The Madonna Business
Chinese Stories in English
I was in business those years, too.
The Iris Advertising Agency, in which I partnered with Virtue Pang, had been open for more than five months and we had a lot of traffic. Virtue received several customers every day at the agency. We burned out two coffee machines and used up several cartons of disposable paper cups, but I later learned that he hadn’t signed any decent contracts. All those people had come in just to talk to him about art. Once a rock musician got drunk on beer and ran around the agency pinching his toy, pissing on all the potted plants and shouting “Come on! Come on!” in English. I didn’t know what went wrong when, pot after pot, those azaleas, split-leaf philodendrons and money trees withered and died not too many days later.
I have to introduce Virtue. He’s my friend, an amateur poet and music enthusiast, and an art designer by profession. He’s uniformly recognized as the person with the most artistic talent in our circle of friends, and at the time he was the manager of our company. But if talent can’t make money, what use is it?
Everyone can imagine how terrified I was. Five months with nothing to show for it and my admiration for Virtue had turned to anger. I ridiculed his incompetence on numerous occasions, not to mention berating everything he loved – the sourness of poetry, the uselessness of music – I even slandered the master he admired the most, Picasso, by saying he was just a sex fiend. Perhaps he’d heard it all before, but he withstood the criticism rationally and logically. He said, “Tell me, does losing a little money qualify you to slander art?”
Later I heard him defend the failure of our enterprise very fluently. “It’s all the fault if an imperious Hong Kong superstar who missed appointments; friends of friends who were introduced to us as cooperative partners but who were extremely unreliable, including one who was a con artist; and a furniture dealer who negotiated for outdoor advertising but turned out to be a total illiterate who couldn’t even recognize the simplest characters. He backed out when someone, somehow, mentioned the name of our agency.
“He complained that we’d ‘blindly followed the advice of a female painter to register the unfortunate name Iris. That flower only blooms for a short, short time, don’t you know? Van Gogh painted irises and went crazy, don’t you know? Now, just my luck, the curse of iris will come down on me and I’ll be driven crazy by you guys.’”
After Virtue finished that story, he brought up some old stuff. “I’d wanted to call the agency ‘Southern Steppes’, remember?” He was talking loudly. “The south, and grasslands, such an expansive, beautiful sounding name. You were the one against it.”
Virtue continued to rent office space in the Pacific Hotel Annex for a while. He retained all the people we’d employed on the payroll, wore a Western suit and leather shoes every day, and drove his Volkswagen Santana to commute to the office. He told the staff, who were rather nervous, “Don’t worry! The last apple on the tree is always the reddest and sweetest.”
Someone told me he sent ninety-nine roses to his girlfriend Peaches on her birthday. This made me suspect that his pursuit of romance and enjoyment would lead to him squander the little bit remaining in the agency's bank account. I called once again and criticized him, and that’s when we had a falling out. I heard his voice get arrogant and sharp. “Go ahead and withdraw that little bit of money of yours. I could care less.”
Then, after a calculated silence, he revealed that he had an ace up his sleeve, one that would be hard for people to believe: Madonna. “You know, Madonna?” He cleared his throat and said, “I’ll tell you a secret. Madonna’s coming. Big business for us is coming soon.”
I saw Virtue in the Pacific Hotel coffee shop.
He was having a tête-à-tête with a strange girl, drinking coffee, talking and shrugging his shoulders. As always, he presented himself as extraordinarily dashing when he was with a young woman. He was in full mettle and shrugged his shoulders frequently. When I walked over, he seemed to have forgotten our previous unpleasantness and magnanimously introduced me to the girl. “Miss Mary Jian, from Shenzhen, a cooperating partner in the Madonna business.” He noticed my look of suspicion as he said that and, nudging me with his elbow, whispered, “Old Man Jian’s niece.”
I of course recognized who Old Man Jian was as soon as his name left Virtue’s mouth. The so-called “top dog” or “godfather” of the advertising industry, a person whose success was legendary and who could make his way along the “white roads” of society, the “black roads” of the underworld, and even the “red roads” of corrupt officials. I just instinctively doubted the authenticity of this big business deal. Virtue’s grandiose and disorderly social life made me more than a little circumspect about this strange girl.
I remember very clearly that she didn't stand up at the time, seemly returning the compliment of my suspicious look. She frowned and extended her hand lazily for me to shake, making it clear that she was offering me a gift.
She spat some coffee grounds into a paper napkin, wadded it up and threw it in the ashtray. “What kind of coffee is this!” she said angrily and glanced at the waiter in the distance. “Each place does its own kind of coffee,” she said with a show of magnanimity. “I won’t niggle about it. I’ll take you to the Sheraton sometime. The Blue Mountain Coffee there is considered pretty good.”
She was a fashionable, high-class and mysterious girl in her leather skirt, ankle boots and white blouse. Her skin was a bit dark and her face slightly square, and you couldn’t say she was very pretty, but there was something poignant about her that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. When she turned her face toward Virtue and smiled, with her eyes pure and clear, she seemed as charming and bashful as a young girl, but occasionally she’d look at me out of the corner of her eye, and then everything was different. I saw obvious haughtiness and callousness in her face. I believe she showed it to me deliberately, an obligatory retaliation to my suspicions.
I actually didn’t interrupt their conversation much. They were talking eagerly about Madonna. Her music. Her stages. Her styling and hair color. They even talked about her newlywed husband, a British director who’d recently made some gangster movie with lots of murders, romantic murders.
I was anxious to inquire about the details of the agency for Madonna's tour, but Virtue stopped me in no uncertain terms. He said we were not yet qualified to engage in talks about the details. We’d have to wait until Mary returned to Shenzhen to see if Iris Agency would be able to take on this job, because everything would be decided by Boss Jian. This sounded reasonable.
I asked Mary whether Boss Jian was her uncle on her mother’s or father’s side. She pursed her lips and looked at Virtue like she was seeking his advice. He shrugged, as usual. She abruptly gave me an icy, severe look and told me to guess. I really didn't see any weakness in her eyes, but I did see a hint of childish mischief. I shrugged like Virtue and asked her how I could do that. She sneered loftily. “You can do it.”
Then she took a lipstick from her bag and began to fix her makeup. “Mr. Lu,” she asked, “have you heard of Madonna?” I said I had but couldn’t at the moment remember anything she sang. She looked askance at me and suddenly smiled brightly. “I know what men of your type like most. Like a virgin. I bet you like it, don’t you?
Nothing ever came of the Madonna business, just as most of us expected. And it’s a good thing that things didn’t move forward because, except for the travel expenses of Virtue’s trip to Yellow Mountain and Hangzhou with Mary, the Iris Agency didn’t lose anything. The question of whether Mary was a con artist was left hanging for the time being, a difficult question to pursue.
One of the people in our circle of friends ran into Boss Jian in Shanghai and was fortunate enough to have a few words with him. Naturally he asked about the Madonna business and the old man confirmed it had been true, but said there were too many middlemen. The contractors on the performer’s side hadn’t agreed to the advance payments and the deal finally dried up. Later our friend asked about Mary, and Boss Jian flatly denied that she was a relative. He said he’d never had a niece.
Everyone had heard things about Boss Jian’s private romantic life – beautiful women surrounded him like a cloud – and while he denied she was his niece, he didn’t deny knowing her, so the relationship between Mary and Boss Jian awaits further investigation. Our friend could only look for an excuse to find out more. He said there aren’t many people named Jian, but it must have been a coincidence and the girl just happened to be named Jian.
The iris really did fade quickly and the ad agency closed up shop. Virtue was angry for a few days and then depressed for a while. The last time he went to the company's office, he sat at his desk like a dried up plant, staring blankly at a picture book and fiddling with a utility knife in his hand. Someone noticed that the painting he was looking at was Van Gogh's self-portrait after cutting his ear off. He was instantly on the alert and told him, “Don’t be down, Virtue, companies come and go all the time. How’ll you pick up girls if you cut your ear off? How’ll you listen to music?”
“Don't blabber,” Virtue said. “I’m still a long way from going crazy. I’ve just come to realize what betrayal is, and what sadness is.”
Fortunately, Virtue ended up turning grief into strength. He’d merely been using the utility knife to carve two words on his desk: “Unrewarded Aspirations”. It was tedious work because he’d done it in an ancient style script. Then he threw the knife in the wastepaper basket and left without a second thought.
We didn’t see hide nor hair of Virtue for a while. No one could find him, including his girlfriend Peaches. Virtue had described a lot of his plans for life to us – the most incredible one was to go to the famous Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai Province to be a lama – but simply disappearing hadn’t been one of them. Someone guessed that he’d found a way to go to the United States, which had been a dream of his for many years, but Peaches said the U.S. Embassy had refused to give him a visa. His ideas of going to Las Vegas to a Madonna concert and of attending Harvard University as an exchange student were both just pipe dreams for the time being.
Peaches taught pipa at a Children’s Palace and was recognized as the lady of our circle. She looked strikingly like Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese pop singer. Virtue had been pursuing her relentlessly for three years and was still a “lover in the mist”. Her parents suspected that he was a pompous flake and had always opposed him being with their daughter. When Peaches finally convinced her parents and was about to talk marriage, Virtue left without even saying goodbye.
We all sympathized with her situation. She'd become accustomed to having two things in her life: Virtue's pampering and the children with their pipas. With Virtue not there, the kids and their pipas didn't mean much anymore and her life was completely out of balance. She grew thin and pallid, and ran to all of Virtue's friends to cry on their shoulders. Complaints about our group showed between the lines of her grumbling, like we'd enticed Virtue into a dubious scheme and, when it fell through, we'd all abandoned him.
When she reached the end of her rope, she wanted everyone to find a way to pass a deadline on to Virtue: If he didn't come back before June First, the Children's Day holiday, she'd jump off the tower of the Children's Palace with her pipa in her hand. It seemed rather alarmist, but she told us through her tears that it wasn't a threat. Seeing this charming lady, the very image of composure, turn into a pile of hopelessly desperate shreds, saddened us all and left us feeling the fickle impermanence of love. We'd all said their love was a jar of thick honey, but now the jar had been tipped over and the honey had congealed into a sharp knife, with which we'd all been stabbed.
Finding Virtue thus became a matter of lifesaving urgency, and of course it was the responsibility of our circle of friends. Young Xin from the brokerage company found the first clue, a photo taken with a point-and-shoot camera. The background lighting was harsh and the image was a bit fuzzy, but it was still possible to distinguish Virtue’s exuberant face. The young foreign woman leaning on him, glamorous with her silver hair and red lips, elicited a scream from us. "Madonna! It's Madonna!" It appeared to be Madonna and we'd all missed out on her. Had Virtue really gone to the States? Had he seen Madonna so quickly?
We cooled down right away. It wasn’t possible. When we were calm and examined that “Madonna”, it was a body double, that’s all. With a close look at one corner of the photo, you could see a faint banner and a slogan that celebrated the opening of some company. As for the fake Madonna next to Virtue, the empty but seductive expression in her eyes seemed almost real, but a detailed review of her features suggested she was Chinese. Who was it? Someone recited the names of several singers who were hot at the time, but I put it all together right then and thought Mary Jian. Except, my impression of Mary Jian had been that she was a bit square-faced, and how could her face become long enough to double for Madonna? There are nose bridges and eyecups, but how would you do the make up?
Later we got news that confirmed my intuition. It was the “Shekou Madonna”, so-called because she was from Shekou district of Shenzhen, and she was in fact Mary Jian. Thus our obligation to find Virtue had evolved into a secret investigation of a girl not from our parts.
Soon the tide went out and the rocks appeared. The story behind Mary Jian’s resume was not as mysterious as Virtue had said, nor was it as simple as we’d suspected. She was originally a performer in a song and dance troupe in a small town in eastern Sichuan. She followed a few friends south to set up a song and dance troupe in Shenzhen. They performed mostly at soirees. The group soon dispersed, however, and her friends went their separate ways.
She stayed in Shenzhen alone to take voice lessons. Lots of our friends in that area enjoy the nightlife and saw her unrestrained dancing. They said her singing was mediocre and she often lip-synced, but her stage presence was unforgettably energetic, hot and sexy. The stage name “Shekou Madonna” fit her quite nicely because she did in fact live in Shekou.
One guy came to know things that would be considered private. He said Mary was once the mistress of a middle-aged real estate developer from Hong Kong. For some reason, one day she chased the guy down the escalator to her apartment house lobby, beating him with a high-heel shoe. She chased him all the way to the parking lot, where her neighbors saw her use the shoe to smash a hole in the glass window of his sedan. As she was walking back barefooted, she said to the neighbors, “That was pretty cool.” So she had a unique nickname in that apartment house, namely, “Pretty Cool.”
Some others saw her on TV. She was in a lot of talent shows and had some walk-on roles in soap operas. She was even in an infomercial where she was a sales agent for a Korean beauty lotion. But for all these bits of information, we were more concerned about her current situation. It was simple and clear, but no one dared tell Peaches.
We heard that she and Virtue were living together in Shenzhen.
Toward the end of May, Peach's parents, Virtue's brother and his brother’s wife went to Shenzhen in a group and brought Virtue back.
Strangely, for some reason, Virtue’s coming back like this still felt like a homecoming. He arranged to meet with our group of old friends, but not at the Pacific Hotel where we’d gotten together in the past, in the Sheraton’s Western restaurant instead. We drank champagne and ate steaks, and the cost was clearly much more expensive. Peaches was there, too. She didn’t say much, just held Virtue's hand in a sad gesture, which told us of the hardships of regaining a lost love. Virtue wore a strange looking Western suit, black with white piping. He wasn’t offended when we expressed curiosity about it. He just said, “You guys wearing odd-looking fake labels think this is strange. It's because of your inexperience, you know? Armani's new styles are always out there.”
We asked him what “out there” meant. He didn't bother to explain it. He shrugged and handed us his new business card. The company's name was Tropical Storm Performance Managers. He held three positions, legal representative, chairman of the board and general manager. One of our friends asked him sarcastically, “Virtue, do you undertake these three responsibilities in Shenzhen? Not just there, surely?”
Virtue didn’t mind. He answered, self-deprecatingly, “My other duties aren’t listed on the card. Peaches was sitting right beside him and her face paled abruptly when she heard the implication in his comment. No one had the heart to make fun of Virtue any more after that. In any event the June First threat was done with and they were together again, which was a good thing, at least to the extent that it saved their friends some hassles.
No one knew at first, but Mary Jian had followed Virtue back. Virtue later claimed that he hadn’t known anything about it, and for the time being we had no way to tell whether he was lying. It was just that, after the incident occurred, many of us recalled Peaches’ strange encounter at the Sheraton Western Restaurant that day. Somebody made a large X in lipstick on the hem of her white skirt while she was in the restroom.
On June sixth, although it could reasonably be said that Peaches’ threat to commit suicide had expired, she nonetheless went up in the tower of the Children's Palace. The students in the pipa class swore that a middle-aged woman with golden hair like Madonna had waited for their teacher Peaches all the way through class. Later Mr. Virtue came, too. While they were in class, they heard Mr. Virtue and Ms. Madonna arguing outside, but by the time they and Peaches came out of the classroom, Mr. Virtue was nowhere to be seen. Their coursework for the day ended early because of this. The children saw Peaches and Ms. Madonna talking on the lawn first, and then their teacher Peaches walked toward the tower with her pipa in her hand, and Ms. Madonna followed her.
They stood in the tower, on the floor where a brightly colored Young Pioneers’ flag was flying in the breeze. They stood under the flag and had a discussion about love. Two shadowy figures, one black and one blue. The children couldn't hear their conversation in the tower and only witnessed the long confrontation between the black and blue shadows. It lasted a long time, and then suddenly they heard Ms. Madonna’s sharp voice, “If you jump, I’ll jump with you!”
The children saw their teacher Peaches crying as she held on to the railing. There seemed to be a risk she would jump. One of the smarter children called for another teacher to come. The calligraphy teacher got there first, a fellow who was said to be secretly in love with Peaches, and headed straight to the tower.
Then Mistress Yan, the head of the Children’s Palace, arrived. She didn’t dare go up in the tower. She looked up, ashen-faced and lips trembling, and shouted a question, “Miss, where are you from?”
“From the earth,” Ms. Madonna shouted back.
Mistress Yan stomped her foot and aimed a stern directive at Peaches. “This is the Children's Palace! Look at the banner above your head! Peaches, don't let love mess up your mind! The children are watching you! How dare you do this in front of the children and under the Young Pioneers’ banner? Get down here right now!
When Peaches was brought down by the calligraphy teacher, she used her pipa case to keep her face covered. It was obvious that she didn't want the children to see how she’d fallen apart, but the pipa case couldn’t cover her trembling body. Her body shook continuously as she told the children over and over, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m too weak! I’m not worthy of being your teacher”!
A girl came up and held her. Making a clear distinction in her heart, the girl turned toward Ms. Madonna and snapped, “You’re not Madonna, you’re a she-devil!”
Everyone in the Children's Palace was watching Ms. Madonna. She had on a black skirt and a black blouse that day, with a pair of massive shell earrings and a set of colored anklets to which red bells had been tied. They saw her frown and wipe the saliva from the girl’s face with a tissue. When she looked up again, a broad smile appeared at the corners of her scarlet mouth. “You’re so little, you still don't understand Madonna.” She brushed the girl’s face with her fingers. “Sometimes Madonna is a fairy princess, but sometimes she’s a gremlin.”
That’s how Mary Jian became a dark legend.
What happened that June day left us thoroughly disappointed with Virtue. We weren’t even able to decide whether the real reason for his return was to get back with Peaches or to make a complete break with her. Or should we simply believe that Virtue himself hadn’t made up his mind after all: Did he still want Peaches? Or did he still want Mary?
The surviving feelings of friendship with Virtue forced many of his friends to warn him of the consequences of his actions. They told him that as callous as Mary was toward Peaches today, that’s how callous she might be to him in the future. Virtue defended her and said “You guys don’t know her. She’s actually kindhearted.”
Someone asked acerbically, “Kindhearted compared to a rock or compared to a wolf?”
“Compared to all of us,” he answered. “You don't know how kind she is when she’s with me.”
That was possible, because they were in love. When no one refuted him, his spirits picked up. “Guess how many stray cats she’s taken in?” Everyone ignored the question so he answered it himself. He raised his palm and said, “Five! She’s taken in five stray cats. One is called White Agate and another little stinker is called Flower Agate. They sleep with us.”
He looked at us expectantly, waiting for someone to ask what the names meant, but no one cooperated so he had to explain it himself. White Agate is a white cat and the name refers to the Madonna’s White Heat. Flower Agate has a flowery pattern and the name refers to Madonna’s Like a Flower. Get it?”
We all gave him sarcastic looks and he felt helpless. He adjusted his tie and summed up by saying, “I know you guys are biased against her. You don't understand love. Love is monopolizing. I tell you, it’s only because love makes her want to monopolize that she’s gotten so crazy.”
Virtue stuck around. You could say it was a choice he made under duress, or maybe he’d reined in his horse just in the nick of time, of maybe he still had a little love left for Peaches. Or perhaps it was just a certain fear, a fear of Peaches’ death threat. Anyway, soon thereafter, Virtue and Peaches got married. The way she was dressed that day, and her every frown and every smile, were the living image of Teresa Teng, the ill-fated actress that we all loved. One of our friends stared at the radiant bride and blurted out, “When all is said and done, look, in our world Teresa Teng has defeated Madonna!”
So we kept Virtue around, and kept some of our niggling worries as well. Virtue’s Tropical Storm Performance Managers company was still there, too. He'd just left Mary Jian, and Madonna as well. And having left Madonna, he fell into an unprecedented quandary.
His and Peaches’ marital abode was located near a deaf-mute school. One day as he passed by it, he saw two beautiful deaf-mute girls at the front gate arguing intensely in sign language. The lightbulb lit up and he decided to organize a debate for deaf-mutes, and have it broadcast as a TV program.
Admittedly no one in our circle of friends was willing to partner up with Virtue again, but there were still people willing to praise his creativity and wisdom. This encouraged him and he got busy on the project. The deaf-mute school was interested in promoting its brand, and the TV station somewhat reluctantly contracted for a pilot to see how the show would work out. The key would be the sponsor – it wouldn't be easy finding a merchant willing to sponsor a deaf-mute debate.
We frequently got phone calls from Virtue during this time. My clearest memory is his voice, hoarse but full of passion, sounding like a public service announcement but also intimidating. The show would be a sensation. This time the business benefits were inescapable. The benefits to society couldn't be estimated but would be sensational, too. He said, "You guys have been humoring me, but when the time comes, your regrets will be too late!"
Only Peaches stuck by Virtue. She went all around promoting his idea. When Virtue was able to sign a sponsorship agreement with Boss Hao, who was in the marble business, it was through the pipa, or rather, Peaches playing the pipa, that this feat was accomplished. None of us had known Boss Hao before, but we heard he was the father of a student in Peaches’ class. Virtue went to a dinner party he gave and, as always, took Peaches along. Or maybe it was Peaches and her pipa who took Virtue along. Anyway, it was Peaches’ custom to play the song “Spring River Flowers on a Moonlit Night” for the guests after dinner. We know that was the song she played the best.
The night before the TV station was to record Virtue's program, many of us received an invitation from him to attend the event. I went along to the station's recording studio to witness his glorious unveiling. He was running around in circles, too busy to take the time to attend to us, and just introduced us to Boss Hao, a fat man from Fujian Province with dark skin and a forthright smile. His eyes showed a good deal of shrewdness. Peaches was accompanying him for some reason and she didn’t look very happy with their success. It seemed more like she had a load on her mind.
Deaf-mute children were under the lights debating a question about love and compassion. I believe that was Virtue’s idea. It was a rather difficult topic for children, and I kept seeing a beautiful deaf girl forget what she was saying. She got so anxious she almost cried. Another child, a boy in an intense frame of mind, attacked his opponent with a whirlwind of sign language. I asked the fellow next to me what he was saying, and it seemed he was accusing his opponent of not being worthy of love and compassion. The night before the boy had been forced by his opponent to drink a cup of urine. That boy's face turned red and he made a gun with his hand and pulled the trigger to take a shot at his opponent. What followed was a tumultuous uproar. Some people laughed continuously. Through the noise I heard Virtue yelling at the cameraman, "Red Square! Red Square! You two debaters shut up! Cut! Cut!"
Peaches and Boss Hao were sitting quietly together and the rather chaotic scene on the taping stage hadn't affected their bearing. Their legs were together, as they should have been, only touching a little, quite innocuous. But I happened to notice the hidden interaction of their hands. Boss Hao grasped Peaches’ hand, and although she quickly pushed it away, I didn't believe it was just my imagination. It seemed that something had already happened between the two of them. What I couldn't be sure of was exactly what had happened between Peaches and Virtue. Had she decided to betray him so quickly? Had she betrayed him for his own sake? The devotion they had felt towards one another, once again, left me in doubt.
Virtue's deaf-mute student debate contest aired once and then was abruptly cancelled. The relevant government departments believed that its orientation was unclear, and also that it involved a unique group and had no positive significance. Virtue wrote verbose appeals to the various departments, but they were ultimately to no avail and he had to give up what he'd worked so hard to achieve.
Later he had a hernia flare up and checked into a hospital. When we went to see him, he rather haltingly summed up what he'd gotten out of the experience. "I wasn't able to get in with the bureaucracy, but music's still my thing." He said, "You know, Mariah Carey is coming to Hong Kong!" No one said anything for a moment, but Virtue's eyes lit up. “I'm going to fly to Hong Kong in a few days to meet her agent. I have a classmate in New York who knows the agent.” We looked at the glow in his eyes and waited to hear what else he would say. Sure enough, his voice became secretive. "The agent is very interested in the Chinese market. This is a good opportunity. Are you interested?"
We left Virtue's ward early because of this, and ran into Peaches in the hallway. She was carrying her pipa with a tired look on her face. She said she’d just been to the music store to get the strings changed. We asked her if she was going to Hong Kong with Virtue. She smiled sorrowfully and said they couldn’t afford the ticket. “I’m the breadwinner for the family now.” She suddenly strummed a harsh note on her pipa. “I’m a home tutor for some students!”
It snowed quite a bit that winter.
Virtue knocked on my door unexpectedly one snowy night. The idea to come over must have struck him suddenly, because I noticed he wore only a sweater over his pajama pants. He was covered with snowflakes. When he saw me he raised his hands and showed me an empty bottle of cooking wine. “See, our cooking wine’s all been drunk.” He said, “There’s no place to buy wine at the moment. Loan me a bottle.”
He had a shattered look in his eyes and was already walking unsteadily. He was quite grateful when I took his arm to help him inside, and he suddenly kissed me on the cheek, spewing out a mouthful of alcohol breath. “It’s good to have friends,” he said. “It’s only friendship that lets us endure the world for any length of time.”
In fact I’d guessed what had happened. Peaches had gone to Boss Hao’s to tutor his daughter and played some incidental tunes. She and Virtue had been living apart for several days – our circle of friends had already heard about it. What no one had expected was that Virtue was the one on the precipice, and it was Peaches who’d had a change of heart.
I heard that Hao’s wife had gone to the Children’s Palace and, for some reason, had ended up in the tower. Peaches followed the woman and, standing beside her, said huskily, “Think hard about whether you want to jump. If you do, count ‘one, two, three’ and I’ll jump with you.” That sounds an awful lot like a rumor. No one would easily believe that Peaches could change so quickly into a replica of Mary Jian. But someone knew the calligraphy teacher at the Children's Palace, and according to his mutterings as he mulled it over, it seems to be true.
I didn't know how to talk Virtue out of his mood. We sat down to have a drink. He didn't say anything, just pointed to his throat and put his hand over his chest to indicate that his voice was gone and his heart was broken. I was afraid he’d tell me about the crisis in his marriage and tried to steer him in another direction. “The state you’ve drunk yourself into, we’d better talk about poetry, or music. Otherwise let’s talk about Picasso.”
He looked at me closely, his eyes glowing, and saw what I was afraid of. Suddenly he sneered and said sharply, “Poetry is crap. Music is crap, too.” After a pause, he hiccoughed. Then he croaked, “Where does Picasso rank in the art world? He’s just a gigolo.”
I almost laughed, and couldn't stop myself from interrupting him. “What about Madonna? What about Mariah Carey? What are they?”
He thought it over. He didn't want to be too hasty about denigrating his former idols and just shook his head decisively. “I don't listen to them anymore. One is too commercial, the other too shallow.” He dug a CD from his sweater as he spoke. “You can play this and have a listen. Rattle and roll. I listen to it every day now. Listening to it makes me I feel much better.”
It was an imported CD in a black jacket that had a silver skull with two bright red lips on it, and a row of garish foreign symbols that I didn’t know. Virtue said it was Skull and Roses, an underground rock band from Manhattan. I was curious and put the CD into the player. First I heard some groaning, followed by the noises of shattering glass, a car roaring off, a bulldozer and a pile driver. Then a variety of electro-acoustic instruments pitched in, mingled with a mad female scream.
Right then, in the dead of night, I ejected the CD abruptly and asked Virtue, “Who gave you this CD? That noise’ll kill a fellow.”
The mysterious expression that I was so familiar with again came across his face. “Can you guess?” I didn't guess, as usual, and he said, “Mary Jian gave it to me. She’s in New York now.”
Then he asked, “Do you know who the female lead singer is?” When I shook my head, he said, “Can't you tell? It’s Mary! It’s her band. The keyboard, guitar, bass and drummer are all either white guys or black guys! They’ve had gigs in Hell’s Kitchen. Have you heard of Hell’s Kitchen? Mary isn’t dancing now. She’s doing underground rock, and she’s a success!"
I knew that Mary had gone to New York. I thought she was looking for Madonna and expected her to get a temporary job in a Chinese restaurant or clothing factory or laundry. When Virtue talked about her success, I instinctively felt suspicious, but he wouldn't stand for me raising any doubts.
He made a fist and pounded his thigh. "I missed my chance with her. I told you guys, just give me five years and I'd make her an international superstar. None of you believed me." The more he talked the sadder he got. He put his head in his hands and continued, "I missed my chance with her, and I missed my own chance for happiness. I don't blame you guys. I blame myself for getting kidnapped."
I was surprised. "Who kidnapped you?"
He looked at me angrily, then suddenly shouted, "Morality! And you bunch of phony friends! You used my kindheartedness!" Then he asked and answered his own question, something he was quite adept at. "What is kindness? Do you know? I'll tell you. Kindness," he said, "is the biggest, stinkiest pile of moral crap!"
The snow was wafting by outside the window. I imagined that it might be snowing over the streets of New York at that moment. I wondered what Mary was doing at the moment, but my mind drew a complete blank. The impression I'd had of her from our brief contact was already fuzzy. When her name was mentioned, the image that floated before my eyes was all Madonna's singing and dancing. It was rather noisy and stifling, but it brought some sort of allure or teasing from out of nowhere. It was really a bit strange, that a girl from East Sichuan was fixed in my memory with an image of Madonna.
Virtue stayed at my place that snowy night. He was thoroughly drunk and went to the bathroom twice to throw up. After the first time, his head cleared a bit and revealed to me a plan he had for his life. He said he was waiting for Mary to get a green card. When she did, he could go to the United States.
The second time he threw up was really something. He hugged the toilet and sobbed. While he was crying and hugging the toilet, he talked some nonsense. He said he hated that he couldn't go through the toilet to the United States. If he could squeeze through, Mary would definitely be waiting for him at the end of the sewer line.
Looking at it now, Virtue’s road out of the country was comparable to the Silk Road in its distance. Mary's green card was so far in the future it seemed it would never come, and Virtue couldn't wait. It was a friend in a travel agency who arranged his lengthy and peculiar route. He went to Yunnan Province first, then to Vietnam and, from there, to Australia. Their planned itinerary called for him to eventually cross the Pacific Ocean and reach his destination, which remained unchanged – the United States.
Most of our friends got a photo of Virtue at the entrance to the Sydney Opera House, taken with him standing beside a poster for a performance conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Virtue said that he was incomparably moved while he listened to Karajan’s concert and planned to go hear Wagner’s opera “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” in the future, which was bound to be even more moving. This was of course enviable, if true, but unfortunately it was impossible to prove.
We had a friend in Sydney. The first news we heard about Virtue was mostly trivial matters like finding a job and a place to live. Virtue didn’t want to bother anyone and later we stopped getting messages about him. Everyone thought that he’d managed to get to the United States, but later we found out he hadn’t been able to. It wasn’t clear whether he lacked the means or whether something had happened to Mary. He left Sydney without explanation to our friend and went to New Zealand, where he worked picking grapes in a vineyard.
No one expected him to pick grapes in New Zealand for so many years. And it was also with the grapes that his fate later became inextricably entwined. One summer about five years later, each of us in our circle of friends got some news. Virtue had returned, carrying a New Zealand passport in his pocket and with the status of winery manager. He came to develop a market in China, and while he was here, he invited his friends from the past to attend a wine tasting.
After five years, Virtue still looked majestic. He was dressed smartly and the hardships and vicissitudes we’d imagined him going through had left hardly a trace on his face. His tight white trousers did exaggerate his belly, though, and it looked like he’d been enjoying the good life. He displayed several types of wine for us and talked incessantly about terms like tannins, sweetness, fruitiness and Pinot Noir. We didn’t understand any of it, but we did notice that a white man wearing earrings was in attendance.
He looked to be about forty years old and was busy greeting the foreigners who’d come. He and Virtue exchanged looks from time to time, looks that were warm, meaningful and a bit secretive. We all sensed that his relationship with Virtue was quite close. When we quietly inquired about his identity, Virtue said he was Jack, a great vintner, and then laughed suddenly. His laughter was a little self-conscious and everyone looked at him, not understanding why he was laughing. Then we heard him whisper, "Fuck, I was obviously a bunch of Syrah, and he turned me into a glass of Chardonnay!”
None of us knew anything about wine, so no one understood Virtue's ambiguous but sincere admission. As for his American dream, he himself had let it go, but I remembered it clearly. I thought of the vow he’d made that snowy night, and had to ask him, “These last few years, did you ever get to New York? And have you seen Mary?”
He sighed. “I went, and I saw her. She’s already the mother of two children.”
I asked him what kind of person she’d married.
“She didn’t marry anyone,” he said. “She has a daughter, half Chinese and half White, and a boy, maybe half Chinese and half Black?”
I was silent for a moment. Then I asked, “And now, could she still be waiting for you?”
He shrugged his shoulders again, a “Heaven knows” gesture. I tried to probe a little further. “Why are you still single? Are you still waiting for her?”
His laugh was short and exaggerated. I didn’t know whether he was expressing scorn at my stupidity or showing his own melancholy. “You know who I’m waiting for?” His smile abruptly turned cunningly dark. He glanced at Jack’s silhouette in the distance and snapped his fingers. “I’ll tell you. Jack and I are waiting for Li Ka-shing, the rich entrepreneur from Hong Kong. He’s already acquired the winery next to ours, and we’re waiting for him to buy us out.” He swished the wine in his glass around again. “Look at our wine, its body, its fruity aroma! It’s all Pinot Noir,” he said, “as good as any in the Marlburough wine country!”
Virtue and Mary are still separated by the Pacific Ocean, a world apart, as they were before. It seems that they’re making a deliberate effort to maintain their friendship. One spring two years ago, I received an unexpected phone call from Virtue. He said that Mary would be taking her children home to visit relatives and to tour, and they’d be stopping over in our city. He wanted our friends to show them around on his behalf. Frankly, everyone wanted to see the legendary Mary Jian, to find out what kind of mother she’d become, so we all agreed. We purposefully arranged for them to stay at the Pacific Hotel to commemorate where we’d all come to know one another, as well as to pay tribute to a story of lost love.
We asked Mary and her family out to eat, and she came unhurriedly with her two mixed-race children. She wore a white cheongsam with a blue inlaid border that day. Her hair had been “re-blackened” and was coiled into an ancient-style bun. A thick foundation covered her face and her lipstick was quite heavy. With the traces of age erased so carefully, she looked like a girl from a 1930s cigarette ad. When someone said so straightforwardly she smiled thinly and said, “This is how I normally dress. Retro is a popular look now in New York.”
The wine I'd brought was from Virtue's winery. She guessed it with one glance at the bottle and said, "Wine made by gays has a very complex taste. I'll have to have a little more." She did indeed drink more than a little and appeared to relax. Someone mentioned Peaches during the meal and someone else kicked him under the table.
I didn't expect her to be so calm about it. "I heard Peaches married a rich man later on. Is that right?" she asked. "And I heard he has millions, eh?"
We all guessed that Virtue had exaggerated Peaches remarriage. We had to protect his vanity, as we would have at any other time, so no one rashly cleaned up after him. Mary didn't pursue it.
Virtue's wine had worked wonders on her. She made a good show of remembering the old days, and told us about her life in New York without reservation. It was she herself who brought up the incident at the Children's Palace tower.
"If you're talking about jumping off a building, that one's not so big. I was about ready to jump off one in Manhattan. It was thirty-seven stories, much taller than the Children's Palace tower." She looked at us sincerely when she said that. "It wasn't just for love. It was because of the rent, too, and because of, of – heartbreak." She struggled over the word "heartbreak" and tears suddenly glistened in her eyes. "I'd written a suicide note and went up to the top of the building. Do you know who saved me?"
The atmosphere suddenly got tense. Everyone looked at her nervously and made guesses about who she was going to name. I remember my thinking at the time leaned towards filming. Madonna jumped into my mind. But then I noticed Young Xin across from me forming a word with his mouth, apparently ready to spit out Virtue's name.
Mary took a sip of wine and forgave our naivety or ignorance with a smile and a laugh. "Don't guess. You'll never guess." Suddenly she pointed at her mixed-breed daughter, Lucia. "Lucia was only five years old. She was wearing pajamas and chased me up to the top of the building. She said, 'Don’t leave me, Mommy. I'll jump with you. You hug me and we'll jump together.'"
Everyone at the table was silent for a moment. No one dared to speak. Everyone’s eyes focused on Lucia’s face. Lucia was a beautiful, half Chinese girl with long legs, flaxen hair and a tinge of blue in her eyes. We rarely see blue eyes, so it was difficult to define the girl's eyes, whether they revealed purity or precociousness, timidity or fearlessness. She was playing a game on a console with her brother. Right at that time, she raised her head and gave her mother a look of condemnation. She said in English, "Mommy, you've had too much to drink. I won't allow you to say any more."
Mary stuck her tongue out but, sure enough, didn't say a word. Someone spoke carefully to Lucia to break the awkward silence. "Lucia, pretty girl, do you like Madonna?"
Lucia shook her head and said, "No, I don't. Madonna's been out of date for a long time."
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 001
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 显密喇嘛的博客at http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_ab45a5c90102ymf1.html
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