A River of Stars

Scarlett rode the elevator to the third floor, the corridor lined with signs for insurance agencies, accountants, and notaries. Green and red lights flashed on a fake Christmas tree at the end of the hallway. The immigration lawyer’s laminated wood door was unmarked but for a faded gold banner inscribed with old Spring Festival fortunes: MAY MONEY BE PLENTIFUL and BRINGING WEALTH AND PROSPERITY.

It was said Lawyer Loo could find every loophole through which an immigrant might squeeze and turn black to white before a judge. She fingered the two hundred dollars in her pocket, grimy fives, tens, and ones—the sum total of their savings. She suspected the lawyer’s fees would be steep but doubted that his clients—the waitresses, dishwashers, nannies, and busboys of Chinatown—had much, either. Maybe she could leave a deposit today and pay in installments. Or she’d have to borrow money from someone at even steeper terms.

She’d timed her walk to coincide with Liberty’s midday nap, bundling her coat around them against the winter wind. She held the lapels together, since the jacket could no longer fit over the sling and Liberty’s growing body. Back at Evergreen Gardens, her roommate, Daisy, watched over the pork roasting in the oven while her son jiggled and cooed in a bouncer, another gift scavenged by Old Wu.

Inside the office she discovered two men sitting knee to knee on both sides of a desk. The room reeked of stale tea, greasy takeout, and musty old files piled high, of clients who must be pleading, howling for help. Scarlett nearly backed away.

“Fatty Pan, get her a chair!” the older man barked. He must be Lawyer Loo.

The reedy young man cleared a stack of newspapers, dumping it onto the floor beside another teetering pile, and Scarlett perched at the edge of the chair. Liberty shifted in the sling, gurgling, which startled both men.

“There’s a baby in there!” Fatty Pan pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You’re . . .” He trailed off, embarrassed he’d stated the obvious.

“Born here?” Lawyer Loo asked.

She nodded. She liked that he already was assembling her case. Having a US citizen as a child could be a mark in her favor. She explained that she’d arrived on a tourist visa that was expiring next month but didn’t mention her lover, Boss Yeung, the Perfume Bay maternity hotel, or its proprietor, Mama Fang—the less said, the better. She’d arrived legally, not like those Chinese who paid snakeheads, or smugglers, to bring them into America. The most desperate hiked through the deserts in Mexico, or hid in coffins or under the floorboards of boats, shipped in like any other made-in-China cargo.

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