The wrongness of "Linoleum" is so spare and so pervasive at once, it's delightful in every way a story never should be. In this creepy fluorescent lit space we wait with Zhou—the reader is taught to be patient, a patient. This story is a morgue, and "nobody says anything" in it. The restraint here is marvelous, rare.
Zhou waited. The chairs were blue and a clock hung low on the wall. The air had a clean smell of hot steel and alcohol. It was not a very big morgue. From outside looking in, four glass windows reflected the afternoon sun and it did not seem so bad. More like a hospital where red, ugly babies were born howling and left to shiver on the scales. As if two shingled stories made a bright building. But inside, where Zhou counted time, no officials and no doctors stayed with the relatives. People absorbed their news. Absorbed because nobody said anything. If heads fell to break, a quiet came and swept across the waxy floor.
A uniformed nurse sat at a desk in front of the double doors. When her phone rang, she listened absently and made notes with a pencil. After she hung up, she would stand and call a name—first then last and again. She looked too old to be attractive. A white man coughed and moved his feet. His hair was thin. He put a finger in one ear. The man sniffed his hand then rubbed a pant leg.
"It's cold in here," the man said.
"It is," Zhou said.
"Really cold. I feel like ice in a drink."
"Yes, I see what you mean."
The man touched his forehead. "But, that's what I'd expect. I think that's about right, isn't it?"
"I don't know if it can be too warm. They have to preserve things," Zhou said.
"When did you get called?" the man asked.
"This morning. Four-thirty in the morning."
"It's okay." Zhou stretched his neck. The man watched him. Zhou walked to the water fountain. He took a paper cup and filled it. A wooden placard was nailed beside the cups.
"I'm thirsty," the man said when Zhou sat back down. "I haven't eaten except bread and peanuts. For three days almost, but I'm not hungry."
"You look fine."
The man smiled. "Thank you very much."
"My pleasure," Zhou said
"What time is it?"
"My mouth is dry," the man said. "Is that supposed to happen? I bet you'd know if that was supposed to happen."
"Beer makes your tongue feel thick."
"Do I smell? Do I smell bad like beer?"
"Yes," Zhou said.
"That's all right."
"You just hold your breath for a while."
"I don't care about it too much," Zhou said.
The man's eyes widened. "You were unhappy before. When we were just sitting, I saw your face when I cleaned my ear. You thought it was disgusting." The man shifted in his seat. "The ear itched because of some crust."
"You used your finger."
"How else can I do it?"
"There are cotton swabs."
"I don't want to poke myself. What if I have an accident?" the man said.
"Yes, an accident. If I stick the thing in far and it gets stuck. The ear is soft on the inside. What if I make it bleed? I don't want to be a deaf."
"I wouldn't want to be blind," Zhou said.
"I don't want anything, we should knock on wood." The man turned in his chair. "Where's some wood?"
The man stared at his shoes. He pressed the bottoms against each other. He untied one and removed it. "There's something in my shoe."
"Are you sure?" Zhou said.
"I can feel it when I walk."
"Turn your shoe upside down."
"I will, but the gravel isn't inside. It could be in the sole, between the rubber and the shoe. I'm going to have to check."
"That could be true," the man said. "I can't take my socks off."
"If you need to," Zhou said.
The phone rang and the nurse answered. "This mountain in my shoe, it's really bothering me."
"Take off your socks."
"They're old ones. I'm embarrassed of showing the holes," the man said.
Zhou shook his head. "That's not important."
"I said it's bothering me, you know. You should be helping."
"I'm getting nervous," the man said. "Somebody's pouring needles into my head."
The nurse stood. She went to the door and closed it. A fly flew against the pane. Zhou uncrossed his legs. "She's not a very good nurse," he said.
"Who's that?" the man asked.
"She's a bad nurse."
The man blinked.
"At me? Why?"
"Something is wrong with her."
The two men studied the nurse. She opened a file and lifted a chart. The papers seemed heavy. The writing was small and black. She held her shoulder.
"I told you," Zhou said.
"What do you mean," the man said.
"I think she's gone wrong."
"She's kind of hard."
"Yes. But I can tell. She's angry."
"How? How can you tell?"
"Like her skin has been boiled."
"She's not so terrible," the man said.
"You have to see whole faces," Zhou said. "One eye and then another, and the nose before the mouth."
"Are you telling a joke?"
The man looked away from the nurse. "I want to hear this."
"She has only just gone wrong. Only a little rotten, like a head of whitened garlic."
"Garlic?" the man said.
"The green part."
"You don't," Zhou said.
"The green part is a sprout."
Zhou put a flat palm on the man's shoulder. "I'm a mirror."
"What are you saying?"
"Me and the nurse are getting married today."
"That's the end of the joke," the man said.
"It's the middle."
"Siamese? No, not yet. Tell me later."
Zhou folded his hands. "Is your turn coming?"
"I think so. That call was for me because I was here first. We heard the phone ringing. The doctor already called to say it was time," the man said.
"Nobody said your name."
"They're ready now. I want to warm myself up."
"That's nice," Zhou said.
"I'm a good guy," the man said. "I'm a good one."
"Wesley Garud," the nurse said.
"Can you keep talking?"
Zhou sat. He took a magazine from the table next to him and read. A woman in Canada, who lived with her sister and a bird near Montreal, woke up one morning, scrambled hash on the stove, and then found out she couldn't dress herself anymore. She had taken off her paisley robe and tried to put on pants, but her arms didn't tighten and the waistband remained unhitched. After she took a hard knee to the carpet, she crawled forward five inches, looked back and saw her legs splayed rigid like they belonged to someone else. A dress proved to be no more accommodating, so the woman lay like a fetus on her bed until the sister walked in. "Oh," Zhou said. The woman told the magazine she wanted her arms and legs amputated. She planned to put socks and gloves on before freezing all four pieces in an ice locker.
Zhou looked out the window. He saw an ash tree and a Cutlass. Foliage filled the branches patch by patch, making the ash canopy ragged like raw fur. Zhou rubbed his hands twice. The car was tan and a paper lay folded on the windshield. He turned toward the nurse. "Is there somewhere to eat?"
"What do you want?"
"I'm a little hungry," Zhou said.
"I know what you meant. There's nowhere in this building," the nurse said.
"What do you want?"
"There's a grocery two blocks away."
"What kind of food?"
"They have sandwiches and salads, if you want a salad. Coffee gets brewed."
"I'd like my meal to be tasty."
"What about common," the nurse said.
"What is that?"
"That's a bad name," Zhou said.
"It's called A.G.'s," the nurse said. "Alfred George's."
"Alfred George sounds like a strong man."
"You don't like Alfred George?"
"I didn't say that."
"Do you like Alfred George?"
"I'm queen of the Georges."
"There you go," the nurse said.
"Hail to you."
"Bend on your knees."
"I can't worship from low ground."
"Don't pray here," the nurse said.
"I can sing," Zhou said.
The store was cheap and empty. Zhou stood in front of the deli. The cheeses had paled, and the rinds sweated. A grease smear ran along the case. He ordered egg salad on a French roll. After paying four sixty-eight, he asked for a brown bag and some black pepper. Zhou unwrapped his sandwich on the cashier's counter. He removed the top slice of bread and emptied two packets of pepper grains. "Thank you," he said.
Zhou drove for fifteen minutes. He stopped in front of a school. The classrooms were laid out like pegs. Zhou took the keys and stepped out. He left his car in the shade. He walked across the blacktop over to where the ground met grass. The field had yellowed. Three teenage girls kneeled together. A prettier one noticed Zhou as he approached. He squinted. The pretty girl spoke to a friend on her left and pointed at Zhou. Their lips moved. He put up his right hand. The second girl stood. She came forward. Zhou stopped walking.
"Hi, Jia," Zhou said.
"Are you busy?"
"I have some lunch," he said.
"In the car."
"You came here to see me?"
"Yes. I parked close by," Zhou said.
"I'm at school."
"I'm not pleased," Jia said. "I'm not pleased you're here."
"I brought you food."
"Are you lost?"
"Come on." Zhou turned his back.
They went to the car. Zhou gave Jia the bag from A.G.'s. "Here," Zhou said. "Eat this." A triangle of glare lit up the hood. Zhou turned on the radio. They listened while a commercial played. "Can I tell you what I want, Jia?"
"Let's play a game," Zhou said.
"I feel like a body of tar paper. What game?"
"I can give you my shirts to wear. They'll be long dresses."
"Any kind of print."
"We'll shave together," Jia said.
"Yes. I want you to grow a beard."
"A full one?"
"I want you to have hairy cheeks," Zhou said. "Where will we work?"
"At a library."
"I'm the boss or you?"
"Me. What color pens?"
"Royal blue ink," Zhou said.
"The membership cards will be passports." Jia put the sandwich wrappings on the floor. "All of those stamps."
"Are we taking an airplane?"
"I think a boat."
Zhou held his elbows. "We can play again."
"We don't live there."
"You're eight years old."
"I'm a woman."
"Jia, you're iron. I'm an old man all the time. Your old man."
"I'm not so weak."
"Do you feel sad for me?"
"You might catch my rash," Jia said.
"Are you itching?"
"My eyes rotted."
"The jelly or the iris?"
"My pupils split open."
Zhou peered into the glass. "Mine are not moving. The pair should get smaller in the day."
"Wait for a pin size," Jia said. "You're catching the rash."
"Can you see a fractal, Jia? Watch the fresh snow fall."
"I can see my eyelid veins."
"Who needs lids," Zhou said.
"My mother's dead."
"She is hanging still. She's hanging up to dry."
"Why aren't you at home? Go home. All right? Take the laundry out."
"She's not starched," Zhou said.
"I'm scared of the bugs. The larvae pulse."
"They're only dancing."
"The blow flies hum," Jia said. "Those flies hum like family in the walls."
"Close your ears."
"She swings sometimes in your shower and I'm confused."
"She's not coming down."
Wesley Garud had returned to the waiting room. "Hello again."
"I'm tired," Zhou said.
"Your armpits are wet."
Wesley crossed his arms. "I have stains."
"They're large stains," Zhou said.
"Glands hold a lot of water."
"Do you wear deodorant?"
"Those sticks feel dusty when I rub." Wesley palmed his underarm. "The grit sticks in my hair."
"You're using too much. Rub more gently."
"The armpit is sensitive, isn't it?"
"How come you don't have stains?"
"My legs sweat more," Zhou said.
"I should exercise," Wesley said.
Zhou nodded. "I like to row on ergometers at the gym."
"The ergs. You sit on a sliding bench." Zhou curled his legs in the chair. "Then you push back and forward. You hold a wooden bar on a chain. You pull that also."
"I hate sore muscles."
"You might not have soreness."
"I'm kind of fat," Wesley said.
"What should I do?"
"Don't be so fat," Zhou said.
"I weigh two-hundred pounds."
"Two-hundred and five pounds."
"Are you pregnant?"
"Are you with child?"
"Hey," Wesley said. "What are you doing?"
"Your weight can carry three sucking babies."
"I'm not a lady."
"You have breasts," Zhou said.
"Leave me alone."
"Will you want drugs or will you birth your babies natural?"
"I want the drugs," Wesley said.
"You might get mutants. Two hunchback girls without spines and a boy with no penis."
"I'll still love them."
Zhou looked at the nurse. "I have to go in now."
"Goodbye," Zhou said.
The examination room stretched several feet longer than its width. Roundhead screws held a metal table against the tiles. A deep-basined sink stood at the foot. Old surgical hose connected the spigot to a canister underneath. Zhou counted twelve handled doors on the far wall. He saw a skull scalpel and rib cutters in a tableside tray. A fan aerated chemicals. The coroner entered. "The body has been arranged," he said.
"In this room?"
The coroner turned on a light. "On the slab and under that sheet."
"I want to choose," Zhou said.
"What is your preference, Mr. Zhou?"
"Don't worry," the coroner said.
"I might be worried."
"That's all right."
"Who is Wesley?"
"The other man."
"The man came for his wife."
"Does he miss her?"
"I think so," the coroner said.
"I paid the nurse."
"Did she give you any trouble?"
"She won't talk," the coroner said.
"What happens to us?" Zhou asked.
"We're a breed," the coroner said. "Are you ready now?"
"You may have a shock."
"I don't want a surprise," Zhou said.
"A small kind of shock."
"I might really be worried."
The coroner lifted the sheet. "Rigor mortis has passed. We'll take care of you."
"You say the body will not stiffen."
"There's no life."
"I'm going to let you stay in here. Have a moment."
"Will you come back?"
"Can I open the drawers?"
"I'd like to open a drawer."
"Calm down," the coroner said.
"Am I going to be fine?"
"You are fine."
"How will I feel?"
"It's a simple thing."