Sean stopped and looked into a smeared window, staring at a row of mechanical waving cats. They came in various colors, all with the same exaggerated smiles, their arms craning up and down like a welcoming committee or a group of mysterious invaders lulling citizens into a false sense of security. He buttoned his coat and kept on down the sidewalk, but told himself he’d buy one whenever he had a new desk or cubicle. A few weeks earlier, he’d bought a small figurine of a soldier from Qin Shi Huang’s terra cotta army. He displayed it on his desk at home and imagined it guiding him into a new job, if not fighting off evil spirits. This thought struck him as mildly racist, using a sacred figure of a foreign country as a good luck charm. The stern gaze of the little statue admonished him when he checked out basketball websites in the middle of looking at job postings. The gaze became a gruff look of sympathy with every automated reply, the increasingly scattered return calls, the occasional intonation of “Someone will follow up with you shortly.”
When Joanna came home that afternoon, he called her into the den to show off his acquisition.
“What do you think?”
“I like it,” she said, “but you should really watch your spending.”
He sighed. “It was only four bucks.”
“It looks really pretty.”
“Christ, it’s not a flat screen TV. It’s a tiny statue.”
A fight composed of slammed cabinets and a couple hours of silence followed. Since then, he tried to be out somewhere when she got home. She insisted that getting out and “doing things” would be better for his sanity (and, by extension, the state of his unemployment) than being inside all afternoon, but he knew she just wanted some alone time, of which he had lots and she had almost none.
During the weekdays, he would eat breakfast, read the paper, and feel his eyes get cloudy as he scrolled through Craigslist and LinkedIn, as if a co-worker from 2002 was linked to someone who would magically scoop him up into $35,000 a year plus benefits. When the afternoons rolled around, he grabbed his coat and his bag and rode the train all over the city to see all the neighborhoods he didn’t have time to see when he was working. Joanna had her time alone when she got off work, an hour or two of solitude with a glass of wine, assuming Sean was hitting human resource offices, following up on emails, making cold calls from his cell. But most days, he found himself in Chinatown.
The neighborhood seemed more inviting on cold weekday afternoons. The foot traffic was minimal, he could duck into any shop and browse gifts and knickknacks with no more than a smile and a hello from the clerks, and even though the visits felt like faraway travels, he could peek north and see the downtown skyline where he had normally spent his days until the layoffs. He was fascinated with the displays of whole roasted ducks, teapots, shawls, and Buddha statues. Plastic cups of bubble tea were cheap and always delicious, even with an increasing outside chill.
He kept walking down Wentworth after his moment with the toy cats, wondering who the street was named for since it was such an English name, conjuring up images of imperialism, handlebar mustaches, and ivory-coated pistols. The wind picked up considerably at the end of the main stretch. His feet were tired, and he ducked into the closest restaurant. It was the size of a small banquet hall, but it was nearly empty. An elderly waiter shuffled up, nodded, and led Sean to a small table against the wall and set a menu in front of him. A few tables down, a young man and an older woman ate bowls of soup. No smartphones, no loud conversation, no eye contact. Their eating was like a religious act.
Sean wanted a pot of tea, but couldn’t help looking at the menu. The smells in the restaurant were subtle at first, but as he warmed up, they grew more intense, almost seductive. Egg rolls, shrimp, noodles, beef — he hadn’t eaten anything since an English muffin at 7:00am. The waiter came back over a few minutes later. As if possessed, he ordered pot stickers, a bowl of egg drop soup, and a plate of beef chow mein. The waiter nodded and scribbled on his pad before limping to the kitchen. He was very skinny, but looked tough and grim. There was no awkward small talk, no put-on enthusiasm of daily specials. Sean reached into his bag and pulled out a folded newspaper with a half-finished crossword puzzle. He glanced around, almost startled by the quiet of such a vast room. He assumed it was busy on the weekends, a bustling, aromatic dance of plates, clinking silverware, neighborhood families sharing weekly meals, suburban visitors buzzed with the taste of a Chinese meal that didn’t come from PF Chang’s.
Once he found a job, he’d bring Joanna there to celebrate. She’d wear her sexy black boots, and he’d invite their friends and some of his old co-workers to show them how good he was doing. Maybe he’d even insist that Douglas make an appearance, a “Hey fucker, you realize you pushed me into something better?” He’d stare into his eyes and sip a glass of expensive wine. Later that night, he and Joanna would fuck like they were breaking up and needed to pull out all the stops to salvage it.
The waiter approached with a large tray, moving with surprising agility despite his age and the weight of the food. His thin lips were still as he set the foods in front of Sean, whose glasses steamed from the soup. He thanked the waiter, who nodded and walked behind the bar, sitting and stretching on a wooden stool. Sean carefully poured a cup of green tea and began to eat. He tried to not be gluttonous, but couldn’t help but sample each dish one by one, mixing and matching, slurping from the bowls, suggestively applying hot sauces. He stopped for a moment with a pang of self-consciousness. He felt like his imagined Colonel Wentworth, fattening himself with no regard for the starving citizens, filling himself up with the fruits of the land before taking his pick of the underage concubines nearby.
As if in a trance, he had emptied the plates and nearly finished the entire pot of tea. His napkin was in shreds. The waiter looked over, pulled himself up from the stool, and brought the tray back to clear away the remnants of Sean’s bender. Before walking away, he reached into his pocket and slid the check on the table face down.
Sean looked at the ‘THANK YOU!’ in a large black stamp on the backside as if it was going to jump into his lap. He pulled out his wallet and peeked inside. In his coat was a pack of cigarettes, half of the $20 Joanna had left on the kitchen counter that morning despite his insistence that he would be fine. He looked ahead to the kitchen and back to the exit. The thought crossed his mind, but, like many things of that nature, he’d never have the guts to do so. The younger man and older woman were standing up and pushing their chairs in. They walked single file past Sean’s table. He was the only customer left.
He stood up, put on his coat, and grabbed the bill. He walked over to the bar and smiled at the waiter.
“Can I get a bottle of Tsingtao? Can you add it to this bill?”
The waiter reached into the cooler and set the green bottle on a cocktail napkin.
Sean took this verbal communication as a sign; of what, he wasn’t sure. He took a big swallow, then another, another, half-finishing the beer. With all the food in his stomach, it wasn’t hitting him. He waited a few minutes, took a deep breath, and casually downed the rest of the bottle. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and sent Joanna a text.
Meet me. Evergreen Restaurant in Chinatown. After work.
“Can I have another— Wait, what’s that small bottle? Down there, with the red label.”
“Er guo tou. Red Star. Vodka.”
“I’ll have a glass of that. With ice.” He didn’t know the customs. He paused and smiled again at the waiter. “Do you want to have one? It’s on me.”
The waiter clinked ice cubes into two glasses and carefully leveled them from the bottle. He didn’t wait for a toast and took a sip, sitting back on his stool, once again oblivious to Sean, who took his own gulp and ran his fingers through his hair.
His phone vibrated: Maybe.
He took another sip and stared at the television mounted over the bar. It was a Chinese soap opera. He tried to pick out syllables or phrases to look up, but the characters were speaking too rapidly. But he could sense the issue. There were two young women, one in a nurse uniform and one in regular clothes who was letting out a wail of despair in a hospital’s hallway. She bit her knuckles and collapsed into the arms of the nurse, who looked down with sympathy and fought back her own tears. Sean was feeling numb from the vodka, his head beginning the slight spin, and he replied to Joanna.
I need you here.
He silenced his phone, kept drinking, and kept his attention on the TV. The scene had shifted to the room inside the hospital. A handsome, sturdy man with a breathing tube at his nose clutched the hand of the crying woman. The actor’s eyes were tired, his face clenched. Sean found him convincing, despite his freshly shaved face and pristinely gelled hair. The man uttered a string of words, offering comfort to the woman, probably his wife or sister, squeezing her hand, telling her to be strong, that everything would be alright no matter what.
James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org and received his MFA from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2015. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, WhiskeyPaper, and other publications. He currently lives and writes in Lafayette, Louisiana.