Every time my family would order Chinese take-out growing up, I always had to go with my dad to pick it up. I had to go in and watch as they cooked, I had to hear their language. For some reason or another I was fascinated by the Eastern culture, by the Buddha statues and emerald good luck charms, by the dragon pictures and paintings of serene waterfalls surrounded by bamboo forests. But mostly as a kid, I was completely captivated by the large fires that came and went in a flash from the cook’s wok. He’d smile over at me, standing on tip-toes trying to watch, and he’d throw oil in the pan and it would go up. Watching this, I knew this was my career path.
I had several odd-jobs starting from a very young age. My parents were not the sort who gave an allowance. “Chores are paying off your stay on this ship,” my mother would say. So I had it in my mind I had to somehow get money in order to by a new Razor Scooter, to get a Butterfly Yo-yo, to buy a new pack of Basketball cards, anything that all my friends were into at the moment. In middle school, my grandparents owned an antique store. They never liked hiring employees, mostly enjoying doing all the work themselves. But soon, they called and asked if my older brother Colton and I would like to work a few afternoons a week. This was my big break into the world of money. The strange part that even I found as a kid was how much faith my grandparents had in a fifth grader and eighth grader. Running the cash register, helping customers, giving complete histories of certain pieces of furniture or on a rusted wheelbarrow. My brother was not one to lie, but he was very good with words. We knew nothing about antiques. But somehow my brother could talk anyone into buying anything. So I tried a few times.
“Excuse me, young man,” this lady said to me.
I looked up at her from my place behind the counter, taking a break from polishing brass pins (one of my many terrible, tedious jobs my grandparents gave me, as I was not much of a salesman).
“Is this eighteenth or nineteenth century?” she asked me, holding up a long, shining cavalry sword.
Naturally as a ten-year-old, my eyes widened as I stared at it, not having seen it before.
“Um, well, let’s take a look,” I said, looking around the store for my brother, hoping he wouldn’t come and take my customer.
She handed me the sword and I immediately pulled it out of its long sheath, in a gentle haze of awe that I was holding a real sword. Not one that was carved by my brother, not some crooked oak branch, but a beautiful, sharp, deadly sword.
This lady looked at me as I looked at the sword, running my fingers over the blade, testing its balance, seeing if the handle was sturdy enough for a neighborhood battle with all of my friends. Suddenly I remembered I had to give her an answer. I tried to remember all of the little bullshit salesman tactics my brother used.
“Oh, this is interesting,” I said.
“What is it?” she asked.
“See this little engraving here?” I said, pointing it out. “Well that was General Lawrence MacSweeny’s symbol.”
“Oh, who’s General MacSweeny?” she asked, all the more intrigued.
Who the hell was General MacSweeny? I’d only gotten as far as the name in my fabricated sales pitch.
“Well, he fought in the battle of San Francisco. A very important battle in history,” I said.
This old woman’s eyes grew twice their size, elated at what she’d found.
“Oh, my goodness!” she said. “I know nothing about history or battles, but my husband is a huge collector. This might be his birthday present.”
“Yeah, we’re looking at eighth or ninth century,” I said, wondering when the eighth or ninth century actually was.
“Oh, wow!” she said. “How much is it? I didn’t see a price tag.”
Suddenly, I grew nervous. I’d already imagined myself carrying this sword on my hip for the rest of my life. People would see me and salute me, I’d be able to take the commander position of our neighborhood friends from my brother, now that I had a real sword. But this lady wanted it, too. She wanted to give it to her husband so he could put it in some case in their house. I couldn’t have that.
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind piece. You don’t see something like this too often. But let’s say…” I tried my best to think of a real price. “Nine-hundred, and that includes the sheath.”
“Nine-hundred?” she gasped. “I think that’s a little out of my price range. Thank you,” she said, smiling. “You’re a very smart young man.”
She set the sword back and walked out of the store. Part of me was in joy. I walked over and began to practice my fencing, making all of the sound effects and cries of horror of the savages I was killing to protect my homeland.
My grandmother came from the back room, seeing me playing in the aisles.
“Did you finish polishing those brass pins?” she said.
“Almost,” I said, quickly putting the sword down.
“You won’t get your five dollars if you don’t,” she said, lighting another cigarette.
I kept my eye on the sword every day I worked, hoping I could save up enough for it. But one day, as if a slap in the face to my hard work of child labor, that same lady came in and bought it, my grandmother telling the actual truth of the sword and selling it for a fraction of what I’d originally said. I hid in the back office, scraping gum off an old ice cream maker, feeling devastated that I’d never be a commander of our neighborhood army.
I hated all of the little odd jobs I had to do in the store, polishing silver, scraping some strange goop off of coffee tables, counting through five-gallon buckets of change looking for wheat pennies or buffalo nickels. My grandmother knew the exact, pointless jobs that would keep me occupied all day long.
As I grew up I took on several different jobs. I worked as a “brush-picker-uper” for this tree cutting service, I was a life guard, I was a flower delivery boy. But all of these jobs were a means to get me to my career, my dream, my destiny. I was barely nineteen and had just moved into a new apartment with my brother. I had no job when we signed the lease so I had to quickly find something. I drove around for two days looking, putting in applications, but apparently my long list of work history did nothing to secure a decent job. One day I drove past a little shopping center and saw it. As if a beacon of hope in my unemployed distress, I saw it in bright letters: CHINA HOUSE. I pulled into the parking lot and walked inside.
Everyone in the restaurant stopped and stared at me.
“For here or to-go?” said the woman behind the counter.
“Actually, I was wondering if you were hiring?” I said. “I need a job.”
She sized me up for a moment, then called to someone in the back room in Cantonese. They spoke rapidly for several minutes, both staring at me.
“Okay,” said the woman. “You delivery boy. Come tomorrow. Four clock, okay?”
“Thank you,” I said. “My name is Spencer.” I extended my hand.
“Okay, Scott. Tomorrow.”
Being I was lucky enough to find a job, I didn’t want to ruin it by correcting her on my name.
I worked there six days a week, all of it was under-the-table, paid in cash, which I didn’t mind at all. They were the nicest people and they grew to love their new delivery boy, Scott, giving me random bonuses and free food. It was a pretty great deal I’d managed to land, and on top of it all, it was a dream come true in a strange and sad way. But when you’re nineteen, your goals are a little more wide open.
Being around the restaurant most days, I began to pick up a few words here and there and somehow became fascinated with Buddhism, the religion of this restaurant. I read all the books I could on Zen and decided I was going to incorporate Zen into each and every delivery I took. I was slowly assimilating myself into the Eastern mode of thought and lifestyle and loved every second of it. I’d become a great fan of Thomas Merton, so being Catholic, I knew I wasn’t completely off base with my interest in Zen. But as I would drive around town, happy in my peaceful little life, trying to empty myself of myself, admiring beauty in all things, it somehow came to a screeching halt.
I’ve always been a svelte guy, never finding much interest in working out or exercise. My mind was focused on attaining enlightenment. This girl I was dating at the time was constantly asking me why I don’t work out or lift weights. “You’d be real hot if you had a few muscles,” she said.
“I thank you for your gift of a hidden insult,” I said to her in my newly acquired calm, Zen tone. “But I will not accept it.”
She grew increasingly frustrated with my thoughtful passivity and was relentless in her wanting me to “get a little muscle.” This went on for weeks, her begging me to stop being so focused on being “zen” and wondering why I didn’t want to work out. “Do you not care about being able to protect me?” she asked.
One day I delivered food to an L.A. Fitness. As I pulled into the parking lot, the bags of food sweating in the passenger seat next to me, I found this to be a bit of a paradox—a gym, where everyone is trying to obtain optimal health and yet someone ordered crab Rangoon and General Tso’s chicken for a cool down, post-workout meal of possibly the worst food in the city. I knew this because I’d been eating it for free almost every day.
I walked in and all of the machines were going like some futuristic society where everyone was dressed and cloned to look identical. I am human, of course, so even my Zen couldn’t help me from feeling terribly insecure as I walked past these physically fit people, my skinny arms carrying the bags of food. I stared at all of the long legs and bouncing breasts like any normal nineteen-year-old, all the while fully aware of my own physique that I had no intent on ever changing. Towards the back of the gym was the free-weights area. Still holding the soggy bags, I sized up the room, seeing who had ordered the food, the sour smell of General Tso’s blending with sweat and arctic levels of cool air coming from the air conditioner. I stood there in the middle of the gym like a fool, wondering where I was supposed to go, completely enthralled by all of the body builders, seemingly gods of men, self-made, of course, holding no divinity other than brawn. But somehow I got the sense that they didn’t find themselves at all human, rather far above the normal collection of mankind.
An older, portly man came walking out from a back room. He wore a janitor’s jumpsuit, stained, a large ring of keys jingling from his hip. Swaying slightly off balance as he looked in pain with each step he took, he came up to me with a massive smile on his face.
“Ah! Finally! I’m starved,” he said, taking the bags. He handed me cash and a very good tip and returned to a back office somewhere, hidden away to enjoy his lunch in solitude.
There was something admirable in this man, some air about him that pulsed, brazenly cavalier, and I couldn’t help but to smile. I turned to leave, still in awe of this guy, watching all of the people working out as their faces twisted with disgust at the janitor and his lack of abs. But I loved him. His ability to be himself, truly and completely, even in a room where the main goal is to be just like the people next to you, a rare trait. As I got to the main door, a young guy, extremely buff with terrible tribal tattoos painted on his veiny arms stopped me.
“Hey, dude,” he said. “How are you?”
“Good,” I said.
“Tyler,” he said, extending his hand.
“Scott,” I said. I always used my professional delivery name while working.
“Can I ask you something, dude?” he said. “I bet you don’t have a girlfriend and I bet you get picked on a lot, and I bet I know why. Girls like real men, bro. They want to feel protected, like someone can control and take care of them. I’m right aren’t I?’
I hated this guy. So, I naturally tried to use a hybrid form of Zen mixed with modern lying to make him leave me alone.
“Nope. I’m married with three kids and I’m a black belt, can break a neck in less than a second.”
“Look, dude,” he said, taking on a serious guise. “All I’m saying is after a few sessions with me, none of your clothes will even fit anymore, that’s how big you’ll get. You’ll be so strong, man, you’ll be like a god.”
“That sounds terrible,” I said.
“No, you’d feel like a new man. Self-made. You’d run your own life, be your own god. Trust me, man,” he said, smiling, showing off his recently fluoride-treated teeth which glowed beneath the fluorescent lights. He handed me a packet of brochures.
“Why subject yourself to rules and being told what to do, man,” he said. “Look, I can get any girl I want. I can kick anyone’s ass I want. Wouldn’t you like to be able to do that?”
“No,” I said.
“So you just want to go on being a subject to someone else’s rules?” he said, laughing at me. A few other guys behind the counter, all looking like they came out of the same asshole as Tyler.
“Well, no. But I suppose I can get into it,” I said. “I live my life according to higher principals. Our physical bodies were made from dust and will return to dust when we die. But one can reach peace and enlightenment through the mind. One must focus on God and not make himself God. See all the time you spend here you could be reading and growing deeper in spirituality. You could be a decent human being and not make fun of the delivery boy. Look at your janitor. He’s closer to enlightenment than you’ll ever be.”
They all began laughing at me, from behind the counter, mixing powdered protein into glasses of milk.
“You’re hopeless, man,” said Tyler. “You’ll be walked on your whole life if you don’t start kicking some ass now.”
“I thank you for your gift of wrath, but I do not accept it,” I said.
“Spencer?” said a voice behind me.
I turned and looked to find my girlfriend in the doorway.
“What are you doing here?” she said, a look of horror on her face.
“I’m working, had a delivery,” I said. “These guys are kinda assholes,” I said, lowering my voice.
“Hey, babe,” said Tyler walking over.
I stared at him, oddly.
“This is a bit awkward,” said my girlfriend. Tyler walked over and wrapped his arm around her, picking her up for a hug.
“Him?” I said. “You want me to be like him?”
“See, duder, I told you,” he said. “You can have any chick you want. Be your own god, man.”
“Well, good luck,” I said, quickly walking out.
I got in my car, completely deflated and hopeless. Where was the Zen teaching on this? Where was the path to enlightenment when you’ve lost a girlfriend to Tyler? I calmed myself, driving back to the restaurant, thinking it was better I didn’t have a rare General Lawrence MacSweeny sword on my hip to fight him with, because I was no fighter. I was Scott, the delivery boy, and I was one step closer to enlightenment.
Spencer K. M. Brown was born in Bedfordshire, England. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Prime Number Magazine, Change Severn Magazine, The Yellow Chair Review, Revolution John Magazine, Unbroken Journal, and several more. His debut novel Swimming With Birds is currently under review for publication. Spencer K. M. Brown currently lives and writes in Winston-Salem, NC. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @SpencerKMBrown