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May 27, 2024

Old Sugar 7

By Barbara Rendall


Trevor did manage to get his walk that afternoon, out of the village along the old road to Cheok Wan beach. The Smugglers' Road, people called it. It led through the jungly forest above the sea, parallel to but well below the paved road that circled the island, and there were still suspicious steep paths going down to the water. He'd heard stories about all sorts of illegal things that had gone on along this coast for generations -- pirates who raided the European trading ships in the old days, and then years of lucrative modern smuggling operations between China and Macao. Uncle Fong liked to tell about when folding umbrellas were a hot contraband item. In Trevor's own time, he remembered illegal mainland immigrants sneaking in from across the water, sometimes in small boats by night, sometimes just swimming and carrying their clothes in a plastic bag. When he was a kid, the police were always checking the public buses. They could pick out the II's in a minute by their burnt-dark skin, bad haircuts, and cheap clothes. The lack of a Macao ID card would send them off the bus and into the police wagon while everyone watched. But Trevor had gone to school with quite a few children of those mainland immigrants who'd managed to stay. Their parents had worked hard at rotten jobs, and some of those kids got to university. He'd felt superior to them in primary school, but by middle school he had to admire them, though of course he'd never said anything. He wondered what some of them were doing now.

For himself, since this morning, thanks again to the Sugarmans, he was, strangely enough, thinking of trying out the furniture business for a while. He had already realized he could easily call it "import-export." After tea, they'd shown him around Old China and said if he was looking for work, as they'd heard from his aunt, they really did need a Cantonese-speaking assistant to help them deal with their supplier in Zhuhai. The woman who'd helped them previously had gone to Australia, and while they loved running their shop and filling people's requests for pieces, they needed someone local to help. Their textbook Mandarin didn't quite do the job and making frequent trips to the mainland was becoming tiresome.

Trevor read the situation immediately: he had a vision of some jerk on the other side of the border who knew trusting, gullible gweilos when he saw them and who was cheating them blind on the furniture. Trevor's competitive blood and his dormant business courses rose to the challenge. It wouldn't be like working in a big financial building in Central, but it would be work, and the fact that it involved foreigners gave it a bit of status. Plus, the Sugarmans didn't look like they'd fold up and flee overnight, like Moonextra Investment Consultants. They weren't obliging him to stay forever, either. It was just extended as something that would (refreshing his memory of American idiom) both "tide them over" and "help them out in a pinch." But what had really decided it for Trevor was the room.

As they walked him around their shop, showing him the sorts of items they dealt in, Nancy casually opened a door on one long side of the showroom.

"You could stay here if you like. I know it's crowded at your Aunt's and this is just sitting empty, and it has a separate entrance. You must be used to having your own space."

Beyond the door was a long, narrow bedroom that had been added to the side of the house, but it also looked like a second, more liveable showroom. There was a big Chinese bed with four posts and a top, almost filling one end of the room, and covered with a red silk quilt and a mound of embroidered pillows. On one side wall was an old desk with numerous little brass-bound drawers, recesses, and nooks. Opposite it was a tall chest of drawers, painted with red lacquer and gold designs, and at the end of the room was a huge armoire. He knew what it was called because so many of his friends in Hong Kong snapped them up when they found them since they were ideal for holding tv's and other electronic necessities plus clothes, bedding, and everything else that needed stowing in a tiny downtown apartment. A silky traditional carpet of every possible color filled the center of the shiny wood floor.

Sitting empty? How could such a place not be used? "Whose room is it?" he asked, having a hard time believing it was available to him, and that such an unimagined place was only a few steps from his family's modest home.

"It's our guest room," Nancy explained. "But we hardly have guests. It makes a wonderful setting for these pieces, though. We rotate other things in as these sell."

Already Trevor was hoping they wouldn't sell the desk too soon. He wanted to check out those little drawers -- there had to be a secret one, he was sure.

"We put it in for our daughters, to entice them to visit," added Morrie. "But they've hardly used it. They really prefer the Westin, for the health club. They're spoiled American kids, of course, and they won't visit China unless there are decent facilities."

He pronounced the last word delicately, and at the same time stepped over to one of two doors in the back wall. Opening it, he revealed, instead of the closet Trevor had expected, a dazzlingly white American bathroom -- complete with glassy stall shower. He felt again the same sudden faith in the goodness of life that he'd felt when he saw his much simpler but at that time just as unbelievable accommodations in Mrs. Molly Morehead's house all those years ago -- on Maple Street in Oneonta.

"Of course, for ourselves, we prefer the traditional squat toilet," Nancy added. "It keeps you much more limber, so good for the knees at our age -- "

But Trevor hastened to interrupt her, not prepared to share every aspect of his new employers' lives. "This is fine for me," he replied, speaking the perfect truth.

That evening, in the last few hours of Lunar New Year's Eve, they all sat around the space at the back of Cookie's shop at a makeshift holiday dinner table. It was made from several smaller tables and some wide planks Uncle Fong kept in his work yard out back. But Cookie had thrown a bright cloth over the whole arrangement and pulled up a variety of chairs and stools, so it seated everyone and held all the twelve steaming plates of food she and Grandma had prepared.

Even Scarlett and her "friend" -- who turned out to be named Lobo and who had a prodigious appetite but not much to say -- had turned up. They were off from work at the casino today, but would be working all day tomorrow.

Scarlett, who had drunk a fair portion of the fiery clear liquor they had brought, was suspicious when she heard her son had acquired another job so quickly, on a holiday. As usual, there was no pleasing her, Trevor thought glumly. And how, she wanted to know, could it really rate as a job if it was just some little shop in the village?

"We turn quite a tidy little profit," Old Sugarman said calmly, catching the drift of her belligerent Catonese. But Trevor noticed a certain stiffness in his neck and redness on his cheekbones, sure signs of irritation in American men. He had learned this while sitting in numerous college bars in Oneonta.

Already loyal to his employer-to-be, Trevor translated this warningly to his mother as, "It's not just some shop, Ma. They make really big money."

"But you used to sell investments in Hong Kong! That's a real job," she protested, her face flushed above the pale yellow folds of her knock-off pashmina shawl -- which Cookie, although she herself wouldn't have been caught dead going out dressed up in a blanket, had already pointed out was two seasons out of fashion, even on Coloane Island.

"Drink, drink!" said Lobo in a vague, aimiable attempt at peace-making, refilling her glass and his.

"That Hong Kong job was a bullshit job," countered Uncle Fong gruffly, plucking up yet another of his wife's succulent vegetable, egg, and mushroom dumplings and dabbing it in a little dish of sauce. "Working on commission and trying to get people to give you their money to throw away for them. What idiot is going to do that? They can do it themselves at the casino."

Suddenly Trevor remembered his plan to increase his New Year's money at the gambling tables. Somehow he had completely forgotten all about that as people had begun proposing plans for him and he began to look in other directions. Even now Uncle Fong again began to raise the possibility of the cement plant, but Cookie was indignant.

"He went to university in New York for four years. He should throw all that away?"

Old Sugarman, having caught the name of the biggest local business and read the body language of the give and take of family disagreement, discouraged the idea more gently. "You should have a job that makes use of your English skills," he said to Trevor. "That's where you're a cut above the rest."

Trevor felt a grateful surge of pride, something he'd been missing for a long time. He knew this was true, but he tried to hide his pleasure from his family by failing to translate Morrie's words for the others. They would all knock him down in a minute for thinking too much of himself.

"These kids need to know what hard work is," Fong was insisting to his wife, though he seemed to tacitly accept Trevor's superiority to himself by avoiding addressing him directly. "A lot of them don't really want to work," he went on doggedly. "They just want to say they have a job."

"True," Cookie agreed. "You have to want to work if you want to be a success. You have to like work." She looked pointedly at Starry and Kuan Kuan.

"I love work!" Starry insisted. "I already have two jobs -- school and tutoring. And after university I'll be an air hostess or a crime scene investigator, and a performance artist in my spare time."

This overflow of ambition left her parents temporarily speechless. Then Fong turned to Cookie. "Where does she get this crap?"

Cookie shrugged. "The Hong Kong Channel."

"She's just like you were," Grandma said to Cookie, smiling one of her rare smiles, her gold tooth glinting. "Full of funny ideas."

Everyone laughed, and Trevor translated Starry's ambitions and granny's comment for the Sugarmans.

"Well, you'll never lack for things to do, Starry," said Morrie. As my own wise grandmother used to say, 'Arbeit macht das Leben suess' -- work makes life sweet. She even had it on her kitchen wall, painted on a wooden plaque from the Old Country. And it's true. It's one of the great discoveries as you get older, especially when you near retirement. Am I right, Fong? Trevor, ask your uncle if he doesn't agree."

Trevor translated for Fong, and his uncle smiled boadly at Old Sugar. "Exactly right," he agreed, and he reached across the table with his chopsticks to put another one of Cookie's juicy garlic prawns in Morrie's bowl.

Then Cookie turned to Scarlett with a seemingly innocent question, but one which had been taking shape during the conversation. There was her sister, dressed like a prostitute for the family party, filling herself with her mother's and her sister's good cooking, drinking herself silly with her wordless, disreputable-looking boyfriend, and all without having brought a single gift with her except for that bottle of white liquor the two of them were steadily consuming.

"So where is Rocky now?" she asked Scarlett. "A pity he didn't come home to see us."

"He's working in Guangzhou," Scarlett began, as she downed yet another dumpling. "Making big money," she added with a superior glance around the table. "He's so busy he can hardly -- "

"He's a gangster," Kuan Kuan piped up helpfully around a mouthful of his favorite sticky rice pancake.

Scarlett fixed him with a stare and Cookie rushed in with an admonition.

"How can you say such a thing about your cousin?" But it was purely a formality, because she couldn't have been more pleased with the result of her inquiry.

"He told us!" Starry and Kuan Kuan declared in unison, defensively, then laughed at the high note of protest they'd struck together.

"He did. Last New Year," insisted Starry on her own. Kuan Kuan's mouth was full again. "He told us he sells ID cards and university diplomas. He told me I'd be stupid to work hard to get into university because he could get me a diploma from any university, even American, for five hundred Hong Kong dollars. But -- " she tapped the table with her chopsticks for emphasis -- "I think he's stupid to be doing something illegal like that. He'll end up on the tv news with one of those sacks on his head."

Scarlett's face went dark with anger. She set down her glass abruptly and began to gather up her things, and Lobo. "We have to get to the temple by midnight. We want to make offerings for a lucky year."

She yanked her shawl closer around her sequinned red sweater dress, but it clung to Lobo, who was trying to untangle the fringe from the tiny gold knobs of the heavy fake Rolex he wore.

As they each tusseled for freedom, Cookie, resting her folded arms on the table where her many dishes were near to being consumed by her contented guests, looked up at her sister with a sly grin. "Lucky year! You make your own luck, that's what I think."

Granny looked up at her daughters sharply. "Work hard," she said to Scarlett. "Like your sister. And like Fong." Scarlett violently snatched the last bit of her shawl free from Lobo's wrist. "Have you seen Fong's stones?" Granny asked her.

Kuan Kuan grinned. He was proud of his father's stones. "Work is candy!" he said joyfully, to no one in particular.

Scarlett's disdainful glance swept all of the faces around the table, including the two foreigners'. "Stones. Dusty, old-fashioned tables and pots. Work is candy. You know what? Everybody in this house is crazy." And she turned and clicked out through the shop in her dangerously thin high heels. Lobo lumbered close behind, carrying what was left of their gift bottle of liquor.

After they were out the door, Uncle Fong raised his eyebrows and said, with a wink towards Trevor, "Anyway, nobody in this house is named Lobo."

The laughter around the table seemed to close all the little gaps that were usually there. Trevor had a sudden sense of the family holiday that he'd always been too self-absorbed, too much in a hurry, to feel before. It was like he'd stepped through an invisible wall and was no longer outside of life looking in, but on the warm, lighted inside, finding simple things strangely satisfying. Maybe this was what was called growing up.

Cookie brought in the traditional blue and white divided dish of candies, salty seeds, and preserved fruits that signaled the end of the meal, and he was content. The stupid secret that had plagued his life like a low-grade toothache had not been kept, but it hadn't exactly been revealed either. Better, it had been transformed by people who really seemed to care about him, family and foreigners both, into the truth. Luck had found him after all. Or had he, as Cookie said, made his own luck, in the most unexpected way -- by coming home?

The mixed pile of good things on the round plate in front of him seemed to represent everything he could look forward to from now on. And they also brought back what was one of the happiest memories of his childhood: the big glass jars of candy in the dark, rich confusion of Granny's old shop years ago, this very building, now so bright and modern.

But they didn't seem to make those very special candies anymore, the ones she had dropped into his eager hand back then. There had been some very clear yellow lemon drops, smooth and tart, that he'd loved, and even better, the coconut candies, small soft-hard brownish logs that melted deliciously when you chewed them. They had come in a white and red waxy wrapper with a picture of an old-fashioned bridge on it -- he could still see and taste them.

They had been his favorites because they were sweet but not cloying, and they lasted a long time. His grandmother was not a believer in any kind of soft candy, like chocolate, because it didn't keep. Cookie sold a similar coconut candy now -- there it was in the dish, because it was still regarded as "Trevor's favorite." He had tried it, but it was harder and made the roof of his mouth sore. Now, out of respect for that childhood memory, to keep it intact, he reached for some black melon seeds instead.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-02-14
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