I am deeply grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. An NEA Fellowship will provide funds for childcare, giving me much-needed time and space to complete my novel, from which the short story "Redhead" is adapted. This grant comes at a time in my life when publication can be difficult and motherhood sometimes all-consuming. I am thankful for the encouragement and the opportunity to pursue my writing.
From the short story "Redhead"
Lee was staying at the Oriental Hotel, near the train station, and we arranged that I would meet him there that night after he woke up. He was in Taiwan for four days--one of which was almost over--and planned to stay on American time. I found him in the lobby, standing, reading Gulliver's Travels, hardback, checked out from the New Canaan Library and lugged all the way here. In his other hand, he held what looked like a squashed Fig Newton wrapped in a piece of paper towel. Sometimes I wondered if my mother married him because nothing about him could ever possibly remind her of my father. My father was known for beating the stock market, serving in tennis before his opponent was ready, and smoking Cuban cigars. Lee had smoked a cigarette once, he told me, but never inhaled.
The hotel was a dump--even for thrifty Lee--the carpets worn, the windows filmy, the walls discolored in a way that made you think of peeling skin. The furniture was institutional, dirty browns and oranges good at masking stains. You could hear busses going by, the traffic stalling and congesting outside. It was in a part of town foreigners called the dead zone, where it was rumored the traffic exhaust made birds drop out of the sky. You could take a detour, turning left after the Bank of Taiwan and jogging around the Great South Gate, but I'd come to like the fumes, like a kid inhaling the smell of gasoline.
There was a desk clerk and a bellhop in polyester tunics, who welcomed and ushered me through the door, but soon after turned their attention back to Lee. They were watching his hair closely, as if they thought it might try to escape. Lee paced the lobby, playing the part. One thing he was good at: reading while walking. He liked to say his preferred mode of travel was books.
"How'd you find this place?" I said.
He lowered his book and slipped his finger inside to mark his page. There were crumbs on his lips but I tried not to let them get to me. "There was a little confusion. I was supposed to be staying at another Oriental Hotel, at the other end of town. Actually, it appears there are three Oriental Hotels. Maybe more." He had the dry, red-rimmed eyes of someone who'd been tossing and turning in an unfamiliar bed.
"Want to move somewhere else?"
He did, but I knew he wouldn't. He wouldn't send a hamburger back in a restaurant if he was served Spam on toast.
"No, no. I'm quite all right."
Normally, I might have asked the desk clerk and the bellhop what they were looking at, but it was nice to have the attention drawn away from me, my blond, frizzy hair.
"I'm starving," Lee said. "What do people eat around here?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Food."
There was Macanna Beer House, and an expensive place called The Ambassador, and the onion cakes on Shengli Road, and, of course, hundreds of noodle and fried rice stands, dumpling restaurants, vegetarian buffets--standard places you took visiting friends or relatives to ease them into things, but I led Lee to a gold-toothed woman selling rubbery brown cuts of meat: pig knuckles, innards, chicken necks and feet. Lee looked down at his choices, then up at me, with school-teacher patience. You had to give him credit; I'd been in Taiwan for ten months and I could barely look at the stuff.
"They have beer here?" he said.
I ordered and we sat down at a small table on the side of the street. I could feel the sweat on my face evaporate into the night air.
"You speak Chinese," he said.
"I get by."
I nibbled a piece of skin off a chicken claw and swigged down half a can of Taiwan Beer. Lee watched me and did the same. People flocked to the tables around us, ordering nothing, gawking at Lee like teenagers in love.
"What are those? Gizzards?" he said, suddenly standing up and looking back through the plastic window at the assortment of meats. I noticed miniature tongues--chicken? duck?--for the first time. The woman was watching a variety show on a television attached to a wall, the audience clapping and going wild.
"I don't know. We'll find out."
I ordered a small plate of them. The woman brought them over with chopsticks. Lee held one in each hand, then gave up and ate with his fingers.
"Gizzards," he said.
"Try one, they're good.
"That's okay, I'll stick to chicken feet."
"More for me."
I ordered two more beers. Lee chewed slowly, made his way through half of what was on his plate. I pretended not to be hungry.
"Am I imagining things or is everybody looking at me?"
"They've never seen red hair."
A man across the way stepped out of a barbershop and tossed a bucket of water into the street. A woman drove by on a scooter balancing a birdcage in her lap. You could see the flickering lights of a karaoke bar through a second story window, the shadow of someone dancing alone against a wall. Two stalls over, someone was serving beef noodles--my mouth watered at the smell--but luckily Lee was facing the other way. We were sitting on small stools and my legs were beginning to go numb.
"So I came with good news," he said.
Divorce, I immediately thought, but then realized that would be good news only to me.
"Oh?" I shifted my weight, felt the blood rush into my calves.
"But your mother wants to be the one to tell it."
"No, but I told her we'd call at midnight. Eleven in the morning her time."
"In an hour?"
The people around us were listening intently now, leaning forward in their seats, but it was hard to tell how much they understood. One man had left and returned with a lawn chair.
Lee looked at them, at me, then down at his plastic digital watch, as if we were all in this together. "Exactly right."