Short fiction by Max Berwald (scroll down for interview)
Posted October 6, 2015
She left the office just after 8:30 PM but didn’t make it to Jianguomen Station. An email had come in from the consultancy in Sydney, and Jie was the only one around who could read English well enough to judge its urgency.
“Sorry to make you come all the way back.” Xinxin sat on top of her desk, swinging her feet.
“It’s not important.” Jie scanned the email. “They want scores for the peaches.” Since finishing school Jie had been working for a startup that sold and delivered novelty produce.
Jie pointed to a package that she knew to contain eight, one-kilogram peaches. Outside, thunder.
“Well. Sorry again. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Just lend me your umbrella.”
Jie ripped open the package, put two of the freakish peaches in her tote and crammed the rest in the minifridge.
“Going anywhere special?”
The rain came harder and the Uber was slow. On the way to the theater the driver kept looking at her in the rearview. On the radio a man with a Wuhan accent was saying that there had been an explosion in America, in a place called Hillsboro, Texas. No one knew what had caused the explosion but it seemed to be some kind of industrial accident. Fifteen people were dead and more were missing.
A blonde named Rachel took her name and told her to go backstage and wait. Onstage a girl Jie’s age was kneeling before a bed holding another actor’s hand. Jie couldn’t see the other actor’s face. Backstage there was only one other girl. I’ve missed all the other auditions, thought Jie. And I’ve missed my own appointment, probably. She checked her phone and found she had. The other girl was sitting deep in the back amid the flies, covertly smoking a Hongmei.
Jie tried to make out what the girl onstage was saying, but she seemed to be whispering. Project, thought Jie. They have to hear you. Don’t you know that? But maybe it was an acoustical trick of the theater. Maybe everyone else could hear the girl just fine.
Looking around, Jie wondered if it would be her next or the smoking girl. She inadvertently locked eyes with her competition: older. Maybe thirty. Faint bags were visible under her eyes and the burning coal of the Hongmei vibrated in the dark. Her hair had been cut into a bob and dyed, but the color had faded. Onstage, the whispering stopped. The other girl’s eyes widened and her lips parted and a sound came into her throat.
From the front, Rachel called out, “Zhou Jie?” Then again, louder. “Zhou Jie?”
Jie walked out between the curtains and onto the stage. Her footsteps were too loud. She couldn’t see Rachel or her collaborators, only white light. Rachel gave brief instructions. A Chinese man corrected her, first in English and then in Chinese. No one asked for the monologue she had prepared, or for the scene that the casting director had asked her to memorize. The only other person onstage was prone in the metal cot, tucked away on stage left.
The white lights relented. Someone coughed. It was time.
She turned and regarded the bed. From her position at center stage, it was not possible for Jie to see the actor’s face. A hand was dangling from the bed, nearly touching the stage.
She pretended she could not hear the hum of the lights. Pretended that she was someplace else, alone with this other human. A real actor would not need to forget the lights. The lights would already be forgotten. But when she returned from self-sabotage, she found herself already approaching the bed.
In the bed there was a boy about her age. He had the smell of the sick, and there was thick green snot leading from his right nostril to his upper lip, which was gray and lifeless. With every breath, the snot quivered. His entire face was pale and his eyes were crusty at the edges, infected. He was watching her. Once, this boy had probably been very muscular. She could see that he was naturally broad shouldered. Now he was thin, shirtless but with the blankets pulled up around his chest. Kneeling beside him, Jie tried to remember the other scene, the scene they had asked her to memorize. Was this part of the same play? She couldn’t remember. She picked up the hand and turned it over in her own: sticky. “Is this… bed comfortable?
He looked at her but said nothing.
“You need to eat something.” Then she remembered she ought to be acting. “You need to eat something, right away.” She tried to think of something that she would say in this situation if she were somewhere else. Like the home of a friend. I’m in his home. “Are they feeding you in this place?” Now you’re in a hospital? Get it straight. She looked around, as if to call for a nurse, but saw no one. She shouted, “Xinxin!” which was the first name that came to mind. “Xinxin!” Her name made no echo, as if the theater were absorbing every possible sound. The boy went on watching her through his crusty, bloodshot eyes.
“I don’t suppose you can sleep,” she said. “But I know a good trick to falling asleep. Would you like to hear it?”
Why are you speaking to him like a child? He’s obviously your age.
“You have to disappear. Most people think that’s impossible, but actually disappearing isn’t very difficult. It starts by convincing yourself that you’re invisible, since that’s the only way the human mind can conceive of disappearing. You imagine yourself lying where you are, and then little by little you imagine yourself fading, so that the bed becomes visible through you. If you concentrate on becoming invisible long enough, you really will disappear. It’s actually easier if you…” Her voice trailed off abruptly. Her mind went completely white – as if she had run out of ink. She blinked.
On the street it had stopped raining, but she found it hard to walk. I need food, and then I need to sleep. She entered the first restaurant she saw, a KFC. The bad fluorescent lights and humming machines were soothing after the stage. She sat eating a chicken sandwich and drinking a Coke. For a moment her eyes closed. Then she heard a shuffle. A hand squeezed her arm tenderly. She opened her eyes and the girl from backstage was sitting across from her, panting. “Why’d you leave me back there?”
Jie stared dumbly.
“Besides we can’t smoke in here.” A tattoo of a bluebird flashed on her wrist. Plastic bangles. The girl looked around. “You still smoke these?”
Jie shook her head, swallowed liquefied chicken. “Gave me headaches.” All the components of the chicken sandwich were roughly the same color.
“Listen, I can’t believe you’re still doing stuff like this. Bao said you made it.”
“You were in America? After Changsha.”
She shook her head.
“Bao said that when you left Changsha, you were auditioning for commercials in Shanghai for less than a month before some Australian talent agency poached you. You were going to do some sort of indie feature thing in Sydney but then they lost funding. But thankfully– I don’t know if you were really seeing him– one of the guys at the Australian agency knew an American girl, and she got you started over there doing commercials. But I even saw you in that one movie, about the blind guy who pretends to be blind to be with the blind girl?”
She was resisting the whiteness. The same blankness that had followed her improvised monologue had returned, threatening to blot out everything.
“You look exactly the same,” she said, smiling warmly. Then she put out a hand.
Jie surprised herself by picking up the girl’s hand, running a finger over the veins there. The whiteness receded slightly as she squished the veins down and watched them rise again. The chicken sandwich sat steaming and half-eaten on the plastic tray. “I also want to say that I’m sorry, on behalf of the explosion. I always told Bao that I would tell you that if I ran into you somewhere. That I was sorry, not for, but on behalf of the explosion. And he always told me that was disgusting. That you’d feel repulsed. Do you feel repulsed by me?”
“In Hillsboro, Texas.”
She nodded. “You two were like two halves of each other. I wish you two could have died together. Not with fertilizer, but fifty years from now in a super modern apartment in Shanghai, really posh and with crystal pitchers.”
“Did he recognize me?”
The girl looked at her, uncomprehendingly.
“The boy in the bed.”
“I don’t know. He’s very sick now obviously.”
Jie put down the hand. “But is he who you mean? Is he Bao?”
“Don’t be an idiot.” The girl looked at her phone, apparently checking the time. “Where do you live anyway? Can I come home with you?”
Jie shook her head.
“Right. I guess you don’t care much what happens to me.”
“I don’t know you.”
The girl laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” She picked up a secondhand clutch. “Damn. It’s wet.” The rain had started again.
Jie blinked. The whiteness had gone but she still felt dizzy. “Is someone taking care of him?”
“Sure, sure.” She took out a Hongmei and looked into the rain. “I’d worry more about yourself.”
“You don’t look how you used to– your complexion is all wrong. No wonder you’re skulking around shitty theaters like this now. You’ve fallen far.”
“I’ve never been in any movies.”
“Look, you shouldn’t be eating that crap.” She pointed to the cooling remains of the monochrome chicken sandwich. The warming Coca-Cola. “You should eat some vegetables. Fruit is very important. What really does it for me is stuff like mango, papaya, dragon fruit– fruit from warm places.”
“I have two giant peaches in my bag.”
“What?” The girl shook her head. “No, no, no. Peaches come from China.” She tucked the cigarette behind her ear. “They’re grown way out west, on the plains, where it’s practically freezing.” Peaches come from China? thought Jie. “You should learn something about fruit.” The girl checked her phone. “Hey, I gotta go. Good to see you again.” She dashed out into the street. “Bye.” Jie thought she could see an Uber waiting across the way.
Before going upstairs to her apartment, Jie bought a Hongmei soft pack and a plastic lighter from Q Mart. Then she stood outside and smoked two one right after the other, trying to think of where Texas was on the map. Sure enough, she got a headache.
Inside she checked her work email. There were several messages from Xinxin. The consultancy in Sydney had emailed again. Jie was sure they were just badgering the company for tasting results, and those results didn’t exist yet because no one had tasted the peaches. Probably not even the farmers who grew them. She looked into her tote and saw them sitting there in the dark like two heads.
...It feels like cheating that I can just step in and listen to a bunch of live poetry whenever I want, share some with other people, etc. So shout out to all the rad poets in Beijing.
You're new to China. Three words to capture the feeling? Ocean. Noodles. Shave. ‘Ocean’ because I’m reading one of Rachel Carson’s books about the ocean right now and thinking about it a lot. She says the moon is made of material from the earth’s crust that used to be where the Pacific is. Basically that the Pacific is the crater where the moon used to be. I mean Jesus Christ. I don’t think that’s widely accepted though. ‘Noodles’ because earlier today I went to a noodle place I haven’t been to in a while and the guys who work there were really sweet to me, so I want to remember to go back soon. ‘Shave’ because I want to remember to shave later.
Most memorable moment from my first year in China? A couple of weeks ago the sun was out and some friends took me out on Beihai in one of those little boats ... We talked about possible methods for assessing whether or not one is a robot, other attendant concerns. Then my friend made us shrimp, pork belly, greens. Really good. Wouldn’t change a thing. My friends are a lot cooler than I am. Another time I was in a bar here and a foreigner told me that he didn’t believe in self-determination.
Moment I realized China was an important part of my life: Haven’t had any of these. Does this happen eventually? I like this city. There are people I’d miss a lot if I went away. I’d also miss this luzhu spot I like.
My writing history: I studied screenwriting and playwriting. I write a lot of screenplays but I never spend too long away from fiction. I’m writing a pulp right now and having a ball, so stay tuned. Also Beijing seems to have a poetry scene– with a bunch of people who write, read and care about poetry– which is in no way a given. I don’t know the history yet, but in my experience it’s not easy to build up a scene like that, and it feels like cheating that I can just step in and listen to a bunch of live poetry whenever I want, share some with other people, etc. So shout out to all the rad poets in Beijing. Back to me, you can read some of my nonfiction in et al. magazine, or over at Aweh.tv, Be Young & Shut Up and Mondo Exploito.
Favorite word to use in writing: said.
One word to describe the process of writing: dumb.