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The Asian American Literary Review

The Orient Express - Part 2

>>> Read Part 1

Why am I here? That’s a good question. I could say it’s the conference I’m attending, the one for H.R.s and diversity management, a few credits that might provide my stalled academic career with a few more options. Or I could say I needed to get out of Chi-town for a while, haven’t had a break like this from the family and missus for, well, I can’t really remember. I’m a good J.A. boy, someone had to be; though early on, for a while, I seemed in the running for the family black sheep, I never really had it in me. My brilliant astrophysicist genius brother had it all over me, including in the looks department. Lean and lanky, a face like a K-pop star or member of Seo Taiji. Wild flashes of rage and outrage, prone to streaks at the tables that promised, like the Gold Mountain back in the day, so much more…

Not that I don’t come with my own set of black luck downers and funks. Grace can tell you that.

When she and I separated for a bit last year, I felt shitty, though perhaps not as shitty as her. She’s a child of divorce, she’s seen what it can do, and she didn’t want to be a party to laying such a legacy on our two boys. Over and over she told me how she loved her brother, her parents, she didn’t want to see her family destroyed, and I did admire her refusal to let me go, even if her better angels were counseling otherwise.

And then there were her not so better angels. Some of her friends, brassy North Shore types, had already weighed in against me. These women, who’d gone through their first marriage and were happily ensconced in their second, they believed she deserved a second chance, not me. You’re a VP at Hyatt they tell her, you can do better than some second (really to be fair, third) rate academic.

“They’re looking at it like we’re just like them,” I protested.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, as if we’re simply a man and a woman, and we all know what that means in their eyes.”

“Isn’t that what we are, a man and a woman?”

“You can’t compare our relationship to theirs. You know that.”

Grace started to say something, and then stopped. She simply walked out of the room and left me standing there in the kitchen, arguing with myself.

After we got back together, things seemed better for a while. But we both know it could happen again. In fact her friends from The View are counting on it.

When it hits, do you recognize the signs? Maybe this is it, my fourth drink. Or is it the one I’m ordering now, my hand up as if hailing a taxi. I look down the bar and see the lady of the evening shrug and seem to say good-bye to Ernest Borgnine. He sees me watching her leave and smiles. The bartender acknowledges me and I order another. Just when he puts it down I sense Ernest sidling up to me. He orders one of his own. Scotch, Johnny Walker black. A real guy’s drink.

“What can you do?” he says, half looking at me and half looking at the bartender. “I had to let her go.”

The thought crosses my mind that he might be gay. Perhaps that’s why he turned her down. But my gaydar has never been that accurate, especially when it comes to middle-age white guys. I’m always surprised and apprehensive when they approach me without reason. At least half the time any white guy my age or older looks at me he sees a neon sign blinking just above my head—alien, immigrant, Jap tourist, Chinese spy—and why should he want to pal around with anyone like that? We may be a melting pot but there are certain things you can’t melt away, like the Beat-like mug upon my face.

“Name’s Jesse. Jesse Harper.”

I’m too polite not to give out my name back. But that’s all, bub. Name, rank and serial number. I talking you plisoner in the name of the Imperial Japanese Army. Where did that phrase pop out from? Slow down, Ben. Five’s way beyond your limit. Remember your bloodlines, the enzymes you lack. No alcohol dehydrogenate. Christ, I must look as red as the Bing cherry in my glass (Bing cherries, created by a Chinese American geek).

“You sitting out a few hands? Smart man. Course everywhere you go here there’s temptations. You get your pick of poisons.”

“She looked a little disappointed.”

“It’s a slow night. Otherwise she wouldn’t have gone after the ugliest guy in the bar.”

Well at least he’s not full of himself.

“Say you look a little like Johnny….”

The look on my face stops him. A bit of apology comes up in his face. “No, no,” I say. “That’s cool. Johnny’s the man.”

“Hey, it beats looking like Ernest Borgnine.”

I’m glad he said that. Now I don’t have to keep resisting the temptation to point that out.

“She was a good looking girl.” I nod in the direction where the blonde left the lounge.

The look on his face drops a few degrees. “So you’re saying, an ugly guy like me, who am I to turn down someone like her. Even if she is a hooker.”

“Sorry, I didn’t….”

“No, no, it’s a fair question. A fair question. I see you’ve got a ring on your finger. Well I’ve got one on mine, too. Besides women aren’t my thing. No, don’t get me wrong. I like women. But I come here to gamble. You start chasing tail and it messes with your head. Isn’t that what old Johnny says. You got to treat it like a business, you got to be professional.”

He takes a sip of his drink. “Like this scotch. This scotch says I’m not going back to the tables. I’m through for the night. This is just my reward for keeping my head. In more ways than one.” He smiles. “Now you, you look like a lady’s man. You got the Armani jacket, your hair slicked back.”

I don’t tell him I bought the Armani on sale at Marshalls.

“Maybe you ought to go after her,” he continues. “It looks like you’re through for the night too.”

This surprises me. His minor encouragement of my lust. His willingness to see me in bed with the blonde, if only with the fake aura of bar banter and with her time and body available purely for mercenary reasons. And from the back of my mind pops up that age old question: Why haven’t I hooked up with one of my own?

I’m much too drunk though to plunge into that one.

Later heading back to my room I pass by the hooker coming out of another bar in the casino. She doesn’t even glance my way. This bitterness rises up in my throat. It doesn’t matter that her seeing through me is probably a bit of luck, given my deep state of inebriation and waning judgment.

No, it’s still there, that wish to be let in, to be allowed to join the club. All that ressentiment that drove my brother, it drives me too. The pure products of America go crazy, isn’t that what I read once in a poem back in college.

Then again who are the pure products?

Back in my room, as I try to fall asleep, I think of the desert beyond this city. The desert. Where my brother vanished, pills and needles strewn all across the backseat of his MG. Those vast flats where, as DeNiro informed us in Casino, all the bodies are buried. Behind my eyelids I see the mountain ranges beyond the desert, the hostile landscape where some nameless tribe fled eight hundred years ago, when the water began to run out. Wastelands. Badlands. Bad Day at Black Rock. Spencer Tracy in his fedora and dark suit searching for this Nisei soldier who saved his life. Who’s disappeared. No one in the town admits his existence, and of course you don’t see a J.A. in the whole film. Conspicuous in abstentia. Inconspicuous. Silent. Invisible. Everywhere in the desert, the winds swirling and surging through the town, spewing tumbleweed and dust.

Someday the coming drought will eat up this city, devour it. Like Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord’s vengeance. You can’t bet against it. The longer you play, the more the odds stack up. The house always wins.

When I wake up there’s the smell of citrus on the pillow, some faint calming perfume.


“The Orient Express” was first published in The Asian American Literary Review, Issue 1. AALR is a not-for-profit literary arts journal, a showcase of the best of today’s Asian American literature. To learn more about the journal or purchase a subscription, visit them online at www.asianamericanliteraryreview.org, or find them on Facebook.

© 2010 David Mura

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The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

Visit their website for more information and to subscribe to the publication: www.asianamericanliteraryreview.org