Escape Trick Anthology
BY CAROLINE WU
Baba, the great escapologist, came to Dirt City, Ohio in 1999. Then, there was only a doorknob factory and electricity every other day. That year, possibly, Al Gore passed through town on his Appalachian campaign trail. And possibly, my father’s vanishing led to the disappearance of dogs from Dirt City.
Baba now exists only in the interstitial space of my memory. Somewhere, there must be a white cross under a mailbox proving he existed. Baba’s gone but not dead, and he only ever understood the art of leaving. Without him, without his centripetal force, Dirt City might just twist clean off Earth’s axis.
Only two important things happened in the whole summer of 1994: (1), Baba slept with the neighbor’s daughter, and (2), Baba’s sister unhooked her brain from her body.
(1) Baba sleeps with the neighbor’s daughter.
Huilong district is decaying and The Master Mystery is on TV. Anita Mui on the radio is going to sing until her voice gives out.
Harry Houdini, says the neighbor’s daughter.
Huh, asks Baba.
Hou-di-ni, Feifei repeats. She points to the short man battling the robot on screen.
Crummy actor, but they say he could find his way outta anything. Straitjackets and boilers. Even the belly of a whale, once.
The robot on screen hisses poisonous gas. Harry Houdini adjusts his collar.
Stupid, Feifei scoffs.
There are rabid dogs fighting in the alleyways and Feifei is dangling a cigarette between her acrylic nails. Her concave chest flutters in the dense air. If she drops the cigarette, Baba thinks, the fire will reduce their bodies to ash outlines.
How long would it take Houdini to escape from a labyrinth of charcoal bed sheets? How long would it take Houdini to escape from Huilong district, from Hebei province?
The summer of 1994 is full of static. And you start noticing disruptions on linear brainwaves. The promise of the parabola. Change is coming, you know by the swell/shrink of the world beneath your rubber sneakers. You know the only way to keep up is to keep running.
When Baba’s halfway out the door, Feifei calls — watch out for the dogs.
Elsewhere, (2) Baba’s sister unhooks her brain from her body.
Her corpse is on a reed pallet in the laundry room. The doctor calls it meningitis; Baba only knows that his sister’s mind unraveled into fibers. Is brain corruption a communicable disease?
The funeral is over before the body unspools in the summer heat. Baba hands a piece of candy to the gravedigger’s daughter. You pretend she is your dead sister who you never paid attention to. Remind God you are a good man.
Your ma has already shriveled into the drywall. You want your ba to hold you, but he’s already gone.
Huilong district trembles beneath the pavement. The city is like a fishhook caught on Baba’s lungs. The children watch him with sinkhole eyes. Tourists come to watch the alcoholics and prostitutes dissect themselves on street corners.
You stand outside the cemetery gate and watch a dog lick up your vomit. Throw a rock at the dog and its shameless hunger, run now, crouch on a tree branch as the beast snarls below.
There is froth in Baba’s brain. Only later will you realize you have been trying to recreate this feeling your whole life: making a carpet from the hound. Fleeing a city of danger. The exhilaration at your own escape.
Yes, Baba thinks, Hou-di-ni.
Dogs everywhere are the same, and Baba realizes this while standing in line at Dirt City’s post office.
The woman in front of him has a chihuahua stuffed into her purse. It’s a ragged, hairless thing, gnawing at its owner’s nylon sweater. All rabid, all ravenous, Baba thinks.
The post office offers its own type of immigration services. A former meth addict processes passport applications while only minimally grimacing at a customer’s English. In the corner is a payphone that charges only 30 cents per minute.
Once Baba called Feifei using the payphone — the only call he’d made since arriving in America. He didn’t say anything. Just listened to her inhaling, the sound like surgery chatter in the receiver.
Shui ya? Who is this? Then a crackling noise as Feifei stubbed out her cigarette.
Near the safe deposit boxes, a high school intern takes ID pictures. The neon post office lights bounce off his braces.
Baba dolled himself up in the gas station before taking his picture. Painted his bangs with a splash of Crisco oil, Wite-Out-ed a stain on his dress shirt. Took a bit of varnish to his teeth.
When the Nikon goes off, the flash blinds Baba, and a circle of white light milks his eyes. Every immigrant sees something in this white light. You want money to send to your sick NaiNai back in the village. Money for dentist school. Money for money. Green card, permanent resident status. You want to escape from the festering provinces back home, which hopefully someday you won’t call home anymore. Call this white light the Dream and let it conquer your vision. Call this white light the Dream, let the photons dress you in a forecast of pastel condominiums and retirement savings.
The portrait comes out of the printer steaming hot. The shine of Baba’s teeth drowns out the wheat-gold of his skin, the ink of his hair. The radio on the post office counter is saying the Dow Jones is up today. Katie Couric on TV declares that Discovery landed at the ISS.
Tonight, you fall asleep and try to convince yourself these are the glorious times.
Feifei Comes to Dirt City — Thanksgiving, 2000
Baba is an employee at the dirt packaging facility. He operates the pallet jack, transferring the bags to the trucks. He never knew there were so many kinds of dirt: topsoil, potting soil, garden soil. Dirt that gets caught behind your ears, dirt you shake out of your underwear. Dirt that gets caught in your throat, dirt that settles in your brain like dust.
The job pays less than minimum wage, but there’s always time to take a dump or watch the stray dogs fight over salami in the yard.
On Baba’s first day working the pallet jack, a trucker collapses from a heart attack. The ambulance siren traces circles in Baba’s memory for the rest of the afternoon. A week later, he will think about asking what happened to the trucker, and then realize he doesn’t know the man’s name.
On Baba’s fifth month of commodifying the earth, he finds Feifei waiting outside his rental apartment. She’s carrying two suitcases and a work visa. Her father is lying comatose in Beijing Central Hospital after a stroke. Her mother’s gone back to work as a rag picker on the western fringe of the capital.
Feifei lays her head against Baba’s shoulder, and he can feel the imprint of her tears.
At night, Baba holds her while they lie in his twin-size bed from the Salvation Army.
I quit smoking. Feifei says this while they fold together like tectonic plates. Once again, you are reconstructing your own geography. Know that the land here will not be the same as before.
A homeless man under the bridge is shaking. The city’s hunger is buried under the snow. The dogs are quiet now.
You’re going to find a wrinkle between your eyebrows and the ropes of your lover’s hair in the bathtub drain. Your lover will tell you she’s pregnant and you’ll say it’ll be okay. But you start to feel the cage forming again. No, the land here will not be the same as before.
Reagan’s funeral happened on my third birthday. All the parents in the apartment complex brought their kids to my party, and Baba hid in the bedroom with the TV.
Every channel was broadcasting the hearse’s path to Reagan’s Presidential Library. The transport crawled to Simi Valley, as if the motorcade was rolling through molasses. There were crowds of Americans weeping in the streets, misery sticking to their denim and Keds.
The president’s brain had vacated its body, and for the first time in years, Baba thought about his sister.
He thought about how her brain had melted into syrup, how only the gravedigger and the dogs had come to the funeral. There was no pastor reciting pretty words, no camera crew. His sister had died the same way everyone in Baba’s family had — unnoticed, inconsequentially.
There was an American flag covering Reagan’s casket, the memory of a whole nation blanketing one man. There were more people visiting Reagan’s casket than citizens in Huilong district.
On the day of Reagan’s funeral/my third birthday, Houdini had been dead for 78 years. Houdini had been dead longer than my father had been alive, and Baba realized that even the greatest escape artist couldn’t run away from the coffin.
Ma says I started talking late, so I could only cry while my father pictured himself rotting from the inside. Ma was pounding on the locked door to the bedroom, and Baba was in a trance. The cake was going bad in the kitchen.
Baba always said I couldn’t possibly have remembered that day. He was wrong. I’ve traced the beginning of his metamorphosis to Reagan’s final rest, and I can’t stop confusing all these incidents with my birthday.
There was this portrait of Houdini that Baba always kept in his pocket. It was of Houdini in a tuxedo, staring at the camera while in handcuffs. That portrait was taken in 1905, and Baba cut it out of a library book.
All summer, Baba turned himself into Houdini. He started parting his hair down the middle and smoothed it with gel when his cowlicks sprang out. He rigged barbells out of curtain rods to gain more muscle.
During his break hours, Baba blindfolded himself and pretended the beams of the dirt packaging facility were cell bars. He timed how long he took to escape the maze of machinery. That summer, everything became a cage for him: too-tight sweater sleeves, seatbelts, family dinners.
There are chemical reactions occurring under your skin. Feel the seismic tremors along your DNA. A body is nothing but an object in hibernation. All you need is the final catalyst to break free from your old self.
Later, the police investigating the dirt factory collapse in Ohio would conclude that heavy rains had liquified the building’s soil foundation. The support beams had sunk straight into the mud, crushing the assembly lines in their descent.
But before that, before the collapse released clouds of topsoil into the atmosphere, before the dirt hung itself on the clotheslines, Baba went to work for the last time.
He took his usual morning leak and started up the pallet jack. After moving the stacks to the semi-trucks for three hours, he went into the parking lot and looked at the sky for the last time. Then he looked at the grass for the last time. The supervisors were playing WOSU radio: an unusual earthquake in Wyoming has injured fifteen people. A new bird species has been discovered in Barbados.
When the first shudders came, Baba was hypnotized by the drifts of potting soil. It felt like seeing snow for the first time, and he was reminded of the day my Ma came to Dirt City. Soon, the walls crumbled inwards, and the roof caved in on the palletizer wrapper.
You wonder if this is your final evolution, turning into mulch. You will become the fleshless engine and allow soil to replace blood. You imagine the hand of your dead sister breaking through the ground, grasping for you.
On fossilized pages from his journal, Houdini recalled the first time he tried to escape from being buried alive — “the weight of the earth is killing.”
There are no more dogs in Dirt City. The alleys are hushed without their howling, their parasitic violence. Baba is gone now, and his hopes have been preserved somewhere safe from contamination. The dogs have already moved on to the next meal.
Baba leaves all his prisons for me to inherit. Ma starts smoking again, so much that I need to disable all the smoke detectors in the apartment. Already, city hall has suggested building a parking lot over the dirt facility’s ruins.
The police send Ma inconclusive tissue fragments. The only certainty: Baba, the chased man, managed the greatest escape of all time — the departure from Huilong district, from Dirt City, from decomposing suburbs. Yes, Hou-di-ni. All my refugee fathers and their vanishings.
I dream that we exhume Baba’s grave, and find no body at all.