“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Holding a tray of cubed lime jello and a bottle of 7-up, the desk clerk knocked on Room 205 with the lightest of taps. The San Juan Hotel had discontinued its room service after the staff refused to haul any more dishes upstairs to the guest rooms complaining they had grown too old and tired. Lyman Tsang however, was an exception to this rule. No one wanted him to struggle while he was undergoing chemotherapy.
Arlene caught up to the desk clerk. As Tsang opened the door, she noted that he was shaky but more alert than when she saw him yesterday. With the tray now in Arlene’s hands, Tsang tipped the clerk and thoughtfully shut the door once he was out of sight. In his lounge robe and slippers he greeted Arlene with a careful kiss on the cheek, steadying himself with his bamboo cane. He was anxious to tell her that he sold his property to the man who knew how to speak Cantonese.
Tsang escorted Arlene onto the balcony. He leaned his cane against the patio chair, gripping its skinny armrests as he lowered himself down cautiously. The last few months of treatment had shortened their visits to discussing his health and the hot weather before he’d find himself out of breath.
“I’m relieved the deal’s done but something tells me he wants access to the tunnel. Did you know it caved in after the last earthquake?”
Arlene set the tray on the small table in between them. She stood over Tsang, pushing the straw out of its wrapper.
“You’ve told me many times, Tsang. Goodness that chemo’s rotting your brain.”
As Arlene handed him his 7-up, Tsang tried to jog his memory. When was the first time he told her? He always assumed senility would get the best of him. He never imagined his vices would turn on him instead.
“I’m afraid it really is. But isn’t this what pregnant ladies go through too?” When hiding his fear, he always resorted to being silly. It’s what he did best.
“I wouldn’t know my dear, I’m a seventy-five year old spinster.” Arlene quipped.
Tsang knew it was only matter of time before his supermarket went out of business when a Wal-Mart opened on the outskirts of town. His property had been sitting empty on Second Street for years. When they could still climb steep steps without being winded or crouch down without being immobilized, Tsang once gave Arlene a tour of the tunnel in the supermarket’s downstairs basement to quell her curiosity. Since she was a child, Arlene had heard tall tales of tunnels that ran from one side of the border into the other.
The tunnel went through to the basement of a Chinese restaurant Tsang’s grandfather purchased after years of stooping over railroad lines and digging irrigation canals in the Baja desert. The prohibition eased his grandfather’s financial struggle as he bootlegged, putting his son in charge of the Mom and Pop market on the American side. Tsang used like to joke that someone had to supply the puritans with their sin, so why not his family?
A troop of pigeons were congregating on the hotel’s shingled roof, keeping the elderly couple company. The balcony awning frosted with pigeon droppings shaded them as the evening’s cool off was trickling in with a wind of warm but pleasant air. Tsang’s body temperature was mercurial. The hotel’s central air was at 68 degrees throughout the day and this was much too cold for him. He looked forward to sitting outside without being wrapped in a blanket.
“Didn’t you say he was going to sell flavored ice and all that sweet and spicy candy garbage the kids around here love to eat? Arlene asked.
“He’ll probably do both. He’s got to have a cover. I just wonder if he’ll sell any of it behind the counter like a pharmacist.”
“Tsang, if he’s smuggling drugs, I doubt he’ll want any trace of it. Do you think he’ll drill away from the restaurant?”
“I don’t know if he has any idea where the tunnel leads. I didn’t say anything to him not even in Cantonese. I just wanted to get rid of the property. It’s been too long.”
“I wonder if he knows the restaurant owners.”
“I don’t even know who they are anymore. Its changed so many times I bet they don’t even look Chinese, they’ve all bred with so many Mexicans here!”
“Yes but you know what they say, the best Chinese food is in Mexicali because of that!” Arlene laughed as she balled the wrapper in between her fingers.
Tsang looked at his liquefying jello. It was in a bowl the restaurant usually reserved for pats of butter. The treatment had diminished his appetite but the doctor insisted he had to consume food. Ah, how he missed the food he craved but couldn’t hold down. As much as they betrayed him, he missed his vices too. A morning coffee, an afternoon beer and an evening martini with a side of cigarettes were all restricted. At least gambling didn’t cause cancer.
“What I really do wish is to go back in time and see everything as it was.”
“It was in your family for so long.” Arlene said in a quiet voice. She gazed at the inner courtyard below. A granite fountain gurgled water in the middle of a lawn that was exceptionally green this time of year when everything yellowed like paper in a worn scrapbook. “And the way your grandfather passed well, I’m sure it would have been nice to have some closure.”
Tsang’s nostalgia was as close as he would allow himself to get to spirituality. Before the illness, he could exude Catholicism, impersonate a Protestant or radiate Buddhism depending on who he cocktailing with. He never considered his grandfather’s suicide a tragedy or sacrilegious event but simply the end his grandfather chose for himself. The controlled burn Tsang was enduring for the purpose of healthy regeneration didn’t make him feel honorable. It made him feel as if he was searching for a four-leafed clover.
The sun dipped and the San Juan Hotel’s neon sign along with a handful of speckled stars flickered on. This was Arlene’s cue to leave. She was especially sensitive this evening as Tsang kept dozing off with his head sinking into his chest like the napping pigeons on the roof. Carrying his cane, she helped him to his bed.
“You know you still have an unpaid balance from the store,” he sleepily teased.
“Well Tsang, once you’re in fighting shape I’m gonna take you to dinner and make it right by bringing the quart of milk and package of hair curlers I owe you.”
He giggled as she laid a blanket over him. When the door shut, so did his eyes.
Tsang woke a few hours later dehydrated and feeling as if he had been beaten up. It was that same hour of dark when he used to lie in bed hung over. He would try to shut his eyes and fall back asleep reminding himself that if he stayed up too long, he’d fall asleep too late, losing the tolerable air the strict desert rationed out in its lighted morning. In this case, drinking water to wash down the OxyContin would solve his dilemma. He struggled to lift himself out of bed and stand.
He hobbled toward the bathroom not knowing where Arlene left his cane. As he opened the bathroom door, he heard a voice calling out. Someone must be drunk in the lobby. The cocktail lounge had been closed for hours. It could be one of the long-term residents locked out of their room. As he ran the tap in the bathroom, he saw a blurry grimace with swollen lips in the mirror. He filled his glass and took what was left in his medicine bottle distracted by the voice’s persistent caw.
He realized the voice wasn’t coming from the hallway. As his body began to relax, he went to scan the courtyard to see if anyone was in distress. He could use some air. As he opened the French doors perched in front of him was one lone pigeon, its talons gripping the balcony rail. It stared at him with its little head cocked to one side.
“Tsang! Where have you been? It’s late and we’ve got to go! The others are waiting.”
“Go where?” Tsang was stunned that the bird knew his name.
“You know, the market. You made a request through the desk clerk, remember?”
“My brain has been so clouded lately.” Tsang lamented.
“It’s the chemo, it always does that to people.”
“Arlene said the same thing!” Tsang was impressed that the pigeon was so intuitive.
An army of winged soldiers appeared. They surrounded him in a circular formation. Tsang felt like a dignitary. Without much effort they hoisted him by his arms and he was airborne. Tsang soared through sky as the birds crooned Cielito Lindo making Tsang sentimental. It reminded him of the plaza by his grandfather’s restaurant where Mariachi’s congregated, waiting for a patron. Floating in a celestial indigo sky, the pigeons feathered necks shimmered a mother of pearl sheen. He wondered why they hadn’t serenaded him before as he had sat on the balcony in silence so many times.
The pigeons glided Tsang toward the ground as he landed on the sidewalk, his feet tiptoeing and finding balance. The market was boarded up with paint lifting off its wood like vanilla pieces of bark. The new owner would need to freshen up the place. The pigeons pecked at the lock hanging from an iron chain wrapped around the buildings glass double doors. As the lock and chain collapsed onto the ground, the pigeons courteously pulled the doors open for Tsang. What excellent service pigeons! He wished he had a few coins to tip them. The hotel definitely should use them more often.
The store looked unusually spacious without its shelves and groceries. There was a coat of dust he did not see but could smell. He spent so many hours of his life wiping everything down. The dusty winds always blew the valley farmland right into his store. He sneezed.
“Gesundheit.” They cooed.
Flying over him, the pigeons forced him to stop in his tracks as they formed a conga line. One by one, swaying their rumps side to side, they strutted down the stairs that led to the basement. Tsang followed them. Did they do this every night? And why hadn’t they invited him sooner? In his infinite pain he was also very bored.
At the bottom of the stairs there was an oversized sheet of plywood against the tunnel’s entrance. Tsang remembered nailing it against the tunnel after it caved in. The nails had disappeared and Tsang deduced that the birds, unimpressed by his carpentry, removed them. Forming a static rectangle they heaved at the plywood with their beaks and made it belly flop onto the cement floor. The tunnels innards were throbbing and pulsating neon red like a blood vessel. Two by two they wandered in as he followed close behind. He worried his health would fail him at any moment but in crawling through the narrow passageway he felt nothing but curiosity.
Lambent lanterns brightened clouds of smoke slinking through the air. The pigeon that came looking for Tsang at his balcony let out a forceful “At Ease” as a troop of birds scattered around the basement. Under the stairwell there was a familiar setting of floor pillows, coarse mats and low tables where a few early birds were lying on their sides already having inhaled too much opium, their eyes half shut like crescents. A lean man around the same age as Tsang, was among them sitting cross-legged. Tsang’s grandfather inhaled deeply then offered the long pipe to his grandson.
The head pigeon remained sober and flew behind Tsang’s grandfather. It reappeared with what first appeared to be an olive branch but was in fact a pull string.
“The pigeons asked me to speak on their behalf.” His grandfather said.
His voice sounded like a robocall selling timeshares or asking for a vote. And like most robocalls, it was an attempt to sell him something bogus. This was not his grandfather.
The pigeon pulled and the cord whirred. “This is a sanctuary and it is here that the pigeons feel safest. You must stop the sale. The new owner will disrupt their habitat.”
Tsang was blowing rings of smoke, his body had not felt this blithe in so long. “I thought the pigeons habitat was on the roof of the San Juan? If anything it’s their public bathroom. ”
The pigeon gave him a sinister look as much as a pigeon could contort his face to look menacing. It pulled and the cord whirred again. “This tunnel was originally made to free our people from the heat. This basement was made to escape life’s daily struggles. Do you not remember, grandson?”
“How you easy you forget the bootlegging oh, dearest grandfather.” Tsang snickered as tufts of smoke escaped his mouth. “The new owner is doing nothing different.”
The pigeon, sensing that Tsang’s mind was made up, pulled as hard as he could one last time, ruffling his slick feathers. “Be careful what you stop caring about.” He said.
The grandfather imposter reminded Tsang of an animatronic fortuneteller. If only he had possessed a sixth sense, he would have known of the tunnel’s magic sooner. He could of spent the rest of his days in a sensuous haze instead of a bleak slow poison.
“I have had to push through a losing battle. I’m no better than you but I never stood in your way of seeking your selfish peace. Let me seek mine.” And with that Tsang fell back, his baldhead tenderly bouncing on a yellow sponge cake cushion.
Every Thursday, it was customary for gardeners to mow and water the inner courtyard lawn that was put in when the hotel pool became too expensive to maintain. On this particular Thursday, they discovered Lyman Tsang’s broken body draped over the Spanish fountain that was letting escape chlorinated tears over his loss. As one of the men ran to alert the desk clerk to call for an ambulance, two pigeons perched on the roof cooed indifferently.
“What happened to him?” Asked one pigeon to the other.
“Poor sap fell from his balcony. Too much OxyContin.”