Chinese Finger Cuffs: A Short Story

This is a story about time travel. But not just the sci-fi kind. More like how people are always mentally living in the past or living in the future.    

550px-Escape-from-a-Chinese-Finger-Trap-Step-2

photo credit: wikihow

“Chinese Finger Cuffs”

a short story by Pete Hsu

 

The hearse idles, quietly, efficiently. Two versions of Liesel Makenbaker circle each other, the older one conscious of the situation, the younger one unaware. Tethered to each other on this date in time. They’re on an intersecting course with one moving towards accepting fate, while the other still pushing hard towards the optimism of youth.

Inevitably, they will negate each other, as is the nature of opposites.

At the door of the funeral home, the teenage version of Liesel lingers with Benson Wu. She looks at him like he’s something special. She doesn’t realize that he is not special at all. He’s just seven years older than her. And he’s angry but repressed, the strong silent type, like her father.

Watching her from the edges of the crowd is the older version of Liesel. She goes by her given name, Elizabeth, and she is just as tall and lean as her younger self, but her stilted gait gives away her advanced age.

She paces the walkway, slowly, as if working up the courage to confront her younger self. Or for the clarity on how to do it. She watches from across the street as their three older sisters offer to drive Liesel and Ben to the wake.

“Liesel,” they say, in unison.

She doesn’t respond, ignoring them, talking to random people instead. A classmate, a former teacher. They remark on “such a beautiful day” and “the view from up here.”

Politely excusing herself, she shakes loose her long brownish hair, vying for Ben’s attention. He nods, she smiles, knocking over a metaphorical domino in the middle of the hundreds they’ve set up.

“Ben’s got a car,” she says. “He can drive us. Right, Ben?”

“Um, yeah,” he says. “I’m parked out on the street.”

“I’m gonna ride with him then.”

The sisters exhale through their noses, all three half smiling. Margie [1] is the oldest and looks at Liesel with her head down and eyes turned up, as if to ask: are you sure?

Liesel does not return her sister’s eye contact.

Ben rolls his memorial program into a taut baton, something like Chinese finger cuffs. He puts his index fingers into the ends. The tube tightens on his digits as he pulls them gently apart. He relaxes and unrolls the program, smoothing it back to flat.

He looks up at Liesel, taller than him, her eyes fixed on his mouth, thick and red. He frowns and the two begin the longish walk through this gallery of mourners. Someone weeps, without fanfare. But most relax into a muted normality, conversations about school and the playoffs and what happened to poor Janice, too young, too bright, to go out like that.

Many have already left.

“Where do you think everyone is?” she asks.

“Who knows.”

“Maybe they’re at the wake already. Or a kid’s birthday party. Something planned like weeks ago.”

“That’d be weird.”

“Maybe. But it’s probably true.” [2]

Pacing Ben in 3-inch heels, tall and lean, considerably taller than him. Liesel shortens her stride almost into a childish pitter-patter to match his stocky gait. Then moves her arm as if to take his, but then pulls back.

“How far did you park, Ben?”

“Not far.”

“Well,” she says. “This is far.”

“I,” he pauses. “I don’t like parking close to other cars.”

“Wow.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Um, you know how to get there?”

“Nope,” he replies. Then, “You ask a lot of questions.”

She looks at the program in his hand. A picture of Janice on the cover along with: “June 9th, 1984 – January 27th, 2005.” [3] She points at it, but he doesn’t seem to notice her gesture. At the car, he slows down. She squints, as if trying to recognize the vehicle they’ve stopped at. It’s silver, has two doors and looks like a spaceship. He fumbles with the remote, pushing each of the four buttons in random order. Without beeping, it just swishes as latches unlatch.

“Why did you come?” She asks, as they get in.

Ben turns the key, starting the car. He settles into his seat, fiddling with the adjustments, taking a moment to rub his face before responding.

“What?”

“Why? Why did you come to the funeral?”

“She was my friend.”

“Hmm. No, you liked her, but you weren’t friends.”

Ben sighs.

“I didn’t like her,” he says. “Not like you think.”

He looks away, inhales to begin another answer, before noticing a figure in his rearview mirror. In the distance, some 500 yards away, it’s older version of Liesel, Elizabeth. She is walking the shoulder of I-68.

He looks closer, straining to recognize her.

“Hitchhiking,” he says.

Putting the car in gear, Benson makes a U-turn and starts driving, incrementally catching up to the hitchhiker who seems to blend into the evergreens that line both sides of the highway.

“They’re grey,” he whispers. “I used to draw those trees.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Didn’t you used to be pretty good?”

“Yeah, used to be.”

Liesel’s eyes follow the curve of his profile, land and linger on his mouth, his lips, just like before. She looks away as if to pretend that she understands something that she really doesn’t.

“I think I know that woman,” he says, as they come up on Elizabeth. “We should stop.”

“Who? I don’t see anyone,” Liesel answers, as they pass her.

“I don’t know. Forget it,” he says, absently changing the subject. “I thought more RHS kids would be there.”

“RHS kids don’t know Janice.”

“Really?”

“Let me ask you something,” she says, turning her torso to face him. “What did you see in her?”

“I don’t know. Smart. Athletic.”

“Pretty,” she says.

The conversation pauses. She waits for him to respond. He looks at her, beginning to say something, but he doesn’t. Instead, looking back onto the road. And again he sees the tall and lean woman hitchhiking ahead of him, down the road some 500 yards away. He fixes his eyes on her, eyes off the road. She is dark and slow. She pulls the collar on her black coat up, over her grey hair. Mostly grey, greyish, like the pines. She looks back at him, making eye contact.

“Jesus,” mutters Ben. “Is that her again?”

“Ben, don’t you want to know why I came today?” she asks, ignoring his comment, as they pass Elizabeth.

“I assumed you were friends.”

“No, Janice was already in college when she moved down here.”

“She’s not from here?” he asks, staring off into the horizon, again seeing Elizabeth up ahead on the roadside.

“You gotta be kidding,” he says.

“No. She’s from Washington.”

“What? God, no, not that. I mean this woman, hitchhiking. I swear to God, it’s the same one we just saw.”

“Ben, I’ve been wanting to tell you. The way I feel. I came today for you. For us.”

Liesel smiles just as her older self turns, abruptly walking into the oncoming traffic.

“Oh, shit!” says Ben.

He turns the car hard to the left. Loses the rear wheels and spins. The back of the car nearly hits Elizabeth before coming full circle onto the shoulder. Lost in the dust, the hitchhiker falls backwards into the ditch.

“What the hell, Ben!” Liesel says.

Ben exits the car and rushes to the ditch.

Elizabeth is not there.

“Where did she go? Jesus, I almost killed her.”

“Who are you talking about? You seriously almost killed us!”

He looks around and sees Elizabeth up ahead in the distance coming towards them. She is dirty and tattered, but moving steadily.

“Don’t! Don’t!” shouts the hitchhiker.

“I gotta go see if she’s okay,” he says.

“Who are you talking about?” says Liesel, calmly pulling him toward the car. “Ben, it’s just us here.”

She pauses to take hold of his hands.

“Ben, let’s get out of here,” she says. “Forget about the wake. Forget about our parents, and engineering, and stupid Harvey Mudd College! We’ll go to Montreal. Start a band. [4] You’ll write books. I can do ballet.”

“You hate ballet.”

“I just let people think that. I love ballet. I’m just not good at it.”

He smiles, glancing over to the hitchhiker, still walking towards them. Then back at Liesel.

“God,” he says. “You are pretty.”

Elizabeth keeps coming, still shouting, “Don’t! Don’t!”

“Jesus, she looks okay, but,” he asks. “Seriously, we should help her.”

Liesel doesn’t answer. Benson seems briefly lost in his thoughts, as if quickly assessing his life, his obligations, his plans.

“Liesel,” he says. “I’m sorry sometimes.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “Let’s just go. This is our chance, to be happy.”

He nods at her, taking her hand, holding it up to his heart for a moment. They then get back into Ben’s silver car, driving off into the horizon.

The hitchhiker arrives too many moments later.

She collapses, muttering, “Please, don’t marry her.”

#

Back along I-68, Elizabeth dusts herself off, shaking loose her hair. She stands watching the younger version of herself, the car’s motor audible for several lingering seconds. As the young couple disappears into the horizon, Elizabeth closes her eyes and disappears as well. Disappearing from their time, 2005, and returning to hers, 2036. 31 years after Janice’s funeral, 31 years after the young Liesel and Ben left California for Montreal.

When she reopens her eyes, she is back in 2036. There are no more pine trees at the sides of I-68. It is now lined with arrays of solar panels and wind turbines. And now, instead of layers of concrete and asphalt, ionized iron rails mark this iconic roadway.

A hover-car approaches and quietly flies by. Elizabeth does not attempt to flag it down.

Arriving onto Demby Circle [5], a crowd of mourners gathers in an absurdly oversized bungalow. They’ve come from Ben’s funeral, from up on the hill with the view.

Parked hover-cars line both sides of the street. The robot motorcade attendants arrange them this way, seemingly arbitrarily, creating a single, narrow, one-way line of traffic heading west.

She stumbles through the front doors, picking up a random glass of liquor from the buffet. Her sister Margie, a grandmother now, rises from her seat and makes her way over to her.

“Liesel!” she says. “What happened to you?”

She doesn’t answer.

Through the living room, past a large easel holding the large memorial hologram of a middle-aged Ben dressed in a flamingo pink suit. Elizabeth knocks it over on her way to the fireplace, where she leans on the mantel. She stares at another hologram. It’s a snapshot of them as young people, Ben no more than 21, Liesel just a child.

“This one,” she says, picking up the picture. “It’s from before. Before we drove off into our bohemian sunset. Before affairs and bankruptcies and alcoholism. Before cirrhosis and pancreatitis and dementia and lung cancer and stomach cancer and throat cancer and esophageal cancer.”

She stumbles onto the couch, the big one by the big window. Margie joins her, placing a napkin on her baby sister’s skinned knee. Elizabeth’s blank expression breaks a tiny bit. Tension in her neck, in her eyes, watery but not crying. She turns her attention outside where there is no traffic oncoming.

“What if two cars were out there,” she says. “Heading at each other.”

“I guess they’d be stuck,” says Margie. “Like Chinese finger cuffs.”

“I think they’d stop. Just stand there. Face each other. For a while, they’d move around trying to move each other, trying to move the road itself. They might go on for hours, just turning and braking, backing up and revving up. But eventually they’d know. Finally, no fuel, no lights, and no more willingness to change things. You’d think the drivers would just leave, walk away and get on with their lives, such as they are.”

“Or just sit there and die?” asks Margie.

“Or just sit there and die,” says Liesel.

#

——————————

NOTES

[1] Margie Makenbacker is no fan of Benson Wu. Growing up as family friends, they are exactly the same age, which is nearly seven years older than Liesel. As 2nd graders, Benson stood idly by as several bullies tormented Margie for an entire school year on absurd accusations of witchcraft and immorality. Benson, being a rather heavy-set boy, could have used his massive presence to repel her antagonizers, but he did not. Since then, several recurring revenge fantasies linger in Margie’s imagination. In one particular iteration, she turns the bullies against Ben. Interestingly, in her mind, she always rescues him in the end.

[2] The party in question is most likely Jacqueline Sur’s Beltane party, which is little more than an excuse to build a large bonfire on her grandmother’s ranch.

[3] Liesel and Ben are attending Janice Smith’s funeral. She died from injuries incurred during a rock climbing accident. Neither Ben nor Liesel were particularly close to the deceased. But, as is sometimes the case, the sheer incomprehensibility of her passing brought several distant acquaintances to the funeral.

[4] Though Ben plays in several bands over the course of their marriage, Liesel and Ben never actually play in a band together. Upon arriving, they quickly discover that they are poor, a situation quite foreign to the both of them. Liesel, having a better disposition towards employment, takes a job as a security officer at Le Musée d’art contemporain. There she meets Donovan Sturdevant, an older and more accomplished version of Benson. Though they never consummate their affair, Donovan lavishes the young Liesel with gifts and monetary loans, which go entirely unpaid. This puts a steady pressure on both relationships, eventually leading to Liesel’s resignation from the museum and Ben’s decision to take a job managing a paper mill in La Tuque, 180 miles from Montreal.

[5] Demby Circle is one of many short, dark and curving streets in the Rachilito, which is not a city but more like the most affluent neighborhood within an extremely affluent township. It is where Liesel, Benson, Margie, Janice and Jacqueline all grew up.

[0] This story is based on two episodes of the Twilight Zone, both dealing with the themes of the inevitable tide of fate, and our fruitless efforts to evade the truths about ourselves. “Spur of the Moment” first aired on February 21st, 1964 and “The Hitch-Hiker” on January 22nd, 1960.

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2 comments

  1. samk987 · May 3, 2014

    I’d read this now, but I’m scared to. Plus it’s nighttime, and I know if it’s based on Twilight Zone episodes, I’m probably gonna get nightmares if I’d read this now.

    • Juan Zung · May 6, 2014

      lol. Thanks for stopping by, Sam! Hope you had a chance to read it. I promise, it’s not all that scary at all!

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