Danny Wu saw his neighborhood collapse like a house of cards under strobe lighting. When he’d moved up from L.A. as one of the young turks of the arts scene, he accepted his tiny rental apartment in the Mission District as a reasonable price for the move from one expensive locale to another far more expensive.
However, the alley where Mission and Harrison intersect was so grimy, so populated with gangbangers, prostitutes, and drug addicts shooting up on the sidewalks in front of passersby that a night run for a carton of green tea was tantamount to Russian roulette—not to mention the south end of the alley had multiplied with tags like biblical locusts so that he wondered how long it would be before every toilet seat in every shop and café was plastered with some idiot’s name in silver-brite, balloon letters.
But the financial woes weren’t Danny’s only problem. Stress and anxiety, no doubt, were behind his hideous migraines—those terrific, pounding drumrolls rippling along his right temple that made him useless for anything at all. He had to kill the lights, black out the windows, take to his bed until the pain and nausea crested in a few hours, but never less than two. The bad news came a week later in a PET scan: he had a brain tumor, whether benign or malign, but the doctor recommended surgery ASAP.
* * *
Lisa Montez met him in the lobby of the Drake the next morning. She was slender, casually dressed in gray slacks and a charcoal drape top with a slit. Danny suspected her strap sandals cost more than he’d made last month. Like her clothes, she exuded casual chic with her tinted lenses on a gold chain. Sitting beneath the plate glass window, the sun’s glare kept the lenses opaque. She made him uncomfortable when she spoke about “the position.”
Danny felt underdressed in his Haggar slacks and canvas shoes. His twinge of anxiety dissipated, however, bloomed into concern about what this position actually amounted to if she were to hire him, a thing she dangled before him like fortunate bait he had to grasp quickly.
“Wonton, Inc, has something like fifteen-thousand and we’d like to match that.”
His brain glommed onto an image of soup. His aunt used clarified butter when she made wonton and egg-drop soups. Two tepid cliché’s drifted across his face while his smile stayed frozen; he could see it coming before the penny finally dropped — or was it the shoe? A final one certified his descent and rang the cherries. Ms. Montez wanted to hire someone to write messages for Chinese fortune cookies.
Danny’s stomach churned with bile and he felt the beginnings of another migraine begin to stir.
He covered the raspy, involuntary noise his throat made with a query: “Do you — do you make the cookies, too?”
“Oh, my God, no,” she laughed. It was a droll laugh, a chirp that snicked her tongue against her palate. “We just do the sayings, you know, and send them out.”
Danny almost got up right then. His fingertips gripped the black three-ring binder containing samples of his work so hard he made concave dents in the vinyl. His pride was knocking at the gate but Danny refused it entrance and told himself to sell out for the dough. The inane pun behind that almost produced an audible sob. Fortune cookies. The perfect symbol of Sino-American kitsch. Not Chinese, not nutritional, a saccharine-flavored treat with a tiny slip of paper containing a moronic tidbit of wisdom and lucky numbers and maybe an ideograph on the back. Danny didn’t speak Chinese, not even Mandarin, and he winced at the memory of her verbal reaction to his surname:Got herself a China boy to write messages for her Chinese cookies.
He had a terrible flashback to a middle-school bully named Carl shoving him around on the playground, calling him Hop-Sing, and daring him to fight.
He tuned back in to what this willowy sylph in gray across from him, knees almost touching, was saying next. Something about “romance and travel” being the “core” of the cookies’ themes.
“I see,” Danny said. God kill me now, he thought. He winced as another word bubbled to the surface to score him with its lash: lackey.
“Nothing offensive or sexual, ever,” Ms. Montez added.
“Of course,” Danny replied. He nodded a little too vigorously when pride came roaring back in his ears with a litany of filth, demanding to take over the citadel, order him to walk out of there at once, cease this humiliating, grotesque farce of self-abasement.
She prolonged his pain until he cut to the money. That brought those hidden eyes full bore onto his face at last where humiliation was scoring internal grooves. She made a moue and flicked a dust mote from her sleeve. Danny felt like the dust mote.
“Where — where do you — where does one get inspiration for the sayings?”
His voice was almost a squeak by the time he got that out. Inspiration — Jesus God shit, what was I saying?
“Oh, you know, anywhere — blogs, astrology charts, billboard signs, posters in shop windows. You can get inspiration anywhere.
How about the graffiti I saw this morning on my way here, Danny thought: “Ramon is a cocksucker and a snitch.”
“I see — yes, of course,” Danny said. Just grind them out like tweets, right, Lisa?
She smiled at him behind the shades but she was appraising him and for a split-second, he feared she could read what he was thinking.
“Why don’t you try a few for me? I need five samples.”
“Right now? Right here?” Danny was astounded he would be tested after citing a few of his accomplishments, not least of which was a full-time posting at the Chronicle he had been assured of prior to his move and, as luck would have it, just miss because of a hiring freeze. It seemed he was to be dragged through the broken glass of total indignation now, assessed for his capacity to write inanities to be stuffed into clam-shaped crunchy cookies for greedy diners unsated by high doses of MSG, he who had made a book, an exhibit, or a film rise or fall with his own well-chosen words. Now his ego was to be pulped and crushed, wadded like used Kleenex, before he was released to grovel for the salary Lisa Montez had so far refused to name.
“Here’s some paper and a pen — or would you prefer pencil?”
“Pen is fine,” Danny said and reached for the items she held out. The pen was a Bic. He had not deigned to touch a Bic pen in years.
He looked at her. “Shall I begin?”
Almost bored now, she murmured what sounded like a sarcastic reply: “Whenever you’re ready.”
He noticed her check a thin silver watch on her wrist. “I’m timing you,” she said. “Five minutes, and you must limit yourself to no more than five words at a time.”
“Five — ?”
“Go,” she said, cutting him off.
Danny knew his face reflected his discomposure, but he bit his lip and concentrated. The idea of commandeering a lobby in the Drake for this shabby interview made his cheeks flush. Though descended from the Han people on his mother’s side, his father’s Hui branch of the family had given him sharp Mongolian cheeks, a fox-face, his last girlfriend said. As a boy, whenever he disobeyed his aunt, she could tell by the white “points” on his high cheekbones where the skin was thinnest like the “diamond points” on a boxer’s knuckles.
“Time’s up,” she said. “Let me see.”
Her peremptory tone made him squirm. He handed her back the tablet. Only the slight tilt of her head gave her reading away. She read each slowly, occasionally looking up.
‘When one door opens, another slams.’
“I was working against the cliché,” Danny said; he detected the distaste in her voice. He scolded himself for even defending it to her.
‘You are courageous, confident, and caring.’
“Not bad,” Lisa said, “but it’s six words.”
‘Tonight is perfect for romance.’
A pause. She’d handed him that one.
‘Read to enhance your mind.’ A slight shoulder shrug reflected a noncommittal judgment.
‘Life, a box of chocolates.’
“I really like that,” she said and smiled at him.
Unbelievable, Danny thought. The one person on the planet who’s apparently never heard of Forrest Gump. He didn’t think he could make another one out of his leaden despair. Before Gump came to the rescue, he had just about given up until a memory of Tommy Choi back in Fresno came unbidden to mind—the ginkgo tree in Tommy’s yard and those shiny gold coins dropping to the base of the tree every fall, their putrid taste when bit. “Oh fuck,” Tommy laughed, “tastes like shit chocolate.”
When he looked up, Lisa was offering her hand to shake. She told him he could email in “the first batch of fifty,” and PayPal would compensate him the following day. Any sayings rejected, she added quickly, would be “deducted from the next check.”
Their parting was awkward. He stood up first and almost bowed, felt like a dimwit for doing so, and slapped his palm against his binder.
“Goodbye, Ms. Montez, thank you for the — for hiring me.”
She smiled a fraction of a second and dismissed him. “I’m meeting someone else here.”
Heading to the revolving doors, he grimaced. The money was better than he expected. Her rude dismissal, however, galled—probably a sordid liaison upstairs with some other lackey. The damned word would not go away. He thought of The Winter’s Tale’s puzzling stage direction: “exit right, pursued by a bear.”
He hesitated in the bright sunshine out front, pedestrian traffic heavy. The beefeater clucking as he passed. Seeing the trolley approach, he suddenly remembered the Zodiac Killer had flagged down a taxi right here to snare his last known victim. Gooseflesh prickled his skin; he sneezed in the torrent of bright light after the lobby’s mausoleum cool. He shivered, fought back against the image of her sitting there, svelte, her lip curled in contempt while she perused the gibberish he ground out in such pain, recalled her imperious tone, quizzing him—him! He mentally reversed roles; he dismissed her with another Shakespearean line: “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once.” Then even worse, he imagined her in sexual congress upstairs with her expected liaison. Hamlet’s revolting line about his mother posting to incestuous sheets nearly unraveled him as he gripped the trolley’s rail in passing.
Most of the trolley passengers were phone zombies, but a little boy two seats away from where he stood with a sweated palm on the germ-encrusted pole stared intently at him. Danny immediately noted the telltale epicanthic fold in the child’s upper eyelid. He must have had a goofy look on his face, prattling idiotically in his head as the trolley picked up speed down Powell. He had often ridden the trolley with his aunt in those first unhappy days after his parents abandoned him in America. A stabbing pain about the heart, he recalled. Not Shakespearean but real enough are the wounds of childhood that never heal.
He garnered his twenty minutes took the script the doctor gave him and was told to fast and drink only water before the surgery. Danny feared the surgery but he told the doctor anything was preferable to the brutal rip-sawing of his migraines.
In three days, he’d penned his first batch sent them off. An email acknowledgment said that the deposit would be made in his PayPal account by the end of the next business day. He celebrated with a glass of Nebbiolo, its red-fruity flavor cleansing his palate of the hideous cliché’s he’d dusted off, refitted with a word change or a nuance, and bumped out late one night.
“Thank you, Lady Macbeth,” he said to the screen when he espied Lisa Montez’s appended automatic signature in italic script, an ego-trip of loops and swirls.
Another email chimed in while he was pondering her in the lobby setting; it took a second for him to remember it was the physician’s office. A follow-up appointment was made for him with a choice of times for him to select. Danny was unsure what that meant; the pills worked fine.
Damn doctors, they get their hooks into you and they don’t let go . . .
His insurance from his last full-time employment was about to expire and the cost would skyrocket unless he found real employment with a good benefit package. He’d bury his stint as a fortune-cookie writer so deep it would never be found. On the other hand, he thought, it would make good conversation fodder. He imagined a scenario with an attractive girl sipping from a crystal wine flute while he wittily enhanced details of “The Woman in the Sir Francis Drake lobby.” Many people slummed. It was no disgrace. Other lines popped into his head. “You’d think,” he’d practice saying, one hand cocked on hip, “I was being asked to rewrite the Book of Kells a page at a time”—or, when asked how he could stoop to writing such drivel, he’d pout like a child and quip: “Oh, It’s easy. You just put your brain on the chair next to you.”
He trotted off to check his delivery in the bathroom mirror. He had so much fun doing this he sat down at his computer and typed out a dozen mock messages he might use for such an occasion. Wit must only appear to be rapidly fired from the brain; it didn’t have to be so in truth, he reasoned.
* * *
The messages in the following weeks from Lisa Montez started banally enough. Very few words at first, barely exceeding her requisite five mostly from “Do you know what you’ve done?” through “You ruined me” to downright physical threats and curses with an occasional enquiry as to his lack of balls for not picking up. A lawyer interjected once, He claimed to represent Hummingbird Enterprises and he spoke mainly legalese using words and phrases like “malicious intent,” “express malice,” and “evil intent.” Danny found that latter one exhilarating; he attributed it to death’s egalitarian leveling capacity, and he felt he mattered.
In one hysterical lapse of composure, and oxymoronic mix-up, Lisa Montez threatened to come over there and cut his nuts off, the very nuts he didn’t possess in the first place, she scoffed. She, too, was being sued and had to be formally deposed.
Her drunk calls were the best, Danny thought—it was obvious from the slurring as she read several of his “choicest” cookie sayings from “the bad batch” right back to him:
‘God is a gull hovering over a flaming garbage pit.’
‘Life is a Dario Argento film run in reverse.’
“What the fuck does that even mean, you asshole?
‘Human sex is a papal visitation to a tit bar.’
“Are you a pervert as well as an ash — as well as an asshole?”
‘If people are basically good, then Jeffrey Dahmer is a chef of haute cuisine.’
“Who’s Donner, you faggot?”
‘God is watching and He is really pissed off.’
“He’s pissed off? I’m pissed off, motherfucker!”
‘To be authentic, as Sartre says, is to die young.’
“You’re insane, Wu, you know that, right?”
‘Expect a visitation from Old Boney —
“Who’s Old Boney, you retard?”
‘ — from Old Boney, before you aspire.’
“That’s not even English sense.”
Oh my God, Danny realized at once; he had emailed the wrong file — the jokey messages went to Lisa’s firm instead of those popcorn inanities he had labored so hard on to remove the stink of the lamp.
Lisa made these calls late, always very drunk, but no longer threatening mayhem. Gradually she stopped reading back the worst of the rogue aphorisms; once, she played his game and read hers to him: ‘Kill yourself, loser.’ ‘Return the money you stole with your treachery.’ ‘Eat shit and die, asshole’ was a favorite, oft repeated.Danny recalled visiting his neighbor’s house across the street on a whim, drawn by the cardboard sign announcing Yard Sale, its terra cotta faced crumbling, the stunted tree and little girl selling lemonade in Dixie cups the size of a shot glass for a quarter. It was after that he’d emailed the wrong file—had it been an accident, a hideous faux pas or had his subconscious rebelled and done a three-card monte switch on him at the last minute?
Danny listened until the tape ran out; then she’d call right back and pick up where she left off. He noticed a sea change when she began waxing melancholic rather than vitriolic; her grating voice softened during these dramatic monologues, as he referred to them. She filled up his recorder much faster now. Danny wondered if she realized he had to play and delete so that she could add more. But he never picked up. He had reluctantly agreed to brain surgery and chemo. The surgeon assured him the brain didn’t feel anything, which only resulted in a flashback of Hannibal Lecter’s scalpel excising the top portion of Ray Liotta’s head, peeling the membrane wrapper back, to nip a piece of his frontal lobe.
“The seat of courtesy,” Danny mumbled.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Danny replied. “I was thinking of a movie.”
Danny had arrogantly and stupidly panned the film in an art journal despite the Academy’s lavish bestowal of kudos to Hopkins and Demme.
On the day before his scheduled surgery, Danny exited the shower in a fugue state, a towel wrapped around his waist, and mindlessly picked up his cell phone on the counter reacting like Pavlov’s dog to its trilling the opening notes of Beethoven Ninth.
Lisa’s voice was prompt, guarded, cynical to his “Hello.”
When he realized who it was, he thought of ending the connection, one thumb poised at the first murmur of that harpy note she inflicted at him once the vilest of her soliloquies commenced. Instead, he heard her stunned silence. He sat back, a critic in the back row, silent, appraising the stage whispers and asides, an audience of one.
“I never wanted to go into business,” Lisa Montez said suddenly.
It was apropos nothing she’d said earlier.
But it struck a chord in him. Danny listened.
“What you did,” she said, groping for the words, “it doesn’t matter to me.”
He thought: When one door closes, another opens. Then: “What will you do now?”
“I’ve got a visa for Beijing,” she said. “I’ve had it for months. I’ve always wanted to see Beijing.”
“I don’t know what to say, Lisa.” He had never used her first name before.
“It’s funny, huh? Me a Chicana,” she said. “I’ve never wanted to see Mexico City—or Paris. I imagine they’re both dirty and expensive.”
Danny was stunned. Pollution in Beijing being legendary. Los Angeles couldn’t hold a candle to it; only fog-bound San Francisco compared to it in sheer visibility. His aunt read letters from his parents. They described the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets from Ti’ananmen Square owing altogether to the massive number of filthy particles in the air.
“When are you leaving?”
“Right after I’m deposed tomorrow,” she said — but without bitterness or hostility.
“I haven’t been subpoenaed yet,” he offered lamely.
“You don’t leave your place, the lawyer tells me.”
“That’s right. They’ll get a shot at me tomorrow,” he said, suddenly chatty. “I go under the knife.”
All cliché’s, Danny thought. When talk matters, we find them first — or they find us.
“UCSF,” he replied.
“Give me one of your Chinese cookie sayings to take with me.”
Danny was speechless. His thoughts were consumed with his fate in the morning. His surgeon was a kind man with eyes haloed by crow’s-feet and sad, lingering smile. Danny cleared his throat and said, “Teach us to care and not to care.”
“I can’t take credit for it,” he replied. “T. S. Eliot said it.”
“Some egghead, I suppose, or artsy-fartsy friend of yours? Tell him thanks for me.”
Danny didn’t sleep that night. He wondered if he’d wake up, and if he didn’t — what would that be like? He went through the motions both irked and pleased by the mellow resolution of his fracas with Lisa Montez. Before the anesthetic knocked him out on the table, he looked at the big wall clock with its red second hand sweep until it began to slow. He planned to repeat another Eliot fragment before the faces above him dimmed and faded, a gesture both meaningless and necessary.
Before he took his own short walk into oblivion after the anesthesiology nurse asked him to count backwards, a frisson of parting angst called from somewhere and rudely interrupted his recitation—Teach us . . . teach us . . . what? He waited for a bright light of a floating self to gape down on him but nothing happened in that elongated taffy moment. He had no escort into his personal void and that depressed him until he heard a thin voice calling out — a voice saying, Tag, you’re it! Tommy Choi, or another childhood friend from those sunny days in Southern California. The word spun o its axis, split into a Brownian motion of free association as he breathed in the ammoniac stink in the operating theater. Tag, tag line, skin tag, clothing tag, hashtag, platitude, cliché, excerpt, marker, chit, badge, identify. Identify, identify—
Me, identify. Identify me.