After four hours in the phone booth, her bladder was all Marlene could think about.
"When you're dead, you're dead, and that's all there is to it," she had once said, famously, in that smoky German accent of hers that always hinted at black leather boots going up to her crotch and the crack of a sharp whip. The press had skewered her for it. Far worse than they had skewered her for her dalliances, for her penchant for dressing like a man, for the booze and the bisexuality, the seclusion, and the mystery behind those alluring eyes, or for her vanity.
She had always been a prisoner of her own fame, but she never dreamed it would end like this. Wrapped up like a mummy in bright orange packing tape. Gruffly discarded in a phone booth like a prop, a dummy, like so much garbage, just after midnight, by those two hideous henchmen.
The pain shot through her bladder, but this film goddess, this tarnished Blue Angel, could not do it. Would not do it.
At first she had flopped and squirmed and screamed to herself in rage, her mouth gagged, her eyes bulging, her nostrils opening and closing frantically, and then more slowly, and finally, later, much later, pitifully, weakly, until the flopping stopped, and so too the squirming and the silent screaming, and with her eyes half closed she stared at the graffiti on the wall not more than an inch from her face, a few slashes of furious ink, a character of calligraphy that looked like a hut and chimney smoke or a filigree feather stuck stylishly in a woman's hat, and she wondered what it meant and she almost became lost in that wide wonder and things started to get fuzzy as she began to lose track of her own internal plot, as it quickened and thickened, and her nostrils barely opened and closed at all.
But the sharp pain in her side from holding her own water for so long would not let her slip away and she started to imagine that she had been skewered for real this time. Stabbed in the back. Stuck in the side. Hooked or harpooned. She suddenly had this image of herself wrapped in bright orange packing tape, lying there helpless on the floor, eyes glazed over, struggling to take another gulp, like a large dead goldfish. And it was the thought of this image on the front page of every newspaper, splashed all over the television that made her fight to get up.
She knew very well that nothing sells a few new cars or carbonated beverages better than the humor of personal humiliation. Ultimately, it was her obsession with vanity that would save her.
Her lustrous hair bounced free behind her as she knocked the receiver off the cradle with her head and tried valiantly to dial 9-1-1 with the tip of her nose. But it was a soft nose, a pretty nose, even at her age, a nose made for nuzzling flesh, not for dialing 9-1-1 in a phone booth in Chinatown at 4 o'clock in the morning. If she could only get her tongue out, she could use that. She rested her forehead against the phone, breathing hard through her nose, slightly caressing the keypad with her taped mouth, resisting the urge to cry.
This was once my city, she thought. Those golden days and nights on Sunset Strip. Vegas. Broadway. Images flashed through her mind like klieglights. Everyone luffed me, she thought, and I luffed them.
She sniffed and thought about the conversation with her manager. He assured her it would be a quick, safe job. All she had to do was basically show up, he had told her. It was in the bag. Gott knows she needed the money. Her last film, that banal gigolo movie, was more than twenty years ago, and her savings were nearly gone, spent on her health and her extravagances. This client is supremely wealthy, her manager had told her, but harmless. He's a modern Chinese robber baron in a sharkskin suit with a fetish for glamorous actresses. Just swish your drink around inside the glass, he had instructed. Slink around the room looking sultry.
"But no singing, right?" she had asked, again.
"No singing," he had assured her.
"And no oo la la," she had said. "No katzen kussen."
"No. No oo la la," her manager had said. "One hour. A hundred thousand dollars. How hard can it be?"
She thought about her manager and she thought about the bastard that put her here. What had he called himself? The vice something or other? And she thought about what he had said to her and what he had asked her to do and she turned, or tried to turn anyway, as well as can be expected with her arms and her vintage legs trussed up like that, with teeny tiny hop-steps, turned for help, from someone, anyone, and her eyes welled up for real now as they had done thousands of times when summoned, for affect, and they shone wet and luminous under the blinking fluorescent bulb not unlike that scene in the bathroom in Blonde Venus.
* * *
She had no way of knowing this, but Chairman Mao's youngest illegitimate son really was a bastard, in both senses of the word, and while he didn't grow up within the Chairman's household, he liked to be called The Vice Chairman all the same. Even as a young boy he had insisted upon it. As if it was a title that would defer upon him whatever rights and affection his father could not. The nickname was a pompous predilection that evoked intense dislike by those around him, and this dislike clung to him and followed him around like body odor wherever he went. It followed him to that lousy school for peasants he attended as a teen and it followed him to the state-controlled docks where he worked as a young man and it persisted on following him even today, to Hong Kong, Djakarta, and to L.A., as he went about his business as the cocky boss of a large, dirty, westernized import export company, whose chief markets were bootleg fashion apparel, genetic food, and cheap oriental labor.
His tastes had always run toward all things American, especially Hollywood, and Hollywood film starlets, and he liked to surround himself with nostalgic icons of the land of opportunity, adventure, perfect sunsets, sex, and death. At the advice of one of his e-mail girlfriends, he had dropped the capital letters in his nickname, and added a hyphen for a sleeker, postmodern affect. Later he had dropped the hyphen altogether and combined the two words into one. He liked the look of it. A slender lethal stiletto, jabbing into the future. It made him feel transformed, as if he had arrived wholly in a new world as a new being, a god with a good pseudonym.
Ha, the vicechairman often smirked to himself. My father must be rolling over in his grubby little bury hole.
And this is precisely how he was smirking to himself as he checked his sinfully opulent wristwatch and then his appearance in the mirror in the back of his private limousine on its way to the pier where he had a little midnight trading to attend to, doors to open, strings to pull, people to push around.
As he turned his head slightly left and then right and then left again, popped another designer drug, and took another sip of soda water, he considered only very briefly the sad actress. It had been a mistake. He should've requested one of those look-a-likes instead. He took absolutely no notice that the sky had scummed over, that race riots had broken out, that tear gas was blowing over in the streets around him.
* * *
The first weird act of love, American style, that little Lai and Zhizhong Huang witnessed in their new country was a woman wrapped in bright orange packing tape kissing a telephone.
They were watching her kiss the telephone through a crack between the metal doors in the trailer they were hiding in. The man had told them to stay in the back of the trailer until he returned and they would be free. It was a fetid compartment once connected to a truck that hauled crates and palettes of diseased fruit and vegetables, and it was parked in an abandoned lot next to an abandoned building. But there was no place to defecate or urinate inside the trailer so they took turns walking to the back of the compartment and holding their nose and doing it there. They often sat or stood or laid in the front of the trailer near the heavy metal doors with their dirty little cheeks pressed against the floor, and only the hint of their little mouths and noses and eyes at the crack for light, for air, for signs of life. The man had told them to stay in the back of the trailer until he returned and they would be free, and free is what they wanted to be more than anything else in the world so they obeyed, except for allowing themselves, after much debate, this single and slight deviation. Besides, they were anxious to see for themselves what America was like after hearing so many crazy stories about it. So they waited. They stayed and they waited. But they also watched. And they saw many mysterious things. Nameless things charged with anxiety and derangement that seemed a long time in defining themselves as something other than what they were.
Lai and Zhizhong were young and foreign and had no idea why the woman was wrapped in bright orange packing tape, and even less of an idea why she was kissing the telephone, but they were not dull or ignorant of mercy and when the woman turned with tears in her eyes they could tell something was very wrong.
They looked at each other and absentmindedly fingered the tiny handmade silver crucifixes their grandmother had given them to wear around their necks for protection against whatever harm should befall them, crucifixes so finely wrought that you could see if you bothered to look the very blood dripping from the hole in the side of the man who had been sent, according to the incredible tale their grandmother had told them, by his own father, and he his father's only son, nearly two thousand years ago, to save the earth from self-destruction when he was only a baby.
--- On the other side of the city an angry mob of urban youths swelled in the street.
"Why are we stopping?" the vicechairman rapped on the glass with his knuckles and wanted to know.
He looked out the tinted window to see for himself and saw a sporting goods store being robbed. Young black men were running out of the store with guns and ammunition, hunting knives, fishing poles, and large hiking boots. Inside the store he noticed a man standing on a stepladder reaching up to remove what looked like a large taxidermied fish with a long sharp bill - perhaps a marlin or a swordfish, he thought - from the wall. One guy charged through the jagged opening in space where the display window had been not more than ten minutes earlier, holding a mounted deer head before him. A twelve-pointer, in rut, the vicechairman noticed, always having prided himself on his attention to detail. He had hunted deer, much bigger deer, in Tibet and Outer Mongolia, but before he could enjoy the divertissement of such reveries, the door of the limo was wrenched open and he was hauled out onto the sidewalk rather discourteously.
The vicechairman heard the sound of gunfire from down the street but he did not flinch. His driver was on the ground in the street being pummeled and deprived of his 9mm and his cash and cell phone and clothes, as the limo was driven away in a screech of tires, on the back seat the hundred thousand dollars in a briefcase that the vicechairman did not pay to the aging starlet because she had refused to sing or sit on his lap or pee on him as he laid on the plush rug pleasuring himself.
A boy in a red bandana brandished a small handgun and demanded his wallet.
The vicechairman arranged that smirk on his face and executed two Tai Chi maneuvers called Part The Wild Horse's Mane and Drive The Monkey Away, a kick and a jab, that knocked the gun skittering into the street and a few of the boy's teeth down his throat.
For a small snappy oriental man who was now quickly and completely surrounded, whose shoes cost more than some of these people earn in a month, the vicechairman seemed unusually cool, and this behavior made the mob wary. He casually removed his leather jacket and his satin shirt and assumed a defensive position known as The Golden Rooster Stands On Prancing Legs. He went through his breathing techniques with his eyes closed and slowly brought his hands up to a configuration in front of him, as if he were holding delicately a priceless object, as if he were slow dancing with a star.
He wheeled slowly in a circle in this fashion quickly assessing the antagonists around him until his back was turned toward the jagged opening in space where the display window had been not more than ten minutes earlier. He saw a man with a rifle. Another boy with a gun. A man holding a buck knife as if he would lunge forward with an underhand sweep. A man shaking a baseball bat wildly. More men arrived. More guns. Ski poles. Hockey sticks. Even the deer head was back. Everyone was screaming and jabbing things at him.
--- A man prone to fits of irritability and restless sleep, who subsisted on cheap wine and Cheez-Whiz, who once tried to make a go of it as a poet, whose wife and kids left him soon after he had lost the house for the second time for failing to hold down a regular job, had been standing directly across the street in an oversized army jacket in front of the electronics store fumbling with the zipper of his pants, watching what he assumed was an old Bruce Lee movie on the sole remaining television in yet another jagged opening in space where a display window had been not more than ten minutes earlier.
He was a landmark around here. He was the one who had lost all sense of purpose. He was the one who was sick. A specimen of nothing so much as an empty container for wondering if someone will appear and demand to know his name, his story, and to be unprepared for such questions is to risk remembering what the answers were, therefore he did not change his surroundings very often, for to do so would risk a rupture in his total immersion in the thick and crowded paint-by-numbers scene of things, his elaborately constructed counter-system. A voice, his own, but somehow outside himself, provided a continuous commentary.
Old Rubberlips everyone called him. He had a sparkle in his eyes, and he had long gray hair, and a long gray beard, and long gray and gnarly animal fingernails grown as a physical demonstration of his total commitment to his elaborately constructed counter-system, and all his life was in his own hands, and he had no problem whatsoever peeing any damn place he wanted to and he was doing so now, contrapposto gusto.
Every day the display window of the electronics store was filled with a bank of television sets all tuned to the same program. The program was of people standing in the street watching themselves. People standing in the street watching themselves watch themselves, laughing at themselves laugh at themselves, and pointing at themselves point at themselves on a bank of one hundred television sets all tuned to the same program.
But not today, Old Rubberlips did not fail to note. The last television set in the world was a thirteen-inch job apparently playing an old Bruce Lee movie that Old Rubberlips had never seen before.
Made in the USA, proclaimed a little red, white, and blue sticker on a corner of the television set.
"Whazzawhirl comin' to?" Old Rubberlips said.
He pondered deeply as he peed.
He decided that he preferred the glass to the jagged opening in space where the display window had been not more than ten minutes earlier. The glass was perfect. The glass was blaring. It protected and exposed. Now it was like a memory that no longer existed. Maybe the whole system, the whole program leads up to this, this, this - egress, he wanted to say, but the noise of the thought came out of the opening in his head as the word hole. This hole. This breach. This jagged opening through which the things of the world disappeared. The things of the world are no longer discreet. No longer discrete. The display window was there. Now it's not. The wall of televisions was there. Now it's gone. All the layers and distinctions are gone. It was only a momentary frieze and the force of the moment was in what he didn't know about it. It daunted him and it promised to make the business of his dereliction and complacency a complicated one.
"People gettin' all high and mighty all er a sudden," he fretted. "Terdteen inch teevee nod good'nuff for 'em? Hmph."
He returned his attention to the movie as he attempted to zip up his pants. The action seemed awfully far away and out of focus. He leaned closer to the television. It almost forced him to try and resist it. In the movie Bruce Lee was barefoot and shirtless and looking not as cut as he normally does facing down an angry mob of thugs in front of a looted store. Old Rubberlips didn't think he had ever seen this movie before, and was starting to doubt his initial assumption about it being an old Bruce Lee movie as he shifted his weight and planted his feet and stuck his hands in his pockets and decided to stay a while longer to watch what would happen next.
Across the street, the vicechairman remained completely calm, planning how he would dispatch each man most efficiently and with the least amount of damage to himself, what technique, and in what sequence, just as he had practiced hand-to-hand against men with padded broomsticks in Beijing whom his father had secretly hired to make a man out of him.
"Uh-oh," Old Rubberlips mumbled, pointing to the television. "Loogout behine you."
But the vicechairman didn't see the fake plastic swordfish until it was too late.
"Ooof," Old Rubberlips said, jerking his head back in anguish, involuntarily reaching for his side.
Alas, the look of pain on his face was soon replaced by a look of amusement and he pointed at the television and put his other hand across his toothless mouth and made a short little high-pitched noise through his fingers and blew some snot out of his nose giggling like a child.
"Loogit 'at," he keened.
He bent over at the waist and slapped his knees and giggled again and started to walk away, but came back and watched some more until his smile was gone and his face was blank.
"Aw, man, tha hain't right," he finally snorted and shook his head and waved the screen away, as if to dismiss the ridiculous flicker of light he had just seen. The barefoot shirtless man who was most certainly not Bruce Lee was looking down grasping the spear sticking out of his stomach with the rest of the swordfish behind him, and everyone in the mob was backing away and giving it more room, this thing, the man and the swordfish, the manfish, which had proved itself warm-blooded after all, whirling around and around as one on the sidewalk like a carousel creature and rider spun free, some new freak of nature gone horribly awry. As if it were altogether unworthy of his further attention.
"Tha hain't no Bwuce Lee moobie," Old Rubberlips said, reassured, moving on down the street knowingly. "Evybody know Bwuce Lee cain't die. Bwuce Lee gone live forever and ever."
* * *
"Bu xing," Zhizhong ordered sternly when Lai put her hand on the door handle, and he covered her hand with his, but Lai paid her brother no heed and she swung open the door, and a chill broke out on her arms, and she walked out into the street and straight toward the phone booth and the weeping woman as defiantly and as bravely as their mother had when the special police through devices that magnified their voices like monsters from behind their vehicles had ordered her to surrender, had called her a Dissident and a Rabblerouser and a Pamphleteer and a Persona Non Grata and less nice names that her grandmother instructed them never to repeat. If a man calls you a dog, she said, just laugh at him inside because anybody can look at you and see that you're not a dog. But if he calls you a liar then you may object because nobody can just look at you and know you're not a liar. She said that they should shut their mouths about it forever, try to forget. But who can forget?
In the little time they lived with their grandmother in a small, perfect, paper thin, wooden white house with flowers growing in tin cans on the window ledge, in a remote fishing village with a mission church along the cold northeastern coast, where the sun beat down golden on the grass and water, where wild dogs ran in packs through the streets at night and old wise men with cobras around their necks sat in the streets during the day, where there was no hot water but everything was clean, before the men arrived firing assault rifles into the air, before they were sold, they learned things they'd always remembered. The main thing she taught them was to treat people the way they would want to be treated and to honor the sense of eternal that resided in them and everyone.
* * *
When Marlene saw Lai and Zhizhong Huang coming toward her like two little extras, two little acolytes, when she saw the glint of the small fishing knife used to slice open the white bellies of yellow carp, a knife that Zhizhong had concealed in a sheath just beneath his black tunic not in his most feverish imagination for a moment such as this, the sharp pain in her side went away and the pee ran warm and comforting down her leg and her eyes lit up with hope and something unseen lifted up from her heart just as it had done at the end of Destry Rides Again.