China Doll – first published by 3AM Harper/Collins Press
My father was dying, I was back in town, and the Chinese were hanging around like vultures trying to get his store.
“What ever you do, Paolo, don’t sell to the China man.” My father’s voice was broken by his illness. I had to lean close to hear him.
“Don’t worry pa, I won’t sell to no China man.” I tried to reassure him, but he was inconsolable. The thought of his beloved pasta shop falling into the hands of the Œyellow heathen’ was intolerable for him. He fretted and whined all day long, and in the evening when the doctor came to give him his shots and he fell asleep, I’d go for long walks in the old neighborhood now as unfamiliar as a foreign country. Little Italy looked like Hong Kong.
Where Vinnie’s Pizza used to be was Wong’s Chinese Restaurant. There on the corner, where I would play marbles and knucklebones in front of Gino’s shoe-repair store, was a hodge-podge shop chock-full of bright silk blouses, kimonos, sunglasses and purses. Instead of the familiar smell of spicy sausage and rich tomato sauce, there were now unidentifiable, strange odors that brought to mind over-ripe fruit and fish. Round, ochre faces stared at me with bright, tiny black eyes. They all smiled and bowed, but their eyes were appraising. They were waiting for my father to die, so that they could buy his store. Even now, they would stop me on the street, tug on my shirt, and saw in low voices, “I so solly about your father. Maybe now he want to sell his shop?”
The worst was Ling Ma. He owned a dry-cleaners and was looking for a place nearby for his son Sing, and new daughter-in-law. She was fresh in from China, and they were living in the back of the laundry room, waiting for Ling Ma to buy them a place of their own.
Sing was a tall, surly fellow. He never spoke to me directly, letting his father do all the negotiating. I suppose it would appear strange to most people. We’d gone to school together; PS 133, living as it were in the same district though not in the same world. I knew him, he knew me, we’d seen each other growing up, but we were separated by a gulf as wide as the distance between Little Italy and the real China. I nodded to Sing, he half nodded to me, and then his new bride wandered out of the shop. She was like a little porcelain doll. Her face was small and powdered white, her lips were pink petals, and her eyes were fringed with fragile lashes. She wore a pale-blue silk dress that reached her ankles, her feet peeping from her hem were shod in black satin slippers, and her hands were as delicate as a doll’s. She saw me and gave a little start, unused to seeing anyone but Chinese in that part of town. Half-frightened, half fascinated, she stared at me while Ling Ma made his daily offer and I politely declined. Sing stood silent and stiff. Then he turned saw his wife, and his face contorted. He said something very low and rapid, and the girl turned even whiter and fled into the shop sobbing.
Ling Ma kept up his spiel as if nothing had happened, and Sing resumed his silent pose.
I refused the offer and went on with my walk. I passed a noodle shop, a fish market where strange, slimy sea-creatures lay glistening on ice, and went into the park where the steady clickity clack of mahjong tiles mingled with the soft murmur of voices calling bids. Smoke rose in fragrant plumes from the pastel-colored cigarettes held in women’s hands.
I sat on a bench until dark then I went home to sleep on the small bed I used when I was a child. I stared at the ceiling trying to recall the memories of youth – remembering Vinnie throwing pebbles at my window and climbing down the rusty fire escape at night to go rushing down alleys and whispering behind restaurants and bars, playing night tag and coming home with the taste of a girl’s mouth on my lips. My mother would wake me for school, and my father would be opening the store as I left, carefully putting fresh pasta in huge metal trays, pretending he didn’t know I’d been out until almost dawn. Only his wink as I slipped out the door told me he always knew. He knew everything.
“Paolo, you stay away from them China girls. They’re only interested in one thing – money. Believe me son, I know these people.”
I was twenty-one, just home from two years at war in Europe, sitting on the stoop faintly amazed at the changes, and watching an exotic beauty walk slowly down the sidewalk. “What did you say, Pa?”
He shook his head. “Go out with Frank, stay away from the China girls, and get laid in Soho.”
I grinned. “Those days are over, Pa.” Since my mother died, he’d become philosophical, telling me the facts of life. According to him, I had to marry an Italian girl and settle down in his pasta shop. I broke his heart: I married a girl I met in college, moved to Vermont to live on a farm, and stayed away from the city. It was Pa’s fault. He disliked Vicky on sight, hated her accent, her education, and her father for dying first and willing us the farm.
Vicky died of breast cancer two years after our marriage, making my father hate her even more, because her death had devastated me. She had left no children behind, another reason for him to despise her. So we continued to avoid each other, I stayed on the farm, turning it into a profitable cider and syrup business. Until the call three weeks ago, a stranger’s voice saying my father was ill and asking for me.
I shifted in my bed, trying to get comfortable. I was almost thirty now. Pa was dying, and when I closed my eyes, I saw a beautiful china doll dressed in pale-blue silk.
The next day and the next were the same. I’d listen to my father’s complaints, he’d fall asleep, and I’d go for my walk. Ling Ma would tug on my sleeve and stop me, and Sing would come out and stand, silent, while his father negotiated. I peered over their shoulders into the shop and tried to spot the little China girl – Sing’s wife. Sometimes I would see her, standing next to the counter, her hands folded over her stomach, staring at me through the plate-glass window.
When Ling Ma realized what I was doing, he stopped talking. I looked back at him, surprised. Mostly he wouldn’t shut up. Now he stood there, and his eyes glittered like obsidian. He said something low to his son, and Sing bowed and trotted quickly down the street. Ling nodded once, sharply, then motioned his chin towards his shop. “We go inside talk now,” he said sternly.
I obeyed. The girl was standing there, looking at me, but when I walked into the store, she made as if to flee. Ling barked at her, and she stopped.
“What’s her name?” I asked, trying to sound casual, like it didn’t matter. As if I wasn’t shaking at the sight of pale golden skin and tiny hands.
Ling’s mouth tightened, but he said, “Her name is Kah-ee.”
“Karry,” I said, trying to get the breathy syllables right.
“No, Kah-ee,” he said, impatiently.
I said it right, and the girl put her hand over her mouth and giggled. Ling turned on her quick as a snake, but instead of berating her, he said something in a quiet voice. The girl stopped laughing and stared at him, all trace of color draining from her face. Ling took her arm and headed for the back room. “You come. Kah-ee show you something.”
“Look here, Ling,” I said.
“You come.” Ling spoke softly.
I won’t lie. I knew damn well what he wanted her to show me. He’d been after my father’s store for too many years, there were too many other Chinese trying to buy it, he knew I’d cave in and sell, and he wanted to make sure he was the one to get it. He wasn’t stupid, and neither was I. I took a long shaky breath, and followed.
In the tiny room there was a bed, an intricately carved armoire, and a hat stand made to look like a dragon. There was a television -one of the first ones I’d seen, and a jade statue, with sticks of incense at its feet stood on the top of the television set. There were painted scrolls depicting flowers and fish hanging from silk cords on the walls. I saw all this, but only from the corner of my eyes, because in front of me, Ling was pushing Kah-ee roughly towards the bed. When she fell onto it he turned to me, his face flushed, and said, “I leave now. Come back half an hour.”
He shut the door behind him, and I heard him turn the key in the lock.
I looked at the girl on the bed. My heart was pounding so hard that I could see it. I was so stiff, I thought my pants would tear. The girl on the bed looked at me, looked at the door, and then she put her face in her hands and started to weep. I simply stood there, waiting. After about a minute, she stopped crying, stood up, and lifted her dress over her head. On her arms and back, there were red marks and old bruises. She saw me staring at them and her lip curled. “Sing,” she said, and made an angry motion. She spoke no English, but her meaning was clear. Her husband beat her. She tossed her dress on the bed. Pointing, she ordered me to take off my clothes. I did so with haste I hadn’t felt since I was sixteen, down in the coal cellar with Heidi. Kah-ee looked me over, smiled, and darted a glance at the door. Reassured, she reached out and took a hold of me, pulled me right onto the bed.
The next few minutes were a blur. She moved like a lithe cat, twisting and sliding over me, never letting me make a single move. When I came, she put her hands over my mouth and hushed me. Then she wriggled some more, placed my hands on her diminutive breasts, and moaned. I felt myself rising again, and she smiled. She was good. One minute she was fragile and fainting softly in my arms, the next moment she was grinding her hips into mine, her mouth open, her tongue doing things to my nipples and throat that made me to cry out. She would change from a childlike waif to a panting hussy and then back again. Her eyes filled with tears, she laughed, she moaned, she gasped as if I were stabbing her with a knife instead of my cock. She waited until I was nearly frantic with desire then she twisted herself around, spinning like a cog on a shaft, ended up with her slim back facing me. She bent over, her neat buttocks opening like a flower before me. I was so surprised I froze. She hooked her chin over her shoulder, looking at me with her moist, dark eyes, and slowly rose up and down, never dropping her gaze. I shuddered into her, totally out of control. Afterwards I think I fell asleep for a minute. I don’t remember. Then Kah-ee was standing in front of me, dressed, and I dressed.
Ling opened the door, he bowed, I nodded, and I left. The park grew dark around me. The mahjong players smoked their cigarettes and clacked their tiles. I stared at the blinking lights in the form of a red dragon, and I thought about bruises on a slim back.
The next day I was back in the room, quivering like a young colt, while Kah-ee worked on me from my toes to my head with a swift tongue and agile fingers. On her back were three fresh bruises, and she had a black eye. That didn’t stop her from grinning at me as she bounced on my sex, her thighs spread like the wings of some sacred bird.
Ling said nothing more about my father’s store. For him, we’d entered into a bargain, signed, sealed and final. Sing was no where to be seen. He was on an errand, said Ling, with a surprisingly airy gesture. “No come back for while.”
Two weeks after I’d started making love to Kah-ee in the back room, my father woke up feeling much better. The doctor came and said he could get out of bed.
“I thought he was dying,” I said. I felt numb. If he didn’t die, I would lose Kah-ee. Ling was a businessman.
“A remission. He’s a lucky man. No telling how long it will last, a week, a month, three years.” The doctor was young with a New Jersey accent. He drove a car and wore a white Panama hat – no matter what the weather. He accepted my check, waved, and walked out the door. I sat next to my father’s bed. He chatted about the Yankees. He wanted to go to a game now that he was feeling better. “Get me some tickets,” he said. “I’m gonna walk down that street and show all those China men I still got a few years left in me. They ain’t gonna get my store that easy.”
As soon as possible my father was downstairs, talking to his employee, getting in the way as usual, walking slower than usual, talking louder and faster than usual; squeezing as much out of life as he could now.
That day I didn’t go to see Kah-ee, and I didn’t go to the park. I stayed with my father, helped make pasta like old times, sat with him at the dinner table and talked about the Yankees and the heat. Afterwards I helped him bathe and put him to bed. That night I lay on my narrow bed and shivered. If I closed my eyes, I saw a lithe, ochre body contorting itself over mine. I kept my eyes wide open. I tried to think of ways to see Kah-ee, but there seemed no other way except if I consented to sell the store, and my father would never agree while he was alive.
There was a tapping sound at the window. I looked. Kah-ee was crouched on the fire escape motioning to me. The window was open. I leaned out. Her face was a mess. She had swollen eyes, a split lip, and her arms were bruised. “Who did that to you?”
She looked at me hard. “Sing.” Her voice was dry.
I swallowed, and opened the window wider. “Come.”
She shook her head. Instead, she pointed to the ground. Then she pointed to herself, and made some motions I couldn’t decipher. She was wearing a flimsy robe, it slipped over her shoulder and a little round breast peeked out. My mouth went dry.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
She pulled at my arm. I crawled out the window and down the fire escape. We walked quickly through the inky night. In the back alleys where the streetlights didn’t reach, she turned to me hungrily and kissed me. I almost fell down, my legs were shaking so hard. She stopped kissing me and pulled me along. I realized she was heading to the store, and I braked. “I can’t go in!” I said in an agitated whisper.
She tugged harder. Then, seeing I wasn’t budging, she left me, opened the door to the back, and held it wide open. I paused, then looked in. By the light of a small lamp, I saw Sing lying on the floor. There was blood all over the place. My feet slipped on something, and I looked down. Blood had seeped all the way out into the alley. I choked and leapt backwards. “What happened?” I asked.
Kah-ee pointed again, frantic. Gingerly, I leaned in the door, flipped on the main light switch and stared. The harsh light illuminated two bodies. Ling was half sitting, half lying in the doorway. His chest was a mass of little holes. In front of him was Sing, flat on his stomach.
I gaped at Kah-ee. “What happened?” I asked, a sickening feeling creeping over me. I thought I was going to vomit. Kah-ee just looked at me, her eyes pleading. I tried not to think. When she touched me, I flinched.
The police came about two minutes after I called them. The precinct was right down the street. There was a cop who spoke Chinese, and he took Kah-ee’s deposition while I sat numbly on a cold metal chair. When she finished, I asked him what had happened. He looked at me, hesitated, then Kah-ee said something imperiously, and he nodded. “She said that her father in law was prostituting her. She says her husband found out, and they fought. She ran for help, and when she came back, they were both dead. She says she came to you because you went to school with her husband. Did you?”
I stared at the cop, and licked my lips. “Yeah,” I said.
“Did you know what was going on?”
“We weren’t on speaking terms,” I said. “Mostly I talked to his father. He wanted to buy my dad’s store.” The cop nodded, took my deposition, and released us into the night.
Kah-ee and I walked to my father’s house. We went straight upstairs and lay on my narrow bed, side by side, silent. Sometime in the middle of the night, her hand crept to mine, and clutched it. We stayed like that until morning.
A week later, my father died, and although I was heartbroken, I think it was probably best. Kah-ee and I turned his pasta shop into a Chinese restaurant, then we moved to Vermont and stayed on the farm.