Apr 2, 2013

“I am betrayed — always,” he said the second and last time we met to discuss his project.  We sat outside a Starbucks in Danville. As proof he went on to recount a recent coup among senior executives in his company, which ships natural gas containers out of China. He even mentioned his wife. “She thinks I am crazy”, he said with disgust. “She undermines me.”

And then there was the time as a young teenager — from a well-off family during the cultural revolution no less — that he went to confront school authorities because of the ever-filthy dining room. 

This was in a small coastal town in southeast China where he lived in an oppressive Catholic boarding school. He said he was often pulled out of bed at daybreak by the dormitory priest; the academic schedule was draconian; and the food usually frozen. I didn’t quite understand that bit but it was one of many details I intended to clear up once the project got underway. 

Anyway, he said he went to the principal’s door with a dozen other students to launch a complaint about the dining room but when he was finally let in to say his peace the others left the room and he stood alone to take a stand.  It did not go well, and I think he said he was beaten. He was always difficult to understand, and as he said of himself, “I’m not a forceful person.”  His voice periodically fell away and so I was always leaning toward him, or asking him to repeat, or simply watching him with no idea what he was saying. 

When I first met him he asked if I was surprised that he looked so young. He was in his late 40s; I was not surprised, and merely smiled. He added that he was in ill heath and listed several physical ailments, including problems with his rectum. He went into great detail.

But the sum of it all was that he imagined himself a “troublemaker”, in part because he’d been to jail several times, albeit for short terms, because of his progressive political beliefs.  We agreed that would make a good working title for a novel he wanted me to write based on his life.  Frankly, I would never have gone on with the negotiation as long as I did had he not told me several intriguing stories.

One of the best was about the time he found himself on a bus crossing a flooded bridge. The bus stalled. Everyone got out and went to one bank or the other of the river.  I don’t remember the river’s name if he told me.  But in this part of the country, it was the flood of the century, and drew whole houses down out of the surrounding mountains into the vortex. 

And so as he left the bus he noticed an old man, a farmer, in the middle of the river sitting on a roof with several chickens, a duck, and a large snake. The roof, which was covered in grass, was bearing down on the bridge. It became quickly apparent that there wasn’t enough clearance to pass under the bridge and the people on the shore encouraged the old man to try to steer his roof closer so that they could catch him.  He had some sort of board that he used to steer, and he made some headway. In fact, he got very close and you could see the chickens, the duck and the large snake. The old man reached out and several people reached out to him, including the ‘troublemaker’.  For a moment they all held the old man’s arm, and he was about to be saved but then suddenly the arm slipped away, and the roof was drawn into the current and under the bridge and the old man and his animals all disappeared….   

“I was very curious who this man was,” my would-be patron explained and went on to describe how after the river had returned to its banks some days later he went to find out who this farmer was. He tracked him to a village, found what was left of his house, and from neighbors learned the various mythologies in the area along with the farmer’s battle with the snakes eating his chickens and some other ducks he’d had. 

Actually, there were the two snakes but the old man managed to kill one and was endlessly at war with the other.  There were a series of encounters, including one in the middle of the night when the old farmer took his flashlight and went from hole to hole looking for the snake and finally found it, staring back at him with huge yellow eyes and its mouth wide open about to strike.

“It could be a metaphor,” said the troublemaker.  “We are stuck with our enemies even in calamity. And this is why I want you to write my story, to find these metaphors and abstractions in my life and explore their meaning.”

I was anxious to do it and I quoted him a price for nine months work, which was quite reasonable according to the various people I spoke with, including agents, ghostwriters, editors, and other writers I know.  I even said the figure was negotiable.

I assumed money must have been the reason he withdrew, even as he had told me he was the CEO of $220 million company.  But I don’t know.  In his last email, he wrote, “I need to reconsider my plans due to various reasons.” 

It also occurred to me there was some kind of betrayal involved somewhere, either real or perceived, and perhaps I became another on his list of traitors.  In any case, I will always think of him as a farmer floating down a swollen river with all of his treasure and travail, headed for oblivion under a bridge. 

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