His Favorite Shirt

The taxi sped through the dark headed nowhere. The cabbie’s English was no good and Allen hadn’t got it. The cabbie didn’t know where they wanted to go. He was driving them up a road with a similar name. Allen realized they were lost. Diane sat next to him in the back seat. She was actively trying not to have any realizations. Each looked out their own side at the jungle foliage along the road. They hadn’t said a word since they got in the taxi.

She turned to him and said, “I love that shirt on you.”

It was the only piece of clothing he had ever bought for himself. He let the women in his life shop for him. His sisters, his mother, his girlfriends. Diane had picked out most of his clothing in the last two years. He didn’t know the difference and he didn’t care. Except for this shirt.

It was silk, powder-blue, thick as canvas but light and drapey in smooth lines. He saw it on the Ginza during his mandatory trip out of Korea to allow his work visa to be approved. It was the only thing he bought that long weekend. It broke his budget which had already been scaled to the outrageous prices of Tokyo. After he’d stood in front of the shop window looking at it for ten minutes he knew he had to have it. It didn’t matter how the pile of zeros in yen tallied once transubstantiated to US dollars. It felt even better than it looked.

“The color is so great,” she ventured further.

“Don’t you think the time to tell me this was before we came to Hong Kong?”

“Allen,” she said angrily, “how many times can I say I’m sorry?”

“I wouldn’t have come to Korea.”

The cabby asked Allen to reclarify the directions. He tried. It didn’t help.

“That whole time. On the phone every other night. You could have said something.”

“It hasn’t been easy. Look, you know I’m sorry.”

“Spending three hundred bucks a month on phone calls.”

“Please,” she said softly.

“Acting like nothing.”

“Allen.”

“When the whole time…” he paused, “Did you ever call me from his place?”

“No! Of course not.”

“Of course not,” he echoed with the slightest spin.

Allen was staring at the back of the cabby’s neck. There was a mole the size of quarter with long black hair twirled out of it. He’d seen it on certain Chinese men. He presumed it was kept for luck. Everything was about luck for the Chinese.

Diane pleaded, “Please, don’t. We’re here together now.”

“Do you remember Memphis?”

“Yes,” she said with some weight.

“Then don’t tell me about together.” That made her quiet. He had nothing else to say either.

The driver was progressively less sure of his route and more worried that he was going to get stuck with a large unpaid fare. He stopped there. He asked them out of the cab and did not want any money. It was a thin residential area which might as well have been the Gobi. There were no phones. No way to go up to a gate and ask a stranger on the other end of an intercom for help in Cantonese.

Allen edged onto the road a little to flag the first empty taxi going the other way. The traffic was slight. In five minutes they were in another taxi. They showed the name of the hostel to him in Chinese from their faxed itinerary. He didn’t know it any better than the first driver. Maybe he couldn’t even read it. He drove them the same direction they’d been going.

Diane settled it by requesting the Macau ferry pier facing Kowloon. They could start over with the shuttle they’d initially missed. They were in a taxi to begin with because Allen didn’t want to wait on the pier for the next shuttle. He couldn’t bear it after the things said at dinner.

Diane started humming a tuneless song. It was a nervous habit. Allen knew she probably didn’t even know she was doing it or what it was doing to him. He watched the close hills go by and thought of everything outside of the taxi.

“This is it,” he said, “I recognize the road now.”

She did not. She said, “We’ll catch the shuttle bus at the piers. It’s just a little farther. We’ll be there in a couple minutes. The next one’s due in twenty minutes.”

“Stop,” said Allen. The driver showed no inclination to. They were in the middle of nowhere as far he could tell.

“Stop!” Allen repeated in stronger tone. He flung a ten dollar bill over the driver’s shoulder.

Allen’s door was open while the taxi was still rolling. He walked up the shoulder toward the mountain road some hundred meters ahead.

“Allen,” Diane called, “Get back in.” He didn’t look back. She got out. The driver tried to give her the change but she didn’t want to understand and walked away after Allen.

His steps were brisk. She had to hurry and fell behind anyway.

His hands were heavy with blood and accumulated heat from the day and his own pressures. It made the gold band on his left hand cut into his skin. He gave it a good twist to try to take it off but it would have to wait until he could shower the hand with cold water.

There was a cool breeze. It felt wonderful. It went right through his shirt. He could feel it gently flapping against his back, drying his sweat.

Coiled on the shoulder of the road, in the soft dirt, was an immense snake. Allen saw it a long way off. It gave him a thrill. It distracted him entirely. He walked right to it. Diane caught up with him when he got there.

It was beautiful. A wild python, six feet long, thick as his arm. It had none of the flaws of captivity. None of the health problems stemming from the neurosis of the cage. The scales were slick and perfect from a fresh shed. The colors were richly unnatural in the florescent light.

“Don’t pick it up!” she said but he did. He moved it slowly in his hands. It curled into his arms like molasses pouring up. He lifted it around to find its head.

“Oh, no,” he said.

“What?”

He saw blood. Its jaw was crushed. It had been run over while crossing the road. It was far from dead but it was inexorably on the path to it. With a broken jaw and skull it would lay curled on the shoulder until birds and ants came to take it apart, a living pinch at a time.

“Put it down before it bites you.”

“They don’t bite,” he said loudly, angry at her for being from a suburb and her pride in it.

He looked around the road. Across the road was the lamp post giving the light they were in. He crossed the street under the light. She followed him. He could see it much better. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he would ever see.

“Turn around,” he said. She didn’t.

“Turn around!” he yelled and she did.

An innate desire for mercy fought its own socially forged doppleganger. The attempt to swing with everything he had fought the desire not to swing at all. The pure desire won.

He swung the snake as hard as he could. So that the head struck the lamp post. The ringing of the post wasn’t the ringing of a bell struck with hammer but the sick sound of flesh and skeleton coaxing metal to sing. He did it again, fearing the first time he had been weak. And again, fearing he’d made a snap judgement of the animal’s mortality.

He threw the ropey corpse up into the forest.

Suddenly there were no places in the world. Only this one obliterating cardinal point and a measure of distance from it. The distance from it to himself. He started off without looking at Diane.

The mountain road was five kilometers of switchback. He walked it like crossing a parking lot in the rain. He was aware that Diane existed somewhere behind him.

“Allen!” she finally yelled. Her voice was far below. He stopped walking, dead. Not turning, not slouching. He waited for her to catch up. Sweat stood in beads on his forehead and began to condense down his nose. Her noisy footfalls and labored breath came to his back.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He started walking, slower now, so she could keep up.

They got to the hostel together but he kept walking up to the top of the mountain. She stopped. She went to the hostel office to get water and maybe wait for him or maybe follow him.

Squatting at the top of the cobblestone hill was an immense microwave antenna. There was something Allen took to be a military bunker next to it. There were lights but no noise. Allen turned around and sat down. It was so steep he had to be careful not to slip and go rolling down it.

A little red foxlike dog came running up the hill to him. She belonged to the hostel managers. He had played with her the day before. His hand in her teeth, tug of war, gentle enough not to really hurt. Allen had never met a brighter dog though she was a bit wild.

She trotted onto the stones behind him where they leveled. There was something in her mouth. It looked like a bunch of dried leaves. She dropped it for him so they could play with it together. It was a giant moth. The wings were the colors of autumn and much bigger. It was alive.

Allen said, “Oh, no, girl.”

He picked it up and kept her from grabbing it back. One wing was shredded hopelessly. The other was fine, sturdy as chipboard. He stood up and stuck it in a high bush where the dog couldn’t get at it.

“Maybe you can at least still breed with one wing, or something.”

He sat back down and said, “Come ’ere, girl.” The dog obliged and he wrapped an arm around her and let her chew absently on his wrist.

“Life is weird, girl. You think you’re done with something and you’re not. It finds you out. You know I was coming home one night—I was still in high school—and I saw a cat on the side of the road. I stopped the car and got out. It was all messed up. Got hit. Couldn’t even raise its head. Just kinda staring. Eyes all wide. And you know I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t afford to take it to the vet. I started to pick it up before I thought about that. It was a mess. Cats die real hard, you know? I went home and asked my dad if he would let me take it to the vet. He’s got lots of money. More all the time. And he’s like, no way. And I was cool with it, you know? His money, not mine. His choice.”

Allen stopped petting her. She was bored with chewing on his hand. She lay down with her head in his lap. He stroked her ears.

“So I said I oughta go out and kill it so it didn’t lay there all night dying. Just shoot it or something. And he gets all weird about it. He says he’ll take care of it. Well, he’s a doctor, so I thought maybe he’d go give it an OD of painkiller or something. And he’s got a gun and all too. I thought he’d take care of it. I didn’t do anything. Didn’t worry about it. Just went to bed. My older sister comes over the next day when I’m at school. She’s visiting from college and not in the house anymore. She finds the thing laying in the ditch still and throws a fit. She finds out that our dad knew and she’s really upset. She doesn’t have any money either but she forces him to let her take it to the vet. He tells her that I was gonna kill it but he stopped me. You know what she says to me when she sees me? She calls me a monster. A monster.

“You know what? That cat lay in a cold stainless steel vet cage for two weeks before it died. Horrible lights and smells and needles jammed in it and its brains leaking out from abscess and no love and nothing familiar and no one to pet it for two whole weeks. And I’m a monster,” he started crying when he said it.

“You think it’s easy?” he asked the dog. This frightened her and she stood and started to pull away from him. He didn’t hold on. “You think it was easy?” he coughed out through sobs. “Is that what they think? That being a monster is easy?”

The dog ran back down the hill. She wasn’t a house dog and human sorrow spooked her.

The view of the Hong Kong bay was excellent. His tears put a starburst glaze on the lights of the boats and buildings. Kowloon sparkled across the bay. On the island with him were all the major buildings of downtown. The tops of them poking out over the dividing hills. It was mostly forested. Much less than a quarter of Hong Kong was built on because of the hills. After an hour of watching boat lights come and go he went back down the hill to the hostel.

Diane was waiting. She was with the hostel managers, a married couple, and the little dog.

“We were worried about you,” she said. He recognized the tactic. He’d be civil if there were witnesses. The two others mumbled polite concerns in their Hong Kong accent. They had sounded Australian to him before. Now they sounded properly British. Afraid that something embarrassing was going on.

“Nothing to worry about,” Allen said. He kept his face down and kept walking. She followed him after saying goodnight in her own charade of normality.

Allen rubbed his eyes as he walked across the courtyard. He passed their room to go to the bathroom. It was the last time they would share a room.

When he was urinating he realized something was out of place. There were blotches of color on both his hands like a weird rash. He couldn’t remember getting into anything. He realized it was blood but couldn’t remember hurting himself. The recognition took half a minute. It was the python’s. He washed it off.

His ring was still biting into his finger. The water was cool but he still couldn’t get the ring off. He tried harder but he only succeeded in hurting his finger.

His hands and face were wet. He usually dried his hands in his shirt. Especially when travelling. His shirt was usually cleaner than a travel towel. It was a singular shirt for him, however, so he stopped just short of doing it. He untucked it from his pants instead, using only his finger tips.

He looked down at it. There were many blood spots. There were tiny pieces of gore and a short length of gut, dry glued there in its own fluid. In the florescent light it carried the shock of gore without color. Gore made gore only by mental subtraction. Deduction of what it certainly had to be in relation to all the things it might possibly be.

He knew that a little cold water and Woolite out of his bath kit would clean the shirt up perfectly. He pulled the shirt off, straight over his head. The top two buttons snapped. He yanked the sleeves off, inside-out, popping the cuffs’ buttons. There was a big plastic trash bin outside the bathroom. He stuffed the shirt into it, under as many things and as deep as he could reach.


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