A gunman bursts into a small Chinese seafood restaurant, with unexpected results. A young pianist learns that her mother may be Beethoven's mysterious lady love. The lonely Elephant Man's life is transformed forever by a single smile. These stories and more pose questions about the complexity of being human and what it means to love others in any shape or form.
Excerpt from The Lioness at the Gates:
You can find some of the best seafood in Boston in little neighborhood restaurants that never get mentioned in any guidebook. And one of the very best is Wongs' Fish Palace, a hole-in-the-wall market and sit-down restaurant in a neighborhood teeming with students and immigrants from all over.
No fancy china and linen tablecloths at the Fish Palace. The tender seafood comes on paper plates with plastic forks and little packets of soy or tartar sauce. You grab your soda from the cooler and if you don't want Mrs. Wong to yell at you, you leave the empty can on the counter for a nickel back and a smile from the lady of the house. If you ask for clams, that's what you get - lightly fried and hot, bellies and all. They only serve the big sea scallops at Wongs', and you know you've found the real thing, after eating little rubber erasers all your life.
You can eat a cooked meal at one of the small tables, or choose a cook-your-own fish from a big glass case full of ice. Under the bluish lights their glassy eyes stare up at you and their big lips pout as if they wish they were still swimming in the icy blue waters off Georges Bank. They had a long ride on the trawlers, then lay patiently in huge barrels until the lucky ones were loaded onto Mr. Wong's battered Datsun pickup just before sunrise.
The dockworkers and fishermen all know Mr. Wong - his head barely comes up to their broad chests as he swings their huge boxes of fish onto his truck with the effortless grace of a wu-shu swordsman. They rib him about his small size, but they'd be happy to have him on their crew any day.
Rattling back into town on the turnpike in the pink dawn, waving at the sleepy commuters grumping their way into the city, Mr. Wong guns his groaning truck to just above the speed limit and cranks up the radio to Golden Oldies. He likes Elvis the best. At the tolls he greets the toll taker. They all know him by name, and call out a more-or-less cheery hello. He parks his truck in front of his store.
As he hauls open the screechy metal security gate, he has to step over the bubble gum and dog piles on the sidewalk.
One of the regulars in front of the bar next door sings out, "Hey Mr. Wong, any good fish today?"
"So fresh they be jumping," chuckles Mr. Wong, showing his gold front tooth. It is his standard reply.
The neighborhood begins to stir. Buses roar past, trailing fumes in their wake. A line forms at the bank across the street. Smells of coffee and donuts waft down from the coffee shop on the corner. But Mr. Wong has no time for breakfast. He has to arrange his fish on ice and poke little signs into them. He winces at the price of haddock, but what can he do?
Just as he has started the hot oil going in the cooking vats, Mrs. Wong rushes in, her kerchief hanging loose. She has gotten the children up and off to school and is ready to start her second job. She runs over to the bank to get change for the day, and jokes with Mary, the teller, a daily customer at the Fish Palace.
"I'll be over for my porgy at one o'clock if the boss lets me outta my cage," Mary says. "Don't forget, dunk that fishie, roll him til he screams, and - "
"Burn him to a crisp!" Mrs. Wong finishes. They both laugh. Mary is from Louisiana, and misses her Cajun food. She likes her fish well done and drowned in tabasco sauce, to remind her of those lazy summer days when she dangled her feet in the warm Mississipi river and caught crayfish with a string and a stick.
Back at the store, Mrs. Wong puts on a red smock and a Red Sox cap - ever since the last World Series, she's worn it with pride. Now she chops vegetables for traditional Chinese dishes as well as American ones, and peels shrimp with swift fingers. By opening time, a small crowd of regulars is peering anxiously through the glass door. Mr. Wong swipes the spotless counters with a cloth, ties on a striped apron, and unlocks the door with a cheerful "Hello" that deepens the wrinkles around his eyes. The day has begun.
Two elderly ladies carefully select a flounder from the whole fish case. This is Mr. Wong's domain, while Mrs. Wong serves up