Yi-chun, laid out in a similar manner opposite the skinnier man in front of him, cocked his head to the side. A half-dozen beers, the tall six hundred milliliter bottles rather than the cans favored by nearly everyone else in the park, delayed comprehension. His head leaned too far to the right and he went over, bracing himself on his elbow like it was all part of some grand plan. He had a way of making accidents seem like even they had some mystical purpose. Although he thought of just letting the shit coming out of Xiao Hei’s mouth slither on by like he normally did, the warm beer buzz in his brain had a question….
“Ah, you’re boring, you know that? What’s ‘just that easy?’”
A few hours earlier, across the street from the park at Underworld: a dark, steep flight of stairs led down to the basement level of a five story-building wedged among a block of the same. Bricks jutted out of the unfinished basement walls, spray painted in blues, greens, and oranges with bizarre acid flashback monsters and faces stretched into spheres of madness along with abstract portraits of mother and child and cephalopod alien creatures. The odor of whiskey, stale beer, and cigarette smoke soaked into the floors and every strand of long black hair in the place, sticking like fly paper to flesh and fabric. Eighty people crammed into a space that could barely contain them, a sweaty mass of whirling hair, flying limbs, blood, and bone.
At the back of the room a Marshall stack one more hiss and pop away from the junk heap cut in and out behind Xiao Hei, obscuring his lean-armed down-pick chug, perfectly in time in spite of the high-end crackle and static ripping out of the floor monitors. Beer and sweat pooled in the concave bowls of the subs and tweeters. Xiao Hei leaned into the microphone and it leaned right back into him, pushed into his teeth by the writhing crowd. He tasted tooth chips and plasma, a maniacal smile spreading across blood gloss lips as he did his backups. He was good — almost better than Chris, and he knew it. He was in love with the silk of his own sound, for the few seconds he got to hear it. Those few seconds were all it took. Even as the song played and the crowd came together and broke apart like a clump of mutated cells multiplying and dividing, he was thinking it. He could do the job better than Chris.
The bass amp blurted out wet excremental globs of low-end flatulence while Yi-chun slapped away at the fat strings. In the back Jin pounded away on a crumbling kit, the bass drum sounding like dead fish slapping against a decayed wooden door.
The only one who didn’t look like he was playing in a dive, a breeding ground for underground music that for most of the bands that played there would always remain both literally and figuratively just that — underground — was Chris. Chris Yong. Front man of Resistant Strain, a bunch of nobodies in a scene full of more nobodies, a place where everyone knew everyone and no one was anyone. But with Chris, you never would have known it. Mugging for the crowd. Posing with his foot up on the monitors, tongue wagging, sweat flying off him. His voice a mix of Johnny Rotten’s high-pitched, nasal warbling and Joey Shithead’s raw, throaty bark. The music, a mix of crust punk, metal, and sludge-born feedback, blasted the ears of the audience, some drunk and moshing, others sober, standing with arms crossed, hands tucked in sopping armpits.
Yi-chun and Xiao Hei looked up at the same moment, eyes drawn by that inexplicable deep-earth rumbling — the sound of everything about to fall apart. Chris pressed his lips to the microphone. A phantom punch knocked him back. The buzz-saw snarl of electricity tore through the feedback of the instruments. Chris crashed into the drum kit, sending cymbals crashing down, pushing the floor toms back into Jin’s knees, killing the beat. Chris sat there dazed, pupils wide, eyes glazed over. No one moved to help him. The crowd was suddenly silent. More arms folded over black T-shirts and leather. Cigarettes were ignited. The clogged air vent overhead with its prehistoric fan struggled to suck up the growing cloud of cancer. Chris sprang up, eyes transforming to pinpricks of rage. He bowled through the crowd toward the mixing board at the back, where the bespectacled sound man, Cho Yao, stood fixed to the floor.
Cho watched the wild-eyed man-child claw his way over, around, and through men and women, the electricity that had shot out of the mic coursing through his body. Chris got to the mixing board set up on a rickety card table, shoulders heaving, his face partially masked behind a shock of jet-black hair. He seethed for a few seconds, looking around to see that all eyes were on him. He flipped the table into Cho and was on him, raining down blows on a man who wouldn’t fight back even if he knew how. And that was it. The show was over.
* * *
“What an asshole.”
Xiao Hei drained the contents of another bottle and tossed it up into the air, letting it smash a few feet to his left. A piece of clear green glass flew through the dark and hit him in the middle of his forehead, opening a small cut. He wiped away the blood, a maniacal laugh rumbling out of his mouth from somewhere deep down in his guts. “We have to get rid of him. Every show he’s up there acting like a prick. He’s not punk rock. He’s a pretender. He’s a strawberry. But everyone focuses on him, and he’s turning us into a joke.”
Yi-chun sighed. He tried to get up off his elbow. It tingled, pins and needles. He knocked over a half-full bottle of beer, spilling it over the concrete. A puddle formed, the bitter, musty liquid soaking into his shoulder-length hair. Xiao Hei talked about firing Chris at least once a week. “I should be getting home,” said Yi-chun, making a second attempt to right himself and get to his feet. “My mom gets pissed when I stay out all night.”
Both nearly twenty, Xiao Hei and Yi-chun lived at home with their mothers, nothing out of the ordinary. According to the old traditions they would never leave their parents. When they got married as men, their wives would move in with them, leaving their own families and becoming part of their husband’s, doing the cooking and cleaning, looking after their mothers-in-law, tending to golden sons. Domestic bliss. Neither Yi-chun nor Xiao Hei had any interest in getting married, even though the old ways were slowly on the way out, with couples starting to live together before marriage and staying free of parental interference. Both were by turns unemployed or under-employed, spending what little they did earn on rehearsal time, cigarettes, cheap beer, and whiskey — not exactly the things they were supposed to be putting their money toward. Everyone said a man needed three things before he got married. First a car. Xiao Hei had always dreamed of having a car. Taking it to the street in Songshan that was nothing but tune-up shops, getting it shined, waxed, new rims. A stereo system so he could blast Black Flag down Zhongxiao East Road, shake up the yuppies as they strolled their toy poodles between the boutiques. A fanciful dream.
Next was a house. A slight break from the old tradition. A leftover of the afterglow of the old Economic Miracle. Then a million kuai in the bank, part of that for the pay-off to the in-laws—money they’d hold onto in case their son in law ever decided to disappear for a time with one of his xiao sans, leaving their housewife daughter without a means of supporting herself. Insurance money. At the rate they were going, Yi-chun and Xiao Hei would go to their family tombs 0-for-three. It was fortunate both had hardworking mothers. Yi-chun’s was a night nurse at National Taiwan University Hospital. Xiao Hei’s operated a barbecue skewer stand on the outskirts of the Shilin Night Market. Both worked long hours on their feet and returned home, bones and muscles aching, bags under their eyes, more often than not to find sour-smelling sons sprawled on the floor in a drunken stupor.
This was not how it was supposed to be. Golden sons were supposed to look after their parents once they reached working age, handing over a portion of their paycheck every month so mama and baba could retire and finally live a life of leisure. For these two there was no such sense of obligation. A “birth tax,” Xiao Hei called it. A debt for being brought kicking and squirming into a world they never asked to be a part of in the first place.
Xiao Hei worked from time to time for a seafood distributor run by a man his mother described as a friend, somebody she had a small bit of guanxi with. Days when he wasn’t too hungover he would go to a multi-tiered market in Wanhua at four a.m. to jump on a truck and help with the deliveries to the local markets and re chao restaurants. He detested the smell of fish and went only when his mother returned and had the energy to beat him out of bed with a broom handle or blue plastic slipper and prod him out the door. They had rent to pay. With two mouths to feed and only one check coming in every month, Mrs. Yu found herself stretched like a thin layer of burnt flesh over a wound slow to heal.
As for Yi-chun, he moved from job to job, working a month here, a month there, taking several months off in between part-time gigs, milking the “looking for work” period for all it was worth, lamenting the lack of jobs all the while to his exasperated mother. She and Mrs. Yu were the ones you would find sitting in the parks of Taipei City on their rare days off, speaking in acidic tongues of their useless sons, already ruing a future they had never imagined on the day they had held their sweet, innocent newborns in their arms for the first time. Hope was now just a word — like rich, millionaire, comfort, and content — a foreign word, meaningless and neglected for lack of purpose. Hope was for mothers with hardworking sons. Hope was for sons without mothers swinging broom handles. Hope was for people not devoured whole by fourteen-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week jobs paying a pittance. Hope, for Yi-chun and Xiao Hei, was for people they would never meet.
Xiao Hei wanted no part of any of it. He grabbed the last bottle of beer out of a white plastic bag and popped off the cap with his teeth, stained by wine and coffee, a tinge of yellow from the cigarettes he chain-smoked his way through on days he could afford them. Half the bottle was gone on the first gulp. A satisfied belch, a rare moment of pure physical pleasure, exploded from his mouth, drawing a few stares and scattered hand-over-mouth giggles from the crowd.
“Fuck it,” he said, lips still tingling from the beer burp. “I’m telling you, he’s holding us back. Always has been. If we get rid of him and find a new singer, things will start to happen. Maybe we’ll finally get the recognition we deserve. And once we get that first bit of fame, that will be our ticket off this island. Overseas promoters will take notice. We’ll get booked for our first gigs out of the country and never look back. Just live on the road. No more bullshit trips down south to Taichung and Kaohsiung to play to nobody and then back here to this hell again. Bands in the U.S. can tour around the country for months, just living in a van, playing shows every day. Meeting girls in every city. That’s what I want, man. Up there on stage, every fucking day. People seeing you, knowing your name.”
Yi-chun sighed again. “I like it here. It’s home.”
It was a statement born of plain familiarity, the mantra of those willed by outside circumstance to remain locked in a certain place and time. Neither had ever traveled off the island. Yi-chun hated the everyday drudgery, the orange-yellow haze blowing over from China and mingling with the homegrown coal soot and factory smoke. He despised the conformity the city seemed to push down on everyone just as much as Xiao Hei did. But what else was there? And why bother wondering when there was no way of finding out? There was no point. No use working. No purpose in living. Drinking, however….
The shattering of glass sent Yi-chun’s head spinning through a sea of half-blurred visions. He saw Xiao Hei laid out flat on the ground, the back of his head resting on the concrete, awake but staring straight up at the black sky as though dead. In the center of his forehead the blood had already dried and scabbed over the cut. Xiao Hei’s chest heaved slowly up and down, his entire body and its range of motion made heavy and deliberate by the booze. The last of the bottles was gone. Tiny slivers of broken green glass encircled them in diamond shards. A bright light shone into Yi-chun’s eyes. He raised a hand up over his brow, taking himself off balance. Again he fell over onto the ground, still warm to the touch courtesy of the long gone ghost rays of the summer sun. A voice spoke out of the light like the word of God.
“Nimen ta ma de zai gao shenme gui? ” And just what the fuck is going on here? It was a cop’s voice, no question. Xiao Hei could almost hear the cop’s double chin waggling back and forth as he spoke.
“A couple of rats crawled out of the sewer,” said a second policeman. All Xiao Hei and Yi-chun saw was the blinding brightness of the flashlight. One of the disembodied voices told them to stand. Yi-chun kept his mouth shut, but Xiao Hei never knew when to quit.
“We like it just fine down here, officer. Maybe you’d like to join us.”
The blows from the hard metal batons came swiftly and with calculated malice. Yi-chun felt the club smashing into his ribs as he curled into the fetal position. The cops avoided his face, arms, and hands — anywhere visible bruises might manifest. Reporters always had the stations staked out. The larger precincts even had rooms upstairs for the press to crash in, waiting for the next call to another crime scene, the bloodier the better. Blood made for good headlines when it was swiftly mopped up and the case resolved. Bruises, though — those meant media speculation, with leads alluding to crooked cops and excessive force. There would be none of that tonight. His face pressed against the hot concrete, Yi-chun looked up to see Xiao Hei on his feet, fists flailing wildly at Officer Double Chin. A quick jab to the gut from the baton and Xiao Hei was on his knees, arms folded over his stomach. Xiao Hei’s features convulsed into a frown at first. But then a grin spread across his face. Double Chin stood over him, his feet just below Xiao Hei’s lowered head. He glowered there for a moment as Xiao Hei’s shoulders spasmed. “Hao le,” said Xiao Hei between gasps. “All right. You win, officer. I’ll go quietly.”
The cop stood smug in his conquest, hands on his hips. When Double Chin reached for handcuffs, Xiao Hei seized his chance. In one swift motion he shoved two fingers down his throat and projectile vomited all over Double Chin’s shiny black boots and the lower portion of his pant legs. The sour stench of half digested noodles and stomach fluids billowed and filled the nostrils of everyone within a twenty-foot radius. The grin never left Xiao Hei’s face, even as he continued to retch. Even when Double Chin clubbed Xiao Hei on the back of the head, knocking him out cold, the upturned corners of Xiao Hei’s mouth remained just as they were, locked in that same boyish smile.
* * *
The paddy wagon pulled up in front of the station. The back door swung open. Xiao Hei was still unconscious. His chin rested on his chest, a line of drool hanging off the corner of his mouth — spit mixed with blood. Yi-chun could see the hair on the back of Xiao Hei’s head was caked with it. Maybe that was a good thing. That could mean a trip to the hospital, away from the station and the two pigs who probably couldn’t wait to get them into an out-of-the-way holding cell for some one-on-one time. The cops appeared in the doorway. Yi-chun knew that if he didn’t speak he might not get another chance.
“He’s bleeding pretty badly. I think he needs stitches. You’d better get him to the hospital.”
The cops exchanged mutual looks of annoyance. Double Chin shrugged his shoulders, scratching his ass as he let a four-second fart rip. His partner ran his forearm across his forehead, wiping away beaded sweat that bubbled out of his skin again as soon as he pulled his arm away, cursing the summer heat. Wordlessly they pulled the two boys out of the wagon, Double Chin dragging Xiao Hei’s prone body like a sack of cement across the sidewalk and through the station’s glass front doors. Inside the station fluorescent lights buzzed. The desk sergeant hardly raised his head, busy for the moment in ignoring a woman paying a fine. She was attempting to make him lose face by volume, a tactic as old as the island itself. “Is this enough? Is this?” she slapped bills down one by one on the counter. “Thieves!” she yelled at him before storming out. A crime beat reporter hanging around outside the doors finished off his cigarette, taking a final long, slow drag, tossing the butt on the sidewalk. He sauntered in jovially through the door.
“What do we have here, officers?”
Double Chin grunted his disdain. “Just a couple of drunks fighting in the park. Nothing for that rag of yours.”
“You sure? Looks like that one got a pretty bad blow to the back of his head. Any idea how that happened?”
Double Chin’s partner pushed Yi-chun down on a bench. A long metal bar was fixed to the wall above it. He undid one of Yi-chun’s cuffs and affixed his hand to the bar then stepped over to the reporter. The beak of his cap was centimeters from the scribe’s nose. “How would you like me to write you up for that cigarette butt you just tossed on the sidewalk? How much do you lowlifes make in a month? I bet you can’t even show me a thousand kuai. A nice fine would probably take a pretty good bite out of that pathetic little paycheck of yours.”
The reporter went back outside to wait for the next degenerates to happen by. Double Chin deposited Xiao Hei on the bench beside his friend. Xiao Hei’s head started to loll back and forth as he slowly regained consciousness. With each drawn-out breath he radiated the stink of vomit throughout the room. The desk sergeant raised his head as though he was looking for something he could smell but couldn’t yet see. His eyes zeroed in on Xiao Hei, and he knew he had found what he was looking for. “Gan nin niang,” he cursed, “get that piece of shit out of here before he stinks up the whole station. The captain will have a fit if he sees this. Are you booking them or just tossing them in the tank?”
Again a look passed between Double Chin and his partner. Double Chin walked over to the two boys on the bench and started rifling through their pockets. He found each of their wallets and stuffed them greedily into his pants pockets. This was easier than filing assault and resisting arrest charges, and it put the two scumbags back on the street where they might find them again and finish the job. “No I.D., no cash,” he said to the desk sergeant. “Book them on a vagrancy charge. They’ll see a judge in the morning, pay a fine, and that will be that.”
The desk sergeant glared at Double Chin, hating the look of smug satisfaction the patrolman wore whenever he dragged a couple of scraggly young punks into the station and rolled them for all they had.
“You book them and maybe they decide to talk to someone,” he said in a low, flat tone, eyes on a set of forms laid out on the desk.
“Talk about what?” Double Chin moved away from the bench toward the desk. He pushed the forms aside, resting a forearm in their place.
“About how you just stole their wallets, taking all their cash and identification from them. About how you and your partner laid a beating on them, just like you did all the others. With your reputation, how long do you think it will be before Internal Affairs starts to take a good long look at you?”
Double Chin glared at the desk sergeant. Gan nin niang, chou ji bai, he thought to himself. He looked down at his stinking shoes and pant legs, quickly lifting his head back up as the stench shot straight up his nostrils. He suppressed his gag reflex. “What about my shoes?” he growled. “And my pants. This little bastard spewed all over them. Someone’s going to pay for that, and I don’t much care who.”
The desk sergeant turned dismissively, pretending to busy himself with the fax machine, loading in paper and hitting buttons at random. “Fine,” he said after letting just the right amount of time pass to get under Double Chin’s thick, sallow skin. “Keep the cash if you want. Throw them in the drunk tank and hold them overnight. I can smell the booze coming out of them from here. But keep the formal charges out of it, or I swear I’ll put I.A. onto you myself, do you hear me?”
Double Chin lowered himself off the desk and walked back over to Yi-chun and Xiao Hei. Yi-chun kept his eyes on the floor. Xiao Hei was coming around but was still groggy enough that he couldn’t spout off again. The two cops unhooked them from the bar and dragged them to the station’s holding cell. Inside was a squalid toilet with no seat. A drunk’s pallid face rested on the rim of the bowl.
“Take off your shoes,” Yi-chun was instructed by Double Chin’s partner as the fat cop relieved Xiao Hei of his. The cell door slid open.
“Drag your fucking boyfriend in there with you. I’m tired of carrying his stinking ass,” Double Chin grunted. Yi-chun did as instructed, still keeping his gaze low. “And lay that little bitch on his side. I don’t want him dying in here tonight and stinking up the place even more.” Again Yi-chun complied.
The place reeked of piss and puke. Yi-chun looked over at the drunk hugging the toilet and saw a wide brown stain on the seat of the man’s pants. He couldn’t tell if the vagrant was alive or dead. A dried-up trickle of blood was encrusted above his earlobe. “Goodnight, sewer rats,” bellowed Double Chin. “And don’t worry. You’ll be back to your nice, comfortable gutter by morning,” he chuckled. “If we remember to release you.”
The cell door shut. It was just Yi-chun, the cold floor, the slow rumble of snores reverberating in Xiao Hei’s chest, and the collection of sickeningly sweet and acrid odors of the cell. Leaving Xiao Hei in the middle of the floor near the grated opening to a drainage pipe, Yi-chun walked over to the bench on the far wall and took a seat. The lights buzzed loudly overhead, even louder than those in the front room. They remained on all night as Yi-chun sat upright in an effort to stay awake to make sure Xiao Hei didn’t choke to death on his own vomit.
A few hours later a shift change brought a new set of minders into the station. Double Chin and his partner were gone as night bled into day, though in the windowless holding cell there was no way of telling the time. Yi-chun hadn’t slept for more than scattered bits of time: useless five-minute chunks here and there. At times he was awakened as his head fell into his chest, at others by the dry heaving of Xiao Hei or the drunk cradling the toilet in his shaking arms, the early stages of delirium tremens rattling his bones. Another fleshy short cop, even rounder than Double Chin, opened the cell and studied the squalor with a mix of contempt and bewilderment before motioning to Yi-chun, the only semi-lucid mind in the room. Yi-chun’s head was still swimming with the drink, words and movements a step and a half behind. He plodded over to the door, unsure of what the man (already in his mind he gave him the name Officer Xiao Pang — Officer Fatty) wanted. He stopped out of reach of the man, somehow slovenly despite the crisp creases of his dark blue uniform and the perfect angle of his officer’s cap perched atop a near perfectly rounded skull.
“Time to make your call,” he said to Yi-chun. His words seemed forced, as though his tongue was too wide, the mouth too narrow. In his half-drunk state Yi-chun couldn’t stop a grin from manifesting, putting an instant scowl on the cop’s face as it appeared.
“What call? Why don’t you just let us go? The officer said there were no charges against us. You can’t hold us without charges. I know my rights.”
Xiao Pang scoffed, jowls rippling in amusement. “You know your rights, but you don’t know shit about the law. You and your half-dead friend over there are under twenty-one. That means charges or not we have to release you into care of a guardian. A parent or anyone over the age of twenty-one has to sign for you and take you off our hands. So you can either make the call or keep spouting off about your rights and stay in the cell with your friends. What’s it going to be? I get paid the same whether you stay here and rot or not.”
Yi-chun mulled the options. Gradually he came to the realization he had no one to call. He could have called his mother; but between that and rotting in the cell he welcomed the prospect of decomposing down to brown parchment skin stretched over his dead skeletal form. “Give us a minute,” he said to Xiao Pang.
He moved over to Xiao Hei’s limp body, spittle pooling below his mouth. He pushed a foot into the boy’s back, lightly at first. No sign of movement except the rhythmic and labored rise and fall of his rib cage. For reasons Yi-chun couldn’t understand, Xiao Hei’s brain was trying to keep him alive. He pushed his foot into Xiao Hei’s back again, harder this time. A dry cough. A shaking hand brought to the side of his head. A flicker of eyelids that peeled themselves from the eyeballs. Xiao Hei rolled onto his stomach. His eyes moved back and forth over the floor as though he had to relearn everything, including what a floor was, why it was there, and how he might go about removing himself from it.
Xiao Hei’s arms shook violently as he tried to work himself up to his feet, moving like a man fifty years older. It took the better part of a minute before was able to get to his knees, where he chose to remain. He looked around the room, studying the walls, the comatose drunk in the corner, the bars, and the pool of spit now between his legs. His nose crinkled at the sudden rush of putrid smells and he saw the brown wet stain on the seat of the bum’s pants. He gagged; but his stomach had nothing to give. He raised a hand to his temple, eyes slamming shut. This hangover was truly one for the books. Waking up in a holding cell might have come as more of a shock if it hadn’t happened so many times before. To his recollection, however, this was the first time that Yi-chun had woken up there alongside him. “So,” he said to his friend, “I guess we had a good one last night.”
Yi-chun looked down apathetically, arms folded across his chest. He shook his head. “You’re going to have to call Ting-ting to get us out of here.”
A look of confusion lit upon Xiao Hei’s face. In his mind he fought through the sea of alcohol and put the two words together. “Call” had never been a word that went along with holding cell. Release — now there was a familiar word. Morning meant release. No phone call. Just go. Walk out the front door, find the nearest convenience store for a hair of the dog and get on with the day. Through half-closed eyes he looked over at Yi-chun, seeing that he had taken a seat on the bench.
“Why do I have to call Ting-ting? They held us overnight and now they have to send us on our way. That’s how this works. Just tell them to let us go. It’s the law. Fucking cops.”
“Yeah, yeah, fucking cops,” Yi-chun had no time for Xiao Hei’s fair-weather punk routine. “They usually let you go just to be rid of you, but this time they say a guardian has to come and sign us out. That means someone over twenty-one, which narrows it down to our mothers and Ting-ting.”
“Ah, come on, man. Baituo ni. You know she’s been on my ass lately. Just call your mother and take the beating. Don’t make me call that bitch. I like her and all, but she’ll have my balls for breakfast if she has to come down here. Don’t make me do it.”
“The only reason we’re in this cell is because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut and your dinner in your stomach where it belongs. Make the call, Xiao Hei. If you won’t do it, we’ll sit here all fucking month for all we know. Your choice, da ge.”
Xiao Hei fell over onto his backside and crossed his arms over his knees, resting his head on his forearms. Aches and pains started to make their introductions anew to a body that was only now starting to know itself again. He took a deep breath, a wave of nausea spreading outward from just above his bowels. Painfully he rose to his feet. With an embarrassed smile he gave in to the only option they could call their own.
“Fine, xiao pengyou. I’ll make the call. And may Mazu watch over me when the tidal wave of shit crashes down on my head.”