Authors: Frances Hwang
“I heard he took poison,”another said, picking up a tile. She had thick, sour lips and wore red horn-rimmed glasses. “Didn’t
he lose everything?”
“No, it was a heart attack. His wife found him still sitting on the toilet! In the middle of reading a newspaper.”
“He was too cheap to pay for his own funeral,”the third one said. She had a sagging, magisterial face, her thick white hair
pulled back into a bun. “In his will, he donated his body to science.”
The one with the false eyebrows knocked down all of her tiles. “Hula!” she declared.
There were startled cries. “I wasn’t even close!”
“Did anyone have three sticks?”
Agnes smiled as she poured herself a cup of tea from the counter. These ladies were real witches, talking about people’s ends
with such morbid assurance—how could Lily stand their company? Perhaps she liked the attention, for she seemed to be the silent
center of the group, the one the ladies exclaimed over and petted. Lily glanced toward Agnes from time to time, smiling at
her. She seemed impatient for Agnes to leave.
“Well,”Agnes said, after she had finished her tea, “he won’t mind too much if I wake him.”She walked across the room and opened
the bedroom door, even though she sensed this was precisely what Lily did not want her to do.
Her father sat at his desk reading a newspaper, his bifocals slipping down his nose. A single lamp illuminated his down-turned
head, and it seemed from his silence that he had been exiled here. His manner changed the moment he saw her. His face broke
into an exuberant smile as he stood up from his chair.
“So what are you doing here? Come to pay me a visit?”
Agnes closed the door behind her. “I’ve brought you a duck,”she said. “And to wish you a happy new year.”
“A duck? Did you go to the Golden Palace?”
“That’s the best place to go. They have better ducks than anywhere else. Number one ducks!” he said. “So plump! And with crispy
Agnes looked at her father. “And how are you these days?”
“I’m fine!” he declared. “I’m good! Just look at me.”He straightened his argyle sweater over his shirt and tie, then preened
in front of the mirror, turning his head to one side and then the other.
“You don’t play mahjong with the ladies,”she said, looking around the room. The furniture was mismatched—things that she had
given him which she no longer had any use for. A chair from an old dining room table set. A desk with buttercup yellow legs.
A massive dresser with gothic iron handles. It bothered Agnes to see her daughter’s stickers still on one of the drawers.
“You know me. I’m not good at these sorts of games. I’m a scholar, I read things ... like this newspaper,”he said, waving
it in the air. “Besides, they want to talk freely without me hanging about.”
“What’s that doing in here?” Agnes asked. “Is that where she makes you sleep?” In the corner, between the bed and the closet,
was a makeshift cot covered with a comforter folded in half like a sleeping bag.
“The bed is too soft on my poor back,”her father said. He pressed his hand against his spine and winced. “This way is more
Agnes sat down on the thin cot, which bounced lightly. “So this is how she treats you,”she said. “She won’t even let you into
“Her sleep isn’t good.”Her father cleared his throat, setting the newspaper down on his desk. “She often wakes up in the middle
of the night.”He didn’t look at her as he fiddled with the pages, then folded the paper back together. Agnes felt an involuntary
stirring in her chest. She had avoided him all this time, not wanting to know about his marriage because she had not wanted
to know of his happiness. But she should have known Lily was the kind of person who took care only of herself.
“How else is she behaving?” she asked. “Is she mistreating you in any way?”
“No, no,”her father said hurriedly, shaking his head.
“Is she a wife to you?” There was a pause as he looked at her. “You know what I mean,”she said.
“She suffers a pain,”he offered hesitantly. “In her ovaries.”
Agnes laughed. She got up and strode across the room, flinging the door open.
“Don’t say anything,”her father said, following after her. “Don’t let her know what I’ve told you.”
In the living room, the mahjong ladies were laughing and knocking over their walls, and Agnes had to raise her voice above
theirs. “I’d like to talk to you,”she said to Lily.
For a moment, Lily pretended not to hear, continuing her conversation with the white-haired lady beside her. Then she glanced
over at Agnes, her face a mask of porcelain elegance except for one delicately lifted eyebrow. “What is it?”
“Why aren’t you sleeping with my father?”
The ladies’ voices fell to a murmur, their hands slowing down as they massaged the tiles along the tablecloth. They looked
at Lily, who said nothing, though her smile seemed to be sewn on her lips.
Her father clutched Agnes’s arm, but she refused to be silent. “You married him, didn’t you? He pays for your clothes and
your hairdo and this roof over your head. He deserves something in return!”
Her father laughed out loud and immediately put his hand over his mouth.
Lily stood up, but the mahjong ladies remained in their seats as if drunk, their eyes glazed with the thrill of the unexpected.
“Perhaps we can resume our games later,”Lily said. The one with the horn-rimmed glasses stood up slowly from the table, prompting
the other two to rise. They looked as if they had been shaken out of a dream.
“Oh, my heavens!” the one with the eyebrows exclaimed as Agnes shut the door on them.
“Now,”Agnes said, turning toward Lily and waiting for her to speak.
“I have an illness ...”Lily began. “A gynecological disorder that prevents me ...”Her gaze wandered to Agnes’s father, who
hovered near the bedroom door. “Well, in truth, he’s an old man,”she said, her expression hardening. “His breath stinks like
an open sewer. I can’t stand to smell his breath!” She snatched her scarf from the closet and wrapped it quickly around her
“If you don’t sleep with him,”Agnes said, “I’ll send a letterto the immigration office. I’ll tell them that you only married
him to get a green card!”
Lily’s hands trembled as she put on her coat. “Do as you like,”she said, walking out the door.
Her father looked deeply pained.
“She won’t refuse you now,”Agnes told him.
“What has happened?” her father said, his voice shaking. “Who are you? You’ve become someone ... someone completely without
“I should open up a brothel,”Agnes declared. “That is exactly what I should do.”
In February, her father called to tell her he wasn’t sure whether or not his nose was broken. There had been a snowstorm two
days before, whole cars sheathed in ice, the roads filled with irregular lumps, oddly smooth and plastic, where the snow had
melted and then frozen again. In this weather, her father and Lily had gone out walking to buy groceries at Da Hua Market.
Lily had walked ahead, and when she was almost half a block away, she turned around and asked Agnes’s father to walk faster.
He tried to keep up with her, but corns had formed along his toes and the soles of his feet. When he quickened his pace, he
slipped on a deceptively bland patch of ice and hit his nose on the pavement.
When Agnes saw her father—a dark welt on the bridge of his nose, a purple stain beginning to form under his eyes — she couldn’t
help but feel a flood of anger and pity. You could have lived your last years in peace, she wanted to say to him. Instead
she glanced at the closed bedroom door. “Is that where she’s hiding?”
He looked at her morosely. “She left earlier because she knew you were coming.”
In the hospital, Agnes noticed that her father walked gingerly down the hall, stepping on the balls of his feet without touching
his toes or heels to the ground. An X-ray revealed that his nose was not broken after all. Agnes told the resident he was
having problems walking.
“That’s not an emergency,”the resident replied. Nevertheless, she left the room to call in a podiatrist.
Her father grew excited when he saw the podiatrist. He began speaking to him in Chinese.
“I’m sorry,”the podiatrist said, shaking his head. “I’m Korean. Let’s take these off, shall we?” He lightly pulled off her
father’s socks. There were red cone-shaped bumps along his toes and hard yellow mounds on the soles and heels of his feet.
But what shocked Agnes most was the big toe on his left foot. The nail of this one toe looked a thousand years old to her,
thick, encrusted, and wavy, black in the center and as impenetrable as a carapace.
“Older people’s toenails are often like this,”the podiatrist said, seeing Agnes’s surprise.
Her father seemed oblivious to their comments. He was squeezing his eyes shut as the podiatrist worked on his foot, slicing
the calluses off bit by bit with a small blade. Her father winced and jerked his feet up occasionally. “Oh, it hurts,”he exclaimed
to Agnes. “It’s unbearable!”
“I know this isn’t pleasant,”the podiatrist said, looking at her father. He took a pumice stone out of his pocket and rubbed
it gently against her father’s foot.
When the podiatrist had finished paring away at his corns, her father covered his feet back up, slowly pulling on his socks
and tying the laces of his shoes. He smiled at the podiatrist, yet because of his bruised nose, his face seemed pathetic and
slightly grotesque. “It’s better beyond words,”he said.
In the parking lot, her father showed off by walking at a sprightly pace in front of her. “It’s so much better now!” he kept
The doctor had told Agnes that the corns would eventually come back, but she didn’t tell her father. She was thinking how
well he had hidden the signs of old age from her. That big toe underneath his sock. Since the time she was a child, she and
her father had lived their lives independent of each other. She had never demanded anything of him, and he had been too busy
with his work at school, so that by the time she was six she had been as free as an adult. They left each other alone mostly
because of her mother, whose sickness filled up the entire house and whose moods were inextricably bound with their own.
In the car, Agnes told her father that she thought he should divorce Lily.
“It’s not as bad as that, Shuling.”
“I hate how she humiliates you,”she said.
Her father was silent, gazing out the window. “Love is humiliating,”he finally replied.
When she dropped him off in front of his building, he did not immediately go inside but stood on the frozen sidewalk, waving
at her. She knew he would stay there until her car was no longer in sight. It was his way of seeing her off, and he would
do this no matter what the weather.
In June, her father called to see if Agnes had any photographs of his wedding banquet. He and Lily were going to be interviewed
by an immigration officer next week in order to secure. Lily’s green card, and her father planned to present the photos as
evidence. Agnes could find only one photograph. She had dumped it into a shoebox, to be lost in an ever growing stack of useless
pictures. Years ago, she had stopped putting her family’s photographs in an album. Now whenever their pictures were developed,
after her daughters’ initial enthusiasm of looking at themselves, Agnes put the photos back into their original envelopes
and tossed them into a shoebox.
The photograph she found was of Lily, her father, and two old couples seated at their table. Lily was looking away from the
camera, her mouth oddly pursed, as if she were in the middle of chewing her food while smiling at the same time. A pair of
chopsticks rested between her fingers. It was an odd moment. Lily appeared sociable yet also removed. Her eyes were lively,
though they looked at nothing in particular. It was as if two versions of her had been captured in the same photograph.
Actually, there were two photographs of Lily that Agnes found. Two copies of the same picture. Agnes wanted to find a difference,
something very small—a gesture of the hand, the curve of an eyebrow—but the two pictures were exactly alike. Another photograph
of Lily would reveal another world. But there she was—Lily could never break out of the picture, an elegant woman caught in
the act of chewing. Beside her, her father looked radiant, a little too well satisfied, two red carnations and a wisp of baby’s
breath pinned right over his heart. He was the only person in the photograph looking at the camera.
“Do you want to come over on Saturday to pick it up?” she asked her father. “You can stay for the weekend, and I’ll drive
you to your interview on Monday.”
Her father hesitated. “You don’t have to come in with me. You can just drop me off at the immigration office.”
The morning of his interview, her father ironed his own dress shirt and put on a suit that still smelled of the dry cleaner’s
fumes. He shaved the tiny white hairs that had begun to sprout on his chin, and even sprayed himself with an old bottle of
cologne that he found in a bathroom drawer. An hour before his appointment, he began to fidget, looking at his watch and pacing
around the room. “Shouldn’t we be leaving?” he asked.
“Sit down. We have plenty of time.”
“I don’t want to be late,”he said, picking up his bag. “Qiulian will be waiting.”
Agnes sat down, tapping a pack of cigarettes in her hand. Smoking was one of the bad habits she blamed on her father, even
though he had quit twenty years ago. “You realize, don’t you,”Agnes said, blowing smoke to the side away from him. “It’s a
certain fact. She’ll leave you as soon as she gets her green card.”
Her father cleared his throat and switched the bag to his other hand.
“You want her to stay, am I right?”
He sighed, heading toward the door. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.”
“I’m not taking you,”she said. She flicked the ash off her cigarette onto a plate. “It’s for your own good. I won’t let her