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

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Client (practice short story 4300wds)

I peered across the hotel foyer past the uppity reservation staff, through the eager busboys and over the attendant flopping a discombobulated mop to find my man, the client. "Hello there!" I greeted him.

"Who the fuck are you?"

I cringed. Then stammered, “But, I, I… I’m so sorry, I, I…”

Mornings were never my best time. I should have stood up to the hard bastard. Instead, I just took it as he looked down his nose at me from within a grey pinstripe suit and cufflinks. In these places the clothes make or break the man. My haberdashery: an open collar piece, frayed chinos and cozy slippers. I was paying the price for vanity: I refused to dress for success and, sure enough, success was being refused.

He was tall, distinguished and middle-aged. I, short, loafing and young. His nostrils flared and his eyes were gleeful and greedy as he appraised my caste. His wealth was on parade and in this moneyed milieu he was the crowd favorite and knew it. Out went the level playing field. In came the golden boy. He finished me off with, "Piss off!"

Delighted with these two syllables, he'd been waiting. Stalking, biding his time in the lobby. If it hadn’t been me, then a staff member.

I wanted to say something to impress all and sundry, the staring guests and gaping staff. Something smart, powerful, and brutal. But all I could work up was the desire to call him a lunatic. And the word stuck in my throat. Something told me it was too dangerous. Maybe he really was nuts?

I turned and marched myself mechanically in the direction of the car park doors, trying to be casual, holding it together. Forty steps later, I began to breathe again as I passed the registration counter, hanging my head and dodging eyes like a pooch run out of a neighborhood by ferals.

Distracted, I bumped into a fiftiesh businessman in a suit, my left foot scuffing his. "Sorry dude." I mumbled not wanting to meet his eyes.

"Hey fella. Watch where you're going," was what I heard, but in an almost whispery voice.

Curious, I turned to look at him but he was already looking away. Another nervous stranger in a nerve-wracking strange land.

As I padded across the hotel carpet in my slippers, my mind’s eye returned to the dressed-for-success shouter and his deliberate laying into someone inferior. He’d had a real pick-me-up, better than an Australian breakfast. A real power breakfast.

Now that he was at a safe distance, my mood began to turn. Anger. An invigorating empowering emotion. I stopped, shook my head, stretched my neck.

I realized I was ready for the world now. Fuck ‘em all. I began to walk back towards the atrium breakfast restaurant.

I went to light up a smoke and caught myself. The good people of the world were eating. I looked at my watch and waited. The client was late.

To kill time I sucked on a pen, stared into space and reflected: There was something reptilian about me. Like a lizard that can't see prey unless it moves, I was often incapable of action without reacting to some other action. To function, I had to be jumped out of my foggy funk and kick-started into a can-do state of mind. Otherwise, serenity only inspired sloth, detachment was inseparable from complacency. Indifference was the closest I could get to objectivity.

I revisited former days with clients nagging about the local schedule, bitching about the island weather, and whining about the 24/7 Sunday traffic. In each case, I’d started the day off by dithering. The God-implanted drive to assault the weak trumps all national cultures. Either the claws come out and they indulge in abuse or they pass themselves off as a pal and work your over with a smile and guilt-trip.

I felt a tug on my shoulder, "Excuse me sir.” He put his entire hand on me like a bouncer. And with a bland smile, “What exactly is the nature of your business in our hotel?"

It was a medium-height member of the staff. But he was really just a jumped-up blue-collar flunky out of his element in this hotel. Faking authority, rather like me. But prepared for troubled waters with his sailor suit: anonymous black slacks and grey blazer and a bobbing black badge with Staff Support in white sans serif.

I was ready to throw a hissy fit. My rights infracted. Who the hell do you think you are touching me, my lad! I'm well connected I'll have you know. Etc., etc., yadda-yadda, yackety-yack-yack.

But he was Chinese. So it didn't happen. Never does. The fantasy got no farther than that brain fart. “Uh. Nothing. Just, uh, on my way out the door. Looking for someone I guess. Um. Have you seen…”

But his velvety face was blank, determined or incapable of help. I had a sudden urge to push him, to see if he’d react. But instead I said, “Thanks. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

He watched as I shuffled on, past the traditional ink mountain paintings, the slab granite au natural landscapes, the deep green bonsai trees, the clinking restaurant and its feeding herds. I knew my place and it wasn’t here. And I could not rebel. For I’d been tamed. Good foreigner gets pat on the head and big face. Bad foreigner gets ignored and never learns to speak distinguished language. Islam ain’t the only culture of submission.

The country functions like a sort of sprawling clockwork with seldom a raised voice in Mandarin. The Chinese are always getting angry in inconvenient tongues, mucking it up and screeching at one another in some inscrutable dialect. If only they'd get rowdy and pull their Mexican standoffs in the national language. But no such luck. Ergo kimo sabe no can do.

I made my way out to the parking area, to scorch a cigarette and pollute some air. Another exile was outside. I asked for a light.

I inhaled and nodded my thanks. He had that rich ice-cream skin of pink blossoms and blotchy reds that comes into bloom under perennially cloudy skies. It was so unusual that I wanted to stare and as I hungrily looked I became aware of how even paler it became in the valleys framing his mouth. His eyes were blue, his eye sockets pink like an albino’s. Below the chin was turkey wattle, below the nose a feather duster of a handlebar moustache, late Freddie Mercury. And there was something doughnut powdery about him that reminded me of Japanese grandmothers, delicate and cultivated. I placed him around sixty, the hair thinning but with color mingled with gray. He was slouching slightly, leaning on one leg, and dressed quite casually in a corduroy jacket, blue jeans, sensible loafers.

"Nice day for a smoke isn't it?" was my reward for his light.

He smiled, "Every day’s a nice day for a smoke, wouldn't you say?"

I beamed agreement as he continued, "It's damnably uncivilized to force men to enjoy a simple pleasure like tobacco outside the building, like we were coolies. It's the new segregation, don't you know."

"The approved apartheid," I said.

I see where you’re going with that son, he mused, “We’re the new negroes. Yes, indeedy.” And he wagged his smoke at me like a birchman’s switch while he considered his words. He sucked his smokers teeth and pronounced, “It’s just like these busybody do-gooders to do something all-fangled wrong. America used to stand for freedom. What does it stand for now?”

I wanted to remind him that we were in China but I just shrugged and said, “Freedom Fries?”

“Do I detect sarcasm son?” he demanded.

I started to snigger and he burst out laughing.

I felt chemistry between us so I took the plunge. "So what're you doing here? Do you live here in China?"

"Just flew in for business. Like everyone else, I should say. Hopefully there will be some R&R along the way. A depressing game, this rat race. Turns us all into vermin, but it has to be done. Well entertainment has its business side. Of course it does.” He paused to inhale. “So how about yourself. What’s a young buck like you doing out in these parts?"

"Waiting for a client. I'm an interpreter." I shrugged my shoulders. "Been in this country for more than ten years now. If I was smart I’d probably go into business too."

"Ten years? You got here when you were just a lad?”

“Nah, I’m just well-preserved. Time for me to move on professionally though, that’s fer sure.” He looked me over but said nothing. He took another haul on his cigarette, then held and stared at it philosophically between thumb and forefinger.

I continued, "Translation sucks. Sucks the big one. A constant wrestling match with some of the dimmest bulbs in the local chandelier. They hand you documents under the guise of translation, but what they really want is ghost writers. Interpreting's better, but still too mechanical. The money's good but the clients are often knuckle-walkers. Half my time is spent working their verbal fumbling into something intelligible or clever. Still, I try to be amusing in the second language to make it bearable. Maybe if I wasn't so quick on my feet rationalizing the downside to this job I wouldn't have lasted this long. There’s something good to be said sometimes for being inarticulate."

"If you're articulate or creative, son, why be a translator?” He began gesturing, “I don’t know, but it sounds too mechanical. Not a creative kind of thing."

"Precisely," I shrugged sheepishly, happy to be confirmed while embarrassed to reveal that while I was complaining I was sitting on my own hands. But I also felt he was also egging me on. "I’ve interpreted for so many dumbasses, closet racists, and out-of-the-closet sex maniacs, I don’t want to know.” I reached for a phrase from my childhood that he might relate to, “A real barrel of monkeys." He smiled in recognition while I inhaled. I prodded him for a reaction. "Understand what I'm getting on about?"

"Maybe," he said. He cocked his head suddenly, frowning as if looking over a dubious product, afraid the vendor might be a shyster. After my several years of immersion in conservative Chinese facial expressions, in the land where Big Brother has been operating for five millennia, the expressions of westerners can be operatic performances; they’re so much larger than life, so extravagant.

Suddenly he asked, "You're an interpreter, you say?" He asked, hesitated while the gears turned and he made up his mind. "By Jove, are you the interpreter, by any chance? I'm supposed to meet with an interpreter fellow just this very morning. Some gringo by the name of Benjamin… Benny Bratwurst."

I shook my head, took a last puff, and said, "For God sake, that's me!" and extended my hand.

"I like you, Benny,” he charged, belching smoke in my face and not noticing that I cringed at his contraction of my Christian name. “But I’ve got to say, you're taking awful risks talking about customers like that to strangers. You’ll have to check your tongue at the office door if you’re going to go into business." But he was smiling, being generous.

"Getting fired from this business would be the best thing that happened to me in many moons," I fibbed. I crushed my cigarette with my shoe and sidled over to him, “Okay, well let’s check the itinerary then,” and I pulled my schedule out of my shoulder bag.

A few minutes later I had the concierge get us a taxi. He got in delicately, checking the seat for debris and sweeping it with his hand. I went to get in the front, my usual safe harbor from clients, then changed my mind and got in the backseat with him. He made room for me and extended his arm along the top of the seat. I started pointing out the sights.

We were soon at our appointed destination, a local performance company, Modern Myth Theater. Their office was located on the first floor of a set of residential towers, next to the atrium, with plenty of light. We rapped on the door and were met by their PR flack, a matronly young woman who was nervous and inadvertently attacked us with, “Hello, hello! Please to come in! Please take off your shoes!”

I spoke to her in Chinese, introduced myself and reached for my wallet. The client said, “This is what I call: Changing of the Card,” and smirked. I went to introduce him and said, “Sorry I don’t recall asking your name.”

“Bill Boeing.” And he gave his card to the PR flack who introduced herself as Jenny. She brought us inside where we found five other people. Two tall men, both handsome and in their forties and two attractive women in their twenties. Jenny was the most hyper, after all she was on stage right now.

She said, “This is actor, Mr. Zhou Mian-Zang. Very famous. And he has put on many production. He is the most famous in our country.” She stopped here and her pause indicated we could ask questions, though it seemed to me this was also her chance to regain her breath.

On behalf of Bill, I gave my typical performance, launching into the requisite sweet nothings and other anonymous pleasantries. I looked at them sweetly with the dead eyes of sincerity.

Jenny said to Bill, “Is this your first time in China?”

“Yes. I never thought I had a Chinaman’s chance of ever coming over, but here I am after all.”

Jenny was confused, breaking into an odd bodily throbbing, the unrestricted movement of blind celebrities. I translated for her, “Bill is delighted to be here. He never imagined he would have a chance to visit the sacred land of culture.” I threw them a curve ball. “He wishes to express his appreciation for the air of Guangzhou City.” But they just stared.

I understood why when Jenny translated what I had said in Mandarin into Cantonese, aggressively barking of the tongue of the Southern munchers of monkey-brains.

I nodded to Bill, “They’re speaking Cantonese right now.”

“Is that right, eh? It all sounds like bloody Chinese to me. Cantonese? As in Cantonese food, you mean?”

I nodded.

He savored the concept, rubbing the wattle beneath his chin. “Interesting people, the Cantonese. They built our railways, washed our laundry and in return we cut their pony tails, strung them up and ran the rest out of the country. A remarkable blight on our past!” he said with satisfaction. Continuing, “But lovely food I must say. Seshwan Chicken. And darling dumplings. Damnably good stuff.” A happy glow emerged through his powdery cheeks.

I heard a snuffling noise and suddenly Jenny barked into my ear as if it was a Victorian-era trumpet for the deaf, “Please for what Mr. Bill is saying!?!”

“Jesus!” I blurted with annoyance and lurched back to a safe distance. Trying to preserve my professional demeanor I crushed my anger into a squint and said, “Bill loves Cantonese food. Especially Cantonese food from Szechuan province.”

She stared at me, squinting, soggy lips parting only to suck gusts of air into her lungs. It was as if I had praised Italian cuisine and reserved special praise for ‘Italian cuisine from Sweden.’

Beads of sweat began to streak through her makeup. I didn’t have the heart to mess with her anymore and stuttered, “Ignore me… Just tell them he loves Cantonese food and appreciates the contribution of Cantonese cuisine to rejuvenating American culture.”

While she was explaining to the actors, I said to Bill. “For someone not out of her twenties, she’s pretty chunky. Hard-core thunder-thighs.”

He nodded philosophically.
She was outfitted in a black man-made fiber dress that fit loosely to hide extravagant curves and tumescence. She didn’t seem the artistic type. Not with buck teeth and that lisp whistling its way through each blast of roaring speech. I whispered to Bill, forgetting that no one would understand us, “Did you notice how she blinks with each syllable of English, her eyes rolling like a votary for Voodoo. Her whole upper body shakes with each word too.”

He raised his eyebrows.

I was wondering if she might hyperventilate when Bill reminded me why I was here. “Could you ask them if they’re going to put on a performance or a rehearsal that we can watch? Foreign performance companies put out too far many brochures and DVD’s.” He rubbed his chin, yawning, parsing his words deliberately. We both had a weakness for taking naughty pleasures discretely, right under everyone’s noses, “Very nice stuff don’t you know but completely unreliable. There’s nothing like being in the firing line of the spittle to gain a proper appreciation of the performance.” He cleared his smokers’ throat, “They’re immensely famous you know. They’ve toured abroad extensively. Strictly first class. The Met. The Royal Opera.” Envisioning the show already, he prompted, “It would be marvelous if you could inquire whether they could put a little something on for us.”

I interrupted Jenny to make Bill’s request and she scuttled off to take care of things.

We started talking to kill the time. Bill was an excellent conversationalist with a head full of memories and captivating trivia. By way of tastes, he announced enthusiastically that he preferred Gilbert & Sullivan to my taste for Oscar Wilde. He looked me in the eye, “Son, you don’t go to the theater so you’re judging these plays having only dry-humped the dialogue. Proper appreciation of a plays requires the baptism of performance.” He was happy with his words, now frowning at me gently, admonishing me to believe, uncle to sonny-boy. He licked powdery lips and surprised me by reaching out and gripping my forearm solidly. “All drama benefits from eye-catching choreography, you know. Those two Victorian queers, G&O made good application of that fact. And singing accompanies comedy very well on the live stage. Remember the old-day variety show. Milton Berle, Donny and Marie Osmond, and the Captain & Tennille are before your time. But you’ve surely seen Benny Hill, yes? The Simpsons today continues this fine tradition.” I wanted to counter that when the music started, my generation took it as a sign that it was safe to make a run for the fridge or the commode.

He still had his hand on my arm. I’m not squeamish and besides it seemed somehow natural for passion of a kind to enter the equation. But what his grip really reminded me of was a sturdy country gal I’d introduced to the throes of a passion. Her chicken-snatching weed-plucking strength soon frightened me and had me running for the door.

“How about fiction? What do you read?” I queried.

He wanted to talk about Becket, but I’d never read him. Nevertheless, I was delighted. It’s not every day you run into someone overseas who has literary interests. A far more common fauna was the snorting big-bellied captain of industry in a starched collar and bulging pants, flushed and looking for pointers to the nearest whore-house. “I’m quite partial to world-traveling authors,” was music to my ears and I forgot his hand. “Graham Greene’s a favorite of my generation,” he said. “Disaffected spies, disabused idealists. That sort of thing. A cleverish sort of world-weariness that comes naturally to sophisticated globe-trotters.”

But I’d found Greene’s works thin and flippant. Greene didn’t care to soil his feet by planting them on the ground. In lieu of hands-on-knowledge, he succumbed to cleverness. The economy airfare had exposed him. But I held my tongue and sucked up to Bill, to get into and savor the moment, “Yeah, I guess you could say he visited some fascinating places with some very interesting events taking place.” But the truth must out. “Yeah… But I guess I prefer Theroux and Naipaul.”

“Can’t say as I know them,” he said slowly, pursing his lips and frowning, cocking his head at the floor like a bird peering into a wormhole.

“Pardon?” I asked incredulously.

We were interrupted by Jenny panting, “The performers are coming out the makeup room.” She smiled awkwardly, doing her best to express joy and looking like a horse whinnying for its feedbag. “We hope you enjoy the show.”

As we gazed on their performance, I realized I’d seen this before, brilliant Chinese costume superimposed on western plays. The imaginative brain must keep busy or go mad. But given that China has no tradition of free speech, the imagination couldn’t be applied to debate and making or breaking concepts. It remained with what was left, the sensual: the sartorial, the culinary, the poetic, and the martial. Today's brilliant costumes and choreography were part of this curious tradition of lop-sided brilliance. And equally as predictable, the meat and bones of the performance, i.e. the play itself, was now no more than a subtext, an adjunct to the performance. Unsurprisingly it was imported from a more politically liberal locale: Shakespearean England. This integration of East and West was spectacular.

When it was over Bill was visibly delighted. He stood up and clapped with gusto. “Magnificent! Magnificent!” He turned to me and over the percussion said, “That was top rate. First water. First kidney. Outstanding these Chinese.” I was always pleasantly shocked by this sort of praise, expecting, like the Chinese themselves, to be flattered and condescended in public by the foreigner, libeled and condemned by him behind the door. I was moved so much that my eyes misted and the word ‘we’ crept into my throat. Fortunately I caught it and instead said, “I… I’m glad you like it. They do a great job with finery and body motion. Not quite sure about it’s origin though. But great stuff.”

He leaned over to make sure I heard, “From the Buddhists. That’s the provenance I believe. The old boys came over from India and brought some of their performing traditions with them. Taught martial arts to monks to keep them from sleeping, to keep the blood flowing when meditating.”

“Yeah?” His knowledge and attention to detail was so refreshing.

Afterwards, while poking his tongue around a cheek, like he was doodling on a scrap of paper, he said. “I’ll tell you what. What we just had the pleasure of witnessing was like… was as if Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns had been adapted by Akira Kurosawa for the Japanese screen, instead of the other way around. The improvement over the original would have been just as spellbinding, the colors, choreography and props as fetching and fabulous in this context as they were authentic and moving.”

“So you like it?” I said absentmindedly.

“Liking it is one thing. I’m the owner, the critic. But what about the audience? Text-based performance doesn’t cut across the language barrier. Chinese dialogue won’t hold the audience’s attention. Let’s see what productions other they do.” He nodded me to get more information.

When we got back to the hotel, I opened the door for him and led him through the gauntlet of staff and into the lobby. I raised my hand and we shook. “I just want to say it was a pleasure being your interpreter today.” I nodded. “Didn’t feel like a job for once.”

He looked wistful and alone at the prospect of saying our goodbyes. The color was gone from his cheeks and he was looking even more powdery. His leisure wear was looking rumpled and his five-o’clock shadow gave him a derelict look. “Yes, it was good fun. Productive too. Glad to have had you on board. Saved me much trouble and helped ensure everything went according to plan.” I knew I hadn’t done much at all. For this gig, I was really no more than an ornamental, a conversation fluffer. The PR girl was more than competent enough.

He said, “I gather you need to get back home, yes?”

It was at that point that I realized he was still holding my hand. He said, “Why don’t you come in to the hotel. I’ll buy you a drink.”

Suddenly embarrassed, I blurted, “I’m not really a social drinker… uh…”

He realized that I felt awkward. I suddenly felt a sudden tickling sensation in my hand like a beetle squirming to escape. I looked down and realized with horror that it was Bill. I heard myself shout “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

He looked at me, shocked and stammering “But, I, I…”

I made a face and shouted, “For Christ’s sake man!”

He exclaimed, “I’m so sorry. I, I…”

My face was red with shame and anger and then, before I could stop myself, I hissed, “Piss off!” turned on my heels and marched out of the hotel, leaving him standing there.

Out in the parking lot I then turned into the street and strode down the sidewalk.

After I cooled off, I realized what a ridiculous scene I’d made. How, being a nervous nelly, I’d manufactured an excuse to go off on him. What was the big deal? An old poofster had taken a liking to yours truly. So what? I should have been flattered if anything. But what really bothered me was the question of whether, the entire time he’d been chatting with me, had he been talking me up? The first time I’d had an interesting intellectually-minded client, had it just been an illusion that we’d clicked?

1 comment:

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