The Bukowski Agency - Floating Like the Dead - Excerpt
Floating Like the Dead

stories by Yasuko Thanh

EXCERPT FROM Floating Like the Dead

AFTER SITTING NEAR GOLD TOOTH for a time, Ah Sing came to a decision. He shuffled past the crops, spoiled before men with waning appetites had been able to eat them, and the pigs rooting in the waste. He nodded to Ge Shou, who sat among the pigs. He passed the site where they would soon start an orchard.

Back in his cabin, Ah Sing filled his shoulder basket with a Hudson's Bay blanket, a cast-iron kettle, a wok, a dead grouse, a handful of onions, some mint leaves, a cupful of cooking oil in a canning jar, and some government-issue opium. Returning to Gold Tooth, he touched his shoulder again. Gold Tooth grunted.

Ah Sing opened the blanket over him; then he placed stones in a circle on the ground around some kindling and lit a fire with the wooden matches in his pocket. He emptied his shoulder basket, picked up the kettle, and went to the woodshed, filling his shoulder basket again. The load weighed him down. He trod to the bog, sinking deep into the mud. He dipped his kettle, filling it with brown water. When he came back, neither of the men spoke, but Ah Sing didn't mind. He added more branches to the fire and set the kettle upon it.

A few minutes later, Gold Tooth said, “Why do you talk to me?”

Ah Sing shrugged. Before the disease had made his threats to beat up the other men laughable, Gold Tooth had hoarded the best rations, stashing second barrels of salt pork in his cubicle while the others looked on with mask-like eyes. But Ah Sing, at fifty-two, had himself hit a woman; had fondled the flesh of his brother's wife; had ignored the unemployed after the smelters closed; had beaten a man when he was drunk while onlookers cheered. He sat cross-legged by the fire, poking the embers with a stick. He felt feverish, strange. Far away through the trees, he could hear Ge Shou singing.

Ah Sing poured the oil into the wok and dried the canning jar with the hem of his shirt. He put two stalks of mint inside it and some of the opium. The mint grew wild near the bog. Ah Sing usually hung it from his cabin's ceiling. He poured the boiling water into the canning jar. He wrapped a green maple leaf around it and passed the jar to Gold Tooth, but Gold Tooth pushed it away.

Ah Sing put the jar on the ground. The steam rose and scented the air with mint. He fussed over the flames, moving the kettle to make room for the wok. He busied himself with the onions and the grouse he had killed just that morning with his shotgun until the aroma rose into the air, overpowering the mint.

“I used to be a cook, you know,” Ah Sing said. “I worked for Mr. and Mrs. Edward Price in Victoria.”

“Shit work.”

Ah Sing moved coals and added more kindling to adjust the heat. He rotated the wok and stirred its contents with a stick, testing the mixture frequently and inhaling its scent with his eyes closed.

Gold Tooth turned to him and snorted. “Look down. Your hand.”

“Oh,” Ah Sing said. “I've burned myself.”

A patch of flesh two inches wide was stuck to the outside of the wok.

“No one will notice. Look at your face. Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

When the food was ready, Ah Sing placed the wok down between them. Gold Tooth eyed the food with a strange appetite Ah Sing had not seen in weeks. Ah Sing chewed in silence, watching Gold Tooth eat; his clawed fingers, scooping the mixture into his mouth, were like fingers made of tree bark or elephant's hooves – strange but beautiful.

“It gets easier,” Ah Sing said.

“I'm not a leper.”

“No one wants to believe they are. I'll tell you something. I'm going to escape. I've got to go back to China. To my son and wife.”

Gold Tooth gave a disgusted grunt. “Has anyone escaped before?”

Ah Sing didn't answer. He told Gold Tooth he'd heard that two lepers had been shipped in a crate by the CPR as far west as Saskatchewan, and he thought they'd been deported. “My son,” Ah Sing said, changing the subject, “my son would be eighteen years old now. He was five the last time I saw him. It would be good if he could come to Gold Mountain. He would find work.”

They sat looking at each other while dusk fell. Neither one said a word. Ah Sing cracked open grouse bones and sucked out the marrow. Gold Tooth lay on his back and smoked tobacco from the supply ship. The fire had turned to coals and the coals had turned ashy before Gold Tooth spoke.

“I used to get all the girls. Best one's name was Zao. I called her ‘Zao,' chirp, because of the sound she made when we had sex. On hot nights she ran ice cubes up and down my spine, and on cold nights she tickled me with cotton balls. When I couldn't sleep, she massaged my feet while humming Strauss. She polished my shoes and every morning brought me my gambling spreadsheets. The way she pencilled in her eyebrows. I'm going to give you a piece of advice. Only hit a woman when she needs it, and only with an open hand. You got to keep them in their place because they want it. You have to answer their questions for them, that's love.”

“Did she turn you in?” Ah Sing asked.

“No!” Then after a moment he said, “They raided the Kwong Wo & Company Store; we were in the back, gambling.”

It was pitch-black now. Ah Sing drew a stick through the ashes. The bark caught an ember and he blew at the small flame. He threw on more kindling until the wood crackled. The only light came from the small campfire; its shadows highlighted the heavy ridges of Gold Tooth's overgrown brow.

“When I was a kid I found this bottle with a note inside,” Gold Tooth continued. “It'd washed up from Taiwan,” he said. “Funny thing is, I don't remember what the letter said. It was a wide, fat bottle, like a medicine bottle. It was dull, scratched up by the rocks. I remember grabbing it and trying to open it while the older boys were gambling by the fishboats, and then it started to rain and I ran under an overturned dory. I tried to untwist the lid but it was rusted closed. Then I tried to get it off with a broken clam. I ended up smashing the neck off. I remember the bottle, but not the message. Strange, huh?”

Ah Sing drew his knees up to his chest. “Memory is a funny thing.”

“I wonder what it said. Was it a love letter from some guy? Who knows? I don't remember.”

Ah Sing didn't answer.

“I remember lots of other things. Swimming in the Zhu Jiang River. Ducks and geese. I ate lily roots. I loved water chestnuts and dates. Have you been to the hills of Guangxi? Limestone towers. I would visit my uncle and play in the fish ponds.”

Gold Tooth turned on his side, away from Ah Sing, and curled up in the fetal position. Ah Sing's mother had turned on her side and died facing the wall. She had first lain in bed talking about her childhood, but when the sun rose, she had turned inward and fallen silent.

“In Canton the laundry waved like flags. We threw cats into the fetid canals. I had no parents. Stole food from the seething mass living on boats along the waterfront. Ran through the alleys making cutthroat signs at people and they feared me. I grew up to be a Tong, never did any grunt work. Laundry, houseboy, gardener. Never did any of that. I'm in extortion.”

An hour or so later, Gold Tooth started to cry, softly, under his breath. He mumbled something inaudible.

“What?”

“Will you send my bones back to China?”

Ah Sing sat up.

“You know the worst thing about it?”

“What?”

“I never knew her real name.”

“Who?”

“First it was the cotton balls, I couldn't feel them. Then I couldn't feel the suit against my skin. This is my best suit. My best suit.”

“I called her Zao,” he said. He started sobbing.

* * * * * * *

 


 

 

Back to top