Monday, September 20, 2010

Dog Days (Part I)

Late July. Dazhou, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China. A restaurant.

"Goddamn. I say, goddamn it's hot."
"Yeah," said Moose.
"Mind if I roll my shirt up?"
"I'm joking. But these Chineses is smart," I said, indicating a chainsmoking Buddha across the way, whose drenched polo shirt was tucked up under his manboobs to showcase his proud and sweaty beer baby. "They've got the right idea. Comfort before glamor, is what I say."
"I mean, I'd like to do it, too. In a heartbeat I would do it. I certainly don't look down upon it. But I can't bring myself to, y'know, roll it up like that. I'm uncomfortable with my midriff. I'm hopelessly American in that way. The whole Protestant work ethic package. Prudence. Modesty. Tightwadism. All that Ben Franklin shit. A penny saved is a penny - "
"I mean, I just can't bring myself to flaunt my ... self around like that. For reasons I don't quite understand. Does that make any sense?"
"I mean, does it?"
"Well. Yeah. I mean. Anyhoo."
I checked my watch and suddenly remembered that I've never owned a watch in my life.

"Man, I got a bad feeling about this thing," I said.
"I said, I got a ba-a-a-a-ad feeling about this thing."
"What thing?"
"The party. Picnic. Thing."
"Yeah," said Moose.
"Two hundred Chinese people. Nine Americans. Open bar. 3:30 in the goddamned afternoon," I said, shaking my head. "Ain't gonna be pretty."
"They're gonna make us sing, Moose. All of us. And dance. Christ. They're gonna make us dance, Moose! And they're gonna make us take pictures. And drink more than we want to. You realize that. Moose."
"Like I said, it ain't gonna be pretty. I have a feeling that the whole thing is going to be, as the Mexicans say, a total desmadre."
"Man. Are you ever fucking talkative today."

There came a sudden blast of ammonia from the restaurant restroom and I coughed violently. I rubbed my eyes and coughed some more. Despite myself, I even hawked a loogey into the street. Then I lit a cigarette.

"Un pinche desmadre," I said.
"Yeah," said Moose. "Un desmadre total. You wanna pregame it?"
"Don't you think it's a bit early for that?"
"Naw. It's noon somewhere."
I checked my nonexistent watch.
"Dude. It's noon here."

The beers were unexpectedly cold.

"Hey yo! Katie!"
Emma and Katie happened to be passing by. Small world. They came and joined us. Katie was the first to spot the bottles we'd stashed under the table. She shook her head.
"Boys, look at you! Already!"
"Yo, we got that thing in a couple hours," said Moose. "The picnic. Party. Thing. Lots of Chinese people gonna be there."
"Open bar," I said. "Singing and dancing."
"Oh yeah. Shit," said Emma. "In that case, get me a beer."
"Hey yo, laoban!"

We ordered the numbing pepper tofu, the kung pao chicken, the sauteed swamp cabbage, and the fishy-flavored eggplant.

"Damn, this shit is good," I said, pointing with my chopsticks towards the swamp cabbage. "How do you say it again?"
"Kong xin cai," said Moose.
"As in, 'empty heart vegetable?'"
"So, wait. You know how the Chineses be," I said. "Women eat pigeon eggs to make themselves fertile. Men eat penis-shaped vegetables to make themselves virile. Blind people eat fish eyes, the better to see you with. Does that mean this so-called empty heart vegetable is going to make us all jaded and indifferent and shit?"
"I dunno," said Moose. "Gee. Great question."
"Don't look at me that way, man. I was just asking, is all," I said. "Hmm. Maybe I should bring back a doggie bag for Kevin. For his troubles."
"What that dude needs is something to shrink his head."
"True. A little formaldehyde beer might do the trick," I said, and drank. "Dude's got lady problems, though."
"My guess would be man problems," said Emma, "the way he's been following you around."
"That's the thing. Dude was in a bad way. So I helped him out. Gave him a little advice. And now I see him everywhere. Around every corner. On the face of every child. In the depths of my - "
"Keith. Keith."

And there he was. Kevin. My handler. His head, by then, had inflated to the size of a Voit™ brand kickball. He pigeontoed his way over to the table and gripped me by the bicep.
"I have something to talk to you," he said.
"Cool. Hit me up after lunch."
"Yes," he said, glancing at the beers under the table. "I can see that you are very busy."
"Business meeting," I said. "Just doing a little networking, is all."
"We had better talk after lunch."
He gave me a look - a sultry look - then squeezed my bicep again and pigeontoed his way on down the road.

"Creepy," said Emma.
"Kind of," I said. "I mean, he's harmless. But why do I get the feeling that I've created a monster?"
"Because you have created a monster."
"Yeah. I'm good at that."
"Hey yo! Jacob!"

I squinted into the distance and saw a very dark, very built, very smooth-looking fella coming our way. But the squintier I squinted, the less it looked like Jacob.

"Dude, I don't think that's him."
"Isn't it, though?"
"Naw," I said. "Where's his Superman hat? Where's his triple-XL Batman muumuu?"
"You're right. It isn't Jacob."
"Then who the hell is it?"

The man's features came into focus. He was wearing a derby hat. And a black suitcoat over a black t-shirt. And some black trousers rolled up around his ankles. And a pair of beat-up leather shoes. And he was smiling. We stared.

"... the hell?" I said. "That dude is too cool for school."
"Shit yeah he is," agreed Moose. "Is he Chinese?"
"Can't be. Can't possibly be. But - it looks as though he appears to be."
"Damn. You're right. He is Chinese. How did that happen?"
"Beats you," I said. "Beats me."
"Holy shit."
"Will you look at that."
"He's just so fucking ... smooth."
"Look at that hat."
"Check out that strut."
"Dude's a fucking pimp."
"It's Chinese Jacob," said Moose.

And so the man would come to be known. So he would come to be revered. And so he would go down in the annals of Peace Corps folklore - a Bigfoot, a Loch Ness Monster, a Thomas Pynchon: yet another mythical deity who probably never existed in the first place.

Chinese Jacob sat down at the table across from us. We were starstruck. We couldn't help ourselves. We stared, and he shot us the selfsame look I shoot the people who stare at me when I'm eating lunch. A pencil-necked Chinese dweeb pulled up a plastic stool and sat down across from The Man. The dweeb, apparently, had come in to the restaurant with The Man. But we hadn't even noticed the dweeb until that very moment, blinded as we were by Chinese Jacob's R. Kellyesque aura.

"Okay, we should probably stop staring," said Emma.
"But I can't," said Moose.
"Neither can I."
"He's just so fucking - ..."
"And he's Chinese!"
"Look at that hat!"
"And that smile!"
"Is that a gold tooth?"
"By God, I think it is!"
"What a pimp!"
"He's just so fucking - ..."
"He's not even talking to that dweeb."
"He's, like, talking above him."
"I guarantee he's going to pay for lunch."
"And leave a huge-ass tip."
"Chinese Jacob's gonna make it rain!"
"What a fucking pimp."
"Dude, you got American Jacob's number?"

But American Jacob was off playing basketball with The Children, as he refers to any of his students under the age of forty. He didn't pick up the phone. We called a couple more times, then gave up. We waited and watched. An hour went by. We had long since finished lunch, had killed any number of beers, and still we lingered. Because here was Chinese Jacob, the coolest man in all of China, a real one of a kind, a man who belonged in West Baltimore or Southside Chicago or North Omaha, but had somehow wound up reincarnated in, of all places, Dazhou County, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China.

Emma nudged me.
"You should go talk to him," she said.
"I can't. Any other Chinese dude, no problem. But Chinese fucking Jacob? I'd only humiliate myself. He's the kind of dude you have to pay a cover just to talk to."

The Man was eating and smoking, smoking and laughing, laughing and laughing over the head of his dweebish Chinese ward. Untroubled, indifferent, Chinese Jacob smiled and his gold tooth gleamed in the sadistic Dazhou sun. He downed his formaldehyde beer in one fell gulp and spilled a bit of it on the tiles for some long-since fallen homie. Then he fixed his hat and rolled up his trousers still further. Then he called for the check, pitched a walletful of bills onto the table, stood up and swaggered out of the place with a gangsta lean. The dweeb trailed behind him, struggling to keep up.

"Damn," said Moose.
"There he goes."
"What a pimp."
"Look at that swagger."
"He's just so fucking - ..."
"How is that even possible? How did he get to be so smooth?"
"One in 1.3 billion, I guess."

By the time we'd trickled our way back to campus, the handlers were setting up for the party-picnic-thing in the main square. Balloons. Streamers. A baby grand piano. Hors d'oeuvres. And a forebodingly well-stocked bar. We ducked past the square and sneaked into the hotel. In the second floor hallway, we ran into American Jacob. Or rather, he ran into us. He was jogging up and down the hallway.

"Hey yo, Jacob. You have competition."

Jacob, already well aware of the fact, said nothing and kept running.

"Dude. Why are you running indoors? In the hallway?"

He kept running, said nothing. I shrugged and went to my room. I flopped down on the bed and drifted into the tipsy disputed regions of consciousness for a wonderful half hour. Then Katie knocked at the door and came in.

"What's up, Pands?"
I moaned some gibberish into my pillow.
"Whoops. Are you asleep?"
"No," I said. "I'm just unawake."
I sat up in bed and scratched myself in various places.
"Sorry, Panda."
"Naw. It's alright. Have a seat."
She sat.
"How are you?"
"Hmm." I really thought about the question, because it was Katie who was asking it. "Actually, my cat is being put to sleep today, back in the States, and I have mixed feelings about that."
"Aww," she said, and really meant it. "I'm sorry to hear that."
And she really meant that, too.
"Moose mentioned that your dog died a couple weeks ago," I said. "He told me he laughed at you about the whole thing. But I won't laugh at you. Because I'm not Moose. Really, I'm curious as to how you dealt with it."
"Well," she said, and thought about the matter. And really thought about it. "It was hard. I cried for a couple of weeks. I'd be sitting around my apartment with nothing to do, and it would just hit me all of a sudden. And I'd cry for hours. But it gets better. It gets easier."

I pondered this. Crying for two weeks? It was hard, but it gets easier? Katie was describing the sort of grief I had always thought reserved for members of your immediate family, or for your spouse, or for David Foster Wallace, or for Hunter S. Thompson, or for a deeply beloved character from HBO's The Wire. But a dog? A cat? A gerbil? Well, I wasn't sure whether I was even in the same dorm room as Katie anymore.

"But this isn't about my dog," she said. "It's about your cat. How old was she? Or he?"
"How old was he before he - "
"Twenty, I think. It's hard to remember. He'd been around a while. I suppose I have been, too, by now."
"Oh, wow. So he was really a part of you."
"When you put it that way," I said, "I guess he was. Like a piece of furniture. Like a pillow. Or an ottoman."
"But more than that, right?"
"Yes, certainly. I never used him as an ottoman."

Katie laughed a bit, then sniffled a bit.

"What was his name? Or her name?"
"His name was Tibbets," I said. "He was an orange tabby. A Garfield, basically. We named him after the man who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Which is a pretty loaded cat name, I guess."
"Twenty years," she said. "You must've given him a lot of love."
"Yes, plenty of love. And mostly indifference in return. Whiny bastard. Meowed when he was hungry. Meowed when he was full. Meowed when he was constipated, and he was seldom that. Meowed in the evening. Meowed at 4 AM. Meowed when he wasn't meowing. Dude loved to purr, though. Never one to refuse affection," I said. "Tibbets. The man, the cat, the legend. The end of a long line of Petit Family Tabbies. And what a long line it was."

I cleared my throat and took a long swig from the road beer I'd judiciously smuggled home from the restaurant.

"We got Wally so long ago that I no longer remember how young I was when we got him. Found him on The Land, some empty space we used to own out in rural Missouri. Found him hunkered there over a bunch of scattered chicken bones, mewing and purring, just begging to be adopted and neutered. Good cat, Wally was. But he contracted explosive diarrhea after a couple of months in the city, so he was shipped off to the feline equivalent of Guantanamo Bay."

I sipped and brooded.

"Then came Ollie. Another orange tabby. He was big. Meaty. Ballsy, up until the operation. At any rate, an outdoor cat through and through. He used to stalk small game in the hard gravel alleyways of Olde Towne Bellevue, which is a pretty rough spot as far as suburban Nebraska goes. He'd bring home dead sparrows every night. And we'd find them in the toilet every morning. He'd come back with squirrel tails in his mouth. He'd drop them in the toilet, too. Possum noses. Chicken beaks. Skunk entrails. All manner of odd bits of animal. Then, early one morning, he showed up with the tail of the neighbor's Scottish Terrier. He threw his forepaws up on the toilet and dropped the fuzzy black stub into the bowl. It took us a while to deduce what the stub belonged to, exactly. But once we'd deduced it, that's when we knew Ollie was finished. Our neighbor was one of those reclusive dog-in-lieu-of-husband types. We didn't want a law suit on our hands. So Ollie had to go."

I felt around under the bed, produced a stray bottle of baijiu, and took a long, steady swig.

"After Ollie came Manfred. An orange tabby of the floofy variety. A longhair, I guess you'd call him. Manfred was a tender soul, but he had a bit of a wild streak in him. He liked to go out nights. Castrated though he was, he still had a whisker for the ladies. But whatever it was he did after the cathouses closed, he always came home in the morning. Except for this one time, when he didn't come home at all. A week passed. We'd already given him up for dead. But eventually, he turned up in our neighbors' garage. He'd gotten himself trapped in there, and had subsisted on drainwater and crickets for an entire week. Then, a cruelly short time after that, when I was about six or seven, Manfred turned up on Gregg Road, squashed. An anonymous pile of orange fuzz smashed into the kerb. Some old lady was nice enough to call the number on his dogtags. My parents woke me up at 6 AM to tell me what had happened. And I no longer want to talk about that."

Another swig. Another brood.

"After Manfred, finally we arrive at Tibbets. He was an outdoor cat like the rest of us. But as he grew older, he just kind of gave up on the great outdoors. He acquiesced, I guess. He settled. Like the rest of us. For the first ten years, Tibbets tried to escape, and often succeeded. If you neglected to close the garage door all the way. If you didn't shut the front door behind you quickly enough. On windy days, the doors would fly open on their own accord and Tibbets would go shooting out into the suburban wild. Search parties were launched. All four Petits went trolling through the bushes, peering under parked cars, calling Here, Tibbs! Ti-ibbs! Mr. Tibbs! and making that little scroonch-scroonch noise that cats the world over, even Chinese cats, never fail to respond to one way or another. But around his eleventh birthday, March something-or-other, Tibbets stopped trying to escape. He no longer even wanted to. There's a quote from The Shawshank Redemption, but I done gone and forgot it. By then, Tibbets was content with staring out the screen door for hours on end, watching the squirrels. Watching the birds. Watching the neighbors. Watching the outdoor cats. And by the time I'd come home from college, nothing about the outside world seemed to interest him. He ate. He shat. He whined. Otherwise, he just kind of curled up there in his basket by the window and slept off the last five years of his life."

I winced a bit. I choked something back.

"Damned good cat, though. Fucking great cat. Bit whiny in his old age, but - "

"Did you get to say goodbye to him?" asked Katie.
I could see she was crying.
"Hmm. Mind if I - "
"Oh, not at all! It's your room! Go right ahead!"

I lit a Hongmei and smoked it. I took a swig.

"Did I get to say goodbye. Well, it's funny you ask," I said, "because the night before I left, after I'd broken up with the what have you at 4 AM and what have you, after I'd navigated my way home in the ol' motor vehicle ... and what have you ... after all that, I started packing for China. And well, Tibbets, once we got the dogs, he never came upstairs. He was terrified of the dogs, and their scent. He was so old that you could hear his joints creaking when he walked. He hardly ever left his basket by the window. But that last night, while I was cursing and breathing poison all over the bedroom, while I was crushing Mead notebooks in half and stuffing them into my American Standard wheelie bag, the door pushed open and - I shit you not - in came old Tibbets. He mewed a bit and stared at me. His pupils were like little black moons. I stood stock still. He approached cautiously, his tail slightly poofed. I froze there and watched him. He hadn't come up to my room in years. He hobbled his way to the foot of my bed and squatted there, unsure of whether he could make the jump. I gently hoisted him up and deposited him into a pile of blankets. He curled up in a little C-shape, the way that cats do. I packed the last of my boxers, watching him all the while to make sure he was real. Then I climbed up into bed with Tibbets for the last time and whispered sweet somethings in his infected ear, pet the hell out of him for a while, kissed him on the nose ... and did he ever purr. The moment could've been a moment, or it could've been three hours. I no longer remember. But well before the moment was finished, the alarm I'd set the night before went off. I had to go to China. The alarm scared the shit out of poor Tibbets; he scrambled out of the room. I could hear him hobbling and creaking his way downstairs. I'll never see him again."

By then, Katie was bawling. And hell, before I'd had time to have any say in the matter, I had started to cry a bit, too. I sucked it up. Frantically, I managed to stuff the tears back in my pocket a moment. Then, a deeper part of me, a part of me that I will never have access to - that part of me said: fuck it. I started weeping. Bawling. I couldn't even finish my smoke or bring my next drink to my lips, so thick were the tears.

"Well, shit. I loved him," I warbled. "He was a fucking cat. But I loved him."
"I know,"t wept Katie. "My dog was a fucking dog. But I loved him, too."

We cried like a couple of recently widowed widows. And we cried that way for a long time. The sun cast a pale pattern of blind-fractured light into the room. My door was still open, and I could see the maids scrubbing all hell out of the wainscoting across the hall. I dropped my cigarette into the nearest empty bottle and it hissed. I coughed a bit. Katie blew her nose.

"Jesus," I said. "Who saw that one coming?"
"Yeah. I know."
"I swear I'm not this much of a bitch. Most of the time."
"You are, though. At least some of the time."
"We have to go to the thing pretty soon," she said.
"Yeah. The picnic-party-thing."
"But I'm sorry for your loss. Just remember that Tibbets loved you. And you loved him - to the best of your ability. And that's all that matters."
"Stop it. I don't want these Chineses to see me crying."
"Me neither."
"My makeup is running. Get out of here. But before you go, is it okay if I ask you for a hug?"
"Of course it's okay. C'mere."

We hugged.

"Thank you," I said. "I'm sorry. I didn't expect myself to do that."
"Well, you got to let it out once in a while. Or you'll drive yourself crazy."
"Funny. That's exactly what I told Kevin a couple days ago."

Katie laughed, and left. She shut my door behind her. Then the door pushed back open again. And Kevin entered. My right eyelid twitched for some reason.

"Keith. Keith. It's me, Kevin."
"I can see that."
"I was listening. Your cat died."
"Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves," I said. I checked my nonexistent watch. "Cat still has another six hours on death row. A lot can happen. The President might intervene - "
"You cried for a very long time."
"Yes," I said. "So I did."
I ripped a pack of Hongmeis out of my pocket and lit up another one. I smoked it hotly.
"And Katie cried, too. About her dog."
"Yes. She cried about her dog."
"Pets must be very important to you Americans."
"Depends on the pet. Depends on the American."
"You like to smoke cigarettes," Kevin observed.
"Yes. In times of great duress."
"What is dress?"
"Duress basically means stress," I said. "When you're really annoyed with something."
"Your face is still wet."
"Oh, is it?" I asked. "That's odd. I must have been crying about something very important to me. In my room."
"Yes. Is it normal to be crying in America?"
"Everything is normal in America."

Kevin sat down on my bed. I saw that he was holding a notebook. He produced some earbuds from his pocket.

"I need your help."
"Did your cat die, too?"
"No," he said. "I do not own a cat. I like a song. It is a very colorful song. But I do not understand the meaning. You can write the words for me. Because your listening skills are so great."
"You're a pretty good listener yourself, Kev," I said.
I put out my cigarette and sat down next to him. He brushed my hair back and inserted one earbud, then the other. He handed me the notebook. He handed me the pen.

"I will play the song now. Please write."

I had expected a chintzy three-minute Chinglish song, one of those saccharine four-to-the-floor jams pumped out in bulk by the Chinese Ministry of Pop as a crude sonic levee against the unstoppable deluge of American Culture. And I had wanted that. I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to be left alone. But lo: Kevin impressed me with his taste. The song was an indie singer-songwriter dirge, and it wasn't none too good. But I'd never heard it before. Which is saying something in this country.

I wrote. I rewound. I crossed some words out. I wrote some more. A snarl spread across my lips as the song dragged into its fourth minute. And then into its sixth. My cat is being escorted to the gallows, Kev. Couldn't this wait? Kev? At the eight minute, 53 second mark, the song tucked its tail between its legs and faded out with a whimper. Kevin removed the earbuds for me.

"What is the meaning?"
"It's about a 27 year-old American living in China. He finds himself in a strange city in the east of Sichuan, teaching teachers how to teach. Somebody, the American suspects, should be teaching him how to teach. Meanwhile, in America, his cat is about to die. And he finds himself crying about it. Which is something he hadn't planned on. And then, as he's toweling off his face with the dirty shirt he's going to wear tomorrow, the door to his dorm room opens and - "
Kevin was taking notes.
"I'm joking," I said.
"Oh. That is not the meaning." He crossed everything out. "What is the meaning?"
"Well, Kev. The thing about meaning is, it's different for everyone. I can't tell you what this song means. I didn't write it. And I'm not you. I can write the words down and give them to you. But you have to figure the meaning out for yourself."
"Yes. But what is the meaning?"
"Okay. In that case. My guess is that the dude in question is in love with a girl who is batshit crazy. He wants to marry her. She wants to marry him. But he knows things would never work out with her. Because she's a couple tiles short of a mahjongg set. A couple jiao short of a kuai. A couple Hongmeis short of a pack. A couple laowais short of an English Department. A couple - "
"Yes. I understand now," he said, his eyes widening. "So it is about my problem."
"I guess so. But it's really up to you. I don't know much about your situation," I said, "but it certainly sounds like your lady friend is a couple bricks short of the Great Wall."
"Yes. She is not the Great Wall."
"Few women are," I sighed.

Kevin shut his notebook and stood up. I stood up, too.
"I watched you embrace Katie," he said.
"Yeah. People do that sometimes."
"Can you embrace me?"
"Two embraces in twenty minutes," I said. "Can it be done?"

Kevin hugged me. He curled his twiggy arms around my neck like a novelty-sized praying mantis. His lymph nodes weighed heavy on my shoulder. I clapped him on the back.

"It gets better, Kev. It gets easier. It's like when your cat dies - "
"Yes," he said, and pulled away. "Now you had better prepare for the gala."
"The gala?"
"Yes. The gala."
"Oh, right. The picnic. Party. Thing."
"At this gala, there will be a penis."
"Er, um. A penis?"
"Yes. Very talented penis."
"Ah. Yes. A pianist. In that case, I'll be there."
"You had better not be late."

He pigeontoed his way out to the hall and I shut the door. I waited a tic. Then I picked up the bottle of baijiu on my bedstand, opened the door, walked down the hall, and knocked on Jacob's door.

"Is that for me?" he asked.
His shirt was bearded in sweat.
"I dunno, man. On second thought, you might cramp up," I said.
Jacob took the bottle and tilted it back. He coughed, nearly vomited.
"That's fucking terrible."
"Isn't it, though?"

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