Pigs don’t fly; sin is not natural. Well that was one way to think about it. [Some Chinese pop music scratching at the Sorento interior.] ‘I never…would have think…you know, …in China, we think, … this is not natural. … You— [finger pointing from the front seat—accusatory? liminal? didactic? what?] — you know, very difficult… very difficult know your family has kill…himself. No, [wagging it now] very, very difficult. Very shame. Very shame, this is.’
‘Can I roll the window down?’
‘Window? Oh window. Oh yes, sure, sure.’ [finger retreating]
Hills like white elephants, these are definitely not. Definitively—not. —Like decaying teeth. More like it.
‘You know, I think… [turning from the front again] you not know, very difficult be here. For this, special car. Special—[like he’s practiced it]—occasion.’
‘Isn’t this a Korean?’
‘I’m sorry??’ [but more like an exclamation]
‘Korean no no! Yes, Korean car! [stammer, stammer] I sorry, sir, … so, too much… we having trouble… only special I say, for occasion we have. We, I — ’
‘Actually, we only—Chinese car make only, only Chinese car. No Korean, see?’
‘Only today, sir. We are being at office, very difficult. Very diffificult— make car. No no no, find! Find car, very…very…’
[exasperous nodding] ‘Yes yes Levi sir. Very difficult. [nod and twinkle of teeth] Very special occasion, this time. They not wanting us. Us.’
‘Surprised.’ Out the window, flashes of parched hills elope in the distance; the sun is barreling down on them. The guardrail slices by with its metallic excoriating the air. The driver is a model of utter silence. Movement, it seems, is beyond him. The straightaway evokes nothing of even a tic of the neck or slight flaring of the jugular as seen from the back seat, as Xavier keeps expecting, the straightaway being obviously where this driver should betray some muscular twitch of some sort, for even when the odd curve in the road comes along his body seems to mold to it with uninterrupted congruence—(at least on the straightaway, Xavier’s backseat perspective is a solid, unwavering point of assessment—he can see the soft coursings of blood in the vein—but not a single out-of-line movement of the skin, nothing to refute the intractable void of this man’s sitting here—a mediating contrast to the hypergesticulating and inchoate stammerings of the man beside him, the driver’s consummate opposite in the form of a Spy-versus-Spy-type cosmic paradox—this latter running his mouth like an ambulance off to a riot zone)—. Xavier in the back seat takes in this scenery of scorched earth and intense eyeing of the silent driver’s stern flesh not moving even upon slight curvaceous embankments of the road and his half-listening to this gap-in-the-gums babbletooth who keeps turning around to flash his [lack of] canines at him, a baseball cap palming his scalp.
‘Only for today, I promise you, sir… [an intent grin, either serious or jocular—] tomorrow, no Korea car.’
‘Is that right.’
‘Tomorrow, we ride in Chinese car. Very special. Tomorrow, we come back. Of course, we come back, yes?’
‘Yeah…we come back.’ [kadunk-kadunk-kadunk] —A violent bump in the road. Again: not even a budge. It’s not natural, is it?
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 and at a distance from all the apparatuses at which the work was carried out—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 (nineteen years old, to be exact) 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.
Xavier Levi-Chaban: amateur blogger, apolitical by nationality, expired Hong Kong visa holder and collector of all kinds of cacti—one of those foreign types washed ashore in China after some post-baccalaureate soul-searching in the bowels of Asia, who out of the turn of events or out of boredom or out of some grim self-effacing game of psychological brinkmanship ended up just sticking around, content to bob as driftwood in a sea of the bizarre. A well-trampled path, that story. He found work at a couple English-language expat papers, lived modestly and not all that disagreeably, etc. etc., and was even starting to accumulate a decent number of exotic cacti in his small Sham Shui Po apartment, little potted proxies of the ones he’d left behind in the bedroom of his childhood home in France. He thought of that home in the country now—musky, the smell of oiled auto parts and Orange GLO—and this upturned Plutonia racing by him through the window, burning with a rocky fire. Just as in France, there were no cacti punctuating the road. These had to be purchased, uprooted, radicated again, in pots. Or plots. What was he doing here?
Hills that turned like scorched tongues and seemed to lean out to scrape the car. The guide in the passenger seat—the jester, the babbletooth—had quieted a little now, but couldn’t quit a seemingly nervous habit of fidgeting and constantly adjusting and readjusting his ball cap. Several times he turned around as if to speak to Xavier, and several times thought better of it. Xavier fumbled about with the manila folder he’d all but forgotten resting there in his hands like a carcass. As he opened the folder, the panorama of chicken scratch and marginalia spilled like wine. Pictures of the deceased, needless print-outs of articles from Chinese web sources (mostly apocryphal, mostly indecipherable—as his Mandarin was as weak as the eighth cup of tea), together with some cut-outs of equally-dubious English-language sources, all of whose reportage tended toward the droll or the prosaically uninspired, to say nothing of the factual tenability. His riffing through them was short-lived before the resident Sorento jester blurted with a strange mix of excitement and ominous futility:
‘Ok Levi sir! We come, now we are… you please be ready and we go together, yes? No pictures! Just questions. But, …no many questions.’ [a comic narrowing of the brow]
About that Ms. Liu Wei Bi, though: when she walked outside to see what had caused that crunching-of-trampled-tupperware noise, her foot dipped into a pool of hot running froth and the shriek that followed could be heard from 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 of the fallen No. 3 in gentle cross-currents like lapping tongues at a bowl of hot milk.
Some Months Earlier
Pigs don’t fly; sin is not natural. A single cigarette’d fallen from the bag he’d emptied on his nightstand; now he went on staring at it in his lap. The emergency batch—he’d forgotten. Sure enough, peeking from the clutter was the treacherous pack—half-smoked, a few butts poking out from the fall. All but batting their lashes at him. He turned back to the cigarette in his lap and felt the poison’s sweet seductress tendrils clamp around his windpipe. The look of its perching there all alone and the cruel angle of its landing, creased but intact, with the butt-side up and inclined toward his mouth, conspired with all the wrong tenderness to press the blood through his veins excitedly, longingly. It was as if all the pressure diverted toward a sharp, dulled knot in his left lung—could feel it throbbing in anticipation. The angle of that cigarette was truly menacing and so innocently…
With great effort, he flicked it off him and leapt across the room, and no sooner had it ricocheted off the wall and onto the floor than he’d swung his heavy Merrell-clad heel down upon it like it were a sprinting cockroach. And just the dry, raspy crackle of the cigarette writhing under his foot then. And Xavier’s heart, or the dull knot in his chest, cried out in protest, felt crushed as well. He realized he was panting. His head shivered with deprived, mutinous nicotine receptors. One small head-throbbing victory. Okay, Xav, breathe. It was 09:55, Day One of the All-Substance Cold Turkey. He had a Mr. Xifu to see. He didn’t like to be late.
Was it just that Xavier Levi-Chaban harbored an especially cobwebbed conscience, or had years of indoctrination achieved the opposite of the desired effect: not strengthening his Catholic with a capital C resolve, but actually strangling it to death, all but precipitating his moral swan dive into depravity? The drinking, the smoking, the unscrupulous means by which he lived—these were consequential, perhaps, of a larger narrative of stunted spiritual growth, stunted by that same nunnish fist that once upon a time meant to choke him into pious submission. Well. That might have worked on turn-of-the-Common-Era handmaidens of the Lord, but he had long since given up saying ‘be it done unto me’ when prompted by religious fancy. No, his life now was guided or misguided—call it what you want—by impulses more self-serving than even those declared in the name of Religion.
So it’s not like he saw the light or anything, and that’s what made him want to Quit. Maybe it was one too many mornings spent in fetal hunch over the toilet bowl. Maybe it was guilt of another kind that drove him, [for real this time], to up and Stop. Not the institutionalized kind that Sister Mary Jean and the rest (they were all named Sister Mary Something or Other) were so hellbent on cultivating in the souls of their pupils—but maybe, rather, guilt at the sense that he was quietly destroying himself. Throwing away, drink by drink, everything he was capable of. Knowing that it couldn’t go on forever. The cold depressing fact that the booze and the cigarettes and the various other medicines were no longer liberating or novel; they were simply routine.
The breaking of the routine: this would be the hardest part. And if this small victory in his Sham Shui Po apartment signified anything, it was only a chip on the ugly face of the challenge before him. The worst was yet to come, in approximately forty-five minutes, when he was to sit down with his new Client (or the Representative, as they were, for such). He knew, then, the temptation would bristle its teeth at him. No rich Chinese businessman existed on this earth who didn’t smoke. The Chinese were fucking smokestacks.
He felt a sudden revulsion to them, all of them, all at once. This was natural, he knew: it came up every now and then, inevitably, in the mind of any expat—some healthy, good old us-versus-them bigotry, the now-and-again feeling of superiority. [Xavier began stashing things in his shoulder bag.] You needed it, was Xavier’s feeling, every now and then, just to reassure yourself that you were doing something right. [Couldn’t throw away the pack. Buried it below a mound of books, hoping and yet not hoping to crush it.] That you were good at the thing you were doing. [Swung the door shut behind him.] Better than at least some portion of the rest.
He’d felt the same way about the Americans, from time to time, when he’d studied there. His first experience in America had been a…unique one, for all intents and purposes. Arriving in a small suburb of Portland, deposited among the nicely trimmed and unobjectionable lawns, into the living room of the wide-eyed and very enthusiastic Pattinsons, staged, the four of them, like furniture in a showroom to receive him—all that was fine. Initially he was touched by their gestures: host brother Zach’s sharing his clandestine viewings of South Park with him; Mrs. Pattinson arranging little triangles of camembert on a plate for him those first mornings (“I know how you French like your cheese!”), though invariably what purported to be camembert resembled congealed, left-out-of-the-fridge buttermilk (Xavier forced it down; it was the thought that counted).
But six days after he arrived, the 11th of September came along and reared its ugly head and interrupted any sense of normalcy he’d begun to expect in those environs. The Pattinsons had done their best to make him feel comfortable, if not really accepted, in that first seminal week of his year-long high school exchange program; when the Twin Towers came down, it was as if an enormous invisible curtain had come down with it, right in the middle of whatever room Xavier walked into—and without the respectful buffer it once provided in the name of Difference and Courtesy, Xavier suddenly felt never so aware of his status as outsider. And in those days, in the days that followed the 11th, everything—Xavier observed, with a squinting, bewildered Gallic eye—came under the sudden and intractable prism of In or Out—With Us, or Against Us. But not right away, exactly. While Americans commiserated before the lurid glow of the TV, the networks’ replaying on loop the plane’s chilling arc, the target’s wounded twin already weeping smoke beside it—a colder, more subterranean burning was slowly crackling to life in step with the loops of the tape, in the hollowed chests of the Pattinsons, in the chests of the neighbors, in those gathered behind living room windows blanched with terror. What began as incredulity—as a speechless, dreamlike, and perhaps willed disbelief—slowly ashed and smoldered off into a collective, reactionary anger. There was something mutinous about this anger, its instinctual quality grazing against some deep revolutionary sentiment, as in Revolutionary, ingrained and buried in the blood of these people, which even living rooms and comfortable lawns hadn’t succeeded in obliterating, which middle school American history books still exalted and the ceremoniousness of Fourth of July parades belied. The reruns and grave faces on the TV inflamed it. From a distance it flamed, it grew quietly but fiercely, Xavier watched it touch and slowly stir the Pattinsons. Within four days the curtain had collapsed, and it brought the rod and the ceiling down with it. There was Xavier, standing on the one side of the wreckage, the Pattinsons and his American classmates at Flatridge ‘Citizen, Scholar, Gentleman’ Prep standing on the other, their eyes dark and suspicious. And the mob flamed. It didn’t help that his request for French fries in his very French accent in the back seat of Zach’s friend’s Land Rover solicited a concert of those eyes while idled in the drive-thru of the Chik’n’Bun. ‘Oh. He doesn’t know,’ Zach intoned, hardly apologetic. ‘Sorry, Monsieur,’—Biff Hearnes in the driver’s seat wasn’t sorry either—‘we don’t sell those in America.’ Chandler-something beside him in the back spoke through his nostrils, ‘He doesn’t know the slang. It’s called Freedom. Freee-dom.’ ‘Leave him alone,’ Biff snorted. ‘They don’t have that—concept there.’ Xavier’s mouth was retreating into his throat. He lingered after dinner that night, timidly, while the rest of the Pattinsons flamed in the TV’s light. Freedom Fries. The House was going to vote on Freedom Fries.
Never before had Xavier been so aware of his foreignness. Not that he had anything particularly compelling calling him back to Normandy. Lonely and polarizing though it was, his year abroad inflamed more fascination than it did resentment for his gun-toting Américains. And then all of a sudden he was back, as from a dream, his father clinking an exuberant glass with his. ‘So he’s back,’ Dr. Levi huffed. ‘That taught you to stick around, didn’t it?’ Xavier put the glass to his lips but the wine was tasteless. In his daze he felt, together with a racking dose of jetlag, that this porch, this field, this locally-made camembert, weren’t the elements of his home anymore. He couldn’t explain it. But from that day on he could plan for nothing else but the next time he would leave.
There was something to be said for that place, though. After all, it was the place where the dreams of earlier plans were cradled—dreams of improbable things, of flying to distant places and charting new lands like a francophone Magellan. For this he supposed his Catholic school upbringing could be thanked for nurturing, if nothing else, a soul suppressed enough as to bound out the gate at the slightest opening, wrenching free from the sauna of its own walled-in breath. He still remembered Sister Mary Jean and her ineluctable phrase about the pigs. Ten years later, Xavier Levi was flying—living outside the bounds of human nature, a savage, a social leper. A pig, hooves kicking incredibly at the air.
There were some Pakistanis giving him opioid stares at the corner when he passed the fire hydrant and the spools of pastel chamois-printed fabric.
The estate of Mr. Xi Fu Man was up a comfortable drive near the University, through a glinting iron gate and several palm-flanked lanes collectively conspiring toward a parking garage. The luxury housing units hemmed into it with their big wall-to-wall windows for facades afforded wishful views of the University and its plaque-studded statues. An avuncular security guard at the vestibule seemed more an appurtenance than a precaution. Talk about door to door service. The mini green No. 6 deposited Xavier right into the sunny oblivion of his smile and the afterthought of his half-getting up and adjusting his cap in a gesture of um might I uh press the ‘door open’ button for you, which Xavier’d already opened it, manually, himself. He’d been in this situation enough to know, as the double-paned glass swooshed shut behind him back from the land of the living: it was always best to act like you owned the place.
But this Mr. Xifu, as he’d called himself, was up to something. Inviting Xavier into his home was curious. He’d insisted on a face-to-face appraisal, and supposedly a cold had kept him in the house the past day or so, working from his study. Xavier’s head was going mallet-style on him. The quasar-grade pulses of nicotine-starved acetylcholine receptors. Most didn’t care to meet him, and a PayPal account to the name of Gongduang Industries (‘a limited liability company’) conveniently allowed for paperless, faceless payment. Xavier even took the gratuitous precaution of using a handful of different email addresses, in rotation. The ones who did want to meet him—though rarely, very rarely, were they the Clients themselves; almost always a go-between or a familial intermediary—without exception did so in public, in those public places where they weren’t like to encounter their associates, their wives’ luncheoning tennis partners, their own clientele. Xavier could give a damn. He was off the radar. No constituency to appease, no integrity to uphold. There was only the quality of his work. And work was good to him.
As he strode coolly through the door, the aloofness of the watchman’s smile represented to him the oblivion of those other officers of admission sealed in stelae of university towers: no matter how polished the glass, no matter how stately the view, they couldn’t see what was happening right across the street from them.
He followed the lift to the eighth floor. It was not a Mr. Xifu but a tamarind-skinned Indonesian who opened the door. She eyed him without intrigue, swept an uninspired hand somewhere from her waist that meant to indicate the room, turned and padded back to the kitchen. Xavier dallied at the door, went in. Before him yawned one of those window-walls, full pane from edge to edge, width to height; the city innards and the University sludged and sparkled, respectively, before it. A generous flatscreen and a smattering of ottomans across— he made a move toward the window—
‘Ah! Ngeh hou, ngeh hou!’
Xavier spun around. ‘Ngeh hou—’
‘Zuo ba, zuo ba. Ni…you, take a seat, you?’ He was throwing out languages like cards. ‘Xifu,’ came a voice attached to a hand thrust from his periphery.
‘A pleasure to meet you.’ English it was.
‘Take a seat you?’ Mr. Xifu was in full work garb, his silk pants creasing as he fell into a chair and his knit wool blazer and olive turtleneck puffed over his whale’s belly. His bum barely touched the white leather of the chair before he shot back up and barked some unintelligible Cantonese into the kitchen. He sank again, his stenciled face creasing alike into a scrutinizing look beneath his buzz cut, a short plateau of hairs capping a scrunched brow. His head was the shape of a block. His face was the color of tobacco. He was fishing into his chest pocket for a cigarette pack, his eyes straight ahead, at—
‘Michael Morris. It’s a pleasure to be in your home.’ It took every earthly cord of Xavier’s will to look away from that cigarette pack.
‘Ngm,’ came the grunt of a reply. He dug out a cigarette, stuck it between two canoe-shaped lips. Lit it. To Xavier’s relief, he didn’t offer one to him. ‘That’s a…good American name, isn’t it? Mei guo de?’ He threw the cigarettes on the table, the pack yelped. ‘What is it…All-American?’ He flashed tobacco-colored teeth in a whoof of smoke. It looked less like a smile and more like a grimace.
Xavier put on his most detached professionalism. ‘Born and raised, birthplace Groton, Mass. Undergrad at Harvard. When I came to China on the Scholars in Asia prog—’
Bark Bark Bark! Xifu had sprung to his feet again; a thousand furrows in bas-relief on his forehead, angled at the kitchen. He turned back:
‘As you see, I have been a little cough.’ It wasn’t apparent. ‘Keep me inside.’ Smoke was cantering about around his face, the corners of his eyes. ‘Really, I have no reason to see you. I don’t care who you are, or what you’re doing here. But I like to do my dealings in person.’ His English was smoothing out the more he spoke. Xavier kept quiet. Xifu took a hard drag. ‘So you know this situation. So you know, expectation.’
[Xavier’s quasar pulse of the head.]
‘The only thing I’m concerned about—’ he put a hand to his chest, his eyes branding and bloodshot— ‘is we stay in person. In. Person.’
He withdrew his hand. ‘That’s right, Mr. Morris.’
‘Of course you have my guarantee,’ Xavier began, ‘that all work will be carried out in the strictest confidentiality. I have, of course, no interest in putting myself in any messy position.’ Years of practice had positioned Xavier to the point where he could all but will away his French accent.
‘Ngm. I’m sure we understand how important this is for me. For Meina.’
‘I understand this essay is giving her a struggle.’
‘She’s a dumb.’ A hard-ass drag on the cigarette. ‘She can’t think two phrase in English.’ Scrutinizing him. ‘Women. But she will get into university. Do you understand, Mr. Morris?’
The Indonesian, whose face was lined as though her skin were a leather mask tugged across it, came padding in with a tray, apparitioning through the smoke. Two cups, a pot, and an auxiliary dish fitted with a fine screen, placed before them. Xifu barked again. Xavier’s head was doing this looped pressurized thing like a dam had decided to spring up right between his temples and the brain-flow was banging up against it and back again in waves; and circulating back; and banging up again. The Indonesian apparitioned away into the smoke.
‘Dong le,’ he managed; Mr. Xifu smiled. He appreciated the Mandarin gesture. They always did.
‘City U,’ he said, turning to a briefcase and pulling out a folder. He handed it to Xavier. ‘Have many expectation. Too hard for a dumb like Meina.’
Xavier accepted the folder and gave it a look-through. The flick of a lighter, another cigarette fumed. Xavier was trying to find his breath. ‘And so it’s just…[his mind shivered for a second]…any others? Or just—’
‘City U,’ Xifu repeated. ‘She will go to City U. This is her mother’s orders.’
‘Of course,’ Xavier said. His tea was sitting there steaming for him but he was afraid if he picked it up Mr. Xifu would see how his hand quivered. Xifu for his part sucked on his tea, sucked on his teeth—dragged, dragged on the cigarette. He was sitting back and giving Xavier the look-over. Xavier looked at the paper—
Use this space to explain your goals for study at the City University of Hong Kong and why you believe you will succeed as an undergraduate student in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
Nothing he hadn’t seen before.
At length: ‘Now Mr. Morris. You say you have many experience in this.’
In fact, he’d already written six of them, this month, for the same university.
‘A flawless track record.’
It was high season for applications, after all.
‘Ngm. Actually I ask you here for one other reason.’
Xavier braced himself against the smoke.
‘…What other kind of service you offer, Mr. Morris?’
‘If you write good for Meina—I have a second—project. I am interest in something more. —Letters.’ He directed a sausage link of a finger at the folder.
‘You want me to write letters?’
‘Kan ba. At the back of the folder.’ He stood all of a sudden and extended his hand.
‘If you mean letters of admission…’
‘You think about it, Mr. Morris. It’s all there in the back. And remember—three days.’
Xavier recovered, pulled himself up from his seat. ‘You’ll have it in two.’
‘Ngm.’ He had a lethally firm handshake. Bark Bark Bark! The Indonesian appeared from the kitchen to open the door. He unclenched Xavier’s hand and turned for another cigarette at the table.
As the door shut behind him, Xavier could hear the barks of Mr. Xifu all the way into the elevator. Christ, he said to the thought. He was miserable. He wanted a cigarette.
He leafed through the folder and saw the Client’s sloppy C.V. and grade-point-averaged life laid out in misaligned bullet points. He felt sorry for her. And just as quickly the thought countered: But she needs to get in. She has to get in. I don’t care if she has to get in, Xavier was thinking. Every thought had an asterik attached to it which carried the plea: Get. Smokes. Now. A sigh. The ding of the elevator. There was the security guard, slumped in his chair, earhairs sprouting bigger with each snore. It’s nice to be oblivious, said the thought to no one in particular. Xavier’s head was pounding. Now kindly fetch me a fucking cigarette. ▶