The Goldfish Bowl
Supposedly a show of support for medical workers, the banging on pots and pans at exactly 5 pm every day is to scare off the demons. Listen to the hysteria detonating like Chinese firecrackers just beneath the grimness. You can hear it also on the liberal Internet. It has the sadness of dead goldfish floating to the top of the goldfish bowl, or bodies in body bags stacked into refrigerated trucks outside the hospital. Mask up, one health inspector says to another. I can’t breathe, says the Black man locked down by a beast with six knees and hands. I should take to the streets, I say, but what if I catch the virus? I will write instead, in the privacy of 5 am, banging my pot against my pan in this way.
The Zoom Background
The missing person poster was sent to all households in the year of the Great Election. The picture was of my dead father. His face, racked with pain, became the most popular Zoom background, downloaded over a million times around the world. I wrote to the Internet safety bureau every day to ask them to scrub the web clean of the image. I did not wish to share my father with the world. In any case, he was not missing, he was dead. I saw his body pushed into the fire. I dropped his ashes into the sea. Finally, annoyed by my harassment, the Inspector General rained fingers on his keyboard and changed the poster from missing to wanted. The pain on my father’s face then looked sinister. It was downloaded faster than ever, reaching a billion times in China alone.
The Cartoon Tavern
Cheap shots. Surgical strikes. Under the nose of the elevator inspector, I have been drinking too much to make up for missed drinks and dinners with friends, book launches and readings, my 50th birthday celebration. Extraordinary measures for extraordinary times. I have been visiting the cartoon tavern run by Sir Melodias, the Dragon Sin of Wrath, to drink with all the other Sins. I have been associating with a pig called Hawk. I have been hell-bent to revive a dead fairy called Elaine. I have been fighting an incredibly beautiful Holy Knight by the name of Hendrickson, who has grown fantastically powerful by ingesting demon blood. And after beating him down with my Sacred Treasure, I have returned to the tavern and called for another dram of druid fluid.
The Quaker Sunflower
Everyone on the show is paranoid, except for the Quaker, who is plain creepy. I have located her creepiness in her calm. While the detective inspectors are dashing all about Dusseldorf, hunting down clues and connections, she gardens at home, pausing to listen to your woes and dispense wise advice. She is a friend to everyone. Her face is round as a sunflower. She reminds me of a certain civil servant in Singapore, met at a roundtable on arts diplomacy. After flashing his PowerPoint slides at us, he took me aside to say that he did not understand my unfriendliness towards the National Arts Council. Surely it was better for everyone to have their knives chained to the wall, and identified by QR codes? He did not say this, but he could have.
The Harlem Harem
I think I am collecting a harem of birds in Harlem. I am not sure. I must be the most unsure Shah in Persian history. Some days, the birds thrash in the luxurious appointments of my head. Other days, the screechy gulls wheel away, each taking a scrap of me in his beak, and barrel in so many different directions that I despair of ever piecing myself back together, even with the help of the inspector of public hygiene. I used to pass by two elderly Black men in Marcus Garvey Park, who scattered breadcrumbs to the pigeons, and I used to wonder if they were lovers. Then there was only one of them. He said his friend had died, was taken away by the ambulance in the middle of the night. I guessed he was taken away at 3 am, for what else could the middle be. Contact tracing had quarantined their building, but the building was not staying in.
The Beard Video
My friends are growing beards on Instagram as if they are not afraid of being mistaken for Muslims. They post pictures of the different stages of their growth. They even post time-lapse videos as they are working from home. Finally the man whom I have been stalking since we met at my reading in Kinokuniya also gets into the act. When I watch his video while lying in bed, the cotton sheets rattle quietly and pass their thread count into me, as if I am a curtain of hanging beads easily parted. My body becomes indistinguishable from the Alice blue bed sheet. My face is masked efficiently by the pillowslip. To the facial recognition software and the DNA test, I may as well not be there. When my boyfriend reports me missing, how will the building inspector find me? Will he know how to read my phone dropped by my side of the bed?
The Inauguration Poet
According to the regulations, only eight people are allowed in the KTV room. A conspiracy of young foreign women is in attendance. The TV menu presents the following options: a gunman snipes at the President-elect and kills him; a gunman snipes at the President-elect and misses him; the FBI disarms the gunman before he can take up his position on WhatsApp; the gunman is from the FBI. A conspiracy of critics takes down the inauguration poet. They wish to control the narrative. They release a statement that their target is cancel culture, nothing personal. But who is the ninth person in the room? After inspecting his nails, from the left corner he moves to the front, and he sings “Unchained Melody.”
The Mechanical Dog
The mechanical dog does not wish to be mistaken for a real dog. Its long-legged purpose is to scare the citizens of this purpose-built park into wearing their masks. Its eyes, two video cameras, hunt down offenders tirelessly. Its yellow body is always on the go. The citizens are, however, unafraid of the dog. They whisk near to the dog and wish to take selfies with it. Look, the citizens say, if you abide by the law, what do you have to be afraid of? The mechanical dog wags its tail in agreement, activated by the inspector looking through its eyes. In a distant galaxy, called Shannara or Harlem, the salt scattered on the icy sidewalk is slowly eating up the concrete. Munch, munch, what’s for lunch?
The Picnic Mat
When they left, the hospital tents in the park had imprinted neat rectangles of dead grass. A paraphrase of what happened. A Morse message, all dashes, no dots. Horizontal smoke signals. QR code. It also reminded me of the AIDS quilt. Then it was rolled up and put away. The area of possible infection had been fenced off. The strollers and their nannies had been careful to keep their distance. The grass had grown back in a center-left conspiracy. If you again hover in your helicopter, like an angel on a wire in a Christmas pageant or a roof inspector, you will say, behold. The picnickers have returned to their usual spots, with their hampers, books, and dogs, sitting on the black picnic mats.
The Scout Leader
The search in my underwear is unwarranted. I have not had a nocturnal emission since I was fifteen, dreaming that my scout leader was pulling off his shirt and advancing on my vibrating form. Before he could touch me, I was all wet and warm below. But now, whenever I write about the dream, and I am always writing about the dream even when I am not, the beautiful scout leader wears the air of an inspector who has a master’s degree in detecting signs of child abuse. His right hand pulses with an ultraviolet light. His left hand infrared. No matter how hard I write, I cannot change him back. You know him too. The undeniable UFO that blots out sun and rain.
The Body Camera
“You cannot bring the body camera with you to the grave,” says the soil inspector. He dips his finger into the batter and tastes it. It is grainy. We are, after all, in the quarterfinals of the Great British Baking Show, where the judgment will be more severe than ever. We are, after all, in the first year of the pandemic. For the technical challenge, Paul and Mary would like you to bake an anti-terrorism sword. It is a Chinese app and everyone will be required to download it onto their phone. You have two-and-a-half hours. You may remove the gingham covering now. The camera is rolling. The anus remembers.
Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK's Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary in the US. He has published four other books of poems, a volume of essays, and a collection of zuihitsu. His work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, and Latvian. His latest book is a work of hybrid fiction, titled Snow at 5 PM: Translations of an insignificant Japanese poet (Gaudy Boy LLC). Originally from Singapore, he lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound. singaporeunbound.org
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