THREE DAYS LATER Nan set out for the South. He followed I-95 all the way to Virginia and switched to I-85 after Richmond. He drove for fourteen hours until he was too exhausted to continue and had to stop for the night. He slept in his car in the parking lot of a rest area near Ridgeway, North Carolina. Before sunrise, when tree leaves were drenched with heavy dew and a thin fog was lifting, he resumed his trip. Entering Durham, North Carolina, he caught sight of a burgundy motorcycle, which reminded him of the Yamaha scooter the wild Beina used to ride. He floored the gas pedal, but his car couldn’t go fast enough. In no time the motorcyclist’s white helmet, jiggling and dodging, disappeared in the traffic ahead. Nan sighed and shook his head vigorously to force the image of his ex-girlfriend out of his mind.
Because of the construction along the road, it took him almost a whole day to cross the Carolinas, and not until evening did he arrive at Chamblee, Georgia, a suburban town northeast of Atlanta. He checked in at Double Happiness Inn on Buford Highway, managed by a Korean man who spoke Mandarin fluently but with a harsh accent. Tired out, Nan showered and went to bed without dinner, although Pingping had packed a tote bag of food for him-instant noodles, a challah, two cans of wieners, fish jerky, macadamia cookies, dehydrated duck, pistachios, clementines, as if none of these things were available in Georgia. She had also wedged in a coffeepot, with which he could boil water for oatmeal and tea.
The next morning, Nan went to see Mr. Wang. The Gold Wok was in Lilburn, a town fifteen miles northeast of Atlanta. It was at the western end of a half-deserted shopping center called Beaver Hill Plaza, where several businesses and a small supermarket clustered together. Among them were a fabric store, a Laundromat, a photo studio, a pawnshop, and a fitness center. A few suites were marked by for rent signs, which gave Nan mixed feelings. The vacancies implied that it would be easy enough for the restaurant to renew its lease, but it might also mean there wasn’t a lot of business.
Mr. Wang, tall with withered limbs and a scanty beard, turned out to be much older than Nan had expected. His back was so hunched that he seemed afflicted with kyphosis, and his neck and arms were dappled with liver spots. As he spoke to Nan, he kept massaging his right knee as if he suffered from painful arthritis. He made an effort to straighten up but remained bent. He grimaced, saying that his chronic back pain had grown more unbearable each year. Somehow Nan couldn’t help but wonder whether he had a prolapsed anus as well, since both afflictions, he’d learned, were common among people in the restaurant business. The old man and his wife were glad to see Nan and eager to show him the place. Nan went into the kitchen and checked the cooking range, the ovens, the storage room, the freezers, the dishwasher, the toilets, the light fixtures. He was pleased that all the equipment was in working order, though the dining room looked rather shabby. In it there were six tables and eight booths covered in brown Naugahyde, and the walls were almost entirely occupied by murals of horses, some galloping, some grazing, some rearing, and some frolicking with their tails tossed up. From a corner in the back floated up a Mongolian melody, which was supposed to match the theme of the horses on the walls. The Wangs had hired only one waitress, a dark-complexioned young woman from Malaysia named Tammie, who spoke both Cantonese and English but no Mandarin. Nan opened the menu, which offered more than two dozen items, mostly for takeout, none of which cost more than five dollars. Although it was unlikely to generate $100,000 worth of business a year as the ad claimed, the restaurant was in good trim.
As Nan was coming out from the kitchen, a young man wearing aviator glasses and a gray jersey strolled in, clamping a toothpick between his lips. Nan stepped aside to let him pass. Without a word the man went straight in. Presently Nan heard the brisk ring of a spatula scraping a pan.
” Like I told you, this place is perfect for a family like yours,” Mr. Wang said to Nan.
“Does your wife speak English?” asked Mrs. Wang, a waistless and short-limbed woman wearing a seersucker shirt.
“Yes, she can do anything. By the way, I haven’t seen lots of customers. There aren’t many, are there?”
” Tuesday is slow,” she replied.
“Can you cook?” Mr. Wang asked Nan.
“I’m a chef.”
“Excellent. That will make all the difference. I can guarantee you that you’ll get rich soon.” “Well, I’m not so sure.”
” Look, I pay the chef, the fellow in the kitchen, eight dollars an hour. I used to cook myself, but I’m too old to do that anymore. If you and your wife both work here, all the profits will go into your own pocket.”
” You use a chef?” Nan was amazed, not having imagined this place could make enough to pay that kind of wages. He had taken the man wearing glasses for a family member or relative of the Wangs.
“Yes. You can go ask him how much I pay him. That’s why we can’t keep this place any longer-most profits end up in his wallet. It’s like I’m just his job provider.”
This was encouraging. If they could afford to hire a cook, the restaurant must be doing quite well.
The old couple invited him to stay for lunch, saying this was the minimum they should do for a guest from far away. Nan accepted the offer and, together with Mr. Wang, sat down at a table. He poured hot tea for his host and then for himself, and they went on talking about life in this place. The old man assured him that Gwinnett County had excellent public schools. A girl in his neighborhood had gone to Berkmar High and was at Duke now, a premed. Nan was impressed. Mr. Wang also told him that compared with the other counties in the Atlanta area, Gwinnett had a much lower realty tax. That was why many recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America preferred to live here.
Ten minutes later, Mrs. Wang stepped over gingerly and put before them a lacquered tray containing a bowl of pot-stickers, a plate of sauteed scallops and shrimp mixed with snow peas and bamboo shoots, a jar of plain rice, two pairs of connected chopsticks, and two empty bowls. “You can have a bite if you want,” she told her husband.
“Sure, I’m sort of hungry.” But the old man just picked up a pot-sticker, saying to Nan that he didn’t eat lunch nowadays.
Nan broke his chopsticks and began eating. He wasn’t impressed by the quality of the food. The pot-stickers had the stale taste of overused frying oil.
Then he asked Mr. Wang about the lease, the various taxes, the cost of utilities, and the service of the local distributor that delivered vegetables, meats, seafood, condiments. Meanwhile, three customers showed up. One ordered a takeout, and the other two, a middle-aged couple, were led by Tammie to a corner booth. The wide-eyed waitress kept glancing at Nan as if she wanted to speak to him but withheld her words.
After lunch, Nan took leave of the Wangs, saying he would come again the next morning. He tootled through several residential areas in Lilburn and Norcross, mainly along Lawrenceville and Buford highways and Jimmy Carter Boulevard, and he saw numerous homes for sale. Most of them were new and had four bedrooms and a brick front, priced between $120,000 and $130,000, but outside those subdivisions developed recently or still under construction were older houses, some priced even below $80,000. He hadn’t expected that a brick ranch would sell for under $100,000. In the Boston area, a three-bedroom house of this kind would cost at least three times as much.
Nan ‘s car had no air-conditioning, and time and again he drank Pepsi from a bottle lying on the passenger seat. It was hot and humid, waves of heat lapping his face whenever he stepped out of the car. It was so muggy that his breathing became a little labored. For the first time in his life he physically understood the word humid. Back in Boston, when people said “It’s so humid,” he hadn’t been able to feel it. Now at last his body could tell the difference between dry heat and damp heat. Yet the sultry weather shouldn’t be a problem if his family lived here, because there was air-conditioning indoors everywhere. Back in China, he had once stayed in Jinan City for a month in midsummer; whenever he walked the streets, his shirt and pants would be soaked with sweat, and it had been hot indoors as well as outdoors. There you simply couldn’t avoid sweltering in the dog days’ scorching heat, but this Georgian humidity and heat shouldn’t be a big deal. More heartening was that there were indeed many Asian immigrants living in the northeastern suburbs of Atlanta. Within four or five miles, Nan saw one Chinese and two Korean churches. Without question this was a good, safe place.
That night he called his wife and told her what he had seen and heard. Pingping was so impressed that she urged him to clinch the deal with Mr. Wang the next day, paying a deposit that should be less than twenty percent of the agreed price. Also, she warned him not to haggle too much. One or two thousand dollars wouldn’t make much difference as long as the business was solid.
Before hanging up, she said in English, “I miss you, I love you, Nan!” Somehow her words sounded more natural from a thousand miles away. He hadn’t heard her speak to him so passionately for a long time.
“I love you too.” Despite saying that, he wasn’t sure of his emotions. He still didn’t have intense feelings for her, but he felt attached to her and understood that they had become more or less insep-arable-neither of them could have survived without the other in this land, and more important, their child needed them. If they moved to Georgia, it would mean they’d have to live more like husband and wife from now on. In a sense he wasn’t displeased with that prospect, since whenever he was with Pingping, he felt at peace. Still, these days his thoughts had often turned to Beina, who seemed to accompany him wherever he went, enticing him into reveries. When he closed his eyes at night, her vivacious face often emerged, as if she were teasing him or eager to talk with him. Then he’d again smell the grassy scent of her hair. If only he could love Pingping similarly so that she could replace that woman in his mind, who was, he knew, merely a flighty coquette.
Late the next morning, toward eleven, he went to the Gold Wok again, but he didn’t immediately go in. He parked a short distance from the restaurant and stayed in the car, waiting to see how many customers would appear. It was drizzling, the powdery rain blurring the windshield. It wasn’t hot, so he didn’t mind staying in the parking lot for a while, listening to a preacher on the radio. The man was speaking about a verse from Matthew, expounding on the necessity of “fresh wineskins for new wine.” Nan was fascinated by his eloquence and passion despite the man’s oddly hoarse, croaking voice. Meanwhile, in less than half an hour, five people turned up at the Gold Wok, three of whom appeared to be Mexican workers from the construction site nearby. They looked like regulars, and when they came out, they each held a tall cup of soft drink besides the food in Styrofoam boxes.
When Nan told the Wangs that he wanted to buy the restaurant, they looked relieved. Then began the bargaining. Nan managed to beat down the price by $3,000 on the grounds that he didn’t like the horse murals and the Formica tables in the booths. This was the first time in his life that he had ever haggled with someone, and he took great pride in the result, feeling like a real businessman. The amount he’d saved translated into 25,000 yuan, thirty times more than his annual salary back in China. Somehow, whenever Nan handled a large sum of money, he couldn’t help but convert dollars into yuan in his mind, and the habit made him very frugal. At times, though, he wished he could grow out of this mind-set, because he believed that here people got rich not just by how much they saved, but more important, by how much they made, and that in America one should live like an American.
” When will you come and take over?” Mr. Wang asked Nan with a little chuckle.
“Probably in a month or so.”
“Too long. How about two weeks?”
“I’ll try. It shouldn’t be a big problem. I’ll let you know soon after I get home.”
Nan wrote him a check for $2,200, a ten percent deposit. The Wangs asked that he keep Tammie, who had been working for them since her late teens, almost a decade by now. “That’s fine,” Nan promised. He was going to need help anyway. Currently they paid her one dollar an hour because she kept all the tips.
That afternoon Nan hit the interstate, heading back north.