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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 36-42

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The Store of a Million Items *

Michelle Cliff

Part 1: In the Family

As children we had our seasons, apart from grown-up, growing seasons. Our own ways of dividing time, managing the elliptical motion of the Earth, life on a spinning planet. Our ways were grounded, uncelestial. Light years were beyond us; black holes not yet imagined. Our idea of a matter-destroying entity was the sewer under the city, stygian, dripping, where Floridian Godzillas survived on Norwegian rats.

No, our seasons were set by the appearance of something in The Store of a Million Items, on Victory Boulevard, between the Mercury Cleaners and the Mill End Shop. The store was a postwar phenomenon, promising a bounty only available in America. Everything we loved was there; there we flocked. As close to infinity as we dared.

The first Duncan yo-yo--the first to catch the eye, splendid, gold-flecked, deluxe, guaranteed to go around the world, without end, singing all the while--usually appeared sometime in March, brought by common carrier from the Midwest. It led the way, grand marshal of a parade of yo-yos, lined up in a corner of the store window, as less deluxe, less articulate yo-yos followed, right down to the 29ยข model, thick wood and flaccid kitchen string, unable to sleep or sing, promising no momentum at all. Its brand new cherry-red face was deceptively bright, for the paint would soon enough crack, strip, even run in the rain, dyeing its master, mistress red-handed. Stamped MADE IN JAPAN, which phrase then signified nothing so much as inferiority, cheapness. The work of the un-American.

But--and this is important, the teacher stressed--you couldn't trust MADE IN USA either, for right after Hiroshima, a Japanese town had changed its name to USA (pronounced you-sah) and therefore MADE IN USA was suspect. The un-American was crafty.

"Too many people don't understand Hiroshima," Miss Clausen continued. "Make sure it's U-period, S-period, A-period," she cautioned.

Yet the child who couldn't afford a grander, made in U-period, S-period, A-period yo-yo (and was too chicken, or good, to lift one) would treasure even the Japanese version, determined to overcome its birthright and teach it to sleep. Fingering the wood in his pants pocket, rubbing it along the wale of her corduroy skirt, you could hear the call of the schoolyard, while the teacher's voice became white noise.

We stood in clusters on the concrete, surrounded by the whir of yo-yos sleeping. In the shape of the world, the world on a string.

We were truly blessed, the principal assured us. [End Page 36]

Behind the Iron Curtain were streets of empty markets, with nothing but shelf after shelf of noodles. That's what happened when people lived on handouts. Everybody had cardboard in their shoes, not just the poor kids or the kids whose parents had better use for their money. Behind the Iron Curtain they sold Uncle Tom's Cabin, stamped 1955, with the words "first edition" on the title page.

We knew better.

On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till's body was dredged from the River Pearl. But teachers weren't responsible for telling us about things that happened in summer.

Behind the Iron Curtain everything was gray--people, cities, skies. The sun didn't shine there. They were deprived of Happy Tooth, while Mr. Tooth Decay dogged their tracks, like a villain in a silent two-reeler. Even the children had false teeth, if they were lucky.

In 1956 we passed around a special edition of Life devoted to the Hungarian Revolution. We were about to receive a refugee classmate. Some of us were foreign-born, but he would be our first refugee. Gray tanks rumbled through streets page after page. People were squashed. For some reason the refugee went to Chicago instead.

The years moved on. Jacks. Marbles. Jump rope. Pea shooters.

Water pistols. My personal favorite. Coming at the end of spring, the...


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