Climbing up the basement stairs with a duck carcass, holding the slippery neck far enough away from his body so that his knees didn’t clank into the dangling legs, Trenton Lo caught his first glimpse of the fairy godfather.
Trenton’s heart thumped as he hurried into the kitchen and hoisted the raw duck into his father’s hands. “Someone’s in the front room.”
Baba nodded and held the duck by the neck as he dropped its body into a steel pot of boiling water, scalding the skin and sending steam into the air. “Go see what he wants. You’re old enough.”
Trenton washed the blood off his hands at the sink beside the stove, trying not to flinch away from the splash of cold water. He was the shortest boy in his class. His ears stuck out even worse because his mom had cut his hair too short. He needed to wear glasses already. He was not a hero.
Yet Baba was right. Seven was plenty old. Old enough that Baba had promised to take him to see The Empire Strikes Back on Wednesday, the one day a week that they closed Guangdong Barbecue. And Trenton was born in 1973, the year of the Wood Ox, so even if he wasn’t the fastest, he was hard-working.
Even though Trenton didn’t figure out the fairy godfather stuff till later—his family never talked about things like that — he already knew he didn’t want to talk to the white man in the front room. He’d rather linger in the kitchen that smelled of roasting pigs and ducks, where he and his father wore identical white uniforms and white hats. Trenton didn’t care if the heat singed his eyebrows and face or if his hair ended up coated in grease.
But under his father’s watchful eye, Trenton wiped his hands on a rough, white rag hung under the sink and stepped through the open doorway from the kitchen to the front room, eyeballing the jumbo, balding man standing in front of the glass display case.
They almost never got gwai lo at Guangdong Barbecue. Baba said it was because they rented a tiny storefront in Scarborough, too far east of Toronto’s Chinatown for foreigners to bother finding. Mama said it was because the roasted pigs and ducks hanging in the glass window scared them off. Mui Mui, Trenton’s sister, didn’t say anything; she was just a baby.
Anyway, it was the first time Trenton faced a white customer on his own, let alone a red-faced, moustached giant with the shiniest teeth and biggest gut Trenton had ever seen. A red jacket and matching pants partially covered up the man’s pot belly, but he’d made up for it by unbuttoning the Hawaiian shirt underneath to expose a mat of curly brown chest hair. He must’ve owned the spotless black Pontiac Trans Am casting a shadow on their front window, too.
Trenton slipped behind the cash register on the counter beside the glass case. Protect the cash. That was the first law of Guangdong Barbecue, and the reason they kept a baseball bat wedged under the counter top. He could no longer see his father, or even much of the kitchen except the steel doors of the pig oven diagonally across from him, but he had a full view of the stranger facing him. “May I help you?” he said, in English and then in French, like a perfect Canadian boy.
The man stepped up to the counter, ignoring the displays of fried tofu, rice, and sauteed vegetables. His small black dress shoes, nearly hidden by his bell-bottomed pants, clicked on the tile floor as he walked. His pale blue eyes gleamed with a kind of energy Trenton rarely saw in his parents, who woke up at 5 a.m. to buy the best meats.
The gwai lo stared straight at Trenton. His lips peeled back from those blinding teeth and he said, “I’m here for your father this time.”
His father? Trenton hesitated, wondering if he should call for Baba or try to handle it himself. What would Luke Skywalker do?
Then Trenton blinked, realizing that the gwai lo had spoken to him in Cantonese.
The gwai lo’s smile widened, making wrinkles around his eyes and indenting his fat cheeks.
Trenton’s brain somersaulted. Mama should be back soon. He licked his lips and played for time. Just like in basketball, he’d keep on dribbling the ball instead of passing it off or making a wild hoop shot from where he stood. Trenton said, in English, “He’s working right now. I can help you.”
“Not right now,” the gwai lo said, refusing to switch tongues.
Trenton heard the thwack of the cleaver from the back room and tried not to let his shoulders jerk.
The gwai lo pivoted toward the back room. “There’s the man!” He called out Baba’s Cantonese name.
Grown-ups never listened to him. Trenton closed his eyes for a second, feeling as woozy as if he’d stood over a vat of hot oil and tossed tofu inside, only to have the grease spray his arms. The pain and the disappointment mixed into one.
Baba appeared in the doorway with a styrofoam box of duck, wiping his free hand on his apron, the same apron he’d wash by hand when they finally closed the shop at 10 p.m. His eyes widened when he saw the white man, but he masked it by asking in English, “Hello, what is it?”
The gwai lo spoke Cantonese as well as Trenton’s parents. “Ah, I was hoping to meet you. You’re the amazing Si-fu that everyone speaks so highly of. I know you’re a busy man, so I won’t waste your time. I’ve got the world’s best deal for you. I’m going to make you rich and famous. Men will ask you for your autograph. Children will follow you down the street. Women will throw themselves after you.”
“I’m not your Si-fu,” said Baba. The word meant master, but Baba never trained in a fancy kitchen. He was young when China was divided by war and conquered by the Communists. Baba fled to Hong Kong, holing up in tiny restaurant kitchens. He’d spend up to a fifth of his pay, bribing cooks after hours with food and wine, trying to gather their secrets and eventually create his own recipes.
No white man ever called Baba Si-fu. No white man except this one, with his belly jiggling like Santa Claus and his eyes that fixed on you too close, trying to absorb your spirit.
Trenton waited for Baba to send the man away with the door’s bells ringing behind him. Trenton allowed a small grin to peek on to his face.
“Sorry, Peng You,” The gwai lo switched to the word for friend. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m here to pay you respects. And to make you rich!”
Baba set the box of duck on the counter beside the cash register instead of answering. Trenton knew why. He’d watched his father counting the tip money twice. Trenton’s mom never bought action figures and once tried to bargain with the sales clerk over a pair of sneakers. They weren’t poor, but they sure weren’t rich.
Baba said “Excuse me” and walked back through the kitchen doorway, toward the hanging oven on the left that was the size of two refrigerators. Trenton could hear the click of the metal latch, and then, even from behind the counter, he could feel the blast of heat and hear the metal track rumble as Baba rolled eighty pounds of pig toward himself. Trenton caught a glimpse of his father’s brown forearms and of the animal itself just before they both winked behind the wall, and he knew Baba was twirling the carcass in the air on a stainless steel hook, checking for air bubbles in the skin.
The gwai lo pointed his gut to the left and his feet tapped toward Baba, hovering just outside the kitchen. His plump index finger stabbed toward the pork. “That’s artistry! Bubbles can puff and burn the skin so the whole pig is ruined. But you know just how to coax the air to make the skin lighter and crisper than Rice Krispies. Yes! Pierce it right there, with your steel-tipped carpenter’s nail, just hard enough to relieve the pressure in the skin without letting the swine’s delicious juices escape.”
Trenton couldn’t see Baba, because the wall was in his way, and he didn’t hear an answer to the gwai lo’s strange play by play.
Soon Trenton heard the salt raining down on the tile floor, pok-pok-pok, as Baba tossed handfuls of salt at the pig.
“Ah. That’s quality,” said the gwai lo, and Trenton’s spine stiffened. That was it. The gwai lo had hit on exactly what Baba wanted. Not riches, not fame, not fortune, but quality, the one word Baba repeated to Mama over and over.
Qua-li-ty. Trenton didn’t know exactly why it meant so much to Baba, but he knew it was his father’s touchstone, deeper and more perfect than the gwai lo’s Trans Am with the license plate ASU WSH.
The gwai lo seemed to recognize the sudden electric charge in their silence. “Quality,” he repeated, and his voice had grown louder, filling the empty store.
Baba said something that Trenton couldn’t hear, but the gwai lo’s answer resonated off the wall, so deep and mind-filling that Trenton had to grab on to the cash register and squeeze his eyes shut.
The gwai lo said, “I can give you the best. Pigs born in March and April, grown fat on fresh grains and alfalfa leaves. Ducks that have drunk the clearest water before roosting in your roasting pans. With the finest ingredients and your mastery, Peng You, you could conquer the world.”
Baba didn’t reply. After a pause, the metal rack rumbled again, the oven door slammed, and the metal latch clipped shut.
Was Baba just going to ignore the gwai lo until he went away? That was what they told Trenton to do with bullies, but it never worked at school. And Trenton couldn’t figure out if the gwai lo was telling the truth or just trying to cheat Baba out of their restaurant. Mama complained about the tiny space and the astronomical rent, but Trenton knew that for Baba, it was worth it to have his own kitchen, his own place in the world, instead of buying rice wine for some fat chef who might force him to scrub the ovens instead of showing him the right way to use sesame paste.
Trenton took a step sideways from behind the counter, his fingers shaking. He moved toward the wall shared between the front room and the kitchen. Only three more feet, and he’d run straight into the gwai lo’s belly as he hovered in the doorway.
Trenton would offer the gwai lo a free sample of crackling skin. He’d dance and shout. He’d toss tofu in his face. Anything to stop his fountain of words.
Trenton stretched his hand toward the gwai lo’s shoulder, feeling the man’s body heat, and said, in English, “Mister—”
The doorbell tinkled. Mama burst into the front room with a blast of frigid December air and a yell. “Trenton!”
Trenton dropped his hand, startled. “Mama?” he said, although of course it was her, with her black hair stuffed under a purple knitted hat and a sleeping Mui Mui strapped to her back.
“Get away from him,” said Mama, and Trenton retreated behind the cash register before he realized that Mama was talking to the gwai lo, her eyes narrow with rage.
The gwai lo swung to his right to face Mama and Mui Mui, opening his arms in a massive embrace with his back to the side wall. When Mama shrank away —Trenton had never seen her shrink from anything, she didn’t believe in that, she was more likely to run into a battlefield armed with a stainless steel cleaver she’d swiped off a countertop — the gwai lo bowed deeply toward her, hinging at the waist.
“Get out of here,” said Mama to the top of his thinning brown hair.
“I’ve come with the greatest opportunity,” said the gwai lo.
“You come here with empty promises,” said Mama.
The gwai lo smiled, with those dead white teeth, and Trenton realized that they were still speaking Cantonese. “Now, now. Is that the best way to describe Guangdong Barbecue?”
Mama flinched, and Baba raised his voice to the foreigner. “We built this shop.”
“You did, yes,” said the gwai lo, straightening to his full height and nodding his big head. The stripes of brown hair across it never stirred. “You escaped the Communists. You made your way to Hong Kong. You learned from the si-fus and reinvented their recipes as your own, only miraculously improved. Did you do that all by yourself?”
Trenton climbed up on the stool behind the counter so he could witness his father’s retort. Instead, Baba’s face froze when he gazed at Mama.
Mama had her back to Trenton, so he couldn’t make out anything except Mui Mui, who was just opening her black eyes.
Trenton held a finger to his lips and Mui Mui stared at Trenton from the back carrier instead of crying, while Baba said to Mama, “He’s lying. Isn’t he? Did you…”
“She did!” said the man. “You’ve had a bit of fairy tale luck, wouldn’t you say? During the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ when starving people were forced to eat… well, I won’t say anything in front of the boy and the girl—” His enormous right hand swept toward Trenton and Mui Mui “—you’ve both had an easy ride. Not that you didn’t work hard for it.” His left hand waved toward the oven, where the sound of gently crackling skin and the smell of roasting pig wafted through the air.
Baba’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he said to Mama, “What did you promise him?”
The gwai lo’s arms hovered in the air like wings while everyone waited for Mama to answer.
When Mama pressed her lips together, the man told Baba, “I always let my people choose. I wasn’t sure how it would work, anyway. It was my first time in that quadrant of the world. The powers that be said we should be more proportional in the way we allot our wishes, so I did my best in a brand-new territory.”
Mama exhaled and shook her head. Baba’s mouth grew white from strain, staring at her, willing her to speak.
So Trenton took a deep breath and his first step. He took two more steps, making his way from behind the counter, weaving around his mother and sister with his arms behind his back, while announcing: “We don’t want what you’re selling.” It was the same thing Mama always told the people who came to the door, clutching flyers, opening their briefcases, making promises — just like this man, really, only he was the best salesman of them all.
The man never glanced at Trenton. “Thank you for your input, Trenton, but I’m not here to speak to you today.”
“Too bad,” Trenton said, coming up on the man’s right side, and this time he spoke English. The language that he learned in school. The language of shut up and get lost.
This time, the man’s gaze locked on Trenton’s.
Trenton licked his lips.
He did not want to look into this man’s eyes, blue, yes, like story books, but also blue like the ocean that would hold your head under until you drowned.
Trenton felt something inside himself raise up and surge toward the gwai lo, as if the stranger were a magnet and he were iron filings.
Mama cried, “No. Not my boy. Take me now! Just leave my children!”
Baba thrust his way between Trenton and the stranger, smelling like pig fat and five spice and his own comforting self.
Mui Mui began to scream.
Trenton’s vision started to go black. He felt like he was spiraling outside himself, hovering above the display case, drifting past the hooks of roasted ducks and pigs, past the knot of people gathered on the pavement outside the restaurant, their mouths open in little O’s. Past the Trans Am, reaching up toward the cloudy December sky, where flakes of snow started to fall.
Trenton could smell his mother’s despair, at the bargain she’d made so long ago — but her vow still held her, yes it did. Trenton’s body knotted with his father’s fury and disbelief that this careful world he’d built on tender meat and crispy skin was an illusion. Trenton tasted the milk on Mui Mui’s tongue.
Trenton could feel, smell, and taste everything. Everything except the gwai lo himself, who was nothing except a pitiless vortex now swallowing his clan.
Now Trenton gazed through the man’s eyes at his own family. How pitiful they seemed, from the barely-born baby to the mother, screaming in fear, to the father, his fists now pummeling the man’s bulky back.
Trenton was losing the grip on his own body, that body now shrinking toward the floor with its arms behind its back so it couldn’t even balance.
Wait. Why did he have his arms behind his back? Trenton struggled to remember, fought hard to think of something besides the breath rasping uselessly in his throat, and his fingers clenched a foreign object: a long, smooth cylinder of wood between his palms.
What was in his hands?
A baseball bat.
Trenton had brought the baseball bat from behind the counter.
This bat was only for emergencies, his mother had told him a million times. A gun could be used against you by the authorities could make you wind up in court, make you lose your business to all the lawyer’s fees.
Trenton loved playing baseball, the clean thok a bat would make, that solid connection, the perfect arc of the ball through the air.
Trenton threw his shoulders back for the swing of his life.
In the back of his mind, he heard his mother scream his name.
With a flick of his eye, Trenton saw his father trying to grab the bat from him. Baba wanted it, wanted to be the one who would beat the gwai lo away.
But Trenton held the bat fast in his hands. He knew the wood. Sometimes, he’d put his hand on the bat under the counter, the way his friend Mikey might grab his goolies. A secret. Something hidden.
The gwai lo blinked, and in that moment of weakness, Trenton placed his feet, circled his stance to the right, swung his arms to the front, and smashed the bat between the man’s legs. Straight up, crushing the testicles against the bone of the man’s pelvis. He could visualize them leaping and squishing a split second before the man roared.
The man’s massive hands seized Trenton’s neck and lifted him clean off the floor, into the air. The bat clattered from Trenton’s grasp as he tried to claw those meaty hands wreathed around his windpipe.
Trenton’s vision dimmed as he watched himself filtered through the man’s eyes again, wriggling like a minnow on a hook.
No, less than a minnow, the gwai lo thought. A worm. A worm who deserved to have his soul ripped out of him and roasted in hell for eternity.
Trenton dug his nails into the man’s hands. Worms didn’t have nails. Worms didn’t have tough hands trained in basketball drills. He managed to wrench off a finger, maybe two, before his head abruptly skewed to the left.
He gasped for breath a split second before the man bashed his skull against the wall.
Trenton’s vision blacked out. He couldn’t see anything except a thick, inky fog, but he could still smell the gwai lo, that white man sweat, that white man rage, like a thwarted boar, like one of their pigs come back to life, only ten times bigger and a hundred times angrier, and he would have sworn that when the man stepped forward, grunting in triumph, instead of black shoes, dainty black cloven pig hooves clattered on the tile floor.
Then Trenton’s ears caught a different sound…
A sound that made his vision begin to clear a little and his heart snap back into his chest.
Like rice at a wedding, only on a tile floor, and…
…and not rice. Salt.
The salt they used on the pigs, cascading on the man’s back.
Salt, grounding Trenton. Breaking the man’s illusions.
It was his mother, showering them in salt and in reality.
Trenton’s ears popped, and he heard his father shout “Let. Him. Go!” just as Baba bashed the man’s arms with the bat.
The man’s claws slipped enough for Trenton to wheeze in relief, only to gasp when the stranger’s grip tightened and he growled, “I’m going to kill him. I’ll kill your future. That’s the price you’re going to pay!”
Suddenly, the stranger squealed.
The power in his hands withered and Trenton felt a piercing pain between the man’s shoulder blades as if it were his own agony.
Trenton slipped down the wall, stunned. As his full vision seeped back into his own body, he witnessed Mama wrestling the man’s arm away from him with the iron tongs they used to turn the ducks, just before Baba drove a second carpenter’s nail full-length into the man’s back.
The man fell to his knees, gasping, weakened by the salt and crippled by the iron alloy now embedded in his body.
Trenton sucked air past his burning throat, forcing the last black spots out of his eyes. He used the wall to lever himself up. When was sure that he wasn’t going to vomit, he drew himself up to his full height, marveling at how he towered over the stranger now braced on his hands and knees. Trenton only wished he had a lightsaber to finish him off completely.
Mama told the man, “Leave here. Never come back. Never bother me or my family again, or I’ll string you up and roast you in the oven.”
Trenton’s head spun. His mother would never do that. It would ruin the oven!
But the man must have thought that was a bad enough threat, because he tried to rock back on to his feet.
“No,” said Trenton. The effort made his throat spasm, and he coughed, but he shook his head at the stranger, willing him to stay on his hands and knees.
Baba agreed. “Crawl out of here. Forever.”
Even the baby made a sound that sounded like “Ha.”
The man snorted, but he began to shuffle on his hand and knees. His head dipped down, and he breathed heavily, so he looked like one of their animals: big but defeatable.
He crawled to the door.
Baba held it open for him and said, “I’ll make my own quality.”
When he slammed the door behind the gwai lo, the bells rang.
Mui Mui laughed.
Trenton kept an eye on the stranger’s bulk as he rose to his feet on the slushy pavement and threw open the door of the black Trans Am. The engine roared to life, with a spasm of smoke, and then car itself seemed to fade into the pavement. One black blob melding into another. Going underground.
Trenton blinked, and the car disappeared.
Maybe he’d imagined it, and the car had actually driven off, but either way, the stranger had vanished.
In the meantime, Trenton heard his mother’s voice, lighter than he could ever remember. Like she was singing instead of asking if he was all right. She hugged him to her chest so fiercely that she squished his nose, but he didn’t complain.
Behind her, he could hear Baba sweeping salt off the floor and Mui Mui sucking her thumb.
The door’s bells rang again. A customer wanted quality meat from their family.