Download Running Through Beijing Excerpt
Excerpt from Running through Beijing
By Xu Zechen
Translated by Eric Abrahamsen
Available from Two Lines Press
As Dunhuang opened his mouth to shout, a dust devil rose up and filled his eyes, nose, and mouth with fine grit, obliging him to sneeze and rub his eyes. The little iron gate clanged shut behind him. He spat the sand from his mouth. The dust devil had already moved on. Tilting his head back he looked at the sky, a blur of yellow dust behind which the sun glowed, mild but rough, like a polished piece of ground glass or a copper mirror that had seen years of use. The sunlight had no power to dazzle, but it still made Dunhuang’s eyes tear up—it was sunlight, after all. Another dust devil leaned toward him and he dodged out of its way. It was a sandstorm, he’d heard of them on the inside. They’d talked of only two things over the past few days: his getting out, and the sandstorms. In jail, he’d seen the storms picking up, seen the yellow dust settling on the steps and windowsills, but there wasn’t enough room inside for it to really get going. If he could, he’d like to go back and tell that pack of old cabbage heads that if they wanted a real sandstorm, they had to get out into the wide open spaces.
Wild land stretched before him: a few trees showed new buds, but there was no green grass in sight. It must be buried by sand, Dunhuang thought, and kicked at the dry weeds beside the gate—he looked around but still couldn’t see a speck of green. He’d been in jail three whole months, for Christ’s sake, and not one green blade of grass had grown. It was cold with the wind on him, and he pulled a jacket out of his bag. Shouldering the bag, he shouted, “I’m out!”
The iron gate rasped and a head peered out. Dunhuang saluted it, then laughed and said, “What are you looking at? Back to your post.”
The head glared at him, retracted, and the iron gate clanged shut once more. Dunhuang walked for twenty minutes, then waved a little truck over. The driver, sporting a first growth of fluffy beard, asked where he was going. Dunhuang said anywhere was fine as long as it was in Beijing. The driver dumped him on west Fourth Ring Road; he was taking his truck to sell at the Liulangzhuang automobile market. As he got out, Dunhuang thought he recognized the place, that he’d been there before. He walked south, turned right, and, sure enough, there was a little corner store where he’d once bought some Zhongnanhai cigarettes. Sandstorm aside, Beijing hadn’t changed much. Dunhuang felt a bit calmer; he had worried that the city might have transformed behind his back. He bought a pack of cigarettes and asked the young clerk if she recognized him. The girl smiled perfunctorily and said he looked familiar. He said, “I once bought four packs of cigarettes here.”
As he was leaving, he heard the girl spit the melon-seed shells from her mouth and mutter, “Asshole.”
Dunhuang didn’t look back—you’re too ugly to argue with. He followed the street, knowing he must look like a hoodlum; he started swinging his bag and swaggering down the wrong side of the street. He went slowly, savoring a Zhongnanhai. Being in jail was like being home in that it was hard to get a smoke. The first time he’d brought two cartons of Zhongnanhais home his father had been thrilled and passed them out to guests, solemnly telling them: Zhongnanhai, named after where the leaders of our nation live—they all smoke these.
Where the leaders of our nation live. Dunhuang had only passed the front gate of Zhongnanhai once before, on his way to see the flag-raising at Tiananmen. He’d dragged himself up at 4 am. Bao Ding had sworn at him and said, “You can see the flag raising any day, why do it on a foggy day?” It had been foggy, and that morning they had to make a delivery, but Dunhuang couldn’t help himself. He hadn’t been hustling with Bao Ding in Beijing long, and aside from enormous heaps of cash he dreamed of nothing but that flag, fluttering in the wind. He heard the clacking of the ceremonial guards’ footsteps as they passed in perfect unison through his dreams. As he flew toward Tiananmen that morning on a wrecked old bicycle, he passed a bright, blurry gate, where a few guards might have been standing, but he thought nothing of it. When he got back home, Bao Ding told him that was Zhongnanhai, and he regretted not having stopped. He always meant to go back and take a closer look, but never got around to it. It was like Bao Ding said, “You can go any day, so you end up going no day.” He never went.
Dunhuang didn’t know where he was headed. That seemed awful, when he thought about it. No place to go. The whole lot of them had gone to jail: Bao Ding, Big Mouth, Xin’an, Thirty Thou with the lame leg. Hardly anyone he knew was left; he’d have trouble just finding a place to crash. And he was short of money, he only had fifty on hand, minus the nine he’d just spent on cigarettes. For now, he’d follow his feet, and worry about the rest tomorrow—he could always just burrow in somewhere for the night. The sun was dropping steadily in the sandpaper sky, down toward the end of the street—looking more and more like a giant millstone weighing on Beijing’s shoulders. Dunhuang took the cigarette from his mouth and whistled a bit to buck his spirits—this wouldn’t kill him. When he was first in Beijing, that time he’d gotten separated from Bao Ding, hadn’t he slept a night against a concrete pillar under an overpass?
Obstetrics Hospital. Zhongguancun Human Resources Center. The Bai Family Courtyard Restaurant. The Earthquake Bureau. He looked up and saw Haidian bridge in front of him. He hadn’t meant to come this way. He stopped, watching a double-jointed bus run a red light under the bridge. He hadn’t come here on purpose, but there wasn’t anywhere he wanted to go. It was under Haidian Bridge that they’d been caught, he and Bao Ding. They had run all the way here from Pacific Digital City without stopping for breath, but still hadn’t been able to shake the police. They’d still had their stuff with them. If they had known they were going to get nabbed they would have ditched it. He’d called to Bao Ding, “It’s okay, these cops are too fat to buckle their pants.” But the policemen turned out to be pretty nimble. A car had cut them off, and by then it was too late to toss anything.
That was three months ago. It had still been cold, around the New Year, the wind had sung in his ears. As they had sprinted and dodged they’d nearly made two cars collide under the bridge. Now he was out, but Bao Ding was still in jail. Bao Ding’s left hand had been stomped on by the police. Dunhuang wondered if it was better.
Dunhuang turned onto another street, then turned again. The wind picked up more sand from the ground and he ducked in next to a building. The light was fading, it was almost dark. As he swatted the dust from his clothes, a girl carrying a bag like his walked up to him and said, “Want a DVD, mister?” She pulled a handful of movies from her bag. “I’ve got everything: Hollywood, Japanese, Korean, domestic hits. Also, classics and Oscar winners. Everything.” She spread out the colorful movies for him to see. In the failing light, the colors were somehow lurid, but he knew that the movies were clean. Just like the girl. Dunhuang couldn’t guess her age, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five? Maybe twenty-eight? No more than thirty. Thirty-year-old DVD-sellers didn’t look like that; they carried children, they asked in furtive tones, “Hey, want a DVD? I’ve got all sorts; if you want porn I’ve got hi-def.” Then they quickly drew the movies from their clothing.
“Even if I bought one I have nowhere to watch it,” Dunhuang said to her, and leaned back against the wall to avoid another gust of passing sand.
“They’ll play on a DVD player or a computer,” the girl said. “They’re cheap, I’ll give you a deal, six kuai per movie.”
Dunhuang dropped his bag on the steps, wanting to sit and rest. The girl thought he meant to buy and squatted down with him, pulling a sheet of newspaper from her bag and spreading out the DVDs. “They’re all good, guaranteed high quality.”
Dunhuang thought it would be impolite not to buy, and said, “All right, I’ll take one.”
“Thanks. Which one do you want?”
“Anything, as long as it’s good.”
The girl stopped and looked at him. “If you really don’t want one then don’t bother.”
“Who said I don’t want one?” He was laughing at himself now. “I’ll take two! Hell, give me three!” He quickly rummaged through the movies under the building’s lights.
The Bicycle Thief. Cinema Paradiso. Address Unknown.
“Hey, you’re a film buff!” Excitement was obvious in her voice. “Those are classics!”
Dunhuang said he didn’t really understand film, he’d picked them nearly at random.
It was true, he didn’t understand film. He had seen The Bicycle Thief before, and he’d once heard a pair of college students talking about Cinema Paradiso on the bus—the boy saying it was good, the girl saying it was great. He’d picked Address Unknown merely because the name seemed awkward; he wondered why it wasn’t Unknown Address.
The DVDs bought, he sat on the steps looking at the neon lights on the building across the street. Four characters: “Hai Dian Chess Academy.” He’d seen that name many times before. He drew out a cigarette, lit it, and blew a cloud of smoke toward the sign.
The girl packed the other DVDs into her bag and stood up, saying, “Aren’t you going?”
“You go on, I’m going to rest a bit.” Dunhuang saw no need to tell a stranger that he had no place to go.
She said goodbye and walked off, but then came back and sat on the step beside him. Dunhuang unconsciously shifted to make room.
“Got another?” She meant a cigarette.
Dunhuang looked at her, surprised. He passed her the pack and lighter. She made a comment about the mildness of Zhongnanhai. He had no cause to disagree. He’d crossed paths with many, many people during his time in Beijing, but his interactions with them were nearly all transactions, conducted for the sake of cash, and the girl’s behavior threw him off balance. He only felt uneasy for a second, though—what could possibly go wrong? The barefoot don’t fear the shod. Whatever happens, happens. Suddenly relaxed, he asked, “How’s business?”
“Business is business. Weather’s bad.” The sandstorm had driven all the idlers indoors, and it was mostly idlers who bought DVDs.
“Mmm.” Dunhuang nodded in sympathy. The weather affected his line of work, too. Rain or wind sent the world scurrying; no one was in the mood.
She was no stranger to cigarettes—her smoke rings were better than his. The two of them sat there, watching the sky darken. The pedestrians thinned out. Dunhuang heard someone in a nearby bookstore say, “Close it up, who’s going to buy books when the gravel’s flying?” Then there was the sound of a gate rattling down and banging into the ground. Flying gravel… Hardly. Dunhuang did his best not to look at the girl. All of a sudden he wasn’t sure how to talk to her, he wasn’t used to lounging around with girls he didn’t know. What, exactly, was this turning into? He wanted to leave.
“What do you do?” the girl asked him abruptly.
“What do you think?”
“A student? I can’t tell.”
“I don’t do anything. I’m homeless.” Dunhuang found the truth was as easy as a lie.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, standing, “but even if you are homeless, let’s have a couple of drinks. My treat.”
Dunhuang smiled. You’ve showed your hand now, he thought. I knew selling DVDs couldn’t be your only profession. He’d never even had sex, let alone paid for it, but Bao Ding and Three Thou had, and he had a basic grasp of the process. But a girl like this in that line of work…it was heartbreaking. Though the newspapers said many prostitutes were actually college students. Even college students—such a grand thing to be—had to sell themselves. Dunhuang once again pictured furtive women with their babies, selling movies.
“Why don’t I treat you?” Dunhuang said, throwing caution to the wind. What the hell. “I don’t know this area, you pick a spot.”
They went to a hotpot restaurant called Ancients next to Changchun Park. The girl said she was frozen through and needed to warm up. Dunhuang agreed; the storm had blasted Beijing right back into winter. From outside, the windows of the hotpot place were blanketed in heavy steam; only shadows milled within. Inside, there was a huge crowd, all red faces and thick necks, it looked as though half of Beijing had squeezed in. Countless beer glasses were hoisted over heads, the smell of alcohol and hotpot mixed with the chatter, all rising on billowing steam. Dunhuang hadn’t felt such a welcoming intimacy in months, and his heart warmed so suddenly he nearly teared up. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten hotpot. He loved hotpot. He remembered the first time he’d gone home for the spring festival. He had bought an electric pot with his own money, and eaten hotpot from the first of the year straight through to the sixth, when he returned to Beijing.
They picked a table in the corner, the girl seated against the wall and Dunhuang with a crowd of boisterous diners behind him. A split pot; Dunhuang liked it spicy. Three halfliter bottles of Yanjing beer. He noted that she ordered two plates of winter melon and mushrooms. The pot boiled, the mutton floated. Dunhuang lifted his glass and said, “What are we toasting?”
“Nothing. Drink your beer.”
The first glass was awfully refreshing. The girl turned out not to be much of a drinker. Dunhuang could drink, he considered it his only true talent. Not many people knew it. Bao Ding thought he could hold his liquor, but once he’d gotten five shots of Erguotou in him, he never lasted to see how much Dunhuang could handle.
“You can really drink,” said Dunhuang.
“You’re not bad yourself.”
“Nah, after one bottle I start talking nonsense.”
“So go ahead, I’m listening,” she said carelessly, smoothing out her sleeves. She hadn’t noticed Dunhuang pouring the beer straight down his throat, hardly swallowing. “Let’s drink until we talk nonsense.” They started gulping beer by the half glass. Over the roiling, steaming pot, they looked like a pair of lovers. Dunhuang hadn’t faced such lush temptation in months. His eyes glittered; he shoveled mutton into his mouth with his chopsticks.
“You must be starved.”
“Kind of,” he responded, pausing to look at his dining partner. Her face had become flushed and soft, and she appeared much younger than she had out in the wind. Not bad looking. The freckles on her nose looked pretty good. “You should eat, too.”
A phone rang, and the girl quickly looked in her bag. By the time she found her phone, a man nearby had already picked his up. Her disappointment was obvious. She turned the cellphone over in her palm a few times, then put it on the table.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Dunhuang? That’s nice. Is it your real name?”
“Of course—money back if it’s not.”
“Who gave it to you? Sounds pretty educated.”
“My dad. Educated? He’s basically illiterate; he just got lucky. My mom said that a couple days after I was born he was so frustrated by trying to pick a good name he got constipated. In the end he dragged some old newspapers over from the neighbors’. He spent a whole day looking through them, but couldn’t decide on anything. Finally, he saw the headline of a People’s Daily article about the Dunhuang Buddhist cave paintings, and that was me.”
“Your dad’s nuts, he should have had a name picked out before you were born!” The girl laughed emptily, her eyes flicking over her cell phone. “Guess my name.”
“I don’t know.”
“Kuang Xia. ‘Kuang’ from ‘spacious,’ ‘Xia’ for ‘summer.’ Nice, huh?”
“That’s nice. Way better than Dunhuang; I always feel like I’m some big rock they dragged out of the earth.”
She laughed again, sounding more like she meant it this time, then told him that Kuang was her father’s surname, and Xia was her mother’s. Dunhuang didn’t think it was a particularly good name. Adding your father’s surname to your mother’s—the world was full of people named that way. But still he said, “Nice.” He felt a need to make her happy. Then he started talking about how good the DVD business was, how when he’d first come to Beijing he’d wanted to do that, but had never found an in, and regretted it ever since.
“So what do you do now?” Kuang Xia asked.
“Bit of everything. A couple days of this, a couple days of that. Beijing’s too big to starve in.”
“Why don’t you go back home? What’s so great about Beijing?”
“It’s not that it’s so great. It’s just life, right? One place is as good as another.”
Kuang Xia twirled her cellphone again, her expression growing heavy. “If I weren’t selling DVDs I would have gone home ages ago. Beijing’s too windy.”
“It is, but the wind won’t kill you.”
A phone rang again, and Kuang Xia picked up the cellphone she’d just set down. Another call for someone else.
Dunhuang could see something was going on, and he decided to forget it, he’d quit while he was ahead. He said, “Why don’t we call it a night.” Seeing how readily she agreed, he said he’d treat. He waved at a waitress to get the bill.
“I’ll get it, I’ll get it,” she said, going for her wallet. “I said I would.”
Dunhuang gestured for her to put it away, and obediently she did. He was stunned— didn’t have to twist your arm, did I? He pretended to look for money in the pockets of his coat hanging on his seat, while a quart of sweat erupted from his body in two seconds flat. There was nothing to do but to risk a gambit Bao Ding had taught him. He rummaged around in his left pocket for a while, his forehead knotting, then rummaged in his right pocket, then he leaped to his feet and gave a panicked cry, “My wallet’s gone! My cellphone, too!”
“That can’t be, keep looking.” Kuang Xia had stood as well.
Dunhuang went through his pockets again, then snatched up his coat and turned the two interior pockets inside out for Kuang Xia and the waitress to see. They were entirely empty, of course. “They’ve been stolen!” he said. “I had them when I came in.” Then, to the waitress: “You’ve got a thief here somewhere!”
The waitress, a girl of eighteen or so, was so terrified she began to back away, as if the thief himself were bearing down on her. Her hand fluttered in negation, “We don’t, we don’t!” Her look of fright made Dunhuang pause, but the show, once begun, had to go on.
The chopsticks of the nearby diners all halted in midair, their heads turning to look with deep interest at the man who’d lost his wallet and cellphone; everyone leaned backwards slightly as if to indicate their innocence. The stage was growing larger. Dunhuang gritted his teeth and prepared his performance.
“Are you sure you didn’t just put them in your bag?” asked Kuang Xia.
“Of course I’m sure. There was six hundred kuai in my wallet, maybe more. There was my bank card, my ID card, and a fifty-kuai phone card—all gone! Never mind the money, it’s a huge hassle to replace an ID card. And I bought that cellphone just a few weeks ago, it cost more than a thousand.”
He put on his best fussy old lady act. Practically every diner in the place was staring at him. The young waitress grew even more panicked and ran off to find the assistant manager. By the time the assistant manager arrived, Kuang Xia had noticed that the waitress had neglected the clothing cover that restaurants put over coats to thwart thieves—if she had, the wallet and phone could never have been stolen. The restaurant, therefore, bore responsibility. The manager wouldn’t admit the restaurant’s fault, though, he only stammered a bit as he explained that the sign on the door stated very clearly that customers should take care of their own belongings, and that the establishment wasn’t responsible for any losses. Dunhuang and Kuang Xia weren’t hearing any of it. If the clothing cover had been in place the restaurant would, of course, be blameless, but the fact was it wasn’t in place, and who knew whether that had been intentional. The implication was clear.
“We are deeply sorry for the loss of your belongings,” said the manager, finally caving. “How about we give you a 20% discount, and we’ll call it even. And we’ll throw in two free bottles of cold beer.”
Dunhuang looked at Kuang Xia, who nodded in assent. But Dunhuang shouted, “No! We want five bottles!”
The assistant manager said, “Sir, that’s the best I can do.”
Dunhuang responded, “Fine, call your boss over.”
The assistant manager hesitated, then left. Kuang Xia asked Dunhuang for his cellphone number: she’d call it and see if the thief was still in the restaurant. Dunhuang rattled off a number and Kuang Xia dialed, but the phone was off. It was hopeless, there was nothing else to do. Of course, thought Dunhuang, there’d been no hope to begin with. That was a three-month-old number and god knows where the phone is now. The assistant manager came back two minutes later, the waitress carrying five bottles of beer behind him. He apologized once again and said the general manager was currently engaged, but sent his apologies and agreed to give them five bottles of beer.
Dunhuang said, “All right, bag them up so she can take them home.” Then to Kuang Xia: “I’m sorry, looks like this one’s on you after all.”
Kuang Xia said, “Never mind, it was meant to be mine to begin with.” She looked at her cellphone, then suddenly stuffed it in her bag, sat down, and said to the waitress, “Open them, we’ll drink them now!”
If you say so, Dunhuang thought. No skin off my nose. It just so happens I hadn’t had enough.
They really got into it then. Kuang Xia was suddenly drinking with abandon, as though she were downing water, and they clinked their glasses with solemn determination. “Drink, drink,” she said. Two bottles later, all she could say was “drink,” as she slowly slumped onto the table.
“You all right?” Dunhuang asked.
“Fine…drink. Drink.” Kuang Xia spoke as if she had a fishball in her mouth, then she suddenly began to weep. “I want to go home. Take me home.”
“Okay,” said Dunhuang, “I’ll take you home.” He finished the rest of the beer straight from the bottle.
Luckily, Kuang Xia remembered the name of the place where she lived, and Dunhuang had heard of it. Three months ago, he’d known this stretch of Haidian like an old Beijinger. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the west section of Furongli, third floor, a rental. Dunhuang got her upstairs and opened the door to discover that the room was packed with white wicker baskets, all of them full of DVDs. Labels were stuck on the baskets: Euro/American, Indian, Korean, Japanese, etc. He was just thinking of looking for the baskets labeled softcore and hardcore when Kuang Xia spoke from the bed, her eyes still closed, “Water, I need water.”
Dunhuang went to the kitchen, but the water cooler was empty. He ran back into the room and told her to hold on while he boiled some tapwater. While he did, she fell asleep again, rolling herself in the blanket and snoring gently. He sat down in an old wooden chair, holding the glass of water and waiting for it to cool. The room was crudely furnished; besides the queen-sized bed where Kuang Xia lay there was only one table and one chair in the whole place. On the table was an old television and a nearly-new DVD player. The rest was DVD baskets. He nosed about here and there, and ended up drinking the water himself. He couldn’t imagine how he would pass the rest of the evening—where would he sleep tonight? Listening to Kuang Xia’s light snores he was suddenly overcome with self-pity. He didn’t have so much as a hole to crawl into. He’d been in Beijing for two years and this was the best he’d done. Thinking about it objectively, it really was too much. When he’d quit his old job in his hometown, he’d had complete faith that he could come to Beijing and make a good life—now he was the living dead. He had only twenty-two kuai and four mao in his pocket. He poured another glass of water for Kuang Xia, in case she woke up asking for a drink.
Dunhuang looked through all the baskets but found no hardcore, not even anything that could properly be considered softcore, only “romance” flicks. A woman with bared arms and legs on the cover was just a trick—he knew the whole film probably only bared that much skin. At last, he found something that sounded raunchy, a French movie called Porno Director. He turned on the TV and DVD player and started watching it with the sound muted. He watched half of it without seeing anything that quickened his pulse, and lost interest. His eyelids began to droop and he fell asleep in the chair. When he jerked awake the film was over, the DVD tray had ejected itself, and the TV displayed a steady deep blue with the white logo of the DVD player.
It was two thirty in the morning. He turned off the TV and DVD player, feeling cold and stiff. Kuang Xia was huddled on the other side of the bed like a cat, no longer snoring, the blanket rising and falling with her breath. To hell with it, Dunhuang thought, and drawing his wrinkled felt overcoat from his bag, he lay down gingerly on the queen-sized bed, curling his body up like a dog. He pulled his coat over his head and the world went dark. For him, night had come at last. He thought to scratch an itch on his chin—his hand halfway there, he slept.