One by one down the line, Lily and her teammates slapped hands with the winning team. "Congratulations," they said. "Good game."
Coach patted Deb’s head and gently pulled on her ponytail. She called her team over for a pep talk. "Team, I’ve got good news and bad news."
"Bad news first," Deb said, her uniform covered in mud.
"Okay, the bad news is we lost today," Coach said.
Every Leopard Shark, except for Rosana, threw looks at Lily. Lily couldn’t meet their eyes.
"Maybe we could’ve won if someone actually knew the rules of soccer." Deb put her hands on her hips and one elbow stuck out like a torpedo toward Lily.
"Deb, please," Coach said.
"But, Mom…" Deb said.
Coach shook her head, and Deb kept quiet.
"It was a loss, but we’re a team. We win together, and..." Coach said.
"We lose together," the Sharks chimed.
Coach leaned in, like she needed to spill a big secret. "Each and every one of you is important to this team. Each of you has a job to do. Even one shark down, and it’s total chaos! Can we let that happen?"
"No!" the Sharks yelled.
"Despite it all, this game was close. That’s progress, my dears."
Each Leopard Shark high-fived each other. As Rosana turned to slap Lily’s palm, Lily gave a half-hearted tap.
"And the good news?" Rosana asked.
"The good news is that we made it to The Big Match! Our fall season just flew by, didn’t it? By a miracle of wins, losses and simple arithmetic, we’re in! That’s awesome, good job, Sharks!" Coach extended one hand before her.
In a circle, the Leopard Sharks extended their hands to meet Coach’s. "Sharks, Sharks, Sharks! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp!" All together, their voices grew determined, as their arms swung up above their heads.
The Big Match was big! Really big!
"One practice game next week--"
"You mean a scrimmage," Deb said.
"Yes, my dear daughter, thank you. A scrimmage next week, and possibly another practice after that. We’ll see how our scrimmage goes. Eat healthy food, stay hydrated. Get going!"
Coach tapped Lily’s shoulder. "A word, Lily."
Deb interrupted. "We need to go, Mom. We’re supposed to go shopping after the game, remember?"
"Give me a sec, Deb. Go pack up your stuff." Coach squeezed Deb’s shoulders, turned her toward the bleachers, and patted her backside.
Deb turned, so her mom couldn’t see, and frowned at Lily.
Lily’s face grew hot, as her cleats felt glued to the mud.
As the other Sharks ran for the bleachers, Rosana glanced at Lily, giving her a worried look. Lily nodded that she’d catch up.
"So, Miss Lily, what game were we playing?" Coach tugged on Lily’s ponytail.
"Ah, thank goodness! Cause you know, I thought maybe basketball, maybe skeeball, perhaps chess..." Coach winked.
"Coach!" Lily knew Coach was teasing her, but she also sensed Coach was being serious. Coach did stuff like that, softened her way into things that might be hard to hear.
"And what game were you playing?"
Lily hesitated. "Catch?"
"I wasn’t playing bingo," Lily said.
Coach stopped in her tracks. "Silly Girl. I mean, yes, catch! Unless you want to be keeper?"
"No, I’m good." Lily moved her hands behind her back.
"Keep your head in the game, please. Not in the bleachers, or in Siberia like you were today."
"I will, Coach," Lily said, wondering what Siberia was.
"It’s not like you to be distracted." Coach put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. "You okay, Miss Lily?"
"Everything’s fine." Lily gently shrugged off Coach’s arm. "Sorry about today. I’ll do better. Promise."
"Today’s done. Over. Finito. Go with the flow, Lo," Coach said. "And it was a good catch... for a keeper." She whispered in Lily’s ear. "Don’t tell Deb."
Now that deserved a smile, which Lily did, big and wide.
"I’ll be ready for the Big Match," she said. "I’ve got new shin guards."
"We’re going to cream our opponent, yes we are!" Coach stopped and held up her finger. "I mean, we’re going to have a fun, fair, unforgettable post-season. There’s nothing like being in a Big Match."
"What do you mean?" Lily asked.
"I mean you need to experience it to see how special it is. The vibe, the rumble... it’s big. It’s The Big Match! Let’s give it our best, let’s stay in the game, okay? Focus, Lily Lo!"
"Got it!" Lily straightened her shoulders.
"And don’t forget to tell your family, friends, cousins, neighbors, classmates, dentist..."
"My dentist?" Lily asked.
Coach bit her whistle, then took it out. "Well, maybe not your dentist, unless of course, you’re related to your dentist. Everyone who can cheer us on, tell them to come. We need all the cheers we can get, Lo."
"Tell them to come. Or else."
"Or else what?" Lily asked.
"Or else... I’ll call them up and sing the National Anthem on their answering machine. Twice. And that will be painful. Very painful, indeed. Your mom’s coming, right?"
Over near the bleachers, the space next to Gung Gung looked like the emptiest, loneliest spot on Earth. "My mom has a new schedule at work. She might not make it."
"Oh, I see. No worries, Lily." Coach squeezed Lily’s shoulders. "We’ve got plenty of supporters, some quite wild and crazy, I might add.
"And they’re all cheering for our team, right?"
Lily didn’t answer.
Gung Gung sat waiting for her, quiet as can be, and folded up his newspaper.
As Lily approached the bleachers, Mr. Morales was helping Rosana with her coat, while Mrs. Morales was getting Rosana’s hair out of her eyes.
"You’re turning out to be quite a soccer player, Rosana," Mr. Morales said. "So fast, so swift, no?"
No. Rosana missed half her shots. They kissed Rosana so many times, that Lily lost count.
Two rows above Rosana, Anita’s grandfather hugged Anita with his cushiony arms, foam finger still on his hand. She disappeared in his embrace.
Rosana spotted Lily. "Didn’t you hear me warn you?"
"Obviously not," Lily said.
"Your face when you caught that ball. Total shock." Rosana’s eyes widened, and her face froze in an extremely poor imitation of Lily getting smacked.
Lily playfully bumped shoulders with her. "You’re not in the flow, Ro!"
On cue, Rosana hip-bumped her right back.
"Your grandparents come to every game, huh?" Lily asked.
"Oh sure! Wouldn’t miss it," Rosana said. "I think they’re hooked."
"Hooked, huh?" Lily said. "They know a lot of cheers."
"Anything loud, they’re on it," Rosana said. "Our dinners? Loud. Watching TV? Loud. Cheer at games? Super crazy loud. Abuelo said it’s in his blood. Whatever that means."
"You’re lucky," Lily said.
Rosana shrugged. "I wear earmuffs half the time!"
Being loud and cheery didn’t seem to be in Gung Gung’s blood, whatever that meant.
With teammates leaving, the soccer field emptied out, just like Lily’s heart.
Instead of going straight home after the game, Gung Gung took Lily to Sampan Restaurant. The old Chinese cafe stood on the corner of Mariposa and Diamond Street. Its large, rectangular windows faced both streets with shades drawn halfway, making it look sleepy. Through the glass windows customers could be seen pouring tea for each other. The double glass doors remained ajar, as if worn out from too much swinging. Even though the sign on the door window read "closed," Gung Gung walked right in.
"Why does it say closed?" Lily asked.
"Too busy to change it," Gung Gung said. "Snack first."
And right on cue, Lily’s stomach growled. Soccer had that affect on her, win or lose. And with today’s major mistake, a little snack could make a foul sting less.
All around customers sat at tables with mis-matched tablecloths and chairs, dishing out portions of chicken chow fun. They also sat along the countertop hunched over steaming bowls of wonton soup. Their lively conversations, in part English, part Cantonese sounded like crickets chirping and tweeting, rising and falling with emotion. Waiters dashed from table to table, plates of chow mein up their arms, threatening to fall. Somehow those plates never did!
Lily, Mama and Gung Gung had been here for Saturday lunch many times. They’d sit near the Mariposa-side window at a small round table, the one that wobbled, and people-watched as they ate. But today Gung Gung headed for the long, scratch-laden countertop. Scratches were made from heavy cream-colored dishes, ivory chopsticks, and plastic soupspoons sliding along the counter to hungry eaters.
Lily always wanted to sit at the long counter. The red vinyl stools squeaked when you sat on them, and you could swivel at a 90-degree angle. She hopped on one stool and swiveled to face the counter. From her perch, she could see partway into the kitchen. A big flame rose up, followed by a clang from a hot wok hitting the stove. Old Chinese guys were in there scrambling between themselves like soccer players, and stir-frying like mad.
One of those old Chinese guys came out. "Ah, Walt!" he called to Gung Gung.
"Bing!" Gung Gung responded.
"Haven’t see you at Asawa’s," Bing said.
Asawa’s? Was that another restaurant?
"Busy," Gung Gung said, and nodded toward Lily.
Lily blushed, having no clue what they were talking about.
Bing waved his hand and scrambled back to the kitchen.
"Wonton soup, Lily?" Gung Gung didn’t even look at the menu. It was left untouched propped up between the soy sauce and hot sauce containers.
"Yes, please," Lily replied. "That’s my favorite."
"I know." From a teapot, Gung Gung poured hot tea into his little cup decorated with fat plums. He touched the brim lightly, as steam rose between his long, wrinkled fingers.
How did he know?
"Millie, ah!" He called to the waitress. "Two bowls house special wonton! Please."
Lily jumped, his voice boomed so over the conversations in the cafe.
With a strand of black hair falling over her forehead, Millie swooped in and out of the kitchen, but not before placing a plate of broccoli beef in front of one man, and steam ginger chicken in front of his friend. "Haih ah." She didn’t write Gung Gung’s order down, only turned on her heels and yelled into the kitchen, "Two bowls wonton soup! House special."
"Mein?" yelled Bing.
"Mein?" Millie yelled to Gung Gung.
Gung Gung shook his head.
That was okay, today felt like a noodle-less house special wonton day.
All this yelling! They could be at a soccer game, they were so loud! A glimmer of hope rose within Lily. Gung Gung did have a loud voice after all! Maybe even louder than some of the other grandparents.
At last Millie shuffled back and set two steaming bowls of house special wonton soup, no noodles, onto the counter.
"Mh goi," Gung Gung said to her.
Plump, little dumplings bobbed in the broth next to chopped-up green onions, slices of barbecue pork and fat mushrooms. A gingery aroma made Lily’s nose tickle. And like magic, fouls were forgotten and dissolved into the steam. Lily stuck her soupspoon into the broth and slurped. "Ow!"
"Careful now," Gung Gung said. "You okay?"
Lily fanned her tongue with her hand.
"Watch now." He blew on his broth. He took one sip from his soupspoon, followed by a slurp. A noisy one.
Lily followed his example and slurped soft wonton. She rolled it in her mouth, savoring all the flavors of pork, ginger, and garlic all mashed together. As soon as she swallowed, she ate another one right away.
"Maan maan," Gung Gung said. "Why rush? Where’s the fire? Good, huh?"
She nodded, her cheeks stuffed full of wonton.
"Watch this," she said. The soupspoon’s handle had a groove that acted like a little trough. Holding the spoon by its round part, Lily tipped the handle and sipped the broth, using the spoon backwards. "Mmm, good."
Gung Gung shook his head. "Come on. Use your spoon right."
Half-laughing, Lily wiped her mouth, and turned her spoon around to use it right.
Gung Gung fished for all the extra nuggets that made the house special wonton extra special. His chopstick found fat pieces of pork, mushroom and squid. Without spilling, he savored his food with each satisfied chew. In between bites, he glanced at Lily’s disappearing wonton. "When I was your size, we made our own wonton."
What? Soup broth dripped out of Lily’s mouth. A piece of barbecue pork tumbled, making the broth splash onto the counter.
"No way," she said. "Wonton comes from a restaurant. Sometimes store bought from the frozen section."
Gung Gung grunted. He dabbed her mouth and the counter with a paper napkin.
"My mama and me," he continued. "We made it ourselves. From scratch."
Lily had never before heard anything about Gung Gung’s mama. Or anything about Gung Gung when he was her size. She tried to picture him as a boy. Did he have the same bushy eyebrows that arched as he slurped his wonton? Did he have that mole near his cheek? The hair around his ears was grey, but had it been jet black when he was Lily’s size?
"You’re lucky. Mama doesn’t do stuff like that. Most of our dinners are frozen."
His bushy eyebrow rose. "Yes, your mama, busy. Stuff, hard to do. My mama, your great grandmama, she worked hard, too," Gung Gung said, in between sips of tea. "Mamas do that. Work hard."
Lily looked up from her bowl. "Did your mama work in an office, like my mama does?"
Gung Gung swirled his broth, as if seeing his mama somewhere among the whirlpool of leftover green onion. "Out in the fields. Dirt all around. Hot sun overhead. Picked vegetables, washed clothes, cleaned house. All with bare hands. No such thing as vacuum cleaner. Day after day. Very busy."
Lily imagined her great grandmama, maybe a Mama-look-alike, picking vegetables in a small field. She was on her knees upon the soil picking carrots and bok choy. She threw out a weed, a stone, a beetle here and there.
Not at a grocery store where carrots were packed in plastic bags, like the way Mama bought it.
"And no such thing as washing machine. To clean clothes, sometimes she hit them with rocks. Rocks found by the river." Gung Gung gently pounded the countertop twice with his hand, fingers curled. "Very clean. No holes. She knew how."
Not with a stain remover stick, like Mama did. All that sounded busy and must’ve took forever.
Gung Gung rubbed the spot where he had pounded, as if getting out a stubborn stain.
Lily rubbed her own spot. The glitter started to shine through all the scratches. A question rose in her mind, one that she didn’t expect to ask. "When she was busy and all... did she ever miss your soccer game?"
One busy eyebrow raised, as if no one had ever asked him such a thing. "No soccer. We didn’t play."
"Oh. Did she miss other things? Like a recital or school play?"
"We didn’t have those either."
"Oh." Lily didn’t know what she expected him to say and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear. "Guess it didn’t bother you then. When she was busy." Looking for comfort, she turned to her bowl. The last wonton lay soggy in the broth.
Gung Gung was about to take another sip of tea, but instead put his cup down. As he gazed into the kitchen, the cooks tossed bean sprouts and soy sauce chicken into the air. More flames rose and fiery light reflected back from his eyes. Some kind of memory passed before that light as the flames flickered.
"At times it did bother me, but..." He tapped Lily’s bowl with his soupspoon, and it dinged like a tiny bell. "She knew how to make me feel better. She made me wonton. Always made me wonton."