John Zheng

Three short prose pieces

One Night

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.

fam­i­ly reunion–
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
still flushing

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:

porch view—
in granny’s eyes
autumn sunset


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.

west wind—
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.