Once through immigration, Brig and Tommy could finally relax. It was late morning but the sun had yet to burn through the clouds. There was a chill in the air that was magnified by Shenzhen’s ubiquitous humidity. It felt like rain was imminent.
Once Brig realized that he was safe, he showered Tommy with praise, thanking him repeatedly for saving him. Tommy accepted the compliments with false humility and returned the flattery by telling Brig how brave he was. Tommy was acting, of course. He needed Brig in working order, and a part of him was impressed by Brig’s resilience. The last few days had not been kind to Brig. Tommy had expected to take far more extreme measures to keep Brig in line and moving forward.
They found a cheap hotel that charged by the hour so they could shower and rest. Tommy had given Brig several more of his painkillers, but warned Brig that they would soon need to ration the drugs until they could find a pharmacy that would refill their supply. Tommy had Brig’s massive stash of opiates, but he couldn’t very well give them to Brig. Tommy was good, but he wasn’t that good, and giving Brig the same pills that had been stolen from him would raise questions that even Tommy would have difficulty explaining. He considered taking one of Brig’s pills himself, but worried that it might send him further into la-la land than he wanted to go, and right now Tommy needed his wits about him.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. By late afternoon both men were starving. Brig found a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken while Tommy found a shop that served a type of spicy noodle he enjoyed.
At around 8 p.m., Brig and Tommy exited a taxi in front of a brightly lit building that looked like a misplaced Las Vegas casino. Tommy had been laughing and talking with someone on his phone the entire ride and seemed to be in good spirits. Brig also felt pretty good, considering. He was rested, his stomach was full, he had a good buzz going, and he was in China! Only a few days ago he had been sitting at a bar in the U.S trying to come up with a creative way to kill himself. Life was good Brig thought sincerely and laughed out loud at the thought’s absurdity.
As they approached the building, two men in matching purple suits opened the doors and said something that Brig assumed was a welcome. Walking through the doors a chorus of at least thirty young Chinese girls lined up to greet them; fifteen on the left, fifteen on the right, all shouting in unison and bowing slightly from their hips. Tommy paid little attention. Maybe I died, and this is heaven, Brig mused as a host of Chinese “tens” stared (glared?) at him demurely. Through glazed, half-open eyes, Brig followed Tommy with the stupid grin of someone under the influence of something pleasant.
Another purple suited man met them at the end of the line of girls. Without pause, Tommy walked past the man, and the man followed obediently. Tommy knew where he was going. They stopped when they reached an elevator. Their guide pressed the up button as he spoke into a small mouthpiece that Brig now noticed hung from the man’s ear. Brig found this all wondrous and amazing, his permanent grin letting the world know he approved.
“We’re here to meet some friends of mine…and enjoy ourselves. I think we deserve it,” Tommy informed Brig.
“What is this place?” Brig asked.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been to a KTV?”
“OK…but I’ve never been to a KTV.”
“Aiya!” Tommy seemed genuinely surprised. “Well, I am proud to be the person who pops your KTV cherry.” Tommy said a few words to the man who laughed as the elevator arrived and its doors opened. Sweeping his arm low and wide, the host motioned Brig and Tommy into the lift.
“Happy! Happy!” The man shouted as the elevator doors shut. The intended effect of the adjective had the opposite effect on Brig, who was reminded of the noun, causing his drug-induced grin to be replaced by a frown. Tommy noted Brig’s sudden change in demeanor. Perhaps it was the drugs, but there were still some strong feelings that this man had for his daughter. Tommy was temporarily sympathetic but said nothing.
The muffled sound of loud music intensified as the elevator rose, slowly passing the second floor and eventually stopping at the third. As the doors opened, Brig was jolted back to the present, and his thoughts of Happy shoved rudely away by the deafening beats that were no longer blocked by the elevator doors. Brig fought the urge to cover his ears.
A sharply dressed woman in a red uniform stood just outside the open elevator, apparently waiting for them. She had an earpiece attached to her ear as well. She greeted Tommy warmly and welcomed Brig, whose dopey smile had returned. The woman led Brig and Tommy away from the elevator and down a hallway lined with purple doors, with gold-embossed numbers attached to them. Many of the girls in the hallway stared at Brig as if they’d never seen a foreigner before. Or maybe I’m just that handsome, Brig thought sarcastically. He watched as a long line of girls, wearing the same prom-like dress, filed out of one room and into the next, while a second group of girls entered a room further down the hall. Brig heard loud music and bad singing, and it suddenly occurred to Brig that this was karaoke, Chinese style.
They followed their host for what seemed an impossibly long distance. “This place must be massive!” Brig said out loud to no one in particular. Eventually, they stopped in front of room “3188.” The hostess pushed and held the door open as Tommy and Brig entered. It was much quieter in there, and Brig sighed in relief. The room was garish, like the rest of the building, decked out in purple, black, and gold furnishings. A large sectional “L-shaped” couch with a dozen overstuffed throw pillows lined the back wall. A large bowl of fruit sat in the middle of a rectangular stainless steel and glass topped coffee table. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. On the wall opposite the couch hung a flat screen television. A small black kiosk with the ubiquitous gold trim stood next to the TV.
Two Chinese men stood from the couch as Tommy walked in. One was young, thin, and handsome, the other short and muscular with a scarred face that lit up upon seeing Tommy. Tommy seemed equally pleased to see the man, and as they hugged the two younger men stood awkwardly to the side, waiting to be introduced.
Eventually, the old-timer reunion ran out of steam and Tommy introduced Brig to his old friend. “Brig, this is Tarantino. One of the best men in all of China. Unfortunately, his Cantonese is nearly as bad as his English.” Tarantino and the other man laughed, revealing they could understand Cantonese. Turning to Tarantino, whom Tommy called “T,” he continued. “T, this is Brigham. I haven’t known him for long, but he is ambitious…and loyal…and we’ve become good friends in a short time.”
“Well ain’t you the slice of cutie pie they all said you was,” Tarantino said in almost flawless English, with a slight Texas twang, while sticking out his hand to be shaken.
“Pardon me?” Brig thought he heard the man call him “cutie pie,” but he also knew he was high and figured the drugs were messing with his head.
“Well Ma’am, I’m from Longview Texas, my name’s Buck, and I’m here to fuck.” Tarantino finished his introduction with a straight face. Brig’s jaw dropped, and Tommy and the other man laughed so hard they could barely stand.
Brig was speechless. This man who Tommy had just said could barely speak English shattered his fragile mind by rattling off the most random introduction in English, with a Texas drawl! He looked at Tommy for some clarification, but Tommy could barely breathe he was laughing so hard, as was the other man.
Brig tentatively reached for the man’s hand to shake. Tarantino grabbed Brig’s hand aggressively, shook it vigorously, and retreated briskly to the coach and retrieved a cigarette. As Tommy composed himself, Tarantino took a dramatic, self-satisfying drag.
“Sorry, Brig. I should’ve said, T’s English is bad, but he claims to know every line from every Quentin Tarantino movie ever made. I imagine he had planned that introduction since I told him I was bringing an American friend with me tonight.”
“Yes. He has a photographic memory for all things Tarantino,”interjected the young man who hadn’t been introduced. “Hi, I’m Pan Dao Xin. You can call me Peter.”
“Peter Pan!” yelled Tarantino, without looking over.
“An unfortunate choice of name, but I chose it when I was a boy and didn’t know who Peter Pan was,” Peter explained.
“Fuck! Tonight is full of surprises. Why is your English so good?” Brig asked.
“I was born here in Shenzhen, grew up in Hong Kong, and went to college in the U.S. I studied language at UC Berkeley.”
“Ahhh,” Brig said, the stupid grin returning to his face. He was still a little shell-shocked, and couldn’t think clearly enough to keep the conversation going any more than that.
The woman that had previously escorted them reentered the room. Brig and Tommy unshouldered their packs and piled them against the wall furthest from the door and took their seats. Tommy sat down next to Tarantino and motioned Brig to sit at the end of the couch to his right. It was good to get off of his feet, and he let the purple couch envelope him. Peter sat down on the other side of Tarantino.
The woman talked rapidly in Mandarin. As the Chinese negotiations continued, Brig stared at Tarantino, trying to figure him out. How could you not understand English but be able to speak it like he did? And why Tarantino movies? Brig loved Tarantino movies as much as the next guy and believed that he’d seen most, but he couldn’t place the Buck reference.
The break in conversation gave Brig the opportunity to ask Tarantino more about his gift. “Hey! Mr. Tarantino. I love Tarantino movies, but I can’t remember which movie the ‘my name is Buck’ line comes from.”
Tarantino stared ahead as Peter translated Brig’s question.
“Kill Bill,” Tarantino answered disinterestedly.
“Volume one or two?” Brig asked.
Now it was T’s turn to be surprised. He rarely ran into anyone in China that had seen, let alone knew, there were two Kill Bill movies. Brig had earned a modicum of Tarantino’s respect for this display of Tarantino trivia.
“Kill Bill 1,” Tarantino answered.
Brig looked down and away, trying to remember the first Kill Bill. It had been a few years since he had last watched the movie. He vaguely remembered seeing a beat up and bloodied Uma Thurman lying on the floor in her blood-soaked wedding dress, looking up at the camera. Brig’s enthusiasm built as he remembered the scene.
“That’s the one where Uma Thurman is in a hospital, in some kind of coma, right? A male nurse that’s supposed to be taking care of her is pimping her out to his friends.” Peter translated and Brig continued. “Yea…and she bites one guy’s tongue out of his mouth, and slams another guy’s head in with a door? Or something like that.”
When Peter finished his translation, Brig could tell Tarantino was impressed. “Uma Thurman. I like!”
“I like too!” agreed Brig.
A slight, pimple-faced boy entered the room, followed by the hostess and another young girl who walked directly to the computer and sat down. The boy placed a bucket of ice with a full bottle of booze and a tray of twenty shot glasses in the middle of the table and left. Tommy explained to Brig that the girl at the computer would be their DJ, and the woman that kept coming in was the “mommy-san” or just “mommy.” Apparently she was some kind of manager.
The DJ came over and handed the bottle to Tarantino, who inspected it briefly and then handed it to Tommy. Tommy looked it over and showed it to Brig. It was a bottle of Four Roses whiskey. Brig wasn’t a whiskey guy but made the appropriate face to show he was impressed.
“Probably counterfeit,” Tommy said to Brig while handing the bottle back to the DJ and letting her know she could open it.
The DJ poured the golden liquid across the tray and into the small cups, being careful not to spill. The mommy-san grabbed five full cups and handed them out, first to Tarantino, then to Tommy, and lastly to Brig and Peter. She said something that to the other three found funny, but Brig couldn’t understand, probably a toast, and with a flourish, drained her shot. The men yelled “Gan Bei!” (Translation: Bottoms up!) and followed suit. Brig felt the whiskey burn down his throat and warm his stomach. Another night of alcohol, drugs, and feeling like shit in the morning, but it released him from the pains he should have been feeling. Physical and emotional. He hadn’t thought of the man he had possibly killed since dinner.