BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Number One Chinese Restaurant By Lillian Li

The Beijing Duck House in Maryland has been in the Han family for decades, but brothers Jimmy and Johnny have very different ideas about what the future of the family restaurant should look like. And neither meet the liking of their frail-physiqued/iron-willed mother, Feng Fei. A hit when it was published in the States, Number One Chinese Restaurant dissects the turbulent lives and loves of the Han family, their offspring and the staff of the Duck House, with wit, wisdom and humour. It’s a warm, moving, multi-generational family saga, but with a blackly comic streak that will make you snort your tea – and a movie waiting to happen. SB

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NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT

Lillian Li

£14.99, One

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The Beijing Duck House in Maryland has been in the Han family for decades, but brothers Jimmy and Johnny have very different ideas about what the future of the family restaurant should look like. And neither meet the liking of their frail-physiqued/iron-willed mother, Feng Fei. A hit when it was published in the States, Number One Chinese Restaurant dissects the turbulent lives and loves of the Han family, their offspring and the staff of the Duck House, with wit, wisdom and humour. It’s a warm, moving, multi-generational family saga, but with a blackly comic streak that will make you snort your tea – and a movie waiting to happen. SB

Chapter:

One

The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese. All fifteen of them had crowded around the party table, clapping their hands. Not a single one could find the tune. A neighboring table turned in their chairs to look. Their carver kept his eyes on the duck. The song petered out. The customer blew out the candle on her complimentary cheesecake, and, still applauding, the waiters scattered back to their tables, speaking the restaurant’s English again.

“We need great leader,” one waiter said to no one in particular. “Song not even song if no him.”

Sitting silently in a booth nearby, Jimmy Han fingered his duck-patterned tie. The waiter had clearly meant for him to overhear. No one called him “great leader.” Jimmy did have a strong and supple singing voice—a surprise, especially to those who knew him—but the staff ’s real nickname they used behind his back: “the little boss.” Disrespectful, but what could he do? Most of the waiters had been around long enough to remember him as a boy. Some of them for thirty years. Who else outside his family had known him for that long? The waiters picked their way through the restaurant. Jimmy’s chest began to ache, and he pressed his hand against the bulging fabric of his jacket pocket. The thick envelope resting inside seemed to seize, like a second heart.

On the other side of the booth, Uncle Pang betrayed nothing. He didn’t look like a man about to walk away ten grand richer. He looked like a man who’d just finished his potstickers. Shallow pools of oil spotted his saucer. His thumbnail ran lazily over a blot of black vinegar on the tablecloth. Uncle Pang was always picking something apart.

“Will you be serving duck at your new restaurant?” he said suddenly. He’d been looking around the dining room, but his attention fell back onto Jimmy.

Jimmy let a familiar tingle of lightning shoot through him. He considered what had once been an impossible question.

“We’ll see.” He wet his finger in his glass of seltzer and cleaned a smudge off one of the framed headshots on the wall. “I have a lot of decisions to make.” The envelope seized again; the lightning disappeared. “What can I even afford?”

Uncle Pang didn’t react. He merely shifted in his seat. His right hand began to tap an impatient, cascading beat against the tablecloth, the rhythm skipping on the ring finger’s turn. Forty years and Jimmy was still not used to the missing finger. The stub had just enough flesh to bend at the knuckle.

“A fool could tell you.” Uncle Pang looked around once again for Ah-Jack, their waiter, before scratching at an unseen speck on his crystal watch face. “Duck is simply a chicken that takes longer to make.”

Jimmy used his fists to push himself out of the corner he’d sunk into. “I’ll go see what’s keeping your duck.” He bumped his ass down the squeaky vinyl seat, his long legs tangling beneath him.

“I was very happy to hear that Jack had come out of retirement,” Uncle Pang said. “But he might no longer be Duck House material, don’t you think?”

“It was Johnny’s idea to hire him back,” Jimmy said as he stood up. His older brother, in Hong Kong for another month, had a nasty habit of making decisions for the restaurant over Jimmy’s head. This one he’d made right before jetting off in January. “Loyalty counts for too much with him.”

“Yes.” Uncle Pang inspected the blade of his knife and rubbed at a water stain. “A good thing loyalty means less to you.”

Uncle Pang’s English, always fluent, had grown more dramatic over the years, to great effect. A cold tail of sweat curled down Jimmy’s lower back.

“I’ll be quick.” He bumped his hip lightly against the table.

“Take your time,” Uncle Pang said. “I’ll find someone to keep me company.”

***

A quick scan of the crowded central dining room did not reveal Ah- Jack. Jimmy shifted his feet impatiently, before making his way through the restaurant. The main room’s long, rectangular shape made it too narrow for the number of tables they’d managed to squeeze inside. The gaudy, overstuffed décor didn’t help. A deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers. Framed photos of famous clientele protruded from the walls. His father’s idea of class. The man had decorated the secondary dining room in the same fashion, except for a thick maroon curtain at the very back. What a pain in the ass to keep clean. Jimmy paused his search to beat the dust off the velvet drapes, pretending to inspect the air-conditioning vents above. He made sure the fabric still hid the blank wall behind. People preferred to believe in windows they couldn’t see.

From the hostess stand, his niece, Annie, asked, “Have you tried the private party room,” pointing to the doorway across from her. They could both clearly see that Ah-Jack was not in the private party room. She really was her father’s daughter. Who else would wear heels to a job that had her on her feet for hours, heels that made her stand almost as tall as him? Jimmy snapped at her to stop leaning against her podium.

“It’s your own fault your feet hurt,” he said. “Stomping around like a damn ostrich . . .”

He trailed off, the rest of his sentence forgotten.

Uncle Pang had found company after all. William, the newest busboy, was standing next to his booth. Uncle Pang said something, and the busboy lowered into a crouch. Jimmy drifted closer, until he was leaning against the bar. A section of the wall blocked the men from view, muffling their conversation.

“Amigo,” he thought he could hear Uncle Pang saying, using the restaurant’s nickname for Latino staff. “I heard you had a baby girl recently.” The man wouldn’t, of course, say where he’d heard this news; his sources were numerous, like worms beneath the soil. Jimmy stuck his head as far past the wall partition as he dared.

William was visible again, as he got up from his crouch. The busboy’s hand was now in his pocket. Uncle Pang must have slipped a trinket into his fingers. Perhaps a pair of gold earrings, 24 karat and soft enough to eat. A few seconds later, William walked past the bar on his way to the kitchen. His head still respectfully dropped, he didn’t see Jimmy trying to wave him over. Jimmy stopped himself from calling after the busboy. He was being paranoid. Uncle Pang had never been more than friendly with the restaurant staff. But Jimmy had underestimated the man before. He probed the false tooth embedded where his right canine should be.

Part of the Han family not by blood or marriage but by circumstance, Uncle Pang had known Bobby Han since Jimmy’s father first arrived in America. Uncle Pang was, or had been, Bobby’s longtime adviser and best friend, a man who’d darkened certain family photos like a finger on the lens. Although Uncle Pang was now in his late sixties, Jimmy had trouble seeing him as an older man. His physical movements might have slowed, but he continued to glide through the world as oiled as the remaining strands of his jet-black hair.

It was effortless, the way Uncle Pang granted wishes you didn’t know you had, gluing you to him while you were busy fawning over a pair of baby’s earrings. It pained Jimmy to realize he might be no better than the busboy, though at least he had been trapped by something larger than metal in a pretty shape. At least he had actually used Uncle Pang’s connections. Without them, the Georgetown owner of that tapas chain would have never accepted his bid to buy out her lease on the waterfront. She hadn’t even returned his calls before Uncle Pang stepped in. Of course, now Jimmy had to find the money he’d so generously offered. Uncle Pang had promised to take care of that as well.

Jimmy felt for the envelope, then turned on his heel before Uncle Pang could catch him spying. Blood pounded in his ears. He slipped into the cramped hallway that led into the kitchen. Where the hell was Ah-Jack?

At the mouth of the hallway, a current of Duck House staff buffeted Jimmy along. The Chinese and Spanish he’d banned from the dining room filled this narrow space, echoing off the walls. Waiters blocked traffic to grab beer from the lower fridge. Those stuck behind them pushed and scolded. On the opposite wall, busboys huddled against the main waiter station, pouring leftovers into paper cartons with hasty precision. At the end of the hallway, Jimmy nearly fell against the busing cart. An impatient Ah-Michael had shoved him while trying to grab an extra zodiac placemat from the shelf.

“So sorry, so sorry.” The waiter pressed himself tight against the wall and slipped away. His tray dipped and rose above the heads of other rushing waiters and busboys. His tureen of duck bone soup barely rippled.

Already flushed from his search for Ah-Jack, Jimmy felt more heat rising up his tight collar, first at the nerve of Ah-Michael, with his poached-egg face, and then from the uncomfortably high temperature of the kitchen. Behind the stainless-steel divider, flames whooshed up to embrace giant woks, each cook casually stir-frying as fire sprang, volcanic, from the deep, blackened burners. How awestruck Jimmy had been by these sparking flares when he was a kid. Stuck at the restaurant on the weekends and through every summer, he used to sneak into the kitchen to stare at the sweaty cooks maneuvering the gas dials with their knees. He was transfixed by the fire roaring under their control. Inevitably, his father would drag him back out to pour water for the customers. But in those brief moments, Jimmy could forget his own misery.

“Where is Jack?” Jimmy grabbed one of the duck carvers, who had just hoisted her tray over her shoulder. “Where is the duck for table eight?”

“They go.” She gestured her head toward the kitchen’s side exit. Her large, braided bun tapped against the duck on her tray. Jimmy wanted to yank the mass of hair out.

“Forget your hairnet again and I’ll shave you bald.”

He pushed her away and took the side exit from the kitchen, which put him back at the front of the restaurant. There he saw, to his anger and relief, the top of a shaggy-haired head. Ah-Jack was bent over, wrapping Uncle Pang’s duck pancake.

Two

Nan, his manager, hovered nearby. Hunched at the mouth of the private party room, she looked like an agitated collie, with her thin, feathered hair and bright eyes. Her stomach pooched over the gaudy belt she’d decided was management material. In all the years he’d known her, Jimmy had never seen the woman more than a few yards away from Ah-Jack. He suspected she was the one who’d gotten the old waiter’s job back. Her love for Ah-Jack was one of many open secrets at the Duck House.

From the way Nan fiddled with her manager’s headset, Jimmy could tell that she had read the dark expression on his face. When she saw him set off for Uncle Pang’s booth, she sprang into action too. Jimmy was quicker. Agile only in this restaurant, he dipped under passing trays, squeezed through chairs pushed up against each other, and dodged a small posse of bored children, all without the slightest stumble. Before Nan could warn Ah-Jack, Jimmy was at his side, planting a heavy hand against the waiter’s thin back. It was like palming a hollowed-out melon.

“I hope you’ve already apologized for the wait,” Jimmy said.

“The kitchen give me bad duck first,” Ah-Jack said to Uncle Pang. “I say, I not give bad duck for VIP! They take long time.”

“We are so sorry.” Jimmy pressed his hand into Ah-Jack’s back.

“So sorry,” Ah-Jack echoed, buckling into a bow.

Uncle Pang had already picked up his duck pancake.

“Not a problem,” he said. “You’re here now.” He cleared his throat. “But we can’t blame the kitchen for every mistake we make. If you’ll humor me, I’d like to lay out how I want the rest of dinner to go.”

The situation defused, Jimmy and Ah-Jack settled in for the lecture. But for some reason, Nan continued to approach the booth. What the hell did she think she was doing?

“I hope you remember that I like to eat my duck with my entrée, and not before,” Uncle Pang was saying. “If you haven’t already put in the order for the Szechuan lamb chops, you’re going to have to rush it.”

“Jack very busy.” Nan broke into the huddle. Jimmy grabbed her wrist, but she ignored his fingernails. “May can taking your table. She very quick.”

Uncle Pang recoiled as if Nan had rapped him on the forehead.

“I don’t think I’ll let Jack off so easily.” He attempted a smile. “I just wanted to ask him to check on the progress of the lamb. Not a big request.”

“You’re not asking for too much at all.” Jimmy fluttered his hands in front of his chest. “The lamb will be ready, Uncle. Jack probably remembered that you like to dine at a more leisurely pace.”

“There is leisure,” Uncle Pang said, his finger stabbing into the tablecloth, “and then there is just plain slow.”

“We’re very sorry.” Jimmy tried to keep the sincerity in his voice from going flat. “I won’t let this happen again. Let me send you a slice of cheesecake. And your bill is, as always, on the house.”

The “as always” slipped out of his mouth so innocently that another person wouldn’t have noticed. Uncle Pang, however, didn’t believe in such accidents. Indiscretion was equal to insult.

“Jack, go check on my lamb,” Uncle Pang said. “Nan, bring me an unopened bottle of this place’s finest scotch. And two glasses.”

“Just one glass,” Jimmy said, but Uncle Pang waved his request away.

“Don’t make a man ask twice for a drinking partner.” Uncle Pang gestured to the seat across from him. He was acting playful, which meant he was a hair away from losing his temper. Jimmy’s remaining nerve bowed in like a decaying floor.

With two sharp jabs, he sent Ah-Jack to the kitchen and Nan in the opposite direction. He settled gingerly into the booth. Nan hurried back with an amber bottle and two glasses. Uncle Pang patted her hand in thanks. He slid one of the glasses over to Jimmy and tipped in a heavy glug of scotch.

“You’re too generous,” Jimmy said, and felt instantly the quiver of another trap he’d seen too late: Uncle Pang was never generous without cause.

“I want to make a toast.” Uncle Pang held up his glass. “Let’s drink to the Beijing Glory. Our pride and joy.”

Jimmy clinked his glass lightly against Uncle Pang’s. He thought about taking a fortifying gulp but held his drink tightly against the table instead, as if trying to cut a circle out of the cloth.

“How’s the progress?” he asked.

“We’re almost there,” Uncle Pang said. “You’re doing well. Better under pressure than you used to be. Or maybe you’ve finally grown up. Another week or so, and I’ll deliver what’s been promised.”

“You found investors?” Jimmy steeled himself against the lilt of hope in his chest.

Uncle Pang put his drink down mid-sip. “I never said anything about investors.”

Jimmy pinched the cartilage piercing in his left ear and took a short sip of his seltzer. “You did,” he said. “You said you were going to take the Duck House off my hands.”

“I am going to take the Duck House off your hands.”

The meaning of those words bubbled up so quickly inside Jimmy that he felt flooded. How could he have been so stupid? If Uncle Pang had found investors, he would have said “investors.” If he had found buyers, he would have said “buyers.” There was only one recourse that required such vague, precious phrasing. One recourse that would wedge Jimmy as far underneath the man’s thumb as his father had been. Jimmy shook his head sharply. He wanted out. But Uncle Pang misunderstood.

“You were always a dense boy,” he said. “Tell me, what did you think I meant?”

“I don’t know.” Jimmy wormed his finger into a hole in the vinyl booth. “Something with investors. For the Duck House. So I’d have enough to pay off the Glory.”

“And that lump in your chest.” Uncle Pang reached over the table to tap against Jimmy’s jacket pocket. “What’s that for?”

“For your troubles,” Jimmy managed to force out.

“You should know better by now.” Uncle Pang shook out the napkin on his lap. “Especially with your family history.”

Jimmy turned to see Ah-Jack arriving. The waiter held a large serving plate of Szechuan lamb chops, elegantly piled under a hearty mound of onions and red peppers. The meat glistened with black pepper sauce, flecks of spice filling the air with a rich, roasted smell. Uncle Pang greeted him with a clap of his hands, the sound ringing with false delight. Jimmy was suddenly overwhelmed by the noise of everything happening around him. His body was too heavy to move. Something had gotten on top of him, was smothering him with its weight. He’d been having these attacks recently, but always in bed, in the middle of the night. Never in public. He dug the tip of his tongue into the canker sore on his bottom gum. The sharp, acid sting made the panic lift, just enough for him to wriggle out from underneath.

He was probing the sore again when a jangling sound jerked his head up. The gold chains around Ah-Jack’s wrists were trembling against the china platter. The plate dipped up and down. The old waiter could barely hold on to the heavy lamb chops with both hands. Who the hell let him leave the kitchen like this?

Jimmy was starting to stand when a resigned, almost amused look passed over Ah-Jack’s face. Like he was tired of waiting for disaster to strike. Before Jimmy could stop him, Ah-Jack took one of his hands away from the plate to grab the two serving spoons. His left wrist did not even make an attempt to hold the weight of the plate on its own. Jimmy’s outstretched hand caught air.

Heavy with sauce, the lamb chops plopped onto their table. Some landed on the tablecloth, while others bounced off and onto Uncle Pang’s lap. The platter hit the side of the table with a muffled sound before ricocheting under the booth. Sauce splattered everywhere, leaving greasy inkblots on their clothes. Someone in the next booth gasped. For a few calm moments, the three of them looked on curiously at the tremendous mess. Then, Uncle Pang was up and roaring. Ah-Jack was left to tremble, cradling his left hand like an injured bird. He looked around wildly, for an exit, or, perhaps, for Nan. Jimmy dove under the table without knowing why. He started picking up the fallen chops, his hands leaving tacky prints on the dirty carpet. Above his head, Uncle Pang was threatening to tear down the restaurant. With a thunk, the scotch bottle fell off and rolled under the table, hitting Jimmy in the knee. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted down, as well as Nan’s timid voice, asking Uncle Pang to put out his light.

“I’m not going to burn this place down with one fucking cigarette!” Uncle Pang shouted. He stalked away from the booth, toward the front door. Nan’s thick ankles quickly followed, with Ah-Jack’s jerky shuffle bringing up the rear.

From his temporary sanctuary, Jimmy twisted the cap off the scotch bottle and, for the first time in a year, took a deep, searing drink. The sore in his mouth sang out, then quieted into a buzz.

***

Outside, the early-August air was balmy and windless. The evening traffic roared by, kicking up litter and dust. At the intersection, a thin white man held a cardboard sign. Jimmy and Uncle Pang stood perched on the restaurant’s curb. Every crook and pit on Jimmy’s body was slick with sweat. Illuminated by the two faux-Chinese lanterns affixed to the storefront, his face must have looked as shiny as the Peking ducks inside.

“Why are you calling off the plan?” Uncle Pang demanded.

“You should have told me what it was,” Jimmy said.

“Stop playing dumb. You’ve been doing that since you were a boy.”

“You overestimated me,” Jimmy said. “I would never do that to my father’s restaurant.”

“Oh, now it’s your father’s restaurant.” Uncle Pang wiped at the brown spot on his pants, attacking the stain with unnecessary violence.

“We’ll pay for the dry cleaning,” Jimmy said. “Jack will be punished.”

“That won’t change anything.” Uncle Pang shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket.

“The stains look bad, but they come out very easily.” Jimmy pointed to a spray of dark soy sauce on his knee. “I get stains on my pants all the time.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Uncle Pang said. “You’re trying to cut me out of my fair share.” He waved sharply at a car idling in the middle of the parking lot. “After you begged for my help. After you shook my hand.”

Jimmy blinked, his eyes dry and dulled from the nips he’d taken of the scotch. What had he been so scared of? Uncle Pang was a childhood boogeyman. Granted, he had once knocked a tooth out of Jimmy’s mouth, after Jimmy had snorted most of the coke he’d been tasked to sell. But that was decades ago. He’d been a dumb kid. Now he was forty, with an ex-wife and mortgage payments, and Uncle Pang was pushing seventy. Almost the same age Jimmy’s father had been when he died.

“If you say so,” Jimmy said. “But I’m saying that we’re both businessmen. We know the difference between good business and bad business and personal business, and I hope you understand which one my decision is.”

Uncle Pang laughed by clearing his throat.

“You little cunt.” He took a step toward Jimmy. “You think you’re going to push me out of the Glory? You think you’re the first desperate loser to ask for my help, then back out?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way.” Jimmy held up his hands. “I’ll always be grateful to you for finding me the new place. I’ll still give you the ten thousand you asked for earlier.” He pulled out the heavy envelope he’d been lugging around all evening. The disappearance of its weight felt like a liberation. “For your trouble.”

“Money is going to make me forget this?” Uncle Pang’s car pulled up to the curb and he wrenched open the passenger door, but not before snatching the envelope. “I’ll tell you exactly what I told your father. I’ve got a long memory and I will ruin you for this.”

He spat on the ground, clipping Jimmy’s shoe, and dropped his smoldering cigarette into the mess. “Might as well say goodbye to your new restaurant now.”

He slipped into the black BMW, disappearing behind tinted windows. Jimmy expected the car to peel off, tires squealing, but instead it continued its vibrating hum. It slid through the parking lot, the purring engine matching the decibel of all the other night sounds, and these little noises collected like smoke, drifting over his head, until he could hear nothing else.

Three

As soon as Jimmy followed Uncle Pang out the Duck House door, Nan and Ah-Jack clustered together by the bar. Nan went behind to mix a complimentary pitcher of their Peking punch for customers who’d been startled by the commotion. Ah-Jack rested his elbows on the counter, shifting his weight off his bad foot.

“Who told you to try and handle the lamb chops on your own?” Nan said, speaking Chinese now that Jimmy wasn’t around to police them. “You silly old man. When are you going to learn to think before you act?” She scanned the dining floor.

“Take over section four,” she shouted over to Ah-May, who was heading back into the kitchen with an empty tray. “Ah-Jack hurt his hand.”

“I have enough to do!” Ah-May seemed ready to plant herself in front of the kitchen in protest. Her wide stance added to the sturdiness of her body and she pulled her long braid over her chest like a sash. “You take over the section.”

Nan knew what Ah-May was getting at, but she kept her face blank. Waitressing wasn’t Nan’s job anymore.

“You’re blocking the path,” she said.

“Fuck you too,” Ah-May said, but she got moving. Her head swiveled as she stalked away, catching up each passing waiter with the latest gossip. Yet another strike against Nan. Her old colleagues didn’t need more evidence of her bias toward Ah-Jack. Did they suspect that he was the reason she’d asked for her promotion last year?

She turned back to Ah-Jack, who had closed his eyes. If she didn’t know him better, she would have thought he was meditating. His face was calm and wise. But then he opened one eye and suddenly his entire countenance changed into that of a mischievous boy. It was the first time he’d looked like himself all day.

“Ah-May’s on the warpath,” he said.

“She’s not happy unless she’s complaining,” Nan said. “Acting like a child. When her own child’s already in braces.”

Ah-Jack’s eyes closed again. “We’re on a dying planet,” he said. “The little boss is already forty. No fresh blood. Just us clots of dust.”

“Pat’s only seventeen.”

“You want your son to keep working for the Duck House?” Ah- Jack nudged the large pitcher she was filling. “Are you crazy, woman?”

As if on cue, Pat sauntered out of the kitchen’s side entrance and into the front hallway. The top of his apron was undone, falling to reveal a chest that was at once too broad and too thin. He headed straight for the hostess stand, where Annie, Johnny’s daughter, was drawing on the seating chart. Nan had watched them flirt since Pat started working as a dishwasher a month ago, but at some point, the tide had changed, and their interactions had gone from playful to fur- tive. Nan had tried to ask her son about his new girlfriend, but he gave her few chances at work to corner him. She thought having him at the Duck House would help her keep an eye on him. At least she’d do better than his high school, which had noticed him only long enough to expel him. But her son was a sneaky boy. When he reached over the hostess stand to fiddle with the keyhole cutout in Annie’s qipao, no amount of distraction or disgruntled waiters could stop Nan’s heart from clutching.

“Where else can I keep him?” she said to Ah-Jack, who had also noticed the two teenagers. “In a cage?”

“He’ll be okay,” Ah-Jack said. “You’re like a babysitter and a guardian angel, all wrapped up in one.” He waggled his eyebrows, which were thick and black and looked out of place underneath his mop of gray hair. Nan laughed.

“You two are looking cozy.” Ah-Bing slid behind the bar to make a round of Shirley Temples. Ah-Bing was the same age as Ah-May, and they liked to team up on their tables and tips. It was a familiar sight to see the two of them, crowing back and forth, while they settled platters of pan-fried noodles and stewed fish onto neighboring lazy Susans. Ah-May must have intercepted him in the kitchen. Sure enough, the waitress stepped into the bar after him.

“Good night for you two?” Ah-Jack patted his breast pocket.

Ah-Bing’s Sprite nozzle spurted unexpectedly and a bloom of sticky water grew on his shirt front. “What do you think?” he snapped, rubbing the end of his nose, where his glasses were perched. The glasses gave thin, stringy Ah-Bing an impatient squint.

“Nan already gives you all the easy, big-spending customers, and now you’re not even working,” Ah-May said to Ah-Jack. She stabbed paper umbrellas into the red-drizzled drinks.

“Do you have to be such a clown, everywhere you go?” Ah-Bing added.

Nan handed him a napkin. “You weren’t so harsh last week when you were the one who needed saving. During your smoke break. And you.” She grabbed the remaining umbrellas out of Ah-May’s hand before Ah-May broke them in her grip. “Remember when Jimmy almost caught you pinching an entire duck?”

“What did it cost him to tell Jimmy a few little lies?” Ah-Bing glared down at her, no longer interested in Ah-Jack. “Did it lose him his tips? Did it land him five extra tables to watch while someone else took home the money?”

“You’ve changed,” Ah-May said to Nan. “You’re just as bad as the little boss.”

Her words had summoned him; the front door opened and Jimmy came back into the restaurant. The timing felt deliberately cruel. Nan came around to the front of the bar, to make their huddle look less suspicious. She wished the little boss hadn’t emptied so much of the bottle clenched in his right hand. Even drunk, Jimmy moved effortlessly through the dining room, like a big cat, too fast for them to scatter. His eyes darted from Ah-Jack to Nan to Ah-May and Ah-Bing.

“Why aren’t you at your tables?” he asked. Despite his rounded cheeks and large, childlike forehead, Jimmy’s face looked sharp and hard. “Do you four need a vacation?”

“Them leaving now.” Nan jumped in before she could stop herself. “Ah-Jack taking small break. His diabetes make him need sugar. And make left foot hurt.”

We do our jobs,” Ah-May said.

“Then go do them.” Jimmy had the unnerving ability to make his eyes glow in their sockets when he was angry. He looked lit up from the inside. Ah-May left the bar in a huff. Ah-Bing hefted his drink tray onto his shoulder and followed.

Jimmy turned his attention back to Ah-Jack. “I shouldn’t be looking at your face after what you just did,” he said. “You should have fired yourself. Save me the trouble.”

“We need Ah-Jack.” Nan was trying to keep the urgency out of her voice. Johnny could be swayed by feelings, but Jimmy needed hard facts. “Ah-Ling go hospital for test. Ah-Gang needing hip fixed. Too little people if Ah-Jack go. The big party will come next week. They will renting a private room all night.”

Ah-Jack added nothing, only stared at the bobbing lime slices in the pitcher of punch. Nan’s body buzzed from the inside, as if she’d swallowed an electric charge. Why wasn’t he begging like she was? He would go bankrupt without this job, lose the townhouse, and how would he pay for Michelle’s chemo then?

A gurgling belch escaped from Jimmy’s lips, and a flash of what looked like nausea passed over his face.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, almost to himself. “Finish your shift. Give me the tips you’ve made tonight.”

Ah-Jack reached into his blazer pocket and pulled out a neat wad of bills. Jimmy grabbed the bundle and lightly brushed his thumb over the fringe.

“I’ll be checking the receipts against this amount,” he said. “No more breaks. What’re you waiting for?”

“No break,” Ah-Jack agreed. He pushed away from the counter and gingerly settled his weight back into his feet. Nan tried not to look at his left foot, entombed in his leather shoe. She stayed where she was. Jimmy hadn’t dismissed her for a reason.

“You’ve got some nerve,” he began, jaw popping from tension. “You don’t think I’ve noticed what’s been going on in my own restaurant?”

“I am sorry,” she said.

“You’re sorry!” He laughed and sloshed the liquid around in his scotch bottle. He leaned in. “I hate listening to the waiters gossip. Their chattering, like a bunch of dumb chickens. But do you know what I’ve had to listen to since Johnny made you manager?”

“I am sorry,” she said again. She hadn’t known the waiters were talking.

“ ‘Nan is giving Ah-Jack all the best tables,’ ” Jimmy mimicked. “ ‘Nan lets Ah-Jack skip lunch service,’ ‘Nan told the hostess not to seat any children at Ah-Jack’s section.’ Get this straight. There’s nothing you can do to keep me from firing him.”

“I am fair,” she said, without conviction. “They like complaining.”

“Complaining is one thing,” he said. He banged the heavy butt of his bottle against the bar. “But when they bother me, you’ve gone too far. I don’t care what Johnny promised you. Don’t get too comfortable. Usually when you have something for thirty years, you throw it away.”

“I will be better.”

With a noncommittal grunt, Jimmy left Nan at the bar and disappeared into his office at the other end of the dining room. Nan felt her heart start to slow. The flush on her face no longer prickled. The waiters eavesdropping around her went back to their tables.

“Karma,” Ah-May muttered as she bustled past.

Nan darted out her hand and pinched the waitress’s butt. Ah-May cried out in mock outrage and pinched her right back in the wrist. They were still friends, after all. They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together. That was all Ah-Jack was as well, an old friend.

Their joking and flirting had been the mainstay of their friendship since they’d started working side by side thirty years ago. They watched out for each other, a buddy system that followed them outside of work. He’d changed multiple spare tires for her on the sides of busy roads. Her couch was always open if he drank too much or bet too high at the races. How could Jimmy and the others expect her to change the way she spoke to Ah-Jack, the way she felt, just because she was managing him now?

The irony was that she was probably the best manager the Duck House had ever seen. She had a way of coddling the most belligerent customers, never resorting to throwing half-off coupons on the problem—Johnny’s favorite move—or indiscriminately punishing the wait-staff with a week of forced unpaid leave, as Jimmy liked to do. She used her nose for conflict to head off complaints, steering easily chilled matrons away from the air-conditioning vents; handing toddlers balls of dough to play with and gum on; and offering discounted drinks at the bar when reservations were overbooked, as they were every single weekend. When, inevitably, a customer lashed out, she was prepared to take the full force of their anger with a soothing tone. She had a personality that did not inspire people to be better but persuaded them to be comfortable at their worst. Passing out free punch to the dining room, she knew the restaurant would receive no negative reviews for Uncle Pang’s outburst earlier.

When her ladle hit the bottom of the pitcher, she checked the room for signs of tension. Not the customers this time, but the waiters. It was impossible to tell—they were professionals on the floor, their faces rubbed smooth of emotion. Though Ah-Bing’s back was to her, Nan knew he looked entirely different than before. He would have pushed his glasses up to pinch the top of his nose, which turned his squint feline and friendly. With this simple push, Ah-Bing morphed into the happy, playful waiter she saw out on the floor. He even sounded differ- ent, his English boyish and simple, lacking the sharp slyness that textured his Chinese. The transformation was stark and immediate, and pure fantasy. Yet Nan still believed that this motion of shifting his glasses up his nose was what reminded Ah-Bing of who he was allowed to be, and when. Every waiter had a trick. The quartet of little girls at one of his tables cheered as he approached, and he cheered right back.

Ah-May’s words came back to her. Had she really been babying Ah-Jack for months? Even if she had, Ah-Jack was so popular and well loved—by both the amigos and his comrades-in-arms—that she’d expected everyone to look the other way. But while Ah-Jack got the easy retired couples, business lunches, and service-phobic Korean families, the other sections got the unsupervised teenagers tossing seven credit cards into the bill holder. They got the first-generation Chinese who pretended not to understand how to tip, and the single-ladies clubs in which every single lady happened to be celebrating her birthday that night. The waiters were tired of trying to keep eight candles on eight separate pieces of complimentary cheesecake lit. They were tired of wrangling booster seats and of chopping up hot duck carcasses for Filipino grandmothers to chomp on. They were tired of nearly getting an elbow to the neck every time they delivered a check to a table of strong-willed matriarchs, each preferring death to letting someone else’s credit card be swiped. Could she blame the other waiters for reporting her to Jimmy?

Always, Nan was the failure. In her desperation, she’d turned everyone against her and, worst, against Ah-Jack. No wonder he’d dropped those lamb chops—she hadn’t let him carry anything heavier than fried rice in weeks. Ah-Jack was only eighteen years older than she was, and far from the oldest waiter in the restaurant. So why was he the only one who looked truly old?

What she was learning, as she watched her comrades at the Duck House age to the point of retirement, then beyond, was that some men worked to push away the grave. Men like Ah-Sam, Ah-Gang, Ah-Chi, whose skulls looked shrunken on top of their stooped shoulders, could still lift heavy trays with one hand and nap on their feet. Others could not, but had to, and pulled the grave closer with every shift.

Four

Nan went behind the bar again and lifted one foot out of her heels. When her arch pressed against the rubber mat, she couldn’t help letting out a grunt. She slowly curled her toes, then released them, allowing the little knuckles to stretch and pop.

Once, for Mother’s Day, her son, Pat, had massaged her feet. His small fingers had been too weak to make much of a difference, but the look of concentration on his face had provided a different kind of relief. He’d poured hot water into a bucket so that she could soak her feet afterward. She’d fallen asleep with her feet submerged, waking long after the bubbles from the dish soap had dispersed and the water had cooled. Would he remember if she brought up that act of sweetness now? Or would he pretend not to understand her mixed-up English? Nan wanted to believe that at Pat’s core, all his gentle childhood selves were curled up, waiting to be awoken.

“How about a shot of Jack for Ah-Jack?” Ah-Jack walked past the bar on his way to deliver a check. He’d pinched a few shreds of crispy pepper beef from someone’s tray and he offered one to her. The beef fat sizzled on her tongue. “What slow tables. Bad luck follows me.”

“You never know,” Nan said when he returned to the cashier’s window at the end of the bar to swipe one party’s four separate credit cards. “They might be big tippers.”

“Indian man at table twenty found a strand of black hair on his table,” Ah-Jack said. “Not even in his food, just near the dish. He pulls the hair out in front of me, and it’s long and rough and curly. Looks like the hair on his wife’s head.” Ah-Jack grasped a handful of his hair, which was gray and soft enough to fall back flat on his head when he let go. “But I can’t tell the man it’s his wife who has the shedding problem. With my luck, he’ll be calling the little boss first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Jimmy won’t be taking any calls tomorrow morning,” Nan said.

Ah-Jack hooted. “If I’d leaned in more while he was talking, you wouldn’t need to sneak me whiskey now.”

“Stop fooling around, old man.” Nan ripped the receipt from the machine and swiped the next card for him. She handed him the shot she’d poured. “Get moving so I can get out of here.”

They’d been carpooling since they started at the Duck House. Ah-Jack knew better than to try to get her to leave early.

He knocked back the shot and wiped his mouth.

“Easy, there,” Nan said.

Ah-Jack burped delicately in response.

“You’d better have another one waiting for me.” He hobbled off, cutting a comic figure as he swung his left leg in front of his right. He could still fool the customers into thinking his lurching walk and shaky hands were part of his character, a Chinese Charlie Chaplin who might look as if he’d spill the tray but never did.

Nan poured him half a shot and added a spritz of water. She waited for him to come back around.

***

Nan met Ah-Jack waiting tables at the Mayflower. She’d answered the newspaper ad only a few months after she’d left Macau, and Ah-Jack became the first friend she made in America.

The owner hired her to replace three of his waiters, who had fled for busier waters. On her first day, the restaurant’s parking lot was so empty that she’d thought it was closed. Ah-Jack—he’d been forty then—had been teetering outside on a ladder, hanging up a banner that advertised the new, desperately attained liquor license. She’d reached out to steady the ladder and noticed the well-shined polish on his shoes.

“You want a Mai Tai?” were his first words to her. She looked up to find a man too slim for American sizes. A layer of air billowed between his skin and the fabric of his uniform.

“A Mai what?”

“Mai Tai.” He finished the knot he’d been tying. “You’ll need to know how to make all the new cocktails the boss put on the menu. Might as well have a taste.”

He jumped to the ground and unrolled his shirtsleeves. Hefting the ladder over his head, he gestured for Nan to follow.

“The poor guy who owns this place won’t be in until right before dinner.” Ah-Jack was already developing the hunch that would later bend his chin down to his shoulders. “You’ll want to look over the menu before he gets in.”

The inside of the Mayflower was dark and stuffy. An elderly foursome ate in the corner booth. They didn’t look up from their plates when Nan and Ah-Jack walked by.

“Our food is perfect for their teeth,” he explained. “When you try to make a Chinese restaurant vegetarian, you end up with a lot of mush.”

“Vegetarian?” Nan grabbed a paper menu from the stack by the empty hostess stand. “Isn’t life hard enough?”

“I’ve worked in every kind of Chinese restaurant,” Ah-Jack said. “This is the first vegetarian one. But restaurants fail every day for all kinds of reasons.”

He fixed Nan her first Mai Tai and recited the litany of jobs he’d held, from dishwasher, to manager, to owner—a small Szechuan restaurant that he’d had to sell when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. The prognosis was optimistic, which was the good news.

“What’s the bad news?” Nan asked.

“No lawsuit money.”

The drink was sweet and orangey, and the alcohol ungreased Nan’s mouth enough to tell Ah-Jack that she had also waited tables since she could remember. Originally from Hunan, her parents had fled to Macau when she was two. They would have made the swim to Hong Kong if Nan had been older, and so Hong Kong became the dream. She dreamed while she took orders. While she cleared tables, and plucked chickens, and scrubbed floors. She’d pictured herself one day at the best hotel in Hong Kong, standing behind the reception desk and meeting people from all over the world. But her family’s hopes of immigrating had been repeatedly shattered by riots. Then her mother had died. An aunt, hearing the news, had started sending the family money from Maryland. Packages arrived too, filled with chocolate, slices of vibrantly orange American cheese, squares of crackling gum that shot freshness straight up her nose, as well as pictures of the house the aunt’s family lived in, a house surrounded by other, near-identical houses, all white and brick and mossy. Nan had fingered the pictures until the colors bled, and slowly, her dreams began to change. When Nan’s father passed a few years later, the aunt offered to sponsor Nan’s move to the United States. She had jumped at the chance.

By the end of her story, Nan had torn the paper menu in her hands into scraps. Without her noticing, Ah-Jack had gathered the strips into a small pile. When she looked down at it, confused, he gave her a sly smile. Then he blew the bits onto her lap. She laughed until she shook.

Under the pretense of learning how to mix the cocktail, Nan made them both another round. The syrupy citrus masked the rum, and by the time the owner came in, Nan was cooling her reddened cheeks against the cheap laminate of the bar counter. She claimed she was getting over a slight fever, and Ah-Jack, rock solid after two cocktails and a glass of whiskey, assured the owner that he’d been training her all afternoon.

***

Love came slowly, as weaknesses in the body often do. At first, she merely looked forward to coming to work for a chance to chat with a good-humored man. Not many patronized the Mayflower, leaving the two to talk and graze on the wonton chips meant for the soups.

She started making note of what brought him pleasure—a fresh apple pie from McDonald’s, candied cherries from behind the bar, the sound of a wine cork popping. The list grew. What did Ah-Jack yearn for? A winning horse, new work shoes, less rain so that the fallen magnolia petals along his driveway might not rot so soon. Nan’s memory became overstretched. Driving home one night, she nearly cried from frustration because she couldn’t remember what Ah-Jack had named as his favorite childhood candy. Finally, she pressed against the tender place she’d been ignoring and stood back, aghast but not surprised, to witness the crumbling edge of her reason. Her imagination began and ended with Ah-Jack.

He was a good man but not strong. He liked drinking and candy and gambling. In a single plastic sleeve in his wallet, he kept a picture of his wife and a jumble of lucky-number slips. Only a pair of faded eyes peeped out through the confetti. In her wallet, Nan carried just twenty dollars, which would last her the entire week. She hated waste, napping, and overeating. At home, she reused the same bowl and utensils for every meal, washing the set once, right before bed. So to fall in love with a man who threw away watermelon with pink meat still clinging to the rind—it was incomprehensible.

She could no longer ignore the heat and breeze of his passing body at work. The space between them when they stood side by side turned electric, raising the small hairs on her skin. One day, he pushed his hands against the crown and base of her spine, to correct her posture, and she went to stand in the walk-in freezer, plunging her trembling hands into the bucket of frozen dumplings until her entire body shivered.

For four months, before the owner’s children replaced the entire staff for the summer, Nan lived in a feverish state of alertness. She imagined living like this forever and felt no fear. On their last day of work, she moved sluggishly, unable to picture herself leaving the restaurant, and Ah-Jack, for good. Her aunt had found her a job as an assistant to a loan officer, which paid less but could, her aunt claimed, lead to a real career, or at least a chance to sit down at work. On that last Mayflower night, as Nan and Ah-Jack walked toward the exit at the end of dinner service, Nan asked him to join her for a drink.

“The Earl?” he said. “Just a few shops down?”

She hadn’t had a bar in mind.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s the one.”

She spent the ten dollars and sixty cents in her wallet on bright-blue cocktails that stained her tongue and made her legs sweat over the wooden booth. She was barely twenty-two, old enough to understand that a gambling man with a sweet tooth could love a sick wife and cheat on her also.

Soft as he was, Ah-Jack wasn’t a nervous man. He never fiddled, as Nan did, and he would tease her about the trail of shredded paper napkins that followed her around the restaurant. At the bar, he passed her each of his emptied beer bottles so that she could tear the wet labels off the brown glass.

“You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” Nan said, after draining her last cocktail. She stared at the label she was stripping.

“You probably haven’t met enough people.” Ah-Jack laughed. “I’m ordinary.”

“Maybe to others,” she said. “But not to me.”

Ah-Jack circled his thumb around the mouth of his bottle.

“I suppose that’s all that matters,” he said. He flagged down their waitress and asked for the check. But before Nan could panic, he asked, “You find a new job yet?”

“No,” she lied. “But there are Chinese restaurants everywhere.”

“There’s a new one opening in Rockville. The rumor is that tips will be high from the start. If you can hold off working for a few weeks, they’re hiring in July.”

“Is that what you’ll be doing?”

Before Ah-Jack answered, Nan felt a familiar blooming sensation in her chest, followed by a cold sweat on the bottoms of her feet. This ugly, jittery thing had trailed her her entire life, pushing her to dream, pushing her to come to this foreign place. She had fought so hard to do away with this feeling. But when Ah-Jack said he would be first in line to interview at the Beijing Duck House in July, she couldn’t stop herself. She allowed hope back into her life.

“We might carpool,” he said. “If you decide to work there, Ah-Nan.”

She had a job lined up, a chance at life outside a restaurant, with weekends and vacations. Why follow someone blindly? And not a man of caliber or character, not a man she might ever possess, but Ah-Jack! A man with “Ah” preceding his person, like an opaque veil drawn across his body. And she was Ah-Nan to him.

She nodded right as their bill came.

“Call me Nan,” she said. She counted out the bills to pay her part of the check. She didn’t dare look at him. “At least until we’re comrades-in-arms again.”

“Nan,” he said, drawing out her name.

She met his eyes through the messy wisps of hair that fell short of her bun. A bridge materialized between them, transporting secret packages that would never reach their destinations. Too soon, she looked down again.

Five

The first thing Jimmy did once he’d barricaded himself in his tiny office was pour a glass of scotch. The second thing he did was call Uncle Pang’s real estate agent, Janine.

While he waited for the connection to go through, he stared at the photograph of his father hanging alongside the office door. The picture had been taken on the Duck House’s opening day; his father had been only a few years older than Jimmy was now. It was the same photo they’d sent to the Washington Post to accompany the obituary. The actual newspaper clipping was shoved somewhere in his desk drawer—Jimmy had refused to let Johnny frame that too, but the lie it told was so familiar that Jimmy had practically memorized it.

Bobby Hong Cheng Han, a prominent Maryland restaurateur and founder of the Beijing Duck House, passed peacefully on Independence Day, July 4, 2010, surrounded by his family and friends. Mr. Han was born on February 2, 1940, in Beijing, China, and started his life in restaurants as a dishwasher at the age of twelve. Mr. Han married Feng Fei, his next-door neighbor and the love of his life, and immigrated to America on his own in 1975 to give his family a better life. Separated from his adored wife and children, Mr. Han worked his way through the restaurant ranks in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., to buy their ticket to America. The Beijing Duck House, Mr. Han’s crowning glory, opened its doors in 1985, the product of over a decade of hard work and determination. Mr. Han combined the strong flavors and rich seasonings of Northern Chinese cuisine to make the Duck House a hot spot for famous actors, politicians, and even presidents, all of whom credited the signature Peking duck as the best they’d ever tasted. Mr. Han leaves a legacy of two children, John and Jim, and the first of many grandchildren, Annie.

Every time Jimmy looked at his father’s young, grinning face, he would be reminded of this strange memorial, which proved that half-truths made for the blandest fiction. A lie that was newspaper sanctioned: What could be a more fitting tribute to his father? And why argue when the lie of his father’s life was no different, really, from the eulogy his mother had told at his father’s funeral, before she’d vanished inside the mansion he’d left to her. No different from the speeches that Johnny made at charity events and thousand-dollars-a-plate fundraisers. No different from the story Jimmy himself used to pick up women before last call.

Tonight, however, Jimmy was the only one telling the story and the only one listening.

Bobby Han died, stomach bloated with cancer, with only his wife at his side. His two sons stayed behind at the restaurant, as instructed, to take advantage of the holiday crowd.

Han was unlikely to have been born anywhere near China’s capital city, since his mother, during her one visit to America, spoke with an accent so incomprehensible that Han’s wife had called it “dirt,” her word for “country.”

Said wife, Feng Fei, was ten years younger than her husband, who, if their screaming matches could be believed, tried to abandon his family as soon as his feet touched American soil.

It was not Han but rather his best friend, “Uncle Pang,” who secured visas and later green cards for Feng Fei and the children, incurring a debt they would never fully repay.

Before the Beijing Duck House could open its doors, a fortunate lightning storm had to strike Han’s first restaurant, King China, and burn the shithole to the ground, allowing him to flip the insurance into a down payment for an abandoned building right off the highway.

Han was hardly reinventing the wheel with his menu. Northern Chinese cuisine could be summed up in three words: meat, onions, and garlic. And hot spot for the famous? Jimmy had had five years to laugh at the foolishness of that particular line.

So fuck his father’s legacy. Fuck his mother’s too. Jimmy’s new restaurant would not have such cheap illusions. Or clumsy, broken booths. Or incompetent waiters. His new restaurant would be as polished as the silver chopsticks he’d already bulk-ordered. The décor would be tasteful but luxurious. His menu would actually change—every week a new special, a catch of the day. None of the waiters would speak with an accent. His customers would be afraid of displeasing him.

“Hello?” Jimmy stopped revising his father’s life story at the sound of Janine’s soft voice. He straightened in his chair.

“Jimmy, is that you?” She sounded surprised to hear from him. He’d never called her this late before.

“Janine!” Jimmy practically shouted. “We need to talk about the restaurant. This a good time?”

“I just put my son in bed,” she said. “So not the best time, but not the worst.”

“I wouldn’t bother you this late,” Jimmy said, “but I just had to get your thoughts on a new project.” He crossed his legs and his knee hit the desk. He leaned back in his chair and knocked his head against the wall. He was the only person in his family too big to fit in this office.

“You always bother me this late,” Janine said. He pictured the curve of her smile and remembered the conversation they’d had last week. He took a deep breath. She would fix everything for him.

“I fired Pang, like you said to.” He kept his stomach clenched tight. Despite the circumstances, a part of him still hoped Janine would be impressed.

“You did what?” Janine’s voice amplified. “I never told you to do that.”

Jimmy switched the hot phone to his other ear. He had not expected this reaction.

“You told me he was a middleman.” He ground his knuckles into the desk. The echo of Uncle Pang’s threat bounced back into his head, and his throat grew thick and choked. “Why did you say all that shit last week if you didn’t mean it? Don’t be a fucking tease.”

“I’m going to hang up.” Her voice flattened out. “You’re drunk. I knew you were drunk when I picked up, but now I’m going to point it out.”

The worst thing Janine could sound was bored. Jimmy tried to put the steel back in his voice.

“What I am is offering you a huge opportunity.” He hoped this tack would work. He needed her on his side. “Without Pang. I know you want to work with me instead. Or were you lying to my face?”

Janine took her time before answering. She probably knew he was bluffing. But she was also a curious woman. He was giving her a chance to shake things up. He could practically see her weighing her options.

“You sound stressed,” she finally said. “That’s natural after a big sale. Why don’t you come over? We can talk about this opportunity of yours.”

“Okay,” he said, barely able to believe the offer. They’d always met at her office before. “Okay. That’s all I wanted.”

She gave him her address and directions for the quickest route. His hand jumped as he wrote it all down, smearing the ink.

“Listen, you took a big risk,” she said right before she hung up. “But what’s the other option? Keep your heart in a cage like your father did? Buying the Glory was the best idea you’ve ever had.”

He straightened his spine against his chair. “I love you, you madwoman,” he said with surprising fierceness.

She said, “You hired the best.”

***

Jimmy left his office with an hour of service still to go. Three busboys were sorting out the dirty linens from the visibly dirty linens in the kitchen hallway. He had never given this nightly ritual a second look before. Each busboy had tied a tablecloth around his neck; the spotted cotton flowed behind like a cape. They shook out each bundle to inspect the damage. Crumpled zodiac placemats and chopstick wrappers fell out of the hamper, like wilted flowers.

“Don’t forget to sweep that up before you finish,” Jimmy said, when they looked over questioningly. “Run a wet cloth over the floor too— it’s filthy.” He pointed at the trash on the ground. The three men nodded; none of the busboys knew much English. On a different night, Jimmy would have gone to get the wet cloth, would have demonstrated exactly what he expected. This night, he lifted his hand in a brisk wave and turned to go, banging his briefcase into his leg.

Nan and Ah-Jack were standing at the bar. Looking at the two of them, bumping shoulders, made Jimmy want to break them apart.

“You’re looking well rested,” he said. Ah-Jack was leaning into the counter, practically lifting his feet off the ground. “Why don’t you take all the overtime tables? Let Ah-Sam and Ah-Jin know they can go home.”

Jimmy waited for Nan to start arguing with him. But equal parts smart and spineless, she looked down at her hands.

“Work hard enough, and maybe keep your job,” he said, in case Ah-Jack was thinking he might slack off once the boss was gone. The old waiter was out for good, but why not squeeze a few more working hours out of him?

Leaving the restaurant to his most senior employees, Jimmy got into his car and drove to Janine’s house. To think that only a few hours ago, those two were the greatest problems in his life.

Jimmy had long ago accepted that his older brother negotiated the world on an entirely different plane of principles, a romantic and useless system that endeared him to everyone outside of his family. But Johnny had gone too far. You didn’t promote your best waitress for the same reason you didn’t rehire a diabetic waiter with a sick wife at home. Johnny had no idea what it actually took to run a restaurant.

His brother’s insistence on the restaurant’s dignity had always interfered with Jimmy’s own designs for the Duck House. Especially since Johnny had been working at the restaurant for only seven years— compared to Jimmy’s twenty—and without ever straining his back as a waiter before their father made him a manager. As long as Johnny thought of himself as co-owner of the Duck House, he would keep on swanning around the dining halls, over-sympathizing with the waiters and kitchen staff. The bastard even had the nerve to wait until right before he left the country to break the news. On the way to the fucking airport.

Jimmy could have defied his brother’s wishes. He could have funneled his frustration directly onto Nan and Ah-Jack until they broke under the weight of his focused fury. But for once Johnny’s interfering wouldn’t change a thing. This thought alone inflated Jimmy with a generosity that almost passed as mercy. Why else had he hired Nan’s boy a month ago, after he was kicked out of school?

That was before, when he had a guarantee from Uncle Pang that the Beijing Glory would be financed. He’d written a blank check for a man his father had told him never to trust and then crossed his fingers, hoping that the sum would not be too big.

“Your uncle Pang is a dangerous man,” his father had once told him. His whispered Chinese had been barely audible over the din of the restaurant kitchen. “He sees everything, and he knows everyone. Remember this when you take over. We pay him to be part of the family, but he’s not family.”

“That makes no sense,” Jimmy had shot back in English, dodging his father’s hand. He’d been nineteen, a college dropout who thought he’d be waiting tables at the Duck House for a year, tops. But what had he known? He should have listened to his father. Panic crawled back on top of his chest. He took a drink.

He drove with one hand, rolling the open bottle of liquor in his other. He hadn’t had a drink since he’d decided to open his own restaurant a year ago. But drunk driving was like riding a bicycle. The body remembered, and his body especially remembered the rails of damage he’d done to it in his thirties, when he was first taking over the Duck House. A fun few years, he couldn’t deny that, but were they worth the begging and fighting and alimony? Pleasure was always followed tenfold by waves of discontent.

He got off the highway as soon as he could. He favored side, suburban streets, which, while covered with speed bumps and stop signs, were also empty of other cars and fixed lanes. His GPS scolded him repeatedly as he took a circuitous route to Janine’s place in Takoma Park. Driving on drink alone was a woozier affair than he’d expected. He’d forgotten all the grit he used to put up his nose, its bracing effect; he’d had to give up after the court-mandated stay in rehab. A slap on the wrist, thanks to Uncle Pang. The street he was on was poorly maintained, with streetlights that had burned down to an orangey glow. He swerved to avoid a large pothole and his right front tire popped up on a curb.

It was time for a small break. He pulled into a stranger’s driveway, the house completely dark inside.

In his idling car, which had taken on the stale, pressurized chill of an airplane cabin, he wondered if Janine might ever say yes to him. She had put her hand on the bulge of his biceps last week, but what if, rather than an invitation, her touch was meant to keep him at arm’s length forever? What if she was lying when she said there was nothing more attractive than a man with his kind of potential? But why else would a woman invite a man into her home, especially one she knew was in love with her?

Certainly she knew he was in love. He’d never said so seriously or soberly, had never even touched her beyond a handshake, but Janine was not someone who missed people’s desires, nor a woman who would play dumb when those desires targeted her.

And hadn’t she encouraged his behavior, flirting back until he turned bashful? Playfully batting his jealous moods away? He’d accused her of manipulating him countless times, bringing up her working relationship with Uncle Pang, bringing up the size of the commission she was making off him. She’d reacted with teasing disdain.

“You see what you want to see,” she liked to say, and then she would be back to texting on two phones simultaneously, looking up only after he’d calmed down.

Jimmy’s dashboard clock read 10:00. Janine’s son was in bed, and Janine herself freshly showered, perhaps sipping a glass of red wine. Jimmy felt terrifically unstable at the thought of her scrubbed-bare face.

He’d never thought he could get so worked up over another person, but Janine had shaken his understanding of his own desire. He had believed he wanted someone fun and ditzy, a girl as transparent and colorful as stained glass. But Janine was like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a masterpiece that loomed above him, forcing him to crane his neck until it nearly snapped taking in the expanse of her.

Early in their talks about finding a new restaurant, Uncle Pang had slipped Jimmy a single newspaper page, taken from one of the free Chinese dailies Jimmy’s father had kept in the Duck House lobby. Janine’s ad had caught Jimmy’s eye largely because her picture had taken up nearly a quarter of the page. Number One Real Estate Agent! Top Seller in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. Her face was blurred soft, round with small features, and her hair was teased out big enough to touch the borders of the shot. Beneath her makeup and the pixelated ink of the newspaper, she looked to be in her mid-thirties. Jimmy wasn’t sure how proficient this fluffy-looking woman could be at her job, but he was obliged to hire her. He had promised Uncle Pang.

“I’m looking to expand the family business,” he’d said over the phone. He hadn’t yet admitted to himself that he was actually leaving the family business, and the half-truth fell comfortably out of his mouth. “My father’s passed away, and my mother, she’s not what she used to be. I just want them both to be proud of their legacy.”

“What a good son,” the voice on the other end of the line had said. “I bet you were the kind of kid that other parents compared their children to. ‘Why can’t you be more like Jimmy!’ ” Her voice was feminine but full-bodied and loud, like a young boy’s. Similar to his, her English was lightly accented, confident yet halting, with a cadence that refused to smooth out. She teased him as if they’d known each other for years. He stammered through the rest of the call.

When she arrived to pick him up from the Duck House the next afternoon, he’d been looking out through the glass doors for half an hour. She drove a white Mercedes, large sunglasses covering a third of her face. Her hair was voluminous but nowhere the size of the hairdo she’d sported in the advertisement. She danced across the parking lot in tall shoes. He almost forgot to back away from the doors.

With a hand wrapped around each duck’s golden head, she pulled open both doors and shouted, “Jimmy!” as if she were truly happy to see him. How had she known the man fidgeting at the end of the hallway was him?

“You look even cuter in person than you did in that magazine.” She clasped his hand.

“I didn’t realize people read that article,” he said. “I told Johnny to say no, but he thought the exposure would be good.”

“ ‘Best Kept Secret of the D.C. Metro Area,’ ” she quoted. “Oh, you framed the piece!” She pointed behind his shoulder at the article, which had come out the previous month. Johnny and Jimmy posed with a roast duck. The idiot reporter had harassed them into pinning paper carver’s hats to their heads. Jimmy was pleased to see that Johnny looked positively miniature next to his six-foot frame. Though his brother’s jawline remained the sharper of the two.

“Johnny’s idea. Again.”

“What are your ideas, then?” She pushed her sunglasses into her hair.

“Getting the new restaurant.” Her face was so expressive that Jimmy grew flustered. Not because she was beautiful, but because her features were so liquid that he couldn’t be sure she was not. He wanted to get her outside as quickly as possible, so she wouldn’t think he was as tasteless as his restaurant.

“I guarantee we’ll find just what you’re looking for,” she said.

She drove him to five buildings in the Northwest section of D.C. They chatted about nothing in particular, but for some reason, he could not stop calling her Jenny. Each time, she would gently correct him, and in his eagerness his tongue would slip again. Finally, embarrassed beyond what he thought an almost-forty-year-old man was capable of, Jimmy had offered her a large, sheepish shrug. Janine’s entire mouth had opened up and she’d let out an enormous laugh. The laugh had been as violent as the sneezes that had once exploded out of his father, a man who believed he was shooing evil spirits from his body. Shocked, Jimmy had expected the small woman to apologize for making so much noise, but Janine had continued as if nothing had happened. How could he ever pull himself away?

In the car, in the dark, in a stranger’s suburban driveway, the idea hit Jimmy out of nowhere. He shoved his scotch bottle into the glove compartment and clapped his hands to his cheeks to wake himself up. A light went on in the house next door. Here he’d been, trying to scrabble together a course of action—a confession, a move, anything—but now he saw that he wasn’t meant to have a plan. Any plan he made, Janine would have a counter, and a counter-counter. Jimmy steered his car back onto the street. The plan was to make sure nothing went as planned. Janine was going to get a rude surprise when she saw the man she’d invited in. Tonight, change was in the air.

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Lillian Li
America
Family

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