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September 18, 2023

Old Sugar 2

By Barbara Rendall


The jetfoil was slowing down, lowering itself on its blades, transforming itself from a sea-spraying ice skate to a boat again, passing under the dragon-back bridge, and entering Macao's Outer Harbor.

Trevor negotiated the usual scramble at Immigration, masses of humanity hell-bent for the shortest line, and then decided to take a leisurely route to his mother's flat on the other side of Guia Hill, which was barely visible as a hill these days with all the new buildings going up. When he'd been a kid, Macao's many hills had stood up all along the old peninsula like rounded green mounds, with something interesting at the top of each one: a church, the lighthouse, a fort. Now they were being swallowed up by all the changes that had overtaken Macao just since Trevor's childhood, and not much of the city was old anymore. He was surprised to feel a twinge of sadness. He had wanted so badly to get out of Macao because it had always seemed so old and slow and cut off from everything new and exciting, like Hong Kong--and of course, New York.

A normal person heading for the Tap Seac neighborhood would have taken a cab, or at least tried to cram his suitcase onto a number 8 bus. But Trevor was reluctant to part with any money unnecessarily, even the 3.30 bus fare. So instead of paying for transportation in a small place like Macao, he decided to assume the appearance of a visitor at leisure, strolling the walkway around the reservoir across from the ferry terminal, wheeling his fashionable suitcase behind him and toting his gifts. Then he took a left toward the busy intersection near the Kun Iam temple and headed down the narrow, fume-choked street that led straight to the center of town and his old neighborhood.

He tried to look like he was enjoying the walk, but the sights were mainly sports shoe stores, camera stores, and cheap Thai restaurants, all housed in the bottom floors of older apartment buildings. As shabby as most of the buildings were, they had decorative stone balconies that were either Chinese or Portuguese, he'd never been sure which. Growing up in Macao gave you a confused idea of Chinese culture that he'd found difficult to explain to people when he was living in the U.S.

This street was not a street for tourists and it didn't even hold much interest for local residents, but it was much used by both groups all the same, mainly because it was one of the few straight streets in Macao. It didn't meander and lose itself in a fragmenting network of little alleys, disappear into the side of a hill, or dead-end at some body of water. Macao was a small place, a mere bump on the south China coast, but it seemed bigger because it was so hard to follow one direction for any length of time. You were always going around in circles and coming out back where you started. And the fact that all the streets had names in both Chinese and Portuguese -- which more often than not had entirely different meanings -- didn't help.

As Trevor turned right to take the old shortcut at the walled cemetery, he noticed that the side streets in the area had been repaved with those small, square Portuguese stones, mostly cream-colored along with some black ones making up fancy designs, that helped to lead visitors to historic sites all around the city. The old street looked like a shiny new pedestrian mall, although cars were still squeezing through, just grazing the green bollards meant to protect pedestrians. Was it possible that his old neighborhood was turning into a tourist attraction?

But there was his street, Beco do Amaral Coutinho Pinto e Costa -- in Cantonese, Pork Dumpling Alley -- looking just the same, not especially culturally significant, with his mother's building teetering at the corner where the pavement headed uphill to the Monte fortress, then stopped at a wall of rock with the ends of little drainage pipes sticking out of it at regular intervals. Like most apartment buildings in Macao over two years old, its outer walls had a stained and moldy look. The humid climate could do this to a brand-new building in an amazingly short time. But the surprise was, you could enter a dubious doorway downstairs, take the smeared and scuffed lift upwards, press the irritating buzzer at the entry to your destination, and find yourself in a clean, pleasing, well-appointed dwelling almost as bright and welcoming as the homes Trevor had come to know when he lived in the States.

Of course here in Macao these were always other people's homes, too. The flat where he had grown up had always been no surprise at all, but just what you would expect, at one with the outside of their building: scrappy furniture, poor lighting, altogether unwelcoming, as if the residents were making do after some natural disaster, like you see all the time on the tv news. At least that was how it looked to him now. As a kid, he didn't think about it; it was just home.

His mother had always said she wasn't one to waste money on "show," and that was that. She worked day and night on her feet, she reminded her sons. She didn't have time for fancy decorating like her sister Cookie, who she maintained spent a ridiculous amount of money on "garbage" for her home. But Cookie's home was her shop, and her shop was her home. She was always there and the little two-floor shophouse in Coloane Village was her "nest," her life. Scarlett, Trevor's mother, worked in the casino from 3 pm to 11 pm and then went out after with her friends for what she called her 'social life.' "Otherwise I'd never have any," she said, defending herself angrily, when he or Rocky had complained that she was never home. She provided them with a bed to share, a saggy sofa parked in front of a giant, dusty tv, and a plastic table where some sort of carry-out food could usually be found, in varying stages of consumption. Home Sweet Home.

He remembered the sign with those words, made of some kind of stitching, in the living room of Mrs. Molly Morehead, in whose home he'd boarded when he first arrived in New York. It didn't make any sense to him when he'd first read it, two different English words he knew by themselves, with one repeated, but not a real sentence. Later, when he realized he wouldn't be told to leave the country if he admitted he didn't understand something, he asked Mrs. Morehead about it and she explained it to him. When he finally understood, he had trouble imagining anyone hanging such a sign, even harboring such a sentiment, in his mother's living room.

As he maneuvered his suitcase down the curb and across the street, Trevor recalled how this time of year was really the best time to be walking these shadowy streets between the tired old buildings that sprouted weeds, like whiskers, from drainpipes and cracks. It was because of all the red and gold paper decorations in windows, on doors, next to doors. The rich red glowed in the shadows and threw squares and oblongs of color into the perpetually dusky light of the back streets. He loved that color. At this time of year it was like a beacon, it was lucky, and it made the whole day seem better. Even the poorest little doorway had its optimistic scrap of bright paper flapping in the January breeze.

When he was a kid, people used to paste long strips of good luck poems carefully on both sides of their main door, big black characters slashed on that rough paper that looked like it had started out white, but then had been crudely painted red with a big, wide brush. Sometimes the red would come off on your hands. These days, people bought smaller and more colorful commercially-produced decorations and stuck them mainly in the middle of their doors or windows, pictures of the animal whose year it was, or the god of wealth, or sometimes Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty dressed in old-fashioned Chinese clothes. But they were still that bright, bright Chinese red, redder somehow than any Christmas decorations he'd ever seen in America.

And there was a kind of sweetness to this time of year, too, Trevor reflected, beginning to feel a little sentimental as he approached the front entrance of his old home, where he was greeted by twin pictures taped to the security gate--an old-fashioned little boy and girl riding richly decorated cartoon snakes toward each other, seemingly floating in the middle of nowhere. The Year of the Snake was his own zodiac year, only the third in his lifetime, and mixed up with all the decorations there was the memory of so many good things, all those dishes of candies and sweet buns and sticky rice treats people would be urging on you for a week, and the red pockets of money even your least favorite relatives would give you. For this brief time, life would be full and rich--you only had to put out your hand. To a kid, it was proof, however brief, of how good life had it in itself to be, a taste of the future you could dream of having.

And maybe not just for kids. Here he was hoping for a fresh start that would make everything good again, just like when his grandmother came up with the money to send him to university abroad. He finally understood why people made such a fuss about family gatherings at holidays. Everyone needed a little support now and then...

He caught the door gate as someone else was going out and took the small, jerky lift up to his mother's floor. He pushed the razzing buzzer of 5C. Had the halls always been this narrow and crammed with people's stuff? Dusty cartons and extra pieces of furniture were stacked here and there, and his suitcase snagged on the pedal of a bicycle leaning against the wall.

Behind the familiar worn door, he heard his mother's penetrating voice calling out in answer to his buzz -- he had figured she wouldn't have left for work yet -- and the quick, impatient clack-and-drag of her high heels approaching. He always came home at New Year, so even though he hadn't called -- she never phoned him or his brother, her reasoning being it was time for them to pay the bills for a change -- she would be expecting him.

Trevor saw the little metal lid of the peephole lift briefly, flash light, and then various locks were undone and the door yanked halfway open, but no more. He was puzzled for a moment -- there was his mother, but why was she dressed like a waiter? But then he remembered the new uniform.

For years the female casino workers, no matter what their age or shape, had worn the same badly-fitting minidress and jacket made out of a cheap purple material that looked like toweling. That had been the daily outfit of the mother of his school days, her full thighs flashing under nubby purple, her angry heels clicking on the bare floor, late for work just as he and Rocky came home from school, late coming home after midnight as they pretended to be asleep in their bed, though they'd just bounded under the covers when they'd heard her key in the lock. They would finally fall asleep for real to the sound of her plastic carry-out bag dropping on the living room table (her dinner, their breakfast), the click of the tv coming back on, still warm from their own watching if she had touched it. Mixed with their dreams would be the remnants of their usual late-night game of thinking how the two of them would survive as orphans if one night their mother was hit by a bus outside the Lisboa Hotel.

But the waiter-look was his mother's look today, combined with the familiar long, matted perm with its bleached streaks the color of rust. Scarlett had hated her straight black Chinese hair since she was twelve, and over the years had done many different things to change it. In the mid-1990's she had been one of the first women in Macao to bleach her hair -- Trevor still remembered the stares she got. She had also started to call herself Scarlett, after the slinky character in the Clue game someone had given them.

The much smarter new uniform, Trevor remembered now, had been imposed by the new Las Vegas style recently adopted by the casinos in their concern about competition from the new casinos of western investors who were entering the lucrative Macao gambling scene. His mother now sported smart black pants, a pleat-front white shirt, and a black brocade vest like the fancy guy's in the American cowboy movies Mrs. Morehead had watched. And a perky black bow tie and high heels. His mother's shoes, as she blocked the half-open door and met his gaze though she was much shorter than he, had to be painfully high -- hooker shoes, Trevor thought involuntarily.

Behind her, at the other end of the bare main room, stood someone Trevor had never seen before, a stocky, swarthy man with a head like a block of granite. He was half dressed in an outfit identical to his mother's -- he was wearing the black pants but held the shirt and tie in his hands. A sleeveless undershirt left visible a large tattoo of a flying dragon on his left biceps. Trevor could see that the bow-tie was pre-tied and attached to a stretchy strap--a fake tie.

The mother-son communication was brief and to the point, as usual.

"What are you doing here?" asked Scarlett, irritated.

"Kung Hei Fat Choi!" replied Trevor gamely, holding out the tin of cookies, which he'd pulled from the Watson's bag as a visual aid, and the miniature plastic orange tree.

"Dinner's tomorrow, at Cookie's." She looked keenly at his offerings, registering their worth exactly.

"I came early." Trevor offered that lamely, like a third, lesser gift.

His mother's eyes flicked to his suitcase. "You're staying?"

He hadn't stayed overnight at New Year's since he'd been on his own, but came only for the day. One day was usually enough.

"It's New Year, Ma ..." he replied hopefully.

She looked at the plastic tree again, in Trevor's still outstretched hand. It looked pretty cheap, he realized now. It had been a poor choice, nothing as nice as the big pot of chrysanthemums he'd picked up last year from the little market under the pedestrian bridge just down the street. His mother always knew the price of everything.

Then her eyes flashed with sudden intuition, accusing and triumphant at the same time: "You lost your job!"

The big-headed guy across the room stood there staring, one arm in his shirt, still holding his stupid fake tie. The way he stood there so dumbly, in his socks, plus Trevor's own humiliation at having been discovered so quickly, suddenly caused anger to sweep over him like a wave. He didn't mean to say it -- it just welled up from some old, unhappy place inside him, churned to the surface by everything he'd gone through in the past months.

"Who's the greasy gangster?" he shot back in self-defense.

That set Scarlett off in the old way, screaming and cursing in her famously resonant Cantonese. It was like being pummeled by a sack of rice and cut up with small knives all at the same time. She snatched the plastic tree out of his hand, hit him on the head and shoulders with it, and then threw it on the hall floor behind him. The sharp little stems and pointy leaves stung his ears and neck, and the tiny synthetic oranges came loose and bounced around the floor at his feet.

"You fool!" she shouted. "Idiot! Worthless!" His mother had always had a low tolerance for disappointment.

And that was how Trevor ended up counting out, begrudgingly, a humiliating handful of Hong Kong coins for a taxi ride out to Auntie Cookie's shop in the old village on Coloane Island. He couldn't bear to wait for one of those rattley old number 25 buses that came half an hour apart, plus he was afraid the driver might not let him on with his suitcase. It wasn't until he'd settled himself in the back seat, still feeling a little bruised and dazed, and the cab strained its way up the rise of the long bridge to Taipa, the closer of Macao's two outlying islands, that he realized his mother, in their scuffle in the hall, had lightened his load of gifts. She'd taken the box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates as well as the tin of butter cookies, leaving him only the damaged orange tree and the cardboard box of assorted nuts.

He had thought he might give the chocolates to his grandmother, though she probably wouldn't have eaten them. She didn't care for fancy things, not even at holidays. But she'd always given him sweets from her shop when he was a kid. Well, the nuts might be enough for Cookie's family. She and Uncle Fong and his cousins Starry and Kuan Kuan could share them, and Grandma, too, though she didn't have many teeth left.

Then, thinking of his lightened pockets as well, he began to calculate how much New Year's money he might be able to collect for himself over the next few days. He would make a point of visiting all his relatives this year, and he hoped whatever he picked up would make a trip to a casino worthwhile. Maybe he would visit one of the new ones from Las Vegas, they might be luckier. Also, his mother's friends -- or his mother herself, or the tattooed boyfriend -- might see him at the Lisboa.

The taxi cut through the heart of Taipa, which had been just a scrubby island when Trevor was growing up. Nothing much besides the racetrack had been here then. Now it was a suburb of Macao, spiky with new hotels and highrises and the modern university that sat on top of a low hill looking like a UFO. The cab sped down the Avenida Sun Yat Sen and in a few minutes they were out on the causeway leading to Coloane, the other island, that was still countryside and beaches and where his mother and her sister had grown up.

On the causeway's long grassy median, twelve large stone carvings of the animals of the zodiac were arranged one after another, starting with the dragon. It was natural to watch for your own to appear, to see if it looked noble or silly, auspicious or embarrassing. Trevor was the snake, or the "little dragon" as some people (himself included) preferred to think of it: clever, watchful, quick, and good at getting through difficult situations. All attributes he needed just now.

Part Two of Eight

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-10
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