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June 05, 2023

Old Sugar 3

By Barbara Rendall


The taxi entered the village, and Trevor told the driver to let him off near the old square. He crossed the street and entered the crooked alleyway that led to what had been his grandparents' shop but was now Cookie's. Behind and above it was the family home, but when a crowd was visiting, home life often flowed comfortably right into the shop stocked with biscuits, sweets and bottled drinks. And sure enough, there was Auntie Cookie as usual, sitting on a little pink plastic stool outside the open doorway where she could keep track of everything inside and outside her domain.

Just now it looked like she was waiting for him. She was talking on her mobile and her eyes lit up when she saw her nephew coming her way, dragging his suitcase behind him and carrying a now creased and depleted plastic bag. She waved at him but didn't look surprised, just amused, so he knew it was his mother on the phone. Filling her in.

"Here he is," she shouted triumphantly into the tiny phone. Then she clicked it off, pocketed it, and called down the alley to him, "Ai, Man Man! Lost your job! Kung Hei Fat Choi!" Leave it to Cookie to find unemployment funny.

She got up from her stool, a wide smile on her face, and waited for him in the middle of the passageway. The lady who ran the grocery shop opposite and two old loungers on a stone bench watched curiously as Cookie pinched his cheek and poked at his gelled hairstyle. "But you look good, Man Man! You don't look like a bum -- you'll be ok." She slapped his jaw firmly but cheerfully and yanked at his jacket collar to catch a glimpse of the label.

For some reason her big smile and joking encouragement made him feel worse than his mother's cursing and thrashing had. His mother and her sister were physically alike and equally loud and combative, but his mother went in for fashion, of a sort, and frizzed and bleached her hair, while Cookie dressed casually and wore her hair in a plain, short crop. Scarlett was rarely without high heels and make-up, but Cookie scuffed around in plastic sandals even in winter and her face and hair were her own -- as she liked to say in front of her sister. The two were competitive and critical, and there was always shouting and arguing when they were in the same room, but Cookie had what could be called a kind streak, in the same way a person who is usually easy-going is said to have a mean streak. There were comforting reserves of thoughtfulness in Cookie's character, and one of the things that brought them out was her older nephew.

Trevor swallowed his pride. "Thanks, Auntie. My mom kicked me out -- actually, she never let me in. This is for all of you." He handed her the box of nuts and the crooked tree which he had somewhat reassembled in the cab. "Kung Hei Fat Choi."

"What a face!" She gave him an affectionate shove in the chest. "You can sleep on our sofa. And wait until Granny knows you're here. She was going to start watching the bus stop for you tomorrow. She's at work now, though." She gave him the last bit of information with the amused look family members used when they mentioned Granny's work.

For years Granny, along with Grandfather, whom Trevor barely remembered, had run the store that was now Cookie's. But a few years after Grandfather died, Granny retired and passed the store on to Aunt Cookie, who had helped her there since she was a girl (Scarlett had had more urban ambitions).

While Cookie modernized the old grocery and housewares store into a specialty biscuit and sweet shop aimed at the newly-rich, newly-mobile mainland Chinese tourists, Grandma had kept busy taking care of Starry and Kuan Kuan and helping with the cooking. But when the grandchildren no longer needed the constant supervision of her quick, hard hands, Granny looked around for something else that could be improved by her attention.

She still had plenty of energy and liked to be out and about, so she created a freelance career for herself as a cardboard box collector and unofficial recycling authority. Recycling had come late to Asia in general, and Macao in particular. When Trevor was growing up, plastic bags festooning the trees and foam lunch boxes littering the gutters had been a common sight. When he had arrived in New York, he had been deeply impressed by the highly regimented garbage collection system there -- all those different colored signs and containers you had to master before you could throw away a piece of paper or a soft drink can. His landlady Mrs. Molly Morehead had a whole range of carefully labeled sorting boxes in her kitchen.

But Granny had actually been ahead of the times: she had always been a natural recycler. When she ran the store she had a huge supply of scavenged plastic bags under the counter for her customers' use, and she also had a substantial collection of every kind of box, bottle, or string on hand for any need that might arise. In her so-called retirement, she gave this interest full play, not only collecting, flattening, and turning in for money all the cardboard she could lay her hands on in the village, but also picking up bottles and cans wherever she found them. To the mortification of her family, she had Uncle Fong make her a big pushcart to help her move her collected goods.

"Ma, you look like a street cleaner. People will think we don't feed you," Cookie complained. "Why don't you help me in the store? You could stock the shelves -- you always liked that."

But Granny wanted her own work. "This is good work," she insisted, "and I do it better than anyone."

This was true. She was fanatically well-organized. In the old shop she had been famous for being able to put her hand on anything in her stock at a moment's notice, no matter what anyone asked for -- a bag of crack filler, a jar of shrimp paste, any size electrical plug adapter, a bottle of good Portuguese wine.

"Anyway," she argued back at Cookie, "at least I don't shame you by wearing a basket hat." Unlike the street sweepers and scavengers, who favored straw hats, Granny wore a New York Yankees ball cap that Trevor had brought home for Kuan Kuan but which had been outgrown. She let a stubby inch-long bunch of grey hair stick out the back opening to anchor it in the wind. The hat always caught the attention of the gweilos who came over from Hong Kong.

"So --" Cookie gestured toward her shop to recapture Trevor's attention. "Like my decorations?"

Trevor realized a bright glare from the shop had been half-blinding his left eye as he stood there, almost like he'd been standing too near the sun. He squinted as he turned and took in the full effect of Cookie's enterprise in all its Lunar New Year glory. The chrome shelving was heaped with colorful bags and boxes of merchandise, tiny spotlights illuminated the items, and all of this was overhung with hundreds of small red lanterns. Strings of tiny blinking lights outlined the doorway, the shelves, and the windows, and the life-size cutout figure of the nougat chef that always stood by the entrance -- he was the mythical creator of the special Macao candy she sold -- now sported a silk mandarin's robe over his clinical-white cardboard chef suit.

All this was quite a contrast to the store as it had been in Granny's day. Then it had been a dark little cave out of which she sold simple necessities like oil, rice, and soy sauce, tinned staples like Maling pork leg, and household goods like mops and plastic buckets. Fruits and vegetables were available out front in boxes when she could get them from a villager's garden.

When Aunt Cookie took over the shop, she tore it all out down to the bare stone walls and turned it into a surprisingly flashy and profitable enterprise aimed at tourists who couldn't get enough of the traditional almond biscuits and sticky Macao nougat. They carried the stuff away in bulging shopping bags, one in each hand, along with the boxes of Portuguese egg tarts they bought from the gweilo bakery on the village square.

"It all looks great, Auntie," he replied, and meant it. She was an impressive businesswoman, he realized.

"Trevor!" "Yorkie-Man!"

Trevor's two cousins, hearing his voice, came barreling out of the back room of the store, the space that served as the family living room, dining room, and kitchen. Kuan Kuan, six, was already in full holiday mode in a lucky red sweatshirt with racing cars across the chest, but Starry, twelve, still wore her school uniform -- blue jumper, white blouse, and blue sweater. She even had her school shoes on, despite the fact that she was on holiday -- those thick-soled, strapped black shoes that, Trevor had always thought, made Chinese schoolgirls look like Japanese cartoon characters.

Trevor remembered that Starry often wore her school uniform outside of school hours because she actually liked school. She was one of those annoying girls who wasn't happy unless she had a pile of homework to demolish, and she wore her Santa Rosa uniform with pride. She also spent all her spare after-school time working at the Study Harder Tutoring Center beating English verb forms into squirmy little village kids for spending -- or in her case, saving -- money. Even now she was holding an English vocabulary-building book in her hand.

But although she looked the same to Trevor as she always had, she looked different too. In the next instant, he was shocked to realize that his little cousin was starting to look sexy. There was a woman trying to burst out of that slightly outgrown schoolgirl uniform. Thrifty Aunt Cookie must be trying to get one more winter out of the outfit, guessed Trevor.

Starry's irregular, long, thick eyelashes, the feature that made her eyes match her name, had begun to make her look glamorous rather than like a small mischievous animal, as Trevor had always thought of her before. The same ropy braid, now tied with a piece of red yarn for the holiday, still fell down the middle of her back as it had since she was five. But now that she was taller, it looked more provocative than cute.

"Trevor! Is it true that you're poor?" Starry demanded, jumping up and down in front of him in that irritating schoolgirl way. That hadn't changed, but he found it more bothersome now that she was almost as tall as he was. "What will you do -- go to work with Granny?"

She spoke English as she always did when they were together, to emphasize the superior education they shared, and she smiled devilishly at him sideways through her dark lashes. He wished she'd stop jumping. There was too much of her now for that.

"I'm between jobs," he assured her, and tried to sound off-hand. This was one of the phrases that had come to him on the jetfoil when he was thinking of all the ways he might explain his situation to his family.

She looked at him skeptically. "Between?" she asked quickly, in a tiny voice and with her thumb and forefinger close together, measuring off an insignificant space. "Or be-twe-e-n?"--loud and drawn out, throwing her arms wide apart with a wide grin to match, like her mother's. The girl was becoming way too smart for her own good, Trevor could see.

Kuan Kuan, bored with his sister showing off her English, began to drag on Tevor's arm. "What did you bring me?" he asked in the well-practiced, piteous whine of a younger child and only son.

"Kuan Kuan!" Aunt Cookie cuffed her son on the side of the head. "Leave your cousin alone. He's here to stay with us for the holiday. His mama doesn't have room for him. Don't be naughty!"

Kuan Kuan pressed his ear with his small hot hand, but he was more worried about this new concept of a mother without enough room. But then he was distracted from his concerns by the sound of squealing wheels and rolling weight coming up the walkway between the shops.

"Granny! Man Man's here!" "He's poor!"

"What?" Granny stood stock still behind her cart to take in this turn of events, then darted toward Trevor with her quick little bow-legged stride, her face fierce with disbelief.

Trevor groaned. Here it comes again. There was such a difference between Chinese and American family reunions, he'd discovered. In a Chinese family, as soon as you walk in the door you're immediately found wanting in every way possible, while in America, as he'd observed when relatives came to visit his classmates, family members were simply glad to see each other. They treated each other politely, as if they weren't even related. There wasn't all this totaling up of scores and vying for face. The concept of tactfulness had also been a new discovery for him at the time. It wasn't that Americans were unobservant, or stupid. They just sometimes avoided saying certain things, even if they were obvious facts, if it was thought that the reality would be too harsh or hurtful to point out. Today he was running into criticism wherever he'd turned, and it wasn't helping his self-esteem -- another concept that the West had taught him about, but with which the Chinese seemed unconcerned.

But his hair was Granny's immediate worry. "What happened to your head?" she asked, reaching up to touch the short gelled tips of his hairstyle with her fingertips.

"Nothing, Granny." He made an effort to reply patiently. "It's just a Hong Kong haircut. How's your health?"

She ignored his question and looked wonderingly at the fine weave of his suit, the rich shine of his shoes. "You have no money? But look at you. And you studied in America!"

Trevor sighed. "I'm just looking for a new job -- after the holiday. Don't worry."

He pointed at her cart to draw her attention from himself. "Are you working too hard?"

"Me? No! What else should I do, sit on a stool all day like some people?" She cast a meaningful glance at her daughter.

Granny looked smaller and frailer every time Trevor saw her. He could hardly believe her bowed legs were the same legs that used to chase him all over the village when he was a kid, her little stick-like arms the same ones that used to fling him into chairs, beds, and bathtubs. Her hair was so thin it barely covered her scalp now, and her eyes and mouth seemed to be sinking inward.

She had begun to look like the picture of Grandfather that hung above the family altar in Cookie's living room. Because he couldn't remember his grandfather as a real living person, every time Trevor looked at that faded brownish snapshot of Grandfather's small bald head and wrinkled face, all he saw was a lonely, anonymous walnut. Now Granny was turning into a walnut, too.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-17
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