would not have prefixed Wang with Uncle.

The old man shuffled out with a steaming plastic container, which must have been microwave-warmed. She had probably left her lunch here earlier in the day, and it might have been a common arrangement. In the course of the economic reform, state-run companies had been shutting down their employee canteens as a money-losing business practice. So she probably had to find a way of eating somewhere else.

She opened the plastic container and inside, on top of white rice, lay an omelet with lots of chopped green onion. She pulled a pair of bamboo chopsticks out of her satchel.

“The green onion is fresh from my own garden,” Uncle Wang said with a toothless grin. “I picked it this morning. Totally organic.”

Organic-an interesting word to say here, Chen thought as he sipped his beer in silence.

“That’s so thoughtful of you, Uncle Wang.”

Uncle Wang went back into the kitchen. The two of them were left alone.

She started eating in a leisurely manner, adding a small spoon of hot sauce to the rice. She pulled a crumpled newspaper out of her jean pocket and began reading. A frown started to form in her delicate eyebrows. Chen caught himself studying her with interest.

She was attractive, her oval face framed by long black hair and animated with a youthful glow. Her mouth subtly curved under her delicate nose, and there was a wistful look in her clear, large eyes.

The characters printed on the satchel said: Wuxi Number One Chemical Company. Perhaps she worked there.

Occasionally, Chen liked to consider himself a detached aesthetic, like the persona in those lines by Bian Zhilin: You are looking at the scene, / and the scene watcher is looking at you. It was an ingenious way to describe one’s scene-eclipsing beauty. Bian was a contemporary poet he had studied in college, but was something of a Prufrock in real life. Chen considered himself different from that. Still, there was nothing improper, he reassured himself, in a poet watching in detachment. Not to mention that, as a detective, he was in a natural position to observe.

Chen laughed at himself. A worn-out cop on his first day of vacation couldn’t automatically switch back into being a vigorous poet.

He was in no hurry to leave. Having finished the ribs and lotus root, however, he thought it might not appear proper for him to sit too long with nothing left on the table. So he rose and went over to the rice paddy eels squirming in the plastic basin close to her table. As he squatted down, examining, touching the slippery eels with a finger, he couldn’t help taking in her shapely ankle flashing in the background above the somber water in the basin.

“Are the eels good?” he asked loudly, still squatting, turning over his shoulder to direct his voice toward the kitchen.

The young woman unexpectedly leaned over, whispering to him, her hair nearly touching his face. “Ask him why he keeps the eels in water.”

Chen took her suggestion.

“Why do you keep the rice paddy eels in water?” he called toward the kitchen.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s for the benefit of our customers,” Uncle Wang said, emerging from the kitchen. “Nowadays people feed eels hormones and whatnot. So I keep them in water for a day after they’re caught, to wash out any remaining drugs.”

But could drugs really be washed out of their systems that easily? Chen doubted it, and his appetite for eels was instantly lost.

“Well, give me a portion of stinking tofu,” Chen said. “And a lot of red pepper sauce.”

Presumably, stinking tofu was a safe bet. Chen looked up only to see the young woman shaking her head with a sly smile.

He restrained himself from asking her to explain. It wouldn’t be so easy to talk across the table with the old man going in and out of the kitchen. There was something intriguing about her. She knew the proprietor well, yet she didn’t hesitate to speak against the food here.

Soon, Uncle Wang placed a platter of golden fried tofu on the table along with a saucer of red pepper sauce.

“The local tofu,” he said simply, heading back the kitchen.

“The tofu is hot. Would you like to join me?” Chen turned to the young woman, raising the chopsticks in a gesture of invitation.

“Sure,” she said, standing up, still holding the water bottle in her hand. “But I have to say no to your stinking tofu.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, signaling the bench opposite and pulling out another pair of chopsticks for her. “Some people can’t stand the smell, I know, but once you try it, you may not want to stop. How about a beer?”

“No thanks,” she said. “The local farmers use chemicals to make that tofu, though perhaps it’s a common practice now. But what about the water they use to make it-and to make the beer? You should take a look at the lake. It is so polluted, it’s undrinkable.”

“Unimaginable!” he said.

“According to Nietzsche: God is dead. What does that mean? It means that people are capable of doing anything. There is nothing that is unimaginable.”

“Oh, you’re reading Nietzsche,” he said, impressed.

“What are you reading?”

“A mystery novel. By the way, my name is Chen Cao. It’s nice to meet you,” he said, then added with a touch of exaggeration, in spite of himself, “As in the old proverb, it’s more beneficial to listen to your talk for one day than to read for ten years.”

“I’m simply talking shop. My name is Shanshan. Where are you from?”

“Shanghai,” he said, wondering what kind of work she did.

“So you’re on vacation here. A hard-working intellectual, reading English in a Wuxi eatery,” she said teasingly. “Are you an English teacher?”

“Well, what else can I do?” he said, reluctant to reveal that he was a cop. Teaching was a career he had, in his college days, imagined for himself. And he felt an urge, at least for a while, to not be a cop. Or not be treated as a cop. Police work had become a bigger and bigger part of his identity, whether he liked it or not. So it was tantalizing to imagine a different self, one that wasn’t a chief inspector-like a snail that didn’t carry its shell.

“Schoolteachers earn quite a lot, especially with the demand for private tutoring,” she said, casting a glance at the dishes on the table.

He knew what she was driving at. Chinese parents spared no expense for their children’s education, since that education could make a huge difference in an increasingly competitive society. Detective Yu and his wife Peiqin, for instance, spent the bulk of their income on private lessons for their son. A schoolteacher could make a small fortune by giving private lessons after hours, sometimes squeezing ten students or more into a small living room.

“No, not me. Instead, I’m debating whether or not to translate this book for a small sum.”

“A mystery,” she said, glancing at the book cover in English.

“Occasionally, I write poems too,” he responded impulsively. “But there is no audience for poetry today.”

“I used to like poetry too-in middle school,” she commented. “In a polluted age like ours, poetry is too much of a luxury, like a breath of pure air or a drop of clear water. Poetry can’t make anything happen except in one’s self-indulgent imagination.”

“No, I don’t-”

Chen’s response was interrupted by the shrill ringing of a cell phone in her satchel.

Taking out a pink phone and putting it to her ear, she listened for a moment. Then she stood up, her face quickly bleaching of color in the afternoon light.

“Something wrong?” he said.

“No, it was just a nasty message,” she said, turning off the phone.

“What was the message?”

Вы читаете Don't cry Tai lake
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату