One Good Word


After Lee finished sweeping the back room, he tiptoed into the front of the Chinese shop to watch his father, dressed in a long gown, cover the rich carvings with beautifully colored silk cloths. When everything was well covered, his father’s head dipped in a bow. Lee knew it was time to go home!

Although the shop was filled with fine old porcelain cups and plates, hand-painted fans, and ivory and jade statuettes, Lee didn’t like it. The shop was too Chinese. His father still clung to the ways of the old world. His manner was humble, his step soft, and he seldom spoke—not even to the customers.

Once Lee spoke up. “You’re supposed to talk to customers,” he told his father.

The only answer was his father’s lowered eyes. Lee waited a minute and then dared to say even more. “You’re supposed to tell customers about the things you have to sell.”

Father’s searching eyes looked at Lee from across the room. Then he said, “What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men.” He turned and quietly walked out of the room.

Lee’s mother said nothing until she was sure they would not be overheard. Then her dark head went from side to side. “It is not right to talk to your father that way.”

“But,” Lee began, “you have to talk fast and push hard.” He wanted to tell his mother what his friend’s father had said, but his mother’s long cool fingers pressed against his lips.

“No more,” she said softly. “You must remember that you are your father’s son.”

Lee tried hard to remember, but one day he forgot. He had just finished sweeping the back room when a lady entered the shop.

Lee knew that after a brief nod the customers were permitted to browse and look about. He also knew that he should not approach customers. But all of a sudden he found himself saying to the lady, “Are you looking for cups?”

The lady half-smiled, and before she could answer Lee said, “We have porcelain cups and also beautiful hand-painted fans. They came all the way from China! So did the ivory elephants and the frogs carved of jade. Would you like to see them? We have nice incense burners too.”

Lee spoke so fast and said so much that the lady turned and hurried out of the shop.

His father watched but did not speak. Lee was grateful, for his face was already crimson with shame. He had talked fast, pushed hard, and lost a sale.

He waited for his father to speak. All he said was, “One good word is better than a thousand bad ones.”

Lee remembered his father’s words long after they had been spoken. He often said the words to himself, repeating them again and again, burying them deep in his mind.

He did not go near a customer again, but one day a customer approached him. A man came into the shop and looked about. When he saw Lee’s father was busy behind the counter, he motioned to Lee. “I’m sure you can help me,” he said.

Lee’s feet refused to move. It was only when his father nodded that he went forward. Have I learned, he thought, or will my tongue prattle?

The man smiled, and Lee’s lips quickly parted. But just as quickly his lips closed. Instead of speaking, his head dipped low just as his father’s would have done. Then he stood silent and waited while the man’s smile broadened as he picked up an ivory elephant and a green jade lotus blossom.

“I’ll take the elephant,” the man said at last. But he did not leave the shop. He stayed to look at the many other lovely carvings. At last he turned to Lee and said, “Most salesmen talk you to death when one good word could make a sale!” He turned and called to Lee’s father, “Your son is a good salesman. You should be proud of him.”

Lee saw a small smile cross his father’s face before they both quietly bowed their heads.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ted Nagata