A Story about Mahjong (Part 1)
Bright Purpose Wu and Four Even Ge had been massaging the mahjong tiles all their lives. Sometimes they came out on top and sometimes they didn’t. Four Even said, “Whoever wins or loses, it’s clearly predestined. Your humble servant, me, borrowed so much from you in a prior life that I can’t catch a break in this life. Every day I follow your ass around and eat your dust.”
Bright Purpose laughed, “Brother, Brother, I don’t like to hear you talk like that. We depend on Heaven for our food, but in mahjong it’s the luck of the draw….”
When he played mahjong, Four Even liked to go for flushes. Groups of four were OK, too, or even all the honors. They were beautiful and profitable and made him feel like a new man. As long as the tiles in his hand didn’t push him in another direction, he'd for sure build on the dragons. If the three colors of the dragon tiles got kicked out one after the other right out of the door, the other people at the table knew what Four Even would be going for.
Flushes depended on the player on his left, the one who played before him. If that guy fed Four Even good tiles, the player on Four Even’s right would have the best of both worlds and could snap up the tile he’d been waiting for in the blink of an eye when Four Even discarded. Bright Purpose, who always had to be on Four Even’s left, liked to do pair. He didn’t disparage having a pair and didn’t think he had a useless tile if he got trips. He never stopped claiming discarded tiles, and all the excitement at the table seemed to center on him. Four Even couldn't catch a break – the tile he was waiting for was always stuck like glue in Bright Purpose’s hand.
Now the person opposite Four Even (and to the left of Bright Purpose) discarded a tile. Bright Purpose nimbly got it in two fingers and plopped down a pair of tiles just like it. "That’s trips!" With a click of the tiles, he’d destroyed Four Even’s hopeful calculations.
Four Even’s opposite put down another tile. "Hey, wait a sec!” Bright Purpose didn’t say a word, just put down another pair. When the two spreads clicked together, it was equal to a dragon cramping half a muscle. Four Even had to tear apart his entire hand and reconstruct it.
His luck almost gone, and up against Bright Purpose holding onto one of the dark bars in his hand, Four Even never had a chance to change his fortunes. At the end of the hand, someone told him to reach out and turn over the tiles on the table before they were shoved together to be shuffled. He looked at the tiles one by one and, sure enough, it was a case of “blocked by the guy playing before you”.
After a few more hands, Four Even got his motor running. “We either change seats or change tables. I can't keep playing like this.”
Everyone expressed an opinion, but none better than Bright Purpose. “Brothers, I don’t joke around playing Mahjong. When my opponent here is losing, he keeps saying he’ll go to another table, but me, Bright Purpose Wu, I won’t go for it. I insist that me and Fourth Kid, as an established pair of rogues, stay together.” He made a pouty face and then pretended to giggle, making the others laugh.
The crowd could do no better than persuade Bright Purpose to change seats, but after a few hands, he wanted to return to his original position. They’d all had their ups and downs, and since Four Even had just had a winning hand, he no longer made a big deal about it. Thus things continued as they had before, which had become their norm.
That’s how people are. The more they fail, the more they think the nastiness can’t continue, so they just keep on at it. Four Even said, “It’s no fun getting dealt a bunch of random tiles. When you have to work to make a winning hand, it doesn’t count as a win.” Bright Purpose chimed in in support beside him. Those guys had been playing mahjong for a long time and they each knew what was what. Arranging for them to sit side by side always made for a good show.
That’s how Bright Purpose Wu acquired the nickname "Matching Pair". The name resonated when you enunciated it, especially since the words "Wu" and "tiles" were pronounced the same in the local patois. Four Even Ge’s nickname, "Ge the Dragon", lost in comparison whenever Bright Purpose was around. By habit, people still called Four Even by the nickname he had acquired at home, “Fourth Kid.”
Fourth Kid’s older sister, Third Kid, ran a wonton shop deep in Rites Alike Street, a lane as dark as “where the sun don’t shine”. Entry was by a left turn at the third alley on Throughway Road, and the alley was lined with eateries on both sides, but you couldn’t get out the other end. It didn’t used to be a “sun don’t shine” place, but the old dorm of an electric products factory backed right up on it, and just for that reason a garbage collection station had been set up directly opposite the exit. Food waste from the entire street got piled up in it. Whenever the residents came outside, they were met with a pungent odor and flies swarming around.
The locals were reluctant to walk by the dump because they were afraid of the unhygienic conditions, so the Street Committee went ahead and built a wall to separate the factory’s residential community from the alleyway. At first you couldn’t go directly from one to the other, but sometime later an opening that was half the height of a man was cut through the wall for use by those whose fear of inconvenience overcame their fear of the unsanitary conditions. They could come and go to Rites Alike Street to buy food by squeezing through and passing by the garbage dump with their bodies pressed up against the opposite wall.
Third Kid’s Wonton Shop was closest to the garbage dump, so business should’ve been lousy. The drawback turned out to be an asset, though, only because those who wanted convenience could get their food immediately after they got to the other side of the wall. But the hole hadn’t been chiseled out by people seeking food. They just took advantage of a gap made by their mahjong-playing friends to save wear and tear on their legs and feet.
After nearly twenty years in business, the words on the shop’s sign might have faded, but the impression of Third Kid’s shop in peoples’ minds was stronger than ever. Over the years Third Kid became Second Kid, and then First Daughter, until finally people couldn’t keep it straight. If they walked by in the afternoon, people who visited the area infrequently would never think it was a place serving food and drinks. The door would be closed tightly, and the windows slightly open, but as they drew near the aroma of wontons would waft forth from inside, along with the clickety-clack of mahjong tiles. Casual visitors strolling around the area might almost think that the number of people playing mahjong this year was lots lower than before, but then they’d recall the ancient game room secluded away at the end of the food street.
Fact is, since Third Kid turned fifty ten years previously, the wonton shop had only been open part time. The old lady was devoting herself to her twin grandchildren, a boy and a girl. She’d take the free Wal-Mart shuttle to pick up her grandson in New Town District every afternoon, deliver him to her son's house and make dinner, then take the free shuttle home. She did that from kindergarten through elementary school, rain or shine. She didn’t resent having to go to such lengths, she said, because the good houses were all outside the city. And the good schools, too.
But since she could only operate the wonton shop during the mornings, the five kinds of big wontons on the menu had been reduced to a meager selection of two: her signature large size pork-and-veggie wontons, and smaller thin-skin wontons. She opened at six and put up her wok at ten every morning. At noon, if to-go customers or customers who’d placed an order in advance happened along, she’d take care of them, but for the rest of the day, the shop remained open only for Four Even and his buddies to play mahjong at the square, eight-person tables. It was supposed to be for half a day, but in fact, whenever Third Kid wasn’t there, the shop was a full-time haunt for the mahjong crowd. The players were divided into two groups like an old-time workshop, the afternoon shift and the graveyard shift.
After lunch, Four Even and his mahjong buddies would bring their tea mugs, and certain among them would bring cloth bags which they opened to reveal mahjong sets. Once the tea was steeped in hot water, they’d sit down and begin playing. They’d play straight through until it was time to quit, when the afternoon shift gave way to the graveyard shift. The guys in the afternoon shift would head off to their night jobs while the guys in the graveyard shift would come along after getting off their day jobs.
The graveyard shift went until Third Kid returned at four or five in the morning. She didn't yell at them, but as soon as that one-hundred-sixty-pound number came through the door, everyone had to take it on themselves to open the windows to let in some air, and straighten up the shop. They’d line up the chairs, sweep the floor and help Third Kid fetch water and set up her wok. No one dared ask her for a bowl of wontons before opening, though. They’d smoke a few butts out on Rites Alike Street to kill time for an hour, then head back into the shop at six o'clock like they were newly arrived customers. “Hey, Ma’am, how about a bowl of the large pork-and-veggies wontons in soup.”
After they ate, they’d go home and get some sleep.
Four Even changed jobs a lot after he turned forty. He switched to this and switched to that, but his coworkers were always of the same ilk: laid-off workers from the electric products factory. Maybe they’d tried too hard to improve themselves or maybe they just liked to bury their heads in shit like flies. They might’ve hustled some insurance policies or dabbled in the foreign trade bit, but now they’d settled down into two basic occupations: male guard or female clerk: the men ended up as security guards when the bigger factories and industries let a group of people go, and the women all became cashiers in supermarkets. Four Even felt pretty good about it. He said, “There’s a duty kiosk in every corner of the city, and a comrade of ours in every one of them!”
Like all jobs, security guard positions can be divided between the idle and the busy. Young people from other areas were assigned to schools and other institutions and devoted their minds to their work all day long, while useless old-timer locals got scattered around in unimportant communities and buildings. There fire prevention systems watched for fires and surveillance videos protected against thieves, which allowed people like Four Even and his ilk to spend their day shifts registering vehicles as they entered or left the premises, or walking around a few times carrying flashlights on the night shifts. They passed the rest of their time sitting in glass rooms without air conditioning or TV, dozing, lost in a daze, waiting for their replacements to take over at the end of the shift.
All security guards had their replacements on the other shift. In a three-person rotation, one would be on duty and two standing by. Four Even had good luck. The residential area where he worked included the electric products factory dorm, which was also where he lived. Two guards rotated duty in the guard kiosk each day, working twelve-hour shifts, and the fourteen shifts each week were divided among the three guards. Four Even mostly took the night shifts. He said the night shift was best because he could goof off with no bosses around to check up on him. What he meant was, he could wake up refreshed and ready to play mahjong.
Four Even was really only “on the job” after he got off work. He’d yell, “Come on, let's go to Rites Alike Street for our get-together. Time for a new group of comrades to come and keep watch!” He’d go through the residential area from the front gate to the back door, shoot through the crack in the wall and run straight to the wonton shop. Faster than you could describe the scene, he’d have passed by his own home without going in.
Starting three years previously, the person who came on duty to take Four Even’s place in the guard kiosk was Matching Pair Wu.
It had been news when Matching Pair joined the ranks of laid-off workers from the electric products factory. Everyone knew he considered being a security guard beneath him. Back then he didn’t work with others in the factory to do the job. Everyone else pounded on the table in the boss’s office when they got laid off, or turned hostile and refused to leave. Only Matching Pair Wu stood right up and volunteered to be in the first batch of layoffs.
He wasn’t really sacrificing himself out of consideration for his coworkers; he’d realized long before that his life would be a complete bore if he stayed in that factory hunkered down like a zombie. He’d learned that lesson from his mentor when he started at the factory. His mentor also showed him the tricks of playing the go-for-pairs style of mahjong, and taught him how to live life as well. So, right after his mentor died, he left the factory to go into business. He first worked for a photography studio carrying camera equipment for the photographer at wedding receptions. After some time he was able to take a few photos himself, and also shot some videos for people on his own.
What must’ve been the roughest seas in Matching Pair’s life came at the end of the 1990s. He was also furthest away from the mahjong table during that period. He was busy carrying stuff around the city from shoot to shoot. Free cigarettes and gifts of money crossed his palm at wedding receptions, and he’d cast his eyes heavenward in thanks. He worked all day and spent his nights living it up with the little big shots, until he looked up and saw that momentous changes were coming. Video was no longer popular and the “one dragon rising” style, where everything was handled by a single wedding planner, was becoming fashionable. The jobs he was familiar with became hard to come by and soon vanished completely. After that he got into air conditioning repair. Then he tried interior decorating, but it was too hard to make an impression on people. When the guys saw him coming round to play mahjong, they knew that things weren’t going well for him.
Matching Pair got himself a Volkswagen Santana and looked for someone to rotate shifts with him operating it as a taxi. He went to Four Seasons first, thinking he was an “army of one”, an independent sort who could operate smoothly on his own. It turned out to be the opposite. Four Even couldn’t put up with any discomfort, so how would he be willing to plop his butt in the driver's seat of a cab all day? So Matching Pair had no choice. He found someone else and started on another period of time away from the mahjong table. After driving for two years, he accidently hit a drunk while he was driving on the night shift and had to pay compensation. Since he was a sole proprietor, he had no charter company to cover this cost for him, and he also didn’t have a lot of insurance. As a result, he had to sell the car, bringing an end to this career path.
By the time he reached middle age, he had no energy to continue the fight. He was depressed for a while but turned it around and returned to the mahjong table, playing day and night. The crowd didn't say anything, but one day Four Even was sitting to his right at the table and said, "Come on, take a crack at being a security guard. Don't get too comfortable just sitting around playing mahjong." So he did.
People in the factory talk pretty rough, and they’re willing to speak up on the Q.T. or out in the open. No matter how strong a headwind they stir up, they don’t just keep going to work like you and me. Matching Pair was an excitable fellow, and it upset him to no end when people talked like that. When he eventually switched back to the factory and the old dorm after going back and forth between jobs, he and his ages-old right-hand player began to rotate shifts.
After that the two guys who’d sat to the left and right of one another for so long rarely met at the same table. Four Even still focused on getting flushes and Matching Pair still looked for pairs, and everything went along just fine.
Matching Pair usually brought two teacups with him when he went to play mahjong at Third Kid’s wonton shop. People laughed at him and said, whatever the guy does, it has to be in pairs. Truth is, one of the cups was for cola. He said he always got bloated after eating and had to burp a few times to feel better. No medicine was as good as coke, so he always kept boxes of five-liter bottles at home. When he finished a cup, he’d wash it out and steep some tea. He used the tea leaves that Fourth Kid kept in the store, big handfuls at a time.
The second cup was for cigarette butts. He was a heavy smoker and said that, when playing mahjong, cigarettes are to men like children are to women – can’t have one without the other. After he’d been playing for while, all you could see under his chair was a thick layer of butts. Everyone would sweep up the ashes from their immediate area before they left, but the collected debris in Matching Pair’s area was hard to clean up. It didn’t look good, so he got the idea of bringing a mug along. With a little water in it, he could use it to put out the butt when he finished smoking a cigarette. When he was about to leave, he could put the lids on the teacup and the mug and head out the door with no effort at all.
As he told it, he’d acquired his smoking habit when he was seventeen and started work at the factory. It was easy work, so he could spend all day massaging the mahjong tiles with a bunch of old crabs. Their hands were like claws – the right hand would pinch a tile and whatever it was, good or bad, they’d hold it in the fleshy part of their fingers while they decided what play to make. Meanwhile the left hand would be pinching a cigarette. They’d take a drag and spit three times, really putting on a show. Matching Pair learned the whole bit.
His foreman, who was also his mahjong mentor, instilled in him the idea of "no matter what, go for pairs". And he’d need to find a wife to take care of him if he wanted to play mahjong. But getting married too early was like submitting to the lasso – the same idea as a pillory with flowers growing on it.
Whatever his foreman, the old crab, said, Matching Pair took it all in.
So he got married at the age of thirty-three. He had three “best men”. All of whom were mahjong players from the factory, and Four Even was one of them. All four men stood tall in Western suits at the reception, their hair well-oiled and shiny. They shut themselves up in a tiny room on the east side of the Mandarin Duck Restaurant and played mahjong all afternoon.
The bride had an anxiety fit when she couldn't find them as time for the banquet neared and she got no reply to messages left on their beepers. Finally a server went to look for them. He heard the click-clack of mahjong tiles coming from the room they were in and billows of smoke rolled out when he opened the door. The four guys didn’t move a muscle and kept on playing when the door opened, as though they were minor deities unconcerned with the affairs of mere mortals. When the bride came to tell them to hurry up, Matching Pair asked her “What’s the rush? They haven’t started seating for the banquet yet.” The bride burst into tears from anger.
The ceremony went down like a death rattle. The bride was young at the time and not as hard to deal with as she later became. Her shrill voice and angry curses got refined over time, like spare parts honed through use. “The young bride” turned into “the old lady” as her boldness and finesse developed. How many times did she run to someone's house and catch her husband in the act? She’d twist his ear and drag him away from the mahjong table, showing him no respect at all.
Matching Pair could do nothing but delay the contest until some other day, in some other place. He was always one to avoid confrontation. His mentor had told him that you can mess around playing mahjong, but never mess with a woman, so he stayed out of her way and submitted to her control. Being controlled was actually a good thing. The success he had in his two ventures, taking videos and operating a cab, was undeniably due to his wife keeping him on track.
No one could have imagined that his wife would become enlightened as she advanced into middle age. She tasted the sweetness of playing mahjong herself and then no longer cared what he did. What people had taken for a case of a submissive girl turning into a domineering woman could actually be considered the Life of Riley.
Matching Pair smiled ruefully at that. What enlightenment? It was more like straying into evil. It turned out that everything at home was left unattended and got all messed up. He said it was just like his mentor had told him long ago: If your woman gets enamored with something, life goes out the window, and you’ll be left wondering how you got to be a ghost left out in the daylight.
People used to ask, “How’s the wife, Matching Pair?” He’d snicker and say, “Like a cop on the way to arrest me.”
Later when someone asked that, he’d shake his head. "Don’t know where my wife’s coming from. I’m like Fourth Kid, an ‘Army of One’.”
Four Even’s also learned mahjong with his own mentor leading the way. His mentor and Matching Pair’s mentor had long been bitter rivals at the factory. His mentor wasn’t such a mind-bender as the other; he just focused on mahjong and didn’t teach about how to live life. He certainly never talked about Four Even getting married at a certain age, like Matching Pair’s did. Thus Four Even just buried his head in the tiles, not knowing enough to lift his head to look at a woman. He was set in his ways by the time he turned thirty and changed from a bright young man into an old bachelor.
He didn't pay much attention to that stuff, though, and for sure didn’t worry about it. If a man lives alone after getting divorced, he’ll feel somewhat uncomfortable, but Four Even was used to passing his days unfettered, after all, and didn’t know any better. He only knew one way to live his life, and it was carefree. His sister Third Kid did brood about something, though. Their parents had died young and their two older sisters had married into families that lived far away, leaving her to take care of her brother. Before she turned thirty, she’d never given a thought to what her raison d’etre might be, and after thirty she hadn’t the strength to care. If the family name died out, she wouldn’t have to apologize to anyone.
People said the main reason she wasn’t willing to move out of the city was because she couldn’t leave her little brother. She claimed she was slow in shutting down the Wonton shop completely for the sake of her old customers, but really it was to take care of Fourth Kid and give him a place to play his games. It’s a well-known fact that older sisters take care of their little brothers.
Back when the sister and brother were working in the same shop, Third Kid insisted on being in the first batch of layoffs; she did it to ensure that Fourth Kid could keep his position. But he was rude and reckless, and lolled around not knowing what was good for him. He glared at his bosses and rocked the boat, and within half a year he was gone, too. Since then he hadn't lived a regular life, just working as a guard for streetlights or warehouses or buildings, and succeeding at nothing. [Fannyi’s note: In poorer areas, thieves will dig up streetlights to get the copper wire connecting them.]
Everyone said that Four Even couldn’t take the hard times, but he said, “Not true. Those people haven’t thought things through. It’s not easy for a person to live a lifetime without a little rain falling. If you want to make it through the hard times, you’ve got to do it in a place you want to be.” He was referring to Mahjong. “You can go without sleep, and you don’t have to go home, but you can't not play mahjong.”
So he punched that hole in the wall and came through it every day. He went to work at the front gate and left through the back gate to play mahjong. The old factory dorm, the six-story building next door to Third Kid’s, was just a pit stop along the way.
Third Kid was always worrying that his behavior wasn’t good for his health, but he said, "Naturally, people who travel by night are protected by the Lord of Night Travelers.” Sure enough, that seemed to be the case. Four Even hadn’t slept the night through in a dozen or more years, but he not only showed no ill effects, but was also relatively energetic. Even after he turned fifty he still seemed to be a young man.
When anyone asked, he told them, “The secret to slowing down the aging process is – never get married.”
No one thought it strange that Four Even hadn’t married. What they did find strange was that he never had a woman with him. He didn’t go to dance halls or hairdressers, and there was nothing in his life other than work and mahjong. Truth is, he had been set up on blind dates in his early years, but he always told the girls up front, “I like playing mahjong.” Hearing that, girls who wanted to live a simple life would run away in fright. Third Kid chewed him out. “What’s with the big mouth? Get married first, then you’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
But Four Even said, to the contrary, that people who can't play mahjong together won’t get along if they get married. “If you don’t believe me, take a look at Matching Pair.” So Third Kid thought she’d set him up with a woman who played mahjong, but how many women like that were there in the city? Besides, if they were both out playing mahjong, who’d be home to cook and do the laundry? She couldn't find one, so she spent her life cooking for her little brother and washing his clothes.
Matching Pair’s wife suddenly fell in love with mahjong after twenty years of marriage. The two didn’t fight about it, though – she did her thing and he did his. Four Even said that if a man marries a woman who likes to play mahjong, there’d be no one to take care of the home. “If you don’t believe me, take a look at Matching Pair.”
Third Kid had nothing to say to that.
Four Even wasn’t deliberately taking shots at Matching Pair – he’d just gotten used to citing him as an example and couldn’t think of anyone else to use. They hadn’t been able to avoid being competitors since they were seventeen and had gone to work in the factory under the tutelage of opposing masters. As time went by, they spontaneously internalized this as the way they related to one another. It wasn’t only from the time they went to work until they got off, and from the time they got their jobs until they got laid off – even when they were mouthing off at the mahjong table, there was always more to it than just going for runs or pairs. One would say something and the other would respond like they were singing the parts in a never-ending opera.
It was just as lame as if they were stubbornly fighting their way upstream. For example, they’d get hopping mad and quarrel over a one-centimeter difference in height, or puff up their chests and compare who was the most formidable or richest in middle age. They’d obviously taken divergent paths to get where they were and had to compare the results. The first guy would laugh at the second guy’s baldness, for example, while the second guy mocked the first guy’s white hair. One was contemptuous of the other for being tied down at home, while the other jeered at the first one for being alone in his old age.
The situation didn’t ease at all until the two became replacement guards for each other, wearing exactly the same security uniforms and doing exactly the same jobs. They never said much to each other except at the shift change, but to outsiders, it seemed they had torn down a wall like the East and West Germans. The two guarded the front gate, one in the morning and the other at night, and they also kept the peace in Third Kid’s wonton shop when she wasn’t around. They’d joined forces to support the mahjong scene there, in terms of security.
And the tea leaves Four Even kept in the kitchen weren’t for just anyone to take. It was just like when Matching Pair saved the dignity of the person playing to his right, by doing something not to his own benefit. Matching Pair’s face might still show a smile when Four Even was left without a play, but when Four Even got mad, his face would soften. If someone else got mad and started swinging his stool, Matching Pair would blow the roof off the place.
Third Kid’s Wonton Shop served as a hangout for off-duty security guards. One would bring another, so gradually some fresh faces not previously seen at the factory also started coming. One guy had the misfortune of going for runs while following Matching Pair, who blocked the guy so good every time that he couldn’t get around it. After a few sets went down, the guy got in a bad mood and his smiles headed south. Matching Pair didn’t go for that at all. “If you can swallow your pride, keep on playing,” he told the guy, “or if you can’t, get out of here. If you had the right stuff, you wouldn’t be huffing and puffing like a dragon.” Matching Pair might not have had much money, but he could sure talk some trash. After a few jabs like that, the two of them were about to roll up their sleeves and take care of business, but the crowd ended up pulling them apart and talking some sense into them. Four or five tea mugs got broken, but no tables were picked up and thrown around. The guy left the place in a snit and never came again.
It wasn’t too many days later when the head of the Neighborhood Committee and three cops raided the place one afternoon while Four Even was there playing. They said someone had reported that people gathered there for gambling and asked who the shop owner was. Four Even stood up and was arrested before he even said anything. The guys at several tables were also taken away. When Third Kid got home and went for a look, the front door was sealed tight and she knew something had happened. She ran up to the door and couldn’t find Fourth Kid, but Matching Pair was still sitting in the guard kiosk as usual. It turned out that Four Even hadn't gone in for his shift at the factory, so Matching Pair had stayed there and pulled his shift.
He’d thought about it and said, "Everyone’s been coming here for years and no one’s ever turned us in. It must’ve been that twat."
“What twat?” Third Kid asked.
Matching Pair didn’t say a word. He didn’t say, “Sister, the whole thing was my fault,” and he didn’t even think of a way to save the day. Born hayseed that he was, he held out his hands, palms up, and found a broken pattern in the lines. He couldn't see even a semi-solid, circumstantial relationship to himself.
But what could he have done, anyway? Run over and testify that they hadn’t been gambling? But it was obvious that they had been. Matching Pair could do no more than stand vainly at the entrance to the community, smoking, with no way to help.
Third Kid stood vainly for a while too, then abruptly left. When she was about to leave, she left word at the guard’s duty kiosk. “Brother Wu, I’m going to need your help for the next few days.” Matching Pair knew she meant that she didn’t want her little brother to lose his job.
So Matching Pair stayed on duty for another night shift. He couldn't sit still. It wasn’t that his body couldn’t take it; it was that he was incredibly indignant. He called for someone to come and fill in, and looked everywhere – on the streets, in buildings – and asked everyone he saw that he knew. Finally he phoned a rival of his who had worked at a chemical fertilizer plant but was now a security guard at Metro AG Group.
The fellow wanted money to take a shift. Matching Pair cursed. “This is exactly why he’s such a bad guy. He’s got bilge water on the brain.” He rushed over to where his rival worked and found him just getting off work and riding his scooter out the gate. He handed the man a cigarette before saying anything. As the man was taking the cigarette, he also took several punches in the face. Matching Pair didn’t have much money, but he did have some serious fists.
Matching Pair returned to his community with two fewer teeth in his mouth. He felt he hadn’t lost anything because they would’ve fallen out eventually anyway. No one ever found out about this. His mahjong buddies never knew, and Third Kid never knew. All she knew was that Matching Pair took responsibility for Fourth Kid’s shifts.
Four Even hadn’t been to work for three days by the time he got released. He forgot about that, though. All he cared about was the mahjong he’d missed. He figured, “At four hands an hour, the cops owe me sixty hands.”
When he got back to the wonton shop, the guys told him about all that had been going on. Their point was that it was all Matching Pair’s fault, but he didn't go along with that. He said, “It’s fine, just fine. I usually don’t get enough sleep, but now I’m all caught up.”
When he went back to his post, Matching Pair was sitting in the kiosk. “You twat,” he said, “I see you didn’t starve while you were in jail.”
Four Even laughed. “I got plenty of food and plenty of sleep in jail, but it wasn’t too much better than your kiosk here.”
The two men smoked their cigarettes together, then Four Even took over the shift.
[Click here to go to part 2]
Chinese Stories in English