Friday, January 18, 2019

The Twenty-Seven Club by Kevin McGeary

A musician looks back upon his arrogant younger self, busking and working illegally in Shenzhen and contemplating how to emulate his heroes; by Kevin McGeary.

They say there are two types of lyricist, those who write while overlooking a phosphorescent ocean, and those who write while staring at a blank wall. I always saw myself as one of the former, but that night, as I crouched over the windowsill scribbling in the notepad where I wrote all of my completed lyrics, the neon Shenzhen skyline refused to shine behind the evening shower. I still remember what I wrote:

I have never lived in prose and am no good at writing it, but I hope this provides consolation.

No matter how hopeless our lives are, there is always one door we can pass through unimpeded. This is the door I have chosen.

Do not think I have left this world in anger or bitterness. I leave behind only love and music that will live forever on the worldwide web.

I placed my notebook on the pine desk, next to a black marker I had borrowed from work.

On the back of my left hand, I inscribed the Chinese characters for "passport number" followed by my own. Shuang popped her head around the door, her words muffled by a mouthful of toothpaste. "What are you doing?"

"I'm making it easier for them to identify me."

"You think of everything don't you?"

I sat scrutinizing the felt tip marks across my flesh while Shuang made splashing and brushing noises in the bathroom.

Her fearlessness set off a mental mushroom cloud in my head. What if we landed head first on the concrete? Knowing what local ambulances were like, we could be lying there for hours, crowds coming and going, me the first white person many of them had seen, lying there like a pig carcass. What if we were discovered by a child?

The bathroom was no larger than a phone booth, with just a sink, shower faucet and toilet. I squeezed inside, looming over her as I grabbed my own toothbrush. The rhythm of her strokes began to match mine.

She bobbed her head to swig from a grimy glass, water running down her chin and onto her vest before she spat the remains into the sink. "Let's go," she said, slaloming out of the room. I'll never forget the way she walked, or the slight chip on her lower incisor, or the freckle below her right eye.

By the time I entered the bedroom she had already stripped to her black cotton underpants. She pulled them down, as if unaware I was behind her. Her body was bony and downy and fat in just the right places. I poked the door open, seeing rain trickle down the window and Shuang turn around, cupping her hands over her breasts in mock coyness. The sense of intimacy placed me at a unique distance from fear.



The three months I had known Shuang were the happiest of my life. We first met when I was busking in Houhai Village after a September rainstorm.

I picked a spot and time of night where there would be no police presence. My strumming was a mixture of flamenco and power-chords, sticking to the low notes and producing an effect that sounded like a vibrator in a cement mixer.

Yet it was my Mandarin lyrics that caused passers-by to stop and listen:

Heyyyyyy! It really isn't so long of a stay

From now until our last dying day

Ohhhhhh! We can't control which way the wind will blow

And I can't ignore your shimmering glow.

Seeing a Westerner was a novelty for most people, but this performance was a violent blast of novelties into their faces, causing most to wander off after a few minutes. Shuang, by contrast, stood and watched, arms folded, chewing gum, open-mouthed.

Though the ground was stamped with dead lychee, camphor and longan leaves that would stain her pants suit, she got down on one knee and filmed me with a digital camera.

After the performance, I took her to McDonald's.

"So, you often perform on the street?"

"As often as I can."

Shuang's lips parted into a smile that may have been affectionate, may have been scornful. Any hint of superiority was removed by the daub of ketchup on her left cheek.

"Is that strange?" I inquired.

"I thought Westerners were rich."

"I am compared to most people."

"From singing on the street?"

"No," it was my turn to smirk. "I have a job, but there's no future in it."

"You want to become a singer?"

"I am a singer."

"I mean as a career."

"I don't believe in careers."

I sucked on the straw of my Coco-Cola to wash down a mouthful of soggy fries and processed chicken cartilage.

"Did you see that family who asked to take my photograph on the way here? They only paid attention to me because I was white."

"You don't like people being friendly?"

"Certain kinds of friendliness."

"You're a superstar to them."

"Superstars are appreciated for their abilities. They didn't know about my songs, nor care."

"Chinese people are just friendly."

"I get so much adulation here. One day I intend to earn it."

Most of my attempts at humor failed due to either linguistic or cultural differences, but Shuang chuckled, causing a dollop of chewed hamburger to splat onto the tray.

Her remarks about 'Chinese people' suggested that she suffered from the type of patriotism popular with those whose identities had been stolen by the West. "I may not like this so-called friendliness, but I like China." I waved an index finger in the air while talking. "China is the world's oldest continuous civilization, the most populous nation, the land of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors. Its economy has grown seven times faster than America's in the past two decades. It's nostalgic for a time yet to come." Shuang simpered with pride. "It suits a guy with my ambitions."

"Having said that," I added. "Most people don't want to admit that being here as a Westerner is still a colonial experience."

"Colonial? No way. China's strong now."

"I mean there is demand for white people to meet a much-resented quota. I am held to no standards professionally or personally. I am terrified about my behavior deteriorating to the level of the other white guys here." She started nodding politely but I could tell she was put off by my didacticism. "Do you read China Bash?" I asked.

"Yes, it's hilarious."

"Remember the story about the Westerner who fell out of his upper-story window but survived by landing on top of his blow-up doll?" She finished the last part of my sentence with me.

"Yes. He was totally naked when they found him."

"I don't want to turn into him," I said. "That's why I want to surround myself with good people, such as yourself."

Within a week, she climbed into my bed. In the aftermath of our first time, Shuang lay on her stomach. I lay parallel on my back as a beam of moonlight glared between the undersized curtains and onto our sodden bodies.

"Can I ask you a question?" her voice was half-muffled by the mattress.

"You just did."

"Why's there so much mold on your walls?"

"If you must know... my job is not entirely legal, not entirely."

"What does that mean?"

"I don't have the proper visa."

"So?"

"I can't let my place look lived-in in case cops pass by. Hanging my clothes outside could attract attention."

"You could get arrested?"

"Yes."

"Then what?"

"Dunno. A warning I s'pose."

"What about us?"

"I guess I'll have to go home and find a Western woman with big sweaty tits."

She used her whole right hand to pinch my chest. "Be serious."

"Does anything last in this city?" I had neglected to get dinner while waiting for Shuang to finish her overtime. My stomach made a gurgling sound which I stirred to cover up.

Failed attempts at post-coital small talk have generally been the beginning of my break-ups, but Shuang had a wider conversational range than most. Before meeting her, my mind had grown fat with sugary chit-chat. I wanted to tell Shuang that her job in the emergency call center lent her conversation a kind of gravity that I craved, but I have never been much good at praising people.

She had shaved herself completely from the eyebrows down, probably because of some misguided stereotype about what Western guys like. It saddens me to this day picturing her standing naked and freezing after locking herself in the communal bathroom of that hideous apartment complex of hers. She must have got into all kinds of ungodly positions to shave, and bent down to sweep the hair up with her hands.

Hindsight may be a liar, but now that Shuang is long gone, those evenings together feel like the most significant sexual encounters since the dinosaurs fornicated. As I recount this story, I am sipping on a large glass of Scotch. If it doesn't get me drunk, I will dream of Shuang tonight or worse still, stay awake with her memory.

"Do you know who Dao Ge is?" I asked.

"Poet?"

"Yes."

"The one who worked in a factory?"

"Yes."

"What about him?" she extended her lips, forcing me to crane my neck for a kiss.

"He's my hero."

"Why?"

"Because he lived in this city and somehow managed to make something that lasted."

"He killed himself."

"He achieved the thing I'm trying to achieve."

"To kill yourself?"

"No. Social immortality."

"I see."

"He never became important, never sucked on the teat of what some people call 'success'."

"You don't wanna be successful?"

"I don't want the egotistical nonsense the world tells me to want."

Shuang shifted into a diagonal position, pushing me toward the edge of the bed where I clung to what I could of a quilt I was not used to sharing. "Most girls nowadays are materialistic, can't accept this."

"You're a singer. Dao Ge's a poet."

"We're both trying to say something new in the world's oldest language."

"Your lyrics..."

"Yes?"

"They have poetry."

"Thanks. And like Dao Ge, I encounter a lot of doubters."

The moonlight disappeared behind a cloud and in the darkness I began to have corny thoughts about spending the rest of my life with her, the only person who appreciated me for something other than my foreignness. She leaned over and blew a raspberry above my belly button, initiating a tickling battle that only stopped when I feared her cackling would wake the neighbors.



It was at the McDonald's beside the police station that I made the decision that proved to be the most embarrassing and pivotal of my life. My luck had run out and police had found me with a 3 a.m. knock at the door.

"Now what?" asked Shuang.

"Dunno, maybe jail." I watched her chew. "Jail in the world's largest authoritarian state," I said. "Quite something. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote while in prison. O Henry discovered his art in debtor's prison."

After jail?" Shuang's voice began to break and an ice storm went off in my heart.

"I could look for a legit job. If there are any."

Shuang, who claimed to have dated guys who were even more unstable than me, put a tissue against her mouth and laughed, seemingly at the shared abyss we both faced. "Well, at least you won't have to worry about being successful, the kinds of people you'll be surrounded by."

"Probably a bunch of sex offenders knowing my luck."

"Remember that guy?"

"That guy?"

"Yes."

"Which guy?"

"The guy who fell out of his window."

"What about him?"

"You might share a cell with him."

"If he's in jail."

"Probably. Indecent exposure, public lewdness."

"Well, he seems like my kind of guy. You gotta hand it to perverts. They're a resourceful bunch." I raised my strawberry milkshake. "To perverts." She looked away.

"Tell the truth," I said. "It's not me I'm worried about. What are you gonna do now?"

"You're not worried about your singing?" asked Shuang.

"My songs are all recorded, blown into the wind of posterity. Which is all I need." Now was my moment to mention something that seemed increasingly viable.

"Do you know what the 27 Club is?"

"No," she grunted.

"In the West, there were a lot of really great singers, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrisson."

"What about them?"

"They're not famous in China, but you can hear their influence in my work."

I checked to see if a question was playing on her lips. "What they all have in common is, they died when they were 27."

"Is that a Western thing?"

"Actually, Dao Ge, this city's greatest poet..."

"He died at 27."

The city had no memory. Cutting ties to everything she knew should be normal to Shuang.

"Ask yourself Shuang, what am I doing? What's it for? And where will it end?" She chewed her gum, her jaw stirring cartoonishly. "And if you think hard enough, I guarantee you will feel yourself slide into nothingness."



The black marker had barely dried on my skin, but I could not resist inviting her to have one last shower together.

We squeezed into the bathroom. I sprayed Shuang with the faucet and then myself. The water was neither hot nor abundant enough to protect us from the December breeze that penetrated the walls, but proximity kept us warm. I licked inside her ear, which suffered from a kind of fungal eczema caused by sweating at the call center.

With massaging movements, I lathered soap over my own chest and then her face. Pointing to her suds-covered visage, she said one of the few English words she knew: "beautiful." A cockroach emerged from behind the toilet. I shot it down the drain before she could notice.

The trickling of warm water against the cracked cream tiles reminded me of showering by the pool on a family holiday to Florida when I was eight. My closeness to Shuang, still unable to open her stinging eyes, the smell of another person's scalp, was the smell of countless games of Twister and mock WWE wrestling matches from way back.

None of this distracted me from what was needed. The news would soon reach back home that this was how my story ended, but nobody who knew anything about music would think it a defeat. Those who disagreed would appreciate it in time. Shuang pouted her lips and sucked to make a smooching noise before planting them on my chest. I started singing one of my lyrics and she sang along.

The moment that you came here

Reality sprung to life dear

I was stripped of doubt and fear

I'm dead and gone without you near.

After we got out of the shower, I pressed her against the wall in the dark. Shuang tended to make love like a man. She just wanted to be finished off and sometimes didn't even remove her bra. On this occasion, she seemed to want the foreplay to last.

As I pressed her against the wall, she sprang back onto the bed with an unfathomable smile. "You really plan to go through with this?"

"Absolutely."

"I'm not ready. I have no reason to die."

"This is as decent a way as any."

"Speak for yourself."

"You can go on living without me?"

"I already told you, you're not the first flake I've dated."

"Don't you wanna be part of the next Dao Ge story?"

"You really think you're the next Dao Ge?" Her eyes narrowed with a meanness I had never seen in her before and she bared her teeth in a grin.

I glared at her. "You said my lyrics had poetry."

"Your lyrics have poetry, but Dao Ge's poetry has life. And life is not poetry, not if you really live it."

Shuang started to get dressed. "Fine," I said. "I'll do it all alone."

"Any idiot can die," said Shuang, pulling her dress over her underwear. "It takes character to live."

I followed her into the living room, her hair still wet from the shower. Still naked, I reached after her. As she slammed the door, I nearly got my erect penis trapped in it. Now that could have made it into China Bang. I sat on the sofa in the dark for a minute before the bites of invisible creatures of the night forced me to stand up. I shuffled toward the window, ice-cold floor against my heels. Far below, traders and commuters were wandering around like blind ants.

So there you have it. What she really thought of me. It would have been no loss if I had thrown myself out of the window. Instead, I threw out the notebook containing my lyrics and obsolete suicide note. They fluttered comically as I shut the window.

Now I look more like a pretentious prick than I did then. Fluffy salt-and-pepper beard, receding hair tied back into a ponytail, skin that has been tanned on beaches from Bali to Barcelona. But my artistry is no longer mere pretension. Pretty soon, I will be a published memoirist, a legitimate artist. Anyone who does as much stupid shit as I did has plenty of adventures to recount.

And, when I complete this project, I intend to look up Shuang and maybe even look her in the eye.

15 comments:

  1. This is a fascinating and memorable story with a dark real-life background. I hadn't heard of Shenzhen or the Foxconn suicides before checking out the author, a very talented writer and songwriter (love the hilarious Happy Birthday Song!). Hope you manage to place your short story collection if you haven't already done so. Is there an arc to the collection? Anyway, congrats - oh, and nice ending - I liked 'legitimate artist'!

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    1. Hi Gareth,

      Thanks for the encouragement and for checking out my other stuff. This is the fifth story from the collection to be published and the third in which the poet Dao Ge is integral. However, getting a collection published still feels a long way away. This year I am going to focus on a novel in which Dao Ge is a major character.

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    2. Hi Kevin,

      A novel sounds a great idea, and clearly a better bet to interest an agent or publisher than a short story collection. Your satirical humour with its sometimes dark edge is very appealing. I would for sure be interested in reading your novel. Good luck with it.

      Gareth

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    3. If and when I have a fanbase, I will start some kind of newsletter and keep you updated about my progress.

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    4. Cool, sounds good. Your work merits a fanbase! Just listened to Self Doubt, haven't laughed so much all day. I don't know if the question was rhetorical, but I'm sure the answer is no!

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    5. I have decided. Starting at the end of next month, I will introduce the personal equivalent of a corporate newsletter to update people about my latest projects.

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    6. Great! Count me in to your mailing list, if that's how it works.

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  2. Great story, Mark! There was some really palpable tension leading towards that ending and it had me hooked.

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    1. Wow, definitely meant Kevin! So sorry, not sure what happened there.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this. It has an edgy feel to it which draws the reader in. The dialogue is both convincing and informative.
    A cracker!
    Mike McC

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  4. "Since the dinosaurs fornicated"--I didn't know reptiles were capable of such fine distinctions, but I love the notion anyway!

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    1. The narrator claims to no longer be a pompous arse with delusions of artistic ability. Is he to be believed?

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