26.5.15

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Devon, Alberta
Kodomo no Hi, May, 2015












There were carp streamers above the gates, marked with the seals of a bank in Hokkaido and a member of the Japanese royal family and the amount of money they had donated to build the garden. Chinese exchange students waded into the pond. The air was cold and the grass was still brown. Half-Japanese toddlers climbed on rocks in the greenhouse and their sleepy fathers in unanimously matching sandals nodded in the heat while their mothers called for them to come down, come down, come down off of there. We went out of the garden and along a graveled path around a manmade lake. Geese landed noisily on the flat water and swam in pairs.

26.4.15

23.4.15

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Guangzhou, Guangdong
August, 2013




22.4.15

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Richmond, British Columbia
April, 2015

Written in a hotel room at the airport, looking out a big window at mountains and runway:

It was where the city ended. Cars on the highway. The last sidewalk clean and empty. The city ended and the fields began here with muddy sections of strawberry bushes. The banks of the drainage canals were wild with blackberry cane. Low fences around orderly stands of blueberry. Muddy lots of yellow and orange machinery, an old house in the corner. Somewhere on the edge, rolling up to the Fraser, the new blocks of condos along the marshes and the shuttered canneries. Xiao Xiao could see the red brick walls of the temple. The wind blew cleanly down Steveston Highway and she smelled the incense. An old woman in a straw hat snuck across the highway, crouched as if running under gunfire. She felt a tickle of rain across the part in her hair. She crossed the street and waited for the yellow lights above the highway to flash. Cars slowed. She walked across the highway and down the driveway of the temple. A man in coveralls was swinging a gate away from the brick gates and she followed its swing.

Plastic deer stood on the lawn under low trees. Men sat in the gazebo of the entrance garden, hunched over their crossed legs and cigarettes. A woman was selling incense at a kiosk. Xiao Xiao ran her hands over the bundles of incense. She carefully lifted a thick, oversized stick out of a plastic jar and then set it down. The woman at the counter said, cheerfully, unsure, in Cantonese: Big incense. Xiao Xiao played the word over in her head: daai heung. She repeated it to the woman: daai heung. She took a smaller bundle of incense and paid for it and thanked the woman in accented Cantonese. She said: Duo jeh. She walked to the gas burner and lit the incense. She held it high over the flame and let it slowly spark to life. She went along the pathway toward the temple courtyard, where three Buddhas stood in a long box. She didn't recognize the other two but she recognized Guanyin and prayed in front of her. She liked the feeling that came to her as she bowed. The feeling was mild dizziness and not thinking about anything. The highway over the brick wall was blank noise. She heard her hair falling forward and back across her ears. She went inside, to the temple courtyard and walked to the top of the stairs of the main hall. There was a rack hung with charms made of plastic straws and shiny red paper and gold wire. There was an incense burner at the top of the stairs and the sign above it said: Only for offerings to ancestors. She heard the monks chanting inside the hall. She prayed in front of the incense burner and tried to think of her ancestors but the idea slipped away from her and her mind was empty again. As she poked the incense into the dust, she felt a sting on the top of her hand. She lifted her hand away and the incense stick fell sideways and hung on the burned down sticks at the bottom of the forest of incense. There was a dark pink welt on the top of her hand.

A man watched her. He heard this first: her heels on asphalt meeting the stuttering tape loop sutras on the tin speakers above the garden. And he turned and watched her then. He stood beside her at the kiosk and watched her buy incense and speak in unsteady Cantonese. He stood close enough to her that he could see the fine fuzz clouds below her earlobes and, when she turned to look at him, the tiny mole almost on the tip of her nose. The rain was soft and a mist blew gently across the temple garden. He saw pearls of dew in her long hair. He knew her name but did not say her name and did not say anything else. He only watched her. He made a ka-cha sound in his head and made each action of her reaching into her purse into an snapshot. He laid them out: a closeup of her black Chanel purse on her shoulder, leather strap running through the chain, and then her left hand reaching up to draw her hair away from her face, and then her knees bent slightly in her black leggings, and then the purse sliding down the side of her cream leather jacket, and then her right hand turning the buckle on the purse, and then the coin purse in her hand. He bought incense and stood across from her while she lit it. He watched the way she held her incense in both hands and raised it to her forehead and pressed it there for a moment. She bowed three times. She bowed quickly and the tips of the incense glowed bright red. Smoke rose and then her forehead swept it down. He followed her into the temple courtyard and followed her up the stairs to the place to burn incense for ancestors. He saw her reach down to plant the incense and pull her hand away quickly. He walked down the stairs of the temple.

Xiao Xiao went out of the temple courtyard and into the garden. There garden was ugly and peaceful. There were cement ponds and bridges across them. An Indian man took a panorama of the garden with his iPad. His wife and his daughter stood behind him and watched the panorama develop on the screen. The water in the ponds was clear. She remembered seeing turtles in the pond once. There were no turtles but a fat goldfish hovered over a patch of green pennies on the bottom of the pond. There was a fountain on the edge of the pond. A sign beside the fountain said: This is a fountain of enlightenment. Xiao Xiao watched the water trickling out of a white plastic pipe and down a spillway of plastic rocks. She leaned across the fountain and let the water run across her hands. She touched her wet hands to her forehead. The cold water felt good and cold on her hand. The welt turned darker. Three girls crossed the bridge. One of the girls tried to step across the plastic rocks but almost stumbled forward into it and leaned back and walked unsteadily back to the group and exchanged her shoes with one of her friends. She stepped back across the plastic rocks and washed her face in the fountain, cupping her hands under the plastic pipe and splashing the water over her forehead. The other girls watched her. The Indian man took a picture of the fountain with his iPad.

She stood beside the highway and caught the 403 in a straight west straight north through Richmond. At the bottom of Brighouse, a man cried a long rap of: Please have human kindness a little sliver, a sliver of human kindness hungry and cold still hungry and cold can you walk by your fellow human hungry and cold. He was wrapped in a grey blanket, seated on a cement block, perched above the crowd rushing down the escalator and funneled across the crosswalk to the mall door. Two old women ran for a bus and forced their way through a crowd of girls in plaid skirts. The girls had identical straight black shiny hair cut so that it just fell across their crisp white shirts. The girls swung umbrellas at their sides. The rain had speckled their shirts with grey. She followed the shelter of the Skytrain track and turned toward the row of bakeries and immigration consultants and glass towers along Westminster. She went into the Public Market. It was midmorning and the market was empty. She smelled oranges and flowers, incense and refrigerated meat. She bought a bottle of Diet Coke and took the escalator upstairs. She sat at a table near the stairs and laid the knobby bottom of the Coke bottle on the burn on her hand. Rain fell on the skylights and a soft glow came up from the lower level of the market, the white light of butcher cases full of pork and styrofoam and yellow halogen light reflecting off melonskins. A small brown bird beat over her head and alighted on the stair rail. She bought a plate of liang pi'er from a counter in the food court. A man in the corner of the food court set up an erhu and played a song she recognized but didn't know the name of. She walked downstairs, into the courtyard outside the market. Three brown mallards floated motionless in a concrete pond. She took a pack of cigarettes out of her purse, a cigarette out of the pack, lit it and started walking down Buswell. Beside a vegetarian restaurant, there was a purple stucco block with windows covered in red foil paper. She went down the alley beside it. She paused and watched a man getting into a grey Mercedes that was parked beside an open door into the purple block. The man was young. He was darkskinned. His hair was neatly rolled over the top of his round head. She knew she had seen him before.

Between the stucco block and a parking garage, there was an low block of apartments. She pushed open the back door. In the hallway: metal doors and plaster walls, a lightbulb hanging on a wire. One of the doors opened and a woman came out and turned. The girl called to her and her voice echoed down the hallway: Xiao Xiao's home! The woman had a black rubber skirt and black tights, long sharp eyes, a spiny Hunan accent, bangs glued across her eyebrows. The woman clicked down the hallway and was gone. Xiao Xiao opened a metal door at the end of the hallway. The door halfopened onto a narrow room with a narrow bed covered in a bamboo mat and white sheets. She had a plastic frame dresser covered in a nylon wrap. There was a poster on the wall of a puffy white cat wreathed with twinkling diamond graphics. A lamp sat on the floor beside the bed and its soft yellow light lit the room from below. She slid her purse under the bed, stepped down out of her shoes and lay down on the bed. She fell asleep and woke again. She took off her leggings and her blouse and panties and wrapped a towel around herself and went down the hallway to the shared bathroom. She went into the shower and hung her bra over the side of the tub. She felt the grease of lotion and shampoo under her feet. She heard the door open and the same spiny Hunan accent: Who's in there?

It's me. Xiao Xiao looked around the shower curtain and saw Li Jie sitting on the toilet. Why aren't you at work?

Nobody there. It's dead, these last couple days. That guy came looking for you again. He definitely wasn't interested in me. I told him that you weren't here. He asked if Caocao was here, then he left. Li Jie sighed and flushed the toilet and left the bathroom. Xiao Xiao got out of the shower and went back down the hallway. She combed her wet hair. She opened the nylon curtain of her dresser. On the top shelf, there was a soap dish with three cherry blossoms drying. The color of the petals had faded to a pale dark rose, concentrated along the edges.

She had picked the blossoms in a parking lot outside a seafood restaurant on Alexandra while waiting for a man named Yeung. She kept the blossoms in her coin purse. His driver parked at the end of the street, in the parking lot of a car wash. They walked down the street. The wind had blown down most of the blossoms on the trees. Her long dress swept the sidewalk clean behind her. In his car, he gave her a Versace wallet with cash in it. He told her it was his birthday and the driver took them to the hotel at the airport. She watched the Delta jets parked below the window. He called the front desk to ask for a cake. She told him she was going downstairs to smoke a cigarette. She left the purse and the money on the bathroom counter. She lit a cigarette and told the Filipino boy at the bell desk to call her a taxi and he waved over a black car from the queue. She went home and put the blossoms in the soap dish in her dresser. The petals were dead and dry. The flowers were turning to pink dust.

She put on a dress with a black skirt and a white top. She walked down the hallway and into the alley and swiped her phone unlocked and found Lao Cai's name and sent him a one word message. Her phone vibrated in her hand. The car came down the alley five or six minutes later and she got into the backseat. The driver did not turn. He raised two fingers in greeting. He looked at her in the rearview mirror and smiled. The car went down the alley slowly and through a parking lot and turned left on Number Three Road. The car went past the mossy million dollar homes and the redevelopment signs and the stinking drainage canals and the walls of blackberry cane and juniper. The city ended. The car entered the low green fields of Steveston.

Lao Cai had a house that looked over the dyke, over an arm of the Fraser, over a grassy island and another arm of the Fraser. There was a gate across the driveway and it opened and the car went up the driveway. She got out and walked across the lawn and Lao Cai met her at the door. There was a narrow foyer, where she slipped off her shoes. She hugged him and kissed him on the neck. She walked looked over his shoulder at pictures of his wife and his son that hung on both sides of the stairwell. The floor was marble. Lao Cai's voice echoed when he asked her if she wanted a drink. He put his hand on her shoulder and slid it down her arm and wrapped his fingers around her wrist and pulled her toward his kitchen. They drank glasses of red wine in the kitchen. Xiao Xiao tried to ask about his wife and his son, winding around toward the topic, asking about his trip to Beijing, trying to remember names and places he had mentioned to her before. Lao Cai left and came back with a piece of white jade and a paper bag. He held the piece of jade for a moment in his palm and rolled it over and examined it. The jade was flat on the back and on the other surface there was a simple carving of a woman with a crown. One of the woman's arms was raised. Lao Cai put the jade in Xiao Xiao's hand. She took it and pressed it against her cheek. He took it from her and put it against her palm and then turned her hand over and seemed to compared it to lightness of her skin, holding it against the top of her hand. He held her hand closer to his face and saw the incense burn. He looked up at her with an expression of concern. He rubbed the jade piece on the welt. He murmured something sweet that she couldn't hear. He looked up at her and his eyes were wet. He seemed about to say something but his face went blank and he told her roughly: Put it in your purse. Don't lose it. Xiao Xiao asked where he had got it. Lao Cai brightened and began talking about a man that Huang Laoshi had introduced him to in Beijing. The man ran an antiques shop and had bought the piece at an auction in Xi'an. He was going to send it to a broker in Hong Kong but was talked into parting with it.

She asked him: Is it old?

He said, patiently: I hope so. It's probably late Tang. Hard to say. Yes, quite old. She tried to turn him back toward the topic of his wife. She asked about the weather in Beijing. He told her about a trip he had taken to Beidaihe. He mentioned names she halfrecognized. She remembered the paper bag and took it from the kitchen counter. From the bag, she took a silk dress of pale violet the color of lotus root. They walked the polished wood stairs up to his bedroom and she took off her black and white dress and slipped the silk dress over her head. He smoothed it down over her hips. His hands felt warm.

She sat on the bed and tried to pull him to sit beside her. She took Lao Cai's hand and kissed his palm. He pressed his hand against Xiao Xiao's face. She lifted his hand to her mouth and sucked his finger. She tasted blood and looked down at his finger. There was blood across the top of his fingernail. Lao Cai thought he had cut her mouth with his finger. Xiao Xiao thought she had bit him. She put his finger back into her mouth and sucked it again. He tried to pull his finger away and she playfully held it firm with her front teeth and then let it go. He wiped his finger on his slacks and moved away from her. He stood in the doorway and then walked downstairs, calling: Come on, come on. We're leaving.

She stood and called after him: I'm coming, and she looked around the bedroom, the white walls tinted softest blue and the blossom white bedspread. The walk-in closet that belonged to Lao Cai was open and his sportcoats and jackets were arranged on two levels by color and weight and a cabinet at the far end held his watches and rings. The other closet-- she tried the handle-- was locked. It belonged to Lao Cai's wife. The room was mostly empty of her things. Completely empty of her things. Scrubbed of her belongings. She visited rarely. Xiao Xiao had kept track and knew that she had only been here once in the last year. It had been a month or two ago. After her visit, she had found a jar of night cream in the bathroom. The next time she went into the bathroom, the jar was gone.

As she went down the stairs, she looked at the pictures hung on both sides of the stairs. These pictures were the only signs that Lao Cai had another life. In the first picture, Lao Cai's wife was seated on a stone bench in a park. It must have been taken in Beijing. The colors were faded, maybe, or it was the film, too yellow and too green, but Lao Cai's wife's face had faded to a beautiful soft gold. He knew Lao Cai's wife had just turned forty four or forty five. Xiao Xiao realized the picture was taken before she was born-- not long before, maybe. Lao Cai's wife had been a folk singer. Xiao Xiao had seen her on TV once. She had seen it on a trip home to Shenyang. Her uncle had played a VCD of an old variety show. In the second picture, Lao Cai's wife sat beside their son. The picture was taken in a studio. Her face had softened but she still looked young. The picture was taken when the boy was about fifteen. He was only a few years younger than her, maybe a year younger. Their son was in boarding school somewhere, she thought, maybe Hong Kong. But maybe he was back in Beijing now, or somewhere else. She had asked Lao Cai directly about his son a few times and he had answered her questions but his mood had darkened. The topic of his son led him to his wife. Lao Cai complained that she had everything given to her in life and if he lost all his money, she'd leave him. The younger version of Lao Cai's wife looked across the stairwell at the older version of Lao Cai's wife. The younger version of Lao Cai's wife could see her future clearly now. But she wouldn't have been able to see it then. She looked innocent and girlish, sitting on the stone bench in a park in Beijing. Xiao Xiao hated Lao Cai's wife but she couldn't feel anything for the young woman in the park except an unfocused sympathy.

She slipped into her shoes and went across the lawn again to the car, where Lao Cai was waiting. The car carried them through the late afternoon commuter traffic. Lao Cai's driver took a detour and they went down a road crowned with plum blossoms. The street was sheltered from the wind by condo blocks and the blossoms were fading to a shampoo pink against the dark grey branches. Lao Cai looked up through the sunroof. Xiao Xiao put her arms around him and leaned into him. The car left the street of plum blossoms and rode alongside a wide drainage canal and a railway line overgrown by juniper. When they reached the main streets of Richmond again, the driver turned the car down an alley and they stopped in a dirt parking lot behind Number Three Road. The parking lot smelled liked cooking grease from the restaurants along the next block. A man in blue rubber boots and an apron smoked a cigarette and walked along the edge of the lot, appraising the parked luxury sedans. He stopped in front of a silver Quattroporte and watched his reflection in the windshield.

She had never seen the restaurant from the back. From the front, it was just as unremarkable, sandwiched between a taikwondo school and a thrift store. As they walked in the back door, she smelled hot fragrant oil and the dank odor of seafood aquariums. The narrow hallway led to a small dining room. The dusty curtains were drawn over the windows. The open sign was not lit. One table in the middle of the room was set. It was a round table with dozen or so chairs and a smoked glass lazy susan. A young man in a suit rushed to Lao Cai's side. The suit was cheap, shiny at the elbows, but carefully pressed and tailored. The high collar of a starched white shirt brushed the waiter's jawline as he spoke in diffident, mincing Cantonese. He had a pocket notebook that he read from. Xiao Xiao understood very little but could read that it was the menu for the banquet. Lao Cai followed him to the back of the dining room, where several bottles of red wine were pulled from a rack and lined up on an unset table. She pulled out a chair from a table near the wall and sat down, idling flicking through Weixin updates with her eyes unfocused. Lao Cai came back to the round table and said: We'll see where Huang Laoshi sits and then... whatever after that. He was talking to himself: Huang Laoshi only drinks Lafite. And-- he turned to the waiter-- he gave a few notes about the menu and the wine and returned to Xiao Xiao: Everyone will be here soon. She walked to the back door and along the side of the building and stood on the corner of Number Three Road and smoked a cigarette, watching the traffic build, kids walking across the lawns of City Hall. She smoked slowly, sucking her cheeks in, letting the smoke out of her mouth drift up toward the street lights. She went back in the front door and saw that the guests were arriving. There was a man named Guan, who was Lao Cai's friend when they were in the army together, and a girl named after a flower but she forgot which one-- Lansomething or Somethinglan? The girl stood in the back doorway and greeted another girl and another man. The girls were both wearing short beige dresses. Both of the men with them wore brown sportcoats and grey slacks. Huang Laoshi entered alone. He looked tired. His grey suit was wrinkled. Lao Cai led him to his seat and sat beside him. Xiao Xiao sat beside them.

Lao Cai motioned for the waiter to bring the bottle of wine. The waiter poured a glass for each of them and returned to the table with another bottle of filled the glasses of the other guests. Another waiter brought a tureen of soup and small dishes of cucumber and jellyfish salad, a plate of chilled prawns, a terrine of pork hock in gelatin. The table slowly came alive with chatter and the clatter of porcelain on glass. Lao Cai talked quietly with Huang Laoshi and Xiao Xiao sat silently and did not eat. The man to her right put a prawn on her plate and she smiled at him. He introduced himself as Guo Baoguo. Xiao Xiao recognized the woman seated to his right.

Caocao was the woman that had introduced Xiao Xiao to Lao Cai. She ran a company called Maple Bridge Immigration Consulting that had an office on Number Six Road. She had given Xiao Xiao her first job. She knew the city well. She knew all of the men at the table. She had grown up in Guangzhou and her father had sent her to Hong Kong and then Singapore and then Canada and she had stayed here. She made arrangements for the girls that worked at the nameless purple building beside Xiao Xiao's apartment block. Xiao Xiao had not seen Caocao in a couple months. The last time had been after a text message inviting her for coffee at a private club in Steveston. Caocao had explained to her, winding her way toward the topic over an hour, that Lao Cai's wife would be in Vancouver and that she would visit for a week before going to visit a friend in the United States. She had lied to Caocao and told her that she thought she was pregnant, but Caocao quickly changed the topic and then told her that any message for Lao Cai could be passed through her, if it was very urgent. She wrote a letter to Lao Cai and told him that she would always be loyal to him. She wrote in the letter that her doctor had told her that she may have cancer. She might only have a limited time but she wanted to be with him. She took the bus to Caocao's office and gave the letter to her. After the week, she received another text from Caocao, letting her know that Lao Cai's wife was gone. She called him and he sent his driver for her. She did not ask Lao Cai if he received the letter.

Caocao was older than Guo Baoguo, Xiao Xiao thought, maybe twenty years his senior. Guo Baoguo seemed boyish in this room of brown sportcoats and arguments over real estate. He was the same age as the girls at the table. His jacket had been slipped over the back of the chair and he was wearing a tan vest and a pale blue shirt. Caocao ran her hand over his back and peeked behind him at Xiao Xiao. She said: I see Lao Cai is treating you well. She laughed and Lao Cai looked back at Xiao Xiao and Caocao. He's treating you well. Caocao looked down at the silk dress and raised her eyebrows. Caocao turned back to the table and ripped the back off a prawn, bit the meat away from its underside and laughed again to herself. Caocao rubbed Guo Baoguo's thigh: She's a good girl. I can always tell. I can tell quality.

Guo Baoguo turned to Xiao Xiao and smiled and looked at her carefully. He asked her: How often do you go to the temple?

The temple?

The temple. In Steveston.

I'm busy. I never have time. She leaned against Lao Cai, who was talking to Huang Laoshi. She knew that Huang Laoshi, like most of the men here, had known Lao Cai when he was in the army, but he was something more. He had been the first to leave the army and the first to go into business. He had brought Lao Cai from Beijing and had set him up with a job running his operations in Shenzhen. Later, he had personally staked Lao Cai when he set up his own export business. Huang Laoshi rarely left the Mainland now, except on short trips. In the three years since Xiao Xiao had known Lao Cai, she had only met Huang Laoshi a handful of times. She knew nothing about him but she had things and had noticed his name mentioned sometimes in the pamphlets that the Falun Gong women handed out in front of the Public Market. She did not know what this meant. She knew him only as a bald, boring man that distracted Lao Cai and stole time away from him that he could have been spending with her.

How did you burn your hand? Guo Baoguo reached out to touch her hand and she moved it away and then put it on the table and splayed her fingers. Guo Baoguo took her hand and squeezed her fingers. He held her hand up. I saw you at the temple this morning. I go there most mornings. I like to walk there. I don't usually burn incense.

Oh. She looked across him at Caocao, who was talking to someone across the table. Caocao laughed and showed her teeth. Xiao Xiao blushed. She respected the way Caocao could make connections, build a conversation with people she didn't know well. She looked back at Guo Baoguo. She looked into his eyes, which were a light brown that were beautiful and made him seem, she thought, sickly or.... I go there sometimes. I go there if something is troubling me, maybe, or for other reasons.

Lao Cai called the waiter over and the waiter returned with a tall bottle of baijiu. The soup and the cold dishes were removed. The table was reset with a whole steamed carp, a plate of roasted quail, bright green stirfied spinach with dried shrimp, a plate of crab with sticky rice dumplings. The wine glasses were removed and a second bottle of baijiu was emptied into tiny glasses. Lao Cai cleared his throat and toasted the guests. He drained his glass. The waiter poured refills over the shoulders of the guests. Lao Cai called for another toast, to Huang Laoshi. Xiao Xiao did not drink but raised the glass to her lips. Lao Cai turned to her and she saw his face was red and his eyes were wet. He set his chopsticks on his plate and put his hand on her back and then withdrew it. He picked up his chopsticks and reached across the table and tore at a roasted quail. Caocao reached across and held the quail steady with her own chopsticks and Lao Cai scraped off a lump of breast meat. He held it over her plate but his hands were unsteady and it fell into her tea cup. He went back to the quail and Caocao held it again and he tore off another piece of breast meat and set it on her plate. He put his hand on her back again and then stood and looked down at her. He lifted his glass and the table fell silent. He said: If this is my last meal as a free man... if this is our last meal together.... The guests raised their glasses. He trailed off and reached down to tap his glass on the lazy susan: Drink up. He drained his glass and set it on its side on the table. He put his hand on Xiao Xiao's back again, but slowly turned back to Huang Laoshi. She saw Caocao glancing at her. She gently pushed her chair back and rose and tapped Lao Cai on the shoulder. He did not turn. She went out the back door and lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall. Caocao followed her and took a cigarette out of a pewter case. A jet flew low overhead.

Did he tell you? Caocao moved away from the wall and walked out into the parking lot. I guess not. I hoped he would tell you instead of waiting until the last moment like this. Lao Cai will be returning to Beijing. It looks like he won't be able to come back. I won't explain it. He can explain it to you, if he likes. I expect he won't. This Huang Laoshi situation has gotten very complicated. Xiao Xiao's face was pale and blank. She looked in through the back door at Lao Cai, who was still talking to Huang Laoshi. Xiao Xiao knew that Caocao was not lying and was not being cruel. You saw Baoguo at the temple this morning?

No. No. She moved toward the door and dropped her cigarette. I'll go with him. I'll go with him to Beijing.

There's no use now. You can't go there. You can't stop him. Be a good girl. Caocao put her hand on Xiao Xiao's arm. I know you love him but you have to be reasonable.

I'll go to Beijing. I'll go to Beijing, too.

He doesn't need you there. It wouldn't be safe for you. It's not even his choice now, to leave. Nothing is his choice now. He can explain it to you. You won't understand. It's not safe for you there. He knows it's not safe, so he didn't want to tell you. You can't go with him. I can find someone else for you. You know Guo Baoguo.... Xiao Xiao turned from the door and walked up the alley. The apartment block was close. She crossed a parking lot. The sky was turning dark. She looked back and saw that Caocao had followed her to the end of the alley but had not crossed the parking lot. She stopped for a moment and the two women looked at each other. Xiao Xiao went along the side of the parking lot and back into the alley and the apartment block was there and she went inside. She opened the door and went down the hallway to her small room. She took off the dress and put on red leggings, a short denim dress, and a cream vinyl jacket. She put took her clothes from the plastic dresser and put them in a rolling suitcase she kept tucked under her bed. She placed the blossoms on top of her clothes and closed the lid of the case. She put the key to the room on her bed and went out with the door open behind her. She went down the hallway and into the alley. She walked toward Richmond Centre, through the alley, and she saw him waiting for her at the end of the alley. He had his jacket on now and he was standing beside a grey Mercedes. Guo Baoguo walked across the parking lot and met her and tried to reach behind her to take the suitcase's handle. His hand met her hand and scraped across the incense burn. She whimpered and he tried to put his arm around her but she moved away from him. She walked away and he jogged along beside her. You can't go now. I just met you. Xiao Xiao stopped and looked at him. He smiled and tried to reach for the suitcase again. Cao Jie told me about what happened. I want you to know that I can look after you. Anything you need right now, I can give it to you.

Why?

I'm from the North, too. We're almost from the same hometown. I tried to meet you at the temple. Caocao said you would be there. I went to your room after. Caocao said you were staying there. Xiao Xiao walked away from him and across the parking lot. She didn't look back. She walked around the corner and took the escalator up to the SkyTrain platform. She watched watched Number Three Road below her. She looked at the grey floor of the train. She got off the train at the casino and transferred to the train that went to the airport. She walked through the cathedral terminals, past the food court with its shuttered shops and Filipina girls drinking Starbucks, and her suitcase rolled silently across the carpet. She went to the Air China counter and gave them her passport and told them she wanted to fly to Beijing. The girl at the counter wore a red jacket that rose low on her neck to show a high white collar. She examined Xiao Xiao's passport and printed out a ticket for a flight to Beijing, leaving in three hours. She had her suitcase weighed and slid it through the counter to the girl in the red uniform.

Xiao Xiao walked through the terminal. She walked along the front of the terminal and smoked a cigarette and then left the pack on a bench. She crossed at a crosswalk and a line of black town cars stopped for her. A man in an orange vest waved her across. There was a park below the parkade. Three totem poles rose against the concrete wall. There was a pond fed by a waterfall coming down mossy boulders. She took the white jade carving out of her purse. She realized now that it was a parting gift. Maybe he meant it as insurance. She wondered idly how much it was worth. She held it in her palm. She touched it to the burn on her right hand. She held it over the pond and thought about dropping it. She thought about the sound it would make. She wondered who would find it, if she dropped it there. She put the piece of jade back into her purse.

21.4.15

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Richmond, British Columbia
April, 2015





Walking along Steveston Highway because we got off the 403 a stop early. I had my Olympus with me and took pictures of the bamboo waving in a backyard and a development sign in the front yard of a house and a tree with blossoms on it. Even a stop early, we could smell the incense from the temple.

14.4.15

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Richmond, British Columbia
April, 2015



1.4.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
December, 2014





26.3.15

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Guangzhou, Guangdong
April, 2013




After a while, they left and she told me seriously to walk Menghui home and we walked from the Westin to Gangding and the computer superstore towers and the men waiting on the sidewalk with bundles of electronics, loading them into the trunks of grey Kias, and north past the last part of real Tianhe and the yellow and green tiled sidewalks and past the schoolyards and dormitories and east down Hanjing Lu with the Guangyuan Expressway thundering thirty feet overhead. There was a beer garden that was closed and there were plastic pools inside with fish splashing in them. There were small fields below the street and irrigation ponds. There was the sound of frogs croaking. We went up the stairs that were lit by the cellphones and cigarettes of girls in pyjamas. We went into her room and the door scraped across the floor and the room was empty, a bed and a mosquito net and a plastic and polyester dresser for her clothes. She brought me an empty jar to use as an ashtray and I lit a cigarette. She made me leave the room and she changed her clothes and put on a T-shirt and shorts. I flicked the cigarette down the hallway. I could see her nipples through her T-shirt and the hair under her arms and the poke of her hipbones and the V of ribcage below her flat chest.

She was from Maoming but spoke Mandarin with no accent. She did the morning announcements when she was in school and she was studying broadcasting but wanted to major in Chinese. She understood Hunan accents because most of the girls she lived with were from Hunan. Fifi moved to Guangzhou at the same time as her and worked as a receptionist at a factory and then at a clothing wholesaler near the train station and then at an English school, even though she spoke no English.

We sat on her bed and she asked, Aren't you more interested in Fifi? I think she's more your type. We kissed and I pulled on her pubic hair through her shorts. The next day she came with Fifi to my apartment, which was cold and humid and smelled like airconditioned cigarette smoke. Fifi left and Menghui stayed. We sat on the polished plastic granite windowsill, below the airconditioner. I asked about her boyfriend. She told me that what we were doing was normal. She said that Fifi came to Guangzhou her boyfriend was working in Changchun and she met a man here that ran a factory and he rented an apartment for her and gave her a job as a receptionist.

I worked at night and usually walked to see her in the early afternoon. The last time I went to see her, I called and she didn't answer but I walked north from Shipaiqiao anyways. I reached the apartment block and walked through the dusty courtyard and then left and walked back under the Guangyuan Expressway. There were taxis parked along Hanjing. The Expressway blocked out the sun and the road was trafficless. At the university, I took the Metro north instead of south, got off at the bus terminal and, lost, walked north instead of south. I knew I was lost but I had nowhere to go and only stopped and turned south when I was in the green hilly suburbs and stretches of reclaimed village turned into government bureau land. Nobody noticed me. I walked south with the glass towers of Tianhe as my guide, past the Guangzhou Christian Cemetery, and picked up my regular route back, up Tianhe Lu and the underground trace of Line 3 from the university station to Gangding to Shipaiqiao to Tiyu Xi Lu. A tricycle loaded with pineapple preskinned and carved, apples wrapped in styrofoam nets. A busker standing on his head, playing guitar. I bought a pack of Salem Menthol and a Diet Coke with Lemon at the Circle K, a pork cutlet sandwich at Queen's Bakery and walked through the dark ravine between the two towers of the Yangcheng Center, where men were hosing down the tiles. I heard my phone dinging a Weixin message from Fifi. I sat on a cement bench and took my phone out. I told Fifi I'd wait for her. I watched the trash sorters on Huayang working along the leafy walls and iron fences and ate my lunch.

When Fifi got off work, she came downstairs and I met her in front of the glass doors leading to the Ping An ATMs at the bottom of the building. I gave her half of my sandwich and she ate it and showed me a picture of herself on her phone. She was standing topless in her messy apartment bathroom. I saw the tiny washing machine standing in the corner, below the water heater, a row of shampoos and lotions, an empty and open Yonex bag, Her left arm was across her ribs, holding up her breasts. Her right leg was crossed over her left leg. The steam on the camera lens made her skin look like buttercream icing. We walked toward the Metro station. A man in a sweated out shirt was handing out fliers for Wall Street English at the Metro entrance.

I remembered the smell of the city after I left and that smell was the strongest on that corner: humid exhaust, sticky sweet garbage cans and airconditioned snackstalls, bodies huddled on the street corner waiting for the light to turn, cigarette smoke.

I shook a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. Fifi made a face and stepped a few steps to the left. I told her, Go down and I'll be right there. I waited until she disappeared into the Metro entrance and walked past the entrance, crossed at the intersection and kept walking. My phone dinged. I walked south along Xiancun Road, treeshaded sidewalks and a wide roads, a neighborhood of luxury condos and hotels, the Ritz and W, science-fiction architecture and the peeling facades of 1990s boom. My phone vibrated in my pockets. I caught the Metro a few blocks down, transferred to Line 3 and rode to Panyu.

I took a mototaxi from Xiajiao, weaving the speed bumps on the wide roads around the wholesale markets. VIP Hotelex Wholesale Market had a red banner welcoming buyers to the Canton Fair. On the way home, I made eye contact with a girl riding another mototaxi. She was wearing a dress that looked like Wedgewood. She looked at me for a long time and my mototaxi driver sped up to run alongside her mototaxi. He shouted something at her in Cantonese that sounded like a joke. She smiled and tilted her head. When I got home, I climbed slowly to the sixth floor, stopping on every landing, wrung out from the heat. From the unglassed landing window, I could see the green fields along the river. Each flight of stairs, gave me a better view, until I could see over the fields and over the river to the opposite shore and I could read the six story high signs stuck to the sides of the towers still under construction. I climbed the final flight, unlocked the door, went into my bedroom and felt the sweat chilling on my ribs. I sat on the cold windowsill and looked across the way at the wideopen windows of the building across the way. An old man was sitting in a recliner, watching TV. A woman in pyjamas was hanging clothes to dry on a balcony. I lit a cigarette and ashed it on the floor and checked my phone. I swiped away the messages from Fifi. I sent a message to Menghui. She sent me a message that said, I'm in Maoming.

19.3.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
March, 2015

On the way home, I stopped at a supermarket on 97th Street. I lingered at the butcher counter and listened to the butcher's conversations with his customers. A man asked the butcher where he was from. He said, Fujian. The customer repeated, Fujian. An old woman asked to see a section of a side of pork. The butcher held it over the counter for her to see the fat and bones in it. She reached out to touch it and he pulled it away. He said, You can't touch it until you buy it. I bought half a chicken and asked the butcher to cut it up for me. I bought mushrooms and green onions. The cashier was beautiful: puffy upper lip painted red, tanned cheekbones, big lazy long eyes. She was wearing a badge that read: I speak Mandarin. I drove home. The snow had melted. The city was brown. The wind was strong. The sand that had been spread on the streets all winter was blowing. I cut down Hermitage and saw the upgrader plants' steamstacks' clouds blown into mist over the northside. I drove home home and fried the chicken in butter with onions and made a milky stew with pearls of chicken fat and butter floating on top. I soaked dried shiitake and added the dusty juice to the stew. I boiled the stew until the chicken skin melted into the soup. I cut the muddy bottoms off shimeji and oyster mushrooms and set them on top. I chopped up a bundle of green onions and set them on top. Haru and I ate dinner on the floor of our bedroom. We spooned rich yellow soup over bowls of noodles. Out the window, the dust turned the sunset to a heat lamp red haze.

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When the fire alarm went off, we got dressed and went down to the parking lot. The lights were flashing in the windows in a steady rhythm. Flash, flash, flash flash flash, flash, flash across each floor. A man in barefeet walked carefully across the parking lot toward us. His feet were coated in gravel and sand. He said, They're saying someone pulled the alarm. Haru and I stood beside my car and the sun had gone down but it was still bright, no redness in the sky, somewhere between sunset and night. Over the apartment block that had been built last year, blocking the view of the North Saskatchewan River, there was a curtain of maybe steam. I looked at it more closely. It was green. I told Haru that it was the northern lights. We heard the sirens of the firetrucks coming up the hill. We drove to Mac's and bought a pack of cigarettes. We drove home.

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I always wanted to show Haru the northern lights. We'd driven north of Jasper once on a dirt road and had almost seen them but decided we were just seeing clouds. We'd driven east of Edmonton once, toward Elk Island on the Yellowhead. The sky was overcast. The sky was clear now, though, and when the night was full, we got in the car and drove east of the city again. The last strip malls and power centers and truckstops faded behind us. The edge of the city was under construction. There were no lanes on the highway. There were halfbuilt flyovers and railbridges. We turned north onto Highway 830. The road was dark. There were trees up to the ditches. I had driven down here in daylight before. I knew there were big houses along here--stucco mansions with stables attached, manmade lakes stocked with trout--but it felt wild and abandoned in the darkness. We passed through a village called Josephburg. Before Highway 15, we pulled onto a dirt road and drove toward Elk Island. We stopped when the road met a high fence. We got out of the car and I lit a cigarette and we stood in the darkness. The city was still on the horizon, a long yellow blaze. But the darkness was almost complete. The moon was dark. The sky was dark and deep. We were too late to see the northern lights. We leaned against the dusty trunk of the car and stared up. We picked out constellations.

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I sat on the bathroom floor and read disconnected sentences from Nafai Kafu's "A Strange Tale from East of the River." When I went back into the bedroom to sleep beside Haru, when I laid down and closed my eyes, I saw the stars behind my eyelids. Haru murmured to herself, I'm cold, and wrapped her legs around mine,

18.2.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
February, 2015


The temperature dropped twenty degrees in a day. The ice fog from the river met the steam from the upgraders beside the Henday. North Edmonton landscape of gravel lots and apartment complexes in brown and tan or grey and a flyover view of a parking lot and Cineplex, Lowe's, Cabela's, a girl in a McDonald's uniform under flapping open parka crossing at the bottom pulling her cap off and stuffing it into her purse, and the few remnants of what used to be here, a smokestack tower from one of the packing plants beside Belvedere, and the Transit, and the Drake, the cenotaph on 118th hidden in twiggy bushes and snow. Called Samir from the Wal-Mart parking lot, looking out over 118th Avenue, and tried to explain again why I went the other direction, why I flew to Vancouver instead of Hong Kong and took the Greyhound to Edmonton instead of walking across the border to Guangzhou and taking the train to Xi'an with him. I remembered sitting on a detention center floor with him, army surplus parkas on the tiles, spread in the dustfree island we scraped away with hot, dirty rags. He told me about getting paid by men who picked him up in Lexus trucks to fuck him in hotel rooms, smoking meth, how he had both situations under control. I thought about the conversation we had on the ripped up vinyl couch in our empty apartment about: self-control. On Fridays, he would pray and then remain silent on the taxiride to the mosque and I would pace outside and listen to the ahong's calls for balancing Islamic education with the demands of the secular world and everything in this world would return to dust-- and a cloud of dust from the demolition of the old city was picked up by the wind and there was the sound of stones tinking against the windows of the mosque-- and the exclamations of duositimen! at sentence beginning and end, frantic pigeons rustling up into the eaves, kids walking down the back alley, tourists with yellow umbrellas gabbling, gathering at the gates to watch. I asked him if he went to Friday prayers and he said he didn't. He asked if I'd written anything and I told him that I couldn't because, I don't know, the entire city is empty and I'm not, whatever, thinking about anything. I spit into a Diet Coke with Lime can. I drove out of the parking lot and picked up Haru at the train station and we ate halfprice wings at Boston Pizza and snuck out the side door to smoke from her rarely touched pack of Accord Menthols. We parked beside the edge of the river valley and watched the river steaming hundred feet up to the Beverly Bridge, wrapping a freight train in smoke as it hit the mound on the west shore, as it hit the wooden bridge over Victoria Trail and entered the city.

12.2.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
February, 2015

I took pictures of the stained glass windows at Belvedere Station. In the landing at the bottom of the stairwell, a man slept on a bench. The cold air kept the smell of urine and smoke fresh and crisp. On the platform, two transit cops hassled a kid with dyed black hair and a denim bathrobe and a pentagram medallion. He tried walking past them and they stepped in front of him again. After a while, he pulled out a nylon wallet and ripped it open and showed them his transit pass. The kid with the pentagram tried to push past the transit cops again. They moved to block his way. Three girls stood at the bottom of the escalator, watching the encounter. The girls were wearing black parkas and black leggings and black boots. One of the girls said: They can't find any natives to fuck with. One of them stood close enough to the automatic doors to slide them open and filmed the backs of the transit cops with her phone. One of the transit cops heard the door slide open and began walking toward the landing. The girl filmed the transit cop coming toward her. He stood in the doorway and the automatic doors clicked rhythmically half open shut half open shut half open shut. The girl stepped back and continued filming him with her phone. She looked at me and said: You should take a picture of that, and pointed at him. She had a wide, calm face, with plucked surprised eyebrows and grease around her orange lipsticked lips. I put my camera up to my eyebrow and took a picture without focusing. A northbound train pulled into the station and the platform filled. The transit cop and the kid with the pentagram led the crowd. Both transit cops and the kid with the pentagram walked onto the escalator. The crowd followed them, riding the escalator under the stained glass. I walked out and stood under one of the heaters hanging from a rail above the platform. At the end of the platform, Century Casino rose over the low homes of the north side. Another southbound train came into the station. The doors clacked open. Haru had a pink scarf on. She was wearing her red vinyl skirt. We rode the escalator up to the pedway bridge and rode the escalator down to the parking lot.

On 50th Street, I was mesmerized by the hatched grey snow strip down the center of the lane lit by snow sky, the lights of the city reflecting back down in incandescent bulb yellow. Below the underpass, there was no snow. I listened to the traffic report.

5.2.15

4.2.15

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Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
April, 2013

This is a story I wrote for or about a friend. He lived in Moose Jaw and lived in Shenyang before that. He worked at a slaughterhouse, where I also worked, very briefly, following the first time I left university. He hated working there. His hands were destroyed by his work. His back was ruined. He was in constant pain. On weekends, Xinran and I would eat dinner at his home. He lived with his wife. They lived above the National Cafe for a while. The building was close to a hundred years old. He used to be a chef in Shenyang and sometimes worked outside of the city. The National Cafe was run by the same Chinese clan that owned several restaurants and businesses in town. They had been in the city since the late-1800s. They were all from Kaiping. My friend had no connection to them and thought they were arrogant. He could not speak English. He got into an argument at the slaughterhouse and stabbed one of his co-workers. He stabbed him because he ran out of things to say. The charges were dropped. The man he stabbed was an immigrant from West Africa. The slaughterhouse was eventually shut down. The company locked the union out and then went bankrupt. He got a job at a pork packing plant. It was cold inside. His body broke down.

We moved to Regina and then we moved to Vancouver and then I moved to Dalian and Xinran went to Guizhou. When we saw him again, he had stopped speaking to his wife. He had bought a house with his wife. He lived in the living room. He went to the casino every night. I went with him a few times and he would forget I was there and I would walk home down Athabasca. He would realize I was gone when his money was gone.

I wrote this story in one of the study carrels at the Moose Jaw Public Library. I submitted it somewhere and got a letter asking me to rework some part of it but I'd lost interest and never bothered. I lost the story and rewrote it in a notebook and lost the notebook when I stepped out for a cigarette on the station platform in Zhangjiakou on my way to Datong and rewrote it again. The first time I wrote it was the best.

This is the story:

That afternoon, he had gotten off early and driven home and began working in the kitchen. Yu Wen would not be home for a few hours. 

He rolled a pork shoulder from its pink Styrofoam tray, unstuck the blood pad from the meat, twisted up the wet plastic wrap and laid it on top of the vegetable trimmings in the garbage can. He thawed mackerel in the sink in a metal tray, letting lukewarm water trickle over the fish. He took a pork stomach out of the fridge. It was in a metal bowl. It was almost thawed and there were ice crystals inside of it. He spread salt over it and washed it with the same trickle of lukewarm water. He turned on the front left burner of the stove. The burner made a clicking sound as it heated under the weight of a pot. He blanched the pork stomach. He turned on another burner and set a tall stainless steamer on it. He put the pork shoulder into it and put the lid on it. He moved restlessly around the house. He turned down the heat on the steamer and locked the door and went out. 

He walked to the liquor board store at the end of Main Street. He bought a six-pack of Kokanee and walked home. He took a detour up Main Street. He stopped in front of a window of a storefront rented by an evangelical church. The church had created a display of large photographs of aborted fetuses. When he arrived on his block, he stopped in front of his home. The house was grey. He went inside and drank a beer. 

He put another pan on the stove and poured canola oil into it from a jug. He fried ginger and cloves of garlic and added peppercorn and cassia and anise. He dried the mackerel on a yellow disch cloth and laid it into the pan and shook a spray of sweet soy sauce over it. He sliced the pork stomach into shreds and put it back into the metal bowl. He poured sesame oil and chili oil and mustard oil and black vinegar over it. He added dark soy sauce to the pan of mackerel and put the a lid on the pan. The lid was too big and steam collected against its ceiling and dropped down onto the electric burner with white noise hisses. He chopped cilantro and added it to the bowl of pork stomach with a sprinkle of sugar and a sprinkle of white pepper. He went to his front step and sat on the cold concrete and smoked a menthol Accord and finished another can of beer. He went back into the house, through the living room with its pitted and worn hardwood floor. He lifted the lid on the pan of mackerel. He turned off the heat and lifted the mackerel out with the fingers of his left hand and the chopsticks in his right hand. He put the mackerel on a dish. He picked the points of anise and the sticks of cassia out of the dark soy sauce and poured the sauce over the fish. The mackerel was delicate and the dark soy pouring over it peeled away black skin and revealed white flesh. He went back outside and sat on the concrete step and smoked another cigarette. He drank another beer. He watched the men at the garage across the street loading an old truck onto a flatbed trailer. He went back into the kitchen and lifted the lid from the steamer and let the steam hit his face. He inhaled. He lifted the pork out of the steamer and laid it down into the broth that had steamed and dripped and steamed and dripped over the pork. He added a splash of soy sauce. He put the pork shoulder into a white casserole dish and poured the soup over it. Clouds of fat and gelatin floated in the broth. He set two metal bowls on the table. He laid chopsticks across -- 

-- the parking lot, a dusty wind blew up from the railyards. It was late summer. It was a cold morning. The letters on the aluminum sign over the door--HOCHELEGA PACKERS--had starbursts of frost on them. In the plywood gazebo beside the door to the line, a few men spit between their teeth into Styrofoam cups; a few men stood around an oil drum ashtray, smoking and shivering in white hard hats, ear plugs draped over their shoulders. 

He looked for Guo Sun. He cleaned his boots in the tray of disinfectant and went in. He took his long white jacket from his locker. He put on his boots. He walked toward the stairs down to the line and he saw her in the locker room doorway. She was pulling on her boots. She had a slit up the back of her rubber boots and two callused spots on their sides where her fingers had pinched and pulled them up over her calves. Her forearms were strong from folding sides of ribs and holding onto a knife handle through two layers of rubber and cotton gloves. He stood behind Guo Sun until she turned around. She smiled at him. Her lips were sticked pale pink. Her eyes were single pulls of a brushstroke. As she looked away, he smelled her scent for a moment over the background smells of disinfectant and boots and blood; she smelled like milk candy in a warm mouth. She walked downstairs without waiting for him. He watched -- 

-- the race between distance and the setting sun to rub out the last pearls of shorelight. He leaned on the railing and felt the diesel engine stutter as the ferry passed between two towers of grey stone. Grey gulls tipped from their path above the ship and flew toward the islands. He lost sight of them in the dusk.

He shook a cigarette out of a pack of Hongtashan. He cupped his hand against the wind and lit it. He reached back to tug his jacket collar over the back of his neck. Across the water, the bobbing lights of a container ship shone flat against the horizon. He walked down the side of the ship, his feet echoing rubbery and cold on the deck, past the open door of the first class kitchen. He stood for a moment in the heat and light of the doorway. A young man was working in the kitchen, brushing a steel pan with a brush. He watched the man's back. A push of breeze knocked a paper cup off the counter behind him and the man turned and saw him. He nodded at the man. He turned and walked back to the main observation deck, weaving among the people filing down to the cabins below. He stood for a moment at the railing and then joined procession down the steel stairs to the third class seating. He heard the messy sound of the space belowdecks and he felt the heat --

-- in the kitchen and the sweat trickling down the sides of his ribcage. He did not know where she was. He stood in front of the kitchen table. He picked a piece of mackerel skin off the fish and ate it. He sat on the couch in the living room. There was a picture on the wall across from the couch. It had been taken in Shenyang, at Beiling Park. The picture was taken after they were married. They were posed in front of a bed of marigolds. He was leaning against Yu Wen and she was leaning into him. Her shoulders were under his arm. Her face was round and she was smiling with her mouth slightly open. Her hair was styled plainly, straight on the sides, with bangs curled over her forehead. Her face was thickly powdered and she had two circles of red over her cheekbones. Her eyebrows were plucked and she had two greenish-purple brows tattooed over her eyes. After the picture was taken, their two families ate a meal together in a restaurant downtown and they spent the night at a hotel. A year later, his parents bought him an apartment in Shenyang. A year after that, Yu Wen got pregnant and had a miscarriage. A year after that, he went to work with a classmate in Xuzhou at the Haofulou Hotel. A year after that, he went back to Shenyang. A year after that, Yu Wen's friend Sha Sha moved to Canada and Yu Wen asked if they could go, too. A year after that, they boarded the plane and landed in Vancouver and then Regina and then took a Greyhound down the Trans-Canada. Sha Sha worked at a restaurant and they worked there, too. He worked in the kitchen and Yu Wen worked in the dining room. After a year, he went to the pork plant and Yu Wen had the money to go to the Beauty College. He looked at the couple in the picture. He looked at the marigolds. He stood and walked --   

-- down the rows of plastic seats, breathed in and breathed out blue cigarette mist. He bought a pack of Zhongnanhai and a paper box of rice and beef. He had a ticket with his seat number stamped on it but, when he went to the seat, he found it occupied by a man sleeping under a blanket of newspaper. The seats beside his were taken by a woman and her children. The woman looked up at him. Her face was tanned dark. Her shirt was rolled up over her flat breasts. She was feeding a toddler. The child had raw bald patches on his head. In the seat beside her, another boy cradled a dead sparrow in his hands. The sparrow was tied to his wrist with a string. On the floor in front of the sleeping man, a piece of newspaper had fallen to the floor. He took the paper and laid it on the floor in a corner. He sat on it and rested his head against the wall. The vibration of the diesel engines rumbled through him. Two men came and laid newspaper on the floor. He passed them cigarettes. They were brothers. They were headed home to Dandong for the winter. They had spent the summer and the fall digging irrigation ditches in towns and villages outside of Nanjing. Their hair was cut short and their scalps shone through it. They told him that it took them a week to walk from Nanjing to Yantai. They slipped their feet out of green khaki shoes and curled their toes on the newspaper. He ate his rice and they watched him. They traded stories about working in the city. He showed them his hands, which were permanently tanned from the flames of hotel kitchen stoves, speckled with shiny oil burns. He looked back down -- 

-- the edge-of-city stretch of Athabasca Street, where the city stripped down to stucco blocks and concrete lots. He pulled into the parking lot of a car wash. On the hill across the street, there was a cemetary and a trailer park. There was a puddle of brown water in the bowed curve of the car wash roof. The bays of the car wash were open and empty and someone had dragged a card table and a couple of chairs into one of them. He parked his van beside Guo Sun's yellow Sunfire. She opened her door and got out and they walked into the back room of the car wash through a door mounted with a sign painted on a hubcap that read Larry's Lunch. 

He poured two cups of a coffee from a carafe near the flat top grill. They sat at a booth beside a window. He sat across from her. She reached across the table and touched his arm.

He said: Who else am I going to talk to? She always says that if we were still in Shenyang, she'd leave me. He looked down at Guo Sun's neck while he spoke. He said: She told me that the last time she went home, her mother told her that there were plenty of men asking about her. He leaned across the table. I try talking to her but she won't talk about anything. She doesn't want to talk about anything. I've tried talking to her. She won't talk. I just can't take it. She won't talk to me. Guo Sun lit a cigarette and he pushed the ashtray toward her. He said: I don't even care if she wants to say the worst things about me that she can think to say. But to not even talk to me?

He looked out the window. The parking lot was mud. He heard the trains running down the valley, the squeal of wheels on track and the diesel drone --

-- kept him awake while the two brothers fell asleep curled together on the floor, heads pillowed on arms. He rested his head against the wall and stretched out on the floor. He tried to make his thoughts as clean as the diesel rumble and as steady as the push and pull of the brothers' breathing. He opened his eyes and saw the boy with the sparrow tied around his wrist. He was walking down the aisles of plastic seats. The sparrow trailed behind him. The sparrow's wings opened as it was dragged. The sparrow's wings swept across the dusty floor.

He put his jacket on and climbed the steel stairs back up to the main deck. The air was cold. He laid on a plastic bench, where the diesel exhaust from the stacks fell and warmed him. He took his pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, shook one out --

-- and lit it and walked through the house. He went into his bedroom and ran his hand through the sheets on his bed, looking for the cordless phone. His bedroom was on the frontier of the living room, divided from it with a wall of Plywood and an ironing board hung with towels and rags. His bed was a mattress on the floor. He went to Yu Wen's bedroom. It smelled like lotion and shampoo. He found the cordless phone on her bed. He dialed Yu Wen's phone. He listened to it ring. She didn't answer.   

He sat on her bed and thought about the last time he slept there. He thought about the way his hands looked when he placed them against her pale inner thigh, how his fingers looked when he brushed back her pubic hair. His hands were disgusting to him. They were cracked and peeling from holding a wet knife handle, scarred by oil burns and slips of his knife. His knuckles under the brown skin of his fingers were pearls of bone set in twisted tendon. His fingernails were broken and yellow. The last time they had slept in the same bed, he smelled his own smell of sweat and refrigeration and disinfectant as it was smeared across her body, ruining her soft odors of hairspray and talcum and instant coffee.

He took off his clothes and left them on the floor of her bedroom. He got into the shower. He ran his hands down his stomach. He picked a piece of fat out of his hair. The fat had turned translucent in the hot water. He threw it into the drain. He pulled his penis by the head and then pulled down on it, trying to coax an erection out of it. He gave up and turned off the water. He went to his bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist and felt the muscles in his back tingle and uncoil as he lay down. He pulled the final can of Kokanee out of its ring, cracked it, and lit a cigarette. He took a long pull on his beer and burped a squiggle of smoke.

When he got dressed, Huang Ge was already waiting outside in his Robitussin red Regal. He locked the door behind him and went out and got in. He sank into the dusty velour and reached over to pull out the ashtray. Huang Ge asked him about Yu Wen. The last time Huang Ge came to their house, he had brought her a dried fish and she had smiled and asked him how to cook it. When he left, she fell into bitter silence. She tossed the fish onto the counter. She told him that Huang Ge was laughing at her, insulting her by bringing her a dried fish. He hadn't told Huang Ge about this. He leaned back and stretched out his legs --

 -- on the bench and turned his head, so that the exhaust from the stacks above him fell on his cheek. A man and a woman were standing beside the railing on the deck. The woman was wearing a red dress. She wore the man's jacket over her shoulders. She was younger than the man and taller but her legs were short and thick. He danced with her and pushed her up against the railing. He tapped his pointed leather shoes around her red slippers. The man put his hands under the skirt of her dress and reached up inside of it. The dress made a flapping sound in the wind.

He rolled to his shoulder to watch them and and two coins fell from his pocket and slapped down onto the plastic bench. The man and the woman looked over. The man led the woman away. He heard a steel door slam. He watched the stars through diesel exhaust. He peeled the coins off the steel bench with his fingernails. He put the coins in his pocket and took out the card from the bus company.

He lit a cigarette. He thought about going back to sleep beside the two brothers. He wanted to wake them up and buy them a paper box of noodles and drop cigarettes between their fingers. The brothers had walked across the burnt down fields of Jiangsu, along the coast and through the last fishing villages. He had taken a bus. He had left that morning. The night before, he had packed his bag and then gone for a final walk through the city. He had walked along the canal and among the backpacked and uniformed primary schoolers and the old men carrying birdcages. He went to a familiar alley near the train station. He had to say goodbye to Lao Wu, had to repay kindness and--

-- his patience had failed and the night had begun. He dialed Guo Sun's number and when she answered, he imagined her sitting in her room over the National Cafe. She would meet him there. She would be waiting when he arrived --

-- he knocked on Lao Wu's door. He waited. He looked up and down the wet alley and smelled the dark green smell of sewage. Lao Wu's daughter answered the door. He told her he was leaving and wanted her father to have some of his things. She asked where he was going and he pressed his bundle of knives toward her. He walked to the bus station and sat in the muddy parking lot until the sun rose. When the ticket window opened, he bought a ticket for Yantai. He sat on the bus and watched the fields burning. He watched the concrete villages and the flatlands of Shandong. 

When he got off the bus, he walked past the grimy buses choking into gravel lots and the masked women touting for hotels. He walked past the the taximen leaning against black Jettas. He lit a cigarette and lost himself in the crooked streets of container terminals. There were whorehouses among the grey buildings of the docks. They were single door, single window buildings, each home to a girl with hair dyed yellow or orange or red. There was graffiti on the walls. The local government planned to tear down the old red light district. He went into a bar called The Ocean Heart. He sat in a private room and ordered a bottle of brandy. The brandy was made in Yantai. On the label, it had a picture of maybe a Russian man, with a black beard. There were girls walking among the tables with numbers tagged to their hips. He wanted a girl --

-- and a boy pushed out of hedges along the edge of Crescent Park as Huang Ge pulled into a parking spot on Fairford Street. The Regal creaked as he stepped out. He leaned against a parking meter and lit a cigarette. He watched the young couple disappear in the dusk. The nights were getting cold. Huang Ge walked toward the casino and he followed him. They went through the black glass doors and the greeter, a tall man in a dark suit, nodded to them. They sat in the lounge and ordered glasses of beer.

Huang Ge went to play the machines and he sat alone. Guo Sun stepped around the polished brass bars and entered the lounge as he was ordering a beer. He ordered two. He passed her a cigarette and lit it for her. She touched his arm. She laughed and leaned against him. The smoke hanging against the ceiling was lit red and green. 

He noticed for the first time a tattoo of a heart on her breast. It was a green smudge with a red arrow through it. He thought about what it would be like to have her, have all of her weight pushing on his lap, running his hands over her. He ordered another beer for himself and one for her. He tried to examine her face --

-- in the darkness. The number on her hip was 476. The girl was from Sichuan. She told him she came here because the air was clean. She studied massage in Chengdu. He tried imagining how she saw him, what he looked like to her. She put his hand on her thigh and pushed up her skirt. She looked into his eyes and he looked at her cheek. After a while, he got up to leave. She put her hand on his arm. It's a slow night, though. I'm just going to be here. He asked how much it would be to take her away for the night. She left him alone in the private room. She came back in a pale yellow Adidas tracksuit. They walked away from the docks and the whorehouses. They walked along the alleys of Old Chefoo, where the brick embassies of European powers were now occupied by messy households and doorway seafood restaurants.

They walked and didn't speak. They walked to a hotel near the ferry terminal. He gave her his T-shirt to use as a towel and she went down the hallway to the bathroom and came back with wet hair. She took off her tracksuit. He lifted the blanket off the bed and spread it out again and laid on top of it. She pulled him close to him and leaned in to kiss him. He turned away, stiffly, and then turned back to her. He tried to kiss her but she put her hand against his mouth. In the morning, he left and walked to the ferry. He put her name in his phone with no number. He knew he would never see her again and he knew --

-- the screen door would be unlocked. He opened it slowly and closed it slowly. He opened the door and walked into the living room. The food was covered with plastic wrap. The bowls and the chopsticks were gone. She had eaten. He went to the doorway of her bedroom. He knew she was asleep by her soft snore. He went to the side of her bed. On her bedside table, there was a hairdresser's mannequin, a female bust with hair dyed dark purple. The cheekbones and the nose reminded him of Guo Sun. He put his hand on the mannequin's hair and trailed his fingers along the bottom of its bangs. He reached down and put his hand on Yu Wen's hand. She did not wake up but pulled away from him. He went to his bed and laid down and fell asleep thinking about Guo Sun's smudged heart and in the morning --

-- his face was sticky with ocean dew dried by sweet diesel. He heard seagulls. The shore was there, spread out grey under the yellow sky. He reached back into his pocket and felt the frayed edge of the ferry ticket. He knew that she wouldn't meet him in Dalian. She wouldn't be waiting even after he arrived at the train station square on the creaking bus. She wouldn't meet him at the train station in Shenyang. When he walked Changjiang Lu and rapped down the highway to Baodao Village on the back of a mototaxi, she would not be waiting. Yu Wen. Yu Wen. He traced her name in the condensation on the plastic bench. 

16.1.15

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Panyu, Guangzhou, Guangdong
January, 2014




7.1.15

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Edmonton, Alberta
January, 2015

The days are short enough-- sun rising flat yellow against flat white, rolling along the horizon-- and the night is long enough-- the city lights reflected up against the steamclouds that collect above the upgrader stacks and sweep across the city.

The sidewalks are cut in smooth snow, light grey under streetlights like Indiana limestone. I walk down Whyte, up 109th Street. Now I'm walking the opposite way, toward the High Level Bridge. Across the North Saskatchewan River-- I only know where it is because of the lights on the bridge, which are flashing red to blue to green to red tonight-- the city is hazy towers of yellow light.

I carried Haru on my back down this street yesterday, her broken boot toe full of snow. We stopped at a Vietnamese place and ate sticky dumplings and bun bo Hue and went to the bathroom together, flushed the toilet and kissed. We spent all day on buses. She lost her job and she had no money. We spent all day arguing on buses and she kept asking me if I really love her and I said, Why do we have to do this every day? In five, six, whatever hours, you'll kiss me goodnight and tell me you love me and you'll wake up and forget all about it and call me at seven in the morning to ask me if I love you. I took the LRT to Clareview with her. I stood with her until #185 sidled up to the station. I kissed her and I told her I love her and knew I'd need to convince her again tomorrow.

And tonight, I picked her up from her job waitressing at a Japanese restaurant. We drove across the Walterdale Bridge and up the hill, past the Hotel Macdonald. She told me to park along the edge of the river valley. We got out of the car and looked at the lights down below until we decided they were the pyramids of the Muttart lit in aurora blues and greens. We said we'd drive into the country and look at the northern lights before the winter was over. We drove home along 118th Avenue and the tires of my car creaked around every corner and she shivered in her seat and said, Please be careful. I dropped her off and watched her until she opened the door at the bottom of my mother's condo block.

On the drive home, around the northern loop of Anthony Henday Drive. The unfinished ramps and unopened interchanges and muddy dozer roads through the snow were covered with snow. There was no other traffic. The expressway was empty. It felt like the edge of the world, as if nothing was alive-- as if nothing was reachable beyond the yellow smog and the reflected glare of city lights. The city was abandoned and spring would never come and the ground would stay frozen and nobody would come back and the lights would dim and the fog would roll down over the city. There was nothing out there.

Turning off, at 82nd Avenue, below the first overpass, a deer was lying in the center of the right lane. The deer was dead. It was lying on its side. Its face was looking back up the road. The blood on the snow was frozen to red sand but there was steam rising from the carcass. I slowed and drove around it. The headlights caught the green glow in its eyes.