Surprise! I'm back for the holiday season :)
Surprise! I'm back for the holiday season :)
If you shed tears when you miss the sun, you also miss the stars.
–Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
July came to an end amidst scorching sun and screeching cicadas.
The quadrennial global soccer hype reached its peak at the end of June. During the game between Italy and Australia, Huang Jianxiang howled Grosso’s name – “He is not fighting this battle alone! He is not alone!” – then on the fateful day of the tenth of July, Zidane was sent from the field with a red card in the last game of his soccer career, and Italy beat France, six to four, winning the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
As if to commemorate the exhilarating game, it rained for the whole day in the city of X, washing away all the dirt and heat. When the sun shone down once again on the lush leaves at the mouth of every street and alley, the crowds dispersed from the bars leaving them in the usual deserted state save for a few strays.
That evening, after taking care of his brother, Xu Ping took a bus straight to a soccer bar on Liu Ying Road without even changing his clothes. Pushing open the heavy wooden door, he shivered as he was hit with a blast of air conditioning.
Someone waved at him from the bar. Rubbing his arms, Xu Ping walked over.
“What do you want? Beer?” He Zhi asked with a raised brow while munching on a plate of peanuts.
Xu Ping nodded.
He Zhi ordered two bottles of Tsingtao and waved his hand when the bartender took out glasses. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, the two friends started drinking without any toasts.
“How’s it going these days?”
He Zhi glanced over and gave him a comforting pat.
“I couldn’t contact you earlier ‘cause I was on a mission. Didn’t know your dad passed away until I came back.”
“Yeah, throat cancer. It was late stage by the time we found out.”
He Zhi turned the bottle around in his hand.
Xu Ping was quite for a second too, but he scrunched his nose and said, “At first my dad didn’t want the surgery, but the doctor told me not to worry, said the chance of recovery was very high. He studied in Germany and had a lot of experience with the same kind of surgery, and he went on blabbing about some bullshit new technology, so I signed the consent form. They go into the operation room, and the guy comes out in half an hour and tells me the cancer cells had spread and he couldn’t remove all of the bad tissues, and I should mark the days now. That son of a bitch…son of a bitch… My dad’s condition worsened so much after the surgery. He just fell apart. He was able to walk and talk and eat before, but afterward he couldn’t even get up from the bed. They put a hole in his stomach and fed him water and liquid food through that. I can’t imagine what he must’ve gone through ‘cause after just two months he…he…”
Xu Ping clenched his hands and teeth so hard he was shaking all over.
“The People’s Hospital?”
Xu Ping nodded as he fought with his tears.
He Zhi pulled out the napkin from under the peanut plate and pushed it towards his friend as he fished out a ballpoint pen from his breast pocket.
He Zhi also took out a cigarette from his pocket and asked the bartender for an ashtray.
“Write down the name of that bastard.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. Our team follows strict protocol, and we can’t do anything too crazy, but motherfuckers like him who use the lives of his patients to earn credentials for himself deserve a good beating to teach him a lesson!”
Jaws clenched, Xu Ping truly wanted to reach for that pen, but he stopped himself in the last moment.
He spoke again only after a few mouthfuls of beer. “So what if you beat him to death? That won’t bring my dad back.”
The two men sat drinking in silence. The screen up above was playing a live broadcast of a Premier League game. The bartender was wiping glasses in the corner far away from them, scanning the shop every now and then before going back to his work.
“It’s been so long since we met, let’s not talk about this. What have you been up to?”
“There was a contraband case in Fujian with a lot of parties involved, so they put together a special team with people from all over the country. They banned all phones and outside communication ‘cause they didn’t want any leaks that would alert the criminals. Then we were sent back after staying under cover for months and cracking the case. It’ll go on TV in a day or two. They arrested a lot of people. All of their heads are coming off.”
Xu Ping nodded.
“I’m wiped, but I reckon I’ll get a promotion this time.” He Zhi took a swig while staring at the screen.
“You little rascal!” Xu Ping chuckled. “I told you so. With your ability and experience, your leader should have promoted you long ago if he had the tiniest amount of judgement.” He raised his bottle. “Here, cheers to your promotion to Captain of the CID!”
“Deputy captain…but I hope I will be the real thing soon.”
Xu Ping laughed heartily. “A deputy captain is still a captain. Don’t be modest with me now!”
The two clinked their bottles and tilted them straight up.
He Zhi made a gesture to the bartender for another round of Tsingtao, but Xu Ping stopped him. “That’s enough. I can’t hold alcohol well, and I still have to take care of my brother later. I can’t drink anymore.”
He Zhi clapped him on the shoulder and called, “Ping-zi.”
Xu Ping paused. He Zhi had not called him by that nickname for many years. Hearing it again made him think of their childhood, and then he realized he and He Zhi had known each other for nearly thirty years.
He sat back on his seat and took a chilled bottle from the bartender. He lifted it up towards He Zhi and took the first drink.
He knew his friend had something to tell him, but he waited patiently without rushing him.
“I visited Xiao-Qing’s grave a few days ago. I saw her photo, and I realized I had almost forgotten what she looked like. It’s only been, what, eight years?”
Xu Ping stayed silent.
“I swore to myself that I would find the culprit, but after all these years, I still haven’t found the driver, and I’ve only gotten older.”
Chen Qing was He Zhi’s ex-girlfriend who was killed in a car accident right when they had dated for five years and were considering marriage. The driver fled the scene, and Chen Qing died on the way to the hospital.
“If she were alive, my son would be in elementary school.”
Xu Ping drank his beer.
“Sometimes I think living is a shitty deal. Good people never live long, but those bad ones get to keep their jobs and money and freedom.” He Zhi huffed on his cigarette. “Goddamnit, Anthony Wong was right: murderers and arsonists get gold belts while bridge-builders and road-pavers die without a whole corpse.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic,” Xu Ping chuckled. “There are just a bit more good people in this world. See, the two of us are alive and well.”
He Zhi sniffed. “I’m having a hard time telling if I’m a good person or not. Dealing with those criminals every day, sometimes I feel like I’m becoming one of those disgusting creatures. The police department is filled with bullshit, too. I only feel a bit relaxed when I’m with you.”
“And this is coming from the mouth of a deputy-captain-to-be?”
He Zhi shook his cigarette. “There’s never an end to promotions. There’s always someone above you and then another above that. People like me, we’re no different from the dogs kept by humans.”
Xu Ping shot a look at him. “Then what’s a civilian like me? You can let out steam with me, but you’d better go back to being your deputy captain. Your mom and dad are counting on you to make the ancestors proud.”
“Make my ancestors proud, yeah right.” He Zhi laughed. “That should be someone like you.”
Xu Ping fell quiet.
“If it wasn’t for that fucking bastard, you wouldn’t have gone to jail. You wouldn’t have gotten a record, and you would’ve gone to university! That fucker! Now he’s having the time of his life with a wanted poster in his name. You went through so much in the slammer –”
The two men sat in silence together.
Then He Zhi slowly put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I had a little too much tonight.”
Xu Ping nodded.
He stood up to pay, but He Zhi grabbed him. “It’s on me.”
Just as He Zhi pulled out his wallet, the bartender came over. “The boss said that it’s on the house for you two gentlemen.”
Puzzled, Xu Ping looked over at his friend.
Without flinching, He Zhi pushed his wallet back into his pocket.
“Tell your boss I said thanks.”
“Mr. Qin said Officer He is always welcome. We have a few other locations. You can use this VIP card whenever you come to our shops.”
He Zhi took a look at the card before stuffing it into his jacket pocket.
The two friends walked out of the bar.
“You know the owner?”
“Never even seen the guy.”
Xu Ping didn’t speak.
“A lot of stuff happens at these places, and they got their own men and their own business. They need favours from us when the shit hits the fan.”
Xu Ping nodded and made to say farewell and take the bus home.
“Ping-zi, I’m getting married.”
Shocked, Xu Ping swung around.
“What?! Since when did you have a girlfriend?!”
“Not my girlfriend.” He paused looking down at his shoe grinding out the cigarette butt. “My brother-in-law introduced us. She’s the daughter of the department chief.”
Xu Ping stared at his friend.
“When is it?”
“Remember to send me an invitation.”
The neon lights of the bars flashed and sparkled in the night. The toasty breeze was filled with dust.
A red taxi slowed to a stop beside them. Xu Ping waved to the driver, and the vehicle continued slowly along its way.
In the distance, bus no. 25 was driving towards the stop, full of passengers returning home late.
“My ride’s here.”
He Zhi nodded.
“Give me a call if there’s anything. Don’t try to take it on all by yourself.”
Xu Ping laughed. “Don’t curse me! You do know what you do, right? I’m a law-abiding citizen. If I ever called you for help, then I’d really be in trouble.”
He Zhi chuckled along.
Xu Ping dug out his monthly pass and got on the bus while He Zhi stood by the bus stop.
Xu Ping stuck his head out the window. “All right. Hurry home. Don’t make your parents wait.”
He Zhi nodded but didn’t move.
After a moment’s consideration, Xu Ping stuck his head out again. “Da-Zhi!”
He Zhi looked up.
“It’s my birthday in a few days. Come out for dinner!”
The bus drove off. Xu Ping watched his friend wave good bye in the dark night.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang says: I'm back early! I still have two more finals to go, but the worst has passed :) Good luck to everybody who is battling with the end-of-term chaos.
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.