mast

The building's shadow has shifted from west to east.

“George is running a little late,” apologizes the interview coordinator, a Caucasian woman half a head taller than Wei Dong. The October afternoon sun glares through the window of this eighth floor office in Technology Square, next to MIT. Wei Dong eases back in the seat. It looks like neither a rookie employee presenting a textbook question to test intelligence nor a mainlander who would not hesitate to lay an ambush for a fellow Chinese is in his way today. As a veteran software programmer, he has switched companies seven times in the past thirteen years, each moving him to a more challenging or better paying position—till this last time when he, along with his entire R&D group, was laid off. As good at interviews as he is, in this economic downturn, he dreads running into a countryman who has also gone through the baptism of the Cultural Revolution. “We Chinese are a plate of loose sand,” he once grumbled to his wife after being stabbed in the back by a fellow Chinese. And once you are bitten by a snake, you can be startled by straw ropes for three years.

“Which part of China are you from?” The coordinator chats with Wei Dong as they wait for George.

“Sichuan.” He mentions his province, but not his city. If he says Chongqing, he will have to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation. Nobody here seems to know Chongqing, even though it was once the Capital of China during the Japanese invasion.
“I know Sichuan,” the woman says, “the spicy food!”

“That’s right,” Wei Dong nods politely. In America, the sole impression of his home, his beautiful and painful home, is its food.

“Spicy food with no fortune cookies,” he adds.

“That’s what George said. You know, George is also … ”

A knock on the door, a head with black hair cranes in. “Speak of the devil,” the coordinator smiles. “This is our Principal Engineer, George Zhang.” Wei Dong stands up while his heart sinks at the introduction. The woman, like most Americans, can’t pronounce a Chinese ‘Z’ properly. But that merely highlights the real problem: Only a mainland Chinese could have such a last name. In Taiwan or Hong Kong, the name would be “Chang” instead. The short man at the door looks about the same age as Wei Dong, with the same yellow skin—what kind of Chinese is he to use a foreign first name? No doubt one with the potential to demolish Wei Dong’s opportunity.

The new interviewer has Wei Dong’s résumé in hand. He scrutinizes Wei Dong’s face, forcing a nod from the latter. The scrutiny is too intense for an interview. An eerie sensation washes down Wei Dong’s body, and he is startled by Zhang's exclamation: “Wei Dong! It really is you! Do you remember me?” He waves Wei Dong’s résumé as if it is a witness.

Wei Dong narrows his eyes slightly; his gaze dwells on Zhang’s ordinary and energetic face for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “Sorry, no.” Both men are speaking English, and Wei Dong detects a southern Chinese accent in the other man’s speech, just like his own.

Zhang whispers to the coordinator and the latter nods several times. Wei Dong cannot make out his words, and Zhang’s intimacy with a white woman bothers him. The good mood is broken. It is not a good omen that a man he doesn’t know claims to have known him.

Zhang escorts Wei Dong from the coordinator’s room, and leads him toward his office. He stops halfway and asks again, “Do you really not remember me?” This time he speaks in Chinese.

“Sorry, I still don’t. Where do we know each other from?” Wei Dong answers in Chinese as well. It sounds funny when he says “sorry” in Chinese, as it is not an expression used in the daily dialogue of his hometown. Disappointment sweeps through Zhang’s face and he sighs a philosopher’s sigh. “I’m not surprised. One remembers what one wants to remember.”

He now speaks in Chongqing dialect.

“When did you come to America?” Wei Dong asks, curiosity and alarm rising together.

“You want to know? Hey, let’s go to a Sichuan restaurant and have a cup! How’s that?” His enthusiasm is typically Chongqing, a characteristic of those raised on hot peppers and relentless gray winters. The enthusiasm affects Wei Dong. He has not had a drinking partner for a while, and drinking is no fun without a partner and Sichuan dishes.

“What about my interview?”

“You are done! I’m the last one on your list.” Zhang says.

“Where are we going?”

“Chinatown, of course, unless you want to go for fake Chinese food.”
Striding across the sparsely filled parking lot, Wei Dong pictures its past crowdedness. They get into Zhang’s gold Camry and drive across the Charles River. Luckily, there is an open meter on the small street next to South Station, the main train and bus interchange for Boston. They walk along Kneeland Street. Near the off-ramp of the Mass Pike stands a bearded, stocky white man in T-shirt, waving a cardboard sign to passing cars: “WILL WORK FOR MONEY.”

“What are you looking at?” Zhang asks.

Out of habit, Wei Dong is looking up at a five-floor beige stone building across the intersection. Chinatown is not an intimate or attractive place to him; he comes here only when his wife needs native groceries that she can’t get in Stop & Shop. But this building is an exception. On its flat top, a red-pillared, green-tiled pavilion with eight flying eaves is visible. He always looks at it when he comes here; it makes him homesick. In Sichuan this type of pavilion is common, though never on top of a building. He had thought to build such a pavilion himself in the yard of his new house, but that was before he was laid off. Now he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to keep paying the mortgage.

Today, something else catches his eye. On the south side of the building, facing the Mass Pike off-ramp, the relief characters “Welcome to Chinatown” have been covered with a long red silk banner fluttering in the autumn wind. On the banner are bold words written in both Chinese and English:

 

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GOD BLESS AMERICA

 

This red banner was not there before September 11. Wei Dong stares at the Chinese line. Unlike the English slogan, which seems complacent, the Chinese words beg for blessing and protection. Something warm rolls inside his throat. Zhang follows his eyes. They are silent for a moment, then resume their walk.

Across the packed streets smelling of roasted duck, smoking oyster sauce, and live fish, Zhang takes Wei Dong to a restaurant named “Old Sichuan,” half-empty this afternoon. The scent of ginger and scallions supplants the outside odors. The hostess, a young girl, apparently knows Zhang. “Which good wind blows you here?” she says in Mandarin, trying to make it sound like Sichuanese, and deftly sets a table with Chinese zodiac placemats for two.

“What’d you like to drink, Mr. Zhang?” the girl asks sweetly.

“Guizhou Maotai! Do you have it?”

“Mr. Zhang, what happiness are you celebrating?” the talkative girl asks. Wei Dong scrunches his eyebrows a little: a bottle of Maotai would only be opened on an important occasion.

“I met my savior today,” Zhang points to Wei Dong. “We must have Maotai. Give us your finest wine cups!”

Wei Dong is now certain that this townsman of his has it all wrong. He might have ended a life when he was a teenager but, he had most definitely never saved one.

“Townsman,” Wei Dong says, “that’s not the reason for the celebration. I’m surely not your savior. But I’ll be happy to hear your story and celebrate our meeting today.”

“Sit down, sit down. I know what I’m talking about. It’s my treat today.” Zhang orders cold dishes first. Tingling and Hot Beef Stomach. Garlic Seaweed. Red-oil Three Slices. He then orders hot dishes. Twice Cooked Pork. Quick-fried Tripe. Broad-Bean Sauce Silver Carp. All are the familiar spicy dishes that Wei Dong associates with his motherland.

“Too much,” says Wei Dong.

Zhang raises his hand to counter Wei Dong’s objection, pours the hard liquor in their delicate, white-blue China wine cups, and holds up his cup: “Gan!”

Wei Dong covers his cup with a palm. “Townsman,” he says, “I’m a forthright man who does not drink insinuative wine. First tell me why you think we knew each other.”

“Dry this cup up and I’ll tell you.”

“Doable.”

They both drink and show the other the bottom of the cup.

“Nineteen-sixty-eight. How many years ago was that?”

“Thirty three.” It was the year when the armed fighting between two factions of Red Guards was at its peak. Each faction believed its interpretation of Mao’s revolutionary line was the pure and correct one, and that the others were villains.

“Thirty-three years ago, you were a student of the Secondary School attached to the Southwest Normal University, right?”

“Yes,” Wei Dong feels goosebumps on his back. This information is not on his résumé. But he is not convinced that this man really knew him personally. He was a Red Guard faction leader then; many Chongqing people from that time might know his name. He has an impulse to stop this man’s reminiscence, but he restrains himself.

“You were the head of ‘Spring Thunder’.”

“True.” Wei Dong says as calmly as he can. “Spring Thunder” was an “armed fighting” team of his Red Guard faction.

“In the summer of 1968, you commanded an ‘armed fight’ against us, ‘8.31’. And you won. You captured the Library Building we occupied, and took several of us prisoner.”

“Were you among those?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Wei Dong looks at Zhang again carefully, but still doesn’t find anything familiar.

“Your people wanted to execute us,” Zhang says.

“You killed one of our fighters.” Through the gunpowder smoke diluted by time, Wei Dong can still see the specter of a body wrapped in white sheets, lying motionless on the ground. Fierce faces and guns swinging around in syncopation with the outcry: “Blood debts must be paid in blood!”

“Not me personally. But maybe. Probably.” Zhang downs another cup of the intense liquor. His face starts to show redness, a sign that he is upset or can’t hold his drink.

“Revenge was the sentiment then.”

“Maybe. So you said, ‘Just one! One for one!’”

Wei Dong nods slowly. He might have said that. He was a leader known for being accurate on numbers. His math was the best in class before the Cultural Revolution.

“And someone pulled me out and covered my eyes,” Zhang says.

Wei Dong sees a remote figure in his wine cup, a short young man in a sleeveless singlet, hands tied behind his back, eyes covered by a dirty rag, face blackened by smoke; this may explain why he couldn’t recall anything familiar about Zhang. “I fuck your ancestor!” the blindfolded, struggling young man had cursed at the top of his lungs. “I fight for Chairman Mao! I die for Chairman Mao! Shoot me! Get it done quick!”

Zhang continues, “I kept shouting because waiting to die was the scariest thing." He smiles bitterly and keeps drinking. “Through all my shouting, though, I could still hear the trigger being pulled.”
Wei Dong awaits his account. His hand, holding the empty wine cup, is steady.

Zhang suddenly laughs. He points to Wei Dong. His laughter makes him choke and he is out of breath as he blurts out: “It was … it was … a dud …”

“Go on.” Wei Dong fills Zhang’s cup with more Maotai, and also fills his own.

“The shooter was angry and yelled, ‘Fuck! Let me do it again!’ I could feel the barrel aiming at my face and—no point in concealing it from you now—my pants were wet.” A wry grin passes a corner of Zhang’s mouth. “Then you said, ‘Shit gun! Save your bullet for the next fight. It’s his damn luck.’ And you let me go.”

Zhang pauses. Wei Dong looks to the nearby tables. The table on their left is empty; on their right three men speak incomprehensible Cantonese in loud voices.

“So you are my savior. But why? Why’d you let me go?” Zhang’s hard stare forces Wei Dong to face him.

Wei Dong remembers that fight, but doesn’t remember all the details. He was only a fourteen-year-old boy then. What Zhang describes surely is like what he would have done. Wei Dong’s father, a professional military officer, had been very superstitious. He had told his impressionable son that a misfire is an inauspicious sign for a shooter; it means that the enemy has not yet reached the end of his life and must be let go. Otherwise, it would bring misfortune to the shooter. If that was what Wei Dong did, it was the only thing he did that had not been in the name of revolution during that time.

But he does not tell Zhang this. He asks, “Did we … shoot anyone else after we let you go?”

“Don’t know. As soon as I got out of the Library Building I never wanted to be a Red Guard again.”

“Good for you,” Wei Dong clinks his glass with Zhang’s and takes a sip. He had stayed in his faction of Red Guard for much longer, until Chairman Mao no longer needed them and sent them to the countryside for re-education by poor peasants.

The whole-fish covered with starchy brown sauce and scallions arrives as the last dish, giving off aromatic steam. Zhang jabs his chopsticks into it, and takes a fluffy white morsel to his mouth. “Mmm,” he says, “The cook is not bad. Not bad at all. Eat.” He puts a piece in Wei Dong’s bowl.

The subject changes. They talk about names they both knew from their Red Guard times. Some of their acquaintances had been executed by the government after the Cultural Revolution. Some are now rich businessmen in the mainland. There were many people they had both known during the Cultural Revolution, but not Chairman Mao himself. Neither of the once loyal Red Guards had ever seen him with their own eyes or heard his words directly. They do not bother to mention what had made them enemies thirty-three years ago.

They talk about their teenage sons and the games the kids like to play. “Tomb Raider.” “Resident Evil.” They spill out these names almost simultaneously, pausing, then laughing at the coincidence. "It’s good that they shoot the screen," says Zhang. "I hope they don’t treat reality as a screen," says Wei Dong.

“This is one time, and that was another.” Zhang’s tongue is enlarged by alcohol.

They drink and talk like two old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long, long time. By the end of the dinner, Zhang is as drunk as mud and in no condition to drive. Wei Dong is not drunk. He is merely satisfied that his capacity is no less than when he was young, probably the only heroic valor that remains with him. He orders a pot of very thick tea, and drinks two full cups in an attempt to neutralize the effects of the alcohol. On the table littered with plates and bowls, the dishes on his side are nearly untouched.
He takes the keys from Zhang’s pocket, pays for the dinner, and goes to the gold Camry. When he drives Zhang’s car back to the front door of “Old Sichuan,” the girl at the front desk and another waiter are holding Zhang up. They help load him into the car. Wei Dong drives to Technology Square, parks Zhang’s car, and moves Zhang into his own silver Camry.

His car glides quietly in the dark along the Massachusetts Pike with Zhang snoring in the back seat. For a moment he worries that Zhang, the ordinary townsman who reminds him nothing at all of the irreconcilable enemy from decades ago, might puke in his well-maintained interior. Outside, the sound of traffic washes over his window like an ocean tide. Streams of red lights stretch to the invisible fore; behind him endless white headlights keep coming from unseen origins. On the car radio the reporter of the 1030 News Station talks about the unsure signs of economic recovery, lingering terrorist threats, a shooting at an abortion clinic, suicide bombers in Israel.

Wei Dong’s hands sweat cold, moistening the steering wheel. The killing, all of it, was done in the name of God, or one revered as God, for whom his blood once boiled. It’s frightening to relate those feverish fanaticisms to his remote self of thirty-three years ago. What was heroic, just, and glorious then is ignorant, criminal, and shameful now. It seems only those who survive the waste can understand, dooming new generations to repeat it in different places, for different causes.

He still is unsure if he killed anyone in those “armed fights” in Chongqing, though he knew he had opened fire in battles. “Bullets don’t grow eyes,” his father often had said.

He doesn’t want to think about it further. Hopefully tomorrow morning Zhang won’t consider ruining his employment opportunity. He is a skilled software developer who deserves the position. He has made Boston his home and he needs to keep paying for the new house that he, his wife and son love.

In a western suburb of Boston, his wife opens the door and starts. “Why are you home so late? What happened? Who is this?” she asks in an alarmed, rapid Chongqing dialect.

“An eternal friend from the old time,” Wei Dong replies. “Help me to get him in.”


 
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Xujun Eberlein, born in Sichuan, China, holds a Ph.D. from MIT in Civil Engineering. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Cottonwood, Awani, Thought Magazine, In Posse Review, and the Asian American Writers Workshop’s anthology. She received Honorable Mention in the Literary Short Story category of the 72nd Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, and was a finalist in the novella category of the 2003 William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. She lives with her husband and daughter in Massachusetts. Her e-mail: xje2001@yahoo.com.

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