As he fumbled with the words Robert stretched an arm up from the bed, his hand swirling like he was conducting an orchestra.
Jing smiled. “Not bad. But not good either.” She was on her side, admiring the smooth, pale curves of Robert’s chest where it peeked out from under the duvet. “Listen again, the words have different tones: gai, and gai.”
“Okay. Gai? and… are you fooling with me? Are they really different?”
She nudged him playfully, “Of course, Robert. The problem is you keep pronouncing them like a question: gai? But that changes the tone. Listen again–”
“I dunno,” he dropped his hand, covering his eyes. “Maybe I’m not ready to learn Chinese.”
Jing raised her eyebrows and leaned back on her pillow. It was the morning after their third date and his every word, every movement, revealed something new about him. She was too tired to get into the whole ‘there isn’t a language called Chinese, just as there isn’t a language called European’ thing.
“I know, it’s hard.” She pointed across the studio apartment to the heating grate on the wall. “I learned the difference between gai and gai when I was little. There was a strange sound coming from one of the heating ducts in our house. I called out to father, ‘what’s making that sound in the ducts?’ And he yelled up from his workbench in the basement, ‘Gai!’”
Jing glanced at Robert to see if he recognized the word; he was picking his teeth with his pinky. She continued, “He yelled ‘gai,’ which means machine. But I heard ‘gai,’ meaning chicken.” She paused for effect. “So I thought there was a chicken living in the walls of our house.”
Robert half-laughed. “Huh-huh. That’s funny.”
“From then on, whenever the heat turned on and made that skrawk sound, I thought, Ahh, there’s the chicken.” She smiled at the memory, “I told my father and he laughed–he could still laugh, back then.”
Closing his eyes and fists in concentration, Robert whispered, “Gai? Chicken. Gai? Machine?”
Jing patted his head and swung her feet onto the floor. “Not even close, but, points for trying.” She put on her bathrobe, walked the three small steps to the sink, and started filling the kettle. “Then, that summer, I heard the skrawk sound several times, and I realized: summertime is hot—the furnace isn’t on. So I held my ear up to a grate, and I could hear scurrying, a quick shk-shk-shk sound of metal on metal. It was Gai-Gai, the chicken machine, running around in the ducts.” She chuckled,
“Sometimes I’d call out to her; sometimes she would skrawk back.”
Jing put the kettle on the stove. Robert was staring at her quizzically across the bedcovers. He propped himself up.
“O… kay, so it was like, a kid thing.”
“I didn’t think of her as a thing. She was my Gai-Gai, my eyes and ears. She kept me aware of what was happening in the house.”
“For instance, when father was in one of his moods, Gai-Gai would scramble through the ducts, find me, and skrawk a warning.”
“And father’s moods got worse. Especially after he lost his job, he got really scary.” Jing lifted the kettle and poured boiling water into the french press. “Gai-Gai would keep an eye on him, and lead me from room to room so I could stay hidden–until father finally collapsed on the couch, as always, and fell asleep.”
Robert crossed his arms and creased his face, looking both concerned and uncomfortable. He mumble-stuttered several times before managing, “Well, that sounds terrible…”
“It’s okay. I got through it,” She pulled two mugs from the cupboard, “Thanks to Gai-Gai. Hey, do you take milk?”
There was a long silence as Jing poured the coffee and Robert stared at the gray sky out the window.
She handed him a mug and got back under the covers.
“Gai-gai saved me from a burglar once. I was reading in bed; father was passed out as usual. There was a sound, and I went downstairs to investigate.” She blew on her coffee. “I saw the kitchen window slowly open, shwuuup, and suddenly Gai-Gai’s loudest-ever skrawk echoed through the ducts. The burglar yelped and ran away.”
Robert looked at her sideways. “Huh, pretty wild. How… how old were you?”
“For the burglary?”
“I guess… It’s just, I don’t know the psychology word for it, that separation thing kids do. I mean,” he shrugged, “You scared a burglar away when you were a kid. That’s pretty cool.”
Jing glared at him. “No, you don’t get it.”
“Oh, come on,” he shook his head, “Next you’ll tell me this chicken machine dragged you from a burning building.”
“No, nothing like that. But she did wake me up once when I had a terrible fever. She stroked my skin with her metal wings, kept me focused, while I called for help.”
Robert put his mug on the end table. “But… obviously that was your dad, right?”
“No.” She looked down, “By that time, father was unrecognizable. I was on my own.”
“I… all right.” He added, unconvincingly, “I’m sorry.”
Jing spoke slowly. “The thing is, father was hard, but he wasn’t a complete monster. When he was dying–he finally drank himself to death–he… Oh, remember you asked me last night why I don’t drink? That’s why.”
Robert was making a move to get out of bed; instead, he sighed and lay back down. Jing continued, lost in thought.
“When father was dying, he told me the truth about Gai-Gai, told me everything. You see, father knew he was spiralling down–he knew his Dr. Jeckyl was losing to Mr. Hyde. So he built Gai-Gai, with his own hands. He built the chicken machine, to protect me–from himself.”
The window shook as a garbage truck drove by.
Robert covered his eyes. “Look, I know I should be all sympathetic or something, and I am… I am.” He let out a breath, “But I’m a little weirded out. I don’t know you that well. I can’t tell if you’re pulling my leg, or if you really believe this stuff–which would be really strange. And honestly, probably a deal-breaker, y’know?”
Jing pursed her lips and looked at the ceiling. “That’s a pretty crappy thing to say. Here I am, opening up to you…” She blinked twice and got up to refill her mug.
Robert said, defensively, “Hey come on, what am I supposed to think?”
Turning to the window, Jing sighed, “It’s too bad. You’re very pretty.” She calmly stirred her coffee.
“But I’m guessing she’s going to agree with you: this is a deal-breaker.”
There was a flurry of sound from within the walls, a quick shk-shk-shk of metal on metal. Robert’s eyes followed the scurrying as it moved along the wall to the grating by the bed. He flinched when a bristling skrawk! shook the apartment walls.
Jing shrugged, “I was right. She doesn’t like you.”
Matthew Schickele and Hai-Ting Chinn live in Queens, with Eegwee. Two of the three are musicians. One is a cat.