Big Company

My Dining Room Painting by John Singer Sargent
My Dining Room  John Singer Sargent, 1883-86, Oil on Canvas

On Friday afternoon I called to tell my father the good news.

“A full time offer,” he said, “Congratulations.”

He was home on the couch, battling the flu or something like it. He sounded stuffed up – a little less loud than usual, but still loud. And not as happy as I thought he’d be about my job. I could hear the TV in the background. Outside, the bomb cyclone picked up speed.

“When you tell mom,” he said, “make sure you tell her not to exaggerate.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how she is,” my father said. “She’s bad with numbers and, lately, she likes to brag.”

He imitated my mother the way all men seem to imitate women, with a falsely high voice and probably, rolling his eyes and bobbing his head with a blank smile.

“‘Oh my daughter is doing such and such at a big company in New York and making such and such thousands of dollars.'”


“The only time she doesn’t exaggerate is when she loses money from gambling,” my dad continued. “If she loses a thousand dollars she’ll tell me it was only two hundred. Che.” 

“That is very interesting,” I said. “I haven’t told mom anything about my job, or how much I’m making.”

Mostly because my mother hasn’t asked. The side of her that had insisted on teaching Chinese when we were growing up, and then on opening her own Chinese school has, in recent years, taken a back seat to the side that enjoys daily games of golf, badminton, and slot machine apps. Also, grandchildren.

Less than half a year ago I was a freelancer, worried about keeping clients and finding new ones. On one of our now rare phone calls, I expressed this worry to my mother.

“Oh it doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re about to get married. Why not just get pregnant now?”

So it surprised me that she found the enthusiasm to brag about my work. But I suppose every now and then, your parents’ goals for you change. I was always playing catch-up.

But more surprising now, was my dad’s lack of enthusiasm over the phone.

The last time I lost a job, my father, instead of soothing me as he did back when I still lived under his roof, had sputtered, “But what am I supposed to tell my friends? I had just said to Mr. So-and-so the other day that my daughter was doing well, working at a big company in New York.”

“You can still tell them I’m doing well,” I said. “Just say I’m a freelancer.”

He scoffed, and broken up the word as though to lessen its ridiculousness.

Free- lancer? Free-lancer. No one even knows what that is.”

Then, “You’d better find another job soon. You need some good experience if you’re going to get anywhere. If I were Tom, I wouldn’t marry someone unemployed.”

I didn’t bother explaining to him then that freelancing was a real, viable thing.

But now I got the feeling that he didn’t care whether I was working full-time or free-lancing.

I wanted him to know that at least was please.

“I think the offer’s pretty good,” I said.

“Sure, sure,” he said, “but does that mean you’ll stay in New York even longer?”

“I don’t know. We still want to move to Australia at some point.”

He sighed. For a second all I heard was the TV. I wondered if he was thinking about something like karma. He was the oldest of three sons, and the one who moved away, for business, for my brother’s asthma. My grandpa’s other two sons and their families all lived in the same building with my grandpa until he passed away at one-hundred and one.

No doubt a reason my grandfather lived so long was that he had his family close by, and often, at the same round dinner table. My father went back at least once a year, mostly twice, for at least two weeks each time. When he did, there was an air of celebration. All three sons, grown with families of their own but here having dinner, talking loudly at each other in outdated Shanghainese.

They made a real racket. They sounded like ten people fighting in a cavernous room, when really it was just three grown men with vocal chords wide as their bellies. Their wives and kids – who would mostly become loud and shouty themselves – would sometimes wince, “Do they really need to be so loud and so angry?”

But they weren’t angry. They were just talking. All you had to do was see the serene, shining look on my grandfather’s face to realize that to him, his three sons hollering business nonsense at each other in the same room was the happiest sound in the world.

“It would be nice if you and Tom moved somewhere close by,” my father said. “I’m not saying you should come live with us, but isn’t LA nice? There are many big companies. Tom could find a good job there. And if anything happened, you’d be close enough so that you could come and help.”

“I know,” I said, “We have talked about it but I think we have a few more places we want to go.”

He sighed again. Was my father thinking about his father now? That his father had it all right and he hadn’t been paying attention? Or was he thinking that he’d done all he could to give his children a better life and so moved to the best state, in the best country, gave them all the comforts they could ask for.

All for what, so they could move away to faraway, overpriced cities where the weather was shit and where there always seemed to be more trash on the streets than people, where they lived hand-to-mouth and where, even though they had “good jobs,” constantly complained about the jobs whenever they called home? And where, in spite of all these drawbacks, they seemed resolute to settle, during and beyond the very years he and their mother would need them the most?

Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it was simpler: when in a marriage you’re the one with the stronger constitution and you fall ill, you naturally start to think about who’s going to be there for you.

He was struck by a ten-second sneezing fit. It was loud and I held the phone away a bit.

“See,” he caught his breath, “I’m sick now and I can’t even say, ‘Betty! Bring me a cup of tea!'”

It was my turn to scoff. “Maybe I don’t want to move that close.”

My father chuckled. “I’m just saying, it would be nice.”

I walked to the window to watch the snow blow in every direction but down.

I imagined my father back to his usual, robust self in a few days. I saw him driving his Landcruiser east and west on the 91, north and south on the 55, past all the big box stores and strip malls, the ugliest of which still turn a dusty rose in California’s elastic golden hour. I imagined him a few years from now, driving with my mother to our house, and us driving with a toddler to theirs.

I imagined walking through the kitchen, past pots bubbling with my favorite simple soups and stir fries and going into my childhood room to pick up some old books and magazines. I imagined coming out to see Tom shaking in my parents’ ridiculous space-pod massage chair and laughing, and then, after dinner, listening to my mother karaoke while my father sat at his round table, spamming emails from his AOL account to everyone he knew.

“It would be nice,” I said, and I meant it. We hung up.

The wind picked up. The sky darkened and the streets, belonging to New York, didn’t quite empty.

I imagined my brother and his family back in my parents’ living room too, our kids playing together and making a racket while we talked about their progress in school, occasionally getting up to stop a toddlers’ tussle and remind them the virtues of sharing.

I imagined looking up from time to time, marveling at the noise able to emanate from a single room – my father’s computer, my mother’s singing, the kids shrieking, us laughing – and I saw my father’s contented face. And I knew that to him, all together under one roof, we would be the most beautiful sound in the world.

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