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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Dog. Girl. Armless Karaoke Maniac.

By Joseph McKinley

"It is no use speaking in soft, gentle tones if everyone else is shouting."

-- Joseph Priestley, scientist

Look. Down. Now. Please! Can you see me here, the girl with turmeric skin and hair the color of carbon? I've been sitting here by your side for a while, waving my arms and pouring lukewarm tea down your leg. (What did you think that was, anyway?) I know you didn't notice me before. I could tell by where your eyes were pointed and where they weren't. And they never sank below your new best friend's heaving bosom during your entire hour-long conversation about hot air ballooning -- a strange passion for a self-described acrophobic perhaps, but no stranger than an innocent 33-year-old (at least!) school girl with more plastic in her than in a Shenzhen nurdle factory just happening to need 10,000 yuan right now to pay for her ailing, beloved grandmother's dialysis.

Don't apologize!

I'm used to it.

I don't talk much anymore, believe it or not, and I never made a habit of prattling away for hours on end. Such would be all futility and frustration as no one much cares to listen. This I understand. I know that for the better part of humanity nothing compares for sheer entertainment value to the sounds of their own voices. Anything I might say would be little but distraction.

What has always boggled me is that people seem to think that because they can easily overlook me -- because I am small -- that I can't see them and what they are doing, and that because I am sometimes too quiet to hear, I must be deaf as well. I am treated as a ghost as often as not, and like a ghost, I am rarely acknowledged except as something to blame for the misfortunes and failures of creatures more readily seen. I am the thing that is responsible for poverty, stupidity, obesity, lethargy, lapses in integrity, and both unwanted pregnancy and involuntary chastity. I was an object of blame back before I broke out of home, and not much else.

The only person -- and I always considered him as such -- who paid attention to me was Lǎogǒu. He didn't ignore me. Perhaps it was because he understood me. I like to think that was the reason, but maybe it's just that I was taller than he was. A dog must look up to every human around him, even if he doesn't admire them, even if they don't deserve it.

So I've told you I'm a ghost. This also means that I have both the privilege and the horror of seeing how people act when they think no one's around.

* * *

But I didn't see the big event that got me here -- the wave of calculated disaster that swept me up, tsunami-style, from the little lagoon of ignorance from which I hail and deposited me on this comparative peak of civilization -- the day my father left in a wheelbarrow, bloody and drunk and screaming from his own stupidity, cursing my dead best friend. I didn't see the doctor whisk away my father's mistress and her reward, freshly cleaned and cryo-pack cold and hermetically sealed. I didn't hear the thud my grandfather made when he hit the ground, sick and overcome with nausea, or maybe it was just relief. I do know he felt guilty eventually, but maybe that was long after the fact: that was how my father got the money for the karaoke club and his new family -- from my grandfather's share of the banquet's proceeds. And I didn't hear my mother laughing as she stoked the fires and merrily sliced and diced as she prepared for a dinner nonpareil.

I remember coming back three days later from my trip to my uncle's house -- a trip Lǎogǒu had sent me on -- and the smell of peppers and fried meat, and that it wasn't bad at all. I remember the party after that, and that the stew tasted rich but strange and that wads of red Mao (that's hundred yuan notes, white boy) as thick as a wrist were handed to my mother by one old man after the next, each hoping to down a bowl of the stuff that was supposed to make them virile and tough, as tough as an old dog. It was a soup so special that it took three days to make, and only the mountain girls of Zhangjiajie, like my mother, know the secret cooking technique.

And I remember getting my dress. The lettering on the package in which it arrived was written in such an atrociously shaky paw that it couldn't have been the work of any but Lǎogǒu. I think he meant for it to assuage my guilt, but it didn't. Instead, I just keep imagining what happened, and I think about it every time I wear my one extravagancy.

I'd rather think about the day-long English grammar lessons Lǎogǒu taught me from an old copy of the Chicago Manual or how he'd lick me with his rawhide-rough tongue -- just the lightest kiss on the cheek -- when I'd cry about my comma usage. I never saw him lick anyone else. He'd only rarely sink to the level of shaking a person's hand. The mind is a vessel only nominally under our conscious control, and I can't keep mine from veering towards speculation about the last day of my friend's life.

All I know is what I've been told, and no two people have told me exactly the same thing. Maybe I'll tell his story to you wrong too, and stray even further from the truthful path, but Lǎogǒu isn't here to listen, and your tearful friend is in the john, applying a fresh bucketful of mascara to smear for the next sucker -- I mean kind-hearted gentleman -- she comes across.

At least my story's interesting. Maybe not as much as a chest stacked high with inflatable bags of joy.

But what could compete with that?

To be continued; Part 1 of 5

Article © Joseph McKinley. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-07-15
Image(s) are public domain.
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