The waiter approaches the middle-aged women with the teased hair and Chanel earrings. Nobody cares what his name is, so he doesn't tell them. They are not good looking women but they find themselves stunning and dress fifteen years too young for their age. They do not notice him standing there, or maybe refuse to see him and like to keep him waiting.
"—shitting all over the Turkish rugs," the one is saying. "We've had it for five years and I am convinced."
"Good evening," he says.
"You've convinced me," the skinnier one says. "I'm with you all the way."
"It's already decided."
"I almost can't wait. That is one dead fucking dog."
"We need lemons for the water," the skinny one says. The waiter drifts to the bar, gets the lemons and comes back. "We need straws," she says. When he returns with the straws, they decide they need to drink bottled water. The waiter is quietly outraged and he retreats to the kitchen looking no one in the eyes, putting two dishes in the microwave and grabbing soup, potstickers, beef tartare and dingy white plates, which he drops off at two separate tables before taking orders at a third and fourth, before finally returning to the microwaved food and delivering it to a fifth table, the burning plates branding his hands and forearms. He hates working the lunch shift.
The waiter thinks he is a main character and that everyone suffers with him, sulking with his arms crossed and leaning against anything, moving like a languid slug through his six-hour shifts, lamenting his ephemeral youth and sneaking glasses of bourbon and ginger ale. He feels like the air passing underneath a door. He racks his brain for the idea that will make him rich as he waits on rich people he loathes. He eats the blood red yellowfin tuna every day and is waiting for the mercury to one day turn his mind like spoiled milk. The days pass into the nights, he dresses himself in black shoes and slacks and a white shirt stained with soy sauce. He dreams at night of eels swimming through the grasses along the bottom of the polluted waters, eels that are lean and quick and colored a light ashen blue, foreign and ancient, searching for him in the dark murky silence with an awful scowl on their faces, among the sea grasses and the toilets and the trash. He dreams of plates filled with slices of barbecued eel, banded to sushi rice by a strip of seaweed and colored a rich brown and painted with a sweet black unagi sauce, waiting expectantly on the plate for him to bite into their crispy, glistening flesh. His dream analyst says that he is afraid of eating penises. But he thinks it might be something else.
He retrieves wine glasses, lemons, and the bottled water, and returns to the two women, silent now, their hands clasped on top their menus.
"We thought you forgot about us," one of them says.
"I'm very sorry,"
"We know what we want," the other one says—the skinny one, a set of jaws like a bear trap with the teeth of a thoroughbred horse, tremendous and stainless in her taut, skinny mouth. "What do we want?"
"I recommend the toro," the waiter says. "The fatty tuna."
"Nothing fatty," skinny says. "And no rice—little rice."
"And no tuna," the other says.
"White tuna," skinny says.
"No tuna at all—you can buy it in a can, for Christ's sake." The two continue to look over their menus.
"What is fresh today?"
"Everything," the waiter lies. Because most of it is pulled out of the deep freeze. Every morning fresh fishes arrive in a box filled with ice, and the waiter feels he knows them and feels sorry they have come from the ocean to be sliced up and saran-wrapped and stuck in the deep freeze, where they wait until the other fish are eaten. The sushi bar keeps the fatty tuna for a month, the red snapper a week and who knows for how long the broiled smelt has been sitting inside the freezer, waiting for the one guy that comes twice a year to eat it. There are places where the fish is flown in every morning, lands on the runway where a little car is waiting to taxi it straight to back to the place. There are places filled with enormous fishtanks, where you can choose what to eat and they serve it to you with the tail still flapping. There are places where you can eat sushi off of the body of a beautiful naked woman, right off her privates as she lies there on your table. This is not one of those places.
"I'll take six pieces of the seabass," the skinny one says.
"It's nearly extinct, ma'am," the waiter says.
"Then I'll take seven pieces."
"I want the california maki and the yellowtail roll," the other says. "And we need more lemons for the water."
Five minutes pass before they call him back. She complains that there is a hair in her negi hamachi maki, and there is: a thick black hair as long as a worm, bound up among the yellowtail and the bright green scallions, running through at least half the roll like a black vein. It isn't even from the sushi chef, which is the strange thing, but from the lady who cooks the teriyaki in the kitchen. It's kind of like the time the waiter served a house salad with a dead bug in it: one of the flying ants, a big juicy one bathing in the ginger dressing, underneath the mediocre tomato. It must have crawled in and died. Who knows. It happens. Or the time a lady found a sliver of steel wool in her sesame chicken, and the old guy bit down on a long splintering bone in his spring roll, or the fugitive lipstick-stained water glasses that end up greeting new customers, slipping by like Mexicans over the border. Or the Kobe beef tartare that was two days old, where entire naked colonies of bacteria were parading around and copulating—and the lawsuit that followed. Accidents, natural and unforeseen and only ten percent preventable, slowly sinking the place like a quiet leak in the hull of luxury cruise ship.
The waiter apologizes for the inconvenience.
"Thanks for ruining my appetite. I was starving."
"We're not coming back," the skinny one says. She had cleaned her plate.
"Good," he says, smiling. "Tell your friends."
TThe albino manages the kitchen. He has a Biblical name. When he was a boy he used to ring the church bells in his town in Mexico. There were four of them with four different ropes, and his grandfather taught him to pull them like he was dancing. You could fit over thirty people in the biggest bell, made from bronze and silver. Men tried stealing it three times. This old childless widow had a great deal of money, and the whole town was waiting for her to die so they could spend it, and when she croaked they bought the bell. He still thinks of ringing the bell with his grandpa, and he smiles to himself as he slices the cucumbers, remembering the old man's silent laughing face, and the white cotton stuck in their ears, and the vibrations that shook his skin and bones. And he is waiting to go back again someday, over the desert outside of the gates, and dance with them again. Maybe he will find a girl down there who will marry him, a plump juicy morita. He is almost thirty years old, and all of the Mexican girls his age have been married for over a decade, so he will have to find a young girl. At night he has dreams of eating crayons. He is with the girl in a cream colored room, and they are sitting indian-style with big white plates in their laps, eating the scattered crayons off of the floor like baby carrots. She only eats the red crayons, they are all stuck in her teeth and he is pleading with his mouth full to add some variety to her diet, sneaking blues and greens and yellows on her plate, which she brushes off, or puts in her mouth with a grimace and spits out, and then reaches laughing into the pile for more scarlet, vermillion, rose and geranium.
Sitting before the bay window on the second floor, the albino shovels his tortilla through the red mess of pork and tomatoes in his bowl and chews intently, his eyes on the sidewalks below, where the stripe-suited men bark into cell phones and the beautiful women parade through the traffic in short skirts, with their elegant bird legs, as if blind to the world and to all the men—especially him, blind to the ghost in the window, watching with his pale, oscillating eyes that move without will in the staggering sunlight. He watches fixedly as one watches the climax of a film, as they pass on currents of air through his gaze. Sometimes he picks one and follows her through the breadth of space until she is gone and he finds himself unable to chew his food and no longer hungry, and he calls her his own, makes her the repository of Our Lady and waits for her to pass again. But today it is not a woman he fixes on. It is a round man on the opposite corner, waiting to cross the street. He has seen the man somewhere before but cannot remember. The man's bald crown is luminous with the sun's reflection, and pit stains bleed through his white oxford short-sleeve from which his arms sprout like hamhocks. The albino leans forward in his chair and watches searchingly as the man removes his glasses and dabs the sweat from his sullen eye sockets, unaware that the light has already turned green until it is too late for his cautious cross and he curses and slaps his folded newspaper against his thigh. When he finally crosses—paunch-driven and purposeful and duck-like—the albino remembers how they have all been waiting months for this man to arrive, that they had given up on him, and how he knows intimately the sour turn of his mustache and the stench of his unhappy body and his pitiful flat feet. And the albino nearly falls out of his seat in a panic, startling the others as they doze siesta-like, running back through the kitchen yelling that the health inspector has finally come.
And the kitchen erupts like an anthill somebody stepped on, because they only survive by the graces of this restaurant—though parsimonious and exacting—and for everybody it is fight or flight, eyes wide and panicked, as they rush to cover the blackboard-sized trays of thawed chicken sitting under the open windows, to clean the beef and pork fat and chicken bones from the bloody cutting boards and the grease trays where the flies are drowning, to scoop all of the shrimp shells and veins and poop into their copper hands, to refrigerate the bowls of wet steaks and the ice cream containers filled with battered chicken, as the busboy grudgingly sweeps up all la basura that a kitchen floor collects in a day, only to have his piles scattered and the staff jumping all over his broom like grasshoppers. The albino descends the stairs to the sushi bar and tells all of them to clean their knives and change the fetid rags and refrigerate the open bowls of scallops, and he makes his way to the front as the inspector is flashing his badge to the Chinese guy who answers the phone and seats people, who has raised his arms in the air as if it were a stick up.
"Ah—" the inspector says, expressionless, "my pale friend."
"Yes," the albino says. "We have been waiting for you. Follow me."
"One moment," says the inspector, closing his badge and stuffing it in his pocket. He moves behind the Chinese guy to the bar, passing his hands over the bottles of alcohol as his eyes roam the area, along the floor to the eddy of lusty fruit flies above the drain and the rags slung over the tops of the house liquor. Pulling a glass from the rack, he sets it on the bar and pours himself a diet cola. There rimming the edge of the glass is the ghostly pink trace of a woman's lips. This dump. He cites them for the fermenting dish of maraschino cherries, for the blanket of white mold blooming like algae in the ten-gallon jar of stuffed olives, for the sink full of dingy, unrecycled water they use to wash the martini glasses. He writes it all down on his clipboard and looks up matter-of-factly, like he's waiting for the albino to contradict him. "Don't worry," he says. "This will be painless." And he walks duck-footed past the albino and behind the scenes.
Later that evening, after the owner—a young and exquisite Chinese woman from Shanghai, whose name is the name of the restaurant, and also the name of a month in late spring, said twice with affection—had paid off the duck-footed man and shrilled at the albino and spoke nastily to the waiter, her lover comes to dine at the restaurant. She had told him specifically, "Any night but Thursday," so that when she sees him stride across the avenue toward the entrance, not a sense of panic but an angry disquiet pollutes her otherwise static equilibrium and propels her through the dining room and into the dank service kitchen. The change is hardly noticeable to anyone, as she oscillates between catatonic and furious, so charred are the synapses left in the wake of her medicinal
romance. When she isn't fussing over her daughter's suntanned skin, applying bleaches and whitening agents, or binging and purging, squeezing and poking vehemently at the supple rolls of her belly fat, or pleasing her common law husband, her childhood Shanghai sweetheart, then she is working—and when she is working, it often means she is clubbing. Forbidden alcohol she opts for the medicine. And when she awakes at night, alone—for she and her husband have their own bedrooms—the fault is not a dream's, but the lack of dreaming.
Tonight he comes to dine. Her mister, her white American cocksure scumbag, her MDMA Tantulus, with gypsy black eyes and a bleached faux-hawk, swaggers through the entrance wearing a track suit and glides into the small foyer. The host is attractive and occupied on the phone. A bored couple of young professionals wait for takeout, whining on their cell phones and tugging at their cravats. A Jewish family waits to be seated, the mother glares at him as if to say: you're breathing my air. The owner, she is nowhere in sight. He sits at the small bar, under a Japanese arrangement of square shelves and finer liquors, backlit by ropes of blue light. The servers make their own drinks, appearing from nowhere behind the bar and then shuffling off. The waiter chills two martini glasses with a clatter of ice and a splash of soda water. The ice cubes hiss and crack in the glass, the bubbles scatter upwards and vanish. He places an order.
"Give me a saketini, up. And peel the cucumbers."
She waits in the downstairs kitchen for she knows not what. Half of her would like to scream at him, half would like to hide. Any night but Thursdays, white people so stupid, she thinks. When she grows nervous her appetite blooms, opens like a closed fist unclenching, clenching and unclenching, without relent. Her desire runs the gamut, yet for being the most American of her Chinese family, her appetite confines itself to her place of origin. She cares not for frankfurters, or hamburgers, or pigs in a blanket, or cheese in any form. She likes the most innocuously edible things one could imagine. Duck feet, chewing the webbing in between the gnarly bones of the toes. Splitting open their beaks and eating the tongues. Bags of whole dried shrimp dusted in spice and preservatives. Orange fish jerky the consistency of taffy and as briny as a stagnant inlet.
She stands in the kitchen and stuffs her face. Tonight she slurps up a bowl of poached eggs with chili and edamame. The teriyaki lady eyes her quietly when she has free moments, questions her about the white highlights in her hair, where she acquired her jeans, what colors will be in season come Autumn, and what colors will be on sale. But the owner has no patience for trivial questions and berates her in the recalcitrant tone of a spoiled child. Scowling, she chews furiously, tilts the bowl to her face and shovels the last into her mouth. The waiter enters the kitchen and she grabs hold of his arm, pulls him closely.
"That man still at the bar?" she asks.
"Who," he says, a sly smile on his face, "your boyfriend?"
Slapping him on the arm, she says, "So stupid!" The albino looks up from his station, then again leans over, picking mint leaves for the summer rolls.
"Relax, relax—he's not going anywhere."
She wipes her mouth and runs her hands over her belly. "Just make sure he stay there, okay?"
"What if the hostess seats him or something?"
"Okay okay, alright." Another server brushes past and says table thirty-six is looking for him. "Right," the waiter says.
"You tell her," the owner begins.
"The hostess. You tell her that man stays up front, got it?"
"Got it got it."
"If I find him, you know, in the dining room, I kick her ass."
"I'll tell her."
"And I fire you."
"Yikes. Got it," he says. "Can you do that?" But she doesn't respond, looking past him, a scowl carving deep lines in her otherwise flawless skin. The waiter turns around to see her boyfriend's blond head peeking in the kitchen, martini in hand. "Right," he says and ducks through the curtain into the dining room.
"Cheers," the boyfriend says. "Jesus, you look pissed. I've been looking for you."
"Baby, please. I'm starving for some SUSHI."
"What did I fucking tell you?"
"What is going on with you, Jesus."
"Any night but Thursday! You don't come all week but tonight?" The albino stops picking the mint. The teriyaki lady sneaks a furtive glance at the visitor.
"I'm hungry. I brought treats, the Magic Dragon." A waitress struggles to squeeze past him. "Tonight's Boom-Boom Night at Onyx."
"Look, people are trying to work around here. You're in the door."
"I'll be out there," he says. "I'm going to find a seat."
"Wait!" she says, but he has slipped through the curtain. A feeling of nausea swirls in her gut. She goes to the curtain and peeks through, watching him sit down at the sushi bar. For the first moment in years, she is afraid.
He drinks down the last of his saketini and waits for the chef to acknowledge him. This chef must be new, he thinks; he certainly would've noticed him before—tall for Chinese, with a broad, stoic face and a grim mouth. Ordering another drink from the waiter, he looks around for his girlfriend one last time before marking off his selections on the list. He completes his order and leans back in his chair. Outside the molten sun sinks weightlessly into the sky, setting aglow the synagogue across the street with a fiery halo. Middle Eastern cab drivers drink cheap coffee and joke with one another at a cab stand in front of the window. Businessmen garbed in Armani and Zegna loosen their silk ties as they hurry home like schoolboys to their lakefront condos.
The boyfriend unzips his striped track jacket to reveal his wife beater and a platinum crucifix. He watches the elegant motions of the sushi chef as he quarters a maki. His hands are like those of a prizefighter, square and heavy but graceful. The man watches as he spreads sticky rice over a leaf of seaweed and smears a dollop of spicy mayonnaise across one end. After layering in slices of tuna and avocado, he uses a sheet of bamboo to roll it into a cylinder. The sleeve of his kimono slips down his arm, and when he brushes it back, the boyfriend notices a tattoo on his forearm—the ink is black with a dash of red, and the design is familiar and horrible. She had told him about it, the awful jaws, the long, skeletal legs, the bulbous thorax with its red fiddle. It is a tattoo of a black widow. It belongs to her husband.
The busboy is named after a Roman emperor. His grandmother paid a smuggler five thousand American dollars to stuff him inside the seat of a passenger van and drive him across the border. He shaves his head completely but for a lean strip along his neckline that grows straight out like the quills of a porcupine, a sixteen-year-old who peddles dollar-store weed, who wants to be a gangero, and who hates all things Mexican. He carries all the weight of the first generation on his back, working twelve hours a day for fifty dollars—cleaning the shitty toilets, washing the windows smeared with pollution, bussing the filthy plates for the filthy rich, and setting traps in the basement for the rats, folding the slices of American cheese into boxes and snapping backs the pins. His squat body hangs from a pair of shoulders that refuse to yield even to the pain in his bruised ribs where the Latin Kings stomped on him, and his arms fall heavily to his sides. He drowns inside his mammoth clothes and hides his baby face and black licorice eyes under a peaked, cavernous hood. When he unlatches his belt buckle it becomes a knife, and he grazes this along the inner thighs of his second cousin when she undresses for him, and he cuts off her thong with it. In his pocket he carries a fat permanent marker and he tags everything, parking meters and paper napkins and the bathroom walls of the restaurant, drawing a dead Playboy bunny upside down with its eyes X-ed out. He speaks no English but talks to everyone, the Japanese and Chinese and Thai and Americans, like they were fluent and understood more than a handful of cusswords spewed from his sibilant tongue. Everyone is a puta or a maricon except for the waiter, who speaks pigeon Spanish and smokes dope from aluminum foil pipes with him and believes that he really killed someone in Los Angeles, before he came here. His grandmother is waiting in Mexico for his American dollars, but his uncle pockets the meager checks in exchange for a cheap cot in the room where the children sleep. So the busboy goes to Chinatown with his friends to prey on the old, and he quits sleeping at his uncle's and
spends his money on himself, on beer and blunts and the ones he waits to call him family. He sold his lady of Guadelupe necklace to the waiter for a can of light beer. He will soon become a King. At night he dreams that he is still in Mexico, in the yellow kitchen of his grandmother, where the little oven begins sweltering, where a giant pot begins to overflow on top of the stove, slowly at first, down the sides, the cover gently rattling. And slowly growing bigger, pressure building and displacing the top of the pot like a gunshot, as he looks for his grandma and cannot find her anywhere, knows she is just beyond the wall where a hallway used to be, and pounds on the wall as the soup sputters angrily from the pot, red all over the walls, and the oven begins to cough black smoke into the kitchen. He pounds on the wall but he cannot hear her voice, and he runs to open the oven as a flood of oily black rats storm out on to the floor and crawl up the yellow walls.
It all begins with the teriyaki lady the moment she slaps him on the hand as he reaches over her greedily for a pinch of meat off a steaming plate of mongolian beef. He shrieks and grabs his hand like he has wounded it, then he makes to hit her with his fist and laughs when she flinches.
"Pendejo!" she squawks, slapping him open-handed on the collar. She knows the most expressive Spanish words. He nearly loses control, discharging a stream of cusswords and flailing his chubby arms in an array of gang symbols, forking his fingers in the air and pounding them against his chest. The albino has to step in between them until the argument subsides, the busboy slumping his shoulders and skulking out of the kitchen as he mutters angrily. He is still a young kid and he's got a hunger dating back to a childhood replete with plain rice and stale tortillas—constantly picking at the dishes and stuffing one thing or another in his mouth, squeezing whole limes on his rice and into his multiple bowls of soup and on top of his egg rolls. The teriyaki lady sees the way he eats—the insatiable effrontery with which his jaws are always working, even as he exits the kitchen—and it disgusts her because she knows subconsciously that she, too, has this hunger inside her.
The night advances and every time he enters the kitchen to dispose of dirty plates and empty glasses, or to toss handfuls of stained cloth napkins into the laundry, or to wrap someone's leftovers in a styrofoam box, he glares at her obliquely through the dark slits of his eyes, purses his lips and juts out his chin, and mutters puta or chenga tu madre or chupa mi verga. But she is busy with her work and ignores him, tending to the steak and squid and seabass on the grill, coating the shrimp and vegetables in tempura batter, deep frying the soft shell crabs in peanut oil. The place begins to fill up, soon everyone is too busy to think and the only busboy in the place forgets his animosity in the ruckus, bringing water and green tea to the new arrivals, hurriedly bussing the dirty tables of the freshly departed, fielding incomprehensible questions from customers, getting them more ginger and wasabi, drying the myriad glasses and silverware and dishes that turn up in the dumbwaiter with a resounding buzz, packing all the leftovers that people will never touch in packaging that will never biodegrade, helping the waiter deliver the unending plates of arriving food, refilling the water and green tea, taking this, disposing of that, getting another one of these—it does not stop, he is constantly turning on his heels, back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, the tasks and errands building up before him like moves in a chess match, always something to be done before he attends to something else. The hours are swallowed like a sink of water down the drain.
Somewhere in the midst of the rush, the teriyaki lady finds a moment to rest and leans back against her station. The other workers move in a frantic rhythm, their faces habitual and expressionless. The busboy enters the kitchen, arms full of dirty dishes, and he drops them with a crash in the bin, which is already teeming. She points to the bin as he retreats and says, "This—upstairs." He exits without acknowledging her, returning moments later for the teapot. "You," she says. "This—arriba, up."
"No tiempo," he says, drenching the soggy mess of tea leaves with boiling water.
"Me—nothing!" she shouts, motioning that she cannot lift it herself. "Me—no gooda." He huffs, putting down the teapot, opening the dumbwaiter and struggling with the heavy bin. The dishes slide about like tectonic plates, two of them cascading off the top and shattering on the kitchen floor. He barely shoves the bin inside, sends it up to the kitchen on the second floor and turns to leave with the teapot when she squawks at him, pointing at the litter of cracked ceramic fragments on the tile. He doesn't turn around, and she's not cleaning it up. That's his job. Again she leans back on her station, crosses her arms with a pissed and pouty look on her face. An order for steak teriyaki pops up, and she is momentarily distracted as she defrosts the frozen ribeye in the microwave and slaps the bloody hunk of meat on the grill. The busboy comes in and out numerous times, making no motion to clean up the mess. "You!" she says. His back turned, he pulls napkins and chopsticks from the drawer. She shouts again, and he stops with a sneer on his face and glares at her. "This—clean! You!" He drops everything, forks and chopsticks slide off the counter and clatter on the floor. Slowly he grabs the broom from its post in the corner and creeps across the kitchen toward her. He wants to break it across her knees. Grudgingly, he lowers his head and sweeps it into a pile, when the waiter crashes in and calls for his help.
He's got a table of eight that wants to box everything—all of the rice, the two potstickers and the handful of edamame, the half-eaten spring rolls, the ragged pieces of leftover sushi and sashimi, the unagi cake, the yakisoba noodles, even the remnants of sizzling rice soup and the nabeyaki udon—all wrapped up individually with extra soy sauce and hot mustard. She is cutting the steak teriyaki as he finishes boxing everything, and when she turns around and goes to the stove for the teriyaki sauce, he grabs a handful of the steak strips and crams them in his mouth as he walks out of the kitchen. The hot, stringy meat scalds his tongue and he must swallow before he can chew it. It gets caught in his throat on the way back to the table of eight, a burning lump of red meat clogging his air passage, and he stops involuntarily before he makes it back to the table, doubling over at the waist and struggling to either swallow or cough it out. Everytime he struggles to inhale a breath into his desperate lungs the knot of meat is pulled farther down his pipe, where it lodges stubbornly, refusing to yield. He falls on top of the carryout bag and crawls in a suffocating frenzy toward the waiter, who stares in disbelief with the rest of the dining room. An old French doctor dining with his wife at table fifteen jumps out of his seat and runs to the busboy, grabbing him by the waist and thrusting in on his stomach. He pumps three times before the meat is ejected from the busboy's mouth, ejaculated in a steaming wet heap at the feet of the waiter.
The waiter pales, walks to the service kitchen and into the back alley, where he vomits by the dumpster. The albino picks up the busboy and leads him to the kitchen, where he prepares a cup of hot water with mint leaves. The owner yells at the teriyaki lady for giving food to the Mexicans. A pigeon wanders past the waiter and in the back door. None of them notice. In the restaurant, everyone eyes the pile of regurgitated steak like a prop that has been accidentally dropped on stage. The French doctor returns, distracted, to his wife. She is concerned for him. No matter, he assures her. His green tea has cooled. He remembers when, outside of Saigon, a young Vietnamese boy died in his arms. He could not stop the bleeding. There are some things you cannot prevent.