Tonight, as I was going into my little Chinese food restaurant in a corner of a dingy shopping center, I saw him. He was an old silver-haired man who had parked next to me. He was getting out of his car with great difficulty. His wife had already left the car and was walking around near the door of the restaurant. He is slow, I thought, because he is disabled. I glanced back at him. He had paused in his difficult exit to watch me enter the restaurant. I thought how pretty he is. Then I forgot about him.
I took my plate to the white rice cooker and filled it. Then I dumped the Colonel Joe’s chicken on top and took my seat. The people there know me. They already had my ice water on the little table by the arch that opens into the private dining room. I noticed that the man who rocks back and forth while he eats was already eating. I checked my watch. He’s on time, I thought. He will remain there going through his usual ritual of eating until nine o’clock sharp.
When I looked up from my plate a few minutes later, there stood the old man from the car steadying himself on his cane and the back of the empty chair opposite me. He was smiling in the most benign and gentle way. He didn’t introduce himself. He began talking as if we had known each other for a lifetime. As if we had paused in our dinner conversation only moments before. He directed my attention to a sculptured mural hanging on the wall behind me.
I was there. Standing there in that exact spot in 2004, he said as he smiled and leaned forward so that I could hear. You mean The Great Wall of China, I said. Yes, he said, and told me the name of the place. He had gone there with a group. He greets the owner of the restaurant in Chinese when he comes in to eat, he says.
His eyes are bright and interested. He tells me he is hosting a dinner for twelve members of his church group. I know he is there early with his pretty wife to see to the arrangements. While he talks, she busies herself with the buffet and the details of the dinner. He glances at her and tells me that he has buried two wives. His marriage to his first wife lasted until her death twenty-seven years later. He does not chronicle the other two.
He grew up in Denmark and never set foot out of the country until he was thirty years old. He speaks Danish, his native language, as well as English and German. He made what I know was a teasing little joke in German. I told him I was in Germany once. He said, as if it were indisputable, “Your husband was a soldier”. I didn’t bother to confirm since the matter seemed to be settled already. This man came to the United States where he entered and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He showed his hand with the UP ring on his finger.
“How many languages do you speak?” He grinned. He’s teasing me. His eyes twinkle with boyish mischief. He speaks four languages, he says. One is Esparanto. The international language, he tells me as he points to the pin on his shirt collar. The pin identifies him as an Esparanto speaker. He never makes a mistake in English, he says. I believe him. He also has no discernible accent at all. Later, I discover that he teaches Esparanto. American schools are no good. They don’t teach anything, he says, and I agree knowing that I am an obvious specimen of that phenomenon. I tell him lamely that I graduated from college with a degree in English literature. I hear myself saying it almost apologetically. And I smile. He is a funny man. He has a kindly sense of humor, I think to myself.
He notices that I have served my plate and tells me that I should eat since my food is getting cold. I assure him that food does not feed the soul. He smiles and makes his way into the dining room to sit at the head of the table. I finished eating and left. When I drove into my garage, I knew that I was going back. I was not about to allow this beautiful man to disappear. I had just met a wonderful human being. I ran into the house and grabbed my camera. On my way back to the restaurant, I hoped that the guests were not seated already. At any rate, I resolved to interrupt their dinner if I had to. I was determined to find out this man’s name and to take his picture. I have walked away from too many fine people, I thought.
Mr. Jahger directed the portrait session. I wanted to photograph him at the table. Take a couple of shots as unobtrusively as possible and excuse myself. He would have none of that. He would be photographed at the archway. Was I from The Victoria Advocate? His wife, Dorothy, wanted to know. No, I am a blogger. I write a little blog on the Internet. She would fetch a business card for me. Mr. Jaehger explained that his name could not be accurately represented by English characters. The “a” and the “e” are connected, like a little squiggle, in Danish. He spells his name “Jahger” in English. He lives on a street across from Our Lady of Victory. I know precisely the street. Frans Jahger teaches Esperanto in his home. On his business card, there is a notation, printed in a neat hand: “Call when in”.
We exchanged pleasantries and I excused myself promising to send a link to my little blog. I will do that. I know that I will not forget Mr. Jahger. I am happy that I ate dinner at the China Inn tonight. I discovered that there are still Frans Jahgers in the world. And that is good.