That Monday evening, as William stood washing dishes in his miniscule kitchen, millions of pale blue soap bubbles rilled and skirred atop the sinkful of hot water, humming a song of cleanliness into the humid air. Every bubble reflected, refracted, received a hallucination of William’s distracted expression and they knew, did the pale blue bubbles, that William was thinking about the as-yet unwritten fourth act of the stage play he’d been composing. William’s hands broke through the skirring, rilling clouds of bubbles, down into the water where the dirty dishes mumbled in various tongues, all incomprehensible to the soap bubbles. The very water from the taps seemed to have a foreign accent. The soap bubbles rilled and skirred and hummed a song that questioned the source of the water. The dish soap, mostly water itself, had been bottled in Wisconsin. William’s taps were not full of Wisconsin water.
William squeezed the blue sponge he held in his right hand, the soft rough mound hot and slick with Wisconsin soap. The complete fourth act of William’s play came to him at that moment, every word of it all at once, and he squeezed the blue sponge again. He felt a powerful new force in his chest, a concentrated pyramid of coals that gave off opal heat and the scent of apples glowing around his heart. Soap bubbles drizzled from his hand to the sink, glowing and giggling with surprise and pleasure, squirming between his fingers before leaping away in celebration.
That night William dreamed again about the Chinese waitress, a hot blue dream of squeezing and slickness and the movement of foreign tongues. When he awoke, William discovered that he was covered with lipstick prints, the crimson shape of a woman’s open mouth stamped all over his pale skin. In the shower he scrubbed at the impressions, pushing hard against himself with a sponge, but he was unable to wash the hundreds of mouths away. He shut his eyes and he could feel them on his skin, gently sucking, warm. I’m imagining them, William told himself. They’re just a distracted hallucination and nobody else will see them. The lipstick prints went no higher on his body than his jaw line, and when he squirmed into a turtleneck shirt, only two and a half of the mouths on his throat were visible in the mirror. William saw that since his shower three new imprints had appeared on the back of his left hand, and two on the back of his right hand. He pushed his hands into his pockets.
William worked as a file clerk in an immense subterranean storage room beneath a towering office building. He supplied and received boxes of documents via a large and noisy dumbwaiter that rattled and skirred within the most remote wall of the file room; he communicated with his coworkers by handwritten notes sent through a pneumatic tube system. If a message came for William through the pneumatic tube, the mechanism convulsed and gave a noise of surprise and pleasure, a forceful “Ah!” to which sound William reacted by shivering, as a cold vibration rilled up his spine. William would have gladly listened all day to the sound of messages arriving, but the pneumatic tubes were not pleasured and surprised more than a few times each week. The workday began at eight o’clock, and at noon William climbed the service stairs that led up to the alley behind the office building. He blinked against the pale blue light and walked five blocks to the Chinese restaurant where he sat in a booth and wrote his dramatic works.
It was a good booth, with a window and bright sunlight and a large table on which William could open out his work amongst the dishes and silverware. William wrote his plays longhand, into a particular brand of spiral-bound notebooks manufactured in Denmark. The crisp white pages reminded him of bed sheets. The stiff metal spiral that punctured and twisted the pages together reminded William that he’d lived alone for a long time. For two and a half years William had worked in the file room, had written plays in that booth at the Chinese restaurant during his lunch hour. All through those two and a half years the same waitress had brought him his hot tea, his egg drop soup and his stir-fried pork. The waitress was short and narrow through the shoulders, with poorly-cut hair lopped at her collarbone, a few gray strands among the dull black threads. William had no idea what her name was. Her English was not good; William’s Mandarin was nonexistent. He often thought about her hands as he fell asleep, her trimmed nails and sallow skin, the wrinkles of her small palms.
The waitress came to his booth a few minutes after William seated himself. He’d laid his notebook on the table to the right of the place setting. The steel soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks in a bright red paper sleeve, the steel fork, all swaddled in a white paper napkin, reminded William of nothing but his hunger. He pushed the laminated menu with its water spots and adhesions of dried rice to the edge of the table and smiled at the waitress. She put her hand over her mouth and choked on soft trebles of laughter.
“You had exciting night, huh?”
William tugged at the collar of his shirt. The red lipstick mouths imprinted on his skin pulsed, all together at once, scalding wet over the length of his body. His clothing felt stiff, a carapace or a plaster cast, ready to burst open.
“They won’t wash off,” he said.
“They look like writing.”
“Like Chinese character, means ‘hunger.’ You need better soap.”
The waitress raised her pen to her mouth and pushed against her lower lip with the pen’s pointed blue cap, leaving a tiny crevasse behind when she moved the pen away. The flesh on each side of this miniature valley swelled momentarily, glossy under the pale blue fluorescence of the dining room lamps.
“You want stir-fry pork today?”
William was aware that the waitress scrutinized his throat, and then he saw her gaze shift to the backs of his hands. He remained still, suppressing the impulse to hide his hands beneath the table, and then he felt her eyes upon his arms, his chest, his lap, as if the waitress was computing how many crimson mouths lay hidden from sight, and where precisely they were. William remembered the fourth act of the play he was writing and in surprise and pleasure he sat up straighter and said “Ah!” as a cold vibration rilled up his spine.
The waitress retreated to the kitchen. William heard her voice, contralto and commanding, as she gave his lunch order to the cook. William had never seen the cook. He had never seen anyone but the waitress in the way of staff at the restaurant, but he’d often heard a man’s basso rumbling in Mandarin behind the beaded curtain that protected the kitchen from William’s curiosity. And it was to the sounds of this rumbling basso that William began hurriedly scratching away at his spiral-bound notebook, writing down the fourth act of his new play. William’s hope was that this would be the one to finally launch his career.
Later that same afternoon, William locked himself into the employee washroom at the foot of the staircase that led down to the subterranean file room. He stripped off his clothes, careful to fold and stack them in the dust atop the paper towel dispenser. Standing naked and without socks in his untied shoes, William scrubbed himself with his employer’s harsh pink antibacterial hand soap. The soap, which was manufactured in Indiana, did not lather, bubble, rill, skirr or sing. It expressed only a slimy grumble as it ate away the lipstick impressions and irritated William’s skin even where he was most particularly gentle with himself. After half an hour or so he’d removed all but one of the crimson mouth prints. The washroom was especially cold in the summits of hot weather and William’s skin clung to him like wet fur, uncomfortable, ungainly, intolerable. William worried about the security of the washroom door. As he dried himself on coils of rough brown paper towel and wriggled into his clothing he heard the rattle of the dumbwaiter, the pneumatic tubes convulsing in surprise. Two and a half inches to the left of his navel, the single lipstick stain he could not remove clung moist to William’s skin. He felt the dark lips beneath his shirt, hungry with a life separate from his own. He tried to concentrate on his work.
In the evening when he returned to his small apartment, William was tortured by the unwritten fifth act of his play. Two hours of pushing against the audience, of grinding into perceptions and filling eyes and ears with the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice and then—and then, a rhythmic building and pressing toward, toward—toward what? William didn’t know. He threw his imagination forward into the dark furrow of the unknown aesthetic and encountered nothing, desiring to leave the hypothetical audience open-mouthed, drained, filled with his vision. How? Nothing was coming and William sat at his small desk over the open pages of his particular spiral-bound notebook manufactured in Denmark and nothing was coming. He felt dry, his fingers limp around his fountain pen. In frustration William left his apartment and wandered aimlessly through his neighborhood, zigzagging northeast and then westerly, listening to the heat of the evening, his scalp damp with sweat.
Light and movement caught his eye and he looked up into the attic windows of a large craftsman house on his left, an old home that enterprising landlords had filled with walls and doors, dividing it into many irregular studio apartments. William looked up into the windows of one of these apartments where a young woman languidly worked a wide brush across an enormous dark canvas. The woman had rolled her hair into a vinuous flaming mass atop her head and William saw the sheen of sweat on her bare skin as she worked naked, or at least naked to the waist. She turned and her shoulders, arms and breasts shone beneath the brilliant blue-white lights she’d mounted above the easel and William watched the fluid chiaroscuro of muscles and bones in her back.
The woman looked down through the open window and William knew she could see him there, standing on the sidewalk looking up into her apartment. A vibration began at the base of William’s spine and then the woman turned away, her brush shivering into the canvas, the paint singing a song of blurring and opacity. The brush protested in confusion as the canvas stretched in the heat. William hurried back to his apartment where it was too hot to do anything and he lay on his secondhand couch dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, the lamps off and the casement windows propped open in the hope of a cooling breeze. It was too hot to eat or drink so William slumped in the humid blue evening as the traffic grumbled along the street, exhaling an unpleasantness of fumes and heat that traveled in waves to roll, unwanted, into the condensed darkness of William’s apartment, lapping over William’s damp skin as he was slowly ground down into an unpleasantness of restless sleep. He wandered past the automobile exhaust and the heat, into a dream where the Chinese waitress sat in an office high above William’s file room in the towering building where he worked. She wore a tailored black suit with a short skirt, heels and an apricot-colored silk blouse. She called out to William as he passed her door on his way to the dumbwaiter, whose rectangular mouth slacked open, waiting to lower him into his own domain. William turned back from the dumbwaiter’s jaws and walked into the office. The waitress rose from her leather chair, circled around the pale blue steel desk and took William by the hands. She was excited, her eyes bright, a smile of surprise and pleasure on her face. Her fingers skirred and rilled and trembled against William’s.
William smiled, aware that he was expected to share the happiness of the moment even though he didn’t know its source. He recalled that the waitress often seemed tired and melancholy, her greetings to customers a little forced. Sometimes she sang in Mandarin, quiet songs of misery that spun wobbling and limping into the dim air of the restaurant as she rolled soup spoons, chopsticks and forks in white paper napkins or wiped down the laminated menus with bleach water and a threadbare towel. When he thought about her past, William sometimes imagined that the waitress had come to America to escape persecution, and that in China she had been a research scientist or a physician, that identity and all her credentials abandoned during desperate flight to asylum across thousands of miles of ocean, Shanghai to Seattle, where she was lucky to have a job carrying tin pots of hot tea and bowls of soup.
She drew him close. Her body was rigid, aflame and vibrating.
“I leaving soon,” she said.
“I appointed professor of drama back home. I quit this job. Permanent faculty with tenure. No more stir-fry pork.”
“When are you going?”
“Tomorrow I fly back to Beijing.”
“Tomorrow? But I haven’t finished my play.”
She took William into her arms and the office building dissolved the way dream locations always do. They were in a room somewhere in Shanghai, naked on a bed. The high crescent moon shone through white curtains billowing at an open window. William lay with his head between her apple-scented breasts, her legs firmly around him, her vibrating fingers pressing his shoulders. When she moved, he felt her thousand soft mouths, slick with lipstick, sucking gently at his skin, leaving their mark.
She whispered something in beautiful Mandarin, but he was already awake and could no longer hear her voice. On the dark street outside William’s apartment, a delivery truck stopped abruptly, the pneumatic brakes convulsing in surprise and pleasure.
(c) Scott G.F. Bailey, for what it's worth