by Jill Charles
The Riverview Court at First and Howard was as cold as a cave, even in summer. The gray apartment building stretched 17 stories up, like a gray caterpillar stretching itself to look at the Spokane River. It was a tall building for downtown Spokane, with balconies and silent dishwashers and Olympic-sized bathtubs. Doris Mullan should have had no trouble renting every one of the apartments, but in her sixteen years as manager of the Riverview Court, the building had never been full. Tenants shuffled in and out like unlucky cards, though they were all well-behaved working people, easily able to afford and enjoy all the building's modern luxuries and its downtown convenience. Most did not give a reason for vacating; they did not need to tell Doris what she already knew.
"Maybe it's just bad feng shui," said her boyfriend Floyd, a sensible old Greyhound bus driver.
"If you only knew," said Doris, puffing on her cigarette and leaning on her paper-covered desk.
Many times she had tried to tell Floyd what she had heard and seen inside the building. He not only refused to believe her; he argued with her so much that she gave up confiding in him about the building's troubles. He would blame faulty wiring for flickering lights and fire alarms that went off by themselves. He would blame the pipes for a dripping sound that could never be located, knocks and taps on the walls and footsteps up and down the stairs. Floyd would claim that mysterious puffs of smoke and scents of incense and spent fireworks lingered because of an old carpet.
Doris had replaced the carpet three times, had the whole building rewired and updated the plumbing herself. The entire building had been remodeled twice since it was built in 1976. There was nothing old or faulty left in it, nothing but the ground underneath.
The Riverview Court and the two blocks around it had once been Spokane's Chinatown, home to over 500 Chinese immigrants. A century ago those streets held shops, gardens, laundries, restaurants, gambling halls and opium dens. The white police let Chinatown take care of itself; they were afraid to do otherwise. The Chinese workers depended on Tongs, as workers' unions and protection from criminals. Rivalry between the Tongs was fierce and those who crossed them met with gunshots and hatchets from skilled assassins.
Doris knew the history of the place. She heard crying in empty rooms or Cantonese whispers or songs played on a bone flute or a one-stringed fiddle. She was not surprised to see a Chinese man in a blue jacket and dusty pants, dashing up the back stairs, his black pigtail swinging behind him. He carried a small sharp hatchet in his right hand. On the third floor landing, he disappeared. Tenants would not venture down to the basement storage rooms at night; they begged Doris to go for them.
"I lost my keys," they would say, or "I can't see in the dark. Just bring me that one red box, Doris. Please, I'll never ask you another favor."
Only one old lady admitted the truth.
"There's a girl down there. If you go down alone, you can hear her singing. When it's dark, she'll creep up behind you and grab your sleeve. She has tears in her eyes and wears a lavender silk dress, with sleeves over her hands and a skirt down over her feet. I was so scared, I ran to the elevator, but when I looked back she was gone."
Doris had seen this ghost too, hobbling along on bound feet and weeping bitterly in the chilly cellar air. She would rattle the chicken wire doors of the storage units, like a caged animal. After one glimpse of the singing girl, Doris agreed to accompany anyone to the basement anytime, no questions asked, but staunchly refused to go down there alone.
The worst ghost of all was in Apartment 316. He inhabited the closet in the hall. Every time Doris went into 316, that closet door would be slightly open, never completely open or shut. Doris locked and bolted the door closed every time she left and no one else had keys to 316. It sat vacant for weeks, but each time she entered the closet door had opened slightly, like the eye of a snake awakening.
Apartment 316, like all of Riverview Court, had an unusual chill in all seasons, but the walk-in closet was like a grocery store freezer. If you stood inside it, you could see your breath. No one who saw this would rent the apartment and the few who signed leases for 316 left within days, with no explanation.
Once, foolishly, Dora had tried to seal the closet up and build a false wall in front of it. She paid two contractors, only to walk into 316 the next morning to find the paint chipped away and the dry wall torn apart, as if it had been clawed open from the inside of the closet. After spending hundreds of dollars trying to seal the closet, Doris became enraged. She now hated this ghost more than she feared it and decided to brick up the closet herself and install a gas fireplace. The bricks fell over, again and again. The mortar spilled and quick dried on the floor. The bricks were uneven, as if they were being pushed out toward Doris as she shoved them into place.
She could hear breathing inside the closet. As she laid the bricks, the breaths grew louder and harsher, panting, then whispering curses. When Doris put the last brick in place, a low, desperate scream rang out. The bricks toppled all at once and the closet door swung wide open. The ghost was loud, solid and angry. Every black hair in his long queue was visible, every brown thread of his clothing, the dirt under his fingernails and the fear and terror in his eyes. His words echoed off the walls, although the neighbors would later say that they had heard nothing. As frightened as she was, Doris realized that the young man's eyes were not focused on her, but on some unseen enemy. Terrified, Doris back out of the room and fled, locking 316's door from the outside. She wished she could understand the spirit's words, to know what terrible fate had befallen the young man one hundred years before.
Wong Chao had hoped that Spokane would be different. He had been in America for two years now, laying tracks for the Union Pacific Railroad. He was tired of bunkhouses and mess halls. He longed for his own home, no matter how small, with a little garden in the back with pink peonies, curling pea tendrils and a peach tree with blossoms like white lace. All Chao wanted was a cool place to sit at the end of a long hard day of work, a place to drink tea and read poetry.
Wong Chao and Wong Ling had been married for two years before he set off for the Golden Mountain. They a daughter named Min, and a son named Yang. Ling had begged Chao not to leave her and the children.
"Please, go to the city. Go to Shanghai. Go anywhere in China, but don't cross the ocean to a foreign land we know nothing about. I don't want to leave here. I couldn't live without my mother and sisters and your family."
Ling had pleaded with him, but they both knew that Chao was a fourth son and his father's farm had never been prosperous. Ling's family had no property or business interests either. Wong Chao was young and adventurous. He wanted to give his children a better life than he had and was crazy enough to go around the world to do it. America had laws preventing women and children from emigrating from China, but Chao had heard of smugglers and merchants who would break these rules. Already many American cities had whole neighborhoods of respectable Chinese people with good jobs.
In Spokane, Wong Chao had found employment and a home with the help of the Lee Tong. Now he worked in the gardens of several wealthy white families and had his own apartment with an iron stove and cold-water sink. He had to swear loyalty until death to the Lee Tong and even change his name to Wong Lee Chao. He told himself this was a small price to pay to finally have work he enjoyed and a comfortable (if small) home of his own. As soon as he saved enough money and made the right connections, Chao could bring Ling, Min and Yang to live here. He set their photograph on a shelf and laid flowers beside it, speaking to his family as if they were already with him.
From the northeast corner of the third floor, he could see merchants selling cabbages and tin pots, smell oolong tea and roast duck and hear hundreds of voices talking and laughing in Cantonese and Mandarin. Yet his heart was lonely.
Wong Lee Chao sent most of his earnings home to Ling and the children and to his father and mother. He had made discreet inquiries to Tong members about the cost of bringing women and children from China. Even if he could work six days a week, twelve hours a day and save half his wages, it would take him an entire year to save enough to bring Ling to America. To save enough to bring her and Min and Yang (who were much too young to travel alone) would take two, or more likely, three years.
Wong Lee Chao sent money and letters to China with help from a wealthy merchant named Hop Sing. Whenever Wong Lee Chao saw Sing's workers unloading a horse carriage in front of the shop, he would rush inside to ask Hop Sing if a letter had arrived from his parents and Ling. Hop Sing chuckled at the young husband's impatience, tucking his hands into the pockets of his black suit jacket.
One afternoon, Hop Sing invited Wong Lee Chao into his office. He asked Chao all about his family, about the Lee Tong and its benefits and how soon Chao hoped to bring his family to America.
"How did you know I wanted to bring them here?" asked Wong Lee Chao.
"I guessed it from your eagerness for the letters," said Hop Sing. "Smuggling women is more common than you would think. How long will it take you to raise the money?"
"I will have the money saved in two years," said Wong Lee Chao.
"Two years!" Hop Sing looked shocked and disappointed. "But you have already been in America for two years."
Wong Lee Chao looked down, ashamed.
"Do not feel embarrassed, Wong Lee Chao. You have worked hard and you are an honest man. That is why I want to make you an offer. What you need is a loan of a thousand dollars. With that money, you could bring Wong Ling and your children to America now. They could be here in less than a month."
"But I could never pay back a loan of a thousand dollars! It would take more than ten years!"
"Think big," said Hop Sing. "You will not be a gardener all your life. You could work as a clerk in my shop and make twice as much money as the Lee Tong pays you. When Wong Ling comes to America, she can take in washing and sewing and help you earn more money. White ladies will pay huge amounts for real Chinese embroidery. I would give you all the time you need to pay back the loan, if you would only work for me."
Wong Lee Chao pondered the proposal.
"It is a generous offer, Hop Sing," he said. "But I have sworn allegiance to the Lee Tong. I know what happens to those who cross them."
They both fell silent. A few days before a man had been found dead in an alley with a hatchet wound in the back of his head. He had failed to pay a debt to the Lee Tong.
"I understand your hesitation," said Hop Sing. "You are a prudent man. I am willing to give you a loan anyway, even if you never work for me. I will give you all the time you need to pay it back. Please consider what I have said."
Wong Lee Chao considered this for three days and decided to borrow the thousand dollars from Hop Sing. They signed a contract and Wong Lee Chao knew he could make the monthly payments. Hop Sing would send money to his agents who would transport Ling and the children on a steamship as soon as possible.
Wong Lee Chao wrote to Wong Ling the day he signed the contract. He told her how much he missed her and Min and Yang and how they could save their money for a house and send their children to Chinese school as well as American school.
A month went by and Ling did not receive the money. Wong Lee Chao had already begun to pay Hop Sing. The merchant insisted that the shipment was late. Then another month passed and Wong Lee Chao became suspicious.
"I cannot pay you this month," he insisted. "Not unless I know Wong Ling has received the money you promised. I will pay you double next month."
Hop Sing's face went red.
"Have you lost faith in me? How dare you insult me? If you break your contract, I will appeal to the Sing Tong. The Lee Tong will not protect you; they will be angry that you took a loan from me."
"I know that you did not send the money on the day that we signed our contract," said Wong Lee Chao. "I sent Ling a letter on that same day and she received it two weeks ago. I will not pay you another cent!"
Wong Lee Chao stormed out of Hop Sing's store, knocking over a bolt of white silk. Hop Sing stood in the doorway cursing him.
"You devil! You will never live to betray the Sing Tong!"
Everyone in the street stared at Wong Lee Chao and whispered.
"What were his dealings with the Sing Tong? He belongs to the Lee Tong!"
"He owes money to Hop Sing."
"Everyone owes money to Hop Sing."
"Wong Lee Chao must owe him a fortune. The Lee Tong will be displeased."
Wong Lee Chao went to the heads of the Lee Tong for help. He found the Lee brothers playing Fan Tan in a gambling hall. When they saw him approaching, they set down their wine glasses and stepped away from the table. Someone silenced the singing girl in her lavender dress and ordered her back down to the cellar. The Lee brothers turned their backs on Wong Lee Chao as he pleaded for their help. The Lees looked like shadows in their top hats and black frock coats. The gambling hall owner, a Lee Tong man, pushed Wong Chao toward the door.
"We know that you borrowed money from a Sing and you are giving him Lee money now. You have betrayed your Tong and no one will protect you any longer. Your contract is over. If you show your face here again, we will send the hatchet men for you. Your landlord is a Lee and he will unlock your door for us at any time!"
The owner flung Wong Chao out the front door and he tripped down the front steps. As he hurried home, he thought he saw two men following him. Chao wove his way through a vegetable garden and the market until he felt sure he had lost them. He entered his apartment building by the alley door and climbed up the back stairs. Inside his apartment, he braced a chair in front of the door.
Wong Chao began to pack a carpetbag with a few tools and dishes. He picked up the photograph of his family.
"I will be home soon," he promised them. "I will go back to China. I can hop a train to Seattle and find a ship going east. I will come back to you, even if I have to stow away. I will come home to you, Ling."
Then his bedroom door swung open from the inside. Six hands dragged Wong Chao into the narrow room. He screamed, punched and kicked as the Sing men pinned him down on his bed. A man in dusty blue garments raised the hatchet over Chao's head.
The last word Wong Chao spoke was "Ling!"
Wong Ling wrote many letters but received no answers from Hop Sing or the Lee Tong. The letter from Hop Sing said that Wong Chao had left town with a singing girl, abandoning his family. The Lee Tong insisted that no one named Wong Chao had ever lived in Spokane. Ling knew he had owed money to the wrong people and been murdered. Her greatest sorrow was that the Lee Tong had broken their final promise, to transport the bones of any Lee member back to China for proper burial. Far away from his family, Wong Chao's spirit could not rest.
Doris Mullan sat in her office, shaking her head over the rent roll. Six of her tenants had left this month and despite all her advertising, no one had come to look at the vacant apartments. The owner of Riverview Court had threatened her with forced retirement. After sixteen years of hard work, she could now lose her job and her home. How could she put forth all this effort just to wind up as a bag lady? Maybe Floyd hadn't been joking the other night when he asked her to marry him.
The voice was soft and slightly accented, polite but so unexpected that it startled Doris. She dropped her pen and looked up from her desk.
For a split second the young Asian man looked familiar, but she couldn't remember where she had seen his face before. He was tall and lean, with silver-rimmed glasses, a green sweater and jeans. He carried a suitcase with wheels and a huge backpack.
"Good afternoon," he said. "My name is Lo Wong. I am a chemistry student at Gonzaga University. I am looking for an apartment and I saw your sign."
His English was flawless; he had obviously studied it for years. Doris trusted the young man instinctively; she felt calmer as soon as she saw him. She stood up and shook his hand.
"I'm pleased to meet you," she said. "My name is Doris Mullan. I have six, no, five apartments vacant now. Were you looking for a one bedroom or a two bedroom?"
"A one bedroom," he said. "I would like a view of the Spokane River. It's very beautiful."
"I'll show you my one bedrooms," she said, leading him down the hall.
Doris felt nervous as they boarded the elevator. She decided to show him 1009, 816 and 708, but not 316. Mr. Wong was a good potential tenant and she would not risk scaring him off.
"These apartments are very nice," he said. "But do you have any with a view of the river?"
"I'm afraid not," she lied.
On their way down, the elevator stopped on the third floor. The doors opened but no one was waiting there.
"Crazy elevator," Doris muttered, pressing the first floor button.
"Is that apartment empty?" asked Lo Wong.
The door to 316 was wide open!
"It's still being repaired," said Doris. "The last tenants were very bad and they messed it up. There's a terrible smell."
Lo Wong had already entered 316 and she hurried after him, dreading what they would find there. Lo Wong examined the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom and the bathroom, sniffing as he went. He looked out the windows in the northeast corner, watching the ponderosa pine trees swaying above the rushing Spokane River.
"It's a very nice apartment," he said. "It even smells like pine trees."
Doris glanced at the wicked closet door, ajar as always. Lo Wong opened it and she almost reached out to stop him. He walked inside, smiling.
"It's almost as big as my bedroom at home!" he said.
Doris dared not enter the closet, but she noticed that no cold draft of air came from it. When Lo Wong shut the closet door behind him, it stayed shut.
"I really want to stay here," said Lo Wong.
"Are you sure?" asked Doris. "I mean, the other apartments have more storage space."
"Please. I will be a good renter. I am quiet and I don't drink. I have a letter from the chemistry department and one from my parents. I am paid each month for my work in the lab and my parents will help me with rent. I have references from three professors too. See?"
Doris examined the letters.
"Yes, I am sure you will be a fine tenant. When were you hoping to move in?"
"Today, if possible. I've been staying on my friend's couch."
She sighed. "Let's sign a one month lease. If you don't like the apartment, you can move out at any time."
"But I do like the apartment."
They signed the lease in her office and Lo Wong waved as he got into the elevator. Doris prayed that nothing bad would happen to him. Such a nice young man, she thought.
As the sun set over Spokane, Lo Wong looked east. He thought of his mother and father and of his hopes for the future. He did not know yet whether he would return to China or try to immigrate to America. He felt homesick, but hopeful too. Lo remembered his grandfather telling him about his own grandfather, Wong Chao. Wong Chao had gone to work for the railroad in Washington State, but had been murdered before he could bring his family to America.
"They think he owed somebody money," said Lo's grandfather. "It was the Old West, very lawless, just like you see in the movies."
Lo Wong was the first member of his family to come to America in 100 years. He thought of Wong Chao with compassion and love. He even had an old framed photograph of Wong Chao that had belonged to his great great grandmother Wong Ling. Wong Chao looked ancient with his homespun round-collared shirt, his hair in a long queue. His round handsome face was optimistic, much like Lo Wong's young face, without the glasses.
"You were no older than me," said Lo Wong. "I can't imagine how difficult it was for you."
Lo Wong found an incense burner in his backpack. He placed his ancestor's picture on a shelf on the wall and lit a stick of incense. Lo prayed for his family, his parents and grandparents, his ancestors like Wong Ling and Wong Chao. He prayed for everyone separated from the family they loved, by miles, by years, by death. As Lo Wong prayed, the closet door opened and a breeze rustled the blinds over the open window.
Wong Chao was opening a gate into his own garden. Wong Ling sat under a blooming peach tree with a book of poetry in her hands. Min and Yang were picking peas. Ling stood up and Chao ran to her.
She put her arms around him and said, "Welcome home, husband," as if he had only been gone for a day. Min and Yang hugged their father and smiled up at him.
After Lo Wong moved in, everyone noticed a change in the building. There were no more strange footsteps or chilly corners, no sad songs in empty rooms. Lo Wong would pass Doris' office every morning and wave to her without a fear in the world.
Publication date: 12/25/03