This is not China. This is the tired waters of Lake Louise lapping against mossy stones. Nudist magazines half-buried in the sand under the pine grove. Dragonflies hovering over the cat tails. Ginseng growing on the hill. Ariel says they remind her of mole men with little umbrellas. The outhouse laced with cobwebs — a clump of toilet paper in the corner (been there so long it has osmosed with the gray wood.) In the outhouse I am reminded of other small rooms— sheds, attics, tool rooms—where the play of dust with the light that shines through gray windows or cracks in the wood suggests places that exist on another plane.
I think, “this is not China. “An image of a watery mountain comes to me. The mountain ripples like a slow, heavy ocean. I hear the locusts outside, a sound like machinery winding up in the dull heat, and then winding down. But this is not China. It’s heat and stillness, and the sky like a bowl over us.
The outhouse door is half open. I look outside and it seems as if there are millions of glimmering, microscopic creatures swimming through the air. I think of what Lee asked me yesterday.
“Winston? “He asked, not looking at me, but looking instead into the near-empty bottle of Nehi he had been sipping on,“Do you suppose you could create something out of nothing, you know, like maybe you could breathe life into a lump of clay. What would you do to it? Would you torture it?”
“When you were a kid, Lee,” I replied, “did you ever spend hours building something like a sand castle or a model airplane and then kick it to pieces when you were done with it?”
“I don’t like it that you said that, Winston,” he replied.
Suddenly, the outhouse door is flung fully open. “You in there, Winston?” Lee sticks his head in, squints his eyes. “Is that you, Winston? “
“Lee,” I say, trying hard to control my anger, “didn’t I tell you about the time when I demand my privacy? “
“Right, Winston. “One of ‘ems when you are sitting on the can, and I can’t think of the other one.”
“When I’m jacking myself, Lee.”
“That’s right. Now I remember. “
“Then will you give me a minute? “
“Oh, sorry, Winston “
Lee shuts the door. I hear him walk away. Something thumps against the door.
“For God’s sake’s, Lee! What are you doing? “
“Just funnin’ Winston. Practicing up on my fastball.”
“What the hell you throw? A rock? “
“Just a dirt ball, Winston.”
when I step out, everything seems white, translucent. Lee has walked down to the lake. He is skipping stones across the water.
“A swim is in order,” he says, as I come up behind him.
“Not a bad idea, “I say “except I heard someone got sick from amoeba in there.”
“What’s amoeba, Winston? “
“Well, have you ever seen a jellyfish? “
“I’ve seen of them”
“Okay, just imagine a jellyfish about the size of a grain of sand. Imagine one of them crawling up your butt hole and eating into your liver. That would be an amoeba. “
“What happens then, Winston? “
“Well, you could die. “
Lee steps back from the water, rubbing his hands in his pants.
“Come on, Lee, “I say, “let’s go up to the barn. “
Path of dirt, clay and dust winding through overgrown pasture. Straight ahead, the hill. At the top of the hill, the barn. Once used for curing tobacco, it is now little more than lengths of wood under a roof of tarpaper. I put key to padlock and swing open the door. A black snake slithers out.
“Watch it, Winston! Snake!”
We can follow its progress by the rustling of the weeds. Lee draws his gun and fires into the brush
“Lee! “I scream The sound of gunshots reverberate around us like the sound of a distant avalanche.“This is not China! “
“No shit. “
inside the barn: shafts of light in a crosshatch pattern. hundred of squares of light on the floor. Wasps flying over our heads. On the dirt floor Ariel lies bound and gagged.Her shimmery blue caftan is coated with dust and dirt. She stares up at us, expressionless.
“Untie her, Lee. “
Ariel stands. She sways. I move toward her, catching her in my arms. Her waist-long hair. Her exquisite, oval face. Her green eyes.I cup her face and look at her. I disappear in her eyes. “Ariel,” I whisper. She does not answer. She looks away.
“I am very calm. My hands are steady. Now please listen carefully. In the trunk of my car I have a case of Dom Perignon. I would like to share a bottle with you.”
she blinks. Her mouth quivers.
“But first, I must ask you a question, and you must answer. Ariel, is this China?”
Did she just murmur? Did she just sigh?
“What, Ariel? What did you just say? “
she closes her eyes and bows her head. My head begins spinning. My stomach tightens.
“Lee! “I shout. “Take Ariel and make her swim in Lake Louise! “
The two of them walk quietly past me, Lee supporting Ariel by her elbow. A couple of minutes later I step outside to check their progress. No one is there. I run down the hill. I run through the pines. I run across the road. I stop breathless by the railroad tracks where the marijuana grows wild. I sit under the giant willow where Ariel and I once flirted. She told me that ginseng — the amulet against barrenness — was good in tea. Suddenly, I see the ginseng, Bulbous roots in the form of little men. They wear bonnets of leaves. They are marching down the hill. They are marching along the creek. They are marching
across the tracks. As they stream by, I get back on my feet and retrace the path to Lake Louise. In time the lake comes into sight. Quiet water. Small frogs, some still with tails, hang suspended in in mats of algae. I have not seen Lee o r Ariel. Instead, under the sky like a bowl, I see ginseng, bulbous little men with bonnets of leaves screaming as we pulled them from the earth. Now I have to ask you. Is this China?