A Short Story
A Short Story
I remember the September day when Mr. Chin came to our town, and I also will never forget when he left.
The remnants of the shop that he came to occupy were on one side of the square, and across from the shop was the train station that had closed down, since no train came through the town anymore, though the building was still left standing, with the white paint peeling off and birds flying in and out of the broken top windows. The shell of the shop remained unchanged from the time the Lyns moved away after the big fire. We heard all sorts of rumors that Mr. Lyn had set the fire himself so he could collect the insurance on the building, that he had been caught out and was being prosecuted. Apparently some woman had been involved, but it was all gossip. I caught snatches of the talk between Papa and Mama, but they always fell silent when they thought I could hear them. The only thing we knew for sure was that the Lyns had disappeared from the town and were never heard from again. The square remained untouched.
For the two years the shop stood abandoned, we had to take the bus to the next town to get provisions, and it was hard since the people there did not know us and would not give us credit. The Lyns had always given us credit because they knew us and we lived just six houses down from the shop. Whenever we went to the shop for something, Mr. Lyn would scribble it down in Chinese on a piece of brown paper and stick it on a wire contraption with a piece of wood at the base, and on Saturday he would add up all the pieces and write down the total in a little book, with an entry that showed what was being paid before we got any goods for the coming week.
To me the whole thing was strange because I could not read what was on these bits of paper. He would total the bill, flicking the little wooden knobs across on different levels of the wires on his abacus, and I would wonder how he did it. Just as he trusted us every week with groceries, so we in turn had to trust his recording system. So I would be sent to the shop at times, when Mama ran out of anything, to say, for instance, “Mr. Lyn, Mama ask if you can trust her a pound of flour.”
So one day when two trucks pulled up in the square, laden with building material, and four men unloaded and stacked everything behind the brand new zinc fence they put up across the front of the shop, there was lots of buzzing, and I felt excited at what was to come, since it meant I wouldn’t have to go for provisions in the neighboring town. In two weeks the wreckage of the shop had been cleared away, and the new blue building, with a sign across the entrance, “Chin’s Grocery and Haberdashery Shop,” was in place.
The following week, several truckloads of groceries and provisions were moved through the bright blue doors into the shop, and then Mr. Chin arrived. He was a thin, wiry man, with a wispy beard and moustache and he wore glasses. His face was pleasant and he smiled easily, nodding up and down all the time he was speaking. Though he was small, he carried himself with confidence, and he moved quickly and briskly when the doors finally opened that Monday morning. Many people, including Mama, trooped into the shop out of curiosity, to see the new shopkeeper and check out what he was like and how he would behave. Miss Gertie, who used to sell ground provisions from one corner of Mr. Lyn’s shop, came to see if she could do the same thing again.
Mr. Chin’s English was halting, but he knew the items in the shop as well as their prices, and he didn’t hesitate to serve what people ordered. And he certainly made no mistake with the change. Sometimes, he would say a firm “No” to any item he didn’t have, but I wondered if that was his stock response to anything that he wasn’t sure about. I noticed that he pronounced all n’s and r’s as l’s, so he would say, “Lo sugar,” “Lo lice,” but otherwise he was understandable. I also wondered where he had been before he came to our town, since he knew most of the things in the shop. At first, paying for things was a bit slow because he was the only one behind the counter, but that was fixed by the end of the month when he hired a local woman, Belle, as his assistant.
The women all wondered how Belle got the job because Mr. Chin hadn’t asked around or checked with anyone, and she was known to be lazy and slow-moving because she was so hefty, with a large bosom and big hips. She was easily twice the size of Mr. Chin, and the women customers smiled among themselves and cast knowing looks at each other, saying that since there didn’t seem to be a Miss Madam Chin, you never know. I didn’t find anything wrong with Miss Belle because she always gave me a big hug when she saw me, squeezing me into her big bosom and letting me have a bulla.
As time went by, there was no sign of a Mrs. Chin joining Mr. Chin and, as my mother used to say, “Him mus’ want somebody.” But nobody felt they could ask. Belle maintained loudly that she was a decent Christian woman and nothing was happening. All we knew was that she no longer left the shop at night, heading up the hill to her house. People started looking to see if she was pregnant, but there was no sign, and so they stopped talking about it. But she got very bossy in the shop and replied sharply to anyone who questioned whether the scale was accurate and if they had been given the right amount of flour or sugar and why the salt fish was so wet.
Soon after that, Mama decided to go and talk to Mr. Chin about how she used to get credit at the shop, and she took me with her. Mr. Chin blinked a couple of times, looked gravely at her, not seeming to understand what she was saying, then he smiled and got up to usher us out. So my mother went to enlist Belle’s help to make Mr. Chin understand what she was asking. I don’t know what the difference was, since Belle knew no more Chinese than my mother, but Mr. Chin finally said, “Oh lai, oh lai,” and so it was done. Perhaps, I thought, he had contacted the Lyns or checked with the people from the Chinese grocery in the next town.
After that, he started giving credit to several customers, just as the Lyns used to do, and keeping the shop open till 10 o’clock at night. Even on Sundays, he had a window open and would serve anyone who called to him. More than that, he would cut slices off a whole bread and sell in smaller quantities (which Mr. Lyn never used to do) and would also sell two ounces of butter or cheese as well as a half gill of cooking oil.
More than that, he allowed Miss Gertie to set up her stall again in one corner of the shop so she could sell callaloo, breadfruit, yam, coco, tomatoes and skellion, and hot peppers and thyme, and then at night she could leave her unsold provisions there till the next day. She also used the shop scale to weigh her produce.
The Tilly lamps Mr. Chin hung from the shop rafters shed a lot of light that spilled out onto the piazza, and the men were allowed to set up a table and four rickety chairs on Saturday nights. They had many riotous domino games, with much shouting and raucous laughter and slamming down of the cards. This was fueled by bottles of Red Stripe beer sold by Miss Belle. Even Papa, coming from work, joined in the games sometimes, and there were several nights when—to his annoyance—I was sent by Mama to tell him to come home.
One regular player, and the loudest, was the local policeman, Constable Ruel Samuels. He was a big, burly man who was somewhat of a bully, and his striped uniform shirt fit him tightly because of his big belly. Nobody took him seriously because he was a blue-seam policeman, not a red-seam one, and this meant he hadn’t been good enough to make it into the red seams, who were considered the “real” policemen. He strutted around in his huge oversized boots, with a pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt and always swinging his policeman’s club. The men didn’t particularly like when he joined the game because he was mean and never wanted to share the cost of paying for the beer. But they felt they couldn’t say this to the person enforcing the law in the community.
On the last Saturday of the month, the domino players had to give way on the piazza to a group of revivalist women and one man who was the leader. We were told that they were poco, from the Spanish pocomania, meaning “a little madness,” and we could understand why, because there, under the lamplight, they would start off singing quite sedately and then, as the tempo of the music increased, so would their movements. In no time they would get into the spirit and start gyrating, whirling, and swaying as if possessed, all the while shaking their tambourines. They always drew a large number of bystanders.
Constable Samuels seemed to take a shine to Miss Belle in the shop, not the least because she would slip him a Red Stripe or two when Mr. Chin wasn’t looking. Certainly, between games he would always chat her up, and you could hear her laughing with her high screech. We could hear her saying, “No sah, you gwaan, you no serious!” And she would bat her eyelashes and roll her eyes, while he kept whispering in her ear and rubbing up against her. I used to wonder how they could ever get together, since both were both so fat.
Sometime in December my father became very ill and could no longer work, and so Mama went to see if she could take on the washing for Mr. Chin. Since we lived just six houses down from the shop, it wouldn’t be too much of a hardship for her, and it was just for one day a week. He agreed she should come on the weekend and that she could bring me with her. And that is how I got to see the yard and what lay behind the counter in the shop.
For me, it was a strange world, filled with things I had never seen. On the shelves in his kitchen, there were large glass bottles filled with eggs and pickled mustard greens, dried tangerine peels hanging in a mesh bag, and packages of dried octopus and what looked like dried-up duppy toadstool. He also had three packages hanging from the line that turned out to be whole dried fish, wrapped in layers of newspaper and brown paper and smelling very stinky to me.
At first, Mr. Chin would only nod at me, but as the weeks went by, when he closed the shop at noon and came downstairs to cook his main meal for the day, he’d always call out to me. Mama was sitting over the washing pan and paying me no mind, so I would hang outside the kitchen window to watch Mr. Chin cook. I’d never seen a man cook, since Papa—as my mother claimed—would burn even boiling water and so was never allowed into her kitchen.
Mr. Chin’s pot was so different from the dutch pots I knew. It was broad and shaped like an oval hat with two side handles. He’d have one smaller pot going with rice in it, and then he’d get together all the vegetables, cut into small slices, and then, with his big sharp cleaver, he would slice the slightly frozen meat into very thin strips, season it with a dash of white rum, some sugar and salt, and the sauce we called “Chinee sauce.”
Then he’d heat the oil till it was smoking, throw in three cloves of smashed garlic, and then quickly add the meat, followed by the vegetables, all the while stirring and turning the whole mixture. Then he’d add some chopped-up skellion and a small amount of corn starch mixed with some water and scoop up everything as soon as the corn starch liquid became clear. I stood there watching, enveloped in the smell of cooking food so different from what I knew at home.
One day, he spooned up some into a small bowl, on top of some rice, and offered it to me. It tasted so different and yet nice, and I finished most of it off, though I thought the vegetables were too crunchy and still needed more cooking, like when Mama cooked cabbage or callaloo. I left behind the pieces of what I knew as duppy toadstool and certainly wouldn’t eat any. After that Mr. Chin gave me a serving of his food every time I was there, but he made sure he never gave me any duppy toadstool.
Mama said, one day after we got home, “You just be careful what him give you to eat—you know dem people nyam dog!” Her remark stuck in my head and made me check every time I went into the yard that the one scrawny dog was still tied up there. After that I didn’t eat any meat without careful scrutiny, as if I could have told the difference from looking.
Another time I saw Mr. Chin in a clearing in the backyard, going through some complicated moves with his arms and legs and doing some kind of exercise. The movement was fluid and smooth and seemed to exercise all parts of his body, and there was a rhythm to it, but I had no idea what I was seeing. So when I asked him, he said it was a form of Tai Chi that had been created in China and was directly related to what we knew as kung fu.
There were two bedrooms off the passageway on the other side of the kitchen and the space where there was the dining table, but I never saw inside of any of them. I guessed one was Mr. Chin’s room, but I don’t know if Miss Belle had her things in there, too. The doors were always closed and the windows had heavy curtains.
One Saturday afternoon, late in December, I was in the yard watering Mr. Chin’s bed of vegetables that lay beyond the clothesline with the sheets that Mama had washed flapping in the breeze. Suddenly, I heard the garden gate creak, and Miss Belle slipped in, holding Constable Samuels by the hand and giggling. It was clear that they didn’t see me, but I could hear them clearly. Miss Belle said, “Don’t worry ’bout him, man. Im inna de shop and him naw come down for now!” And with that she slipped into what I guessed must be the main bedroom. There was a lot of muffled laughter and loud creakings of the bed, and then I saw Mr. Chin coming down the stairs.
I couldn’t see his face as he opened the door because his back was to me, but the next thing I saw was Constable Samuels pushing past him while trying to push his shirt back into his pants, followed by a half-naked Miss Belle, who rushed out the gate and disappeared.
Constable Samuels blustered, “So what, Chineeman, so what? You cyaan satisfy her, you hear, because you too small. You small and yellow like de banana dem!” At this Mr. Chin delivered a stinging slap to his sweaty face and the constable swung a thick fist back at him. The constable seemed so sure that his sheer size and bulk gave him the advantage and that he could easily beat this little yellow man to a pulp. Chinee couldn’t beat black.
Well, then I saw the force and power of the Tai Chi kung fu that Mr. Chin had been practicing. He easily avoided the constable’s fists and delivered a powerful kick to the fat man’s side. This knocked the breath out of the constable and he fell to his knees. After that, Mr. Chin delivered another series of kicks, the last one to the constable’s chin, which jerked his head back, and then Mr. Chin followed that with a whole series of kicks to the midriff and the heaving chest of the constable so that blood began to run down from his mouth and nose. Finally, Mr Chin delivered several kicks to the constable’s backside and pushed him through the gate and slammed it shut.
I was so stunned at what I was seeing that I stood behind the tree saying nothing, and when Mr. Chin had gone back upstairs, having pitched out Miss Belle’s belongings through the gate, all the while looking as calm as ever, I edged out the gate and ran home.
I tried to tell Mama what had happened but she shut me up: “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say—Yu don’t belong in big people business, so shut yu mout! The Chineeman shoulda stay wid him own people so him deserve what happen to him.” With that I closed my mouth and resolved never to speak to her again.
No one saw Constable Samuels for the next two weeks. But Belle had spread the word that Mr. Chin had not only beaten her up but that he’d also given the constable a good beating and probably killed him. Of course no one believed her and laughed her to scorn. “Yu crazy! How dat there little Chineeman could beat that big tough-back constable?”
As January drew to a close and there was still no sign of Constable Samuels, they searched his house and found nothing and the feeling started to grow that maybe Belle had been telling the truth all along. Her story became even more fantastic. She said that Mr. Chin had not only killed the constable but had cut him up in little pieces and pickled him and that he was in one of the barrels beside the mackerel and pigstails. The Chineeman should not get away with murder. I was the only one who didn’t believe that a pickled black man could possibly pass as salt pork
Her shrill accusations began to sink in, and three of the men who used to play dominoes with the corporal in front of the shop climbed the counter and began overturning the big plastic containers of pickled meat, convinced now that Belle had been telling the truth and that the constable’s head would roll out of one of the barrels. But of course they found nothing, and I knew they wouldn’t because I had seen the constable leave the premises, even though I had no idea where he had gone. Before long, they were joined by others who started taking stuff from the shelves—tins of bullybeef, cheese, mackerel and sardines, packs of water crackers, and loaves of bread. Some of the women carted off packs of flour and cornmeal, while the men took bottles of beer and rum as well as all the cigarettes.
Where was Mr. Chin in all this? When the melee started, he’d quickly sized up the situation and slipped out the back, but I only knew this when I went home and Mama told me that Mr. Chin was hiding in my room and I was to say nothing. I went back out on the road and saw the flames roaring above the shop and licking at the sky. Having looted what they wanted, someone had started a fire in the shop, and so once more the shop was engulfed in flames and the crowd gathered to watch the place burn. No one asked where Mr. Chin was.
Early the next morning, while the remains of the shop were still smoldering, one of Mr. Chin’s friends came by our house and picked him up. He went off in the car, with never a look behind and without a word. Like the Lyns before him, we never heard anything about him after that morning.
The next week Constable Samuels turned up, looking sheepish. He’d gone to his mother’s place in the next district to lick his wounds, to rest till he was all healed, and, I thought, to get over being beaten up by a little yellow shopkeeper. He seemed stunned to find the shop burned to the ground and wanted to know how the fire had started and claiming that he would have to start investigations. Of course that went nowhere because no one would say anything to him, not even Miss Belle. I was the only one who knew what had really happened, and I told no one except Mama.
When she asked why I hadn’t said anything before, I reminded her that she was the one who had told me to shut up my mouth and not get into big people business. But I don’t think anyone would have believed me anyway. They would say I was just making it up because the Chineeman used to feed me.
The shop returned to its desolate and ruined state and was never again occupied. It remains so to this day.
Victor L.Chang is a former senior lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica who has recently started to write fiction. His stories are concerned largely with the Hakka diaspora to the Caribbean and the Chinese relations with the creole population. His stories have been published in Jamaica Journal, Caribbean Quarterly, Kunapipi, and the Journal of Caribbean Literature. He is the chief editor of the Journal of West Indian Literature.