Saturday 3 February 2018

Guest Author Walter Giersbach of Manchester, New Jersey.

I was pleased to discover Walter's stories on and he agreed to be our guest this week and share one of his tales, as well as what inspired it.

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and articles have appeared in more than a score of print and online magazines.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, have been published by Wild Child.  He also served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey.  Living in Taiwan for a year gave him a second home.  Having an Asian-born spouse immediately placed him in the enviable cultural position of sharing in two worlds and celebrating twice as many holidays.  
He can be contacted at and blogs at
Back Story: Test of English by Walt Giersbach
I completed “Test of English as a Foreign Language” several years ago, but the germ of the story has gnawed at me for many years — actually since 1979 when I returned to Taiwan on a business trip.  I met up with my wife’s girlfriend who had married an American, lived several  years in the States, and came back when her husband was reassigned to Taiwan.  It was poignant when I saw her treated as an American hwa-chiao (foreigner on a homeland visit) in Taipei’s marketplace, but as a bargirl when she tried calling her husband stationed at a military post.  
She was no longer Taiwanese and not yet American.  Of the many stories I know about bi-national people, this one stood out.  

I wondered if perhaps we’re all expatriates of one sort of another as we swim through any murky pool filled with strangers.  I’ve always had a creepy feeling about being a tourist — buying a vacation, looking confused in a new city, acting gawky and “foreign.”  Perhaps it’s because I used to scorn the clots of people clustered in midtown Manhattan, holding maps and looking at the skyscrapers as though waiting for God to be their Gray Lines tour guide.  While I was rushing across town on some mission of capital importance, I’d have to stop and detour around these Ausländers in their blousy sports shirts and khaki shorts. 
So add to the expatriate syndrome in “Test of English” the despair of a dead child and a divorced husband and you have the making of a universal tension.  Key to writing the story was the characters’ realizing how hard it is to be accepted.  Rightly or wrongly, Shirley felt Americans were “predisposed to believe that American men only married bargirls.”  Orville, too, had difficulty with his environment, saying, “It was all getting to me.  The telephones and car horns.  Fire sirens, even chatter at parties.  It was all like a toothache. It was getting on my nerves.”
How can feeling like a stranger be otherwise when store clerks answer an expat’s question by turning to her spouse, when locals are perplexed by an unfamiliar accent, or when an in-law ingratiatingly says all children or women in [insert country name] are beautiful or intrinsically smart or better at sports?  These are the preconceptions — if not prejudices — that all Asians are good at math (and, by extension, at gambling), that immigrants must all have come from a certain class or occupation, and that some people have in-born diet preferences.
Let me make a case that there’s a universal feeling of discomfort among expatriates, beginning with Moses coming back to Egypt announcing, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  Granted, it’s easier to be an expatriate in the U.S. than, say, in an insular nation like Japan.  America is a nation of immigrants.  A Hungarian engineer once told me, “I worked in Germany for several years, but to them I was always a Hungarian.  In the U.S., I’m called a ‘new American.’”
“Test of English as a Foreign Language” tries to approach this situation of apartness.  Writers feel compelled to connect with people, to cross cultural bridges, and to obliterate barriers.  Perhaps through writing and reading — passing our test of English as a foreign language — we can all become assimilated.  For aren’t we all “new Americans” in one way or another?
Test of English as a Foreign Language
Why bother to go to the Bowlerama, she wondered. It smelled of people’s feet, the sound of balls hitting the pins jangled her nerves, and she never beat her 168 game years ago at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Still she returned once a month or so, almost always by herself. At least there was physical action, exercise. In a few days it would be 1972. She should be doing something, anything, tonight.
            Strangers — they were mostly strangers in this upstate town on the Hudson River — would stare at her figure, still fit at the age of forty-one. Occasionally, as these very white, often loud wai-guo ren struggled for small talk, they would say offhandedly “You’re tall for a Chinese woman.” Men would ask, “You married? What unit’s he in?” They never wondered what she did for a living, whether she had gone to school, where she worked. They assumed she was an enlisted man’s wife who spent her days at the NCO club. 

            And more assumptions. That she’d been a bargirl in Kaohsiung or Taipei, hooking sailors or soldiers to buy her drinks. They were primed to believe that American men only married bargirls. 
            Whenever she returned to her parents’ in Yung Ho City, outside of Taipei, the shopkeepers made assumptions, too. They knew from signals given off by her clothes or hair or gestures, that she was American or at least a hwa-chiao on a homeland visit.
“Hey, Shirley,” the assistant manager called from behind the desk. He waved when she looked up. A year ago, he’d told her, “Surely, you’re kidding,” when she ordered a pair of size ten bowling shoes. “Shirley? How did you know my name?” she asked. It had been a standing joke. Of course, Ronald the slacker would be in charge. It was Christmas Eve. Who on earth would be bowling on Christmas Eve?
There was a young woman with him, chewing gum and leaning over the counter so her breasts hung on her crossed arms. She would go home with the assistant manager.
Shirley chose a ball from the ladies’ rack, hefted it and tried several others before she found one to fit her long fingers. She loved the colors of the balls, especially the blue, agate-toned ones. The balls were smooth and impermeable to her feelings, the sweat of her palms, even her hurt and anger. 
She was the only player tonight. Everyone in Newburgh would be at home, except for those on duty at Stewart Air Force Base. A cough made her turn to the banquette that formed a horseshoe-shaped arena behind her lane. Players usually extended courtesies to each other, careful not to invade a bowler’s single-minded concentration or their wish to bowl alone.
“Guess we’re the only ones here. Want to play together?” 
The man wore civilian clothes, but his short haircut telegraphed the fact that he was military. Because no one else was playing, ordinary courtesies here might be suspended tonight, Christmas Eve.
“Okay, I guess.” She wasn’t attracted to short hair. It brought back too many memories, and this man had cut his almost to fuzz — like a five o’clock shadow on his head. Her own hair still fell below her shoulders and was brushed to a silky dark shine — not black, but the color of mahogany.
“I’m Orville,” the man said. “Got off duty and haven’t found a party worth going to. And you?”
“I’m Shirley.”
His eyes went up and down her body, slowly. “Ni shr Chung-hwo ren?” 
His accent was terrible. Americans could never form their lips around foreign languages. “Yes, I’m Chinese. Taiwanese, but American citizen.”
“You met your husband in Taiwan. I was there once.” This man seemed proud of his reasoning. She knew what he thought. Any Asian woman must have been brought by a husband to the Land of the Big PX, full of glorious stores, fully stocked supermarkets, lots of TV channels. “Family?” he asked.
“No husband. No kids. Not any more, so you do not need to feel nervous.” She flipped her hair back. It was a gender symbol of defiance. She could say the word “divorce” as easily now as she could talk about the price of bread and eggs going up because of President Nixon. Quiet anger soaked all conversations about the economy, politics, war, the culture. Perhaps it was frustration over not being sure any path wasn’t aimless. Other things were harder to speak of, like the body bags being unloaded from the C-47 Skytrains. Like the little coffin that had contained her son. The airmen sometimes called the airplanes Gooney Birds, an undignified way of referring to an airborne coffin. 
She bowled an entire game without speaking to the man, with none of the chatter about missing a split, keeping your wrist straight or ending your approach with your toe on the same spot. Occasionally, he turned and gave her an open smile, one without meaning. This made her wonder if she’d hurt his feelings, whether he was now asking how the hell to get to the next step with this cold bitch. Or maybe he was just dense and stupid.
He ended with a score of 210, but she wasn’t apologetic about her 134. When she bowled, she felt no competition. A score was just a place mark, digits that told her the balls had hit the pins or they hadn’t. Like so many things now, it was a matter of no consequence.
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” he asked. “It’s too soon to go to sleep.”
She took a moment to digest the fact that he hadn’t said go to bed, which could be an invitation filled with a great many presumptions. “Sleep comes when it comes,” she answered. “Sleep is like a cat you are chasing to bring it home. It doesn’t want to be caught.”
            Surprisingly, Orville didn’t guide her to the bowling alley bar and coffee shop where a few people were nursing drinks. He took her to his car and drove her through the thin snow down Route 9W to a restaurant. 
“Favorite place of mine,” he said parking and walking around to open her door. “The owner came from Tuscany. That’s in Italy. When I was in language school, assigned to NATO, I really fell in love with Italy. As a kid, I moved around a lot. I never really had a home. So,” he laughed, “I find places I really like and call them home. Really.”
“You say really a lot, don’t you?” She didn’t chide him. It was simply an observation. Really meant a person might not be terribly sure of his or her reality.
He paused to roll her comment around in his mind, the way a person might try a strange dish on his tongue. “Really means it’s the truth and there’s no other interpretation.” 
The man was an agreeable surprise — so far — on Christmas Eve. There had been other Christmases and surprises that hadn’t been so nice. Her husband Whit had often gotten drunk, and Christmas was an especially good excuse to get stinko, get mad, and then slam the front door on his way out of the house. Her simple response, after the pain and humiliation of having Whit walk naked in front of her parents, was to say He is sick, sick in the heart and the soul — and he doesn’t know it.

The restaurant was almost empty, but had comfortable warmth from the votive candles and linens on the tables. It was like a church for the disenchanted, or maybe Italian ghosts. When Orville had seated her at a table, she decided she wanted a brandy. “Who can drink coffee on Christmas Eve?” She said it with what she hoped was a light tone.
“I agree completely,” he said, signaling the owner. “Cognac — Hennessey VSOP if you have it.”
“You know,” she said, “the best seller in Hong Kong is brandy. No one drinks vodka or gin. No Chinese. Only the English.”
“Brandy is the color of gold. I learned that when I went there on R and R.”
“You were on R and R?”
“No. Sorry. I went with my husband. He was an alcoholic, so now I don’t drink. Almost never.”
The waiter placed the drinks and Orville silently toasted Shirley. “I wonder if being an alcoholic is just a substitute for wanting love. That’s what psychiatrists say.”
She took a quick sip, wet her lips and leaned forward. “You can think of all the substitutes you want.” She searched for the words. “There is no substitute for looking things in the eye. Not backing away. Not giving up. I was married and lost my husband. I had a son and lost him. I had education in Taiwan and stateside, I have a green card and earn my living as an accountant. I pay my own rent — no alimony. I have never given up.”
“I admire that,” he said. “I admire you holding on and fighting back.”
“Now, tell me about yourself.”
He shrugged. Was it humility or an affectation? She didn’t want to know too much about this Orville, why he was so smart in language school and still in the military. And why he was alone on Christmas Eve. Knowing too much about someone tied you to him with a knot. Talking led to feelings of closeness, and closeness led to attachments. It was a triangle that could wind around your neck like a rope and drag you under water. Her husband, her son, this American dream world all threatened to pull her under the waves to an inviting cool darkness that spelled submission.
“I was raised in the south, in Texas.” 
She nodded, remembering Lackland.
“I did the usual stuff. High school and college and then….” His voice trailed off and he impulsively lifted the Cognac to his lips. “I kind of had a breakdown. Nerves, the doctor said. I quit college.” He lifted the glass again. “See, it was all getting to me. The telephones and car horns. Fire sirens, even chatter at parties. It was all like a toothache. It was getting on my nerves.  I just wanted to…yank that fucking tooth out.” He muttered an apology for saying fuck. “It was static in my head. Static, like a radio station that isn’t tuned in right. ”
Shirley stared, hoping she appeared sympathetic.

He shrugged again. “I quit school and joined the Air Force. I was good at languages. I learned to speak schoolbook Spanish as a kid. Even studied French out of a book I got at a library sale. When they gave me the language test,” he laughed, “it was nothing but Esperanto!”
She nodded her head, not knowing what Esperanto was, but he seemed to take it as understanding.
“I was that way with business,” she said. “Accounting. Numbers are easy.”
Unbelievably, he said maybe it was a racial ability. “I never knew a Chinese who wasn’t good at business.”
“Like gambling, they say.”
He wasn’t ignorant, this Orville. He absorbed information, like the smattering of pidgin Chinese he had picked up. “It’s all communication. Italian, Chinese. Just another way people relate to each other. Sign language, body language. Even the clothes they wear. The red sweater you have.” He pointed to Shirley’s breasts. “Happy color. Positive. Outgoing and gregarious.” 
“Christmassy,” she explained. “Not dressing like an FOB.”
“Fresh off the Boat Chinese girl.”  She decided he talked too much. Maybe it was to drown out this static in his head. She wanted to go home and make a cup of tea. The Cognac was making her head woozy, but being with this man was something, and on Christmas Eve something — someone — was better than the vacuum of reading a book or calling Taiwan to speak to her mother. Orville wasn’t a bad person or a stupid person. Just something she couldn’t find the English word for. 
“Is Shirley your real name or one you picked up, you know, for convenience?” He had changed the subject again. 
“It’s my real name. My legal name, too. My Chinese name is Mei-Fun. Lee.”
“Lee is your last name? Your Chinese name?”
“No. My ex-husband’s name.”
“So, how did you meet your husband?”
A very direct question, but not entirely unexpected in this land of pioneers and cowboys where there was no time for nuance. “He was teaching an ESL class. Teaching wasn’t his Air Force job. It was something to do when he was off duty. I was studying for my TOEFL to get into college here.” 
TOEFL brought a frown to his face.
“Test of English as a Foreign Language.”
*   *   *
Orville was perfunctory in his love-making.  Short in duration, attentive but not offering any illusions. Each of them needed to be satisfied in some way as the snow fell outside, and this was a simple expedient. Shirley got up afterwards and went into the bathroom to wash. Then she returned to Orville’s bed while he went in. When he returned, she thought about putting on her bra and panties, although there was no reason. It was no matter to her now whether she remained nude or dressed, whether he wanted to make love again or not, whether she stayed there or went home.
“I was just thinking,” the man said. “About movies. You know what I like about Chinese movies?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “They have really great characters. Great subtle story lines.”
“Plot, yes. I didn’t know if you knew that word, so I said. . . .”
“My degree is in accounting, but I read a lot.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and began waving his hands in enthusiasm. “The thing with Chinese movies now is that they imitate American films. The subtlety has disappeared since they made Crouching Tiger.”
“That was made by a Taiwanese.” She looked at his face more closely, approvingly, in spite of his ridiculous haircut.
“Americans want a snappy ending. Real closure that wraps up all the loose ends. Aaand,” he drew out the word to emphasize it, “they prefer the ending have fiery explosions and bodies flying through the air. There has to be some guy who was shot, but he sits up with a gun and has to be killed for good. And the hero needs to say a catchy phrase then, like ‘Make my day’ or ‘I told you smoking’s bad for your health.’” He laughed. “Surprise endings. Something that makes the audience say, ‘Shit, I wasn’t expecting that.’”
She stared at him. “Closure?”
“Ending. Finality.” The man seemed disappointed that she hadn’t responded to his critique of movie-making. He reached over and fondled her breast, and he mounted her again, but he couldn’t get an erection so they lay side by side.
*   *   *
“So, let me get this straight,” he said. They had gotten dressed and were driving back to Newburgh. The snow was a silent blessing over the world, a promise that the children would have a white Christmas when they woke up. “You and your ex met in Taiwan and then you both came to the States?”
“Lackland, then Stewart. Then he was reassigned back to Taipei. I went with him. My parents were there. I knew a U.S. accounting firm here so I came back. Afterwards.”
“And your child. What happened?”
“It’s a long story. Some other time, maybe.”
“You know,” he said. “I was in Taiwan. TDY for two months. Maybe I knew your husband. What’s his name?”
“Whit. Whit Lee.”
“Whit? What kind of name is that?”
She shrugged. “Whitman, I think. We lived in Tien Mou. Outside Taipei.”
He shook his head. There was no recognition. 

“This is my place,” she said. It was a two-lane street lined with one-story houses in a vaguely Cape Cod style. The snow and darkness made them look more identical than they would otherwise. Snow and darkness treated people the same way.
“I hate to say good night,” the man said. “We’re just getting to know each other. Can I come inside?”
“No, not tonight. But we can talk for a minute or two. Then I have to go.”
“So you mentioned a kid. Your child. Where’s he — or she? Taiwan?”
She sighed and watched the snow begin to thicken on the windshield like sticky rice. “I had gone to work, to do the accounting at a friend’s business in Taipei. I left my husband to take care of our little boy. He was one year old. Whit got drunk and fell asleep on the couch with a cigarette. He burned down the house and killed our son. He escaped. Our son could not. That’s why we’re divorced.”
“Holy shit,” the man said. “That’s terrible.”
She grimaced. “Closure. You weren’t expecting that.” She opened the door and got out. “Thank you for a very nice time. Watch out for the static.”
“Can I see you again?”
What a stupid question, she thought. They would see each other or not. She turned back to the car. “In your movie, about the guy who’s supposed to be dead but isn’t. Should I have killed my husband?”
“Closure. End of story.”
“I think in a Chinese movie I would have killed myself.”

Thank you Walter for being our guest and for your excellent story.

I mentioned above that Walter has other stories published on commuterlit. com and you find them here

Thank you faithful reader for visiting this week.