Issue 173, Spring 2005
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.
Chen Wei told her wild stories about working with his cousin, Zheng, in the western provinces, tales that involved dismemberment, knives and, too often for her to believe, bareknuckled combat with wild animals. Later, cousin Zheng—at the time, just a name Chen Wei waved around like a red scarf—had procured a dress for him to give her. It had a silk rose embroidered on the thigh.
Zheng was Chen Wei’s first cousin, and, since his parents’ deaths, his closest living relative. Zheng had always been a real operator. A stint in the army hadn’t reformed him at all, and now he lived near Yulin, where he was in import-export. He made money, but still lived like a peasant.
It had been Zheng’s idea to purchase a racing dog, and since he lived in the countryside, he boarded the dog. Every weekend he traveled to Beijing for races. Though Li Yan had only seen the dog once—and then in its cage—she wasn’t surprised that it won. It was muscled like a horse. The snout was sleek as a bullet.
The dog had cost six hundred yuan. Then, for a license, another six hundred to the government. And three hundred yearly to maintain the license. After the dog won enough to cover the debts, Zheng declared it a good investment. Li Yan wasn’t so sure. Zheng moved in dangerous circles, and though she couldn’t forbid Chen Wei from partnering with him, she knew something would go wrong. Zheng had lost a chunk of Chen Wei’s money a few years ago in a cigarette importing scheme—they’d met a shipper from Shenzhen who’d cooked up a plan to import American Marlboros secreted in false-bottomed cargo crates. But he needed investors up front. Chen Wei handed over his share. Two months later, Zheng told him the ship had been hit by a cyclone. “Lucky only one of us bought in,” Zheng said. This was Chen Wei’s lot in life. Li Yan hoped the man from Shenzhen had gone down with the ship.
There had been other catastrophes. A pyramid scheme. A plan to export artifacts from Suzhou. She’d argued with Chen Wei about the dog, but he’d told her the animal would pay for itself, and for once he’d been right. It was hard to argue with extra money.
That night she lay awake thinking about the swift dog sleeping three hundred li to the northwest. It had provided them the spoils of a wealthier household—new wool sweaters, silk long underwear, and a grass-stroke scroll depicting the character for good luck, which hung opposite their bed. Chen Wei said the scroll spoke to him. Li Yan thought a microwave would have made better sense.
A few years ago she would have attributed his choice to his romantic streak, but now she wondered if he’d purchased it out of cowardice. They could have just as easily bought a microwave, but Chen Wei worried about attracting the attention of Old Feng’s wife, who was reputed to have the ear of a local cadre. They weren’t doing anything illegal, but even today you had to watch out for the old guard. There was no point making people jealous. Perhaps it was better they go back to a modest life. They’d only had the extra income for a few months, not long enough to change their habits drastically. They had enough to eat, a healthy child, a place to live. No one could ask for more than that, Li Yan told herself.
Li Yan nudged Chen Wei with her leg. He sighed deeply and rolled over. She nudged him again.
“What?” he said.
“Don’t you think Zheng mistreats you?” she said.
“Not now,” he moaned.
“It’s keeping me up. Why does Zheng take a bigger cut?”
“It’s a business deal.”
“Zheng’s your partner. You’re entitled to an equal share.”
“It’s a complex arrangement.”
“Are you joking with me?” she said. “I can’t see your face. Are you joking around?”
Chen Wei propped himself up on one elbow and cleared his throat. Elm leaves rattled in the wind and threw ragged patterns across the wall of their room. Old Feng and his friends were still out there.
“As a husband, I would say that, as a wife, you’re really hard to satisfy,” Chen Wei said. He tickled her foot with his toe.
“It’s not a hard question,” she said.
“You’re smarter than I am,” Chen Wei said. “You tell me why he takes more. What difference does it make now?”
She listened to Old Feng and his friends push their chessmen around the board. They were behaving themselves tonight, voices muted but lively, like a clutch of girls passing around a secret. At one point the baby yodeled and Li Yan tensed, but it was a just a cry from a dream, and Li Yan settled back into her pillow.
“You should be more confident in life,” Li Yan said.
“I’m not kidding. You possess the capacity for improvement. Everybody does. But you’re too content.”
“I do what I can. I have what I need.”
“That’s not true. Look at Zheng. He is a man of action. Don’t you want to act?” It had occurred to Li Yan that those like Zheng—the boors, the idiots, the drooling slobs—in short, those worst equipped to navigate the slick world of commerce—were somehow the very people who reaped the hugest rewards. People forced to survive on ingenuity and pure will seemed to have luck on their side. She herself could never envy Zheng, but she thought her husband ought to. Zheng was, in a way, a good role model for Chen Wei, who just couldn’t seem to figure out how to put his talents to good use. Even at the crematorium he was the number two guy. She wanted him to be a number one guy.
“I do my best, you know,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“There’s more to me than meets the eye,” he said.
“Let’s go to sleep,” she said.
“Tired of thinking out loud?”
“Let’s go to sleep.”
After work the next evening, Li Yan rode her bicycle to her parents’ house. It was usually Chen Wei’s duty to pick up the baby after work, but he’d packed a bag that morning and left the house without saying good-bye. She’d given it some thought, and she was glad he was on the train to see Zheng. But when she arrived at her parents’ compound, Chen Wei’s bicycle was parked outside. She pushed open the heavy door and walked into the dirt courtyard. Chen Wei was bouncing the baby on his knee, and Li Yan’s father was puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. They were sitting on sacks of concrete by the clothesline. Wet clothes were piled in a basket, abandoned by her father when Chen Wei showed up, and Li Yan began draping shirts over the line. Both men looked at her, but didn’t break the stride of their conversation. Someone was playing basketball nearby. The hollow sound of the ball clanging off the rim echoed through the maze of alleys surrounding the house.
“This is foolish,” her father said. He expelled a bowl of smoke and shook his head. “I know your people are from the North, but this isn’t how things are done. It’s bad business sense. There must be someone willing to buy the dog.”
“Who wants a racing dog you can’t race?” Chen Wei said.
“You’re thinking too small,” the old man said.
Li Yan squatted down beside them and wrung out a pair of socks. The water formed muddy blisters on the courtyard floor. “Everyone on embassy row has a dog,” she said. “Sell it to a foreigner.” Her comment didn’t seem to register with the two men.
“Look,” her father said, “you live in the city now. Your own daughter is going to grow up here. Beijingers don’t eat dog.”
“Some restaurants in the Yuyuantan are serving it,” Chen Wei said. “It’s gaining acceptance.”
“There is a great difference between acceptable behavior and civilized behavior,” the old man said.
“Easy for you to say. Zheng doesn’t approach problems the way you or I do.”
“I know that,” Li Yan’s father said. “He thinks like a bandit.”
“He’s really got me over a barrel this time. That’s the trouble with being an investor.”
The old man looked to Li Yan for the first time, as if to ask how she could have brought such a weakling into the family. “Look, man, you still have a say,” her father said.
Li Yan tossed the socks back into the basket and took her daughter from Chen Wei. “Zheng’s selling the dog to a restaurant?” she said.
“Not exactly,” Chen Wei said.
“This should be good.”
“We’re going to eat it.”
She stared at him.
Chen Wei shrugged. “He wants to obliterate every trace of the dog. That’s what he said.”
“What did you say? You’re still his partner,” she said. “Even bandits talk things over.”
“That’s uncalled-for,” her father said, but Chen Wei waved it off.
“Zheng’s already told the entire family there’ll be a feast. You should have heard him. He was furious.”
“What’s he taking it out on the dog for?” she said.
“He doesn’t react well to resistance. I can’t tell him what to do.”
“He’s got a screw loose.”
“It’s already decided.”
Li Yan studied his face for some sign that he might consider opposing Zheng, but she only saw resignation in his hooded eyes.
“He’s family,” Chen Wei said. “We have a long history.”
“Do you want me to call him? I’ll give him a piece of my mind,” she said.
Her father sucked on his pipe and mumbled, “Behave like a wife,” but he didn’t put much force behind his words.
“No,” Chen Wei said. “I’ll deal with it.” But she knew he wouldn’t.
Early that Saturday morning, Li Yan, Chen Wei, and their daughter crowded into a hard seat car of the #44 train to Yulin. Four of the hard seat cars were reserved for soldiers, young men who moved with dazed absence, as though they had been sleeping in the hot sun for a long time. That left only one hard seat car for civilians—families traveling to see relatives in the country, merchants transporting goods to provincial markets, businessmen too poor to travel in soft seat. Bundles the size of refrigerators blocked the aisle. There were no seats for Li Yan or her husband, so they fought their way to the back of the car and squatted by the bathroom door. The car was already filing with the low haze of cigarette smoke as the train pulled out of the West Station. Tinny revolutionary songs squawked from speakers in the corners of the car.
Chen Wei laid a leaf of newsprint on the floor between them and took out the playing cards. Li Yan beat him at Catch the Pig and Struggling Upstream before they finally settled on Looking for Friends, which required less strategy. After their third game, the baby woke and cried some, but Li Yan got her back to sleep with a song. As she sang, a farmer wearing rags emerged from behind a bundle of vegetables. He crouched against the bathroom door and hummed along with her, then clapped when the song ended. Chen Wei shooed him, and the farmer drifted back into the car.
At the Xuanhua station, they got off and found a bus going to Yulin. They had been in transit two hours already, and it was another hour before they reached Yulin, where they boarded a van traveling into the countryside. The driver’s crony tried to gouge them once they were on the road, saying the baby counted as a person and needed a ticket, but the other passengers shouted him down. One old woman called him a wolf and shook her first at him.
“I’ve known him a long time,” she said. “He’d screw his own mother.”
As thanks, Li Yan let her hold the baby until they disembarked at the dirt road leading to the village where Chen Wei had grown up. Hot, their clothes stained with dust and sweat, they arrived at his cousin’s house just before noon. Zheng met them at the door and embraced them both. He was a barrel-chested man who looked something like a frog—bulbous eyes and wide lips that seemed barely able to contain his tongue. A cluster of dark hair sprouted from his chin.
“She’s really getting fat,” he said, pinching the baby’s legs.“She’ll make a good side dish.” He spat out a sharp laugh.
Chen Wei laughed, too, but Li Yan could hear the discomfort in his voice. He would never come right out and say it, but she knew he was ashamed of his family’s rough manners, their rugged faces and wide brown feet. She looked at his dust-creased face and saw a refugee. In the country, he drank heavily to disguise his shame, but she never chastised him when he was hungover the next day. She leaned close to her husband while Zheng was rounding up the rest of the family and said, “You are a good cousin. Don’t worry, we’ll be back in Beijing tomorrow night.” He looked puzzled.
Chen Wei spent the afternoon drinking and talking with the men. Aunties floated in and out of the house, an interchangeable cast of thickset women clad in blue cotton who ferried away the baby and left their own children with Li Yan. The children wouldn’t stop talking about the dog, acting out great victories they’d heard about from Zheng, scampering in and out of the house on their hands and knees, barking and licking each other on the face. They pestered her to follow them into the backyard to see the dog, but she refused. She wanted to ask the children if they understood the dog would be killed, but couldn’t bring herself to ruin their fun. As the afternoon wore on, she felt a dreadful unease set in, a misgiving mixed with disdain for her husband’s run-down village. Meanwhile, her husband matched Zheng drink for drink, told bawdy jokes he’d heard at work, toasted his uncles, made a spectacle of himself. She could see that he was trying to liquor himself up for the slaughter. Zheng was a hard-hearted man whose only goal in life was to become wealthy, but her husband wasn’t so naturally equipped for the bloody work that lay ahead.
Late in the afternoon, Zheng rose stiffly and raised his glass in an official toast. “To the Beijing Municipal Government, which has brought the family together again!” All the men raised their glasses and shouted “Ganbei.” One of the uncles fell out of his chair. Outside, the aunties had dug a fire pit and assembled a tripod for the cauldron. Everyone moved into the walled yard where the dog was caged. Zheng held out a butcher knife to Chen Wei, who grasped it like a sword, with two hands, stiff armed. Zheng produced a long carving knife from his belt and swung it overhead.
There was no breeze, and it was the hour before birds and bats come out for insects. The golden grass in the hills around them stood still. Everything was quiet.
“Release the beast,” Zheng shouted. A little cousin rattled the dog’s cage, then unfastened the latch. The door swung open and the dog trotted out. He stood outside his cage and wagged his tail. The little cousin slapped the dog’s rump and yelled, “Run!” Whether out of shock or compliance, the dog’s claws scrabbled over the hard earth, and he was off. The dog ran directly at Chen Wei but at the last second broke left and charged along the wall. The children made chase, but the dog was too fast for them, cutting a jagged path through several of the older girls and boys who tried to intercept it at the corner. Zheng waited with Chen Wei, still gripping his butcher knife with two hands. Li Yan watched from the doorway. Beside her an aunt rocked the baby in her ropy arms.
The dog outwitted the children at every turn, doubling back and twisting through their small hands, running with a hint of terror, as though it could smell menace on the air. The children wore down, moving now like a school of fish, unable to block the dog’s unpredictable path, parting when it doubled back and ran directly at them, going down in a tangle of legs but quickly forming up again. The dog ran a circuit around the yard, its paws whipping up eddies of dust. Once, it appeared to be readying itself to leap clear of the fence altogether, but Zheng bellowed a command and the dog stopped dead in its tracks. Then he shouted, “Go,” and the dog was off again.
Li Yan saw that even though the dog’s eyes were wild with terror, he obeyed. It was clear that Zheng took a sporting pride in his control of the animal, but Li Yan watched her husband’s face as the dog ran, and knew he was unprepared for this. She knew her husband, and she knew what he was feeling.
Eventually the animal got tired. Its jukes became predictable, its speed sapped, and it cowered against a corner of the wall, fangs bared, sleek hair spiked the length of its spine. The band of children closed in.
“Don’t go any closer,” Zheng said. “We’ll take over.” He punctuated this declaration with a slap to Chen Wei’s back, and walked toward the children, who scattered, squealing in mock horror as he swung the knife above their heads. “Come on,” he said to Chen Wei. They bore down upon the dog together, their knives raised. The dog snarled. Spittle dripped from its muzzle. “Sit,” Zheng said. The dog sat.
Li Yan couldn’t bear to watch any longer. She leapt from the doorway and forced her way through the children.
“Stop,” she shouted. “Stop.” She was waving her arms over her head.
Zheng turned toward her, his butcher knife still raised, and to someone watching from beyond the fence, it might have appeared that he meant to threaten Li Yan’s life. But she moved forward, unafraid, until she stood between the two men and the dog. Her husband lowered his knife and hooked his thumbs through his belt loops. He tried to slouch like a gunfighter.
“I should have known,” Zheng said.
Li Yan said nothing.
“Move over,” Zheng said.
“I’m sorry, Chen Wei,” she said, but she did not move.
“Chen Wei, tell your wife to stand aside,” Zheng said. The aunties gathered at the edge of the house looked amused. They pinched at each other’s sides, and some chuckled under their breath.
Chen Wei shook his head, but he was unable to affect his detached pose while looking his cousin in the eye, so he found a point in the distance and focused.
Zheng scanned the faces ringing the yard. The children were watching him. The aunties were watching him. The uncles were watching him.
He made a fist. “Don’t make me use this,” Zheng said to Li Yan. She closed her eyes and presented her chin.
Chen Wei dropped his knife. He drew up his shoulders and moved between his wife and Zheng.
Though Chen Wei wasn’t steady on his feet, his palm fell on Zheng’s cheek with all the delicacy of a lover’s touch. He patted his cousin’s rough face. The aunties all got very quiet. There wasn’t much they hadn’t seen before, and when Chen Wei drew his hand away, they each tensed imperceptibly. Chen Wei turned his slight shoulders to the side, coiling, and brought the back of his hand across Zheng’s face with such force that Zheng, twice his size, staggered back a step.
Chen Wei’s hand hovered in the dead air between them.
“Ha,” Zheng said. “Ha!” A wide smile split his face. “Good one,” he said.
If there were terrestrial sounds in the world at that moment, a swallow crying for its mate or a breeze pushing through the grass, they were absorbed into the wake of silence radiating from his voice. For a moment it seemed to Li Yan that the rotation of the earth had locked, that the natural world was pinned like a butterfly to a cardboard frame. She felt the silence enveloping her, the two men, the family, the village, and extending outward like a shadow until it seemed that the entire world was somehow flattened against itself, dark. It was this oppressive airlessness, the locus of suffocation within her own body, that caused Li Yan, desperate to set the world once again in motion, to speak.
“You idiot,” she said to her husband. She may as well have clubbed him with a length of pipe. His chin dropped to his chest. He sighed.
It would take years for him to leave her, but after he had moved out and their daughter had left for America, and Li Yan was left alone to pass from the subway to the tailor’s shop and home again, where she sat in silence with a cup of tea and tried to rest, to drop the hulking weariness that had sunk itself in her chest, she returned to the yard again and again. Of course she wished that she’d held her tongue. But in her old age, she reasoned it out: Standing there in Zheng’s barren yard, before his family, the words had risen up out of an unavoidable instinct.
“Give him a break, he’s drunk,” Zheng said. “We did worse when we were kids, that’s for sure.”
Chen Wei nodded.
“Well, send her to the market,” Zheng said.
“Go to the market,” Chen Wei whispered.
“Right!” Zheng said. “You’re going to cook for us, right? You saved a dog’s life. We’ll celebrate life, right? Go to the market, and we’ll get the fire going while you’re gone. Come on, don’t look so ashamed. It’s time to make up.” He took the couple’s hands in his and joined them. Their fingers mashed together. “See? No problem,” Zheng said.
Li Yan was lucky to find anyone still selling in the market. Most of the vendors had already gone home, but she found a woman with two buckets of limp carp.
“I want both,” she said.
“You’re from Tianjin, right?” the woman said.
Li Yan didn’t have time to banter. She was sure Zheng would kill the dog while she was gone. “Beijing. How much for both buckets?”
“Beijing! I could tell from your clothes. Why do you want both buckets? Hungry?”
“I’m cooking for my husband’s family. How much?”
“Who’s your husband? I’ve never seen you before. Wedding feast?”
“Please tell me how much.”
“No need to be rude. What’s the rush? If you’re cooking, they’ll wait for you. They can’t eat air.”
“I’ll give you twenty kuai for them.”
“Twenty kuai,” the woman said, as though divining a greater truth from the words. “One hundred.”
“One hundred,” Li Yan said. She looked around the empty market.
“They’re worth twice that much right now. Don’t try to put one over on me just because I’m a simple country girl.” Her teeth made an eerie whistling sound when she spoke.
“Your house isn’t worth one hundred kuai,” Li Yan said.
“Good thing it’s not for sale,” the woman said. “One hundred kuai.”
Li Yan didn’t know what else to do. She held out the money. She’d stuffed her wallet that morning in case of emergency, but this was half a week’s salary.
“Who’s your husband?” the woman said as Li Yan reached for the buckets.
“Chen Wei,” she said.
The woman said, “I remember a Chen Wei who moved to Beijing.” But she didn’t say any more.
Li Yan started to leave.
“Where are you going with my buckets?” the woman said.
“I gave you one hundred kuai.”
“But you didn’t bring any newspaper. I’ll need a deposit for the buckets. Fifty kuai.”
Li Yan didn’t see the point of arguing. She gave the woman her last note. If Chen Wei didn’t have enough for tickets home, they’d borrow from Zheng.
“May your family choke on it,” the woman said, but Li Yan was already sloshing down the dirt road to Zheng’s house.
The sun had disappeared behind the hills by the time she got there, and her legs were soaked with smelly water. At the gate, she set the buckets down. The fire pit was piled with sticks, dark, just as when she’d left. Through the window she saw the men playing cards at the table. She crept around the side of the house and walked along the wall. The cage was open, and the dog was lying in the far corner of the wall. She patted the stone wall and said, “Come here.” The dog caught the scent of fish on her and trotted halfway across the yard, but stalled, unsure of her motives. She looked at it staring dumbly back at her, its tongue drooping from the side of its mouth. It looked happy. Animals have no memory, Li Yan thought.
She left the dog there. Back around front she lifted the buckets and walked to the door.
“Hey, the chef’s back,” Zheng said.
The room was packed solid with bodies. Chen Wei didn’t look up from his cards when she entered. The children rushed over to see what she’d brought. “Rice fish,” one said.
“What’d you expect from a Beijinger?” Zheng said. “They eat like this every day.”
Li Yan slopped the buckets over to the iron stove. The aunties had a strong fire burning, and the stove radiated an intense heat. Sweat dripped from her face and sizzled on the iron surface. She hadn’t cooked over a wood flame since she was little. In Beijing they had gas. But she’d make do. She plunked the buckets down and the aunts crowded around, doling out judgments about the size and color of the fish. Li Yan wrestled the largest wok onto the fire and the aunts swung into motion, chopping scallions, growling orders at one another, pouring oil and vinegar into the wok. The men’s voices were loud and drunk. Each man seemed to be locked in a separate and discursive argument over the rules of English poker, which only Chen Wei knew how to play, but no one was paying attention to him. Wriggling across the floor, under the table, snaking around feet and chair legs, the children did their best to contribute to the chaos.
Li Yan closed her eyes. Her ill-fated cooking stories had gained her a reputation in English class, and the American teacher had nicknamed her “Chef.” She knew that women in the neighborhood talked about her behind her back because her husband was skinny.
She would have to be extremely careful with the fish. The aunties would take care of the side dishes, but they wouldn’t help with the main dish. She’d brought this on herself, and as she added ingredients to the wok—pepper, sesame oil, coriander, salt—the aunts maintained a loose ring of motion around her without ever coming too close.
Once the oil was popping, she reached into a bucket and pulled out a wriggling carp, wiped it with a cotton rag, and dropped it into the wok. The fish curled tightly, its bony mouth gaping.
“Smells like a five-star restaurant in here,” Zheng called from the table. She couldn’t tell whether he was trying to make amends or whether it was a joke at her expense. Concentrate, she thought. Concentrate and keep your mouth shut.
Li Yan ladled hot oil over the fish and pressed it flat against the wok. There was room for another one, and she quickly plunged her hand into the bucket. All together, she had ten fish—with side dishes, more than enough for the family—but by the time she would finish cooking the last one, the first fish would be cold. So she dropped yet another in the wok, three altogether. The aunt who had been looking after Li Yan’s daughter peered into the wok and placed her hand on Li Yan’s shoulder. Li Yan tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She knew what she was doing. The men were so drunk they’d barely taste the meal. It was just a matter of presentation.
The aunties had completed a platter of scallion cakes and set them out before the men. There was a great clatter of porcelain and wood, and the cakes were gone. When Li Yan took the first three fish out of the wok, an aunt dropped an armload of spinach in and added soy sauce. “Just one minute,” she said, holding Li Yan’s wrist. They waited there by the wok until the spinach was transferred to the bare scallion cake platter. Again the platter was laid before the men and scored clean. Then came tomato soup with egg flower. Then sauced cucumber.
“Enough of the small-fry,” Zheng said, and the men all laughed. “Bring the main course!”
Li Yan was nearly done with the fish, but cooking three at a time was depleting the oil at such a rate that she had to add cold oil as she cooked, which killed the boil. She lost track of how many handfuls of scallions she’d added. The fish curled and she smashed them down. They came out of the wok dripping with oil, and more went in. Finally, the last fish looked ready. The aunties had prepared a plate for each fish, a mixed batch of stoneware and porcelain that Li Yan thought hardly worthy of the meal. Each fish was laid on a bed of bok choi, which Li Yan would have said wasn’t the proper presentation if she’d had time or space to argue. No matter, she thought, these peasants don’t know any better.
The aunts took up plates and stood around the table.
“The fish should honor the head of the family,” Li Yan said, laying a plate before Zheng with the glazed eyes facing him.
“No, no,” he said, “to our honored guest,” and slid the plate to Chen Wei’s place. “Now we’ll see how they eat in Beijing.”
The aunts laid plates before each of the men, fish heads pointing at Chen Wei.
“Go ahead, let us know what kind of cook your wife is,” Zheng said. The men leaned in as Chen Wei held his chopsticks aloft. He felt their eyes on him. He felt the presence of his wife behind him.
“Dig in,” Zheng said. “Join the Celebrate Life Movement.”
Chen Wei lowered his chopsticks to the skin and pressed. Oil seeped out from the scales, but the skin didn’t break. He pressed harder and more oil escaped, pooling on the cabbage leaves.
“Maybe you need a fork to eat Beijing cuisine?” Zheng said. The men laughed and threw back glasses of baijiu. “Do you want your butcher knife back?”
Chen Wei jabbed at the fish, desperately trying to puncture the skin. It wouldn’t give. The fish was raw on top. He couldn’t turn it over—that was bad luck for the fisherman who’d caught it, even if it had been raised in a rice field. He tried to get at the meat from the side, and succeeded in creating an incision in its belly, but the meat he pulled out dripped with oil and visceral fluid.
“Eat up. Looks tasty,” Zheng said, smacking his lips. This time the men didn’t laugh. The room was quiet as Chen Wei brought the meat to his mouth. He chewed slowly, his eyes set on a distant point. His mandible rose and fell. He swallowed and laid his chopsticks on the table. Wood crackled in the bowels of the stove.
“You want a drink, I bet,” Zheng said, filling a glass. Chen Wei turned to him and forced a smile.
“Hey, don’t give me the evil eye. She’s the one who cooked it,” Zheng said.
Li Yan laid her hand on Chen Wei’s shoulder, and as if she had touched the first in a row of dominoes, he lunged forward with such violence that all the men reared back in response. He stood and calmly collected their plates into a pile at the center of the table. The men all looked at their laps. Chen Wei began to stack the plates in two towers, placing his own eviscerated meal at the top of one.
Li Yan backed away.
“No, you’re going to help me,” Chen Wei said.
He gathered up one tower and thrust it on her. Oil bled over her arms and clothes.
“Come on,” he said, his own arms loaded with plates. His voice sounded rough to her, as though his old country accent were again taking hold. He charged out the back door and into the walled yard, the plates balanced on one hand. Li Yan followed him, the family spilling out behind her.
“Hey, waiters,” Zheng called. “Get back here with my dinner!”
“Hey, Chen Wei,” he said. A laugh caught in his throat. “Hey.” Zheng steadied himself in the doorway.
The dog emerged from the shadow of the wall, its nose high on the breeze.
It was obvious to everyone that Chen Wei meant to exact a measure of revenge from his wife. Sweat rolled over his brow and his jaw was working furiously at something. Everyone waited for him to make a move, and he stood in the yard for an embarrassingly long time, the plates clacking wetly against his chest while the dog arched its back playfully, just out of reach. Finally, Chen Wei turned to his wife and shouted, “You've cooked for a pack of dogs, so let the head of the family have the first bite.” And with that, he hurled the plates at the dog. The animal tore at the bounty before it, making a terrible, primal noise. The family watched, enraptured, all except Li Yan. She stood to the side, the plates held tight against her breast, as if to challenge someone to wrest them from her.