​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Where Is Your Seat?
Fan Xiaoqing

      Five minutes to six.
      I’m the only one in the office. The ones who wanted to slip away all left early. I wanted to duck out, too, but I didn't. I’ve lost a lot by committing petty offences in the past, and once burned, twice shy, and I’m shy several times over.
      Our Director’s greatest talent is spot checking. He’ll come around whenever you’re not ready. One time he called on the phone one minute before quitting time to check up on me. I’d just walked into the hallway and closed the door when I heard the faint sound of the phone ringing. I was suspicious and rushed back in to answer it, but he’d already hung up. I was careful to look at the caller ID, but it was a strange number so I didn't call back.
      That’s how I got caught.
      I was such a tyro.
      Later the Director said, “Don't tell me you left one minute early. True or not, I didn't see it and I won't believe you. I only believe in the facts and the fact is that you weren’t in the office.”
      I’m not stupid, and I alertly learned not to be greedy for a few extra minutes off work. By the same token, though, there were still ways around it. For example, once the director got sick and was in the hospital. One minute I was at the hospital visiting him, and the next I’d left the hospital and was at a friend's tea room. I’d just sat down and the tea hadn’t even finished steeping when my phone rang. It was from the office and was the Director’s voice, the old man himself. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and started to doubt space and time.
      “Yes, sir,” I said. “What is it?”
      “It’s nothing.”
      It was because the Director had already completed the discharge procedures when I went to the hospital to see him. He didn’t tell me, though. As I was leaving, he was discharged from the hospital and returned to the unit.
      That’s how simple and normal things are – no variations, no chaos time, and no room for anything else.
      But I got caught again.
      Actually I’m considered pretty content with my lot at work. And I am content, at least on the surface. I’ve only been caught those few times. Do I have grievances? Nope. The Director couldn’t be nice to me after I got caught, and he straightaway looked at me squinty-eyed in front of his other subordinates. Although I’m not considered overly concerned with saving face, for better or worse I am a deputy director, and there are some things I don’t want marring my dignity. In the future I’ll always be more careful and take note of the Director's mentality. I at least know when he’ll do his sudden spot checks. Those few minutes before quitting time are definitely the most dangerous.
      The Director has been away on a business trip with the Bureau’s Secretary the last couple of days, meaning the cat’s away and there’s no substitute mouse catcher. The little monkeys have fled, but I won’t. I’m prepared for what’s coming.
      With this thought in mind, I scanned the wall clock unconsciously. Three minutes to six.
      The phone rang.
      So it really did ring after all.            I’d thought it all out beforehand. When I took the call from the director, I’d say, “Yes, sir, Young Zhang, Young Wang, Young Li, Young so-and-so, they’re all gone.” Why shouldn't I sell them out?
      I was really glad I hadn’t left a few minutes early. I picked up the receiver at once, but it wasn’t the Director. It was a mechanical voice which said only two words: “Incoming fax.”
     I pressed the button and, psst, psst, the fax came in. I took it out of the machine and, right away, my skin crawled. “Important meeting tomorrow morning. Head person in each department to attend. No absence requests granted. Register before leaving work today.”
    I looked at the clock again: Two minutes to six, and the Director was supposed to sign up before going home? Two minutes, what kind of timing is that? It was so funny I almost laughed. Although I thought it was ridiculous, I knew clearly what I had to do. I called the Director at once. The phone rang for a long time before he answered. I could tell from his voice that he was quite unhappy. "Don’t you know what I’m doing today? What’s so urgent that you need to call me at this time?”
     I hurried to tell him that the matter was indeed urgent. “There’s only one minute left and we don’t dare waste any time. I’ll report as succinctly as possible. General meeting tomorrow, must be attended by the number one person in each department. No absences granted. Register before end of work today.”
    The Director was stunned and swore. “What time is it now?” he asked. “Sign up before quitting time today?”
     I pressed him politely. “That’s right, Director, It’s today, it’s today. There’s still half a minute.”
     Once the Director got over his surprise, he burst out laughing. He turned the tables and asked me, “You think the Secretary can rush back there to attend tomorrow's meeting?”
    “Of course not, sir, he’s accompanying the senior leader on a grassroots inspection. Where you are is really the grassroots, very remote. It’s not a leisurely tour through is the suburbs.”
    “Even if the Secretary went without sleep and drove all night to get back, he couldn’t leave the senior leader out here in the grassroots, so he can’t possibly attend tomorrow’s meeting no matter what.”
    I asked his advice. “What should we do? And you, Director, can you get back?”
    “What do you think?” he said angrily. “All you have to do is blurt the question out of your mouth, and I can drop the Secretary here and go back?”
    Since there was nothing the Director could do, what else could I do? I had to call the duty room where the fax came from and make an absence request for the Secretary on the ground that he was with upper echelon cadres conducting research at the grassroots level. They only heard the words "absence request" and immediately asked: “’Absence request?’ Is the grassroots your Secretary went to in a foreign country?”
    How could I dare to lie? I reported honestly, “No, it’s not.”
    They said, “Everyone who’s not overseas must make it back for the meeting. Absence requests are not allowed.”
    After hanging up, I again wondered what I could do. I contacted the Director again and asked him. He said, “We’ll send a substitute.”
    I hadn't been a deputy director for long and had never had the chance to do anything like substituting at a meeting, so I had to ask for clarification. “Substitute at the meeting? Substitute who?”
    “Whoever,” he said. “Take a look at the roster, Deputy Director. “Whoever’s place is empty for tomorrow, substitute them.”
    I followed orders. I went to the other Deputy Directors, but three of the four didn’t have time. The only one with time was a sly old fox, a veteran of the bureaucracy. He didn’t buy what the Director was selling. He said, in true officialese, “Hmm, substituting at meetings is no longer allowed. Sign me up under my own name, but I can’t substitute.”
    But the duty room for the office over there wouldn’t take his name. They only wanted the top people.
    I tossed the problem back to the Director. He was attending to the senior leader and the Secretary. He should have been keeping his mouth tightly shut, serving them silently, but instead he went off on me for calling him incessantly, as if he were busier than the Secretary and the senior leader. He really blew his stack. “If no one else can go,” he said, “you go!”
    Angry or not, the thing still had to be taken care of. Not to would be a real slip-up, so he added, “Sign up in the Secretary’s name, and go.” Without waiting for my reaction, he also directed me, “Remember, don't talk to anyone at the venue. Keep your head down and your voice quiet, and keep it low key. Anyone who gets caught substituting these days gets punished.”
    Substituting might be punishable, but it wouldn’t be me that got punished. In that frame of mind I teased the Director. “I can keep my head low and my voice low and my key low,” I said. “I can keep everything low, but my face is right here and I can’t wear a mask. What should I do on the off chance that someone recognizes me?”
    The Director laughed in spite of himself. “It’ll be all top leaders at the venue. You think they’ll recognize you?”
    I still had doubts, though. “But they should know Secretary Sun. If it’s not him sitting there, won’t they….”
    The Director interrupted me. “You’re thinking too much.”
    That was the end of it. I had to face facts, of course, and called to sign up right away. I glanced at the wall clock again, and it was already past quitting time, but the duty room over there was obviously still open, waiting for people from the various units to register. When they answered my call and heard the words “Secretary Sun, they didn’t waste any words but just hung up.
    Maybe it was because the Director had repeatedly stressed it, but the idea of substituting lay like a knot on my heart. I may have dreamed that night, dreamed that I couldn't find the meeting venue and arrived late. I’d known from the start that what I was doing was shameful, but I walked into the meeting anyway, with all those people looking at me. – Whether I had that kind of dream or not, I felt my heart thumping when I woke up.
    I left home early because I was afraid of being late, so I got to the meeting too early. I copied what other people were doing and went first to the registration table to get the meeting instructions and seating chart. I didn’t dare go into the venue right away, though, so I ducked into a corner outside and pretended to be making a phone call. While trying to look busy and anxious, I examined the seating chart carefully until the first bell rang, then I scurried into the venue and quickly found my seat. I was about to sit down when a guy in the row behind me stuck out his paw to shake my hand. Then the guy in the row in front of me turned around and gave me a wave, which counted as a greeting.
    The aisle was on the left side of my seat, and the person to the right was greeting me with a smile. I couldn't help a spasm of panic and returned an awkward smile. Fortunately the meeting was already starting.
    After the leaders were one-third into their speeches, everyone began to relax a little. Some were drinking tea, some were looking at their phones, some were paging through the conference manual and some were whispering a word or two into one another’s ears. I wasn’t all that comfortable. From the time I’d sat down, the right half of my body had felt particularly tense. It seemed like it wasn’t a person sitting there, but a beast who might jump up and bite me at any time.
    I quietly compared the meeting instructions with the seating chart. I knew that the fellow was named Everbright Xu and was the lead Secretary of a certain unit, but I didn’t dare meet his gaze even a little. Since he and Secretary Sun were both the top leaders of their units, they should know each other, so he would certainly know that I wasn’t Secretary Sun.
    This was a most important and most crucial issue. The Director not only hadn’t told me what to do in this situation, but had even told me not think too much.
    Maybe there was a tacit understanding about substituting at meetings and everyone allowed for it. Secretary Xu therefore didn’t say much of anything to me during the entire meeting, just smiled at me occasionally, a seemingly magnanimous kind of smile.
    I appreciated that and thought about inching a little closer to express a few words of thanks, but then I remembered the Director warning me that the less said the better, so I held my tongue and continued listening to the meeting.
    I ended up stifling it until the meeting was over, and held firm to the Director’s instructions. I kept my head down as I hurried out of the hall. It went as smoothly as planned. Everyone was in a hurry and no one nodded to me or wanted to shake hands.
   The Secretary and the Director were back in the office two days later. I thought the Director would want to know what had happened at the meeting, but he never mentioned it. He’d probably forgotten the matter, or it was such a minor thing that it wasn’t worth mentioning.
    A while later, while I was walking in our organization’s courtyard, I heard someone behind me call out, “Secretary Sun, Secretary Sun.” Well, I’m not Secretary Sun, so I didn’t think anything of it and went on walking. Then the person who’d shouted caught up with me and said, “Hey, don’t you remember me?”
    Several people walking along the road nodded to us and smiled.
    I was a bit confused and really didn't recognize the guy. It’s a big weakness of mine – I’m basically face blind. I don’t remember some people, even though I’ve obviously seen them many times, if they’re ordinary looking with nothing special about them. This is a flaw that people find insulting, but I’m unable to change. I’ve tried to find out whether there’s any way to overcome the problem. I went online to research it and there were tons of solutions, some really strange ones, but when I tried them they didn’t work. Fortunately, I’m not responsible for reception work in my unit. I do logistics and am a lot better at that. I serve the people in my unit and I don’t need to remember any new faces.
    So, even though this guy was standing in front of me and seemed like an old acquaintance, very friendly, I didn’t remember him at all.
    The guy smiled and said, “You left really quick when the meeting let out that day, Secretary Sun. I didn’t have time to thank you. You knew I was a ringer but you didn’t expose me. You’re a very kind leader, Secretary Sun, one in a million.”
    I must’ve had a blank look on my face with my jaw wide open, because I really didn't know what to say. Should I tell him I was a substitute, too? No, the director’s guidance was firmly embedded in my mind – don’t say anything even if they beat you to death. Well, if you say that’s rude, so be it. It’d be just like I was recognizing myself as Secretary Sun, that one-in-a-million generous leader. Substituting for someone at a meeting was a big stride toward impersonating the person, wasn’t it? However, if I insisted on not talking, the phony Everbright Xu would keep staring at me, and smiling, and inching closer.
    All I could do was insist I didn't know anything about it. Right away I said, “You’ve got the wrong person. I don't know you.”
    The phony Everbright smiled again. He really liked to smile. He smiled and said, “Come on, Secretary Sun, I’m not trying to get anything from you. I just wanted to say thanks, that’s all.”
    “I really don't remember you,” I said. “My memory isn’t very good.”
    Phony Everbright didn’t push it. Instead, copying my tone of voice, he said, “Oh, you have a kind of face blindness. Me, though, I’m exactly the opposite. My memory’s particularly good, especially my ability to remember people. It’s almost powerful enough to call anti-amnesia. No matter who it is, one glance and I’ll never forget them. That day at the meeting, we sat beside each other for a long time. How could I forget you?”
    I couldn’t get rid of him and was feeling rather trapped. I almost came clean and confessed that I was also a substitute. When the words got to the tip of my tongue, though, I broke out in a cold sweat from fright. I swallowed the words and kept my mouth tightly shut.
    The phony Everbright was clearly a cheerful sort. He didn’t seem to give a hoot at all, even though he’d encountered a "leader" with such a deficient memory. When he was about to leave, he grasped my hand tightly and said, “No problem. No problem. It doesn't matter if you don’t know me.”
    I breathed a sigh of relief after he’d gone, and only then slowly came to realize that he had to be a substitute. I’d been afraid to breathe that day at the meeting and didn’t dare look at anyone, so I couldn’t know what kind of attitude this guy Everbright had, even though he’d been sitting right next to me. Nevertheless, I could tell in one look that the phony Everbright who’d been in front of me just now was an imposter. It’s not a leader’s style to be so spontaneous and enthusiastic.
    Fortunately I’d bit my tongue and hadn’t revealed myself. Otherwise this phony Everbright, happy-go-lucky as he was, might sell me out on some yet-to-be-determined day. Just then I looked up and noticed a stranger on the road smiling at me. I was startled and quickly turned away.
    It’s a good thing I can't remember faces. As annoying as that face was to me, I quickly forgot it.
    A few days later, I ran into a fellow who handles logistics for another unit. We’d dealt with one another at work and were rather familiar. “Hey, Director Sun,” he said to me, “I heard your Secretary Sun is quite the snob, standoffish when people say hello.”
    At first I thought nothing of it. The Secretary does put on airs a little, but that’s normal. Why mention it so seriously? Then the guy said, “I heard he used to be OK. Is he feeling out of sorts because he didn’t get that promotion he wanted?”
    In fact, I’d heard colleagues talking privately in the office recently about how Secretary Sun was in a bad mood these days. In the organization’s yard many people made up stuff about him behind his back. They said things like, “He’s so arrogant he can’t see the people right in front of him because his nose is so high in the air,” or “When people say hello to him he ignores them, or just waives his hand and walks away.”
    For some reason I felt a little uneasy, but then I felt strange because I was uneasy. Where was this uneasiness coming from? Those people weren’t talking about me. Did I think I really was Secretary Sun just because my surname is Sun, too?
    I spat, and after I did, I was back to my old self.
    My wife was going to walk the dog after dinner, and I decided to take the opportunity to go for a walk to a friend's house. We went downstairs together and then went our separate ways. After just a few steps, someone came up and stood in front of me, someone I didn't recognize. He stood right in front of me and very politely said, “How are you, Secretary Sun.”
    I was so intimidated that I ignored him and walked away quickly. I looked back at my wife as I walked. Fortunately, she’d kept walking forward and hadn’t noticed anything going on behind her.
    I got home a little late that evening and decided to keep an eye on my wife's face to see what kind of mood she was in. Against my expectations, I found her attitude to be quite good. She didn't chew me out even a little bit for coming in late, and instead was amiable and pleasant. “It’s cold tonight,” she said with some concern. “Soak your feet in hot water. It’ll help you sleep better.”
   True to her words she got me a basin of water to soak my feet and was about to help me take off my shoes and socks. I was really overwhelmed by her kindness and felt a little uncomfortable. “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” I said in a rush.
    My wife and I aren’t often intimate, even if we have the time. When I get the idea, it’s either her time of the month or she’s not in the mood. It’s one excuse or another, every time. That day, though, she waited for me to finish soaking my feet and then took the initiative, hinting that she wanted us to have marital relations. I was truly amazed, and the amazement continued right through to the next morning. I woke up from my dreams to hear her reprimanding our child, telling her to move more lightly. She said, “Such a big girl, and you don’t feel any sympathy for your elders? Your dad isn't awake yet.”
    “Jeez, Mom,” our daughter said, “didn’t you used to tell me to knock things around on purpose to wake him up?”
    “That was then, this is now.”
    “Humph, I’m getting dizzy. I’m leaving for school.”
    My wife's radiant happiness was making me more and more uneasy. Eventually I couldn't help myself and brought up the subject carefully. “Is there something going on? Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes about something?”
    She smiled. “Is it me pulling the wool over your eyes, or you pulling the wool over mine – Secretary Sun?”
    That really made me anxious. “Don't talk nonsense. Don't be foolish.”
    She kept smiling. “Hey, you’re still trying to fool me, but I already know. When I was walking the dog around the neighborhood that evening, I heard someone call you ‘Secretary Sun’. I didn’t know you’re such a straight arrow – the papers haven’t been issued yet, and since they haven’t, you absolutely won’t mention the promotion.”
    What should I do? I’m sure I was once again standing there with my jaw agape and my tongue tied.
    “All our family and friends were going to come over to celebrate,” she said, “but I told them not to. You’d have to see the paper with the red caption with your own eyes before you’d be willing to talk about it, so wait on you, I said. Heh, heh. You know what they said? They all said you’re a quality man, well-educated but not proud, and low-key. With such qualities, forget about Secretary, there’s a huge chance you’re headed even higher.”
   I snatched up my mobile phone and immediately headed out for work.
   I knew it was that phony Everbright Xu who’d stirred this up, so I went straight to his unit to set things right. When I got to their gate, one of the guys standing in the gate guard’s shack asked, “Who do you want to see?”
    That stopped me.
    I really didn't know the name of the man I wanted to see. It wasn’t Everbright Xu. He was just a phony Everbright Xu.
    But except for Everbright Xu, I didn't know the name of anyone else in that unit. For a long, awkward time, all I could say was that I wanted to see Everbright Xu.
    The expressions on the two gate guards got serious. One of them said, “Everbright Xu is our Secretary. Who are you? Do you have an appointment to see him?”
    “No, I don’t.”
    “I’m afraid you can’t see him without an appointment to. As a rule our Secretary is too busy to see people who don’t have an appointment. He doesn’t have the time. Besides, today, it seems he has a meeting off-site today and didn’t come in to the office.”
    The guard was rather clever and there were layers of meaning in what he said. In short, he told me that I could not see Everbright Xu no matter what.
    I had to think of another way, so I said something else. “Uh, no, sorry, I said it wrong. I’m not looking for Everbright Xu.”
    “So who are you looking for?”
     I’m looking for… I want to see that… the phony Everbright Xu.
     “Phony Everbright Xu?” The gate guard opened his mouth and laughed out loud. “Is there any name like that? Too many words. Is his first name ‘Phony’?”
    The other guard wasn’t laughing. Deadpan, he asked, “Who are you? Are you looking to cause trouble?”
    I took out my work permit straightaway and showed it to him. He stared at my face alertly, but kept both hands behind his back and didn’t take the permit. The other guard had stopped laughing. He took my permit and looked it over. “Oh, XXX department, a Deputy Director.”
    They only then believed I wasn’t there to cause trouble. One of them called someone inside on the phone and told them, “Someone’s here from XXX department asking to see the Secretary, but he doesn’t have an appointment. He hasn’t said what he wants to see him about. Can we let him in?”
    The person on the other end said something that seemed to have been good for me, because the guard’s attitude took a turn for the better. He put down the phone and said, “Go on in, to the second floor, and see Director Qian in Administration.”
   I hurried to the second floor and found the Administration office and Director Qian without a problem. Director Qian said, “You want to see the Secretary? Do you know him? The guard said you don’t have an appointment.”
    I’d learned from experience and said directly, “I’m looking for the phony Everbright Xu.”
    Director Qian opened his mouth and laughed silently. “There’s no phony Everbright Xu in our unit,” he said. “And not only our unit. I don’t think there’d be anyone named ‘Phony’ in any unit.”
    “There is,” I stressed, “there definitely is. I’ve met him, I know him.”
    He was very earnest and said, “In that case, take a look around, office by office, and see if he’s here. Our unit’s all on this floor.”
    He also said he’d go office by office with me. Although I’m face blind and wouldn’t have been able to tell whether any of these people were the phony Everbright Xu, the phony had a super memory and would definitely recognize me when he saw me. And he was so outgoing, he’d no doubt come forward on his own to acknowledge me, so as much as I could I stuck my face right in front of every stranger.
    But we went all the way through the unit without anyone recognizing me. Still less did anyone admit to being the phony Everbright Xu.
    We’d gone through the whole unit office by office and I was a little anxious, so I said to Director Qian, “He’s definitely in this unit. Definitely in this unit. There was a meeting that day. Your Secretary Xu didn’t go and he went in his place. He was a phony Everbright Xu. Later he called me ‘Secretary Sun’ all over the place.”
    Once I said that, Director Qian, who’d been very amiable, did an about face. "You’re responsible for what you say. Substitute at a meeting?" Nothing like that has never happened in our unit. Secretary Xu himself goes in person to every meeting.”
    He said that so confidently that I was very much taken aback and rather dazed. I scratched my head and mumbled, "Well, you mean the phony Everbright Xu wasn’t a phony and was the real one?" A light bulb turned on in my head as I spoke. Right away I asked Director Qian, “Then, let me go see your Secretary, OK?”
    He looked at me hesitantly. "You don't know our Secretary. What’s your reason for wanting to see him?"
    I had to tell him, “It’s my last resort. Since I can't find the phony Everbright Xu, just have a look at your Secretary.”
    He laughed silently and shrugged. I knew he couldn’t let me cross this hurdle to see Everbright Xu, but I’m stubborn and I’m flexible, and I had an idea on the spur of the moment. I grabbed a document off Director Qian’s desk and went into the Secretary's office.
    When I was inside I said, “Secretary Xu, Director Qian asked me to give you this document. I kept my eyes on his face while I spoke. The unfortunate thing was, I might as well not have looked at him, because the face of the Everbright Xu at the meeting had no well-defined features, and the face of the Everbright Xu in front of me was also nondescript. Thus I couldn't tell at all whether it really was him. But since the two of us were face to face, eyeball to eyeball, it was the moment of truth – and Everbright Xu didn’t recognize me.
    Secretary Xu obviously didn’t notice that I was a phony employee, nor did he take a look at the material I’d brought in. To the contrary, he was startled when I said that Director Qian had asked me to bring the document in. “Oh,” he asked, “is Director Qian back?”
   I didn't understand the significance of what he said. Director Qian had already followed me into the office. He pulled me out the door and said, "All right, all right. You’ve seen our Secretary. What else do you want?"
    I said, “If it isn't this Everbright Xu, there must be another one.
    Director Qian said he completely disagreed with that. “How could our unit have two Everbright Xus,” he argued. “Even if there had been another person named Everbright Xu, he would’ve changed it because that’s our director’s name. Therefore our unit could not possibly have two Everbright Xus.”
   Trying as hard as I could to remain patient, I told him, “I’m not saying that your unit has two Everbright Xus. I’m saying your unit may have a real Everbright Xu and a phony Everbright Xu. At the big meeting that day, ‘Everbright Xu’ was written on the place card, but it wasn’t Everbright Xu sitting in the seat. It was the phony Everbright Xu, the one you guys sent to the meeting as a substitute.”
    Director Qian got really angry. “Impossible, absolutely impossible!” he said impatiently. “I told you, and I’ll tell you again – I’ll say it three times, a hundred times – sending substitutes to meetings is something that’s never been done in our unit.”
    When he got anxious, he’d had an idea. He’d realized that the best defense is a good offense. He stared at me for a while, and then, his voice full of suspicion, asked, “You’re not from XXX department, are you? Are you from the organization’s headquarters?”
    “The Party’s Commission for Discipline and Oversight?”
    The organization’s Secret Committee on Setting Up Workstyles?”
    “Really, no, I am a Deputy Director of XXX bureau in XXX department.”
    Then, why have you come to our unit looking for real and phony Everbright Xus? Why is our Secretary important to you?”
    I felt that I couldn’t say anything, because if I were to explain, I’d have to reveal the facts surrounding my own involvement in substituting at the meeting. I’m not stupid, and seeing what was going on right before my eyes, these guys wouldn’t cop to their substitution scheme even if I was frank with them.
            Finally Director Qian said that I was making him dizzy. He even suspected I was sick. Without waiting for me to explain, he picked up the phone, called my office directly and asked our Director, “Do you have a Deputy Director named Sun? Is he sick?”
    I heard our director’s voice come over the phone. He identified me and said, “Is that Build China Sun? Except for being unreliable, there’s nothing wrong with him.”
    On this end of the line, Director Qian was still wondering while my director told me to go back to our office. “Our unit’s so busy, and you have free time to go running around wherever you feel like? Get back over here right away.”
    As I was leaving, I heard someone behind me say with a laugh, “Little Gold, you make a better Director Qian than Director Qian himself.”
    So even this Director Qian was a phony?
    They put one over on me?
    So be it.
    I went back to my unit and, as soon as I came in the door, the Director asked me, “What were you doing going over there? What, you wanted to climb out on a limb?”
    I pursed my lips.
    I figured the Director would niggle with me, but instead he said, “Life’s too short and I don’t have the time to bother with you.” And he really didn't hassle me. He handed me a thick pile of forms that needed to be filled out and pointing at them, said, “These, these, fill all of them in with zeros. Remember, zeros. Our unit didn’t violate any rules.” He still seemed uneasy after giving me these instructions, and added, “Let me see them after you’re finished and before we turn them in.”
    One of the forms I filled out had a column to self-report instances of substituting at meetings: How many times this year, when did they occur, and who attended the meeting.
    I filled in zero without the slightest hesitation.
    They say the final statistics showed that all the units had filled in this item with zeros.
    A central feature of the year-end summary for the whole organization was praise for an improvement in meeting style. One of the points was that instances of substitutions at meetings had been greatly reduced and decreased from the previous year, to the point of total eradication. The total number was zero, achieving an advance in the nature of a huge leap forward.
    Another meeting was called at the onset of the new year. Our Secretary, One Content Sun, was again away on a business trip, and in fact had just left. Although he was personally notified of the meeting and really didn’t want to have anyone else substitute for him anymore, he happened to run into a sleet storm while he was on the way back to the unit. Since he couldn’t say whether he’d be able to get back in time, we had to prepare for either eventuality on our end. We registered One Content Sun’s name, and someone had to be ready to substitute for him at a moment’s notice.
    The Director eventually remembered that I’d been the substitute at the meeting the previous year. He’d rather send me again than work up the nerve to bother one of the other Deputy Directors.
    He wanted me to go, so I went.
    This was only the second time in my life that I’d substituted at a meeting, but I’d already become familiar with the process. I had to be cool about it, as though I really were Secretary One Content Sun.
    People in the rows in front of and behind me shook my hand and smiled. As before, the place card at the seat beside me had the name Everbright Xu written on it. Also as before, Everbright Xu smiled at me, but I didn't recognize his face. After all, it might be the fellow who’d sat with me at last year’s meeting, or the one I’d run into one time on the street, or one I’d seen in their office, but those were only possibilities. There was no chance I could remember such an ordinary and common face.
    It didn’t matter whether I could recognize him or not. Either way, he was called Everbright Xu.
    Regardless of whether this was the real Everbright Xu or a phony, I smiled and greeted him. “How are you, Secretary Xu?” Everbright Xu responded, “And you, Secretary Sun?”
    I sat down calmly, and we had a little chat for a few minutes before the start of the meeting. He said, “There sure are a lot of meetings nowadays.”
    “Yes,” I replied, “one after another. We really do share the same feeling.”
    Secretary One Content Sun arrived in a rush one minute before the meeting started. He spotted his seat while he was in the aisle some distance away, but there was already someone sitting there. From the back he couldn’t clearly see who it was. He could only see that the person was talking and laughing with someone sitting beside him.
    Secretary Sun was instantly at a loss, not knowing whether to go on in or to leave. Then the meeting staff saw that the chairman and the leaders who’d been assigned seats on the rostrum had taken their places. The bell calling people to order rang for the second time while Secretary One Content Sun was still standing stupidly in the middle of the aisle. An usher hurried over and pulled him aside. “Which unit are you from?” he asked. “Where is your seat?
    Still in a daze, Director One Content Sun thought for a moment before replying, “Me? I don't seem to have a seat.”
    He was invited to leave the venue.

2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 25
长江文艺出版社,责任编辑:刘程程,周阳; Translated from 中国作家 at

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