"The dog is the only animal that has seen his god."
By the time the doctor gets to my family's house, my father's hand is badly cut. I know that much, and I know that there are a dozen pieces of glass in it. My grandfather tells me this, but I don't know how they got there. My father is wrenching his mechanical pincer into its socket and sharpening his knife, nearly removing a finger in the process.
"What seems to be the problem, friend? Your father told me you've hurt yourself." The doctor sounds genial to everyone. There is always just the problem, never your problem.
"Ah, Doc, you old goat." My father looks up at the aging, bald-headed medic with only a little hate. This man is the only authority my father ever seemed to trust, maybe because the doctor always patched him up without any visible hint of scorn, just a resigned professionalism. "I'll live."
"I don't doubt it, but would you mind if I had a look?"
"I'm busy." My father picks up the knife, finishes securing it in his crude prosthesis as he says it, and starts walking towards the kennel.
Lǎogǒu sees the blade held by the man with the rolling, jerking gait of an epileptic sailor. How could he ignore it?
"What are you planning?" The doctor is curious now, worried that he didn't bring enough supplies to repair the mayhem that may well ensue. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen, he knows, and with my father, catastrophe usually doesn't wait very long.
"Ask the wife." He is grinning now, with the dangerous glee of a devil mask. It is not handsome. "She wants dinner, and dinner she shall have."
"Son, I'll get something. You're in no state . . . " My grandfather does this often enough -- appearing out of nowhere -- he has something of a skill for it.
"'In no state!' Fine words from a damned betrayer!" My father lifts the knife.
"Relax, man! He's your father," Lǎogǒu speaks. His hand -- paw -- is forced. I know that's what got to my father the most: that voice. Singsong, musical yet masculine, and modeled, I have been told, on the accent of Mao himself. My father must have hated it; he must have been jealous of the melodiousness of it from the first syllable he heard.
"So you do talk?!" His anger has subsided, the wave having crashed and broken against a seawall of amazement.
"You're being silly. Dogs can't talk." Lǎogǒu is chuckling at the irony of this declaration given its source. There's nothing left to do but joke.
"You're . . . you're worth a fortune!"
"Er . . . I'm glad we can agree on something, but listen now, I don't know what you're thinking, but my advice is . . . don't."
"Doc, what would he fetch?"
"He has but three legs. I don't think he'll fetch anything, but why don't you ask him?" The doctor is attempting levity, and as is always the case with him, it is more attempt than success.
"No, I mean, his meat. Isn't it worth thousands?"
"I doubt it. He is simply too old. His meat would have quite little intramuscular fat."
"Huh? Gibberish, Doc!" My father stumbles forward. He lurches into the kennel.
"Where's my food? Where's my dinner?" My mother sticks her head out of the kitchen window.
"I'll show you dinner!" He stabs at the air.
"Go ahead, take another swing. Come on." She laughs at him, taunting. It's safe enough. My father couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from two meters, and a chain-link fence and half a mǔ are between her and her husband.
He's looking down on Lǎogǒu now, who doesn't tremble, doesn't shake.
"You stare, pretty man. What do you see?" That's what he says, I think, I hope, and it's said without hate, just the resigned bemusement of a man indulging a child and his tantrum.
"Son, don't do this, please. He's probably worth more alive than dead." My grandfather doesn't want this. He hates violence, if indeed he has the strength to hate anything at all.
"I'll show you what he's worth." He grabs Lǎogǒu by the scruff of the neck. He has to use his real hand; the pincer is locked around the knife's handle. Maybe he was bitten, but I doubt it. Snapping, unless he had a good reason for it, was beneath the dignity of my friend, and Lǎogǒu would have known that the old fool was too drunk for anything -- short of the most catastrophic of injuries -- to have registered in his addled brain.
"What you're about to do, it's risky. Why don't you put that down and worry about this later, if at all. Look at me and listen to reason. The dog is going nowhere, and we will live to dine another day." The doctor does not halt his efforts to talk sense into a turnip's head.
"I'll look at you. I'll look at you. You look at me!" My father is staring the doctor straight in the eyes, and all the fury has been transmogrified by blood and dreams of fortune pounding in his ears. He is a fanatic now, overcome with passion and reverence for his own glorious destiny, a destiny that will inevitably be fulfilled with only a bit more money and just one more chance: this is his faith, a faith in which he has only rarely wavered. He is trembling even more than usual. The knife is high in the air, its trajectory uncertain. The doctor takes a step forward, preparing for action.
"I think, my friend, you are about to lose some small part of your beauty." I can hear Lǎogǒu say it in the calm tones of an oracle, although I know my father doesn't notice.
"Now watch this!"
* * *
"To live long, eat like a cat, drink like a dog."
My name is Wáng Lǎogǒu, son of the prosperous Wáng Pànggǒu, grandson of the much respected Wáng Dàgǒu, and great-great-grandson of the heroic, KMT-biting Wáng Hónggǒu, and I am uglier than hell. Let no one tell you differently. I have two cataracts and almost as many teeth, three legs, and no hair at all. Oh, if my comrades could see me now! One might think the last condition would make me somewhat less attractive to fleas than would be canines suffering from alopecia less acute, as they (the fleas) no longer have any jungle of fur in which to practice their guerrilla tactics, but must instead mount their invasion on the open beachhead of my backside.
One would think that, wouldn't one?
Still, I am no fool. An animal does not survive for a little more than 200 of its species' years without a fair amount of wisdom.
No, I shouldn't say that. Luck has gotten many a fool through a lifetime of possible misfortune with barely a scrape. I've never felt myself to be a lucky dog, so in my case, I like to think that intelligence, or at least the wisdom to learn from both my own foolishness and the profound stupidity of those who came before me, has had something to do with my survival. Perhaps I am but lucky, and I've simply never realized it, in which case I'm too much of a lost cause to wise up now.
Regardless of the reasons, I am here, and the odds have been against it. I've learned a little in the process too. English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and a touch of German, which I picked up from a foreign friend and all-around booze hound, who was one of the most depraved shepherds I've ever had the pleasure of knowing -- I may not have much to say, but I can say nothing at all in a fair number of wagging tongues. (Sometimes I kill myself!) I've even learned a few hundred words of Pekingese, which, with its 88 tones -- including thirty that aren't audible to humans -- is one of the most monstrously demanding languages ever barked, growled, or yelped.
I'm too old to get angry very often anymore. Rage is a young dog's game, and indulging in it is not an iota smarter than chasing one's tail in the most Ouroboros-like fashion. Still, I find myself annoyed by this accursed dullard for whom I am a nominal guard. I suppose having me as protector is marginally less foolish than asking the fox to guard the hen house, but only because I can't see well enough to chase a hen, and I'm not much inclined to keeping the company of nattering females anyway.
Like I said, I'm old, damn it!
* * *
"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons."
They say, "To get rich is glorious."
I say, "You're telling me, buddy!"
I never thought life would be like this -- that I would end up hauling 900 jīn of chicken manure in the back of a three-wheeler seven days a week. I could've been somebody. Boy, I'll tell you, I was a handsome man, with hair as black as anthracite, the jaw of a superhero (an American superhero even), and eyes deep and brown and filled with soulfulness and understanding. I could have been a Huáng Xiǎomíng. I could have been a Chinese Brad Pitt, or maybe, just maybe, he could have been an American me. And how many of those men can sing like I can? How many of them can sing so that the heavens weep and the earth shakes?
Even my father admitted that my looks were deserving of awe, and I didn't like my father much -- too strict and no fun at all, he was.
He always told me to study, study, study. Well, what good does study do a boy raising pigs, even if they were handsome pigs for a handsome boy like me? What was I going to do? Read them poetry, or teach them calculus? I did sing to them, which had the curious effect of helping them relax their bowels -- I'm that good! Bah!!! I'd had enough of that nonsense by the time I was old enough to walk away to town, and that's exactly what I did.
I should have threatened to throw myself off a cliff. I should have made them beg for my life, and, by extension, theirs. That would have reminded them of how much they needed me. Then I would have been appreciated. Good looks aren't everything, but they should get a man something in this world. Beauty must be cherished.
It wasn't my fault I didn't succeed. I should be a rich man now. I had the body of a god, the face of a star, and the voice of an angel. To lose with that combination should be impossible, but lose I did.
It was the women. They did it!
I was doing well enough until I got chained down to the midget in the kitchen. She was cute. Hell, they all were, but why must they all have chased me? I was good looking, but I wasn't that good looking.
It must have been my personality. That's what really draws them in.
Now I'm stuck with a wife who can't cook because she's too short to reach the cupboard and too persnickety to leave the rice on the floor. (It isn't my job to move every little thing for her.) And what's wrong with rats, anyway? They eat them in Guangdong. How's that for fine dining!
Did I mention the daughter? Hell, I still don't know if she's mine. Short women aren't soon missed, and the last time I came back from Shenzhen -- after slaving away for months on end building one mighty tower after the other -- making our country proud -- she wasn't here. It's always been like that. Sure, I went out with my friends. Sure, I lost a little cash, but I would have had some left if the rest hadn't been stolen on the train. And what kind of lowlife takes money from a man sleeping off his drink?
So I get home, and I'm greeted by an empty house that's as cold as the hand of death. No food, no wine, and no wife! All I've got to welcome me home is two hungry pigs, a three- legged dog that gives me strange looks, and her. I like the dog better. At least he'll meet my stunning gaze without trembling, which is more than I ever get from my daughter.
Why couldn't I have had a son? Someone to tend to things and keep the chicken hawks at bay while I'm gone and share this burden of rugged good looks -- that's all I ever really wanted. This is the curse of my life -- women! Women feeding, women needing -- half this planet leans on honest men like me.
And I'd lost an arm! How could I forget to tell you that? What kind of báichī leaves a running circular saw on the scaffolding of the seventh floor of a skyscraper. It wasn't me! I don't care what anyone says. Somebody else did it, and besides, I was on the fourth floor at the time, and if that isn't unlucky, what is?
* * *
"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."
I couldn't tell you the exact moment I decided to become a hooker -- lady of the evening, pleasure girl -- whatever you want to call it. It isn't the kind of profession most girls dream of pursuing. Certainly not me. I didn't really even want a husband, much less the constant company of the uncouth male creatures with whom I now socialize for a far-too- modest fee. I was going to be independent. Women hold up half the sky. Well, I was determined to hold up a little more than that.
I have two sisters (and yes, there are plenty of ways around one child). Both of them are doctors in Shanghai and perpetually single ones at that. I know how the lǎowài think -- white men know everything about everything. (Yet droves of them keep landing at our doorstep with nothing more than Mickey Mouse degrees and erections.) I was the abused one. The tortured one. The one secreted away by a drunken father and made to do things that I will probably never remember without the help of some overpriced charlatan -- excuse me, I mean "memory recovery expert."
In fact, I was never even whipped.
I didn't date in high school. None of the girls did, even the ones whose sole ambition was to marry money. They wanted to go to college too, lest they be forced to bed the richest hog farmer in town, so they, along with those of us with greater (well, more modern) goals, studied for the gāokǎo -- the college entrance exam -- until we cried blood and differential equations and irregular English verbs, until our hands swelled so that we couldn't lift our pencils, and our heads throbbed as though they had been hammered like temple gongs. Life in school was a nightmare. A pure, unadulterated living hell as one of my astoundingly obese foreign teachers said about everything that wasn't fast food or action movies. No heat (we were south of the Huai River), no hot water, food that was half insects and half rodents and no good flavor at all, and a single common shower in the basement with drains that didn't work as often as not so that the floor was regularly flooded and filled with floating . . . ugh!(There are some things even I'd rather not discuss, and I've not had the luxury of squeamishness in years.) It was motivation, I suppose. That's the most generous thing I can say about it.
And I got into Zhongnan University! I studied incessantly for the first two years, forgoing food and sleep and barely having the time to talk to my roommates, much less getting to know them.
Then I met a boy.
Boys are strange things to a girl who's never loitered around them before -- not fascinating, certainly not magical -- just peculiar in a nagging sort of way that makes them both easy and difficult to ignore. I had brothers -- cousins really, but I never thought of them as such -- and they were kind, protective even, of the too-tall girl with glasses so thick they made her eyes disappear into her face like little black beans in a pot of rice gruel. Dad was pushy -- a martinet of a man -- but with the best of intentions, and he really wanted only for his children to succeed. "See this," he'd hold up his cracked and bleeding hands, "Do you want to be a watermelon farmer? Because this is all you'll get from it. This and a sore back."
Well, I did get the sore back.
The boy -- I'll not name him. There's no point in doing so now -- wasn't handsome, wasn't talented, wasn't even charming. He was, if I recall correctly through the haze of years gone by, so ungainly and graceless that he made me seem like a veritable cougar sliding lithely through the shadows, and maybe I was. He was younger than I was, and poor. Still, he was kind (I thought), and his hands were warm and soft and everywhere at once, and his breath grew ragged every time he put them on my hips. Being wanted that way was strange for a tomboy like me and hard to resist.
They don't want you when your belly starts to grow.
I suppose he did the best he could, but boys are secretive, you know, and easily embarrassed, so he begged me to get rid of it, and I did, along with half the blood in my body. That was my decision ultimately, and I don't blame him for it. I have no attachment to this concept of passing on my genetic heritage: to the idea of being a mother. Maybe that makes me strange. Dad thought it did.
He wasn't angry when he found out, just totally and silently ashamed, which I think hurt me more than outright violence would have, so there were no blows laid by my father on my legs to turn them black and blue and make them swell like melons about to burst. MRSA XII did that. It started in my pelvis and slowly, painfully spread throughout my body. I ignored it for months, until I could barely crawl out of bed. This was but three short years before the development of yottacillin, which would have cured me in a matter of days. That was romance's final, untimely gift.
So they came off, and I tried to choke back the sobs that my mother couldn't, and Dad stayed in the fields, talking to his old nag. Who knows if she ever answered. He was never cruel to his animals -- never cruel to anyone -- but he grew so soft towards her, so profoundly gentle, that I knew he had simply given up and didn't have the stomach to protest anything anymore. She followed him everywhere, her eyes bigger than mine, and probably filled with more wisdom than I had at the time, or at least more empathy.
Now, after ten years, three jobs in the city, and a nasty tofu frying accident, I'm everyone's favorite legless, one-eyed, one-armed hooker -- the one who services the chicken- shit-hauling Narcissus who really can't afford a wife and child, much less the luxury of professional companionship.
I should have been a watermelon farmer. It would have been a step up in the world.
To be continued ...