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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 24: Zigaago

“I was like, now I’m here and now I’m there even though I’m still here.”

“Far out,” said Cornelius.

They were sitting around their usual Heartland Cafe Museum restaurant table by the Buffalo Bar. Cornelius and soon Wingyee had joined them. Ray was filling them in. Mason, parrot on shoulder, came up and was about to hand Malmquist a pale amber brew in a taster glass when he noticed a face he hadn’t seen in a while. “Aa, Wingyee neihou!”

“Zeoikan houmaa?” She smiled and pulled up her tunic to let him comb his fingers through the eruption of black hair between her legs. She grabbed his balls.

Mason turned cheerfully back to Malmquist with the taster glass. “Nei soeng soengsoeng ngodik maalaat ngaaiji bezau? Ngo zigei joengzou ge.”

“It’s their new prickly ash chili pepper ale. Mate made it himself. Sicyun Province prickly ash, though it’s grown here now and is the real thing,” explained Cornelius.

Malmquist downed the glass. “It’s really good. But can I ask a question? I’m concerned about hygiene whenever I see that. Especially restaurant workers.”

“Oh, why?”

“People keep themselves much cleaner nowadays than before,” said Ray. “Obsessively clean. It’s a matter of pride. Yet a little bacteria doesn’t hurt. After all, when we eat Chinese and share dishes, we’re spreading our saliva all around with our chopsticks. Accepting someone’s germs is a natural form of expression. Remember our conversation about being lovable? But yes, I know where you’re coming from.”

“And disease?”

“Ah, for Liberation. One of the first big radical overhauls was universal health care. Free clinics in every park, just like swing sets and public lavatories. Sexual infections have been mostly eliminated, since everyone is scrupulous about their privates and gets checked out immediately, regularly, voluntarily. Of course, they’re not really ‘privates’ anymore. Your body is not your own; it belongs to the community. It’s everyone’s business. You have a social obligation to take care of it.”

“Wow. Let me wrap my head around that. Where’s Belinda, by the way?”

“He’s stepping in for her. She’s under the weather,” said Cornelius.

“Oh, I don’t think you two have met,” said Ray, calling Mason back. “Jeff, this is Mason. He’s Belinda’s sister.”

“We have met and already know each other quite well.”

“So as I was saying,” she continued, “I went from now I’m here and now I’m there to now I’m here and now I’m there. Not one after the other but at one and the same time.”

“How can that possibly be?”

“Have you ever been aware that you’re having a dream? You know, already asleep but not yet asleep? Or woken up while you’re still in a dream? That’s the best analogy I can think of. Except that this was much more exact and crystal clear. I was in both places at once and I was perfectly conscious of being so.”

“I mean how could you have been physically in New Rome and New Gary at the same time? That I can’t understand.”

“You don’t have to understand. It was simply a fact. New Rome and Chicago, actually. I hated New Gary. Once the military occupation was over and we were all freed, I just had to be back home. Chicago. I’ve been here ever since.”

“And you’ve been in New Rome all along as well. Amazing.”

“I didn’t like New Rome at first. I couldn’t even speak the language. But I got to like it the longer I was there.”

“Just yesterday we bumped into each other right here in the Heartland. That was the last I saw of you — your younger self. The next thing I hear, you’re back in New Gary and back in New Rome. How did it happen?”

“Zhang didn’t want me to leave but we needed to get rid of that police chief. We did so by writing ‘Chicago’ on the tunic we put on him and I got accidentally teleported with him. You know where we wound up? Right here again in the Heartland but in 2060! It was closed down and all locked up. It must have gone out of business back then.”

“Yeah, I once found myself in the abandoned Heartland too. That’s the night I went to your place late and knocked on your window.”

“We were locked inside and could only get out by breaking the windows, but there were lots of people running around and gunshots everywhere and it seemed too dangerous. I wanted to find Inspector Melynchuk. I thought he could protect me. So I decided to abandon the cop and send myself to New Gary. I convinced him to give me his tunics since I was naked and he had his uniform on underneath.”

“Why were you naked?”

“Zhang took off the tunic I was wearing so I wouldn’t get sent with the cop, just to make sure, even though it was an ordinary tunic. I got teleported anyway. So I put the tunics on and wrote out ‘New Gary’ and found myself in the gay sauna on Broadway!”

“Gay sauna?”

“Yeah, everyone knows about it. It’s in the back of the bar called ‘Bar.’ You told me you went there on your first day in New Gary.”

“Oh, yeah, that place.”

“Well, all these people were hiding in the sauna from the Chicago attackers. I don’t know what happened next. I only remember going with some police to Chicago to rescue that chief cop in the Heartland. After the violence stopped and the Chinese took over, I was back in Chicago for good and I’ve been living here in Rogers Park ever since. The Heartland reopened after Liberation. I came here a lot in the early days to help out.

“Then how did you return to New Rome?”

“I don’t have any memory of leaving New Rome. As I said, Zhang didn’t want me to go back to the US anymore. We successfully sent the cop back. That’s all I remember. I’ve been there ever since as well.”

“I need to work all this out in due time. What’s it like over there now anyway after all these years? And what about Zhang?”

“Zhang died years ago and willed her domus to me.”

“And Giulia?”

“She stayed on in Ancient Rome and never came back.”

“And Attica?”

“She’s doing fine. We take care of each other.”

“Haaisik,” Wingyee demanded.

Cornelius filled her in while Malmquist continued. “One thing I still don’t understand. If you’re Ray here and Delilah over there, what are you now, now that you’re united?”

“Both. Nothing wrong with having two names.”

“How did you get along in New Rome without speaking Chinese?”

“We all picked up Cantonese pretty quickly back then.”

“I thought they spoke Mandarin.”

“They did until the changeover. Around the time of the Chinese occupation of the US.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Southern China had been the real center of power for some time. That’s where the wealth was. There was some kind of a coup, a bloodless one, and the south took over. Everything more or less stayed the same, except the capital shifted from Buijyun to Gwongzau — ”

“Where?”

“Peking and Canton. Cantonese became the national language. New Rome is in the south, in Zitgong Province near the coast, but not the far south where Cantonese is spoken. So everyone had to learn Cantonese. It was easier for Zhang and the servants since the two languages have the same characters and grammar; only the pronunciation is different. We had to start calling her ‘Zoeng.’ It was really hard for me and Attica, but we plunged right in.”

“And I recall you saying you all had to learn Cantonese in Chicago around the same time too.”

“Yeah.”

“I still can’t understand how you could make sense of being in two places at the same time. How could you handle it?”

“That didn’t last. Once I got settled in both places, I lost the simultaneous awareness. That’s when the split happened. I effectly split into two distinct people, one in Chicago and one in New Rome, each with no consciousness of the other. Though we were actually the same person. And still are.”

“You never went back and forth anymore with the tunics?”

“No. Teleportation just got too intense for me. The more time went by, the riskier it seemed. I developed this fear of not being able to make it back again. So I stopped going across for good. Until about a week ago, when I was yanked across. Just after I slept with you for the first time.”

“That’s when you went missing. But you just arrived from there. So how could you be aware of what happened here?”

“Because I came back to myself.”

“That’s what we don’t get,” said Cornelius. “How could you lose your memory and get it all back again? Where did it go? Didn’t that just freak you out?”

“All I know is I was soaking in the Diocletian Baths last week with Attica and my memory of my Chicago years, all five past decades, came back to me. Total recall.”

“Perhaps you lost your simultaneous awareness as a defense mechanism to protect you from the stress and confusion of it. That’s what a psychological explanation would say. Or it could be even simpler than that. The weight of simultaneous awareness was too heavy to bear, and your two realities just snapped apart.”

“Whatever. The question is, what brought my two selves back together again?”

“Magnets, man!” said Cornelius triumphantly. “Magnets. That’s what it is. Her two halves snapped back together just like magnets. Jeff somehow poked holes in the time-space continuum and you got pulled through to the other side.”

“But what about yourself there now, now that you’re here?”

“I’m not there now. I’m here.”

“So you are presently missing in New Rome?”

“Yes, I must be.”

“Are you aware of what’s happening in New Rome right now?”

“No.”

“But you were aware of your life in Chicago over the past few days.”

“I am aware of my life in Chicago only up to the past few days. I remember fucking Jeff but nothing after that.”

“So you have no idea what’s going on in New Rome at this moment?”

“No.”

“Will you go back there?”

“I don’t know. I can’t control it. I presume I will. I have to. I can’t leave Attica alone. But it was so nice to be back in my old bed here. With a handsome guy and his morning hard-on flush against me!”

“You scared the hell out of me when you woke me up,” said Malmquist. “But I have absolutely no memory of fucking you last week. So something happened to my memory as well in the process. And you know what? It’s coming back to me just now. Something else. How I got into this mess in the first place. Remember I told you how I first found myself in New Gary? I was in a used bookstore on Broadway in Chicago. That’s all I could recall until this moment. Now I remember the anger, the rage.”

“What anger?”

“I had slept with a student from one of my classes at the university. It was purely consensual and she was smart and was going to get an A anyway. Her name was coincidentally was Delilah. She didn’t resemble you at all. It was nice while it lasted, but there were inevitable problems with our age gap and expectations. I wasn’t the right person for her and told her so. She wasn’t ready for that. Now, normally I’m a calm person. Nothing fazes me. But there is one thing I can’t deal with, and that is stalking. Things went downhill from there. She started following me around my neighborhood. One day I tried to shake her and slipped into a used clothing shop. There was a clothing carousel containing T-shirts. One had a silly phrase printed on it that said ‘Witches underwear party.’ I was about to buy the shirt, thinking it would be a cool object to discuss in my semiotics class on the meaning of nonsensical messages, when I saw Delilah standing before me. I was so angry I pushed the carousel over her and ran out of the store. That’s when I found myself on Broadway in New Gary.”

Wingyee had pricked up at Malmquist’s excitement and got the others to translate. She listened and considered for a moment before saying, “Waabei ngo zi nei niuge zeoihau jatzi.”

“She wants you to tell her about the last time you got angry.”

“That was the last time.”

“She says there was a more recent outburst of rage. And that’s why you’ve been under investigation.”

“I know I’m in trouble but I didn’t do anything since then — Oh. Yes. Of course. She must be referring to the incident that happened nearby, in 2060. But how would she know about that? I told you I broke out of the Heartland and a man threatened me from his car with a gun. I turned his gun against him and hijacked his car down to the highway across from New Gary. I beat him up badly with the butt of the gun and tied him up and sent the car to Danny’s house. I don’t know what happened to him after that. Did he die?”

They interpreted this for Wingyee and she reacted with surprise. “Jau jatzi gunggik ni?”

“She didn’t know there was another assault.”

“Was that really an assault? I’d regard it as preemptive self-defense.”

“She wants to know about the assault in New Rome.”

“New Rome? What assault?”

“Nei gu.”

“She wants to hear it from you,” said Ray, in a resigned yet affectionate voice. “Homicide, dear.”

“Homicide? I never killed anyone there.”

“A Chinese man.”

“Oh!” He slapped his head. “Him. That guy? He was going to kill me.”

“He was unarmed. You bashed his head against a wall and he died later in the hospital. It was unprovoked.”

“How do they know?”

“There was a witness.”

“The prostitute he was beating up?”

“And your DNA was all over him.”

“I got out of there immediately and don’t know what happened to him. I didn’t intend to kill him. Oh, Jesus. That’s what I was being investigated for? Is there no allowance for the fact it happened fifty-five years ago?”

“A few days ago, in your life.”

As soon as Malmquist recalled the event, Wingyee visibly relaxed and gazed at him calmly. For a minute there was silence around the table, whereupon she said, “Nei zeonbei houmei aa?”

“It’s time, Jeff.”

“I know.”

He hugged Ray and Cornelius and followed Wingyee out of the Heartland. At the police station they were buzzed through a set of inner doors and she led him into a quietly decored bedroom, like a nice motel room. A framed painting of an old Chinese town with a canal winding through it hung on the wall. She said something in Cantonese and waved her hand.

“This is your room?”

“Deoi,” she nodded as pulled off her tunic. She unhooked the holster under her breasts containing the bowie knife and gun and placed it on the nightstand. She pointed to his tunic. “Zoeng keoi ceoi loklei.”

He took it off. Surround-sound music began to play from hidden speakers — sticks, gongs, cymbals and the cries and wails of singers. “What’s this music?”

“Jyunkek.”

She uncorked a ceramic flask and filled two jade shot glasses with a clear liquid. They toasted. Malmquist grimaced. “Holy shit! Is this stuff ever strong. It’s almost pure alcohol. What is it?”

“Baakzau.”

“Wow, the painting has changed to Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ I couldn’t tell it’s electric.”

She handed him the flask and lay down on the bed, gesturing at the flask and her body. He splashed the liquor over her and lay down next to her. They embraced and kissed. She got on top of him and for the first and last time fucked him. When he was about to cum she held him fast in her hips to take in his semen. “Ng sai daamsam. Jikjap lei laa. Ngo jiu neigo zi.”

They pulled apart, his cock still hard and drenched with fluids, and embraced again. One of her tits was stuck under his side and she freed it and nestled them against his chest. They were bigger than he had ever recalled, the areolas dark and swollen, little breasts in their own right. A tear rolled down her cheek as she placed one in his mouth. “Syunkap ngo, boubui. Syunkap ngo.”

Her arm was around his neck and she caressed him on the face. With her other hand she worked the gun out of the holster and raised it toward him. He looked up. “What are you doing?”

“Nei fangok, boubui,” she whispered.

He closed his eyes again and continued to suckle. She pressed the gun’s blue button. His jaw moved for a few moments and he went to sleep.

*      *      *

Previous chapter: Ch. 23: Xinluoma
Chapter 1: New Gary, IN

Forthcoming February 2018: The Kitchens of Canton, a novel

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