Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I didn’t realize how different you’d look in person. You’re nothing like your author photo.

Yeah, I’ve aged a bit. Also, I had a baby.

 

That’s cool. Wait, I think I knew you 10 years ago, when you were just starting the research for your first novel. Is this the same book you were working on then?

Sadly, yes. It took me ten years to birth this book and ten hours to birth my daughter. The book was way more painful and I cried a lot more.

Translator’s Note

You never enter Beijing the same way twice. For centuries this was a hidden, forbidden empire: nine gates through which to pass, each with a melliferous name (Gate of Peace, Gate of Security, Gate Facing the Sun), each moat, wall, guard tower knocked down then rebuilt. First the Mongols, the Manchus, then the Boxers and Brits. So many defenses needed to protect the Peaceful Capital that eventually it was renamed Northern Capital—Beijing—for fear of instilling a false sense of quiet.

In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I witnessed hutong alleyways paved over by four-lane highways, a landscape of construction cranes pocking the horizon with hungry, steel arms; my old neighborhood with its elderly inhabitants, once accustomed to shared squat toilets and courtyard kitchen fires, shipped to the suburbs to make way for a Holiday Inn and an office tower with iridescent windows reflecting an endlessly gray, heavy sky.

Pattison 1The characters of all your novels are driven to find justice for horrible crimes with no help, and often outright opposition, from their government. Why have you chosen this dynamic for your books?

There is almost never justice in my books except for the makeshift justice wrought by people who have been abandoned by their societies. With my characters forced to navigate by their own innate sense of right and wrong I can explore justice in broader dimensions, including its spiritual and cultural context. The actors in these dramas come from sharply different cultures, with markedly different perspectives and motivations, but they are joined by the common goal of resolving terrible injustice. I have worked in many diverse cultures around the globe and am convinced there is a sense of justice ingrained in the human DNA — it is this instinct that drives my plots and empowers my characters.

Livings, Jack (C) Jennie Yabroff COLORLivings. That’s a Chinese name?

Yeah. Sure.

 

So you think that because you went to China twenty years ago you have license to write fiction about China?

I don’t know what right I have, but that’s what I did.

Next Week: Romney lashes out against himself in orgy of thoughtless mouth-leaking.

 

Girls’ Generation – Known Nazi Fanatics – Invade America
 

In the mid-1990s, a massive seismic shift took place under the cultural landscape of South Korea, almost immediately causing a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave”, or Hallyu (한류).

The Wave – believed by some (Korean) experts to be the most powerful force on earth – has swept outwards from the peninsula, engulfing whole nations, and sparing nobody… Nobody but you, America.

That is, until now.

full_nowtrends-B-hi-res
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.

“San ping sake,” I tell the server. Three bottles of sake.

When she returns a few minutes later with the fresh pitchers of warm rice wine I pour shots for myself and my friends. Sitting directly to my right is a young Californian who’s been in Beijing for just under a week. I toast to him on this evening, one that marks both his first night out in the city and his first sake experience.

At the table next to ours a group of local men wearing the green jerseys of the local soccer club are also imbibing sake. I make eye contact with one of them.

“Sake feichang hao,” I say. Sake is very good.

With this simple statement the red-faced Chinese man and his equally crimson companions acknowledge the group of foreigners with a chorus of “hellos” and offer to fill our glasses. With cups brimming, my new Chinese friend clinks his sake vessel to mine and says, “ganbei,” which translates to “empty the cup.” All of us drain our glasses and continue to “ganbei” for the better part of an hour.

By the end of the aggressive drinking session the China newbie is grinning a happy drunken grin and surveying the loud, smoky restaurant with a look of awe. We pay our bill—a ridiculously cheap 150 Yuan (around $25) per person for three hours of all you can eat and drink—and spill out into the night, chatting and laughing our way to the next spot, a Western style bar teeming with dolled up Chinese girls.

We find seats among a group of them at a back corner table. Somebody pulls out a hash joint and it makes its way around. Drunk, stoned, and cozied up to a sexy young local, the newb leans into my ear and says, “Man, is this a pretty typical night out?”

I tell him that it is. What I don’t tell him is that he is now one of the Lost Boys of China.

China is a fascinating place to live. A new world power only rises up once every three or four generations, and being in the midst of the phenomenon is a truly unique opportunity. That the latest power to emerge is China, a country that a century ago ended 2,000 years of imperial rule and had a population existing primarily on a subsistence level, makes the storyline all the more compelling.

But it’s not just historical implications that make the Middle Kingdom an exciting destination. Life here is enormously entertaining. I’ve yet to experience a place that on a daily basis intrigues, challenges, and shocks me to such an extent. I forever have the sense that just around the corner something totally whacky awaits.

In the last month alone I’ve seen columns of old women dancing in step to tinny music blaring from a boom box, an exploding construction site, a mother encouraging her child to defecate on a sidewalk in Shanghai’s swankest district, and a box of “Obama” brand erection pills for sale. I’ve been recruited by ladyboys to star in a striptease and by a restaurant owner to sing “Hotel California” in front of a packed house. To a foreigner in China, madness is the status quo.

True, living in a country with more than a billion people, where language and cultural differences can seem insurmountable, brings its fair share of frustrations. But the upside is that accomplishing basic things, especially when you first get here, can feel heroic. Just buying produce at a market can be immensely satisfying. You strut home with those fruits and vegetables.

And as this evening demonstrates, being a foreigner in China has a number of fringe benefits. Back home, I’m just another white guy. Here, I’m a White Guy. This distinction is not only conducive to getting free liquor and female companionship, but can result in job offers (from companies eager for foreign human capital), forgiveness for a wide range of outrageous behavior (owing to the fact that you may not understand Chinese customs), a general celebrity status (especially true as you get away from big cities), and other perks.

So why, then, given all the reasons why life in China is fantastic, did I recently have a Skype conversation with a friend in New York about sharing an apartment in the city? Why do I wistfully look at my family’s Facebook pictures? Why do I regularly peruse booking sites for a cheap flight home?

It’s because in many ways, I have digressed since moving to China. Before coming here I led a fairly adult life that consisted of such quotidian pastimes as driving a Subaru, birdwatching, gardening, and oenophilia.

In China, I don’t even know how to read. With the vocabulary of a toddler I gesture, grunt, and throw out the odd, poorly-pronounced word to get my point across. Half of the time in this country it’s all I can do to maintain bowel control.

While here I am Peter Pan, a perpetual child who runs around with the Lost Boys and has adventures. China, in other words, is my Neverland.

Of course, the longer I stay here, learn Mandarin, and become accustomed to Chinese culture, the less fantastical it all seems. But I’m more committed to gratification than assimilation, and given the already-tall order of deciphering this enormous, diverse, rapidly changing country, the madness could continue indefinitely.

It won’t, though, because I’m certain that at some point, I will leave. The only thing left to decide is when to officially call off the China Experiment.

This is easier said than done. Every time I think I can’t stand another moment in this overcrowded, polluted nation of spitting, smoking, and horn-blaring people I experience a breathtaking moment that could only happen here and which leaves me gasping for more. Going home would also mean a much higher cost of living and the renouncement of my privileged White Guy status. Furthermore, anytime I talk to people back home and describe my life here I’m reminded of just how rock and roll it is.

But like a rock star, there comes a point when the act becomes more pathetic than cool. I’m reminded of this as I sidle up to the bar to order a round of shots.

To my left sits a balding white guy wearing a cheap sport coat. He sloppily makes a pass at a young Chinese girl who smiles uncomfortably and retreats into the crowd. Undeterred, the man takes a swig of his beer, lights up a smoke, and tries his luck on the next girl to approach the bar, who similarly rebuffs him.

While it’s difficult say when, exactly, one goes from being a Lost Boy of China to a Dirty Old Man of China, it’s easy to tell the difference. One remains a child at heart. The other could very well support child prostitution.

Far be it for me to judge this man. It’s just not where I want to be at his age. By then, I will have resumed my days of car ownership, tending the vegetable patch, ornithology, and deriding shiraz.

After all, I didn’t come to China because I think a comfortable, bourgeois life is contemptible. I just wasn’t quite ready for it. My goal, in a nutshell, is to be able to tell some damned good stories at dinner parties when they’re once again part of my social life.

Like, for example, the time my buddies and I met a group of girls at a bar in Beijing, got into a punchup with their boyfriends, then, after being kicked out and moving to another spot, shared a drink with a Chinese businessman who invited us to a “sexy” karaoke bar and paid for everything, including…

Well, there are some things that probably shouldn’t be discussed at a dinner party.

 

I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

China is a true land of opportunity for white people. It’s no secret that across Asia any fool with a foreign face can pick up a job teaching children to speak English. Places like Korea and Japan are full of these refugees from the West, accumulating massive bank accounts and “working” several hours a week. I’ve spent nearly three years standing in classrooms and pretending to teach. But in China it’s a bit different. The teachers work so rarely and are so few and far between that there are other jobs on offer: rent-a-foreigner, whitey-for-hire, your own personal Caucasian.

In the weeks preceding my arrival in Beijing I did some preliminary research into popular daytrips from the capital city. The most well known is the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the section, is easily reachable within an hour or two.

Reading anecdotes on a community traveler’s website, I came upon a report from a man who visited the Wall and found himself in a compromising situation due to a discrepancy between his gastrointestinal tract and the local fare. With no time to spare, he found relief behind a small patch of shrubbery, although apparently well within eyeshot of fellow Wall-goers.

I had no trouble believing this account because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Asia, and a considerable amount of that time has been spent wondering whether my headstone might read: “Here Lies Brian Eckert. He Died On the Shitter.”

Traveler’s diarrhea is typically caused by exposure to organisms which a non-native person has no immunity to. The clinical description of this illness is “three or more unformed stools in 24 hours, commonly accompanied by abdominal cramps, nausea, and bloating.” Practically speaking, it means you find yourself at the Great Wall of China about to shit your pants.

When living in Korea, my expat friends and I described bouts of traveler’s diarrhea as “The Korea Shits.” Adapting this title to other locations, bouts of ass-pissing in Thailand are known as “The Thai Shits,” in Vietnam “The Nam Shits” and so on. Thus, I came to China fully prepared for a bout of “The Chinese Shits.”

I didn’t have to wait long for it to strike. On my second night in Beijing, coming home from a bar, I had to squat next to a row of parked cars and let loose. Through my first 29 years of life, I’d never had to shit on a public street, something I took (a perhaps shocking amount of) pride in. After 48 hours in China, personal history had been made.

While such rogue bowel movements usually subside after a couple of months in a new country, they continue at regular intervals in China. As my Beijing buddy told me in partial jest, “Man, I haven’t had a solid shit in over two years.” Here, three consecutive days of compact feces is cause for celebration. More often than not, you find yourself gazing into the bowl at something that resembles sand and mustard. Or a ball of molasses and used band aids. Or what it would look like if a dog got into a garbage bag containing Oreos and discarded barber shop hair and vomited it up.

Enduring the China Shits in the privacy of one’s own bathroom is unpleasant enough (aside from the obvious reasons, most Chinese bathrooms smell like a reptile cage). Worse is when it strikes while you’re out and about. With a bit of luck, you end up in a bathroom with Western-style toilets. If you’re unlucky, you find yourself staring into the grill of a Kia, hoping you’re not shitting on the back of your shoes. Somewhere in-between these bipolar fates is a third: the squatter.

Anyone who didn’t grow up using a squat toilet is wholly unprepared to use these glorified holes in the ground. Unless you’ve spent several seasons as a baseball catcher, the squatting position is almost impossible to maintain with any postural integrity. Walking down a street in this part of the world you see vendors squatting on the sidewalk offering their goods for hours on end. It’s not uncommon to encounter a group of squatters immersed in deep conversation. These people can squat for days.

Not Westerners. Try it. Be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor. No rocking to and fro. Back straight, chest out. It helps to rest your elbows on the inside of your thighs. If this isn’t difficult enough, imagine now that that you are holding this position over an oval-shaped pool of water and trying to make sure your poopie ends up in it.

Of course, in an emergency, you’ll be glad that the shit is going somewhere other than down your leg. But for beginning squatters at least, any piece of loose clothing is a liability. You poorly understand your turd’s trajectory. My advice for the neophyte squatter, then, is to strip completely naked.

Also: lock the stall door. I forgot to do this when using a squat toilet for the first time. I was at a bus station in Korea, uncorking a long weekend’s worth of victuals, when the door swung open and a handful of Korean men were privileged to a money shot of my hunched, naked body. Fortunately, I have no shame. I gave them the thumbs up and asked one of the few things I knew how to say in Korean at that point: “Goguma joayo?” (Do you like sweet potatoes?)

I wish somebody had been there with a video camera to capture that scene, as it perfectly embodies the adventures of pooping in the Far East (and, come to think of it, the entire expat experience there).

As for China, I plan to visit the Great Wall this weekend. I will be packing binoculars, a camera, sunscreen, a waterproof jacket, and a wad of toilet paper. Because bowel control in China, like the assumption that the Middle Kingdom will be the world’s next superpower, remains far from certain.

Part Two: A Bird in the Hand


Big Shot

YY strides into the office. He has a flip flop on one foot and a squeaky crepe-soled shoe on the other, but he’s wearing a light three-piece herringbone suit with its standard silver sheen.  I do notice, however, that his toenails could do with a serious pedicure.  It’s best not to look down.

This strange attire doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest.  He tells me his doctor’s put him on a diet since his foot started acting up: no red meat and plenty of greens.  I can only surmise that due to his standard meaty-fare with creamy excess he’s developed gout in one of his feet.

Still, the first thing he says is:

“Maac, today we have lunch.  We meet Shenyang* Big Shot.  He like seafood.  We go to floating palace restaurant.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that YY enjoys talking in riddles.

YY Stratagem Number 1: Only ever give them enough to get their curiosity piqued.

YY’s secretary notes the lunch in her diary.  Shirley Luk is as meticulous and efficient as they come—everything has a paperclip, every file is marked according to date and priority with a typed strip of paper, every scrap of colored paper is recycled, each and every pen accounted for.

Shirley takes care of all YY’s English correspondence.  Shirley’s one of the few secretaries I know who can translate from Mandarin directly into English shorthand. She never wears even a little make up, not a dab; only, she adores her fingernails and manicures them every lunch break after eating her ritual peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich.  She paints her nails in bright colors: puce, hot pink, neon green and chartreuse.  Sometimes she adds a gold star or a rhinestone to her pinkie-nail.

I can’t help but thinking she should send YY to visit her manicurist—for his toes.

Along time ago YY knew Shirley’s father, some old-time mogul from Tianjin, at least that’s what Frank tells me, a couple of weeks earlier on a Sunday trip to Lamma Island**.  The trip is something related to Hong Kong University, on a beach, with a bonfire and a live Cantonese punk band called KooKoo.  Frank is staggeringly drunk and slobbers over some Australian girl, who, by the end of the night has finally had enough and tosses her beer in his face.  Frank still has to learn not to pinch women’s buttocks.

When he calms down, we sit on a rock overlooking the dimly lit power plant that reminds me of something straight out of a Ridley Scott flick. Frank, now slightly sobered-up, starts rolling a joint.

“You know Shirley is married to Richard, right?” he says taking his first toke.  “Well, YY forced him to marry her.”

“How could he force him?”

“Richard’s father worked with YY’s Dad in Shanghai.  YY took Richard under his wing when he’d just turned twenty.  They’re all beholden to each other.  Part of the deal was that Richard had to marry Shirley.  I mean look at her?  Who’d want to marry that?”

“Well, she isn’t much to look at, but she’s sharp as they come and she’s got great fingernails,” I say.

“So why is she just a secretary, married to some souped-up-clerk-come-plastic-bag-factory manager?”

Richard Kwo was recently appointed manager of YY’s polyethylene bag factory in the New Territories.  I know Polycore Enterprises ships container loads of these bags to China, though honestly I haven’t a clue what they’re being used for when they get there. There’s a rumor going around the office that YY is doing business with some shady Australian silicone-chip-smuggling-ring.  Frank reckons somehow the bags are collateral.  Though what would Frank know?  He’s a local sales clerk.  Deals in babies’ nappies and baby food.  It suits him down to the bone.

“It’s the first trick in the book,” says Frank, passing me the joint.

And here it comes: YY Stratagem Number 2, in Frank’s words:

Tie someone to you—through family, money, or some other underhanded method—and if you play them right, you have them in the palm of your hand for life. Everyone who has any decent position in YY’s empire is tied to him in some fashion.  Shirley’s Dad was beholden to YY, as was Richard’s.  Shirley desperately needed a husband, but that husband had to be someone who YY could control.  All makes sense, doesn’t it?”

I’m starting to think about my own position here at the Company.

“You never wondered why the evening entertainment when doing business in this neck of the woods is often more important than the signing of the deal itself?” asks Frank.

“I’m listening.”

“This is how they do it if there’s no family connection, even with laowais*** like you. First they get you plied with Maotai****, VSOP or whatever other snakebite’s handy, then they see if they can get you to reveal one of your secrets.  Something about your ‘bit on the side,’ your illegitimate son, or that rainy day cash you have stashed tax-free in the Caiman Islands.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll drag you to the strip club or the karaoke bar and get girls to sit on your lap.  They’ll take snapshots of you with the hostess dancing cheek to cheek.  Even better, pay a hooker for you—especially if they know you’re married.  Before you know it, you’re chained at the wrist.”

I think about some of those late night/early morning business parties.  Most of the time I don’t even remember what happened the day after.  When I really start reflecting upon it, here in the Company most of us who do the legwork are bachelors so there’s not much customers or buyers can hold over us. I know there’s another YY stratagem at work here.

“What about the straight-out bribe?”

One of YY’s accountants comes to mind, Little Foo, he’s called.  Most of us call him ‘Little Fool.’  Maybe he isn’t such a fool after all.  Yesterday I saw he had a spanking new Breitling watch.  I make a mental note to keep an eye on him.

“Sure,” says Frank. “Course that can get you into jail.  Generally they’ll be subtler. During the course of the night they’ll hand you what looks like a sealed pack of cigarettes.  When you get home, you find someone’s slipped two thousand dollars in there.  What are you going to do? Give it back?

“Ever notice how YY doesn’t drink, and never attends any of those parties?  How he always sends you along instead?  Certainly not generosity, Marc,”  Frank sniggers.

“So how do you avoid it, without offending someone?”

“You don’t,” says Frank.  “If you’re middle-management or lower, you haven’t a choice.  That’s why it’s generally better to be in sales than in purchasing. You need to have a heart of stone to be in purchasing.”

And Frank goes on. This time he gives me YY Stratagem Number 2, in detail:

As far as I’ve observed, YY has three golden rules:  One: Connect everything and everyone as deeply as possibly, but connect them through you.  Two: Always make sure you are the most important link in the chain. And, three: Make sure they are always a hungry for more. In other words, always keep something they really want just within a hair out of reach. After many years, you’ll be forced to give them that carrot you’ve dangled, by that time though, you need to ensure there’s something else they want. And they always do.”

I can see Frank is going to make it far in the Company.

 

Bigger Fish to Fry

YY barges into the restaurant, ignores the hostess and plunks himself down on the biggest table—surely one for ten, rather than three.  He clicks his fingers and two waiters come running, each hand him a menu and he rattles a detailed order off in Mandarin without consulting what I might like to eat.  A few minutes later, a grey-haired Chinese man appears with two attractive ladies trailing behind.  One carries his briefcase; the other carries his mobile phone (a giant thing the size of a small loaf of bread; remember this is the early nineties).  He sits down next to YY and greets him in Shanghainese—nong hao rather that the Mandarin ni hao—which sends YY into spasms of laughter. (I know this guy is from North China, Shenyang, so the badly pronounced Shanghainese greeting is nothing more than a politeness, an effort to put YY at ease.)

YY points at me, then says, “Maac,” and rattles something off in Mandarin.

I’ve been told that YY’s Mandarin is—well, not poor—but heavily-Shanghai-accented.  Frank tells me that at times YY can barely be understood.  Be that as it may, I’ve never seen anyone acting offended in the slightest, from the lowliest busboy to the Vice-Secretary of the Communist Party.  I guess it pays to be a billionaire.

The man, whom I’ve now discovered is called Mister Sheng, seems to favor the same shiny silver suits that YY does.  In fact, from a distance, you’d be sure the two of them had the same tailor, only I know by his posture and bearing that Sheng is a Chinese government official, so it’s unlikely that he has his suits tailored in Hong Kong—far too expensive.  Or is it?

After pleasantries, we dig into endless platters that keep appearing on the spinning Lazy Susan:  whelks sautéed in vinegar and liquor and sprinkled with chives, mussels on the half shell with some kind of vermicelli noodles, scallops the size of my fist and a whole red lobster each.  The girls tuck in vigorously, slipping me a glance every once in while, then tittering under breaths.  YY and the man are gabbling away about some big business deal. Not a single word is translated for a least half an hour, until:

“Maac,” says YY.  “Tomorrow you go Shenyang.  You help Mister Sheng sell aircraft parts to Big Shot American buyers.  This is big business.” Mister Sheng smiles, but his mouth is full of lobster.  Unpleasant, but surely well intended.

I’m moderately stunned, but not really.  I’ve started to learn to expect snap decisions from YY.

“Then after Shenyang, two days, you go to our Beijing office to start some paper sales.”

Talk about getting tossed into the South China Sea without a rubber ring isn’t even in it.  For the last three weeks, I’ve been working with the marketing department on a new brochure, answering some correspondence with potential customers of China-made leather wallets and briefcases.  Now I am suddenly promoted to aircraft-component-salesman-numero-uno, and paper?  Of course, I didn’t breathe a word.


A City that Never Sleeps—Not Really

A Mister Jin meets me at the gate at Shenyang Airport.  He’s holding a great big white placard that looks like it may well have been used for resting teacups on it at some stage.  It reads in big capital letters:

MISTER MARʞ

The K is written backwards.  I raise my hand and move my trolley towards him.  He smiles a full set of gold teeth.  I think about telling him that I spell my name with a C, and besides, the K is backwards, but after due consideration, I realize it isn’t worth the effort.

In the car, a twenty-year-old van which rattles so much I think the steering wheel is going to come off in Jin’s hands, he asks me, “So, you big aircraft parts salesman, eh?  Mister YY tell me you are top ace.”

“Top ace?”

“Top ace,” he repeats, then throws me one of his golden smiles and gives me a thumbs-up.

“Hold the steering wheel, please!” I shout, as Jin just about misses a bicyclist on the side of the road.

“No worry,” he chuckles.  “Bicycle move.  He doesn’t want be killed.”

“Neither do I,” I say, which, of course, sends Jin into rippling laughter.  Jin seems to laugh at just about anything out of the ordinary—or, out of the ordinary to him.  This includes more things he’s only ever heard of about laowais, or perhaps he’s caught a glimpse of on TV.

Jin likes to talk about sex, or rather with whom and in which fashion I enjoy sex.  He begins this deviousness slowly in the car, first asking about whether I’m married.  I say no.  He asks if I like Chinese women.  I say sure.  He asks if all western women have big breasts, not like Chinese women who are flat as ‘runaways.’

“Runaways?”

“You know airplane runaways,” he says.

I put my two hands together and make a motion like a plane taking off.  This sends Jin into raptures, and I have to remind him to keep his eyes on the road again.

It’s about nine pm when we arrive, and I could kill for a drink. After check in I ask Jin if he’ll join me, but he declines saying he has to get home to the wife who’s already angry with him.

“Why’s she angry at you?” I ask, certain I’m opening a can of worms.

He giggles.

“What?” I shake my head.

“Too much sex,” he says.

“She’s demanding, eh?”

“No,” he says.  “She doesn’t like it.”  Then he moves in a little closer and whispers, “I lie.  I no go home now; I go to see my other lady.  She never say no.”

I’m looking at Jin, this skinny chap, possibly in his early fifties, a full set of gold teeth and thick fop of greasy black hair.  You can see the dandruff flakes from ten strides away.  His collar looks like it hasn’t been washed in weeks, and there’s some kind of yellowish stain on the sleeve of his beige jacket.  It’s hard to believe how this guy could afford a second wife.

“How do you do it, Jin?” I ask smiling.

He puffs out his chest and says, “Superman,” then strides off into the hotel parking lot chuckling to himself.

There is a bar here and believe it or not, a lounge pianist too.  The guy seems only to know one single song: Bridge Over Troubled Water.  He plays it over and over again.  There’s one man, a foreigner sitting at the bar milking a beer.  I pull out the bar chair next to him.

“Mind if I join you?” I ask.

“Would you?” the man says in an Oxford English accent.  “Anything to break this damned monotony.  I’ve been listening to that fucking piano player for two weeks now.  I’m about ready to snap his bowtied neck.  Listen, I’m in a good mood, let me buy you one.  Just did the deal of a lifetime.”

“What’s that?”

“Just sold Shenyang Light Industry five complete shoe making lines.  Biggest deal I ever scored.  Bloody cost me my liver though.”

I take a sip of the lukewarm draft beer and raise my eyebrows.  “Your liver?”

“Bloody ganbei***** every single night.  I’ve got Maotai and cheap Tsingtao white wine flowing out of my ears.  Can’t you see it,” he laughs.

“Ah, the karaoke bars,” I say, thinking I know exactly what he’s talking about.

“Karaoke bars?  Here?  Impossible,” he says. “This town has about as much nightlife as my scrawny British arse.  Not a blimp, in two whole weeks.  Can’t eat the goddamned food.  No, mate, after nine o’clock the whole town just goes to sleep.  What do you think this is?  Hong Kong?”

“Just came today.  From Hong Kong.”

“Ah, that explains everything, the boyish eyes, the nicely pressed suit.  Outside of Beijing and Shanghai you won’t even find a girl in a tight dress.  Nada.”

“So what do you do for, er—entertainment?”

He laughs.  “You’re looking at it.”

“Guy who picked me up at the airport told me he has a girl on the side.  I guessed she must be a karaoke girl or a bar girl or something like that.”

“There are places, for locals. But listen. This is deep Communist China.  You know this place was once Mao’s largest munitions’ dump? Couple of years ago, I knew one lad who was kicked out of the country for pinching some waitress’ arse.  They blacklisted him.  In the old days, foreigners were arrested for less than that.

“Now Beijing, on the other hand,” he says, “is the only civilized city in the whole country. There are more Mongolian hookers working the Holiday Inn Hotel than there are in all of Ulan Bator.  Anyway, I’d better call it a night.  Got to work on the payment terms with those buggers tomorrow.  If you’re feeling up for it, meet me at the bar here around, say—seven.  I’ll take you to the most interesting restaurant you’ve ever seen.”


Winging It

The Shenyang Aircraft Factory, formerly the bus factory, formerly the ammunition factory, has laid on the works for my arrival.  The Swiss flag is flying at full mast and a gigantic banner hangs over the entrance, and says:

WE WELCOME OUR ESTEEMED FOREIGN GUESTS FROM
SWITZERLAND AND AMERICA IN BROTHERLY COOPERATION

Mister Sheng, whom I met in Hong Kong, greets me in the lobby, along with the factory’s General Manager and a whole retinue of unnamed others who follow us from workshop to workshop, including some guy with a video camera who I’m later told works for the local TV station.

A small guy shuffles up to me and gives me his hand, “I am your official translator,” he says.  “My name is Zhu, but you can call me JohnsonJohnson.”  I look around for Jin, who dropped me off, but he’s nowhere to be seen.  Suddenly I catch a glimpse of him in someone’s office sipping a cup of tea.

“Nice to meet you…JohnsonJohnson.  How did you get a name like JohnsonJohnson?”

“My English teacher gave it to me,” he says proudly.  I don’t dare tell him that she probably meant John, not the shampoo.

Mister Sheng and the General Manager motion me to follow them through the workshops.  There’s the turning shop with at least fifty lathes producing sprockets, engine parts, and long threaded spokes of aluminum.  Surprisingly it’s as clean as a whistle.  JohnsonJohnson later tells me that the whole factory has been on non-stop clean up for the last three weeks.  Apparently, Mister Sheng even flew in some sanitation consultant from Singapore.

We move into the stamping workshop that appears to be producing segments of aircrafts’ wings.  The gigantic presses are mostly operated by young women wearing what look like 19th century bed caps.  I cringe watching them deftly moving their fingers in and out of the monstrous presses. They have no eye or ear protection.  I know I’ll have to try and resolve this.

JohnsonJohnson nuzzles in every once in a while and explains technical terms to me like, ‘that is a special alloy steel imported from Germany;’ or, ‘notice the precision;’ or he pulls down a clipboard hanging above the machine and points out that the quality control in his factory is absolutely excellent.

In each workshop there is a chalkboard indicating targets to be met, and it looks to me like they all read zero defects in the last ten days, which, of course, is an impossibility.  Each workshop appears to have its own slogan written both in Chinese and English.

One reads:

WORK EFFICIENCY IS THE PARADIGM OF A WELL-OILED MACHINE!

Another reads:

THE WORKERS ARE THE HEART OF THE FACTORY –
WORK HARD! BEAT HARD!

After the factory tour, we sit down in the meeting room, me on one side, five of the factory staff plus Mister Sheng on the other.  JohnsonJohnson translates for the General Manager, but first Mister Sheng gives us all his long speech—and, believe it or not, I finally find out that he is the mayor of Shenyang, and that he has all his hopes pinned on this new business.

He rests assured that I am ready for the delegation of American buyers who are set to arrive tomorrow.  After all, he says, what more could a factory want other than a Swiss salesman? the very embodiment of quality and efficiency.  (JohnsonJohnson translates very as ‘veritable,’ once again, well intended.)

This speech is followed by the General Manager, who basically says exactly the same thing in different words, throwing in a few metaphors and some kind of an allusion to an ancient Chinese folktale about bears and birds.

I want to ask, who is this delegation from America?  What the hell am I supposed to be selling?  Why in God’s name am I here in the middle of nowhere?  But I simply smile, cringe a little inside and decide I have only one choice: stick to YY Stratagem Number 3: When in doubt, play it by ear.

(To be continued…)

~

*Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning Province in Northeast China. The city served briefly as the capital of China in the 17th century and has been a center for heavy industry since the late 1800s.

**A picturesque island Southwest of Hong Kong proper once known for its wild weekend party-scene.

***A Chinese liquor that is extremely popular at Chinese business banquets.  Distilled from fermented sorghum, it and packs a quite a pungent punch at over 50 proof.  Drinking copious amounts ensures a serious hangover and a sweetish, slightly sickly fragrance exudes from the pores the morning after.

****Colloquial Mandarin Chinese term meaning foreigner, literally: ‘old foreigner.’  It has come to be considered a pejorative term by expatriates living in China in the same fashion that ‘gringo’ is considered such in Mexico.

*****Literally, ‘Bottoms up’—a very popular custom at Chinese business banquets, normally involving never-ending bottles of liquor or wine until someone ends up under the table, collapses from alcohol poisoning or throws up over his host.

Preface – The People Who Are Special, Too

I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable. The particular version I found in my bowl on a warm summer evening in the summer of 2005 was an easy call. There were hundreds of them, red and pink, each about an inch long. They had however many legs it takes to make something “milli” as well as angry-looking pincers from both the front and back. They had been deep fried and were left moist with oil. The dish included long sugar sticks that one could lick and dip into the bowl. The millipedes that stuck would get sucked off the stick in what I had been assured was a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Nevertheless, I demurred.

“I cannot eat this,” I told my host, a middle-aged Communist Party official in a dusty blue jacket. We were two of the dozen or so people who had gathered at the center of Unicorn Hill Village #3—a tiny hamlet of perhaps thirty single-story houses constructed of cinder block and wood—to celebrate my visit and the arrival of the Peace Corps. We were sitting around a low, round table on fourteen-inch-high plastic stools. The millipedes glistened before me in a chipped porcelain bowl. The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me. He had a spindly frame and tanned skin that was drawn taut against his cheekbones. He looked like a Chinese Voldemort.

“Eat the food,” he grunted. His wife had made the millipede dish according to what my guide told me was “a very special recipe of the Bouyei people.” The Bouyei were a tiny, impoverished ethnic group concentrated in the mountains of central China. These were some of the very people the Peace Corps had sent me to live with, learn from, and—in theory—teach. My first meal in the village and I was off to a bad start.

“You can eat this,” my guide said with a nervous smile. “It tastes good.” He demonstrated for me, licking his sugar stick, dipping it in the bowl, and sucking off one particularly hairy millipede. “They’re sweet,” he explained, crunching away happily, “and Americans like sweet things.”

I nodded. “That’s true.” I groped for a polite escape. “But I’m a little different than most Americans.”

This gained me perplexed looks from both my guide and my host.

“I’m a Jew.”
Gasps. Widened eyes. Furrowed brows. Awkward silence. I said this last sentence in Chinese. “Wo shi youtairen.” The phrase, loosely translated, meant “I am a Person Who Is Special, Too.”

Why—oh why—had I said this? This was atheist, Communist China, after all. Didn’t Karl Marx say religion was the “opiate of the masses”? Had I just told my hosts I was a drug addict? And hadn’t Chairman Mao condemned religion as one of the “Four Olds,” a remnant (along with old culture, old habits, and old ideas) of the feudal past the Communist Party sought to destroy? I wondered if the arrest and deportation of a Peace Corps volunteer would make the evening news back home in Philadelphia.

As the silence around the table deepened and my face turned ever-darker shades of red, I marveled at the desperation of my religious mea culpa. I should have known better. I had, after all, already undergone months of Peace Corps training, sweating through seemingly endless hours of language classes, daily safety-and-security lectures, and occasional lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity. All of this, however, had taken place in Chengdu, the wealthy, relatively Americanized capital city of Sichuan Province, which was now a sixteen-hour train ride to the north. Chengdu had McDonald’s, Starbucks, and an IKEA. It was the China of Thomas Friedman and other American pundits touting China’s rise. I was now in Guizhou Province, the desperately poor, rural province in the dead center of China that would be my home for the next two years. Guizhou had . . . millipedes.

I was happy that my training was complete and I was finally on my own. I was happy to be in a part of China I had rarely seen covered in the American media. I was feeling like an authentic, trailblazing Peace Corps volunteer on an Indiana Jones adventure. Unicorn Hill Village #3 was no Temple of Doom, but this was far from my typical dinner.

Dr. Jones played it cool; I was desperate. Embracing my Jewish roots at that particular moment was a foggy-headed attempt to get excused from the table. I had never yearned so powerfully for a bagel.

“Jews can’t eat insects,” I mumbled, my eyes scanning for reactions from the men who surrounded me. “I don’t want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us . . .”

The tension seemed to mount until, quite suddenly, the silence was broken by a hoot from my host’s wife. Her cry was followed by smiles from others in the group, pats on my back, and even some applause.

“Comrade Marx was Jewish,” said a man sitting a few paces away from the table, staring at me intensely.

“So was Einstein,” beamed the man to my right, offering me a cigarette.

“You must be very clever,” said my guide, as the bowl of insects was removed from my side of the table, replaced by a dish of steaming meat.

“Why would the CIA send us a Jew?” mumbled Voldemort. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, but the raised eyebrow from my guide let me know I had, officially, just been accused of being a spy.

It was all a little bewildering, but I smiled like an idiot, happy to avoid the millipedes. I dug right into the mystery meat, and the men around the table quickly began eating their food as well. There was a toast to my health, then another to my success as a teacher, then another to American-Chinese friendship. We all got good and drunk.

I had passed the test. I was a Jew in the middle of nowhere, China.



Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy
Copyright 2011 by Michael Levy
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

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