China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh

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"No."


"How can you turn down that much money?"

"Because if I live there I'll go crazy. I'd have to be a monk, those people live in each other's hip pockets."

"I can see how that would be a problem." Invierno's says. "Couldn't you just work there a couple of years? You know, save it all or something?"

"No," I say.

"Why not? That's what I'd do."

"Because I just couldn't do it." I'm irritated.

"Okay," he says. I bring him coffee. "Why do you always wear your hair in a tail?" he asks sitting up, "I like it down."

"Because I was in love with a guy one time and he told me he liked it back."

Invierno sips his coffee, considering. "Do you still see him?"

"No," I say. "He's dead. He jumped out a window, one of those big complexes in China." I put my coffee down on the floor and rub my eyes. It's too complicated, too early in the morning to get into this with a twenty-two year old.

"Hey," he says, "Rafael, I'm sorry." He sits up and rests his cheek against my back, a pleasant scratchy feeling. "I just asked you because I wanted to change the subject."

"Don't worry about it," I say. Invierno doesn't ask anymore questions (although he's dying to) but he does stay for breakfast, which is very sweet of him. "I'll call you," he promises in the hallway. "I will, I'll really call you."

I'm suddenly invested with tragedy. The poet, Byron, once told a friend of his that he wished he had consumption. The friend--who had consumption--was appalled and wanted to know why. Because the women would think he was so interesting, Byron told him. Probably preening.

I'm not at all displeased to think that I have become interesting to Invierno.

I go back to the postings, thinking of Mang Li-zi. It would be better if I did some laundry, but I'm too lazy to go down to the basement. There is a proposal for an office complex, not very big. I print out the information and suddenly decide I should do something so I go down to the library and buy time on the system.

It's not a very good system, too many users. Sometimes you have to wait for it to do something. And it's expensive to use for long periods of time. I don't have that much money anymore. It's exasperating to think of something and have to wait for it to happen, knowing that I'm being charged for the time I wait. But it's the only system I have access to.

It's interesting, building this little office complex. It's crazy to try to build on a public system, but I have the advantage of knowing there aren't many organic engineers in this country. I can probably do a better job than the usual team.

I could start my own business. I wouldn't have to make that much, if I kept teaching that would just about pay my rent.

I spend about five hours Saturday and another three on Sunday working on a little office complex. The fee wouldn't be very much, I'm hoping not many companies would take the time to do it.

Monday Mr. Huang from the Bureau of Resources calls and tells me that Sung of Wisconsin wants me to come out to meet them.

"They have already said they cannot match New Mexico-Texas," he says, "you might as well not go."

My first inclination is to agree, for one thing I want to work on my design. Of course, Sung's system is going to be a lot better than the library's, if I could just get a few hours on it I could get a lot done.

"I'd like to hear what they have to say. I'm not certain I would be comfortable in the Corridor," I say, hearing in my voice the softness that Haitao mistook for courtesy. Duplicity. I whisper when I have something to hide, to protect. In China I was protecting myself from mistake, from derision, eventually from exposure. Now I am merely lying. I am hoping for something from Sung. "I could fly out Tuesday afternoon, after my class, come back on Wednesday."

I fly out to Eau Clair, Wisconsin, pretty place, green and full of flowers. I am met by a polite young man and a driver and driven to the corporate headquarters where I spend the day talking in the same soft voice to the Executive Officer, Comrade Cui. Sung does not have an organic engineer. It's more comfortable than New Mexico, not so severe, there are more people around. But both of them are strange to someone like myself, an urban person, and it's overseeing the engineering department. What makes them think my degree has anything to do with administration?

I am fed trout and creamed potatoes. The windows of the executive dining room look out on a green meadow.

Comrade Cui, the Executive Officer, is a woman with a firm handshake. She is ABC. She does not make any comment about my hispanic mother, but does say something about my being single. The room in the guesthouse is blue.

And in it I have access to Sung's system. I do not get much sleep, and at a little after four, I dump my work back into the file I use in the library system. I'm surprised when I look up and the room is blue, I've been in a red and cream office complex.

Then the trip back home. I sleep in my seat, and leave the airport in a fog. But there is too much to do and not enough money or time.

The project swallows my life. I have to do material estimates. At Wuxi I could have asked the system for some information, and had a clerk do the calling on the rest. But now I must call supply places and ask them, 'How much a ton?' 'How much a square meter?' I calculate by hand because I cannot afford wasting expensive system time on calculations and I can do them in the evening when the library is closed. Some of the answers I get force me to change my ideas. Back to the system.

I assign my class a project: design a room that they couldn't design without using a system. My ABC comes to me and asks if he can design a sound system instead. "It's my senior thesis," he explains. I tell him to do it.

I run out of money.

Completely. I don't even have the money for coffee and rice. And I'm not finished. I need to get the proposal submitted in four days and I am out of money. So I call Peter.

"What's up," he says.

"I have a problem," I say.

Eyebrows quirk. "What's wrong?"

"I'm trying to start my own business. Doing organic engineering."

"Oh?" Peter says, his voice neutral. "What happened to the idea of getting a job?"

"I've gone on two interviews," I explain, "one in New Mexico, one in Texas. I don't want to leave New York. I like teaching, I like my flat, I like having friends. I'm sick of starting over again, even in this country. Lenin and Mao Zedong, Peter, do you know what it's like to be alone in a country where being bent can earn you a bullet in the back of your head? I want friends, I want some sort of community!"

"Okay," Peter says gently. "Why don't you come downstairs and talk. Or I'll come up."

"I'll come down," I say. Then I smile for him. "I'm out of beer."

He grins. "Okay, China Mountain."

Peter makes me a loan. And two hours later, Cinnabar Chavez calls and says, "I talked to Peter. Listen, how about a partner? You have this specialty, this engineering thing, and I have a little money."

And after that, the only thing left is the work.

#
I dump my submission at deadline, six p.m. Friday night, and leave the library. Down the steps, past the lions and into Manhattan. I think about going for a drink, but I don't feel right spending Cinnabar's money that way. So I call Cinnabar and tell him we've submitted our first project.

"What do you think?" he asks.

"I think it's positively inspired, but who knows what they'll think." I shrug. "Actually I'm sick of it. But it's done. Did I ever show you my beach house?"

He says Peter's on his way over for dinner, why don't I come, but I'm tired and I beg off.

Then I call Invierno.

It takes awhile for him to answer.

"Hi," I say, "It's Rafael."

"Hi," he says, disdainful.

"I got your messages, I've been meaning to call you back but I've been caught up with something."

"That's all right," he says. "I'm kind of in a hurry."

"Look, I'm sorry I haven't called you for awhile, I've been trying to get a business started."

He's contemptuous. "Well, good luck." He reaches for the cutoff.

"Hey," I say, "wait. Are you busy tonight?"

"Yeah," he says, "as a matter of fact, I am."

"Yeah," I say. "I guess you're not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring."

He purses his lips. "I, ah, I'm not busy tomorrow night," he says finally.

"Great. What do you want to do? I'm broke."

He is incredulous. "You call me for the first time in two weeks and ask me what I'm doing and have the nerve to tell me you're broke?"

"That's right," I say. "But I'm real fun to be with. Why don't you take me to the kite races?"

He laughs. And then we talk some, he asks me about my business and I tell him a little.

"So you won't have to go to Arizona," he says. "What's that noise?"

"It's a train. I'm calling from the subway. I've been working on something for two weeks and I just finished it, so I called you right away."

"Oh yeah?" The idea tickles him, that I called him right away.

"Yeah, I just submitted the damn thing, not fifteen minutes ago. I haven't eaten dinner yet."

"Rafael," he says, "did you eat lunch?" I must be attracted to motherly types. I pretend to consider. "I probably did," I say. Of course I ate lunch, I had a sandwich.

"Listen," he says, "I was going to go to this party, but it's no big deal. How about if I pick up some noodles or something and come by your place."

"Okay," I say, "I'd like that."

I catch the train and go home. The old D train all the way out to Coney Island, under ground (except for the bridge) to Prospect Park and then up into the evening light. It's the second of November. In Baffin Island the days are almost gone. In Nanjing it's six in the morning. I don't have a dime, but I feel curiously light.

If this project sells, the fee will allow us to put a down payment on a system. A small system, but that will be better than going to the library. And I can talk to someone at Brooklyn College, maybe my ABC or my girl from Brooklyn could get credit as a student intern and I'll have someone to do some of the donkey work; the checking up on materials and all that. Eventually we're going to need a clerk. And Cinnabar said we'll have to file papers and get permits for the new company. We're going to call it Daoist Engineering.

I wonder if I could hire someone from the building? Maybe somebody like Vanni.

"Una luz brillara en tu camina." Used to be subway advertise­ments for the church that said that. During the Great Cleansing Winds religion was dangerous, but about five years ago they lifted the restrictions on religion. For awhile every time I got on the train I'd see one of those ads. "Una luz brillara en tu camina. Descubre lo que te has perdido." A brilliant light in your path. Discover what you have lost.

The light angles across Brooklyn, red now. It comes through the train windows. Sunset used to depress me. But I learned in Baffin Island, you've just got to remember the light, keep it inside you, and wait. The sun comes back every morning.



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