I knew that little girl. Her father was blind. An accident at the vinegar bottling factory a few kilometers from the capital city. Shards of broken glass scooped out his eyes. In the mornings, the mother hiked up the hill to bring home dirty clothes from the maids at the mansions. Steamy vats of laundry, her hands red from rubbing cloth against washing board, her skin bleached, sometimes burnt from hot iron on charcoal. Drying lines zigzagged between poles in the backyard, bed sheets billowing in the wind like a curtain in an empty theater, a stray dog sleeping with one eye open. The girl helped her mother fold the clean laundry. She inserted a rose petal into each pair of lace gloves to be returned to the ladies up the hill. The television blasted djembe and drumbeats of salegy while they ate their manioc soup. When the father dropped the spoon, the girl rushed to pick it up, put it back into his hand, and wiped his dripping lips. Fridays, mother and daughter kneaded dough and baked bread until the sky colored pink. Saturday mornings, the mother asked one of her many cousins who had a pick-up truck to take the little girl and bread to the city where she could fetch a good price from the weekend vazaha tourists. It was one of those dry and perfect temperature days in June. The little girl was seated between the cousin and another man in the front, the racks of bread covered with a cotton tablecloth in the back. The fake leather seats peeled into brittle black bits that scratched her thighs. She said nothing while the man made crude jokes with the cousin who cackled. The man moved closer. Hey, little girl, he said. The aroma of the bread displaced by the stench of his breath. His face, sweaty and bumpy from old scars, was like the moon she gazed upon before falling to tiredness. He squished closer. His thigh touched the thinning fabric of her shorts. She flinched when he suddenly kissed her cheek. The truck lunged forward on the potholed road. The man put a sticky palm on her arm. The cousin focused his eyes on the road. She turned to look at the disappearing shape of her mother. She thought of her fingers sinking into dough, hands, arms, torso, legs, the tingling of fermenting yeast in her nostrils, the dough coating her body, hardening her soul.
The Magic Store
It might look like an ordinary Dollar store with yellow light shining through tall glass windows and a bright green sign, flyers with orange words like “Wow!” plastered behind the sliding doors; and if you walk around the corner, the neighbors will tell you to cover your child’s eyes for the neon pink spray-painted Fuck You’s, they’ll tell you that the store and the town have been fighting over who’ll fork the bill for cleaning the brick wall, they’ll shake their heads, shrug shoulders and say what can you do these days, everything costs so much more before they head to their car-cleaning jobs, their minimum wage diner jobs serving smaller burgers and fewer fries for the same price, their security guard jobs at the casino up the hill, they’ll tell you, they need the Dollar store now more than ever, and have you heard about that old Chinese lady who lives across the street, who goes there pretty much every day because she says the place is magic; if you go there enough times, you’ll win big at the casino is what she tells them, and you’ll say, oh really just out of courtesy, and they’ll say, yeah, and laugh, and tap their right temple, swing their neck to make sure Mrs. Wong isn’t just right at the corner, they’ll say, poor lady, what can she do when her only daughter doesn’t even visit, and right at that moment, Mrs. Wong will enter the store, her eyes glinting like diamonds for all the magic she’ll unleash because she alone knows the secret to unlock it, a list of magic spells she holds to her heart; if you follow close behind her, you’ll hear her incantations, buy things in 2s (二) to keep your husband close, choose a number with a 3 (三) in it to keep death at bay, write 66 (六十六) on a bill to win big and often at the casino; she steals 99¢ price stickers when no one is looking, sticks them into the lining of her jacket pocket, which crinkles like the corner of her eyes; she thinks how big she’ll win at the lottery tonight, 99 (九十九) is a lucky number, and everywhere she lays her eyes are 99s, pink bobby pins, red hairbrushes, flower paper cups; not all numbers have magic, she might tell you, only some and only because they sound lucky in Cantonese; their magic will only work for her because she’s Chinese, they’re not hocus-pocus or fake abracadabras; a smile peeks at the corner of her mouth, she trudges towards the $1.00 packs of ice, already imagining herself freshening up in front of the fan blowing cold air from the ice cubes in an ashtray to her worn out face after the win, after the magic tricks of number invocations decide to do their work because, as she will tell you, they will work someday, she’s sure of that, because what else is there to hope for.
Photo by Alan Levine, used and adapted under CC.