CHAPTER 5(Partial Excerpt)
The Land of the Free
Outsiders-French Canadian farmers and mill workers, Irish railroadmen, even teachers and clergymen from Away-have often found Kingdom Common, at least at first, to be a hostile place.
-Father George, "A Short History"
Riding the rattler south through the midsummer night, I read the postcard once more. "Hello Frank Bennett. Send box from Chinese Bank behind bin right of door in Land of Free to 8247 Liberty St. Staten Island New York. I fine. How you? Yr. friend Dr. Sam E. Rong."
The message was printed in small red letters precise as typescript. On the reverse was a glossy photograph of the Statue of Liberty at night, torch aglow, the multicolored skyline of Manhattan in the background.
As the eight-car Rattler crossed the height of land south of Kingdom Common and began to pick up a head of steam on the long downgrade toward St. Johnsbury, I wondered again why Sam wanted the rectangular lacquered teakwood box, somewhat larger than a shoebox, full of envelopes with postmarks from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, and a score of other North American and Asian cities. Why, if it was important to him, would he have left the box behind in the first place? Two days before, right after the card arrived, I'd gotten the key to the padlocked front door of the Land of the Free Emporium from Bumper Stevens and dug the box out from behind the bin by the door. When I'd opened it, it had given off a sharp herbal aroma that I recognized immediately. And at exactly that moment I decided to make the trip from northern Vermont to Staten Island to see my old friend Sam Rong in person.
It had been eight years, but I still remembered the evening vividly. I was just thirteen at the time, and a gang of us town kids were playing a pickup ball game on the common. I happened to glance over at Bumper Stevens, sitting on his three-legged milking stool behind the backstop and calling balls and strikes, and noticed a slender, dark-haired stranger standing nearby in white pants and a white jacket, his arms folded, frowning out at the diamond. He was the first Chinese person I'd ever seen in the Common, but what surprised me even more was my absolute certainty that a moment earlier the man hadn't been there. It was as though the frowning newcomer dressed in white had simply fallen out of the sky onto the village green. Or perhaps materialized, like a genie from a fairy tale, out of the faint blue haze of Bumper's cigar smoke.
"Yes, sir," Bumper said by way of greeting.
"What game?" the Chinese man said abruptly in a disapproving voice.
"That would be baseball," the auctioneer said. "Basey-bally. The great American pastime."
"It figures," the man in white said.
Bumper looked at him sharply. But the stranger's face was as expressionless as the pale moon just coming up behind the courthouse tower across the street.
"You no pray basey-bally in Chiny?" Bumper said, not unamicably.
The man in the white pants and jacket gave him a pitying look. "That's the silliest game Dr. Sam E. Rong's ever seen," he said. "Smack ball with stick, run like hell to get back where starting. What jobs you got this burg?"
That made Bumper laugh out loud, so on the spot he asked Dr. Sam E. Rong to dinner at the hotel. The next time I saw the Chinese man was the following Tuesday evening at Bumper's weekly cattle auction, where he seemed to be very capably doing several jobs at once: parking farm trucks, selling coffee and hot dogs, brandishing a blue cow cane, and herding doomed Jerseys, Holsteins, and Guernseys from failed local dairy farms into the makeshift wooden ring inside the commission-sales barn, all the while bantering with the auctioneer a mile a minute, giving back everything he got, with interest.
"Chinka chinka Chinaman, settin' on a fence, tryin' to make a dollar out of fifteen cents," Bumper chanted into his microphone between herds. "Fifteen cents, fifteen cents, who'll start off the bidding on this sorry-looking Chinaman in the white coat for fifteen cents?"
"Ha," Sam replied from atop the high board enclosure of the auction ring, coolly surveying Bumper and the crowd. "Red nose auctioneer too old too fat too full cheap beer to sit on fence at all."
"Chop chop chop! Wrastle that next bunch of critters in here pronto," Bumper roared into the mike over the general laughter.
"Chop chop yourself," Sam said in a plainly audible voice as he jumped lightly off the fence into the sawdust and opened the gate. "Sam E. Rong's the only fella does anything chop chop round this joint. Bump Steve ever try to move chop chop, have thundering big brain stroke, wind up six feet under Celestial Kingdom. Then Dr. Rong run auction, things round here get done right for change."
Soon Sam was holding his own in Bumper's after-hours poker games, too. For the first several weeks he'd watched the players, gone to the cooler at his own unhurried pace to fetch them beer, and conducted a constant running repartee with Bumper. Then Sam began to sit in, keeping track of his winnings on a tall red abacus with green wooden rings. Of course the abacus amused the auctioneer and his cronies, who continued to laugh and shake their heads the following spring when Sam used part of his poker winnings to buy the disused feed store on the edge of Little Quebec and opened the Land of the Free Emporium.
"Chinka chinka Chinaman," I yelled out as I raced past Sam's place that summer. "Settin' on a fence!"
"Boy!" he called back sharply. "Snooping young neighborhood boy, always round where not supposed to be. Why you scared of Sam?"
"I'm not scared of you," I yelled back from a safe distance.
"Are too. You scared because you very, very ignorant. Tell what. Make self useful, you going to spy on Dr. Rong every waking minute anyway. Run home for twenty-two rifle, hurry back. Got job for you to do."
I ran home with no intention of doing what he had asked, for I was frightened half to death by Sam, as well as fascinated by him. But when I got home, Father George, who'd overheard my taunts, ordered me in no uncertain terms to get the hell down to Sam's with my .22 before he horsewhipped me all the way back there himself.
"I-I don't want to."
"You don't want to! Of course you don't want to. You're ashamed. I would be, too, if I were you. You goddamn well ought to be ashamed."
"I don't like the way he looks at me."
"What you mean is, you're scared of him because he's different. Well, Frank, I guarantee that Sam Rong won't hurt you. But you are by God going to help him out, starting this afternoon, or I will know the reason why."
Which was how, the summer I turned fourteen, I went to work for Sam Rong, waging war on the colony of rats that had taken up residence in the abandoned feed store. When the rats were gone, I swept out the old wooden bins and helped Sam paint the exterior of the store red, yellow, and green. Over the summer he added swooping eaves and a pointed cupola. After the renovations were complete, the store resembled a jerry-built pagoda. A pagoda on the edge of a French Canadian enclave in a northern Vermont village!
"Ha," Sam exclaimed, delighted by the irony, as he painted "The Land of the Free Emporium, Dr. Sam E. Rong Prop" in shiny black letters over the entrance. On the inside walls of the store, on a sixty-foot-long scroll of blank newsprint that Editor Kinneson gave him, Sam began drawing a pen-and-ink representation of market day in a Ming dynasty village. The town, which had a rectangular central green and bore just enough resemblance to Kingdom Common to make me hope Sam might be parodying our village, was crowded with merchants, fishermen, barterers, wrestlers, musicians, bricklayers, carpenters, revelers, storytellers, aristocrats in sedan chairs, hunters, warriors, potters, silversmiths, and children. A fat cattle drover with a long goad looked suspiciously like an Oriental Bumper Stevens. A sharp-featured woman haggling over a turnip resembled Louvia the Fortuneteller.
Here and there on his tableau, as the spirit moved him, Sam inscribed proverbs of his own composition in red ink.
"You, Frank Bennett. Listen. This says, all the time a fella spends fishing can add on to life at the far end. That's how much older he'll live to be. You like to fish? Come here early tomorrow morning."
The following day Sam showed me how to set wire traps for northern river eels in the Kingdom River under the Irishtown railway trestle. That evening he fried up a tasty meal of moo gew eel kew in a wok made out of a discarded hubcap from a 1936 GM farm truck. Sam nodded at the fishing proverb on the scroll. "See?" he said. "Add two, three hour spent catching eel today on to other end of our lives. Other words, Frank Bennett, more you fish, longer you live. Very wise proverb, eh? I pay you in wisdom. Better than cash."
At fourteen, I was skeptical about this proposition. But I liked Sam Rong from the start, and soon we became good friends.
Before it was a feed store, the building had been a tenement for French Canadian mill workers. Sam took up living quarters in the rear, in an enclosed porch overhanging the river. He heated the store with a coal-burning Glenwood parlor stove that he bought from Bumper Stevens at a farm auction in Lord Hollow. Besides cattle feed, which Sam purchased in bulk from grain cars coming in from the Canadian West, he sold garden seeds, horse liniment, and his own brand of bag balm, good not only for sore cow udders but, as Dr. Rong liked to say, for whatever ailed you, including cuts and bruises, arthritis, hemorrhoids, even infant teething. He stocked a few staple grocery items like rice and noodles. From Hong Kong he imported a line of durable, inexpensive work shoes. He sold fifty different kinds of homemade medicines compounded from pennyroyal, mint, wild ginger, gill over the ground, goldenthread roots, sarsaparilla, and dozens of other plants that he foraged for in the woods and meadows outside the village. On raised beds on a sunny patch of riverbank below his jutting living quarters he grew several varieties of exotic vegetables to sell to adventurous Commoners, including bok choy, Chinese celery, and a savory pale green pole bean stippled as red as a brook trout's sides. He added a line of used books, representing every branch of learning from homeopathy to classical literature.
Two or three evenings a week, while Sam balanced his accounts in a tall black register book with bright green Chinese characters on the cover, he had me read aloud to him from an 1860 pirated American edition of Dickens, with illustrations by Boz. Sam's all-time favorite was David Copperfield. Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber delighted him so much that he copied Boz's depictions of them onto the wall scroll. And he personally appropriated Joe Gargery's line from Great Expectations, barking out at me, with ironical satisfaction, at the end of each of our reading sessions, "Ever the best of friends, eh, Frank Bennett?"
"How about I brew up some friendship tea," Sam said one evening. "We drink in evening, read Mr. Charles Dickens. First you tell me. Where butternut trees grow round Celestial Kingdom?"
"Butternut trees? There're a few north of town. Out along the river past the trestle."
"No, no. I know all about those. Too wet there. Where butternut trees grow in forest? Also maybe basswood. Where butternut and basswood grow in forest of Celestial Kingdom? There we find friendship root."
I told Dr. Rong that I'd noticed a few old butternut trees on the edge of a clear-cut on Little Quebec Mountain above Louvia's place. I thought I remembered seeing a stand of basswood nearby, too.
"Good. What doing this Sunday morning?"
I shrugged. "Mass with Father George in the morning, I guess."
"Ha. Church. Dress all up like funeral, sing sad song, listen fella in black nightgown talk talk talk, not say nothing. Church big fat bore, Frank Bennett. Second great American pastime. No further ahead at the end of church than at beginning. Behind in fact."
"How do you figure that, Sam?"
"Call Dr. Rong, not Sam. Use respect. Okay. Jungle ring jingle. Along comes church money basket on long handle. I know, I go to church one time. Afterward, I tell fella in nightgown, next time he pay me go church, not other way round. What you ever learn in church, Frank Bennett? Quick, name one thing."
I could not. Everything important that Father George had taught me, it seemed, he had taught me outside of church.
Sam made a noise in his throat, unknown in English and only distantly related to a laugh. "This Sunday morning, Frank. You forget all about church. Come to forest with Dr. Rong for friendship root. Maybe you'll learn something there. Doubt it."
"Why you never bring me this good place before, Frank Bennett? Look at all treasure we find already. Yellow coltfoot, fine for Sovereign Cough Elixer. Watercress leaf, infuse in Celestial Fever Reducing Beverage. Here, by brook. Look! Cattail slime, good cure for running sore on elbow ankle. Not even come to butternut trees yet, already strike big bonanza."
As we continued along the old logging trace beside Little Quebec Brook, the pealing of church bells came floating up through the spring woods from the village far below. An idea occurred to me, one I hoped to impress Sam with. "Dr. Rong? Somewhere I read that nature is God's true cathedral. You know, out here in the woods?"
Sam gave me his pitying look. "How very foolish. Sounds like Sunday School talk, Frank. Stop and think. Here in forest, every beast eats every other beast. Fox eats bird eats bug eats Dr. Rong's medicinal plant. Law of wild."
"Not funny. Whether you know or not, you part of too. Say you're out in woods, too busy being big philosopher watch where going. Whoop daisy! Catch shoe, trip over hobblebush, fall down, knock daydreaming head on granite ledge. Hungry beasts of forest come flocking to eat you up. Soon only white bones left. Fall comes, cover with yellow leaf, goodbye Frank Bennett. Very pleasant cathedral. Now. Where butternut trees? Where basswoods? Get show on road here."
High on the mountainside, half a dozen sparsely limbed butternut trees had been left untouched by the loggers.
"Now look close on ground, Frank. Find tall proud plant, shy green flower in middle, three big pointy leaf. Here, see? And here. Five teeth on leaf. Friendship root. Jin-chen!"
"What else? Jin-chen. Ginseng. In fall, when Celestial Kingdom turns bright colors like Emporium, you and Sam Rong slip out here some Sunday morning when everybody else cooped up in church feeling sorry for self, telling Mr. Jesus how hard they got it. Dig jin-chen root. Keep a few for friendship tea. Sell the rest to Hong Kong for big money. You got something against money?"
"How much money, Dr. Rong?"
Sam frowned. He looked around the clearing. "Maybe hundred dollars' worth of ginseng here. We take one of three roots. Leave two of three to grow. You help dig, I give ten percent. Quick, how much that?"
"Yes. You right for once."
"What's ginseng good for? Besides tea?"
From his jacket pocket Sam removed a shard of china pottery with a purple peacock painted on it. He knelt and dug with the shard around the base of a ginseng plant, lifted it partway out of the ground, and shook off the damp black woodsy humus. "See where root fork like trouser leg? Some Chinese think jin-chen root shaped like a man, Frank. Think man-shape root makes very potent, have many son. You ask Dr. Rong, that nonsense. Like great American pastimes, church and baseball."
He broke off a small piece of the root and replanted the rest. "Makes good tea for friends to drink in evening. Otherwise, okay for upset stomach, I guess. Don't make any worse, at least."
"Maybe it's mind over matter."
"Maybe. I not put much stock in mind over matter."
"Dr. Rong, if you don't believe in mind over matter or in going to church or in nature being God's cathedral, what do you believe in? You must believe in something."
"Sure believe in something. Believe in two somethings. Believe in golden rule, do unto others. And believe young Frank Bennett ask too many questions. Don't need church for do unto others. Far as questions go, read this."
Out of his white doctor's coat Sam whipped a pencil stub, with which he scrawled three Chinese characters on the trunk of one of the butternut trees. "What, can't read? Okay, I read to you. Says, `Ask less, listen more.' Don't forget. Now I ask you a question. Where this old road go?"
Sam pointed across the clearing, where the ancient lumbering road we'd walked up from the village continued north, almost indistinguishable in the raspberry brakes and saplings.
"It goes to Canada if you keep following it."
"Pretty big woods whole way?"
"How fella know when in Canada?"
"You don't really. Father George told me there used to be a cleared strip through the trees to mark the border. That was years ago. When he and I were up there deer hunting last fall, it was all grown up to brush."
Dr. Rong nodded. Then abruptly he headed back down the trail toward the village.
"Eat less!" Dr. Rong shouted at Bumper Stevens. The auctioneer was sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair with a red-striped sheet around him while Sam cut his hair and lectured him.
"Read proverb on scroll," Sam said, jabbing with his shears in the direction of a new set of characters on his ever-enlarging tableau. "Proverb say, `Less you eat, better you feel.' Too much rare roast beef in hotel, too much beer, too much sitting round on foolish green milking stool holding court for hooligan sidekicks. Don't take better care of self, you die, Sam have to drop everything, make extra large coffin."
The Land of the Free Emporium had been open for several months now, and Sam was doing a brisk business, with a finger in every pie in town, as Bumper himself had put it. Besides cutting hair for a quarter a head, Sam was in fact retailing coffins, which he fashioned from knotty planks rejected by the American Heritage furniture mill and sold at half the price of a factory-made casket. For a nominal fee Sam would yank out an abscessed tooth, set a broken wrist, doctor a sick horse or cow. Wednesday evenings he turned the Emporium into a gymnasium and taught judo to us high school boys. For the women of the village he conducted a course in homeopathic medicine and another in Chinese cooking. "Don't stuff men with beefsteak, Aroostook County potatoes," he harangued them as he stirred his famous moo gew eel kew in the hubcap wok. "They get used to nice lean river eel on rice, like fine. They not like, tell do own cooking, see how they like that."
What amazed the Common was that Sam's nostrums actually seemed to work. Doc Harrison told Father George and Judge Allen over their regular six a.m. coffee at the hotel that Sam Rong was bidding fair to clear his slate of hypochondriacs. Not only was the Chinese doctor's advice medically sound, villagers seemed to go to him, as they did to Louvia the Fortuneteller, to hear the truth about themselves. Despite Sam's reservations about church, he and Father George soon became fast friends. As for Louvia, when her herbal clients from Little Quebec first started to consult Sam for a second opinion, she was consumed by professional jealousy. She flew down off her hill to the Emporium to threaten him with a quadruple hex if he didn't leave town immediately, then wound up staying for the better part of the afternoon to exchange remedies. She went back to visit Sam so often that it was rumored the two were having a fling. Some Commoners doubted this, others swore to it, but no one really knew. In the village in those days, nearly anything was possible.