Wei forgot that he’d given up these aspirations, but he knew they were still possible for her.
Wei’s ten-year-old, Rachel, would occasionally offer to teach him a new vocabulary word from school. He collected words painstakingly this way, at the price of Rachel’s sighs and eyerolls. Her little huffs reminded him that her handle of the world was expanding beyond his reach, but his pride was a small price to pay for her to become something more.
A short word that he didn’t know could have a grand meaning: tony. Fancy, Rachel had said. The specifics were unimportant to her. To Wei though, it meant a desk, health insurance, and paid time off, maybe even stocks and bonuses. A company on the Fortune lists. A tony house. Wei forgot that he’d given up these aspirations, but he knew they were still possible for her.
He’d known a Tony before. Of course, as soon as Wei had mentioned him, Rachel protested that that was different, “Tony with a big T,” but the example helped the word stick, especially because Tony had not hidden the fact that he felt he was on his way to living a tony life. Tony was a gangly college sophomore who came into Phoenix Cafe for a part-time server job because it was “not too much mental strain” and close to campus. The owner had had Wei train him, since he and Tony shared a claim to Shanghai as their old home. That was all they had in common, as far as Wei was concerned. The cocky ass rushed Wei as he demoed tasks, but was the one who spilled soy sauce everywhere when he tried his hand at refilling the curvy bottles. Two weeks after his first real shifts not playing Wei’s shadow, Tony stopped showing up. He’d never have to endure Wei’s sotto voce scoldings again.
Later, pissing fast in the bathroom before table 13 could complain that he hadn’t brought out their extra rice yet, Wei swore. One less person to share tips with, but first, more work. Tony was never replaced, though the owner’s original idea had been to hire a tech-savvy young person to figure out and manage the explosion of delivery apps they had to deal with these days on top of the old-fashioned phone orders. The apps were done away with altogether: no more fees paid out to them, and none of their annoying chimes, pings, ding-dings. Phoenix Cafe would return to handling their own deliveries.
Which was why Wei got stuck with delivering the three orders beside him at the foot of his passenger seat. The styrofoam containers squeaked, and the sauce-soaked contents lurched like a threat, no matter how gingerly he turned his car. Fuck the tailgater. Fuck was a word he’d learned early on. “Motherfuck you!” he shouted, throwing up the bird so the person could at least see him. Fuck gave him power.
The swell in his chest dissipated after the first delivery and a tip that never came. A door closed in his face instead, his cue to depart. Cheap shits ordering dinner to their tony neighborhood, then penny-pinching at the last minute. It was nothing new to Wei. He took in the expansive front lawn, an unfurled green carpet before the immaculate white columns he’d passed between to reach the front door. The residents had opened it just enough to pluck the bags from his hands, and for him to glimpse the glimmering inside. Wei recalled how their smiles flickered into grimaces. It didn’t make sense until he looked himself over and spotted the pale tan stain on his white work shirt. Once, he had been more than this, but they’d never see or care to imagine it. Sometimes he had trouble imagining it.
He needed a release, so he spat into the decorative fountain gurgling next to him and watched his spit bubbles mix in, swirl around, and make themselves at home. Rachel could probably tell you which style of Western art the fountain was a poor imitation of. She was also developing into an environmentalist and would call it first a waste of resources and then of money. But the people here spent where they could and wanted to. In this, he was actually of the same mind.
Wei had two more orders to deliver. He had to keep going. The quicker he got done, the sooner he’d be back at Phoenix. There was comfort in the familiar, even if there was nothing particularly comfortable about it. Away now from the restaurant’s yellowed lighting and muted wallpaper and in front of this gleaming house, Wei could see it through Tony’s eyes. He could feel that the sidewalk he stood on now wasn’t much harder than the Phoenix floor, with its green carpet so compacted from years of foot traffic that it barely provided cushioning against the concrete below. Phoenix did not inspire. It was not a place to love, only to make a living. Once though, Wei had brought a seven-year-old Rachel to work when no one could stay home with her. He and her mother always strove to organize their lives around her, but they had to accommodate their work schedules, not the other way around. The owner had let Wei seat Rachel in the party room, separated from the main dining area by dark wood dividers with silk screen insets of lotus flowers. Rachel blew through her chapter book—“easiest homework ever!”—and spent the rest of the time arranging the chairs into imagined configurations. Her favorite was the space shuttle, two pairs of chairs pressed together at the edges of their seats. Even then, she had been ready to go. Wei would work to give her worlds to fly to.