In a 1973 essay I assessed Ch’en Ying-chen’s (pen name of Ch’en Yung-shan) position in Taiwan literature as follows: “In as much as he has spoken the truth as he knew it, in as much as he dares to challenge even himself when he had suspicion about his former conviction, Ch’en Ying-chen is . . . an unique writer as well as an honest man” (“How Much Truth Can a Blade of Grass Carry?” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 32, No. 4, 1973, p. 638).
The validity of this statement is borne out by a recent interview in which he told Lind Jaivin: “Fifteen years ago I was quite a radical; I saw mainland China as the answer to all questions. But now I know that is nonsense as well For example, with regard to foreign investment, I thought mainland China was handling the situation very well But now look at how they so desperately cling to the trouser legs of the foreigners” (“On Power, People and Priorities” Asiaweek, 5 Feb. 1982, p. 43).
Charged with alleged “subversive activities,” Ch’en was given a tenyear prison sentence in 1968. However, the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 brought about an amnesty and he was released in September of that year. Though the nature of his “subversion” has never been made public, it is easy to see from his writing why he has been treated like an outcast by the Kuomintang. His works can be roughly divided into three periods. His fiction in the early sixties is dominated by narcissism and nihilism. The second period, culminating in such tendentious pieces as “My First Case” (Ti-i-chien ch’a-shih, 1967; included in Chinese Stories from Taiwan), bears testimony to the author’s loss of faith in the capitalist order. His third period began in 1977. Disenchanted with communism and suspicious of capitalism as represented by the multinational corporations in Taiwan, he would be moving in a spiritual void if not for his strong conviction in the values of traditional Chinese culture. “Night Freight” and the ongoing series of stories clustering under the general title “Washington Building” (Hua-sheng-tun ta lou) are the patent works of the post-incarceration period. As can be seen in the present selection, Ch’en at this stage seems to be less concerned with dialectics than with the question of Chinese selfhood being sapped by the forces of modernization. Ch’en graduated from Tamkang College in 1960 with a B.A. in English. He now runs a printing shop in Taipei. A discussion and a bibliography of his works can be found in Chinese Fiction from Taiwan: Critical Perspectives. Under the auspices of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, he was invited to the United States for three months in the fall of 1983.
Translated by James C. T. Shu
I. The Stuffed Long-tailed Pheasant
Mr. Morgenthau went past Lin Jung-p’ing’s office with big strides.
“See you, J.P.”1
“See you” Lin Jung-p’ing answered.
He saw the hulking shadow of Mr. Morgenthau move out of the empty main office toward the garage shrouded in twilight. A maroon Lincoln Continental slowly backed out and gracefully skirted the garden and the flag stand. The guard already had the gate open. Lin Jung-p’ing watched through his window as the car drove noiselessly out of the Taiwan Malamud Electronic Company. Noiselessly the young guard bowed, and noiselessly he closed the gate.
Lin Jung-p’ing lit his pipe again. “See you, J.P.” Mr. Morgenthau’s deep, vigorous voice seemed to be still reverberating in the big, empty office. It was long past office hours. Just before the office was about to close for the day, Mr. Morgenthau had invited Lin Jung-p’ing to his room to discuss a few fiscal matters. Because the director of finance of the Malamud Company-Pacific Area was coming next week, the usually unruffled Mr. Morgenthau had recently been bustling from day to night trying to get several reports ready. Consequently, Lin Jung-p’ing, who was in charge of the financial department, had been working overtime every day. However, even in the midst of stress Mr. Morgenthau had not lost his knack for pranks, pranks which suggested an animallike vitality: impromptu teasing of the female workers; dirty jokes; loud-mouthed cursing, followed by a pat with his large hand on the shoulder of the Chinese manager who happened to be the object of the curse, and an “OK, Frank, don’t let our discussion affect your appetite for lunch,” and then a guffaw.
At the end of office hours they had been anxiously discussing how to account for a fairly sizable “public relations expense.”
“The office in Tokyo, J.P., can never understand that public relations expense is a rational expense in China.” Mr. Morgenthau shook his head while exhaling lingering, bluish smoke. “Any expense that brings efficiency and profits counts as rational management, as—”
Lin Jung-p’ing smiled helplessly. He was a sturdy fellow from a farming family in southern Taiwan. Under his balding crown, his brow was often touched with slight melancholy.
“Let’s play politics with Tokyo. You see, this year we’ve made good grades in three quarters, enough to please them.” Lin Jung-p’ing spoke in fluent English. “As soon as they’re pleased, the accounts can be easily dealt with.”
“You’re right, J.P.” Mr. Morgenthau’s voice was surprisingly low and slow.
Lin Jung-p’ing looked up from the documents, to find Mr. Morgenthau gazing out the window in glee, his good-looking, pale blue eyes glittering dispassionately.
“You’re right, J.P.” Mr. Morgenthau said tenderly. “Let’s play Tokyo politics—but look at her, J.P., the little filly.”
Lin Jung-p’ing looked out the window. He saw Liu Hsiao-ling with some other girls of the company, their day’s work done, walking toward the edge of the flower garden. Her thick, long, lushly dark hair made her bare arms appear extremely alluring. Her build was gorgeous, all right, but if it were not for her svelte, sturdy legs, she would not have that special charm, since her face was not that beautiful. Mr. Morgenthau called her a “little filly” exactly because of those legs.
Without any expression on his face, Lin Jung-p’ing watched Liu Hsiaoling and the other staff members get on the bus. Mr. Morgenthau opened a new pack of Winstons. Lin Jung-p’ing filled his pipe. Silently, the two of them puffed away. The bus finally left. The big office suddenly appeared empty, vast, and profoundly quiet.
“J.P., the loan of the Owen bank—” Mr. Morgenthau started. They returned to business. But it was obvious that Lin Jung-p’ing had suddenly begun to feel uncontrollably dejected. When the discussion came to an end, Mr. Morgenthau’s big, pale blue eyes looked at him with concern. “You look tired, J. P.” he said. “Since I’m going to play a little golf tomorrow, you don’t have to come so early. Take a good rest, J.P.” This made Lin Jung-p’ing ashamed of his unexplainable depression. He smiled, arranged the papers spread out over half the desk, and got up to leave.
“Take a good rest, J.P., old boy,” remarked Mr. Morgenthau behind him, cheerfully.
Lin Jung-p’ing entered his own office and put every document in place. On top of the low cabinet sat a family photograph in which he was standing behind his wife and two daughters, who were smiling with open mouths.
It was getting dark outside the window. He cleaned his pipe by tapping it on the ashtray. He was surprised by the dull, unpleasant sound of the pipe striking the marble ashtray. He stood up. His sense of loss was gradually changing into a dull sadness. He turned the light off, pulled the door shut, and left his office in haste.
He drove his Escort, which his company had just got for him as a replacement, into the thickening twilight. As he stared quietly at the road before him, his sense of depression calmly and relentlessly surged from his heart to permeate his four limbs. His thoughts wandered: “Even if they’re both new, you can tell the difference between driving a Ford and driving a Yülung.”2 He tried to find topics to talk to himself about; he tried to remember what it felt like when he first drove a Yülung car; he tried to find a suitable topic for his scheduled speech at a Jaycee luncheon; he tried to choose a piano instructor for his eldest daughter from between the two music major coeds someone had recommended to him. But hard as he tried to avoid it, Mr. Morgenthau’s impudent, puckish, leering expression forced its way into his thoughts and hovered in his vision.
“Is it true that Linda hasn’t said anything to you?” Mr. Morgenthau asked, his pale blue eyes, decorated with golden eyelashes, looking Lin Jung-p’ing directly in the face. Jung-p’ing suddenly thought of the vacant gray eyes of the cougar in an American T.V. commercial promoting automobiles.
“Said what to me?” he answered. He could almost envisage his own impeccably calm expression.
Mr. Morgenthau looked at him cunningly, curiously. “Linda hasn’t said anything, J.P.? Really? Very interesting, J.P.,” said Mr. Morgenthau impudently, prankishly.
“Said what to me?” he said. He was indeed surprised, but he was well aware that his innocent expression was completely perfect. “What did she want to tell me? Tell me that you’re to raise my salary?” he said.
They both burst into roars of laughter, in good American style.
“You deserve a raise, J.P., believe me,” Mr. Morgenthau said, “You’ve got a head like a computer, J.P.”
It was getting much darker now, as Lin Jung-p’ing turned his car onto a road that led to the spa district. It was a mountain road noted for shade trees. After the car made two turns on the slightly sloping road an almost perfectly full moon unexpectedly appeared, hanging in the part of the sky close to the downtown area and emitting a gentle, feeble, off-white light. “What did she want to tell me?” He thought of his innocent expression. He began to feel ashamed.
Some time before eleven in the morning, Liu Hsiao-ling, who was Lin Jung-p’ing’s secretary, entered his office. Unlike her usual self—a composed, dexterous secretary—she banged around a lot in the steel office filing cabinet. He looked up and saw her shoving in a big stack of papers with unusual impatience.
“Linda,” he broke the silence by calling her English name.
She seemed surprised, then looked down quietly. Lightly biting her thick, rouged lips, she switched her eyes rapidly from the papers in her hands to the wall. Lin Jung-p’ing noticed the gleam of tears in her eyes. He took out his pipe, and asked in English, “Anything the matter, Linda?”
Liu Hsiao-ling’s lips quivered slightly. She looked down quickly, strings of tears dropping onto her hands, clasped in front of her waist.
“Sit down,” he said. “Tell me what’s the matter—slowly.”
She finally sat down opposite him. Silently taking the handkerchief he offered, she carefully wiped off her tears and the moist spot on the tip of her nose. Her eyes were small, especially on a face that was a little too wide. Her nose was long, thin, and firm, but her thick, soft lips gave her face an indisputable sensuous charm.
She was now looking at a piece of carved Philippine mahogany hanging on the wall behind him. Before low thatch houses, a farmer, apparently on his way to work, was leading a water buffalo; Lin Jung-p’ing once told her that it was an almost perfect replica of a scene from the Taiwan countryside—if only the farmer were wearing a coolie hat.
“I’ve typed your letter, the one you wanted sent to Tokyo to be transferred to New York. When I went to give a duplicate to the boss,” she spoke with composure, “he said, ‘Linda, you’re a pretty girl.’” She paused a while, then continued, “That’s the way he talks to every girl. I said, ‘Thank you.’ He said, ‘Linda, someone told me you like the way I wear my moustache.’” She looked at Lin Jung-p’ing in scorn. “It’s got to be you who told him that. All the men in this company have a slave mentality.”
This past summer Mr. Morgenthau had left Taiwan for his annual onemonth vacation. He sent Lin Jung-p’ing postcards from Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran, West Germany, and Denmark, one after the other. Lin Jungp’ing was the only one of the five managers in the company to receive these scenic postcards. Then Mr. Morgenthau wrote him from his old home in the state of Maryland, U.S.A., saying that he had grown a moustache and asking that Jung-p’ing keep it a secret in order to give the people in the company a “sexy surprise” when he came back to Taiwan. When Mr. Morgenthau returned, none of the girls in the office were interested in their boss’s moustache.
Once, in a small Japanese-style inn in the spa district,3 Lin Jung-p’ing had brought up the boss’s moustache to Liu Hsiao-ling. He suggested, “Chinese girls associate beards with aging and sloppiness.”
“I don’t think so. The girls in our company are all just too young,” she said, intently making up before the mirror. “Actually, I’m quite attracted to his moustache. So thick, above such a naughty, youthful mouth.” She then burst into laughter in front of the mirror, exuding a charm tinged with abandon. He was lying naked in bed, leafing through Time magazine. He laughed wordlessly, feeling a kind of jealousy which he could nevertheless live with.
“No wonder he kept smirking at me so,” she said with indignation. Lin Jung-p’ing smoked his pipe in silence. She continued: “I’m leaving, Linda,’ he said. He stood up casually. Suddenly, he embraced me . . .” She looked Jung-p’ing straight in the face, her eyes suddenly turning moist. “Fuck him, the pig!” she went on vehemently, her face reddening. “‘Let me go, or I’ll scream,’ I said. He suddenly let go of me, saying, ‘Linda, don’t let me frighten you. I didn’t mean anything bad, Linda.’ ” Her voice was calming down. “Fuck him,” she said woefully. “Pig.”
Lin Jung-p’ing looked angry. He felt an ambiguous kind of anger which caused the hand holding the pipe to shake slightly. It was not the kind of imperious, all-out, self-indulgent anger that he would direct toward his wife and children at home. An American boss who took him as his buddy and referred to him with intimacy as “old boy”; his own sky-rocketing future; the millions of U.S. dollars he was handling; his devising of two financial report forms strongly recommended by the Pacific headquarters and in use by all the branch Malamud companies in the Pacific-Asian area; the new Western-style house which sat on 2,304 square feet of land in a high-class suburb—what a rose-colored universe it was. And sitting before him now was Liu Hsiao-ling, his secret mistress for the past two years, who had just been insulted. Despite his sense of shame and menace to his injured male ego, however, his anger was rapidly evaporating on its own, like a trickle in the desert which vanished helplessly in the unrelenting sands. Nevertheless, he began to feel real resentment, the kind of resentment brought about by shame.
“I see,” he knitted his thin brows.
She noticed that his face was twisted—by anger, cowardice, and forced arrogance. I’ve never seen another man who looks so ugly when he’s angry, she thought to herself, feeling sorry for him. Still, she said, “See? You don’t even mean to argue with him! Women are so easy to push around.”
“Hsiao Liu,”4 he said, pleading with her in Chinese.
She stared at him. His face was all apology. A look of tormented tenderness spread over his thirty-eight-year-old face. She suddenly felt like crying, though not because of sadness.
“Hsiao Liu, can you go wait for me in Little Atami5 when you get off work?”
She shook her head violently, warm tears trickling down her cheeks.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” he said gently.
She remained silent.
“Actually, I’ve known all this month that something is on your mind,” he said. “Is it—Chan I-hung?”
She looked at him, surprised. So he knew? But she never expected his reaction to be so calm, even though there was a touch of melancholy to the calm. Indeed, a moment ago she had gone straight to Chan I-hung’s office, as soon as she left the office of the insulting Mr. Morgenthau. But Chan I-hung had gone to the Taxation Bureau and was not back yet. Now, in the face of this man with whom she had formed a surreptitious, intimate tie for two years, she was aware that a story was drawing to an end.
He laughed a lonely laugh.
We need to talk about it, she thought, sighing. She folded his handkerchief into a neat square and put it back on his desk. “Try to come early,” she remarked, and walked lightly out of his office. He made a phone call home: “I’m going with the boss on an unexpected trip to the south.” There were no complaints from his wife. He hung up.
He was sweating a little. The mountain road in the district was narrow and zigzagging. It occurred to him that every time he took Liu Hsiao-ling to Little Atami she would praise his good driving skill when they were on this very circuitous stretch of mountain road. Inside the car, she would giggle while being thrown to the left and the right. He would be intent on his driving, biting onto his pipe and remaining perfectly silent. Tonight, lights swayed between shadowy pines in the hilly spa district; occasionally there flowed into his car some Japanese tunes, crudely sung by jolly Japanese tourists.
Liu Hsiao-ling watched his car entering the parking lot from the balcony of Little Atami. The dog belonging to Little Atami was barking, not in an unfriendly way, though. A middle-aged obasan6 shouted to quiet the dog. “Toshi, hey, Toshi,” she chided her darling dog in a way very Japanese, then went on to express her welcome. “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” the obasan said. Liu Hsiao-ling heard Lin Jung-p’ing ask for a room, and watched him walk toward the balcony steps. She turned around to add some more beer to her glass, then looked up quietly at the lights of Taipei in the distance.
He sat down beside her. She pushed a glass of beer toward him. He held the glass, quietly watching the bubbles collapse. The moon was high now. She stuck a Dunhill in her mouth that perhaps had been in her bag three days. He lighted it for her. The flame from the gas lighter shone on her tender, fleshy lips. He began to drink his beer slowly.
“Maybe I can find another job for you,” he finally began. “Next week when I go to the Jaycee meeting, I’ll ask if there’s some suitable job.”
The obasan brought along a plate of fried peanuts, a bottle of chilled beer, and another glass. Liu Hsiao-ling said hello to her in a friendly way, then suddenly added, “Oh, yes, obasan, we’re not going to need a room for tonight.” She laughed, looking cheerful, and remarked to Lin Jungp’ing, “We’ve got to attend to some other things still, don’t we, J.P.?”
He hesitated a little, then said, “Please prepare the supper for us, something simple and not greasy.” He smiled wearily, “We’re leaving right after supper.”
A taxi hurtled in from the side gate of Little Atami and came to a screeching stop right in front of the balcony. Two Japanese, obviously drunk, came out of the car with two prostitutes, who were as much pushing them as holding them up. The obasan scurried down from the balcony, all smiles. The dog was barking. “Toshi,” the obasan scolded.
Both of them looked quietly at the Japanese below the balcony.
“As soon as a man leaves his hometown, he becomes as if perfectly free,” he commented. The year he was promoted to financial manager and went to Tokyo for the training at the Malamud-Pacific Division had certainly been the best time of his life.
“Actually, you don’t have to trouble yourself trying to find a job for me,” she said.
“Actually, you don’t need to find a job for me,” she said, adding beer for herself and for Lin Jung-p’ing. She poured the beer slowly, making sure the bubbles did not overflow. “I’m going abroad soon,” she said.
He knew that one of her aunts lived in America. She used to say, “She’s the only one in this world who really loves me.” Last winter when he was promoted to financial manager, he told her that it was out of the question for him to get a divorce. She raised hell day after day. Then, finally, she gave up. It was then that she talked about going to live with her aunt.
He was speechless.
She looked at the distant lights of Taipei district that were glowing even more prominently in the thickening darkness of the night. The bridge that connected this area with the city was transformed into a straight line linked by equidistant lights.
His thoughts were in tumult. He took his pipe out of his jacket pocket and put tobacco in it carefully. He could hear the rowdy songs of the Japanese engaged in drinking downstairs. He lighted his pipe, until it looked like a tiny lake of fire. In no time, the fragrance of the tobacco began to permeate the dark room.
“J.P.,” she asked cheerfully, “You’ve changed the brand of your tobacco?”
He was surprised at her cheerfulness. In the past, every time she mentioned going abroad she would shed tears, tears that made him feel guilty and impatient.
“Given to me by a friend,” he said with a smile. A maid brought in the supper, some Taiwanese-style food.
Liu Hsiao-ling finished a bowl of congee in no time. He had somehow lost his appetite.
“J.P.,” she said, “You’ve never really loved me.”
She attacked a dish of picked cucumber with gusto.
“But you’re not to blame,” she continued. “I myself never believed that I couldn’t do without you.”
“Hsiao Liu, please,” he implored.
“You should eat a little,” she said. She ladled congee into a bowl for him. “Recently I’ve often cried and thrown tantrums,” she laughed, with a lonely echo in her voice. “It was nice of you to be so patient.”
“Hsiao Liu,” he said. “We’ve been together so long now. You know my feelings very well. Besides, I’m the one to blame.”
She just laughed calmly. Suddenly the sound of water was heard, dripping from a height down onto the ground. As they looked downward into the darkness beneath the balcony, they saw a Japanese urinating in the flickering light from a Japanese-style stone lantern in a small garden. She quickly turned her face away. He smoked his pipe, remarking with a smile, “Japanese—you know, ‘politeness, yes; propriety, no.”
She looked at him, uninterested, but asked nevertheless, “ ‘Politeness, yes; propriety, no’?”
“Polite talk, bowing, and bending the body. But also pissing everywhere, and making a racket when they drink. ‘Propriety,’ I think, means ‘a system of proper conduct.”
“J.P., when it comes to love,” she said seriously, “it’s not a matter of who owes it to whom, or who is to blame or not to blame. At least that was what Chan I-hung told me.”
It occurred to her immediately that she had made a slip of the tongue. She held her beer glass with both hands, turning the glass in her hands.
“In the past you said that society, your children, your relatives—but one thing you never mentioned: your new position in the company—” she laughed with a sarcasm that she believed wouldn’t hurt, “you said all these made it impossible to divorce your wife in order to marry me. Actually you knew very well they weren’t the reasons.”
“I don’t mean to deny it,” he said in agony. “But the matters of feelings aren’t simple. You know very well.”
“J.P., I’m not arguing with you,” She looked at his sad face. “Maybe we can put it this way: You love me in your own way—to the extent that it doesn’t break up your family or force you to marry me—and you find in me a receiver of your feelings, but you do not monopolize me. But what about me? What am I supposed to do? Well, it is true that you have said that any time I find someone I can go to, you won’t stand in my way.”
Silent, he stared at the looming shadows of the trees and, beyond them, hundreds of thousands of lights in the distance. The traffic of cars on the bridge had noticeably decreased. The equidistant lights that signaled the bridge suddenly appeared lonely.
“So you’re leaving.” Finally he sighed. “Is it Chan I-hung?”
She fell silent this time.
Chan was a young man who had scarcely been in the company one year. He was said to be very capable. He became the head of the newly formed subdepartment of capital accounting in no time. He had a shock of long hair, which was usually unkempt. His shoulders were extraordinarily broad. A man of few words, he chain-smoked when working. Gradually, Liu Hsiao-ling came to recognize that he was uncouth, arrogant, and full of cynicism and rebellion for no good reason. Once, after typing a long letter, she suddenly turned her head and caught him lifting his head to loosen his necktie and smoking a cigarette that he had just lit. He was attending to business papers with his chin propped up in one hand, as if lost in deep, troubled thought. His ungroomed, angry face touched with savagery, his extraordinarily broad shoulders, his open collar and loosened necktie—all contributed to an ineffable appeal that immediately and unaccountably made her blush in the fraction of the second when she looked around. At that time she was having daily quarrels with J. P. She was feeling so bad that she was on the brink of being destructive, or self-destructive. To alleviate the intense feeling of the pain of disappointment with a new kind of intense feeling, she debased herself by enhancing the alluring charm that a mature young woman has and seduced Chan easily. Since she had never anticipated it, it was more or less to her own surprise that she found herself desperately in love with this unruly and moody young man.
“None can judge love,” she said. “In every unhappy love, there is always one party who insists that he has been cheated and made a plaything of by another party.”
“James is a good young man,” he sounded heavyhearted. “Why are you taking the trouble to become an exile in America then?”
“Anyone who is in love—me included—expects the other party to return an equal amount of love,” she remarked. “It never occurred to me it could be so unfair.”
He recalled those days. During the day he was the boss and she was his secretary. As soon as office hours were over, she would get him to some secret place and quarrels, tears, shouting matches, and threats would begin. Finally the day arrived when she said, “J.P., I’ve come to terms with myself, but let me take time leaving.” “Nobody wants you to leave, Hsiao Liu. Only I’ve no right to ask you to stick with me,” he said. Since then they might as well have been separated, even though they were still together.
She’s really leaving now, he thought, puffing on his pipe. Looking straight at her face, which appeared a little weary in the moonlight, he suddenly had an impulse to say, “In matters of love, women are by far more honest and courageous than men.” But he refrained from uttering it. Instead, he stammered, “James is very capable—has promise. You—well, I can recommend you for a better job. It would be easier for you to get on with him.”
She said nothing, combing her hair nervously with her hand. She would like to thank him for his consideration, but it would be too much like standing on ceremony. She looked at the congee that he had not touched—it must be cold by now—and remarked from reflex, “You should eat a bit, J.P.”
She should not have said that, she realized. She heard her own quivery voice, which made the tears that she had tried so hard to suppress flow unchecked over her face.
“What’s the matter, Hsiao Liu?” He was disconcerted.
She began to sob.
Just last night Chan I-hung roared to her, “Don’t you cling to me. I’m not a trash can, getting what other people throw away!”
“James . . .”
“I’m not any fucking ‘James. I’m Chan I-hung!”
“I never dared expect you to marry me. You just go ahead and treat me as a bad woman. I’ll give birth to the child on my own and raise it by myself. I’ll go far away from you.”
She cried. She was past being a dreamy girl, and she felt pathos when she discovered herself to be incurably in love with Chan. Why was it that she could love, wanted to love, but could only expect another helpless separation?
“What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” Lin Jung-p’ing asked sadly. He took her into his arms, patted her softly, wiped away her tears with his handkerchief, and kissed her flowing hair time and again. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” he asked.
He embraced her. He genuinely felt how much he was in love with this woman. His status, his career, his selfishness had made him hypocritical and turned him into a weakling. The moon was leaning westward. The entire spa district fell into a deep sleep following exhausting sensual indulgence.
She stopped crying, and returned the handkerchief to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “We should leave now.”
“What’s the matter with you?” he sounded lonely.
“Nothing. Just felt like crying.” She smiled apologetically.
As they stepped down from the balcony they saw Little Atami’s famous display at the counter: a stuffed Japanese pheasant perched on a delicate, sinuous branch, its beautiful tail almost six meters long emitting a magnificent glitter, even under the fluorescent light.
The clerk at the counter looked sleepy. While Lin Jung-p’ing was paying the bill, Liu Hsiao-ling stood beside the tiny Japanese-style garden and watched the cloudy evening sky.
“Come back soon please,” the clerk spoke in his stiff Japanese, watching their car glide away into the darkness.
II. THE WARM, SUPPLE BREASTS
Liu Hsiao-ling put the beer back in the refrigerator. It was a sultry evening. The chilled beer would cheer him up, she thought. The food on the table was getting cold. She took a look at the tiny electric clock on the wall. He was a half hour late. She was a little worried, but not angry. She turned on the television and sat down on the couch, whose cover had just been replaced. It seemed he was always careless about being on time for their dates, she thought, and once he even forgot about the date altogether. Alone, she laughed soundlessly to herself.
The TV program she randomly tuned to was showing a story about a young girl enamored with her married, middle-aged boss. A middle-aged man greedily lit a cigarette in a manager’s office, took a deep drag, reclined in a chair, and slowly exhaled the white smoke. Beyond the executive office door some clerks were deep in work; but a female clerk was gazing at the man in the executive office. A sudden close-up showed the face of a dreamy, wide-eyed girl. Some soft music flowed in from afar. The girl’s voice was heard in an aside:
If only I could rest my hand on his melancholy, weary brow to let him know
that there is a woman in this world who loves him so much, so much . . .
Liu Hsiao-ling burst into cackling laughter. She lit a cigarette, and thought that Chan I-hung no doubt would say, “Those stupid soap operas.” The executive on the television seemed somewhat cultured and indecisive. Where would you find a man like him in the real world of business? J. P. wasn’t one, she thought.
Late that night when she was with him in his car on the way back to Taipei from Little Atami, J. P. remarked, “I realize now. Actually you should have told me earlier.”
She did not say anything. The car turned onto the bridge that they had looked at from afar some time ago. It’s just as well that he knows it, she thought. Everything seems to have been planned on an intangible timetable: when the time arrives, things just happen.
“Actually you should have told me earlier,” he said. “Now I realize Chan I-hung should not know about our affair.”
She was not sure whether his last sentence was a query or a judgment. She looked at the way he was intent on driving. His face was not without a touch of sadness, but not the kind of sadness that sought other people’s pity. She leaned against his right shoulder softly.
“Things can always be arranged,” he said. Mechanically, he brought the car to a stop at a red light. He patted her head tenderly, saying, “Maybe I’ll have a talk with him at some right time . . .”
“No!” Liu Hsiao-ling abruptly straightened up. “I’ve made up my mind to go to the United States,” she said. “Besides, it’s my business, it’s not a business decision for you to have the last say.”
Then she laughed, casually, but as if at a loss.
Actually she should have felt offended then, she thought, now sitting in her living room—offended that he treated her as an object to be “arranged.” But she could not take offense at the seriousness with which he gave her away to Chan I-hung. It had been two years now, and she knew how selfish in matters of love a man of more passionate nature than he could be. So when he said “Things can always be arranged,” what she felt was mostly despondence, a mixture of appreciation and sympathy of sorts.
The telephone on the table beside her rang. She picked up the phone as a robber would seize his loot. It was Chan I-hung.
“Hello, what happened to you?” he asked.
She was gasping rapidly. She ground out the remainder of her cigarette in the ashtray.
“Your call startled—startled me so much,” she giggled.
“I don’t think your heart is quite right. You should go see a doctor.”
She could hear the street noise behind him.
“Where are you? If you don’t come soon,” she said, “the food will get cold.”
He was laughing on the other end. He said that after leaving the office, he had gone back to the place he rented and was so tired that he fell asleep. “I’ve just taken a bath. I’m hungry,” he said.
She hung up the phone and took two dishes to the kitchen to warm up. She felt an incurable rippling sweetness in her heart. She felt like singing something, but a teardrop imperceptibly glided down her cheek. “Oh, James, you rascal,” she muttered to herself, lighting the stove and turning on the vent, “why do you keep me waiting and waiting?”
She thought of her father, a one-time politician who was active in Northern China in the thirties. After he came to Taiwan he suddenly became indifferent to politics—he was even indifferent to all the matters of his own family. The year Hsiao-ling was born he had used up all the money he had brought with him from the old country. After waiting out the month’s confinement following childbirth, Liu Hsiao-ling’s mother had had her hair permed, and went forth to be the breadwinner. As the fourth wife to a man thirty years her senior, she soon showed extraordinary ability in public relations and business. Taking advantage of her link to former Bureau Director Liu, she opened a fashion store, a trading company, and a restaurant. As her businesses became more and more prosperous, she—scarcely over thirty years of age—became more and more glamorous. According to Amah Chou, who came with her from the old country, Liu Hsiao-ling’s step-brothers and -sisters came to have reasonably good food and clothing only after that. As Liu Hsiao-ling was her mother’s only child, it went without saying that she was well taken care of.
But the father kept to mandarin gowns all year round—a quilted one for winter and spring and an unquilted one for summer and autumn. He could not be bothered by anything. Sometimes he read Taoist works, such as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Sometimes he did some calligraphy, and sometimes he practiced shadowboxing, or wrote on the relationship between The Book of Changes and acupuncture to be published in the t’ung-hsiang-hui7 newsletter. At first her mother would plead with him to dress better, and to socialize on some occasions. “Ai, Pao-lien,” he would laugh. “Since I returned from studying military science in Japan in my twenties, what things haven’t I had a hand in, and what things haven’t I seen!” So he kept to his two gowns and remained unconcerned about anything.
When Liu Hsiao-ling was old enough to understand things, her mother’s businesses had become more prosperous, and her father appeared more and more like a shabby, hanger-on member of the family. Her mother started referring to him as a “dirty old codger,” and bossing him around, even before her daughter’s eyes. Her mother stayed out overnight more and more, frequently socializing or playing mahjong. The rumor that she had another man finally reached the family after having gone full circuit outside. As her step-brothers and -sisters moved out one by one, either boarding in or commuting to school, Liu Hsiao-ling began to revolt against her mother, the potent authority in the family.
In Liu Hsiao-ling’s sophomore year in high school, her father fell ill. Her mother sent him to one of the best hospitals, and once every two weeks would go to the hospital to settle the bills for medical treatment and a special nurse, without, however, bothering to stick her nose into the sickroom. Liu Hsiao-ling was a quiet young girl then. Every day she would keep her father company, although he spent more time sleeping than being awake. One night when she went home, she saw in their living room a gorgeously decorated Christmas tree, with a big pile of gifts under it.
“Set up for you by your mother,” Amah Chou said, beaming.
She stood in the living room without saying a word. Then, still without saying a word, she took down all the decorations from the tree and moved them, and the gifts under the tree, to the middle of the yard. She struck a match and lit up all the colorful boxes. The amah stood by, sobbing quietly. The light of the fire made her face all red. It was a cold winter night. Liu Hsiao-ling suddenly felt exhausted. She did not return to the hospital to keep her father company that night. And it was during that night that he passed away.
She dished out the food she had just heated onto a big plate, wiping its edges clean. She had never seen her father as a young and ferocious man, who, in the words of Amah Chou, “once executed a dozen people without blinking an eye.” The father she knew was a sloppy, timid old man, who allowed himself to be ridiculed, cursed, and betrayed by his wife.
The bell was ringing. She turned off the stove and rushed to the door. As soon as the door was opened, she was overwhelmed by the odor of liquor. She noticed Chan I-hung’s face, which was purplish from drinking. She backed away silently to let him in.
He stared at her with sodden eyes, smirking all the while.
“Didn’t you say you had been sleeping?” she asked, vexed.
He plumped himself down on a sofa. He was wearing blue jeans of quality material; his dark yellow shirt was a little dirty. He seized the cigarette case on the tea table with one hand, drew a cigarette out with his fleshy lips, lit it, and puffed nonstop. The cigarette bobbed up and down between his lips.
“Didn’t you say you were coming over to have dinner?” Her back was leaning against the living room door. She sounded hurt.
“I just drank. I haven’t eaten yet,” he seemed to be consoling her. “I invited Old Chang to have a drink.”
“Yes, Old Chang, the security guard.” He stood up and made for the dining table, casually picking up a slice of meat and stuffing it into his mouth.
“Oh, I see,” she said. “I’m going to heat up a couple of dishes.”
She turned cheerful. Her place was an apartment of seven hundred and twenty square feet: a bedroom, a small living room adjacent to a small dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, one next to the other, compact and complete. While she was heating the food, she asked, “Old Chang—what about Old Chang?”
“Damn,” he cursed, smoking slowly while taking off his shoes and socks.
Old Chang was the gate guard for their company. Yesterday morning the personnel office posted an announcement saying that Old Chang had been fired because he used the company’s security room to indulge in drinking and whoring late at night.
“Damn, Old Chang just had bad luck,” Chan I-hung said. “Otherwise, how come the foreign devils happened to catch something done late at night?”
He went to the dining room, opened the refrigerator door, and poured himself a glass of ice water. He insisted that the firing wouldn’t have happened if Manager Ko of the personnel office had put in a word.
“Besides, the woman wasn’t a whore at all. She’s Old Chang’s girl friend. She works in a Japanese factory in the export processing zone in T’ao-yüan,” he said. “As for drinking, everybody knows he drinks.”
“You know what I mean, eh?” While he was drinking water, he talked to the television, mocking Manager Ko’s way of speaking. Manager Ko was fond of speaking in English, and he spoke well. Only he interrupted a sentence with “You know what I mean, eh?” several times; it got on one’s nerves. “You know what I mean, dont you, eh?” Chan I-hung waved his left hand, continuing, “You know—know shit. Son of a bitch . . .” Liu Hsiao-ling, heating the food, could not keep from tittering.
The door bell rang again. “You know what . . .” Chan I-hung was still mocking Manager Ko as he went to answer the door. A thin little boy was delivering a cake.
“A birthday cake?” He was puzzled.
Liu Hsiao-ling came rushing in from the kitchen, thanked the thin little boy, and gave him ten dollars extra for a tip. The little boy left happily. Chan I-hung closed the door, looking at her, still unable to figure it out.
“It’s your birthday. Today,” she said, turning aside her head.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh—oh.”
His usual mocking expression was instantly replaced by a deeply thoughtful one.
“Oh—oh,” he said again.
Her eyes turned slightly moist. Never saw such an individual so negligent about himself, she thought.
“I knew you invited me over to have dinner, but I had no idea it was my birthday dinner.”
She laughed. “I’m hungry,” she said. She glowed in the light. She wiped the sweat from her face with a napkin. She wore snow-white pants, and her body was uncommonly seductive. She clasped his waist with both hands and, pushing him along, walked toward the dining table. He had a firm, smooth waist. Of all parts of his body, his waist spoke best of his youth. J. P.’s waist had long ago softened and sagged.
They began to eat. The table was covered with Taiwanese dishes he didn’t know how she had learned to cook: a small plate of salted oysters, a small pot of pork hock noodles, a plate of fried pork chunks, half a steamed chicken, and others. “Are they like the real thing?” she asked in the midst of eating. None of the dishes were authentic Taiwanese cuisine except for the chicken. All the same, he kept saying, “H’m, h’m, not bad,” and kept at the beer. The balcony had become completely dark. Two potted pomegranate trees stood motionlessly in the light filtering out from the room.
This was his twenty-eighth birthday. And for the first time, quite to his surprise, someone had taken the trouble to remember it, and thoughtfully prepared a birthday dinner for him as well. His apparent arrogance and cynicism were dissolving. He remarked suddenly, “Hey, this is the first time anyone ever celebrated my birthday.”
She put down her chopsticks in the process of picking up some food, and looked at him. He started to talk.
Thanks to a comfortable family background, his father was able to have a complete high school education under the Japanese rule. The third year after his father graduated from high school, Taiwan was returned to China. Chan I-hung’s grandfather died the same year. “The property Grandpa left was not much at that time—a pharmacy and a fabric store on the main street, and less than one hectare of land in the country,” he confided leisurely. In the political upheaval the next year, his father was wrongfully implicated and almost lost his life. After that, his father, that strong young man, suddenly turned to alcohol and sensual indulgence. “Grandma was very worried, and she presently married him off,” he smiled. After his marriage his father managed to pull himself together again, but he soon went bankrupt because of the unstable financial situation. “Sometime after that, I was born, and then my brother and my sister,” he remarked thoughtfully. “Father managed to get a job as an art teacher in a grade school by asking favors from friends.” Life was hard, understandably. “When it came to celebrating a kid’s birthday, we just didn’t have the extra money for it. Besides, it just wasn’t the thing to do in the country,” he said.
She was listening attentively, not because there was anything extraordinary in his story, but because he was describing a childhood so unfamiliar to her. Through his reminiscences, she entered into memories caught in the mildewed yellow tint of old photographs. She poured him a glass of beer, thinking of that cold Christmas night. She thought of the colorful boxes of gifts going up in flame, of her father, who had died a lonely death.
He drank the beer silently. He was thinking of the letter from his father which he had received today after work. As usual, his father talked in the letter about having received the money Chan I-hung had sent, and about how he often used “the older brother in charge of big responsibilities in an American company” as an example to inspire the other children. What was unusual was that for the first time his father wrote: “I have been a loser all my life . . . I hope you will work in order to stand out.”
“When one gets old and comes to the conclusion that he is a failure, it must be a painful feeling.” He thought of his father at home, who was thin, though quite healthy, whose eyes were as deep-set as his own, and who was extraordinarily fast in his talk. Since his childhood he had been used to hearing his father complain in his rapid manner about the school principal, the dean of students, the financial instability that caused his bankruptcy about thirty years ago, politics, weather, “those mainlanders,” and so on.
“Over the years I grew up quietly in the midst of poverty and discontent,” he went on, his small, fully fleshed-out face turning increasingly pale from too much drink. “The poverty of my family and the failure of my father were almost like a rope or a whip that compelled me to ‘study hard to move up.’ So, considering the situation of my family and the failure of my father, I shouldn’t have had the chance to study at all, but I did manage to get an education, from one level up to another. I finished college, and then got a master’s degree.” His face showed anger. “But nobody ever asked me what I wanted for myself, what I really wanted to do . . .” He pounded his breast.
“You’ve drunk a lot,” she said with tenderness.
“‘Son, you see, we’ve sacrificed ourselves so you can get ahead. You see, you’re to move ahead of people,” he mimicked his father. “‘It’s all right to sacrifice ourselves, son, but you must go where we’ve tried to go but failed to reach in our lifetime.’ That’s them for you,” he added in agitation, first waving his hands, then raising his eyebrows. Then he burst into laughter.
“You’ve drunk a lot,” she said. “You must have already had a lot to drink with Old Chang.”
She dragged him into the living room, and made him sit in the rocking chair next to the television set.
“O.K. I worked my head off studying,” he said excitedly, “worked my head off, damn it. I couldn’t tell my old man: ‘Why do you want to enslave me with your own failure? Why?’” He shook his fist in the air, which caused the rocker to swing slightly. “Because I saw clearly that the taste of failure was hard to stomach, damn it! Life in my family was grim and stifling. Mother went about her work like a machine—a shoddy, inefficient machine: housekeeping for others, doing laundry, baby-sitting. Father complained and cursed all day long.”
She fetched an iced towel and wiped away the beads of sweat on his brow and neck. When she unbuttoned his shirt and put the towel on his thin, broad breast, he started giggling.
“Icy cold,” he said, pushing her away. “Well, since there was no way out, it was just as well that I worked my head off studying.” His high-strung voice suddenly relaxed. He covered his brow with both hands, lightly rubbing the corners of his eyes close to the bridge of his nose. “Just imagine, I used to sleep only three or four hours a day in those years. A teenager, with poor nutrition—I wonder why studying like that for several years didn’t kill me.”
He began to rock the chair slightly. She stayed there, quietly paring a chilled pear for him. She stared at him. This was the first time she had ever seen a man reveal his bruises. Not until now had she seen the inner mind of a man who was ordinarily rude, arrogant, and unruly. Her heart was aching.
“Have a pear,” she said, giving him the pared, juicy pear. “It’ll help you sober up.”
He bit into the pear woodenly, the juice trickling down from the corner of his mouth. She went over to wipe his mouth. Her aching heart felt a surge of intense warmth as she wiped his face. Under the lamplight in front of the television, which was still tuned to some program, a woman was attending to—sadly attending to—the bruises of a man, soothing the hurt, dividing it up to be shared by both. This was the very happiness Liu Hsiao-ling had yearned for! She fell into a reverie. She thought of her broken marriage. Just to hurt her mother, upon graduation from college she had married a bachelor ten years her senior who worked in a shipping company. The break-up of the marriage was due less to his physical impotence than to the eccentricities resulting from that impotence. After the divorce she had come to Malamud, and had led a lonely life since, wandering from one man to another.
He was still woodenly eating his pear, when suddenly he asked, “Hey, is there wine? I don’t want beer.”
“No,” she said. “Besides, you shouldn’t drink any more.” She walked to the television set to change the channel. “Watch some TV,” she said.
But he staggered out to get a bottle of Twin-Deer and a wine glass from the cupboard, and then staggered back to the rocking chair.
“Chan I-hung!” She was worried and went over to wrest the bottle away. As he raised his elbows to protect the bottle in his hands, his left arm touched her braless breast, soft, yet extravagantly ample. His senses, even though somewhat dulled by the alcohol, experienced a profound shock in that fraction of a second. He looked her straight in the face, silently, with the stare of a drunk.
“You’ve drunk too much,” she complained, “too much.”
He just stared at her, without a word, though there was no eagerness of desire in the stare.
“Give me the bottle, like a good boy,” she said. “Go take a bath. Let’s go to bed early,” she coaxed him with provocative affectation.
He silently drank down the glass of wine in his hand. He thought of her extravagantly ample breasts. Slowly and carefully he poured another glass of wine, and stammered, “Hey, you said you’re pregnant. Is that true?”
“Give me the bottle!” she said.
“Is that true?” he asked.
“Whether I’m pregnant or not—what does it have to do with you?” she said with a smile. She knew it was simply out of the question to try to take the bottle away from him. She turned around to watch the television. The screen was showing a Taiwanese-language soap opera with all its ruckus.
Chan I-hung was tittering all to himself.
She got up to clear the table, humming a popular song.
“Don’t go away,” he turned to fetch the cigarettes from the tea table, and struck a match with his slightly trembling hands.
“I’m just clearing the table,” she explained as she did this. “I might just as well put off doing the dishes until tomorrow.”
He watched the television silently, puffing on his cigarette. The alcohol began to make him lose heart.
“Whether you’re pregnant or not—what does it have to do with me, erh?” he seemed to be saying to himself.
“What?” she asked from the kitchen. The dishes made a screeching sound as she placed them in the sink. He said nothing, watching the television blankly.
She came out of the kitchen, drying her hands, and sat down beside him.
“What?” she repeated her question, looking at his pale, purplish, suddenly tired face. “Let me turn on the water for you to take a bath.”
Silently, slowly, he drank the wine, watching the television.
“Hey,” he said, “what do you think of Taiwanese men?”
The kind of question a drunk man asks, she thought. Still, she answered in all earnest, “There’s one Taiwanese man in my heart.” She looked at his profile, which always seemed a little lonesome, a little vexed. “He’s most manly, a real man. I love him.” She felt unaccountably sad. “But he doesn’t love me. No, he doesn’t,” she repeated, “No, he doesn’t, he doesn’t.”
“Look at those Taiwanese,” he stared at the screen. “Look at those Taiwanese. Either crazy or stupid, every one of them.”
Absently, she looked at the Taiwanese-language slapstick series, which was a fracas and in bad taste.
“If a mainlander—” he said, “a mainlander has learned to know the Taiwanese from this kind of drama series since childhood—what image of the Taiwanese will he have?”
She listened attentively, almost forgetting that it was a drunk’s gibberish.
“Of course,” he said, “people who write this kind of series are themselves Taiwanese.” He laughed sadly.
“Do you want a bath?” she said. “Let me go turn on the water.”
He remained silent a while, then suddenly said, “Did you say it’s none of my business whether you’re pregnant or not?”
She cackled. “What’s the matter?” She was beaming.
“Of course it’s none of my business whether you’re pregnant or not,” he said.
“Let me go turn on the water for you,” she said tenderly.
His voice was high and quivery. She saw an ugly, horrible face, distorted by rage and excessive drink. Her heart was sinking rapidly.
“Might just as well have it out,” he shouted. “Do you—do you think I don’t know what’s going on between you and J. P.? Ha!”
Her arms and legs began to feel cold. The storm came up with unprecedented abruptness. He was a jealous man, violently jealous. Time and again they had engaged in vehement arguments over things from her past which had come to his knowledge. She was surprised, however, that he had found out about her relation with J. P.
“Of course it’s none of my business whether you’re pregnant or not.” His face was as ashen as a piece of old paper. He shouted madly, “Can’t you tighten up the belt of your pants a little?”
His words were like a sharp knife suddenly piercing her breast. Her face blushed from shame and fury. Her tears fell like a torrent.
“You deceive me so,” he said.
Suddenly he turned around, and slapped her squarely in the face. As he swung his hand at her for the second time, she sprang up by reflex, holding the sharp fruit knife in her hand.
He also stood up from the rocking chair. He saw the woman who used to take his scolding, even his beatings, without a murmur now standing before him grimly with a sharp knife in her hand. His addled head could not make out the meaning of the scene at the moment. He gasped, “You take—me—to be—the kind of—crazy—stupid guy—on television?”
His voice had obviously lost its edge. He noticed that the woman’s left cheek was swollen and showed the clear imprint of his hand. She backed down a couple of steps, holding the fruit knife tightly, saying, “Don’t be rough on me anymore. I’m with child.” Her voice was as dignified as her expression.
“Chan I-hung, listen well: Whether you believe it or not, I’m carrying your child. But you don’t have to worry,” she swallowed, and continued clearly, “I—Liu Hsiao-ling—will never force myself on you or ask you to marry me. As I said, I’ll give birth to the child on my own and bring it up by myself. Both the child and I will go far away from you.”
He stood woodenly. His drunkenness was for the most part gone. “I’m carrying you child”—her words reverberated in a spot in his brain that had just sobered up. He had witnessed the most primitive courage of a mother. Gradually, tears were drying on her cheeks, cheeks swollen from his slap. Still, she was holding tight to her sharp knife.
“I would never casually allow just any blood and flesh to grow in me,” she said, unconsciously combing her hair with her hand. “I’m carrying this one because—” her voice was a little quivery, “because—I love you.”
Instantly her eyes went moist. But she suppressed her emotion as if out of alarm, blinking her eyes hard, holding the knife tightly. She struggled silently with her feelings. A long while later, she said, “Go. Take a bath.”
He remained standing a while, deep in thought. Then, he put on his clothes and picked up his overcoat from the sofa.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m leaving,” he said.
She lowered her head, without a word, and put down the fruit knife on the tea table. He happened to see her little finger bleeding, obviously injured from holding the cutting edge of the knife so tightly.
“Go then.” She slouched down on the sofa. Blood dripped down on the cuffs of her snow-white pants, making dark red spots.
He hesitated, but the little bit of fragile male pride that was still left compelled him to make for the door. Suddenly she grasped his leather belt.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Don’t go,” she said pitiably. Her tears came down like rain water. She began to sob, “I won’t tie you down.” She went on, still sobbing, “If you have to go, go tomorrow morning. You’re—drunk—so drunk. Too dangerous—to ride a motorcycle . . .”
She finally let herself go; her cry was so pitiful.
He turned around, embracing her tightly.
“Hsiao Liu!” he said under his breath. “You injured your hand. You—do you know that?”
She cried so much her body shook. He felt her braless breasts, soft, and conspicuously more ample than usual, heaving rapidly in his embrace. Her solemn announcement “I’m carrying your child” occupied all his thoughts.
“Don t cry.” He patted the back of her neck lightly. “You’ve injured your hand.”
Two lines of warm tears had been running down his purplish, sodden face, unnoticed.
III. THE DESERT MUSEUM
After one week’s delay, Mr. Solon O. Bowdell, Director of Finance of the Pacific Division of the Malamud International Company, finally arrived at the Taiwan Malamud Electronic Company with two other people. The entire financial department, from Morgenthau and Lin Jung-p’ing on down, was kept nervous and busy for four days. Early in the morning of the fifth day, S.O.B. (Mr. Solon O. Bowdell) took the flight for Tokyo, leaving Mr. Dasman in Taiwan to continue with the financial situation of the Taiwan Malamud. Once again Lin Jung-p’ing’s competence had received very high praise. His Chinese way of avoiding taking the full credit—his knack for appropriately attributing part of the credit to Mr. Morgenthau—pleased the latter tremendously.
The four hectic days were over. Mr. Dasman, the financial auditor left behind, was young, smart, and easygoing. He was very friendly with everyone at Taiwan Malamud. Since Mr. Dasman’s audit started on the fifth day, the financial department decided to get all the staff together to give him a banquet after work that day. It would double as a farewell party for Liu Hsiao-ling, who had decided to resign and leave for America early next month.
After work, Chan I-hung went back to his small apartment, changed into a new indigo-blue suit, and arrived at the restaurant where the banquet was to be. In the elevator to the third floor, he looked at himself in the big mirror and found himself to have thinned down a lot. In front of the elevator two lovers were nestling up to each other. It seemed to him that the depression he had had no time to deal with in the past few days was like this elevator: heavy, but as nimble in its ups and downs as a cat.
He entered the reserved banquet room on the third floor.
“Hi, Chan!” Morgenthau said jubilantly.
“Hi!” Chan I-hung said.
A waiter brought him a glass of juice mixed with a little mild liquor. He found the card on the table with “James Chan” on it, and sat down.
“James, you look tired,” Mr. Morgenthau said from the other side of the table, gesturing to him with the glass of juice in his hand. “J. P. said you did a good job the past few days.”
Chan I-hung gestured to Mr. Morgenthau with the glass in his hand. “Thank you. But it’s really nothing . . .” he said.
Just then, Lin Jung-p’ing and Mr. Dasman came in, escorting Liu Hsiao-ling and starting a reverberation of “Hi’s.” Lin Jung-p’ing’s light brown suit was obviously of top material and tailoring, but the print and color of his tie were insufferably vulgar. Mr. Dasman, who had not changed the heavy, checked Scottish tweed jacket he had been wearing all day long, looked casual, as usual. His beard had a golden sheen in the soft light.
Liu Hsiao-ling was wearing a wine-red evening gown that trailed to the floor. Her dense hair fell naturally in delicate billows onto her shoulders. The loose, silk dress by no means hid her svelte, firm body. Without a word, she smiled and nodded to everyone who greeted her.
Chan I-hung lowered his head, sipping the juice mixed with mild liquor. Since Liu Hsiao-ling had entered the dining room she had not once looked straight at him. But exactly because of this he knew that she had already spotted him. He should not keep to himself in front of such a crowd, he thought, but it was hard for him to casually engage someone in chitchat. Unconsciously he got out a cigarette, and was surprised when a struck lighter was put before his nose.
“Thanks,” he said, suddenly conscious of the lighter. “Thank you very much.”
“I’ve never seen you so affluently dressed,” J. P. said in English.
Chan I-hung laughed, thinking of J. P. s English: it was the first time he had heard “affluent” being used to describe one’s dress.
“Over the past few days,” J. P. said, “if it weren’t for you . . .”
“Really nothing,” he said, deciding to let himself go and look his superior straight in the eye. There was no trace of mockery on J. P.’s face, and none of the hypocrisy or arrogance of a high-ranking employee. He set to detailing for J. P. the problems that had come up when he had gone over the audit with Mr. Dasman that day. Lin Jung-p’ing listened carefully, asking one or two expert questions from time to time.
A waiter popped in to ask what kind of drink they wanted. It cut short Chan I-hung’s account.
“Whisky!” J. P. said.
Chan I-hung raised the glass of juice he was drinking and told the waiter, “I don’t want anything else. Just refill this for me later. Thank you.” J. P. stared at him incredulously. The atmosphere in the dining room had long since been quite lively. He noticed that a waiter had started to serve the first course of appetizers to Liu Hsiao-ling’s group. Mr. Morgenthau and Mr. Dasman were sitting on either side of Liu Hsiaoling, talking quite exuberantly, as if vying with each other in saying something to her. She just smiled, calmly and decorously. She was wearing an enameled bronze necklace that matched her belt. Chan I-hung saw on the bronze plate large, deep green lotus leaves overlapping each other in a delicately tasteful fashion. Beneath the lotus leaves were a pair of quails painted in blue and dotted with tiny white flowers.
On the night when they had celebrated his birthday in her apartment, they had decided to get married as soon as possible. The next evening he had accompanied her to buy the wine-red silk gown she wore this evening. They had also bought some jewelry at a jeweler’s: the enameled bronze necklace etched with archaic patterns, the bronze belt, and the bronze ring. Each had the same pattern of dark-green lotus leaves and quails. She then accompanied him to order his custom-made, indigo-blue suit.
But only a few days later they had gotten into a violent quarrel again. His jealousy over her past amounted to a kind of madness, a sickness. Their quarrels increased in intensity with each passing day. They exchanged the most vicious and obscene curses. Once, in his apartment, he had lost his mind in extreme fury, striking her and kicking her like a madman. She seized a cushion to protect her belly and curled herself into a ball. By the time he had come to himself, she had already staggered out. She did not cry, curse, or even moan.
She was gone. All that was left in the room was his regret and guilt. He smoked a cigarette. He paced around. He turned on the television and stared blankly at it. When he could no longer tolerate it and had gone out to take a taxi to her apartment, it was almost midnight. Finding her windows shut and the lights all out, he got out the key and opened the door. Not a soul was inside. As never before, he was seized by an uneasy feeling. At this moment she came back. The left part of her forehead had a bluish swelling. He strode toward her, but she nimbly succeeded in avoiding his embrace. The odor of medicine told him that she was just back from a hospital. In the kitchen she opened the refrigerator and poured herself a big glass of ice water. She leaned on the doorway, looking at him while sipping the water a little at a time. In her eyes there was no hatred, and undoubtedly also no love.
“Fortunately the child was all right, the doctor said.” She spoke as if to herself.
“Hsiao-ling,” he said.
Calmly, she divided up the water and gave half to him. He held her hand with the glass of water. “Sorry,” he stammered. She walked away, and sat down on the sofa.
“Please don’t say that,” she finally said.
They fell into silence. The sound of someone hawking stuffed dumplings wafted in from some distance away. She took out a thick envelope from a pocket, saying, “It’s come.”
He took it and looked it over. It was a stack of immigration forms sent by the American embassy.
“I’m leaving next month.”
He did not say anything, returning the forms to her immediately. He wanted to smoke but he did not have his cigarettes with him. Plunk! She threw the stack of forms onto the television set and sighed. “I’m with child, but you’ve got nothing . . .”
He turned and left. As he was about to go down the stairway he had a glimpse of her calmly closing the drapes over the French window; she didn’t bother to look at him. Vexed, he rushed all the way down the stairway and stepped out into the street. He walked rapidly down the redbrick pavement lined by maple trees. “Go, go away. The farther away the better!” he shouted inside himself. He did not notice that it was raining lightly until he was stopped at a railroad crossing by a long line of freight cars rumbling by.
“Sir, how would you like your steak done?” a waiter in a dark brown uniform asked.
“Medium well.” Chan I-hung grinned at the waiter. He noticed that the waiter’s collar was slightly yellowed from grimy sweat.
“Actually,” Lin Jung-p’ing, who was sitting beside him, said, “you can go abroad to get a master’s degree.”
“Forget it,” Chan I-hung smiled, shaking his head.
“The financial department is going to be expanding next year,” J. P. said.
“Forget it,” Chan I-hung said. This time he did not smile. He turned his head and toasted his colleague, Alice, on his left with a sip of wine.
“They have a new singer in The Wooden Gate Restaurant,” Alice said. “A skinny little thing, still a bit countrified. But when she sings Joan Baez’s songs, it sounds like the real thing.”
“Oh?” Chan I-hung said.
J. P. saw through Chan I-hung’s hostility clearly. So he knows! he thought. He had gone with Dasman to bring Liu Hsiao-ling here, but now he had to sit one table away from her. This was no more than a signal to indicate to Morganthau that “I have nothing going on with Linda.” He saw Morgenthau and Dasman sitting on each side of Liu Hsiao-ling, engaged in lively conversation. He was resentful of the two foreigners. No, he thought, shaking his head slightly, the most hateful one ought to be myself.
After the woman who used to be his mistress was insulted by his foreign boss, Lin Jung-p’ing had to pretend to his boss, almost by instinct, that he knew nothing of it, had to pretend that there was absolutely nothing between the woman and himself. A person like me . . . he thought.
“Manager Lin,” Davis Hsü said, “let me offer you a toast.”
Lin Jung-p’ing displayed a broad smile, raising his wine glass. Davis was a self-made young man. Ten years ago when he had graduated from commercial school he had gone to work for a U.S. military unit. The cutback in American servicemen had cost him his job. He was recommended to Lin Jung-p’ing by a Jaycee friend. Lin Jung-p’ing was immediately certain that even though Davis lacked impressive educational qualifications, he was able and could endure hard work. Without hesitation, he gave him important responsibilities, which had made him very grateful, and now Davis held his wine glass with both hands respectfully and said, “Let me offer you a toast.” His pale complexion was blushing from awe and shyness.
“What do you do to pass the time?” J. P. said, trying to be as amicable as possible.
“Ah, ah,” Davis stammered, “study English a little.”
Lin Jung-p’ing complimented his English out of politeness. At that moment there was some gleeful uproar at Liu Hsiao-ling’s end. Lin Jung-p’ing squinted his eyes, noticing that Mr. Morganthau’s face was flushed with drink.
“J.P., have you ever heard of anyone who likes deserts?” Mr. Morgenthau shouted from across a table. “Linda said she loved deserts—what a peculiar interest.”
Lin Jung-p’ing looked at Mr. Morgenthau without expression. Mr. Morgenthau’s moustache looked particularly striking against his complexion reddened from alcohol. “You sonovabitch!” he cursed inside himself, “You’re no more than an idiot.” He knew that in two years the headquarters in New York was going to adopt a new policy to turn the administration of all branch companies over to natives as much as possible—“insofar as necessary and feasible.” He had already started preparation, first to put loyal ones in the financial department, then to tell Morgenthau to get out.
“You should go get a master’s degree,” Lin Jung-p’ing turned to say to Chan I-hung. “I can consider sending you abroad at company expense.”
“Forget it,” Chan I-hung said.
“You should visit the Sonora Desert in Arizona, then,” Mr. Dasman told Liu Hsiao-ling. “They have a very good desert museum there.”
While pretending to be talking enthusiastically about a new movie with his neighbor Alice, a hard-working girl who worked on form-filling, Chan I-hung perked up his ears, trying to hear across the noise the talk on the desert at Liu Hsiao-ling’s end. Mr. Dasman, who called himself an amateur ecologist, was describing the desert museum—how modern scientific instruments had been installed to give a vivid explanation of the process of evolution; how special optical equipment made visitors able to see the amazing way that desert animals lived, most of which were nocturnal animals.
“Oh, I’ve never heard of that before, not at all,” Liu Hsiao-ling sighed.
“Deserts are full of life and activity,” Mr. Dasman said, “only people don’t quite understand them.”
“But Mr. Dasman . . .” Liu Hsiao-ling said.
Chan I-hung listened intently. He lighted a cigarette. Alice’s English was not very good, but she seemed also to be listening carefully.
“How pretty Liu Hsiao-ling looks tonight!” Alice said.
This time Chan I-hung turned his face to one side, and drank the juice mixed with mild liquor in unison with J. P. “You should have a little wine. You can drink,” J.P. said. “No, no,” Chan I-hung said. He could detect J.P.’s very ambiguous sadness. He began to think of the night he had rushed in a huff out of Liu Hsiao-ling’s house into the street. Since then, they had not been seeing each other, even though every day, after he returned to his untidy room after work, he would helplessly think of her, and of the line of freight cars stopping him at the crossing—a long line of immense, black freight cars rumbling before him, moving toward the south. Oh, toward the south, his hometown: his hometown, with only two small streets; beyond the streets, an expanse of plain, neither big nor small.
Not long after he had gotten to know Liu Hsiao-ling, Chan I-hung once went with her by night train to his home in the rural south. In the train, the light was soft and the seats were comfortable. She allowed him to hold her hand, while her right hand fidgeted with the gauze window curtain. It was then that she talked calmly about a scene that had appeared and reappeared in her night dreams for the past dozen years: a vast expanse of white desert.
“Every time I see sand on a construction site, I can’t keep from going over to touch it,” she said.
He listened absentmindedly. He was wondering about his father’s reaction when he found out that he had brought home one of those “mainlander women.” He smiled in silence.
“But it’s altogether different from the sand in my dream,” she said.
He sat up a little, stretching out his hand for the glass of tea on the tray. He saw her head, with long, billowing hair, leaning to one side, reflected on the glass pane of the window. Outside was the infinite dark night. The lights in the distance spun around slowly, moving backward. The profile of her face, as she chewed gum mechanically, appeared calm, contented, but lonesome.
She said the sand in her dreams was white.
“Not pure white,” she said, “but the kind of white like egg shells.”
He burst into laughter, remembering the time when he was stupid enough to make a practice of eating two raw eggs in liquor each morning. An acquaintance in the days when he was serving in the army said that it would enhance virility.
She turned and looked at him in wonder.
“Even egg shells,” he said, “are not of one kind.”
She held his hand close to her, but not for her life would she allow his hand to touch intentionally, mischievously, her ample breasts. Again, she leaned her head to one side on the glass of the window, gazing at the dark night outside.
“It’s that kind of white. White and absolutely clean sand, immense and without bounds wherever you look,” she said.
“Got to have some cactus or something,” he teased.
She shook her head.
“Or a few skulls of cattle.”
Once again she shook her head solemnly.
She said that the first time she had had such a dream was when she was in high school. The silent, white, boundless world of sand frightened her. Every time she woke up from the dream of the desert, she would cry helplessly. Sometimes she had to stuff the hem of the blanket into her mouth to stifle the sound of her cry.
“Then, as I got older, I probably became used to it,” she said. “Gradually I was able to gaze at the vast expanse of sand in the dream.”
She thus became interested in real deserts.
Chan I-hung gave up on the small steak and let the waiter remove the plate. He wiped his mouth carefully with a napkin. Not having had a good appetite in the first place, he now felt stuffed, sated with the flavor of ketchup. Mr. Morgenthau suggested that everyone take turns toasting the evening’s two guests of honor. Chan I-hung saw Liu Hsiao-ling spring up. In that instant, standing upright, she was the very image of gracefulness.
“No,” she said, “let me thank everyone.”
The two foreigners also stood up. After some confusion, everyone at the table finally stood up. Chan I-hung looked at the floor, holding his long-stemmed glass firmly.
“You can’t forget us, Miss Liu,” Alice broke out.
He raised his head, and met Liu Hsiao-ling’s sad, somewhat tipsy eyes on him. He saw her describe a half circle in the air with the wine glass in her hand in invitation to everyone to drink.
She was wearing nothing on her plump fingers. Silently, he drank up the little juice remaining at the bottom of his glass. As everyone sat down again, he thought of the ring in the pocket of his jacket. He groped with his hand and found it still there. It was the bronze ring that matched the necklace and belt she was wearing; on it was etched the pattern of dark green lotus. The ring was with him because he had intended to put it on her finger at their civil marriage that they had planned to take place soon.
Mr. Morgenthau seemed to have started talking about politics.
“S.O.B, said that we multinational companies here will never let Taiwan be wiped off the map . . .” Obviously drunk, Mr. Morgenthau pressed his face close to Liu Hsiao-ling. “Strange,” he said. “We American businessmen think Taipei is hundreds of thousands times better than New York, and you fucking Chinese think the United States is a fucking paradise.”
Chan I-hung saw Liu Hsiao-ling’s face withdraw stiffly. “I don’t think the United States is a paradise,” she said with a polite smile. Appropriately, she deleted the expletive from before “paradise.” She was neither embarrassed nor angry; in fact she was a little contemptuous of Mr. Morgenthau’s loss of self-control. Quickly, Chan I-hung moved his eyes toward the wall. He felt a chill in his stomach, a gradual blankness in his brain. After all she’s the kind of woman who has seen the world, he thought. “And you fucking Chinese think the United States is a fucking paradise,” Mr. Morgenthau repeated himself. “Isn’t it strange, Mr. Dasman?” Mr. Dasman broke into a guffaw. Alice could not understand the English dirty word, and she laughed with him in innocence. Chan I-hung took a deep breath. His brain was churning. Mr. Morgenthau was still going on with some gibberish, but all that Chan I-hung felt was “fucking Chinese” spinning in the vast emptiness of his brain. He felt a slight, involuntary tremor in his hands.
He broke out, “Gentlemen, watch your language . . .”
He spoke in English. His voice was peculiarly weak. Except for Lin Jung-p’ing no one heard what he said. Lin Jung-p’ing looked at him in surprise. Chan I-hung was hurt by the weakness of his own voice, and became furious. He jumped up.
“Gentlemen, you better watch what you say,” he said. His face was pale and he was breathing fast. Instantly the dining room quieted down. It seemed that no one knew exactly what had happened.
“I am resigning to express my protest, Mr. Morgenthau,” Chan I-hung said, his face contorted in agony. “But, Mr. Morgenthau, you owe me a serious apology.”
“James...” Lin Jung-p’ing said under his breath.
“An apology such as one would expect from the citizen of a great democratic republic,” Chan I-hung said.
Abruptly, Chan I-hung turned to Lin Jung-p’ing, a sad, anguished smile on his face. “J.P.,” he changed into Taiwanese, “let’s not quarrel in front of the barbarians.” He forced a smile, making an effort to maintain a calm tone. “I don’t know about you. As for me, I can’t take this kind of rotten life anymore!”
He strode from the dining room, without bothering to look back.
“Chan I-hung.” Liu Hsiao-ling jumped up. “Chan I-hung!” she called out. Gathering up her long gown that trailed to the floor, she ran out of the dining room, with its cozy, gorgeous chandelier, after Chan I-hung.
IV. THE ENAMELED BRONZE RING
Somewhere not far from the restaurant, Liu Hsiao-ling caught up with Chan I-hung. She grasped his arm. Quietly, they walked down a small slope that led to a thoroughfare. Several times she stole anxious glances at his profile as he was staring straight ahead. The contortion of fury, sorrow, shame, and agony on his face when he left the banquet had disappeared. He looked tired, yet relieved and peaceful—a new look, even to her.
A taxi drove slowly alongside them as if to invite them in. Chan I-hung shook his head amiably at the driver, and the car sped off. As Liu Hsiaoling silently looked at the vanishing lights of the car, Chan I-hung took her right hand and put the enameled bronze ring on it.
She began to cry.
“Don’t go abroad,” he said quietly. “Go with me to the country.”
Trying hard to keep herself from crying out, she nodded her head incessantly.
“Don’t cry,” he said tenderly.
Suddenly he remembered the long line of freight cars passing the crossing, the long, immense black freight cars, cars that rumbled toward the south, where his hometown was.
1. These words, as well as a number of expressions in the later part of the story, are originally in English. They will be represented by italics throughout.
2. The Yülung Automobile Company is a Chinese automobile manufacturer in Taiwan.
3. Presumably Pei-t’ou, a resort town in the neighborhood of Taipei, which is famous for its spa facilities. The town sports a Japanese-influenced subculture; it also attracts numerous Japanese tourists.
4. “Hsiao” literally is “little,” usually preceding the surname as an informal (sometimes intimate) way of address.
5. Atami (“Hot Sea,” as the characters read in Chinese) is a famous resort town in the Izu Peninsula of Japan.
6. A Japanese expression used in addressing or referring to an older woman.
7. Literally, “The Association of the People from the Same Region.” Chinese away from their home “regions”—mainlanders exiled in Taiwan, or native Taiwanese students leaving home to study abroad—tend to join their regional t’ung-hsiang-hui. The “region” can be a town, county, province, or several provinces (for example, Manchuria).