TO ONE HUNDRED
by Li Miao Lovett
When it’s slow in the shop Mai puts her
skinny fingers on the cash box and chips away
at her nail polish. It takes her mind off the
heat, which seeps through the walls like thick
syrup. Her spaghetti straps keep falling down
and even the thin cords of nylon feel like
coconut strings swimming in a gooey liquid.
She doesn’t like most of the customers that
come in. She notices their teeth first. The white
people have really white teeth and when they
lean in close she can smell the kind of meat
they had earlier. They eat a lot of pork and
chicken, delicacies that Mai has tasted only a
few times a year back home. Once she even
had duck, and the skin had prickly hairs like the
men who did not bother to shave.
The Korean customers have terrible teeth, and
they are lousy tippers. Through the gauze on
the window she often sees them strolling down
the lane, past the livestock cages and the
vegetable stands. At the entrance to the
building they dust off their pant cuffs. And when
she hears their footfalls on the creaky stairs her
breath catches in her throat. She counts to
thirteen; that’s how many steps it takes them
to reach the second level. And then she starts
over again when they ascend the second flight
of stairs. She recites a rhyme she learned from
her friend Linh back in her old village:
Rabbit runs three steps – hop hop hop
Wolf dashes ahead four – chop chop chop
Off with rabbit’s head now wolf turns ‘round
Everybody runs away without a sound.
Mai stops picking her nails for a moment. She
hears the heavy thud of a man’s soles on the
bottom steps. She counts to thirteen, and then
thirteen again. She recites the little ditty. And
when she looks up a man is leaning on the
counter, his sweaty palms outstretched toward
her. She sees that his short-cropped hair is the
color of sand, and it stands up straighter than
some of his teeth.
“May I help you?” she says.
He looks past her; the creases around his eyes
pinch like dumpling skins as he glances at each
of the women lined against the wall. They have
mastered the art of looking coy and standoffish
at the same time, especially the tall, thin girl
who is not much older than Mai. She has heard
their gossip, and knows there is little pleasure
in what they do for men.
“How much?” he asks.
Her heart thumps. Off with rabbit’s head now
wolf turns ‘round. Mai can’t help wincing when
the man’s finger brushes against her spaghetti
strap. “For boom boom, or yum yum?” she
says, remembering to raise her voice, which is
high and thin.
The man stares at her, then laughs. A gecko
darts across the wall but his eyes quickly shift
back to her face. “How much for boom boom?”
“Six hundred bhat.” Mai doesn’t look at him, but
she pinches a half-polished fingernail between
her thumb and third finger.
“And yum yum?” He puffs up his cheeks, and
she looks up to see him blowing into his hands,
as if they were cold.
“Four hundred bhat.” She hears giggles from
the women behind her. They are not often
amused, but he is a funny sight, his corn kernel
teeth too small for his boxy jaw, the gleaming,
lusty eyes darting this way and that as he
makes a fool of himself.
“Aw, you’re a smart girl. How about a discount
“No,” she says. “Same price.” She’s ready for
him to slap her, the way Madame did the last
time someone talked down their prices. Off with
rabbit’s head now wolf turns ‘round. She’s stuck
on the same line, and she can see the wolf’s
fangs, sharp and crimson.
He has not taken his eyes off her. “Here. Have
some guava juice. Looks like they don’t feed
you enough around here.”
She is supposed to say no, but she takes the
cup in her hand and gulps down the cold, sweet
“Tell you what,” the man says, pointing to one
of the girls. “I’ll take her, just boom boom, and
later you can come with me. To eat noodles.
Put a little fat on you.”
Mai ventures to look at his eyes, and sees the
silver flecks in the irises dart like tiny lizards as
he speaks. She does not understand everything
he has said, but she knows that he has made
her a proposition. “Under no circumstances are
you to leave with a man,” Madame said. As if
she were watching out for her like a mother.
But her own mother has not watched out for
her. Her mother may be the real wolf, and then
Mai won’t have to run away from this man.
The man smoothes back his sand-colored hair
as he follows the chosen girl into one of the
rooms. Now she bides her time. She begins
counting again, and even though she must start
over when she reaches one hundred, Mai knows
there will come a time, soon enough, when she
Li Miao Lovett is the author of the debut novel, In the Lap of
the Gods, portraying the lives of people displaced by China's
Three Gorges Dam. Her literary work has been published in
Narrative Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Words Without
Borders, and several anthologies including The Chalk Circle. She
has also written about environmental and cultural issues for the
San Francisco Chronicle and KQED public radio. In both fiction
and nonfiction, Li’s work has won awards or finalist standing
from Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest, National League of
American Pen Women, A Room of Her Own Foundation, and the
James Jones First Novel Fellowship.