Excerpt from The Barbarians Are Coming by David Wong Louie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Barbarians Are Coming

By David Wong Louie

The Barbarians Are Coming

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Leaving the store, I hear Fuchs say to his customer, "So, I see you like looking at meat-"

I walk to the Ladies' Club with the capon bundle under my arm. I know Fuchs must be right. Hanging around death as he does all day, he sees things. Lisa Lee is Chinese, which explains why Jim King has put her up to our meeting; he thinks we'll make a cute couple together, a pair of matching bookends.

I try to imagine Lisa Lee and immediately conjure up my sisters. I see them, one after the other, their faces like post office mug shots, and under their chins, instead of a serial number, is a plaque that reads "Lisa Lee." I know it's wrongheaded, even a bit spooky, and entirely indicative of bad wiring inside me, but in my heart every Chinese woman registers as an aunt, my mother, my sisters, or the Hong Kong girl whose picture my mother keeps taped to the kitchen mirror. They hold no romantic interest for me.

I pass Kim the greengrocer. People in town think he is Chinese. I backtrack, enter the store. Lisa Lee: bean sprouts, snow peas. I rarely do business with Kim, who charges four times wholesale and won't cut me a break, ripping me off, his Asian brother, along with everyone else. Six bucks a pound for snow peas! Kim's making a mint and getting fat, even his wire-rims look fat. And he speaks only enough English to kiss up to the housewives with his "America is good place," "You look nice," "Cheap, cheap" stuff. With me, he doesn't bother - what is another Oriental going to get him?

I pay, and feel pickpocketed. My own money, and what's it going to get me? "Not so cheap," I say to Kim, with a smile, angling for a discount. But he just eyes me, a stray that's wandered in off the street.

"You not have to buy," he says, and shrugs.

Normally I have no use for bean sprouts and snow peas, even at half the price. They are not part of who I am as a chef. But just as tennis requires a can of balls, a milkshake a drinking straw, a dinner guest named Lisa Lee requires the appropriate vegetable matter. "Blind date," I say, holding my purchases up by my ear. I can see from Kim's blank expression that he has failed to grasp my meaning: he can't see that my hands are tied, that I must go against the grain, that under routine circumstances I wouldn't tolerate this economic exploitation.

Kim says, "America is land of plenty. Why you want a blind girl for?"

When I get home-that is, the small apartment that comes with the job, four hundred square feet, the top floor of the carriage house in the rear of the Ladies' Club property-I find a postcard from Bliss in the mail. A giant ear of corn that takes up the entire length of a flat-bed truck. She alternates between sending the mutant-corn postcard and sending the one of the colossal hog with antelope horns. She writes: "A guy comes in complaining about a toothache but he doesn't know which tooth aches. The X rays don't know any better, and neither do my professors. But then I had a hunch, this feeling; I borrowed a light and checked his eyes and his ears. And bingo! There was a moth in there and a foot of yarn! When it was all over, Moth Ears asked me out for a beer. He said, 'Are you spoken for?' I had never heard it put that way. Sterling, have you spoken for me? I love you. See you Friday, the 16th."

I check the calendar. Today is Friday, the fifteenth. Is she coming today, or tomorrow, the sixteenth? Friday, as she says, or Saturday? Something's wrong. As much as I hate having to do so, I have to phone her, paying premium daytime rates, no less. When she doesn't answer, I'm relieved, spared the toll charges--though I know that's an inappropriate response. She's probably already in the air. I need to straighten the matter out. I try Lisa Lee's number; she isn't at home either. Perhaps both are speeding, in opposite directions-Lisa Lee from the east, Bliss from the west--to the same trembling destination.

Reprinted from The Barbarians Are Coming by David Wong Louie by permission of G.P. Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by David Wong Louie. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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