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NANKING STORE
by Macario D. Tiu

Nanking Store
©2001 by Copper Sturgeon

 

I WAS only three years old then, but I have vivid memories of Peter and Linda's wedding. What I remember most was jumping and romping on their pristine matrimonial bed after the wedding. I would learn later that it was to ensure that their first-born would be a boy. I was chosen to do the honors because I was robust and fat.

I also remember that I got violently sick after drinking endless bottles of soft drinks. I threw up everything that I had eaten, staining Linda's shimmering satin wedding gown. Practically the entire Chinese community of the city was present. There was so much food that some Bisayan children from the squatter's area were allowed to enter the compound to eat in a shed near the kitchen.

During their first year of marriage, Linda often brought me to their house in Bajada. She and Peter would pick me up after nursery school from our store in their car. She would tell Mother it was her way of easing her loneliness, as all her relatives and friends were in Cebu, her hometown. Sometimes I stayed overnight with them.

I liked going there because she pampered me, feeding me fresh fruits as well as preserved Chinese fruits like dikiam, champoy and kiamoy. Peter was fun too, making me ride piggyback. He was very strong and did not complain about my weight.

Tua Poy, that's what she fondly called me. It meant Fatso. I called her Achi, and Peter, Ahiya. They were a happy couple. I would see them chase each other among the furniture and into the rooms. There was much laughter in the house. It was this happy image that played in my mind about Peter and Linda for a long time.

I was six years old when I sensed that something had gone wrong with their marriage. Linda left the Bajada house and moved into the upstairs portions of Nanking Store which was right across from Father's grocery store in Santa Ana. The Bajada residence was the wedding gift of Peter's parents to the couple. It was therefore strange that Linda would choose to live in Santa Ana while Peter would stay in Bajada, a distance of some three kilometers.

In Santa Ana where the Chinese stores were concentrated, the buildings used to be uniformly two storeys high. The first floor was the store; the second floor was the residence. In time some Chinese grew prosperous and moved out to establish little enclaves in different parts of the city and in the suburbs. We remained in Santa Ana.

One late afternoon, after school, I caught Linda at home talking with Mother.

"Hoa, Tua Poya. You've grown very tall!" Linda greeted me, ruffling my hair.

At that age, the show of affection made me feel awkward and I sidled up to Mother. Linda gave me two Mandarin oranges. I stayed at the table in the same room, eating an orange and pretending not to listen to their conversation.

I noticed that Linda's eyes were sad, not the eyes that I remembered. Her eyes used to be full of light and laughter. Now her eyes were somber even when her voice sounded casual and happy.

"I got bored in Bajada," Linda said. "I thought I'd help Peter at the store."

That was how she explained why she had moved to Santa Ana. I wanted to know if she could not do that by going to the store in the morning and returning home to Bajada at night like Peter did. I wished Mother would ask the question, but she did not.

However, at the New Canton Barbershop I learned the real reason. One night Mother told me to fetch Father because it was past eight o'clock and he hadn't had his dinner. As a family we ate early. Like most Chinese, we would close the store by five and go up to the second floor to eat supper.

The New Canton Barbershop served as the recreation center of our block. At night the sidewalk was brightly lighted, serving as the extension of the barbershop's waiting room. People congregated there to play Chinese chess, to read the Orient News or just talk. It was a very informal place. Father and the other elderly males would go there in shorts and sando shirts.

He was playing chess when I got there. He sat on a stool with one leg raised on the stool.

"Mama says you should go home and eat," I said.

Father looked at me and I immediately noticed that he had had a drink. The focus of his eyes was not straight.

"I have eaten. Go home. Tell Mother I'll follow in a short while," he said.

I stayed on and watched the game although I did not understand a thing.

"I said go home," Father said, glowering at me.

I did not budge.

"This is how children behave now. You tell them to do something and they won't obey," he complained to his opponent. Turning to me, he said, "Go home."

"Check," his opponent said.

"Hoakonga!" Father cried, "I turn around and you cheat me."

His opponent laughed aloud, showing toothless gums.

Father studied the chessboard. "Hoakonga! You've defeated me four times in a row!"

"Seven times."

"What? You're a big cheat and you know that. Certainly five times, no more!"

It elicited another round of laughter from the toothless man. Several people in the adjoining tables joined in the laughter. Father reset the chess pieces to start another game.

"You beat me in chess, but I have six children. All boys. Can you beat that?" he announced.

Father's laughter was very loud. When he had had a drink he was very talkative.

"See this?" he hooked his arm around my waist and drew me to his side. "This is my youngest. Can you beat this?"

The men laughed. They laughed very hard. I did not know what was funny, but it must be because of the incongruous sight of the two of us. He was very thin and I was very fat.

"Well, I have I seven children!" the toothless man said.

"Ah, four daughters. Not counted," Father said.

"Ah Kong! Ah Kong!" somebody said.

The laughter was deafening. Ah Kong lived several blocks away. He had ten children, all daughters, and his wife was pregnant again.

They laughed at their communal joke, but the laughter slowly died down until there was absolute silence. It was a very curious thing. Father saw Peter coming around the corner and he suddenly stopped laughing. The toothless man turned, saw Peter, and he stopped laughing, too. Anybody who saw Peter became instantly quiet so that by the time he was near the barbershop the group was absolutely silent.

It was Peter who broke the silence by greeting Father. He also greeted some people, and suddenly they were alive again. The chess pieces made scraping noises on the board, the newspapers rustled, and people began to talk.

"Hoa, Tua Poya, you've grown very tall!" he said, ruffling my hair.

I smiled shyly at him. He exchanged a few words with Father and then, ruffling my hair once more, he went away. It struck me that he was not the Peter I knew, vigorous and alert. This Peter looked tired, and his shoulders sagged.

I followed him with my eyes. Down the road I noted that his car was parked in front of Nanking Store. But he did not get into his car; instead he went inside the store. It was one of those nights when he would sleep in the store.

"A bad stock," the toothless man said, shaking his head. "Ah Kong has no bones. But Peter is a bad stock. A pity. After four years, still no son. Not even a daughter."

"It's the woman, not Peter," said a man from a neighboring table. "I heard they tried everything. She even had regular massage by a Bisayan medicine woman."

"It's sad. It's very sad," the toothless man said. "His parents want him to junk her, but he loves her."

When Father and I got home, I went to my First Brother's room.

"Why do they say that Ah Kong has no bones?" I asked my brother.

"Where did you learn that?" my brother asked.

"At the barbershop."

"Don't listen in on adult talk," he said. "It's bad manners."

"Well, what does it mean?"

"It means Ah Kong cannot produce a son."

"And what is a bad stock?"

My brother told me to go to sleep, but I persisted.

"It means you cannot produce any children. It's like a seed, see? It won't grow. Why do you ask?" he said.

"They say Peter is a bad stock."

"Well, that's what's going to happen to him if he won't produce a child. But it's not really Peter's problem. It is Linda's problem. She had an appendectomy when she was still single. It could have affected her."

Somehow I felt responsible for their having no children. I worried that I could be the cause. I hoped nobody remembered that I jumped on their matrimonial bed to give them good luck. I failed to give them a son. I failed to give them even a daughter. But nobody really blamed me for it. Everybody agreed it was Linda's problem.

That was why Linda had moved in to Santa Ana.

But the problem was more complicated than this. First Brother explained it all to me patiently. Peter's father was the sole survivor of the Zhin family. He had a brother but he died when still young. The family name was therefore in danger of dying out. It was the worst thing that could happen to a Chinese family, for the bloodline to vanish from the world. Who would pay respects to the ancestors? It was unthinkable. Peter was the family's only hope to carry on the family name, and he still remained childless.

But while everybody agreed that it was Linda's fault, some people also doubted Peter's virility. At the New Canton Barbershop it was the subject of drunken bantering. He was aware that people were talking behind his back. From a very gregarious man, he became withdrawn and no longer socialized.

Instead he put his energies into Nanking Store. His father had retired and had given him full authority. Under his management, Nanking Store expanded, eating up two adjacent doors. It was rumored he had bought a large chunk of Santa Ana and was diversifying into manufacturing and mining.

Once, I met him in the street and I smiled at him but he did not return my greeting. He did not ruffle my hair. He had become a very different man. His mouth was set very hard. He looked like he was angry at something.

The changes in Linda occurred over a period of time. At first, she seemed to be in equal command with Peter in Nanking Store. She had her own desk and sometimes acted as cashier. Later she began to serve customers directly as if she were one of the salesgirls.

Then her personal maid was fired. Gossip blamed this on Peter's parents. She lived pretty much like the three stay-in salesgirls and the young mestizo driver who cooked their own meals and washed their own clothes.

Members of the community whose opinions mattered began to sympathize with her because her in-laws were becoming hostile towards her openly. The mother-in-law made it known to everybody she was unhappy with her. She began to scold Linda in public. "That worthless, barren woman," she would spit out. Linda became a very jittery person. One time, she served tea to her mother-in-law and the cup slid off the saucer. It gave the mother-in-law a perfect excuse to slap Linda in the face in public.

Peter did not help her when it was a matter between his parents and herself. I think at that time he still loved Linda, but he always deferred to the wishes of his parents. When it was that he stopped loving her I would not know. But he had learned to go to night spots and the talk began that he was dating a Bisayan bar girl. First Brother saw this woman and had nothing but contempt for her.

"A bad woman," First brother told me one night about this woman. "All make-up. I don't know what he sees in her."

It seemed that Peter did not even try to hide his affair because he would occasionally bring the girl to a very expensive restaurant in Matina. Matina was somewhat far from Santa Ana, but the rich and mobile young generation Chinese no longer confined themselves to Santa Ana. Many of them saw Peter with the woman. As if to lend credence to the rumor, the occasional night visits he made at Nanking Store stopped. I would not see his car parked there at night again.

One day, Peter brought First Brother to a house in a subdivision in Mandug where he proudly showed him a baby boy. It was now an open secret that he kept his woman there and visited her frequently. First Brother told me about it after swearing me to secrecy, the way Peter had sworn him to secrecy.

"Well, that settles the question. Peter is no bad stock after all. It had been Linda all along," First Brother said.

It turned out Peter showed his baby boy to several other people and made them swear to keep it a secret. In no time at all everybody in the community knew he had finally produced a son. People talked about the scandal in whispers. A son by a Bisayan woman? And a bad woman at that? But they no longer joked about his being a bad stock.

All in all people were happy for Peter. Once again his prestige rose. Peter basked in this renewed respect. He regained his old self; he now walked with his shoulders straight, and looked openly into people's eyes. He also began to socialize at New Canton Barbershop. And whenever we met, he would ruffle my hair.

As for his parents, they acted as if nothing had happened. Perhaps they knew about the scandal, but pretended not to know. They were caught in a dilemma. On one hand, it should make them happy that Peter finally produced a son. On the other hand, they did not relish the idea of having a half-breed for a grandson, the old generation Chinese being conscious of racial purity. What was certain though was that they remained unkind to Linda.

So there came a time when nobody was paying any attention anymore to Linda, not even Peter. Our neighbors began to accept her fate. It was natural for her to get scolded by her mother-in-law in public. It was natural that she should stay with the salesgirls and the driver. She no longer visited with Mother. She rarely went out, and when she did, she wore a scarf over her head, as if she were ashamed for people to see her. Once in the street I greeted her--she looked at me with panic in her eyes, mumbled something, drew her scarf down to cover her face, and hurriedly walked away.

First Brother had told me once that Linda's degradation was rather a strange case. She was an educated girl, and although her family was not rich, it was not poor either. Why she allowed herself to be treated that way was something that baffled people. She was not that submissive before. Once, I was witness to how she stood her ground. Her mother-in-law had ordered her to remove a painting of an eagle from a living room wall of their Bajada house, saying it was bad feng shui. With great courtesy, Linda refused, saying it was beautiful. But the mother-in-law won in the end. She nagged Peter about it, and he removed the painting.

When the Bisayan woman gave Peter a second son, it no longer created a stir in the community. What created a minor stir was that late one night, when the New Canton Barbershop was about to close and there were only a few people left, Peter dropped by with his eldest son whom he carried piggyback. First Brother was there. He said everybody pretended the boy did not exist.

Then Peter died in a car accident in the Buhangin Diversion Road. He was returning from Mandug and a truck rammed his car, killing him instantly. I cried when I heard about it, remembering how he had been good to me.

At the wake, Linda took her place two rows behind her mother-in-law who completely ignored her. People passed by her and expressed their condolences very quickly, as if they were afraid of being seen doing so by the mother-in-law. At the burial, Linda stood stoically throughout the ceremony, and when Peter was finally interred, she swooned.

A few weeks after Peter's burial, we learned that Linda's mother-in-law wanted her out of Nanking Store. She offered Linda a tempting amount of money. People thought it was a vicious thing to do, but none could help her. It was a purely family affair. However, a month or two passed and Linda was still in Nanking Store. In fact, Linda was now taking over Peter's work.

I was happy to see that she had begun to stir herself to life. It was ironic that she would do so only after her husband's death. But at the same time, we feared for her. Her mother-in-law's hostility was implacable. She blamed Linda for everything. She knew about the scandal all along, and she never forgave Linda for making Peter the laughing stock of the community, forcing him into the arms of a Bisayan girl of an unsavory reputation and producing half-breed bastard sons.

We waited keenly for the showdown that was coming. A flurry of emissaries went to Nanking Store but Linda stood pat on her decision to stay. Then one morning, her mother-in-law herself came in her flashy Mercedes. We learned about what actually happened through our domestic helper who got her story from the stay-in salesgirls. That was how the entire community learned the details of the confrontation.

According to them, Linda ran upstairs to avoid talking to her mother-in-law. But the older woman followed and started berating her and calling her names. Linda kept her composure. She did not even retaliate when the older woman slapped her. But when the mother-in-law grabbed Linda's hair, intending to drag her down the stairs, Linda kicked her in the shin. The old woman went wild and flayed at Linda. Linda at first fought back defensively, but as the older woman kept on, she finally slapped her mother-in-law hard in the face. Stunned, the older woman retreated, shouting threats at her. She never showed her face in Santa Ana again.

While some conservative parties in the community did not approve of Linda's actions, many others cheered her secretly. They were sad, though, that the mother-in-law, otherwise a good woman, would become a cruel woman out of desperation to protect and perpetuate the family name.

Since the enmity had become violent, the break was now total and absolute. This family quarrel provided an interesting diversion in the entire community; we followed each and every twist of its development like a TV soap opera. When the in-laws hired a lawyer, Linda also hired her own lawyer. It was going to be an ugly fight over property.

Meanwhile, Linda's transformation fascinated the entire community. She had removed her scarf and made herself visible in the community again. I was glad that every time I saw her she was getting back to her old self. Indeed it was only then that I noticed how beautiful she was. She had well-shaped lips that needed no lipstick. Her eyes sparkled. Color had returned to her cheeks, accentuating her fine complexion. Blooming, the women said, seeming to thrive on the fight to remain in Nanking Store. The young men sat up whenever she passed by. But they would shake their heads, and say "What a pity, she's barren."

Then without warning the in-laws suddenly moved to Manila, bringing with them the two bastard sons. They made it known to everybody that it was to show their contempt for Linda. It was said that the other woman received a handsome amount so she would never disturb them again.

We all thought that was that. For several months an uneasy peace settled down in Nanking Store as the struggle shifted to the courts. People pursued other interests. Then to the utter horror of the community, they realized Linda was pregnant.

Like most people, I thought at first that she was just getting fat. But everyday it was getting obvious that her body was growing. People had mixed reactions. When she could not bear a child she was a disgrace. Now that she was pregnant, she was still a disgrace. But she did not care about what people thought or said about her. Wearing a pair of elastic pants that highlighted her swollen belly, she walked all over Santa Ana. She dropped by every store on our block and chatted with the storeowners, as if to make sure that everybody knew she was pregnant.

There was no other suspect for her condition but the driver. Nobody had ever paid him any attention before, and now they watched him closely. He was a shy mestizo about Peter's age. A very dependable fellow, yes. And good-looking, they now grudgingly admitted.

"Naughty, naughty," the young men teased him, some of whom turned unfriendly. Unused to attention, the driver went on leave to visit his parents in Iligan City.

One night, I arrived home to find Linda talking with Mother.

"Hoa, Tua Poya! You're so tall!" she greeted me. "Here are some oranges. I know you like them."

I said my thanks. How heavy with child she was!

"How old are you now?"

"Twelve," I said.

"Hmm, you're a man already. I should start calling you Napoleon, huh? Well, Napoleon, I've come here to say goodbye to your mother, and to you, too."

She smiled; it was the smile I remembered when I was still very young, the smile of my childhood.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to Iligan to fetch Oliver. Then we'll proceed to Cebu to visit my parents. Would you like to go with me?"

I looked at Mother. She was teary eyed. Linda stood up and ruffled my hair.

"So tall," she said.

That was two years ago. We have not heard from Linda again. Nanking Store remains closed. The store sign has streaked into pastel colors like a stale wedding cake. First Brother says it is best for Linda to stay away. As for me, I am happy for her but I keep wondering if she had given birth to a boy.

1999 by Macario D. Tiu

This story has previously appeared in print.

 

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