Authors: Ed Lin
Copyright © 2014 by Ed Lin
All rights reserved.
Published by Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ghost month / Ed Lin.
Street vendors—Taiwan—Taipei—Fiction. 2. Young women—Crimes against—Fiction. 3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction.
4. Taipei (Taiwan)—Fiction. I. Title.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
For my parents.
There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous
When I found out the girl I was going to marry had been murdered, I was sitting on a foldout stool at a sidewalk noodle shop in Taipei’s Da’an District. My mouth went dry, my eyes blurred and I couldn’t stop shaking. It was the hottest day in July, and the island’s humidity was draped over me like a mourning veil, yet my body went cold and sweaty. Even my skin was crying.
I was somehow able to hold the newspaper still in my hands while reading and rereading the entire story of Julia Huang. It was only three paragraphs long. She had been shot in the head. She hadn’t been wearing much. She had been working at an unlicensed betel-nut stand in Hsinchu City, an hour outside of Taipei. The surveillance camera—Taiwan’s top crime-fighting tool—had malfunctioned, and no footage of the crime had been recorded.
I sighed and slumped over. I wished it hadn’t been my Julia. I wished it had been almost anybody else. I thought about some of our old classmates I didn’t care for. Why not one of them? But it was definitely my Julia. I touched the three Chinese characters of her name as I read them. Her name, Huang Zheng-lian, meant “positive light.” Everything she did I’d always seen in a positive light.
I hadn’t seen her in seven years, when I had left for UCLA and she for NYU. I hadn’t even known she was here in Taipei.
The two of us had grown up together, Jing-nan and Zheng-lian, who became Johnny and Julia, two Taiwanese sweethearts with the same American dream. Our families had been friends for at least three generations, so it had been predestined that we would be close. As soon as Julia and I could talk, we talked to each other. We went to the same school and the same cheap cram schools and worked at our respective family night-market stalls, which changed locations over the years but were always near each other.
We did everything together.
. We knew we were in love by third grade. We knew we were going to get married by the fifth.
EXT DOOR TO THE
noodle shop where I sat with my paper, in a store that sold altars, gods and goods for the next world, a man set up burning incense sticks at the feet of several deities. He brought a folding table out to the sidewalk, and I watched him set up offerings for human spirits: a three-layer pyramid of oranges, a bulk pack of instant noodles, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, a six-pack of Sprite and boxes of cookies and crackers. He slid a plastic bucket of water and a small towel underneath the table, so the ghosts could wash up before and after eating. He lit up incense for the table and sneezed hard twice. Finally, he touched his lighter to a sheaf of paper and dropped it in a metal bucket to the right of the table. Black smoke from the burning money for the dead snaked toward me.
A motorcycle-repair shop on the north side of the noodle shop simultaneously set up its offerings table. Judging by the outsized table and offerings, the owner was either less lucky or more fearful than the guy who ran the gods store. Incense smoke as thick as a movie special effect streamed out of a censer on his table.
The makeshift offering tables were meant to appease not only the spirits of one’s ancestors, but also those of people who died with no heirs. Supposedly if no one was around to pray for you and offer money and food throughout the year, you really suffered in the afterlife. You might be pierced with hooks, hung upside down and set on fire, depending on what your specific beliefs were. After
eleven months of pain and hunger, these ghosts were looking to take out their wrath on anybody alive.
I looked over at the gods next door and choked on the spiced air.
HIS MORNING, EACH OF
the seven twenty-four-hour news channels had been going off on the betel-nut girl who was shot and killed, replaying computer-animated reenactments of the crime. If the surveillance-camera footage had been available, that would have been played in endless loops, too.
I had watched the cartoon shooting with indifference, numbed to the over-the-top violence, sex and sexual violence the news channels served up to compete for eyeballs. The woman in the animated reenactment looked more like a strung-out Marge Simpson than Julia. One version featured the gunman killing the woman and then spitting betel-nut juice on her face as a final act of indecency.
The girls who work at betel-nut stalls are usually in tough circumstances. It pays well and doesn’t require a college degree. You just have to be willing to wear next to nothing and to let the occasional big tipper conduct your breast exam.
How many disgusting men with ugly, red-stained teeth drove up to the stand and tried to grab you when you handed them their betel-nut chew, Julia? Did you fight back? Is that why he shot you?
Betel nut, or
, is a stimulant grubby Taiwanese men can’t get enough of.
is utterly unacceptable in most social settings—even in easygoing Taipei—because users constantly spit out the bloody juice as it collects in the mouth, staining the teeth and gums. If you want to chew
, you have to not care what you look like.
There are many benefits to chewing
, though. It’s better than coffee at keeping drivers alert, which is why it’s so often associated with taxi, bus and truck drivers. It has a flavor that outlasts any gum, and it tops cigarettes in terms of effectively delivering mouth cancer to its users.
Best of all are the barely legal, barely dressed women who work at the betel-nut stands, the “betel-nut beauties,” or
. Community standards and furious wives have kept betel-nut stands outside the city limits, relegating them to highways and off-and
on-ramps. At night drivers will see stretches of young women in swimsuits and lingerie in their glass-enclosed stands. Visitors to Taiwan think all the women are prostitutes. As I understand it, only the less reputable stands are fronts for hookers, who also sell illegal drugs.
Nonetheless, religious and political leaders have often called for regulation in the industry. A Christian coalition called for the women to completely cover the three Bs: breasts, butts and bellies. But then the tips wouldn’t be as good. Anyway, some of the privileged young women at Taipei’s throbbing nightclubs weren’t dressed that differently from socially and educationally disadvantaged betel-nut beauties.
exploited or are they empowered? Maybe a combination of the two? It’s hard to say. Many of the women who work at the stands are from broken and poor families. Some stands employ aboriginal girls for a touch of the exotic. The income they earn is on the high side, but they are typically supporting an entire household. One thing is quite clear, though. There is money in it, and the
stands have a steady inflow from lonely betel-nut addicts. Drugs, tits and asses are recession-proof, and even the most forlorn
outposts are always hiring. I didn’t chew
, I didn’t go to the stands and I hadn’t cared about the undeniably seedy world that they operated in.
How could Julia, the valedictorian of our high school and the love of my life, have ended up working as a betel-nut girl? What the hell had happened?
HE NEWSPAPER ARTICLE WAS
thin on details of Julia’s murder and ended with a call to shut down unlicensed betel-nut stands. I checked my phone to see if the story had been updated, but there was nothing new.
I dropped my phone in my shirt pocket and rubbed my thighs. A truck going by hit a pothole, and the vibration caused some of my soup to dribble over the side of the plastic bowl. I had eaten exactly one bite before I saw Julia’s name.
The woman who ran the noodle shop came out from behind the counter, and we regarded each other. She was maybe sixty-five
years old and had once been the young bride of a retired soldier from the mainland, who started this beef-noodle-soup stand. Her face was still smooth but had some spots that were only getting darker. She wore Buddhist counting beads and a Taoist pendant around her neck, which had three long and deep scoops taken out of the flesh.
She noticed my puffy eyelids and tear-stained face.
“Ah,” she said. “I told you spicy was too spicy for you! And you said you could handle it because you sell spicy food at the Shilin Night Market!”
“I do,” I said to one of her spots. “Well, not everything’s spicy.”
“Look, you didn’t even eat any of it and you’re crying your eyes out! Let me make you one without chili peppers.”
“That’s all right. I’m not hungry.”
“A young man like you should always be eating.”
“I should be going now.” I stood up and towered over her.
“Hey, before you go, could you please help me? My son was supposed to be here an hour ago, and it’s getting late to set up the offerings for the good brothers. We use the table in the back, but it’s too heavy for me to carry. Could you please bring it to the sidewalk for me?”
“No,” I whispered.
“Do you want your money back? Is that the problem?”
“I have to go.”
She grabbed my arm. “This will only take a moment, and I need your help. Don’t deny an old woman!”
“Listen,” I said, a lot harder than I meant to. “I’m not going to help you set up your stupid little table for your stupid little ghosts!” I was shaking, and I cracked my neck in an attempt to settle down.