That night I’d gotten immensely drunk. I stumbled to the hole of a convenience store behind the kabob stand and, under the baleful eyes of a young woman who sat with her son in her lap on a plastic stool, dialed Second Auntie’s number. Ende was asleep in a puddle of beer on the greasy card table and so did not stop me. My fingers seemed many times thicker than usual and I had to dial four or five times before the lugubrious operator’s apology was swapped for ringing at the other end. The clanging went on for a long time, like clamorous hail. My eyes throbbed in their sockets. Cousin Yawei picked up, slowly lisping out a “who’s there.” She had never had good Mandarin, and after she stopped junior high it had just gotten worse. I demanded that Second Auntie take the phone. “She’s asleep,” said Yawei. In Peiying dialect her lisp vanished. She yawned as though to convince me of the lateness of the hour. “What’s up?” I sucked a breath through my teeth. Ende had fallen from a ladder at his construction job, I said. They were going to make him go home tomorrow on the train. They said he’d done a poor shoddy job so they weren’t going to give him any money. Second Auntie would have to go wait for him at the station in town. Yawei yelped and dropped the phone on the dirt floor, and the earthy thunk bit my eardrum. There were screams in the background. I cursed into the receiver, gripping the sweaty yellow plastic until I felt it give, but before it broke. I had no more cash in my pockets. Second Auntie panted into the phone, with the volume of one panicked and frightened of the electric voice-box, “Is he dead?” The rasp of her breath brought something back to my bleared mind and I said, “No.”
“Then he’s a cripple?”
“So why are they making him come back here?” I could envision her, kneeled in panic on the floor, the shins of her long underwear browning against crumbs of dirt.
I had never been so badly shouted at in all my life as that night. Second Auntie descended from hysterical screams to heaving sobs, finally long recitations– all she had done for me since I was four and her sister had left me and my older sister to her care and on and on, an incantation of guilt, more magical than the electricity that carried her voice, echoing, booming like a ghost’s, through the wires, to my numb clammy ear. It was horrible as it was comforting. None of us spoke to each other in the old homey way anymore, with the coarse grunting nasals and shrill vowels, heavy and soothing like winter blankets. The next morning I could not move my head nor any other part of myself, and when I tried to I vomited my forty singles all over the black-and-white squares of the floor.
Ende never knew about any of it. He went back home to his mother a few months before me, not because he’d been fired but because it was Mid-Autumn Festival. I did not go with him or my other cousins, or any of my friends from the barbershop. I did see them off at Beijing West, and I remember the October sun hazy behind orange-gray smoke, hanging regally above the honk and rumble of the clogged streets, the endless chains of trains all threading homeward, Westward, into clouds full as mothers’ arms. I did not go with Ende by train and bus and long dusty path to Second Auntie’s house because Fuan had told me she would introduce me to her parents and grandmother over dinner. From Beijing West I rode the bus, a cheap one for half the fare without air conditioning, in a swathe across the city to Huayuan Bridge.
* * *
Ende had brought a dozen or so mooncakes from Second Auntie. I ate them with deliberate speed, allowing the oily crumbs to pile like snow on my lap, spreading spots of grease, until all the small dots of fat had joined into a sea and the cake crumbs floated like birds or boats. Ende grabbed the plastic sack in which the cakes were contained from me when he saw how many I’d eaten, and my clenched fingers tore five long holes. Several cakes dropped to the linoleum tiles. Ende stared, said “you” and then left me alone.
I went home not long after. I brought Second Auntie fifteen hundred in the form of fifteen starchy Maos, red and lucky, which I hid in two envelopes wrapped in a plastic bag and shoved between packets of Health Oatmeal Now With Real Swallow’s Nest Extract the cousins and I had bought for her in my small brown knapsack. The road to the village was dry; my shoes, Nieks from the Ethnic Market in Xidan, were coated with red-brown dust when I stepped over Second Auntie’s lintel. She was there on the bamboo bench, napping. I went to the bedroom Ende and I had shared and put the knapsack on the bed, and looked at the little trinkets Ende had brought during Mid-Autumn Festival: a stuffed monkey with a stuffed banana in its paw, a small plastic replica of the People’s Meeting Hall, a rough-edged postcard of Tiananmen. He’d never gone to either place. Most likely they were from the train station as he hurriedly pushed past the thousands of other people going home. I had no such troubles; I saw no one I knew from childhood on the train, no old elementary-school playmates, no former crushes. The village itself had been quiet to the point of seeming abandoned as I plodded through, dirtying my shoes and the legs of my baggy jeans. An old couple were all that I’d seen between the bus stop a kilometer from Second Auntie’s house and her door, and they hadn’t recognized me, nor I them.
Over a dinner of sugared tomatoes and white-rice porridge I lied about many things. The Forbidden Palace was very fine and big, they didn’t make roast duck half as good as Uncle Zhu from next door, the girls weren’t really all that good-looking, the construction was going so fast it was like magic, the whites I’d seen were golden-haired and green-eyed like the television always shows, and things weren’t all that expensive compared with home. Second Auntie seemed well-contented by all this (presumably Ende and the others had more or less corroborated all of it). Indeed, she grew so excited she left off her porridge halfway and went to her bedroom, where she made a great many rummaging noises, returning to her low stool with the jacket. As always her grimy thumb worried the button and her mouth wriggled as she repeated the litany, a sign of her benevolent generosity to me, ingrate nephew. I nodded and “ah”ed where necessary, but the end of her recitation startled me into real attention. Uncle Zhu’s daughter was a couple of years older than me, said Second Auntie, and she was also home from her job for a few days. She was a nice girl. I should go see her while I was home. I was engrossed in a tomato. A moth dove and spun around the lightbulb, casting flits of shadow onto Second Auntie’s spotted face, her loose-fleshed jaw, as it chewed the invisible shade of her mother, as her finger worked the button. That night she added the secret pocket.
Uncle Zhu’s daughter was nice: she could make passing meals, was generally clean; from her poorly permed hair, pencilled eyebrows and lipstick when I ate dinner with Auntie and Uncle Zhu, I saw that she was in fact a nice girl. As we ate, she appeared regularly with another saucer of fried buns or tofu curd and chicken, When we all sat, four blue-lit faces before the television as it played Emperor of the Han II, she said in a low voice that she was also working in the capital. When was I going back? Maybe she and I would be on the same train?
“The day after tomorrow,” I said, in Mandarin. Auntie and Uncle Zhu’s eyes briefly darted to my face, but returned with admirable speed to the screen.
“Oh, so am I!” She returned, arching her false brows and curling her painted mouth, stained violet by the cathode-rays. “Are you on the 1389?”
“Yes.” Her hips were narrow, but her breasts, by nature or plasticine nurture, were large as gourds as she leaned conspiratorially toward me.
Thus I met Baibai.
She loves cigarettes. “I hate it at home, you know?” She said to me the very first time she lit one lying in bed with me. It was also our first time in the Garden Grand Hotel, a convenient two blocks’ walk from the Zoo and up four convenient flights of stairs. “They think it’s like, bad for getting married or having babies or whatever.” I nodded. She inhaled rapturously. “You’re pretty good-looking, you could get in on this job too, you know. Like, I know a million guys half as hot going around. It’s like a thousand times better than whatever you’re doing now.”
“I’m studying to become a hairstylist.”
“Shit, nobody wants a hairstylist! I mean, they make all kinds of stuff so you can do it yourself, you know? See, I did these myself.” She pulled on her flaccid curls. I expressed agreement. We arranged to meet next Friday, after I got off the afternoon shift.
Baibai only recently started asking me for money–final proof that she is a nice girl. Uncle and Auntie Zhu were apparently waiting for some from her job in the big Wenzhou shoe plant. She told me that she’d left the plant only three weeks after getting there, because a man at a dumpling place where she was eating by herself had offered her two hundred for an hour, which was about a hundred times better than sitting around sewing uppers onto soles. Our meetings remain weekly, though she only takes payment for every month, and at a deep discount. She is a nice girl, but I have never asked her to go to the Zoo with me, though she did once suggest we get a snack or something afterward.
Once I went into the Zoo alone. I did not see anything except the solemn-faced waterfowl because it had been ten minutes to closing time. They preened their long brown-tabbed feathers and did not fly. From outside the gates, the boom perpetual of iron-concrete symphony and weak rain, through which I now walk to the bus terminus across the plaza. My windbreaker will be sodden by the time I shove into the mass of heat and sweaty meat in the gullet of the bus that takes me to my corrugated-iron home.