Rumpus Original Fiction: Zhiyu/Jerry

By

 

Zhiyu wants the fattest duck. He points it out to the woman standing behind the cage. She nods approvingly and leans over to nab the bird by its neck, then carries it, flapping against her clutch, into a back room. She returns a few minutes later and gives Zhiyu a drooping plastic sack. The sack is warm in his hands. He is on his way home from work, and takes the sack with him on the bus. By the time he gets to his stop the sack is cool.

Work is a corner store he’s managed along with his wife, Fei Yen, for almost twenty years, and owned together for the last eight. Home is a two-bedroom apartment on a busy street in South San Francisco. All three of his children were raised here by money earned at the store.

In the coat closet by the front door is a bike pump with a needle valve. Back when Zhiyu still rode a bike most everywhere, this screw-on valve was kept in a kitchen drawer and only reattached to the pump once or twice a year, on occasions such as this.

Zhiyu has not pumped up a flat tire in over a decade. The needle just stays on now, and he wonders if the pump itself ought to be kept in the kitchen.

Fei Yen comes into the front room. They speak to each other in Mandarin.

“You shouldn’t go to all this trouble,” she says. “The boy might not like duck.”

“I’m not making it for him.”

“Yes, well, I’ll make extra dumplings, just in case.”

 

Zhiyu takes the duck from the sack and lays it on a metal tray on the kitchen counter. He punctures the de-feathered breast skin with the needle, and Fei Yen bends to grip the T-shaped handle. She starts to pump, up and down. Neither of them speaking over the rhythmic wheeze. Zhiyu moves the needle around the carcass while she keeps pumping, and the inflating skin separates from the under-layer of fat, and when it is to his liking Zhiyu nods and Fei Yen smiles and shakes her head and leaves the kitchen.

Zhiyu boils the duck for the time it takes him to smoke a cigarette. He towels the duck dry and rubs it with his father’s secret six-spice powder. A neighborhood cat comes to his back door and mews. He has fed this cat before, but this time he shoos it.

Before bed, he hangs a wire hanger on a cabinet knob and bends the other end into a hook. He hangs the duck from it, then glazes the skin with honey, vinegar, and soy sauce, then fetches an electric fan and leaves the duck dangling in its airstream. He can hear the fan whirring as he falls asleep. The sound it makes is comforting, like a nearby ocean. In the morning the skin is the texture of parchment. He glazes it again and smokes another cigarette.

It is a Sunday in early October. He and Fei Yen mop and dust and sweep the apartment with greater purpose than usual. By noon the day is warm and sunny and they open the windows to air out the rooms. They put a tablecloth and linen napkins on the table. All afternoon, Fei Yen makes dumplings. At 4:30 p.m., Zhiyu puts the duck in the oven. Then he sits at the kitchen table balancing the checkbook and listening to a Chinese AM radio station. There are two such stations that come in well at his house; Zhiyu prefers the one with more talk. It puts him in mind of his childhood. There were always so many people around, so many competing voices, seeking attention.

 

The shirt—a blue button-up with yellow pinstripes—arrived for Zhiyu in the mail earlier in the week. Inside, a note from Nancy, his daughter: Please? Thanks! Zhiyu hasn’t thought to iron the shirt, or wash it. He plucks the pins out, drapes it on, and buttons it all the way to the top. Still, the collar is loose enough that he can torque it around and peek at the itchy tag. It’s a medium. For his fifty-sixth birthday, Nancy gave him a heavy, navy blue sweatshirt bearing the gold block letters of her alma mater, BERKELEY, as well as a pair of pre-faded jeans, both garments a size too large. The dad she remembers, or somehow still sees, must be bigger than the one he is.

It is just before 6 p.m. There’s nothing left to do. Zhiyu sits down in the bedroom and lights what he knows will be his last cigarette for a few long hours. He tries to calm himself. The low-angle light of the autumn afternoon is held back by heavy drapes. Fei Yen is in the front room watching a game show. Like the dragon in the painting above their bed, Zhiyu sends smoke jetting from both nostrils. Is Nancy that afraid of the shirt he might have worn?

Of course she is. Zhiyu used to feel exactly the same about his parents, but for the opposite reason. Because they wore the jeans. They watched the subtitled Roy Rogers shows. They were amateur Americans, and their naked yearning for a lifestyle they would never lead was embarrassing enough for Zhiyu that he crossed the Pacific just to lead it, almost in spite of them. To discover whatever it was they craved but didn’t have the gumption or resources to seek. To him, nothing is so pathetic as hoping without seeking, as donning a cowboy hat as you wade across your rice paddies.

The doorbell breaks the quiet. Before its chime fades, Zhiyu has stabbed and stabbed and stabbed his cigarette into the ashtray. He fans at the tenacious rising tendril of smoke with his hand, hoping that whatever incriminating stink remains will be masked, or forgiven, by the smells that have been wafting from the kitchen all afternoon.

“Zhiyu,” Fei Yen says.

She is already at the front door, waiting for him before she opens it. He joins her. His shirt is still irritating his neck, and he scratches at it for a moment before reassuming the solemnity upon which he prides himself. A façade. Inside, he trembles with anticipation. He has two grown sons, both strong and hardworking and independent, but it is his oldest daughter, Nancy—standing on the other side of this door—who, no matter how she turned out, would always have been his favorite.

And she has turned out stronger and harder working and more independent than anyone Zhiyu has ever known. But a hugger she is not. And this makes it difficult to believe there’s someone else out there on the porch.

There is. Wearing jeans and a sport coat, a gift bag in one arm and Zhiyu’s favorite person in the other. How many “takes” of this introduction has Zhiyu subjected himself to in the weeks since it was proposed? Never once did he cast a kid like the one he sees now in the role of suitor. He’d expected someone shorter. Skinnier. Definitely more steel-eyed. Certainly Asian. Himself.

This kid is tall and light-haired and blue-eyed and, well, grinning. Fools grin.

Fei Yen speaks first.

“Eric,” Fei Yen says, bowing almost imperceptibly. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”

“Oh, well,” he says. “Thank you so much for having us over…”

Fei Yen and Eric begin exchanging pleasantries here in the doorway, in English. Zhiyu’s English has never been great, though he suspects it’s infinitely better than his guest’s Mandarin.

Zhiyu glances over to Nancy. He catches her glancing back.

The eyes of father and daughter, as they meet, say more than could ever be expressed another way. They speak the full truth, without the clunky translation of speech. Her eyes thank him for wearing the shirt she sent, and beg him not to be embarrassing, to give this brave boy a chance. His eyes in turn insist that he is withholding judgment for as long as he can. The smell of the roasting duck seeps out the door into the crisp air, and Nancy leans into Eric a little. Her eyes say that this young man is the one upon whom she leans nowadays and something else, too—something her eyes have never said before.

Is she in love?

How did Zhiyu not see this coming?

He pushed her so hard when she was young, pushed her like an accelerator pedal on an American muscle car, thrilled by the ever-louder RPMs. Revved her into the red because he knew she’d need scholarships to cover the costs of college. But he’d been blind to the inevitability of this day, when headstrong would succumb to heartbeat. She’s human, after all.

Fei Yen and Eric pause, each assessing their partners, neither of whom has spoken yet. Fei Yen looks to Zhiyu; Eric looks to Nancy.

“Eric,” Nancy finally says. “This is my dad, Zhiyu.”

Zhiyu makes his own slight bow and extends a hand, the tendon-y fingers yellowed and callused. “Please,” he says. “Call me Jerry.”

Again, he looks to Nancy. Does she appreciate this insistence on his Western name for Eric’s sake? Or does she see it for what it is—a denial of intimacy, a buffer. When Nancy was just a toddler, he’d found himself forced to interact with people who couldn’t pronounce Zhiyu. One of Nancy’s favorite cartoons was Tom and Jerry, and Zhiyu often watched it with her, laughing just as loud as she did to see the mouse outwit and outwork the cat. Zhiyu found himself in a country of cats, their domesticated appetites accustomed to easy meals. And though he, too, wanted such a life and to this day pretends one—here in this small apartment filled with things his parents would have gawked at—Zhiyu understood even then, sitting on the rug watching cartoons with his daughter, that he would be forever feral. He would call himself Jerry.

“Smells good in there,” Eric says, peeking over Jerry’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Jerry says, seeing that the boy is right. It’s time they move on, head inside. “Please,” he says. “Come in.”

He steps aside to let them through the doorway. Nancy stops on her way in. She gives Fei Yen a little hug. And then gives Jerry one, too.

Fei Yen and Jerry share a look.

 

Eric is smarter than he looks. He knows when to hold his tongue. He passes the plates of dumplings and duck before serving himself. From the way he describes his position at IBM, he sounds competent, though not obsessed. He lauds Nancy, says IBM owes her a promotion. The skin exposed by the low “V” of his collar is tan. He carries the slightly overbuilt musculature that can only come from exercise for exercise’s sake—weight rooms, not storerooms.

He likes the duck.

Loves it, even. Or seems to. At the table, seated beside Nancy and across from Jerry and Fei Yen, he asks question after question about the bird’s preparation. It is the topic about which Eric is most persistent all night.

“You mean, like a regular bike pump?” he asks.

Jerry screws up his face slightly. Is Eric put off by this revelation? Does he taste some hint of machine oil from the pump’s exhalations?

“Yes,” Jerry says.

“Wow. Can I see it?”

Jerry looks at Nancy. His eyes ask: Is this friend of yours being condescending, or is he legitimately curious? She looks down at her food.

“Yes,” Jerry mutters. “It’s no problem.”

He decides he will show Eric the pump after dinner. But Eric has set his chopsticks on the side of his plate and wiped his hands on his napkin. Jerry can’t help but marvel at this. Here is the genuine article: a young, American man, who expects the things he wants to come quickly, with just a word, a smile. So be it. Jerry rises, his napkin falling to the floor, and crosses the room to the coat closet to haul out the pump. As he carries it back to the table, he can see the grease-smudged chrome, the fraying hose. He has cooked dinner with this. No wonder the boy is shocked.

Jerry sets the pump down on the rug by Eric’s chair and returns to his seat. Eric swivels and picks it up, cradling it like a tennis trophy.

“I used to hunt ducks,” he says nostalgically.

“You never told me that,” Nancy says.

“Back in Colorado. Northern Front Range. We belonged to a club.”

“A club?” Jerry asks.

“A duck hunting club,” Eric explains. “I was never much of a hunter, though. I mean, I was pretty good with a shotgun, but I didn’t like getting up at four in the morning, plus the waterways are all covered in ice that time of year… it’s just so much work.”

Fei Yen looks to Jerry, nodding imploringly. He does his best to nod along with her, to pretend to commiserate with Eric.

“Anyway,” Eric continues. “Got to be that I’d go out to the club with my brothers and my dad, but I’d sleep in. And when they came home in the middle of the day they’d be all zonked out. They’d take naps and watch football while I cleaned their ducks and stuffed them with whatever I could find and get them roasting. I’d fry up some of the meat on toothpicks with some bacon and water chestnuts and jalapeños.”

“Mmm,” Fei Yen says.

“She like food spicy,” Jerry explains.

Eric smiles. “Me, too,” he says.

“Eric’s an amazing cook,” Nancy says.

Eric rests his hand on her thigh. She covers it up with her own.

“I got good at cooking ducks at least,” Eric says. “But I don’t think I ever cooked one that comes close to this, Jerry. And I mean that. This is the best duck I’ve ever tasted. I could go back to Colorado with this recipe and blow people’s minds.”

“I don’t know,” Jerry says. “Maybe not so good for that kind of duck.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Eric says. “You probably want ’em domesticated.”

“Yes,” Jerry says. “Nice and fat.”

At this, the two men start to laugh. Jerry laughs out of discomfort, having unwittingly, tangentially insulted his domesticated guest. But this seems to be apparent only to Jerry. Eric puffs out his cheeks and pats a pretended tummy with his hands, clearly enjoying this image of a fat, flightless duck. Jerry enjoys it, too, and laughs some more. The women look at each other quizzically.

Afterward, silence befalls the table again for a moment. Everyone returns to eating. Jerry sends the plate of duck around again. Eric takes seconds.

 

To his credit, Eric insists on doing dishes and assumes a shoulder-wide stance at the kitchen sink. Task-less, Fei Yen and Nancy are relegated to the kitchen table, where they sit sipping tea. Jerry takes the opportunity to slip out the front door with a glass of Hennessy and sit on the concrete steps. His steps. The evening is warm and without wind. His shirt still itches, so he untucks it and lifts it up and off without unbuttoning it. He drapes it over the metal railing beside the steps. A woman walking her golden retriever passes on the sidewalk and nods at Jerry, sitting in his undershirt, sipping cognac. He nods back and sees that, to her, this may be just another evening. A stroll with a dog on the western edge of the United States of America. But Jerry is not having just another evening. He feels on the verge of tears, and can’t remember the last time he got so worked up. He doesn’t even know what’s bringing it on. Not specifically, at least. It’s nothing anyone said or did tonight. It’s just—it’s a lifetime. A long march. Something sought, a purpose, that now seems…

Nancy knocks at the front door, from the inside; not so much for permission to join him, probably, as to apologize in advance for interrupting his peace. She comes out, shutting the door behind her, and takes a seat beside him on the stoop.

He looks at her. He wants to tell her he knows the spell she’s under; he wants her to know he is willing to accept that she leans upon another now. He isn’t sure his eyes can lie like that, though. For it was not Nancy who leaned upon him. All these years she has propped him up. He’s the one who will now topple over.

“What happened to your shirt?” she asks.

“It your shirt,” he replies, then looks up to see Nancy smile.

“You and Mom made a great dinner. Thank you.”

“Thank you for coming. I know how you busy. It’s good you busy.”

Nancy nods toward the house, lifts a brow. She asks, “Whatdya think? Will he do?”

What does he think? Well, for a few seconds, looking at her, he thinks of the time when she was five and the family borrowed a car and drove down the coast to Big Sur. Their first real road trip. Nancy fell asleep in the backseat, and so when they arrived at the motel they left her sleeping in the car outside the room while they settled in. A few minutes later they heard something shatter and stepped outside to find a frantic Nancy emerging through a broken, driver-side window, like a chick from an egg. Unable to work the door handles, she’d panicked and kicked out the glass.

“He seem very nice,” Jerry says, testing the waters a little.

“Definitely,” Nancy says—though with the far off look on her face, it seems she’s not definite at all, that’s she’s come out here not for approval, but convincing.

“You both have good job,” he says. “You both hard workers. So… these are important.”

Nancy grins. “Right,” she says. “Just like you and Mom, huh?”

Jerry nods, makes fists in the air. “Together,” he says. “Strong team. Make grandkids.”

Nancy laughs at this suggestion, but her features quickly harden again, and Jerry feels a sudden fright to realize just how sensitive the scale upon whatever it is she’s weighing might be—a single pearl of advice on either side could tip it.

“You love him?” Jerry asks bluntly.

“Yes,” Nancy says. “I mean, I—I think so. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. He’s the first boy I found. Or, found me…”

Jerry watches the cars on the street below. He knows he must pick his words carefully now, and wishes Nancy spoke better Mandarin so he could hew closer to what he’s actually feeling.

“I think you not a little girl anymore,” he tells her. “And this not a little boy. This a man.”

“Maybe something in between,” Nancy laughs. “But I kind of like that about him. He’s not so serious all the time. Not like us…”

Jerry puts his arm around his daughter. “Well,” he says. “He is in there, doing dishes.”

Jerry wonders what he’s doing, what’s compelling him to add weight to this side of the balance. Because he’s already concluded that Eric is not man enough for this little bird of his. But who would be? Maybe that’s not what she needs.

Maybe this gentleman of hers, with his tan chest and his Colorado roots and his unaffected swagger and, more than anything, his sincere affection for Nancy (and therefore his unimpeachable taste), is the reason Jerry abandoned everything he knew, crossed an ocean, went by another name, worked like a dog, disappeared even to himself most days. Jerry didn’t do all that so his daughter could fall in love with a Jerry.

Eric is the fattest duck.

“I should probably go back in,” Nancy says, rising from the step.

“Yes,” Jerry says. “I coming, too.”

He makes no effort to stand up. Somewhere up the block, a car horn sounds. He turns to look in that direction, smelling and hearing and watching the city he’s earned the right to feel some part of. Nancy pats his shoulder and pulls open the door to go back inside. Before she’s gone, he turns to her.

“We proud of you,” he says.

She drops her head a little, and it brings him joy to know she’s still humbled by even his simplest praise. He knows without question, as the door closes between them, that he’s just told her the one thing she came outside to hear.

***

Rumpus original art by Megan Goh.


Ben Rogers is the author of The Flamer, a humorous novel about a young pyromaniac, and the lead author of two books about nanotechnology, which are less humorous. He lives with his family in Reno and at www.readrogers.com. "Zhiyu/Jerry" is excerpted from his new novel, Seek You, which is seeking a publisher. More from this author →