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Authors: Huang Fan

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Zero and Other Fictions (3 page)

BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
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“Thank you, thank you,
.” The Japanese would bow at the waist until their heads nearly touched the ground.
“Let's go and say ‘thank you' and see if he recognizes us.”
Lai Suo thought about it for a moment.
“No, that's not nice.”
Lai Suo thought some more.
But something prevented him from thinking and forced him back five, ten, twenty years.…
“Is there something wrong with the machine, Mr. Lai?”
“Is there something wrong with the machine, Mr. Lai?” asked the factory worker again.
“What did you say? Oh, the pressure seems a bit high.”
“There are too many impurities this time making it difficult to filter. Listen to the motor.”
It was not just the motor. The sounds of the mixer, pump, and steam valve all converged into a mighty torrent of noise.
Lai Suo pricked up his ears and listened.
He seemed to hear a number of other sounds. His two maple-leaf ears were completely exposed to the continuous noise on the street—buses, trucks, cabs, motorcycles, as well as the occasional siren of an ambulance as it rushed by. All of these sounds knocked on Lai Suo's eardrums as if they wanted to penetrate even deeper, but were stopped in the middle by something—it was like an acoustic tile on which was inscribed: L
, T
, J
At the time, he was riding home on the bus. The driver treated his bus like a toy and had the radio on at full volume. The speaker was right above his head. Lai Suo was curled up on the green plastic seat when a large, middle-aged woman sat down next to him. She was fierce looking, her two breasts cascaded down, and she smelled of cheap perfume. His wife used Max Factor, which he could recognize immediately. On the back of the seat in front of him, someone had scrawled several words with an eyebrow pencil: “Lonely? Call Li Meihua at 871–3042.” Lai Suo smiled to himself.
The bus stopped in front of the city office building. Lai Suo sat gazing as the receding scenery came to a halt. Several seconds later, the scenery once again began to recede. The pedestrians, gray trees, dirty houses, and long billboards all seemed as if they were being swallowed in an incomparably large mouth. As the bus crossed an overpass, Lai Suo shut his eyes for a while. When he opened them again, he was standing in the reception room of
Pan-Asia Magazine
in front of a full-length mirror. A small guy with a bland look on his face appeared in the mirror. The door opened suddenly and an office worker poked his head in.
“Mr. Han would like you to go to the meeting room.”
“What for? I'm here to pick up my pay and then leave.”
“He wants you to go, so you'd better go.”
“It was agreed that I was to pick up my money each day.”
“Stop with the nonsense.”
He didn't recognize anyone except Mr. Han and the office worker who led him in. Mr. Han smiled when he saw him. He quickly lowered his head and shamefully looked at the dirty soles of his feet. Stepping on the clean
mats, the office worker shook his head with loathing and said, “It's okay, step up.”
“Lai Suo!” Mr. Han stepped over and clapped him on the shoulder. “This is Mr. Chen and Mr. Lin. Have a seat. And this is Mr. Huang.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Four months.”
“What did you do before you came here?”
“I sold fruit by the Danshui River.”
“Why aren't you still selling?” said Mr. Han as he turned to the gentlemen sitting cross-legged on the
mats. “All business is doing badly.”
“I wasn't any good at it,” replied Lai Suo. “I sometimes gave incorrect change and my voice isn't very good.”
“Okay. You went to school, right? How would you like to be a regular office worker?”
The gentlemen looked up and eyed him. One whispered to another, “A simple, honest fellow.”
Lai Suo heard him.
A simple, honest fellow. What does that mean?
On the bus thirty years later, Lai Suo listened attentively to the voices. The bus passed down a stretch of road where water pipe was being laid. Sawhorses, concrete water pipes, and excavators were piled on both sides of the road. He didn't know how many times altogether the city had dug up and repaired the road around the municipal building. But that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Besides, everyone ought to have something to do, something at least to keep himself busy. The woman with the big breasts was yanking fiercely on the bell cord, her bottom half pressing heavily on his shoulder. Lai Suo couldn't help but throw her an angry look. The bell rang for quite a while before the woman finally sat down. A shadow passed in front of Lai Suo. He quickly turned to look out the window; the bus was now proceeding along a smooth, gray, monotonous highway. The scenery outside continued to recede into that large and fierce-looking maw. Lai Suo persisted with his deep, unending meditations.
“What does a regular office worker do?” he heard himself ask in his heart.
“The work is lighter and you take home an additional 100
a month.”
“Why?” he asked himself again.
“Take a look at this,” said Mr. Han, handing him a thin sheaf of papers. “Sign your name at the bottom, and bring your seal tomorrow and affix it.”
Lai Suo read the first few lines.
“I vow to join the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Alliance under the leadership of Mr. Han Zhiyuan and to do my utmost for my fellow Taiwanese.… If I violate this oath, may Heaven have no mercy.”
Lai Suo kept on asking himself until he was exhausted. He got off the bus and started toward home. On the way, he stopped at a bakery where he purchased a large bag of peanuts and three lollipops. He could eat the peanuts on the balcony that night, and there was one lollipop for each of the kids. This one was chocolate, according to the clerk, and this one was cream, and this one was lemon. These are five-spice peanuts. What else do you want, Sir? Nothing, nothing else. But what about Lai Suo's wife? She didn't seem to need anything. She had everything and nothing. Sometimes Lai Suo was confused. How could anyone have a wife like his, with her energy, who always seemed on the verge of exploding, and who would hose down everything at any moment? She insisted that everyone in the family put on clean clothes each day. She patiently went through their pockets. “There's no end to the dirty things,” she said. “If I'm not careful, I might pull out a rat one day.” As she finished speaking, she tossed Lai Suo's hankie into the washing machine. Her aim was good—socks, ties, towels, and the little yellow school caps worn by the kids. Lai Suo shook his head, and as he stepped on the wet floor, he slid into the living room.
Although his wife was that way, thought Lai Suo, at least he could stand it, even including what happened in the deep of night; he could take it all.
When he was half asleep, she would roll over on him without any prior warning and press him under her corpulent body. Lai Suo would use every ounce of strength to free himself from the nightmare. He struggled, crowing strangely.
“Ah Suo, I rolled over on you again,” his wife said, deeply apologetic.
“That's okay,” was how Lai Suo, who had been married only a matter of months, replied.
“Did I hurt you?”
“A little,” he replied. “I have a bad dream every time.”
“What dream?”
“It's very weird.”
At that time, Lai Suo was standing on the floor of his prison cell, facing the wall and crying. Cold, dim rays of sunlight entered his cell through the small window above his head, falling on the soles of Fatso Du's swinging bare feet. Du frequently scratched his toes while narrowing his eyes to fix his gaze on the weeping Lai Suo. Lai Suo had just received news of his mother's death. She had visited him once a month in prison, bringing him things to eat and leaving with tear-swollen eyes. Lai Suo heard the news from the other side of the mesh in the prison visiting room. He couldn't help but howl. Clenching his fists, he struck the mesh like a desperate rat until the guards came and pulled him away. His older brother wept gently on the other side of the mesh. Lai Suo walked unsteadily into his cell. Fatso Du grabbed the small box of food items from Lai Suo and had soon stuffed himself. In a good mood now, he thought about saying a few words of comfort.
“Save your strength,” said Fatso. “You still have six years and four months to cry.”
Lai Suo abruptly stood up, turned, and eyed him, his shoulders heaving.
“What did you say?”
“I said save your strength. What good does it do to cry?”
“Fuck your mother!”
The next minute, Lai Suo and Fatso were rolling around on the floor. In another thirty seconds, Lai Suo was pinned under his enormity. Lai Suo struggled, kicking and shouting, his spit flying, covering Fatso's face.
“Keep on screaming and I'll crush you to death.”
He calmed down only at this show of malicious ferocity.
“Sometimes I dream of my mom,” said Lai Suo to his wife, who was lying beside him.
It was already very late and Lai Suo, who was in a good mood, was still sitting on the balcony shelling peanuts, his two legs propped up on the railing. It was the beginning of summer and the stars shimmered on the horizon and a line of headlights shone on the freeway. Lai Suo, wearing a BVD undershirt, took up the responsibility of trying to solve the riddle of life. His expression was by turns warm, cold, and confused. He was busy shelling peanuts, which he picked up between thumb and forefinger and then squeezed, making the peanut pop, revealing the white peanuts inside the shell. Lai Suo threw the shells down into the street. With the help of a breeze, peanut shells littered the entire street.
“What's wrong with having a drink?” asked Lai Suo's dad.
“You could end up with illnesses such as congestion of the brain, rheumatism, or an ulcer,” said Lai Suo's mom.
Lai Suo took his feet down off the railing and changed his position as he continued to hear the squabbling among the dead.
“I'm in a bad mood.”
“So what?”
Lai Suo's dad worked very hard. He was more or less illiterate and he wasn't very strong, but he had a family to support. During the day he worked in a malt sugar plant that supplied the Japanese military. Barechested, Lai Suo's dad would jump up on a large metal vat that was filled with glutinous rice powder and a great deal of water. He would vigorously stir the contents of the vat with a wooden paddle not unlike an oar. The sweat would drip off of him like rain into the vat. After half an hour, he would add a bucket of green malt, cooking the mixture over a coal fire. Then Lai Suo's dad would jump to another vat that contained the syrup produced the night before. He stirred the syrup until it emitted steam, and only then would he jump down. Jumping up on and down off the vats dozens of times each day had made his legs quite muscular, though his upper body remained as scrawny as ever.
“Ah Yun can help make some money right away,” said Lai Suo's mom, taking away the bottle. “Ah Suo is smarter, so let him stay in school.”
“What good does it do to go to school?” replied Lai Suo's dad.
“You are at a disadvantage because you had no schooling.”
“Mom, you always wanted me to go to school,” interrupted Lai Suo on the balcony, “but maybe Dad was right.”
“Why am I so disadvantaged?” said Lai Suo's dad angrily. “With no money, I get no respect. I ought to have done with it.”
“I haven't had a good day since I married you.” Lai Suo's mom was also angry. “All you can do is drink, drink away any good opportunity.”
“Did Ah Quan”—Ah Quan was a distant relative who tried to get Lai Suo's dad to go to Taipei to do business—“tell you if he is making money?”
“Not right now, but the future's uncertain.”
“We can talk about the future later.”
Lai Suo's dad should see Ah Quan today. He wears a 20,000-
suit and drives a Mercedes-Benz. His dyed hair is black and oily, and though over 60 years of age, he still leers lasciviously at the little butts of the nightclub hostesses in their hot pants.
“Ah Suo will one day amount to a good deal more than you.”
“That's his business.”
Lai Suo's dad finally gave in and agreed to let their son study in public school. He even bought him a pair of sneakers to wear to school, which no doubt cost a pretty penny. On rainy days, Lai Suo would walk barefoot and carry his shoes.
“Don't think I'll be buying things for you,” threatened Lai Suo's dad. “If you do badly in school, I'll give you a beating.”
“Why scare the child?”
“I work hard to make money with no thought of my age.”
What was the point in bringing up all this? In the end, Lai Suo became furious, stood up, and in a rage hurled the remaining peanuts down onto the street. He walked into the living room, where his children were sitting in front of the television.
“We finished our homework a long time ago, Dad.”
“Your mom?”
“She went to bed.”
Not wishing to wake his wife, Lai Suo gently closed the door. He was exhausted today and had something to do the following day. Yep, tomorrow he had to take the day off, because his cousin was ill and in Xu Hospital. His cousin's wife had called and said that his cousin was always thinking of sneaking out (he had another woman outside whom he hadn't been in touch with for several days and was certainly very worried). As a result, she decided to hide his leather shoes; after all, she figured if he dared to go out on the street in his pajamas and slippers, she might as well admit defeat and have done with it. What else could she do? Listening on his end of the phone, Lai Suo shook his head without replying. Why should he get mixed up in other people's business, especially when he had more important things to do? He had to go see Mr. Han—it had been thirty-six hours since his face appeared on the television news. As far as he was concerned, that stretch of time was equal to several decades for other people. Therefore he had to make things clear. But what exactly did he have to make clear? Who could say after such a long time? He had three children and Mr. Han was nearly seventy, an age by which some people have false teeth. Had he heard the joke about dentures? Perhaps he should just shake his hand and say, “Mr. Han, it's been a long time.”
BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
8.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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