The Smile of Fortune God
By Yeo Wei Wei
As Bossman Loh neared the end of his prayer, he caught a whiff of something through the usual smells of the wet market. His shirt, worn three days in a row, needed a good wash. So did he, was the thought that came and went like a tendril of smoke from the incense in his hands. It was two o'clock on a Tuesday. Usually he would have left his stall by now. He was still here because it was the 15th of the lunar month and every lunar 15th, Bossman Loh made an offering of cake and oranges to Fortune God. There was a small shrine at his stall, hidden from view. It was set up on his wife's insistence some 20 years ago after they succeeded in their bid to lease a stall in this popular market. Before, they'd had to peddle vegetables from a pushcart.
"Such tough times we've been through," his wife had said back when she was alive, whenever Bossman Loh made a face at the number of pills she had to take. When she became too weak to help out at the stall, he took over her chores, wiping Fortune God with a soft damp cloth, preparing the offerings. "What's a piddling illness to a god?" his wife said whilst he cut oranges for her at the hospital. She sat up in the bed that had room for only one person and mustered the little strength left in her cancer-ridden body to chew and swallow.
Done with his prayer, Bossman Loh looked in the box where his wife used to keep spare sets of clothes for them. There was a blouse of hers inside, nothing else. He must have already worn his clothes and forgotten to replace them. Unlike her voice, which he still heard inside his head and his dreams, he couldn't remember what she smelt like. He hurried to his lorry, box under an arm. Inside the cab he buried his face in her blouse.
The next morning when he arrived at the market, he was greeted by the agitated faces of the fruit seller Bossman Tay, Mrs Tay, and the chicken seller Auntie Ho. Tay was speaking to police officers. Later on, Bossman Loh would think back on the policemen's faces, how they looked like they had only ever lost things like wallets and pens.
Auntie Ho dragged him to her chicken stall where a broken padlock hung uselessly from the chest freezer. "Everything stolen! Not even a bag of bones or feet left!" Bossman Loh went to his stall. In the shrine, only the censer with its spindly sticks of spent incense and ziggurat of oranges remained. Where Fortune God had stood smiling all these years, a cloud-shaped incense-ash imprint of his robes was left.
A week later, Bossman Loh went to the shop where he and his wife had found their Fortune God. It was a few minutes' walk from a famous Goddess of Mercy temple. He recognised the shopkeeper, a man with ears too big for his face. "Longevity ears," Bossman Loh's wife had said on their visit, "like Buddha." The shop was much bigger than before and there were shopping baskets at the entrance like a supermarket. Most aisles had human and animal deities on display. He found Fortune Gods in Aisle 8. Two had strips of paper taped over their eyes with the contact details of their new owners: "Mr Lim 94112088"; "Mdm. Goh 97332968." Bossman Loh studied the smiles of the others, painted by factory workers in a southern Chinese city. Men who smiled like this had everything they needed and more.
"Pack it for you?" said the shopkeeper, gesturing at the Fortune God in the crook of Bossman Loh's arms.
At the checkout counter the shopkeeper wrote Bossman Loh's name and mobile number on a strip of paper and pasted it over the figurine's eyes. "This one," his wife had said without hesitation back when she'd chosen their Fortune God. Now Bossman Loh struggled to hear her as the shopkeeper went on about lucky numbers.
"Wrong, wrong," Bossman Loh blurted before he grabbed the enormous joss sticks propped beside the counter, paid for them, and quickly left the shop. They were too long and thick, so he had to hug them. So comforting, like he was the one being hugged. He put them where his wife would have sat, beside him in the cab of his lorry.
" Thanks to Fortune God, our son went to a famous university in England and lives in a house with a garden," he heard his wife saying. "Jit will know where Fortune God is."
Bossman Loh sped to Jit's house. At the gate he sniffed his shirt. Above him the mid-day sun was merciless. Bossman Loh closed his eyes and saw the smile of the boy Jit. The sicker she got, the younger Jit became in her stories. How much he loved her food, how well-behaved he was.
He lugged the joss sticks with him to the grille. He and his wife had gone inside once. Jit's wife, Ming Ming, had thanked them for the red packet for granddaughter Emily and vegetables. Were they organic? Of course! Organic. Fennel, rocket, tomatoes from France – vegetables Bossman Loh and wife had never eaten before. The deliveries carried on until his wife became bedridden. They never saw their son, only Gloria, the Filipina helper. It was Gloria who came towards him now. She stared at the joss sticks.
'Sir inside?' Bossman Loh said.
'Sir at work.'
'School.' Gloria pointed at the joss sticks. 'Uncle go temple?'
He wished he had brought vegetables instead of things made for burning.
'Want some water, Uncle?'
It was a mystery to him, how a glass of iced water could taste so good.
Inside his lorry, he thought about the last time he saw his son. At the funeral his son and his wife had stood out – he in his glasses and shiny black shoes, she in a black dress. To find his lost god, he should seek the advice of immortals, not a man.
Bossman Loh got onto the highway towards the big Fortune God temple. Not long after he turned off the highway, he saw thick billowing smoke. The temple's entrance was obstructed by fire engines and an ambulance. He parked close and made his way by foot to the temple, hugging his joss sticks. He had to push his way through the crowd on the pavement. A police officer stopped him from entering the compound, but he shook the joss sticks from side to side and made a series of incomprehensible sounds that led the officer to hold up his hands and back away.
Bossman Loh looked at the burning temple. His vision blurred and the warm moisture in them rolled down his cheeks, leaving tracks that he couldn't do anything about. He was hugging the joss sticks with both arms.
A woman with long hair approached him. 'I'm from Channel NewsAsia. Uncle, do you work at the temple?' Behind her was a man with a video camera on his shoulder.
Bossman Loh blinked away his tears.
The woman offered him a piece of tissue paper. To thank her, he nodded, and the woman asked him if he would accept her interview.
'It'll be a couple of simple questions,' she said.
Thousands watch the news on TV. He could ask if anyone had seen his Fortune God. Bossman Loh nodded and the woman motioned to the man with the video camera to start.
'What time did you come to work today? Did you see anything suspicious?' the woman asked.
'Fortune God…' Bossman Loh began. His head was reeling. He couldn't see far beyond the huddle of firemen hosing powerful jets at what was left of the temple. He squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his grip around the joss sticks.
Shouts rang in the air. He opened his eyes to see what the commotion was about and saw two firemen with a gurney emerging from the temple. As they went past him, the skeleton of a dog, flesh and face burnt clean off, grinned at him. Bossman Loh felt his body turn weightless. Next the sky tipped, flicking his joss sticks out of his arms, and his body toppled onto the ground.
The first thing Bossman Loh saw when he regained consciousness was a mouth with stiffly upturned corners. The mouth belonged to a man with glasses. The mouth moved.
'Jit,' Bossman Loh said.
When he was little, Jit's mouth was small as a bottle cap. Sometime between primary and secondary school, Jit grew into someone who had endless things to say to his friends. The taller he grew, the fewer things he had to say to his parents. Don't send me to school, he told Bossman Loh. I don't want people to see your beat-up lorry.
"I want to go home," Bossman Loh said.
"This is your home."
Bossman Loh looked at the wall behind Jit. On it was a clock. Beside the clock were the portraits of his parents. Beneath was the television.
'Want your dinner now?' Jit said.
Bossman Loh shook his head.
Jit turned on the TV. The woman with the long hair appeared on the screen. Bossman Loh reached for his phone. Before his wife fell ill, the only time of the day both of them could sit and chit-chat was during the news. They carried on this habit of watching the news and speaking after she was admitted to the hospital.
"Who are you calling?" Jit said.
Bossman Loh put his phone down.
"Pa, I have to go. Ming Ming is waiting for me to eat dinner at home." Jit rose. "Call me if you need anything."
Bossman Loh watched the news until the credits began to roll.
It had been some months since he rang the number and the nurse who answered this time was new. She asked for the patient's identity card number and name. "No such person," she said when he gave her his wife's details. The sound of that unbroken tone after she hung up was better than the silence in his flat so Bossman Loh held the phone to his ear for a little while afterwards.
All the tables at the coffeeshop were occupied and the air hummed with chatter. The man Bossmen Tay and Loh had come to meet was the sole spectator of Shine On, Golden Hits on the suspended TV. The retired detective inspector's name was Tommy de Souza.
Tommy de Souza said to Bossman Loh: "I used to buy vegetables at your stall. That was until my daughter got it into her head that it was easier to subscribe to this vegetable farm in Choa Chu Kang."
"So good to have daughter," Bossman Loh said.
"That's why I stopped going to the market. That box she orders includes fruit. Every week we receive a box of fruit and vegetables chosen by some farmer in Choa Chu Kang. If I stand in my daughter's way, something worse than loss of control over one's vegetables could happen." Tommy de Souza chuckled.
Bossman Loh was puzzled. If this man had bought vegetables from him before, he should recognise him.
"I used to go to the market on Thursdays." Tommy de Souza paused. "One time I was at your stall, your wife said you just called to tell her you caught a threadfin."
"Expensive fish," Bossman Loh said. He had forgotten about that. It was the best feeling in the world, going out on the open sea, waiting, anticipating.
"How's your wife?" Tommy de Souza said. "I used to buy three kilos of tomatoes every week."
"Three!" Tay said.
"Inspector, the CCTV has been set up. If you're ready we can go to my place to check it out," Tay said.
When they got to the lift lobby at Tay's block, Bossman Loh said to Tommy de Souza, "My wife is dead."
"I am very sorry," Tommy de Souza said.
The inspector hadn't done anything wrong, why did he say he was sorry? "The thieves say sorry," Bossman Loh said.
The stake-out was at Tay's flat, a couple of floors above the coffeeshop. The other stall-owners in the watch group were already there. Auntie Ho let them in and showed them the livestream on the laptops, lent by one of the sons of Bossman Chee, the seafood bossman, who worked in IT. One screen showed the fruit and vegetable stalls, the other, the meat and fish section.
Bossman Loh saw Tommy de Souza give him a look as he went to the kitchen. The way the old detective looked at him made Bossman Loh feel as if he was an onion being taken apart, layer by layer.
Auntie Ho came to stand beside him. Her husband had died two years ago soon after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"I heard you went to the big Fortune God temple," Auntie Ho said.
"I went too late."
"Never too late! The statues of the Fortune Gods survived the fire, all five of them."
Bossman Loh said: "I was there. The fire destroyed everything. I saw…" He started to shake his head, to drive away the memory of the dog skeleton's grin.
Auntie Ho the chicken-seller spoke up: "When the temple is rebuilt, because of what happened, more people will go there to pray and give offerings. People are saying, how did those statues survive the fire? What are the gods saying about money being spent on expensive materials for a building? All burnt down! Maybe something good will happen, like the temple giving money to people who really need it!"
Bossman Loh looked at her furtively. He wasn't used to seeing her without her apron and cleaver. This was also the first time he'd heard her say so many things and not a single one of them had anything to do with chickens.
"Had your dinner?" Auntie Ho said.
"I eat later at home."
She bustled off and called him from the kitchen: "There's fried Hokkien mee and lots of fruit."
"You came!" Tay's wife said to him as he entered the kitchen. Tay's wife offered them some sliced mangoes. "Harum Manis," she said, beaming. "Try."
The last time we were gathered together like this, none of us in rubber boots, no wet market smells, was the time of Siew Bee's wake, Bossman Loh thought.
Tommy de Souza was smoking by the window. Bossman Loh joined him. He wasn't used to hearing so many voices.
Bossman Loh's mouth was full of mango. He had not been to Tay's flat before, nor to the homes of the others even though they had known each other for many years. The mango had a beautiful fragrance and its sweetness wasn't cloying. Why didn't he offer Fortune God anything other than oranges? Why had he been satisfied with the least that had been possible, oranges, selling vegetables, driving a lorry? Why hadn't he tried harder, done better?
A kindly voice spoke. It was Tommy de Souza. "We have enough people for tonight. Go back if you're tired."
Tay's wife asked if Bossman Loh would like more mango. "These are for you to take home later," Tay's wife said, holding up a bag.
"Too many," Bossman Loh said.
Tay's wife said: "It'll be the weekend soon. When our children and grandchildren come on the weekends, everything is finished in no time. Inspector Sir, here's a bag for you too."
Tommy de Souza raised his hand in appreciation. He said to Bossman Loh: "You lost something precious. Not easy to replace."
Bossman Loh looked out of the window. The roof was a side of the market he had not seen till now.
Tommy de Souza was still speaking: "Always we are losing things. Always. We try to get them back, we try lots of ways. Some people succeed, but for the rest of us, well, it doesn't mean there's nothing."
Bossman Loh looked at the slopes of the roof. A cat could walk on them, a nimble creature used to climbing and falling, unafraid of heights. He was fond of cats. His wife didn't like animals. Perhaps he could get a cat. Perhaps he could get two, they could keep each other company while he was at the stall.
"How's your granddaughter? Such a pretty child." Tay's wife brought more mango.
"Emily. Very pretty. Very good girl," he said. To Tommy de Souza he said, "Granddaughter. No like vegetables."
"All children are the same! I have to beg my grandchildren to eat one spinach stalk. Nowadays they don't know who Popeye is," Tay's wife said. "If there's chicken nuggets on the table, one minute I turn my back, next minute I look, habis!"
Outside in the living room Bossman Chee roared. Everyone in the kitchen rushed to join him before the screens. "Something moved!" he said hoarsely. "Moved in the dark, no torchlight."
"Where did he go? Which section?" Tay huffed.
"What do we do now?" Auntie Ho asked Bossman Loh.
Bossman Loh looked at her face and thought of something his wife had said. He brushed the thought aside. "Stay here with Tay's wife. We will go to the market and catch them."
"Did you see that? There is something moving down the centre part."
"Let's catch the bastard!" Tay shouted.
The men agreed to enter the market from different corners. Nothing stirred as they scoured their sections, each one armed with a bamboo pole, the sort that's used to hang clothes out to dry. By the time their paths crossed, the bossmen had each come up with his own theory. Later on in Tay's kitchen, they talked about what they would do if they caught the thieves, cursing and laughing over mugs of strong sweet coffee. Bossman Loh couldn't remember a better morning.
Finally Tommy de Souza stood up: "My friends, I ask that you leave the sleuthing to me. If you don't leave for the wholesalers soon, I suspect you won't have anything to be bossmen over today. And look how poor Mrs Tay here hasn't had any rest. Soon she has to go and tend her stall."
Their operation uncovered a rodent infestation at the market. The thieves were never caught but there also weren't any more incidents. Tommy de Souza started to frequent Bossman Loh's stall again. Each time he bought just 500 grammes of cherry tomatoes. Any more and he might become a tomato himself, he joked. Bossman Loh was the one who branched out, buying more than just oranges for his offerings. He still bought the same kind of cake each time, the traditional pale-yellow steamed cake that his wife liked. He bought Spanish persimmons, Turkish apricots, Thai pomelo and those delicious green mangoes he first tasted that night at Bossman Tay's, the harum manis. Bossman Loh thought about his Fortune God every day. He thought about the god's smile. It was a smile that said, carry on, carry on, all of us must carry on. Bossman Loh couldn't agree more. And life, well, life made sure of that.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023