My friend Erin came to visit this weekend. Early that first morning, we packed a lunch and set off on a hobo tour of the Nanchong countryside. But we were unable to leave the apartment because there in the hall was a large black and white mutt, bearing its fangs and growling. It pounced. We ran up the stairs two at a time. The dog pursued us as far as the second floor, then turned and doubled back. We peered down from the forth story balcony and watched in horror as the beast belched and hissed and trotted in frantic circles.
A toddler went toddling by. The dog glanced up at him.
"If he goes after the kid, we're running down there and killing that dog," said Erin. I grabbed a bamboo rod from a nearby garbage heap and brandished it unconvincingly.
But the dog wasn't interested in toddlers. Nor did he seem to have an appetite for the Chinese, as my neighbors came and went without incident. But when we tiptoed back downstairs, there he was, snarling at us.
One of my neighbors saw us come scrambling up the stairwell.
"Eeeee?" she said, the standard Mandarin noise of befuddlement.
"Is the dog downstairs friendly?" I asked her.
"Yes, he's very friendly," she said.
"I don't think he likes laowais."
My neighbor smiled politely and escorted us downstairs. She made it out alright, but the dog caught whiff of us and gave chase. We ran back upstairs.
For the next hour and a half, we hid in the stairwell, studying the dog's movements from the balcony. He would disappear around the corner every so often, then he'd come back and pop a squat in the bushes. Then he'd go dig up somebody's vegetable garden. Sometimes he would run up to the top of a nearby hill and pose there, watching us. But always he would come running back to the front door of apartment building #62, grumbling to himself, ears flattened, lying in wait.
I paced back and forth and repeated the F-word, the way I do when absurdity descends and no escape routes present themselves. From the fourth story perch, I thought I could maybe plant a long-range loogey on the dog's head, but that might've only made matters worse. My next-door neighbor came down the stairs with his son.
"Hello!" he whispered, nudging the little boy. "Hello!"
"Hello," murmured the kid.
His dad pointed at me. "Uncle, uncle!"
"Hello, Uncle," said the kid.
They went outside. The dog perked his ears and wagged his tail as they passed. My neighbor got into a mid-sized Volkswagen and tried to park it across the street while the kid watched. After a few low-speed collisions, he finally succeeded in parallel parking it at a 45-degree angle. Then he dusted his hands off on his pants, hoisted his son onto the back of a motorbike, and the two of them zipped off together.
"The dog can't wait out there forever, can he?" asked Erin.
"I'm not sure," I said. "I suspect he can."
I thought back on the night I locked myself out of the apartment building. I had waited down there on the stoop where the dog now lurked, convinced that at some point, someone would have to let me in. Somebody would sneak out of the house for a nightcap, or somebody would come stumbling home from the massage parlor. I couldn't just wait out there forever, after all. But I stood around like a clod from 9 PM until the sun came up the next morning. I tried to nap on an abandoned couch, but after five restless minutes I developed a nasty full-body itch. The security guards came by. None of them had keys. One of them suggested I shout until somebody came down to let me in, but it was late, all the lights were off and I couldn't bring myself to do it. Eventually, one of the security guards sat down on the filthy couch, ripped a fart and drifted off to sleep. I paced around the courtyard for hours on end and peed in the bushes like a dog. Finally, at 7 AM, an old lady came down for her early morning tai chi exercises. I kowtowed before her and nearly kissed her feet.
I mention all this because, as Erin and I watched the dog circling like a vulture four stories below, I was reminded of past absurdities, and of the fact that when the universe decides to suck you into a vortex of absurdity, you can be stuck down there for quite a long time.
But then, all of a sudden, the dog turned around and trotted up the hill. He stopped to look back at us a few times before disappearing behind a row of apartments in the distance.
"Let's move," said Erin.
"I don't know," I said, squinting out the window. "He might be baiting us."
"Dammit, Petit," she said. "Get the sand out of your [expletive]."
So, with bamboo rod firmly in hand, I scampered down the stairs. No sign of the dog. We took off at a dead sprint. Then my phone rang. It was Shelley, my laowai neighbor.
"I can't talk right now," I said, panting. "We're being pursued by a rabid beast."
Shelley, familiar with the terms and conditions of my daily life, wished me luck and hung up the phone. Then, after Erin and I had put about a quarter mile between us and the dog, Shelley called again. She was laughing.
"Your neighbors just introduced me to your rabid beast," she said. "His name is Oreo. He's great with kids. He lets the babies pull his tail. Everyone loves him!"
Yes, everyone loves Oreo. But what did it mean, this personal vendetta of his? He was good with children and didn't seem to mind Shelley, a fellow laowai. He did not appear to be a racist dog. No, it was Erin and I - only we could incur the wrath of an otherwise harmless neighborhood mutt.
But harmless or no, even after we had left the campus far behind us, we saw Oreo in the face of every approaching pekingese. We saw his lanky silhouette lurking behind every rapeseed bush, heard his growl in the whinny of every passing motorbike. We walked at a brisk clip, stopping every few feet to kick coaldust over our shoeprints.
We opted to postpone our hobo tour, figuring that in the countryside, we would only encounter nastier, more depraved Oreos. Kimchi cravings took us to Nanchong's one and only Korean joint. Neither of us spoke for a full thirty minutes, drugged as we were by the onslaught of antioxidants.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I whirled around to see Jacob, a fellow volunteer, and Lisa, the owner of The Jack Bar.
"Goddamn. That was the best meal I've had in a year," said Jacob.
"I know," I groaned. "God, I've missed Korean food."
Lisa was sulking.
"I mean, Chinese food is great. Really great. It's so hao chi," I said. But by then Lisa was inconsolable. She pointedly changed the subject to my guitar playing.
"Tonight you play five songs," she said. "Is enough. Enough."
The two of them departed. I tried out some rudimentary Korean on the wait staff but every last one of them proved to be Chinese. Erin and I split a bottle of Korean lager and the 4% alcohol-by-volume swam through our heads. It was the kind of meal that puts you in a coma. I sat there a while, half-asleep, with one hand stuffed down the front of my trousers. And then all of a sudden Erin's eyes got big. I heard the voice behind me and bolted upright in my chair.
"What's this? No time to say hello to an old friend?"
It was Oreo. The beast stood on his hind legs, glowering over our table, his ears slicked back and his blue eyes glimmering with omniscience. He was dressed in a suitcoat and creased pinstripe slacks, a checkered cravat knotted over his flea collar.
"Oh, come now. I'm just teasing. I myself find it hard to speak when in the presence of such ... delectable foreign fare." He licked his chops and slid his claws over the surface of our table. My forehead grew damp with sweat. Erin sat staring disconsolately into her lap.
"Old friends, old friends," sang Oreo. His voice quavered in the lower register like Berlin Trilogy Bowie. He rested his paw on my shoulder. "Though we've much to discuss, I do so hate to be a bother. So I suppose I'll leave you to your chow. Eat slowly, as the Chinese say."
He scratched behind his ear for a moment, then pitched a crumpled napkin onto our table. He turned and walked away, toenails clicking off into the background. I sat watching the shivering napkin expand. Erin leaned across the table and grabbed my arm.
"We need to get out of here. Right now," she whispered. "I don't like this Oreo character, not one bit."
"I don't like him either. But what are we going to do? Hide from him for the rest of our lives?" I took a swig from the bottle. "I don't know about you, but I for one refuse to live in fear."
"Here's what we'll do. I'll get up and pay the bill. You wait for me outside."
"He's a dog," I said. "He'll smell us leaving. And anyway, we're safer here. He's not going to devour us at a Korean restaurant. Hell, they're more likely to eat - "
"My ears are burning!" Oreo had materialized behind me. He scratched himself with one paw, then the other. "Though it is almost certainly the fleas. Of course, neither of you would know anything about that. But I must say, they are persistent little buggers ..."
His brow furrowed. Erin and I stared into the tabletop.
"Right," said Oreo, clapping his paws together. "Well, friends, far be it from me to act as an enabler, but certainly a toast to one's health never hurt anybody."
He produced three shot glasses and a bottle of maotai, then he filled the glasses one by one.
"Let's not forget that we live in a toasting culture, my friends, and - how does that old adage go? When in Rome," he paused meditatively, then smiled, "do as the Chinese do."
He hoisted his glass and we lifted ours from the table.
"What shall we drink to?" asked Oreo, searching our faces.
"To humanity," said Erin.
"Yes," said Oreo, staring into her eyes. "To humanity."
We drank. Oreo slammed his shot glass down with such force that the bean paste stew overflowed.
"Ahh, now that wasn't so bad, was it?" he said. Then, with a flourish, he bowed to us and sauntered out the door, twirling his pocket watch and humming Rigoletto.
The next day, Erin returned to Yunyang and I returned to bachelordom. I spent the afternoon organizing my book collection alphabetically by author. Then I paid an evening visit to Little Prince Coffee and took my usual seat by the window. The waitress filled my glass with water. I asked her if she had eaten, but she said nothing, just shot me a worried glance and rushed back to the espresso bar. The table of Koreans across the aisle hurriedly paid their tab and left. The swinging door whooshed shut behind them. The empty coffee shop fell silent.
I pulled out my notebook and got to work. A moment later, the waitress came by, but she did not have my usual Caffè Americano. She slid a folded note across the table and I waited until she had gone to open it. It took me a moment to decipher the characters.
"Man man si," it said. "Die slowly."
I heard a burst of slow, rich laughter from the darkest corner of the coffee shop. Behind a plume of blue smoke, I could just make out a leather-bound book and the top of a bowler hat. Slowly, the book descended and I saw those blue eyes, that snaggletoothed muzzle. It was Oreo. He shut the book and got up on his hind legs. The waitresses disappeared into the kitchen, drawing the curtain closed behind them. As Oreo drew nearer, I saw that the book in his paws was Crime and Punishment.
"They say that Dostoevsky was humanity's first psychologist," he said, "but I have always taken him to be your greatest humorist. Consider the following passage. Oh, where is it -"
He sifted through the book.
"Ah, yes. That's the one," he said, clearing his throat. "'If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment - as well as the prison.'"
He sucked on his pipe and nodded briskly before closing the book.
"Now, you might not find that remark particularly funny as such. But the wit of Dostoevsky, for me, lies not in any deliberate humour noir on the author's part, but in his uncanny, almost superhuman eye for sublime human truths. Do you mind if I sit?"
I said nothing. Oreo chuckled softly and remained standing.
"I admire you travelers. I believe you call yourselves 'globetrotters,' yes? Yes. I admire you globetrotters. So idealistic, so brave. You believe in escape. In 'getting away from it all.' And perhaps in a very limited way you do succeed in escaping from some things. Responsibilities, social norms, the dull grind of a forty-hour work week," said Oreo, "but in a certain sense - in a Dostoevskian sense - it all strikes me as hopelessly naive."
He took a long draw from his pipe, then bent down to snort the smoke out his nose, sending it cascading across the tabletop.
"The Grand Inquisitor," he said. "The self."
He seemed to pick up a faint aroma in the distance, and sniffed reflectively, almost sadly. Then he grinned.
"In the end, how can one ever escape from oneself? To what extent can you even hope to succeed in breaking out of the greatest institution of them all?" He leaned in close and stared me in the eyes. Then he tapped his skull with his paw, making a hollow clucking sound with his tongue. "This one - right - here." He laughed and sat down across from me, crossing one leg over the other. I flinched and felt around for my cigarettes.
"Oh, allow me," said Oreo, pulling a lighter from his trouser pocket. "Or - I see. Suit yourself."
He smiled and watched the smoke rise.
"Listen. I don't like you," I said. "I don't want to see you anymore. So here's what's going to happen. You're going to tuck your little tail between your legs and walk out that door on all fours. Then you're going to check into the Humane Society, the dog pound, whatever. You're going to stop coming around. You're going to disappear."
Oreo stroked his goatee.
"Are you familiar with the word cur?" he asked. "No, I don't suppose you would be. It's archaic - an old, nasty word. From the Middle English curdogge, meaning a mongrel dog, especially a worthless or unfriendly one. Happily, the term is no longer widely in use. But that old, nasty word of yours was once used to describe canines of my sort. Strays, you call us nowadays. Junkyard dogs."
He lowered his pipe.
"There's an expression in your language. I hope I am wording it correctly. The saying goes: you can take the dog out of the hood, but you can't take the hood out of the dog," he said, and chuckled. "Frankly, I think you humans have it completely backwards. It seems to me that you can take the hood out of the dog, but you can't take the dog ... out of the hood."
He rose to his feet and took his billfold from his vest pocket. He counted out forty kuai and pitched it onto the table.
"Believe what you will about me. That I'm dirty, uncultured. A junkyard dog. A cur, if you must. But I am no one's pet," he said. "Your neighbors love me well enough. But I am not theirs. They call me Oreo. But I am not Oreo. Do me a favor and think about that. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be off to mark my territory."
The swinging door whooshed shut behind him. It was twenty minutes before the waitress brought out my coffee and she didn't give me my usual membership card discount.
This afternoon, I came home from lunch and found Oreo there in the courtyard. He didn't seem to notice me at first, immersed as he was in frolicking with the neighborhood kids. They were squealing with joy, chasing him, yanking his tail, hopping on his back and riding him for a few seconds at a time. Oreo was exuberant, barking, yelping, jumping up and down, lapping at the children's faces. Oreo's ears perked as I passed. We exchanged a glance. Then he resumed rolling in the dirt with the kids, tormenting them with the cold wetness of his muzzle. I shut the door to my apartment and sat at my writing desk with a blank document in front of me. Through the open window, I could hear the children laughing and shrieking. Oreo! they shouted, Oh, Oreo! After a while, the kids must have gone inside, because all fell silent except for Oreo's steady barking. It took me a few minutes to notice that he was barking a melody, and it wasn't until he reached the refrain that I realized what it was: O Fortuna by Carl Orff.