Excerpt from 'Preparation for the Next Life'
Preparation for the Next Life
By Atticus Lish
All rights reserved.
She came by way of Archer, Bridgeport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone, lightheaded.
They picked her up on the highway by a plain white shed, a sign for army-navy, tires in the trees. A Caravan pulled up with a Monkey King on the dash and she got in. The men took her to a Motel 8 and put her in a room with half a dozen other women from Fookien and a liter of orange soda. She listened to the trucks coming in all night and the AC running.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and a visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn't speak each other's dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking.
The Americans parked out front, their pickups ticking in the sun, and came in slow and quiet in bandanas and tank tops. They would lean an elbow on the counter and point a thick finger at the menu and say that one there. The blacks came in holding what they were going to spend in their hands, the wadded dollars and change.
Is y'all gonna let me have them wings? Y'all tell me what I can get with this then.
She knew how to say okay. When they pointed at the menu, she got it fine. In Nanuet, they wanted the all-you-can-eat. She could understand that. You need to get some more of this. Okay. She knew how to hurry up and get something, to work because she had to, to work fourteen hours a day every day until the tenth or eleventh day, until they got a smoking day, as the boss called it, because it was better than picking through the trash in the brigade field south of the river.
In the motel, they kept the TV running to practice English. They squatted on the carpet, moving their mouths in the blue light, seeing the grocery store aisles and the fast cars. Unbelievable, they said. This Tuesday on Fox. A grim day in Iraq. She watched goggled soldiers and radio antennas driving past adobe houses in the desert, which she had lived in.
Camel, she pointed. The animal, it's very good.
Too hard, they said. It can't be absorbed. Mind is a wooden plank.
Have to practice it a lifetime.
When they had finished their work at night, they crossed the parking lot to the one car still there, the Caravan waiting to take them back to the motel. They gave the man his takeout, and he put it on the newspapers open to Hong Kong stories. She watched the large sweeps of the night go by as they drove home, the black areas of the forest, the slate highway and sky. He had a gold chain and a green card and he drove with the lights off, watching for cops.
The women were from Begin to Celebrate, Four Meetings, Connected Mountain, and Honesty Admired. She told them she was from south of the river.
But you're from somewhere else, they said.
I'm Chinese, like you.
You don't look it.
In the sun, you could see Zou Lei's hair was brown and not black. There was a waviness to it. She had a slightly hooked nose and Siberian eyes.
Our China is a big country, she said.
You sound like a northerner.
She's a minority, one of the women said.
You can teach me your language.
That's meaningless. You've got People's Terrace, Peaceful Stream, Placid Lake, Winding South, Cotton Fence, Zhangpu, Convergence of Peace, Swatow, Common Tranquility, Prominence, Samyap, Jungcan, Broad Peace, Three Counties, Next-to-the-Zhang-Family Dialect, and a hundred more. Which one we teach you?
Zou Lei thought for a moment. Then tell me how to say heaven is high. She smiled and pointed at the stained ceiling. Heaven is high and the earth is wide.
Some of them nodded, a few smiled, revealing bad teeth. That's true, that's true, they agreed, and one of the women sighed.
What she learned instead was how to take an order. The fortune cookies were in the box under the Year-of-the-Goat calendar and the little plastic shrine. The napkins, straws, and chopsticks were all together on the shelf. Give everybody plastic fork no matter what. When a customer came in, you asked him what you having? Then you shout his order in the back: chick-brocc, beef-brocc, beef-snow, triple steam, like that, to make it fast.
No one had to teach her how to mop and take the trash out and go through a sack of greens, chopping off the part you didn't eat. They saw she was a hard worker. Most of what you did was something she already knew. Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others' dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
At the counter, she put a piece of cardboard in the bottom of a bag, stapled the lips of a Styrofoam shell together, and set the shell in the bag on top of the cardboard. The other containers went on top with cardboard in between. She stapled the menu to the bag and handed it over the counter to a lean guy in a red baseball hat and long blond hair. Taking an extra menu, he said, You're gettin a whole lot better. I timed you.
The boss said the women needed someone to supervise their well-being, a big sister who would report to him. He gave them a phrase to memorize — It's not a matter of time, it's a matter of money — that he wanted them to repeat a thousand times a day as fast as they could say it.
What does it mean? she asked.
It is not significant. Its significance is unknown.
One of the women was mentally imbalanced, given to bouts of silence, and then saying the police had given her a forced abortion in Guangxi.
When the weather turned cold, some of them slept together. They squatted in front of the space heater, their wet clothes hanging in the shower, all of them sick, coughing and spitting up in the wastebasket.
On TV, she saw girls surfing, driving trucks, boxing, and marathoning in the sun. When deliveries came in, she ran outside and carried the sacks of rice in on her shoulder. The women disapproved, saying let the men do that, the cook and his cousin. Don't go licking the boss's piles. Zou Lei told them that she liked to move her legs. At night, she did sit-ups. She took a paper from the van and read the classified ads for jobs in other states.
She left for Riverhead and worked the rest of the winter there, staying in a La Quinta with a group of women who spoke Three Lights and country Mandarin. They had a hotplate, which they shared.
America is a good country, an older woman said. We took a fishing boat across the ocean. The ocean police caught us and closed us up on an island near San Francisco. I almost died on the voyage and that was what saved me. That was lucky. The others were forced back home, thirty people, but not me. My cousin applied me for asylum. Some of these other sisters have been deported once already. Now they come back, once becomes twice, twice becomes three times. They go to the Yucatan Peninsula, cross the border in Arizona. Now that's hard, of course. That's the desert, not for us people, river people. My village language is Watergrass. We're fifty kilometers from Old Field and they don't know a word we're saying.
She spent a year in Archer and six months in Riverhead. Swine-flu season was over and the World News was carrying stories about the war on terror and the difficulty of getting a green card. She turned the page and saw a photograph in black and white of a naked prisoner lying on the ground with a sandbag on his head. She turned the page again, studying the words: construction, seamstress, restaurant, beauty, pay depends on ability.
She went to Nanuet and got another shirt with an insignia and another visor. The women lived in a trailer on cinder blocks, which rested on pine needles, and hung their washing on a line. On their smoking day, she hiked up to the mall, running across the highway and hopping the divider, and looked through the glass at the sneakers made in China.
The boss wore a jade bracelet and drove a dirty Astrovan. He had Zou Lei wash it out back where there were loading docks and dumpsters, a fence, and then the woods. She let the hose run, gazing past the dumpsters, and imagined herself running through the woods.
The next year, in another state, she was in a motel room with eight women who talked in code even in their own dialect. When she asked what village they were from, one of them said, Cinnamontree. The others turned on the woman who had talked and said, What are you doing telling secrets to an outsider?
They had a big sister called Sophia who determined when they could watch TV. They weren't allowed to open the door when someone knocked unless Sophia was there and said it was okay.
In the women's rhyming slang, Zou Lei eventually realized that a sailboat meant money that they were sending back to China. A shout was a phone, a crow was an illegal alien, and Andy meant the police.
A man arrived in mirrored shades with a dragon on his wrist, bringing them a pack of Stayfree. The boss loved music, he said. Everything I do, I do it for you. You know the song?
Once, when Sophia wasn't there, Zou Lei let the maid into the room and asked her where she was from and what her job was like.
Honduras, the maid said, a tattoo of a cross on her hand. They were about the same age.
Zou Lei ran into the bathroom and came out with the wet towels in her arms and put them in the hamper. The Honduran girl smiled and said gracias.
How about you job, is the job money? Zou Lei asked.
No, no much money. Poquito money. You has working papers?
Zou Lei said, Take a guess. You think so?
No. They both laughed.
Maria taught her a handshake. Zou Lei showed her the ad in the Sing Tao where it said you could buy a social security number.
By knocking on a steel door, she found a job working eight-hour days putting clutch plates in cardboard boxes, the best money she had ever made: $9 an hour minus taxes. At lunchtime, she ate rice and turkey from a Tupperware container, while the Americans in Dickies and bandanas lined up at the lunch truck. She carried all her money with her all the time, clipped around her waist, cell phone, fake ID, the things she couldn't lose.
* * *
One day in mid-autumn, she went into a bodega and got caught coming out the door.
Just relax. Do you have anything in your pockets? Anything sharp? It's okay. Just relax. A Spanish guy in a football jersey lifted up her arms, looking past her as he turned her pockets inside out. He unclipped the belly bag from around her waist and handed it to a guy with a pistol half-hidden by his sweatshirt. She had just cashed her check inside the bodega and she followed the bag with her eyes. Do you need a translator? I feel your heart pounding in there. Just cálmate. Tranquilo, okay? You speak Spanish? What are you, Chinita? Chinese?
Why I didn't run?
They felt through her clothes and took her money, zip-tied her, and put her in a van with a Salvadoran prisoner. It took all afternoon. Hey, mama, you shy? They had Fookienese, Cambodians, men from Guatemala. She was taken into a glass tank with a stainless steel bench and a cement floor and the fluorescent lights on, and other girls kept coming in and out all night, until they moved her. She rubbed the dents on her wrists made by the restraints.
A white girl with mascara down her cheeks said, These niggas better let me out for my boy's birthday.
In the middle of the night, they ordered her out. Through the reflection on the glass, she saw someone looking at her, an American with a mustache. The intercom came on. Yeah, you. Stand up. She did as she was told. The door opened. He beckoned with a finger. She exited the tank. The corridors were dark throughout the jail and she didn't know what they were doing. There was no one there except the deputy and, down the corridor, a head-down figure mopping the floor with a strange, self-denying patience, as if he wasn't there, and she realized he was an inmate.
Take one. The deputy pointed at a laundry bin of fraying orange jumpsuits. She had to ask him where to change before he showed her. She locked herself in the bathroom and, for a moment, was alone with the sink, the mirror, the porcelain toilet, and tile. A radio was playing a car commercial on his desk. She hurried taking her jeans off, avoiding the mirror, pulled on the jumpsuit, discovered it was sleeveless, and zipped herself up, and hurried out, her arms colder than the rest of her, holding her jeans out to the deputy like a gift. He took them.
Then he took her elbow and walked her deeper into the facility, his weight compressing his shoes into the waxed floor, the heels of her shower shoes tapping rapidly next to him. They turned another corner. She could not hear the radio anymore. There were no lights and there was an animal smell. They came to a large black window and the deputy stopped. He unlocked a door. Inside was a big black room. He took her elbow and put her in. It felt like an indoor basketball court. She could just make out the numbered cells across the concrete floor. She turned to ask what she was supposed to do. That one. Seventeen, he said and locked her in. She felt him leave. Holding her blanket in her arms, she squinted her eyes and identified her number and started towards it. Above her was a second tier. In her tiny numbered cell, behind a heavy wooden door painted with marine paint, she felt a steel shape with her hands. It was a bunk. She lay down. Her eyes adjusted. She saw the graffiti on the cinder blocks. She got up and pulled her door shut. It did not latch. She lay there listening with her eyes shut.
* * *
I will stand this, she said when the lights came on and she saw where she was — the steel thing on the wall that was the toilet. In China, the conditions would have been worse.
She left her cell and saw the others shuffling out, fat, puffy-faced, hostile, acne-covered, their afro hair standing up, taking over the picnic table in the center of the room, milling around the stairs, wandering to the glass window and back. They played with each other's hair. A black girl farted and said, You heard? There were rural women with Indian blood in them and crosses on their hands who stayed together. You could tell who had been picked up in an immigration sweep. It was obvious who she was. She squatted by herself, as all the migrants did.
The deputy came and let a trustee in with a food cart. Everyone got up. She stood aside and let the blacks and Americans go ahead of her. When she received her tray, she took it to her cell and ate her boloney and cheese sandwich, looking resolutely away from the toilet.
She spent the day walking back and forth to the window in the big room, keeping along the wall, until the lights went out in the facility.
She had been there two or three days when she realized she wasn't sure if it had been two or three exactly, which. It could have been either, or it could have been more. She tried to count the days, but there was no way to tell them apart. There were no clocks. She briefly thought of keeping a calendar, but she didn't have anything to write with. There was nothing at all except themselves, her and the other females, in the loud, dirty sealed room.
She tried to say to a woman, a white woman with a crushed nose, did they ever have a chance to watch TV in here?
TV? Oh, yeah, sure, we got one. It's over by the Jacuzzi.
What there was was a payphone by the window. It had a bail bondsman's card taped to it with an 800 number on it. She had watched people calling from it. Silvio, a voice said after she put the number in and the line clicked. She did her best to tell him who she was. He asked her where she was calling from, and she didn't even know that. Well, no problem, he could call around. It would be one of two places if she had gotten herself picked up in Bridgeport. Do you know what you're being charged with? No? It could be from the sound of it, they got a thing now where, if you entered the country under the radar, so to speak, you're not eligible for bail. That's the Patriot Act. He repeated it for her. Yes, she nodded. I know it.
Do you have anyone who can bond you out?
No, she said. I am just me in this country. I will work for you when I get out, if you just get me out, she struggled to express. I am honest. I pay everything. She said this into the receiver gripped in her hand, half bowing her head.
Oh, he said. I don't doubt that. But if it's like that, there might be nothing I can do.
That's the way it is.
He had to go.
To keep her spirits up, she went back to walking up and down along the wall and distracted herself counting miles.
She started doing walking lunges every three steps, counting in her head. There was yelling, but she didn't think it was directed at her. It surprised her when someone got off the picnic table and came over. She went around them. They followed her, getting louder. Now they were really yelling and everyone was looking. They were yelling at her to stop. Don't be doin that in here. I ain't playin with you. She stopped doing lunges. The yelling stopped. You could hear the person who had been yelling at her breathing hard.
Excerpted from Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. Copyright © 2015 Atticus Lish. Excerpted by permission of Tyrant Books.
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