Beware of Falling Coconuts


 Marshall J. Getz, Fiction

 

 

Chau Ping woke up at exactly six o'clock, as he always did. The radio-alarm wouldn't go off for another fifteen minutes, but he decided to make an early start, so he clicked the alarm off and rolled out of bed. He turned on his TV to catch the morning news. As usual, it was a rehash of last night's news, with China threatening its neighbors but telling Hong Kong not to worry, while the rest of the world was telling everyone that Beijing offered a sterling example of Hong Kong, but to be on the safe side, recommended investing elsewhere. Somebody's army did something somewhere, but Ping really wanted to get into the bathroom.  None of this really mattered to him.

Where were the storm warnings? It had rained before he fell asleep. A Black Flag rainstorm announcement meant a day off. He lived on the eighteenth floor, so flooding never concerned him. Weather, weather, weather. Give a man a holiday. No. Another humid day in May, with a chance of rain later. Very lame.

Chau Ping brushed his teeth carefully. He took pride in having all of them, unlike his brothers. His father had lost most of his teeth by the time he was fifty-five. Ping had to keep his for at least a decade to beat Papa's record. He combed his hair, and noticed it was greasy. He'd forgotten to wash it when he bathed last night. He made a mental note to do that tonight. He could hear a health report, something about brain disorders. Yes, they all said he had one of those, a real brain fever. Damaged? Ping looked at his reflection in the mirror. No. He was fascinated by his own eyes. Black as oil, they seemed empty and expressionless. That explained why people thought him dumb. Personally, he liked to think that he had the eyes of a shark.

Ping put on a white shirt and clean, pressed slacks. He slammed the front door of his flat, then unlocked it again when he remembered that he had left the television on. He stepped out again, and checked the wooden door and wrought iron security door. He thought about what he wanted for breakfast as he rode down in the lift and walked through the building into the moist Hong Kong morning. He scowled at the chrome and glass coffee shops and faux European cafes with dark paneling and high prices, and went into a side street. Hawkers in grubby tee-shirts and Bermudas tended open steel carts with built-in steamers and stoves. They fanned away steam and oily smoke, and chattered through lips wrapped around cigarettes. 

The boiled-dumpling seller spooned out water, which could have meant a bug in the pot, so Ping moved over to the cheung-fan hawker. The hawker had bad skin, which turned him off, so he strolled over to the congee cart. 

"Jeurk?" grunted the hawker.

"Daat," Ping answered, and the old man in a singlet ladled out a large bowl of jeurk or congee, the rice porridge that Chinese people adored. Ping gave him a scalloped two-dollar coin, the Hong Kong equivalent of about twenty-five cents. The hawker offered him a yao-dah-gwai, an oily salted cruller that traditionally went with congee. "No thanks, uncle."

In two minutes, Ping's spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, and he returned it to the hawker. Ping wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and walked toward the bus stop. A red and cream double-decker bus-a Kowloon Motor Bus route 6—screeched to a halt. Others got on, but Ping never rode one of those.  He waited for the white air-conditioned bus, as was his habit. It cost twice as much as Number 6, but Ping did not mind. Even in cold weather, Ping did not want to ride a bus with open windows and breathe the polluted street air. And people thought Ping fairly stupid!

Chau Ping worked for a school. "He's in education," his relations always said, with a shrug. Ping sat down with dignity, even though the driver had jounced the bus back to life before the people could find seats. Ping had always been light on his feet. Fellow passengers looked at him. With that snow-white Brooks Brothers shirt, he must have been an office worker, or a chief clerk, or even a manager. Perhaps a civil servant of the middle rank? Even some fairly attractive women watched him. Dream on, missy, he thought. Ping nodded without smiling, and no one considered him stupid. The old woman sitting next to him dozed, and her head kept knocking against his shoulder. After a few moments, she stopped bouncing and fell solidly asleep against him. She reeked of cigarettes, and Ping turned his head away.

As the bus approached the St. Bernadette Secondary School for Girls, Ping thought about his problem. Sister Theresa's secretary, Crystal Li, terrified everyone at the school, except Sister Theresa. Sister would have been frightened too, except for the fact that she was the principal. The most delinquent girl and the most senior teacher blanched equally in Crystal's presence. Short and getting stouter daily, Crystal dressed in loud colors, wore makeup by the pound, and styled her hair like a 1940s Shanghai film star. She yelled like a mating cat, and talked the same way. The basic problem between Crystal and Chau Ping was that in his soul, Ping never understood her.

Ping nodded to Uncle Wong, the security guard, and walked through the front gate. Few students arrived this early, so the sprawling four-story white brick building was quiet and unlit. Two of the women teachers walked by and ignored him, but that did not matter. They could have been twin crones, and with their looks, Ping thought them lucky to even have jobs. They would never find husbands. The Sisters ran the school for over fifty years, and the students flocked to it. Graduates walked along the golden pathways to success. Ping and his colleagues believed the school's name itself to be a talisman—the St. Bernadette Secondary School for Girls.

Ping noticed two Chinese-language teachers, one the gray-haired department head, and the other her tense young rival for the post, arguing about something. Mrs. Wu, the department head, had lost so much weight lately that she had the bearing of a skeleton. No one except Ping cared about her. He would be Mrs. Wu's angel of mischief sometime later; but first Crystal had to be put down.

Ping unlocked a small door near the cafeteria and walked into his staff room. A filthy mop, left standing near the door, slid down as Ping walked in—Ah-Kuen's work. The Sisters adored that seventy-year-old cow.  Ping sat down on the tattered day bed and noticed it felt warm, as if someone had slept there all night. Who? A runaway student? Not likely at St. Bernadette's.

One of the colleagues? Possibly. Old Ah-Tong might have had a row with his wife, or he might have just forgotten to go home. The Sisters adored him, too, but in a way different from Ah-Kuen. Ah-Tong converted more than forty years ago, and he became a real Catholic. When not an electrician, he also worked as a carpenter, just like Jesus, which always warmed the nuns.

Nicholas, the original wet noodle, could never spend a night away from his family. It would kill him. When he was not bragging about how brilliant his young son and daughter were, he moaned about the big sacrifice he made back in Guangdong, sending his younger brother to the United States to become a doctor, while he stayed behind. Now brother was a famous cancer specialist in Chicago, and Nicholas cleaned loos for a living, but he enjoyed his calling.

The last, a fat man about Ping's age, also named Chau but not related, had been called Fishball by the others. Even a fellow considered dumb knew the double meaning of "fishball." Like most Cantonese, Ping ate the rubbery brown spheres of junk fish. The sleaziest massage parlors in Hong Kong were called fishball stalls; for a few dollars, perverts could massage naked girls for five or ten minutes. The rolling movements of the amateur masseurs mimicked the way workers made fishballs.

Fishball Chau bragged that he had once worked as a manager of such an establishment. If the Sisters knew, they never would have allowed him into their school. Lately, old Fishball couldn't shut up about it, and Ping intended to say something to the Sisters. Ping was no fool, and he knew that different people got treated better than others. Crystal ordered school supplies, and she bought whatever potty-perfume Nicholas liked to whiff, and she let Ah-Tong pick his own wrenches. What about the copy paper? Ping wanted to see how Sister Theresa handled the paper situation. Fishball hardly left his chair in the cafeteria, so he was probably harmless. Still, he had the creepiest smile, and if anyone—parents, the Education Department—found out about his past, it could be difficult. And the crummy yellow paper Crystal bought in reams could prove even more difficult than a porky slob who waxed girls' bums for a living.

Chau Ping poured a cup of tea from the stained metal thermos. One sip of yesterday's cold dregs told him Ah-Kuen had not come in yet. Ping could have brewed a fresh thermos, but each had a job, and Ping preferred to drink bilge than help Ah-Kuen. Everyone on staff had a specialty, besides leaving mops and brooms where people could trip over them: Nicholas cleaned toilets and enjoyed it; Old Ip cleaned the convent, but stayed with the school staff; Fishball cleaned the canteen, but volunteered to look after the locker room; and Ping handled the paper.

Chau Ping was a janitor, and proud of it. He liked working "in education," and he liked earning his own income. Rich relatives made things secure, but they lived in Canada, and whatever they gave him simply accumulated. Ping supported himself. And no taxes. The school needed him, because few people could load the paper in the stencil machine, photocopier, fax, and printers.  The secretaries could not do it, and the teachers were as helpless as dried spit.

Paper-loading took skills—not like Ah-Tong's carpentry—but a talent just the same. The smartest biology teacher, a man who could figure out the breeding habits of fruit flies and lobsters, freaked out when he tried to photocopy an assignment, only to find the photocopiers blinking "empty." The history teacher could probably read the American Declaration of Independence in the original French or whatever, but she cried once when the computer printer jammed. Chau Ping felt lucky that she did not tried to kiss him, or worse, when he fixed it. So who was the retarded one?

At least the Sisters treated him properly. Sister Mary, who sounded nice because she came from Dublin, always spoke kindly, and nodded her broad face topped with yellowed hair, when he spoke to her. Sister Gloria supposedly spoke Cantonese, but she seemed not to understand him, whether in English or Cantonese. Bubbly Sister Delia from the Philippines made Chau Ping her special cause, but that made little sense when so many Filipinas worked in Hong Kong as maids. Something about her made Ping mistrustful. Sister Theresa, the daughter of a famous Boston family, spoke fluent Cantonese. Ping wondered about Sister Clementina, the vice-principal, who came from the West Indies and claimed to be part Chinese, but rarely spoke in any language. That struck him as odd. Ping wondered if Sister Theresa and Sister Clementina merely tolerated him because his brother gave donations to the school, or if they felt obligated because he had that disease when he was a boy.

They thought he needed their charity because of brain fever. He remembered a better name for the disease—meningitis. People sometimes died from it, and it sometimes disabled those it did not kill. But Ping survived intact. He could not hear so well, but he owned an Uber-Z, the best stereo system anywhere. German. It cost as much as a trip to the moon. Sometimes thinking was an effort, a feeling not like stupidity, but more like being unable to remember things. Chau Ping never asked, but he imagined everybody thought with his or her entire brain. He used only half, the front half, that chunk of intelligence that ran from his forehead to the middle of his scalp. He imagined a wall that sealed off his forebrain from the hindbrain. A wall. The Great Wall of China. Chau Ping had no idea what wild wraiths or serpents of imagination swarmed behind that Wall. He suspected that all the knowledge of the ancients had been packed into half of his head. The people others called smart did not have that much wisdom. Chau Ping—all forty-six years of him—had all the knowledge, but he had no access to it.

He walked into the office and checked his shelf. He saw a new case of Chu Fai Brand paper. Ping felt the blood rise up from his neck to his face. He had warned that creature Crystal not to purchase Chu Fai paper. He could not print up tests, school announcements, or other important things on that onionskin: so thin it was translucent. It also had a soapy texture that jammed the photocopier. And when the photocopier broke, who got all the blame? Bitchy Crystal? Never. When the Sinoko 2004 Copymax grated to a halt, who fixed it? Nellie Liu, the music teacher? Sure.

Crystal made a virtue of being useless; even a dummy like Chau Ping could see it. There, she had bought it again, after he had explained that it could not be used, that it hurt the machine, that he hated touching the waxy sheets of Chu Fai Brand paper.

He had told Crystal about it, making a perfectly reasonable request, explaining the problem it caused the photocopier. But talking to Crystal was like singing to a toad; one may be proud of the effort, but never expect the toad to understand. Ping asked. He cajoled. He begged. And all she did...all she did after he had practically dropped to the floor and shined her high heels, was order Chu Fai paper as if that company was giving it away.

Last week, Sister Theresa had noticed how sad Chau Ping looked, and gently took him by the arm and led him to her office. Her blue eyes probed his, but the shadow of the Wall remained impenetrable. "Ping, what bothers you?"

Chau Ping made his case. He told Sister that Ah-Tong got respect, and Fishball, the other Chau, was a slug, and Ping himself had money, and a rich brother in Canada who sent him checks all the time, even though he did not need an allowance. Chu Fai Brand paper slowed him down, and Crystal insisted on it.

"Just talk to her. I know she can be a bitch..."

"Wha?" Chau Ping stared at Sister bug-eyed, while she groped for the right Cantonese words.

"I'm not sure what I just said, Ping, but I think you can follow me. Just tell her not to buy it, and explain why. One more thing, if you don't mind."

"Sister?"

"On the west side of the school, it's in front of the convent part, we have a tree. An old coconut palm tree. Would you be so kind as to cut it down?"

"I'm not very big."

"And neither is the tree, Chau Ping. It's about thirty feet high, two feet at the base. I'm not really sure about measurements, but it's do-able."

"Don't you like coconuts?"

"It used to produce small ones, very green and woody, no bigger than mangoes. Inedible. I don't think it's even produced them in many years. We used to worry about those little coconuts, afraid that one would hit somebody on the head. We nailed a sign to the trunk, ‘Beware of Falling Coconuts.' I painted that sign in bright red letters myself." Sister Theresa held her hands out with her fingers splayed. The last two fingers on each hand twitched. "I guess my lettering would not be very good now. I have a health problem—Parkinson's."

"Bless you, Sister. It's okay. I had a brain problem, once. A long time ago."

"I know."

"If the tree is a living thing, isn't it a sin to chop it down?"

"I don't think so. Even without the coconuts, it could still be dangerous. I talked it over with the Sisters, and we decided to take it down. We're sure it will come down in the next typhoon, or even a heavy rainstorm. It could break a window or damage the roof. It's so hard to get anything fixed at the convent, so please get rid of it."

One week later, Chau Ping checked his work area. A new case of Chu Fai waited for him. He stalked through the office at 7:45 a.m. Crystal should have been there, but she obviously overslept or did not care about her job as much as Ping cared about his. He approached her radio and spun the channel dial. "Find your favorite station, Crystal," he muttered. Then he twisted the volume knob. "All the way, bitch. Even a nun thinks you're a bitch."

 

Crystal Li arrived on time, but needed a few minutes in the parking lot to get her head settled. She sat in her new indigo Lexus with the windows rolled up and the air-conditioning blasting at high. Her husband, Lester, presented it to her over the weekend, and it bothered her. In the six years that they had been married, he had given her numerous small gifts, simple, nice ones. They drove to the school together, but he usually took the car after that, because he had farther to go. Crystal never complained or suggested a second car, but Lester went wild and bought this crazy Lexus.

Why? They enjoyed their marriage, but the unexpected car forced Crystal to wonder if Lester had an affair going. It made little sense, since normally Lester believed in saving money. If he got into trouble, he would spend less, not more.

As Crystal walked into the foyer of the school, she wondered if Lester was sending another message with that Lexus. They had been talking about children recently, and Lester certainly wanted to begin a family. Crystal had some reservations about having babies, because while she loved her husband and wanted to keep him happy, she had a job and freedom and she heard from her sister-in-law that giving birth felt like having a large object tearing through a woman's body, more painful than anything. Her cousins and aunties all laughed and agreed. Her mother cried, and her grandmother implied it was unpleasant.

Frightening prepartum whispers tormented her as she sat at her desk and clicked on her radio. The blaring static shattered the morning, making Crystal jump and Mrs. Lau, the bookkeeper, spill her tea. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Lau," said Crystal, barely able to contain herself. 

"That's okay. No problem."

"It's that Chau Ping!"

"Did he break your radio?"

"No, but the idiot played with it. I've told him since forever not to touch my radio."

"Mrs. Li, perhaps Ah-Ping just wanted to listen to it."

"No, because he's too stupid to do something civilized like enjoying the radio. He's more like the monkey that wants to touch knobs and dumb things like that. I hate him."

Chau Ping strolled into the office, all smiles, carrying a ream of Chu Fai paper. Crystal sprang from behind her desk, her clumsy bosom knocking over her pencil-holder. "Ah-Ping, I want to talk with you right now."

"Good, Elder Sister."

"Call me Mrs. Li. I've told you before." She watched Chau Ping pointing at her, and her eyes flashed. "What?"

"Elder Sister, those pencils are about to drop off your desk."

"Who cares, you idiot!"

Mrs. Lau glanced at Crystal nervously.

One pencil rolled off the desk, across the floor, and rested against Ping's foot. He picked it up, and began tapping the eraser against his teeth. "I want to talk to you, too."

"I don't care. What I have to say is more important. Did you touch this radio? I've told you not to. It's mine."

"About the photocopy paper. As I've said many, many times before...,"

"I said, I don't care. Keep your hands off my radio."

"You keep it in the office, so everyone touches it. It's like our teacups. Everybody uses them. Folks use mine. You did, yes?"

"No! Who wants to drink from your cruddy cup?"

"Why are you so nasty, Elder Sister?"

"Call me Mrs. Li!"

"Was I afraid to drink from your cup? No."

"Leave my cup alone!"

"Don't scold me. Fishball drinks from your cup regularly. He has a toilet-mouth."

"Will you shut up, you monkey! This is a school office."

"I'm sorry-ah." Chau Ping's face dropped into a frown. "If I'm a monkey, your face goes with my ass. And I'd like to tell you for the last time, stop giving me this brand of paper. It messes up the machine." He handed Crystal the package. "Don't buy this paper anymore. It messes me up."

Crystal's temper flared, and she swung out with the ream of paper. Chau Ping's head snapped back and a wince of pain pulsed through his brain. Sister Theresa walked into the office just as he tottered, then grabbed the counter edge to keep from falling.

"Crystal, what are you doing? What are you doing? Good God, this is a school. Have you no sense of kindness? Are you human or an animal?"

Crystal froze, looking at the package in her hand as if somebody put it there. She made croaking noises, and nausea began to crawl up from her stomach. "I'm a good person, Sister."

Sister Theresa glided up to them, and took Chau Ping's shoulder. "Doing what you did is not the act of a good woman, Crystal. I am flabbergasted. Good God. Ping, are you okay?"

Chau Ping smiled weakly. "Flabbergasted," he sighed. He delicately touched the growing red bump on his temple, and winced. He did not grimace at the pain—which was not so bad—but at his Great Wall that was knocked down, turned to dust. Standing where the Wall had been were a brace of horses. The twin horses stood in his mind, glaring right at him, steam puffing from their flared nostrils. Chau Ping could see these Chinese horses, right from the Tang Dynasty or a painting by Castiglione, with arched necks, thick chests, sturdy limbs, and fat rumps. One was Knowledge and the other, Understanding, and suddenly they bolted straight toward the simple side of Ping's brain.

He blinked hard, and heard Sister speaking to him. "Chau Ping! Chau Ping! Are you alright? Crystal, I think you hurt him badly. You should be ashamed. You know that he's brain-damaged. You are aware that we've given him a place here out of kindness, and his family has been very kind to us." Then, she added with venom, "He's a lot more important to us than you are."

"I apologize. Please forgive me, Sister." Then Crystal said, "Do you want me to get down on my knees? Would that help?"

"No, and what I do doesn't matter, either. It's up to him. Ping's got a bunch of lawyers in his family, and they're all good."

Crystal ran from the office crying.

"You don't look very good, Ping," said Sister.

The hell I don't, he thought. "I'm a bit sickly, Sister."

"I want you to go to All Souls' Hospital. See Father Francis, the doctor. He trained in Cleveland."

"I'm not that sick."

"Then go right home."

"My work! What happens to my work?"

"Just take the day off. Go home and rest. I insist."

"But you asked me to chop down that dangerous coconut tree."

"Not today."

"But a little coconut could fall and hit someone on the head. Even Mrs. Li."

Sister shook her head. "I doubt it. That tree is at least one hundred years old and hasn't hurt anyone yet. Please don't worry about it. That's what makes you such a unique soul—caring about us when you've been hurt. Go home...but one thing first. This morning is an assembly for the whole school, and the sound system needs to be set up in the hall."

"What happened to Ah-Tong ? Did he die?"

"No, no, he's out sick today. Who else will look after the sound system?"

Ping shrugged. "The other Chau?"

"No, not him."

"I'll fix it before I leave, Sister. Do you know about the other Chau? He looks at the girls sometimes. And we call him Fishball because he used to work in one of those places. ... It's true."

 

Sarah To, the tall arrogant class president, was discussing with her tomboyish vice president what she would say at the assembly. Their Black Watch plaid and yellow uniforms glittered with service badges, and they talked with the intensity of political leaders. Their dour expressions reminded Ping of Beijing officials talking on TV. As he strung out the microphone wires, his head began to throb. He excused himself and asked the girls to move so he could place the microphone stands. "No problem, monkey," Sarah answered, then burst into dumb teen laughter. Her ape-like vice-president saw the humor and chuckled at Ping.

Ping ignored them as he fiddled with the wires and brought one microphone backstage. Twenty minutes later, Sarah tried to convene the assembly and welcome Sister Theresa, but her microphone went dead. Fishball and Nicholas sat backstage, chatting and waiting in case someone needed something. High above the stage, Ping knelt on the catwalk, a switch wire in his hand. Fishball liked to gossip about whoever was onstage, so why not? Ping flipped the switch.

"Ah, Nicholas, I tell you, they are getting prettier each year. Must be the Western food." Over a thousand students giggled as they recognized Fishball's thick Mainland accent. "But not those two. St. Bernadette girls only elect the doggy ones to high office. Have you noticed Sarah in the tits department? This year her bra size may not be as good as her grade-point average."

As Chau Ping strolled out to the parking lot, he could hear the girls roaring in the hall. He took out his house keys and jangled them. He made believe that he had car keys and that the nicest car in the lot belonged to him. Perhaps the dark blue Lexus. Ping fingered his keys. They felt grimy and dull. He hated that. He walked over to the Lexus, and his key made a scratching sound as he scraped it along the length of the new car.