By Pamela J. Wolfson
The traffic swirls. Mini-vans swerve past pedicabs piled with tires and flayed ducks. Women pedal rickshaws crammed with rice sacks. Workers, upright in trim pants and tops, ride bicycles three abreast. A dash, a dance in the circle, a cook clanging knives on the sidewalk’s edge. All pass in the persistent Nanjing heat.
The American couple, lulled by steady motion, holds their Chinese daughter’s hand. Step, wait; step, wait. Their guide, in a pink blouse and shiny capris, struts ahead of her trio. She speaks English and Mandarin, even Japanese. She has known these neighborhood roads since birth. Always, she is attentive to the American man, to the one who will tip her. How many extra yuan can she get?
An old woman is caught in the traffic circle. She presses her hands into her back, puts her brow to the sun. Her pants are sewn to mid-calf. Her shirt is the color of parched earth. This wiry woman drops her bag of pumpkins to rub her cramped thigh. She wants to lie in the street.
The man hauling tires takes his turn too fast. The slight woman falls. The daughter clamps her mother’s hand. Pumpkins break into a runny pulp. A truck tire dangles above the old woman’s head as her weather-beaten face darkens. No one knows her name. The cook lifts her to a chair and tips water into her mouth. She takes a sip. The wait for a policeman, for death itself, will not be long.
Dark hair angles into the guide’s chin, “Fainting from the sun. Don’t worry. Follow me.”
She leads her charges through an alley, avoiding the steps where mothers feed their plump baby boys. Red banners line their doorways for good luck.
The family sits at an open window. Fat dumplings, with leek and potato, tofu and spinach, fill their mouths. The girl learns to push pan-fried mounds into her porcelain spoon. Monks chant in the smoky Buddhist temple. A courier cycles by. In one hand, he holds a huge green lotus leaf above his head. The husband admires such simple ingenuity. If only the dying woman had such shade.
The guide’s eyes trace the adopted daughter’s face. They share a “look,” broad cheeks and strong white teeth. The girl’s hair is silky, her braces shiny. Leaving as a baby, she has returned to visit her homeland.
“Please, the check,” the mother asks. The guide understands that the man will pay and smiles at him with cautious gratitude. Standing, the guide tucks the short handles of her pocketbook beneath her arm. The girl presses her tiny purse into her ribs. The guide’s skin prickles. Traveling at ten, this little one will know so much more of the world than she.