So, check it. I have this running repartee with the owner of the inconvenience store on Fly-Infested Restaurant Street. It goes something like this: I walk in and she calls me laowai, so I call her laowai. Then, for whichever customers happen to be present, she explains that I am a laowai to her, and that she is a laowai to me. Though she is Chinese and I am an American, we are both laowais to one another, and we are both okay with that. I introduced this concept to her about a year ago and she has since taken quite a liking to it. So have I, for that matter.
The owner works the counter. She also stocks the shelves. She takes inventory, receives shipments, and all the rest. Her husband just kind of hangs out, watching TV and getting drunk. I don't think he holds much stock in the company. He gets jealous whenever I come in because I tend to hang around for hours at a time, cracking jokes with the missus - or at least he goes through an awful lot of beer when I'm there. I don't mean to provoke him. I'm not attracted to his wife in the least. She is older. Out of my age group. Beyond the reach of my libido. But fellow absurdists are hard to come by in this country. So you make jokes with them when you can, and sometimes they give you free cigarettes in return.
Monday night, while I was wisecracking with the missus, some college kid came up to the counter with a bagful of beer. I asked him what brand the beer belonged to. I'd never seen it before, I said. Just curious, is all.
"Zhe shi wo-de pijiu," he said. This is my beer.
"Well, I figured as much," I said, "but I mean, what brand is it?"
"It's mine. That's the brand. Mine."
"Mine? Hmm. Never heard of it," I said.
"Mine. Look it up."
I nodded and shot a glance at the missus. She mentioned to Lao Douchebag that I was a regular customer, that I spoke half-decent Chinese, that despite my being a laowai, I was a rather charming fellow, all things considered, and so on.
"Whatever. How much is my beer?"
I couldn't resist.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Just making sure. Is that - is that your beer? The beer that you're buying? It's your beer, right? I mean, you didn't really make that clear beforehand. The beer. Is it yours?"
"Yes. It's my beer."
"So it's your beer, is it?"
"Yes. It's mine."
"So it's not mine."
"No. It's not yours. It's mine."
"Good. Good," I said. "Enjoy your beer!"
And I bid him a good night.
Lao D left the shop in a huff, but stood outside watching while I shot the shit with the missus, up until the shop closed and her husband threatened to guillotine me with the garage door.
I bought the cheapest pack of cigarettes available on the Chinese market and slipped out into the night. Lao D was waiting for me.
"Do you want to drink these with me?" he asked.
Well, I thought, here was an unexpected twist. I was just about to punch this kid between the eyes a moment before, and I'm sure he was just about to do the same to me. But now beers were at stake. And we were men. And there was beer. And the kind of guy I am, I wouldn't turn down a beer from Dick Cheney himself. So I accepted the offer. Now it was our beer. Along the walk, his girlfriend joined us, and the three of us went up to Lao D's one-room apartment above the inconvenience store on Fly-Infested Restaurant Street.
"So," I said, assuming a seat on his living room couch, sipping on one of our beers, "what do you do?"
"I'm a kung fu master," he said. "I teach at the university sometimes."
"Yeah. I studied at Shaolin Temple," he said. "You heard of it?"
"Shaolin," I murmured. "Rings a bell."
"So you're probably pretty good at this kung fu thing," I offered.
"Yeah. Pretty good, I guess."
"Show me," I said.
He told me to stand against the bed. Then he told me to punch him in the face.
"I'm not sure if I can just - "
"Punch me in the face. Hard as you can."
I couldn't bring myself to do it. Until I remembered the beer transaction. It's my beer. Look it up. Douchebag. I swung as hard as I could.
What happened next, I cannot explain. I found myself on my back with my legs flailing around in the air. I could do nothing but gasp for breath at first. Then I started laughing uncontrollably. He released me and I got back up to my feet.
"Again," I said.
"Okay. Hit me."
I juked around this time, feinted left, feinted right, then lobbed a drunken Irish uppercut at Lao D's lower jaw. Again, I found myself laid out flat on my back, an elbow grinding into my neck and my face smothered into a pillow. I let out a muffled shriek. Master Lao D released me and stood there at the end of the bed, watching disinterestedly while I wriggled like a bug crushed into the carpet. I got back up, thoroughly winded.
"You know," I said, "I mean no offense, but you don't really look that strong. But I guess that's part of your - "
"My windpipe," he said. "Stick your fingers in it."
"No, thanks," I said. "I don't want to kill you."
"Trust me. You won't."
"But - ... I will?"
"You wan't me to put my fingers - in there?"
I drew a circle just under his adam's apple.
"Yes, right in there."
Cringing, I poked at his esophagus. Then I went for broke and shoved two fingers into his neckhole. A network of hidden muscles emerged. They tensed. They flexed. And they clenched. I squealed and withdrew my fingers as from a hot stove.
"Shit!" I said. "How did you do that?"
"I'm a Shaolin master," he said. "That's how I did that."
I stood there massaging my fingers back to life. They had turned purple. Lao D handed me another cigarette. I struggled to hold onto it. He handed me another beer, and I used it to ice my fingers.
"So," I said, "stupid question, but can you levitate at all?"
"A little," he said. "I'm gonna need you to stand up against that wall, though. And hold your arm out. Yeah. Like that."
He backed up into the hallway and I waited while he stretched.
"Don't move your arm," he said. "Hold it up, nice and steady."
He did some calisthenics of the sort that generate fireballs in Street Fighter II. A barely audible thrumming sound seemed to emanate from his gut. He squatted slightly, like in Super Mario 2 when you want to jump really high. He focused on an object in the far-off distance. By then, I was fully expecting the impossible.
Instead, he just kind of hopped. And landed. Well short of my arm.
"Sorry," he said. "I can't levitate right now. These khakis are too tight. And I can't take them off because my girlfriend is here."
"That's alright," I said. "That was about three feet higher than I can levitate. On a good day."
"Maybe I can levitate for you next time."
"Yeah," I said. "I'd like that."
Alas, alack: the Shaolin master scoffs at gravity, spits upon the very laws of physics, but is humbled by bootleg Dockers and prudish ladyfriends.
"How long have you been doing the kung fu thing?" I asked.
"Started training at Shaolin when I was two."
"Two. Years. Old?"
"Two years old."
"So did you beat the shit out of five year olds when you were two?"
"No," he said, "but I could probably beat up five year olds now."
"Yeah," I said.
I massaged my wrist. Those two tumbles he'd given me had really aggravated my Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I wondered if I would ever type again.
Lao D's girlfriend had been sitting in the corner the whole time, silently watching her boyfriend kick the ever-loving sand out of the hobo he'd brought home.
"Are you a kung fu master, too?" I asked her.
"Oh, no," she said. "I just work at Zhang Fei Beef. Have you heard of it?"
"Of course," I said. "Very famous."
"Do you want some?"
She produced a large plastic bag and opened it at my feet. She reached in and took something out. Beef, I figured. She gave it to me and I started indiscriminately noshing on it.
"Thanks," I said. Then I turned the greasy object over in my hands. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Bony. Oblong. Like a deep fat fried stone. "This is good. What is it?"
"Rabbit skull," she said.
I became suddenly aware of the jawline, the sloped forehead, the notches where the ears had been, and the eyeballs: all white, stewed in their sockets.
"Yes," I chuckled. "Rabbit skull."
Lao D got up to take a leak and when his lady friend wasn't looking, I slipped the hideous thing into the nearest trash can.
"So, are you a student as well?" I asked Xiao D.
"No. Just a worker," she said. "But I do study kung fu. He is my teacher."
"Show me," I said.
So I stood in one place while this nice Chinese girl kicked me in the kidneys ten times in a row. (Like most nice Chinese girls, she was wearing steeltoed jackboots.) When Lao D came out of the bathroom, he told her that she was doing it wrong, so he kicked me five more times in the kidneys, very effectively, until I told him that, yo, I'm probably gonna need those internal organs.
He handed me a cigarette and lit one for himself. We clunked beercans and we drank.
"I've been meaning to ask," he said. "Can you teach me English?"
"Probably," I said. "But you can't pay me. I'd get in trouble."
"So how can I pay you?"
"Teach me the ways of the Wu-Tang Clan," I said.
"Never heard of them."
"Yeah, probably not," I shrugged. "They're really more of a Westside thing, aren't they?"
"Right. Well. Anyway, my dream is to open a dojo in America."
"Might need English for that," I said.
"So I was thinking you could maybe help me. And I'll teach you kung fu for free."
"Sounds good to me," I said, "because my dream is to kick the shit out of a frat boy at Billy Frogg's on a Tuesday night in Omaha."
We shook hands. Then he squeezed a pressure point I hadn't known about and I dropped like a 160 pound bag of rice. His girl sat down on the bed, coughed, and gave Lao D a look. He hoisted me back up to my feet.
"Time for you to go," he said, and started hustling me towards the door. He gave me one last cigarette, and one more His Brand beer for the road.
"Can you smoke and still do Shaolin kung fu?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"And can you drink, too?"
He clunked his beer against my beer.
"Well, then," I said. "Let's do it."
Practice starts tomorrow.