Tom Burke and Drew Anderson

Response by Drew Anderson

Inspiration by Tom Burke

Chapter 10

For whatever reason, the next morning I felt especially marshmallowy—which may or may not have related to my actual marshmallowiness. I decided to mine into my two enormous duffle bags of China crap in search of my Nikes. However hair-brained, a hopeful part of me figured that the simple act of wearing athletic shoes might provide the jolt I needed to address the useless, expanding mass that now hung over the waistband of my underpants.

I was mostly naked still. I’d somehow managed to get myself half-straddling one of the giant duffles on the floor, and I was elbow-deep in the other, which are points relevant only insofar as I was contorting my body in a completely new way: worthy of note. I dug, and finally my fingers touched some shoelace. I pried the shoes up from their tight corner in the duffle bag.

I inspected them. With my hands I bent one shoe, effortlessly, toe to heel. Zhao ni ma, fuck your mother, came out of my mouth, which surprised me, not that I swore, but that I did it in Chinese. I didn’t know if it was new or something I’d been doing for months.

I no longer questioned if they were knock-off Nikes. The foam soles were flattened, squished thinner by an inch, and I had yet to run in the things, not even a single short burst at medium trot. They’d logged maybe five hours on my feet and were still pristinely white. A pair of Nike shoes should have withstood my fat.

Dino told me once to only buy things that mattered across the border in Hong Kong, where the true price ensured the true product. My Nikes were from Pingnan. I bought them at a shop about two hundred yards from school.

Knock-off goods were the norm in town, but when I bought this pair of Nikes, I wanted them to be real—stolen, or otherwise smuggled from the true Nike factory, which had its home in Pingnan. Not that it really mattered—probably the knock-off Nike factory was in Pingnan, too, maybe right next door to the real Nike factory. Their assembly lines might have even shared workers.

Not just Nike, but Timberland, Sony, aisles 1-27 at Walmart, all of that crap got manufactured in or near Pingnan—the hub, though it hadn’t been for very long. Before, the entire area was swampland and simple farmers. Xiang ba lao, hicks. Yes, empty save for the hicks and their crops. Xiang ba lao as far as the eye could see. But then came Deng Xiaoping and the industrial boom of the eighties, and he leveled the whole damn thing and started pouring cement. Then it wasn’t just local hicks, but xiang ba lao from all over the country. They flocked south to Pingnan to sew handbags and solder joints.

Pingnan is a suburb of Shenzhen, part of a Special Economic Zone, i.e. government-speak for, Zone to Make Money and Bend Rules. If, say, a party bus—not that there were party busses, but supposing there were—if that party bus left Hong Kong and carried its boozy straphangers across the border into mainland China, and then that party bus driver picked a certain highway, one of the many available, and drove for about an hour in a certain direction, factories flanking both sides of the highway the entire time, after that hour the party bus would reach Pingnan, which, frankly, an hour deep into whooping it up, the party bus partiers would have probably had a hard time distinguishing from the many other towns the party bus had already bussed through, or that the party bus would hit if the group partied on.

There was that highway through Pingnan that the party bus would have come in on, and there was a main road that ran parallel to the highway a few blocks in. The town of Pingnan grew off those two routes. When I was there, four hundred thousand and one people occupied the converted swampland of Pingnan.

Pingnan Middle School was on the Main Road. When I headed out from school into town, passing through the school’s front gate—which was monitored twenty-four-seven by three men on revolving shifts—I usually turned left. To the right was still mostly in development, but to the left, it boomed.

The Main Road was dusty and hot, and always heavy with pedestrians, loud from honking horns. The street itself seemed perpetually congested with traffic: cars, taxis, pushcarts, wagons, motorcycles, bikes, etc. And there were street sweepers, older women in cotton gloves, hospital masks, and sedge hats pushing the never ending accumulation of garbage and debris into dustpans or the sewer. Plus, I always added a pinch of chaos to the functional mayhem of the Main Road, on account of the rubbernecking. Who’s that dude?

The Main Road was lined with shops. Some of them were very tiny, like the shoe repair kiosk or key cutter’s, which weren’t much bigger than a phone booth. Others were medium sized, like the tool shops, wok shops, or the dusty cement shops. There were competing electronics shops with all the same products. Newish grocery stores were there too, where you could buy packaged food items, as opposed to the pick-and-bag or pick-and-pluck at the market. And in the two years that I lived in Pingnan, three full-on shopping malls on the Main Road transitioned from bamboo scaffolding to escalators and open for business.

Restaurants on the Main Road tripled their capacity with plastic tables out on the sidewalk. There were discos, travel agencies, a pool hall, etc. etc., all on the Main Road, plus alleyways and openings to side streets with more of the same.

Whenever I walked the Main Road, I would stop at my favorite DVD/shoe shop, which was about two blocks from school. That’s what they carried, DVDs and shoes, which was, admittedly, a suspect combination—maybe not as eyebrow-raising as a fish taco-slash-tax preparation outfit, but still. Many shops had disconnected product lines like that, I suppose the result of a lot of opportunists unloading to a cousin or brother the contents of a shipping container full of whatever that they’d happened upon.

As for my preferred DVD-shoe shop, it was true that the uncertain connection between its products did scare me off their shoes for most of two years, but there was another variable, the girl at the shop. She was so tiny and cute, and she giggled at my Chinese, too young for me, fifteen, tops, but we flirted.

I was a loyal customer, and aside from a few discs here and there, nearly my entire DVD library came from that shop. I’d stop in, and the girl would point out the new arrivals. I’d scan and be on my way, or if something looked interesting, she’d open it up and play a few minutes, check the English track, see that the movie playing was the same as on the cover.

Sometimes Sly Stallone or Harrison Ford was on the cover when they had nothing to do with the movie. Sometimes English titles were purely invented. Sometimes a DVD had the cover art and title of a recent Hollywood blockbuster, but what was really in the box starred pre-Tae Bo Billy Blanks and aired maybe only once, in the 4:00AM Skinemax timeslot.

About a year and a half in, I was walking to the grocery store, and the DVD shop was closed. It stayed closed for the next two months. I missed the shop, and I missed the girl. I went as far as to ask my fellow teacher, Xiao Mu, if he’d heard anything about it, maybe news of a grand reopening or some such, but even after I was confident that he’d understood my question—which I can assure took some time and patience—Xiao Mu knew nothing. If anything, he seemed annoyed, like it was brass of me to suggest he might have had insider info on such an inconsequential thing.

So for a time I did my DVD shopping elsewhere, and then one day, the store was again open for business. They’d done some light renovations, but not much, a few display racks, a new TV console, a fresh coat of paint. The girl was back, too, but she’d tacked on weight, maybe twenty pounds in the two months the shop was closed. She didn’t flirt the same. I tried to flirt the same, but I couldn’t either.

That was when I invested in the Nikes, when the shop reopened and just before I left China for good. I suppose those shoes were a kind of farewell gesture to the girl, despite what we’d lost between us, or maybe in an effort to memorialize it.

I wondered though, what did that girl do in two months? Sit and do absolutely nothing? A freelance gig taste-testing at a noodle factory? I think she lived in back of the store with her parents though. Did she take inventory? Watch two straight months of DVDs?

There I was, sprawled out on my China duffle like some beached manatee soaking in a few rays—it wasn’t lost on me that I’d porked up like the DVD girl.

It nagged at me just then, whether or not she’d really done nothing for two months, was it possible? I contemplated whether I was in the process of achieving exactly that.

And would the DVD girl like the beefier version of me? Could extra flesh unite the otherwise unconnectable? Was that the answer? Was a fully-full girl just what the doctor ordered? And if I brought her to the States, could we survive together under the same roof as Mom, I mean if we carried out our lives primarily in my small bedroom? How long could we last at that? How about if she brought her DVDs?


One Comment

  1. Posted December 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm | #

    I enjoyed the visual here and the chapter reading, great work!