Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
The clerk at the China Post branch office has a strange feeling about the package in front of her. It seems normal enough. Cards, lucky knots, decorations, and a medium-sized polymer bust of Mao accompanied by a medal commemorating a trip to his birthplace. This is exactly the kind of crap you’d expect a foreigner to send home. And none of it is illegal, at least not as far as can be determined from the clerk’s cursory reading of the bogglingly complex mailing regulations.
The clerk — Clerk Zhang — knows this man, has seen his type before: old outsiders, not the happy-go-lucky recent college grads, not the globe-trotting retirees. A few of these men were charming in an oily pickup-artist way and spent their days trying with varying degrees of success to take advantage of foreign fever, the xenophilia that afflicted a certain type of country girl, one not quite ready to settle into the small-town grind.
The best of the outsiders lived quietly, cautious and achingly polite, but even that was suspect. What are they fleeing? Why are these men so eager to draw no attention to themselves? They never sent postcards, never wrote anyone; the clerk knew these men only from her student days.
Still, something’s different.
This man is unperturbed and, possibly, unperturbable; polite but not timid, friendly but not flirty, deliberate but not slow. Clerk Zhang can’t quite put her finger on it, but there’s something different about this man, something that necessitates that she throw her entire foreigners taxonomy out the window. There’s a rather obvious bump on his head; he fell recently, and hard. Maybe that explains it? But he doesn’t act disoriented. So what could be the—
“Miss, is there something wrong? Can you mail my package?” He’s speaking Mandarin, and so badly that it grates on her ears. Why can’t these people learn tone? But they can’t. And spoken Chinese without the proper tonal modulations is about as intelligible as spoken English with all the vowels omitted.
There’s nothing wrong. She reaches back to her student’s English. “I don’t think so.” Clerk Zhang notices that the line snaking through the marble-floored, un-air-conditioned hall and out onto the sidewalk is growing increasingly irate. Someone is yelling into her phone about being late for dinner; the others scowl. Clerk Zhang doesn’t have time to tear everything apart and check for contraband. “No, everything is okay. Two hundred and twenty-eight yuan, please.”
The foreigner pays with crisp red bills, and Clerk Zhang tapes up the box, rubber-stamping the customs forms where appropriate. And then the man is out the door, strolling through the city’s hustle and hullabaloo, poisoning his lungs with fetid city air, fragrant with diesel and the aroma of smelly tofu, as though he were on a mountaintop, inhaling a jasmine-flower scented summer breeze.
Clerk Zhang was right the first time. She should have shaken the statue and heard the candy bouncing around in its hollowed-out insides.
The dormitory is a mess. It isn’t that the girls are messy, only that there are six of them packed into it with all their clothes, computers, smartphones, photos, packages, and assorted knickknacks. But they’re a good lot, generally speaking, and they get along about as well as six people possibly could when living like sardines in a tin can — one with a squat toilet, a cold-water shower, and no heating or air conditioning.
Xiaoxiao likes them all; they’re friends, almost sisters. She has mixed feelings about using them as guinea pigs for her new recipe, but Uncle Fu insisted, “You can’t sell a product without marketing research!” And he promised that it was perfectly — probably — safe. It had no effect on him at all, for whatever that was worth. Maybe Uncle Fu, as crazy as he seemed, was entirely realistic.
She opens the box, smiles. “This is special candy. You should—”
And they’ve already picked the box clean, each having taken her four pieces in hand.
“Wow! This is beautiful!” says the one with glasses, popping a piece into her mouth.
“I’ve never seen anything like!” says the one with bobbed hair, biting into one of hers.
“It’s a ruby!” say the third and fourth, who are identical twins, each gingerly nibbling on half of one of their little squares.
“I feel funny,” says one who is turning various shades of green. Her candy has already disappeared.
“Uh, like I was saying, this is special candy. It makes some people dizzy.”
“Yeah, uh, sort of.” Dammit, Uncle Fu, you and your brilliant ideas! “Maybe you should sit down. It doesn’t last long.”
The complexion of the others has started to cycle from drab to puce. Xiaoxiao helps them to their beds. Their eyes have turned glassy. They’re silent. Xiaoxiao is at a loss. She waits.
“I won’t be accepted into a good graduate school!” blurts out the one with glasses.
Xiaoxiao jerks her head around. That one looks normal now. Well, at least it didn’t kill her!
“We will never find rich husbands!” call out the twins.
“My parents don’t love me as much as they love my sister!” yells another.
Xiaoxiao looks at the last, the one who was the greenest of the green. Her color is incrementally returning to normal.
“Mei? Uh, Brandy?” Might as well try a little English. “Are you okay?”
A smile, one of bodhisattva serenity, spreads across Brandy’s face. She turns toward Xiaoxiao.
“I’m fine.” She pats Xiaoxiao on the hand, warmly. “Thank you, Xiaoxiao. Thank you.”
Xiaoxiao looks around the room. They’re all okay. They’re all better than okay, in fact. Well, that’s done.
Xiaoxiao isn’t exactly certain of what to report to Uncle Fu or what he’ll do about it, but she does find this much peacefulness in one room — especially given all the recent revelations — to be a little unnerving.
“You call that berry picking?!”
Never one to miss a golden opportunity, meaning an opportunity to obtain some gold, Uncle Fu has already hired a half-dozen farmhands with savings that few people knew his wife had, and he intends to get his money’s worth from each of them.
He adjusts his hat, trying to keep the semi-tropical sun from burning his surprisingly delicate skin. He leap-skips through the fields — a happy overseer if ever there was one — and sings with a voice that could almost pass for that of a professional:
“Rich! I’m rich!
There’ll be money much to spend
And they’ll all see how clever
Old Fu was in the end!”
Fu spots one of the workers, bent over, picking a little too slowly. He bounds toward her. Is she trying to eat that? “Hey, I’m not paying you to taste them! Back to work!”
He’s not a hypocrite; Uncle Fu — Boss Fu now! — has fifteen people in his employ. Three are in the kitchen; three in packaging; and three drivers, in addition to the pickers. He watches them with hawk-eyed dedication that borders on a religious fervor.
He’s everywhere at once, this dynamo of man, working hard, and not a drop of juice, a bag of sugar, or a single sheet of brightly colored labels goes to waste, especially labels featuring garishly drawn temples and the words Perfect Wisdom Candy Supreme! in calligraphy so elaborate that it is nearly illegible. Uncle Fu even looks younger now, as though money itself has wiped the years away. He could almost —almost! — pass for handsome.
Auntie Ma looks down from her window on the third floor of the family compound with perfect equanimity. Fu spots her out of the corner of his eye. “See, I told you we’d be rich, wife! See!” He wonders if she can hear him. She can, as can everyone else within a quarter mile.
She nods. “I see, husband. I see,” she says with indifference.
Fu grins, jumps up and clicks his heels together before starting for the kitchen.
Rich! I’m rich!
There’ll be money much to spend
And they’ll all see how clever...
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley