My mother found the apartment within two weeks of us arriving in the city. Everyone called my father a lucky man. Such luck was unheard of, even considering our connections with various uncles and cousins already here, who were dragged young to the border decades ago by the promise of luscious fruits and cheap milk powder and subdued by the same cryptic force that kept everyone else here, despite their frequent complaints about the climate and the radar-like haranguing of the older generations back home. Apart from one month at the turn of the year, the sun beat down relentlessly, an unforgiving red fist that could only be quenched by the abundant stock of watermelons the heat fruited.
I remembered some of the first days but mostly the large triangles of watermelon. Ma found the flat because she always took seriously each of the spam phone calls she received. She put her phone number on everything when we moved to the city, anything that had a possible space: the church noticeboards, conservation petitions, internet comment sections, and random bureaucratic forms. You could put your name on anything here and something would come from it. She had an old flip phone buzzing constantly with private callers through the day and night. A number was ferreted out of another number, which led to a sixth number, a questionnaire, and, suddenly we were in, no longer a consignment of rolling suitcases and disposable tissue packets, we had crossed over to a new colossal dimension where we could be as insignificant and worthy as tree trunks. No deposit needed—it was almost too good to be true.
One of her first acts was to buy a twelve-pack of two-ply toilet rolls and compare the price and quality to the ones she used to get back in the smaller town not next to the sea. Who could believe the round holes that were the shapes of our destiny? Even objects appeared skyward at these sorts of altitudes.
The flat had no air conditioning, the elevator was broken, and my father would go down the stairs and to the Hi-World Mart across the street. He bought big, robust watermelons with the appropriate hollow sound, carried home in perfectly-sized plastic bags. Back in those days, he wore denim-on-denim a lot. Ma would stick the big knife into the watermelon, tip first, and—click—like a lock being picked, it would come undone into red. A knife works because pressure is put onto the edge of the blade; a thinner blade yields more pressure and a deeper cut. She did everything unwaveringly, never violently.
We would sit and watch people walking up and down the street. I was an only child turning seventeen. Numerous paws singed on the pavement, the dogs emitting small yelps. My father laughed, reminded of a little shih-tzu pup he had once that fell over a lot, a dog with a bitter personality. At night, a smooth green mineral light, neon fixtures, poured through the damp air of living room I would sleep in, because there was only one bedroom and the storage closet, where my mother would sew department store shirts and pants as my father stalked the streets looking for something to hawk or plumb. The second ominous sign was that she was never entrusted to work with denim.
After, she sat by the window and watched the giant yellow bear grinning in the logo. I caught her helplessly trying to mimic the bear’s smile. It took me a while to figure out what had happened. I’d seen the girl once or twice and she didn’t blink at anything but was always laughing. She had a plain face and she was also Chinese. That must have been how we got those good watermelons for all those years, because every watermelon my mother or I picked out afterwards tasted like blanched foam––always pink-yellow and never red. It was like all the watermelons in the city went to seed at the same time. I wasn’t sad, but I felt myself enter a white fog and could not confidently tell where this thing went up and that thing went down or what the feeling was.
Grapefruit became popular but my mother kept on buying watermelons and looking out the window. With his disappearance, he just became someone else we did not know in the city. In the aftermath, she would tell stories that had some hint of truth to them to ward me away from the Hi-World Mart. Things like: Convenience stores disgrace proper homemaking, Only prostitutes go to that shop, or Every dollar you spend at the Hi-World Mart your dead ancestors are punished twice in the afterlife. Not for a second do I think that she was lying. I could tell all the cracks in her were starting to open up. To save us from each other’s embarrassment, I applied for a position at the store a few bus stops away.
The owner’s son was a senior clerk, a guy named Dong, which technically means “hole,” but he was large and sorrowful like an old turkey in the grass, always nodding metronomically and muttering. Our 10 PM to 6 AM shifts were never very busy. Dong assigned me the job of watching the door while he masturbated in the toilet outside the security camera’s eyeline. That, or listening to his podcast about emergent techno-religions, which interpreted the invention of the internet as the immaculate conception. I was used to keeping to myself unquestioningly.
One night, when Dong was occupied, a man walked in. He lingered around the candy section for a while, peering at the individual labels by craning his head almost into the underside of the shelf. It seemed he couldn’t see further than a foot in front of his face. He had brown skin the color of soy sauce eggs and a straight back—I admired a good posture. I guessed that he was in his mid-thirties, old enough to have weathered at least a couple of depressions. He shook his head and traced the way he came to the sliding doors.
Eventually, he came up to the counter and asked, in a throaty Northern accent, “Do you have a plastic bag?” He asked the question with a sincere curiosity that caught me off guard; it was as if he was asking me about the details of my personal life, as if he was asking for advice.
I said, “Hang on.”
I texted Dong, guy wants plastic bag but not buying anything. ok? He messaged back, is he local? I looked at the soy sauce egg-skinned man, who seemed alert almost to a virtual extent, a cursor that’s still hovering over the pause button when you come back to your laptop after taking a shower. idk, I texted, and Dong replied, give him small condoms behind counter. And then, out of toilet paper pls bring one. just take from shelf.
The man bought the condoms and paid wordlessly. Dong was unsurprised when he emerged, his head steaming with the unwritten knowledge of an elder sage.
“For instance, that’s not a businessman,” Dong said, as a businessman walked into the store.
“Do you know him?”
“I can tell that’s a guy who wears a suit to buy a 24-pack of fire and ice condoms. The suit is to make it seem official. Condoms are the top-selling items. Either fruit or condoms.”
It was true that the man in the business suit seemed sullen and a little afraid. The television with real-time security footage, of various cross-sections of the aisles, of the rear, sides, front, of his own downward face, startled him and he was like a goat, all cross-eyed and narrow to a point.
But the other guy—he was nerveless. He had walked out holding the pack of Trojans against his breast, a jingle of pride raised up to the sun and the surveillance networks, onlooking friends or security cameras. I’d forgotten to give him a plastic bag. I had felt unexpectedly embarrassed for watching him, the way you might watching a child secretly raise an arm and sniff and realize that this was their own scent they were lustily smelling. It was a brief and compelling vision that makes you once and immediately aware of your status as the watcher, a pale, ambiguous thing, compressed in a more elementary format. He had entered a feeling so pure I was left only with myself.
Dong said, “So why did you want to work here?” And then, “Do you believe this is a godless century?”
Perhaps all problems originate in the body. I already had a hard time recalling his face. Years ago, we had gone to the house of one of my uncles, the eldest brother on my mother’s side. This was one of the first trips to the city, before we had moved, when we were in the old apartment by the football fields, and my parents swung me between them, trapeze-style, walking down the street.
My parents and uncle got on raucously. He brought them a procession of papaya, cantaloupe, pomelo, and from the ample backyard I could hear them laughing, a great, bursting sound. Somehow, I was left unattended. The sun was really hot, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. They found me with red eyes, tears streaming and mouth agape. Ever since then, I have had this little blind spot in my eye.
The same uncle now called in the evenings looking for Ma. He had a business opportunity for her, he said. She would be where she always tended to be these days, receding deeper into the shadowy network of connections and infomercials and flyers. Some days she seemed on the verge of humiliation, which I had a bad habit of confirming for her with my hesitation, whether I remembered this stuffed bear or that chain video she’d sent me. Some days, she seemed blissful, the television roaring and the windows flung open. The flat was filled with items she’d accumulated of late—the air fryer, the automatic fruit slicer, the dehumidifier. A lot of it she bought to send back to relatives who had been asking for the new gadgets that weren’t available in the village. There are stories behind everything.
Functionally, the flat was an export warehouse, but it had the somber ambience of a shrine. Watermelon rinds on the floor. A dimness only illuminated by small lamps set on the floor, glowing softly around neatly arranged piles of unopened products. Ma said, with a speck of anticipation, and at times, a mild fear: “Did you hear the phone ring?”
I took care to remove my bright yellow work shirt before I entered the flat and wash it in the shower. With a bar of soap, I scoured the odor of the store, but the best I could do was smell mildly of yeast. By brand design, Hi-World was intended to be berry-scented but could not overcome the pungency of industrial-scale refrigerant or the damp mold that sat in distant, aged corners of the store, buried inside the walls, evidence of its midcentury construction. The uncles came sometime around then. The city then was not a city in a modern sense, but a flurry of ad-hoc structures put up by individual landowners, each staking their own territorial and historical claim. I don’t even think they had blueprints, and there was no collective vision. I could imagine all of these guys disappearing vigorously into their own personal projects.
From above, you can still see this difference, the way a walk-up’s roof is classically grooved and slants into the stiff, geometric edge of a modernist prism, and bold, slightly weathered primary paints running against the low churn of exposed concrete. But at ground-level subjective, it all tends to blur. There is no map which is useful, only a metaphysical pattern you can plot with your mind; on every other street corner a pedestrian crossing and convenience store, a common medium fixed by a series of fluorescent signs and electronic hums, blue and bluing references, reality’s affirmations, one place that you seem to either be always leaving or never too far from.
The long afternoon staring at the sun had done permanent damage to my cornea, the doctor said to my father, frowning, which meant that there would be a lingering afterimage whenever I looked at a bright light. They both glanced sideways at me, as if direct eye contact would soften the bruising weight of such a terminal admission.
More and more men had been coming into the store and asking for plastic bags. Another clerk at Big Happy, a competing chain with a store across the street, said they’d been overrun with requests for plastic bags. At this point, Dong started to get restless. One encounter would uniformly echo the next. Do you have a plastic bag?, a guy would ask, after wandering the aisles in the small hours of the morning, his face strong-jawed and remote. Dong started using the bathroom less so he could hand them actual bags and personally interrogate them. They’d hold the plastic bag and say, Is this a plastic bag?
If Dong said it was, they’d walk out, joyful. And if Dong said it wasn’t, they would ask for a plastic bag until they got one or until he said that we didn’t have any. They didn’t seem to be from around here, but they all spoke naturally, normally, giving no indication of a vocabulary limited only to pronouns and petrochemicals. They all seemed to be standard guys in their thirties, participating in a game known only to themselves, that we had either arrived too early or too late to fully grasp.
It was starting to do Dong’s head in. I also began to believe there was a conspiracy. He spent one week convinced they were assimilating refugees. He then believed that there was some sort of smuggling network, that these brightly colored plastic bags could sheath and distract from what was being trafficked inside of them. No one suspects crystal meth beneath the face of the fat, smiling Hi-World bear. Now he believed they were time travelers. In the future, there will be no plastic bags and anthropologists would send research assistants to a random date in the recent past when they did exist. Pre-modern rituals and cultural practices. A 2 AM venture to Hi-World suddenly made sense. It explained their deferential characters. This pilgrimage of men required the order of a true reason.
Dong was less sure of himself. He dropped credit cards and glued himself to the security cameras. He said, “What do you need a plastic bag for?”
“I’m sorry?” the guy said, in a tasteful floral shirt. He became, in the immediate moment, the man bearing the question. Nothing spectacular about him, browsing the fine edge between sea salt chips and first aid equipment, before asking us if we had any spare plastic bags.
“Tell me right now.” Dong took out a ballpoint pen. “I’ll run this right through you. I’ll put this through your neck. I’ll get blood and I won’t stop. Do you understand?”
“A plastic bag?”
“This is a knife,” Dong said. “Do you have a knife?”
“Just give him a bag,” I said.
“No, hang on. Let him work it out.” Dong waited until the guy took out a phone, dialed a number and handed it over. Moments passed, an indeterminate amount. Sounds on the other end of the line passed through the receiver and washed over Dong, wave pattern, all the way to his rubber flip flops, visibly softening like a bone set overnight in vinegar. He said, yes, no doubt, he believed in utility. He believed in collective, transformational power. Dong nodded, hung up, apologized, and gave the guy in the floral shirt a whole roll of plastic bags.
Afterwards, he refused to tell me what he had heard, only that it was a personal situation of that particular guy, who deserved his own privacy and that it had been wrong to pursue it. When I pressed him, he said it was something to do with waste management on an individual scale. He became quite philosophical about it. No mystery attends to a watermelon; no mystery clings to the plastic bag. It is a basic transportation device of the cheapest variety. Who didn’t have miscellaneous things they needed to carry? We had been distracted by the vector. There is a necessity of movement and a movement of necessity. Then he leveraged his position as senior clerk to shut me up by cleaning all the fridges.
There would be no resolution until Hi-World corporate emailed all branches to say that, due to urgently low supplies of plastic bags, we would now be charging two dollars per bag. I started taking long breaks in the toilet, flushing so that the sky lightened. Dong resolved to undermine corporate policy by double-bagging everything that went out of the shop. He started to ask each person who came into the Hi-World Mart, Do you want a plastic bag?
Of course, there are many things I don’t understand. I was familiar with the small room of resignation. At times, the world seemed entirely shrouded, the contents of which were invisible only to me. I felt this when I tried to think about what money actually was or why water would drip from my mouth whenever I drank, when this did not happen to anyone else. I don’t lack questions, though they never seem to be the right ones to ask. What did the plastic bag mean? It felt like a question crude and dumb enough for the mouth of a child.
But there was a man sat on the bus with a duffel bag stuffed with plastic bags. I could recognize the yellow Hi-World bear logo like it was my own hand. Just as an ant tracks the fragrant route to a compost heap by chemical trace, I felt a pull of necessity. He had a black shirt that was pilling near the lower back. His face was almost a perfect circle, but his nose and mouth were off-center; the mark of a secret. As we passed by the Hi-World, I saw Dong through the window, putting the new boxes of sandwiches under the old boxes of sandwiches and taking the expired sandwiches for himself to eat. Then the bus moved on.
We rode seventeen stops and he got off next to a basketball court. In late evening, the games were winding down and there were more people slumped and sweating than there were playing. They looked like little and big stones fallen from the sky. He made wide circles around these groups, behaving as a suspicious character would, a walk that was closer to a flutter.
I followed from a distance, bending around miscellaneous cover. What was I doing? Yet nothing felt wrong, as if my blood was moving my limbs, performing the automatic function of motion, my legs swinging smoothly and obviously, the terminus already pre-figured. I swelled with the buoyancy of a beach ball in the summer. I was on an insect wavelength, teeming with motive.
There was a walk-up and three flights of stairs. He rattled open a door in the hallway, a fire closet, where neatly stacked in vertical formations were careful arrangements of plastic bags. He was taking out the plastic bags and folding them neatly to put into the column. Outwardly, a scene of mysterious poverty, the poverty of life when constituted in small, mundane actions. It spanned minutes until he turned and saw me, startled, and I saw what he was seeing: a spectacled guy in a Hi-World uniform and cap, apprehending his bounty.
“Hi-World is currently charging $2 per bag and only with other purchased items.” The voice that was coming out of me was thunderous and powerful.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said, immediately defensive. “I’m just an enthusiast. I collect the bags. I’ve collected the bags since I was a boy. It’s not wrong. Nothing perverse. There was no such thing as plastic then. Yes, there was plastic but not in bag form. My nickname was Plastic. Ask anyone.”
I heard a radio playing music somewhere, an old tinny pop song.
“Okay, sure. Haven’t you seen the news recently? The price for a single plastic bag is surging. There’s a shortage. I can’t explain why it’s happening. So I took a few. Are you going to blame a guy for trying to make a buck?”
His face showed a look of sorrow that spoke of human loss. Empowered by the authority of company policy, I confiscated the bags. With my hand full of plastic, I tried to resist a strong wave of satisfaction coming over me. A carnal feeling close enough to the bone to feel ancient, as a cannibal might decide to eat his good friend in order to take his place in dignified society.
There had been numerous reports of a boom in fraud syndicates in the city. In recent years, a significant migration of scammers had come to the city for its rapid municipal broadband infrastructure, invisible, lustful masses of transactions, circulations, messages relayed in seconds. These people were not in the city to be in the city but only because it was a different geolocation and jurisdiction from the victims of the scams, who mostly lived in the mainland.
The fraud worked like this: a scammer would spoof his location to the area code appearing to be a neighbor or a long-lost lover or a friend of a friend or a student, and send a message about a burning building they were watching in the distance. Once the victim replied, panicked, a digital pathway would be established, a virus inserted behind the firewall. All outgoing calls would be routed to an emergency hotline that was actually an international premium rate number sucking dollars by the second. As thousands of callers are directed to a high-density server in the warehouse district, waiting on an indefinite hold, a scammer assumes the victim’s identity on private and public forums to boast about their recently-purchased heart insurance packages, meat substitutes, or other new-age, discount products.
I came home to find the house adorned with all colors of plastic bags. It was one of her good days. Her hair tied back in a ponytail, and a corner seeming to have been turned into something not yet known. On the floor, a big shimmering quilt of small, medium, and big varieties, evidently hand-stitched. The Hi-World bear everywhere. “All from this one wholesale site,” Ma said, triumphantly. “Everyone in the village was asking for plastic bags. I bought one for everybody.”
I followed the thread of color to where it stopped at the line of my arm. It was a white air of wind that leaked through room to room, the loose shapes of plastic folding ambivalently around table legs, unwashed bowls, scattered follicles and strands of hair; pressed, like a believer’s declaration, against the vacant surface of the window until she was finally a woman able to stop shivering. I stood there for a while listening to the rustling of plastic coming up against more of itself.