Over Doc and Mack a golden melancholy settled like
autumn leaves, melancholy concocted equally of Old Tennis Shoes and old
times, of friends lost and friends changed. And both of them knew they were
avoiding one subject, telling minor stories to avoid a major one. But at
last they were dry, and their subject confronted them.
Doc opened with considerable bravery. "What do you
think of the new owner over at the grocery?"
"Oh, he's all right," said Mack. "Kind
of interesting. The only trouble is he can't never take Lee Chong's place.
There was never a friend like Lee Chong," Mack said brokenly.
"Yes, he was wise and good," said Doc.
"And tricky," said Mack.
"And smart," said Doc.
"He took care of a lot of people," said Mack.
"And he took a few," said Doc.
They volleyed Lee Chong back and forth, and their memories
built virtues that would have surprised him, and cleverness and beauty too.
While one told a fine tale of that mercantile Chinaman the other waited
impatiently to top the story. Out of their memories there emerged a being
scarcely human, a dragon of goodness and an angel of guile. In such a way
are the gods created.
But the bottle was empty now, and its emptiness irritated
Mack, and his irritation oozed towards Lee Chong's memory.
"The son-of-a-bitch was sneaky," said Mack.
"He should of told us he was going to sell out and go away. It wasn't
friendly, doing all that alone without his friends to help."
"Maybe that's what he was afraid of," said Doc.
"Lee wrote to me about it. I couldn't advise him - I was too far away
- so he was safe."
"You can't never find out what a Chink's got on his
mind," said Mack. "Doc, who would of thought he was what you might
say - plotting?"
Oh, it had been a shocking thing. Lee Chong had operated
his emporium for so long that no one could possibly have foreseen that he
would sell out. He was so mixed up in the feeding and clothing of Cannery
Row that he was considered permanent. Who could have suspected the secret
turnings of his paradoxical Oriental mind, which seems to have paralleled
the paradoxical Occidental mind?
It is customary to think of a sea captain sitting in his
cabin, planning a future grocery store not subject to wind or bottom-fouling.
Lee Chong dreamed while he worked his abacus and passed out pints of Old
Tennis Shoes and delicately sliced bacon with his big knife. He dreamed
all right - he dreamed of the sea. He did not share his plans or ask advice.
He would have got lots of advice.
One day Lee Chong sold out and bought a schooner. He wanted
to go trading in the South Seas. He dreamed of palms and Polynesians. In
the hold of his schooner he loaded the entire stock of his store-all the
canned goods, the rubber boots, the caps and needles and small tools, the
fireworks and calendars, even the glass-fronted showcases where he kept
gold-plated collar-buttons and cigarette lighters. He took it all with him.
And the last anyone saw of him, he was waving his blue naval cap from the
flying bridge of his dream ship as he passed the whistle buoy at Point Pinos
into the sunset. And if he didn't go down on the way over, that's where
he is now - probably lying in a hammock under an awning on the rear deck,
while beautiful Polynesian girls in very scanty clothes pick over his stock
of canned tomatoes and striped mechanics' caps.
"Why do you suppose he done it?" Mack asked.
"Who knows?" said Doc. "Who knows what
lies deep in any man's mind? Who knows what any man wants?"
"He won't be happy there," said Mack. "He'll
be lonely out among them foreigners. You know, Doc, I figured it out. It
was them goddam movies done it. You remember, he used to close up every
Thursday night. That's because there was a change of bill at the movie house.
He never missed a movie. That's what done it, the movies. I and you, Doc,
we know what liars the movies are. He won't be happy out there. He'll just
be miserable to come back."
Doc gazed at his run-down laboratory. "I wish I were
out there with him."
"Who don't?" said Mack. "Why, them South
Sea Island girls will kill him. He ain't as young as he used to be."
"I know," said Doc. "You and I should be
out there, Mack, to help protect him from himself. I'm wondering, Mack,
should I step across the street and get another pint or should I go to bed?"
"Why don't you flip a coin?"
"You flip the coin," said Doc. "I don't
really want to go to bed. If you flip it I'll know how it's going to come
Chapter 1 from "Sweet Thursday"