Take Pills

AG2 William Benson has a wife: Alisha. Their marriage is far from storybook…


Alisha picked up Davin from Jess’s and headed home.

She’d stayed out late last night. Alisha wasn’t one for getting dead drunk, especially in a bar full of strangers, especially now. She stuck with water. Going out with the girls, that was how she’d put it, and for all she knew, Will believed her. But the only girls were the ones Alisha didn’t know. They hung out in their groups, some here to enjoy themselves, some here to meet men. Alisha had never enjoyed the interplay between groups of girls and horny guys. Some guys said women trusted women, but Alisha must be weird. She trusted no one.

She sat alone at the bar. A big girl, some men did come on to her and in the end she went out to her car with a baldy named Nick. Nick finished quickly, grunting like he was deadlifting. But Alisha didn’t mind. She got what she wanted, an honest lay, and she sent him on his way with the number for Pizza Hut.

She couldn’t keep doing this. Her condition was worsening. This morning she woke up queasy. Feelings she’d known before, but at least she hadn’t thrown up yet. Now that Will was back, she hoped she could keep from doing it until he left again.

One baby was enough for Will, both financially and mentally. They hadn’t planned Davin, but so what? Planned baby, accidental baby, they all got here the same way and deserved the same amount of love. So, Alisha had put on her big girl pants and carried Davin, giving birth to him while the Roosevelt was on its first sea trials. When they pulled in, they allowed Will to leave the ship first — one of the perks of having a new baby at home — and Will had held his son, but the look on Will’s face. Alisha had seen it before, after the first few months of marriage.

In nine months, she might see it again.

The clinic had just confirmed what she already knew. At her request, they’d given her a pamphlet outlining her options. Will had made it very clear that he did not want another kid. During the pregnancy scare to ring in 2014, he had told her, “Take pills”. Take pills. The monumental choice to keep a child or not, a decision that involved many days of tremorous thought, of debate, logical moral and philosophical, and Asshole had reduced it to two words.

Take pills.

She began cheating on him after the pregnancy scare. She did it when he was in, when he was out, and he didn’t notice. He did his fatherly duties with Davin, worked on his novels — he’d been working on them since before Alisha met him and as of yet, Barnes and Noble carried none of his books — and helped with the housework. They never had sex. Sometimes Alisha would test him, to see what he’d respond to. She knew he had a sizable porn collection on his computer. He preferred watching Latina women, and if he had something on the side, then fine. She had plenty, all strangers.

Then she’d turned up pregnant.

Alisha got on the interstate. Right now Will would be listening to music or reading. He had just spent twenty-five days at sea. But the freedom to move with him here changed little from the freedom to move without him. Will liked to read to Davin — the boy’s favorite was Curious George Goes Fishing — and Alisha figured that’s what Will would spend the rest of the afternoon doing, all the nice to see you again’s covered in a quick two seconds.

She parked. At the door, Alisha unlocked it and laid her hands on Davin’s shoulders. She whispered in his ears, “Go give Daddy a big hug and kiss.”

Davin took off running and Alisha went to the kitchen, listening to sounds of reunion. Will had put her note by the coffee maker. Alisha picked it up, shook off stray coffee grinds and tossed it in the garbage. She looked up. Davin ran into the kitchen, his father behind him.

“Hello,” Will said.


“Did you have a good time last night?”

“It’s the usual.” She opened the coffee maker and dumped the leftover coffee. “Desperate guys pawing all over you.” She poured in new grinds and filled the reservoir with water. “You’d think some of these guys just got out of jail or something.”

“Well you can’t discount it, not around here.”

She pushed Brew. “What about you? Did you have fun last night?”

“I stayed here.”

She nodded. He did not, of course, stay here, even the dullest rock could have seen that. He also did not, she was almost positive, see another woman. He may have tried . . . but no, sadly, not even that. She hoped he would grow some balls, and soon.

“How was the underway?” she asked. Davin was watching them like a pupil. She tried to look happy. She’d read in Parents magazine that the parents’ interactions set the stage for their child’s development.

“I’m too exhausted to even think about it,” he said. “We had the squadrons onboard.”

“A lot of people.”

“Tons.” He tussled Davin’s hair. “Missed our little mirror here. Did you teach him that?”

“Teach him what?”

“Hang on.” Will hurried out of the kitchen and hurried back, carrying a book: Winston is Worried. Will had bought books for Davin on Amazon while underway. Boxes had arrived here, the boy ripping them open like Christmas presents, and Alisha had checked through the books to make sure they were appropriate. The boy liked Curious George. He hadn’t touched this one.

“Davin,” Will said, flipping through the pages. “What’s the doggie doing?”

The doggie was trying to climb the tree to get a cat. Davin glanced at the picture, went over to the wall, and pretended to climb. He did this three times.

Alisha applauded. Little mirror was right.

“And you know what? I didn’t teach him that. He brought me the book and showed me.”

“Oh,” and she stopped. Now that was weird.

“What’s wrong honey?”

Honey? Since when had he called her honey? She nodded at the microwave. “Is the clock wrong?”

“I haven’t messed with it. Why?”

“It seems like . . . ” But she had trouble saying it aloud. Seems like time just jumped ahead several minutes.

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“It moves too quickly, always.” Not long ago, Davin had been a little growth in her belly. Now he was two, pretending to climb walls. Not long ago, she’d thought she was pregnant, and her husband had given her advice.

Take pills.

What advice would he give now? He had that lost look he often got. It used to be rare — Alisha would catch glimpses from time to time, like a rumored animal on the loose — but these past few months it had become more frequent. Lost, like all the gears were still turning but the engine they ran had to cool down for a few seconds.

Davin wanted to show them the doggie.

“What’s the doggie doing buddy?” Will said, and Davin pretended to climb the wall again.


If you liked this sample from Keepers of Time, consider following me on Twitter or Facebook. The samples, in order:

  1. A Step Ahead
  2. Thirty-Four with a Shrug
  3. An Encounter at the Thirsty Camel
  4. Take Pills

Thanks for reading!

The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition (aka the Director’s Commentary)

Hi there!

I’ve uploaded the full Seven Year Laowai with some annotations. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and if that 99 cent pricetag was holding you back, rejoice! The whole story is available for free.

Check it out:

The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition


Wuhan Style Streets

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Germany Style Street: a trio of Bavarian dancers.

Italy Style Street: a suspicious-looking Mario and pizza.

Spain Style Street: a matador on the run from a bull.

This is what greets you when you leave Guanggu Wuchang and enter the rest of the mall: Optics Valley Walking Street, the part they were building when I last lived in Wuhan. Each area is marked for the country it mimics, and there is a mock cathedral for weddings.

At the end of the Style Streets a small train hauls children around a pack of animatronic dinosaurs who screech at timed intervals. Beyond this a wall with cartoon characters promise a Children’s Park and much more, and looking at the dinosaurs and the wall and the sheer size of what was once a nice outdoor mall turned consumer wonderland, the old line from Jurassic Park occurs to me.

What else have they got in there, King Kong?

Style Streets is an appropriate name because this place has its own style. It’s not Italy or Spain or Germany, images of European life it hopes to conjure in the minds of the Chinese nouveau riche. This is a uniquely Chinese style, a monstrous maze of shops and restaurants and cafes, stacked so close you wonder how anyone ever turns a profit. This is not a billion Chinese jumping.

This is a billion Chinese swiping Union Pay cards, the middle class and their hopefuls keeping the economic bubble well-inflated.

In 2008 Guanggu Wuchang was relatively new. Incumbent foreign teachers spoke of a time before the huge mall, with its giant Starbucks cup and dusty Epcot center bubble. Behind Guanggu it looked like they were building apartments. Walls were raised. Construction crews were called. Money changed hands and the corporate planners stood by, awaiting profit.

Seven years later they have it.

The Style Streets aren’t the only thing that’s new. New World Plaza arose while I was gone. A mall like any other, the fourth floor of New World is dedicated to children. Children’s development centers, clothes stores, a children’s train that does a complete lap around the floor, a play area and a Toys R Us.

The Toys R Us is a compact version, but as a compact unit it crams in quite a bit; they have all the toys and games we have, at high prices. 779 RMB for a Lego set, 99 RMB for a small Winnie the Pooh doll. Big Pooh goes for 199. I don’t know about Piglet.

BalaBala, Me and City Kids and the other children’s stores are similarly priced. Custom-made children’s desks go for 1149 RMB and up. An English Library (爱说读) in the middle of the hall has shelves of children’s books in Chinese and English, and two child development centers will have your kids ready for Harvard before they’re potty-trained.

There are three play areas. One is an obstacle course, the other has a carousel and a small train.

The other is Happy Bar: Baby’s Paradise.

50 RMB per person grants you entry to a crowded play area. You remove your shoes but keep on your socks. Some parents come in while others stay at the counter, watching Chinese dramas on their phones or staring vacantly into antiquity as their children wear themselves out on a boat that rocks back and forth, plush ABC blocks, an obstacle course, four slides, a sand pit of fine grains, nine swings and a ball pit. An HDTV lords over a small stage. Children are doing ballet on a continuous loop or synchronized dances to classic Chinese children’s songs and doting grandparents lounge by the ABCs while their grandchildren dash up and down stairs and jump on trampolines and in the ball pit a toddler is crying while a fat boy keeps throwing balls at him, ignoring his mother’s gentle suggestions to stop. A child crashes his toy car into your shin. Sweat beads pop soundlessly on your collar. The letter B has gone missing.

In the middle a giant inflated polar bear spins ceaselessly.

The dinosaurs at the end of Optics Valley Walking Street screech. People take pictures with the dinosaurs and two girls exit Mean Dessert carrying cupcakes. I look over. A replica of a London tour bus is permanently parked in front of a cafe. Then I look back at the wall and the promise of more to come and I think it’s true.

King Kong isn’t far behind.


Announcing my new book: Kale & Jason

In a world of eleven realms, ruled by eleven great wizards, Kale and Jason live on opposite sides of the world. Orphans, they are fascinated with the life of a warrior.

 Jason is raised as a warrior’s apprentice. He feels his master is holding him back, and when he hears news of a murder committed by a great wizard, he plans for his coming glory.

 Kale is raised by his uncle, tutored on occasion by a wandering swordsman. A standing void blights the earth close to his village, remnants of an ancient enemy. Kale dreams of using the Masamune, ancient sword, to repel enemies from the void.

 When raiders attack Kale’s village, when war between the great wizards becomes serious, Kale and Jason will find out if the life of a warrior matches their dreams.

‘Kale & Jason’ is currently available for pre-order at Inkshares, available here.

Inkshares works like a Kickstarter. If I don’t get at least 250 pre-orders by November 16, then the book will not be published. Right now I only have 5 pre-orders.

The first chapter is available on Inkshares. Have a look, and if you like what you read, consider pre-ordering a copy. It won’t take too much time out of your day, you’ll help out a struggling writer, and who knows? You might end up liking the whole book.

I worked very hard on this book. I wrote most of it on an aircraft carrier, working 12 on, 12 off (I wrote The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors right after KJ, under the same circumstances). I write a lot, much more than I will ever try to publish. If I wanted, I could self-publish a book a month for the next few years.

I don’t, because I respect my readers too much to do that. I picked Kale & Jason because I believe in it. I’m not going to say it’s a great book — that’s not up to me to decide — but it is a good book, and in an age of memes and clickbait articles, good books are needed now more than ever.

Check out the first chapter for free and the pre-order page!

Thank you for your support!


Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern
Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets
spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter
the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s
prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.


Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.