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

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Homeward Bound (3000) by Biff Cappuccino

It was one of those moments in which I was asking myself, "Why am I still here?" I wasn't wondering why was I still on the island, but why was I still here sitting at this table with Jeff Desjardin and his band of fair-weather amigos chundering away at the table leaving me to myself, my wife and boredom makes three. I decided then and there that my misplaced loyalty to him would not be misplaced again. But then I remembered having made this oath, or something like it, before.

We were celebrating Jeff's wedding of convenience with a stag party: one with women in attendance, but minus the principle inconvenience of the bride. He blamed it all on being ‘seduced against my will’ by a widower ten years his senior with a permanently gammy leg, two teenage kids, and a not inconsiderable bank account. Jeff had a jolly look while he slapped me hard on the back, a virile warning that ‘loose lips sink ships’ and explained conspiratorially: "There's something about her that brings out the compassion in me, you knows? I have this, je ne sais quois, this sympathy fer someone down on her luck that way. I've had me a long run of good luck in me day, it's like time to give back to society and all."

I paused, impressed. Not with the fibbing, but with his appropriation of 'give back to society.' Could he parse it? I had trouble enough pinning the phrase down myself, like stabbing a wriggling leech to a specimen board. But he had graced me with an explanation. That meant he took me seriously, which placed me somewhere on the right road to respect. It warmed my heart that the sun was deigning to shine upon its satellite.

I was with my wife, Chang. Her Chinese name was Ho Chia-rong. She’d been obstinate about adopting a proper English name. Celia, Victoria, Vanity, Madonna, Britney. I could tolerate anything better than Chang! “No can do!” she’d stammered, pouting and railing puny fists. She was too polite to say that my friends were too complacent or incompetent to pronounce her Chinese name without desecrating it. She’d sized them up. Chang was as familiar as Chink and just as easy to roll off leather tongues.

We’d been invited to fill out today’s motley crew and demonstrate to all and sundry, perhaps mostly to Jeff himself, that not all of Jeff’s friends were from the south island wasteland of fly-by-night English teachers and its ultra-demimonde of retired crooks and part-time gang-bangers. The wife and I were the token high-society folks, the sort he aggressively mocked behind my back to put his envy at ease. We were there to witness the festivities and give our benediction via sainted smiles. The quasi-religious significance came inadvertently from my movement into the literary world where I was, if truth be told, a failed and failing writer. But in a non-reading world such as Jeff’s I enjoyed a cachet the illiterate typically grant to those wielding the written word. I was become a shaman through my holy ivory-tower abracadabra and was respected for the occasional shots of mystic mumbo-jumbo I sent across the bow.

I’d become privy to the attempted heist of the widower’s heritage while witnessing him in the courtroom. The wife-to-be was sweating nervously in shorts and crutches; he was proudly decked out in slip-in buckle loafers, gray designer exercise pants, a dark leather sorority jacket, and a ratty scarf that encircled his neck like the skeleton of a python that made a mistake. The judge was the Southeast Asian doppelganger of James Earl Jones and repeatedly pursed rubbery Negrito lips, giving Jeff a forceful fishy eye, indicating either prior acquaintance or that he expected to be seeing Jeff again in the far from distant future. Nevertheless, the proceedings went off smoothly, as mechanically as assembling a printed circuit board.

For now, happy days were here. We were living large, pals united by a crimeless crime, un-bustable proto-thieves, honorable men before the law, stuffing our gizzards on his wife's tab. We were at Jose's Mexican restaurant, a dive which attracts customers primarily by osmosis; strays and hungry waifs are lured in by its auspicious location next to the Tony Aroma's Prime Rib. Jeff and friends were boisterous, munching loudly, sucking back beers, and kicking up a friendly racket. Through the yellow-bean oil, the beer, and the cigarettes, I could smell whiffs of wino and rotting onions. Somebody or some bodies in attendance were hitting the local cough medicine overstrongly again.

It wasn’t Jeff though, for he shoved me amiably and said, "Be a sport and grab me some Whisby outer the shop there, will ya?" He was pointing out the window and, despite the vaguely familiar name, ‘Whisby’ isn’t the Chinese bastardization of ‘whisky’, but instead a total misnomer stimulant packed with caffeine, sugar and nicotine.

"I look underage and I'm not carrying any ID,” I apologized.

Fred, his buff blonde partner in excess, three armed robbery counts in the home country but now reinvented as respectable English Teacher and contributor to a better tomorrow, pointed a grubby finger and exclaimed, "He thinks he needs ID. In this country?" and he burst out laughing, food heaving between flapping lips.

I tried not to look while Jeff cuffed him up the side of his head. "He's my friend, asshole! I won't stand for none of that shit!” And to the rest of the table, “There’ll be no razzing him and that." He picked up his bottle of beer and drank, the table quiet as it waited for him to put it down and start talking again.

Fred had quailed. No choice because Jeff was his source for weed. Fred couldn't function on a daily basis without his stone for hoops, his teaching stone, sex stone, snooze stone, stoned stone. He'd have gone into the agricultural biz himself, as Jeff had done successfully, but his bluster masked a timidity unwilling to risk having his neck stretched under a scaffold, the sentence that went with trafficking on this island.

My wife tugged on my arm looking for attention, her excuse being to nag me in Chinese with: "Stop chattering. You and your pals are just like a bunch of women. Eat your food before it gets cold!"

Fred said, "I like your wife. She's cute!" and he smiled like he’d enjoy slapping her. Probably on the ass. She ignored him.

Jeff rabbit punched me in the shoulder. I pretended to be a man, while he said, "And don't take no offense at Fred. He don't speak for me. But he’s fucking A-okay! Okey-dokey?” I deadpanned to mess with him, whereupon he growled under his breath, “Ya overeducated bastard. You always gots an expression like yer dick got squeezed between the covers of a book.” But then he seemed to suddenly realize he was blowing his cover. He got his act together quickly, grinned a sharp toothed smile and said, “Now looky here." He figured I owed him and to seal the deal he put his arm around like we were instant pals again. "I really need a suck of that shit, eh? Liquid wrench, you see?” Convivially, sincerely this time, hoping I’d go for it, he said, “Look, I’ll share it with ya. These a-holes don’t like it, but I’m telling ya, it’s great shit. I’m fucking serious. Puts a frikken jump into your freaking step. So how's about you get off your knobby arse and fetch a bottle for me?"

"No can do.” I said in a chipper tone, “My wife wants me to eat."

He whispered so my wife wouldn't hear: "Don't tell me you've gone all fucking pussy on me, ya fucking pussy you?"

I looked at the food and twisted my lips into a tragic grimace of defeat. Fred was a slave to weed, Jeff was a slave to his women. Only when the cat was away, could the rat come out and play. He couldn’t imagine that I ran my marriage like a house of correction. I don’t know why more men don’t. But it was enough to put him off his stride. He gave up in disgust.

The plates came and I discovered we were being treated to the house enchiladas. They were deep-fried like chicken nuggets or old-fashioned doughnuts. The salsa sauce wasn't hot, but sweet: a sort of Mexican equivalent to Chinese-American food where ketchup does double duty as fermented bean sauce and beet sugar has superceded MSG.

It put me in the mood to find a 7-11 and buy a hotdog. Reliably, dependably mediocre fast food, but at least not disappointing. My wife was staring at me, willing me to eat, nodding at the food like I was a pet unhappy with kibble and holding out for table scraps. I returned to staring at my plate, looking at this desecration of LA Tex-Mex, while Jeff and his buddies were greedily shoveling the profanity into their mouths, spilling flakes of deep-fried crust on their shirts.

Jeff was talking out loud to his plate, "I want to get one of those paintball kits. Man, when that ball hits, it stings!" Looking up at the table he wagged his chin, inciting a table-wide Pavlovian chain-reaction of chin wagging, and said "Ain't nothing better than a good old game of paintball to get you going, put the zip back into you?"

Fred one-upped him, "You got to think larger than that Jeff. Get yourself a new Lexus. Insure it. Then, when it gets stolen, get a new one for free."

Jeff was nodding, “Hmm… not bad...” filing the suggestion away for future use. "That could work. That could be the ticket!"

Ralph upped the ante with, "No way man. I say, you should go all the way and get a sea plane. This is an island, don’t forget. You can land anywhere." Anywhere, except where we and most of the national population was: several miles inland. "Travel in style. Check it out, Jeff." A murmur of approval made its way around the table, with me mumbling too so as not to be a wet blanket. Chang pinched my forearm. Jeff rode the wave of support, exclaiming, "Yeah, that's the ticket. Fuck China Airlines. Too expensive. Shitty service. My own plane. All I gotta worry about then is the gas money."

He was beaming, ecstatic at his deft integration of luxury with economy. Talk was a luxury that was indeed economic. Talking was an opportunity to create fantasies. They spent many an evening building the improbable into the incredible and finally the impossible, looking back on their accomplishment and giving it due appreciation, like it was a real-world work of art, substantial and lasting.

Their mirth, their hopes, ambitions, and expectations depressed me. But why should I care anyway? I relaxed, exhaled, and smiled blankly to Jeff who wasn’t paying attention. To each their own, I thought. They were happy. ‘Butt out!’ was the best advice I could give myself.

I turned to my wife, who was slurping beer from my glass rather than order a beer of her own. I said in Chinese, "What was I thinking? Why did I come here?" But she just shrugged and pushed her plate away, dodging involvement and said, "It was your idea. We should've gone to the Burmese ghetto." I dabbed at the food detritus that always built up on her lower, fleshier lip and wiped down my glass where that same lip left sediment behind. She was right though. It was my idea. It was always my idea. That was part of the problem. She didn’t volunteer ideas because I was the male half of the equation. Forming ideas and making personal decisions that overtly involved the both of us was a form of selfishness she didn’t indulge in. Being sly was less obtrusive, less self-centered, less narcissistic. Sneaking my beer, or filching shopping cash from my billfold, wasn’t selfish as long as I didn’t notice.

I looked out the window and into the setting sun, imagining myself eating curried mango, fried curried tuna steaks, tomato and pepper Thai style shrimp on a bed of Indian rice. Ghetto staff barely spoke Chinese, didn't speak a word of English. Being locked out of a Third-world language could be a blessing in itself when you wanted peace of mind. The chef would snort and grunt. The kitchen was far from antiseptic. But the food was three-dimensional, with a foreground of piquancy and a rich background of varied flavors. Each dish was like a culinary success.

But we couldn’t do it. For Jeff it would have been a failure. It was downscale. His new marriage was an upscale success. He and his down-and-out pals, as always, wanted dreamscape, the appearance of good food, good living, good friends; not the reality. Status was more important, for status was the trumping of appearances over reality. And this was despite Jeff having taste in food; becoming a philistine of the palate had been a journey, a personal jihad I’d critiqued for taking him into glorious nether world of nothingness and nobodies. And yet he’d landed on all four feet like a cat. Of all things, the rat had cornered his prey, the new wife.

I’d taken to daydreaming again and was looking out the window. Someone dapper was standing there. He’d emerged from Tony Aroma’s and was now scorching a cigarette with a metal lighter, a gleam of reflecting sunlight coming in the window now and again. He began rocking back and forth for warmth in the chill breeze.

I pushed away my plate of deep-fried failure. Jeff noticed I was bored. Shoving me to get my blood flowing, he narrowed his eyes when I turned to look at him, daring me to cross him. "Well what do you got’s to say there Biff?"

But I wasn’t’ in the mood for jousting and launched a camouflage of verbiage into the air. "I think you should do something more profitable with your time, bud. You've got a talent for HRM. You’re connected with the local panjandrums. You speak the biz lingua franca plus dialect. Build on your skill-set and take her out for a test drive."

He smiled slowly, carefully, wondering whether there was a joke or a trap somewhere in that tangle of nonsense. He bunched his lips like a horse plucking a sugar cube, marking time to think. Eventually he pronounced, "Yeah, fer sure. Too right. Just thinking about that one the other day, there." I didn’t follow this up. Neither did the rest of the table, which had gone silent, people dodging my eyes.

My wife pinched me, sensing I’d said something rude. The problem was more like I had failed to say something rude. Fred's mouth was half open and he was squinting at me, waiting for me to say something intelligible, so he could close his trap and get on with chewing. Ralph was more of a decision-maker, pissed and yearning to nail me for showing off with fancy five-dollar words.

Suddenly Jeff looked at the table and fished out a Doritos chip and held it up to the light. Scanning it like a prospector holding a diamond in the rough up against the sun, he said, "Look man, don't that have the figure of Doreen? Can you see it, Biff? Like a brick-shithouse, yeah! Check it out.” I was appalled but for official confirmation he pushed it under my nose. As I brought my head back to look at it, he pushed it under my nose again. I didn't know if I should look at it or eat it.

He got impatient and made a face like I was an oaf or an ignoramus.

Ralph’s girlfriend spoke in English, seeing an opportunity for language practice, and hooked a finger in the air at me, “He stupid. He got shit for brains.” Ralph made a slow high-five gesture, signaling her to meet his hand over their plates. Their palms slid frictionlessly off each other, making the sound of one hand clapping. “That’s it honey,” he said sweetly, Jesus to a child, his mood made pleasant by her parroting of his favorite phrase. But she was sucking up to him, sucking him ever closer to the alter of marriage.

I was about to explode. Hazing, ground feeders, and wall to wall predators were more than I could take in small doses at this festival of the illiterate. Words failed me so I just signaled that I wanted to go out for a smoke. I excused myself and went out to join the fellow with the metal lighter. He had to be better than this.

It was Franklin. Of all people! A sight for sore eyes. It had been years. He greeted me as a stranger, not recognizing me in my beard. I was too embarrassed to tell him who I was. He was a professor at a good school, I was a kick-around shaman to the illiterati. We said our hellos. Still not knowing who I was, he asked how long I’d been here. I shrugged my bashful way out of answering. He laid down the rules of engagement with, “This island attracts all the riff-raff from across East Asia. If you’re still here in six months, you’ll know you’re one of them.” I laughed, then roared with an elemental, primal joy. I grabbed his hand and shook it violently, in part in celebration, in part for support as I was laughing so hard my legs were beginning to fail me. He was still staring as the tears were streaking down my cheeks and I sank to my knees like I was praying to heaven. In communion with a higher God. I felt home, finally. Home at last.

No comments:

Post a Comment