When I was young and living above the Panama Cafe, I yearned to go to the Canadian National Exhibition on Labour Day weekend. The CNE was a fabled place of fun, like midway rides, of food, like candy floss, and of wonder, like daredevil shows. The young waiters and old cooks would individually or in small groups take a few days off and head down to Toronto and return with fabulous stories. They would talk about the fun they had, and I would listen in awe and envy.
Many of my father’s employees would bring back a memento or two of their adventures. Most were cheap things, like Kewpie dolls, all in plastic and pink, and made in Japan. Such trinkets would quickly be tossed in some corner to gather dust and be forgotten. However, Tommy Tsu brought back something that would change me.
Tommy was a married bachelor; that is, he had a wife in Hong Kong. He had been one of the first to come over to gum san, Canada, when the doors finally opened for Chinese immigrants. He often said that one day when he had enough money he’d buy her passage.
“Hardy,” he told me, “there were so many birds there I couldn’t make up my mind. Different colours, different sizes. Budgies, finches, you name it. Big birds—parrots, exotic birds, cockatoos. I could have had any one of them!”
He had placed a dime bet on one of those spinning wheel of fortune games at the Ex and won a bird cage and a choice of birds. He picked a canary. Now both bird and cage were in a corner booth in the dining room for all to admire.
“Why didn’t you take a parrot, Tommy?” I asked. “You can teach a parrot to talk, y’know. I mean, if you had a choice!”
It turned out, I later learned, that Tommy didn’t have a choice. But he didn’t tell me that. Instead, he talked about the birds and the elaborate bamboo cages he had in Hong Kong. Like fan gwei Canadians who walked their dogs regularly, rain or shine, he would take his caged song bird to the taverns on days off from work. He said this canary reminded him of his youth.
“Too bad you couldn’t have got another canary,” one of the waitresses said, looking at Tommy. “You’d have pair of love birds, eh?” She nudged him. “Then this poor little Tweetie Pie won’t be so lonely.”
“Maybe if my Dad’ll take me to the Ex. next week and I can get a canary like yours and we can put them together, hey, Tommy?”
“Sure, Hardy,” he said, but he was looking at Sheila. She was blowing smoke rings at the canary.
My mother was sorting the soiled plates and silverware from the big rubber tubs that had rolled in from the dining room. The kitchen was bustling. The apron on my mother was splashed with coffee and food stains, and the steam coming from the wash tubs and machines gave her forehead big beads of sweat. She was alone. The cooks still had their own work. I looked at the lower landing at the preparation tables. There were cream pies and cakes to be decorated for the next day. That was also my mother’s job.
“Put on an apron,” she said to me. “You can sort the clean plates and dry the knives and forks.”
“I wanna go to Toronto,” I told her. “I wanna have some fun at the Ex.”
She adjusted the apron and wound the apron strings around me twice and tied the ends. “Who put you up to this foolishness?” she asked. “Toronto is two hundred and fifty miles away. And this exhibition is for idle people with nothing better to do than waste money on foolish fun.” She said the last part loudly for the kitchen staff and especially Tommy to hear.
The Panama Cafe closed at twelve o’clock, and the staff stayed around for the midnight meal. Tommy showed off his CNE prize. The boys traded stories about the Ex. I dreamed of candy floss, carousel rides and canaries in cages. I went to bed about one in the morning.
I never got to Toronto and the Canadian National Exhibition that September, or the next year, or the year after that. I pleaded with my mother and with my father, but to no avail. Instead, I learned how to make cream pies from scratch, and how to decorate them. And with that chore done, I would go and see Tommy’s caged canary that now had a place in the second storey parlour above the restaurant.
I found the bird cuttlefish bone so it could sharpen its beak. With my allowance money, I even bought it bird seed once in a while. I gave it fresh water and fresh newspaper at the bottom of the cage to catch droppings. Tommy added some ceramic figures and a water dispensing bottle over the months.
My father never said anything about my attachment to the bird. He did, however, ignore my pleas for a bird of my own. So I had to be satisfied with Tommy’s.
Then Tommy gave me the caged canary. “Christmas present,” he said. “Early Christmas gift.”
He gave me a crooked smile. “Look, Hardy, I have to go away soon. I want you to look after this canary.”
“Did my father fire you?”
Tommy laughed. It wasn’t a funny laugh, though. “I’m going to Gravenhurst. Going to stay there for a while.”
Gravenhurst was half way between Thibeault Falls and Toronto. That was all I knew then. Later, I knew better. The town had the regional sanatorium. The Department of Health had all employees in food services tested for tuberculosis. Tommy was found positive. An infected person had to stay there until he was cured. That could take months, years, maybe even a lifetime.
“The government’s footing the bill,” Tommy said loudly to everyone in the kitchen. “Free food, free lodgings. Even free recreation, I hear. Don’t have to work for a living like you fellas. It’s going to be grand!”
Wing, the short order cook, said sometime later that Tommy thought about running away, taking off to some other small town, even big city Toronto or Vancouver and melting into the Chinatowns there. My father advised him not to. Tommy would have his old job back, guaranteed, when he got cured. If he had thoughts about bringing his wife over, running away from a legal health order and becoming a fugitive just wouldn’t help any. Then there was the chance that he might be caught and deported. Tommy was sick; he could become more sick. Without proper care, he could die.
“You hack away, coughing up phlegm and blood. Not a very pleasant way to live,” my father said. “Go to the sanatorium and you have a chance.”
So Tommy went away, and I got the caged canary.
The canary turned out to be female. It was laying eggs in the corner of the cage. Every day after school, I would wait for the hatching of those little eggs. I told my school pals that I’d give them a baby birdy–if they were nice to me. But a few months passed, and no baby birdies. The canary must have gotten tired of nesting on those eggs because it returned to the swing.
“Unfertilized eggs,” my mother finally explained to me after seeing my disappointment. “See?” She took one of the eggs from the cage and broke it in half. There was hardly a yoke in it. It was half dried out. “This canary needs a male before the eggs can hatch.”
She didn’t explain further, she didn’t want me to learn some things about life that I was too young for. But I got an idea. The Kresge store a block from the Panama Cafe had a pet section. For some time now I had wanted to buy a companion for the canary, but $5.99 was more than I could afford. After all, my allowance money went to Saturday matinees at the Bay Theatre and comic books.
I broke into my piggy bank and took out some of the lucky money that relatives sometimes gave me on special occasions. I wanted baby canaries.
“Make sure it’s a male bird,” I said.
“Sure, dearie,” the clerk said as she trapped a canary with a net. “I know a male from a female.”
I introduced the new canary into the cage, and it immediately flew to a corner. I heard busy chirping from the female and thought it was a good sign. All these love birds needed was time to get to know one another. Then presto! Fertilized eggs. Baby canaries. I dreamed of selling them to my classmates. I gave them privacy so they could do what was necessary.
The next morning my new male canary lay, wings outstretched and bloodied, on the bottom of the cage. He was dying. Tommy’s bird had attacked him, and my Kresge bird had taken the incessant pecking.
My mother took him and wrung his neck. She tossed him in the garbage can, and I retrieved him. I spent a long time staring at the lifeless bird. $5.99 gone. All my dreams of seeing hatchlings, little birdies–gone. I later learned about animals and territory, how Tommy’s canary saw the new bird as an intruder, not as a love mate, and how the other bird understood and did not defend himself.
I wanted to give back the caged canary to Tommy. It was a wicked bird. A few months later, when the canary started laying eggs again, I told the bird in no uncertain terms that it was wasting its time. I was going to let Tommy’s canary be lonely forever.
“Hey, Hardy, is the canary still alive?”
“Tommy! Long time no see!”
“Hey, fellas, I’m cured. No more lung troubles.”
True to his word, my father gave Tommy his job back. Life was going to be like it was, a year and a half ago. But it wasn’t so. Tommy had plans, and he had made them even in Gravenhurst in the sanatorium. He had made application for his wife in Hong Kong to come over to gum san, the golden mountain. Now, six months later, his wife was here, and my father said she could have a job in the kitchen if she wanted.
“Where’s Tommy? Tommy Tsu? Do you know where he is?”
She was an Indigenous girl, about nineteen. She had a figure that even I who was slowly developing an interest in girls noticed. She was out of breath. She had run all the way from the Greyhound Bus Depot, three long blocks away, to the Panama Cafe. And she was looking for Tommy.
I thought it was only done in the movies, but I had a lot to learn. Pauline—that was her name—saw Tommy coming out of the kitchen and threw herself at him in three bounds. Thank goodness he wasn’t holding anything. He was astonished. Shock. Then consternation. He was slow in putting his arms around her as she wrapped herself around him. She planted kisses on him, leaving a trail of lipstick on both his cheeks and neck.
“Tommy! Tommy! How I missed you, sweetheart! God, I missed you. Didn’t you miss me?”
It seemed that Tommy found a soul-mate in the sanatorium. He had TB; she had it too. He didn’t know whether he would be cured; she had no better prospects. So two lonely people got together and planned a future in a gilded cage. Neither expected to leave for a long time. Then he got better. She wasn’t expected to. So he left and made other plans. And then she got better. When the doctors signed her release papers later, the first thing Pauline wanted to see was Tommy Tsu.
“Pauline! My God, what are you doing here!”
“Tommy, you promised! I love you!”
“I don’t want you here. Can’t you understand?!”
He stood rigidly, not knowing what to do. He looked all around, except at Pauline. Should he disentangle himself from her? Kick her away? Take her back to the bus depot?
She crumpled to the dining room floor. Her arms were now wrapped about Tommy’s legs. Nobody knew what to do, so they did nothing but gawk. Her face had changed from smile to deep hurt. This Tommy was not her Tommy. This place would not be her place. She got up. Retrieving her carry-on, Pauline left the Panama Cafe.
I saw all this, but I guess I was too young to understand it all. I tried to, though. Like his CNE canary, Tommy had staked out his cage here in the Panama Cafe, and Pauline had intruded. She was not wanted in a nest that already occupied a momma bird and a baby bird-soon-to-be.
People—regular customers and staff alike—kidded Tommy for a long time about this incident with Pauline. He didn’t like it but he endured it. The kidding and reminders became veiled when his wife came in to the kitchen. Even without knowing any English, she got wise but said nothing as she peeled potatoes and scrubbed pots and pans.
Even though I didn’t know Pauline, I felt bad for her. I remembered her name for a long time. I made a promise to myself that I would not treat a girl, any girl, like that. But I was young then—and foolish.
I didn’t know what to think. Two Tommies. One who gave me a canary in a cage. One who could let a beloved cry but be unmoved, unfeeling, un-everything. Maybe there were more Tommies than the Tommy I saw that day, that moment.
It was not until I was nineteen and going off to university that I finally made it to the CNE. The candy floss tasted a bit too sweet; the midway rides were less exciting than I had fantasized when I was nine. The plastic Kewpie dolls were still plentiful and probably had never changed in size or design. What stirred up memories was the chirping of canaries and budgies in the stalls where the games of chance were played. I wish I could say I won on the first spin or the second or third or any spin.
Twenty dollars later, I reflected that, ten years ago when Tommy Tsu was betting his dime on the wheel of fortune, he spent more than I would ever know—to win his prize of a canary in a cage.
When Tommy’s daughter was old enough to appreciate pets, I returned the bird cage that Tommy had won so long ago at the Canadian National Exhibition. The cage was ancient, but still in okay condition. The original canary had passed on, long ago, and I replaced it with two budgies. Love birds. They paired well together on the swing inside the cage. Tommy’s daughter was delighted.
I told Tommy that I finally made it to the Ex, placed a one-dollar bet on the spinning wheel, and won.
He smiled with understanding.
Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to gum san in 1953. He has a Ph.D. and taught at various universities and colleges. He has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On, Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric, and Essay: Do’s and Don’ts.
His stories have appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review etc. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, circa 1950-70s: “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English,” “Chickens for Christmas,” “Visiting,” “Ten Questions and a Slice of Boston Cream Pie,” and “Mother Came to Visit and Stayed.” His story “The Bear and I” was published in Ricepaper recently.