Terracotta Typewriter Issue #3 Fall 2009
Unsolicited manuscripts are welcomed throughout the year. Terracotta Typewriter seeks submissions of literary works with a connection to China. The definition of “connection to China” can be stretched as much as an author sees fit. For example, expatriate writers living in China or who have lived in China, Chinese writers writing in English, translators of Chinese writing, works that are set in China, manuscripts covered in Chinese food (General Tso’s chicken doesn’t count), or anything else a creative mind can imagine as a connection to China. © 2009 by Terracotta Typewriter. All rights reserved. Cover art by Elrond Burrell © 2009 Visit our Web site at http://www.tctype.com. This literary journal is free for distribution. NOT FOR RESALE.
Terracotta Typewriter A Cultural Revolution of Literature
In This Issue Letters to the Editor
Genghis and Me
Interview with Gene Ayres
Review: The Beijing of Possibilities
William S. Tribell
Letters to the Editor Dear Sir/Madam, We are looking for a trustworthy representative in New Zealand that can help as a link between our company and our client over there.we would like to know if you are interested to work from home for us and earn up to $800 to $1,500 Dollars weekly for your services. Our company produces various clothing materials, batiks, assorted fabrics and traditional costumes.We have clients we supply goods weekly in New Zealand and our clients make payments for our supplies every week in form of money orders and Bank Transfar which are not cashable here in China,so we need someone in New Zealand to work as our representative to assist us in processing payments from our clients and we will pay him/her weekly wage. All you need to do is to receive this payment from our clients in New Zealand on behalf of our company and get it cashed at your bank then deduct your 10% and forward the balance to our company here in China. Thank you as we await your further response. In Trust And Good Faith Mr.Zheng Choua, Sales Manager, Ghangzhou, China Mr. Zheng, Thank you for your kind offer, but I’m having difficulty finding Ghangzhou on a map. I also asked the bank and they don’t know how to do a “transfar.” Please send me a check and I will see if my bank can transfar it to your nonexistent city for laundering. -The Editor
I am suzy, I saw your contact , and i was deeply moved.I think that you are a very interesting person.So I decided to use the chance to get to know you.i dont think that the age appearance is so important. The most important is what is inside you and how do you feel about the life. I know this life from many sides and I am rather mature already to know how to make a man happy.I think we should use every chance to find our happiness. and I am contacting you for obvious reason which you will understand. i am sending this mail just to know if this email address is OK,reply me so that i will send my photo and more details to you,and i have a very important thing to tell you, i still hope for your reply, have a pleasant day, suzy suzy, We appreciate your interest even though you know nothing about us. While you may not care about age or appearances, we do. We kindly request that you forward a photo of yourself in a bikini, wearing an eye patch, and holding an over-sized vodka martini with a parakeet perched on the rim of the glass. We will post this photo on our Web site for all interested parties to view and ridicule. -The Editor
If you have any questions or comments for the editor of Terracotta Typewriter, please send it in the form of electronic mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ghengis and Me
o I was just minding my own business, hauling a cartload of millet as tribute for the local Jurchen grandee when I caught the unmistakable whiff of a Mongol horde. "Oh, shit, not again," I thought, and tried to hide in a sack of millet. But then the horde and its overpowering stench were upon me. Two leathery Mongo bruisers hauled me out by my ears and slammed me on the ground before the man himself. I made all obsequious—Great Khan this and O Man of the Millennium that. I also apologized for soiling myself, something of which I'm not proud, but man, I was scared and you would've done the same. "Get your Han ass up off the ground and tell me why I shouldn’t just let my men use you for target practice," said Genghis Khan in a voice that was surprisingly high and tinny—not what you’d expect from a legendary butcher of men. "Mighty Khan, the Empire may be conquered on horseback, but cannot be ruled on horseback," I said, my voice cracking. I was in the throes of puberty, you see. It occurred to me the horde thought I was mocking the Khan’s girly voice. Some drew their swords andsnarled. But then this effete-looking Khitan dude with a braided forelock pushes forward and says, all indignant, "Excuse me, kid, but the horseback bit? that's my line, okay? And besides, it was a total non sequitur." It was Yelü Chucai: I recognized him from his campaign posters from when he ran for mayor of Beijing. "Your mama!" I shot back, and for some reason that cracked all the Mongols up, and Genghis Khan most of all. After that the Khan's horsemen chased me around whipping my buttocks for a couple of hours, but in the end Genghis suffered me to live and let me clean up. Turns out that it really was Yelü Chucai first said that thing 3
about ruling on horseback, and I reckon he was right about it being a non sequitur too. I told him so, explaining that I was scared and it was the first thing that popped out, it being so quotable. Later, he sent his thugs for me, had them pull out a couple of my fingernails and torture my feet with a red-hot poker for a couple of days, and after that Chucai and I were cool—friends, even, and we would privately snigger together at the Mongols when they would leave camp to "go among the sheep." The Khan had some real hotties for daughters, and in a bid to get close to one, I figured I’d make friends with his sons. The eldest, Jochi croaked early—he went among the sheep and caught something, I’m told—but I was tight with Ogodei and Tolui, the youngest boy. Chagatai was a nasty bugger and even his brothers shunned him. He would hot-box the lot of us in his yurt—he’d seal up the flapsand the smoke hole up top, and fart nasty mutton farts. Then he’d wave his scimitar around and threaten to behead anyone he thought was breathing through their mouth. Genghis Khan had the dopest of yurts. Whether we were chilling in Karakorum or out in the field on campaign, the man’s decorator knew how to pimp a yurt: the finest wool carpets of Persia and the Caucuses, silk from the lands south of the Yangtze, copper andbrass wares from the smiths of Anatolia, the grinning skulls of princes and satraps foolish enough to oppose him. I taught Genghis to play the board game Risk and we often stayed up playing all night in that stylin’ yurt, me and Genghis, Oggie and Tolui, sometimes Chucai and the general Subotai too. We regulars always let the Khan win. But one night, after imbibing a bit too much of single-mare, this general named Jogdach (who was a nice enough guy when he wasn't catapulting rotting corpses into recalcitrant Chinese cities he happened to be laying siege to) attacked the Khan in Kamchatka from Alaska. He rolled a bunch of sixes and took him out. Genghis kicked the board over, and while Tolui and me sorted the armies and put away the game, poor Jogdach was trussed up, rolled into a carpet, and dragged behind 4
horses until he was tenderized to death. The years went by. We wiped the floor with the Jurchen, who’d gone soft from a high-carb Northern Chinese diet, took out Western Xia, conquered Khwarezmia, and laid waste to the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv. I started to get the hang of the looting and pillaging. I wasn’t the best rider in the horde, but pretty soon I was as surly and bow-legged as the next guy. I developed a taste for fine, single-mare kumiss, which I’d loot from duty-free shops. The daughter I was keen on, Magda, seemed to take a shine to me, too, and so after some deliberation I asked her out to view the Mountain of Skulls we’d made after the sack of Samarkand. When I went to pick her up, the Khan was there, and while she got dressed, I had to endure the third degree from her old man. "What is best in life?" he asked in his weird falsetto. Ordinarily I was supposed to answer with some variation on "To kill your enemy, ride his horses, and hear the lamentations of his women," but something told me that wouldn’t work before I took Magda out, so I answered with some half-remembered, goody-goody Han stuff about studying the Four Books and Five Classics and becoming an upright official. He thought about this for a while, then said, "Okay, you may take my daughter out, but if you are set upon by our enemies, you bend your bow, and slay them without mercy." Roger that, O Great Khan, I said, and we rode off. The Mountain of Skulls was oddly depressing for Magda— lots of flies and carrion fowl, still—and as we trotted back to camp, she said she thought I’d make more money as a Southern Song prefect than as a mere lackey for her dad. She said she’d always wanted to open a tavern where she might profit from the famous hospitality of the Mongolian people. Maggie’s, she’d call it. I thought about Chagatai’s cruel pranks, and poor Jogdach in the carpet, and decided maybe she was right. So we turned our horses south and east, toward the Jade Gate, and rode toward a new future south of the Yangtze. 5
n that fateful day, I sat where I always did on my lunch break, on a bench in the mall that offered me a perfect view of the poster. It was for “Moon Wars,” a sci fi movie. I was obsessed with the lead actor in the movie, Phillip Chow. Chow is the greatest Chinese action hero ever. His martial arts moves are off the hook, and I know a little bit about moves...unfortunately. Thinking about Chow, living in a fantasy world of perfectly choreographed fights were nobody really died and everything turned out okay in the end, was helping me to forget my unpleasant experience of the not-to-distant past. In the poster Chow stood bare-chested, golden skin glistening with sweat highlighting every exquisite line on his perfectly formed body. Long black hair woven with feathers framed his noble, intensely alive face, the slanted eyes on fire with passion, nostrils flared, mouth set in a determined line. The force of Chow's energy leaped off the poster and grabbed hold of me as I sat there, pulling me in. I felt myself transported to a magical place, Chow by my side. We were fighting together, beating off an entire army of evil sorcerers and when the last of the enemy fell we turned to one another, sweat pouring from our bodies, clothes torn, locked eyes, drew close and... “Excuse me, mind if I sit here?” I stared, unseeing, my eyes finally focusing on the timid, balding man leaning over me, a hint of impatience hiding behind his forced politeness. I gathered up my trash and left. I’m obsessed with Chow but more obsessed with China and everything Chinese. Who would I be without Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? I’d be nobody—just one more ordinary receptionist of European descent, working in a ridiculous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s office, living a dull, meaningless existence. I must 6
have watched Crouching Tiger a hundred times. I wish I lived in that kind of magical world. I bet I was a warrior in another life. I love Bruce Lee. I’ve memorized all his karate moves. Fist of Fury is the best. I wish I was Chinese. I wish I knew Mandarin. I want to go to China so bad—and I’m going to, just as soon as I save enough money. When I was thirteen, I got into trouble with a girl named Jessica and was thrown out of school. Jessica was one of the “good” girls, from a rich family, always wearing designer clothes, perfect make-up even at that age. She got straight “A’s” of course, was a cheerleader and volunteered once a week at a homeless shelter. But she was a weasel, I’m sorry. I used to go to school dressed as my favorite anime characters and she'd make fun of me. Not directly, she was too sly for that. She’d play the goody-two-shoes all day long and then, when nobody was around except her skanky posse, she'd pick my clothes apart, make fun of every single accessory and they'd all have a good laugh. She even got physical. When nobody was looking, bam! She’d brush up against me, elbow me out of the way, toss her long blond hair in my face—I hated that—and always she’d say things like, what’s that smell, or we’re praying for your sinful soul at church but it’s a lost cause. One day, after taunting me for weeks, she tripped me in the gym and I fell flat on my face. Next thing I knew I was standing over Jessica and she was on the ground howling with blood pouring from her nose. I tried to explain to the principal that “she started it,” but of course he didn’t care—not when Jessica looked so awful, while I looked perfectly fine. My parents had to pay her medical bills. I have to say that whoever fixed her broken nose did a great job. It looked even better afterwards than it did before. I was put in continuation school and the day after the fight, my dad marched me down to the local martial arts gym, handed me over to the owner and said, “Do something with my daughter.” My dad was a wise man. Suddenly I was channeling my pent-up 7
energy into an activity that resulted in positive progress instead of endless trouble. By the time I was eighteen I was boxing and had competed in a slew of amateur fights and had won them all. I’d trained in every kind of weaponry imaginable. I'm especially good with knives. When I graduated from high school I got this job so I could continue my training. When I leave Dr. Franken’s office, I leave the world of the ordinary behind (if you can call plastic surgery ordinary) and walk into the gym, sweaty, smelly, vibrating with pounding fists and booming rap music. I love it. It’s my world, where I belong, what gives me purpose. But that night, I had a special mission: the premiere of the Moon Wars film. I was going to stand along with all the little groupies in front of Groman’s Chinese Theater and watch Phillip Chow walk down the red carpet. Embarrassing, I know. My best friend Olivia agreed to come with me and I trusted her to keep her mouth shut. Olivia didn’t exactly understand my obsession but she loved the idea of it and she was down to be a groupie for the night. After work, I picked her up and we headed across town. Luckily, a parking space was waiting for us just a few blocks up from the theater and we hurried to take our places amongst the crowd. With a few well-placed nudges, we managed to make it to the front by the ropes, close to the theater doors. A wave of anticipation swept the crowd, murmuring voices swelling to a higher pitch of excitement as on cue, necks craned in the same direction and we all looked down the red carpet. The first limo arrived, followed by a train of others, the crowd showing good-natured enthusiasm for the occupants, while saving the big welcome for Chow. At last the moment came that everyone was waiting for. A silver cloud pulled to the curb and the door swung open, revealing, not Chow first, but a pair of long shapely legs followed by the body and head of a breathtakingly beautiful young woman wearing a shimmering cream colored gown so sheer it might as well have been see-through, the front cut so low her voluptuous breasts 8
seemed ready to pop out but never quite did. Blond hair, shiny as satin, cascaded down to her shoulders like Lauren Bacall’s in The Maltese Falcon. She struck a pose and bulbs flashed but clearly the paparazzi were waiting for the person who exited next: Phillip Chow. And then, there he was, in the flesh, looking even better than all my dreams. He was tall and infinitely elegant in his Armani suit, yet emitting a magnetically animal charisma, as if at any moment he'd tear off the suit and prowl amongst the crowd, a panther surveying his prey. Which woman would he devour? Any one of us pushing against the ropes would have gladly submitted to a thorough ravishing right then and there. As the glorious couple moved in unison down the carpet, insanely in those few moments when Chow was so close I could almost reach out and touch him, I had eyes only for his creamcolored companion. Who was this woman, how did she get so lucky? They came abreast to me, pausing for another camera moment and for an instant my eyes locked with those of the woman before she looked away again, flicking her hair back in an arrogant gesture. Something clicked in my brain. As she moved on by, her profile with its absolutely perfect nose was displayed and I thought, I’d know that nose anywhere, that thing she does with her hair…. Holy shit…it was Jessica, the girl I’d beaten up in Middle School, that perfect girl who had so infuriated me because she’d known exactly how to do it. And she was doing it still. At the theater door, the couple turned to the crowd for a final smile and royal wave and then they were gone, followed like a swarm of killer bees by the paparazzi, the other cast members and all the hangers on who had somehow bamboozled their way into the premiere. It was uncanny how quickly the crowd dispersed after that. Olivia and I went across the street for a drink but my heart wasn’t in it. Deflated, depressed, completely out of sorts, I made some excuse saying I had to leave. Olivia pouted a bit but her friend Sarah 9
was on her way and could take her home so we said good-bye. I walked in front of the now silent theater, all the beautiful people sealed inside, Phillip and Jessica chief amongst them. As I passed the side of the theater a movement caught my eye and I saw that someone was smoking in the semi-darkness of the alley, just beyond a set of steps leading down from a theater side door. More importantly, close to the entrance of the alley three hooded figures all but blended into the shadows, crouching behind a large trash bin and watching the smoker. This was getting interesting and I pulled back, deciding to see what would happen next. A stealthy advance ensued, the flash of a knife appearing in one of their hands. The knife-wielder let the others move ahead and I calculated that their job was to loosen up the victim, then he’d move in to execute a little carving, the artist of the group. I couldn't help myself, elation gripped me, every muscle taunt for combat, my world reduced to this alley and nothing beyond. I loved this world of combat where right and wrong, winning and losing, wasn’t distinguished by rationalization or theoretical conversation but by actions. And those actions brought immediate results. No waiting for years to find out whether or not you’d made the right choices. You knew instantly because either you ended up on the ground or they did. I went first for the one with the knife. It took less than ten seconds to break his arm, sending the blade clattering to the ground. I snatched the blade and turned my attention to the other two who had brought the smoker down. They were so busy kicking him, it took a few seconds for them to notice me. As they jumped up and turned, I kicked the closest thug in the kidney. His accomplice tensed, a look of stupid surprise on his face, and I punched him in the nose with the blunt end of the knife, sending him staggering backward, clutching his face, blood gushing between his fingers. Fear and confusion registered in both their eyes as I swung the knife, while behind me the other one scurried out of the alley, clutching his arm. In five seconds the other two had done the 10
same, rats in the dark. Helping the smoker up, I received a mind-numbing shock. The man staggering to his feet was none other than Phillip Chow. “Where are they?” he gasped. “Gone.” He eyed the knife in my hand, moving slightly backward. “What do you want—money?” “What?” I gasped. This was not how I’d fantasized our meeting would be. Could this despicable, pathetic man be the glorious specimen in the poster? Carefully, I offered him the knife and he snatched it, grimacing with pain. “I got a bad back or I would have killed those mother fuckers. Where’s Manson?” He glared at me petulantly, clearly expecting an answer. Before I could voice my anger, the stage door opened and a fat little man burst out, calling, “Phillip?” Jessica was right on his heels. Jessica looked back and forth between me and Chow, her big violet eyes narrowing. “What’s going on here,” she demanded, marching up to Chow, ready to lay into him. Her expression changed to one of horrified concern when she saw his face. She turned on me. “Did you do this?” I hoped she’d lunge at me so I’d have the pleasure of breaking her nose again. No such luck. The fat man took her by the arm and steered her away. “How many times have I told you not to sneak out to smoke?” he barked at Chow. Jessica glanced back at me, recognition dawning. “Hey, aren’t you--? I didn’t hear the rest because chaos descended on the alley. Magically, people began to appear as if the universe had sent a message to all interested parties that this was the place to be. Cameras and microphones materialized in front of Chow’s face. 11
“What happened?” everyone wanted to know. Chow never even looked at me. Under the spotlight, his transformation was miraculous, becoming the star once more, nobler and more impressive than ever, if possible, thanks to his developing shiner. He told an incredible story and I must say his acting was superb. I listened in amazement as he recounted how he’d single-handedly fended off not just three but six attackers. His Shakespearian voice slowly faded away as I allowed myself to be pushed to the back by the jostling crowd. As I walked away, an arm grabbed me and I tensed. It was the short fat man, his pale piggy eyes viewing me with small-minded distrust and cynicism. “Name’s Manson, Terri Manson. You are?” He extended his hand to shake mine. “Natasha Beil,” I said hesitantly. He smiled, but the effect was blisteringly cold. “I’m going to make this fast, Ms. Beil, ‘cause I don’t have a lot of time. Nothing happened back there that you know anything about, if you understand my meaning. You do understand my meaning?” My smile was no less frigid. Between the two of us, we could have stopped global warming. “I’m not sure that I do, Mr. Manson, can you explain?” He put his face two inches from mine and said in a menacing voice meant to frighten, “Don’t mock me.” I moved my face an inch closer. “Okay,” I said and walked away. Back home I flipped on the television, unsurprised to find that every station in LA showed Phillip Chow recounting the story of how he’d been attacked by six knife-wielding psychopathic gangbangers and how he’d disarmed them. It was a PR moment made in heaven and Chow’s celebrity status sky-rocketed. Not only did “Moon Wars” become the highest grossing movie of all time but over the next few weeks—and I know this is hard to believe but it’s 12
absolutely true, the press went so far as to suggest Phillip Chow should run for president—and he wasn't even an American citizen. And then, he did a public service ad for Homeland Security. It was enough to make a person gag. I’d actually saved Phillip Chow, the most famous martial arts actor in history, who turned out to be a charlatan and a coward. I couldn’t shake the image of him lying on the ground in a fetal position begging for mercy and me reaching down to help him up. What should I do, tell the press? I laughed at the absurdity. No one would believe I’d saved Chow’s ass. And I’d been warned, oh yes, the piggy man had warned me big time. Amazingly, after a few weeks I almost convinced myself that the whole thing had never happened. I was pretty good at telling myself lies—making believe that the real violence had never happened, covering it up with play-acting in the ring. It was spring, a busy season at Dr. Franken’s since the pressure was on for all the desperate LA women to look perfect for summer. Between work and training, I barely had time to think about anything else. In the evenings I pushed harder than ever and was rewarded with news of my first pro fight in the fall. But somehow, ever since I'd beat up the thugs, my heart hadn't been in my fighting. At home one night brushing my teeth before bed, I allowed myself to voice a concern that had always been at the back of my mind—where is this leading me? Boxing and MMA are short-lived careers and then what? Like my dad had always told me, before he passed away, When you gonna develop longterm goals, not just live in the moment? As if things weren’t bad enough, the next night in the gym I heard someone say the police had caught the knife guy. The minute I got home, I turned on the television and sure enough, it was all over the news. That’s when Terri Manson called, sweet as sugar, and invited me to lunch at Koi. He was already seated when I got there and rose to greet me, 13
his smile bright—too bright—piggy eyes still cold and cynical. After ordering a fortune in miniature helpings of artistically presented sushi, he said, “We got off on the wrong foot, Ms. Beil.” “Call me Natasha,” I said. He nodded, encouraged. “Lovely Natasha, so young, your whole future ahead of you.” Deftly and at a stupefying rate, he popped food into his mouth with the chopsticks, never pausing in his conversation. “Five people know what happened that night. One’s an apprehended criminal who’s probably spilling the beans right now. Obviously, whatever he says is a lie. Isn’t that right, Natasha?” “How would I know,” I said testily, trying to steal some food before he ate it all. “Sarcasm isn’t flattering in a young woman. Let me spell it out for you: the police found one of the muggers before we did. No doubt he’s spouting off about some mysterious female superhero. Before long they’ll be knocking on your door and that’s not in our best interests—or yours. That’s why we’re offering you a little vacation—say for one year—to anywhere outside the United States. There must be someplace you want to go Natasha?” The eel I’d finally managed to secure slipped from my chopsticks and slithered down to the plate. Manson immediately snapped it up. “You must be crazy,” I said. “I have a job, a career.” He winced. “Please. A pretty girl like you has no business fighting in the ring—or out of it. We checked up on the boyfriend incident. Lucky to get out of that one, Natasha—but who am I to judge?” The “incident,” he called it, the little encounter I was trying to forget. Yes, the piggy man had done his homework. Once again, there it was, playing back in my mind. My boyfriend, seven time world champion kick boxer Danny Lada, a living legend in the ring but useless at anything practical—like paying the rent—coming at me in a drunken craze, long, thin kitchen 14
knife in hand, accusing me of cheating on him with his trainer, Mickey. Yeah, can you believe it, cross-eyed Mickey. Me, wrestling the knife away and Danny falling forward onto the blade. Always made sure those blades were sharp and so it went in clean and easy, flesh made of butter. Dead center in the heart. Dead all right, no chance for survival. Mickey bursting in, knowing nothing of what had happened, just seeing Danny convulsing on the floor, knife sticking straight up as if we were all in the middle of a horror movie, and Mickey thinking, and why wouldn’t he, that I’d killed Danny. Mickey, flashing the knife he always carried on his hip— too many knives around that night—and me pulling the blade out of Danny and killing Mickey for real, just like that, fast, hardly any effort, slitting his throat. No accident. Self-defense. The weird thing was, I didn’t feel remorse, just satisfaction, exultation in fact, victorious, a rush like no other; my world, my element, the only “right” being to get them before they got me. Not fantasy, a real fight, where you really know whether you've won or not, because someone ends up dead. I was acquitted, thank God, thanks to my neighbor who heard the noise, walked in and saw it all. For a few days, I was a bit of a celebrity, splashed everywhere in the news until, finally, the hype died down. But it left its mark on me—killing people does that, you know. Leaves a mark. Even if it's in self-defense. Especially when you realize that the act of taking a life comes with a rush of power like no other and you have to push it down, deny it or it'll consume you. And then the publicity. I hated publicity. “You listening to me?” The little creep was jabbing at my arm with his chopsticks. I cut my eyes to him so sharp and cold just like those knives, he actually stopped his jabbing, slightly subdued for a second. Of course, his recovery was quick and he continued, “You must know that given the circumstances of your past, this is a very good offer. You see Natasha, you can go this way,” he pointed left 15
with a chopstick, “or you can go that way,” he pointed with the other one. “Make the right choice and your future is wide-open. Make the wrong one and you’ll end up… well, let’s just leave it at that, shall we?” “Why do I get the feeling I don’t really have a choice?” He sighed. “What will it be, Natasha?” “China.” The word popped out of my mouth, just like that, before I could stop it. Surely now he’d laugh, a camera would appear and someone would yell I’d been punked. But none of that happened. He simply shrugged. “Not my first choice but never mind, I'm not the one going. You leave late tonight. We’ve gathered some things for you and taken them to a hotel. Can’t risk you going back to your apartment. The police might be there already.” “I can’t get a visa to China just like that!” He rolled his eyes. “You wait in Mexico while we arrange your papers.” He motioned for the waiter, who hurried over, and Manson signed the tab and got up. “Everything’s been arranged. We won’t meet again.” He was gone then in a black convertible VW Bug—who would have guessed—and I was left to ruminate as I was taken by taxi to the hotel. I was screwed. I knew enough about powerful people to realize that the whole “you have a choice” speech was bogus. It was useless to fight someone like Manson. No matter that I could put him on the ground in two seconds. People like him controlled the media, the money, the masses—everything. Maintaining Chow’s image was worth a fortune to them and they weren’t going to let a little nobody like me ruin it all. And then it hit me: so what? Wasn’t this what I’d been dreaming of? And here it was falling into my lap. Not exactly how I’d planned it, but hell, this was better than scrimping and saving for years and maybe never getting what I wanted. Thank God I hadn’t signed a contract for the fight yet. To hell with the fight, it was all a 16
stack of cards ready to fall anyway. And women got no respect in the ring, who was I fooling? That night as I exited the hotel, a car pulled up and the darkened window rolled down just enough to reveal a pair of violet eyes. Jessica. “Get in. I’m taking you to the airport,” she said. I got in. “You were a real asshole in school,” she said. “So were you.” She smiled. Even in her sweats, no make-up and hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked gorgeous. “What the hell were you doing at the premiere?” I flushed. “I had a crush on Chow, but no more.” “Ditto that, though, much as he’s a prick I don’t want him dead. I’m going to be the love interest in his next movie, so, thanks for saving the mother fucker.” I gave a mock bow, as best I could in the car. She looked at me thoughtfully. “After you beat me up in school, nothing was ever the same. I hated you, was scared of you, too. Everybody made fun of my nose job and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m pretty good at kicking ass now, though.” “You were always good, Jessica, much better than me.” “No, I claw my way up just like women always have, with sex. But you...” she moved closer, wide eyes filling my vision, hunger on her face. “I heard you killed two men. I’d give anything to know what that feels like.” Her face had turned to me so I now saw her left side. I realized that she was, indeed, wearing skillfully applied make-up, covering a black and blue mark by her left eye. “Does he hit you, Jessica?” I asked bluntly. Her body recoiled and she laughed, bitter. “I know what I’m doing. I’m using Chow and when I’m done, I’m going to crush him.” “Ouch,” I said. “What if it doesn’t turn out like that? Where’s 17
your pride?” Naked hate twisted her fine features into a clownish, repulsive caricature of herself. “You fucking hypocrite! I hope you enjoy your exile because you’re more in a cage as I am. You talk tough but you obeyed Manson and did what you were told, just like everybody does. You punch someone and maybe get a few thousand bucks—so what? I sleep with the right guy, take a few punches, and end up with money and influence beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll go for that any day. Now get the fuck out of my car.” I got out and boarded my plane for Mexico. Two weeks later, on my way to China I still hadn’t shaken the encounter. I’d never felt what Jessica felt when my fists were in her face. I’d never covered my wounds with make-up. I wore them with pride. I’d never cowered on the ground, begging for mercy like Chow. I was the one who made others cower, even killed if necessary. Did it have to be like that, one who controlled and one who submitted? “You are so deep in thought,” said a deep voice. Startled, I turned to look into the face of the Chinese man sitting next to me on the plane; a beautiful, serene face with deeply intelligent, inquiring eyes and a finely chiseled mouth, slightly upturned in an inscrutable smile. I blinked as if to clear my vision. “I guess I am.” He nodded sympathetically. “Long flight ahead. How about a drink?” He called the flight attendant over, then said with a hint of playfulness, “You have a secret. Secrets cannot resist a good champagne.” Great line, I thought cynically. Then, I shook my head as if to empty it of negativity. For once in my life, I was going to enjoy the ride. At thirty thousand feet, suspended between heaven and hell and hurtling towards the unknown, a giddy rush of anticipation ran through me. The champagne came and I toasted Chow and Manson. Hell, I even toasted Jessica. “And who are they?” the man asked. 18
“My benefactors,” I said, reaching for more champagne, our glasses clinking merrily. “Then they must be very good people, indeed,” he remarked. I laughed. “Oh, yes…indeed.” I gulped down my second glass. I was feeling great, really great. Life had a crazy way of turning on its head and in a split-second shift, becoming something altered and unexpected. Case in point, who’d have thought that a creep like Manson, my old nemesis Jessica and that pathetic poster boy Chow would have helped to make my dreams come true. Here I was, heading towards China and adventure, seated next to a gorgeous man who was surely a million times more interesting and sexy than Chow could ever be. Or at least, that's how it seemed so far. “Let’s drink to poster boys, cheerleaders and the powerful little pigs who own them,” I said. “Whatever you wish,” said my companion, smiling knowingly. And to that, we toasted again.
Letter To the great master Shakespeare From a poet o The court of the Emperor I send you greeting Now you know how news travels Along the trade routes With the silks and spices Over meat and wine At every inn from Nanking To where the sun sets And so I heard of you my Contemporary Writing your plays creating Evenings of magic They say you sing of princes Of the olden days And lovers quarreling In the soft moonlight And so do I write of the gods Of the Emperor Shen-Tsung who wasted twenty Years by whom I was Sent away from the palace Down south to Hsu-Wen They say you wrote of lovers In mid-summer dreams I sing of Fair Bride Li-Mang And also of Liu Who came to her bed that night 20
Now I T’ang Hrien-Tsu Will dedicate strings of cash And rice to Ching-Yuen Goddess of us poets For what we shall write That it should live forever And be read by everyone
An Interview with Gene Ayres An award winning novelist, journalist, columnist, critic, and film and television writer/producer, Gene (E. C.) Ayres is a graduate (B.A.) of Syracuse University, worked in New York for seven years producing short films for Children's Television Workshop ("Sesame Street,") ABC, and Time Life Television, then went on to write and produce for various other PBS television series at stations in Maryland, Arizona, and California. Moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s, Ayres began writing for commercial television, primarily in animation, worked as a feature development writer for Jack Arnold at Universal Pictures, and was recipient of a Warner Brothers Writers Fellowship in 1982. Since leaving Hollywood in 1989 he has published five mystery novels including winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel competition in 1992. He was a single parent for more than a decade prior to his nearly three years living and working in China between 2004-2007. There he served as a freelance editor, writer, and university lecturer in English at Harbin University of Commerce in northern Manchuria, where he wrote his current book A Billion to One: An American Insider in the New China (2009). He is married to a Chinese national, and now lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. He can be reached at: email@example.com His blog and Web site are at: www.geneayres.org
Excerpt from A Billion to One: An American Insider in the New China (to be republished in March, 2010 by Transaction Publishers and Rutgers University Press as Inside the New Chinese: An Ethnographic Memoir):
t was the day after the Sports Day banquets that the generals and Party bosses who had invited me to lunch and dinner with the Governor turned their brigade of crack young troops (i.e. the incoming freshman) over to me. What were they thinking? Can you imagine the responsibility in that? It would now be my job to properly mold their eager young minds. Or at least those of the English majors: a daunting challenge. They'd just finished three weeks of rigorous and intensive training, ten hours a day, seven days a week, marching, drilling, doing calisthenics and tai chi-like exercises, and getting yelled at a lot. Usually outside my window, at around 5:00 a.m. But as Sports Day had shown, the results were impressive. It was easy to see, during the Beijing Olympics to come, how such remarkable precision could be wrought in such a short time. These kids—offspring of the Red Guard and heirs to the Cultural Revolution—were physically fit, tightly drilled, and ready to rock and roll. Or at least, study English. I must admit my new students seemed none the worse for all that drilling, and well prepared for the very different rigors of academic life to come. I wasn’t so sure about myself. Asian (i.e. Chinese) students had been rising to the top of every conceivable chart in the U.S. for decades, and as of 2004 were the dominant minority group at California’s top colleges and universities. At U.C. Berkeley they were actually the majority. So it was no surprise that they might be ready to excel here in their homeland as well, even at a mid-level university. These students were motivated, had been taught to focus, to value hard work from an early age, and had put up with all that marching and saluting just for the chance to show what they were made of. They were going places, and in a big 23
hurry to get there, eager and anxious to join the outside world. So there I was, the new conductor, facing thirty members of our newly matriculated Chinese state university freshman class, who would now become my new charges. Imagine an ex-hipster and unreconstructed peacenik assigned as new commanding officer of a company of Chinese People's Liberation Army irregulars, and you get the picture. Think Jack Black in School of Rock and that was me.
TCType: What were your reasons for moving to China? Gene Ayres: A freelance writer for many years, I'd been raising a son as a single parent, who was finally college bound, and I was once again, for the first time in almost two decades, a free spirit. So when an offer came from an old friend and colleague to come to China to teach English at a state university in Manchuria, I was hard pressed to come up with a good reason to say no. Plus, I needed the job. TCType: What was the most difficult part of life to get used to in China? Ayres: The one thing I never got used to was the spitting, and similar public discharges of waste matter from other bodily orifices. It was mostly men, of course, who were the offenders, although I'd seen women spitting even on busses in Harbin, and in the south the common practice of chewing betel nuts exacerbated the problem. This habit is not uniquely Chinese, of course--I have seen plenty of Americans behave the same way. But it offended me to the point that I felt driven to write a letter to the Beijing Review complaining—in a humorous fashion—about this problem. And while I can't claim credit since it was never published, I was 24
pleased to note a few months later that, no doubt in anticipation of the forthcoming Beijing Olympics, spitting in public would thenceforth be, at least in Beijing, a fineable offense. Not that it worked. TCType: How did you handle moving back to the U.S.? Ayres: I have a full chapter about this in my book A Billion to One, because having married a Chinese national (in China) with a child, it was an unbelievably daunting and expensive process to get the necessary visas to bring them back with me. And as they were both loyal Chinese citizens and happy in their native country, that made it even harder. TCType: Was there some part of life in China that you missed? Ayres: I missed and still miss the degree of respect and admiration I experienced there, especially from my young charges, many of whom still remain close friends on Facebook, LinkedIn, and via email. TCType: What is your favorite phrase in Chinese? Ayres: Mei wenti (no problem). TCType: What is your opinion of stinky tofu? Ayres: I am not fond of tofu, stinky or otherwise (actually in the north it is not “stinky”). But as it is a staple in my wife's cuisine I have grudgingly gotten used to it, at least on occasion. TCType: How much of your work do you plan before sitting down to write? Do you write an outline or just dive in? Ayres: My nonfiction memoir was originally based on a series of 25
dispatches via email to friends and family in the U.S., and each future chapter was based on an event, incident, or observation from that prior week or so. So I had a subject in mind, and the basic elements, and would then sit down and wing it. TCType: Prior to A Billion to One, you wrote mysteries. How was the process of writing different with each genre? Ayres: Writing fiction is a different matter. That I would outline first, a practice I learned in Hollywood, when a short premise, followed by a detailed outline, was mandatory in writing for the screen. TCType: Besides outlining your work more for fiction, what is different about the overall writing process? Ayres: For me, not that much is different. Both genres need organization, structure, a driving story line, and theme. My fiction is more message-based than some. Although I once worked in Hollywood, I strongly reject Louis B. Mayor's theory that “if you wanna send a message call Western Union.” I think all fiction, actually, delivers a message of some kind, including even MGM's films (all that cheerful happy times song and dancing was propaganda, after all). My “message” themes have to do with the basic issues of our time, as does all good fiction (and nonfiction). This goes back to Aeschulus and Arisophanes. We all write because we have something to say, and need to say it. TCType: Has writing a memoir affected your writing style or process in fiction? Ayres: Both are creative processes for me (my memoirs, with more to come, are of a relatively new genre called “creative nonfiction.” Both originate in the realm of experience, enhanced by the stream 26
of consciousness which, at least to me, is another very real world and universe in and of itself. TCType: Do you plan to write more about China or will your writing take you to new genres? Ayres: As my China memoir is going to be republished under a new title by a major university press next year, I may well feel inspired to write a sequel. Especially since I remain closely connected to China and its people, having married one, being stepparent of another, and having taught hundreds of others. I have also finished a mystery-suspense novel set in China, based on a real murder (resulting from an internet date gone wrong) that took place on my campus. I haven't yet found a publisher for that one. TCType: What is the best writing advice you have received? Ayres: Two things: write what you are passionate about, and never give up (the latter is a common belief these days in China). TCType: How much time would you estimate you spend editing a book? Ayres: I have long resented and much resisted the need for and process of editing, in the erroneous belief that was someone else's job. But having learned the hard way that “editors” (having been one myself) no longer edit, at least not at publishing houses, I have grudgingly learned to do it for myself. It typically takes months. TCType: How do you decide that your work is complete? Ayres: One of the ironies of modern word processing technology is that, by making editing so easy, it has become almost impossible to truly determine that a work is finished. Complete, perhaps, in the 27
sense that all the major story points etc. are in place. But finished? Perhaps never, because every time a read something I have written, I feel compelled to correct, improve, change, or delete something. Therefore, I guess it is complete only when the publisher has committed it to print. And even that has become an uncertain and nebulous thing. Because with the advent of POD publishing, changes can always be made. TCType: Were you worried about offending anyone while writing A Billion to One? How do you deal with the possibility of confrontations from writing the truth? Ayres: Yes, and no. I'd been sending many of my most outspoken observations about life in China while living and working there via email, with no problem. I'd even been warned by a local TV news director (from Israel, as it happened) that I was being watched and monitored, and this was completely hyperbolic, because there was only one person in the entire region, a person I knew, who had the capability of understanding and interpreting contemporary American idiomatic English (the subject I was in fact there to teach). Especially on a running basis. This guy had in fact been a government interpreter and had quit in disgust. So, that said, I wasn't worried about being too critical. I also wrote the article about spitting to the Beijing Review without censure, and in fact the ordinance against it was passed soon thereafter (I used a satirical approach, incidentally, which often works better with political criticism). It wasn't published, though. One of my former students recently did read the entire book. I'm proud of her for that. She only had one negative comment, in general, that it might not be able to get published in China as written. And that was mostly because of a chapter called The Mother in Law from Hell about the rigging of the national Ministry of Education university ratings (ours, of course, being managed by U.S. News, is totally objective, of course!). There was a lot of systemic 28
cheating, though, in China, which I also satirized. But since I could not substantiate this other than personal observation, I have decided to remove that chapter from the forthcoming new book from the Rutgers U. press Transaction next spring, Inside the New China: An Ethnographic Memoir. But I am replacing it with two new chapters that should have been in the first version anyway, one about an arranged marriage that had been planned for one of my students, whose generation had outgrown such things; the other about what happens when you let a bunch of previously tightly controlled young former soldiers write and stage a comedic play. Bottom line is I expect Transaction, which has a Chinese publishing partner, to put this book out in China, now. TCType: How do you handle rejection of your work? Ayres: No writer is exempt from rejection. My favorite case is a then-fellow screenwriter named Melissa Matheson, in L.A., from a famous local writing family, in fact. She'd written an original script that had been all over the place without success. She finally got lucky, she thought, and hooked up with a well known up and coming director. Even the director got shot down more than 100 times, which must be some kind of record. Nobody wanted this project. Finally the director made a deal at his new studio, Universal, where I was working at the time. He would only make the next of his newly popular action series if they would allow him to make this film next. They finally grudgingly agreed. The next series film they wanted was Indiana Jones II. Melissa Matheson's script was called E.T. End of story. Alas, I probably don't have any E.T.s waiting in the wings, although I have one semi-legendary screenplay called Roll Over Beethoven that has been optioned three times but never made (I still think it would make a great film, it's a romantic comedy—details on my Web site for those interested. I do have another novel, The Shakespeare Chronicles which my then agent had absolute confi29
dence in: it was going to be the Da Vinci Code of English literary history (about who really wrote Shakespeare—and no, it wasn't Oxford). A top foreign agent, Danny Baror picked it up and in fact made sales in five or six countries, all in Eastern Europe, and thus apparently sufficiently far from the sway of the Shakespeare orthodoxy, which as it turns out is a lot more powerful and influential in literary circles than, say, the Vatican. No one in NY or London would touch it (World Audience does want it for an e-book, but I'm reluctant to go there). My favorite edition is the Czech version, beautifully bound and printed in Prague. I haven't even seen the Russian or Italian ones yet, if they ever even came out. The Euros were, of course, counting on this book being a big hit in the States and UK which never happened. This kind of rejection--after so many near misses, so many close calls-- is always the most painful. But on the other hand, Melissa Matheson never wrote another script (too hard to top that one, maybe?). I have to wonder how happy she is these days, or frustrated (even in her jodphurs?). J.D. Salinger had a hit first time out and look how happy he is. I keep at it, because my mysteries were a small success once, I've had a few accolades--enough to get me up each morning and keep me going. Who knows, maybe my next book will finally break out. Or the one after that. I have no doubts about the quality of all of them, so it isn't that, and never was. For those readers here full of self-doubts, as all of my Chinese students were, incidentally, I say this: read some of the so-called “best sellers” out there. Then read your own best material. You decide. Then get back to work.
Review: The Beijing of Possibilities
f Beijing is the center of the universe, it’s only natural that the circus sideshow should come to town. At least it seems that way at times in Jonathan Tel’s The Beijing of Possibilities. All roads from across the vast land of China lead (or allude) to Beijing and all that it offers (bizarre twists and magical turns included) in this collection of short stories from the author of Arafat’s Elephant and Freud’s Alphabet. The touch of humor and surrealism mixed with reality of China is what makes Jonathan Tel’s collection of twelve short stories entertaining and insightful. The stories stretch across generations and regions of China, but portray the universal struggle of a country that changes rapidly while holding on to the past. The problem with many collections of stories is that each story stands alone with no connection to the others, but Tel threads his tales together, occasionally alluding to the others like they are an integral part of each other. All of his characters face hardships, whether they are factory workers, thieves, or societal elites, yet they never despair. Everyone strives for the sky but is held back by fate or circumstance—though it sometimes arrives in the form of surreal occurrence that provides a kind of comic relief from the darker tales of misfortune and civil disorder. “The Year of the Gorilla” sets the tone for the following stories—portraying modern China with entrepreneurial concepts and contradictions of society. The gorilla may not be the Monkey King of Chinese myth, but he certainly entertains the masses and performs wondrous acts. The stories are filled with migrant characters trying to make a living in a variety of ways, including singing in a hot gorilla suit. Tel’s stories range from the amusing and unusual of “The Glamorous Heart of Cosmopolitan Beijing,” which depicts a team of pickpockets and an unimaginable coincidence, to melancholy 31
realism in “Rise Upward to the Blue Clouds,” about a village girl who has to work off her uncle’s debt to snakeheads by working as an ayi in Beijing. There are also tales that bridge the gap between the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms—“Love! Duty! Humanity! Virtue!” portrays the immediate effects of the reforms and the opportunity created by hardship. Many of the stories set in present day reference the 2008 Olympics and its effects on the economy and society. It’s not often that one comes across a collection of short stories that maintains consistency and a semblance of cohesiveness. Jonathan Tel’s The Beijing of Possibilities manages to flow rather seamlessly from one story to the next. Tel provides the reader with realistic perspectives of China while transforming it at times into unbelievable fiction that elicits laughter.
hat kind of tree is that one?” Using one dirty finger, she pressed against his forehead until he was no longer blocking her light. “It’s a brush cherry.” Picking up the metal clippers, she snipped carefully at the younger leaves, slicing them away from the mature plant’s older branches. “Don’t you want it to be nice and bushy? All…fluffy and stuff?” He picked up her root shears and scissored at an invisible enemy. She laid the clippers aside and picked the shorn leaves from the glazed bowl the cherry filled. “No. Part of the attraction of penjing is the sparseness of the plants. The carefully planned and executed designs.” “I thought they were bonsai, that Japanese thing with tiny plants.” “The Japanese got it from the Chinese. The Chinese call them penjing, or penzai.” He was quiet as he watched her continue to strip the plant. “But that plant, that’s the one with the flowers, right? If you cut it down, do you still get flowers?” He leaned on the edge of the potting table again. “Too many leaves on a plant are unhealthy. Too few as well. The balance needs to be maintained in order for the plants to grow and flourish.” He stared at her, twirling a marking pencil in his fingers until she sighed. “Yes, it will still flower. And quite well. It doesn’t need all the new leaves sapping its energy.” She nudged a little dirt off the lip of the bowl and placed it carefully back on its display stand on the bookshelf. “What are you doing here anyway? You knew I was going to be working with my penzai all day.” “Oh, you know.” He spun around on his stool until he could 33
recline against the table with his elbows propped, angling the chair back and forth. “I was bored, lonely. Thought I might be able to offer a hand.” She gave the display stand one last nudge and returned to her table and the other plants lined up along the wall edge. “Really, a hand.” She pulled a ficus towards her, the plant peeking out over the top of a pillar of tinfoil. “In that case, hand over those root shears you were playing with earlier.” Again he stared at her. “The blue handled ones.” “Oh, right.” He picked them up and placed them in her outstretched hand. He let his fingers trail up her wrist before sagging back on his stool and waggling his hand at her. “See, a hand.” She snorted and started to tug away a small section of foil, uncovering the top of a pillar of dirt that stretched five inches over the pot. “So, a few of my friends are going out this afternoon, Ultimate Frisbee followed by beers at Joe’s. I was thinking, maybe, you’d want to…” “Maybe.” She started to brush away the dirt that she’d uncovered, revealing the top of the ficus’s root system and the tip of a rock wound within it. “If I’m finished here. These trees need my attention. It’s been elsewhere recently.” She used a tiny foxtail to brush away the last of the dirt on the exposed inch of roots and used the shears to cut away the smaller trailer roots that had started to form since she bound its roots around the rock. “I know.” His grin looked as though it would slide off his face and into the bag of potting soil at his feet. “Speaking of attention…” He got up from his perch and circled behind her, kneading her shoulders. She rolled her shoulders and shrugged him off. “Let me finish.” He raised his hands in the air and slouched back around to the stool, a small furrow between his brows. “What are you doing to that tree anyway? I think it’d be a bad idea to let the roots stay exposed like that.” 34
She kept one hand on the ceramic tray of the ficus as she reached up to the shelf above the table and pulled down a dirt-stained book. Running her finger along the tabs in the side, she stopped about three-quarters of the way and grabbed a green tab. The creased and smeared pages fell open to a two page spread of ficus trees, all between five and ten inches tall, all with their exposed roots bound around a rock. She spun it around to face him. “It’s a common style for the ficus. It has strong roots that don’t mind being exposed, and so forms like this…or…” she flipped a few pages, “or like this dragon design come naturally to this tree. It just takes time.” “That dragon design sure looks ugly, all those twisting, bare roots.” He fingered the page, running the pads of his fingers over the pictures as though he could feel the convoluted and twisting root system. “It is one of the great designs, in my opinion. It represents the unification of the Chinese nobility.” She snatched the book back and thrust it onto the shelf. “Yeah, but the roots? Why not the branches? They’re sleeker and cleaner looking.” “Roots are a tree’s strength. They keep it rooted, draw nutrients. If the roots are not strong, the tree will invariably fail and soon. They have to be anchored and…and secure.” She caressed the exposed roots, snatching the tray from the table as he stretched out to touch it. “I don’t know what you have on your hands. It could hurt the tree. The roots are sensitive when first exposed.” He crossed his arms on the table and rested his chin on them. “They’re clean.” She carried the ficus to its spot in the window and he mumbled, “Clean enough, anyway.” He spun on his stool to face her again. “Why do you like playing with these runty trees anyway? Seems like they take a lot more patience than you normally have.” “They take a lot less patience than dealing with people.” She shot a glance at him and then back to the ficus under her hands. 35
“They calm me down. Plus my dad used to work with them, and I was always fascinated by the wire frames and the miniature, well, everything. I liked the small scale, the possibilities. Do you know just how many different forms you can train a tree into? There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the possibilities you dreamt for your trees coming true.” She wandered over to the end table which displayed a maple in a sweeping, cloudlike style. “This is my first.” She laughed a little and trailed her fingers softly over the canopy of leaves. “Well, first to survive that is. I killed a few before I figured it out. The kind of care it takes.” As she returned to the table, she dragged another tree towards her. “Hey, what’s wrong with that tree? Is it sick?” He flicked his fingers at the dead branches evident among the juniper’s green leaves. She swatted his hand away and pressed a finger tip to the end of a dead branch. “Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s supposed to look this way.” “What, half dead?” She glared at him and started pulling out razors and a scalpel from her drawer. She also pulled out a little bottle and miniscule paint brush. “Sharimiki is frequently practiced on miniature trees. It gives the tree character. It is representative of the daily struggle to survive.” “Shari-what-y?” His eyes kept flickering to the blades she set out and back to the tree. “Sharimiki. The practice of stripping bark to give the appearance of dead wood. Jin,” she pointed to the lifeless branches, “and shari are both techniques of sharimiki. I’m starting a shari on this tree today.” She picked up the scalpel and, holding the trunk delicately in one had, she started the careful process of cutting into the bark. “So, do you think when you’re done with this one, we could maybe…” He grinned at her until she looked up from her cutting. “I have three more trees to see to today. They haven’t been 36
trimmed in over a month and it’s the growing season. And one of them needs to be repotted. Maybe when I’ve finished with them.” She looked back down. “Fine. I guess I’m waiting for you to get your nose out of the dirt. I’ll call you later.” He jumped up from the stool and left it rocking as he strode to the apartment door and slammed it after him. She flinched as he left and when she looked back to the juniper, she realized the scalpel had slipped to the side, scoring the bark and her hand. She watched a drop of blood absorb into the soil. She shook herself and stooped down to see what damage her slip had caused. She fingered the cut carefully, tracing the section of bark up into the tree. It looked as though she might lose one of the smaller branches. Nothing disastrous, just more jin.
hat she remembers now about their first night was how tender he was. Her family did not have much money to spend on finery, but Fan-Len’s mother had insisted on a red lace veil, which they sewed together in the week before her wedding. They sat across from each other by kerosene light with opposite corners held in their laps, listening to the sound of thread whistling through the lace, not talking except to trade occasional comments on the progression of the veil. Falling into a rhythm, Fan-Len’s mind wandered to images of a village she recognized only by name, a place she imagined not so different from her own. Almost everything she knew about her betrothed had come to her in song, the night her father came home late from working the fields, the smell of liquor on his breath. As Fan-Len bent over to help him soak his cracked and soiled feet in a bucket of warm water, he patted her on the head and whispered to her softly in the sing-song voice he adopted after drinking too much. “Xiao nui, xiao nui. Soon you will be leaving me. Small girl, small girl. It’s time to go away.” She leaned back on her haunches, taking in the nice lilt of his voice and the airy baritone like a bassoon in their small twobedroom house, before she registered the meaning of his words. “What did you say?” Her tone seemed to call him to attention, and he looked straight into her eyes when he said, “I found you a husband.” “A husband? For me?” “You’re almost thirteen. It is time to enter a new home.” Her eldest brother’s fiancé had also been thirteen when they married, and Fan-Len had been preparing herself for this moment. Now that it was here, she felt more curious than frightened. 38
“Who is he?” But her father simply smiled and patted her on the head again, went back to humming his favorite Peking opera. Over the weeks that followed, she managed few details—he is 19 years-old, he has two brothers and a sister, they also live on a farm—which she turned over in her mind as her fingers turned their way over and under the red silk thread of her wedding veil. As the fishtail pattern started to emerge, Fan-Len imagined she was weaving a picture of the life she was about to assume. Snow fell on the eve of her wedding day. Her mother called it a sign that the marriage would be prosperous—good snow means good year—but Fan-Len found it particularly troublesome as she would have to walk nearly a mile to the sedan carriage in her thin cloth shoes. The cold on her feet, she did not dwell on the ceremonial signs of her exile from her father’s house—the spilled water and the door to her home slammed shut behind her—until she was seated in the carriage. She had not thought to look back upon her father’s face and she knew her mother’s would be covered in tears, but Fan-Len did not hold these thoughts long. She would see them at the banquet hall, after she had taken her traditional ride. As the sedan chair bounced up and down with the gait of the men carrying her, she winced each time a man lost his step, fearing the shame of a broken carriage more than a broken bone. Her family had not been able to afford the full ride from her village, so her father paid the men to carry her around the block of the banquet hall three times, hoping the luckiness of that number would ward off any misfortune they invited by forcing her to walk to her own wedding. The crunch of feet on day-old snow began to take on a regular rhythm, and Fan-Len leaned back into the cushions of the carriage and inhaled deeply. She could smell faintly the Tiger balm her mother used to rub into her arthritic joints as the web of red lace swished back and forth against her nose. It soothed her while she rode, but later, during the ceremony, it frustrated her, adding an39
other layer of irritation to cloud her vision of the man she would soon be joined to for the rest of her life. She tried to study him through the red lace, but could discern only outlines: a wide sloping face, big teeth when he smiled, and hair that seemed to chart its own course. Later, when he removed the veil to kiss her, she had time only to register the nice smooth curve of his nose, before he pressed his trembling lips to hers. The wedding meal was the combined effort of the newly joined families. Hers provided rice and vegetables from their fields; Yang’s brothers had slaughtered a few of their chickens and spent days fishing the lake for trout and catfish. As they dined on red-dyed eggs and steamed whole fish and pickled pig’s feet, the feasting was peppered by a rumor that spread round the room nearly as fast as the rice wine flowed: The Japanese had bombed Shanghai again. Yang’s father stood to say a few words, and all eyes turned to him, as if their rapt attention could quell the disturbing dispatch they had just heard. When he sat down and all the men had toasted, they turned once more to their food, bowing their heads as if to pray, the conversation a silent din and no match for the imagined sounds of explosions and gunfire and death in the streets of Shanghai. The news did not trouble Fan-Len. What she heard were mere words—distant scenes—compared to the drama unfolding beside her: this man, whom she now could study at length as they ate, had become her husband. He had uttered his first words to her moments after he had pulled his lips away from their first kiss, words whispered so close to her face that she could feel the whirr of his breath as he spoke them: xiexie ni, thank you. She thought about these words, thinking her new husband a finicky eater as she watched him pick the choicest pieces of meat and place them into his bowl. He took the head of the fish, prying out the eyes and cheeks with his chopsticks, before throwing the bones to the floor. Last, he grabbed long, leafy stalks of mustard 40
green and cong xing cai and laid them on top of the rice. Then he had set the bowl before her. But he would not look into her eyes. Not even when she returned the words he had used—xiexie ni—and he had bowed his head slightly and reached for the empty bowl sitting beside the steaming bowl in front of her and started filling it with his own portion. They ate—side by side, husband and wife—looking straight ahead, occasionally lifting their glasses together when a relative stopped by their table to pay respects with a toast. She could feel the rice wine going to her head, and it seemed like all her words were tumbling out in a detached voice she could not control. Her cheeks hurt from smiling so much, and she wondered if people were staring at the teeth she didn’t like to show. Fan-Len noticed Yang stealing glances at her, but no, he wasn’t looking at her lips, he was looking at her eyes now. When she matched his gaze, he quickly looked away, and she realized she was laughing again. The good part about the wine was that it made the rest of the evening go faster, and soon Fan-Len found herself alone with her new husband. She sat on the bed and giggled as he helped to take off her shoes. She thought he was reaching down to undo his own shoes when he suddenly righted himself and held open his palm to her. “What’s this?” “It’s for you.” “Me?” She regarded the ring a moment before reaching for it and slipping it onto her finger where it fit snugly. She held her left hand out in front of her face and turned it side to side so she could admire it. She had never seen anything so fine before. The flash of the gold delighted her, and she was surprised to see that what she had heard about jade was true. “Look, it gets darker on my finger!” She turned to look at Yang, whose expression she could not discern. She thought of 41
something her father had told her offhand, not as a warning, but more as a hint of what she could expect in days to come: if a boy gets married, it’s happiness; if a girl gets married, it’s sadness. Where was the sadness in this? Surely someone who valued her enough to give her jewelry would not demand the things she had been taught a husband demands. “Is this what I am worth to you?” “I saved for many months to buy it.” “Why?” She tried to read the expression on his face. “I wanted you to have something…special.” “Why?” All of a sudden, he looked as if he would start to cry, and she began to doubt herself. “Suan le. I just wondered if that was all I was worth. Or if a wife meant more to you. Nevermind.” She didn’t know what else to do, so she changed the subject by reaching for his pants, undoing the buckle like she had seen her brother do when he met the neighbor girl in secret. Fan-Len had followed him once—to the bamboo grove behind their house – and watched as they made love among the tall tubular reeds. It was not her brother she had wanted to spy on, but his girlfriend, MeiGwan, a tall, long-haired beauty Fan-Len had idolized ever since chasing her around the village as a toddler. Yang put out his hand to stop Fan-Len, and his embarrassment surprised her; this wasn’t how she thought a man was supposed to behave. She pulled back and crossed her arms and spoke in a voice bolder than she felt, “Aiya, don’t you know how to use it?” Her words seemed to help him recover, and he nodded as he shut off the light and slipped out of his pants, lowering himself onto the bed. They sat there side by side—their eyes adjusting to the dark as they looked straight ahead much as they had at dinner—until he turned to her and kissed her, groping awkwardly at her softer parts. 42
When he finally entered her, it felt nothing like she had imagined it would. It was too quick, too painful, and she tried to keep from shouting out, but she couldn’t help it, and that only made him push harder. She closed her eyes, trying not to look at the face grimacing inches above her, and after a few dark minutes, it was over. She opened her eyes when Yang had rolled off of her, and they started to water because she had been squeezing them so tight. She tried not to move, hoping he would go to sleep next to her, but she could feel the unevenness of his breathing and even in the dark his eyes upon her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not, I don’t—” She turned her face toward him and felt the wetness of her tears as she rested her cheek on the pillow. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say, so she said nothing. They had simply laid there looking at the whites of each other’s eyes until sleep overtook them both. She tried to picture those eyes now, imagining them behind his eyelids shut in their last forever blink. All she saw was the line across his jawbone marking the edge of where the mortician had swiped the cosmetic sponge—a color too pink and not golden enough—a last and final ignominy for her husband to take to his grave. “Ma.” “What?” “Come. Sit.” “Wo bu yao. You sit.” She watched as Xinyi seated himself in the first row next to his sister, bowing his head and fumbling with his hands, first on the seat and then on his legs and finally folded with interlocked fingers in his lap. Behind him, she saw some of Yang’s coworkers from the Biltmore Estates and the Lee family he had been visiting the night he was killed. The room was small enough to look part 43
full, but that only made the empty seats stick out even more. None of his friends from San Francisco had come, not even Wong Lao Jiu or his sons who Yang had helped sponsor out of China. She turned back to her husband and fingered the pale pink satin lining the coffin and picked invisible specks of lint off his charcoal gray suit and thought of Lanyu and Chuen—still back in Tianjin—unaware of their father’s death. Why did you leave me to bear your burdens again? Huh? That’s all you do is leave. Somewhere behind her, she heard expected sounds—the shuffle of feet and the loud rustling of people trying to be quiet—and then unexpected sounds. Deep, heavy wailing filled the air, cacophonous cries that sounded like the imitation of grief, like the attempt of the lungs to mimic the soul’s pain. You think I should be crying for you? Like I cried for my ma and ba? She had not emptied out her sorrow like this since her mother’s funeral—and then her father’s a few months after that. Then it had been collective anguish, the mourners there all sharing their burdens, raising their voices also for their own dead, buried in the unyielding earth whose barrenness had put them there. “Ma.” The wailing stopped. “What?” “Come. Let’s go.” “No.” She turned back to the coffin, gripping the sides and straining to hear the others. What did you do with them? You would deprive your widow of her agony? She realized then that it had been her. She had been mourning alone, her cries not subsumed by the grief of others in the room; her grief had been the intrusion. “It’s time, Ma. They need the room.” She looked down, releasing her grip. You see that! Now I’m the one who has to leave. How does it feel? 44
She let herself be pulled away by Xinyi whose hands had suddenly found a purpose: they gripped her arm where the black band of cloth was pinned to her beige-colored suit. It had been the closest she could get to white without offending her children. “It’s not right, Ma.” “Who says it’s not right? In China, you wear white to a funeral.” “This isn’t China, Ma.” There was Yuming now, walking around in that halfconscious way she had whenever she didn’t want to face reality. She had worn black of course. You see that? Your daughter can’t even properly mourn you. They drove to the cemetery in Xinyi’s brown Rambler. She sat in the front seat and leaned on the dash in front of her for support. Every time they made a turn, she pressed her fingers into the vinyl and felt the heat of the desert sun baked into the cracks of its surface. She kept her eyes on the car in front of them, hoping the black tinted glass on its backside was doing a proper job of shielding the heat. The make-up would be sliding off his face now, tingeing the collar of his white shirt a pinkish shade of clay. Good thing no one had to look at him anymore. She followed the dark black car with her eyes as it wound its way through the gravel paths of the cemetery. It kept going when their car stopped and parked in the blacktop spaces designated for families. As Xinyi came around to open the door for her, she stepped out and looked around for the others, but no one was there. No other cars had followed them. They walked in silence across the thirsty lawn—Xinyi on her right and Yuming on her left—and she felt the blades of grass pricking at her ankles through her pantyhose as she craned her neck to look for the dark black car. All around her, silent eyes stared, eyes etched into stone with thick gray letters: some up and down, some left and right, a few 45
curved at the top and bottom. Granite slabs encroached upon each other, like the tilt of a woman’s head seeking her lover’s shoulder. Except these lovers were strangers, all of them, forced by chance and circumstance to share eternal residence. In China, the dead were given room to breathe: massive ancestral burial chambers sometimes carved into mountainsides, members of an entire family entombed within. In America, her husband would rest between Mitzhaufen and Davis—that’s what the man in the sales office had told them. She had lost sight of the car and gave up, setting her gaze ahead of her, and that’s when she saw it. They had been walking straight toward it the whole time. She watched as a man in a suit emerged from the driver’s side and began fiddling with something in his hands. He looked up and then opened the back of the car, fiddled some more. By the time they reached the burial site, Fan-Len could see he had removed the coffin from the belly of the dark black car. She looked at his skinny arms and doubted he possessed the strength to lower the coffin on his own, but there were no other workers in sight. It was just the man in the suit and Fan-Len and Xinyi and Yuming. The three of them stood there with their hands crossed in front of them and watched as the man started to crank a pulley. The coffin began to descend into the ground. Wait! She grabbed her son’s arm. “I want to see him.” “What Ma?” “I want to see him.” “Ma, you already saw him. Back at the funeral home.” “Don’t argue. I want to see him. Again.” Xinyi sighed, and she watched as he stepped forward to talk to the man in the suit, who by now was sweating profusely. She felt their eyes upon her and their shared exasperation, but the man 46
must have wanted the break, because a moment later Xinyi was stepping back and pulling her toward the edge of the rectangular depression in the earth. The top of the coffin was almost level with the ground they were standing on, and the man in the suit kneeled down and pried open the lid, pushing it back so it rested on the cranked part of the steel arms attached to the hinges. Xinyi and Yuming stood behind her, giving her some privacy as she kneeled next to her husband. She was right. The make-up had started to run. She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the line of skin above his collar. She hadn’t been this close to him since the coroner at the morgue had pulled him out of a cold gray locker for her to identify his broken body. At the funeral home, the coffin had been set up on a platform, and she had to stand on her tiptoes to see both sides of Yang’s face. Now she looked full into it. Will you be okay? She didn’t feel angry anymore. She thought of a cold February night, sedan chairs, food she had not tasted, Japanese bombs, red lace, milky jade set in gold, the dark, and his arms on either side of her, propping himself up. Underneath him, this time she dared to open her eyes and look. It’s time to say good-bye, okay? You’ll be okay. She reached out with her finger and touched his closed eyelids and then his cheek. She had thought his face would be sticky, but it wasn’t. She sat back on her heels and looked around her. There, that one must be Davis. His headstone was surrounded by yucca stalks poking out of the ground like hair. A few of the strands had turned yellow—the spiky flowers long since bloomed and withered. Not so bad, huh? Next spring, you can see the new flowers. Mitzhaufen had a simple marker—sitting on a small incline – parallel to the ground. Hmph. No frills. She’ll be a good listener. Behind her, Xinyi cleared his throat. It was time to say some47
thing. She didn’t know what. She said what she remembered. What she knew he would remember. “Xiexie ni.” They walked back to the car across the same thirsty lawn, without looking back at the man in the suit who was still struggling with the pulley. She looked instead at the witnesses around her, blinking her eyes in response: thank you. Thank you for coming. When they got into the car, no one spoke. Fan-Len fingered the ring which only fit onto her pinkie now because the heat had swelled every part of her body. She looked down at the jade, rubbed her thumb around its edges, and realized that that was what Yang’s face had felt like: cool, and full of luster, when they had made love on a night she could remember now with fondness. Hard, but rounded like a moon, when he had answered the touch of her finger, just moments ago, with release: I am not here anymore. You can let me go.
William S. Tribell
ChiNa Hemp and Mulberry ride the winds, blooms have fallen. Amid the willow’s swayed dance I lie down at night, Though can take no rest, rambling skies my temple plain. Terracotta lotus blossom in the moon’s light.
Contributor Notes John Bennett was born in England and came to the U.S. and worked as an ambulance EMT. He takes creative writing classes at New York University. Elrond Burrell (cover art) is an architect and a poet from New Zealand who lives in the UK with his Taiwanese partner. While studying Architecture at university in NZ he also studied Chinese culture and Mandarin and wrote a thesis on the Aesthetics of Pagodas. At this time a tutor gave him the Chinese name Pu Erhan (卜 尔瀚) which he has subsequently used as both a Chinese name and as a pen-name. He practices Chan Buddhism and this has a strong influence on his poetry which can be found at http:// puerhan.blogspot.com/ Rebecca Demarest is an MFA student at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She has been published in The Chrysalis and several school literary journals. She is an avid student of Chinese and world culture and an amateur penjing artist. Karen Hunt is the author and illustrator of nineteen children's books and co-founder and former president of InsideOUT Writers, a nationally acclaimed writing program for incarcerated youth. She's currently working on her memoir, Into the World, inspired by her childhood adventures traveling with her eccentric family during the 1960s, as well as Night Angels, her urban fantasy series for Townsend Press. “Poster Boy” is an excerpt from Love Wars, a series of seven stories of seven diverse women and their battles with love. When it comes to battles, Karen knows what she's talking about. A second degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, she has trained extensively in Eskrima and Okinawan weapons, and has fought as a boxer and kick boxer in the ring. She lives on the edge of Los Angeles with her three greatest inspira50
tions--her children. You can find out more at: www.redroom.com/ author/karen-alaine-hunt and www.karenalainehunt.com Kaiser Kuo is an American writer, rock musician, and culture/ technology commentator. He previously worked as director of digital strategy, China, for the advertising agency Ogilvy, as China bureau chief for Red Herring magazine, and as a freelance reporter. He is the author of Ich Bin Ein Beijinger, an anthology of columns written for that's Beijing/The Beijinger magazine since 2001. A 15year Beijing resident, he was co-founder of China's first and most successful heavy metal band, Tang Dynasty, and remains active in the rock scene in Beijing as lead guitarist for Mandarin metal band Chunqiu (Spring & Autumn). He lives in Beijing with his wife Fanfan and two young children. Vivian Liao holds an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and currently works as a speechwriter in New York City. Hello, Good-bye is an excerpt from her first novel, a work of historical fiction entitled The Kitchen Master, portions of which have received awards from Glimmer Train, the Denver Press Club, Aspen Writers’ Foundation, and Center of the American West. Her writing has also appeared in Sotto Voce. William S. Tribell is an American expat traveling through Europe; currently living, and writing in Budapest Hungary. Born in rural Kentucky; The Bluegrass State, in 1977. A long time resident of the Vieux Carre, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Katrina Refugee. William has lived and traveled through out the U.S. and abroad, looking for inspiration, culture, and the human condition.
Terracotta Typewriter #3, Fall 2009