The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy
By Mai Wang
Jing Jing was lying on the couch when she heard the scream. Mama had invited some friends over for Sunday night poker, and Jing Jing was stuck at home listening to the adults fight between the highs and lows of their game. Now Jing Jing pressed her hands to her ears. The scream sounded a bit like a wolf’s howl, one of the American wolves Mama always warned her about. Better stay inside, Mama liked to say in Chinese, in this country animals eat the kids who play outside. Jing Jing looked over at the adults and almost rolled off the couch. It was her mother who had screamed. Now the other adults sat with their cards lying face down on the table and their cups full of cooling tea. Their eyes were all fixed on the Year of the Tiger calendar hanging from the wall. Her mother threw her cards on the table, and that’s when Jing Jing knew she had lost the round.
Mama noticed her and glared.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” she asked. Jing Jing’s 10 pm curfew hadn’t changed for years, even though she had just turned twelve. Luckily, Mama was more forgetful on poker nights.
“It’s too loud, Mama,” Jing Jing said. Her mother could be scary, but nowhere as scary as her father got when he was in a bad mood. “I can hear it through the wall.”
Every Sunday, Jing Jing used the same excuse to stay on the couch instead of going to the bedroom where her father was asleep. She hated poker, but what she hated more was the cramped bed she shared with her parents. She slept in a dip between their two pillows, and every night she tried to edge away from her father’s side. When her father slept he made loud whale sounds through his nose—they were even worse, Jing Jing thought, than the sound of his farts.
On Sunday nights, her father went to bed early in order to get away from her mother’s guests. If he wanted to see so many Chinese people, he always complained, he could just go back to Beijing. Jing Jing wondered if all the men there were as noisy as her father, but she knew that asking him would earn her a kick in the butt or a slap in the face.
Jing Jing almost giggled at the way Mama looked now, as if someone had forced her to drink a bottle of dark rice vinegar. Mama was already gathering the cards and clearing the teacups off the table. She poured the remains of one teacup into another, and when the cups clinked together they made an angry sound. The way she was rushing, no one would ever guess it was her night off—she could have been back at Imperial Garden working the lunch crowd.
“Can’t play with someone watching me all the time,” Mama mumbled as she stacked the teacups in a tower. “Jing Jing, maybe your bad luck is infecting me tonight.”
The last thing Jing Jing wanted to hear was how she had ruined the game. Ever since Jing Jing chipped her tooth on a radiator at the age of three, Mama had been convinced that bad luck haunted her footsteps. None of the lucky amulets that Mama forced upon her—the red silk string, the fake gold rabbit, the jade lion—could stop Jing Jing from tripping on the stairs or skinning her knee on the sidewalk.
“Don’t blame me, Mama,” Jing Jing protested. “I haven’t done anything bad.”
She got up from the couch, filled with the sudden urge to gaze up at her mother’s sweaty face. Without the makeup Mama wears to work, Jing Jing realized, she looks a lot older. Jing Jing made her way over to the table, where the adults were sitting in a circle of her mother’s mismatched garage sale chairs.
“Let Jing Jing stay. She’s not bothering us,” Auntie Su said.
Looking at Auntie Su up close made Jing Jing feel funny. Auntie Su was much younger than her mother. She was wearing a pair of frayed jean shorts and a tight t-shirt that spelled out the word “Baby” in glittery letters and revealed a strip of her stomach. If Auntie Su were a student at Jing Jing’s school, she would get detention for violating the dress code.
“Come on, it’s still early, and I’m playing well,” Auntie Su insisted.
“Game’s over,” Mama said, shaking her head.
Maybe Mama was mad about losing the round to Auntie Su, but no one seemed to notice. The women made no move to pick up their purses, and the men were still ashing their cigarettes into a chipped bowl.
“I might as well tell everyone while you’re still here,” Mama said. She paused and started fanning herself with a card. The small breeze she created stirred the stray hairs framing her face. Some part of her was always moving, even when she was standing still.
“Boss says I have to work the Sunday dinner shift starting next week,” Mama announced. “No more poker night for me.”
“Wait a minute. What are we going to do on Sundays?” Auntie Su said. “Without you, Mrs. Zhao, there’s no game.”
Mama shrugged and returned the cards to their cardboard box. “At least this way I can earn back the money I lost to you tonight,” she told Auntie Su.
“That’s pocket change,” Auntie Su said. “Come on, sit down and we’ll play one more round. You might win it all back.”
“No can do, it’s closing time,” Mama joked in English, repeating the favorite line she gave to customers who arrived a minute too late at Imperial Garden and demanded a table. She yawned as she looked at her guests.
“I feel like an old grandma,” Mama said, switching to Chinese. “Why did you all let me play for so long?”
The Chinese residents of the Big Yard called Mama “Lucky Hands” because she drew the winning hand in their late night poker games week after week. Mama always encouraged her guests to stay until they could barely tell a jack from an ace. She liked to keep them hostage with pleas of “one more round” until the watermelon seeds were gone and the tea was cold. She didn’t let them go until she had won enough coins to pay for a week’s worth of laundry tokens and Fantasy 5 lottery tickets.
Tonight, though, Mama’s full house had been beaten out by Auntie Su’s straight flush in the last round. The adults tallied the score as they gathered their belongings. It was the first time Mama had lost a poker game since anyone could remember, and Jing Jing heard the adults whisper that her luck had run out.
They were all traitors, Jing Jing decided, and Auntie Su was the worst one of all. Suddenly it occurred to Jing Jing that Auntie Su might have cheated. Jing Jing stared at Auntie Su to see if she could find out the truth.
Auntie Su had come to America to become an engineer, though she didn’t look like one. She was the only woman Jing Jing knew who wore mascara and red lipstick every time she left home. Jing Jing had listened to her mother gossip about Auntie Su over the phone, how all the bachelors in the Big Yard wished she didn’t have a husband back in China so they could marry her instead. “Makes you want to be her age again, doesn’t it?” Mama had joked. Still, Jing Jing thought, her mother was much prettier if you took Auntie Su’s ugly perm into account.
Jing Jing circled around the table and stopped next to Auntie Su.
“How much money did you win?” she whispered in Auntie Su’s ear.
Auntie Su counted her stacks of quarters one by one.
“$20.75,” she said. “Not bad for my first time winning.”
“Wow!” Jing Jing said. “That’s a lot.” Unlike her friends at school, Jing Jing didn’t get an allowance. Twenty dollars and seventy-five cents was more money than she had ever handled at one time.
“Do you know what you want to buy with your money?” Jing Jing asked.
“Maybe I should deposit them in the bank,” Auntie Su said. “What do you think?”
Jing Jing didn’t answer Auntie Su. She wondered how much money her parents had in their bank account. She had seen them fight often enough to know it couldn’t be much. Mama kept a cash box under the bed to store her tips, and Baba had taken money from it to buy a TV from the pawnshop down the street. To this day, Mama still refuses to watch the TV. “Your father has yet to earn back the money he wasted on that thing,” she told Jing Jing.
Mama was still in the kitchen rinsing the last of the teacups clean. Jing Jing was ready to join her when the bedroom door opened.
Baba stood in the doorway without his glasses on. Sleep had shrunk his eyes into small red beads, and he wore a thin undershirt covered with old stains. Jing Jing wished she could grab his moth-eaten robe from the bathroom and throw it over his shoulders.
Auntie Su was re-counting her coins and didn’t notice Jing Jing’s father. The other adults waved to him, but no one asked him to join them. Everyone knew he didn’t like guests and never played cards. Now he noticed Jing Jing hovering by the table and glared.
“Don’t you have school tomorrow?” he said.
“School just ended, Baba,” she said. “I already told you it’s summer break.”
“In China, kids never talk back to their elders,” he replied. “Everyone knows that.” His eyes scanned the room. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Su?”
Auntie Su glanced up from her quarters. “Yes, that’s true,” she said.
Baba cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. His hands fell down to his sides, and he kept standing there and staring at Auntie Su even once she turned her attention back to her coins. An absentminded look grew on his face. It was the same look he had when he was watching a TV show he really enjoyed.
Jing Jing was relieved when Baba returned to the bedroom. She vowed not to tell Mama that he had appeared in his underwear in front of all the guests. Her parents were already arguing too much these days. Late at night, after they thought she was asleep, they would hiss back and forth about the prospects of a job—any job—for her father. He was always promising that a new job was right around the corner, but nothing ever seemed to turn up. Mama told Jing Jing that Baba had been a big, important professor back in Beijing—that was why she had married him in the first place—but now she couldn’t rely on him to earn a single cent. Her father blamed his poor English as the reason he had dropped out of his PhD program. Her mother called it an excuse, and Jing Jing secretly agreed. If he could watch people talking in English on TV, then he could learn how to read, write, and speak it too.
Now Auntie Su was staring at the spot in front of the closed door where Baba had stood. There was a filmy look clouding the strange woman’s face. For some reason her eyes made Jing Jing think of a cold, dead fish.
That night seemed to go on forever. By the time the other guests were gone, Jing Jing was half asleep on the couch, and Auntie Su was sitting alone at the table. Jing Jing wondered why she did not go home when she only lived four doors down in Unit 1C. The buzz of voices had been replaced by the static of running water. Finally, Mama emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.
Auntie Su got up and apologized for staying so late.
“Don’t be so polite,” Mama said. “Won’t you keep us company for a little longer?”
“I should get going,” Auntie Su said. “But I was admiring what a nice apartment you have. Such a big TV.” Auntie Su laughed. “And you have the best poker table in the Big Yard. So round and sturdy. I wish you wouldn’t cancel the games.”
Mama had selected the wooden table from a garage sale in Kendall Lake. If they couldn’t live in a nice neighborhood, she often said, at least they could buy rich people’s old furniture. Baba only asked why they had to keep other people’s junk.
“I was wondering if we could still play poker here on Sunday nights,” Auntie Su said. “No trouble for you, of course. I can be the hostess and clean up the mess afterwards. Your husband will appreciate that, I bet.”
“My husband never notices when I clean up,” Mama said. “So I doubt he’ll care if anyone else does it.”
“He’s like all men,” Auntie Su said. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we kept meeting here. I mean, I’m not suggesting that you owe us anything.”
The smile on Mama’s face trembled. Saving face was even more important to her than saving money.
“You can’t have your games here,” Jing Jing started to tell Mrs. Su, but she stopped talking when Mama gave her a look.
“Now that you mention it,” Mama said in her best hostess voice. “I don’t see why you can’t meet here without me.”
Mrs. Su clasped her hands together and thanked Mama.
“Jing Jing here will help you clear off the table. Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?” Mama asked.
Jing Jing wanted to whimper, but for her mother’s sake she remained silent.
After Auntie Su left, Jing Jing lay in bed between her parents and thought of all the things she could buy with twenty dollars and seventy-five cents. Finally, she decided she would get twenty Fantasy 5 tickets from the nice Cuban man who ran the corner convenience store. He would sell them to her as long she told him they were for Mama. You had a better chance of winning the Fantasy 5 lottery, Mama always said, because they only picked five numbers instead of six. Sure, the jackpot was smaller than the regular lottery, but who needed millions anyway? Fifty or a hundred thousand dollars would pay their rent for years, even if Baba continued to do nothing. Whenever Jing Jing heard her mother’s complaints she felt guilty, as if she was the one who should be working to make money.
If she ever won the lottery, Jing Jing decided, she wouldn’t just pay the rent—she would take her family out of the Big Yard. Of course, the Big Yard wasn’t its real name. In English, their complex was called the Villas of Dadeland, though that name was also a lie. Villas, she had learned in school, were supposed to be Spanish mansions, not old apartment buildings covered in peeling paint. Ever since her family moved from China, they had occupied a one-bedroom on the bottom floor of Building A. Jing Jing wanted to move out and buy an enormous house in Kendall Lake where she would have a top-floor room all to herself.
Baba was snoring even louder than usual. Jing Jing fidgeted, and the rustle of the blanket caused Mama to turn over.
“What are you doing?” Mama whispered.
“Baba is too loud,” Jing Jing said. “I can’t fall asleep.”
Mama stroked her hair. Jing Jing forgot to be mad about her agreement with Auntie Su.
“I thought I had an unbeatable hand tonight,” Mama whispered. “I haven’t played so badly in years.”
“Don’t worry,” Jing Jing said. “Auntie Su probably switched her cards with yours when you weren’t looking.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” her mother said. “She’s pushy, but she’s not a cheater. It’s just too bad all the luck went to her and not me.”
Mama sighed and turned away. Jing Jing wondered if she had said something wrong, but before she could ask Mama had fallen asleep.
The next morning, Jing Jing woke up to the sound of her parents fighting in the living room.
“What kind of woman invites her friends to come over and play cards when she’s at work?” Baba asked.
“A woman like me,” Mama said. “And if you don’t want to be here, you can leave.”
Jing Jing jumped out of bed and cracked the door open. The bowls of rice porridge on the table had gone untouched. Her parents stopped talking when they saw her.
“Why are you standing there?” Mama said. “Come eat.”
Jing Jing shook her head and closed the door again. She wasn’t feeling hungry.
At work, Mama carried plates of sesame chicken and deluxe pu-pu platters to the American people who ate at Imperial Garden. When a customer was mean and asked for no-salt, no-oil in a dish, she delighted in the fact that they were ordering Fake Chinese Food without knowing it. “We save the good stuff for ourselves,” she liked to tell Jing Jing as she slipped her an almond cookie or a sesame ball she’d smuggled home. The stolen treats were one of the few perks of her job.
The day after losing to Auntie Su, Mama came home late after a double shift. “That stinky boss,” she said as she shut the door. “He’s going to work us to death.”
She sat down in a saggy wicker chair and untucked her crumpled white uniform shirt. She had a dozen shirts like it hanging in the closet, and all of them needed mending. This one was missing several buttons.
“Was it busy tonight, Mama?” Jing Jing said.
The dining room of Imperial Garden was an exciting place to Jing Jing. It had a tank full of goldfish and a fat Buddha statue. Lots of rich-looking people sat in booths drinking watered-down tea. Her mother had taken her to work on summer afternoons when she was little, but now Jing Jing was too big to play in the restaurant. That day, she had stayed at home with Baba.
“Yes, it was busy,” Mama said. “I made good tips. See?” Mama pulled out a wad of dollar bills from her purse and unfolded them to reveal a brand new Fantasy 5 ticket. “I couldn’t help it,” she whispered.
“What did you feed Jing Jing for dinner?” Mama asked Baba.
Baba didn’t reply. He kept his eyes on the TV. Every night, he watched game shows and played along with the contestants. He was learning English on a schedule of his own, he said, no teachers required. He liked Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, but Jeopardy was his favorite. Baba leaned forward as Alex Trebek asked for the name of an exotic sports car for $200.
Mama shook her head.
“Do you want me to cook something?” she asked Jing Jing.
“No,” Jing Jing said. She was about to explain that she was full when Mama noticed the plate of white buns on the table.
“What’s this?” Mama asked.
Jing Jing couldn’t answer. She had suddenly lost her voice.
Mama repeated her question loudly, and Baba looked up as a commercial break began.
“Oh, that?” he said as if seeing the buns for the first time. “Mrs. Su dropped those off. These buns are one of her specialties. You could stand to take a few cooking lessons from her.”
To Jing Jing’s surprise, Mama smiled and reached for a bun.
“That woman knew it was her turn to pay me back,” Mama said.
When Sunday came around again, the sound of the vacuum woke Jing Jing up. She went into the living room to find Mama pointing the nozzle at the space beneath the couch.
“Go get me a wet rag from the kitchen,” Mama said when she saw Jing Jing. “I have to be at work in an hour.”
When Jing Jing returned with the rag, Mama set down the vacuum and started wiping the table.
“Remember to be good tonight,” she said. “Don’t give Auntie Su a hard time, okay?”
Jing Jing nodded, but she was crossing her fingers behind her back.
After Mama left for work, Jing Jing waited for the adults to arrive. She didn’t want to be alone with Baba anymore. He wasn’t acting like himself. His hair was slicked down and parted to the side. He had stationed himself in front of the TV, and he got up and went to the bathroom to check his reflection every few minutes.
Someone finally knocked around dinnertime.
“I’ll get it!” Jing Jing yelled, but Baba was already in the hallway.
He opened the door to reveal Auntie Su. She was wearing a pink halter dress that made her look like a sick flamingo and carrying a stack of Tupperware.
“I thought I’d come over a little early,” Auntie Su said. “I wanted to see if you guys cared to try some of my other dishes. How did you like those buns, Jing Jing?”
Jing Jing shrugged. They’d been delicious, but she wasn’t about to admit it.
“Mr. Li, you didn’t let Jing Jing try my sweet bean buns?” Auntie Su said. She hit Baba on the shoulder, and for a second Jing Jing thought he would get mad.
Instead, Baba laughed and rubbed his belly. “I wanted to eat them all. My wife lets me go hungry these days.”
“Is that so? You do look thin.” Auntie Su pretended to examine his belly. “I’ll make sure both of you eat well tonight.”
She smiled at Baba, and he smiled back. Jing Jing couldn’t remember the last
time she had seen him so happy.
Auntie Su set the containers on the table and lifted their lids. Jing Jing walked over and peeked at them. There was sweet lotus root cooked with vinegar, pork ribs covered with black bean sauce, and a whole fish steamed with scallions and ginger. Auntie Su must have spent all her poker winnings on the ingredients.
“Eat up,” Auntie Su told Jing Jing. “Your father seems to like my cooking well enough.”
The steam rising from the food made Jing Jing’s mouth water, but she didn’t want to eat in front of Auntie Su.
“Not right now,” Jing Jing said. “Maybe later.”
“Don’t worry about her,” Baba told Auntie Su as he grabbed a spare rib. “My daughter is too picky for her own good. I’m glad you like to play poker.”
“Only when I win. But be honest,” she said as she laid her hand on Baba’s arm. “I know you don’t want the game here tonight.”
“Nonsense,” her father replied as he chewed. “I’m glad you’re here.” Jing Jing suspected he was telling the truth. He seemed to like Auntie Su a lot, but Jing Jing didn’t know why she felt upset.
Baba kept chewing as he turned to Jing Jing. “Go find the cards,” he said. “I think your mother keeps them in the kitchen drawer.”
When Jing Jing came back with the deck of cards, she found Auntie Su replacing the lids on the containers.
“Your father said he was full,” Auntie Su said. “And since you’re not hungry, I thought I’d take the leftovers home.”
That night the guests trickled in as Auntie Su’s leftovers cooled in the fridge. For the first time, Jing Jing took a seat at the table, and no one shooed her away. Baba also remained in the room. His presence kept everyone else silent. He was watching TV again, and his eyes would occasionally wander over to the game.
Halfway through the first round, Jing Jing saw Baba exchange a long glance with Auntie Su. What was going on between them?
“Can I play too?” Jing Jing asked.
“You’re too young to gamble,” Auntie Su said as she glanced away from Baba. “Besides, you have to learn the rules first.”
Jing Jing wanted to say that she knew the rules better than Auntie Su. She scanned the faces gathered around the table. Uncle Cai laid down two queens. Auntie Chen selected a nine, ten, and jack of diamonds from her deck. Next, it was Auntie Su’s turn to reveal her hand.
“Three of a kind!” Auntie Su shrieked as she laid three aces on the table. “Beat that,” she added.
If Mama were here, Jing Jing thought, she’d be peeling oranges and refilling everyone’s teacups, but Auntie Su was too busy bragging to bother.
Jing Jing looked over at the couch to see if Baba was paying attention. She was relieved to find him watching Jeopardy. Alex Trebek announced that the category was Famous Buildings.
This 183 foot tall building was originally planned to stand vertically.
Baba looked stumped, but the contestant beeped long before the time ran out.
What is the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
That is correct, said Alex Trebek.
Back at the table, the game was dragging on. When her three aces won, Auntie Su had the chance to take another turn.
“You guys are no fun tonight,” Auntie Su said as she picked up three new cards. Then she grinned.
“Straight flush!” Auntie Su announced. “I have my good luck charm here with me tonight.” She reached across the table and pinched Jing Jing’s cheek. “Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?”
Jing Jing twisted away before Auntie Su could pinch her again. Why couldn’t this woman just leave her alone? Jing Jing looked back at the TV.
Famous Buildings was going for $200.
This New York skyscraper was the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed one year after its completion in 1930.
Her father remained silent.
What is the Chrysler Building? the contestant fired back.
That is correct, said Alex Trebek.
Meanwhile, the poker game had stalled. Though everyone else still had a full hand of cards, all the quarters were already stacked in front of Auntie Su.
“That’s it,” Auntie Su announced. She didn’t seem so happy about her straight flush anymore. “There’s no point in playing another round. I guess I’m the winner for tonight.”
Everyone nodded and threw down their cards. They looked relieved that the game was over.
“Well, let’s clean up,” Auntie Su said. Now she looked annoyed. “Jing Jing will tell us where everything is supposed to go.”
As Jing Jing helped Auntie Su collect the cards, she snuck looks at the Jeopardy game. Famous Buildings remained the category of choice until the $500 answer was the only one left.
This site once saw the violent removal of Chinese emperor Pu-yi.
“What is the Great Wall?” the contestant said.
“Go pi!” Baba cursed. Jing Jing thought that a “dog fart” sounded much worse in Chinese than in English. “What. Is. Forbidden. City!”
The correct answer is: What is the Forbidden City? said Alex Trebek.
Baba’s moan made everyone turn around and stare.
“Did you see that?” Baba asked. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “These people are so stupid. I should be the one on TV. I just won. Can you believe it?”
Jing Jing didn’t tell Baba that you had to get more than one question right to win Jeopardy. She knew he wouldn’t have listened.
When no one answered his question, Baba looked around the room. His eyes finally rested on Auntie Su. He stood up from the couch and walked over to the table. Auntie Su was sweeping the quarters into her purse, but she stopped when he grabbed her wrist.
“Did you hear what I said?” Baba said. “I just won.”
Jing Jing decided she wouldn’t tell Mama too much about tonight’s game.
Auntie Su let Baba hold onto her wrist for a minute, then loosened herself from his grip.
“Well, I guess we both won tonight,” Auntie Su said. She shut her purse and began walking towards the front door. “Too bad we’re still not rich.”
Jing Jing stayed up late that night waiting for the Fantasy 5 drawing to be broadcast live on TV. The guests were gone, and Baba was already asleep. Mama wasn’t home yet, and Jing Jing didn’t have the latest lottery ticket in hand, but she knew what numbers her mother always played. The winning numbers just might be a match. She could see it now: the look of surprise on Mama’s face when she gave her the slip of paper with those lucky numbers. How happy Mama would be when they were receiving the giant check on TV.
Right before the 11 o’clock news, the drawing began. Jing Jing scooted closer to the TV and turned up the volume. On screen, an American man who looked a lot like Alex Trebek stood behind a glass case where a lot of painted balls were bouncing. “Welcome to tonight’s Fantasy 5 drawing,” the man said. He turned a giant key that made the balls move up and down even faster. “And the winning numbers are…” Jing Jing crossed her fingers. She watched as the balls began to slow down and reveal their numbers. Any second now her luck was going to turn around. Tonight was going to be the night.
About the Author: Mai Wang is a writer currently pursuing her PhD in English at Stanford. This is her first published story. Her nonfiction has been featured in publications such as The Billfold, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Upstreet Magazine.