Part I

March 7, 2005
San Francisco, United States

Judge Daniela Haussman peered from under the rim of the umbrella and saw, halfway up the steep Chinatown side street, Lee Wei Ahn’s sign proclaiming with peeling red letters that it served The Only Authentic Cantonese Food In San Francisco.

Pummeled by the wind gusting from the Bay, the rain swirled over rooftops and around street lamps. Sheets of water flowed over the pavement to the bottom of the street, flooding the doorways of the shuttered shops and streaming in the gutters, whirling around the wheels of the cars snagged at the curb. As Daniela climbed past the narrow alley slicing between the eternally shuttered Lucky East Emporium and the forever opened Lee Wei Ahn, she inhaled a nose-full of frying oil and spices that wafted out of the kitchen side door and seeped through the crack of the alleyway into the street.

Daniela closed the umbrella, pushed open the front door of Lee Wei Ahn and stepped into the interior lit by strips of neon light.

Daniela had not set foot in Lee Wei Ahn’s for over fifteen years, but came here, this day, out of sentiment for the place where, so very long ago, Daniela and Giselle would come for lunch during their mother and daughter shopping
outings to Chinatown to rummage through shops fragrant with camphor wood and mysterious spices and scents. During their first excursions, when Daniela had been a newly minted attorney, Lee Wei Ahn had just opened. Daniela remembered it festooned with red flowers, ribbons and calligraphy of newness.  San Francisco’s persnickety food critics called the new restaurant ‘Chinatown’s
best kept secret’, ‘serving simple, but authentic Cantonese food’, ‘even the anathema of chop suey worth the adventure.’

The door shut behind Daniela with an asthmatic sound, and she hesitated for a second, as she looked around.

The décor of Lee Wei Ahn’s was unchanged, preserved by a shrink-wrap of congealed grease and fumes—the red vinyl seats and marbled formica tables, the soundless television perched in a corner with a talking head moving its mouth and staring earnestly at an imaginary world beyond the screen, the ceiling fan churning the air, chopping at the fly buzzing at the edges of the blades.

But time had passed inside Lee Wei Ahn, Daniela contemplated, even under the preservative film of grease and grime—everything was dustier and darker, faded and patched. The presiding Buddha on the shelf it shared with the tele-vision, no longer grinned upon a happy crowd of tourists and locals, loudly chattering around steaming bowls of food. Instead, the Buddha looked with a chipped face down upon a few scattered patrons submerged inside their own oddity and interior conversations, crunching on crispy noodles by the fistful, or fishing for some special morsel inside a mound of vegetables pooled at the bottom of a plastic plate, or smoking a squashed cigarette under the gaily flowered calendar from the Chen Wang Mortuary.

The laws of California prohibiting smoking in restaurants had not reached Lee Wei Ahn’s.

Also, the fly was more subdued, looking less well fed.

At the sight of the new customer standing at the door, the waiter shuffled out of the kitchen, trailed by the cook’s argumentative barrage of Chinese words and the angry metallic rattle of a ladle against the side of a wok.  It was the same waiter of years ago, Daniela recognized him with a mental start. He was just slightly more crooked now and his face had lost all flesh, the skin tight over the bones. And in the kitchen, it was the same cook, visible through the square serving window with the rotating orders drum and the wide sill where he would slam the plates. The three hairs plastered to his skull were still there, unmoved.

Daniela sat down near the door and sank into the deflating vinyl upholstery that made under her weight a faint but rude whoopee-cushion sound. The waiter dropped a laminated menu in front of her, which she started to study diligently while the blue plastic patch on the back of the bench dug its sharp edges through the layers of her raincoat and blouse.

The waiter sulkily put in front of her a plastic cup and a metal teapot with a teabag floating in it.

Daniela poured some tea and sipped gingerly what she would laughingly call ‘brew’, the hot liquid with metallic after-taste predictably burning her lips.  “Yes?” the waiter snapped from above.

“I’ll have the—”

“What number?”

“Number four,” she said and pointed at it on the laminated sheet with suspicious looking spots on it.

“Oh-Keh.” The waiter dragged his feet to the kitchen serving window and shouted the order. The cook turned away with a shrug, smoothed the three hairs plastered on his skull and rattled the ladle inside the bowl of the iron wok.  Daniela looked up at the mute screen. It was commercial time. A hamburger loomed in front of an eager, hungry face with a mouth opening to grapple at the
stacked meat, lettuce, tomato and bun, and dripping sauce.

The waiter re-appeared with a bowl of colorless broth with ragged bits of hard egg white. A minuscule mushroom and two small pieces of water chestnut floated around in a slow circle. The solitary sweet peapod was sinking. Daniela took a sip of the soup with the white, plastic spoon, burning her lips again. The soup had that same metallic aftertaste as the tea. A whiff of chlorine was added to it.

The waiter busied himself with cleaning a table in the corner. He poured on the table top some of the leftover tea from a teapot and wiped it with a gray dish towel. He flicked the towel over the vinyl seats.

Daniela looked into the swirling veils of rain. Giselle had loved to rummage through the Chinatown curio shops, especially in the days when the first emporiums with goods from Red China had opened… Daniela’s chest and throat filled with a great sob and tears welled in her eyes.

The chop suey landed in front of Daniela with a thump—a pale, watery mixture of vegetables and a few scattered bits of chicken. She picked a piece of water chestnut with the plastic chop sticks and chewed on it, the gritty crunch between her molars.

The cell phone chirped in her purse. She took it out, turned away from the faces that now looked in her direction in silent reprimand.

“It’s me,” Giselle announced herself in Hungarian. Lately, she had reverted to speaking Hungarian, the language she had grown up with in Transylvania, a Hungarian enclave in Romania, nestled between the border with Hungary and the half moon embrace of the Carpathians. While Daniela was growing up, the language spoken in the house had been Romanian, as her father had been from the Romanian parts and did not speak Hungarian. “I tried to call the Court the whole day, but that idiot assistant of yours kept telling me that you’re in the middle of a trial and that she cannot interrupt.” The voice was weak, hollow, barely the same as the voice Daniela had known for the forty something years of her life. However, it had not weakened in purpose.

“It was a long case,” Daniela felt the need to explain herself. In English. “No one wanted to settle.”

“You are the judge. You can call a recess to pick up your phone,” Giselle argued back in Hungarian. She didn’t wait for Daniela to answer. “I was calling to make sure you can get home in time.”

Daniela’s silence prompted the question, “You didn’t forget, did you?” Even when weak and so alien, the voice conveyed exasperation with her daughter.  “No, I didn’t.” In English.

“Have you set the table already?” Giselle asked, in Hungarian, her breath hissing.


“Did you use Rafael’s dishes?”

“Yes.” Yes, she had dragged the boxes out of the closet.

“Did you wash the dishes first?”


“Did you get the flowers?”

“Yes.” Daniela made a mental note to get flowers. “You shouldn’t tire yourself,” she advised.

“What flowers did you get?”

“Roses,” Daniela threw out.

“Roses are not for a man. And Rafael likes lilac, you know that.”

Giselle knew with such great certitude that Rafael liked lilac ever since the day they had visited the Pantheon in Rome and she had seen a bouquet of lilacs on Raphael’s tomb—Raphael the great painter of the Renaissance, not Rafael, the protean existence in her mother’s destiny and her own, uncircumcised and unburied. Under the laws of Israel, Rafael was an amoeba.  Daniela stopped with a sharp shake of her head the flood of unkind thoughts for her brother.

“I’ll get lilac,” she said with resignation. Where one could get lilac in San Francisco early spring, that was another story. For a while, Rafael had liked gladiolas. There had also been the tulip period in Rafael’s illusory existence.

“Where are you?” Giselle’s weak voice had suspicion in it.

“In Chinatown.”

There was a moment of silence. “What are you doing there? You are supposed to be here early, and then be home to make the dumplings. They have to be made fresh, just before the roast is done—“

“Can’t we dispense with this ceremony, this one time?” Her own voice sounded so angry. “What do you expect me to do tonight, all by myself? Sit at the table set with all that china, crystal and silver, lilac and dumplings and sing ‘happy birthday, dear brother’ in an empty room to an empty, frigging chair?”

There was another moment of silence. “When I die, then you can do what you want.” This time Giselle had spoken in English. Giselle always delivered her most damning invectives in English.

Daniela realized that her fingers were so tight around the phone, they were painful. She heard Giselle sigh and then a beeping sound in the background.  The morphine pump tethered to her mother… Guilt took over. “I’ll be there in a few minutes, Mom,” she said, her voice quiet, her fingers releasing their grip on the phone.

Daniela did not finish her lunch. She put a ten-dollar bill on the table and left, walking out into the rain. She spotted her gun-metal gray Mercedes halfway down the hill, hanging on the incline, looking like a metallic gray turtle. A figure bent under an umbrella overtook her, scuttling downhill with minced steps and bent knees. The bells of Old Saint Mary’s Church tinkled over the rushing and drumming noise of rain.

Inside the car, Daniela listened to the rain tapping on the roof, her gaze fixed on the view in front of her, distorted by the rivulets of water on the windshield.  She turned the key, the engine purred and she pulled away from the curb. The windshield wipers slicked across her vision, the city washing away with every sweep of the blades. Across the street from Old Saint Mary’s, the resident panhandler, tattered and caked in filth, was huddled against the wall and stared at the passing cars with mad eyes. Daniela felt as if he was looking straight at her, his gaze following her.

Stopping at the intersection, she took a dollar from her purse, opened the window an inch and waved the bill at him. He stirred from within his cone of shadows and ran to her car, and with his eyes lined up with the narrow opening of the window, the black tips of his fingernails snatched the dollar. A whiff of musty grime came into the car and lingered over the leather seats. He scuttled away, back to his wall.

She followed the crumbling figure with her gaze and the solitary thought came to her that that wreak of a being could be Rafael, somewhere out there—maybe it was this man. After all, amoebas have survived the primeval soup, the dinosaurs, and the ice age and would survive the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Bay foghorn wailed. Daniela gunned the engine up the hill.