by Stephanie Han
2004 SFWP Literary Awards Program
5th Place Winner
I tightly hold my father’s hand as we approach a red building near the escalator, a bar in Central. He explains to me, this is where the rich foreigners drink and watch football. My father cannot afford to drink here, nor would he be welcome if he stepped foot inside. Years later I will come to this very bar with colleagues from work and will hesitate before the door, remembering the time I stood outside with my father.
Tall foreign men lumber in and out with loosened ties and long sleeved shirts of white and light blue. Their pointed noses and large soft bodies are unlike my father’s whose nose is flat and firm and body is lean and tan from carrying ladders and boards, hauling pails and scrubbing with rags. He’s a head shorter than the men inside, but his fist is wide and his arms and calves bulge from work. An odd job jack-of-all-trades, he washes dishes in offices, fixes broken furniture and paints ‘anything to make money. The foreign men blurt out words in a language I can’t understand and will struggle for years to study in school: I couldn’t believe it. Sounds like a good deal. It’s the direction. Bloody hell. Their voices undulate as the door swings back and forth, opening and shutting. Blasts of cool air shoot out and hit my calves, the smell of stale beer tickles my nose and I sneeze to push out the stench of alcohol.
He has come here before without me to watch a game, but a week ago my mother left Hong Kong for her small village off the coast of Shanghai to tend to my sick grandmother. Holding me in his arms he says, look at the TV Mee-ling, watch the men in red uniforms. Look, look. Look at the ball. I say, ball? My father points to the ball on TV and we watch together, but it’s hard for me to see, so I squirm and he puts me down on the ground.
This is before my brothers are born and my father is tall with hope, not stooped like the handle of an umbrella, eyes folded over, double lidded from long hours of work. My slender mother who turns heads as she walks down the street, smiles when she sees my father and does not avert her eyes with disappointment when he tries to speak with her. When he brings me presents ‘ barrettes, shiny white vinyl sandals, a small stuffed lion, my mother exclaims in mock protestation, Mee-ling will be spoiled, what good is a spoiled girl? But she’s happy. Unlike her sister’s husband who complains about his houseful of daughters my father brags about me and until next year when my brother is born, I am everything to him.
I hold my arms up to him to be carried. He picks me up but only to sit me on a wooden chair under the stairs of the escalator near the bar. He scuttles over to peer through the window again. Yowling pierces the air. Behind a gray metal fence are cats arching their backs ‘ one black, one gray, staring at each other, locked in frozen anger. People gather and wait for the fight to begin. My father cups his hands against the glass for a better view of the game and stands on his toes, but I climb down off my chair and toddle over to the cats. When my father remembers to check on me, he briefly panics until he spots me by the fence hidden amongst thighs and legs. He pulls me away from the crowd and hugs me with relief. As the yowling hits a frenzied pitch and the gray cat strikes the black, he hoists me on to his shoulders and says, let’s watch the game together and after, we can eat noodles. I clutch his head, pulling at his spiky black hair as he hurries back to the window.
Deep voices rise from the belly of the bar, baritone shouts break in a chorus of cheers scattering over the din of jackhammers and taxicabs, the clack of high heel shoes and blare of air conditioners. Goal! My father excitedly rattles away to the circle of men who stand outside with him arguing, dragging on cigarettes and shuffling their feet. The men in red uniforms are pouncing on top of each other. Say hello uncle, says my father. Hello uncle, I say, to no uncle in particular. The uncles smile.
My father wears green shorts, a red striped shirt and thick navy blue rubber soled sandals. On his brow are drops of salty sweat. His big toenail is purple, recently smashed by a hammer. When he comes home I run to see it for he has told me that soon, the purple toe will turn into a bunch of grapes. Everyday I look to see if the grapes have appeared, but no, it is the same toe, turning mushroom black.
One smiling uncle says, whoever heard of bringing a girl to watch a game? He pulls a stick of chewing gum from his shirt pocket and I let go of my father’s head to reach for the gum and his arms tighten around my legs. The sugar coats my tongue and I clap my hands and the man, Chewing Gum Uncle chuckles with pleasure.
I’m looking at the men inside, holding glasses and bottles with open mouths and knitted brows. Their eyes follow the small figures onscreen racing across a green carpet in pursuit of the ball. They wince as a player falls to the ground. To most of the foreign men, the uncles and myself are invisible, mere background, a backdrop to important lives, like the smell of car exhaust and old orange peels, the chill of an air conditioned shop or the postcard stretch of towers of mirror and steel that puncture the sky. A pale fat man grins and waves to me. I wave back. Some scowl when they see us. One deliberately moves in front of the window, his white shirt and thick neck blocking our TV view. A few of the uncles leave just as two men with faces flushed pink from alcohol exit the bar and head towards the stairs to take the escalator up the hill.
My father swears under his breath and I am jostled as he and Chewing Gum Uncle move to another window, craning their necks to see the TV. The goalkeeper is no good, says my father. Chewing Gum Uncle grimaces and says, the problem is the defense. Oh! Good! Penalty kick. Chewing Gum Uncle nods and my father says, c’mon, kick the ball. Suddenly a young red haired man pushes his nose up against the window-pane and snorts at my father. I let out a cry and feel my father’s body stiffen as he steps back, shushes and comforts me. In the glass I see my father’s reflection, his steady eyes, his mouth drawn in a stern straight line. The men inside laugh at us ‘ one guffaws and slaps the red haired man on the back. Chewing Gum Uncle says good-bye and pats my leg before walking away. A wavy haired man with no chin tries to shoo us away like flies. My father’s hold on my calves tightens and he watches the screen and ignores them. The red haired man laughs again. He scares me. I want to get down from my father’s shoulders but he says sharply, be still. The chinless man shakes and growls like a dog at a young Asian woman who cowers before him.
A few minutes later the woman tapes a piece of black paper to the window with masking tape. The TV light cuts through a small tear. My father moves to another spot but the woman seems to follow us steadily from window to window, without ever meeting our eyes, covering each section of glass. The men inside barely glance at us; expressionless, they slowly disappear behind a black curtain of paper.
My father’s shoulders drop and round when we can no longer see the screen. He slumps and puts me down on the ground. His face looks tired, this is the first time I see the expression he will come to almost always wear. He pulls my braided hair and looks at the blacked out windows and when I see his long eyes I ask about the TV, but he doesn’t respond. I reach for his hand and soberly he says that it is time for us to go home. From behind the black paper, inside the bar there are whoops, claps and cries of joy. My father’s eyes lift, a rebound, a brief light returns and he slowly gathers me in his arms. He says, time for noodles. I nod my head and look down at his toenail and wonder when the grapes will appear.