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Everyone in Han village smells like tobacco from their fingers to their hair to their clothes to the pillows they lay their heads on at night before getting up the next morning to return to work at the cigarette factory. Nui Die Cigarette Factory stands twelve stories tall in Henan Province, China. Macy Gray teaches the workers English, and it’s the first job she’s ever had where the people she worked with didn’t confuse her with the singer and make jokes about her name. The only Macy Gray anyone in the village had ever heard of is the brown-skinned, thirty-five year old vegetarian English teacher, born in a land called Tennessee in America which must be somewhere near California because that is the only American place many of the tobacco workers know by name. On the day that Macy Gray brought a Macy Gray CD so that her students could learn the English lyrics they all saw the name and the tall dark woman on the cover, and they were sure that their teacher must be famous in America since she had her own music CD. Even when Macy Gray the English teacher tried to tell them that she was not the Macy Gray on the CD, they would not believe her, so she became Macy Gray the Singing English Teacher.
At the end of each class Macy played a song on a stereo system she had found in the top of a closet. The sound was tinny and not nearly loud enough for all the students to hear well, but this was the part of class the students looked most forward to most, and a kind of spark went round the room when they saw Macy pull out a CD case after their recitations. While they listened, she wrote the lyrics on the board and then played the song again so they could sing along. They often forgot the grammar they studied from the blackboard, but they never forgot song lyrics.
The room where they took their English lessons on Tuesday and Thursday nights was cold with cement block walls that had at various times been painted blue, then gray, then white, and chips from all the colors showed up in dirty tags along the wall about three feet from the floor as if a flood had filled the room at some point and washed away layers of paint in random places. But this room was on the third floor, so no flood except a broken water pipe could have peeled away the ugliness to reveal even more ugliness. Above the tags of peeling paint was a disturbing mural painted by either a child or a badly trained adult. The series of didactic images had perplexed Macy Gray, the Singing English Teacher, since the day she began teaching basic English four months earlier. A flower eating a dirty child must mean that if you do not wash properly you will be eaten up by beautiful things. A man in a wife beater spitting on the ground was being smashed in the back of the head by an angry woman, so if you spit and do not wear proper clothing, you will be given a concussion. A person sitting in a recliner, presumably, a dentist’s chair, with spurts of red paint on either side of his mouth and a man in a red spattered apron reaching into the reclining man’s open mouth must mean that people who fail to take care of their teeth will have them forcibly and painfully removed by a person who may be a dentist or possibly a butcher. The pictures were distracting to the point that Macy had repeatedly asked that they be painted over. The Major Assistant Shift Supervisor, Jaoji, who proudly wore a badge that read Major ASS, and who served as Macy’s singular contact with the company, always smiled and said things to her in Chinese about the importance of their lessons and so the pictures were unaltered and forever staring back at Macy Gray day after day. Her students paid them no mind. They sat down in the breaking and broken folding chairs, smoked cigarettes one after another and repeated everything Macy said or wrote on the chalk board that Major ASS Jaojie had requisitioned for their classroom.
There were no books, and when Macy asked Major ASS Jaojie for copies of study sheets to be made for the students, he said it would have to be approved by the Senior Assistant Shift Supervisor, Mr. Chen, and that he would have an answer for her by the next week, maybe Tuesday but not later than Thursday or Friday. So Macy Gray waited for the Senior ASS to tell the Major ASS if they could make fourteen pages of study sheets for their students.
Macy began the laborious job of writing the recitation lines on the board and pronouncing the words for her students to repeat. Her students removed the cigarettes from their mouths before they loudly parroted the lines, keeping their eyes on the green chalk board. A few dutifully took notes, quickly wiped away the ashes that fell on their papers, and practiced their lessons outside of class with a dedication that Macy Gray had never before dreamed possible when she worked as a second grade teacher’s assistant at Davis Hills Elementary School in Crossville, Tennessee.
Are you going to the dentist today?
Yes, I am going to the dentist today.
“May-si! May-si!” said Xu, bustling into the classroom, out of breath from walking up the three flights. He lit a cigarette as soon as he got to his seat and breathed it in with gusto. He had been working at Nui Die since he was fifteen and smoking since he was twelve, or so he liked to say. “I am late,” said Xu.
“He is too late for love,” said Marilyn Monroe, the oldest member of the class.
“It’s late in the evening,” Crazy Star called out.
“It’s late, it’s late,” said a few others.
“Good, those are good,” said Macy.
“I am sorry,” said Xu, lighting a second cigarette off his first one, but he was smiling, and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes belied any regret.
“I think that sorry seems to be the hardest word,” shouted Crazy Star again.
Several students began writing furiously in their thin paper notebooks, their lips moving as their pens scribbled.
Smiley waved her hand in the air. “Is it time for Word Share? I have words to share that I learn from my brother cell phone music.”
“Sure, Smiley. We can do a Word Share. Come up and do it the way we practiced.” Macy waved her hands dramatically toward the space in front of her desk, and Smiley, clutching a folded piece of paper, pushed up from her seat and made her way to the front.
“Everyone, give Smiley your attention for Word Share.”
Smiley unfolded the paper, and mouthed the words to herself for a few seconds.
“Go ahead,” said Macy, nodding warmly.
Smiley nodded back at Macy and mouthed a few more words before she began. “My man pay me e’ry week. All dese bitches having babies all de weeks. I always be the beydest nigga, I go shrating in the shree.” Smiley lowered her paper and smiled broadly at Macy whose face had turned gray.
“You can take your seat now,” she said, her voice a strained whisper. It took a moment for Macy to even notice that her hand was waving in front of her face in useless little motions. But the class didn’t hear anything she said because they were busy clapping for Smiley who had happily returned to her seat.
“Okay, okay. That was.” Macy wiped her fingers over her eyes and took a deep breath before resuming the class. After forty-five minutes of discussion about a trip to the dentist’s office, Macy took the stereo down from the closet.
“Tonight we’re going to learn some new words about love since it’s almost a special holiday,” said Macy.
“Can’t nothing bring me down. I am so too high,” said Xu, still smiling.
“Good, Xu. But soon it will be a special holiday. Does anyone know the special day that’s coming?”
The room was still and silent. “Valentine’s Day is in two days, and that’s a special day of love. In America we celebrate it by giving flowers or candy to the one we love, so for tonight’s lesson we’re going to learn new words from love songs.”
Marilyn Monroe sat erect in her seat. “I know love songs from Taylor Swiff.”
“Yes, but we’ve already had Word Share tonight.” Macy took a folder from her backpack and took out a small stack of papers.
“And too proud to beg!” shouted Xu. “Sweet babeee!”
A hand went up from the back of the room. She was the newest member of the group, a village woman in her late twenties who stared intently at Macy each class and took many notes.
“Yes,” said Macy, giving the young woman a big smile, “your name is Cloudy, right?”
Cloudy held her hand up just above her face. Her skin was darkened from years of working outside in the fields, and at her young age she already had lines around her eyes. She spoke with a voice barely loud enough for Macy to hear. “Why that woman was crying?”
“What woman was that?”
“The woman in the song you play other class. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. So why would she cry?”
“Oh,” said Macy, searching her memory for the lyrics. “The singer was asking if she was crying.”
“The beautiful woman was not crying?”
“I don’t think so, no. He was asking, um, if anyone had seen her,” said Macy, clutching the folder in both hands.
“She was the most beautiful woman in the world, so she should not cry. A woman who is very beautiful should not cry,” said Cloudy, in a voice a little louder.
“Well, Cloudy, even beautiful women cry sometimes.”
“She have no reason to cry. She is the most beautiful woman in the world,” said Cloudy, her voice more adamant this time.
Macy grabbed the stub of chalk that she kept in a small pocket of her backpack and wrote out the chorus on the board. She brushed her fingers off and turned back to the class. “Okay, now let’s repeat.”
She wrote the lyrics to “I Can’t Stop Loving You” you on the board as Ray Charles churned out the words on the tiny stereo with an echoing brassy chorus following him. After about a minute, feet began a slow tap.
At nine o’clock, after playing the song three times, enough for most to sing along with the chorus, Macy bid them a good night and began gathering her notes. Each student gave her a separate and formal, “Good-bye teacher!” before passing by the dirty child picture on the wall as they departed. She responded in kind to each until only Cloudy remained. Up close Macy could see that her face was young, but the darkened skin from the sun made her look aged in an odd way, like a young woman who had been made up to play the part of a grandmother. Macy realized she probably would have been finishing her final year in college, if she’d been born elsewhere.
“Did you have a question?” Macy asked, making herself smile patiently.
“I am not understand,” said Cloudy. “This happy woman not cry. This words make no sense.”
“Oh,” said Macy, “you’re still talking about that song.”
“Beautiful woman cry,” said Cloudy, growing angry at the words.
“I’m sorry if the song confused you. We’ll learn some new ones next class,” said Macy. She wanted to get out the door and outside where she could breathe air not polluted by twenty cigarettes. Cloudy stood unwavering.
“I am not cry,” said Cloudy, but her face was growing red.
“Of course not,” said Macy. She glimpsed the door for someone else, anyone, but they had all made their way down the three flights to the outer doors.
“I am not cry when they take down this building or the village. I am not beautiful, but I am not cry.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This place, all place, take down one week. Everyone move to new apartment.” Cloudy pointed a finger toward the window at the half completed high-rise across the street and down about a block. “All have new home. Beautiful women should not cry.” Cloudy raised her trembling chin and headed out the door. Macy looked back at the building out the window.
Back home in her apartment that night a call to Major ASS Jiajie hardly clarified the situation.
“Yes, they take the Nui Die building and Han village down.”
“What?” cried Macy. “They’re going to demolish the building where we have our classes? And the village, too?”
“But why the village?”
“Build another building,” said Jiajie. “They will build tall beautiful home for village, too. Old people are happy about this, they will not have to live in old house. New home for everyone. Is very good for everyone. Is okay. We find a place for your classes.”
“When were you going to tell me they were taking down the building?”
“Maybe Tuesday,” said Major ASS Jiajie.
Macy did something she had never done to anyone since arriving in Henan. She hit the “end” button on the call without a proper good-bye.
She sat by her window looking down on the light-flooded street below and the never-ending string of cars that passed by her apartment building. The apartments that Cloudy had pointed out earlier were decorated with red and yellow lights around the entrance and signs with characters covered the front windows. The factory workers walked home after class past the lights of the town and into the night to their village which lay about one kilometer east. From the high window of their classroom she watched them disappear, but she never saw where they went. Macy had never seen Cloudy walk in or out with anyone since she’d joined the class a month before. She always seemed to be on her own, a highly unusual phenomenon in a country in which people were simply not allowed to go anywhere alone. Someone always tagged along.
The class dragged on with a dialogue between Sarah and Tom on a date: they ate pizza, they held hands, they went to a movie, they scheduled a second date. After their recitations, Macy played “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters. The class smoked, tapped their feet softer, and then left amidst their usual banter. Cloudy walked without speaking to anyone, and Macy stood at the window watching the top of Cloudy’s head as she moved, a dark dot on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t easy to fall back in the crowd and not be noticed, especially for a laiwei like Macy. She hid her hair underneath a tan scarf, which made her only minimally less noticeable, but her skin she could not hide, and at 5’11” she was taller than most of the men she passed. She fell farther and farther back hoping Cloudy would not turn around. By the time Cloudy reached the entrance to Han village Macy was so far behind, the young woman was a dark speck in the distance. But unlike the others from the class, Cloudy didn’t turn onto the dirt path to the village, and for a second Macy wasn’t sure she had followed the right person. The tiny figure continued walking down the shoulder of the road past the village, so Macy increased her stride to shorten the distance. Cloudy went almost half a kilometer farther before she stepped off the road to her right and into a thin copse of evergreens. Macy hurried to keep sight of her.
The ground was damp and Macy’s heels sunk into the dirt. Cloudy’s figure was almost invisible as she moved down the darkened path toward a short row of cement block houses. A dog began barking and someone shouted at it in shrill tones. Walking the full length of the short row, Cloudy went into the last house and Macy stopped. She looked around for a tree to hide behind, but there were none thicker than her arm. Fields full of lines of something in its dying phase surrounded the dingy cement houses and the spindly grove of trees. Browned stalks disappeared in the darkness as far as Macy could see. There was not another house or building anywhere except for the houses where Cloudy had gone. Macy had never seen anything so remote up close in China. Every other place she had visited was pressed close with buildings, people, animals, and cars. This place was like the edge of the world.
“You should wear more clothes.” Cloudy’s voice startled Macy. She had somehow come out of the first house on the row and now stood almost behind Macy.
“How did you get over there?” Macy pointed back at the door she had seen Cloudy go into.
“I live here,” said Cloudy, holding out her hand toward the tiny row of houses. The cement blocks were darkened across the bottom with dirt and peeling paint. A row of chairs sat in a jagged circle around a low table, and a few meters to the right was a blackened pit in the ground where someone had cooked a meal a short time earlier. From the looks of the scattered plastic and food scraps, someone had cooked many meals over that pit. Cloudy watched Macy as she took in the sight.
“Chi fan le ma?” asked Cloudy.
“I’m not hungry. Thank you,” said Macy. She pulled at her shoulder bag and opened her mouth but suddenly felt the depth of her insensitivity. She was another ignorant foreigner with no real idea of her purpose. She had come to teach the employees of the cigarette company English and had planned to start a children’s class as well. She was going to begin with the names of animals, and she’d already begun making flash cards from pictures she’d printed from the Internet. The idea had been such a good one when she arrived months earlier, but now in the darkness at the edge of the field and the sad white houses, Macy began to cry. She turned her face from Cloudy who watched her wordlessly in the dim light. In a moment a very old woman exited the house in the middle and began speaking to Cloudy who conversed with her a moment before turning her attention back to Macy. The old woman remained near the door, staring at the tall crying black woman dressed in fancy shoes and clothes that were too thin for the weather.
“You need more clothes. It is not good for your healthy,” said Cloudy.
“Yes, you’re right.” Macy wiped her face with her hand and then added, “I wanted to make sure you got home okay. I thought you lived in the village with the others.”
“I live with Nai Nai.” Cloudy gestured toward her grandmother lingering in the doorway, picking at her few remaining teeth with something small and sharp.
“I’m sorry about the factory,” said Macy. “Will you lose your job?”
“I don’t work at the factory.”
“But you come to the classes.”
“Yes. You will not tell?” Cloudy’s face took on a look of worry for the first time.
Macy stepped a little closer. “No, of course not. I was just concerned when you told me about the buildings. I thought that maybe you might lose your home, or. . .” She wasn’t sure what she thought and her hand flew out in a useless gesture.
“These house no village,” said Cloudy.
“I see. So you work the fields?” asked Macy, looking out at the darkened stalks. “What do you grow here?”
Cloudy held a hand toward the fields and seemed to be searching for a word. “I don’t know the English.” Cloudy laughed and hid her mouth behind her hand.
Macy looked past Cloudy at the flat roofed square house. Someone had propped a mismatched array of plastic pieces next to an outer wall, like broken construction supplies. Hardly any grass grew around the house surrounded by dusty patches of dirt pocked with stones. “Will you and your grandmother be alright?”
Cloudy smiled in confusion. “Of course. Do you want to stay?”
Macy shook her head. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” She turned to leave and felt the tears come hard and fast.
“Teacher,” called Cloudy. “I hope you will not lose your job. We can feed you if you need eat.”
Macy looked back at the tiny figure barely visible now in the dark. “We have nice home and many delicious food.” She waved proudly back at the row of houses.
“Yes,” said Macy, hoping Cloudy could not see her face through the darkness. “You really do.” She made herself smile to save face. “Cloudy, why do you want to learn English?”
Cloudy’s mouth began to turn down a little, as if she had been caught doing something bad. She looked over her shoulder at something. Macy could see that her grandmother was still standing in the darkened doorway. “Nai Nai say I find a husband in the classes.”
“Oh.” Macy thought a second and then said good-bye and began walking back up the dirt road.
“I like to hear the songs,” Cloudy called out. Macy was almost to the treeline when she heard Cloudy shout, “Macy Gray.” She was running toward her. Cloudy looked over her shoulder and stopped. Her voice dropped to a whisper, “I am not cry.”
Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture Journal, Upstreet, Portland Review, and thirty-two other publications. She earned her M.F.A. from Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.
(4) Readers Comments
March 21, 2017
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March 02, 2017
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February 05, 2017
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th
This was an enjoyable read. I could easily picture the venue and und
Thank you so much, Melanie. I appreciate your kind words about my stor