“Lai Xiaosheng moved to the south; I'm not sure about Zeng Yipingâhe may have left the country. Lu Fang died in a traffic accident several years ago. What about you? What have you been up to?”
Chen Jinde told me that after finishing primary school, he studied for two years in a junior high before goofing off. He worked as an unskilled laborer, doing legwork for a medicinal plaster salesman and an insurance salesman, and was now selling used cars and auto parts.
“And you? You look like you've done well. What do you do? Own a barbershop?”
“I work in an athletic shoe factory.”
“Adidas or Puma?”
“Rainbow. It's pretty famous. We have commercials on TV every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I'm sure you've seen them. First you see a rainbow, and then our shoes walk from one end to the other. It's pretty interesting. I'm sure you've seen it.”
Chen Jinde didn't recall seeing the commercial. He scratched his head, rolled his eyes, and then with a wave of his hand, changed the subject. “I seem to recall that big ditch you mentioned yesterday. But what is it we wanted to do by that stinking ditch?”
“We all wanted,” I began, shifting position, “to measure the width of the ditch.”
We planned to measure the width of the ditch on May 30, 1960.
But as detective fiction author Lin Deng said, “Before the tale actually took place, it had been developing in secret for a long time.”
For this reason, I must begin on the morning of that day so as to let everyone know the motive for measuring the width of the ditch.
The weather on the morning of May 30 ought to have been clear.
“Give me fifty cents!”
“For what?” my dad asked. “Didn't I just give you fifty cents yesterday?”
“To buy a notebook.” It was an old ploy. I already had one in which I had written on only two pages. All I had to do was tear out the two pages.
My dad was a nice person who liked a drink and to play the
, but never at the same time. He passed away a long time ago. I still have his photos, in each of which he is seen smiling as if he knew that one day his son would describe his smile in a work of fiction. I don't know why I have always felt that I owe him something.
(If any of my readers are interested in him, you can write to the following address: Literary Supplement of the
United Daily News
, 555 Section 4 Zhongxiao East Road, Taipei. [I'm preparing to submit this piece to them.])
In high spirits, I then took the money to school.
By the end of the third period class, I had already used thirty cents. My last dime I gave to a girl student by the name of Goldfish, who was perhaps the poorest student on campus. I gave her a dime and she let me stick my hand up her skirt, which was made from old flour sacks.
Many years later, I told this to my girlfriend, with whom I was living at the time (of course I was not the protagonist of my tale). She was furious and said I had made up the story purely influenced by the gossip pages.
“You've read too many salacious and violent stories.”
“I'm not kidding,” I said. “The girl is now a television newscaster.”
(We had a huge fight over this. Three months later, she left me. Before she left, she said, “Megalomaniac!” At first I was never going to forgive her for as long as I lived, but the moment I wrote this, I suddenly forgave her. From this one can see the cathartic power of fiction, especially for authors.)
Anyway, my pockets were as empty as ever. Lu Fang proposed going to the edge of the big ditch after school, so I joined them.
The five of us set off from the side gate of the school. The shortest of the bunch, I walked in the middle while Zeng Yiping brought up the rear. Lai Xiaosheng was at the headâhe always saw himself as our leader.
“Heads up, everyone!” Lai Xiaosheng shouted. “Up ahead is the virgin forest.”
The so-called virgin forest was nothing but a bunch of bushes. Lai Xiaosheng brandished a stick symbolically.
“We don't want to go there,” said Zeng Yiping behind me.
“If we don't go there, we can go home and do our homework,” I said.
At this point, Chen Jinde chimed in with some bad words about our teachers.
However, strange at it may seem, twenty-one years later in the KFC restaurant, Chen Jinde spoke in an entirely different fashion.
“I remember teacher Wang Wuxiong. He showed a great deal of concern for me and hoped that I would test into a decent junior high, but my family's financial situation wasn't so good.â¦”
“The day we founded the Ditch Gang, you told me that teacher Wang despised you more than anyone because he often threw chalk at your head.”
“That's impossibleâteacher Wang liked me more than anyone else.”
“Okay! Then you should at least remember that other event.”
“I have no recollection of it,” said Chen Jinde. “I don't recall that we ever organized a gang with such a strange name.”
(Chen Jinde, no doubt, is a troublemaker, whether in real life or fiction.)
Let me go back and talk about the circumstances when we left school that day. Our group of explorers left through the side gate and went down a narrow path through entwined bushes, trees, and a bamboo fence.
I saw the path again in 1983 (the year I was called up for military service) and again in 1985 (after completing my service) and again in 1987. Since then, I have spent a couple of afternoons a year walking around the area.
It was probably between 1985 and 1987 when the bushes were dug out to make room for a cobblestone road that motorcycles could use. Nonconforming buildings made of steel and wood were erected on either side. In 1989, the nonconforming buildings were torn down, the road widened, and long. narrow, three-story residential buildings erected on either side. It was at that time that the ditch was moved underground.
Four years later, I bought a Ford and that very day went to see the old neighborhood. I slowed down and circled the school.
The school looked small and cramped. Then I went down the small path, or, I should say, the avenue, a four-lane street with seven- and eight-story buildings on either side. In a matter of minutes, I arrived at the former site of the big ditch.
I stopped my car, planning to relive some childhood events there above the ditch. Unexpectedly, a horn sounded behind me. That sound is one of humiliation in the big city, but all the more so in the suburbs. I finally parked my car thirty meters away in front of a coffee house. I spent the entire afternoon inside, staring blankly out the window.
The five of us continued on, leaping and shouting as we went, as if we wanted to let everyone know how happy we were.
After a while, we stifled our laughter and breathed deeply through our noses because the foul odor of burning trash filled the air.
A while later, we smelled chicken manure (perhaps it was dog shitâ it's hard to be certain after the passage of so many years). After that stink, light and shadow flickered before our eyes. It was a small dirt mound in which were embedded pieces of broken glass, slag, and chunks of brick. We carefully climbed to the top of the mound of dirt and stood in the bright light and the breeze, which smelled of dry grass, and looked down at the big ditch snaking away at our feet.
When I thought about giving a complete picture of the big ditch, an idea suddenly came to me: Why not draw a picture of it?
So I put down what I was doing and ran to the stationery store, where I purchased a box of colored pens and a sheet of paper.
(The previous lines were written upon my return from the stationery store. If a reader should ask why I chose a box of colored pens and not crayons or pencils, my reply would be that the stationery store sold only colored pens or that upon entering the store all I saw were colored pens. They cost eighteen
I will now begin to draw!
Note: the ratio of this picture is approximately 100â150:1. But, dear Reader, please don't take out a ruler to measure the width of the ditch in this picture and then multiply that figure by 150. In doing so, it would be you, not the author, me, measuring the ditch. As to the color, there will be some difference from reality. And if the editor rejects my suggestion, the picture will be in black and white and the ditch will be gray. It will be the same as the color of the river you saw recently. But the color of river water was different in those days, as was that of the ditch water. At this point, I'd like to remind everyone: do not let Chang E laugh at our dirty river water.
I was quite satisfied with the results and felt it could help explain the matter of how to measure the width of a ditch. So I inserted the picture in an envelope in preparation for finding someone on whom its usefulness could be tested.
At this point in the story, many readers might feel impatient. If that is the case, I have a number of suggestions:
1. You can immediately stop reading and think of a way to forget what you have read.
2. You must be anxious to learn how the author measured the width of the ditch. If that is the case, I will tell you. At the time we carried a bow and arrows. We tied a string to the end of the arrow and shot the arrow into the bark of a tree on the opposite side of the ditch. Then we pulled the arrow back and measured the length of the string, and we had our answer.
3. If you are dissatisfied with the above two suggestions, I'll make another. For the moment don't think about how to measure the width of a ditch and patiently keep on reading.
I gave the young lady at the Environmental Protection Department another call.
“I called a few days ago and asked how many ditches there are. Do you remember?”
“Ah!” she cried out softly.
“My name is Xie.”
“I didn't expect you to call again, Mr. Xie.”
“People always call me.” She continued, “May I ask why you are so interested in that question?”
I detected a sound. I guessed that it was the sound of someone covering their mouth to laugh.
“A lot of people ask the same question, but for the moment I can't explain it.” I said, “How about this. Are you busy? I'll buy you a cup of coffee.”
“I don't go out with strangers.”
“I'm no stranger. I told you who I am.” I had told her my profession and age. “Besides, I can meet you at your office. Public offices such as yours have someone responsible for answering people's questions, right? In this way, I'm just trying to adopt a more informal approach.”
“Can I bring a colleague?”
Pouring out your heart to someone uninvolved is risky, but also exciting.
Thus I carried a copy of the
United Daily News
(this was our prearranged signal). I waited at the coffee house for five minutes before two young ladies appeared.
“Mr. Xie, this is my colleague Miss Ma.” I asked them to have a seat. Miss Ma, who was wearing glasses, was tittering.
“It's very funny, isn't it?” I asked.
“No need to ask.” Miss Chen laughed as well. “Miss Ma and I work in the same office. I told her about the matter you mentioned.”
I laughed too. Laughing, I sighed to myself as I sized up the two young ladies, their mediocre looks and their childish makeup.
“You must both be curious, right?”
“Yes!” said Miss Chen. “I receive several strange phone calls every day, but yours is the strangest of all.”
“It's so interesting!” commented Miss Ma.
“What kind of strange calls?” I asked.
“One guy called and said there was a snake burrow in his rooftop garden. I told him to call 911.”
“How interesting!” said Miss Ma.
I figured the next thing she was going to say was “How amusing!”
“Don't think for a moment that I'm joking. If an atomic bomb were to explode, just think of how many people could take shelter in the underground ditches. If an atomic bomb went off, everything on the streets would be incinerated. The only thing on your mind then would be to flee into an underground ditch, shouting as you did so, âLook at this ditchâwhy didn't the city government make it larger?'”
“How frightening,” said Miss Ma, adding her two cents.
I stared at her as I continued, “That's why I have developed the habit of measuring ditches. Whenever I pass a ditch, whether it is concealed underground or in the open, I can't help but ask myself, âHow wide is it really? How many people will fit into it?' That's why I called to ask how many ditches there are in the city and what method you use to measure them.”