Issue 4

Fiction

Justin Nicholes

The Arsonist


"That’s what I mean,” I said. “Go to Zhengzhou with that girl, and you’re dead.” Tao Yu was the Chinese name of the girl at the front desk, and her English name was Smile. She was a sophomore and a member of the university’s Elite Debaters Team. She worked twenty hours a week in the foreign faculty dorm. It was against the rules to show a foreign teacher that mugshot. She showed us because Calvin was regularly (and in clear violation of his contract) inviting Smile to his foreign teacher flat and taking off his twenty-year-old student’s clothes. The photo wasn’t clear. The arsonist was just a boy and had high cheekbones, thin severe lips. The problem with the whole situation was that Smile had a boyfriend, and that boyfriend was a student in my class. Even worse, and in spite of Calvin’s denying there was any connection, I was convinced against all reason that Calvin’s recklessness had somehow summoned the arsonist. I told Calvin the thing he had with Smile shouldn’t concern me.

Calvin and I arrived with the other teachers in Guoren City at the end of August. The university gave us one week’s rest to get over jet lag and put us up in flats just inside the university gates—real gates, with guards and chains at night.  Cameras recorded when foreign teachers entered or exited the building. At eleven o’clock, every single night, a smaller gate was locked over our building’s main entrance. All the other doorways were permanently chained closed at all hours. Desk workers meticulously logged who visited which foreign teacher.

Calvin’s solution? Seduce a gatekeeper.

In reality, and to be fair to Calvin, Smile wasn’t completely innocent. She was as tall as Calvin, about five feet six inches, and her black hair streaked down around her face and hung a few inches below her chin. Her skin was just a shade darker than Calvin’s, and she couldn’t have weighed more than one hundred pounds. I was with Calvin the day Smile asked if she could visit his room. It was allowed, as long as students signed their names in the log as well as the time they went up and came back down. She wanted, she said, for him to listen to a speech she would record and submit for the provincial
speech competition. I was sitting on the couch in Calvin’s flat when Smile arrived that evening. She brought a friend, a roommate, whose English name was Rose. Rose wore jeans that hugged her hips and plopped down on the couch beside me. Soon she was reciting her speech for my response.

As for Calvin, he’d been sitting in a chair when the girls entered, and Smile knelt down on the floor and recited her speech, just slightly leaning towards Calvin’s legs, on her knees. She’d worn a jean skirt and boots that came up to mid-calf. I caught Calvin checking out Smile’s body while she proclaimed in a Chinese-British accent what the 2008 Beijing Olympics meant to her. Smile dumped her Chinese boyfriend, my student, at some point during that week before classes started. His English name was Darren. I know it happened because Darren wrote about it in the diagnostic essay I made all students write the first day of class. His first paragraph read: Resently, my girlfriend moved out of our apartment because I am not richer or handsomer. But loving my girlfriend is like loving a wife, so I very loving my girlfriend. At night and on the phone I should follow her to let her be safe.

I walked down the hallway and knocked on Calvin’s door that evening. I wanted to show him this paragraph. When he opened the door, the lighting in his room had changed. Calvin had turned off the florescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling. He’d bought a lamp, which he’d placed in the corner of the room. The lamp was directed down, making a sort of spotlight in the middle of the living room floor. Shadows darkened almost everything else in the room. I walked in and sat down on the couch. It smelled of cologne. “What can I do for you?” Calvin said, running his fingers through his blond, Russian hair. I handed him the diagnostic essay Darren had written. That Smile had been living in an apartment off campus (against university rules) with a boyfriend was, Calvin said, news to him.

“What should I do?” he asked me. 

He slumped down into a chair, his eye sockets deep with shadows.

“Get back to work,” I said.

“Just stop the whole damn thing before it’s out of control.”

“Yeah,” he said, and chewed his bottom lip.

He gazed quietly across the room. One day in early September, just a few weeks into the semester, Calvin sent me a text message, inviting me to dinner.

“Sure,” I wrote back. Half an hour later, he knocked on my door. Smile was with him. I was in the middle of commenting on one hundred essays and wouldn’t have agreed to dinner if I’d known it was to create a front. We moseyed down the hallway. “Hitting those papers?” Calvin said. Smile wasn’t looking, so I glared at him. “Aren’t you?” Calvin, infuriatingly shy like a boy, squinted his eyes, retracted his neck slightly, and laughed. They weren’t holding hands, but they walked swinging their arms and bumped their fists together as though by accident. Once we got down the stairs and were out on the campus street, the evening air swept over us, with the noise of traffic and the voices of the people around us. The sun had gone down, but a milky-gray soup of coal dust and smog shifted overhead and blocked out the light of the stars and moon. Calvin sidestepped behind me and came up on my other side. I was walking in between my colleague and his studentgirlfriend. We headed towards the gate. A guard wearing along, brown-gray coat and a police hat with a badge on it smiled at me as all three of us walked out onto the Guoren City street. Vendors crowded the gates. An old man selling popcorn, a woman selling hand-sewn cushions for shoes, and another selling small candied apples impaled on sticks all called for us in Chinese.

We snaked around a tremendous lot of bicycles for rent and headed down the street. Taxis, buses, and three-wheeled carts scurried by in every direction. The drivers and pedestrians shifted together like river rapids. The lines in roads and traffic rules meant nothing. The rule that governed movement was the principle of mutual harmony. As long as nobody wrecked into another car or person, all was well. In the fall, hanging strips of clear plastic formed restaurant entryways. I swept aside these strips as we walked into the place where we’d have dinner. Smile sat first, against the wall, and Calvin sat across from her. I moved to sit down beside him, but he stopped me. He used a mock polite voice and grinned, boyishly, outstretching a hand to the beautiful Smile.

“You’re not going to let a young lady sit alone, are you?” Calvin said.

Smile blushed and giggled. I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps it was my stupid desire
to accommodate.

“Of course not,” I said, using the same chivalric register. I eased down next to her. We ordered plates of dumplings and another plate of sweet and sour chicken. The waiter brought us cups and filled them with hot water. Chopsticks rested on saucers in front of us. While the waiter was setting up our table, my student Darren burst through the strips of plastic that kept out the wind and plopped down at a table beside us. He glared at Smile. Calvin reddened, and Smile shrank in her seat. Darren ordered something, then dipped his napkin into the hot water the waitress had brought. He was rubbing his napkin over the length of each of his fingers. From a coat pocket, he fumbled for something and pulled out a green winter cap. He put the hat on and slumped back, wiping down
his hands.

Smile stood up and stormed out the front door, Darren following. Darren was shorter than Smile and had a thin, messy moustache. He never looked at me. The sound of Smile and Darren shouting, just outside on the street, came in through the hanging doorway. I leaned forward over the table towards Calvin.

“What the fuck!” I said.

“How crazy is this, man?” he said, shaking his head and leaning back in his chair.

“He must’ve been waiting for us,” I said, “outside the building.”

In my imagination, Darren was leaning against a wall across from our foreign faculty flats, his hands in his pockets, perhaps pacing, gazing up at the windows and wondering in which apartment the foreign teacher was diddling his girlfriend.

“Quiet,” Calvin said.

He pointed behind me. A young man sat with the back of his chair almost touching mine, alone at a table. I didn’t recognize him, but he picked up his plate and, stepping across the restaurant aisle, sat down across from Darren’s empty seat. The skin on his face was thin, grayish and peeling, like he’d been burned. Here’s what the arsonist did. It happened in late September, a couple weeks after my student Darren busted us having dinner with his former girlfriend, and one week before Calvin was going to run away to the city of Zhengzhou with Smile.

The arsonist slunk onto campus, perhaps walking in as if he were a student. Before he torched the three dormitories, only one guard stood by the main gate. One guard couldn’t check student IDs. Anyway, so many carts and people came and went on the campus, bringing food to restaurants or supplies to the construction crews on south campus, where they were building the new swimming pool, that the arsonist must’ve entered the campus that evening without anyone challenging him. The principle of mutual harmony. He walked down the middle of campus, class buildings on either side, and moved towards the hill, probably drawn by the sight of the pavilion.
The pavilion capped the hill and overlooked everything on campus. It had the Chinese style tiled, swooping roof, with open sides that harnessed breezes. The arsonist climbed
up that hill and huddled in the pavilion alone on a bench. All around him, lovers had scratched their names into the wood in Chinese characters. The arsonist lacerated his characters into the wood of the bench he sat on, but that didn’t help authorities track him down. The arsonist used an alias. Where he should’ve written his family name, he slashed in the character for fire.

When it was 6:30, and most of the students would be having dinner, the arsonist scaled back down the hill and headed towards the cluster of dormitories on east campus. He walked into the lobby of the first one, a girls’ dorm. Cameras caught him running up stairs and trying door handles until finding one that was unlocked. Inside, he would’ve found nothing but kindling. With eight students packed together in one dorm room, clothes and papers and books would’ve sprawled everywhere. It would only have taken a spray of lighter fluid over the floor and students’ bunk beds and a flip of the cigarette lighter to birth the blaze.

It must’ve been the same process, all in a feverish dash from dorm building to dorm building, for the arsonist. In the end, from three dorm rooms, bodies of flame throbbed
out windows. The first week of October, with the campus still on lockdown because of the fires, Calvin and Smile went to a hotel together in Zhengzhou. They left in the morning, and I enabled their flight.

Calvin knocked on my door a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on my couch, with my coffee table before me laden with stacks of student papers. The door was unlocked, so Calvin stepped in. He was wearing a winter cap even though it was still fall, and he’d hooked his backpack onto his shoulder. He looked thinner in the face. Hollow grooves had formed on either side of his nose and down through his cheeks.

“Damn,” I said.

“You been screwing yourself skinny.”

He laughed quietly and blushed. His feet were soundless on the floor. With stealth, he closed the door behind him. He jerked his head back and seemed to snarl. “What’s
that smell?” he asked. The garbage bin overflowed with tea

leaves and plastic bags that held greasy street food wrappings.

“You really got to clean your room,” he said. 

He ran his toe over the floor. The tip of his shoe left a clean streak in the dusting of coal that covered everything, came in through the windows and under the balcony door.

“Come on. I’ll buy you breakfast.”

Outside the gate, where taxis lined up waiting for students, Smile had gone down first to negotiate a price with a driver. I stood outside our building with Calvin until he received the text message. From just fifty feet away, Smile sent the message telling him the taxi was ready. “Let’s go,” he said, and he lifted his shoulders slightly, repositioned the bag on his back, and headed for the front gate. He ducked into the opened taxi door and had closed it by the time I’d reached the passenger side. Through the bars separating the front of the cab from the back, Smile and Calvin beamed at me while cuddling with each other. They dropped me off a mile down the road, outside a place that made pancakes. Calvin slipped me six Yuan for the taxi cab back. In spite of being used again, I waved at Smile and Calvin as they departed. Calvin wrapped his arm around Smile’s neck and pulled her in. At that I gave them the middle finger, which they never saw.
For the next three days, working nearly twelve hours every day, I wrote comments on student essays. Calvin dashed off text messages from Zhengzhou, usually in code.

“Three times this morning. :->,” for example.
Or, “Afternoon delight!”

Then, “A picture’s worth a thousand thrusts!” 

I turned my phone off.  The search for the arsonist continued. Police officers wearing white, World War I-style helmets patrolled the streets outside the campus. Two guards loomed on either side of the steady shuffle of students entering or leaving through the main gate, and a Chinese guy (“Joseph”) from Beijing, the guy who was in charge of the foreign faculty dorm (actually, the guy from the Party who monitored foreigners), was staked out at my building’s front desk, chain smoking cigarettes.

Officially, the fires from the week before were flukes. Two of them started in students’ computers. The two students had left the computers on, unsupervised. Both buildings had experienced power surges at the same time. The third fire started because a student left on a hot plate, which the student shouldn’t have had at all. Still, security was tight, and no student could visit any foreign teacher until authorities apprehended the arsonist (an irresponsible rumor, who never was), whose mugshot, if you asked the university’s Chinese administrators, didn’t exist at the front desk. Because I’d turned off my phone, my student Darren sent me an email message. I hadn’t checked my messages in days because I’d cramped my back over students’ writing. It read: You were not available to visit today. Can I know you some time today to talk about my writing?

When I read this email, I turned on my phone and realized the disaster Calvin had dragged me into. Calvin had sent me messages, asking for my passport number. I called him to ask what the hell was happening. Nobody answered. Calvin’s phone was off, so I flipped through the other text messages I’d received. Most of them weren’t from Calvin but from Darren. In total, Darren had sent me fifteen text messages over the last few days. The worst ones were the most recent. Can we meet in the pavilion on campus?

[From: Darren 11:21am 4/8/07].
Actally, I am in Zheng Zhou. Are you here?

[From: Darren 11:32am 4/8/07].
I know your here. I am outside your hotel. Can you come? [From: Darren 12:01pm 4/8/07].

Ha ha! only joking. You are not in hotel. You have a new room? I am at my parents in Zheng Zhou. please meet me! Actually theres something I need to explain. [From: Darren 4:11am 5/8/07]. While I was going through these messages, Calvin
called back.

“Where’ve you been?” he asked.

“Your phone was off,” I said.

“That’s because your student keeps calling.”

“That doesn’t follow,” I said. “Logic’s all wrong.”

“Look professor, can you give me your passport number?”

Somewhere beyond Calvin, Smile was shouting, probably at Darren on the other end of her phone.

“Go to hell,” I said.

“Already there.” Calvin was quiet for a moment, and Smile shouted, sobbing now. 

“Please,” Calvin said, his voice lower, “don’t burn me, bro. I forgot my passport in my room. Can’t you just read your number off for me?” “That’s a lie. You’ve been checking in under my name this whole time. Darren found you. He was outside your last hotel.”

“How do you know?” Calvin said.

“I’ve helped enough,” I said. “I’m through.”

“Wait,” he said. “Please.” He breathed deeply. “What should I do?”

“Pack up your shit and get back to work.”

For a long time, only Smile berating Darren through her phone, somewhere in the hotel room in Zhengzhou, came through the line.

“Yeah,” Calvin finally said.

I leaned forward on my couch, planted my elbows on the coffee table (cleared of unread student papers), and clasped my head in my hands. The local Chinese officials published the cause of the fires, and meanwhile they dubbed the arsonist the real cause, but even that answer wasn’t quite right. I know why the arsonist did it: the arsonist had finally realized the lie behind the rule that no rule mattered as long as nobody hurt anybody else. Sitting in the pavilion, high above campus, the arsonist had perhaps brooded over the fact that, because of his poor family (poorer, anyway, than the kids whose parents could afford to pay American teachers), he might never get married—whereas a male American teacher could swoop up almost any Chinese girl he wanted. Calvin and Smile were proof. Anyway, these are the thoughts that might’ve occurred to me if I were him, at that age, out of work in China. The principle of mutual harmony went only as deep as manners, he would’ve concluded, and his fire, as simple and quick as jealousy, would blaze that lie into alarming clarity. Calvin and Smile were supposed to get back to campus at nine o’clock that evening. At least that’s what Calvin wrote me in a text message. My plan was to set it up so that Darren witnessed Calvin and Smile coming onto campus. I would be standing alone outside my building, and Darren would know that, all along, I’d been in Guoren. I sent Darren several text messages. “I’m in the pavilion,” I wrote at first. Then, “All right, I’m outside my building right now. Come know me.” Finally, I tried calling Darren instead of texting, but he didn’t answer. I left a message on his voice mail: “It’s your writing teacher. I’ve been in my room this whole week. The emergency with the fires was the reason Joseph didn’t let you visit my room. Are you there? If you’re there, come now. I’m here in Guoren City. I never left. Why don’t you answer? It’s impolite to ignore a teacher.” I stood outside my building that night starting at eight o’clock. 

I stood in clear view of everybody walking past. All the students, the guards, everyone would’ve noticed me outside, and the word would without fail get back to Darren. Even Darren’s agent, the guy from the restaurant, would know. That same guy was now watching me from across my building. He was leaning against a store front, his hands in his pockets. I waved at him, but he didn’t wave back. It didn’t matter, I thought. He could tell Darren I’d been waiting here. At nine o’clock, I moved closer to the gate. Taxis slowed and stopped out front, but Smile and Calvin were in none of them. At 9:30 I turned and ran back into my apartment building, past Joseph smoking cigarettes, who jotted my name down in the log, and up to Calvin’s room. I leaned forward and placed my ear against his door. Nobody was moving inside, so I stepped back. I walked to the end of the hallway and switched off the light. Only light coming up from the stairwell illuminated the floor enough for me to make my way back.

Alone in the dark, with nobody around me, I kicked in Calvin’s door. It was the cheap kind any bathroom in the States would have, but the sound of splitting wood exploded throughout the halls. The door was hollow and broke right open. I ran inside and closed the door before another teacher could see me. A chunk of wood around the door knob had splintered off, and the door barely went back into the frame. Once I was inside, my feet swished over student papers. The place was covered with them, essays heaped over one another on his table, notebooks and clothing strewn all around the floor like someone had ransacked the apartment. I walked the length of the flat and entered the bedroom. The curtains were drawn, closed to hide the tremendous amount of sex Calvin and Smile were apparently having. The bed was empty. The bedspread and sheets were twisted up and hanging onto the floor. While I was inside Calvin’s room, I got a phone call. It was him.

“Where the hell you been?” I said.

“Outside the gate.”

I jerked my head at the mess of student essays all around me.

“Where’s Smile?” I said.

“Just walked her home.”

I stepped towards the busted door. 

“Oh,” I said.
While I walked down the corridor towards the stairs, Calvin talked on.
“How crazy was it?” he said, laughing like a boy. “The whole hide-and-seek thing. You should see the photos we got though. Now those are crazy.” At the end of the hallway, I reached around the corner to flip the light switch but stopped. Immediately in front of me, hidden partly in shadows, stood the guy with the burned face, Darren’s friend, who’d been standing across from my building an hour earlier.

Calvin shouted into the phone. “Oh my God. Smile!”
“What’s happening?” I said, speaking to the young man in front of me. A paper sack dangled from his hand.

“He’s got her backpack,” Calvin shouted. “The camera.” “Who?” I said it to the young man in front of me. He was wriggling his lips and holding the paper bag in his fist.

“Your student’s out of control!” I stepped aside, away from the light switch, and backpedaled from the charred young man, towards the stairwell. The young man watched me the entire time. At the bottom of the first set of stairs, I slipped my phone into my pocket and ran. Joseph wasn’t at the front desk. He was in the side office on the telephone. I snaked around the last banister post and headed towards the exit.

As soon as I got outside, up ahead, on the other side of the main gate, Smile was scratching at Darren’s face. Darren violently jerked loose her backpack and trotted away. Behind them, Calvin helplessly followed. He looked around, but I was hidden, back behind. Smile was in between Darren and Calvin. She shouted at her former boyfriend. It happened right in the middle of the sidewalk. Darren dangled her backpack from his arm and was backpedaling. He was saying something to Smile in Chinese and enticing her to make her choice. I know what my choice could’ve been. I could’ve dashed in, talked my student into handing over the bag, and the camera inside, but I didn’t. I stood still in the dark while, up ahead, store front lights blazed over the affair. At the same time, behind
me, in Calvin’s room overlooking the street, those same streetlights glared against the glass as if flames devoured curtains.