Death by a thousand cuts could sum up a man’s whole life, in one way figurative, in another literal. How pointless can one life be amongst a billion others? I tell this story about Chelvis—short for Chinese Elvis—not because I knew him well, nor even because the story is true, but because he knew something about falling.
Growing up in a poor government prefecture in Changsha, Chelvis, before he became Chelvis, had a neighbor who jumped from his 12th floor window. His face became a splattered tomato.
His little brother fell ill to some undiagnosed bug that caused his organs to shut down one after another. Before he died, he secreted a thin black trickle between his legs. Not blood. Not feces. Chelvis thought it was essence. The essence of his brother’s soul trickling down. Heaven isn’t upwards, it’s downwards, the Chinese believe, although Chelvis felt confused, he thought the soul was secreted through the nostrils, not the anus.
His mother’s hair fell out in clumps and clogged the shower drain. She called him a good-for-nothing and told him never to visit her grave during Tomb Sweeping Day, not unless he brought bundles of joss money. Even in hell, she wanted to be able to afford Chanel.
His academic results plummeted and in high school, he got a job slaughtering chickens at a battery farm. Around that time, somebody died every day. Death was no big thing. But for the teenage, pimply-faced, stick-thin, bony-assed boy, a life-defining moment: he fell in love with Elvis.
There was an abandoned old-school boom box with a tape deck. There was a cassette. Elvis. Amazing that Elvis could be found in those dark days. The boy held up each chicken by its scrawny neck, sliced in one deft flick, and tapped one foot, jiggled his ass on the plastic stool while singing along to “Are you lonesome tonight?” The beheaded chicken was his microphone. “Hound Dog” with the best Hunanese intonation. His Elvis leg shake was jelly nonpareil.
Fei was his cousin twice removed but his doppelganger in terms of looks. Fei got him two part-time jobs in Hong Kong, and introduced him to white powder. The powder sent him on wild journeys on mental donkeys, and he still hadn’t any money.
Fei joined the local triad and grew a Fu Manchu moustache. Fei said did Chelvis want to earn a little pocket money? In addition to slaughtering chickens and cutting hair, Chelvis could start making “drop-offs” for Fei.
Okay, Chelvis said. Why not? One can’t kill chickens forever. Or always snipping and cutting. Karma will get you, the Buddhists say. Plus, the pay-off was good.
The places where he dropped off packages were nondescript—apartments in dingy blocks of flats, shuttered shops in Shatin with no discernible business concern, but once, at the palatial mansion of a triad boss’ mistress, oh how now. She came to the door in a peignoir and frou-frou slippers, and blew Chelvis a kiss.
Money at last. Money allowed him to buy a banged-up Gibson 2000 from a pawnshop.
He took lessons. His teacher was a good man. Bespectacled, only sang oldies. The only trouble was, his teacher’s English was just as shaky. Like si fu, like tou tai. Like master, like apprentice. Never mind. ‘Viva la bega’ sounded just as good when he donned a rhinestone suit and moussed his hair into a pompadour.
He had a plan.
On his very first performance night, he met Lulu, a big-breasted madam in charge of a house of ill repute. She fell for Chelvis’s act in a big way. He could play in the front-room of her boudoir as customers came in to inspect her escorts in Japanese schoolgirl or ballerina-pink tutu cosplay.
Chelvis moved in with Lulu. Inasmuch as Chelvis was stick-skinny, Lulu was ample. She also owned a Pekingese so ugly triad lackeys shielded their faces when they trucked up to collect protection money.
Chelvis became legendary at Lulu’s. Sometimes customers wanted to roll around, drink whisky and just laugh at Chelvis’ playing, instead of whoring. Imagine. But not John Lennon. Chelvis was faithful only to Elvis.
He strolled the streets of Mongkok too. Honeys, couples, pedestrians, bar-hoppers, bankers—they all stuffed bills in the pocket of his rhinestone jeans. From the Mongkok Computer Center to the top of Nathan Road, there was only one Chelvis.
If karma had a shape, it was probably blobby. It arrived for Chelvis in the form of mistaken identity and an axe meant for his cousin, Long-Mustachioed Fei.
Two rival triad goons—famous as Pink Panther and Two-Pick—came knocking.
Chelvis was gelling his pompadour.
Two-Pick held a sword-blade to Chelvis’s neck and said, “Love the whole sideburns thing. What happened to your moustache, man?” They demanded ‘bundles’, they asked if Chelvis was trying to screw Bossman, they grabbed his gonads and asked if he liked Chinese sausages. Chelvis didn’t know anything about bundles, he wasn’t sure who Bossman was, and he definitely didn’t like Chinese sausages.
They took him to a sausage-making factory, tied him to a plastic chair, and buried an axe in his crotch. Chelvis bled that slow drip that caused Tao philosophy to swirl before his fogged vision.
His mother’s face descended. She told him she didn’t like his rhinestone suit, his hair smelled bad, and to please take his shades off, as a mark of respect for the dead. Chelvis thought, it was no bad thing to see your mother before you fell.
A prick of injustice stirred him up a little, like a trollop badly done up with beehive hairdo and fake mole, and he wished he could at least have his Gibson with him. His leg began to shake. Something passed down his colon. He reflected that he didn’t know why he lived, but surely, surely it wasn’t too much to ask why he died.
Elaine Chiew teaches, edits, and writes short fiction. She is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction (notably Bridport) and also been shortlisted and longlisted in several other competitions, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and named Wigleaf Top 50 twice. Her most recent stories can be found in Unthology 10, Ripening: the NFFD Anthology, Occulum, Jellyfish Review and New Flash Fiction Review. She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts. Find her on Twitter at @ChiewElaine.