The nation lies in ruins,
but the mountains and rivers remain. –Tu Fu
New York City, June 4, 2001
Ming Chen, devout believer in very little, had gone to church every June fourth for the last seven years. At first Allison went with him, in fact the whole thing had been her idea. But for the past few years, Ming Chen had come to keep his vigil alone.
He stood with his back to the carved wood doors of the church, the late afternoon haze in his eyes and the strong sour breath of the city in his nostrils. The sky had the look of old celluloid, scratchy and gritty like the 1940s Chinese movies he sometimes showed in class. To his right, only trees and street lights rose above apartment blocks. The occasional pitched-roofed, white–sided single-family place sat sturdily on a corner, broad porch with the slightest sag between sturdy pillars like the aprons of his elderly neighbors when they sat on the front stoop on sunny afternoons, age-thickened legs firmly planted before them. Trees lined the tidy street and there was no hint as he looked right beyond the adjoining school of the scuffed and worn places in Queens where garbage collected and cars went to die. Then the W train shuddered along the elevated track just half a block to his left, Manhattan bound, the miasma of oil and metal it threw off scraping the back of his throat. As the train passed the Taiwan Union Christian Church on the other side of 31st Street, the smaller church huddled on its flank, almost dwarfed by its big sign in Korean, came back into view. No one glanced at the inoffensive-looking middle-aged Chinese man on the steps of a Greek Orthodox church as if he shouldn’t be there, as if he should be across the street. No one noticed him at all. He turned and pulled on the handle beside the carved wing of Saint Michael the archangel and the heavy oak door swung open.
He didn’t remember exactly when Allison had stopped coming with him. Maybe after her trip to Beijing. He didn’t really mind coming alone, but after all, he’d started coming because of her. In some obscure way he thought she really ought to be there, if only because of that. He sat in the last pew, settled himself against the wooden back. No glimpse of the red brick houses outside or the school next door was available through the windows, only the late afternoon light set aglow by its passage through the stained glass to fire the gold leaf in the iconographic paintings on the walls. Sound was muted by the weight and density of the building’s massive brick and pierced stone construction. Inside it seemed almost crowded, every wall and the ceiling above decorated with icons, men and women with glowing gilt halos and solemn eyes, large and dark, eyes that held him, eyes that looked left and right and straight through you all at once.
Twelve years. Had it been that long? Was that a long time? Sometimes it seemed to him as real and as present as his commute to the university. Sometimes it was simply a sudden dread that wound its way up his spine and demanded entry to his thoughts. Those twelve years could contract and expand without reference to his conscious efforts. Latent or present, the events shaped his life, sullied lives he touched twelve years later. More and more, the thinking seemed to be that the number of deaths at the square had not been large, that most victims had died in the streets around it and that they had not been students, but ordinary people: workers, teachers, clerks, doctors. It made sense to him. His wife of three years at the time was a doctor. His oldest friend Gu taught at Beijing University. They both died there. Ming had been there, too, running through the darkness and terror, trying to find them, save them. He was alive. His memories of those hours, of the days that followed, were confused and disjointed, reeling through his brain with the relentless jerky progress of a handheld camera: a face here, piles of garbage there. He had seen the dead, so many dead. Were they teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, students? Did it matter? In death they were very much alike. The flashes of tracer bullets slicing arcs through the lightless night sky gave an added horror to the scene as he stumbled on through the panicked crowd. He had heard the tanks approaching, the gunfire. He hadn’t believed it was happening until then.
One thing his father and grandfather had always claimed as solid ground—even in the darkest times they’d known till then, in spite of the political movements that built stealthily through the streets like gathering floodwaters and broke over those who had dared to think things were going to be different this time, swamping them and their dreams—the one thing they were sure of, was that the People’s Liberation Army would never fire on its own people.
Even Gu, schooled in the uncertainty of life and the absurd workings of power by his days as a Red Guard, Gu, who had become the most skeptical and acerbic of social critics, even he had not expected that.
He looked up at the expanse of wall just under the ceiling to his left. The choir loft ended here, opening up a space the iconographer had filled with larger subjects. Every year he looked for the same one. A jagged-topped mountain with three men tumbling down its long surprisingly smooth sides. One went head first as if he had dived straight down from the top. The first time he saw it, he’d asked Allison who they were, why they were falling. She glanced up at it, frowned.
“Well…must be sinners,” she said. She sat for a while, looking hard at the icons. “I don’t know much about the Greek Orthodox,” she finally said, “but I think I might be wrong. I think they’re actually falling down because Jesus has appeared to them and it’s too much for them. They’re not worthy.”
That didn’t make a lot of sense to him, except for the unworthiness.
He continued to think of them as sinners, because as sinners they were comrades. It was good to see they were still there.
The church was quiet, nearly empty. He settled into an almost peaceful reverie. Those sinners sliding and falling down the spiny folds of a mountain the color of milky tea, were fully clothed in long ancient robes, blue, pink, lavender. He’d always found it strange that there was no evidence of blood and gore, no nasty blue or red devils with dripping fangs and white eyes. Their bodies were intact, too, a strong contrast to the tortures and dismemberings hapless sinners suffered in the many levels of popular Buddhist hells like the ones he’d seen depicted in Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. These sinners suffered no obvious punishment other than their lack of traction. The magnificent, halo-lit Jesus stood on the pinnacle of the mountain. True, it was not a large mountain, proportioned as it was to fit between the arched window below and the curved ceiling above. That wasn’t the point. The point was they would never make it. There was no solid ground on which to plant their feet, no help along the way. He knew them well, these sinners. It wasn’t what they had done, but what they hadn’t that condemned them.
Allison wasn’t much of a churchgoer, though they’d been married in one. Allison, raised Episcopalian—like a Catholic without the pope, she’d joke—suggested he light candles for Liang and Gu in church, a kind of ritual of remembrance. It didn’t matter if he was a Christian or not, no one would ask, it was a way to ease the pain. This one was closest to their apartment in Astoria. It was Greek Orthodox, but Allison said it would do. On the way in, she dipped her fingers in a birdbath thing and crossed herself, then slipped her wet fingers into her pocket and glanced over at him, embarrassed.
The church, when they entered it, seemed smaller than it looked from outside. But all around the walls above his head were the icons, faces of saints with golden haloes, their colors seeming to glow with a dark light, their gilded edges blinking in the dimness, the sorrowful mute steadiness of the dark eyes as he approached. That gaze, collective and unmoving, seemed to hold the universe and everything in it, all the contradictions came together in its depths. There was a hush and dark that sent little shocks up and down his spine. He shivered and Allison slipped her hand through his arm, squeezed it gently. The ranks of wooden pews were punctuated with old women in black, swathed in headscarves.
Allison’s hand tightened on his arm, but just as she whispered, “Watch out for the kneeler,” he stumbled into it, nearly falling headfirst into the tiers of squat white candles set in little glasses. The frame that held them was draped in spilled wax, knobs and whorls of it, running down in attenuated swags, smooth and slippery as he put a hand to it, steadying himself. A chunk broke off beneath his hand, leaving a bare space like bone where the flesh had fallen away. Allison began to replace the candles that had burned down to the small metal disk at their base from a box wedged between the bottom tier and the side of the frame. When she was done she handed him a match from another box and began to feed coins into a small metal box with a slot in the top.
“Donation,” she said. The coins clinked softly as they fell.
Something brushed his arm and he looked down, startled to see the top of a black-scarved head. An old woman had come to kneel beside him, her hands, old woman’s hands, twisted with work and age, spotted, crinkled skin pulled taut where the fingers crossed. Her shoulders shook slightly with the effort of rasping out her prayers. He couldn’t tell if she whispered in English or Greek. The smell of her old woman’s body, like the inside of the suitcases his mother kept winter clothes in, mingled with the scent of burning wax.
He took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the candles, took his match and touched it to one that was already lit. Then he didn’t know what to do. He and Allison had been married in a church to please her mother. That had been his only previous visit to one. He stood there, staring, the match suddenly licked his fingers and he dropped it into the ranks of candles in front of him. Allison handed him another one.
He looked at her. “What do I do? Am I supposed to pray or something?”
She made a face at him. “Just remember them. Remember…Liang and… Gu. All the others. You don’t have to do anything else. Just remember. People should be remembered.”
He nodded, turned back to the candles and began lighting the unlit ones. He began with the top row, and kept going. The old woman pushed herself up from the kneeler. He felt her standing there, felt her eyes on him. He turned to her, maybe he should apologize for being there, getting in her way. But when he looked into her face, reflected candle flames glittered in her eyes, bright against the pale lined skin framed by the black headscarf. He stared, her eyes seemed to widen and the flames leap, and he was suddenly afraid that they would leap free and consume him. He closed his eyes against the fear and when he looked again she was walking away.
Every candle was burning now. He was afraid to look at Allison, her lashes glistening in the candlelight. He stood staring at the sputtering flames until their edges blurred and there was simply a glaze of light before his eyes.
Allison took his hand. Squeezed it.
“Not enough candles,” he whispered, “not nearly enough.”
Since that first time, he’d come every June. Allison began to refer to it as Ming’s personal Day of the Dead. He wondered if anyone at the church recognized him by now. He didn’t know much about churches, but from what he’d seen here he didn’t think there could be many Asians, ever. Today he’d noticed one of the black-gowned priests in the shadows looking on, stroking his long beard. The inevitable old women in black with headscarves were distinguishable from the priest only in their lack of beards. Otherwise they seemed as interchangeable as the pieces on a Go board. They smiled or looked myopically in his direction, but that was all.
After Allison’s visit to Beijing, there was some excuse, something had come up she said, he hadn’t given it much thought at the time. He’d felt a little bereft that first time alone, sitting there in the pew. Then last year Allison had simply said he would probably like some privacy; she knew she would in his place. Yesterday, the eve of the twelfth anniversary, she hadn’t turned from the lettuce she was washing to say that she had a late staff meeting at school and if they were to be on time for dinner with her parents later, he’d better stop at the church without her. It wasn’t as if she’d known the people as he had. She would be thinking of him. He mentioned bringing Katie, she was nine now. Allison did turn round then, a piece of lettuce shedding drops of water down the front of her dress, sparks of alarm lighting her green eyes.
“You can’t just drag her along there without any preparation, Ming. You should have thought of this earlier. All those staring icons, remember how you felt the first time? The whole thing would be too frightening. It’s just…it’s just…maybe next year, okay? Besides,” head down, rubbing at the front of her dress with a dish towel, “she won’t be home from school yet.”
She turned back to the sink without looking at him again. He came alone.
He still wondered at times about Liang’s last moments, and Gu’s. Wondered if they looked into the guns that shot them; hoped they had not. Hoped it was swift and unforeseen; alive one minute, the next…life was something that easily lost. He hated himself for not being able to find them that night, to cradle Liang’s head as she died—even more, for not dying at her side. Wondered, as he so often did, why he should have walked away from that night when so many lives ended, why he should be here twelve years later, safe, with another wife who loved him and a nine-year old daughter so perfect he could hardly believe she was his own flesh and blood.
Ming Chen closed his eyes, pressed the lids together as tightly as he could, shutting out the eyes all around him. After a while the calm knowing acceptance in those eyes became more than he could take.
Martyrs, people called them. Liang, Gu, so many others. He tried to conjure their faces from memory. Gu’s peasant-dark skin, his burning, mocking eyes, unruly hair and big work-hardened hands. And Liang—her face flushed with concentration, checking his grandfather’s pulse. Her face was thin, intense, too narrow for the classic moon shape favored by the old novels. She had no figure either, small breasts and boy hips. Her magnetism was inner, emotions playing over the fine planes of her face, spilling into her glance. Now when he tried to hold the memory of her in his mind her eyes would seem to hold him in that same unwavering gaze of the saints, but as he looked into them, their depths filled with reproach.
They called him a hero, people here, because he’d been there, at the square. They praised his courage. They never questioned his motives. He never knew what to say to them, these well-intentioned people. He could barely look into their eyes, eyes filled with awe and respect, even more unbearable than the knowledge of the icons or Liang’s reproach. They interpreted his uneasiness as humility and admired him all the more.
Over the years he had learned to live with all that had happened or—as Allison believed—got better at burying it. Sometimes it came unbidden, that sense of loss that was a burning in the heart: the turn of a head or a casual gesture, a certain set of shoulders glimpsed in a crowd, and the memories came rushing back. When he forced himself to remember that night, the old sorrows flooded through him, the pain achingly physical. Most of those he remembered seeing were just faces in a crowd. Of course he’d known others who must have been there, but he hadn’t gone there to search for them as he had for his wife and his friend. He had done nothing for them that night. He could at least remember them here. In memory they were just as they had been, never to age. Their youth, their passion, that raw emotion he’d glimpsed from across the room in Gu’s apartment in Beijing the night before he’d left for Hong Kong was what had stayed with him over the years, that and the sheer crushing anguish of the knowledge that what Liang and Gu shared then had not included him.
For him they would never change or age, but Ming felt every passing year, streaks of salt-gray woven through his hair—Allison convinced him not to dye it as he would have in Beijing. She liked it, said it gave him gravitas. He simply felt old, burdened by time and memory. America should be a new start for you: the choral refrain of Allison, her parents, her brother Tom. But China would not let him go.
He opened his eyes, got to his feet and began to walk up the side aisle toward the votive candles. He knew nothing had changed. There were not enough candles, not nearly enough.
He stepped into a quiet apartment, late afternoon sun slanting through the living room and glowing around the kitchen door, a push and swing affair that stayed open only when propped with a kitchen stool. It was a caught-in-amber time of day, the sunlight burnishing the much-rubbed woodwork. Then he listened more intently. Katie should be home, but there was no sound of computer games or of her high giggle-inflected voice chattering to friends on the telephone.
“Allison?” No answer.
“Katie?” There was always that sudden rush of anxiety, those moments before he knew she was there, moments that had the potential to last forever. Katie, just the fact of her existence, filled him with such joy, joy he was sure he had done nothing to deserve. He didn’t want to question it, but there was always that sharp little jab of fear.
“In here.” He let out his breath, headed down the hall.
When he walked into the room Katie was sprawled on the bed on her stomach, a thickish book open in front of her, eyes riveted to the page. The computer screen saver dipped and swirled and changed color for its own amusement. “Katie is a great reader,” his mother-in-law would say brightly, bragging to her friends.
“Katie, can’t you look up when Daddy enters the room?”
“Hi Daddy.” She did not look up.
A few years ago—when she was four or even five—she would have run to greet him: “Baba.” And pull at his pants leg until he scooped her up into his arms. They would go from room to room and, if the weather was good, for a walk around their block and Katie would recite the Tang poems he was teaching her. Four-line rhyming shi, easy for a child. The same ones his grandfather had taught him. The clipped syllables and lilting rhythm of the lines both stirred and soothed him. Sometimes tears would sting his eyes and he would look away, tell her that was enough for now. Then he would ask her about her day and she would chatter in Mandarin. At that age she spoke the language perfectly and willingly. Now she often hung back. “Nobody in Astoria speaks Chinese, Daddy,” she’d say. She knew perfectly well this wasn’t true.
“Isn’t Mommy here?”
“She went to the store for something. Be right back.”
“Is that a book for school?” He asked her now, perching on one end of her bed, where he could see the street outside their square of red brick apartments. Once this had been a predominately Greek area, Allison told him, and there were still plenty of them here, old ladies and men who sat on sunny days in folding chairs on tiny stoops above equally tiny front yards that boasted painted statues of the virgin. But now there were Chinese and Koreans and Hispanics, Pakistanis and Arabs too. From Katie’s bedroom window, he didn’t see anyone who looked particularly Greek.
“No. Well, kinda.”
“What is it?”
Big sigh. “It’s a story. It’s the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This is my third time reading it.” She gave him a fierce look. She knew he was going to ask her if her homework was done. “Everybody’s reading it. We even talk about it in class.”
He repeated the title over to himself. He wasn’t sure about the second part. “Can I see the book for a minute?”
Huge sigh. She handed it over. “Don’t lose my place. Really, Baba, it’s a good book. The teacher likes it. It’s a fairytale, you know? Good and evil. Good wins.”
The Baba was a concession, sweet to his ears. He was afraid of Katie becoming a stranger to him, refusing to speak Chinese, even growing ashamed of her father, someone who didn’t fit in. More than anything he wanted to connect with her, to recapture the unquestioned harmony that used to exist between them, father and daughter. He remembered now that he’d read something about this Harry Potter in the Chinese papers. He flipped through the book.
“A fairytale? Did Baba ever tell you the Chinese fairytales? Did I tell you about Nuwa who fixed the hole in the heavens with magic stones?”
She grinned at him. “We’ve got a video of all that. It’s good.”
“Well, what about the thunder god in Yunnan province? He runs over the mountains and through the valleys on his huge chicken feet.”
“And there’s another wonderful mythical creature—the qilin.” Was there a flicker of interest?
“Qilin? What’s that?”
He cursed himself. He couldn’t remember the English word for it. “It’s a beautiful creature, the most beautiful. It has the body of a small horse and long curving horns, or sometimes only one horn, one long delicate horn.”
“I know what that is. It’s a unicorn. There’s a unicorn in Harry Potter. It’s in lots of the fairytales I’ve read. China probably got it from here!”
He opened his mouth on a quick breath of protest, but she grabbed the book back from him. “Can I read now? It’s just getting to a really good part.”
“You know, I think these books have been translated. You could read it in Chinese.”
“Daddy, I have to read it in English like everyone else. Besides, that would take forever. Can I puhleeze read now?” She softened it with a smile, bent her head to the book and settled herself with a soft sigh.
He was looking back at Katie from the doorway of her room when locks rattled in the living room and the front door opened and closed.
Katie said, “Mommy’s home.”
“In here,” Katie sang out.
“Well, at least we get an equal measure of your attention.”
Katie turned and stuck out her tongue at him, then laughed.
Allison called from the living room: “Ming. Tom just called. He’s at the subway. He’ll be here in a few minutes. Are you going to be ready? Katie? You know Grandma doesn’t like us to be late.”
Katie looked up at him. “They’ll be there before us, no matter how we try. Right, Baba?”
Father and daughter sighed for their different reasons, and then smiled guiltily at each other. Ming’s heart fluttered a moment free of the moorings of the past. If his mother-in-law walked in right now, he would hug her out of sheer joy for that moment of connection.
Tom was downstairs with a taxi. He bent for Katie’s hug, smiled at Ming and his sister and then folded himself into the front seat beside a turbaned Sikh with impressively broad shoulders and his beard tamed in a hairnet. He nodded and beamed at Katie.
Tom was a pale older version of Allison, taller, all her vibrant color washed away in his grey curls and pale eyes. Allison and Ming got in the back with Katie between them, Allison checking everyone had their seat belts on. Tom ignored her.
The Sikh surveyed them in the rear view mirror. Winked at Katie. “Queens Boulevard, sir, is it?”
“Right. Rego Park.”
“If you agree, Missy, we go.”
“Let’s go; let’s go.”
Katie bounced in her seat, delighted at being out in a car. Street lights played across her cheek and brushed the slightly open-mouthed smile.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait. Jiaozi. Yum.”
Allison smiled at her, reached across to touch Ming’s arm. “Relax. My parents mean well. They’re just trying to express how much they care about you, the way they know how.”
The taxi wove through traffic.
Tom looked out the window, at the sky, yellow-edged as the light faded, then at the traffic. He shuddered. “God, I’d hate to drive in Queens. You come off that bridge and take your life in your hands. 30th Street, 30th Avenue, 30th Drive. You could get lost out here and never return.”
“Oh sir,” the Sikh sang to him. “It’s not so bad as all that.”
Tom turned to Allison. “Have you ever done it?”
She shook her head.
The driver called to Katie: “Missy, you are Japanese, are you not?”
Tom turned toward Ming. “Are you ready for dinner with the parents?”
“No, no, Chinese!”
“Tom.” Allison grimaced at him. He shrugged.
“Ah, Chinese.” The driver seemed to process this, glancing at Katie, now with her whole attention on him. He nodded, assumed a sage expression, nodded again. “Chinese,” emphasis on the first syllable. “A great country, China.”
Ming leaned forward to Tom. “They won’t harangue me at least, bemoan their fate, the way my mother does. I’m their hero.”
“We’re going to a Chinese restaurant, you know, Mr. Driver.”
“Katie,” Allison said, “Don’t bother the man when he’s driving.”
“Not to worry Madam, not to worry.” He blasted his horn as a delivery van cut into the lane. “A Chinese restaurant, is it, Missy? The food of my country is also very fine. Very fine.”
“What is your country, Mr. Driver? India?” She bounced as far forward as she could.
“Katie. Sit still.”
“They do mean well,” Ming was saying to Tom. “I know that. It just makes me uncomfortable. People died. I lived. Besides I was hardly…”
“Ah no Missy. Pakistan. Pakistan is my country.”
“My Daddy likes dosa,” she announced.
Tom half-turned, shaking his head at Ming. “Fine distinctions as far as the Lawrences are concerned. Relax and enjoy it.”
“Ah, dosa. Also Indian. Very fine.”
Katie snuggled closer. “Relax and enjoy it, Daddy.”
He looked over at Allison. She gave him a helpless smile. She would be trying to keep him from dwelling on things. Find closure. Find a reason to celebrate what had survived.
“Sir,” the driver was nodding at him as they sped along. “Ah Sir, if you were not going to a restaurant of your country, I would be very happy to take you to a Pakistani restaurant.”
None of them knew what to say.
“But here you are. The young lady must have her way.” He winked at her.
She beamed at him. “Thank you.”
They got out. Tom paid and watched the taxi drive away in wonder. “Only in New York.”
Tom led the way. Ming watched as he squared his shoulders, holding himself very erect. Mother was waiting. The light at the door reflected off his glasses showing the lenses streaked and smudged. Tom on a good day wore a distracted air, his eyes bleary with long hours of poring over Han dynasty texts and working over his lecture notes for courses in Chinese history he taught to undergraduates at NYU. He was hoping mightily for tenure this year. His mother Kay, Ming’s mother-in-law, would chide him about the state of his shoes, tell him he needed some meat on his bones and ask him when he was going to get married again. She frequently threw in a comment or two about Tom’s former wife—they kept in touch. Such a lovely girl, Ming was given to understand. If only he hadn’t dragged her halfway around the world while he did his graduate research. So isolating for one who doesn’t speak the language, you know. According to Allison her mother always expected Tom to turn up with some Asian girl half his height and no doubt half his age, though she never said this to either Tom or Ming. Ming used to suspect she prepared her script beforehand; now he knew she could perform without one. Tom’s distraction hid a generous heart: it worried him that Ming seemed to have no other ambition than teaching Mandarin to NYU freshmen and sophomores.
The Lawrences were already at a table and Katie ran over to them. Ming caught Allison’s eye. Kay would already have given the place the once over, as she did every time they came, and now she was making the best of it. Her idea of dinner out involved subdued lighting and spotless cutlery, flowers, deferential waiters, not these fast-moving types balancing a huge bowl of hot soup that threatened to slosh over and scald you as they passed. She was sure she would one day have a hot soup shower and shampoo.
She fussed over Katie, Allison, and patted Ming’s arm.
Allison’s father George clapped him on the shoulder.
“How are you, boy?” he boomed over the din. “Mother and I were just saying we don’t see enough of you.”
“When were we here last?” She’d raised her voice to be heard above the din.
“Hmm.” Allison looked over at him, winked. Ming shrugged.
“I know, Grandma, I remember. It was my birthday.” Katie had a mind like a steel trap for anything related to herself. “I think this might be my favorite restaurant in the whole world.”
Kay smiled at her. “So it was. Thank you, Katie.” She plucked at the tablecloth in front of her. “How lovely, children’s knack of seeing reality in terms of their own fantasies. This stain looks familiar, if ever so slightly faded. I suppose it has had a trip through the laundry service? I always sit right here looking at the door into the main restaurant and all those fish in that tank. Tell me why we come here again?”
Ming smiled at his mother-in-law. “It’s the food.”
“Ah. I knew it wasn’t the décor.” She gazed at the discolored plastic panels slanting overhead. “I see the plastic flowers haven’t changed; slightly grimier, perhaps. We always seem to sit here in this questionable bower. Somehow there’s never another table free in the whole place.”
Ming laughed. It surprised him to realize that he was used to her; she didn’t get to him anymore. That he even liked her. That she might even like him. “In Beijing if a restaurant is too fancy we suppose the food can’t be very good.”
Kay looked at him over the top of her glasses. “After ten years I have to remind this man to call me mother.”
“It’s the food, mother. Mom.”
“That’s better. And Tom.” She inspected her son, who seemed to evoke the same feelings as the place setting. Picked up the chopsticks in their paper sheath and waved them at him. “You know I can’t use these to save my life. Would you get me a fork, please—or do you want me to starve? George, what are you doing, squirming around like that? You’ll tip yourself over.”
Allison’s father shifted his chair this way and that as he sat in it, raising first the front legs and then the back, bringing them down heavily. They all watched while he repeated the whole performance.
“Damn floor’s uneven. And this tablecloth that’s about three sizes too big is trying to wrap itself around my legs and immobilize me.” He brought his face down to Katie’s where she sat beside him. “I’ll end up a great big mummy.”
She laughed. “We’ll roll you out the door, Grandpa. You can be on display in a museum.”
Ming smiled, glanced around at the other tables, filled his nose, his lungs with the tang of garlic and ginger and scallions and his ears with the roll and pitch of Beijing dialect. He looked around the table. Family. Ming as some kind of dissident. It was never that he had claimed to be one. It was a role, one he had fallen into and couldn’t explain his way out of. His life here, the only life he had now, was built on it. He watched Allison sharing some joke with her father. Katie waved over a waiter and asked him in Mandarin to bring her Granny a fork. They chattered away together and the waiter pronounced her “very smart”—hen congming—with a nod to Ming.
“So, Miss Very Smart,” he grinned at her, “what’ll we have?”
“Dumplings, dumplings and dumplings.”
“Dumplings it is. Can we have some vegetables and stuff with that?”
“I suppose. If we have to.” She waved her chopsticks at him.
“Maybe a few cold dishes? Some…jellyfish?”
“Oh, yes! Jellyfish.”
Kay Lawrence could only shake her head.
The table quickly filled with small dishes of peanuts and chopped smoked duck, a salad of gluey ribbons of pea-starch noodles mixed with slivers of cucumber and scallions and shreds of chicken dressed with soy sauce and sharp mustard: the cold appetizers of the north that were balm to his soul. When Katie was younger she would squeal with delight when the dumplings, boiled, steamed and fried, a platter of each, made their appearance. Now that she was all of nine, she limited herself to a huge grin. She deftly maneuvered three dumplings into her grandfather’s bowl.
“Hah. Saved from certain starvation,” he said. “I never can get these gizmos to work right.”
Ming smiled at his daughter. “Such politeness in one so young. Such restraint.” And watched as she filled her own plate with two of each kind, and a mound of jellyfish.
“Remember they’re very hot.” But she was already nibbling and blowing for all she was worth. Ming flagged down a waiter. “Peeled garlic, please.”
“Now I don’t speak the language, but I know what that was all about.”
“Can’t eat dumplings without garlic, Mom.”
Kay shivered. “Remind me not to get too close to you, after.”
Kay was leaning closer to Allison, listening to something Allison was saying. They both laughed softly and he heard Kay’s “Well,” spoken in a tone that sounded like the prelude to a story at someone else’s expense. George was in the middle of a story, probably one of what he called his tall tales, for Katie’s benefit. They were both enthralled. George could be gruff, a man of few words, but his soft side wasn’t far beneath the surface, especially where his granddaughter was concerned. George had been in “W-W-Two—the Big One, you know?”
“It was the worst, boy. We gave it our best. ‘Course not many care about all that now. But the way I see it, you and I know what it’s like. Fighting for the right thing. Yessir.”
Ming never had to explain anything to him again. He took it on faith. He was proud. George was a straight arrow of the old order and this was the bond between them.
Kay Lawrence was another kettle of fish. He looked over at her, leaning close to Allison, one hand on her daughter’s forearm where it lay on the table. Some family gossip probably. Probably something to do with Tom’s ex-wife, Tom’s mistake in leaving her, Tom’s failure to find anyone new. She glanced now and then in her son’s direction. Another kettle of fish altogether. He liked the idiom because it was completely opposite of anything he’d expect of her. A kettle of fish was the last thing she’d want to deal with. She liked church suppers and doing the flowers for the sanctuary and meeting commitments. She liked lunching with the gals and keeping up appearances. She liked Ming, but he overdid the garlic just a tad for her taste. Still he knew she included him as family; as least she did her level best to.
He took another dumpling, put it on his plate, then put his chopsticks down. He leaned back in his chair, tipped it back slightly, and closed his eyes a moment. With a little effort he could filter out the English conversations, concentrate on the Mandarin, here and there a little Cantonese, Fujianese… Wonderful smells rose and swirled in the air: garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame oil, seared meat and the tang of dark Zhenjiang vinegar.
He glanced around the restaurant, wondered if there were others eating and drinking and laughing here in Rego Park, any of these drink-flushed faces, who had been there, who could not forget. Others who were marked for life. The table next to them suddenly exploded with roars of laughter as a round in a rhyming drinking game was lost. He was terrible at drinking games; Gu always won.
“Ming,” Allison’s voice rose above the din of the drinking game, “Dad’s trying to get your attention.”
George was holding his glass of beer toward him, beaming at him. Oh God, what was this?
“Ming, I know this, ahem, well, this season we might say, is a difficult one for you, and well, we just want you to know we honor your heroism and say how glad we are to have you with us…”
He felt his face burning. He hoped no one at the next table could hear, could speak English well enough to understand what was meant.
Janice Wickeri lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China for nearly thirty years, where she taught translation and English and later worked as an editor with Renditions, a respected journal of translations of Chinese literature. She is a published translator of Chinese literature and now works freelance as a translator and editor. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University.