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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Wherever the cola bottles are, you’ll find me. At the Temple of Heaven, near the circular stone altar where heaven and earth meet. Or at the top of the drum tower in the center of Xi’an, which is the center of China, which is the center of the world.
At the temple, I like to sit under the scraggly trees, my plastic bag of bottles over one shoulder, and watch the tourists enjoying chilled drinks on the stubbly lawn. Sometimes the bottles are full, sometimes near empty. I do not mind. Sometimes people eye me uncomfortably as they tilt the bottle to their lips, or take their time, swishing the last spit-laced gulp around in the bottom. I will wait. Always they drink the last drop, and find themselves with an empty, useless bottle in their hands. I point to it, reach, and we need no common words to complete the transaction.
I get a bottle to sell for recycling money. You get free hands. Everyone is happy.
I like to roam the Beijing Zoo, stopping by to salute the pandas. I know the hardships of their lives, scouring all over the frozen hills of the Sichuan province in search of an abundant yet insubstantial food. They have bamboo. I have bottles.
Often I camp out by the river, on a bench by the stand that sells French fries covered in chocolate sauce. Or pork flakes. I don’t see the tourists buy these flavors much, but they swarm to the overpriced soft-drinks. They sit in irritable groups at the tables, as dejected as a flock of pelicans, mouths hanging open in the heat and hats flopping over sunburnt brows. All I need is to walk past with my bag held open, and they donate their used bottles without protest.
I once followed a man up the Great Wall. He stopped at every watch tower, taking a swig of cola and leaning his torso out from the wall to behold green peaks as steep as the curve of a bottle. I thought of pandas, slogging up the slope of a limestone mountain in search of bamboo. At intervals along the Wall, the vendors sold achievement medallions, calligraphy brushes, embroidered scenes, and, of course, perspiring cola bottles. I eyed the other tourists with their drinks, but kept my sights on the man.
When we reached the top, the stairs narrower and less crowded now than before, he stood with the hills behind him and his thumb tilted up as his wife took his picture. The bottle sat on the warped step, one lukewarm mouthful swishing within. I almost reached for it, but the man stood within sight, his teeth flashing like a cola commercial. So I waited at a respectful distance as he snatched up the bottle, took one last triumphant chug and, before I could move, threw the bottle over the edge to the wind-rocked trees below.
A panda climbs to the frosty tops of the mountains in search of bamboo leaves, of which he must eat twenty pounds daily. When he finds them, he rubs the frozen shoots in circles under his nose to thaw them enough to chew.
I, too, travel miles to find my bottles, even in so solemn a place as the Old Summer Palace. Few tourists visit there, for who wants to see an empty, ruined park when you can have all the buzz and colors of the Forbidden City?
Out back, beyond the koi pond and the water-lily pools, toward the alabaster ruins and fields of yellow grass where once a palace stood, few people venture. But there are cola bottles. I wander the splintering trails, past visitors napping in the heat of the day. I’m a fool to go this far back, my near-empty bag clunking against my thin shoulder blades. But I, like the pandas, know you must sometimes climb to remote places for your sustenance. Besides, empty bottles are a light enough load.
I spot a sitting, conscious figure with her feet over the water of a polluted lake. She sits at the top of an ornate bridge that arches like a provoked mountain lion, its paintwork as bright as a subway billboard. She watches, eyes drooping, and for a moment I think she sees me. Then, she raises her drink to her lips, and I am only a splotch of color at the bottom of her bottle. She presses the open top to her lips like an unashamed kiss, pours the cola down her throat as she would a torrent of rice beer. I wonder if she will suck the air right out of the bottle until it collapses in on a vacuum.
When she finishes, sun glaring off the bottle, she hurls it out into the middle of the lake, curls herself into the shape of a gnarled ginger root, and resigns herself to sleep.
I set down my bag on a ruined palace brick and wade out into the water, through reeds and wilted lilies. My legs tangle in their stems below the surface, but I lift my feet high and plant them one after the other on the scummy bottom. The lukewarm water rises to my waist before I reach the half-submerged bottle. It is glass.
When I return to the bank, seating myself on the sunbaked rocks to dry my wet trousers, I see her on the bridge. She lifts her head from the ginger root of her body and looks at me. Perhaps seeing me wet and muddy makes her smile and wonder why someone would wade through such muck for an empty bottle, just as I wonder why someone would drink alone on a bridge in this heat. Smiling back, I hold the empty bottle high, inky water dripping down its lip, and tip it toward her.
Deborah Rocheleau is a writer of short stories, poetry, and novels, and a speaker of Chinese and Spanish. Her work has won numerous awards and has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. She blogs at deborahrocheleau.blogspot.com.
*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.