Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
In the quiet pre-dawn darkness along the Seattle waterfront a cloaked and covered lone figure scans the harbor like a spy from a bygone day. The fedora is his one capitulation to eccentricity. The trench coat, still a common sight in this town, belonged to his father. Back when he was young and a new immigrant he adopted the hat and took on the coat after he became hooked on old Humphrey Bogart movies. That was nearly thirty years ago and many times since then these things have served well as his umbrella. And, unlike an umbrella, they are not easily forgotten when temporarily laid aside. Never married, Bo Chen spends most of his time and efforts on a small business and apartment in Chinatown but, sadly, it doesn’t keep him from being lonely. The melancholy nature of the empty bay seems to match his own mood as forlorn thoughts creep around in his head.
At the nearby wharf, under large spotlights hanging from the overhead cranes, the container ship from Shanghai is secured and readied for unlading. Bo has been tracking it and his container of expensive green jade figurines for the past two weeks. Several purchases at his shop hinge on this delivery, not to mention the investment he has in it.
Mental calculations tell him that the container with his merchandise should reach his warehouse in about two days. Logging this into his smart phone calendar, he turns to leave, then notices that the rising sun over the Cascades is about to set aglow the whole wharf area. Brilliantly painted cranes, reaching out and canted over the ship’s length, turn a fiery color, like a row of red mantis ready to feed. The scene lifts Bo Chen’s heart. Doing business in Seattle is a pleasure. Once the unlading begins he knows that it will continue around the clock until it is done. It is still early and all is as it should be. Tugging his fedora, Bo Chen heads for the public market along the seawall. He still has time to have some tea and one of Sum Lee’s steamed pork buns before opening his shop.
A loud hiss of air brakes makes Bo jump when the diesel rig backing his container stops just shy of the warehouse loading platform. This is the big day he has looked forward to. Anticipation, combined with his efforts to make sure that there are no mistakes right up to the end, have his already high-strung nerves more on edge than usual. After inspecting the bill of lading and checking the container locks and seals Bo approaches the driver.
“Everything seems to be in order, you can unhook and drop it right here.”
The driver seems a little surprised.
“Don’t you want to open it up and check the contents?”
“I’ve been doing business with these people for a long time,” Bo says. “The locks and seals are good. It’s fine. I’ll do the inventory later. You can go.”
The driver shrugs his shoulders, hops down from his cab, quickly unhooks and drops the container on its fore pods, then heads back to the port to wait in line for his next container.
Bo watches him disappear into the commercial So Do traffic before starting to unlock the container and break the seals. Finally he has possession of his wares. In his excitement he fumbles and bangs the first lock several times while removing it. Reaching to remove the second lock, he freezes when he hears tapping inside the container. His heart pounding in his ears, Bo doesn’t move for many seconds. The tapping comes again. Bo quickly gathers himself, taps out a simple cadence, and waits. Almost immediately the cadence is repeated. Rattled and scared, Bo uses his sleeve to wipe his sweaty brow before he removes the final lock. Cautiously, he disengages the latch and pulls the doors open. Immediately he is repelled several feet by the stench. But not before he sees a person lying on a thin pad in the space nearest the door. Also there is what appears to be the bottom part of a 55 gallon oil drum that has been cut off and made into a toilet. It is half full. An almost empty plastic container of perhaps 15 gallons has been used to hold water. Food wrappers litter the rest of the vacant space except for one large cardboard box that contains a few unopened wrappers of some kind of jerked meat and a few rotting fruits and vegetables. Boxes of jade figurines occupy all the rest of the shipping container and have been more or less walled off with mesh from the small area near the door. Except for some dried feces that must have splashed up on the boxes near the toilet, all seems to indicate that the cargo shipped undisturbed.
Still scared, Bo stares at the unmoving figure lying near the door. Dressed in filthy clothes with what looks like a large bloodstain on the front of the trousers, it is hard to tell if it is a man or a woman. Not knowing what to do, and unsure about getting involved, he finally decides that he should get closer and try to see if this person is injured. But before he can do this the prone figure suddenly raises an arm over their eyes, blocking the light, turns their head toward him, and says in Chinese accented English, “Do you have some extra pants? I forgot to bring tampons.”
Hau Ming, in her mid thirties, was born in Shanghai to parents who later died from abuses that they had suffered during the cultural revolution, leaving her to be raised and educated in a Catholic orphanage. As she grew and matured Hau showed great promise with her catechism as well as her academic subjects, prompting the nuns to send her on to be educated in one of the better Shanghai universities. There, near the end of her studies, and to the dismay of her patrons, she met and married another bright student. They produced one child, a girl, not long after they wed. Tragically, however, one night during the Lunar New Year celebration a large van loaded with fireworks exploded during the traditional New Year’s Lion and Dragon Dance. Several in the crowd were severely hurt. Three were killed outright, including Hau’s husband and little girl whom had been standing next to the van. Hau Ming was just returning with refreshments and was further away from the blast. She received serious burns to her right arm and a lesser burn to the right side of her face. The intense flash of heat singed and burned most of her clothes, leaving her lying and smoldering in the street like a freshly doused fire log.
When her wounds healed and the grief for her loved ones became less painful, she decided that life was too short to wait for the auspicious. Now was the time to risk a new life. Her old one was surely gone.
The aroma of the roasted teriyaki chicken from Dong Chang’s Barbecue Shop tells Bo how hungry he is. His mouth waters as he climbs the steps to the apartment over his shop via a separate outside entrance. Sniffing the sweet smoky smell of the barbeque, he wonders if he should have bought two. Hau Ming, a few pounds lighter than before, has not failed to clear her plate for the past two days--ever since he brought her home from the container. It was not hard for him to do the right thing for someone in such a helpless position. He was always big hearted despite the face he put on during his business actions. Bo Chen gave over his bedroom and most of his bath and slept on the couch. Falling asleep while watching TV had always been easy for him anyway. That was the easy part. Getting her clothes was a little different. With no experience buying women’s clothes, he had to rely on sales help from the people at the little used clothing store down the street. When Hau first appeared in fresh clothes Bo plainly saw what an impressive and feminine person she was. The cloth and cut of the Asian apparel accented the intelligent bone structure of her face and complimented her willowy figure. A little taller than Bo, she looked nothing like the starved figure he had first seen on the floor of the container. Almost immediately he began to feel a little change in his moods as well. Helping her pleased him.
After knocking on the door at the top of the steps, Bo unlocks and enters the apartment. Still preoccupied with his thoughts about the pleasant changes in his moods, he at first doesn’t recognize his own place. The scent of a sandalwood joss stick accompanied by the soothing twangs of pipa music stroke his senses. Discarded on a small seat in the bay window that overlooks the street, Bo notices the jacket to one of his old lute albums. Obviously Hua Ming has mastered his ancient turntable stereo. And the apartment looks so much neater and cleaner than he ever keeps it. On the small dining table there is a fresh bowl of steamed rice, a platter of stir fried bitter melon with scrambled egg, and a steaming pot of tea. Smiling broadly, Bo sets the roasted chicken down and admires the laid out table. When he looks up Hua is leaning against the kitchen doorway, watching him.
“I hope you like bitter melon,” she says, “I was surprised to find it.”
A bit alarmed when he hears this, Bo knows that she must have gone out to get the bitter melon. For her to wander the streets of Chinatown alone, and so soon, was a little unsettling. He remembers when he first set foot here and how nervous he was. He couldn’t help but admire her gumption, however. Very quickly he is learning that she is a remarkable woman. And probably would be good at business, he also quickly concludes.
“I do like bitter melon.,” Bo Chen replies. “You must have gone out. Where did you get it?”
“At the vegetable market on top of the hill,” Hau said, nodding toward the commercial square nearby. “I think the area is called Little Saigon. I had only a few Chinese Yuan but when I explained in Mandarin that I was out of dollars they were very nice and eager to change my Yuan. Probably they will use them at their ancestral shrines.”
“Yes, I know the market,” Bo said, “they are Vietnamese-Chinese, nice people. And prosperous too.”
Hau remembers the stories her parents used to tell her when she was very young. About being prosperous, then stripped of their possessions and sent to the countryside for agricultural labor. They had warned her of the dangers of being prosperous. So long ago that was. She rarely recalls such lessons. It surprises her a little that Bo elicits such deep memories, and at the same time, a long dormant kind of curiosity.
“Is it important for you to be prosperous, Bo Chen?” Hau asks.
“I suppose so,” Bo replies. “That is why I left China. It’s not everything and I know it will not buy happiness but it’s something.”
They silently exchange looks, and then with their own thoughts, ride the notes of the pipa coming from the stereo. After a few moments Hau suddenly laughs for the first time and says, “And it’s good for business, right, Bo Chen? Sit down. We will have our dinner.”
Except for a small clump of rice and chicken bones, the dinner dishes are bare. Not much had been said as they ate. Most of that time had been spent eating. And with full mouths, it would have been hard to understand each other anyway. Bo was helping with the cleanup until Hau shooed him away.
“I can do this Bo Chen. Go to your couch and rest. It has been a long day and you must be tired. Did your jade customers follow through on their orders?”
“Some of them did,” Bo replies, “all the ones that I notified. I am confident from their reactions that I will do well by the shipment. Are you sure you don’t want my help with the cleanup?”
Bo didn’t like such chores before but sharing the task with Hau was different. He wonders how long it will last, how long should it last.
“You go on now, relax and watch your news. I can finish here,” Hau insists.
She notices the difference in Bo from many of the men in China. He doesn’t seem to mind helping in the kitchen. She had heard that Americans, even Chinese Americans, could be like that. Interesting. Before her mind can roam more a field about such things she turns to the task at hand. However, these thoughts about Bo that she puts aside are not new to her.
The TV news is all about the immigration issue. People are complaining about foreigners sneaking into their country. Bo wonders how they would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. Then he smiles and has to admit that, in a smaller and smaller world, and its many issues, many Americans feel that they only have one foot. And, quite naturally, this leaves them crippled. However, this thought is getting to close to politics for Bo Chen. Recalling the graffiti he had seen scrawled on a railroad coal car, “I am a free man. I do not vote,” he will just stick to his own business. And helping Hau.
After the news passes and the crazy reality shows begin, Bo turns the TV off and begins to make his couch, wondering what is taking Hau so long in the kitchen. Then he notices that the kitchen is dark. Under his bedroom door he sees that the light is on. Hau must of gone to bed while he was watching the news. That didn’t seem like her, not saying goodnight. But no big deal. It had been a long day. Dressed down to his underwear, he is just about to switch the end light off when his bedroom door opens. In a very pretty Chinese bed dress, framed by the doorway and the shadowy interior of the bedroom, Hau leans against the door jamb, lifts one hand to her hip and boldly stares at Bo for what seems like a very long time. Then with her face still as blank as the Chinese mask of calm, she almost whispers, “Bo, you don’t have to sleep on the couch, you know.”
Bo Chen admires the dress and the lithe figure of Hau that it reveals. Long gently curved legs end in bare feet with painted toenails. The allure that Bo Chen suddenly feels is not new to him, but the honesty of its pedigree with Hau is unknown. And exciting. Bo stands and slowly joins her, feeling the give of the wooden floorboards with each step.
Intimate talk about their union wanes to a thoughtful silence and the shared pleasure of being spent. So serene is the silence that talk just seems not quite good enough. After a while Hau finds the will to break the silence.
“I enjoy being with you Bo. There are things about you that a woman needs to have in a man. Things that are not all that common.”
“Hau, I could say the same thing about you,” Bo replies.
For him there is a kind of relief that these words bring to his soul.
“You are still young and I am very happy that you can still like me. I want to do what is right. For me. For you. I admire you and what you have risked to get here. I don’t want to do anything that would hurt that………….it all seems pretty complicated when I think about it. You’ve never even mentioned what you went through to get here and I promised myself I wouldn’t ask.”
Hau smiles and looks down to the bed covers for a moment, then looks up at Bo.
‘You didn’t know it but you were helping me before you ever saw me. I knew who you were and I guessed what kind of person you might be. I would probably not have tried such a dangerous stow-a-way if I hadn’t known some things about you.”
“You must of met my exporter, Sun Chan,” Bo says, “he is the only one I know where you come from.”
“Yes, I have known him a long time. He was a good friend of my husband’s. He set up the whole thing because he thought I might have a chance with you.”
Bo Chen smiles, “I’d say that you have got me pretty good. I’m weak as a kitten.”
“Not that way, you,” Hau Ming, says as she slaps him on the shoulder.
“That just happened with a little push from me….sooner rather than later. Sun Chan said that he knew you as a sensible, decent person. Someone who didn’t take advantage of people. He didn’t tell you about me because if something went wrong he didn’t want you to have any knowledge of it. No money was passed or even discussed. He felt that it was something he could do to honor the dead by helping the part of them that lived.”
Bo Chen feels humbled in his own uncomplicated way and simply nods as tears flood the eyes of Hau Ming.
“I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done,” Hau says. “You have shown me that I can care for someone again. I am more alive because of you. And now I need to find work and carve out my existence in this country. Like you once did.”
Bo Chen’s stomach does a flip flop when he hears this. Was she now going away? He doesn’t like the fear that suddenly possesses him and pushes it aside in ways not unlike the way he pushed aside his loneliness.
“Do you want to leave? I suppose there are better opportunities out there somewhere, but you should plan carefully. Of course I will help you if that is what you want.”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. It would be nice to stay with you but you must know that I need to get a hold on my life and that can only come with work.”
Bo Chen does understand. It's not like something that he’s never done. But with him it was all within the system. This is much different. Searching his mind, he takes a deep breath.
“I have a suggestion. My trade in the jade market is really going to take off. And when it does it will require my full attention. There will be no time for the other parts of my business. If I don’t hire help I will have to shut them down and I don’t want to do that. You could work in my shop and take care of that. There is a small kitchen, bed, and bath in the back of the shop that you could use for your own if you want. And I could pay you for you work as well.”
Bo pauses and looks at Hau. Moments pass as Hau thinks about what Bo has just said. She sees the utility in the whole set-up at once. And help beyond any she had ever expected. Plus they could see which of the many ways their relationship might go.
“That could work, blessed be you Bo Chen,” Hau Ming says, “but we must be very careful. I have a Chinese passport tucked away so I can get back to China if I have to. But my real name and who I am must remain secrete, else I could be detained and deported. That would be very unpleasant.”
Bo and Hau discuss their plans far into the night. They create a believable story about Hau’s background and determine that, at least to begin with, their true relationship will remain secrete. But even if it becomes known such things are not that unusual to begin with. They can handle it. Life will be good.
Month after month, with Bo and Hau working hard and providing good customer service, the tourist shop in Chinatown, now newly named The Jade Emporium, brings in good profits. Because they work close together, careful though they are about their relationship, some people eventually begin to see the little signs of a deeper attachment between them. Signs like a fleeting soft look or a little consideration between employee and employer that is just a bit beyond the normal. But like they had both expected, such recognition is no big deal. People have lives to live and they live them. Who has time to make judgments about people that are not directly involved in their own lives? Live and let live.
Dong Chang, American born and still relatively young, rents the shop space directly across the street from Bo Chen’s Jade Emporium. Not really a part of any neighborhood in attitude, Dong is arrogant and self-centered in the little interaction he has with others. Consequently, his barbeque business is marginal at best. Bo and a few others shop there occasionally and they have learned to just go in, fill the order, pay for it, and get out. Along with his unpleasant manner, Dong Chang is also nosey and quick to deliver up gossip, seeking opinions on its worth. But despite these business problems Dong owns a nice house in Bellevue, drives a new car, and never has much trouble paying his bills. Even when he falls short with his barbeque business, which is most of the time. Ironically, this is due to his past trouble with the law. As a way to get his criminal drug charges dismissed and get started in a lawful business with funds from the government, Dong agreed to become an informant for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. Paid monthly for his spying and reporting on Chinatown, Dong brings in a good income as long as he can keep ICE happy and deliver up illegal immigrants. Dong Chang, in simplest terms, is a rat.
On the way back from the Post Office with his box mail, Dong Chang stops on the sidewalk and admires his cover. The rows of barbecued chickens, hanging from hooks under the bright warming bulbs in his shop window, form an eye-catching display. Chickens of teriyaki brown staggered with chickens of soy sauce white, like the dark and light squares of a checkered tablecloth, capture the eye long enough to stir the digestive juices. After unlocking the shop door Dong turns the “Back In A Minute” sign back to “Open” and tosses the mail on the counter beside the register. Immediately his eyes fall on one particular envelope with the United States Seal on it. It must be his monthly check from ICE. Quickly, Dong grabs the envelope, looks to the door to make sure he is alone, and tears open the envelope. Sure enough, there is the check. Dong smiles and considers closing his shop. Who needs to work when they get nice checks like this. That’s when he notices that there is also a note in the envelope. This is rare, usually the nondescript treasury check is all that he receives. As he reads the note a frown comes over his face. It informs him that it has been three months since he has delivered up anyone to ICE. And that this will be his last monthly check if this continues. Dong drops the note on the counter then looks past his barbeque display directly into the glass front of The Jade Emporium across the street. He can clearly see that Hau is helping a couple of customers while Bo Chen is absent. Dong has had his suspicions about those two across the street and he has heard the gossip. Only, when he tries to get any further tidbits from his few customers, they are not forthcoming. Dong has been a rat for some time and he has learned the little telltale signs of concealment. He has suspected that there might be something there for him to exploit. And there are no penalties from ICE for being wrong. Having detainees, innocent or guilty, gives both him and ICE relevance. He knows that many of the Chinese immigrants have some things hidden in their closet. A warm body is what he needs now.
The jingle of the front door bell calls Dong away from his schemes as the local vagrant, known simply as Jack, enters his shop for a cheap box lunch of chicken thigh, steamed rice, and a tiny packet of soy sauce. Jack is a peaceable older white American that hangs around Chinatown when he is not at the nearby mission, where he gets most of his meals and a place to sleep when it becomes too cold on the streets. Pretty well known by the shops in Chinatown, he is courteously tolerated, even when he has no real money to spend. Bo Chen and Hau know and treat him with respect when he sometimes comes in to marvel over their jade ware and engage in a little conversation about how it is on the streets. But other than a place to get his box lunch when he can scrap together a little money, Jack has no use for Dong Chang. Dong treats him poorly, always taking his little money as fast as he can, then shooing him out into the street. Today is no different. Dong rudely slaps down the box lunch on the counter, grabs the money and starts shooing him away. However, Jack doesn’t move. He wants a small bag to keep his lunch warm until he can eat it. Now fuming, Dong grabs a plastic sack and rakes the box into it, then shoves it over the counter, pushing it into Jack’s chest. “Now get moving,” Dong says.
“My money not good enough for ya,” Jack grumbles as he takes the bag, and leaves the shop.
Walking down the street a short distance to the Hing Hay park, Jack takes a seat at one of the tables in the Grand Pavilion, a memorial to those Chinese-American veterans killed in World War Two. People about the park gather to practice Tai Chi, play chess, or just relax, as Jack pulls his box from the sack and begins to eat. While he is eating he sees, stuck to the bottom of the box, a slip of paper with some sort of fancy seal on it. Curiously inspecting it, he discovers that it is the notice to Dong Chang from ICE saying that he needed to deliver up an immigrant or lose his check. It was not signed but simply noted, “Your Agent.” Your agent, thought Jack. What the hell does that mean.
Jack had noticed the arrival of Hau to Bo Chen’s business and he had wondered the same things as the others around the neighborhood but it had seemed too ordinary to give any thought to. But this slip of paper is something out of the ordinary. Putting the note in his pocket, Jack finishes his lunch and heads back up the street to The Jade Emporium to look at the nice figurines and have a chat with Bo or Hau. He likes them, they are nice to him, maybe they will be interested in his little piece of trash.
When they discover the real business of Chang’s Barbeque Shop Bo Chen and Hau Ming move quickly. Hau can not risk being detained and losing her anonymity. So far there is no trace of her existence in America. After quickly moving their valuables to storage they use Hau’s secreted Chinese passport to purchase a one way ticket for her to Shanghai. With his US passport, Bo buys a visa and round trip ticket on another airlines for two days later. Sun Chan will assist Hau until Bo arrives. All along Bo and Hau had considered that it might come to this so they are OK when they kiss goodbye at the Seatac International Airport and Hau boards her flight. Two days later Bo temporarily closes The Jade Emporium and follows.
Looking like support for a military infantry platoon involved in an urban attack, the armored personnel carrier and its accompanying jail vans roar to a stop in the street between The Jade Emporium and Dong Chang’s Barbeque Shop. Dong watches through his front window, smiling as if he has just won the lottery…..until he sees the armed and helmeted squad that spews from the armored personnel carrier turn toward him instead of The Jade Emporium across the street. Like a fire team rushing an enemy bunker, these men burst into his shop, breaking the latch on the door, knocking the tiny doorbell to the floor, and waving their automatic weapons in his face before rushing to the back kitchen and office. There oven doors are torn from their hinges, pots and pans scattered helter-skelter, and files dumped to the floor as they “search” his shop. When he tries to stop them the squad leader pushes him against the wall, shoves a search warrant in his face, and says, “This is 107 South Market Street isn’t it?”
In horror Dong sees his address on the warrant instead of the 106 South Market Street address of The Jade Emporium across the street. So scared he is hardly able to reply, he says, “Yes but that address….”
Dong doesn’t get to finish his statement before the squad leader shoves him aside and says, “Just stay out of the way and you will not be harmed. It’s a woman we are looking for.”
Before Dong can reply the man is gone to the back of the shop with the rest of them. Completely shocked, Dong is planted against the wall near the door until a man dressed in regular clothes walks in, looks him up and down, then says, “Are you Bo Chin, the owner of this shop?”
“No,” Dong replies, “I am Dong Chang. This is my shop. You have the wrong address. Bo Chen’s shop is across the street.”
When this mistake is realized the raid is immediately called off. But not before Dong Chang’s shop is wrecked and unfit for business.
An internal review later determines that no evidence exist that any illegal activity has taken place at The Jade Emporium. And other than Bo Chen, a United States citizen, there is no one who lives on that property.
Dong Chang, suspected of providing false information in order to keep his monthly check, is no longer of any use to ICE. He takes his personal stuff from the barbeque shop, gets in his car and drives back across Lake Washington to his home, never to be seen in Chinatown again.
Following a simple signing marriage service at the local Office of the Civil Affairs Bureau in the West Nanjing Road district of Shanghai, Bo Chen, Hau Ming Chen, and Sun Chan hail a taxi just off the start of the famous pedestrian street. In the hubbub of Shanghai’s premier shopping street the well dressed threesome stand out among the mass of humanity strolling to and from the many stores of the area. Mixing with the crowds is a small electric engine pulling crowded covered booths on its circular route up and down the 3.4 mile long street. Rather than squeeze in aboard this miniature train to the Jing’an Temple Park at the street terminus, Sun Chan wisely chooses to take a taxi the short distance and outflank the crowds. Once they reach Jing’an Park they let the taxi go and enter the green refuge, quickly fading into its quiet interior. Bo and Hau, taking their first married walk, guided by Sun Chan, meander along the various paths and beautiful lotus filled ponds. Smiles, light conversation, and breaths of fresh air are mixed with the more complex talk about their new business arrangement. When Bo Chen returns to the United States and his jade import business Hau will manage the Shanghai end of the business until a spousal visa for her is approved. This will give Hau time to gain experience in the overall business. Meanwhile, Bo Chen, who is already quite prosperous from the jade business, hopes to expand to more emporiums in the Seattle area. It is expected that when Hau arrives in America she will become the general manager of these Seattle operations. Eventually, the hope is that an internationally renowned business, owned and managed by the three, can take a good share of the jade market.
Their light, optimistic mood is partially put on hold by delightful awe when they emerge into a clearing among willow trees, small waterfalls, and glassy ponds, with a beautiful Balinese restaurant as the center piece. Here Sun Chan runs ahead, spreading his arms, and laughing.
“You two remain here,” he yells back over his shoulder, “and enjoy the view. I know the people here. I will go ahead and set up your first meal together as a married couple. I know just the thing.”
When Sun Chan calls them, Bo and Hau join him at a table with a nice view of their natural surroundings. A red color, the symbol for good fortune and joy, is seen throughout the dishes spread over the table. From Peking Duck, with its cooked red hue for fidelity and happiness, to the red lobster of celebration, to the long stranded noodles for longevity, served with vegetables and the sea cucumber of selflessness, it’s all there. Followed by red bean soup for its sweetness of life and happiness. The smells, tastes, and sights, all compliment the forward looking threesome on this auspicious occasion. An occasion that Hau had given up on and one that Bo Chen though would never come. Sun Chan is just happy to be there and have such good friends and business associates. He can feel, with the proven insight of the prosperous, the auspiciousness of this event.
After dinner and a couple of glasses of China’s fine Dragon’s Hollow wine the mood is languid and light until the final toast by Sun Chan.
“May prosperity and happiness follow you all the days of your life. And may those days be as long as the noodles that we sip between our lucky lips.”
Bo and Hau laugh and drink from each other's glass while Sun Chan has a sip of wine then goes into his pocket for a key card. He extends the card across the table to Bo Chen.
“You Bo Chen and Hau Ming Chen are registered at the Crown Plaza Hotel, the penthouse, Shanghai Harbor City. The address is on the card. Just show it to the taxi driver. At the gate you will find a golf cart waiting to take you to the main road where your taxi is waiting. Now go on and enjoy each other like there is no tomorrow. I will call you in a day or two. For now, I will remain here a while, perhaps have a drink with my friends in the kitchen.”
After sincerely thanking Sun Chan and returning all his good wishes, Bo and Hau slowly walk along several small waterfalls to a gate where their cart and driver await. Dusk is falling quickly and the lights of the city grow larger as they motor along the paths back toward the main road. As soon as they arrive a taxi pulls up. Bo follows Hau into the backseat, shows the driver the address, then leans back in the seat with Hau, contented, as the brilliant, colored neon lights of Shanghai whiz by, like tracers from a fireworks show.
Having truly enjoyed each other and slept, Bo and Hau stand at the suite's glass wall overlooking the Harbor. In the unusually clear dawn it seems as if all the earth, with its lands and seas, stretches before them.
“I never dreamed that life would give me this path to tread.” Hau quietly reflects. “I hope that I fulfill your life, Bo, like you are fulfilling mine.”
Amazed at Hau’s ability to capture the moment for both of them Bo replies, “You do….to the brim.”
Leaning against each other, sensing the feeling and thoughts that envelope them, there is no need for more words as they gaze down on the many ships anchored below as well as those sailing out to sea. Suddenly Hau becomes rigid, goes to her toes, and points to a container ship about to leave the harbor.
“Look Bo, that ship, that looks like the…………..”
“I know,” Bo says as he puts a finger over her lips, “I saw it. And this is as close as you will get to it or anything like it…….ever again. Wherever you are will always be the best of all possible worlds.”
Both their eyes well up as Hau relaxes and puts her arm around Bo. Turning a little toward him and searching his face, Hau says, “Really, Bo Chen?”
“Really, Hau Ming,” Bo replies, “I love you.”
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Between The Cracks
As autumn gets a firm foothold on the Appalachian coal country, the old man's mood seems to change to one of vigilance as he looks ahead to what will soon be required to get by. Requirements that seldom change and always bring a melancholy type of purpose to his life by offering up the carrot of another spring if he gets it right. Along the river the leaves have changed and the chill has set deeper with each passing day, bringing the time when being apart becomes personal and selfish. His infatuation with things like good land, clean water, and air, seems rather bothersome to those who are in power. To them he might be considered an outsider. But he was here first and he knows that the real outsiders are the ones who dig and carry away their finds to an appetite in far off places. Knowing there is little that he can do about it, he tells himself that it's ok, for he has looked all over and even with the alienation this is the place that he understands most. He can feel the right to be here in the pushback of his steps through mountain orchards with rotting apples lying among the fallen leaves on a ground marked by deer tracks. A ground ready for another season of sleep. His hair is white now but his step is still light enough to hear the rustle of wildlife in the thickets as he nears. They are also trying to get it right. Neither too hard nor too soft, it is a good place to dream and prepare.
Long ago, when he didn’t know how to stay away from those consumptive masters of men that longed for his mountain’s riches, he embarked upon the flight that eventually led him back to this land and the rich colors of dying leaves. Now, hardly an ending of the colors goes by that he doesn’t remember how he came to take that journey. It all began as a boy wandering the coal digs, watching what he thought belonged to him get shipped away. And it seemed then that all things were destined to leave that place.
A huge grey coal truck with a plume of coal dust streaming from the black hump of its load barreled down the narrow road toward 10 year old Danny. It gave him just enough time to turn his back as it blew by and showered him with fine cinders. Every morning the trucks were part of his trek to the school that was located up a hollow a half mile beyond. And every morning, for those few seconds that he was buffeted by the trucks he would feel as angry and insignificant as the coal camp where he lived. Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of the driver high in the cab, grasping the steering wheel like a machine gun as if he were in some sort of war. One thing was for sure, if he tripped and fell at the wrong moment he would end up squashed flat and probably no one would even know until they finally had to scrape him up.
Beside the road the creek flowed it’s usual mustard brown from the rain and mine waste that found its way there. Out in the middle of the passing waters a big double size mattress was stuck on one of the rocks and the banks were littered with cans and bottles. No wonder not a living thing could be found there. When Danny was a little younger he used to fish there until he finally realized that the only things living in that sludge were just in his imagination. Then he knew why the miners would joke with him about catching the big one. And he had felt foolish. Now, with all pretend left for the snot noses not old enough to see the truth, the creek was only good for shooting at bottles or rats with his BB gun. That and standing by the road at night, guessing from their headlights what kind of car was coming was about all there was to do for people like him. He had never lived in any one place long enough for it to really matter so he didn’t feel deprived, he just wanted out of the way of the lousy coal trucks. With a dad that had black lung and couldn’t work the mines any more and a mom that was always down in her back, his wish didn’t seem real likely to happen anytime soon. They were squatting on mine land, living in an old shack they had patched up, and there just didn‘t seem the need to go anywhere else. When times would try to nudge them out of their squatter's shack there would always be talk about Detroit and making cars but they had been able to wait most of those nudges out so far. That was fine with Danny since he couldn’t see himself around all those Yankees and their fancy ways to begin with. No sir, when he left he wanted to go South where the girls were clean. And where Elvis Presley came from. Until then he reckoned that he would just stay around his little West Virginia hollow and learn the best way to do that.
His thoughts of one day getting away from the soot spouting trucks were suddenly interrupted by the distant wail of a siren. It had suddenly turned damp and through the early morning mist and drizzle the muted sound of the siren reminded him of the mournful call of a loon on a pretty lake over in Virginia where he and his dad used to camp. That was back before black lung got in the way and Danny saw first hand what the mines could do to a person. He well knew that the siren had nothing to do with pretty lakes, or pretty anything for that matter. It meant that there was an emergency up at the Benwick # 2 mine, which was up the same hollow as his school. Hardly a month went by that there was not something going wrong up there. Mostly it was roof falls from trying to dig too much coal without spending enough on roof bolts and mine props. And when that caused the mountain to come down on a man it made for worse than a kid hit by a coal truck. His dad used to say that maybe black lung saved his life by getting him out of the mines. But that was before he started spitting up blood every morning. He didn’t say that any more. Sometimes after a roof fall it took days before they could even find anybody. And when they did find them the dead were so messed up that they couldn’t even open the box at the funeral to say goodbye. That’s one of the reasons that he hated mining and knew he would never do it. Saying goodbye had always been important to him, he was good at it, and he didn’t want to be cheated out of one of the things he did well. Detroit and making cars with the Yankees would come before that.
Up ahead he saw a small crowd beginning to gather at the little camp store. Some were miners from the graveyard shift who always stopped by there to unwind before going on home and the rest were families trying to get some word of what had happened up at the #2. When he got to the store he stood off to the side of the crowd, watched, and listened until he learned that there had been an explosion and roof fall. The faces of the people waiting there told him that it was bad, women quietly sobbed while most of the men, angry and agitated, were yelling about how the mine was only using them to make money and didn’t care if they got sick or killed. One old man who always hung around there in a wheelchair while sipping from a jar was telling anybody who would listen how he lost his legs in the mines and how the company kicked him and his family out of their company house because he couldn’t work any more. Didn’t matter that he offered to pay rent, they wanted the house for the able bodied who could mine coal. Danny had heard his story before and continuously lived it with his dad and, like many of the others, didn’t need it. He wished he would be quiet. The few kids there among the crowd were younger than Danny. They looked scared and lost. For a lot of them it was probably their first time. The adults not yelling and cursing the mine owners or sobbing into their scarves just stood by the road, quietly chain smoking as they stared up towards the entrance of the hollow.
A couple of ambulances screamed by on their way to the nearest doctor at Whitesville while another one went the other direction towards the miners hospital over the mountain at Beckley. Then after what seemed like a long while a convoy of three ambulances, escorted by a sheriff’s car and a state police cruiser, slowly came out of the hollow and turned towards Beckley and the only morgue in the area. A hush suddenly fell over the crowd and it seemed like time was frozen as they stared after the departing ambulances, as if looking for some unknown sign that could free them to live again. One that only they would recognize.
After a while Danny broke from the gathering and continued on up the road towards school and the hollow where the dead and injured had just come from. When he got to the bridge that crossed the creek to where most of the company housing was he was joined by Billy Naven. Billy lived in that part of the camp where the houses were usually painted and a little better than most of those along the roads and hollows. It was where a lot of the younger miners lived.
“Guess you might be lucky your dad’s got black lung,” Billy said, “could have been him in one of those ambulances.”
“Yeah, maybe so but we ain’t got no fit house like you got either,” Danny replied. “What about your dad, he OK?”
“He don’t work that shift no more,” Billy said. “He’s graveyard now, just got home a while ago. He’s ok ‘cept he’s always too tired to do anything when he ain’t working. We used to go and do stuff like fish or watch the football games down at the high school on Friday nights, but now it’s like he’s just not interested in anything but TV and a six-pack of beer.”
Danny knew what Billy meant. The life of the coal miner was pretty much defined as far as he was concerned too. He had seen what had happened to his dad. One day when he had ask him about it, his dad had told him that young men who got married and entered the mines would be wore out before they had finished their thirties.
Danny learned that life in the coal fields was not very happy but it was where he was and where he had managed to establish a feeling of belonging to something. So it was better than nothing and he figured that one day he would get out. Heck, he was just a kid. He had time.
He asked Billy, “You getting out of here when you grow up?”
Seeming to have never considered the possibility, Billy thought about what to say.
“I don’t know, where would I go? Every place else thinks we’re just a bunch of dumb hillbillies.”
“Yeah I know, but maybe they’re right, Billy. Maybe staying here proves that they are right. I mean there ain’t much to do here except play a little high school ball and then go in the mines. I saw dad spit up blood again this morning and when he saw me looking he told me, `Don’t you ever mine coal, Danny boy,` and I ain’t. I don’t know how but when my schooling is over I’m getting out of here.”
“I got a cousin from over Marsh Fork way,” Billy said, “ he joined the air force and got out plenty fast enough. He’s over in Germany now seeing the world and drinking beer with those blonde girls, like the ones in the magazines. He says they all love Americans and can’t tell where you're from. All they care about is that your American.”
“Really?” Danny thought about the poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at him down by the store and decided that the air force wouldn’t do for him. Maybe the Marines. They have those pretty uniforms and they’re the toughest, everybody knows.
“What about you,” Danny ask, “you think you might join the Air Force?”
“I ain’t smart enough probably,” Billy moaned. “My cousin graduated high school and I’m having a hard time making it through the fourth grade. Maybe the mines is all I can get come that time.”
“Aw, come on Billy, maybe not the Air Force but maybe the Marines. You and me could join together when we get big. Audie Murphy was only sixteen when he joined the army during the big one. They wanted all they could get then, smart or dumb. Maybe we’ll get into another one and they’ll be begging us to sign up. What do you think, Billy? Think maybe we could do that? Think of all the fun we could have traveling around in our clean new uniforms. Wouldn’t that be something? Sure beats mining coal and spitting up blood.”
Billy seemed to light up a little bit.
“Yeah maybe we could get in another fight and then they would need me. I wouldn’t have to be so smart. And it sure would be nice us going together. It’s sure something to think about, ain’t it?”
“Sure is,” Danny said as they turned up the dirt road into the hollow. It had rained hard the night before and the road had about two inches of mud on it that sucked at their shoes as they trudged up the grade.
Every now and then a coal truck came down the hill splattering mud and driving them almost into the ditch.
A few miners were still walking out of the hollow, carrying their dinner buckets and looking like the walking dead. Usually they joked around with the kids and tried to put on a little fun but that day they didn’t seem to even notice the boys, or themselves for that matter. Big black sticks of human figures with two sunken white spots for eyes that saw nothing, they passed the two boys as if they weren‘t even there. Danny looked at Billy and could tell that he was scared. Death hung heavy in the air.
As they topped the first muddy grade up the hollow the sooty white wooden school house, perched on a little flat place against the mountainside, came into view. With the flag pole as its only adornment it wasn’t much to look at. Since it only had three rooms made up of two grades each and one large room for the lunch cafeteria, there were only three teachers and that included the principal.
The kids that went there were mainly from the mining families where education was simply a resting place before entering the mines. There was not much difference in most of the kids but there was one kid, name of Alan Stover, who was different. For one thing he rarely came to school and had failed sixth grade so many times that he was almost old enough to quit school altogether. Perhaps for that reason he was also the toughest. But Alan, when he did come to school, didn’t mingle with the other kids much and even though he was the toughest he didn’t bully. With Danny he seemed to let down the wall he kept around himself and sometimes when Danny was alone he would come up to him and ask questions about school or some of the places Danny had been, like he was interested in what Danny had to say. Hard to explain, but he acted like Danny could help him with his life or something.
When Billy and Danny arrived at school they could see that Alan was absent again because he wasn’t in his usual spot outside smoking and waiting for the bell to ring. But everyone could see his cousin, Butch Stover, standing on the school porch and checking lunch bags to see if he could get a free treat. Butch did bully and most kids tried to stay away from him when they could.
Although cousins, Butch and Alan were worlds apart when it came to how they treated the other kids. Alan was smaller and by the way he dressed Danny could tell that he had less than most, yet he still held himself over the others with a quiet pride that went beyond his dress. Butch, who had failed at least once too, was bigger and enjoyed using his size to push others around but he never messed with Alan who simply ignored him. It seemed that Butch also knew when Alan wasn’t around because at those times he would get meaner and that morning was no different as Billy and Danny somehow snuck by and into the school while Butch was taking some first grader’s Baby Ruth.
When the time for recess came they had to stay inside because of the rain and mud. Other than Billy, who was a grade lower than him and in another room, Danny didn’t have any real friends to talk to and he felt trapped in the small crowded room. Outside recess he could play marbles, talk to Billy, or just run around and choose the kids that he wanted to be with. Plus there was an old basketball hoop out back. But it didn’t get used much because the only basketball was flat and nobody bothered to fix it. About the only thing Danny could do during recess on rainy days was watch the girls who all stayed in one part of the room doing their private talks and glancing at the boys occasionally. A couple of them were pretty. He didn’t know that girls could be so interesting much before, and now that he knew they seemed to not want anything to do with him. Still it was something to watch them and see if he could catch them looking back. The other boys didn’t seem all that interested in girls but Danny liked to see what kind of dresses they wore and even on such a rainy day, in their muddy shoes and socks, their legs were still pretty and fun to just look at. However he had to be careful to hide his looks by peeking over a library book that he pretended to read.
It rained pretty near all that day and when the final bell rang it was so nice to get out of there, even with the slushy mud all over the place.
On his way home Danny could usually avoid Butch by getting him in sight and then maneuvering to stay behind as they came out of the hollow. But this day Butch had decided to stop along the side of the hollow and hurl insults and threats as the other kids walked by. When he saw Danny his eyes lit up and there was no way for Danny to avoid him short of turning around and going back to school. But he couldn’t even do that. That would only piss Butch off and he would be sure to come after him. So Danny fixed his eyes on the muddy road just ahead of his steps and continued on, wishing he could disappear. When he drew even with Butch he heard the sarcastic bait.
“Hey teachers boy, are you going home to your momma?”
Danny pretended not to hear him and kept going with his heart beating a mile a minute.
“Hey, Daniel! I’m talking to you. You’d better stop and give me an answer or I’m going to smear you and your fancy new jacket in the mud.”
Butch was now walking along to stay even with him.
Danny had just been given a new white jacket by his mom and he was terrified that Butch would throw him down in the mud so he stopped and fearfully looked up.
“I’m just going home like everybody else. I have to feed the dog and make sure he stays in the yard,” Danny said. Desperate to keep Butch from following him home he quickly continued, “He’s a mean dog and mom and dad can’t handle him but he does whatever I tell him to do.”
Butch seemed to consider that for a moment then walked up close and said, “Well let me tell you something smart ass. If I see you walking this way tomorrow I’m going to kick your ass up between your shoulder blades. You better find another way home you little piss ant. You got it?"
Danny felt a surge of relief when he realized that he was going to get out of there without getting beat up.
“I got it," he said and quickly put distance between himself and Butch who was now strutting down the road, creating a wide path among the other kids.
Situated in a half hidden gully over the bank of the muddy road sat a derelict coal company shack not too unlike the one Danny lived in. It was just a couple of rooms with no running water and a coal fired stove. In front there was a long dilapidated porch and out back beside a black stream of mine wash was the toilet or outhouse as most called it. An old broken down couple squatted there and somehow managed to survive. Maybe they were kin to Alan Stover and maybe not but some days when he was supposed to be in school Alan would walk the railroad tracks with an old burlap sack and collect the big lumps of coal that had fallen from the passing trains and lug them up the hollow to the old couples shack. This had been such a day and there on the front porch of that shack, unseen by either Butch or Danny, stood Alan. He had seen and heard the whole thing between Butch and Danny.
All that evening Danny worried about Butch and getting beat up, then finally accepted his fate since there was no way he could avoid it. He would just do the best he could. Maybe Butch would forget about it or find somebody else to pick on.
The next day in the classroom where Danny’s fifth grade sat on one side of the room and Butch’s sixth grade sat on the other, Danny tried to avoid looking at Butch but a couple of times he couldn’t help it. When Butch had his attention he would slowly smile as he wagged his finger at him. That caused Danny’s fear to return full force and made him know for sure that it was going to be a very different kind of school day. Something else was different about that day too because in the last row of the sixth graders, half asleep, sat Alan.
As the final bell rang and school let out Danny hung back as most of the other kids hustled out the door, across the play yard, and onto the road. He was going slower than usual but it wasn’t long before he saw Butch standing in the same spot as the day before. His heart began to pound.
A large group of girls were a little ways behind him as he approached Butch. And behind the girls, out of mind and out of sight, was Alan trailing them all, walking slowly and smoking a cigarette.
Danny felt terrible, he had a crush on three of the girls and they were about to see him shamed by Butch. Or worse.
When he got to the spot where Butch was waiting he cringed as he heard him say, “Just hold it right there you little twerp."
Everybody stopped and Danny could plainly hear the girls giggling which for Butch was too good to be true. He had an audience of girls to show how tough he was.
“Didn’t I tell you to not come by here?"
“Yeah but there ain’t no other way to go. I have to come by here."
Danny felt like throwing his books down and making a run for it but he just couldn’t with Virginia, Nancy, and Peggy Sue watching. He didn’t know what he would do but he couldn’t run.
“Well ain’t that just too bad," Butch said as he closed the few feet between them. “Looks like I’m going to have to kick your butt."
Danny’s eyes filled with tears as he stood there waiting for it to begin.
The girls turned silent and drew closer together.
Then suddenly before anything could happen everyone was surprised by a loud voice as Alan stepped from behind the girls.
“You ain’t gonna kick nobody's butt Butch Stover."
Alan had a bow legged way of walking and he was shorter but as he strode up to Butch and glared up into his face Butch seemed to lose two sizes.
“Hey, Alan what you doin’ here? I’m just having a little fun with momma’s boy here. Don’t mean nothing. I wouldn’t waste my time with him.”
Alan was small but his clenched hands at his sides were the largest Danny had ever seen on a boy.
“Well why don’t you try me.” Alan said, “That be a waste of your time too, Butch?"
“Hell no, Alan. Everybody knows you don’t take nothin from nobody," Butch replied, so scared that he was actually shaking.
“You’re a big tough guy, Butch, always picking on those smaller than you. I’m smaller than you, come on, pick on me," Alan kept on.
There was silence for perhaps five seconds as the two looked at each other.
Then as fast as a rattler’s strike Alan’s left hand opened up and swung around to the side of Butch’s face.
The smack sounded like a 22 rifle had been fired off, making the girls gasp and everyone but Alan jump. Then with his coal black curls hanging down over his forehead, his jaw jutted forward, and his hands back fisted at his sides in a flash, he continued to glare up at Butch as he pushed on.
“Do it Butch. You want it, come and get it right now!"
Butch’s lower lip quivered as his face twisted and then he began to openly cry.
Alan glared at him for a few seconds then slowly looked to the ground, spat and said, “That’s what I thought."
Then he turned to Danny like he was talking to his dog or something and said, “Go on home Danny, he won’t bother you no more."
As they continued on out of the hollow, each with their own thoughts, nothing more was said. And when Danny chanced a look back, there stood Butch in the same spot, his clenched fists at his sides, his head hanging and crying so hard that his whole body was jerking with the tears.
Butch never bothered Danny after that. In fact he seemed to change. His bullying fell by the wayside as he finished up grade school and finally moved on up to the high school down the road. Danny followed him there and onto the athletic field a year later where Butch ended up blocking for him. The time Butch was put down by Alan was never mentioned but Danny never forgot it. Like a snap shot he could always recall that face off between them amid the hard life of the coal camp.
He didn’t see Alan around much after that partly because Alan never made it to high school. But Danny knew that he stayed out of the coal mines because he heard that he got into the army and was killed in one of the early Vietnam battles while helping the South Vietnamese Army fight.
Billy never made it through high school either but, like they had hoped, by the time Danny graduated the country was begging for enlistments so he and Billy joined the marines on the buddy plan and shipped out of the coal fields. They stayed together through training but got split up when they were sent to Vietnam. Danny ended up around Marble Mountain near Da Nang while Billy got sent up north to Khe Sanh where he was killed on Hill 881 during the big battle there. Every time Danny thought of Billy he remembered how excited and happy he had been those many years ago to learn that you didn’t have to be smart to fight in America’s wars. And at the same time he always rued the day that he had taught him that.
Butch stayed out of the mines and the war by getting married and moving to California. Seems they got set up out there by some of his wife’s relatives. And last Danny heard, Butch was out there working as a prison guard.
Danny, after he got back from the war, wasn’t good for much so he just drifted around picking up jobs as he went. Along the way he met a looker down in a Texas bar that he was tending and got married. That lasted until he killed a man he caught her sleeping with and did a little time. The jury figured the guy deserved killing so Danny only got a couple of years.
He thought his wife deserved killing too but had decided that would probably be too costly.
Now back in the Appalachians, white haired and as far away from most other people and the coal mines as he can get, Danny just quietly gets old as he practices his vigilance for the end of colors. He’s not, nor ever was, what you would call a real contributing member of society. But then the way he learned it, that was for those destined to never return to the Appalachian coal country.