​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Who Can Humiliate Me?
Tie Ning

      The woman was on the telephone constantly after breakfast. She didn’t just sit in front of the phone, she walked all around the room while she talked on a mobile unit – the cordless phone from the living room. There seemed to be two reasons for this kind of strolling and looking around behavior: For one she could explore this rather large, well-lit new residence while she was walking around. Did it lack anything? Was there anything that didn’t please the eye? Perhaps it all pleased the eye and nothing was lacking.
      The other thing was, she seemed to be imitating the people who made phone calls in foreign movies, especially the heroines. Most of them wandered about aimlessly with a long cord at their feet or wrapped around their body when they made or received calls. They looked chic with a kind of absentminded complacency.
      The woman was feeling a bit self-satisfied at that moment, but she wouldn’t want to admit it. She felt self-satisfaction was a frivolous attitude, while her complacency was a higher order of self-satisfaction. She was not yet forty years old, an age when the desires both to imitate and to be creative come together.
      The woman turned into the kitchen for no particular reason and noticed the empty, pale blue bottle on the drinking water dispenser. She remembered that she should call the vendor to order some more, so she ended the meaningless call she was on as soon as she could. But when she tried to dial the water company, the call didn’t go through. There was only a flat, emotionless voice in the receiver, endlessly repeating, “The number you have dialed does not exist or has been changed."
      That got the woman's dander up. She’d bought this "Clear Spirit Mountain" mineral water when they knocked on her door on a sales call. And she’d phoned them to order water a few days ago, too. It couldn’t be that “The number you have dialed does not exist”, could it? It must be the "has changed already" part, right? But that’s even more outrageous – why didn’t they notify customers when they changed their phone number? Don’t they know that we need to drink mineral water every day?
      The woman called 114 – Information – but they said, “The number you are looking for has not been listed." She was incensed. Terms like "scammers" and "rip-off joint" gurgled around in the pit of her stomach. The young man who delivered the water last time, she recalled, had some coupons with him, and he got her to buy a packet of ten for a total of one hundred yuan. At the time she thought paying for deliveries with a coupon would be more convenient and would save the hassle of getting the right change ready every time. Of course it was a petty scam by the water company. They swindle money from all their customers at once, and then they disappear from the city.
      As she thought these things, the woman effortlessly pulled open a small drawer beside the stovetop and took out the packet of coupons. It was a little narrower than a deck of cards and was worth a hundred yuan. “Yes,” she thought, “if a telephone number for the water company exists, these are still valuable; otherwise they’re just a pile of scrap paper.” Then she noticed that the company’s address was on the “scrap paper" under the impressively printed words “Clear Spirit Mountain” Mineral Water Delivery: a certain number on a certain road in a certain district in this city. Why had she never noticed the address on the coupon before? Obviously, when you can phone in for service, the address doesn’t really matter. It mattered now, though.
      The woman figured for a moment. The address on the coupon was probably six kilometers from her community, more or less, which wouldn’t be considered far in a medium-sized city, but not close, either. She decided to go to there to look for the company. Maybe it was for the hundred yuan (although she’d already written the money off in her mind), or maybe it was because she’d been screwed over as a customer.
      She had reason to think she’d been screwed over. It really wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. She’d often tasted the mixture of booming businesses with no reputations and a rich but unstable life. All their promises were doubtful, including the property management company’s promise of a twenty-four-hour hot water supply that had never been a hundred percent realized. However, they did know to arm the security guards for the whole compound like gangbusters, and to dress them in dark blue uniforms with gold insignias and ribbons and red berets. Every once in a while they lined up for patrols in front and back of the buildings, like they were play-acting. Didn’t that satisfy the vanity of both the management company and the property owners? Wasn’t that good enough?
      The thing the woman found most difficult to take was the wool caps the security guards wore, particularly when she was about to take a bath and hot water would suddenly stop coming out of the tap. She’d haphazardly grab a towel and wrap it around her bare body to call the duty office. They usually answered, "Sorry, the hot water line is being repaired." At such times the woman was convinced that the attendant who answered the phone must be wearing a crookedly buckled red beret, going through the motions with any far-fetched excuse.
      Thinking about these things, and feeling quite displeased, the woman dressed herself neatly, locked her door, took the elevator downstairs and drove off to find the water company that might already be long gone. She found the certain district and the certain road without difficulty. It turned out to be a crowded, noisy, filthy alley with a dense collection of shops selling locally produced items: brooms, dustpans, mops, toilet paper, pots suspiciously identified as stainless steel, bowls, choppers, scissors, woks, plastic buckets.... Small eateries, unwilling to be left out, mixed themselves in among the clutter, their stoves threatening to poke out into in the middle of the road. Steam wafted into the air from pots of huge boiled dumplings, small steamed baozi and oil-drizzled noodles. The miasma covered the alley and the people in it and left the ground slippery with puddles of greasy water everywhere.
      The woman slowed down and focused on the addresses. She thought that any small shop or so called “business” could easily disappear from such an unbridled, riotous place just by saying the word. Right at that moment, through the oily mist from small steamed baozi and oil-drizzled noodles, she saw the words "Clear Spirit Mountain" on a sign, with "Clear Spirit Mountain Mineral Water, XX Street Branch" underneath, hanging over a small door. So it undeniably still existed.
      She parked by the side of the road and walked to the water company, avoiding the twisting channels of polluted water on the sidewalk. Inside she saw the kid – the one who had delivered her water last time – surrounded by a collection of water bottles. He and two companions were gathered around a two-drawer desk. They each held a blue-and-white porcelain bowl larger than their heads, from which they were eating something – probably oil-drizzled noodles. The kid lifted his face from his bowl when he noticed that the woman had entered the room. There were blotches of dark green spinach on his cheeks.
      The woman calmed down when she saw that the water company hadn’t scammed her. The address on the coupon was real. More than that, on the corner of the two-drawer desk that was being used as a lunch table sat a telephone covered with dust.
      She looked over the kid with spinach on his cheeks and wondered what to call him. He was obviously not yet a man, but he was too mature to be addressed as "boy”. At least he was old enough that he couldn’t be considered a “child laborer”. How about "young man"? But that would carry an undertone of encouragement and praise that the women didn’t intend.
      He was no older than seventeen, slightly rat-faced and rather frail. His looks and expression lay somewhere between city dude and country rube. He was just a dark-skinned, under-nourished teenager, after all. Why should she waste time deliberating this question? Was it worth it?
      So she blurted “Hey” at the kid. “You”, she said, and addressed her complaint at him. She complained that the water company had changed its phone number without notifying customers. The kid explained that they’d borrowed someone else’s phone number at first, but now that person wouldn’t allow them to use it anymore. The boss had to apply for a new number and he said it would be available soon. Then the kid squeaked out some “mea culpas”, using the words as freely as they do at the churches in that city.
      After listening impatiently to his apology, the woman only said, “Aren’t you the one who delivered the water to my house? Please bring me a bottle after three this afternoon. You have the address on my customer registration.” The kid agreed solicitously and said that he knew her address: Elegant Lakeside Park, Building 5, Unit 801.
      The woman laughed to herself. She wasn’t laughing at the kid’s memory, which was pretty good, after all, but because that city didn’t really have a lakeside. Her community had to have been named “Elegant Lakeside Park” because the owners and the management company had a touch of hypocrisy at the time. It was a bit of overdone puffery, wasn’t it? She was proud of herself for coming up with this bit of self-deprecating humor. Self-deprecating humor is an ability of people who take the initiative in the life. She did that, she thought.
      The kid watched the woman drive off into the distance, paying particular attention to her white car. He didn’t know what make of car it was, but that was probably not important. What mattered was that a woman driving a car had patronized this tiny, dilapidated water shop. She’d stood here with style, a fragrant breath of warm air, and she’d come straight here just to see him, too. She’d been a little angry, but hadn’t said anything over-the-top, and she’d picked him to bring her more water.
      She was dressed really classy, classier than he had the vocabulary to describe. He lowered his head and looked at himself. He was just plain shabby. His pair of locally manufactured, suede athletic shoes already sported a few holes. He was rather dissatisfied with himself, and a little annoyed.
      He thought about the first time he’d delivered water to her. Mostly he couldn’t remember much, just that the rooms were big, and the kitchen especially so. It was bigger than the largest room in his aunt’s place – he was living at his aunt's, crowded into a tiny six-meter-square room with his cousin. The women's kitchen must be twice that big, and he couldn’t figure out why a kitchen had to have so much space. It was big enough to open a restaurant. What’s more, the sink even had a carpet in front of it (a non-slip mat). Yes, a carpet!
      The woman’s child also left an impression on the kid’s memory. The tiny tyke – maybe five years old? – picked up a cell phone to play with. When the woman asked him to put it down, he was heart-broken and asked her, “Why can’t I ever have any fun? Why can’t I be happy? I want to call 110, the cops’ hotline!" .... The words "Have fun" and "110" stuck in the young fellow’s mind, more so than even the spectacular home.
      The home and all the things in it were too far beyond the kid, but there was something to the little tyke’s idea of being happy. He always wanted to be happy when he was delivering water, to relax and be happy. A bottle of water weighs fifty pounds, and he earned eighty cents for each bottle delivered. On his best day he’d deliver nine bottles and earn ¥7.20. Then right away his cousin would want to be taken out and treated to lamb kabobs.
     His daily wages weren’t enough for even a bottle of mineral water. A bowl of oil-drizzled noodles was two yuan, and even with one meal at his aunt’s, he still needed at least two bowls a day. Sometimes, especially when the people who wanted water lived on the fifth or sixth floor, he’d get really indignant while he was climbing up flight after flight of stairs: Why do these people have to spend the money to drink mineral water or purified water? Is the tap water toxic? Is it poisonous? It’d be better if they did get poisoned.
      Sometimes the young fellow’s thoughts were pretty far out, but he knew he couldn’t poison "them”. "They" would dial 110 to call a cop. His cousin had told him what 110 was for when he’d come to this city to earn a living six months ago. From then on he knew he could dial 110 anytime he had an emergency. The problem was, what kind of emergency could he have? His greatest emergency was not having any money, because without money he couldn’t be happy, but could 110 help him get his hands on some cash?
      For now, though, the kid was going to deliver water to the women at Elegant Lakeside Park, Building 5, Unit 801. If people like her didn’t drink mineral water, he wouldn’t be able to make even that ¥7.20 a day.
      The guys he’d been eating noodles with just now had cracked some crude jokes at his expense. “She was lookin’ for you,” they’d said, “She came lookin’ for you.” “She’s got it on for you,” they said, “really got it on.” He felt – rattled, maybe – and couldn’t explain where this unfamiliar feeling came from. He only knew that he was different from his buddies now, and he kind of regretted being with them eating that bowl of oil-drizzled noodles. Why had he let the woman see him with a bowl of noodles and droopy spinach in his hand? And he felt like he ought to change his clothes.

***

      The woman heard her doorbell ring at 3:00 pm and opened the door. The kid stood in the doorway with a bottle of water on his shoulder. He looked a little odd.
He was the same kid – she could tell by his face and mannerisms – and after a moment’s look she realized that the difference was in the way he was dressed.
      She hadn’t paid attention to his clothing that morning. His clothes and his face and the dimness in the water shop had all blended together and supplemented each other in a natural composition, so who would’ve taken special note of his attire? But now the kid had changed and wore a brand new western-style suit of some course fabric. It was obviously too large for him and hadn’t been altered to fit. His head protruded from it and looked smaller by comparison.  It made the woman feel that it wasn’t the kid carrying the water bottle – the suit itself was carrying it.
      She let him in and a loud "gurgling" noise echoed in the room. She woman looked at his feet and saw a pair of oversized, hard soled leather shoes – another part of his brand-new costume.
      She reminded him to take off his shoes. He seemed to pretend not to hear and clunked straight on in, turning toward the kitchen. His pant legs were so long they got twisted around and bunched up under his heels. If you only saw the pant legs, it would look like the guy had loosened his belt and was taking off his pants.
      The woman didn’t insist that he take off his shoes. Experience had taught her to assume that the kid's feet might stink, like the workers from the management company who came to fix the hot water. She had to open the windows every time after they left, to let in some fresh air. Well, if he wouldn’t take off his shoes, so be it. Let his stinky feet stay in his own shoes where they belonged until he left.
      Because his clothes didn’t fit, the kid was clumsy doing his job. The plastic wrapping rustled as he tore it off the water bottle, and his whole body seemed to rustle along with it. When he finally finished fiddling with it, and was picking up the bottle to position it on top of the dispenser, the woman told him to wait a minute.
      He put the bottle down, turned around and saw the woman holding a dazzlingly white cotton ball that had been dipped in alcohol. “I want to disinfect the mouth of the bottle where it goes into the dispenser,” she told him. “Don’t let your hand touch it after I do.”
      “The mouths are sealed at the bottler’s,” the kid replied.
      “Who told you that?”
      “Our boss.”
      The women pursed her lips in disdain and wiped the cotton ball around mouth of the bottle without hesitation. Her actions seemed to be telling the kid that there was no way she’d believe his boss or even the bottler’s alleged “seals”. Before this morning, she hadn’t planned on disinfecting the water bottle; she’d come up with the idea after this morning’s visit to the water shop. She didn’t specifically find fault with the shop’s location in that filthy alley crisscrossed with polluted water, though. Do you think everything you buy in a well-lit, cozy supermarket comes from a bright, clean place? She was a features producer for a television station and knew more than a little about such things.
      When she bent down to wipe off the bottle’s mouth, her eyes naturally fell on the kid’s hands hanging there. They were an oh-so-dirty pair of hands. Such hands to be going around delivering drinking water to people. As she straightened up, it occurred to her that while she certainly wouldn’t be able to return her hundred yuan of water coupons, she’d have to find a different vendor after the packet was used up. On the other hand, it really didn’t matter much to her whether the young fellow’s hands were dirty or not, just like his weird, impractically large western suit and the leather clodhoppers on his on his feet didn’t matter much, either. Why was he that way?
She didn’t care and didn’t have the time to care. Maybe the next delivery guy would have an even bigger suit and even dirtier hands.
      The woman finished disinfecting the bottle and pointed for the kid to put it on the dispenser. She tore off a water coupon and gave it to him, but he just stood there. He was dawdling because he was a little dejected. The “costume” he was wearing was his cousin’s and he’d gone back to his aunt’s at noon specially to filch it. He’d thought such formal attire would be appropriate for his afternoon delivery, that he should wear the kind of apparel he had on now when coming or going from this woman’s kind of place. And why was that? Was he using these clothes as a counterpoint to the woman’s visit at the shop this morning? To blur the image in her mind of him scarfing down a bowl of oil-drizzled noodles held in his hands?
      The kid wasn’t able to make sense of the mess in his head. He was just flat-out depressed. Clearly the woman had hardly noticed his new clothes, and instead had put all her energy into wiping down the mouth of the factory-sealed bottle. That meant she found him disgusting. While he was not a very sensitive sort, and often made mistakes in judgment, he persisted in thinking his "appearance make-over" had not been enough. It occurred to him that his cousin had some more stylish things.
      Then he heard the woman say, “Is there something else?”
      “Just that I have a pager,” he explained. She could page him if she wanted more water.
      The woman gave him a questioning look and asked, “What are you talking about?”
      Her expression picked up the kid’s spirits. He wanted her to take some interest in him. He told her again about his pager, and that she could page him.
      The woman asked, “Do you mean your office phone won’t be working for some time?”
      “Yes.”
      “Well, why should I page you?”
      “I wanted to say that if you need water over the next few days, you can page me.
      “That won’t be necessary. Just deliver another bottle five days from now.”
      “Well, you don’t need to make a note of my pager number, then?”
      “No. That won’t be necessary,” the woman answered decisively.
      She was a bit tired of this deliveryman. Who did he think he was? He wanted her to page him, like, she should just page anybody? Even if she ran out of water and wasn’t able to contact any other water company, the stuff coming out of her tap at home was water, wasn’t it?
      Going back ten or twenty years, what did the women and all the people in the city drink? It was water from the water supply pipes. And when she was even younger, in her early teens, she lived in a tube-shaped dormitory building where everybody shared a water pipe at the end of the corridor. She never washed her feet at home on summer evenings. Instead she always wore sandals to rinse off her feet under the public water pipe. When she finished, she’d take a drink of water straight from the pipe, which was forbidden by the adults. They wanted her to drink plain boiled water that had cooled off. But she and her friends all washed their feet like that and drank the water. They developed normally, weren’t poisoned, and grew up healthy.
      A warm feeling flowed through the woman as she recalled these things, but it was only a memory. Now that she was a mother, she absolutely wouldn’t have her precious baby grow up drinking water that didn’t meet international standards straight from pipes. Even her husband, who lived overseas for business but came home for the New Year holidays, was no longer acclimated to the local water and conditions. He’d get diarrhea from drinking tap water even if it was boiled. So she needed someone to deliver water, and in the end that was the only reason she could tolerate the deliverymen.

***

      The kid returned five days later. He was still wearing the suit and the leather shoes, but he also wore a plaid scarf around his neck that made him look bloated. The woman opened the door for him and everything went the same as the last time, except that she asked him a few questions when she handed the payment coupon to him. Maybe she was showing him a little respect, or maybe she just felt like chatting.
      She asked him how much he got for delivering a bottle, and he told her eighty cents. Then she asked how many bottles he delivered a day, and he paused. He wanted to talk the talk with the woman this time, so he held his head high and said that most of the time he delivered sixty bottles a day. He told her he made a lot of money every day because he didn’t want her to look down on him.
      Unfortunately she wasn’t really paying attention. She didn’t want to know what sixty barrels meant for a kid – how much time and effort it would take. And she didn’t want to figure out how much money sixty bottles times eighty cents was. She was just chatting with him, just filling in the time before he left, so the trash he talked was the same as the truth for her. So she said offhandedly, “Oh, sixty bottles.”
      The woman's offhanded reply and bored expression seemed to hurt the kid. It appeared that his huge lie with its huge numbers hadn’t been able to shock her and hadn’t even been able to make her scoff. There was nothing here, nothing was happening here. So why didn’t he just go? He felt thirsty and told the woman he’d like a drink of water.
      She gestured slightly toward the sink with her chin. Of course it could only be at the sink, the twin sink with the garbage disposal and the unconventional, dazzling stainless steel gooseneck spout sticking up. The kid went where he was directed. Rather absent-mindedly, he lowered his small, dust-and-dandruff-covered head sideways and stretched to get his mouth under the ice-cold spout.

***

      Five more days passed. They weren’t such happy days for the kid. His cousin had found out that the kid had taken his suit, shoes and things, and had been wearing them non-stop, and had gotten them dirty, too. He had a fight with the kid about it, after which he locked up any of his things that he thought were valuable. As for the fight, the kid was no match for his cousin. The big, solidly-built guy was able to pick the kid up and hold him there with his feet off the ground.
      But the fight itself wasn’t the scary thing. On a typical day the kid was most afraid of what his aunt often told him. She’d squint her eyes at him and say, “You know you’re living in our place for free, and if you do this kind of thing again….” The kid knew what he rest of that sentence would be. He could be kicked out of his aunt’s place at any time. Then, to stay on in this city, his only recourse would be to spend his own money to rent a room.
      This time, however, the kid’s thinking was screwed up. His emotions were in a state of aggravated frustration, to the point that just after he’d begged his cousin for forgiveness and his cousin had left the apartment, he felt a strong desire to pry open his cousin’s wardrobe. This desire was stronger than his plea for forgiveness, and it welled up so suddenly that he didn’t have time to consider the consequences.
      He pried open the wardrobe and dressed himself. He put on everything he could. He not only wrapped his cousin's plaid scarf around his neck, but tied a flowery necktie under it, too. On his waist he clipped a garish keychain with a small jackknife, scissors and fake cellphone on it. Finally, he was even reckless enough to stuff his cousin’s Walkman into his pocket and slip the big, black headphones over his head to cover his ears. Just like that, he turned his back on his aunt and, almost too loaded down to move, snuck off like a rat and made a dash straight for the water shop to get a bottle of water to deliver to the woman.
      The kid bumped along the road on his bicycle to make the delivery. The first thing that happened was that something punched a hole in the rear tire. He had to push the bike while he looked for someone to fix it.
      Once he was on the road again, the song “Too Softhearted” filled his ears. The volume was so loud it almost knocked him off the bike. That was a good thing, though, because suddenly the kid lost touch with his surroundings. Cars, pedestrians, streets, trees, everything was miles away, and only the music in his ears carried him forward. Maybe the music was riding the bike for him. His vision, hearing and feelings were so numb he didn’t even know it when he got snagged on a rickshaw and fell to the ground.
      The music stopped and he was once again aware of his surroundings. He and his bike were on the ground and the water bottle had rolled some distance away. He crawled to his feet. The suit and leather shoes were covered with dirt and the Walkman wouldn’t work no matter how he fiddled with it. It was broken. The rickshaw that had snagged him was long gone, but fortunately the water bottle wasn’t broken. He snapped it back on the bike’s carrier and continued on to Elegant Lakeside Park.
      It was a quiet afternoon. The kid parked his bike in front of the Building 5, patted the dirt off his clothes and carried the bottle into the lobby. He made a dash for the elevator only to find that it was temporarily out of order. This was bad news for the kid: He’d have to carry the fifty-pound bottle upstairs to the eighth floor. Maybe he should forget it. He could get someone else to make the delivery or come back another day.
      But he felt there was no retreat. The attire that had come to him through reckless adventurism; the headphones that still looked stylish even though they were broken; the bumps and stumbles he’d endured on his way there; all these things inspired him to continue on. He had no choice but to climb to eighth floor to see the woman.
      So he started out. The oversized shoes proved to be particularly unsuitable for this. They were heavy and his heels kept slipping out, which became a real nuisance on the way up. When he got to the fifth floor, his ears were buzzing, his brow was covered with sweat and his back was soaking wet. The calories he’d taken in were insufficient to support this sort of superhuman performance. He had to rest three times before he finally got to the eighth floor.
      The woman heard the doorbell ring. After looking through the peephole and recognizing the kid, she opened the door.
      The kid looked stranger than ever to her. He was a deliveryman, and he was working, so what was all this? A western suit with a scarf and a flowery tie, and a monstrous headset covering his ears. He looked like he was moving, or maybe robbing a department store. The bottle of water on his shoulder was overshadowed by all the other stuff. But she needed the water, and that’s the only reason she let him in the door.
      He went in and headed straight for the dispenser. After setting the bottle in place, he got short of breath and bent over at the waist. Then he grabbed his belly with one hand. It was hard to tell just what was happening with him at that moment. Maybe it was a pain in his gut, or maybe a stomachache, or maybe he wasn’t in pain and was just tired. Perhaps he wasn’t too tired to straighten up and was just posturing to attract the woman's attention or curiosity or even her sympathy.
      Getting this woman to feel sympathetic was delusional and smacked of a spoiled child’s actions, even if the kid himself might not have been clear about that. If the woman spotted the delusion and the spoiled-child act, she would feel scornful and irritated, and in her contempt and vexation she’d immediately throw the kid out the door.
      The woman saw how the kid was standing and took a look at his expression. She couldn’t say he was being moody or obstreperous, nor did he seem to have an ulterior motive. Still less was his behavior indecent – there wasn’t a hint of indecency in his actions. A layer of something that looked like a dirty film or dust covered his face, and without staring at him for a long time it would be hard to find the immaturity underneath it.
      Right then she was thoroughly disgusted with him. For a moment she almost thought he wasn’t even human, just a pile of chaotic, mobile junk that had burst into her home. Why was he bending over and holding his belly? She didn’t know and didn’t care. Was he sick? What right did he have to get sick in a customer's home? She handed him the payment coupon and told him he could leave.
      He took the coupon but showed no indication of leaving. He stole a glance at the woman and suddenly seemed very sad. Her hair was disheveled that day. It looked as if she really wanted to use a pile of unkempt hair to express an “armed contempt” for people like the kid, to keep them at a distance. He wondered why he couldn’t stay there for a while. When the woman told him to leave, he said he was thirsty and wanted some water. He heard the touch of hoarseness in his voice and the sweat-soaked, plaid scarf was bunched up around his skinny neck. He really should drink some water.
      The woman heard the hoarseness in his voice, too, and hesitated a moment. Then, as she had the last time, she gestured toward the sink.
      The kid didn’t go to the sink. To the contrary, he took a long stride closer to the drinking water dispenser standing against the wall. “I want mineral water,” he said.
      The woman was standing between the sink and the dispenser, perhaps a bit closer to the sink. She and the kid were face to face, about two meters apart, but she thought it was actually closer than two meters because she felt a vague but irrefutable sense of foreboding. A delicate woman still wants to be strong at a time like this, especially when she feels harassed, and the kid wanting to drink mineral water was harassment to her. She stared at the kid’s tiny, shifty eyes and said, “No, you can’t.”
      The kid stood straight up and arched his back. It seemed like a provocation, as if he was going to do something.
      The pitter-patter of feet – it was the woman's child, the precious five-year-old that the kid had seen before. He came into the kitchen holding his little drinking cup. “Mama, I want a drink of water,” he said. Then he told the kid, “Out of the way!”
      The kid glanced at the little tyke. He remembered the time when he was delivering water and the tyke, unhappy with his mother, had demanded to know, “Why can’t I ever have any fun and be happy?” Today the kid was going to happily stand in his way.
      In a serious tone of voice, the woman asked her precious baby to go back to his room. “Go to your room,” she said.
      The tyke left the kitchen holding his empty cup. He didn’t cry or make a fuss, but he must have felt the unusual atmosphere in the room. He went to his own room and closed the door with a light tap of his little hand.
      “Please leave,” the woman said to the kid even more sternly.
      The kid was completely despondent. He knew it wasn’t mineral water that he wanted, but what was it? What exactly did he want? He really wasn’t sure, and in fact he never had been. Now, right now, he was downright furious about his inability to end this uncertainty. He began to despise this set of western clothing that he had been so enamored of, this mish-mash of things he had on.
      As he started tearing them off, his hand bumped the keychain with the jackknife, scissors and fake cell phone he was wearing on his waist. He clutched the knife in his hand and opened it. It wasn’t too long, but the blade was quite sharp. The kid waived the knife at the woman with a clumsy, desperate motion and couldn’t resist moving a step closer to her. He felt he hated her. He'd only realized how immensely he envied her when he began to hate her.
      But envy and hate were the same thing at that moment, all one thing to the kid. It’s possible to go from one to the other with no intermediate stages. He’d gotten this suit and these shoes only because of her, but now she seemed to find the western attire hateful. But what did he want to do, kill her, or take her mineral water? Or maybe both. At the moment he couldn’t control his actions and couldn’t even tell whether killing someone or taking a sip of water by force was the greater crime. He hadn’t premeditated this and had no plan of action. He’d decide each step when he got there.
      The woman watched the kid getting closer and realized the danger. She judged she’d run into a home invasion. But the surroundings were to her advantage, after all. She composed herself slightly and stepped back as calmly as possible to lean against the stove. She reached far enough behind her with her right hand to grab a pistol from the top of the stove. Catching the kid off guard, she held it up in both hands and pointed it at him.
      It was a pistol-type cigarette lighter. Her husband had paid four U.S. dollars for it in a duty-free shop in the Sacramento airport while he was changing planes on a business trip overseas. Now, although the woman's heart trembled, she used all her strength to keep the hand holding the gun from shaking. If she hoped to fool the kid, she had to convince herself that she had a real gun with real ammunition in her hand.
      The woman holding a gun and the kid with a knife stood like that in a face to face stalemate for maybe three minutes, or maybe it was five.
      The air was going to explode, and the woman felt she had to say something. Even with a gun in her hands, she as able to keep her voice low. She pointed the gun at the kid and growled, “Get out! Get out or I’ll shoot!”
      The gun really scared the kid. It never occurred to him that it might be a fake. The woman was high class, her home and her car and everything in her life were all high class, so high class that you could hate her. But you couldn’t doubt her.
      In the same instant that a sense of defeat flashed through the kid, he also felt overwhelming astonishment about the pistol in the woman's hand. “It’s a gun! So this is what guns are like!” He looked into the dark muzzle of the gun with his eyes wide open and his mouth agape. It seemed to be the real source of his feelings of inferiority and helpless. For an instant he almost wanted to take that low-grade, wretched knife in his hand and throw it down behind him. It looked even more wretched because it was so low-grade, and even more low-grade because it was so wretched. What could the kid do? The hand clutching the knife was drenched in sweat, but he didn’t know what to do.
      The kid’s hesitation added to the woman's power and she got so bold as to squeeze the “trigger” slightly. The gun "clinked" twice. She’d wanted to make the gun click to scare the kid even more so that he’d get out of there. While that’s what she wanted, she had misgivings because the sound might let the kid know the gun was fake. She couldn’t hold back, though, and made the gun "clink" twice.
      The kid was astonished once again when the gun clicked. He seemed to hear an incomparably loud jeering, and he had nowhere to go to save face. He thought about letting go of the knife. He felt like throwing himself at the woman, throwing himself at the gun that had awed and confused him, throwing himself at all those things that were so far away and above him. He really did let go of the little knife that had exposed him to such mockery. Sometimes people who feel ridiculous have a particularly dark power to explode impulsively.
      By then the police “110” emergency response vehicle had already parked downstairs. The police quickly broke into the woman’s home. The woman's precious baby had called them on her cell phone while he was hiding in his room. He’d had a chance to call "110" after all.
      The woman listened while the emergency response officers started to interrogate the kid. They excoriated him for being a knife-wielding burglar at such a young age. “Don’t you know that’s against the law?” they demanded.
      “I wasn’t going to steal anything,” the kid replied.
      “So what were you going to do?” The kid just shook his head whenever they asked that.
      “Don’t you have any shame?” The kid didn’t answer.
      “Jeez, isn’t there anything that can humiliate you?” The kid thought about it and said, “A gun.”
      “Are you afraid of guns?”
      The kid said, “No. When she picked up the gun, I…. All I had was a little knife.”
      “So you were humiliated because you didn’t have a gun?” Once again, the kid was silent. He thought to himself that, really, maybe a glossy black, gold inlaid, high-grade magic gun would’ve made him happy. Shouldn’t he really be that kind of a gunman? By this time he’d almost forgotten the woman.

***

      At times the woman harbored a fierce pride when she thought of the kid. His viciousness and cowardice had made an impression on her after all. In the end, though, he hadn’t been equal to the woman, and wasn’t even up to a five-year-old child. True, not every five-year-old could speak clearly enough in an emergency situation to call for help on a cell phone, but her baby could. The woman would hug her child tightly whenever she had such thoughts.
      Later, on those occasions when the elevator was out of order and she had to climb panting up the stairs, she’d recall that day when the “110” emergency response officers had told her that they would have arrived more quickly if the elevator had been working. Well, the kid had climbed up to the eighth floor carrying a bottle of water that day. When that occurred to her, the image of the kid bending over and holding his belly would flash before her eyes.
      “But what of it?” Right away the woman would ask herself even more intractably, “Should I be ashamed because he was tired? I think not.” The woman kept telling herself that.
      “No way!” the woman shouted to herself.

21世纪中国文学大系;2002年短片吗小说
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Short Stories, p. 59
Translated from version at
http://www.saohua.com/shuku/Tiening/31-015.htm





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