is the problem with young people today. They don’t take any responsibility, play video games all day long, drink and smoke, and then they expect to find high paying jobs!”

She nodded again, this time a bit too forcefully. Her frame was small, and she had plenty of space sitting next to him. But her left side seemed flat now against the window. She noticed the FARMER J bag was open, his hands straightening it up again.

“You look like a smart young lady, I hope you are not like those lazy kids!”

The train stopped and a rush of people left it, while others came aboard. She hoped it was his station and he would have to leave. But he didn’t. He barely seem to pay attention to where they were.

“I had this student once, he came to class utterly drunk, and he stank of weed, I am telling you, it was awful… No shame!”

Two swift movements. The bag was knotted.

“And he passed out, right there, in the middle of class…”

The knot was off.

“And I had to call the university’s security and they called the paramedics…”

The knot was on.

“And-”

She stood up. It was not her stop yet, she had four more stations to go, but she couldn’t bear riding next to him for another seven minutes.

“Oh, it’s your station, of course.” He stood up for her.

Only now she noticed his baggy corduroys, worn and faded. His old shirt, the cuffs’ hems frayed. His mismatching vest, too warm for this time of the year, an old yellowish stain just below the V neck. His hair was long and his face unshaven.

She hesitated. Ma’ma and Ba’ba would be so ashamed of me.

“No… sorry, my mistake…” Liu said, smiling.

She sat down and closed her magazine. She gently put it in her lap, both hands resting on top.

“Was he O.K?” she asked.