A true patriot – fiction by Tim Rinaldi
The residents – they never see me. No one does. Through the murky glass they see the cigarette smoke curling around the blue uniform in the circular booth, but they never see me. I see everything. The monkey boy hair, the degenerate piercings, the garish tattoos. I hear it, too. The music they play, so loud, so crazy, so many sounds that do not sound like music.
“Shushu, you cannot understand,” my niece Xiaorong says. “It is too different from when you were young in Shandong. Do you even know how to dance to the Little Apple Song?”
These days people think you’re some kind of idiot if you’ve never used the Internet before. It is true that I do not participate in these activities like she and her clever friends from shifandaxue do. I would not wish to, even if I could.
Perhaps they have not heard of this thing called dignity. That there is a difference between participation and knowledge. I sometimes read Phoenix magazine, from Hong Kong. Do you know that, Xiaorong? Do you know that I have several copies of books published in those territories, volumes that are not even available to you and your clever friends over at shifandaxue?
Xiaorong has said she wishes to study abroad for a graduate degree. Despite the fashion of our times, I believe this is a very stupid thing to do. Her father, my brother, has visited several foreign places, including London, and his tales from those trips have been very informative. It is well known that we Chinese tend to carry cash; it did not take him more than three days to get mugged by an Arab in the very heart of that city. I suspect he will not be forsaking our China again anytime soon.
I prefer Shanghai, even though this city cares not a whit for me. I enjoy the lights and sometimes I have been known to go to the terrace apartment of Sun Lingbing and play mahjong. It is true I often lose at mahjong, but not because I am stupid, as the man with the flashy cane – Zhou Haodun – has twice implied. No, it is because I prefer to look at the lights.
There are those who sometimes step in shit because their gaze is always on the heavens. I am this kind of person. The less lofty meaning of this is that I am also willing to step on a pile of shit, Zhou Haodun, and if you would care to avoid a celestial beating with your preposterous cane, you could do worse than to hold your tongue.
Some people, they make a little renminbi, they think they are better than you. But you are not better than me, Zhou Haodun. It is quite likely I am better than you, hobbling around with your Henan whores while Sun Lingbing stalks her terrace and sheds tears onto the plaza. It is a pity you did not have more money to lose in the stock market.
At six, the purplish scooter of my deformed colleague, Mao Dinglao, parks beside the gate. Mao Dinglao – such a depressing person. Just when you are feeling well, always it is Mao Dinglao who must come along. I brace myself as he swivels and staggers up the incline to our booth. I reluctantly open the door and tell him of my plans while he changes into his guard clothes.
“Mahjong,” he repeats. “Careful to play the tiles well. Otherwise you will feel like even more of a fool.”
Truly a comment with Mao Dinglao characteristics: so petty, so spiteful, so full of barely concealed self-pity.
I turn up the radio on a broadcast about the country of the gun, how even the women do not leave home without them, how the elderly like myself are unafraid to kill. By the time I snatch my blazer off the rack, Mao Dinglao is already asleep.
When I get to Sun Lingbing’s apartment, the four Shanghainese are eating fried scorpions around a rosewood table. I pull up a chair and join them. The local tailor Bo Yingdu and the building manager Bao Paopao are playing with each other’s hands quite openly. They continue to speak in their dialect even after my arrival. Sun Lingbing, the honorable hostess, is wearing an orchid print qipao that matches the blue bow in her chignon.
Zhou Haodun, the fancy pig, is spilling his duck blood soup all over himself.
“Zhou Haodun,” I say, “careful you do not stain your shiny pants. It would be a pity if you ruined your sparkle.”
“Ai-ya!” tuts Sun Lingbing. “Zhou is an arthritic!”
“It's ok,” Zhou says. “This doorman wishes I will look as poor as him, with no sons to care for me.”
“And how is your son?” I reply. “I understand he has left for America with bundles of China’s money.”
“He is an investor in California.”
“He is an enemy of China.”
Zhou raises his rheumatic hands before the table. Sun Lingbing is watching us closely. “This doorman,” he says finally, “is too concerned with the business of others.”
“Those who understand others are clever, but those who know themselves are truly wise,” murmurs Bo Yingdu.
“You windy man,” I hiss. “Go sew another button.”
I sit up in my chair. “This man’s son has abused his appointment to the Pudong Seventh Select Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference for Construction, Implementation, and Management of Municipal Air-Conditioning.”
I crash down my fists like a man of power. “In other words: enemy of China.”
This speech is met with sufficient silence. I make some little noises as I adjust my pants.
“Perhaps it is time we all go dancing?” says Sun Lingbing. I look at her for a panicked moment, and her eyes shudder between the walls. Plaza dancing has never caught my fancy. However, Sun Lingbing has insisted. And I must obey the lady’s commands.
Zhou Haodun stirs in his chair. He shoots me an extended scowl before he scampers off to pee. Slowly everyone gathers their black coats and plastic bags. Zhou Haodun, the exception, dons a blue suede track suit, a glossy green leather purse. In the elevator there is some possibility that Sun Lingbing brushes against me with warm intention. I take care she is the first to disembark and Zhou Haodun is the last.
The new park where the old people dance is just across the street. Tonight is breezy and wet; the sky rises into something lovely and purple out of a strip of auburn haze. I inhale deeply for the first time in weeks; Shanghai always smells its sweetest after the summer rain. I pick a peony from over the park rail and give it to Sun Lingbing. Then, I let loose a big gob of spit on the gravel.
“That is so sweet of you,” she whispers at the flower. “But not in front of Mr. Zhou. He is taking me on a cruise!”
My throat rumbles like a wild boar. Once again, with gusto, I rain my mottled juices on the pavement. Then, with a sudden jump, I try to stuff the flower into her pocket. She dodges. It breaks. The petal sashays to the gutter. Without a word, she shuffles ahead to her hooligan.
Before long the dancers are upon us. I understand immediately that this must be the Little Apple Song. The leader with the leopard-print scarf dances around and neglects to tell us where to stand. Eventually we find ourselves shifting into the very first rank. Zhou Haodun of course is just like some flamingo gliding along the white sand. I begin to miss my security booth, its rusty stool and video feeds.
After a few minutes, participation can no longer be postponed. I take a deep breath. My knees and elbows start to flop around like I am swimming. I close my eyes: the spectacle is something I cannot watch. There is a sense of drowning, but without the privacy of sinking underwater.
Suddenly I hear Zhou Haodun’s voice, and – what? – a tap of his cane on my shoulder. I turn around and see his little mouth moving, but I cannot hear what he says. I look up and not even a single plane is buzzing across the starless sky. I hear the bark of a small dog, a sinewy sound, like the plucking of an overly tight violin string.
Then, Zhou Haodun taps me again.
I grab the cane and jerk it out of his hands, pulling him forward. I notice for the first time the pattern on the glaze: a sports car parked beside a flutist atop a waterfall. I spin him round with my right hand onto the floor and begin to beat his veloured bottom with the handle.
He is crouching, fists over face, while I lash him up and down. The seniors are limping in broken circles, screaming in accompaniment to the Little Apple Song. When I raise the cane once more, I see the sprinting officers of the Public Security Bureau.
“They are coming for you,” I whisper. “For you and all the other enemies of China.”
Tim Rinaldi is from New York City, and lives in Shanghai. Follow him on Twitter @timshanghai
Edited by Tom Pellman