Love is life in its fulness like the cup with its wine.
–Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
Xu Ping stopped in front of a shop to let the old man cycle past him.
The street was very narrow, and only bicycles and motorcycles went through here. Small shops lined either side of it: a grocery store, a hardware shop, a beef noodle shop. Located in the old part of town, the grey brick storefronts were worn down. The tall concrete electricity poles wove cobwebs in the sky, and tree sparrows danced on the wires. At the very end of the street was the last pailou in the city that had not been demolished, and its black curved roof flew towards the baby blue sky.
With his briefcase in hand, Xu Ping continued forth, turned left before the sign, “Car Repairs Tire Replacement Air Pump,” and lifted up the elastic curtain to enter a tiny watch repair shop.
Inside the dim shop, there was a desk by the window facing the alleyway piled full of scissors, crystal lifts, microscopes and other miscellaneous tools. The air was filled with the smell of old furniture and chive and pork stir fry from lunch.
His brother was looming over the desk focused on something under a black single-lens microscope.
An elderly man with grey hair sitting behind the counter looked up from his newspaper.
“Oh, it’s you, Xu Ping.”
Xu Ping nodded smilingly. “Feng-shifu.”
The old man folded up the paper and stood up. “I’ll get him.”
“No, no.” Xu Ping halted him. “I’m in no rush. I’ll just wait for him to finish.”
He placed his briefcase on the counter and found a chair for himself.
“How was business today?”
“It was slow in the morning. Just one client who needed his hanging clock fixed. Your brother wasn’t here. It became busy in the afternoon, all for watches. A young girl came with an old quartz. My eyes are failing me these days, so I asked your brother to fix it.”
Xu Ping looked over at his brother’s back bent over the desk. “Is he…any good?”
Feng-shifu started chuckling. “You’re still so doubtful of him after he’s worked here for so long. The only reason I give him the work is because I trust his ability. Plus, the girl didn’t come to see li’l old me.”
Xu Ping paused and forced a smile.
“What a handsome lad he is. I get business just from him sitting there at the window.” Feng-shifu lifted the lid of his tea cup and took a leisurely sip. “There was a girl last time, oh, a very pretty girl. She came to my shop every day for two whole weeks, but your brother didn’t make a peep, and the girl left in tears.”
Xu Ping asked apologetically, “Didn’t you explain it to her?”
“But I did. I knew something was wrong the second time she came, and I told her to stop trying, but she wouldn’t believe me. Why would he bother with her when this fellow doesn’t even bother with me?”
“Didn’t you tell her that my brother…has issues?”
“Now why would I tell her that?! Plus, I don’t think he has any intelligence issues. Sure, he just doesn’t like to talk, but he’s gifted in mechanics. There are so many different kinds of people in this world, and if you don’t have a problem or two, then I reckon you’re not human.”
Xu Ping laughed.
“You’re really open-minded, Feng-shifu.”
“Well, you learn to be when you’re as old as me. You know what, our kind is dying out. All the young folks are using the whatchamacallit, ‘cell phones,’ nowadays. Nobody’s wearing watches anymore. Your brother wouldn’t need to do manual labour in the morning if this was years ago. He’d earn enough for all his living expenses just fixing watches here.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble he’s caused.”
“At first I thought he was trouble, too. When your dad tried to send the boy to me, I thought, what could I do to help a retard? No deal. But your dad, boy was he smart. He spotted the photograph of the actress, Wang Xiaotang, that I kept under the glass on my desk, and without saying anything about it, he insisted on buying me dinner. Then I show up, and who do I find? Wang Xiaotang in the flesh! In my giddiness I said yes to your dad. I went home that night, and the reality hit me, and I regretted it so much, but after two weeks with your brother, I found that your brother was truly meant for this job. It’s a pity that the watch repair business isn’t doing well. And your dad too…” He heaved a deep sigh.
The twin bell alarm clocks and hanging clocks went tick-tock-tick-tock, and a motorcycle and its young driver rode past the window.
SCREECH. Xu Zheng stood up from his chair and after a pause called out, “Gege.”
Xu Ping looked up at him. The light was behind him, so he could see only the man’s large silhouette and nothing of his expression.
“All fixed?” Feng-shifu asked, walking over.
Instead of answering, Xu Zheng strode straight to his brother for a tight hug.
Feng-shifu put on his reading glasses and inspected his work. “All right. You did a good job. Now go home with your brother. Look at you, all clingy just after a few hours away from your brother.”
Xu Ping wasn’t sure whether to take that as a good or bad thing. He pushed his brother.
But the stubborn Xu Zheng wouldn’t let go.
Xu Ping grabbed his briefcase and his brother’s hand. “Okay, Feng-shifu, we’ll be on our way.”
“Go, go, go. You don’t deserve that handsome face if you pretend your shifu is invisible and then turn into a big slobbering puppy when you see your brother. Just get outta here!” Feng-shifu sighed with his hands clasped behind his back.
Xu Ping gave a hearty laugh.
Xu Zheng stopped at the entrance of the building with two large baskets full of groceries.
Xu Ping managed to shift the weighty bag in his right hand to his left and searched for the mailbox key.
“Xiao-Zheng, you have your key, right? You go up first. I need to check the mail.”
Xu Zheng looked at his brother for a moment before snatching the bags out of his hand and climbing up the stairs.
There was a bunch of colourful ads in the mailbox – real estate, supermarket discounts, an old veteran’s formula for psoriasis – Xu Ping rummaged through them, crumpled them up and tossed them into the trash can on the side.
There was one letter stuck to the bottom that Xu Ping had to pull very hard to free up. The edges were worn, and it was smeared with dust.
The envelope was made from very thick paper. The words “Mister Xu” were the only things written on it.
Xu Ping tore open one side of the envelope as he slowly went up the stairs.
The only thing inside was an oil painting the size of a postcard. The paper had turned yellow. In the middle was a preaching Jesus Christ, and a woman knelt at his feet kissing his robe. The detailed brush brought the characters to life.
There was nothing on the back.
Xu Ping looked over the envelope again and found English on the stamps – New York.
Thinking it was from a fan of his dad’s, he placed it on the shoe rack after he unlocked the front door.
He made ribs, bean sprout stirfry and winter melon sea snail soup.
His brother’s work at the factory was very tough, so every day he would wolf down his dinner so fast that sweat dripped down his forehead and formed a dark U shape on his shirt.
Xu Ping, on the other hand, lost his appetite after a few bites. Perhaps it was the continuously rising heat, but he ate less and less and had a terrible appetite.
He instead used his chopsticks to put more food into his brother’s bowl.
“Don’t just eat the rice. Have some veggies, and don’t forget the ribs.”
Xu Zheng looked up at his brother for a while and then copied Xu Ping, putting a piece of the ribs in Xu Ping’s bowl.
“Gege is skinny, so Gege eat more.”
Xu Ping flashed a warm smile.
During the six months that Xu Chuan fell ill and passed away, Xu Ping lost weight at a surprisingly fast rate. He was troubled by the many things weighing on him, and that greatly affected his appetite and sleeping.
He took a bite out of the rib and only found it to be greasy. He saw his brother going at his ribs with great enthusiasm and didn’t want to ruin the moment, so he forced the meat down his throat. But then he found there was nowhere to put the bone.
He found yesterday’s newspaper lying on the coffee table, so he folded it up and laid it on the dinner table.
The page facing up contained an article on a highly publicized financing case.
“The Aidilun Company has gained the favour of Wall Street investors. GDK bought 0.24 billion of Aidilun stock at 1.8 billion Hong Kong dollars, and stock prices spiked 500% in one month showing its favourable situation. The electrical automobiles developed by the company are projected to go to market within the year.”
There was also a photograph of the company’s representative and the investing party shaking hands before their signed agreement.
Pfft. Xu Zheng spat a bone out right onto the two men’s faces. He wiped the sweat on his forehead with his arm.
“Is it really that hot?”
Xu Zheng nodded.
Xu Ping got up and turned on the air conditioning.
The living room was dark. The television was on, but the volume was very low, playing a historical drama from a few years ago.
A myriad of coloured lights flowed over Xu Ping’s face like water. He was lying on the couch before the television, apparently asleep with a magazine in hand.
One of the bedroom doors swung open, and out stalked Xu Zheng.
He stood beside Xu Ping, his shadow swallowing Xu Ping whole.
He slowly crouched down, his clothes rustling quietly.
Xu Ping seemed anxious even in his sleep, his eyes tightly shut and his brows slightly furrowed.
Xu Zheng leaned in closer, so close that their noses almost touched. His breath brushed past his brother’s face, and he could count his brother’s eyelashes.
He paused in confusion, uncertain of what to do next.
As he stared fixedly at Xu Ping, he reached out tentatively to touch his face.
Slap! The magazine slipped out of Xu Ping’s hand and hit the ground.
Xu Ping jerked awake and saw his brother barely a hair’s breadth away. His pupils shrunk in an instant, and his fists balled together, his body tense. But the next moment, he relaxed after realizing the situation.
He pushed his brother away and sat up straight. Then, he rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb before rubbing his entire face. “What time is it?”
Xu Zheng turned to the clock on the wall and answered after a long time, “Ten twenty-seven.”
“I wanted to watch TV for a bit. How did I fall asleep?” Xu Ping muttered to himself.
He picked up the magazine and placed it back on the short shelf beside the couch.
“Gege is tired.”
Xu Ping shot a look of surprise at Xu Zheng and then smiled. “Yeah, even you could tell.”
He turned off the television and massaged his stiff neck. “It’s late, and you have to get up early tomorrow. Go to bed.”
He rested a hand on his brother’s back and accompanied him to his room.
His brother’s room was filled with strange and interesting things – various alarm clock models, robots of different sizes, radios from various eras – and in the middle was a desk piled with stuff. The desk lamp was still on, and it was apparent that his brother had been working on something. Sawdust and balls of paper were all over the desk.
Seeing this mess, Xu Ping frowned.
He stepped in wanting to clean out the garbage, but Xu Zheng hurriedly blocked his way.
“What’s the secret? Are you keeping something from me?”
Xu Ping leaned his head to the side.
His brother opened his arms in an attempt to block his vision.
Then Xu Ping smiled. “All right. I don’t know what’s gotten you so secretive, but I won’t look.” He turned around. “I’m going to count to five. Hurry and hide whatever it is.”
He began to count. He heard his brother stuffing things into whatever place he could find. He slowed down on purpose and didn’t say five until the noises stopped.
Xu Ping eyed the desk drawer after he turned around, and Xu Zheng quickly stepped in between them.
“Okay. Go to sleep.”
He watched his brother take off his t-shirt and shorts and then turned off the desk lamp.
Instantaneously, the room became nearly pitch black save for the sliver of light from the hallway.
He walked to the bed and touched Xu Zheng’s face.
They looked into each other’s eyes in the dark. Xu Zheng stared fixedly at his brother, his heart beating very fast.
Xu Ping slowly bent over, stopped, and in the end planted a light kiss on his forehead.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang: Lots of foreshadowing in these chaps...
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.