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

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Characters (tentatively complete at 4700wds)

He gazed out the window fingering a lit smoke, rolling the paper barrel between his fingers and chasing wafting curlicues with sleepy morning eyes: savoring his last addiction, leading it on a few more weeks before the happy climax of strangling it. His eyes squinted, focusing on the warming veranda, on the three-foot long bum-shaped leaves of his mountain taro, his green queen. Tongue tripped on teeth. Bum-shaped? This reminded him of bung which led to bunghole, fecal and the tang of stuffed-up crappers. These scruffy smelly images annoyed him until he cocked his head and reappraised the leaves: heart-shaped. Bloody but green. His mental ease was unconsciously mirrored by a deep, increasingly luxurious drag on his home-made smoke.

He fed his nicotine jones first thing each morning. It was his way, his habit picked up from days living on a parking lot, out of an ancient Chevy station-wagon, way back in the world, way way back in D.C., on the snow white plantation, to get the blow out of the way before he hit the street. Safe means not having to say you're sorry. Now he was blown safely across the Pacific Pond and conscious master of his domain, a tax payer and apartment dweller, no one the wiser to his septum-impacted past.

Life was slower now, the grind less grinding, but still, he was fulfilled. Yes. His eyes narrowed as he picked out and appraised the daily transfers of power in his garden. He was eager witness to a civil war of weeds smothering succulents, shrubbery choking trees, evolution green in gripping tendril and strangling root.

He sighed buoyantly - like he often sighed first thing in the morning these days - then shook his head knowingly and crossed his arms, a full-on smile now quivering through his features like an earthquake. He realized he could look into this tropic verdure forever. A new, less punishing compulsion, round and round you go, he thought; a more socially acceptable addiction. The more things changed, the more they remained stubbornly the same. He shrugged as his smile went wan.

His veranda jungle was his private distraction and peace of mind, his garden of Eden above the coughing street and asthmatic city. To the left the sun was emerging, catching his eye while it ran its morning race with the smog. A sudden glitch of light sandbagged him and he squinted uncomfortably. He moved out of the angle of attack and discovered the source of luminescence was the metal band on a plastic cigarette lighter abandoned by Monk.

Monk, a derelict wannabee and Johnny cum lately protégé of cool, had shown up the night before, prancing about recklessly in his usual form. They'd shared some smoke and Monk had chattered excitedly about his new indigenous squeeze, 'fresh as a plum she is', pointing to the half-moon symmetry, the long and tapering bits, the round eyes, the high-bridged nose. She'd smiled deferentially and said hi. Good girl. She was a business owner, a clubgoer, and a well aged piece of ass to boot. A practical girl, she knew her market value. Altogether, Frank reflected, a nice package. Nicely aged. Bundled up in skin like dark wrapping paper; without blemish until folded, after which the creases could never quite be removed. But the accumulation of lines was reassuring. Age meant experience and tolerance; from wrinkles he'd come to expect understanding and forgiveness. As he saw it, for a woman below thirty, the world was her oyster. For a man above thirty, it was his. And when he saw oysters, his heart picked up the pace and he became his natural-born old self, the natural-born predator, indifferent to the evening television's precepts and pieties.

On arriving, smoker’s lungs panting at the top of the stairs, Monk had trotted over to the taro and plucked a shard from the ass-end of a green leaf. Buddy's shoulder's tightened up and he grunted with alarm at his sacred plant, holy of holies, the untouchable being defiled. Before he could bark out a warning, Monk popped the greenery in his mouth like a bit of salad and grinned, chewing and declaring from his masticating mouth, "Yeah. Tastes sweet. Poisonous. Can't eat this one, eh? Or is it the other way around? You can't eat the bland ones? Hell's bells." He threw up his hands, tossing Frank a look as if it was his responsibility to know which was which. "Hell if I know Frank," he replied to a question unasked. Satisfied he'd done something useful, reassured by Frank's ignorance, his letting down of the team as it were, Monk felt a profound psychic relief, like the deep serenity après the shooting of a tastefully hand-massaged wad. He shrugged and expelled mutilated leaf, an emerald clot of verboten chewing tobacky hitting the tiles and spreading a stain that cried for washing.

With the space of a good night’s sleep, the memory no longer chafed Frank. You had to deal with the good and the bad, reality’s bite and bark. Monk had this nervous chutzpah when it came to helping others; an outward whinnying that disguised an inwardly pig-headed need to make a forcefully positive impression. 'Pain in the ass' Frank had thought yesterday, but now... 'Entering a mofo's garden and biting off a mouthful of plant. Spitting motherfucker! What the hell?' Frank began heaving, the laughter bubbling out of his belly and lifting him pleasantly. Too fucked-up! Too funny! What could you do? No sense in putting a weed up his ass. Monk was just being himself. Wired. That was just the way he was: wired. You accepted it. Or you didn't. But either way, you moved on.

Frank moved on to Delilah. After a minute of reflection he concluded: same, same. He moved on. And after a few more moments his thoughts had rimmed a complete circle and returned to the martial sanctity and security of his seventh floor garden. Mind blank, smoke swirling at the end of tattooed arm, he was peace incarnate. He gazed at his squabbling plants.


Delilah was thinking about Frank. Recumbent on her bed, Hello Kitty comforter above, milk calico bed sheet below, grass-plaited mattress supporting the bulk, she sagged with heavy thoughts. Thoughts without end, without resolution, chasing wiggly tails higgledy-piggledy. Hello Kitty was a comfort though. She was the ultimate in cute. She had no mouth.

She couldn't get Frank, who had a way big mouth, out of her mind. He wasn't cute. He was grubby. Old. His smile wrinkled his face like… like something wrinkly. And he was smokey too. Impatient. He was mysterious and imperious. Dubious too. In a word: sexy. And yet, turning over on her side suddenly in rebellion, out of superstition, as if rolling over in her bed would right something wrong in someone else’s, deep down she knew there was something fundamentally wrong. She could never marry someone like him.

Her cell phone snuck out a Chinese pop song with impressive fidelity, the tinny tune full of high-end cymbals calling to her louder and louder. As she picked the handset up, a string of pewter, fools' silver, and blue enamel amulets - sharp prickers with evil ideographs to terrorize the bejesus out of ghosts and round jade cylinders luring in and making an easy mark of financial fortune - clattered about, getting in the way of comely dialing fingers with decal-flecked nails, but scattering the light prettily as she turned on her bedside lamp.

"Do you want to go out tonight?" It was Christopher.

She said, "Maybe." A definite maybe.

"Is that a yes or no?"

"Might be."

Christopher was made ill by these conversations. But he endeavored to be patient. He wanted to treat her properly, in accordance with the feminine archetype and the hybridities emerging in this wing of her globalizing subculture. "Can you please make a decision?"

"About what?"

"Okay. I'll decide. Let's go to the night market then."

"What are we going to do there?"

"We'll figure it out when we get there."

She squealed, "No! Tell me! What are we going to do we get there?" She sighed, and lay back down on her bed, exasperated.

Christopher felt his temper rising and knew it was time to end the conversation. He lifted his free hand up and back toward his shoulder, to a safe distance to prevent any regrettable act of violence, such as a slap. "Okay," he said, breathing easier now, secure that the regrettable was now impossible. "I'll see you at seven. Bye." He snapped the phone shut, a whirling clot of edgy angst and angry lust.

If his mother, like most moms, had revealed none of the feminine mystique’s proprietary secrets to her little boy threatening to grow into a big man, she had at least warned him about getting carried away with small talk with girls. Given that these words had emerged from mother's sacred lips, he felt he could indulge his anger and in good conscience abruptly end the conversation with Delilah. But he still didn't understand their chemistry. What the fuck was going on?

Delilah was rolling her eyes, reclining on her bed again, exhausted and breathing heavily. Men could be such hard work. She was in between jobs, in between men. Scouting, shopping for two-legged bargains. Her mouth twitched in a wry smile, she looked over, beyond her stack of fashion and sexploitation magazines to her huge black-and-white poster of D-Day, featuring the famous nurse kissing the unknown sailor. This life-size cliché was a dramatic message for boys lured into her lair; neither drunkenness nor illiteracy was excuse for insufficient foreplay.

That evening, she took the bus to the night market to meet Christopher. It was Christopher, not Chris or Little C. He saw no reason to bandy with his full Christian name and insult his forebear’s judgment via a cheap contraction. Hip was no substitute for taste.

They coordinated the final couple dozen yards through their cell phones. For revenge, he suggested she meet him on the northeast corner of a nearby intersection. He knew she wouldn't know directions. He could tease her about Chinese incompetence with the compass and the four corners of the earth.

But maps and directions were not something she was required to know. These and other mechanical things, abstract or concrete, were reserved for men. Not found in the social contract nor the user’s manual. She would no more feel compelled to master directions than develop competence with auto repair. It wasn’t that it was icky, but superfluous; not consonant with the image machine of which she was but a cog; in a word, hoggishly out of step with daintiness. Delilah was far from silly, nor anesthetic to common sense. Practical competence was admirable, naturally. And from a safe distance of course. Not something hands on, to dirty one's hands over. Fingernails were preserved for other uses where pretty lay in pink. A mind was a terrible thing to waste; certainly not to be burdened with trivia or tainted with dubious competencies and disreputable skills. But Christopher wouldn’t complain. Couldn't complain. He had no right to judge their culture.

They scanned about for a meal while passing an endless assortment of yummy food stalls and vendors who caught their eye: an elderly chain-smoker scorching stinky tofu and spitting dramatically into a drain, confidently indifferent to Christopher’s stare; someone’s sweating grandma in a stained bandanna and the smile of success hawking boiled chickens feet; a very pretty young girl, new to the business and overworked, given the scalds on her forearms, boiling won-ton noodles; crowds of competing panic/aggressive mouthpieces stuttering between being polite and press-ganging herds of dawdling customers into nifty hot pot restaurants in Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese styles.

The savory aromas ranged from rice vinegar to spunky urine, from Three-Cup stewed beef to chewy doggy doo. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and just as a man of experience may develop a peculiar taste for fat ladies, a trip to the orient reorients ones conception of the appetizing. It’s an adventure of the palate, moving farts and minds: as human flatulence becomes associated with the charm of fermented soy cake, the mind moves excitedly into new gastronomic realms. A sharp fart no longer wrinkles noses, but rings dinner bells. Faced with the stirring choice of adventure or same-same, Christopher settled on Japanese stir-fry, outsourcing their entrees to a safer nation. Delilah pulled his hand to take him in, but even here he hesitated.

"Is this place clean? Have you eaten here before?" Memories of barfing into a river in rural India, while a sympathetic stranger moved his bowels just upwind, ripened within his nose.

"Oh come on. Stop complaining. You’ve never been sick in this country, have you?"

He relented, a sudden pang of guilt tightening his chest and paralyzing his shoulders, reminding him that he could not be Eurocentric. Not that he was European, but the irony of being a Canadian worried about being Eurocentric was not worth quibbling over.

Inside he sat down at the counter, his buttocks sliding onto the chair seat, his town-shoed feet settling onto the metal bars below, and looked doubtfully at the food around him. Patrons were going at it, shuttling Chinese fast food from plates to eager mouths via disposable chopsticks; discarded bony tidbits were trafficked from finicky maws back to the plates with those same disposable chopsticks. Wait, nope. Discarded below the plate to the tabletop. And the floor? He didn’t want to look. His eyes returned to the security of the tabletop. Mmhh… He cringed, his brain squirmed, he closed his eyes tight. His mind, cut off from the world for a moment, put his memory to work trawling for additional sources of dissatisfaction to meet his current mood. A cold tongue of guilt emerged from the abyss. He hadn’t dragged along his reusable plastic chopsticks. He wanted to save the forests.

Without opening his eyes, he demanded, "Did you bring any chopsticks?"

She frowned, "Who brings their own chopsticks? Do you bring your own chopsticks in Canada when you go to McDonald's?"

His eyes opened. "We don't use chopsticks at McDonald's."

"Well," she nagged, "You know what I mean. Whatever."

Christopher saw another defensible opportunity for revenge: "If you weren't in such a rush to make fun of me you wouldn't make these kinds of mistakes." And to ram it into her skull he waggled his head and said, "Duh!"

Delilah was wounded, but put it out of mind. Christopher cared so much about her. He was paying the bill after all. Better not bite the hand and all that jazz... Jazz! Gosh she loved bass players! And they seemed to love her too. Musicians were easy. But she was confused by Christopher, somebody who worked so hard at being nice. She looked into her purse to check her phone for messages and to rub her amulets for luck. She wondered why every conversation turned into a squabble or terminated in angry silence. There was some connection between nice guys and always ending up angry guys. But she didn't try to figure it out. She wasn't incurious. But it never occurred to her to figure things out on her own. Life was complicated, yet simple. Questions were made for asking other people. Being an intellectual renegade wasn't her responsibility. She shrugged. Mustn’t grumble. Life was good. She couldn’t complain.

It was usual for Delilah to order their food. This gave her face; the ritual of face preservation was something Christopher recognized as a sacred rite of Chinese interpersonal interaction. But now, ire getting the upper hand, Christopher, the secular humanist, sought to push her over the great wall of superstition and into the backwaters of empiricism. He’d embarrass her by ordering the food in Chinese himself. He leaned over the bar and said to the chef, "Excuse me! Excuse me! I'd like to order please."

The young chef, in toque blanche, white gown, and gold neck chain looked at him with widening eyes, his smile infected with a growing hint of terror until he realized he could fall back to the mask of a waiter's dead eyes and relax.

Christopher grew impatient with this servility, though he held his tongue, blaming it on colonialism. He looked at Delilah and asked, "Isn't he going to get pencil and a pad of paper?"

"No, of course not."

"Why not?" He asked defiantly.

She crossed her arms and spoke through her mother’s pursed lips. "I don't know. Just because."

At times like this Christopher was really cut to the quick. What was it about Delilah that made her such a bitch? And then he hauled up again sharply, guilt pulling in his shoulders and tightening up his stomach. He admonished himself to be more understanding. He had no right to judge. He took pride in his refusal to degrade and dehumanize his fellow man by placing him beyond the pale and into the realm of the Other. His hands jumped up as if touching a hot oven. Woman, he corrected himself. Woman...

Christopher turned back to the chef, forcing himself to smile, but with anger leaking out and contorting his face into a teeth-baring grimace: "I'd like to order to fried beef noodles for both of us please. She likes hers extra-spicy. And one cold beer plus a hot red tea please."

The young chef was staring. He was just a high-school graduated gangster wannabee putting in his dues. Like a child under his schoolmaster, now an apprentice under his master, he was terrified of making a mistake.

Christopher leaned back in his chair, a leer growing as childhood instincts prompted him to make hay with this frightened man. But his latter-day upbringing suppressed his urge to say something clever and cutting to make Delilah laugh. He mustn’t be critical. He couldn't be savage. Bigoted, he corrected himself. He defeated the undertow of a powerful desire for revenge. A desire that tailed him always, ready for him, waiting just under the surface.

What was it about her that made her eager to be difficult? Women, you can't live with them, you can live without them. But as this doggerel emerged, he flinched. He had a sudden urge to punish himself and saw himself present at a dunking. His dunking. Then a round of bloody self-flagellation. At times such as these, he often had oddly satisfying visions of brutal and primitive rites. Then he saw the martyr’s cross aflame, alive with human struggle.

He jumped out of his seat as if shocked by electricity. The other patrons turned over to look, expecting a fight or at the very least a shouting match. Christopher shut his eyes again, caught between humiliation and fear. He’d long been perplexed by these vivid images which had started soon after his arrival. He couldn't figure out where his frequent descents into animal rage came from. And what provoked these disturbing visions of avatars of a culture disintegrating into the ashbin of history? What was this all about? But in tandem with his yearning for an organic understanding, was a thick vein of pride in purpose and awareness. He was overcoming, winning one for the Gipper. There you go again, he said to himself. God damn it! His eyes scrunched up into his skull. He couldn't win for losing. Where were all these clichés bubbling up from?

Delilah was quiet. She knew Christopher was thinking. She could tell by the shut eyes and the unintelligible sign language of flinching shoulders and twitching fingers. She had a natural Buddhist serenity soaked up through example which kicked in now, though she was largely unfamiliar with the religion’s precepts and practices. Besides, foreigners were difficult. ‘What could you do?’ she shrugged. Their unpredictability and lunacy was part of their charm. She had yet to consider that this foreigner might be defective. Part of her still lurked in the local child's world of not speaking until spoken to. It wasn't her responsibility to make conversation or to ask forensic questions. She was used to inarticulate partners. In bed, she was the noise-maker. That was her role. She accepted this as naturally as the man's sweat dripping down on her from on high.

Of course she preferred talkers, barkers, people with the gift of gab, weenies who'd smooched the blarney stone and were full of themselves and malarkey. Wasn't that how Frank had put it? Frank, a scoundrel, unshaved, unprepared, completely irresponsible. He was a train wreck, a collision of cultures, the bullshitter in the china shop. She smiled thinking about him, sucking her lower lip with unconscious amour. He was penniless. Worthless as a man by Chinese standards. And yet... and yet...

She was interrupted by the chef who was back to normal now. He leaned over, scanned her bosom to be sure it was real and asked, "Would you like to order something? Here's our menu, please take a look. Your foreign friend will probably like the beef selections."

Christopher's face went red as he realized that he'd been ignored the entire time ordering the food. He hated being patronized. He exploded, "Delilah! Why the fuck doesn't he know what I just said? What's his fucking problem?"

Delilah looked at him, lips pouting, eyes straight ahead, fearless. She knew the stuff he was really made of. Sugar and spice and everything nice. All bark and no bite. She'd known ten men for every woman he'd known. So she burst out laughing, her teeth chomping in his face, the spirit-crushing roar blowing in his ears.

In Chinese she spoke at him but told the room, "Your fucking Chinese is rotten. Rotten to the core." She shrieked with more unspeakable unanswerable laughter and Christopher couldn't take it anymore. His face purple, he stormed out, leaving her far behind. As far as he could. Putting her far out of his mind. For the moment. Delilah knew the reconciliation would be forthcoming later on. It was already in the mail. She knew him better than he himself in these affairs of the heart. The heart, she thought. And burst out laughing.

Smiles rounded the room, not a few of which were satisfied smirks. A woman telling a man his business. Now that was something to have witnessed, a story for the water-cooler. Foreigners. Crazy foreigners. Never did make much sense. But a guest is a guest. Though even guests needed to be put in their place now and again. For their own good and the general harmony. The food bar relaxed, the chef prepared to take her order, the patrons went back to shoveling their food. A young man walked up to her full of beans and a revenge drive of his own, putting the stake through the heart of blood-sucking women-stealing foreigners. But her firm look deflated his sails and he farted in fear, then stammered, "Would you mind if I pay for your dinner?"

Afterwards, she left the kind young man with a smile and a phony cell phone number. Out on the street she called up Frank.

"Hey Frank." putting music in her voice, "So what're you doing right now?"

"Not much." He sucked his teeth loudly to make sure the receiver picked up the squawk, "Getting ready to jerk off. You want to make yourself useful? I could use a hand."

Delilah was always impressed by his Chinese. He knew the colloquial expression for jerking off, 'maul the pistol', but he went beyond that kid's stuff. He bent a double-entendre out of the vernacular for bachelorhood: 'beat the bright scepter.' This made him sound educated, though his learning lay mostly in street smarts. He had the natural brightness of a cock of the walk, the surprising trivia of the pushy asshole who won’t take no for an answer.

But all conversations are negotiated. She tried to fake him out prissily, "Oh you're so rude Frank. You shouldn't talk that way. Chinese people won't like it."

But her giggle was giving the game away and Frank couldn't help but say, "What the fuck do I care what Chinese people like? I know what you like." Sucking his teeth into the phone receiver again, he asked lazily, "So what's going on out there in the big world, little sister? Your date dump you? If you’re calling me at this hour, I must be picking up sloppy seconds, is that the deal?"

"No, of course not." She was impressed. She liked savvy. That he understood the gist of things. There was something so very appealing about a man who wasn't self-conscious and could be himself. She found vastly reassuring and masculine his lack of self-awareness, his confidence and capacity for poking through bullshit. Cuddling up she felt safe. He could take care of himself. He could take care of her problems too.

Frank felt an itch and his hand snaked into his shorts, shoving his budding erection to the more comfortable left side. "So, what's the plan?"

"I don't know?" She posed it as a question.

"Oh yes you do. That's why you're calling. Because you have a plan. And that plan includes me. That plan includes coming over to my place."

"No it doesn't. I’m with Christopher," she fibbed.

“So how’s Little C doing?”

“You know he hates that name.”

“That’s why I use it. Besides, I got no use for pinheads. Airheads maybe. Maybe not. But he’s a pinhead.” He interrupted her attempted interruption and said, “So what’s the problem this time with Mr. Wonderful?”


“Okay then. I’ll talk to you later. I’ve got a date with Harry Palm and her five sisters.”

“Huh? What does Harry Palm mean?” The idiom was lost in translation, he realized. It fell on its ass in Chinese, the language of meaningful domestic conversations.

“I’ll tell you another time. It’s getting close to show time here. Have a good time with Chris. Tell him I said hi.” Knowing she’d do no such thing. She’d never reveal to Christopher these secret communiqués.

“He thinks too much,” she blurted in desperation.

“Pardon?” but he was hooting with laughter. No follow-up was required. He was thinking to himself, ‘Typical Chinese complaint. Someone thinks too much…’ Too funny and he laughed until the tears rolled down his face.

All she heard through her headset was muffled joviality. She loved laughter and people who knew how to laugh. Her mood was warming into contentedness. She didn’t interrupt him.

Finally, Frank got it together again. Shaking his head he said, "Hey, why don't you do me a favor and pick up a couple of tall beers on the way over. Chocolate would be nice too. I do love chocolate. Mm-mm. I don't know, but there's something about it which makes me happy, you know?"

"You're shameless,” she said brightly. “I'm not buying anything for you."

"So what's your ETA?"

"Hey, I haven't even made up my mind what I'm going to do this evening."

Sensing noise in the system Frank said, "OK, I'll make you a deal. I'll run out and get some noodles. How about you come over in... Twenty-five minutes."


"Well. If I have to use my hand, I'm going to be out of action for the next 24 hours. Don't blame me if nature calls. So how about you come over? Rest your feet. Take a load off."

"I don't know."

"Yeah you do. Okay, look. I'm going out the door for the noodles. See you soon. Call me if anything comes up."

And then he hung up the phone. The bird was in the bag. She wouldn't call back. She'd come over. She was bored and chasing happy. She’d found it in him and his pad. Crazy bitches, Frank thought. Treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. And like Brando in the film, he’d make sure her happiness was mingled with his ha-penis.

The pursuit of happiness wasn’t a problem for Delilah. She didn’t solve problems. Making decisions wasn't her responsibility. That was a man’s job. For better or worse. Till death do us part.

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