Ghost Month (Excerpt)

Bundled in a poncho, sweat indistinguishable from rain, he waits out the thunderstorm underneath the awning of a video store. Rainwater dances everywhere, off passing cars, the vinyl seat of his scooter. His hand rises to his mouth and nose to ward off the fumes belched by the latest round […]

Bundled in a poncho, sweat indistinguishable from rain, he waits out the thunderstorm underneath the awning of a video store. Rainwater dances everywhere, off passing cars, the vinyl seat of his scooter. His hand rises to his mouth and nose to ward off the fumes belched by the latest round of traffic. Soon, he thinks, maybe five minutes more. Summer cloudbursts are like clockwork, arriving at 1:30 p.m. on the dot, dissipating fifteen minutes later, sweet ionized air left in their wake until the early hours of the evening, at which time the smog crawls out again in a triumphant mass and the cycle of pollution and cleansing begins anew.

His glasses are fogging up. He does not wish to move. Movement creates kinetic energy, more kinetic energy results in more sweat, the body becomes that much more uncomfortable. Figure another five minutes, a few more miles. He will be late. A bitter sigh escapes him as he flicks his fingers over his lenses like windshield wipers. The world reemerges, foggy glory surrendering to the lumpy brick and soaked shingles of the run-down apartment buildings opposite.

The latest American movies are on display in the video store window. Funny how the Chinese translations of the titles have a sameness to them: Killer Woman. The Marvelous Killers. One Second to Death. He likes these titles – they have the whiff of honesty to them. He recognizes a Hollywood star on a cover, his eyebrows darker, his expression more taciturn, ineffably Asian. It is tempting to walk inside, down the pink aisles where the Japanese porn videos are displayed, genitals digitally blurred out on the covers but breasts proudly displayed, the girls flashing their winsome, absolutely carnal smiles.

The rain has subsided to a dotted mist. Kicking his scooter into gear, he blunders back into traffic. Other riders with their long gowns of raincoats clatter alongside him, like performers at a particularly forlorn circus. The water on the street is perhaps an inch deep, and as his tires cut through the brownish waves, water sprays his back, little jabs of discomfort that settle on the seat, soak the bottom of his pants.

All the while he is on the lookout for the police, the maddening checkpoints they usually set up down Roosevelt Road along the bridges that connect Hsintien in the south to central Taipei in the north. He has no scooter license; those with a two-month visitor visa are prohibited from acquiring them. Countless foreign devils have fallen prey to these checkpoints, been issued stern warnings and fines that could almost pay for a used scooter by themselves. Once, after a drunken evening at the Blue Note, he was barreling down the post-midnight streets when he saw the slim patrolmen standing at attention, the lighted batons they waved in their hands. He had braked, much too fast, the scooter skidding right out from under him, his elbow and forearm smeared black with concrete and blood. He had struggled back to his feet, the back fender of his scooter sticking out like a toy that has been abused too often, and sped off in the opposite direction, the policemen at the checkpoint refusing to give chase, or perhaps they hadn’t even seen him. For the rest of the evening he took refuge at the New Park, camped underneath the willowy trees, kept awake by his throbbing arm and the clang of the garbage trucks at three in the morning.

Outside the My Family’s Pork Chop restaurant scooters litter the sidewalk, haphazardly parked, cutting off pedestrian movement. People must venture out into the street to proceed, and risk the wrath of the buses and compact cars. Wrestling his scooter into the tight space between two bulky older models he strains and pushes, metal body rubbing other metal bodies. A stray piece of scooter scrapes his hand, leaving a cut. Cursing, he shoves harder, and now his vehicle is wedged, the front tire poised a few inches above the ground. He is angry at himself for his callous approach to parking – once one surrenders to this environment, one reaches a state of perpetual irritation and complacency. Who cares if you scratch up your scooter or someone else’s? Who cares if you’re blocking the sidewalk? No one else does, so one must accept the fight on those terms, and thus the battle is lost.

Still perturbed, he wraps his poncho into a ball before he enters the restaurant and squeezes out as much rainwater as he can. Against his sweaty back, his short-sleeve shirt is like wax. Being in the tropics will do wonders for your complexion, he had been told. No more need for moisturizers. Which was true, he hasn’t touched lotion in months, but now the ring finger and pinky of his right hand are wrinkled, flaking and itchy with some unknown fungal condition.

He recognizes Mr. Liu almost immediately – it is as if he has emerged whole and unharmed from the photo Allen provided. Baby face perched atop a white linen shirt, a hint of sagging breasts underneath. Hair combed in sweaty strands across his forehead. His mouth bulges with a helping of sizzling pork.

He approaches Mr. Liu and bows slightly. Sorry I’m late. I’m C.J Wang.

Mr. Liu grunts in hello, extends a hand. The man’s fingers are soft, stubby, baby fingers, and exert little pressure as they shake. The state of C.J.’s afflicted fingers has not been commented on. Typhoid Mary, he muses.

Thank you for meeting me, he continues. He takes care to speak slowly, methodically – this is the only way to ensure his accent is flawless.

You’re not Taiwanese, Mr. Liu says.

He holds himself back from wincing. That didn’t last long.

I’m first-generation American.

You look it, Mr. Liu says.

He seats himself as Mr. Liu continues to devour. The pork chop is chalk-white and devoid of character, coated with a filmy gravy that bubbles off the sides. On the far side of the plate are reddish chunks that resemble vegetables.

You’re from the insurance company? Mr. Liu asks.

Allen had briefed him on how to answer this question. Just tell them that speaking to you is the same as speaking to me, he said.

Yes, I’m Mr. Allen’s associate. I represent him in this case.

Hmm. Mr. Liu coughs harshly. What do you want to know?

He produces the manila envelope that contains Mr. Chen’s files, blotted dark brown with the rain, and extracts the photo.

I mentioned this man on the phone, he says.

Mr. Liu grunts again. The man’s grunting vocabulary is easy to grasp – this time he is merely being affirmative.

Is this the man you examined? C.J. asks.

Mr. Liu cranes his head forward to peer at the photo. It is not the best shot of Mr. Chen, in fact it is downright incongruous: the kind of faultless sunny day that can only take place in southern California, Mr. Chen at the gates of Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom, the fairy tale spires of the castle soaring above his head. His gray face is bemused, as if it has just been revealed that he was the victim of a practical joke. Still, the slump in his posture, the bags under his eyes, the finely etched wrinkles at the corner of his mouth are all clear enough.

I think so, Mr. Liu says. I didn’t look too closely. I see dozens of bodies every week, you know.

I understand. Can you take a closer look?

Mr. Liu’s grunt is a morse code of annoyance, but he grabs the photograph by a corner and leans in until his eye almost touches the surface.

Probably, he says. I can’t be more sure than that.

Do you have files on the case?

Mr. Liu’s mouth freezes in mid-chew. What is this about? he says.

I don’t mean to accuse. My job is to check on cases like these for Mr. Allen. Sometimes … He speaks even more deliberately, struggling to explain in the easiest vocabulary possible. People move to America, get life insurance, and then have a fake death so they collect on the money. Many similar cases in China. Maybe you have heard…

Mr. Liu is picking at a set of beads wound loosely around his wrist. Buddhist prayer beads. Everyone here believes in superstition, burning paper money at sundown every day for the dead, consulting fengshui experts, avoiding activities based on dates and star positions. Mr. Liu rubs one bead, then moves onto the next, and the next, a ceaseless polishing routine.

The man I examined died in a car accident, Mr. Liu says. Crushed. Broken neck. Very typical. Nothing fake about it.

I understand. If I could see your files … I just want to note them for my report …

The records are private. In police custody.

I was told that you have permission –

It takes time to arrange such things. Lots of work hours, money…Mr. Liu lets the words hang, and shears off a fresh piece of pork with his teeth.

He watches the older man eat, a sense of revulsion clogging his throat. Finally, we come to it.

Mr. Allen would be happy to reward you for your trouble, but he didn’t provide me with any money before this meeting…

Mmm, Mr. Liu grunts.

Evenly, he adds, Mr. Allen is confident that we can work this out between ourselves. Surely we can … This is the game: talk in generalities and veiled innuendo, and sooner or later a promise will be made, and you must not be the one to make it.

Mr. Liu stares at him. Respect or disdain? Difficult to tell. You’ve worked with Mr. Allen for a long time? he finally asks.

A few years, he lies.

Your parents are Chinese?

Father from Hunan. Mother from Fujian.

Aha. Mr. Liu breaks into a greeting in the Fujian dialect, which also happens to be the local dialect. Not a word of it is comprehended, but the younger man has enough wherewithal to break into a relieved smile: Ah, a fellow from Fujian, he says.

Mr. Allen is well-known. Connections. Distribution. Import and export.

Now it’s his turn to grunt, in an Is that right? sort of way. It could very well be true, he wouldn’t doubt it if it was, Allen was that sort of man. He would make some cursory remark about his finances, how he couldn’t afford to eat at the new expensive restaurant down Tunhua Road, and in the next breath he would mention a little real estate enterprise on the side that was earning him sixty thousand NT per month.

I have some items I need distribution for, Mr. Liu says. VCDs. A small run, maybe a few thousand for each item. Not the sort of thing that can go through regular channels, but very profitable. You ship some of these to the mainland, I’m certain they would do very well.

Mr. Liu has reached into a soft-shell briefcase, and he places two VCDs in clear-glass CD cases on the table. The CDs are the kind you can buy at any computer store, and are labeled in chicken-scratch Chinese handwriting that he cannot decipher.

A few samples, he says. Give them to Mr. Allen and let me know what he thinks. There’s many other volumes. If he’s interested in helping me distribute them, maybe we can exchange some favors.

He knows better than to ask Mr. Liu what the VCDs are, and yet the curiosity is maddening. No help for it, this is as far as he can go, he is merely a representative, a Chinese face that stands in for the American investigator, and in that role he must be affable, professional, aiding and abetting.

Where in America are you from? Mr. Liu asks.


Houston? Houston? Mr. Liu grins and raises his arms in rough mimicry of a jump shot. Houston Rockets. Yao Ming.

Yao Ming, he agrees. He knows nothing of the NBA, or the Houston Rockets, or Yao Ming, but he can say Yao Ming and smile.

He’s doing very well, Mr. Liu continues. He’s developing his inside game. He pronounces inside game in English, as a broadcaster might, with a touch of southern twang.

He always had it. He always had it.

True! Mr. Liu chuckles, and it is an alarming sight and sound. He rips open a fresh pack of cigarettes, offers one to him. The young man hates cigarettes, and accepts one without a pause. Mr. Liu is already lighting his, with the careless alacrity that is the hallmark of the chain smoker. He has a plastic green lighter, a snapshot of a naked brunette on the side, and he proffers its flame.

Seconds pass, exhalations of smoke are exchanged. The young man knows that it is his turn – conversation has been made, a cigarette has been offered. Now what?

Do you have a percentage in mind for the VCDs? he asks.

Mr. Liu performs the enviable trick of balancing the end of the cigarette on the tip of his lips, hands-free, as he answers: Wait, let me think – if you add up the costs …

Yes, the young man prods.

Getting access to the security cameras … paying off the security folks … costs for transcription to VCD …bottom-line cost for one VCD would probably be about 100 NT.


So let’s say you sell them at 200 each. Maybe 300. I would ask for 100 NT to cover the bottom line, plus, say, 20 percent? I think that’s fair for everyone.


Agreed? He laughs with a single explosive belch. Mr. Allen will agree?

As I said, I represent him. I would only agree if I was certain he would agree. As long as the quality of the videos are good.

Absolutely! Excellent. Mr. Liu pushes the VCDs across the table with an insistent squeak. Give them to Mr. Allen. He’ll appreciate them. I have thousands more, like I said. You’ll vouch for me, right? If you can convince him, I can cut you in on a percentage.

A percentage of a percentage, the young man muses. The opening has been provided. Two needs have clashed, and Mr. Liu’s need has emerged as the victor. I’ll give them to Mr. Allen, thanks, he says. Everything will be fine. Oh, do you think you can … I mean, the files …can you help me there?

The skin between Mr. Liu’s eyes crinkles, but only for a moment. Sure sure, he says. Call me in two hours, and I’ll see what I can give you.

Thank you for your trouble. Forgive the rudeness, but I have another appointment …

Sure, sure. Mr. Liu flips him a jaunty little salute. Mr. Wang. He says the words as if they are sharing a private joke. Thanks for your help. Enjoy the VCDs. Free samples. Oh, and … He leans in, his voice dipping to a rasp: These were taken at the hotel at the corner of Chunghsiao Road and Fuhsing Road, sorry, I can’t remember the exact name, but I would avoid going there in future. Understand? C.J. can smell the man’s breath; it reeks of grease and rotten bananas.

C.J. smiles a mirthless smile. I understand. Thanks for the advice. Without looking at Mr. Liu again, C.J. stuffs the VCDs into his knapsack and is out the door, back into the spray of the post-rain mist.


He hates his cell phone – just hates it. It is a loaner from Mr. Wang, no relation, probably something his daughter owned before moving up to a newer model. It is a flimsy little trinket, cheap blue plastic and a wrist strap with some funny animal head at the end of it – a panda, it must be, although it has the sour look of a much fiercer animal. Mr. Wang is the one man in Taipei who provides him with any kind of steady income, and yet with this income comes a form of indentured servitude in which Mr. Wang calls him at odd hours every day, requesting help or advice. Often “help” equals nothing more than listening to the man’s ramblings for an hour or so, and as Mr. Wang despises cell phone interference more than anything else, C.J. is often forced to stand right where he is, wherever he may be, when he accepts a call. In this fashion he has become familiar with moth-eaten curtains, the odor of stinky tofu, the irregular rhythm of rain plopping down a drainpipe, the smoke from unfiltered Taiwanese cigarettes that carves into his lungs like fire. Compared to Mr. Wang’s continual rants, working with Allen, as dubious as he is, is like manna.

A few months before, when he had just arrived, C.J. needed work desperately, and was placed in touch with Mr. Wang. Mr. Wang is a fastidious man, always in three-piece suits regardless of temperature or precipitation, his face is locked in a perpetual blush. It reminds C.J. of a helpless baby. Mr. Wang runs a little service in which personal statements for college applications are created. Taiwanese high schoolers provide salient details and a transcript, and Mr. Wang’s revolving pool of freelance minions creates statements based on this information. C.J. has a natural knack for such embroidery, and spends two days a week in the unventilated half-office Mr. Wang rents out for this semi-business, collating the data, inventing achievements that fit the profile of each prospective student, imagining personalities and dreams. I believe it is my calling to pursue a career in public policy, and contribute to the society that has nurtured my growth … I am proud of my heritage, and believe that immersing myself in a different culture would be beneficial for both me and your institution … I live and breathe numbers, but I also try to have fun with them too …My greatest lessons in life were taught to me by my late uncle, who was dying with cancer when I visited him in the hospital one day …

It is exhaustive, exhausting work, and there comes a point every day in which he swears he has written something like this before, and there is a slight chance that this statement may be the exact duplicate of another statement that is being sent to the same college. What a calamity! Both students found out, rejected. But of course the colleges would not bother to explain to either student precisely why they are being rejected, so they will forever rest easy with the knowledge that it was not meant to be, rather than be exposed to the horrid truth that the man writing their personal statements fucked up.

It has been over a week since he has been in the office, but that is because Mr. Wang has procured his services for a special assignment – writing emails to the Hungarian boy who is making advances on his daughter. Miss Wang is college age, withdrawn, willowy, with heavy rounded glasses in place of eyes. There is no doubt that she will be a valedictorian and end up at an Ivy League school. She can write her own personal statement, thank you very much, as long as Mr. Wang contributes his input to the venture. But now she is ruining the whole thing by meeting men on the Internet, and she and the Hungarian are talking about settling down together, maybe in Australia – plenty of Chinese in Australia now. The Hungarian, in charming broken English, has already written to Mr. Wang directly – Is great pleasure to meet. The Hungarian is keen on coming to Taiwan, meeting his girlfriend, meeting the whole family. C.J. can see it now: an earnest, modest young man determined to meet Mr. Wang, exhibit the responsibility and filial piety. He will show that he is deserving of this man’s daughter, he will receive the slap of the back and blessings of all the best, and a whirlwind plane ride later they will watching an Outback sunset, charged up with the thrill of a new life.

What Mr. Wang wants is for this Hungarian boy to stay in Hungary, and cut off all contact with his daughter. Naturally, C.J.’s judgment is a critical component of this operation, as well as his English typing skills, so over the past few days he has been imprisoned in Mr. Wang’s home, hunched over the computer, going through draft after draft of the email, Mr. Wang’s ongoing comments models of specificity: No, don’t say “It is difficult for me to say this” – it’s not difficult! We must be firm. Not rude, but firm. “You must understand that there is no future in this relationship.” No, maybe soften the blow here. Something like “” And so it went, back and forth, for hours on end, until finally the email was ready, and Mr. Wang asked C.J. to hit “send,” interrupting him with an oh wait as his finger came down on the mouse button, followed by a sad, Oh well, too late now. And somehow C.J. is responsible for this regret, he should 

The Chen residence is in an alley off Mintsu Road, a few longish blocks east of Chungshan North Road. Nothing differentiates it from the other homes and buildings on the block. In this part of town, nothing is truly an apartment complex – there are gestures towards such a structure, but most of the residences are a couple stories of concrete, all windows barred by steel bars that have grown rusty from the continuous rain. Just in front of the house, barring entry and escape from the alley, is Mrs. Chen’s BMW, its windows smoky, impenetrable. Just beside that is the Korean-made hatchback that belongs to the Chens’ daughter, Annie. He has read all this in the preliminary report.

Reports are all he reads, it seems.

– 2008

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