There was no money. Not a dime to be found in any drawer, nothing overlooked in a coat pocket, no coins stuck in the corner of an old purse, not a hint of copper hiding under a couch cushion, no silver buried in a jar of Tenpenny nails. Nothing. Anywhere.
Hard times had hit us before, but there had always been a promise of food the next day: perhaps a meal of thick corncakes slathered with watery homemade syrup or a bowl of navy beans and hot water cornbread, each meal lying in my belly, sticking to my ribs, and eventually as fat on my thighs. But one fall day in 1962, we were without food entirely, and Daddy’s payday was a penniless three days away.
My mother shook her head at the handful of lint she recovered from the sofa cushion while looking for loose change.
“Trouble always comes suddenly. It happened to the Hillmans,” she said, referring to our former neighbors.
After the death of Mr. Hillman – heart attack on the San Francisco Bay Bridge – his wife and children sank into poverty.
For months after Mr. Hillman’s tragic death, I’d place my hand on my father’s chest feeling for the steady rhythm before he left for work. In the evening, I’d stand by the front door praying for his safe return.
“He’s got a strong heart, honey,” my mother finally had said softly, trying to comfort me when Dad was running late. I nodded, but stayed posted by the window until I saw his car turn the corner.
Like most hard-working men in our neighborhood, my father had two jobs, one legitimate dues-paying-benefit-giving-every-two-week-paying gig at the U.S. Post Office, and the other a hustle. A hustle was a sideline job that paid strictly in cash. It could be frying fish, or, if you were bold and slick enough to get away with it, selling stolen clothes.
Dad’s hustle was scavenging; finding metal, cardboard, and wood pallets for re-sale. It was a hard job, but it paid well.
The primary job maintained the bulk of the bills. The hustle financed a night out at the New China Tea Garden on Third Street where they served gumbo every fourth Friday, or put groceries on the table to tide the family over until payday. We understood that every man worth his salt had a hustle unless he was lazy, and no poor woman with children could afford a lazy man.
I played with my paper dolls through what should have been lunch. Close to dinnertime, there wasn’t a pot on the stove.
“Hurry up! Wash and change clothes,” Mama yelled anxiously to all in earshot.
The urgency in her voice compelled me to quickly do as I was told. But my brother, Walter, had the nerve to ask where we were going. He could never read her moods.
She turned down the narrow hallway with my youngest sister on her hip, Shelley’s pig-tails swinging as she and mom rounded the corner. A few minutes later, we were given our marching orders in the front yard.
“Walk behind me and don’t play around,” she said firmly.
With her in the lead, we trudged the two blocks to Mary Fu’s Market.
I guessed we weren’t headed for S and S because not only was the food old, but Mrs. Stinson, the owner was also an uppity, nosy, gossip. Almost everyone shopped with the Fus. We all called the owner Mary, and few in the neighborhood knew her name was really Minzghu Fugikawa.
Minzghu was no stranger to hardship. A Chinese woman, she’d married a Japanese man, and together they’d had one son, Takako. The Sino-Japanese conflict forced the entire family to flee northern China. By then, Takako was married and had an infant daughter. They trudged across the plains and mountainous terrains on a dangerous trek to Hong Kong. The arduous journey claimed the lives of everyone in the family except Takako and his mother Minzghu. Several years later, Takako married a younger woman from Hong Kong, and they came with his mother to start a new life in America. The marriage to this second wife angered the elder Mrs. Fu, and she often said to her son and anyone else in earshot, “This second wife is nothing, trying to be something!”
One day as I was walking home from downtown, I saw Mary Fu laden with shopping bags, looking up at the street signs and shaking her head. As I approached, she smiled and asked me to help her find her street. Her hands were shaking. I took her bags, and we walked slowly down Fifth Street until we came to her home, next door to the market. She thanked me and gave me an Asian pear for my troubles. When I ate it that afternoon, I was surprised that beneath its tough skin, the crispy flesh was both tart and sweet.
As we headed for the Fu’s store, a flock of hungry children waddling in a line behind our mother, we wondered about the possible outcome of our trek. My stomach growled at the thought of food. Soon, we were in front of the market. Mother paused at the entrance with one foot on the threshold and looked up at the sign.
In bold letters it read, No Credit-No How! The sign hung so low over the doorway to the Fu market that it was necessary for each customer to bow before passing through. Many families had asked for credit, and all were denied. As soon as the sign was posted, the word spread and no one had dared ask again.
The aroma of meat and fruits floated out of the tiny store. I felt faint. My mouth began to water. Mother turned around and said, “You kids stay right here, and don’t move.” Like little soldiers, we obeyed.
“Keep hold to the baby, and make sure she don’t wander off. And don’t come inside this store for any reason, any of you. You hear me?”
The whole narrative was accented with a wag of her index finger.
With a quick breath she adjusted her gray, A-line skirt, smoothed her burgundy, sateen blouse, and stepped into the store, her right hand pushing the screen door inward as she bowed – ready to meet her victory or her Waterloo.
The small grocery store was an oasis in a growing desert of liquor and five-and-dimes. There was an extensive produce section overflowing with fruits and vegetables, many grown in the garden behind the store and placed neatly on slatted produce wheels. A full-service meat counter boasted fresh ground beef, chicken, pork sausages, and bacon all lying neatly in rows outlined with green paper dividers resembling curly lettuce. Specialty items for our diverse community lined the wooden shelves where Tsukemono rested in harmony next to pickled nopales and cans of black-eyed peas. The abundance of it all made my stomach rumble.
The tinkle of the brass bell affixed to the top corner of the door alerted younger Mrs. Fu that there was money to be made.
I watched her through the open storefront window. She was seated behind the counter feeding her newest baby a wad of masticated vegetables, retrieved from her mouth. She rose to her feet mid-chew.
“Can I help you, Missy?” she asked, bouncing the fat baby on her narrow hip.
We all moved closer to the window jockeying for position.
“Ah, yes. You can, Miz. Fu.” Mother paused and took a deep breath. “I need to ask a favor of you. I have no food at home, no lunch for my children to take to school.” She stopped for another deep breath. “Could you please see your way to extend credit to us? Just a few items ‘til my husband gets paid on Fri—”
But, before my mother could finish her well-rehearsed sentence, young Mrs. Fu’s shrill voice yelled, “No, oh no!” Then she launched into a string of words none of us could recognize, but invariably understood.
As her voice rose, she insultingly tapped sharply on the cardboard sign by the register, one of many that graced the store.
I was angry with this woman, nothing trying to be something, for not understanding our plight. Mrs. Fu and her daughter, at different times, treated us with arrogant indifference, but to witness my mother being treated in this manner was too much. Animosity climbed in my throat like bile, choking me. I coughed.
Undaunted by young Mrs. Fu’s retort, my mother proceeded to recite her speech again, slowly, in a calm, measured voice.
“Mrs. Fu, we’ve been coming to your store for several years now, and you know us. We own the house around the corner and down the street. I’m a yard teacher at the elementary school, which all our children attend. Your son Sammy and my son walk home together in the afternoons. My middle daughter and your younger son Lee have been classmates since they started kindergarten.”
As mother recited our sad resume, the woman bounced her child-appendage, his mouth bubbling.
“Your husband knows my husband. They fish each Sunday off the same pier on the bay. They talk and eat together.” She took another deep breath.
My father and Takako Fugikawa did indeed share the same hobby, fishing. Each rose early on Sunday mornings taking gear and the ‘special’– a sleeve of saltine crackers, baloney slices, and longhorn cheese wrapped in butcher paper – down to Brickyard Cove, a small inlet west of Point Richmond. Each, in his own way, tried to coax his favorite fish, sea bass, onto his line. They were strange bedfellows, and despite all their Sunday excursions, they never spoke on the phone and only nodded when they saw one another on the street. Nonetheless, each would find his way to his spot on the bay and save a seat for the other. When time and fish baskets were filled, the two men would part silently, nodding a promise to meet again the following week.
My mother spewed out her moral credentials in hope that it would soften the attitude of the woman standing before her. “I’m asking you to please extend me a little credit until my husband gets paid. We have no food in our home!”
Please let her be finished; I prayed to a God who was said to have a storehouse of provisions and “cattle on a thousand hills,” but she went on.
“I’m not in the habit of borrowing or asking anyone for anything, but if you can see your way clear, I just need a few things until my husband gets his check on Fri-day.” She added the final emphasis like an attorney pleading with a jury in a murder case.
Young Mrs. Fu paused for a moment, then, like the past conversation hadn’t taken place, said coldly, “No!” She waved her hand in the air and continued to bounce her now crying baby on her hip.
I began to whimper, and we all moved to the door. My eldest sister, Wanda, pushed it open and begged our mother to leave. My mother looked sternly at her, and we all retreated a few steps back from the entrance.
Like a robot, Mother turned her back to the young Mrs. Fu. She walked down the short aisle past the meat counter toward the second checkout stand with Mrs. Fu in hot pursuit, her child’s head bouncing up and down like a rag doll. And there stood Mr. Fu, trying to ignore the oncoming problem.
My mother was brown, beautiful, and resolute. She towered a full three inches over him. For the first time he saw her full-on, the wife of his Sunday fishing mate.
The handful of customers retreated to the back aisles as she began quietly reiterating her dissertation.
Then, in the midst of her speech and without warning, she leapt onto the conveyor belt at the second cash register. She lay across it like a loaf of bread ready to be bagged.
Mr. Fu didn’t move.
She lay there on her back, quietly looking up past the ceiling, as though listening for God to tell her what to say. Outside, we pressed on the screen door, the dust from the weave leaving fine grid marks on our faces.
She spoke to the heavens, “You know what we’re in need of before I ask. You saw me this morning looking into empty cabinets and searching purses for loose change.
“You saw me going out into the garden rooting around for vegetables that I may have missed. You heard my husband tell me that his partner, Mr. Redoux, owes him money, but Mr. Redoux is now in jail.”
Then, still staring at the ceiling, she spoke to Mr. Fu. Her voice was steady and flowing with sincerity.
“I have nothing to feed my children. I’ve asked your wife; now, I’m asking you to let me have a few items, a little credit, until Friday. You know my husband, and you know me. We keep our word. I don’t understand why you can’t help me. We’ve bought groceries from you for years, and our checks have never bounced.”
Mr. Fu was silent.
After a few moments too long, she issued an ultimatum. “I’ll not leave this store with my children hungry. You’ll just have to call the police.”
The world stopped. Her last words stung my eyes and hung in the air like smoke. The Fu’s were in shock, mouths open. The entire store was silent.
Then, Mary Fu appeared, walking past the register where my mother laid waiting, and stood next to her only son. As she touched his arm, he jump-started into action.
“Ah, Missy, I’ll be happy to give to you credit until Friday,” he said.
A cloud passed overhead, a dog barked, and children sniffled.
As suddenly as she’d jumped onto the rolling conveyor belt, my mother hopped down. She gracefully moved her hands down to smooth her skirt; she straightened her blouse, smoothed back her brown hair, and shook off the dust of shame from the encounter.
Her “thank you” contained a mixture of relief and resignation. It came out of her mouth in the same even tone as her pleas. I remembered the prayer of King David that I’d heard the previous Sunday in church: I am suffering greatly, let us fall into the hands of God for His mercies are many, but let me not fall into the hands of man.
How strange she looked when she turned around. A mist of despair covered her face, lasting only a moment, but I saw it.
Mr. Fu turned to his stunned wife and, in broken English, he instructed her to give my mother what she needed. His wife didn’t argue and handed her round, well-nourished baby to her mother-in-law.
“Please give me a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, one stick of butter, two cartons of milk, a pound of bacon, baloney, cheese, beans, and a bag of rice, a head of cabbage, a can of tomato paste, a bag of macaroni, one onion, a small box of sugar, and five packages of Kool-Aid.” Each item was gathered per my mother’s rapid-fire instructions.
Mary frowned as her daughter-in-law slammed and crammed our meager shame-soaked groceries into the brown paper bags. The older Mrs. Fu said two words that made the younger woman stand still. Whatever those words were, the same mist that I’d seen on my mother’s face passed over her face, humbling her.
After re-bagging the items more carefully, the young Mrs. Fu calmly bowed her head, her hands outstretched, then handed the bags to my mother.
“Thank you very much, Missy. Please come again.”
It was over.
Our mother turned to the older Mrs. Fu and mouthed thank you. I barely heard the bell’s tinkle as she exited.
We left as we’d come, in single file. Walter and Wanda carried the grocery bags home, my mother not wanting to touch them once she had handed them over. Lorraine, my second sister, held on to the baby’s hand, and I brought up the rear.
My mother walked home with her back stiff, her arms swinging heavily at her sides, her vision fixed on her sanctuary, the little yellow house with the white picket fence and blooming purple hydrangea.
We had been given instructions to walk and not turn around, but I dared look back, like Lot’s wife, expecting to be changed into a pillar of salt. As I turned, I saw the outlines of two silhouettes: Mary standing at the corner with her grandson, Lee, my classmate. They were waving to us like we were passengers on a steamship. I didn’t wave back. I couldn’t raise my hand. But, my thoughts of punishing him the next day melted away with each step. I ran to catch up with my family.
We ate dinner in silence, chewing the acrid vittles our mother had bought with her pride. She didn’t eat. After dinner she slipped into her bedroom and closed the door on us all. We dared not knock; afraid our presence would remind her of her pitiful purchase.
I tossed and turned that night, fighting an enemy at every move. I awoke drenched in sweat, feverish. It was 2 a.m.
I pressed my ear to the wall and heard my mother’s faint sobs and my father’s fervent promises to repay the debt. His words didn’t soothe her sorrows. I prayed the morning would bring healing to her heart.
That morning, I made her sassafras tea and cinnamon toast and brought it to her bedside. She barely touched the tray.
Friday evening came, and, as promised, our father walked down to the store and pressed a crisp ten-dollar bill into Mr. Fu’s hand. He received two dollars in change.
Mr. Fu stamped the lone I. O. U. Paid in Full, and handed it to his fishing friend. He bowed slightly. “I’m happy to extend credit to your family at any time,” he said, however, he never took down the sign over the door. My father shook his head in gentle refusal, and, raising the palm of his hand toward the man, indicated we’d never be indebted to the Fus again.
That next Sunday, dad chose to fish alone, this time at Butler’s Bay.
After that, when I went to buy groceries, the older Mrs. Fu would sometimes send my mother a token, the symbol of spring and new beginnings, an Asian pear.
Five years passed and Mary Fu died. My mother sent a potted red azalea as a bereavement gift to her family. In another five years, Mr. Fu died, and another azalea was delivered to his wife and sons. Soon, his wife remarried, moved away, and the tiny store was sold to another immigrant family.
Last year after burying my widowed eighty-six-year-old mother, I took a walk in the neighborhood and passed the old Fu market which mostly sells liquor, junk food, canned meats, and individual cigarettes to the people who now live in the neighborhood.
I glanced into the back yard at the overgrown bramble that was once a thriving garden and saw, in a patch all to themselves, two azalea bushes bursting with red flowers.
After college, marriage, and children, Gwen is rebooting her career with her autumnal writing debut and memoir “Sassafras Tea and Cinnamon Toast, a life without ruffles.”
She lives with her husband of 30 years and a playful rescue cat that will not stop whining. Visit her online: TheSkatekey.com.