When Your First Date Is Orchestrated by an Otter
Shawn Wong recommends "Bottles of Beaujolais" by David Wong Louie
INTRODUCTION BY SHAWN WONG
When David Wong Louie’s short story collection, Pangs of Love, was published in 1991, it was still possible then to read every Asian American writer in print in America and to read every work of literary criticism of Asian American literature. In fact, we could mention them by their first names and other Asian American writers and scholars would know who we were talking about: Maxine, Frank, Jessica, Lawson, Toshio, Gish, Hisaye, Wakako, Amy. The stories then were dominated by “grandma arriving in America stories” or stories set in Asian American communities such as Chinatown or set in Japanese American concentration camps. Family and identity stories. Or, our writing was meant to fix shit: racism, sexism, the war in Vietnam, stereotypes, civil rights, etc. It was like bringing a hammer to a Jenga game.
My own writing developed out of my knowledge of Asian American literature and the desire to write about subjects that were missing in the literature. When I came across David Wong Louie’s stories, I found he was doing the same with his work by advancing the narrative beyond the immigrant story. When Asian American writers read each other’s works, we can tell what books the writer has read, much like a musician can tell that a jazz or rock musician is classically trained by listening to how they play. His writing revealed that he was better educated than the self-taught version of me, but that he, too, read the work of every other published Asian American writer. It informed his work, helped him occupy a place that was distinctly his, and broadened the literature. David Wong Louie’s stories direct the reader to see the truth in each story over the facts.
When I first read David’s work, it bothered me that I couldn’t tell if the narrator or main character was Asian or not, but then he trained me to read him. “Bottles of Beaujolais” is ostensibly about a man whose main job in a sushi restaurant is to take care of the otter they keep in the front of house to attract customers. In “Bottles of Beaujolais,” you can see what it is that David Wong Louie is trying to understand by writing the story—how we occupy that space between desire and displacement, how we manufacture a dream and then are manipulated by it, and how our own desire can marginalize us while seemingly setting us free.
Here’s the thing about writers—we keep seeking the truth about what it is we’re trying to understand over and over again until we get it right. It’s there in the 1991 story published here and it’s there in his 2017 personal essay, “Eat, Memory” (which also appears in this new reprint of Pangs of Love), about his battle with throat cancer and negotiating the choice between eating food or speaking. He lost that battle last year. It’s an essay so truthful and honest about being absent from the lives of those you love before you are actually gone and it goes back to the roots of the same questions that exist in “Bottle of Beaujolais.” The questions in his writing live on, daring us to engage them. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Editor of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers
When Your First Date Is Orchestrated by an Otter
David Wong Louie
“Bottles of Beaujolais”
by David Wong Louie
I will move storms . . .
—a midsummer night’s dream
It was a little after eight one morning in late November. Fog, fat with brine, snailed uptown. Bits of the wayward cloud beaded between my lashes, crept into the creases of my clothing, and infiltrated my every pore, seeping a dank chill throughout my body. On the radio the man said the fog had set a new record for low visibility. Later, as the taxi pulled in front of the sashimi bar where I worked, the cabbie said that by nightfall the city would be covered with snow. Unlocking the door to the sashimi bar, I watched Mushimono in the show window standing upright on his hindquarters. He was thick and cylindrical, a furry replug. The otter, whose love for fish had inspired my employer to install him as a sales gimmick to lure other fish connoisseurs to the shop, seemed baffled by the fog. From his home—an exact replica of the otter’s natural habitat that stretched twelve feet long, reached as high as the ceiling, and jutted six feet into the shop—Mushimono snapped his anvil-like head from side to side, like a blind man lost, following the sounds of traffic he could not see. Mushimono was one of those peculiar creatures evolution had thrown together like a zoological mulligan stew; he had a duck’s webbed feet, the whiskered snout and licorice disc eyes of a seal, a cat’s quickness, and fishlike maneuverability in water. His fur was a rich burnt-coffee color and it grew thicker with each shrinking day of the year.
Mr. Tanaka, the sashimi master, met me at the door. He had the appearance of a box. The bib of his apron cut across his throat, exaggerating his dearth of neck. An imaginary line that extended up from his thin black necktie and past his purplish lips met his mustache at a perfect perpendicular, reinforcing this illusion of squareness. Above this plane sat two tiny eyes that shimmered like black roe.
Without ceremony Mr. Tanaka told me to make fog. “It not good this way,” he said. “Fog outside and no fog inside make Mushimono crazy.” He sliced each syllable from his lips with the precision of one of his knives.
The otter stood frozen, as if a mortal enemy were perched nearby. Yet, in spite of this stasis, I saw movement. Perhaps it was the eerie quality of the fog-sifted light or some strange trick of the eye that caused the twin curves of Mushimono’s belly and spine to run congruously, before tapering together at the S of his thick, sibilant tail. Silken motion where there was none at all. Strong but delicate lines. My thoughts drifted off to a moving figure of another sort: Luna, and the gentle crook of her neck, the soft slope of her shoulders, the slight downward turn of the corners of her mouth.
“Don’t forget, only fresh fish for Mushimono,” Mr. Tanaka warned.
“I know, I know.”
“Sluggishness no substitute for nature,” he said, clasping his hands behind his back as he paced the length of the trout-spawning tank. “For Mushimono a fish dead even if it look alive to you. If eyes not clear like— ”
“Their center dark like—”
“They dead,” Mr. Tanaka said, completing a favorite adage.
“You mean good as dead.”
The sashimi master furrowed his brow, stroked an imaginary beard, and stared at me with those two lightless eyes before he headed for the sashimi bar.
When I was first hired, Mr. Tanaka had promised to teach me the art of sushi and sashimi. In fact, during my interview he had said, “Good mind,” a reference to the fact I had graduated cum laude, “make for steady hand.” But as the weeks passed, so did my hopes of ever learning how to wield the razor-sharp knives that could turn chunks of tuna into exquisite paper-thin slices. My primary task, as it turned out, was to be Mushimono’s keeper. The food fishes and shellfishes were off limits to me. Even when I offered to help scale and shuck, he said, “This operation too delicate a matter for my business, for my sashimi, and for the fish himself for me to permit this ever.” I was unhappy at first, but Mr. Tanaka managed to keep me with a more than generous salary. And the job had its share of benefits—all the sush I could eat and Luna’s daily stroll past the shop.
I netted three speckled trout from the spawning tank and put them in a pail. All the way to Mushimono’s, they nibbled the water’s surface and sounded like castanets. As I released the trout into the murky pond in the show window, which extended deep into the basement of the shop, Mushimono regarded me with uncharacteristic calm, undisturbed by my intrusion into his world. I wondered if the odd atmospheric conditions were to blame.
Mushimono’s world was an exact reproduction of the lakeshore environment of southern Maine from which he came. Mr. Tanaka had hired experts in the fields of ecology, zoology, and horticulture to duplicate the appropriate balance of vegetation, animals, and microorganisms found in the wild.
But I made the weather. From an aluminum-plated console attached to the otter chamber, replete with blinking amber lights and grave black knobs, I was the north wind, the cumulonimbus, the offshore breeze, the ozone layer. I was the catalyst of photosynthesis. I was the warm front that collided with my own cold front—I let it rain, I held it up. I greened the grasses, swelled the summer mosses, sweetened the air, and then plucked bare the trees. I was responsible for the death of all summer’s children. In time I would freeze the pond. Yes, I had the aid of refrigerators, barometers, thermometers, hydrographs, heaters, humidifiers, sunlamps, and fans. But I threw the switches. I possessed nature’s secret formulas. What were all those transistors, tubes, wires, and coils without me? I made the weather. I was night and day. It was no illusion. I turned the seasons. I manipulated metabolism. I made things grow. Humidifier set high. Saturation point. Dew point. Refrigerated air. Steamy wisps of white rose from the pond—an immense caldron of meteorological soup—and evaporated the further they curled from the water. In no time the show window was filled with fog as dense as surgical gauze. By increments, Mushimono disappeared.
There was a clock inside me. Its alarm—my accelerated pulse, my shortened breaths—went o each day at the same time. I crouched at the foot of the show window beside the weather console, and anticipated Luna’s imminent arrival. I fancied there was something organic between us: a chemical bond, a pheromone she emitted that only I could sniff from the air that telegraphed her approach to the shop. Or perhaps it was something mystical, perhaps our souls had been linked in former lifetimes. Or was it some strange configuration of the ions in the atmosphere that drew us together? From the hundreds of feet that shuffled past the sashimi bar each morning, I always knew which belonged to Luna, for hers were like distant fingers snapping. When she walked, there was music on the pavement.
No. It was not some cosmic magnetism that pulled us together, and our molecules were not aligned in any extra-physical way. This was plain, pedestrian infatuation.
Luna’s lacquered nails tapped the glass pane. She stopped each day at the same hour to see Mushimono and lavish her attentions on a creature insensitive to her charms. My stomach gurgled in anticipation. I heard a splash of water as the otter dived into his pond. Unable to see Luna through the fog, I pricked up my ears and listened for her. Past the fog and the layers of glass I heard the wet suckling noise, like a child nursing, that she was making with her lips, those succulent, baby shrimp. As always, her kisses were not meant for me.
I longed to see her and I could have satisfied my longing simply by flicking on the sunlamps and burning off the fog. I had the power but not the nerve. Mushimono’s welfare was my first priority, my second was to stay employed, and sadly the yearnings of the heart could do no better than a distant third.
Luna tapped once more. Through the fog her red beret was a muted shade of plum. She was no more than a shadow whose substance fluctuated with her proximity to the glass. The fog hid Luna; it caressed her, as Zeus, disguised as a cloud, once caressed Io. And since this cloud was mine, then I was Zeus to Luna’s Io.
After several minutes, when Mushimono failed to materialize from the pond, Luna’s impatient ghost vanished in the mist.
By the lunch hour the fog outside had worsened. For the very first time, Luna entered the shop. She had a parcel tucked under her arm. Our first meeting without glass. Even sopping wet, she was beautiful. Water droplets sparkled in her hair. Her eyes were as blue as lapis. Her voice was unexpectedly deep. But even more of a surprise was the narrow gap between her two front teeth, a gap so dark and rare and suggestive of the mysteries that draw men to women.
“These are for the weasel,” she said as she handed me the parcel. “I hope it likes Nova.” She adored Mushimono, Luna explained, and was concerned when he failed to make an appearance that morning. I assured her of his good health. Luna lit a cigarette. Smoke rose and slowly curled up and formed a jagged halo in the damp air around her head. She seemed distracted, gazing at the rear of the shop where Mr. Tanaka’s customers lunched at the sushi counter and the Italian-café tables. I leaned my elbow on the weather console and explained—I might have bragged a little, but how could I resist?—that I had made the fog that obscured her view of Mushimono.
“Give me summer,” she said, her voice as raspy as July sparklers.
“I’m afraid snow’s predicted for tonight.”
“Snow, fog, what’s the difference?” She drew more smoke into her lungs. “It’s a mess any way you slice it. In a month the winter solstice, and your Mistermomo will hibernate for the duration. It’s a waste and a shame. I mean it. That weasel makes my day; a little life in all this concrete.” She exhaled a long agonized breath. “I’m getting depressed just talking about it.” Luna removed her beret and shook off the water. “I think I was a Californian in a former life.” She dragged on the cigarette and then added as an afterthought, “Hey, if you’re the weather wiz, why don’t you do something about this fog?”
I told her that a sudden change in barometric pressure in Mushimono’s tank might cause him grave discomfort. This wasn’t the total truth but she trusted me at my word. She got ready to leave and said she would stop in on her way home from work if the fog cleared by then. She wanted to make sure Mushimono was in good health. I told her if it was snowing out when she arrived, I would demonstrate how I made snow. She sighed. “All morning long, all I hear is talk of the bottom line; everything with those brokers is the bottom line.” Luna crushed her cigarette under the sole of her snakeskin pump. “I come here to get away from all that, to see my Mistermomo, but I don’t get weasel. You give me snow. Snow, snow, snow. It’s so depressing.” She knotted her belt and turned up the collar of her raincoat. She spun on her heel and started to leave. As she reached for the door, she turned suddenly and apologized for the outburst. “See you later.” Here she grinned. “By the way, my name’s Peg.” Peg! I thought. Peg? One hangs coats on pegs. How could my Luna be this monosyllable? This Peg?
By afternoon the fog had lifted, and I burned off the fog from the otter chamber. Mushimono was indifferent to the change in weather, surfacing only for quick breaths before returning to his underwater lair. At three Mr. Tanaka left for the day. I closed shop. In anticipation of Luna’s visit, I went shopping and returned with candles and bottles of wine. I lit the candles and waited for Luna. When finally she tapped at the front door, it was already dark and the candles had burned to half their original length.
We had barely said hello, and I was still holding the door open, when she handed me her Burberry and whisked past me, losing me in her perfume. She sped to the little café table I had set up, with its dancing flames and breathing wine. She did not even ask after Mushimono.
Luna took the bottle in her hands, cradling the neck up like the delicate head of a baby. “Beaujolais!” she shrieked. “I can’t believe it! How fortuitous. I think I might cry.” She sniffed the bottle. “This is the wine of summer, the picnic wine.” She lit a cigarette and puffed anxiously. “This is the wine for lovers. Oh, you don’t understand, do you? I just had the best summer of my life.”
I poured equal amounts of the ruby-red liquid into porce- lain saki bowls. The color of her fingertips matched the beaujolais. We lifted our bowls and, after a moment of deliberation, she offered a toast: “To Mistermomo and Édouard Manet. Or is it Monet? No, Manet.” We drank the bittersweet juice of love. As I sipped, I watched Luna over the rim of my bowl. Her skin glowed as if lit from within. “Those guys in Manet’s, or maybe it is Monet’s, ‘Déjeuner,’” she said, putting emphasis on the middle syllable, which she pronounced “June,” “were crazy for beaujolais. They drank it by the gallon. Honestly. I read it in an art magazine.” Her cheeks were flushed from the wine. I admired her cameo earrings. Luna said the Impressionists were her favorite painters, and they and the wine reminded her of summer.
“Baudelaire—” I began, having recalled his immortal line, One should always be drunk.
“No, no, it’s pronounced ‘beaujolais,’” Luna said. “See here? Beaujolais.” She pointed a finger at the wine label.
“Of course,” I said. “My French is terrible.” I refilled the bowls.
I never cared for the smell of burning tobacco, but the smoke rings rising from her pursed lips seemed fragrant, almost sweet, as if her body had purified the smoke. Then Luna let out a terrible cough. “Bronchitis,” she muttered as she raised the bowl up to her mouth.
“You should take care of yourself,” I said. “You ever think what those cigarettes are doing to you? Maybe you can try something athletic, like skating or skiing.”
She narrowed her eyes and fixed me with a stare. “What’s with you and snow?” And as if that had not already chilled my blood, she said the one thing a lover hates to hear from his beloved: “You sound like my mother.”
I apologized. Then she apologized.
“It’s me,” she said. “The bum lungs, the cigarettes are part of the package. You can say I live life on the edge. I mean van Gogh called it quits before he was forty.” She coughed. “This sounds crazy,” she said, “but each time I have an attack I feel that much closer to the inner me.” Luna drained her bowl and then replenished it with the dregs from the bottle of beaujolais.
I went behind the sashimi bar to prepare a snack for us. I selected a long shiny knife from Mr. Tanaka’s impressive collection. I was surprised by how light it felt in my hand. I removed a block of yellowfin from the refrigerated case and started cutting the fish into crude cubes. The steel seemed to melt through the flesh. At first, I was tentative in my approach to the fish, but soon, caught up in the sensuality of slicing, in the thrill of moving through flesh, I was imitating the sashimi master’s speedy hands, approximating his ashy blade act. Where was the mystery of his art? It was mine already. I looked over at Luna and smiled while my busy hands whittled away at the shrinking hunk of fish. I imagined how I might one day audition for Mr. Tanaka, with Luna there for inspiration, and dazzle him with my newfound skills. I glanced down to admire my handiwork. My hand was a bloody mess.
“I fancy myself a burgundy,” Luna said.
I clenched my fist, sticky with red pearls of trouble. I felt dizzy but worked hard to hold myself together.
“But, you know,” she said, “people like to classify me in the sauterne family.” I wanted to be brave, but every man has his limits, especially when he is watching his blood run from his body.
“I’m bleeding,” I said.
“Oh. You say you’re a burgundy too?”
“No, I’m bleeding, like a pig!” I flicked my wrist, spattering the pristine countertop with bright red beads.
“Put some mercury on it,” she said.
“Grab ahold of that tuna. It’s full of mercury. I read it in–
“You mean Mercurochrome. That’s not the same as—Ah, forget it.” I tightened my fist, hoping to staunch the flow. I saw my evening with Luna slipping away.
“Call it what you want, it’s probably in the tuna anyway.”
I ran cold tap water over my hand. My blood turned a rust color in the stainless-steel sink. There were three major cuts— on the thumb, the heel, and the meaty tip of the middle finger—and numerous nicks. Moments later I bandaged my aching hand in a linen napkin. Luna sipped her beaujolais and then offered me a taste. I drank. She marked the spot where my lips had come in contact with the bowl and drank the final swallow with her mouth positioned on the very same spot. I retrieved the second bottle of wine, a chablis, from the refrigerator. I had to ask Luna to uncork it.
“To me, you are a burgundy,” I said. Each syllable echoed in my ears long after it had left my lips. My face burned but my extremities felt cold. “There’s nothing remotely sauterne about you. You’re not even blond.” The wines raced through my veins, their friction swelled my wounded hand. I could have sworn my lungs had shrunk—there seemed to be much less air to breathe. “I won’t hear another word about you and sauternes. You’re definitely burgundy, Luna.”
“What did you call me?”
“Peg. I’m Peg.”
“You don’t have to test me. You’re burgundy all the way.
“Yes. Burgundy. Simple and elegant—”
“Rich and full-bodied, Luna.”
“Yes. Earthy, robust, and generous.”
“Soft-eyed, soft-lipped, Luna-Peg.”
Fires smoldered under my lids. My jaw dropped. My skin drooped from sore bones. And in their core the marrow had hardened.
“Drinking burgundy is an event,” she said.
“I adore a fine burgundy.”
We drank our wine by the mouthful.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Sauternes are such flippant, insignificant wines. Silly vacuous fruit juice—”
“But, Luna, you’re not silly or vacant.”
“And you, sir, are—let me see—yes, a mature port. I mean it. You have those superior powers of discernment that are the trademark of all good ports.” She raised her bowl to my lips. “Drink,” she said softly. “You must mend your blood.” I gulped her offering, obeying her angelic voice. She refilled her bowl and drank.
I rested my wounded hand on my thigh. The napkin was badly stained. I needed to rest. My heart pounded like the surf, and when the sea receded, I baked under the hot suns beneath my lids until the tide washed over me once more. My head kept time with my pulse, rocking back and forth, from shoulder to shoulder. I unwrapped my hand and dipped the hot digits in the chilled wine. The wounds gaped, the skin around them twitching. The wine rusted. Luna lifted my hand from the bowl and kissed each finger, alternating the kisses with puffs off a cigarette.
“Beaujolais,” Luna lamented, staring longingly at the empty bottle. “All gone. The end of summer. No more Monet, Manet— oh, hell. No more of all that crazy light and sun and heat and color; the boys and girls at play. The boys on the beaches and wonderful beaujolais.” I closed my eyes. They had outgrown their sockets. As I dozed in and out of sleep, I slipped to the borderlines of consciousness where the heres and theres overlap. I sat on my spine with Luna here beside me. But when sleep swept me under, dreams became the intimate here while the things defined by time and space were the distant theres. Luna, repainting her lips as I opened my eyes—here. Then she was there, untouchable, a shadow in my fuzzy dreams. In this place her words turned to music.
“Give me the summer any day of the week,” she sang.
I skinned back my lids and was blessed by the sight of her sad cool blues staring at me. “Luna,” I said, smiling. “Burgundy Luna.” I took her by the wrist, as big around as a sparrow’s breast, and directed her eyes to Mushimono’s lakeshore. “Consider it summer again,” I said languorously. “Your wish is my command.”
“Don’t tease,” Luna said. “You’re two months too late and five months too early.” Her words were lyrics to a love song. What did it matter what they meant? After all, who made the weather? I said, “Who is day and night? Who turns the seasons? Who makes things grow?”
“You sick or what?” She checked my temperature. “You’re hot.”
I blew out the candles and watched the complex spirals of smoke twist to the ceiling. “Suddenly, it’s no more,” I said. “Like that, I’ll rid us of winter. Summer will be yours again, my dear Luna.” “It’s Peg. My name is Peg. You’re not well, are you?”
Then the tide inside me ebbed; my body flowed into the chair like a Dali watch. Luna, I thought, is Helen of Troy and Raphael’s Madonnas rolled up in one. Luna is Penelope at the loom. Eurydice in Hades. Luna is Mozart at seven. Shirley Temple at eight. Luna is that side of the moon we see, and all we imagine the invisible half to be. Luna is Titania kissing Bottom. Io snatched by Zeus. Marilyn married to DiMaggio. “Luna is Peg,” I said out loud, “a lovely mystery, a mysterious loveliness.”
“God, if you feel that way, call me Luna. Call me Lunatic. I mean it. Burgundy Luna. I sort of like that.”
“I can make summer come and go.” My words trickled off my shoulder and down the front of my shirt. “We’ll picnic,” I said, “picnic.”
She sat up excitedly, then slumped back into her seat. “It won’t be the same,” she said. “How can we have a picnic without the right wine?”
I suggested saki.
“Oh, saki is so—Ceremonial. Let’s face facts. Chardonnay goes with fish, cabernet goes with meat, but beaujolais is the stuff of picnics.”
I grabbed the empty beaujolais bottle and funneled some saki into it.
“That’s indecent,” she said. “That stunt might work on a two-year-old but not on me.” She joined me behind the sashimi bar and held the bottle up to the light. “I guess an emergency’s an emergency, but the color’s all wrong.”
Suddenly, she reached for one of Mr. Tanaka’s special knives. Silver ashed between us. Luna’s eyes were the sky. In them I soared. Back on earth I was trembling. The cold steel parted the earlier, now crusted cuts. Thin red lines appeared across my fingers and palm. She took my hand and smiled mischievously. She squeezed it over the funnel until blood streaked from palm to heel, where droplets hung like lizard tongues. The blood rolled slowly through the funnel and splashed thickly in the saki. In time, we had translated the saki into a bottle of beaujolais.
“I know we could’ve pretended,” she said as she pressed my hand to her lips. “But why exhaust our imaginations?” The tip of her tongue traced the wounds, splitting, stinging, and soothing them all in the same lick. “You’re wonderfully strong port.”
She squeezed my hand over the funnel once more. The heavy droplets pinged the saki’s surface faster and faster until she achieved the coloration she desired. It resembled an orange rosé. Pleased with her work, Luna raised my hand and smeared my blood over her lips. I took the bottle by the neck and intoned, “To Luna.”
“To summer,” she said, clasping her hand over mine.
Outside the lakeshore, Luna worked the controls of the weather console as I gave her instructions. I was too dizzy and weak to perform the magic myself.
Luna poured beaujolais into a bowl. “Drink,” she beckoned, “wine mends blood.” I drank from the bowl she held to my lips. The wine was warm and unpleasantly salty. I felt hot, then cold, then hot again. I closed my eyes. The lids seemed lined with sand. I dreamed of Luna, naked as the otter, standing in the street outside the lakeshore, tapping at the window. Then I woke and saw her at the controls, and this seemed like an equally implausible dream.
The sunlamps burned at noontime intensity. Though the fans were idle, convection stirred a gentle breeze in the lakeshore that rustled the dead leaves along the ground. Soon, because of the contrast between the heat inside and the relative cold outside, dew started to form on the chamber’s four glass walls.
“Eighty-two degrees and climbing,” Luna sang out. The otter suddenly sprang out of the pond. He scurried up the muddy embankment and darted from one end of the compartment to the other. He pawed the glass, but Luna, fixed on her work at the weather console, did not notice.
“Humidity, let’s see, is up to sixty-eight percent,” she said. “Barometric pressure reads thirty-point-two-three and rising.” Mushimono stood erect on his haunches and stared devotedly at her, as if he were kneeling, waiting to receive Communion.
We entered the lakeshore. The otter dived into the torpid water. Luna spread her plaid blanket on the ground. I basked under the brilliant suns, whose healing rays sealed my wounds. Beside me Luna arranged a still life of bowls, lox, and the beaujolais.
“This is great,” Luna said as she untied the laces of my shoes. “They won’t believe me tomorrow at work.”
“Lovely day, if you don’t mind me saying so myself.” Thick dew clung to the window, blocking any view of the world beyond.
“This is really great. Better than Bermuda. I mean it. Summer in winter, day at night.” Luna turned her back to me and rolled her stockings off her ankles. “There’s money in this operation. I’ll tell the brokers about it. They’ll probably flip but they’ll know what to do.” She stretched out alongside me, undoing the third and fourth buttons of her silky blouse, hiking her skirt past her thighs. She poured a bowl of the new beaujolais and made me drink. “You remind me of someone. It’s your eyes. So big and round and black.” She scratched her head for the answer. She picked up the lox. “I see it now,” she said, “Mistermomo! You and that sweet weasel.”
Luna knelt by the lake and floated the slices of lox, orange-pink rafts, one by one, on the stagnant water. “Oh, Mistermomo,” she called, “I have a treat for you.” She made her suckling sound, so odd and wet.
“Where’s that weasel?”
“He likes fish, not filets.”
“Filets,” she said, “are fish.”
“Mushimono likes his fish with gills and fins.”
Luna clenched her teeth, perfect white shells, tightening the skin around her mouth. She glared at me as if I were mad. Tucking the hem of her skirt into the waistband, she waded knee- deep into the lake.
“Jesus, it’s freezing!”
With her next step she suddenly plunged into thigh-deep water, stirring a turbulence that sucked the lilylike filets toward her. When the ripples subsided, one filet was clinging to the front of a bare thigh. Rather than removing it, she smoothed the lox against her skin with caresses and pats that produced sounds like those of lovers’ stomachs pressed together. The lake, she discovered, was too deep. As she emerged from it, Luna shivered and coughed. She unhitched her algae-blotched skirt and let it fall in a pile at her feet. She seemed frail and small. She gestured for the beaujolais. I picked up a bowl and was horrified by what I saw. The contents had been retranslated by the suns. The blood had coagulated into a cinnamon crust, sealing in the saki underneath. “I need some wine,” she said, “my lovely summery beaujolais. I’m freezing.”
I started to feel the ache in my hand. My head throbbed from the alcohol. “It’s gone,” I said as I stared at the bowl, the hardened blood, the obscene saki. The sunlamps stung my eyes.
I’m cold,” she said. She reached across me for the bowl, and when she glimpsed the cruel scab bobbing on the dirty saki, she dropped the bowl, and it cracked against a rock. The fire was gone from her eyes and skin. Beads of pond water seemed frozen upon her arms. She trembled. Her pale face was the leaden-gray of cod steak and filled with the indecisiveness of a three-quarters moon. “It’s a nightmare,” she said.
I wiped a portion of the window clear of dew. No moon in the sky, but snow, lots of snow, just as the cabbie had forecast. Flakes fell in bunches. I shook my sore hand. I heard her pick her raincoat up off the ground, overturning the bowls, the bottle, and all the picnic things that had been resting upon it. I followed the flight of several flakes from the lamplight’s nimbus to the white street below. She tiptoed from the show window. A gust of cool air shot in from the shop. Not a soul was on the street. Absolutely quiet, as it must have been at the beginning of time. I could hear my hand throb. In the pond the lox was being semi-poached by the sunlamps, and gave off a rank smell. Not far away I detected the gentle hiss of nylons inching over her legs. Then the rustle of raincoat, the click of her pumps, and the squeak of the front door opening. She crossed the street. Her collar brushed up alongside her ears; each flake seemed to make her flinch and shrink deeper into her coat, like a tortoise into its shell. She struggled, small, shivering, solitary, against the storm.
Peg, I thought. I wiped away some dew. The snowfall was spectacular. “Peg,” I whispered. She slipped from sight.
I ran outdoors, following the pair of unbroken footprints leading from the sashimi bar to where she stood on the avenue hailing a cab. “Peg!” I shouted as the cab pulled up to the curb. I began to run. “Peg!” I glided like a cross-country skier in the narrow lane she had cut in the wet snow. “Peg!” There on the sidewalk I saw a salmon filet. “Peg.” I was my own echo. Then I became aware of a strange sound coming from behind. Imagine mah-jongg tiles tossed together in a tin can. I took a quick look back, but saw nothing. “Peg.” She was climbing into the cab. I ran harder and with my increased speed the mah-jongg tiles grew louder, more urgent. “Peg.” My eyes fixed on the amber lamp shining at her shins through the balls of exhaust at the foot of the open car door.
I slid in next to her and slammed the door. Immediately I heard a metallic scratching. I opened the door and there, illuminated by the footlamp, I saw the otter, upright on his hind legs. He was panting, out of breath. “What is it, a dog?” Peg asked. She clutched my arm as she peeked over my shoulder at Mushimono.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said as the otter flopped into the compartment with us. “He seems very gentle tonight.” I closed the door gingerly behind him.
“You’ve got to take him back,” she said, sliding into a corner, away from the otter.
No, I thought, no. Not this night, with my happily aching hand and Peg so near. We were warm and cozy in the cab. She nestled close to me; the otter, stretched to its full length over half of the backseat, seemed to purr; the wheels of our taxi hummed as snow beneath them turned to slush.
I tapped the glass that divided the cab into two compartments. “Central Park,” I told the cabbie. “To the lake where you rent those boats in the summer, you know, where the ducks live.” The otter first. Before my hand, before Peg’s wet clothes. Before whatever might pass between us next. It was my duty— the otter’s care.
The cab swerved uptown. Snow kept falling. It covered the city, softening edges, blurring lines. But I had never seen things any clearer than I did that night. Blizzard-force gusts made our journey difficult. I told the cabbie not to rush. We could not out-race the storm. There would be snow, plenty of snow. I knew by daybreak the snow would turn to rain and by noon it would all be forgotten.