Pammy is the first to spot him, the white haired man who’s sitting on a bench, which is obviously placed there by the restaurant “Tofu House” for waiting customers. If New Jersey is a state known for the number of diners, Edison should be a township known for its strip malls since it has so many of them. Pammy always wonders why they are not called plazas. The name strip mall somehow feels like it has something to do with clothes or the lack of it. This particular plaza, as Pammy calls it, is so arranged that a spa, a buffet, a big grocery store, a little bank, a Tofu House, a convenient store at the corner, and a bakery perpendicular to the line up of the stores.
“Look, the white hair is there again. We haven’t seen him since the beginning of the lock down in March, but he reappears.” Pammy says to her husband Pan. They just finish their grocery shopping for the coming week. After putting all the bags away in the trunk of their car, they stroll back to the plaza. It’s their routine to visit the convenient store and then sit down for a cup of hot tea and a piece of Napoleon cake at the bakery. Actually it’s Pan’s routine. Pammy just sit with him to watch him finishing his tea and cake. She wants to save money, but ostensibly she claims that the hot tea is too weak and the cake is not healthy.
“Please stop saying ‘white hair’, will you?” Pan frowns. “If he hears us, it will be rather embarrassing.” “What do I call him then?” Pammy asks. “How about WH?” Pan says.
They walk to the convenient store and stop at the door. To their astonishment the store is empty inside the glass door and a note says it’s closed down.
“I’ve been to this store for ten years. Now it’s gone.” A voice behind them says. They turn around and the white haired man stares at them. He’s about seventy years old, with a full head of white hair, so thick and dense, like a young man’s hair but for the color. Pan once said that the hair could be a wig, but Pammy laughed at his clueless-ness since nobody would go for a white wig.
Pammy feels a little embarrassed at this encounter since when they met before WH tried to speak with them, but Pammy and Pan pretended they didn’t hear him. It’s all because WH was sitting in the Barnes and Noble all day long. Even though there are many Asians in Central Jersey, there are not many senior citizens among them. WH looks rather conspicuous, especially with his white hair which he must have refused to dye. Pan said WH is an embarrassment. Because of him, all Asians lost their collective face. Pammy agrees with him. WH is not buying any books or anything. He really shouldn’t sit there all day long.
“We too come here for ten years.” Pammy says, poking her husband to try to get him to say something, but Pan remains silent. “I got my key chain here. Look, it is Japanese (showing his key chain). They have my favorite room fragrance too.” WH says.
“They didn’t even give any warning. I could have come to buy a whole year’s supply before they close down.” Pammy says.
Another girl comes up and WH repeats what he said before, with a little variation. She’s a beautiful girl with big shining eyes, who can be from either Southeast Asia or South America.
Pan drags Pammy to the bakery. It’s a little crowded, but they are lucky to procure what they come here for and find a seat right by the glass door. However Pan suggests that they sit outside. So they do as he wishes and sit down. It’s a beautiful day with bright sunshine and 60F and a little friendly breeze, strong enough to carry any infectious virus away but not strong enough to cause discomfort.
“I’ve been here for ten years and bought a lot of things from this store.” They hear WH talking to an old woman. One sits and one stands up, the two talk for at least ten minutes.
“Are we going to be like WH when we get old,” Pammy suddenly asks, “wandering around the neighborhood to talk to strangers just so we won’t feel lonely. I bet he also suffers from osteoporosis. Just look at his thin frame and his gesture.”
“We won’t. We will go back, find a quiet place, in Singapore or Hanoi.” Pan says. Pammy gives a little chuckle. Pan is a clever physicist turned financial analyst, but he’s clueless about life and human conditions. Now that Pammy thinks about it, this clueless-ness is probably what attracts her to him in the first place. It’s rather endearing.
Pan went to college in Singapore on a scholarship and worked there afterwards for a few years. He has Singapore citizenship but not paying any taxes there for so many years, he’s not likely to be able to afford to go back to Singapore for retirement. He can go back to Hanoi, but what about the healthcare issues? Also Hanoi is getting so expensive right now and he can’t squeeze himself back to live in their old ancestral house, which are accommodating the families of his two brothers. Pan is just dreaming in his clueless ways. At first Pammy let him dream without saying anything, but it happened that several years ago Pan sent a chunk of money back to Hanoi to buy a family burial plot with his two brothers. Pan is too young to think about death but the cemetery space around Hanoi is shrinking and the price is escalating every year. He has to get in early rather than late, which is what his two brothers said. In Pammy’s opinion, they often treats their big brother like a clinking cash register and this one is their biggest ever successful ploy. That’s such a waste of money that Pammy screamed at him, but to no avail. Pan really dreams of retiring there and being buried there.
“It’s very likely that you are going to die in New Jersey. I can’t carry your dead body back to Hanoi.” Pammy still remembers what she said then. “Chill out. I am not asking you too. Also you may die before me.” Pan said casually. Pammy looked at Pan incredulously that he is more clueless than she expected. “Women live longer, my little dragon.” Pan became impatient. “Look, I am earning good money, which can help us arrange things. OK, don’t worry.” Pan said. “You know you are likely to get sacked as you age. I talked with your colleagues and their wives. This is especially true for Asians. And the prospect of finding similar jobs are almost zero. That’s why we need to save more than other people.” Pammy said. “Can we not talking about this topic? It is so depressing.” Pan said. Pammy thought to herself that Pan is such an irrational creature that she just couldn’t instill any sense into him. He’s an expert in numbers, models, and software, but he has a baby’s ignorance of the human world, and a baby’s impatience too.
Ever since that big quarrel, Pammy has been deliberately educating her husband on things she thinks important, but Pan has somehow sensed her didactic intention and become more dismissive of her words than before, which has propelled Pammy to think different ways to tackle this issue. The white haired man presents such a good opportunity.
“If WH can go back to his hometown, he would have been long gone. He just can’t. He just doesn’t have the money to resettle somewhere else. We probably will be the same.” Pammy says. “You know you worry too much. You know there’s no end to this worry. Why can’t we just be happy today? Why can’t you drink some tea and eat some cakes? I will get you something.” Pan says. “No, I don’t want to eat or drink anything.” Pammy says.
(I am still thinking of an ending right now.)