Connor is a food crafter just getting back into the business after his mother’s death. To cope with his grief, Connor spends day after day recreating her potstickers, but they are never quite what he remembers. To move on with his life, he will have to confront his past.
Read John Chu's Tor.com Original short story, Beyond the El.
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About the Author
John Chu designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. He is an alumnus of the Viable Paradise and Clarion workshops. His stories have been published in Boston Review, Bloody Fabulous, and Asimov's Science Fiction.
Read an Excerpt
This is how Connor renders a pot sticker in paper: He crinkles and crumples a circle of white construction paper until it is soft and pliable. The circle is large enough that a tangled ball of shredded paper fits inside with enough room for a generous lip. And it needs to be generous because, unlike dough, paper doesn't stretch. The ball doesn't have the heft of a mix of jiucai and ground pork, but it will still push out against the paper once it is folded. He rings the paper with glue, not water as he would have with a circle of hot-water dough. Carefully, he folds the paper over and presses down on the edges to form a lip around the semicircle. Glue seeps out, which he dabs away with a small towel. This obviously never happens with water on hot-water dough. Fold by fold, he crimps the lip so that the semicircle is now a plump crescent. With hot-water dough, folds would just stick together, but this is paper. The folds accordion, and he dabs each with a droplet of glue then presses them all flat. The work is meticulous. When he's done, the body isn't the right sort of plump and it doesn't dimple in the right way. The technique, though, is sound. It takes minutes to make each pot sticker. He makes three.
This is what Connor does with three pot stickers made of paper: He stuffs them into a cracked mug. The match hisses when he strikes it against the matchbook cover. It bursts into flame and, when it touches the pot stickers, the flames spread. Golden tendrils reach up, covered by wisps of smoke. The pot stickers blacken and shrivel into the mug. Unlike the first seven times Connor has done this, he's remembered to open a window and take the battery out of the smoke detector. A piercing beep does not slice his ears. The faint haze in the kitchen clears.
It's not that Connor believes his mom will actually get the dumplings or even that his mom is out there somewhere waiting for burnt offerings. The economy of the afterlife if it existed would have to be pretty screwed up, with people burning paper representations of money and planes and cell phones. Still, he wants to show her he's learned how to shape a dumpling, even if he still hasn't figured out the exact filling his mom made.
* * *
The band singer's voice is this slinky, sinuous thing, a voluptuous baritone that nestles around every word he sings. It's almost enough to distract Connor from the singer's broad shoulders and the graceful taper to his waist. Those could just be gifts from the singer's elegantly tailored suit, but Connor has also seen him with the jacket off, bowtie unraveled, collar unbuttoned, and sleeves rolled up. If anything, the suit hides the singer so Connor can pay attention to the song. Connor knows the handsome band singer's name, Nick, but he's better off thinking of him as the handsome band singer.
To the customers in the restaurant, the handsome man crooning jazz standards and the piano and bass backing him are just set dressing. Nick could be declaiming Wagner or heavy metal and only one who'd notice would be Connor. Everything on the singer's tiny stage is just a backdrop to the real show, the food.
Meals are prepared at the table. Diners in exquisitely tailored dinner jackets and impeccably fitted gowns sit at small round tables. Servers dressed in crisp white shirts and pleated black trousers fulfill their every whim. At one table, a diner's steak, already patted dry, its flavors already adjusted, sits uncooked on a plate. White streaks of fat alternate with dark red streaks of muscle. The server passes her hand slowly over the steak. It transforms from raw to medium-rare. Clear juice seeps out and is reabsorbed at the server's command. Another slow wave of her hand and the steak is seared on both sides. At other tables, teams of servers work together to transform and plate ingredients in a strict timeline lest a foam collapse or an ice melt before it can be savored.
* * *
Connor is back of house, prepping. Servers sweep in and out. They place orders and carry away plates loaded with the prepped materials they will transform before their diners' eyes. The band singer's song is a sinuous thread weaving through the thud of knives, the whir of motors, and the staccato bursts of servers' calls and preppers' responses.
A pile of carrots sits at his prep station. It doesn't even take a glance for him to know how each carrot will taste. One by one, he takes each carrot and adjusts it to its bliss point, that place where it is the most like itself. He crisps its texture, adjusts its color, and intensifies its flavor. Some days, rather than hitting the bliss point, his job is to layer in the bite of pepper or the decadent unctuousness of foie gras. Today, though, all he has to do is make them all the perfect carrots everyone desires but no one can grow. That's not anywhere near the limit of his abilities. If you leave the trade and then return, though, you start back at the bottom. Leaving to take care of your catatonic mother may be laudable, but also irrelevant. So, instead of working out on the floor, what he does for now is rewind time. Stopping time is impossible. All things fall away from their bliss points as they inevitably decay and rot.
The maître d' strolls up to him as he is chopping, replenishing the mise en place, making it fresher than fresh. She's never back here. Connor can feel her gaze bear down on him, but she waits until his knife no longer blurs before she says anything.
"You've been requested, Connor. Get into your service uniform."
"Can they do that?" Connor turns to catch the sous chef's gaze. She nods back at him. "And with no notice?"
"Well, you're overqualified for back of house. And if they pay enough ..." The maître d's wry smile tells him all he needs to know. "You understand tonight's menu."
It's not a question, but Connor still rolls his eyes. He has been preparing this menu literally all night. Besides, with a couple exceptions, this restaurant isn't that ambitious. And no one orders the ambitious items.
"Good." She pats Connor on the back. "Go get changed."
The customer sits at the most sought-after table in the restaurant. It's in a private but spotlighted corner. Noise-canceling hardware embedded in the walls puts the customer in her own private world. Whoever serves her, though, is performing for the entire room. Servers draw straws to avoid this table. Sitting at this table with no advance notice must have cost quite a bit to soothe the ego of whoever originally reserved it.
Connor is now dressed in his crisp black-and-whites. As he crosses toward his customer, the band singer starts into Bernstein's setting of the Ferlinghetti poem, "The Pennycandystore Beyond the El." A jazzy piece of atonality, this is less crooning for atmosphere than the band singer flashing his expensive conservatory training. The band singer's eyes sparkle as his gaze meets Connor's. A smile spreads across the band singer's face. Connor can't help but think the band singer is singing just for him. It's a fantasy he knows he should bury, but he can't.
The fantasy shatters when he sees who has requested him. His sister sits at the table alone, her back to the corner, browsing the menu.
Somewhere, right now, a garage door is rattling open and a young boy perks up because it means his big sister has to stop beating him. Their parents cook — not craft — the sweet and fried stuff Americans expect when they think "Chinese food." Americans expect "Chinese food" cooked by the Chinese to be cheap, so his parents run the restaurant without employees to help them and they work twelve-hour days. Their children go off to school before they wake and are ready for sleep by the time they come home. Sometimes, they are too late and the young boy has already fallen asleep. There are many weeks where the boy sees his parents only on the weekends. His parents have no choice but to leave it to his sister to raise him by herself. This is a lot to lay on a thirteen-year-old girl. None of her friends have to raise their kid brothers. If she thinks having her kid brother dumped on her full-time is unfair — even if it does not justify beating him — she has a point. The rattling garage door means their parents are practically home. His sister never hits him when their parents are at home.
* * *
When Connor was that boy, perking up just made his sister angrier maybe because it meant he'd get away it. He still has no idea what "it" was. Changing the channel on the TV, not changing the channel on the TV, pouring a glass of soda for himself but not also for her, pouring a glass of soda for himself and also for her: all got him beaten. Telling their parents what she was doing really got him beaten. She never left any bruises, though, and their parents never believed their angel could ever lay a hand on him. Then again, that was also what they needed to believe.
Connor's gut roils as he approaches the table. His sister has pulled any number of stunts on him, and this could be yet another one. He has always gotten the impression that her stunts fill some need in her that he can't understand. Her best — or worst — stunt to date was to fire Mom's part-time healthcare assistant once Connor had agreed to move back and take care of Mom part-time. It would have looked bad to the relatives back in Taiwan, his sister insisted, for someone outside of the family to take care of Mom. He couldn't afford to hire an assistant by himself and his father — Connor knows people his age with grandparents who are older than his father — could barely take care of himself. So, Connor ended up taking care of Mom full-time instead. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't relieved when she finally did die, even if being relieved makes him a monster.
The urn with Mom's ashes has been sitting on the mantel of his sister's fireplace for months now. That it's taken his sister this long to show up is downright sporting. She might really just be here for dinner. That flicker of hope is completely unwarranted, but he can't help himself.
"Prue." Connor stands in front the table. For her, he's careful to iron all inflection out of his voice.
"I need you to renounce your citizenship." She says this as casually as someone who liked him might say hello.
And hope dies again. Connor, though, does not miss a beat. He is a food-crafting machine.
The request for her order falls smoothly from his mouth. She orders the most outrageous thing on the menu, the scale-accurate model of the Chrysler Building. It's only there to make everything else look reasonable and affordable. He is aghast, but he merely nods and smiles. His heels click, his body pivots, and he's gone to the kitchen to gather the ingredients before he realizes he's even moved.
The raw materials that will become the Chrysler Building fill both tiers of his cart. Inertia gives it a mind of its own as he steers it around the tables in the dining room. The maître d' stops him.
"Sure you want to do this by yourself? I hear the staff here is top notch." The maître d's gaze flicks over to the handsome band singer. "Besides, you already have his attention. Showboating isn't going to make him notice you more."
The Chrysler Building normally takes five servers and three table bussers to pull off. Conner isn't building it by himself to prove anything to the handsome band singer, not that he's against showing off to him. In the moment of reflection before he responds, he realizes he's not even doing this to prove anything to himself. If the customer were anyone but his sister, he might have put a crew together and put up with their help.
"No, I can do it." He wants to push on, but the maître d' reaches for his arm.
"Obviously, but that's not the question." Her smile is warm and still something Connor's not used to. "Do you want to do this by yourself? There's a crew of trustworthy servers and table bussers who'll help you in any way you ask."
"I don't think that's the question, either." Connor pushes on and, this time, the maître d' lets go.
Prue smirks when she sees the cart. Something tightens inside Connor, but he forces her expression to pass right through him.
The Chrysler Building is a deconstructed paella composed of discrete floors that become ever lighter and more delicate as they approach the building's crystalline spire. Garlic and saffron perfume the air as he prepares all the layers from the grouper at the bottom to the clear tomato distillate at the top at once. Various proteins transform from raw to poached as a deft gesture of his hand lifts them off their plates. At a glance, a pot of water begins to simmer and the water is infused with flavors from fish bones and shrimp shells. Within minutes, the water is transformed into savory stock. Grains of rice swirl about an invisible center. They swell and congeal as they absorb the stock that he makes rain down on them. Meanwhile, with another deft gesture, tomatoes dissolve then evaporate. Their clear condensate drips into a gelatin that Connor has crafted in the meantime.
Sweat trickles in tiny beads down Connor's face and back. The building's foundation, impeccably poached grouper glued into a slab, quivers on a gold-edged plate. As he lowers the next layer, Prue slides documents onto the table.
"Durable power of attorney." Prue offers Connor a pen. "Sign it."
For a moment, Connor's torso stiffens, his back ramrod straight. His rib cage shrinks but doesn't expand again. Whatever's inside twists. Asking him to renounce his citizenship was just a bit of anchoring, then. It's the same trick the restaurant pulls when they put the Chrysler Building on the menu. Prue might want Connor to renounce his citizenship, but signing a durable power of attorney sounds so much more reasonable in comparison. Not that letting Prue act on his behalf in legal matters is a good idea. She still hasn't told him what this is about. Then again, he also hasn't asked.
He just keeps on multitasking. Everything has to happen at just the right moment or else some emulsion will fail to set properly or some foam will collapse. This is why it takes a team to build the Chrysler Building, or would if he weren't so intent on proving himself to the uncaring audience. Prue sets her pen on the document. As he continues to craft, she just sits there, her arms folded across her chest, waiting.
He falls behind, of course. Not even when he was at his best could he maintain a stock at its bliss point, stabilize a foam, and place a slab of emulsion on an increasingly precarious stack of them at the same time. The foams are stiffer than they ought to be. The transparent flakes of flavored rice emulsion are rough and coarse rather than straight-edged and delicate. He sets them in rows to create the spire with as much precision as he has time for. The rows, one overlapped on top of another, are almost the narrowing concentric arcs they should be. The triangular flakes don't always point at the tangent of the curve like they should. The effect is not that Art Deco sense of utter craftsmanship. When one is just trying to prevent the building from sagging or, worse, toppling over, one makes trade-offs.
The spire floats just above the top layer of gel. With deft hand gestures, he guides it onto the clear tomato-saffron distillate. As he does, Prue grasps at the durable power of attorney. The papers skid across the table before she catches them. The Chrysler Building wobbles.
"Look, this is just so I can tell the probate court that you want your third of the estate to go to Dad. I know you don't want it to go to me." She rolls her eyes. "If you don't trust me, get a lawyer to draft something that says the same thing."
It takes effort to steady his breath. He is a rubber band being wound tighter and tighter. Prue hasn't so much as messaged him since the funeral, much less mentioned Mom or probate. Connor saw Mom's will once, but it must have been lost if probate matters. If they had the will, they'd just execute it. Also, some of Mom's "estate"— their parents aren't not exactly rich — must be in Taiwan. Grudgingly, Connor has to admit that having a Taiwanese citizen — to the extent that that's even a thing — take care of Taiwan probate might be easier. That doesn't mean having Connor renounce his US citizenship and repatriate to Taiwan makes any sense. Giving his own share to Dad does, though. If anyone had bothered to ask Connor what he wanted, that's what he would have told them. As best as he can remember, it's also what Mom wanted in her will.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beyond the El"
Copyright © 2019 John Chu.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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