Teeter-Totter


Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang
Brick 103

Liu Yiduo points to the lever at the foot of the bed and says to me, Crank this six times to make it recline and he’ll be able to drink. Twelve times to sit upright, and if he starts to slide, prop him up with a pillow. I say, Have you done that? She says, Ask him yourself. I say, We should prop him up. She says, He’s in so much pain he only understands half the time. Just go ahead and do it.

Yiduo is taller than me, about six inches, mostly in her legs. Our torsos are the same length, and my neck’s a little longer. It’s those legs of hers. Her arms are longer too, and it doesn’t look like I’d be able to pull the lever as far as her. It might be more like seven and thirteen times for me. We’re in a hospital room, a single. The drapes are blue, and with the morning sun shining through, they look transparent. On the coffee table are a few tangerines and a narrow vase, currently empty. The intense heating in here kills flowers, so Yiduo bought a cactus and placed it next to the vase, where it sits looking plump and self-conscious. Yiduo’s mom takes over the vigil at night. To make it seem as if I’m closer to Yiduo, I refer to her mom as “Auntie” rather than “your mom.” She’s back home now, sleeping in that enormous bed of hers, a four-poster with a wooden roof, like a sedan chair, a generous six by eight feet. Yiduo is here all day. She took four months off work because that’s how long the doctors said her dad had, five at the outside. I’m spending my nights at the Lius’. Their apartment is on the large side, two storeys and a terrace. Yiduo said she felt so alone there that she could hear her farts echo. We make love almost every night on her parents’ enormous bed. We never grow tired of it.

On this day, Yiduo has a workplace assessment she can’t miss; otherwise, her last half-year would go to waste. If they find her “advanced,” there’ll be an award of a few thousand yuan, though this isn’t so much about the money as her reputation. She works at a bank, a fairly easy job that leaves her enough time each week for yoga, rock climbing, hiking, and so on. Her office has a cafeteria, sauna, ping-pong and billiards tables, and central climate control. Only thing is, the work’s dull and doesn’t suit her temperament. When the matchmaker who set us up told me Yiduo worked at a bank, I worried we’d be incompatible because first she’d be so high-powered and second she’d be boring. Then we actually met, and she was nothing like I’d expected—talked like a machine gun, drank me under the table, drove me home still drunk. When she dropped me off at my building, she said, Sum this up. I said, Sum what up? She said, Sum up tonight. I said, I’m just a regular working guy. I’ll never be able to afford a car like this. She said, So vulgar. I said, The matchmaker got it wrong. We’re too far apart, and anyway I’m not vulgar. My parents were factory workers, and my dad once said, Poor people have short ambitions, thin horses have long manes. I didn’t know what he meant, but sitting in this car, I understand. She said, My dad worked in a factory too. He made rotary tillers. I turned to look at her. Really? She said, Really, what? I rode one as a kid: three gears, ran on diesel, bumpy as a horse ride. I said, Which factory? She said, The small Rototiller one. Later they changed the name to Taurus Machinery, then it went bust.

I said, I know it, the one on Xinhua Street, quite a big building. I heard the workers wouldn’t let it be torn down. They all chipped in and hired someone to guard it. She said, So you know. My dad was the foreman. He was the one who found that guy. I went to the kindergarten there. It had a small yard, hardly anything to play with, just a merry-go-round one of the workers must have put together and spray-painted bright colours. It went like the clappers. I enjoyed riding it, although, once, I fell off and got a gash on my head. I still have the scar—here, feel. I reached out and put my hand on her head. It took me quite a while to find it, a ridge of flesh along her scalp. She said, You mussed my hair. She pulled the tie off her ponytail and let her hair spill over her shoulders. The tie went over her wrist, which was so slender you could see the bones protruding like horns, like porcelain. She looked in the rear-view mirror and put her hair up again. I said, I operate a crane. She said, I know, you told me at dinner. I said, Thirty metres high, and I’m all alone at the top, no one to talk to. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but I love it. She said, You enjoy suffering? I said, It’s quiet. And I’m looking down at everyone; they’re all smaller than me. If my attention drifted, I might crush a couple of them. She said, You think you’re God? I said, It’s a special feeling, being so high up. She said, How much do you earn a month? I said, Three thousand seven, full benefits, and two hundred grand in compensation if I fall off and die. She said, That’s a lot more than I’d expected. I said, I’m good at it—tie a bottle opener to the operating arm and I’ll open your beer for you. She said, After I fell off the merry-go-round, my dad phoned and ordered them to take it apart and use the wood to make a teeter-totter. I said, Mm. She said, I never sat on that teeter-totter. I hated it when the other person rose above me. It’s different now that I’ve grown up. I said, The factory my mom worked at had a swing, and I . . . She said, Is anyone home? I said, Yes, my parents are both in, probably watching TV. She said, Get out then. I opened the car door and stepped out. An icy gust of wind hit me, and I realized I’d talked too much, maybe bragged more than I should have. She lowered her window and said, Give the matchmaker a carton of cigarettes tomorrow. With that, she drove off.

Right now, Uncle’s asleep. He doesn’t seem aware I’ve taken Yiduo’s place while she’s at work. He saw me once, standing outside his condo, waiting for Yiduo so we could go watch a movie together. We’re both film buffs. After we started going out, I decided to give her a memento, something distinctive that wouldn’t decay, so she’d have something to remember me by if we broke up. I got a machinist at my factory to make her a metal flower, a rose. The guy asked me, Should I spray it red? I said, No need. Let it be the colour of metal. He looked at the sharp edges of its petals and said, This wouldn’t pass a safety inspection. I said, What are you so fucking worried about? I got on my bike and went to her. She stared at the flower in her hand and said, You saw District 9? I said, Couldn’t you have pretended not to recognize it? She said, Let’s get going. When Yiduo and I watch a movie, that’s all we do, no popcorn, no kissing, just sit there, then have dinner after. So that day I was waiting for Yiduo. I saw her first, then her dad. She shot me a look, but before I could slip away, he said, Is he here for you? She said, Yes, that’s one of our drivers from the bank. I have a meeting to get to. Her dad was a little plump, his tummy poking out of his unzipped jacket. His legs were stubby. Like me, he was half a head shorter than Yiduo, but he had good posture. He was holding a flip phone and looked like he had plenty of people to call. He walked over, shook my hand, and said, You’re working hard then. I said, Not at all, not at all. He said, I’ll be off. Don’t drive too fast; there’s snow on the roads. I said, Don’t worry, I’m very experienced. He waved and set off in the other direction. He wasn’t sick then, or maybe he was but didn’t know yet. He’d stopped smoking in his thirties, hardly ever touched alcohol, and played badminton every week. He had every reason to be confident about his health.

Uncle stirs, just a little, and dislodges the clip on his finger. I put it back on. Yiduo showed me how to read the indicators. His heart rate is normal; it’s his blood pressure I need to keep an eye on. A tumour perforated his duodenum, and he has blood in his stool. Now there’s a diaper around his ass, and a bag of blood hanging over his head. In one end, out the other, like an elementary-school math problem. The tumour started out in his pancreas, which makes it hard to treat. Cancer loves to branch out, and the pancreas is a hub, so the cells have moved up to invade the lungs and lymph nodes, like marauding troops approaching Nanjing, which in this case is his brain. The first symptoms appeared a few months ago, just the odd pain and ache. He said to Auntie, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I keep getting heartburn, and my stomach hurts. This didn’t sound like a mysterious illness; just drink some warm water, fart it out, and you’ll be fine. But then he started getting skinnier. His belly deflated, and his cheeks grew lean, like a hillside in autumn. Sometimes his heartburn lasted all night, no gas, just the pain. Uncle’s a tough guy. According to Yiduo, he once got hit by a forklift at work and flung five metres, and even with his back seized up, he’d made it to a meeting with some managers to talk about safety issues. When he got to the hospital, the doctors said his vertebrae were so badly dislocated he’d practically been cut in two, and they couldn’t believe he’d walked there by himself. Yet this heartburn was so bad he wanted to stab a knife into his belly. Auntie realized something was wrong and made him go to the hospital, straight into this single room. They were too late—there was already no point operating. He has no idea, though.

They’ve kept it secret, thanks to Yiduo’s meticulous work. She rehearses with every visitor to make sure they know their lines. Uncle knows he has cancer but thinks it’s so minor he doesn’t even need surgery. Yiduo told him, Just a couple of stops on this train: the doc says two rounds of chemo and you’ll be able to walk home. Uncle’s legs were shrivelled as a pair of sticks by that point, but he said, I want to ride a bicycle. It’s been so long since I’ve been on a bike. Yiduo said, All right, when you’re well, give me a ride home on your bicycle. She was naked when she told me this story, a faint sheen of sweat over her body. She said he used to give her a lift to school every day on his bike. Then he went into business and the rides stopped.

Uncle moves again and lets out a grunt. I hurry to his side and listen in case he’s trying to say something. The skin on his face is loose and mottled, as if he has ringworm. I don’t approve of Yiduo’s deception. She ought to tell him the truth. What if he still has stuff he wants to do, like travel the world or something?

Yiduo said when she was a kid, Uncle would tell her he was coming home every weekend but never showed up. She still thought he’d been right to lie because it gave her hope. In the end, I stopped arguing. This wasn’t my family, after all.

He opens his eyes, sees me, and says, Nurse? I say, No, I’m Yiduo’s friend. She couldn’t get away from work today. He looks at me a long time and says, Driver? I say, You remembered. He says, You’ve lost weight. I think about this and say, I haven’t been sleeping well. I keep getting up in the middle of the night. He says, Young people like you should be careful of your health. It all comes back to haunt you when you’re old. I say, You have a point. He says, Raise the bed, I want a drink of water. I go to the foot of the bed and crank the lever seven times. He looks like he might tip over, so I prop him up with a pillow. There’s plenty of warm water in the flask, and I hand it to him. He says, I need a straw; there’s one in the drawer. I fetch it and he drinks a little before handing the flask back. His lips are cracked like tree bark. Half the water just soaks directly in. He says, This is embarrassing. The last time you saw me, I still had hair. I say, You look sharp without it, and this must save a lot of trouble. He says, True, no need to wash it; I just wipe my head with a cloth. I laugh, but he doesn’t, even though he understands this is meant to be funny. His hands are clasped in his lap, and even now that he’s thin as cardboard, he has a certain dignity. He says, Yiduo has a temper.

You’ll have to be patient with her. She speaks her mind, but it’s better that way, rather than making you guess what she’s thinking. I don’t know what to say. Did he already know, that first time he saw me? He says, What do you do? I say, You’re right, I’m not a driver. I operate a crane at the steelworks in Tiexi. He says, I know the one, Steel-Rolling Mill Number Three. I considered working there when I got back to the city after the Cultural Revolution. How’s productivity? I say, Not too bad: they pay me enough to live on. There aren’t many of these places left; it’s a struggle to keep them going. He says, Sorry to trouble you, but I need to pee. Ever since I got ill, water goes straight through me. I say, It might be easier if you just pissed into your diaper. I don’t mind, but it might be tiring for you to get up. He says, Sometimes that’s what I do if I can’t hold it in, but you know, it still feels strange to pee in bed. Give me a hand. The bathroom is about ten metres from the bed, and it takes us five minutes to get there. I have one hand under his armpit while the other holds his drip aloft. I can feel he’s using all his strength but with no apparent results. His skeleton won’t do what it’s told. I feel pain on his behalf, though I couldn’t tell you where, only that it must be hurting somewhere. He stands at the toilet bowl and squeezes out a few drops. On the way back, he starts to sweat, and his legs tremble. He sits on the edge of the bed, and I have to hold him up as I put a clean diaper on him. He lies down again or, more accurately, allows himself to fall onto the bed. He is still for a moment. I feel rude staring at him like this, so I get up and walk around, straightening the newspapers on the coffee table and watering the cactus. From behind me, he says, What’s your name? I say, Li Mo. He says, Young Mr. Li, I’ve forgotten quite a few things recently. I notice the half-full bag of blood on the rack, bright red and viscous, and wonder whose it was. I say, Don’t worry about it, you might remember later. He says, Maybe bad memory is a side effect of chemo. I spent all morning trying to remember the name of the guy who used to watch my factory. I say, The security guard? It’s not so weird that you’ve forgotten his name. He says, That guard was an educated youth who got sent down to the countryside with me. We were there together more than ten years before we got back to the city, but I just can’t remember what he was called. I say, I’m always forgetting the names of my junior-high classmates. I bumped into one at Red Flag Square the other day, and I had no idea what she was called, just her nickname, Piggy. He says, Piggy? I say, That’s what we called her. She didn’t like it at first, but eventually she agreed she was a hog. He says, I remember now: we called that guy Bug-Eyes, partly because his eyeballs poked halfway out of his face, partly because his job was watching the entrance. I say, So you know his nickname and what he looked like. He says, I’ve got it: he was called Gan Peiyuan. His father was the chairman of the grain trade union, his mother worked at the department store, and his big sister was an electrician at the transformer plant. I say, You see, you remembered everything. He says, One time, I caught him stealing spare parts and gave him a talking-to. He came around to our house and smashed all our windows that night. I say, And then? He says, I’m tired. I need to take a nap. I crank his bed down flat and glance at his heart rate, which is a little elevated, but starts slowing now that he’s horizontal again. He says, Li, could you let the bird out? I say, What bird? He says, There’s a bird on the windowsill that can’t get out. There’s nothing at the window. The drapes are pulled to one side, and the weather’s clear but cold. The afternoon sun hits the windowsill like a layer of fine yellow sand. I look down into the parking lot, but there are no birds there either, just vehicles within the white lines and people shaking hands next to them. When I turn back, he’s fallen asleep.

I sit in the chair, feeling drowsy myself. I want to go out for a cigarette, but what if his drip stops working and no one’s here to notice? When I came with Yiduo this morning, I had a smoke in the corridor before coming in. A middle-aged woman was already there, holding on to her drip. She told me she had a liver tumour from too much drinking. When the doctors cut her off, she took up smoking instead. Her son was overseas, and she didn’t dare tell him she was ill because he was up for a big promotion. She wore a woollen hat and talked to every stranger who walked by. I pinch my cheeks and look under the covers. He hasn’t peed or shat and isn’t sweating. His blood bag is almost empty, so I ring the bell, but no one comes. I go out to the office, where a doctor is at a computer typing in prescriptions. I say, Ward 502 Bed 3 needs more blood. He looks at me and says, Liu Qingge? I say, Yes. He calls the nurses’ station and tells them to change the bag, then pulls a CT scan from a drawer and says, This is his, from yesterday. It’s not looking good. See this shadow here: the outline’s uneven. I say, He was talking about a bird on the windowsill earlier, but there was no bird there. He says, The cancer’s reached his brain, which can mean a variety of symptoms—pain, forgetfulness, hallucinations, sometimes all three. I say, I see. He says, Your dad won’t be with us much longer, and from here on in, he’ll either be unconscious or in a lot of pain. You’ll need to be prepared for that—but it’s impressive he made it this far; that’s a strong survival instinct. I say, He’s my girlfriend’s dad, not mine. He says, Oh, I’m a locum. I don’t know all the relatives yet. Could you ask the family to come see me when they get here? Even if they can afford it, it’s not good to keep pumping him full of painkillers. They’re just drugging him. I say, All right.

I pass this on to Yiduo when she arrives that evening. Auntie shows up a while later, and they go to see the doctor together. It’s a long conversation. Uncle wakes up, looks at me, and says, How big’s your crane? I say, Twenty-two tonnes. He reaches his hand out from under the covers and shakes mine, saying, I have to go deal with something now. Don’t drive too fast; there’s snow on the roads. Then he shuts his eyes and goes back to sleep.

Yiduo doesn’t tell me what they talked about, only that she’s paid for an extra bed and will spend a few nights here, and I should go home. I guess something new must have come up, but there’s no point in me asking. I know she’s vaguely seeing a few other people, and one day I saw a text message on her phone: someone telling her they’d been at second base too long, and he wanted to get to third. I didn’t ask—this was no more than I’d expected—just said I was busy after work and went to a bathhouse with some co-workers instead. It’s not like I’m ever going to marry her. We’re compatible in bed but at a certain point, companionship is more important. There’s a woman at work I get on quite well with, and I wander over to her station when I have nothing better to do. She’s a bench worker, a little shorter than me, and gets rated “advanced” at her appraisal each year. She lives across the road from me and comes from Anshan originally. We have lunch together every day. Her fried yellow croaker is amazing. She makes a batch every weekend and gives me half. I’m a fish fan. If I find a wife who cooks fish well, I might just be able to keep on going. But I’m dragging my feet now. There are too many things Yiduo and I won’t be able to talk about until she gets through all this family stuff.

Two days go by, and Yiduo hasn’t called. I pick up my cellphone a few times, then put it down again. It’s better if she takes the lead in our relationship. I’d actually like to know how Uncle is doing, but if I ask it will seem like I’m just being polite, or worse, she might assume I’m concerned for her when I mean only what the words actually say. I have no doubt that she can take care of herself. On the second night, I go to a movie with the bench worker. She falls asleep. The film’s a little science-fictiony and quite noisy. The 3d glasses give me a headache. The story is nothing new, people from the future going back to the past, i.e., our present, but the present is happening now, and I suspect it’s changed quite a few times, but isn’t it still the present? I wake her up as the credits roll and take her home. I leave her outside her building and don’t ask to go upstairs, though we kiss for the first time. It feels good. Her lips are firm, and she clutches the front of my shirt with both hands. We use the same brand of laundry soap. Back home, my dad is playing chess on my computer. He and my mom retired two years ago, though actually he left his job twenty years ago to be a small-time businessman. He wandered the streets, got chased away a lot, and fought with local law enforcement. Ended up as a steamed-sweetcorn vendor. Finally, two years ago, he was able to relax and enjoy his old age. My mom’s out with her friends power walking. They go all the way from Heping district to Tiexi, although I don’t see it doing her any good; she’s still putting on weight. My dad taught himself to play computer chess, then downloaded a hack so he can bail without losing any points if a game isn’t going well. In the spring, he’ll go back to the roadside tables, not just for the game but because he has a lot to say to his chess buddy. Sometimes, psychological warfare is more important than the moves. He and this guy fought in the war together, but they got into different things and drifted apart, and now their glory days might as well have happened on another planet.

They always argue when they get together. I have a shower and lie down, but when I pick up my phone I see a dozen missed calls from Yiduo, from half an hour ago. I hadn’t noticed because I put it on silent in the movie theatre. I call her and she says, Were you dead? I say, No, just asleep, I didn’t hear it ring. She says, My dad’s been raising a ruckus all evening. He wants to see you. You’re the only one who can nurse him. I say, How am I supposed to do that? She says, Don’t get smart. Are you coming or not? I say, I’ll get a taxi. Maybe he’ll be asleep by the time I get there. She says, I’ll wait for you.

I arrive to find a gaggle of people at the doorway, all around Auntie’s age. Probably family. Auntie is sobbing away as she talks, and a few of the women are dabbing at their eyes too. The main doctor is murmuring to them when he sees me and says, Are you Mr. Li? I say, Yes. He says, No one else is allowed to go in except you. I don’t know where he got the strength, but he threw a pillow at my face just now. I say, I hope your face is all right. I’ll go in and call you when he’s fallen asleep. Yiduo is smoking, in defiance of hospital rules. She shoves me and says, Why did you ignore my calls? I say, I honestly didn’t hear it ring, and anyway you don’t always answer my calls. The doctor says, Everyone calm down: nothing’s going to happen tonight. The family should get some rest. You can relax, I’m on shift. Someone pokes their head in from the next room and says, There are other patients here, in case you hadn’t noticed. Are you done?

It’s after midnight, and there’s only one nurse left at the station. Her eyes droop as she watches an American TV show on her iPad. Yiduo comes over and hugs me. She says, I missed you. Let me in after he’s fallen asleep. I pat her on the back and go into the room.

Uncle is sitting upright, reaching for one of the tangerines on the table. I pick it up and give it to him. He scrabbles to peel it and says, This is for you. I say, I’m full. I’ve just had dinner. He drops the peel on the table and says, You don’t have to eat it. I just like the smell. I sit on the bedside chair and say, Uncle, if you’re tired, sleep for a while. He says, I’m not tired. I want to talk to you. Are you tired? I say, I usually sleep late. He’s much calmer than I’d expected. The pillow is propping him up and doesn’t show any signs of going flying. The bag of blood on the drip stand has been replaced by one of glucose. He says, What I’m about to tell you, you mustn’t repeat to Yiduo, or anyone else, not ever. Can you promise me that? I say, You barely know me. Even if I say yes, how can you trust me? He says, I don’t have much strength left. Don’t say these useless things. I know you, and you know me. This has nothing to do with anyone else. I say, All right, if you think I’m worth it, you can tell me. I won’t tell anyone. His face doesn’t change, apart from his eyes widening a little and reddening. Something seems to have moved him, and now his pupils are burning coals. He says, I have an army greatcoat. They issued it to me at the plant. I’ve told Yiduo you can have it. I bet it gets cold up there in that crane of yours, and the flimsy things they make these days aren’t as warm. I say, Thank you, that’s exactly what I need. He says, You can give it back to me when I’m better. I say, Sure, when you’re better. I’ll have it cleaned and return it to you. He says, It’s in the closet. Go get it. I wonder if this is another hallucination and how awkward this will be if it’s not there, but he keeps staring at me so I have no choice. Luckily, there is a greatcoat in there, looking a little threadbare but still perfectly good. I put it on. It’s exactly the right size, warm and sturdy. He says, turn around and show me. I spin, and he says, You look a lot like me when I was young. I say, You’re flattering me. He says, I have a son, but he hasn’t been to see me the whole time I’ve been ill. I think, Well that’s to be expected; someone with all that cash probably would leave a bastard or two in his wake. Is this the secret he wanted to tell me? I say, Where does your son work? He says, In a bank, I helped him get the job. Puzzled, I ask, What’s his name? He says, Liu Yiduo, Liu’s the surname. Yiduo as in “a flower.”

I know he’s confused so I just say, Young people these days are so busy. Make sure you scold him when you’re better. He says, There are pain patches on the table. Help me stick one on. The packaging doesn’t have a single Chinese word on it, but I saw one on his thigh when I helped him go to the bathroom, so I guess it goes on arteries. I reach out to pull the covers off, but he points at his temple and says, No, here. I say, That might not do much good. He says, My head’s splitting, but I want to keep talking, so stick it here. The pain patch is round, and Uncle looks a little comical with it on his face.

He says, You mentioned Gan Peiyuan last time, and I remembered something else in the past day or two. I say, Go ahead. He says, In 1995, the plant started to fail, so I took on some of the workers and ran it myself, but not all of them. I couldn’t afford so many wages. I had to let some of them go. Gan Peiyuan was my childhood friend, we’d grown up together, but I’d kept him going so many years I thought we were even. I took him aside and offered him five thousand more in severance than everyone else was getting. The money would come out of my own pocket. He refused and went around slamming me, claiming I was swallowing state resources for myself, threatening to kill my whole family. The allegations wouldn’t hurt me: these were national initiatives, not just something I’d come up with myself. All the plant foremen were doing the same thing. But then I found out he was following Yiduo. She was a high-school sophomore then and had no idea someone was after her. He called my name one day and pulled something out of his bag: a bottle of acid. He shook it at me and walked away. I say, You should rest. His heart rate has gone up to 160. He says, I need to tell the whole story in one go or I might forget. I wanted to get someone to deal with him but then decided I should do it myself. The plant was closed for the New Year holiday, and I arranged to meet him in my office. Had some New Year goodies for him, said I wanted a chat. Knocked him out with a spanner, pulled a nylon rope around his neck. He lived alone, loved drinking. His kid was with his ex-wife, and his parents had cut him off long ago because he was always demanding money or stealing from them. I made sure he was dead. His eyes bulged even more than usual, and he’d bitten through his tongue. I dragged him to the workers’ kindergarten, dug a pit, and buried him. He’s under the teeter-totter. With that, Uncle closes his eyes. Sweat is streaming down his face, soaking his pillow. I say, Would you like some water? He shakes his head. I want to leave, but he’s still awake, and if I go now, he might think I’m a coward. His eyes remain shut as he says, I’ve been dreaming of him these past two days: he says he understands why I did what I did, but could I move him somewhere else, put up a headstone, even one without a name. He’s had a rough time, all those kiddies running around on top of him. I say, Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. He nods and says, Make sure you don’t attract attention. I’ve spent quite a bit of money over the years, paying to keep watch over that place. When I’m better, I’ll burn some offerings for him. You’re a driver; you can drive me there. Why don’t you come be my driver? I say, Sure, I’m very experienced.

Finally, he’s sleeping soundly, though his breath is shallow. I lift the covers and see a dark splotch of blood on his diaper. He doesn’t wake up when I change it. His chest keeps rising and falling. Now and then he gulps, as if he wants to swallow all the air in the room, then slowly lets it out like gossamer thread. I open the door. Everyone’s gone apart from Liu Yiduo, who is leaning against the corridor wall, deep in thought. She opens her eyes and says, Is he asleep? I say, Yes. She says, My mom’s gone to buy mourning clothes, so we won’t have to rush around when it happens. I say, Is there really no hope? She says, There’s almost no blood left in his body, you understand? She takes my hand and leads me into the room. Her skin-care stuff and toothbrush are laid out in the bathroom. She washes up, takes all her clothes off, and pushes me onto the army cot in a corner of the room. I hang the greatcoat over the radiator; it’s too hot in here, and this might help a little. We hug for a while, neither of us saying anything. I can hear Uncle breathing, or really I should say I’m listening for it. Now and then there’s a beep as his blood pressure slowly falls. She tucks her head beneath my chin and says, I want you on top of me. I say, Go to sleep, Uncle will hear. She doesn’t answer, just reaches out and pulls off my underpants. I roll over on top of her. There are tears in her eyes, and when I hold her, unmoving, they wet my face. After a while, she pushes my shoulder and turns over so she has her back to me.

When I wake, it’s two in the morning and my mouth is dry. Yiduo is asleep, her body scrunched into a ball. I get dressed, go to Uncle’s bed, and drink some water from his flask. It’s still warm. His mouth hangs a little open, and he’s completely still, swaddled in the white sheets. I bend and call into his ear, Uncle, Uncle? He doesn’t respond. I wait until I see him take another breath, then I pull on the greatcoat and leave the hospital.

My taxi speeds along. There aren’t many people on the road this late on a winter’s night. I see vomit in the gutter, frozen into little mounds. The trees are bare and look like they’re made of metal. The driver knows the rotary-tiller factory. He says everyone knows it. It used to be the most productive place, but now they can’t tear it down, so it just moulders there, and it’s not clear who owns the land it’s on.

I stand at the entrance and realize the place is even bigger than I’d imagined, sprawled over the ground like an enormous animal. The main gate is five or six metres high, but there’s no signboard, and everything’s dark. I climb it, swinging my legs over the metal spikes at the top, but as soon as I land on the other side, the lights come on in the gatehouse. Someone opens a window and sticks his head out. He’s fifty or maybe sixty, hair still black but face wrinkled all over, thick stubble on his chin. He stares at me with bulging eyes, a nightstick in one hand. He says, Climb back the way you came. I look at his eyeballs, which poke halfway out of his face, as if they might fall out onto the ground at any moment. I say, Gan Peiyuan? He says, Who are you? I say, Bug-Eyes? He says, Hey, you know me? Come in and sit. The gatehouse is small, just a window to look out, a small TV set, and a coal stove that has a kettle on it. There is frost on the walls. I let out a breath and say, I’m Liu Qingge’s driver. He says, Manager Qingge’s driver? How’s he doing? He transfers money to my account every month, but I haven’t seen him in quite a while. I say, He’s fine, always talking about you, but he’s just so busy. I’m going to go have a walk around. I’ll come talk to you in a while. You trust me? He says, It’s the middle of the night. You just want to walk? I say, Just a walk, then I’ll come back and we’ll have a drink. He says, Fine, I’ll warm some spirits and wait for you.

There is a wide pathway through the centre of the compound, with buildings on either side, all behind metal gates, some locked, though on others the locks have broken and the wind rattles them. Some are completely empty, every glass pane smashed. Some of the production line stations are still there, now rusted through, toolboxes spilling over the ground. I pick one up and open it to find a newspaper from 1996. As I walk, I can make out the words painted on the side of each building, weathered as they are: Assembly, Maintenance, Spray-Painting, and so on all the way to the ninth building, which is Testing. To the left, opposite the last building, is the health centre and workers’ housing. In the health centre, I find drip bottles labelled “Penicillin” on the floor. The workers’ housing has an auditorium, though the seats have mostly fallen over or gotten mouldy. At the end of the road, I see a sign pointing right: Workers’ Kindergarten. I follow it to a two-storey building, all locked up. In the yard in front is a teeter-totter. I sit at one end, and though it’s stiff with rust, it still moves. Without anyone at the other end, though, all I can do is sit there. After five minutes, I return to the second building—Maintenance—find a curved piece of metal, head back to the teeter-totter, and start digging. The ground is icy, so this takes a lot of effort. Soon, I’m sweating hard. After an hour, I’ve made a pit a half-metre deep but have found nothing. I take a break and have a cigarette, but my sweat starts turning cold, so I get back into it. Another half-metre and I see a couple of bones, maybe a toe. I dig carefully in that area, trying not to damage them. Forty minutes more and I’ve unearthed a whole skeleton, lying flat. Hard to tell how tall this person was, but they don’t take up much space. Maybe our skeletons are shorter than we are. The shreds of cloth around the bones come from a worker’s coveralls. I stare at it for a while, thinking about the graveyards around the city. The one on Chessboard Hill to the east isn’t bad. I’ve visited my grandfather’s tomb there. Or there’s one in the southern hills that’s nice and high: you can look down over half the city.

I can’t think what to put on the gravestone. Even if there’s no name, you ought to say something. I squat by the pit, pulling the greatcoat around myself and pondering. The icy wind makes my cigarette flicker. I should head back to the gatehouse to warm up with some hot spirits. Sometimes that’s how life is: you enjoy a drink and feel your bones and muscles relax, and just like that everything becomes clear.

Brick 103

Shuang Xuetao was born in 1983 and is the author of five volumes of fiction, including his novella Moses in the Plain.

Jeremy Tiang has translated more than ten books from Chinese, including novels by Zhang Yueran, Yeng Pway Ngon, Li Er, and Chan Ho-Kei and memoirs by You Jin and Jackie Chan. He also writes and translates plays and is the author of the novel State of Emergency.