You never think you’re one of those people whose idea of death involves jumping from a roof, but then again you’ve been known to surprise yourself. It just so happens the idea has always been intriguing to me, you say. Still it would be an exhilarating way to go—the ground sailing up to meet you, the rushing of all the lights and the window panes—all of that and none of the fuss at the end, just a moment in which all the blackness of the great still world pulled itself over your eyelids.
She was walking beneath the streetlamps, her back was glistening in the orange light, a train roared and then stopped, you quickened your steps but the longer your stride the farther away she appeared—
Just ask yourself: What would be your final thought, rushing down under all that black?
You didn’t want to be alone, so instead of going home you got off at the flower market and walked. You just wanted to be around people, didn’t you, wanted to know that there was someone else out there. You moved among the throngs of onlookers in their zigzag clothes and pacified stares. It didn’t matter who they were, it didn’t matter if you’d ever see them again, whether it was raining outside, whether they were lonely or occupied, whether they’d loved or they hadn’t—it didn’t matter if you never knew their names or knew whether they too appreciated you here, passing among them.
You didn’t want to go back to the flat on Shanghai St. That was no good—that would only make you more lonely, sitting in the blue-painted room [the room had acquired a spaciousness these days], how it yawned before you when you undid the lock, standing at the threshold… You were wandering down the flower market that night, passing lovers, passing old folks in their night slippers, padding with their hands clasped behind their backs like runaway statues. The storefronts brim with floral displays and the stamens impaled on foamboard reach out with fragile palms. There’s prearranged bouquets and there’s little potted bonsais too. You moved through it all and toward the plaza where the revelers were spilling out from the MTR stop. The fabric of bobbing heads and frames entwined hand-in-hand and leaning on shoulders—there was a chance you might see her—you kept searching deeper in the crowd with the hopes of finding her, you imagined picking her out from the crowd and feeling everything around you wash away as you approached her. Fancy seeing you here, she will have said. I’ve been looking all over for you, you will have replied. She’s chewing gum and her cheek muscles firm and slack around her black Yoko shades. She’s got a baggy black shirt on and black jeans and big-tongued boots and the thin blades of her eyebrows are just poking over the sunglasses in an arc—you can’t see her eyes but she’s got a hand on her hip and her shoulders sag in their usual sunken posture. She smells like a heady mixture of jasmine and cigarettes. Well what do you have to say for yourself, Inspector Chan? Only that I’ve missed you. The crowd is all stopped and staring. I knew you would say that, she will have said with disgust.
When the first incident happened, it could easily be passed off as a fluke. So many people at this godforsaken place, the human traffic so busied and what with operations underway on multiple stories and, you know, easily this man could have fallen—by pure accident—to his unfortunate death fifteen meters below. Why not? In any case it sounded good. When the second incident happened—on the complete opposite side of the compound and, as far as anyone knew, during the least busied of the manufacturing shifts—then came the raising of eyebrows.
When the third incident happened, the out-of-state journalists started to arrive. Like sharks sniffing blood. Well there was plenty of that. The third man had jumped from the sixth floor balcony of the company dormitories—South wing, building no. 2 [that was it, just a big ‘2’]—and the noise was so disheveling it shook the air in the ears of Liu Wei Bi, an otherwise quiet and unassuming young woman who happened to be sitting in the room across from that mundane slab of concrete, her tiny window just slightly fogged with the moisture left behind by a recently quelled rain. The sound the body made was not a thud. It was like the splitting crunch of tupperware trampled by a racehorse.
The movie of your life would be dull at best: You’re born. You’re a Chan. You remember your grandfather hunched on a stool, how he shoveled the entire bowl of rice in his mouth at once. There he is stabbing his shadow with his chopsticks, shouting Cocksucking Japs! into the paint-cracked wall. You grow older. Your mother in the mirror has her scissors angled against an unruly thread, streaming from the vermillion dress like a pennant. Because you are alone, you invent characters out of a Figurare notebook and a black Uni-ball pen. It turns out there are dozens, hundreds of these characters waiting silently under the paper, biding their time for the day you’ll chisel them out of it. You go to university. It’s nothing like you’ve seen in movies. You join the police academy. Your father’s beard grows more severe. You meet a call girl named Leila Yu Chau in a bar and before you know it she’s taken refuge in the cool, dark apartment. And just as quickly she’s gone again, and four weeks or so pass and it happens that you find her on a routine disturbance call, pinwheeled in coitus beneath a pruning cadaver.
—It was only a fling, okay, you can’t read too much into it—you were waiting outside the movie theater, it was some Portuguese film and you couldn’t pronounce the name of it, she came walking up with her cigarette all wisping, the Yau Ma Tei evening crowds were beginning to fill up the streets, she was giggling to herself as she approached you— Did you fear that she wouldn’t show up that night? Were you standing there with that copper-colored dog and her nose ablaze with the wings of paper money churning like birds in a storm?
In your first erotica, you just called her Flor. In that one your archetype was a call girl from the mainland, from the old Hakka villages east, the round tulous that housed hundreds of the same kin. A single family for a single tulou. She did something intolerable—she ran away with a second cousin, a tinsel-lipped handicap who instructed her in the ways of the erotic arts. They made it two days across Yongding County, then the family sent a search party and hunted them down. They dragged her by the hair all the way back to the village; they cut off his balls and hung him from a signpost to bleed. The years went on—we learn this all through flashback—and the tourists started pouring into the county. Northerners with big cameras and fistfuls of cigarettes—they even brought in comb-stiff Wen Jiabao to kiss the babies. The tourism board and the ministry of culture couldn’t get enough of the magical tulous. At last it’s a Hong Kong policeman on leave in the mainland who falls for her through the slats of the granary. They make love in the barn and engineer her escape in nearly the same scene. She runs off with him to the Island, where she falls in with the Filipinos on Wan Chai. That’s who names her Flor. Long story short, the policeman falls into unrequited love; Flor prefers his sometime-lover from the civic planning committee. The sometime-lover dies.
—Just what were you doing with all these stories? How did you grow so morbid in the first place? You were young, there wasn’t a vicious bone in your body, you’d believe anything with the right amount of intrigue—
When she came home with that dog you thought you’d love her forever. How quickly you fall into the desperation of feeling. A burnt-auburn coat, brown-sugar eyes: the face of a creature that should have been a human, but fell into the wrong gene pool. Row-DEE-zhen ridge-aback—she ovalmouthed in English—I’ve already named her. Do I have a say? Are you ready for it? …Gaoji! Isn’t it precious! You’re naming her after a dumpling? Duh! Just look at her face! But you had to admit, you kind of liked it. There was a white streak between her eyes that wasn’t necessarily reminiscent of the folds of a dumpling. She’s beautiful, you decided. Like duh she is, Leila snorts in reply.
—Was it something you said that pressed her into leaving? Did she grow tired of you? Did she find another lover, less tremulous than you?
But then you found that foreigner.
It was a clear morning, you were remembering, the morning after a typhoon—no one was on the streets, everything was bathed in the surreal calm of overturned garbage bins and the toppled trusses of bamboo scaffolding—
Was there a violin playing through an open window to the tune of Chopin?
Was the sky blue and skeined with clouds—a perfect formation?
What about the angle where you saw the sky, hemmed in by the two bluffs of public housing towers, so that the view you saw was just a slice of blue and scattered white, [like a patch affixed to a bruise,] where below, down the broken windpipe of the alleyway, the body lay slumped and disfigured in a puddle—manhandled by the light?
—There was nothing you could have done, the other cops were standing around and picking at their teeth and laughing, the one called Fung barked at you to go check it out—what were you supposed to do?
It was mid-autumn. Two days had passed since you found Leila Yu Chau in a love motel, her body still warm, tangled on the heart-shaped bed. They manhandled her out before they manhandled him. A little light was fluttering through the curtains, submerging the room in an aqueous palette. The toxicology reports would come back negative.
—Then what did she die of?
A broken heart, they said.
Meanwhile, across the border, the incidents begin to climb. One by one they find them: four stories, eight stories, twenty stories below. The company installs massive blue nets on the facades of the dorms.
About that Ms. Liu Wei Bi, though: when she walked outside to see what had caused that crunching-of-tupperware noise, her toe dipped into a pool of hot, running froth, and the shriek that followed could be heard across all the dormitories of South wing, building no. 2 [and approximately one-third of East wing and some pockets of North wing], as she collapsed on the spot and struck her head on the curb, the blood from her non-mortal bruise mingling with the blood on the ground in gentle cross-currents like lapping tongues at a bowl of milk.
A good Gaoji will always comfort her master, and that’s why I never give up when Ka Yau is sad.
Sometimes, when Ka Yau stares out the window for a lot of breaths, or when Ka Yau bangs his head against the mirror, bangs it very gently, very slowly brings his head to the glass—it’s easy to let the weight of the world pull you down from the belly. But that’s when a good Gaoji digs in her heels.
Ka Yau was looking at me again. ‘You know what the truth is? Do you even want to know?’ I try to focus my eyes all soft-like toward him to mean like I mean. ‘You don’t. It’s okay. I’m going to tell you anyway.’ But then he doesn’t tell me. He just looks out the window.
I give a little whelp to make like I understand.
‘Don’t give me that look, la. She’s not coming back.’
I need to try harder. That’s what a good Gaoji would do.
‘Better not to think about it, la.’
His eyes were on the window. A window where you can see the whole world below. I know it’s hard. Everywhere I look, it’s the same. The place with the flashing pictures where Ka Yau takes me for walks or the big vault with the smells of burning paper inside. Everywhere people are trying, I think. I think this thought really hard for a while, and I decide that it’s true. Everywhere people are trying. Trying, trying.
Ka Yau doesn’t seem to hear me. ‘You can’t let the things you don’t have spoil your enjoyment of the things you can and do,’ he says to no one out loud. Though I like to think he’s saying it to me.
Of all the things that Ka Yau does, his love for walk-time is the best of all, ever. We go out on dirty days like this, Ka Yau and me, and we walk the whole width of the peninsula together.
Pe-nin-su-la. That’s what it’s called. Ka Yau told me so.
On days like these I feel I’m the luckiest Gaoji in the world. We walk along the port, and all the smells rush up to me. Ka Yau takes me by the big vault. He takes me up the great stairs that look over the water. Then we go up the rooftops with their empty shoes and bags and all the dust stirring.
Did you know that on the rooftops you can see all the lives of the people? Bags and purses, shoes and shiny things, little strips of colored paper that people at the big vault light on fire and dance to.
And then Ka Yau goes up to the edge all slow-like, he looks out on all the people below, and it’s enough to make all the light shrink against his shoulder blade.
But I know. I know that Gaoji will never understand these things.
Still, I don’t resent the things I don’t understand. A lucky Gaoji like me? How can I be so selfish? There isn’t room for those kinds of thoughts in a Gaoji. When we’re walking through the peninsula, I can only think my good-Gaoji thoughts. It’s a privilege, after all. It’s a privilege to be so loved and so alone in the world, I think, as I walk the smelly-blue pe-nin-su-la with him.
They feared the copycat acts after that, after the third incident. It turned out he was a sad-eyed farmboy from Xiangxi, just a kid, with coarse hair the color of spent tea leaves and his skin braised from the sun. The reporters hunted down his mother and father, of course. They blinked into the recorders and the felt microphones. His dormmates said he was quiet, small-mouthed. He did not have any friends to speak of.
The fourth incident, when it happened, happened different. With men it was understandable, they said, it was an issue of honor He was acting out of virtue We can never know the depth of a troubled man’s thoughts— But a she? What a scandal What was she thinking, sad girl A disease, an affliction She was disturbed Women are creatures of emotion There will be no reprieve for her family, she has shamed them they have not heard the end of this A disastrous creature to bring into the world She must have deserved it Sadness drove her to self-pity…
Some time passed before the police released the identity. Wei Ye Li: factory girl. Eighteen years old. Arrived in Guangdong on a train the fifth of August, not one year ago. Sent all but one-tenth of her paycheck back home. Where was she from? Jiangsu, they said. Hometown in Weidong, but the money went to an address in Zhulei. A sad story, they said. She was found beneath her dorm, both her legs broken, her lower vertebrae snapped. She did not leave a note. The blood was matted to her eyes, dark and wide beneath the dorm’s shadow.
Mid-autumn, and the clouds were pinned to the sky like eager ancestors. The body was in the trunk. The rain was starting to gather overhead as you pulled the precinct car to a halt.
—What were you doing that dim afternoon, the firmament brooding like a dove-thick broth?
What happened was you’d loaded the corpse. The blood was matted in soft plumes on the foreigner’s forehead. You turned up the reticular belly of Cheung Sha Wan. Where Cheung Sha Wan met Lai Chi Kok you saw the port all broiling before the afternoon dark and all the schooners rocking fidgety on the water, and the bigger freighters in their primary colors busy with cargo. Up the road called Container Port Rd there were the enormous cranes, silent and prayerful, and there were the enormous Lego stacks of containers. You turned off one of the roads that led to where the city escaped from view. At that point there were the main roads, the ones that went to Tsing Yi and Tsuen Wan or on up to Tuen Mun, and then there were the roads that didn’t go there. There was more green, some menacing forest, thin at first and then gathering like a sore or like a bruise. Some service roads, some little-used exits leading into developments that were at war with the bruise. There were roads that hugged the coast and roads that disappeared into the green altogether. There were plateaus of blasted land there where Caterpillars idled in their tracks.
You were thinking about the foreigner. How did he end up in that alleyway, his face rendered, his eyes folded in on themselves, the pulp oozing from his eardrums and collating? Foreigners didn’t get killed here; no one messed with foreigners. You rolled the car to a stop along a mud-clung ridge that faced the water. It was the only place you could think to go. You’d come out here when you first completed academy. The chiefs had taken all the new recruits out and got you blitzed on gnarly bai jiu until the sun went down and you were all seeing green. Then they blindfolded you and tied you to some trees and the chiefs drove off laughing into the night. Drunk-blind, the sun was coming up when you finally stumbled into Kowloon. Had you ever seen a morning so sad as that? Police work, said a green-eyed recruit even younger than you, a fair-skinned one with a Western cheekbone. That’s what I signed up for, didn’t you say, appearing tough. Name’s Guy, said the young one. If this is police work, put me in a mailroom.
The ridiculous end to the story was that you’d landed in a mailroom, the two of you, in the Yau Ma Tei annex, a place where they threw the cream-puff cops with the cushy family connections that precluded their dismissal. You learned the insides of that smoky basement soon enough. You were out of the car and standing before the trunk, key in hand, key angled at the lock, inches from the lock, not moving. The clouds rumbled. Your hand had never shaken—that was true. It had never shaken, not in the firing rehearsals, not in the fitness exams. It stood suspended in air like that, unmoving, unsure of its autonomy anymore.
—Did you find the foreigner in the alley like that, the blood sticking, the stench gathering, the other cops in their sky-blue uniforms laughing as they drove off and left you with him? They’d told you it was your time to prove your worth, didn’t they, and you stood there with your chest raging and your insides coiled. You looked up to the sky, where a violin hummed. It didn’t appear like he had jumped, but then—could you know for sure?
Were you supposed to throw it in a dumpster? Was there a special cemetery that crooked cops took useless bodies to? Was there a number you were supposed to call? You suddenly felt naïve at all those stories you’d written before, the ones with the cop protagonists who fall in love with dangerous women. You can’t just make this stuff up, you conclude. You dug the key in the lock and popped open the lid. The thing had already gathered the grisly musk of decay. The white sheet stared flatly at you from the bed of the trunk. The white sheet seemed to move the slightest inch. The blood-plumes had crept their way through the other side. You’re not a pansy, you tell yourself. You’re gonna get rid of this body or else.
But you don’t get rid of the body. At first you turned to face the earth and then you realized you didn’t have a shovel. And then after thinking about it for some time you were on the ground, tearing at the earth with gloomy fists. Then the rain started. A couple harmless dollops turned in an instant to a steady stream, pelting your hands and neck; the pitiful hole collapsed into a muddied trough. You stopped, panting and soaked, your hands all black, your white button-down splattered. Well what do you have to say for yourself, Inspector Chan? Only that I’ve missed you, you might have said aloud.
You’ve been working on a new piece lately. The opening paragraph is ethereal, solemn, forlorn. The narrative voice stumbles along in that same voice you always use, by turns resigned and sensuous, and you hate it but it’s the only way you know to make sense of it all.
Would you like to hear it?
Lay it on me, you say.
It’s not bad, really.
It could be better.
With the rain coming down in fitful spasms, you turn around, defeated, and go back to the flat on Shanghai St. You leave the body in the trunk, in the precinct car, parked outside the stippled building.
—Could you just walk to the edge of the roof, and see what it was like up there, and forget the ways that the world leapt before you in all its grotesquerie?
It wouldn’t be sad, you think. You wouldn’t even feel very much. And sometimes life is like that, isn’t it? you say to that copper-colored dog, her eyes looking as if they know, or trying very hard to know, copper tail vaguely entertained.
Yes, you decide. Sometimes life is like that. But you need to find out what happened to that foreigner. In some weird, trippy logic it seems like the only way to honor the life of Leila Chau. A body for a body. A story for a story. You might make her own life more intelligible— which is to say your life, or her own life as it crossed with yours, —by resolving, somehow, the story of his—
Research, you tell yourself. For your next big work.
—Would the ground whistle up to you, as it hurled at you from below? Would it sing or would it bellow? Would it make a sound at all?
At your feet, a pair of sneakers lie cozied against the roof’s pitched lip, filling up with water like a pair of teacups. Dirty, worn-down, empty but for the trilling of the rain, they appear to you like a relic from a long-lost era, a time when shoes were more quaint, and less necessary, than now.