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

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Ch01 The Learning Curve (revised 2004-12-27))

When people say, "This guy's a real character!" "You're going to get a kick out of this fella!" "They broke the mold after this dude!" I get excited for a minute. I'm a sucker for eccentrics. But then I think back a couple years, to when the town bus station still had pigs rooting around in the muck, to the days when Michael Ferguson was the only self-conflicted foreign freak in town, and I remember that strong medicine should be taken in small doses.

Michael was a furious blabbermouth with a beaky nose, a weak jaw, a shock of red hair, and blue eyes set too close together. But he was tall and lean. Intense. He had a style of his own. Most importantly, he exuded confidence and self-assurance at a time when I was still new to China and humbled by my need to learn the ropes. He was so very different, larger than life, glamorous even. He stuck out like the first neon billboard in a candlelit Tibetan hamlet.

In those dusty days of coal-smoke and animal dung, the town was just getting into the modern swing of things. It was chock full of fly-by-night Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen with fresh snappy bills and can-do handshakes, leathery faces and overworked hard-ons, eyes bloodshot from eighty hour workweeks, bad food and unfiltered beer, both of which gave them the trots regularly. Almost as soon as they settled in and got comfortable, local wages took a jump and they got orders from head office to pick up again and move to newer dirtier towns providing a fresh-batch of hard-up country cousins for their cheap-labor operations. It was a tough life, but well-paid. They flew into our Szechuan town in suits they couldn't be bothered to press, shoes they couldn't be bothered to polish, and five o'clock shadow they couldn't be bothered to trim: they didn't need to. They still became local heroes via their business expertise and informed chatter about international widget prices, foreign exchange trends, investment tips. Knowledge was power, money, prestige. They arrived, got set up, were busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and before you'd seen them around town half a dozen times, they were gone for good.

When one of these fellows entered the bar, our bar, the only bar that foreigners patronized in numbers, i.e. the Mickey Mao, they usually skimmed over the Chinese scene looking for the foreigners, sizing them up as quality or export-quality. If they spotted Michael and gazed at him for a moment, he'd tip his oversized Dizzy Gillespie jazz cap and then wink at me.

I had no problem with business people. They could be awfully dull folks with their fixation on business and nothing but business. But they were just earning a living like the rest of us. And they were injecting new energy, fresh blood, novel ideas into the country. China was booming and I too felt the surge and wanted to be part of it. But Michael used the cap to keep them away. All of his clothes were a warning, loud like the clown grease-paint color-scheme of a poisonous tree frog.

Corporate operations didn't arouse his curiosity. Dirt did. He always had a ready-to-go story with a moral, an enlightening anecdote, a bit of scandal on someone around town you knew (in those days everyone knew everyone else), some naughty gossip about some bigwig that would tickle your fancy and be educational, and make you feel that putting up with his hyperactive craziness was worthwhile.

He was always chasing around socializing and making connections. One day he buttonholed me. He pulled me like a batty uncle and confided to me like conspiracy buff: "You gotta know people in this town, Charlie. They'll fuck you around, boy. If you're not fucking them; they're fucking you. Now what's it going to be for you, Charlie, my boy?" and he'd wink and pinch my cheek.

The first time I thought he was kidding; when he told me again, I realized he was serious. I wondered if he was on to something. He'd arrived before me and maybe he had the sinister pulse of the place.

But it was odd to receive a warning from someone who seemed more volatile and dangerous than the bogeymen he protected you from. What bogeymen? In this town, we were treated like sacred cows, VIPs. Weren't they always telling us in Chinese language school that we were foreign guests?

But Mike had no patience with such questions. He became indignant when you didn't agree with him. And if you agreed too quickly, he thought you were putting him on. Maybe even laughing at him. He was terrified of people with their own opinions, but detested sycophants.

After picking his brain one time, he just lost it and informed me, "Foreign guests is a loaded term, dick-weed! Being a guest means you can be chucked out the door whenever they please." He looked away and then shouted, "SLAMMO!!!...Yeah! The door's slammed right in your face! Get it?" He could get out of hand, but what kept me there was that he was a character. The fact was, in those early days he was the only hare-brained, accident-prone, controversy-ridden drama-queen for miles. "Sheesh!" he said, looking around at no one in particular. "There's one born every minute isn't there?"

Then I heard echoes of his bogeyman alert from other newbies. He repeated his warning to me yet again. In fact, again and again during the next several months.

On the other hand, I admired Mike for adapting so quickly, for immersing himself in the local ways and means. This was rare in foreigners and thus all the more commendable. The usual reaction, fresh off the boat, to the local culture was less than sympathetic. It wasn’t curiosity about another culture that inspired, "Fucking monkeys!" But it wasn't racism either, just frustration and a reaching out for the most hurtful epithets on the market.

In the local pastoral culture stories were repeated, became hand-me-downs, and eventually legends. Because little had changed in this rural setting during the previous communist anti-capitalist era, as opposed to the present communist pro-capitalist era, there was little material for new yarns. Or for new ideas, new thinking, new approaches.

But in his assimilating, Mike picked up the local habit of blithely repeating oneself, indifferent as to whether you'd heard him say something before. Trotting out the same old story would do. He developed a selection of party favorites, golden oldies, greatest hits.

People came and went. Why be creative?

Mike also had his tender moods: "When I was a child, my father converted to Mormonism. Originally we were Catholics. We traded Mariolatry for polygamy.” He paused, his reedy almost falsetto voice hung in the air and his eyes began to grow wide. As he strained to find the right words, his eyeballs bulged as if the muscle between his ears was squeezing his brain like a Nerf football, the spongy mass pressing on them and pushing them out halfway out his brainpan. And then the moment was over, the right words found, and his voice returned, deeper, as if electronically enhanced, and he said, “Try and imagine how much that can mess with someone's development?" I wanted to pry, but he preferred being enigmatic.

Another time, late one night, it was almost morning and the bar was emptying out. The cigarette smoke had cleared, the music was playing low, most of the lights were on. There were just a few bar stars left, wandering around, scavenging, looking like Beijing Opera performers in the heavy makeup needed to make an impression when the lights were dim during busier hours. They were scavenging for a warm body, someone with a pulse, to go home with. I would've been happy to oblige, but Mike and I were out of commission, having spent an hour sucking back a local libation of rice spirit spiked with jasmine tea and other condiments. This juice really mellowed Michael's rage. As to myself, being more laid-back, the concoction slowed me down to near catatonic. Two Chinese restaurant sized tea cups and I was unable to speak Chinese; my English was barely a mumble. I had real trouble shuffling to the bathroom. I couldn't track or understand the blur of objects moving in the bar. I blinked and waved it away. Too complicated. I felt like I was insulated in bubble wrap for an hour. I abandoned the world. I knew Mike was speaking to me from time to time, but I couldn't decipher his sentences when they contained more than a few words. But I could grin, pant, and stay collapsed on my stool, leaning against the bar. It was like having a stroke, but an enjoyable one.

As the wicked stuff started to wear off a bit, I got it together. I suddenly realized I had no idea why Mike was here. I asked: “So what made you decide to come to China anyway?”

In this rare moment of mellowness, he replied calmly, “Who says I decided? More like I was drawn, summoned. The mystique of the Orient appeals to keener sensitivities.” And his hands opened up in a demonstrative flourish.


“As you so eloquently put it, 'Yuh.' The Orient mesmerized me. I've an artist's temperament. I'm a free spirit following his intuitions. I had no more choice coming to China than a moth coming to a flame.”

“Yeah? That sounds sort of, I don't know, confusing. And depressing.”

“Nah.” And he rubbed his face, pausing on the stubble collecting on his chin. “It's invigorating. Pursuing your dreams and going out in a burst of brilliance is better than leading a dull and unfulfilled life. Didn't Thoreau say something about men leading lives of tired exasperation?”

“You mean desperation?”

“Same difference.”


He raised an eyebrow, “You enjoying yourself?”

Slowly I fumbled with the words, cottony in my mouth, “I'm trying to.”

“Try harder.” He sighed, “In the mean time, I have to admit China is not what I expected. I guess that's the real problem.”

“That it's dirty and dusty and smoky?" I slurred. "That its traditional temples were smashed and replaced with cheesy bars like this one? That instead of acrobats and kungfu masters, everybody is nose-to-the-grindstone and flabby?” I honked a slow-witted laugh. “They hack up a storm of luggees when they get up in the morning?”

Impatient, he put up his hand to stop me and said, “No, no, no. Of course not. You're too cynical Charlie. Always in a rush to stick it to someone.”

Thinking this sounded more like a description of himself, I said “Eh?”

Mikey followed my sluggardly eyes and their line of sight and thought I was wondering about a pair of regulars, two full-bodied lesbians bumping and grinding in Hawaiian colors to our left. These two, in their off-hours from hooking, never danced with anyone but themselves. The music was so low as to be almost indiscernible in the chatter. Like many others artistically inclined but stuck in our temporarily philistine environment, either not having money or, more likely, unwilling to spend it, dance became a sort of thrift temple to creative expression. They really got into it. When they got bored with the music or when it got in the way, they ignored it and invented their own rhythms.

Mike ignored the scene and said, “And you're always analyzing, Charlie. You never have any time to enjoy things.” With an air of resignation, “My problem is that I arrived with baggage: my expectations. If I had expected nothing, I would have been delighted by everything. I would have had a sense of wonder and awe at the newness, the unexpectedness of it all.”

I squinted, wondering if he was for real. This pensiveness, if not the self-absorption, was rare. Unconsciously I tried to get on his good side by asking him more about himself: “So you shouldn't have arrived with any preconceptions, is that it? But without preconceptions, you don't have standards. You can't make decisions.”

“Standards. Decision-making. You sound like an MBA. The next thing you'll say is that I ought to be goal-oriented. I need a new paradigm.”

“Yeah? So what do you have against business people?”

“I used to be one. When I see one, I feel like one alcoholic spying another across a room."

"So what's so major wrong with business then?"

"I don't want to talk about it. Not interested. I'm in a good mood. Don't want to spoil it." He thought for a second and said airily, "Well, I guess I'm not a people person. To do business, you gotta mingle with the masses. Not my crowd. Anyway..." he said wearily, "How about you? What brought you to China?”

“I don't know if it's a very exciting story...”

He smile and interrupted my furry speech, “I'll just take your word for it. I learned the hard way to trust people's judgments about themselves. Especially their negative judgments. They're in the best position to know, after all.”

Afterwards, back in my room in my shared apartment, when not zoning on the cracks in the deteriorating concrete, the lines in the fake wood paneling, the Rebar poking through the ceiling cement, I sometimes thought about Michael. Perhaps it was this elastic persona, which could move at any moment from poseur artiste to story-teller to delicate flower, which helped attract so many attractive women to him. He boasted that he used women up, retained his wad and collected their chi essence, and then discarded them like fleas. Or was it the other way around? He was exciting, a challenge, something that attracted jaded Chinese bar stars bored with efficiency-obsessed business-men, Mormon proselytizers posing as backpacking tourists and who were sworn to celibacy and never took a vacation from preaching, uppity English teachers who only read news about events in the home country and thus had nothing to talk to locals about, politically correct students of Chinese who drove women mad by condescending to them and 'trying to treat a lady right'.

Michael was different. But he was also a challenge which proved more difficult than it seemed. He was chronically unpredictable. Scratch that. He was predictable. Whatever happened, it was your fault. He took women home, but then what happened?

He couldn't keep his girlfriends. Even though he never seemed to fall in love with them, it still wound him up. I broached the subject with him during one of his tender moods, and he confided that he wanted to be the one ending the relationship. But, try as he might, the local girls always seemed to bail out first.

I'd first met him at an eatery, the Red Dog Bistro, popular with big noses. It was the Lonely Planet recommendation for good pizza that attracted travelers to the place. But the pie came without tomatoes, sauce, cheese, or risen dough. Instead we were served Chinese unleavened bread with a smear of stir-fried corn nibblets. When I complained to an overworked waiter, she crabbed: "We Chinese don't like that Western imperialist stuff." I didn't believe her and just laughed. But regardless of whatever the real reason was, the pizza was so bad that it earned a reputation that only brought in more business; this time from people on the prowl for something new to complain about. It was a conversation starter. Besides, the price of drinks was great and it was fun watching second-generation newbies and tourists order pizza and then start howling when it arrived at the table.

No refunds. And Lonely Planet never corrected its glowing description. None of us cared enough to write to the publisher. For what? Taking people there and encouraging them to try the menu was a delightful sort of hazing that we put all the newcomers through. The place has been on the map ever since. I hope it always will be.

One day I wandered in after teaching Engrish for peanuts at the local college. (I needed the visa more than the money in those days.) Michael was leaning against the lip of the bar and rocking his body softly. He was cradling a warm bottle of local beer against his chest like a doll, looking at the rest of us with a soul full of hurt, pining for a lady-friend he could reliably call his own. "Can't talk to these bitches. They're so...just... and then... Jesus, they break my balls. Namby-pamby little darlings. But...booties and hot-hoots? Don't they get it? That's just... but... Not enough."

Nobody knew what he was saying at such times. He got so steamed he just rambled and meandered. He left out nouns, verbs, phrases, sometimes whole sentences.

After he fell off the boat and put his boots to China's shore, he picked up a working knowledge of the culture but he didn’t really dig in and get into it. This would have made him more interesting, not to mention more enlightened. But then again, it probably wouldn't have made much difference anyway. Like a political dissident, he was good at giving speeches but lousy with individuals in private. He couldn't keep his friends. Something to do with idealism, I guessed. He had no pals, only acquaintances. Even those didn't last long. I'm a case in point.

Then he started to get focused. He was always on the go now, looking for a young tart loaded with money. He tipped his hat to me one day and, while I was wondering what that meant, he said: "The early worm gets the bird, Charlie. You better believe it." But he was egging himself on, trying to work up some enthusiasm, get some vim and vigor going. Exhorting me gave him the chance to sound out his own words and find reassurance within them.

Mike was about ten years older than me, middle-aged, and age was making him obsess about money. "I ain't dying poor, Charlie." He nodded to himself, "Not when 1.3 billion Chinese are getting rich."

Now, when I went over to his pad, he was always working on some get-rich-quick scheme. This is what the wealthy did he said, "They don't work. They're smarter than that. They deal in real estate, mutual funds, junk bonds, securities, direct mail, shell companies, tax loopholes, phishing schemes. Joe Blow works himself to the bone for a company watch and a pension so he can catch cable movies in an old-folks home. Me? They'll bury me out back of Club Med." He waited for me to be impressed. I just shrugged. "You see, Charlie, these richie-rich types, they invent these… these perpetual motion machines for making money. I don't know how else to describe it. It's complicated!" He was frowning. And then my lack of a response infuriated him, "Don't you get it? They laugh themselves all the way to the bank." But I didn't picture him laughing. Fleeing was more like it.

He looked down on me teaching Engrish at the local college. He said it was, "menial work for white-collar wimps. After studying economics long and hard Charlie, I can tell you that Engrish teaching is just a byproduct of globalization and the geopolitical accident which has made Engrish the world's lingua franca. It's nothing to be proud of. In fact, it's brainless work for spiritless hacks. Your bachelor of arts degree still ain't worth the freaking paper it's printed on."

I was learning not to be fazed by his hocus-pocus. I remembered his disdain for MBA's just a couple of months prior. I said, "Yeah I know. I should be ashamed of myself. A BA isn't even good enough for wiping my ass." I looked at him with dead eyes. I wanted to ask him if he'd even gone to university, but that would have just got him hot and bothered for no good reason.

At first I figured he couldn't deal with backtalk. Then I realized that his problem was feedback of any kind. He overreacted if you said anything. He jumped to conclusions if you didn't. Either way, he launched into a harangue with fire in his eyes and his fingers wagging menacingly in front of your nose. I wanted to bite them. But I knew that underneath it all was ancient hurt covered with protective scar tissue, his ugly rancor. I was naturally sympathetic. I wanted to help. But how? I was just an Engrish teacher with a BA from a freshwater college in rural Canada.

When Mike became visibly irate in the bar, bar stars felt sorry for me. They'd buy me a drink and ask what was up with the distinguished fanatic? We chatted. It was so easy. We always had something to talk about: Michael. And so they slept with me and gave him the slip. Which only infuriated him even more.

I was curious about how he lived. A house tells you a lot. Are the dishes clean or the window sills dusty? Are there clothes in the sink or doilies on the furniture? Is the commode sparkling or the shower drain clogged with hair. And what about music? Techno glitz, ABBA, Bob Marley, Big Forest, Eminem, Dimebag? And are the tunes played through a Carver amp or Klipsch speakers? Or is it a Wal-Mart oompah-oompah karaoke special with blown tweeters, a stressed out polypropylene mid-range, and a subwoofer whose busted springs make an abrasive racket when the volume gets cranked.

Is the fridge stocked? With what? Coca Cola, White Cloud Beer, Shanghai chocolate eggs, Professor Chou's Famous Dried Shrimp or Dr. Setu's Lucky Sports Jam (manufactured by an ISO 12000 licensed research lab located in a Beijing science park)? Or is it stocked with Chinese pemmican, sweetened dried fruit, sweet basil, fresh cilantro, perky chicken breasts and drumsticks, high mountain cabbage and Pu-er Tea, scarlet strings of dried chili peppers, pickled fermented tofu, jars of miscellaneous condiments, and a bottle of the local pungent, lip-smackingly astringent rice vinegar, all purchased at the local farmer's market?

In other words, was his home a home away from home? Or was it a hotel? A trailer? A flophouse? Or a cosmopolitan domicile, mellowly integrating cuisines, fashions, esthetics, the old and new, East and West? Or was it haphazard with a love chair and no divan, or a table and no carpet, the stereo speakers situated one to a room, because the host valued parties and muzak over high fidelity?

A house can affirm someone and make you appreciate them even more. Or it can provide you with a warehouse of evidence to be used against them in the court of public opinion.

I visited Mike from time to time. He'd invite me over and then forget about it. When I'd get to his pad and punched the doorbell, I always had to wait. I'd hit the bell several times before he'd open the door and moan, "Charlie? What? Oh. Well, get in here then." The first time I pointed to my shoes, wondering whether I should take them off before coming in as was the practice in Taiwan and Thailand. He barked, "You expect me to wait on you hand and foot? Get inside, dumbass." He never did tell me where to put my shoes, so I left them on and tramped them around his home. He would already be trotting back up the stairs to his lair on the second floor, speaking in the direction of the wall. "I got stuff on the go Charlie! I don't got time to be lollygagging around!"

But if you called and then opened the door on your own when you got there, like a watchdog, his ears would prick to the shuffle of the dust-guard against the tiles. He'd come running down, shrieking his home wasn't a public house or a hotel. Who the hell did I think I was? Didn't he have any privacy?

Like, a year or so back, I'd gone over to his place. He opened the door. I found him done up in the local middle-aged bachelor get-up of flip-flops, a white singlet, and washed-to-death khaki shorts. He'd dyed his hair green. Probably to express his solidarity with Gaia, a new gimmick he'd been talking up lately. But I didn't get it. Tree hugging wasn't popular in China. There weren't enough trees left to go around for the huggers. And he seemed uptight and uncomfortable. Antsy.

Then it came to me: too many stares. After all, in our town our presence outdoors still automatically summoned an audience of the curious. Walking downtown in pairs or groups resulted in a crowd of chronically unemployed men gathering around. They were harmless and meant us no harm, but it was eerie, medieval even. When cars started showing up in numbers in the streets, a foreigner walking down the street was liable to cause a traffic accident. If I'd been mayor, I'd have passed an ordinance banning foreigners from walking in the main thoroughfares. Drivers took their attention off the road and placed it on us. Crunch! So what was Mike expecting with dyed green hair?

Mike ventilated another baffling blast of complaints: with me, the world, etc. With a cop stare, defying me to complain, he hauled on me, jerking me through the doorway, the hot smell of morning breath and steamy mustiness on him. He squired me upstairs, past the Canuck national flag he'd filched late one night from a local gas station and explained, “That rip-off artist waters down his gas."

We entered his work studio. I sat down on a cheap wicker chair. He was seated in another, bent over his computer, mumbling to himself. The furniture in the room was the discarded semi-broken down stuff that new foreigners, short on cash, often rescued from the local trash. As local folks became prosperous, people gradually replaced their old wooden or wicker furniture with new vinyl and plastic jobs. Poor local people broke up the older stuff for cooking fuel; poor foreigners recycled it by taping up the frame and throwing an ethnic minority tartan wrap over it. Mike's place was surprisingly clean, immaculate even. But quite Spartan, no cooking smells, little by way of books, yellow lamps instead of flickering fluorescent bulbs. Passing by his bedroom, I could see that he was sleeping on a proper bed. Four posts, a mattress, and a liberal sprinkling of sprawled blankets and pillows in burgundy and beige. Comfort where it mattered.

He started fidgeting over his computer. He shifted around in his chair and his cat yowled as its tail got pinched. When it hissed, he kicked it in the ass to remind it not to get any ideas about payback.

To make conversation, I asked, "What's the deal with the machine?"

Without looking at me, he grumbled, "It's gone doolally again!"

But I'd just given it to him. “How could it be broken already?”

But I was still learning that nothing was Mike's fault. If something good happened, he deserved it. If something bad happened, somebody did it to him deliberately. "Look! The CD bay! It's busted. What were you doing? Using it for a drink holder? Doh!"

“It probably just got old. Plastic dries out just like everything else.” I tried to be funny, “Maybe mold ate it or something.”

He looked at me calmly. I waited. He was the show. I was just the audience.

He sized up the situation and spoke to me like I was a kid. “Nothing happens for no good reason, Charlie. Remember what you learned at school? Cause and effect. There's nothing else. Just cause and effect. Don't you get it? Defects are planned obsolescence.” He paused to let this sink in.

I wanted to say that he'd forgotten about randomness and happenstance. 'Shit happens' is a difficult concept for conspiracy buffs. It's Zen and Taoism. But the words caught in my throat.

He started up again, “It's a corporate scam. Globalism's the new fascism, man. Doh!” and he popped himself on the forehead with his palm. “Why do you think I stay here?” He glared and I thought he was going to hit me. I turned up my palms in surrender and made a frightened fish-face, like gulping for air. Satisfied, he backed off. He looked back at his computer, and said to the screen, “Safe-haven. Get it?”

Overseas, uprooted and apart from home, we were all liable to sudden, strange changes in perspective. The deluge of information on the Internet had been like a flood washing through Michael's brain, resulting in a sort of secular baptism. Secrets! Criminal conspiracies! Power elites! Whistle blowers! Moral combats! He saw the Light. He joined online forums and began to enjoy communion with apostles of the new, apostates of the old. He discovered a new set of powers and principalities of the air. He became empowered, distinguished, superior. He was a natural for the fanaticism of the fresh convert with its morally sound excuses for sadism.

I sighed and hoped that this was just a phase. He never saw the irony of this conversion taking place while in the 'safe haven' of our dusty coal-fired town with its myriad farmers holding up traffic with horse-drawn carts bringing produce to market.

But even though Michael's head was in the clouds, the rest of him was still planted on planet earth. Porn, not conspiracy, was king of the internet, even here, even with him, as long as you were up to date with the latest mirrors for getting past China's army of web censors. The porn magazines that Mike had smuggled in from Hong Kong were worn-out, used up masturbation-wise that is, and only good for the flat surface their covers providing for his optical mouse.

If he was in a mood and the mouse fetched up against a rough spot on the magazine cover, he'd pick up the mouse and hurl it, together with an oath, against the wall.

The first time I saw him do this I smiled: "That can't be too good for your mouse."

He was red in the face and breathing heavily. He gave himself time to think by pretending to need to wipe his nose. He got up and went to the bathroom to get a Kleenex, returned, sat back down and said, "Don't worry about it. There's more where that came from. I got a connection in the electronics bazaar down by the bus station."

He asked if I wanted a beer and put a warm bottle of White Cloud in my hand. Asking him a question at a time like this was asking for trouble, so I looked around the room for an opener by myself. I gave up after a minute and he offered me his lighter to pop open the bottle. When I sat down again, I noticed the mouse was gone from the floor.

This became a sort of modus operandi. He and the mouse got into a stand-off every other time I visited him. Sooner or later he'd get into a hairy fit and toss it at the wall. Then distract me. Then pick it up while I wasn't looking. Then get the mouse going again, reassembling it, putting the battery back its pack, and then, as often as not, the computer would jam. It would freeze right up. He'd start shouting, cursing everyone and everything. He'd discovered a funny thing about computers: when he got his hands on one, the guts of the machine convened a conspiracy. Conspiracies were everywhere!

Once it was three o'clock in the morning and I was tipping back a beer, pleasantly buzzed post-doobie, in a mellow mood, when he slammed the desk with his left hand, picked up the mouse, and hurled it out his second-floor window.

He ran to the window. Leaning out into the cool damp air, he looked for the mouse. There was just the sound of crickets, the smell of coal, the murmur of several unemployed squatters chattering to each other down the street. Spotting the mouse on the sidewalk he shrieked out the window, "Fuuuuck youuuu!!! You think you can mess with me? Yeah, just try me, huh? You see what happens. You get it? Yeah. You do now, baby!" He was jiving like a basketball player after a slam dunk. And then he suddenly started clawing at his shoulders and back, like he had ants on his skin, "Fuckin' Murph! Get off my back, you son of a bitch!"

It was weird the first time. It looked like a seizure, like a Holy Roller fighting off a demon.

But as I got to know him, I learned that Murph was short for Murphy's Law; the truism about bad luck, about the wicked scenarios preferred by fate when it had a hand in outcomes.

Lights went on outside, a neighbors' windows were being lifted. I could hear a door open. A couple of voices lambasted him in Chinese for being a good-for-nothing big nose, an impolite riff-raff. “Go back to where you came from!” someone howled. Somebody belched angrily. Someone else threatened to call the cops. But Michael knew they wouldn't. And even if they did, he was connected. In one final blast, he barked in toneless Chinese, “Fuck your mother's smelly cunt!” and then slammed his window shut.

He was happy now. The local's impotence meant he was someone. A big enchilada. He inhaled and exhaled deeply, his tension gone and he sat back down in his chair. Bored, he began rifling through his desk drawers.

I squinted at him with bloodshot eyes and squeaked, "I still say that can't be good for your mouse, dude."

Calmly he said, "Fuck the mouse. It gets on my nerves. There's gotta be a better way."

It was only later, after seeing him work himself into a frenzy and go berserk numerous times that it dawned on me that this was amateur primal scream therapy. He'd reinvented the wheel. And it worked like a charm.

Another time I was at his house. It was about ten minutes before he launched into the evening's shrieking. As usual it was the optical mouse and his porn magazine that were the straw breaking the camel's back.

He was staring at me and hyperventilating: "Did you know they're coming up with a mouse that tracks your eyes. Wherever you look, that's where the cursor goes. That's just what I need. You could, like, focus on some hottie's beaver and hone in on it. You could magnify it and make it larger-than-life." He poked his tongue out like a clam's foot and wiggled it, pretending he was eating a hair burrito. "Now that's some useful high-tech!" and threw me a smile full of canines.

At this stage his laughter was often forced, his mouth crooked, impatient to move into a sneer. More squelched anger. More unrequited love.

He preferred the Internet to women flirting in the flesh. He could exact revenge at a safe distance. "Take it bitch! You're loving it, ain't ya?" And he'd squirt all over the screen. He got a kick out of doing this in front of me. Probably dared himself to do it. I suppose, now that I think about it, that he was a lonely flasher from start to finish. At this stage, his life was devoted to seeking attention through outdoing everyone else in craziness.

I never told anyone about it. I guess that's part of what made us friends. I passed the test. I could keep a secret. I was part of a conspiracy he could call his own.

Still, I didn't see him very often. I couldn't. He said he was too busy to spend time with loafers like me. Just smoking their lives away. It was sheer poison, caused cancer too.

When I did see him later on, he was turning back into a go-getter. Money, money, money. Many local entrepreneurs were making it. It really lifted me to see them driving Mercedes, wearing gold, and growing out their pinkie fingernails. Progress! Their mistresses went on Hong Kong shopping tours for Gucci, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Versatchi, etc. They returned, still wearing knee-high stockings. But time was on their side.

Michael became an apostate again, dumping his old vision for a new Light. He got back on the free trade bandwagon and all he talked about now was getting rich and retiring. He had a thing for toys, and flight in particular. “You know what would be cool? A glider. It's ecologically sound.”

“Yeah.” And I had a lovely vision of green fields, fluffy cumulus clouds, thermals, and silent flight. “But how are you going to get it aloft? Don't you need a plane to pull it?”

“Okay. Scratch that. An ultra-light. That's the ticket. Get it? You move into a gated community and park it in the garage. On weekends, you fly into the mountains for picnics with your wife. No. Hold that thought! A family has to travel properly, safely, in style. I want a Cessna. I could convert it to non-fossil fuels and hire a squatter to drive me around in a hydrogen powered limo.”

“Quit dreaming. You're nearly broke. Just like me. We keep pissing away our money away in the Mickey Mao with its beer priced for tourists.” I fired up a jay.” That really takes a cut out of my salary. Not that I'm complaining of course.” I inhaled lovingly and then squeaked, “Great lifestyle. Suits me fine.”

He waved me down as he went to open a window, “You're too pessimistic. That's what Engrish teaching does to people. Crushes their hope and steals their dreams. Slave labor. That's so…so no-wheres-ville, man.”

I was getting really comfortable and it took an effort to reply, “You ought to know, you're teaching English just like me.”

“Hopeless, hopeless. You're a basket case Charlie. You never think big.” His face took on a happy glow. “You gotta dream large, or you're always going to be small.” He got up and started pacing, muttering something unintelligible to me.

Mike was extraordinarily effective at persuading himself. All he had to do, it seemed, was say something out loud. The effect was auto-hypnotic, as if the words exiting his mouth weren't his own and he was listening to someone else articulating fresh ideas. It was fascinating watching someone who found that his own words really resonated with himself.

He said, “I'm going to buy an island in Portland Sound, away from the pollution. I'll put in an all-weather road, install a crew of flunkies in livery, and order up a customized Humvee. I'll commute into Redwood in a four-barreled sea-plane. That'll impress Bill Gates. We'll be pals.” He was serious.

For now were scraping by on English teaching and communal good feeling. Michael had come into a expatriate connection for good beer. "Free!" he bragged. He slapped me on the back and handed me some tall bottled homebrew like a CEO issuing preferred stock to a prized investor. I very much appreciated the value of free too and said "Cheers."

His connection for this was some eastern European guy. He was knocking up brew in his basement. But though it tasted rich and malty going down, I got the flying axe-handles every time. When I told Mike about my digestion being out of whack he said, "Nah. Beer does that to people. Me too. I've had the shits for six months. So what? Bloop, blurp, bloop. Then you're done and out the door, raring for more."


"Ah come on. Live a little. Stop moaning. Take it like a man. It'll put hair on your chest." He said this while picking up the pieces to his fifth cordless mouse and counting. "You're never satisfied with nothing. The world ain't perfect, you know, bud." He made a humble face, patted me on the head and went back to his computer.

He was increasingly busy. With what, I didn't know. He was hard-to-find. When I made arrangements with him, he'd be late. He was always putting things off, changing the schedule, bumping me off the list.

The phone rang. "Hey, Bud, I thought you were my friend. Why don't you call?" I inhaled. That scared him. "Never mind. Look, man, I'm hooking up. I've got this fine piece of fanny going. The family's rich. It's my ticket to financial freedom. Come on over. Let's talk about it. I need some advice. Just let yourself in the door."

I trotted over and when pushed his door open he got the heebie-jeebies and freaked out: "Why don't you use the frickin bell, man? This ain't no bus station!"


"But nothing!” He waved me over to the living room couch. "Look man, I've got a tasty situation.”

He was dressed in scuffed and dusty leather shoes, a double-breasted suit, a rumpled scarlet tie, a white cotton button up with a wrinkled collar. He was chubbier: fatter in the waist, but not the face. Somehow, he looked more together, more formal. Ah…the wafer-thin mustachio.

"So who's the hottie?"

His knee was bobbing, his left foot pounding out a fast rhythm. "Just kidding about the woman. I've got to be careful now. Somebody might be eavesdropping."

"Yeah? What's up?" I frowned, trying to be serious.

But he was excited, maybe happy. "I've got this connection, see? This guy I know, he's been kidnapped. Again. They took him out into the country, got him to dig his own grave, cocked a gun at him and then pulled the trigger." He leaned into me, a faint hint of beer and restaurant garlic on his breath. "Yeah, this is just between you and me, okay? It's not in the newspapers and it's staying that way." I gave him the nod he was waiting for. "I'm real tight with this guy. He wants me to hold on to some money for him. He's afraid they're going to come back."

"I thought he got killed?"

"Who told you that? Who told you?" His eyes bulged and he grabbed me by the collar with both meaty hands.

I pushed him back onto his secondhand couch, the rusted springs making a racket, dust flying up. It all happened quickly, like in slow motion. I saw motes in the air, swirling in patterns, like dregs disturbed in the local beer.

I barked, "Don't get fucking pushing me, man. I'm your friend, remember?"

He pushed his face into mine again, "Who told you? I gotta know. Now, goddammit!"

"You told me! Just now. They pulled the trigger, that's what you said."

"Oh! Jesus...." He relaxed and inhaled, like coming up for air. I noticed he was sweating. "You scared the living shit out of me, man." He was rolling his eyes but breathing again, rapidly, and then he wheezed out a strained laugh to persuade me, us, that he had everything under control. "No, man. He didn't get killed. The gun was empty. They faked him out and he pissed his pants. Then they pissed themselves laughing.” He chuckled. “That's how he recognized some of the voices and knows it's his own relatives. He needs a safe place. Someone they don't know. He's looking for somebody to hold onto some of his money for him. Just in case. What do you think?"

He had an overeager stare that intimidated me and made me look away. I said, "I ain't doing it. Count me out."

"Dumb ass. Nobody's asking you to do it. I'm the one that's going to be holding onto it."

"Then why are you asking me?"

He got up, grabbed me by the shoulder with a damp palm and started giving me the bum's rush to the door. I squealed, "What's the matter now?"

He threw me out, though it was probably for the better. Getting involved in the local underworld was extremely dangerous. You couldn't be incognito. Your white skin make it impossible to be subtle. Anyone who wanted you out of the way could find you in a flash. And Michael, of all people, was an accident, an assassination, waiting to happen.

He disappeared. But I heard news. Lots of it. He was the hottest thing on the grapevine.

I heard that one day, his cat crawled in, all chewed up by someone's dog. He came out and raged at the neighbors. No one admitted anything. Now, when he was on his motorcycle and saw a dog, he tried to run over it. He chased them onto sidewalks, behind stalls, out into the road again. Traffic be damned. He was a foreigner damn it! A combination of untouchable and Brahmin.

I could sympathize, sort of, but he was giving the rest of us a bad name. I would have liked to talk with him, but he was really only listening to himself, the sound of his own voice, these days. And these days it was the voice of the underworld.

He and a friend, or associate, went on a spree of robberies holding up restaurants. It was the kind of thing you would never do at home. Shoplifting, vandalizing, poaching, illegal parking, supermarket taste-testing on the sly. Small stuff. Everyone did it. But robberies?

Yeah. But only by virtue of being a foreigner and living in a country that didn't seem fully real. A US passport was a weak but still useful badge of diplomatic immunity. Enter Michael, who no doubt talked himself into this hare-brained scheme. I couldn't imagine anyone else persuading him to do it: he'd get way paranoid.

But he retained enough sense to be the driver. They got a second-hand 700cc pre-WWII design BMW with a side car, the kind that country cops were always tearing around in. They juiced it up, snagged some police uniforms, and got down to action.

But on the first go, his partner got into trouble. Michael hit the gas and left without him. Half a year later, when his associate got out of jail, he told everyone how glad he was to have done time. None of the police bigwigs had known what to do with him. And they hated state and national attention, so rather than monkey around with the foreign convict's visa, they just sat on it. He wasn't even kicked out of the country. On his release he tried to make the most out of a bad situation, fibbing," It's just like Club Fed, man. Totally, like, tennis prison, dudes..." and bragging about the new connections he made in the slammer.

While a local crook would have been committed to a slave labor prison factory or lined up for an unwilling kidney donation, Mike's associate was just a prime candidate for recidivism. Until they threw him out for good.

I worried about Michael. He was a crank, but still a friend. We went way back now. Two years at least.

The phone rang. "How come you don't call me? What kind of friend are you, anyway?” Again he didn't like the idea of facing a considered response, so he barged in defensively, “On second thought, I don't wanna hear it. Time's money and I'm a rolling stone. Just shut up and listen."

He was difficult. And I was getting the feeling it was beyond my ability to help him. But he was also too much of a character to ignore in a country without free speech and thus a permanently slow news cycle.

When I asked him about the robberies, he evaded the question of why he had taken off like a rat from the scene of the crime. Instead he hit me with a weapon of mass distraction: "My partner. I guess you must have heard he was carrying a gun, right?" It was news to me. And this made me wonder what else he was concealing. "Well, like, he wasn't carrying it on purpose. He just carries a gun, now and again, you know? For protection. I'm thinking of getting one too."

"You are not. No way! Get real." I wanted to dissuade him. He was so crazy, so out of control sometimes, that he just might do something nuts. In the heat of the moment, would he fire it or just throw it at someone?

He ignored me and said, "I mean, once he was inside pulling off the heist, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. So he pulled the gun out. That's all. It wasn't like it was premeditated or something. But you know cops. They've got to be hard-asses. They've got a fine reputation to maintain. So they called it armed robbery and put him away for six months. The bastards! The gun wasn't even loaded!"

The next time I saw him, it was at the Mickey Mao. It had been quite a while and I smiled in anticipation. He was in a Dry-As-A-Bone Australian full-length all weather leather jacket along with polished shit-kickers and a long red muffler down the front. I went to say howdy, when he snorted: "Why are you wearing that gay Eurotrash crap?"


“The tight yellow pants. The mauve shirt. The fruity Italian shoes with the squiggles in the leather. All you need is a handbag.” He shook his head. “This has got to stop.”

“You and Frankie come out in a different flavor practically every month. Who says I can't reinvent myself too.”

He just shook his head, turned to several patrons beside him, and shouted above the music: "Look at this faggot! He's trying to hit on me. Goddammit, I hate fudge-packers." I was stunned and my jaw went slack. He turned to the Chinese bartender and said, "If I see another butt-pirate in this establishment, I'm never coming back. And neither are any of my friends here." Whereupon he opened his arms and did a 180. He was faking it. They were all locals. Strangers. One of them burped. Several were catatonic with booze and hashish. None of them spoke English.

I was bewildered. Too shocked to speak. He pushed me forward and kept shoving me until we got outside. He strong-armed me to the lot next door, where a building was under construction. Several squatters had a fire going. A pack of stray dogs were keeping their eyes warily on us.

I was about to lay into Michael when a middle-aged female beggar started pawing my left arm and moaning. “Fuck off!” I shrieked, my natural sympathy gone for the moment.

Michael, completely out of character, gave her the equivalent of a US quarter and she walked away with a grateful smile. He gave me a patronizing smirk. "Relax! Relax! You're just making a scene.”

“What? Of all the…”

“Pipe down. We're friends remember. I'm just doing it for your own good, Charlie. Saving you from yourself. You know I don't give a shit about faggots. But clothes make the man, and those aren't the right clothes for you. Go home and change."

"Who gives you the right to…"

He started laughing, which infuriated me to the point I became incoherent. “Chill man. You'll thank me for this later, I promise.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are telling me how to dress?”

“I got to spell it out for you? Don't you get it?” He looked off into the distance. “You're a straight shooter, Charlie. A straight arrow. Don't mess with your integrity. That's precious, invaluable. Look at me and Frank. You don't want to be where we are. You're our rock. Don't you know we envy you?" He pinched my cheek. "We're getting some doobies and hoots and heading over the Red Dog Bistro. Good times, baby," and he rocked his shoulders. "Call me on the cell if you don't find us here when you get back." He jerked open the bar door and disappeared back into the smoke and noise.

Us? Who was us?

The chickens had come home to roost, sort of. Finally, I'd become a victim of his craziness.

The next time I saw him, he was waiting for a bus. I tried to sneak past. Michael spotted me despite my slouch. He shouted my name. Then he hooted and waved his hands like a marooned sailor.

It was getting embarrassing. He was obviously lonely. Sneaking around made me feel guilty. I couldn't just ignore him. I walked over and gave him my best smile but he was too uptight to be nice and said, "You poor bitch! You still sore?"

My smile disappeared instantly but I tried to be patient and understanding. He continued to grin and pointed to his choppers. His teeth were noticeably brighter. He explained, "First impressions are everything, Charlie!" and said his pearly whites were because he was using Taiwan's market leader, White Men's Toothpaste. He roared after mentioning the name and I remembered his old fetish for Chinese brands such as Poon Club Women's Wear and Wanko's Fashion Accessories.

His web-browser home page had long been set to . Viewing cross-cultural glitches by Japan's Madison Avenue was empowering and helped him get out of bed in the morning.

He came back from his first trip to Japan with a suitcase full of cultural icons. Breathlessly, he invited me over. He whipped out display cans of Pocari Sweat, Calpis, God Coffee, and Creap Coffee Whitener. "Fucking Nips!" he barked in disbelief. But he loved it to the point of salivating. He'd found an enemy that wouldn't fight back and its underbelly was vulnerable. He'd put them in their place. He was punishing them for the Nanking Massacre.

This was about six months ago, while he was in his minority messiah stage. Despite being an expatriate, rubbing shoulders with the townies for the past couple of years was making him sympathetic to their plight. He was turning him into a local patriot, the type of flag-waving pest he had formerly detested at home in the US. He was falling in love with 'the people' having moved on from the realization that it was unlikely he would fall in love with any individual. When I purchased a Cannon BJ series printer in Hong Kong and brought it back to Szechuan, he spent the next couple of months hustling me into selling it to him on the cheap. When I finally relented, he put it up on the mantel of his living room like a trophy.

A couple of months after that, we bumped into one another in front of a street vendor. He tried to look confident, but his smile hung on his face too long. "She's hot, eh? Look at that round booty. Those ta-tas, sticking out at attention."

This was a new girlfriend, at least someone I hadn't seen before. She was relaxed, firm posture, comfortable with herself and not at all intimidated by Michael. "She no speak Engrish", he stammered, though no doubt that was one of the few phrases she did know. But talk often didn't matter. Chatter didn't finalize the arrangement.

I wasn't sure why Mike was embarrassed. She looked fine to me. He was always freaking out, trying to anticipate the future when he had too little information or feedback to go on. If she'd spoken English he'd have known the score. His bad Chinese weakened him, leaving him in the dark, vulnerable.

But I thought he had nothing to worry about. Relationships between people who didn't speak a common language could be quite stable. Neither party expected much, so neither party was soon disappointed. And not being able to understand Mike wouldn't hurt the relationship. While Mike thought he was duty bound to show a pretty girl a good time, she appeared happy simply to be seen with a show-dog.

She had alabaster skin with those very attractive naturally rouge lips and ruddy cheeks that come from growing up in the low-oxygen highlands. She nicely filled out her black spandex tights. She had scuffed black leather lace-ups and a bright artificial strawberry sweater, probably purchased cheap from a debt-hemorrhaging government store. Probably a rebellious minority girl moved down to the city.

I suspected she worked as a hostess, an upscale prostitute, during the evening, but I didn't mention this to Mike. This would explain why she was so calm, so well-adjusted, so dignified. He must have known. Maybe this was the real reason he was nervous. She was a prize.

Mike didn't need me. I mumbled, "Yeah. But who cares if her English is fluent. She's cool.” I winked, “Well, have a good time."

"Oh, come on, dude. Help me out."

I wanted to, and it wasn't every day that Michael asked for help, but I knew what the situation demanded. “Mike, you don't need me. And I got stuff to do anyway. I'm in the middle of something.”

"Just half an hour, okay? You can speak to her in Chinese. Maybe she has some friends she can hook you up with. But me? I never know what to say to local girls. Country bimbos," he whispered, "are the toughest. They never talk about serious stuff. Guy stuff."

She was standing ramrod straight, smoking a cigarette, holding her handbag. Daydreaming. Patient. Self-possessed. She looked great. “This girl doesn't care about conversation. Haven't you noticed?” She gave a quick hork and spat a gob of phlegm onto the street. “She doesn't even try to say anything to me. She just likes having you around. On her arm. In her bed.” She stepped on the gob with the toe of one shoe and rubbed it into the pavement. “I don't know, she looks pretty classy for a country girl if you ask me.” I was serious but he wasn't convinced. “You know… I mean… Whatever.” I looked around for something to inspire me with an excuse to vamoose. “I got to go. Get some food.”

“I can't just ignore her.”

“You're not ignoring her. Um… You're respecting her space. You're in her comfort zone. She's happy. If you try to make her happy, you'll just piss her off. Your relationship ain't broke. So stop trying to fix it.” I shrugged. “Look, I know you don't believe me, but you gotta make your own mistakes. I got to go, okay. I'm out of here.”

"Come on, man." He put his hand on my shoulders and whispered as if trying to keep it a secret from the growing crowd of gawkers gathering around. "Really. I need a favor from you this time. I got to make this thing work."

Michael was fishing for a meal ticket and residence visa. He was dressed for sport in designer leisure wear: a grey zip-up body-hugging track suit upper with the same pin-stripe material in the leggings. He was wearing a fancy set of Nikes, the sandal slip-on style preferred by gentlemen who track the badlands separating their front door from their garage. He had his hair feathered back and covering half of his ears, the compromise haircut preferred by politicians trying not to alienate any demographic. It might have looked odd at home but here it was an appealing surrender to the factory-owner remainder-bin driven local taste. It was encouraging that Mike was adapting to the townies and learning genuine humility.

Exercise salons were all the rage. Taibo was huge: ersatz martial arts appealed to the conceit that the West had something to learn from China. But it was really just another clever entrepreneur selling snow to Eskimos. California Fitness had moved into Szechuan Province with two franchises already. On a trip to Chengdu we'd watched hotties in tights and pony-tails pedaling furiously inside plate-glass windows, their bodies glistening. Michael jeered, "Sugar-coated bimbos." But he wanted one.

"C'mon," Michael pleaded. He winked, "For old time's sake."

How could I say no? “Where are you two headed?”

The Red Dog Bistro catered mostly to foreigners, who showed up hand-in-hand with country girls shunned by city men. Pretty city girls, college girls especially, seldom appeared there.

They were more sophisticated, savvy, snooty, and knew their market value. Inveterate shoppers usually do. They came attached with multiple boyfriends and shopping tabs. Foreigners living hand to mouth like Mike, Frank, and I weren't exactly a step up for most local girls; we offered the prospect of discount shopping, instant noodles, domestic brands, hand-me-downs, taking the bus with its cohort of pickpockets and perverts, or getting wet and gagging on fumes riding on the back of a motorcycle. Foreigners, unless they were ethnic Chinese foreigners, in which case they weren't real foreigners, were a step down in this town.

When we got to the restaurant, a whiff of stinky tofu drifted out of the kitchen. The house flavor was doggy-doo, popular in this part of the province, as opposed to barf or crypt-breath back east. I stopped to savor the aroma but Mike thought he sensed ambivalence. He pulled my arm out of my pocket and twisted it with a chin-na grip, frog-marching me over to a table a few yards away. His girlfriend snickered behind a raised palm at our private joke.

“Lay off Mike.” I protested lamely. I realized my mistake. The new Mike was only skin deep.

My instinct was to split right away, but I was still curious how Mike would interact with his girlfriend.

Mike made an amusing effort to order several dishes in mangled Chinese and it was left to me to straighten out the waitress. But by the end of the meal, during which Michael had spent most of his time bellyaching to me, I realized that my real role was to help Michael prove to the girl that he was sociable. Not that he said a word to her the whole time. Yapping with me meant he was an okay guy, a guy you might sleep with, not some friendless freak who'd pull out a steak knife while you were asleep and eat your liver.

At the end of the meal, the dinner table held a medieval litter of gnawed bones and half-chewed debris. Michael wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me over. He belched. I thought he was finished. But he started talking: "Hey, man, you know..." he wheezed, gushing beery breath over me. He was seated but clutching my arm, floundering like he needed support. But he was warning me, reminding me that he was the stronger of the two of us and could make things difficult for me. "You know…she's probably down here escaping abusive parents, or some oppressive employer. Did you know that the gap between the rich and poor is growing in this country? Skyrocketing, man. A person doesn't hardly even own the skin they're born with anymore. It just makes just makes me mad."

He was pretty hammered. But I just pursed my lips and looked at my fingernails. There was no reply to this malarkey.

He said, "Yeah, I think we should do something. You know what I mean? Give back to society." In my mind's eye appeared a backpacker's inn with good-hearted travelers who grooved to Bob Marley and cultivated sympathy for the local entrepreneurs making a killing off their spending habits. "We're always being selfish." This wasn't his normal thinking and his sentences came and went, his voice stuttering and stumbling. He blurted, "We're, like, just marching through people's lives here in this country. Not giving a damn and trying to help the little people of the world."

I wiggled my tongue in my cheek, the international code for blow job, and he cuffed me. He griped in a slurring tone, "Hey, don't make fun of me. I'm serious. Don't be so..," he hesitated while rummaging through his brain, stuff not being where he remembered putting it, and finally grasped the right word, "...juvenile. Don't be so immature.”

I said nothing.

Mike said, “Look, what I mean is, why don't we help her out with the bill."

Part of the melody to 'I shot the sheriff, but I didn't shoot the deputy, etc.' was still playing in my head, repeating like a favorite ad jingle. I started chewing on a fingernail again for concentration, squinting, and thinking about the food chain that had emerged over the course of the meal. Michael, the lowly English teacher wanted a marriage that gave him financial freedom. To that end, he was trying to hustle a professional gold-digger who in turn was looking for some advantage of her own. It was like watching a hungry dog chasing its own tail.

If Michael had known what he was doing, he would have taken charge, talked her up or charmed her, and she would have rewarded him by treating him.

If she'd been my girlfriend, at this stage I would be busy pretending to be out of cash, to have left my wallet at home. Whatever. You went through the motions. It was the polite thing to do. But in the end, girls had to pay to play. In fact they usually rushed to do so. They were shopping and you were the Made-In-America product. I was a shopper too. But Michael didn't have charm or the gift of gab. He didn't seem to understand the concept of shopping. So he had to pay. And he would. By hook or by crook

First he wanted me to help persuade her that he was cool. Then he wanted me to defray his expenses.

I said, "Well, let me think about it. Hmm… Interesting concept." Which gave me an idea. As I stood up I said, "I'll be right back. I've got to see a man about a horse."

I sauntered into the bowels of the restaurant, shook the weasel, and looked for a backdoor exit. "You can't go through there!" a short perspiring kitchen worker commanded. He had a smoke in his mouth and an aggressive look on his face. Maybe I was trying to run out on the bill. But I was also heavy-lidded and obviously polluted. I said, "Man I got to puke. It's either in your bathroom or outside in the alley." He made tracks to a door. Flashing a chain full of keys, he opened it and nodded me forward. I let myself out. That was that.

It had to be done sooner or later. Cut the apron strings. Make a stand. Leave Michael behind for good. Make it more hassle for him that it was worth. I'd run out of sympathy. There was nothing I could do.

I ran into him again just the other day. He was in a stretch black Mercedes-Benz. He hollered at me out the front driver's side window.

The model was popular with local connoisseurs of conspicuous consumption. Local roads were too dangerous to drive full-throttle and the potholes meant the stiff Benz suspension produced a very rough ride. On the other hand the Benz ability to drive straight on a flat tire was useful given all the sharp junk on the roads these days. That and the crumpling external chassis and crash-proof frame were excellent for surviving drivers who ignored you, played chicken with you, or simply got it over with and drove directly into you. Benz, as locals called it, was very popular.

Michael was following the standard anti-kidnapping MO of the Chinese vehicle owner. He was dressed up as the driver, hiding his baby-blues behind reflective bug-glasses, the price-tag still flapping off the frame. He wore a blue Mao cap to show solidarity with the old nightmare. His chauffeur, the real flunky, was in the back wearing a refugee suit and sunglasses without the tag.

We met at the curb. Mike jumped out like an eager backpacker overacting in a Hong Kong movie. A smile from ear to ear. "So how have you been, Charlie? Life's good. So like, what's been going on?"

He didn't grab my shoulder. He didn't tell me my business. We sat on the curb, forgot about his car, and chatted for half an hour.

It turned out he'd got what he wanted. He'd connected and got hooked up. Of all of us to hit the jackpot, it was him. Who would have thought?

He got residency and financial security. But he didn't marry the intimidating hostess. Nor did he get hitched to a lithesome chatterbox or a terrified neurotic happy to call him master and do his bidding. He found someone understanding, warm, patient, and capable. He went straight for the goose that had laid the golden eggs. He short-circuited the love connection and went straight for some rich daughter's mom.

A divorcee. Of course! I could have kicked myself. It was the obvious thing to do. How could I have missed it? I'd goofed. I'd screwed up. Regret started eating away at me.

Mike confused my shock and sudden silence with rejection. Ever the worrier, he was afraid that I might not understand. That I might look down on him, accuse him of making a sleazy move. The uber-patronizer was in no mood to be patronized for doing the right thing.

But it was me who became paranoid. I felt increasingly stupid. His marital success versus my own mediocre performance altered the scales of our relationship. I had always felt vaguely superior and tried to compensate through a conscious sympathy for him. Now I felt like a thumping jackass. I cringed. I didn't want to look at him. Just the sight of him terrified me now.

Mike could only see this as rejection. He whimpered, believing that he could never win a moral argument. "Well…well…What did you think I was doing? I can't handle dumb chicks."

Too true. He was a disaster. A walking violation of the niceties and proprieties.

"I'm not some poor addled numb-nut," he complained.

We were still sitting and I turned away from him. The usual crowd of unemployed gawkers was staring. A pair of stray dogs was begging for food, whining and keeping a safe distance to avoid being kicked. Traffic was slowing down to take a look. And I, his only friend, was abandoning him.

And so he slipped back into defensive mode. Just like old times. "You think I'm some fuckup confused by his hormones who can't remember which way is up. Is that what you thought Charlie? Oh no! Not me dude. No way! Fuck, man, wake up and smell the coffee..."

He was back to mocking me.

He was trying to reinvent the past half an hour. Now, it turned out, he had been doing me a favor by pulling over to the curb. I still belonged to the Engrish-teaching underclass and he was hitting me with this platitude-ridden mockery in a bona fide attempt to pull me up, kicking and screaming, against my own judgment.

It was too much. Too much noise. Too much humiliation. Too much irony. Too much to deal with all at once. I needed air. I stood up and without saying anything, turned and walked off at a fast clip. I suppressed the urge to run; a penetrating pang of regret was growing in my chest.

He hooted after me, in a tone that was now confident: "Where you going, Charlie?" Then a pause as he figured it out. "Who are you running from? There ain't no place you can get to where you ain't going to see yourself in the mirror, sweet-heart."

The rumble and honks of traffic filled the empty space. Then I heard Michael pipe up again. Ever self-conscious, he bellowed in choppy Chinese to the crowd, "What're you idiots looking at? Get out of here. Beat it.” And then to his driver, “You're my monkey in a suit. Don't forget that. Now roll up that damn window!"

There was something degrading and dangerous about locals witnessing the humiliation of a foreigner. Michael felt it might give them ideas.

After I turned a couple of corners, I started to relax. My shoulders came down, my neck reappeared. I tried breathing from my diaphragm. My mind started to function again. The usual post-fight or flight mental response began: in my mind's eye, debaters began jabbering, talking points were pitched back and forth. But I shut it down immediately. This wasn't the time to indulge in obsessing. I wanted to settle down and think through what just happened, but the only feedback I got was an endless refrain of 'He made it! He made it!' In other words, I hadn't made it.

Since when did I care about making it? I had no palpable financial ambition. I was almost proud of that. I was sort of anti-ambition, a form of pacifism I'd seen a lot of in Berkeley, California.

But life changes you. Especially when you're uprooted. I had been surrounded for the past two years by a billion super-keeners and money-mad types. Their ethos had been rubbing off and attaching itself to me below my radar. It seemed clear to me now that I'd better get with the program, that it would be easier now. That it would probably feel natural. The alternative was another panic-attack. No way. No thanks.

Copyright Biff Cappuccino

No comments:

Post a Comment