For as long as the living could remember, the Celestial Grocery stood beside the highway at Madagascar, a bowlegged sentinel overhanging the black water of the oxbow. A tarpaper shack on stilts, it was the kind of country store most casino tourists sped past without looking up. Angus Chien, the proprietor, usually sat on the porch of the Celestial at dawn and again at dusk, smoking quietly alone, staring out over the surrounding fields. Drivers passing at certain hours on Highway 61 saw a gaunt Chinese man in a stiff white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, smoking his upside-down Marlboro like an elegant European. His hair was gunmetal gray and matched his pants and shoes.
Habit kept his left hand folded like a stiff paper crane, tucked neatly under his right elbow, surveying the scene with his legs crossed, one foot swinging. Most times he took his binoculars down from the nail where they hung on the wall and set them on the porch, just in case. Most times he made a cursory check to see if all his neighbors were accounted for, a small handful out in the middle of nowhere who had learned to look out for each other.
The hot peppers and zinnias growing in big Luzianne coffee cans on the front porch caused discomfort to a certain kind of traveler who wanted every new place to resemble as closely as possible the place he’d just left behind. The Celestial was the last of a constellation of Chinese-run country stores that used to exist in almost every river town between Memphis and New Orleans.
To find the original painted sign for the Celestial, you had to know where to look. An ancient pressed-tin Coca-Cola sign leaned against the porch under the empress tree, its red circle faded to mauve by years of sun and rain. A Chinese symbol was hand-painted in black over the circle. Angus Chien would explain to anyone who asked that the Chinese symbol was a good thing, that it conveyed his wish for long life to all who entered.
On the evening that the Mauritanian boy had arrived, Angus sat outside and read for the eighth time a certified letter he had received that morning. Some outfit calling itself Futuristics, with a riverfront address in Memphis. Every time Angus read it, it said the same thing. Somebody wanted to buy his land right out from under his feet, as if his life were somehow over.
Angus slammed the letter shut yet again and put it back in his shirt pocket, where it had been all day. He took a deep, nourishing drag from his cigarette. He had thought his parcel of land too tiny to be of any interest to anyone. It could only be of interest to someone with a grandiose plan. He stared over at the low buzz of green light that was the casino in the distance. He looked at the wide fields that surrounded the store and even the highway. He tried to remember who owned what.
If you walked a hundred yards one way, you were on Dean Fondren’s property.
A hundred yards the other way, you were on Aubrey Ellerbee’s.
Dean Fondren was white; Aubrey Ellerbee was black.
Straddling their land was the True Light Temple of the Beautiful Name, a defunct little cinderblock church.
If you walked around the church from the store, you were standing in the cemetery among dead soldiers and slaves and Angus Chien’s own two loved ones, his father and his wife, as well as a stone that already had his own name on it, a special two-for-one deal he’d lucked into when his wife died. It was an elemental strangeness of his life. He had been at peace with it for many years. Angus could look out half the windows in the store he lived and worked in and see the patch of earth that would one day cover his bones, and the stone with his name on it. It was not his true Chinese name, but the one the missionaries had given him. This was another elemental strangeness, that the tombstones all bore the names that missionaries had given his father, his wife, and himself, without noticing that they never really became Christians. The names had proved to be as useful as their traveling papers in America, and so they had used them.
An eighteen-wheeler passed, slowing momentarily, Hanjin, and the driver blew the horn, a deep gratifying honk that nudged Angus Chien’s sternum. He knew the driver, a man who always bought B. C. Headache powders and generic cigarettes. Angus stood up, threw his cigarette off into the dirt, and brushed off the seat of his pants before he went inside.
The Celestial Grocery was the unacknowledged heart of the little dying town, the kind of place to get live fish bait at five in the morning or eggs over easy near midnight if you could catch Angus still up. Inside, plaid flannel shirts from Taiwan were shelved next to sardines from Finland and pantyhose from North Carolina. Cheap cotton-candy-textured baby dresses from the Philippines hung on a rusty rack alongside camouflage t-shirts from Alabama meant for deer hunters. Shotgun shells and tractor sparkplugs, Elvis and Ole Miss t-shirts, baby formula and diapers, herbicides and hemorrhoid ointments, horse liniment, bridles, hoop cheeses, plastic rosaries, tired shopworn apples, and yellowing dog-eared heads of cabbage. Customers, whether they lingered or were just passing through, always left smelling like ambient tobacco and hamburger grease. Costs were always tallied on a red lacquer abacus that had come all the way from China in 1938.
The jukebox was a Rock-ola that had come all the way from St. Louis the following year. It had not been serviced since the riots in Memphis the night Martin Luther King died, when the Memphis Novelty Company was looted and its lease records burned. Its playlist was the musical equivalent of the ant in the amber glass at Pompeii: Customers could choose almost anything they wanted, as long as it had been released before April of 1968. Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Carl Perkins, Percy Sledge, Slim Harpo, Wilson Pickett. Regular customers knew not to spend their own money on the jukebox, but to reach up into the Dixie cup on top of it and borrow a red-painted coin from Angus. Choosing a song did not mean that you’d actually get to hear it, hence the free money. The jukebox had never been quite right since the company that owned it had converted it from 78s to 45s. Sometimes it played the flip side of what you asked for. Sometimes it played the same song over and over for months, and Angus had to keep it unplugged. Sometimes it played nothing.
The Celestial did not look like much on the outside, just a subsistence-level business affixed to an empress tree that wept pink blossoms in the spring and valentine-shaped leaves in the fall. In Angus’s hands, it had put his son through the Wharton School of Business. Now this son worked for a large food distributor with an Italian name in Memphis, and drove a fast little car made in Japan, and did not ever seem to have the time to visit Angus. He called him on a cell phone sometimes when he was stuck in traffic, to ask his advice on matters of the stock markets in New York and Hong Kong. Only once did he ask about Tokyo. If you asked Angus what he knew about the Nikkei, he’d hang up the phone in disgust.
Angus was hurrying to get the closed sign flipped forward on the front door when he heard a truck pulling into the parking lot. He turned the lights out. It was after ten, he thought crossly. Just as he peered out the plate glass window in front, there was Aubrey Ellerbee, cocking his hat back on his head, grinning, peering back at him.
Angus was startled, and bunched up the calendar when he stepped back. Aubrey wiped his feet before he came in.
—Whoa, Aubrey, you like to give me a heart attack.
—Just need me some smokes, is all.
—I thought you was them gangsters come to rob me, Angus said, unlatching the door.
—‘Gangbangers’ is what they call them now, I believe, Aubrey said as he stepped inside.
Angus shrugged and ambled back over to run his finger along the cello-wrapped packages, as a librarian might search for a particular title. Camels, he remembered. Aubrey smoked Camels.
—Who we got over there in that trailer? asked Aubrey.
—Disciples? El Rukns? I can’t keep my gangsters straight in my mind. These the ones got that shiny jacket with the crown jewels on the back and all.
Angus shook his head and walked to the window. He saw the lights at the old trailer. It seemed like such a senseless waste. A Memphis company that rented the property out to transient workers when the ones who toiled in the fields had to sleep wherever they fell. —Them people need to get on back to wherever they come from. Probably been run out of Memphis, I imagine. Now you take them Africans. Africans is good people. You got any Africans working for you?
—Can’t get ’em, Aubrey said. —They all want to wear them tuxedoes over at the casino. Listen, I need to axe you a favor, Angus.
—It’s a lady come down here from Memphis the other day, in one them little government cars.
—Yep. We talked a little bit. She wanted to know where they stay at night. Told her to talk to you.
—Well, Aubrey said, —I need to axe you to not do that no more.
—Tax man after you?
—No, isn’t no trouble, Aubrey said, and scratched at the back of his neck, displacing his hat. —I just need for you to not do that, is all. If she needs to know about the people work for me, she has to talk to the man that brought ’em here. Name is Tomás Tulia, up at Friar’s Point. He handles all their living arrangements and such like. I don’t know nothing about ’em, except that they show up in the mornings and they leave in the evenings. If they ain’t legal, it ain’t my doings. If where they stayin’ ain’t up to code, it ain’t my problem.
Angus saw Aubrey cock his cap back even further, the way he did when he was dancing away from the truth. —Africans still in that other trailer? Africans is good workers, but you don’t catch them in the fields or on the side of the highway, no sir. They over in the Lucky Leaf for the air-conditioning.
—Toting that luggage for them yahoos that get off the buses. Well, they are good customers, Africans. Pay cash. Angus looked straight into the other man’s eyes. He did not smile. This was a polite reference to the fact that Aubrey was in arrears with his store tab.
—Be nice to be able to pay everything with cash, Aubrey said. —Sometimes you got it, sometimes you ain’t. These Hondurans is going to break me.
Angus’s tongue felt fat with what he could not bring himself to say. It wasn’t the Hondurans that would break Aubrey, it was the casino, or the loneliness that drove him to spend his nights over there. The ensuing silence discomfited Aubrey, as if he could hear Angus’s thoughts, and so he shoved words into the empty air.
—I reckon you seen where they broke ground for that Dixie Barrel.
—Dixie Barrel, up the road a ways. One of them Arkansas chains. Big doings, twelve gas pumps, souvenir shop. They working three shifts of Mexicans to get it open by the end of the month. I’m surprised you can’t hear the racket all the way over here. I can hear the backhoes and dozers going all night long.
—Souvenirs of what? Angus asked.
—They is people in this world that will pay three dollars for one cotton boll wrapped in a little baggie, Aubrey laughed. —How about a chocolate-covered soybean?
Angus was silent a moment. —Twelve pumps? Ain’t nobody around here need no twelve tanks of gas all at the same time.
—I’m sorry, Angus. I thought you knew. I should have kept my mouth shut.
—No, I’m glad you told me. I like to know what’s out there. You get one of them letters from that outfit in Memphis? Angus asked, pulling the letter out of his shirt pocket. —Talking about buying everybody out.
Aubrey had a strange look on his face, as if he thought he’d had the only letter.
—Gambling company. You aiming to sell out and go, Angus?
—I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Angus said. —I be here till it’s time to haul me to my spot out there.
—Shit, Aubrey said affectionately. —You’ll still be here with that broom on the porch when my ass been cold in the ground for ten years. Hell, I’m already gambling everything I got, every day. I gamble that the rain will come. I gamble that the sun will shine. I could lose it all, kapow, just like that. I guess you heard they gonna put me in that Standard and Poor now. Kinda funny how I work all them years buss my ass to not be poor, which is standard around here, just to end up in some book say ‘standard’ and say ‘poor.’
Their voices softened as they ran through the customary recitative of local births and funerals and surgeries. It was an old and mutual comfort that occurred many a time late at night in the Celestial, drifting off into calm discussion about such matters as the value of a dollar bill or the merits of a particular sparkplug.
After Aubrey left, Angus began to sweep the floor in long, irritated arcs, dragging his big broom over the knotty pine floors worn thin by a hundred years of shoes shuffling in and out. Angus stooped and peered at a dark spot: a dead bee. He felt a twinge in his back and stood up sharply. He went to get the broom, and as he reached for it, he was looking at an old fly-specked yellowed newspaper clipping stapled into the soft pine of the wall. To an outsider, the clipping was a dark block, indecipherable. Aubrey’s photo was under all that yellowed age.
The clipping was put up there by Angus in 1973, when Aubrey was fifteen. He was the first black boy in the Future Farmers of America in Mississippi to win Grand Reserve Champion at the fair in Memphis. In the photo, he wore his blue FFA jacket, and stood with Dean Fondren, holding the bridle on a sweet-faced Hereford steer with a forehead wide and flat as an anvil.
Angus had the whole history of Madagascar on those walls, the wedding and birth announcements, obits, and local engagements. As the years had passed, the walls were covered with accounts of riverboat wrecks and local sons lost in the wars, those declared and those that weren’t. There were black schoolboys in Abe Lincoln stovepipe hats, and most recently, a clipping from the Wall Street Journal about Asian carp that had escaped from catfish farms, known to leap into the boats of bewildered fishermen in the back bayous off the Mississippi. But Aubrey’s had been only the second black face to be tacked up on the Celestial’s wall. The first had been a newspaper clipping of Howlin’ Wolf, lying on his side onstage in Chicago, playing his saxophone. It was scotch-taped in the center of a constellation of white debutantes and beauty queens who’d once coursed across the local horizon for a few summers like soft, pleasant meteors, dancing to his music in smoky back-roads clubs before they married into old money and early obscurity.
Bending to his broom again, Angus thought he heard music, then looked up to silence. Looking down he noticed more dark spots, and bent closer. Altogether, five dead honeybees. He’d heard that bees have their own undertakers who fly the fallen ones out of the hive and drop them in midair. He swept them gently into the dustpan, the same dinged red tin one with black roosters on it that he had used when he was a child sweeping these same floors for his father. For some reason he suddenly could remember the first time he’d seen it as a boy, shiny and fiercely red and seeming supremely Chinese. On its back was stamped Made in U.S.A., the first words he had learned to read in English.
He looked up at a crack near the ceiling where the bees came and went. He decided not to understand what he was suspecting about the bees. He’d worry about it another day. It was the empress tree that made the bees single out his little store, year after year. They had made it through another winter just like he had. He’d not begrudge them their spring and their summer. What the state health inspectors didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. He carried the dustpan of bees outside onto the porch and emptied it over the rail onto the roots of the empress tree. The dead bees were hardly visible on the ground, the same brown color as the dirt the empress tree had nourished itself with to make the pink flowers that had fed the bees and turned them brown.
—Feed you back to the tree that fed you, he said aloud, startling himself. So it had come to this: funeralizing over dead bees, with nobody to overhear and laugh with him about it. His laugh snagged in his chest, sounding like aluminum foil when it tears.
Then he heard again the thrum of good music, the kind that didn’t come boiling nastily out of a car window. He had definitely heard music. Low guitar, low laughter. Then he saw movement beneath the two old blackjack oaks near the True Light Temple of the Beautiful Name.
He strained to see what he could. Still holding the broom, he got the binoculars off the porch rail. A scuffed white Econoline van, cascades of Tejano music escaping from its open back door. He could hear voices veiled by the trees that lined the little creek bed. He saw the tiny flare of a cigarette passed from hand to hand. Why did they smoke in a circle, and only one cigarette? Did they not know he had bales of cigarettes for sale in his store? They were gathered in a small group around the door of the church.
Apart from the group, a small dark figure danced in the field alone, spinning and turning slowly. As Angus focused the binoculars, the figure became a small woman, arms raised. Her skirt was full and black, with flowers embroidered on it. It swished around her shins as she stepped carefully amid the newly plowed furrows. She was barefoot. You didn’t see that much anymore, barefooted women.
She thought no one at all could see her.
She danced alone but held her head canted back a bit, as if in ceremonial tenderness towards some imaginary loving partner who was not there. It was the western dance called schottische. Angus had seen the lessons for it on television, cowboys with deadpan faces twirling women with petticoats flashing. But when the dancer in the field moved, she had a look on her face Angus had not seen in many years. It was a look meant to be private, full of the kind of light that only one man gets to see in a certain moment, usually in a bed.
This bothered Angus, and he lowered the binoculars a moment, respectfully, and took another drag off his cigarette. Then he raised them again. She was older than he had thought, but she moved like a young woman. When the music ended, she curtseyed to the empty air. She vanished into the trees, and Angus was left alone with the broom in one hand and the binoculars in the other. He felt aggrieved and out of sorts, his habit when he was given the gift of sudden unsolicited understanding.
Inside his store Angus put the broom and binoculars in the same places they’d occupied for almost twenty years, and he leaned against the counter while he dialed a long-distance number in New York slowly and carefully, reading it off a wall covered with pencilings in Chinese and other phone numbers and figures. Angus’s voice took on a different timbre when he spoke Chinese, dropping into a deeper range. Because of his Delta accent, the party on the other end of the line sometimes had to ask him to repeat himself. It was his cousin, a jeweler, who always eventually insisted on English, which seemed to be the only common language he could find with the Delta Chinese.
—Dixie Barrel. Arkansas outfit.
—Is good. Time for split, maybe next month, next year. How much you want?
—Same as usual.
After they had inquired as to each other’s loved ones, Angus put the phone receiver back in its cradle and then subtracted some numbers from a column that snaked around photos of Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson, using a chewed yellow Number Two pencil tied to a nail on the wall with a piece of brown jute. He then penciled in the same amount in a column of figures that had somehow over the years begun to curl around a Clarksdale Register photo of a sweet potato that resembled Winston Churchill somewhat. He began to unbutton his shirt as he walked into his quarters in the back of the store, leaving the pencil swaying on its string like a clock pendulum.
—From the book The Celestial Jukebox by Cynthia Shearer. Copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Shoemaker and Hoard, a division of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.