Patrolman and Pumpkin

A short story by Hannah Lincoln


It’s been months since I switched from tea to coffee, and Master Liu has never stopped berating me for my choice.

“Tea is very healthy! It keeps you warm and strong. Little Li, you listen to me – coffee is nothing but dirt dug up in the West! It does not care for your well-being as tea does. I am already seventy and healthy as an ox thanks to long jin.”

Sometimes he is seventy, other times sixty. On really cold nights he is as old as eighty-three. In winter he usually claims to be older, as if preparing his own obituary.

I typically cut my shift in half at the four-hour mark, at which point I retreat into Dongbei Café. I can sit for nearly an hour, sipping a coffee, staring at my reflection in the window, and blowing into cupped hands. There is nothing apologetic about this small restaurant’s dry air and frigid metal seats. Dongbei is a humble reminder to late night customers that warmth is a luxury for the few.

I cannot say why I switched to coffee, other than to imagine a western lifestyle. I have never left Xi’an. I do not know if I ever will or even if I will ever want to, but there is no harm in imagining. I know many who have tried to escape this city, most eyeing the glowing star of Beijing. Few have managed to get there. If hard effort cannot help, then imagining surely cannot harm.

Master Liu’s youngest daughter is a bundle of bones and muscle fastened together by a red apron. Her short mop of black hair mimics the swirling motions of her rag as she cleans the floor, or scrubs the tabletops, or rubs the windows. I would say she has an agreeable face, but at night under the purple-white lights of Dongbei Café, facial features tend to blur. We have spoken a few times, always me to her, though when I speak she stares with unwavering attention. 

Much more interesting to me, and perhaps the reason why I sit so long in this icebox, is her elder sister. Chun Mei is her name, which means Plum Blossom – a manifestation of Master Liu’s ripened patriotism. During the revolution, plums carried potent symbolism for the Party. In the fifties and sixties, thousands of Chun Mei’s were ushered into the Republic, blossoming under the red sun and now withering under the fluorescent lamps of industry. This particular Chun Mei is one flower that remains in bloom on its gnarled branch, one that has yet to wither under this café’s fluorescent lamps.

“How old are you?” Master Liu probes.

“Thirty three,” I answer truthfully, and not for the first time. I sip my coffee, and my insides tingle warmly before he has said what I know is coming. 

“Thirty three and still unmarried? My daughter is nearly thirty!  Little Li, you listen to me – she is a true beauty, and would be so easy to marry off if only her mother were around to take care of such matters. But I am so preoccupied with business,” he waves a withered hand at the empty tables. “I cannot waste time on such matters.”

I have several times invited Master Liu and the silent young daughter to my apartment for tea or dinner, hoping Chun Mei will enliven my undeserving home. The invitation has always been politely declined, a bothersome tradition I wish the elder generation would abandon. Master Liu always speaks of marrying Chun Mei to me, but nothing ever comes of it. Whenever she is around, he does not even acknowledge my existence, let alone introduce me to her. I wonder how old he really is.

I drain my cup and stand up. As entertaining as Master Liu can be, particularly when he offers Chun Mei in marriage, I cannot hang out with him and his little daughter all night. I drop fifteen yuan on the table and wish him a good night. He mutters and swipes the money into his palm. I feel the eyes of the young daughter glance up from her mopping, and I instinctively grope for my baton. It is there, as are my flashlight and keys. This neighborhood can rest under my guard for three more hours. 


She lurches. She is sprawled on his couch, tangled in the sheets. She blinks at his picture on the mantelpiece, the one next to the urn with his mother’s ashes. She moans and cocoons herself in the sheets, warm in the womb of the stained sofa. She breathes. It is 3:30am. He will be home in three hours. She stands up and straightens out the sheets, and reaches into her purse for gloves.


I can enjoy a steaming shower for up to ten minutes. After that, the water turns lukewarm, and then suddenly icy. Tonight I shower the full ten minutes; I have asked Chun Mei out to a teahouse, and have less than twenty minutes to prepare myself. I swear I had a bar of soap, but now it is gone. Hopefully she will not notice, nor mind. Maybe her flowery smell will overpower my own.

She does not seem to notice my missing soap. In fact, the date goes splendidly. Afterwards I leave for patrol, promising to stop by her family’s café later that night. She says she may be asleep, but will try to stay up for me.

Later on, she is not there, but her younger sister is. I watch her furiously flip two steaming woks at once, sending up storm clouds of chopped vegetables and rice. She squirts the contents of three plastic bottles into the wok in rapid succession. A spoonful of white powder rains into each pan, followed by another. It is impossible to catch her eye, and I dare not interrupt her. I wait for her to cascade the woks’ greasy contents into two Styrofoam boxes and hand them to customers, and then I step up to the counter. 

“Did your older sister go to sleep?" 


She stares at me unblinkingly while peeling off latex gloves. Her eyes may be even rounder than Chun Mei’s. I ask how old she is.


I wonder if she, like her father, lies about her age. I had not considered such a frail package could be anything older than fifteen. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lights – or maybe it’s time for me to buy glasses. I ask for a coffee.


The next few weeks is a blissful montage of blossoming plum flowers swirling around an admiring patrol officer. The cold continues to bluster long after the explosion of New Year firecrackers, but I don’t mind. I go numb when the wind blows back Chun Mei’s lustrous hair so that she looks like a television star. I blame the cold for my trembling the first time I take her delicate hand into my own. She is brazen enough to call me out on my own nervousness, and I admire her even more for that.

When she likes me enough, she forces her younger sister to switch shifts with her so she can work nights at the café. One night we are sitting under the humming lights, clasping and releasing hands in accordance with her father bumbling in and out of the dining area.

“He is jealous of you,” she assures me. “Since Mother died I have taken care of him, and as strong as he acts, he knows his dependency. I think he confuses me with my mother.”

She forces the corners of her mouth into a weak smile, and her eyes flutter down like falling petals. I duck my head low to catch her eye. When she looks at me, I cannot stop the words from spilling out, all over the greasy table, “Come home with me.”

The singing violins and blowing winds that harmonised the past few weeks crescendo into a racing symphony as the taxi approaches my apartment. I do not know how much money I leave in the taxi. I do not know where she summons the force to pull me, by my patrol officer’s belt, up the stairs to my door. The unlocked door opens easily. She chases me to the bedroom and, giggling, slides off my officer’s uniform. I tell her to wait a second and, leaving her on the bed, walk toward my bathroom.


Kneeling on the counter, she looks in the bathroom mirror. A flop of short black hair encompasses a round pumpkin-like face. She takes off her shirt, and the loose straps of her bra hang around her thin shoulders. He must think I’m thirteen. As if to challenge such a thought, she unbuckles her pants, and glowers at her own reflection. She slowly slides her jeans off, but just as she does so, she hears a giggle in the room next door. She freezes. The door bursts open, and she is pinned by the spotlight of his eyes.

A baton whips out of his belt. Her reflection betrays alarm, but her body tremors with excitement. Silently, she takes off her underwear. He grips the baton harder and squints furiously. His mouth opens, but makes no sound. She smirks. 

“Li, what’re you doing?” Chun Mei’s voice drifts in from the bedroom, so heavy with seduction that both criminal and cop know she suspects nothing. The girl in the bathroom, recognizing her older sister’s voice, snatches her clothes and bolts past Li, soundlessly spiriting out the fire escape like a starved and frightened cat.

“Li, what’s going on?” Chun Mei purrs from the bedroom.

“Nothing.” He turns away from the bathroom, casts a wary glance at the fire escape, and walks to the bedroom door. Chun Mei is sitting on the bed in her underwear, more enticing than even his wildest dreams had imagined. “I – I thought I heard someone.” The baton falls to the floor, and his hand reaches out to touch her.


A year passed with ease, and their marriage announcement came with the next blossoming of spring.

In step with the marriage announcement was the younger sister’s university acceptance. To everyone’s surprise, she would be attending the illustrious Peking University. They were all sitting around a white-clothed table eating a celebratory dinner when she announced the news. Master Liu began to choke, and the waitress ran over to pat him on the back until he could breathe again. He began to cry tears that seemed to be joyous, but no one was sure. No one was sure of anything – least of all Li. As Chun Mei hugged and kissed her younger sister, Li breathed a sigh of relief. The strange sister could not haunt him from Beijing.

Li and Chun Mei married that summer, and by the following spring had a fat baby boy to parade up and down the streets. At the wedding, Chun Mei’s younger sister bowed to them and wished them “a hundred years of happy union,” as the traditional compliment dictates. She came home for the birth of her nephew, and begged a reticent Li to take her picture holding him.

That picture then sat on the married couple’s mantelpiece, and at times Li found himself staring at her round, mocking face framed in metal. His assumption and hope that she could not haunt him from faraway Beijing could not have been more wrong. He could not look at her face without attaching the naked, frail body below, forever removing its own underwear. At such times he excused himself from the room, and smoked a cigarette on the fire escape. When Chun Mei berated him for endangering their little treasure’s health, he started to take long walks instead, puffing his way along like steam engine. Yet in the streets he was not safe from the scores of skinny young girls, like a festival of stick demons sent to mock him. Eventually, the cigarettes did nothing to relieve him of his angst, and the defeated Li sought refuge in the bathroom.

Chun Mei’s beauty did not wither over the months. However, Li found himself less aroused by her slender waist and ripened curves. When they made love, he would grasp her wrists – the boniest parts of her body. He would make love on top of her, so that he could not feel her weight. And when she moaned he would silence her, remembering how her younger sister had silently removed her underwear. 

When Li refused to let Master Liu move into his home, Chun Mei wept for her old father’s loneliness, and did not allow Li to sleep with her in bed. Li truthfully would have been fine living with the senile old man; it was the younger sister who terrified him. He suffered through dinners at which the entire family was present. Li made eye contact with no one, and spoke only irritable remarks. Chun Mei spoke even sweeter than usual to compensate for her husband’s oddness, and asked her father many questions that she hoped would not sneak back to criticism of her marriage. Meanwhile, the younger sister spoke easily and, for a student of Beijing University, quite unpretentiously. She coddled her toddler nephew and used chopsticks as an airplane to fly food into his tiny mouth. Her hair grew and her countenance increasingly resembled Chun Mei’s – like a blossom rather than a pumpkin. Her body remained slight.

When she graduated from the university, she moved home with her father and tutored the child twice a week. Li by then was an addicted smoker, but only dared to smoke when he went on runs. Normally, as soon as the sister arrived to tutor, Li would already be dressed to run and then disappear for an hour. He would leave tea and fruit on the living room table for her, hoping they would be gone by his return. But more often than not, he returned to find the sister coddling his son.

“Brother Li, I’m teaching him checkers,” her unblinking eyes bore into him. This time she was smiling. “He’s quite good already! Would you like to play with us?”

His son would call for him, but even then Li would merely mutter an excuse and take a long shower.

One time she opened the door to the bathroom as he showered. 

“Brother Li! I’m going to cook dinner before Chun Mei gets home – is pumpkin and eggplant alright?”

He did not answer, but rather froze behind the shower curtain and was suddenly bombarded with her naked image, standing in that very bathroom, smirking at him. In real life, she laughed and closed the door. Later, he ate the pumpkin and eggplant in silence.

One day, Li came home early from his jog, clutching a small paper bag. On this day, Chun Mei was at the café helping her father, and the sister and child were playing prone on the living room floor. He hustled past them and sidled onto the fire escape, where he sat twirling a chain bracelet in his fingers and imitating some smokestacks on the horizon. The bracelet had been one small chain in the cascade of sunny jewellery on a street side vendor’s booth. Its winking flashes had enticed his attention and pulled him out of his jog. His fingers had traced down the cascade and stopped on that one chain, from whose pendant a cartoon kitten face smirked, defiant and assured in its silver engraving.

For the length of two cigarettes on the fire escape, his gaze darted between the smirking pendant in his hand, the factories in the distance, and the watch on his wrist. When he was sure the lesson should be over, he called the sister into the kitchen.

“This is for you.” He handed her a trembling paper bag. “And I want you to know how much I appreciate...” His hand barely clasped her bony knuckles, and slowly trailed up her branch-like arm. He heaved a sigh and bowed his face on her shoulder, pulling her close.

“Brother Li,” the sister stepped back, smiling in embarrassment, “I can’t accept this! Your son is smart even without my help. You should be proud of what you have done as his father.”

She pulled off his hands and pushed the paper bag into their grasp, then gave it a parting pat. Li felt her footsteps receding and his son waddle after her. The child cried for her not to leave, but the door apologetically clicked shut. The fan overhead thudded, his son wailed from the doormat, and Li stood listening.

As he often did when he felt threatened, he reached for his baton, only to realize that he was not wearing his officer’s belt. Still shaken, he searched his bedroom and the bathroom. He eventually found the belt among his son’s toys, but the baton was missing.

“Where is my baton?” he nearly yelled at his son, who started to cry.

The twinkling eyes on the mantelpiece caught his attention. Right in front of her pumpkin-face picture sat the baton. He stared into her round, smirking eyes that seemed to be daring him. He picked up both baton and picture, and walked to the window.

Still crying on the doormat, the son watched his father duck out the window onto the fire escape. Through teary eyes, he could not see what was happening. He heard a sudden smash, and stopped crying. His father took out a pack of cigarettes.

Hannah Lincoln lives in Beijing and works in market research, while nursing a lifelong love for literature. Read her previous story for the Anthill, Love Anywhere

This story also appeared in Issue 5 of Far Enough East