Geo went into the bedroom and pushed the lump of fabric on the bed. When he did this, it rolled over and groaned loudly. It was 11:30 on a Thursday morning. "Wake up
Matt, wake up now! We need to talk," Geo said sternly. A head emerged from the bundle, groaned again and mumbled something indistinguishable, then laid down again.
It was lightly raining and Geo had been working on some drawings when there was a quiet knocking at the door. The property owner, Mr. Gui, had come to explain that no one had paid last month's rent and that it would need to be paid before he left. Mr. Gui owned the whole building and ran a tea house down stairs. Geo and Matt switched off paying the rent each month and it had been Matt's turn last month. However, Matt always was between jobs, so he never carried his share of the costs. This time it was different. Geo had just gotten a new job at a prestigious advertising firm, Flynn Marketing, and would be starting his new job within the week. He had some money, but needed this money to move. Mr. Gui left after their short conversation and Geo went to have a serious talk with Matt.
Matt slowly walked out of his room, haphazardly wearing mismatched clothes from the pile at the end of his bed. He looked like a mess compared to Geo, who was wearing a matching bright yellow shirt with dark brown shorts. "Good
afternoon, how is the packing going?" asked Matt as he poured chocolate milk on his cereal.
"I have most of it packed, so I spent some time on some drawings to get ready for work."
"Sounds good, can I see them?"
"They are over on the table," said Geo grabbing Matt's bowl, "leave your cereal here!"
"These are nice, Geo."
"Thanks. Also, Mr. Gui came here."
"Did he come to wish you goodbye, 'cause, he knows you aren't leaving till Saturday, right?"
"No, he actually came to tell me that last month's rent wasn't paid."
"I know, I know, I just didn't have the money to pay it. Don't worry though; I will be good for it once I get the security job I applied for last week."
"That is not going to work," Geo said sternly, "he needs the money by the end of next week, or you will be evicted."
"Could you just pay it, just this once more, and I will pay you back?"
"No, I can't. I need money for my move. I suggest that you get up off of the couch today and get any job you can find, because, once I am gone there will be no one to pick up your slack anymore."
"I know, but I have a good
"I really don't care about the feeling you get from this job," Geo interrupted, "you have said that for a close to a dozen jobs since I have known you and none of them have worked. Just think about what I have said, okay? I need to finish packing."
Matt went into the living room and sat down on the couch, thinking about what he could do to come up with the money in time. As Matt sat there listening to the piling up of boxes and the scratching sound of tape being pulled off the roll, his eyes felt heavy and he fell asleep.
"Wake up! You are like a child, Matt, a big twenty-six year old child. Did you think of what you are going to do about the rent?"
Matt opened his eyes and Geo was standing over him. Realizing he had fallen asleep, Matt complained, "I'm sorry, but I'm just so tired from staying up all night and you know how it is and stuff."
"Well, I have found a solution to your problem."
"You paid the rent? I thought that you needed the money to move," Matt said, puzzled and still half-asleep.
"I had a talk with Mr. Gui and he said that if you help out as a busboy in the teashop several days a week, he will accept that as your rent. Does that sound good?"
"What about the busboy already working there, what's his name, Tom; what about Tom? What will he do?"
"Mr. Gui is hoping to send him away to study tea making with a friend of his in China, but he will not be leaving for a few days."
"Just how many days a week do I have to do this and what days? As you know, I have a very important social life to maintain, unlike Tom," Matt said mockingly.
"That is for Mr. Gui and you to decide. You could go downstairs and talk to him right now. He is sitting out in front of the shop."
"I don't know, I think this is a bad idea."
"Then I suggest that you start packing now so you can be done by next week," said Geo as he threw some of the packing tape to Matt.
Matt sat there for a minute then slowly got up. He did not feel like going to talk with Mr. Gui right now, so he went downstairs through the teashop and out the door.
"Hello Matthew, did you come to talk to me about the rent?" asked Mr. Gui as Matt left the shop.
"Hello, I am fine, but I cannot talk right now. I am busy and I have to go run some errands," replied Matt. This was a lie, Matt had nothing to do, but he did not want to talk about the situation yet.
"Okay, then we can talk about it later," said Mr. Gui quickly as he went to greet one of his regulars. Matt began to set off down the street. He did not have any destination in mind. He just needed to think about things and about his life. After some time, he reached a park and sat down on one of the benches there.
He knew that he had no choice except to take the job. If Mr. Gui evicted him then he would have nowhere to go. He could not afford a hotel because he had spent most of his money. He could possibly stay with some friends, but that would only last a few days. He could not go home because of the fight that he had with his stepfather.
Matt and his stepfather had never gotten along, but after high school it became a war. After graduating, his stepfather would keep pushing him to get a job. No matter how hard he worked his stepfather was always disappointed with him. One night after he had lost another job, they got into a terrible argument. They said horrendous things to each other that could not be taken back. Matt decided to leave that night and his stepfather said that he would not let him stay in his house another minute anyway. So, at age twenty-two, Matt was without a home and a job. Since then Matt has not had a single job last more than year and has been living with Geo, an acquaintance from high school.
The only favorable option was to take the job Mr. Gui offered. He got up and went back to his apartment above the teashop. It was late when he got back. The shop had closed, but there were a few customers left inside. They slowly sipped their tea as Matt walked to the stairs in back. Tom was busy clearing tables and doing various other chores that needed to be finished before he could go home.
As usual, Mr. Gui had retired to his room just after closing, so Matt climbed the stairs and stood in front of the door. He quietly knocked. After a few seconds, he turned and started to go to his apartment when Mr. Gui suddenly appeared in the doorway. "What do you need?" Mr. Gui asked softly, trailing off as if he were falling asleep.
"I just was wondering if you had some time to talk about me helping out in your shop."
Whispering, Mr. Gui responded, "You can start helping tomorrow morning, be downstairs at six o'clock. We can work out the other details later tomorrow."
"Really, I have to be down there at six? Can I come a little later because it is already so late and stuff?"
"Be downstairs at six tomorrow morning," said Mr. Gui curtly, clearly getting annoyed with Matt's whining.
"Alright, then goodnight Mr. Gui."
"Goodnight Matthew, see you bright and early tomorrow," said Mr. Gui.
Matt quickly went to his apartment because he had to be up so early. He could not remember when the last time he had to be up that early, but it was clear there was no argument that would help him.
Geo started asking, "Hey, where have you..."
"Just out, I have to get to bed, goodnight Geo. Also, I am going to borrow your alarm clock," Matt rambled off, silencing Geo. Matt set Geo's alarm clock to 5:30 tomorrow morning. He set it down and climbed quickly into bed.
Geo sat upright in his bed. Clambering out of bed and muttering under his breath, he entered Matt's bedroom. Matt groaned when the light shone on his face and he rolled out of bed with a loud thump. It was 5:37 the blaring alarm clock. Geo shut off the alarm and grumbled something at Matt for not getting up quicker as he went back to bed. Matt got up, showered, put on some clothes with mismatched colors, and did all the other general things one needs to do to be ready for a day. He did these things as quickly as he could in his sleep-deprived state. Slowly he went down stairs into the dark, empty teashop. It was strange seeing it in this state, completely empty and dark.
Then something moved on the bench at the far end of the shop. Matt went over there and sleeping on the bench was a young girl. The girl woke up and screamed in a shrill voice, "TOMMY!" There was a flash of light as the door to the kitchen swung open, the girl got up and ran over to the figure standing in the door. It was Tom and he was laughing. He knelt down and said a few words to the girl clinging behind him. Then they walked over to where Matt had scared her.
"Your late, you should have been down here almost ten minutes ago," said Tom pointing at the clock above the counter.
"I almost made it. I am not used to being up this early with this little sleep. I need some coffee before I fall asleep," Matt said sarcastically as he walked toward the kitchen. Tom stayed and talked to the girl, he told her to go back to sleep for a little bit and he would wake her up to eat breakfast. He entered the kitchen and smacked Matt on the back.
"Going around scaring little kids Matt, you're such a mean guy," said Tom toying with Matt.
"Hey, I didn't mean to scare her and why is there a little girl sleeping in the teashop anyway?" asked Matt.
"Arianna is my little sister and is here because I can't leave her home alone. It is also easier to get her to school from here than at home."
"Okay, but why can't your parents watch her while you come to work?"
"It is complicated, but to make it short my parents are not around much."
"Wait, so you take your sister with you everywhere you go," said Matt slightly confused at Tom's situation.
"Let me explain it another way," said Tom as he began to heat some water and mix some batter. "My mom left my dad when I was six. My dad is not really a fatherly figure. He spends large amounts of time at work then goes out to the bar to relieve stress. When I was younger, a neighbor would watch us most of the time. When that neighbor passed away it became my job to care for my sister, this was when I was about ten. That is how things have been going since." Tom said this so calmly as if all this was just an average life.
Stunned, Matt asked, "So what are you doing for school if you have been working here all the time?"
Tom answered, "I dropped out of school about two years ago, late in my sophomore year. I saw little need for it; I would not do well because I had to work to help pay to support my father and sister. Since I started working here however, I have started taking a few classes to work toward my G.E.D."
Matt was shocked at all of this, he could not understand how Tom, the hard working, ever optimistic server, could have so much trouble and still survive. It staggered him because it made his life look easy. The only struggle he ever faced was when stepfather threw him out onto the streets. It was now about seven o'clock and they heard Mr. Gui coming down the stairs.
Mr. Gui came into the kitchen. "You should not scare people, Matthew. It is to do very mean thing," Mr. Gui scolded Matt.
"I didn't mean to, she was sleeping there and I didn't know what it was and
I think you set me up for that Mr. Gui. You had me come down here an hour before the shop opens," Matt said annoyed realizing what had happened.
"Yes, I did, I know what kind of person you are Matthew. I wanted you to get to know Tom and you did get to talk;" said Mr. Gui smiling wide, "now we should quickly eat so I can open my shop."
During this time, Matt had not noticed Tom making some pancakes. He took them on a table and then went to wake up Arianna. They walked up to the table, "This is Matt, the scary man," Tom said introducing Matt.
"It is nice to know you Matt, you are a lot less scary in the light," said Arianna as she sat down and took a plate-sized pancake. Tom went into the kitchen as Mr. Gui came out of the kitchen carrying a cup of sugar and a jug of milk. Tom quickly came back out carrying a pot of hot green tea.
"Matthew, watch how Tom pours the tea because this is going to be your job," said Mr. Gui. Matt watched as Tom poured the tea into each cup starting with Mr. Gui's. Mr. Gui said thank you and tapped his fingers on the table. Arianna mimicked Mr. Gui when her cup was filled, but only half-full. Next, he went to fill Matt's cup and he mimicked Mr. Gui though his tapping sounded different. Tom filled his cup last. He then took the milk and filled Arianna's cup full and sat down at the table.
"Look at the cups, tell me what you notice about them," Mr. Gui said looking at Matt.
they are small-ish and look like they
"No, they are all filled with the same amount of tea. He also poured the tea around the table, skipping himself until last," interrupted Mr. Gui. Matt had noticed that, but he had misunderstood the question. Arianna took several spoonfuls of sugar and created a little sugar mountain on her pancake. Then she smashed it with her spoon creating a snowy sugar field. Matt took a pancake and started to eat, "Tom this pancake is very good. I should have you cook all my meals."
"Laobing," said Tom.
"Laobing, the pancakes are called laobing," explained Tom, "and thank you."
They continued eating breakfast. "Tom, you can go take Arianna to school. I will have Matt clean all this up," said Mr. Gui as Arianna took the last laobing.
"Well, are you not a little pig Ari," Tom teased his sister, "How many did of those did you eat?"
Arianna held up four fingers, "Well, you had three laobing yourself," she taunted back. He grabbed her chair and shook it; Mr. Gui scolded him saying he would break the chair. Arianna got up, ran to get her backpack, and they left. The clock said that it was thirty-three minutes after seven, so there was only twenty-seven minutes until opening.
"I will open the shop. First, take this tablecloth and put it in the wash basket in the back room. Then put four pots of water on the burners and, this is important watch the water so that it does not boil," Mr. Gui instructed Matt, "and
those are all the directions you need for now."
Matt went and cleared the table, placing a new tablecloth on it. He then went into the kitchen to put the water on. He looked in several cabinets and he did not find any teapots. He was going out to ask Mr. Gui when he looked in a closet. Inside there were many, probably over two dozen, teapots. He took out several of the larger ones, filled them with water, and placed then on the stove. He then leaned against the counter watching the water. When it started to get close to boiling, he would reduce the heat and vice versa.
Shortly, Mr. Gui came back in and told him to remove the water from the stove once it reached the proper temperatures and to add the tea. He then showed Matt a list that told how hot the water needed to be for each tea and how long it had to be in the water. He showed Matt how to use the various utensils he would need to serve the tea. There were chahai, Gaiwan or covered tea bowls, tea spoons for measuring. He then left to open the shop while Matt continued boiling water and brewing tea.
After some time Matt went out to see Mr. Gui. There were a few customers waiting in line at the counter where he was selling tea. He would only sell the tea, tea related items, and a few herbs and spices in the morning and evening each day. Behind his counter, there was a cabinet. It stretched from the floor to the ceiling and went almost all the way across the shop. It had dozens of small drawers. In each was a different tea, spice, or herb. In all, there were dozens of different varieties of tea and spices.
Matt went over to the counter to talk to Mr. Gui. "I have been watching the water and tea for over a half hour, what else am I supposed to do? I have my doubts that you are paying me just to watch water and tea."
"Oh no, of course, come back here and I will familiarize you with some basic knowledge," Mr. Gui told Matt. As customers placed orders for green teas, black teas, oolong teas, and several others, Matt would follow Mr. Gui.
Mr. Gui would point out different teas, explain the types of tea, and give some history of tea, the steps of a proper tea ceremony, and he just kept going. "You get the different types of teas by putting the tea leaves through different preparations. Yellow teas have the least preparation and oolong teas have the most," Mr. Gui informed Matt. "Tea is one of the most consumed drinks in the world. It is second only to water. If you get good tea then it can be steeped several times before becoming unusable. The different types of tea need water to be at different temperatures," all these facts came flowing from Mr. Gui's mouth. Matt felt bombarded by all this information and had trouble concentrating on the old man.
When they went to the far end of the counter to get some tea for a customer Matt noticed a large drawer. It had a lock on it with metal bars crossing it. Mr. Gui saw Matt looking at the drawer. "In there are my most prized teas. In there I have about 250 grams of tieguanyin. It is an oolong tea and mine is of extremely high quality, it is guanyin wang style. Then I also have ten grams of original da hong pao. This is also an oolong tea and mine is from the original trees from Mount Wuyi in Fujian Province, China. This tea cost me and I could not buy any tea for the shop for a few weeks. I have a large amount of the secondary da hong pao, but it would take a very special person for me to part with even a small amount of my original," said Mr. Gui lovingly.
Matt knew from living above the teashop that Mr. Gui, whose full name was Gui Gang-jie, had invested his life into this shop and his vast collection of tea. He did not have any children, and in fact, he never married. His life's work was the teashop, which he inherited from Mr. Fong. He had worked under Mr. Fong for about seventeen years before Mr. Fong retired leaving him the shop. He has greatly expanded it in the past thirty-four years. Mr. Gui took Tom on as an apprentice who will one day run his teashop after Mr. Gui retires or pass on. Tom had been working in a nearby restaurant when Mr. Gui hired him to replace his former apprentice, who had his life tragically cut short."You should get back to the kitchen now," said Mr. Gui as he went to give the customer her tea.
When Matt entered the kitchen, he saw that he had left some water on and it was boiling over. He turned off the heat, but everything was too hot to clean up so he went and sat on the bench outside the shop. He looked up at the sky and the surrounding buildings. It was an overcast day and as he sat there, it started to drizzle. Matt just sat there thinking about everything that was happening in his life. His stepfather had thrown him out and now if he did not do well here he would be homeless again. Geo had tolerated him for the last four years, but now he was leaving. His one real friend was leaving and he was starting a new job, one that he would also probably fail at like all the others.
Soon Tom came briskly walking up the street, "Hey Matt, what is going on? Did Mr. Gui kick you out already?" said Tom playfully.
"No, I just had a problem in the kitchen and I came out here to wait for things to cool down. I don't know how you do it, how you can be so upbeat, and how you can keep moving?" said Matt despairingly.
"Well, it could not have been too bad. I mean you didn't blow up the place or burn it to the ground. I guess that I am just a positive person. I have always had to work hard and until I met Mr. Gui I did not know any other life. So, what exactly happened?" asked Tom.
"No, he had me boiling water and it boiled over everywhere and the pots were too hot to touch," said Matt dejectedly.
"Oh, is that all," said Tom laughing loudly, "here let us go inside and see what the damage is, okay?" Matt slowly got up and went in with Tom. Tom then helped him clean up his mess in the kitchen. "You filled most of the kettles too full that is why it boiled over everywhere. The tea you made looks okay. I am going to start seating people." Tom then went off.
Matt tried to be helpful the rest of the day. He waited on several tables throughout the day. He spilled tea on two customers and then dropped one of the clay teapots. After those incidents, he decided that it would be better if he stayed in back just heating the watering and steeping the tealeaves. He stayed in there until closing. After closing, Mr. Gui decided that tomorrow they would have a special dinner for Geo because he was leaving and moving on in his life. So they would close early tomorrow for it.
Friday did not go much better than Thursday did for Matt. He tried once again to wait tables and he did slightly better, but still spilled a lot. He did not burn any customers, though. However, he did mix up the orders of several people. He went and hid in the kitchen again until closing, when he came out to help clean the tables.
Mr. Gui then started to make the dinner with Matt's help as Tom went to pick up Arianna from the library where she stayed after school. Geo had gone out for a few hours during the day making some last minute arrangements for his move. Tom and Arianna arrived just after Geo had gotten back from his errands. Matt helped Tom push some tables together, while Arianna set them. Geo helped Mr. Gui carry the food out of the kitchen. Before everyone started to eat Mr. Gui had a few words to say.
Mr. Gui began, "We are here to celebrate because George, my tenant and neighbor of several years, is moving on in life. He is leaving us and getting a new job. We are all here to wish him luck and success away from us." They all congratulated Geo and offered him the best of luck in his new job.
"Now, Matt, would you please pour the tea for us," Mr. Gui said. Matt was apprehensive do to his several accidents.
Encouragingly, Tom said, "Come on Matt, you have been doing well with the customers all day."
"No, I haven't been that good. I spilled a lot and I burned two people yesterday," Matt retorted quickly.
After a few more moments of persuasion, he finally picked up the teapot. He went around the table filling every cup. He remembered to fill Arianna's cup half full and to skip over his cup. He then finished filling Arianna's cup with milk. Then filled his own cup up to the brim. When he finished he looked at the cups, they were all filled with different amounts, and there were drips on the table at them all. Suddenly Geo said teasingly "Well, at least he filled all the cups without burning us," patting him on the back. Everyone laughed a little and they then all sat down to eat their meal together.