THE PIG HEAD DINER

《猪头小店》

The World of Chinese - - Contents - - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓)

A fac­tory clo­sure ef­fects a north­east in­dus­trial town. A laid-off worker, his son, the son's friend, a se­cu­rity guard, a cheat­ing girl­friend, her lover: By the day's end, two will be dead and the rest will have their lives changed for­ever

Agiant smoke­stack stuck straight up into the gray af­ter­noon sky. On this day in late May the only peo­ple on the con­crete plain were two deaf chil­dren who stood fac­ing each other, qui­etly and care­fully kick­ing about a multi-col­ored ball on a piece of ground that ex­tended out in the shape of a fan from the fac­tory. Worn down from years of use and speck­led with pits and hol­lows, the ground looked like the skin on the face of a sickly pa­tient on his deathbed.

As three trucks drove by the edge of this ter­rain, they kicked up bone­col­ored dust from the rot­ted earth, a scene that seem­ingly trans­formed a vis­ual sen­sa­tion into a tac­tile one, that of talc pow­der. A hunch­back sud­denly stopped in his tracks, rais­ing his head to look upon the gi­ant arch at the en­trance of the fac­tory; the char­ac­ters had faded, or per­haps his eye­sight was fail­ing him. By the time he turned to walk qui­etly away, the two deaf chil­dren had al­ready dis­ap­peared from the land­scape.

Against a quiet and hazy back­drop rem­i­nis­cent of a silent dusk upon the des­o­late out­skirts of a city, a bell rang, and the fac­tory gates slowly opened to re­veal a group of work­ers fin­ish­ing their last day on the job, all laid off. Their faces car­ried an ex­pres­sion that em­bod­ied ret­i­cence, with only a few try­ing to conceal their sense of con­fu­sion and de­spair with ex­ag­ger­ated com­plaints, be­lied by the looks of lone­li­ness and des­o­la­tion in their eyes.

At a time when com­mon peo­ple around the coun­try were los­ing their jobs, Mr. Zhao was just one in a gi­ant crowd.

The cloth sack tied to the back of Zhao’s bike, filled with all kinds of per­sonal ob­jects, bulged in var­i­ous places; the sound of metal spoons and enamel cups clang­ing within blended with the dull scrap­ing that the mud­guard on his back wheel made when­ever it met a pot­hole.

The work­ers flowed out like a stream, stick­ing to the shade of the large poplars on the side of the street, glid­ing for­ward in small groups on their bi­cy­cles, all with a sack hang­ing from their handlebars for lunch.

Zhao felt he was just too damn un­lucky, the mem­ory of the fu­neral a few years ago still fresh in his head, his wife’s plump face float­ing in his mind, as if a hot com­press had been ap­plied to his skull. When­ever he had thoughts like this, he would hear a cold whistling in his ears, the sound of a bliz­zard in north­east­ern China with a crazy woman lost within. Af­ter her death, Zhao would al­ways de­scribe the story of her pass­ing as such:

“She suf­fered a men­tal shock, al­ways be­liev­ing her daugh­ter hadn’t died, al­ways wast­ing her time try­ing to get for­tune-tell­ers to re­veal her where­abouts.”

The fam­ily was orig­i­nally poor yet happy, but when their school­girl daugh­ter dis­ap­peared, the pre­vi­ously quiet wife came to suf­fer from de­men­tia, and froze to death in the snow. Zhao thought about how his son was al­ready in mid­dle school him­self, how quickly time passed, and how in a few years he might him­self be bedrid­den, like a crip­ple un­able to take care of him­self. How his son only knew how to mess around, and would leave him to die trag­i­cally. When­ever Zhao had th­ese kinds of thoughts he be­came quiet and dispir­ited. Now that he was laid off, he was an aged sin­gle fa­ther who still had to take care of a fool­ish son.

Zhao fre­quently thought about poi­son­ing him­self, about his de­parted loved ones, about his suf­fo­cat­ing life. He truly wanted to drink a bot­tle of liquor mixed with in­sec­ti­cide—he didn’t lack the balls to kill him­self, even though it was ad­mit­ting he was a loser afraid of life. Death was a great re­lease, but he couldn’t die be­cause he still had a son, Zhao Hua­jun.

Zhao rode his bike into an al­ley­way and thought again of the re­al­ity of be­ing laid off. He felt lost: What would he do to­mor­row? What would he do in the fu­ture? This was a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion to be in for a man in his 40s.

THE FAM­ILY WAS ORIG­I­NALLY POOR YET HAPPY, BUT WHEN THEIR DAUGH­TER DIS­AP­PEARED, THE WIFE CAME TO SUF­FER FROM DE­MEN­TIA, AND FROZE TO DEATH IN THE SNOW

He pushed his bike into the court­yard and saw his son, Hua­jun, squat­ting over an old alarm clock that he was dis­as­sem­bling.

“What are you tak­ing it apart for?” Zhao asked.

“It’s bro­ken any­way,” said Hua­jun, barely look­ing at his fa­ther, fid­dling with a screw­driver in his right hand.

Zhao didn’t have any­thing to say, and just placed his hands on his hips as he sighed deeply, un­der the apri­cots.

“Buy me a bike,” said Hua­jun as he sud­denly raised his head.

“Buy you a bike? Why do you want me to buy you a bike?” “They all have them.” “They?” “Yeah, they all have bikes,” said Hua­jun im­pa­tiently. “My class­mates, my friends, Shao­jun, all of them have bikes, and they ride them ev­ery­where, and I don’t, so I can’t join in any­more.”

Zhao could hear the sad tone in his son’s voice as his throat choked up, and sud­denly felt sorry for him. “Just take mine. I don’t need it any­more; got fuckin’ laid off.”

“I don’t want your bike,” said Hua­jun as he fur­rowed his brow, speak­ing with scorn. “Be­sides the bell which doesn’t work, ev­ery other part squeaks and creaks. I’ll be laughed at, rid­ing a junker like that.”

Well, shit. Hear­ing his bike mocked by his son, who didn’t even pay at­ten­tion to the news of him be­ing laid off, made him fu­ri­ous. He pointed at his son’s head: “Well, in the fu­ture, we won’t even have food to eat! I get laid off and you want me to buy you a fuck­ing new bike? Tell me, where’s the money go­ing to come from? You can starve, you lit­tle jerk!”

“They all have them!” Hua­jun yelled back, un­able to con­trol his anger and pain.

“Well, they can all go to hell!” bel­lowed Zhao. “Piss off ! Get out of here! If you’re up to the task then pay your own way, make some money, buy a bike, buy what­ever the hell you want if you can af­ford it. Buy a fuck­ing tank for all I care. Fuck­ing lit­tle Yama Raja1 up in here! Get out of my sight, giv­ing me shit when I’ve just been laid off…”

Hua­jun stood up sud­denly, very straight, like a sculp­ture in a park, grip­ping the screw­driver tightly in his hand, eyes full of rage. He re­ally did ap­pear like some kind of statue, a brave war­rior with a red-tas­selled spear.

Zhao sat squarely upon a rock un­der­neath the apri­cot tree, and took out a wrin­kled pack of cig­a­rettes, pulling plac­ing one in his mouth, ex­hal­ing heav­ily. Hua­jun looked side­ways at his fa­ther, an­grily puff­ing out his cheeks be­fore run­ning out of the court­yard as his fa­ther lit the cig­a­rette.

Zhao saw his son run­ning out with the screw­driver and wanted to tell him to leave the tool at home, but sud­denly he felt very tired and down, and gave up on the idea. It was just a screw­driver.

As he pre­pared noo­dles in the kitchen, Zhao thought about his son, and no­ticed that it was al­ready dark out­side; the news had fin­ished. He placed a big white bowl of food on the couch as he watched Tv—the over­head light wasn’t on, and the screen lit up the room in mys­te­ri­ous ways. By the time the sec­ond episode of Ro­mance of the Con­dor He­roes had fin­ished, Zhao was al­ready sprawled di­ag­o­nally upon the couch, empty bowl and chop­sticks sit­ting omi­nously upon his chest2.

By this time Zhao was dream­ing. He rarely dreamt, never more than a hun­dred dreams in a year, so each dream moved him deeply. This night, he dreamt of his youth, the dif­fi­cult years when food was in short sup­ply and meat was a lux­ury. Al­most ev­ery day he’d sit on the stone roller3 and zone out, some­times en­joy­ing the sight of a girl who would pass by, a beauty with two braids named Wang Yan, a few years older than him whom he loved from afar through­out his youth. In his boy­hood Zhao would fan­ta­sise about her of­ten, spend­ing count­less nights hav­ing all man­ner of thoughts, some­times pure, some­times dirty, hard to be­lieve, il­log­i­cal. All man­ner of unimag­in­able sce­nar­ios played them­selves out in his mind, bloomed, and with­ered.

Li Na stopped as she passed by the win­dow of the stu­dent can­teen, and turned her head from side to side as she checked her­self out. Al­though it wasn’t a mir­ror, she could see a fuzzy im­age of her­self in the glass, and only af­ter she checked that her fringe was (or at least seemed to be) set prop­erly was she able to con­tinue walk­ing. She had a bag over her shoul­der, maybe ex­pen­sive, maybe not, and came to a halt at the en­trance to the cam­pus—it was clear that she was wait­ing for some­one.

The sky grad­u­ally dark­ened and she be­came im­pa­tient, wor­ried. She fur­rowed her brow slightly as she ob­served the stu­dents com­ing and

ALL MAN­NER OF UNIMAG­IN­ABLE SCE­NAR­IOS PLAYED THEM­SELVES OUT IN HIS MIND, BLOOMED, AND WITH­ERED

go­ing, some­times walk­ing in lit­tle cir­cles, but her most fre­quent ac­tion was to take out her mo­bile and check the time. Sud­denly, her phone rang, and she hes­i­tated when she saw the name that ap­peared; she couldn’t help but look about in un­ease; ei­ther way, she couldn’t refuse the call. She heard her boyfriend’s voice jump out anx­iously from the speaker: “Where are we go­ing?” “Where are we go­ing?” said Li Na. “Nowhere”. “But to­day’s a special day.” “Special day?” asked Li Na. “It’s June 1st, Chil­dren’s Day.”

“Yeah, to­day’s Chil­dren’s Day, to­mor­row is your birth­day. You’re from around here, so you’ll def­i­nitely be go­ing home to cel­e­brate, right?” “Yep.” “Well then, we can only cel­e­brate your birth­day to­day; where should we go?”

“Oh.” Li Na forced a laugh. “Well then, make it up to me some other time, honey. I can’t go out to­day, I don’t feel well. I think I might have a fever. I’ve got no en­ergy, I don’t want to leave the room, I need to rest up here as I have to go home to­mor­row.”

“Are you sick?” The voice was full of worry. “So sud­den! I’ll come straight to cam­pus to find you. Do you need medicine? What do you want to eat? Where are you, are you out­side?”

“No.” Li Na pressed the phone tightly to her face. She turned her back to the road. “I’m in my dorm with the win­dow open, stand­ing next to it; it’s too hot, but there’s no wind. Don’t come, I just want to lie down in bed, there’s noth­ing you can do and you’ll be both­er­ing me. I have medicine here; if I want to eat some­thing, Lin­lin can go down and buy it for me, don’t come.”

“No, don’t worry, I can go buy you some fruit. What do you want? I can drop it off down­stairs and Lin­lin can come and get it.”

“Just for fruit? No need to come all the way for that, re­ally, lis­ten to me.” “Well, it’s not like I’m busy.” “I told you not to come, so don’t come, no need for all this rub­bish.” Li Na be­came an­noyed, but quickly re­al­ized that her be­hav­ior was in­ap­pro­pri­ate. She soft­ened her voice, and put on a cutesy tone: “My dear, I just want to sleep. I’m su­per tired, I can barely open my eyes.”

“Well…all right. Rest up, and call me if you need any­thing. OK, yeah, bye.” He gave a dis­ap­pointed laugh.

Li Na hung up and tightly gripped the phone in her hand and then let her arms hang limply as she re­laxed, sigh­ing. A feel­ing of guilt crept over her, en­tan­gled her like a grow­ing vine, en­ter­ing her nerves and the maze­like network of her cap­il­lar­ies. She was strug­gling against fall­ing into a state of ner­vous­ness and un­ease. She picked up her phone; she had to call the guy. She’d waited too long al­ready, she needed some­thing new to hap­pen, to wipe away her bad emo­tions. But he didn’t pick up, he turned down the call—the shock filled ev­ery pore on her skin like a win­ter chill.

A car sud­denly pulled up. Her eyes frown­ing down at her phone, Li Na saw the li­cense plate first: LIAOT8585A. The face of a suave-look­ing mid­dle-aged man ap­peared in the win­dow, chuck­ling at her.

“You missed me,” said the man. “I guess I’m ir­re­sistible to you.”

“Why did you take so long?” Li Na put her mo­bile in her bag, and quickly walked over. “Mod­esty is a virtue of which you only have a lit­tle bit, and, what’s more, I didn’t miss you. I was call­ing be­cause I’m hun­gry.”

“What you’re say­ing is that few men my age are as smooth as me. Good ma­chines re­quire good main­te­nance.” The man cocked his head slightly to the side as he watched Li Na en­ter the car, laugh­ing as he put his hand on her shoul­der. “You must un­der­stand, when I see your num­ber on my screen, I lose my­self. You’re so pretty, I just freeze up.”

“Pretty? Damn straight! Hon­esty is your strong suit,” Li Na said with con­fi­dence. “Come on, let’s roll, I’m starv­ing.” “How’s that boyfriend of yours?” “Why do you have to bring him up?” asked Li Na, an­noyed. “Don’t ruin my mood all the time, okay? Ugh, you al­ways make me feel so guilty, so bad.”

“I’m jealous, you should be happy,” the man laughed as he turned the steer­ing wheel. “A guy like me who’s been through so much, be­ing jealous of you, jealous of a young univer­sity stu­dent. You should feel good.”

“OK, get off your high horse. I hope he goes off me. I don’t want to dump him, we’re high school class­mates, our other class­mates would have a field day if they found out. It’d ruin my rep­u­ta­tion.”

“You don’t think you might be over­think­ing this a bit?”

“Ei­ther way, it’s not a role I want. He needs to make the move. All I can do now is treat him a bit shitty, make him feel like I’m ig­nor­ing him, make him dis­like me.”

“This is why guys say ‘mo’ honey, mo’ prob­lems’.”

“Screw you!” Li Na punched the man’s leg. “I’m not your honey, your wife is your honey. I’m a pure lit­tle girl.”

“Spare me. We still have to eat.”

THE SHOCK FILLED EV­ERY PORE ON HER SKIN LIKE A WIN­TER CHILL

Zhao opened his eyes, and reached for the alarm clock, al­though there was no head­board and no clock there—he was ly­ing on the couch in the sit­ting room. His up­per eye socket ached slightly, and his tongue was dry. He no­ticed it must be early morn­ing from the color of the sky as he sud­denly re­al­ized he didn’t need to go to work. Tired, he sat up cross-legged on the couch and saw he for­got to close the cur­tain on the south-fac­ing win­dow last night. The early-morn­ing light flowed dimly through the win­dow as clear bird­song sounded in the court­yard. Step­ping on the backs of his slip­pers, he walked over to Hua­jun’s room to see that the bed was empty. He didn’t come home last night, thought Zhao. His mood, al­ready bad from be­ing laid off, turned worse.

Zhao opened the door of the house and stood in the court­yard. The clear air was like ice-cov­ered steel in his lungs. He breathed it in deeply as he felt a deep lone­li­ness. It wasn’t hard to imag­ine that a few hours later, when the sun was its high­est point in the sky, the hol­i­day at­mos­phere would be in full bloom there. Zhao slowly walked around the gi­ant plaza, look­ing tired as he held one hand in the other be­hind his back. A flock of doves flew by smoothly through the rays of sun­shine, mov­ing about like a cloud in the empty plaza, as monks hur­riedly walked in and out of the tem­ple.

The foun­tains hadn’t been turned on yet, and Zhao sat on the ce­ment steps, notic­ing a woman next to the brown benches car­ry­ing a veg­etable bas­ket. On the morn­ing of Chil­dren’s Day, it wasn’t un­ex­pected to see Wang Yan, now a woman a few years his se­nior, since they both lived in Tongcheng; it made sense they’d run into each other from time to time. He’d just been dream­ing of her as a young girl, head low, walk­ing out from be­hind a wall cov­ered in vines af­ter the rain. She walked to­wards him with heavy steps, bas­ket in hand, mind seem­ingly else­where.

“Ms. Wang!” Zhao stood up straight, and raised his arm.

“Lit­tle Zhao.” Wang Yan laughed clearly, and she picked up her pace: “What are you do­ing here alone?”

“Oh, just tak­ing a walk,” said Zhao. “How are you?”

“Do­ing okay.” Wang Yan shifted the bas­ket to her other hand. “You’re not work­ing?”

“Got laid off.” Zhao an­swered here with fake lev­ity, notic­ing at the same time the pieces of scal­lion in her bas­ket. “How’s Old Li do­ing at the fac­tory?”

“Not good,” Wang Yan shook her head earnestly. “Also laid off, re­cently. He man­aged to find an­other gig, it’s easy, but the salary’s low. It’s OK, though. We only have one daugh­ter, we have enough for her dowry. The rest is enough for us to live on.”

“Well, yeah, that’s how it goes th­ese days.” Zhao thought for a bit. “Isn’t Li Na grad­u­at­ing soon?” “No, she still has two years.” “Oh, I thought she was al­most there.”

“No, two more years, and to­mor­row’s her birth­day. She’ll be 22,” Wang Yan spoke hap­pily. “Time re­ally goes by quickly. Be­fore I know it my daugh­ter’s al­ready this old. When we were young… for­get it, it’s crazy. So fast.”

“Yeah, if my daugh­ter were still alive, she’d be older too—about the same age as your daugh­ter.” Zhao looked at Wang Yan, seek­ing agree­ment.

“That’s true.” Wang Yan nod­ded her head. “Ah, it’s been so many years, in just a flash; so fast. Well, I should get go­ing, I need to make break­fast. Old Li’s al­most off work. If you have time, you should come over , have a few drinks with him.” “Sure!” Zhao an­swered.

Hua­jun ap­peared at Wang Xiaozhu’s house, when a group of kids were watch­ing car­toons in a cramped room in­side. In the north­ern­most cor­ner of the room was a drunken mid­dle-aged man snor­ing as he slept. There were a num­ber of flies on the cur­tains, cov­ered in dust—it wasn’t clear if they were dead or alive. Yel­lowed news­pa­pers were pasted on the un­even walls, and a black-and-white photo in which only a wav­ing hand was vis­i­ble.

Hua­jun stood be­hind some other boys’ shoul­ders, and hap­pily watched the car­toon. When it ended, the oth­ers turned to each other and started dis­cussing the show loudly; no­body had no­ticed that Hua­jun was there. They asked him when he’d come there, and why he had a screw­driver in his hand.

“I’m gonna mess up Xiao­hai.” Hua­jun puffed up his cheeks as he an­swered them.

“Quit with your bull­shit,” said Zhu Liang. “You run your mouth when he’s not around, but if Xiao­hai heard what you said, you’d be in trou­ble.”

“It’s al­ready dark, you’re not go­ing home?” Through the win­dow, Hua­jun could see the rest of the chil­dren hop­ping onto their bikes and drift­ing away.

“I’ll go back, but I still haven’t eaten,” Zhu Liang rubbed his nose. “I can’t go with them. I don’t have a bike. Gotta take the long walk home.”

“Me too,” Hua­jun groaned, de­pressed. “Fuck, my dad won’t buy me one, he even sug­gested I ride his fuckin’ junker.”

“We can make some money to­gether, and go and buy new bikes for our­selves.” Zhu Liang and Hua­jun walked shoul­der to shoul­der into the

dark al­ley. “How?” “Sell­ing iron,” Zhu Liang said. “Xiao­hai and the oth­ers did it, go to the old ma­chine fac­tory in the north. At night there’s only one guy on guard duty, we can be a good team.”

“Ah, I get it, I get it.” Hua­jun nod­ded, look­ing at his own feet. His brain was turn­ing over in his head.

“Each of us can have our own bike, ride it to wher­ever we want, it’ll be awe­some.”

“Will this re­ally work?” Hua­jun could al­ready feel the beauty of the po­ten­tial out­come, but he didn’t feel good about steal­ing.

“It’ll be fine, Xiao­hai and the oth­ers have done it. The fac­tory has no­body look­ing af­ter it; it’s prac­ti­cally de­serted.”

When he started this job, Old Li used to pa­trol ev­ery cor­ner of the fac­tory each night with his torch, but now he was far too lazy to do so. There wasn’t even any­one here any­more, so there was no need to worry so much. His old ra­dio was there at the head of the bed, play­ing the tales told by Shan Tian­fang4.

Old Li sat with his back against the bed with a cup of liquor in his hand; an open win­dow was next to his right ear; it was quiet out­side, just the sound of crick­ets. He would drink for five or six hours, with only the ra­dio and liquor to keep him com­pany through the long night. He spent a lot of time think­ing about the past, a time shrouded in gold mist, the savage mem­o­ries al­ready un­clear. In his mem­o­ries, Li wasn’t a watch­man but a worker, a young man full of en­ergy, some­times play­ing with a sling­shot shoot­ing spar­rows.

Li, full of emo­tion, took a sip of liquor and put his two hands on his knees. Be­fore him he’d set up a lit­tle ta­ble with two plates and a large bowl upon it. The bowl was full of fried peanuts that had al­ready gone soft, and one plate was cov­ered in pick­led radish, while the other had some shal­lots. Notic­ing the tale was al­ready over, Old Li took the ra­dio and twisted the knob to look for a sta­tion, static mix­ing with ran­dom noise.

The sound of metal fall­ing gave Li a start, caus­ing him to sit up straight and lis­ten care­fully. He made out foot­steps and hushed voices. He picked up the iron bar leant against the bed, and jumped into the night out­side.

“Who’s there?” Li ran south­wards as he yelled.

Two peo­ple were scram­bling to climb over the wall.

“Don’t move!” Li raised the iron bar as he quickly ap­proached them. Af­ter a few failed at­tempts, he saw them give up and turn around slowly, their faces clear—they were two boys of maybe 15 or 16 years of age.

“Who are your par­ents?” Li yelled. “You fuck­ing dare to come and steal?”

The boys hung their heads, say­ing noth­ing.

“Real tough, huh.” Li reached out and grabbed one of the boys’ arms. “You two are com­ing with me, let’s go! Po­lice sta­tion time.”

“No!” The boy strug­gled to stay in place, beg­ging him. “Please, please.”

“No dice! Let’s go!” Li pulled force­fully at the boy’s arm, hav­ing al­ready raised the iron bar with his right hand. He threat­ened the child: “You don’t think I’ll bash your head in? Come the fuck on, let’s go.”

“Fuck you, man!” The other youth rushed for­ward and screamed sharply as he jabbed some­thing into Li’s chest.

“Argh!” Li sud­denly felt a sharp pain as if light­ning had struck him there. He threw down the iron bar, re­leased his grip on the boy’s arm, and pressed his two hands to his chest. He knelt down, moan­ing in pain.

“Run quickly!” The boy whose arm has been pulled dragged the other boy; they ran away.

Li sat down squarely, moan­ing con­tin­u­ously like a wild boar as his strength gave out and he slowly re­laxed. He closed his eyes as he laid down, mum­bling hur­riedly. Soon, he ceased mov­ing en­tirely, as if sleep­ing peace­fully un­der the clear moonlight—ex­cept for the fact that there was a screw­driver pro­trud­ing from his chest.

To the north of the plaza was the tall red wall of the tem­ple, un­der which Zhao sat on a white stone, spac­ing out. He saw the young par­ents lead­ing their chil­dren, and un­der­neath the gi­ant arch, a few men with cam­eras care­fully di­rect­ing their wives and chil­dren to pose.

The foun­tain was al­ready in full force, send­ing col­umns of wa­ter shoot­ing high in the air, mak­ing the chil­dren cry out with joy. The wa­ter re­flected the sun­light and sent sparkles fly­ing ev­ery­where. More and more peo­ple came about, with com­plete,

HE CEASED MOV­ING EN­TIRELY, AS IF SLEEP­ING PEACE­FULLY— EX­CEPT THERE WAS A SCREW­DRIVER PRO­TRUD­ING FROM HIS CHEST

happy fam­i­lies milling about like ants; their hap­pi­ness seemed to spread like fire, around the old men with long beards wait­ing un­der the wall to read peo­ple’s for­tunes.

Zhao threw an­other cig­a­rette butt to the ground. He’d al­ready seen the plaza go from de­serted to packed, and thought over all the rel­a­tively ma­jor events in his life in de­tail, es­pe­cially those who had died—rel­a­tives, friends, his wife, his daugh­ter, peo­ple from the fac­tory. He thought about their ex­pres­sions at var­i­ous mo­ments, smil­ing, con­trite, dis­ap­pointed, sad, lone­some, pained. This was how life went—he wasn’t ex­tremely old but he wasn’t young, didn’t have a shot at pros­per­ing, what did he hope for in life? What did he hope for his child? He thought about Hua­jun again— where was that lit­tle fucker?

Zhao still hadn’t eaten, but he wasn’t hun­gry. He felt like his stom­ach was full of cig­a­rette smoke, push­ing against the walls of his stom­ach like air in a bal­loon. By the time the street­lights lit up, Zhao felt that it was time for him to get a move on, go get some­thing to eat. He felt ap­pre­hen­sive for a sec­ond—he’d spent the en­tire day at the plaza, ob­serv­ing the pu­rity of the chil­dren and hap­pi­ness of the fam­i­lies.

Zhao went to the Pig Head Diner to drink a bit, and eat a bit of pig’s cheek and trot­ter. This restau­rant was opened by peo­ple from out of town— sup­pos­edly from Hei­longjiang—who’d given their restau­rant a rather unusual name: Pig Head Diner. This name was quickly en­graved into the minds of the peo­ple of Tongcheng: walk­ing past the plaza to­wards the train sta­tion, one could quickly dis­cover this restau­rant, look­ing like a guest­house from a movie of an­tiq­uity, its in­te­rior pop­u­lated with dark wooden ta­bles and large vats of liquor in the cor­ners. Zhao knew the restau­rant was quite pop­u­lar, and on hol­i­days would be packed with din­ers en­ticed by the smell of pig’s head from across the street. Peo­ple came to drink, eat, and chat about their hard­ships over the con­tin­ual din in­side.

The restau­rant wasn’t ex­pen­sive, and it had char­ac­ter—very much an every­man’s restau­rant. Be­fore he was laid off, Zhao would fre­quently come here with his col­leagues to drink af­ter work.

The Pig Head Diner was full of cus­tomers. Zhao couldn’t find a ta­ble, so when a young man let him, he sat down across from him. Zhao liked this kind of at­mos­phere: not high­class, just a re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment in which one could sit down, en­joy, and drink. Ev­ery­one was un­re­strained, speak­ing in loud voices as to be heard by their com­pan­ions over the roil of oth­ers’. Zhao gnawed on a trot­ter and en­joyed his drink, sat­is­fied, sud­denly feel­ing quite happy, hav­ing al­ready drunk a good deal, just like the young man across from him. He could see some­thing trou­bling was on the man’s mind, that he was drown­ing his sor­rows in liquor. Zhao didn’t speak, even though he’d been sit­ting across from him for an hour and a half.

Fi­nally, the young man was drunk. Look­ing at him, Zhao thought he must know he was drunk. The young man sud­denly re­turned his gaze, eyes shin­ing, fill­ing with tears, and spoke: “I was plan­ning to do them.”

Zhao looked up at the young man, but didn’t say any­thing.

“Re­ally, I was plan­ning to do them.” The young man took a fold­ing dag­ger out from his pocket, and tapped it on the ta­ble, avoid­ing Zhao’s gaze, look­ing at his lit­tle weapon, tongue quiv­er­ing. “I mean, of course I knew; I’m not stupid. I’m poor, what can I do?” Be­sides cas­ti­gate him­self, what could he do?

“So you’re a univer­sity stu­dent?” Zhao fi­nally spoke.

“She shouldn’t have lied to me.” The young man spoke, hurt and an­gry. “I’m not stupid, how could I not know? I made a call, talked to Lin­lin, ev­ery­thing was easy to fig­ure out. I’m 20-some­thing, I’m ed­u­cated, am I that easy to fool? I’m not an id­iot, I know ev­ery­thing, but what could I do? I’m not brave, I can’t be ‘hard core,’ so I’m not a mover or shaker. I’m too nice, no; too much of a pussy, and I’m broke, so how the fuck can I live with my­self ? I can’t die, there’s noth­ing, noth­ing I can do, I mean, what can I do, re­ally? What can I do?”

Zhao didn’t pay at­ten­tion to him, and in­stead looked else­where at the mid­dle-aged men, faces beet-red from the al­co­hol, talk­ing loudly as they smoked and drank. The youth’s voice blurred, be­came sim­ply a buzz in his ear. Shortly af­ter, he turned to look at the young man, head on the ta­ble, silent.

It was al­ready quite late, yet peo­ple were still walk­ing in small groups out­side the train sta­tion, car­ry­ing lug­gage as they scur­ried about un­der the pale white light of the street­lights. When Zhao left the Pig Head Diner, the young man was still ly­ing at the ta­ble, not mak­ing any noise, like a wea­ried traveler in deep sleep. Zhao knew it was very late, and that he should go home, as he stag­gered out of the door of the restau­rant to see pedes­tri­ans in the dis­tance, only dark out­lines to him.

A group of youths, cig­a­rettes in their mouths, walked by, full of en­ergy, bounc­ing about, talk­ing and laugh­ing. Zhao fo­cused to see if Hua­jun was

THE YOUNG MAN TOOK A FOLD­ING DAG­GER OUT FROM HIS POCKET, AND TAPPED IT ON THE TA­BLE

among them, but was met with dis­ap­point­ment; he didn’t know if his son had re­turned home yet.

Ap­proach­ing the in­ter­sec­tion in front of the stock ex­change, he saw a group crowd­ing around some­thing: a traf­fic ac­ci­dent. Two prom­i­nent-look­ing po­lice cars were parked over there, the ve­hi­cle in­volved sur­rounded by po­lice­men and a few mid­dle-aged men and women speak­ing loudly. He couldn’t see much of the ac­ci­dent, only the ve­hi­cle’s rear plates—liao-t85 some­thing—so he drew nearer. El­bow­ing his way for­ward. Zhao was sur­prised to sud­denly see his son, Hua­jun.

“Zhao Hua­jun!” Zhao ran for­ward, and waved his hands as he cried out.

“Dad!” As Hua­jun stood by the po­lice of­fi­cers, he turned to face Zhao.

“Where did you go? What were you do­ing?” Zhao pointed at his son’s nose as he scolded him.

“Zhu Liang was hit by a car.” Hua­jun pointed to a body, pros­trate upon the ground.

“He was hit?” Zhao walked a cou­ple paces closer, and strained to see.

“Dad…” Hua­jun stuck his hand out and tugged at his shirt. “Yeah?” Zhao turned his head to look at Hua­jun. “I’m hun­gry.” Hua­jun spoke, his small Adam’s ap­ple shak­ing.

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