By the time the dishwater soaked through the white cloth apron all the way to my underwear and I ran out of space to stack clean porcelain dishes, I accepted that Mr. Fong was a lonely gabber who couldn’t pronounce the L’s in my name. Which was okay, because then he couldn’t brand a loser with nothing more to lose. From him, instead of a lonely loser, it’d be a ronery roser; someone who even failed at skipping the bill. “Ah, Mr. Corrins,” he said as he dumped a handful of pinkish gray shrimp into a cast-iron wok already steaming with pearly bean sprouts, soy sauce sprinkled rice and emerald scallions chopped into little rings.
“I so grad you not able pay for dinner. You wash dishes; give me company.” “You’re doing all the talking,” I told him, which made him jig with laughter.
“Ain’t you afraid of someone you don’t know like me,” I asked. His body braced. “I no afraid of no one.”
“No way, man.”
“Kitchen, Chinese kitchen best prace to be when attacked.” There were weapons everywhere, he insisted, abrading a wooden-handled cleaver on a dull but twinkling steel rod. Like knives and mops and pots of hot brown egg foo yung gravy and bubbling boiling peanut oil. Even the box of Industrial Soap for Dishes, partly crumpled from moisture. “You grab powdered soap and throw! Right at eyes! Then, frisbee dinner dishes! Heavy! Knock ‘em out,” he said, whipping his hand forward toward the red vinyl-covered double swinging door substituting for the assailant.
The worst, though, he said, scooping a mound of aromatic fried rice on to a dinner plate and ringing the desk bell for the waitress, is a man with noth- ing to lose. He won’t care if he gets hurt, so he’s not going to be stopped by a knife or gravy, or anything.
“He no stop, so onry way to sulvive is to kirr him before he kirr you,” he said.
At the end of each sink full of dishes, I admired what I’d built in the dish drainer. Skyscrapers of porcelain dinner plates, forests of clear red plastic drinking glasses, and Dr. Seussian stacks of coffee cups and saucers; a clean, nearly habitable diorama living on the stainless steel countertop.
When the waitress went home and the OPEN sign was turned off, Mr. Fong gave me a twenty dollar bill, because he said my meal was only six fifty and I did at least that much in dishes and didn’t break a one. You come back tomorrow, he asked and I nodded, because he didn’t kill me, and now I had twenty to lose and a reason to stop.