author bio

conIn a Sandwich Shop

J.W. Wang


On the way back from father's funeral, on the edge of Chinatown, I notice a French dip sandwich shop I hadn't seen before.  Its walls are a dull stucco tan, square and flat, its roof a plain level top, sprinkled with silver vents that spin quietly.  A weather-beaten sign says it's been here since 1908.  I pull into the parking lot, thinking I should bring dinner home for Julie.  She's seven months pregnant, and had asked to stay home, asked if I would mind if she didn't attend the funeral.
            It's just, she'd said, I just can't.
            That's fine, I'd told her.
            It wasn't what you'd call a traditional funeral.  There was no announcement, no newspaper obituary, no invitations.  I'd thought about asking her to stay home anyway, before she brought it up.
            Inside, the sandwich shop is dim—stairs descend into a basement-like area and windows stare down at us from high up near the ceiling.  Business is brisk.  Customers wait their turn in five lines, each about seven-people deep.  Sawdust covers the floor.  Ceiling fans whirl twenty feet above.  Jars of pickled eggs and pigs' feet sit atop glass counters.  Behind the glass lie boysenberry pies, pumpkin cream pies, vanilla cheesecake and carrot cake. 
            An old man stands in front of me, his back arched in a hump, his shock of white hair tipped forward, his face looking down.  His right hand grips the burnished handle of a walking cane, and he shakes, lightly.
            Waitresses in frilly dresses and aprons patrol the counter, their hair coifed into buns and beehives.  Even the Chinese ladies.  They spear the bread with the tip of a knife and dip it in the brown-red au jus.  They scoop up lumps of shaved beef, limp and wrinkled, and lay it on the bread.  We shuffle forward.  Nimble fingers wrap the sandwiches, cut them in half, wrap them again, place them on the counter, punch up the cash register.  The lines move slowly.
            I shift my weight and feel the crush of sawdust beneath my feet.  The old man trembles and raises his head for a look, his neck craned against the hunch of his back.  What does he see?  The legs of the person before him?  Lost nickels and pennies?  Father had cataracts for the last eight years of his life.  He'd also been deaf, a carryover from the war, so the only way we could communicate was if I picked up his hand and wrote on his palm.  I'd tried to tell him they could operate on his eyes but he refused.  Modern medicine was something he couldn't understand; he'd thought it could blind him permanently, and wanted to hold on to what vision he still had left.  After we moved him to the convalescent home I asked him again if he'd wanted surgery on his eyes.  He could only sense light and darkness by that point.  No, he said, fearing it would take away even that.  Okay, I traced out the words on his palm.  If that's what you want.  Then they carted him off for dialysis and I waved and said bye, knowing he couldn't see me, or hear me.  We did this once a week, then once every two, then every month, two months, until I lost track.
            Somebody coughs behind me.  I take another step.  The old man looks up before pushing his cane forward.  He must live in one of the retirement homes down on Sunset, four blocks away.  In his condition it'd take half an hour for him to walk here on his own, though it must give him some sense of freedom to be able to move around as he pleases, come to a sandwich shop, even if his children, if he has children, are not—
            We'd cleared out the den for father, made it his room.  Julie was all for it.  She'd also set aside half the backyard for him to do his gardening.  I'd tried to explain to her about father's habits before we moved him in; they probably didn't sound so terrible to her at the time, but nothing does until you run up right against it, wrap yourself in it, do it every day.  Father had come from a different era, a different place.  He didn't need a toothbrush or a shower.  When he did brush, when we forced him to, he'd spit and it'd come out thick and yellow, like lard.  He wrapped leftover food with newspapers and kept it in his room.  He used and reused the same handkerchief for his nose and his phlegm and everything else.  His fingers were swollen and knobby with mysterious growths.  Whenever Julie tried to talk to him, tried to get him to understand something, like not leaving garbage in the sink or flooding his bathroom floor, he'd look confused and talk back, his voice high-pitched and broken.  He could still make out shapes and things at the time.  To catch his attention Julie would flail her arms, but she'd turn her face when he spoke, turn so she didn't have to smell his breath.  Sometimes their arguments matched up and made sense, but most of the time they looked like bewildered actors in a television sketch.  She didn't like writing on his hand.  They were strange-looking hands.
            I wasn't much better at communicating with father; I just tried to tell myself to let him be.  He wasn't going to change.  But then everything else about him started grating on Julie, even his coughing.  That and the way he roamed the backyard like a haunting spirit, or how his vegetables were overgrown and taking over the rest of the yard.  I came home one evening to find her sobbing in our bedroom.  She sat on the carpet, leaning against the side of the bed.
            It's just so hard, she said.
            What could it mean to her that he'd come from 1930s rural China?
            I know, I said.  I know.
            Ceiling fan blades whirl over my head.  There are thirty-five, seventy-three, a hundred people in this room, every one with a father.  Where are their fathers now?  Confucius says to respect your elders.  But who's Confucius?  What does he know about Chinatown?  What does he know about French dip sandwiches?  The waitresses stab the bread, dip them in au jus, stab the bread, dip them in au jus.  There's sawdust on the floor.  Sawdust in the air.  Sawdust on my clothing.  The old man pushes his cane forward—
            One day father had his kidney failure.  He'd complained about stomach pain for two days, and Julie called the hospital.  He was taken there in an ambulance and wound up requiring dialysis treatments.  We sent father directly to the convalescent home, and the room we had cleared out for him sat empty, though you could still smell his presence.  It was his medications that did his kidneys in.  He'd had a bag of pills and capsules and tablets he was taking, said it was for his rheumatism and for his heart and for his blood pressure.  I knew they couldn't have been good for him, but when I asked him about it he clutched the bag closely and said he had to take them.  They were given by a doctor while he was still in China.  Okay, I said, and didn't pry any further.  We left his room as he'd left it, sitting fallow, as if that made up for things somehow.  Confucius said one must always show filial piety, no matter the behavior of the parent.  But what did he know about filial piety in the twenty-first century?  What did he know about stubborn old men who refused to join the present?  When I was eight father had me memorize his Analects.  But who was Confucius?  He's a fixation for fearful parents.  He was an old man who visited each of the Chinese states in hopes he'd convince them to maintain peace.  None of the lords listened.  They began warring a year before his death and continued for the next two hundred and sixty years.  What good did he do?  Confucius spoke obvious truths, truths nobody needed to be told, truths that weren't really truths.
            We shuffle forward.  There's sawdust in my lungs.  The waitresses pick up lumps of roast beef, soft like mush, and squeeze them to fit onto the bread.  Nimble fingers wrap and cut, wrap and cut.  There are a hundred and thirty-six, a hundred and seventy-four people here, every one of them with a father.  Where are their fathers now?  Who loves them still?  Dishes clatter, clatter.  The old man pushes his cane—
            They'd called me on Thursday.  Father had stopped eating the week before, had closed his mouth and refused any food they'd tried to feed him.  He'd cut off one of the last sensory connections left to his surroundings, and spent his final days with only the scent of his being and the feel of hospital blankets on his skin.  They hadn't called to tell me when it happened, when father began his fast.  They knew.  Four days later it was over.  I avoided their eyes when I went to the home.  Father's skin was grey, his lips pale.  He was thinner than when I'd seen him last, but he still had a full head of hair.  Father.  You only get one, someone had said to me.  That's true, you only get one, but you may not always know what to do with the one you get.  I signed the papers and walked out, still avoiding their eyes.  In the car I rested my head on the steering wheel and took a deep breath.  An attendant came out of the building with a box of father's things and knocked on the car window.  It was mostly clothing, but there was also a picture of me when I was five.  It was faded and creased over.  I tossed the box on the floorboard and drove home.
            Confucius thought—
            We reach the front of the line.  There are three hundred and twenty-nine, four hundred and fifty-six people in this place, every one with a father.  Respect your elders.  Respect your elders.  The old man shuffles to the counter.  There's sawdust in my mouth.  Ceiling fans whirl their blades above.  There are people waiting next to me, behind me, before me.  Waitresses pierce the bread, smother them in blood.  They dig their hands into sagging lumps of meat, gather them and spread them out, close the bread over them, bury them in wrappers.  A piece of sawdust floats into my eye; I rub but the itch—
            There was no service to speak of; father lay in a small reception room in the mortuary home.  Next door was the main hall where a large family had gathered for a separate service.  I stood by the casket and lit three sticks of incense.  Julie had ordered the floral arrangements.  Father's face was peaceful, like a stranger's.  They'd dressed him in a traditional chi-pao, but with the red lipstick and foundation on his face he'd looked like a eunuch.  Four thousand years of lineage.  I lit another three sticks of incense.
            Afterwards the mortuary home people pulled out a large metal barrel and started a fire.  I'd brought his things:  old underwear, gardening tools, vegetable seeds, his old coat, the handkerchief he'd always used, the bag of odd pills and tablets that destroyed his kidneys, old letters and books he couldn't read but held on to anyway.  They went up quickly, the smoke climbing into the air thick and ragged.
            Oh, but I forgot to bring that picture—
            The cash registers rattle and ring.  I'll need two sandwiches, maybe three.  The old man turns around.  He lifts his face, and his eyes pierce into my own.  They're clear, crystalline spheres of onyx, set in withered flesh.  Do I know this man?  My jaw fractures as his cane strikes me across the face.  I land on my hands and knees, blood drooling from my mouth.  There are six-point-five billion people in this world, every one of them with a father.  Who are they?  The next blow catches me across the temple and splits my left ear.  I curl up on the floor and howl, my fingers wrapped around my bleeding head.  What's it mean to have a father?  To have something to which you owe your existence?  To have a universal given?  There's sawdust in my hair, in my nose, tickling the back of my neck.  People shuffle forward.
            Father felt—
            The next blow breaks a rib, and the one after cracks my right kneecap.  Who was Confucius?  What did he say?  There's blood loose in my mouth, running out of my nose, dripping from my ears and my eyes.  In the blackness I picture father's world, the one in which he lived for the past eight years.  I try to imagine the senselessness of his existence, the darkness in which he lived, though I can still hear the soft movement of feet and sawdust, the whirring of fan blades, the clattering of dishes, even as the cane strikes me again, and again, with the force of generations.

Author Bio

JW Wang - photo J.W. Wang obtained his M.A. in creative writing from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and is currently a Ph.D. student in the creative writing program at Florida State University. His writing has appeared in Backwards City Review, Poet Lore, Hobart and elsewhere, though most of it sits on his hard drive, awaiting meticulous revision. While not busy hoarding graduate degrees he reads and writes, takes photographs, tries to learn the guitar, and edits Juked.

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