In the Crossfire

THE EMPLOYEES COULD TELL that the company was floundering and that some of them would lose their jobs soon. For a whole morning Tian Chu stayed in his cubicle, processing invoices without a break. Even at lunchtime he avoided chatting with others at length, because the topic of layoffs unnerved him. He had worked there for only two years and might be among the first to go. Fortunately, he was already a U.S. citizen and wouldn’t be ashamed of collecting unemployment benefits, which the INS regards as something of a black mark against one who applies for a green card or citizenship.

Around midafternoon, as he was typing, his cell phone chimed. Startled, he pulled it out of his pants pocket. “Hello,” he said in an undertone.

“Tian, how’s your day there?” came his mother’s scratchy voice.

“It’s all right. I told you not to call me at work. People can hear me on the phone.”

“I want to know what you’d like for dinner.”

“Don’t bother about that, Mom. You don’t know how to use the stove and oven and you might set off the alarm again. I’ll pick up something on my way home.”

“What happened to Connie? Why can’t she do the shopping and cooking? You shouldn’t spoil her like this.”

“She’s busy, all right? I can’t talk more now. See you soon.” He shut the phone and stood up to see if his colleagues in the neighboring cubicles had been listening in. Nobody seemed interested.

He sat down and yawned, massaging his eyebrows to relieve the fatigue from peering at the computer screen. He knew his mother must feel lonely at home. She often complained that she had no friends here and there wasn’t much to watch on TV. True, most of the shows were reruns and some were in Cantonese or Taiwanese, neither of which she could understand. The books Tian had checked out of the library for her were boring too. If only she could have someone to chitchat with. But their neighbors all went to work in the daytime, and she dared not venture out on her own because she was unable to read the street signs in English. This neighborhood was too quiet, she often grumbled. It looked as if there were more houses than people. Chimneys were here and there, but none of them puffed smoke. The whole place was deserted after nine a.m., and not until midafternoon would she see traces of others—and then only kids getting off the school buses and padding along the sidewalks. If only she could have had a grandchild to look after, to play with. But that was out of the question, since Connie Liu, her daughter-in-law, was still attending nursing school and wanted to wait until she had finished.

It was already dark when Tian left work. The wind was tossing pedestrians’ clothes and hair and stirring the surfaces of slush puddles that shimmered in the neon and the streetlights. The remaining snowbanks along the curbs were black from auto exhaust and were becoming encrusted again. Tian stopped at a supermarket in the basement of a mall and picked up a stout eggplant, a bag of spinach, and a flounder. He knew that his wife would avoid going home to cook dinner because she couldn’t make anything her mother-in-law would not grouch about, so these days he cooked. Sometimes his mother offered to help, but he wouldn’t let her, afraid she might make something that Connie couldn’t eat—she was allergic to most bean products, especially to soy sauce and tofu.

The moment he got home, he went into the kitchen. He was going to cook a spinach soup, steam the eggplant, and fry the flounder. As he was gouging out the gill of the fish, his mother stepped in. “Let me give you a hand,” she said.

“I can manage. This is easy.” He smiled, cutting the fish’s fins and tail with a large scissor.

“You never cooked back home.” She stared at him, her eyes glinting. Ever since her arrival a week earlier, she’d been nagging him about his being uxorious. “What’s the good of standing six feet tall if you can’t handle a small woman like Connie?” she often said. In fact, he was five foot ten.

He nudged the side of his bulky nose with his knuckle. “Mom, in America husband and wife both cook—whoever has the time. Connie is swamped with schoolwork these days, so I do more household chores. This is natural.”

“No, it’s not. You were never like this before. Why did you marry her in the first place if she wouldn’t take care of you?”

“You’re talking like a fuddy-duddy.” He patted the flatfish with a paper towel to make it sputter less in the hot corn oil.

She went on, “Both your dad and I told you not to rush to marry her, but you were too bewitched to listen. We thought you must’ve got her in trouble and had to give her a wedding band. Look, now you’re trapped and have to work both inside and outside the house.”

He didn’t reply, but his longish face stiffened. He disliked the way she spoke about his wife. In fact, before his mother’s arrival, Connie had always come home early to make dinner. She would also wrap lunch for him early in the morning. These days, however, she’d leave the moment she finished breakfast and wouldn’t return until evening. Both of them had agreed that she should avoid staying home alone with his mother, who lectured her at every possible opportunity.

Around six thirty his wife came home. She hung her parka in the closet and, stepping into the kitchen, said to Tian, “Can I help?”

“I’m almost done.”

She kissed his nape and whispered, “Thanks for doing this.” Then she took some plates and bowls out of the cupboard and carried them to the dining table. She glanced into the living room, where Meifen, her mother-in-law, lounged on a sofa, smoking a cigarette and watching the news aired by New Tang Dynasty TV, a remote control in her leathery hand. Connie and Tian had told her many times not to smoke in the house, but the old woman ignored them. They dared not confront her. This was just her second week here. Imagine, she was going to stay half a year!

“Mother, come and eat,” Connie said pleasantly when the table was set.

“Sure.” Meifen clicked off the TV, got to her feet, and scraped out her cigarette in a saucer serving as an ashtray.

The family sat down to dinner. The two women seldom spoke to each other at the table, so it was up to Tian to make conversation. He mentioned that people in his company had been talking about layoffs. That didn’t interest his mother and his wife; probably they both believed his job was secure because of his degree in accounting.

His mother grunted, “I don’t like this fish. Flavorless, like egg white.” She often complained that nothing here tasted right.

“It takes a while to get used to American food,” Tian told her. “When I came, I couldn’t eat vegetables in the first week, so I ate mainly bananas and oranges.” That was long ago, twelve years exactly.

“True,” Connie agreed. “I remember how rubbery bell peppers tasted to me in the beginning. I was amazed—”

“I mean this fish needs soy sauce, and so does the soup,” Meifen interrupted.

“Mom, Connie’s allergic to that. I told you.”

“Just spoiled,” Meifen muttered. “You have a bottle of Golden Orchid soy sauce in the cabinet. That’s a brand-name product, and I can’t see how on earth it can hurt anyone’s health.”

Connie’s egg-shaped face fell, her eyes glaring at the old woman and then at Tian. He said, “Mom, you don’t understand. Connie has a medical condition that—”

“Of course I know. I used to teach chemistry in a middle school. Don’t treat me like an ignorant crone. Ours is an intellectual family.”

“You’re talking like an old fogey again. In America people don’t think much of an intellectual family, and most kids here can go to college if they want to.”

“She’s hinting at my family,” Connie broke in, and turned to face her mother-in-law. “True enough, neither of my parents went to college, but they’re honest and hardworking. I’m proud of them.”

“That explains why you’re such an irresponsible wife,” Meifen said matter-of-factly.

“Do you imply I’m not good enough for your son?”

“Please, let’s have a peaceful dinner,” Tian pleaded.

Meifen went on speaking to Connie. “So far you’ve been awful. I don’t know how your parents raised you. Maybe they were too lazy or too ignorant to teach you anything.”

“Watch it—you mustn’t bad-mouth my parents!”

“I can say whatever I want to in my son’s home. You married Tian but refuse to give him children, won’t cook or do household work. What kind of wife are you? Worse yet, you even make him do your laundry.”

“Mom,” Tian said again, “I told you we’ll have kids after Connie gets her degree.”

“Believe me, she’ll never finish school. She just wants to use you, giving you one excuse after another.”

“I can’t take this anymore.” Connie stood and carried her bowl of soup upstairs to the master bedroom.

Tian sighed, again rattled by the exchange between the two women. If only he could make them shut up, but neither of them would give ground. His mother went on, “I told you not to break with Mansu, but you wouldn’t listen. Look what a millstone you’ve got on your back.” Mansu was Tian’s exgirlfriend. They’d broken up many years before, but somehow the woman had kept visiting his parents back in Harbin.

“Mom, don’t bring that up again,” he begged.

“You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t like it.”

“Do you mean to destroy my marriage?”

At last Meifen fell silent. Tian heard his wife sniffling upstairs. He wasn’t sure whether he should remain at the dining table or go join Connie. If he stayed with his mother, his wife would take him to task later on. But if he went to Connie, Meifen would berate him, saying he was spineless and daft. She used to teach him that a man could divorce his wife and marry another woman anytime, whereas he could never disown his mother. In Meifen’s words: “You can always trust me, because you’re part of my flesh and blood and I’ll never betray you.”

Tian took his plate, half loaded with rice and eggplant and a chunk of the fish, and went into the kitchen, where he perched on a stool and resumed eating. If only he’d thought twice before writing his mother the invitation letter needed for her visa. The old woman must still bear a grudge against him and Connie for not agreeing to sponsor his nephew, his sister’s son, who was eager to go to Toronto for college. Perhaps that was another reason Meifen wanted to wreak havoc here.

Since his mother’s arrival, Tian and his wife had slept in different rooms. That night he again stayed in the study, sleeping on a pullout couch. He didn’t go upstairs to say good night to Connie. He was afraid she would demand that he send the old woman back to China right away. Also, if he shared the bed with Connie, Meifen would lecture him the next day, saying he must be careful about his health and mustn’t indulge in sex. He’d heard her litany too often: some women were vampires determined to suck their men dry; this world had gone to seed—nowadays fewer and fewer young people were willing to become parents, and all avoided responsibilities; it was capitalism that corrupted people’s souls and made them greedier and more selfish. Oh, how long-winded she could become! Just the thought of her prattling would set Tian’s head reeling.

Before leaving for work the next morning, he drew a map of the nearby streets for his mother and urged her to go out some so that she might feel less lonesome—“stir-crazy” was actually the word that came to his mouth, but he didn’t let it out. She might like some of the shops downtown and could buy something with the eighty dollars he’d just given her. “Don’t be afraid of getting lost,” he assured her. She should be able to find her way back as long as she had the address he’d written down for her—someone could give her directions.

At work Tian drank a lot of coffee to keep himself awake. His scalp was numb and his eyes heavy and throbbing a little as he was crunching numbers. If only he could have slept two or three more hours a day. Ever since his mother had arrived, he’d suffered from sleep deficiency. He would wake up before daybreak, missing the warmth of Connie’s smooth skin and their wide bed, but he dared not enter the master bedroom. He was certain she wouldn’t let him snuggle under the comforter or touch her. She always gave the excuse that her head would go numb and muddled in class if they had sex early in the morning. That day at work, despite the strong coffee he’d been drinking, Tian couldn’t help yawning and had to take care not to drop off.

Toward midmorning Bill Nangy, the manager of the company, stepped into the large, low-ceilinged room and went up to Tracy Malloy, whose cubicle was next to Tian’s. “Tracy,” Bill said, “can I speak to you in my office a minute?”

All the eyes turned to plump Tracy as she walked away with their boss, her head bowed a little. The second she disappeared past the door, half a dozen people stood up in their cubicles, some grinning while others shook their heads. Tracy, a good-natured thirtysomething, had started working there long before Tian. He liked her, though she talked too much. Others had warned her to keep her mouth shut at work, but she’d never mended her ways.

A few minutes later Tracy came out, scratching the back of her ear, and forced a smile. “Got the ax,” she told her colleagues, her eyes red and watery. She slouched into her cubicle to gather her belongings.

“It’s a shame,” Tian said to her, and rested his elbow on top of the chest-high wall, making one of his sloping shoulders higher than the other.

“I knew this was coming,” she muttered. “Bill said he would allow me to stay another week, but I won’t. Just sick of it.”

“Don’t be too upset. I’m sure more of us will go.”

“Probably. Bill said there’ll be more layoffs.”

“I’ll be the next, I guess.”

“Don’t jinx yourself, Tian.”

Tracy put her eyeglass case beside her coffee cup. She didn’t have much stuff—a few photos of her niece and nephews and of a Himalayan cat named Daffie, a half-used pack of chewing gum, a pocket hairbrush, a compact, a romance novel, a small Ziploc bag containing rubber bands, ballpoints, Post-its, dental floss, a ChapStick. Tian turned his eyes away as though the pile of her belongings, not enough to fill her tote bag, upset him more than her dismissal.

As Tracy was leaving, more people got up and some spoke to her. “Terribly sorry, Tracy.” “Take care.” “Good luck.” “Keep in touch, Tracy.” Some of the voices actually sounded relieved and even cheerful. Tracy shook hands with a few and waved at the rest while mouthing “Thank you.”

The second she went out the door, George, an orange-haired man who always wore a necktie at work, said, “This is it,” as if to assure everyone that they were all safe.

“I don’t think so. More of us will get canned,” Tian said gloomily.

Someone cackled as if Tian had cracked a joke. He didn’t laugh or say another word. He sat down and tapped the spacebar on the keyboard to bring the monitor back to life.

“Oh, I never thought Flushing was such a convenient place, like a big county seat back home,” his mother said to him that evening. She had gone downtown in the morning and had a wonderful time there. She tried some beef and lamb kebabs at a street corner and ate a tiny steamer of buns stuffed with chives, lean pork, and crabmeat at a Shanghai restaurant. She also bought a bag of mung bean noodles for only $1.20. “Really cheap,” she said. “Now I believe it’s true that all China’s best stuff is in the U.S.”

Tian smiled without speaking. He stowed her purchase in the cabinet under the sink because Connie couldn’t eat bean noodles. He put a pot of water on the stove and was going to make rice porridge for dinner.

From that day on, Meifen often went out during the day and reported to Tian on her adventures. Before he left for work in the morning, he’d make sure she had enough pocket money. Gradually Meifen got to know people. Some of them were also from the northeast of China and were happy to converse with her, especially those who frequented the eateries that specialized in Mandarin cuisine—pies, pancakes, sauerkraut, sausages, grilled meats, moo shu, noodles, and dumplings. In a small park she ran into some old women pushing their grandchildren in strollers. She chatted with them, and found out that one woman had lived here for more than a decade and wouldn’t go back to Wuhan City anymore because all her children and grandchildren were in North America now. How Meifen envied those old grandmas, she told Tian, especially the one who had twin grandkids. If only she could live a life such as theirs.

“You’ll need a green card to stay here long enough to see my babies,” Tian once told his mother jokingly.

“You’ll get me a green card, won’t you?” she asked.

Well, that was not easy, and he wouldn’t promise her. She hadn’t been here for three weeks yet, but already his family had become kind of dysfunctional. How simpleminded he and Connie had been when they encouraged Meifen to apply for a half-year visa. They should have limited her visit to two months or even less. That way, if she became too much of a pain in the ass, they could say it was impossible to get her visa extended, and she’d have no choice but to go back. Now, there’d be twenty-three more weeks for them to endure. How awful!

The other day Tian and Connie had talked between themselves about the situation. She said, “Well, I’ll take these months as a penal term. After half a year, when the old deity has left, I hope I’ll have survived the time undamaged and our union will remain unbroken.” She gave a hysterical laugh, which unsettled Tian, and he wouldn’t joke with her about their predicament anymore. All he could say was “I’m sorry, really sorry.” Yet he wouldn’t speak ill of his mother in front of his wife.

As Connie spent more time away from home, Tian often wondered what his wife was doing during the day. Judging from her appearance, she seemed at ease and just meant to avoid rubbing elbows with his mother. In a way, Tian appreciated that. Connie used to be a good helpmate by all accounts, but the old woman’s presence here had transformed her. Then, who wouldn’t have changed, given the circumstances? So he ought to feel for his wife.

One evening, as he was clearing the table while Connie was doing the dishes in the kitchen, his mother said, “I ran into a fellow townswoman today, and we had a wonderful chat. I invited her to dinner tomorrow.”

“Where are you going to take her?” Tian asked.

“Here. I told her you’d pick her up with your car.”

Connie, having overheard their conversation, came in, holding a dish towel and grinning at Tian. Her bell cheeks were pink, while her eyes twinkled naughtily. Again Tian was amazed by her youthful face. She was a looker, six years younger than he. He was unhappy about Meifen’s inviting a guest without telling him in advance, but before he could speak, Connie began, “Mother, there’ll be a snowstorm tomorrow—Tian can’t drive in the bad weather.”

“I saw it on TV,” Meifen said. “It will be just six or seven inches, no big deal. People even bike in snow back home.”

Tian told her, “It’s not whether I can pick up your friend or not, Mom. You should’ve spoken to me before you invited anyone. I’m busy all the time and must make sure my calendar allows it.”

“You don’t need to do anything,” Meifen said. “Leave it to me. I’ll do the shopping and cooking tomorrow.”

“Mom, you don’t get it. This is my home and you shouldn’t interfere with my schedule.”

“What did you say? Sure, this is your home, but who are you? You’re my son, aren’t you!”

Seeing a smirk cross his wife’s face, Tian asked his mother, “You mean you own me and my home?”

“How can I ever disown you? Your home should also be mine. No? Oh heavens, I never thought my son could be so selfish. Once he has his bride, he wants to disown his mother!”

“You’re unreasonable,” he said.

“And you’re heartless.”

“This is ridiculous!” He turned and strode out of the dining room.

Connie put in, “Mother, just think about it—what if Tian already has another engagement tomorrow?”

“Like I said, he won’t have to be around if he has something else to do. Besides, he doesn’t work on Saturdays.”

“Still, he’ll have to drive to pick up your friend.”

“How about you? Can’t you do that?”

“I don’t have a driver’s license yet.”

“Why not? You cannot let Tian do everything in this household. You must do your share.”

Seeing this was getting nowhere, Connie dropped the dish towel on the dining table and went to the living room to talk with Tian.

However, Tian wouldn’t discuss the invitation with Connie, knowing his mother was eavesdropping on them. Meifen, already sixty-four, still had sharp ears and eyesight. Tian grimaced at his wife and sighed. “I guess we’ll have to do the party tomorrow.”

She nodded. “I’ll stay home and give you a hand.”

It snowed on and off for a whole day. The roofs in the neighborhood blurred and lost their unkempt features, and the snow rendered all the trees and hedges fluffy. It looked clean everywhere, and even the air smelled fresher. Trucks passed by, giving out warning signals while plowing snow or spraying salt. A bunch of children were sledding on a slope, whooping lustily, and some lay supine on the sleds as they dashed down. Another pack of them were hurling snowballs at each other and shouting war cries. Tian, amused, watched them through a window. He had dissuaded his mother from giving a multiple-course dinner, saying that here food was plentiful and one could eat fish and meat quite often. Most times it was for conversation and a warm atmosphere that people went to dinner. His mother agreed to make dumplings in addition to a few cold dishes. Actually, they didn’t start wrapping dumplings when the stuffing and the dough were ready, because Meifen wanted to have her friend participate in some way in preparing the dinner, to make the occasion somewhat like a family gathering.

Toward evening it resumed snowing. Tian drove to Corona to fetch the guest, Shulan, and his mother went with him, sitting in the passenger seat. The heat was on full blast, and the wipers were busy sweeping the windshield; even so, the glass frosted in spots on the outside and fogged on the inside. Time and again Tian mopped the moisture off the glass with a pair of felt gloves, but the visibility didn’t improve much. “See what I mean?” he said to his mother. “It’s dangerous to drive in such weather.”

She made no reply, staring ahead, her beaky face as rigid as if frozen and the skin under her chin hanging in wattles. Fortunately, Shulan’s place was easy to find. The woman lived in an ugly tenement about a dozen stories high and with narrow windows. She was waiting for them in the footworn lobby when they arrived. She looked familiar to Tian. Then he recognized her—this scrawny person in a dark blue overcoat was nobody but a saleswoman at the nameless snack joint on Main Street, near the subway station. He had encountered her numerous times when he went there to buy scallion pancakes or sautéed rice noodles or pork buns for lunch. He vividly remembered her red face bathed in perspiration during the dog days when she wore a white hat, busy selling food to passersby. That place was nothing but a flimsy lean-to, open to waves of heat and gusts of wind. In winter there was no need for a heater in the room because the stoves were hot and the pots sent up steam all the time, but in summer only a small fan whirred back and forth overhead. When customers were few, the salespeople would participate in making snacks, so everybody in there was a cook of sorts. Whenever Tian chanced on this middle-aged Shulan, he’d wonder what kind of tough life she must be living. What vitality, what endurance, and what sacrifice must have suffused her personal story? How often he’d been amazed by her rustic but energetic face, furrowed by lines that curved from the wings of her nose to the corners of her broad mouth. Now he was moved, eager to know more about this fellow townswoman. He was glad that his mother had invited her.

“Where’s your daughter, Shulan?” Meifen asked, still holding her friend’s chapped hand.

“She’s upstairs doing a school project.”

“Go get her. Let her come with us. Too much brainwork will spoil the girl’s looks.”

Tian said, “Please bring her along, Aunt.”

“All right, I’ll be back in a minute.” Shulan went over to the elevator. From the rear she looked smaller than when she stood behind the food stand.

Tian and Meifen sat down on the lone bench in the lobby. She explained that Shulan’s husband had come to the States seven years before, but had disappeared a year later. Nobody was sure of his whereabouts, though rumor had it that he was in Houston, manning a gift shop and living with a young woman. By now Shulan was no longer troubled by his absence from home. She felt he had merely used her as his cook and bed warmer, so she could manage without him.

“Mom, you were right to invite her,” Tian said sincerely.

Meifen smiled without comment.

A few minutes later Shulan came down with her daughter, a reedy, anemic fifteen-year-old wearing circular glasses and a checkered mackinaw that was too big on her. The girl looked unhappy and climbed into the car silently. As Tian drove away, he reminded the guests in the back to buckle up. Meanwhile, the snow abated some, but the flakes were still swirling around the streetlights and fluttering outside glowing windows. An ambulance howled, its strobe slashing the darkness. Tian pulled aside to let the white van pass, then resumed driving.

Tian and Connie’s home impressed Shulan as Meifen gave her a tour through the two floors and the finished basement. The woman kept saying in a singsong voice, “This is a real piece of property, so close to downtown.” Her daughter, Ching, didn’t follow the grown-ups but stayed in the living room fingering the piano, a Steinway, which Tian had bought for Connie at a clearance sale. The girl had learned how to play the instrument before coming to the United States, though she could tickle out only a few simple tunes, such as “Jingle Bells,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “The Newspaper Boy Song.” Even those sounded hesitant and disjointed. She stopped when her mother came back and told her not to embarrass both of them with her “clumsy fingers” anymore. The girl then sat before the TV, watching a well-known historian speaking about the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its impact on the last few communist countries. Soon the four grown-ups began wrapping dumplings. Tian used a beer bottle to press the dough, having no rolling pin in the house. He was skilled but couldn’t make wrappers fast enough for the three women, so Connie found a lean hot-sauce bottle and helped him with the dough from time to time. Meifen was unhappy about the lack of a real rolling pin and grumbled, “What kind of life you two have been living! You have no plan for a decent home.”

Connie wouldn’t talk back, just picked up a wrapper and filled it with a dollop of the stuffing, which was seasoned with sesame oil and five-spice powder. Shulan said, “If I lived so close to downtown, I wouldn’t cook at all and would have no need for a rolling pin either.” She kept smiling, her front teeth propping up her top lip a bit.

“Your place’s pot stickers are delicious,” Tian said to her to change the subject.

“I prepare the filling every day. Meifen, next time you stop by, you should try it. It tastes real good.”

“Sure thing,” Meifen said. “Did you already know how to make those snacks back home?”

“No way. I learned how to do that here. My boss used to be a hotel chef in Hangzhou.”

“You must’ve gone through lots of hardships.”

“I wouldn’t complain. Life here is no picnic and most people work very hard.”

Tian smiled quizzically, then said, “My dad retired at fifty-eight with a full pension. Every morning he carries a pair of goldfinches in a cage to the bank of the Songhua. Old people are having an easy time back home.”

“Not every one of them,” his mother corrected him. “Your father enjoys some leisure only because he joined the revolution early in his youth. He’s entitled to his pension and free medical care.”

“Matter of fact,” Shulan said, “most folks are as poor as before in my old neighborhood. I have to send my parents money every two months.”

“They don’t have a pension?” Meifen asked.

“They do, but my mother suffers from gout and high blood pressure. My father lost most of his teeth and needed new dentures. Nowadays folks can’t afford to be sick anymore.”

“That’s true,” Tian agreed. “Most people are the have-nots.”

The stout kettle whistled in the kitchen and it was time to boil the dumplings. Connie left to set the pot on, her waist-length hair swaying a little as she walked away. “You have a nice and pretty daughter-in-law,” Shulan said to Meifen. “You’re a lucky woman, elder sister.”

“You don’t know what a devil of a temper she has.”

“Mom, don’t start again,” Tian begged.

“See, Shulan,” Meifen whispered, “my son always sides with his bride. The little fox spirit really knows how to charm her man.”

“This is unfair, Mom,” her son objected.

Both women laughed and turned away to wash their hands.

Ten minutes later Tian went into the living room and called Ching to come over to the table, on which, besides the steaming dumplings, were plates of smoked mackerel, roast duck, cucumber and tomato salad, and spiced bamboo shoots. When they were all seated, with Meifen at the head of the rectangular table, Tian poured plum wine for Shulan and his mother. He and Connie and Ching would drink beer.

The two older women continued reminiscing about the people they both knew. To Tian’s amazement, the girl swigged her glass of beer as if it were a soft drink. Then he remembered she had spent her childhood in Harbin, where even children were beer drinkers. He spoke English with her and asked her what classes she’d been taking at school. The girl seemed too introverted to volunteer any information and just answered each question with two or three words. She confessed that she hated the Sunday class, in which she had to copy the Chinese characters and memorize them.

Shulan mentioned a man nicknamed Turtle Baron, the owner of a fishery outside Harbin. “Oh, I knew of him,” Meifen said. “He used to drive a fancy car to the shopping district every day, but he lost his fortune.”

“What happened?” Shulan asked.

“He fed drugs to crayfish so they grew big and fierce, but some Hong Kong tourists got food-poisoned and took him to court.”

“He was a wild man, but a filial son, blowing big money on his mother’s birthdays. Where’s he now?”

“In jail,” Meifen said.

“Obviously that was where he was headed. The other day I met a fellow who had just come out of the mainland. He said he wouldn’t eat street food back home anymore, because he couldn’t tell what he was actually eating. Some people even make fake eggs and fake salt. It’s mind-boggling. How can anyone turn a profit by doing that, considering the labor?”

They all cracked up except for the girl. Sprinkling a spoonful of vinegar on the three dumplings on her plate, Shulan continued, “People ought to believe in Jesus Christ. That’ll make them behave better, less like animals.”

“Do you often go to church?” Meifen asked, chewing the tip of a duck wing.

“Yes, every Sunday. It makes me feel calm and hopeful. I used to hate my husband’s bone marrow, but now I don’t hate him anymore. God will deal with him on my behalf.”

Ching listened to her mother without showing any emotion, as if Shulan were speaking about a stranger. Meifen said, “Maybe I should visit your church one of these days.”

“Please do. Let me know when you want to come. I’ll introduce you to Brother Zhou, our pastor. He’s a true gentleman. I’ve never met a man so kind. He used to be a doctor in Chengdu and still gives medical advice. He cured my stomach ulcer.”

Connie, eating focaccia bread instead of the dumplings that contained soy sauce, said under her breath, “Ching, do you have a boyfriend?”

Before the girl could answer, her mother cut in, pointing her chopsticks at her daughter. “I won’t let her. It’s just a waste of time to have a boyfriend so early. She’d better concentrate on her schoolwork.”

Ching said to Connie in English, “See what a bitch my mom is? She’s afraid I’ll go boy-crazy like her when she was young.” The girl’s eyes flashed behind the lenses of her black-framed glasses.

Both Connie and Tian giggled while the two older women were bewildered, looking at them inquiringly. Tian told them, “Ching’s so funny.”

“Also tricky and headstrong,” added her mother.

When dinner was over, Shulan was eager to leave without having tea. She said she’d forgotten to sprinkle water on the bean sprouts in her apartment, where the radiators were too hot and might shrivel the young vegetable, which she raised and would sell to a grocery store. Before they left, Connie gave the girl a book and assured her, “This is a very funny novel. I’ve just finished it and you’ll like it.”

Tian glanced at the title—The Catcher in the Rye—as Meifen asked, “What’s it about?”

“A boy left school and goofed around in New York,” Connie answered.

“So he’s a dropout?”

“Kind of.”

“Why give Ching such a book? It can be a bad influence. Do you mean to teach her to rebel against her mother?”

“It’s a good book!” Connie spat out.

Tian said to the guests, “Let’s go.”

The moment they stepped out the door, he overheard his mother growl at Connie, “Don’t play the scholar with me! Don’t ever talk back to me in front of others!”

“You were wrong about the book,” Connie countered.

Their exchange unsettled Tian, who knew they would bicker more while he was away. Outside, it got windy and the road iced over. He drove slowly. Before every intersection he placed his foot on the brake pedal to make sure he could stop the car fully if the light turned red. Ching was in the back dozing away while her mother in the passenger seat chatted to Tian without pause. She praised Meifen as an educated woman who gave no airs. How fortunate Tian must feel to have such a clearheaded and warmhearted mother, in addition to a beautiful, well-educated wife. Her words made Tian’s molars itch, and he wanted to tell her to shut her trap, but he checked himself. He still felt for this woman. Somehow he couldn’t drive from his mind her image behind the food stand, her face steaming with sweat and her eyes downcast in front of customers while her knotted hands were packing snacks into Styrofoam boxes.

He dropped Shulan and Ching at their building and turned back. After he exited the highway and as he was entering College Point Boulevard, a police cruiser suddenly rushed out of a narrow street and slid toward him from the side. Tian slammed on the brakes, but the heads of the two cars collided with a bang; his Volkswagen, much lighter than the bulky Ford, was thrown aside and fishtailed a few times before it stopped. Tian’s head had hit the door window, and his ears were buzzing, though he was still alert.

A black policeman hopped out of the cruiser and hurried over. “Hey, man, are you okay?” he cried, and knocked on Tian’s windshield.

Tian opened his door and nodded. “I didn’t see you. Sorry about this, officer.” He clambered out.

“I’m sorry, man.” Somehow the squarish cop chuckled. “I hit you. I couldn’t stop my car—the road is too damned slippery.”

Tian walked around and looked at the front of his car. The glass covers of the headlight and the blinker were smashed, but somehow all the lights were still on. A dent the size of a football warped the fender. “Well, what should I do?” he wondered aloud.

The police officer grinned. “It’s my fault. My car slid into the traffic. How about this—I give you a hundred bucks and you won’t file a report?”

Tian peered at the officer’s catlike face and realized that the man was actually quite anxious—maybe he was new here. “Okay,” Tian said, despite knowing that the amount might not cover the repairs.

“You’re a good guy.” The policeman pulled five twenties out of his billfold. “Here you are. I appreciate it.”

Tian took the money and stepped into his car. The officer shouted, “God bless you!” as Tian drove away. He listened closely to his car, which sounded noisier than before. He hoped there was no inner damage. On the other hand, this was an old car, worth less than a thousand dollars. He shouldn’t worry too much about the dent.

The instant he stepped into his house, he heard his mother yell, “Oh yeah? How much have you paid for this house? This is my son’s home and you should be grateful that Tian has let you live here.”

“This is my home too,” Connie fired back. “You’re merely our guest, a visitor.”

Heavens, they would never stop fighting! Tian rushed into the living room and shouted, “You two be quiet!”

But Connie turned to him and said sharply, “Tell your mother I’m a co-owner of this house.”

That was true, yet his mother also knew that Connie hadn’t paid a cent for it. Tian had added her name as a co-buyer because he wanted her to keep the home if something fatal happened to him.

His mother snarled at Connie, “Shameless. A typical ingrate from an upstart’s family!”

“Don’t you dare run down my dad! He makes an honest living.” Indeed, her father in Tianjin City was just scraping by with his used-furniture business.

“Knock it off, both of you!” Tian roared again. “I just had an accident. Our car was damaged, hit by a cop.”

Even that didn’t impress the women. Connie cried at Meifen, “See, I told you there’d be a snowstorm, but you were too vain to cancel the dinner. Did you mean to have your son killed?”

“It was all my fault, huh? Why didn’t you learn how to drive? What have you been doing all these years?”

“I’ve never met someone so irrational.”

“I don’t know anyone as rude and as brazen as you.”

“Damn it, I just had an accident!” Tian shouted again.

His wife looked him up and down. “I can see you’re all right. It’s an old car anyway. Let’s face the real issue here: I cannot live under the same roof with this woman. If she doesn’t leave, I will and I’ll never come back.” She marched away to her own room upstairs.

As Tian was wondering whether he should follow her, his mother said, “If you’re still my son, you must divorce her. Do it next week. She’s a sick, finicky woman and will give you weak kids.”

“You’re crazy too!” he growled.

He stomped away and shut the door of the study, in which he was to spend that night trying to figure out how to prevent Connie from walking out on him. He would lose his mind if that happened, he was sure.

On Monday morning Tian went to Bill Nangy’s office. The manager looked puzzled when Tian sat down in front of him. “Well, what can I do for you, Tian?” Bill asked in an amiable voice. He waved his large hand over the steaming coffee his secretary, Jackie, had just put on the desk. His florid face relaxed some as he saw Tian still in a gentle mood.

Tian said, “I know our company has been laying off people. Can you let me go, like Tracy Malloy?” He looked his boss full in the face.

“Are you telling me you got an offer from elsewhere?”

“No. In fact, I will appreciate it if you can write me a good recommendation. I’ll have to look for a job soon.”

“Then why do you want to leave us?”

“For family reasons.”

“Well, what can I say, Tian? You’ve done a crack job here, but if that’s what you want, we can let you go. Keep in mind, you’re not among those we plan to discharge. We’ll pay you an extra month’s salary, and I hope that may tide you over until you find something.”

“Thanks very much.”

Tian liked his job, but he had never felt attached to the company. He was pretty sure that he could find similar work elsewhere but might not get paid as much as he made now. Yet this was a step he must take. Before the noon break Jackie put a letter of recommendation on Tian’s desk, together with a card from his boss that wished him all good luck.

Tian’s departure was a quiet affair, unnoticed by others. He was reluctant to talk about it, afraid he might have to explain why he had quit. He just ate lunch and crunched some potato chips in the lounge with his colleagues as though he would resume working in the afternoon as usual. But before the break was over, he walked out with his stuffed bag without saying good-bye to anyone.

He didn’t go home directly. Instead, he went to a KTV joint and had a few drinks—a lager, a martini, a rye whiskey on the rocks. A young woman, heavily made up and with her hair bleached blond, slid her hips onto the barstool beside him. He ordered her a daiquiri but was too glum to converse with her. Meanwhile, two other men were chattering about Uncle Benshan, the most popular comedian in China, who was coming to visit New York, but the tickets for his show were too expensive for the local immigrants, and as a result, his sponsors had been calling around to drum up an audience for him. When the woman placed her thin hand on Tian’s forearm and suggested the two of them spend some time in a private room where she could cheer him up, he declined, saying he had to attend a meeting.

Afterward, he roamed downtown for a while, then went to a pedicure place to have his feet bathed and scraped. Not until the streets turned noisier and the sky darkened to indigo did he head home. But today he returned without any groceries. He went to bed directly and drew the duvet up to his chin. When his mother came in and asked what he’d like for dinner, he merely grunted, “Whatever.”

“Are you ill?” She felt his forehead.

“Leave me alone,” he groaned.

“You’re burning hot. What happened?”

Without answering, he pulled the comforter over his head. If only he could sleep a few days in a row. He felt sorry for himself and sick of everything.

Around six his wife came back. The two women talked in the living room. Tian overheard the words “drunk,” “so gruff,” “terrible.” Then his mother whined, “Something is wrong. He looks like he’s in a daze.”

A few moments later Connie came in and patted his chest. He sat up slowly. “What happened?” she asked.

“I got fired.”

“What? They didn’t tell you anything beforehand?”

“No. They’ve been issuing pink slips right and left.”

“But they should’ve given you a warning or something, shouldn’t they?”

“Come on, this is America. People lose jobs all the time.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ve no clue. I’m so tired.”

They continued talking for a while. Then he got out of bed, and together they went up to Meifen in the living room. His mother started weeping after hearing the bad news, while he sprawled on a sofa, his face vacant. She asked, “So you have no job anymore?” He grimaced without answering. She went on, “What does this mean? You won’t have any income from now on?”

“No. We might lose the house, the car, the TV, everything. I might not even have the money for the plane fare for your return trip.”

His mother shuffled away to the bathroom, wiping her eyes. Connie observed him as if in disbelief. Then she smiled, showing her tiny, well-kept teeth, and asked in an undertone, “Do you think I should look for a job?”

“Sure,” he whispered. “But I shouldn’t work for the time being. You know what I mean?” He winked at her, thin rays fanning out at the corners of his eyes.

She nodded and took the hint. Then she went into the kitchen to cook dinner. She treated her mother-in-law politely at the table that evening and kept sighing, saying this disaster would ruin their life. It looked like Tian and she might have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy if neither of them could land a job soon.

Meifen was shaken and could hardly eat anything. After dinner, they didn’t leave the table. Connie brewed tea, and they resumed talking. Tian complained that he hadn’t been able to stay on top of his job because his wife and his mother quarreled all the time. That was the root of his trouble and made him too frazzled to focus on anything. In fact, he said, he had felt the disaster befalling him and mentioned it to them several times, but they’d paid no attention.

“Can you find another job?” his mother asked.

“Unlikely. There’re more accountants than pets in New York—this is the world’s financial center. Probably Connie can find work before I can.”

“I won’t do that until I finish my training,” his wife said, poker-faced.

“Please, do it as a favor for me,” Meifen begged her.

“No, I want to finish nursing school first. I still have two months to go.”

“You’ll just let this family go to pieces without lifting a finger to help?” her mother-in-law asked.

“Don’t question me like that. You’ve been damaging this family ever since you came.” Connie glanced at Tian, who showed no response. She continued, “Now your son’s career is headed for a dead end. Who’s to blame but yourself?”

“Is that true, Tian?” his mother asked. “I mean, your career’s over?”

“Sort of. I’ll have to figure out how to restart.”

Meifen heaved a deep sigh. “I told your sister I shouldn’t come to America, but she was greedy and wanted me to get you to finance her son’s college in Canada. She even managed to have the boy’s last name changed to Chu so he could appear as your son on the papers. Now it’s over. I’ll call her and your father tomorrow morning and let them know I’m heading back.”

Connie peered at Tian’s face, which remained wooden. He stood and said, “I’m dog-tired.” He left for the study.

Meifen wrapped Connie’s hand in both of hers and begged, “Please help him survive this crisis! Don’t you love him? Believe me, he’ll do everything to make you happy if you help him get on his feet again. Connie, you’re my good daughter-in-law. Please do something to save your family!”

“Well, I can’t promise anything. I’ve never been on the job market before.”

Tian smiled and shook his head as he was listening in on them from the study. He was sure that his wife knew how to seize this opportunity to send his mother home.

For a whole week Tian stayed in while Connie called around and went out job-hunting. She had several interviews. It wasn’t hard for her to find work since she was already a capable nurse. The following Wednesday a hospital in Manhattan offered her a position that paid well, plus full benefits, and she persuaded the manager to postpone her start for a week. She showed the job-offer letter to her husband and mother-in-law. “Gosh,” Tian said, “you’ll make more than I ever can.”

Meifen perused the sheet of paper. Despite not understanding a word, she saw the figure “$32.” She asked in amazement, “Connie, does this mean they’ll pay you thirty-two dollars an hour?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure if I should take the job.”

“Don’t you want to save this home?”

“This house doesn’t feel like a home to me anymore.”

“How can you be so coldhearted while your husband is in hot water?”

“You made me, and Tian always takes your side. So this house is no longer my home. Let the bank repossess it—I could care less.”

Tian said nothing and just gazed at the off-white wall where a painting of a cloudy landscape dotted with fishing boats and flying cranes hung. His mother started sobbing again. He sighed and glanced at his wife. He knew Connie must have accepted the job. “Mom,” he said, “you came at a bad time. See, I can’t make you live comfortably here anymore. Who knows what will happen to me if things don’t improve? I might jump in front of a train or drive into the ocean.”

“Please don’t think like that! You two must join hands and survive this blow.”

“I’ve lost heart after going through so much. This blow finished me off, and I may never recover.”

“Son, please pull yourself together and put up a fight.”

“I’m just too heartsick to give a damn.”

Connie butted in, “Mother, how about this? You go back to China next week and let Tian and me concentrate on the trouble here.”

“So I’m your big distraction, huh?”

“Yes, Mom,” Tian said. “You two fought and fought and fought, and that made my life unbearable. I was completely stupefied and couldn’t perform well at work. That’s why they terminated me.”

“All right, I’ll go next week, leave you two alone, but you must give me some money. I can’t go back empty-handed or our neighbors will laugh at me.” Her lips quivered as she spoke, her mouth as sunken as if she were toothless.

“I’ll give you two thousand dollars,” Connie said. “Once I start working, I’ll send you more. Don’t worry about the gifts for the relatives and your friends. We’ll buy you some small pieces of jewelry and a couple packs of Wisconsin ginseng.”

“How about a pound of vegetable caterpillars? That will help Tian’s father’s bad kidneys.”

“That costs five thousand dollars! You can get them a lot cheaper in China. Tell you what—I can buy you five pounds of dried sea cucumbers, the Japanese type. That will help improve my father-in-law’s health too.”

Meifen agreed, reluctantly—the sea cucumbers were at most four hundred dollars a pound. Yet her son’s situation terrified her. If he declared bankruptcy, she might get nothing from the young couple, so she’d better take the money and leave. Worse, she could see that Tian might lose his mind if Connie left him at this moment. Meifen used to brag about him as a paragon of success to her neighbors and friends. She had never imagined that his life could be so fragile that it would crumble in just one day. No wonder people always talked about stress and insecurity in America.

Connie said pleasantly, “Mother, I won’t be able to take the job until I see you off at the airport. In the meantime, I’ll have to help Tian get back on his feet.”

“I appreciate that,” Meifen said.

That night Connie asked Tian to share the master bedroom with her, but he wouldn’t, saying they mustn’t nettle his mother from now on. He felt sad, afraid that Meifen might change her mind. He remembered that when he was taking the entrance exam fourteen years back, his parents had stood in the rain under a shared umbrella, waiting for him with a lunch tin, sodas, and tangerines wrapped in a handkerchief. They each had half a shoulder soaked through. Oh, never could he forget their anxious faces. A surge of gratitude drove him to the brink of tears. If only he could speak freely to them again.