Chapter One – The Dragon’s Wok
He catches me trying to slip out of the door.
In a game we’ve been playing since his third day home from the hospital, the difference now is he can chase me, albeit with wobbly steps. Like always, he looks up, eyes questioning where and why I’m going. At first, I stopped so he wouldn’t cry, though he had never given me any reason to believe he would. Now, I want to be caught. I want to explain the destination, to promise an early return, to kiss him on his forehead.
We meet halfway in the living room and I scoop him off the carpet.
He leans his padded cheek against my ear as we twirl in front of my mother.
Turning my head, my lips to his ears, I whisper words he has heard many times, a secret I hope he remembers. Before too long, my restless mother asks to hand him over, and I kiss his forehead before holding him out to her arms. I can feel them watching me walk out of the room and the front door.
Each time I walk through the kitchen for plates of food, the thick aroma of hoisin and oyster sauces cling to my clothes and flirt with my nose. I prefer standing in the eating quarters and making sure the customers’ glasses are full. Fridays provide busy nights, and I spend my time running from table to table, while a thirty-minute wait crowds the bar. It’s rare for a Chinese restaurant. They are mainly Caucasians mixed with a few African Americans and Mexicans. I like it busy. Tips are better, time passes faster, and there’s a better chance of running into old friends. They still get a kick out of me working at my Uncle Saan’s Chinese restaurant and don’t mind the extra entrée or two I give them. It’s just work to me.
My college advisor’s suggestion is for me to get a summer internship to pad my resume, but anyone seeing me with my baby son Cheng understands my decision to set things aside. First and foremost, I want to be around during his early years. During the past school year, I flew back as often as I could. Few of my friends saw me during those visits, but I didn’t come back for them. When the weather permitted, I walked with him in the park, carrying him against my chest or pushing him in his stroller. Sometimes, I’d set a blanket and we’d eat. He ate jarred baby food and drank his formula until my mother showed me how she fed me as a baby, and that was when I began chewing soft foods and feeding the mush to him along with my germs. At first, I was afraid he would get sick or reject my gesture, as he had done to my mother, but he accepted my offerings without resistance. During his first winter, we spent most of our time at home and avoided crowded public places. Luckily, the cold months didn’t last long in the San Joaquin Valley.
Before I knew it, my junior year ended and I was back home.
Standing against the wall, I watch the hostess seat an old white couple in my section. They’re in their golden years and have lively eyes. I imagine them watching infomercials at home, sitting on a soft couch, laughing about the products, laughing at times past. With hushed tones, they discuss the menu, pointing at the names and descriptions of dishes written in Mandarin and English. The husband mouths the exotic names, saying the words slowly like he’s matching it with sounds from his memory. The wife smiles at him and sips her water.
When their menus close, I walk over, smile and introduce myself. The husband greets me in my native Mien, but then asks, “Chǎo fàn shì hǎo?”
“The fried rice? Yes. Everything is good here,” I say with a smile.
Smiling, he says he knows it is and that I look very familiar, but doesn’t remember from where. When I ask how he knows my ethnicity, he tells me he knows the owner is Mien. Eventually, I take his order and walk toward the kitchen.
“Hey,” a voice greets from the front of the restaurant.
My heart sinks and breathing halts until I calm myself.
Susie Dickinson looks the same as the last time I ran into her at a grocery store. Her eyes and hair still brighten the room, and the customers stare as she pays for her take-out. I remember her usual order: wonton soup, chicken with mixed vegetables, and chicken fried rice. She always asks for and receives an extra fortune cookie. “Just in case the first fortune isn’t so good.”
Susie’s an ex-girlfriend. Okay, she’s Cheng’s mother, and I hated her for a while until time made me indifferent.
“How are you?” I finally ask.
“I’m doing well. You?”
“I’m good. Are you in town for long?”
“No, I’m actually leaving after I go home and eat. I’ve been here a couple of days. I wanted to call, but my mother had me running errands the whole time. She wants to redecorate the house by herself. Again.”
“Again? That sounds like your mother. Say ‘hi’ for me.”
A car honks in the parking lot.
“I have to run. Hey, how’s Cheng?” Susie takes the large paper bag off the counter. It’s an order for at least two people.
“He’s getting big, been walking for about nine weeks, but he still staggers a bit.”
“That’s what I heard. My mother called me about it some time ago.” She glances at the bar. “Hey, next time I’m down, can I come see him?”
The question baffles me for a moment.
“Sure. When do you think you’ll be down?”
“Could be next week, could be next month. I’ll give you a call.” She looks over her shoulder at the parking lot. “I really have to run. You take care of yourself, okay?”
“Have a safe trip.”
I wait for her to turn so I can maybe see the small of her back, the sexiest part of her body, but Susie back peddles out the door and all I get is an obligatory smile.
I drift toward the exit and stand motionless at the glass door while watching her long figure bend at the knees, waist and neck as she gets into the passenger side of a car. Her shirt’s too long and the sliver of skin I remember stays hidden. The setting sun’s glare off the windshield makes it hard for me to see the driver.
Another waiter taps my shoulder and says Uncle Saan wants to talk to me. My nerves take another second to calm.
Uncle Saan owns four restaurants and three bars, each of them profitable. Although the only restaurant he still manages is The Dragon’s Wok, where I work, he oversees the operations of the others. As a successful businessman, he is endeared in the community. People eat at his restaurants and meet up with him at his bars to share drinks. They admire his story.
When he first came to the country nearly twenty years ago, he was in his late teens but was lucky. In the old country, being the oldest son—he was the first one to survive infancy—was reason enough to have a lot thrown onto his shoulders, but also reason enough to be sent away to school. For his younger brothers, he was an example and a teacher. He spent most of his years away from home but returned during his breaks to impress the villagers with his stories and newfound knowledge. He became a traveling showcase.
Uncle Saan learned to read and write in English and French, but had no one to speak to back in the village. In the United States of America, he entered high school as a junior and impressed his teachers with his math skills, upsetting his peers. But their redemption was that he nearly failed his English classes. Uncle Saan found the spoken language to be too fast inAmerica, and the unorthodox slang and connotations were even stranger to his foreign ears. And, instead of asking for help when a question or sentence baffled him, he spent hours trying to figure out the words and sounds imbedded in his head. It wasn’t efficient, but it worked.
After high school, he attended the local junior college to study economics and politics before continuing his studies at Berkeley. Upon graduation, he took a job with an investment banking firm inSan Franciscoand was quickly promoted to middle-management, because he was a “damn good worker and loyal, too.” He saved his money and returned home to his family after some years to open his first restaurant, and according to him, “Like Americans say, ‘The rest is history.’”
Uncle Saan gave me a job as a favor to my mother. It’s hard to find work in our town, and he likes keeping business in the family. Everyone thinks that I make huge tips, especially from old white ladies because I am a “chivalrous gentleman” that reminds them “of an earlier time.” It’s just a job, keeping my parents happy and off my back; they worry too much about me getting in trouble with the law or getting hurt.
Working for my uncle isn’t bad; I pick my own hours. I can show up at any of his restaurants or bars and just fill out a time card, but I stick with The Dragon’s Wok. Its atmosphere comforts me. Most of the decorations deal with our religion, but most of his customers have no idea. They like rubbing the bulging belly of the bronze Buddha greeting diners at the door. Besides that, Uncle Saan makes sure not to go overboard in making it an Asian restaurant. He appreciates anyone that speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, but all the waiters and waitresses are required to speak fluent Midwestern English to customers. Uncle Saan wants perfect communication with his customers; if they don’t like the food, they can at least complain to someone who understands what is wrong.
All the servers, hosts, cooks, and dishwashers are Asian. The busboys are mainly Mexicans (mostly new arrivals who don’t know much English), with the exception of maybe one white kid at any single time. Things get tricky with the bartenders. There are always four guys and four girls on staff. All the men—three white and one black—are older, at least forty years of age. All the women are sexy and younger, not one of them is past the age of thirty. Two are college students: a young Mexican and Swede. The other two are white, in their late twenties, and just making some cash on the side. All the employees are amiable and have drinks with each other outside of work; my uncle’s notion of family having been instilled in them. He wants everyone to get along and if friction exists, he would send an employee to another of his establishments rather than terminate one or both of them.
Through the small opening of the door to his cramped office, I see my uncle speaking quietly on the phone. I intend to wait for him to finish his conversation, but he makes eye contact and his hand signals for me to enter. His sitting position emphasizes the long length of his torso, which is topped with a slanted head to prop the phone against his ear. Framed pictures and articles hang on the walls in a neat arrangement, a mosaic of his public being. On the wall behind him are photos of dressy businessmen and politicians with their arms wrapped around him.
I try but can’t ignore the urgency in his conversation, because the accent he had shed over the years presents itself lightly. His hands are busy taking notes and sifting through numerous documents.
“You need to see me, right now?……Okay, I’ll be over……Yeah, I’ll see you in a jiffy.” He hangs up the phone.
“You needed to see me, uncle?”
“Yes, I need to ask you a big favor,” he tells me, looking up with eyes that had aged faster than the rest of him.
“Sure, anything you want.”
“I don’t have my car, and I need a ride to meet a friend of mine. You think you can give me a lift?”
“Yeah, sure. When do you want to go?”
“A-S-A-P. I’ll put someone else on your tables… And go change out of your clothes. I might need you to wait for me.”
Usually, I play music in my car, but with my uncle present, the engine’s healthy hum provides the only noise. The tree-lined streets move fast behind us, the roads still empty at this time of night. Families are still having dinner and the night-life—if there is one—has yet to start. Every now and then, I steal a glance at him. Although he sits calmly, his eyes move from the ceiling to the floor repeatedly. He faces forward and gives directions when appropriate.
He has new wrinkles around his eyes that can only be seen from certain angles. The change is more apparent since I only see him from time to time. Sometimes, he still possesses the complexion of a teenage cover girl, but other times, he resembles an aging star caught without makeup.
Finally, we reach the destination: a large white house barricaded by tall pine trees and a high stone fence. My uncle instructs me to drive to the metal gates that open as we approach. Once inside, I park in front of the double-door, where a Hispanic man stands with a stern disposition.
“John, this is my nephew, Kao,” my uncle introduces.
“John Sanchez.” He nods and smiles before reverting to the serious face. “Nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” I respond before shaking his hand.
“Well, let’s get down to business,” my uncle suggests.
“Is he going to sit in?” John asks, nodding at me.
“I can leave and come back for you when you’re done,” I offer. “I need to run some errands, anyway.”
“No, stick around,” my uncle persists. “You might learn something. You’re a business major, right? Maybe you can help us out a bit.”
John grins. “I hope you have a good understanding about the supply and demand of cheap labor.”
I follow them into a brightly lit home office. The centerpiece of the furnishings is a large mahogany desk with a leather seat. Full bookshelves line the walls and an exquisite painting of a plump Virgin Mary hovers behind the desk. John says it resembles his mother. On one side of the room sits a big-screen television opposite a leather sofa and wooden coffee table. They take their seats on the sofa after telling me to pull up a chair.
Their conversation revolves around unfair wages and a possible strike of migrant workers who provide labor for the area’s agricultural economy. They talk of strategy and how to respond to the farmers. I try not to doze off when it reminds me of my history and economics classes. Instead, I focus on the Virgin Mary that seems to be a more lively part of the room than the tangible furnishings.
My uncle outlines possible allies and enemies. John points to documents showing workers who provide transportation, ones with large families, and illegals; the non-existing workers most often forgotten during negotiations. On paper, they map and categorize everybody to make a family tree of strangers. Once or twice, they ask if their plan is reasonable and I nod my head.
They finish the meeting and all I want is to be in a bar to have a drink or two before returning home. Uncle Saan still has his energy and wants a cup of coffee, so he can stay up during the night and think about possible solutions.
He remains quiet as we drive to a cheap restaurant with neon blue and orange lights telling the highway traffic it is open all night. Once inside, he politely asks the young waitress to seat us in a corner, where we sit with our backs against adjacent walls. It is a habit I picked up in middle school after reading a biography about gunslinger and lawman “Wild Bill” William Butler Hickok. I wonder about my uncle’s reason.
‘You know to keep it a secret, right?’ Uncle Saan says in our language, while looking in my eyes to make sure I answer him and not the question.
‘I know,’ I respond. Then we divert our eyes from each other. I wait for him to continue instead of expecting the oncoming barrage of questions I often hear from men of his age.
The conversation follows a question-and-answer format with little room for discussion. Commentary and depth are rights reserved for my uncle as we move from topic to topic, scratching the skin of each subject without leaving a wound. In succession, Uncle Saan asks about my father, older brother, myself and younger brother. All I can do is provide generic responses about the well-being of each: my father’s health, older brother’s promotion and kids, and younger brother’s basketball prowess and college plans. Negativity is ignored. When he asks about why I stopped playing basketball, I tell him I’m too busy, even though I play five or six hours a day.
We stop talking when the waitress brings our coffee and cream. Uncle Saan takes a large drink before scooping in a teaspoon of sugar and stirring quietly. I can’t stand the silence, listening to the spoon tinkle against the cup. It rattles my teeth. The coffee swirls dissolving the sugar.
He takes a sip before continuing, ‘Did you hear that I sent John to boarding school?’
‘No, I remember he was a smart kid.’
‘He started skipping school with his friends. You should talk to him when he comes back. I bet you can talk some sense into that boy. He looks up to you.’
While he talks calmly, Uncle Saan’s eyes dart from one object to another.
When silence breaks the conversation, I ask how long he has known John Sanchez.
‘We lived in the same dorm in college and became good friends. When he started working with the field workers, he called me to help with the Asian labor.’
The waitress knows how fast we’re drinking our coffee and returns to our table every few minutes. We thank her each time and she responds with a smile and, “You’re welcome.” Normally, I wouldn’t think much of it, but she says it with careful eye contact. She has her thick brown hair cut short and gelled. It reminds me of girls who grow up inNew York,Los AngelesorChicago. Some place urban and hard. When she walks away, I watch her loose black pants crease below her butt with each step.
My uncle surprises me when he switches to English and says, “She likes you.”
“Nah,” I refute. “Maybe as a friend.”
“Look at her,” he directs. “She’s beautiful. Strong. Working the graveyard shift. I wonder how many men will jeer at her before the sun comes up this morning.”
“If I was your age and single… But I’m not. Do you think she goes home to someone?” He pauses before answering his own question. “No, she sleeps alone, but she’s not lonely. You can see it in her walk.”
We chat a bit longer, and when we leave, he picks up the tab: two coffees with many small refills and too many creams and sugars to hide the bitterness. I already feel the caffeine and sugar invade the blood flowing to my brain. He tips the young waitress more than the actual bill, and she rushes after us with the change, but he turns her back with a wave, telling her to keep it. She mouths her thanks to Uncle Saan and takes a glance at me before turning on her heels and going back into the restaurant.
When I drop my uncle off in his driveway, his drops his shoulders and saunters to the front door, where the porch light shines. Arms crossed, his dark blue suit moves motionless in the darkness without reflecting the street lamps. When I pull out into the street, he enters the front door. Seeing my eyes on him, he waves before closing the door.
It is early in the night. Cars with young drivers search for the Friday night parties. Some of them honk, but I don’t respond. I spot a familiar group of cars in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, and the people wave and shout. I raise my hand and continue through the intersection, beating the red light. I haven’t talked to anyone since I flew in two nights before.
Parked in front of a downtown bar are two cars that belong to friends of mine, and I pull to the curb behind one of the automobiles and turn to see the wide-shouldered bouncer, a football player I knew in high school but hadn’t seen in almost two years. He looks at me through a crowd of smokers and nods his head. With a turn of the key, the engine dies. The clock on the dashboard says it’s just past midnight, but I turn the key again and reluctantly shift into first gear and pull out into the street to drive home.
I walk slowly under the yellow light of the hallway to my bedroom. My legs are worn after the day’s exercise. After toeing my way through the room’s darkness to flip on the dim desk lamp, I turn to see Cheng’s crib empty. My heart pounds. Sometimes, my parents take him to bed with them.
After hearing a tired response to my light knock, I slowly open my parents’ door and walked to my mother’s side of the bed. Cheng sleeps between the two of them. It comforts them more than it does him. From experience, I find that he can fall asleep anywhere. Parks, crowded restaurants, grocery stores. It doesn’t matter. For a while, I thought something was wrong and took him to a pediatrician, who assured me he was a healthy baby. “All vital signs are better than good.”
I take him back to his crib and tuck him under a dark blue blanket that has been deteriorating ever since I can remember. Cheng rubs his chin on the soft blanket and takes a deep breath.
Pulling over my desk chair, I sit and watch him sleep as I silently remove my white shirt and shoes. A train’s warning sounds from a track fifteen blocks north of our apartment remind me of the deadness of the streets, then comes the approaching sirens of a police car until it changes direction and dies out. They are the same sounds I heard as a child when I stayed up late or couldn’t sleep. Each time I call home and ask, my parents tell me Cheng doesn’t have that problem. I haven’t seen it, and my parents tell me it’s the same story when I’m gone. It is even rare for him to cry in the middle of the night. The first time his screams woke me, I was relieved, but Cheng silenced himself as quickly as I jumped out of bed.
Just as I notice how peacefully he sleeps, Cheng’s eyes open and he stares up at me accusingly. When I apologize for not getting home sooner, he smiles like he has caught me with a joke. He’s still too young for me to imagine what he’ll look like at my age. Though his hair is black like mine, his facial features remain undefined. His eyes have changed colors many times until it finally settled on his mother’s blue, speckled with my dark brown. The unpredictability provides nice surprises, but when people see Cheng, I want them to say he is undeniably mine.
Before I can hold out my arms, Cheng closes his eyes and is asleep, again.
The creak from the front door tells me Sin is home. The refrigerator opens, a hand rattles the ice tray, carbonation whizzes out of a soda can, and the refrigerator closes. A light switch flips, feet plod into the living room, and Sin plops onto the sofa before turning on the television. He searches the stations before turning up the volume slightly when he finds a sports channel playing highlights from the day’s games. I hear the excitement in the anchors’ voices.
Sin’s sweet cologne still hangs lightly in the air when I turn the hallway corner and startle him.
“I thought you were sleeping,” Sin says, looking at me from the couch that can’t contain his long limbs. He has grown taller than me in the last few years. “You want me to turn down the TV?”
“Nah, Cheng’s already sleeping. How was your night?” I walk across the room and sniff the air for the scent of cigarettes, but only a hint of liquor exists. It smells strong but clean. I’m guessing brandy.
“Went to a party. Hey, there’s a message for you on the answering machine.”
“Who’s it from?”
“I don’t know,” he answers half-snapping. “It was for you. I didn’t listen to it.”
I go to the phone and play the message. “Hello, this is a message for Kao,” a female voice greets. “I guess you’re not home right now. This is Shelly Davis from-”
I delete the message and look at Sin, whose attention remains on the television. The muscles on his face are tense; his teeth clench together underneath his lips.
“Why didn’t she call on the public line?” I ask.
“Hell if I know,” he responds, still not looking at me. “I’m not your secretary.”
“Well, can you—”
“I’ll call the phone company and get a new number on Monday.”
“Thanks. I’m going to bed. Don’t stay up too late.”
In my room, I change into a pair of shorts and gently pick Cheng up out of his crib. Setting him on the bed next to the wall, I slip between the sheets and pull a blanket over us. After whispering into his tiny ears and closing my eyes to the shadows of the room, I slowly match his quiet breaths and fall asleep.