Chapter Seven – Passage Four
Zen rock gardens abut the lawn by linen-draped folding tables that the staff’s laid out for our lunch. Maybe it’s the sudden oxygen deprivation that my brain’s suddenly suffered from all that physical exertion climbing that atrocious hill but as I sit there on those white marble steps under the midmorning sun catching my breath, I find my mind suddenly wandering.
Bao’s rock garden is immense, maybe the size of a volleyball court. It’s certainly larger than any Zen garden that I’ve ever seen. An ancient tradition inherited from the Japanese that started way back in the Muromachi Period, I know that the sands and landscaping of a Zen garden is arranged to evoke utmost peace and serenity of one’s inner-being. Back when we were young and growing up with our mom, Devana went through a considerable spell of being completely enamored with Japanese culture. Saturday morning anime, late nights under the covers reading manga by flashlight, Godzilla, and giant fighting mecha robots that could transform into increasingly powerful versions of themselves as a battle fight progressed. (Which always begged the question in my mind, story-telling and dramatic tension purposes notwithstanding, why these didn’t just start in their “Ultimate Form” first and go from there?) Personally, I was always more a fan of American comics: Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, and Supes. But through Devana, I learned more than I ever cared to know about Japan.
Where is Devana now?
My thoughts are interrupted abruptly by a maid– she’s wordlessly handing me a damp towel and bottled water and I accept both gratefully. No time to think about the past now and I suddenly snap out of my reverie back into reality. Only our present and future matter; dwelling on what can’t be changed serves no purpose. We humans can only move forward. Once I’ve sufficiently recovered my breath I shake my head to clear my thoughts and wander over to the table spread under the lawn canopy to see what’s been laid out.
It’s Italian food! Spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs, freshly tossed spinach salad with chives, portobello mushrooms, and diced carrots! There’s also thin slices of Thai skirt steak and potato salad. On the HSR ride to Xi’an, we’d been on a constant diet consisting solely of bento boxes. Thank lord, the gods have deigned to grace mercy upon us today.
A giant booming voice sounds behind me and I turn to see an older man in his fifties, dressed casually in an unbuttoned collared shirt and wearing tan khakis. This must be Jack Bao, the fifth richest man in all of China. Jack holds out his hand and we shake– to my surprise, I feel his skin rough and calloused.
“We know you’ve traveled a great long way to visit our humble abode today,” he says, motioning to one of the wicker basket chairs around the table. “Please! Sit, sit.”
By this time, Kristen and the others have also wandered over. Behind them, coming up the dirt path, I also see Da’an walking up towards us. Over his shoulder he’s carrying Deepak fireman-rescue-style like a sack of flour. The poor Indian professor apparently must still be unconscious from heat stroke, poor fellow.
“He’ll be fine, right?” Kristen asks, concerned.
“No worries at all,” Amanda assures her, waving her hand. “It’s common! Foreigners arrive all the time, unprepared for our newfound heat and humidity.”
“It wasn’t always like this,” Shu says sadly. “Xi’an was always north and actually considered cold country for the longest time.”
I nod knowingly. Back home in the States, it’s the same as well. Climate change had eaten the polar bears and penguins alive taking no prisoners and was now coming for us all. We’d kicked the can down the road as far as cans could be kicked. The bill was coming due.
“Enough with the dour talk!” Jack says. He looks like he’s already knocked a few back but graciously pours half a dozen glasses of some liquid that looks like red Kool-Aid mixed with lighter fluid and passes them around the table.
“Drink!” he says in a commanding voice. “Drink!”
Kristen and I look at each other. The liquid even smells like lighter fluid, now I’m holding a glass in my hand. Across the table Alan gives me the look. It’s a universal look that any consultant who’s done any time in the field will immediately recognize: Client’s the boss. Buckle up, buddy. This is gonna be one wild ride.
I raise my glass in a toast. “Cheers!”
An hour or three later, it’s late afternoon and the luncheon is a complete wasteland. The linen cloth is splattered with red spaghetti sauce and all the food’s gone; we’d collectively eaten everything the way Rome demolished Carthage. There’s literally nothing left.
I don’t remember much, and what I do remember is hazy, but somewhere around the third glass of the watermelon-Kombucha infused vodka, it suddenly dawned on me the kind of man that Jack Bao was: He was clearly a prisoner in his own castle.
While his estate may be breathtaking in every way imaginable, and though he was married to an absolutely gorgeous trophy wife, and even though his father had founded the single more important Chinese telecommunications and social media company in the history of the continent, Jack Bao was a man who was stuck.
“They can’t throw me in prison,” he’d said at one point. “Papa still has too many friends, you know, in the politburo. But they can’t just let me roam free either. And so here I am.” His voice trailed off. “Here I am…”
And so now he had nothing better to do than entertain guests at his McMansion at all hours of the day. Every day was a feast. He’d never need to work for money ever again. But he could also never leave.
At first, I’d been confused. Since we’d just about immediately started drinking without much pretense or chatter. But then I also realized that all the alcohol served another purpose: It was Jack’s way of weeding the weak from the strong. By the second glass, Coleman was out. Looking incredibly sick, he scuttled off to throw up in the bushes somewhere. But all those years of wining and dining during my consultant jaunts had served me well. I somehow manage to keep up with the man and Kristen does too. The Australians are infamous for their iron stomachs, after all.
Finally, only after we’d sufficiently imbibed did Jack begin talking more openly.
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