Mahjong Money

John F. Kennedy’s assassination affected Li-yi mainly in the form of lost tips on November 22, 1963. Otherwise, he was too busy to think about it. Fourteen hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, he was studying for his master’s degree, taking night classes, working extra shifts at the restaurant. He worked seven days straight after the killing. People still ate, still complained about too much garlic in the broccoli or too few wontons in the soup. Such complaints unnerved him. At twenty-six, he wasn’t a hardened waiter yet, not like Ow-yang, who didn’t have a college degree and who was, in Li-yi’s estimation, doomed to a life of servitude. Or Liang, who actually enjoyed waiting, who only missed shifts for especially promising races at Aqueduct. Li-yi had a future. The exact details of this future varied from daydream to daydream, but in no case did it involve wearing a maroon jacket to work.

He worried about his savings, his studies, his immigration status. Without a degree, he would never obtain his working visa; he would return to Taiwan a failure. He kept to himself, avoiding parties and other outings. Other than his roommate, Tu, he lacked friends. Friends meant entanglement and obligation. Friends were a luxury. He knew the names of the subletters who slept on the living room floor only because Tu complained about the noisiness of the three men and was infatuated with Mei, the woman. Li-yi thought Mei plain-looking, but he often found himself analyzing this plainness late at night, when his statistics thesis became too dreary to work on. Mei wore a ponytail and dull, baggy sweaters. Li-yi found her face boring.

*   *   *

On a cold December afternoon, his first day off in weeks, he took a stroll in Riverside Park, then walked east on 116th Street toward Broadway. He heard his name and felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Jack Peng, a friend from Chia Kuo High School in Taipei. For a moment they looked at each other happily, then shook hands. Li-yi, who had played center for their school basketball team, stood over Jack by nearly a foot. Jack had never made the team.

Jack was working in a laundry in Brooklyn, but had come into Manhattan for a date. Li-yi noticed Jack’s shiny wingtips, yellow shirt, and new-looking pea coat.

“You look good,” said Li-yi, whose gray parka had begun to leak stuffing.

“Only the shoes are mine,” said Jack. “I borrowed the rest from the dry cleaning rack at the laundry. Are you busy? Why don’t we go for coffee?”

Li-yi hesitated. He and Jack had been good friends at the beginning of high school, but then had drifted apart. Seven years had passed since they had seen each other at graduation, and he was uncertain how fully he wished to renew their acquaintance. It cheered him, however, to see someone from home, someone from easier times.

“Sure,” he said. “Coffee.”

At the diner, Li-yi told Jack he had been working toward a master’s degree for three years, ever since leaving Taiwan. That evening, he would meet with his advisor in the statistics department at City College, Professor Edelstein, who never tired of telling Li-yi that his math was terrible.

“I was at Pace,” said Jack, “studying business administration. I’ll go back as soon as I save enough money.”

“It isn’t easy,” said Li-yi.

“No,” said Jack. “Still, you can’t get ahead without the degree. You have to make an effort.”

Jack told Li-yi about the apartment in Brooklyn he shared with three Cantonese, one a second-hand radio dealer. The hall closet was packed with clock radios. Last night in the wee hours, one had come on at full blast, and it had taken an hour to find it and switch it off. It was always one thing or another with his roommates, Jack said.

“Have you been eating, Li-yi? You look thin.”

Although he hadn’t stepped on a scale in several years, Li-yi knew he had lost weight. His father had given him a suitcase of old clothes to bring to the United States. The pants and dress shirts, which had been tight on him, now hung comfortably. In high school, because of his height and wavy hair, he had been successful with girls, but these days, his face was probably too bony to be attractive. On the other hand, Jack, with his spiky hair and stumpy frame, looked the same as Li-yi remembered him.

“Working too hard,” said Li-yi.

“I’m not sure I’d count on you for protection, anymore,” said Jack.

Li-yi laughed. In ninth grade, he’d bloodied the nose of a bully who threatened Jack on the basketball court —the first and only serious punch he’d ever thrown. It pleased him to think that other boys on the court that day might still, as grown men, connect his name with that deed. Of course, he had stayed a good person. As a roommate, he was clean and considerate, and he sent his parents money every month, even if it was only ten or fifteen dollars. But his present world was a little cramped for virtue; he could only make gestures, as he did now by picking up the check.

They emerged from the diner and stood chatting on the sidewalk, now sunk partly in shadow. Li-yi asked Jack about his date.

“We’re just having coffee,” said Jack. “She’s a Barnard student. I met her at a party at International House.”

“Classy,” said Li-yi.

“She’s American,” said Jack. “I was so nervous I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I came in early. I’m not meeting her until five. Why don’t we see a movie?”

“I have to study.”

“Oh,” said Jack, looking disappointed.

Li-yi felt guilty. “All right,” he said. “What should we see?” For such an old friend, he thought, he could afford to squander seventy-five cents on a matinee. Besides, there was little he could do to prepare for his meeting with Edelstein. He had left new pages in the professor’s mailbox the week before; tonight they would be returned, lined in scolding ink, to be reworked the next month, and the month after that. The thought plunged him into gloomy distraction.

He noticed Jack staring across the street at a small Chinese man dialing a payphone. “Know him?” said Li-yi. The light changed. Jack began to cross, and Li-yi, after a moment of hesitation, followed. As they drew near, the man, recognizing Jack, hung up the phone and tried to run. Jack lunged and grabbed the man’s coat.

The two shouted at each other in Taiwanese. With some effort, Li-yi was able to discern the story from among the jumbled insults. The man, who was about their age, was named Liu. Two years ago, Liu had disappeared from Taipei owing Jack a large mahjong debt. Jack had gone so far as to visit Liu’s parents, who, ashamed, refused to reveal the whereabouts of their son. Enraged to hear Jack had involved his parents, Liu now grabbed hold of Jack’s pea coat. It became difficult to tell who was shaking whom. As the men bellowed in each other’s faces, a crowd gathered.

“What are they saying?” a woman asked Li-yi.

He shook his head.

“There’s a cop coming,” she said. Two blocks away, still oblivious to the commotion, a policeman ambled up the sidewalk.

“Police,” he told the other men.

Liu, craning his neck, squirmed and nearly broke free. “Let go!”

“I’d rather be deported,” said Jack.

Liu struggled, then held up his hands. “All right,” he said. “I live nearby. We can go to my room and talk.”

Jack kept his hand on Liu’s collar as they headed uptown, away from the policeman. Li-yi followed, catching scraps of conversation, mainly dispute over what was owed.

“Jack,” he said, “I’ll leave you here.”

“I might need your help,” said Jack.

Years before, in Taiwan, Li-yi almost had been barred from college for cheating on the national entrance exam. He had wanted to help his friend Wei, who was unable to study while caring for his sick mother. Though Li-yi was not a good student — certainly not good enough to cheat from —he had arranged a meeting between Wei and a “gunner” who would take Wei’s place on examination day. Li-yi had paid most of the gunner’s fee.

When the scheme failed, Li-yi’s father called upon friends in the government to keep his son out of trouble. He did not, as he would have when his son was younger, beat him with a belt. Instead, he listened with a mix of sympathy and exasperation as Li-yi told him about Wei’s mother. “Think how you risked your future,” his father had said. “How can you help your family sticking your neck out like this? One day you’ll find your head missing.” As punishment, his father excluded Li-yi from the family’s annual vacation at the beach. Li-yi had been uncertain how to take this, since his father knew he did not enjoy going.

Jack’s face reminded Li-yi of past gallantries — the bully, the exam, loans made and then forgiven. Such largess was beyond him, now, but perhaps he could bear a certain level of involvement. For lack of money, his old friend Jack had been forced to drop out of school. By going along, Li-yi could help resolve the dispute peacefully and in Jack’s favor. It was little to ask, and he had over two hours before his appointment with Edelstein.

He strode beside the other men as they bickered. Near 116th Street, Jack slipped on ice and brought Liu down with him. They began shouting at each other again. Three young men, probably Columbia students, stopped to watch.

Embarrassed, Li-yi looked away at the grand marble pillars that marked the entrance to campus. He had never actually wandered onto the grounds of Columbia; he had always felt, in a sense, unworthy. Here, before this famous institution, the behavior of Jack and Liu seemed doubly disgraceful. He walked ahead and waited until they picked themselves up.

At last, they arrived at a residential hotel on 123rd Street called The Uptown. Li-yi had stayed in The Uptown for six weeks the summer he arrived in New York. For two dollars a night, he’d roomed with a boy named Fung, who spoke strangely accented Cantonese, and who refused to divulge his native dialect. When Fung disappeared, Li-yi had moved out. He had not thought of The Uptown since.

Nothing was different, but it was all three years older: the furniture, the black American clerk, and his softly droning radio. The clerk looked up at the three Chinese, greeted Liu, and bent back toward his newspaper. They climbed steps to the third floor. Liu’s room contained a sink, a desk, a chair, and a neatly-made cot. To block the light, Liu had tacked a pillowcase over the window.

Jack and Li-yi sat on the cot. Liu lifted a pan, filled it with water, and placed it over the radiator. From the desk he took a bottle of Johnny Walker, a glass, and two paper cups. “A drink,” he said. Liu was plump, and pouted in a way that made him seem childish and self-important. He poured the whiskey, offering Jack the one glass, and sat a few feet away on the chair.

“Come,” he said, raising his cup.

They drank without specifying a toast.

Taking a deep breath, Liu apologized to Jack for failing to pay his debt. “But I can’t owe as much as you say. Do you have the IOUs?”

“I don’t have them,” said Jack. “But I remember the amount.”

“It can’t be that much,” said Liu.

They recounted the history of the debt, charting its rise and fall through various mahjong games in the summer of 1961. Jack spoke impatiently; Liu was alternately testy and conciliatory. Li-yi leaned back and unzipped his parka. The alcohol, the darkness, and the warmth of the room made him sleepy. He noticed three engineering textbooks stacked on the desk. Liu must be smart, he thought. Only the best Taiwanese students were admitted to the engineering programs.

“I tell you it can’t be that much!” said Liu.

Jack leapt off the cot. Surprised, Liu toppled sideways, but managed to roll on top of Jack as they fell to the floor. Li-yi lurched to his feet. “Stop,” he said. His chest was burning; after a moment, he realized he’d spilled whiskey on himself. He bent, hoisted Liu off Jack, and set him back on his feet.

The glass rolled across the floor and stopped against the desk. As Liu bent to retrieve it, Jack kneed him in the face, knocking him backward. Liu fell against the wall, holding his nose.

Jack picked up the textbooks. “Collateral,” he said. “We’ll be back in a week.”

Liu cupped his hands under his nose and slurped. Blood seeped through his fingers. Jack opened the door and ushered Li-yi into the hall. They descended the stairs, crossed the lobby, and exited the hotel.

Outside, the sun was setting. Li-yi felt groggy, as if he had woken from a poorly-timed nap. Jack asked him to hold the textbooks while he buttoned his coat. They were heavy, bound in bright cloth, and brand new. Li-yi studied the top one — Principles of Electric Circuits, 2nd Edition — and wondered aloud how much the books had cost, and whether Liu would need them to study.

“I’m sure they’re expensive,” said Jack. “That’s why he’ll pay me.”

Still carrying the books, Li-yi followed Jack to a diner on Amsterdam Avenue. A brown-haired American girl sat in a booth with a cup of coffee and a paperback.

“That’s her,” said Jack. “Will you hang onto the textbooks? I’ll come to the restaurant next Wednesday after your lunch shift. We’ll go see him then.”

He clapped Li-yi on the shoulder and went inside. The girl stood and smiled nervously. Li-yi waited to see if they would embrace, but they merely shook hands and sat down.

With no time to stop at his apartment, Li-yi hurried toward the subway. He worried Edelstein would think him rude for showing up without a pen and notebook, but arriving late would be worse. He had been working with Edelstein for six semesters. Although many of Li-yi’s cohort had already completed their degrees, Edelstein refused to approve even the first of Li-yi’s thesis chapters. Li-yi had heard rumors Edelstein was prejudiced against Chinese because his son had been killed in Korea. Regardless, he felt there was little he could do about it. If he changed advisors, he might gain a reputation as a whiner, a troublemaker — and what if the cause was revealed not to be Edelstein’s prejudice, but his own incompetence? The risks were too great.

“Have I suggested you go to Hunter College and take a nighttime calculus class?” said Edelstein, handing back Li-yi’s chapter. “Your work lacks certain fundamentals.” Li-yi explained that he had signed up for the class at Hunter, but that he had been turned away because of a registration error. “I appreciate your persistence,” said Edelstein, “but, you see, it’s like Sisyphus.”

The professor began to explain who Sisyphus was. Li-yi fingered Liu’s textbooks. He smelled the spilled whiskey on his shirt, and thought of a film he had once seen, in which the hero, a lawyer, had fallen in love with his client. This broke the lawyer’s personal rule, set up explicitly at the beginning of the film, to “never get involved.” Li-yi tried to follow what Edelstein was saying, but his thoughts were muddled with involvement. This upset him. On the train home, he held up the corrected pages to his face, trying to understand.

Tu’s light was off when he entered the apartment. Five people were asleep on the living room floor; a girl he didn’t recognize was next to Mei, snuggled beneath a yellow coat. He vaguely recalled Tu saying that Mei’s sister would be arriving soon from Taiwan. A battered volume of Lu Xun lay beside her — an egghead, a pleasure-reader, just like Mei. He cooked quietly, so as not to wake them. As he was washing dishes, his hands soaked in white suds, he realized he’d left Liu’s books on the subway.

*   *   *

He slept badly. At lunch, he dribbled hot tea on a baby. The mother, distracted by her other bawling child, failed to note the incident. He hurried into the kitchen and waited until she left. In his Advanced Topics Seminar, he barely registered a word. He thought of the books wending their way into Brooklyn, sliding back and forth on the slick bench. After class, he knocked on Edelstein’s door to ask if he’d forgotten the books there. Edelstein looked at him blankly. Li-yi bought a sandwich for dinner and shut himself in his room. When Tu knocked, he didn’t answer.

At the end of lunch shift on Wednesday, he saw Jack chatting with the manager. Li-yi collected his pay and retreated to the kitchen, where he drank a small bowl of soup. He had planned to tell Jack about the textbooks, but now he lacked the courage. Before walking out, he stuffed his waiter’s jacket into his bag to make it look fuller. “Ready?” said Jack.  He and Li-yi exited through the back door into an alley that ran between the restaurant and an apartment building. Pigeons gorged themselves on breadcrumbs someone had thrown from a window. As the birds scattered into the gray sky, the two men covered their heads.

At The Uptown, the clerk told them Liu had checked out earlier that week, leaving no forwarding address. “You the guys who broke his nose?” he asked.

Neither Jack nor Li-yi spoke.

“Mean thing to do,” said the clerk.

The clerk turned up the radio: the FBI had released an initial report on the assassination. Li-yi and Jack discussed in Mandarin whether the clerk was telling them the truth. Jack suggested they ask for the key to Liu’s room, but Li-yi pointed out they were in no position to make demands.

They went out and stood on the sidewalk. Litter and dead leaves circled their feet. Jack thanked Li-yi for coming, and apologized for involving him. He hadn’t meant to hurt Liu so badly, he added, but had lost his temper.

“I can’t even pay my tuition,” said Jack. “Every bit helps.”

Li-yi looked up at the facade of the hotel. He didn’t know which of the windows had been Liu’s, but remembered his own on the northeast corner of the second floor. Fung had moved out without explanation. For months afterward, Li-yi had wondered if he’d been unkind to Fung somehow, whether vanishing was a way of letting him know.

“I know an engineering student,” said Li-yi. “I showed him the books the other night. He offered to buy them. Twenty-five dollars.”

“Apiece?” said Jack.

“Twenty-five for all three,” said Li-yi, shifting the bag on his shoulder. Jack looked at the sky, snorted, and nodded. Li-yi opened his wallet.

“You’re a good man, Li-yi,” said Jack. “I’ve known it since the ninth grade.”

Jack insisted on writing down his address and that of the laundry. Li-yi dutifully wrote down his own address for Jack. He preferred not to see Jack again, but this could change, given the right circumstances. For example, if invited, he might like to attend a party at International House.

They shook hands. Shivering slightly, Li-yi walked alone down Amsterdam Avenue. He stopped and bought a cup of coffee. The thought of twenty-five lost dollars skipped over him fleetingly, like the shadow of a passing cloud. Perhaps he could pick up another shift at the restaurant, or win it back at the track. The other waiters were always going to Aqueduct; some night, he ought to go with them.

Restored by the coffee, he wandered. Ahead, he saw two girls, one in a yellow coat, the other with a ponytail. He hurried to catch up, but they moved quickly, and the lights were against him. The sisters walked east on 118th Street, then south on Broadway, before he lost them. He thought they might have gone through the pillars of Columbia. He approached the pillars, waiting for someone to stop him, and, when nobody stopped him, he went through.

***

Mike Shen lives in Oakland, California, where he works as a documentary film editor. His work has received two Emmy nominations, and can be found online at mikejshen.com. This is his first published short story.

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