"Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable."
Don't blame me for my son. I already know what you think. I've been called everything you could imagine, and a fair number of things you probably couldn't. My neighbors won't look at me. My wife has taken to her bed, sometimes for weeks on end, and so many men appear on my doorstep demanding that I pay for my son's obligations that I keep a dàdāo -- that's right, the big knife -- hidden under my bed, even though I've not used one since the end of the war, and even then, most of the time I just gave those boys nice, close haircuts. Even my own brothers are afraid to be seen with me, and I am afraid for them as well.
I still don't know what I did wrong. I think about it. I think about it every day. I didn't gamble; I didn't drink; I didn't lie with strange women. I betrayed no one as far as I know. I was a filial son and a loyal husband. My parents, may they rest in peace, lived with me until the day they died.
What did I do wrong? I lied when I said I didn't know. Forgive me for that. I know my transgression all too well: I married a beautiful woman. That's what! It is a mistake for which I have been paying for the better part of my life, and one for which no man can ever be forgiven. "Repent," says my neighbor, the one who found a blond-haired, blue-eyed personal savior all of three weeks ago, "and you shall be saved." He's a little fruity, I think. I've been repenting for the last forty years, and I'll repent my way into an early grave. What good has it done me?
I don't blame my wife. She's always been loyal, as far as I know, and even if she hadn't been, I'd think it as much my fault as hers. I was away on business, occasionally for months on end, and only a fool leaves his jewels out on the street for any crook to carry away, and you can blame the fool as much the thief in that case.
She did nothing wrong. She has always been a patient wife, a gentle mother, and a decent cook. Her family despised me: I had nothing. She could have done better, and I'm beginning to think I deserved all the scorn they heaped upon me for the son I'm leaving the world -- my legacy of grief.
If only looks would skip a generation. I could have done better with gorgeous grandchildren, after I had accumulated a lifetime of wisdom. But they did not, and our son was born with both his mother's looks and my boyhood propensity for arrogance, but worse! What boy moonwalks into his father's shop in the middle of the day and at the age of twelve sings, in tones so wretched that the birds outside the window commence suicide dives, that he could have any woman within 50 kilometers? He was right, though. Never mind whose daughters they were, never mind if they were married, never mind anything other than his awful pride. I don't even think he enjoyed it -- having half the county's girls for their first times -- ruining their marriage prospects. How could someone like that truly enjoy anyone else's charms? He was always too busy admiring his own. None of the girls were good enough for him. One was too fat. One was too thin. One, too short. One, too tall. One had bad breath.
Couldn't he have noticed these things before he slept with them, before he made the better portion of her peers dismiss my wife, who wanted only for her son to be happy, as a shameless procurer?
Maybe that's a perfect example of a hungry ghost: a man driven to seeking out beauty and eating it by the hundredweight, trying to fill a stomach that knows no bottom. But why the hunger? What didn't I give him? My wife says that I should have beaten him, that I should have ruled with an iron fist and a steel rod. She's right, but should a man be punished as mercilessly as I have been for gentleness?
The final blow: my own son sent to prison, for prostitution of all crimes! Twice! It wasn't bad enough for him to carry on with the police chief's wife. He had to charge her a small fortune. Oh, if I had died those days!
I have but one grandchild, and she is nothing like my monstrous spawn, thank heavens. She took after her mother, who is probably one of the most unfortunate women north of the Pearl River. That is the one small miracle of my life -- that beauty boy didn't pass his vileness down the generations. If only I could be free of him, I would die at peace.
What terrible things for an old man to say!
* * *
"In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn't merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog."
-- Edward Hoagland, travel writer
The prostitute keeps talking to me, which isn't all that unexpected. I'm a magnet for unfortunates. It's my big fluffy ears, I think. If I look like I can still do anything at all, it's listen. Whine, whine, whine -- that's all I hear from the Handsome One. It's no wonder I don't answer, and I'm not much inclined to cast my pearls before swine, so you can imagine what I expected from his rent-a-girl. Woe is me! I'm a legless, homeless, one-armed hooker who services half-witted, pathologically egocentric clients who are slowly going blind from their own stupidity and self-inflicted illnesses. Woe is me!
If I had a nickel . . .
But she wasn't like that. No drama. No hatred. No self-indulgence. She reminds me of a politically rehabilitated teacher I once knew -- the one who taught me Cantonese -- not angry, almost able to laugh at her predicament, but not quite. In this life, we can either laugh or we can cry. I know the saying, and it's true, but it's incomplete. We can bear it all stoically. We can rage against the heavens or the wombs that cast us out.
We can grimace and try to make a joke of our discomfort.
Even if we can't manage to laugh at our own fates, maybe somebody else can. We can give others the pleasure of schadenfreude. That's generosity. Maybe it's unconventional, but it's generosity nonetheless.
And the hooker didn't react all that badly when I responded. (Some people just never adjust to my patter. You might be surprised by how many.) All she did was just offer the slightest tiānnǎ!
"What, you weren't finished? You sounded finished, or were you just pausing for breath?"
"I just didn't think . . . "
"Yes, that seems to be a problem for many people in this world."
"But you're . . . "
"Sympathetic? Yes. I'm the living embodiment of understanding -- got that from my mother -- but I've now got a question for you."
"Uh, please," she paused, looked down from her chair and raised an eyebrow "The floor is yours."
"Clever! Seriously, my truncated friend, what would you like for a toothless old dog such as me to do about your plight? Answer, and I'll try not to cut you short."
She's still clueless. Only the vaguest notions of freedom, or some half-baked simulacrum of it, float around her head. No one knows what to do with the man we've now christened our singing idiot. I like having her around though, so I'll keep on listening. She cares enough about me to remind me that I should probably keep quiet: dog soup makes men strong, or so says the traditional wisdom, and only Cáishén knows what a kettle of talking dog soup would bring. Besides, she brought me a bowl of dancing fairy tea from Junshan Island and zòngzi for Dragon Boat Festival -- even tried to unwrap one of them for me, which given her deficiencies in both mechanical manipulation and depth perception, was a fairly entertaining display itself, and she was sure to make a show of it. Who else remembers me? Who would keep the company of this old dog?
* * *
"When a man's best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem."
-- Edward Abbey, environmentalist
The secret is out, it seems. Not only does the better part of the town now know that I talk, but I've developed a reputation as a sage. Any gray-haired old fool with enough sense to smile and nod knowingly more often than he speaks can manage that one, and seeing as how much I'm now petted, one might even say I'm a rubbed sage. (Did I mention I studied French cooking for the better part of a year?)
The idiot's father comes around every day, always looking as though he's on the verge of tears. I try to lighten his spirits, but one may only do what one can do. His wife comes later. Neither one knows about the other's trips. It must make for some interesting fibs over dinner -- all this covering for missed hours -- but I'm not inclined to break my silence. She brings noodles, and he, cigarettes. They're getting a bargain. I'm a cheap date, and with the hand they've been dealt, they could use a furry shoulder on which to cry.
I retain the privilege of dragging the daughter around town every morning. She needs the exercise, lazy little creature! She has some aptitude for language, and she'll study, but only when I put my paws on her shoulders and growl whenever she starts to complain. I'm the best company she's ever had, she says. Poor soul. I don't doubt it, either.
The hooker still comes by for her daily chats. She's quicker than I thought she was, and with a sharper wit, besides. She should try comedy professionally, maybe even stand up. Err . . . on second thought, after dinner speaking might be a better fit. She's likable enough.
Then there is the doctor.
I don't know exactly why he thinks I need liver tonic -- free or otherwise. I suppose it's the gift that keeps on giving, but he's not here to examine me. He lifted my leg and asked me to cough once -- almost bit him for that one -- but he's not coming round to inspect the talking medical marvel. No, he wants advice! Apparently, he's planning on branching into psychiatry and wondered if I might have any suggestions for making his patients open up to him as expeditiously as people apparently do to me.
Grow a tail, man!
He does mean well, and it's nice to know someone with whom I can discuss a few of the more controversial points of comparative anatomy. I've started feeling a big sluggish as of late. He noticed it too. I'll beg some ginseng pills from him and see if that helps.
Maybe I'll let him lift my leg after all.
And lastly, there's the wife. I'm wise enough to not underestimate that one. She's friendly in her own circumspect way, and she's started bringing me finely sliced fried potatoes, which are, without a doubt, the best I've ever tasted. My dining pleasure is always kept in check by the nagging feeling that I'm being treated as a fatted calf -- a very old fatted calf -- but still.
I sleep with one eye open around her, around everyone really. I've done so for two doggone centuries. Why stop now?
* * *
"I'm not going to vacuum until Sears makes one you can ride on."
-- Roseanne Barr
I hated being a housewife. It's prostitution with an small clientèle and an even smaller view of the world. And what man ever asked a hooker to wash his shorts? Answer me that. I thank every god I know and every ancestor as well that I am free of that life now.
I knew about the girl -- the one with the eye patch -- and how couldn't I? I don't hate her now, and I didn't really hate her then. In fact, I appreciated her keeping my beloved husband out of my hair. It would have been easier if they had just run off together. Well, if he'd run off with her. I'd have given them my wheelbarrow and my blessing. He commandeered it often enough anyway when he wheeled her around town every Saturday -- him red-faced with drink; her, with embarrassment. Why didn't they just shove off into the sunset together? There would have been no animal brave enough to bite such a spastic, caterwauling fool.
What if stupidity was catching?
Now, as for what he's told you about me. I can cook, by gum! My mother was a cook. My father was a cook. Grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, even my little nephew -- every one of us could turn a sow's ear into a silky, super soup. Gourd, fish, fruit, cow, dog, cat, or snake: if it grows on tree or bush or vine, above the ground or below, if it swims, slinks, jumps, or crawls, we can cook it, and how! Thank you very much. My family has been cooking for all of nine generations, and we'd still be cooking away at the finest eatery in Zhangjiajie were it not for the intellectual pretensions of my father' s little brother -- the cherished baby boy -- who, for all his academic ambitions, couldn't count to twenty if he used every one of his fingers and toes.
My ex-husband can't either, but that's more understandable.
Life is better these days, but then it was drudgery, drudgery, drudgery. Morning, noon, and night, all I could do to survive was peel potatoes with my bare teeth and season carrots with the salt of my eternally sweaty brow and the iron of my blood.
What I wouldn't have done for a side of meat, something healthy and cooling. We'd already sold the pigs. My daughter was shrinking away to nothing at all, though the neighbors grew big as whales. What little face I had -- what wasn't destroyed by my pinheaded husband -- was chopped, seasoned, and fried long ago, but my parents survived Three Bitter Years, and they taught me a thing or two.
I wasn't defeated. Go ahead and curse me for what happened, but be sure to curse me for everything I've done. Curse me for my new house; my new car; my new husband, loving and handsome; and my daughter, now in college and studying hard.
Show me how you could have done any better!
* * *
"Though marriage makes man and wife one flesh, it leaves 'em still two fools."
-- William Congreve, playwright
"Damn it, woman! What do you know of trouble? What do you do? Just sit and sit and sit and eat food bought with my hard-earned money! You, the queen of the kitchen." He starts in on this rant about once a fortnight. You get used to it. He isn't very angry, at least not enough to put down the glass he's holding in his left hand; he doesn't have a right one, and he isn't much inclined to relinquish his drink.
"Food? What food? Look around." I am goading him now. I make a sweeping gesture and puff myself up as I gaze around my filthy kitchen with a smirking majesty almost as intolerable as his. "There is no food in my kingdom." I pause, waiting just a beat. "I must have ordered it all removed by royal decree."
The idiot slams down his glass. It shatters and cuts his hand in fifty places.
"I'm hurt. I'm hurt, again! It's your fault! What if I had killed myself? What if I had sliced an artery?" He is whiny and indignant now and enjoying it thoroughly. Let him, I think, let him have his little fun.
"Son," the pretty boy's father -- weak, exhausted, and beaten down by life -- begins in a timid voice, "please be careful. We don't want you to get hurt. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Let's all just calm down." "You! You're as responsible as she is! How could you do this?!" He holds up a paper -- my little masterpiece -- the forged attorney's red stamp on it obscured by blood and bits of glass.
"Who would do this to his own son? You would abandon me, and for what?Convenience?"
"It isn't that. It's your mother. The men keep coming by the house about the money you owe. Think of your mother. I can't pay any more debts, and the men, they're . . . " he grimaces, looking even more apologetic than usual, which I wasn't previously certain was possible, " . . . they're scaring her."
"What! You would hide behind her?" Pretty boy is standing atop the mountain of his fury and taking in the view. "This isn't her handiwork. This isn't her idea. She would never do this to me! I know her better." He smiles his perfect smile -- a million watts of obscene pleasure radiating from his mouth. "This . . . is . . . yours!"
The old man looks down, carefully inspecting the dirt on his surplus drab PLA recruits' shoes. This isn't easy for him, and I fight the urge to wince as I watch him squirm.
"Please let me get the doctor. He is very close, and your hand, my son, your hand."
And before the prima donna can reply, the old man is already out the door on feet surprisingly fleet to belong to a body of many years. A bottle goes flying towards his head, and misses, exploding against the wall and releasing the pineapple and gasoline smell of báijiǔ as it contents drip towards the floor.
"Well, now you've done it. Now you've done it," I begin. "You've run off your own father, idiot! What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to finish my drink." He sits down as he says it. There's no more anger. The thespian is satisfied with his performance, critics be damned.
"What about dinner? There's nothing left to eat?" I can't relent now. It's up to me to see this through, and the beautiful one, as excited as he gets, climaxes quickly. Read into this statement what you will.
"Cook some potatoes."
"Well, cook some noodles."
"Where would I get noodles? From the noodle fairy?"
"This is a woman's problem, not mine. Begone, midget! I've got five bottles to finish before bedtime."
"I'm not going to starve. Bring me something to eat! Bring me anything!" I stomp my foot as I say it and feel like an imbecile in doing so. "Bring me it to me, and bring it now!" He hates being given orders.
"You want food! Fine, I'll give you food. Where's my pincer arm?"
"What are you going to do?" I'm a little suspicious. Is it really going to be this easy?
"You'll see," he laughs a little. "You'll get your damned dinner soon enough." He stumbles out of the house so awkwardly that it would be funny were it not pathetically odd. That's my part. The rest is up to the boys.
To be continued...