Monday, April 6, 2020

Kobe Bryant and the Freedom Swimmer by Kevin McGeary

Basketball player Kobe Bryant is visiting Dongmen, China, and Hongbo stakes the custody of his child on meeting him; by Kevin McGeary.

Since dawn, Hongbo has been loitering outside the gate of his son's apartment complex. With graying bristles and hair tied back into a ponytail, he is in a state of dapperness that only an encounter with his thoroughbred ex-wife can inspire.

Holding their son's hand, his ex-wife tilts her white parasol toward Hongbo, adding plausibility to the pretense that they have not noticed him before they reach her new fiancé's silver Audi. Its lights beep to life and, opening the rear door, Yang Yi guides their son into the back seat. The blue cast on the boy's arm looks too big for his pre-teen frame.

The parked car is almost within reaching distance through the cast-iron rails and Hongbo stands with fists resting on hips. Yang Yi places the pink box containing a birthday cake onto their son's lap: "Fei doesn't want to be near you," she tells Hongbo.

"I know."

Yang Yi does not look at Hongbo as she addresses him: "You should probably leave before Wu Jun gets here."

"I have an offer."

Yang Yi places her parasol in the boot, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses covering her forever-inscrutable eyes. Wu Jun, her fiancé, has emerged from the building. She tosses the keys in the air and they land in Wu's soft hands.

"If you let him go with me, I can help him meet Kobe Bryant."

In the back seat, wrist in a cast, the child caresses the ribbons at the top of the cake box. He seems to be muttering something like "let go dad." His mother has him wearing headphones to make it look as if he is singing to himself.

Yang Yi turns to look at Hongbo for the first time, Guilty by Gucci emanating from her. "Hear that Jun, Hongbo says he can get past an army of guys who are big enough to be Kobe Bryant's bodyguards."

"We're going to see him," Yang Yi declares, brushing her arm through the air, as if Hongbo is a nuisance salesman.

"It's in Dongmen, it'll be like Beatlemania." As soon as he says it, Hongbo remembers that, fifteen years his junior, Yang Yi probably doesn't know what Beatlemania is. She turns her back on him and steps into the passenger's seat. "What I mean is, the place'll be People Mountain People Sea for miles." The ignition turns and Hongbo raises his voice over the engine. "You'll have to climb onto a police car or a lamp post to even get a glimpse of Kobe."

"So, what's your idea?"

Hongbo whips out a ticket from the pocket of his jeans and reaches through the rails to flaunt it.

"How did you get that?"

"No time to explain."

"We don't have time either," Wu Jun says, releasing the handbrake.

"I have a proposition." The car begins to reverse out of its spot, Hongbo strides after it behind the rail, "you can have full custody!" Yang Yi raises her hand and says something to Wu Jun. The car stops. "You can have full custody if..."

"If what?" Yang Yi has wound down the window.

"You can have full custody if," the security guard, who Hongbo has been trying to appease for most of the morning by offering cigarettes, is staring at him. "I take Fei today, and if I fail to get him in for a selfie with Kobe Bryant. Then I won't contest the custody battle."

Wu Jun sticks his hand out of the window and waves a finger in the air to usher Hongbo through the gate. He walks to the entrance. The security guard appears not to have noticed Wu Jun's invitation and shoos him away with a silent hand gesture. "It's okay. He's with us." Wu Jun shouts from the driver's seat. The security guard does not hear. Yang Yi gets out and walks over, swiping her entry card at the turnstile.

"Show me the ticket," Yang Yi says after Hongbo squeezes past the security guard. She holds the ticket aloft and stares at it like a counterfeit bank note. Leading him to the car, she hands it back.

Hongbo leans inside and reaches across the passenger seat to offer Wu Jun a cigarette. He pulls out a lighter which Fei intercepts, insisting on igniting it himself. Yang Yi casts a glance at her son before walking a few steps away to address Hongbo.

"You know what," she begins. "Last month I was on a bus to Hong Kong and when I got there and opened my bag, I found some jewelry was missing. The coach company discovered that a thief had sent his ten-year-old son to hide inside a suitcase and, when the coach was in motion, crawl around the cabin and start stealing other passengers' possessions. I thought: if someone is going to live their life badly, that's their own business. But there is no good reason to bring a child into it. I hope you're teaching our son some honesty. I hope you got that ticket legitimately."

"A student gave it to me."

"Gave it to you?"

"Sold it. He was selected to play at the training session at the Basketball Clinic today but he got injured so can't go. He doesn't even like sports."

"You know, we're only going to this today because it's his birthday. We're trying to get Fei off the basketball."

"So am I."

"He's hardly the only person with an irrational attachment to a basketball." Yang Yi smirks as she speaks but instantly purses her lips, seeming to know she has gone too far.

"I'm teaching him some English," Hongbo says, trying to get the conversation back on friendly terms.

"Yes?"

"He can already rap the Kobe Bryant song." Hongbo pulls out an A4 piece of paper from his back pocket and unfolds it to show her the lyrics written in Western squiggles. "I taught him," Yang Yi's lips curl into a demure smile.

"When can you get him back to us?" she asks.

"Seven o'clock this evening. Dongbei Dumpling House. Birthday dinner together."

"Get him back to us looking presentable."

"I'll try."

Yang Yi puts on a false frown that masks affection. She opens the door to the back seat, Fei glares up at them: "You're going with your father today."

Wu Jun walks over to hold hands with Yang Yi. Hongbo speaks loudly enough for them both to hear: "I know this is risky. Even for me."



Fei is ten years old, the age at which Hongbo's life changed forever. Hongbo has seldom told the story so it has not been exaggerated with time. "Whatever you do, don't let go," he can still hear his father say sometimes. With one knee on the sand, Hongbo's father stretched a floating device over the shank of his son's elbow and tied it where his biceps would one day be.

The capitalist world was lit up across the one-mile stretch of South China Sea. With no moonlight and most military resources being used in preparation for Typhoon Nora, this was their best opportunity.

It was Li's third attempt at escaping to Hong Kong. Some friends appeared to have made it but most perished along the way: shot by border guards, eaten by sharks, blown perpetually off course.

"Climb on my back." Li stepped into the water.

"Cold Daddy."

"Try not to make a sound."

The year was 1973 and China was far from the world. His father being a pariah and Hongbo a pariah's son, the known was more feared than the unknown.

For three days, they had lived like guerilla warriors in the vast mangrove forests of the Guangdong coast: His father had spent months memorizing maps and learning which wild plants were edible. He earlier used his assigned bathing time in the Matou River to practice swimming, telling his teenaged supervisor that he was exercising.

The water passed Hongbo's knees. He clung to his father as they leapt into the black, phosphorescent waves.



At 11 a.m. on August 4, 2013, Dongmen Walking Street is a throbbing battery farm of consumerism. The ground is sullied with plastic bags from the rows of hole-in-the-wall clothes shops, skewers from lamb kebabs sold by Uighur barbecue stands and bones of the slightly-out-of-date deep-fried chicken wings. The giant LED screen that is plastered on the east end of the precinct streams images of beggars in the area who are suspected to be fraudulent, but in just over an hour it will start playing Kobe's visit to the Basketball Clinic in Luohu District.

If it were socially acceptable for a ten-year-old to be carried on his father's shoulders, Hongbo would do that, but instead he asks Fei to hold on to the back of his Metallica T-shirt so they don't lose each other. They slalom through the crowd, scalp-to-scalp, armpit-to-armpit. Fei has removed the cast from his own arm because it was too itchy underneath and his wrist has recovered anyway.

The back entrance of the basketball clinic has a four-foot rail and a makeshift security-scanning system. Before they reach the scanner, a man in a black uniform holding a clipboard stops them: "Name?"

"The ticket is for my boy. His name is Fang Fei." The security guard, whose face looks so miserable that Hongbo wants to write a ballad about it, turns his back to cast some shade over the clipboard. While waiting, Hongbo turns to Fei: "Now, I am going to the McDonald's to meet Uncle Rui. His band is playing later. I'll be here when you come out." Fei does not appear to be listening. "You might as well put your headphones on," Hongbo adds. "There's plenty of time to kill."

"I can't find the name Fang Fei," the man with the clipboard flicks through the pages.

"We have a ticket."

"When you were sold your ticket, your name would have been added to this list."

"Actually, I bought mine second hand from someone named Hong Lang."

The security guard narrows his eyes.

"Do you have his I.D. card?"

"No."

"That's not good enough, sir. This ticket type is for kids who have established themselves as elite basketball players in their age-group."

"My son is."

The security guard looks down at Fei, whose over-sized front teeth show that he must be approaching his teens though his height suggests otherwise. A queue has formed behind them. "We can't let you enter, sir."

Hongbo has a complicated relationship with authority. In the early 1990s, he lived his first three years in Shenzhen rent free. He stayed in a dormitory at the university and the guards seemed to assume that he was just a student because he looked and dressed like one. Though an instinctive opponent of all security guards, he had a talent for negotiating with them.

The man with the clipboard checks and admits other entrants, but Hongbo and son hover beside him. "You see that lady on the other side of the rail?" Hongbo says as the security guard ignores him. "The one stamping and ripping tickets." Of all the noises that surround them, the beeping scanner, the chattering masses, the police megaphone, this woman's processing of tickets is the only one with any rhythm. "The dustbin next to her, I bet my son can throw this bundle of paper into it." Hongbo picks a Big Mac wrapper off the ground and rolls it into a ball. The perma-sneer on the man with the clipboard turns into a smile.

"Look," says Hongbo, "it's a tiny bin and it's all of fifteen yards away. If he scores this then you know he's good." Fei's frequent basketball shots into wastepaper bins make his chances of success considerable.

"One attempt?" says the security guard. "How about three out of three. He might just get beginner's luck."

"Two out of three."

The security guard grins down at Fei. In a one person, one ticket system, he has nothing to lose by letting him in. "You think you can do it?" Fei nods his head.

Hongbo hands Fei the projectile. He leans over to the rail and raises his bony arm to take aim, muttering "come on, come on, come on..." His palms are still covered in sweat from holding on to Hongbo's t-shirt. Moving his wrist back and forth three times, he launches. It brushes the stewardess on the thigh and flops onto the ground.

"Never mind son. Look, other pieces of paper." Fei crouches down and scans the floor, among the legs of people standing in the queue. "Here," says Hongbo. He removes the foil from his empty cigarette box and rolls it into a ball. Fei has a disturbing fondness for taking the foil from cigarette boxes and lighting it, so he is used to handling the material. "Good boy, now have a try." Fei leans over the railing, taking aim again. "Now just concentrate. One-two-three, go on, go on, yeeeessss!"

The man with the clipboard turns his head. "Well done. Still one to go."

Hongbo pulls a piece of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans. "You've memorized this right?" On it is printed the lyrics to the Kobe Bryant rap.

Fei nods again.

"Good."

Hongbo crushes it into a ball. "Just stay calm. You can do it."

Fei leans over the rail, takes aim once, twice, and lets fly. It hits the flabby mid-section of the stewardess. Her systematic tearing of tickets stops for the first time and she notices the piece of paper on the ground: "Get lost!" she grunts without looking to see who she is talking to.



Hongbo is luckier than most divorced dads. Though he only heard about Fei's first steps, first day at school, and loss of first (and second) tooth by telephone, he at least has the weekends.

During the week, after he is finished teaching and rehearsing, he mostly stays in his apartment on the 12th floor of Building One in Starsea City. Hongbo does not like to keep possessions that have outlived their usefulness, but his home is full of objects that remind him of loved ones past and present: the crates of flat lemonade he stores for Fei; the shower curtain that has not been changed since Yang Yi moved out and is starting to mold.

Yet when the weekend arrives, he is never the father he fantasizes about being.

The day his former colleague Rui told him that Kobe was coming to town, the two men sat together in Hongbo's office, and the scene resembled everything that was wrong with the father-son relationship.

The neighbouring practice room contained two teenage girls playing Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano. The sound filled the office like a mystic perfume, but it was interrupted with metronomic regularity by Fei's basketball against the outside wall.

As always, Hongbo spent the Sunday evening mentally replaying how the weekend might have gone differently. On this occasion he was particularly mournful of the wall of alien ideas and experiences being built between him and Fei, who has no interest in the cultural fruits Hongbo wishes he could have consumed while still young of mind and empty of soul.

The cleaner comes once a week but she seldom reaches into the dusky crevices where dirt and cat fur settle longest. Hongbo has long been glad she is too short to clean the top shelf of his wardrobe. Not caring about the dust that sullied his hands, Hongbo pulled out the deflated half basketball, inhaling what was left of the odor of rubber. Sensing that he was being watched, Hongbo turned and saw Kobe the cat glaring at him from the door frame.

He placed the basketball back onto the shelf but, to avoid eye contact with the animal, continued to rummage.

In the years in which Hongbo kept the ball: Latin America's most benevolent democracy was hijacked by its own military; a revolution in Indo-China began with women and girls tossing flowers at their new leaders and ended with piles of human bones that stretched into the horizon; in Iran, a tyrant was overthrown but their new leader oppressed women, persecuted intellectuals, and led his people into a long victorless war; an explosion caused a radioactive cloud to spread across the Berlin Wall and it burned over Europe like a psychedelic lamp; and in Africa, race war led to a modern holocaust.

A lot had happened in his own life: In the nineties, cassettes of The Police, David Bowie, and Genesis that had been rejected for export found their way into his dormitory. Hongbo discovered a talent for music and performing, becoming a mainstay in the local underground scene.

Now as a musician and employer of other teachers, he is something he was long schooled to despise: a successful businessman. This, along with his mane of wild hair, is what helped him overcome the competition - blandly hunky bozos and predictably strait-laced suitors - to win Yang Yi's heart.

As he turned off the light on another father-son weekend with Kobe purring by his pillow, the cat's purrs set the pulse for the song in his head that lulled him into dreamless sleep.

The following weekend, the pressure on the relationship finally overflowed.

Shekou peninsula is one of the city's more accidental tourist attractions. A row of luxury apartment buildings mostly populated by people working too hard to enjoy the view of the sun setting behind Hong Kong, an oasis between two concrete deserts. The Mariner Bar & Restaurant lies between the apartments and a disused lighthouse on a narrow strip of concrete. Through the middle cuts a row of trees, the feet of which bear signs with QR codes providing explanations of their species and history.

As three trawlers slouched on the sea, Hongbo sat in the outdoor area of The Mariner watching Fei lean on a tree, bounce a basketball in the direction of the water and run over to catch it before it got too close to the rails.

"Very good Fei." Hongbo ordered another ginger ale from the owner.

"Can I get you anything to eat, sir?"

"No thanks." The owner took away the bilingual menu as Hongbo sat finishing the melted ice from his first glass, watching Fei repeat the action, bouncing the ball harder each time. "Be careful Fei!"

Bringing the second drink, the owner asked: "Is that your son?"

"Yes." The two men smirked at each other. "I said be careful Fei."

Fei lifted the ball over his head and bounced it as hard as he could, sprinting to the rails until his hand, suspended in the air over the sea, caught the falling ball. Hongbo raced out of his chair and grabbed Fei by the right arm. "We're going home."

"Get your hands off me," Fei flailed his left arm while the bar owner and smattering of patrons stared. "Let go, Dad!"

"How much do I owe you?"

Father and son barely exchanged a word the rest of the day. When catching up on sleep, a sulking child was preferable to a hyperactive one.

Hongbo's body is used to being half drunk at night, which usually means teetotal days are followed by an insomniac's envy of his feline companion. However, after spending the weekend with a child, he was no more able to stay awake than a suicidal man to live.

By 7am Kobe had negotiated his way under the covers and lay purring in Hongbo's weary embrace. Lying there, not tired but enjoying the clarity of his memory of the previous night and lack of stale beer lingering on his gums, Hongbo detected a slight change in the room. Yawning, he lugged his body onto its side before shooting up with cartoonish haste to be seated on the bed.

A stool had been moved from his desk to the foot of the wardrobe. "Fei?" Silence.

Fei's room was empty and, most uncharacteristically, the bed was made. Still wearing his baggy t-shirt and pajama bottoms, Hongbo leapt down the spiral stairs and three flights of concrete steps to the bottom of Building 12. The scene at the entrance was that of a typical Sunday morning: grandparents taking children to music lessons and sports practice; office workers exercising by walking backward.

Still rubbing his eyes, Hongbo strode toward the playground that adjoined his practice rooms. A group of teenagers played basketball on the court; beyond them was a crouching silhouette. As the figure grew in his vision, Hongbo could see Fei holding a lighter.

By the time he loomed over his son, the smell of burning rubber was unmistakable.

"What are you doing?"

With one arm dangling by his side, Fei raised his gaze from the charred remains of Hongbo's beloved half basketball, letting go a chipmunk laugh.

Hongbo turned to the boys immersed in their basketball game before crouching to his son's level.

"Fei, I am going to tell you something you weren't supposed to know until you were much older..." looking on from a nearby bench was a man who looked so elderly that the grim reaper neglected him, "if ever."

"My father, your grandfather, was what is known as a freedom swimmer. He spent months figuring out where was the safest place from which we could flee to Hong Kong, where legend had it he would be welcomed as cheap labour.

"Though we half expected to be killed or arrested and then tortured, he tried to take me, when I was even younger than you. Considering what life was like, it was well worth the risk. To help me float, he cut a basketball in half and tied it to both my arms.

"That half basketball was the only thing I had with which to remember my father."

Like his mother, Fei's only form of apology is to go silent and look down to his left. The man doing squat thrusts and the boys playing basketball stopped to stare. Hongbo reached out his hand and led the boy home, cutting across the basketball court and between the stationary players.



Of the members of the Tiny Titans, an inoffensive rock band who are often selected by The Ministry of Culture for official events, the only one who Hongbo considers a friend is Rui. He is a guitarist and singer whose bald head and white suit are recognized throughout the city's tiny rock scene. Hongbo has arranged to meet the band at a twenty-five-year-old building with Ming Dynasty-style architecture in which lies the nation's oldest McDonald's. They have found a table on the corner of the first floor beside the bathroom.

The four men sit jammed in between their instruments while waiting for the drummer to bring back their order. With Fei standing by the side tapping on a suitcase that contains some of the band's equipment, Hongbo sits across from Rui.

He wants to reach over the suitcase and hold Fei's hand in his own but fears what the milky texture of that skin will do to his emotions.

Throughout the band's conversation, Hongbo glances at Rui with barely concealed despair, acknowledging how Rui's more tolerant nature enables him to be a non-solo musician.

Hongbo can no longer look at Fei's big black eyes. They are as bewildered by the situation as Hongbo is by the musicians' conversation.

"Basketball's done a lot for Chinese society."

"Kept people fit?" The first batch of chicken nuggets arrives. "Maybe not."

"More important. It's made us less prejudiced."

"How?"

"Did you ever imagine your kids growing up worshipping a black man?"

"We're not a racist country."

"Would you let your daughter marry an African?"

"If he makes her happy."

"Even if he takes her to Africa?"

"Kobe isn't African anyway."

"True."

"He's a multimillionaire, he represents America."

"Here we go."

"And while he's in China, he can have anybody's daughter he wants."

"My boss' niece married a foreigner, but he was white."

"My cousin wants to do the same."

"She'll never find a Chinese guy at her age."

"Have you ever seen the movie White Men Can't Jump?"

"Of course."

"Well, it's not true. What about on 9/11?"

"Oh for fuck's sake."

"You see, blacks, like Chinese, have been second-class citizens in America, so, as the leaders of the Third World, we Chinese should have affinity with them."

"I read somewhere that with women preferring foreigners, Chinese men are in danger of being wiped out. So, our real brothers are the Native Americans."

Hongbo speaks. "We have to go lads." He stands up and steps toward the suitcase behind which Fei stands. "Have a good show." Fei loves McDonald's and it seems Hongbo no longer needs to prove himself a responsible father, but this is no place to spend his last day as a presence in his son's life.

"Don't forget your boy," the singer pipes up. "That case is bigger than him."

"Wait?" says Hongbo. "What?"

"The case is bigger than him."

"What's in it?"

"Well, it's a basketball court, not a concert hall," explains Rui, chewing on his McChicken sandwich. "So, we're having to bring everything ourselves. Amps, cymbals, snare drums. Everything."

"Rui, can I talk to you privately for a second?"

What happens next must last less than two hours. Borrowing Rui's ID card, getting changed into Rui's white suit in the McDonald's bathroom while Fei gets into his LA Lakers kit in the next stall, using the singer's wife (a hairdresser) to shave Hongbo's head in the bathroom of her Dongmen apartment, and sneaking the case containing Fei in through the rail as it is too big to fit through the scanner. Before stuffing him in, Hongbo has Fei wear his headphones to calm him down.

They get to the rail, and it is the same security guard as before. Two bandmates lift the case over the railing as Hongbo raises his arms for the security guard to use the TSA scanner. From the case, he hears a muttering "come on, come on, come on..." Hongbo's lips move and he makes the same noise.

"Are you alright?" asks the security guard, turning around to look at the case.



And when they get to within twenty yards of the great man, they both realise they are far too Chinese to walk up to a stranger and introduce themselves without formality. Hongbo crouches down encouraging Fei to sit on his shoulders. He takes the selfie with one hand, and with the other he holds the part of Fei's left arm where hopefully his biceps will one day be.

6 comments:

  1. I can see why Charlie selected this as pick of the month. Very stylistic prose that really brings out the main character. Well written. Nice Job, Kevin. Thanks for sharing this work with us.

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  2. Out of the all the stories about how China has changed this is a very good one. My favourite part was the description of the spoiled boy having no ability to apologise...it rang very true.

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  3. Great story. Hongbo is willing to go to great lengths to overcome his own demons and do right by his son, and it seems like perhaps Fei is starting to thaw a little toward his father by the end of the story. Really enjoyed the ending, the slightly imperfect resolution fit the story perfectly.

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