Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story
Second Place Young Adult
About Shreya Ramachandran
“Leonard” started off as daydreams in the car on my way to school. Every morning I would pass the same man practicing tai chi in his front yard, and I started to wonder about him.
Why did he do tai chi? What did he think about while he practiced?
Shortly after I started observing him, my English class was assigned to write a short story. To me, this was the perfect excuse to make up all the details about this man that I would never actually find out for myself.
Soon he morphed from the random person seen from a car window into a full-fledged character with a history, a hidden love life, and strong ties to his Chinese heritage, a culture that has always fascinated me.
I don’t know where Natalie came from—she is certainly not based on anybody from my own life. I’d like to think she walked straight out of Ed’s car and into my story, and found some sort of refuge there.
by Shreya Ramachandran
His English name was Leonard. It had been so long since anyone called him anything else. Over time he had gotten used to the name, although there was always the sense of having just put it on, like another man's coat. It kept him warm and got the job done, but he wasn't sure it fit exactly right, as though he had assumed an alternate personality that went with the name. Connie could never pronounce his real name, his Chinese name. She tried, of course she did. Yong-Jie Zheng. He coached her long and hard on when to raise her voice like she was asking a question, and when to sound low and flat like an old bass drum. But her pure Californian tongue could never get the intonation just right, and eventually he gave up and said yes, you can call me Leonard, like the postman and the doctor and the fellow down at the grocery store who greets me when I go to get milk and Special K every Sunday. But Connie was gone now, and still he was Leonard.
Natalie actually didn't mind Monday mornings. It was Tuesdays she hated.
Mondays she went to school with her friend Tanya, and Tanya's parents were nice. They asked her about school, and how her friends were doing, and did she have a boyfriend? No, Natalie would giggle. She was only in sixth grade. But at least Tanya's parents cared. Natalie couldn't remember the last time Mom had asked her about school—it was probably before she married Ed and had to start working two jobs because Ed couldn't even keep one. Sometimes when Natalie got out of the car, she would hear Tanya's mom whisper to herself about that poor girl, oh how I wish I could help her more. Tanya's mom was nice—she drove the girls to school every day except Tuesday, in her shiny silver car with squishy seats and a built-in GPS. But Tuesday was Ed's day to drive. Ed didn't like it if Tanya and Natalie talked in the backseat, and since he kept the music super loud they couldn't anyway. Tanya didn't like Ed either. She told Natalie this as they walked to class, and Natalie never knew whether to agree or defend Ed. After all, Mom always said Ed was part of the family.
Sometimes Leonard wondered if he should get a job. There had been days, sometimes weeks, when he had not spoken to another person. Perhaps he should get out more. A job would force him to meet some people, remind him that there was a teeming world outside his small house. He had taken Connie to Chinatown on one of their last dates. She loved the calligraphers on the street who could turn the most boring of names into peacocks and elephants and dragons. Not worth the money, Leonard told her. I'll make you one much prettier. And he did start. He bought a roll of heavy-duty paper from the nearest office supply store, and found his mother's old calligraphy set that he had brought from China so long ago. He drew out her full name, Constance, instead of just Connie. The Chinatown artists would draw eight letters only. But Connie died before he could finish and give it to her for her sixty-eighth birthday, and his artwork still remained unfinished in the spare room. Consta—, it read. The C was a golden dragon sending vibrant flames shooting towards the O. Yes, he could make a job out of that, joining the ranks of the many street vendors, but he doubted he'd be able to finish any name when hers was left incomplete. She had been an artist too. She painted landscapes. Clouds, and trees, and rainy beaches. He had one of her paintings in his living room above the piano that never played. It was of the small park near his house, the one where those noisy kids were always playing soccer. Connie had painted it just as it started to rain—the kids' frantic mothers had called them home, and the park was empty.
Today was a Tuesday, if a slightly more bearable Tuesday than normal. Today Natalie's class was going to work on their paintings of ancient China, and for once Natalie's teacher appreciated what she was doing. Natalie hated math, and her teacher described her spelling as "abysmal," but she was the best artist in the class. She couldn't draw at home because Ed thought it was a waste of time, and besides her pretty set of paints had been thrown out after Zack, the baby, decided to finger-paint Ed's favorite armchair. In school, though, Natalie drew as much as she could. She had chosen the topic "Chinese Martial Arts," and she decided to paint some men doing tai chi because it sounded so graceful, not violent and clashing like kung fu. She had never actually seen someone doing tai chi, but she had searched for pictures online. It was fun to paint all the different poses. She painted lots of different men—some were her teacher's age, some were as young as Zack, and some were old. The man in the very front was an old man. Natalie didn't know anyone that old, but it seemed to fit. Tanya said that she always saw old people doing tai chi in parks.
Leonard thought about Connie a lot. Mostly in the morning, when he practiced tai chi on his front lawn, between the ancient apricot tree, full grown and teeming with fruit when he bought the house almost 50 years ago, and the birds of paradise that Connie had planted. Tai chi helped him think — for the fifteen minutes that he thrust kicked and double punched, he didn't see the early-morning traffic of disgruntled workers or harassed parents screeching to get their children to school on time. He had learned tai chi, ironically, not from his family back in China, but from a class Connie had signed him up for at the local senior center. He hadn't wanted to go — he said he could get all the "meditation" and "peace of mind" that he'd ever need from his calligraphy, and besides, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Nonsense, said Connie. You could never have too much peace of mind, and it's never too late to find it. Two days after his first lesson, she told him she had breast cancer. She was dead within six months.
Natalie was thinking about tai chi, and whether bright red had really been the best choice of color for the old man's shirt, when all of a sudden she felt her whole body jolt forward. Ed swore loudly. Tanya started crying, and Ed swore again. He got out, walked around to see the back of the car, and before Natalie knew it, he had launched into a loud verbal battle with the driver of the car behind him. His face was turning as red as Natalie's painting, and she knew what was coming before it happened. Ed punched the other man hard, in the stomach. Natalie had seen it happen to her mother before, and she knew the only thing to do when Ed got like that was to get oneself as far as one could, as quickly as possible. She jumped out of the car, pulling Tanya along with her, and ran onto a nearby street for safety.
Strike tiger, retreat to press elbow. Connie had died two years ago, Leonard realized all of a sudden. Two whole years. He hadn't done very much in those two years, except for become really good at tai chi. Is that what Connie would have wanted? Well, yes and no, Leonard admitted. She would be proud of his tai chi accomplishments, that was for sure. Surely she'd expect more, though. She wasn't much for moping or brooding. Oh, for heaven's sake, Leonard, she would exasperatedly say, stop stewing and go talk to the cashier about the mistake in the billing. There was no self pity in her, even towards the end. Everyone has to go sometime, she said, I just know better than others when my number will be called.
He hadn't even picked up a paintbrush since she died.
Two years was enough moping around, he decided. In a fit of inspiration, he leapt into a whirlwind kick and spun around, facing the road once more only to see a wide-eyed girl staring at him. Her friend poked her, saying, "See? I told you old people did tai chi!" Even in her shock, Natalie knew that wasn't polite, and she stammered to the old Asian man that her friend wasn't talking about him, of course not! He wasn't old! But Natalie could plainly see the wrinkles and the grey hair. Leonard bent down to the girls' eye level. Tai chi had kept his knees in shape, at least.
"In China, we say that age means wisdom," he said kindly. "It's not a bad thing to be old." Natalie found this hard to believe — if anyone mentioned that Ed seemed to be "getting on in years," they would soon be sorry. But maybe it was different in China.
Leonard, meanwhile, was struck by this young girl. She was so pretty. Her friend was too, but in a different way, with thick black hair and dark eyes. But this girl? Connie had shown Leonard a picture of herself as a young girl once, taken long before Leonard had even come to this country. They had the same bright blue eyes and curly blonde hair, the same freckled nose. "Do you want me to show you more tai chi?" he asked, impulsively. What made him think these girls were interested? They should probably be getting to school anyway. But the blonde girl's face lit up, and she nodded eagerly. Leonard stood back and restarted his routine. He pushed mountains and dodged rivers. He ended triumphantly, with a wild horse spreading its mane in freedom. The girls clapped, their jubilation abruptly interrupted by the loud, harsh screams of a man's voice. "Natalie! Get your ass over here before I have to come get you!" Leonard asked her, "Are you Natalie?"
"Yes," she replied shyly. "What's your name?"
The old man hesitated, then answered. "Yong-Jie Zheng."