(excerpt read by Lili Taylor at PEN America)

Before hosing down the fluorescent-flickering dish room and kitchen floors and half dozen grease grills at Johnny Wong’s Chinese Buffet, the man from Guangdong and I sit out back on overturned five-gallon tofu buckets, trading silences. It is an unusually cool night for mid-summer in Pueblo, Colorado. The Taiwanese management and Mexican cooks gone home. All the broken dishes swept into piles, the small metal dressing cups and silverware hand-dug out of the garbage.

Marlboros and Vantages crackle minutely between our lips.

Like this, he tells me of his tiny village on the southern coast of China. How on some rare evenings just as the sun is setting, a bright green haze radiates from a crack in the ocean’s horizon. A meteorological phenomenon. How in summer when this happens, superstition claims you’ll pull in a good haul of crab and seabass the next morning. The evening he snuck out of his country in a rusty hull, he thought he heard the fishermen up on deck celebrating the mysterious light. Then again, he may have only dreamt it.

The next ship the smugglers stowed him away in was a freighter for a month.

We’ve been working together for two and a half months in the tiny kitchen at Johnny Wong’s on the north side of Pueblo, located on an otherwise dark block across the street from a Popeye’s Chicken and corner Amoco the neighborhood kids call Murder Station. I drop heaping black bus tubs full of greasy plates before him in the dish room, catch my breath and watch his spray gun, blasting the fake china like Godzilla’s fire breath in old black and white movies.

Or, more often, he just waits in the corner by the stacked glass ashtrays, wiping sweat from his eyes with a sinewy forearm, half-listening to the FM classic rock station that was probably set a decade ago and never gets turned completely off.

I’ve left home a few months before, just barely graduating from high school. Packed my half-smashed soup can on wheels and headed in the opposite direction of everything I know, because there is no one around me I want to be in the years to come. Not the success story of Henry Ford my Korean father once cut out from Life Magazine and taped to his bedroom mirror—a pale, brittled article of faith to lift him up and out of his auto mechanic pit. Not Mr. Choi who teaches Tae Kwon Do and once a year at a sparsely-filled Civic Auditorium allows a three-wheeler to pass over a bed of nails he’s lying under. And definitely not my older brother returned from the Gulf, who thinks his veins are contaminated, and plays keno and blackjack every night at the Indian casino.

I’m 17 and driving as fast as I can because soon it will be late autumn, and then winter with its blue evening crush and pull toward warm fear and comfort, and I can’t end up selling water filters like my best friend Flick, or climb telephone poles and repair lines clumped with burnt flesh and feathers, or air conditioners, or miles of highway roads like Jonzy, or, maybe, in a few short years, tend a sticky bar downtown and distribute pull tabs to factory workers who cough plexiglass mucus into bare palms.

Quiet Asian kid scrawling rhymes on the insides of matchbooks. I may be ignorant, but my heart is a bat caught in broad daylight, so I follow it out of there. I leave, gas up, head South, then West. I’m not exactly sure. Anywhere out of the Midwest. My aunt in El Cerrito, the crazy one who married a white truck driver, says she’ll take me in. Hook me up in her store selling beepers. My other option an Alaskan cannery. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for in the eyes of a million fish.

The man from Guangdong laughs and tells me how he and seventy other men and dozen women had to lie foot to cheek in the ship’s hold for four weeks. No one had more than a pair of pants, two shirts, a pair of flip-flops. One rocky night, half-way across the sea, someone pissed on his leg instead of in a tin can. For another two weeks he dreamed on and off of dragons swimming through blood and old leaves and sometimes the world up above was on fire.

America wasn’t a place he ever thought he’d visit, let alone live. He wanted to fish, or work in the shoe factory in the capital, like his father and uncles. But he was the oldest son. And then the Communists shut the factory down. No pensions. No nothing. So his family pooled all their savings and borrowed and begged and paid twenty grand to the illegal snakeheads who promised to smuggle him out. 9,000 miles, from Guangdong Province, across the sea to Guatemala, up through Mexico, then Houston, LA. The FBI busted a man he’d befriended on the three month journey, and deported him. Two other men he knew died. Suffocated between cola and avocados in the back of a refrigerated semi just outside Dallas.

He wonders how long his luck will hold out. The owner of Johnny Wong’s is a distant cousin, and pays him $2.80 an hour under the table. Of this cash, he wires 2/5 back to his village, and lives on the rest. Sometimes he listens to English conversation tapes on his only possession, a walkman, while he runs the dishwasher, sounding out the hellos and how are yous with his thick purple lips, half dead from smoking so much. I don’t always understand what he says, but his hands are articulate, nimble. I watch them, scarred by a lifetime of fishing line and hooks and saw-like teeth marks.

The Taiwanese Chinese in the kitchen don’t speak his dialect. He’s nothing to them anyway. A ghostly throwback to the Third World. One night they ask me to go drinking, someone has an old ID. They don’t ask him. I follow and end up with a couple of others in a massage parlor at 4 a.m., throwing up beside a toilet with fuckheads pounding the door into a bruisy-hued dawn.

The next night, we close the restaurant alone, the man from Guangdong and I. I’ve rented a $75 per week motel room on the edge of town, sick of stuffing myself into a sleeping bag at the rear of my fold-down hatchback. He lives in a boarding house owned by Johnny Wong on the opposite end of town. It’s a particularly cold September night. The wind like barrels of ice water thrown in your face. He must be freezing in his ripped tee-shirt so I ask him in the parking lot after close if he needs a ride home.

He declines, insists he doesn’t like anything smaller than a bus.

"We’ll flip for it," I say.

It’s not clear who’s got the luck tonight.

He hasn’t shaved for days and has been losing weight. I see him back there behind all the steam and stainless steel a hundred times a night, dumping tub after tub, and don’t know what to feel. Terror. Pity. Shame.

On the drive to his place, he asks me if I know of any ways to make two thousand dollars quick.

"Ever play cards?" I half joke.

he thinks, then shakes his head. "Never the gambling."

In the same measured voice he always uses, he tells me the snakeheads are now charging double. It’s finally clear almost half of the men in his group didn’t make it through, and the ones like him have to cover the loss. There’s nothing he can do. They’ll sever ears and lips, noses and eyes from his family if he doesn’t start wiring the snakeheads $130 more a week.

I ask him what he’s gonna do. He shrugs and says that’s the way the world works. A cop turns on his cherries behind us. He freezes, puts his hand on the door handle at forty miles per hour.

The cop passes, accelerates into the night.

We laugh, and he tells me he’s so afraid here. He can’t even buy liquor without an ID. He pays the other waiters to get him cartons of cigarettes, because though he’s 33 years old, all the pimply convenience store attendants between home and work card him.

Around the corner from his boarding house, I stop and pick up a six-pack and bottle of Beam with my new fake ID that looks more like Jackie Chan than me.

In long stretches of silence, the man from Guangdong and I drink Mickeys on his cold front steps. The trees that aren’t dead all look anemic. He tells me one day he’d like to marry a strong Chinese woman. Not an Americanized or city girl, who will cry when she’s sad. But a woman with oceanic lungs who can blow life into the spirit he’s lost.

A cop shines a spotlight on us then passes.

He asks me what kind of girl I’m looking for. And I want to say—someone with an old soul, to hold in place my flimsy own. Someone whose eyes can cure. Instead, I tell him: someone pretty with nice skin, who’ll sometimes ask me what I’m thinking.

He tells me there was a young woman in one of the freighters with him, a new soul who smelled of the pine needles she fingered away at in her pocket for good luck. They spoke the same dialect and spent three weeks side by side, confined with the two dozen other Southern Chinese in the rusty hold of the ship, 24 hours a day, except once a week to bathe in icy sea water up on deck. To pass time on their backs in the dark they talked about what they’d do in America; the businesses they’d each open. She was destined for Flushing where she had a great aunt. He himself hadn’t thought much further than to work as a farmer or kitchen hand to pay off the debt of his passage.

One night a snakehead, slurring Cambodian speech, came down into the hold. Clinking a rifle against the pipes. A former Khmer Rouge assassin turned people-smuggler. She went up with the man on deck without a fight. When she came back a few hours later, the girl didn’t speak. For three days. And then, in darkness, she crawled to an opposite corner of the hold, over bodies too sick and tired to groan. And a couple of days later, the same clinking returned.

"Life no good for some," he says.

And I imagine my mother and father, the first time they must have kissed. Two war refugees, starving for love. And I see the man wishes he would have said something, to make the woman less numb. Even if only in the form of his hand, possessing nothing in the universe but warmth. But maybe even that would have been too much...



© 2005 Real Karaoke People (New Rivers Press)





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