Authors: Charles McCarry
“Thanks.” My voice stuck in my throat.
I gagged, turned my head, hawked, spat. The tenor waited politely for me to finish.
He said, “Can you swim?”
“Good,” the tenor said. “Before we go any farther, I want to give you a heads-up. In a few minutes something is going to happen. It will not be enjoyable. However, nobody is going to shoot you or stab you or strangle you or hit you on the head with an ax. You will be given an opportunity to save your own life. That’s it. The idea is to teach you a lesson, nothing more.”
The tenor’s tone was reasonable, sympathetic even, like a friendly hand laid on the shoulder of someone less fortunate than he. He seemed to want me to understand that he was not personally responsible for whatever he was going to do to me next. I wondered what I had done to deserve Steve and this guy in a single twenty-four-hour period, but here I was.
I said, “May I ask a question?”
“I probably won’t know the answer. But go ahead.”
“Are you sure you’ve got the right man?”
He spelled my full name and recited my Social Security number. “Is that you?”
I didn’t say no. I did say, “Another question—two, actually. What have I done and who have I done it to?”
“I have no idea. Everyone says you’re smart, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to figure it out.”
“I have no idea.”
I said, “Where are we?”
“On the river.”
“Yes, but where on the river?”
“How far upstream?”
“We’ve been under way for maybe an hour,” the tenor said. “Time to get you out of that rig.”
He knelt and swiftly unlocked the shackles on my ankles. “Now the wrists,” he said. “Please don’t do anything foolish.”
Doing something foolish was exactly what I had in mind. There were only two of them, and by now I had most of my strength back. I thought I had a chance to fight my way out of this situation. Then the tenor raised his voice and said something in a dialect I did not understand. The other four fellows suddenly appeared. Apparently they had been relaxing belowdecks. That explained the cigarette smoke. Two of them grasped my arms, two more my legs, and the fifth grabbed me around the waist.
Then, as if they were one creature with ten arms and a single brain, they lifted me above their heads, grunted in unison like the acrobats they were, and threw me overboard.
The Yangtze was the temperature of body fluids. It was full of dead things and other foul matter. It moved swiftly, it seized me and pulled me under. If, as the tenor had said, this was an opportunity to save my own life, I was in trouble. I am a good swimmer for a man with heavy bones, but as I sank I realized that swimming had little to do with what was happening to me. I kicked, I clawed the soup of turds and piss and the hundreds of condoms that fluttered in the current like schools of albino worms. I willed myself to rise to the surface as I had done hundreds of times before, but I was being pulled down, as if something alive had hold of my foot. I was drowning. I knew this, my eyes stung, I saw nothing but darkness. The acrobats had taken me so completely by surprise that I hadn’t had time to take a full breath before I hit the water, and I knew that I would not be able to hold that tiny gulp of oxygen in my lungs long enough to find my way to air. I was dying. Again. Clearly it was my destiny to do that over and over, but there had to be a last time and surely this must be it. I was not frightened. I took this notion as a good sign. Crazily I thought,
Fright is part of the survival instinct. It means you still think you can live, that at the last minute some immortal hand or eye will get you out of this.
But I was damned if I would die just because some nameless son of a bitch had decided I should. I swam harder, counting the strokes like I used to count the steps when I ran the football. Breath leaked from my nose, I could not see the bubbles but I felt them leave my body and knew I could not stop the rest from escaping, too.
My head broke surface. Something hard and heavy struck me on the skull. Seeing stars, I reached for it and grabbed hold and hugged it. In the darkness I could tell it was a metal sphere about the size of a medicine ball. I knocked on it. It was hollow, it rang. A container, a mine, a clever Oriental safe full of money or ancient texts? I wondered if my scalp was bleeding, but I was too wet and slimy to tell. I considered the consequences of an open wound in this world of microbes. My sight cleared. There was no moon, there was never a moon over Shanghai. All around me I saw feeble green and red and yellowish white boat lights. It was too dark to see the boats. On one of them the tenor and the acrobats were looking for a man overboard. I tried to put the sphere between me and everything upstream but the sphere was spinning, so I knew I was popping into view every few seconds like a mechanical figure on a steeple clock. There were more lights along the riverbanks now and more switched on in the windows of a wilderness of identical slablike apartment buildings. Using the second hand of the Rolex skin diver’s wristwatch I inherited from my father after he shot himself, I estimated that the Yangtze was flowing at about twelve miles an hour. It was five-twenty. I should be in Shanghai proper around six. A splinter of light appeared along the eastern horizon. A slice of the sun followed it, coloring the blanket of smoke and poisonous fumes that overhung the city. A dead baby, white and bloated and wide-eyed, floated by, then something that might have been another. The sun, a misshapen parody of itself, strengthened. Its cantaloupe rays crept across the river. The water shone dully like the rainbow in an oil slick.
In the distance I could see the glittering towers of downtown. A little wind came up. My sphere had been floating in midstream, but now it drifted closer to shore. Up ahead I saw the great Yangtze Bridge. I was as close to dry land as I was likely to get. I let go of the sphere and trod water. I started to swim. Three strokes facedown in this cesspool were all I could manage, so I turned over and backstroked to shore. Several men were fishing near my landing point. Like time travelers from the coolie past they wore big straw pancake hats. Half a dozen plump fish quivered on the mud, slapping their tails as they suffocated. The fishermen gave me barely a glance as I staggered by, vomiting as I went: just another crazy foreigner.
When I got home, I found Mei in bed. She lay on her back, covered to her waist by a sheet, pretty breasts visible, childlike feet with red toenails sticking out below. She seemed to be sound asleep but as I tiptoed toward the bathroom she said, “Why do you smell like that?”
I said, “I fell into the river.”
Her face was sleepy. “Ah,” she said. “Better take a bath.” Catching my full scent, she made a throaty sound of disgust. “Take
In the tiny bathroom I emptied my pockets of money and passport and keys, took off my clothes and shoes, rolled them into a ball, and threw them out the window. The hot water, all ten liters of it, lasted long enough to rinse away some of the oily filth that clung to my skin. Then, shivering, I soaped and rinsed, soaped and rinsed again and again and again, washed between my toes and inside every orifice just as many times, and kept on until the pipes shuddered and the water lessened to a rusty trickle. When I went back into the bedroom Mei awaited me, a bottle of alcohol in her hands.
“Lie down,” she said. She rubbed every square centimeter of my body except the male parts, which I protected with cupped hands. As she worked she asked no questions, made no jokes. There was no accusative female “Where have you really been all night?”, no jocular “Did you enjoy your swim?” She asked for no explanations whatsoever. She did ask if I had memorized today’s material,
(“Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day”), by the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, who drowned when he tried to kiss his own image in a moonlit river. I told her I had not got around to it. “Then we can’t have our lesson,” said Mei. “Go to sleep.”
She got dressed and left. No word, no kiss, no smile, no scent except for the alcohol fumes that filled the room. Perhaps I am inventing memories, but it seems to me now that I sensed at that moment that something was unfixably wrong, that things were no longer as they had been, that the Mei I knew was going to change into another Mei, perhaps even the real Mei whom I had never known, that she had a new secret, that she was going to put an end to something, perhaps to everything, that she was wrapped in melancholy. So was I.
Why then, you may wonder, did I not ask her a single question, if only a simple “what’s wrong?” or “what’s going on?” Why didn’t we fight, scream, threaten, accuse, demand explanations? Why didn’t we do something instead of pretending that nothing was happening?
Well, Mei was Mei, whoever Mei really was or whoever she was about to become. And my mind was elsewhere. As soon as she was out the door I e-mailed Tom Simpson, no easy matter because there were no wild cards that described my night on the Yangtze. Evidently I came close enough, because Tom told me by return e-mail to get out of China the next day on a certain Delta flight, and to take nothing with me but my passport and the clothes I stood up in.
That evening, to my surprise, Mei arrived on time and brought a better dinner than usual and a bottle of cheap truly awful Chinese chardonnay that we drank warm. I recited Li Bai’s poem—I had had all day to memorize it—and the foreplay went as usual. Afterward as she lay on top of me I told her I was going away for a while. That I was leaving the next day. Her body clenched. She rolled off me. I saw something in her eyes I had not seen before. To my surprise, she asked questions—peppered me with them. All of a sudden she burned with curiosity. I had never seen her like this, never known she could be like this.
Where was I going? why was I going? when would I return?
I answered with the truth—America, business, I didn’t know.
What kind of business?
Was I meeting someone I knew?
Yes, but it was a business trip. No doubt I’d be introduced to strangers.
She turned over on her face, covered herself scalp to toes with the sheet. I went into the bathroom to get a glass of water.
“One more question,” Mei called out from the other room. “Exactly how much does this person you’re going to meet weigh?”
In my delight on hearing Mei, who never asked questions, ask such a question, I wanted to laugh. Instead I pretended not to hear her. I sensed, rather than saw, that she was putting on her clothes. Because she wore only three garments—skirt, T-shirt, underpants, plus sandals, this took only seconds. When I came back, she was gone.
At Dulles International Airport I was met by a pale freckled young redhead. She wore a wedding band on the wrong finger of her left hand. Pointing to herself with that hand, she said, “Me friend. Welcome home. Good flight?” I said, “Dehydrating. A little bumpy over Alaska.”
Sotto voce, as if we were down the rabbit hole, the redhead said, “I’m Sally. Follow me.”
In the parking lot we piled into a cluttered old Mazda. The load of soda cans and coffee containers and McDonald’s and Popeye’s boxes and CDs and old newspapers in back shifted and tumbled every time Sally turned a corner or stepped on the brakes. She dropped me off in front of a brick row house on a cul-de-sac just off Spout Run, in Arlington. “Same recognition phrase,” she said.
I climbed the steep stairs and rang the bell. The door, gleaming with brass and varnish, opened before the chimes stopped ringing and I was greeted by a rotund, bespectacled Chinese who wore the regulation meritocrat chinos, tennis shirt, blazer, and Docksiders. No socks. He was a little guy, a foot or so shorter than me, and he had to lean back to get a look at my face. I waited for the magic words Sally had told me to expect, but instead of speaking them he let loose a torrent of Mandarin. I answered, briefly, in the same tongue. In the flat English of the Ohio-born he said, “Please repeat in Mandarin what I just said to you.” I did so as best I could remember. He said, “That takes care of that. But we’ve got to go through the motions. Come on in and we’ll talk some more. Then you’ll meet Mr. Polly.”
Apparently this fellow did not bother with cover names, because he neither offered me one nor asked me to supply one. We sat down at the tiny kitchen table. I had the impression that we were alone. The house smelled like a safe house—dusty, untended, empty. Quiet. You could hear the whoosh of traffic on Spout Run, but little else. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The doorbell rang again. He went to the door and came back with a pizza box. He opened the box. Peppers, mushrooms, black olives. “You hungry?” I nodded. For the next couple of hours, we conversed in Mandarin, the level of difficulty rising as the minutes passed. He spoke the language beautifully. At last he looked at his watch and said, “Almost time for Mr. Polly. Let’s knock it off.” Obviously this chat had been some sort of test. I asked him how it had gone. “You get an A,” he said. “Heavy Shanghai accent, though. But you have an ear, so it’ll go away if you hang out with a different crowd.” He picked up the pizza box and took it and its fingerprints and traces of DNA with him as he left without saying good-bye.