News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The Global Village (fiction) Chapter 07

As I came through the school doors, Johnson's wife Annie was standing next to the reception area counter. She was looking overworked, which was normal, but today she didn't look resigned but agitated. I realized that she was bent over more than usual, her brow knitted. Somehow she seemed to be compressed, on the verge of an explosion. I had a perverse image of a sort of Palestinian meat bomb.

I went to look at Johnson, but he had already stopped up behind me, trying to maintain a safe distance from the coming blast.

And then Annie began to shriek. "You 10,000-year-old rotten egg. I want to kill you to death. Kill you to death!"

The girls behind a desk stared. The room was silent but for the echos resounding off the nearly bare walls. She had been waiting for Johnson. The taut silence gave me just enough time to pose a question to myself: How long had she been waiting?

But then I was interrupted, captivated, and enraptured with the shameless theatrics of Annie pummeling her small fists on the counter in front of the girls, "I knew I never should have married you. You're a chaotic account; a moral degenerate; a people abuser." She picked up the pace, her voice rising in volume and register: "Why am I treated like this? Why? Why? Why?" And from the top of her crescendo, she fell through an octave while howling: "Why is heaven so unfair?"

Johnson stiffened, white with rage and then released his tension with a wild bark: "Into my office!" The phlegm strangling his voice, he slurped a frothy "Noooow!" He began to move forward, but Annie was ready for him with Act II.

She stood her ground, as if cornered and vicious: "What are you afraid of? Why do you just stand there? There is no hole to hide your shame. You awful trash. What can you say? What dare you say? Nothing!" She was red with rage, shaking with pent-up anger. She could have done anything. Instead, she continued to lecture: "Does ivory sprout from the jaws of a dog? You 10,000-year-old rotten egg! You trashy chaotic account thing!"

And then she picked up one of the girls notebooks from the desk and threw it in the direction of Johnson. It was a clumsy move, more like a toss. There wasn't much energy behind it and not much damage could accrue from it.

"I'm warning you," said Johnson sternly, "Don't go too far with this!"

"What are you going to do about it? What do you dare do about it?" She hissed at an ever lower volume that made one strain the ear to hear. Having snookered us in, she burned our ear-drums with a righteous banshee howl: "Your shameful conduct has been revealed! Everyone with eyes can see it!" Her right hand was up, like a teacher addressing students; like one of the fascist local representatives talking down to the electorate.

She kicked away the chair beside her. She picked up a pen, and threw it toward Johnson, but again lethal force was lacking. She began whimpering, and then turned on the waterworks full-bore. A gale of shrieking wind and flashing rain came forth.

She squawked, "Oh why me? What have I done to deserve this? Why? Why? Why?" She slumped down on to a chair, and then realized the floor was better and relaxed her posture and slipped down onto the tiles. She kneaded her eyes with her hands, tears dripping dramatically, and then changed tactics and drummed her fists on the floor like a toddler howling for toys. She thumped and thumped again. She took off a shoe and threw it clumsily at Johnson's legs.

The effort was so pathetic that I wanted to laugh. Shelly had been watching me and gave me the evil eye.

Johnson was familiar with the routine though, I felt certain. This was his wife after all. He knew the rules of the game, what he could do, and what he could not. And when to do it. Annie was naturally giving her performance here in front of the girls, where it would be most appreciated, where she might receive demands for an encore, where she might whip up the most sisterly sympathy and support.

Right on cue, Madonna and Shelly went over to Annie and held her hands imploring her, "Please don't take it so hard, Mrs Wang." Looking stonily at me, Shelly said to the room, "There must be some way of resolving this."

This encouraged Annie to deliver herself of a few more wails. She resisted Shelly's efforts, to evince the appearance of being persuaded against her will to give up the righteous path for the regrettable pragmatism of worldly conciliation.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I jerked to attention with a start. Mikey whispered in my ear, "What the fuck is happening here?"

I stammered, "It's too early to tell. The cat's not out of the bag yet. They're still in the opening acts, the pre-negotiating stage."

"Stop talking gibberish. Did he slap her?"

"No. Not yet..." and I sniggered. "We just came in the door, and she launched into this routine. It's like a soap opera and just as predictable. Only, we don't know which climax has been written into the plot."

Mikey's whisper got sharper: "We? Who the bloody hell is we? You're in on this aren't you? What kind of monkey business are you up to?"

Two other girls were assisting Annie now, generating a volume of sympathy that was increasing in an almost geometric progression. According to the rules of the domestic game, it wasn't Johnson's time to enter into the fray and break it up yet. Besides, we still didn't know what this was all about. Annie was being deliberately vague and standoffish.

Because I hadn't answered Mikey immediately, he kept prying: "So, was nobody giving her the shaft? There's no problem of hers that a few good sessions of rooting wouldn't cure."

"That might be the cure for what ails you Mikey, but..."

"Watch it! I can take care of myself. No smart ass remarks from you, thank you very much."

"Anyway, I don't know what's going on. When I know something, I'll let you know."

"Yeah, right." Changing his mind, he said, "Well, OK. Do that. I've got class to get to."

But just as Mikey was about to go, Johnson lost his temper and grabbed Annie off the floor. Annie stuck her nails into his arm, and Johnson grimaced, but he kept going. He began dragging her bodily across the room like a sack of rice.

Annie shrieked, "How can you do this to your wife? Have you no shame?" She went on and on and on. But so did he. He was relentless, dragging her into the corridor, onto the rug, trying slyly to give her a friction burn while he was at it and get his revenge.

The shrieking went on and on until he got to his office door. And then, to my surprise, he hollered " Edward! Into my office, now!"

Mikey was as puzzled as I was. "What the hell are you two up to?"

As I got moving, I turned back to him and grinned: "When I find out, you'll be the first to know."

I closed the door after entering the office and Johnson was in his favorite seat, while his wife was standing out in front of the desk like a truant school child. Now that things were in private, the normal power scheme was in place and Johnson was back in the saddle. He said, "Edward, I want you here for a reason. She won't pull anymore Chinese-style tricks in front of you. She'll be too embarrassed if you and I are the only audience that she has." And he turned to his wife, "Right?"

She grunted, which could have meant anything. She looked miserable, defeated. It was all a let down after the suspense, buildup, and climax out in the public forum; the Circus Maximus of the customer reception area. She was powerless, yet again. Shrunken to her old proportions now. But, after all, the time had come to resolve things.

"So what's this all about, Annie?"

She just stood there, saying nothing to her master reclining in the leather chair. Sexual equality was on the way, and in many ways Chinese women, like Canadian women, had the upper hand on men. But that was the future, and this was the present.

"I've been your husband for 20 years. I've given you wealth, security, companionship. If you have a problem, we should solve it privately and amicably. Not with this foolishness. You watch too much television, you listen to your mother too much. Who put you up to this? One of your gossipy friends? What's this all about?"

That second last sentence. That was a hint. But of what?

Still, Annie said nothing. She was mum. In Chinese they called this the mute who mistakenly ate a yellow orchid. The orchid was bitter, but the mute, lacking a voice, couldn't complain. Call it an ancient profundity, or call it the pre-PC humor of yokels, either way, now that she'd belabored and humiliated him, she wanted sympathy from him. It was a desperate attempt, though I'd seen even cruder ploys push the good people's buttons.

At the same time, she was fishing for concessions. Like a reporter going silent and hoping their victim gets nervous and coughs up potentially embarrassing admissions, she was hoping Johnson would start fumbling for something to say and cough up some initiatives for compromise. She knew from experience that once the proceedings went formal, she wouldn't be able to twist the rules of negotiating to her advantage. Johnson was no greenhorn to negotiating.

But despite all the feline machinations, it was a no-go. Johnson was giving nothing away for free. He got proactive and demanded, "What the fuck do you want? What the fuck was that fracas about?"

She looked down and mumbled, "You never give me enough time off from the office. I work so hard. I'm going to die of work exhaustion. I'm aging beyond my years. It's all your fault. You don't care anymore. You just don't care."

Johnson replied, "No sympathy tricks! Try again! Another excuse please. I don't believe you. Not even a little bit."

"It's true! It's true!"

"True or not, I don't believe it. Everything is true and nothing is true. It's all about context. Stop wasting my time and get to the point, please!"

"No matter what I wear, you never comment on anymore. It doesn't matter to you. I should die for all you care. What's the difference? Maybe I will go up to the roof and jump off. Then we'll see if you care." She looked up hopefully.

"Help yourself. Up the back stairs and you can get to the roof directly. Anytime you want. Go for it."

"You bastard. You stinky pig's head."

"Enough of yammering. Enough of your ridiculous talk. What the fuck is this about?"

I was amazed listening to Johnson. He had departed from the Chinese paradigm almost completely. But he wasn't in a Western paradigm either. There weren't few Western men who could handle themselves competently when faced with a fierce, relentless, and versatile female opponent. Johnson was his own man, making his own way. No wonder he was such a business wizard.

Annie slumped down, realizing that there was only one implement left in her arsenal. The truth. For honest people, truth is a tool. For the dishonest, it's a weapon. She looked at me, and sized up the situation. Perhaps I had a utility after all.

She hissed at Johnson: "You're fucking that white teacher. I know all about it." She suddenly broadsided me with her hostile gaze, hoping to foment within me a racial, manly jealousy. Her eyes were narrow slits probing, feeling for my reaction. More evil eye. It was all quite intimidating.

My rule of thumb at such times is to give people the opposite of what they want. I burst out laughing.

Johnson saw his cue and began to guffaw. Annie's falsetto cut through our wheezing chatter like a knife: "You won't be laughing very hard when I spread the news around town. Watch what will happen to business then."

Johnson was silent, his lips pursed tightly. He was dead serious now. He said, "It's our business. Not my business. If you hurt my business, you hurt our business."

"We have enough money. It is you who has ambitions. It is you who wants to go overseas. Not for the money. But for women. Lust is burning you up like a hot flame."

"That's farts! Farts, farts, farts! Everything you say is dog farts."

She burst into a whimper that rose rapidly through two octaves into a scream, "You get rid of that girl. If you don't, I start talking. I'll put a rumor in motion that you can never live down. I don't care about money. I care about my husband. You're mine. Not hers. Don't you forget it!"

Having delivered herself of her ultimatum, she got up, patted down her clothes, pressed her hair into place, and trotted over to the door and helped herself out. The door closed quietly.

When I saw her two minutes later in the reception area, she was cool as if nothing had happened. I had to admire her. She was moral relativism in action. Or perhaps she was all ethics and no morals at all. Either way, she had her feet on the ground. The girls showed no sign of having witnessed any event of any kind. The usual choreography. But Johnson got the message. Girls were dime a dozen; business opportunities were not.

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