Chinese Stories in English
A Story about Mahjong (Part 2)
That was the last time in their lives that Four Even Ge and Matching Pair Wu were together for the shift change.
Four Even carried a cloth bag when he went through the tunnel to play mahjong the day Third Kid’s wonton shop reopened. He attracted others like a magnet as soon as he got there. “As soon as the pork-and-veggie wontons hit the wok,” he said, “the Security Guards’ Palace will be up and at it again.”
Heaven took care of Four Even that day. He was especially lucky, and he made beautiful runs several hands in a row. After the set ended, he massaged the tiles with both hands like he was conducting an orchestra, or like he was setting off a string of firecrackers in front of his home to celebrate something. His partner egged him on: “Fourth Kid, you made some kind of effort to win, taking advantage of Matching Pair not being here.” Four Even patted his chest. “No such thing. Get him over here tomorrow morning and I guarantee I’ll win.”
He didn't know that while he was so full of himself, Matching Pair was having some bad luck. His Metro AG rival’s face had swollen up and he’d filed a complaint with Matching Pair’s work unit. Matching Pair had been told that he needn’t show up for work the next day. His rival had made a clever play. If he’d reported this to the police, they’d say it was a private matter to be settled between the parties, and he’d have to foot the medical costs. Reporting the matter to Matching Pair’s unit before calling the police was the equivalent of a direct blow at Matching Pair’s livelihood.
The story of this fight spread throughout security guard circles. Some said Matching Pair was in the right while others said he’d let his anger get out of control. Gossip, it’s the same old thing wherever you go, and never does anybody much good.
Matching Pair disappeared for a while after that, and few people cared what he was doing. People didn’t imagine that a man of his years would to be able to do much in the big, wide world. Someone said he’d gone into business with relatives, while someone else said they’d seen him wiping some guy’s butt at the hospital, seemingly as a nurse, and others said he was scalping tickets by registered mail. The consensus was that he was hooked up in some shady business around the hospital. In their experience, if he was keeping his distance from the Mahjong table, it was because he was getting closer to making some money.
He was much thinner by the time he did get back to the mahjong table. His body was so shrunken that it looked to the guys like his head was bigger. His eyes were protruding, and not from being a nurse or a scalper. Something bad must’ve happened. They asked and learned that he’d gone to the hospital with his rival from Metro AG to get checked out. The doctors didn’t think anything of the rival getting beaten up; that was no big deal. Matching Pair, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with a serious problem.
That’s how the people in that factory were: They might feel scared, but they wouldn't say anything about it. The guys finished with their questions and just welcomed him back as usual.
“You’re a rare sight, Matching Pair. Haven't been here for a long time. Come on, let’s play a few quick hands.”
And he didn’t decline the invitation. Someone gave him his chair and he sat down. The guys in the wonton shop had seen it all – births, old age, sickness and death – so they didn’t take any of it seriously, mostly just as a trivial matter. Life is a set at mahjong; it goes without saying that you’ll run into some bad luck, and when you do, it’s best to just go with the flow. Play the hand you’ve got, and don’t spend any excess energy.
So Matching Pair did what he’d always done when he got off work. He brewed a pot of strong tea and played some hands on the night shift at the wonton shop, except that he changed his routine and only came in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He didn’t come in on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays because he was at the office. “At the office” meant that he’d gone to the hospital for chemotherapy.
He was like a fly that keeps buzzing around your head. He flew back and forth between the hospital and Rites Alike Street, running off for a day of pain and then coming back to relax for day. His schedule was set in concrete, and no one said much about it. When he wasn’t at the wonton shop, they just treated it like he was off somewhere on business; when he was there, he’d keep on playing as always, win or lose. And as always, he still specialized in getting matching tiles. He seemed to have an almost pious belief that he’d live on for another day as long as he could play another match.
Until one day he couldn't move, and he never came again.
That’s when the guys finally spoke about it. They talked about it over the mahjong table.
“Jeez, it’s no wonder. Drinking cola every day is bad for the stomach.”
“Smoking too much. That’ll always get you.”
“I really don't know if playing so much mahjong is good for you or not.”
They played mahjong while they talked, and it was all in the abstract. What they were really worried about was the evil that might befall their own selves, when the old crabs would become dead crabs. But if that really happened, they’d do just like Matching Pair: live life one day and massage the tiles the next. Until they couldn’t go on living. Then they’d spread out their hands, roll up their eyes and lay down to die. And never have to go to work again. It comforted them to think that.
Because Matching Pair had been playing mahjong only three days a week since he got sick, Four Even had few chances to see him. Once he was admitted to the hospital, though, Four Even could go see him every few days after he got off work. Sometimes he brought him a bowl of thin-skinned wontons from the shop, and sometimes he didn’t bring anything. In a word, he never resorted to an empty gesture like a fruit basket.
As soon as Four Even came through the door, Matching Pair’s mouth started moving, dangling cigarette and all.
“Yo. I won’t massage the tiles this morning. Going to the morgue to do something.”
He’d been lying in bed so long he could no longer turn his head, so his words were directed at the ceiling. Also, his words were obscured by the cigarette he held between his lips. The doctor taking care of him had told him that he couldn’t smoke any more, but he wouldn’t go for it for the life of him. He pleaded and begged until the doctor said that it was okay to hold a cigarette in his mouth as long as he didn’t light it. That’s called “killing the addiction”. So he depended on the taste of the filter in his mouth to perk him up. He sucked on the thing whether he was lying in bed or going to the bathroom, except when he was eating. If a nurse came along and plucked it away, he’d make a fuss like a child refusing to give up a pacifier.
Coming into the room, Four Even said, “You got some big bucks. Like doctors and medicines aren’t expensive enough already, you still have enough to waste cigarettes. Light one up for me, instead!”
When those two got to talking, it was like a never-ending battle with bayonets and bullets tearing at each other’s flesh. Anyone who didn’t understand the circumstances would think they were feuding and dumping on each another.
Four Even walked on over and looked at Matching Pair’s wife at his bedside, her eyes red and swollen. He knew Matching Pair had blown up at her again. He turned over the dining tray and put the wontons on it. “Well, Third Kid asked me to bring you these. If it was me I wouldn’t give them to you, let you starve to death and be done with it. All the energy you use to stuff your face is just wasted.”
Just as Matching Pair was about to retort, he felt a pain so severe he couldn’t say anything. He jerked and his entire face was deformed. He bit down hard on the cigarette filter and screamed “Ah, ah!”. He didn’t quiet down until he’d had a shot of a painkiller. Then he said “Third Kid is the one in your family who treats me the best. Tell her thanks for me. Me, I’m going to rest and not eat these now. My butt’s ruined from lying down. I got bedsores. I have to roll over and wipe it.”
His wife got up to wipe him. She wiped too hard and he cried out “Ah, ah” again. He was in poor health, but his voice still worked.
Standing off to one side, Four Even said, “If it hurts, tell her to wipe your ass with a hundred-yuan bill. You won't cry out in pain because your butt won’t hurt, only your heart.”
Everyone in the room laughed at that. Matching Pair raised his head and cursed, “You twat.”
Seeing that Four Even was there, Matching Pair’s wife decided to go downstairs to get something to eat. Before she left, she watched Four Even help her husband to the toilet. It took thirty seconds to walk the two steps. Matching Pair stood still in the bathroom and spoke to Four Even, who remained outside. “In the glory days of my youth, my pee-pee was like a fire hose; once the faucet was turned on, the water gushed out with a whoosh. It’s better now” – He didn’t say anything more, just leaned against the wall like that for a few minutes, with the hairs of his beard standing on end, unable to get one drop to come out.
Four Even stood outside the door, whistling, feigning unconcern. He heard the faint sounds of dripping water coming from inside.
After Matching Pair got back to the bed and got settled in, he began to eat the wontons. Four Even filled him in about what had been going on in the shop. For example, his rival from Metro AG had come in again to play mahjong. He knew Matching Pair wasn’t doing well and asked if he should visit him in the hospital, since they’d been colleagues for a bit. Matching Pair got so agitated the cigarette fell out of his mouth.
“See me for what? If he doesn’t come visit, I’ll just be at peace in this cubbyhole every day, no woes until the day I die. Tell him to keep away from me.”
“Yeah, yeah, OK,” Four Even replied. “I won’t tell him to come. The rest of the guys have talked it over and they’re coming for sure.”
After he finished the wontons, Matching Pair lay back and rubbed his chin, meaning he wanted a shave. Four Even handed him a razor and Matching Pair stuck out his hand to take it. His arm was exceedingly thin. As the razor buzzed across his face, the flesh on his palms rippled as if he were making some sort of strange gesture for his friend. He was a complete mess, so thin that his skin was loose and even his bones seemed to have shrunk. He stared blankly and said, "Fourth Kid, no need to compare, this time you’re certainly fatter than me."
His voice soft, Four Even said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get better in time.”
Tears rolled down Matching Pair’s cheek at that, soaking the filter of his cigarette.
Matching Pair’s wife made a phone call to Third Kid’s Wonton shop. She said that Matching Pair’s end was coming.
Four Even turned his head and gestured with his eyes. All the guys at three tables stood up, put on their shirts and walked outside.
The door to the hospital ward was already crowded with people standing around when they arrived. The doctor wasn’t there; he’d left after tactfully asserting he was powerless to help. Several of the people that were still there were crying, others were sighing, some were leaning against the wall making phone calls to let more people know that they should come over to cry and sigh.
Matching Pair was constipated again. The intestines only get narrower when bad things grow inside, so if you eat something hard, it isn’t easy to digest. Even if you don’t eat anything, you might get blocked up for no reason. You can drink some cola for a small blockage, and things will move smoothly when the air comes back up. A laxative for a medium blockage will soothe things along in one spurt. A serious blockage will require shots for emergency treatment, followed by the insertion of tubing. It’s just like punching a hole in the wall behind the community for your ass to go through. If you’re still constipated after all that, with food going in and nothing coming out, Yama, the King of Hell, is only two or three stoplights away.
Matching Pair had previously explained this to Four Even by analogy to kangs, Chinese style beds sometime heated by water pipes. The pipes at the head of the bed can mildew or rot from inside, or they can burst and flood like the storied Jinshan Temple. Neither situation is very pretty. He understood it quite clearly: If you don’t nip these problems in the bud, you’re relying on luck as much as when you shuffle the mahjong tiles.
“No doubt about it, no doubt at all,” Matching Pair had said. “The way I am, Fourth Kid, there’s already no doubt about it.”
Four Even squeezed through the sickroom doorway and into the front row by Matching Pair’s relatives. His attention was grabbed by Matching Pair lying crookedly on the white bed. He was so skinny that even the narrow hospital cot looked like a wide bed. Looking at him, he seemed like a cockroach on a piece flypaper from the wonton shop. He couldn’t move. When Four Even got closer, he could smell something like a package of leftovers thrown in the garbage by Third Kid, as though Matching Pair’s body was fermenting. His two eyes were black and vacant, looking at something only he could see. He still had a cigarette dangling between his lips and it trembled slightly, letting those around him know that he was still alive.
When Matching Pair saw him, he said, "You’re here Fourth Kid. What do I look like?”
“Your legs look like two ropes.”
“Nope. I obviously look like a mahjong tile.” He stared fixedly at Four Even. His voice trembled. “I’m going to throw in my hand, Fourth Kid. Light a cigarette for this mahjong tile, will you?”
Tears flowed from Four Even’s eyes. He scolded Matching Pair, “Is that any way to act at the top of your game? When the room’s on fire, you still need to smoke a cigarette?” He walked over, pulling a lighter from his shirt pocket. He covered the lighter with his hands and flicked it.
Matching Pair’s wife wanted to take the cigarette away but Four Even reached out and stopped her. “Let him smoke it,” he said. “Let him have one before he goes.”
The cigarette burned very slowly. Matching Pair stuck out a hand from under the quilt and struggled to grasp it. He spit three times for every puff he took as the cigarette’s fragrance spread through the room. Each puff seemed to relieve the sharp pain in his abdomen, and his eyebrows relaxed and furrowed up again with each breath.
When the cigarette was burned to the end, Matching Pair said, “I’m starving to death, Fourth Kid. They won’t let me eat anything because they’re afraid my guts are blocked up. But they’re blocked up whether I eat or not. Tell me, what sense does it make to turn me into a poor sap who starved to death?”
Four Even turned and asked Matching Pair’s wife, “How many days since he’s eaten?”
She held up three fingers. “They were thinking that he’d eventually take a turn for the better if he didn’t eat. Who would’ve thought…?” She didn’t finish the sentence.
Four Even gestured and the three tables of guys from the wonton shop went out together. When they came back, they each carried several plastic bags. Four Even flipped over the bed’s tray and, as soon as the bags were spread out on it, he invited Matching Pair to sit up, open them and help himself.
Matching Pair’s tears fell pitter-patter on the bags as he opened them one by one. Before his eyes appeared salted edamame, roasted bran with honey sauce, tofu mixed with shallots, thousand-year eggs, grated porridge, crispy fried fish, roast chicken, duck feet and duck tongues. Four Even had ordered almost every cold dish and cooked food that was available in the market. Matching Pair stared at it all, stupefied. After a while, the oily eel strips, river crabs with scallion and blackfish pieces with snow peas that had been ordered from a restaurant were also ready to be picked up. Somebody sent over Third Kid’s signature large size pork-and-veggie wontons and her home-made wine, despite the fact that the wonton shop was even further away. The trey and in fact the entire bed were filled with plastic lunch boxes and their tangy fragrances.
“Come on,” Four Even said, “chow down.”
Matching Pair’s eyes were glowing but he didn’t lift a finger. He was afraid he’d knock over some of the dishes if he moved. His mouth was wide open and his throat was palpitating, ga-lomp, ga-lomp, like a frog’s. He hadn’t tasted anything like these things for too long a time.
He was still staring at the spread, dazzled, when he said, "I've had it real tough these last few days, Fourth Kid. I’ve been off-stride, life not worth living."
Four Even moved a stool closer to the bed. “Well, we’ll all eat this with you.” He was the first to reach out with his chopsticks as he motioned for everyone to step forward. Matching Pair started eating, too, and as soon as he did he lost control of himself. He grabbed a morsel from here and reached over there with his chopsticks, moving faster all the time and smacking his lips. Tears dribbled from his eyes and mucus from his nose. His face had broadened into a smile and he was having a jolly good time. He suffered from sharp pains in his stomach while he was eating, causing him to cry “Oh, oh, oh,” thoughtlessly.
“Whatever I’m eating now isn’t going to come back out, Fourth Kid,” he said through bulging cheeks. “What kind of a labradoodle does that make me?”
“Then you better eat a few more bucks worth,” Four Even replied. “The little bit you’ve eaten isn’t worth keeping in you.” The crowd laughed and kept eating.
It was a bit like Matching Pair couldn’t get enough. He’d eat some, then throw up, but as soon as he stopped vomiting he’d stuff more food in his mouth as fast as ever. He started in on the booze, offering toasts to everyone in the room one after another. He laughed out loud while he spoke. “When I got married, I gave a toast at every table at the reception. I was half-way gone when I finished, but then I went and made the rounds again.”
“We’ll throw a party for you every year for sure,” Four Even said, “no two ways about it.”
Matching Pair laughed out loud. “Yes, yes, that’s the thing to do.”
After Matching Pair had offered toasts all around, he offered one to his wife. “I, Bright Purpose Wu, thank you for this life. But don’t marry me again in the next life – you’ve had enough suffering in this one.”
His wife cried so hard she couldn’t continue standing. Her son helped her take a seat.
An hour later, Matching Pair couldn’t throw up any more, so he stopped eating. His stomach hurt so much he had to lie back down, and his wife tucked him in again. The crowd felt that daylight was almost gone, so they said goodbye and left.
Matching Pair was quite weak, so Four Even helped him shave his beard for the last time. "Man, you really stuffed yourself,” Four Even said. “You look refreshed, though. You won’t need to be concerned about pain anymore. Once you’re over this hump, you won't be in pain the next time around. You hear me? When you wake up in the next life, there’ll be good food and drink all over the place. You can play mahjong whenever you want and have all the cigarettes you care to. You’ll be happy. You know that?”
Matching Pair was in pain and couldn’t answer clearly, but he nodded enthusiastically and tears rolled down his cheeks. He opened his mouth and said, “Ah, ah”, and Four Even knew what he wanted. He took out a cigarette and put it into Matching Pair's mouth.
Once everyone had left, Matching Pair lay in bed thinking this really was his last hand, and he’d been dealt a pretty good one. He already had pairs with three stalls and a bar, and all he had left in his hand was a joker – which was both another pair in the making and a winner. Whatever tile came his way next, he could lay down his hand.
He hummed something indistinct. A winner, really a powerful hand, a ton of steel. He’d pick up the next tile gently and… ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
A cigarette swayed tremulously on his lips.
Bright Purpose Wu’s stomach no longer felt painful. He got out of bed, put on his shoes and left the hospital, heading straight for Rites Alike Street. It was nearing lunchtime and open-air patios on both sides of the street were full. Someone shouted, “Matching Pair, come in and take a load off!” He walked right in without even looking to see who it was.
Various aromas floated around in the restaurant. He sniffed and picked out halal tripe, crab meat pot, chopped white-meat chicken, duck soaked in brine and vegetarian noodles, all mixed in with the fishy smell of a seafood restaurant, but all he could think about was the taste of large size pork-and-veggie wontons. He could clearly hear oil sizzling in a wok, but the sounds of mahjong were even more clear. Swoosh, swoosh, rolling the tiles in both hands, and precisely the sound of dozens of mahjong tiles colliding with each other, followed immediately by the sound of tiles being plunked down on the table, pow, pow, each one a brick of dice being rolled, tiles being drawn and hands being put together.
Bright Purpose felt that was strange. He’d obviously been on the way to the wonton shop, so how could he have such a clear vision of himself with tiles in his hands and already starting to play. He discarded tiles and drew others. The guy opposite him made a play. Bright Purpose glanced at the guy to his left, but that guy didn’t react. He glanced at his own tiles again and shouted, “Knock”!
His opposite said, “That won’t cut it. You can’t knock when it’s not your turn, Matching Pair. What’re you trying to do, lock us all out?”
The guy on his left picked up the tile so Bright Purpose couldn’t get it. Bright Purpose laughed. “Don’t talk bull. I wouldn’t dare do that kind of crap with Four Even around.” He took a tile, pushed it out and glanced at the next player. “He ought to shout, ‘I’ll take it,’” he thought, “and then push out two tiles from his hand and declare himself the winner.” He did hear the guy say, “I’ll take it,” but didn’t see him do anything. Bright Purpose thought he himself must’ve discarded too quickly, without considering what the others at the table were doing.
He ran outside desperately. The restaurants on both sides of the street seemed to be in a fog, and the sizzling of oil in the woks was going down a bit. It suddenly turned into the voices of Third Kid and his wife. Third Kid said, “Eat some more. You’ve had a tough time.” His wife said, “It doesn’t matter about me. You’ll want to open your shop for your own, but don’t worry about things too much.” When they were done talking, they started crying together.
It as in the wee hours of the morning that Bright Purpose heard Third Kid talking and crying. He wondered who would go to a public toilet at that hour. By the time someone came in to sweep the floor at six in the morning, Fourth Kid’s body had already gone stiff from rigor mortis.
That startled Bright Purpose. He said to the person sitting on his right, "Make a play, Fourth Kid.” The guy didn’t make a sound. Instead, it was his rival from Metro AG who replied. He glared and said, “What are you doing, Matching Pair? Get going. Get going.” He took the broom and chased Bright Purpose out.
Something stank outside the door. Bright Purpose looked in but didn't see Fourth Kid. He did see that Third Kid and his wife were still crying, and that people were still playing mahjong at several tables like they were immortals. He looked up at the signboard for Third Kid’s wonton shop but it was whited out and he couldn’t see it clearly. He looked at the walls to the left and right; rain trickling down from the roof over the years had left blotchy streaks. He looked closer and some were darker while some were lighter. It was quite scary and looked like a face full of stains left by tears. He stared at the wall for a while, and the more he looked, the more the face looked like Fourth Kid.
"Come on down here, Fourth Kid,” he said. “What’re you doing standing on the wall?” But the streaks on the wall were getting denser and the face was increasingly taut. It was obviously in extreme pain.
When Bright Purpose came out of it, there was a vast expanse of whiteness before his eyes. His body still ached and he couldn't say anything. He tried to swallow but couldn’t. He thought that Yama, the King of Hell, was of necessity walking beside him.
He heard Yama say, “Things like heart attacks, a guy goes to the toilet and in the blink of an eye he’s gone.” Bright Purpose was frightened and cried out a few times.
Then he heard the voices of Third Kid and his wife talking about “Old Wu” and “Brother Wu”.
He couldn't see clearly. All he could manage to do was ask, “Where’s Fourth Kid?”
“He’s playing mahjong, Brother Wu,” Third Kid answered. “He won’t be coming over this morning.” Her voice was trembling a bit and she was sobbing. Then she and Matching Pair’s wife left the room. The faint sound of their crying could be heard coming from the corridor.
Bright Purpose was lying on his back. He understood. He felt like he was sitting in the duty kiosk at the community’s gate. It was getting dark and everything was quiet, and after a while the guy would come along for the shift change. He made up his mind to say, when the guy came, “Fourth Kid, you are awesome indeed. I never figured you’d beat me at this game."
When he tried to say the words, they got blocked by his swollen throat and came out as a rattle.
From 2018 短篇小说 (人民文学出板设) at p. 1.
Translated from 豆瓣 at https://www.douban.com/note/633213475/
[If you give the Chinese text a try, you’ll find the first few pages quite difficult – lots of Wu dialect slang and localisms that even native Mandarin speakers may not be familiar with. Don’t be discouraged, though. It gets easier as it goes along (with a few exceptions) and is well worth the effort. And, as always, your suggestions and corrections of our translations will be greatly appreciated – Fannyi]
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