Since I was five, I have not been allowed to count. I had to learn numbers from the TV guide, memorizing digits based on what their combinations unlocked: the boxing matches my brothers bet their beards on, the weather channel that predicted what year it would rain (my Agong betting on the clouds that swelled like black eyes), and the nature-documentary channel where wild animals killed each other for no reason I could see since there was nobody hoisting money over their heads like a sail, no one raising their blood like a wage. Counting is a gateway to gambling, Abu said. According to her, everything was a gateway to gambling: playing Go-Fish under the bleachers with the boys from school, sorting for the fattest sunflower seeds to toss at A-Gu after dinner, spotting a dog, owning thumbs.
For her birthday, my neighbor Cindy got a ceramic cat coin-bank to collect quarters—the slot was on the top of its head, slender as a fingernail, and when she rattled the cat, its song raked the air like rain—but Abu saw it and said I wasn’t allowed to go over anymore, even though for a while I had to go there every Sunday to sit in on Cindy’s weekly piano lesson, which I was only allowed to attend because my abu cleaned their house while I sat there. The teacher had fingers like fishhooks, permanently curled because of arthritis, which ruined her prodigious career, and so she demonstrated the proper positioning of the hands with paper diagrams and shouting. She placed a quarter on the backs of our hands and made us practice playing our scales without jolting the coins off, and Cindy was the only one who could do it. I was too distracted by Abu squatting in the bathroom with her head sticking out of the doorway, glaring at me and waving her hands in a circular gesture that meant, Are you paying attention? Are you paying attention? You better be paying attention, because look what I’m doing for you!
The tantrum of my mother’s sunflower-shard-filled vacuum—I don’t understand why these bitches make me bring my own vacuum when they have a vacuum, Abu said—outgunned the sound of everything else. I couldn’t hear my own fingers, flaccid as shits plunking into a toilet bowl. Instead, I heard Cindy’s songbird bones, her thumbs beating against the keys like dumb wings, the quarters on the backs of her hands lulled into silver lakes. Meanwhile, the coins leapt from my hands, committing suicide, and I wondered if it was possible for the heads minted on them to get concussions, for the coins to hit the hardwood so suddenly they were emptied of their numbers. Being nonnative to numbers only further hindered my musical development, since the teacher told us to count in eights like the composers did. I asked if the composers were Chinese, loving eights so much and harmonizing with money, but the teacher said no, they were Europeans, since Chinese people could never write anything original. While Cindy counted her quarter notes, her fingers hollowing the keys, I told the teacher she must be lying about originality, because actually my Agong used to raise racing pigeons on our roof, releasing them from their cardboard coop every morning, and if they tried to come home too soon, it was my job to stand there and scare them away. The longer they can fly without food, I said, the better their odds of surviving a race. The weak ones die of exhaustion, so I battered Abu’s old wok against the edge of the roof until she complained I was shucking it away. So then I invented a song, a scary song to startle the pigeons away, and it was composed of continuous screaming, accompanied by a large eucalyptus stick to beat against the bowl of the sky and break it into rain, the kind of rain my Agong prayed for. I won him the weather. I hired a retired bedsheet to rally the wind, shepherding the birds into lines of lyrics. I could make this song for a long time, long enough to outlive them.
But the teacher just sighed and butted her knuckles against mine and said, sit straight, you’re next. Cindy turned to me, her fingers still feathering the keys, and said that my pigeon song was horrible and cruel. Her ankles twined around the glossed mahogany legs of the bench, and behind the piano, down the hall, I could see my mother with her head jutting out of the bathroom, holding a broom handle like a spear she was about to hurdle through me, pinning my heart to the eggshell wall. Later, when we were home, Abu said, don’t tell them about the pigeons! They’ll tell Hsieh Ayi! Hsieh Ayi was our landlord, and sometimes she parked in front of our house after dinner when our garage door was open for my biaojiu and shushus to play poker and bet their leg hairs and plum pits—all their cash was confiscated by Abu and hidden in a plastic bag in the toilet tank—while simultaneously commenting on the cars that U-turned on our street and the attractiveness of the women driving them. Hsieh Ayi asked me once how old I was, and I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t know the numbers. So I said I don’t know, two plums? After this, Hsieh Ayi met Abu in the front yard, where someone’s spit was leaking out of the hose, and asked if I was a retard. Abu didn’t say anything back, just showed her the bad hose, and after that, Hsieh Ayi started giving us random discounts and breaks on our rent. Abu said, aha, aren’t you glad I didn’t teach you any numbers? No one fears the foolish, she said. But then my biaojiu made me memorize the phone numbers of his debt collectors so that I’d never pick up when they called. Abu won’t tell me, but I know biaojiu earned his debt after betting on a bad cock, which for a long time I thought was the kind you peed out of—I wondered how those things could fight to the death when they couldn’t even stand up on their own—and I know that Ama met Agong at a mahjong table and that she gambled away her tongue and twenty years, and I know Abu used to be the best dealer and card shuffler in the family—biaojiu says her hands were winged at the wrist, that she could shuffle all the bones in our spines and reinvent the word straight, that she was the only one in the family who knew when to fold, when to cut her losses and leave, but I never saw her walk away from anything.
She never walked away when Hsieh Ayi circled the house, knocking on the walls with both fists and noting their bone density on a piece of graph paper. According to biaojiu, Hsieh Ayi hadn’t wanted to rent to us at first because of the seven combined arrests my uncles had accrued for driving without a license, but when they promised to pay her 1.3 times the rent in all-cash from their gambling earnings, she agreed. Sometimes she tossed rocks onto our roof to see if they’d land on us directly, no scalp above us, and Abu stood at the window and watched her the whole time, not moving at all, not even when Hsieh Ayi started to probe at a hole in the garage door that my ershu kicked in after losing his dentures—real ivory, he claimed—in a game of xiangqi. Abu crossed her arms and kept still while Hsieh Ayi brought out a tape measure to record the width of the garage-door hole, and as Abu looked out through the window with a face blank as school-lunch baloney, I believed what my uncles said about how she was the best of them, the one with an unweighable gaze. Rumor is, the moment she was born, her face didn’t even register the change, and she remained gilled for several years, eyes shut. Hsieh Ayi retracted her tape measure, turning her head to stare at us through the window, but Abu glazed her face into a mirror. I live here, Abu said to me, and she can write down all the holes she wants. I don’t leave where I’m loved. I don’t go outside until I know the air’s all mine.
On the first Sunday I went to Cindy’s, I got there early because Abu had been hired to re-stain the tables, which she lugged one by one to the driveway—apparently, the stain was semi-toxic when wet. This would be a perfect mahjong table, she said, dragging out a knob-kneed dinner table. If only we were facing the right way, she said. While my mother dipped her brush into the varnish and dribbled it onto the grainy table, I joined Cindy on the floor. She was hunched over, plowing her pencil through rows of numbers, and I asked her if it was a lotto ticket. No, she said, it’s my algebra homework. I tried to understand the numbers, but they weren’t hidden like on lotto scratchers. Instead, they were jigsawed together or rowed like missing teeth, fenced in by her handwriting. You probably won’t understand it, she said when she saw me looking. But I said I did. Go with your birthdate, I said, or how many cousins you have. She flipped her paper over so the numbers resembled thumb-crushed insects and said these numbers weren’t for choosing, they were for changing. I thought about what my abu said, that our family would never change, that she gave up on the idea of numbers, of adding up into anything—loss is so much more attainable, she said. But that first day at Cindy’s, she nudged me toward the front door and said, you can’t lose at music if you’re the one making it. That day, Cindy told me the lottery was stupid and there was no way to win it. I told her that wasn’t true, that once when my Agong’s racing pigeons got clawed to confetti by a stray cat and he owed the breeder money, he bought a lotto scratcher and won two hundred and fifty dollars, though he bet it all on a particularly ripe raincloud that, in the end, produced nothing but a fart. That doesn’t take any skill, Cindy said, inching the paper away from me, that’s all luck. Chance. It’ll never happen again, she said. And I said, exactly. I said, that’s what makes it fair. Everyone’s got the same chance of nothing. Cindy stood up and said it didn’t work that way, shaking out her homework the way my Agong used to shake out sheets of shit-studded newspaper, loosening the ass-feathers that got glued there. When his birds flapped away, stuttering their wings, Agong said that flight was fairer than god because none of us were able to do it; we could only witness. I asked him which ones would come back, and he said we would have to wait, and we would count them aloud together, subtracting the ones that survived from the total born, solving for the dead. How, he said, can we call ourselves Chinese if we don’t gamble anything? It’s in our marrow, he said, our romance with chance, our history with hope.
I thought of Cindy squatting beneath a cardboard roof with a sheet of shit shimmering in her hands. I laughed as she looked at me, flapping her eraser-speckled homework, sucking on the lead tip of her pencil, her mouth pursed into a beak. I imagined the lead was slowly poisoning her, uprooting each strand of her hair, slurring the numbers in her skull so they poured out as unshaped sound. Outside, Abu shouted that the teacher was here and waved at me like I did to the pigeons, the windows haloing her varnished hands, and I imagined the way she must have once shuffled a deck, splitting the cards and cleaving them together again, fanning them out and flicking them straight, kissing the corner of the one she called fate.