When I walked in last night, I noticed it right away.
Melissa wasn't in her booth. She was always there, at the corner booth
, back along the wall, near the restroom and the floor length Chinese calendar
. As long as I can remember, whenever I stopped into Chinese Dragon
for take out, she was there. But not last night.
I don't know much about her, and she has never said a word to me. The only reason I know her name is because one day, I heard one of the busboys yell it out when her order of egg drop soup was ready. Melissa was a small girl, older than she looked I suppose, because she looked twelve, and it wasn't possible a twelve year old could spend all of her time alone, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. She has short brown/blond hair-streaked with white. She dressed in Army fatigues mostly, although once, at Halloween, she was all in white-an angel, halo included.
Melissa never acknowledged my presence and refused both eye contact and conversation. When the staff at the place called up her order she came and got it. No words. I never heard her say anything to other customers, so I don't even know what her voice sounds like. Sometimes, watching her over the edges of a paperback, I heard what sounded like humming, but I couldn't make out any words.
She was in her own little world; her own orbit. She never had a book or a paper with her and I never saw her with headphones on her ears. Did she have sufficient internal music? Who knew?
Many times she would sit holding a stick of incense in her hand, watching it burn and letting the swirls of smoke drift around her table. An odd smile on her face, as if this was a birthday candle and she was contemplating her wish. Other times she would spin a bottle of Soy sauce on her table and giggle when it stopped and pointed at her. Perhaps this was Spin the bottle, solitaire style. Maybe not.
Last night, I asked the counterperson, an older guy, with gray hair and quick fingers, where she was and he gave me a blank look. I asked again-
"Where's the girl, you know, Melissa?"
motioning to the back with one thumb.
His face twisted into a frown and he pointed to the edge of the counter window, as if the answer was there, then turned his back and stomped back into the kitchen, yelling my order in Mandarin to the young cook in the back. The kid who was smoking cigarettes while he fried up rice. That's when I saw it- the postcard. It was thumb tacked to the edge of the counter-right next to the plastic panda bears and little flamingos. I pulled it off to get a closer look.
It was from the University Hospital in East Lansing- a generic hospital gift shop card with a picture of the hospital grounds on a perfect, sunny day. On the back side was the name and address of the restaurant and below, eight handwritten words, and a single letter:
Be back soon. Save me some Jasmine incense.