The bread shop is a real and imagined place. The real place is called the Boston Submarine Shop, and it’s in Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1971. My family has just driven into the parking lot in a green Chevrolet station wagon. My father goes inside. The front door is off the parking lot and there is a window that slides open to receive customers in the summer who want a quick lemonade (an Italian Ice in a tall waxy paper cup that you squeeze).
I could tell you about the sign that is attached to the side of the building, up high, with its dark green background and yellow letters and the large single yellow lemon at an angle at the end of the name of the shop, but I want to get to the man who comes out with my father. He’s carrying a cardboard box, a thin one that you fold together, without a cover, and I know what’s inside: meatball subs, spinach pies, lemonade. We tumble out of the car, my older brother, my younger brother, my cousin, my mother, my uncle, and my aunt. I’ve been rolling around in the back of the wagon and I feel nauseous as always from the black pebbled rubber mat in the floor of the car that smells of gasoline even with the windows open.
The man hands the box to my father who refuses for a minute before the man insists some more and then my father thanks him and takes it, still protesting. This is the routine. And what else is routine is that the man will pick me up and spin me around and rub his stubbled cheek into my own 5-year-old one and squeeze my shoulders together as if to shrink me into a size that will fit into his blue button down shirt pocket. Finally he’ll set me down and wipe his hands on his long white apron that hangs to his ankles before he shakes my uncle’s hand and kisses my mother and my aunt on the cheek. He’ll tousle my pixie length hair and pet me on the head to smooth it again.
But then he’ll turn his attention to my brother and we’ll stand all around this man, the center of our solar system and I’ll begin running laps around and around all of them. My younger brother and my cousin will start slurping the lemonade and my mother and aunt will pull apart the wax paper around the sandwiches. But we’re all tuned into this man. His name is Mr. Pashalian, and he’s always old in my mind though it’ll take another 20 years before he’ll become old actuality.
My father will start by saying that my brother Jiho has won an award in school. He’s in 4th grade. And Mr. Pashalian will congratulate him though there will be an edge of sarcasm which I don’t understand and then the challenge will come. I know Mr. Pashalian admires Jiho. That’s apparent in the light in his eyes and the smile that is open mouthed in wonderment.
But the challenge will come, and I will jump at it though everyone will ignore me. It will be a question that Mr. Pashalian throws up into the air. A conundrum, I’ll learn later, a puzzle, and Jiho will strive to answer it in that parking lot. He’ll succeed each time. Meanwhile, despite my efforts, no one will listen to my guesses, and I never surprise anyone by knowing the answer.
In time I do go inside that bread shop but I’m not allowed to learn to bake bread before dawn like my brother or my younger brother or cousin. I’m not given a reason why. The back of the sub shop where the ovens are is a place I’m left to imagine, with real characters, men whom I see stand up from the long wooden table, whom I hear is the mayor or the whip or the mobster. They hush when I run to greet Mr. Pashalian and start talking again when I’m shooed away.
It remains fixed in time, the bread shop. For all that it was and couldn’t possibly be. Somewhere in not being allowed in fully is why I write and why I call this circling I do now, writing from memory, writing from the bread shop.
Jimin Han’s fiction and nonfiction can be found at NPR’s “Weekend America,” eChook’s memoir app, The NuyorAsian Anthology, Global City Review, KoreanAmericanStory.org, among others. She teaches at the Writing Institute, Sarah Lawrence College. For musings and works-in-progress, find her at notesfromstonebarn.tumblr.com.