May 122011

by William C. Blome

For as long as they had lived in Atlantic City, and for as long as they were going to live in Atlantic City, Liu and Li could not hear the surf at the start of every day without remembering its sound that night, years ago, when they finally jumped ship and waded ashore in America.  Even then, as they sloshed their way to terra firma, even then they drew a burin-sharp line between coming to America for personal freedom (no!) and coming to America for proselytism (yes! yes!).  On the long voyage over they had been forced to listen to their shipmates verbalize dreams ad infinitum about a gold and silver place of opportunity and bounty up ahead; they had wanted then to spit on them and behead them into silence.  But the numbers had not been favorable–they guessed they would have been the ones deprived of existence–so Liu and Li–husband and wife–had stayed stone-like and oblivious on the high seas, only sharing in whispers and clutching hard in secret Chairman Mao’s life-giving little red book.

That was over ten years past, and in today’s year eleven, Li is a seamstress, working out of a laundry and dry cleaner in Ventnor, while Liu is a washroom attendant at Resorts casino. They have one another, they’re both in their forties, childless, possessing of a brutally strong work ethic, and just as crazy in love with socialism now as when they had first met one another in mid-seventies Shanghai.  But unlike the heady air of those post-student days, the salt air each breathes here has long since stagnated under the sameness of their daily work routines.  For Liu the endless drill is to provide soap and towels and sprays of cologne to indifferent, hurried men, to brush an occasional overcoat in winter with a stiff-haired, retractable brush, to replenish supplies, to scrub latrines and urinals, to mop floors, and–taking a page from Li’s own book of hours–to sew on a patron’s loose (or just-come-off) buttons.

Li’s day is hardly less ordered.  She operates a powered, heavy, sewing machine.  (The calf of her right leg is beautifully muscled from pushing and holding down the cast iron treadle.)  She alters and repairs apparel, tablecloths, bedspreads–all manner of fabric goods.  To be sure, as with her husband, there is a meet-and-chat component to her labor; when, for instance, she places her fitter’s pins, marks swiftly with her chalk, and comes to fully comprehend a client’s set of finicky needs.  Toss in work such as seam ripping, locating occasional defects in an item, and matching colors and sizes of cloth, and Li’s work is nearly fleshed out in full.

However, the triumph for both Li and Liu really lies in the fact that no day-in/day-out (no year-in/year-out) routine of life has been able to superimpose itself over the political enthusiasm that wraps and binds this Chinese couple.  For in this regard, it’s been one incredible decade.  Whether it was their year one winter barbecues in the housing project streets (where blackened hot dogs on buns were wrapped in pages torn from Lenin’s collected works and then handed out to suspicious (though grateful) workers, scurrying home in the closing daylight hours), or year four’s hand-fans (lovingly crafted from pages of Gromyko’s memoirs and respectfully presented by Liu and Li to pregnant women in the park), or year eight’s tai chi exercises on the boardwalk (where Li would hold a hammer pose, motionless for many minutes across Liu’s arching, frozen sickle)—each year has seen socialism’s message lettered large for working people by the actions of this devoted pair.  And as if to tie each year’s activities to all the others (done or yet to come), both Liu and Li continue their one unbroken and immutable mission: disseminating birthday greetings to the masses from socialism’s immortal trio of highest heroes.

Every year on the birthdates of Jiang Qing, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, Li randomly selects two handfuls of garments waiting to be altered and sews into each a handmade, silken tag which says “There cannot be peaceful coexistence in the ideological realm. Peaceful coexistence corrupts.” [JIANG QING, born March 20]; or “From each according to his ability, to each according to her needs.” [KARL MARX, born May 5]; or “A revolution is not a dinner party.” [MAO ZEDONG, born December 26].  Liu likewise inserts a day’s worth of magic marker-pre-lettered paper towels (all bearing the same credos as Li had used for these special days) into his men’s room dispensers. Thus Atlantic City has experienced and continues to experience an intense and devoted rub-off/rub-in indoctrination into socialism, born of the fiery dialectic of this caring couple.

Now while such effort may appear to both casual observers and headstrong zealots alike to be one slow and tedious and relatively slight mission, it is, in fact, to the couple themselves, like a speedboat race they viewed once from high above the Inlet: patterned predictability leaving disappearing traces of somersaulting thrills; all told, an easily-acquired and easily-sustained addiction. Such off-the-chart elation about making the dictatorship of the proletariat really happen has been true for Liu and Li since before their first full year in the New World, and they believe it will remain true till their nth and final year of life.

But now in year eleven, things have gotten even giddier, because Li and Liu have been rewarded for the first time with unmistakably tangible fruit from all their labors.  Year eleven has come to be known as the Year of Massive Joy, for this is the year when, as it nears its close on Mao Zedong’s birthday, Li recently discovered in her to-be-altered queue two garments with small paper notes pinned to the inside of a sleeve and wrapped around a belt loop. The sleeve note, written in some comrade’s spidery hand, read “To despise the enemy strategically is an elementary requirement for a revolutionary. LIN BIAO”. The belt-loop note was typewritten and urged “The revolution must break out any day. FREDERICK ENGELS”.  And incredibly, late that same day, Liu, blind drunk for the first time since leaving the People’s Republic of China, staggered home too happily inebriated to speak coherently.  But next night he raced home and told Li that the day before, two men, each at a different time of the day and each alone, had come into the men’s room, urinated, washed and dried their hands, and then read aloud from the back of their hands the precious thoughts of Lin Biao and Engels. Then each had balled his spent paper towels, opened wide his gaping mouth, and stuffed himself with the wadded and absorbent, proletarian nourishment as he joyously exited into the casino.

Li respectfully waited for Liu to catch his breath, then took him by the hand and bade him come with her into the midnight alley behind their apartment building.  The December night was clear and cold; the flashing, colored lights of Christmas decorations were the only witnesses to what she was about to do.  In a swift, violent-appearing movement, she grabbed the back of Liu’s shirt collar and forced his head suddenly upward. Her own eyes were already on the stars as she whispered hoarsely that as year twelve approaches, many places in New Jersey have become so believing of the cause that one could now razor cut and slit a map of the state and it would bleed a pale maroon.  By year thirteen, Li continued, the entire U.S.A. can be envisioned as a dart board that will gush fuchsia from the hits and pierces of so many workers’ tosses, and that by year fourteen, the whole world’s coasts and shorelines will be scarlet-spangled from the lapping and crashing crimson seas and oceans. Then she kissed him, snapped his head back down to earth, and said, “But come, our bones grow chilled, and we must stay vigilant and employed.  Let’s return now to lettering the future.”