Chinese Stories in English
The Shortest Day
It was noon on the winter solstice. I’d finished three anorectal operations in a township clinic near Ancient Orchid Suburb. Now I’d caught a ride on a dilapidated fruit delivery truck and was hurrying off to Dalian.
The truck driver was the older brother of my second patient that day. He seemed to be fifty or so, a tough-looking, stocky fellow. When we met the first thing he said was the traditional Chinese greeting, “Have you eaten?” I shook my head and told him I’d eat at the high-speed rail station. “Ha,” he said, “if I’d known I’d have brought you the half-plate of dumplings I had left over. Winter solstice dumplings made with summer solstice flour. It doesn’t seem like the holiday if you don’t eat some! My wife made ’em today – mackerel and garlic chives for the filling, really pretty. I ate a full plate and knocked down two glasses of booze."
I was riding shotgun and rubbing my nose. My allergies had flared up. The driver thought I was trying to see if I could smell the booze on him. "Don’t worry,” he said. “I had less than two ounces. Didn't you see my face isn't red? For me, that little bit of booze is like a woman putting on lipstick – pretty on the outside, but the belly’s untouched." Then he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled, a long whistle.
The driver’s happiness wasn’t unreasonable. Since he was taking me back to Darien with him, we’d be charging his little brother several hundred yuan less, and he wouldn’t have to give his brother any money. Local custom required the relatives of anyone going to the hospital for an operation to cover at least three hundred and up to five hundred yuan of the cost, even if it was only an appendectomy, but now he wouldn’t have to do that.
I’d spent an average of one hour on each operation since I’d gone into the operating room at eight that morning. Between operations I’d done no more than drink a cup of tea, smoke a cigarette and do some deep breathing to relieve the fatigue a little. So now my legs ached, my arms were stiff and my hands and feet felt like I’d been tied up.
The truck left the dingy little town and drove out onto the highway.
I thought I’d have a chance for a nap, but the driver, whether from an innate love of chatting or from the effects of the booze, couldn’t stop talking. “How many operations did you do,” he asked while driving, “since
you started this morning?”
I didn’t feel like speaking, so I answered by raising my left hand and sticking up three fingers.
“My brother said he’d saved a lot of money by not going into the city for the operation. The way it is, the operation in the town clinic costs or five thousand. Most of that goes to you, right? You’re the outside expert, the first scalpel, so there’s no doubt you get the lion’s share!” He slapped the steering wheel with his right hand like a judge banging his gavel on issuing a verdict, letting me hear the sound of judgment.
I gave him an ambiguous grunt for an answer.
“Ha,” he said. “one skill really isn’t as good as another. You holding a scalpel in your hand is worth more to people than me holding a steering wheel! You cut into three assholes and get your hands on four or five thousand, right? I work from dawn to dark and only get that much in half a month, and then only if the job’s a good one.”
You might say the kind of surgery I do out in town clinics isn't very risky. The patient's temperature and breathing are monitored in the clinic after the procedure, and if there's no infection or other complication, they can be discharged within a week. Nevertheless, I am an expert in anorectal diseases, after all, and the driver's calling my profession "cutting into assholes" didn't sit well. I rolled my eyes, leaned back and lay my head on the back of the seat, crossed my arms and shut my eyes. My gestures were like showing him the curtain was closed. He could only sigh and concentrate on his driving.
In the last two or three years, I've made the trip from Harbin West Railway Station to Dalian North Station and back several times. Generally I start from Harbin at noon and get to my lodgings in Dalian more than four hours later. In summer and autumn I'll go for a dip in the sea at dusk. I have a seafood dinner, get a good night's sleep, and rush off to the surgery site early the next morning.
I expend my consummate medical skills and receive pain, and benefits as well. I do it for ordinary patients who are in urgent need of surgery but can't get a bed in a big city hospital; for those who balk at the cost of surgery in a large hospital; and for those with minor. illnesses who end up needing only minor treatments.
First I make an appointment with the township clinic and collect a sufficiently generous surgical specialist’s fee. If I can do four or five operations in a day, my wallet is a beehive saturated with honey. Sweet! Sometimes I earn as much as eighteen hundred yuan and I run around happily. In the final analysis, though, relieving a patient’s pain can bring a touch of brightness to my bleak existence. It makes me feel like I’m a useful person.
After winter arrives, the cold currents deprive me of the enjoyment of a dip in the sea. On the other hand, the number of people coming in for anorectal surgery during the winter doldrums surges as relentlessly as the sea at high tide. At times like that, when I arrive in Dalian I’ll go straight to the town or village where the operations are to be performed (they’re mostly near the Ancient Orchid Suburb). I’ll have dinner at a farmer's home and spend the night in the unfamiliar land, turning off the lights in my room to watch the stars while I smoke. Ancient Orchid Suburb is the heart of a sunflower in my eyes – the towns and villages scattered on all four sides are the golden petals and shine warmly on the exhausted fellow that I am.
I’m like most other middle-aged men, with an older generation above me and a younger one below. My father passed away fifteen years ago. Mother, now in her eighties, lives with her younger brother. I live in the same city, but since my son went into a compulsory detox sanitarium, Mother gets angry whenever she sees me and only lets me visit her twice a year. One time is her birthday, which falls on the Double Seven Festival (when she’ll enumerate the ways in which I was derelict in my duties as the father, leaving the eldest son of her eldest son unable to pay his respects to her on her birthday). The other is the Laba Festival, when she’ll serve me the traditional bowl of porridge.
She has severe pulmonary heart disease and it’s worse in the winter, especially on smoggy days. She vows to live until her grandson gets out of detox so she can take my place in educating him. My mother, like my wife, says that his abusing drugs was all my fault, a father who spared the rod and spoiled the child. When they say that, I’ll defend myself despite my guilty conscience and tell them, “The word ‘father’ in that saying doesn’t mean just the father.” They’ll look darts at me when they hear that, like I’d fired a bullet at them, which sends a chill down my spine.
In fact I did rather pamper the boy. He did whatever he wanted to do, and I tried as much as I could to give him whatever he wanted. I thought that a tree could only stand tall if it wasn’t pruned. But I forgot, the jungle that was his actual life was far more materialistic and sinister than an actual jungle.
I used to work in the anorectal department of a hospital affiliated with a medical school. I was the principal operating surgeon and was often at the operating table. With my salary, bonuses and red envelopes from patients, my life was quite comfortable. I always returned half of the money I received in red envelopes to the patients, though. While I knew that red envelopes were just the way things were, and I’m certainly no saint, it at least soothed my conscience a little bit.
My career has me seeing people who’re on the verge of death. A hospital mortuary is never deserted – it’s distressingly full, just like a maternity ward. The difference is that some people have their mouths completely shut to this world, while others come in screaming. No matter how distressing a person’s life is, though, no one cries about their former life after they die. That’s why I’ve always maintained a skeptical attitude about the awareness of the soul. When you die, you die. It’s like a cloud in the sky – when it breaks apart, it’s gone, never to be reconstituted in its previous form. That’s determined my attitude towards life and money, too. I spend extravagantly when I should, because I can make money hand over fist but I can't create time.
I’m not a stickler about my apparel. I’ve spent most of my professional life wearing one white outfit, and have told people that if everyone were a doctor, clothing shop owners would cry themselves silly. But wearing that white outfit, I always feel like I’m performing a premature mourning ritual for myself. Aside from what I wear, I take the other pleasures of life seriously: I live comfortably, eat well, and drive a car I like. That’s why, a long time ago, my family sold our old house under the Peaceful Development Bridge in Harbin and bought a place in the Daowai District with a view of the Songhua River.
Speaking of Daowai, my wife doesn't like the area. I'm from a county town outside the city, but she was born in an old Russian-style house in the Nangang neighborhood, which used to be a community for Russians working as senior staff for the China Eastern Railway. The houses there are all small, western-style buildings with a courtyard garden. When the Chinese lived there later, two or three families shared one building. Since she was born there, though, she always had a sense of superiority, as though she were somehow a part of the aristocracy, and looked down Daowai as an old-style residential area for lowbrows.
Although Daowai is greatly transformed these days, it's still chaotic. Very few dignitaries or people who've achieved a high official position live there, so the prices are relatively cheap. And what I want is the kind of worldliness found there. The streets and alleys are crooked, small stores and shops are blooming everywhere, and the shouts of hawkers in the night market never stop. Candy and roasted sweet potatoes get sold in front of the antique market, and sleeping dogs lie in front of the street where flowers are sold. Men carrying goods in three-wheeled carts sing ditties while they trudge along. In the height of summer, shirtless barbers try to drum up business on the street corners as they always have. Isn't this the cacophony of real life, its dynamic vitality! I love Daowai 's old-fashioned eateries the most. A tofu stuffed bun, a plate of beef tongue in soy sauce, a bottle of beer – that's how I enjoy my weekends.
My wife works as a landscape designer a private enterprise. Her income isn’t bad, although not as high as mine. The rhythm of her work is: drawing plans when she’s in the office, and searching for contracts when she’s not. She’s like a well-trained physician these days, and my wallet is an open wound. She can clean it out completely in one swoop, neatly and nimbly, and not leave a damn dime.
Of course, sometimes she’s slow getting to it and my son will beat her to the punch. The boy’s too lazy to study. When he was in high school he skipped classes two out of three days to play online games and hang out in bars. He ended up only getting admitted to a privately-run college on the outskirts of town. He has a dorm room but doesn’t live in it – instead he rents a place to live with his girlfriend. He’s not rigidly attached to any one girlfriend, of course.
If my wife takes the money, her fondest obsession is buying sable coats, of which she has in a variety of styles and colors. When the cold wind blows, she steps into tall boots and dons one of her collection to wear. She’s most contented when she’s “clippity-clopping” her way down the flagstones of Central Avenue. In a city like Harbin, landscape designers don’t have a lot to do in the winter, so she has ample time for showing off.
Since my wife and child are addicted to searching through my wallet, I’m forced to keep a secret stash in a drawer in my office. Also, in addition to the bank account where my salary gets direct-deposited, I’ve opened another account to deposit money every once in a while for use in emergencies. It’d be hard for them to crack the password, 747474, a homonym for "starting to die" three times. The use of such a password by a doctor is equivalent to giving himself a motto, “save the dying and help the wounded". I told my wife and son clearly that I use this account for my daily expenses and they needn’t concern themselves with it. Aside from eating, drinking and maintaining my car, I pay my mother a monthly living allowance of 1,500 yuan (by deposit to my brother's account). There’s an expense that I can’t reveal publicly as well – I have another woman besides my wife.
She has a wonton shop in Daowai. Her husband got sick and died, and she has a daughter in college. I was first drawn to her wontons and then to her. She told me that I wasn't the only man in her life, but said she'd never marry again, that she didn't want to have another experience crying over a man. We really don't see each other often. Sometimes we're both busy, or don't have the basic need to be together with a lover, and we won't see each other for two or three months. Sometimes when I'm in the mood, I'll go seek her out at the wonton shop and squeeze into her never-ending stream of diners. Or she'll get a sudden craving for me and pretend to be a patient seeking an appointment with me as a specialist. If she sees I can't get away, we can only cast hot looks at each other, hemmed in by strangers, and then walk away frustrated.
The fruit delivery truck got to Dalian after I'd been riding more than an hour. The driver had me get out as soon as we entered the city. He said trucks could only drive on a limited number of streets and I should catch a taxi to North Station. I waited out in the cold for nearly twenty minutes before I caught a cab, and only had a quarter of an hour until my train by the time I got out of the cab at the station. The only reason I didn't miss the train was because I crowded in line to pick up my ticket and took the emergency passage through the security check.
After I got on, the train started up before I'd settled down in my seat. The high-speed train leaves from Coastal City and looks like a beltfish flashing silver. That's the only kind of fish I ever got to eat on New Year's in my childhood. It has a flat head with a body shaped like a long sword and is uncommonly shiny.
I had a seat in the special class section thanks to my first patient that day. He was the owner of a township enterprise and had ordered the ticket for me online. Otherwise I'd have bought a first class ticket.
The special class and first class seats were in the same compartment, separated into two distinct areas by a frosted glass doorway. The eight special class seats took up maybe a quarter of the carriage, but there were only two passengers. The other passenger was a middle-aged man. He sat in a window seat blabbing away with someone on his phone about the price of corn. He seemed to be a businessman. Once the train got out of Dalian, he glanced at me and muttered, "Can't smoke on the high-speed train. It's really depressing." When I didn't react, he started in on his cell phone again. This time he called his family. He missed his family's doggie and just had to hear it bark. I guess the dog wasn't very cooperative because I heard him revile the creature. "Loving you is really a waste! Just wait'll I get home! I'll smash your doggie head and that's not all!"
The conductor came in to check our tickets and pass out a kraft paper bag of food to each of us. I opened it and took a look, but there was only two cookies, a small packet of peanuts and three pieces of dried hawthorn, not even enough to take the edge off my hunger. I asked the conductor, "Are meals provided in the special class?"
He said, "Hrumph. If you want to eat a regular meal, you have to pay for it." When I asked how to buy one his tone of voice warmed up a bit. "Who eats at two in the afternoon?" he asked. "The food service ended a long time ago. But I can ask for you and see if there's a leftover box lunch."
A waiter wearing a white coat like a doctor did indeed come along shortly after the conductor left. He had three leftover box meals on a tray in his hand. When he asked who wanted one I said I did. “Twenty yuan,” he announced, and told me to take a box. I paid the money and reached over to touch the three boxes, and took one that was slightly warmer. My hungry stomach immediately got going. I shoveled the half-cooked rice and the barely edible green peppers with pork down my throat. Afterwards I got sleepy. I leaned against the window and looked out.
The sky was gray over the vast landscape. Bare fields passed by rapidly, with cattle and sheep in twos and threes, low-rise houses and people burning wheat straw in open fires. And cemeteries, too. Since it was the winter solstice season, all these things cast long shadows on the land, and the contrast with the real objects overwhelmed my eyes. I fell sleep right away.
It was almost dark when I woke up. The other passenger was gone. I don't know if he got off at Yingkou or Anshan. Or maybe Shenyang, which we were just leaving.
A young man in a uniform was sitting across the aisle from me. He had his head down and was playing with his phone. Although he was sitting, I could see he was a big, tall fellow, with a broad back, wide shoulders and a pair of long legs stretched out. When he noticed me stretch and stand up, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. "You can really sleep, sir. You slept all the way from the Mackerel Circle to Shenyang."
He had a big face with a wide brow, thick eyebrows and average sized eyes. His lips were thick and his round chin protruded slightly. His ears were shaped like shoes. The straight nose in his peaceful face bespoke strength, highlighting the courage in his gentleness.
"Yeah, I slept straight through until it got dark," I told him.
"Can’t blame you, sir. It’s the winter solstice. Today is the shortest day of the year. The sun doesn’t want to see us and goes down early.” Jokingly, he continued, “You could say the sun is like the CEO of heaven – it doesn’t need to punch a time clock and no one can tell it when to go home.”
I asked him if he was an attendant for the special class section. He shook his head and said, "My job is equipment maintenance and troubleshooting."
"That’s a mechanic, eh?"
"How does an average guy get to sit in special class?” I asked. “A big station like Shenyang, and no one else got on?"
"This run is only four hours or so from start to finish, sir. I could handle it, standing all the way. Second and third class are quite good these days, too, so not many people buy first class tickets, let alone the special class. They’re so expensive, and who wants to spend the money?” He waived his hand. “If it was me, I’d go third class! Save the money to eat in a restaurant when I get off the train.” He smacked his lips, probably thinking of a gourmet meal.
"When I went home for summer and winter vacations when I was in college, I always sat in fourth class hard seats and didn't feel like it was too tough. Now my ass is all delicate, and not just because of my age, so I know I have to be picky about my seat."
The young fellow said he’d observed it was mostly businessmen and government officials who went special class, along with their "young Misses". He said those girls dressed entirely in brand name clothes. Their eyes had an empty look they were so arrogant they’d order people around just by pointing with their fingers or their chins. The young things wore strong perfume on their bodies and knew who their daddies were.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked."
He said he often came to the special class section to relax because most of the seats are empty. After those girls get on the train, they talk endlessly into their cell phones. What they say gives him clues about who they are.
"How old are you this year?" I asked
"Twenty-five. I’ve been taking care of trains for three years."
"You’re only two years older than my son,” I sighed, “and you’re self-sufficient. Can you make ten thousand yuan in a month?"
He tapped on his ear like it was a wind chime and gently fiddled with it. "Well, sir,” he said,” when you say that I know you’re a big businessman. How can I earn ten thousand a month? At most I get seven thousand a month, and usually just five or six. In my classmates’ eyes, they’re jealous that I get that much. They don't know what I have to put up with. I never get a good meal on the train, and I almost never get to sit and relax like I’m doing now. Whenever I finally get some time off, the boss is on the phone calling me in to work. If you don't come in you make the boss mad, and what good could come from that, so you have to tough it out and come on in.
“Everyone knows that drawing too much on your physical strength is bad for your health. We had a maintenance man in our section who was only four years older than me. He'd just been married two years. He had to work for a month straight, and when he got off he took a bus home. What happened was, the conductor on the bus found a passenger who was asleep in the seat and didn't get off the bus. She pulled him lightly and asked him where he was going. It turned out the guy was a stiff." The young man sighed before continuing. "Fortunately he didn’t have any kids yet. Otherwise his wife would’ve been really miserable."
"Are you married?" I asked.
"Well, sir, someone like me, how could I find a wife? I did find one girl, but I blew her off the first time I took her out to eat. I very politely called the waiter over to order,” he elaborated, “and after he left, guess what she said? She said, ‘You’re spending good money to eat here, so why the heck were you so respectful to the waiter?’ Right then and there I decided she was low class.
“As it happened, the chef put too much salt in one dish, the potatoes with squid, so she called the waiter over and lectured him. After getting chewed out, the waiter told the chef, who came out of the kitchen all sweaty and apologized. He said he hadn’t sleep well the night before, so his touch wasn’t as good as usual and he’d added a bit too much salt, and he’d comp that dish and not charge us for it. But she wouldn’t let it go and insisted that he redo it.
“I saw, lo and behold, she had no empathy at all, so I wouldn't want to ask her out a second time. We ate, I paid the check and we left. I put her in a cab and immediately blocked her number on my cell phone. I want to find a down-to-earth girl, one who’s unassuming, understanding and respectful. Otherwise my mom will suffer the consequences right along with me."
What he said stung me. My son's girlfriends, I’d met two of them, and both were wearing strange clothes. Those girls had filthy mouths and were cynical, and liked to smoke and drink. But the boy was into them and said they knew how to live. He got hooked on drugs while he was hanging out in bars with the second one. That one wore a miniskirt in both winter and summer.
By the time I noticed that my son’s face and spirit weren’t normal, he’d already been hooked for two years. He and his girlfriend had taken out high interest loans because he wasn’t getting enough money from me, so when he went into rehab, I had to pay nearly a million yuan in debts for them. I was forced to give up my job and transfer to an anorectal specialist hospital in North River, where the conditions were so-so but I got a higher income and more freedom to moonlight. Of course, I still needed the pleasures that a man should have, like eating fresh seafood, watching movies and occasionally getting a room by the hour in an express hotel for a private meeting with my wonton cafe lover – moments of temporary happiness that I could enjoy for a long time afterwards.
I once asked my son, “You must have known that drugs would hurt you, so why did you take them?”
He said life was a bore. There was no room for imagination, and all was emptiness with or without money. But after he took drugs, there was no limit to the richness of his hallucinations. If he wanted to be an emperor he was an emperor, wearing brocade garments and eating with jade chopsticks and concubines crowded around. When he wanted anyone beheaded it was as good as done. Or he could be an elegant pauper embracing a wine bottle, strolling through a forest of peach blossoms in tattered clothing with butterflies flitting around him. In his hallucinations he could ladle water from the Milky Way to make tea, and could grab a devil out of Hell to serve as his groom. He could even be my elder at such times, of course, and give me orders while I knelt before him as a docile and obedient son.
I don't have a clue where his emptiness came from. When I thought about it, he had no worries about food or clothing. Even if his career as a student was ruined and education could no longer be the mainstay of his life, he should still have lived as a regular person with a stable life.
When he saw I was lost in thought, the young man said, "You’re thinking I shouldn’t have blown that girl off, aren’t you, sir? Whatever, there’re too many girls like that these days. They don’t look at a man’s character, just how much money he’s got. And then there’re the moody ones. They think they have to act a little 'barbaric' to be cute. A man like you, you’ve got some money, so gangs of girls must follow your son around. You don’t have to worry about searching for a daughter-in-law! My mom’s different. She has people looking in all four directions to find me a girlfriend, all white-haired old ladies in their fifties!"
"Then, your dad doesn't care what you do?" I asked.
"My dad died when I was ten. He was working in a grain depot at the time. One year just after the freeze, he was transporting grain in a donkey cart and took a shortcut over a river that wasn’t quite frozen solid yet. The ice cracked, and both him and the cart fell through the hole. My dad had no luck at all. The donkey thudded up onto the bank, but Dad and the grain sank. Mom hated that donkey. She said that good draft animals can save their masters in times of danger, but bad ones are devils who carry a Souls Wanted card around and sell their masters off into the underworld."
The train arrived at Tieling West Station. The young man got up and went about his business. The moment he got up I saw his height clearly. He was at least 5’11” and really stocky. It was already dark outside and not many passengers were getting on or off, so the platform looked rather deserted.
I was starting to like this sturdy, sunny young man and was looking forward to talking to him again, but some other workers came along to ride in the special seat section from Tieling West to Siping and then to Changchun. They played on their phones by themselves after they sat down, taking a break from their chores, and then they left. Once again, I was left alone.
The nighttime scenes rolled by outside the window like flowing ink. Sometimes we passed a place with scattered lights that seemed like stars flashing through the ink. On a train going over 185 miles per hour, everything outside the window seemed to have grown legs and was running by at top speed, so even the glittering lights became like "last night’s stars" in the blink of an eye.
The young man came in again before the train reached the end of the line. He greeted me with a warm smile and said, "One more stop, sir, and you’ll be in Harbin. You’ll be home before long."
"From your accent I can tell you’re from the Northeast, too. Where’s home?" I asked.
"We’ve already passed it…." He seemed a little melancholy.
He didn't tell me where he was from, but he did say that a famous case of cheating had occurred there the year he took the college entrance exam. He was in the same exam hall as the cheaters. Once he knew they were cheating, he fought with himself over whether turn them in to the proctor while the test was still going on. (He said he was afraid the cheaters would get their revenge on him and eventually chose to abandon the idea.) He wasn’t himself, though, so ended up only testing into the Railway Academy. His dream had been to study art.
"Art?" I was a little surprised.
"I love movies," he said. "My favorites are Iran's Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami, and Japan's Akira Kurosawa and Kitano Takeshi. Their films are just too much!"
"Then do you like Kurosawa’s "Dersu Uzala?" I asked.
"You betcha!" The young man stuck up his thumb and looked like he’d just met his soulmate. "You, sir, are the most cultured businessman I’ve met since I started working on the trains!"
He told me he didn't like his job. It was tiring, boring and dangerous. Once a train running at high speed got struck by lightning and made an emergency stop. The lights went out and it was a pitch-black night outside. He got off to inspect the damage with a flashlight. He was standing under a flyover checking out a high-voltage line that had fallen. It looked like a noose that was about to wrap itself around his throat. He started to shiver and almost fell over.
That wasn’t the only danger. He said the high-voltage power lines for the bullet trains carry 27,500 volts. He feels an invisible sword is hanging over his head and worries about the exposure to radiation from long-term employment The experts say there’s no danger to the crew, but he’s afraid anyway. He’s thought about quitting and buying some professional equipment to make short films with a few like-minded friends to sell to big online platforms. While he was speaking he pulled out his cell phone to show me a short film he’d taken with the phone.
It was only about five minutes long. A rickshaw driver was transporting goods through a cramped, muddy alley during a rainstorm. The camera tracks his back. A woman dressed in purple walked alongside him carrying a black umbrella in one hand and a holding a chicken in the other. The chicken’s wings were tied together by what looked like a tight butterfly knot. Its crown shone in the rain and its legs were struggling weakly.
An older man wearing a tattered blue raincoat walked along facing the driver. He walked with a limp and was followed by a dejected looking yellow dog. They were in turn followed by a shirtless boy who carried a two-stringed fiddle called a huqin in his hand. He also held a piece of plastic foam above his head as an umbrella, so that he seemed to be walking with a white cloud over his head.
The buildings the tricycle driver passed were low and dilapidated, and some even had green weeds growing on their rooves. He peddled slowly uphill and the more he peddled the harder it got. When they came to a high curb, the woman in the purple clothes turned aside and went into a small eatery, probably to sell the chicken. At some time before that, the yellow dog had turned its head and run up to the tricycle. While the driver struggled to climb the curb, the dog got behind the tricycle and used its muzzle to shove at the cargo, pushing with all its might.
The film stopped abruptly. Whether the driver got over the curb, whether the yellow dog really was helping him, whether the rain finally stopped – the film offered no explanation.
"It's really good." I felt those two words weren’t enough to express how much I’d been moved, so I added, “Absorbing.”
"Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, the equipment wasn’t adequate. If I had professional gear, I could’ve done better. I have accumulated a lot of material for shorts like this."
I asked, “Were the characters real people, or did you hire actors?”
"Did you think they looked like actors?" The young man was a little disappointed with my lack of discernment and a smile showed at the corners of his mouth. With a touch of sarcasm, he said, "Were you able to see how the performance was composed? I shot it in the rain."
"So why didn't you quit your job like you wanted and do what you like doing?"
"Well, sir, I was about to do just that, a little over six months ago, when one day my mother suddenly couldn’t breathe. She was covered with sweat, her lips were as purple as an eggplant, and she couldn’t talk. Luckily I had the day off and saw she wasn’t well, and I took her to the emergency room right away. An angiograph showed blockage in the coronary artery. She needed two stents. The doctor asked me, 'You want imports or made in China'. That hit me like a brick. It was like a devil at the gates of Hell saying people who have money go to Heaven, and people who don’t go to Hell. I wanted to cry.
“The China-made stents go for ten thousand yuan each, and the imports are thirty thousand each, but how could I say I didn’t want the imports? So my mom had the operation and, just like that, the entire sixty thousand yuan that I’d worked so hard to earn up since I started working was just a memory. So how could I have money to buy equipment? I feel it was no big deal, though, sir. I only have one mother, so I’ve got to take good care of her.
“As for those short features, I can film them playing around on my cell phone. I consider it as practice. Besides, suppose I did get all the gear together – the horse might not start running even if you have a good saddle. Maybe I couldn’t shoot a good movie. My business would fail because no one on the net would click on my features. I wouldn’t make my investment back, and even money for food might be a problem. At that point my mother would worry herself to death. So it was better to keep my job on the trains."
So, starting from the big screen movie directors he admired, the young man had talked about his dream of making short features. But that wasn’t all. He also talked about his studies. He said he liked documentaries, especially artists’ biographies. They made him feel like he was seeing departed people that he cared about in a dream, and he couldn’t describe the exquisite agony of it. He said he’d bought a few books, both Chinese and foreign, that were listed as best sellers in imaginative fiction by a readers’ website. He ridiculed them, “That kind of book, you know how it’s going to end as soon as you start reading. All they’re good for is scam little girls out of their money, or helping insomniacs take a nap by reading three pages, or letting….”
Before the young man finished, a thin, middle-aged man with a pale face and a serious expression came into the compartment. He was wearing a uniform and an armband that said “Conductor”. The young man stood up and saluted as soon as he saw him, then looked aside at me, made a long face and quickly left. When he walked up to the glass automatic door, it popped open like a respectful servant in front of his huge body. The conductor looked me over indifferently and left shortly thereafter.
After the train arrived at the terminal, I didn't know where among all the blazing neon signs I’d be able to find a place to get winter solstice dumplings. My wife was keen to go shopping because, she said, some brand-name goods go on sale for as much as seventy percent off during the holidays. When she was shopped out, she’d get a bowl of cross-the-bridge rice noodles or a meat-ball casserole at a fast food joint in the mall. She loved shopping just as much after our son entered rehab, but she didn’t buy anything. Before, she was like a hero coming home from the wars when she got home from shopping, glory showing on her face and packages big and small in her hands. Now she was like a pauper, emptyhanded and a face full of misery.
I’d been eager to spend that evening with either her or the wonton woman eating dumplings that they’d made. However, no one gave me a call, not even a text message asking tenderly how I was. Maybe my wife was strolling aimlessly around the mall, and maybe the proprietress of the wonton had her mind occupied with thoughts of making money on this great-for-business night. Why would she think of me, someone who was basically of no particular importance in her life?
Feeling discouraged, I used my phone to get on the net and looked over the day’s news for a while. Then I dozed off. By the time I woke up, the train had already entered Harbin West Station.
My phone, which had been sound asleep the whole trip, woke up with the shrill ring of an incoming call when we arrived at the end of the line. I answered, and it was the director of the township clinic where I’d operated that morning. He told me that the patient in my third operation, the one with circular hemorrhoids, had presented normally after the operation, but within the last half hour he’d suddenly started to bleed from his anus and had become delirious. He was now on his way to Dalian on an emergency basis.
“How could that be?” I yelled. “My procedure was flawless!”
The director could only tell me the truth. He said the patient was feeling quite well, and since it’s the winter solstice, his relatives sent him a lunchbox of dumplings. He was so happy he not only ate the whole lot, but washed them down with a bottle of beer.
“What, he was trying to commit suicide, eating and drinking so much right after anorectal operation?” I’d gotten off the train and was standing on the noisy platform, shouting at the guy.
“No matter what, it was your operation, so you’d better come back and have a look. We’re responsible for his care, but if he dies, things won’t go well for either you or us.”
“Things aren’t going well for me in any event.” I hung up the phone angrily.
“How come you’re still in the station, sir? Everyone else has gone.” The young man from the train came up beside me pulling a neat little wheeled carry-on.
“Got a little problem,” I said sadly. “I have to go back to Dalian.”
He stopped and took his phone out of his pocket. He checked something and said, “Well, sir, you’d better get over to Platform Two right away, sir. There’s a train leaving for Dalian in fifteen minutes.” He pointed out the way to Platform Two for me and told me where to turn. “You don’t have a ticket,” he continued, “so when the conductor checks tickets just tell him it’s an emergency. Get on the train first and then get a make-up ticket. The special class section is either in the front of the train or the rear. Don’t worry, for sure there’ll be an empty seat!”
He waived and said goodbye, then walked off into Harbin’s winter solstice night pulling his carry-on. Me, I took one glance at my hometown before starting another nighttime trek – we’re all rushing off into the unknown.
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 014
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 中国作家网 at
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