The Better Mother - By Jen Sookfong Lee



Danny is eight years old and skinny, a boy who fingers his kneecaps every night, wondering if the sharp bones will pierce through his skin if he gets any taller. It’s summertime, and his black hair—thick and straight and glued in place with three generous dollops of Brylcreem—shines in the sunlight as he bobs and darts through late-afternoon crowds on Pender Street. A white woman in a greyish-pink straw hat (the colour Danny imagines is called dusty rose) stops to stare, her green eyes lingering over his cut-off jean shorts. He tugs at his almost-outgrown, striped T-shirt, but soon recovers; it’s not he who should feel out of place, but this knobbly-faced woman. She is, he thinks, the kind of person his father complains about, the kind who comes down to Chinatown on weekends and holidays to gawk at the mysterious dried seahorses in the herbalist’s window, taking in the stacks of Chinese newspapers on the street corners, the lined and tanned men leaning against the buildings, their fingernails yellow and split from cigarettes and weekday work.

Danny grins sweetly at this woman until she tentatively smiles back. She isn’t to blame for being one of the many tourists who troop through the neighbourhood and hog all the parking spots big enough to fit his parents’ boat of a car. Satisfied, he continues weaving between people until he spies his father’s favourite café. Standing at the counter inside, he can see, behind glass, the rows and rows of apple tarts, their flaky tops sprinkled with sugar. But he knows that looking isn’t any use. Money, it seems, is always tight and the family’s curio shop always on the verge of closing. Besides, he had lunch at home with his mother and little sister just four hours ago: a bowl of bland but filling rice, that leafy green he can never remember the name of, a steamed pork patty dotted with the pickled snow cabbage he hates.

He waves at Mr. Gin behind the counter. “One pack of Sweet Caps, please.”

“Sure thing, Danny. How’s your dad?”

Danny shrugs. “Same as always.”

Mr. Gin nods. “I bet all these tourists are making him grumpy, eh? All right then, here you go.” He hands over the pack of cigarettes.

Danny digs in his pocket for the coins his father gave him, but it’s empty. He checks his back pockets—nothing. Bending down, he searches his socks and the insides of his shoes—still nothing. He stands up and stares at Mr. Gin.

“I must have lost the money.”

“Don’t worry, Danny. The cigarettes will be here. You can come back later.”

“No. Dad will be so mad! He always says that I have holes in my head.”

“You’ll have to tell him the truth. Here, why don’t I give you this apple tart to make you feel a little better.”

But Danny is gone, blindly rushing down Pender Street, spooking the live chickens on display in their cages. They flap their wings, peck at their own toes in anger. Maybe if he runs fast enough, he’ll escape Chinatown altogether and never have to face his father again. Or watch his mother wipe away stray rice grains with her thin, mud-coloured sleeves. Danny makes a tight right turn into an alley. The trail of a woman’s voice shouting in Chinese follows him: “Slow down, little boy! You’ll knock down one of my customers. You’ll get it then, I tell you!”

He slips into the shadows, hears the click and clack of mah-jong tiles from the third-floor windows echoing off the tall buildings. The air is damp, as if all the rain that fell during the spring has been trapped in the cracks between bricks and uncovered garbage cans, and sharpens the smell of barbecued pork and overripe fruit that stings the insides of his nostrils. He slows to a walk, keeping one hand on the exterior wall of the building on his left so he can trace the roughness with his fingertips, feel the mortar crumbling as he passes. Sometimes he thinks that he could walk all these back streets with his eyes closed, using the texture of the bricks and rhythm of his footsteps to find his way to the shop—or somewhere else far, far away.

The alleys are the only places left where it is almost always silent. Sunlight still filters through the power lines, but it is a very particular light, striped with darkness, sharply defined by the shadows it tries to burn away. Through the half-gloom, he sees a woman leaning against a wall, a