Bao and I settled into an easy rhythm over the next two years. We performed with the troupe during the evenings, brought our brothers back to their hotel, then slipped off into the night to give street performances. We did a few more underground fights, too, but only when they promised to be discreet and non-lethal. By the end of our second year, we had about forty thousand dollars saved.
Money presented its own set of problems at first. I knew from the story of Yan Ming—a persona non grata in China who would be arrested on the spot for defecting—that we had to conduct our affairs in secrecy, so we couldn’t very well keep the cash hidden under our cots back in China.
This meant I had to open a bank account, a task that proved more challenging than beating up giant Texan brawlers. Bureaucracy and its endless onslaught of forms and regulations have always daunted me to the point of paralysis, and my problems were compounded by being a sixteen year old with no legal guardian.
My first attempt was a disaster. Imagine being a bank teller at one of a thousand Bank of America branches in Anaheim, California, when a young man with a face as hard and brown as an old chestnut steps into your line. His head is completely shaven and he’s wearing bright orange robes with what appears to be several hundred crumpled bills cradled in its folds. How would you react?
“Can I help you, sir?” she said, her eyes flitting nervously to one colleague, then the other, silently begging for help.
I dumped the pile of bills on the countertop, caught a few runaways before they slipped to the floor, then shoveled the pile into a tighter heap. “I want to deposit this.”
“Do you have an account here?”
She pointed me to a nearby cubicle. “Susan can help you.”
I shoveled the dirty cash back into my robe and trundled over to Susan’s office. She looked up at me from her computer with the most dead-eyed, disinterested gaze I had yet seen.
“What can I do for you?” Her voice was toneless.
“I need an account.”
She studied me for a long moment, tapping her lips with a red clicky pen. “Where’d you get the cash?”
“From—” I paused. At this point, most of it had come from my first cage fight. I knew I had to lie about my source of income. “—street performing,” I finished weakly. “I juggle.”
Swords, I thought. I juggle Dao scimitars.
She eyed my robes again, then turned her dead, glassy eyes back to her computer screen and started typing. “What’s your name?”
“Date of birth?”
“May 25th, 1984.”
“Social security number?”
I froze. “My—what?”
“Are you a United States citizen, Mr. Fontaine?”
“Do you have ID?”
I pulled out my passport and showed it to her.
She barely glanced at it before returning it. “You’re going to need to go to the local Social Security office and fill out what’s called an SS-5, the foreign workers social security number form. They’ll ask for original documents proving your identity, work-authorized immigration status, and your age.”
I stared at her for a long moment before it all clicked. “But I’m not a foreigner. I’m a US citizen. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts.”
“Oh. You still need to go to a social security office, then. They’ll tell you.”
That all sounded too complicated for me. I thanked her, funneled the pile of dirty cash back into my robes, and trudged away.
That night, Bao and I buried our money—almost a thousand dollars—in a plastic bag beneath a freeway in Anaheim.
“I’m going to have to visit Lei. She’ll know my social security number.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
I shook my head. It started to rain as we walked back to the hotel. “Not since I came to the Temple. I’m not sure if she’s even alive.”
“Maybe you should take some of our money to her,” he suggested. “She might need it.”
I showed him a roll of bills. “I plan to. Do you want to come with me?”
When we got back to China, Bao and I took a train through Dengfeng and then a taxi to my grandmother’s hovel. Having money was a thrilling concept to Bao—he smiled almost the whole way there.
My great uncle met us when we knocked on the door. He seemed to have aged a hundred years since I had left for the monastery—he leaned heavily on a cane, the skin sagged off his bones like half-melted candlewax, and his eyes were cloudy with what I now know were cataracts.
“Who’s that, there? Monks? Are you here to pray for her? You’re too late.”
I closed my eyes and searched my feelings, but all I could remember was Lei’s coldness toward me when I was younger. I still felt nothing for her, and shrugged away Bao’s hand when he laid it on my shoulder.
“It’s me, great uncle. John. Did grandmother Lei leave anything for me?”
He hobbled out of the doorway, gesturing for us to come in. The hovel’s straw-and-clay lintel was a lot lower than I remembered it; we both had to duck as we squeezed into the darkened room. Lei’s corpse was lying on a cot against the wall, just a few feet away.
“When did she die?”
“Last night,” my uncle spat. “You never visited her. You’re lucky she kept anything of yours at all.”
He thrust an old, coverless shoebox into my hands. My social security card, blue and white with official stamps on it, was clearly visible in the clutter.
I smiled at Bao. “We’ve got what we came here for.”
“Here, great uncle. You’re looking a little thin.” I tossed him the roll of bills and left that part of my life behind.