“How’s the chicken taste?” Professor Hamilton asked.
“Tastes good.” I replied, trying desperately not to spit it out.
“Their gravy is delicious,” he commented as he scooped some mashed potatoes. “They’re from a local store called Mountain Fried Chicken. They sure know how to cook.”
“Yeah, marvelous gravy, better than Colonel Sanders,” I said in what I hoped was an earnest tone, peeling the chicken skins off and piling them up in the corner of my plate.
You started to tell us your story of the Colonel again. “My uncle would drive me to his place when I was still a kid — it took us 40 minutes to drive there. He’s a friend of my uncle and my uncle would drive us there with his pick-up, and the Colonel would see us from miles away.” Yes, back in time, the Colonel still owned some restaurants. “And the Colonel, he would hold the door and smile at me and greet us at his front door. I loved to go to his restaurant.” After this old guy sold his restaurants, his brand and his fame, one day, followed by a crowd, he stepped into a store with his name on it. He ordered his famous fried chicken, took a bite and he spat it out, just like I nearly did to my chicken a few minutes ago. “‘That tastes like shit!’ That’s what he said in front of the crowd—guests, mostly reporters,” you said, without laughing. “And I never went to KFC anymore.” I laughed. My girlfriend Allison laughed. Your friend Dr. Barron laughed. We laughed the last time you told us this story in your living room, and we laughed this time around your dining table. I’m not sure how many times you will tell us this story in the future, but I enjoy it each time anyway. The story hasn’t even finished yet. You have a conclusion for every one of your stories. And for this one, you said, “I know a lot of people, and they are all dead.”
“I’m nervous,” Allison told me on our way up the winding mountain road to his home. “I don’t want to talk. You do all the talking,” she said, even though Dr. Hamilton was her professor, not mine.
“Don’t be, honey,” I told her, “You are fine. Why are you nervous?”
“Would he like our little gift?”
“Well, I bet so. It’s country music, his favorite.”
“What do you want to talk about during dinner?” She asked.
“Me? Not sure yet,” I took a peek at my cell and made another right turn, “Well… I want to ask him something ‘bout death. Don’t know if it is proper, but I want to ask him something about death.”
“About his brain tumor?”
“Yeah, something like that. That operation, you know, it’s quite risky. I am curious. Plus, his infection, you know, another dangerous one, I’m just curious.”
“About death, and what people feel about it when they are facing it.”
“Are you afraid of it?”
“I’m afraid of losing the privilege of living. I think that is different from death,” I drove down the hill. We first saw his pine — a Christmas tree. Then there was his house. “I don’t know why I think of death that much. Maybe we are born to think about it. That’s the ultimate reason, I guess.” I pulled my car over, “And now, honey,” I turned off the engine, “Come on, let’s go. Don’t worry too much, Okay?”
We talked about a lot of things during dinner. We talked about China, and what took place in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. You said one of your students was there. You said he called you that day for protection. “He was accused for jeopardizing other students’ safety and the school wants to punish him severely.” You also said he smuggled a camera film out of China. You told us about the trial the school put on him, but you didn’t tell us the result. You forgot it and so did Dr. Barron. But it doesn’t matter: we don’t always need an ending. At least, for a story, an end is not necessarily a stop sign. It could be a pause. We were listeners, and you were the teller. When the story ends, we just rest a bit—we stop listening, you stop talking, and we let the story resonate, let the story develop by itself, in our minds. Dr. Barron asked me why I chose to major in English. I wanted to say something profound and meaningful, like all young adults would do. The truth is that I just like stories.
We waited a while at his front door. Then we saw Professor Hamilton’s red ’72 dodge pick-up coming down the hill. When the professor emerged, he seemed a little bit withered, bent by his illness. But he looked fine. He waved at as, lugging the fried chicken. The golden retrievers were fervent as usual, circling around us, shaking their tails, telling us they were glad to see us. I gave the professor our little gift: a CD. He liked it. I whispered to Allison, “See, I told you. Don’t worry, Okay?” She squeezed my hand a bit. That means an okay. Later that night, he gave us a CD in return. They were his songs. He wrote them, played them, sang them and recorded them. “Write your own songs,” he said, later that night. “If you can’t sing other people’s songs anymore, write your own songs.”
We talked about your journey in Soviet Russia, and how you found that wiretap in your hotel room. Your brain tumor, the missing piece of your skull, your infection. Your life stories and your adventures. That night, I so badly wanted to ask you something about death. Are you afraid of it? Do you hate it? What do you feel? Anger? Regret? Confusion? I had millions of questions. I didn’t know how to ask, when to ask, or even what to ask. I had a million questions about death, or we could say they are actually about life. But which one should I ask? We kept talking about other things, and we finished our dinner.
“Let’s go play with the dogs,” you said. We went outside, sat down, and the dogs jumped onto our knees. You went into the basement and came out with your CD. When the dogs were getting tired, you lit your pipe — the smoke smelled of the wooden pipe — then you sat down. You tuned your guitar so you could sing a song. Dr. Barron asked if you were going to sing that song about death. She said that song made her cry once. You asked which one. She said the French one.
You meditated for a while, stroking the strings, and then you played the chords.
“Je voudrais mourir en France…”
We went back into the room and I played some jazz. Afterward, Allison was yawning. Dr. Barron was meditating in the couch, with her eyes closed. Neither of them was moving at all and the day was completely dark now. The serenity inside the room made me feel good. Some cicadas were singing rhythmically out there. The singing and the tranquility didn’t jibe together, but I enjoyed both of them simultaneously. It was a great summer night.
“I started writing my own songs because I can’t sing other people’s songs anymore. It’s not me. What’s in those songs ain’t me,” he said, and then paused for a while. “You know, when I was in Yale,” he took out the album I gave him, “I loved to sing this song a lot,” he pointed at I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, “And my roommate one day said to me, ‘Bill, you are a goddamn rich student who studies at Yale. Why on earth do you keep singing that song? You are not sad at all!’ and I thought he was actually right. I am not a man of constant sorrow, not a bit.” I smiled. “I feel the same way,” I replied, “It’s weird, pretending to be someone else. You know, singing a sad love song when I am actually enjoying a relationship. It feels ridiculous, somehow pretentious.” He smiled.
“Then write your own songs,” he said.
We told him we were about to leave, but he said it was still early. We don’t always need an end, sometimes we don’t even want an end, but there will always be an end for everything. We left his home, I waved good-bye, Allison waved good-bye, and Dr. Barron waved good-bye. He waved at us. Through the darkness, I could read that vague yet obvious frustration. He kept waving at us until we merged with the darkness. I climbed into my car and then we were on the way home. Allison put the CD in. From the stereo, there went the lyric:
“Je voudrais mourir en France…”
“What does that mean? ” I asked, after you finished your French version.
“Here comes the translated version,” you said, as you played the chords.
I would like to die in France
But not exactly right now
I do plan to die in France
But I’m not sure when or how
I’d like to play
And find a way to let me stay
Oh please give me one more chance
To die in France
“You didn’t ask him those questions.” Allison said sleepily. She yawned again.
“Yeah, it’s not very proper. But it’s fine.” I replied.
I wanted to ask you something about death, because I’m afraid of it. But maybe it’s not the time yet, I thought. Maybe those questions are unanswerable after all, I thought.
The stereo was playing other songs from the album. Some of them were about death and heaven, and hell. The rest were about his 75 years of life. After a while, the stereo stopped. I’m glad I asked nothing that night. It’s fine to ask nothing. “Why?” Allison crouched in her seat. She yawned again. Through the rear mirror, I could tell that her eyes were closed. I didn’t reply, she heard nothing, and quickly fell asleep. It was almost 11. I stopped at a red light and kissed her on the cheek. I turned on the stereo again, tuned to his fifth song, and thought about the man who was singing.
I don’t want to die in France
Until I’d have a chance to hear
That evening bell
So I can tell
It’s time to dwell
In the fires of hell
I think I really want to stall
And not to die at all
About the Author: Yunyi Rong is an international student who studies at Wake Forest University. He is originally from Shanghai, China, yet he majors in English Literature and he writes stories in English. Somehow, English, as his second language, allows him to express himself more freely compared to Chinese.