The back of the store smelled of dough frying; the front smelled of cheap coffee brewing. Polluted by heavy clouds of flour, the air was congested with the sizzling, scorched scent of overused oil. The towering figure of my father stood tall with flour-spotted jeans, as he dutifully slaved away at the boiling epicenter of oil. A tiny bell which was hung on the door rang in the distance. A voice, seemingly happy, would greet the customers in broken English, mixed with an Asian upbringing and a hint of American country.
“Hello! How are ya?” My mom asked chirpily every time, always making sure to sound polite to the customer in order to set a example for her son. “How can I help ya today?” Always surprised, I found myself here wasting away during the sweaty and sunny summer days in Southern California.
“Where are your parents? Why are they there and you’re here? Why don’t you live with your parents? Don’t you miss them?”
These same kinds of questions would be repeated time after time. The situation with my parents was bizarre and the solution wasn’t simple. The situation involving the donut store demanded strenuous hours from my mom and dad, enabling them incapable of taking care of their newborn infant. The solution involved me being sent along to live with my father’s parents in Northern California, just shy a few weeks after my birth. I would stay with them for a few months, until I would be old enough so I couldn’t pose that much of a hassle to my parents. That was the plan. Months stretched into years. Time was of no issue for me; I was happy growing up with the company of doting grandparents, spoiling me in nearly anyway possible. If I wanted something to eat, Grandma would make it for me. If I didn’t want what she cooked, Grandpa would buy the food I wanted. If I wanted a toys, Grandpa would also buy them. I had no real intention of returning. The new arrangement changed to me visiting every summer vacation for a few weeks.
“Where you two live is no place to raise my grandchild,” Grandpa would often bring up to his daughter-in-law. “He will be better off living here with us.”
Sleeping over with the parents was never comfortable. In the freezing early mornings, father would wake up at about 4:00 AM in order to drive the five or so minutes to Kim’s Donuts to prep for the day. My mother and I woke up an hour or so later after. I always dreaded these mornings. Every year I watch my summer vacation wasting with each passing day as my friends were miles away. Every summer vacation they were all having fun together in the neighborhood, devoid of school, playing ball and paying pranks on other neighbors. I, on the other hand, always spent visits with my parents, lonely and bored out of my mind year after year. Hot showers were one of my few motivations of getting up during these cold and early summer days, even though some days the steaming water barely had any effect. Jokingly, my mother constantly said that if I didn’t wake up on her count to three, she would have to throw water at me herself, so I did my best to occasionally wake up on time.
The fifteen minute walk to the store was the same, quiet and empty, our silhouettes shaded by darkness. These mornings never felt dangerous- instead feeling like everybody else’s world didn‘t yet start. However, on a mother unlike the others, we noticed a stranded shopping cart besides the sidewalk. My mom suggested I get in and that she would push me, offering some sort of amusement during the dull days. She probably always knew I didn’t enjoy spending my summer vacation there. Excited, I got in and was relieved to give me sleep-deprived self a rest. The mini-rollercoaster to the store was fun and was a wake up from the slumber I had in So Cal. The old wheels rattled on the crooked, cemented pavement, as each bump sent shivers of enjoyment down my spine. I pretended I was in a plane flying off to somewhere else, anywhere else. As if granting my wish, the cart gave a sudden lurch and my mom lost control. I felt myself falling and colliding head first into the pavement. I didn’t feel anything as my body followed after me and I was away from the safety of the cart. I was sprawled on the street, wondering if I was still asleep. My mom rushed towards me, eyes blazing with fear, but she let out a sigh of relief when she realized that I was completely fine. I got up and brushed off my pants and continued the journey to the store.
Insistent or worried, my parents (especially my mom) demanded me to always take a nap midday. I slept on the lower level of the metal rack, with my back pressed up against the bars, with jars and containers moved in order to make room for me. These racks would hold everything one would need to make donuts, but one was my personal bunk bed. Without the bed. Or a bunk, for that matter. A pillow would lay there waiting for me, along with the big bag of flour as my mattress. The flour bag of a “bed” never offered me much protection. The cardboard exterior made me itch, and the flour somehow always managed to get onto my clothes. I was irritated by this sleeping arrangement and never thought I would fall asleep, but would find myself waking up just the same. I remember always opening my eyes to see my father making donuts.
The process to making donuts always fascinated me. Father said that I could take over for him when I’m older, but my mom always scolded him, saying I needed an education. I would watch him throw a concoction of flour, yeast, baking powder, and more into the oversized blender. The wet batter spin round and around until it solidified into dough, as the machine vibrated the floor and noise filled the room with a jarring sound. The mass of dough would then be transferred towards the board by father, which caused everything to be amassed by flour. He rolled and kneaded the dough for a few minutes before cutting them into perfect circles with a metallic mold that cut six at a time. The donut holes were always moved to the side for donut holes later. Using Godzilla-sized chopsticks, he fried each donut, taking care and caution towards rotating and flipping the yellow blobs in the bubbling oil, until they rose up, crispy and tanned. I usually thought he looked like some sort of flour ghost, wielding unnaturally large chopsticks. After being drained, the donuts would be introduced to the diverse kinds of sugary glazes or colorful frosting, topped with either a diverse color of sprinkles. Some would get that awful shredded coconut I still loathe to this day. Others would get crush nuts. Particular donuts would be filled with different sorts of crème or jelly. And others would just stay plain.
This be repeated day in and day out many times, with many different donut kinds: Yeasty donuts whose interiors were as fluffy as can be, cake donuts like circular cupcakes, old-fashioned donuts whose ridges were as crunchy as can be, crullers that curled up into snail-like bundles of sugar and joy, fried cinnamon buns and apple fritters, long bars and twists of doughnuts either glazed or topped with chocolate or maple frosting, and the ever so popular one bite wonders of donut holes. He made them all.
There was one relief in that donut store; video games. We would always have at least two arcade cabinets (often changing every year) propped up against the wall, facing the glass cases of donuts, and in front of the path that would lead to the only restroom. I spent countless quarters on these machines, begging my dad for money, while my mom usually reluctantly looked on. I never knew know how to play any of the games; I just mashed the bright colored buttons with my fingers clumsily like a blind cat trying to open a bag of cat food, and jerked the joystick awkwardly to and fro as if I was trying to pry open a jar of pasta sauce that would not budge. I didn’t have any friends close to my age there, so I would usually be playing by myself. On lucky days, I would play with another random child whose parents came in order to get a quick bite to eat. The merriment usually only lasted a bit since they were always on the go, while I had to stay. A few times the owner of the cabinets would withdraw the quarters just feed them through the slot again so I could play until my heart’s content, but it never felt right having so much power over a game but nobody to share it with.
I always felt alone out there, with parents I barely knew. I was in a place strange to me, yet it was place I could have very well been raised in, no doubt resulting in me becoming a different person. That’s the odd thing about life; one little thing is capable of altering not only your entire life, but yourself. Despite me having a horrible time there most summers and always looking forward to my way back home, or what I recognized as home, I always felt a tinge of guilt. Leaving my parents every year, knowing fully well that they probably sensed how much I disliked being there.
Mother always asked, “Are ya going to stay with me for good this time?”
My answer was always no. My answer is still no. I belonged somewhere away from there, away from the strangely familiar place. Away from the blazing sun, the sugar-covered donuts, the early mornings, the lack of peer companionship. She never did fight or argue much. I came and left, simple for me, complicated for them. Their only son drifted towards them for a mere two or so weeks once a year, and always quickly vanished as if he were just a ghost. Eventually I stopped going there every summer, always coming up with a new excuse. Those excuses ceased and I just stopped venturing there all together. Before I knew it, my visits were disappeared, along with that donut shop.