The advances and retreats of a drunk man’s face are easy for me to follow, and mirror, though the stories he tells and what is behind the silences that enfold him after each strenuous burst I cannot understand. Last night my breath was puffing from me white as I raced home at 10 pm along the nearly empty street. Sweating I pulled off my jacket and stuffed it in my basket. The rhythmic knock knock knock of my pedals at each revolution sounded clearly in the walled street, a “street of no eyes,” or faces, with only the tops of unknown government buildings rising above grey walls, and no lights on. I passed guards standing in the shadows of utility poles.
I came to a “t” in the road, and then went right, and the street, bumpier and narrower, was more human than the last: some restaurants protruded from the humble dark masses of homes and public lavatories, windows steamed, late diners visible through the plastic strips hanging from open doors. I did not want to go to bed hungry, but nor did I feel bold enough to go into the better places, full of people. Instinctively I slowed down at spots with tables and cooking outside, steam billowing, where I could just point and wait, or even large drums with fire inside and people standing about eating – something. But too many people crowded about them, and how foolish I would feel to stop, shoulder through, to find they are eating chicken feet or salamander tails, and slink away to snickers. I looked for the character for “noodles” on the windows: that way I would be able to just blurt it out casually on entry. “Any noodle will be fine.” That I can say.
I passed a poor looking spot with just a few people inside and “noodles” on the window. Inside was a grizzled proprietor rising speechless and puzzled to meet me; the snickering of some late night boys feasting fiercely, ungainly words coming awkwardly from my mouth. “What?” said the old man baffled.
“Noodles,” I said, “Do you have noodles?” He blurted out a type of noodle.
“OK, OK,” I said pulling a stool under me, alone again with the snicker of the boys. I plucked at my sleeve, itched my nose, looked at the walls. At the next table were three men, one in his thirties, another in his fifties, and one in his sixties. The middle one shifted his chair, eyed me significantly, and gestured at the eleven empty beer bottles on his table.
“Will you drink?” he said. No, no, I said, but their free curiosity would not be stanched. The first two questions I could answer, but on the third I was lost.
“Sui,” said one, and
“Sui, sui,” said another. They were not shy, repeating the offending word in many tones of voice (sui! sui! sui!), gathering nearer my table as if drawn by invisible cords and pulleys, until I divined the meaning from the thin air and the earnest, demanding looks on their faces.
“Ah, sui, age,” I said, enlightened, cutting the cords that drew them; they relaxed, receding back to their stools, in relief. 28, I said. This agitated procedure recurred several times, after which we reached a more comfortable mode of interaction: they would talk, overlapping one another, not so much concerned about reaching my ears clearly as addressing my face, my eyes, for they realized I was much more skilled reading their expressions than their words. And indeed I was so skilled that I was able to nod, agree, or shake my head at the right times and convince them I was following them. If I understood a word (“Eisenhower” cropped up; “California,” “Father”) I would repeat it with a confirmatory, even a sage nod. If their attitude was ambiguous I just said, “mm,” or “really?” But if a pesky question interceded, if the beer started deluding them that my delusion of comprehension was real, I was in trouble. I had been peacefully responding to the two younger faces, first one then another, occasionally sucking noodles up with a slurp and a wet noodle slap on the cheek, when suddenly their two monologues connected currents, electrifying them with a question – silence from me – and then the pounding word, “jiao,” “jiao!” “jiao!!”
I was dumb to respond, retreating from facial play and grunts to actual words, “I don’t understand,” but the invisible pulleys were reeling their faces closer to me, closer, “jiao,” agitatedly, “jiaooo!” clamorously. Suddenly the young one tried a gesture, palms together and head bowed. Religion.
“Ah! Yes! No, I don’t have one.” Again I had cut the cords of tension pulling them into a ring around me and they snapped back to their seats.
“Me too,” said the middle one, pointing at his chest, “Its in my heart.”
“Me too,” I said, several times, so happy I was to have actually understood his words. After that he and I settled into a rhythm, I was focused on his lively face, his words grew more distinct and forceful. He had a bristly grey crew cut and eyes that widened and squinted. I started having the illusion that we were connecting, not so much linguistically as spiritually. We were both equally intent. I weighed each of his words, considering it, as if I might get it by wondering. The younger man seemed to talk on somnambulently to my face, as long as I nodded at him occasionally. The crew cut man’s face attacked in scowls and harsh words, which were like a desert to me, full of meaning but mysterious, forceful. Then he floated off to reminiscence, and words like “Eisenhower,” “California,” and “eighteen years ago” reappeared, and I floated there with him.
He ended up singing “Auld Lang Syne” powerfully, wordlessly, to the whole room.
I ended up standing glass to glass with him, toasting his health, Deng Xiao Ping, and his mother.
I fought to give the proprietor money, even dropping some behind my back on another table, but they spied it, and their pandemonium of refusal overwhelmed me like a wave. I backed out into the street shaking hands, thanking, saying I would return.
Passing an empty bus stop I saw a man squatting in countryish attire, head buried in his folded arms. Can you sleep that way? Will you stay there through the night, for another day of shifting labor or looking for labor? You have even less than the scavenger on the curb with his pile of cardboard and layers of old clothing, less than the peaceful dead. My breath came from me white.
Was he so inured to the stoppage of blood from years on the farm, squatting over pit toilets, that he could actually slip from purple evening into black sleep without slackening, slipping sideways onto the asphalt and toppling softly onto the sidewalk?
How I saw him was squatting thus. How he heard me (if he heard me) was in the knock knock knock of my bicycle as I whirred past from life in a concert hall to life in a clean room. For a long time he had been waiting, nothing in his hands, looking for the crews riding by on blue billowing trucks full of country men dressed like him, heading up, up out of the city up north for the coal yards, looking for a call, an offer, a gesture from a coal-blackened hand that would mean a night of work and a huddled shivering breakfast after. He had been waiting to go on up but none of the trucks slowed. They rumbled by clouding everything but the purpling sky.
He waited until the trucks had stopped and then he waited until the purple had gone from the sky, fled north to hover above the coal-loading yards and then he was no longer waiting but the thought of going elsewhere had long passed too.
So he squatted and that’s how I saw him: purple only ineradicable, trucks gone, thought even of dawn gone, head down. When do the muscles slacken? Or does he stand up at last? Stand and go?
The total bewilderment I felt with the old men makes me think: my surface of complacency is ruffled, the smoothness that sheets all lives into deceptive mirrors is agitated. So fear, having felt it on the mountain, must be worth something in the end, bewilderment too must be worth something. I feel more real. My emotional nerve endings, burned, throb – stripped of skin and stinging in the air of reality, are more vital.
After we know some roughness the inside calms.
November 10, 1997
Passing through the mountains north of Beijing, the dense white sky presses its forehead to the fields and rooftops. Barrenness above, barrenness below. But even so there are humans who have the strength to remain standing. By the road I see them, men with the ubiquitous blue or grey sports jacket, smudged pants and battered shoes, hands in their pockets. They are either waiting or they have gone beyond waiting, just passing the time. Aside from such men, incidental men by the wayside, there is a checkpoint.
A cluster of soldiers sits next to the road and a few others crowd about each slowing car’s driver’s window. They wear long green coats and their middles are thick and their aim unrevealed.
Last night I saw a wild man in the main street, dirty beyond the limits of civilization. Yet he walked the sidewalks with other humans, not seeming to be crazy but rather provided room of his own, a separateness built of downcast eyes. His face was black with coal dust; strips of old plastic bags wrapped his pant legs close. He was gathering useful things.
Now I watch mountains go by with more understanding, having tried to climb one. What is not rock is loose dry earth. And covering it, but not binding it, is sharp, tough scrub. What looks from below climbable is likely treacherous, will leave you hugging ledges. What bitterness did the Japanese taste trying to control this area after 1937? We pass sellers with boxes of bright persimmons and next to the river some young trees hold their yellowed leaves but the colors make no difference at all; I’ve scarcely seen starker scenes.
Survival is more plainly stamped on the faces of the people crouched behind the persimmons. Their economic life leaves precious little joy. If they had some proud old bits of local culture before the shaming brightness of the television, there is not much now. They stare openly at the wealthy, not comprehending how we came to be. The face of the sky is white, and even more dumb.