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June 24, 2024

Old Sugar 5

By Barbara Rendall


The next day was Lunar New Year's Eve and Trevor woke up early because Kuan Kuan was sitting on him. Trevor's head happened to be on the part of the sofa his cousin needed for watching the special holiday cartoons on TV and playing his hand-held electronic game at the same time. Unable to find a comfortable position, Kuan Kuan went away after a few minutes and then came back flapping a big square piece of toasted bread in his cousin's face.

The toast smelled wrong. "What's that?" asked Trevor, trying to place the smell.

"Fast breakfast," answered Kuan Kuan in his rough little voice, then added in muddled English, "Choco-stripey-Skippy." His eyes were absorbed in his entertainment, moving back and forth from the big screen on the dresser opposite to the little screen in his hand, the brown-slathered slab of bread dangling precariously from the hand that also held the game.

Starry bounced in from the kitchen area. She was wearing a thickly knitted red sweater and a red and green plaid kilt, and today her long hair was in a sideways pony-tail hanging over one shoulder with some red silk cord and bits of jade woven into it in several places. She was full of housewifely authority.

"Up and eat!" she ordered him. "We're cleaning and cooking and you have to get out." She dodged forward and grabbed Kuan Kuan's piece of toast just before it fell face-down on Trevor's quilt. "He eats this disgusting stuff ever since he had it at his little Portuguese friend's house. You get it at Park'n'Shop. Ma only buys it because it glues his mouth shut." She made this last comment in English, and then smiled sweetly down at her uncomprehending little brother.

Behind Starry, Granny and Aunt Cookie were already starting the dumplings, washing vegetables and chopping meat and frying garlic all at once, like one person with four hands. All surfaces in the cooking area were spread with newspaper and the air was a thick cloud of steam and oil.

"Eat and out!" called Cookie from her position at the wok. The huge flame beneath leapt dangerously every time she tilted the pan and gave it an opening.

Uncle Fong came downstairs, picked up a plate of toast and a big lidded mug of tea, and went out the back door. Starry was also arranging her own toast on a plate; it was cut into small, perfect squares, each spread with a different flavor of jam. Ever since Cookie had won a toaster in a lucky draw, they all had toast for breakfast.

"So fast and clean!" his aunt always enthused.

More than toast Trevor would have loved a shower just now, but the bathroom situation in the house was not up to his standard. There was just one of those old, square, half-sunken tubs that he hadn't felt comfortable in since he was about six. His mother's place in Macao had a shower of sorts, but there the water pressure was bad and the walls were black with mold. This bathroom problem was actually the main reason he'd always avoided staying overnight when he'd come to visit in the past. After living in New York for four years, and then Hong Kong, he'd become a bit fastidious when it came to plumbing facilities.

The Midlevels designer flat had of course been the climax of his experiences in that area, but there had never been luxuries he'd appreciated more than the first modest ones he'd encountered when he arrived in New York. He'd been so naive as a newly-arrived foreign student that he'd hardly believed his good fortune when he first saw his lodgings at Mrs. Morehead's. She had converted the front part of her house into a small studio apartment with a single bed that, with a few extra pillows, also served as a sofa. There was also a desk, some bookshelves, a small eating table, and a big soft chair with a lamp for reading. One corner of the room had miniature kitchen appliances and a narrow counter, and there was also an ample bathroom, covered right up to the ceiling with very pink tile, and featuring a sink, a toilet, and a built-in shower. All just for him. His landlady had apologized for the smallness of the apartment, and for the pink bathroom, but Trevor was having trouble believing that a bunch of other Asian students wouldn't show up any minute and demand that he let them move in and sleep on the floor.

Now, in Aunt Cookie's after-thought bathroom -- it had been tacked on to the tacked-on kitchen -- he splashed himself clean at the small, low sink and revived his hair as best he could, all the while trying to preserve his privacy. Every one of his relatives seemed to be just on the other side of the door which, being about one hundred years old, did not even close all the way.

When he came out, Granny handed him a mug of tea dangling a teabag tag that said "Luk Yu." This bothered him in the vague, irritating way a lot of Chinese things did since he'd returned from the U.S. Darlie toothpaste was another example. Mrs. Morehead had been really disturbed when she'd seen a tube of it while cleaning his bathroom, and although he told her it was a very popular brand in China, she had gently explained to him that some Americans might be offended by the logo of what looked to her like a grinning black man with a top hat and very white teeth. It touched on a still very delicate area of American race relations, she'd said. He'd kept a list of similar cross-cultural embarrassments when he'd first returned home, thinking that someday in a job situation someone might ask his advice, as a former overseas student, about such things, but they never had, and he'd stopped after a while, after it didn't seem to matter so much anymore.

He took his tea and joined Uncle Fong out in the scrappy little area behind the house. Fong was contemplating the collection of ornamental paving blocks he made as a hobby with salvaged cement from the factory and with which he was slowly covering the area in a haphazard way, to keep water and mud from accumulating and attracting mosquitos.

"How about a job at the factory?" his uncle asked in his abrupt way, before he'd even said good morning. "I could get you in --" Trevor cringed with embarrassment. He'd been waiting for this. Naturally, as a man and a close relative, his uncle did not for one minute share the optimistic view Cookie had of her nephew's unemployment. He would be worried that Trevor would go bad, that he would soon be asking him for money or want to move in with them on a permanent basis. (I'd starve first, Trevor was ready to tell him. If I go down that road I'll be lost for life, I might as well just jump in the West River --)

"No -- uh -- I don't really think I could do that," he said instead, unable not to be polite.

Although who'd been polite to him ever since he'd lost his job? Not his friends, not his so-called girlfriend, not even members of his own family. That's what really bothered him. No one gave him a chance, gave him credit, had any imagination. They just dumped him, pitied him, teased him, or took him for a loser.

You get laid off from your first job, in an economic downturn, and they assume your run of luck is over, that you're really meant to be a manual laborer for the rest of your life. He knew this wasn't true of him, he had all sorts of abilities. But why didn't other people here see this? His professors in America had given him pretty good grades and had encouraged him. Mrs. Button, his Freshman English prof, had really liked his essays, although he had always felt a bit guilty that she had thought his comparison of his pre-America self to a frog in a well was original and not something every Chinese person said. He hadn't set her straight because she'd been so excited about it, putting double exclamation marks in the margin. That had been nice. But here at home people seemed to assume that he'd ultimately failed, that the best part of his life was now over and he might as well give up and go to work with Uncle Fong. And some of these people had put money toward his study abroad. It didn't make a lot of sense.

Trevor knew it had been money from the biscuit shop that financed his university education, money that Granny and Grandfather had accumulated over the years. He'd always figured since his grandparents had two daughters and neither one had been interested in getting an education after middle school, there had been some kind of extra money around, originally destined for a son who had never been born. He'd assumed it had been his by right, as the eldest grandson. But now, for the first time, he wondered if his relatives would have had a nicer house if he hadn't gone to New York.

Uncle Fong was inspecting a few of his newly made paving blocks. He had just taken them out of their wooden molds. One had the raised pattern of the character for "long life" and one was a simplified depiction of the new Macao Tower. Even though he slung cement bags all day, Fong was a bit of an artist in his spare time, transforming the mundane material he worked with into something pleasing and interesting. He prided himself on the way he had paved the small back courtyard with his own simple versions of lucky characters and Macao landmarks like St. Paul's Church, the old China border gate, and the tower. Neighbors took a liking to the blocks, too, and here and there in the village you could see Fong's work on pathways, doorsteps, and even set up on end to form planters beside front gates.

But right now Fong seemed also preoccupied with putting his handyman's instincts to work improving Trevor's situation. "Then maybe you should go to see Old Sugar."

"Who's that?" Trevor pictured some stick-throwing fortune teller at the local temple, or a palm reader like you sometimes still saw in the old square in Macao, huddled over a little table and strange charts with a young couple and a potential mother-in-law, working out a marriage date.

"He runs a store here in the village. He --"

"You think I should work in the village?" First the cement factory and now a shop. Trevor was insulted.

"He's an old guy who knows a lot of people in Macao. Maybe he could help you. You don't have any savings, I'll bet."

"Not really," Trevor admitted evasively.

Uncle Fong shook his head, as if he saw the whole picture. "You need some cash, something to do right away. You don't want to live in our kitchen very long, do you?"

Trevor admitted all this was true.

"And you can even use your English with him. He's a gweilo -- an American."

"What?" Trevor's heart began to beat a little faster with apprehension. An American? Why hadn't Fong mentioned this right away? "You know him?"

There were a few foreigners living in the village, the English guy with the shaved head who ran the bakery on the square, and a few young schoolteachers who rented a small house on the edge of the village. But he didn't think his relatives had ever said two words to any of them.

"If he's an American, why is he called Old Sugar?" The nickname made it sound like he and Fong were longtime friends.

"His English name is something like 'sugar' -- Starry knows it. She's over there all the time" -- Fong jerked his thumb in the direction of the street by the river -- "practicing her English. There's a wife, too. Starry will introduce you to them."

Fong caught the dubious look on Trevor's face. "It's for your own good. Make an effort! Other people have done plenty for you already, you know."

He knew. But this was bringing Trevor into a more awkward situation than anyone realized. People from America ... The old worry ... Trevor fought down a wave of panic. Was every shred of the life he'd created for himself since he'd escaped from Macao going to disintegrate over this one so-called holiday?

With a sharp stick, Uncle Fong was scraping away some caked dirt from the design in one of the cast cement blocks at his feet--a depiction of the Lisboa Hotel with the Tinker Toy-like ornament on its roof.

As casually as he could, Trevor asked, "Where is he from in America, this guy? Do you know?" After all, America was huge.

Uncle Fong shrugged. "What do I know? I don't know all those names like Starry does." He paused to inventory his knowledge of foreign geography. "Maybe San Francisco? Or no -- no, it's where you were -- New York! You go see them. Maybe they know some of your friends there."

Trevor's heart sank down somewhere beyond his shoes. Shit. Of course. He should have expected it. The way things had been going, where else would they be from?

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-31
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