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Grandma always brings me to the same Chinese joint. The waiter, Hao, even knows her by her first name. It’s not like it’s the only Chinese place in town. There’s the Dragon Bowl right down the street. The toilets have automated flushing and they fold the napkins into Birds of Paradise. But Grandma likes it here. She insists that we get the Lunch Buffet for $9.99. It’s a bargain.
I grab a plate that’s still warm from the dishwasher and scan my eyes over the dozens of dishes in heating trays. I use the greasy tongs to pick up a fried won-ton and I make my way back to our red pleather booth.
“Just a wonton? You sure you don’t want anything else?”
“Yes, Grams. I had Chinese with you last week, remember? I haven’t got much of an appetite today.”
“Shame. Why don’t you try the egg drop, sweetie. It’s fabulous. They make it fresh on Fridays.”
“No thanks. I’m just gonna have some more tea. Maybe some almond cookies later.”
I sit across from Grandma, sipping lukewarm tea and soaking my wanton in soy sauce.
There’s a small soft serve ice cream machine next to the Jell-O and fresh fruit. A short blonde-haired boy walks over to the machine. He’s carrying a plastic bowl and a metal spoon. The boy pulls down the lever of the soft serve machine, squeezing out a twirling tube of brown and white. The twisted ice cream misses his bowl and falls on the linoleum floor. The blonde boy keeps his hand pressed on the lever. The soft serve snake keeps on slithering, collecting in a chocolate-vanilla heap on the ground. The boy’s mom rushes over from the nearby table. “David!” she screams. David’s eyes shift to his mother. She raises her hand and slaps him clean across the cheek. It leaves a red handprint. The boy begins to cry and the machine stops humming.
“Look what you’ve done! You are gonna eat all this ice cream you wasted!”
The mom grabs the bowl and spoon out of David’s hands and tries to scoop the pile of ice cream off the floor. Hao stops feeding the tropical fish, and runs over.
“Miss, you do not have to do that. I can clean that up, no charge.”
The mother silently hands Hao the bowl of dirty, half-melted ice cream. David still cries and gasps for air. The mom grabs David by the neck and drags him into the bathroom. She locks the door. The entire restaurant gets really quiet. All you hear is the bubbling of the fish tank.
I’m tearing pieces of napkin paper, rolling them into tiny balls, and picking them up with my bamboo chopsticks. I’m waiting for Grandma to finish her Shrimp and Vegetable Noodle.
“How about that, sweetie! If it were twenty years ago, no one would be staring so much. You slaped the kids. That was the way it went back then. You sure you wouldn’t like some more dumplings, my dear? They’re excellent.” She says.
“No thanks, Gram. I’d really like to go soon.”
Hao takes a ceramic tea kettle off of one of the dirty tables and pours the remaining liquid onto the sticky, milky, ice cream. The hot tea and the chilled linoleum create a cloud of steam. It swirls and curls above the lunch buffet.
The bathroom door reopens and David’s got the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up tight around his face. David’s mom flashes a tight smile. She holds David’s hand and drags him to his seat.
In the corner of my eye, I see Hao approaching David’s table.
David’s mother pretends to look busy. She shuffles through her purse and pulls out a tube of coral pink lipstick and some Tic-Tacs.
“Would you like to feed the fish?” Hao asks with his hand extended towards David.
David shrugs and follows Hao to the tank. Hao pulls a small container of fish food out of his apron pocket and hands it to David. David unscrews the cap and takes a pinch of the colorful flakes.
“A couple flakes are all you need. Not too much.”
The flakes float like thin, wet tissues. The colorful fish swim up and kiss the surface. In the reflection of the glass tank, I see David smile.