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HARPER/COLLINS - 3A.M. FICTION COMPETITION WINNER - EVEN THE DOG WON'T TOUCH ME

by

Tom Bradley


"I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art."
--Hippocrates

"Master, I got such a deal on jade eggs for the women, and I think I can swing something similar in jade chopsticks for your male devotees. You want I should look into this for the Manhattan Neo-Taoist Semen Retention Institute?"

Goubuli's excuse for coming to the apartment this morning (which she didn't need, because Polly was glad to have company, no family near) was this long-distance call to her boss, or her avatar, or whoever, in New York. There were two or three phones that worked at the traditional medicine college where Goubuli was a visiting lecturer, but the switchboard operator was terrified even to attempt such a connection. The vast amounts of "qi" necessary to span the Pacific might rebound through the wires and stir-fry this whole end of Manchuria.

When her master said something gullible, indicating that her hidden profit margin was likely to swell past all expectation, Goubuli rolled her red-rimmed eyes at Polly and grinned.

"Of course he's the Perfect Master," she whispered, covering the mouthpiece with her hand and ignoring the other half of the transoceanic conversation. "But he's also a successful businessman, a typical gregarious Cantonese. And he would secretly be disappointed in me if I didn't pull down a little something on the side, even at his expense. He can afford it. Why do you suppose he selected me as one of his dozen chief worldwide proselytizers?" She raised her voice and spoke directly into the phone. "For my financial acumen as well as my innate gifts as an empathic healer. Am I right, Master?"

Goubuli did seem to have a kind of non-specific talent for fixing people. She carried around a Kunming batik bag full of oriental snake oil-type remedies for any occasion, from somatic trauma to sudden bereavement. But sometimes, when she was preoccupied, perhaps pondering her loneliness and impending decline into old age, and she happened upon suffering (as one constantly did here), she forgot her witch's bag and came in swinging with both hands. And those were the times when her uncanny skill displayed itself.

Once Polly had thought she was pregnant, for the symptoms of morning sickness had insinuated themselves into her belly. She'd felt blessed, like Manoah's wife, mother of Samson. The jubilant nausea had already descended upon her like an angel of the Lord, when Goubuli dropped in unannounced.

Goubuli had seen the pain but had been blind to the exaltation of the gagging. Not wishing to hurt her friend's feelings as her husband did when his gout was killing him ("Don't touch the toe, you hag! I'm no reincarnationist!"), Polly had allowed Goubuli to place a hand between her breasts and run the weight of two large, freckled, bony fingers very slowly down her sternum, resting intuitively at the points where Polly's ribs intersected the vertical shaft of bone.

"These junctures are not particularly emphasized in any of the ancient qi gong texts," she had murmured. "I just discovered them on my own in bed one day when I was feeling like shit."

And, sure enough, Polly's brand new baby had exited through her mouth in the form of a belch worthy of Sammy, who would have suspected nothing but said everything if he'd walked in at that moment and seen the mannish mitt groping inside his wife's shirt.

At the eruption, Goubuli, elated, blind, had boomed, "An upper-gastrointestinal miscarriage!"

The residual Roman Catholic in Polly wasn't surprised at this reaction, considering Goubuli's stand on "choice"-- not an issue that needed to be pressed in this worker's paradise, where fetus liquidation was officially urged on women, and frequently enough executed by Goubuli's own boyfriend, Mustapha. He was one of the host of third-world exchange students at the western-style medical university across town, and he spent most of his time, when not in hard-bench political study meetings, chained to a conveyor belt at the municipal abortion mill.

"Goubuli" was not her real name, but a Chinese transliteration, which meant "even the dog won't touch me." This had been prescribed by Mustapha and his classmates, whose dorm she haunted. The Sub-Saharan and Indonesian and Malagasy interns poked fun at her, and treated her badly in other ways, in retaliation for a certain Northern-hemispheric stretchiness about her skeleton and ruddiness about her face. They also resented her dabbling in folk remedies, when their sick aunties and sisters back home were still being bamboozled by feathered shamans. Goubuli tried to get them to give her a better name, something full of strength and courage, in the meantime styling herself Gabby, like a fat person answering to "Hey, Jumbo."

Polly assumed she was aware that Gabby was usually taken as a diminutive of Gabriella, a name normally given to Christian girls, which she was not. She was a big Bronx Jew, six-foot-two, magnificent Ukrainian stock, with bright orange hair cropped short enough to fool the gateman at Mustapha's university, after dark, into thinking that she was Sammy, also big and rubicund, come to replenish his gout medication. And her boyfriend was made aware of her demographics at all times.

"The Ukraine is one of the few places we ever proselytized," she was fond of revealing. "That's why I share so few Semitic traits with Moosie, our little lady doctor here." She'd stoop down and pat "Moosie's" bottom with one of her gifted hands, causing him to back in horror against the nearest wall and sputter, "We're all sons of Abraham."

"Not me. I'm a daughter of Sarah."

"Nobody cares whose daughter you are," Mustapha would cry, trying to fend off further molestation. "Even the dog doesn't care. The worthy lineage passes through the loins of the father."

"And your sisters -- God knows who they're shtupping in Damascus at this moment -- are daughters of Hagar the concubine."

"And the worthiest things that ever passed through your father's loins are renal calculi!"

Here the screaming always started up, with Goubuli wondering at the top of her lungs how a true boyfriend could incite fellow health-care professionals to call his girlfriend such a mean name.

While the acupuncturists and moxibustionists at Goubuli's college pitied her as female, unmarried, aging and foreign (quadruply handicapped), they did pay her grudging respect as an intuitive diagnostician -- a respect which would never be forthcoming from the non-traditional medical establishment here in town, crazy Mustapha included. And it was true that, whenever her inspiration dried up temporarily, as any unconscious artist's will, she was capable of doing some amazingly unwholesome things.

"I know it's a radical idea, Master," she was shouting into the phone now. "But I thought that was exactly what we were into: spiritual radicalism. Isn't that right? The women don't complain about inserting the jade eggs, do they? What? Of course I'll check the chopsticks for rough edges!"

She cupped the receiver in her hand once again and began to explain the neo-Taoist theory (rationalization would've been a better term) for intruding pieces of marked-up Liaoning jade into people's urogenital tracts. When she got to the part about peeing while standing on tiptoe, Polly stopped listening. It took a special sort of person to receive a vocation in the healing arts.

After Goubuli had wrung exactly the concessions she'd been intending to wring from her Perfect Master, who she sincerely believed to be the sole conduit of truth in the post-Hiroshima age, she hung up, stood and removed all her clothes.

She had done this once or twice for various ostensibly cosmic reasons in front of Sammy, eliciting unconcealed moral indignation. "Get dressed, you arrested flower-child!" he'd bellowed, though even he was forced to admit that his repugnance was far from aesthetic.

For her body, her torso in particular, while definitely mid-fiftyish, was not unbeautiful. It was extraordinarily long and well-exercised, an androgynous torso, not without its road maps of overworked blood vessels, but tight and mostly smooth, except for a couple places in back where decades of acupuncture treatments had produced negligible dells and dimples of scar tissue. Her tiny breasts sagged just to the point of resembling something slightly larger and more acceptable to infantile men. Her armpits were ruffed with phosphorescent Sammy-colored frills which nobody but urban Orientals blamed her for not shaving.

Normally braless, dungareed, tee-shirted, her only concession to age was a minuscule amount of mascara, so incongruous with her organic image. She stood ready at all times, little ginger-colored brush poised, to spruce up for the public lectures on herbalism which she was never invited to deliver. So fa, Goubuli had to be content with beautifying for parties thrown by the provincial authorities, where the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a gabardined reformist, insisted on wowing each "big-nose" woman with the ballroom dancing skills he claimed to have "obtained" from Henry Kissinger. (Polly wondered who had led.)

Goubuli's reasons for disrobing tended to be a bit strange. Last time it had something to do with the sad party member downstairs, this domicile's designated watchdog. Goubuli had ardently wanted to establish an "interflow of qi" through the floor with this ancient veteran of the Long March, in an effort to get the woman to "mellow out." (Such creaky phrases still sometimes escaped Goubuli's lips when she was thinking her body and not her mind.) There was an unvarying routine required to get past this superficially sweet old granny, a rote inquisition disguised as pleasantries and formulaic greetings. Sammy, who came and went the most, was always praying that Granny would break out the electrodes, the nipple clamps, the water torture paraphernalia, anything but "Good morning/evening, where are you going, and is your wife well?" Emphasis on the last adjective, followed by a pregnant pause.

In a sincere desire to be helpful, Goubuli had taken measures guaranteed to make this forlorn apparatchik loosen up and be more inventive in discharging her duties as point woman for the street committee. "A more spontaneous dyke stairwell spy means a less bored and irritated Sammy," Goubuli had whispered, flinging her clothing aside and assuming an impressive lotus position on the crumbly concrete, trying telepathically to position her vagina over the unsuspecting old communist's teacup. "And decreased boredom means increased libido in some men. If you know what I mean." As though it would be difficult to guess what she meant, Goubuli patted her bare belly, unstretchmarked as Polly's, though by choice.

Today's reason to be naked wasn't quite so selfless. Some minor puncture wounds, right in the unreachable center of her back, between the enviably visible shoulder blades, required the application of a moldy vegetable compress to be found sheathed in Saran Wrap in her Kunming bag. (Saran Wrap! When was the last time Polly had seen Saran Wrap?)

"My God!" Polly cried. "What happened to you?" (She came close to adding "And where did you get the beautiful Saran Wrap?")

"You tell me and we'll both be enlightened," said Goubuli. "My boyfriend's classmates keep ripping off my bike tire valves, loading them ammunition-wise in these vicious rubber band-powered zip-guns, and shooting me in the back. I tell them that's stealing and criminal assault with a deadly weapon rolled into one. But they laugh in my face and inform me that assault laws don't pertain to unveiled whore-dogs like me, and they've duly returned the valves so it's not stealing. And even if they kept my property, it would legally be defined as requisitioning, because I'm a menopausal reactionary vixen. Are you ready for that? Somebody's gotten hold of these boys, and has been not-quite-teaching them all the old Cultural Revolutionisms. The Master warned me this was a backward area, but I had no idea. It's like being in the Bronx back in the thirties." She added, demurely, "I mean, it's like how I imagine it must have been, way back then."

"Of course."

Just as she was confident that the spiritual exhalations from her lower body could seep through a concrete floor and transmogrify the Red bandit below into a compassionate neo-Taoist, Goubuli believed that haranguing the neighborhood obstetrical triage brigade would bring them around as well -- and it very well might. Innate empath and arrested flower child she might have been, but she had reservoirs of sheer screaming spleen that she could vent at will. For example, whenever Sammy went too far bad-mouthing the new China, Goubuli was the only person who could shut him up -- besides Polly herself, who used somewhat more Gandhiesque tactics. God only knew what Goubuli could accomplish with mere medical students.

At any rate, this morning she had already stripped and gotten Polly to lay hands on her: the standard Goubuli visitation was underway. Any minute now the two of them would start getting silly and the day would degenerate, as days among just women are wont to do, into a mutual man-mocking session.

Polly eventually got brave and tried to walk squatted-down across the room in approximation of Mustapha's short-legged stride. But Goubuli shouted, cheerfully, "No, no, no, wrong," and proceeded to blast away Polly's feeble attempt with street theater skills honed long ago in Southern California as token non-Chicana understudy for the original Teatro Campesino. Unflinchingly enough, she poked through the wad of personal linen in the Samsonite that remained unpacked, after all these years, smack in the middle of the floor, and she requisitioned a pair of Sammy's giant Care Bear boxer shorts from their appointed place. She had Polly safety-pin them up in back, meanwhile shifting her larynx down a couple of octaves into the bass clef and putting on an amazingly grunty voice, indistinguishable from the original.

"Deng yi uar, eh?" she bellowed in Mandarin adulterated with a perfect white-slum Salt Lake City accent. "See? You've got to climb inside their skin. Get right in there and poke around. I'm sure Moosie and the other butcher's boys would make a metaphor with exploratory surgery. Fair enough. Slice them open. Find out exactly what they're missing. Then use your whole person, your arms and legs, even your breath, to throw it right in their dopey faces. You know, like when you're seducing or swindling them, or making them jealous, or whatever. Men are so self-referential; it's just a matter of making like the mirror on the wall. Like this--"

She lumbered around, scratching her suddenly huge, naked belly, rearranging her imaginary testicles, belching Snowflake Beer -- a transformation that had Polly crying out in pain after less than a minute.

"Please, have mercy! Doesn't the Oath say something about doing no harm?"

"Yes, and it also says something about pessaries. Give me control of the P.A. system for twenty minutes and I could teach all of this, even the abdominal displacement stuff, to the oppressed housewives in the Piggly-Wiggly. Think how it would decrease marital tension in homes all across America if our sisters could ape their husbands like this."

Polly's laughter evaporated at the mention of the words Piggly-Wiggly and America and housewives and homes. An embarrassing ache sprang into her heart. Before she could revaluate her own expatriated condition for the millionth time that morning, she thought of something to distract herself: an appointment.

Her husband had agreed to place his, shall we say, imitable body at the service of propagandists tonight. Polly was expected to show up and take photos, even though this household boasted no camera (that's how emphatically exiled Sammy insisted on being). "Take photos" was idiomatic for being present to lend moral support, and clap if required.

He was typecast to play the big evil Yankee in a vaudeville revue or something at the med school dorm, opposite Goubuli's boyfriend, whose role would doubtless be more sympathetic. Not that Sammy was one of those self-hating "other-embracing" WASP masochists eager to grab their ankles for just any old Bedou who'd like to see the Home of the Brave reduced to ashes and sackcloth. In fact, when Reagan bombed the baby hospital in Tripoli, he had declined to serve as representative of the American people at an afternoon demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate. The brilliant excuse he'd come up with was that afternoons were his turn to take care of the baby, which didn't exist. (Sammy's thinking on this topic was apparently as wishful as his wife's, despite his posturing to the contrary, and that made her hope he'd come rolling home at a decent hour tonight, not too drunk. Just drunk enough)

Mustapha, the impresario of that demonstration as well as of tonight's theatricals, knew as well as everybody else in the Flowery Middle Kingdom that Polly was without child, and he had been outraged at such utter mendacity. ("These Americans ooze untruth as readily as honest people do sweat. If it helps them shirk their political duty, they publicly mock the despair of their own women!") So he accosted the uncooperative infidel in the middle of Stalin Square and offered to retroactively abort him with a rusty scalpel, palmed for the purpose off a gory gurney at the abortion mill.

The blade was barely long enough to penetrate the first layer of Polly's husband, thanks to a lifetime spent consuming more than his fair share of modern industrialized beer and chicken. But, to hear Sammy tell it now, he had scoffed at spine-chilling mortal danger. He had laid the wiry little Philistine down on the spit-glistening cobbles and sat on him in a reverse David and Goliath scene, and was preparing to scream the customary disclaimers of Reaganite sympathies down into his face, when they'd both looked up and noticed the crowd of nearly a thousand that had gathered in less than thirty seconds. The natives were staring as with a single pair of slanted eyes at two individuals of the same species of sick, hairy, big-nosed zoo animal. And solidarity had instinctively risen in two alien breasts, made them pals, transformed Sammy into the full-time manager of "The Moose's" periodic homicidal raptures.

Though he remained reluctant to march on the streets of this police state, Sammy's exhibitionistic tendencies were too strong for him to refuse a starring role in an actual drama, as long as it was being mounted indoors, where none of the multitude of local youth, who'd lately been loitering in the alleys to talk politics, would be present to jeer at his foreign appearance. Polly suspected those jeers, and not the police, were the real reason for his apolitical stance. Red Chinese idlers know how to wound bourgeois vanity more deeply than anybody on earth.

Watching Goubuli waltz around the room like a gorilla with a new tractor tire, Polly got an excellent idea. The afternoon and evening could be salvaged, after all. She touched her friend's arm and said, "If you're not afraid to face the emerging nations, you can sub for my husband when he gets stage fright this evening. Do it, if only to save a life. He's got no more excuses, and this time your boyfriend might be packing an actual switchblade or something. Use exactly that voice to play Sammy's part. You can even borrow his undies, for your costume. Nobody will know the difference."

Goubuli had to consider that, briefly but thoroughly. While she didn't relish the thought of being understudied to a rank amateur, her exhibitionism (at least as hardy as his) was flattered and thrilled -- but not to the point of forgetting or forgiving the zip-gunshot wounds in her back. She announced that, after much deliberation, she had decided to grant the third-worlders a performance. But it was going to be topless. She would give those soulless sawbones a lingering look at their handiwork. Polly should remove the moldy vegetable compress from her stigmata and place it back in the Saran Wrap. Being religious men, they always aimed above the waist, keeping the sexual out of the harassment. Since they refused to make it interesting by shooting her in the ass, she would cover that part with Care Bears: their loss. Her boyfriend and the other paternalist dupes proudly bristled and clanked with stainless-steel forceps and chromium clyster pipes, and at the end of a long day of intrusive medicine their white coats looked like pork hawkers' aprons. Meanwhile, at her college, not a drop of blood was spilled -- except very occasionally when Lao Shi had to get out the foot-long acupuncture needle and tweak someone's solar plexus by the long route, and --

Before Polly could hear more about that, she said, "Topless is good. In your case, I mean. But don't forget your own clothes."

Polly accompanied her guest down to the entryway, to see her off. She noticed that a certain rectangle of comparative grimelessness in the stairwell had been covered up with the hideous thing whose reinstatement she'd been dreading ever since the slight political unrest among the neighborhood youngsters had begun: a portrait of Mao Zedong, soft and pink as an old Intermountain West woman, fed all her life on non-anxiety and mint ice milk.

This was Granny's Pavlovian reaction to any generic change in more than two or three young people's behavior outdoors, as observable in the segment of lane afforded by rips in the greased paper which covered her little window (that's how much of a Long Marcher she truly was: glass was altogether too capitalistic for her tastes). She'd seen youngsters get out of hand in the Ten Years' Chaos, and wasn't about to be caught unawares again. So, up with Mao, whose likeness would magically restore order. Polly pitied her husband for his twice-daily confrontations with this superannuated spinster. Goubuli was right: this building's self-appointed concierge was boring to a fabulous, even dangerous extent.

Goubuli glanced at the Great Helmsman's chubby cheeks, airbrushed smooth as infantile buttocks. After giving a passable encore by puffing up her own to an identical degree, she said, "Oh, that reminds me. I asked the cleaning ladies at my college and they say babies are occasionally abandoned on the benches around the place. Apparently some do manage to sneak past my boyfriend's vacuum cleaner. But when I mention whose wife wants to rent one on a semi-permanent basis, they freeze up. I can't figure it out."

But the look on her face, still swollen to resemble Mao's, or perhaps that of another overbearing male who occasionally hung in this stairwell, showed she certainly could figure it out. Polly saved her the trouble of changing the subject.

"Sammy stole my bike. I guess you'll have to sprint, if yours is missing valves."

And sprint she did, to the lair of her tormentors. Polly aimed her in the direction of her boyfriend and sent her on her way, knowing that the two of them would return later on (much later), elbows linked, fangs and fingernails fixed in one another's jugulars, to spend the night jammed into this concrete cubicle with vast Sammy and wife. But, to look on the bright side, no further family members would be using up oxygen.

Polly stood and watched Sara's daughter disappear into the smog halfway down the block. After a few moments' thought, feeling the eyes of the vigilant old lesbian peeking out at her, she waddled back up the stairs on three-quarter-length Arab legs, trying to put herself inside the abortionist's skin. This needed the rest of the day for practice.


Sammy (or Sam, as he preferred to think of himself), far from chickening out this time, had made his way to the venue, fighting tummy-butterflies all the way. He was already linked up with The Moose and all his other lefty terrorist pals, who loved and valued him as their preposterous mascot, so exaggeratedly himself as to embody his own burlesque of an excuse for being as American as anyone could be.

Their stalag was much like any occidental med school dorm -- more decrepit and low-budget, of course, but filled with the standard equipment: laughing gas and ether tanks rolling up and down the halls; syringes, novelty trusses and genetic oddity photo books sprinkled everywhere; along with ever-shifting dunes of pills, all shapes and colors (but not so many booze bottles, there being Mussulmans present). The walls were covered with similar posters, but with slightly different subject matter, carrying more painful conviction: travel posters for Bangladesh instead of Aspen; Che Guevara flashing his armpit curls instead of Iggy Pop flashing his pubes; Fidel Castro looking sad and bloated in place of Allen Ginsberg doing the same.

Dominating one wall was an enormous tyrannosaurus-rex, thinly disguised under Uncle Sam's colorful top hat and goatee. His scales seemed, through late-sixties graphic techniques, to be composed of dollar signs, Coke bottles and finny H-bombs. Around his neck was fastened a short leash, tugged by a hideously cruel caricature of a Chassid, on whose behalf the dinosaur fetched bleeding, headless corpses of Palestinian infants back to the Knesset for everybody to sexually molest and then gorge themselves on, only to vomit them back up, fuck and eat them again, and repeat the process ad infinitum. It was quite the offensive poster.

Tonight the ressentiment-crazed camel jockeys were celebrating Palestinian Independence Day. They presented morality plays on such topics as the Tamil intern in China who can never get anybody to agree to be operated upon by his black hands. Then, one day, due to an overlong political study meeting, a shortage of native surgeons in the emergency room requires that he cut into an unconscious bicycle-traffic victim and save a life. The patient revives, is told who patched him up, and falls prostrate at the obsidian feet, crying, "Oh, oh! Socialism has brought us together!"

The sarcasm was not lost on the guest of honor, the ancient Professor of Surgical Technique, who, if you ever got drunk enough, could cut your arm off and sew it back on again without your knowing the difference. He sat unamused in the only chair, at the only table in the room, surrounded by glucose I.V. bags (soda pop substitute).

The invisible curtain rose on Moosie's skit. He was French Colonialism personified. He wore an oversized white linen jacket and some big dark glasses. Puffing up his freshly pomaded black curls, he strode across the room and stood grandly over a Senegalese dermatology major, who cowered on the left side of a torn-in-half styrofoam Africa spread out on the floor.

"You are Francois, my boy," boomed this native speaker of Arabic in Mandarin modulated to sound like Swahili uttered with an upper-class Parisian accent.

Mustapha's pretty little Paki roommate, whom the Chinese mistook for a girl even more often than they did the opposite for Goubuli, was the British Empire. He wore white-face and a construction-paper handlebar mustache, and was lording it over the crumpled form of Mibi, the Ugandan pharmacology major, who languished on the right side of the Dark Continent, moaning a little too melodramatically.

"Your name is John," piped the Paki through a similar idiomatic tower of Babylon.

"Xie-xie, B'wana!" the subjugated blacks hooted in unison. "We thanks yo', massa!"

They hunkered and bounced and flapped their shadowy arms in a way that made the third-worlders laugh, and the Chinese stare sullenly at the nearest available husky beneficiary of 150 years of Western imperialism. This was Sam's cue to simper and pinch his dick and just apologize all up and down, except he was not cooperating. Mug and hoot as much as Francois and John might, it would be difficult even for a real actor to blush in front of the enslavers of Tibet and East Turkestan and Mongolia and Manchuria, not to mention numberless ethnic minorities of the Han hinterlands.

As for putting the kibosh on the old Triangular Trade, Sam's Utah hadn't been involved in the War Between the States, not being a state yet. And neither was Polly's own native Colorado, as far as he could recall. Her agnatic line, Mary-adoring Provencals, and his, vanilla Anglo-Saxon Mormon proselytes sick of scraping coal from Sheffield mineshafts they could barely fit into, hadn't even arrived in the New World till 1869 and '72 respectively. Fresh off the boats, they'd lit out for the territories, straight off. Simon Legrees only to themselves, indentured to nobody but their numerous babies, they scraped the sagebrush and aspens from foothill homesteads too rocky and remote to harbor any aboriginals that needed chasing away. The result was Sam and Polly, a blameless pair, these two, trailing their own unsmutched sunbeams wherever they roamed. He would go home right after the last curtain call and try his best to do some gardening with his prelapsarian love.

In the meantime, his role, for which he was so severely miscast, was Occidental Permissiveness trying to seduce Islamic Piety into fornication with Infidel Womanhood. Moosie had to undergo a quick change of costume, because in this bit he played none other than himself. It was to be a modified reprise of their locally famous confrontation in Stalin Square back in the days when Ronald Reagan was barbecuing unwell Libyan babies.

Sam cornered his prey, took a deep breath, stood up straight, and prepared to deliver his lines. He suspected that he might be coming on a tad too stridently, even for this heavy-handed working-class-idiot allegory. But he figured he'd better compensate for lack of sincerity with extra decibels, since, under these bleak, grimy, pullulating Chinese conditions, he seemed to be losing interest in this general category of biological behavior, except when he'd managed to fine-tune a Snowflake Beer drunk just so, and happened by accident to cross the vestibule of his apartment within the window of opportunity, to mix metaphors.

"Fellow Person of the Book," Sam intoned, "Come down with me to Whore Town."

"Please," said Mustapha, "not so abrasive. This is the decorous East. It's called Flower and Willow Lane."

"Dorking is dorking."

"Good point. But you're married. Go home and get some -- what do you crass Yankees say? Odd? Weird?"

"Strange. 'Go home and get some strange' is what we say."

"You know where the lane is. Why do you need me? This is too much mafan."

"They'll try to charge me foreign exchange currency because I'm white."

"And what do you call me?"

"You know what I mean. Get your tallith."

"Please! As the natives say, allow me a little face. It's not a tallith."

"So. I think I'm ready to go now. How about you, Moosie?"

"You want me to pretend the Jezebel is for me? What could such a monster do to ease the pain of a man of faith?"

"Not so loud. This place gets lousy with Public Security Bureau types whenever you boys throw one of these weird shindigs."

"The P.S.B. doesn't care about the lane. Why should they?"

"It's not good if we blabbermouth Americans go down there and publish the truth about their flabby fucking revolution. Failure to shoot the pimps and reeducate the oppressed flat-backers. Stuff like that. Come with me or I'll tell Goubuli what you say about her."

"She already knows I think she's a crypto-Zionist dog. I whisper it in her ear."

"Afterwards, Moosie, I'll wrist-wrestle you for scotches in the art-deco Sino-Russo Honeymoon Hotel."

"I am an adherent of the Muslim faith," he replied, already heading for the exit, a wicked grin growing on his face. "You insult me to the quick. I don't gamble. You're buying."

As they made their exeunt, Mustapha, though apparently coaxed into abomination, discreetly flourished his true intentions behind his back. And this time it was not a tiny scalpel, but a scimitar, huge, sinister and oriental, curved in a cruel crescent, like a bitten and spat-out thumbnail or a cratered Mussulman moon, and plenty long enough to slice through any fat American's first line of defense. It was necessarily cardboard in this country where not only guns but also knives were controlled, but to make it appear more lethal, the Iraqi property master had wrapped it in aluminum foil.

On behalf of his absent helpmeet, Sam was impressed and excited, and made a mental note to bring home mention of this as soon as possible: Gabby with her Saran Wrap, Moosie with his aluminum foil. Where was everybody getting these fabulous materials, the very stuff of American domesticity? Was this Patmos gradually becoming livable, from a housewife's point of view? Had a new Friendship Store opened in the neighborhood? Was his guilt for dragging blameless Polly across the ocean about to be relieved, just a little?

The co-stars were required to improvise a number of encores, which got progressively incoherent, to the sound of stomps and whoops and those tongue-fluttering falsetto developing-country cheers. The loudest and shrillest came from the front of the face of Even the Dog Won't Touch Me. She conveyed her mature self among the dark bodies with a definite grace, a well preserved sinuosity of motion, all lost on the boys, who made way for the "other tall red-haired uncle." Poor Gabby aspired to more than mascotship -- though that, too, was a kind of love, as Sam could have told her.

She looked to be on the verge of inciting a counter-performance, or an "alternative event," or whatever it's called when somebody at one of these condescending pinko soirees decides that he or she can do better than the goofs up front. The boys were appalled to see her reaching for her dungaree fly-buttons.

"God knows what salacious refinement that houri has brought to tempt me," murmured Moosie, aghast.

"No shit," said Sam, shuddering. He thought he could make out the first garish flashes of the sort of grotesquely decorated underpants that nobody uncrazed with rut would ever consider allowing next to his or her skin. It was high time to tighten up, grab The Moose, and flee headlong.

When she looked up from her private parts and saw that her boyfriend was heading for the real-life exit, Goubuli abandoned her program, buttoned back up, and dogged his steps out of the building, trying to chat him up all the way.

But Mustapha had already plunged into his inevitable post-performance slump -- which did not necessarily have anything to do with her presence. After the intense high of a standing ovation, many artists will immediately go plummeting. Moosie's depressions tended to more be homicidal than suicidal, so his face bore no hint of the ghastly smile his cousins were said to give off before detonating themselves and sending their cheerful heads over elementary school walls. From here on out, till dawn, it would be a question of sheer maintenance.


Soothing talk worked to persuade Moosie past the med school gatekeeper without any rocks thrown. The two Americans, cooperating without realizing it (they would have been shocked to find each other moving in the same direction at a theater fire), got him more or less arranged on the handlebars of Polly's trembling black bicycle. Goubuli balanced herself, prim and sidesaddle, on the back luggage rack, and the trio set off toward Stalin Square, with hopes of appearing not too ludicrously decrepit as they wobbled for a few hours among the myriad of twenty year olds, who lately seemed to mill about the night streets in greater than usual numbers (if that were possible), mumbling about something idiosyncratic which they liked to call, for want of a more accurate term, "democracy."

The semi-completed pastel orange pedestrian fly-over, de rigueur for a contemporary Chinese cityscape, hulked like a brontosaurus skeleton over everybody's heads, a cliché and a self-contradiction, a perfect distillation of the whole flopped modernization drive: modernization meant a nice aluminum overpass, but the only place to put it was over a square named after Uncle Joey.

In the lurid turquoise glow of the frenzied twenty-four-hour welding, Goubuli, the self-proclaimed empath, did her professional best to anesthetize her boyfriend with a certain substance that was reputed to be a Uighur narcotic, according to the scuttlebutt among the disdainful democracy marchers. Actually, it hadn't been necessary to dicker with any Manichean Turkic minorities to get this stuff. It was just wild hemp she had gleaned in her herbalist mode from the cleavages in the cobbles in the summer, almost as weak as the ten-dollar beaner lids of Sam's high school days.

But Mustapha, a more empirical type of physician and no folksy voodoo quacksalver, had dusted Goubuli's weed with crystals of pure (in the Chinese sense of the term) cocaine which, he assured Sam--who was only mildly interested, having seen the filth bring entire English departments to their knees--was not pilfered from a cabinet at the medical university, but was legally obtainable at any non-traditional pharmacy in exchange for a few yuan and a paper bearing the characters C17H21NO4.

Moosie clung to Polly's quaking handlebars and rested the back of his head on Sam's chest, gnashing and gritting the alkaloid down into his lungs. Like a hyperactive child on dexedrine, he seemed paradoxically to be humbled rather than further inflated by the poison. He professed his eternal love--but not for Even the Dog Won't Touch Me. It was Sam he loved, and Sam only, with a broken-hearted passion, precisely because his people had vowed to slaughter Sam's people one by one if necessary. (Until they'd met, Sam had never really thought of himself as having "people" beyond Polly and the non-existent baby.) Mustapha brought to Sam alone his waking nightmare/memories, for all his classmates had their own emerging-nation horror stories and couldn't bear to hear more--Mibi, for example, from whose lower torso entire sirloins had been summarily sliced

Goubuli sank her hands into Sam's love handles and boosted herself up from the luggage rack, trying to make her way up his extra-long spine and snuffle close enough to overhear her boyfriend's laments, so that she could help shoulder the burden, also to get a turn at the pipe. But she was a woman, and this was man's talk, according to one world-view. Besides, she was nearly tipping everyone over. Sam asked her to be still, but she wouldn't. So Mustapha, at the helm, caused the bike to be stopped and kickstanded, and she was required to stand guard over it, while the men removed themselves to a decent distance, to squat in the shadows and speak in the presence of God.

Sam received his pal's rote confession for the hundredth time: Mother and brothers, whole neighborhood rocketed to toothpicks before his nine year-old eyes. Passportless sojourns in nations that officially welcomed his kind but treated them like vermin. Foolishly distinguishing himself in the makeshift middle school instead of slouching and pimping in the alleys with his refugee cousins; and so, winding up in this filthy hell, studying obstetrics and gynecology on the soft Chinese currency that was extended to his people in the same supercilious spirit that Mormon aid is extended to Tongans. Six years of disassembly-line pregnancy terminations, twenty or thirty involuntary procedures a day, performed on bewildered lumpenproletariettes who'd been deflowered way too early in life, their glabrous vulvas deformed by the forced entries of brutal uncircumcised worker dicks. And, as though for variety's sake, the occasional hush-hush gender adjustments on the hysterical sodomite scions of high party muckety-mucks, to forestall threatened Hong Kong escape attempts. Moosie was expected to assist in the improvisation of vaginal sleeves from scrota emptied and duly turned inside out, but "too tiny to do anything truly creative with."

By the time he got to the bit about taking in mauve-colored tucks, his little knees had given way, and he was flat on his buttocks in the mucus, head slumped between thighs. The woman had abandoned her post and slunk up silently, and was kneeling behind, giving him something like a back rub, only more involved: something like a three-quarter rolf, but soft-pedaling the sadism.

The gates of his dorm would already be closed and bolted--a measure, along with the potassium nitrate in the rice, intended to keep the Ethiopians, Afghanis, Sri Lankans and Mustapha from trolling on Flower and Willow Lane. The door of Sam's sordid tenement slum, on the other hand, could always be pried open a crack, if greased with a regular dab of extreme northeastern China's prime social lubricant, Snowflake Beer. It was a little known fact among the barbarian community, but the dyke granny liked a good party now and then.

So the two Americans decided, after a wordless consultation over his crumpled figure, to spend the rest of the night trying not to disrupt Polly's beauty sleep, and hoping, with her tonic presence, to stave off his murderous rapture.


Sam did not begin to feel like a regressive ass until they all stumbled in around three a.m. and he came into the presence of his love, curled up on the creaking metal thing that vied with the ritually unpacked Samsonite for the honor of hindering the process of life and spraining people's ankles. His eyelashes dangled with flecks of soot, and his body was hung over with a contact reek from the hybrid reefer, and he realized that he hadn't smelled or looked or sounded this emotionally handicapped since the afternoon of his seventeenth birthday when Nixon visited Salt Lake. The pot was the same, the thick-wheeled one-speed bike was the same, and the attitudes were identical to the ones he'd been too young to affect properly in the early seventies--but they were now proving merely petulant under circumstances of unfeigned oppression. Those democracy kids had treated them like dated clowns: Crosby saddled with Hope and L'amour.

As usual at times like these, Sam didn't get a chance to exchange greetings or even make eye contact with his life-mate before the two children of Shem started being irritating.

"Use phone thanks much," said Goubuli, helping herself. She left Sam on his own to do the social choreography.

"It better be collect, conjure-woman," he yelled, but nobody heard.

Polly had yet to stir a single eyelid, and Mustapha was already hitting her like a bad dream with, "Madame Sammy! When I laid eyes on your slumbering head, so luminescent in its dazzling halo of curls, I could only be thankful to Allah on high, the Merciful, the Compassionate, that such an extraordinary Gallic beauty was not on Stalin Square with us this evening, awash in soot and mucus and misguided hooligans who think democracy is Pepsi and Rambo and disco marathons in the dan wei halls."

Sam was busy tripping over the suitcase and looking way down at his feet in deep resentment, when he heard a strange voice. It said, "Then I'm glad I stayed home. There was something like hot water coming from the faucet."

He caught his balance and looked around for a fifth person. His eye lit on the only other Far Westerner in the room, just as she aimed a smile at Moosie. This smile contained a hint of something that could not be more uncharacteristic of the woman. You could guess she was play-acting, but that would be no less aberrant in Polly's case.

"It wasn't too opaque," she continued, "so I gave myself a sort of bath in it." Stretching her warm, humid limbs under the bed sheet, Polly sighed soft steam directly into Moosie's face. His black eyes widened, and the hairs all over the visible parts of his barbarian body shifted as in a breeze off the Dead Sea. His knees and ankles became palsied.

This was as strange a moment as Sam's married life had yet offered. He felt the need to piece it together. Maybe some kind of residual Intermountain cowboyishness was operating here. Folks like Sam and Polly, in their native habitat, never know quite how to behave around minority types. The tendency is always to expend that extra cardboard effort to make oppressed persons of color feel welcome if, by some bizarre confluence of events, they appear in your garden or on your Main Street. This can result sometimes in cultural misunderstanding, with false attributions of motives on either side--all in utter innocence, of course.

Perhaps, having been awakened abruptly from dreams of home, part of Polly's mind remained the eastern slope of the Rockies, where, like her husband-to-be on the western slope, she'd never encountered a member of an under-represented group during the entire first half of her life. Satchmo underwent his dotage on Ed Sullivan, of course, but neither of them saw a dark skin outside their living rooms till Sidney Poitier started wending his way down to the drive-in theaters. And, even though the Arab at her feet was no stranger to her household, maybe part of Polly's consciousness had not been fully yanked from the extreme occidental end of Dreamland, where she spent her happiest hours lately.

So Sam figured he'd better step in, at least until she got a chance to rub the sleep from her eyes, which, to his way of seeing tonight, seemed particularly wide and clear and beautiful. (What novel synthetic compound had The Moose sneaked into Gabby's baggy this time?)

Sam cleared his throat and said, "Hot water, eh?" and pulled the blinds aside with a loud aluminum clank and clatter. He thumped on the loose windowpane to indicate the street, as if trying to persuade people to look out there and dip their heads in that bucket of cold water called politics. "Obviously a deliberate enticement. To persuade us luxury-addicted Americans to stay indoors. It always flows whenever there's about to be a disturbance in the streets. Right, Gabby?"

The latter's was the only eye he caught by nearly sending his thumb through the wavy glass. Once again, and for only the second time in their respective existences, the two tall redheads communicated: they held another silent consultation over everyone else's heads. Phone wedged between her mannish shoulder and jaw, waiting for some doubtlessly expensive connection to be made, Goubuli was able to size up the situation without any effort at all (assuming there was a situation that needed sizing up: at this point, Sam was hardly sure). Neither surprised nor concerned, the empathic healer said, in a bored voice, "Yeah, hot water. Faucet. Disturbance."

Sam nearly shouted, "If you ply her with Snowflake, the commie lezzie granny downstairs can make it happen. She has to okay an extra allotment of coal twelve hours in advance to make it possible. She's a coal-, not a diesel-dyke." He was hoping to get a rise out of his wife, who did not like labeling people. But Polly didn't hear, because she was, to all appearances, intent on reaming the soul-marrow right out of Sam's favorite Mohammedan.

"It's amazing," she murmured to him, "how a few extra degrees of heat can make your skin feel so much cleaner."

Covering the mouthpiece with her hand as, apparently, someone was now addressing her on the other end of the line, Goubuli said, through a semi-yawn, "Twelve whole hours, huh? What does that tell you about the outside agitators supposedly responsible for these uprisings?"

"Uprisings" was way too strong a word at this point in Chinese history, but the situation here demanded an emphatic rhetorical stance, so Sam did not correct her. Besides, she was cooperating with him, more or less, and he didn't want to press his luck.

Polly sat up, holding the bed sheet modestly, if loosely, over her stunning breasts, and said, in a quiet voice, specifically to Moosie, "Whoever goads them on, the young demonstrators are giving the cadres the excuse they'll need to roll out the tanks someday."

Moosie gaped with the sort of dumbfoundment that can only overwhelm an unsaved soul. He reeled and fell to his knees, wailing, "Ah, God, yes! You are waxing prophetic, like Miriam, the big sister of Moses, correct? You do it so beautifully, Madame Sammy!" He brought his face near to her feet, which she withdrew under the bed sheet, slowly enough, causing him to plunge into despondency and fall flat on his belly.

"So why do you think I got such a good price?" Goubuli was shouting. "Mismatched chopsticks come cheaper than pairs! For Christ's sake, Master!"

Her boyfriend murmured to the floor, unable to look at Polly's face, "Your Catholic heart will be gladdened, my Miriam, with the news that I have finally been graduated from the abortion mill. Yes, your Mustapha is embarked upon full-fledged internship. Therefore I am blessed with nothing but free time. For no patient who has an opportunity to raise her head from the gurney and look around for three seconds will allow herself to be touched by a waiguoren with a skin two shades darker than her own. I must prepare myself to heal my exiled sisters if the Syrian pigs ever choose to renew my non-passport. The congenital racism of our host nation is depriving me of the practice I need."

Sam was sure he heard Polly whisper, "Well, I'd volunteer, but I don't think Sammy would like it."

In desperation, Sam looked to Goubuli, searching for confirmation of this auditory hallucination. But her mind was elsewhere: "What do we need with pairs? Would you give me a break, or what? How many urethras does a neo-Taoist have?"

Moosie was launched into his moan: "With the exception of the intelligentsia types who are friendly on the street afterwards in a way that makes me sad, Madame Miriam, my only patients these days are the more unfortunate rape victims that flood the corridors during every major and minor lunar festival, on their serene ways to death, majestically unable to push my hands away. I feel more like a pathologist than a physician."

Goubuli sighed, reached out her free hand and yanked on the black and white tallith, or whatever, which the abortionist always donned before prostrating himself before the hostess on nights like this. But the coke in the weed had fortified him, and he was unbudgeable, barely registering the tugs against his Adam's apple, his flow of words unaffected.

"Hey, dear," yelled Sam, "guess what Moosie's scimitar was wrapped in tonight!"

Polly raised her eyes from the top of the humbled head, and looked at her husband for the first time tonight. She smiled, as if to say, "Look what I learned to do while you were out." Then she smiled at him again, in a very different way. Sammy nearly fell into the suitcase on his way to sit with her. Flank to flank, they watched their guests deal with one another.

Moosie gave way and disintegrated into sobs, soaking Polly's insteps with salt tears. His voice rose up like the plaint of a muezzin from a collapsed minaret: "I hate disease, and I hate China, and I hate interrupting the gestation of the little ones. I just want to lay down my head and sleep someplace."

That was Goubuli's cue. She hung up on the Perfect Master and came on, both miraculous hands swinging, to envelop the small Philistine. He submitted with only a brief struggle. "I've got to get this poor man home," she murmured, and sank to the floor.

The two health care professionals, a mutually battered pair, were developing a terrible inability to live without each other, and an equally terrible inability to not live without each other elsewhere besides this room. They crouched there on the crumbly concrete, awash in garments capacious enough to accommodate them both at once with room to spare.

Polly and Sammy waited with greater urgency than usual for their guests to pass out. He put his Salt Lake City arm around her Denver shoulder. No doubt their great-great-great grandchildren would marvel at this, and wonder how it was conceivable that they could ever have wed, with no less a barrier than the Rocky Mountains poised between. But if these benighted Easterners could fraternize, how simple it must be for the New Adam and the New Eve, who, though expelled, carried the garden with them.






ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Tom Bradley's stories have appeared in Salon.com, Exquisite Corpse, McSweeney's, Gadfly, FrontPage, Poets & Writers, and is pretty much smeared all over the web, like the hair on the walls in that movie that made Robert Blake famous. In March 2002, Tom swilled way too much kir and ranted at 3A.M.'s first world-wide conference on web literature at the Paris Sorbonne. The text of his speech is called "No Baudelaires in Babylon," and constitutes nothing less than a manifesto for web writers. Tom Bradley is the author of five novels. Reviews of his books, links to his online publications, audio performances, plus a couple of hours of recorded readings, are posted at his website.








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