Manuscript no. 4863 was sealed by two browned hands, creased and hard as halved nutmegs. They slipped the manuscript in a padded manila folder, then sealed it. The late afternoon light was stealing in through the windows, the languid movements of the hands over the manuscript testifying to a long day’s exhaustions. But they also communicated tenderness, the hands. There was something deliberate about the way they traced the edges of the paper. One could tell these were strong hands, hands versed in hard things—hands that knew work, hands that were worked. Like mesmerized relics they stood astonished at the product of their craft. One knew this by the way they moved in reverence over the manuscript, how they drew their long fingers across it as across the body of a lover reclined before an ocean, the moonlight white and supple on her shoulders. This was how the hands moved across the manuscript. They tucked the padded manila folder away, switched off the light at the desk strewn with other, lesser papers in orbit around it. They turned slowly to the door and loosened the knob. Then they closed the door again behind them and carried on into the afternoon.
Manuscript no. 2562 was folded into a white envelope by white, mothlike hands. They trembled as they worked the manuscript into a tri-fold, first creasing the bottom third to meet the middle, then folding the top third over the bottom two, like that. The hands were mosquito-bit and knuckly. Their movements were ginger, as if on the verge of breaking. As if the manuscript could break them, the hands. They seemed detached from the movements. At the mercy of them, one could say. In spite of the trembling, though, the tri-fold was expertly proportioned. One could tell these were hands that had done their share of tri-folding. Their whiteness was the whiteness of terrified moths but it was also the whiteness of discarded shells. Washed ashore and verging on breaking. Feebly yet purposefully moving—the purposefulness of hands that knew they were on the verge and meant to dig their heels in and take it. When the manuscript had been folded into the white envelope, the hands raised them to a pair of stained lips and the lips licked the adhesive strip and let the hands fold it over to seal the envelope. Then they turned to the door, or to the hallway, or to the sea, and they gingerly made their way toward the street, the manuscript tucked in the fold of one’s palm.
And that was the last that anyone saw of manuscript no’s 4863 and 2562.
- The trail begins with journals. Psoriatic leaflets, homemade stacks of paper folded and stapled together, miserably. The earliest ones are just repositories of words of interest: cadmium; subrayado; Mississippi; hypertrophic. Sometimes the definitions are penned in beside them.
- An entire page devoted to the word ‘pluscuamperfecto’ and its profound sonic beauty, ‘which in any language has got to be one of the most arresting words mankind has managed to invent.’ He literally uses the word ‘arresting’.
- Near the back: a curious pseudo- dust jacket. Enumerating his successes, his manifold literary triumphs. None of which can be verified.
Somewhere after the dawn of that New Year, after that 2006 of trellised hours and empty open engagements with the future, Paraná got his scalp shaved by a book. Extrasensory perception, levitational tugs around his shoulders and beneath his thighs (which were folded, at the time, in an amateur lotus pose), Dickinsonian burning in the general vicinity of the telencephalon, all of that.
But actually—we note here with a certain pastoralism—Pedro’s literary career had begun long before, in those same slums of Delganos to which his first thirteen years had been consigned. It was here that he penned his first poem. He was nine, ten, maybe eleven years old. It rhymed and made sense (‘The big jelly lids of houses / Are raining loud on the plain’), and the young writer, should his journals be believed, thereupon came to a realization: there was no future in poetry.
Nevertheless, he kept writing. Preliminary reports tell the story of a struggling author, recklessly pushing language to unsettling, if largely nonsensical, places. To say that Pedro Paraná was prolific, in these early years, would be to understate a very massive point. His name appears, in some form or another,† on no less than 249 manuscripts, journals, transcriptions, and manifestos—nearly all of them self-published, in un-trafficked-by IP cul-de-sacs of the Internet.
Of these writings, one can delineate a more or less intelligible progression in thematic, stylistic, and formal concerns. This progression can rather clearly be divided into two periods of production, each governed by distinct aesthetic sensibilities. The first period, what we might call his ‘Early Writings’, consists largely of poems and Zhuangzi-ish fragments of narration. There is a playful, albeit hapless, tone to these early works, often relishing in the inanities of language with fecund spontaneity and zest. That is, they are almost without exception all esoteric, self-absorbed, and of little interest to anyone other than a prescriptive and ever-present ‘you’ that haunts the text like a cavity, to a point of annoyance. Despite a pervasive sense of juvenilia, willed narcissism, and confusion, these early poems are remarkably diverse in their composition and appurtenance. While on the whole they seem to be concerned with the use of formal mechanisms and heavily ornamented lexicon for the express purpose of subverting and thereby mocking them, one can detect no discernible propensity for a unifying style in these works, which range from the Šalamun-reminiscent tercet to a poem entitled ‘Things To Do,’ exhorting the reader to ‘Slice that darkened loaf. // Slice that darkened loaf. // Slice that darkened loaf’ in a haunting triad of flush-left directives. ††
By contrast, his later oeuvre consists exclusively of web-disseminated pulp-fiction kung fu novels.
It’s unclear exactly when this switch happened. But it seems to revolve around the book alluded to above—the author and the title of which remain unknown.
† See, for example, the following: Pedro Paraná, P. Para Ná, firstname.lastname@example.org, P. Paraná, P. P’á, P.P., Pedro P’ná, Pedro del Paraná, P. Para, chief magistrate of the Ná people; others.
†† Goes like this:
Things To Do
Slice that darkened loaf.
Slice that darkened loaf.
Slice that darkened loaf.
Tony Chan was at the window. The lights of the street scene streaming beside him splashed over the drawn-out features of his face. The bus was rattling down the lane and his palm was sweating as he gripped the handrail. When the bus would lurch to a stop everyone standing like Tony was thrust forward and yanked back with their hands in their handle-hoops, in unison, like choreographed marionettes. Set in his long gaze, Tony stood tall and slim at the window. With the neon coming out over Nathan Road his faced looked diluted and sober from the other side of the glass. His whole back was sweating. He was probably taller than eighty percent of the people in Hong Kong and this gave him a winsome presence. Which, he’d been incapable of using this to his favor throughout his life. It had been six hours in the bus and the city had gone from scorched-orange to gray-orange to pallid to dark. The sweat was gathering in neat compact beads upon his forehead. The hot August night thick against the window pane.
At Shantung Street he got off. The bus driver squinted at him from the overhead mirror. He might have shook his head. Tony wasn’t there. He was somewhere else, head hovering above his shoulders like a balloon, attached by a string at the topmost vertebra. You can ride the 112 from North Point up to Kowloon and Castle Peak Rd. and on into Sham Shui Po packed in beneath the shrubby mane of Lion Rock and back down again, in one route. The drivers switched four times at each of the route’s termini and the first one came back in rotation and said something like Really? to Tony and Tony didn’t think about saying anything back. He was thinking about Leila Chau and how she died in a love motel somewhere between midnight and twelve thirty in the afternoon, and how when the ambulances drove off from the scene and he was left standing there on the corner he walked to the bus stop and rode it twelve times up and down the length of Kowloon, from the So Uk public housing estate terminus, to the clover-leafed roads cinching Hung Hom to TST, and on through the Cross-Harbour Tunnel into Hong Kong Island.
Is this the residence of Inspector Chan Ka Yau?
Erm, this is his cell—
Can you take a message?
Can you take a mess-age. It’s a simple request.
[How did he know that voice?]
…Okay, since you’re not going to answer, I’m just going to tell you.
This is him spea—
Can you tell him, if you don’t mind, can you pass on this message for me? Tell him he left his balls at the Steer and Hide last week.
[The Steer and—?]
[Then it hit him.] Whoa—! Hey, how—how do you expect me to call you? You just up and left—didn’t leave a number or anything. And—wait—how did you get my number? This isn’t even the office line. Am I missing something here? …Hello? …Leila?
He pulled his hand away. The blinking soundless blue of the cell phone. He wondered how long he’d been talking to himself. He gave it a few seconds, holding the phone like an awkward antique. Swallowed, took a breath, and ran the lines over in his head, but just before he’d cycled through the incoming calls list, the phone buzzed in his hand again.
[On. A big breath—]
One week. One whole week. How long does a girl have to wait around here? Honestly, Inspector Chan, you claim you’re a cop, but if you ask me, the least you could do was dig up a girl’s number in a phone book.
[Tony couldn’t get a word in.]
When you find your balls again, tell them to get off their asses and give a girl a ring.
The finality of her tone made it clear she had hung up again. Oh ai-ya, Tony said. He didn’t know whether to feel excited at Leila’s calling him a week after what he thought would be a one-night stand or feel nervous at the not knowing what to say, to get it right, with this girl, not wanting to fuck anything up, and like. Also he was getting a boner.
A big breath and then he cycled back to the number that was marked twice now on the incoming calls. Hit [Send].
After a few beeps, it stopped ringing. He waited for a second. He thought the call might’ve been dropped. He pulled back his hand to see; the call was running. He put his lips back to the receiver, opened them as if to speak, paused—
Cat got your tongue?
[Totally taken aback.] Hey—
Well, I have to hand it to you, Inspector Chan, you were really quick on the draw that time. But now the moment has come, and you’ve lost your balls again.
Easy, now. No one’s coming just yet. [Where the fuck did that come from? But he approved of his counter. She seemed not to know what to say, for a moment. He could hear her breaths rising and falling on the other end, imagined her breasts rising and falling with them.]
I’m gonna call you back, Mr. Chan.
Huh? Wait—I didn’t mean—
[Nothing.] Ai-ya! What did two people have to do to ? He was certain he’d said the wrong thing. But before he could parse it, the phone rang again. He didn’t check to see the number, finger bolting for the answer button—
Look, had you left your number with me in the first place—
Huh? Is this the Chan residence?
The Chan residence. Is this the Chan residence? [A muffled, serrated voice. Different than the one before.] This is Marta from the Doggy Hotel.
[We’re calling to confirm that you will be coming tomorrow night, that’s Tuesday the eighth, to pick up the new Maltese?
The new Maltese? [The new Maltese?!]
Under the name of a, this, L. Chau. Said you would be coming.
It’s a beautiful litter, nine in all. You should be glad you asked us first. They’ll be gone before morning.
Right…L. Chau, you said. [He was shaking his head.] What time?
Eight-thirty. Ms. Chau said don’t be late, because the movie starts at nine.
See you tomorrow, Mr. Chan. Thanks for your support of our mission to find homes for dogs off the street.
He was in the apartment on Shanghai Street with the view of the neon gauze just below. Whoever this girl was, she wasn’t lacking in personality. That much was clear. And he couldn’t get his mind off the way her hips had moved over his, a week ago. He’d been thinking about that all week. It took him back, didn’t it, that she had been so…forthcoming with it all. She was in control the whole time. Tony’s male mind’s wanting to assume the assertive role had flared, instinctive-like, when she pulled herself over him, but he tried once and she gracefully swept his hands away. And of course, there was the perfume.
Then the phone rang again.
This time he looked at the number. He’d wanted it to be Leila’s, but it was Fish, calling from the station.
Har har! Ai-ya, Chan, we’re all here, the hell are you!
Coming, on my way.
The table’s getting cold. The table! Ahahahaha!
Out the door as we speak—
Lau’s starting to eat his wedding band. No, Lau, not the ring!
Literally moving out the door, shoes tied and every—
The pieces are practically chattering here, on the table. Like teeth. Someone stop this man!
Locking my door, heading down the stairs—
The ring, Chan! The riiiiiiing!
He made his way down the familiar streets. The flashbacks were flooding his lungs, his nose, his ears, his throat; his whole body porous and powerless to the memories washing over him. The air was sticky with various moistures. Wafts of hot oil off woks, the saccharine sweat of bodies. Throngs of people moved in and out from him, the shapes of the throngs shifting and churning like waves. He made his way under the neon lights of love motels, through the fishy perfumes of squids impaled on barbecue spits, over the puffs of exhaust vents and laundromats. He wandered with his eyes up at the chunky concrete buildings hung with air cons. He’d make his way down Temple Street, he’d move past the noodle alley run by the woman from Chongqing who daubed the bottoms of his soup bowls with Sichuan chilies and peppercorns before ladling the broth in. The night market at Temple St. was humming at this hour. He felt the sharp wreck of memories pull him toward it. He wandered under the lights, his brow creased. He wanted to not think about those things but at the same time he was afraid the memories would disappear if he just let them smolder away. No matter how much it hurt he wanted to hold his body over them. He wanted to remember how the first weeks his tongue wouldn’t move around her, was paralyzed, as if underwater, had no power over this girl. Where all the restaurants were, the people were out on the plastic stools around foldable tables with fake mahogany paint jobs, laughing, drinking, smoking, chewing, plucking legs of deep-fried crab with chopsticks and dipping them into ramekins of soy and chili, reaching across the table toward the mouths of wives, husbands, lovers, whores. He kept moving toward the art house and the King of Coconut with its sugarcane stalks hacked and strapped against the wall. The going rates flashed about and played on the smooth curves of his face in pinks and astonished blues. Russian - $530HKD Japanese - $490HKD Chinese - $450HKD Filipino - $340HKD Tony turned the corner and felt at the keys in his pocket to the Yau Ma Tei precinct annex, to the side entrance down to the basement, down to his office.
—Well whattaya know. Is he alive? Ladies and gentlemen I think he’s a-live!
Tony nodded at the one they called Fish. The others looked up at him and asked where he’d been.
—We’ve already started without you, said the phlegmatic one, the mail clerk.
Fish again said, Well whattaya know. Then again, they were all mail clerks.
—I got pulled for a case today, Tony said.
—We knew it! Fish slapped his hand on the table. That’s twenty, each of you.
—We never bet on that.
—It was just you.
The mahjong table hiccuped.
—What was it?
—The call. The young one called Guy made room for him at the table.
—Tony’s beside himself. He can’t stand it! He’s been called up! The big leagues!
—No, Tony said. Double death. In a motel.
Fish sucked his teeth, slapped the table. —The Big Leagues!
—Wrongful death, maybe, but doesn’t look like—a homicide.
—You sure have moved up, big Tony. Who’s got a beer for our professional sleuth?
Guy moved in with his eyes all big. —Double death?
The pieces were assembled on the table. —One of them—some knob from who knows. The other… the other a college kid, had to be.
—Now we’re talking! Ha!
Tony shook his head, his chest pinched on a hinge. —Not a whore. I’ll take that. He took the beer.
Guy’s eyes were most expressive under fake Tiffany lamplight like this, the rest of the room dark. Spaghetti-shard hues of wine-dark red and ivy-green, the light. His eyes a sort of green because his father was German.
—Was it bloody? he asked.
Tony took a very long suck at his beer.
—How bout this, Fish blurted. We play doubles this round, as in double or nothing, you have to double whatever bet you put in last. To give Tony a chance to catch up, how about it?
—Don’t count me in, tonight.
—Something’s on his mind, this Tony here. —Lau, the mail clerk.
—It wasn’t bloody. Not a speck of blood. Tony could tell by Guy’s eyes he was interested. The young clerk came on a few months ago and had slowly warmed to the idea of mailroom-detail ‘police’ work. Which was to say—
—Tell you what! If Tony’s not in, we’ll still play doubles, to let you all catch up!—
—I’m being charitable!—
Tony shook his head. The beer was cold and he felt his body cooling as it slid down his throat. The fan hissed around the table. Cigarettes were going all around. Lau was smoking his dejectedly, his chair a little slant from the rest of them.
—So what was it?
—Like Buddha-quality compassion, over here! Haha!
—Tellin ya, somethin on the guy’s mind, this Tony right here.
Guy sat back in his chair. —At least you got some action.
Fish hopped up on his chair and waved his cigarette about theatrically. He had another burning in the ashtray. —Hear ye, hear ye! Now you’re spoiling the fun, big Tony. We’re happy for you! Aren’t we happy, boys?
Lau looked incredibly languid, slouched in his chair.
—Beers all around! Who wants some whiskey?
—I’ll get the whiskey, Guy offered.
—Walker Red! Red label, red label! Fish was hopping up and down on his chair, his belly jiggling like a bowlful of Jell-O.
Tony sucked at his beer. —I think I’ll save it for another day. He suddenly felt incredibly sad that he was here.
Fish was a squat, not really muscular, Cantonese with a mirthful face and glasses. Lau was older—mid-fifties—and woefully married. He was doing the thing he always did where he took his wedding band off and was walking it along between the grooves of his knuckles, spinning it occasionally on the mahjong table. Guy didn’t have glasses and was bony and thin. Tony was thin and handsome and his features were dark. From the TV in the corner came the raised voices of a Canton historical drama. The characters were huddled around a TV and there were opium pipes going around and they were yelling something about slitting the throats of a small group of Japanese.
Tony went out to get some noodles. Temple Street smelled like burnt ink. It made no sense, something smelling like burnt ink, but at the time it was the thought that happened to come. So in its own way it made some sort of twisted sense. Tony tried to conjure the smell of jasmine back to his lungs but he couldn’t, in the glare of the hot lights. The thing with you, said the woman from Chongqing, is you never order anything different. I already like what you make, Tony replied. If I gave you a Peking duck you wouldn’t know what to do with it, she said. Tony shrugged, his lips dashed with red from the spicy noodles. She gave him a long look, her hands still moving with tidal repetition over the aluminum countertop. She had small, dark eyes set like kernels into her puffy cheeks. As she scrutinized Tony all oceanic, her hands moved with a mind of their own, as if they were part of a separate being—separating bean sprouts, shaping scooplets of raw pork and cabbage into tiny discs and setting them aside. He noticed her eyes on him, drawing at him. He swallowed an oversized chunk of dumpling and coughed. She laughed. The noodle alley was hot and hung with shadows as usual and across the street the wash of neon lights kept up with its nightly splashing against the storefronts. If I already know that I like your noodles, why would I order anything else? I’m not your mother, I don’t need to tell you what to eat and not eat. That’s true, Tony said. The question is, what’s eating you, anyway? Before he could answer, another customer came up to where Tony was sitting and coughed out an order. The woman from Chongqing slid away to fetch a styrofoam cup. As soon as she opened the lid to the pot where the wontons were churning in the fierce broth, her face disappeared behind a billow of steam. He was thinking about the time Leila called the week after they’d slept together and she tricked him into buying a puppy for her at an animal shelter. Then how they watched Volver in the art house down the street and afterwards fucked until the light streamed through his curtains onto the little Buddha statue hung with blinking red and green LEDs, which he hadn’t bothered to shut off as they plunged into the bed. ▶