“Elmhurst,” by Han Ong

Before he does it, she has a premonition, but too late for her to look away. The knot in the bag is undone, and the fish is tipped into his mouth, his face splashed. He tries to smile, but his full mouth won’t allow it. She can’t stop looking, and, thank God, because otherwise she would miss his bluff, as he spits the contents of the bag back in. Even with the bag pressed against the pane, she can’t trust her impression of a dazed goldfish turning itself around and around, making a small tornado in the water.

Another fight between her parents. Her mother doesn’t care if Shara can hear. As for her sister, nothing can rouse her from sleep. Her grandfather doesn’t even factor into the equation. What would you have me do? her father asks her mother. A question with no satisfactory answer. The restaurant where her father works is hosting a meal for the homeless families, an event instigated by Shara’s mother’s nemesis, the South Asian community organizer, and backed by Shara’s father’s boss, who is comping the evening’s costs. The protesters have been invited, too. A brokering of peace, if the protesters want it. Shara’s mother knows all about her husband’s boss, that traitor. He had turned a deaf ear to her church, being one of the few neighborhood-restaurant owners who did not provide for the protesters—the other proprietors made an occasion of their donations, transforming the otherwise grim gatherings into sidewalk festivals, with heaping portions of restaurant fare scooped out of giant aluminum trays and onto flimsy paper plates that necessitated speedy eating. These businessmen understood that their rights, too, were being fought for by the church. Meanwhile, her husband’s boss declared that his loyalty was with the TransAmerica families. During his first years as an immigrant from China, he himself had been homeless, and no one had helped him. He knew what such abandonment felt like.

“There’s a trade-off. The more a hat protects you from the sun, the more vulnerable it makes you to ridicule.”

Cartoon by William Haefeli

Shara knows what her mother is holding back from saying to her father: Quit. The word a stone in her throat. Because how can she ask that of her husband, who plugged away at his restaurant job in Manhattan’s Chinatown for nearly ten years before Empire Chinese opened nearby and a mutual acquaintance facilitated an introduction to the owner? He received a considerable bump in pay at Empire Chinese, thanks to his Chinatown pedigree, and his taxing commute became a leisurely walk. To forsake this job, when he held nothing equivalent or better in reserve, would be to spit on the idea of good luck.

Eating bitter, chewing it every single hour. No letup even in her sleep: once, when Shara’s mother was unconscious on the couch, her jaws kept moving. Dream-speaking, listing her grudges, her grievances. Even though she was silent, Shara could tell what she was saying.

It’s not so strange that Shara’s mother has let her go out into the night. The corporal punishment by Shara’s father a few nights back exhausted not just Shara, who hides the welts and the red lines on her legs by wearing pants, but also her mother.

And it’s only eight blocks one way, and then another two once she’s made the turn.

The young female cashier knows who she is, and Shara spends a not unpleasant few minutes being grilled about school and her ambitions for college. Asked what she’s doing at Empire Chinese, she lies and says that her mother has tasked her with walking her father home. She doesn’t care about the implication of family trouble.

The dining room is packed. No one is Chinese except the waiters, with that aggrieved air they all seem to have, the unhappiness of their lives taken out on the customers. The kitchen is different. No grievance but instead grim fellowship among the two Chinese cooks, the Mexican dishwasher and general third hand, and, sometimes, the fourth hand, also Mexican. They may be just as harried as the waiters on such a frantic night, but the kitchen, as her father has explained, is a clock; each tick is money—money earned or money wasted.

Shara could go back there and whoops would go up: money can be squandered every so often. Her father’s colleagues would holler as much to tease her father as to celebrate her. She is his toil paid back. None of the other men have children; none want the burden or have the optimism. Each socks his money away for a future that is different from her father’s. Different excitements, different calamities. Because he has her and her sister, her father no longer has a future. She is her father’s future, much more so than her sister, who is understood to be the pretty one and that is enough. With Shara, fear undergirds his glances, his admonitions. Now that she’s fourteen, there is every danger of her falling off course. She is his excitement. She is his calamity.

The South Asian man can’t be missed, moving between tables for handshakes and whispered conversations, picking up food with his fingers along the way. At some point, he spots Shara and goes over to welcome her. No, the cashier tells him. She is daughter of cook. She come take her father home.

Already? He’s smiling. You can join us. There are free seats.

Shara says no, thank you.

I know you from the protests, don’t I? He doesn’t wait for a reply. Come. Join. Meet some of the families. Or are you still on the clock?

Shara repeats her no, thank you. So close to her goal, and now she’s having second thoughts. Will the boy in the window recognize her? She has on the same outfit she wears outside the TransAmerica.

The social worker tells her she’s free to change her mind, and he goes back to his people.

You know him? the cashier asks Shara.

No.

He say you part of protest? Is true?

My mother. That’s all Shara needs to say.

Do you know what I think? I agree your mother. The cashier tells Shara that, ever since the change at the TransAmerica, her boyfriend has had to pick her up from work. The reports of muggings and near-rapes prompted her mother to ask if she could quit her job at Empire Chinese. On nights when her boyfriend is unavailable, the boss or his son drives her the eight blocks to the subway stop.

And yet she seems to feel no alarm at the fact that the supposed perpetrators are massed so close to her now.

Nobody at the gathering looks like the boy in the window. This comes after a second sweep of the room. No light-brown skin and tufty hair; she doesn’t see those googly eyes and downturned mouth, whose over-all affect, from a distance, is that of a ghost, as still and just as malign.

An ugly ghost—you can tell even from far away. I am ugly, too: this is part of what she tries to say to him. Two ugly youngsters staring at each other from across a distance: no wonder there is no room for sexual speculation. Instead, there is mutual pity, mutual hatred. Stoicism beamed back and forth.

When she first noticed him, he was already looking at her. He started the conversation, but, as they say, it takes two to tango. Telepathically, she had asked him, What do you want? And she is waiting for his reply.

She dares another peek into the dining room. Putting herself in view. But he is not present. Not among the ecstatic eaters, the freeloaders with their bulging cheeks, which do not stop them from conversing, from laughing and laughing.

Shara’s mother used to patch together a second family income through her church. Members circulate news of short-term jobs, which are often first-come, first-served, and also frequently pay below minimum wage, with the understanding that it’s Christian charity. But it’s been six months since her mother last had work, and the family’s increased economies show up at the dinner table. The same rotation of vegetables, tofu, ground pork. Shara doesn’t complain. For her, eating has long been a chore—both the act of shovelling food into her mouth and the obligatory time with the family, everyone glum because of the lack of money, because of the squabbling between husband and wife. On the evenings when her father works, Shara eats a second dinner of restaurant leftovers. Though that food is much more to her liking—pork cracklings, chicken nuggets—this is also an obligation, to appease her father’s worry that she is not taking in enough nutrition to excel in school. Her grandfather sits silent, and her father drinks the first of a handful of cold beers, stolen from work, while she finishes her fifth hour of homework.

Two weeks at the TransAmerica, and neither side has yielded.

Shara is allowed to play truant from the protests. It is exam time, a sacred period, and, to honor it, her parents even stop fighting. Her sister is told not to bother her. A hush descends on the household, a collective holding of breath. It’s like standing outside a locked door with a set of keys: the question is not whether Shara can master the lock but how quickly.

The church feeds the protesters, and it’s understood that the task of providing the evening meals for the family will fall to Shara’s father for as long as the protests go on. Some nights, her mother doesn’t come home until nine. Maybe she’s hoping that the pastor will take note of her perfect attendance and help her with another short-term job.

The flush of pride at having mastered her tests is what preoccupies Shara the following week, and when she looks up her mother has been home after school for the third straight day. The protests are finally over. The families have been moved out. Her mother’s easy volubility is the first shock, and it delays Shara’s understanding of the words coming out of the woman’s mouth. Too late to keep the disappointment off her face. That boy—no longer there, her mother says. What boy? Shara says. No use pretend-pretend, her mother says. Not to me. You like that boy? You like homeless? You gonna marry homeless, so two of you can be homeless together? So why you study so hard, why good grades, if only going to throw away by going with homeless? Trust me, I know all about bad marriage. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Shara says. It’s not like her mother to leave things alone, to let such blatant lies go unchallenged, but there is more good news to reveal. Now her mother’s congregation is on to the next campaign: to block usage of the TransAmerica as a warehouse for future homeless and also drug rehabbers, domestic-abuse victims, and those just freed from prison—the very bottom of society.

Shara has to wait until the next morning to verify her mother’s claims. Each window of the TransAmerica is like her grandfather’s milky eyes: no stirring behind the surface, no acknowledging stare. It’s hard to remember which was the boy’s square. Well, she has to remind herself, didn’t she give up on him the night of the Empire Chinese dinner, anyway? If he had mind-reading talents, he would have shown up, he would have intuited the occasion’s connection to the girl on the sidewalk. But he didn’t have any. Or maybe he did and just didn’t care to see things through. She will do the same.

She gets one hundreds on all her tests, as expected. For a day or two, she is the prized offspring. Copies of her scores are brought to the attention of the Empire Chinese owner, whose three children have all graduated college, one on full scholarship, the other two nearly full. Two nights later, while Shara’s father is in the restaurant kitchen, Shara and her mother, her sister, and her reclusive grandfather are guests of honor, with a central table in the dining room and more food than they can reasonably finish piled on the red lazy Susan.

The owner comes over to shake the hand of the “future famous scholar.” He has a proposition: his nephew is coming over from Taiwan to spend the summer with him and his wife, and the boy needs English lessons. The boss knows that Shara’s summer might already be spoken for, what with the need to fill her extracurricular C.V. for a possible Ivy League future. But—for maybe fifteen dollars an hour—can she find time to tutor the nephew?

This kind of deference and fuss lets Shara know where her lane in life is. As a show of good faith, the boss writes out an advance check: two hundred and fifty dollars.

The summer comes, and the sessions with the Empire Chinese owner’s nephew start, conducted in the dining room of the restaurant between the lunch and dinner rushes, three times a week. The boy is a runt, with thick glasses that he has to take off for close reading.

Customers or maybe the waiters leave old copies of the New York Post lying around, and Shara studies them while waiting for the boy to show up, flips the pages as he completes a written assignment. The waiters, seeing her concentration, encourage her to take the papers home, and she has begun to do so, hiding them from her mother, although her mother wouldn’t know whether reading the Post is a sign that Shara is being a good or a bad Chinese. Shara, on the other hand, knows all too well the meaning of the Post: it’s for spiteful, poor people, like the Chinese waiters, but she exempts herself because she is skimming with a purpose. She is looking to read news of a tragic death—by fire, shooting, vehicular smashup. The cascade of bad luck that follows someone who is bounced from one temporary home to another, at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Of course, she is thinking of the boy in the window. Now that she has the time and the space, the boy is free to haunt her, torment her.

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