“I’m coming!” I yell with more frustration than anger. The pounding on the door repeats itself for the second time; five hard, strong knocks in rapid succession. I grimace as I force myself out of bed. The fire in the stove has died in the night and even though I was fully clothed when I finally fell asleep my stocking feet feel the cold of the floor through the large holes at the ball and heel of my socks.
I open the door in the middle of the next staccato quintet and startle Jason who is rapping on it. “What!?” I ask with more vocal energy than I feel.
“What? What!? You kidding me, right? Suns up old man, where the hell are you?” he says loudly and with feigned aggression.
“I’m right here. What do you want?”
“Not to be late for work, that’s what I want,” he says in the same playfully belligerent tone before adding kindly and quietly, “How’s Frances?”
My spirit, head and shoulders fall under the weight of his question. I rub my face and leave my head tilted downward, my fingertips rest in the boney ridge that holds my eyeballs and my hands cover my face from the forehead down. I take in a deep breath, sigh heavily and respond, “Dead,” in a voice as void of life as the word.
Jason’s face betrays the gut punch strength of my reply. His eyes fill with tears, his expression contracts in agony and he looks skyward before holding his hands out and upward. He enters our apartment, my apartment now, and wraps his thin, young, strong arms around me and whispers in my ear, “Damn. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Where is she, in bed?”
“No. She didn’t die at home. She’s already at the cemetery. She died at church.”
His head springs back in shock and releasing me his body follows, “Church?! What the hell was she doing at church?” After a bewildered moment his head lifts slightly upward and then his lips betray the smallest of smiles as his eyes narrow and he makes tiny nodding motions, “Oh, she went there to pass, didn’t she? I’m so sorry for your loss, A.J.” He wraps his thin, wiry arms around me and at his touch I burst into uncontrolled, inconsolable sobs. “It’s alright, my friend, it’s alright. She’s with her Lord. She’s at peace.”
I inhale deeply to catch my breath, bring Jason tightly to me for a brief moment and then let him go. “Yeah, maybe she is. You’d better go now, I don’t want to make you late for work.”
Being late for work under the Geng Jia has consequences that are far more potent than merely a dock in our pay. We Meiguo, American citizens living in a country that is our own but occupied by the PRC, have no real rights and live at the mercy and dictates of our foreign masters. Minor infringements can lead to job loss, imprisonment or forced relocation.
“A’ight, I’d better. You arrange to miss a shift?” he asks with left eye narrowed and head tilted.
“You know better than that,” I reply with venom in my voice.
Knowing that my acerbic tone was not meant for him Jason ignores it and says, “Then get your ass movin’. You know I’m sorry as can be about Frances, she was like a second mother to me, but we got to go, and we got to go now.”
“I’m not going. They can fuck themselves,” I exclaim soft voiced but with heated passion.
“No, they can fuck you and me and all the rest of us too, and with a long, hot poker. Let’s go, fore you get me in a world a hurt.”
I pause for the length of a deep breath while Jason stands with his fists resting on his hips, eyes open wide, lips pursed and head tilted to the side. “Fine. Let me piss,” I reply.
With the utterance of ‘fine’ his posture relaxes and his death stare disappears. “Yeah, you better, or you’ll wet you self. Go.”
Exiting the bathroom I throw on shoes and grab my threadbare, wool overcoat that I have owned since I was a young man. The label on the neck says Made In China and this coat, plus the hundreds of billions of other items that we Meiguo, no- we Americans, bought with out paying for was one grain of sand among a seemingly infinite avalanche of boulders, rocks and dust that we brought down upon ourselves in a self entombing crush of debt.
“We gonna have to hurry, old man. Think you can run a little?”
“I’ll do my best,” is my resigned answer.
We step into the still dark morning and remembering his greeting admonition that the sun was already up I snort a chuckle. The stars are visible and the sun is below the horizon but high enough to create the dimmest of a barely perceptible lightening of the eastern sky. We must report for work, clocked in and ready to go, no later than 6:55 for our 7:00 start time. Jason walks with me most mornings both for companionship and to decrease the likelihood of attack from outlaws, but because I cannot maintain the pace he can we usually give ourselves a generous half hour to travel to the factory. Based on the sky’s early morning glow we have less than twenty minutes before we must report to work.
Silly, useless thoughts concerning clocks and time zones flood into my brain as I look eastward. Though the PRC spans a distance east to west that is nearly identical to the continental USA it has used a single time zone time since Mao Zedong took over in 1949 and only observed daylight savings time for a few short years in the late 1980’s.
One of the most insidious affronts to American culture was the forced adaptation of this timekeeping model and the usage of a 24 hour clock. Under the PRC’s prompting the US rubber-stamp congress passed a law that made a single timezone for the entire country, including Hawaii and Alaska, and outlawed the use of daylight savings time. Six a.m. became 6:00 and six p.m. 18:00. If the time is 6:00 in Washington D.C. then it is 6:00 in Honolulu. This created some interesting sunrise and sunset times for differing parts of the country but other than the loss of daylight savings time Iowa was unaffected.
Congress decreed that the USA would use Chicago as its official standard because it was the largest, centrally located US city. Of course the fact that Chicago time was exactly twelve hours apart from PRC time, which meant that time conversion from one country to the other was vastly simplified, had nothing to do with central time becoming the official time for occupied America. “In a pig’s eye,” I say under my breath.
“Wha’s that?” Jason replies, simultaneously watching the road beneath us for ankle shearing potholes and the shadows around us for marauders.
“Nothing,” I manage between pants. To call what we are doing a run is to stretch truth to absurdity but the pace Jason is setting, though a dogtrot, is faster than I have traveled for any distance in quite sometime. My labored breathing is uncomfortable and my body is sending pangs to my brain in protest. As we run along my body sends an additional pair of messages to my conscious. One is that I am hungry; I have not eaten in almost 24 hours, and the other is that our quick pace is stimulating my digestive tract and inducing my need to defecate.
After a few more minutes of running I am forced to make a choice to either stop running or to soil myself. Pigheadedly I decide to stop running. Slowing my pace to a leisurely stroll and clenching my butt cheeks together I declare, “Jason, you go, I gotta walk.”
“What!? No! We’re almost there, we can make it if we hurry.”
“Dude, if I hurry I’m going to shit myself. I’ve got to walk. Now. You go, better that only one of us is late.”
He stands for a split second with fists clenched before answering. “A’ight, I’m going. Good luck, man. Love you,” he says and turns to run. He stops dead in his tracks, pulls something out of his pocket and hands it to me. “Almost forgot! I grabbed some bread off a your counter while you was pissing. Figured you’d want a little breakfast!”
He hands me the stale bread, winks, turns and takes off running at a pace easily twice what we had been maintaining. I take the bread, shove it into my coat pocket, smile and holler to his quickly disappearing back, “Thanks!” then add far more quietly, “Love you, too.”
I try to walk on with sphincter muscle flexed but my need to relieve myself quickly proves undeniable. I glance up and down the street to insure that no one is in close proximity. Vestiges of engrained gentility from bygone days bring a hint of burning red to my cheeks as I work my way between a trash dumpster and a wall, pull my pants down and have an explosive movement of my bowels. My need not to be seen is not limited to inculcated modesty but also the realization that even though the city is falling to pieces around us we can still be arrested for eliminating our wastes in public.
Walking quickly while eating the dry, stale bread I arrive at the factory just as the sun is high enough to offer a scant amount of illumination. This coming of the dawn portends nothing fortuitous for me. I hurry to the employee area and stash my coat in my locker. I long to go to the washroom and cleanse myself and wash my hands but knowing that I am late doing so would be folly. I come to the final corner before getting to the time-clock and wonder how late I am. If the clock has not yet hit 7:00 I might receive a warning rather than punishment. Turning the corner my hopes are dashed. Standing at the time-clock, stone faced and with arms crossed in front of her is Zhuguan, a Geng Jia factory guard known for her ferociousness.
“Seven four one seven seven six, you are late,” she says without moving body or eyes. “I was instructed to bring you to Gou the moment that you arrived. I am sure your tardiness will be noted. Come with me.”
I follow in dread silence. Zhuguan was waiting for me to bring me to the factory owner. I have seen Gou many times when he has lectured us on our pathetic work performances and urged us to conform to the dictates of the Jin Jihua but I have never appeared before him in person and in private. My hopes to receive a warning vanish and the feeling of nauseated, gut wrenching pain that I had experienced before my humiliating digestive evacuation on the street returns with a vengeance. The only Meiguo that I know personally that sees Gou is my older son, Atticus who walks his dogs. Atticus had shared stories of Gou’s imperial impatience. Even though I am following Zhuguan I walk in front of her. This leaves me vulnerable to physical attack and increases my unease. I have seen Zhuguan dispense discipline by wielding her baton and know that she is both a skillful and enthusiastic practitioner of bokken.
As we walk I hear her sniffing the air. “Meiguo, you stink worse than most of your kind. Your late arrival and mephitic aroma will surely heighten the ire of Gou. I am certain that today is a day you shall long remember.”
We arrive at Gou’s outer office and enter without knocking. A Yazhou receptionist, as opposed to a Meiguo one, sits at the large desk, a testament to Gou’s wealth. Zhuguan walks up to the receptionist and says, “Gou is expecting this one; Meiguo seven four one seven seven six.”
The receptionist looks at me, nods to Zhuguan and picks up her phone. She speaks quietly and I cannot hear what she says but she nods several times before returning the phone to its cradle. “You may go in,” she says to Zhuguan, “he is expecting you.”
Trailing Zhuguan I enter, wondering if I will exit alive.