That was when the complaints began. For a time, it was mostly the regulars, who were always carping about something. Weather’s lousy, said Mr. Chan. What’s that smell? asked Mrs. Zhou. White woman’s bad luck, said Mr. Han. We brought them more dumplings and fried rice and Tsingtao, on the house, and pretended not to hear them.
Yet it wasn’t so easy with the tourists. They came from Iowa and Florida, England and Japan to eat at a real Chinatown restaurant. The Golden Dragon’s listed in all the books. We’re the best. Which is why we cannot ignore what the tourists say, however much we might prefer to. They make mental notes. They write customer reviews and are not afraid to speak their minds.
So when they complained about the cold, gloomy weather, we told them what the TV news said: a temporary atmospheric disturbance. When they asked about the rotten-egg stink permeating the building, we explained it wasn’t just us, the smell was everywhere, but the City was working on it. And when they asked about the constant opera music (not even Chinese), so loud sometimes it shook the walls and rattled the teapots, we tried not to look annoyed and said we had a new tenant in the apartment upstairs.
We told Sister the white woman would be trouble, but did she listen?
Soon most of the griping centered on the fortune cookies. They weren’t even Chinese, but then again, neither were we, in a manner of speaking. Still, the fortune cookies were important to everyone, including the regulars, though we couldn’t fathom why. It wasn’t the sweet, crisp cookie that customers loved so well, but what they found inside: golden nuggets of hope and inspiration. Compassion is a way of being. An inch of time is an inch of gold. Savor your freedom; it is precious. For our part, we never had anything to do with the cookies, so they weren’t our responsibility. We bought them wholesale from Uncle’s company, Golden Gate Fortune Factory. Uncle wrote all the fortunes personally, always had, though he hadn’t come up with any new ones for a dog’s age. But lately something had changed, and customers noticed.
Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources.
Heavy fog rolled in early that afternoon, blanketing the neighborhood by three o’clock. We’d seen the white woman take someone upstairs around lunchtime. So had the regulars, who hissed their displeasure over egg drop soup. When you start a brothel? asked Mrs. Zhou. It was what they were all thinking. Her name is Ming Li, we explained, parroting Sister. She’s a journalist conducting interviews. They slurped their soup and made snide remarks. We didn’t believe what we were saying either. Silently, we wished the white woman would take us upstairs, too.
The fog stank like rotten eggs, overpowering the usual funk from the herbal shops and fish markets. We knew it would be a slow evening. So when the white woman led the man down the stairs and into the street, two of us untied our aprons and followed. They shook hands, then he turned down the hill toward Kearney, disappearing into the fog. We watched Ming Li watch him go. (We suspected that wasn’t her name, but we didn’t know what else to call her.) Then she worked her way up Stockton. It was slow-going with the weather and clogged sidewalks, but she was easy to track. Tall, slender, beautiful white women weren’t common, even among the tourists. We tried to estimate her age but couldn’t agree. We had little experience. At Broadway, the promise of Gold Mountain, our usual gentleman’s club, distracted us, but we persevered. Ming Li turned right on Vallejo, then slipped into Café Triste.
We took an empty table outside and peered through the window.
We watched her slide into a booth in the back corner, where someone was expecting her. Another man? We cupped our hands around our eyes and squinted. We were way off. It was Sister. What’s going on? we wondered. We saw Ming Li hand Sister a piece of paper. Sister seemed to be reading, a smile blossoming on her lips. She said a few words, Ming Li said a few words. They ordered coffee and said a few more words. We couldn’t hear anything but buses growling up Columbus, nor could we read their lips. Soon we grew impatient. We wanted to go in and ask Sister what this was all about, really show the white woman we meant business, but we restrained ourselves. We waited maybe ten more minutes. When we sensed their secret meeting was breaking up, we made ourselves scarce.
Crisis looms; be ready.
We would eventually have to ask Sister about it, though we knew what she would say: What I do is none of your concern. We’d heard it before. Sister was the eldest. When Mother passed, she left The Golden Dragon to Sister free and clear, a fact Sister was quick to remind us about. You should be thankful, she said. You’re lucky you have jobs. So we bided our time, taking turns tailing her and Ming Li. Far as we could tell, their paths only crossed once a week, Wednesday afternoon at Café Triste. They even sat in the same booth. The conversation always seemed the same—though we could only tell so much from our table outside. We had to be careful. We didn’t want Sister to spot us.
In the meantime, the fortune cookie complaints became louder and more frequent. The regulars found them funny and charming, until Mr. Han got one that said, Sloth makes all things difficult. Then Mrs. Zhou threw a fit over hers: How you look depends on who you’re with. Nor was Mr. Chan too happy with, Greed will be your undoing. They threatened to stop coming if we didn’t do something, said they would give their business to Lotus Blossom or The Red Lantern, but we knew they were only bluffing. We brought them complementary sweet-and-sour pork and shrimp fried rice. They changed their tune.
Not so with the tourists. None of them thought the dark fortunes were amusing. Sometimes they didn’t understand, even the English speakers, which was a boon. Most times they did. And they weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure, calling us over and demanding explanations. We could only avoid them for so long. We had no explanations to offer anyway. Instead, we plied them with egg rolls and chicken chow mein and wonton soup. Yet the tourists raised their voices and made scenes. Mostly, it seemed like a ploy to get out of paying, but what choice did we have?
We were in a bind. Word was getting around. Something had to be done.
That afternoon, a rare thunderstorm rumbled through the City. At first, we thought it was an earthquake and hid under the tables alongside the few lunch customers. Then we noticed the splatter of rain on the sidewalk. Everyone laughed and smoothed their rumpled shirts. We dusted our knees and swallowed our pride. We drank some Tsingtao to steady our nerves, then worked our way back to Sister’s office.
Sister, we said, standing at the threshold. The door was ajar. Chinese opera trickled from the stereo at low volume.
We apprised her of the situation.
Let them go, she said. They’re not worth the trouble.
We charge the tourists double, remember? They’re our bread and butter. It’s not just a few customers, Sister, but a hundred, two hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. They talk nonstop. They write frank reviews.
Bad for business, huh?
Bad, yes, we said. Terrible. Disastrous.
A clap of thunder boomed, shaking the walls and rattling the windows. We were tempted to take cover under Sister’s desk, but we gritted our teeth and faked smiles. Sister finally set down her pen and looked up at us. We stood in the doorway, since she hadn’t invited us in.
What do you propose I do? she asked.
We shuffled and whispered among ourselves for a time. Sister’s eyes bored through us. She’d never had much patience.
Perhaps you could speak to Uncle.
That won’t be necessary, said Sister.
We chewed our lips and studied the worn carpet. On the stereo, a woman warbled about lost love to the accompaniment of tinny cymbals and tambourines. Sister’s impatience filled the air like smoke.
We think the white woman may be involved, we blurted.
We pointed at the ceiling. The white woman, we said.
Brothers, be serious. Ming Li’s a journalist.
So we’ve heard, we said.
Sister’s eyes narrowed. Then she turned up the music and waved us toward her desk. We leaned in close. Thunder boomed, sending our hearts up into our throats.
Ming Li moved here from Seattle.
That sounded exotic. We remembered the sway of her hips as she sashayed up Stockton. We imagined her hair smelled like yellow jasmine.
She’s very beautiful, we said.
Be careful, Brothers. She’s damaged goods.
Almost forty, she said.
We prefer older women, yes?
Recently divorced, she said.
Unattached, then. Fortune smiles upon us.
Sister clucked her tongue, shaking her head. Ming Li is also ill, she said.
Something serious? we asked.
She didn’t say. I’d guess it’s depression.
Perhaps we can be of service.
Take my advice, said Sister, stay away from her.
We nodded, waiting for more. But Sister took up her pen and went back to work.
It’s over your head now; seek professional help.
We closed the following Tuesday for a gas-leak investigation. The City was trying to make good on their promise to root out the source of the stink. We had a day off and no plans. We sat at a table in the window, drinking Tsingtao and playing cards. So when Ming Li slipped out the door, we gazed at each other, then set down our beers and followed.
We tailed her all over the City in a light snowfall. (Until now, snow had been a myth to us.) We kept our distance, marveling at her legs and tight jeans, hypnotized by the pendulum swing of her silky black hair. When she took a seat at the front of the bus, we stood in the aisle. When she hopped the Muni, we did the same, trying to keep a low profile. Ming Li visited restaurants (mostly bad ones) in neighborhoods all over the City: Sunset, Westwood, SOMA, you name it. She carried a small spiral notebook with her, scribbling in it everywhere she went. The places were mostly empty, so we never even followed her in. We imagined she was doing research for some article.
Soon she headed into the Montgomery Street BART station. We were right behind her. Ming Li took the train over to Berkeley, then walked half a block to Hunan Dynasty. A line snaked out the door, so this time we elbowed through and tried to blend. One fortune cookie, she said. Very sorry, the hostess replied, we’re out. When the girl offered steamed egg custard or prawn cookies, Ming Li refused. Then she got back on the BART and went to downtown Oakland. It began to snow harder, the wetness seeping into our socks.
She got off the train and made a beeline for House of Chuang. She ordered another fortune cookie, the staff apologized and offered her alternatives, she refused. When Ming Li finally hopped the train back under the Bay, we breathed a sigh of relief. We were bored and cold and exhausted. We thought we were headed home to some hot tea and egg noodles, but Ming Li ignored all the stations until we were south of the airport. Then she transferred to the Caltrain and traveled down the Peninsula, stopping in San Mateo and Redwood City, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. It was the same thing everywhere she went: no one would sell her a fortune cookie. Why she couldn’t just call the places, we didn’t understand. Then again, we knew nothing of journalism.
When we got home, snow swirled in the amber arcs of streetlights. We wondered if we’d learned anything useful.
Today will be disastrous; brace yourself.
The blackouts began a few days later. At first, they were unexpected, until they happened so often, they no longer surprised us. It was difficult to run a restaurant in the dark, so we lit candles in the dining room and kitchen. The appliances were fully gas, so we could still cook. We carried flashlights to seat the customers and chopped onions by lantern light. Of course, we had power some of the time, too, but we opted for the candles anyway. Customers were drawn to the soft light like moths to a flame.
But we didn’t plan well and ran out of candles. Then another blackout hit. We had no choice but to close for the evening, bickering among ourselves. We opened several bottles of Tsingtao and played cards by the light of a flickering lantern. After a few hands and several beers, an idea came to one of us.
Let’s take a look at her apartment.
We can’t do that. What if she’s home?
Then we’ll invite her to have a beer with us.
Are you out of your mind?
Aren’t you curious?
She’ll never agree.
We’ll look like fools.
But we were already making for the stairs. We took them by twos, then stood outside her door, fumbling with our hands. One of us placed an ear against the wood and listened. We all tried not to breathe. No movement, no sound. We jimmied the lock and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind us.
Ignoring the apartment’s musty tang, we stood there in the dark and breathed in her fragrance. Lavender, along with something sweet and powdery. We set to work. We examined her records and rifled through her dresser. We pawed her undergarments of silk and lace, worried the regulars might have been right about her. Yet when we imagined her writhing around a pole to a crashing rhythm, strobe lights dancing over her flesh, a thrill surged through us like electricity.
But then, searching her desk drawers, we discovered what we might have been looking for all along. Leafing through her mail, one of us said: Her real name is Molly Black?
That’s Scottish, yes?
Maybe she’s a spy!
Think she’ll steal our recipe for shrimp and leek dumplings?
That makes no sense. She’s not even Chinese!
We knew we were overreacting. It was possible we were losing our heads. We couldn’t remember the last time we’d been so close to a woman outside of Gold Mountain.
Just then, we heard someone step onto the landing. There was a knock. We crouched behind the desk, hid beneath the blankets, squeezed between the wall and armoire. Then the clink and rattle of keys, the click of the lock, the creak of the hinges. Someone stepped into the room, flashlight in hand.
It was Sister.
We held our breath. We hoped she wouldn’t smell our garlic and sweat. Her beam of light probed the darkness but found nothing. She was already backing out of the apartment. We were home free. Then, without warning, the overhead lights flickered on, and the phonograph slurred to life, spinning opera music at high volume. Sister stopped at the threshold, almost as stunned as we were. She gave her eyes a moment to adjust. Then she saw us.
We stepped out into the open. Each of us clutched one of Ming Li’s silky undergarments like a talisman.
What are you doing?
Nothing, we said.
You have no business here.
We should go.
Ming Li could be back any second! Now get out!
Before we could escape, though, Sister shouted: Stop right there! What are you doing with those? She glared at us, each in turn. You perverts! she yelled. Now put those back where you found them and get out.
We tried to do as we were told, though we couldn’t remember where we’d found the bras and panties and stockings. We tossed them at the dresser and filed out of the room, while Sister scowled and muttered insults under her breath.
There are embarrassing rumors about you going around.
The next morning, Ming Li came to see us as we were preparing for the lunch rush. She wore a terrycloth robe and her hair was wet and she smelled of lavender and powder. We drank her in as we chopped garlic and ginger or laid the table settings or wrote out the specials menu. Knowing her secrets made us feel powerful. We grinned and awaited her request, but she stormed past us as if we weren’t there. She thumped on Sister’s office door, and to our surprise, Sister invited her in. Although Ming Li’s voice was loud, we couldn’t make out a word. Soon we couldn’t hear anything, though we took turns pressing our ears to the door. We gave up when the day’s first customers trickled in. After a time, Sister emerged and called for tea. When we stepped into the room, she and Ming Li were making friendly small talk.
Still, Sister wouldn’t speak to us for days after that, not even about business matters. We stayed out of her way, whispering among ourselves. The regulars caught on. They missed very little. They needed more to do. Weather getting to you? asked Mr. Chan. Must be the smell, said Mrs. Zhou. Mr. Han bit down a grin: White woman’s bad luck, yes? We knew they were being nosy, so we said nothing. Even when they persisted, we ignored them, refusing to bring out complementary soups and noodles and beers.
We ran The Golden Dragon as best we could, though tourist traffic dwindled. What with the stink and strange weather patterns, it felt like we’d moved to a different city, one further up the coast. The blackouts persisted, too. Only a few regulars came in often enough to merit the name, and we suspected it was only to eavesdrop and gossip. We tried to be polite, as we needed the business, but it wasn’t easy.
Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on yourself.
And then, a couple days later, while we were serving shrimp with black bean sauce, something changed. We squinted against the glare pouring through the windows. Was that the sun? We couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen it. A joyful murmur drifted through the dining room. Sister emerged from her office, probably to chide us about the noise, but she stopped in the doorway, sunlight dancing across her round face.
By evening, the weather had lifted. We stepped outside. The moon smiled and stars winked. If we tilted our heads just right, we could make out the Big Dipper and White Tiger of the West. Locals reveled in the streets as if it were Spring Festival. We were excited, too.
An old man with a long, gray mustache shambled over. Grinning big as China, he drew one deep breath after another. He motioned we should do the same.
Braised bean curd? we said.
Firecrackers? we said.
Fish market? we said.
Exactly, the old man enthused. No stink!
And he was right. The gloom had lifted, and so had that rotten-egg smell. We could all breathe a little easier now. Good things come in threes, we thought. When, later, we stepped back inside, we still had power. All the next day, too, and the day after that. Maybe the blackouts were finally over.
Business picked back up. The regulars came for lunch, complaining about mah-jongg and bus drivers and disrespectful children. The tourists returned, too, pockets full of dollars and euros, pounds and yen. Although the electricity seemed to be back on for good, in the evening, we lit candles in the dining room. It was good business. We knew it would make Sister happy, and we were right. She stopped giving us the cold shoulder. She almost even smiled from time to time. No one seemed to mind we’d run out of fortune cookies.
You will spend your old age alone and depressed.
For several days, we were so busy we didn’t think about Ming Li once. Not even as we drifted to sleep or when we woke up in the morning. There was so much work to do. But Wednesday rolled around, and the lunch rush slacked off a little. Although we watched for her, we didn’t see her flit down the stairs and out the door. We waited, pouring tea and serving lo mein, but she never showed.
When the last customer had finally gone, we locked the door and scurried up to Café Triste. We peered through the window. Sister sat at her usual booth in the back corner, only this time she was alone. We didn’t wait long before pushing through the door and slipping into the seat across from her.
Brothers? she said. What are you doing here?
We could ask you the same question.
What I do is none of your concern, she said.
We’ve seen you here with Ming Li.
Sister eyed us like a cornered animal. Cups clanked against saucers. The syrupy stench of coffee and steamed milk was nauseating.
Do you know where she is? asked Sister.
She’s supposed to be here with you, yes?
Brothers, she said. You are idiots.
We hadn’t seen Ming Li since she stormed through the dining room in her robe. It’d only been a week, though it felt like months. That was the reason we’d come to Café Triste. We missed her. We didn’t bother explaining any of this to Sister, who wouldn’t have understood. Instead, we struggled to keep up as she dashed out of the coffee shop.
Sister went straight up to Ming Li’s apartment in broad daylight. We’d always had to slink up the stairs in the dead of night, pressing our ears against her door, breathing deeply to catch her scent. But as proprietress, Sister could do whatever she liked. When Meng Li didn’t answer, Sister jammed a key into the lock, then shoved the door open.
Though her music played, Ming Li wasn’t in. Sister herded us out and locked the door behind her, then settled in on the landing to wait. We had to go downstairs to prepare for the evening rush, but we took turns checking on her. She smoked and muttered and cursed us under her breath, though we couldn’t say why.
Later that night, after we’d closed, we found Sister right where we’d left her. She might have been sleeping.
Sister? we said.
She opened her eyes. She looked as though she might spit on us. Then, groggy and sour, she climbed to her feet and unlocked the apartment door.
We followed her in. She flipped on the light. Nothing had changed from earlier. Ming Li’s bed was unmade, her dresser was in disarray, and her silk-and-lace undergarments hung from the bedposts, chair arms, and doorknobs.
She’s just done laundry, said Sister. Look away.
But we couldn’t.
You’re such perverts, she said. It’s pathetic.
A moment passed, then Sister sat on the edge of the bed. She looked weary. She sounded even worse.
I guess that’s that, she said.
What do you mean?
Ming Li’s gone.
But she left all her things. So she’ll be back, yes?
Nothing is certain, Brothers. And if she doesn’t return, we’re sunk.
We let that hang in the air with the scent of lavender. Pale moonlight danced through motes of dust our entrance had stirred up. Then Sister said: Where am I going to find another writer?
What do you mean?
What did you think she was doing here?
Our minds whirred. We almost understood.
Uncle’s business was flagging, so I took over. We need new fortunes, he said. We need fresh blood, he said. I advertized the job, Ming Li showed up. But only after I’d already fired half a dozen other writers.
Then it hit us: We might never see her again. We felt our guts knotting with sadness.
After a time, we said, They’ve pulled the fortune cookies.
Sister glared at us. Who has?
How do you know that?
Trust us, we said. We know.
And you only mention this now?
Didn’t anyone call to complain?
Sister’s face fell. I figured they needed time to adjust, she said.
We stared out the window, cleaning our nails and sucking our teeth.
I’m sorry, said Sister.
I needed a loan to keep Uncle’s business going. I needed collateral.
What does that mean? we asked.
It means the restaurant’s on the line, Brothers.
But The Golden Dragon belongs to us, we said. Meaning you.
Not anymore, it doesn’t.
Gloom filled us like a heavy fog. The tiny apartment seemed to be shrinking. We shuffled around the room, struggling to catch our breath.
Then something on the desk caught our eye. Amid a pile of sweet, golden crumbs, we found a small slip of paper that read:
Your luck has finally run out.
J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and spent time at Fundación Valparaíso, Spain as a fiction fellow. He teaches at the University of Virginia.