My handler met me at the Dazhou Train Station. We shook hands. He introduced himself as Kevin. Then he apologized for not being a chick.
"I know it is American tradition for man serve the woman and woman serve the man," he said, "but there is some confusion before you arrive. My boss, she is thinking you are a woman. So she give me to you. Man serve the man. Very strange."
"Wait. She thought I was a woman?" I blinked violently. "Didn't she see my passport picture?"
"Yes," said Kevin, "but still there is some doubt."
We walked. Three days of ceaseless rain had flooded the square. I rolled up my pantlegs and forded the filth Oregon Trail style.
"What a pity you are so late," said Kevin.
"Well," I said, "as I mentioned on the phone, Nanchong flooded last night and the power went out. So I apologize if I'm late. But there were - ahem - technical difficulties."
"That is not what I mean," said Kevin. "I don't mean to be a burden. But you are very late. What a pity."
"I did my best to get here on time," I said, my left eyeball twitching involuntarily, "and I'm sorry if I'm late. But I didn't miss anything important, did I? And anyway, I've told you several times what happened. Nanchong flooded, so the power went out, so my alarm didn't go off, so I overslept, so I missed my 9 AM train, so I had to catch the 5 PM train to Dazhou. So yes, I am a little late. And I'm sorry if I missed the banquet or whatever. But I'm lucky to have gotten here at all."
"Yes," said Kevin, and I could've sworn I caught him smirking ever so slightly, "but what a pity."
We took a cab to campus and got out at the main gate. Kevin asked me what I wanted for dinner.
"I dunno," I said. "Chinese?"
He sat and watched me eat my kung pao chicken.
"Are you sure you don't want anything?" I asked.
"No. As I mentioned earlier," he said, "I have already eaten. At the banquet. You missed the banquet, remember? What a pity you missed the banquet."
I lowered my chopsticks and took a deep breath. Then I resumed eating.
"Is the kung pao chicken very delishurs?" asked Kevin.
"I dunno about delishurs, but it's pretty good."
"Yes. But sadly. It cannot be as good as the banquet food. What a pity you are so late."
"Yeah," I said, "what a pity."
I flagged down the laobar and ordered a beer.
Easy, Panda, I told myself. Chill. Eat some bamboo. Drink some formaldehyde beer. In the words of George Harrison: all things must pass. Even dinners with passive-aggressive twerps. Those dinners, too, must pass. Christ. Not even twenty minutes into the handler/handlee relationship and I'd already let the kid get under my skin. Ordinarily, I am not so easily irked, but I really had busted my ass to get to Dazhou on time, and nature really had conspired to keep me in Nanchong. I'll be the first to admit it: I am a flake. I was born late, via C-section. And ever since, I have been hustling to catch up. I am chronically delayed, waylaid, held up, hung up, behind, belated, and otherwise late in the least fashionable way imaginable. But on this one, isolated occasion in my life, I was justified in my tardiness. Nanchong flooded. It flooded, and I am no Moses. Hell, I don't even know how to swim.
It was a Saturday night in Nanchong. When the storm first arrived, I was, as usual, unimpressed. I am a Nebraskan. Thunderstorms, even tornadoes, are little more than a source of giddy adventure for me. Over the years, I have evolved an internal barometer that tells me when to scoop up the cats and run for the basement. Sichuan is not quite tornado alley. It's more like a bowling alley, where Thor rolls nothing but gutterballs. The storms here are weak sauce. So I was unperturbed when the billowy black thunderheads came rolling in. There was no lightning, only a kind of effervescence in the clouds. And the thunder was a low and feeble gurgling, like a concerto for sousaphone and farting grandpa. Like I said, weak sauce. It was 1 AM and I was busy getting a head start on packing, stuffing all my worldly possessions into my hobo bindle. My worldly possessions these days mostly consist of boxer briefs: Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, BVD, bootleg Chinese undies with the Playboy Bunny's bucktoothed doppelganger stitched into the ass. The thing about life is, you wind up with too much underwear and not enough clothes.
When I'd finished packing, I set about tidying my room. After a while, I grew so depressed at the futility of cleaning that I had to sit down at the computer and watch a World Cup's Greatest Goals montage to cheer me up. GOOOAAALLLLL! ... GOOOAAALLLLL! ... GOOOAAA - Boom. There came an impressive stomp of thunder and I could hear the reverberation rippling up the aluminum bleachers of English Corner Stadium. Boom - zzzip! I got up from my desk chair and lifted the curtain just in time to see the Epcot Center Cafeteria across the street light up like a Tesla coil.
"... the fuck?" I asked the Royal Me, and received no reply. Then there came another lightning strike, this one even closer, and I leapt away from the computer. The power went out. My laptop dimmed slightly. GOOOAAALLLLL!
I backed away from the window, stumbled over my Peace Corps medical kit and cracked my head against the doorframe. Fuck, I said. I groped around in the dark until I found the washing machine. Ah, yes. It had been doing my laundry up until the power went out. Now all my clothes were lying there in a wet heap. Double fuck. I highstepped over the garbage in the hallway and stood in the middle of the living room, listening. An ominous whooshing filled the apartment and when the next lightning strike came, I saw that my bedroom curtains were pasted up against the ceiling. I began to shake. This was not weak sauce. I paced back and forth like a frightened dog. At any moment, I expected a funnel to take form in my living room and blow the whole stinking mess sky high. They'd find my boxer briefs in Shanghai. The Yangtze would be clogged with abortive journal entries from yours truly. Plastic tubes of Astroglide would rain down on Sichuan for weeks, courtesy of the Peace Corps medical office.
But tornado or no, I had no basement to scurry down into and no cats to keep me company. So I decided to sleep or die trying. It was 2 AM and I needed to be up in six hours, so I crawled into bed. The bedsheets were drenched in rain. The curtains kept smacking me in the face. I plugged my phone into the wall and set the alarm. Then I lay there awake while the torrential rains turned Nanchong into a rice paddy. By 3 AM, I still couldn't sleep and bloodshot desperation set in, so I did something I have only done once before: I popped a sleeping pill. Gradually, I sank into a kind of metaphysical troth and watched the storm rage for another hour until one last bolt of lightning sent me into a short-lived coma.
But the coma wasn't short-lived enough. Something I had failed to consider when I plugged the phone into the wall: there was no power. I might as well have plugged the damned thing into a pineapple. So the alarm didn't go off. So while my 8 AM train was clickety-clacketing its way off to Dazhou, my phone was a vegetable and so was I.
It was the strangest awakening of my life, and all of them have been strange. A white bolt from a gray sky shot me upright in bed. It was 10 AM and it was still storming outside. It took me several minutes to remember who and where I was. Then, sifting through the coffee-stained manila folders of my mind, I remembered vaguely that there was something I was supposed to do, somewhere I was supposed to be ...
Shit, fuck, etc. The power was still out, my phone was dead, and my laundry was half-washed and starting to mildew. I hung it up to dry. Then I took a cold shower. A glance in the mirror reminded me that I was still bearded. I was going to Dazhou to work, and professionalism in China does not involve looking like Bob Veila after a two-week do-it-yourself bender. But I wasn't about to hack at all that Irish scrubgrass with a Bic razor. So I put on some cargo shorts and a dirty undershirt, walked to the nearest barber shop, and asked them if they could shave me.
"We can't shave you electrically," announced the barber. "There is no power. But."
He approached me with an unlathered razor. I threw my hands up and backed slowly out onto the street.
I caught a cab downtown. Downtown, there was power. But the sewers had overflowed and the taxi cabs jetted spumes of brown semisolids as they passed. I wielded my umbrella like a shield. Tides of sewage rolled over the sidewalk whenever the streetlights changed and a competition broke out among the Chinese pedestrians to see who was courageous enough to cross the Brown Sea. I watched and waited. The Chinese women proved their meddle by tromping through the filth high-heels and all. The young men, not surprisingly, were colossal wussies about the whole thing and tried to pass over the sludge by clambering across the rungs of a nearby fence. A troupe of Germans materialized on the scene and, ever the sensible ones, decided to avoid the Scheisswasser altogether. Their leader, an overweight fellow in a too-tight t-shirt, shouted loudly, matter-of-factly, in a strange tongue that no one but me could understand, "Well, we must go around, then!" And the other Germans followed him. They turned and marched single file down the sidewalk, crossed the unflooded portion of the street, and marched down the opposite sidewalk unscathed. Only much later did the thought occur to me: Germans? In Nanchong? ... the fuck?
I waded across the filth. Then I got myself shampooed, scalp massaged, and shaved for 80 cents US. Then I bought a pair of sweatshop dress shirts for four bucks a pop. The next and final step was to get mine ass on board a train, or preferably a bus. I caught a cab to the biggest bus station in town, but they told me to go to the smallest bus station in town. My cabbie the second time around was the splitting image of Jackie Chan. I am not being racist, here: this man closely resembled Jackie Chan. And I began to feel like his laowai sidekick in a half-ass buddy comedy.
"Where are you going?" he asked me.
"Dazhou," I said.
"They've probably sold out of tickets."
"But I've got to get to Dazhou tonight," I said. "There's a banquet, or something."
"If they're sold out, what are you gonna do?"
"I have no idea," I said. "What can I do?"
Cabbie Chan was mum on this point. He lit a cigarette and offered me one. Then he screeched to a halt on the side of the road.
"Check it out," he said. "Look at that beautiful girl."
And indeed, a rather stacked Sichuanese woman was sauntering our way.
"In Sichuan, there are many beautiful women," said Cabbie Chan, "and I try to stop for them whenever I can."
Cabbie Chan dropped off the girl, then he dropped me off at the bus station. The black market cabbie urchins closed in around me. WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? I elbowed and stiffarmed my way into the bus station. Needless to say, all tickets to Dazhou had been sold out, not just for the day in question, but also for the next day, and the one after that. I thrust my hands in my pockets and wandered back out to the parking lot, gave myself over to the long-distance cab racket. But I had spurned them and now they were ignoring me. I walked in circles but nobody seemed to notice me. So I began to call out the word "Dazhou." Dazhou, Dazhou, Dazhou. A hunchbacked man with pronounced acne scars approached.
"But I don't have that kind of money," I said. "I'm a volunteer."
"Nevermind. 500 kuai."
He shook his head.
"That's not gonna work. 600 kuai."
600 kuai. A hundred bucks. I bit my tongue and fumbled around in my wallet. The cabbie urchin extended his palms eagerly. Then, Cabbie Chan came to the rescue.
"600 kuai? Are you crazy?" he snapped. "This man is a foreigner. He doesn't know any better. He is our guest. Don't cheat him."
Cabbie Chan grabbed my arm and flicked his head towards his cab. He had been waiting for me the whole time.
"Let's go. I'll take you to the train station."
I followed Cabbie Chan and the cabbie urchin gave chase.
"Hey! Hey! Hey!"
"Hey hey hey," snorted Chan. "Idiot."
We sped off. The cabbie urchin chased us for a bit, then faded into the industrial haze.
I am wary of Chinese trains. They tend to be a crap shoot. As in: there is poop on the floor half the time. For that reason, among others, I hadn't ridden a Chinese train in six months. But my handlers had told me to get to Dazhou as early as possible, by whatever means possible, so that I might attend some sort of event that may or may not have been important. So I risked it. And as luck would have it, thanks to Cabbie Chan, I found myself in a relatively cozy bullet train bound for Dazhou, with no poop on the floor, and due to arrive only eight hours later than I'd originally planned. Of course, I missed the inaugural banquet by a couple hours. What a pity. But I did make it, floods and power outages and all. So I figured that I'd be welcomed in Dazhou with a tickertape parade. Instead, it was a listless Kevin, a lukewarm beer, and a tepid plate of kung pao chicken.
"Yes, what a pity that you were so late," Kevin said as we were walking home. "The banquet was very delishurs."
By then, the two bottles of Yanjing were doing their job, so I was able to laugh Kevin off in the Chinese manner. But then I stopped dead in my tracks because something in my periphery hadn't rubbed me the right way. I doubled back and peered down a dimly lit alleyway. In the not-so-distant distance was a river, and the river was raging.
"Um," I said.
"Yes," said Kevin, "the river is very high today."
"Is that normal?" I asked.
All along the riverside, there were old Chinese men, standing and watching the river. A bad sign. And I stood there for a moment to watch the river with them. It rolled past like a python. The crests of the waves gleamed in the moonlight. I had never seen anything like it, such natural rage. Such strength. I had never felt such powerlessness. Then, Kevin yanked me by the arm. And I walked.
"I forgot to say to you," he said, "that class is begin tomorrow."
"What?" I asked. I had forgotten all about the river. "What? When?"
"Eight AM. Sunday morning class is begin. What a pity you were late. I tell you earlier if you are not so late."
"Yes," I said, "what a pity."
So tomorrow began the next morning. I suppose that made sense. Then I shook Kevin loose and darted back to steal one last glance at the raging river. Marvelous. Horrific. The silent Chinese men knew. Tomorrow began the next morning, but whether or not tomorrow came was another question entire.