21 November 2010

Riding the Number Three Bus on a Late Wednesday Afternoon

(Appearing in Ingo Village premier issue, March 2012; http://www.mscottcraig.com/p/ingo-village-review.html)

Xian, Shaanxi Province, The People’s Republic of China, late winter 1986

The kid is a drooler. It looks like he might have something like Downs Syndrome, maybe not so terribly severe but bad enough. He seems to be around 35 or 40 but that doesn’t mean much and the old man who sits next to him, who regularly holds a white cotton handkerchief to his son’s or maybe his grandson’s lips, that old man looks 60 or maybe 90. Again, hard to tell.

They get off the bus at the Bell Tower stop just inside the city’s ancient wall. As the rest of us pull away on the Number Three bus, a flash of white cotton marks their path across the crowded avenue toward what I hope is their home.\

We pass a pack of Rider Fellows, the guys with the hand tractors (like a rotor-tiller with wheels instead of earth shredding blades) attached to wagons piled with cabbages or bricks or Japanese cassette players, and their bandanas and goggles are little protection against the poisonous air of the Number Five Road, but the Rider Fellows are a tough crew. The black and yellow satin jackets they all seem to wear are silk-screened with a distorted photo of Dennis Hopper riding his chopper to flaming death by the side of a Florida road and the words “Rider Fellow” as a rocker beneath the image. I wanted one of those jackets very badly but could never find the hand-tractor driver store that sold them. It was a secret store just for hand-tractor drivers.

It’s easy to spot the country people, the farmers, the peasants, the migratory workers, on the Number Three bus; they stick their tissue paper bus tickets onto their lower lips so the conductress can easily see their destinations and tell them when to get off. They chew raw garlic to kill the city germs and the delicate bus tickets flutter with each slack-jawed grind on each clove they pop.

The ladies next to me are talking about me.

“This one looks crazy,” the one in the blue Mao suit says.

“Is it a boy or a girl? I can’t tell these foreigners apart. It has long hair and earrings, but it has no breasts and all foreign women have enormous breasts,” says the one in brown Mao suit.

“Is he a movie star?” Blue asks.

“I think so,” Brown answers. “He was the bad guy in the movie about explosions.”

“All foreign movies are about explosions,” Blue patiently reminds her companion.

“The one with explosions and kissing,” Brown clarifies.

“Oh, yes!” Blue exclaims. “My husband loves that movie. He watches it every chance he gets.”

“I hope he doesn’t watch it too much,” Blue says and the air of betrayal suddenly hangs in the air of the Number Three bus as it lumbers down the Number Five road.

“Well, not every chance,” Brown amends.

“I should hope not,” Blue answers.

Other passengers have begun to listen. Soon, they join the conversation.

“All those foreigners eat is meat and milk,” a man with long, lucky eyebrows adds.
“It’s true,” says another woman holding a bag of onions. “I saw one of those foreigners once before, and he was drinking milk and he was eating meat.”

“I saw a foreigner last year, and he yelled at my sister-in-law for spitting on his shoes,” Eyebrows contributed.

“He had too much hot blood,” Onions agreed. “Too much thick blood. All that meat makes them hot and the heat makes them angry all the time.”

I’m holding on to the steel pole and rocking as the bus driver hits every pothole on the Number Five Road. We pass a bicycle towing a locked screen box full of little Chinese toddlers. The cyclist is taking them someplace or he is taking them back home after taking them some place. I wonder where they had been and where they were going. I supposed it might be a school bus, a locked screen box school bus.

“What is that thing?” I ask Blue.

Her eyes widened wider then they have probably ever widened since the Great Helmsman died.

“What…What…What did you say?” she stuttered and, believe me, stuttering in Chinese is not easy.

“I was just wondering where that locked screen box of toddlers is going,” I answered.
Everyone became very quiet on the Number Three bus and all we all could hear was the bus engine groaning and the bus body creaking as its cheap steel bent and twisted with each bend and twist of the roadbed.

“Do that again,” Onions told me.

“Do what again?”

“That thing you just did.”

“What thing?”

“Speaking,” Onions explained. “It sounded like you spoke like a person, like a human being.”

“I did,” I told her.

“Do it again.”

“I just did. I’m doing it now.”

“That is so strange,” Eyebrows chimed in. “I wonder how he does it?”

“I just talk, that’s all,” I say.

“It must be like a parrot or a trained monkey,” Blue offered.

“That’s right,” I responded. “You may think of me as you would think of a parrot or a trained monkey. I am a badly trained monkey. Sometimes, I bite people.”

They fell silent again, each deciphering the meaning of my human words and whether I knew the meaning what I was saying or if some clever Chinese person taught me to say the words without me understanding what they meant.

“What. Is. Your. Name. ?” asked Brown.

“My. Name. Is. Keith. Richards.”

“Kee-if Risher Duhs?” she rolled the syllables through her rotten-toothed mouth.

“Exactly. You’ve said it exactly correct. You must by very good at speaking English.”

“English?” Brown exclaims. “I’ve learned to speak English?”

“I think so,” I answer. “We’re speaking English right now.”

“We are? It sounds just like Chinese!”

“Yes, it does,” I confirm. “English sounds exactly like Chinese.”

“Do we all speak English?” ventures Onions.

“Yes,” I answer. “Everyone on this bus speaks English like a professional English speaker. You could all be tour guides and make a lot of money speaking English to foreigners.”

The excitement was fevered in our section of the Number Three bus as it lumbered its way down the Number Five Road. My circle of passengers all contemplated a lucrative career change. I could practically see the TV sets and brand new electric fans and self-winding wristwatches swirling around their heads. I watched the screen box of toddlers disappear behind us in the cloud of bus dust and smoke.

“Perhaps you know where we could find this kind of work?” Blue asked me.

“I recommend you present yourself at the American consulate in the heart of the city and tell them very loudly how well you now speak English.”

I could see them turning such a plan over inside their heads. The advantages of a new kind of job with plenty of foreign capital streaming into their threadbare pockets weighed against the dangers of being seen visiting the local headquarters of an imperialist nation.

“Don’t be afraid,” I told them. “Be brave. Be strong. Show them that the Chinese people can master any task and surmount any problem. Do it for the Motherland.”

They remained silent.

“Remember that risk is its own reward,” I continued and they didn’t understand me at all.

The Number Three bus stopped with a jerk and we were all thrown forward to mash against each other awkwardly. I looked out the filthy window to see what had happened.
We had stopped on the bridge over the Wei He River that ran outside the city. A man hung from the high tension electrical cables strong from tall steel pylons and he emitted sparks. I still now as I did then wonder what it must have looked like to him incandescent, eyeballs ribboned with blue fire and below him spreading all horizons, the city slowly pulsing, hot and dusty for this late in the year, everyone says so.
Who knows, who will ever know what caused the fatal spark, the brilliant arc that clenched him tight, convulsed in one long spasm when everything inside him jammed up with electricity rampant and when he began to smolder. I wondered then as I still do now if he even noticed he was on fire. One of his feet fell slowly tumbling over and over to the riverbed with gray smoke trailing.

The river bridge was jammed both ways, typical post-revolutionary rush hour and a quarter of a million people stopped their bicycles and put one leg on the pavement so they could safely stare up goggle-eyed and open-mouthed at something different, at a man two hundred feet in the air who twitched and blackened and was never coming down.
The wrongness of this all was overwhelming, and still now as I did then I consider what it must have seemed to him there among the wires thrumming harsh, the river silver and thin along the wide sandy bottom, a half a million eyes toward him and just diesel smoke from idle bus and hand tractor engines like mist in a scroll painting one thousand years old, this same river and this same city, now hanging in a temple in the mountains far to the west.

“Look at the man,” I told my companions. “Look at the man on fire up in those wires.”

“It is a terrible thing,” Brown declared. “It is not a good thing to see.”

“But when will I ever see such a thing again?” I asked.

Blue reached her callused hand to touch my arm.

“Never,” she said. “Never in all your life.”

And she was quite right.


After an hour or so, traffic began to move across the bridge again. Below us on the sandy, exposed river bottom was the place where they executed criminals in the springtime and, in a few more weeks, one of my Chinese friends would come to my dormitory and tell me the story of that year’s killings.

“The people run forward to dip their money in the dead person’s blood,” Mr. Zhang told me.

“Why do they do that?” I asked him.

“Because it makes the money lucky,” he explained.

“That sounds very strange,” I said. “Why would a dead criminal’s blood make money lucky?”

Mr. Zhang paused to form his answer.

“It is a tradition,” he finally said.

“It sure doesn’t seem lucky for the criminal,” I replied.

“It is a tradition,” he repeated. “It is an old tradition from feudal times and it is very backward and ignorant.”

There was a lot I could have said to him on that subject, but I remained silent until something else occurred to me.

“Hey,” I said. “Have you ever seen an old guy on a bicycle pulling a big, locked screen box full of little Chinese kids down the Number Five Road?”

“Hmmm,” Mr. Zhang pondered. “Perhaps I have seen that man.”

“Why is he doing that?”

“Hmmm,” he again pondered. “I think maybe he is taking them to a place or bringing them back from a place.”

“That makes sense. I wonder what kind of place.”

“It must be a place for children.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “That must be it.”

“Yes,” Mr. Zhang said. “That is probably the answer.”

“I once saw a man get electrocuted down there by the river.”

“What a terrible thing to see!” he exclaimed.

“Is it worse than watching people be shot?”

“Of course,” he explained. “What you saw was an awful accident.”

“And what you saw was planned out.”

“Yes. Accidents are much worse than things that are planned.”

And he was quite right.