My father worked full-time as a truck driver in Chinatown, delivering crates of produce from warehouses to restaurants, and was paid under the table at just slightly below minimum wage. Every day, he woke at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for work. He brushed his teeth, gargled mouthwash, roughly spat at the sink, and flushed the toilet. In the living room closet he shuffled through a box for a clean shirt and quickly changed to meet a man waiting outside in a graffitied truck. When he left, the door usually slammed, and the sound of locks turning was distinct, hard and brief. Sometimes this stirred us, but my sisters and I rolled back to sleep before my mother got us up for school.
When my father looked after my sisters and me, he did so by taking us along in his pickup truck while he worked. Sometimes I sat in front, but that wasn’t fun because I sat between my father and this guy my father called “Amigo.” He always had on a dirty outfit and gloves splotched with red paint. But what would my father have done if I had told him I didn’t like that? Either that or I stayed in a small, musty room at his workplace, a small brick building that could have doubled as an auto repair shop, beside the Manhattan Bridge. I sat on a saggy couch with truck drivers who were taking breaks and watched old Chinese soap operas, the same ones we watched at home.
Worst of all was when he left my sisters, and me occasionally, in the back with soiled crates of vegetables and fruits to be delivered. There were no windows, and he would sometimes pull down the back door of the truck because he didn’t want other workers to know we were back there. It would only be a few minutes, but it got hot sometimes, and the heat would exacerbate the smell of fresh dirt and vegetables. My sisters sat together—Wynee wearing hand-me-downs and Wendy in a souvenir shirt—picking at loose cabbage leaves and making up stories of being princesses locked up, waiting to be rescued.
On nights he was late coming home I peered through tightened blinds to look for his truck, being discreet the way my mother was when she thought his coworkers might be lurking in view of our balcony. She didn’t like that they knew our address and thought my father, who was quiet about his job, was careless with our privacy. In response, when a man followed us into our elevator one time, she was startled into pressing two numbers, thinking this would mislead him. With my mother’s heightened paranoia and the Chinese movies we rented on Bowery Street, I imagined the warehouse where my father worked as a gang operation, and that behind closed doors, people were getting their fingers chopped off and teeth pulled out with pliers if they messed up on the job. When my father would finally come home, he would unzip his hooded sweatshirt, hang it on a chair, and go straight to brush his teeth. There were never any “amigos” lurking outside, just the smell of stale cigarettes from his jacket, permeating the living room.
My mother increasingly chided my father for being a beggar from Ping Chau, an area in China she made out to be poor with no care for education, a place I imagined with huts and stray dogs running around. That he would spend the rest of his life, she said, taking on this work she described as “tham tham thoy thoy,” a repetitive motion of carrying and lugging. Then she would continue, “Aren’t you supposed to be the man in the house?” and dig up his past of never having graduated high school, or of not being able to speak English well even though he had immigrated more than twenty years ago. Looking away, my father would shrug off my mother’s words, waving his thick, cracked fingers as if her words were bad air.
My father sometimes picked me up from after school on Madison Street. Besides asking if I was hungry and occasionally buying warm scallion pork buns for me, he never really spoke to me or held my hand. One time we walked under the Brooklyn Bridge, by puddles and feathers stuck in white splatters, and the pedestrian light started blinking red letters, Don’t Walk. My father signaled for me to quickly follow him. As we quickened our pace, a man shouted, “Hurry up, Chinks!” gesturing angrily with his arm hanging out of his van window, inching his car forward. But then my father grabbed my hand, pulling me closer, and bellowed at the man, “Shut the fuck up!” with his firmest grasp of the English language. The light changed, and the van roared away. As soon as we were on the sidewalk, I turned to look at my father in his navy blue sweatshirt. His tanned skin, a shade my mother once referred to as lower class, revealed a blush around wrinkles where his smile formed, and for once I felt comforted by him and reveled in his scent of cigarettes and soil. I held on to my father’s hand, weaving my small fingers through his, smoothing the rough etches of each finger. This was how I told my father that I loved him, too. Right before our apartment, we let go of each other’s hands and walked the rest of the block silently.
On our way home, we also frequented a bodega to buy lottery tickets. My father would ask in broken English for Mega Millions tickets and ended each time with a curt thank-you. In the Chinese community, gambling was a common pastime. Tour buses plastered with Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods ads lined the sidewalk in front of my elementary school in the mornings and attracted large crowds of older men. Our family had taken a few weekend trips to these casinos where cold air blew from vents above and wafted traces of perfume and cigarettes. It all came down to this belief that luck was attainable, if not already an inherent trait.
With the pen that dangled from a string on the counter, my father quickly bubbled in numbers while I wandered around plastic shelves organized with ten- and twenty-five-cent candies. My father once asked me what my and my sisters’ birthdays were, and I hesitantly told him number by number as he filled each bubble, looking back at me for the next date. This intoxicating feeling of being a part of his life, of being on his team, that something as small as our birth dates could help him win, overwhelmed this bad feeling that inhabited me. In the times that he was successful, he was generous with his winnings and came home with bags full of groceries, including cartons of neapolitan ice cream or Nestlé Drumsticks with chocolate at the bottom of the cone just for me and my sisters. We would leave the bodega, my father with red and white tickets haphazardly folded in the cash section of his wallet and I wrapped in candy bracelets and listening to the sound of Gobstoppers crinkling in hand.
At a certain point, my father stopped picking me up and started to not only come home past dinner but would also be gone for a couple of nights straight, saying in Chinese that he was at a “dragon event,” which I took to be something related to gambling. My mother dreaded those weeks when my father was out late or overnight. I sometimes stayed up with her watching television and listened to her worries in between commercials. When I asked her where he was, she simply repeated what he had told her and then followed this up with a joke about how maybe he was with his other family. As much as she joked and tried to ignore these worries, they lingered in her mind, and it was discernable. Looking into my mother’s eyes as she told me her worries, I vividly imagined them.
I pictured my father opening a door just like ours but to another home. He’s more dressed up, somewhat tired, with a briefcase, looking like a different father to this other family. His two small children, a few years younger than me, brimming with excitement, run up to him and give him a tight hug around the waist. They have been anxiously waiting for him to be finally home from all the business trips he’s had to take. My father is laughing gregariously, and he kisses them hello on top of their heads. His other wife, who I have no face for, is smiling, with a neat apron on, cooking dinner. My father sinks into the couch with his arms stretched out on both sides and closes his eyes.