Tea With the Black Dragon

By: Roberta A. Macavoy

The cut glass doors to the dining room stood open. An August evening light, admitted through the tall leaded windows beyond, filtered into the hallway where she stood. The angles in the glass doors cut the light sharply. The crystal chandeliers, too, sparkled painfully sharp and exact this evening. Tiny pendants emitted a spectrum of color. They would provide her no soft visions of snow tonight.

She sought around the room, among the glistening white circles of linen, looking for a man alone. There were few of those; the Crystal Room was not a place where one ate alone.

Yet he did. Mr. Long lived at the James Herald Hotel and took his meals in the dining room. Both these things were very strange. Martha could bring to mind places in San Francisco where she would rather eat—Henry

Africa, where the window was gilt with the motto Vive la mort, vive la guerre, vive la legion etrangere, and young men, brittle and elegant, stood warily around the door, or the fast-food stall in Japantown, where the cookies were pressed in the shape of a fish. And Martha had only arrived in the city yesterday. Eating in the Crystal Room's icy splendor every evening didn't say much for Mr. Long. Where was he, anyway? Had she been stood up twice in one day?

As she passed between the glass doors, a dark shape welled out of the shadows. “Ah!” she began, but it was not Mayland Long, but the Maitre d'. “I'm just looking for someone,” she explained, as the man bowed stiffly from the waist, like a bird. She restrained an impulse to return the bow.

“Mrs. Macnamara?” he addressed her. “Please come with me.”

She followed, her eyebrows drawn down and together. Martha Macnamara did not like being known to people whom she did not know. It made her feel unpleasantly like a child. She contemplated asking the Maitre d' his name, but if she did that she was certain he would give her his first name alone, and she would then have to insist he call her Martha. And she did not really want to be called Martha by this man, who would then continue to call all other customers by their surnames. She remained silent.

Mayland Long sat at a table beneath a window full of sky. It was a very good table, and its desirability impressed upon Martha that Mr. Long was a wealthy man.

He rose from his seat as he saw her approach, and he too bowed to her. Mrs. Macnamara lost all restraint. Placing her palms together she bowed in turn. The Maitre d' held her chair.

She greeted him with a smile. “Wonderful weather, today,” she began. “Clear and crisp.”

Affably, he nodded. “Of course. The rainy season hasn't started yet.”

“Did I scandalize the poor man with my gassho?” she asked, as soon as they were alone.

He responded slowly, as though she had broached a subject of some depth. “Scandalize? How can one scandalize a maitre d'hotel? Such a man has seen it all before. And if one did succeed in subjecting him to scandal, I don't believe his face would express his condition. Did you intend to scandalize Jean-Pierre?”

The voice was the same. Her memory had not added quality. “No. But I can take only so much bowing before I bow back. Is he really Jean-Pierre?”

He considered the question. “To the best of my knowledge he is. Jean-Pierre Burrell. Father of five. Canadian by birth. I believe he has managed the floor in the Crystal Room for over ten years.”

Mr. Long leaned back in his chair and regarded his dinner companion. Sunlight fell slanting across his face.

His eyes, she thought. Last night she had seen them as solid black-brown. Chinese eyes. Today they were not opaque. Light entered the iris and was trapped in it, glowing. Almost amber, like the sun through a beer bottle.

And he was letting her see him—hands, face and all. He did not court mystery. Martha was very glad of this; she had no patience with mystery.

“I am very sorry your daughter failed to show,” Mr. Long continued, as he looked in turn at Martha. She was wearing a plain blue dress and her eyes were blue. Sunlight or moonlight, Martha Macnamara's eyes were always blue. “Is this something one can expect, with her?”

A frown imprinted itself on her round, innocent features. “No. Not at all. Liz is very—reliable. Almost too much so. She wants things done right. She keeps all her shoes in the pockets of a big plastic bag hanging in her closet. And she believes in independence for women.”

She stared at the menu with sightless eyes. “That's why we don't get along, I guess.”

Mr. Long smiled slowly. “You don't approve of your daughters views, Mrs. Macnamara? I would have thought a lady of such independent spirit ”

She waved his words aside. “Oh, no. I approve of Liz. I wouldn't dare do otherwise. It's she who disapproves of me.”

His eyebrows drew together. “Then I am at a loss. Please explain.”

She drew a deep breath as her fingers played with her water glass. It was cut crystal, of course.

“Liz disapproved of my cutting off my—my musical career to raise a child.”

Delight etched Mr. Long's lean face. “A child? Do you mean Elizabeth herself?”

“Exactly. She feels she is a sort of involuntary accomplice in my oppression. And, she feels I caved in, when I should have fought.”

“How should you have fought?” He leaned forward, hands wrapped together on the table.

He can't be more than sixty, considered Mrs. Macnamara. Probably younger, though it's so hard to tell with Eurasians. Too young to retire. Too young to live in a hotel and eat in the Crystal Room every night.