By Karen Cotter
The little brick building has a sign, "Homemade Candies". Nothing in the window to draw one in; that small old building behind the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. No smell of peanut brittle, hot from the pan. No odor of rich chocolate, freshly poured into molds.
Just an old, brick building, a shabby green wooden door with an old glass pane, dusty and dim. You could pull the old handle and the door would swing open easily enough and there, across the wide, old wooden planks were two glass-fronted candy counters filled with containers of candy.
Not old-fashioned, not homemade. Ordinary candies, wrapped peppermints, hot cinnamon balls, sour lemon drops, and foil-wrapped toffees. Candies to be found in any local market.
A slight movement to my right, and there, lying on a thinly padded window seat, was an old Chinese gentleman. He might have been 60, he might have been 90....reading a thin paper book written in Chinese calligraphy, hand inked. A book as old as he, perhaps older. He lay there, not looking at me, just reading his book.
It was not the first time I'd been in his store...maybe a dozen times before over the last 20 years I'd opened that green door and it was always the same - no customers, and the nameless Chinese gentleman, dressed in the same clothes brought from China perhaps 50 years before, lying on the same thin pad of blue and white striped ticking, always reading.
Was it a game of some sort? I don't know. Did he care if anyone bought candy? I always felt I had intruded into his world and felt compelled to be silent, not to disturb him or his reading by the dusty window. I came each time, not for the candy, which I could have easily obtained anywhere, but out of curiousity. Would he be out of the window seat, filling his jars; would he look up as I came in, perhaps smile? Would there be another person in there, purchasing candy? Nothing ever but the dust motes shining in the dim sunlight, stirred by my entrance.
It was always the same, as if it had not been 5 years since I'd last walked through the door,as if it had not been 20 years since I'd walked through the swinging door for the first time.
I'd choose a small bag of lemon drops and as if I were addressing a holy man in the middle of meditation, almost apologetically ask for the candy. Without a smile, he'd get up, pad over to the counter and carefully measure out a scoop of lemon drops, pour them into a small white bag and seriously hand them to me. I'd place a quarter in his hand and feeling like I'd stepped through a time warp, walk out into the bustle of downtown San Luis Obispo.
Across the street, the Ah Louis store was always full of customers, the jolly Chinese couple energetic and bustling about , replenishing their stock of all sorts of Oriental things; fine china, trinkets, tiny dolls and wind chimes of glass painted with little birds and cherry blossoms, always tinkling in the breeze when the door was opened. A world away from the Chinese candy man.
One day, I purchased a narrow, wooden box cleverly lined with thin brass rods. A second brass rod held four brass balls on chains and when the box was secured to the top of one's door, and the second rod fastened to the lintel, the brass balls tinkled across the brass rods when the door was opened. I gave it to my grandmother and that sound meant my grandmother's warm home and welcoming smile for many years but the memory was not of Ah Louis' store,but of the strange old Chinese man - never changing, always lying on his window seat, the sound of the chimes instantly bringing his silent world to mind.
One day, many years later, I returned to the candy store, to find the candy gone, the old man gone as well and a real estate office doing a brisk business, a computer taking the place where the lemon drops and hore hound had laid for years on end in their dusty cases.
They knew nothing about him, knew nothing about the candy store and were impatient to return to the here and now, the peddling of real estate, not memories.
I went to the Ah Louis store..."Yes", the new owners nodded. "Yes, there had been an old Chinese man there. Yes, he had died several years ago. Go to the museum, they will know about him". And so I did. Mr. Chong was his name and he was born in Canton and came to San Luis Obisbo in 1911. Before he died, someone at the Museum befriended him and made recordings of his memories....a treasure trove of history lived. They are there for anyone to hear or read, but for me, the old green door, the fading sign "homemade candy", the long gone musty counters of ordinary candy and the silent old man reading, reading, into eternity, nothing to break the silence but my shoes on the wooden floor is history enough for me.
The wooden box and the chain of brass balls now hangs on my front door as it did for decades hundreds of miles away. The tinny gong of the bells opens the green door again and again and the old man waits.
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