The first time he saw the woman he noticed that there was something sad behind her smile.
The family came to the restaurant. A mother, father, and two sons. The older boy looked about twelve, the younger one, ten. They sat under the lantern light with the red fringe, and they ordered dumplings. So many dumplings! In all the years he had worked in the restaurant — he’d been a waiter ever since he came to America back in fifty-three — he’d never seen people order so many dumplings. Most people did not even know about the dumplings. Most people ordered the same thing: won ton soup, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork, barbequed ribs. But these people wanted eight orders of dumplings! That’s eight times six or forty-eight dumplings! The restaurant made very good meaty dumplings with lots of pork, scallion, and special spices.
That first time they came in, he tried to explain to them, “Dumpling big, that lotta dumpling,” but they insisted they knew what they were doing. And they did eat them all, and besides that they had more food as well: large order barbeque rib, large order crispy fried chicken, large order spicy shredded pork.
The man drank many martinis, and at a certain point the man got a little drunk. That’s when the woman’s smile would start to sink, and the two boys would get restless and start to fight.
They came regularly every month, and he put them under the lantern light at his table. She always looked at the menu, but she always ordered the same, starting with the eight orders of dumplings: four fried and four steamed. And she always asked for “kwaidze” and she said “kwaidze”; she must have learned that somewhere. And so he’d bring chopsticks for all of them, but only the woman used them. She used them very deftly in her left hand. And the two boys, who drank lots and lots of Coca-Cola, would sometimes jump up from the table and run to the bar and come back with many of the little colored paper umbrellas. And sometimes they would giggle when he said they were getting to be big boys, and he liked to ruffle the younger one’s hair; he had very pretty yellow hair.
They came one time without the older boy. And he said, “Where is he? Where is the big boy?” And they looked sort of embarrassed and the mother said, “He wasn’t able to come.” He never saw that boy again, the dark-haired one, who was the most restless, who ran to get umbrellas many times. He was a loud boy and you could hear him clear across the room. He got loud just around the time the father had his second martini, and the mother’s smile started to fade. But the father and the younger boy always had smiles on their faces; and they always ate all the food. All of it! There was nothing to wrap up for them in a doggy bag. But now the big boy was gone, and they never said anything about it. And he wondered. What had happened to that boy? Had he been taken away from them? Did he run away? Did he die? Or did he just not want to come with them? He never asked, and they never said. But he noticed that a certain calm started to settle on them.
The father stopped drinking martinis. He started to drink beer. Then the restaurant had to sell its liquor license, and so the father brought his own beer. And the mother and the golden-haired boy drank tea. They still ordered all those dumplings. Six orders! When he saw them come in he would say, “I get dumpling. How many dumpling? How many you want?” And now they also ordered the restaurant’s new speciality, Peking duck. And they ordered the whole duck — twenty-nine dollars! And they started getting the Buddha’s delight with the straw mushrooms, and the woman never failed to tell him how much she liked the straw mushrooms. And now she would smile and her smile would stay. And he would pat the golden-haired boy on the head; he was growing so tall and handsome. And he was becoming fourteen, and fifteen and sixteen. And he would have a whole order of ribs just for himself and he would order and eat all those dumplings, and he could handle the chopsticks just as well as his mother now, and he called them “kwaidze,” and he was left-handed like his mother, too. And the three of them seemed so happy as they basked under the reddish glow of the lantern light. So happy to eat those dumplings. They always told him how wonderful those pork dumplings were, “the best anywhere,” they said, and he made them his special sauce with just a touch of Hoisin and a touch of sesame oil and they loved his special sauce; and even though the father didn’t get drunk anymore, he still left a very big tip, bigger than ever.
And then there was the last time they came, and from the time they entered the room, he knew it was their last time. He just had a feeling. The woman didn’t smile. She looked strained and unhappy. And the dumpling order was only four. She did not have any dumplings! Instead she had vegetable lo mein. And when he cut up the duck and put it into the pancakes, he saw her pass hers to her husband. She ate nothing but the straw mushrooms. And her smile was not there. She looked very sad.
That was in February, and they did not come in March or in April or in May and he wondered what had happened. Did they move? Did they divorce? Did the sad mother go to be with the missing son? Where were they now? People were getting so tight with their money. And the tips were so small, not even fifteen percent sometimes. The neighborhood was changing. New people were coming into the restaurant. New faces under the lantern light. And he thought he’d never see them again.
He was coming out of the kitchen, balancing a big, heavy tray with sizzling steak, four-flavor chicken, and oyster beef on it. He saw the man over by the cash register. He was waiting for a take-out order. He went up to the man to shake his hand. “Where you been?” he asked. “I no see you, so long time!”
And the man said, “I know, we miss you. My wife is a vegetarian now. She won’t eat these things. She won’t eat these things anymore.” And he looked very sad. Yes, the man looked very sad.
It was his fault. He started it. He’s the one who made her become a vegetarian. He said he couldn’t eat animals. It wasn’t right. And she had done it to go along with him. But slowly her consciousness had changed. They ate vegetarian at home. But still in restaurants they would “cheat.” And especially in their favorite restaurant, the Chinese restaurant where they went once a month. And they still got the dumplings, oh how they loved Chinese dumplings and Mr. Fong’s were the best, and his sauce was the best; he made them his own special sauce. And the duck was so very good. And they would always come home so full and happy from the restaurant. Her older boy, who was in college now, didn’t like Chinese food. He only wanted to eat pizzas and subs, so they used to give him money, and he went to Uncle Joe’s and got himself a sub, while she and her husband and her younger son, Peter, ate the heavenly Chinese food.
But slowly her consciousness started to change, until she couldn’t even kill the slugs in her garden. They had very cute little faces, if you looked at them closely, and she’d pick them up one by one, wearing a garden glove, and set them in a weed patch where they could eat weeds to their hearts’ content and leave her marigolds alone. It was easy not to kill a slug. Much harder to say that terrorists, and muggers, and rapists and murderers shouldn’t be killed. But she didn’t believe they should be killed either. A peace had entered her body. She did not kill and she did not eat anything that was killed. She looked now at meat as if it were rubber, or cardboard. It was not food. Beef was not “beef” but a beautiful cow with large, round eyes, a loving mother. And pork was not “pork” but a cute, chubby, round, pink pig, an adorable little child.
She could not eat flesh anymore. But her husband, who loved animals and had started the whole thing, still lusted after the taste and smell of meat. He ate vegetarian at home, but pork and beef were still pork and beef to him, delicious aromatic food. And he wanted to keep eating those wonderful dumplings.
In February, she didn’t want to go with them to the Chinese restaurant.
“I cannot eat dumplings anymore. And I cannot go and watch you eat them!”
But her husband and son had been so crestfallen, she had gone. And she had been miserable, and refused to go anymore. And the man and the boy couldn’t go by themselves. The man never drank and drove, and the boy was not old enough to drive yet. And besides, he said he was embarrassed to go alone with his father. And the boy was very sad.
He ate pizzas and subs like his brother, but he missed the dumplings. Mr. Pong’s magic dumplings. Oh how happy it used to make him feel! The steam rising up his nostrils, his mother and father looking so happy.
Finally, one day, his father, as a surprise, went and got take-out and brought it home to the boy: ribs, and dumplings and Peking duck, and they gorged themselves on the food, eating out of the paper containers, but it wasn’t the same, not without Mr. Fong; wonderful Mr. Fong, shining like the moon as he brought them their chopsticks and their warm pot of tea, and their crispy, crunchy noodles and the dumplings all under the glow of the lantern light.
“How could you do this to Mr. Fong?” her husband asked her. “How could you just turn your back on him?”
“You grow too attached to people in business relationships,” she answered sharply. “We are vegetarians and Mr. Fong lost us because he has nothing to offer us but straw mushrooms.” And she turned her back and went into the kitchen to make their dinner.
One day she came running home all smiles. “Our problems are solved!” she shouted. She had a big bag and out came five packages of dumplings. Vegetable dumplings! She had found them at the Korean grocery store. The ingredients were vegetables, wheat flour, soy protein and salt.
Peter sat at the red kitchen table. He watched as his mother put the new dumplings into the steamer. He hoped, oh how he hoped they would be good.