Listen to this story
Tea hated the asshole with the pinstriped suit and leather satchel the minute the guy walked inside the donut shop. The suit glanced around like he smelled something foul. Donuts seemed the last thing on his mind.
“Can I help you?” Tea asked. He lounged behind the counter, watching college basketball on the small TV propped up in the corner. He didn’t give a shit whether Duke or Kentucky won, but it was the only thing worth watching at eleven in the morning. That and the sea lions he could see through the window humping each other out by the lagoon.
“Are you” — the man glanced down at a piece of paper in his hand — “Su Ting Ling?”
Tea shook his head. “Nah, that’s my aunt.”
“Is she here?”
Tea shook his head again. “Today’s her day off.”
The man seemed peeved that his aunt had the nerve to take a day off. “Well, when’s she coming back?”
The man waited and when he realized Tea wasn’t going to elaborate, he asked, “What time?”
Tea shrugged. “We open at six. But she kind of comes and goes.” Which was lucky for Tea because he had other shit to do when he worked his aunt’s shop. Important shit that his aunt didn’t need to know about.
The man walked right up to the cash register and leaned over, placing his manicured hands on the Formica. Tea could smell his hair gel, reminding him of the herbs his aunt used when she soaked in the tub. “Can you tell your aunt that I need to speak with her? It’s urgent.” His smile was insincere.
“Okay.” Tea had no idea what this slick white dude could possibly have to discuss with his immigrant aunt, but whatever.
“How old are you?”
That threw Tea off. “Why?”
“I’m just asking. Seems like you should be in school.”
“I’m eighteen,” Tea lied. He was actually two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, and had dropped out of school a year ago to work full-time at his aunt’s donut shop when her arthritis became too crippling. Not that Tea cared. He hated school.
“So you’re old enough to vote.” The man eyed Tea like he was a juicy steak. “What’s your take on Measure A?”
Tea grimaced. He only knew about it because his aunt couldn’t stop badmouthing Star Corporation — the company backing Measure A — calling them all kinds of horrible names in Chinese, like tsit bu sai which meant “pile of shit.” If the measure passed, a long-held city ordinance protecting the seaside lagoon would be overturned to make way for high-rise condos and fancy hotels. Which meant his aunt’s shop and the dozen other Chinese-owned shops that surrounded the lagoon would be the ones to suffer.
Tea, of course, didn’t want that to happen, but come on. The lagoon was a fucking eyesore. Nobody swam in it, nobody rented the sad little rowboats, and the smell from the lagoon reminded Tea of the stinky tofu his aunt made him eat at Johnny Lo’s restaurant, the rundown building facing opposite of the donut shop. Come to think of it, that was the last time Tea ever ate at Johnny Lo’s.
“Here, kid.” The man threw down his satchel onto the counter and pulled out some papers. He placed them beside the cash register, lining them up so they formed a neat little stack. “Pass these out.”
Tea looked at them. The flyers read, “Measure A is the only way.” There was a blueprint of the planned development. Their tiny seaside lagoon was replaced with a huge water park. There was even a wave pool, which seemed dumb to Tea since there was an ocean with real waves about fifty feet away. Dozens of condos surrounded the water park, along with two massive hotels.
“Your aunt’s name recently popped up as the ringleader around here. It’s imperative I speak with her. Maybe you could help me out with that.”
Tea didn’t say anything.
The man tapped the flyers with his shiny buffed nail. “Tell everyone your aunt has changed her mind about the lagoon.”
Tea snorted. Clearly, he didn’t know his guma. How fucking stubborn she was. He’d been trying for years to get her to move out of the lagoon and sell the place, but she refused.
“What’s your name?”
The man scrunched his face up like he was trying not to laugh. “Tea? As in all the tea in China?”
Tea glared at him. Like he hadn’t heard that one before. “Been my nickname since I was a kid.” He didn’t need to tell this suit that it was because kids at school couldn’t say his real name which was Teh, pronounced “Tay.” So everyone called him Tea, although there were plenty of dumbass variations, like Teacake or Teabag.
The guy didn’t press it further, instead looking around the store with its peeling paint and brown stains on the ceiling. Tea followed his gaze, wincing at what the suit must be thinking of the place. But his aunt insisted the shop was all she had — that and Tea, which he was grateful for. His aunt had taken him in when his dad took off and his mom died of breast cancer. That was fifteen years ago. He’d been slinging donuts ever since.
“Tell your aunt to give me a call right away.” The man pulled a card out of his pocket and slid it across the counter towards Tea.
Tea picked it up. Scott Axelrod. Special Consultant, whatever the fuck that meant. He looked at the smiling Special Consultant. “What do you consult?”
Scott blinked but the oily smile remained. “Let’s just say hopeless situations.”
Tea snorted. Well, he sure got that part right. The election was in exactly four days. Convincing Su Ting Ling to change her mind about anything in four days was pretty fucking hopeless.
“If the measure passes, Star Corporation will make sure Pier Donuts remains where it is.”
Tea finally found his voice. “Oh yeah? And how do you expect us to pay rent? Because that’s definitely not going to remain the way it is.” It was his aunt’s number one concern. Star Corporation would raise the rent, forcing broke-ass Chinese immigrants like them out on the street.
Scott Axelrod raised his eyebrows, seeming surprised by Tea’s perceptiveness. “I’ll talk to them, Tea. Okay? Just convince your aunt.” He pulled out his wallet. “Here, why don’t we start with this?” Scott placed a crisp hundred-dollar bill on the counter.
Tea eyed it. Shit. He saw Benjamins on a daily basis. No big fucking deal.
“This is just a down payment,” Scott said.
Tea shoved the bill back toward Scott. “You’re insulting me, man.” He glanced at the clock. It was almost eleven-thirty. He knew Chris and Skid would be leaving the high school campus to head over on their lunch break. They requested twenty hits of ecstasy, an eight-ball of coke, and a dozen apple fritters.
Scott noticed the quick check of the clock. “Expecting someone?”
“I got work to do.” As if to prove his point, Tea stood up and wiped down the counter with a rag.
“Get that measure passed, and we’ll talk. Find a way for you to remain part of the development.” Scott smiled and Tea knew a lying son-of-a-bitch smile when he saw one. “I’m counting on you, Tea.”
Tea watched Scott walk out of the shop, saluting Tea before disappearing down the boardwalk. Fucking douchebag.
About a half hour later, the bell hanging above the door tinkled and two huge football players strutted in.
“Hey, Teabag, my man, how’s it hanging?” Chris greeted him.
Tea reached over the counter and grasped Chris’s outstretched hand.
Skid jutted his chin out at Tea, and Tea nodded back. That was the extent of Skid’s greeting.
“I got your shit right here.” Tea pulled out the eight-ball and baggy of ecstasy tablets from underneath the counter. He slid out a paper bag from the stack tucked in between the donut counter and cash register.
Chris picked up a flyer and guffawed. “Take a look at this, Skid. They want to turn Chinaman Lagoon here into a kickass Raging Waters.”
Tea stiffened. He hated that term.
Skid shot Chris a glare. Chris looked taken aback. “What?” He shrugged. “I like Raging Waters.”
That did it. Tea grabbed the entire stack of flyers and shoved them in the trash. He wished he’d done that when the special consultant was here. Fuck him. And fuck Chris too.
Then Tea noticed the drugs were just lying on the counter in plain view for anyone who walked by the shop to see and immediately stuffed them in the paper sack. Jesus, what the fuck was wrong with him.
He leaned down and slid open the display case for the donuts. He grabbed the tongs and threw a dozen fritters into the pink box, breathing in the familiar sweet icing smell. He placed the paper bag on top of the pink box and slid it across the counter towards Skid.
Chris grabbed the box and drugs while Skid pulled out an envelope from his letterman’s jacket. He handed it to Tea, nodding once. “Later, man,” Skid said.
Chris had already wolfed down a fritter by the time they reached the door. “See ya, Teabag. Don’t work too hard.” Then the idiot proceeded to pull out the baggy of ecstasy pills right there on the boardwalk. Luckily, Skid snatched them out of his hand and stuffed them into his pocket.
Tea groaned and shook his head. He plopped down on his stool and suddenly had the overwhelming sensation that he was being watched. He turned to look out the window. Standing about ten feet away, leaning against a light post, was Special Consultant Scott Axelrod. He had a shit-eating grin on his face. He saluted Tea and strolled away, just like he did earlier.
Tea had no idea how long the guy had been standing there or what he saw. But it was probably enough.
The next morning, Tea was filling the display case with chocolate creams when the bell tinkled. He turned to see Scott stroll in with a smirk on his face. He still wore a suit but today it was grey.
“Your aunt in?”
Tea shook his head. “Not yet.” No need to explain to this asshole that his guma’s arthritis was really acting up. She’d spent most of last night in the tub, soaking in her mysterious Chinese herbal mixture. This morning, Tea could tell she hadn’t slept well and insisted she stay in bed and he’d open the shop, to which she’d gratefully agreed.
“Well, how convenient.” Scott cocked his head, that smirk still contorting his face.
Tea shrugged, trying his best not to appear rattled. “I told her you wanted to talk to her.”
“Yeah, what’d she say?”
Tea recalled his aunt’s reply when he told her about Scott’s visit and how he dropped off the flyers. She spit on their tiled kitchen floor and said, “Hundan.” Tea knew that meant “asshole.”
“Not much.” He threw the empty rack into the sink behind him.
Scott narrowed his eyes at Tea, then pointed at the shiny uncluttered counter. “You threw my flyers out.”
“No, people took them all.”
Scott laughed which came out more like a harsh bark. “Yeah, I bet.” He walked up to Tea and leaned over so Tea could smell his coffee breath. Suddenly, Scott lunged over the counter with lightning speed, grabbed the front of Tea’s shirt, and yanked him across. He shoved the back of Tea’s head down so his face smashed into the cold Formica.
“Look, you fucking chink, I’m done with the Mr. Nice Guy routine. I got you by the balls here so I don’t know why you’re fucking with me. If you don’t want me telling your precious auntie and all her Chinaman buddies here about that little drug deal I saw yesterday, then you better cooperate with me.”
Scott pressed harder against the back of Tea’s head, and he yelped. His face hurt.
“You don’t want me going to the cops now, do you? Huh?”
Tea sputtered something that sounded like, “Vrr.”
“Then your aunt better call me with good news before election day, you hear me, chink? Otherwise you’ll be fucking sorry, I guarantee it.”
Scott banged Tea’s head against the cash register once and tossed him backwards. Tea crashed into the sink and crumpled to the linoleum floor. He heard the door slam, the bell above it tinkling like crazy.
Tea groaned, willing himself to calm down. His heart was pounding and the right side of his face felt like it was on fire. He knew he was fucked.
Tea didn’t do any more deals over the weekend. He was too afraid. He refused every customer’s request, saying he was tapped out. He turned down a desperate plea for coke at one in the morning from Larry Burmeister, the school’s star water polo player, even with the promise of an extra thousand-dollar bonus.
Rayzor, his source, was totally confused. He couldn’t understand how Tea didn’t need more product.
“It’s been a week, man. You’ve never not called me in a week.”
Tea wanted to say that he sounded like a whiny chick, but you didn’t say shit like that to Rayzor. Instead he said things have been slow.
“Really? The South Bay’s always been my most profitable market.” There was a pause. “You still owe me money from the last pick up.”
Tea swallowed. “I don’t know what to tell you, man.”
“Well, if it gets any slower, you’re going to have to find some other dumbass rich kids, okay? Go Westside, like Santa Monica or Brentwood.”
Tea promised things would pick up, and Rayzor finally seemed satisfied.
So far, his aunt didn’t seem aware of his drug dealing. Or at least, if she did know, she didn’t say anything, which seemed highly unlikely. She asked about the bruise on his cheek, but Tea brushed it off, saying he banged it on the donut display case. She grunted but didn’t press it further.
It was the same with the other business owners. Mei Hsu and Chan Lo came in every day for their you shau, the Chinese donuts that were more salty than sweet. Tea froze every time they walked in, expecting an onslaught of Chinese cursing about his drug dealing, but they never brought it up.
Scott didn’t show up either. Tea would be in the back of the shop and when he heard the bell tinkle, he’d sweat and his heart would pound so hard like it was beating in his ears. But the special consultant never came.
Tea didn’t know if that was good or bad.
Wednesday morning, the day after the election, Tea woke up to screaming. He jumped out of bed and ran into his aunt’s room.
It was still dark outside but he could see she wasn’t in there. He heard the shrieking again. It was coming from the living room. He ran into the living room to see his aunt sitting on the couch in front of the television.
“Guma, what’s wrong?”
She turned, a wide smile on her wrinkled face revealing yellow teeth. “We won, Tea!” She pointed to the television with the election results for Measure A. 68% voted no and 32% voted yes. It wasn’t even close.
Tea grinned. “Nice!” He high-fived his aunt a little too hard, and she winced.
“We beat white man.” She spit on the threadbare carpet which was yellowed over the years from all her spitting. “Lagoon is ours.”
Tea stood behind his aunt, noticing her balding spot underneath her thinning black hair. He leaned over and patted her bony shoulder. “Good job, guma.”
She nodded. Her cell phone rang. She grabbed it and immediately started screaming in Chinese. Tea figured it must be Mei or Chan or any of the other Lagooners. He walked back to his room to get ready for work, his aunt’s excited chatter still audible.
“Hau, hau, hau,” she said.
Tea knew that meant “good.”
It was a busy day at the donut shop, mostly because his aunt was there and everybody had to come in and talk to her about what a huge win this was. How they saved their lagoon from the clutches of the evil money-hungry white man.
Tea feared people would mention Scott or ask him about drugs, but nobody said anything. By the time he closed up the shop, it was close to nine-thirty. His aunt had decided to stay open late because of all the hoopla. Just as Tea flipped the sign over from “open” to “closed,” his aunt informed him she was going to Johnny Lo’s.
“You come, Tea?” she asked.
Normally, Tea didn’t hang out with the Lagooners but he knew tonight was important to his aunt. “Sure, guma. Be there soon.”
She nodded and said, “You good boy, Tea.”
Tea watched her shuffle down the boardwalk, cringing with each painful step. Tea sighed, then locked the door. He went behind the counter and tossed the old donuts into a plastic trash bag. He hauled the bag out to the big trash can behind the shop. When he lifted the metal lid, he spotted something familiar inside. He reached his hand into the trash can and when he touched the soft leather, he pulled it out. It was Scott’s satchel.
Tea stared at it, confused. He opened the bag but there was nothing inside except his special consultant business cards. Tea tossed the satchel back into the trash and threw the bag of stale donuts on top of it, covering it up.
It took him another twenty minutes to wash the racks, clean the donut display case, and wipe down the counter. He went out the back way, locking the door behind him.
As he trudged along the boardwalk that bordered the lagoon, he couldn’t stop thinking about what he saw. What the hell was that asshole’s satchel doing in their trash can? Did his gumaput it there? Did she talk to Scott? Did she know about the drug dealing? All the questions swirling in his head made him want to vomit. At least he had the lagoon right there if he needed a place to do it.
By the time he made it to Johnny’s restaurant, on the other side of the lagoon near the small dock, it was close to ten. The wind had picked up and Tea pulled his hoodie up over his head. He heard a banging sound coming from a couple of tied-up rowboats. Their bows struck the side of the dock with each gust of wind.
When Tea entered the restaurant, he was greeted with yells and the stench of cigarettes peppered with ginger and onions. Even though smoking was banned inside restaurants, nobody at the lagoon bothered following it. They had their own set of rules here.
People kept coming up to him and slapping him on the back like he’d just won a match or something. Some of the people he didn’t even recognize. They might have been friends of the Lagooners or relatives, he had no idea.
“Tea, have a Tsingtao!” Someone handed him a bottle of the Chinese beer. At least it was cold. He took a swig.
“Tea, you happy? The lagoon is ours!”
“Tea, you proud of your guma?”
“Ju huh!” Tea knew that meant congratulations.
Smiling and nodding, Tea shoved his way towards the back of the restaurant. He just wanted to talk to his aunt. He passed by Johnny who was carrying a steaming bowl of stinky tofu. Tea wrinkled his nose, practically gagging.
“Johnny, you seen my guma?”
“Tea! There you are!” Johnny smiled and nodded. He shrugged. “She here somewhere.”
Tea thanked him and continued towards the back of the restaurant through the narrow hallway. He had to take a piss. He opened up one door but it looked like a closet filled with cleaning supplies. He couldn’t remember where the men’s room was.
Tea continued down the hallway and passed the ladies room. He kept going and turned a corner, finding another door. He opened it, finding it to be a big storage room. In the dim light, among the stacks of plastic soy sauce containers and bags of rice, he saw Chan Hsu and Frank Chow bending over a blue plastic tarp. They were wrapping someone up inside like an egg roll with a head on one end and feet sticking out on the other. Tea gasped when he spotted Scott’s jet black hair and a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
Frank and Chan turned around and when they saw it was Tea, they merely nodded. They turned back to what they were doing, muttering to each other in Chinese. Tea stared for a few more seconds, unable to find his voice. Finally Frank turned around and gestured to Tea.
“Tea, shut the door, okay?”
Tea did. He turned around and saw his aunt standing a few feet away. She looked at him, her eyes sharp and alive.
Tea didn’t say anything. He didn’t know where to start.
“Come,” she said, beckoning him to follow her. They wandered down a hall to a door in the back. She opened it and they were outside in the cool air. The wind had died down a little. Tea sucked in a huge breath. He felt sick. They sat down on the steps, side by side, the lagoon stretched out before them. The sea lions barked in the distance.
They sat in silence for a while until his aunt said, “He threaten to go to police, Tea.” She shook her head. “I can’t have my boy go to jail.”
Tea stared down at his Converse, afraid of what to say. Afraid of what not to say.
“We take care of each other at lagoon. We all family here.” She made a choking sound. “Not like white men. They no respect lagoon.” She spit into the dirt.
Tea finally found his voice. “What are they — what are they going to do with his — his body?”
His aunt didn’t say anything for a while. Then she cleared her throat and said, “It nice night for boat ride, uh? Look how pretty lagoon look.”
Tea didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes glued to his shoes.
Finally, she grunted and stood up. He heard her groan. She patted Tea’s head. “You good boy, Tea.” She hesitated, then Tea heard the door softly click behind him. He was alone.
He sat like that for what seemed like five hours but was probably only five minutes. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number.
“Hey, Tea, my man, what up? Tell me some good news.”
At the sound of Rayzor’s voice, Tea relaxed. “I need product, dude.”
He heard a whoop on the other end. “Those are the best words I’ve heard all week.”
Tea chuckled. It felt good to be back. “And hey, make that a double order.” Felt real good.
“Sure thing. Come by tomorrow, man.”
Tea hung up and shoved the phone into his pocket. He stood up and turned to head back inside. But something stopped him and made him turn back around. He squinted out at the lagoon.
It did look kinda pretty. Maybe it was the reflection of the streetlamps, the way they shimmered like shiny streaks of liquid gold. Or the wind bending the palm trees, reminding Tea of an island paradise.
Tea relaxed his eyes and studied the water for a few more seconds. Then he shook his head.
Nah, it was still a fucking eyesore.