The Emperor of Shoes
A Novel Excerptby Spencer Wise
It’s a bright moon outside, and from the window of my house I can see the skeletal gray of the factory, the banners draped like sashes and the deep arterial red of Mandarin characters demanding change, and I’m wondering how the fuck this Jewish kid from Boston could somehow wind up a YouTube hero in the Chinese Revolution.
I’m standing by the window thinking about Jews and shoes and this beautiful Chinese woman asleep behind me.
I should go to her now. Crawl into bed and wrap her in my arms.
But I don’t move.
I see my face half-dissolved in the glass. My own eyes reflected back.
So this is the place I came to first for my father. Guangdong, where Dad has made shoes for what feels like forever. South China. This country that my father embraced. In his own demented way, of course. He wanted me here. But not here here, as in this moment, on the night of the protests.
Something else must’ve brought me to this country. Because I ended up someplace I never would’ve expected. Nor my father. Nor any of us.
It’s quiet in the house, but I can still hear the workers chanting. What a sound. They listened to us, didn’t they? The workers. And tomorrow more people will listen and see on YouTube.
I brace myself against the window frame and turn back to Ivy on the bed. I can see her clearly, bluing in the moonlight behind me, twisted in the white sheet. She’s knitting her brow the way she does when she calls me on my bullshit—of which there’s plenty—and her lips are moving silently as if she’s still shouting into the megaphone, dreaming of what we’ve been through.
But I never could have anticipated her being here in my bed.
I know her, don’t I? I’ve been to her village, to Beijing—places sacred to her.
But there’s always something out of reach. Some feeling that even as well as I know her now, I’m not sure I know her at all.
I turn back to the window.
Palm trees in the yard, trunks white with lime. Rain dripping off the broad leaves. A scrungy cat hiding in the hollow of a banyan tree. I can’t sleep.
Dad’s over at the hotel in Nanhai and maybe he’s in the tub and the water’s rushing up, the faucet steams, the water rises, lapping at the sides, spilling over onto the white tiles. The water keeps rising until it’s right under his nose, even with the lip of the tub, and he says to Karri, “Shut it off.” But you’re kidding yourself, Pops. There’s no shutting it off now.
There are decisions to make by sunrise. My father. Ivy. This world is opening. Has opened. It’s not the closed little plant that my father built. It’s a different world, the one I’m going to be living in, and I don’t understand my place in it.
A Jew. Is that what I am? I don’t know. Maybe I’m the schmuck who lost China. Who ruined everything.
What does that even mean here in China. To be a Jew. I’m now a citizen of the world? We’ve always been citizens of the world. No, that’s not true. We’ve always been outsiders. On the run. But where to?
I turn away from the window and I walk over to the bed and sit on the edge of the mattress with my back to Ivy.
And I think: It was just her and me and whatever passed between us on her grandmother’s houseboat. The beginning, for us, for everything. That much I know, even if the rest is not very clear. It was Ivy and me sitting back-to-back on a tin-roofed houseboat on the Pearl River with a nuclear power plant vanishing in the dusk along the far bank, while her grandmother cleaned a chicken and threw the feathers overboard.