by Mar Preston
While not quite a mystery short story, this never before published short story by mystery author Mar Preston does have a Fresno connection, and the slightest bit of suspense in the end.
Luke Mouradian arrived in Beijing late Saturday night in March of 1988, numbed with the fatigue of a twenty hour flight. Leaving the airport he found himself suddenly illiterate when the few signs in English disappeared and everything became Chinese. The bus made its way through choked traffic to the conference hotel past new apartment blocks, towers, hotels and office buildings. All he knew about The People’s Republic was that everything was shifting and changing.
Suddenly a Hilton reared up in front of him. There was only time to register, notice how few people there looked like himself–an unmarried academic from Fresno, California–and fall instantly asleep on his bed. The next morning Luke stood blearily at the window of his room looking out over the grey mist shrouded city of Beijing. Soon he was in the lobby leaning across the Tourist Information asking a young woman in a green uniform to arrange a one day tour of Beijing.
“You must book day in advance,” she said. “All tours are filled.”
“But,” he said hastily, “I’m only here three days.” He smiled, hoping a show of bright American eagerness would help.
“I don’t really care about tours. Just someone to show me around the city would be fine.”
“What places you like to see?”
“The Forbidden City, I guess. Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall. I’m not too informed,” he said apologetically, unsure how to account for the years of relentless work to make tenure, teaching, grading, faculty meetings, haphazard meals and late night loneliness. A loneliness that was now chronic dogged his every step.
“I can try. It will be more expense,” she said finally. She made a quick phone call and came back, smiling. “I have guide for you. Wait, please. I will come to you.”
Luke watched people in the cheerful early morning clatter of the hotel coffee shop. Foreigners ate bacon and eggs while Asians were served a variety of cakes and bread, or some gruel cereal. He waited as patiently as he was able, aware that precious time was passing–precious, precious time. Never enough time, yet always the relentless push to publish. Before long he saw the clerk from Tourist Information in conversation with a pretty young girl coming towards him, switching from Chinese to English as they approached.
“This is Miss Amy,” his guide was introduced.
Luke’s hand shot out reflexively and then wondered in the next moment if shaking hands were the right thing to do in the People’s Republic. Her tiny hand shook his. “You come with me,” she said cheerfully, “I will show you Beijing.”
Luke followed her out to the curb in front of the hotel, realizing that what he’d taken for mist on this cold morning in November was smog that tinted the air a faint yellow. Shoals of workers made their way past the hotel on bicycles, rubber horns honking, sharing the road with taxis, buses, trucks and the occasional animal drawn cart. Overhead were billboards advertising watches, toothpaste and Toyotas. His guide, dressed in a large black cotton overcoat and jeans slipped through a crowd of Japanese businessmen waiting for a bus to the airport. Luke followed, towering over everyone, pleasing and excusing himself in an effort not to be taken as a pushy American. His guide gave quick, brisk instructions to the driver of a cab and they eased into the flow of traffic. Once settled, she turned to smile at Luke. “The Forbidden City not far.”
Luke expected her to launch into a canned tourist guide rap once they were underway, but she said nothing. Murals and banners glorifying the People’s achievements hung on all the public buildings. Cocking his head at the passing structures, he asked, “What are these buildings?”
“Banks, financial companies. Not interesting.”
They rode in silence while he gazed out the window, uncomfortable because he was surprised to find his guide so disturbingly attractive. She had a small perfect nose and her glasses slipped to the end of it, causing her to tilt her head in a way that charmed him. The cab abruptly came to a halt; she sprang out the door and before he knew it, came around the cab to open the door on his side.
A wide moat faced them and beyond it, she announced, they would be entering the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate. She walked quickly in front of him, turning to give him a smile of such sweetness that it struck him with physical force. She began in the careful English of a tourist guide, “This is Emperor’s Imperial Palace which covers 250 acres and has six small palaces, together 9000 rooms.” Massive, dull red buildings, serene and perfectly proportioned, loomed up. Luke was caught by the crowd of Asians surrounding them. Perhaps he and this girl were the only ones as far as he could see who spoke English. It made his dependence on her feel intimate.
“But I know this place,” he said, lifting his eyes to take in an expanse of white cobblestone square. “I’ve seen this place before.”
“The Last Emperor. You have seen this movie?” Luke seemed to catch her interest for the first time.
“Yes, I guess I did,” he said, jamming his hands into the pockets of his raincoat.
“I have seen this movie also,” she said eagerly.
“Do you see many American movies?” he said, slowing his speech to accommodate her English and carefully avoiding idioms.
“Yes, I am interested in America and Americans all my life.”
Luke flushed, having jumped to the conclusion that she was interested in him. However her words were innocent; her skin had a velvet purity, the line of her jaw rising from the rough cotton at her throat so finely drawn. “How is it your name is Amy?” he said curiously to distract himself.
“My English teacher gave me this name.” She glanced down shyly. “It is not good name?”
“No, a very pretty name,” he assured her quickly, “very American.”
“Good,” she nodded. They walked on past a row of stone carvings of dragons and lion’s heads and crossed a white marble bridge. Luke asked questions just to make conversation about the magnificent buildings with the tip tilted, upward scrolling eaves and found her knowledge to be surprisingly shallow for a tourist guide.
“And the building we were just in?”
“That was the Palace of Heavenly Purity, I think. Before that, Cave of the House of Fairies.”
“I love the names,” Luke said, shaking his head, bemused. He happened to see an English translation at the same time as she announced they were entering the Palace of Purest Perfumes. He realized that she was reading the brass plaques mounted on the red stone of the buildings. Luke read the next line aloud from the plaque above it in English and watched her face freeze. “You’re new as a tour guide?”
“I am not a tourist guide,” she confessed, looking down at the white cobble stones at their feet. “She is my friend. She had no one else to send. We can return if you wish. I am sorry I am so ignorant.”
“It doesn’t matter. Really, I don’t mind.” Luke gave his best smile to put her at ease. “I never remember dates and empires anyway. Let’s just look around. Tell me what you know.”
“I am sorry. So sorry. It’s my day off and she thought, my friend, she thought that…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Luke said again, and it really didn’t. “I don’t have time to do more than scratch the surface anyway.”
“Scratch the surface?” She giggled. “What does this mean?” What did it mean? Like all idioms in native speech, it rolled off the tongue without thought. Amy delighted him by laughing, her hand covering her mouth. “Scratch the surface?” she repeated.
He laughed now too, breaking the ice between them. Luke thought of trying to explain “break the ice” to her, but the phrase was apt, a perfect way of expressing the hard transparent shell of culture and language that enclosed both of them. They were both enjoying the strange joke of a language where words took on meanings silly and private. Everything was slightly, crazily askew. Some wonderful attribute of himself was revealed that American women didn’t find witty or charming. Some communication that transcended language was happening in the air around them and Luke did not know how to interpret it. He tried to keep his mind on what she was saying, watching her lips as she spoke and hardly daring to believe the subtle coquetry. He gazed at her, not listening or paying attention, marveling that the mind could work on so many levels at one time.
He remembered the hot flush of shame over hearing a disparaging comment made about him by a popular girl in high school while he noted the way Amy’s hair sprang up at the temples. He played a freeze frame slide show of his own life up to now.
“But I must tell you some things, Mr. Mouradian,” she insisted, seemingly aware of the meaning behind his rapt expression. “This is where Emperor had bring to him visitors from wild countries.”
“Wild countries?” Luke said, grinning. “Wild?”
“Yes, like Italy,” she said, pointing to one of the many brass information plaques around the circular room lit by natural light. “France.”
“Now you have made a joke in English. Wild means untamed, remote, primitive, passionate,” Luke said. He felt wild to grab her and run out of this strange place where nobody looked like him, wild to kiss her and nuzzle his face in her glossy blue black pony tail held with red ribbon. He was afraid to stop laughing for fear the mood between them would become formal again. The Chinese were so polite you could only guess at what went on behind the smiling face. She listened with that quality of sweetness he found so devastating and rare in American woman his own age.
So, she liked him. So what? Luke found himself telling her about his faculty appointment in Fresno, the condo, his large extended family which had roots generations back in the agricultural enclave of Armenian Fresno, where everyone knew William Saroyan’s family. He found himself skipping over why he was almost thirty six and unmarried, the few women in his past, his longing to come in out of the cold of career achievement to find a wife and raise his own children like his sisters and cousins.
“Tell me about you now, Amy,” he insisted, bold enough to touch the sleeve of her overcoat. “I want to know about your life.”
“I accompany my parents alone,” she said, “since my brother has married. My parents are very good and love me. My grandmother also accompanies us.” She leaned close as she spoke and looked up at him from under eyelashes that caught droplets of rain.
“What do you do for fun?”
“Fun? I like to play tennis on my team from my work.”
They continued smiling at one another. Luke now recognized their walk had brought them to Tiananmen Square. He knew enough not to make mention of world events which had taken place here, instead he pressed her for details about her life. She told him over lunch in a crowded cafeteria that she had a degree in finance from the University. Her parents were both high school teachers, she was twenty two, worked in a bank and did translations of contracts from English and Japanese into Chinese.
“Then your written English must be pretty good.”
“I have small opportunities to speak English, but I try every time.”
“Here,” he said, reaching into his daypack he slung over the back of his chair. “Take this Time magazine.” Cartoons were even harder to explain than idioms. Over their second pot of tea, he gave up. “I think you either get this one about two guys at the party or you don’t. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse explaining it.”
The incongruity of the meaning of the phrase continued to amuse Amy for the rest of the afternoon. As did his saying he felt like he’d been dragged through a knot hole backward. She took him to the Friendship Store where he brought tourist stuff to carry home. He didn’t care where they went. He found himself being uncharacteristically fanciful, pretending that their driver was named Jerry. He made up improbable stories about Jerry to make her laugh while the driver skidded around corners, weaving his way through shoals of bicycles.
To control his tongue which had become completely unpredictable, Luke found himself telling Amy about baseball, Hostess Twinkies, New York City, his family’s vineyard, and his sister’s new baby. He felt as though he were dumping himself out at her feet so that she would understand everything about him. He had to clench his hands by his side not to touch her. The afternoon was drawing to a close. Luke found she had given Jerry orders to bring them back to the hotel. “Will you stay and have dinner with me, Amy? I don’t want the day to be over yet.”
She seemed happy at this. “Yes, if you like, Mr. Mouradian. First I must call to my mother to tell her I will not be home until later.”
“Oh, c’mon, call me Luke,” he said, amused by the fracturing of Mouradian. “But before we do that, I want to pay you for today.”
“No, no.” Amy was waving her hands, almost panicky. Her eyes shone behind the glasses. “No, I have told you nothing about Beijing. No, I cannot take money from you,” she said, her manner becoming stiff.
He was lost. Was it insulting to want to pay her? “But the driver at least…”
“Yes, we must pay the driver,” she agreed. She took several bills from him and paid Jerry who was lounging by the cab reading a comic book. What did any of it mean? Luke watched her sidelong as they entered the bland lobby of the Hilton. Her eyes went to her friend at the counter who looked up at her from a conversation with two Indian women in saris.
“I’ll wait here for you,” Luke said. He watched her glide to the Registration Desk, swaying like a lily. One of the clerks stretched a phone for her across the counter with a frown. He smiled as he thought of telling her about Halloween and Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and found instead his thoughts were leading him to imagine her with no clothes on. She had not once taken off the bulky quilted overcoat during the course of the day. She hung up the phone and stood with her hand on it a moment longer before handing it back across the counter. Luke rose expectantly.
“No, I cannot join with you tonight,” she said, holding her cloth bag and the Time magazine tightly. “I must join with my mother.”
“That’s really disappointing,” Luke said, crushed.
“Yes, I am sorry. I am also disappointing.” She said it sincerely and stood looking up at him, as though she were waiting for something. This was the point at which Luke always grew awkward with American women. For once in his life Luke wanted to risk all. Words took shape in his mouth. It took his entire effort not to reach out and touch her. Other nationalities weren’t as huggy-kissy as Americans. And for another thing, they were in the center of a hotel lobby where she knew people.
The moment for risking all passed, as it always did. Amy said nothing and looked down at her shoes, cheap Korean high tops with scuffed toes. She had that rigid formal smile again. Luke had read somewhere that in Asian countries people smiled when they were embarrassed.
“Can I take you home?” he said finally. “Or what about breakfast tomorrow? Or lunch or dinner? Both?” he said, laughing. Five invitations in a row were unmistakable in any culture. “Tea at least?”
She seemed to make a decision. “I can call to you here and leave you a message. Yes?”
“When are you done? I have to be at this conference all day tomorrow and there’s a banquet tomorrow night. Would you like to come to the banquet with me?” He imagined somehow it could be accomplished, if she were willing to sit through an evening of polite academic tedium.
Amy was shaking her head from side to side, the glossy pony tail whipping back and forth. Light glittered off her glasses. “Please, I will call to you to leave message.”
“Alright,” Luke agreed finally. She was already moving toward the door of the hotel, disappearing. He lay on the short single bed in his room and thought about her. It would be impossible to convey this whole crazy attraction to his sister who was always trying to fix him up with her friends. This girl had something he was drawn to in a way that had never happened before. Was he too old for her? Was she just being polite? Just interested in improving her English? Would she freak, or worse, would she laugh if he told her what was happening in his head?
Asians thought some foreigners smelled bad. Luke sniffed his armpit and planned to splash on more Aramis the next time he saw her. He had so little time. Did she have to go home because she had a boyfriend? Was it some family thing? He’d read the Chinese were closely supervised, especially the educated elite for fear of defection. He simply didn’t know. He drifted off to sleep trying to name the exotic scent he had once been close enough to detect in her hair.
* * *
Twenty international scholars were gathered in a conference room at the Hilton to discuss ways of measuring fertility trends in developing nations. Luke was distracted from the proceedings watching a Chinese scholar toy with the lid of her porcelain tea cup. He had an impulse to confide in her and ask her advice, wondering in the next moment what on earth was wrong with him. The woman might conclude he was a lunatic. Even worse, she might consider him depraved, hitting on a young girl. Luke forced himself to concentrate. At the first break he lunged out of the meeting room to ask for messages. Nothing. Amy’s friend at the Information Counter caught his eye and smiled.
There was no message at lunch or again during the afternoon break. He’d been twelve kinds of romantic fool, Luke decided, seduced by the corny old mystery of the East. As he entered his hotel room to have a nap before the banquet, the telephone rang. He snatched at it.
“Hello, I am Miss Amy.”
“Uh, hi. How are you?” Luke said stupidly, wearing a grin, and stumbling to fall over his suitcases onto the bed.
“I am fine, Mr. Mouradian. How are you?”
“Fine, fine. How was your day?”
She giggled. “I think about scratching the surface and beating the horse dead while I am translating contract.”
“Beating a dead horse,” he laughed. “When can I see you?”
“Tomorrow in the night? I know very good restaurant to make Peking duck. You know Peking duck?”
“I work in the street on which is the hotel. Not far. I come to hotel to join with you at 5:00 o’clock?”
“Great.” Luke quickly tried to engage her with talk about the conference. Deliberately he used the idiom “talk until you’re blue in the face” to make her laugh. They talked for a long time and he slid into his chair at the banquet table late, under disapproving eyes. She vaguely deflected personal questions and he didn’t know if it was just her way, or if he was being rude, pressing her with questions. In America, asking questions meant you were interested.
Later he sat down on the bed looking out over the city lights, wondering where she was out there in that grand megalopolis of how many millions. He thought of the movie Sleepless in Seattle, some dumb romantic comedy about a cute little boy calling a telephone psychologist because he wanted to find a new wife for his Dad who was a lonely widower. The setup was that the boy and his father lived in Seattle; the dream woman lived in Baltimore. Luke thought, well I’ve gone one further. I live in Fresno; my dream woman lives in Beijing. At least Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan both spoke English.
At five the next day he was waiting in the hotel lobby. He jumped to his feet as he saw her enter. The confusing rush of feelings came upon him again in her presence. Tonight she wore a black suit and white blouse with pearl earrings, and around her neck, a turquoise silk scarf. He tried to tell her how lovely she was. She laughed with that pretty lilt that made everything a huge personal joke, welcoming him once again into their private Beijing. Luke christened the cab driver Jerry Two.
The restaurant was huge, noisy, and very crowded. They chose a duck and Amy’s name was painted on it in sauce and borne away to be cut up and served in crisp pieces with hoi sin sauce, almost like a burrito. Luke ate what she ordered and hoped it wasn’t tangerine flavored ox penis or bear’s paws which he had been laughingly warned about before he came. The crowd that surrounded them, mostly Asians with a scattering of Europeans, was forgotten. Luke was falling in love, but people of his age and class simply didn’t fall in love like this. He surrendered to its dizzy spin and wondered if you “fell” in love in Chinese. How did their language express that headlong spiraling swooping pitch of delirium? Once he let his hand cover Amy’s and she did not draw it away.
He allowed himself to imagine them shopping at the A&P, going to the movies with his sister and her husband, and buying a house in the suburbs. These imaginings gave shape to the beguiling enigma of her sweet smiles and agreeable laughter. It seemed he might suggest anything. Somehow it was agreed that she would come back to the hotel with him to get a Newsweek he wanted to give her.
On the way back they were crushed together in the smallest cab he had yet seen. Luke alone seemed to fill most of the back seat. There was nowhere to put one arm except around her shoulders. She did not object, but neither did she seem to relax into him. She kept her head turned slightly away. In her glasses he saw the neon lights from passing stores and the traffic lights of Beijing flicker and change. Once she turned to look at him and their faces were very close. Unable to stop himself, Luke leaned forward to kiss her just as the cab accelerated jerkily from a stop and she turned away. Then they were at the hotel.
In the lobby, two of his colleagues from the States stopped him to ask if he knew about the bad fires near Fresno. Luke thought instantly of the eucalyptus with their oily streamers of dried bark that were everywhere on the hillsides around his condo and the years of drought that had left the land parched. Amy picked up on his worried expression.
“I’d like to see what’s going on,” Luke said. “If it’s on CNN it must be a big fire.” There was TV in his room.
“Alright, if you like.”
With an American woman great meanings and possibilities were suggested if she agreed to go to his hotel room, but here it was unclear. The walk across the lobby seemed very exposed; the elevators were in plain view of all the hotel employees. Amy stood apart from him as he punched the elevator button. Words and actions had meanings to her he could not imagine. Silently, they walked down a long uncarpeted hallway to his room. He held open the door for her and she entered. The door shut behind them. Luke rubbed his hands together nervously and helped her off with her overcoat, laying it carefully over a chair. She sank down onto the chair, smiling up at him.
“Let’s see about these fires then.” She helped him find the channel and returned to sit on the edge of a chair about four feet away. Luke was yanked back to America and found himself thinking of something other than Amy for the first time in three days. Luke turned to her in alarm. “My God, that fire is about a mile away from where I live!” He sank onto the bed, his overcoat half on, half off.
“This is very bad?”
“Sorta,” he said, stroking his chin, absorbed in the screen.
“Sorta?” she said, inquiring with a smile.
“Sorta, kinda,” he said, not wanting for once to explain. “Yeah.” Amy got up from her chair to be closer to the TV, just in front of him. He longed to reach out and pull her close to him, to pull her down beside him, just to hold her, to stroke her face and kiss her. There were no feelings of brute lust for this delicate girl. He held out one hand, trying to form a sentence, even a word to convey this powerful upsurge of feeling. The telephone rang. Automatically Luke picked it up.
A woman’s voice said, “We noticed that Miss Amy followed you up to your room.”
Dumbly, Luke said, “Yes?” Followed? They were being watched?
“We wish to speak with Miss Amy.” Luke handed the phone to her. She took it apprehensively and said something briefly in Chinese and then listened, nodding, for a long time. Her fingers rubbed the edge of her wrist watch, back and forth, back and forth. Luke watched her, wondering what was going on. Finally she hung up the phone and grabbed her coat pushing her arms into it, stooping to reach under the chair for her scarf which had slid to the floor, obviously frightened. She reached into her cloth bag and took out the copy of Time and handed it to him. “You take back,” she said. “I can’t keep. It’s bad for me. No. No.”
“It’s yours, Amy. I don’t want the damn magazine.”
Her panic startled, then frightened him. “What happened? Let’s go downstairs. Don’t go. Please, Amy.” Was this some political violation she could be punished for? It had to be. Was the magazine on some list? Luke tried to hold her by the shoulders but she tore herself away from him.
She was whimpering with fright, struggling. He was able to hold her close to him for just a second, long enough to capture the sensation of her hair under his chin and then she was gone. She shoved him back into the room when he tried to follow her. It was all so sudden that when she left Luke collapsed, falling back on his bed, feeling like a huge, dumb, ugly Yank tourist completely out of his depth. The faint scent of her was still in the room.
His last day was endless. The clerks were politely unhelpful when he asked about reaching Miss Amy. The fires continued to burn. Luke watched CNN Thursday, comforted by the TV blatting out familiar stupidities in English. His heart was hollowed out in a remembrance, =some incipient early midlife crisis in which one could have abandoned all moorings, casting off from shore into unknown waters. She had been his M.F.E.O., a line he remembered from the dumb movie–his Made for Each Other–that one person he had come half a world away to find and she had vaporized with a telephone call.
As he picked up his suitcase ready to leave for the airport, he turned to look towards the telephone for the last time. In the lobby he noticed the same man again who got up as he passed; a watcher. He had brought Amy to harm, just being who he was, with his smiles and clumsy flirtation, his unthinking gift. Pursuing her would make things worse. Perhaps it was just another lesson in traveling light.
He was sandwiched on the plane between the window and a sleeping Asian man whose head rolled towards him groggily. The man’s face was lined with tiredness. Luke let him sleep. He sat there with a stranger’s head on his shoulder, wondering if he was returning to a new point of departure, or merely back to the same place where it had always ended before.
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