A short-story of agony after the Tiananmen Square massacre
In 1989 — a year especially important for being the beginning of the end of the Cold War — the Chinese military violently attacked pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Though the situations are different, the Iranian government’s current crackdown on election protesters in Tehran reminds Daily Iowan columnist Beau Elliot of the repression 20 years ago, when he had a girlfriend studying in Beijing. Below is a fictionalized account based on his agonizing experience trying to reach his girlfriend following the communist government’s massacre.
– Is Safka all right? Rick the bartender says.
The way he says most things. As though he’s privy and you’re still wandering in the wilderness. He’s usually right.
A Saturday afternoon in 1989, sweet Iowa June, pollen and humidity dangling in the air, walk into Costello’s and the usual Saturday gang is there. Crosswords and the magic box spewing baseball into the air and Rick has the beer waiting on the bar, an odd look waiting on his face. Is that an odd look? Pay it no mind. Who’s on? Won’t be the Red Sox, never is. It’ll be the Cubs for the millionth time in the last month. Pay it no mind. What’s the inning, what’s the score? Slide onto the stool.
– What’s the four-letter word for an Asian nanny? someone says down the bar. – Is it omah or amah?
– Is Safka all right? Rick says again. Odd look?
– Amah, I say, staring at the can of PBR. – It’s from the Portuguese word for nurse.
– Christ, man, what do you do — read the dictionary?
– Only on even-numbered days. Odd-numbered days, I act like a jock so I can keep my man card.
A swig of beer. The year of So How’s Safka Doing? Street corners, bars, telephones; friends, perfect strangers, imperfect strangers. So How’s Safka Doing? The first couple of months elaborate answers full of details and anecdotes, the glorious adventures of a blue-eyed blonde in Beijing studying Chinese and late T’ang poetry, learning the inner secrets of stir-fry and Chinese toilets. But after nearly a year, the question is as tiresome as the drunken uncle at Christmas recounting for the 22nd-straight year how he saved the regiment’s entire coffee supply during the Battle of the Bulge. Pat answers: she ran off with a dialectical Martian, and they’re living happily ever after on Neptune’s third moon growing galactic pot so they can corrupt the minds and morals of the 10-year-olds in Glenwood Falls, Idaho. As if the 10-year-olds in Glenwood Falls, Idaho, had minds. Or morals. As if there were a Glenwood Falls, Idaho.
Stare at the can of PBR. Letters from China. Most of them pretty funny, actually, some not quite so; January 17th, no humor there. Takes a train to laugh some days. Of course, as Skvorecky says, the alchemy of time transforms everything into comedy. Everything. Even Crucifixion. Or Joyce: In rire, veritas. In laughter, truth.
The can of PBR stares back. No veritas there. A beer is just a beer until you drink it, then it becomes something else; probably another couple hundred dead liver cells.
– Oh, she’s just fine, I say, looking up. – Why?
Rick is gone. Talking to the air again, kid. My old pal, thin air. That’s all right, I don’t want to think about Safka or G-minor-seventh chords or my checking account, the black hole of the eastern Iowa seaboard. Just give me the universe’s tonic for the tiny madnesses of the day-to-day: baseball. The missed cutoff man, the pickoff, the botched sure-double-play, bags overrun, and he lost the grounder in the sun, can you believe it? The temptation of the slow curve, the Zen of the hit-and-run. Opiate of the apathetic? Who knows? Who cares? Just give me beer, brats, and baseball, I’ll be a good soldier. Whatever that means. Cubs again — figures — and the Cards, an impeccable day in St. Louis, 80 degrees, sunny, no oven-dried wind out of Texas or Oklahoma, days like this you forget you ever wanted to get out of the Midwest; the diamond is the shining blue-green of man’s attempt to improve on the waffle iron and the Cardinals’ uniforms are so white you wish you had brought your sunglasses.
The Cub batter — is it Walton? — raises dust, methodically erasing and re-erasing the back line of the batter’s box, and chews and spits and touches his crotch to make sure it’s still there, the white foul lines stretch and stretch, way out to where forever might be, and the orange-yellow smoke curls into the night and the blood rushes down the Oriental man’s head his bandanna is a swaying burgundy lagoon with floating Chinese characters.
– Pop-pop, says the TV, braaaaaahp, pop—pop—pop. Pop—pop.
– Looks like ’Nam, somebody at the bar says. – What the hell happened to the ball game?
Archipelagos of staccato somethings flowing from the TV, twisted electrons and vowels in the way, consonants never learned; Beijing staccato China staccato staccato Beijing staccato Army Tiananmen staccato Beijing Beijing. Who can hear? Smoke curls, weapons pop, blood runs, characters float, eyes, eyes. Beijing Beijing. Whose hand is it that won’t stop shaking, whose unlit cigarette wobbling in the air?
You wouldn’t believe demonstrations. You wouldn’t believe how it smells and feels butt to butt with a hundred thousand other people in the Square breathing and burping and farting and the other day? When the tanks turned back? You can’t imagine the thrill and joy in my neighbor’s eyes we had done something we had won something. We.
– Tiananmen Square, the TV says.
Who the hell put all this smoke on the screen, you can’t see a damn thing. Rick looks at me oddly. Did I say that out loud? There’s a voice somewhere, so far away it must be in Patagonia, words so thick and a throat so scrawny. So scrawny.
– Staccato People’s Army, the TV says. – Staccato tanks. Staccato armored personnel carriers crushing barricades. Staccato nobody knows how many are dead. Staccato staccato. Beijing Beijing.
Would some-effing-body please put a muffler on that damned gong? Would that be too much of a problem?
– Beijing, the TV says.
Two in the afternoon. All those antique clocks on the drooping shelves faded gilt and aged wood and hands pointing everywhichwhere it can be any time you want it to be. Four in the morning in Beijing. The bottles stacked along the wall friends stacked along the bar no depth of focus. Flat. Like Nebraska. Iowa is sunny today, no wind, no clouds a perfect day for tennis un jour parfait pour jouer au tennis funny how French and stuff comes back to you when it’s absolutely not necessary, isn’t it? How many sets of tennis did we play in the last eight years? Un, deux, trois mille mille mille Merde, she shouts slap of ball into the tape-topped net. Merde. Blonde hair stringy-wet from exertion and islands of sweat on a crimson T-shirt and a grin full of gutter French. Casse-toi. Vas-t’en. Vas-te faire vas-te faire vas-te faire. We spend our minutes like we’re the Croesus of time or somebody. Where’d they put the phone this week? Where’s the damn AT&T calling card? Christ, you ship money to them by the wheelbarrow, you’d think they could make a card you could actually find the one time you need it. Why does walking to the phone seem like such a movie, everyone’s tilted at this weird obtuse angle. Where’d these people get all these moles? Did they always have them? Where’d that sound of surf come from? This is Iowa, we don’t have oceans, we have corn and beans and Methodists driving fat-people’s Fords at 49 miles an hour in the passing lane.
Merde. Some moron’s on the phone.
– Excuse me, I say. – Excuse me, but I gotta use that phone. This is an emergency. I gotta call China.
Beefy face, all gone to the orange of the tanning booth. Black-and-gold striped polo shirt. Neon-turquoise floppy shorts. Must be a college student.
– You can’t call China, he says. – Something’s going on over there.
– Like merde I can’t.
Numbers, numbers. All these numbers. How many numbers does it take to change a light bulb? How many millions of electron exchanges between here and China? Click on, little phone. Click click. How many times have we called China in the last year? Three? Takes two hours each time, the bastards. Who knows what heart in lurking men? Click click. Reeling shadows of indignant desert birds. Click click. You’re Yeats, you’re Yeats, for some very important dates. Click. C’mon little phone you’re too young to die but you could you might you will. Click. Click click. C’mon phone, don’t leave me here on a tennis day in Iowa. Will you ever come to China? If you don’t come to China I might. If you threaten me I’ll never. Click. It’s 3-1Cardinals going into the top of the fourth, Vin Scully says, with Sandberg, Grace, and Smith due up in that order. We’ll keep you apprised of what’s going on in China throughout the game. The president knows what is going on in Asia, Ron Zeigler says, which is not to say that anything is going on in Asia. Click click. Click.
– We’re sorry, the phone says, but your call cannot be completed at this time in the country you have dialed. Please try your call again later.
The phone never rings anymore. And when it does, it never rings for me.
But there was a time once, with McDee in that house back in the woods off of Linn, a period of years and days and weeks when the phone rang all its waking moments, a continual clap and clang poking you in the ear, demanding your attention, insisting that you interrupt the extremely important life you were involved in. Most days, I admit, the extremely important life I was involved in consisted of staring out of the window at the humidity dripping from the sky and daydreaming about air-conditioned places I’d heard about once, experience having shown that this is the only way to improve Iowa’s summer climate. They were good, those places. I hated having to stand up and walk to the phone. Allo, I’d say, trying very hard to be polite and sound French at the same time, which is something of a trick. Silence. Followed by the click of hanging up. Every time. After a few months, I discovered that our number was one digit different from the phone number for the time of day, which explained both the incessant ringing — nobody in Iowa City ever knows what time it is or can dial a number correctly — and the silence on the line — they were expecting a pleasant little recording that would connect them to a bit of cosmic truth and instead they got a wacked-out guitar player who’d been dreaming about better weather. Once I figured out why they were calling, I’d always cheerfully tell them the time; my favorite response was 8:20, but occasionally I went for 3:40, depending on my mood and the pollen count. Then I’d say, une ange passe. There’d be a pause, then the person would hang up. Maybe they just couldn’t understand French. Maybe they had always harbored a secret loathing for Jules and Jim.
And then one day, as it always seems to happen in Reagan’s America — even though the Great Prune Face has been out of office for half a year, it was still his America — the adults come home and the fun is over; Ma Bell, the last true fortress of Dadaist humor, terminates Dial-the-Time in order to save money. Typical. All decade long the country has never been greater, business never better, the future never brighter, and all decade long things keep getting themselves terminated because of a lack of money. The real life of America happens on TV; everything else is just sideshow.
Two Sunday morning; four in the afternoon in Beijing. Twelve hours now. Dial; wait; click; click; wait; we’re sorry, but your call. Hang up. Dial; wait; click; click; wait; we’re sorry, but your. Hang up. Shoot the phone. Dial; access code, country code, city code, Peking University number; wait; click; calling-card number; wait; click; click; we’re sorry, but. Hang up. Shoot the phone. Dial. Wait.
Static. Rush of ions. This will be the time. This time for sure. Wait.
Late-night kitchen, six-pack of beer, pouch of Gauloise rolling tobacco, pot of coffee. Light another cigarette crack open another can of PBR it’s all the same fucking day it’s all the same fucking way listen to the hum of the universe. Crackle, crackle. How many light bulbs does it take to call a blonde in Beijing?
Whisper of refrigerator, quiet stove tonight. How many late-kitchens, after work, after a gig. You wouldn’t believe this table, this asshole. You wouldn’t believe this audience. Blue-eyed laughter, late-night eyes. Popcorn. A beer. You ready, Irish? I’m sleepy. And I think you need another lesson in French conjugations. Always ready for that, McDee. Always.
Always. Sip of beer. Swig of time. Wait. Click. Who the merde says I can’t call China? I’m Irish. I know no bounds, accept no limits. I’m Irish.
We’re sorry but.
Hang up. Shoot the phone. Dial. Wait.
That little note I wrote to myself is still on the wall. No place wheresoever. It was going to be a song but I forgot the melody.
Three Sunday morning; 5 p.m. in Beijing. Thirteen hours. Thirteen is the lucky number in China, she wrote. Figures, somehow.
This time. This time for sure. I’m Irish. I don’t believe in luck, I live it.
We’re sorry but, says the phone again.
Ransom O’Keeble sits in an empty house back in the woods off of Linn, listening to the phone not ring. Safka is in China. In the nine-plus years that he knows her, all through the Eighties, through all the nicknames he knows her by, McDee, McBlonde, she spends almost half her time somewhere else, chasing down another language, another culture. Seven months in Italy, summers in Vermont for language boot camp, a year in France, a year in China, a year in Des Moines as a French translator. It sounds like the lead-in to some joke, being a French translator in Des Moines. Sometimes, Ransom sees his life as a small piece of a tired comic’s monologue, played out in front of restless, shifting troops on a makeshift stage thrown together last night. Sticky afternoons and the smell of foreign dust.
All those afternoons and evenings up on Linn Street sitting on the porch, the air always thick with dirt-brown-dry cicada rasping and humidity plop-plopping like the day has a leaky faucet, it feels like time itself is taking five. He doesn’t know why he only remembers the Julys and Augusts in that house. There must have been some Januarys and Februarys, too, but in his memory it’s always ludicrously sticky and hot and so still that a breeze only exists in one of those coffee-table books full of pictures of places you will never see because you can’t afford the $70 for the book. And the sun is always setting. The sky looks so damn Technicolor, rose and orange and coral and purple, you could almost believe in a heaven, except that you know it’s only more humidity up there waiting to dump on you. He gets up to turn on a light so he can’t see the wet air outside anymore, and his butt sticks to the chair.
He thinks that they rented that house on Linn after Safka came back from Des Moines, which was a year after they came back from France, which would make it the beginning of 1987 if you’re keeping score. The year in between he doesn’t remember much about. He discovered a good translation of Rilke. Bill Buckner let a routine grounder go through his legs and the Red Sox broke his heart for about the umpteenth time in forever, which should have made him used to the feeling but didn’t. If nothing else, 1986 was a good year for broken hearts. Not much else happened that year in his corner of the cosmos. Oh, yeah, Safka came back, having decided that maybe being a young professional in Des Moines was something more like anesthetic without surgery than the portal to real life. Ransom still doesn’t know where he would classify that event. More and more, it seems that there are a lot of things you can’t classify, they just are. Some more time goes by, just like in the song, things change and now they just are something else. It’s not much of a philosophy, but then, philosophy, like the changing of presidents and the sex lives of film stars, is probably overrated. Or the changing of film stars and the sex lives of presidents.
He’s pretty sure he was glad to see Safka come back; it’s hard to talk to a translation of Rilke, even a good one. And it’s not much for one of those incredibly silly romantic dinners complete with snails and paté and a decent Médoc. And he doesn’t even mind so much that she’d had a boyfriend that year in Des Moines, some kind of engineer or something equally boring. Artists, or would-be artists, maybe especially the would-bes, tend to be leftist and open to things and above all that petty shit such as jealousy and making money. That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway, he tells himself. You should hear us sometime.
There was one night I suddenly couldn’t stand him anymore, you know what I mean? Safka says. I guess I’d been working up to it. There was a full moon and we were out on his balcony drinking wine and looking at it, and he started explaining how it all worked, why the moon looked full to us, in these very precise, very scientific terms. And something just went thud inside of me. You know what I mean? I just got up and left.
She moves through the rooms of his cracked house. Light as a glance. Their voices rise and fall, spiraling, two hawks circling or scraps of paper drifting on a wind we already know. Eurydice in the Hall of Mirrors. Orpheus captive in the quicksilver. Sign of the Twins. And a dancer who dies.
He has a picture of her walking on a lane in southern France, near Le Tholonet. She is walking quite like a human. Cézanne’s mountain stretches over Cézanne’s road, Cézanne’s valley. Or so he imagines.
This is the year of swirling geography. This is the year that everyone has been waiting for, after those decades of nervousness and hope and boredom, and then it comes and they unwrap it and look at it and don’t know what to do with it. Like so many children in the ancient history of gifts.
Eleven Sunday morning — 1 a.m. Monday over there. Twenty-one hours now.
– Over there, over there, I sing to the refrigerator. The refrigerator doesn’t applaud or laugh or do much at all except hum to itself. Damn self-centered refrigerator. Just like everybody else in the Eighties. And everything. When we look back at these times, we’ll wonder how everything could get so bland and greedy at the same time.
No, we won’t. When we look back at these times, we’ll be dead and we won’t really give a shit anymore.
Wait. Click. Click click.
– We’re sorry, the phone says, but.
– Phone, I say, phone, we’re gonna have to talk one of these days. No, I mean a real talk, one full of bonding or something. Or maybe it’s visualization, though it sounds stupid saying that to a phone. I mean, I think it’s wonderful that you can do all these things, like switch calls and hold calls and answer calls all by your damn self and memorize numbers frequently never dialed anymore because you do it automatically, if they’re short enough, of course; all that’s just great, and you can probably parse Latin, too, which I admire because I can’t but that’s probably because I went to a state university. But. It does seem that for eighty dollars you could do this little phone-like thing, such as complete a simple fucking call to China. Is that too much to ask? Or have the Eighties gone too far for simple things? That’s probably it; I’m stuck in CDT and time is elsewhere.
The phone says nothing. The refrigerator hums to itself. The stove is silent. But then, stoves are rather reticent these days.
I turn on the TV, dial the phone, feed the cat, make coffee yet again, and open a can of beer simultaneously. The Michael Jordan of the pathologically nervous.
– At least two hundred are dead, the TV says, and the death toll may be one thousand. The army appears to be shooting indiscriminately, firing into crowds of observers and mere bystanders.
Oh, swell. What the hell did we ever do before they invented CNN? I don’t know. Probably sat around idly, picking our noses, waiting for Marco Polo to return.
I look at the stove. The stove doesn’t look back. The stove can’t look back. How many times do I have to remind you? The stove is inanimate. So what’s that mean, exactly?
How many times have I tried to call China, now? Nine hundred? A thousand? More? Do you suppose I can rack up calls faster than the Chinese Army can rack up bodies? Do you suppose truly sick, nonsensical thoughts are a sign of hysteria? What are the seven signs of hysteria, anyway? How come I didn’t learn them in school? That’s the problem with education these days, they teach you arithmetic and the dates of kings and other meaningless people, but they don’t teach you the really important stuff, like the seven warning signs of hysteria. If I can ever get off this damn phone, I’m going to write a letter to the School Board.
The coffee’s ready. I pour the rest of the beer into the cat’s dish and dial the phone.
– It’s good for you, I say to the cat, it’s got grain and protein and all kinds of swell stuff. As long as you’re not pregnant. You’re not pregnant, are you?
Silly question; she was neutered years ago. Seven. Still, one never knows; nothing’s perfect, Lord knows. Of all the infinite things It or She or He knows, that should be first on the list. Wait. Click. Click.
The cat grimaces at the smell in her bowl and backs away. Maybe she is pregnant.
– We’re sorry, the phone says, but.
– There are unconfirmed reports of tanks crushing demonstrators, the TV says, and more reports of troops firing into crowds and even into apartment windows. The scene in Tiananmen is utter chaos.
A quiet eye, she said. That was one of the May letters, about the demonstrations. A quiet eye. I should be there. Please let there be more quiet than eye. Please. Please be all right, McDee. Okay? Not for me, for you. Okay?
The TV is showing the familiar yellow-grey smoke and the familiar screams and the familiar Square and the familiar Chinese night. The cup is too narrow, the coffee’s too wide, and I pour Sumatra’s finest all over the table.
Please. Okay? For me, then, if not for you. Okay?
We’re sorry, the phone says, but your call cannot.
Two p.m. Four Monday morning in Beijing. Four. Quatre in French, vier in German, what in Chinese? Can’t remember. Sleep is another country these days, we always meant to go there, I wonder if we ever will now. I wonder if they have any good cafés there, like we could always find in France, quiet, tucked out of the way between a little church and an unknown square. And the hotels. I wonder if you need reservations this time of year.
Automatic fingers now, punch the buttons, punch the buttons, punch the buttons. Wonder why we call it dialing when it’s really pushing buttons? I don’t know, it’s all just so automatic, like back when we were working in the machine shop, fingers grabbing sliding pulling grasping pushing on automatic pilot. The Chicago years, making do-dads that fit into other do-dads that became whatzits that became God-knows-whats, yours is not to reason why, kid, yours is but to tool-and-die. Punch punch punch, fingers no longer connected to any brain. Probably there is no brain, just a phone and ten fingers and an ear that only hears: We’re sorry, but.
Futile futile futile. What is the taste of futility? Kinda like stale tea, actually. You’re never gonna get through, kid, the whole world is trying to call China. Martians, Jupiterians, Neptunians, those little dirt clods that live on the asteroids, anchorwomen from Cassiopeia — they’re all trying to call China. So what hope does an obscure songwriter from Iowa have?
Well, I’ll tell you what, Jack, the Irish are at their best when their efforts are utterly doomed to failure; Cuchulain hoisting his sword and wading off into the sea to fight the invincible tide and all that. This time; this time for sure.
We’re sorry, but, the phone says.
The kid comes down the long wide flat stairs at Orly, head swimming in a blur of Arabic and African dialects and something that might be French, but who can be sure? Eyes looking searching, down and down; all night across the Atlantic they would not close waiting for all this. And the blonde head. The year of letters from France. Do these steps never end? Why do the French have to build the longest staircases in the world? The bottom and a right-hand turn and a football field of a hall and there. Just there. At the front of the crowd a pair of Cézanne-blue eyes. In one motion, she hangs the strap of her purse over the gendarme’s shoulder, next to his machine gun, and leaps over the velvet rope and comes running, slow-motion pumping legs and stretching, swinging arms, a flying grin and wild blonde curls. The gendarme shakes his head and smiles; applause is ringing from somewhere. The kid stops, the Earth stops, not one atom spins, and time stretches motionless. Somewhere Orpheus is chortling but they can’t hear him, they are suddenly far too busy giggling and dancing, laughter is a train carrying them to a country where mere mortals never get to travel.
I liked that movie, I say to the refrigerator, I liked it a lot. I never get tired of seeing it. Do you? I wish they’d show it more often. Don’t you?
The refrigerator quietly hums in an afternoon kitchen. Four p.m. Six a.m. in Beijing.
– They never show the old movies often enough, the good ones, I mean. They always show the crap. Did you ever notice that?
We’re sorry, but, the phone says.
Molecules of freon invisibly escape and flee for their home in the sky. Beer, eggs, Friskies Seafood Buffet, last week’s rice and vegetables sit and chill. Sit and chill. The refrigerator hums.
– Kafka, Sartre, Pirandello, Camus; Kafka, Sartre, Pirandello, Camus, I chant as I dial the phone. Some days even cynics need a mantra. They don’t work of course, but they fill up the dead air between nothing and nothing else.
– Kafka, Sartre, Pirandello, Camus.
Somewhere a god stirs; the phone rings. The phone actually rings; it’s that flat, nasal blaaaaaaaaant-blaaaaaaant of a Chinese phone, but it is a ring. A real, true phone with a real, true ring.
Somebody’s hands are shaking too much to light a cigarette. It falls to the floor and rolls under the table, where the cat mistakes it for a rug beetle and goes into attack crouch, waiting to pounce.
– Something something something, says the Chinese woman.
– Please, I say ever so slowly, please, Room Three-Zero-Eight. Three-Zero-Eight. Please.
French has never worked with the Chinese before, but I try it anyway. Why can’t I remember how to say this in Chinese? Because I lost my crib sheet. Figures.
– S’il vous plait, I say, trying to be nasal, very nasal. – Trois-Zéro-Huit. Trois-Zéro-Huit. Please, I need to speak with Safka McDougall. S’il vous plait, j’ai besoin de parler à Safka McDougall. Mei-J Safka. J’ai besoin de parler à Mei-J Safka.
Is it parler à or parler avec? Why is it French grammar always goes on vacation right when you need it?
– Something something something, the Chinese woman says and walks away from the phone, slap slap slap. Chinese espadrilles on a hard floor. I can hear more Chinese voices faintly, very faintly, in the background.
– Please, I say to them or to the air or to nobody, please. S’il vous plait. Please.
The Central Exchange cuts off the line with a resounding chunk.
– Please? S’il vous plait?
Five-thirty Sunday evening. Seven-thirty in the morning in China. The first cicada of the night starts up his whine and rasp.
If you wish to make a call, please hang up and dial again, the phone says.
– I was right there. I can’t believe it. Right there, in her dormitory, someone is shouting at the refrigerator. – Right there. I was in the dorm, and the mofos cut me off. Can you believe it?
Somebody is stomping around and screaming and throwing beer cans, paper wads, coffee cups, the ashtray, the cat’s bowl and the kitchen table at the wall. The cat has been scared into deep cover, but the refrigerator is impassive. It’s hard to move a refrigerator these days, they’re all so smart, they defrost themselves and everything.
– Right there, goddamit; the bastards.
There is nothing left to throw.
The refrigerator says nothing.
– I could do my Mike Tyson imitation on you, you damn refrigerator, I say. – Exactly how much do you value your freezer door?
– Don’t hurt the refrigerator, myself says, the refrigerator is your friend. It keeps the beer cold and the cat food from spoiling, and that maintains the equilibrium around this place, such as it is.
The northeast corner is a rubble heap of beer cans, scraps of used Kleenex, overturned chairs, an upside-down table and the shards of two coffee cups. I wonder when we bought those cups.
I walk to the refrigerator, gently open the door and pull out a can of beer. Tenderly, softly, smoothly.
– I’m all calm now, I say to the refrigerator, see? Completely calm. You don’t need to worry, I can be nice. See?
I wonder if befriending a refrigerator is a secondary sign of hysteria.
– Yeah, calmness, that’s me. Cool and collected, too. Olympian serenity is just oozing all through this room, can’t you feel it? Mellow, that’s the word; I’m very mellow. If I were any more mellow, I’d be dead.
The refrigerator is quiet, the stove is quiet. Even the TV is silent, no volume, no slides from China. The debris in the corner waits. What I did on my summer vacation; I got bored so I started to remodel my kitchen, but then I got bored with that so I stopped. I have some slides to show you, it’ll only take a minute.
On the tube one of the Michaels is soundlessly selling one of the diet sodas. He has a nice grin and very long, slender fingers and I am mellow. Very mellow. If I were any more.
Outside is just another June evening. No tanks, no screams, no yellow smoke; just the cicadas and the sleepy Midwestern air. Hardly any traffic, but then it’s Sunday evening, when even the hip people take a break. I am walking down Linn Street under unfamiliar trees.
– See, I say to myself, the world is not coming to an end; there are people strolling about and talking and laughing and belching and farting and thinking about getting laid. All the normal little things people do.
So why aren’t we doing them?
We’re not like other people, you and I, I said once, we’re different somehow. Up in Maine, on the island, the forest quiet like a whisper in a church and the Atlantic Ocean a hundred feet below rushing in to bludgeon the cliffs and then slowly crawling back out leaving long green-white fingers of froth and foam. The sound of the surf so faint, like a dream you can’t quite remember. I thought the moment could go on forever, we’d be standing there at the edge of the cliff and the sky and nothing would move except the pulse of the almost silent sea. No, she says, we’re the same as other people, Guitar-man, except that you’re sillier than any two people put together. That’s all. But don’t you wish this moment would never stop? I say. Of course not, Irish, she says, and you don’t either. The moment is always changing, you say that all the time. It must. Change is everything.
Guitar-man. Irish. Pig-breath. I never had a nickname in my life and then I met McDee and suddenly I had more nicknames than everyone else in the world combined.
Costello’s is closed. It’s Sunday. So I walk across the little town on evening sidewalks, past all the closed shops and the closed banks and the fountain the city turned off because little kids were having too much fun wading in it and into the Mortesylvania. Beer. Cigarettes. People chattering. For awhile there I was afraid I would spend the rest of my life talking to refrigerators and stoves.
A week after Maine, I put her on the plane to China.
Seven-fifteen Sunday night; 9:15 Monday morning in Beijing. Dan Rather is grimness and somberness and many other kinds of nesses, all of them grave-looking. He appears to be saying something extremely serious and important about China, but I can’t hear because two leather-jacket and torn-jeans types have decided that right now is the perfect moment to crank out Z-Z Topp on the jukebox. Bodies flash across the screen and blood and tanks, more bodies and more blood, fires everywhere, smoke and more smoke, and back to Dan. His lips move gracefully. Electric guitars dance the feedback fritz.
– Good god, somebody down the bar says. – Good god.
– Blampety-blampety-blampety, says the jukebox.
– Those poor people, somebody else says.
Somebody else turns out to be me. I wonder if banality is the natural human reaction to horror or one of the signs of hysteria or both. I wonder if the bartender would mind much if I accidentally killed two jukebox addicts.
– Do you want another beer, Ransom? the bartender says. She is friendly and smiling and all that good stuff, just as she’s been the three years I’ve known her; and her name is lodged down one of those brain pathways my memory never takes. So I smile back.
– Yeah, sure, I say. – And would you mind killing the music if I buy off the two Martians?
Dammit, what is her name?
– Sure, Ransom. Love to. And I’ll put this beer on the musician’s pension fund.
Up on the TV someone is selling used Winnebagos with a great deal of animation and gestures and silence. I wander over to the jukebox and flip a five on it.
– How many tunes you got left? I say.
– What’s it to you, dude? the first leather jacket says.
– A Lincoln, I say, turning back to the bar and nodding at what’s-her-name, and Z-Z Topp disappears to wherever it is pop groups retire when the electrons fade away. In the sudden quiet you can hear the compressor on the beer cooler snick on, snick off, snick on.
I walk back to the bar and light a cigarette. There are two already burning in the ashtray, I notice, but they seem so far away and so perfectly at rest. The clarity of distance. On the TV some very helpful man is showing us exactly where the army columns are taking up positions around Peking University, possibly preparing to attack the demonstrators there. The army columns are bright crimson arrows and the campus is a series of dull canary lines. The TV man’s tie is dark navy.
– Where in Beijing is Safka? somebody says.
– Right there, I say, right where the two big arrows are pointing.
– Yeah, I say. – Oh.
I reached the dormitory once. When was that? Don’t know. Who can remember?
Kerry. That’s the bartender’s name. Kerry Something.
– Astronomers tell us there won’t be a total eclipse in North America until the year 2017. They were wrong, the TV says and shows us some coked-out baboon’s concept of a car.
I trudge out of the barroom and down the hallway, past the pinball machine and the cigarette machine and the Pac-Man, out to the phone.
The airport security guard is pleasant and nice and all those good Midwestern things, but she seems to be far more firm than anything else.
– No, she says, no. Only passengers beyond this point. No.
We stayed up all night so McDee couldn’t possibly miss the 6 a.m. flight and we made it with eight minutes to spare. First we drank champagne, then coffee, then beer, then back to coffee, and we each smoked a carton of cigarettes; our breath must smell like LA air. It’s not that goodbyes are so hard, it’s just that they take so long and are murder on your kidneys.
Half the world’s cobweb population is camped out in my brain and by the looks of McDee, the other half is residing in her head.
– Look, I say, look; she’s going away to China for a year. This is the last time we’ll see each other for a whole year.
The guard checks us out again; we both must look like we spend most of our time under a bridge somewhere waiting for the goats to come prancing by.
– Okay, she says, you two don’t look very dangerous. She shakes her head and smiles, a very grandmotherly kind of smile. Midwestern women make the best grandmothers because they start preparing for it when they’re 27.
– A year; that’ll be hard, she says and smiles again.
– Yes; no; maybe, I say. – Not really; we’ve done this before. We’re experts. A year in France, a year in Des Moines, six months in Vermont, a year in Italy. Piece of cake.
So many goodbyes and hellos at this airport; they should name one of the gates after us.
McDee grabs the backpack from the metal detector and struggles her way into the straps, eyes as red as the morning sky and a puffy potato face, like she’s gained ten pounds overnight. She’s probably the most beautiful woman who ever existed.
– Piece of cake, she says. As if she’s just been told the Earth really is flat and in Australia you have to tie yourself down so you don’t fall into the sky.
– Piece of cake, I say.
And like the utter moron I am, I don’t touch wood. But then, they don’t put real wood in airports anymore, only the plastic-imitation crap they grow in provincial Brazil out where the rain forest used to be.
I could’ve touched my head, though. Plenty of wood up there.
Dan Rather is talking with a CBS newsman who was arrested and held by the People’s Army; he is missing his glasses and he sports a small eggplant on the side of his face. For a moment I wonder if that’s a typical foreign correspondent accessory like a bush jacket or Wellington boots, but it turns out to be a bruise.
– We were held for nineteen hours, the newsman says, my camera man and I and an American woman who’s studying at Peking University.
Every head at the bar swivels toward me; I stare at the eggplant. So purple, so glossy, so real-looking. Like you could pick it up at your local produce section. It’s just amazing what they can do with TV these days, isn’t it? — computer simulations and graphics and what not. Please be okay, McDee, okay? But if you think TV can do reality now, wait until we get holograms and integrated digital quasar-conductors and micro-laser transformers, there’ll be some reality for you. Please please please, okay? Because there’s this immense blackness eating everything up from the inside and out, it opens and closes and opens and closes and I can’t make it please please stop now, there they all go, the table we bought and the cat and the old iron bed and the late-night parties till dawn and the trips to the lake and Camaret, they’re all sliding sliding, off and off, remember Camaret? Remember the moment at Orly? I can’t stop the sliding McDee please it’s all going; no. No. No. I know I always said I wanted to live on the edge, out on some borderline, but I never meant I wanted to cross over. No. Not that country. No.
Everyone is staring. And staring. Like they would at a cancer victim; inoperable tumor, melanoma or lymphomania or something else we can’t pronounce, nothing works, radiation, chemotherapy, I hear he’s moving to Tahiti to paint natives and bleed on the beach.
Everyone is staring. I am looking at the TV. Calmly. I am cool; I am blasé; I have this fascination with eggplants.
– It can’t be her, I say. – She. It can’t be she. There are probably seven hundred or eight hundred female American students in Beijing, so odds are it’s not her. She.
Could someone please shut up this ocean, I can’t hear a damn thing. Is that too much to ask? Everyone stares. Even the bartender. Kerry — that’s her name. I keep forgetting.
– Can’t be, I say, can’t be her. She.
But the phone is calling me, calling me, and I forgot to put wax in my ears.
Standing in a hallway, shaking, looking at a phone. Can’t light a cigarette, doctor, there’s too much motion in this ocean. Don’t worry about it, kid, it’s healthier just to look at it and not light it. I don’t give a flying frig about healthier, I just need to make a phone call. Shaking. Stop the earthquake, I want to get off. In the mad bolt from the bar I remembered to bring the bottle of beer. When the going gets tough, the Irish never forget their beer. That’s something, anyway. I’m not sure what, exactly.
Stop shaking and start thinking, kid. What they do in the movies? The hero would use this phone-gizmo thing to get the number of CBS News and then he’d call CBS News and talk to somebody, and sooner or later he’d get the name of the woman who was arrested with the CBS reporter. So go. But what’ll I tell them? I don’t know, kid, you’re a musician; improvise.
Nobody is home at CBS News; I get a recorded message wishing me a nice day and telling me they’ll be open for business at 9 a.m. Monday. Eleven Monday night in Beijing.
Goddamit, Kafka, would you please quit writing the movie of my life? What time is it? Il est trop tard au trottoir. A little bit of nonsense French she taught me back in the fun days when we never had to think about anything, a tongue-twister to practice on. We used to say it to each other all the time, back when we used to say things to each other all the time. Il est trop tard au trottoir. It’s too late on the sidewalk.
Think, kid; there’s got to be a way into CBS News. Try this: call the Foreign Desk at the New York Times and get the number for the CBS Desk from them. Reporters always know stuff like that.
– Foreign Desk, a male voice says.
– Um, yes, hello. Look, I’m stuck out here in Iowa and my wife is in Beijing right now and I can’t find her, I can’t get through on the damn phone, and there was this report just now on CBS about an American woman who was arrested with a CBS crew in Beijing and my wife, she’s worked for CBS as Leslie Stahl’s translator when Bush was there and Gorbachev, and anyway, do you have a number for the CBS Foreign Desk so I can talk to somebody who might know something? Anything? Please?
So I lied a little. So we’re not married. So shoot me. But she did work for CBS, that part was true, and we have lived together for eight years, more or less, and that ought to count for something. Doesn’t it? All those afternoons and mornings and evenings, don’t they count for something? All the silly little meaningless arguments, all the laughter, don’t they count? All the dinners with the red red wine and the cheese and the paté, don’t forget the paté, never forget the paté, we made it ourselves, we got pretty good at it. And over the course of eight years I must have run out and bought her three or four truckloads of emergency Tampax, doesn’t that count? And I wrote two or three dozen songs for her; they probably don’t count at all, given these days. And she did ask me, once, to marry her; she was sitting on the toilet, peeing, and I was shaving, it was very romantic just like in the movies, and I said yes. I’m almost certain I said yes. I must have said yes, didn’t I?
– Please, I say to the Times man, please; do you have a number?
The woman at the CBS Foreign Desk tells me the name of the American woman before I can blurt out half my story.
– No, that’s not her, I say. – She must be somewhere else.
I can’t figure out if I’m relieved or not.
– Here’s what I can do, the woman says. – She’s not working for us right now, but if one of our crews comes across your wife in Beijing, I’ll have them patch her in to you on one of our lines. How’s that?
– That would be better than wonderful. Thank-you thank-you thank-you. I’ll never watch anything but CBS again. How is it, by the way, that you guys can find an open line and all I get are computers telling me to try back later?
– Oh, that’s easy; once we get a line, we never let it go. We’ve got five going right now. The crews over there just leave the phone off the hook; otherwise, when something happens, they wouldn’t be able to get through to us. That’s the way everybody does it.
– Oh. That explains something.
– Well, it only makes sense.
– I’m sure glad something makes sense, I say. – I was beginning to wonder.
– Gotta go, she says, there’s something coming in on another line. I’ll tell the guys over there to keep an eye out for your wife.
She hangs up, leaving me staring at a dead phone. One of my oldest, dearest friends, a dead phone, we go way back, you wouldn’t believe how far. You just wouldn’t believe.
Dial the phone. Wait. Click click click. Wait.
We’re sorry but, the phone says.
What a surprise.
Trudge back to the bar. The TV is showing the same old Chinese movie with all the same old scenes. What a surprise. You’d think they’d find something else, wouldn’t you?
– Do you want another beer, Ransom? Kerry says. – Did you find out where she was? Are you okay?
No, I am not okay. I’m lots of things, but okay isn’t one of them today. I’m standing at the lip of a canyon of tears and I never cry, but I just don’t know, it’s so far down there today, so far. But I’m a big boy now, I don’t cry or anything, I’m too cool; as cool as somebody else’s cucumber, Hem says to Bunny. A line from The Moderns. Yeah, right. We’re so goddam modern. If we were any more modern, we wouldn’t exist yet.
– Yeah, I’m fine, I say. – No, I didn’t find her. Yes, I’ll have another beer. What the hell else is there to do?
I’ve already seen the show on TV, so I plod back to the phone. And dial. And wait. Take a sip of beer. Wait.
It was good, wasn’t it? We were good together, weren’t we? Yeah, kid, it was good; some rough places here and there, but for the most part it was a lot better than most people ever get. You were lucky. You were damn lucky.
Thanks, but would you mind awfully terribly much not using the past tense just yet?
Whatever you say, kid.
You see, don’t you, Irish? she says. Changing and learning are everything, I think; and you can do it by going inside yourself and finding it in your music but I can’t do that, so I have to do it by experiences. That’s what I mean by flying. Love is wonderful, but experience is. Don’t you see?
Whatever you say, kid.
We’re sorry but, the phone says.
Madness. This is utter madness. Go blow up a bridge somewhere, you’d have better luck. Better karma. Better something.
Somewhere somebody snickers.
What are we doing? What, exactly? How long since we’ve eaten? Friday night, eight or so. This is Sunday, about ten, so fifty hours, give or take a bite. And sleep? Woke up Saturday morning around eleven, haven’t seen a bed since. I hear they still exist, though. And yes?
I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know. My fingers know this phone number, that’s all, the phone number of a blonde woman I once knew, still know a little bit maybe, my fingers know her body very well my eyes know her eyes her smile my something knows something, okay? Not enough, kid. Nothing is ever enough. I love her. Not enough. She loves me. Not enough. I love you, but, she writes, letter after letter, sentence after sentence, word after word. A glance, a sharpening of the look, a smile. Do you think you’ll come to China, she says, because. That was the house up on Linn with all the parties and the late-night visits from the noise police and all those dinners, paté and snails and cheese and wine and bread and her eyes in the flickering light so blue so blue and all that romantic shit, all that romantic shit. Why did you only live it only on the surface, so quickly like a sprinter, so coolly like a singer?
This is the seventeenth time I’ve started this letter, the other sixteen are in la poubelle, the wastebasket. As if she needed to translate French for me. As if she ever needed to translate anything for me. But if you remember that Rilke poem you used to read to me all the time. It was January and it was cold cold cold 50 below or some damn thing and snow was piled everywhere, even in the room because I always left one window open for the cat to go in and out, the cat window, the things you will do for a cat not my cat really not truly mine you can never own anything not a cat not a window not a woman not the snow never never the snow. Not mine. Never truly mine.
And there was snow. Especially snow.
Madness. This is utter madness. What am I doing?
Myself snickers. My feet step, one after the other, down the long hallway to the phone. Always the damn phone.
The fingers remember the number, I remember nothing. I remember the third body, but that’s Robert Bly. The third body we have never seen but know, that’s Bly. A man and a woman sit. I remember Bly. They something or something or don’t something; I don’t remember. The fingers remember the number. Remember the number, remember the body.
I’m watching this movie, see? It must be French because it’s very long and nothing keeps happening and there’s no plot and the hero does the same nothing over and over and over and in between he drinks and smokes cigarettes. It must have some deeper, underlying meaning that the hero can’t understand; that’s why he stares off camera so much with this comical expression on his face like somebody just kicked his guts out and then he has another drink and lights another smoke.
The bodies, the blood, the smoke; the long march out to the phone. Access code, country code, city code.
Access code, country code, city code.
Access code, country code, city code.
– We’re sorry.
Slog back to the TV, stare in fascination at more bodies, more blood. A woman bending over her husband’s stretcher, crying. Ain’t no movie, kid, those are real tears. A real wife, a real husband. I know, I know, I just can’t feel them anymore, that’s all; give me a second to get my circulation or something back.
Midnight. Two Monday afternoon in Beijing. Closing time. My eyelids are made of sand, I can hear them go scrape—scrape with each blink.
– Go get some sleep, Ransom, Kerry says. – Eat something. She’s okay. She’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.
Right. Everything’s going to be all right. What will that be like and how will we know when we get there?
Walking is by rote: left, right, left right, left. Fort Benning taught me that, at least. This isn’t happening. I will wake up, and we will be back in the little house up on Linn, laughing and arguing about who has to get up first this time to make coffee and feed the cat. Left, right, left right, left. I am heading back to my kitchen. It is lonely there, yes, and too well-lit, yes, but it has a phone.
Camels clatter into Tiananmen and the white-robed figures riding them look like neon lights in the orange night. Scimitars flash and slash; the front rank of the People’s Liberation Army is quickly decapitated, bloodlessly. A helicopter comes chuttering in overhead. Searchlights, the blaaaaahpt of machine guns, but Peter O’Toole fires his Enfield and the chopper comes crashing down in the middle of the Square. Not there, the kid shouts, those are friendlies, but the din is overwhelming, it’s like shouting into the tide. O’Toole is as late and erratic as usual, but at least he’s here. It’s a long ride from Aqaba to Beijing, Bogart screams, especially by camel. He is standing right next to the kid, but he sounds like he’s phoning in from Pluto. Automatic weapons whine and squabble and the camels squeal, falling. Camel blood is greenish-yellow, and their humps deflate like punctured beach balls, the kid notes. None of the Bedouins seem to be hit yet, but it’s hard to tell, the noise is so thick. I spotted her on the other side of the Square, Bogart shouts, but smoke is everywhere, it’s like trying to peer through concrete. Then Bogart is hit, blood sluicing down the side of his face and soaking his shirt. He seems to be missing an eye, too. He grins that grin; blood has turned his lips and teeth purple and the flesh is torn off of his right cheekbone; the bone gleams in the fire light like a pearl. I will never forget this bone, the kid says, reaching down to touch it. It is mushy, like oatmeal. Here’s looking at you, kid, this time you get the girl, Bogart says, and grins that grin again. She’s right on the other side of the Square, next to the Lincoln Memorial, you can’t miss her; her Chinese has gotten a lot better, she’s cursing up a hurricane. Then he’s gone, vanished, leaving the kid with purple blood on his hands and forearms and the memory of a grin. The kid starts to run. Bodies are stacked like cordwood, the air is black sand. O’Toole and a Chinese student are on top of a burning tank, throwing Molotov cocktails assembly-line fashion, a whirl of arc and liquid color; they fade in and out of focus in the orange light. Keep your damn arms down, his high-school track coach shouts, down, dammit. The kid runs.
Seven a.m. Monday; 9 p.m. Beijing.
We’re sorry, but, the phone says.
– Bodies are stacked like cordwood, the TV says.
– I didn’t hear that right, the kid says.
– Yes, you did, kid, the TV says. – Bodies are stacked like cordwood, and the People’s Army is burning them. The center of Beijing is one huge mofo of an oven. And by the way, your lover’s never coming back to you, so what you’re doing is truly moronic; compared with you Dan Quayle looks like the Einstein of the Eighties. Get some sleep.
– Smart TVs, Ransom says, massacres in Beijing, Morton Downey; postmodernity is really something.
– We’re sorry, but you’re never going to get through, the phone says. – Give it up.
Two in the afternoon, four in the morning in Beijing.
– What happened to the morning? he says to the stove and the refrigerator, but the stove and refrigerator aren’t speaking to him today.
I hate the phone, he whispers to the room so the phone won’t hear. This is how they will find him, later: a musty old kitchen with dank, reptilian odors, filled with dust and carrion beetles, and him at the table, the petrified phone frozen to a long-dead ear.
The phone is answered so quickly and the connection is so clear he sits with his mouth open, forgetting all language. The cigarette rolls off of the ashtray and onto the table, contentedly burning its way into the oak.
– American Embassy, the woman says again.
– Is this the embassy in Beirut? he says.
– No, Beijing.
Oh. Right. We were trying to call China, that’s what we were trying to do. He watches the cigarette burn. Maybe it’s not oak, maybe it’s maple.
– Did you need some help? the woman says.
– Yes. My wife is in Beijing and …
– Right, the woman says, I’ll switch you to the Family Section.
– Family, another woman says.
– Yes, my wife …
– Could you hold, please?
– Spouses, another woman says.
– Yes, my wife …
– Is your wife missing, sir?
– Well, I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to call the dorm at Peking University but I can’t get through.
– It’s useless to try the civilian lines, the woman says cheerfully, they’re all tied up in times like this. What’s her name; last, first, middle, please.
– McDougall, Safka Elizabeth.
– I’m sure she’s just fine, the woman says, all the American kids are having a ball; it’s not nearly so bad as it looks on TV. Hold on a second, please.
– Oh, he says.
On the TV a nice man with a tasteful tie is using a map of Beijing to show how the 38th Army is taking up positions outside the city, preparing to fight the 27th Army inside the city.
– Right, he says. If she tells him Euclid was terribly, horribly wrong and actually there’s no such thing as geometry, he will accept it as gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Ralph, anybody.
– Here it is, the woman says, she’s safe. She got off the campus yesterday and then phoned us. She’s at this number …
The plane ticket in his hand doesn’t seem real. Hong Kong, it says, connecting to Beijing. He wonders why he can’t feel it, sitting just there in his hands.
Whatever happens, I’m coming back to you, she says. Whatever happens.
This is the movie where they stay up all night so she won’t miss the plane. Remember this one? It’s got a great finale, with lots of laughs and a surprise ending, the plane takes off and doesn’t crash. Then everyone files out of the theater with smiles and those happy kind of tears in their eyes. Remember? No, I don’t. I don’t remember any of this. Who are you that keeps talking to me with this super memory, anyway?
Yeah, right, he says. What if whatever happens, happens? Then what? The ashtrays are crammed with dead butts and the wastebasket is crammed with empty beer cans and used coffee filters. It’s a small, too well-lit white room and a car outside waiting to be started. But if you don’t come to China I might meet someone else, she says. If you threaten me, I’ll never come to China. Ever, he says. He’s a songwriter, a guitar player, a performer; he’s spent half his life improvising. He can always think of exactly the right thing to say.
– None of this is happening, he says to the ticket. – It’s only a movie.
There’s the ecstatic woman who has just won a grant to study Chinese; there’s a celebration in a French restaurant; there’s a bottle of champagne; here’s some laughter; there’s a bottle of Médoc; here’s an antique bartop long after everyone else has gone home and a flash of bare breast and more laughter; there’s a far-away baseball game and an Oriental man with a bleeding bandanna; here’s a phone.
– You’re not real, he says to the plane ticket
If I can’t get through on the phone today, I’m going, I’m gone, I am there: the swashbuckling songwriter singing his way through the Beijing airport, guitar at ready, commandeering a truck, speeding his way into the heart of the heart of.
None of this can be real.
We’re sorry but, the phone says.
They are walking along the coast in Brittany, an alcove by the door to the sea, hand in hand at first and then she paces ahead into the wind impatient to see what’s coming. Craggy, obstinate pillars of crimson granite and black feldspar stretch up all around, marching into the sea in straggling rows, and the waves punch and tear at them, turning them into sand second after second. Look, Irish, she shouts; a windswept whisper from far ahead. The cliff before them towers two hundred feet and the high tide mark is fifty feet up; and everywhere on the face of the glistening rock are thousands of les moules in their oval, glossy ebony shells. Dinner, she says, and begins picking them off the rock. So quiet suddenly he can hear the squish of protoplasm as she pulls. The ocean is a reflecting pond, and all of them and everything and the sky are painted there in rose and purple and ochre. No one was ever so lucky, he says, but she doesn’t hear, lost in the land of les moules. When he looks up, they are standing at the edge of the cliff. She leaps, gliding down into the sky, and he follows, jumping. From the beach he watches, he is falling falling, down to the sky but the sky no longer is.
Some dreamer is playing ballet with a tank; the tank slides left — he moves, pirouette, step, slide left; the tank tries right — pirouette, step, slide right. Left, pirouette; right, pirouette. Step, slide. the tank is surprisingly nimble for steel and rivets but no match for real feet. Behind the first tank are more and more tanks, grumbling, impatient; the line snorts and belches, stretching to the end of the world. The man and the tank dance.
– We’re sorry, but, the phone says.
Nine p.m. Monday; eleven Tuesday morning in Beijing. Seven hours since the call to the embassy; seven years since Saturday. Dial again. Seventeen miles from midnight, coming down your road.
Click click click.
Somewhere a phone is ringing.
Yes. The phone is ringing.
– Knee-how? says a blonde voice.
No. Can’t be.
– Hello? Is anybody there? Safka says.
– How did you get through? she says. – It’s impossible to call China right now. And how in the world did you find me here?
– Piece of cake, he says.
You have to understand, Irish, she says. Softly. Without impatience.
All day Tuesday he watches the TV, no sound. Flicker of the Square, flicker of Air-Jordans. Tanks, Toyotas. Burning bus, bank cards. Flicker flicker.
No, she says, no, I’m not coming back, not yet. I’m perfectly safe. No; don’t come to China. No.
Softly. Without impatience.
Don’t you see? she says. I thought you did, your letters made it sound that way. That’s why I wrote you that letter in January. You have to understand, Irish. You simply must. Of all the people in the world, you. Or I can’t.
Softly. Without impatience.
Five-thirty p.m. Seven-thirty Wednesday morning in Beijing.
– Four armies are now encircling the city, the TV says, and there now seems to be a distinct possibility of civil war in China.
– Now what? he says to the refrigerator.
The refrigerator hums.
– I thought as much, the kid says. – I’m glad we’re finally in agreement.
He opens a beer and picks up the phone.
At ten-thirty the phone rings with the Chinese blaaaaaaant—blaaaaaaant.
– Only five hours this time, he says to the kitchen. – I must be getting better with practice.
– She left today, a Chinese man says, with CBS. She is in Hong Kong. I am very; we are very; I am so happy she is safe.
The voice is a cello on a rainy afternoon, one of the slow suites by Bach. It stretches and pulses, evenly and unhurried, and the minutes open like the ocean of all that could be and is and fall gently on the spruce and the oak, on the cracked panes of glass of his house.
– Thank-you for all the information you told her yesterday, the Chinese man says. – We have had no news for three days.
– It was nothing, the kid says. – I don’t know, I just feel so sorry for the Chinese people. I don’t know what to say.
Most days sorry is such a thin word.
– Yes, the Chinese man says. – We who are here can only wait. And see.
On the TV Ted Koppel is doing a special on China, with live reports from Washington and Beijing. An idea better than sorry.
– There’s something on the TV here about China, he says. – Would you like to hear it?
Over the phone line there is a sudden intense fire in the Chinese man’s voice.
– News from the other side? Yes. Yes.
He kneels in front of the TV, holding the phone up to the speaker. The rush of ions, the whirl of a thumping heart. The flicker of electrons as they hopscotch from energy shell to energy shell; the crash of the sea on a Camaret cliff; the crunch of the tank on Beijing cement. Sliding. Sliding down his face. He kneels. The sting of salt water on unwashed cheeks. He kneels. Sunrise through an airport window; flagrantly smoking a cigarette, watching an orange-and-silver concoction of rivets and pressed aluminum lumber down a runway, willing itself into the air on the hope of horsepower, spewing the smoky residue of 500 million-year-old DNA. He kneels. An American newsman reports to New York from Beijing, a man in Beijing listens with a silence louder than all sound, and a kid in Iowa kneels and kneels and kneels, afraid to move, as if the slimmest iota of motion will break something, not daring even to breathe.
Safka across from him in the booth, reaching over, poking him in the shoulder. Poke, poke. Wanna buy a typewriter? she asks, smiling. Safka Elizabeth McDougall. McDee. Walking in Hickory Hill Park toward the cemetery, flipping a mock sultry pose under the Black Angel, laughing. On a trip somewhere, anywhere, riding beside him in a late-night car, the momentary blindness from the approaching headlights, she’s talking and talking to keep him awake. Words spilling out in the green dashboard light, spirals of sentences, miles of America slipping behind them in the darkness. Blink your eyes and she’s gone.
He’s tired of seeing her when she’s never there, in all the old familiar places. The imaginary McDee. If he walks into his silent midnight kitchen and quickly flips on the light, she will be sitting at the table, reaching for a cigarette. He stands at the dark doorway, fingers curling around the switch. He stands motionless, still fingers on cool plastic.
When’s she coming back? friends ask him in the clubs and bars. Did she make it out of China safe? When’s she due back?
He begins to wish he had no friends.
This week, he says, maybe next.
The next becomes the next becomes the next. June teeters on the edge of July.
This is how history is made, he reminds himself, waiting for a phone call, waiting for a letter. This is how we’ve done it, all down through the ages.
He would sell his sister to the Martians for a cigarette right about now. If he had a sister. If there were any Martians.
But he doesn’t and there aren’t, so he has to settle for the no-nicotine jitters and the relentless urge to cave in somebody’s smiling face with a sledgehammer, which he doesn’t have either. Somedays, you never have what you need most, Martians, sisters, sledgehammers.
The Iowa City International Airport, his own little joke, their own little joke. As if anything could be international in this big corn state. Filtered airport light and filtered airport always smoke-free air and the background hum of not-quite-heard machinery and indecipherable squawkings from the PA. Planes land, take off, silent through the charcoal windows, aluminum dragonflies skittering above a pond of tasseling corn, people move here and there and back again here, responding to the squawkings, maybe, or the planes or some amoebae instinct to wander and split, wander and split. Turquoises and pinks and yellows swirling and the black Tigerhawk T-shirts bulging over the farmer’s gut everywhere. And the black Tigerhawk caps over faintly balding heads. In the gift shop, shelf after shelf of the T-shirts and caps and the Tigerhawk jackets and the Tigerhawk pillow cases and bedspreads and sheets and hairbrushes and tie-tacks and toothbrush holders and toilet seats; all screaming at you, you’re in Tigerhawk Country now, boy. So how ’bout that. You bet. The squashed, misconstrued silhouette of something like a bird’s head waiting for the rising mass roar on some fall afternoon when destiny and serendipity unroll on fake grass. Oh to be in Nebraska now that Nebraska’s here.
Waiting, waiting. Ransom tries to do the crossword, but the crossword won’t listen. His ears are trying to hear 247 from Minneapolis but the PA doesn’t seem to know English or French or any other language except Machine Gun Garble. Outside is a July morning, rasp of cicada and dry corn leaves rustling and the too-bright sphere of unbroken blue. In here is the whisper of unseen contraptions and the clutter of No-Smoking signs. Modern angles and plastic counters pretending to be wood. Hong Kong to Minneapolis to here, it’s simple really. Connect the blots. We’re an invention of time and space and we spend our moments connecting the two.
– Garble garble, says the PA.
Already a muddle of Tigerhawk caps and pastel print dresses in front of Gate 3 and no way to see through. A quickening beating heart and an unlit cigarette. There? No. There?
A blonde head and a white T-shirt. A shoulder bag. No tennis racket. Moving unhurried through the crowd. Unaware. A small smile. Waiting.
The T-shirt has bright crimson Chinese characters descending from the left breast. Steadily, slowly, without impatience, Safka steps around and through the chaos of luggage and embraces.
– I don’t know why I was so nervous, Safka says again. – I kept thinking you wouldn’t be there. I don’t know why.
A curious embrace in an airport, a swirl of color and breath, the July cornfields whipping by at 70 mph. A curve, a hill. Six years ago this same road, coming back from somebody or other’s wedding in the blizzard, no visibility and a lot of ice. That was the old VW Bug and the wind trying to blow you off the road and damn near succeeding, time after time. Back in town safe at Costello’s, Safka looks up from the bar. You know, I wasn’t nervous at bit until you told me you had to crank the wheel all the way to the left on that big right curve over the bridge. I’m really glad you waited to tell me until we were back in town. The blizzard, the curve, the bridge. The July cornfields are a blur.
– Of course I was going to be at the airport, Ransom says. – I haven’t seen you in a year. Where else would I be?
– I don’t know.
She lights a cigarette and stares out at the corn and the morning and doesn’t say anything for a moment, just watches it all flash by as if it were the first time. He watches the freeway straighten out and gently climb to the horizon where it will duck quickly down into the river valley and the town. Our town, somebody’s town. Out here is nothing but flashing cars and white lines and blurred corn and silence. He watches the highway uncurl and listens to nothing and waits for her to explain why they are here, at this moment, rushing down the road.
– This is really weird, she says. – I feel like I’m not here or something.
She crushes the cigarette in the ashtray and lights another.
– Do you know what I mean? she says. – I mean, last month I was in Beijing and Tiananmen Square and all that and then it was Hong Kong and all the TV people and now here it is July and I’m suddenly in Iowa and you’re driving me home. Home. What a weird word. I can’t even remember what the house looks like.
Constant goodbyes, continual hellos. Is it eight years or is it nine? The moment you’ve been waiting and waiting for finally arrives and you can’t remember anything to say and you’ve had all these years of practice.
– It just looks like a house, he says, a house in Iowa. With trees. Lots of trees.
– Trees, she says. – There’re hardly any trees in Beijing.
– Smith really likes the trees. She thinks they were invented so she could go squirrel hunting.
– Smith, she says. – Smith. How weird to see her again. I wonder if she’ll remember me.
– Of course she will. Cats never forget anybody. They just pretend to so they can maintain their image. It’s kind of an Eighties thing, like everything else.
Over the last rise and down into the valley, the exit ramp and the quiet little town hugging the hills. The golden dome, the dirt-crusted smokestacks. Everything just as it always was. Not much rain this year, the river’s down some, but otherwise.
– Wow, she says. – Iowa City. How weird.
– You gonna be okay, McDee?
– Oh, yeah. Of course. I guess it’s just that China really got under my skin.
– Yeah, he says, yeah. Of course. Right.
– No, Safka says. – I mean, China really got under my skin.
He is sitting on his porch, not thinking. It’s three in the morning, maybe. He never wears a watch. The only sound is the window fan up in the bedroom, trying to manufacture a breeze. He sits on his porch and tries not to think.
Under an ordinary moon nothing moves in the yard or among the trees. Even Smith is asleep, curled around Safka’s sweating neck in the bed. Sometime soon, without waking, she will push the cat off of her with a soft growl — Too hot — three in the morning and the temperature is still around ninety. The humidity, too. He listens to the whir of the fan blades coming through the night and the July air sits heavily beside him and drips.
He lights a cigarette and the woods and yard jump into sharp relief for a moment, a cheap movie set. Then gone. I remember when she bought that bed, the bed she’s sleeping in now, we weren’t living together yet, I helped her move it. That damned wrought-iron antique, it weighs as much as a battleship-and-a-half, and I moved it five times in the first four years. Then he stops thinking, remembering.
This is not how I imagined this day. I’m not exactly sure how I imagined it, but this isn’t it.
Scraps of Rilke, scraps of Yeats, running together, words words words, crazed gerbils rushing along on their rickety wooden wheel. I will arise and go now, and go to that deep uncanny mine of souls. And then some old Joni Mitchell song. This is just the arbutus rustling. He’s not sure what an arbutus is, exactly, or where he ever heard the song, but the line spins and spins.
He slips through his own house like a thief. Wearing the interior darkness like a favorite sweater. The refrigerator, the dining room table, the scattered chairs and the leaning bookcase leap clearly to his eyes as if there were a searchlight flooding through the rooms, isolating the objects. The old Gibson guitar off in the corner, still connected to the amp and chorus pedal. The cassette deck, still faintly whirring because the automatic stop hasn’t worked in two years. He steps carefully over the phone cord, strung out across the middle of the room, and turns the deck off. Even the cat doesn’t hear the click, his sneakered feet. Safka is lying naked, diagonally across the wrought-iron bed, the sheets tossed off in a lump beside her, and Smith is stretched on the pillow, trying to find a cool spot. Snick-snick, snick-snick, goes the fan in the window. Snick-snick, snick-snick. He looks at her quietly, at this body he knows so well, has known for so long. It seems, as he stands, staring through the black, to be the body of some brand-new species. Snick-snick, snick-snick. Snick-snick, snick-snick.
He steps silently back and out of the room, out of the house, snagging the half-empty bottle of champagne on the dining room table as he goes. A baton-pass still remembered by the hand and forearm muscles. The night is absolutely still, the champagne warm and flat like the air. Nothing moves but his arm as he tips the champagne bottle and his left hand as he smokes. The tip of the cigarette as it arcs and glows is the only light.
We are nothing but atoms in motion, continually changing, he reminds himself. If you could see yourself subatomically, you would be mostly space. It is coming on the Fourth of July, 1989, and the last month seems like a movie that happened to someone else. He watches it, amused. It’s almost a funny movie, like The Moderns. Yeah, well, Harte says, silly grin on his face. Ha-ha-ha, goes Ransom. Tomorrow they go out to the farm for the annual feast, beer and volleyball and fireworks, Anya and JJ and Laurie Ann and all the other people will be there, clucking and cooing over Safka because she’s just back from a year in China. Back from Tiananmen. She’ll be the star. Even JJ, who’s about as famous as you can get in this little place, even he won’t be able to upstage her this year. Then she’ll drop her little bit of news, and they will all stare at him with those big big kind of eyes.
In Costello’s, sitting in their booth in the back by the pool table, talking, trying to catch up on a year. She has just showed him how to do a Chinese fortune with a deck of cards. With no context at all, she looks at him with sudden bright, almost too-bright, blue-green eyes.
I’m going back to China at Christmas, she says. To marry a Chinese man. The one you talked to on the phone. You must understand. I’ve got to get him out of there. Must.
He can feel the looks already, how they will touch his face and back and shoulders tomorrow, sitting on his quiet porch, in these wee midnight hours. Life is slapstick, and then you don’t die, you keep right on laughing, always laughing with the people so they’re not laughing at you. Ha-ha-ha, goes Ransom.
Mostly space. He reminds himself as he stares out at his still night. Atoms in motion. Snick-snick, snick-snick, comes the sound from the bedroom. Snick-snick, snick-snick.
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