Post Road Magazine #15

Take that, Amy Tan

Alex Kuo

The Lunch

Take that, Amy Tan

by Alex Kuo

Two half sisters walked into a bar in the California that is Chinatown. Since they didn’t like each other in the half English and half Cantonese of their mother tongue, they sat at separate tables but within sight, text-messaging digital English right into their cell phones. After her drink arrived, the older one keyed a message—YOU GO PICK UP LO MO!—and poked the Send pad with a lacquered fingernail, sucking on an ice cube, and waited for the reply.


SO SHE WON’T PLAY THE SPANISH LOTTERY ANYMORE, STUPID, she poked again, but there was no exclamation point this time.


Treason, she slurped through the ice, and looked up at her slightly shorter half- sister, seated at a table no more than twenty feet away, one hand over electric lipstick, giggling and finger-wagging a caution this time. Treason, she repeated, loud enough for the bartender to turn her head.

You two ladies okay? she waved a dirty bar rag at them.

They both turned and fixed her with a mind-your-own-business or shut-up stare, whichever worked, before the one with the lipstick collected all her stuff and re-collected herself at the other’s table—-after all, like it or not, she had a rep to keep in this community, since she owned her own consulting business, Efficiency Solutions, providing function:-time-effort-wage analysis at a hefty fee.

All right, all right, Ida, she said, and slid her military military-spec compliant cell phone into her handbag. We got to get Lo Mo out of her condo to talk to her about this lottery together. Lunch or something. Just a suggestion, she shrugged and looked away.

You’re right, . Ida chunked an ice cube back into her drink and continued. “She called me this morning and wanted more money. ‘Invest in my business,’ she said. It’s her business now, she said, Nerissa’s business. One hundred bucks for Western Union money transfer, must be wired today, she insisted, to protect her number’s eligibility. In the four years she’s been playing Spanish Lottery she has lost all her savings, and the monthly interest alone on her credit card loans is staggering and beyond her pension payments.”

Or pay her phone and electricity bills for the last two months, Buddhist, Catholic, woodcutter, or Kafka, same thing, you know.

What’s that? Ida squinted.

That’s an expression my anthropologist friend is always using, you know, the one who names everything she has Kafka, even her black lab and her laptop, the one who’s licensed by the state to evaluate a person’s cognitive condition. We can give her the money for her lottery, or pay her bills, what’s the difference, same thing. At least this way she’ll have heat and a phone, she added this last part in her falsetto street Cantonese.

But she’ll call us ten times a day on it, ten progenitor lectures a day.

Let her phone bill lapse, is that what you’re suggesting, sister Ida?

Why, sister Kate Blue, you are so mean!

* * * * *

They had decided on the Dragon 2000 for lunch because they knew it was Nerissa’s favorite restaurant in town, even when they’d never been there and, not wanting to pick her up from her condo, both pretended not to know where it was, when they had both MapQuested its location at the Palm Court Shopping Center just in case. Shanghai cuisine, you know, where she’s from. Exiled sixty-plus years back to the end of the War of Resistance last time, time of her country’s last political revolution, Mao’s revolution and civil war, one of the half- sisters said. She can remember the food, the dialect, and the humidity that much, imagine that, even after a forty-year layover south in Hong Kong, where she found a medical career and learned to cuss equally dirty in both privileged and street Cantonese.

Kate Blue had decided it’d be best if Ida would drive her stepmother in her Volvo, as she had to pick up some important papers at the state courthouse. You know, she convinced her, the conservatorship form. Just to irritate her, Ida asked the bartender for a phone book and pretended to flip through the Yellow Pages for the street address of the Dragon 2K. Where is Botelho Drive? she finally looked up and smiled

Before Ida had time to set the hand brake on the car in the restaurant’s parking lot, Nerissa asked her for a hundred dollars. When her stepdaughter peered over her driving glasses at her, she explained, With your sister’s friend for guest, it’s Chinese manners that the family elder picks up the check.

Not wanting to say there was no such Chinese thing, thereby challenging her stepmother, and suspicious but not knowing exactly why, Ida counted out five sequential Andrew Jacksons from her wallet and handed them to her.

And where is your sister? Nerissa demanded. She is late.

But she wasn’t, she was opening the door and reaching for her mother’s walking cane and helping her out.

Where is your friend? She is late, Nerissa repeated.

Hello, Ma. Good to see you, too.

Don’t be so sarcastic. And keep your eyes on the ground and not at your sister. I don’t want to fall down and break my fragile ninety-year old hip.

Ma, you’re not ninety.

But I will be, tomorrow, she said, and tapped a lamppost this time with the black rubber tip of her cane for emphasis, a practiced artifact.

* * * * *

The anthropologist friend was waiting for them by the fountain inside the courtyard entrance to the restaurant.

Nerissa, my mother., Kate Blue looked at her and began the introduction. This is my friend.

Not Nerissa, she interrupted. It is Doctor Zhin.

But Ma, you haven’t practiced medicine for more than forty years. The last twenty years of your career you were a hospital administrator, remember? Blowing her loose bangs in her friend’s direction, Kate Blue added, With her Ph. D,. Kelly here is more a doctor than you.

I am very honored to finally meet you, Doctor. Zhin., Kelly leaned down and extended a hand, smiling. I am Kelly Hwang. Over the years I have heard so many good things about you.

Yes, yes. So tall. You Korean? And how did you two meet?

Ma, Ma. You know that already. We were classmates at Pembroke, you remember, and my other best friend, Suzy Weaver, who later changed her name to Sigourney, a.k.a. Lieutenant Ripley. You came to our commencement in Providence, but everything was so chaotic that weekend, nobody got to meet anyone, you know.

Nerissa stared at her daughter, distracted momentarily. Sure, sure, she recovered quickly. I mean how did the two of you meet here in California? Waving her cane away from the Pacific Ocean, she smiled and announced with authority, Rhode Island is at the opposite side of this continent.

You know, she peppered a mimicked addition.

They took turns reading the menu aloud. Soup dumplings dipped in black vinegar and ginger sauce, definitely, xiao lung bao. Pink crab dumplings. Rice-wine-marinated chicken. Braised sliced beef. Shanghai noodles. Meatballs draped in cabbage, so finely textured they were part patepâté, part soufflé. Vegetarian duck, too.

What’s that? Kelly asked.

That’s thin sheets of braised tofu folded over mushrooms to look like duck, Nerissa lectured to everyone at the table, including the waiter. Those vegetarian Buddhist monks have this long tradition of making tofu taste like anything you want, on the hoof or in the air. Besides meditating and sweeping the steps, what do you think they do all those days and nights in those stupas? But be careful, this Shanghai cooking is complex and rich, not like the Cantonese. My favorite is the smoked pork and the smoked fish, big chunks of it, sweet and flavored with anise.

No, not that, not the smoked fish and the smoked pork, Ida said to the waiter. Too much fat and too much salt. Not good for your heart and your arteries.

What are you now, a dietitian? Nerissa vexed astonishment. Look at you, you should talk. You’re too thin, like you have TB or AIDS. Don’t you think I know what’s good for me? I’ve been my own physician since your father left us thirty-seven years ago; I can take care of myself. You, she pointed at the waiter suddenly, surprising him in Shanghai dialect. You bring the smoked pork and the smoked fish and leave the check with me.

Nerissa placed her Visa card on top of the check later, and told Kelly that she felt very lucky that day. My lottery number has been pre-selected to win, and the money is coming any moment, any moment now. It’s been my business: I’m taking care of its initial investment, the federal and state taxes, and its eventual profit distribution. Just look, look at these numbers on my fortune, : 5.-8.-5189.

When the two half- sisters saw the annulled platinum Washington Mutual credit card, they looked at each other and went to work at once: ; they hadn’t had a Shanghai mother- and- stepmother for a combined one-hundred-plus years for nothing. While Ida talked about the sudden fortune and eternal prosperity associated with these numbers, Kate Blue muttered something about having to get back to work, and that it would be faster if she took the check and Lo Mo’s credit card to the front counter rather than wait for the waiter to come back. On the way there she got out her own credit card, and made a fancy explanation to the manager picking his teeth with a toothpick at the cash register.

* * * * *

What do you think? the two half- sisters asked at the same time the next day, they met with Kelly at the same bar.

Well, I can tell you one thing for sure. She’s a survivor. And she’s mean as hell to you two, and it’s not from Alzheimer’s. She’s driving you two crazy and making you bleed. Wow, one nasty lady who is used to wielding abusive power, especially over you, Kate Blue, my friend.

Yeah, yeah, I knew that, she said between sips, losing the shine of her electric lipstick on her glass. Her political idols are G. Gordon Liddy and Newt Gingrich—power personalities. Even has autographed photos of them in her bathroom.

But what about the conservatorship? Ida asked. Can it be done?

Ida, I’m on your side, to keep California’s Adult Protective Services out, if for no other reason, Buddhist, Catholic, woodcutter, or Kafka. Once they’re in, it’s almost impossible to do anything else. But I don’t know. Just because she believes in this game of chance, a one -in in-three-hundred-and-thirty thirty-million, it is still a chance, still a possibility. Maybe that’s not enough.

What! But she’s not paying any of her bills, the utilities, phone, condo dues, credit card interest, we are. She’s not capable of managing her affairs.

I disagree. Not managing her affairs does not necessarily mean she’s incapable of doing it. You’re doing it for her. She’s sharpened her wits enough to get you two to do it for her. She’s managing you. Her business now means she has something to do in her retirement. I saw the credit card switch, so did she, and pretended not to.

Ida and Kate Blue stared silently at each other and ordered another drink.

What about addiction disorder? one of them asked.

Nope. No California court is going to accept that one.

What about mild dementia or mild schizophrenia? asked the other.

The court will go buzzing with that, but such an alternate personality substitution is very challengeable. Doctor Zhin can do that herself, without the help of an attorney.

Then they discussed other possibilities—, diminished capacity, cognitive dysfunction, emotional impairment, delusional thinking, and ability to remember past presidents—, but it was clear to them that Nerissa could clear all these tests. None even looked promising enough to pursue, not even the thought of hiring a religious healing practitioner, allowed by the State of California.

After Kelly left, the two half- sisters continued talking like this, past the bar’s closing hour and well into an imagined past perfect tense, with their mother- and- stepmother and how their family was fractured, and then collapsed back in their country’s past century’s accumulated wars, revolutions, and chance.

Trans-Pacific writer Alex Kuo's collection of short stories Lipstick and Other Stories received the American Book Award in 2003. His most recent book is the novel Panda Diaries, 2006.

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