Three short prose pieces
One night while playing hide-and-seek with my little friends, I lost my new clogs. My father marched out the door with a bamboo stick in his hand and whipped me so hard the stick cracked and nipped my skin. I cried and cried until my grandma who had bound feet came tottering to rescue me. In tears, she slapped my father and cursed him, her only son, “You’re a devil!”
I remember two nights before a New Year and two years after grandma died of cancer, my mother and father quarreled over something as gigantic as a sesame seed. We three brothers, desperately silent, watched them cross the verbal swords. Clang, clang, clang, the swords struck sparks. The man became no man, the woman no wife. That night home was like a new grave.
Two years after the Cultural Revolution broke out in China, my father was sent to a military camp for brainwash. Home became a no-man’s‑land, and peace sprouted like spring grass. Sunshine appeared on my mother’s face, and we three sons began to laugh as happy chirping birds. One day after school I caught sight of my mother’s letter to my father with her salutation of “My dear man.” Distance brought love back to them.
My father stayed in the camp for four years. When he was finally allowed to come back, I had gone to a boarding school. For six years behind the school walls, I flapped like a freed bird.
the frozen pond
starts to thaw
3 p.m. Friday
No class this afternoon; no one is around; even the secretary is gone with an undeniable reason. The building is quiet except the nonstop flushing in the second-floor men’s room three doors away from my office:
two weeks gone …
the broken toilet
In this depressing silence, the building seems to put on a sullen face, like an abandoned bird nest or a ghost town in the Delta. At this moment, I feel like a ghost inviting myself to play away the last two working hours.
I pick up the phone to call the facilities about the broken toilet, but the phone on the other end keeps ringing. I put the phone down, but I don’t want to hang up. Let it ring then. I say to myself. I hope to hear at least a hello or maybe a sporadic cough. Five minutes later, the ringing sounds so annoying I hang up my intention to communicate.
I then pick up a thin novel I have let rest on the desk for dust for a year; with my eyes heavy on it, I think I can read my time away, but the words look just like ants, or they are antizens crowding in their bookrooms.
Maybe it’s better to do nothing but relaxing. Seated in the high back chair with my socked feet on the desk stacked with papers, I feel I can while away the last hour in this posture. I look out at the cloudless autumn sky. It is bluish, offering no foreground for an appreciative view to my eyes. My mind begins to leap from bluish to blues to flatland to flat life to runaway this weekend in Memphis where there’s more blues in Beale Street.
Looking becomes empty and boring, and I pick up the phone again, this time I call my memory:
in granny’s eyes
Neighbors in the Cultural Revolution
The steel plant worker with a weather-chapped face liked to blow shuola in hot summer evening as if his blowing could echo the metallic sound he had been used to for the past two decades.
The college graduate—a Maoist—liked to recite the little red book aloud as if he had been a loyal Leftist, a fanatic red guard who swore he could sacrifice his life for Mao, the reddest sun in his heart and soul.
Little Four’s mom, when she climbed to the third floor where she lived, liked to stop by anyone’s apartment to chat and peep into the neighbor’s bedrooms.
Xinzi’s parents liked to match up with neighbors. For instance, if one neighbor bought a portable radio, which was an expensive plaything forty six years ago in China, they would tighten their belts for the hungry stomachs to save enough money for the plaything too. Each summer afternoon after supper they came out and sat under a plane tree with their radio placed on a small stool. They listened to news and wanted others to listen too.
Little Ghost’s mom, a poor woman who was always slapped by her drunken husband, liked to stand in front of her home to complain about her man’s alcoholic addiction. I always felt she was more like a performer reciting her monologue of sufferings. She stopped doing so after her husband was run over by a truck one night when he came out of a roadside eatery after gulped two bottles of Erguotong, a kind of hard, cheap liquor made in Beijing.
Auntie Zhang, everyone called her that way, liked to give away the fish she caught in the Yangtze River in order to keep a good relationship among neighbors. I remember her husband took me to the hospital when my collarbone was broken in the street wrestling with other boys.
The strangest one was an engineer who never talked to anyone, a very stranger in the neighbors’ eyes. He was labeled as a Rightist in 1957, became one of the tens of thousands of intellectuals who were on the wrong side in Mao’s eyes.
my neighbor’s trashcan
blown to my yard
*shuola: a Chinese trumpet.
John Zheng teaches at Mississippi Valley State University. He edits Poetry South,Valley Voices, and Journal of Ethnic American Literature.