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Charles Lowe

Unfinished Work

During the Cultural Revolution, Li was exiled with her mother to a rural collective in Hebei province. Her father and daughter were forced to remain in the city of Tianjin.

At the collective, Li adopted a stray German shepherd, which she named Xiao Li or little Hazelnut for the brownish nub on her belly that seemed a part of the hazelnut shrubs at the periphery of the collective. Li's assignment was to guard an unfinished damn, a duty that would, she was told, prevent its sabotage by Western subversives. Each day, she'd stand watch with Xiao Li, imagining at mid afternoon serving her father his favorite mint tea, its thin leaves barely stirred by his whispering acceptance.

In November, a northern desert wind dried out the pools of water that leaked through the walls of the damn. The lines of hazelnut shrubs wilted in that drought, and Li was sent with the others to gather sheaves of wheat by the Bai He River. On her return to the collective, she found that Xiao Li was gone. Li heard a rumor that the dog had been slaughtered by a peasant family from a village a few kilometers away. Her father recounted that, when she came back from her three-year exile on her ninth birthday, Li was barely recognizable, her skin scorched by her long days alone guarding that dam.

Li and I experienced very little conflict at the beginning of our relationship. "When a woman's in love," Li said, "her man is the object of worship." "Even if he is from the West," I replied. "Yes, as if he were Mao himself. While awaiting your command, we survey the collective water supply for a trace of a missing invader, aware that we cannot stop him."

I do not recall the sources of our first friction. What I do remember is her exquisite effort not to touch me, even avoiding brushing my side while finishing the dinner dishes. At first, I tried to confront her right away, but my hunger for an immediate solution merely pushed her away. I learned to wait until she became ready, until the shrubs had been picked clean. I did not sleep in our bed, stretching out instead her panda quilt on the wooden porch floor and watching a family of raccoons desperately scour our landlord's garbage for their supper.

When our daughter was born, I hoped that Li would openly speak of her differences, and this did happen to a certain extent, but this new openness also gave voice to her anger, a voice that had gathered force in the bones of the duplex that housed my daughter's waking moments.

I no longer drifted apart from Li. She sent me into exile until one day she suggested we buy a dog: "Good for Mei to have some responsibility." Li found a web site about a shelter that saved dogs from famines and gassings, and we drove one hour to reach it.

A puppy, a mix of German shepherd and greyhound, was hiding in the corner of a cage. We brought it home, and though a brown nut did not speckle her belly and we were half a world away from the shrubs of Li's collective, she became our Hazel. On her initial night with us, Hazel whimpered in her metal crate, her rib cage shaking with an overpowering fear. I brought out my blanket and, after she had stopped crying, fell asleep by her cage. The wind swept over a field outside our window, buried our leaf-ridden yard beneath the weight of its wings.

My wife pulled at my shirt in the morning, dragged Hazel and me back to our king-size. Li stroked the flooring's cold marks away from my forearms and face. Hazel did the same with her paws and tongue, falling asleep between us.

A Dragon Post

She drew on deception to keep our relationship alive. It became a dragon breathing out my inside.

She met her first husband at Nankei University. It was a first-tier school, and she had needed a high score to get in. Acceptance there was an achievement for Li. All the schools had been shut down when she was a teenager on account of the Cultural Revolution. She had to prep each night after working a nine-hour shift, stitching on buttons at a fast clip.

Her work on the assembly line, she said, was the true beginning of her education. She developed the skill to find the button holes under dim light bulbs. A bird-like strength grew in her fingertips.

Our first real honeymoon was when we visited her home city, Tianjin, and she took me on a tour detailing her life in the factory, her meeting Shin at the university and how she came to pound on his family's red lacquered door until her hands wore scars from the abuse.

"After each shift at the clothing assembly," she said, revisiting her nightly routine, "I came home to a plate of rice wrappies prepared by her mother, the stir fries bursting from their in-seams, a thermos of tea fogging up the plated glass next to the sink. Sometime past midnight, I’d wake up from my studies hearing the snap of laundry from a neighbor's line, becoming immersed in a downstairs quarrel recycled from generations past.

"When I went to Nankai, it was only a crow's flight from these deteriorating walls," she said, pointing from the factory to Weijin Road at the heart of the university. "I had become used to being alone, to having books spread over my desktop. I was string-bean thin, my breasts no more than small puffs of wheat, and when a boy rang at the front desk of the dormitory, it was almost always to see my roommate, Chen.

“She was unusual for a Chinese girl. She was not shy in front of girls or boys. When Chen was not on a date, she would spend her evenings in front of a large mirror, adjusting her thin, pinkish bra, and gazing at a scar above her left nipple turned up like a cat's tail.

"When Shin, my first husband, rang the bell at the front desk, I assumed that he was there to see Chen. Shin was a rising star in the foreign lit department, having already published a translation in a first-rank literary journal. Chen asked if I could let him know she needed half-hour prep. She had white cream on her face, her breasts nearly out of her flowered bra. But he said he had come to see me alone, and later when we walked along the Hai He River -- neon petals growing from its muddy bed -- he added that he thought I was far the more interesting one. Whether he was just saying that or really meant it, I fell head over heels in the heart of my home city.

"How did he look?" I asked. "Well," she said. "My first husband had smooth leathery skin that fit snugly around his eyes, his only impurity two little strands falling from the balls. Am I being too graphic?" she laughed.

"Not really," I said adjusting the clown's mask that fit awkwardly over my face. "I assume you’ve also found your second husband similar." "Of course," she said with some hesitation, "But with you, it is a personal preference. With him, it was shared by others. As an American, you might find it difficult to understand. I don't think his flat demeanor would be looked at as sexy here. But in China, it was considered an appealing way to survive.

"You fell head over heels in love," I said evenly. "Yes," she smiled. "In your twenties, you can leap off a cliff without much forethought. As you grow older, you learn to stay within the accepted lines."

"What really took place?" I said. "He caught me with another man," she smiled. I looked up surprised.

"Nothing really happened. He was a buddy from work who had come over to my apartment to cry about his girlfriend or wife or mother leaving him, I forget which. Just when I went over to give him a friendly hug, you probably guessed it. Shin walked in.

"He didn't yell or anything. Just looked at us like he had been given tickets to a bad play and was deciding whether he should stay. He left, went over to his mother's apartment which I followed him to so that I could tell him the true situation. He wouldn't let me in even though I pounded on his family's red lacquered door until my hands started to bleed. Shin's mother, a little woman, maybe five foot taller but no more, yelled from behind the dragon-door guard, "They are all sluts, every one of them."

"What she was repeating was the popular prejudice in China that a woman went into journalism so that she could be alone professionally with a man. Once, a colleague threatened me that, if I didn't have sex with him, he would produce pictures of me naked in bed. He took a chance that, as a female journalist, there would be such pictures somewhere, and I would have to submit.

"Do you think that Shin made that leap of faith? That was why he left so quickly." "It may have been already planted in the back of his mind, but he did come back after a week or so, convinced perhaps that there was more shame in divorce. He never got back his trust in me though I tried repeatedly to let him see I was sorry."

"Why did you have to ask for forgiveness?" I said. "He should have asked yours."

"You're not Chinese. You could not possibly understand. When my work-mate asked if he could visit my home, I should have refused. Even if Shin had not walked in, a neighbor could have seen him. Rumors spread fast in my city. I was very selfish to let another man visit our apartment.

"If only to be a sympathetic shoulder."

"Yes, even if that alone. I grew to accept my mistake, and after a while, became used to his living in a separate glass house. I would see Shin occasionally when he visited our apartment to change for his late afternoon tennis game. He'd leave with his racket in hand. What made it so suspect was that he showered before the match. He must have known but didn't care it looked suspicious or wanted me to know out of some sort desire for revenge. When my friends told me that she was a young widow from highly connected family, I felt better. I knew that she was a few rungs up the ladder and would never lower herself to marry a person of his background.

"I went back to my habits from the factory, burying myself in my work, hardly speaking to my friends, immersed in the wind that would crack the downtown shades of the newsroom, a wind that would take out my insides with its scent of invisible fire. I rose professionally, was given my own column, called 'Letters to Ms. Wei, Wei,' where I gave advice to young farm girls recently arrived in the city on relationships with the opposite sex, a plum I felt I had to let go when my husband got accepted to graduate school in America, and I moved with him from Weijin Road, determined to be reconciled.

"Each night, I waited for Shin to return from his studies. As my mother had done for me, I prepared for him a plate of rice wrappies, stir fry vegetables bursting from their in-seams and a scorching hot thermos of green tea to keep him awake. He stopped coming home though, choosing to live at the graduate lounge with his international friends on a diet of danish and endless caffeine till he came back once early, laying out carefully our savings, fourteen hundred and some odd change on the kitchen table and asking whether I could go away as soon as possible. I knew, without his saying so, he had found an American woman worth his trust.

"I answered the first ad in the newspaper, a small room in a house on Grant Street. You visited there only a few months after we had separated. Do you remember?"

I remember. I visited her room on our second date. The room was very small, the bed jammed against the door knob so that we had to push our way in. On her night table was a blurred photo of Shin and Li in matching striped bathing suits on their honeymoon. She placed its frame face down. Later she cried, she said, "because I was gentle. He was so cruelly true." I wish that I could have put my fist through that glass and reached his stoic face.

I met Shin only once. He was an assistant prof at the University of Indiana and was on campus, he said, to meet with his adviser. I did not believe him. He had tracked me down. He wanted to see what substance I was made of. He asked me a few inconsequential questions: where I was in my studies and what I thought of the department. We shook hands. He left.

A few days later, Li and I saw Shin with his American fiancée on Main Street in Northampton. She was slightly smaller than Li was, her skin much paler, but she did share Li's body type. She was string-bean thin, her breasts puffs of wheat. She walked hand and hand with Shin, mirroring his deliberate steps with her own measured gait.

"Do you want to chase them down?" I asked Li. She shook her head. We walked farther until we were out of the light and could see them and not they us. She kissed me with a passion I had not felt since when Li cried after I penetrated her on our second date. A fire burnt through my insides. But I had taken on Shin's pure leathery skin and would not show her the scars I had come by, pushing my hand through a dragon post.

The Tianjin Daily

Newspaper reporting was perfect for her character, she once told me over a nice ripened bluefish, her favorite dish. Li had that natural ability to cut life to the bone, remove its skin and tissue, report on the skeletal details: the who, what, and where?

"Do you miss newspaper writing?" I asked her while teasing open my own bluefish, its spine glistening against the bone china. "No, not much. I didn't look forward to the biking and hated having to give my work to the censors. I liked though," she smiled, "the many course meals at the factory's expense. Now I have to cook for you and Mei."

Li had worked the business page, her stories mostly relating to local production achievements: a twenty-percent rise in the output of the Otis elevator factory or the heroic insistence of an assembly line to meet a rush order deadline, but they all had to pass what a reporter friend of hers, Mr. Ding, a thin, pencil-stick of a man, had proudly named the praise test. "Had to," Li whispered, forking open the skin of her victim, "set store in the heart and humility of the Chinese prol."

Mr. Jong, her editor at the Daily, a man with bulging frog-like eyes and an obsessive appetite for beef dumplings, did not care about how she reached that heart, how she tore apart that skin, how she entered its fluid chambers, only that the heart was there, only that there would be no annoying calls from the censors, no breaks disturbing his comfortable ascent up the Daily masthead.

Li drove as much as 30 or 40 kilometers on assignments with only a pad in her pocket and plastic poncho clamped on the metal basket of her rusted blue bike: "Once," she told me, "I drove for hours through a rainstorm, hundreds of bicycles around me, pedestrians coming out at me out of the blinding gray. Over time, my knees became shot, and after two years of disturbing Mr. Jong's dumpling meals with my complaints, I was made an editor of my own page, though of course not in his department."

She laughed, her gray streaks of hair bunching together like spools of thread, and asked why I was at all interested in her past." "It seems romantic," I said, "To have been a journalist in the People's Republic." "My boy," she leaned over the kitchen table, her hand over my own, "I would spend the whole morning on a bike, get a few numbers from the secretary and walk round the factory grounds."

"But it was those many-coursed meals. We would go to the fancy restaurants with the fish tanks jumbled in the front window. I would browse each lit box until I found my favorites: the fresh bluefish from the Hai River, their lips pressing the glass, the lobsters clustering together in the brine, their claws snapping at my fingers, the waiter dipping a net into the fresh water and with prongs, grabbing at the claws. I'd follow the waiter right to the kitchen and watch the reddish green tail of the lobster disappear into a vat of steam, the onions simmering beneath the bluefish, the chef's yelling at the waiter to retrieve his ready order and tossing a greasy pan towards a sullen dishwasher recently migrated from the countryside.

"And we had a feast: heaps of dumplings, lobster claws arranged like trophies from a hunt, a blue fish on a long thin silver plate, a slight pinkish coloring around the vertebrate. It was an empty ritual of course. The managers knew I could only print the good news. But they felt the dinner was somehow a tangible record of the exchange. I am from a place where you expect to see the fish undressed from its full ripening in a phosphorescent-lit tank to its final emergence onto the bone china: its bluish skin and glistening spine.

"I was pampered like a queen during these business lunches, but, by late afternoon, I was back plugging away on my rusted bike through the rains that were a regular part of the five o'clock rush, my poncho over my long pleated skirt.

"I'd return to the office, give my article to Mr. Jong who gave it the quick look over. After the story was signed off at the daily, I'd bike another hour or so through the crowded heart of the city, across the bridge over the Hai River where the Red soldiers had entered the city to end the Revolution, finally arriving at the Ministry of Communications, and on the seventh or eight floors, I'd be waiting in line for a time like would be done in the States to renew a driver's license, trying to summon the taste of that bluefish and lobster, trying to recall those oils mixed on my plate like the colors of peacocks decked out in their summer plumes.

"A woman in a plain smock motioned me into her office with the back of her hand. 'Here, Comrade Sung,' I whispered obediently. Though she was barely literate, she'd carefully scrutinize each syllable of my story, sprinkling in a random change in the language, crossing off the occasional comma. 'With these,' Comrade Sung did not even look up, sending me off with the quick flick of her wrist.

"I'd travel back to the office across the Hai River that Mao's soldiers had once marched across: where my father had proudly waved a flag, the taste still coating my tongue and I'd stop in front of the White Moon, an out-of-the-way restaurant near the Daily offices, watching a blue fish innocently circle the tank, the lobsters piled high: a delicate redness.

"I was hungry, hungry for news, hungry to start the next day, the next story where I would have the chance to cut to the bone."

©2003 by Charles Lowe

Charles Lowe lives in Alfred, New York. His work has appeared in The Hardy Review and is forthcoming in print in Poetry Motel. The prose poems in Slow Trains are a part of a work, in progress, entitled A Blind City.

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