He stood in the waiting hall of the station, searching the crowd for a seat, the Chinese squatting among their baggage and eyeing him like children through the half-muted light of the clearstory. The air was smoke-filled and dusty and close and very hot, and, as the sun set, the shadows from the muntins tracked its course overhead. He reached down and gathered his belongings. Although he did not have much, what he did had been packed in the luggage at his feet – a carryall, a trolley case, a plastic-shelled valise – and, lifting them up, he could feel the disappointments that had come to form their weight. Above him, a female voice warned the crowd against mountebanks and thieves, but he could not understand her, for the hall was loud and the speakers old and it was all Chinese to him.
The departure board changed, and, as it did, those who were seated slowly turned and raised their heads. If there was hope in their eyes for encouraging news, the foreigner could not say. He limped through the crowd with the carryall over one shoulder in the manner of a baldric and the trolley case behind him on its loose and broken wheels. The valise he carried endwise like a duffel at his side. He could feel them watching him as he set down his things, but by now that was common, and he paid it no mind. The split-flaps rustled, then they were hushed. He squinted to read the departures.
For two years now he had been living in their country, in a crowded metropolis where you rarely glimpsed the sun, forgotten by his people and his people lost to him. Yet, despite this estrangement from his family and friends, he felt no greater bond of kinship among the Chinese with whom he lived. He was a man of maybe sixty, gaunt and disheveled, with sparse gray whiskers surrounding his mouth. A sharp, protruding jaw that called attention to his chin. Scanning the crowd, he reached into his pocket and produced a small leather book, whereon the word PASSPORT had been printed in relief across the front. There was little money inside, but, from what he could tell, it would likely be enough. He folded the bills. Then he tucked them away at his breast.
The ticket counter was a collection of twelve separate windows, but only half of them were open. He stared at the Chinese as they pushed their way forward, importunate as refugees. Stanchions meant to inspire order did nothing of the sort. The whole scene had the look of some cattle fair, and, as he thought this, he picked up his bags and moved them forward, mindful of the money in the pocket of his shirt. He rotated the carryall so that it covered his chest, then shook his head sadly in what was either some expression of patronage or grief. He barged his way into the heart of the crowd, muttering under his breath.
By the time he reached the window, he had frightened a child and lost a hold on one of his bags and shouldered a man to the ground. The Chinese regarded him coldly but said nothing as he leaned up to the speak-thru. “Dao Ningyuan,” he shouted, his spittle flecking the glass.
The attendant turned at the sound of his voice and considered him briefly as one might a tramp. If she knew the town of which he spoke, it did not show on her face. She furrowed her brow, tilted her head querulously.
“Dao Ningyuan,” he repeated.
Still, however, she did not understand him, and so, retrieving his passport, he dug out the card which the school had sent him and slid it beneath the glass. She inspected it quickly, then snorted and passed it back.
“Ningyuan,” she said. But it sounded the same to him.
He waited impatiently while she went through the system, arranging his money on the counter between them. The crowd, unruly, pulsed. The departure board changed, and, when he next looked back, the woman was shouting something at him through the perforated glass. Exactly what, he could not tell. She reached down and pressed a button. Static cracked to life.
“Piao dou maiwan le,” she said, pointing him off to the side. “Ni zhan guoqu.”
He grimaced, wagging one finger in front of the glass. “I don't think you’re gettin’ me here, hun. I want to go to Ningyuan.” He held up the card and pointed at the address. “Dao Ningyuan. Ya?”
The attendant gave him an exasperated look, then rose in her chair and called the next man forward. He tried to protest, but, before he could, his place had been lost and his money dropped, his luggage toppled over. Presently, a bus entered the station, and many of those who were seated got up and stretched and headed for the gate, but he just stood there, glaring at the crowd like a slighted immortal, committing these acts to memory as if for some future and terrible use, lamenting in his heart of hearts the wretched ways of men.
With his back to the wall, he closed his eyes and lowered himself to the floor. The ground was covered with cigarette butts and seed hulls and something that smelled like fish, but, given the circumstances, he was too upset to care. The next bus did not leave until the morning, and, because the town of Ningyuan was inaccessible by train, he would have to spend that night in the station, alone. It had taken him pains to learn this by reading the timetables over the front, as well as by enlisting the help of an officer who did not speak English and balked at the task. Taking out his cigarettes, he tamped them against his thigh, then lit one and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. But the nicotine did little to settle his thoughts. He was in desperate need of a job.
He smoked quickly, and, when he was finished, he drew up his legs and surveyed the crowd. A mother and her child stood next to him, craning their necks at the board, and he could hear the woman pronouncing the names of cities for the boy. Hangzhou. Nanchang. Wuhan. Across the aisle, several old men squatted flat-soled in sandals with their elbows on their knees and their forearms turned out, in what appeared to be a posture of either offering or defeat. He looked at them, and they at him, without smile or other acknowledgment, and, as others passed between them, he slowly came to recognize the ruin on their faces. Frowning, he turned away.
Just then, a girl came down the aisle, clacking in heels, and seated herself behind them. She was young and pretty and dressed in white knee socks, and the men nearby all turned when they saw her. She crossed her legs, studied her nails, crossed her legs again. The foreigner dug into his pack and lit another cigarette. For all of her beauty, there was something about her look that seemed to imply a certain warmth which he rarely saw in others and even less so in women, and, while she sorted through her clutch, he smoked and chewed on what this was. Ankles, calves, thighs. Hem of gusseted skirt. For a moment, he lost himself to prurient thoughts, and, when the girl looked up, she caught him leering like a fool. He cursed himself and lowered his eyes, felt his face go red. Beside him, the child spoke.
His expression clouded, and, turning to face the boy, he drew on his cigarette and cocked a snook, but this elicited no response. The boy considered him, eyes glasslike and disbelieving, before erupting into a fit of coughs resulting from the smoke. His mother turned and scowled, coughing as well, then took him by the arm and led him slowly across the hall. The foreigner sat there, watching them go.
“Don’t take it personally,” a voice said. “They’re just not used to Westerners.”
He started at the English and searched his way down the wall until he found a girl sitting with her legs crossed atop a gingham print bag. A rosacea birthmark spoiling her chin. She wore a white cotton shirt with the placket unbuttoned and the image of an osmanthus tree sewn across the heart. He looked at her but went on smoking, feigning indifference.
Eventually he spoke. “I don’t like it when they call me that,” he said
The girl shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Still. It’s the way they say it. Ya?”
She nodded in sympathy. As though she too were a foreigner in that land. “You have to understand,” she said. “Seeing you comes as a shock to them. They cannot help but to stare.”
“And you? I don’t seem to be making you all that uncomfortable.”
“That’s because I’ve had many foreign teachers in the past.”
“Is that so. Well. It shows.” He turned and coughed into the crook of his arm. “Your English is pretty good. If I didn’t know better, I’d have to say you were a native speaker.”
He expected the girl to deflect this praise in an act of self-effacement but, surprisingly, she did not. Gazing up at the departure board, smiling instead. “I came in fourth at the provincial English competition this year,” she said. “Hopefully, next year, I’ll win.”
“Still got plenty of time.”
She waited for him to go on, but he did not offer anything further. In time, the announcement system rang overhead, bruiting another arrival. The sounds of the station returned. The girl looked at him and studied his legs - the right one atrophied, the other one normal - then rose and came over, extending one hand with the palm facing down. How ladylike, he thought. “My name is Bella,” she said. “May I ask yours?”
“Thomas,” he replied. Then, correcting himself: “Mr. Guillard.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Guillard.” She had trouble pronouncing his name. Across the aisle, a group of travelers got up to leave, and he looked to see if the girl in knee socks was among them. She was not. He smiled. She was sitting just as she had before, flipping through a magazine, the cover on her lap. Bella sat down next to him, pointing at the board. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Apparently, nowhere. Tickets are sold out.”
“Oh. It’s such a pity!” As he exhaled, she drew back noticeably, waving one hand between them in an effort to chase down the smoke. “What are you going to do?”
He looked at her and shrugged, indicating the cigarette in his hand. Then he took another drag.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Not unless you’ve got an extra ticket to Ningyuan.”
At this her countenance brightened. “Ningyuan?” she asked, in a pair of tones only slightly different than the ones he had used. “I’m going there too!” Then her face went dim. She looked at him strangely. “Why are you going to Ningyuan?”
“I’ve got to see about a job.”
“Are you an English teacher?”
He nodded and told her yes.
“Where do you teach?”
“Well, till recently, here in Changsha. Yali Zhongxue. Before that at Number Twelve.”
“Yali Zhongxue? It is an excellent school. You must be a very wise teacher.”
He raised one hand, pretending to balance it like a scale. “Mamahuhu,” he said. Bella laughed.
“Your Chinese is so wonderful, I think!” She blushed, and, for a moment, her birthmark faded. “But why do you want to go to Ningyuan? It’s such a poor place, and there is nothing to do there.”
Guillard coughed, shielding himself from Bella, striking at the cavity of his chest. Then he hawked and leaned and spat. “Trust me,” he said. “It’s not my decision. Yali didn’t extend my contract. I’m looking for whatever I can get. There’s only a month and a half remaining on my visa.”
“You’re an American?”
She grinned. “Which state are you from?”
Her eyes widened in recognition. “The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” She said the name as though reciting it from a book. “It must be very beautiful. I had a teacher once from St. Paul. His name was Sean. Do you know him?”
Guillard smiled weakly, stubbing out his cigarette. “No,” he told her. “I don’t know Sean.”
“Oh. Well, if you’re having trouble finding work, why don’t you just go back to America? It is such a powerful country, and, surely, you must have family.”
Guillard tried his hardest to conceal the pain occasioned by this remark. “I like it better over here,” he lied. “Life is more exciting.” The split-flaps rustled. He gazed across the hall. “This guy I know told me that his brother just went back to Nigeria last month. Apparently, he was teaching in Ningyuan. The school is scrambling to find a replacement. It’s been hard to get in touch with them, though. I’m gonna have to get on the first bus out of here in the morning. Hope I get there before they fill the position. Otherwise,” – he looked at her – “bu hao.”
Bella tried her best to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry, Mr. Thomas. Where there is a will, there is a way.” He eyed her obliquely and winced. She did not seem to notice. “I’ll find a seat for you on my bus.” She rummaged through her bag and produced a clear, blue sack. It was filled to the brim, nearly bursting at the seams. “By the way,” she asked him. “Have you eaten dinner yet?”