lunes, 23 de mayo de 2011

Excerpt from Notebook 2: "Mom & Pop"

This is the first time I get to tell a story for this so let's hope I don't fuck it up.

All of this went on before I hung out with you guys. It was during winter vacations and days went by slowly. Back then I guess I was a pretty private kid, I mostly stuck to my video games. Or that's another way of saying that I didn't have a lot of friends. You know what I mean.

My favorite place in the world back then was probably the Chinatown, right near Yuga park, you know, it's not REALLY a Chinatown, but close enough. And there's tons of little mom & pop stores ran by couples of second-generation Chinese, probably descendants of immigrant workers back during the early boom, you've learned about this in History class, hopefully.

There was this one little dingy store where they sold the best candy and stuff straight from the Far East, in its cutesy packaging with Chinese characters--at least I'm guessing they were Chinese, I couldn't read them obviously--, and the girl at the counter was very nice, this slightly plump university-aged girl who was probably the daughter of the couple who ran the place. I only saw the father like twice. The mother sometimes came out to sweep the floors and shoo away the cats, you know how Yuga park is infested with cats and it spills over to its surroundings.

Now, you've definitely heard the rumors and jokes about Chinatown. You're only supposed to eat in the well-known places because everywhere else they will give you a back-alley rat on a platter and tell you it's spicy chicken. I've never really bought into that too much, I mostly think it's people being mean for no reason.

However, this little shop was full of them. Rats. Sometimes you would see one scurry over from one hole in the wall to another. The girl at the counter would look really embarrassed and the mom would get angry as hell and start sweeping everywhere. You know what was really creepy? Once, she was really frustrated I think, she hit one of the far back walls with the other end of the broomstick, she was looking for rats I guess, and I'm pretty sure she got more than she bargained for. We all heard this horrifying rattle and scurrying behind the wall, like there were a million of the little animals moving around behind that paper-thin wall. She never did that again. It was kind of sickening. I guess they were thankful I kept coming back--I was just a kid, after all--because most people steered clear of that place for reasons that are now pretty obvious.
The shop had a second floor, a staircase tucked away behind a wall that cut off at the back lead up to it. I think the whole family lived there. You could tell they were going through tough times because sometimes I would start to hear screaming in Chinese coming from upstairs, so the girl would give me this sad stare and turn the volume of the radio up, so I would hear the loud FM crackle and some old tune instead of the yelling. As a child I was very forgiving, I think.

So anyway, I kept coming back to that shop for a decent time, like maybe three months, long after school started again, and one day I come in and I find the father at the counter. I asked him what had happened to his daughter and he said he was taking care of her brother. I didn't know there was a brother; I mostly thought she was an only child. The father informed me that he had many, many sons. He had a VERY loose grasp on our language so I'm guessing he didn't exactly mean that. A lot of what he said didn't make sense. For example, he said that he also sold "milk" if I ever wanted some, which they didn't, and then he started rambling, half in Chinese, half in chewed-up local vernacular, that the women in his family always pampered the men.

I think I'm getting a bit too long-winded. I'll get to the point. What happened was that I once mentioned this store to a boy from school I liked, let's call him Giovanni, because he had a fancy foreign name. You don't know him, he transferred to another school a couple years later. He was very mischievous, and taller than me. He said, I know that place, and then he asked if I wanted to see what they REALLY did there.

So we went to the store one day later than usual, when it was already getting dark, but then again it gets dark early in the winter. Giovanni was wearing the funniest scarf, I remember, but that's not the point. He said, a kid who lives here told me that they cook rats in the back. I rolled my eyes at him and told him that that's what they ALL said about EVERYWHERE here and that that wasn't cool or interesting, but he put on this really serious face and said no, really, I'll show you.

That day the father was also watching the counter, and the rest of the alleged family was nowhere to be seen. We went around the store and to the back. The store had a little back room, I always assumed it was for storage, nobody ever went in or out of there as far as I could tell. There was a little window in the back that peered into that room, but it was protected by iron bars to keep burglars out. You could still see through it, but barely.

Giovanni put out his hands to let me climb up on them and look. So I did. I grabbed on to the bars and peered into the room. It was dimly lit. I couldn't see much other than a dingy old bed and a small desk with a lamp on it. Then the door opened. It was the mother. What I'm going to tell you now is why we don't go to that one kiosk.

Again, it was dark in there and it was dark outside. I strained my eyes to see. Also I was freezing and Giovanni down there was complaining about his arms. But I was only focused on what was going on in that room, the mother came down and then she stood in front of the bed. She just looked down on the mattress, which was covered with a really thin sheet, and I could just barely make out that it was covered in stains, plus the whole thing was really lumpy and uneven, like it was a really old mattress that a lot of people had slept in over the years. I figured this all made sense because after all this family didn't seem to be very affluent. And then she ripped off the sheets.

I realized that the bumps under those sheets weren't from a lousy mattress, the whole thing was just covered in rats. Like a gray carpeting of these animals, each varying from the size of a hamster to a full-grown rabbit, just sitting there, inert, as if they were paralyzed. At this very same moment, peripherally, I noticed that whoever was working the clerk at that moment--I'm guessing the father--turned the radio up loudly again. The animals didn't move at all. The mother just stared at them, I don't really know what kind of look she was giving them, if it was tenderness or fear or hate or something. Then she spun around and yelled out a name I knew. The daughter came into the room. She hung her head low, as if she were about to be reprehended for something.
They talked really quickly, like, chattering, in Chinese. First the mother, these long sentences, and sometimes the daughter would try to interrupt but she would overpower her with her own voice and continue. The daughter didn't attempt to make eye contact. The mother raised her arm and first pointed at her, as if blaming her for something, then she waved her arms around, gesticulating wildly about who knows what, and then the daughter tried to speak up again and she slapped her. When that slap reverberated throughout the tiny, cramped, rat-infested room, that coat of vermin lying on the bed suddenly sprang to life, quivering and shaking like an animal waking up abruptly, and making those high-pitched hissing squeals that rats make when they're excited, like you're going to give them food or something, we've all had to deal with rats at some point. I can play this whole scene back in my head like it happened yesterday, by the way. Giovanni was still complaining but I tuned him out. The radio was still on pretty loud.

It's lucky that at that time of day Chinatown is practically abandoned because otherwise we would've looked pretty silly to passerby, peering into the back room of some family's private business, and some old lady with nothing better to do would have probably stopped by to admonish us.

That unified hiss of the rats kept rattling the back room. The mother and the daughter stood there, silent as graves. Then the mother, without saying a word or making any sort of gesture, walked out, shut the door behind her, and left the girl alone with the animals in the room.

Giovanni asked me what was going on and I told him to shut up. We were lucky they hadn't heard us. I looked into the room with full concentration. I was enraptured by the inexplicable scene developing before me. What now? Was she going to take out some big pot from under the bed and start cooking? Was that really all it came down to?

In the room, there was this silence that touched me, went beyond the fear and fascination of that moment, and suddenly I remembered that this girl was my friend and I liked her, and whatever she was doing in that room she was clearly doing it against her will, and that made me sad. It also made me feel wrong, because I was poking my nose into her private life, and additionally my leg was getting sore and I was losing my footing.

The girl just stood there, staring at the animals, and it was almost like they stared back because they quieted down suddenly. I've mentioned that this room was dimly lit, there was only one old lamp in the corner turned on, that's why I couldn't even really see what was going on on the bed. Anyway, like twenty seconds of ambivalent silence passed. Then--I remember this in slow motion--first, the girl, she unbuttoned her blouse, really quickly, practically tore it off, she had a bra underneath, I think it was the first time I'd seen one, and she had a lot of marks and purple bruises and scars on her shoulders, and over her collarbones and some on her belly, but most importantly on her breasts, they were all scratched, petite as they were, and then she spun around and switched off the lamp.

At this point I lost my footing, partially because I was sore, partially because I was scare, partially because I didn't want to continue looking at whatever was going on there, and fell on my butt. Giovanni made fun of me in silence but then immediately he asked me what I saw. I said, I don't know. I really don't know. But there were rats, I said. You were right. And then he did the little song-and-dance all self-righteous kids do when they're proven right and he started telling me about other strange things he'd heard about Chinatown, but he was cut off by screams.

Do you remember how I told you that sometimes I would hear this screaming coming from the second floor and then the girl would turn up the volume of the radio so nobody would hear? Well this was the same thing, except it was the girl screaming, but then the father joined in, I heard the door open and slam shut once more, and I heard the mattress give in to pressure, the rusted springs squealing, and I heard something get knocked over, and I heard that awful, sinister hiss of all the rats, and I heard them crawling up and down the insulation in the walls, in the sewers, under my feet, and for a moment I FELT hundreds of tiny little claws crawling all over me, it was freezing, I was terrified by the screaming, I nearly pissed myself all over right there. Giovanni pulled me up. For a split second I considered peering back into the room, but with the light off I couldn't see anything, I didn't want to, either, so Giovanni and I ran away. On the way back I passed by the front of the store. There was nobody at the counter.
I never came back to that place again, but it's still around, they tell me, although the daughter doesn't work there anymore, and you never see the father doing anything because he's senile and in permanent bed rest, so it's all the mother's work now. I've never seen the son they once mentioned; apparently nobody has. I told this story to F. once, you know he's my cousin, right? Way before I knew the rest of you I told the story to him, but I chickened out of telling the truth, I went with the conventional answer and said "Yeah, they cook rats there." As a matter of fact I hadn't told anyone the whole thing until now. I haven't seen Giovanni in ages, either.

I could still come back to that store someday if I felt like it--as far as I know they didn't see me that night--, but honestly I don't want to. There's a bit of an epilogue to this story, though, one you can go check out yourself if you want to. You know that little kiosk in the corner of [____] and [____] St. where D. used to buy her cigarettes? They sold all kinds of stuff without regards for regulations, cigarettes, porn, kids' sticker albums, all on the stands. You know how most days there's this plump lady, lots of creases and dark spots on her face, of Asian descent? She's well known. Well, I stopped by there one time. I saw her from afar, she didn't recognize me. But that's her. That's the daughter. I guess she's working there now. Maybe she's keeping the business alive, opening a new locale. I don't know.

L.B.'s Considerations

I'm not sure of who narrated this story, as I'm not familiar with F.'s relatives. I had never heard of such a store in Chinatown, but then again there are hundreds of such stores in Chinatown. A kiosk does exist in the location specified. I haven't stopped to look at who runs it, nor have I heard any strange stories about it, but then again I don't go looking for those, either.

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