flowerpot2

Hell Notes

This story originally appeared in SCI FICTION in February 2005.
It received an Honorable Mention in the Year’s Best Science Fiction, 23rd Edition.

Down the street from Burrell & Drummond, the agency where I used to work, there’s this Chinese buffet restaurant called the Cheerful Panda. I haven’t been near the place since the owner, a man named Uncle Chao, called me a soulless bastard and said that if I didn’t get my goddamn borrowed RV out of his parking lot he’d chop up my heart and use it to stuff egg rolls.

Uncle Chao’s face got very red when he was yelling at me that last time. It was a particularly powerful red, a nice bright purplish red, the kind of red consumers eat up with a spoon. Uncle Chao Red. I remember thinking it would test well. You start thinking like that after a while. Like the blue of the sky would look good on a soap box, or the green of a newly unfurled leaf would be a great color for a cell-phone faceplate.

Marketing is Hell.

In all fairness, Uncle Chao’s face had every right to be that particular shade of red. I would have been angry too if some soulless bastard drove an RV into my parking lot with the intention of cheerfully laying waste to everything I’d ever worked for. I would have killed me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was the middle of a long, miserable winter. Icy arctic blasts alternated with stretches of unseasonable warmness when the snowy streets turned to rivers of gray mush. I’d wasted the morning on a couple of clients who’d been foisted on me as a joke. They were an elderly pair who owned a small restaurant chain: two dozen down-home drive-ins dotted across rural Alabama. He wore a faded Hornets sweatshirt and grubby khakis. She wore a pantsuit of polyester double knit in a fetching shade of puce. Not surprisingly, they were on the verge of bankruptcy.

They’d been serving burgers and fries since the ’50s. They were being crowded out by the big national chains, and they’d turned to Burrell & Drummond for help. We were supposed to repackage them, give them an edge, bring them into the twenty-first century. I assured them it would be no problem. With great gravitas, I swore to mercilessly tax every fiber of my creativity and marketing savvy until everything was coming up roses for them.

Lying makes me hungry, so after that meeting I threw on my new cashmere overcoat and headed over to O’Reilly’s for lunch. I’ve been going there for years. It’s the kind of place where men in uncomfortable suits swap sports stats with painfully fake bonhomie. My kind of place.

Looking back on it now, I figure I must have passed the Cheerful Panda a thousand times on my way to O’Reilly’s, though I never noticed it. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it that day either, except that within minutes of revolving myself out of the brass-fitted doors of my office building, the low gray clouds overhead exploded like an overstuffed down comforter, sending hordes of damp, sticky snowflakes to violate my new $3,500 cashmere overcoat. I needed to duck inside somewhere.

I paused in front of the Cheerful Panda. There was a sign in the window, “Cheap Chinese food for here or to go.” The price of admission ($5.95 lunch, $6.95 dinner, plus tax, all-you-can-drink off-brand beverages included, and soft-serve vanilla ice cream for dessert) didn’t inspire confidence. But the snow was coming down harder, and icy wet was beginning to seep through the toes of my wingtips.

So in I went.

A little doorbell tinkled to greet me. This bit of cheer wasn’t much of a bulwark against the restaurant’s overwhelming air of shoddy despondency. There was a thick coating of dust on the fake plastic flowers that decorated the white-trellised walls. The fiberglass bas-relief dragon was missing a horn. The carpets were dotted with gray spots of ground-in rice. I made a mental note not to brush against anything.

The woman who took my money was surly and unsmiling, and had a huge hair-sprouted mole on one side of her nose. She grunted as she directed me to a table, then made a great show of removing the second paper-wrapped place setting from my table so that it could be used for another (implicitly more important) customer. She brought me water in a dirty amber glass. It smelled funny.

Before I even had a chance to unwrap my silverware, a loud “thud” caught my attention. The swinging doors to the kitchen flew open and a woman in a cook’s uniform strode over to the buffet line. She was carrying a steaming-hot serving dish. One look at her and my chest abruptly turned into porridge somewhere between my Adam’s apple and my breadbasket.

Her eyes were green. Her face was perfectly oval, as luminous as the halo of a painted saint. Her black hair was glossy as hot tar, and it wisped tantalizingly around her face as if she’d just exited a scene of extreme passion.

She placed the steaming dish in the buffet line, pausing for a tiny moment to wave a hand over it, like a priest blessing a baptized infant. Then she went back into the kitchen, giving the doors another bad-tempered kick with a heavy black combat boot.

I made my way over to the buffet line. I took a plate (scraping a desiccated grain of rice from it with my thumbnail) and went to the dish she had brought out.

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I suppose it’s no wonder that the twice-cooked pork the beautiful chef placed in that depressing buffet line kicked me in the mouth like a South American soccer superstar with bad aim. There was never twice-cooked pork like the twice-cooked pork I tasted that snowy day at the Cheerful Panda.

The pork was of melting tenderness in a perfectly balanced garlic sauce, with impetuous slices of water chestnut and insouciant threads of onion. The taste, salty and sharp and rich, sent sibilant shivers along nerve endings I never knew I had. I imagined rolling around on satin sheets, rubbing that twice-cooked pork all over my body. I ate until I thought I would burst, then I had one plate more.

The next morning at work, I could barely concentrate. At 12:15, I burst forth from a grindingly dull meeting and raced back to the Cheerful Panda. That day, I sampled many dishes personally placed in the buffet line by her blessed hands: a rapturous General Tso’s, crispy and spicy and tender, that set my sinuses aflame; a playful orange duck that mingled sublime oiliness with sweet, tangy tartness; a magical kung pao shrimp that made one believe shrimp and peanuts were created solely for the purpose of being wed for all eternity, despite many an allergic alarmist’s hand-wavings to the contrary.

I ate until I couldn’t force another morsel past my lips, then I went back to the office, closed the door, and took a nap.

Every day that week, I went to the Cheerful Panda for lunch. I would bring work with me and extend my lunch hour to two or three or four. I would eat, grimace at the dusty fake flowers until the bloating subsided, then eat some more. Every day, the beautiful cook would put out the dishes (never failing to add her beneficent little hand-wave) and I would fall upon them greedily. I gained five pounds. The boys at the office joshed me about it. They began asking why they hadn’t seen me at O’Reilly’s. I kept my mouth shut.

The next Monday (after a weekend at the gym sweating my ass off on the elliptical), I was back at the Cheerful Panda, napkin tucked over my tie, chopsticks at the ready.

The kitchen door swung open. But it was not my beautiful cook who came out. It was a big, sweaty, toothpick-chewing white guy with large pores, smudgy tattoos prominently featuring the American flag, and (rather disturbingly) a shaved head wrapped in corpse-colored bandages.

He was carrying a steaming dish in his hands, using damp, grubby towels as potholders. He threw the dish into the line with disdain. I timidly walked over to it. I hoped, of course, that he was just putting food out for my beautiful dream chef. My hopes were quickly dashed.

The mandarin chicken was burned and overgreasy, globs of syrupy sesame-seeded deep-fry coating surrounding leathery gristle. I threw down my fork in disgust after the first bite then picked it up again to dig impacted caramelized coating from my rear molar.

I waited, my toe tapping the dirty floor anxiously. I waited for her. But she did not appear. The big cook, however, brought out dish after dish, slamming them into the buffet line. Each was worse than the one before it: pasty, slimy pot stickers, bruised slices of neon pink barbecued pork cowering limp and defeated on brown-edged cabbage, flabby hoisin spareribs threaded with suetty veins of lard.

Despicable.

Rage flowed through me abruptly, the rage of unutterable loss. I stormed up to the cashier, fists clenched.

“What … have … you … DONE?” I demanded, my voice sounding tense and hysterical even to my own ears. I felt like weeping.

She didn’t say anything, just looked at me. The hair on her mole nodded coolly.

“No refunds,” she said, in bell-clear English.

“You think I care about the money?” I shrieked. “I’ll pay twice that amount! Three times that amount!” I fumbled in my hip pocket for my wallet, dug out a twenty, threw it onto the counter. Dug out another, threw it down too. “Just bring her back! Bring back that food!”

The woman stared at me then down at the money. She took the twenties, hit a key on the cash register, slid the money into a drawer. Then she closed the door with a “cling” and looked up at me, her eyes flinty.

“No refunds,” she repeated then looked past me as if I’d suddenly ceased to exist. Even though I stood in front of her, refusing to move, her eyes focused again only when the little bell over the door tinkled, and two new suckers walked in, brushing snow off their sleeves.

*

But I wasn’t about to let it go, just like that.

That night, after work, I waited at the back door of the Cheerful Panda. There was steam coming out of a greasy ventilation hood, and two large dumpsters overflowed with trash. Under the dumpsters were glue traps for the rats; one rat had gotten stuck and was frozen to death in a somewhat comical position.

I stood, toes curled stiff in my wingtips, the snowflakes spotting my new cashmere overcoat. Screw it. I wasn’t going to move until she came out.

Eventually she did. She wore a red knitted cap and gloves. Her black hair swished across the nylon shell of her cheap down parka, making the most erotic sound.

I stepped out of the shadows. I didn’t mean to scare her, but she drew in her breath, lifted her hands in some kind of kung-fu defensive posture. I thought that was awfully cute, and I had to stifle a chuckle. I try never to chuckle at women. They don’t much like it.

She peered at me more closely.

“You,” she said. “You came in every day last week.”

“Why aren’t you cooking anymore?” I tried to sound calm and businesslike, but the words came out desperate and whiny.

Snow drifted delicately across her face, yellow in the sodium streetlight. She blew out a breath that congealed fog before her succulent lips.

“Well, he’s back from the hospital. Captain Carver. He’s the regular cook. I was just … filling in.” My heart twinged at the bitter note of sadness in her voice.

“You don’t understand,” I pleaded. I tried to catch her lustrous green eyes, which she was carefully averting. “Your food is … is …” Words failed me. I couldn’t describe her food. Swirling flurries of market-speak blustered through my head, but it was all too false, too hollowly superlative. I let out a billowy breath.

“I can’t live if I don’t taste it again,” I said.

She smiled bitterly but still did not look at me. I fancied I saw a tear at the corner of her eye, but in the snowy darkness I couldn’t be sure.

“Obviously, kuei, you have found the wrong cart,” she said softly. “Tomorrow, sit in the booth at the back. By the dark archway. Watch for me.”

Then she disappeared into the dark, little feet in heavy black boots crunching in the snow.

*

The next day, I flipped a disdainful $20 at the surly cashier and didn’t wait for change. I made my way to the back of the restaurant. The booth in the back was tucked next to a gloomy archway that led to the banquet room no one ever rented, a big room crammed with stacked, broken chairs and dusty pieces of restaurant equipment.

The booth’s sparkly red vinyl upholstery was torn, showing dingy yellow stuffing like exposed body fat. I wedged myself in, trying to get comfortable. Something kept jabbing me in the ass. I wadded up my coat and stuffed it under my right butt cheek. Then I opened my briefcase and prepared to wait.

I wanted to believe that it would all be the way it was the week before; I even brought work with me to fill the anticipated digesting time between trips to fill my plate.

She didn’t show up immediately, but I pushed this out of my mind and concentrated on writing notes on a legal pad.

Enough time had passed that the owners of the Alabama drive-in chain (the one that Burrell & Drummond was supposed to bring into the twenty-first century) would get the idea that I should actually have done something. In exchange for their consulting fee (which, I figured, was about all they could afford anyway), I planned to deliver them a delicate-yet-unambiguous situation analysis explaining that there was no room in the twenty-first century for yokels like them; the money was all spoken for by people with teeth. I was carefully crafting these sentiments using language Ma and Pa Joad could understand. Unfortunately, “shucks” and “golly” don’t read well in a situation analysis from a multi-million-dollar consulting firm. Of particular difficulty was how to convey the fact that they needed to fire at least 60 percent of their current staff. The pertinent euphemisms (“dehire,” “create payroll orphans,” “provide outplacement services for,” “right-size”) were sure to whistle way over their heads.

I’d finally come up with one I thought might work (“drastically reduce your redneck-to-paycheck ratio”), and was trying hard to remember whether reducing a ratio made it bigger or smaller, when I heard the thud of heavy black boots on the kitchen’s swinging doors. My beauty backed out of the doors, wheeling a portable buffet cart, the kind that might be pressed into service for a special party. One squeaking wheel echoed through the silent restaurant as she pushed it past me. She didn’t look at me, didn’t speak. She pushed the cart into the banquet room, parked it at the back, in the furthermost hidden corner. Before she went back into the kitchen, she stood before every dish in the cart and made those familiar, mysterious hand gestures.

She still did not look at me as she strode back to the kitchen, but she did give me a little nod. I hurried over like a kid just excused from Sunday school, stomach growling eagerly. I lifted the first lid. I stared at the contents of the dish. And it was the damnedest thing. The contents of the dish stared right back.

It was a bobbling stew of steamed eyeballs, large and lavender-pupilled and glistening in a rheumy milk-colored sauce. I think they were cow eyeballs. But I’d never seen a cow with lavender eyes.

Another man would have run screaming then and there. But it is a testament to the supernatural deliciousness of her twice-cooked pork that I not only held my ground, I actually looked under the lid of each and every other dish in the vain hope of finding it.

In one dish, long, pink, snaky-looking things, like extracted spinal cords, swam in a foul diarrhea-colored sauce. Another held large grilled cockroaches in quivering lumps of orange aspic. Dishes three, four, and five held, respectively: chunks of clove-spiked raw liver drenched in a bloody sauce; lacy webs of pearl-colored tripe fanned out like exotic sea flora; and a phlegmy stew of cancerous tubers.

There was a sudden tinkle as the front door opened.

A wave of unnaturally cold air swept through the restaurant, cold enough that it made me look up.

Five men came through the door. They looked harmless enough, like a gaggle of cheaply dressed accountants. One wore a bad toupee; another had a highly unfortunate mustache. There was something odd about them though … something not quite like normal accountants. Perhaps it was the fact that each man was glowing as if he’d been dipped in radium. Or perhaps it was the cloud of pure, unalloyed terror that wafted from them like perfume from a fat, five-dollar hooker.

Each man paused briefly at the cash register, laying down a small wad of garishly colored red bills on the counter. The cashier stood stock-still, staring through them, not at them; her obvious fear, blended with the standard sourness of her face, made her look like someone just about to sneeze.

After paying with the red money, the glowing accountants shuffled toward the back booth, toward me. The stench of horror preceded them, thick and choking. I repressed the urge to cower under the table and instead just pressed my back to the wall, trying to give them a wide berth.

They came straight toward me, toward the abandoned banquet room, toward the buffet cart of the damned. They removed the silver dish covers and tossed them aside; the sound of clattering metal clashed in my ears.

And then it all went to hell.

In an instant, they transformed from five glowing but apparently mild-mannered accountants into five glowing, ravenous, skeletal beasts with long, spindly limbs and pale, fog-colored flesh. Their drawn, purple-shadowed faces bore expressions somewhere between bemusement and anger, as if someone had said something very nasty to them in a foreign language.

They didn’t bother with plates. They stretched out their hands, and their fingers grew like Pinocchio’s nose, elongating into long, fleshy chopsticks. They dug these fingers into the dishes, stuffed food past their flaccid, suet-colored lips. They ate ravenously, grunting and smacking and moaning with disgusting pleasure.

My heart thudded behind my ribs, and I wanted nothing more than to run. But I could not move. My thighs were pretending my knees didn’t exist, and my knees were certainly not on speaking terms with my feet. I was frozen.

I wasn’t just physically pinned. I was mentally pinned. I could hear them. They were talking.

Despicable.

Intestines again?

The food at this place gets worse and worse!

But words were not spoken aloud. They susurrated icily through my brain, finding all the little cracks and corners, flooding along the wrinkled channels of my cerebellum like rancid camphor, making me feel terribly, terribly alone. I shuddered, trying to break free, but I could not.

Who the hell comes up with this crap?

Well, it’s better than that Dragon Palace in Detroit …

Yeah, at least here there’s ice cream …

I must have squeaked, or they must have heard my heart thundering like a sledgehammer against a garbage can, because at that precise moment one of those … things … looked at me.

It turned its slack, flaccid, glowing face toward me and smiled.

New kid.

My mouth moved, but no sound came out. Now all the things were looking at me, moving toward me … As they drew closer, it was like standing in the mist of a frozen waterfall; it sucked the warm right out of me. I could barely breathe as the things crowded around me, tighter and tighter, closer and closer …

The thing at the forefront stopped, looked down at me, and I could see that its eyes contained an infinity of blackness.

Hungry? it said. We are.

If ever there were good words at which to faint, those were them.

*

The next thing I knew, I smelled bleach, and cold was seeping up through the wool of my suit jacket. From all around me came murmurings. I was afraid to open my eyes. But then the murmurings became clearer, and I heard a girl’s voice, my girl’s voice, confused:

“But Uncle, I thought—”

Then a man’s voice, clipped and accented in Chinese:

“Don’t speak like a fool, Lin. Surely you can tell a kuei by now.”

“But he—”

“Quiet now. I will mark him for what he really is, and then this can all be finished …”

There was a fraction of silence, followed by a huge, meaty, ringing “thwack” that made me jump and open my eyes simultaneously.

When I did, I found that there was a large moon-shaped face looking down into mine. The face was red. Uncle Chao Red.

He was a large Chinese man in a nicely tailored gray suit, and he was kneeling over me, close enough that I could tell that he smelled very expensive, like old scotch and leather and premium-grade toilet paper. In one hand, he had a small earthenware pot. He was bringing the index finger of his other hand to my forehead. The tip of his finger was black and dripping.

I let out a holler and scrambled backward.

“Who the hell are you?” I said, looking around. “What the hell is this? Where the hell am I?”

I was in a kitchen, that much was clear. The kitchen of the Cheerful Panda, I wagered. Everything smelled like bleach and was far cleaner than I would have expected it to be.

Thwack.

The sound echoed through the kitchen again and drew my attention to a prep table where two people stood. One was my girl. Lin, he’d called her. Glorious Lin. She had a huge silver cleaver in her hand, and she was using it to violently bisect chicken thighs. The other was the big cook, the one with the American-flag tattoos and the bandages. He looked dazed and off balance, like one side of his head was bigger than the other. He also had a cleaver, but he wasn’t cutting up chicken with it; he was cradling it close to his chest, staring at me intensely.

I didn’t like this one bit.

“What is going on? What are you going to do with that cleaver? Where the hell is my coat?

“Carver, I think you’re going to have to hold him,” Chao said.

“Yes, sir,” Carver barked, grimacing a smile as he moved toward me. He laid down the cleaver before coming for me, but this didn’t comfort me in the least … I tried to scramble to my feet, but he was on top of me before I could. He pinned me in a straddle, settling his big, flabby flanks on my stomach. He held my shoulders to the floor, sneered down into my face. His breath stank of garlic and mints. I could feel Uncle Chao skirting around the big cook, the little pot still in his hand.

“Stop!” I could still turn my head, and I did, seeking out Glorious Lin’s beautiful face. She was standing at the prep table, eyes downcast. “Please, listen! Don’t let them … It was for you! I just wanted more of your twice-cooked pork! That’s all I wanted!”

“Can’t blame the guy,” she muttered. “Better than anything else we serve.” The words had an inordinate effect on the big cook. He released my shoulders, sitting up straighter, keeping me pinned to the floor with his sheer bulk. He scowled angrily at her, angling his bandages forward like a street tough preparing for a dustup.

“You know, I’m getting pretty sick of your attitude, Miss ‘Ceremonial.'” He had a surprisingly high voice, and he punctuated the word “ceremonial” with fat finger wiggles. “Captain Carver’s mu shu pork was good enough for five hundred American boys on a destroyer on the Indian Ocean, it’s sure good enough for this dump …”

Glorious Lin pulled her lips back from her teeth and growled—really growled—like a large feline. I’ve never seen a human female so ferocious; she looked like she was going to tear his throat out without once using her hands. I wanted to watch.

“Shut up, both of you!” Uncle Chao barked as he came to kneel over my head. “Carver, hold him by the ears. Don’t let him move.”

Carver’s big, greasy hands seized the sides of my head, gripping it like a vice, forcing it backward. Now, on top of the garlic and mints, I could smell his unwashed armpits and the vague whiff of iodine. Then another smell as Uncle Chao brought his finger to my forehead; dark, earthy … inky. Uncle Chao’s finger was cool as he traced something on my forehead with swift, careful strokes. I tried to wince away, but there was nothing I could do. Instead, I vented my frustration the best way I knew how.

“You’ve just bought yourself a packet of trouble, pal!” I squeaked up at him. “I’ll bring a lawsuit against you! Break this whole scam wide open, expose you and your eyeball cookery and those … things … whatever they are …”

“You’re like an empty bell. You swing and swing, but you never ring,” Uncle Chao clucked, his finger still moving gently across my forehead. “They’re not ‘things,’ you empty bell, they’re kuei. Hungry ghosts. The ghosts of your dead.” He punctuated his soft note of accusation with a little tap between my eyebrows. “The ghosts you stupid Americans don’t know how to take care of. You don’t take care of what you can’t see. Idiots. Like toxic waste, or smog, or global warming, if it’s not right there in your face—”

“But I can see them!”

“Well, you’re a special case.” Uncle Chao shrugged. “Let me guess. You’re a lawyer.”

“Marketing consultant.”

“Same difference.” He spoke as if he knew everything about me he needed to know. He lifted his finger from my forehead, lingering a moment to scrutinize his work from different angles. Then he went to an iron altar where a stack of red money was piled before a little laughing Buddha. It looked like the same red money the things … ghosts … had used to pay their way in. Uncle Chao took one fake red paper bill and held it in one hand, and, with the other, he retrieved a red plastic cigarette lighter.

“In this world, we are surrounded by spirits,” Uncle Chao intoned gravely, trying to spark a flame. He flicked and flicked, but the lighter would not light. He muttered a curse, shook the lighter. “Spirits living and dead. These spirits must be treasured and revered and cared for.” Uncle Chao paused, giving the lighter a really hard shake. “Spirits must be fed. Spirits of the living feed on art and beauty and culture. Spirits of the dead feed on—”

“Intestines and eyeballs,” I interrupted, throwing my weight abruptly to one side, imagining myself rolling out from under the burly Captain Carver and springing to my feet in a judo-chop stance. It didn’t work; Carver’s hands clasped tighter around my upper arms and he slammed me backward into the floor, hard.

“That’s what they like,” Glorious Lin snapped, the muscles of her jaw working, chewing annoyance like bitter gum. “Idiot.”

“That’s what you think,” I spat at her.

Wrong move.

There is a change that comes over a woman when she’s mad at you … no, not just mad at you, rather murderously, insanely mad at you. It starts at the throat, with a choking tightness that you can see from miles away. It radiates outward, freezing and melting her features all at once until she’s a pillar of lava with spikes of ice, rushing at you, and all you can do is cower inward and wish you were armor plated, like an armadillo.

I winced, closing my eyes, as she threw herself down beside me and grabbed a handful of my tie. Even Captain Carver pulled away from the heat of her fury.

“What did you say?” she hissed.

“Lin, you know better than to expect him to speak the truth,” Uncle Chao said dismissively. “It’s not in his nature. Do not let him disturb you … ah!” He gave a happy exclamation as he finally struck flame from the recalcitrant lighter. He held the red bill up in one hand and the red lighter in the other. His features took on a sinister cast as he touched them together.

“You will leave this place,” he said softly, looking at me through the smoke with plangent black eyes. “You will leave and never come back. I banish you.”

At that instant, I got the most bilious, queasy feeling, like all the bad food I’d ever eaten was coming back on me at once.

“Not yet!” Glorious Lin’s shrieking cut through the rising waves of nausea that were overtaking me. I was vaguely aware of Captain Carver climbing off me, but even that did not help; I felt as if I’d lost my mooring and was going to float to the ceiling like a vomitous balloon.

“What the hell did they say?” Glorious Lin hissed in my ear as Captain Carver picked me up like a rag doll and tossed me over one shoulder. “What did they say about my food?”

“Lin … Lin!” Uncle Chao tried to soothe.

“No! I want him to tell me what they said! The big liar! They love my cooking! They love it! It’s delicious! Do you know how hard I work to cook it?” She put her lips by my ear, shouting as Carver carried me toward the door. “They love it, just like you loved it!”

“Fine,” I blurbled, bile juice saturating my taste buds. “They love your cooking. They love intestines and eyeballs. Whatever you say.”

Icy cold air welcomed me as Captain Carver wrenched open the back door and threw me out. I landed hard in the alley, tumbling into a scud of gray, greasy snow. I lay there for a moment, moaning, stomach roiling; the door opened again and out sailed my new overcoat and my briefcase. They landed together in a yellow-rimmed puddle.

Inside, I could hear Glorious Lin screaming and breaking things.

I would never set foot in the Cheerful Panda again.

*

Which is not to say that I never had anything more to do with the ghosts.

I stumbled back to my office, locked myself into the bathroom, and threw up a couple times. In between heaves I leaned on the rim of the sink, staring at my reflection with red-rimmed eyes, trying to scrub off whatever Uncle Chao had drawn on me. He’d used some kind of permanent ink, so no matter how much I scrubbed, there was still a faint gray smudge on my skin.

Oh, I was going to sue the tailored pants off that bastard’s expensively wiped ass.

Being angry helped take my mind off an uncomfortable connection I’d made while doubled over the toilet.

Kuei. That’s what Lin had called me, that night at the back door of the Cheerful Panda. Kuei. Ghost.

I went back to my desk and worked for a few more hours, angrily scribbling off nasty memos and snitty e-mails. I left a few pissy voice messages too. It all made me feel real and impactful, like I could have an effect.

It made me feel alive.

There was a knock on my door at 5:00 P.M. precisely. I looked up, ready to serve up some hot steaming vitriol to whichever of my mouth-breathing coworkers was unfortunate to have stumbled into my lair. But it wasn’t one of my mouth-breathing coworkers.

It was her.

She was wearing that down parka and those black army boots. She’d unbundled her hair, and it spilled down her back smooth and even. Asian women have that kind of hair, thick and perfectly glossy, the kind of hair you just want to chew on.

She looked at my forehead.

“That’ll go away after a few days,” she said, inviting herself in and taking a seat. She leaned back like a surly teenager, chin on chest. “People like us will always be able to see it, of course. That’s the point.”

“What do you mean, people like you?”

Yao-Jen,” she said, looking around my office. Her eyes lighted on a stress ball I’d picked up at a conference somewhere. It depicted a yellow smiley face. She reached for it, clutched it tightly. The sight of her fingernails digging into the foam rubber made me shudder. “Shu-Shih. Sorcerers. Wizards. Whatever.”

“Sorcerers,” I said. “Who run a buffet restaurant.”

“Well, the ghosts have to be fed.” Red fingernails tormented the poor smiling ball. “We feed them.”

I stood up, went to my office door, looked from side to side. Everyone in the surrounding offices had gone home. I closed the door. As I passed where she was sitting, I caught a whiff of her; jasmine and snow, burnt sesame oil and raw chicken fat. Glorious.

I went back to my desk, sat down. My heart was thundering behind my ribs. I regarded her over steepled fingertips, very seriously. I didn’t intend to beat around the bush.

“I’m dead, right?” I snapped at her, each word crisp. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what all this is about.”

Lin looked up then let out a scornful sound that was half a snort, half a laugh.

“Dead?” She grinned nastily. “Idiot, you’re not dead. Of course, you’re not really alive either—”

“Aha!” I jumped out of my chair, stabbed a finger in the air. “This is some kind of weird Chinese trick, isn’t it! I am dead!”

“Idiot, you’re not!”

“Then why did you call me kuei that night? What’s this written on my forehead? Uncle Chao said he was going to mark me for what I was … a ghost!”

“So I made a mistake.” She shrugged with excessive nonchalance. “The alley was dark. I had places to be.”

“Mistake? How exactly do you mistake someone for a ghost?” I jabbed a finger at my forehead, gazed piercingly at her. “What does it say, Lin? What does it say?”

She shrugged, gave the ball a truculent squeeze.

“Soulless.”

“Soulless?”

“Yes. As in without an immortal spirit or essence. Uncle wrote it on your forehead so people like us would see you coming. Only a man without a soul can speak with ghosts.” She paused, features hardening with sour stubbornness. “And I don’t care what Uncle says. Ghosts and the soulless are easily confused. Simple mistake. Anyone could make it.”

“Soulless,” I said.

“There are quite a few Chinese buffets that won’t let you in from now on. We don’t like people coming in and upsetting things. Someone like you could throw the whole thing into a tailspin. Bollix up the collection of Hell Notes. Can’t have that.”

“Soulless,” I said once more.

“You’re a member of a special class of human. People like you exist to fill things out. Balance good and evil. You’re like the stuffing they put around important things … what’s that called?”

“Excelsior.”

“Exactly,” she said. “You’re existential excelsior. Cheap and expendable. Single-serving package. One-time use only. When you die …” She made a “pfft” sound. “That’s it.”

I gaped at her. I must have gaped at her too long. She threw the stress ball at me, a movement too quick for the eye to see. It bounced off my forehead. I blinked and started.

“Of course, that’s probably what you were expecting anyway,” she continued, folding her arms. “Men without souls have absolutely no conception of anything transcendent or true. That’s why they are mostly lawyers, or plastic surgeons, or professional golfers.”

“Huh.” I stared down at the faux wood-grain of my desk. Interestingly enough, I found that I wasn’t in the least bit disturbed at the idea of not having a soul. They always seemed rather bothersome, and not having one seemed much more efficient overall.

“Now it’s your turn. What did they say about my cooking?”

“Despicable,” I said absently.

“Despicable?”

“They hate it. It’s testing through the floor, as we say in my business.”

She let out a long sigh, and her whole body seemed to deflate. She buried her face in her hands, and after a moment I noticed her shoulders shuddering slightly. She was crying. I came to kneel next to her, putting an arm around her shoulder. She pulled away from me with a petulant sniff, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“It’s just so … stupid,” she said. “Do you know what it’s like, having to watch idiot Carver do all the buffet-line cooking? I have to watch him make General Tso’s chicken with ketchup, and the egg foo yung with those powdered eggs he gets from the Army-Navy surplus store. I can make better food than him with one hand tied behind my back.”

“I know,” I said. “Believe me.”

“But I’ve been trained in Ceremonials.” Her voice became a snotty kindergarten singsong. “And I mustn’t distract myself with regular cooking.”

“Ceremonials?”

“The ancient art of cooking for the dead.” She paused, lifting a lip in a perfect Elvis sneer. “It’s how Uncle Chao makes all his money. The regular buffet is just a front.”

“The red money,” I said softly. Glorious Lin nodded.

“Hell Notes. The currency of the otherworld. It can be used to draw riches, fuel curses, banish illness … With it, Uncle Chao has amassed a fortune vaster than you can imagine …”

“But they hate your eyeballs and intestines … I’m sorry, Lin, but they do, they really do … and Uncle Chao’s still raking in the Hell Notes?”

“Like there’s no tomorrow,” Lin said, waving a hand as if to clear a bad odor. “But I don’t care about that! What does money and limitless power matter? I’m an artist! I want my food to be enjoyed, savored, admired! No stupid vast fortune in Hell Notes will soothe me into compromising my art!”

“No, no.” I patted her hand. “Of course not. Artists mustn’t worry about such things. They’re beneath you entirely.”

“If only I knew what they wanted!” she sighed, lifting drenched, dreamy eyes to the God who apparently lived in my acoustic-tiled ceiling.

“But don’t you see?” I said, taking her chin and tilting her face down and looking deep into her green eyes. “That’s where I come in.”

*

I don’t know where they got the idea that we like that … all that weird stuff, one member of my focus group told me, its thoughts clear and sharp as its mouth worked on a powdered donut. The sibilant mental words sent shivers up my spine, but I wrote them down diligently in my little black leather–covered notebook. We always just figured the eyeballs and intestines were some kind of Chinese delicacy or something …

And the ice cream was just so damn good …

There’s that one place in Mississippi … the food’s a little better. They put out macaroni and cheese once in a while …

I blinked surprise.

“Mississippi? But that’s hundreds of miles away.”

What, you think we got traffic problems? The ghosts looked at each other and burst into horrible, frenetic laughter.

“Ask them what they think about tentacles.” Glorious Lin poked me in the back, insistently.

“If you don’t mind,” I hissed at her, “I know what I’m doing. Shut up and bring in some more donuts.”

Of course, I was unable to set foot into the Cheerful Panda; whatever spell Uncle Chao had worked with the Hell Notes ensured that. The closer I came to the restaurant, the more repulsive force I felt from it. It was like being the wrong half of a magnet forced against itself.

So I had snagged the keys to Burrell & Drummond’s customized RV, an air-conditioned meeting room that was typically used to hold on-site focus groups, and parked it outside the Cheerful Panda. On the side of the RV, I hung a banner. To the rest of the world it looked blank, but Glorious Lin had used a large brush and clear, glittering ink to write invisible Chinese letters that she assured me read “Free Cookies and Donuts.”

I sat at the head of the table. Hungry ghosts surrounded me, hunched over in their chairs, tearing into the chocolate-chip cookies and powdered jelly donuts, scarfing them down, chewing with open mouths. A truly disturbing sight.

“All right, no eyeballs and intestines,” I repeated, swallowing hard. The ghosts didn’t seem to be paying much attention.

These cookies are good.

I always loved cookies …

And burgers. What I wouldn’t give to taste a burger again!

And fries!

“Tentacles!” Glorious Lin hissed at me as she brought in more donuts. “What about tentacles?”

“Tentacles?” I floated it past the ghosts gingerly.

All the ghosts seemed to react at once, hunching up their shoulders and making puking sounds.

UGH!

Despicable!

Of course, if that’s all a place has got …

Is that more donuts I see?

I shrugged at Glorious Lin, mouthed the words, “No tentacles,” and then pushed the fresh plate of donuts closer to the center of the table, watching as the ghosts attacked it like rabid dogs.

“So,” I smiled at them. “We’re thinking burgers and fries …”

*

The deal pretty much put itself together after that.

There was, as I’ve mentioned earlier, some drama when Uncle Chao found out what we were doing and came thundering out of the restaurant, cleaver in hand, to chase us out of his parking lot. But that was quickly resolved; I laid down rubber while Glorious Lin hung off the back of the RV, snarling spells at her raging uncle through the clouds of exhaust.

The mom and pop burger chain took some convincing—the owners weren’t quite sure how transforming their struggling chain of drive-thrus into engines of otherworldly capital would dovetail with their deeply held Baptist faith, but I was willing to guarantee them a million a year in revenue per location and that changed their tune pretty quick. I inked a deal with Mom & Pop on a Thursday, and resigned from Burrell & Drummond on a Friday. I took the stress-ball with me and nothing else.

First we closed the restaurants to the general public—the ghosts really detested the limited hours at the Cheerful Panda and wanted the flexibility to pop in for a nosh at all hours of the day or night. Next we expanded the product offering substantially. Besides burgers and fries, the ghosts expressed an eternal craving for slightly burned meat loaf, creamed peas, liver and onions, and tapioca pudding. The day we threw open the doors we drew in a hundred times more red spirit money than the Cheerful Panda had made in an entire year.

The newly organized locations are damn cheap to operate. We don’t have to offer parking, and we don’t need a huge amount of square footage. Thus, we’ve been able to locate additional outlets in subprime real estate. We don’t have to worry about any of the standard food-handling legalities the state usually imposes on restaurants—we aren’t actually serving anything, not to the living at least, and the living are generally the only ones state agencies are concerned with. Staffing costs are minimal. With our welfare-to-work contract, we hire bored single mothers for subminimum wage then tip them out with enough lucky red money to fulfill their wildest trailer-park dreams.

It’s all win-win-win-win.

A year later, the million-per-location obligation has been met ten times over. Of course, a deal’s a deal, so Mom & Pop don’t get one penny more than I am contractually obligated to give them. Glorious Lin and I are happily enjoying the rest.

Most of my share is going toward expanding our operations. We’re expecting to have greater market penetration than Starbucks before any potential competitors decide to believe that we really have a clientele.

I’ve set Glorious Lin up in her own restaurant, called Willow Grass. It’s done in tooth-squeaking shades of celadon and coral, and offers the most complicated, pretentious dishes on the East Coast. She has become the unalloyed darling of the city’s gastronoscenti, a terror-savant. She still finds time, like a good little wife, to make me twice-cooked pork every night.

One night, after a superbly satiating repast, while Glorious Lin and I were relaxing in our fifteen-thousand-square-foot apartment high overlooking the city, I asked her how many Hell Notes it would take to buy me a soul.

She looked at me quizzically, using a delicate fingertip to brush a speck of sauce from the corner of my mouth.

“What on earth would you want one of those for?”

I’m still trying to come up with an answer for her.

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