Summer Shorts: Frogs at Dusk

Flash fiction and drinking games – by Tom Pellman


Roll up all, the Anthill is launching a "Summer Shorts" season, with a new flash fiction story published every Sunday for the next twelve weeks. This is in partnership with Beijing Cream and their Flash Fiction for Charity competition, which is today at 2.30pm at Great Leap Brewing's original no. 6 Doujiao hutong pub.

Out of thirty submissions, five finalists were picked by the judges (of whom I was one), a winner will be decided today, and you can read those stories over at Beijing Cream in time. But there were so many other great submissions that just didn't make the final five – or did, but the writer isn't in Beijing and so can't join the event – that we've picked a further dozen to publish here.

To kick off the season, here's a story by the Anthill's very own co-editor Tom Pellman, who is on a road trip in Alaska right now, and is going to have some serious temperature shock when he comes back to Beijing. We hope you enjoy it.

It's usually on the third bottle of beer that Neil and I start our game of Ten Questions. When the weather’s nice, we sit outside facing the Liangma River, under the year-round Christmas lights, a white plastic table between us. The bar has German food, apparently, but we always end up walking a few doors down to the Arabian place for lamb. On summer nights like tonight, you can hear millions of frogs begin croaking at dusk, just around the time the two of us migrate toward food, but I’ve never seen a single one.

Neil uses his turn to ask how many people in the US are happily married by twenty-five years old. I settle on something middle-of-the-road – forty percent, I say – and ask him what percentage of Chinese people are unhappily married by the same age. "Seventy-five percent," he says, without hesitation. Our unspoken rule is: every question gets a straight answer.

“What percentage of guys in the US are still virgins by the time they’re twenty?” he asks me.

“Twenty-five percent.”

Neil’s last response was unequivocal, so I try another in the same vein.

“How many people in China are unhappy, overall?”

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Chinese people do not follow their heart in life.”

Neil and I come here on the Fridays he calls his wife in Tianjin and tells her he’ll catch an early train in the morning. He sleeps in our Beijing office during the workweek, which he calls a dormitory, and drops by my desk every few Friday afternoons to find out I have nothing planned after work. I wonder what she assumes, his wife, when he makes that call. But I’ve never asked Neil; I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking that kind of personal question.

“If young people in America get a divorce, will their parents still accept them?”

“Almost always.”

There’s a good amount of foot traffic on the road and sidewalk that separate our bar from the river, so it’s easy to think of new questions to ask. When a young couple, a white guy and Chinese girl, walk past holding hands Neil asks me what is it about Chinese girls that we White guys find so attractive anyway. I tell him my theory about how today’s Chinese girls are growing up like our parents’ generation did in the West.

“And everyone wants to marry his mother,” I conclude.

Neil thinks about this for a moment.

“So, that means I would be compatible with someone like your grandmother in the West?” he asks.

“I think you had your turn already.”

When the chorus along the river starts up, Neil and I stand to pay like usual. He’s telling me about a friend of his that plays drums for a performance troupe in the army and just returned home from a tour in Germany. What does someone like that do day to day when he’s not on tour, I wonder? Neil gives me a weak smile and says he doesn’t know.

“But it’s true that some people follow their heart and find their passion,” he says.

“So, I guess your friend is part of the one percent.”

“Not one percent,” Neil corrects me. “One in a thousand.”

Tom Pellman is a co-editor of the Anthill. Read more of his stories here.

 He's also a rock star, and you can buy his CD here. All profits will go to Tom's coke habit