After Li Yan put the baby down, she joined her husband at the rough table. He was reading People’s Daily in the brown light of a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Li Yan opened her English textbook and began to read a dialogue. It was still early but she was worn out and had trouble focusing on the words.
Pretty soon she looked up and said, “Chen Wei, do you want some tea?”
From behind the paper he said no.
“Okay. It’s no trouble. I’ll make you some anyway.”
“Fine,” he said. “Just not too many leaves.”
Li Yan filled the kettle and turned on the coil. The light buzzed and the room took on a subterranean murk. Chen Wei rattled his paper at her.
“Hello there,” she said. The paper rose again. She unwrapped the tea package and put leaves in a cup for herself, then sprinkled some in another cup for her husband. She thought for a moment about taking a dumpling back to the table for him, then decided against it. She’d sworn never to stuff him the way his mother had. No wonder he didn’t like to eat.
It was dusk, warm out, and street noise came in through the open doorway. Occasionally a leaf or a scrap of paper would drift across the threshold. Next door, pensioners slapped their chess pieces on the board outside Old Feng’s house. They could get rowdy, sometimes playing until dawn when they had enough to drink, and then Old Feng would sing opera in a warbling voice. Old Feng’s wife was head of the neighborhood committee, but no one had the courage to confront her about the noise. She was paranoid and sharp tongued, especially when it came to defending Old Feng. No one crossed her. In a way, Li Yan admired the woman’s harsh reputation. She’d seen some things in her life.
“Hope they don’t wake up the baby tonight,” Li Yan said.
“What am I supposed to do about it?” Chen Wei said. He adjusted his reading glasses. He kept them low on his nose and peered over the top of the lenses because his vision was fine. Li Yan made him wear them.
“Just thinking out loud,” she said. She turned off the coil. The lightbulb above Chen Wei’s head flickered, burned intensely yellow for a moment, then resigned itself to a dingy glow. She carried the teacups to the table and set one in front of the newspaper.
“If you were more of a chess player, you might have some pull with them,” she said.
“You know, not everything you think is worth saying out loud,” he said.
“Very wise,” she said.
She went back to her dialogue, sounding out the words in a whisper. The book was filled with ink drawings of Alex and Mary, a stylish young American couple. Mary always wore high heels and a tweedy skirt, and Alex a dark blazer, unless they were at the beach or an embassy ball. They bore no resemblance to Li Yan’s English teacher, an American college student who sometimes touched his students on the shoulder and wore the same flannel shirt and dirty blue jeans every week. He laughed at his own jokes. She suspected that he had never been away from home before. During free-talk hour, she and her classmates usually tried to ask him questions about his family to determine whether he was homesick. Everyone agreed that he was terribly lonely so far away from his parents.
I would like to buy a computer. I would like to buy a stereo. She paused every couple of sentences for a sip of tea, and had fallen into a meditative rhythm when her husband grunted and threw down the paper. His teacup spiraled across the table. Li Yan caught the cup before it tumbled off the edge. A thin pool of water steamed on the table.
“Look at this,” he said, stabbing at the paper with his finger.
“Read what it says,” he said. “There, on page six.”
She peeled the paper off the table and stared at the puddle of water.
“I’ll clean it up,” he said. “Just read.”
“What am I looking at?”
“There, look there.”
She read the block of characters he was pointing to. The Beijing Municipal Government had cracked down on dog racing. The paper quoted a cadre: “We are committed to stamping out corruption,” he said. “As we all know, gambling spoils even the most steadfast heart. Fines will go toward cultural improvement programs.”
“Politicians. If I had five minutes with one of those guys,” Chen Wei said. He shook his fist at the wall. “It’s unbelievable. Everything I do goes up in flames.”
Li Yan took the cotton rag from his hand and started swabbing at the spilled tea.
I said, “Everything I do—”
“I get it,” she said. “You’re a funny guy.” Chen Wei worked for the Public Utilities Bureau. He burned bodies at the Number 7 Crematorium.
“Greedy bastards,” he said.
“Would you be quiet? Everyone will hear you.”
“I have to go see Zheng tomorrow. Don’t expect me home.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. There’s nothing he can do about this.”
“I’ll take the train after work and be back in the morning.” He paused. “If I’m not robbed or killed on the way there.” He drew a finger across his throat and bugged his eyes.
“That’s very brave of you,” she said. “Why don’t you just call him from work? Life isn’t a movie, you know. Sometimes it’s best to stay calm.”
“I don’t have time to stand around all day yapping on the phone,” he said. “Why don’t you call him?”
“You’re funny,” she said. Li Yan was a tailor’s apprentice. She had to ask permission just to use the bathroom.
“I’m serious. My work is time sensitive. The dead are pesky that way,” he said.
“Yeah, they’re a demanding bunch,” she said.
Sometimes Li Yan found Chen Wei’s flair for the dramatic endearing. He didn’t have much else to recommend him—he wasn’t rich and he smelled of greasy smoke and he looked as plain as a flap of burlap, but he had shown up at the gates of her high school every afternoon with a flower clutched in his chemical-stained hand. He’d spotted her walking in the market nearby and he said he’d fallen in love instantly. Right there in the street he’d sung a pop ballad to her. A crowd had gathered, and some peasants watching the proceedings from a fruit stand had screamed “Young Love,” over and over, as though a call to arms. At first Li Yan thought Chen Wei was crazy, and she’d told him so, and added that she hadn’t appreciated being embarrassed in the middle of the street like that. It will never happen again, he’d said, his eyes so stricken she realized the depth of his intentions. Three years later, she still hadn’t figured out how to tell his moods apart. He was strange, but there was nothing wrong with that. He worked for a living. That was good. And in the weeks after they’d met, he was always waiting there at the gate, peering through the iron bars like a monkey at the zoo.