Confucius Jane, by debut author Katie Lynch, is a lush and charming novel that vividly depicts New York City’s Chinatown while taking the reader on a touching journey of family, community, and love.
On leave from college, Jane Morrow has a new job, helping out in her uncle’s fortune cookie factory, and a new roommate—her precocious 11-year-old cousin. Though surrounded by her loving family and their close-knit Chinatown community, Jane feels like a colossal failure. Writing fortunes is a kind of poetry, but Jane is penning words of wisdom for strangers while wondering if she will ever have the guts to move on with her life—but then she meets Sutton St. James. Please enjoy this excerpt.
JANE WOKE TO THE clickity-clack of her cousin Minetta’s fingertips skittering across her laptop keyboard. The noise sounded like a herd of mouse-sized elephants. If there was a Hell and she ended up there, being forced to listen to this for eternity would definitely be her punishment. Gritting her teeth, she tried to burrow deeper beneath the covers and ignore the persistent sound, but to no avail. There couldn’t be all that many eleven-year-old touch typists in the world. How had she ended up with one of them for a roommate?
Opening one eye, she glanced at the clock on the nightstand between their beds. Six forty-five. Jane groaned and threw one arm over her face.
“Oh, stop,” Min said without a break in her typing. “You should be awake already.”
“Have I mentioned that I can’t wait until you hit puberty and start wanting to sleep all the time?”
“Be quiet. You’re stifling my creative flow.”
Jane struggled not to smile. Anyone listening in on this conversation would probably think she was the preteen and Minetta the twenty-three-year-old. An “old soul,” that’s what everyone called Min. And “precocious.” And sometimes “annoying.”
She sat up in bed and ran her hands through her short hair. “What are you writing?”
“A blog post. Of course. What about?”
Minetta was what the media called a kid-blogger. She had even been interviewed once for an article in The New York Times. Jane tried not to let it rankle that Min’s writing career was, by pretty much any measure, more successful than her own.
“The quality of the produce in our cafeteria. It’s appalling. Not to mention the fact that we might even be eating GMOs without knowing it!”
Jane swung her legs over the side of the bed and slid her feet into the slippers waiting on the floor. How had she gotten roped into a conversation about the genetic modification of fruits and vegetables before seven o’clock in the morning?
“Aren’t there laws about that?”
“The American laws suck. Europe is really strict about genetic modification.”
Jane shook her head as she padded out of their room and down the hall. Minetta was a crusader for social justice and environmentalism at the tender age of eleven. As Jane brushed her teeth, she tried to remember where she had been at that age. Italy? She paused and stared at her toothpaste-besmeared lips, counting on her fingers. No, Sweden. She had just turned eleven when her father was transferred to Stockholm, where she’d had to adjust to strange umlauts and lutefisk and seeing the sun for only an hour or two each day during the depths of winter.
“You learned Swedish at eleven,” she muttered at her reflection. “That has to count for something.”
When she returned from the bathroom, Min was zipping up the backpack Jane had given her this past Christmas made from recycled plastic soda bottles. Dressed in a pink-and-purple striped sweater and skinny jeans with flowers stitched along their pockets, she looked the part of a normal fifth-grader. Which just went to prove that people should never judge books by their covers.
“I’m going downstairs.” She paused in the doorway. “Are you really mad?”
Jane ruffled Min’s straight black hair. “Nah. Don’t worry about it, kiddo.”
Left alone in the room, Jane wistfully eyed her inviting bed before turning to the stack of milk crates currently serving as her dresser. As she chose her clothes for the day, she was careful to keep her head ducked well below the steeply sloping roof beams. During the first month after she’d moved in with her aunt and uncle, she had nearly brained herself far too many times.
After pulling on a pair of olive cargo pants and a vintage Joe Camel T-shirt, she pocketed her notebook and pen. When she stepped out of the room, she paused to wave to Cornelia, who was currently doing her best imitation of a zombie shuffle toward the bathroom. The poor thing had an eight o’clock lecture course this semester. There were a few parts of college life that Jane would admit to missing, but early morning bore-fests certainly weren’t one of them.
As she descended the rickety stairs past the second-floor landing, the scent of luo bo gao made her mouth water. She would never tell her mother, but Aunt Jenny made the best turnip cakes she’d ever tasted. Upon entering the kitchen, she found Min and Uncle John seated at the wooden table, sharing the Chinese newspaper delivered daily to the doorstep of his fortune-cookie company.
“Good morning, Jane,” said Uncle John.
“Hungry?” asked Aunt Jenny.
“What are you wearing?” shrieked Min.
Jane grinned. “G’morning. Smells great, Aunt Jen.” She took the free seat next to Min. “This shirt is a classic. Don’t knock it.”
“You’re a walking tobacco ad! Corrupting America’s youth!”
“I think you’ll do just fine. You’re way too smart to take up cigarettes.” Jane accepted the steaming plate of luo bo gao and reached for the soy and hot sauces at the center of the table.
“The tobacco industry is powerful enough,” Min persisted. “They don’t need your help.”
Uncle John lowered his paper. “Minetta, enough. Leave Jane alone.”
“It’s okay.” Jane patted Min’s shoulder. “You’re entitled to your opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, this shirt is a work of art.”
Min sighed, shot her a baleful look, and went back to reading. As Jane shoveled down her breakfast, she glanced at the sea of intricate characters on the paper in Min’s hand. A few familiar symbols jumped out, but mostly the page looked like a jumble of two-dimensional stick insects. By now, six months after having moved down to Chinatown, she was decent at understanding and speaking Mandarin. Her Cantonese was a little worse, though she usually managed to get by with the help of hand gestures. But reading was another matter altogether. Her natural aptitude wasn’t going to help her learn an entirely foreign way of writing down language.
Maybe, she thought as she took her last bite, she should take some lessons. She would have asked Aunt Jenny, who had taught first graders before marrying Uncle John and joining in to help with the family business, but Jane didn’t want to be more of a burden than she was already. At the thought, she pushed back her chair and went to the sink, waving off Aunt Jenny’s protests that she would do the dishes later. After washing her plate and setting it in the drying rack, she headed toward the apartment’s front door.
“Thanks for breakfast. I’m off to do the locals.” She paused to glance over her shoulder at Min. “You, be good.”
Min stuck out her tongue, and Jane left the room smiling. Three flights of stairs later, she turned away from the short corridor leading to the outside world and instead used her key to open the side entrance to Confucius Fortunes Company. Bypassing the main office, she walked down the hall and used a different key to access the warehouse, where boxes upon boxes of cookies were stored, waiting to go out to restaurants across the tri-state area.
Each day, she began her work by doing a circuit through Chinatown and dropping off cookies to all the venues with standing orders. By now, Jane had developed an efficient route through the neighborhood, and she worked quickly to load up the dolly with boxes. Before venturing outside, she reluctantly grabbed the company jacket with her name on it off a hook near the door. She hated jackets of any kind, but her uncle had insisted.
As she stepped outside, her gaze went automatically to the front window of the dumpling restaurant across the street, even though she knew she would find it dark and empty. Noodle Treasure didn’t open until ten o’clock, and The Goddess in Glasses usually didn’t arrive until the afternoon. Jane had first noticed her back in November. She’d never forget that day—it had been overcast, but as she walked out onto the sidewalk, the sun had broken through the clouds to illuminate the far side of the street. Instantly, Jane had been captivated by the sight of the woman sitting in the corner, head bent as she read something. Her honey-gold hair, tied back in a ponytail, fairly glowed in the sunlight. The woman had turned her face up to the dazzling rays, removing her glasses and closing her eyes, clearly basking in the warmth. Jane’s mouth had gone dry at the sensuality of that simple, innocent act.
And then the clouds had closed back over the sun, dousing the scene in shadow. Jane had watched the woman sigh—clearly in regret—and turn her attention back to her work.
In the span of those thirty seconds, Jane had gone from resignedly single to mired in hopeless longing. Thanks to Minetta’s reconnaissance, she had even discovered the woman’s name. “They call her Dr. Sutton,” Min had reported, “because she’s getting two doctor-degrees at the same time.” Sutton. It was a beautiful name, but after months of referring to her as The Goddess in Glasses, thinking of her by any other appellation didn’t feel natural.
Natural? Jane shook her head and began to push the dolly down the sidewalk. Look at her, mooning over a woman who didn’t know she existed. She and The—and Sutton—hadn’t so much as exchanged two words. How much more pathetic could she get? She really was more immature than Minetta.
The streets were just starting to come alive as she turned the dolly toward the heart of the neighborhood. Her aunt and uncle lived on its northwest periphery, and as she walked south and east, Jane felt Chinatown encircle her, simultaneously embracing and threatening. Tiny stores were crammed next to and on top of each other, and she carefully threaded her way around the fruit sellers setting up their wares and the fishmongers carting bins full of ice outside of their storefronts. Later, those bins would be filled with crabs and lobster and shellfish, adding to the stench of the sea that always lingered on these streets.
Her first stop was a teahouse on Canal, where the proprietor liked to give her patrons a free fortune cookie with every purchase. Jane chatted with her briefly about the cold weather before continuing along her route. After turning right onto Mott, she stopped at two restaurants before making another right onto Mosco Street and descending the short hill to Mulberry. This section was known as Funeral Parlor Row, and Jane made stops at both of the funeral homes. The owners liked to keep cookies on hand for themselves and their clients to offset the ill luck conferred by their close proximity to death.
After two more hours of deliveries, Jane found herself approaching the last stop on her route: Red Door Apothecary. The small shop was squeezed between a massage parlor and a Chinese bakery. Hefting the last of her boxes, Jane pressed the buzzer on the doorpost. Idly, she noticed that some of the crimson paint was beginning to flake off, especially around the brass knocker, and she made a mental note to give the door a fresh coat once the weather turned warmer.
At that moment, it opened inward to reveal a petite, silver-haired woman wearing a red tunic over gold leggings. Xue “Sue” Si Ma was in her sixties, but she was often mistaken for a woman two decades younger. She bid Jane good morning in both Mandarin and English, then stepped aside to let her enter. Jane breathed in deeply as she crossed the threshold, pulling the complex, earthy scent of the shop deep into her lungs. The wall to her left was comprised entirely of curio drawers, while to her right, floor-to-ceiling shelves were crowded with glass bottles and ceramic vessels full of herbs, seeds, flowers, bark, and roots. Treading carefully so as not to bump into the shelves, Jane moved past the small lounge area where Sue did her astrological consultations. She finally set the box down on the counter next to the register.
“Did you want these underneath today, or in the back?”
“Underneath, please.” When Sue smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkled merrily. “Business has been brisk this week.”
Sue liked to give cookies to her customers—not only for their enjoyment, but also because discussion of their fortune often enticed them into asking to have their charts read. As Jane slid the box beneath the register, Sue edged past her.
“I’ll get your tea.”
Jane followed her into the back of the shop, where a small stovetop and sink shared the space with a wooden table and a narrow refrigerator. In the far corner, a rickety desk held a desktop computer and printer.
“Glad to hear you’ve been busy,” Jane said as she fired up the PC. “Hopefully the same will be true for your online sales.”
Late last year, Jane had been in the midst of delivering Sue’s cookies when she’d overheard a customer ask whether Red Door Apothecary was on the Web. When Sue had answered in the negative, Jane had taken it upon herself to develop a rudimentary website for the shop. At first, she had tried to teach Sue how to download and print all the orders herself, but when that hadn’t worked, Jane had taken over the task. The online orders had barely trickled in at first, but she’d seen an uptick recently. Sue had offered many times to compensate her, but filling the orders never took long, and Jane didn’t mind volunteering. She had the time, and she’d listened to the complaints of more than one small-business owner in this neighborhood about increasing rents and other costs.
“Li’huan tea.” Sue placed a steaming mug in front of her, and Jane struggle not to wince at the pungent fumes rising from the dark liquid. “Good for digestion.”
Sue watched until Jane took a tentative sip. When Jane couldn’t help but wrinkle her nose, Sue nodded contentedly. “Bitter is good. Means it’s working.”
Jane managed a weak smile. She’d have to drink the whole thing, too, or risk hurting Sue’s feelings. “Okay. Looks like you have seventeen orders since last week. That’s the most I’ve seen yet.” After sending the documents to the printer, Jane clicked over to the word processing application. “I’ll get started on these labels.”
When she was finished, Jane returned to the front of the store to help Sue double-check and box up each order. As they worked side by side, Sue shared the news she’d heard over the intervening week. The manager of the massage parlor next door was pregnant with twins. One of the supervisors at the nearby market had been caught having an affair with a clerk. The gold-buyer’s store two blocks away was closed while police investigated allegations of a gambling ring.
Jane worked efficiently as Sue talked, always happy to listen to her stories. Sue made her feel part of the fabric of the community, instead of a frayed thread barely dangling from the edge. That sense of never quite belonging came with the territory of being hapa. While most Caucasian people saw her as fully Asian, every resident of Chinatown could tell she was half-white. Many of them even knew the story of how her mother had fallen in love with the tall, curly-haired Irishman she’d met in college who had enticed her to abandon her family and follow him around the world. After Jane had made a mess of her own education and been obliged to move in with her aunt and uncle, it hadn’t taken long for her to realize that the members of this community pitied her—and that they blamed her mother for choosing the exotic over tradition.
“And how is your family?” Sue asked when she had run out of news.
“They’re well. Busy preparing for the New Year celebrations.”
Sue’s eyes took on a faraway look. “The year of the Monkey. You must be careful to defend yourself.”
“Defend myself?” Jane tried not to let her skepticism show.
“Oh, yes. Did your mother never tell you that the year of your birth sign has the potential to be very unlucky?”
“She neglected to mention that.”
Sue tsked under her breath. “You must be vigilant in protecting your health, career, and love life. But for everyone else it will be a good year for innovation and creativity.”
“Interesting.” Jane piled the boxes next to the door. “I wonder whether Hester’s ready for a Monkey-baby.”
Jane’s oldest cousin was pregnant with her third child. After college, she had married her childhood sweetheart and gone to work at the local elementary school. In many ways, Hester was the most traditional member of the entire family, and Jane wondered if she put any stock in the zodiac.
Sue’s face lit up like an elegant paper lantern. “Remind her to bring the child here, after zuo yeuzi.”
Sue’s reference to the traditional Chinese practice of “sitting the month”—in which a new mother barely left her bed for thirty days after giving birth and was cared for by her female relatives—reminded Jane of just how Westernized she was. Being forced to lie around and do nothing for weeks on end sounded much more like a curse than a blessing, but who was she to judge? Hester clearly didn’t have a problem with it. “Sure.”
Sue beckoned Jane toward the sitting area. “Come. Let’s look at your chart.”
Jane surreptitiously glanced at her watch. She had stayed longer than she should already. Still, a few extra minutes couldn’t hurt. Sue considered these astrological readings a form of payment for Jane’s help, which meant Jane couldn’t reject her gift without also rejecting her.
She perched on the couch and fidgeted with the tassels on its crimson coverlet. Across a small glass oval table, Sue was consulting a thick book with yellowed pages and a decrepit binding. As she flipped through its pages, she glanced up and smiled fondly.
“You are the quintessential Monkey. So easily distracted.”
“Don’t apologize for who you are,” Sue said absently as she continued to leaf through the book. “Ah. Here.” After transferring her glasses from her forehead to the bridge of her nose, she peered intently at the page.
A few months ago, Sue had taken it upon herself to do Jane’s birth chart. Every week since, she had consulted her mysterious book and made some sort of proclamation about Jane’s immediate future. All Jane knew was that the numbers of her birth date were involved, along with the five elements: earth, metal, water, fire, and wood.
Suddenly, Sue pursed her lips. She tapped her chin, bent closer to the book, and frowned. Jane couldn’t help but lean forward. “What is it?”
“Tomorrow,” said Sue. “The time will be ripe.”
Jane blinked. “It will be? For what?”
The phone rang. With an apologetic sigh, Sue put the book back on the table and hurried across the room to answer it. Jane leaned over to glance at the open page, but it looked like just another insect graveyard to her. Maybe, instead of reading her horoscope, Sue could teach her how to read, period.
When Sue’s voice increased in volume, Jane was able to pick several phrases out of the swift syllabic river that suggested Sue was talking to her mother. The conversation probably wouldn’t be brief, and it was past time to start working on the day’s shipping queue. She’d have to leave without ever knowing what the time was ripe for. Pity. Maybe it would still be true next week.
After catching Sue’s eye and waving, Jane slipped out the front door and pushed the dolly back to the factory. Once the warehouse orders were finished, she would climb the back stairs to the supply closet on the factory’s second floor that also doubled as her office. Uncle John had pushed a small table up against the window for her, where she sat on a folding chair amongst reams of paper, stacks of cardboard, and ink cartridges. There, she would prepare for the next day’s orders and jot down any pithy sayings that popped into her head. Those would find their way into the cookies being baked below.
The window looked out onto Baxter Street, giving her an excellent vantage point from which to observe The Goddess in Glasses. Not that she was a stalker, Jane thought that afternoon, as she sat tapping her pen against her chin. The positioning of her desk was hardly her fault. And surrounded by office supplies, where else was she going to look for inspiration but outside?
Her stomach suddenly dropped into her toes as she recognized the figure that walked briskly down the street toward Noodle Treasure. Sutton. There was some quality to her movement that set off Jane’s gaydar, a subtle swagger that gave her a glimmer of hope. Having spent half of her college years mooning over—and then losing—her straight best friend, Jane didn’t want to make that mistake again. Min claimed that in all the conversations she’d overheard, Sutton had never mentioned a significant other. Then again, why would she share details about her personal life with acquaintances at the restaurant where she came for a hot meal and a place to work?
Sutton’s golden ponytail brushed against the fabric of her black parka as she hurried inside, clearly trying to beat the wintry chill. Jane watched avidly as she chatted briefly with Benny before he left with her order. Her lips moved even after he was gone, but Jane couldn’t make out the words. Was she talking to herself? If so, that was amazing. And adorable.
“You’re an idiot,” she muttered.
Sutton flipped open her laptop and then turned to accept some kind of drink from Mei. Probably tea. Helpless to turn away from Sutton’s elegant profile, Jane found herself wishing she were a visual artist. She had yet to find any adjectives that did justice to Sutton’s beauty.
After a short chat with Mei, Sutton turned back to her computer. She fiddled briefly with her glasses before focusing in on the screen. Jane sighed and laced her hands behind her head. Sutton could concentrate for hours on end. Probably because she was brilliant. Then again, some brilliant people found it quite difficult to remain focused for long periods of time. Or so Jane had heard. Maybe there was hope for her, after all.
“Oh, sure.” She looked down at her notebook. “You’re a real genius.” She had only managed to fill half a page since lunch, and most of these lines weren’t worth keeping anyway. What kind of poet had trouble coming up with pearls of pseudowisdom destined to be folded into cookies and ignored by most of the general populace? The best she could hope for on any given day was that someone would laugh after tacking on “in bed” to the end of one of her fortunes.
By the time the bell at the top of the nearby Roman Catholic church chimed five o’clock, Jane was going more than a little stir-crazy. She had forced herself to be reasonably productive, at least in terms of quantity. Whether she decided to keep anything she’d done today, though, was an entirely different question. Her writer’s block had been exacerbated by the lengthening shadows of the approaching wintry dusk, which had blocked Sutton from Jane’s view. For some reason, the knowledge that Sutton was simultaneously just across the street and just out of sight contributed to Jane’s distraction. She couldn’t bear to sit still anymore. Besides, the cacophony of the city beckoned, promising her the kind of satisfaction she would never find within these walls.
As the front door of the factory closed behind her, she zipped up her hoodie against the frozen air, glad to have escaped Aunt Jenny’s badgering about not wearing enough clothing. Proper coats were too bulky. They gave her an odd sense of claustrophobia. Besides, she didn’t plan to spend very much time above ground tonight.
Automatically, she turned toward Noodle Treasure. Just a glimpse, she told herself. Just one more glimpse of Sutton, and then she would go about her real work. But when she raised her head, Sutton was looking directly at her. Jane’s breath stuttered. Sutton’s eyes were light in color—cornflower blue, or maybe gray. Her lips were slightly parted, and as Jane watched, two spots of color bloomed on her cheeks. Helplessly, she felt herself pulled forward by the force of her attraction. What if she crossed the street? What if she walked through that door? What if she asked Sutton whether the seat next to hers was taken? What would happen then?
A cold breeze blew up suddenly to break the spell. What was she thinking? She hadn’t made any sort of plan. If she went over there now, she would trip over her tongue in the worst possible way and humiliate herself—not only in front of her silly crush, but in front of Mei, Benny, Min, and who knew how many others. Sutton would never so much as look at her again, and everyone in Chinatown would know the details of her shame by morning.
No, she thought as she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her ears. She wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t cross Baxter today. This was one situation she couldn’t play by ear. But maybe, now that Sutton finally knew she existed, she could work up the courage to approach her. Someday.
Jane shoved her hands in her pockets and forced herself to turn away. For now, the city called to her, wanting to tell her its secrets. And she wanted to listen.
Copyright © 2015 by Katie Lynch