Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Life and Death
Richard M. Baxter, Esq., divorce attorney to the discontented, stares at the printout. This is bad. This is a matter of life and death! “Roberta, are you certain this is right? It can’t be...”
“But it is, sir. I checked the numbers thrice.”
“Half of our clients?” Baxter looks around the wood-paneled office, runs his hands over the gently polished cocobolo desk. This simply isn’t possible. “Did they say why?”
“Well, sir, I can’t give you one reason, of course. It’s just so many clients, and—”
Baxter nods. Roberta, ever cautious, doesn’t make any statements she can’t positively support with evidence. She’s a great associate — potential partner — the smartest one Baxter has ever had.
“Of course, Roberta, but could you give me a very general idea?” He adjusts his tie. “I mean, just a theme.”
Roberta sighs, collects her thoughts, and squirms in her pantsuit. “They say it’s pointless.”
“Meaning?” Baxter waits.
“They say they realize that they can’t realistically do any better. And they keep using that word — ‘realistically’ — that they can’t do any better, that their aspirations aren’t grounded in reality. The men say, uh... that they realize that their secretaries don’t really love them or want to run away with them: they’re just conning them for cars and condos.”
Baxter, stone silent, rubs his jaw, verifying that it did not, in fact, unhinge and drop to the lovely tropical wood on which his papers and computer are scattered. “And the women?”
“They say that they’re getting older, and no amount of plastic surgery can conceal that fact. They might as well just stay where they are.”
A circuit breaker in Baxter’s head has just flipped. Nothing is processing at this point. Roberta, ever observant, intuits as much. “Sir, have you spoken to your brother recently?” She waits. “Sir?”
Baxter is starting to reboot. “What? My brother? Why?” And Baxter tries to remember when he last spoke to his elder brother, Dwight D. Baxter, Psy.D. — their mother had a thing for presidents — and he guesses it was only a few weeks ago.
“Perhaps you should, sir. I think” — she weighs her words — “he’s... whatever this is, it’s been affecting him too.”
Baxter is bewildered. What’s the theme here? Is... “Roberta, you’ve been checking the websites for bad reviews, right? Anything unusual? Anyone particularly irate?”
Roberta thumbs through her folder. No, not that one. No. Oh!
“Uh, no, sir. Just the ordinary insults, slanders, and rape threats for you.” She skims the printout, her eye stopping on a highlighted section. She perks up. “This one’s rather colorful! I’m not certain if a person can actually do this sort of thing with a watermelon, a pair of latex gloves, and a machete, unless the watermelon is very small, but—”
Baxter waves his hand dismissively. Most Fridays, each of the associates picked a favorite online rant and read it to the office. With the utmost — if tongue-in-cheek — gravity, the partners heard them all, debated, and voted, with the nominator of the best rant receiving a thirty-dollar gift card and instructions to identify the author and sue him into oblivion! But this is not most Fridays. There is no Friday crush, and the office is all but silent.
An idea alights upon Baxter: “Roberta, call everybody else in town: firms, psychiatric practices, and uh—”
“Prostitutes, doctors, bartenders, drug dealers, preachers, and all others likely to hear tales of woe and disappointment?”
“Yes, sir?” she shifts uncomfortably, not knowing if she should have finished the sentence of a partner.
Baxter pauses. He tries to avoid seeming too impressed by his associates — it suggests weakness — but he just can’t help himself. “That is why we hired you.”
Xiaoxiao can’t quite adapt to the new Wailmoore, the new, improved Wailmoore.
First, there’s the slur: It’s missing.
“And today, we’re going to discuss informal American greetings, when to use them, and when to avoid—”
He’s actually prepared a lesson plan? This is new: Wailmoore, never one to regard his profession as being worthy of him, was only semi-coherent most days. On the best, he rambled humorously, mentioning something potentially useful from time to time; but that seemed essentially accidental, as though he had dropped, very much unintentionally, a pearl into a pigpen, rather than intentionally casting one into the muck.
Xiaoxiao sniffs the air as Wailmoore walks by, trying to seem discrete. No booze? A student speaks: “Teacher, but that doesn’t make any sense. Why is ‘bitches’ bad, but ‘dawg’ good? I mean aren’t they both—”
Xiaoxiao catches sight of the speaker. It’s Feifei, and Feifei never asks questions. Feifei — frumpy, sweet, Feifei — spent all her time discretely text-messaging a boy, supposedly from a wealthy family, whom no one had ever seen. Of Feifei’s many virtues, hotness was not among them, and her family background — divorced parents, dirt poor — all but eliminated any possibility of her marrying up.
Invisible boyfriend, whoever he was, was taking Feifei for a ride and was such a prick about it that he wasn’t even willing to be seen publicly with her. Focusing on her studies was almost certainly a better use of Feifei’s time, but why the sudden change of heart?
Xiaoxiao looks around the room, at the hard benches and the folding seats and the cracked concrete walls with whitewashing turned powdery, gradually coating all with kalsomine dust. Nothing different. Outside, through the plate-glass windows, she sees the towering, shiny-new Imperial International Grand Hotel and Restaurant — grand, yes, but not quite as much as the name suggests — same as before, except for a new billboard, one with a man dressed as an ancient scholar, lush fields behind him, a wise smile on his face. Wait, that’s... Uncle!
Xiaoxiao tries not to spit up her congee, but a little comes up through her nose despite her efforts. Ow!
A drab uniform with an unsmiling face atop it appears at the door. The man — older, close-cropped hair — scans the room with a rifleman’s eyes. Once, twice, and they stop on: “Fu Xiao? Is there a Fu Xiao here?”
The man’s voice is commanding and his Mandarin, formal but with the faintest trace of country boy beneath it. Xiaoxiao sinks into her seat. He repeats himself, even more commandingly, “Fu Xiao? Is there a Fu Xiao here?”
There’s no escaping this. Xiaoxiao stands up. “Yes, that would be me,” she responds with dread after her legal name is called for the third time.
“Please come with me.”
Teacher Wailmoore is confused. The uniformed man notices Wailmoore and his anxious glances, offers a smile, and in passable English: “Don’t worry, teacher. We’ll return her in one piece. Carry on!”
The classroom lets out a collective nervous giggle as Xiaoxiao shuffles into the hall.
They step away from the door.
“Fu Xiao, do you know the whereabouts of Fu Wenbo? ‘Master Fu’ I think he calls himself.”
Master Fu! It sounds strange coming from this man, peaked cap in hand, two rows of ribbons — fruit salad — on his chest.
“My uncle? I’ve not... I haven’t seen. I’m sorry. Has he done something wrong?”
The old soldier laughs, with a resonance that carries through the hallway. “Something wrong? No, something wonderful! We want to make a deal with him: a very generous deal!” Xiaoxiao is impassive. Now, the soldier is confused. “I thought you’d be happier, Fu Xiao. I certainly would be.”
“I’m happy for my uncle, of course.” Xiaoxiao answers evenly.
“Ha! Good girl, but be happy for yourself as well! After all, you are listed as his business partner, and what a business!”
“I... I...” So he didn’t cheat me. Who’d have known?
“Are you okay, Fu Xiao?” he pauses, “We didn’t particularly want to discuss business here, but Master Fu is a hard man to find.”
“I’m fine, but I haven’t seen my business partner in some time.”
The soldier is unsurprised. He gives a thoughtful look. “These eccentric geniuses have their own way of doing things, I suppose.” Eccentric, yes; genius, well... Xiaoxiao thinks better than to say anything.
“If you see him, please ask him to give us a call.” The soldier hands Xiaoxiao a card, and the red-starred cap goes on his head. “To serve your country and grow rich in the process, this is a great opportunity for all!”
“But what is your—”
He’s already down the hall, out of earshot.
Xiaoxiao peers down at the card: General Liu, Office of Psychological Operations, Southern Theater Command, People’s Liberation Army. Perhaps it’s better that Master Fu, eccentric, unpredictable genius that he is, is nowhere to be found, at least for a few days.
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley