A beaded curtain made a pleasant muted clicking, like raindrops on dry leaves, as I entered. Despite an intense concentration of cigarette smoke, the air smelled surprisingly fresh, freshened perhaps by the leafy bamboo plants scattered around the large dark room in squat red clay pots. Small-combo jazz issued from a jukebox, the record crackling and popping as if to remind the listener that such music came from far in the past. Men and women in formal wear — no bowling shirts here — lined the bar two and three deep, buzzing quietly and sipping peculiar tinted drinks from tall glasses. I fancied that I caught a hint of orange blossom water.
No sooner did I appear when the bartender, over a game of chess with a customer, pointed to a still darker, still smokier corner of the room.
“Ruan Lingyu?” I said, voicing my unspoken question.
try the Danish Gambit on me?” the bartender’s elderly
“Chess isn’t played with words.” The bartender caught my eyes and pointed again toward the corner.
A ring of men in slicked-back black hair, tuxedos and cummerbunds stood off at a polite distance around a pinball machine, where, as I discovered, a woman was tapping and slapping the machine, sending the ball unerringly wherever she pleased.
She wore the same dark glasses, and I noticed now that the rims were not plastic but smooth carved black horn, the lenses not glass but smoke-colored crystal shot through with veins of darker smoke. When she stopped the action by cradling the ball behind a flipper —she did it often and at will — the nearest of her young admirers put to her lips a long ivory cigarette holder in which burned an odorless cigarette. Pastel versions of the pinball machine’s lurid colored lights reflected back from her pale face. The vertical rear panel of the machine bore a cartoonish likeness of the same woman who now played — I speak, of course, of Ruan Lingyu — recumbent on a blue divan, her head thrown back, her skin Yellow-Peril yellow, her parted lips the same bright red as the cheongsam that was slit to her hip. The name of the machine was emblazoned across the glass in bamboo lettering: IMMORAL WOMAN.
Ruan exhaled a thin plume of smoke and a light from the machine struck it violet, then lavender as the smoke dispersed. With her back still to me, she said, “You’ve come.”
She turned around. The young men swiveled to regard me with civilized envy, like a firing squad training their rifles on a common target. Ruan Lingyu smiled slightly. “Would you like to play?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then I will lose on purpose.” Her circle of admirers let out a soft moan. Ruan Lingyu allowed the ball to drop between the flippers, and said, “It is hard for me to lose at ‘Immoral Woman.’ Go ahead,” she told me, stepping to the side and reclaiming her ivory cigarette holder, “play the game.”
I put a quarter into the machine, and nothing happened.
Ruan laughed softly. “It doesn’t take American money.”
“What does it take?”
“Drachmas,” she said.
Reluctantly, I dropped my ancient coin into the slot. The machine lit up and blared a tinny electronic version of a Chinese folk song, and all of the counters rolled back to zero.
“You have three balls,” said Ruan.
The flipper buttons were warm from her touch. I released the firing pin: the first ball sailed in a lazy arc up through the center of the machine and down between the flippers without having hit anything in the meantime. I got ten points for having lost the ball; I needed 3,333,323 for a replay.