How I Found Myself in China With my Black-Sheep Cousin and his Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant and Save His Life.
published by Morrow
A real-life story that uses humor to tackle a dead serious topic. “Along the way to finding a mail-order bride, falling in love with an alien country and saving Larry’s life, the duo experience extreme culture shock, flirt with espionage and discover unimaginable qualities in each other. Rose’s rhythms and comic timing, particularly in dialog with his cousin, will keep readers laughing throughout..." –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
• "One of the funniest, most touching and bizarre nonfiction books I've read. A remarkably talented writer, a great book." –Boston Globe
• Listed as one of the TOP BOOKS OF THE YEAR –Publishers Weekly
• LARRY’S KIDNEY has been optioned to be a major motion picture directed by Richard (“Boyhood”) Linklater
Excerpt from LARRY'S KIDNEY
It’s the morning after both Larry and I get to Beijing on separate flights, and we’re seeing each other for the first time since the trouble we had 15 years ago. I’m still in the dark about his ulterior motive for coming to China…
THE LARRY AND MARY SHOW
After a good day’s sleep, I wake at 5 p.m. – it’s 5 a.m. at home – with visions of kidneys floating in my mind like dust motes on the surface of my eyes. I shake them off and lift my head from the chamomile-infused pillows. The lobby, when I descend, is a castle, complete with Flemish tapestries and high gloss Clinique counter, behind which a fashion model in heavy mascara crouches in the deep knee-bend position of waiting, patiently picking her toes.
In minutes I am cabbing my way through the steam heat to Larry’s discount hotel, which is basic but perfectly decent. In the tiny greeting area a row of five receptionists who look like the stunning women vamping it up in those Robert Palmer music videos from the 80s – identical black hair pulled back tightly in buns -- giggle uniformly and direct me to a unit across the grass courtyard, second floor.
At Larry’s door I’m greeted by the sound of a key fiddling in the lock from the inside. I wait patiently until the door is swung open by a giant cleaning lady in a thick coat, her sleeves rolled up to her elbow and a toilet scrubber in her hand, who immediately bows out of the way to give me my first visual of Larry, rising from a chair in the back of the room. I am surprised by how he’s shrunk, naked but for a pair of saggy underpants and his Businessman’s Running Shoes. Wouldn’t be caught dead without his Businessman’s Running Shoes.
“Huwwo, Dan,” he says in the monotone he always uses to keep himself from getting too happy or too sad, like a funeral director with a slight speech impediment.
“Throw on a robe and I’ll hug you,” I say.
“Oh that’s an inducement,” he deadpans. Because he is emphatically not the hugging type. Nor am I in this case. His decrepitude is such that I find myself wanting to keep the flesh contact to a minimum. It’s not that I’m squeamish so much as superstitious. He is everything my family has evolved away from, scrappy, conniving; I have an atavistic fear that if I get too close, I’ll slip down a genetic mouse hole and end up a gangster in Odessa, too.
We are both relieved to shake hands.
But even at arm’s length, his diminishment is a shocker. He has lost a lot of weight, way down from the 280 pounds he was at his fire pluggiest, but this is not the sort of weight a person wants to lose. I clap him on the shoulder and find it the wasted shoulder of an old man. He has lost one, maybe two teeth in his head – I’m not sure because he doesn’t smile enough for me to count. His face is grim: puffy and pinched at the same time. Mostly is it grey: he doesn’t have a blood-cleaning kidney to give him the rosy hue of health. But as if to make up for the lack of pink, the inside of his forearms is the color of coca cola.
“What’s with the bruising?” I ask.
“Dialysis,” he tells me. “My nurses in Florida have uncannily bad aim with their needles.”
“Jesus,” I say. Because I never expected he’d look this bad. “Nice watch, anyway,” I say, referring to the fake Rolex dangling from his skinny wrist like a bracelet.
“Like it? It’s yours,” he says, shucking it from his wrist.
How could I have forgotten? Larry’s generosity is so old school that it’s impossible to compliment anything about him without immediately receiving it as a gift. It’s no exaggeration to say he would give you the shirt off his back. In fact, I once made the mistake of complimenting an undershirt and immediately received a polyester wife-beater, still warm from his ribs.
“No thanks, got one,” I say, dismayed that I do indeed have a fake Rolex that looks just like his. Bobsy Twins with my cousin is not the effect I’m trying to achieve in life.
“Suit yourself,” he says. “How about a calfskin wallet, I brought some extra ones for gifts, or a leather carrying case, or some cash to help with your flight?”
Larry used to handle money like a gambler, shuffling a wad of crisp bills like a fresh deck of cards. But now he feebly extracts a single bill and the rest fall to the floor, presenting him with the problem of how to bend down to get them.
“No thanks, I’m set,” I say, kneeling to retrieve while I take stock of my cousin. This was Larry, who as a tubby kid used to delight in running up the down escalators? How did someone of my generation become so hunched and withered? Any doubts I might have had about coming to China have vanished with the sight of him.
“I can’t begin to tell you how tired I am,” he says, collapsing into his chair and beginning a discourse on what end-stage renal disease feels like. For someone in such a state of fatigue, it’s like his mouth operates on a separate generator. I only half listen to the lengthy, horrific account because I need to preserve my spirits; if I’m going to be of any use to my cousin I have to stay upbeat, which means being selective about how many depressing details I take in. “You have no idea,” he concludes ten minutes later, digging both thumbs into his eyes wearily. “And this peking opera doesn’t help,” he adds, indicating the colorful pageant screeching away on the wall TV. “It’s been playing nonstop since it clicked on apparently by itself this morning and I can’t shut it off.”
“Can’t you unplug it?” I ask.
“You’re welcome to try,” he says. “Maybe you’ll have better luck than I’ve had.”
He coughs feebly for a while -- the remnants of a bronchial infection that came with dialysis, he says -- while I find the plug behind the set and pull it out of the wall.
“Mystery solved,” he says, relishing the sudden silence. “By the way, just FYI, I reserve the right to kill myself at any time, Dan. My muzzer is dead, my fazzer is dead, my sister is dead, there’s only me left and I don’t owe anything to anyone. And just so we’re clear, if anyone tries to stop me I would consider it the most egregious thing you’ve ever done.”
I tune out again because I’m thinking about why he couldn’t find the TV plug – that’s not like the Larry I remember. His phlegmatic exterior has always disguised a razor-sharp brain, but is something more wrong than I know? Is his physical deterioration only half the story? I watch the cleaning lady on her hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor around the tub. She really throws herself into it, a big woman made even bigger by the coat she’s bundled up in, a suede and sheepskin affair that just about doubles her mass. When I tune back in, Larry’s still making discouraging sounds: how a transplant is a treatment not a cure, how even the best outcome means he’ll be on expensive anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, how he won’t settle for being an invalid in a chair.
“Larry,” I say, “you have to realize this is your depressionism talking.”
“Yeah well, if it’s talking I’m listening,” he says morosely. Then flashes a milky-mild smile that makes him look a little like the Mona Lisa. “Of course, I could run out of Girl Scout coolies at any point and then my life will be a moot point.”
“Girl Scout coolies?”
“Cookies, cookies.” He bends to snap open the suitcase at his feet that reveals 16 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. “You didn’t think I was going to chance eating the native cuisine, did you?” he asks, offering me a Caramel deLite. “But in other business,” he says, “how’s your hotel? Classier than this one, I assume.”
“Only because the magazine is paying for it,” I say. “It’s the same one I stayed in 25 years ago, though a lot nicer this time, I have to say.”
“That the one where the coffee was so bad?”
“You have an amazing memory, Larry.”
“I remember everything you ever told me, Dan. I look up to you, you’re my big cousin. Matter of fact, wasn’t that where you shtupped a stewardess on the roof?”
Scrub, scrub, scrub.
“OK, I can see by your face that was a lifetime ago, you don’t want to be reminded, I just want to show how much you’ve always meant to me, not that your wife ever needs to know. What happens in China, stays in China, as far as I’m concerned. And you can quote me.”
“I think you must have misheard me, Larry.”
“I don’t believe so, Dan. You told me a lot of stuff in those days. But in your defense I ought to say that you were hitting the hooch pretty hard back then, Dan. Loose lips sink ships. I’m glad you stopped. What was the final straw, don’t mind my asking?”
“Larry I didn’t come halfway around the world to talk about me, OK? Let’s get back to the question of your kidney.”
“Good idea. And now that we’re clear about your colorful past maybe it’s time I come clean and mention one other little thing I neglected to say until now.”
The cleaning lady moves from the tub to the sink fixtures: scrub, scrub, scrub.
“I know transplants are illegal, Larry. We could both be thrown in jail. You already leveled with me.”
“Took me long enough, though. I was pretty nervous, truth be told.”
“I understand. You didn’t want me to take it the wrong way.”
“I’m glad you accept me with my flaws, Dan.”
“I … uh … do.” I have my back turned, discreetly zapping the cooties from our handshake with a shot of Purell.
“That means a great deal to me. So by the same token there’s one other thing I don’t want you to take the wrong way, either. You can see how visibly nervous I am all over again.”
“Just spit it out. What am I going to do, bite your head off? I’m here to help.”
“And you are helping, just by being here, I can’t tell you what a comfort it is, your presence alone.”
“I’m glad, Larry. So?”
“I’m getting married.”
“Larry! Fantastic! Why would I get mad at that, that’s wonderful news!”
“You were right as usual, Dan. I didn’t have to be nervous, after all. Thank you for supporting me.”
“Wow, congratulations, a confirmed bachelor getting hitched after all these years.”
He accelerates his monotone just a bit. “Yes, I’m very excited about her,” he continues. “I’ve never been with someone who shares so many of my values. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t run around. She’s basically stable, like I am. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”
“I’m thrilled for you, Larry. So when did all this take place?”
“Well, it’s in process,” Larry says. “I think it only prudent that I spend a little time with her first. That’s another reason I wanted to come to China.”
Pause while the only sound is the scrub scrub scrub of the toilet brush gnawing at the faucet.
“Larry, are you telling me that you’re meeting her here for the first time? That this was another reason you wanted to come to China?”
“Dan I can’t believe you of all people would expect me to marry someone sight unseen. Plus which your opinion of her is very important to me, Dan, you’ve always been an excellent judge of character.” He registers the expression on my face.
“Well anyway,” he says. “Water under the bridge, as you like to say. Besides which, I wouldn’t want to burden an upper-caste person such as yourself with crass business concerns but it would have been fiscally irresponsible of me to shell out for a ticket to come all this way and not get my money’s worth, see what I’m saying? Doesn’t a twofer sound like a better deal? Get a kidney and throw in a bride for free. One from column a, one from column b, and I trust that’s not a racist thing to say, because racist is the last thing I want to be, under the circumstances. I’m a guest of the Chinese, they’re not a guest of me. Notice I’m making a concerted effort never to use the word ‘chink’ while we’re over here.”
“That’s good of you but Larry,” I say, trying to sound out my words clearly, “you misrepresented the situation.”
“I lied, Dan. Let’s not pussyfoot around the ugly truth or make it sound prettier than it was. I lied, fair and square, but do you honestly think you would have gotten on that plane if I hadn’t kept you in the dark? It was for your own good, in a way, you would have been riddled with doubt if I hadn’t protected you from the truff.”
I look around to turn up the air conditioner but see that there is none. No wonder I’ve begun sweating through my clothes.
“Don’t look at me that way, Dan. Am I commenting on your goatee and earring, distasteful as I may or may not find them? I realize you’re a different person from the way we were as kids. Live and let live, that’s my motto. We all gotta eat.”
“I could get very mad at you now, Larry.”
“And I could point out to you, Dan, hopefully not for the first time, not to get mad at the messenger. Would you prefer I continue to spring nothing but half truths on you so pretty soon you know even less whether you’re coming or going? It’s the least I can do. Besides, wait till you hear how she described herself on cherryblossoms.org, Dan, I think you’ll agree it’s enough to make your mouth water. ‘A petite 35 year old professor of architecture at a prestigious Beijing university with great command of the English language and a 6 year old ballerina daughter who’s cute as a button.’ Isn’t that great? I didn’t even know they had expressions like ‘cute as a button’ over here. And you know how much I love kids, Dan. I have like a dozen god children from various fellow faculty members and even from a dean who’s a nun, couldn’t have her own kids but adopted one from Ecuador – great lady, by the way, she more or less authorized an all-purpose recommendation that I carry around on my person wherever I go.”
He grunts to pull out a many-folded piece of paper from inside his aromatic wallet.
“’To Whom it May Concern,’” he reads. “’This is to certify that Larry Feldman is a highly respected intellectual with advanced degrees in mediation/negotiation and a license to practice the art of real estate in countless American states. Any assistance you extend this VIP will be devoutly appreciated in the highest circles.’ Isn’t that great, Dan? I took as inspiration the letter you forged from your old Esquire editor that you used to use to cadge free airplane rides.”
“Let’s try very hard to keep this centered on you, Larry.”
“I’m just saying you’re an inspiration to me, Dan. And just between you and me, I understand it’s stacked against artists in our society, Dan, no one can blame a forged signature here and there to help you make your way. (And in case I haven’t said this before, thank you for coming on this trip, and please extend my thanks also to your wife, it must not be easy for her to be taking care of the kids without you, I really appreciate her making this sacrifice so that I can hopefully attain just a fraction of the marital bliss with my wife that you no doubt enjoy with yours.”)
So help me I’m spellbound. At a certain point, and it happened several minutes ago, I don’t even try to resist. I am held captive, hypnotized as though by a snake charmer. Perhaps the only one in the world who talks with parentheticals. It’s not that I want to give in, exactly, it’s just that it’s impossible not to. Besides, there’s a certain relief in surrendering to such masterful manipulation. It’s like being very tired of holding your head up straight and then deliciously allowing yourself to relax your neck and fall asleep at last. Concessions are made. Forgiveness is found. Maybe this is the sweet submission that members of a cult feel. God help me, I’m joining the cult of Larry.
“OK,” I say, rousing myself to speak after a silence, “so when do I get to meet the bride?”
“That’s her, you just did,” he says, raising his chin to the woman scrubbing the sink.
My head snaps upright, straining a muscle in my neck. I try to find an ounce of delicacy.
“But Larry,” I manage to say, “she’s not quite the way she described herself.”
“Tell me about it. I’m as surprised as you are. She’s 49 if she’s a day, she’s built like a linebacker, she said 120 pounds I judge more like 180, maybe she teaches electronics as a substitute teacher at a rural high school way the hell out in the sticks somewhere near the border with North Korea, I’m still trying to get to the bottom of that.” He upends a Coke bottle with Chinese squiggles on it and takes a tiny sip. “Oh, and she doesn’t have a 6 year old daughter cute as a button. She has a 24 year old retarded son. Not that I have anything against retarded people. My beloved twin sister Judy was no great shakes herself in the mental department, rest her soul, though she was surprisingly adept when it came to crossword puzzles. Being shy was mostly her problem. Retiring. Well, you remember, Dan: Did you ever see her make conversation at a family function, other than the time she was so excited that I got her accepted into that special program for epileptics?”
“Wait,” I say, trying to shake off the blitz of words. “If Mary’s not the way she described herself, isn’t the deal off? I mean, truth in advertising, right? Doesn’t that nullify the arrangement?”
“Not at all, Dan. I very much respect the fact that she misrepresented herself. It shows a native cunning that I appreciate. Not once in our two years of email correspondence did she tip her hand. Plus which it’s flattering in a way. She made all that up just to impress me? Well, pardon me but I am impressed.”
“But she lied, Larry!”
“Yes she did, and I’m putting that in the equation, but on the other hand we have all those things I mentioned in common, plus she has an uncle who I gather is some sort of muckety muck in the government, at least in as much as he is able to put me in touch with a clinic where I can get my dialysis starting tomorrow. Which is not a minor consideration, given my health and also my desire to make a few business deals on the side, if at all possible. He also threw in a taxi driver free of charge for the week, which I think is a nice gesture. So I am very much against rushing to judgment. Who am I to judge a book by its cover? You’re an author, Dan, you should know what I’m talking about. How would you like it if everyone judged your books by their covers?”
“But don’t you wish they didn’t?”
I know there’s something I can answer this with but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is. Finally it comes to me, with a further sigh of surrender, that what I’m supposed to say is, “Well it’s your call, Larry.”
“Yes it is, and I’m glad you remember that,” he replies. “Be careful not to prejudge in life, is all I’m saying, Dan. Didn’t you once tell off a friend’s fiancée on the eve of their wedding, only to regret it when she proved a loyal wife a decade later?”
“I can’t believe I’ve told you my whole life’s story.”
“You don’t want to make that mistake again, Dan, especially with the cross-cultural difference between us and the chinks.” A pause. “What?”
“Nothing. Anyway, Larry, do you want to make the introductions or what?”
“Mary?” he calls in the direction of the bathroom. “Mary?”
When she doesn’t respond after his second call, he puts frail fingers in his mouth and executes a brutal cab-hailing whistle. “Mary, put down that brush and get in here!”
“Yes ah Professor?” she says, scurrying in and slipping onto Larry’s lap, dwarfing her betrothed so I can’t see the face that continues the introductions.
“Dear, this is the man I used to think was James Bond.”
“I was so not.”
“That’s how you appeared to me growing up, Dan, what can I say. The adoring eyes of a younger cousin. You had this savvy fair, I don’t know if it was dumb luck or what, but no matter what kind of jam you got yourself in, you always came out smelling like a horse.”
We shake hands while I crane around Mary to see Larry beaming in his low-key way. “Ten hours she spent on a train to get here, she wouldn’t let me pay for plane fare, bless her heart.”
“How do you do,” I say, watching in amazement as my hand is en-cushioned by hers.
“I saved his life after college,” comes Larry’s matter-of-fact voice from behind Mary. “Leant him a spare bedroom when he didn’t know how he was going to support himself as a writer, girlfriend was cheating on him so he got two shrinks and cheated on them by not telling them about each other. For the life of me I’ll never understand why neither of them prescribed Valium so you didn’t have to steal mine.”
“You knew I was seeing two shrinks?” I say, trying to fetch back my hand.
“Now as to why you needed to cheat on two shrinks, that I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I’m not a medical specialist. You’ll have to ask one of the doctors in the family if you’re interested in getting a handle on that. What is their professional opinion of our venture, by the way?”
“The Disapproving Docs: Cousin Burton and the rest of them. I probably don’t want to know, right?”
“Probably not,” I say.
“So tell me.”
I shift in my chair, probably out of sympathy for the weight Larry is carrying.
“They’re skeptical, to say the least.”
“And to say a little more?”
“They disparage the whole enterprise,” I say, “but you have to expect that. They reflect the conservative American medical community. Their official line is that we’re ‘irresponsible’ for leaving the warm grip of American medicine, even though American medicine is telling you to bide your time for ten years. Want me to continue?”
“Well, to play devil’s advocate for a minute, you have to admit they have a point, Larry. What do we know of the cleanliness over here? Of how they track organs? There are so many variables, it’s just a shame you couldn’t call on Burton for guidance.”
The very name makes Larry see red. “Dan that is so far from anything I would do.”
“I know, but there’s no discounting the fact that Burton is one of America’s leading nephrologists, after all. You sure know how to pick your enemies.”
“I’m sure Burton hopes I won’t make it. But he ought to be down on his knees every night praying that I do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, Dan, here, have a peanut butter patty, these ones are my favorite.”
“You didn’t bring any of the sugar-free chocolate chips, with your diabetes?"
“Sugar-free is for sissies, Dan.”
“Then there’s the ethical question,” I continue, declining the treat. “They don’t sanction ‘shopping for body parts,’ as they rather haughtily put it. They’re uneasy with the idea of someone from a rich country getting a kidney from a person from a poor country, or maybe even from a prisoner. What is your position on that, anyway?”
“My position? Here’s my position. This non-prisoner needs a kidney. Execute someone of my blood type!”
“But seriously –“
“I’m dead serious.”
And he is. This is such a horrible thing to hear him say, so against every principle of decency I’ve been brought up to believe, that all I can do is pretend it came from someone else – I can’t see the speaker anyway – and change the topic. We’ll have more than ample opportunity to revisit it, I’m afraid.
“So aside from Mary not being, uh, petite, what is your assessment of her after a few hours?” I ask him.
“Other than the fact that she lied about her size and her age, both of which I take as a girlie vanity thing, I find myself more comfortable with her than just about any woman at home,” comes the voice behind the wall of Mary. “Is she perfect? No. Her English is surprisingly weak. She keeps wanting to clean things that look perfectly clean to me, but that might be cultural. I think we have enormous amounts in common.”
“So you like her?”
“I do-uu,” he says with surprising ardor, popping his head around and opening his eyes so wide I am startled by their Paul Newman blueness. No wonder women have always been eager to help him. “She gets my jokes,” he continues. “Don’t ask me how but she laughs at the right time. She insists on hand-washing my socks. It’s like being in Shogun. If only she’d put out, everything would be great.”
“You’ve come halfway around the world and haven’t consummated?”
“Didn’t you notice the separate single beds? We’re like Donna Reed in here. But we have an awful lot in common. Did I mention that she hand-washes my socks?”
There is a pause during which I am hoping that Larry is regretting his words because of how chauvinistic, politically incorrect, and generally hideous they sound. But apparently he’s not regretting them, because toward the end of the pause he cranes his head around to send Mary a lascivious wink.
“Dan made good use of my spare bedroom, I’ll tell you that,” he says.
“Hey, Larry made good use of it, too,” I tell her defensively. “When I came back from a weekend away, the door was busted down and there was a picture of my bed on the front page of the Boston Herald under the headline: ‘Biggest Bust in Two Years.’”
“Which made us even steven in the drug department,” Larry says. “Dan stole my Valium, I allowed an associate of mine to stash a little dope under his mattress in his absence. Not that I would ever partake myself, Mary. As I may or may not have told you, I never touch the stuff because: One, I like staying in control. Two, always a bad idea to invade principal. And three, dealing it back in the 70s was strictly business.”
I reflect that Larry is pretty straight, when it comes right down to it. No drunk, no drugs, no unisex salons. He tried a joint back in 1970, fainted. He doesn’t even chew gum – behavior unbefitting a businessman, in his opinion. That’s why he always keeps a sharp crease in his pants. Have I ever seen him wearing a T-shirt, or shorts for that matter? Of course not. According to Larry, who’s gonna respect you if your knees are showing?
Larry turns to me and adds some confidential information. “Best art thief in the business, incidentally.”
“Who was?” I ask. “Your ‘associate?’”
“Moishe the ringleader,” he says. “Moving dope was just a sideline compared to his interest in art. Speaking of which, they’ve never solved the Gardner Museum heist, you know, Dan.”
“I don’t want to know, OK, Larry? Let’s have a rule that you not tell me anything I can’t say in court, OK? Besides we’ve lost our audience.”
For sure enough, Mary has slipped back into the bathroom to resume scrubbing, leaving Larry with a frontal sheen of sweat in her absence.
“Did she even understand a word we were saying?” I ask.
“A couple here and there, maybe,” he says. In silence we watch Mary as she continues sanitizing.
“Are my eyes getting worse or is there really a step in the threshold going into the bathroom?” Larry asks.
“That’s to keep out evil spirits,” I tell him.
“Oh that’s right, I forgot for a minute,” he says. “Because evil is so dumb it doesn’t know how to crawl up a step.”
We continue watching Mary while I refrain from reminding Larry that a sardonic attitude will not help us while we are at the mercy of this splendid nation. “What’s with her heavy coat on a day like today?” I ask him.
“It’s a gift I sent her last month,” he tells me. “Warmest coat L. L. Bean sells. She was thoughtful enough to bring it here so she could model it for me. It’s minus 40 degrees where she lives, the North Koreans think they’re getting someplace good when they escape their homeland, apparently, but the joke’s on them. Minus 40, the same temperature as Moscow, plus it has the biggest open mine on the planet. Not very appealing. Anyway, the poor dear has to go out in minus 40-degree weather to send me an email, plus avoid falling into the mine. Even the thought of her going out in that abusive situation makes me shiver.”
Larry has always been openhanded to a fault. In this he takes after his father, the lovable but illiterate garage mechanic, who would stand there between strokes, passing out silver dollars to the children at every family gathering. The less he had, the more coins he would pass out. Though Larry had numerous bitter issues with his father and would be loath to acknowledge any resemblance to him, he does basically the same thing. The less, the more. During the recession of 90-91 when no one was buying his line of pedestrian products (a sidewalk horn to blast slow-pokes out of the way, a sidewalk flare in case of personal mishaps), Larry never showed up at a family member’s house without some pricey second-hand offering in the trunk of his Studebaker Avanti. He specialized in bulky items, maybe because they fit with his own body image: dehumidifiers, jumbo microwave ovens; even, during one dubious venture into gaming that I forbade him to tell me about, pinball machines. It isn’t exactly a dirty secret, per se, but it is worth noting that almost every member of the extended Ivy League clan has a pin ball machine in their cellar, vintage mid 70s, obtained through means they wanted not to hear about. Larry never drove up anyone’s driveway empty-trunked. Air conditioners, too – which we could certainly use right now in this airless hotel room.
“It must be 90 degrees in here,” I point out. “Couldn’t she just model the coat for you and then take it off?” I ask.
“It’s an honor thing, I gather, some Asian way of displaying loyalty,” Larry says, mopping his brow not very effectively with the coke bottle. “Or subservience or something. You tell me – you’re the China hand.”
“Jesus Larry I’m not a China hand, I’ve been here four times total, and the last time I was thrown in jail, for god’s sake.”
“Mary’s got to hear this story,” Larry says. “You were clowning around in Tibet, right, drunk on barley beer? Offered to sell some Chinese soldiers a basketball signed by the Dali Lama, something like that?”
“Larry, do you mind if we don’t revisit that adventure? It still gives me hives.”
“Did they water-board you? Mary’s gonna love this.”
“I think we’ve established that she doesn’t have ‘great command’ of English, Larry.”
“Tell her anyway.”
“Larry, no one in this country wants to hear stories from the past, it’s all great leaps forward, haven’t you noticed? Besides, she can get the whole gruesome story off my website if she’s curious.”
“Well, all I can say is it’s beyond me how you’d be willing to come here again. I’m amazed you’re not freaked by the Chinese after that, Dan.”
“Who says I’m not freaked?”
Larry takes in this confession with the seriousness it calls for. “Well, I guess bottom line is you want to make sure you don’t spend time in a jail cell this time around,” he says.
“You could say that, yes.”
“OK, so help me find my trousers. You ready to go?”
“The airport, I keep telling you. I forgot most of my luggage in the terminal. In the excitement of meeting Mary and so forth it slipped my mind. Or maybe this is the first time I’ve told you. See, that’s my mental impairment again.”
“Larry,” I say.
“What mental impairment.”
Larry looks me in the eyes for perhaps the first time since I entered his room.
“I’m pretty sure I told you about my mental impairment, Dan.”
“I’m pretty sure you didn’t,” I say, looking back in his.
“Well then, there it is again, case in point: my impairment. As you may have noticed, I tend to babble a bit. Misplace things, get confused, what have you. Our task is to determine whether this is the natural result of the dialysis, which scrambles my blood chemistry, or it has to do with the disability suit.”
“Larry,” I say.
“What disability suit.”
“OK, I’m not going to quibble,” Larry says. “Maybe I already told you about it and maybe I didn’t, but long story short, two years ago I was hit in the head by a falling icicle. Quarter million dollar settlement, after lawyers’ fees. That’s what’s funding my trip. Sweetest words I ever heard come out of a jury foreman’s mouth: ‘We find the plaintiff cognitively impaired.’ But the downside: cost me 22 IQ points, and Dan as you know, my claim to fame has always been that I’m the dumbest member of Mensa, I had the lowest IQ you can have and still be a member. But now I can’t even seem to locate my toofbrush.” He raises his voice. “Mary do you know what I did with my toiletry bag?”
On her knees in the bathroom, Mary holds up the bathmat, nodding hopefully.
“Never mind, dear, go back to work, if that’s what you want to do, or better yet come in here and rub my neck ….”
Mary gears up to run toward us while I gird myself for a bear hug.
“Mary, you are in for a treat when I take you back to America,” he says. “You may think you’ve seen good basketball in this country with the Dali Lama’s team, just wait till you see the Miami Heat. You’re gonna meet my friend Shaquille O’Neal. I’ve had lunch with him half a dozen times, on account of my cousin on the other side of the family is his accountant. We’ll get center seats for all of us together, Dan in the middle ‘cause how many people could I ask to delve into his life savings to come here like this, not a peep of complaint --”
Mary is at full gallop. I brace myself just in time for an onslaught of bosom.
“Cuzn Dan!” she cries.