Sam Edwine says “Hi-hi” to a bum in Foo-Chow (Marco Polo went there, too)

“Quit your farting.”
–Chairman Mao, The Little Red Book

The commies had kicked his family out, and now they were after Sam. So he decided to take a walk, to search for a means of personal salvation. As he lumbered down Derelict Hell Road, he came upon a likely prospect.

Glistening black with filth, and naked but for a few rags that ended at the thighs and armpits, the guy looked a bit like a far-eastern version of Sam himself in his bachelor days, before his wife got hold of him and cleaned him up. Best of all, this bum was wadded in an old and ill-maintained handicap trike.

It might not be a bad idea to hunker down in front of this saint, to put elbows on the false-cripple knees and do a little fast talking. The standard slow-motion eyes rolled up and focused on Sam only after he was settled comfortably in.

Sam began: “Perhaps you could lend me some of your wisdom, for I’m in a quandary. It may sound like a Jesus complex to you–and maybe it’s even a mild one compared to your own, as you sit here weeping blood–but there are several groups of people in this town vying with each other to see who can nail me first.

“Now I’m asking you, possibly the observer, victim and perpetrator of more than one crucifixion: shall I give these godless pricks the satisfaction of capturing me and deporting me after a little marketably sordid stuff in jail? Or shall I go fishing instead?

“Letting them bust me would offer the fair likelihood, or at least the fighting chance, that I could go public with the charges against me, if I survived. That would give me a crack at notoriety and financial independence.

“I’d have to recruit a ghostwriter. Like they say: two weeks in China, write a book; two months in China, write an article; two years in China, write nothing. But, you know, I’d certainly be svelte enough for the talk show circuit after a few months in the people’s prison. I’ve got a fair start on it now, don’t you think?”

Sam smoothed his hands down his sides and leered sidelong at his mute interlocutor, who moaned once absently.

“Now, the disadvantages we’ll count up on your little bare black toes, like marketing piggies.

“One: They’d fly me back on a China Airlines death-trap, and I’d have take a chance on ptomaine from the Salisbury steak.

“Two: my adopted daughter, bless her dewy soul, would have to settle for being parented by an international criminal, a C.I.A.-betraying, counter-spying daddy who was thrown out of her homeland on the equivalent of a Mann Act rap. She could never return thirty years hence to witness the glorious results of the Four Modernizations and learn about her rich cultural heritage and shit like that.”

The bum suddenly laughed. Had he understood, or had he made up some random funny of his own?

“On the other hand,” continued Sam, “I could sneak off and go fishing in the Straits with your ‘fraternal compatriots’ from Taiwan, who hang around the phony show port. I know their lingo, for most of them are lucky escapees from this very town. They would allow themselves to be bribed with some nice herbal medicine or powdered pearl cream. And, like the person who hates him/herself in the morning, they would beg me to keep the ride to freedom and Big Macs a secret, so their mainland typhoon-haven privileges wouldn’t be revoked. No publicity value to be had by that route.

“There are no snitches from either government among the tightly-knit, profit-bonded crews, and it would be the first time in two years that I’d be free of such ticks and fleas. And even if the Reds did find out, they would never publicize such an embarrassing method of escape. ‘Look,’ the world would say, ‘even their foreign experts are sneaking over to Taiwan!’

“So my kid’s childhood would be secure and obscure.

“But there would be disadvantages to this route as well.” Sam looked up at the placid, filthy sky. “I’d have to stick around here with you, and I do mean ‘stick’–” He peeled one dungareed knee off the sidewalk. “–until typhoon season got into full swing and the fishermen started showing up. And then I might die in the very storm that brought my saviors. Or I might get seasick, which is worse than death, as far as I know. What do you think?

“Also, they may be rich spies, but I’ve heard their boats are floating petri dishes for hepatitis A, B and C, plus tetanus, tuberculosis, dysentery, dyspepsia and dysfunctions of whatever organs you care to list, not to mention backaches from midget-sized berths.

“Besides, I’d have to get a job when I finally got home, because no publisher would believe I was telling the truth and things called novels don’t sell.”

At the mention of the word ‘job,’ anguish geysered from Sam’s outsized hiatal hernia. He grabbed the bum by the crawly rags around his throat. By this point it had slipped his mind that he was kneeling in mucus and actually touching someone unwashed. And this was the self-same Sam Edwine who had given himself a rare dose of male anorexia from fear of the unclean utensils in socialist restaurants. He was either making gradual progress or deteriorating rapidly. In either case, he pushed forward and gazed into the raw face.

“What’ll I do? I can’t swim fast like the skinny comrades who wind up peopling the gay district in Hong Kong. And the commie-bred and -planted hammerheads would be attracted from nautical miles around by the drainage from my itched-open mosquito bites. Anyway, how could I get down to Kowloon in the first place, clear across mountains and provincial borders, with an A.P.B. hanging over my head?”

Sam eyed the bum’s wheeled conveyance and added, “I do have a ruse in mind, a Yankee-style scheme, that might smuggle my bright bulk as far as the show port, where I could link up with the Guomindang.”

He considered it a while. Escape seemed so bothersome. It would be much easier to acquiesce, like this rolled-over variety of lone Chinaman, and wait to be swept away like dog shit.

“You must be one of those guys my age,” said Sam, “the ‘lost generation’ who can’t do anything because the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution blew you out like light bulbs. You can’t even sit up straight while you beg, but slouch flat on your back in your wheelchair, your pelvis poked forward, your head propped at a ninety degree angle–just like me most of the time, except I have a bed and a pillow and a book by Foucault to make it look legitimate.

“Back home in Utah, whenever I saw a huddled mass of your counterparts outside the Sugar House White Slum Blood Plasma Donor Center, I always went among them and asked, with sincere bewilderment, ‘Why don’t you guys become grad students like me? Why peddle your precious bodily fluids? I know 5000 dollars per year doesn’t sound like much, but it’s about 4987 dollars and fifty cents more than you dribble from your elbow crotches now. Besides, if you schedule everything carefully (pud profs in classes you take; peer evaluation in classes you teach), it works out to be about forty dollars per hour. And if you can keep little Thumbelina inside your pants during lectures, you can even get a Ph.D. Or just mail out for one from the back pages of Hustler Magazine, as you collect your fellowship stipend and rack up the federally insured student loans. Then you can become a foreign expert in some hopeless third-world shit-hole whose barbaric Deans of Humanities don’t know any better, like Borneo or Sumatra or the People’s Republic of China.’

“Of course, you, my grimy friend, can’t do that, because you’re already here, unfortunately for you, and you have no place toward which to be downwardly mobile. But you can see some parallels forming, can’t you?”

Sam nudged him in the protuberant floating ribs.

“You must have some gumption under all that real estate, having avoided the police, who, like the soldiers of King Shuddhodhana, pack your unpresentable kind off to closed cities or god knows where: crematoria, perhaps, or glue factories, where nobody important like an American tourist will see you and know you exist.”

No response was forthcoming, not even to this veiled compliment. Had it been expressed in too condescending a tone? Maybe the guy didn’t know his own town’s idiom. Sam resolved to get a rise out of him, one way or another.

He snuggled and swished, “You be Therese Defarge and I’ll be Miss Pross, m’kay? Just back off, you slut! I push my saggy bosoms out at you, ooooh!” He dug his upper body into the bony, death-smelling lap.

Nothing.

“Pull yourself together, young man!” cried Sam. “You’ve got to make a better showing than this! Do something, and put your heart and soul into it! You’ve got to think big and have gumption! Don’t be afraid to set out and go to new places on your own! You can tackle any adversary singlehandedly, if you’ll only show me a little old-style Kipling liberalesque gumption! Come on!

“Look at me, for example.” (Sam’s mouth was getting tired; that last came out ‘fur-zampo.’) “Short of injuring my large person, there’s nothing bad China can do to me. This country is impotent in terms of psychological retribution. You probably think that if I got deported I’d have to go home in shame to total ostracism and face-loss, like you’re suffering right now. But face counts for less than nothing in an isolate place like America, in what your propagandist ‘philosophers’ used to call a social-Darwinist society. And ostracized from whom? Nobody, with a capital N, is the work unit Americans like me belong to. Even if I brought home the highest Chi-com accolades and a vita plumper than Mao’s hemorrhoids, I’d wind up working a shit-job at Seven-Eleven. For I’m a mere male Anglo Saxon, and therefore have nothing to offer, of course. Lumpen intelligentsia all the way, and proud of it!

“We Americans are, in your Confucian context, sociopaths; and, though our society and culture are finished, we are the only free people on earth, for we are perfectly, sublimely faceless. We’re shameless.

“That, and not all the milk and beef we gorge on, is what makes us so huge and mean and hairy. So watch your skinny, inhibited ass, Boy!

“China–all of this, the forty-year-old smog, the four-thousand-year-old street, the incredible inch-thick jam under your toenails here–it’s just been a cheap, irrelevant vacation for me: a way of forestalling adulthood another couple years; a financially neutral expenditure of dead time; busywork to prepare me for the true man’s labor of placing pickles and cheese on a sesame seed bun and nickels in a cash register, eight hours a day. You and your most-ancient-of-all-civilizations and your one-in every-four-faces-on-earth have been a way to kill time, nothing more.

“China, the world’s biggest post-graduate school.”

The bum rolled his head to one side and spat a plump yellow lunger on Sam’s hand. The glistening globule nestled and quivered warmly in the web between Sam’s thumb and forefinger. It was more of a response than he’d gotten in years of classroom teaching.

“Okay, fine. You have done something. I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to share with me. Let’s talk about this now. It’s a wise choice of activity in your case, a natural vocation, you might say. By now, of course, it is a commonplace among the educated classes that Mao Zedong– ”

The bum twitched at the name as though at a bee sting.

“–was an oral personality leading an anal nation. But I say you’re all nasal types. Nasal expulsives. So please, lie there and follow your natural bent. Snort a little something back and expel it!

“But,” said Sam, rising to his feet, “be the very best spitter you can be. Make yours the biggest spit on the block. Here, watch this–”

He inserted two of his more expendable left-hand fingers deep into his throat and twiddled his soot-sore uvula, waiting for the standard results. He was only sorry there was no party representative within reach. But then, in mid-gag, he thought better of it.

“Enough of that,” he murmured, and withdrew his hand.

Then, feeling lighter, he stripped down to his novelty teeshirt, which read, zi jingshen wuran zhe. I am a spiritual self-polluter.

Finally, the embryonic sense of paternal responsibility long impending inside this man, who’d been expelled from his last American university post for displaying little evidence of the nurturing instinct, came to full term and was born squealing and bleeding. It was time to get back home and link up with his wife and daughter.

But before his total-immersion baptism in meconium, he wanted to have one last fling in the Shipu Harbor Reception Center. He would lounge around the diesel-redolent beach until the typhoon came, then he’d find a likely-looking trawler full of counterrevolutionaries to ease him across the Straits of Formosa.

“Your axles look a little orange, Comrade, but my big hands on the crank will wrench them loose. I think I’ll blow my last few kuai on a dumped Hitachi television set and strap it to your luggage rack, a gift for the belated family reunion in Salt Lake City.

“My kid will probably have forgotten the identity of her dad in the meanwhile, but I can play with her non-stop a few days and fix things up between us, before I hit the help-wanted ads.

“So, it’s settled. Goodbye, sick asshole of the east. You’ll forever regret inviting this man in–and, even more, letting him slip out.”

Sam laid hands on the derelict’s legs, to move them gently off the trike, simultaneously elaborating a string of drool and mumbles to flap over his shoulder in the breeze for added authenticity as he rolled along. By way of disguise, he wadded the bum’s linty lap-blanket under the back of his shirt to resemble a hunch.

“Come on, dead-butt. This is a legit act of requisitioning. Get your arm out of your pants and help.”

He felt something sharp move up against the palm of his hand, squeaking like styrofoam as it pierced the flesh. For an instant, just before he swatted the blade and derelict away, Sam Edwine almost became mindful of the agony of this place.

Tom Bradley received his novelist's calling at the age of nineteen. He climbed into the moonlit mountains around his hometown, where he got an unambiguous life-informing vocation with physical symptoms and everything, just like Martin Luther in the electric storm, and he doesn't recall being on acid or anything at the time. He moved to China and points east in 1985, and has been hanging around the left rim of the Pacific ever since, in a successful search for sinecures that steal virtually no time and absolutely no mental energy from his writing. Reviews and excerpts of Tom's novels, links to his online publications (Salon.com. Exquisite Corpse, McSweeney's, etc.), plus a couple hours of recorded readings, are at http://tombradley.org.