Sunday morning was dreary with rain. The brief hot spell that seemed to confirm the dire effects of global warning had vanished and left in its stead cold, steady rain. Moreover, the cold was unrelieved, penetrating into the apartment blocks like a rash of home invasions. No heat emanated from the radiator pipes as the municipal government quit burning coal by the twentieth of March every year regardless of the weather. The denizens of Harbin felt the chill all the way into their bones.
Zen was no different. He woke up feeling as if he had been abducted by aliens. Said aliens then experimented on his hip and knee joints, hollowing out the marrow and inserting some kind of strange device that periodically emitted jolts of searing hot electricity down his legs and up his spinal cord.
God, he felt miserable. Just exactly what fresh hell was this?
Old age. Old muthafuckin age. Almost half a century and I’m still tryina keep up with young people. I oughta just pitch it all in, break out a dime bag of primo Colombian and enjoy the last half of my life. All this exercise shit is for the birds.
He glanced over at his part-time spouse.
Somehow Hobbit did not seem to age. She was out of shape in the sense that she could not hike up a mountain or run a marathon, but then again, she never would do such activities. However, the crazy little thing never gained weight and was as limber and spry as a fifteen-year-old gymnast. And she never stretched.
Meanwhile, Zen did yoga three times a week, forcing his hips into the splits, pushing his feet to bend outward from his knees at a 45° angle (that’s what ice hockey goalies have to do he told himself). He lifted weights, jumped rope, chuffed on the elliptical machine, climbing imaginary mountains and ellipticalling for endless kilometers. And for what? That tenacious spare tire hung from his waist like a giggly hula-hoop. Did it make his knees feel better? More limber? Or did it make his knees feel like a couple of Bratva Boys went at him with claw hammers.
The rest of the day after a workout Zen’s body was a smelly gasbag of aches, pains, and bruises. He looked at his skinned knuckles. Once upon a time he could work the heavy bag for an hour straight and do two hundred knuckle push-ups. Okay, maybe not two hundred. But a lot, goddammit. He felt slow.
In contrast, Hobbit was scurrying around the bedroom like a squirrel getting ready for winter, clambering up the bed, pulling wide the curtains, opening the window, dusting—of course she only ever dusted where she worked and never anywhere else, meaning that there was a perfect clean rectangle on her desk, but everywhere else the dust was half an inch thick—airing out the pillows and blankets. How did she do it? She as agile as a young child. Crazy little Hobbit.
Zen stood up. Rather he tried to stand up. A shaft of pain ran from his left hip outward, upward, downward. He felt as if someone had shot him. He fell back on the bed.
“Aw. You back still bothering you?”
Zen glared daggers at Hobbit. “Yes, my back is still hurting me.” His voice was sardonic, imitating Hobbit’s voice.
“Poor baby. You want me to 摸一摸?”
“No I don’t want you to 摸一摸. Getthefuckawayfromme!”
Hobbit tried to rub Zen’s back but he pushed her away. Another spasm of pain hindered him and he gagged in agony.
“Oh my God,” he whispered. “That’s not normal. I must have bone cancer. It’s gotta be bone cancer. The pollution in this stinkin’ city has killed me!”
“You sucha dramuh queen. Let me 摸一摸!” She reached for him again.
Zen slapped at her hands. “Get. AWAY!”
Fuck it. He had a schedule to keep. It was Sunday. He had to get a workout in because once Monday started he would have to work like a madman.
What would Batman do? Did Batman have days like this? Wake up after a hectic night of crime-fighting and groan like a septuagenarian? Zen tried to ignore the sarcastic voice in his head that quipped Batman was a fictional construct. We’re all someone else’s fiction thought Zen with dismal irony.
After moving around a bit, he felt better. While brushing his teeth, he noticed a lot of blood. Great. Something else to worry about. He had found a lot of blood in his stool the other day, but he figured it was nothing. After washing up, he packed his bag: jump rope, timer, bag gloves, bandana, knee pads, yoga mat,…gym shoes! Shit, almost forgot my gym shoes.
“Take you umbrella. It gonna rain all day.”
Hobbit smiled at him. The face of a Buddha. Damn. She was his Buddha. Buddha with OCD, but a Buddha nonetheless. He pecked both her cheeks and then pretended he didn’t want to kiss her on the lips. “You haven’t brushed your teeth yet! Dragon breath!”
She squealed like a wanton child, waiting for him to complete their ritual. He kissed her again, three times, left cheekbone, right cheekbone, lips.
Outside the rain had relented. It looked like a patch of blue sky was trying to break through, but a scary black wall of clouds loomed from the west. Definitely rain.
He walked out to the main road, stepping around the huge puddle-lake that had built up in the parking lot over the night. Of course, he thought, no one ever fixes the damn drains here in Harbin. An SUV whizzed past him, splashing him with mud and rainwater.
“You dumb fuck!” Zen cursed at the driver, shooting him the finger. The driver may not understand English, but everyone understood the universal middle finger. Bastard. He’s gonna kill somebody drivin’ like that.
Although the apartment block was on campus grounds, people drove with reckless abandon. Zen hated that the people who worked and studied at NEFU had so little regard for the people who actually lived on campus. There were little children and pets walking around all the time. Although there was a posted speed limit, it was ignored and never enforced. Just like the no smoking signs. No one gave a damn. No regard for life, these bastards.
His mood soured, his hips and knees still shooting errant bolts of pain up and down his nervous system, Zen felt weary, world weary.
Didn’t he read somewhere that if you’re feeling tired it’s not good to push it? He should just rest. Not go to the gym.
He walked past the Qiangmai where he bought water and beer from the one-eyed owner and then he paused at the next alleyway.
If he turned right here and then another right, he could go back home. Spend his morning reading literature and drinking coffee, studying Russian, making lesson plans, anything besides gym torture. Today I can be a scholar. Tomorrow I’ll go to the gym. I’ll either go first thing in the morning or after the meeting. I can make it.
Zen was rationalizing his decision, walking down the narrow alley when he saw the owner of the Qiangmai, a one-eyed, tall, fat, bald man, struggling with a medium-sized white dog with black spots. He was putting a string around its neck.
Zen was nonplussed. What the hell was he doing?
There was a de-limbed tree growing next to the entrance of the new badminton building in the alley behind the Qiangmai. The workmen had left short stubby branches. The owner held the struggling dog with one hand and tossed the rope between the limbs where the branches forked. Then, he cinched the rope frightfully tight around the dog’s neck and hoisted it up. The dog had time for only one small pathetic yelp; its eyes bulged in pain and fear. It dangled on the tree like a grotesque piñata.
“What the hell are you doing! 你干嘛呀!” Zen yelled.
The owner was trying to tie off the string on the chain link fence next to the whitewashed building. He was shocked that someone was yelling at him.
“怎么回事! 你 为啥 把狗 杀掉 呀!” Zen tried to grab the rope from the man’s hands.
“你干嘛!” the bald man yelled.
“Why are you killing this dog!” Zen screamed in English.
“你 为啥 把狗 杀死!” Zen pulled at the man’s hands.
The man was trying to push Zen away, but Zen was adamant. Finally the one-eyed man relented. He thought the foreigner had gone crazy. The dog fell to the mud and lay in a dazed heap.
“Why are you trying to kill the dog? What did the dog do to you?”
The one-eyed owner of the Qiangmai was not a young man. In fact, he was a very sick man. A lifetime of smoking and living in northern cities that burnt dirty coal had taken its toll on his lungs. The doctor had told him: quit smoking and drinking or you won’t live to see your grandson grow up. Eat healthy foods. Stay warm and take walks morning and night.
“你啥意思 烦我呢?” the one-eyed man asked Zen. His hands trembled and though it was cold out he was perspiring.
The foreigner looked dangerous. He wasn’t very big, but there was the glint of a madman in his small brown eyes. He knew this foreigner. Everyone did. He was married to that hellion of a little English professor who yelled day and night at her foreign husband, her son, her parents, her colleagues, the vegetable sellers, everyone. There must be something wrong with him to marry such a devil woman. Maybe he had been driven insane? The one-eyed man stepped back another pace. He could feel his heart thundering in his chest. He coughed wetly and squinted at the short foreigner through his good eye.
Zen said, “我是说 为什么 你 非要把狗 杀掉?”
As a remedy against the cold, the Qiangmai owner had bought this mutt at the local market. Dog meat was good to drive away the cold from one’s bones. Why was this foreigner stopping him from preparing his meal?
“吃? 肉? 吃肉?” Zen was astounded, dumbfounded. This was not the first time nor would it be the last time that he would encounter what he considered cannibalism.
Just then, the dirty white mutt staggered to its legs and trotted away down the alley.
The owner was angry.
Zen hesitated. Had he erred? People eat dogs in China. Shit, people eat just about everything in China. His own in-laws had gone out and purchased dog meat for his first meal with the whole family. Dogmeat was a delicacy. Sweet Jesus! Help me. Disgusting! He just couldn’t. Goddammit. Couldn’t tolerate it!
Suddenly, he heard the dog yelp sharply. The two men looked down the street.
It was the Qiangmai owner’s drinking buddy, a local cop. He held the dog by the scruff of its neck. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth. On eye bulged further out of its socket than the other.
“What the fuck! Another cannibal! You bastards, can’t you just eat chicken?” Though they could not understand English, Zen’s tone sounded offensive. The owner of the Qiangmai explained quickly to his friend that the foreigner was most likely insane. The cop, not a large man himself but large in his mind with an inflated sense of authority, shook his finger at Zen.
“这事 跟你 无关! 走! 你走!” The cop screwed up his eyes and blazed fury from beneath his thin black eyebrows.
“Don’t yell at me you pompous worm! You’re not gonna eat that dog!”
But it was too late. While Zen was scuffling with the cop, the one-eyed man had strung up the dog on the killing tree. The dog had not resisted at all.
Zen felt something breaking inside him. He just had had enough: the Internet censorship, the pollution, the frustration with work, his unhappy marriage with Hobbit, his rebellious teenage stepson, betrayed by his body, betrayed by his country, betrayed by life, angst, depression, the shitty weather, everything, everything seemed dead set against him, everything in an instant collapsing down on his head. Now he had to tolerate the murder of a dog before his very eyes?
“No way man! You’re not gonna eat that fuckin’ dog!” Shouting in English only frightened the one-eyed man and steeled the resolve of the cop.
Suddenly Zen pushed the cop to one side and tried to free the dog from the erstwhile hangman’s noose.
The shouting had attracted the attention of the nearby university security guard. When he saw the men scuffling with each other, he shouted to the other guards to run over and see what was the problem. Meanwhile the construction workers, with nothing much to do on a rainy Sunday morning, walked over to see what was happening. A crowd formed: security guards, construction workers, college students, elderly folk out for their morning walk, children with the morning off from classes, even the neighborhood dogs and cats all gathered around Zen, the cop, the Qiangmai owner, and the hanged dog.
The owner and the cop were trying to keep the rope securely around the dog’s neck. Zen was trying to tear the rope off. The security guards were trying to pull Zen’s hands away from the dog, but Zen had the strength of a madman.
The dog, insensate, tongue hanging out even further from its black-lipped snout, flopped pathetically between the rough hands of the struggling men.
Zen strove against the arms pulling him back. None of the guards wanted to harm the foreigner. That would be a big stink and create endless paperwork. They would have to perform self-censorship in front of the superior for sure. No one wanted that. They gently but resolutely tugged him away from the tree.
The cop shouted in Zen’s face, “滚! 给我 滚!”
Zen had stopped shouting back. He knew he was losing this fight. He saw the myriad Chinese faces surrounding him and he felt intense hatred spike through him. They were all animals, cannibalistic cannibals, dog-eating monsters! Monsters! He felt tears of rage, impotent rage, building in his eyes.
Then, an old woman dressed in a blue and yellow polyester tracksuit stepped into the circle of men restraining Zen. Her face was horribly scarred as if from acid or flame. Her voice, though old, carried authority and rang clearly in the cold wet air.
At once the men released Zen and retreated a respectful distance.
In good but accented English, she asked Zen what the matter was.
It was like a pin inserted into his balloon of rage. His angry energy deflated and left him all at once. He felt like throwing up.
Everyone waited patiently for the foreigner to speak. He raised his arm, pointing at the hanged dog, and then dropped it. He lowered his head in shame.
“I didn’t want them to kill the dog.”
She automatically translated his words and the crowd of men, women, and children all laughed. She hissed at them and they quieted down. A few began edging away. The show was almost over.
The one-eyed owner explained what had happened. The old woman quickly analyzed the situation and came to a conclusion. She said to the foreigner, “Are you all right? I hope you were not hurt?”
He shook his head. In Chinese, Zen said he understood the situation and he realized he was at fault. Bowing slightly, he apologized to the owner and the cop.
“没事, 没事,” the one-eyed man said. He was glad the foreigner had calmed down. In his heart, he enjoyed his visits to his shop. It was a kind of pride that the foreigner bought goods at his store. The cop, though vindicated, glared morosely.
Some of the crowd were impressed and complimented Zen on his excellent Chinese. A few children began tossing a ball back and forth. A small bright black dog sniffed at the tree and raised its hind leg. Some college students began to talk amongst themselves: He must be a professor here. Only professors speak such good Chinese, right? In fact, he must be a high level professor. Isn’t it amazing how he can speak Chinese? An American, you say? No wonder! They’re amazing. Those Americans can do anything when they put their minds to it. See, Chinese people are not cultured like Americans. Americans don’t eat dogs. Yeah, man’s best friend they say. Some of the security guards clapped Zen on the shoulder and then walked back to their card games and cigarettes.
The old woman said, “I am sorry that you had to see this. I have a dog myself and would never eat dog meat, but in some parts of China it is considered a delicacy and recommended by doctors for certain illnesses brought on by the cold weather.”
Zen bent down and picked up his yoga mat and umbrella from the mud. He looked at the dog, legs sticking out stiffly like wooden pegs, its eyes narrowed shut now, but its tongue still hanging out like a dirty pink ribbon. It was dead.
“Oh, so sad. Your things have fallen in the mud.”
“It’s nothing. I’m really sorry for all the trouble. I better go. I’m very sorry.”
“No harm done. Take care.” Her English was quite good, Zen thought.
Zen didn’t know whether to wave goodbye at the Qiangmai owner—after all, Zen bought water from him almost every day—or to just leave. He cast his eyes down and walked off quickly. He heard laughter echo behind him and he ground his teeth in anger. They probably weren’t even laughing at him, but it felt like they were. What a horrible horrible day!
At home, he stormed into the apartment and whipped off his jacket.
If this were a Russian novel, the writer, sensitive not to offend the cultured sensibilities of his or her readership, would merely narrate that Zen entered the dank apartment and blackened the air with a barrage of invective. American readers, however, hardly shy away from the idiosyncratic linguistic habits of their countrymen, especially when it comes to imprecations. In fact, some readers even take pleasure and pride in the range of expletives and profanity extant in the English language. Sadly, Zen was not very baroque when it came to the art of cursing and when flustered he tended to, well, he cursed thusly:
“Fuck this fuck country! Fuck this dirty fuckin’ stinking fuckety fuckin’ polluted fuck shithole of a muther-fuckin’ shithole! Fuck!”
“What? What what? Mud! You’re getting mud on the floor!”
Zen shucked off his shoes. “Hobbit…”
Zen related to her what had happened.
“OhmyGod! Are you hurt?”
“Almost! I was almost hurt! I coulda bin killed. They pro’ly woulda eaten me, Goddammit. Ah hell! I’m sicka livin’ here. I can’ take it any more. I just can’t. It’s too much. I couldn’t do anything to save that dog. What the hell is the matter with China? All the things they can eat in the world and they have to eat man’s best friend? I’m not talking about Bessie the stupid cow or some dumb fish. I’m talking about a beautiful dog. A dog. Lassie. Rin Tin Tin. You know, Krypto, Benji, and Scooby-fuckin’-Doo.” Zen was wound up, ranting and huffing and pacing and puffing.
“You can’t think like that, you know. That’s like trying to, you know, take someone’s pork or chicken cutlet. You know, even my parents eat dog, you know you know. Not when you coming over of course. You can’t be so serious about these things.” Hobbit took his dirty yoga mat and umbrella out to the balcony.
Zen slumped in his office chair, head in his hands, defeated.
“I’m worthless. I couldn’t do anything. Fucking feckless muthuhfuckuh. Too old for this shit. Where’s a superhero when you need one? Huh? Where’s Flash? Where’s Green Arrow or sumkinda shit. We need the Avengers and the Justice League to fix this damn country! Huh! Ah…fuckit! My back hurts.” Zen’s face pinched with self-pity and desperation. He felt black, so black, sinking into an abyss. He knew he was being irrational and unfair, but he also felt incapable of stopping his slide down into despair.
Then Hobbit’s cheerful voice sang out from the balcony where she was washing the mud off the yoga mat and umbrella. “La la la! You’re my superhero! La la la!”
What she said stunned him. It was like a terrific slap in the face. He was cursing her country and countrymen, he cursed her, he spouted vitriol, but she could still…. She could still…. How?
Here it was.
Wallow in self-pity or acknowledge the gift.
He had to act immediately. If he didn’t act he might die.
He got up and it felt like he was ripping his self out of an old crusty shell. With each step closer to Hobbit he felt the anger the hate the venom cracking off his skin, flaking off, sloughing away….
He surprised her.
“Whatwhat?” Her eyes wide open, alarmed.
He embraced her. “Nothing, Hobbit, nothing. You…you are China. And I love you.”
Relieved, she said, “Yeah! That’s what I like!”
Zen kissed her three times. Slowly. Thoughtfully. With awareness and gratitude.
The world might eat dog, but here at least they might be able to find some modicum of peace. If not today, then maybe tomorrow.