It was the summer before I left for college, and Aunt Minda was cutting ties with us. She called me to her office where she uncapped a metal tea canister, drew a small, tight square of paper from inside.
“I had to steal this from your father’s trash ten years ago,” she said, unfolding the square, flattening it on the edge of her desk. “And now I think you should have it.”
I knew what it was before she handed it to me: my mother’s goodbye letter, a single notebook page written in neat logograms. I asked Minda to read it aloud to me, reminding her that I couldn’t read Chinese. But she only shook her head, said in English, “No, thank you.”
I will just get this out of the way now: My mother ran away from us in August 1997, leaving behind a mawkish goodbye note and a gambling debt of just over $90,000. I was six at the time, and my father was thirty-seven. He was the industrious co-owner of Mandarin Imperial, a chain of three take-out restaurants in Northern Virginia that served inauthentic Sichuan food to diners who did not care whether the food they ate was authentic or not. To cover my mom’s debt, my father sold two of the Imperials. He borrowed the rest against the third. He kept the stacks of cash neat in the restaurant freezer until Mom’s debtors, Da Bill and his brother Joey, came to collect.
At the time, Aunt Minda was Mandarin Imperial’s co-owner. She had followed her brother to America, where, he promised, they would find wealth beyond compare. Hadn’t she heard? Americans were too rich, too lazy, too naïve to bother keeping their money in closed fists. Same with the men, he had said when a young Minda voiced her foremost concern. Lots of unmarried men in America.
“Guess which one of your father’s sisters never married,” Minda liked to say before pointing at herself with a swelled knuckle. “This American one.”
Now she moved onto other relics in the canister—old photographs, expired passports, a saved wedding invitation, etc.—handed each one over to me in somber presentation. There were photos of my mother I had never seen before, but I pretended not to notice them. I could examine them later.
“Now you have everything you need from me.” Minda hugged me stiffly.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“Ai. Your father. He’ll be angry with me.” She turned the empty canister upside down and shook, as if there might be other letters lodged up top. “But you know why he never learns?” she capped the tin and put it back in her desk drawer. “He doesn’t know how to hold on to the past. Not the right way.”
After giving me the letter and photos, Aunt Minda, who hadn’t said a word when my father sold the original two restaurants, announced that she would be suing him. She wanted half of the Mandarin Imperial chain, which had grown back to a healthy four restaurants since my mother’s departure. My father resisted for two months, calling Minda a traitor and an old childless toad, but eventually he gave her control of Imperial III (Fairfax location) and Imperial IV (Centreville location), both of which Minda rebranded as Asia Garden, a place where healthy oriental cuisine was served.
Imperial was not a restaurant destined for rave reviews, but after Minda left, things went downhill. I was in school by now and read the reviews from my dorm. There were endless complaints about the cashiers (incorrect change, poor English, bad breath) and the kitchen (bland dishes, overly flavorful dishes). According to reviewers, Imperial I (in Herndon) smelled puzzlingly of gasoline. At Imperial II (Falls Church), the floors were “disgustingly sticky.” One reviewer swore she had seen two roaches during one meal. Another reviewer recounted my father’s unwelcoming behavior: honestly, if the mngr doesn’t want us here, we won’t come. did i come here to be scowled at? no. prices are great yeah but I’m not poor.
Scowled at? I laughed into the screen of my phone. That was just my father’s face.
Online reviews, letters of complaint—these became my only missives from the homeland. Phone conversations with my father were rare and not very revelatory. Minda had stopped sending me texts, since I never answered them. I knew her latest one was her last: this daughter just like her father. too much loyal. In New York, I had only the reviews. I read and reread them with great care, checking for new ones each morning before class.
You are supposed to steel yourself against letters from a distant home. And if you cannot steel yourself, then you are not supposed to read them. In America, my father burned the letters he received from Taiwan. He had learned from his father, who, in Taiwan, never even opened his first family’s letters from China. He sent money to the address listed on the envelope, then threw the writings out with the kitchen trash. When I wished aloud that he had kept my grandparents’ writings, my father shook his head.
“Why bother,” he said. “They all say the same thing: Come back, come back, come back.”
Listen: how many times in the history of higher education has a person decided that she is a worker, not a learner? In the middle of my second semester, I took a voluntary leave, citing personal reasons. I sold what I could, left any remaining items on the small flat of grass outside of my dorm, and carried two black suitcases to the bus station. I confess to shedding a small number of tears on the bus ride home.
It was late by the time I arrived at my father’s house. There was the smell of heavy, stale grease in the kitchen, and the collection of safari-themed animal carvings occupying space on a cracked-tile fireplace. The carpets were stained grey at the foot of the stairwell and by the front door. My father poured hot tea from a sienna pot into two pale cups.
“You’ll go back next year,” he said.
“I don’t think so.”
“No?” he said. “Why? The people were too smart? Too stupid.”
I gave him a shrug. “It wasn’t for me.”
“Not for you?”
“I liked it,” I said. “But did I love it?”
“I never hear of people leaving a place because they only like it.”
We sat and watched the television glow with my father’s favorite twenty-four-hour cable news broadcast. There was the Rolodex of pristine faces, flattened by powder and ongoing concern for the state of the world. There was the footage of worn faces, bodies with no place to go. And when the screen went briefly black, there was that scowl, which, until recently, I had never thought was anything more than just my father’s face.
I started managing Imperial II that week, to my father’s great but ineffectual indignation.
“How will you even know what to do?” he said. “I refuse to teach you.”
Of course, I was already primed for this job. In high school, my father had forced me to memorize each of his recipes in case of culinary emergencies. He had quizzed me for weeks until I knew which suppliers to call for quality, which for quantity. Every day after school, I manned the cash register, took orders, ran food.
“That was work for a child. You’re a lady now.”
“You could have been smart,” my father said as I was getting ready to leave. “Look at all your friends. Katie, Moira, Eleanor. Did any of them turn back? No. They’re still at school. I know, because I see their parents all the time. Gas station, Shop Rite, my own damn restaurant.”
“Okay, Dad, enough.”
“You’ll have to see them now, too. Think about that. Those idiots. Half as smart as you. Parents a quarter as smart.”
I grabbed the yellowed bag that held Imperial II’s petty cash and headed for the garage.
He followed me to the door. “Where do you get this from? Not me.”
I only came from two people, I said, and he was the one who knew both of them.
“Your mother?” he punched out a strange, high laugh. “If she were you, she would have stayed in school and never come back. That’s the only way she and I were alike.”
At the restaurant, I received a warmer welcome from Da Shifu and Florinda, both of whom had been working the kitchens at Mandarin Imperial since before I was born. It had been less than a year since I’d last seen them. Still, Florinda clasped her hands together as if it had been decades. She made a sound of disbelief. “She’s come home! Our little sentry. Back to work with us at last!” Da Shifu, head chef, looked as if he would cry.
I spent the busy lunch hour resolving trivial issues (directing customers to the restrooms, refilling the napkin dispensers, etc.) and surveying Imperial II for the many claims laid by our online reviewers. Okay, the floors were a bit sticky, and the windows desperately needed cleaning, but the food was fine—spicy enough and well-apportioned. The cashier, a young Taiwanese girl named Wei Hwa, did not seem particularly attentive, but her breath and her grasp of the English language were both passable.
That evening and throughout the week, I made steady, diligent improvements on the restaurant: new cleaning procedures, menu reprinting, more stringent refrigeration policies. I taught Jin, one of the line cooks, the proper way to mop a restaurant floor, a step-by-step process I had found online and committed to memory the night before. I showed Wei Hwa the right mix of antiseptic solution for the tables and countertops and the pattern I wanted them to be wiped in. To address the complaint about bad breath, I started keeping mints by the cash register, and, in an effort to, as they say, lead by example, I ate them frequently.
There was, of course, the evening I made the mistake of preening about some of my successes over dinner. My father and I still sat down to dinner every evening after both restaurants were closed for the night, same as we had done before my aborted attempt at a bachelor’s degree.
“You understand,” he said after he had finished counting that day’s cash, “that you upset the balance. You ask workers to do things, and then you know what happens? They ask for things back.”
“Is that so bad?”
My father made a sound best described as a growl.
I bit into the fat end of a chicken leg.
Still, I felt happy to be home. Within weeks, I grew accustomed to the workers’ individual styles. Florinda’s desire to please, Jin’s constant need to be told what to do. Wei Hwa’s glassy-eyed indifference, which seemed to veer closer to resentment every day. Da Shifu treated my new protocols like the irrational demands of a sick child, to be humored.
For the most part, my new systems were successful. I had unveiled a reward structure for protocols strictly adhered to, and a penalty system for rules that went unfollowed. And as a result, Florinda, Jin, Da Shifu, and even Gregory, the delivery boy who arrived after school every day at 2:30, operated as a great machine, moving quickly and seamlessly to serve the people who crowded in from the office towers across the parkway. Wei Hwa was, of course, the wheel that squeaked.
“So you dock our pay if you see a rat now,” she said one evening. It was raining, which made for a quiet shift. I had been killing time, arranging the take-out menus and business cards to be equidistant from the potted bamboo shoot. Now I looked around us. I could tell from the way the others averted their eyes that they had all agreed she would speak on their behalf.
“Yes,” I said. I had seen a rat. In fact, it had run over my feet as I was standing at the register, running a credit card. “But don’t I also pay a bonus every Friday if I don’t see a single rat all week?” I couldn’t think of anything fairer than that.
“Fair!” Wei Hwa gave me a sharp laugh. “Little Boss, I can’t control where bugs and rats will crawl. Who am I? God? No. I am just a person who works here.”
Briefly, I wondered how old Wei Hwa was. She looked to be about my age, but with girls from other countries, it’s always hard to tell.
We own a small townhouse in Herndon where our staff can rent cheaply from us if they don’t have the papers or the credit to find their own housing. Florinda has lived in the house for fifteen years. Da Shifu and his wife and sons live there also. It is well known among the staff that my father pays carnal visits to certain of the workers who live in the house. Is this so bad? He is not an ugly or repulsive man, and I can safely assume that he gives these women gifts and preferential treatment. (I have seen the bright, silvery bracelet Wei Hwa removes and places in her purse before her shift starts each day.) Am I bothered by my father’s behavior? I can honestly say I am not. I simply do not involve myself. I am just a person who works here.
“Listen, I know,” I said to Wei Hwa, loud enough for the rest of the workers to hear. “But we all have to do our part. It’s our responsibility to the customers.” I ate one of the mints from the bowl on the counter, then said another platitude about teamwork.
Wei Hwa made a face, like she was the one watching the boulder roll back down the fucking hill. It was a familiar, unblinking gaze—the look of a person who thinks she deserves better.
“Anyway,” I added curtly, “no one’s forcing you to stay.”
I hired an exterminator. Jeffrey and his son, Dean, of BugEx Virginia arrived early on Tuesday morning to assess Mandarin Imperial’s rodent problem. (They came highly recommended by Sri, who franchised the Vie de France cafe across the parking lot and whose daughter, according to my father, was studying mechanical engineering at UVA. I remembered her as the girl who sold weed at a loss to make friends in high school).
Dean led me on a BugEx tour of the restaurant, showed me the signs of Imperial’s rat infestation. He used his BugEx-branded flashlight as a kind of teacherly pointer.
“See those marks? Scratches from their nails. Lots of bacteria, disease.”
He torqued his wrist a few times to draw my eye to a lighted spot above our heads.
“Somewhere up here is their den. You can tell by the concentration of droppings in the air ducts. Probably connects over next door.” Jeffrey beamed as his son went on listing the telltale signs—like they were verses of a familiar song.
I listened to Dean the way Wei Hwa should have listened to me and to my protocols, the way I had learned to listen to professors at school. With great interest and respect for expertise. I widened my eyes to appear alert. I made the sounds of a person learning truly educative and provocative information. Before reading through the BugEx contract, I asked detailed questions and listened carefully to the answers. What were their sleeping patterns? How did they protect their young? Was there a queen we could kill?
“I guess I’m thinking of bees.”
“Well there are usually a lot more males than females,” Dean blinked at me. “Don’t know if you’d consider that a queen kind of situation.”
I looked up from the folder of papers Jeffrey had handed to me. Dean gave me a placid smile. His father jumped in to close the sale, summarizing BugEx’s boilerplate duties and how quickly I could expect to see results (two weeks if we kept up our part of keeping the kitchen clean.)
“Never seen a girl so into rats before,” Dean said as I walked him and his father back to their van. The sun was very bright.
“I’m into killing them.”
“Well, hell, us too.” He motioned at his uniform.
The uniform. Yes, that reminded me. Did they have to wear the BugEx shirts when they arrived for future appointments?
“Unfortunately, we do have to,” Jeffrey said with a furrowed brow before his son could respond. “It’s a safety precaution.” He assured me that they would always arrive far in advance of opening hours. But I had the Vie De France across the lot to think about. They opened at six in the morning, and we shared a lot of the same customers.
Jeffrey nodded his head, even though his face did not agree. “It’s a concern, for sure, but people are more understanding than you think. Rodents, rats. They’re God’s creatures, remember.”
“Yes.” Dean gave me a practiced wink. “A part of the great circle of life.”
This was distracting. I decided this Dean was handsome, with his cake-top posture and his bright, calculating eyes. He seemed older than I was, which lent him an air of wisdom. The BugEx shirt was too big on him, swung loose around his narrow chest. It was hard to get a sense of his body, but I like a mystery.
Jeffrey moved around the van to the driver’s seat. “Don’t let my son charm you.”
I waved goodbye. “Too late.”
After dinner that night, Dad counted the petty cash collected from both restaurants, and discovered that $265 was missing from the Imperial II bag. This was my cue. I launched into the explanation of my decision to hire BugEx.
It wasn’t enough to scrape by on barely acceptable health standards, I told him. We had a responsibility to our customers. We needed to invest in keeping the restaurant clean and respectable. Had he, I ventured, ever read his online reviews?
This upset him. “Who said you could read those?”
More importantly, I asked, had he ever read Minda’s reviews?
“Minda,” he spat the name. The familiar lines formed in his brow and by his eyes. “That traitor. Selling sushi rolls in boxes from my restaurant so she can drive her fancy red car.”
“That’s not the point,” I said.
He agreed; it wasn’t the point. “I spent twenty years cooking for these people. Smile at them, talk all the bullshit these Americans love so much. How are you? How was your day? Look, today it rains. Now look, today it doesn’t. Every day I buy bad food, cook bad food, sell bad food. Why do you think I did all that? So that my daughter can sell bad food at a bad restaurant, too?”
When was the last time my father had said so many words to me? I had forgotten what tall cadences his sentences had. I had forgotten that his throat clicked when he swallowed. Historically, my father and I did not talk much. Neither of us had much talent for language, and we spoke each other’s poorly. Growing up, I understood my father through observation, and I suspect that he understood me much the same way. I liked to think our love was purer that way. Like two stray dogs who found each other and are blessed enough to just get along.
“What do you want me to do?” I said, tired. “Take the money out of my paycheck?”
“You’re ungrateful,” my father said. “You want to be like Aunt Minda? That woman forgets where she comes from.”
In Chinese, there isn’t one word for ungrateful. A translation of the phrase would be closer to forget mercy. What did this mean? I’d forgotten his mercy? Or I’d forgotten to have some of my own?
I picked at the fish on my plate, used the tine of my fork to get at the flesh by the bones. In school, I read a study in which two songbirds of different species were raised together in isolation, seeing and hearing only one another for the entirety of their lives. And still, even without being taught, even having never known their mothers or their fathers, each bird grew up singing its own species’ song.
Dad looked down at our meal, choice leftovers he had brought home from Imperial I. “How is it possible,” he said, “that you think this is who I am?”
I confess to having impure thoughts about the exterminators. Not just impure, but lewd, disgusting, ridiculous. That night, I thought of Dean and his father, their coarse hands and thick, freckled necks. I’m sure I don’t need to mention that what stimulates the mind is often at odds with what stimulates the body. Our minds crave dark, challenging things; our bodies want wholesome, edifying ones. Of course, when you sleep in your childhood bed in your father’s home, there is really only the mind to concern yourself with. I had my crude fantasies, and then it was morning. Who knows what went on in between—I’ve never been a person who remembers what she dreams about.
During their initial visit, Dean and his father had set up bright green blocks of poison in the air ducts (a supposedly safe distance from the kitchen and food prep areas), and later that week they came by to collect the rats that had eaten the poison and crawled home to die. I never saw the results, but I heard the thumps of small, dense bodies sliding down and hitting the bottom of a trash bag. Low conversations and periodic laughter came from where the BugExes were working. Imagine a father wanting you around.
It was early in the morning, about 7 a.m. I waited in the dining area, and when they returned from the storage room, I gestured at the black bag Dean was carrying.
“How many are in there?”
“Five or so.”
He must have seen my face fall. “It takes time. We don’t want to use too much poison at a restaurant. It’s really just a backup. The boxes will do most of the work.”
I had read online that the boxes weren’t effective if the rats were too big to fit inside them, or smart enough to avoid them entirely.
Dean listened to my concerns as he moved toward the front entrance, then opened the glass door and gestured for me to walk through. “Just give it some time,” was all he said.
Jeffrey had already walked ahead of us toward the van, and now called back, “Lord, this weather. Beautiful day out! Gorgeous!”
“For sure,” Dean responded, then turned the call to me, “But did you hear it’s supposed to rain Saturday?”
There was an early morning line forming at the red and white counter of Sri’s Vie de France. I averted my eyes, as if this would stop anyone from seeing the BugEx duo leaving my father’s restaurant with a bag of dead rats.
“So what can I do to speed this process along?” I asked. “I mean, aside from the traps. Shoot them?”
“Shoot them! This is a good daughter, see? I wish my son was half as dedicated as you.”
Dean gave me a square smile. “Why don’t you just leave it to us for now? It takes some time. Believe me.”
But I decided it would be best to shoot them.
That afternoon, I unearthed my air rifle from the closet in my bedroom, then drove to Wal-Mart for a tin of lead pellets, then home again where I drew concentric circles on a paper plate and nailed it to a tree. Target practice. My father walked by on his afternoon break but pretended not to see me. I pretended not to see him also.
The rifle had been my father’s, until he gave it to me in the fall of 2002. I was eleven. That year, two men had been driving around Maryland and Northern Virginia, shooting at people outside of groceries and home goods stores. Newscasters coined them the Beltway snipers. To cope, people were buying bulletproof vests, running in zigzagged lines from storefronts to their cars. Others were bestowing their old firearms upon their daughters.
The rifle had a rosewood stock, a crooked sight and a thin, corroded barrel. It was typically kept on top of our refrigerator, from where Dad sometimes removed it to shoot at squirrels and other backyard pests. After the snipers had shot and killed a fourth person, a woman in Silver Spring, my father brought me outside to the front of our restaurant, presented me with the gun.’’
“See?” he said, “You can stand guard here.”
A former seaman in the Navy of the Republic of China, my father stood straight-backed behind one of the wide cement columns, faced the glass-paneled entrance to our restaurant. I followed his example.
“From here, you can see the reflection of the parking lot and what’s happening inside the restaurant. All while keeping yourself safe.” He slapped the concrete. “Okay, stand up straight and suck in your stomach.” Dad presented the rifle to me in a lurching, militaristic display. “You’re our sentry now.”
I stood watch every afternoon for about two weeks until my father relieved me of my duties with the same stiff salute from our first ceremony. Several concerned citizens had called the restaurant to complain. Anyway, the snipers had been caught by then. They were John Allen Muhammad, forty-two, and John Lee Malvo, seventeen.
According to online sources, rats typically feed at dusk and again at dawn, so I set out for Imperial II at three o’clock the next morning, wearing what I suspect a cat burglar would wear, and carrying my rifle by the barrel. I brought with me a container of homemade rat bait—a mixture of sweet chili sauce and beef jerky—and placed it in the middle of the restaurant floor, then sat cross-legged in the dark on one of the four-top tables by the far wall.
I have never been squeamish, but it was difficult to keep from flinching as the rats started to appear. At four o’clock, they were quite active, sociable. They convened along the wall. They ran across the floor toward the kitchen. They didn’t take much to the bait, though some paused in twos or threes to investigate the bowl that stood in their path. My throat flexed to gag at the sound of their nails clipping the tiles, but still I forced myself to train the barrel on their quick, long bodies. In the glow of the parking lot lamps, they seemed unpredictable, capable of catching me by some otherworldly surprise. I aimed carefully, shot rarely. Still, I missed every time. I have bad aim, I guess. At each shot, the rats scattered for a few minutes, then went about their business. Their eyes winked white as they ran past me.
I texted Dean a picture of my activities, and he responded after about twenty minutes.
You really have it out for them.
You know me. More dedicated than even the exterminator’s son.
I thought you’d be asleep, I wrote.
Rat killing is early work. You okay over there?
I didn’t answer for a bit, but I was just playing hard to get. I looked across the empty dining room floor, and by now it was light enough for me to see the mirrored wall across the restaurant, where a young woman was lying across the length of two square tables, propped up at the elbows and aiming an air rifle at a bowl of beef jerky and dried-up chili sauce.
You good? Dean asked again.
I could use a professional.
Dean arrived in a red truck with a low bed. He was wearing a faded blue shirt with a puckered polo collar. He smelled like the leather of an old, familiar car, not unpleasant.
I stood close to him. “No van?”
“Dad’s got it in Merrifield.”
“I think we can handle this ourselves, can’t we?”
Was I too bold? The words were slick and unfamiliar in my mouth, and Dean looked at me funny. I added, “I mean, come on. You’re here, aren’t you?”
“You aren’t the first college girl to call me in the middle of the night.”
I made some protest, but Dean smiled it away and walked past me into the dark restaurant.
“Is this you?” he pointed at two metal BBs stuck in the drywall. The pellets were so close that it looked like one was the target and the other was on track to hit it.
I showed Dean my air rifle, explained the story of how I came to own it. Remember the Beltway snipers?
He remembered. “They got the death penalty a few years ago.”
Actually, only John Muhammad was executed. John Lee Malvo, seventeen at the time of the murders, is in the midst of life imprisonment without parole. He had named himself after John, his friend and mentor, but he goes by his legal name now, Lee Boyd.
“So this is a family heirloom, and you’re shooting restaurant rats with it?”
“You think I’m crazy,” I played.
His laugh was warm and forgiving. “Not at all. I know what it’s like,” he said. “It’s hard to watch something like this go south.” Here he gestured at the restaurant. “Something your daddy made.”
I was quiet about this, and he put his hand on my back, light like a bird, like a question. After some time, I got Dean against one of the square tables and it wobbled to accommodate us. I will say he was very attentive.
“Your belt,” I winced at the buckle, and he moved it aside.
“Are we falling or,” I said of the table, and he lifted me, cradled me like an egg and lowered me onto the floor.
We kissed for some time before he hefted himself into me.
“God, girl,” he breathed into my ear. “You’re too good to be true.”
Desire is a funny, flitting thing, isn’t it? Like so many rats to aim for in the dark.
I don’t bother going home before the morning shift. Wei Hwa will be coming in early, and I have to be there to let her in. Today she is charged with opening the restaurant, setting up the tables and chairs, mopping the floors, watering the plants. Until last week, opening the front of the restaurant was a task for two people, which could be completed in less than an hour. Now, in accordance with my new policies, it is the job of the person who failed to do something correctly or otherwise broke a rule during the previous shift. This seems stringent, but when no one messes up, the job of opening the restaurant always falls to me.
“What is fairer than that?” I said again to the team once, but by now they know it is rhetorical. There are many things that could be fairer than that.
Before Wei Hwa’s arrival, I push the table back to its position along the wall and rinse the bait bowl out in the small bar sink which Jin has recently buffed with bleach powder. In the bathroom, I splash my face with water and reapply some makeup. I pose for my reflection. Too good to be true? No, but I am pretty at least. I look like the photos of my mother; I have her dark, cruel eyes, her tall nose and angled chin. There is something of my father here too, but it is harder to pinpoint what or where.
Wei Hwa shows up around eight-thirty. She doesn’t say hello or even look at me, just begins filling the dingy white tub with antiseptic solution and warm water. I pretend not to take note of what she is doing, swipe carelessly through my phone. First, she wipes down all the square tables along the wall, then the long cafeteria-style ones in the middle of the dining area. Next, she’ll sort the clean silverware into their clean tubs, head down, handle up. Normally I feel useless and nervous when someone is working while I am not, but today I make it a point to stand perfectly still. She has her job, and I have mine.
Did I say earlier how beautiful she is? Pale and round-faced with a small, sharp chin? Have I ever mentioned how expressive her eyes are, how clear and how wide they are when she is not narrowing them at me? She catches me looking at her.
“What now, Little Boss?” Wei Hwa says. “What did I do?”
Is there any other way to answer that? I say it’s nothing, but she isn’t convinced. Really, I tell her, you’re fine.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.