Yao's Chick

Li En minced no words: in Mandarin she told the truth: "I hope to become Yao Ming's wife"
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The family watched basketball in order to enjoy the Rockets' new Chinese player. They took pride in him the way they would have taken pride in a Chinese astronaut or new high-tech millionaire. Li En, sitting between her parents, tried to pretend that she wasn't really paying attention to the TV. She mostly looked down at a needlepoint cat in its frame.

"This Mr. Moochie needs a haircut," her father said. "Look at him—he looks like he's been in a tornado."

"He's Moochie," Li En corrected, "not Mr. Moochie."

"What kind of name is that?" her father asked. "Is it American?"

"Yes," Li En said. Then she reminded him that most Americans thought Yao was a funny name.

Her father raised his eyebrows; he specialized in keeping his body still in the midst of movement. He went to the window where he could look out at her fourteen-year-old twin brothers, Tommy and Timmy, as they practiced on the trampoline in their driveway. Her father didn't have to call out any instructions. Li En and her brothers could read his mantra in his eyes: "Elbows against ribs, kneecaps at lips, chin on chest."

Until she grew too tall and too old, Li En had also practiced as many as three hours a day. At twelve, the high point of her life, she won the Texas girls' "Best Overall" trophy. On that day, at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, in Fort Worth, while the judges observed, her father took the trophy from her dry hands and held it aloft. He closed his eyes as if in prayer. The judges lowered their heads to join him. He seemed to point the tip of the trophy toward downtown Fort Worth, but he actually aimed much further east. "We showed the fucking communists," he whispered to his daughter. When he placed the trophy back in her hands, it no longer felt like it belonged to her.

Even now, twenty-seven years after he escaped from Saigon on the day that the communists torched his gymnastics academy, her father was still showing them, although he had changed instruments—from Li En to his twin sons, with whom he roamed the Southwest, gathering trophies.

She envied the boys, small and agile, built for gymnastics, built for America, where they had been born. At church, and even in the neighborhood, people had begun to call Li En "Auntie," because she was twelve years older and much taller than her brothers. She and her parents were Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, her brothers just plain old Texans.

Her father returned to the couch when the third quarter started. "I don't think they need so many players," he said. "Just one to throw the ball to Yao. And I think if he knew he would not get second opportunities, he would not miss so many times."

Li En had respect but no love for her father. She had not forgiven him for dropping her training when she passed five feet eight inches. "You should specialize in something else," he said, and he insisted that she go to junior college and study computers. When she shot past six feet, he became embarrassed by her size and sent her mother to Mr. Feng, the card reader who lived above the dollar store on South Main Street.

Mr. Feng said the reason for Li En's unusual height was the inauspicious hour of her creation. He told her mother, "You were in flight, your business lay in ruin, Granny sat in the boat beside you coughing up blood, pirates roamed the South China Sea, and still you and your husband, at such a moment, created a child."

In her own defense Li En's mother told the card reader that they had not been trying to create a child. "I just wanted to keep him alive. He kept saying he wished he had stayed with his academy. He was screaming, 'If I didn't burn let me drown!' He said he was going into the water. I placed my body on top of his, trying to keep him from the Gulf of Thailand."

"You are fortunate Li En is merely tall," the card reader told her mother. "This is not so bad."

"It makes it difficult for her to marry," her mother said.

"Perhaps I can be of assistance," the card reader said.

Li En refused his help. She also refused to accompany her father and brothers to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where her father wanted to once more include her in a competition. "You can catch," he said. "Timmy on one shoulder, Tommy on the other. Then we will have a killer dismount. As you somersault forward, the boys will do backflips from your shoulders. This will win first prize in family category."

Li En did not want this kind of family category. She wanted to start her own family. She was twenty-six and without prospects. At church her mother prayed, and at Crystal Nail, where she lacquered and lengthened, her mother asked customers about eligible young men. She kept Li En's graduation photo mounted in the right corner of her mirror, so that every customer would see her daughter, diploma in hand.

Her mother continued to visit Mr. Feng the card reader, who advised the family on all things, especially matters requiring cultural insight. When her father began to be called "Jack" at Happy Donut, where he worked the night shift, he thought his wife should also take a new name. He came up with Jean. Mr. Feng advised otherwise. Because she worked at Crystal Nail, he said, where every employee had an Asian name, "Jean" would sound as if she was trying to pass for a customer. Without any advice Li En refused to become Lee Anne, and her father did not insist, because, she knew, he had long ago given up all hope for her.

As they watched the game, Li En could hardly stand to see so many players pull at Yao and raise their hands in front of his face whenever he tried to shoot. She could tell how polite he was by the way he shook his head in apology whenever he allowed someone to take the ball from him.

"This is a strange game," her father said. "There is no holding any muscles in position, no somersaulting; only jumping and throwing a ball. Without a ball it would be far better." When he left the living room to call the boys in for bed and turn off the outdoor spotlight, Li En's mother squeezed her daughter's hand. Since the Yu San episode her mother had been treating her like someone under a death sentence.

"What are you thinking?" Li En asked.

"I'm thinking of how I nursed you when you were a baby in the refugee camp in Thailand."

"Is that a happy memory for you?"

"Yes," her mother said, "very happy. My sister would sit with us. She was the age you are now, and she was already a widow with four children."

"Please," Li En said. "I've heard enough of these stories. Doesn't this family have any really happy stories? Didn't we have picnics, or go on vacations, or go fishing? Why is it always war and vengeance?"

Her mother changed her position on the couch to face her daughter. "You think because you are educated that you know everything. War and suffering are also education."

"Do you want me to suffer?" Li En asked. "Okay, I'm suffering."

"No, no," her mother said, "I want you to marry and be happy and continue your good career at Gulf Coast Data, and I will help with the children."

Li En did not answer. What was there to say?

Tears came to her mother's eyes. "Oh, Mama, stop," Li En said. "It wasn't your fault."

"It was my fault," her mother said. "I created this disappointment."

In a way she had. Almost daily she talked at Crystal Nail about her large daughter who was so fussy that she wouldn't agree to meet a young man who was not tall enough to look into her eyes. Mrs. Chuk, having her nails done at another station, overheard and said that her son was the tallest Chinese boy at Texas Tech, and so it began. Mrs. Chuk switched stations, and every few weeks, when she came in for nail work, they talked about Yu San and the possibilities of a match. Li En learned, at second hand, much about the young man. He was an honor student but didn't like to study. They loved Yu San at Texas Tech, but it was windy in Lubbock, and he missed his family. Then he had a girlfriend and disappeared from the conversation at Crystal Nail. But when he broke up with the girl, his mother said he would be back at the end of the semester. Then Texas Tech kept offering him scholarships to stay there. Then, finally, he did come home, and saved Texas Tech $12,000. His mother promised that he would call Li En at any minute, and three months after that warning he did call.

"Hey," he said. "I know we're supposed to meet, you know, from our moms." He suggested the Red Lobster, "the one near Target." He told her that she could call him Earl. He didn't mention his height, but he said that he drove a maroon Corolla. "I'll pick you up at seven. If you can, wait outside. I hate to circle around for parking when it's just a quick stop."

When he drove up, exactly on time, Li En could see even before they greeted each other that his head grazed the Toyota's ceiling. "Tech sucks," he said, "but U of H sucks too." He said "Bingo" when he found a parking spot directly in front of the Red Lobster. While they waited for their meal, Earl took out his Game Boy. When he did something good with his thumbs, he held out the screen to show Li En. "You want a turn?" he asked.

Li En understood that this was her marriage opportunity. While he ate steamed crab and soup and salad, she let herself imagine spending the rest of her life with Earl. He had clean fingernails and small ears that were close to his skull. She could see him, not too many years from now, playing computer games with their children. He was certainly tall enough, and he didn't slouch. When the waitress brought the check, he divided it equally. "Is that okay with you?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, and it was more than okay, it was exactly okay, it was fifty-fifty, a partnership. A week later he invited her to the Red Lobster again. And then, during a lull in a nail wrapping, his mother told her mother that Earl Yu San wanted to have $25,000 in the bank and be a department manager before he chose a wife. And he was only twenty-three.

After work her mother consulted Mr. Feng. She then reported to her daughter in a bitter tone, almost a chant, "The three-year difference is the most unlucky number. Mr. Feng says that you should stay away from Yu San, or there will be catastrophes, early deaths, poverty, crippled children."

"I don't believe in your stupid fortune-teller," Li En said. "Stop telling me what he says; I don't care what he says."

When Yu San didn't call her again, Li En blamed her mother and Mr. Feng. "Not so," her mother said. "I never told his mother anything. I just do her nails now, and all we talk about is nails. That's all. And he still has two more years to become an engineer. This is not because of Mr. Feng. This is the fault of jobs and colleges."

After another month of silence Li En called Earl Yu San. She tried to sound happy and girlish and indifferent. "So," she said, "what about the Red Lobster?"

"Can't," he said. "I've got midterms and a lot of stuff going on. You know."

Li En sobbed for half an hour. Her mother stroked her hair. "I know that I caused you this heartache," she said. "I ask your forgiveness. Please, open your heart to Mr. Feng."

"Are you going to tell this to Mr. Feng too?"

"I already did. Who else can I tell, your father?"

When she had recovered enough to consider her mother's wishes, Li En walked the six blocks from the bus stop to the fortune-teller's office, above the dollar store on South Main. She read the business card thumbtacked to his door: "Leon Feng—Interpreter and Counselor." She expected an old person, but the man who greeted her at the door seemed surprisingly youthful, apart from a scattering of gray hairs. In painter's trousers and a Hawaiian shirt, he looked like a middle-aged man who had won a shopping trip to the Gap, the name on his sneakers. He led her to a plastic lawn chair in what seemed to be his living room, dining room, and office. An IBM electric typewriter and a rice cooker sat side by side on his table.

"I am here only because of my mother," Li En said.

He smiled and looked serious at the same time. "I understand this. Do you prefer to speak English?"

"Yes," she said, "and I would also prefer for my mother and you to please respect my privacy."

"Of course," he said. "I only wish to be of service, if this is possible."

She could see the dust in the corners of the room, the crumbs on the tabletop. She wondered why her mother, who came here so often, didn't volunteer to clean up a bit.

"Is there some service I can do for you?" he asked.

"You can stop telling my mother that I was conceived in an inauspicious hour."

He lowered his eyes. "I'm very sorry," he said. "I know this must be a problem."

"Not for me," Li En said, "but you make my mother sad." He nodded. "Why do you tell her such things? Why do you seal my fate?"

"I do no such thing," Mr. Feng said. "I only advise on specific matters. Your mother asked me once, 'Should I buy a refrigerator with ice maker?' I said no. If you lack ice, perhaps this is my fault."

"You know what I lack," Li En said. She rose to her full height, so that Mr. Feng had to look up and expose his Adam's apple to her judgmental eyes. She was ready to leave, but after making the effort to see him, she also wanted him to tell her something—maybe a recipe, a secret phrase, a type of perfume, the name of a singles service. She wouldn't act on anything he said, but she still wanted to hear something; she wanted to come away with an assignment. She sat down.

"Well," Li En asked, "are you going to tell me what to do?"

"This is possible," Mr. Feng said. "The fee will be fifteen dollars."

Li En laughed to cover her anger. "So, you are just like everyone else," she said. "My mother's fortune-teller hero is just like the dentist and the dry cleaner."

"Yes," he said. "Deliverer of services."

Li En reached for her purse. She would take the money out of what she paid her father for rent. She would tell him, "Female needs." If he could take nights off work to travel with the boys, he could pay for Mr. Feng. She handed the fortune-teller three fives.

"Very, very good," Mr. Feng said. "And rare. Most people have a twenty-dollar bill and they need change, or they give me one ten and one five, or a ten and five ones. But three fives ... this is the best possible. Do you require a receipt?"

"No," she said. "I require advice about marriage."

Mr. Feng held up his hands, looked at them himself, and then presented all ten fingers to Li En. "No ring of marriage," he said. "I have not had that good fortune myself."

"Then how can you advise others?"

"This is a problem," he said. "Most of the time I give advice on financial matters or cultural misunderstanding. Can you return next week? This will give me time to consult sources and books."

Li En rose again—this time to leave, not to intimidate him. "I don't think I need your advice," she said. On the way out she stopped at the dollar store and bought her mother a card full of colorful hairpins.

Her family didn't take a newspaper. The boys seemed not to care about news, and her parents practiced their reading just as well on free neighborhood weeklies. Li En started to buy the Houston Chronicle at the bus stop. First she looked for photos of Yao Ming, and then she scanned the pages for his name. She didn't know what the letters and numbers in the box score meant, but she understood that higher numbers were better for him, and she took great pride in seeing them. She wanted to go to a game but felt embarrassed to tell her mother, and once more involve her in private matters. In January Li En lied. "On Tuesday a benefit will honor my boss," she said, and her mother suggested—as Li En knew she would—that her daughter wear the red silk dress that Mrs. Wang had made especially for such occasions.

"It's going to be casual," she told her mother.

"For you, casual," her mother said. "For Mr. Lerner it's very important." Her mother offered to make a floral arrangement for Mr. Lerner's table.

"Stop it," Li En yelled, angry at herself for lying and at her mother for making the lie take on so much importance. "I'll just be home late, that's all."

On Tuesday, the day of the Rockets-Timberwolves game, Li En felt sick to her stomach. By noon she had to leave work. She still hoped to be able to attend the game, but when her mother came in from Crystal Nail at three o'clock, a half hour before the twins returned from school, Li En told her everything. Then she vomited and had chills. Her mother gave her a hot-water bottle and the feather comforter that they rarely needed in Texas. She slept fitfully throughout the evening. When her mother checked on her at eleven, just after her father left for the night shift at Happy Donut, she whispered in Chinese the score of the game: "Rocket a hundred and one, Timberwolf ninety-seven."

"Plural," Li En said. "They're all more than one."

"Okay," her mother said, "but only one matters."

The following day she still felt weak and dizzy. Her mother left her some soup in the refrigerator, and Li En was relaxing on the couch and watching ESPN Classic when Mr. Feng made a house call.

"Please excuse me," she told him when she answered the door. "I don't feel very good."

"I understand," he said, "and I'm sorry to disturb you. I will stay only a minute." His eyes lingered on the TV, where the 1984 Super Bowl was being replayed. From a plastic bag he withdrew a box of chocolate-covered cherries and a small purple plant. He put them on the kitchen table. "I hope you are better very soon."

Because of his gifts she felt obliged to play hostess, at least briefly. "Would you like some tea? Forgive me for being dressed like this."

"I should be asking forgiveness for arriving without warning," he said, "and your dressing gown is very lovely. Is it also made for you by Mrs. Wang?"

"Oh, God," Li En said, "is there anything my mother hasn't told you? No—I bought this at JCPenney. Do you want to know the size and the price? Do you need the sales receipt?"

Mr. Feng turned pale. She thought his hand shook, and she regretted showing him so much temper. The fortune-teller was a busybody, no doubt about that, but he probably intended no harm. She should be angry at her mother, not at him. She swore to herself that she would never again confide in her mother.

"Don't trouble yourself to make tea," he said.

"It's no trouble; we have boiling water in the hot pot." She pointed to the counter.

"If you don't mind, then," Mr. Feng said, "I'll have coffee." He reached into his pocket for an aluminum-foil single-serve packet of instant and a companion packet of creamer. He smiled proudly. "Dollar store," he said.

At the kitchen table, with the steam from his coffee cup fogging his large glasses, Mr. Feng made himself comfortable.

"Do you have many clients?" Li En asked.

"Some weeks are better than others. Your mother is my most steady customer."

"If I may ask, how do you make a living at your job? I mean, how many people these days go to a card reader rather than to a psychologist?"

"Many," he said, "although it's true that Westerners prefer astrology and palm reading and tarot. But it has been my good fortune to live where I do. If I have even one client each week, I can easily buy milk and bread and beef jerky and peanut butter, and I never lack for a great variety of cheese and sweets and frozen pizza bites."

"I get it," she said.

"The dollar store is a wonderful American institution. There everything truly is equal. And evenings, after nine p.m., it is my pleasure to sweep and mop the floors and tidy the shelves. For this service I receive free rent."

"So you can live on almost nothing?"

"Almost."

"And you're happy about this?"

"Yes," he said. "Who wouldn't be?"

"I wouldn't," she said. Then Li En stopped herself. If he was happy that way, let him be happy.

"Are you a sports fan?" he asked.

"I'm sure my mother has told you about my interest in basketball."

Mr. Feng nodded, and when Li En blushed, he put his lips to his coffee cup and stayed in that position until she chose to speak again.

"As long as you're here," she said, "do you have any advice about this matter of sports?"

"I do," Mr. Feng said. It was clear that he was only waiting to be asked. He pulled a sheet of lined paper from his pocket and stood as he read aloud, the way a child would in a school play.

"I have consulted the I Ching and also the writings of a psychologist from the capital of Sweden. Both advise the same thing." Mr. Feng raised his fist in the air. "Go for it," he said loudly. Li En noticed that his eyes, though no longer fogged by steam, still seemed clouded. He waited a moment for his advice to sink in. "Okay," he said. "All good wishes for your recovery from illness."

He bowed his head slightly and backed away from her toward the door. Li En, pleased by his energetic advice in spite of her skepticism, luxuriated for a moment before she ran to the door and called out to Mr. Feng, who was already at the bottom of the iron staircase, "Do I owe you fifteen dollars for this?"

"No," he said as he turned to face her. "The original fee paid for this research."

The next home game was Thursday, Utah Jazz. Li En told her mother in an offhand and icy way that she would be home late. Nothing else. At the box-office window a woman with the face of a dog told her, "Sold out." When Li En didn't understand, the woman pointed to a sign.

"But I only want one ticket," Li En said.

"I can sell you one for tomorrow, Seattle, or next Tuesday, San Antonio. That's bobblehead night. First five thousand fans get a free bobblehead of the Cat."

"I want today," Li En said.

"Sorry," the lady said. "Next time why don't you call first and charge your ticket? Then you can go straight to the will-call window."

Li En turned away from the box office. People singly and in groups were approaching the arena from all angles, even from underground. Watching entire families and people bouncing with anticipation emerge from the parking tunnel made her think of the risen dead on the day of salvation.

"I've got three in section one-twelve," a black man with a goatee whispered in her ear as he held the tickets literally in front of her eyes. "Nine rows behind the iron, the seat to beat at dunk time."

"I only want one ticket," Li En said.

"One is better than none. Slip me seventy-five and in section one-twelve you will arrive."

Li En handed him four twenties, and he plucked her change from a wad of bills in his front pocket. "Enjoy the game," he said as he walked away from her, holding his two remaining tickets in the air.

While she watched the game, Li En tried to be interested in all the players, but she kept her eyes on Yao Ming. She liked best when he wasn't playing. Then she could look at him sitting on the bench and imagine him at home relaxing in a chair especially elongated for him, reading the Chinese paper while she prepared his supper. After dinner she would help with his English, and if his mother wanted to live with them, that would be all the better. She knew that he earned millions of dollars, but she would continue to work, because you could never trust the government of China to actually let him keep that money.

During a time-out she was staring at the bench and hardly noticed the roar of the crowd, but when the chant began, she looked away from the resting Yao to the middle of the floor. "Turbo, Turbo," the crowd chanted, and she spotted a creature dressed head to toe in a blue-and-silver suit. He held a basketball in his right hand and raced toward the basket in front of her. At the free-throw line his feet hit a three-by-three trampoline exactly in stride, and he executed a somersault. On his way down he dropped in the ball, and the crowd went wild. People cheered far more than they did for Yao Ming. Turbo walked to the center of the floor, raised his arm in triumph, and ran away. When the players returned, Li En was still holding her breath.

The acrobat performed twice more, the second time doing an incredible backward somersault on his way to the basket. She'd had no idea that these things happened at basketball games. They never showed this on television. Now she understood why people paid so much to see the games in person. She knew that her father would find much to criticize in Turbo's form. She could hear him say that real judges would never give points for his approach and landing, and maybe just a few for the actual somersault. But this audience was not interested in form, only in the astounding ways Turbo found to throw the basketball into the hole.

Yao Ming rested all of the last quarter, because the Rockets were far ahead, and by the time the game ended, half the crowd had already left. Li En waited until her aisle was entirely clear, and then she walked toward the court floor, where ushers in dark blue vests were guarding the empty playing area. One of the ushers stopped her at the edge of the floor.

"Sorry," he said. "You need a pass to get beyond here."

"I want to see Yao Ming," she said in Mandarin, as she looked down at the man's baldness. The fact that he didn't understand what she said made him seem more interested in her.

"Are you a relative?" he asked.

Li En minced no words; in Mandarin she told the truth: "I hope to become his wife." The usher made a sign for her to wait as he conferred with a nearby policeman; then he waved her toward the tunnel underneath the arena, the one she'd seen the players use. Li En had no plan; she allowed her heart to tell her mouth what to say, and though the usher did not know the words, he must have understood her meaning. "I will only tell the truth," she said to herself. "I will not be ashamed to say who I am and why I am here."

The tunnel led to a long hallway, where she took her place standing against the wall across from the players' locker room. She knew this was the right place, because many women stood there, beautiful women whose clothing made Li En realize that she should have dressed in Mrs. Wang's red dress instead of the gray slacks and ivory blouse and tennis shoes that she had worn to the office and then to the game.

"You waiting for Yao?" a black woman asked her.

"Yes," she said. As Taisha identified herself, Li En felt so unglamorous, so out of place, that she barely dared to touch the friendly woman's outstretched hand. Then the players began to emerge from the doorway, one after another, tall and handsome, some wearing gold necklaces, most in suits that shimmered with silk. They looked like princes from the drawings in the books her mother used to read to her. She would have liked to have each player introduced once more as he walked out, the way they had been so wonderfully named before the game. But they needed no introduction to their waiting friends. Taisha spoke to Moochie.

"She's Yao's chick," Taisha said.

"Hey, Yao's chick," Moochie said as he shook her hand.

Li En waited until all the players and their friends had left the hallway. Then she continued to wait. There was no noise along the corridor, not from the Rockets' dressing room or from the visitors' room, at the opposite end of the hallway. She heard no sounds in the 17,000 seats in the arena above her. Finally the Rockets' door opened, and a janitor wearing a Rockets cap backwards emerged. He pulled a large canvas cart loaded with uniforms and towels.

"Excuse me," Li En said. "I am waiting for Yao Ming. He has not come out."

"He leaves from the back, goes straight to the garage," the man said. "He gets into his limo, and the driver ..." He made a sign with his hand to signify speeding away. "It's a circus every time Yao comes out, so he does all his interviews in the afternoon, just before pre-game snack."

"Then he won't come out here like the other players?"

"Never does," the man said. He pushed his canvas cart down the corridor. "You better hustle. They must have locked most of the exits by now."

Li En had to push herself away from the wall where she had been standing. When she looked at her watch, she realized that she'd been waiting for an hour and a half.

She imagined Yao Ming at home, resting while his mother rubbed liniment into the shoulder he'd fallen on during the game. While Li En had been waiting in the hallway outside the locker room, Yao had probably been examining his feet, all red and swollen from so much jumping and stopping and starting. Her own feet felt heavy as she walked up the dark tunnel to where, a few hours before, fans had leaned over the edge, almost falling from the stands in order to get a closer look at Yao and his fellow players. She was walking toward the only red exit sign still lit when she heard the sound of a ball going through a basket. In the deserted arena it sounded like a whip. She turned to see Turbo. He stood in the middle of the floor, pawed the ground like a horse, and then sped toward the basket, hit the trampoline, and did a double somersault. He had no ball; instead he hung from the orange rim for a few seconds. Li En saw that he had placed a small trampoline in front of each basket, and at midcourt was a canvas cart loaded with basketballs. He practices after the games, she thought. Maybe he has a regular job during the day, and this is his only opportunity.

Impulsively Li En walked toward the floor; her legs took over, and she began to run. She had not done a running approach in a judged event for many years, but from time to time she still practiced with her brothers, and she knew the feel of the trampoline as well as the feel of her tongue. She did a simple somersault and landing. The surprised Turbo clapped his hands. Then he ran toward her, led her by the fingertips to his cartful of basketballs.

"Can you do a somersault with the ball?" he asked.

Li En shook her head. "I have to keep my elbows against my ribs, as I've been taught."

Turbo began to laugh. "And you keep your knees close to your mouth, right?"

"Yes," Li En said.

"You're an old-fashioned girl," Turbo said. "Everything is changed now." His voice from behind the spandex mask sounded distant but friendly. "Try holding the ball, try a running dunk. It will be easy for you." He tossed her a small basketball.

Holding the ball felt odd to Li En. She concentrated on moving her elbows away from her ribs. "My father would not approve," she said. She stretched her arms. Turbo laughed again and bounced the ball that he held in his hands.

"Dunk it," he said. Li En ran, holding the ball in front of her. She felt like a bird carrying an egg. Her feet hit the trampoline in stride. On her way down she pushed the ball through with two hands. She landed under the basket with her arms stretched, her legs wide, as if waiting for the judges' approval.

"Yao couldn't do that, and Shaq couldn't either, and Kobe ... maybe," Turbo said. "You've got the moves."

Li En rolled the ball back toward the masked gymnast. "See you," Turbo called out. "Keep practicing."

Outside, in the chilled January air, she saw no players and no fans. She had almost reached the bus stop when she noticed Mr. Feng waiting near another exit. He ran toward her. "Your mother called me, because she was worried," he said.

"There's nothing to worry about," Li En said. "The Rockets won easily."

"May I accompany you home?" Mr. Feng asked. "The number twenty-five bus runs until midnight." She noticed that he wore leather shoes and a Rockets jacket. They walked a few steps in silence. "I hope that my advice has been useful to you," he said.

Li En had some soreness in her left calf, and she felt embarrassed about how her hair must look after the somersault. She walked quickly, but the fortune-teller, though his head barely reached her shoulder, matched her stride for stride with brisk steps. At the bus shelter, beneath the lighted billboard of Yao Ming, they waited. Later, as they traveled in silence, Li En considered the hour of her birth and also the virtues of the dollar store. She decided that before reaching her stop she would ask Mr. Feng what he thought might happen next.

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