Credit: Sofie Praestgaard

We met over the phone. She tried to scam me. She told me to contact the Nanjing Police Department because I was being investigated for financial crimes on the mainland. I don’t have any finances, I told her, and also I’m Taiwanese. She laughed and switched to Hokkien: in that case, she told me, a package that is being delivered to you is now involved in a criminal investigation. Please call the Nanjing Police Department. She laughed again, and her voice over the phone sounded like it was being siphoned somewhere else at the same time. I loved this about her. I was always in her periphery, even when I was straddling her, my breast in her mouth, her tongue flicking my nipple as dismissively as if she were shutting off a light before leaving. If she were with me now, she would be looking at something behind me, the wall, the broken TV I never got fixed, the one my father used to watch medical shows on, even though I always told him not to watch them because they resulted in self-diagnosis, and once he called me three times in a night claiming to have kidney stones the size of his fists. You abstain from sodium, baba, I told him. You’re holding in your poop for too long again. Just go. Okay, he said, and later called me in the morning to say that I was correct, it was just that he was holding in his poop for too long. He had a fear of toilets, because one time as a child, when he was squatting in a communal concrete outhouse, a hog charged in and nearly severed his balls, and another time when he ran to the outhouse at night, he saw a ghost squatting over the toilet, depositing the knotted scarf of her intestines down the hole. After that, he had a fear of squatting for anything, and refused to use any kind of public bathroom, including one time when he took my sisters and me to Great America for our shared birthday – he believed in communal birthdays – and ate four blue raspberry snow-cones and held it in until finally, when my sisters and I exited the Top Gun-themed roller coaster for the sixth time in a row, we found our father standing behind the public restroom, pee seeping through the seam of his jeans, and we had to walk him back to the parking lot, two of us standing in front of him and two of us holding his hand, guiding him out like we were hired guards.

What kind of crime is my package being investigated for, I asked the scammer on the phone. I didn’t want her to hang up on me, and my credit card number only provided access to my debt, so I figured there was nothing she could subtract from me. The woman paused and hummed, a sound that skimmed the back of my hands, then said, Murder, I guess. Murder? I said. I am being sent something that is involved in a murder? Yes, she replied, but she was laughing. Because I didn’t know how to say it in Mandarin, I told her in English that I thought she was supposed to be a robot. She laughed again, and this time it sounded like it was coming from behind me, a laugh that bejeweled my neck with sweat. No, she said in English, I’m not a robot. But I know how to repeat myself. I told her there wasn’t much she could get out of me, that I worked at the post office sorting mail into P.O. boxes and lived with six roommates, three of whom were related to me, and she laughed again and said she knew. You don’t sound like what I need, she said, and now I wanted to convince her that I was, that I was worth mining, that there was some kind of pleasure I could produce for her. I told her my name was Tina, Na pronounced the Chinese way. She told me we had similar names. My name is Liu Yina, she said. Yina, meaning “to perfect one million things.” While I talked, I looked around the apartment I shared, the sink with its plaque I couldn’t scrape off, the lightbulb in the center of the ceiling we never replaced even after it was shattered, the laid-out mattresses we mummified with plastic. My father always told me that cleanliness was the most important thing. That no matter where I lived, it should look like an oily forehead.

I asked Yina whether her scams ever worked. They’re not my scams, she said. They’re not my ideas. I have better ideas than this.

What kind of ideas, I asked her. The closest I’d ever come to a scam was when my father found out that the Whole Foods two towns over was giving out free Thanksgiving dinner sample platters the second week of November. He said we would go through the line first and snag our samples, and then we would wait for an employee shift and line up again. He even brought costumes along, a pair of dollar-store sunglasses for me, polka-dotted headbands for my sisters, a checkered fleece scarf he’d nicknamed British Man Being Casual. That was the first time my sisters and I ever had turkey, which we all decided was bland, salty in the way of snot, and should be significantly fattened. But it was the excitement of the disguise that returned us to the line all afternoon, the sunglasses that straddled my face and made me feel like I’d outgrown being seen, that I was an invisible deity among all the suckers who paid for dry meat.

I sat down on my mattress, careful not to reveal the sound of crackled plastic, and Yina said that her ideal scam would be a big one. She paused again, and her pauses weren’t like other people’s pauses, where you were still tuned into the static of their breath – her pauses were so clean and abrupt that it was like changing a channel, glitching between stories. Like that one on the mainland, she told me, about the man who impersonated a celebrity and talked online to this grandma and she believed him and gave him 1.9 million dollars. I said, why would a celebrity need money? And she said, that’s the genius of it. He never even needed to ask. She gave over her money thinking it was a gift, thinking he’d never need it. That’s the kind of scammer I want to be. The kind who doesn’t need to ask, because they seem so above need that the very idea of their asking for anything feels impossible. That’s the purest way, Yina said, none of this asking for credit card numbers, asking for bank account numbers, reaching your hand out and wriggling your fingers around. She loved him like a son and cared for him as one. He never had to beg her for anything because she was always convinced. You see? The best scams are like that. They’re circumstantial. You don’t do any work. My mother always said, don’t try to wring out the sky. Go stand somewhere it’s raining. Unzip your mouth.

I told her I’d never heard of that before. I wondered if I should be more disturbed by her admiration for a man who exploited the loneliness of an elderly woman who thought she was loved by someone who mattered, whose face fanned out on a screen, but I only wanted to keep unspooling her voice, to position me somewhere in her sky. To be tricked. Convince me, I told her. Of what? she asked. Of anything, I said, I’m willing. She laughed and said I’d already punctured two of her scams, sullied her scripts. I want to meet you, I said. She said I sounded like law enforcement, and I told her that was the worst thing anyone had ever said to me. There are scammers in my family, too, I said. She made a sound in her throat that meant she didn’t believe me, but I told her it was true. The longest scam, I said to her, longer than any scam you’ve ever pulled. I got married once.

Yina didn’t ask me about it, though I wanted her to, I wanted her to be impressed by me, to comprehend the depth of my disguises, all the wants I’d worn and discarded. But instead she said she’d meet me. She gave me her address, and I was surprised that she’d be willing to meet a stranger in private, even though I’d been the first one to ask. I’m not worried about you, she said. You’re a scammer too.

She lived in an apartment alone, twice the size of the one I shared with my roommates, and the building was located beside a highway. It was a two-hour drive to get there, and I’d passed two landfills and a waste processing center and a swamp that smelled like beef. When Yina answered the door – she lived on the ground floor, which impressed me – I almost told her that my father used to work at that waste processing center, that he used to pluck anything that wouldn’t decompose off a conveyor belt, which was mostly everything. He wore a plastic visor and gloves and a blue full-body suit with silver knees that made him resemble a cartoon astronaut, and he joked that that was where he worked, on an alien planet where no one traversed. In elementary school, a teacher showed our class a picture of the surface of Mars, and I almost called out that I’d seen the surface of that world, that it looked related to the landfill at the city’s brim, an estranged sibling.

But I said nothing, and Yina answered the door in her pajamas, pink plaid with moth-colored lace hemming the cuffs of her pants. Her apartment was colonized by light, lamps in every corner, her single window open, no curtains. There was a futon in the center of the room, rolled out flat, large enough for an entire family. I sleep wide, Yina said, I sleep like a murdered person, you know, all my limbs in different places. She laughed, and I realized that her voice was different in person, that she rattled the words in her mouth like dice before spitting them out, gambling away their meaning, careless with every beginning. She manifested a can of Hong Van and handed it to me. It was room temperature and the can was dented in at the H. I asked if she remembered the old Hong Van commercials on KTSF, where the woman in the white bikini swings over the sea. It was the only time I ever paid attention to what was on TV: when the woman stretched out her teeth-white legs and sang about something so sweet it could sanctify your mouth. Yes, I remember, she said. I used to run a scam on there. What kind of scam, I asked her. A church one, she said, not explaining anymore.

I sipped from the can of Hong Van and sat on the edge of her futon. She said I had very small hands, and I looked down at them. Not really, I said, I just like holding things with two hands. Safer. She laughed and said I was the same in person. You’re so honest, she said, you could have just hung up. But instead you said you had nothing to give me.

I really don’t, I replied, but it was a lie. Already I was moving toward her, reaching down for the back of her knee so that it would bend for me. When I brushed my thumbs against her earlobes, her lips unknit. It’s so easy, she said with her head tilted back, to get people to say yes to me. You just have to sound needy. People respond to need. They can’t help it. It’s worse than gravity. On the futon, I crouched between her legs, steering my tongue up the length of her thigh, licking the seam of her plaid pajama pants. I wondered if somehow this was part of a long scam I didn’t know about, that this is where she’d been trying to navigate me from the beginning. Her neck was pale as pith and I wanted to teethe into it. I believed that she had once been on TV. Outside, the rain was repeating us, saying my words to the pavement: please, please. I shed my shirt and it coiled on her futon like a snake. My father loved to tell stories about disguises, like that one about the woman who scammed a man into marrying her, then accidentally revealed she was a white snake. I think the ending of the story was that he killed her for her deception, but maybe that was just the one my father chose, the warning he wrapped around the real ending, waiting for me to undress it.

Yina fucked me with her fingers. I was on all-fours, my head dangling down, sliding myself onto her. She leaned over me, nipping the back of my neck, petting my shoulders with her other hand, telling me to breathe. There was something diagnostic about the way she touched me, as if she was measuring the depth of me. I expected her to stop and say aha, this is it, I found this inside you, here it is, but I couldn’t imagine the shape of the thing. Later, lying side by side, her hands ornamented with wet, I asked her how she became a scammer, if it was something she enjoyed. She laughed and said that was a very American thing to ask. Whether labor was enjoyable. There’s no such thing, she said. Making money is making money. Right, I said, but you could do something else. You have a choice to do something else.

Something more ethical, I wanted to say. She paused, then asked me what I did. I wondered if she was asking me again to confirm my identity, if this was some sort of security question. I work part-time at the postal office, I said, sorting mail. Yina laughed and said I was an enabler, then, since most of the scams she used to work for were mail-based. Do you ever think about opening someone else’s mail? It was easier, talking to her without looking at her, her hips grazing mine, her lamps laying out our shadows to dry and curl away. No, I said, it’s just a job. Though, I said to her, one time I was sorting this envelope. It was bumpy, unpadded. I didn’t think it was that unusual, I thought maybe it was jewelry, but there was something about the shape inside it that bothered me. I held the envelope up to the light – it was always too bright inside the post office, like we were perpetually getting scanned for something, and I realized, as I was feeling the ridges of the envelope, that it was full of teeth. Teeth? Yina asked. Yes, I said, it was full of teeth. Just teeth. No sheets of paper, no letter, anything like that. It was just an envelope full of teeth.

Yina turned onto her side and looked at me, her teeth tugging my ear. She spoke so close that her words were breath-blurred, inseparable. Sometimes pulling a scam is like that, she said, like pulling teeth. The first scam I ever pulled, I was thirteen. I was in love with this girl whose family made geese.

Do you mean they bred geese? No, Yina said, they made geese. It was fake goosemeat, something synthetic, but they sold it as real and we all ate it. My mother says that’s why my breasts are so small, because I ate fake meat. Anyway, Yina said, I was in love with her because she had long hair all the way down to her knees and she had straight teeth and she was my neighbor. She could also make geese sounds and it made me laugh, even though I hate geese because they bite your ass. But anyway, whenever we went out together she pretended to be a boy. It worked until high school, almost. She had the most beautiful voice I ever heard. It was lower than an earthquake. She could swear like a boy and smoke like one. She’d ask big men for cigarettes and they gave them to her. Because she asked in that voice, the one with the motor, the one that moved light.

Yina laughed. But a scam can’t last forever, she said. It was the last thing Yina said to me before we fell asleep and I went home and I forgot to look closely again at the garbage plant that pulsed between our parts of the city, the place where my father had donated one of his thumbs to the mechanized sorting machine. It shouldn’t matter what goes where, baba had said to me, it all gets buried. Clamped between my knees was a can of Hong Van, frothing and fermented, the jewels of grass jelly thrumming inside.

The next morning, I left for my shift at the Post Office. Twice that week, my father had called me saying that he’d been watching a YouTube video about cysts. What kind of cysts, I asked him, and he said he didn’t really know, he had his eyes closed most of the time, but anywhere inside of you the cysts can nest, like those idiot birds that keep clustering in his walls and that he had to core out every spring. Okay, I said, cysts are dangerous, eat less sodium, and tell me if something bursts. I told him I’d come home soon, but it was harder in person, harder to pretend I believed him. That was something Yina said, that it was easier to scam someone over the phone, to dangle something at a distance, because your face is what makes the mistake. Your face gives it away, she says. Everything you want is welded to it. I’d turned away from her on the futon and asked her what mistake my face was making right that moment. It’s turned away from me, she said, and I laughed, turning back around so that she could tuck her thumb beneath my tongue.

Each time I picked up the phone, I thought it might be Yina dressed in my father’s voice, executing some part of her master scam. But she didn’t call again, and I drove to the post office every morning in my blue uniform, the same shade as my father’s old one. When he first heard that my job was sorting something, he warned me against the sawteeth of machines. It’s sorting mail, not trash, I said, trying to reassure him. It’s sorting things that are wanted. I didn’t realize that that might hurt him, but he never asked about my job again. The post office parking lot was half-empty, and when I walked into the fluorescent back room, the wheeled bins were full to the brim. I stood in front of the PO boxes like a row of cavities and began to fill them, flicking through the mail-tub, my eyes skimming the numbers, the names. My thumb snagged on one of the envelopes, smaller than the standard size, the body of it bulging. It was addressed to me, just my name and the address of the post office below it, no box number, no return address. The handwriting was small and knotted, each letter knocking against the next. I knew it was hers: she wrote the same way she spoke, waiting for me to do the work of unraveling, to tug at each word until it tore. I held the envelope with both hands. It was pebbled, the paper rippled and rained-on. I lifted it to the light, but I already knew what was inside. I recognized her molar mounting my nipple, the graze of her canines against my knuckles. Through the paper, I pressed my thumb against the cliff of a tooth, soliciting blood and sweeping its shadow across the envelope, disguising my name with a stain.

K-Ming Chang

is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. Her short story collection, RESIDENT ALIENS, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at

All contributions from K-Ming Chang

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