Where Stories Are Found: in the oddest places

by Deborah Grabien

photo: ‘Massage Therapist’ by Lydia Selk


A few months ago, literally five minutes walk from my home in San Francisco, someone opened a cheap massage place.

For me, as a writer with multiple sclerosis, that’s a gift from the cosmos. I spend long hours at the computer, I have a neurological disease for which massage is a prescribed therapy, and this place – owned and run by a collective of Chinese men and women – is beautifully priced: $25 will get you an hour-long massage off their menu of six or so varieties. Unlike the masseurs, who are too rough, have little rhythm, and one of whom reeks of stale tobacco, the two masseuses are wonderful.

Ten visits in, I’ve glommed on to my favourite masseuse (a middle-aged woman named Lily who, rare in this kind of massage place, understands that a wince is equivalent to an ouch and a request to lighten up). I’ve realised that my favourite off the list is something called a “ginger juice” massage, which incorporates neither ginger nor juice, but which concentrates on nerve endings. I’ve made my appointments. I’ve learned to wear a tank top so that I can shed layers before assuming the fully-clothed position. I make appointments with Lily, expecting that she’ll know what’s aching, what’s too tense, what needs to be concentrated on.

What I wasn’t expecting was a story.

It began percolating about three massages ago, through the noise of pulled muscles and tensed tendons, protesting as Lily’s fingers found sore spots and knots to tease out. A massage parlour should be an oasis: unobtrusively soothing music looping on the sound system, no cell phones, no loud conversations, everything kept to a civilized murmur. I was on my back, eyes closed. Lily was working on my right arm. I could hear the soft steady drip drip drip of the receptionist’s little desktop fountain, water hitting stones and then being sucked through by an electric pump to do it again: a kind of liquid perpetual motion machine, perpetual at least for as long as the power was on. I could hear the grunting of a male customer, being worked on by Tobacco Guy. Behind closed eyes, my brain was drifting off, seeing nothing, just zoning out and away…

And then, out of nowhere, a little voice was giggling in my ear. I felt warm breath, a tickle of air. That jolted me back into reality. Had someone let their kid run around between the reclining massage chairs? Inexcusable. I opened my eyes.

Nothing. No child, not even the other masseuse, just the half-comatose grunting client and me. Tobacco Guy was doing his usual uncoordinated arrhythmic thing three chairs away.

Lily was still working on my arm, finding the carpal in my wrist: you very tense, use too much computer, you need relax yeah?

The ceiling and walls of this place are painted a soft blue. The ceiling has been daubed with some white smudges that are probably supposed to represent clouds, the walls with painted bamboo stalks in a harsh acid brown-green colour. The paint job is vaguely reminiscent of the casino at Paris, Vegas, where an unrealistic stump of Eiffel Tower flattens out as it meets the casino’s sky-ceiling. The blue is calming, mingling with the long deep strokes Lily is using on my forearm, with the cyclical drip of the fountain, with the Chinese flute music…

I closed my eyes again, drifting, letting go. Nothing else happened. Lily finished her massage. Back into sleeves, sweater, socks and boots, back out to the street and home, Another day, another massage.

By last week, we’d gone past Thanksgiving and the weather had turned cold and wet, as Northern California does in December. Lily met me at the door ─ you like ginger juice? Okay! ─ smiled and waved me towards a chair on the aisle. While I shed my heavy coat, my sweater, socks and boots, she fitted the big wooden tub they use for soaking the customer’s feet with a plastic liner, and filled it with hot water and some kind of soaking salts. With me safely laid out, she touched spots on my neck, frowned ─ very tense, I say last time you too much time on computer, you need relax okay, I fix ─ and off we went, a blissful hour of Lily’s relentless manipulating.

A rush of air, the thump of light footsteps just behind my head. Someone light was running. And there it was, unmistakable, the same breathy giggling I’d heard before.

It took a moment before my head, out in pleasurable space while Lily worked on my face and neck, pulled together enough to understand that no one was running or giggling behind my head. There couldn’t be anyone, because it wasn’t possible; there wasn’t room. Directly behind my head was Lily on her stool. And no more than a foot behind her was the wall separating the front of the place from the work area. Anyone running right behind my head would have to be running right through Lily.

It began solidifying then, making some sense. Light young footsteps, a giggling child, in this place with its fake sky and its stencilled bamboo growing on the walls, a storefront converted to a massage parlour. Who had she been and where had she come from, that giggling girl? Was the immediate sense I had, that she wore the clothing of San Francisco’s Chinese immigrants a century or more ago, genuine perception? Or was it merely me reacting to the painted bamboo and the music that sounded like pipes and flutes and waterfalls echoing down in the snow-cold mountains of a country a world away? The larger questions – What in hell am I actually hearing? Why am I hearing it? Is anyone else hearing it too? Am I having some sort of acid flashback, or something?─ all took a back burner, waiting to be noticed and acknowledged.

Lily tapped my neck ─ you turn over now please. She held the warm towel over me as I flipped, letting my face settle into the padded hole in the headpiece, closing my eyes, melting into the untangling of the knots in my shoulders. Not completely, though. Part of me was holding my breath, waiting for a light swift patter of feet and a giggle that no one else could hear.

Nothing. Just a great massage; Lily really threw herself into that one.

My most recent massage was yesterday. I came in out of the harsh rain, greeted the receptionist with a murmur, wished her happy holidays with my voice low enough to be drowned out by the desktop fountain. I’d been wondering, thinking, making notes in my head. I wondered about the girl. Was she a child? My sense had been of youth, but that had been because the giggle had been so high-pitched, the footsteps so quick and light. It could just as easily have been a teenaged girl, or a very small woman. Was her name Bai? Why was I thinking her name had been Bai? Was that even a name, in a language I don’t speak? Was she a ghost, a figment, an echo of someone or something who had lived here once, before the sound system had been so much as thought of, before the acid-green pictures of bamboo had gone up on walls painted to look like the mountains and the sky? What had been here, long ago?

Getting ready, smiling at Lily, unzipping my boots and setting them to one side so that she could deal with the foot reflexology part of the ginger juice, I tried to remember what had been here, in this row of stores in an undistinguished little enclave of the Inner Richmond district, out in the northwest corner of San Francisco. My memory wasn’t cooperating. Had it been a bakery? No, I was thinking of the Russian tea room that baked their own pastries, and they were still there, two doors away. Had this been the plumber’s supply, or was that a block to the east, between Third and Fourth Avenues? What had a little kid/young girl/very small woman, whose name was or wasn’t ‘Bai’, been doing in a plumber’s supply shop? And why was she still hanging around?

Same routine: turning off cell phone, hanging clothes on the peg, tucking the purse under the bench. Music that sounded like strings this time, a touch of flute. I heard no footsteps, and heard no giggling.

I didn’t need them. The seed of a ghost story about a girl named Bai, framed at the moment in which childhood becomes adolescence, about a girl who sees her father die of a heart attack in his greengrocery as he struggles to explain to his only daughter why he is choosing to not marry her off the way her friends are being married off, has been planted. This is what writers do, consciously or unconsciously. We find stories, seeds, fragments of rushing feet and faraway laughter, in places like massage parlours. Was there a girl here, a long time ago, with or without a father who treasured his daughter and her freedom, but who died somehow, some way, before he could prove it?

The fact is, that makes no difference. These two are real in my head now, in my psyche, in whatever part of myself my characters live and breathe, their stories waiting to get told. This particular story will rest, awaiting its time. And when ─ if ─ its time comes, I’ll write it.


Deborah Grabien is an editor at Plus One Press, and the author of 14 novels, including the celebrated KinKaid Chronicles,The Haunted Ballads series, and more. Visit her website at:  http://www.deborahgrabien.com and the not-to-be-missed cooking blog of one of her most appealing characters, Bree Kinkaid.



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