The sun burned my eyes like a giant celestial laser. In defense, I held up my hand, palm out, to protect my eyes. Across the street a small red sign had caught my eye. Sitting atop it the ugliest pigeon I had ever seen in my life, fluffing its motley brown feathers.
“Herbalist Phfarmacy”, the sign said. Cracked golden Chinese characters spanned the bottom of the little red sign.
Maybe I was just curious, or maybe I wanted to tell the owner that he can’t spell ‘pharmacy’, or maybe the weeks and months and year of non-sleep had reduced me to a bag-eyed zombie that wandered aimlessly into hole in the wall establishments drooling and moaning.
Either way, I shuffled into the herbalist’s shop in the throes of perpetual dream. When you haven’t slept more than eight hours in a week, possibly two, every waking moment swims through you like a haze.
I pushed the beaded curtain aside. A golden lucky cat gleamed in the sliver of sunlight piercing the thick musk of incense. It waved at me with that cute little smile. A year ago I would have smiled back.
I stood there, numb, for what felt like an eternity. I listened for a moment thinking that somebody would show up. The only sound was that of the ancient black fan whirring and clicking in the far corner.
“Hello?” I called to the empty room.
Three of the walls were floor to ceiling wooden drawers labeled with fading yellow squares of paper, all faded blue ink, all in Chinese. Against the only blank wall were three generic green chairs with the sickly orange fluff peeking out.
“Yes mister?” a little girl, eyes wide, peeked her head up from behind the glass counter. Straight black bangs veiled her forehead. The rest of her straight black hair formed a perfect helmet stopping right above her shoulders.
“You run this place?”
Those large eyes squinted back, measuring me. She leapt up and excitedly scampered around the counter, screaming into the back door.
“Goong-Goong! Some haole tourist wants to talk to you!”
Haole. I still needed to figure out if that was a good or bad thing. This was the third time a local called me that since I’d been in Honolulu.
“What makes you think I’m a tourist?”
One little pointy finger on the end of a little outstretched arm pointed at me like I was guilty of the vilest sin.
“Mister, no kama’aina wear that shirt!”
Slack-jawed, I looked down at what I was wearing. A shapely hula dancer was winking back at me, blowing a kiss in my direction. She shook a hip at me from underneath palm trees swaying against a bright gaudy red sunset.
I forgot I was wearing this. I can’t even remember where I bought it this morning. Or yesterday morning. Or whenever.
The back door swung open and tiny wrinkled frog of a man hobbled out with his cane. Age spots formed what looked like a map of the Pacific islands across his smooth bald head. From the moment he opened the door he was jabbering in Chinese, pointing his cane at his granddaughter.
“But grandfather!” she pleaded, “He is a haole!”
Maybe the word was bad after all?
He looked up at me from behind the counter. Like his granddaughter, he could barely poke his head above the display case. His eyes appeared to be pressed shut but I felt like he was looking straight through me like I was some ghostly apparition. He smiled a small gap-toothed grin.
“Unh, what you want?”
“I can’t sleep. Do you have anything for that?”
“Unh, eh?” he groaned, looking to his granddaughter.
They shot Chinese back at one another like the din of machine gun fire. Honestly, I couldn’t register whether they were angry or holding polite conversation.
“Aye ya,” the old man shook his head and slid the back of the display open enough for his granddaughter to poke her head and an arm inside. She flailed around a bit with her tongue out emphasizing her exertion. She slammed a small pink and yellow striped box on the counter.
I picked it up. The only word written was “Golden” and the rest was in Chinese. A black and white image of a balding man was on the front.
Lack of sleep will make you paranoid. I tore open the plastic, and pulled the silver sheet out of the box. Sure enough, inside were foil tabs with yellow tablets. I slammed it back on the counter.
“No. I’ve tried Ambien. Doesn’t work.”
The old man was looking to his granddaughter to translate. She yammered away as I spoke. “I’ve tried Ambien, Silenor, Lunesta, and things I can’t even pronounce. Please help me. Is there anything else? I haven’t slept in months.”
The little girl finished relaying my desperation. The old man drew in a breath in horror, breathing a low, “Aye ya,” and began rifling through a black Rolodex.
He pulled out small index card, firing off orders to the little girl. A quick and dexterous little nymph, she was pulling a step ladder around the walls, opening and closing drawers as she threw a host of bizarre ingredients into a small yellow pail like you would find in a backyard sandbox. I watched in a mix of horror and amazement as she, like a miniature gymnast, opened drawers to use as stairs to reach higher cubby holes.
The old man rolled out a large white sheet of wax paper. He dumped a box of small white packets to the side, and dragged out a mortar and pestle.
The little girl dumped her pail onto the white paper, letting her grandfather use the step stool. He proceeded to grind up a host of disgusting ingredients. He ground up what looked like dried out cockroaches and newts. There were leaves and a shriveled brown flower that was possibly once purple and beautiful. Other ingredients included tiny white and black pebbles, twigs, and a powdered chalk-like substance.
“What is this?”
“Grandfather makes you tea.”
“Wait, what? No, no, no. I’m not drinking that!”
The old man cackled. His face folded into overlapping flaps of skin and wrinkles as he beamed that gap-toothed grin back at me. Somewhere deep inside I know his grin was meant to reassure me, but really, it freaked me out.
“Unh. Bad medicine,” he said. “Mainland thinks good taste medicine good, when good taste medicine bad. Kills. Bad taste medicine good for you!”
“Uh… I suppose I can’t really argue with that,” I said, rubbing my five day stubble.
He finished filling the small white teabags with his crunched up mystery concoction. I reached for my wallet and pulled a wad of bills halfway out.
“How much?” I asked when he was stapling the brown paper bag shut.
“Do you have a teapot, mister?”
“Uh, no. But I don’t need one.”
“Plates. I can sell you plates!”
“No. Just the tea.”
“Fifty dollars, mister!”
The grandfather stopped, and beamed down silently at his offspring. She pulled back her little hand as he questioned her, growing more agitated in her silence. Finally she muttered something that propelled the old man into a rage.
“Aye ya!” he screamed louder than I had heard him yet. The little girl took off like a bolt of lightning with him close on her heels. She slammed the door, as if that could protect her from being slapped with his cane.
“You greedy!” he shouted at the door, his tired voice growing more shrill. He pulled it open and scolded the other room. “I should put you back in the dumpster where your mother found you! Unh!”
I stood there awkwardly, and shocked that his English was so much better when he was angry. Huffing, he came back shaking his head. He pushed the brown bag toward me and held out his skeletal hand.
In his other hand he held two sugar cubes, like I was a horse.