Stories

Butter, by Misha Kalhin

#avante garde #black humor #comedy #dark #literary #shanghai

    Rainy season is a great excuse for a bender.
     I told my boss my apartment complex was flooded. It wasn’t a lie, but I exaggerated how much I was inconvenienced by it. I made it sound tragic and time-consuming, hoping I’d evoke pity and reinforce his view of China as being crazy, chaotic and unpredictable. I asked him to cut me some slack on these impenetrable rainy days, and let me work from home. Impenetrable, impossible, suffocating, exaggerated like that I pleaded, in a desperate way, in a hazy, exhausted way. Something you say when your mind is corroded by the heavy use of hash butter and jingjiu. I wasn’t even noticing the water anymore, in reality, I stopped caring about the water a long time ago.
     Hash butter, jingjiu and coffee, of course, I am, after all, working.
     No particular reason why hash butter and jingjiu, I suppose, it’s just a phase I reached in my drug-use, nothing dramatic to say here. One day I came across some cheap hash, 20 kuai a gram, no kidding, but we had to buy it in bulk with a couple of friends, a co-op we called it. So we ended up with a shoebox full of hash, and I didn’t know what to do with my share, so I made a batch of butter with it, boiled it in water and all. It turned out really potent, so I decided to take a break from inhaling combustibles for a while, and try edibles.
     One thing is true, no one is going through the typhoon days sober.
     Most people will subject themselves to cheap tobacco-hash joints and Qingdao, maybe even the more exotic green and an occasional speedy coke pick me up, or mdma. The sourness of a piny hash-joint is a thing of the past for me, unless I’m with friends, so is the formaldehyde infused Qingdao, never by choice. I try not to touch synthetic drugs, but then again, I am never consistent about what I do and don’t do. There’s something about this place that keeps you from doing what know you should do, and yet it is OK, because you feel you are in the right place at the right time. You feel you are a part of history, you are setting the precedent, you are the baseline for the new generation of people in this city.
     You are a role model.
     You lost your home but you gained a place that is better than home. You gained a place, where the inhabitants are those of the curious kind, those unafraid to take a chance, think about it, very few of them ended up here out of necessity or desperation, think about it, that is a rare case. They all know the price of a square meter and the price of a second and the price of an opportunity. They all know the doors are open, they all want to do something, accomplish something, and hope it will go farther than this city, farther than this country. We are all on a quest to find something real. Not the banal comfort of home, something else, some sort of enlightenment. I always knew you need to go on a bender before you can really find yourself. You have to lie passed out under a tree for few days, much like Buddha or Jesus, before you really know something in this world.
     So my search for enlightenment led me to butter.

     It turns every food item into a vehicle that delivers slow-release tingling bodily high. Jingjiu is the yang to the buttery yin (or vice versa, I can never remember which is which), it takes care of any kind of anxiety or paranoia. Jingjiu is cheap and medicinal, and it’s potable unlike most alcohol in China. A Chinese doctor prescribed jingjiu to a friend of mine, so he started drinking a bottle a day and swore by it, he called it Jesus-juice. J-juice strengthens your muscles and warms up your bones from the inside, he said. The intake process is simple: take a pre-determined dose of butter, plus about 10-20 percent extra, for good measure. This can be done as a browney, obviously, but I don’t bother baking, I ingest the butter via toast and chase it with orange juice. (The taste is not too bad, but it gets old if you do it for too long, after a while you can barely keep the mixture down.) A small bottle of jingjiu (125ml) is equivalent to three or four shots. But it is better to kill the thing in one prolonged gulp, which is what I personally call the dose, it has to be quick. Once your start tingling from hash butter, you do the dose, that’s right, and the rainy season blues goes away. Well, nothing really goes away, I guess. I hope you understand. One day, of course, I plan to learn the path to the real enlightenment and the craft of riding the wave of Now, as if nothing else is happening or ever happened. I’ll learn to be in the moment, I’ll do it, I promise, just…not now. For now I will deal with reality and its weight using traditional tools.     
    
     Equipped with traditional tools and with a sense of purpose, this is how I found myself on this slimy, water-broken day that spat me out onto the wet pavement surrounded by bark-less trees. I knew my destination. YongKang Lu. To see the love of my life, or at least for the time being. We had arranged to go on a date, and I was relatively sober. (Relative to her own state, I should clarify.) I had built up tolerance to the butter, so I only felt its glow slightly. It wasn’t a bad day. I should have been excited about not being alone for a change, but instead there was something inside me that said that there was no way I was going to find the damn street. I feared I’d never see her, my muse, my poetess, my Magdalene, whom I had met the week before the rain started.
     We met one night at a local bar. It was one of those unexplainable nights. I remember knocking back a few cosmopolitans with a friend of mine at YY, a dive bar that’s always empty. My friend insisted we stop by for a night cap, which we did and then, three night caps into it, this English man joined us. The man seemed to me slightly creepy in a way most foreign men over forty in Shanghai are. He told us how he spent some time in a mental institution in the UK. I looked at my friend who was rolling his eyes at me.
     I got up and went to the bathroom. On my way I saw a Chinese man in a robe with long hair and round glasses, he had a joint in his mouth and was pointing at something on the ceiling, as if he was the artist of the artwork on it. Why am I telling you this? Because when I came back to the table after the bathroom and everything, I saw her in the corner. She was alone. I noticed her white FeiYues, her legs were crossed and she nervously shook her foot. There were only three tables occupied in the entire place: my friend and I (with our formerly institutionalized friend), the artist, probably the owner of the place, and his friends, and then there was that woman, all alone in a grimy place like that. I glanced at our table with a forest of empty martini glasses, my friend was rolling a joint. The artist and his friends were laughing. The woman looked sad, her curly outrageous hair was poorly dyed red, her face looked like Botticelli’s Venus, only exhausted, a strung out Mary Magdalene, if you can imagine.
     I had to talk to her. She didn’t mind. I said, white FeiYues, but there was a lot more complexity to those shoes: there were red wine stains, brownish coffee stains, grass, dirt, something that could be bike grease, you could really tell a lot by looking at her shoes. She told me she was a poetess, which I knew was the right answer. A writer needs to have a profession, that way he’ll have something to write about, but a poet is a full-time job, somebody great said that. I felt like I had been waiting for that answer all my life. I told her I wrote, and she asked me to read something to her. I read to her a part of a story I was working on. She read me one of her poems, prefacing it with, “Hm, you’re smart, I have to use my best stuff on you.” Long story short she invited me home, saying she had a new toy. I went back with her, and discovered that by toy she meant a glass pipe that, as soon as we got there, she threw across the room to show me it wasn’t breakable.
     She knew how to impress a man.

     She had a collection of pipes and several types of high quality grass, and also a gram of coke, molly, everything available on the market. As soon I entered her place I knew I’d have to take another week off, at least. I told her about the butter at my place in case we ran out. We spent about a week inside her place, drinking whiskey and water (with mdma dissolved in it), I taught her what Baltic tea was (vodka and cocaine), we smoked constantly and read to each other. She read stories to me, two, three at a time, endlessly, with sex breaks in between. Then we decided to watch all David Lynch movies in chronological order. Again, with sex breaks. She walked around her apartment in her cotton underwear and a stained tank top, without a bra.
     Sometimes she had classes, yes, English classes over WeChat. She didn’t put a bra for that either. She got paid 500 kuai per hour to teach English over a group chat, to a dozen of Chinese men (she met on Look Around, I suspected). She walked around, laughed into her phone, said words syllable by syllable, and listened to the men parrot what she was saying. She corrected them, praised them, taught them. Sometimes she went into the bathroom and took selfies, probably something suggestive, or erotic or whatever, I never asked. They paid her over WeChat too, it was great. After her classes we’d go and buy wine, snacks and cigarettes. I felt like a child in a candy shop. Then we cuddled on the couch and watched more movies. Or talked, she told me about her family back home, her father, her mistakes, her fears. I told how my life was a failure, and yet I was hopeful. Sometimes she cried, and I held her messy hair and kissed her wet angelic face.
    
     After a few days we moved to mine.
     At my place we got to butter immediately, and things got worse. The butter seemed to trump everything, even the stimulants we took with it. We soon couldn’t get up. I think we were chasing it with whiskey, because I remember my vomit tasted like whiskey. We were sick for a while, and I think it damaged our relationship. Seeing each other in this state was awful.
     There had to have been a pleasant part to all of this. That’s right, when both of us stopped vomiting, we felt good, the molly was finally going strong, we both were slowly burning like candles: I on the floor, she on the couch. We laid like that silently all night and in the morning she told me she had to go to work. She said it, even though we both knew it was a lie. I think we were getting attached, but unfortunately we met at a very strange time, the rainy season was about to begin.
     We needed space, she said.

     She said we will meet on YongKang Lu the following weekend. Which is why I happened to be on the wet pavement somewhere in the French Concession, surrounded by the bark-less trees. Now, I’d been to YKL a few times before, nothing surprising there. It was strange though that the taxi driver did not know where it was. He just refused to drive, that asshole. I judged him then, but I bet, if I had been the driver, I’d be doing the same thing all the time. I always get lost and I can’t even look at a map without getting an anxiety attack, I don’t know why. My brain just turns off. Anyway, I had a feeling I was close, so I walked straight for a while.
     Everything was going well at first, things looked familiar. Until I got to the Pushkin statue for the first time. Now, I’m not even a fan of the poet, I’ll be honest with you. I am more of a Brodsky man myself, but it was refreshing to see the father of modern Russian literature in the middle of Shanghai, I guess, so I paid my respects, I read everything I knew by him out loud: “Moy dyadia, sahmykh chesnykh prahveel, kahgda ne v schootku zahnemog…” You get the idea. 
     I continued my quest. I walked for an hour, and when I saw that same Pushkin statue for the third time, that’s when I knew I was cursed. There was no way I was going to get there. Taxi was not an option: I was close enough that a taxi driver would look at me like I’m an idiot. Or, even worse, I’d get the same guy who didn’t know where it was in the first place. It was one of those unexplainable days. To make matters worse, I tried to talk to strangers, but received scared looks. Perhaps I looked deranged enough to scare them off, or maybe they were unable to speak human language. I didn’t know what to do.    
     I had a left-over baggy with me, I kept some in case my Magdalene was more sober than usual, so I turned the corner for a breath of fresh air, a key bump. With my face numb and thoughts chaotic, but in a bundled way, you know how you get sometimes, I stood there, with a glimmer in my eye. That is when I saw him, the Dead Man, hanging from a tree, with a giant erection.

     He was staring at me.
     My first thought was to run, but the man said, “If you make one move, I will jizz all over you.” “Excuse me, sir,” I said. I didn’t move, he left me no choice. “Come here,” he said, “stand here.” Then he stood on my shoulders, as he loosened the knot on his noose and got the rope off his neck. When he jumped off me, he stood there, a tall, muscular naked man, a Kazakh, I thought, with deadly olive skin, empty eyes and unkempt black and gray hair. “Let’s go,” he said, “I’ll help you find what you are looking for.” So we walked to YongKang Lu together. Dead Man was mostly silent, so I thought I’d tell him my story, about the lady and how I feared I’d never see her again. He said I needed a grand gesture. That was the only thing he said.
     On the way we saw a blind man who stood there smiling about something, like he could hear something no one else could hear. Dead man walked up to him and undid his belt, then lowered his trousers. The blind man did not resist, he let him take his pants. I didn’t have any cash, so I gave him the rest of my coke, “Here,” I said, “this might be worth 200 kuai or so.” He just kept smiling and staring ahead of him, pants-less.
     It was already dark. We kept walking, Dead Man and I, and two blocks later I finally saw it. YongKang Lu.
I saw the beautiful people with glasses, the colorful bottles, the quirky trendy signs, tacos, shawarma, everything. Dead Man pointed at a bar and told me to wait inside, he was now attracting strange looks from the YKL crowd. Imagine a topless man wearing shabby blind-man pants, muscular, but to what end, he looked hideous, greenish and morbid. I didn’t want to go in, but I didn’t want to argue, I didn’t want his dead-man come all over me. I went inside, into a comedy club.
    I have to confess, I had done comedy there before, even got in a fight with a guy who thought my humor was offensive. I talked to couple of comics I knew. They looked at me like I was insane. It got worse when Dead Man came in with a bag in his hands and someone said, who the fuck is this Uyghur, which was the wrong thing to do. Dead Man came up to the man who said it, grabbed his head and hit it repeatedly on the table. I had never seen such cruelty. People tried to stop him, but he would knock them out with one blow. At first I was confused why they called him a Uyghur, in my mind I will always remember him as Kazakh. Dead Man, I said, let’s go, we need to find the woman, remember. He remembered and dropped the moaning body.
    We left the comedy joint and walked down the street absorbing cautious looks. Dead man took the contents of the bag out, revealing a big box of fireworks. He took a cigarette out of a stranger’s mouth, I didn’t expect anything different from him, and lit the box. Then he kicked the it as hard as he could and the box flew right into the crowd of colorful people, their faces twisted in fear, a horrible sight really. The explosions happened one after another, people ran, horn–rimmed glasses crunched under their feet, things, buildings started catching on fire, Brooklyn lager bottles rolled on the ground.

    We kept walking.
    Somewhere in front of me, in a cloud of smoke I saw a woman wearing a familiar shirt. That’s my shirt, I thought, and saw my muse’s face, slightly concerned, ashes on her beautiful poorly died hair.
     “What took you so long,” she said and ran up to me. “I heard some zombie Uyghur is burning the street down.” I pointed at Dead Man. “This guy, you mean? I thought he was Kazakh.” She gave the man an embarrassed smile and introduced herself. Dead Man, he said, which was strange, because I could have sworn I’d made that name up. “Let’s go,” she said, “I haven’t been to the Bund in ages. This place is just about gone.”
     The street was just about gone, as she said. We walked through the rubble. As soon as she voiced the Bund idea, I felt anxious, because I feared we would never find it, but she comforted me, “Of course we will find it, b, (she called me “b”) look, there’s a sign,” she said. “That’s not how it works,” I said, “signs don’t mean anything. It’s something about Earth being round or something.” “Oh, don’t be silly,” she was getting frustrated, “That’s exactly how it works, just walk straight and you’ll get there.” “No, we’ll never find it. Look, the arrow is not even pointing straight, it’s pointing up.” “You are insane,” she said, “you really need to relax once in a while. Can you just trust me this one time, and in a few minutes you’ll see that we’ll be at the Bund.” “I don’t doubt you,” I said, because I knew by then she will take us there. Things always make more sense when you’re with someone else. It’s almost as if the Universe can fool only one person at a time.
     We reached the Bund. It was empty and dark in contrast with the brightly lit concrete paradise across the river. We stood there and watched a boat pass below us carrying a giant TV screen. A woman on the screen was winking and curling her finger seductively at someone. Dead Man came up to my beloved and kissed her hand with his pale lips. Then he nodded in my direction, stood up on the edge for a few seconds, and jumped into the river. We watched him hit the ink-colored water, and, as soon as he did, hundreds of dead pigs rose from the bottom of the river and floated onto the surface, glistening in the moonlight like giant leeches. “I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared of doing this with you. I’m ready for something real, something much bigger than this.”
I put my arm around her as we looked at the sea of pigs. 
     Next time we’ll burn the entire city, I thought.


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