MARCH 2008


Beautiful Music from a Bad Mouth
By Gavin Lambert, Feb 01, 2008

Taipei, Taiwan, September 26, 2004.

We are in Neilís apartment, on the fourth floor. Iím on the balcony, looking down on a line of scooters and mopeds, thinking about how foreign this place is to me. Neil is sitting on his couch. The oscillating fan is right on him. Itís not oscillating.

Itís hot and Iím losing my patience.

Neil runs a comb through his wet hair. The comb leaves deep furrows.

Try calling him, I say.

Iíll wait a few more minutes.

His mobile rings.

Itís him, he says. He said come down and heíll be there. He has Katie and Bai with him. Colleagues of ours.

Okay, I say.

They are pretty, he says. We will stop on the way for a duck.

A duck?

Yes. We will have Peking Duck.

Sounds good. I donít think Iíve ever had duck.

Youíll like it. Itís like chicken.

Isnít everything, I say. But it wonít be.

Downstairs, outside in the near dark, we wait a few minutes and then hear a beep, and then headlights come around the corner. The car pulls up and we get in. Neil gets in the back with Katie and Bai. I sit up front with Jim. Greetings go round.

Katie and Bai are silly and giggly. Bai covers her mouth when she laughs. I think maybe she has bad teeth or something. Maybe sheís missing a few. I wonder what she looks like without a hand over her face. Both of them are like teenagers, but ó I find out later ó one is 32 and one is 26. Itís awkward. Fragile quiet in the car.

We ride for five minutes in suffocating traffic and then stop on the side of the road, the duck vendorís. Neil and I run across the street to a convenience store for some beer. We end up getting Heineken.

The girls are embarrassed, says Neil.

They shouldnít be, I say.

When we get back to the car Jim, the girls, and the duck are in there. The duck smells good.

How has your trip been? (Jim.)

Very good, I say. Thanks for asking. Iím having a nice time. Last night we got very drunk. Too much beveraging.

Jim laughs. He looks at Neil via the rearview mirror. Neil laughs too. They are very pleased. Itís amusing to me that they react this way. They are both intelligent, well-to-do Taiwanese men and they still chuckle like college freshmen about getting drunk.

Maybe before you leave we can go to seafood vendor again (Jim), but this time with me too. It is our favorite place. He looks at the rearview again, and smiles.

Sure. I love it. Any time.

We pull into a parking lot and find a spot right away, unlike Neilís neighborhood, where you have to drive around for an hour looking.

Lin answers the door. She is beautiful. I immediately find myself wondering two things. One, how did Jim get such an attractive woman to marry him? And two, could I get her to cheat on him with me? She beckons us in, and when she turns around I get a look at her ass and think, wow, but immediately start feeling bad because, I think, she is not that kind of woman. You donít, even though itís worthy of it, look at her ass and go wow. Not even just in your head.

She only speaks Chinese, Neil tells me, as we enter.

Itís okay, I tell him. Sheís very pretty.

I know, he says. Ben is a lucky man.

Their apartment is new to them. Theyíve had it a week, and like most apartments in Taipei, it has no central a/c. But they are very proud of it, and it is charmingly decorated. I like it a lot. I tell them. Neil, ever trying to make me more comfortable, asks Lin if we can turn down the a/c window unit. I tell him not to worry, but he goes over and cranks it, and it hums out the cold air, and it feels good.

Their small dining room table is full of food. Only for you, says Neil.

We stand for a few minutes in the small living room, until Lin waves us into the tiny dining room.

The meal is big: the Peking Duck we picked up on the way, which tastes nothing like chicken (more like pork), steamed and raw bamboo, squid, two types of mushrooms (both of which are new to me) ó one long and stringy with a thumb-tack cap, the other short and fat and mostly brown with slits in the cap, making it look like an apple pie on topóBBQ ribs, sides of fresh ginger and wasabi, cabbage, thin leaves of raw beef we cook in near boiling water in a pot on a hot plate thing in the middle of the table, and there are tortillas, believe it or not, that you roll veggies and meat in and dip in mayonnaise, oddly, or some kind of horseradish sauce, if youíd rather. A wonderful meal. We wash it down with beer, and then start on the red wine, a cheap shiraz, and talk, our ravaged bowls and plates still in front of us.

As a quiet aside Neil says to me that this is a very big deal for them. They have never had a foreigner in their home before, he says. He then leans over to Jim and says something in Chinese. It sounds so accidental to me, Chinese. It sounds desperate and lyrical, composed on the spot, and sang-talked.

It really is a lot of pressure, I think. To them, right now, I am America. I feel sorry for them. I wish they had a better representative. It almost makes me sick to think about it. I take a sip of wine and nod back to Neil. It means, I understand. I drink the rest of my wine and Bai, who is sitting to my right, refills my glass. I could really get used to this, I think. Neil tells me to slow down. Keep the tempo, he says, and smiles. Maintain your speed, not fast, not slow. Moderation, I think. Iíve heard all this before. All my life, really. A refrain: Donít overdo it. Be careful, slow down, donít eat so fast, donít eat so much, chew your foodÖ. Iím a little scared of these nice people, I think, as I look around the table, and I dance only with my daughter.

You are very good with chopstick, says Lin. Beautiful English. Neil must not have known.

Thanks, I say. Iíve been practicing. Everywhere I go people ask me if I would like a spoon or a fork, but I refuse. I want to get good with the sticks.

She nods and smiles. Iíve said too much too fast for her.

Jim lifts his glass and says, to Sam. We all lift our glasses and drink. Iím getting buzzed, I think. I feel warm and numb, like the beginning of surgery, just before you slip into sleep. Iím full, too, on squid and duck. Everyone can tell Iím staring at Lin. I canít help it. Jim lets me because Iím a guest in his home, a foreigner, and heís proud of his lovely wife. He knows sheís beautiful. He knows sheís a great cook. He knows thereís something about her. Thatís why sheís his wife. But itís safe to say, no one else would be afforded the same indulgence, especially not Neil. Only for you, as Neil would say.

Jim, I say, you better hold onto this one. (Iím a drunken pig.)

Yes, he says. They all laugh.

There ainít anymore like this for you, I say, slipping into a half-assed southern drawl.

He is a lucky man, says Neil, attempting to take the attention away from me.

By this point Iím a disgusting drunk pig-slob. I look at my hands, my fat, greasy pig hands, for a few seconds and am completely turned off by what I see. Iím fat. In the US Iím fat, but here Iím obese. I look so huge around them. I try doing some math in my head: five feet eleven, 220 lbs. = fatass.

Sam, I hear. I look across the table. Itís Lin.

Yes, I say in a way that I think is sweet and patient but is really probably just condescending.

I know that one day you will be a great writer.

Thank you, I say. If she had been anyone else Iíd have probably said something self-deprecatory and smart alecky. But I say thanks and think how sweet and classy she is. Iím so disgusting and sheís being so kind to me, I think. Iím lousing up her home, scarfing her delicate food like a barnyard dog, stinking up her bathroom with my cloudy American pissÖ. She is trying to save face, I thinkÖmy face.

I thank her, also, for speaking such beautiful English. You have almost no accent, I say. (In fact, she speaks more clearly than both Neil and Jim.)

Jim stands up and announces that he is going to escort Katie and Bai downstairs to get a taxi. They gather their things and say goodbye to me, nice to have met you, so on. While they are gone, Lin, Neil, and I talk a little about various things. We are all drunk and feeling quite comfortable with one another.

When Jim comes back in he goes to a shelf and grabs a bottle. He brings it over to the dining room table and sets it in front of me and says, good for men.

What is this?

You drink it. Itís good for men.

I look at Neil. He shrugs.

Okay, I say. I pick up the bottle and smell the uncorked hole. It smells strong and grainy.

Lin brings three small glasses and Jim, Neil and I drink about an ounce each. It looks and tastes like syrupy tequila, and apparently, itís good for men.

Lin suggests that we move to the living room, and Jim says he is going to change into something more comfortable (he is still in suit and tie). Neil and I grab our drinks and cigarettes and sit down on the cloudy couch.

When Jim comes out of the bedroom he is carrying a handful of CDs. He hands them to me. You pick something, he says.

Okay, I say. They are all good choices but I see Heart Attack and Vine and decide it would be a good first choice. Jim and Neil are pleased.

Sam, I love Tom Waits, says Jim.

Lin comes into the living room carrying a tray. She puts it on the coffee table.

Whatís this, I say.

Sake, she says. There is a beautiful vase-shaped decanter and four jigger-sized glasses on the tray. The sake is hot and tastes very good. It warms everything. They got it in Japan, she explains. I look at Jim and his eyes are closed. He is smoking and rocking back and forth to the music. He opens his eyes and hands me his pack of cigarettes and says, smoke. I take one and light it. I could really get used to this, I think. In the states smoking is demonic, and people donít smokes in their homes.

You are a good drinker, Sam, says Lin, with a dip of her head and a smile, as she clears away the sake accoutrements.

Thank you, kindly, I say, because I can tell it actually is a compliment, not meant to be ironic or mean but entirely complimentary.

His voice is so unique, says Neil, my host, my friend.

Yes, says Jim. It is like beautiful music from a bad mouth.

Thatís perfect, Jim, I say.

He smiles at me.

Chinese make great English speakers, I say.

We finish the sake and Lin cleans up. I watch her walk barefoot into the kitchen, carrying the tray.

Sam, who is your favorite musician, says Jim.

I donít know, I say. Right now Iím listening to a lot of Billie Holiday.

Jim and Neil laugh. Jim hates Billie Holiday, says Neil.

Thatís too bad, I say.

Jim takes out Heart Attack And Vine and puts in Rust Never Sleeps. Good choice, says Neil, and I nod my head in agreement.

When Lin comes back into the living room she is carrying another tray. She doesnít even look drunk, I think. This time it has on it some kind of fish and a bottle of white wine.

I canít eat anything else, I say. Iím not hungry at all. I hope I donít sound rude.

This is not for hungry, says Neil. This is for drink, like salty nuts.

I make myself eat one piece. It tastes good, like sweet barbeque. Lin pours everyone a glass of wine and we toast to something. Iím beginning to have that rare feeling that I could, if I had to, drink all night. I look at Neil and he looks tired. Jim looks tired. Lin, who has been doing all the work, looks radiant, not tired at all. As usual Iím out of sync.

Jim gets up to use the bathroom and Lin goes to the kitchen, hopefully not for more food.

Sam, Neil says. It is almost time to go. Jim has to work in the morning and heís too nice to tell us to leave. I say okay, and when Jim and Lin return we tell them we must be going. Jim tells us not to, and Lin asks us to spend the night. We say thank you but no and thank them for everything and leave.

Once weíre outside, Neil says he has to have some duck soup, so we walk to a seafood vender and I watch him eat duck soup and I feed its bones to a stray dog.

Sotto Voce:
ďA man needs a maidĒ

-Neil Young

There is something I forgot to tell you. Lin sings. I was scared to find out because usually people who are willing to sing canít. But we were, as Iíve already indicated, quite drunk. Jim demanded, sweetly, like a proud husband, that she sing for us, and she sang. She sang Taiwanese, not Chinese. She sang a song about a kite, something about a boy flying this kite, but it gets very windy, it gets so windy, and he keeps holding on, he wonít let go, and it gets windier and windier, and he holds onto the string of the kite, but, of course, it gets so windy that he canít hold on and finally he lets go and it flies away. So sad. Kites are always flying away. She sang it right there in the drunk living room, in front of us, to us, to me, a stranger, an American, a fat, clumsy, melancholic, melodramatic, sad and silly man undeserving of a song like that, about an estranged kite. I was covetous after. I wanted to fly her kite. I was perfectly willing to steal her. I think I may have. In fact, Iím quite sure I have her with me right now. Sheís making me a cup of coffee, actually, singing as she goes.

Gavin Lambert's work has appeared in several print and online publications, including, Segue, Poor Mojoís Almanac(k), The Orange Room Review, Thieves Jargon, The Adirondack Review, remark., TorkStar, Dead Mule and The Externalist. A short story of his was short-listed in Glimmer Trainís Very Short Fiction Award for New Writers winter 06/07 contest. His stories are forthcoming in Word Riot and Storyglossia. Lambert lives in Northeast Florida with his wife and daughter.