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Authors: Huang Fan

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Zero and Other Fictions (7 page)

BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
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“You probably miss your homes in Taiwan and Xiamen, don't you?” His greatest desire in life was to unify his family. In the summer of 1987, the first “family conference” was convened in Singapore.
Why had Singapore been chosen? Because each of the wives had sworn that the others were not allowed to enter her territory. Naturally he had considered Hong Kong, but it was too close to mainland China. Choosing Hong Kong might have given the mistaken impression that he favored one of them over the others. Besides, he had an old friend in Singapore who could arrange everything; on top of which, Singapore was clean and quiet, just the place for anyone who wanted to sit down and talk calmly.
The Royal Hotel, located in the middle of downtown, was a thirtystory building. From the windows one could look over the edifices of the finely planned “third China.”
The rooms had been prepared. The largest room had a small conference room attached to it. Yang T'ai-sheng and his first wife stayed in that room, on the twenty-second floor. The second wife was on the twenty-first floor and the third wife was on the twentieth floor. It had been arranged this way to prevent them from running into each other in the hallway.
After everyone had lunched in their own room and rested, it came time for the meeting. The first wife was dressed in a light voile dress from Dior's branch shop in Los Angeles. The second was wearing a Western-style dress, hand tailored by Lancaster designers in Taipei, and the third wore a black
qiipao
, the masterpiece of a famous Shanghai dressmaker. The four of them sat around a round table. Yang T'ai-sheng looked to his right and to his left, feeling like an emperor of old. His three wives glanced at one another from the corners of their eyes.
After a moment, Yang T'ai-sheng cleared his throat and said, “This is a historical moment. We thank the past generations of our ancestors for this blessing.” His inspiration welled up like a spring, as if he were once again a college student indulging in loud and empty talk. “That the entire family can be together to discuss and plan our future is a significant breakthrough for the nation.” As he said this he cursed himself inwardly; he also heard his first wife snort, but pretended not to hear. “Of course, there are some technical problems that must be resolved,” he continued. “For example, every Chinese New Year we should all get together.…”
“Don't forget the conditions you have already agreed to. I don't want the neighbors laughing at me!” said the first wife, unable to hold back any longer.
“I can't have you coming to my place, I still have a position in society,” said the second.
The third lowered her voice as if she had been wronged. “Where I come from, committing adultery must be reformed through labor.”
“Nonsense, there is no reform through labor over there anymore.” Yang T'ai-sheng stood up, waving his hands to silence them. “Commit, hell, nobody can even visit.” Then he sat down in a fury, tapping the table with his fingers. The three wives started talking to one another about their dresses. After a while they changed the subject to prices, as if they wanted to leave Yang T'ai-sheng out in the cold.
Yang T'ai-sheng looked around. Suddenly he was puzzled, because he didn't know how to arrange things for that night. He couldn't help scratching his head, thinking about these three women who urgently needed his most productive energies to live together.
“That's enough!” shouted Yang T'ai-sheng. The three of them became silent. In a moment, he recovered his authority. “We will continue this meeting tomorrow.”
There was still no progress the next day, but his three wives were becoming more intimate with one another and seemed to have arrived at some sort of tacit understanding. A week later, the first wife made the first move by declaring that the three of them had reached an agreement. Under this agreement, Hong Kong was the site chosen for producing an heir. The entire family would stay in Hong Kong for one year, during which time every one of them had to do their best to produce a son for the Yang family. If one got pregnant, the whole family would live in the lucky mother's territory. If nothing happened, they would split up, living separately as they had done before. The suggestions were pretty good, and Yang T'ai-sheng laughingly accepted.
After the agreement was reached, they spent a week sightseeing. Singapore was indeed a pleasant place, full of potential. With great business acumen, Yang T'ai-sheng couldn't help checking it out.
The day before their tour was to end, Yang T'ai-sheng announced to his three wives, “While you were shopping, I took the opportunity to look around and analyze the business situation here. I also talked on the phone with a number of friends”—he paused and looked around at his wives—“and they all agreed with my point of view, that it is possible for me to open a branch office here.”
 
Translated by Yingtsih Balcom
1
No matter what you say, measuring the width of a ditch will never be an interesting topic of conversation. When we regale our friends with words, we most frequently resort to topics such as male-female relations, economics, scandals, movies, and jokes.
We mull over witticisms, lick our humorous lips, and then tighten our vocal cords to emit sounds in all wavelengths. If these sounds are organized, possess meaning, or are interesting, we then dub them topics of conversation.
Yes, I too have significant means at my disposal to deal with these superficial topics. In addition to the few mentioned previously, I can also converse about the weather, medicine, and shells (of which I have collected a whole drawer full).
I wouldn't exactly say that hearing me talk is enjoyable, but neither is it a torture, unless, that is, I am incautious and let slip the matter of measuring the width of a ditch. When that happens, normally the facial muscles of the person listening suddenly contract, the lines around his or her mouth deepen, and their eyes grow larger, forming an enigmatic expression that possesses a strong satirical power, the sight of which immediately cuts me short.
Let me say something about the title of this piece—“How to Measure the Width of a Ditch.” With regard to this issue, most people would accept a counterquestion in reply: How do you measure the width of the soul?
This form of question and answer is frequently encountered in academic debates on metaphysics. For example:
“Where is God?”
“Where is man?”
Or in the
koans
of Chan Buddhism:
“Master, please give me a dharma-door with which to quiet my mind.”
“Show me your mind and I'll quiet it for you.”
Thus, when wit is used carelessly, it can easily sink to the level of profanity. I must avoid this at all costs. What's more, the soul and a ditch cannot be discussed in the same breath, though a certain connection does exist between them. Let it be said, though, that this connection is the main reason for my tossing and turning at night.
How do you measure the width of a ditch? How do you measure the width of the soul? Why I am I so fond of this question? Why can't I rid myself of the habit of thinking about measuring the width of a ditch at any time and in any place?
This city is covered with a network of different kinds of ditches: irrigation ditches, drainage ditches, sewers, and even the perpetually smelly old-style sewers.
I asked the Public Works Department how many ditches are there in the city, but they couldn't tell me.
“Why don't you go ask the Environmental Protection Department?”
I called four times before a young woman finally answered the phone and politely asked me, “Sir, may I ask why you want to know how many ditches there are?”
I told her that it was a matter about which someone had to be concerned.
Ditches serve as the city's excrement channel, just like our assholes. It's not something people like to discuss, but someone has to be concerned about it. All the more so since they're so quickly disappearing from sight, like earthworms burrowing underground, breathing underfoot, moaning, writhing; if at all possible, they'd hiccup and the stench would come pouring out through the grated cover.
However, even this kind of grated cover allows you a peep into the world underground, though they are gradually being replaced by airtight concrete; they are capable of supporting a truck and an elephant weighing several tons and give the road's surface a classier look, making them the unsung heroes who protect the appearance of the city. So, in short, someone must step forward and be concerned about this matter.
“What matter? Which one?”
“Listen. The first question is: How many ditches are there in this city? The second question is: What method do you use to measure their widths?”
“I'm not certain about the answer to your first question. As to your second question, my guess is that they use a tape measure. It must be, because I have seen the water main repairman—”
“Miss,” I replied, interrupting her, “you have totally misunderstood my question. I said ‘ditch' and not ‘water main.'”
I then repeated my concerns about the disappearance of ditches and how no one really cared.
But regardless of my efforts, I couldn't make the young lady on the other end of the line understand. She simply muttered a few apologies.
“I should be the one to apologize,” I said as I hung up. “When I have the answer, I'll let you know.”
Then it came to me that if I didn't start from the beginning, no one would understand this matter, much less its importance.
2
On May 30, 1960, we decided to measure the width of a ditch.
There were five of us.
I was born in 1949. In 1971, I graduated from the university with a degree in physics, and in 1976, I began working at Rainbow Peanut Butter Company, where I have worked to this day. Many people have asked me, why peanut butter and not a peanut sauce for satay? They say that the long-term prospects for satay sauce look good, and are related to the taste for eating hot pot in the winter, among other factors. My reply is that as a young person I read and was deeply touched by a piece written by the author Xu Dishan titled “The Peanut” in which he says, “One should study the peanut to learn how to conduct oneself.”
In the '80s, the boss decided that peanut butter was no longer enough for him, so he decided to invest in shoe manufacturing.
A year later, Rainbow Company was already producing pigskin soccer shoes and had even signed a contract to provide one soccer team with their shoes free of charge for a year. The boss also hoped that I would sell shoes for him. There was no way I could refuse. So, from manager of the peanut butter production department I was transferred to the post of assistant manager of the athletic shoe business. The gap between the two was huge and would be the equivalent of an author like Xu Dishan, who eulogized the peanut, becoming an insurance salesman.
That very same year, I began writing poetry, which I did for a while before switching to science fiction.
My first work appeared in the literary supplement of an evening paper. It was a story about an alien with eight clawed limbs wearing shoes. Because it had eight clawed limbs, putting on shoes was a complicated thing.
Unfortunately, the story didn't receive much notice. Actually, the idea behind the story came entirely from my boss. One day he sighed and uttered the following words: “Why do people only have two feet? Why not four? Or six?”
In a word, I fervently wanted to become a respected science fiction writer, but to this date, I have only finished three pieces.
Lai Xiaosheng and I are the same age. In 1975, he sent me a postcard out of the blue from someplace down south. I don't know what has become of him since then.
Zeng Yiping. My memories of him are somewhat vague. I seem to recall that he was the tallest of us and always brought up the rear.
Lu Fang died in a traffic accident in 1976. I clipped the story from the newspaper and stuck it in the autograph album for our grade-school reunion. It was a major accident. The bus he was on was broadsided by a train at a railway crossing. The pieces of broken metal from the shattered body of the bus became sharp deadly weapons. Six bodies lay scattered piecemeal for a distance of a hundred meters on both sides of the tracks.
Chen Jinde is the only grade-school classmate with whom I'm still in touch. One evening after I transferred to the athletic shoe department in 1981, I had a brainstorm. I opened the phone book and found that there were eight people listed with the same name. Ever so patiently, I began dialing each one until I located him.
“Do you recall the name Xie Mingmin?”
“Xie Mingmin?”
“Twenty-one years ago. Section four, sixth grade at Qingping Elementary School.”
Silence. I saw that there were two more Chen Jindes left in the phone book and was about to give up.
“Ah, is that … is that really you?”
We arranged to meet the following day.
I located him at the Western-style restaurant by having him paged. We didn't hesitate in the slightest to thrust our hands forward to shake. His palm was pudgy and moist like an orange.
“Wow!” He gave my hand a frightful shaking. “I never thought, I never thought …”
We both ordered two complete KFC meals. The steaming hot fried chicken smelled so good. The golden oil ran down Chen Jinde's chin, which he wiped with great brio with his paper napkin.
“How did you know that I like to eat this?”
“Have you forgotten? Coming here was your idea,” I said, laughing.
“What about the others? Were you able to contact them all? Why don't we form a students' association and get together once or twice a year?”
BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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