A mother and her young son sought refuge from a sudden rain in the bookstore I worked in. They were not the only ones pulled from the busy torrent of city life by the weather. Half a dozen others were standing at the porch, a few drenched to the sole of their feet; all looking miserable, eyes gazed at the darkened clouds and the slow-moving street of even more miserable humans, slopping through knee-deep water.
The young boy, about seven years of age, was exhilarated. His eyes sparkled. His head turned left and right to survey colorful rows of books. He left the mother at the entrance and dashed to the kid’s toys section.
His mother, looking exhausted from a day’s work, walked slowly between “Foreign literature” and “Politics and History” isles. She cast an empty gaze, fixated at shoulder-level, at the bookshelves. At times, she would pause to catch a quick glimpse at a rusty bike she parked in front of the store and then at the other end of the story where her son was supposed to be.
The rain outside intensified.
A coworker adjusted the air conditioner and turned on the light. It was only five in the afternoon and the storm cloud already made it seemed like seven. In the store, we always kept the air dry and cold. The fluorescent white light was replaced with natural lighting at night; though not as pleasant to the reading eyes as daylight, it gave a modern, almost sanitary feel that was, supposedly, attractive to young adults.
And on that dark-blue-and-white, sharp-edged canvas smacked dab the smeared and soaked wet passersby who were not here for the literature, but here for the roof. Rich people had cars, middle income rode motorbikes home wearing composite ponchos, only those whose shabby nylon ponchos could not protect them from heavy rain and those who forgot to bring ponchos gathered here.
“Books sell like hotcakes in this weather, don’t they?” an office lady remarked as she put a few cookbooks and two desktop ornaments on the cashier. She was among those who forgot. Not quite. While there were more people in the store when it rained than when it didn’t, not all were potential customers, only a small portion was.
I smiled out of courtesy and made no comment, quietly scanning the bar codes of her purchase.
“They are presents”, she said holding up the ornaments side-by-side. The ornaments, two ceramic, pawn-sized statues of a boy and a girl hold two halves of the word “LOVE” were a matching pair. “Aren’t they cute?” she cheerfully asked.
“Is that so? Do you want me to wrap them, ma’am?” I asked.
“Do you take credit card?”
“Yes, here”, I answered and showed her the card reader. I assumed that was a no for gift wrapping so I started putting the items in common plastic bags. It was then that I took note of loud scolding at the end of kid’s toys section.
It was the boy from before and his mother. She smacked his hands repetitively and hurled curses at him. The boy began to sob and then cried aloud. She hit him even harder, ordering him to stop crying. She slapped his face several times, making loud smacks every time, and with that she finally stopped his cry.
My coworker came near with a dustpan and a broomstick. The woman bowed her head apologetically and asked for the dustpan and broomstick from my colleague. She insisted, forcefully taking the broom and then starting to sweep shards of glasses in the dustpan. I caught glimpse of the outline of a broken glass bottle as the coworker picked up the largest fragment and took a look at the price tag.
With just that one glimpse, I could already imagine what was going on.
“Where do I sign?” the office lady urged. I was sure she also saw the scene but chose to mind her own business.
“Sign here, ma’am. Thank you for your patron. Please come again.”
Though, she would not be going anywhere in this weather.
The coworker brought the price tag to the cashier. The broken ornament was a miniature ship-in-a-bottle, an expensive one at that.
“I’m scared. I’m…so scared. I have never seen a mother like her before”, she confessed in shaking tone.
“I have but it is beyond my jurisdiction to obstruct their right”, I said.
Truth is, I would like to. But, all of us lived in a culture where parents owned the exclusive right to educate their children in however manner they wanted; however cruel they might seem to Westerners. It was also in this culture that we grew numb to the suffering of those around us.
The boy nervously approached the cashier, weeping in suppressed hiccups. His mother loomed behind him. She had this angry and worrisome expression as she drew a small nylon wrapped roll of crumpled cash from her pocket.
“Pardon me, madam, sir. But…this is all I have…for today”, she said.
From her hesitation, I realized it must have been difficult for her to lay the little money she had on her in front of us. That realization brought great awkwardness to both me and my coworker.
“I’ll bring the rest of the money tomorrow…and the day after”, she pleaded.
My coworker winced.
The young boy froze, his breaths hastened and so did his hiccups. He understood what was happening, didn’t he? He must have.
“Excuse me, I would like to pay for these too”, the office lady from before returned to the cashier with more books. Language learning and art books for the young man who was then with her.
From her conversations with this young man in his twenty, he must have been the office lady’s son. They indulged in idle chatters, about Franz Kafka’s memoir, about the magnum opus “No Longer Human” of Dazai Osamu on display at the highlight section near the entrance.
The weeping boy looked at the office lady and his son. His hiccups got louder and faster.
“Shut up”, his mother gave him a slap. He clammed up and shriveled.
This time, I was sure the office lady had noticed this woman who was so cruel to a kid. The lady’s expression barely changed, her gaze paused on the boy for a moment, but soon broke off and resumed the chatter with her son. The young man paid no attention to other people, seemingly in deep debate whether to purchase yet another classic book–Shouwa Anthology–now or order it later for online retail discount.
“I can’t watch this anymore”, my coworker said, discreetly gesturing toward the abusive mother, “You deal with her, okay?”
Then, she turned to the office lady and moved her books to another counter, informing: “This way, madam. Sorry for the wait. Do you have a coupon?…”
And so, I was left alone with the penniless mother and her weeping son.
“Dis-discount! Can you give me a discount?”
“This is a bookstore, not a flea market. We don’t bargain here”, I said.
She let out a long sigh.
Hesitantly, I looked through the coupons in my drawer. There was a glimmer of hope, expectant daze in her eyes for a moment as I did so. But, I found nothing of such natures. I shook my head and she let out another sigh. After that, she turned to her son.
“Look at what you have done, you son of a bitch. You’re just like your useless father”, she screeched and started beating her son again in front of everyone.
I noticed the office lady was watching in great discomfort. Her son had left to buy a cheap rain poncho from a nearby store. When he returned, the lady urged him to go home despite the rain continuing to pellet the windshield of cars on the street. They left in haste as though running away from a natural disaster.
My coworker also retreated to the end of toys section. No one wanted to have anything to do with this terrible woman. At this point, I too could stop pretending to be sympathetic. I was getting tired of her treatment toward her own son.
“Is that your bike?” I asked, pointing to the bike parked at the porch; the only one that was there, possibly because she did not want to pay the parking fee. “I’m afraid we’ll have to seize it until this–I motioned to the broken item–is fully compensated”, so I said.
Indeed this didn’t feel right. It felt terrible taking money from this woman. But, it was either her day’s worth of work, perhaps many days’ worth of work, or my shift’s worth of work.
She snatched the money on the cashier and burst out onto the porch.
“Stop her!” I shouted.
But, despite the flood and the traffic, the woman was gone as soon as I got to the door. She disappeared into the rain like a phantom, leaving only the young boy behind as proof of her existence.
The boy waited alone till the bookstore’s closing hours. His mother did not return for him and his cry drew attention from passersby. As expected, these people were aware of the situation. After the woman ran away, they began to discuss openly about her abusive behavior. They comforted the boy, they gave him food and talked to him.
We turned the boy to the police along with the security footage of his deserted mother. I thought that would be the end of it. Yet, early in the morning of the next day that I received a phone call from the bookstore. It was not on the clock that day.
“Hello? There’s a crazy woman here asking about her son. Do you know anything about her?”
I was speechless.
“Tell her she doesn’t deserve to be a parent.”
“Wait! I have the money here. All of it. The money…”
“That is not the problem, is it?” I said.
“My baby girl…she was starving last night. I needed to get home and feed her. I couldn’t afford to walk. I know I don’t deserve to be a mother but…Look, I sold my bike, I have the money now. I want my son back. My children are all I have left…”
I could not speak. The words did not come out.
“Stay right there, I’m coming”, I told her and hang up.
At the porch, she was waiting. In her arms was a baby wrapped in rags. She held the money in her hand, the same hand that pressed her daughter into a tender embrace. Her body swayed in the chilling morning breeze, her head rocked up and down as her bagged eyes fought off drowsiness.
“Hey!” I tapped her shoulder to wake her up.
“My son! Where is he? Here’s the money, take it! Take it!”
“Calm down. Listen to me. Listen…”
“How can I calm down? Where’s my son? I want him back”, she cried.
The baby was waken up and started crying loudly.
“Shut up, shut up, you little bitch!” she shouted at the baby, shaking up and down violently.
“Stop it!” I gripped her arms and forcefully stopped the shaking, “They are your flesh and blood! Why are you treating your children like that?”
“That’s none of your business!” she snapped.
I gritted my teeth, “Then you have no right to know where your son is”, I said.
She gasps for air, then a few mournful hics and finally lowered her head.
I let out a long sigh.
Her husband was a big better on cockfighting. Whenever his cock lost a fight, he would go home and beat her up out of spite. Whenever his cock won a fight, he would go out drinking with his buddies till he ran out of money and then he would go home at three in the morning to beat her up. When he was drunk, he would try to kill his own children as well.
“I prefer him losing…if so, he would spare my son and daughter”, she confided.
“You should call the police when that happens…”
“I don’t have money to bribe the police”, she cracked a bitter smile, “I tried that”, she added.
I sighed again. Then, I took from my wallet a large sum of money and a business card.
“You have money now, and a lawyer”, I extended the items to her.
“I can’t take your money. You worked hard for it.”
“This is not my money”, I paused to consider my wording a bit, “This is your son’s money”.
“After you ran away yesterday, some people in the bookstore donated food and money to help him. They already paid the compensation in full and this is merely the surplus. Your son is at the police station. You can have this money on one condition: that you will take good care of your children from now on.”
“I-I will. Of course, of course I will!”
I shoved the money into her hand, wrapped her fingers around it and parted ways with these last words:
“I know you will.”