At ten of five in the morning, Lao Dao crossed the busy pedestrian lane on his way to find Peng Li.
After the end of his shift at the waste processing station, Lao Dao had gone home, first to shower and then to change. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of brown pants—the only decent clothes he owned. The shirt’s cuffs were frayed, so he rolled them up to his elbows. Lao Dao was forty–eight, single, and long past the age when he still took care of his appearance. As he had no one to pester him about the domestic details, he had simply kept this outfit for years. Every time he wore it, he’d come home afterward, take off the shirt and pants, and fold them up neatly to put away. Working at the waste processing station meant there were few occasions that called for the outfit, save a wedding now and then for a friend’s son or daughter.
Today, however, he was apprehensive about meeting strangers without looking at least somewhat respectable. After five hours at the waste processing station, he also had misgivings about how he smelled.
People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.
Lao Dao squeezed through the crowd slowly. A waiter carrying dishes shouted and pushed his way through the throng. Lao Dao followed close behind.
Peng Li lived some ways down the lane. Lao Dao climbed the stairs but Peng wasn’t home. A neighbor said that Peng usually didn’t return until right before market closing time, but she didn’t know exactly when.
Lao Dao became anxious. He glanced down at his watch: Almost 5:00 AM.
He went back downstairs to wait at the entrance of the apartment building. A group of hungry teenagers squatted around him, devouring their food. He recognized two of them because he remembered meeting them a couple of times at Peng Li’s home. Each kid had a plate of chow mein or chow fun, and they shared two dishes family–style. The dishes were a mess while pairs of chopsticks continued to search for elusive, overlooked bits of meat amongst the chopped peppers. Lao Dao sniffed his forearms again to be sure that the stench of garbage was off of him. The noisy, quotidian chaos around him assured him with its familiarity.
“Listen, do you know how much they charge for an order of twice-cooked pork over there?” a boy named Li asked.
“Fuck! I just bit into some sand,” a heavyset kid named Ding said while covering his mouth with one hand, which had very dirty fingernails. “We need to get our money back from the vendor!”
Li ignored him. “Three hundred and forty yuan!” said Li. “You hear that? Three forty! For twice–cooked pork! And for boiled beef? Four hundred and twenty!”
“How could the prices be so expensive?” Ding mumbled as he clutched his cheek. “What do they put in there?”
The other two youths weren’t interested in the conversation and concentrated on shoveling food from the plate into the mouth. Li watched them, and his yearning gaze seemed to go through them and focus on something beyond.
Lao Dao’s stomach growled. He quickly averted his eyes, but it was too late. His empty stomach felt like an abyss that made his body tremble. It had been a month since he last had a morning meal. He used to spend about a hundred each day on this meal, which translated to three thousand for the month. If he could stick to his plan for a whole year, he’d be able to save enough to afford two months of tuition for Tangtang’s kindergarten.
He looked into the distance: The trucks of the city cleaning crew were approaching slowly.
He began to steel himself. If Peng Li didn’t return in time, he would have to go on this journey without consulting him. Although it would make the trip far more difficult and dangerous, time was of the essence and he had to go. The loud chants of the woman next to him hawking her jujube interrupted his thoughts and gave him a headache. The peddlers at the other end of the road began to pack up their wares, and the crowd, like fish in a pond disturbed by a stick, dispersed. No one was interested in fighting the city cleaning crew. As the vendors got out of the way, the cleaning trucks patiently advanced. Vehicles were normally not allowed in the pedestrian lane, but the cleaning trucks were an exception. Anybody who dilly–dallied would be packed up by force.
Finally, Peng Li appeared: His shirt unbuttoned, a toothpick dangling between his lips, strolling leisurely and burping from time to time. Now in his sixties, Peng had become lazy and slovenly. His cheeks drooped like the jowls of a Shar–Pei, giving him the appearance of being perpetually grumpy. Looking at him now, one might get the impression that he was a loser whose only ambition in life was a full belly. However, even as a child, Lao Dao had heard his father recounting Peng Li’s exploits when he had been a young man.
Lao Dao went up to meet Peng in the street. Before Peng Li could greet him, Lao Dao blurted out, “I don’t have time to explain, but I need to get to First Space. Can you tell me how?”
Peng Li was stunned. It had been ten years since anyone brought up First Space with him. He held the remnant of the toothpick in his fingers—it had broken between his teeth without his being aware of it. For some seconds, he said nothing, but then he saw the anxiety on Lao Dao’s face and dragged him toward the apartment building. “Come into my place and let’s talk. You have to start from there anyway to get to where you want to go.”
The city cleaning crew was almost upon them, and the crowd scattered like autumn leaves in a wind. “Go home! Go home! The Change is about to start,” someone called from atop one of the trucks.
Peng Li took Lao Dao upstairs into his apartment. His ordinary, single–occupancy public housing unit was sparsely furnished: Six square meters in area, a washroom, a cooking corner, a table and a chair, a cocoon–bed equipped with storage drawers underneath for clothes and miscellaneous items. The walls were covered with water stains and footprints, bare save for a few haphazardly installed hooks for jackets, pants, and linens.
Once he entered, Peng took all the clothes and towels off the wall–hooks and stuffed them into one of the drawers. During the Change, nothing was supposed to be unsecured. Lao Dao had once lived in a single–occupancy unit just like this one. As soon as he entered, he felt the flavor of the past hanging in the air.
Peng Li glared at Lao Dao. “I’m not going to show you the way unless you tell me why.”
It was already five thirty. Lao Dao had only half an hour left.
Lao Dao gave him the bare outlines of the story: Picking up the bottle with a message inside; hiding in the trash chute; being entrusted with the errand in Second Space; making his decision and coming here for guidance. He had so little time that he had to leave right away.
“You hid in the trash chutes last night to sneak into Second Space?” Peng Li frowned. “That means you had to wait twenty–four hours!”
“For two hundred thousand yuan?” Lao Dao said, “Even hiding for a week would be worth it.”
“I didn’t know you were so short on money.”
Lao Dao was silent for a moment. “Tangtang is going to be old enough for kindergarten in a year. I’ve run out of time.”
Lao Dao’s research on kindergarten tuition had shocked him. For schools with decent reputations, the parents had to show up with their bedrolls and line up a couple of days before registration. The two parents had to take turns so that while one held their place in the line, the other could go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. Even after lining up for forty–plus hours, a place wasn’t guaranteed. Those with enough money had already bought up most of the openings for their offspring, so the poorer parents had to endure the line, hoping to grab one of the few remaining spots. Mind you, this was just for decent schools. The really good schools? Forget about lining up—every opportunity was sold off to those with money.
Lao Dao didn’t harbor unrealistic hopes, but Tangtang had loved music since she was an eighteen–month–old. Every time she heard music in the streets, her face lit up and she twisted her little body and waved her arms about in a dance. She looked especially cute during those moments. Lao Dao was dazzled as though surrounded by stage lights. No matter how much it cost, he vowed to send Tangtang to a kindergarten that offered music and dance lessons.
Peng Li took off his shirt and washed while he spoke with Lao Dao. The “washing” consisted only of splashing some drops of water over his face because the water was already shut off and only a thin trickle came out of the faucet. Peng Li took down a dirty towel from the wall and wiped his face carelessly before stuffing the towel into a drawer as well. His moist hair gave off an oily glint.
“What are you working so hard for?” Peng Li asked. “It’s not like she’s your real daughter.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Lao Dao said. “Just tell me the way.”
Peng Li sighed. “Do you understand that if you’re caught, it’s not just a matter of paying a fine? You’re going to be locked up for months.”
“I thought you had gone there multiple times.”
“Just four times. I got caught the fifth time.”
“That’s more than enough. If I could make it four times, it would be no big deal to get caught once.”
Lao Dao’s errand required him to deliver a message to First Space—success would earn him a hundred thousand yuan, and if he managed to bring back a reply, two hundred thousand. Sure, it was illegal, but no one would be harmed, and as long as he followed the right route and method, the probability of being caught wasn’t great. And the cash, the cash was very real.
He could think of no reason to not take up the offer. He knew that when Peng Li was younger, he had snuck into First Space multiple times to smuggle contraband and made quite a fortune. There was a way.