Sam wobbled and dawdled behind Polly, the woman who had married him in good faith. He was looking for somebody selling one of the less objectionable brands of sino-chocolate to cut the pain of dawn mass at the underground church. Of course, he knew the stuff would be melted and remelted into unrecognizable boluses of wax and fat. And, in any case, no vendors were open yet. But the reluctance to worship, combined with the craving to indulge, made him go slowly, anyway.
There was an infant baptism on the ticket this morning, and Polly was anxious not to be late. He could hear her further ahead, calling “Get up here! Come on!”
Then he suddenly remembered that today was English Corner Day. He would have somehow to get past that cursed intersection without being detained by China’s masses of English “self-studiers,” who reputedly outnumber the native English speakers in the entire free world.
That arithmetic was far from implausible. Around here people and their offspring were like the Pike’s Peak of mustard seeds that a pigeon must move one by one to spend an instant of God’s eternity. Several hundred million of them could be standing on street corners right now, just waiting for Sam to pass by.
He could get gutsy and try to whiz past on his one-speed Flying Pigeon. But, unfortunately, his bike couldn’t whiz very well, as he’d been a bit lax in the maintenance department. The Chinese machine never had inspired much pride of ownership in him. Over the years of struggling under his oppressive weight, the frame seemed to have been compressed, somehow. He had to slump double to reach the handlebars, a posture that rendered his already redundant nuts insensate after the first twenty yards of each excursion. Either thumb was expected to relinquish its grasp long enough to let the corresponding kneecap rub past, and this caused Sam’s Flying Pigeon to wobble one direction, then another, making him look like an extremely large six year old. He could never achieve the acceleration necessary to best the lither conversationalists in a race.
And they would definitely chase him. That’s how desperate they were to practice with somebody who knew his way around the old diphthongs. Most of them coveted work assignments that more or less depended on their proficiency in the lingo of the businessmen and tourists who never came anywhere near this wart on the belly of the pregnant rooster called China.
“Teacher San Mu!” they would cry while gaining on him effortlessly. “Welcome you to practice your spoken English with us!”
But Sam didn’t need practice. He’d already been to English Corner one time, more than a year before, and he’d been the best one there by far. Let the rest of them catch up and he’d drop by, maybe.
So he was in a quandary. Soon, if he made no decision at this important crossroads in his life, he would have to stop his bike, and he was not allowed to do that in public.
The traffic cop work unit had twice gotten in touch with the municipal foreign affairs ministry demanding that he be kept off the streets unless absolutely necessary, and then to remain in constant motion, preferably in the back seat of a car with drawn black curtains; for, stationary, this barbarian behemoth literally stopped traffic. First the pedestrians overflowed into the bike lanes, then the bikes backed up into the streets; then trucks, taxis, buses and, after a few minutes, the commerce of the entire burg halted, and gawked. At six-foot-nine, three hundred and thirty pounds, Sam was a walking general strike, and that sort of thing terrified the local authorities, who’d come to power using similar syndicalistic tactics.
Surely, under such circumstances, it would be impossible for him to pass English Corner unnoticed.
But then he saw somebody who brought heaving up into his mind an idea. A resourceful Yankee-style plan popped into Sam’s skull, like Athena springing whole from her dad’s ax-split brain pan. He approached a handicapped person who was parked in a hand-cranked tricycle beside a wild poinsettia shrub. This beggar was dumbstruck. Used to being ignored by his own people, he was now singled out for the attentions of a gargantuan alien presence. Glancing periodically in the direction of English Corner, Sam used frantic sign language to convince the little guy that he was not about to be eaten, and tentatively lifted him up, light and brittle as a Fuzhou cork carving, tiny nostrils puffing out jasmine with each small jostle to the ribby torso.
Sam arranged the withered legs in lotus position among the weeds, assuming all ascetics and mendicants this side of the River Don were comfortable that way. But, displaying his first and final volition in the entire transaction, the disabled person flopped his limbs into a more asymmetrical postmodernistic attitude, with a smugness that reminded Sam of baby nephews at diaper time.
Sam offered him the Flying Pigeon as a trade-in, plus an insanely huge wad of foreign exchange currency, which he didn’t seem to recognize, moving Sam with his unassuming naivete. He made no move to accept the hard cash, but just sat there trembling, staring past Sam’s thigh into mid distances with the chilled resignation of the doomed rabbit. But he perked up, slightly, when Sam thought twice and held out a handful of the softer, more common “People’s Money” his face.
“Here,” whispered Sam tenderly. “How much is your power of locomotion worth? I suppose I should take this quiet chance to compliment you as well as pay and thank you. Your type is nothing unusual here in the Third World. But you’ve managed to avoid being swept up by the socialists and disposed of, inimical as your presence is to the appearances of modernization. I don’t know how you’ve done it, my little thin friend, but I would like some of your slipperiness to rub off on me.”
The handicap finally selected out a worn two kuai note, fifty-five cents, with interesting lint formations along one edge. He seemed to possess the Chinese aristocrat’s traditional appreciation of random Nature’s erosional beauty–the wave-polished pebble, the worm-gnarled ginseng root.
“I wish I had access to your genealogy, Comrade,” murmured Sam, overwhelmed.
The little man put the money into his lap, lowered his scabby head and annihilated himself into it, ignoring the large apparition as it took possession of the tricycle.
Sam’s legs easily went flaccid and unwholesome-looking; for, as a lifetime member of the lumpen-intelligentsia, he had spent third of a century not developing thick muscles or tendons. He pulled his custom-made, outsized Lenin cap down to cover his white and orange face, wadded up the grimy on-board felt coverlet and stuffed it under the back of his shirt to represent a more or less realistic hunch, curled his hand in a deformed attitude around the trike’s greasy crank handle, and was off. He elaborated a string of drool and mumbles to waft out behind in the breeze for added authenticity.
As a disabled Chinaman, Sam was allowed to roll along as slowly as he wished, observing few rules, for it was assumed that a man with no legs lacked basic intellect as well. The wheelchair was amazingly comfy, a whole Barco-Lounger stuffed with comfort, compared to his prostate-pinching bike. It was very mollifying, what with the quiet squeak of the crank and the rhythmic thuds of rubber tires on cobbles, and, most of all, the sensation that people were not gathering around him like lepers and whores around Christ. He was alone and unobserved, and he’d forgotten how wonderful that could feel over the past few years.
His brain got all gauzy as he enjoyed this brief moment of peace and self-congratulation. And then he suddenly understood something about himself.
This seemed to be the single essential fact which, revealed, made everything else about him clear as the interstellar void. It was the flaw central among his many flaws. Maybe (though he couldn’t imagine how, just yet) it would turn out to be his strength as well.
It wasn’t that he was trying and failing to find his father or overthrow his mother or vice versa or anything like that. He had the regular sort of relationship with both parents, his sister, cousins, et al. This was signaled by the minuscule amounts of time he spent thinking about them or anybody in the world who could be considered their representatives.
Male and female counterbalanced inside of him, satisfactory wife ensconced at his side, his style uncramped by oedipal spawn, he seemed to lack anything short of an undiscovered brain tumor that would cause him to behave peculiarly in any way–except this:
Sam was horrified of work. That horror was the source of whatever energy was behind anything he did or said or thought. It was the parthenogenetic womb from which his Yankee style schemes sprang whole. But it was also the cause of his occasional lapses into political and economic naivete. Regardless of what his intellect might absorb in the way of fact and theory, his soul constantly projected its fathomless laziness upon everybody and everything in the universe. How does one grasp capitalism or Marxism or any other materialistic system, assuming that all sentient creatures seek maximum repose and nothing else?
Sam had little emotional concern for such theories. He’d come to China not expecting to find a workers’ paradise, or even a disappointing totalitarian travesty of one, but just to get fed without working eight hours a day, which to him would have been hell.
But, as it turned out, street-prole China was the ideal locale for him. Once he’d gotten out from under the spotlight of English Corner, shifted his shape, and become just another third-world slob, China was suddenly the best place in the whole world.
It was like halcyon boyhood, and Sam had reverted way, way back, to the point where he was rolling along on a clanking one-speed, just like everybody else, except they were on two-wheelers, he on a trike. They, and not Sam, were the big boys now, the big brothers. And nobody expects Baby Bruzzer to take up the tools of production. Prepubescents don’t teem with the seeds of conception.
Everything was suffused with a cheap kind of smoke, the comfortable, desolate smell of Dimple Dell Drive back in Salt Lake City before indiscriminate incineration was outlawed by the environmentalists and the pyrophobes, and the neighborhood got gentrified with an efficient trash retrieval system.
People lingered, chatted, did absolutely nothing and didn’t give a shit in dusty cubbyholes, slapped together any old way with random materials salvaged from more significant adult endeavors, a whole city full of boys’ clubhouses and forts. Now that he was able to roll slowly enough to peek into these huts, he could see what he had always suspected: the decor was classic Boy’s Basement Bedroom Moderne, with street junk treasures hanging everywhere in heraldic displays. The all-purpose bed dominated the entire living space, unencumbered by slick pastel sheets, but just partly slopped over with a Cowboy Bob-style bedroll, as yet unpolluted with yellow stains other than the bladder kind, linty and funky as bedding can only be in places where fastidious moms and importuning wives aren’t allowed.
Unskilled cooking was being done on the dirt pathways between the forts, mainly for the pre-onanistic delight of playing with fire when nobody’s around to tell you not to. Numberless people were having a low-budget weenie roast, with fish ponds right next door to wee-wee into, here in the People’s Republic which started as a boy’s camp-out in the very hills shading Sam and his three-wheeler today.
Everybody had a boy’s share of money, the precious pittance doled out by inaccessible Daddy, the twenty-five cents per week you got for no particular reason except that you existed and Daddy wanted to read the paper. So kiss off, you little asshole, here’s a quarter to keep you quiet: the small lucre that transformed bike rides to the candy store into cultural events to be savored with the full attention.
And candy stores abounded, the low-down kind that opened out onto the street, where the owner was too brain-damaged from inactivity and cigars to care if you loitered there all day long pitching pennies; and he sold the hideous unwrapped stuff that nobody old enough to have sat through the germ and bacteria unit of a high school biology class would ever consider eating. But that’s exactly the point: this is Boys’ Town, and we trike pilots don’t trust anybody pretentious enough to be over the age of twelve.
A Boys’ Town street diet, consisting of sugar and grease, was consumed on the sidewalk with the slothful, unself-conscious motions of the blissfully idle and empty-headed. No ambitions are possible, so relax, relax. Who gives a shit? The essential word on everybody’s lips: a resigned meiyou, “have not,” expressing the necessarily low aspirations of the child, who halfheartedly yearns for adulthood, free will and choices, praying they will never come.
Hanging out, in the purest, most existential sense of the phrase, engaging in the kind of unisexual socializing that is possible only in the late latency period when copulation has no political substance to it, and you can punch girls in the stomach if you’re not afraid of having them beat the living shit out of you.
And there were plenty of such cross-gender fistfights on these streets, between casual acquaintances and strangers, short-changed customers versus flip keepers of ramshackle roadside lemonade stands, noses being broken over two pennies. But these were chaste bouts, categorically different, better than those between people with more suspect relationships, like spouses or lovers or other such partners in the complication of making three from two. That’s multiplication. Teacher didn’t learn us that yet.
There’s an aching vacuum of the behavioral graces, and emotion is displayed openly in public: petulance, ecstasy, rage. Everybody squats in the manner of Freud’s infants, Darwin’s monkeys, Marx’s proles. Hunkering the buttocks flat on bare grubby heels for hours on end, flexing the iron knees of playing children, they face each other, innocent of the presentation-self. They look straight into each other’s eyes with the index finger a mile up the nose and flip glabrous beaver shots.
And all this is just a semi-liquid scum floating on the surface of a boiling brew of anal sadism that needs only a hint of collective glee to be released like explosive red steam. The Liberation of a quarter of humanity was a pee-jay party pillow fight that got way out of hand.
Of course, if Sammy-wammy had been around in those days, he would have tucked his little triple-hubbed spazmobile in the poinsettias and just watched. For he was no mere run-of-the-mill slug. Polly’s spouse took perverse pride in the secret knowledge that his sloth ran deep, abnormally deep, way down to the cellular level. His was a deoxyribonucleic ergophobia. It was no big deal when the Flying Pigeon numbed his scrotum. Even under the best of circumstances, the homunculi that huddled down there were about as motile as the former owner of this wheelchair. It was the end of the line for Sam Edwine, genealogically speaking.
* * * *
In a train stalled outside the closed city of San Ming about nine months ago, Sam and his plighted wife had been killing time in the hard seat section by trying to remember the exact rendering of an obscure Chinese ideogram, along with its primary meaning. Gazing at a beautiful mom and baby on the platform, Polly had sighed and suggested the obviously incorrect definition, “to procreate readily.”
Sam had looked at her to see if she was joking. She seemed to be very dreamy at the moment–or did she glance at him through the corner of an eye?
And, right then, it was revealed to him, in a flash of bold intuition, as they say, that everything she and he were doing, the traveling and teaching and learning, was just jacking off, just as he’d literally been jacking off into petri dishes full of hamster ova before they’d quit America and its in-vitro racketeers in disgust. Or perhaps it was only Sam who had left in disgust, like a clubless cave man dragging his mate along by the hair. Polly, no doubt, was secretly hoping that a little of the preposterous fertility of the yellow people, who possessed so little else, would rub off on him.
It was powerful, this sense of having failed the woman who had contracted herself to him in good faith. It instilled in his ass-cheeks the numbness to sit through mass after problematically schismatic mass in the underground church, even after the novelty of the pre-Vatican II mumbo-jumbo had worn thin. The shrill beauty of the strangely ornamented Apostles’ Creed had begun to grate on his ears, and still he’d stuck around long enough to learn their cave-man pictographs by repeatedly exposing his boredom-hypnotized eyes to the phonetic tablature on the hymn sheets. The fanged Pope, more gluttonous for consecrated babies than Moloch ever was, would be delighted to annul Polly’s nuptial vows, given half a chance. An official Romish dispensation was but an S.A.S.E away.
Meanwhile, by the most amazing coincidence, the underground padre had the greasiest co-necs with a pencil-pusher entrenched at the notary office, who just happened to be in possession of the only key to the drawer that held the jade chop that could make dreams of family romance come true. There had been no foreign adoptions in this province since the commies threw the missionaries out, but that was a mere bureaucratic blip, the subterranean priest assured Mrs. Edwine. The key to the drawer was all they needed.
And the natural parents (rather, birth-parents, for that’s the current euphemism, isn’t it?)–while remaining dead and/or unknown, in strict accordance with U.S. immigration and naturalization law–would almost certainly be delighted to accept a couple nice chickens and a string-bag of mandarin oranges in return for their solemn promise to ignore their neighbors’ rumblings about slave labor in Nevada uranium mines and med school vivisections and hawking of tiny livers and kidneys, not to mention Sam’s 1800-kuai monthly paycheck, of which they might extort a goodly percentage by showing up at the barbarian compound gate in the middle of the night and destroying Polly’s heart by wailing womende xiao haize, womende xiao haize, our baby, our baby!
And she wondered why he was reluctant to drop everything and jump at this proposition.
* * * *
Sam triked past English Corner unmolested but not unamazed. He had hit upon certainly the only way to move such plenitudes of freckled flesh and orange hair, unnoticed, in broad daylight, down the sidewalk of a South China town.
But then his peace was ruptured. He heard shouts to the following effect in the local street dialect:
“Get the dowdy nomad!”
“Explode her back to her tent in the desert!”
He heard the shriek of a whistle and saw a bottle rocket carom off his wife’s shoulder. A cloud of singed pinfeathers billowed from the purple parka they’d recently bought at a money changer-infested temple in Beijing.
The snipers, a nuclear family of them plus granny and two apparent uncles–one of whom had just called Sam’s wife dowdy–had seen her all bundled up and rolling along, her dark, wavy hair and round eyes prominent, and had evidently mistaken her for an ethnic minority woman, a displaced Uighur widow, free game.
The family stopped laughing when they saw Sam. They ran inside and bolted the door with a thick bamboo rod that the baba dragged in behind him.
Sam extended his unnaturally long legs and allowed his tricycle to roll out from under him. He grabbed onto the rear luggage rack and, before he realized it, was using the thing as a combination crowbar/ sledgehammer/ hacksaw to crack open this peanut shell of a suburbanite peasant hut. He wanted the meat inside. He didn’t especially concentrate on the door, but was apparently intent on producing an even erosion pattern across the entire facade. He would get in as soon as their bamboo-and-rag home was irreparable.
Polly seemed to have fastened her fingernails into his shoulders. She was hanging off him, yelling, “Sammy, stop it! Cut it out!”
But he didn’t really notice. He was talking in a calm voice through gritted teeth, saying, “You know, honey, I’m tired of ducking to get into Asian doors. Let’s clear a passage that a regular person can fit through. Let’s say hi-hi to whoever’s waiting inside. Mm-kay?”
Sam came partially to himself inside a standard-equipped peasant hovel, all smoke-blackened wood and darkness, his wife still depending from the shoulder pads of his outsized Sun Yat Sen jacket.
Through the gloom he saw the face of a guardian demon, carved from oily scarlet stone. Orange smoke steamed from its nostrils and its round eyes dilated with flesh-hunger over flaming whiskers.
Another inch of red dawn light pushed itself into the city, shifted toward yellow by the Snake River chemical plants, and toward gray by bituminous soot particles slithering through the greased paper windows. Now Sam could see that the orange devil was his own reflection in the glass of an ancestor-worship photograph, and the obscene points of flame in each eye were the tips of joss sticks taped to the picture frame.
The little family hunkered in a damp black corner, wailing like Laotians, their brittle arms umbrellaed over the authorized single child, plus its illicit and civilly non-existent sibling. They were like the 120-year-old former slaves in Tennessee and Mississippi, the ones you used to drive several days to see, to get some wisdom–only to find that they’d managed to linger on through childishness. They had superior experience only in whelping, drudgery and fear. Otherwise they seemed younger and even more puzzled by everything than you were.
“Take a look,” Sam sneered down into blackness. “I’m your god-damned ancestor, your fluffy bitch goddess. I’m your big brother.”
“What are you saying?” he heard Polly scream now.
He looked down. The trike was wrapped like taffy around his wrists. Hard work.
Polly murmured apologies over and over as she swung in mid-air from his shoulder.
“Let’s just clear out,” he said. “How’s a regular person supposed to apologize for something like this?”
He glanced back at the splintery rubble he’d made of the front half of these people’s lives. In an hour they wouldn’t believe this had really happened and nobody else would, either. They’d never convince the neighborhood committee that it wasn’t a shit demon oozed from the honey wagon, or Baba’s rice wine mania, or a surgical typhoon that had torn this house front down. It could take weeks for repercussions to develop. The cops were busy trucking wrongthinkers through the streets on the way to the public execution grounds as a warning to everybody to behave correctly and not violate, for example, the one-child policy.
“Besides,” said Sam, “nobody cares what happens to peasant property. They’re free-market millionaires. See? Tan and svelte as their American counterparts.”
He pulled her off and gingerly stepped toward what used to be the door, trying not to look at her face. He hoped she hadn’t, but was sure Polly had noticed that the supernumerary baby was beautiful, unafraid and laughing with its black eyes, holding its tiny naked self out to her, to be picked up and played with, an unaccountably plump berry bouncing in a cage of quaking ribs, wanting to rough-house some more.
On the way out, Polly reached back and sprinkled the floor with a few hundred in foreign exchange currency, originally intended for the collection plate. But the peasants were just as primitive as the former owner of the former tricycle. They didn’t know what the colored papers were for. When they failed to dive and scramble, Polly explained, “Kuai. Jiao.”
“Not so much,” said Sam. “They’ll rebuild this place into the grandest hovel on the street. They’ll dress their legal brat in bright rayon. A neighbor with red-eye disease will report them and they’ll have to account for the money. You want the police really involved?”
He squatted and scooped some up, but Polly kicked it out of his hands. She used his off-balance position to push him out into the morning.
“You pig,” she said, sounding amazed.
Sam acknowledged that with a nod of his head. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, scanning the street for Public Security Bureau men. “Let’s avoid this part of town for a few months.”
This was the only bike route to the church. The footpaths all passed through construction sites and were incredibly dusty. He knew he had now drummed up an excuse to miss midnight Easter vigil mass when, and if, it was ever celebrated.
“Let’s just turn around and go home,” Polly said quietly, looking very sleepy. Once again he’d drained her of the desire to worship the spawn of spotless Mary.
The interdicted baby, having wiggled free of the petrified adults, came wobbling out of the rubble, giggling naughtily at their frantic whispers to come back and cower some more. Latching onto Polly’s dungaree cuffs with both fists, it started making mouth-raspberries as it pulled itself slowly up.
She reached down and absently petted its head, meanwhile watching Sam try to smooth out the kinks and tangles in his conveyance. She said, in a dreamy voice, “Where did the extra wheel come from?”
He paused a moment and looked at her. With one hand she held onto an exposed cross beam overhead. Her body made a triple bend to accommodate the weight of the small creature that clung to her hip. Feathers drifted down from the purple hole in her shoulder.
After deliberation, Sam said, “Three’s better than just the pair. More balanced. You can go more slowly, and see more.”
Polly yawned and hoisted up the kid. “Sounds good,” she said.
“It is. I’ll give us a ride home.”