Chong Soup seemed to measure my explanation. The blankness of his expression rippled for a moment, like when you toss a coin into a perfectly still pond, but it quickly resettled….”
by j.t. townley
I want to tell you the story of Chong Soup, the wisest man I’ve ever known, and how I came to know him.
We drove all night, or I did, since Little Marcie fell asleep in the backseat of the Beemer and only woke up when we hit the uneven pavement of the Bay Bridge. I turned off my smartphone, or at least the ringer, so it wouldn’t disturb her, since Dr. Marcie, Little Marcie’s mother, began calling almost immediately. Satisfied patients, who sent me surreptitious photos of their breasts by email and text message, kept me company on the drive. Since Little Marcie was precocious, I made sure my phone was password protected.
And Dr. Marcie calls me irresponsible; can you believe that?
The parking lot was empty except for a derelict, zebra-striped bus. The gates were locked up tight.
“Where are we, Daddy?” asked Little Marcie.
“At the zoo, sweetie.”
“To see koala bears?”
“That’s San Diego, honey. I’m not sure they have them here.”
She hugged herself and stuck out a bulbous lip. I could see everything in the rearview.
“Come on, sweetie. There are plenty of other pretty animals.”
I did a quick online search: no goats.
“Lots of goats,” I said. “Mountain goats with big antlers and thick fur.”
Little Marcie squealed, which, as long as you’re not taking knife to flesh, is a good thing.
The zoo didn’t open until ten, so I stopped for a triple venti one-pump sugar free caramel latte, a half-dozen assorted scones, and a glass of milk. Then we drove out to Ocean Beach, where I hadn’t been since my residency at UCSF all those years ago, when, perhaps not incidentally, I met Dr. Marcie. (Back then, she was still just Marcie.) I sipped my latte and watched the lean, muscled surfers slither into their wetsuits and paddle out to the break. Little Marcie gnawed on a maple pecan scone, spilling her entire glass of milk all over the unblemished leather upholstery. I lifted her out of her car seat, which was just the regular backseat. She slipped her tiny hand in mine. We walked to a bench and let the cool Pacific breeze blow over us. The fog stank of sadness.
It wasn’t long before Little Marcie said, “Daddy? I’m cold.” Her teeth were chattering.
“’The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,’” I said without attributing the quip to Mark Twain, or was it Jack London? That’s why I didn’t mention it. Instead, I gave her some of my latte, confident in the fact it was sugar free. “It’s hot, honey. Take little sips.”
She hacked and spluttered. I thought she might puke all over my angora sweater and mohair jacket. “Yuck!” she said and meant it. And she was still cold.
I figured we could always just sit in the car, or she could. Then I noticed a VW bus just like the one I never owned; one of those hard-bodied guys had left the sliding door wide open. I wandered over and stuck my head in, half-expecting to find a tangle of naked, writhing bodies buried under mounds of dirty clothes and drug paraphernalia. Not a sexy young blonde or gravity bong in sight. But I found what I was looking for, a fleece blanket, wadded up on the backseat. It reeked of patchouli.
“So soft and spicy,” said Little Marcie when I wrapped her in it.
We sat in the fog and finished our breakfast. Little Marcie really got into watching the surfers, too, giving little handclaps when one would catch a wave, her mouth open as she followed their progress toward the beach. I scanned the incoming photos from patients, all those bulging, perfect breasts, pleased with my work, proud of myself. There was also a message from Shirley, who we decided shouldn’t text, email, or call, at least until this all blew over, wondering where we were and how things were going. She was another satisfied customer who also now lived with me. Her husband (ex) wasn’t happy about that at first, but the settlement changed his tune.
“Okay,” I said after a while, slapping both hands on my thighs. “You about ready?”
I scooped Little Marcie up and headed straight for the VW bus. Rather than return the blanket, as I probably intended to, I laid her out on the backseat and hopped in behind the wheel. The keys were in the ignition. “What do you say, Little Marcie?” I said. “Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, right?”
“The zoo is a thousand miles?” she asked, so sweet and sincere it almost broke your heart.
I twisted the Beemer key off my ring and pitched it out the window in the general direction of the guy in the wetsuit now sprinting up the beach.
We caught more than a few curious glances from zoo personnel as we lurched into the parking lot, owing largely to the fact I couldn’t find third gear, so the VW bus made this horrible screaming noise and smoked conspicuously. The place was still deserted. But the gates were open, so we bought our tickets and went in.
We didn’t make it five yards before we were accosted by this old Chinese guy, eighty if he was a day. He was probably a lot older than that, actually, since most of those guys don’t show their age. The codger wore a cheap navy windbreaker over a sort of robe affair that fluttered in the breeze, and he leaned on a carved wooden cane.
“Good morning,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said, taking him for a panhandler. “Not today.”
“Chuang Tzu,” he said and gave a little bow.
“What soup?” I said.
“Daddy?” Little Marcie cowered behind me.
“Your docent,” he said.
We left the old man standing there and notified the ticket lady, who called her manager, who explained the whole situation. Seems they had this new program for the elderly, to get them out of their lonely, isolated little hovels in Chinatown or wherever. It was all above board and completely gratis. Plus, Chong Soup was said to know the zoo inside-out. Wouldn’t we let him guide us on our visit today?
I didn’t see any harm in it. In fact, I figured it might take the pressure off me, since I knew Little Marcie would be full of questions, and what did I know about giraffes and lions and gorillas?
“My apologies,” I told him. “We’d be pleased to avail ourselves of your services.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m Dr. Dan Reynolds, and this is Little Marcie.”
He gave another little bow but didn’t take my hand. “You are a great thinker, Dr. Dan?”
“What? No, M.D., not-”
“You study ancient Chinese philosophy?”
I chuckled and wiggled my hands in the air. “I’m a surgeon. Cosmetic.” Then, perhaps because I’m proud of my work, I said, “Breasts.” I handed him one of my cards. “Maybe you have a niece or daughter or granddaughter?”
He looked at the card, then up at me.
“They don’t call it Silicone Valley for nothing!”
Chong Soup stuffed the card into the pocket of his windbreaker. He seemed completely baffled.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” I said, clapping my hands together. “Where to first?”
“Goats, goats, goats!” Little Marcie shrieked.
“Yes,” I said. “Why not take us to see the goats?”
“No goats,” Chong Soup said.
“Sure,” I said. “You know-”
“Billy goats, silly goats!”
“No goats,” he repeated. When I gave him my most pleading, perhaps-you’ve-forgotten expression, he said, “We have the Blackbuck and Scimitar-Horned Oryx, Grant’s Zebra and Yellow-Backed Duiker. She will love them all, yes?”
I would soon learn Chong Soup had a great many talents. At first blush, though, he seemed to know nothing about kids or their parents. So I slipped him a pair of twenties and said, “What about the mountain goats?”
He studied me, then snatched the bills from my hand, and they disappeared into the sleeve of his windbreaker. “The Way makes all things into one,” he said. “Their dividedness is their completeness; their completeness is their dividedness.” His face gave off a serene glow. “Now follow me, please.”
He took us on Outback Trail to see the kangaroos and cassowaries, and Little Marcie was immediately, if temporarily, distracted from her goat fetish. Then we went to Lions’ Den and Grizzly Gulch, which were both impressive, but pathetic, too. I mean, here were these wild, majestic creatures cooped up in these tiny enclosures that reeked of wet fur, raw meat, and something dark and coppery. Maybe it wasn’t like the old days when I was a kid, and you’d see the animals literally locked up in actual cages. But didn’t it amount to the same thing?
Over at Penguin Island, I bought Little Marcie a Penguin Pop, then pulled Chong Soup aside.
“Listen,” I said, “do you think they’re happy?”
“To whom do you refer, Dr. Dan?”
He raised his left eyebrow. The shadow of a smile quivered at the corners of his mouth. “The peacock has to walk but ten paces for one peck and a hundred paces for one drink, but it doesn’t want to be kept in a cage. Though you treat it like a king, its spirit won’t be content.”
“Is that right,” I said.
Maybe he could read my bewilderment-Chong Soup seemed to have a sixth sense-because he said, “Calculate what man knows and it cannot compare to what he does not know. Calculate the time he is alive and it cannot compare to the time before he was born. Yet man takes something so small and tries to exhaust the dimensions of something so large! Hence he is muddled and confused and can never get anywhere.”
“Too true,” I said, rubbing my chin, though I wasn’t completely sure what he was talking about. “Too true.”
We carried on this way, visiting various areas of the zoo in seemingly random order. Now we spent time at South America Discovery Center, examining the anacondas and sea turtles, now we traipsed across to African Savanna, staring into the dank mouths of hippos and rhinos. Despite Chong Soup’s reassurances, Little Marcie didn’t really go for the zebras and kudus, though she got a kick (a small one) out of the giraffes.
“When can we see the goats, Daddy? Where are the goats?”
Where she got this fascination, I couldn’t tell you.
Dr. Marcie was surely to blame.
When lunchtime rolled around, we stopped at the Leaping Lemur Café. Chong Soup wasn’t crazy about the idea. “There are still many animals to see,” he said. But he found a table on the patio while we waited in line, and I bought him an eggplant panini and a glass of pinot noir. Everything on the menu was vegetarian, apparently in honor of the animals. That didn’t faze Little Marcie, who ordered a giant bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, but I couldn’t get excited about a tofurkey hot dog, so I got a slice of cheese pizza, a giant basket of garlic fries, and a glass of malbec. Although Chong Soup was effusive with his thanks, he did little more than pick at his sandwich, and he never touched the wine. (I didn’t let it go to waste.) I was afraid I should’ve brought him shrimp-fried rice, but he seemed content enough to munch on an occasional handful of chili-dusted nuts he kept in a paper bag in the pocket of his windbreaker.
I scanned through my messages, which were dominated by numerous frantic voicemails and emails and texts from Dr. Marcie. All of which I deleted.
Little Marcie asked, “Did Mommy call, Daddy?”
“Of course not, honey. Why would Mommy call? She’s a very busy woman.”
I glanced at Chong Soup. He was gazing off into the distance, or napping with his eyes open.
“Won’t she be mad?” asked Little Marcie.
“What do you mean, dumpling?”
“That we left without asking.”
“We don’t have to ask,” I said. “I’m your father.” Then I pulled a bill out of my wallet and said, “See that nice man at the cart?” She nodded. “Take this and buy whatever you like.”
“Anything for you, Chong Soup?” I asked, though Little Marcie had already run off.
He shook his head and almost smiled. Although he didn’t ask, I knew he was wondering, so I said:
“Dr. Marcie’s in Beverly Hills. We split up a few years ago.” The old man judged me in silence. “Joint custody.”
Chong Soup seemed to measure my explanation. The blankness of his expression rippled for a moment, like when you toss a coin into a perfectly still pond, but it quickly resettled. “Good fortune,” he said, “is light as a feather, but nobody knows how to pick it up. Misfortune is heavy as the earth, but nobody knows how to stay out of its way.”
“Do you always talk like that?” I asked.
“When the world has the Way, the sage succeeds; when the world is without the Way, the sage survives. In times like the present, we do well to escape penalty.”
Before I figured out what Chong Soup might’ve known, Little Marcie skipped back to our table.
“Look what I got, Daddy!” she squealed. “Want some?”
She had cotton candy in one hand, a huge tub of caramel corn in the other. Her face was already smeared with sticky goo, and her tiny hands were covered in it, as well. I wiped at her with disposable napkins as best I could until I realized that it had no effect at all, other than to collage her skin with bits of recycled paper.
When Little Marcie finished scarfing her sugary delights, I took her over to the water fountain and washed her hands. Chong Soup met us on the path toward Flamingo Lake.
“Now can we see the goats?” asked Little Marcie.
My mouth hung open, though no plausible excuse came pouring out.
“You really like goats, yes?” said Chong Soup.
He reached into his pocket. “Then you will take good care of these?” He held out his hand, upon which balanced two origami goats, one with horns, one without. He’d made them from the pair of twenties I’d given him. When, I had no idea.
“They’re for me?” she said.
Chong Soup nodded. Little Marcie pinched the paper goats gingerly from his palm. She whispered to them for a moment, then brought them to her ears so they could whisper back.
“What do you say?” I said.
“Thank you!” she said and scampered ahead of us.
I patted him on the shoulder. “That was kind of you, Chong Soup.”
He only bowed his head, eyes smiling, then caned down the pathway.
With all that glucose and sucrose pumping through her, Little Marcie wasn’t easy to keep up with. She led us through areas we hadn’t yet visited (Primate Discovery Center, Tropical Rain Forest) and others we had (Grizzly Gulch, Lions’ Den). It was cute, at least for a while. Little Marcie hopped up on sugar, taking her new goat friends to see all the other animals. But she was always just out of earshot, or pretended to be, despite my hollering: “Little Marcie! Wait right there!” She was already gone by the time we reached any given spot-a bench, the bathrooms, the Blue Heron Bar, where we, or I, decided to stop off for some liquid refreshment after chasing Little Marcie around for the better part of an hour. Chong Soup didn’t seem thrilled about it but wisely kept his opinions to himself, gnawing on cashews.
I had a glass of cab, then a couple of martinis. By the time I paid and we tried to pick up her trail again, Little Marcie was nowhere to be found. I looked left and right, down one path and then another, but saw no sign of her. The air stank of creosote from the railroad ties that lined the pathways. At least it was better than manure. “Little Marcie!” I yelled through cupped hands. “Little Marcie!”
I marveled at the growing seriousness of the situation.
“We’re in the soup now,” I said, my tongue fat and fuzzy.
Chong Soup pretzeled his arms across his chest and shook his head. His carved wooden cane leaned against his hip. “No, Dr. Dan. You are.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I couldn’t lose Little Marcie! But what if some sick, unwashed pedophile had abducted her? Or she tripped into the Tigers’ Lair and was gobbled up before anyone could do anything to stop it? Or she tried to swim out to Penguin Island and didn’t make it, since, as far as I knew, she was still in the tadpole class at swimming lessons? There were simply too many horrors to consider.
“You work here,” I said. “What’s the protocol for situations like this?”
Chong Soup scratched his chin stubble. “I tell management, they tell security, security tells the police.”
“Well? Let’s do it!”
He didn’t move. He appeared to be studying me.
“Come on,” I said. “We’re wasting time.”
He eyed me in silence.
“Look, I just want to find Little Marcie!”
“Your daughter has been taken from you, just as you took her from her mother.” He paused dramatically. “Now you can empathize, yes?”
A troupe of schoolchildren in matching orange t-shirts meandered by, giggling and pointing at the animals. I wondered if Little Marcie might be among them, until a boy with big ears and an overbite asked his teacher why some of the elephants had two trunks. Little Marcie knew better than to hang around with short-bus kids.
“Also,” said Chong Soup, “your situation is precarious, yes?”
He had a point there. I couldn’t exactly detail the circumstances leading up to Little Marcie’s disappearance-not to the police or anyone else. Except maybe Shirley, who already knew the whole story, or could guess.
“Help me look for her?” I asked.
He nodded. We split up. He took African Savanna and the Children’s Zoo, while I was responsible for everything else, which didn’t exactly seem fair. But I was younger and spryer than Chong Soup. Plus, Little Marcie was my daughter.
We searched everywhere. You name it: Aviary, Butterfly Glen, Rabbit Hutch, everywhere. Even more than one of the ladies’ rooms. Little Marcie was nowhere to be found.
Chong Soup and I met back up at the Blue Heron Bar. There was nothing left to do but drink another martini or two while he set the wheels in motion. Chong Soup’s cane clacked rhythmically away. I sat at a table on the terrace, my figurative head in my figurative hands. (I was actually swirling my martini.) He soon returned, and I could feel his judgmental gaze upon me, but I didn’t look up.
“In all affairs,” he said, “whether large or small, there are few men who reach a happy conclusion except through the Way. If you do not succeed, you are bound to suffer from the judgment of men. If you do succeed, you are bound to suffer from the yin and yang. To suffer no harm whether you succeed or not-only the man who has virtue can do that.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about, but I caught the gist. He was trying to sympathize, to boost my morale, to tell me everything was going to be okay, regardless of how it all worked out. What’s more, he may’ve called me a man of virtue, which was kind and generous and probably a bald-faced lie. It didn’t matter. It was what the situation called for. And we all know the right lie at the right moment can work wonders.
The bench grew hard as we waited for management and security and the police to do what they do. But soon I had a brainstorm and couldn’t wait any longer. I knew where Little Marcie was! I was sure of it. I would find her, and we’d select a sleek sports car from those in the parking lot, candy-apple red or canary yellow, whatever color she wanted. We would roar out of the City and down the peninsula in our new Porsche or Ferrari, Little Marcie chanting, “Faster, Daddy, faster!” and squealing with delight as I slalomed through traffic. Back home in Palo Alto, Shirley would be waiting for us with take-out burritos, or maybe we’d all go out for dim sum.
“We must be patient, Dr. Dan,” said Chong Soup. “Only what is still can still the stillness of other things.”
I nodded, gave him a little wave, and set out.
If I’d guessed at Little Marcie’s whereabouts a little sooner, things might not have gone the way they went. Because I found her exactly where I thought she’d be, give or take. Only by now she’d run out of money (I never got my change), and she slumped over on a bench, clutching empty cotton candy cones in each tiny hand. The ground was littered with soda bottles, candy wrappers, and popcorn tubs. Even from behind the crepe myrtles, where I hid to avoid being spotted by the security guard who approached her, Little Marcie looked a little green. The officer helped her sit up. He took the empty cardboard cones from her and tossed them in the nearest trash barrel. Apparently, he didn’t notice her sickly pallor, not even when she grasped her little belly and started crying. He leaned in to comfort her. He clearly knew nothing about children. Little Marcie gasped and whimpered, then threw up all over him.
When the officer scurried off to the men’s room, I emerged from the landscaping. I lifted Little Marcie into my arms and wiped her mouth with my handkerchief.
“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “Daddy’s here now.”
She put her head on my shoulder and cried her eyes out. Children pointed and parents glowered as we passed, as if they thought I was somehow responsible for Little Marcie’s condition. I wanted to shout: I brought her to the zoo! Despite the lopsided divorce settlement! Despite the custody hearing and court injunction! But I kept my mouth shut. They wouldn’t have understood, and it would’ve only wasted valuable time.
We made it all the way to the collared peccary pen, where we ran into a pair of uniformed SFPD officers. They didn’t seem to notice us as they passed, so I stopped to show Little Marcie the peccaries, also (according the information placard) known as javelinas. They made ugly grunting sounds and were caked with mud and stank of musty cheese. “What on earth are pigs doing in a zoo?” I wondered.
As it turned out, there was something funny about the acoustics where I was standing. Or maybe those officers were blessed with better hearing than anyone has a right to? Anyway, let’s just say my voice carried. And the policemen came back. They took my personal information and inquired about my activities in the twelve-hour period preceding our arrival at the zoo. I insisted my pig comment was not intended as a double entendre. “I was literally surprised to see pigs here,” I said. “Pig-pigs, I mean, not officers of the law such as yourselves. This isn’t a petting zoo!” They sat us down and asked me more questions. One jotted my answers down in a little notebook, or pretended to. The other held a two-way radio to his mouth and spoke to a staticky voice in code language. We waited. The silence was heavy. Passers-by gawked and whispered.
Eventually, the policemen stood me up and spun me around and wrenched my arms behind me. The zip-click of metal, the pinch of cuffs around my wrists. And the sour stench of garlic and processed meat as one of them spieled the Miranda warning. Then they marched me toward the front entrance, where their cruiser awaited.
“Where are you going, Daddy?” said Little Marcie. “Can’t I come, too?”
I knew Dr. Marcie would have one of her San Francisco boyfriend shrinks drive over to the local precinct to collect Little Marcie and keep her hypnotized until the good doctor finally got around to flying up here. The thought wasn’t exactly comforting.
“Daddy’s going on a little sleepover,” I said. “You be a good girl till I get back.”
She grinned feebly and flashed me her little origami goats. I could only assume they were waving goodbye.
One officer passed Little Marcie off to the member services staff. The other gave me a hard shove. When we were almost to the gate, I spotted Chong Soup. He stood in the sun, leaning on his carved wooden cane. As we passed, his eyes lit up, and he said:
“To understand that hardship is a matter of fate, that success is a matter of the times, and to face great difficulty without fear-this is the courage of the sage.”
I would’ve given him two thumbs-up, if it weren’t for the cuffs. Instead, I winked and said, “Thanks for that, buddy. I owe you one!”
And it’s only with the help of wise, old Chong Soup that I am where I am today.
(illustrations: troy dockins)
J.T. Townley has been published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and teaches at the University of Virginia.