28 Dec Stairwell
“Stairwell”Written by Ron Riekki Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 6 minutes
I sat watching the girls walk by. This was my second week in Shanghai, my first time in Asia. The girls looked like they were heading to funerals. Their expressions, their clothing, their entire demeanor screamed death to me. I had come from Montréal where there was an equal affinity for black, but the vibe was still catwalk. Montréal felt like runway; Shanghai felt like runaway. Maybe it was simply because I didn’t understand the culture. I was thoroughly Canadian. I grew up in Sudbury, which got me used to the air pollution, the way that the sky can look like artistic renditions of lung cancer, beautiful gray carcinoma mornings.
The boss told me to get out of the office. He said my hyperactivity would scare the clients. He said I didn’t know how to shut up. The Chinese like silence. The first person to talk loses. He told me to roam the streets.
A Chinese coworker warned me of “the three hands.” “The three hands? What’s that?”
He put his hand in my pocket, took it away.
I was dumbfounded.
I went back, asked my boss what it meant. My boss was German-Japanese. He was perfectly fluent in Chinese, but his hints of Japanese background put him at a loss with Chinese clients. Due to histories of war, many Chinese hate the Japanese. It’s a subtle subtext. Sometimes not subtle. I asked the boss what three hands meant.
He told me to get out of his office or I’d be fired. The makeup company was almost there. It was all female clients. All Chinese. They would hate a jabber-mouth male American. I was being paid to get lost.
I left. I went down the stairwell. On the very last step, I heard my boss yell from a window, “Pickpockets!”
Shanghai swallowed me immediately.
The city is hungry for foreigners. Starved from its days of isolationism.
China is schizophrenic with other cultures. The Beijing government has called for bans of foreign words in the media, CCTV news anchors fined for saying “iPhone” or “NBA.” Comically, the very term CCTV uses the alphabet and not Chinese characters.
It’s a culture of contradictions and the streets show it. The Dalai Lama is banned from the country, but it’s amazing how many of the people look like His Holiness.
I headed for the temple, only because it’s the center of all my directions. If I went in any other direction, the risk would be disappearance from the Earth itself. Co-workers told me the temple has the power of feng shui. They told me I should go there as often as possible, so I have been. Never going inside. I haven’t had the money to do that. I merely walk by and watch the circus outside. The strange show of multiple-amputee beggars and monks walking with basketballs and people standing in a line that never seems to move. I touch my hand on the temple the way that a child walks with her hand touching a fence.
Nearby are prostitution massage parlors and Indonesian restaurants. A dentist is in an alley doing work on someone’s teeth the way you would go to a back street mechanic; his tools look like they have never been cleaned since the beginning of the Xia dynasty.
I could go back to my apartment, but during the day the old man in the apartment next to mine smokes constantly. During work hours, it’s not a problem, but on the weekends I find that I have to wander the streets until night when I can breathe again.
I’m used to this, the feel of homelessness, directionless.
The craving for China came with a fantasy of meditation and acupuncture. I thought I would turn into a ganjin, a life of worship and revelation. For a city of over twenty million people, I was amazed at the boredom.
From the moving crowd, a woman approached. She took my arm.
She was skeletal, looking like she’d just gotten out of her deathbed. The makeup caked on her bones. She had an intensity that I unwisely allowed myself to feel. I gave way to her pull. She led me down an alley. It felt very Epcot, something so Disney and façade about it—the hanging laundry, the background actors in windows making two-second cameos.
She took me into a garage.
There was a car the color of ice, without any wheels. I wondered if I was going to my own murder. I didn’t seem to mind.
At the back of the garage, she pressed a button. Elevator doors opened. She pulled me in. Her neck, her face resembled a chimney. The soot of her hair. Her excitement rose when she realized I’d actually follow her inside.
The doors closed. She looked at my feet. She looked at my head. She looked at my feet again. She said something in Chinese, put her hand in the air to show how impressed she was with my height.
I wondered if she was going to sell me.
I wondered if she was attracted to me.
I wondered if this was her job.
The doors opened. We were on the fourth floor. The inside of the building was a maze. A restaurant to the left with a plate of what looked like deep-fried honeybees. She took me to the right, by a row of pool tables problematically placed too close to each other. To play a game, you’d have to wrestle for space. We walked by a room filled with women, just standing there, waiting, dressed in something similar to airline stewardess uniforms, mini-skirts. They waved to me, all of them. I waved back.
She took me down a hall. Or not down. There was only straight. Everything so flat and cramped together. China is not a place for the claustrophobic. Claustro- doesn’t come from “closet.” It comes from “locking” or “bolting.” The feel that someone has a key and they have you trapped in a space. You need the key.
She had the key.
We got to a room filled with rooms. All black. The light bulbs gave a prison feel, poverty to the air. The entire walk, everyone knew I was her possession. The authority with which she led me, the safety of that. She opened a door and pushed me inside and the door closed. I was alone. The safety was gone.
Two men sat immobile. One Chinese, one Japanese. The difference in ethnicity was apparent now, the distinctions clear. They were barely dressed, staring at each other.
The door opened. My woman walked in. She had a girl with her, about fifteen, completely obedient, frightened in the face, eyes to the ground, lipstick on her like blood. She leaned into me and there was a sensual shock to my system that I was completely uncomfortable with.
She whispered in broken English that the two men were involved in a staring match.
“And?” I said.
She kept her eyes to the ground.
“Why am I here?” I said.
“Watch,” she said.
I looked at the woman who led me here. She looked incredibly pleased that I had made the journey, that I would witness whatever was in front of me.
The two men stared, deep into each other’s eyes.
“Do you have any questions?” the girl whispered.
“Thousands,” I whispered back.
“We should not talk much,” she said.
“Why do they do this?” I asked.
She put her head down lower. I couldn’t see her eyes.
The men’s ribs poked through their chests, faces lacking fat.
“How long?” I whispered.
“Years,” she said.
She looked away. The woman motioned for us to stop talking, for us to watch.
I noticed they weren’t staring directly at each other. I tried to measure their exact place of eyesight, but there wasn’t an exact point being fixated on.
“How do you win?” I whispered.
“Win?” she whispered back.
The woman took the girl by the arm and led her out. The door closed, but I didn’t hear it. I looked back and they were gone.
The smell was of faint urine, a gentle bamboo incense, skin, something like vinegar or flowers, opiate-like.
The lack of sound alarmed me. The pool tables, the girls, the restaurant, the honeybees—none could be heard.
I stared at the men staring. The beauty was in the human act of living. And the fear, the danger, the insanity, the religion, the Godliness and the godlessness of it. I found myself unable to look away. I sat, as they sat, a third. I looked in the center of us, where we would meet in the middle of the newly formed triangle.
Part of me sensed that their eyes shifted as well, took on this new spot, this nothingness between us.
And for the first time, I could see it. Nothing. So clearly visible. I could see the air, the molecules, the dust, the argon, the nuclei. My body locked. Time faded. I could sense my bones changing, that shadows would come into the room, whisper, and leave. I could sense that a fourth person was added, years later, perhaps a fifth. Someone fed me. Someone cleaned me, brief, tender, the clothing scissored off. A beard.
Until, eventually, no one. There was only breath.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A