When I arrived at my father’s apartment for dinner, something was wrong. The room was unfamiliar in a way that made me think I had walked into a stranger’s home instead. The red-and-white checkered tablecloth normally covering his kitchen table was gone, leaving the wood bare. I wondered what he’d done with it. Lately, he’d been prone to misplacing things—putting his hairbrush in the refrigerator and throwing away his shoes. I set down the takeaway boxes of char siu, a sweet roasted pork dish, and white rice—his favorite.
I had been making it a habit to come every Friday since my brother lived far away in Beijing, and my sister, based on the state of her apartment, could barely take care of herself. On those nights when work kept me too occupied to visit, I felt like a terrible son and worried myself to sleep.
At Guangzhou’s Canton Tower across the street, the light show was beginning—the usual run-through of the colors of the rainbow. Inside, the ceiling fan whirred and dim light filled the living room of my father’s apartment. Rather than looking up to greet me, my father sat hunched on the couch, clasping a pillow against his chest. The tall grandfather clock sat in its usual corner, hands moving quietly.
Noticing the show on the television, I asked, “Korean dramas? What happened to The Voice of China on Friday nights?”
He looked at me blankly and muttered, “What about it?”
I sat down next to him and watched along for a bit. His hair had whitened and fallen out long ago, leaving behind bald spots. The undershirt he wore sagged on him. Age marks populated his hands, and a few ran up his arms and grouped on his cheeks. Briefly, I remembered him mid-forties and strong.
On the wall, the photos of my childhood hung: the ones of the snow day in Beijing when my siblings and I were so small we sank into the frost, and of the expo in Shanghai where we stood between the legs of the giant blue mascot. I briefly studied them, pondering the years I hoped my father still remembered. If it weren’t for these photos, even I might’ve forgotten the days when my hair was so long and thick that it covered my eyes. Touching my head now, I could feel my scalp through the thinning hairs.
When I was a kid, Father loved to take us out in the snow. He’d haul the duffle bag of our winter clothes out from under his bed and watch us fight over who got which beanie. We only stepped out the door after the bag had emptied and we were swaddled. Once, he sat us down under one of the pine trees that lined the sides of our apartment complex and kicked the trunk as hard as he could, running away backward to watch sheets of snow suddenly cover our faces. But he came back laughing and taught us how to do the snow trick ourselves.
“Should I bring photos of New Year’s to add to the wall? You know, the one with us at the Bund watching fireworks?”
“Sure, bring them.”
The aloofness of his answer and the way his eyes gazed past the window, beyond the small cluster of buildings, made me think he didn’t remember that day. I’d worn a black dress shirt and red tie, and I remembered he’d had on his fuzzy brown sweater over a collared shirt. I loved that brown sweater. It was truly ugly, but he always wore it on special occasions, so I’d grown to appreciate it.
Father had gotten up. The empty thumps of his feet on the cold wooden floor made me wonder where his dusty white slippers had gone. And where was his walking cane?
“Dad, do you want me to get your cane?”
“I don’t use a cane!” he shot back.
He was like that about everything. He had too much pride to take an aspirin, and when his doctor had given him the cane, he had looked as if he had been told he would never walk again. His pride usually kept him from going to the doctor unless I forced him to. It even kept him from simple things like asking for directions or reading instructions. He’d say, “It’s just a few more blocks!” or “It’s just a bookshelf!”
He made his way to the bathroom, his Korean drama episode left playing on the screen.
I took the char siu meat and rice I’d brought with me and placed it in the microwave in the kitchen. The sweet smell of barbecue reminded me of the times when he was still our chef at family parties. He would spend hours in the kitchen and emerge with plates of spicy eel, spicy bullfrog, and Chinese cabbage and say “That’s restaurant quality.” We’d eat it up like savages knowing he wouldn’t be cooking again until the next big event. It had been so long since he had cooked that I had forgotten the fire of the spices.
While the food heated in the microwave, I grabbed his favorite blue-trimmed plate and washed off the oil and leftover bits of food. I took the white styrofoam box and carefully poured its contents onto the plate and placed it on the tray decorated with pandas. As I heard him open the bathroom door, I took the tray of food back to the couch and switched the channel to The Voice of China.
He picked at the slices of meat, and I watched the episode for a couple minutes until I realized it was a rerun. I missed the nights when I would come over and we would play mahjong. It was his way of being a father. He would treat the game as if he were teaching me the rules of a larger game of life. “You never know exactly which tiles you will start with, but you can choose the ones you hold on to as you play. Sometimes you end up picking the winds, other times you settle on the flowers, but remember that to have a winning hand, you have to control the game. You have to be patient. You can’t show your tiles all at once.” I would follow along dazed, wondering why hiding my tiles in the beginning could help me win.
“I used to keep this tile because I thought it was lucky,” he mentioned once, gripping the green engraved character of wealth in his hand. “But wealth isn’t always lucky. I prefer this one now.” He handed me a blank white tile with a blue square carved into it.
“The green character is so much more intricate,” I protested. “This one just looks like a board, like a....”
“A coffin lid,” he finished, “but it’s a character too. People say it’s unlucky because it reminds them of death, but it’s also the symbol for filial piety, the honor of loved ones after death. You see, I’ve won many games with it. Death isn’t really a bad tile.”
While my father picked at his char siu, I asked, “Dad, how about a game of mahjong? We can bet if you’d like.” I remembered the mocking laugh he sometimes gave when I challenged him to a game. His eyes moved off the screen and settled vaguely on my face, but his mind stayed behind, staring.
“Oh sure, son,” he muttered dismissively. I knew the mahjong table was usually buried underneath the newspapers he stacked in the corner of the room, but today, the newspapers were nowhere in sight. When I turned back around to ask him where the table was, the TV had vanished, leaving the room quiet, and Father’s eyes gazed at the pale yellow wall instead.
“Funny, Dad, what’s next? The couch is going to fly out the window when I blink?”
I laughed so that he would join me, to reassure me that someone had moved the TV in an instant and that it was his idea of a prank. But my laugh dissipated into a wheeze when I noticed that the photos, the bowl of char siu, the credenza—had disappeared. Only a dusty silhouette of the furniture remained on the wall. The coffee table and the burgundy rug beneath it had evanesced. I caught a glimpse of the curtains just as they evaporated, the air around them rippling then smoothing. The uncovered window revealed that the light show had stopped, leaving only the dark outside. The soothing tick of the clock was suddenly absent and even the smell of roasted meat became the moldy odor of an empty apartment. Panic rose in me like smoke. It had happened so fast—so much of the evidence of his life was suddenly gone—I had to rest my hand against the wall to steady myself.
“Why can’t I hear the TV?” my father asked.
“It’s all gone,” I replied. The muscles in my neck tightened and something ominous grabbed at my throat. I felt fear, like when I was twelve and dangling from the swaying ski lift. My dad held me around the shoulder as my skis hung 100 feet off the ground and said, “If you want to ski, son, you have to get used to the heights.”
I replied, “What if I don’t want to?”
“You don’t have a choice. Not now.”
On the lift, the cold had accentuated the wrinkles around his mouth, and he had looked different, less like that young father I knew, and far more fragile. That same frail look seized him now. Rather than sitting on the black couch, he was on the floor. His entire living room was like a piece of paper smudged with erase marks. All the furniture and all the objects acquired in a lifetime—gone. Even the glasses with the brown frames he always kept dangling around his neck weren’t there anymore. I wanted to grab onto a memento, but there were no objects left in the room.
Still, I hoped that I could bring something back. My legs carried me from the missing cabinet where I kept his medicine to the empty photo wall, all the while hoping that I could catch an object before it disappeared. Looking at the yellowed plaster wall, I couldn’t find even a hint of the frames that had contained our memories. I wished I had kept photos in my wallet instead. As I frantically paced around the apartment, I found that I was only walking in circles around my father, looking at blank walls and empty rooms.
Rather than letting myself continue to fret, I sat down next to him on the floor and clasped his hand. And when I felt it eventually begin to slip, the warmth of his palm dissipating from mine, I had to let him go as well.
This piece was previously published in "The Maine Review".
Truthful and quietly absurd, "Mahjong Table" examines the fraught dynamics of parent-child relationships after the child is no longer a kid, tenderly capturing the pride, exhaustion, and confusion of old age.
Alexander Liang is a Chinese-American writer born in San Jose, California and currently living in Shanghai, China. He attends the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. His work has been recognized by the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, the Maine Review, and the Ayn Rand Anthem Essay Contest.
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