Fiction / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Naked Emperors in the Big Bastard

by Gabriel Jensen Bloch

I'm the kind of guy that doesn't get bogged down in things. I didn't get bogged down when they drafted me in '67, I didn't get bogged down when hippies were in my face the minute the Quarter Pounder dropped us off in California and I don't get bogged down now if I'm having a little trouble with a business deal. Director Gao is sitting next to me at one of these banquets where we're all supposed to drink too much and become war buddies because we're uncomfortable together. That is, of course, bullshit because we chose to be uncomfortable, so it doesn't count, and nobody remembers a damn thing the next day; no more buddies. I was told Director Gao is the guy, the guy, talk to him and you can get anything. So I talked to him. Told him everything I know about the State of Idaho, good people, good land, ready to do business with Anding County Steel Group, ready to sign a deal. I talked to him three times, and now we were drinking, and that always means you sealed the deal and the rest is a formality.

Turns out he ain’t the guy. But he knows the Director for Business Development, and for projects like these, that's the guy I need to talk to. Great, so let me talk to him, I say. His next meeting with him is in two weeks, and he'll put in the good word. We toast. Big smiles and slaps on the back.

I stumbled out of that hotel drunk as can be, but that's all right. The key is to stay in it, always shaking hands, always getting in front of people. You can't nail every deal, but you have to think you will. Mentality is everything.

Now what you do when you're drunk, and you're in Beijing, and you haven't got something else to do, is you go to the Fallen Emperors' Club. You haven't heard of it. Don't worry, only the guys in it have heard of it. It's a bunch of men, young and old, who ignore their better judgment and meet from time to time to share sheep jokes and wine. It's one of those things where you can't remember how you first joined, and you can't remember what life was like before you were in, and you drink until you're uncomfortable, but it counts and makes you brothers. The club was on the top floor of a high-rise close to downtown on a side street. I watched the numbers in the elevator, 15, 25, 35, all the way up to 63. When you're drunk and watching them creep up, those numbers start to feel awful close to home.

This was it, the Emperors' at 63. I was late, and the quad of couches was all filled up. "Hey!" "There he is!" "Sit the fuck down and order a drink you old fuck!" I squeezed in between Jamison and Costanza. I'm not going to describe all these shitheads to you now. Suffice it to say that Jamison was a liberal guy who always said stupid liberal things and refused to join us for afternoon delights in the massage parlors. He and his wife were still young. Costanza was one of the oldest in the group, and he understood the great celestial joke. Across from us was Chief Emperor Zoltar. He wasn't Chief just because of his name, though it helped. He drank the most, said the most, lived the most. Don't get him started about China or you'll never hear the end of it. Baggage from Ceaușescu's days, deep-seated hatred of communism, all that stuff. They did something to his dad in Romania. He was big like Frankenstein—when I came into the room, he was looming over the only Chinese emperor, Alvin, his huge hand draped over Alvin's shoulder, telling him he only learnt the true meaning of proctology after moving to China. Alvin did not speak English very well, which helped.

Waitresses in black suits brought food. We settled down at a large circular table to eat like proper gentlemen, which none of us were, and between that and the sumptuous gilded drapes and thrones, it was a sufficiently absurd scene.

"It's all going to come tumbling down," Zoltar said, picking at a salad.

"I beg your pardon?" said Jamison.

"This," Zoltar said, waving his hand broadly, "all of this, this place, this civilization!"

"I don't think that's true at all," said Jamison.

"That is fine! To each his own. I do not have space in my escape vehicle for you anyhow," Jamison chuckled.

"You don't believe me?" Zoltar asked. "I have a Jeep on my compound, completely outfitted with food, water and weaponry. When the shit hits the fan, and only a complete fool or a historically ignorant person would believe it won't, I'll be ready. Of course, with your politics, who knows what you think."

"So what are you going to do, drive off into the Ordos Desert?" Jamison asked, still chuckling, looking at others around the room.

"Where I drive will be a function of the circumstances, and obviously is of no concern to you. But I will be on the road, while you are stumbling in the street with tears running down your face and a suitcase in your hand. Believe you me, that will be a difficult day to catch a taxi! God speed, my pink little comrade!"

We had this discussion every time. Zoltar's contingency planning for Chinese Armageddon was legendary. There was a betting pool on how many years out we were. He had his money on three years. He loved talking about it; nothing made him happier.

"I would like to make a toast," Costanza said, rising to his feet, "to the lowest-quality group of men to be called emperors since Caligula." Cheers and applause crisscrossed the table.

"And I have an announcement," he continued. "As most of you know, I've been here the longest, and, despite many of your assertions that coal dust makes the heart grow fonder, I continue to feel like I'm cycling between Dante's third and fourth circles of hell. Well, I finally got a company even stupider than my current company to hire me in Connecticut. As many of you know, I have an evergreen first-class one-way ticket out of the Big Bastard, and I'm finally going to use it. Nice knowing you." He plunged back into his seat, resting his watery red eyes on his neighbours, first left, then right, shaking hands and smiling like they just handed him a newborn baby. I noticed his hair was whiter than the last time I had seen him.

Costanza named Beijing "The Big Bastard" long before I even dreamed of coming over. To me, "China" was pure opportunity, like a casino where the odds go in your favour. I needed that, because in 2009 my mill in Boise threw me out on my ass before my pension kicked in. I felt bad for them as much as anyone—those looks of pity as removable as makeup when I went in to get my packet, those earnest attempts to help me see bright sides and opportunities walking through all this paper that some other person with a job carefully prepared. It was all a pathetic production. Just tell me what the deal is and let's get on with it, I said. I had plenty of friends who died from all kinds of shit 35 years ago in the war, but I don't know a single person who was killed by talking to HR for an hour.

"You're a stooge," I told her, when she handed me the packet.

"Career transitioning is hard for everyone, and my goal here is simply to assist to make it as seamless and constructive as possible, given the unfortunate circumstances."

"OK, that's a nice goal you got. My goal at the moment is to convey to you a simple fact, which is that you are a stooge, a corporate stooge. Not the funny kind, on TV. I mean the kind who does bad things to people for an unimpressive salary. Like a mid-level Nazi."

She stood up and looked at me like I had just been convicted of a felony. "I'm going to leave that with you to look over, and you just let us know if you have any questions." With that she walked out, and at that moment, I kind of regretted my tone because she had a good figure, and I could have gone a different direction with the whole thing.

Getting fired presented an issue though, as to how to pay the bills. I went to the library and read the Wall Street Journal every day, trying to think of something. One thing I noticed—they were always talking about China. I started studying Chinese at the community college. After a few weeks of that, it hit me: Idaho was not exactly the centre of international commerce, but just imagine if someone sold Idaho to the Chinese! It seemed so obvious; I guess the best ideas always are. I made some phone calls to the state capitol, and after the usual run-around, got a meeting.

I met with the lieutenant something or other, and I could tell right away it was not going to be easy with this guy. He said they might need someone with more exposure and experience in China if they wanted to set up a "liaison office," as though they'd already thought of this and had a special word for it. They weren't really looking to hire someone for that kind of thing, he said. That red-headed pencil-neck found a thousand reasons not to give me a try. I've gotten the washed-up vet treatment before, but this guy was really dismissive. What he didn't realise is that just adds coal to the fire. So I called his boss, and that guy was also a vet, actually was Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, and I knew several guys in Second, so he pretty much had to talk to me. I tried to talk him up about the run they did in Huế, but he was one of those "don't want to talk about it" guys, and honestly, who's going to blame him, so when he folded his hands and looked at me impatiently, I cut to the chase and said I wanted to serve the state of Idaho by connecting investors in China with companies in Idaho. A couple thousand K a year was all I was asking for, more if I got some deals going.

"I understand times are tough," he said, "and I want to help you. I honestly do. But no one here is looking for this kind of thing. We're cutting everything. No one's expanding in the state government. I'd get laughed out of the room. I'm just trying to be straight with you."

"I'm just looking for ten, twenty K here. Just enough for a plane ticket and rent. With my experience in Southeast Asia—"

"Right now, twenty thousand is as hard as two hundred thousand. It doesn't matter. There's nothing there. Nothing."

I folded my arms and looked out the window. You could see the sun setting. Orange sky and blue mountains. That had always been my favourite time of day in Boise. I had thought this idea was going to work.

I think he wanted to get on with things and felt bad for me, so he finally said, "Look, if you can drum up the cash to get over there and look around for investors, I can promise you I'll connect you to the right people over here if you find anything. We're always saying we'd like more FDI out of China, so why don't you go over there and show us what you can do? I can make you something official-looking to show people over there. They won't be able to read it anyway."

This guy was a lawyer, I could see from the law degree on his wall—from Georgetown University Law School, no less. Not all vets are fuck-ups like me. He was smart. He found solutions. A week later, I got a letter from the "Office of International Development of the State of Idaho" in my mailbox saying that they "had met with Mr Yuland and discussed potential investment opportunities (inbound and outbound) between parties in the State of Idaho and the People's Republic of China. The Office of International Development of the State of Idaho has expressed preliminary interest in exploring such opportunities and has encouraged Mr Yuland to present such opportunities to the Office in due course."

I booked the ticket and got a real dump of a room in Beijing, way out on the west side of town. I remember that first evening, jet lagged as all get out, worrying about choices made and risks taken, and then I looked out the window, and there they were: blue, weather-beaten, craggy mountains, under an orange sky, just like in Boise. I took it as a sign.

Now the way this works is that you go to a lot of conferences and symposiums and grin-fuck your way to a deal. Believe it or not, I did sales at the mill. Horrible stuff, sales. I think you get to a certain age where you don't try to convince yourself you're Mother Teresa. You're trying to earn a dollar and not get chewed up and spat out; the great is the enemy of total devastation.

Costanza got that. He was a decent money-maker at his bank, but I heard things had not gone as well recently. Some said that was why he was leaving. Now it was weird in the room. You're sorry they're going, but you don't want to show it; you're jealous they're going to be able to breathe and eat croissants and have space; you pity them because they're going to lose this special world the expats have created for themselves; you wonder if you yourself are ever going to get out; you wonder if you want to. More bottles of wine were ordered, and everyone got good and sloppy by one in the morning. By two in the morning, it was worse.

"We are going to my compound!" Zoltar shouted when the waitresses said the club needed to close. I had no idea what time it was.

"I'm going home," Constanza said, red-eyed but drained white in the face. "I've had enough of this. Thank you all." He could barely hold his head up.

"I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are in jest," Zoltar said, placing his hands on Costanza's shoulders. "This could be your last Fallen Emperor party, and if it does not end in spectacular fashion, it would be an insult to the franchise."

"I'm no good to you now anyway—I can barely see straight."

"Seeing straight is not required! In fact, it is discouraged!" Now Zoltar was calling his driver, and soon we were in a van careening down the fourth ring road headed for the outer suburbs of Beijing. I didn't even know everybody in the van—there was a British musician who focused on being disgusted, and someone I knew absolutely nothing about who looked pleasant enough.

"I need to stop in Sanyuanqiao," I said as we approached one of Beijing's multi-direction traffic pretzels.

"What the hell for?" Zoltar asked.

"You'll see." They dropped me at the foot of an off ramp. Clouds of polluted murk passed through the light of highway lamps. I quickly moved past makeshift fruit stands and dry-goods stalls through the gate of a rundown apartment complex. I loved this walk through the ghetto—it was mine and a reward waited on the other end. The reward was wearing a pink jumpsuit and looked like a twenty-eight-year-old woman in the absolute flower of her youth.

"Put on something a little better," I said. "I want to take you out tonight with some friends." She protested mightily, she had been sleeping for hours, but she's a bad negotiator, and I always get my way. She didn't doll up as much as I would have liked, but at her age, a loose blue sweater and tight jeans are really as good as anything.

"Looks like someone's been holding out on us!" Zoltar shouted as Mei slid into one of the van's back seats. She smiled like she hated everyone there. That's all right—some things she did for me, and some things I did for her, and our unspoken rule was not to complain either way.

"How old are you again, Frank?" Costanza asked me.

"Too old," I said.

"I'll say," he said, eyeing the lines of her legs.

"Costanza's leaving us is a tragedy, and look what Frank does, he goes and gets a lifeboat for himself alone," Zoltar said. "Of course, unlike Frank, I know the value of collaboration, and in honour of this special occasion, I have engaged Madam Lulu's Emporium to provide the charms none of us possess."

"That sounds legitimate," said Jamison, smirking.

"You're young, tall, good looking, red-headed," said Zoltar, "and you don't use it!" Zoltar was always very loud and Romanian-sounding when he drank. "You will use it tonight!"

We drove a long way out of the city, to the orchards and fields. The van passed under a canopy of spindly branches along a river, the brownness of everything evident even through the fog. Then the van turned down a rough dirt road overgrown with winter shrub on both sides, barely large enough to accommodate our van. Eventually, we crossed a dry riverbed and reached a tall stone wall with a black wrought-iron gate. A security guard looked in the window, saw Zoltar and walked over to pull the gate open for us. Now the road was made of stone, and lined with dying, soot-saturated evergreens. A three-story house sat at the end of the road. Guards, apparently armed, watched us from the house through binoculars. Video cameras were in the trees.

"What is it you say you did again?" Jamison asked.

"Trade. Free trade."

"It is better not to ask these things," Costanza said, his head leaning against the van's window.

"All right, everybody out!" Zoltar said, sliding open the van's door and pulling us by the hand. "Chop chop!"

It was chilly out there and most of us had forgotten our coats at the club. We sprinted across the dirt into his house. The guards said hello as they rubbed their hands together and puffed out little clouds. We were admitted into a dim room which was very old Chinese architecture without even so much as a fresh coat of paint. Kerosene heaters hummed from two corners, creating halos of warmth only where they stood.

"Late Qing, I would guess," Costanza said. Zoltar turned urgently to Costanza and held his finger in the air. "Exactly. Exactly!" Then turning to Jamison: "If you went to a proper school like Yale, you would know these things!"

"Brown had Chinese art history," Jamison said, but we were already pushing past, stepping over wooden thresholds and winding through a maze of passages, none heated, each as cold as the out of doors. Finally we found ourselves in a smaller wooden room with a tatami floor and some cushions. Here the kerosene heaters were more effective.

"Little Song! Where are Lulu's girls?!" Zoltar shouted, looking round the room in panic. A thin Chinese man emerged from a side door.

"She tried, but she said it was too late! No one was willing to come out this late. And the girls hate coming here, they say it's too far," Song said.

"I pay them for every hour!" Zoltar said, pounding his fist into his palm. Costanza lay down on the tatami in the fetal position without further comment. Jamison stepped to the side and called his wife. Things were going south in a hurry. I grabbed Mei's hand and led her down a side passage, as Zoltar's thundering anger was slowly absorbed into the wood of the compound. We reached a flight of steps and climbed to the top of an observation tower looking over the circular dirt field where the van was parked. Around the field was a barren forest that extended in all directions. The mist had cleared a bit but neither the moon nor any stars could be seen. It was as desolate a scene as I've ever witnessed, and I pulled Mei closer for warmth.

"This is annoying. I could be sleeping," she said. I tried to rub her backside and she recoiled. I knew that she didn't like the sight of me. But I hoped that she could sense what pleasure it gave me to touch her, and maybe she would like that. I was good to her, as she deserved, and as no one else was, at least that I was aware of. She was made perfectly: what should be smooth was, what should be firm was. I hadn't enjoyed myself this much since Nixon was in office, and my suspicion was that if you put that lady next to Mei, I was doing better now than then! I don't have a lot of time left, and damn if I didn't stumble in to a fantastic way to spend down the clock.

But that night I wasn't getting anywhere, which was a shame because up there in the observation tower no one could see us, and I had been in the mood since she climbed up into the van. It was all I could do to get her shirt off, and she shivered and held herself tightly. Deep winter is really horrible for seduction. She turned from me, and hid her lovely self under that blue sweater, and with a push bounded down the stairs. I followed her back down. Zoltar was bitching someone out on the phone, Jamison was nowhere to be seen and Costanza was having his face written on by the British musician. There were a few emperors trading stories over a bottle of Wild Turkey, the exact same bottle my old man kept under the sink when I was growing up. Mei was pissed, demanding I get her a cab back to Beijing. The British guy asked if she wanted to draw on Costanza's face, and she grabbed the pen and drew a face on his face.

"I'm going to get blankets for everybody," Zoltar said, putting his hands on me as I watched Mei laugh at something the Brit said. "She's very soothing." I looked at his eyes—there was something wild in them as he watched Mei bend and move around Costanza's party corpse. "Yes," I said. "Very soothing for the soul."

"KTV?" he asked. I could feel through his hands on my shoulders that he was swaying.

"Yep. And love at first sight."

"An old fart like you should know the difference between love and lust," he said.

"They can live in the same relationship. For a while." Costanza's shirt had been removed to make more room for drawing. My phone rang, and when I saw who it was, I headed back to the observation tower.

"Hello," she said.

"Hi. Good afternoon."

"You're up early."

"Yeah, you know. Time zone still gets me."

"Really? You've been there for long enough. I would have thought you'd adjusted," she said. Yeah, yeah, I knew that tone. I had learnt long ago not to take the bait.

"How are the kids?" I asked.

"Fine." I hated that—the one word answer that contains pages of boilerplate vitriol.

"Tanner still bringing in the grades?"

"Yes. He asks when you're coming back. You originally said three months." This conversation was getting annoying—it really was freezing in the tower, I must have been too drunk to notice earlier, but the phone call had sobered me up and my hands were becoming numb. I shifted the phone from hand to hand so that one could be in a pocket at all times.

"Tell him I'm doing my best. I need to get at least one deal in my hands before I go back or this whole thing was totally pointless. It's hard to explain to a fourteen-year-old, but times are hard, and this is our best shot."

"Fifteen-year-old, not fourteen. Maybe you are just not meant to be an international dealmaker. We've got my thing at the city, that covers most of what we need to cover."

I sighed loudly, and then was annoyed by it. "Beth, I don't believe in scraping by until we kick the bucket. This is in our hands, do you hear me? In our hands. Just let me close a deal for Christ's sake, and then I can arrange more of these from Boise. I need to get my foot in the door first. I showed you that letter, right? You saw the authorization from the State."

"Well, has anybody shown any interest?" That question took the cake. I was done.

"Yes, all right? But it would take too long to explain right now, my hands are freezing. I'll call you back in a day or two."

"Where are you?" she asked.

"I just said, I'm really close to a deal, but it's hard to explain. Let me just call you back in a day or two, all right?" She sighed loudly and hung up without saying any more. I hate it when she does that. Some people just don't understand there's a time and place for things. I went back downstairs, and Mei was laughing as the Brit stood behind her, guiding her hands as they held a pen together and drew stupid pictures on Costanza. She was enjoying herself. It was fine. I did things for her this little drummer boy couldn't. I let them enjoy themselves. I heard Zoltar talking to another emperor about why he kept his compound so guarded.

"It's a bit excessive, isn't it?" the guy asked.
"Hardly," Zoltar said. "When everything falls apart, I'll be ready." 

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