A Conversation with Death on the Subject of Love
By Jordan Dotson
Today I will see the first sunrise of my life, Shanyang said to himself as he limped past a sewer grate belching hot fumes. It felt like a suitable reward for his troubles, a proper conclusion, and it gave him heart as he trudged through a splatter of bitter melon and felt juice seeping through his shoe. Street lamps oozed in orange on the sidewalk. Light from the tenements and all-night pharmacies gathered like crumpled candy wrappers at the edge of his vision. He was properly drunk, and that too was a first, but it gave him a feeling of legendary purpose as he shuffled from the alleyway and onto the road, past the dim storefronts and ATMs, past balconies strung with fluttering laundry and escarpments of concrete and steel. He felt emboldened by the humming of tower cranes, the swinging I-beams and grit in the air. In the distance the stone bridge was empty and waiting. The sky was bleak. He narrowed his eyes and coughed in his hand. I will see my first sunrise. And my last. And then she will know how deeply she could have been loved.
He'd walked a lifetime during that night, and as he sighed past a weathered hotel that was by all accounts a prostitutes' nest, the smell of sewage climbed into his nostrils and Shanyang was filled with nostalgia. Before Naoko had buried his heart, he'd told her of the dreamlike cities of Europe (those of which he'd only read), where the streets are made of water so clear it was surely imported from the moon. Cities where she could drink straight from the tap and hail gondolas instead of taxis. Yet in this city, the only canal was a concrete chute that funnelled human waste toward the ocean. At a broken recycling bin, he paused. At least it proved that the rumours of an ocean were true.
Beneath the dust of a sad camphor tree on the paved west bank of the river, a lone street cleaner was sweeping up cigarette butts with a handmade broom. "Good morning, Aunty," Shanyang said, sniffing the rosebud pinned to his lapel, but the street cleaner gave him no response. Instead her glare was beady and suspicious and she tightened her grip on her dustpan handle as he passed. At the slope of the bridge, a breeze stirred the septic aroma in the air and Shanyang doubted that the cleaner could even smell it. He'd read that the nose acclimates to new odours in 16 seconds or less, that they just disappear from the mind, so as he hitched past the stained balustrades and took a first glimpse at the silent river which was slipping beneath him like a curse, Shanyang wondered how much time had passed in between some street cleaner flushing the toilet and his reptile brain reassigning those pestilent vapours as the day's normal air.
The city was sleeping poorly. It muttered its migrant's dreams. Its tatters of night sky were grey and agitated and when he looked up from the centre of the bridge, Shanyang felt like a deaf man wandering toward a storm. There was no moon. The only stars were the witch glow of lamplight dotting the windows of apartment blocks, and on and on forever they climbed up into the clouds, so many that Shanyang felt even more determined to die alone. In between the edges of two distant buildings, where a barbwire fence marked the end of the world, the city and the sky were the same foggy thing. The quiet breeze rippled and battered his hair and it felt good and somehow clean. The air of the city was usually stagnant, locked in tight, adhered by heat and humidity. But above the river it was restless and moving, as if passing into the drainpipe of all yesterdays.
Shanyang leaned his elbows on the railing. At the end of the bridge, a swarm of taxis were parked or idling. Two drivers hunkered by a flaming metal barrel with Styrofoam bowls of noodles. A dozen others were lying in their backseats, sock feet propped in the windows. Shanyang was certain that none would join him in watching the rising of the sun, and wondered then if it was even worth seeing, if the sun even rose, or if dawn was just an ashtray emptied from the sky. Either way, this would be a morning the taxi drivers wouldn't soon forget.
As he climbed atop the handrail, a lingering scent of cigarette smoke drifted into Shanyang's nose, and immediately he realised he'd acclimated to the smell of the river, then felt disappointed that he hadn't checked his watch to see how long it had taken. He contemplated this with his rosebud quivering and his poet's hair whipping his face, and gazing upward at the pallor now seeping through invisible cracks in the sky, Shanyang felt even more disappointed at the nonchalance of time as it drew to an end. The air was growing prophetically still. The river was silent. Shanyang stretched out his arms and took a deep breath.
"I'd be careful if I were you."
Startled, he slipped on his delicate perch. His arms swung in rapid, gigantic circles. For a brief moment Shanyang was certain he was in the midst of toppling to his doom, and felt enraged at the prospect of passing so gracelessly into history. Yet by some miracle he regained his balance, and then crouching there like a tightrope walker with his chest heaving and his face on fire, Shanyang growled with aggravation.
"Whoa. Take it easy. I won't bite."
She was sitting on the rail three metres away, thin, white legs dangling over the water, peering up at him with a blank look of curiosity. Blue-black pigtails swung past her neck. Blue oxford shoes bounced rhythmically against the railing. In fact, other than the skin of her legs and her arms and her face which was so purely white it was nearly glowing, the girl was blue from head to toe: suspenders, knee-socks, flouncy miniskirt, a schoolgirl's uniform that looked as though it were sketched with a fountain pen. Her wrists scintillated with jangly bangles in cobalt and sapphire, and in her right hand was a cigarette nub. She gave it a glance, flicked it in the river, then pulled another from a pocket in her skirt and lit it with a Zippo lighter. She shrugged.
"Didn't mean to scare you."
Shanyang stared. The girl didn't look any older than 12.
"Sorry," he grumbled, climbing off the balustrade. "I didn't see you sitting there."
"Why are you sorry?"
He scratched his chin. "I...don't know." Still he was standing a distance away, dangerously confused, sizing up the girl who was presently exhaling fumes in his general direction. "Should you be smoking like that?"
"Smoking like what?"
"I mean...aren't you a little young?"
She examined the cigarette.
"They say it'll kill me if I keep it up."
Shanyang blinked to unmuddle his eyes.
"But that's a good question, Mister Stranger on a Bridge. I bet I'm older than you think I am."
Shanyang, wary of being entrapped, arched his eyebrow and said no more. Every few seconds, two blocks downstream, parallel purple sparks raced up the face of a dead office tower. On the water their reflections appeared like lasers and the girl was quietly watching them zip across the river's black surface, her oxford shoes unconsciously bobbing along. At the end of one such perfect race she giggled like a bird, and all at once Shanyang felt silly for being so startled by a child. He pushed back his hair, exhaled a loud breath of resignation, and reset his elbows on the railing.
"Isn't it a little bit late out for you?"
She gave a wistful sigh.
"No...I'm a taxi driver."
Shanyang arched a severe eyebrow.
"Really," she said, exhaling a puff of smoke in his face. "Name is Ghost, but you can call me what you like."
"That's what I said, isn't it? And you, Mister Stranger on a Bridge?"
Shanyang laughed and told her his name.
"Great. Now we're not strangers, are we? Though you do look a little bit strange, Shanyang. In fact, you look like you need to go home and take a shower."
"It's been a long night."
"Tell me about it. I got a call-in a little while ago, saying some hopeless idiot was waiting for me down at this bridge. Said he wanted a good, long ride away from this stinking place."
She shut one eye, examined Shanyang slyly with the other, then grunted.
"Anyhow...I guess they canceled and forgot to tell me. Booo-ring. Now here I am, just killing time. Funny expression, isn't it? Killing time. Time's only alive when it's passed, if you ask me. Now live forever, and then you'll want to kill some time. Yes sir."
Shanyang rubbed his chin.
"You've got a funny way of talking."
She flicked her cigarette into the water and lit another.
"So what are you doing out so late, standing on a bridge above the smelliest river in the world?"
Shanyang gazed off into the distance. In between the towers the sky was dissolving into a gray soup. Dawn had surrendered. He sighed.
"Watching the sunrise."
"Some view, huh?" The girl took a long pull on her cigarette. "Torn up over a woman, aren't you?"
Shanyang snorted as though she were crazy, but couldn't stop his eyes from searching the ground for proof of his destitute condition. A plastic bag spiraled on a meandering breeze. It caught on the rail. Reluctantly, Shanyang deferred.
"What gave me away? The rose?"
He tugged at the bud in his lapel and inhaled. A mischievous cackle bounced around the girl's mouth.
"Give me a break. Do you know how many hopeless drunks have dragged their sorry butts into my taxi, at this time of night, because of a woman? Thousands. Millions. Six thousand years' worth. Usually at bridges too, come to think of it. You'd think they were expecting a ferry or something. Women. Sheesh. They ruin more men than war. So what's her name?"
Shanyang stared. The plastic shopping bag crinkled and snapped. A bangle slid down the girl's wrist. Sadly, Shanyang closed his eyes.
"Japanese, is she?"
"It's a nickname. It's literary."
"Literary, huh? In that case I'd have gone with Ying Ying. Or Vina. Or Janie Jones, that'd be way better. How'd you meet?"
Shanyang chewed the corner of his mouth. He'd relived the scene a thousand times during the course of that night, witnessing the endless unravelling of everything his heart once believed was true. Now, however, in the misty half-light, he saw the simplicity of how his great love began.
"It was raining. She let me underneath her umbrella."
"Shit." The girl's pigtails whipped through the air. She spit her cigarette into the river. "I dearly hope that's a metaphor, Shanyang. Isn't that the man's job, holding umbrellas?"
Shanyang stared down into the currents. The loosed plastic bag floated off like a dead jellyfish.
"I guess you're right."
"He guesses I'm right," she muttered. "So what, she jumped ship on you? Can't say I blame her, having to carry umbrellas all the time."
Shanyang scrunched his face in great pain. The girl's legs stilled against the railing.
"Apologies. All of these long nights driving alone...I forget how to be polite. I'll be quiet."
Shanyang inhaled deeply through his nose. He swayed on his feet, feeling as though the stonework railing were all that kept him from falling.
"No. Forget it. Talking is good sometimes."
A car alarm blared in the distance.
"Yeah," she whispered, appearing somewhat wistful herself. "Sometimes..."
For a moment they avoided each other's gaze, Shanyang hiding in the shell of his shoulders, the girl peering off toward the forlorn camphor trees. Above the sky was a sickly grey, below a greasy sheen snaked the river, and "So," she piped up all of a sudden as she fumbled for a new cigarette. "Naoko. Married? Stinky, screaming babies?"
"No, actually. We only just met."
The girl spit her new cigarette into the river.
"You're joking, right?"
"Well, I've seen her around for a long time, but..." His sentence disappeared in the clattering of bangles on the tiny hand thrust in his face.
"Listen, man. I'm sure she was pretty and smelled nice and all that. And I don't doubt that you were crazy about her. But look at you, Shanyang. You can't go stumbling drunk into eternity just because a girl didn't call you back."
Gravely, Shanyang shook his head. His heart was aching. A bus downshifted on the highway in the distance. He spit into the river, wondering what a child could possibly know of love.
The girl rolled her eyes, chewing a braid of hair as she rummaged once again for a cigarette. As soon as it was lit, she crossed her arms and held it in front of her face.
"Come on, Romeo. You can't go grasping for a Juliet in every girl who's nice enough to smile. That stuff takes time. Believe me, I know. Maybe it starts with a wink or a secret or an umbrella even, but you have to let it grow. If it's real, it's real. But if it's not, it's not. And when that ship sails, shit, it's gone. The only way you know if it was worth it is after you write the song."
Shanyang stared at her, stunned.
She dragged on her cigarette.
"The song. The poem. The story, whatever."
He swallowed something massive in his throat.
"How old are you again?"
"Yeesh." She shook her pigtails. "Old enough to know that you've got to be careful. They'll kill you if you let them, these women will. They're dangerous creatures. A lot worse than werewolves, that's for sure."
Shanyang loosed a full-bodied laugh.
"Werewolves. You don't say."
"Damn right. Werewolves."
He grinned at the undulating sky.
"You know, you're pretty smart for a kid. So what should I do now?"
The girl swung her legs across the rail, cigarette still dangling from her mouth. "Don't kid me, mister Shanyang on a bridge. And don't ask questions when you already know the answer."
Shanyang tried to bury his smile. He recrossed his ankles and took a jaunty lean against the railing. He waited.
"Oh come on," she rolled her eyes. "You're sweet, Shanyang, but a little bit thick. You're in a rut, aren't you? Hate your job? Feel like you gave up on all your dreams? You need to shake things up a little bit. Try something other than drowning in booze. You need to get off your ass and live."
Shanyang tossed back his head and laughed.
"I don't know if I should take life advice from a chain-smoking taxi driver."
"Hey, do what you want. I'm nobody's boss."
The girl swung her legs back over the rail. She blew a perfect ring of smoke and when it promptly disappeared in the wind, she muttered with certain disgust. She flicked her cigarette into the water, as if giving up, and Shanyang noticed that for the first time since appearing on the bridge she didn't relight. Instead she stared at her tiny, pale hands with their blue nail polish, and it made her seem like the loneliest person in the world.
He cleared his throat into his fist.
"Say, shouldn't you be leaving anyway? No passengers to pick up, right?"
"I wish," she sifted her breath. "Didn't you see the full moon tonight? There's a werewolf party on Mengjing Road. They get pretty wild, the hairy bastards. Best fare of the month. Always means a mess in the backseat, though."
Shanyang leaned his back against the railing with a soft chuckle bubbling in his lungs. Only two taxis remained across the bridge and the drivers were sitting together and smoking. He looked up into the dishwater sky and thought about all of the sleepless people whose lives consume those tiny hours, the insomniacs, garbage men and radio hosts, and wondered how many had chosen nocturnal lives to escape a broken heart. He wondered if they'd found peace in this hour when time didn't pass. He wondered if he could become a night person. He wondered what it took to write a song.
Beside him the girl remained attached to the rail, heaving deep sighs and wistfully smiling at the streaks of purple which were growing dimmer by the minute. Shanyang couldn't help smiling himself, at her, at the river, at the drunken riptides which had pulled him through the night and tossed him on a concrete shore with such a person. She may be a liar, he said to himself, but she sure can tell a story.
And that made him wonder.
He cleared his throat.
"Ghost," he whispered. "Have you ever fallen..." in love? he wanted to say. Yet before he reached the end of his question, a smog cloud tugged too hard at its seams and bright, clean light came sheeting down over the bridge.
"Hey! Look at that. A real sunrise. It's about time, huh?"
Shanyang stared full of wonder at the shafts of sunlight glimmering on the leaves of the camphors and glazing the river into white. In the distant corridor between skyscrapers where the barbwire fence stood erect, the fog was dissolving and a smudge of green mountainsides appeared from thin air. A tiny speck was climbing toward a slate-roofed, open-air temple, and Shanyang couldn't tell who or what it was, only that it was moving, crawling steadily upward, and all at once then he understood, with perfect clarity, that there was an ocean waiting on the distant side.
"It's beautiful," Shanyang said.
"It never gets old, does it?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never seen a sunrise before."
The girl slowly turned her head to peer at him. Her eyes were as wide as small moons.
Shanyang laughed. "I know, I know."
"You need to make some changes, my friend."
"You know what? You're right." He glanced once again at the sky between the towers. "And I think it's time go home."
"Yeah?" the girl seemed disappointed. "Well I guess I can't blame you, mister Shanyang on a bridge. I've got important things to do myself. But no worries. I'm sure I'll see you again one day. Hopefully not back on this stinking bastard bridge."
No one in the history of bridges and rivers ever smiled a more genuine smile than Shanyang did at that moment.
"Don't worry," he said. "I don't think you will."
The girl appraised him with a look of skepticism, then finally laughed.
"Take care of yourself, Shanyang. I mean it. Find a new girl. Stay away from booze. Dying is a luxury you earn."
"Thanks...I will," Shanyang said, never fully realising what she meant. With his hands tucked into the pockets of his coat, he ambled back the way he'd come, smiling through his yawns at the thrum of opened shutters, the flares of light ricocheting off of windows, and the soft applause of the breeze in the camphor leaves. In the distance a car horn unzipped the morning. School children gathered at a public bus stop. Shanyang watched a smattering of bicycles flowing together across the bridge, smiled at the languid ease of their motion, and contemplated purchasing a bike himself. At the broken recycling bin he paused, then turned for one last glance at the seam of sunlight pouring through the clouds. Only then did he realise that the girl had vanished. And that's when he heard the splash.
Shanyang sprinted back onto the bridge with a riot of fear in his chest. He leaned deeply over the stonework barrier, breathing in thick bursts and scanning the water, and when he saw bubbles rising in a cluster, he let out a wail of desperation.
"Help! Help! Someone call for help!"
He spun in wild circles, imploring the bleary-eyed passers-by who were yawning as they trotted toward the subway station, the young men dressed in ill-fitting sports coats and coltish office ladies hugging oversized purses, but each and everyone took a wide swerve around him, parrying his lunatic solicitations with rapid, nervous looks askance. Overwhelmed then by burning despair, and hollering nonsense all the while, Shanyang stripped off his rose bedecked coat, kicked off his soggy, canvas shoes, tore off his sweat-stained button-up shirt, then clambered atop the railing of the bridge where he hunkered and prepared to dive. Yet before he could carry out the first great act of courage of his life, Shanyang felt something tugging on his waistband and toppled backward into the arms of a sturdy street cleaner.
"Let go!" he screamed, grappling with the old crone who promptly rapped him on the head with her dustpan handle. "She's in the river! She's in the river!"
"What's this now?" barked a knotty old man in sandals and pajamas.
"Poor thing," whispered a heel-worn matron who'd freshly emerged from the prostitutes' nest. "He's been here all night, talking to himself."
"Kids these days," the old man muttered, lifting Shanyang's coat from the ground and poking at its rose corsage. "They read too many damn stories."
"Oh hush it," the matron hissed. "Can't you see he's got a broken heart?"
"Well he should have gone into your hotel and got it patched up," the old man chuckled.
For a few moments Shanyang battled with the passers-by who thought that they were saving his life, jerking and striving and hollering all the while, but no matter how much he struggled he couldn't escape the street cleaner's grip. It was only after he began to cry, muttering "Ghost, dear sweet Ghost," that a birdlike giggle wafted on the breeze, a raucous squealing of tires split the morning, and then peering hopefully across the murky water, Shanyang saw a dim streak of light shoot downstream toward the mountains. It was blue.
I said take care of yourself, you idiot.
All at once then Shanyang quit struggling. He blinked for a moment, then unravelled a smirk, and then as the crowd of passersby hushed, he tossed back his head and laughed with such volume that even the brave street cleaner backed away in fear. No one spoke as he gathered his clothes, humming to himself, and sat down carefully to dress. He slipped on his shoes, buttoned up his shirt, adjusted the rosebud pinned to his lapel, and when he was done, he thanked everyone and strolled away. At the end of the bridge he peered across his shoulder, not at the crowd still wide-eyed and staring, but at the poetic ray of sunlight that ricocheted off of the mighty skyscrapers and girded the city in a momentary luminaire of hope. A hangover sat like a needle in his brain. He squinted one eye. The first sunrise of my life, he said. It was a fantastic day to be alive.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 1 Jan 2019