Chaiman Mao Comes To Hollywood

SHORT STORY by Willard Manus

“Eeeh-yah!” Sandy screamed as he lunged at Vince, lashing out with his bare right foot. Vince tried to dodge him but was caught by a shot to the groin that stunned him, sending waves of pain spearing up through him. As he collapsed, Sandy came over and mumbled an apology. “How bad is it?” he asked. “You’ve ruined my sex life!” Vince cried out shrilly.

“It’s your fault. You should have turned and deflected the blow with your hip.”

“Fuck you. This is my first try at kung fu, remember?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It was unrealistic to think you could pick up the basics so fast.”

But then, after they had shed their cotton uniforms and were getting dressed, Sandy went on to say, “I’m shocked how so slow and clumsy you’ve become. You were pretty nimble as a kid.”

“That was twenty pounds ago.”

“Shame on you for putting on all that weight. I’m still as fit as I was back when we were on that Police Athletic League boxing team.”

“That undefeated team.”

“Right. We whipped everybody’s ass that year. The Bronx Bombers, they called us.”

“All that is ancient history, Sandy.”

“Don’t say it. I’m still a warrior at heart, a guy who likes a good fight.”

“Is that why you took up kung fu?”

“No way. I took it up so that I could impress Chairman Mao when he comes to Hollywood.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The man is a martial arts fanatic. What better way to bond with him than by going into the ring with him?”

“But you’re just a beginner. It won’t be a fair fight.”

“Not to worry. It’ll be a friendly match, a mostly social thing, like playing golf together.”

“What if he accidentally lands a knockout punch?”

“I’ll be happy to take one for the team if it helps to get our picture made.”

* * *

“The whole thing is truly bizarre,” Lottie said. They were sitting over breakfast in a neighborhood coffee house the next morning. “Does Sandy really think the best way to do business with this Chinese guy is by trading kung fu blows with him?

“Sandy’s a pretty savvy guy. If he thinks this is the way to go, who am I to argue with him?”

“Sandy’s a has-been. All he’s got going for him is desperation.”

“I beg to disagree. The man has produced dozens of films.”

“He went bankrupt last year. He doesn’t have a nickel to his name.”

“That doesn’t matter. The entire budget for our film will be put up by Chairman Mao’s company in China.”

“All fifteen million?”

“Fifteen million is chump change for the Chinese.”

Lottie took a sip of her cappucino and frowned. “It all sounds crazy to me. It’s a ridiculous way to do business.”

“I disagree. Chairman Mao is coming to Hollywood to make deals. He heads a company that’s drowning in cash. And Sandy does have something real to offer, a hot screenplay written by yours truly. So why is it crazy to think something good might come out of this friendly kung fu match?”

Lottie took another sip of coffee, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “Let’s hope you’re right. By the way, what’s Chairman Mao’s real name?”

“It’s Zou Hunguo or something like that. He’s an army general.”

“What’s a general doing running a film company?”

“That’s how things work in China. The army is in control of all the big state industries.”

“So it would appear all our hopes are riding on this Chinese tin soldier?”

“All our hopes?”

“You heard me.” Lottie stared at him, her mouth a thin, tight line. “We are flat broke, Vinnie.”

“What are you talking about? The last time I looked, we had twenty thousand bucks in the bank.”

Lottie began to chew on the tips of her long, lustrous black hair, a sure sign that she was upset about something. Then she managed to blurt it out. “I blew every penny we had at the tables last night.”

The shock was sudden and unnerving. Lottie had never before risked all their savings like that. She was a professional poker player and had always known when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. How could she have lost her head like that?

“I kept losing pots to players who didn’t know what in hell they were doing,” she explained, “players who kept winning by pulling inside straights or drawing three aces on the flop. It was outrageous, the luck they had, and I should have realized that it just wasn’t my night. But instead of quitting the game and heading home, I just hung on at the table, getting angrier and more reckless by the minute, burning up my chips, begging the floor boss to let me run up a tab.”

“Jesus,” Vince said finally. “You have really done a number on us.”

“Indeed I have.”

They sat for the longest time after that, not speaking or even looking at each other.

* * *

It was the first time Lottie had ever busted out like that. Usually she played a steady, careful game, winning small amounts most of the time, enough for them to live on uncomfortably, as he put it. She’d inherited her skill at poker from her mother Chickie, who, on her wedding night in Las Vegas, had played cards till dawn instead of making love to her new and third husband. Chickie was too impulsive and erratic to become a top-notch player, but Lottie had learned well from her and was able to turn pro at eighteen and hold her own in the casinos.

She had often kept them alive when Vince was unable to sell a screenplay. Fortunately, that kind of thing didn’t happen too often; he had averaged one sale every three years, with the occasional residual check or rewrite job helping to pad their income.

Between the two of them, they had managed to stay afloat for twelve years in Hollywood--and stick it out as husband and wife as well. Yeah, the marriage had proved to be a pretty good one, he told himself. It helped that he’d learned early on never to expect her to cook a meal, wake up before noon, or eat fried liver and onions.

But now her heedlessness had upset the balance of their lives, tipped it over the edge. They were down to their last few bucks and if they didn’t do something about it, they might end up living in a tent on San Pedro Street.

After a long, tense discussion they concluded that their best hope was to raise some quick cash, enough to finance Lottie’s return to the poker club in Gardena. Staked out like that, she might be able to return to her winning ways and keep them solvent until Sandy Engels signed the deal with Chairman Mao and was able to pay Vince for his screenplay.

So, furtively, ashamedly, they began to borrow money from friends and family, and to sell off whatever they could on E-bay: car, clothes, furniture, TV, jewelry, even the gas stove (why the hell not, since Lottie had never even so much as turned a knob on it).

By wheeling and dealing like that, they raised enough to prime the poker pump for Lottie. Off she went to Gardena, with a wad of cash in her purse, ready to become the bread-winner again, until such time as Chairman Mao arrived in Hollywood and went into the kung fu ring with Sandy Engels.

* * *


That’s the word that jumped immediately into Vince’s mind when he first laid eyes on Chairman Mao.

Heap big trouble, he added tensely, grimly.

The Chairman was a tall, lean, hawk-nosed man who, in his satin-black uniform and black belt, towered over Sandy Engels. His bearing was warrior-like: straight spine, wary eyes, unsmiling mouth. No polite chatting, no joking of any kind. It was clear from the moment he stepped into the ring that this was not going to be a friendly match. The message he was sending to Sandy was all too clear. It was one that said, “I know why you have gone into the ring with me. It’s not out of friendship or competition. It’s just to get something out of me. Well, your cunning and cupidity don’t fool me. I’m a lot tougher and smarter than you think. And I’m going to prove it to you by beating the living shit out of you, you capitalist white devil!”

The Chairman proceeded to do just that by launching a swift, furious attack on Sandy, one that caught him by surprise and staggered him with its intensity and ferocity. Thwack, thwack, thwack, he landed one blow after another on Sandy, using fists, elbows and feet to bloody his face, make him cry out in pain.

This triggered an angry, unexpected response in Vince: a long-buried memory rose up from deep within him: a memory of Tiananment Square in Beijing when Chinese generals just like this one had turned on the young people who were demonstrating for freedom and democracy in China, attacked them with their batons, guns and tanks, killing thousands of them. Chances are, this very man was one of those sons of bitches who had declared war on their own people, their own children, and turned Tiananment Square into a blood-bath, a slaughter-house.

As he continued to watch Chairman Mao pummel Sandy in the ring, Vince felt his Bronx blood begin to heat up. Mao was punishing Sandy the way he had punished those young, idealistic students, and that’s when Vince's blood boiled over and he threw himself at Mao and clobbered him with a metal folding chair, momentarily stunning the general, leaving him vulnerable to a wild, desperate punch on the jaw by Sandy Engels.

“Aggghhhh!” Chairman Mao bellowed as crumpled to the mat, with the two boys from Pelham Parkway standing over him, howling at the top of their lungs as they punched and kicked away at him with all the strength and righteousness they could muster.