By: Una Lee
“What’s this?” He stabs the laminated menu with a finger the size and shape of a fat cigar. I suck in air through my teeth.
“It’s a rice noodle dish.” I speak as clearly as I can. “Comes with vegetable and bean curd.”
His face sours. “Bean curd?”
“Yes.” I watch him finger the skin that hangs from his chin as he squints at the menu. I look at my watch. Table five’s order would be ready soon, and the woman wearing too much perfume at table nine had asked for more “orange sauce.”
“Smile,” John barks in Cantonese as he marches past. I stretch my face accordingly.
Cigar Finger is adding more sugar to his tea. I wince. He lifts the tiny ceramic cup to his lips, gripping it as though he is trying to crush it. I shift my weight to my left foot, the pen in my hand still hovering over my order pad.
“Don’t you have any chicken balls here?”
“No. Imitation beef and duck though.”
“Why don’t you have any real meat?”
But Cigar Finger does not want an answer. Cigar Fingers only wants me to stand here, waiting. I glance at the shrine near the entrance and try to calm myself by watching the smoke curl languidly up from the burning incense.
“I’ll have this one then.” He points to number 47. Vegetable fried rice. “And go easy on the mushrooms, eh sweetie?” He hands me the menu.
I am still smiling. My face is beginning to hurt. I turn, shudder, then walk briskly to the kitchen.
Vegetable fried rice. Sauce. Table five.
A cork board covers one wall of the kitchen. The left side is where we tack the orders. The right side is covered with photographs of generations of Luck House employees. They have been tacked up out of order, wherever there was room. Faces in 1940s black and white compete for exposure with those in hazy 1970s colour. I glance at these photographs as I put up Cigar Finger’s order.
I have memorized their faces, their clothing, their postures. I have invented stories for each one. They spill out of the photographs and into the kitchen cacophony. Unrequited love. Devastating illness. Head tax. Opium addiction.
“Enough daydreaming,” John snaps. I turn around but see only his back disappearing into the dining room. I hear him making loud and conciliatory noises to the people at table ten. Their noodles are “too spicy.”
I grab table five’s order and “some orange sauce” for the stinky woman’s rice. I glance at the cork board photo album before walking out of the kitchen. From where I am standing, the faces in the photographs are indistinguishable. Nothing more than hundreds of tiny bodies pressed against each other, faces looking pathetically out at me. I think they’re pleading to me.
I must be working too hard.
I hurry through the dining room, noticing that a path has been worn along the linoleum floor. I wonder when John will take my picture and tack it on the cork board. I wonder what stories someone will create for me.
The people at table five look hungry and scowl irritably at me. Cigar Finger is looking hungrily at me. I feel sick. I try not to breathe as I place the bowl of sauce on the woman’s table.
Perhaps my story has already been written.