FICTION | The Foreigners
Khaled Ibn Sa’eed had just enrolled in Qingdao University’s medical school, when he went on a sudden junket to Washington, DC, and liked it so much he called his Pakistani classmate and told him to transmit the lectures via a cellphone open on a desk — and would he mind running this past the administration? This the friend did. There were no objections, so long as tuition was paid upfront. They tacked on a modest “remote attendance” fee. Megabytes of etiology and anatomy began to stream towards DC, and Khaled Ibn Sa’eed was not seen again until what I have to tell you had already transpired. It was disconcerting for the Department of Medicine professors, in their Air Jordans and clinical whites, to face an open smartphone with its red light recording video all semester. Perhaps you will treat what I have to say about Jack — or Jin Ming, his proper name — in much the same light, red, small, a slow, deliberate blink in Jin Ming’s direction, in his last college year.
Let’s dispense with Jin Ming’s epiphanies, especially in view that they were so easily overmastered by events. There weren’t many epiphanies in life, Jin Ming thought (he had learned the word in his English class), but he could remember all of his. He meekly hoped for more, but things were going well for him at university that last year, and he kept his hopes simple, the better to slide by any accompanying demands.
Jack was writing a faux-utopian consideration of the treatment of the “common folk” in the Book of Songs for his undergraduate thesis. He came from a tiny village in Hebei province that was still run by a tough old man with failing eyes, teeth that looked like yellow-grey shreds of sardines, and solid Party connections. The village had returned to its more or less agrarian ways, having survived aid workers, village planners, a developer or two, and then, after the expected collapse, a film crew; now, turnip and herb patches grew once again along the river, tucked away behind the carp and turtle ponds, and there was a curious section of the village about six homes square, the exactly equal backyards marked off with string, where the stucco and tile houses were proving, after all, that anything given enough neglect and winters could be composted. The stucco fell away in shards and revealed cracks in the cement; the shards turned into a toxic white powder around the footings. And the floors in the tiny garages — though only a few had cars — were inexpertly poured and sloped. The villagers used the garages to store pyramids of purple carrots and turnips in the winter. Windows in the houses had been removed or just smashed. Square in the middle of the village was a huge spaced cleared and rolled for a parking lot, now speared with crabgrass and dandelion. That was supposed to be the factory location.
After that ruction of development, the village returned to its immemorial ways, supported by donating graduates whom the headman, Lao Kuang, had organized into a formidable network of earners whose contributions were displayed in tidy graphs on the wall of his second house, beyond the bend in the river, its cement blocks painted an immaterial turquoise. The village recently upgraded to 4G Wi-Fi. It had supply contracts with neighboring farmers. The men gathered in Lao Kuang’s home nightly for drinking and a puff on his pipe and pirated movies; the women cooked and bossed their daughters around and chatted about personal shoppers and did their tai-chi mornings for an audience of sleek and tumbling pigs. Last year earnings had been so good that the whole village went to Macau for Spring Festival, a week of bo-de, pai-ke, ma-jiang, he-jiu, wu-nu, la-cai, and, for an unlikely few, zuo-ai, all their favorite two-syllable words. Lao Kuang liked to pass the time in his garden smelling the skins of persimmons, or in contemplation beside his koi pond with his pipe and the ineffable mysteries. In short, the village was paradise on earth, and Lao Kuang intended to keep it that way.
Jin Ming’s first epiphany was when he was five; he had jumped the old man’s garden fence; the garden was legendary. There were 300-year-old pines held together by moist slings of gauze. The sun through the leaves came from a distant time, an emblematic atmosphere. Who knew what the old man mumbled by the pond, as he directed the carp or they directed his cane, as they glided in their fin-swishing ovals? Jin Ming picked some bitter cherries in the goldenness around him, the arcing ferns, and he plucked from the bark a golden-green whirring beetle whose wings opened as it left Jin Ming’s hand, and he thought, “It’s alive,” and saw it light on a leaf, and thought again, “I’m alive,” and, struck by this total glimmer, lay down in the shade, a weakling boy who ran from tag and games and wore the same pair of pants for months. But he was alive — the beetle had proven that; he didn’t know how it proved that, but he refrained from killing small animals for about a week.
However, the next time he snuck into the garden, there was a great crashing in the ferns, and Lao Kuang, who was in his mid-fifties phase of pretending he was one of the Eight Immortals and lived mostly on roots, fungus, and mold, smashed into Jin Ming — something blue-green flew out of the old man’s mouth — and definitively taught him that he was alive, because he beat the boy within an inch of that blue truth.
Many years later, the village took up a collection to send him to Qingdao University, a low-level provincial institution that would take a middling gaokao tester. Jin Ming knew there had been plenty of grumbling about this collective grant – many of the older villagers made direct and aggrieved remarks to him that summer – but he was overjoyed at the chance to leave. His parents were never there, for they, and a number of his peers, were living above a tool factory in Jia Zhe Cheng, the county seat. In order to hand over the first installment, Lao Kuang, the headman, had invited Jin Ming to tea. The old man stank of wild garlic and wolfberry root. He ate for longevity, and the first thing he did was slap Jin Ming hard across the face.
“What was that for?”
“For all the mistakes you’re going to make with our money. But how can it be helped? You’re young. Even heaven’s halls need renovation.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t trouble yourself with what I mean,” the old man said. “Your brain is not capable of comprehending my meaning.”
“I am not worthy,” said Jin Ming.
“Don’t bore me.” He handed the red packet over. “This is for your first term expenses. Wang paid your tuition last week in person, and his truck broke down on the way back, so we deducted that. Look, you asinine twerp, we see this as an investment. We expect a return.”
It was then, smiling in a simpering style before Lao Kuang, who now wore a filthy garment like a monk kicked out of the monastery, with a Pepsi t-shirt over it, that Jin Ming caught the worry gallivanting in Lao’s eyes, and he realized that the old man’s hopes would be easy, almost too easy, to fulfill.
“I promise you a good return,” he said.
“Fuck off and die,” said the old man.
 Gambling, cards, mah jong, drinking, dancing girls, hot dishes, and making love.
 The gaokao is the university entrance exam.
In his sophomore year, Jin Ming had his second set of epiphanies. He was living, after paying the village kickbacks, on a few extra hundred kuai a month, but at least the situation was promising: the year was young. He could afford, however, little entertainment other than early morning walks. He crossed the park just off campus, where senior citizens were trying their muscles against the blue and yellow exercise machines made for children, and walked into a neighborhood of good apartments, without hand-lettered for-rent signs hanging off the balconies, without street-level businesses; there were even a few houses on small lots with scholar-trees, and a restaurant with fish-tank that took up an entire window. He chose a cross-street that rose; he ran up a flight of smooth stone steps, and the leaves dropped away near the top, and he came out against a fence that looked down on the athletic fields of the Number Five High School, the best private school in Qingdao.
He looked down on the students in their blue and white-striped tracksuits running around the ruddy Astroturf track, but by no means did he feel above the uniformed students at their play below; he peered into a deep pit of privilege.
It was not their fault that they went to Number Five High School, and as such were practically guaranteed Party positions, or plum jobs with firms, or were simply handed the cash to go and get themselves some Number Three Bathing Beach real-estate, or a lifestyle. These must be the shrimps and wimps of this class, still enamored of their tracksuits. They were dawdling around the track. A group of girls in blue skirts spilled out of a far doorway, and they began running in teams, on the far curve. Everyone has to run in this school, thought Jack, even the senior girls, so in a couple of years they can sit back, take it easy, slip into pregnancy, whereas I am standing here frozen and undernourished in the same pants I wrote the gaokao in. The girls were coming around the near curve, one with a purse slapping at her thigh, and rounded it enough that Jin Ming felt the fence under his fingers as he first saw Lin Yan’s face.
A face so beautifully enigmatic and enigmatically beautiful that it ought, Jin Ming judged, to be printed on every map of Asia.
A face to Jin Ming’s mind that perfectly combined the glimmer of the beetle and the gallivanting worry of Lao Kuang’s eyes into a being who might justify any number of racial policies on grounds of purity, of tender loving, of a glowing motherhood.
He would die to see her face shift in the covetous throes, the bolder contours of love.
He would die to see her face shift in the covetous throes, the bolder contours of love.
Lin Yan had touched him in the same way a taste, a candied haws perhaps, might touch the tongue and perfuse the mind. Taste once savored that dissipates to the precise density of scarcity and longing. Five minutes before his prospects were reheated noodles and onions for lunch and dinner and all day tomorrow, and a future as a Carrefour barista, and now he felt able to turn around proudly and leave Number Five High School. The girl was young, but almost a woman. He judged he had a year left before she showed up at Qingdao University, a year before he learned her name. If she went there. She might go to Shanghai, Beijing. Jinan, for that matter. That gallivanting worry — it had to be contagious.
Jin Ming walked home feeling something had been prepared for him. He crossed the dusty net of trees in front of the library — the radio-point was hammering away at socialist facts among the branches, like a bird at bark — and turned at the Student Centre onto one of the uphill staircases between the whitewashed classrooms, and he saw again Lin Yan’s eyes like a questioning coal in his forehead and, just as he was about to grin, there was a shout behind him.
He turned. An angry janitor, broom in hand as though he held another, thinner prisoner, had grabbed the elbow of a student and said, “Thief! This man’s a thief!” and the accused stiffened but appeared to accept the situation, placidly accompanying the janitor’s further shouts with a calm that separated him from all the moral tunneling of two students here, three students there, rigid behind their book-shields of a sudden, adopting either the stance of Staircase Safety Inspector or of Dreamer of Far, Far Prospects. “What is this thief’s name? He will not tell me,” cried the janitor. No, the thief had clearly left the university’s orbit; he would have nothing to do with the students, the law-abiding, ha. His back was straight and his chin high. “I don’t know,” said Jin Ming, and hunched away. “I’ve never seen him before.” This was a lie. He knew the accused student very well; had chatted with him in his English classes. Perhaps, some day, it would furnish them a boozy afternoon philosophy session, a conversation in the graduate student lounge about whether anyone truly ever saw anyone, if either of them ever got there.
But no one would ever mention this incident again, and Jin Ming never found out what the student had stolen. But it struck him as funny that two contrary visions had invaded him within a half-hour: the one of swimming immiscibility, love, and the other of planetary remoteness, exile.
This may not have been much of dual epiphany, more of a gathering of disparate data. Afterwards, it was true that Lin Yan’s imagined voice did not always ring like a recess bell through the cloakrooms between Jin Ming’s ears; its power was actually incalculable and snuck up on him, and pounced, and it hurt. He had no power to schedule or titrate his visions of Lin Yan; he could not set forth 1) Court the foreigners 2) Fake studying 3) Time to dream about Lin Yan. No, no, no. He woke up and she sprang like an icon up in his mental vaults; he lay down, and she walked the pre-paths of his sleep.
Forced to be resourceful, Jack had sized up the opportunities as soon as he got off the bus and moved into residence at Qingdao U. A perennial money-maker were the parents of the freshman from the sticks of Shandong province, the one-factory towns. They showed up stinking of garlic and in baseball caps upon which their work-unit was emblazoned. Jack drew them aside while their offspring were off on military training, marching about in camo, and made himself useful to them. He carried luggage; he gave directions; he found them restaurants that served their disgusting regional dishes: tripe soup, fried locusts, sea-slugs. He could steer them to such holes-in-the-wall for a tip. He could advise on the best malls to buy printers at. But it wasn’t enough. He needed another revenue stream.
A perennial money-maker were the parents of the freshman from the sticks of Shandong province, the one-factory towns.
And over the next two years, he found them. He and his roommate maxed out the plagiarism game, so much so that the letters C and V were no longer legible on their laptops. They silk-screened t-shirts exploiting the fenqing fad, the angry youth, and many pirated Hello Kitties; and even more which said Qingren Dao, a pun on the city’s name and “sweetheart,” for a time a popular gift on Valentine’s Day. He diversified and taught a little basic English and introduced the foreign students to the local nightlife, all for fees, but Lao Kuang’s financial demands were relentless, and by his last year, though he was now running four or five businesses, he was tapped out.
Mr and Mrs Campbell did not appear until the third week of classes; and then they retired and did not surface for another three days. They were resting from their journey, a poorly-coordinated multi-stop flight from Missouri. The administrator had gone to their apartment to check and found the doorway blocked by packing-cases and strapping from a washer, dryer and a small refrigerator. He knocked.
Mr Campbell answered. He explained they were in a period of intense prayer. Would he care to join them?
In that case, we will be able to teach after this Sunday. Sunday is our Holy Day, Mr Chang. If there is nothing else?
Mr Chang was a good deal more educated in English than Mr Campbell supposed, and as he made his way down the stairs, he chuckled to himself about passing through the valley of the shadow of appliance ownership.
In due time, many first and second year students came to their dormitory building hoping to catch a glimpse of the foreigners, and Jin Ming was among them.
Jin Ming made himself smaller by isometric contraction of his shoulders and chest, wore his oldest clothes, practiced filling his eyes with a damp meekness, and went to the foreigners’ dormitory. He sat at the picnic table in front of the store, directly across from the exit. Not much was happening. The dormitory fuwuyuan – no one could remember when he hadn’t been the dormitory fuwuyuan – was sticking underwear and other wet garments through the holes in the fence around the basketball court. A blind man sat across from Jin Ming, blocking his view. Jin Ming wanted to steal a cigarette from him, but had read somewhere that being blind sharpened the other senses, and besides the blind man leaned on a sturdy black stick. In any case he wasn’t there to steal cigarettes; he was there to watch the foreigners.
They presently appeared, and strolled the path beside the basketball court before holding hands and crossing the road. She wore a Qingdao U. sweatshirt, and he wore a Missouri State sweatshirt. Despite the high-protein culture they came from, they were disappointingly small. Their hair was greying. Any self-respecting Chinese would have dyed their hair, Jack thought. They did not seem especially rich, or powerful, but Jin Ming knew that appearances were deceiving. They wore the same runners that everyone else around here did. They were sunburned at the back of the neck from the September heat, and Mrs Campbell limped some from an obvious back injury; Mr Campbell adjusted his pace to hers, and even divagated, to stall, so she could catch up. Often Mrs Campbell would point — now it was toddlers frolicking on the sparse lawns under the milky surveillance of grandparents — and touch her husband’s shoulder, to remind him to pay attention.
Jin Ming took this all in. He could just hear the foreigners saying, We’re in China. Praise Jesus. Last week he’d learned in Reading 3 the English idiom bigger fish to fry. Whether these Campbells were big fish or not, Jin Ming knew it didn’t much matter. What mattered was you gained practice in catching fish.
Last week he’d learned in Reading 3 the English idiom bigger fish to fry. Whether these Campbells were big fish or not, Jin Ming knew it didn’t much matter. What mattered was you gained practice in catching fish.
He stood up and waved, “Hello! Please!”
But the Campbells were too far away.
“Who the fuck are you?” said the blind man, who was inexactly eating a fudgesicle.
“What do you care?” said Jin Ming. “Eat your fudgesicle.”
“Care? You were thinking about stealing one of my cigarettes.”
“I was not.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Leave me alone,” said the blind man.
“Me? I was sitting here, minding my own business. You sat down after me.”
“What a joke. You were sitting here thinking about how to get money out of the foreigners. Why else would you go anywhere near them? Well, I’ve got news for you — you’re about the 20th student to gawk at them today. So suck on this.” And the blind man flipped the half-eaten fudgesicle at Jin Ming, and Jin Ming held his temper as he picked the frozen mess off his t-shirt.
“Like I said, leave me alone,” said the blind man.
“But why?” said Jin Ming. “Thanks, by the way, for the fudgesicle. Why should I leave you alone?”
“Because I’m fucking blind!”
A couple of girls turned as they passed, worried, quickening their pace.
“I’m fucking blind!” he yelled. “Can’t you see? Can’t you fucking see I’m blind?”
Jin Ming skulked off.
He wandered home in a mesmerized state, past the peasants digging a hole in the far corner of the basketball court, and past the vendors on the high road that circled the campus, with its safety-rail consisting of a strand of barbwire, down the steps to the graduate rooms, a shabby two-story right next to the boiler-plant and its two huge piles of anthracite that spent their black powder in the wind, and he paused in the courtyard, wanting to keep down appearances, and washed his face in the cold standing tap. He then entered his room, and a remarkable transformation took place. His roommate, Xiao Wang, roused himself, and rolled the cigarette-scorched carpet against one wall, revealing a fine Azerbaijani kilim with a trees and rivers of paradise pattern; he wheeled the soft leather chair from the bedroom for Jin Ming; he pried a plywood panel from the wall-studs and a 52 inch flat-screen TV flicked on (Euroleague soccer); all as Jin Ming fished in a gym-bag, in a jumble of small electronics for the correct remote; two paper-skinned lanterns dropped from the ceiling, like airline oxygen; and Jin Ming called for his foot-bath, he called for his space-heater, he called for his smart-phones three.
“Get me my girls,” he said.
“Are we doing that again?” said Susie Zeng, bibbed at Miao Jian, Magic Scissors; she loved how her hair smelled, sleek with some coconut conditioner. The stylist seemed to measure her head with his clippers before they buzzed. “Ting hao. It’s fast cash. I’m in. What’s that? Okay.” She tugged on the stylist’s shirt. “Got a pen?”
“Monkey’s nuts,” said Ya Li, walking through the library stacks, “Great. I need the money. But it gets complicated, you know, Ming darling. Stuff I don’t like.”
“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” said Jin Ming, “you’re just there. You’re a presence. Do I really need to go over my policy?”
“‘Whatever happens after the initial transaction, happens. Jin Ming doesn’t know, and he doesn’t want to know,’” she repeated.
“Excellent. Besides, Chen and Zhou are available, if things get too difficult. There’s always a bad night now and then.”
“Chen! He owes me 300 kuai.”
“‘Whatever happens after the initial transaction, happens. Jin Ming doesn’t know, and he doesn’t want to know.’”
He got Gao Di as well. She was naked except for a towel around her head in the bathhouse dressing-room. When she saw it was Jin Ming, she clamped her shoulder and neck on the phone and pulled on panties. “I won’t do it unless you pay the drivers,” she said. “They’re a pain in the ass. Always wanting tips. Wheedling bastards. One had an ignition fee — can you believe it? Another…well, his hands.”
“The drivers are independent contractors.”
“Very well. Have a nice season.”
“Di, you still there?”
“Give us taxi-chits. Pay them a flat fee. Qingdao’s not that big. We never go beyond Badeguan anyhow.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Okay, I’ll pay them.”
“You are such a sweetheart. Such a pushover,” Gao Di purred.
And all the time the Saudi student’s cellphone was propped on a desk, receiving the lecturer’s Grand Tour of the skull, the gentle fissures along the major plates, the pia mater like cradle-satin and the cerebrospinal fluid sluicing through the convolutions, lighting up the intelligent tendrils, the hidden divisions.
The parents from Shandong province showed up again in the lazy September heat, and the freshmen began, again, their military training, but this year Jin Ming was thrilled to finally see Lin Yan appear in a camo T-shirt, a light sweat on her forehead as she twirled and presented at high port her dummy weapon, as she wheeled and one-twoed in line with the other boys and girls, as she, at ease, savoured a frozen bing-gur with her new friends sprawling on the grass verge. He quickly identified her parents; they were the other ones watching Lin Yan’s every move; also, they were the only parents watching. Their baseball caps said they worked in Zibo. The father was lean, the mother was large and wiped at her neck and brow with a napkin. The father tried to wrestle Jin Ming’s arms off the luggage. “We don’t need help,” he said.
“Sir, this is a totally free service. It is my pleasure. Where would you like to go after the drills?”
When he had lugged Lin Yan’s bags to her dorm-room, and got the Lins settled at the campus hotel, and spent an hour in line with them to register their daughter, Jin Ming took Lin Yan’s parents to the Sichuan restaurant on campus, really just an eatery perched over the dividing highroad, where the students saved up and splurged on the gummy noodles swimming in chilli oil, the fire-starter gongbao jiding. Lin’s mother had to be helped up the steps; her feet were bothering her, and there were, Jin Ming saw, his hand on her lower back, issues with balance. An emaciated cat seemed to materialize out of the stone wall and wound around their feet, importunately. Lin Yan’s parents chose to sit on the terrace, and ordered the stinkiest, hottest dishes and consumed them rapidly, without much talk, wiping their foreheads. Jin Ming was surprised that they came from Zibo; they must have spent dearly to send Lin Yan to that Qingdao high school.
Jin Ming, having extracted all the info he could about Lin Yan’s courses and schedule, and having reassured Mr and Mrs Lin that they could count on him to get them and their baggage onto the bus and hence to the railway station the next morning, sank back into his preferred mode — obsequiousness — saying little, but tenderly picking out the red wrinkles of tripe from a tureen of broth and chilli and placing them in Mr Lin’s bowl: there were as many chillies, maybe more, than tripe, and Mr Lin was sweating from his eyebrows by the time Lin Yan showed up with another pretty girl in tow, both still in their damp camo t-shirts.
“This is my roommate, Chang Hu Die,” said Lin Yan, “We are going to be such excellent sisters this year. There are six in our room.”
Chang Xiaojie applied herself to the vinegar peanuts.
“All settled in?” said Father.
“Have you met Jin Ming?” said Mother. “Really, he has been most helpful.”
Jin Ming, holding his breath, saw a slinky kitten fold itself under the next table and sniff and lick the cement. He dared not look at Lin Yan directly, lest he gasp.
He dared not look at Lin Yan directly, lest he gasp.
“He’s a good guy,” said Father.
“My pleasure,” Jin Ming managed.
Lin Yan touched his hand. “Thank you for helping my parents. Are you a student?”
Jin Ming said Yes, and found it was possible to meet her eyes while his mouth was talking. A small smirk appeared on Chang Hu Die’s face.
They got to the bottom of the tripe soup, and he walked her parents to the campus hotel and went back to his room in a fierce contact buzz. This year was going to be feichang fucking hao. But he slept poorly that night, and woke from a dream in which Chang Hu Die, her face obscured by a blinding light behind her, was staring at him, refusing to speak.
The next day, he knocked on the Campbell’s door, he wondered if he might come in. Mr Campbell shook his hand and said, “Why not?”
“I am sorry,” said Jack. “The other day, I did not say hello to you. You see, I was helping my friend the blind man. It is Asian culture. He is older than you, and I must be respectful.”
“Forget it, Jack. Now sit you down.”
While Jack made himself comfortable on the couch, and tried to comprehend the artful groaning of the jazz diva the Campbells liked on the TV, Mrs Campbell took her husband aside in the kitchen, and said, “He looks very thin.”
“Most of the students don’t eat well.”
“I can fix that.”
Mr Campbell offered Jack a beer.
“Next month is my grandfather’s birthday,” said Jack, as though the subject of birthdays had been bound to come up. “Most peasants in China, they are so poor, they have never never had a birthday cake,” pleased with his double “never,” as Mrs Campbell – “Call me Katie —everybody does” — laid a plate of gingersnaps before him.
“Bless them. On their birthday. That’s just awful,” said Mrs Campbell.
“It is Mao’s fault,” said Jack. “He thought that people should only celebrate China’s birthday, and his. Not their birthdays.” He made that up. Today he had blamed the Great Helmsman for stubbing his toe, for Lin Yan’s indifference, for the village headman’s bad temper, and for the terrible notes that his proxy took in Senior English Reading.
Today he had blamed the Great Helmsman for stubbing his toe, for Lin Yan’s indifference, for the village headman’s bad temper, and for the terrible notes that his proxy took in Senior English Reading.
“Who is that?” Jack pointed at the TV, where a blonde woman was moaning some lyrics as she flung her hair over and over the piano keys. The song was taking an insufferable period to elapse, and Jack couldn’t make out a word; he must be listening in the wrong places, he decided, entering a word on its second or third syllable and, lost, parsing the song into nonsense.
“Why that’s Diana Krall. She’s from Canada, just north of us,” said Mr Campbell. “Canada, that’s a whole different story.”
“She’s married to Elvis Costello,” said Mrs Campbell, pouring cream into a cruet in the tiny galley.
“Elvis?” said Jack. “I think we study him in-”
“Wrong Elvis,” said Mr Campbell. The weight of his hands, clasped, tipped him forward as he pondered how to begin his theme.
Now Jack’s eyes were darting — the long triangle on the wall with a leaping tiger and Missouri on it. Jack surmised this must be one of those animal farms where working-people could pay to watch a tiger chase and smash and paralyze with fear and pin and gouge and kill a sheep. There was a sentimental painting of autumn leaves. A poster of a monster called the Root Bear. Beyond the tiny balcony, the view of the bay was compromised by the condo towers going up by the old fishing harbor. One was fifteen stories, wrapped in a dark green netting. And in the other corner was a poster of 50 Chinese characters. Jack almost laughed. They were the simplest characters — and he knew that the Campbells were incapable and ignorant of even these words — without even enough atomic weight to attract other characters into the common pairs of putonghua. But Mr Campbell was trying to tell him something.
The foreigner poked his index finger up for avuncular emphasis as he steered the talk in the direction of Jack’s Saviour.
“I know there were many wise men throughout Chinese history,” he said.
“A smaller-known fact,” said Jack, “is China’s wise men often choose simple life.”
It’s often said that two people are two solitudes, unknowable to each other, but in this case, Jack on the sofa and Mr Campbell perched on the edge of the lazy-boy, it was a solemn meeting of two negritudes, the shadows of what they were not casting a tinseled darkness on the other’s vision. To Jack, this Missouri State acquired the physical scope of the Pentagon with powers similar to the World Bank’s; to Mr Campbell, the somewhat sniveling boy before him was tragic potential itself, an always playing film of arms flailing at branches, the river in full flood, and other skinny boys in conical hats trying to urge oxen forward with salty village idioms.
To Mr Campbell, the somewhat sniveling boy before him was tragic potential itself.
To Mrs Campbell, this Jack, he was slick and bore watching. She much preferred the girls who came for squares and tea and taught her how to operate the pygmy washer.
“I suppose you’re right,” said Mr Campbell. “And this young man, he was like you. Setting out. I guess you could say his life was simple. He had parents. A trade.”
“No. The parents are no longer in our village,” said Jack. “They leave, they leave. They never come back, and the old people become sick, but there is no money for medicine…”
“He could heal, you know. He was a healer.”
“I will go back, Mister Campbell. I know I will. They suffer.”
Mr Campbell got up and walked to the window. “Suffer the little children to come onto me,” he said. “How is school going, Jack?”
“Excuse me, but there are no more little children either. It is going okay.”
“Your village must be very proud of you.”
“They are ashamed of me.”
“I am just a poor student.”
“How far is your village?” said Mrs Campbell, wiping her hands on her apron.
“A couple of hours. But. You would not like it.”
“Who says we wouldn’t?” said Mrs Campbell.
“It is very non-convenient for foreigners.”
“Hooey,” she said. “We’ve been in Chinese villages before.”
“I am so sorry,” Jack said. “We are poor.”
Mr Campbell turned from the window, and sat beside Jack. “Nonsense. When can we visit?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I will have to get permission. Might be a long time.”
“Jack, do you have any idea who I’ve been talking about?”
“Jesus?” said Jack.
“Do you think Jesus cares how poor your people are?”
“He don’t care a bit,” said Mrs Campbell. “Now you go and get that permission.”
Mr Campbell pulled out a slim pamphlet, and starting showing Jack a thing or two about Jesus. Mrs Campbell removed the plate of cookies after Jack ate his sixth.
“Your plan,” Lao Kuang, the headsman, wrote to Jin Ming in his minutely detailed ancient characters, “is the work of a true imbecile. It makes me want to feel your head to find the underlying tumor or frankly organic mishap that feeds your thinking. I have read your letters. After studying your level of Hanyu, and your general cultural level, I have determined the optimal career for you in this ‘Missouri’ that you go on and on about. For I have learned at least a little something from satellite major league baseball. Every baseball team has a dugout. Do you follow me, you dullard? And in every dugout there is a cooler. And there is generally a stunted or runty individual whom the team has taken under its wing, and this feeble person stirs the cans of beer around in the cooler and dumps more ice in.
“Jin Ming, you are fit for nothing better.
“While your dream of winning a scholarship to go to Missouri is patent nonsense, what you have to say about this American husband and wife intrigues me. I’m sure you have gotten it wrong, again – in which case we can look forward to a good laugh, at you – and I anticipate seeing how grievously you have misread the situation, but you may continue to send me details.
“Get back to studying, or I’ll cut you off.”
As it grew colder on campus, and the flowers disappeared from the dusty beds, Lin Yan, once she’d gotten to know her roommates and had been through her gamut of classes a few times, had felt her freedom complicated by homesickness. She bought a nubbly kalpak when the snow started to cling to her hair, and a muff at the Jin Cheng market, and strolled the campus; thus she earned the nickname the Soviet Starlet among the boys. She just laughed at them. But there was little spontaneous laughter, for the news about her mother was not good. She had several spells despite the insulin injections, and her legs hurt. She bloated, her urine stank. Her father wondered on the phone if Lin Yan could get a part-time job, because the medicine cost money. Once, he told her that her mother had a good day, and that frightened Lin Yan.
Nonetheless, Lin Yan settled into school and the special loneliness accorded the truly beautiful. She woke each morning to the mementos of her mother’s love, a collection of hanging storage nets, felt banners with pockets, and folding chain-mail baskets to organize her accouterments around her bunk-bed. The girls were stirring around her, they brushed each other’s hair; for Lin Yan’s hair, there was sometimes a lineup. Her roommates, giggling, would shuffle up and hang their daily choices of clothes against her, as though she were a mannequin. She actually enjoyed this: it was lots of fun in the mirror. And they would bring her gifts: chocolate, an organdy scrunchie, a cute brooch of a Friendly leftover from the Olympics. But news of and her worry about her mother’s diabetes returned and added to the loneliness of her loveliness.
Lin Yan settled into school and the special loneliness accorded the truly beautiful.
It was not that no-one talked to her: many of the young men did. But they stiffened and went pro forma on her, delivering, essentially, resumes, with much shifting of feet and avoiding of her gaze. Lin Yan, lips pursed, listened, urging them to courage with her eyes, trying to suggest to the young men she was not worried if they made a mistake. But they were incompetent to a set of testicles, and this was why Jin Ming, all things considered, was worth her attention, though he was shorter than she. He talked with her. He listened. And his speech had real content. He was making money, had plans. He did not ask her for a date, but arranged to bump into her in the library, at the magazine kiosk at the gates, and Lin Yan was secretly pleased, for she knew Jin Ming knew her routines. And Lin Yan settled into his courtship as she had settled into her loneliness.
Jin Ming took Suzie Zeng along with him to work things out with one of the cabbies, who was being difficult.
“I’ve got to cover my expenses,” the cabbie said. “And look. You’re not just paying for the ride. You’re paying for my reliability. One of your girls calls, I’ve got to be available, don’t I? You should pay me like I’m part of the team.”
“May you live in a completely socialist state,” said Jin Ming, and spread some hundred kuai notes out on his leg. “Now, tell me, Mister Reliability, which of this money do you want? This is for my village, you greedy little hooligan, and this is for Big Zhang, and this is for overhead, clothes, boots, those damned Missouri sweatshirts, and this-” he held up a note, orangey in the dome-light, “this is for my girls!”
The rear door crunched open, but they were too enthralled with their argument to notice.
“In that case,” said Suzie Zeng, “I’ll take it. It’s for the finer points of my face,” and she snatched the bill away.
“Excuse me. Is this cab taken?” said Mr Campbell.
“Ganma!” said Jin Ming. “Good. Uh. Good evening, Mr Campbell.”
Who was looking from the girl to the cabbie and back. “Hello, Jack.”
“-just working out the fare…” said Suzie Zeng.
“But I believe we’ve got it settled,” said Jin Ming.
“Yes, paid,” said the cabbie and shoved two of the hundreds in his breast-pocket. “Have a good evening. Enjoy your massage, you two.”
“Massage?” said Mr Campbell. “I want to go to qingDAO DAxue, do you understand?”
Jin Ming helped Suzie Zeng out, which she enjoyed.
“Oh, Qingdao Daxue?” said the cabbie.
“Yes, yes, QINGdao daXUE,” said Mr Campbell.
They pulled away.
Jin Ming and Suzie Zeng started walking back to campus.
“Thanks for the hundred,” said Suzie.
Jin Ming wouldn’t respond.
Jin Ming moved on to the next stage of his strategy: flirt with the Mormons. The Mormons were a tight group; they went on outings together. They had been bought wholesale by the university as a group, at a distributor’s discount, and the Mormons acted the part, clad in determinedly out-of-date slacks and calf-length dresses, escorted by a faculty member to the Qingdao Symphony or an overpriced dumpling-joint, braying at everything in their Utah accents.
They were strange, the Mormons. Every time he went to their leader’s apartment, they were sitting in a circle of chairs, as though they had been deliberating a message from a ghost, and Jin Ming couldn’t bring himself to join them. Instead, he took them to banquets, and acted as their translator. He had pulled his chair up to their leader, who was turning his mushrooms and tofu over with a fork.
“Can’t say I much care for this food,” he said. Prodded an abalone.
“It is very good,” said Jin Ming, but, when he saw this wasn’t helping, added, “What kind of food do you like?”
“You know, roasts and such.”
He had to look up the word, and consequently felt queasy.
Jin Ming learned that the Mormons had been recruited by the Foreign Experts Office to sing Children of the Dragon at the Spring Festival concert, so he showed up at the rehearsal hall, but too late, for several undergraduates were already hopping in front of the Mormon choir, in their tight vests and boxy frocks embroidered with a dragon’s tail, the mostly girls going, “Hao, hao,” their hands cupping at the air as though to shape the cacophony blasting at them in accents from the west and from the south. Jin Ming covered his mouth, and left. He was no fool. He could still recognize the hopeless.
“Sons of the dragon, my ass,” he said to his roommate as they counted out the girls’ take for the month.
“Fucking ridiculous,” said Xiao Wang.
“Black eyes, black hair, yellow skin, forever children of the dragon,” said Jin Ming.
“‘They left the stage one by one in the bucket of a front-end loader.’”
“Love it. I wish I’d seen it,” said Xiao Wang. “They might as well have got a bunch of black people and put those leather shorts and feathered hats on them and got them to sing, ‘We are the great Aryan people.’ Sons of my armpit, more like it.”
“Suzie Zeng is cleaning up this year,” said Xiao Wang.
Jin Ming got on the phone and wondered if Mr Campbell had the time to see him.
And so it was that Jin Ming addressed the village elders in Lao Kuang’s second house, around the bend in the river from the village, with a home theatre that seated 30. His penultimate PowerPoint slide was the steadily rising line indicating potential earnings based on data he’d collected on Mr and Mrs Campbell’s donations to other villages when they taught in Dalian and Tianjin, and a surmounting, rampant line representing a future relationship with this Missouri State: these jagged indicators soared above the present trend of the village graduates’ kickbacks. His last slide was a pie-graph slicing the projected earnings into village enhancement, per capita income, disposable cache, and investment fund.
The screen rolled up and the lights came on.
“Those are the facts of the matter,” said Jin Ming, looking to the headman for approval.
Lao Kuang nodded.
“You’ve all seen the numbers. The Campbells contributed about 80,000 kuai to two villages last year. We’re not sure if it’s their money or Missouri State’s. And we’ve seen how the money was supplemented by gifts of food. Chocolate bars and irradiated milk and types of cookies, mostly. There were medical supplies and drugs, too. The drugs they gave to Ba Jiao, if you want an example, fetched the price of a local Party official’s salary. Sold on the black market, in the back of a video shop.
“The bottom line is that a successful campaign with the Campbells could end up exceeding all the other revenue sources in a year, and give you some mad money to boot.
“But here’s the thing.
“We’ve got to look like we need it. No — not just need. We’ve got to look like we deserve it. So here’s how it’s got to look. First: no false teeth.”
There was an angry buzz.
“False teeth, contact lenses, lightweight canes, knee-braces, you’ve got to hide it all.”
“But how am I going to eat?” said Lao Xue.
Lao Kuang calmed her with a light padding of his hands to the air.
“They’re only going to be here a couple of days,” said Jin Ming. “They have to teach. Put on a big pot of chou. Offer them some. I guarantee they won’t like it.”
“They eat big slabs, and shit big slabs,” said Bo Yongcai.
Everyone laughed hard.
“Go on,” said Lao Kuang, becoming impatient for his afternoon session with the koi. “The other stuff.”
“I figure to get the maximum out of them, we’ve got to make our village look like it was at the time of the Jiefang. So we’ve got to hide all the TVs, we’ve got to cover all the generators with firewood and brush. I have some tarps. Don’t forget — we’ve got lots of storage and piles of turnips in the Yankee squats.”
This was the local term for the empty houses the developers had thrown up.
“Desktops, laptops, game-boys, X-boxes, smartphones, Kobo readers, blue-tooths, same thing. Hide them. They’ll ask what we do in emergencies. We don’t do anything, you tell them. We leave it all to fate. Lao Kuang has the only phone, and it doesn’t work very well.” Jin Ming pulled a rotary phone out of his gym-bag, and held it high. “This is our idea of high-tech, long as they’re here.”
A hand shot up. “Ming Xiansheng…”
That was new: he was Mister to them now, not just a student.
“-but the Euroleague Finals are then!”
Jin Ming ignored the comment, and shook a clipboard at the elders. “Just write it down and I’ll get my associate in Qingdao to record it on my PVR. Anyone else? Cross-talk? Baywatch?” More laughter. “Umpteenth mini-series based on Hong Lou Meng?
“Now let’s talk specifics. We are undernourished. Badly. Da Chong. That’s right, Da Chong, you.”
The old woman said, “All right, already.”
“Great, I knew we could count on your private reserve.”
“It’s a terrible waste of insects,” she said, for Jin Ming had called on her and implored her to donate much of her vacuum-sealed store of grubs, bugs and locusts.
Jin Ming looked pleased. “Xiao Wen, get up here. Xiao Wen’s going to look richly retarded for the Americans. Let’s do it.”
“Mommy. Fact-ry. Me sad.”
“Put a little spittle into it.”
The kid drooled. “Me go big in pants. Daddy mad. He hurt Xiao Wen. Not, not happy.”
“That’s the spirit. Lao Ning, get out your mother’s loom, please. Just make a clacking sound with it. You can pull out some of her old sweaters, if it’s product they want to see. And you-”
Old Chang’s eyes winced at this rudeness, which was followed by insult. Jin Ming gripped Old Chang’s shoulder — Chang was old but still very strong; he’d built most of the village’s houses — and he tensed with anger as Jin Ming stuffed some gauze in his cheek and bandaged his head with a tea towel.
“Say ‘Ah,’” said Jin Ming.
“Ah…ah…Ah’m going to kill you when this is all over.”
Jin Ming guffawed, pointed at Lao Kuang. “Don’t smoke your O.”
“I will not smoke O,” said Lao Kuang.
“Allow me to be tedious. Do not smoke O. Do not do O. Do not ‘sip’ it, eat it, inject it or do it in any way. In no circumstances. Got it?”
The little twerp was swaggering.
“Oh, I get it,” said Lao Kuang.
Most of the elders smiled thinly and said nothing. They were used to Jin Ming’s antics. To them he was still the boy whom Lao Kuang had beat silly several times for sneaking into his garden. They had lived through Jin Ming’s exasperating teenage years, his ascetic diets and tantrums, his alternate affectations, one month a punk rocker and the next a Red Guard, and so generally ignored him. Their remarks after the session were not so charitable.
“Puffing and strutting like a little cock.”
“What a stupid plan. It’s too much trouble to look poor.”
“Our little ‘Jack’ from Qingdao is going to fuck this up. How do we know the foreigners will come through?”
 I.e. the Liberation, the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
 The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Zueqin; a 17th century novel, highly revered.
“Our little ‘Jack’ from Qingdao is going to fuck this up. How do we know the foreigners will come through?”
When he got back to Qingdao University, Jin Ming decided to press his case with Lin Yan, and after summoning great courage, knocked on her dorm door. It swung open. He stepped in, calling “Lin Xiaojie,” but there was no reply. The window was open and bright: his eyes adjusted and he made out the black shape of Chang Hu Die sitting on the sill.
“She’s out,” said Hu Die.
“I can see that,” said Jin Ming.
“How about that?” she said. “You know, I fancy a walk. Do you?” And she swung off the sill and unbuttoned her blouse and let it drop, and went to the closet covering her visible breast with her hand and started shooting back hangers with the other. She selected a shirt and turned her back to him and slipped it on. “Let’s go,” she said.
Jin Ming went out the door and Hu Die stopped at the sill and insisted he come back in and let her precede him.
“This is nice,” she said. “I’ve never talked with you, up till now.”
She touched his forearm to stop him, and pointed at the stone bridge over the creek.
“Isn’t it lovely? It’s lovely. Do you know where we’re going?”
Mr and Mrs Campbell stopped in the stairwell, he to wipe his brow, she to rub the small of her back, for he was carrying a substantial string-bag of potato chips, soda, cookies, pretzels, and new ping-pong paddles, and she was bumping a bedroll up the steps — essentials for the guest apartment the university had granted them, after much negotiation, so they could host English corners for their students. “They just got to have a place of fellowship,” he’d said, and had gone out of his way to buy the ping-pong table, which cost him more than a few incredulous email exchanges with an accountant at Missouri State. Mrs Campbell was also fagged in the stairwell, and as she huffed on the landing, she made out a faint, repetitive noise from above.
As they continued upward, the noise became a rutting thump, and Mrs Campbell laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Perhaps we…” but he’d gathered the snack-bag again and had reached the door.
“Honey, remember, we gave those girls the keys. I told them to leave it open.”
Jack was screwing the girl from behind over the ping-pong table; her elbows out and hands under her chin, the net crinkling with each thrust. Sensing wrongness, Jack turned.
“Er,” said Mr Campbell. He set the snacks down.
Jack withdrew and pulled his pants up, kept his eyes down, fiddled with his belt.
The girl drew her legs up onto the table and rolled to hide her cunt. A ping-pong ball dislodged itself from the net and stuck to her buttocks. She looked at the ceiling. There was no alternative: she slid off and turned her back to them, and snatched up her clothes. Mr Campbell’s mouth went dry as she wiggled into her panties. She slid behind Jack.
The girl drew her legs up onto the table and rolled to hide her cunt. A ping-pong ball dislodged itself from the net and stuck to her buttocks.
“Chang Xiaojie, I would like very much you to meet Mr and Mrs Campbell,” Jack began, but Mrs Campbell pointed to the stairwell.
“Out! Get out of here!” she said “Don’t you ever come back!”
“Please to meet you,” said the girl.
Mrs Campbell became cross because her husband was wheezing with laughter on the couch.
“Ed. Ed! That little sneak. And the girl! That’s fornication, Ed, and you know it.”
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” said Mr Campbell.
“No,” she said. “That’s sin, and it wasn’t bound to happen. What’s with you and the fatalistic Asian crap?”
Mr Campbell couldn’t stop laughing again.
“But, Kay,” he said.
She uncrossed her arms and smiled.
“I know,” she said.
“All right, all right, it was a pool table.”
Jin Ming had barely enough time to adapt his common-room lighting to fairy-mood, throw on his new stressed jeans, when Xiao Wang came out of the bedroom, set the door to, and sidled into Jin Ming’s ruffled presence.
“Ming, there’s a new girl…” he began.
“Later. Can’t you see I’m chilling?”
“Ming, she’s here.”
“What do you mean, she’s here? That’s against all-”
“I mean she is in the bedroom.” Xiao Wang brought his finger up to make a point, but never raised it above his beltline when he saw the impatient fury stoking the red in Jin Ming’s face.
“Send her away, then. I’ve got enough girls.”
“Oh, I think, market-wise, you’re going to want to see this girl. And I don’t think you’re going to be able to send her away. No,” considering, pressing on, “She simply will not be sent.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Jin Ming, and banged into the bedroom. He’d cocked his arm in a commanding bow, with enough pent force to shoo the girl out of the apartment into the winter rain and anthracite run-off (still staining his socks) but his arm, his tongue went limp, and he simply gaped.
For it was Lin Yan, in a simple lace-throated white blouse and jeans, edge of the bed, her hands in her lap. Her hair was up: nothing distracted from the perfection of her face.
“Hello Ming. I came to see about the work you have.”
“Hello Lin Xiaojie.”
That was all he could say. He pulled a chair out and sat. Then he moved closer.
“I’m applying for the job,” she said.
Her beauty, taken in at once, was like curare; it paralyzed the heart.
She had printed out a resume on heavy mauve paper.
“Lin Xiaojie,” Ming began. “I don’t have any work. All the work is gone. You never can tell with these things. What a shame — I would have loved to have you. Truly, you’re one of the best applicants I’ve seen in some time. Really. If you like, I can walk you back across campus.”
Lin Yan smiled. “I don’t think so,” she said. She leaned forward, and Jin Ming sat up straighter at the cream swellings where she had undone her top button.
She leaned forward, and Jin Ming sat up straighter at the cream swellings where she had undone her top button.
“It’s very hard for my business right now,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think you’d like the work.”
“My roommate likes it well enough. She says she made 500 kuai last night, and all she had to do was laugh at a bunch of foreigners’ jokes, and she got home by 11. So don’t give me that.”
“That was pre-booked. Since they’ve all dried up.”
“Oh? The girl down the hall told me she’s busy every weekend until Spring Festival.”
Jin Ming said nothing.
“While you’re thinking about it, Ming, my parents asked me to remember them to you. ‘How is that hopeless boy who follows you around like a palace eunuch?’ they asked. Just kidding. They hoped they might remake your acquaintance when they pick me up in June.”
Jin Ming could see no way out. The parents: that was promising, and proof that his efforts had not been wasted. But he didn’t get carried away. This was serious. He was, after all, about to sell the love of his life into what might be described as prostitution.
Lin Yan rocked on her haunches and pulled a piece of paper out of her rear pocket. He was still thinking, okay, it could be done in such a way…he lost track of Lin Yan’s words.
“…writing to my parents granting an exemption from tuition this term. You see,” she said as much with her eyes as with her mouth, “my mother’s condition has put a lot of financial strain on them. But it worked out fabulously, as the Dean of English Studies knows my father from way back. He expressed a lot of sympathy towards my mother, who is still recovering, and needs a lot of expensive care. The Dean likes to know what goes on all over his campus. All it would take would be a single call.
“That is what will happen if you don’t hire me.”
“Lin Xiaojie, this is not suitable work for you. I beg you to think of your reputation.”
“Oh, what do I need that for if I’m marrying you?” she laughed. “No — I beg you to think of my reputation. My parents can only help me so much. Unless I start putting some cash away for a good graduate program, out I go into the world of cafes and bars and hairdressers and massage parlours, although, if I act sluttily enough, at least at first, there is some chance I could get on as a secretary. But why take chances? Why should I? Why should you?”
Jin Ming knew there was a sentence he should say; it floated outside the small room, disconcertingly lit by the bedside reading-lamp and its simple, coal-smeared window, embarrassingly graced by a hot poster of Zhang Ziyi directly over the bed; no, the answer to Lin Yan simply would not enter the bedroom.
“Just tell me where I work,” said Lin Yan.
“I need some time,” said Jin Ming.
“Nonsense. You can book me now. Oh, Ming, try to think of me as an asset. I’m on your side. I really was kidding about the palace eunuch. Why would you turn down the most beautiful girl on campus? I’m not modest about that. Why be modest? I celebrate nature’s gifts. I have nothing to lose — and we can make some money. Together.”
Jin Ming tried to detect some sense of Lin Yan’s feelings toward him, but soon found in himself and in the effortful flint in her eyes that he was swamped by practical considerations. The single phone call to the Dean would cost her nothing; it would inflame the Dean’s sympathy towards her and her parents; it would reveal to the Dean his beautiful and profitable operation, causing either his expulsion, or a prohibition, or the payment of another generous kickback he could ill afford; moreover, it would end once and for all any contact between him and Lin Yan — now, when all had seemed promising — and, if it got back to the village, he would be back to dredging cakes of algae and shit out of those stinking fish-ponds.
So he gave her an assignment, one he thought would be unlikely to lead to further service contracts or familiarity. He avoided the foreign student’s parties, especially the Pakistani boys, and booked Lin Yan for a dinner with one of the older clients he was starting to get, a Dutch businessman. He timed it so he would be showing the Campbells his village when she started working.
Lin Yan gathered her things, and refused a walk back to her residence. Their meeting was not a total loss. He did get to touch her hand, when they shook on it.
The villagers planned to feed the Campbells organic crap — bark, and bitter seeds, and tasteless rice-mush, and insects, grubs and flies, and maggots and bugs.
This delighted Da Chong, who as we know was crazy for insects, and was greedy about it; you could often hear her constitutional around the village by the crunching of deep-fried locusts in her strong jaw. She loved insects so much the children had given her the name Da Chong, years ago, and in winter, when she ventured out in her padded parka, they would scream, “She’s spun a cocoon, old Da Chong has!”
Throughout the dinner she lightened the Campbell’s plates as they gagged their way through the feast. The villagers smiled and vied with their chopsticks for choice bits to feed the foreigners.
“It’s. It’s all very interesting,” said Mrs Campbell.
Mr Campbell was politely nibbling on a dragonfly wing.
“Do you eat insects all the time?” he said to Jin Ming.
“This is a special occasion. Usually we eat worms.”
 Big Insect.
“This is a special occasion. Usually we eat worms.”
Lao Xue placed a reeking pot before them, mumbling in her gums.
“What is she saying?”
“She is saying it is wild garlic tea. You must try. It is very healthy.”
By midnight, Lao Kuang was in a serious state of longing for his opium. He’d suffered throughout the Campbells’ long, and tediously simple-minded idea of a village visit, during which they gaped at everything as though it pullulated with meaning, and his running nose had increased its snot output, causing his whole sleeve to be crusty. It would be more accurate to call the nose’s condition a mucosal hemorrhage. His eyes wouldn’t focus, screw them though he might with his fists. And, the longer he stayed put by his window and waited for the candles to go out in the Campbells’ hut, the more disastrous the effects: he now produced streams of diarrhea on the half-hour, which meant he had to cross in front of their hut several times to reach the outhouse, doubled over by gut pains. His gait was not like the comic creep and loping tiptoe of a practiced sneak, but like a centenarian approaching Huang Shan’s summit by its exactingly steep stairs: one arm out, the other on his kidney area.
He couldn’t take it any more, so he wrapped his ball of O into a gauze pocket and resolved to gain the outhouse, and hence the fishponds off the river, where he planned to swallow the O, enough to get him to morning with at least a chance of sleep. Just as he passed the candle-pool of light of the Campbell’s, the door opened, and Lao Kuang had to kneel and collapse against the wall of the adjacent pigpen. He listened to the slurping and snorting sounds, and the steps that were no more than ten feet from him.
But Mr Campbell — for Lao Kuang peeked — just tapped his foot to the measure of a song.
Lao Kuang tried to ignore the tickling, building pressure on his anus.
Mr Campbell, satisfied by something, closed his door and started towards the river. Lao Kuang followed — he could always say he was on his way to the outhouse. Maybe the shit running down his ankles would say it for him.
As soon as Campbell was in the shade, he lit a cigarette.
Lao Kuang saw the foreigner was a timid, lonely soul, so nagged by his wife that he had to sneak out at midnight for a smoke — this pleased Lao Kuang.
He bounded and crashed through bushes toward Campbell, who dropped the cigarette and visibly cringed.
“What? Who’s there? Shit — it’s you. Owl Fong, isn’t it? You scared me.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Lao Kuang, picking up the smoke and handing it to Campbell. “You cannot sleep?”
“I just wanted to take a walk. Through your lovely village.”
“Walk to fishpond very peace,” Lao Kuang said, as Campbell brightened the end of another cigarette with a long pull. Lao Kuang led the way, puckering below, trying to think his way out of the predicament, the impending gastric accident, leading the way to the still pond on whose surface was a perfect falcate moon.
“Here we can sleep,” he said.
“No, I think I-”
“Here we rest, can I say?”
“Rest is correct,” said Campbell.
Lao Kuang sidled closer. They were both bent over the water, both tensed for fish rising to the surface. “You a busy man. Many worries. Pond good, for you.”
“You are right about that. So right.”
“Many worries not good.”
“Boy, let me tell you.” At this, Lao Kuang looked around — there was no boy. “This year in Qingdao has not been easy.”
“Kids these days, they’re busy. They just don’t have the time for Jesus.”
Lao Kuang’s stomach knotted uncomfortably with what he wanted to say, but he put a firm hand on Campbell’s shoulder and said, “Come back to my place.”
The two men slunk back through the trees and entered the Lao Kuang’s hut. Once inside, they sat at the single wood table; Campbell’s knees lifted it.
Lao Kuang could barely contain his excitement as he poured Campbell a cup of cold tea, but before he got to the brim, he set the teapot down with a loud clink and ran outside. Campbell heard him circle the building, stop for a long moment, and then he was back. Lao Kuang tapped his chest twice, licked away some hanging snot.
“I know…I feel…you, me, same.”
Campbell said, “Hmmm.”
“You can smoke,” said Lao Kuang, “Men like we need relax.”
“Thanks for having me,” said Campbell, “I suppose I should…” But he lit up.
“No. No, no. I see you. I know…you find peace inside. You wise. You have…other peace,” said Lao Kuang, as his hands trembled before Campbell, as though to shape the gently spiritual.
“Jesus is peace,” said Campbell.
“Great responsible, bring boys and girls to Jesus. Need wis-dom. Need relax.”
“My God, you’re right,” said Campbell.
“YOU’RE MAKING TOO MUCH NOISE,” said Lao Kuang’s wife in Chinese from behind the plastic-strip door to the bedroom.
“Not as much as you. You sound like a donkey,” said Lao Kuang. There was an exasperated sigh, and Mrs Kuang made a big aural show of rolling over.
“You’re right,” whispered Campbell. “I never thought about it that way. It is much harder to help people than I thought. And yet I try. God knows I try.”
“God knows…” said Lao Kuang. “Why not relax a small time?”
The coffee-tin with his slender, milled-edge, carved-bowl, stinky pipe and his pen-knife and lighter were only a reach away, in the coffee tin that also contained a few brushes, and their tips in the surging candlelight, bi jian bai lin, were a white forest in his watering, constantly crossing eyes. He got up with a half-fart and fetched a bottle of baijiu. Campbell gratefully drank.
“I think you need more relax,” said Lao Kuang, almost out of English words. “Behind your problems. Bye-bye them. Need to think about God, not people problems.”
“Meditate,” said Campbell. “Don’t you meditate? I think I need to meditate. Think about what God wants.”
“God wants relax. I know what you need. Okay, take one time, very nice for you.”
Lao Kuang squeezed his eyes shut; there, he had done it. The direct approach. Campbell might respond. He had better respond: if he didn’t, he would beat him to death with a wok and then get the relief he craved.
He had better respond: if he didn’t, he would beat him to death with a wok and then get the relief he craved.
He heard the bottle clink against the cup again.
His gut was raving.
“You don’t happen to have any opium here, do you?” said Campbell.
Lao Kuang opened his eyes and his mouth in a wide smile; Campbell’s face was delightful, both childish and pleading. “Fan-ta-sick!” he said.
“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO SMOKE UP THE FOREIGNER, ARE YOU? YOU SON OF A TURTLE’S EGG. YOU DESPICABLE-” said Mrs Kuang.
This caused Lao Kuang to knock over the coffee-tin, and its contents slid and rolled along the table, a brush pitching off. Out came the knife, the pipe, the pipe-cleaners, and some grey ash, pencils, a suppository implanter, and, spinning once on its axis, a USB flash drive.
It was red and yellow, modular plastic, with a slide-feature that retracted to protect the slender metal tongue and its inner filaments.
It was manufactured by Gao Hun Corp of Shenzhen, est. 2007.
And before Lao Kuang could explain away the flash-drive, Campbell noticed the closet door at the back, near where Kuang Tai-tai was now blinking in her housecoat, and the grey plug that stuck out beneath the closet door. He threw open the door and a tumbling 29-inch monitor barked his shins.
“Shit!” he said.
“Shit,” said Lao Kuang.
Mr Campbell retrieved and placed on the floor a couple of X-box controls. Lao Kuang saw there was nothing for it, and prepared his pipe while Campbell ranted, and lit his smidge, and beat a lingering retreat into the mysteries.
Mr Campbell went and woke up his wife, but she told him she was sleeping off the grubs, she chuckled, and fell back asleep, and Mr Campbell lay beside her listening to her breathing, and his anger lessened, but this did not distract him from an internal parade of heavier objects, modular objects, moulded, modern — they gathered in his mind.
In the morning, the foreigners went for a walk, and they were ten steps out the door when Jack cut in front of them.
“God bless you both,” said Jack. “Is it not a tremendous morning? Time was back when, almost the whole village would be out early and in their exercising. But now, as you know well, many have the medical issues. They suffer quite a large. Amount. So they sleep in much, much later, than I was a boy. It would do me good to see them out and about again, truly. May I suggest a route for your morning constitution?”
“Didn’t you say there had been some development these parts?” said Mrs Campbell.
“Houses and such,” said Mr Campbell.
“You don’t want to see them,” said Jack. “They exhibit — I’m sorry to say, but it’s true — they were ignorant of our village ways, and-”
“I think that would be very interesting,” said Mrs Campbell, tugging her Tilley hat snug.
Jack did not move a facial muscle. He led them between a stand of bamboo and another hut, and directly to the edge of the remains of a small crop of corn and millet.
“There’s really not a lot to see,” he said.
“They’re over there,” said Mr Campbell. And he pointed behind him, at the line of roofs.
“I think to understand the mistakes the developers made,” said Mrs Campbell, “we’ve really got to look inside.”
“A great cross-cultural misunderstanding,” said Mr Campbell, leading the way.
When Jack moved left, to take them to the end-house, they hung back, and turned right. Before Jack could react, the Campbells were through the far gate, and inside the cement-block house. Jack almost caught up, and Mr Campbell said, “A-hah!” and flung open the door to the garage.
Piled carefully on a bed of purple turnips were a mint iMac, a flat screen TV, its wall-mount jutting up, a Kawasaki moped, a salon-grade helmet for setting perms, and, farther back, in the spider-webby gloom, a satellite dish.
“Now, who could have put these things here, my boy?” said Mr Campbell.
“Now, who could have put these things here?” said Jack.
Mrs Campbell put a hand on Jack’s arm. “Jesus will forgive you, you know, Jack.”
“I’d like to see the carp-ponds,” Mr Campbell said.
They let Jack exit the house, and watched where he turned, and went the opposite way, towards the river. Jack had to break into a trot to keep up. For their age, they went at a good clip.
“Though. Our village. Is small. There. Are many, things. I don’t know about. It.”
“Are there?” said Mr Campbell. He brushed aside some ferns overhanging the pond, where the few fish were flickeringly conscious. Across the water, poorly hidden in another bank of ferns, were the glass circles of headlights and the windshield of a Terrainmaster SUV.
Their walk continued, Jack now silent, hands in his back pockets.
“You ought to learn how to stand up straight,” said Mrs Campbell, pressing her small fist between Jack’s shoulderblades.
“Let’s go visiting,” said Mr Campbell. And they did. In Jack’s aunt’s home, ignoring her greetings and protestations, they found a Kobe reader tucked behind some old books; and in a neighboring pig-pen they found, under a tarp, an elaborate wine-making kit with bottling and labeling gear. Mrs Campbell asked to use the washroom, and returned to present the aunt with her false teeth and contact lenses.
“Jack has been so generous with us, with his time,” said Mrs Campbell.
The old woman put in her false teeth and grimaced, like she wanted to bite Jack.
“Praise Jesus,” said Mr Campbell.
It didn’t get much worse, but after a silent lunch and another walk, the Campbells found in an unlocked outbuilding, wrapped in dense plastic sheeting, X-ray equipment with wall-mounts and plates, a dialysis machine, and several storage tubs of prescription pharmaceuticals in vacuum-sealed bags. All the village lacked, it seemed, was a doctor.
“This is outrageous,” said Mr Campbell.
“Forgivable,” said Mrs Campbell.
“Oh, darling, all you do is forgive and forgive.”
The foreigners retired to their little room, where they proceeded to pray, and for this couple of hours, at least, the whole village prayed with them.
Downhill from the university, not far from Lin Yan’s old high school, there was a level neighborhood where the sea fog, leaving a few loose, floating shreds of stinging mist at eye-level, settled over parked cars and clung to the windows of small shops and restaurants, outside which shih-tzus and papillon puppies growled at the fog, tethered suggestively beside small pits of glowing charcoal. Korean money and influence had drifted between the peninsulas that summer, and now the streets were saccharine with girl and boy bands blaring from video stores; the choosier parts of Qingdao gained luxury hotels; and commerce in general moved west towards the bathing-beaches. Qingdao girls began to bristle with the Korean fashion for fringes and appliqued flowers and furbelows on their boots, bags, and blouses.
Not so Lin Yan, who wore a white cotton top with jeans and was smoking her first cigarette in one of Jin Ming’s hired taxicabs.
Across the street, like a channel light through the fog, the flashing neon beer-stein of the Rathskaller, where Lin Yan was to join a Dutchman and his drinking buddies for dinner.
“I better get going,” she said.
“Whatever,” said the driver. He was resting his cigarette on the steering wheel between puffs, and he turned to her. “Are you nervous?”
“Don’t be. They are only foreigners. They will show off to each other; they will drink like fish.”
Yan laughed unconvincingly at the English idiom in Chinese.
“Think of yourself as the flowers on the table,” said the driver. “Better — don’t think of yourself. Enjoy the food.”
“Think of yourself as the flowers on the table. Better — don’t think of yourself. Enjoy the food.”
“It’s just large meats,” she said. “And potatoes. It’s not really food.”
She was quiet. Her mother had always taught her to think of herself as a flower, but this was different.
“Whatever. Any trouble, text me. Oh, and. Jin Ming asked me to give you this.”
Lin Yan took the card.
My roommate is missing. I have to find her.
I don’t feel well. I must go home.
My mother is sick. I should return hometown.
They called a study-group meeting. I’m fear it’s mandatory. It’s Marxism-Leninism.
If these don’t work, call 3678 2471.
The driver got out and came around, opened the door for her.
Inside the Rathskallar, there were no customers, but she told the hostess that a Mr Vanderleer was meeting her, and was seated. There was a wraparound molded plaster frieze above the wainscoting, interrupted by recessed green and gold steins with golden lids. Yan’s eyes followed the merry medieval characters on the frieze: the miller, the maiden, the priest and the urchin, the cowherd, the nun, the lad with his axe, the crone with her cane, the occasional oxen. She had seen similar Chinese scenes on trousseau trunk-lids, the villagers meeting the official just outside his yamen. They travelled all around the room, das volk, and when she got to the end, a pair of sweethearts, a buxom girl with startling yellow braids, a strapping lad…Mr Vanderleer was touching her arm, saying, “Mei Li?”
“Please to meet you,” Lin Yan said, and received a kiss on her cheek. She sat down, blushed. Mr Vanderleer was florid-faced and surprisingly small; he was also polite. He asked about her studies; recommended a good beer. When his two friends, the Germans, showed up, they were towering and very loud. They spoke in English, their common language. They roared and shot up to pump the hand of the chef, who came out to recommend the schnitzel, clinked their mugs, tousled the Dutchman’s hair. They ignored her, except for insisting that she have her picture taken with Mr Vanderleer, who reluctantly agreed; the Germans hovered about her and tried to push them together for the shot, which Lin Yan resisted. That didn’t last long. The Germans started singing, made toasts. Vanderleer seemed a little overwhelmed. He touched her hand on the tablecloth.
They moved from beer to schnapps. Mr Vanderleer went to the men’s room.
“Leer, huh, he’s doing well for himself.”
“About time, after all that.”
“Oh, yes, the police were into him pretty fast.”
“It was an accident.”
“Totally. The poor Chinese, stepped out and got flattened.”
“Dragged was more like it.”
Lin Yan tried to keep her eyes down.
“So how much did the cops get him for, anyway?”
“I heard 30,000.”
“Hell no, the local — what’s it called, Miss?”
“Renminbi,” she said.
“Ren Min Bi. Thirty-thousand of them.”
“Ah, well, he was just a Chinese. Here he is.”
A pang of fear trammeled her breastbone into her heart, sharp. She waited until they started to roar again. She went to the washroom and washed her hands, and sat on the counter with the water running.
When she returned, they were settling up. She ignored it when the larger of the Germans pulled out her chair.
The Dutchman looked at his friends, then her, and quietly said, “I would like to have a word with you.”
He led her by the arm outside.
“You are so beautiful. And I can tell you’re a nice girl. A little schmuzenkatze. How much if we go back to my hotel?”
“Thirty-thousand,” said Lin Yan.
“That’s almost four thousand US dollars,” Vanderleer said, then his face darkened. “Why, you, you – what do you think this is?” He grabbed for her arm.
Lin Yan ran away. She ran until she felt cold, rising through the foggy streets towards the university, and her breath stabbed her, and took the staircase beside the backside of a scabby apartment-building, and on the first landing her knees wobbled and she sank to sit, her back against the stone wall. A streetlamp sputtered flashes in a wire cage just above her, but the fog dissipated and the moon was bright, and it shone directly on Lin Yan as she worked her hands in her lap. She wept. A married couple trudged up the steps right in front of her, wearing Mao clothes that on younger people may have been ironic or arriviste, but to them were simply habit, exactly as their way of walking was, he ten steps ahead, their hands behind their backs. They passed Lin Yan, (weeping still, unable to stop,) as though she were the umpteenth pieta in a European palazzo, passed her without looking, as though she were not there.
When she shut her dorm door behind her, later, Hu Die was laying in bed smoking a cigarette. By the way Lin Yan hovered with her foot tracing the floor Hu Die saw at once there was something wrong.
“Where are our sisters?” said Lin Yan.
“Who knows? Who cares? Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” said Lin Yan.
Hu Die stubbed the cigarette out and stretched.
“Come with me. Come on. We’re going out. We’re going to see the Damma-Lammas.”
“It’s a band.”
Hu Die tossed her a toque, and pulled one on herself. “Don’t ask,” she said, “it’s grunge, okay. Just wear it.”
That night, there was an assembly in Lao Kuang’s second house, in the home theatre; the Campbells had something to say to the whole village. Jin Ming had trailed around after Lao Kuang all afternoon, saying, “I did what I could,” and “Laoshi, please, it is not because of anything I did.”
“That’s true. You did what you could.”
“So things are the same between us?”
“Oh, yes,” said Lao Kuang. “Why? Do you sense any change coming?”
All the villagers showed up on time, perhaps because they wanted to get this over with. They came presenting indifferent faces. Lao Kuang mused that he had not had so many of them over since the days of political education meetings. He made Jin Ming sit in the far, rear corner; even the boy who acted the retard at dinner got a better seat in terms of rank. He wore a t-shirt that said, Mom and Apple Cake.
Even the boy who acted the retard at dinner got a better seat in terms of rank. He wore a t-shirt that said, Mom and Apple Cake.
And the Campbells entered with Mrs’ hugs and Mr’s barely endurable handshake.
“I and my husband want to thank you for your wonderful hospitality yesterday,” said Mrs Campbell. “Ed?”
He rattled his throat and began. “My friends, and you really have been our friends. So thank you. You know the grubs weren’t so bad. I’m afraid I’ll never be a grasshopper-lover. But I digress. We actually know quite a bit about your marvelous country-”
“We had to pass a test, before we came,” said Mrs Campbell.
“We took a course. A long time ago, there was a wise young man who said, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…’”
Jin Ming had to translate.
“…rich to enter heaven.’ It makes you think, doesn’t it? What is wealth and riches if we are poor in spirit? And this young, wise man spent a lot of time among the poor, not among the rich. He knew the poor. He was poor himself. And yet he asks us to think about richness in a different way. But back to China. We learned an awful lot. Mao Tse-tung — did I get that right? — well, he established all those friendships with Soviet satellite-states in the sixties, and Mao gave grain and other things to all those poor countries. He didn’t want his fellow communists to do without.”
Temples were throbbing, a couple of fists got coughed into. Lao Kuang knew that several of the villagers’ parents had died of starvation during the same period.
“But he didn’t stop there. Mao also extended that friendship, that generosity, to many countries in Africa. He paid off loans. He gave scholarships to African students. I remember I saw a black man wearing a fez in Beijing once. There’s a long history of Chinese generosity towards the world, is what I’m trying to say, and that young, wise man — God, he practically defined that generous spirit. For he knew that there was a worse kind of poverty than sleeping on straw and sucking on stones in the desert.”
“There’s a long history of Chinese generosity towards the world.”
“It’s Jesus, isn’t it?” said Jin Ming, without much interest.
“It is Jesus, praise him. He knew that poverty of the spirit, when you feel you don’t have anything in you to give, so you got to hold onto it all, that poverty was more serious. So, Mrs Campbell and I wanted to do something in that same spirit. And align it with your history, somewhat. We have a great deal of admiration for your culture, and we’ve all heard about what great things Chairman Mao did for your culture during that revolution of yours a little whiles back.”
Mr Campbell held up a small digital camera and passed it to the front row, where it passed without comment from liver-spotted hand to hand.
It took a few seconds to register. Granny Wang took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, put them on again.
It was a photograph of a smirking goat with a bell around its neck.
“Mrs Campbell and I have made arrangements to donate this goat to an African village, just a poor collection of huts-”
“He means houses,” said Mrs Campbell. “You know, with the hats on top.”
“We donated this goat on behalf of your village,” said Mrs Campbell. “The people will be able to get goat milk and cheese, if they know how to make it, and the children can play with the goat.
“Because we wanted to assist your village just as Jesus sure would have wanted you to reach out to others. It’s been quite a day, hasn’t it? Thank you for the Internet access this afternoon; we couldn’t have done this without you.”
Lao Kuang banged his hands together, once, twice, and the rest joined in.
The Campbells’ eyes met in adolescent love for each other’s faith.
“And,” Mr Campbell said. “And we’ll be supporting that goat for a year in the name of your village. Do you know what else we found out? Not far from this village there are Chinese miners working. Right next door to the village we chose! It just goes to show.”
“Mr Campbell,” Lao Kuang said. “We don’t know how to thank you. But it is late, and I know many of us wish to go to sleep. We are moved by your great gift.”
“Understandable. Okay. Anyone else want a look at the goat?”
Jin Ming was the first to slip away, and when the others had mostly gone, Lao Kuang talked softly to Mr Campbell, and thanked Mrs Campbell again, and went directly to his pond and fumed at the complacently flickering fish.
As the lead singer of the Damma-Lammas, teasing the audience, lurching above the one lame footlight with his three-stringed guitar banging against his crotch, turning around and staggering backwards to the lip of the stage, windmilling, as he prepared himself and the arms of his audience for his leap – his flagrant forward dive into their heaving appreciation – he jumped, hands out, and he was held, bobbing aloft, as the band continued to sputter along: all this happened in a wink, in the lapses of the strobe, and Hu Die and Lin Yan, near the fire-exit of the warehouse, together they touched their cheeks with their mittens and their mouths were perfect Os as they stomped up and down in delight, framing the silent, cross-armed endurance of the lone policeman, who stared disapprovingly as the singer was heaved back on the stage, the cop who had drawn this profoundly undesirable Saturday night duty. He grew stiffer, impatient, anxious to rush the stage, burrow his eyes in the crowd to search for a crime, as the two cute girls in their pom-pommed toques, giddy with pleasure now, alternately jostled the cop by his shoulders, saying, “Come on and dance,” “Dance with us, oh pretty please,” but he shook his head and moved even farther back under the red fire-exit sign. The girls held hands and skipped into the crowd.
Lin Yan had never had such fun. And though she flailed away dancing, something sunk into her, she felt heavy on her feet, and she realized, as the Damma-Lammas’ drummer got louder and louder, that it was true, she had never, in all her life, had any fun, whatsoever. The piano, the tutors, the buxiban cram-schools, the French, the math, the piano exams, her mother. Her mother. Hu Die whirled and punched her on the shoulder, and Lin Yan punched her back, and the girls jostled girls and were jostled back, and mocked the boys they kept banging into, and when the show was over, they went up to a mild-looking boy with long curly hair, the bass-player, and they both said, “You guys were good. You guys were awesome.”
The girls jostled girls and were jostled back, and mocked the boys they kept banging into.
And so it was that Lin Yan and Hu Die were invited backstage, in a storeroom with huge plastic sacs of pijiu hanging from hooks, where the band were slapping hands and filling glasses. Lin Yan tried beer. The bass-player, Glen, introduced them. The girls told these Americans where they were from and the band chimed all around, Everett, Yakima, Coquitlam, Portland. The girls giggled with all the wicked innocence a toque can give a girl. “Play something,” they said. “More!” Glen swung open a guitar case on the floor and gentled an acoustic on his lap, and became sweetly reminiscent about his lips as he picked the strings in a pretty pattern and began to sing:
“Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Darling Billy?
Yes, she can bake a cherry pie,
And she’s the apple of my eye,”
“But she’s a young girl, and cannot eat her mother,” said Hu Die, with complete confidence.
“These girls are drunk,” said the singer. “I like drunk girls.”
The next weekend, Hu Die and Lin Yan accompanied the Damma-Lammas to Weifeng for a gig. And then there were more gigs — Jinan, Beijing, Tianjin — and the girls’ weekends were gloriously full. They partied with the band. They learned how to set up the drum kit. Lin Yan never saw Jin Ming again.
Jin Ming was taking a long time to return from his village, so Xiao Wang became the Pad-Meister and invited many friends to hang out and go head to head at computer games on the big screen. The pad stank of beer and salt and vinegar chips and swelling ramen in the sink.
Little Wang set up the cellphone on his desk, and took the call.
“Are you streaming?” said Khaled, from Washington, DC.
“Ready to test.”
The image swung to a bed. A black girl with bushy hair toed the floor, and dropped her simple shift around her ankles. Her breasts flattened as she lay prone with her chin on her arms, then she twisted her neck, looking back, smiling at Khaled, whose hand entered the frame and stroked her back.
“Shar-Lee has agreed to help me study for this anatomy exam,” Khaled said.
“You all going to examine me?” she said.
She clenched her buttocks as Khaled’s finger poked her tailbone. “Tickles,” she said.
“Okay, here we go. Skeleton.”
Khaled’s hand, starting where he probed his fingers in her afro, travelled the long, licorice length of her, naming the brain’s plates, the islands of her spine, the fibula and tibula, the network of tiny phalanges in her pale-bottomed feet. Khaled made many mistakes, but Little Wang just said, “Good, good, keep going,” as he put his finger to his lips and waved over his friends. Quietly he got out a synchronized tablet and streamed from the phone.
Shar-Lee turned over, and beckoned Khaled, and she lay her hand to his beard as they kissed, and she sank back on the bed with a crinkly delight at the corner of her eyes, and put her hands for a pillow behind her head. She playfully breathed and inflated her chest. Her nipples were inky, like papaya seeds. Khaled, “collar-bone, breastbone, floating rib,” sounded gentle in his lists, and his fingers lightly crept and spread and depressed her breasts, and Shar-Lee said, “Honey, is it a hard test?”
“Keep going,” said Little Wang. “You’re doing great. Hen hao.”
The boys’ faces hung over the tablet like anglers around a glowing lake. There were worse ways of learning about love.
The boys’ faces hung over the tablet like anglers around a glowing lake.
The goat reached the African village, but not long after it became a yellow knob of bones in the dirt. The sun was setting against the Kenyan plain in a sonata that warbled in its livid red disc, stirring somehow the yellow grass and the spreading levels of leaves in the distant plane tree, when Ahmed, a boy with elbows nearly as big as his knees in ripped Laker shorts, looked up from looking at his feet. He stood. He tensed at the small bloom of dust on the horizon, which grew into a low, approaching funnel of dust. He thought it was Kill-R and Daddywhacker returning; he shouted at his brother to watch out and stood to face the dust coming up the rough road. Every time the dust came, so came his worry. He wiped the sweat from his palms on his bare chest.
His brother, Sa’im, who was slow but placid, with a bit of the slim sickness in him, was skinning a rat with a sharp rock. “You’re ruining that rat,” Ahmed said, “Time you’re finished there won’t be nothing left,” but in Swahili it was much more rhythmic: “Wewe yanaangamiza kwamba panya, wakati wewe ni kumaliza hakutakuwa na kitu kushoto.” Silent Sa’im kept scraping.
The boys lived by themselves in a hut of corrugated tin, and they had a flimsy water-jug and a couple of battered pots. It was burning hot and they slept outside nights; their mother was dying in the hut; her skin bloomed with sores and bruises that looked like gourd-skin rotting. Because she smelled, the boys did not go in the hut much except to feed her; the door had come to so adequately represent her mouth, so much so that the boys had no desire to enter and suffer the horror of the croakings they could no longer understand.
Last night, Kill-R and Daddywhacker in their backwards caps and construction safety vests had lit a fire and drank, offering Ahmed their beer, but he said no. Cooking the goat over the fire had been their idea.
“Come over here, want you feel something,” said Daddywhacker, and he put Ahmed’s thumb on his machete, and rubbed it below the hone. “You feel that? That Daddywhacker’s number one. I kill more with it than gun.” Ahmed gulped.
“How old your brother?” said Kill-R.
“He three,” Ahmed lied.
“I see he waste a village or two. He going be a killer.”
Kill-R chortled. The fire crackled.
“Next year we fix you up, and you come, you see with us. You going know. But you is going eat regular.”
Now, Ahmed put his hands on his knees as the cloud died and he saw the Chinese characters on the van. He was never so relieved to see those unintelligible symbols. It was the Chinese mining-men from the hills, their camp.
The van made a sliding turn and stopped. The side door banged open, and a man was shoved out and hit the ground, rolled, and lay on his back until he pushed himself to stand. His eyes were blackened. He had an unintentional goatee.
The side door banged open, and a man was shoved out and hit the ground.
The van roared off.
Ahmed smiled. The man walked funny, like he had to think about it, and waved a smartphone at Ahmed. The exhausted Chinese man laughed, crazily laughed, sat down again. He lay on his back.
“Pleasant evening,” he said. He propped himself on his elbows. “Fuck. I came to take picture of the goat.”
Jin Ming extended the smartphone and its silver back gleamed in the last sun, and Ahmed took it.
“I show you goat,” Ahmet said.