The Pagoda Music Box

“It’s time to talk about talking,” Sylvia said.

“So we’re just talking to each other about talking, just talking,” Mindy said.

Sylvia held up the small music box.  Mindy caught a flash of the gold sticker on the bottom: MADE IN CHINA.  “Yes,” her mother said, “we’re just talking.  You’re my daughter and we’re shopping in his little oriental store and it’s the most natural thing to do.  So we smile, and we giggle, maybe even bump into each other.”

When I’m old and gray, Mindy thought, this is what I’ll remember: My mom and I talking about talking, laughing about laughing, bumping into each other like best friends.

“Do you like it?” Mindy asked.

“Do you?”

“Why does it play ‘Moon River’?  Shouldn’t it be playing a Chinese song?”

“Nobody knows Chinese songs,” Sylvia informed her daughter, “outside of China.”

“I like it, but I don’t love it.”

“Yeah,” Sylvia said, wrinkling her nose.  She placed the pagoda-shaped music box back on the shelf.  “Let’s go, sugarpie.  I’ll get you an ice cream cone.”

On their way out, Sylvia wished Mr. Kim, the shop owner, to have a nice day.

“You too,” Mr. Kim said with a confirming nod.

“Is that your family?” she asked, referring to the mother-daughter-son triad efficiently rearranging the vases in the ceramic aisle of the store.

“My family.  I am happy.”

They strolled down to Cone-y Island, where Sylvia watched her daughter relish every lick of her butter pecan ice cream.

“Good, huh?”

“Uh-huh,” she said brightly, then her face fell.  She stared at the remaining stump of cone and said, “I didn’t get anything, Mom.  I couldn’t.”

“I know,” Sylvia said.  “Six more eyes make it six times tougher.”   She found herself missing East Meets West, when it used to be manned by Mr. Kim and Mr. Kim alone.  “It’s going to be difficult now,” she continued, taking out a little box of incense and sliding it across the table, “but not impossible.”  The sweet smell of sandalwood blossomed between them.

“Mom!” Mindy said.  “Mom, you’re so amazing.  When did you do it?”

“When nobody was looking,” Sylvia said, squeezing her daughter’s hand, “including you.”

*

They lived on Cold Indian Springs Road, the last house on the street, a dead end.  Sylvia called it a fancy name, a cul-de-sac, but Mindy believed the bold black letters on the yellow sign instead.

Their house was a faded duplex with black shutters, black shingles, and pale brown stucco that felt prickly-cold in the winter.  There was no doorbell to ring, so you had to use the knocker, a roaring lion with a ring in its mouth, the neon orange price tag still on its right cheek, brightly announcing its value at $14.95.

Once inside, what you’d notice first would be the mad scatter of little objects on flat surfaces.  Everywhere you looked, you’d see something – a ceramic deer, a fancy thimble, a tiny picture frame – occupying flat space.  The mantle over the fireplace was big enough to house fourteen individual items: a package of shoelaces, four packs of Hubba Bubba bubble gum, a Roach Motel, a three-pack of Duracell AAA batteries, a trio of cassette tapes (Journey, Bryan Adams, Air Supply), a travel-sized tube of Colgate toothpaste, a PaperMate pen, and two long black screws with matching winged washers.  These weren’t haphazardly thrown together like junk; instead, they were put together with decorative sense.  For example, the four packs of gum, alternating purple and pink, were laid out in diamond formation.  Standing behind, a necklace of pearls uncoiled itself over the Colgate box like an exquisite snake.

Upon closer examination of these unlikely knick-knacks, you’d notice that nothing was open or used.  The clear plastic shrinkwrap still fiercely hugged the batteries.  The toothpaste’s screwtop had never come undone.  The pen’s tip was as dry as old bones.

And then you’d see the price tags stuck everywhere on everything – blue ones, red ones, white ones, some with the store’s name proudly embossed, handwritten ones, some barely holding on, curled up at the edges like a miniature scroll.

*

On a good Saturday, they came away with four or five pieces.  Several factors contributed to the success or failure of their ventures: Was the store busy enough to keep the storeowner occupied, yet not so bustling that other customers might notice?  Did the shopkeeper like children, or did he find them irritating?  Was the store minded by the actual owner or a bored, dissatisfied manager?  You had to be patient.  You had to watch people and wait for your moment, your place.  Eagerness was your worst enemy.

Despite these everchanging variables, Sylvia and Mindy found modest success, mostly due to the fact that nobody suspected a mother and a daughter to be a shoplifting team. Mindy, who had turned ten a month ago, was the spitting image of her mother, having inherited both Sylvia’s thick brown curls and deep green eyes, and this immediately put people at ease.  Looking at their close resemblance, these merchants thought back to their own children and found comfort there.

Shoplifting required teamwork.  It demanded absolute trust.  Sylvia never believed Mindy would let her get caught, and Mindy felt safest when her mother gave her that little sideways nod, signifying that the coast was clear, move those fingers, take it now.

Sylvia considered the possibility that she was slightly insane.  She was well aware that normal mothers didn’t count shoplifting as quality time spent with their daughters, but what did normal mean anyway?  Besides, it wasn’t as if they were going to be doing this forever.  It’s what they were doing now.

They never stole anything large or expensive – an earring here, a candle there.  They never planned to steal.  Every time they tried to map out a job in advance, it never worked.  Spontaneity was key.  That was how it happened the very first time – two days after Sylvia’s husband and Mindy’s father, Jason, had walked out on them – when Sylvia took Mindy to Rickel Home Center to buy a new floodlight bulb for their backyard.

“We forgot to bring the bulb,” Mindy had said in the car.

“Oh shit,” Sylvia said, keeping her eyes on the road.  She had a terrible headache.  The rain came down hard that day, the windshield wipers useless against this monsoon.

Inside Rickel, Sylvia wished she’d brought sunglasses.  The brightness of the  fluorescent lights honed her migraine to a fine, brittle edge.  She located the customer service desk and walked over.  The only person at the station, a young girl, left as Sylvia arrived.

“Can’t we just find the right light?” Mindy asked.

“I’m sure she’ll be back in a second,” Sylvia said, trying not to think about how much her head hurt.

Six minutes later, the girl returned.  “Yeah?”

“I need a floodlight,” Sylvia said.

The girl, Janice according to her name tag, picked up the phone and pressed a button.  “Lights to Customer Service,” she yelled, her annoyed voice growling out of the PA system.  “Just wait a minute,” she said, and left the desk again.

They waited another six minutes, this time for an acne-faced teenage boy named Francis.  It was his second day at work, so he professed his ignorance up front.  Together, the three of them managed to stumble upon the bulb shelf of the lighting section.

“This’s the right one, I’m sure,” Francis said, sounding anything but.

Sylvia thought she was going to puke.  The pounding inside her head had become monstrous.  She looked at the floodlight and couldn’t believe this was the right one; the base screw looked ridiculously large.  “If you say so,” she said.

“Great – oh wait.  I need to write that up.  You know, for me to get my commission.”  He laughed as he left, and the sound unnerved her: it was identical to the way Jason laughed, a string of coughs that end with a snort.

She looked at her daughter.  She was going to have to take care of her from now on.  Me, myself, and I, she thought.  That’s the only “we” I have.  Sylvia looked around and saw no one.  As if she knew what her mother was going to do, Mindy darted her eyes around the immediate vicinity and gave her a quick and decisive nod.  Sylvia opened her purse, slipped the bulb in, and snapped it closed.

“Well, I’m back” Francis said, flipping a small booklet.  “Let’s write that up.”

“I don’t think so,” Sylvia said.  “I’ve changed my mind.”

“Oh,” Francis said quizzically.  “I thought you needed it.”

“I think,” Sylvia said, looking at Mindy, “it’s something we can do without.”  Mindy grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

“Okey-dokey,” Francis said and hurried to another customer.

They walked out together, the rain drenching them.  In the car, Sylvia cranked the engine, let out a deep breath, and sat there staring at the windshield.  She’d never taken anything before in her life.  Her heart, suddenly aware of what had just happened, beat so fast she felt certain she was going to suffer a heart attack, but a couple of deep breaths calmed her.

“That was amazing,” Mindy said.  “You were amazing.”

The admiration and love in her voice was so genuine, it hurt.  Sylvia met her daughter’s eyes and said, “You can always count on me.”

Mindy nodded slowly with a knowing smile, an action too mature for her age.  “How’s your head?”

“What?”

“Your headache.”

“It’s fine,” she said, unable to believe it herself.

“It’s the wrong bulb, isn’t it?” Mindy asked.

“Yes it is,” Sylvia said, and they both started laughing.

But when they came home and tried the bulb, it fit perfectly.

*

Sunday morning, Sylvia cooked up four eggs over easy, half a dozen crisp strips of bacon, and blueberry scones lightly buttered and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

“Wow,” Mindy said as she stumbled into the kitchen bleary-eyed, and for a moment she was happy.  Then she saw her mother’s high heels and knew what was coming.  She was going out and Mrs. McTavish, the crazy old bat who lived with her sixteen cats two houses up, was going to babysit her.

“Here,” Sylvia suggested, pulling out a chair, “have a seat.”  She tried to pat Mindy’s head, but her daughter dipped away.  Sylvia ignored this and offered Mindy the comics section, her favorite thing to do while eating Sunday breakfast.

“No thank you,” Mindy said, drinking her orange juice, looking at everything else but her mother.

Sylvia milled fresh ground pepper over her eggs and tried to fight her guilt by getting angry at her daughter, but it was impossible.  She was just a child, after all.

“It won’t be for very long,” Sylvia said.

“How long.”

“I don’t know, exactly.”

“Then how do you know it won’t be for very long?”

“A couple of hours, I don’t know.”

“Fine,” Mindy said.

There were many reasons why her mother’s outings upset Mindy.  First and foremost, Sylvia never revealed the nature of these excursions.  “Just some old friends,” her mother would say, and deftly redirect Mindy’s attention to some other subject.  After this happened three times in succession, Mindy got the hint.  Secondly, her mother did not come back from these outings with anything that resembled contentment.  More often than not, she would be depressed, sometimes for days.  And lastly, Mrs. McTavish always stunk of cat poop and cat pee.  Her stench lingered after her like a fat, lazy shadow, and if Mindy wasn’t careful, she would unwittingly run into that noxious half matter.

“Look,” Sylvia said, “I’ll make it up to you.”

“You always say that.”

“And I always keep my promise, don’t I?”  Mindy looked down at the scone crumbs and said nothing.  “We’ll go to Peddlers Town next weekend.  Okay?”

“Okay,” she said.

“Good girl,” Sylvia said, and this time Mindy didn’t duck away from her mother’s hand.

In the bathroom, Sylvia got down to the business of putting on her face.  Mindy watched, as usual.  In this world, looking good was half the battle, if not the entire war.  Sylvia spread on a light layer of foundation, applied a quick swipe of rouge to her cheeks, lengthened her eyelashes with the help of goopy mascara, and carefully drew on her lipstick.  From the mirror, she saw Mindy’s smile widen.

“What do you think?” Sylvia asked.

Mindy took a cotton ball out of the box and dabbed her mother’s forehead.  She parted the stray bangs away from her eyes, looked back with her arms crossed, and announced, “Foxy mama.”

There was a harsh knock at the door and it made both of them jump.

“There she is!” Sylvia said, trying her best to sound lively.  Within five minutes, she was gone and Mrs. McTavish’s disgusting odors had invaded the living room.  She sat down on the couch with her legs wide open, flipping the remote to a PBS documentary about some ancient, desiccated jazz singer.

What Sylvia didn’t realize was that her daughter already knew her big secret.  It didn’t take long for Mindy to find out; all she had to do was look under her mother’s bed.  Sylvia shoved everything personal there, and the deeper it was shoved, the more personal.  When Mrs. McTavish went into the bathroom, which she did for half an hour every time she came over (why, Mindy didn’t know, didn’t want to know), Mindy went into hyperdrive.  Two months ago, she had uncovered the ragged newspaper page fully marked with her mother’s yellow highlighter.  Initially, the page had confounded her; it was called “The Meeting Place,” and they were tiny little paragraphs in code – SWF, ISO, N/D, LTR.  With a little more digging, Mindy figured out the acronyms, then it dawned on her: her mom was looking for another dad.  Why was she keeping this a secret?  Mindy felt left out.  When the time was right, she would ask her about it.

She scanned the new Personals page and saw freshly highlighted text:

DESTINY AWAITS
Ruggedly handsome DWM, 39, 5’6″ ISO
active SWF, 30+, honest, spontaneous,
self-confident, down-to-earth, romantic,
petite.  Open arms await.  Ad#1274.

Divorced White Male In Search Of Single White Female.  Her mother was more than able to meet Mr. Destiny’s high level of expectation – all except the honest part.

*

His name was Philip and that worried Sylvia.  “Hi,” he’d said during their short and awkward phone conversation, “it’s me, Philip.”  Not Phil, Philip.  It seemed like a bad omen that this person who described himself as ruggedly handsome had an un-rugged name like Philip.  They agreed to meet at the Firehouse, a bustling little tavern famous for its home brews and buffalo wings.  The bar was filled with men, most of them enraptured by the Lakers outplaying the Celtics on the large-screen television.  Sylvia, sitting at the corner bar stool and nursing a pint of Crazy Gal Golden Lager, looked at her watch again.

“It doesn’t go any faster,” the woman said behind the bar.  She was about Sylvia’s age and had a worn-out look about her.  “Should I fill you back up?”

Sylvia thanked her and declined.  The bartender shrugged, tucked an orphaned lock of frizzy hair behind her ears, and lit up a long cigarette.  No ring, Sylvia noticed, looking at her long, knuckled fingers.  She massaged her own ringless ring finger and thought about her wedding band wrapped in velvet, underneath the tray of necklaces in the plush bottom of her jewelry box.

Philip was early by three minutes.  He looked a good three inches shorter than the 5’6″ he had advertised, and he was as ruggedly handsome as a gorilla.  His face was strikingly simian, the nose flat and flaring, thick protruding lips, eyes dark and deeply set.

His brown eyes, momentarily pausing at her, continued to scan the room.  “I’ll be wearing a red sweater with a white scarf,” she’d told him over the phone.  “Look for the redhead in the red sweater,” then added a little mischievous laugh.  In reality, she was in a gray blouse, no scarf.  She didn’t even own any scarves.  And her hair was dirty blonde, not red.  So much for honesty, Sylvia thought.  I guess that’s strike one.

But Philip hadn’t exactly told the truth, either, lying about his height and face.  He was an ugly little man, and Sylvia hoped that the next one would be better.  She’d liked Brandon, the last guy she met, but he never returned her phone call after their date.  She’d forgotten how rotten dating was, how you turned into a pinball of emotions, bouncing between elation and disappointment.

Philip ordered a pint.  He had a squeaky, uneven voice, as if puberty had never left him.  He sat down two bar stools over from her and sipped his beer, his eyes jumping to the door every time it opened.

In an effort to alleviate her guilt, Sylvia waited with him.  After an hour, Philip looked even smaller than when he’d first come in, his head and shoulders sinking into his body, like a turtle retreating into its shell.  As he stared down into his empty glass, Sylvia wondered what he saw in there.  Probably the same thing she’d see if she looked into her own: a failed marriage, disappointing dates, a future with loneliness as its only promise.

“Can I have another one?” he asked the bartender.

She pulled on the tap and refilled it right to the top, the head floating over the rim of the glass like a cloud.  “It’s on the house.”

“Why?”

“Because you look like this, sunshine,” she said, pouting her lips and making puppy-dog eyes.

*

Sylvia brought back a little something from work throughout the week – a box of thumbtacks, a ream of watermarked stationery, a new stapler.  Not to be outdone by her mother, Mindy proudly displayed her own spoils as Saturday grew near: a chalk and eraser combination, a library book (The Lorax, her favorite), a pack of gum.

“So,” Sylvia asked, “what do you want to hit first?”

They were heading north on Route 35, driving past the dilapidated A&P on the right.  That meant they were about ten minutes from Peddlers Town, and at this point, the four-lane highway narrowed to a two-lane road.  This was Mindy’s favorite part of the trip because sometimes you ended up getting behind a slowpoke and had to swerve over to the oncoming lane to pass it.  “Hold on,” her mother would always whisper, and then she’d tighten her grip on the steering wheel, square her shoulders, stomp on the gas pedal and gun the car, and for the next five seconds, it felt as if they were going a million miles an hour.

Her dad had laughed when she described all this to him, the couple of times they came to Peddlers Town.  Mindy didn’t think about him too often, but sometimes when they came this way, she was reminded of her dad, and now it didn’t hurt so much to remember.  She knew he left for another woman – one sleepless night that’s all she heard from their bedroom, the name “Shannon” screamed over and over again by her mother until she lost her voice.  Whatever anger she’d felt towards her father was now replaced by a weird combination of emptiness and curiosity: what did Shannon have that she and her mother didn’t?  A mansion, servants, horses?  Lately she’d begun to realize there were some questions in this world to which there were no real answers.

“Earth to sugarpie, Earth to sugarpie,” Sylvia said.

East Meets West,” Mindy said.

*

As expected, all eight eyes were there.  Mr. Kim manned the register; Mrs. Kim was loitering around the table of shoes, leading customers to the chair so they could try them on.  The daughter and son were inside the kiosk of showcases, both of them attending to potential buyers.  It was busy, but not overwhelming.

“What do you think?” Mindy asked.

“I think it’s okay,” Sylvia said.

They started at the back of the store, the ceramics section, looking at all the pretty things around them.  There was a whole collection of dragons, their long, serpentine trunks coiled like a flow of S’s.  Next were the Buddhas in all their incarnations, shelf after shelf of bald smiling men ending with what might be the store’s most expensive item, a four-foot Buddha that had tiny boys and girls climbing all over him.  The price tag read $1499.00.

It was time, and they knew it.  They threaded around the casual lookers and the serious shoppers while keeping their eyes on the four Koreans.

“It’s time to talk about talking,” Sylvia said to her daughter, enjoying the familiarity of that phrase.

“Yes,” Mindy agreed, adding a nod to her response.

Sylvia picked up the pagoda music box and continued: “So we’re talking again, Mindy, just talking, I’m just saying whatever’s on my mind because it feels right, it feels good.”  Mindy looked around, moving only her eyes.  Any quick head movement would attract unwanted attention.  She spotted the father, the mother, and the daughter, but the son was gone.  Where was the boy?

“It’s gooooone,” Sylvia whispered playfully, and Mindy was suddenly terrified.  Where was the boy?  She turned around but saw no one.  She turned back and there he was, talking to his father, pointing at her and her mother.

“Mom,” Mindy said.

Sylvia didn’t have to hear anything else; her daughter’s tone was enough.  “It’s okay,” she said, forcing her voice to stay controlled.  “It’s all right.”

Mr. Kim and his son approached her.  He looked more puzzled than angry.  “Hi,” he said.

“Hello,” Sylvia said.  Her daughter stared down the boy with utter hatred, but he held his ground.

Mr. Kim tried to speak, then stopped.  He started again, then stopped again.  Finally, he said something quick to his son, something unintelligible, in their own language.  His son nodded and ran off.

“Is there something the matter?” Sylvia asked.

“Please, just a sec,” Mr. Kim said.

“Well, if there’s nothing wrong,” Sylvia said, grabbing her daughter’s hand, “I think I’d like to go and get an ice cream cone for my daughter.”

She started to walk away, but Mr. Kim moved in front of her.

She tried to walk the other way, but again, he blocked her in.

“Get out of my way,” Sylvia said.

Mr. Kim didn’t budge.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Just a sec.”

The security guard, Sylvia thought.  He’s getting the security guard.  But it was actually another oriental man, a man who looked out of breath.  “Hello,” he said with a curt bow.  “I am Mr. Hong.”

Sylvia and Mindy said nothing.

Mr. Kim quickly filled him in, his native language sounding harsh and choppy.  Mr. Hong nodded quickly, and looked at Sylvia and Mindy curiously.

“He say,” Mr. Hong said, pointing to Mr. Kim, “you have thing in purse.”  Seeing the commotion, a small crowd of shoppers was gathering at the fringes.

Sylvia looked at Mindy and saw tears in her daughter’s eyes.  She had to get out of this somehow, get out with dignity, however small.

“What do you want?” she asked Mr. Kim.

Mr. Kim, staring at Mindy, answered in Korean without meeting her eyes.  It was barely audible, but Mr. Hong understood.  “Just go,” he said.

“Okay,” Sylvia said, “we’ll go.”  They were almost out of the store when Mr. Kim spoke after them.

“Please,” he said, “don’t come again.”

*

Mindy didn’t want ice cream, so they went home. They didn’t talk for the rest of the day, and when Sunday morning came, Sylvia surpassed her last Sunday breakfast by adding strawberry pancakes and French toast coated with sugared cinnamon to the lineup.

Mindy sat down and took in the vast culinary landscape laid out in front of her.

“You’re going out today?” Mindy asked.

“No,” Sylvia said.  “No, honey, I’m not.”

Mindy ate and read the Sunday comics sitting next to her.  When she was done with her eggs, she put her fork down.  “Mom,” Mindy asked, “what’s wrong with us?”

“What do you mean?”

“There must be something wrong.”

“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Sylvia said, surprised at how defensive she sounded.  Of course it was guilt.  Getting caught at that damn store was something Mindy would probably end up going to therapy for twenty years down the line.  “We just screwed up, that’s all, sugarpie,” she said.  “Everybody makes mistakes.”

Mindy nodded.  The botched job wasn’t even on her mind.  In the morning, she vividly recalled her dream, where she and her mother were watching a movie starring her father and Shannon.  Although she’d never seen the other woman, in her dream she was tall and pretty and smart; there was nothing wrong with her.  Every time Mindy wanted to share this obvious fact with her mother, somebody from behind kept shushing her, and then sunlight stabbed her eyes.

They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence.  They carried the dishes to the sink; Sylvia washed and Mindy dried.

“We’re out of milk and eggs.  You want to come to the grocery store with me?”

“Okay.”

Sylvia picked up her purse and felt something heavy, the music box.  She took it out.

“It’s pretty,” Mindy said.

“Isn’t it?”  Sylvia tried to find a place for it but couldn’t.  She put the stapler and thumbtacks on the floor and set the music box there, then picked it back up and wound it.  “Moon River,” as they knew it would, filled the space between them, but instead of sounding simple and beautiful as it had the first time, it came out cheap, a tune you might hear from a parking-lot carnival.

And the worst of it was that the song refused to leave them.  It played in their heads over and over again as they drove to the supermarket, followed them up and down the aisles, waited with them as the cashier rang up the necessities of their living: a jug of milk, a carton of eggs, a loaf of bread.

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