Introduction by Jeremy Tiang
Since the 1950s, China’s population has been divided in two by the hukou, or household registration system: urban and rural. Residents of one city can move to another with relative ease, but someone from the countryside would face restrictions (buying property, access to schools or hospitals) if they moved to a city. Many do so nonetheless, drawn by the greater economic opportunities that urban areas offer, and end up as “jingpiao”: adrift in the city. By some estimates, there are half a million jingpiao in Beijing.
Xu Zechen lived in the western suburbs of Beijing when he first moved to the city in 2002, and led the existence of a jingpiao for almost a decade. “On the Rooftop” is one of the many stories he wrote that draws from this period of his life, depicting both the wild adventure of being young in the big city, and the somber impossibility of getting ahead with the odds so stacked against you. These marginalized communities are also marked by their transience—Xu has spoken about how none of the friends he made during his jingpiao days still remain in Beijing.
Xu has explored the jingpiao milieu in his fiction before, notably in Running Through Beijing (translated by Eric Abrahamsen), which features a man who leaves his hometown with “complete faith that he could come to Beijing and make a good life—now he was the living dead.” Beijing Sprawl, the short story collection from which this story “On the Rooftop” is excerpted, takes place in a similar social world. Muyu and his friends, most of them still in their teens, scratch out a living on the western edge of Beijing selling fake IDs. They have some good times with card games and camaraderie, but all the while the skyscrapers of the city loom in the distance, representing the prosperity they know will never be theirs. All they can hope for is the dregs.
Translating this evocative, scabrous story took me back to a much earlier time in my life, when I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, and that just seemed like part of the adventure of being alive. Xu Zechen’s great gift as a writer is his ability to capture this tentative, in-between state—not just of the jingpiao, but for everyone who has ever felt adrift.
– Jeremy Tiang
Translator of Beijing Sprawl
Bullshitting Our Way Through a Long Beijing Summer
On the Rooftop by Xu Zechen, translated by Jeremy Tiang
My head throbbed and I felt a bright bird bursting from it. Having broken its metallic body free, it flapped its wings harder and harder, gleaming silver in the late afternoon sun. If it flew to the west, it would see private homes, undeveloped land, the stark fifth and sixth ring roads, the western hills, over whose peaks it would disappear. If it headed east, there’d be nothing but apartments and streets, buildings like mountains and avenues like valleys, people and vehicles flowing thickly down them. To the bird, Beijing must have seemed infinitely vast, so enormous you couldn’t catch your breath. Glinting in the light, it flew on and on.
“Hey, play a card!”
I tossed one down. “Bird.”
They stared at me, eyes wide.
I hastily corrected myself. “Six of clubs, I mean.”
“Yeah, maybe that looks like a cock, not a bird.”
We were on the rooftop playing Ace of Spades, shrouded by the shade of the pagoda tree. In our basic single-story pingfang on the outskirts of Haidian District on the western edge of Beijing, from summer to fall, we spent our days playing cards on that roof. Since moving in, on warm days I followed my friends’ protruding asses up to the roof, and somehow the ace of spades always ended up with Baolai. Round after round, at least ninety-five out of a hundred times. It got to the point that as soon as the cards were dealt, one of us would say, “Go on, Baolai, show us the ace.”
And he’d obediently produce it. “Here.”
It was never surprising when it was another loss for him. When he’d give me my winnings—a Zhongnanhai cigarette and a glass of Yanjing beer—I’d push them back at him. “Let the others have this, Baolai.”
I felt a bit sorry for him. I neither smoked nor drank, and I felt awkward with a cigarette between my lips and a beer in my hand. I’d moved to Beijing at the start of the summer after dropping out of school from what the doctor told me were “weak nerves.” He’d written me a prescription without much fuss: nerve and brain tonic, a solution of vitamins and sodium phosphate. Every time I felt my brain tighten or my head throb, I’d take a swig. It came in a can that looked like DDT, and every time I pulled off the lid, I’d imagine it was poison. Its therapeutic effects were negligible. Around four or five every afternoon, I stood atop the second-year school block, facing the sun, still feeling that inexplicable panic, as if the whole world were filled with the violent thudding of my heart, and my every vein would thrum. The doctor called them “palpitations.” Fine, but why was I palpitating? The Monkey King’s cursed metal band tightened around my head whenever I tried to read. The headaches meant I couldn’t sleep, and then I wouldn’t wake up on time the next morning. Even if I did manage to drift off, I only wafted along the surface of sleep and would jolt awake at so much as a mosquito’s sneeze. I often saw another me standing by my bedside staring, while the other seven guys in my dorm happily snored, ground their teeth, talked in their sleep, and farted. The doctor had said, “Go jogging; that’ll help stimulate your nerves. Did you know that when your nerves are too tense, they lose their elasticity? Like a worn-out rubber band. You have to train and train and train, until your nerves regain their resilience.” But it wasn’t like I could climb out of bed in the middle of the night and go running.
The doctor kept saying, “Run.” So I packed up my stuff and headed home, abandoning my studies. I told my parents they could beat me to death, but I wasn’t going back. They were perplexed by my strange illness. My baba circled me, right hand raised, thumb and index finger poised to find and pluck the gleaming metal thread from my head. Don’t let it get away. Where are you, you son of a bitch? He found nothing, nothing at all. Eventually he slumped on the old rattan chair whose legs were all different lengths and said dejectedly to Ma, “Well, he’s got nothing better to do; why don’t we send him to Beijing with Thirty Thou?
If he’s lucky, he might earn a bit of beer money.”
“He’s only seventeen,” said Ma.
“So what? My baba was seventeen when I was born!”
So that’s how I ended up going to Beijing with Thirty Thou Hong, my uncle who sold fake IDs in the city. From the way he dressed and the cigarette clamped between his lips, you knew he’d made it big. He only smoked Zhongnanhai Point-Eights. He generously gave a whole carton to his relatives, and we all got to try them. The leaders of our nation smoked that brand. My baba took two: one to smoke and one to tuck behind his ear. He took it out from time to time just to sniff at. So now here I was, living with Xingjian, Miluo, and Baolai in this pingfang, paying two-forty-a-month rent. We slept in two bunk beds in one room, and all four of us did the same work: going out at night and putting up small ads. You took a Sharpie, found an empty bit of wall somewhere eye catching, and wrote Seals and Documents Please Contact (510) 9391493. Xingjian and Miluo worked for Chen Xingduo, while Baolai and I worked for my uncle. Sometimes we didn’t use a pen or paste up ads, but dabbed a carved yam onto an ink-soaked sponge as a stamp. Much faster than writing. I was in charge of carving the words into the root vegetable. You wouldn’t call it pretty, but it was legible at a glance.
We worked only at night, to avoid getting arrested. The squinty, watchful eyes of security guards and police officers were everywhere, and they’d nab whomever they could. They’d all be asleep by the small hours, though, even in the wealthy district of Zhongguancun. The two of us boldly wrote and stamped our message on walls, bus stops, overhead bridges, stairs, even on the street itself. Sanitation workers would wash away our words, and we’d rewrite them. Let wildfires burn them down; spring breezes would raise them again. People who wanted seals carved or documents sorted out would obediently follow the trail of breadcrumbs to Thirty Thou Hong, and he’d pass the job on to his forgers. I wasn’t sure how much he actually earned doing this, but he paid us five hundred a month. Baolai said, “This isn’t bad, bro. We go out after midnight and make our rounds, like taking a nighttime stroll. And we get paid for it!” He was content, and
I was too. Not because of the money, but because I liked the night. It was quiet in the early hours, when Beijing’s dust had settled. The roads were like dry riverbeds, and the city felt much larger. Nighttime Beijing seemed more spacious, a vast and empty landscape beneath gentle streetlights. Ever since my nerves weakened, my dreams had grown to be as jostling and fragmented as daytime Beijing. If I could have dreamed such a scene of capacious peace as the night, I’d probably have woken out of sheer joy.
We slept from dawn till the afternoon. To make sure I was tired enough, I forced myself to jump around in my spare time and jogged every chance I got. If you happened to be wandering around Beijing back then in the small hours of the night, you might have seen a tall, skinny teenager with spiky hair hyperactively haunting the streets and alleyways of the capital. Yup, that was me. And the guy next to me, a little stockier, a little shorter, was Baolai. He was sluggish, and you might have thought he was slow, but I swear on my weak nerves that my friend Baolai wasn’t slow at all. He was a solid guy, and he was kind. The best of all the good people I met in Beijing.
Xingjian and Miluo insisted that he was useless and refused to address him with respect, even though he was older than them. He was left to do all the chores around the house: sweeping the floor, taking out the trash, slicing watermelons, opening beer bottles. If he could have eaten their dinner for them, they’d have ordered him to do that too. Not that they ever had to order him around—Baolai did it all of his own accord. He felt that, as the oldest, he ought to take care of us three. At this moment, for instance, we’re still sleeping soundly while he lugs the small dining table and four little stools onto the roof. It’s some time before sunset. Our only entertainment is Ace of Spades.
Before I arrived, the other three would climb onto the roof not to play cards, but to gawk at women. From up there, you could clearly see their faces and chests as they walked down the alley. As they passed by, the boys would swivel to stare at their legs and asses. It was cooler on the rooftop, with the wind blowing and the old pagoda tree’s expansive shade. When I moved in, four was just the right number for a game of cards. I liked being on the rooftop because you could see farther. The doctor had said standing high up and looking into the distance would be good for my nerves. I felt claustrophobic crammed into our little house. Besides, there were skyscrapers nearby, and even taller skyscrapers beyond them. Even just a little higher, it improved my spirits a tiny bit. Though no matter how I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck, I was still low.
I kept quiet while we played cards—talking too much made my head ache. Baolai didn’t say much either, just wrinkled his brow like a philosopher deep in thought. All that thinking didn’t do him any good, though; the ace of spades kept finding its way into his hand. He never tried to hide it, and Xingjian and Miluo could tell at a glance who had it anyway. I couldn’t bluff either—whenever I was unlucky enough to be it, I’d feel the bands of pressure tighten and would have to tap my head with my middle knuckle. Baolai was always slow to throw out a card, and while they waited, Miluo and Xingjian would talk about women.
They were one and two years older than me, respectively, but from the way they behaved, I could tell they were old hands at sex. Their familiarity with every part of a woman’s body was so detailed, they could have been scientists. If they happened to have a night off from pasting ads, they would go to some underground screening room to watch a late show. Before I met them, I thought the dirtiest films in the world were Category Three. They told me I hadn’t seen anything yet—it was all about “A” films! Did I know what that meant? Porn! To be honest, I had no idea then what they were talking about. They laughed at me, and even harder at Baolai. They said they’d get a bit of money together to pay some vegetable-selling auntie to take our virginities.
I kept my head down, my temples throbbing, and I thought about the girl I’d liked in my last year of school. She’d transferred into our class from some southern town. She had a sharp nose and talked with the tip of her tongue poking out between her teeth. The Mandarin she spoke was different from how any of us sounded, even if we put our tongues between our teeth. One day, around this time of the year, she rolled up the sleeves of her T-shirt, stuck her hands in her pockets, and swaggered through the late-afternoon sunlight behind the school, mimicking me. Her hands pulled her pants taut, and I could clearly see the curves of her butt. Standing there in the classroom, I watched through the window as she turned to smile at me. The sun gilded her ass. That’s my earliest romantic memory. After that, whenever the subject of women or love came up, two images flashed through my mind: a sharp nose and a gilded ass not yet at its full roundness. Then I’d feel a searing pain in my heart, my temples would ache, and I’d have to lower my head.
One afternoon last month, after we’d watched from the rooftop as a girl in a short skirt walked through the alley, Miluo ordered me to talk about what I knew of “women.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I told them about my classmate from two years ago. We’d lost touch. Xingjian and Miluo laughed so hard, they almost fell off the roof.
“Women, we said!” they chortled.
The way they saw it, if you weren’t talking about sex, you weren’t really talking about women. I knew I’d strayed from the subject, but I was fine having some distance between me and women. I was only hoping to get closer to my brain, but it seemed determined to stay far away—hurting so much it didn’t feel like it was mine.
“What’s your favorite part of a woman, Baolai?” Xingjian asked.
“The face,” said Baolai, holding a card. Once he had the ace of spades, the other three of us would barricade him so he couldn’t discard it. “I need to see a woman’s face before I can trust her.”
This made no sense. Seeing someone’s face didn’t mean you could trust them, did it? Baolai didn’t explain, and we assumed he was talking nonsense. When someone’s lost that many games, you have to let them be a little illogical from time to time. Baolai was clearly going to lose this round too. I couldn’t have given him a chance even if I’d wanted to. Miluo went before me, and Xingjian went after, so they were able to squeeze Baolai. He lost eight cards. Including the four rounds from earlier, and not counting the three empty bottles at our feet, he still had to fork over three more bottles of Yanjing beer and a whole pack of Zhongnanhai Eights.
“I’ll go get more beer.” Baolai said, putting down his cards.
“No hurry, we can settle up when we’re done playing.” Xingjian didn’t want to stop.
“Xingjian, real talk.” Miluo said, bringing a beer to his lips. “If you woke up tomorrow afternoon with money, what would you do?”
“Fuck it. Buy a big house, marry a wife nine years older than me, lounge around in bed all day.”
“Why nine years older?” I was confused.
“So she’ll have experience,” said Miluo. “Little girls don’t know anything. You need a woman who knows what she wants.”
“Twenty-eight is a good age. I’m getting hard just thinking about it. Twenty-eight, oh god, yeah,” Xingjian said.
“If I had money, obviously I’d get a house and wife. Also, I’d take taxis everywhere, even to the toilet. Then I’d get a bunch of people, like you guys, to put up ads for me in the middle of the night. Fuck it, I’d be richer than Chen Xingduo!”
“If you had that much money, why not buy a car?” I asked.
“Don’t you know I have no sense of direction? I get dizzy going around the third ring road. If I set off for Fangshan, I might head in the totally opposite direction and end up in Pinggu instead.” Tapping Baolai’s knee with the beer bottle, Miluo said, “What about you, Baolai?”
“Me?” Baolai’s lips compressed into a smile. He stood, hitching up his trousers. “I should go get some beer.”
“Let’s finish talking first.”
“I’ll be quick.” Baolai glanced at his watch. “I’ll be back before you’ve smoked a cigarette.”
“What about you, kid?” Xingjian jabbed a finger at me. “Say you had five hundred grand.”
Five hundred thousand yuan was an astronomical sum to me. I couldn’t think how I would spend it. Build a house for my sixty-year-old grandpa and grandma to live out their twilight years? Buy my ba a truckload of Zhongnanhai Eights? Pay to replace my ma’s decayed teeth with porcelain crowns, then dye every strand of her prematurely white hair black again? For myself, if anyone could treat my weak nerves, I’d give him all of it.
“Hey, say something,” the two of them badgered me. “Would you try to get that classmate of yours?”
Sharp nose, curvy ass. My heart twinged. “I’ll help Baolai with the beer.” I clambered down after him.
Xingjian and Miluo chorused, “Fun-sucking motherfucker.”
They’d gotten to Beijing half a year before me and picked up a few more Beijing swears.
The closest convenience store was to our west, but Baolai was heading east. I asked if he was going the wrong way, and he told me to hurry up—we’d jog, which would be good for my nerves. I ran alongside him, down an alley, around a corner. He slowed down in front of Blossoms Bar. The bar couldn’t seem to make up its mind about its décor: a bit Tibetan, a bit European, with some cartoon characters and scarecrows thrown in. A rotating pole by the entrance made it look like a barber shop. I’d been inside once, when my uncle Thirty Thou Hong was buying. He ordered me a glass of beer and told me if I didn’t step into a bar at least once, I haven’t really been to the big city, and if I didn’t have a drink, I hadn’t really been inside a bar. The beer had tasted so-so, and I didn’t see what was so great about drinking it in a bar. When we’d left, Thirty Thou Hong had called my aunt and then my ba, loudly braying that we’d just been to a bar for a drink, and wasn’t that something . . . .
Baolai looked at his watch, asking, “Is it six o’clock yet?”
“One minute to.”
“Let’s keep running.”
I followed him another block, then we turned back. Jogging always helped my head feel less painfully tight. We were back outside Blossoms Bar.
“Nine minutes past six.”
“Let me catch my breath.”
Baolai sat on some rubble at the foot of a utility pole kitty corner to the bar. Bigger people often sweat a lot, even if they’re just a little fat. Baolai fanned his chin. The pole was covered with ads that promised to cure sexually transmitted diseases, body odor, vitiligo, sleepwalking, and prostate cancer, all from unlicensed doctors claiming to be descended from imperial court physicians. I read all the ones I could see, then it was twenty past and I said we should go get the beer. Baolai said “Fine,” and then insisted on going to the supermarket to our west, since we were now nearby. He was talking complete garbage—it was at least three hundred and fifty meters away. When we were done, we left the supermarket and walked past the bar yet again.
I snapped. “Man, why’re we just going round and round in circles? Like a couple of beetles or something.”
“I just want to look.” Baolai’s face was blazing red. “Guess what I’d do if I made big money?”
I shook my head. For years now, I’d given no thought to any goal other than getting into college.
“I’d open a bar. A place like Blossoms. People would be able to write anything they like on the walls.”
I remembered that the walls of Blossoms Bar were complete chaos, covered in words and pictures in all colors. It was the only bar I’d ever set foot in, but I’d seen quite a few in TV shows and films. They were all neat and clean, their walls adorned with paintings and designs. Thirty Thou Hong and I had sat with our backs to a wall, and when I’d turned to the side I could read, Hey, Old H, give me back my money or I’ll fuck your wife! Then, in a different handwriting: Feel free, I just married a Big White Pig from Changbai Mountain. Above and to the side: Brothers and sisters, come find me if you want mutton soup, I’m at the little table. All kinds of messages, sketches of genitals smushed together, the sort of thing you saw in public toilets. I hadn’t liked that wall covered in scribbled-over paper.
Back on the roof, I told Xingjian and Miluo about Baolai’s dream, and they burst out laughing.
“All right, Baolai,” said Xingjian. “Now you’re ready to live life in the capital!”
Miluo said, “You’ve got two legs up on me. But make sure we drink for free. Oh, and I’m going to draw a whole row of big white asses on the wall.”
“And the kuai! Don’t forget the money! Just the old man’s head, 10,000 each.”
We picked up our game again, and surprise surprise, Baolai got the ace of spades every single round. Afterward he had to pour us more beer and offer us cigarettes, and while we smoked and drank, we chatted about Baolai’s bar as if it was all a done deal. The more we talked, the more we admired Baolai’s vision and how elegantly he’d set up the whole place. How quickly we got used to spending that imaginary money.
Suddenly, Xingjian said, “Hey, Baolai, how come you want to open a bar anyway?”
“I like being around lots of people. It’s lively. Fun.”
“That still doesn’t mean you have to let people draw on your walls,” Miluo said.
“If you’re waiting for someone and they don’t come, just leave your number. A sort of message board, that’s all. I think it’ll be good.”
So that was it. Beijing’s too big, and it’s far too easy to lose people—it’s important to leave your number. He was actually onto something there. It didn’t feel like an idea Baolai would have come up with on his own, unless we’d all underestimated him. Certainly it made the tone of our conversation more serious.
Xingjian and Miluo were no longer talking about women and money. Holding the beers they’d won, they paced the roof, their gaze reaching into the distance. The sun had almost set, and light was draining from the sky. Far from us, the tall buildings darkened and then quickly lit up again. One by one, the lights of the city rippled on. As night arrived in Beijing and the city seemed even richer, the two of them grew anxious. They wanted something other than glimpsing women’s thighs and the abstract notion of wealth. I completely understood. Deep down, they thought of a “career” as that “something else.” Of course, career is a weighty word, and they were embarrassed to say it out loud. As far as I could tell, for all of Xingjian and Miluo’s cunning plans, they had no idea what their futures might hold. All they had was a vague feeling of aspiration and the desire to “achieve something big.” They’d only finished middle school and didn’t know any more than I did. Even so, the idea of transforming their lives and “achieving something big” was serious. Just like they were now, hands on their hips, holding their beers, cigarettes drooping from their lips, looking melancholy.
“Fuck it, sooner or later I’m going to own a whole floor of that building, the one where the lights just came on,” said Miluo. It was impossible to tell which distant skyscraper he was pointing at. He sounded like the Secretary General of the UN addressing the entire world.
“Even if it doesn’t work out, it’ll still be worth it if we get to die in this place.” That was Xingjian. It seemed to me Xingjian wasn’t quite as sharp as Miluo, and Miluo only conceded to him because he was bigger. Perhaps those broad shoulders provided cover.
It was completely dark now. The glow from the alley wasn’t enough for us to make out the cards. Flocks of pigeons began coming home, a ring of coos all around us. The sluggish night air was suddenly made clear and deep by the pigeons’ cries. We needed to grab some food and get ready for work.
I held the stamps made from yams and carrots, and Baolai carried the ink and sponge. Once again, we passed by Blossoms Bar. Only when I saw the fake barber pole did I realize I’d been seeing it every day for a month now. Our previous route had taken us past the donkey-burger shop and a lamb stew place, and when we were done eating, any bus from the stop just a few steps away would take us back into town. Baolai remained quiet, apparently deep in thought, and I decided not to question him about it out of respect.
A little before six o’clock, he once again climbed down from the roof to go buy beer. I volunteered to go with him to exercise my weak nerves. Out of necessity, I’d become addicted to running. Breathing hard, we reached Blossoms. Baolai slowed down as we passed, and his head swiveled until it had twisted almost all the way round as he peered inside. On our way back with the beer, he stared into the bar again, stopping once we got past it. Wiping his brow, he asked, “Did you see the person by the window? Did they have long or short hair?”
“Sitting by the plate glass window to the right of the door.”
I had no memory of this, but then I hadn’t really been looking.
“Help me see. Just check whether her hair’s long or short.”
I doubled back, and sure enough a girl was slumped over with her head on the table. I couldn’t see her face, and it wasn’t easy to tell the length of her hair. Amid the chaos of the bar, all I could hear was the loud thumping music and screeching voices. She was so still, I thought she might have fallen asleep. I picked up a pebble from the rubble around the utility pole and lobbed it at the glass, being careful not to use too much force. Her head moved a little. Long hair, or at least you wouldn’t call it short. I went back and told Baolai. He said “oh,” and his face drooped with disappointment.
“Were you looking for someone?” I asked.
“She has short hair.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, why are you looking for her?”
Even with my weak nerves, I could see that Baolai was in trouble—he’d fallen in love with a girl he didn’t know. I tried to hold it back, but my laughter forced its way out. “Do you want to open your bar just to serve one person?”
“Don’t make fun of me.” Baolai’s face was bright red. “And don’t tell Xingjian and Miluo. Not one word.”
“Tell me the truth, then.”
Baolai blabbered a bit longer, insisting I had to keep it a secret. He wasn’t sure of his own feelings; all he knew was the first time he saw her, he felt a soft bone somewhere in his body click, like a tiny dagger slotting into its sheath. “Have you ever seen someone just staring into space, and suddenly your heart hurts and you feel sad?” Baolai asked, coming to a halt again. I swung the beer bottles a little to indicate he should go on. One afternoon, about a month ago, he’d been making a phone call to my uncle from the newsstand diagonally across from the bar. Then he turned, and in the seat by the window was a short-haired girl. She was sitting very upright, her chin a little sharp, and she was staring into space. A bottle of beer sat on the table in front of her, and next to it was a red drink with a straw—possibly watermelon juice, possibly not. She was so still she could have been a statue, and her blank stare made it clear that she saw nothing. Just sitting there, like a daydreaming student in class. For no reason, Baolai decided she must be very sad, and her posture proved this. Her skin was pale and looked fragile. That’s when Baolai heard that click deep in his body, the tiny dagger sliding home. A surge of pain through his heart. That was all: a little heartache, a scolding from my uncle for getting distracted and losing the thread of their conversation. Nothing more.
He saw her again the next day while making another phone call. It would have meant nothing, but the tiny dagger slipped farther into its sheath. The third time he saw her, he’d just been to the supermarket to buy us umbrellas because it was raining. I remembered that time—we’d been at home and wanted to go out for some food after we got tired of playing cards, but we had no umbrellas. We were always losing our umbrellas while out pasting ads. Xingjian and Miluo said to forget the cigarettes and beer; that day’s penalty would be umbrellas. So Baolai set off to get them, and as he passed by the bar, he saw the girl sitting in the same place, this time in a golden yellow outfit. For some strange reason, he felt sad again. A gold dress against such delicate skin ought to have made him feel joyful and invigorated, yet on her it felt sorrowful somehow. Her back wasn’t as straight as before. She was staring into space again but this time was twisted around to look out the window at the rain. Through the downpour and steamed glass, Baolai could see a slim, white cigarette between her index and middle fingers. She’d wiped the moisture from a patch of window, and Baolai was able to meet her eyes as he walked by. It felt the same as when he was pasting ads and caught sight of a police officer: His legs trembled and he almost fell into a puddle.
After that, Baolai began noticing that for whatever reason, at six o’clock each day, a dagger in his body needed a sheath, just like my panic attacks arrived punctually between four and five each day. He’d climb down from the roof and find some excuse to jog by to look, just to look. The girl was a regular. Every day around six, she’d be there sitting by the window, all alone, going through the same actions in turn: staring into space, smoking, sipping a beer or soft drink. Her posture would be either perfectly upright or a tiny bit slouched, though occasionally she’d slump right over onto the table and it would be hard to tell if she’d fallen asleep.
No wonder Baolai brought me out for a run whenever my head ached—it wasn’t purely for my sake. Counting back using my fingers, I must have jogged by here with him at least ten times. Clearly I wasn’t the brightest bulb.
“What happened next?”
“You know what. She hasn’t been here for three days now.”
“Do you think she knows who you are?”
“I don’t know.”
I laughed again. He’d be better off fantasizing about some twenty-eight-year-old woman like Xingjian. If I’d told the other two, they’d probably have thought he wasn’t just an idiot, but a full-on lunatic. I’d heard of love at first sight, but never through a pane of glass. Oh my god, Baolai.
“I’m not going to do anything,” said Baolai, his face tense. “I’m just worried about her.”
“Okay, then, if you have nothing better to do, feel free to worry about her. That’s the closest you’ll get to her, though.” I did want to get a look at that girl myself. She must have been very gloomy and sad indeed for Baolai to get so hung up on her.
For the next ten days, driven by weak nerves and enormous curiosity, I went on long runs with Baolai that took us past Blossoms Bar. Jogging alleviated my headaches and tension but did nothing to alleviate my curiosity—the girl never showed. If a young woman happened to be in that seat, even if Baolai was certain it wasn’t her, he still had me go check. He couldn’t let it go. One day, when I’d gotten all sweaty from running and my brain felt exceptionally clear, I began to suspect that the woman Baolai was so concerned about might not exist at all.
“No, she really does exist. She was sitting right there.” Baolai was very insistent, but the seat he was pointing at happened to be occupied by a long-haired guy. “Y . . . you don’t b . . . believe me?”
Now he’d started stammering, I felt I had to keep going with him at least for a few more days. Anyway, whether or not she showed up, the jogging was good.
Another five days passed with no luck. I decided I would run only for the sake of my weak nerves— I shouldn’t bother having any curiosity about this world. Baolai was losing weight from all the exercise, and his face looked somewhat deflated, which made him seem even more despairing with each passing day. Trying to comfort himself as much as me, he said no news was good news; no sign of her meant everything was fine. Out of habit, I argued back: “Why couldn’t it be bad news?” He seemed confused for a moment, then grabbed his fleshy earlobes and tugged frantically at them. Those earlobes were the envy of my parents. My ma kept saying, “If only your earlobes were as big as Baolai’s. Big earlobes mean good fortune. The Buddha’s are so large they touch his shoulders.” I wondered if Baolai’s ears were like that because he was always tugging at them. If I did the same, mine would probably be elongated too. He spent ten minutes leaning against the utility pole and pulling his ears, then he gritted his teeth, stamped his feet, and said, “Bro, do me a favor. Go in and ask if anything happened to that girl.”
Me? Just wandering in like a dumbass? Who would I even be asking about? People would think there was something wrong with me!
“Come on, brother, just this once. I’ll buy your train ticket for when you go home for New Year, even if I have to get in line at midnight!”
That wasn’t a bad offer. Buying a ticket from Beijing Train Station as New Year approached was as difficult as getting a postgraduate spot at Peking University… I’d heard that from a guy who’d wanted a fake Peking U degree cert. I pushed open the door and went up to the bar. The bartender asked what I wanted to drink, and I said I was looking for someone. Pointing at the seat by the window, I asked what happened to the short-haired girl who often sat there.
“Oh, her? No idea. She hasn’t been here for a while. Are you her friend?”
“Mm, thanks anyway.”
I went back outside. Baolai said, “Did you find out her name?”
“You didn’t tell me to.”
“Go ask. I’ll treat you to KFC later.”
I went back in. The bartender didn’t know her name either. They didn’t ask customers for their names. As I turned to leave, she suggested I check the wallpaper near that seat, to see if there were any clues. I went over, and between the beefy shoulder of a thirty-something bald man and the window, I saw a couple of lines in a slender, feminine scrawl: If it’s dark and you still don’t want to go home, just let me know. The famous “Sitting Upright Girl.” Followed by a pager number. I asked the server if the girl was “Sitting Upright Girl,” and she said maybe. I asked for pen and paper to take down the number.
Baolai stared at the paper and swore it had to be her. Because she always sat with her back straight, and didn’t leave till almost dark? Either Baolai’s intuition was superb, or he was confused. Either way, time for KFC.
Baolai carried Sitting Upright Girl’s pager number around all day but never used it. He didn’t dare. I tried several times to persuade him. “All you have to do is say it’s dark but you don’t want to go home either.” He still didn’t dare. He actually picked up the phone once but started trembling and hung up after only dialing a couple of digits. He’d begun sweating immediately. Another time, I offered to make the call myself, and though he eventually agreed after a lot of persuading, he grabbed the receiver and hung up before I could get through. It was torture for Baolai, not seeing her and being too scared to get in touch. We were still passing by the bar each day, but there was no sign of her. It was as if she’d evaporated into thin air.
If things went on like this, Baolai would get even crazier, or maybe snap altogether. I switched tactics and tried to shock him out of his obsession. For all we knew, she might be a Beijing girl, I told him, and what Beijinger would marry a penniless migrant worker like him? Let alone if she heard what he did for a living. Forget her. Baolai hung his head as if he’d been caught doing something wrong and said he didn’t expect anything to happen; he was just worried—he sensed something was wrong. I said, “You don’t know anything about her life. I sense something’s wrong with you.” He responded that I was young and didn’t understand. Well, fine. I couldn’t be bothered to understand that dogshit logic of his.
Life went on. We pasted up ads, played cards, and jogged. Like beetles, we circled round and round the bar. Another month passed. Baolai got even thinner, while my nerves slowly gained strength. As we ran past the bar one evening, he abruptly said, “I paged her.”
I didn’t understand.
“I called her pager.”
“It’s a dead number.”
I stopped running and leaned against the utility pole, breathing hard. This unexpected development caught me off guard. Even though we hadn’t spoken about Sitting Upright Girl in a while, and even though it was Baolai who had the piece of paper with her number, I felt my pockets getting heavier. They seemed to weigh even more as we made another lap past the bar, until I thought my back would give out. Our lives were so monotonous. Apart from the cops, money, abstract ideas of struggle and ambition, and the steadily growing homesickness, Sitting Upright Girl was the most important thing in our lives, Baolai and me. I’d watched as anxiety, yearning, and vigorous exercise had transformed Baolai from a pudgy man to a trim figure. This kind man, who’d run the streets and alleys of Beijing with me, now had sadness written all over his face. I felt as if Sitting Upright Girl, who no longer existed, was clinging to him as tight as a shadow. Could someone I’d never seen, and whom Baolai had only glimpsed a few times through glass, be this important? It would seem so. Holding on to the utility pole to keep upright, I said, “Baolai . . . .”
His lips parted a little. Why even bother smiling? “It’s fine. Let’s go another round. Is your headache better?”
I didn’t mention it again. My nerves were still weak. Baolai was still a moron. We worked, slept, played cards, talked in theoretical terms about women and our dreams. We ran faster and faster.
One afternoon in late autumn, with a chill in the air and the city covered in fallen yellow leaves, we got out of bed and climbed up to the roof. Just as we’d started playing cards, my pager went off. It was Home. Ma paged every time she thought of me. I dropped my cards and went off to the newsstand across from Blossoms, where the public phone was. Halfway through talking with my mother, I suddenly hung up. A short-haired girl with a very straight back was sitting by the plate glass window, smoking. That seat. Her face was tilted out, and her eyes were as cloudy as the smoke coming from her lips. I was sure this was Sitting Upright Girl. Without even waiting for my change from the newsstand guy, I dashed back to the pingfang, shouting as I got close, “Baolai! Come down here! Quick!”
Baolai didn’t dare believe I’d seen the right girl, but he ran back to the bar with me. As we got closer, I saw three men dressed head to toe in denim hauling her out of the bar. One of them had a shaved head, one a crew cut, and the third the sort of center-part that villains have in TV dramas. The girl was clearly unwilling—she was rearing back with all her strength and clinging to the door frame. Shaved Head wasn’t very tall, but he was strong. He squeezed her wrist until the pain made her let go. By the time we got there, she was being dragged out, legs trailing on the ground, toes scrabbling to find purchase. Her legs left no mark on the damaged asphalt as she was pulled along.
She screamed, “I won’t go! Let me go! Please, I’m begging you! I don’t want to go!”
No one paid any attention. After the door of the bar closed behind her, nothing could be heard from inside, and no one came out. Baolai shouted, “Let go of her! Let go!” He wasn’t as fast a runner, but he still managed to pass me. He grabbed Crew Cut’s arm. “Let her go! You can’t do that to a woman!” I caught hold of TV Villain’s arm, but his elbow smashed into my chin, and I fell to the ground. Baolai managed to get Crew Cut to let go of the girl, but they outnumbered us. The girl was crouched down, sobbing in terror, too shocked to even run. By the time I’d gotten to my feet, Crew Cut and Shaved Head had flung Baolai to the ground.
“Run! Quick!” he shouted.
The girl didn’t move, and neither did I. It was all too fast for me. I’d never been in a fight like this.
“Quick! Go!” Baolai shouted again. “Get Xingjian and Miluo!” His voice strangled at the end, because the two of them were kicking him in his back. I tried to go help him, but TV Villain tripped me and the next thing I knew, I’d cut my lip on the road.
I climbed to my feet and started sprinting. TV Villain couldn’t catch up. I felt myself going faster and faster. The autumn wind swept under my arms like a pair of wings. I felt a sort of satisfaction as I ran, faster and faster, faster and faster, faster and faster, only my toes touching the ground, my body as light as if I were doing the tiny water steps from Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. It may have been the fastest I ever ran in my life. Quick as I could, I called up to Xingjian and Miluo. They ran back with me, each holding a stool, cursing all the way. We might be broke, we might be struggling to survive, but we would not be bullied. Even though it felt as if we’d flown there, we were too late. We found Baolai alone, slumped against the utility pole. No sign of the girl or the three guys. He was bleeding from his forehead. They must have bashed his head against the pole. There was a bloodstain on an ad for treating stomach ulcers.
I cradled Baolai’s head and called his name, weeping. Xingjian and Miluo were frustrated that they hadn’t gotten to fight. They sat on either side of us, on their stools, just staring. I yelled, “Call an ambulance, you idiots!”
They stared at me, eyes wide. “An ambulance? How can we do that?”
The street was empty. The door to the bar remained shut. I couldn’t see how many people were inside, but not one of them came out.
Baolai’s eyes drifted open and his lips moved. “Was it her?” he asked, then his eyes shut again.
That was the last coherent thing he said, and maybe would be for the rest of his life.
At the hospital, they said he had a severe concussion—something had come unstuck in his brain. Perhaps he could be cured, but it would cost a lot of money, a bottomless pit. Baolai’s parents came to Beijing. They said even if they sold everything they had, including themselves, they still wouldn’t be able to raise the sum the doctor had quoted. My uncle Thirty Thou Hong contributed ten thou, which was a huge sum at the time. He wept as he left the room, sadness digging at his heart. Do you think it was easy for me to earn that money? he said to anyone who would listen. It’s not like it was a workplace injury. That ten thousand yuan was the most money Baolai’s parents had ever seen in their lives. They had nothing to say about it. The three men were never caught, and we never found the girl. All in all, I gave four statements, and each time I told the cops every last detail I could remember. One young officer seemed very curious about the girl. He asked if I was sure she was the woman who called herself Sitting Upright Girl. I recalled the last thing Baolai said to me by the utility pole and ruefully shook my head. For many years after that, I would wish, even in my dreams, that I could have been sure it was her.
Without being able to track down the culprits, there was pretty much no way the crime would ever be solved. After a period of convalescence, Baolai returned to Huajie. He spent each day drifting in and out of consciousness. Even at his most lucid, he still needed to wear a towel around his neck, because his drooping mouth could not stop dribbling.
We were sad for a very long time about what happened to Baolai. One afternoon, when the trees had lost their leaves, there wasn’t a whisper of wind, and the early winter sunlight felt infinite, Miluo got up and had a sudden impulse. Climbing up and down from the roof quite a few times, he swept it clean and moved the table and stools up there, all ready to play Ace of Spades with Xingjian and me. We all wanted to lighten the mood, but after a bit of chat, we just played in silence. Our hands full of cards, putting them down one at a time, no one knowing where the ace might be. It was impossible to guess with Baolai gone. Then all the cards were played, but we still hadn’t seen it.
“That’s impossible,” Miluo mumbled. “I counted the cards—they were all there. I definitely saw the ace of spades.”
The three of us searched under the table, under our stools, in our pockets, all over the roof, everywhere. The ace of spades was nowhere to be found. Spooky. Xingjian and Miluo looked suspiciously at me. I spread my hands, and just like that my face was all wet. I felt as if I’d waited a long time for those tears to come.