When the Holy Ruled the Middle Kingdom

by Jean-Luc Bouchard

I got into the car, too. The old man started to drive, the ends of his pencil mustache upturned in the wind. The Chinese woman smiled up front, out of sight, hands folded over the bag in her lap, glad to get going.

We drove for a long time, listening to the old man talk with his hands. Big sweeping talks. Incomes and equities and mergers. The Chinese woman smiled and nodded, eyes full of patience, comfortable in the original leather seat. I let the old man’s words and the Chinese woman’s smile wash over me as I moved between the backseat, front seat, and roof for better views to marvel at speed of the car, flying down the desert road without covering any real distance.

At three, the old man stopped at a gas station to fill up and buy more cigarettes and smooth his long hand over his creased teal suit. He kindly rebuffed the service of a gas attendant and pumped the Premium himself, staring out at the desert with half-closed eyes. The Chinese woman went into the convenience store to scan the colorful rows of products for some yet-unknown medicinal herb or paste to soothe her lips. The old man walked in after to pay for the gas and cigarettes, casually throwing a magazine and pack of honey roasted peanuts onto the bill. He pointed to the Chinese woman, searching around for ChapStick, and told the cashier, We’re all together. The Chinese woman didn’t hear his kindness at first. The old man had to walk over and lean in and say, I took care of it. Even more smiling out of sight. On the way to the driver’s seat, the old man tossed the peanuts and magazine through the open window. He stayed standing to watch the Chinese woman lower herself back into his car.

We drove even longer this time. Mountains and sky traded colors, purple and khaki, back and forth. Days collapsed into themselves. Finally, the Chinese woman, about to faint from hunger, broke her customary etiquette and took a metal container of hard boiled eggs and vinegar candy out of her bag and began to eat, right in the car. She of course offered it up to all of us. The old man, eyes round with surprise, mouth dry from talking and desert air, glanced at the Chinese woman’s tin and then up at the Chinese woman’s face. He said I had no idea you were hungry. You should have said something. I would have stopped. Of course, of course.

He pulled off the road immediately, across the desert, between the dunes, to a grand old Chinese restaurant. Beijing Palace. Blood red, authentic peeling trim. Campy yellow lights, wooden finish. I circled the restaurant and whistled in approval. We all went in laughing heartily and rubbing our stomachs and sat down.

The first person to greet us was a portly Chinese man in a suit. He shook our hands and bowed and was grateful for our business. He and the Chinese woman did not look at each other and did not speak in Chinese, sharing stories. The old man put some money in the Chinese man’s pocket, which caused him to bow a lot more. Lots of questions about the restaurant business, How long have you been here, What do you recommend? Lots of not-quite answers, laughing. The Chinese man suddenly clapped and barked and a row of innumerable tuxedoed waiters appeared. We each had at least seventeen waiters to our person, presenting us with napkins and refills and halting English questions of Good? and More tea? The Chinese woman accepted a hot towel for her face. I moved from seat to seat, admiring the spectacle of the whole situation.

The old man ordered twelve dishes for us, pronouncing them all flawlessly. I spent some time in China, once, he said. He was looking at the Chinese woman, squinting one eye, furrowing his brow, hoping for a reaction other than smiling. She nodded and smiled. He smiled. Twelve is my lucky number, he said. He was turning a Beijing Palace matchbox around and around in his fingers.

The food arrived seconds later. Silver platters overtook our round table. Entire birds, whole fish, hills of fastidiously crimped dumplings were presented to us like we were emperors. The old man swept a hand across the table and said Bon appetit! The Chinese woman had a bit of stew and some rice. The old man smoked a thin cigarette and watched her with a sidelong glance. I drew shapes in the old man’s cigarette smoke and accepted an offering of rice wine.

Tipping each waiter generously on the way out, the old man chuckled and responded to their gasps of gratitude with Take it, take it. To the portly Chinese man in the suit, he said Don’t spend it all at once. More bowing and meticulously broken English. Slow chuckling. The Chinese woman made it back to the car before any of us.

We continued on down the road. Within a few days we would reach her son’s house or her sister’s apartment or her niece’s condo and she would tell them about her husband’s death or son’s new baby or endless financial woes. Someday, she would make it back to China, and she would tell them all her stories, including the time she experienced eating such delicious Chinese food without actually being in China. How it must have felt to be so far away from the land of her ancestors, not knowing if they bothered to follow her all the way across the sea.

When she finally unbuckled and stepped out unto the unsubtle asphalt and bowed goodbye, the old man held the Chinese woman’s hand from inside the car, leaning across the empty passenger seat and staring at the top of her head with fierce determination, eyes and cigarette trembling. She stayed bowed for as long as he wanted, smiling to the ground.

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