Four Deaths

I found Mr. Tong standing in the doorway of his flat in his boxer shorts, gnawing on the pit of a peach, one winter night, around two a.m. At least, I assumed that the little brown ball in his mouth must have once belonged to a peach, or something that retained a bit of sweetness at its core, because he continued to suck on it instead of returning my greeting. His front door was open, giving me a view of his trash-strewn living room and the soap opera blasting on his TV. His cat was playing with a dead cockroach by the elevator.

“Grandpa,” I called out to the one-hundred-year-old in Cantonese. He lived in unit four, at the other end of the hall. “Can you turn down your TV, please?”

Mr. Tong pulled the pit out of his bony old mouth and threw it at me. I ducked. The pit struck my door and rolled onto the floor of the hall. The cat pounced on it. He licked that rotten thing and gave me a threatening stare, as if he was prepared to hurl it at me, too. That cat was just as crazy as his owner. I ran back inside my flat, slammed the door, and crawled under the covers with my boyfriend. I told him about the attack.

“I thought it was an eyeball,” my boyfriend said. “Because I was dreaming that someone was gouging out my eyes.”

“Eyeballs are fresh and clean,” I said. “This was much worse. It was a piece of rotten food that he’d been sucking on all day. Or maybe his whole life!”

“You weirdo,” he said.

He pulled me close and gave me a nuggie, a real sharp one, the best he’d ever given me. I soon fell asleep.

Mr. Tong’s TV continued to blast through the hall. At the end of February, just as the days were becoming humid again, I noticed that the sound of the TV was accompanied by the thick stench of rotten meat.

“The policeman told me Mr. Tong had been dead for two weeks,” the security guard told me.

His office was on the ground floor, next to the elevator, so I often chatted with him on my way home from work. He was eighty years old, with a giant hairy mole on his cheek.

“The hospital performed an autopsy,” he said, fingering the mole. “They found a cat inside Mr. Tong’s belly.”

My boyfriend laughed when I told him the security guard’s story.

“An autopsy on a one-hundred-year-old?” he said. “Really?”

But they never did find that cat.

Mr. and Mrs. Lau, both around ninety, lived next door to us in unit three. I often heard him screaming at her through the wall and wondered if I should call the police. In Hong Kong, the cleaver is the murder weapon of choice, and you are most likely to be chopped to death by a relative. When I pressed my ear to the wall, I heard Mr. Lau screaming about the rice-cooker, the cockroaches, Mrs. Lau’s pajamas.

“You’re overreacting,” my boyfriend said, when I told him what they were screaming about. He had been living with me in Hong Kong for six months, but he hadn’t learned a word of Cantonese. “I think it’s cute that they fight about the rice-cooker.”

But I thought that fighting about a rice-cooker or pajamas could be a serious matter when you’re ninety, in the way that sharing a bed with a fellow insomniac is serious when you’re thirty. In any case, I was complacent. I didn’t call the police. But I still pressed my ear to the wall, listening to Mr. Lau’s screams, until early June, when the screaming stopped. I worried that he had finally killed her.

“He came down with a very bad cold,” the security guard told me. “They sent him to the hospital, and soon after that, he died of pneumonia. But she’s better off without him. A few months ago, he was still having affairs. The worst was when he brought their niece over and had sex with her in the bedroom, while Mrs. Lau sat in the living room.”

I told my boyfriend the story.

“I never saw a niece,” he said. “Did you? Did you hear her through the walls?”

“I must have listened at the wrong times,” I replied.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Lau blasted Chinese opera all night long.

Mr. Tsang was a fifty-year-old bachelor who lived in unit one. He was a bartender by night, and an aspiring dog trainer by day. We often ran into him walking his dog, a Scottish terrier named Leng Chai—Handsome Boy.

“Ch ch ch,” he said to Leng Chai, every time the dog tried to lick our legs. I told Mr. Tsang that I loved when dogs jumped up and slobbered all over me, but he never let Leng Chai slobber on me, because he wanted to show off his dog-training skills. He explained that he had a full arsenal of training techniques that he would use when he finally quit bartending to become a full-time dog trainer.

Listening to his business plans bored me, but listening to what the security guard said about him did not. I knew that my boyfriend didn’t want to hear any more stories, but I couldn’t stop myself from telling them. I suppose I was a bit like Mr. Tsang with his “ch” sounds.

“The security guard says Mr. Tsang was so drunk last week,” I said, “that he fell asleep in a puddle of his own vomit in front of the building.”

“Don’t you care about what’s going on in the world outside this building?” my boyfriend asked.

“That’s what I said. It happened outside the building. He said that Leng Chai was licking the vomit from his mouth. But why would a dog do that? Because Mr. Tsang had trained him to.”

I waited. “Aren’t you going to give me a nuggie?” I asked.

He smiled and gave me a good one, but it wasn’t as comforting because I had to ask for it. It was just as bad as trying to give myself a nuggie, or calling myself a weirdo. After that, I didn’t bother asking for either anymore. I hadn’t even liked nuggies or thought of myself as a weirdo before I met my boyfriend. I could easily go back to living without them.

In the middle of summer, Mr. Tsang became a legitimate part-time dog trainer. My boyfriend and I began running into him with his first pupil: a German shepherd named Sai Lo—Little Brother. A couple weeks later, we heard him come home with a woman with a loud raspy voice, whom I later found out was his new girlfriend, Sai Lo’s owner. She left her combat boots, and sometimes even her fishnet stockings, in the shoe rack out in the hall. The dogs barked and howled while they screwed.

“Shut up, Sai Lo!” the woman screamed in Cantonese mid-orgasm. “Shut up, Leng Chai. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

I laughed at my neighbors, and I laughed at my boyfriend who covered his head with a pillow, trying to sleep through it all.

Mr. Tsang collapsed on the sidewalk on his way to 7-11 one evening with the dogs. It was said that Leng Chai and Sai Lo licked his face, attempting to rouse him. People walking by on the street called the ambulance, and Mr. Tsang was sent to the hospital. Within hours, he was completely demented, unable to recognize his girlfriend, or remember anything about himself, including his desire to become a dog trainer. Then he died.

“What was wrong with him?” I asked the security guard. “Was it the booze?”

“The doctors aren’t sure,” he replied. “But he was already starting to go crazy before he was sent to the hospital. He danced naked on the roof, howling like a dog! And why did the dogs always bark so much, even when Mr. Tsang and his girlfriend were at home? What were they doing with those dogs?”

My boyfriend kept sleeping with the pillow over his head, even after all our screaming neighbors had died, even after I stopped telling him stories.

At the end of the summer, the security guard stopped me as I was heading home from work and asked about my boyfriend.

I stepped into his office. “He left,” I said.

“Why?” he asked. “Was there another woman?”

I nodded. “Prostitutes.”

“Were they ugly?” he whispered.

I kept nodding. “The ugliest in Sham Shui Po.”

“No! Really? What made them so bad?” He stared at me, fingering his giant mole.

“They were bald. And toothless. And they were at least seventy.”

“Did you beat him up when you found out? Did you threaten him with your cleaver?”

“It has a dull blade. I knew he would really suffer. I swung at him and said, ‘You better run before I chop you up.’”

The security guard unfolded a chair that was leaning against the wall and gestured for me to sit down. I lowered myself onto the chair.

“Then what happened?” he said, leaning towards me. “Tell me everything.”

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