- Hobart Dreams
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Carl Lew, owner and head chef of the Bamboo Gardens where I washed dishes, was a towering man who worked among the mists of several woks at once. He smoked and gave advice about dating, football and hygiene simultaneously. He was immaculate down to his fingernails, and he had the unique ability to balance over a half inch of cigarette ash on the end of his cigarette and never lose any cinders to the sizzling food below. Mixing cornstarch, clear broth, garlic and chili oil, he could turn the most humble collection of Napa cabbage and green onions into [End Page 35] a dish worth driving across Newport News for, during shipyard traffic. Once or twice, after I made prolonged campaigns, he bought me a six-pack of beer but threatened me roughly about getting caught drunk. “Don’t turn me out, motherfucker,” he said. The crown jewel of our trust was a twin of Cold Duck bottles he gave me one Christmas, claiming that the stuff only gave him headaches. I kept them in the walk-in and waited for better times. He was especially sensitive to my lousy outlook on life. When his wife, Suzi, was out on errands, he’d talk freely about sex, telling me the benefits of abstinence, though he himself never subscribed. In fact, according to his own stories, before marrying and coming to Virginia, he’d been a great lover, a minor legend in the Chinese community in the Bay Area. He’d owned a Corvette, he told me, but that was long ago.
“The ducks are coming tomorrow,” Carl announced.
“I know it,” I said.
“You don’t look ready. Looks like you are up to no good.”
Our Pekings usually hailed from a farm outside Portsmouth. Or, lately, from a place straddling the North Carolina border called Bayberry Landing. Plucked and packed in shaved ice, they arrived as nacreous, funky nudes, their orange bills furry with frost, their webbed feet cold as outer space, their body cavities liverish and hollow; it was hard to believe they’d ever been alive. They came fifty to the case, over one hundred pounds of duck flesh and bloody slush, and when they came, everything accelerated. Carl paid the plain-faced delivery man in cash and skidded the crate into the walk-in and locked it. He wasn’t about to let someone steal the ducks, he said. There was a seedy motel next to the restaurant called the Prominent Citizen, and Carl often said that if we ever got hit, it would come from there.
Often, whether because of one of the waitresses calling in sick or our delivery boy no-showing, Carl dialed numbers and begged Suzi to come and help. Suzi arrived and stashed their little daughter, Stephanie, in a back room to do her homework on sacks of rice, and the woks roared to life. (“Extreme heat is the secret to Chinese food, motherfucker,” he once said to me during a flourish of orders.)
I settled back to the dish room and began the cycles. Carl and Suzi pushed through the orders, the five woks all going at once, the smells of vegetables, meat and spices crushing the atmosphere, drowning the [End Page 36] chatter of waitresses. Duck Day was no time to blow off a shift. When we finally got around to the ducks, we sat across from each other on upturned buckets and twisted each duck onto a wire hanger by lifting their angular wings and working the wire into the fleshy folds, our hands so fouled with duck fat that it became impossible to work without things slipping away. Carl smoked and talked about California, which from his descriptions seemed like a perfect place of orchards, cable cars and long-haired women who would go down to the beach with almost anyone. The fog rolled in and you could hardly see the other person, and so you just groped and squeezed her, amid the sound of ship bells and surf, the smell of seaweed beaten upon the rocks.