Fiction

The Flipside

by Fred Colton

They were supposed to practice writing Mandarin characters but Luke always just sat there and drew dicks. 4,000 hanzi to learn and not a single one Luke couldn’t turn into a thin veiny phallus. He incorporated scrotums as needed to help with the curves and slants. Slid the drawings to the other students and everyone chewed off their bottom lips off to stifle the laughter. Hanzi made of cocks. Just twisting and snaking around each other.

Mandarin, mandatory since kindergarten. Mandatory in over one hundred countries. Kids, Mandarin is your passport to the world. Learn it and you can trade stocks in Paris or be a professor in Capetown.

“Or I could just stay here and keep winning races,” Luke told his parents, and his brother Bob, and the bowtie in the guidance office.

“You need to learn it,” his parents said. “You’re doing great everywhere else but Mandarin drags your GPA down below 3.0.”

And the bowtie in guidance said, “If you’re amenable with taking a goose egg then just do your time in Mandarin quietly. The teacher gets upset when you disrupt his class.”

Luke played with the snaps on his track pants. “You should put the word teacher in quotes. Because they can study Viking Anthropology or some other irrelevant shit at a Tianjin community college and still somehow get a teaching job overseas.”

“They’re not all like that.”

“Well, this one is.”

And so here in Massachusetts was Yang Jinhai. 23, from Shanghai. He was a carelessly constructed human being. A bowl cut, distractingly white overbite, and flappy Gumby limbs. No beer belly when he got here but he had one now. No English vocabulary when he got here, either, and that sure as shit hadn’t changed. So when Luke called him Mr. Wang instead of Mr. Yang and made the class bust up, Jinhai didn’t know why.

*

They were at Good Karma Cafe. Luke and his friend Jeff. The menu was in Mandarin and English. Every menu on the continent was in Mandarin and English. Two off-duty PLA soldiers were out on the curb with a miniature forest of Bud Lite bottles between them.

Jeff handed Luke his phone. “Look who’s living the high life.”

Jinhai operated under a secret identity on Facebook but Jeff had stumbled upon the teacher’s profile. So here was a photo roll. Jinhai blitzed at an EDM boat party on the Charles River. Jinhai slack-jawed on a ski trip with his hand down the back of a white girl’s yoga pants. Jinhai in a tan suit at Crossroads and also at the Mission. Doing flaming shots and motorboating some different white girls. Despite inhabiting the visage of bucktoothed troll Jinhai seemed to never go longer than ten minutes with a dry dick.

“The high life,” said Luke. “Life as a bachelor party. What do you think he’s got, some family money?”

“Mandarin teachers make a killing,” Jeff said. “They don’t pay rent.”

“Get the fuck out of here.” Luke scrolled through a few more photos. “I should re-sketch some of these but replace Mr. Wang Jinhai with a giant penis instead. Wearing a suit and going skiing.”

*

On Saturday Luke broke his own 800m record with a 1:52.38. But that was only good enough for silver because a rival from Port Grand broke it harder. Guy clocked a 1:52.01.

But that was OK. Because Luke got faster every week. He dropped on the infield and saw himself on the twenty-foot screen under the scoreboard. It was OK because there were three thousand people at this meet and Stephanie was one of them. It was OK because she was a fox and just catching her eye for a second was enough to wipe his memory. And it was OK because that night she came over and it happened.

First time but it wasn’t awkward. It was done and Luke shuddered and curled up. A warm magic fizz worked through him. When they started talking again he said, “Scouts were there today. I could run go run for—”

Stephanie said, “I might be in Beijing.”

“Shit.”

“I know. I know.”

“But you were talking about Ohio.”

“I could get a better scholarship to Beida and my parents said—”

“Shit.”

She covered up. “Just an idea. I might stay here.”

*

“She won’t stay here,” Bob said.

He was down in the den with the lights off. Doing business on a six-pack of Sam Adams while he leveled up on GTA. A takeout carton next to him held rice and fried eggplant.

“She’ll go to another school and fuck five guys by Thanksgiving,” he told Luke. “Even if she goes to your school, you can’t guard her at every kegger and she’ll still fuck five guys by Thanksgiving. It’s a law of nature, young sir.”

Bob installed hardwood floors for ten hours a day. His shoulders resembled watermelons. Still in the nest at 25 because there wasn’t a 25 year-old in the hemisphere who could afford their own place. He had an aging F-150 and as a birthday present to himself had just upgraded the stereo in it.

“Beijing,” Luke said, for no other reason than to state his problem, to lament the existence of it.

“The center of the universe,” Bob said.

“I could go there, too.”

“Or you could just stay here and ‘keep winning races.’” Bob laughed through his nose.

“Ha.”

“Brother, you’re sixteen; your head is fucked. When you’re sixteen you have the logic of a drunk man.”

“I’ve got everything else. I just need Mandarin. I can learn it and go.”

“No. Here’s what you do: you cut it with this little chick. You work on your gift, protect it. Unless you wanna end up on this couch next to me.”

*

San shi wu…OK that’s $35 an hour,” said Jeff.

“Motherfucker,” Luke whispered.

Monday. They were in the Mandarin office at Jinhai’s desk.

The teacher chewed on the tip of his tongue while he texted someone. Jeff was there to translate, something he was capable of since he didn’t spend the entirety of Mandarin class drawing dicks.

“That’s a deal,” he told Luke. “$45 is standard. And academies cost even more.”

OK, Luke thought. But $35 is still a goddamn king’s ransom.

He could pull down $6.75 an hour washing dishes at the cafe. Before taxes. So: eight hours on the clock could buy him one with Jinhai. That was a horrifying exchange rate.

But, after enough hours with Jinhai he could get to Beijing.

“Tell him I can do it,” Luke said.

“The test is in five months. And you gotta be damn near fluent by then.”

“I can do it. When is he good?”

Jeff and Jinhai had a quick exchange and then Jeff said, “Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8.”

Luke fixed Jinhai with a quiet stare. The guy had a gold mine in his head. Just say words, get money for them. What a life. What an incredible, incredible life.

“Tell him I’ll pay him on Friday,” Luke said. “For ten lessons.”

*

The call came at 10 P.M. Bob was driving home.

“Someone broke the window. Stole my radio.”

“Shit. Bob, that’s terrible,” said Luke. “Where?”

“The job site.”

“Any cameras around?”

“No.” Bob cleared his throat hard. “It was up in the hills. Only had that fucking thing for a few weeks.”

“That’s fucked up. I’m sorry Bob. I’m so sorry.”

*

Luke handed Jinhai $350 in an envelope on Friday. A wordless transaction that nonetheless concluded with smiles from both parties.

Now Luke had a five week head start on getting another ten lessons’ worth of currency together. He practiced hanzi at lunch. Getting the stroke order down. The characters looked weird when they weren’t rendered as dicks.

He could do this. Five months was no problem. Fast was the only way he could do things anyway.

After school he went to Stephanie’s. Shuddered, curled, tingled again and said, “You’re going to Beijing, aren’t you.”

“Well,” she said. “It makes sense.”

He could tell that was her plan because she never talked about it. And he knew she hadn’t talked about it because once she flew over there, there wouldn’t be a Luke in the equation. Girls were very mature and practical. Did this irritating thing where they looked eighteen months into the future and tried to figure out what would happen.

“Well,” Luke told her, “pretty soon I’m going to have some good news for you.”

*

On Monday Jinhai was gone. Taken his bowl cut and overbite back to Shanghai.

“He got arrested at Foxwoods Friday night,” someone said. “On the casino floor.”

Luke blinked and put down his pen. Didn’t move.

Jeff said, “What happened?”

And some kid said, “He and a few PLA soldiers mixed it up with some BU students. There was talk of an assault charge so he posted bail and caught a plane.”

Luke sat still. Said nothing for the rest of the day.

*

At practice. Out running intervals in the city under the train tracks. Asian actors were on a billboard with a fireball behind them. One of them was in an armored combat suit that let him fly. The red-and-yellow Chinese flag was on the side of that building over there. Hanzi everywhere and it was all a taunt.

But it didn’t have to be. Luke finished and texted Stephanie and said they were done. Someday they’d both see that as the good news he promised.

Then he went home and told Bob the whole deal. He woke up on the floor with a front tooth loose.

Bob said, “Here’s how you pay me back. You work on the crew this summer for two weeks. For no pay.”

“I will,” said Luke.

“And win your next race.”

“I will.”

And he did. The guy from Port Grand didn’t even made the podium. The other two guys on the podium were Chinese kids from the international school.

“Foreigners think they can tell you what’s important because they have the Almighty RMB,” Bob said later. “But they can’t. You should know better anyway.”

“I do know better,” Luke said. “But sometimes I forget.”

“You’ll be good. I know you will be. You’ve got something.”

Back to Mandarin class. They had a new teacher, the teacher was a she, and she was so hot that Luke stared and began learning a few words by accident.

*

And Yang Jinhai was home, back in the capital of the universe. Back in with the parents, because you had to pay for rent in Shanghai. The dollars from that American kid were almost gone. He couldn’t get laid here. He was on Baidu looking for work. America was out.

But there were so many other options.

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Writer’s Block

by Pablo Harris

Abespectacled non-descript middle-aged man slouched in a chair, clutching a highball, is staring at a laptop screen on the desk in front of him. Alessandra, a twenty-something brunette with shoulder-length kinky hair, approaches Raymond. She stands in profile just two steps away staring at him. He should appreciate the contours of her perky bra-less b-cups under a white tank top and a perfect mezzaluna of an ass hugged by tight grey and black striped yoga pants. Still, he doesn’t notice her, he’s fixated on a blank screen. She then climbs over an armchair, sets her beacon of a half moon on his crotch, withdraws the glass, and pushes it away. Then she clasps her arms around his neck.

“Hey, are you going to come to bed? I’d like you to come to bed.”

“Uh, maybe in a while.”

“Honey, you ok? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, Ray, you look like something’s up. You look sad. Really, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Ok. Maybe I do. I can’t write anymore.”

“You can’t write anymore? What do you mean? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Fuck, I don’t know. I just can’t. I’ve lost it, whatever it is or was. That swerve, that swagger. Actually, I don’t know if I ever had ‘it’ but whatever I did have is gone.”

“What are you talking about? Come on, you’re on the verge of real success. Publishers, Penguin’s looking at your manuscript now.”

“It’s just a shitty subsidiary of Penguin. Not the majors. Not the show.”

“Well, that’s just the beginning. You’re going to ‘the show’ Hon, not me. Sure, I’ve had some photo exhibits and gallery shows but – “

“Your photos, your oils and watercolors express way more than my mere words.”

“But they don’t sell. And I am tired of teaching in Korea. But you are going places. I don’t understand how you can be so sad.”

“Because I can’t fucking write anymore!”

“Raymond, listen, you’re great. Besides your writing, you can cook. You should be catering or have your own restaurant. And it’s not just me that thinks so; people love you. Yet you sigh, scoff, or cringe. You respond to a compliment with disgust. And even more than your words and your food, you are talented at so many things. Including sex!”

Raymond utters a barely audible dismissive, “Heh.”

“Yeah, that’s right. You’re great at fucking. Fucking amazing. My hands go numb and there’s butterflies. Not just butterflies but bats in my stomach when you’re in me. And I love that you’re a ‘vagitarian’. And I sucked Man Ray this morning. How can you be so depressed?”

Raising his voice, now perturbed, “Well, I’m depressed because I can’t write and I can’t write because I’m fucking happy, ok? All art, music, literature is borne from suffering and”

“Oh, is that what the Buddha says about art and suffering?”

“No, that’s David Byrne and I think he’s right. All life is suffering is Buddha. All art is inspired by suffering is Byrne.”

“Hon, that’s not you. That’s so cliche.”

“Well, maybe it’s cliche for a reason. I think there’s something to it. Look at Costa Rica, for example. Why hasn’t Costa Rica produced any of its own music, art, literature? Look at Nicaragua to the north. They’ve produced plenty of famous poets, writers, and their protest music of the 80’s had a resounding blowback to the best protest music of the ‘90s: Rage Against the Machine. And to the south, almost all the music in Costa Rica is imported from Panama thanks to Ruben Blades.  There are no big colonial cities in Costa Rica, no history of slave trade, no pyramids or temples buried in the jungle. Even their army disbanded many years ago. So, to their good fortune to be born in such an idyllic location, great for them. But perhaps there’s something to their dearth of artistic or cultural accomplishments because they’ve been blessed with their lack of suffering? So maybe now I can’t write because I got no inspiration. No suffering. Your sweetness has fucked all of life’s bitter distillations out of me. So, I’m pissed. I’m done.”

“So, what you’re saying is then is that you can’t write because you’re no longer depressed or drunk? So, you’re starting to get pissed because you don’t know how to write unless you’re unhappy?”

“Yeah, sounds right.”

“Hmm, well, have you thought about, have you realized that your unhappiness is your choice? That you can write you just choose not to unless you’re depressed or drunk. I mean, to be honest Ray, I think your depression and alcoholism is just a cop out. You are trying to emulate your literary heroes. Bukowski. Carver. When really, you should just be yourself.”

“Fuck.”

Alessandra, reaching over to the highball and then returning it to him, “You know I don’t like you drinking whisky. It makes you mean. That’s not you and no one likes that Ray. But if you need this to write, and writing makes you happy, then fine, drink it. I don’t fully understand. I wish you were just happy with me. In fact, if you were happy but never had another drink and never wrote another word again, that’d be fantastic. You are an angry drunkard at your worst and a difficult fauve of a man at best. But I like you.”

“Angry? Well, that’s brown liquor for you. I like whisky but whisky doesn’t like me. A drunkard? Not yet. Give me a double Jameson then I’ll show you a drunkard. Difficult? That’s horseshit, girl. I’m a simple man. Like Bukowski says, ‘We all eat, sleep, piss, shit, fart, and die.’ Something like that. And if we really know how to live; we eat well, drink well, and when feeling just right, we dance. Simple really.”

“Well there’s certainly nothing simple about being with you, that’s for sure. You are full of mysteries. And I’m going to solve them all, fuck you until they all unravel and you are nothing more than a stain on the sheets, a shot in my mouth, or maybe just a milky white smear on my ass. Reduce you to a truly simple man. How would you like that, dear?”

Raymond pushes the glass away, lifts Alessandra up off his lap onto her feet, and leads her to the couch where they go make love again.

*  *  *

Nine months later his book did get published to moderate success and critical acclaim in the States. Ray celebrated by bending her over the back of his leather sofa, pulling down her sheer pink panties, sabering a bottle of Bollinger with his santoku, cascading tiny bubbles down her shapely backside, lapping up the luxurious bead off her fleshy tulips. Ray and Alie then got married on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe with her roundness beginning to show, and moved outside of Springfield, Oregon to a humble fixer-upper of a place on the McKenzie River. She began teaching high school photography and visual arts in Eugene. He got a job teaching a couple of writing classes as an adjunct professor at Lane Community College and weekends at King Estate. Months later Sophie came into their world. And other than grocery lists, notes and brochures for the winery’s tasting room, and a handful of spiteful letters to the editor of The Oregonian, he never wrote another word again.