Heaven Lake by John Dalton
Rating: •• (Mildly Recommended)
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If you’re looking for another coming of age debut novel, you may want
to look at John Dalton’s Heaven
Lake. Protagonist Vincent Saunders leaves rural
seagull lighting down on a
pantiled roof. . . a tangle of bicycle frames strapped
like a teetering crown to the cab of a market van. . . an iron kettle thrust from a
third-floor window and raining water onto a box of blue and white azaleas.
These were fractional glimpses the Mainland, and Vincent could only view them
by leveraging his foot to the rail and straining up off the oak-board dock.
He stood a vexing’~ twenty yards from
First, however, he was obliged to enter a harborside office, present his visa and declarations form, and place his bag on a long viewing table before three tight-jawed and brooding customs officials. One unfastened the zipper, reached inside, and gave the contents a bored squeeze. Vincent looked on, keenly aware that he was dealing with communists. Communists, communism, commies, he thought and sealed his lips, anxious that he might speak these words aloud. In his mind’s eye he pictured a nation of people in drab gray Mao jackets, a charcoal, ruinous sky punctured by fuming smokestacks.
once cleared and through the swing gate, he was reminded that F -had arrived in Guangzhou on a brilliant
spring day, a Sunday morning that found the citizens out en masse and filing
across the Pearl River along a white stone bridge. The sunlit clarity of their
procession sparked giddy, ridiculous thrill, an apprehension that he, Vincent
Saunders, had landed in
The crowd buckled and swayed. A small girl in cloth slippers, a toddler, stepped out of her bamboo stroller and scuttled back to an asphalt abutment. At her parents’ insistence, she squatted down and, through cotton pajamas slit open from zipper to rear seam, peed a warm runnel of urine onto the cobblestone sidewalk. She stood and marked its progress as it wound between stones and disappeared into a sewer grate. Vincent saw her flash a smile of tiny pearled teeth.
Unexpected as this was, it was not
quite surprising enough. He was ready to be more thoroughly appalled or
delighted, ready for the nation of
None of these items interested Vincent personally, though he might have purchased something, a door latch, maybe, out of atonement, out of simple gratitude for being himself and not an indigent street vendor. But this would require an exchange of currency, of which there were two varieties: renminbi, otherwise known as people’s money, and Foreign Exchange Certificates, which the Chinese sometimes called tourist money. He had arrived with Foreign Exchange Certificates. Even though he tendered these certificates with a patient hand, they were shunned by a street chef serving up breakfasts of peanuts and steamed buns. Another patron eyed his certificates and barked out an unintelligible question. Was it Cantonese or slurred Mandarin? He was not sure which, but as he needled through the market crowd, he was solicited, frequently, with the same blustery and muddled request.
Alec had told him—warned him—that in the matter of changing money it was best not to relinquish a bill until the changer had handed over its equivalent in renminbi. With this in mind, he held back and appraised each candidate, searching for the money changer least likely to try a swindle or lunging retreat. An elderly woman tottered forward, hindered by an arthritic limp. Her ashen hair was short-cropped and bristly, her rheumy eyes underscored by fat swells of pouched skin. “Chain geh money:’ she whispered in English.
He traded a crisp ten-yuan Foreign Exchange Certificate for thirteen yuan in renminbi, an apparent bargain, though the bills she returned were frayed and tissue-thin. Afterward, he opened his travel guide and consulted exchange rates. The old woman had not slighted him. More surprising yet, he learned that he had just made his first transaction on the Chinese black market. To celebrate, he purchased a bag of peanuts, then strolled along cracking their rough shells in his fist. Now and then he grinned and fancied himself mixing with the underworld.
For the time being, he thought it best
to trail behind a scattering of other Caucasian tourists, most of them
college-aged and saddled with nylon backpacks, in hopes that they would lead
him to a moderately priced hotel. And eventually they did. But the news at
the Overseas Chinese Hotel was discouraging. “No vacancies whatsoever:’ a
young woman in a Boston University T-shirt announced to Vincent and a group
of her companions’ waiting in the hotel lobby. He followed them several
blocks to another hotel, where the same young woman entered and returned with
a bleaker announcement. “Everything in
set out for the
Halfway through the intersection, he felt a tug on the waistband of his blue jeans and looked down to discover that he had been joined by a pair of children, a boy possibly ten or eleven on his right, and on his left, a younger girl, who had pried her reedy fingers beneath the strap of his leather belt. For a moment he thought they wanted nothing more than to tug him inside the park and guide him eagerly toward a monument or pagoda, a sun-dappled fishpond he might otherwise have missed. But they were dressed in ragged clothes and tapping their chests and then knotting their free hands into cupped fists. Clearly they were not impetuous tour guides. They wanted, or rather demanded, money, and Vincent, secretly belted with a fortune in traveler’s checks, was happy to give them some. He reached into his pocket and rewarded each child with a one-yuan bill. These were snatched away and stowed inside some secret fold of their clothing. Then, both at once, they thrust their small hands into his front and back pockets and claimed his remaining ten or eleven yuan in renminbi. Digging deeper still, they managed to ferret out a paper receipt from the Tianhu and a cloth handkerchief, which the boy shook open and tossed to the ground.
Together, the three of them had become a spectacle; he was sure of this, but when he gaped around at the throng of people lining the park entrance, he saw only a scowl from an elderly man raking the grass with his bamboo cane, a slit-mouthed hiss from a tousled mother holding a swaddled infant. The children, meanwhile, had begun to pry at the zippers of his shoulder bag. He tried a bolting escape, and they clenched his belt with both hands and shambled after him. He tried gathering their small hands in each of his own, squeezing their fingers, holding them at a distance, and then sprinting away. Yet they were quick to recover and dive for his belt. After several attempts he decided, finally, that to be successful he would have to grab one of them, most likely the boy, and throw him hard against the ground—a viable plan, perhaps, but as a public act it would be nothing less than appalling.
A jaunty young man in a starched shirt and pin-striped trousers strode by. In his raised fist he wielded a magazine rolled into a blunt, glossy club, and as he strolled past, he brought it down full-tilt, vehemently, first onto the boy’s head and then onto the girl’s. They both pressed their foreheads into Vincent’s hips and cringed beneath the blow, and the young man hurried on, tapping his wristwatch to show this quick assault was all he had time for. The children clung to Vincent’s belt gritty-fingered and dazed, and now the tousled mother reappeared, shouldering her baby and shrieking, cursing the children, he assumed, until he recognized a word, a phrase, the purpose beneath her shriek: “Stay on him! Stay on him! Stay on him!” she screamed.
he lurched forward and entered
Hunched over, travel bag shielded in his lap, he decided to wait them out. The boy and girl appeared relieved to take seats on either side of him. In other circumstances they might have been sweet-featured or even beautiful children, yet slouched against each of his shoulders their faces seemed patently slack and wearied, grim as those of weathered old men. The woman hovered over all of them, a doughy sneer, a mop of bedraggled hair. All Vincent could see of her baby was one exposed leg jutting from the swaddled blanket. She jeered instructions and the children wedged their arms between his bag and stomach. They located his money belt and groped its fat corners, though luckily they could not work their fingers beneath his shirts to pry at its zipper.
He watched a steady flux of Sunday strollers mill by on their way to a line of park vendors whose carts were laden with packaged candies, fruit drinks, warm Coca-Cola.
He was struck suddenly by a provisional hope. He turned and considered the girl, a spindly child, unquestionably the weaker of the pair. “Little sister,” he said. The false tenor of the endearment pained him. “Don’t, worry, don’t be afraid,” he said and slipped his hands under her arms and wiggled his fingers along her rib cage and down to her small hips. She writhed about, pedaling her skinny legs, tossing her head from side to side, doing everything appropriate to being tickled, except, of course, laughing. He could feel a wad of bills knotted beneath the hem of her pants. He could see them half pinched into the elastic band of her underwear, and here he paused, aggrieved at how unpleasant the situation bad become and how shameful the remedy.
With a single hooked index finger, he swiped his hand inside the band of her underwear and plucked out a one-yuan bill. He set off at once toward the vending carts, towing the children behind him. Bellied tight to the glass case, he handed over his money and ordered two cans of Coca-Cola. Three paces behind, the woman let out a raucous shriek.
He popped the rings and offered them to the children. “Go ahead:’ he said. “Go ahead. It’s all right. I know you’re thirsty.”
They craned their heads up at him, stunned and suspicious.
“Go ahead:’ he said. “Please, it’s all right:’ and they took the cans into their gritty hands, hearing the woman shriek and knowing they should not.
The rest was surprisingly easy. They each gripped his belt with a single hand, and he batted these away and stepped back to the walkway, where the crowd was thick and idled along with a blithe, unmindful ease. Outside the park entrance he searched for a taxi, and found instead a young man offering cut-rate fares for a ride on the back of his motor scooter. “Train station:’ Vincent said and swung a leg across the cushioned seat.
you can’t leave yet:” the young man said. “You haven’t seen all the sights of
“Already seen them:’ Vincent said, scanning the sidewalk for the children and the tousled mother.
“The Hall of Flowers, you’ve seen that?”
“Oh yes, I’ve seen them all and they were all very nice. Especially the flowers, all very beautiful. And now I’m ready to leave:’ he said. “I’ve seen enough?’
short while later the train lumbered forward a few hundred yards and came to
a sudden halt. There it sat, well in sight of the station, for another two
hours. By then much of the day’s radiance had been lost. An early evening
stillness spread across the rail yard. All over
Beside him, a squat, barrel-chested man studied Vincent with a fascination that did not diminish, even as the train finally sprang into motion and rumbled north through the city’s scattered outer districts. The man’s stained coveralls stank of petroleum and ash. Now and then he whispered in Cantonese, and several times he pointed to the fanning bruises beneath Vincent’s sunglasses.
What a nuisance, these bruises. If they were not making him feel leprous, then they were provoking all sorts of unwelcome attention.
But the man’s interest only grew sharper. He mumbled and shook his bushy head as if rehearsing a complicated lecture. Then he turned and addressed Vincent, this time in accented Mandarin. They spoke Mandarin differently here, with a windy inflection, with mouthfuls of sibilant consonants. Slowly, directly, the man repeated himself. “Why did your boss beat you?” he asked.
Vincent weighed the question. There was no reason to lie, and yet a full disclosure would be exhausting, humiliating. “I was spending time alone with his sister:’ he said. “I shouldn’t have been doing that?’
The man’s dark eyes flickered sympathetically. “Yes, yes, that’s always the way it is. You’re good enough to do sweat work six days a week, but not good enough to take a private walk with the boss’s sister. Am I right?”
“Yes:’ Vincent said. “You are.”
“I thought I was. I thought I had your story right:’ he said and, satisfied, eased back into his seat.
Before long they were rolling beneath a lavender twilight. The car swayed and bounced on its speeding undercarriage. Somewhere behind, in the thicket of standing passengers, a child wailed. The compartment lights would dim and waver and return to full strength. With his eyes closed, the shuddering lights made his mind unreel in a flood of disjointed imagery. He slept only for minutes at a time. In his dreams, small, gritty-fingered hands reached out to seize him.
Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Heaven Lake.htm
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