Chen was fingerprinted in January. The night before it took place, he had terrible dreams. The biometric scan, as the government called it, was the last task he had to complete before he received his green card. He had lived in New York City for nearly ten years and it had taken almost that whole time for his papers to come through. As he twitched and sighed under the scratchy blanket, he dreamed that he had chopped off his hands in the restaurant kitchen. When he looked down, there was no blood, no bone. He saw only a clean red line at his wrists. His hands lay on the cutting board, like a pair of plucked squabs.
Chen had worked at Bistro Soleil for most of the time that he had lived in America. On most mornings he arrived early to mop the floors and hose down the sidewalk. He pulled the chairs down from the tables and signed for deliveries. He peeled carrots and potatoes, or washed the windows with vinegar and crumpled newspaper. The owner, Mr. Denny, also came in at around 7:30. He was an elderly man, but he looked solid and pugnacious. Mr. Denny had once been a boxer and he could still force potatoes through the fry slicer with one swing of his arm. He would sit on a stool in the window of his restaurant, an unlit cigar clamped in his teeth and go over the accounts. Neighborhood children waved to him on their way to school. Chen approved of Mr. Denny. In the village where Chen had grown up, there were men like him. They chewed betel nuts and sat with everyone, young and old, but they commanded respect.
Mr. Denny found Chen reliable. Chen could fix the dishwasher, a steel-encased behemoth that sounded like a helicopter when it was full of plates and forks. Mr. Denny rarely spoke, which Chen also admired. Jose, the lunch hour cook, and the waiters, Miguel and Omar, gossiped like a flock of geese. They made up tales about customers and their dying husbands and hateful stepchildren. The bald man who came in on weekdays and asked for mussels and bread and tea and lemon received the harshest storyline, probably because Miguel hated all the equipment that went with serving him: plates, empty bowls, a saucer and a cup and spoon, hot water in a tin pot, sugar packets, and a smelly, ugly bag that had to be discarded. Miguel was hard on everyone, but he had taught Chen Spanish. He could say, “Out of my way,” and “I’m taking a break,” and “Do you have any cigarettes?”
Chen did not tell any of them that he would be receiving his green card. None of the others had papers; it would only provoke envy. How was it that a 50-year-old Chink, who barely spoke English—a dirty restaurant worker—stood to receive one of these precious documents? They were young and healthy and strong. Chen was weedy. They whispered that he greased his hair down with the lard that they kept in big tubs in the pantry. How his pillow must smell, they joked.
Chen had heard them, but he didn’t care. The green card had been an unexpected boon, and, like a child the night before his first day of school, he could only think of how close he was to becoming something wondrous and great. Now, as he scampered across Varick Street he looked down at his rough, dry hands. They were shaking. If he was hit by a car, he thought, he would drag himself to the office and get his fingerprints taken before going to a hospital. He imagined the car speeding toward him. He would throw his arms free, he thought, and try to have it strike only his legs. He imagined himself limping to his destination, leaving a trail of a blood in the hallways. Let the Americans clean up the mess for a change, he thought. The US government had given him this time slot and if he failed to show up, who knew when his turn would come up again. America was a country of sticklers, he often told his friends. They wanted people to queue up at the bank, at the grocery store, and to get on buses without some healthy shoving and shouting. They didn’t let you ride your bicycle on the sidewalk. Of course, there were good things about this system, too. But most of the time, he considered the rules an inconvenience. He had waited four years for his documents. He had not been able to move, or get a new job, or divorce his wife. Not that he wanted to do any of these things, but he would have liked some say in the matter.
His wife was the reason that he was getting his papers. They had been married for nearly fifteen years. For five of those years, she had lived alone, in a one-room apartment in Elmhurst. He had been in China. By the time that he finally managed to get out of Hanyang, she had bought herself a small bungalow in Corona. She charged him rent for the attic and only let him use the kitchen between nine and eleven in the evening. She forbad him to tell the other boarders that they were married. She also told him that he was not allowed to smoke in his room, or to drink outside of it. She told him not to spit or pick stray cigarette butts off the street. In most ways, she was more like a harried, ungrateful daughter to him than a wife.
He was proud of her, despite all this. He had never been particularly studious—he left school before completing sixth grade–but she had worked hard at her education. Mr. and Mrs. Nick MacDonald, the missionaries took an interest in her, paid for her trip to the United States. Mrs. MacDonald was a very large woman, and the village schoolchildren followed her around and sang songs about her. Their parents gawked openly. Mrs. MacDonald did not thrive under the attention. Chen’s wife often accompanied her and swatted the brats away. The MacDonald’s mission ended rather sooner than planned, but their favorite convert made it all worthwhile. Chen’s wife became an assistant pastor at the Baptist Church.
She reacted fairly calmly to his unexpected arrival one day ten years ago. She fed him a bowl of winter melon soup and showed him to what she called her “guest room.” At first, she encouraged him to come with her to church on Sunday. But when it became clear that he would not be attending regularly, she stopped acknowledging him. She did not introduce him to the young people, and the pale, serious Americans, who came to pray and sing hymns in the living room. She had an electric piano now, although she didn’t play. When she caught Chen tinkling on the keys, she struck his knuckles, as if he were a schoolboy. Chen and wife had come from the same village. He had known her father—and her—when she was a young girl. He could have clouted her back, but the truth was that ever since she had come to America, she had become too robust for him to consider standing up to her. Yes, her trunk had broadened and her face had grown ruddy, but there was something more. It was as if a tree had sprung up where before there had barely been a sapling. He did not want to raise his hand to his wife, anyway. His grandmother had always told him that women did not like to be disobeyed, and he told himself that he ought to have known better than to meddle with her things. Besides, because they were estranged, he felt it his duty to bet on horses, and stay out until four in the morning, playing dice with his friends.
And then there was the fact that she had filled out the forms for his green card.
At the doors of the US government building, a dour African American security guard gestured for Chen to take off his windbreaker. Chen felt his pockets nervously. The guard motioned at Chen’s cap. Chen pulled it off his head and put it in a bin destined for the X-ray machine. He ran his hand through his hair and stepped gingerly through the metal detector. It made no sound. Chen paused guiltily, then hurried to the bin to gather his jacket. His hat dropped on the ground as he tried to stuff it into the pocket of his work pants. “It’s all right you can slow down,” the security guard said, shaking his head. He held out Chen’s jacket sleeve like a patient father. Chen sheepishly stuffed his arm in and fled without thanking the man.
He was sweating by the time he started down the hallway. The building seemed empty. He stepped inside an elevator and then out again. The walls of this floor were painted grey. Occasionally, he would pass by an office, bearing a crest with a stoic eagle. But there were never any people inside. His impression still held: this was a vast, empty, slow-moving country. Even New York City had its barren expanses. In China, space would never be wasted like this. Rows of men could have bunked on the filing cabinets and seamstresses could be set out in the empty chairs. The hollowness of the building was strange and frightening. Chen crept along quietly so that his footsteps would not echo.
He walked and walked, then stopped eventually in front of room 301. A security guard with dreadlocks pouring out from under his cap checked Chen’s documents and allowed him through the open door. Chen was given a clipboard and a pen, and told to go sit in a few rows of folding chairs. Other scraggly foreigners sat like an uncomfortable choir, fidgeting and groaning and breathing hard as they stared at their pages and painstakingly filled out forms.
Chen squinted at the clipboard. His wife had been the one to write up all the paperwork. He had not known what she had undertaken until two months ago, when she came to hand him the mail. Usually, she avoided him or looked past him frostily, but this time, she waited for him to tear open the envelope. Then, in her distant, most schoolmarmish manner, she explained what the contents contained. He would have to go to a doctor, she told him. Then, if he passed his physical, he would be fingerprinted. He stared at her flat, straight hair and her soberly folded hands, disliking the pauses she made and the way she kept asking him if he understood. He didn’t, but how much more did she really know? She could read, yes, and she could chirp like a clever cricket, but did her rescuers really believe that she would be like them? She was always going to be their little pet, ready to roll over, shake hands, or play dead. It was not until much later, when he thought about all the work she had done on his behalf that he felt less bitter. He could even be grateful. She had not forgotten him entirely, although she probably wished she could.
After filling in his application one tortured letter at a time, and comparing it to the sheet that his wife had given him, he went up to the folding table. Anxious faces were arriving at every minute, and the man hardly glanced at Chen’s efforts. He stamped the document and motioned Chen to the back where a young, plain Asian woman stood.
Here finally was someone that he could talk to, Chen thought. The morning had been difficult, but he felt cheered to see a Chinese face. “Ni hao,” he said, as she took the clipboard stiffly.
She didn’t answer.
Oh, she understood him, there was no doubt about that. He could not be fooled: She was dressed a little bit too plainly to be a wealthy Hong Konger and her face was too sharkish and sallow. At his greeting, a flicker had passed over her face, but she only made a mark on his application and flipped through the other pages. With her lips pressed he pointed him over to a computer and indicated that he should hold out his hand. He put out his left paw, and she placed it on a tablet. He noticed that she wore a pair of latex gloves. “Everybody is very serious here,” he said. “Guards everywhere with their guns. Doesn’t it make you nervous?”
She did not answer. Instead, she pressed his fingers into the pad with what seemed unnecessary roughness. But she was busy watching the large computer screen onto which the print of his thumb suddenly bloomed like a black orchid. He stared at it, fascinated, but the girl frowned. She tapped on her keyboard and repeated the motion, mashing his thumb down harder. He winced, but kept his eyes on the image in front of him. Magnified to several times its size, his fingerprint was a beautiful thing. He was awed into silence.
She leaned closer to him and set his index finger down. She smelled faintly of french fries. Again his prints appeared on the screen. He started to point with his free hand, but the girl shushed him. It was the first sound out of her mouth. He felt a minor triumph as she pressed her lips together. She pretended to squint at the screen.
When she was finished with all of his digits, she gestured him towards a chair. She adjusted a camera and indicated that he should tuck his hair behind his ear. By now, he knew that she was not going to talk, so he only sighed, “Is this good?”
She nodded. She took his picture—first a side view to capture his right ear, and then a front view. He had gotten through the whole process, but he felt dejected. Months later, when he finally received his documents, he did not remember when the photograph had been taken, or why he looked so small and wan. His ears, without the protection of his hat, stuck out like windblown petals. His neck seemed thin as a drinking straw. He tucked the card into an old tea tin for safekeeping and stood staring at the container. He remembered suddenly that the woman who took the photograph had been cold to him, although he didn’t know why. She was an immigrant, too, they were the same insignificant thing. But the difference was that she had the fingerprint machine.
Perhaps the woman was not allowed to speak to one such as him. Maybe she was mute, or deaf, or not right in the head. The Americans were keen on embracing all sorts of strange, sad people; they had crazy drunks to clean the streets, simple women at cash registers who couldn’t figure out how much change to render, and Chen, a broken down man, mopping floors and fixing appliances that were as old and tired as he.
He had never been good for much of anything, that was true. His mother knew it, his wife learned it, eventually. When she first came to his house, a young girl of 15, she kept her face hidden meekly under a kerchief. In leaving for America, she openly defied him. It was true that he had not treated her well. She must have hoarded some money from teaching in the Christian schoolhouse, which was wise. It was easy to be serene about her slyness now. He thought of how angry he had been at the time. Had he hit her? He had wanted to slap her sunken cheeks, but he had not. He remembered only asking what he would do without her. But even that was an empty question. He would carry on as he always had, without a thought to whether she had eaten or if they had enough coal for the stove. He recalled having this insight, and realizing that he would never be much respected in this life. And saddened by his sudden knowledge, he sank down onto a wooden stool and gazed up at her.
He remembered that she clutched her ragged satchel in front of her, ready to fight if he struck her. She was still so thin at the time, and swaybacked, like an overworked horse. What kind of foolish scrap would either of them have put up—the drunken man against the famished woman? When she saw that she was not going to have to defend herself, their goodbye became formal, as if they were acquaintances who had met on the street, and not husband and wife. She tugged at her scarf—a new one, he noted—and wished him well. This is how it would end, in a manner more civil than he deserved. She muttered a Christian blessing over his head and held out her hand. And he, in turn, surprised himself by taking it.
Mindy Hung is a New York-based Canadian writer. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in normal words, Grain, and PANK. Her non-fiction has been published in The New York Times, The Walrus, and Bitch. She is a 2010 fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
© 2010, Mindy Hung