When he woke me, it was still dark. I’d been curled into the passenger seat of the van while he stripped and waxed the tile of a Jiffy Lube. “Beak,” he said. “Let’s get after it.”
“It” was money. I knew because, for the past few months, we spent our unsupervised visitations working one of his businesses. My father never had a steady paycheck. His odd jobs rewarded only hustle. I was nine—when I stayed with him, he’d sleep through the afternoon while I read for school or played Gameboy, then rush me through dinner to make it to a flooring job. We showed up late after the businesses had closed. I’d help him unload the van, sometimes sweep or mop, but I was too young for the thin hours of the night. When I got tired, I lay down in front seat, the whir of cars lulling me to sleep as they passed. There were days I’d wake up while we were on the go, unaware of the movement, but on nights when the job ran long, nights like this one, we went straight to the donut factory.
This was before Krispy Kreme had their own stores, before they had a station in every Giant and Safeway up the coast and still garnered interest in their rarity. Guys like my father—hands raw from disinfectant, the soles of his New Balance slick with wax—showed up with the sun to stuff their vehicles with the green and white boxes, hoping to resell them and pocket the markup. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and holidays made for easy sales, but even so, I knew we’d have trouble unloading the amount he insisted on buying.
His Aerostar van was a windowless smoky black with the chrome stripped off. While he loaded boxes in the back of it from floor mat to bare ceiling, careful to keep everything separate from the mop buckets, the floor buffer, I watched the workers make donuts in the back of the factory through the viewing window. The circles of dough drift along in a river of oil, starting soft white, dropped straight from the dispenser and ending on the drying rack, golden-brown, the sugar coming up in fumes.
“Beak, get your face off the glass,” he said. My father called me “Beak” because, while we were both Chinese, I hadn’t yet grown into my mom’s British nose. We hadn’t spent more than a weekend together since the divorce four years prior. He took his billfold from his pocket, peeled off a couple ones and handed it the floor manager who knocked on the glass and held up two fingers.
On the other side of the window, the bakers wore plastic aprons and latex gloves, hairnets and safety goggles. They took two donuts straight off the conveyer belt, slid them in a wax paper sleeve and brought them out to us. The heat of the pastry in my hands created a hunger I hadn’t known, and I swallowed the donut in three bites. It was barely solid, so sweet it made my teeth ache, and I wanted another immediately.
“When was the last time your mom fed you something this good for breakfast?”
I was too busy licking the glaze off the back of my teeth to think about my usual breakfast—the off-brand cheerios dense as cardboard wet with rice milk, both donated from the church my mother dragged me to. Depending how far we were from her last paycheck, the meals became less complex. At first, pasta, homemade sauce, sautéed vegetables, salted chicken, and a week later, plain rice, canned tuna, soy sauce for flavor. Those meals, she’d stir her food between bites, as if it were hiding beneath it something worth savoring. I often tried to choose relative hunger instead of clearing my plate. We’d push it back and forth between us on the table until she’d slam a fist down, saying, “Eat, dammit. I don’t work this hard for you to spit in my face.” There was something raw in her tone. When the dishes stopped rattling, her voice cooled. “I’m sorry, baby. Please.”
Our route took us from the factory back toward his basement studio. We used to hit the strips of business parks and car lots congesting the main roads reaching out from 495 and the District. Rockville, Gaithersburg, College Park, Laurel—any hospitality service that needed giveaways or a staff that might want breakfast. The spots my father sold to often, the receptionists would declare ‘Donut Man!” as we came through the door, boxes stacked on my forearms. When we were entered somewhere new, he said it himself. At a car dealership, he leaned against the counter, speaking to a woman on the other side. The Tag Heuer watch hanging from his wrist was older than me. One time my mother joked that it’d been in and out of pawnshops as often as my father had been in and out of jail. The mention of prison took the humor from her face.
“Mind your manners, Jason,” he said. “Tell Miss Cindy hello.”
As a kid, I’d been mild in temperament—bad at making eye contact, prone to long passages of silence—but we were a father/son sales team, and part of that act required me to smile when addressed. I’m not sure when my big-gummed grin became genuine, warmed by the attention. I said hi as my father opened the box on the top of the stack. Miss Cindy looked at the variety dozen, then me, saying, “Well, I don’t know which is sweeter.”
We set the donuts on the counter, folded bills, returned to the van to restock.
My father only really taught me two things in life. The first was how to take money off people who had it to spend. We were on the beltway, and he decided we could sell more if we split up. Awake all night cleaning floors, he was beginning to fade as the day wore on. He wouldn’t admit it, but his eyes were ringed red, and we’d barely made a dent in the product. I was worried that no one would want to buy from just me—no jewelry, no swagger or familiarity—but he assured me, saying, “All you got to do is treat them like you love them. Bat your eyes a little. If they don’t want to buy, hey, no sweat, see you next time. Thanks anyway. You can’t make anyone do anything.”
The next stop in Tacoma Park, he gave me enough cash to make change, then put me out on my own. We priced a dozen glazed at ten, the assorted boxes of jelly and chocolate and Bavarian creams for thirteen, one of each for twenty. I kept repeating this pitch in my head as I went into the stores. My first few attempts—a laundry mat, a Radioshack, the Post Office—were met with polite rejections. I was too courteous, entering silently and waiting in line. The mail clerk behind the glass barricade looked at the boxes, then over my head and toward the door before saying no with a smile. I crossed the street, my arms shaking a bit under the weight of the boxes. There was a bank on the corner, and as I approached the wide, double doors, a woman held one open for me, saying, “Aren’t you precious.”
Part of me worried I was moving too slowly, that I’d have kept my father waiting and his impatience would turn to anger or disappointment. Part of me worried I’d come back without making a sale. I walked past the velvet ropes and the stanchions that formed a queue to the tellers toward a man sitting at the desk in the middle of the lobby. I said “Krispy Kreme!” when I was within ear shot. He said, “Well what’ve you got here?” and I gave him the pitch, the pricing. The bank manager was older, his hair thin at the temples, silver roses patterned across his tie. He told me they had a meeting coming up in an hour, and wouldn’t it be nice to provide some refreshments for the brokers and reps that morning? He bought everything I was carrying, and I skipped back to the van waving the cash like a trophy.
My father had just closed the sliding door. When he saw me, he snatched the money from my hand, a bit of spit coming off his lip as he asked me if I was stupid. He said, “You know the best way to lose something, Beak? Let someone know you have it to lose.”
In the passenger seat, I shrunk into the cushion, resting my head against the doorframe. He closed the door and sat, joining the money I’d earned with the roll in his pocket. Before we left the parking lot, he took his bifocals off and polished the dust from the lenses. He said, “You need to know how to be careful.” Always count the money by the door. The trick is to keep small bills on the outside and stow it in your front pocket where it’s hard to get to. The skin on his knuckles looked like worn leather sliding into his jeans, his old graduation ring studding his pinky. To this day, I’ve never misplaced a bill.
Each stop, we split up. Halfway around the beltway, I came back from my rounds to find him napping. With the holiday around the corner and a bit of encouragement, people were looking for excuses to indulge. The ease of the sales only fueled this new confidence. Each time I came back to the van, empty-handed, I was fired up.
Eventually, my mom would lock him up again for falling too far behind on the child support, but just then, I rode shotgun, a stomach made for sugar and a newfound love of counting cash. Stop after stop, while he napped, I hefted the donuts into my arms, brought the boxes into doctor’s offices and furniture stores, real estate headquarters and used car lots, pulling back the glass and saying, “Krispy Kreme!”
I woke him when we needed to move, and halfway around the beltway, I sold the last dozen glazed to a dentist off Route 1. The wad in my pocket was so thick my pants fit tighter. I knuckled him in the bicep, and he rubbed his eyes, pushed his bifocals up the bridge of his nose. He said, “Where to?”
“We’ve got work to do, Beak,” he said. The cough in his waking throat sounded thick with mucous. “Where to?”
“Home,” I said. “They’re all gone.”
Maybe it was exhaustion, but the wrinkled brow, the pinched confusion of his expression made me feel like I was lying to him. He turned in the seat to the belly of the van, empty now except for the cleaning supplies, the comforter that covered them. When he smiled, I could see the gold crowns glowing like embers in the back of his mouth. He dropped the van into gear and put us on the road.
On good days, we’d get wings and rib-tips from a Chinese carry-out around the corner from his basement studio. We’d each eat half of one dish then trade. Side by side, in the front of the van, we ate until our forks scraped the bottom of the styrofoam trays, until we unbuttoned our jeans to get comfortable.
“Your mother and I used to live above a spot like this in Wheaton. The kitchen was below our bedroom. Just the smell of chicken would turn her stomach, but you know, I was always craving it,” he said. “I bet she still doesn’t let you eat it.”
“She says eating out is a waste of money.”
Cartilage from the pork cracked between his teeth, and he grunted the bone into a napkin.
My arms, my feet, ached from the hustle. In the driveway, we instinctively opened the sliding door on the van to carry in what we couldn’t get rid of—the donuts we would eat for dinner. But I’d sold us out. In my pocket was the proof. I showed it too him—the roll of bills suspended between us bulging out my fist, and I felt alive.
“Hey, Donut man,” he said standing over me, inspecting the features of my face. I could see my reflection in his glasses, distorted by the curve of the lens. We were so much the same except for those small and important differences that are lost when the eye isn’t focused—how I don’t fully recognize myself now when it’s four in the morning and I’m washing my face in the sink after a shift, the tips in my jeans still damp from the beer-slick bar; how, tired and worn thinner by liquor, I look out the window and can’t tell if the sun is coming soon or just gone. With his finger, he tapped me on the nose, saying, “Hand it over.”
David E. Yee is an Asian American writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast Online, AGNI, Juked, and elsewhere. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest, judged by Colm Tóibín. He holds an MFA in fiction from the Ohio State University, where he was associate editor of The Journal. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. (updated 12/2017)