Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2020    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Winter 2020

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Cover
French silk sample book

Elisabeth Chaves
The Skin of Things

Daniel Gorman
The Last Lion in Mosul

Esem Junior
The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard

Edward Mack
Cottonwood

Bill Pippin
Texas Swing

Ryan Byrnes
One Last Lemon Soda in Tunis

Brittany Meador
The Eating of Apples

João Serro
The Lesson

J. Williams
False Truth

Janet Barrow
The Crossroads

Kathryn Li
Kingdom of Bees

Jan Allen
Outsourced

Jens Birk
The Church


Esem Junior

The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard

Jim knows it’s silly, but all he’s thought about the past few days is holding a baby panda. A fifty-five-year-old man shouldn’t obsess over such a thing, that’s what he tells himself. But certain things can’t be helped. He’s watched videos online, has seen the newborn pandas squeak and topple down hillsides. Has imagined scratching them behind the ears, gathering soft, white down between his fingers. That’s what has taken him to the panda center outside Chengdu. Two minutes of panda time cost two thousand yuan, but so be it. He needs this.

Jim’s been in China for two weeks and has hated every minute of it. The Chinese strike him as pushy, rude, prone to spitting. Being in China reminds him of days past when he fought with Asian grandmothers in Costco, who conspired to box him out at the rotisserie chicken counter with the hard edges of their carts. But these mid-sized industrial cities in Western China will be his home for the foreseeable future. He’s paid by corporations to be an authentic white man, to sit in corporate meetings, packaged in a dark wool suit, and nod when a critical mass of black eyes look to him for assent. It’s prearranged that every question will have a “yes” answer.

An attendant at the panda center holds out plastic gloves and shakes them in Jim’s face. Powder sifts from the gloves, chased by the scent of latex.

“You’ve already got me in this get-up,” Jim says, and nods down at the mandatory, blue scrubs that billow over his torso and upper thighs.

The attendant, a man Jim’s age with acne scars across his forehead, shakes the gloves again.

“Jesus, fine.” Jim snatches the jumble of rubber. Once gloved, he holds up his hands and wiggles his fingers. The man directs him to sit on a bench.

The baby panda appears. A different attendant waddles out with the bear, holding the creature under its arms. There’s no ceremony to it. The attendant stutters forward, as if lugging a bag of cement, the panda’s belly and appendages swinging between the man’s knees. Another handler materializes and they lift and dump the animal into Jim’s lap. He groans—the creature is heavier than he’s imagined.

More staff appear. They swarm. A stalk of bamboo is produced, then shoved into the panda’s mouth. A woman with a surgical mask tells Jim to smile. Flashes detonate from his periphery.

The panda isn’t at all interested in Jim. It doesn’t squeak, it doesn’t even look at him. It jaws the bamboo, its singular mission, and Jim can’t even see its face—not its round, glassy eyes, ringed in plush, midnight fur. He glances around, expecting someone to acknowledge this travesty. The panda is his totem. The keeper of serenity in the cool, wet bamboo forests of the Shaanxi province, and Jim needs to draw its same breath, take what it can impart for the long solitude to follow.

He fixates on the panda’s hair, so close. The strands move in waves as the bear squirms, and that’s when Jim does it—he ungloves one hand and pets the creature. The fur is coarse, wiry, and he imagines the bristles of a shop broom.

The attendants are on him. Two move to extricate the bear. A woman slaps his hand and a man shouts at him through surgical gauze. Jim is assisted to his feet, then stripped of his blue scrubs and steered toward the exit. The panda center employees are tiny compared to him but they’re sinewy, tough like beef jerky, and Jim’s upper arms sting from where they’re pinching him, maneuvering him through small explosions of pain. Still, he’s pleased with himself. He considers this a victory.

Then they mention police, in English.

Jim goes numb as his attention goes inward. He wonders, do Chinese prisoners get phone calls? Can he reach the consulate? Does he even know how many digits make a Chinese phone number?

They sweep Jim through manicured bamboo habitat where they pass a crowd of Americans. The group is from Ohio—their sweatshirts and caps advertise this fact. Just a blur of Buckeye gear and white faces. “Oh my god, oh my god,” the largest female says. “It’s really him.” Her hand cups her open mouth. She points at Jim. The adult men become present, their eyes engaged, and scramble for cameras.

The Chinese attendants are perplexed. They scrutinize the man in their custody.

This delay is their undoing.

The Ohioans rush Jim. They tell him they love his movies. That they’ve had contests to see who could watch The Four Amigos more times.

You see, Jim is no ordinary dumpy middle-aged man. He’s got a special face. Through lucky twists of the double helix, he bears not a striking resemblance—but an identical twinness—to Burl Holiday. Yes, that Burl Holiday. The aging comedian with roots in SCTV, who blew up the Nielsen ratings in the 1980s, anchoring the end of a sitcom bar. The one who later smashed box office records with Reagan-era satires about the Cold War and corporate culture. Also, of course, there’s his role as the fourth amigo in the Mexico-based, culturally insensitive romp, The Four Amigos.

The Chinese attendants confer in a makeshift circle. Both Holiday and Jim have an everyman’s face—there’s nothing outwardly telling here. The handlers trade barks and gesticulate, glancing at the Rolex on Jim’s wrist, until one breaks from their order and tells Jim to take his time, but that he must leave. The attendant mentions he’s a fan of Bigger Trouble in Little China, which paired Holiday with Jackie Chan in a reboot of the 1986 comedy.

Jim sits on the ground. The Ohioans keep their distance and, for the moment, he’s alone. He thinks about the panda. He feels stupid, mostly for what he expected of the little bear. After all, what show of affection could one expect from the most solitary creature on earth?

The female Ohioan sidles up and takes a selfie, the camera held high. Jim glimpses himself in the lower background of the frame, his shoulders slumped, his stomach hanging over his belt. She says nothing, no hello, no hey, and stands idly with crossed legs, editing her picture and sharing it on social media, her fanny pack and buttocks just feet from his face.

Jim fishes out his wallet and withdraws the two-by-one-inch picture of Burl Holiday he keeps there. The eyes have been scratched out with the tine of a fork. Were paparazzi present, they would have found this delicious. Reporters across the globe have waited three decades for these doppelgängers to meet in person, and keep looking for that one final straw—the one that’ll catapult one of the two men into a head-on collision course.

The origin of Jim’s vendetta is ancient.

Thirty-five years earlier, Jim heads into a stand-up comedy show in Buffalo, New York. He and the gang are back from college for their final summer vacation. Jim’s waist has thickened, so have his jowls. It’s happened to them all. They’ve completed youth, and are approaching who they’ll become. Hardworking but shallow, aspiring to keep the status quo.

They take their seats in a ramshackle building warped by decades of lake-effect snow. Jim’s high-school sweetheart, Kimberly, sits next to him. They’ve dated since they were fourteen, and next year he plans to propose.

He knows everything about Kimberly. She’s scared of snails but not spiders. The scar on her thumb is from a childhood fishhook incident. Fresh from an adult-league softball game, she wears a trim-fit uniform with white piping, accentuating the cambers of her waist and hips. Jim becomes very conscious of his own features—the jowls, the puffs under his eyes, a small thinning of the hair.

The host steps into the spotlight. He’s thin but his gut protrudes, a snake digesting a rodent. The host pulls at his collar.

“We have a special treat tonight,” he tells the audience. “We have, um, Burl Holiday in the house.”

The audience is stunned. Holiday has a home in Toronto, just across the lake, but he’s well past doing sets at fourth-tier comedy clubs in forgotten cities. He’s normally seen on Thursday-night television, in a sitcom about a Boston pub where he plays “the plumber of Harvard”—a pile of flesh with the labored breath of someone with sleep apnea.

Holiday doesn’t wait for the host to finish. He stumbles up to the microphone, clearly obliterated, his pants spotted with beer or urine. He squints into the spotlight, and seems to have lost his train of thought.

His eyes settle on Jim.

“My god,” he says, rubbing his jowls. “You look like me, only fatter.” His eyes travel Jim’s belly. “One too many jelly donuts?”

For the next twenty minutes, Jim is subject to Holiday’s public humiliations. Jim is this, he’s that, he’s got all the detriments of the comedy star and none of his superpowers, so the audience is told. And it’s true—Jim has the comedian’s saggy, ho-hum looks, and though Jim may have some strengths, none are extraordinary, and he certainly isn’t funny. At the end of the show his friends start calling him Baby Holiday and Kimberly is looking at him. The skin around her eyes gathers, her pupils constrict. She tries to compose herself, to refreshen a smile, but it’s done.

What’s been said cannot be erased.

The next day, she breaks up with Jim in the neighborhood pizza parlor. A pizza pie sits between them and he stares at the orange cheese and the wells of oils in the curled pepperoni, pizza he loved as a child. Kimberly talks but he never remembers her explanation—the real reason is clear—and every time Jim looks in the mirror from then on, he remembers how she looked at him in the pizzeria and he thinks of Burl Holiday.

Jim sees Kimberly once more in his life, walking on the other side of Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo, holding hands with an out-of-towner. At that moment, a station wagon full of SUNY Buffalo students grinds by. “Burl!” they yell, in a gust of spittle and beer. “All the way from Hahvahd Yahd!” Jim squats down behind a U.S. mailbox while a stranger points and smiles. In various permutations, this keeps happening.

And his love life?

In America, it dies.

A few years later, Jim has fled the U.S. and is teaching English in Tokyo. Looks-wise, things are no bueno. Whereas Holiday has the benefit of Hollywood-grade skin serums, Jim has bars of Irish Spring. So while Holiday is ten years older than Jim, their visual age has synced.

But nobody seems to know this in Japan. Nobody points and laughs. To the Japanese, he and Holiday and all white mankind look the same. From time to time he’ll cross paths with an American tourist—in the subway, in the leafy inner gardens of Meiji Jingū—but Westerners ignore each other, he notices, pretending they are the sole adventurers in this quiet, alien land.

Jim sits in a Shinjuku bar and sips Japanese bourbon. He tastes butterscotch, a hint of cinnamon. The finish is smooth, smoother than anything from the American South.

“Imitate, improve, then dominate,” Jim says. He notices this happens a lot in his new country.

A television murmurs behind the bar. It’s September, when the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall hosts its tournament. Jim checks the time. Each night after teaching class, he stops here to meet a woman, a former student. Tonight she’s late. Jim contemplates that she’s been acting strange the past few weeks.

The sumo coverage takes a break, and that’s when Jim sees it. A commercial blinks on for Boss coffee, the canned variety one finds in the country’s gazillion vending machines. Burl Holiday appears, stepping from a shadow. He’s wearing dark aviator glasses and a black suit, echoing a film he’s done in America, lampooning the U.S. Secret Service. “Wake up,” Holiday barks, “and show them who’s Boss.” Japanese characters smack against the screen with exclamation points.

The bartender is also watching.

“What’s that?” Jim says. All warmth is sucked from him.

“Burl Holiday,” the bartender says. He’s looking down, drying a cup that’s already dry. “You know Burl Holiday?”

They both know Jim knows who Burl Holiday is. What Jim doesn’t know, because his teaching schedule coincides with Japanese primetime, is that the plumber of Harvard has been introduced into nine million Japanese homes. It’s the first successful U.S. television import.

Jim steeps in the thought that everything will change for him, just as in Buffalo. He’ll have to run again, to an even farther corner of the world.

“Excuse me?” This, from a man at the end the bar.

His skin is the color of snow, his hair is a shiny sable. He even wears a jinbei, a crossing robe fixed with a sash. But freckles dust his nose and cheeks, and his eyes are an arctic blue.

The stranger stands, tumbler in hand. He wipes a watery ring from the bar’s surface with a handkerchief and walks down to Jim.

“Edwin Smart, talent agent,” he says, extending a hand. “I specialize in placing westerners with local opportunities.”

Jim shakes Edwin Smart’s hand, introduces himself. He can’t take his eyes off this strange white man in Japanese costume.

“You, Jim, are a rare find. Something very special.” For his part, Edwin can’t take his eyes off Jim. “Let’s state the obvious. You look just like him—just . . . incredible, wow. So let me tell you what I’m thinking, sir. John Candy—you know John?—he starred in a commercial for Crunky last year. A thirty-second spot, and he made enough to buy thirty Cadillacs.” Edwin splays fingers on both hands, then flashes them twice more. “Now, John just came for a short visit. But what would’ve happened, Jim, if we plucked John Candy from Chicago, brought him here, and suited him to Japanese tastes?”

He explains to Jim that, while Holiday’s coffee ads have crossed the Pacific Ocean, the actor himself will not. For the past two years Holiday has refused to leave North America.

Holiday is known for his quirks. On film he’s darkly comedic, known for a sharp tongue, but away from the limelight he’s different. There’s the surprise appearances at McDonald’s, where he tips cashiers two thousand dollars, and his antics at Toronto Blue Jays games, where he kisses babies and grandmothers. Little is known about his personal life, just that he’s a life-long bachelor. The Japanese, Edwin has said, relate to him—his mania, his privacy—though there’s considerable affront at his refusal to visit.

Jim isn’t sure about any of this, but then Edwin says: “Asia is a larger market. Now Jim, what if I could make you bigger, more famous, than Burl Holiday?”

For twenty-five years, Jim is a fixture on Tokyo television. It begins with him spoofing Burl Holiday on celebrity gossip shows, reprising Burl’s characters on SCTV, including an off-pitch lounge singer. Each time Jim does this, he exhales away a sad note from his past. To be oneself is a burden—Jim’s never thought about things this way, but it is so. In the actor’s shadow, he can do whatever he pleases.

These cameos lead to a regular spot on a Japanese version of Hollywood Squares. Surrounded by the nation’s wittiest stars, Jim becomes fluent in their language—and well-connected. Before long, he’s an actor in his own right, appearing not only in comedies but serious films too, including a supporting role in Watashitoisshoni Dansu?, which wins Best Picture at the Japanese Oscars. The film’s about a group of Tokyo workaholics who find presence, meaning, and love in ballroom dance competition. Jim plays the irreverent Western teacher. With this performance, the Japanese claim him—they consider Holiday nothing more than a slapstick comedian. And their faith in Jim is well placed. Unhinged from any allegiance to any one self, Jim has abandoned the burdens of his past, and has discovered that he’s more faceted than Holiday. Having experienced a broader spectrum of pain, he has a deeper emotional well from which to draw, and his acting reflects this.

Jim is sure Holiday knows about him. The New York Times Magazine has published a ten-page feature on the pair, entitled “The Dueling Plumbers of Harvard.” The article follows, in part, Jim’s parallel career through the cartoonish world of Japanese entertainment, ending with his trip to the Japanese Oscars. “Holiday gave me my start,” Jim’s quoted as saying, “but I’ll give him his finish.”

Holiday is contacted, but doesn’t comment.

But Holiday is no slouch. He evolves too. Over the course of a decade, he develops into a Grammy-nominated mandolin player, a feat of physics given his kielbasa-sized fingers. For Jim, this is good news. For every reinvention, Jim has an opportunity to recapture the public’s interest. Though he, too, has sausage-like fingers, Jim’s got the same genetic lineup as Holiday, and becomes a respectable mandolin player in his own right. Tonight he’s playing the New York Grill and Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. The lights smolder at minimal wattage, their filaments dim and golden, and those in the bar have the sense they’re suspended among the galaxy of stars that laze over Tokyo. The neon explosion of Shinjuku is far below, a smiling reminder of that small, bustling world. The customers talk in murmurs; Hanashyo glassware clinks, daintily. Edwin sits across the room at the bar and toasts his most profitable client.

Jim sets up near the window, hundreds of feet above the street. He keeps his back to the cityscape; he’s dizzied by heights. His mandolin lifts softly from its velvet encasement and he holds its red belly against his own. He’ll play a set of five pieces, finishing with a crowd favorite, Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”

From the first pluck, he knows this performance is special. His fingers hold the double strings true against the frets and the notes soar in perfect waves, resounding through the hollow of the instrument. Jim was nervous but now he is not. He’s tapped into something greater than himself, something which directs his fingers through the metallic runs of each song, revealing perfect harmonies already existing, awaiting release. Jim closes his eyes. The universe is confirming that this is where he’s meant to be. That he’s the rightful player of the mandolin. That it’s a matter of time before he overtakes his more famous counterpart, and that the next story in The New York Times Magazine will be a rumination on authenticity, questioning what happens when a copy is better than the original. Jim has come so far, he knows this. If he could draw a straight line through the globe, he believes it would emerge in a Buffalo pizzeria.

He plays for forty minutes and on the last note of the last bar of “California,” his string breaks. The twang reverberates and dies, and for a few moments only the muffled clanks from the kitchen waft into the bar.

The applause comes at once, a rainstorm of approval.

Jim packs away his instrument and joins Edwin at the bar. Edwin is frail and walks with two canes. He’s had stomach cancer for six months, weighs one hundred pounds.

Jim is hugging his friend when he feels two taps on his shoulder. A man with a museum-quality jaw stands in a thousand-dollar suit. “Mr. Jim Nowak?” The man’s voice is strident, his consonants crisp. Jim nods, and papers are flicked against his chest.

Jim unfolds the documents and turns them around. It’s a cease and desist order, and a wild-eyed skim reveals it’s a missive sent by Burl Holiday.

The man turns to leave.

“Hold on,” Jim says. He takes a linen napkin from the bar and a pen from the man’s breast pocket and writes a message back to Holiday. “Burl,” he scrawls. “You should know some turd is going around Tokyo, making you look like an asshole. Game on, jelly donut, and may the best man win (me).”

A year goes by.

Jim watches the American Academy Awards, a rebroadcast on Tokyo’s Wowow channel. Burl Holiday has starred in his own drama, portraying a cantankerous shut-in who falls in love with a neighbor in his apartment building. It’s her weeping violin, which drifts across the courtyard in the hours before dawn, that draws him to her, and out of himself. Though Holiday’s performance garners an Oscar nomination, critics complain he’s only played himself.

On the TV, a starlet announces the nominees. Holiday sits in the cavernous Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, his face sallow, the skin around his eyes dark. He looks around, his glances darting, acknowledging the room. When they announce his nomination, he blinks three or four times, as if struggling to maintain control of his face.

“And the winner is . . . .” The starlet opens an envelope and reads a different name. Matthew McConaughey appears on screen and kisses his wife. While he sidesteps toward the aisle—the equivalent of dead air—the camera cuts to Holiday. His eyes are rimmed with water. He claps, but it takes him a moment.

Jim shuts off the television. There’s just the sound of ice settling in his boulevardier. Through the wall, he can hear the broadcast continue from a neighbor’s television. He knows it’s wrong, but he’s happy with the results. Elated.

After that, Holiday stops making movies. Jim isn’t sure it’s the Oscars loss—not entirely. He thinks instead that comedy is changing, that audiences no longer want blustery wise guys who joke about body fat and jelly donuts.

They want sensitive heroes.

They want Jim Nowak.

Three years pass. Edwin has survived cancer and maintains an office in the skyscraper forest of Nishi Shinjuku, and invites Jim to visit.

The day is bright, and he’s backlit against the windows. The wrinkles bunched in families around his eyes.

“Old friend,” he says. Since cancer, he’s mellowed, certain that anger is the ingredient of disease. “I’ve tried to book you everywhere, but I have nothing, unfortunately.”

Jim hasn’t been working much. He still appears on Japanese Hollywood Squares, but it’s been relegated to a midday time slot, and won’t be renewed another season.

If Edwin has learned to move with the universe’s tides, Jim has not. He’s furious with Holiday. He blames him for not reinventing himself, for not making more movies. Instead, Holiday has been squandering his time at celebrity golf tournaments. He shows up in the news, but for non-momentous events. He crashes weddings, even gives toasts. He attends flash mob dances in malls, and when people ask him for autographs, he instead offers hugs. He buys a house for a Northern Californian fireman who loses his home to a wildfire, but stays clear of Hollywood. His fifteen minutes are gone and so, it seems, are Jim’s. He realizes that, maybe, he’s never been famous in his own right.

Edwin reaches across the desk for Jim’s hand. He offers a smile. They’ve done their best work together, but Jim knows this is goodbye.

He leans forward and puts his head between his knees. The world’s axis is shifting, the room’s floor canting. Tokyo is expensive and he’s saved little. He has no home to which he can return. “What,” he says, “am I supposed to do?”

He feels Edwin’s hand on the back of his head.

“Teach English?” he says.

Jim could do that, he thinks. Or he could ground himself in an American retirement community. Take advantage of Medicaid and AARP benefits. Get a job at Costco. And maybe the older he gets—the older both he and Holiday get—the less distinguished their features will be. They’ll begin to look like any other senior, with spotted skin, shapeless cheeks, unruly white hair. Maybe as Jim devolves into anonymity, he can take simple pleasure in a normal life.

“No,” he says. America won’t work for him. Working at Costco, flirting with widows—this is a consolation prize, a second-rate version of what he’d wanted back in Buffalo. He won’t have it.

“There’s also China,” Edwin says.

He looks at Edwin.

He thinks this is a joke.

Fog settles over Chengdu.

The BBC anchorwoman delivers the news she gave ten minutes earlier. A tsunami, Russian hacking, the collapse of another Antarctic ice shelf. The air conditioner hisses against the sealed glass and Jim, back from the panda center, drinks a Chinese beer while thumbing through a summary of Costco’s employment benefits on his mobile.

The A/C stops, leaving Jim alone with the sizzle of carbonation and the reportage on Singapore’s financial market. He decides it’s too early to sleep, so he finishes his beer and leaves the room.

The hotel in Chengdu has the architectural appeal of an abortion clinic. The hallways are mauve and beige, the metal doors to each room accessible by metal handles. Jim is heading to the fifth floor, where he understands there’s a KTV bar.

Wikipedia has informed Jim there are various kinds of KTV bars. Some are plain-vanilla karaoke bars, some are brothels. The internet says he must beware of those venues where girls line up for him at the entrance. Jim has paid for sex in Japan, but he reminds himself that he’s different from other ex-pats. He’s not inventing new perversions outside the watch of Western society, but making sure years don’t pass without him touching anyone.

Someone opens the door of the KTV bar ahead of him, at the end of the hall. It’s a beige metal door like the others, only with red Chinese characters above the frame. Before the door shuts he sees chips of light from a disco globe, swirling around a dark room.

He enters.

In a mirror behind the bar, Jim watches himself sit down. Near his elbow, various curiosities reflect back. A platter of fruit, a bowl of congealed dipping chocolate, an open tin of cigarettes. He lifts his gaze and studies himself, and wonders how he got so old. He wonders whether America will accept him, whether he’s ruined himself. It’s possible he’s become a pretentious twat, the sort they all hated back in Buffalo.

A hand falls on his shoulder. The comb-over lives strong in Chengdu and the Chinese owner of the KTV bar has fixed his strands in place with lacquer. He turns Jim around and vigorously shakes his hand. Girls are lining up, and the man beckons to them. They are uniformly short, Asian, and scantily clad.

He picks the oldest-looking one. Her hair is short and spiky and she fidgets less than the others, doesn’t giggle. She comes up, unafraid, and takes his hand and tries to lead him to a karaoke room. “Actually, no,” he says, and gives her arm a slight tug, then motions to the barstool alongside him. She glances at the owner but Jim is fast; he places two thousand yuan on the bar. The balding owner gives him an American thumbs up.

Jim’s decided he just wants to talk, but he doesn’t know what to say, and isn’t certain the girl speaks English. Will he have to pantomime? Build kindergarten-level sentences? She watches him.

“I’m not interested in prostitution,” he says.

The girl smirks. She flicks a hand at the bartender, who starts mixing drinks.

“No?” she says, “Too bad, I pay well.”

He looks at her closely. She is alert, engaged. Her chin is strong, her chest is flat, and he might’ve thought she were a boy if not for her eyelashes and full lips. From her ears, a pair of fuzzy panda earrings dangle, and another panda sits embroidered on her sleeve.

She is studying him also, mostly his face, and he wonders if 1980s sitcoms are syndicated in China.

“Do you know who I am?” he says.

“Let me look.” Her eyes narrow.

They travel his face, the smattering of acne scars below his cheekbones, visible only in certain light. Then his nose—a common nose, neither too fat nor skinny, slightly bulbous at the tip, the capillaries ruptured. Her gaze lingers on his eyes. The New York Times Magazine, in profiling Jim and Holiday, remarked that their appeal rested in their eyes, which were large and hazel, watery and honest, “brimming with humanity.”

“You have a kind face,” she says, “but why so sad?”

“Sad?” he says. He checks himself in the mirror. “What should I be sad? I’m George Clooney’s father.”

She smiles. “Yes, I see the resemblance.” Her words are accented, Chinese flavored with something else, and he imagines she’s gone to a British finishing school. “You and your son,” she says, “are both very geriatric.”

Her skin is so smooth, he thinks. She has countless choices, while he’s left with so few. “I’m at a crossroads,” he says. “I don’t know whether I should stay here”—he motions at the world beyond the walls—“or move back to the States. Phoenix seems affordable.”

“Tell me about these places.”

The bartender sets tall drinks before them. They’re the color of guava, and bright, crepepaper umbrellas loll against the rims of the glasses.

“Here I have no one. No friends, no family. But I don’t know the language, and don’t know anyone who speaks English. There’s so much traffic, so many people spitting . . . ” He stops, aware that saying what he thinks will offend her. “In Arizona, I don’t know anyone there either, but the people are my age, and they speak English. I’ve lived abroad so long, who knows, they might find me interesting.” He imagines the boring lives of Phoenix retirees, exhausted by ungrateful children, spoiled grandchildren, deteriorated discs, and the rising cost of prescriptions. Their days absorbed by Facebook and Candy Crush.

Jim looks at himself in the mirror again. He’ll be a novelty, a favored guest at parties and events at the clubhouse. A star attraction. But only, he thinks, if he keeps things superficial. The more they get to know him, the more they’ll notice it was not adventure, but fear and vanity, that placed him on the road less-traveled. They have seen less, but loved more. Jim looks to the girl.

She sips her drink through the straw. She swallows. “So Arizona then?”

“No,” he says.

“Then stay here in Chengdu?”

“No.”

She shakes her head. Her eyes slide toward the ceiling. “I just am hearing ‘no.’ No this, no that. Life is easier, mister, if one says yes. You,” she says, and wags a finger, “must say ‘yes’ to the very next thing someone asks you.”

Jim wonders if she’s being provocative. He reminds himself she might be a prostitute. He glances at the unrefrigerated platter of fruit near his elbow. The strawberries are sweaty. Oil sits atop the chocolate dipping sauce.

She parts her lips. She smiles.

“Go home,” she says.

Jim meets her eyes. “What?”

“Go home.”

He exhales. “That,” he says, “was not in the form of a question.”

But before she responds, before she has a chance to, Jim’s phone starts buzzing. “Hold on,” he says, and pulls the device from his pocket. It’s a number from the United States, one he doesn’t recognize.

The girl looks over his shoulder. “You must say ‘yes,’” she says.

Jim holds the phone tight against his ear, and stoppers his other ear with a finger. “Hello?” he says.

“Jim Nowak? Do you know who this is?”

He knows. Every particle of this voice he knows, all its timbre and gravel. The man on the other end of the line is Burl Holiday.

Jim doesn’t know what to say. He thinks of the cease and desist letter, and his napkin response. He understands Holiday has indicated a desire to take a rolled-up copy of The New York Times Magazine and administer him a proctology exam.

“I’m not angry with you,” Holiday says. “I feel sorry for you—no, that’s not right. It’s just . . . I understand what you’ve gone through. I understand you’ve been angry with me, which is very valid—very, very valid. You see, I’ve spoken with your friends in Tokyo. I’ve visited your hometown.”

Jim isn’t feeling well. Flecks of light off the disco ball, constellations of them, sweep across the walls. He closes his eyes. “I’m confused,” he says.

“Yes, yes, I get it. Look, if I were in your spot, I’d be confused too.” Holiday’s voice is calm, and Jim has the idea he’s sitting by a pool with an Old Fashioned, swirling a giant ice cube around a glass. “But look,” Holiday says, “Please don’t say ‘no’ right away. I want you to think about it.”

“Yes,” Jim says. “Whatever it is, yes.”

The girl bunches her shoulders and pantomimes a clap.

“You’re a funny one,” Holiday says. “Look, I saw you in Rising Sun Pizza.” This is a Japanese movie where Jim’s character opens a pizzeria in Tokyo and falls in love with a married patron. Her marriage is passionless, but her sense of duty is strong. In the end, she leaves Jim behind.

“Did you really cry during the final scene?”

“Yes,” Jim says. He did cry. He remembers the on-screen kiss he shared with the actress. Their lips touched over the warmth of a pizza, the air scented with marinara. He closed his eyes and, for those moments, he was thirty years younger and on the other side of the world, when life was still beautiful.

Jim knows instantly what Holiday is after. An Academy Award. And that it’s something within their reach. But Jim knows, too, that this is about more than Holiday’s legacy. It’s about him tipping McDonald’s cashiers two thousand dollars. It’s about wedding toasts and gifting homes to strangers.

“I’m an asshole,” Holiday says, “but I try to right my wrongs. Here and there.”

Before Jim gets off the phone, he learns that FedEx will deliver plane tickets to his hotel, with directions to Holiday’s house outside Toronto. There they will switch driver’s licenses and passports. There, Jim will play the greatest role of his life.

Jim takes all of the money from his wallet and presses it into the girl’s hand. The Rolex watch too. Everything he has. He says goodbye, kisses her on the cheek in a grandfatherly way, and exits the bar.

Esem Junior is a former police reporter, and his nonfiction has appeared in national newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal. His fiction has appeared in literary journals in the United States and the United Kingdom. In his spare time during the pandemic, he visits the same websites every day, drinks a lot of coffee, and wonders why people live in Florida.

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