In the mornings my mother brought me milk while we had breakfast. The other children would stop and stare as she handed me the bottle – a narrow jar small enough to fit easily in my hand, made of clear glass to show off the smooth white liquid and covered with condensation from sitting in the countertop refrigerator in the store downstairs. My uncle stocked little milk; it was a luxury still in those days, and he charged a good two or three dollars for it, the price of a bowl of noodles twice the size of the bottle. He thought his sister-in-law unnecessarily indulgent for insisting that her daughter have it nearly every day. Nevertheless, he took the coins my mother offered him. “She’s used to having milk,” my mother said, somewhat defiantly. My uncle shrugged with an air that said it was none of his business, really.
Besides, he found me useful. I could add and subtract well enough to take an occasional shift behind the counter in his store, relieving him to do other work. For his children, the novelty of the store had long worn off or had never existed; it was simply the ground floor of their home. But I never grew weary of the view from the counter stool. I’d start by looking at the jars of sweets that lined the back wall – big glass containers with rubber lids that rats sometimes chewed through. When that happened, my uncle would curse; he’d have to empty out the contents, and if sales had been slow, he might lose a whole jar’s worth. Along one side wall next to the jars were shelves filled with canned and bagged goods of the sort my mother would drive for hours to find at home: sardines, straw mushrooms, bamboo shoots, lotus roots, the spicy lumps labeled in English merely as “preserved vegetable,” dried shiitakes, dried cuttlefish, tiny dehydrated shrimp and anchovies, fungi by the score, seeds of all kinds. The herbs took up another wall, their smells mingling but the scent of the ginseng always cutting through all the others for some reason. There were everyday items, too: flattened wire colanders with handles used for deep-frying, boxes of chopsticks, soup bowls and spoons, the rubber thong sandals that everyone wore around the house, cheap toys from Japan, electric fans for the living room. At the front, where I sat, were the high-margin goods, the impulse and tourist buys: the milk, of course, along with imported candies and magazines and newspapers – and cigarettes. Cigarettes were the one item my uncle always had in stock. We sold a lot of Marlboros.
My uncle kept it dark in the store, an antidote to the constant sun outside. He saved money on electricity that way, too, and kept customers from seeing how shabby the interior was. The shadows also hid the stairway in the back that led to the living quarters upstairs.
One day as we ate lunch, my uncle called up the stairway for me. I excused myself, struggling a bit to push back the heavy carved mahogany chair – its back rose up as high as my head – and ran down to find my uncle beaming and nodding at a tall white man. My uncle gestured excitedly at the counter and told me to take care of the transaction. The man looked at me questioningly.
I clambered up on the stool. “He says you want to buy some cigarettes,” I said.
The man stared. “You speak English?” he finally said. He had the same neutral, flat, not quite East Coast, not quite Midwestern accent that I did. But he spoke slowly, unlike the people I knew back home.
“She American,” my uncle interrupted. His eyes gleamed.
The man chose a pack and silently laid his money on the counter. I held out his change.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Six,” I said. “I finished first grade already. I’m from Pittsburgh.”
“Pittsburgh,” the man repeated. He looked at my uncle, then at me, then at the store.
“My niece!” my uncle interjected. The man nodded. “Well,” he said. “Goodbye.”
My uncle nodded back, giving the man a particularly toothy grin. I watched him walk away; his long legs took him out of sight in a minute. When I looked back at my uncle, his face had dropped. He flapped his hand, dismissing me. I ran upstairs, where I found the others in high-pitched excitement – something important must have happened for my uncle to have interrupted the meal. I ducked my head and did my best to ignore their queries.
My uncle’s youngest son was the first to decide he didn’t care what had happened in the store. He never cared what happened in the store. He preferred to spend his time outside, roaming the neighborhood, and I couldn’t resist joining him, running alongside to see what adventure we might turn up next. We were the same age, so we would have played together regardless, but he also had a rough streak that reminded me of the boys I hung around with back home. His name was difficult for me to pronounce, so my mother told me to call him Eli.
One afternoon as I raced after Eli, he sprinted out of sight into a maze of alleys. I chose one at random and raced into it; Eli was nowhere to be seen, but there was a man sweating under the work of pushing a metal two-wheeled cart. It had a canopy, but he was bent at such an angle that the whole of his back was exposed to the sun. When he saw me, he stopped, straightened, mopped his brow and called out, “Little miss! Come play pinball for a chance to win an ice cream!”
The words “ice cream” shot straight through the heat and humidity to my parched throat. And the word “pinball” was intriguing. I stared at his cart. It was silent, and no lights flashed. I walked closer. He gave me an ingratiating smile. I got up on tiptoe and peered at the top of the cart.
It was unmistakably a pinball game, though a rudimentary one. There were the levers and the balls and the springs and the obstacles. The man slid back a lid next to the game to show the ice cream freezer inside.
“If you lose, you have to pay me for the ice cream,” he said. “But if you win, you get it for free.”
“OK,” I said.
His hands were clumsy on the levers, slapping rather than fingering them, and he watched the ball, rather than the bumpers. I waited impatiently for it to fall into the bottom slot.
He looked triumphantly at the scoreboard. “Four hundred,” he said. “Your turn.”
I planted my feet and took the controls. The man’s smile faded as he watched. When I was done, he blurted out, “Double or nothing.”
“OK,” I said.
He scooped the two cones in a sullen silence, then turned his back pointedly and bent to the work of shoving the cart again. I watched him until I felt the ice cream dripping onto my hands. It was an unexpected shade of gray, and it had a distinct thinness to its texture. I took an experimental lick. No, it was nothing like the ice cream I was used to. I walked as quickly as I dared, hoping to get back to my uncle’s house before both cones melted.
When I saw my cousins idling on the sidewalk, I shouted and held up my prize. They bolted toward me, incredulous that I’d give away such a treat. I told them the story while they devoured the cones. After I was done talking, I waited for the gleeful compliments. But they merely looked at me, then thanked me formally and went inside. Eli looked at me a little longer than the others; his expression was guarded and distant. I stared back at him, and in a moment his face fell back into its usual careless lines.
Later, my mother told me that American-style ice cream would be too expensive for a mere street peddler.
The street peddlers lived off middle-class families like my uncle’s. His mother, who also lived upstairs, would often hand out coins to me and my cousins at lunchtime if the women of the family were too busy to prepare a meal. Eli’s favorite street peddler was a noodle seller just down the block who soon became my preferred vendor as well.
One day when Eli and I were playing in the living room, our grandmother came in. “You’ll have to go out for lunch today,” she said. She dug in her purse and handed us each a few coins. “Go on now,” she said impatiently.
We had tumbled down the stairs, through the store and out onto the street before we realized it was raining. The store had an awning that protected the sidewalk beneath, but the spot where the noodle seller usually squatted beside her cart was open to the sky; the pavement there glistened, tendrils of steam rising in the humid air. I slumped in disappointment.
Eli’s elbow jabbed into my side. “I know where she lives,” he said. His tone was the same one the boys at home had when they said, “I dare you.”
I lifted my chin. “Show me,” I said.
Eli flung himself away from my side. I tore after him, nearly tripping over his feet every time he turned a corner. We zigzagged over cobblestones, bricks and cracking asphalt; past clotheslines and corrugated storefronts; through knots of toddlers playing in the street. After a few minutes, Eli pulled up in front of a row of concrete-block houses. He pointed at a faded blue wooden door in the corner, at the top of a stoop. “That one,” he said. His eyes didn’t meet mine.
I waited for him to go up and knock. But he merely jangled his coins and tilted his head to one side, looking at me. I tossed my head, patted down my damp dress and marched up the stoop.
When the noodle seller opened the door, she took a step back in surprise. “I’m not working today,” she said. She gestured toward the sky. “It’s raining.”
I beamed up at her. “But we’re hungry.” Before she could reply, I chirruped, “One large bowl, please!” and thrust out my palm to show her the money. Eli loped up beside me and opened his fist next to mine.
She stood in silence for a moment. Then she took the money, said, “Five minutes,” and closed the door. Eli let out a triumphant laugh. I hugged myself. We sat down on the stoop to wait.
When the door opened again, we turned eagerly. The woman silently handed out two steaming bowls and two soup spoons. As we bent our heads to slurp up our lunch, the door closed behind us.
When we were done, we set the bowls and spoons on the stoop, gave the door several appreciative bangs, and ran off before it opened. It had stopped raining, and we splashed through every puddle we saw on the way home.
Our grandmother was distressed by our adventure, mostly because of my part in it. “It’s not proper behavior for a girl,” she told my mother. “She should stay inside, not run all over the place with a boy.”
My mother shrugged. “She does it at home,” she said, emphasizing the word “home.” Behind my grandmother’s back, she smiled reassuringly at me. My grandmother let out an exasperated puff and left the room.
She had bigger concerns. My grandfather was terminally ill, though no one had admitted to him that this was so. But he knew it. He had been in the hospital when my mother and I arrived, but after a decent interval of letting the doctors probe at him, he had insisted on going home; now he lay in his bed while family members arrived to pay their last respects.
Once, I coaxed Eli into sneaking into the room and hiding behind the oxygen tanks in the far corner – I hadn’t seen much of my grandfather at all; I barely knew him. We crouched down behind the valves and I peeped through them at our grandfather’s face. I wanted very much to see what a dying man looked like, but he merely seemed extremely tired. His eyes were half-closed, and it seemed an effort for him to breathe.
A bevy of uncles and aunts suddenly appeared in the doorway, crowing over their affection for the patriarch; we were trapped. After they left, I waited a few minutes before peeping again. Our grandfather lay with his eyes fully closed now, unmoving. I nodded at Eli and we crept out as quietly as we could.
Our grandfather died maybe a week after that. My mother herded me into our bedroom the next day and held up what looked and felt like a white burlap sack with sleeves. “This is your mourning clothing,” she said. She told me I’d have to wear it for the funeral. I expressed my indignation at its scratchiness. She finally agreed to let me wear a light dress from home underneath, as long as I kept it well hidden.
The procession to the cemetery, on a hillside with a view of the city, was long and hot. I fidgeted on the sticky car seat next to my mother. When we finally reached my grandfather’s gravesite, at the top of a hill, I started to spring away into the fresh air, but my mother caught my wrist. She, too, wore itchy white; her eyes were watering. “You have to do your filial duty,” she said. The words didn’t register. She pulled my arm to make me kneel beside her at a small fire. My uncles were already burning paper money for my grandfather’s use in the afterlife. My mother handed me a few bills. “Burn them,” she said. The flames were making me sweat; I squirmed away. “Burn them,” my mother repeated, in the tone that I dared not disobey. I leaned forward and poked the slips of paper into the fire. Across from me, Eli and his siblings were doing the same.
As the last of the paper money crumbled into ash, I heard footsteps behind us and saw, out of the corner of my eye, several monks. My mother nudged me. “You don’t have to stay for this part,” she whispered. Eli’s mother was nudging him as well. As we stood, the monks began a grieving chant. I looked back at my mother and saw her folding over, her shoulders rippling as she lowered her face to the ground. I turned hastily around. Eli was watching his mother. I leaned over and muttered in his ear, “Race you.”
We crossed the freshly laid tiles at our grandfather’s gravesite to the tombs beyond, each with its own elaborately patterned floor. Some of the tombs had ledges a few inches high to mark their borders; others had walls that reached up to our heads. Amid the keening of the adults, we jumped the ledges and played hide-and-seek around the walls; soon we forgot why we were there and laughed at each other's antics. The sun crossed the sky while prayers droned behind us; I led Eli up the hill, away from the sound, our feet clattering over the tiles, jumping past the shadows.