By Justin Nicholes

Though the photographs and movie footage of the invasion were more than seventy years old, school teachers and notices in the city’s shopping district had always instructed Samson to never forget Nanking. That fall, when those islands in the East China Sea were being contested once again, and every newspaper and blogger seemed on the attack, he had let himself remember. An anti-Japanese demonstration had surged toward him on the sidewalk, and he had joined it. While sensing some kind of manipulation, since only radicals orchestrated public disturbances (and soldiers immediately quaffed those), he had shouted himself hoarse and, after a night of drinking with his roommates, had gritted his teeth in a tattoo parlor for a red star on the veiny underside of his wrist.

Now the scenario of an encroaching Japan was happening again. This time an earthquake and tsunami had leveled seaside cities, including nuclear reactors. In the right wind, people were saying, a nuclear cloud could cross the sea. That was why people were shoving into the entrance of the grocery store across the street, past managers and workers who shouted that all the salt was sold out. The workers making a point to say this, and the government officials on the news and Internet assuring everyone that salt would do no good, probably meant the opposite, that the rumors were true: the iodine in salt could armor a person against radiation.

A cab driver halted at the side of the road and left the taxi door wide open before pushing into the crowd. Just a minute later, he stumbled back out with a hand over his head and blood leaking through his fingers. When he noticed Samson working his security guard shift at the door of the bank, he dodged traffic to cross over. He shouted as if expecting Samson to come to his rescue.

“They’re taking it home for themselves!”

Samson didn’t move. He stood trying to pinch his shoulder blades together. It was part of the kung fu posture. It bowed out his chest and made him seem more imposing, just as the padded soles of his boots and the crown of his hat, with the bill that shaded his eyes, made him taller.

“Well?” the taxi driver said. “Aren’t you going to do something?”

A woman who’d been about to enter the bank hesitated on the sidewalk.

“It’s all right,” Samson said to her. He lifted the club at the driver’s face. “You don’t come closer. I’m not police. I’m a guard.”

The driver stared, and Samson realized the man was looking at his tattoo, which the sleeve of his uniform didn’t always cover.

“A guard of what?”

Stickman End of Poem

While this crisis was going on, and while everyone Samson worked with phoned friends, he received a message from Mengmeng. He couldn’t believe it, after so long. She had written one sentence, obviously a shotgun-blast text sent to anyone she hoped could help. My mother needs salt, she had said. When his shift ended, he hurried into the back room to change and emerged with the club tucked down his pants. He dodged cars to cross the street and was soon pushing himself into the supermarket, trying to swim his hand past people’s waists and wedge in. A salesgirl was standing at the entrance.

“Yan mai bu dao,” she was saying. We’re out of salt. Nobody believed her.

After he made his way through, he maneuvered down aisles in search of seasonings. The air in the store was hot and stunk of sweaty bodies. People were scouring shelves and lifting bags of white granules only to realize it was MSG seasoning, not salt.

Samson went along the wall. A girl wearing a blue apron keyed open the door to a back room. Two other girls were standing outside it. The rubber of the club clung to his skin. The handle jutted up into his belly while the fat end dug into his thigh. He closed in on the girls who guarded the back room because this call from Mengmeng, he knew, had been an ultimatum.

“There’s no salt,” one said. She stood with her arms crossed.

A man over by the empty shelves hollered. It was that taxi driver with the cut on his scalp, returned again. He hefted a three-kilo bag of MSG over his head.

“Put that down!” a salesgirl shouted.

The driver contorted his face and whipped his entire body to slam the bag. White granules exploded. One of the girls went to shoo him outside, and the girl who was left behind rattled a key into the door to the back room. Samson had no time to pull the club. He threw out his arm. The door closed on it, and the girl kept pulling. He reached his other hand in, then shoved himself into the cool room.

“I need salt.”

“We’re out of it!”

Someone was turning the handle behind him. He stomped his foot down to keep the door from opening.

“Just give me a bag and I’ll go,” he said.

The weight behind him became tremendous. A man’s arm reached in. It was the taxi driver. He was ramming with his shoulder, hard, until Samson stumbled and the door crashed open.

Stickman End of Poem

When Samson was in high school, an elderly American woman named Priscilla had moved to Anyang to teach English. She had given him the Western name. These names, she said, granted new identities. They were supposed to enable him to think in English, to see the world through an invented personality.

Samson had tried. He learned about Jesus and the Holy Ghost. The Bible itself contained English he couldn’t understand. The words were all new although some of the lessons sounded similar to Confucian parables he’d studied as a school kid, such as the one that instructed never to do anything he wouldn’t want done to himself. He started going with Priscilla to her foreign-teacher dorm building on the nearby university campus, and he had let himself imagine that someday he might study in a university, which would never actually happen. He couldn’t choose such things. Still, she had asked him questions. She had wanted to know how he felt.

She had also talked about herself and seemed to almost need to tell him things that made him embarrassed for her. She talked about her divorce years ago and PhD work in Mexico studying a dying language of indigenous mountain people. She admitted overwhelming anger she had felt for years at her ex-husband and that she still asked God for help in combating it. She said she intended on living in China until they sent her home (she was working on borrowed time, she said, since the age limit for residence permits was sixty) but that when she did go home, she lived with a son and daughter-in-law in Dallas in an uncomfortable situation she was always eager to leave. She said she disliked almost all women, especially young ones, and was aware of preferential treatment toward boy students in her classes.

She had shown him a photo of herself when she was a teenager, and like any time he studied a picture of someone and could all at once behold the difference between years ago and now, her younger self looked beautiful. The same effect happened when he saw Mengmeng and her mother together, and Mengmeng’s beauty amplified. He imagined that it was the same with anyone. Youth gifted beauty, and comparisons proved it. In the black-and-white photo Priscilla showed him, she was wearing gloves and holding a rabbit to her chest. She was smiling, and her face was plumper in the cheeks, smooth around the eyes, and her blond floppy hair looked full and wavy.

“What’re you doing in this photo?” he asked.

“I took care of the rabbits,” she said. “What you don’t see is the field behind me. My brothers baled hay and I wasn’t allowed. Heavy lifting was thought to be harmful for girls, which is exactly wrong.”

When Priscilla left home, she was always doing what people said she shouldn’t. She married and had two children, but soon she asked for a divorce and took her kids with her to Mexico, where she recorded the phonetic battery of a vanishing language. She earned a PhD in linguistics and, later, became a nurse when the study of languages wasn’t bringing in enough money. It amazed Samson that anyone in America could do these things simply because they wanted to, especially a mother with young children.

Her husband, she said, had never beaten her. Samson asked her why, if that was true, they ended up divorced. She flared up at the question and went quiet, and Samson sensed she wanted to throw him out. Instead she shrugged and said something about the failure at marriage being part of her life’s plan.

In some ways, he knew more about this foreign woman than he did about his own mother or father. Still, he told Priscilla all he knew about them. He had qualified for the needy-student fund at the school because his father had lost his job at the shoe factory. He’d been laid off, but that hadn’t been the end of it. When workers had refused to abandon the premises, police had filed in with their own clubs. For disturbing the peace, any worker who hadn’t vacated had the bones in one hand pulverized. The police had done it by belting a worker’s arm to a cutting-press used to incise raw cuts of leather. Each hand had been struck just once, and that was the point, Samson knew. All it took was one injury, a limp or a scar that never went away, and that person became a walking repercussion.

Priscilla had treated him to almost daily meals on and around campus. His English speaking ability had skyrocketed, something he hid from his current roommates, who called all foreigners guizi, or devils. The woman had even bought him the suit coat he’d worn for the interview with the security service, where he’d landed his first job at the Bank of China.

Now, he was on his way to her dorm. He was supposed to be meeting her the following night, on Wednesday for prayers, but after workers had thrown him and that taxi driver from the grocery store, he had boarded the local bus. Priscilla was a woman who listened. He was going to ask for help, and he knew that she could. To battle the odor of infected gums, the old woman swished her mouth several times a day with water laced with salt.

The bus let him off in front of the campus gate. The guard sitting on a plastic stool didn’t challenge him. Samson could pass for a university student, but the deception reminded him of his failure compared to other Chinese his age. This walled campus resembled a garden, and he knew he didn’t belong.

At the middle of the square, water was spurting from an uncovered main. Workers had removed tiles and had dug up cement, and a length of what must’ve been replacement piping lay in a pile beside them. The water ponded across the walkway. Samson had to slosh through it. It lapped up over his shoes and saturated his socks, and his feet squished the rest of the walk to the foreign teacher dormitory.

When he entered the lobby, Chinese students clustered around the front desk. He was supposed to sign in and present his government ID there. In case Priscilla was gone, which would mean they wouldn’t let him through, he bounded up the stairs before anyone could call to him. Her room was tucked down one corridor. He walked to her door and listened. If he knocked, sound-activated lights would explode on. He tried the door handle instead. As usual, it was unlocked.

The smell that lingered in the woman’s apartment was familiar. It was just perceptible, almost not there, a chalky, bitter smell, like the odor of skin kept under a bandage too long. All the lights were off. He pulled the club from his pants and walked across the living room, then past the bathroom and kitchen with its sink and miniature refrigerator. Maybe she was napping on her bed. Filtered sun beams diffused into the room through the window. Nobody was home.

The seventy-year-old woman owned a set of free weights, with a rack that held five- to ten-pound dumbbells. She’d said she worked out with them daily. Next to those, a number of books lined a shelf. It was all nonfiction, and some was about China. At least one, written on the not-to-be-named massacre, was banned. On the wall before her desk, she had pasted dozens of notes. They were reminders. Enter grades on Blackboard. Another concerned him: Samson at 7, Wednesday. Some admonished, even scolded: Anger can’t combat selfishness in others, what about yourself? And, When feeling superior, look inward! Above the desk was the thing that dominated the room, a poster of Jesus. She had secured it in a way that left a gap in the corner. When he stretched toward it, he could just make out a sac of spider eggs clinging in the nook. Because of her eyesight, maybe she hadn’t spotted it. He tapped the bottom of the picture with the club. It was brittle and ripped right open.

Maybe she wouldn’t notice, he thought, and anyway there wasn’t time to worry. Starting in the bedroom and working his way back toward the door, he searched. He clasped his mouth when he came across a row of false upper teeth floating in some solution, and again when he opened a white shopping bag to find it loaded with blood-dotted tissue paper. They were the spent tissues the old woman used whenever she checked her blood’s sugar level.

Under the sink, at last, he found what he needed. He shouted in triumph before realizing the bag of salt was almost empty.

He tossed the club across the room. It landed on the couch, bounced, and clanked to the floor. After all traces of the tumbling club had faded, he reached into his pocket for his cell phone. He dialed Mengmeng’s number and let it ring. He could tell right away, and was right, that she wasn’t going to answer.

Stickman End of Poem

The last time he and Mengmeng had stayed together, they rented a hotel in Anyang, where they stripped and tumbled to bed buzzed off white liquor. Each time she’d lain next to him that way, an exquisite newness had overcome his senses. His hands cupped the tight belly, a finger lingering to encircle her navel, then down her hips. It was impossible to imagine this feeling when he was away from her.

He threw the covers off their naked bodies. “It’s summer,” he said. His legs in bed next to hers looked skinny, his hips too narrow.

Mengmeng reached and covered them. “Winter.” It was one of their games.

After the sex, although they both were sure she’d been pregnant for weeks, she went into the bathroom with the kit.

Samson remained in bed. Above him, up in one corner, a scar of black mold had been festering. The smell permeated the entire room. The girl who’d checked them in had said it was the last room available. Though it might have been true, Samson took it as a judgment. 

They had removed their shoes at the door and wore rubber guest slippers. He slipped these on and walked to the window. He swished aside the curtain while waiting for Mengmeng to finish. It wasn’t a basement room, but still the window faced a brick and cement pit below street level. Trash had accumulated on the other side of the security bars: grime-coated plastic bags, discarded cigarette packages, and some twisted pair of jeans hardened in a drizzle of sleet. He turned the security latch to open the window but managed to budge it just a couple of inches. A freezing puff of wind blew in granules of dirt.

Mengmeng had been right. It was winter, and Samson had known since elementary school what Bai Hu Teng Yi, or Laws of the White Tiger, said about that. The four seasons treated people the same way heavenly appointed kings governed states. Spring and summer were seasons of generosity and gifts. Autumn delivered punishment. Winter, the season of yin, distrusted by heaven, was the season of execution.

His slippers clomped on the thin carpet as he crossed the hotel room. To cut the moldy air, he opened the door for circulation. The security chain rattled in front of his face.

Samson’s mother and father had named him Wang Yonghao. It meant “forever profitable,” a name they’d given him in hopes that it augured well for his future, so that he could get rich and support them in their old age. It was something he felt people like Priscilla, as generous as they meant to be, didn’t always seem to understand. After government-sanctioned sermons at foreign churches, or the hushed prayer sessions in teachers’ rooms, he returned to his parents and surroundings, which had changed color in this slant of light to become “China.” Injury, like names, granted perspective, and maybe it was sometimes better not to know.

When Priscilla finally came home, and when she opened her door and noticed him reclining on her couch, she froze. Her eyes were wide behind the thick-lensed glasses.

“I ripped your poster,” he said, knowing it was pointless cruelty.

From the door, she could lean over and peer through the kitchen at what he was talking about, but she didn’t. She watched, and Samson soon sensed she wasn’t seeing him at all but was looking through him.