This Kind of Business

2016 David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize 

Emily Zhao


Weicheng Bo inhaled the salt wind, trying to swallow his seasickness, as a dreadlocked boy harnessed his daughter to a parasail. He’d be out of the boat in a few minutes, clipped in next to Margaret, both of them 500 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

Weicheng had told Margaret about the trip to Florida after the 90-percent incident—not because he conceded that his standards were too high, but because he’d made Margaret a bit too upset. They would fly to Miami and drive down the Keys. “You can sleep on the backseat,” he coaxed. “You can sleep on the beach. You can sleep the whole week. Do whatever you want.” Margaret had never picked up on rolling her eyes, a tic naturally absent from Chinese muscular vocabulary, but she flared her nostrils to the same effect. Even the facetious suggestion that she’d do something like that insulted her. She made Weicheng proud.

“I’m going scuba diving,” she challenged, “and bungee jumping, and jet skiing, and banana boating. Oh, and rock climbing, and parasailing.” Weicheng did not recognize half the activities, which Margaret must have heard in her friends’ vacation accounts, but he looked them up and figured the costs into the budget.

So there they were. And ever since the girl piloting the boat cut the engine so Blond Dreadlocks could harness his passengers, every swell tilted the horizon in an uneven hiccup. It was just past noon; Weicheng wore only swim trunks and a life vest, but acutely felt the deadly combination of the rocking motion and the heat rising from under his synthetic shell.

Margaret looked a little sick, too, but Weicheng knew she would sooner throw up in her life vest than say anything. She saw most ailments, including fear, as a kind of weakness. She loved heights; she loved labyrinths. When she started drinking (in nine years, Weicheng unconvincedly hoped), she would probably love straight whiskey.

Weicheng hadn’t really resented Xiaohong’s refusal to parasail with Margaret, although it meant that he would technically need to go. The necessity gave him a chance to acquire his daughter’s approval in a way that might otherwise be impossible.

“All right,” said Dreadlocks, giving the straps a last round of loose-jointed tugs and slapping Margaret’s bare shoulder. “You’re all set, Marge. Willy, you’re up.”

Willy. Weicheng stood up, propping himself against Dreadlocks’ melony bicep. Willy. He still wasn’t fully conditioned to respond to it; felt wary, as if it were an acquaintance whose true intentions he could not gauge, despite its appearance on his office desk plaque, nametags, business cards, and in Margaret’s school telephone book. Sometimes Xiahong—or Susie, “Call me Susie,” she’d learned to simper to Margaret’s friends—even called him Willy at home. Willy, 你去中国店可以买点儿姜吗: Can you grab some ginger at the Chinese market? Willy, 陈林芳家请我们去过新年: The Chens invited us over for New Year’s. Still Weicheng only on unpleasant, bureaucratic paper. He almost enjoyed signing for grocery payments just to see evidence of himself successfully living.

And here was this boy, 23 years old and working at SunSurf’n’Sports while he “figured things out” after college (University of Central Florida, Marketing)—“Ah, I get that,” Weicheng said, “I took some odd jobs after college, too. You’ll get there”, when in fact, he’d gone to work for a bank that provided him an apartment, a chauffeur, and a ticket overseas—yet here was this boy, calling him Willy.

“C’mon, Dad,” groaned Margaret. Weicheng realized he’d been, as Margaret called it, “spacing out.” She’d imitated the face for him: lips loosely pursed as if around a thick straw, eyes peering at some undesignated point over his rimless glasses.

“Be patient, Lele,” he said. His voice ground out the Chinese nickname she hated to hear in public.

Dreadlocks thumped him on the back. “Take it easy, Willy. It’s a bit choppy today.” The pilot, who had a pink shred of popped gum bubble on the tip of her nose, bobbed her head sympathetically. Margaret turned her head away to look out toward Cuba.

“Sure thing,” Willy said, the expression a strange creature in his mouth.


Margaret brought home a math test with a red “90%—Great Job J!” across the top. She had tried to tell Weicheng that the test from four weeks ago had been the semester’s last, even though she normally took one every two weeks. Weicheng deduced from Margaret’s uncharacteristically aggressive tone, as well as what he’d glimpsed of her math teacher—thin and unsmiling with cropped hair and a Columbia degree—that something was up. He found the class webpage, which told him that there had indeed been a test on December 13th. It was simple algebra, simple simple algebra, concepts Weicheng taught Margaret when she was ten.

Why had Margaret lied to him about it? Why had she gotten a 90% in the first place? Why hadn’t Xiaohong paid closer attention to their daughter’s education? Why didn’t teachers communicate better with parents about grades? Weicheng demanded all these things, standing in his home office with one hand holding Margaret’s test and the other jabbing at the syllabus on the computer screen. His wife and daughter stood in the doorway, mirroring each other: arms crossed, one shoulder resting against the frame, leaning on a single leg so that the hip curved out defiant and vulnerable.


Weicheng, call me Wei—”

“—90 is a good score. Plus—” Xiaohong turned to Margaret “—Margaret tells me she still has A in the class for the semester? Right, Margaret? That’s what we all aim for, right? Straight A?”

Not ‘aim’ for,” said Weicheng, tightening his fist around the sheaf of paper and shaking it so that it flapped in complaint. “We’re just going to get it.”

“I didn’t tell you ‘cause I knew you’d flip out like this,” Margaret told her toes. Xiaohong slipped one arm behind her daughter’s shoulders, a gesture she did not mean to hide from Weicheng but that she clearly did not think he would see.

Maybe,” Xiaohong said afterwards, standing in the middle of their room with a mug of honey-laced water clamped between her hands, “what we know about the world doesn’t apply so well here. For Margaret. She doesn’t always need to be the best—”

“—I said nothing about being the best. Did I ask about other kids? What’s that phrase they always use—the best that you can be. I want Margaret to be…” he struggled to find the right Mandarin “…her best self.”

Aiya, she’s twelve! People make mistakes! This test does not lower her grade—”

It’s not about this test, it’s about teaching how to maintain a standard of excellence—

Did you know,” said Xiaohong, “that your daughter cries every time you yell at her like this? Did you know she asked me to buy her my eye cream because she’s afraid she’s developing bags under her eyes from crying? Did you know, Willy?”

Weicheng thought about the assuring palm she’d set on Margaret’s back, the implications of the motion. Margaret “knew he’d flip out like this.” His righteousness, Weicheng recognized tiredly, made him an individual about whom people “knew” things. Things to which he was blind. He understood: he’d come to think the same about Margaret’s grandfather, Weishi Bo, none of whose children ever voluntarily visited him. They knew the old man would inquire doggedly after all, and only, their misfortunes; knew what a thankless task it would be to foist consideration and comfort upon him. 

But Weishi Bo had been one year from earning his undergraduate degree when Chairman Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement relegated him to the muddy river hamlets he had already escaped as a teenager. In response, he began to question all motives, suspect all good news, and beat his children into a life of feverish, near-demented studiousness. After Mao’s death and the reinstitution of the college entrance exam, Weicheng flew, on the strength of his testing ability, out of the village once again, through the gates of China’s top university, and out into the West.

If getting perfect grades and grinding forward with the visionless brutality of a field ox could transport Weicheng the vast distance it had, he did not dare dream where it could take Margaret. Margaret, who started walking at six months, talking at nine months, and tossing semicolons—which Weicheng himself never fully grasped—into her “essays” by second grade.

Weicheng tightened the corners of his mouth. “Okay, Susie. I understand.” He sat down beside her. She sipped her drink.

You want any?”

Too sweet.”

Just a sip to soothe your stomach before bed?

He had already emailed the math teacher asking to schedule a conference about Margaret, and emailed again to cancel before she responded. They didn’t want, Xiaohong insisted, the people at school to think of them as “those parents they need to worry about,” Margaret as a child who should be protected from her own family.

He let Xiaohong hand him the mug. Raised it—tasted the rim, pressing firm and oddly cool against his lip. The water, grainy and salty and metallic, filled the grooves on the roof of his mouth, coated and narrowed his throat.


“All right! You folks ready to fly?”

“Yes!” squealed Margaret. Weicheng couldn’t help but look up at the interlocked clips—two sewn to his harness, each grasping another clip dangling from a horizontal bar, which itself clung to the parachute through a circuit of straps and ropes. He gave it all what he knew to be a useless tug. The clips’ curved metal was just thicker than the white plastic pens they gave out at the office.

 “Ah—I know it may be late for this”—a self-deprecating laugh, one he’d heard echoed by the Indian, Korean, and Nigerian fathers at Margaret’s school gatherings—“but this is all very safe, right? Forgive me, I’m just an old guy who works at a bank—I’m not used to this kind of business.” He didn’t look at Margaret.

Dreadlocks nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, totally. I get it. I don’t really like heights, myself. No worries, all the harnessing comes from people who also make pro rock climbing equipment. Nobody’s falling.” He grabbed the metal crossbeam affectionately. “I mean, if you’re uncomfortable, we could let missy go alone—it’s totally safe.”

“No,” said Weicheng, “I’m going. I believe you. And she always makes fun of me for being scared of heights, so. . . .”

“All righty, then, sounds good! So, you folks ready?”

“Yes!” Weicheng said with his daughter. Smiled, though the surface of his face felt like congealing plaster, and threw a thumbs-up for good measure.

“Here goes!” Dreadlocks stepped behind a hollow metal post—through which, Weicheng had learned after shouting a couple inquiries over the wind, the “towline” fed—and pressed a button on the control panel.

With a whir, the black cord shot and stretched out and out and out. The harness pressed the back of Weicheng’s thighs as the wind hauled them into the sky.

“Woohoo!” shrieked Margaret, swinging her feet. Dreadlocks raised them a quickly diminishing thumbs-up.


“All right, Willy—nice to see you using some of those vacation days,” said Weicheng’s boss, Marco, grinning at Weicheng over his peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. (One day Weicheng had asked him whether it was normal, the peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches Margaret mysteriously began asking her mother to make. “Susie’s been packing her one every day and—” “I’ll be damned that I didn’t think of that first!” Marco said. The next day he brought a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich and raised it to Weicheng in a salute, winking.) “Where you takin’ the folks?”

“Florida,” Weicheng told him. He’d actually already used two of his vacation weeks. “Miami for a few days, then we drive down the Keys and stay at Key West. At the Hacienda Extraña.” Ah-see-end-uh ecks-TRAHN-ya!, he’d practiced.

“The Hacienda Extraña! Nice place. Very nice place.” An appraising nod, mouth puckered in bemused approval. “Glad you’re learning to, ah, take a breather, bud.”

“Thanks,” said Weicheng, unsure whether any of the responses that came immediately to mind were appropriate.

“Well,” said Marco, “you all enjoy yourselves. Tell Susie and Margaret I said hi. Didn’t get to see them at our last group social, but, I suppose that’s just how you all roll…”

“Sure.” Weicheng snapped the lid onto the container in which Xiaohong had packed him leftover green beans and rice. “Sure, I’ll tell them.”

Marco wore a different colored silk shirt every day of the week, purchased on an income made possible only, Weicheng figured, by the serendipity of his Bachelor’s from Princeton. He had two sons who, judging by the photos taped to Marco’s computer, looked to match their father in girth—if not, from what Margaret impatiently told him about their school habits, in undergraduate degree prestige. (“Why do you care, Dad?”)

“Oh, you know what—I brought two of these sandwiches today.” Marco hefted another cellophane square. “You wanna try one? Your daughter loves ‘em too, right, maybe she’s onto something.”

“I think I’m good, thank you,” said Weicheng. “Too sweet.”

Marco tilted the sandwich and cocked his wrist, as if that would make it more appealing. “No? All right, then. Just thought I’d offer. Don’t think I could live off those lunches of yours, personally, just veggies and rice. But whatever floats your boat, Willy.”

He told Xiaohong over dinner, “Marco said an interesting idiom today—whatever floats your boat. You think if we put his family in a rowboat, they’d float?”

Weicheng!” Xiaohong laughed, but protectively drew his wine glass away. “Thinking about boss drowning is not appropriate,” she said, obscuring how much she was joking by lifting the glass to her mouth.

He’s just a person, right? It’s just a joke, that’s all.”

“Mr. Pullman seems nice,” said Margaret. “Billy and Dan are a little not-so-smart, though.”

Their Ba pays your tuition,” Xiaohong hummed into Weicheng’s unfinished wine. “He’s a pretty good man, very good to us.

Aiya, it was a joke, Xiaohong. A joke. Just like—remember when you lit firecrackers under our professor’s bike?”

“What?” squawked Margaret.

Stop bringing that up! What’ll Margaret think? Bad role model.”

Weicheng remembered ogling the bike engulfed in sparks and smoke. Xiaohong had laughed, running away down the street in that exaggerated moonwalk—all toe and thigh and arc, each leg spending too long in the air—that meant she was not running to get anywhere in a hurry, but for him to see her move.

Your mom’s right. Don’t do stuff like that,” he told Margaret, placing his hand over her wrist. She moved it away and stuck her tongue out, to both her parents’ faux-indignation.


Weicheng forced his eyes open as the world panned out beneath them; kept them on the sky, whose lower boundary melted from line into curve. He would not look directly below more than he needed to, instead tracing the approaching clouds with his eyes—not the sweeping, puffy contours that stacked and whirled toward the atmosphere like a staggering beehive, but the coiled wisps at the edges. Picked out the particles levitating, pale and mystic, against their blue backdrop. To their left was the island itself: its beaches stark against the water; its body blurred over, as if crayoned in Artificial Palm Tree Green; the entire surface shifting subtly and richly with the motion of cars, bicycles, people, and fronds.

Like a painting. Like a dream. He understood Margaret’s requests, which had begun salewomansly and ended in near hysteria, that they buy one of those undignified cameras on a stick. “You’ll remember better if you’re actually in the moment,” he’d said, balking at the price the fat kiosk proprietress named.

“Is that the Overseas Highway? Can we see that from here?” asked Margaret.

“Maybe. If they let us higher, if we just look hard enough. Maybe.”

To go from a boy who lived hand to mouth on a Chinese farm and shared a brick “bed” with four siblings, to an American man who could take his wife and daughter on vacation through some of the most beautiful, desirable parts of the world—he must have done something right. Sunbursts scattered across his vision. The breeze lapped at his ear. His daughter grabbed his bicep; “Look, Daddy!” She pointed at an albatross that taxied beside them and saluted with a gaze from its unblinking yellow eyes before veering off toward the open ocean.

He let his eyes drop to his calves—the tip of his toe—beyond, where the ink black of the towline blotched in a small knot, then slashed away at a vanishing diagonal, down and away—

He returned to the clouds, and then to the village. Thought about days he hated this sun, and the lazy clouds that let it gnaw his skin, as he hoed and planted. The heat-glazed chestnut surface of his mother’s face, which he’d removed from the fields’ omnipotent glare for a television’s soft glow; the washboard that ground at his dirt-infested work shirt and the dry cleaner that removed stains from his gray suit; the candles that burned out over his arithmetic homework and the laptop that dispensed Margaret’s. He marveled at the crab legs he’d ordered in the resort restaurant, the fragrant sunscreen he’d applied, the swim trunks trembling around his sagging, chair-softened thighs.

He whooped and whooped again. Margaret giggled.

You like it?” Weicheng asked. She nodded, then angled her face up and yelled, too. Less of a yell than a sustained laugh, like a tapering red silk band, which the gusts grabbed and flung streaming behind them.  


Margaret herself grew up, ironically, in a Midwestern suburb twenty minutes from the edge of corn country. The cost of living was low, the salary still high enough. Xiaohong, who always found something to girlishly praise, told her mother back in Chengdu about the changing leaves and the rivers.

The water is so clean!” she said, using a word that meant clean and clear and pure, 清. “Of course I miss the food, but the people here—so polite, so honest…come visit, Ma. Yes, really. . . !”

The Americana also ran clean and clear and pure. There were one or two Chinese men in the neighborhood and at Weicheng’s first job, but they were young, just like Weicheng; too scared, just like Weicheng, to be the right comrades in those places.

He surrounded himself with people who could not understand him if he forgot the right word. He went to neighbors’ gatherings armed with only a troubled tongue and an absolute lack of self-esteem, with which he could catch token tidbits: a greeting he parroted, a new word recurring in the conversation whose meaning he demanded and then brought home for his family, like a bird lining his nest. It was at one of the gatherings that two-doors-down UC-Berkeley-pennant Richard Hansen, a bit hard of hearing, said to Weicheng, “Hey, William, wanna do me a favor and grab the wine opener from over there?” When Mrs. Hansen appeared to fetch a glass of wine, Richard introduced Weicheng to her as William. Richard would later introduce Weicheng to golfing, fishing, Polo Ralph Lauren, and profanity, among other things. He was also the first to call him Willy.

“Dick and Willy, shootin’ hole-in-ones,” he joked. Weicheng would have preferred that Richard stuck with William. But it was also Richard who referred him to Marco for the second job, the one that let him enroll Margaret in private school; Richard, who always gave the Bo’s individual Christmas presents; Richard, who had his wife drive Margaret home when neither Xiaohong nor Weicheng got off work in time. “Willy, my best comrade!” Richard always roared, waving a plastic cup of beer or a neighbor’s champagne flute. “Richard, my first and finest friend!” Weicheng always toasted back.

Comrade. It still surprised him, sometimes: he had often wondered, when he found himself dripping sweat between the corn stalks again after a night of studying poetry and mathematics and history, whether he was even fit to be a person.

There also haunted him, naturally, the next question of whether he was fit to be a father. It was inexplicable that he should look at Margaret—bent over a sketch of a unicorn with legs comically bowed, like those of Weicheng’s neighbor back in the village—and accept that it was his duty to inadequately prepare her, and then cast her out into something. Everything. Things that neither he nor Xiaohong nor Margaret herself could ever imagine. One that might, at any moment, on a whim, take from fathers and give to sons. Give him a daughter and withhold the means for them to truly understand each other.

What was the process, perhaps, but taking the first tandem flight with Margaret, knowing that eventually she’d return only with friends, with lovers, alone?


“Dad? Baba!” said Margaret. He turned to look at her—too slowly, he knew, seeing her jaw tight and eyes unblinking in apprehension. Maybe it wasn’t exaggerated, Margaret and Xiaohong’s mockery of his “spacing out.”

Ah, I was thinking about something. Sorry.” The parasail heaved, as if Dreadlocks had let the towline out too quickly.

“Dad?” Margaret said again, and she tilted her face down. The stiffness at the back of her neck let Weicheng know she would have rather kept looking at him, but—just as she would never admit to seasickness, claustrophobia, or vertigo—she would not admit her fear.

Weicheng looked down at the boat. It struck him that it appeared further away than it had throughout their flight, and was now on a different angle of movement than he and Margaret. A kink in its wake signaled that it had turned left some time ago—and they had not.

He then noticed the serene, textureless blue of the ocean beneath them, like the surface of the geode slices Margaret had made him buy for her at gas stations along the route to Miami. Unbroken by wave, unbroken by life human or marine. Unbroken, crucially, by the oblique black cut of the towline that had tethered them to the boat, the ragged end of which now whipped around Margaret’s crossed ankles.

“Okay,” he said. “I see.”

“Let’s not panic,” he wanted to say. Realized he should not say it, because it admitted there were grounds for panic, and, worse, implied that they should ignore them; and then realized he’d already said it, because those English half-meant things came so easily now. He’d traded some of his real words for a semblance of stability, in which fathers said things like “Let’s not panic” when harnessed with their twelve-year-old daughters to a rogue parasail 500 feet above the glinting, lifeless, rock hard surface of the Atlantic Ocean, rushing at heaven-knew how many kilometers per hour toward—

“We have life jackets, no problem,” said Weicheng, tapping the left breast of his as if to reaffirm its existence and utmost helpfulness. Patted his swim trunks, even though he knew he’d left his cell phone on the boat. “The parachute must go down sometime. We find current that blows down, land in the water, and then they come to us. Companies like this, they must have safety procedures or someone sues them.” Weicheng remembered signing a liability form at the kiosk as Margaret hopped from foot to foot in the burning sand, but—this was something about America that they always made fun of and would now employ in their defense. Like that name: Willy, so stupid, so childish, but also so harmless it helped him get his way. No one named Willy who looked and talked like Weicheng could mean anyone harm, and no American company incapable of safely landing its parasailers in all circumstances, no business of that kind, could continue unlitigated, unconfronted. . . .

“Look, they’re coming.” A blotch in the wake. The boat had stopped, stalled. It was turning now, following them, and Weicheng thought he could hear Dreadlocks shouting at them, or maybe at the pilot.

“We’re gonna land safely?”


Margaret’s neck jerked as they angled and swerved, strands of salt-stiffened hair lashing her neck and temples. They were moving back toward shore. Dreadlocks began waving his arms. Weicheng tugged at the harness straps, then grabbed at the clips, but it was impossible to move them against the dead tension of his weight.

“—we’ll be—” He stopped. The way they wanted to go was out, over the water. Inhospitable as it looked under the early afternoon sun, it would be relatively safe to land in. The gray blur of beachfront roof tiles sharpened into a grid, mapped by the corners of buildings and the shaded runs of streets.


Remember how small everything looks from up there. It’s all so small.

“All right, Baba,” said Margaret. Weicheng knew he was scaring her, but it didn’t matter because that wasn’t the objective. He watched the boat as it inched toward the shadow-bruised shallows, and figured it would not catch up before they were over land.

Margaret still held onto the harness straps and swished her feet as if she were riding her elementary school’s chain swing. Weicheng looked up at the parasail, swollen so they could see its nylon threads’ crosshatch, the colors darkening as clouds moved in. They flew toward a cement pier that crooked like a pale arm trying to grasp the ocean’s heart. They crossed maggot-white slashes of sand, over beachgoers who did not look away from their volleyballs and bad books. Xiaohong stood somewhere down there in sunglasses and a lolling hat that brushed her shoulders with every overeager step. She would still raise a palm to shade her eyes, Weicheng knew, as she watched the parasail. Would trust that it was part of the deal, the adrenaline, the trick.

Are we going to go down?”

Maybe Dreadlocks would somehow call the authorities, and a helicopter would salvage them from the sky. Weicheng had a hard time imagining how that would work.

Maybe, he let himself fantasize for a second, the clouds with their bulging air-puffed cheeks would blow them back up along the Overseas Highway. Past the fool’s-gold stalagmites of downtown Miami. Over the rustling phantoms of cotton fields and the mud-languid veins of Midwestern river lands, gleaming as if through the laminate of Margaret’s history textbooks. Over tangled corridors of classrooms, bedrooms, and offices in which predictable yet unfathomable people and happenings dwelled. Out, across the Pacific, past the windows of the apartment in which his father burrowed trying to deny it all, the illogicality of events from start to finish. Showing it all to Weicheng as if, at this point in his life, he would still be able to understand any better.


The façade of the nearest beachfront building—stucco multi-story, probably a hotel—spread wider and wider across their vision, the rate at which the balcony railings lengthened and the shingling magnified telling him how fast they really flew.

 “Ba,” said Margaret.

Weicheng turned to look at his daughter—her nostrils clenched, her irises circled by perfect, unbroken whites. She looked nothing, Weicheng suddenly thought, like either him or Xiaohong, though there was the swell of her cheekbone that might eventually sharpen into the shape of Xiaohong’s face. A shard of sun fell on her face, casting shadows between its fine, clear hairs.

He swallowed the dizzying surge that rammed its way up his throat. “No problem, Lele.” Grasping Margaret’s left bicep with his right hand, he swung his left arm across to grab her right shoulder and wrenched her face-first into his chest—his chin bristly on her forehead, their life vests pushing and sizzling stupidly against each other. Above them, the harnessing and parasail churned. They dropped and swerved. Weicheng could only see the ocean beyond Margaret, then the street beneath their toes—

He felt the impact like a violent heartbeat, the jar of everything slamming against the inside of his chest. As if his upper body were trying to break out of itself. Later, he couldn’t help but look up the photographs of the parasail knotted to the roof. The bodies useless below, soft and inadequate and distinct against metal and cement.

Margaret finally began to cry. Weicheng tried to tighten his arms around her shoulders; listened to the wind rush and bump across the ridges of his ears like an unaccustomed pulse. Already wondering, with a resigned dread deeper than the thought-gnawing throb of his body, about what he would need to say if they returned to the ground.