“Next stop, Black Water Street. Please exit through the rear doors.”
The public bus set out from the suburbs of B City, circled around, and slowly turned into the business district. Streets stretched in all directions and pedestrians bustled about.
The announcer spoke crisply. Unlike the usual Putonghua,¹ the announcer’s words sounded mechanical, and even the lilt on his last word seemed deliberate.
Xie Yu, who sat in the corner seat of the last row, turned his head to glance in the direction of the burning sunlight outside the window.
He felt that the temperature in the bus was turned down too low, but he also felt hot.
The bus had already been moving slowly. Now that it was surrounded on all sides by a flow of people, its speed directly plummeted to that of an old grandpa of a vehicle. It met a red light and its long body shuddered violently before slowing to a stop.
Xie Yu had his phone in hand. He looked out the window as he waited for the other person to pick up the phone.
The dial tone sounded for a while before the call finally connected. Familiar background noise emerged from the speaker, followed closely by a woman’s voice. Her voice was loud and overpowered the chaos; it was forceful and a little hoarse. She was quarrelling with someone.
“Who knows when those six shipments of goods will arrive. None of them are reliable. That lot just makes excuses all day.”
“One moment they say tomorrow, the next, the day after tomorrow. They keep changing it and in the end they told me even they didn’t know… Fuck it.”
Xie Yu calmly listened to the woman rant.
“Rush, my ass! Now they don’t even take my calls and pull a disappearing act on me. They must have been pulled out of a dog’s ass. Don’t they know anything? In all of Black Water Street, who dares annoy me, Xu Yanmei?”
She could yell an entire 800-word mini-essay without pausing to take a breath. Hearing her cursing get worse and worse, Xie Yu finally said something. “Aunt Mei.”
Instantly, all the cursing stopped.
Xu Yanmei waved her hand at the other people and shut her mouth. She even snuffed out the cigarette clasped between her fingers without hesitation, pressing its burning end casually against the corner of the table. She then pointed at the phone on the table that had unexpectedly connected the call, indicating that the ‘Meeting To Discuss The Six Shipments That Were Not Delivered On Time’ was adjourned.
After putting out her cigarette, she took down her long legs which she had propped up and crossed on the cheap office desk. When she spoke next her voice was gentle to a degree the other people present had never heard before, as if she was a completely different person from the madwoman whose cursing was as heavy as two tons.
“During lunch we get together to shoot the breeze, nothing much, just for fun. Life’s so boring. Occasionally cursing is good for the spirit…”
Xie Yu didn’t expose her. He only asked, “What about smoking? Smoking is also good for you?”
Xu Yanmei, reeking of nicotine, lied through her teeth as she figured he wouldn’t be able to squeeze himself out through her phone to confirm anyway. “I’m not smoking. After you told me to stop smoking, I quit. Ah, don’t talk to me about this. If you talk about it I’m worried I’ll relapse. Don’t provoke me.”
To her credit, she acted well. Who was provoking who?
Xie Yu heard her hoarse smoker’s voice which was getting worse by the day. Only when cursing people out did her voice suddenly become clear. Even if he had toes for brains, he’d know whether her words were true or not.
“You’re on break, aren’t you? I heard from your mom a while ago that your last exam was on the 20th. Why didn’t you reply to my texts?”
Xu Yanmei continued to change the subject: “How did the exams go? I looked on the internet for a very long time before finding those quotes. All so literary, I nearly hurled when I found them.”
Don’t be worried when you face the exam paper. As long as you do your best, what you receive are good results! Let your dreams raise their sails and set sail in the exam hall! Let your life float in the ocean of knowledge! Little grasshopper, do your best on the exams!
Xie Yu wasn’t sure why he was able to recite this unoriginal message verbatim. It was cliché, the aphorisms were recognizable at a glance, and it didn’t fit the texting aesthetic of today’s youth at all.
The bus entered a tunnel, which blocked the burning sun. His surroundings went dark.
Xie Yu was wearing all black and now he was completely immersed in darkness. He leaned back in the seat and stretched his long legs, which were curled up in the tight space, and casually smiled. “But you still sent them? You know what my grades are like. What did you want me to reply? Thanks for the encouragement and I’ll do my best not to be dead last?”
Having rested for less than two minutes, the eldest sister of Black Water Street, Comrade Xu Yanmei, suddenly heard someone complaining behind her: “Is this a black market shop or a wholesale market? The prices are so high. This is sabotage.”
“… What did you say?” Having been disturbed, Xu Yanmei didn’t hear Xie Yu’s reply properly. “It’s too damn noisy. A bunch of idiots came and tried to break things in the shop. Tomorrow, I’ll go buy a big loudspeaker. I don’t believe I can’t keep this bunch of grandchildren in line.”
Xie Yu’s fingers tightened slightly on his phone. The words he wanted to say hung on his lips for a while, but in the end they didn’t make it any further. “It’s nothing.”
“I saw the text. I was busy with revision and forgot to answer.”
“Good, good, good. Although your grades are a little bit bad, don’t be discouraged. You can’t give up until the end. Who’s afraid of who, right?”
As Xu Yamnei spoke, her voice got louder again. She held the receiver away from her and yelled at the customers who were still talking about making trouble: “What the hell are you doing! If someone’s in trouble, it’s you goddamn bastards. Are you buying or not? If not, quit dawdling!”
The bus emerged from the mouth of the tunnel. Large patches of sunlight began shining into the bus again, starting from the front of the bus and leading into the back.
Xie Yu narrowed his eyes slightly. Seeing the familiar scenery outside the window, he knew his stop was coming up.
Today was Monday, the third day of summer vacation and a workday. There weren’t many people on the bus.
Several students sat in the front row. The girls had their hair in braids and still carried their satchels properly and obediently, even though they were going out to have fun. Their clothes were white and clean.
Although Black Water Street was in the shopping district, the prices were down-to-earth and not expensive, and it couldn’t be termed ‘extravagant’. The buildings in the suburbs were all of low quality and the houses were run-down. But the cheap costs attracted many visitors who didn’t have a lot of disposable income, especially first-years in high school.
Xie Yu eyed a glass ornament in a girl’s hair tie, clear with a hint of pink. It glimmered in the light.
“We’re here, we’re here. Get ready to get off.” The girl tossed her braid and held the railing as she got up. “I ate the fried nian gao here. I’ll take you there.”
At the same time—
“South Station, Black Water Street. Passengers, please exit through the rear door. Thank you for your cooperation.”
The bus slowed to a stop. The instant the doors opened, a gust of hot dry wind rushed in.
Xu Yanmei thought she had heard wrongly. “Grasshopper, where are you? Why did I hear the announcement say Black Water Street?”
Xie Yu stood and got off the bus. “Comrade Xu Yanmei, in about ten minutes I’ll be at the wholesale market’s front door. Think properly about how you’re going to take care of the smell of cigarettes and how you’re going to explain it to me. Think about what you promised me back then, too. Hold your head up when you meet me.”
Xu Yanmei turned and glanced at the ashtray full of cigarette butts on her office desk. “…”
“Mei-jie, what happened? Why the glum face?”
Xu Yanmei pushed open the door and walked out. Rolling up her sleeves, she entered the warehouse and started helping the shop owners with their work. “Don’t talk about it. I’ll die from frustration.”
Xu Yanmei operated a clothing wholesale market on Black Water Street. She’d been in the clothing business for more than ten years. In the beginning, she had put up a stall by the roadside with several of her friends. Later, it had become a proper shop. In the end, they took over two floors in the Guang Mao Expo in the middle of Black Water Street—and these two floors contained more than a hundred small shops which formed a wholesale market.
As the female boss of the wholesale market, Mei-jie’s name was very well known on Black Water Street.
“You’re frustrated, really? It looks to me like this slight smile of yours isn’t slight at all,” one of the shop owners said.
Xu Yanmei said, “What nonsense are you saying? Also, do you have perfume or anything like that? Let me borrow it. Xiao Yu-er is about to get here and I stink of cigarette smoke. If he catches me, he’ll give me hell.”
The shop owner straightened up and dusted off his trousers: “So it’s that precious son of yours. Look how scared you are, you’re… I have perfume. Let me go find it for you.”
“How can I not be scared? My Xiao Yu is a good boy.” Xu Yanmei’s voice was very quiet. With one hand she exerted strength on a small knife to open a bag of wrapping string, saying to herself, “I can’t lead him astray.”
“… He’s not your biological son anyway. Just your godson, right?”
“What good boy? My son is in the same class as Xie Yu. He’s thorny. To say nothing of his bad grades, nobody in class dares to share a desk with him. He even seems to be some school gang leader and mixes with that sort of crowd. Only you, Mei-jie, hold him up like some kind of treasure and don’t even curse in front of him.”
“I heard he even cheated on the high school entrance exams. If not, with his grades, he’d only pass if he encountered a ghost. Even though Er Zhong isn’t that good of a school, even a regular high school² at rock-bottom is still a regular high school.”
“Forget it, don’t talk about it any more. Go back to work.”
By the time Xu Yanmei undid the wrapping string, the group of chatty shop employees had dispersed. Each stood in front of their stalls, which were a meter wide at most, and started hawking their wares: “Two for 99, two for 99! If you miss today, come back next year! Down jackets are out of season and this is a clearance sale!”
“Come over here and take a look! Two for 99!”
Xu Yanmei walked over, a cloud of perfume following her. “I’ll go out for a bit. If anything comes up, give me a call. If there are idiots who can’t read the room, don’t try to reason with them, got it? Just yell at them. Reason, my ass. Reason is for humans, not for idiots.”
Xie Yu took a roundabout route, and after visiting three different tchotchke stores he finally found a loudspeaker with a volume enhancer.
It was red and white and he found it at the bottom of a pile of miscellaneous goods. The shop owner wanted to show that it still worked even though it was covered with a layer of dust; he immediately plugged it in and played the song “Damned Gentleness.”
It was indeed very strong. It was so loud it could burst eardrums.
Xie Yu’s ears hurt from the volume. As he dug his money out he said, “All right, that’s enough. How much is it?”
The shopkeeper was very close to the loudspeaker and he didn’t hear what Xie Yu said at all. He rubbed at the dust on the loudspeaker with his sleeve and raised his voice to continue promoting the item with all his might. He was an elderly man and really quite old, and it was incredible that he could still yell so loudly: “–Durable! If it’s broken, full refund! Full refund!”
“Quality guaranteed! If there are problems just come to me! This shop is small, won’t change its line of business, and won’t change its name! Jian Xing Goods!”
A hand stretched in front of the old man. Slender, fine-boned, well-kept with clean nails.
With a blank face, Xie Yu pressed the on-off switch. It was finally quiet. “How much.”
The elderly man held up two fingers then five before saying, “Do you want it? If you want it I’ll wrap it up for you.”
Before Xie Yu could nod, the old man had already picked up a plastic bag and put the loudspeaker in it. Faster than the eye could see, he pulled several sheets of unknown origin from a thick stack under the table and stuffed them in the bag, too.
——Women’s clinic. Painless abortion.
——Men’s blessing. Second stick half-off.
Not only did he man a tchotchke store, he also bore the heavy responsibility of giving out leaflets. Xie Yu had now gained a new understanding of the proactiveness and professionalism of the people of Black Water Street.
The old man wasn’t done stuffing the bag and tossed another few sheets in. From the different colors, broadly speaking, the leaflets all seemed to be unique. “Side job, side job. I respond to the clarion call and strive towards middle-classdom. I work hard in order to make my fortune… Here’s your change, don’t drop it. Come back again!”