Perfect Wisdom Berry Blast
by Joseph McKinley
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
It’s five o’clock somewhere. Actually, it’s five o’clock right here in the tumbledown apartment with a broken front door lock and nearly domesticated rats. This thought, as trivial as it is, makes Wailmoore smile. He calls out to one of the rats.
“Hey, Dashu, uh, Henry.” Even the rat has an English and a Chinese name. “Come here, buddy. You know I don’t like to drink alone!”
And the rat lumbers in, slowly massaging a crick in his neck.
Rats don’t think in complete sentences, but they’re not as stupid as one might believe: Henry knows a pushover when he meets one. And Wailmoore is a pushover of the highest order. The occasional polite squeak gets Henry a bowl of noodles big enough to feed a family of twenty, which is lucky indeed for Henry.
He nods along attentively as Wailmoore rambles on in perfectly apocalyptic, apoplectic fury, thus earning a box of candy and shot glass full of 110-proof baijiu, which Henry doesn’t particularly like but finds quite useful for disinfecting the family nest.
Rats don’t think in complete sentences, but if they did... Oh! Hey, Teach. How’s life? Still nothing more than wind-wind, rain-rain and other misfortunes?
“I could have been somebody, Henry. If she just hadn’t...”
I feel you, brother, I really do. Henry nods along sympathetically. Life is a bitch. No doubt about it!
Something is missing. Henry remembers! Hey, what’s cooking?
“And I can barely speak Chinese!”
Wailmoore looks down at pleading red eyes. “I forgot! Dinner and drinks! I’m sorry, Henry. How rude of me.”
Don’t worry, Teach. We still love ya!
Henry signals back toward the nest and a chorus of tiny cheers ring out. Henry’s entire brood is pep-rallying for their meal ticket. The noise dies down after seconds.
Wailmoore wanders into the kitchen. Crash! His coordination is particularly bad when he’s sober. Eventually, he finds a lightweight paper plate and the box. He pulls off the bow and tears away the kraft paper.
“I don’t know if you guys will like this, but, well, it’s all I’ve got.”
Wailmoore sets the plate down on the floor, two shot glasses of baijiu beside it. He’s feeling guilty about not having anything more substantial.
“I’m out of noodles but, this candy, it’s supposed to be something special. Handmade, I think.”
Henry looks at the plate. The red hawthorn berry flakes are familiar enough, but the prismatic jelly is something new.
What the... I mean, thanks, Teach. Beggars can’t be choosers. Henry lets out a whistle, well above the range of human hearing, and out dash his three eldest sons, all of them with 20/10 vision, oddly enough.
All right, sons, grab some plate. And they do. Four more dash out for the shot glasses.
It all disappears into the nest.
Wailmoore smiles. He feels a little better, but not for long: an ocean of liquor rises up in his throat. Must. Eat. Something! He looks at the candy. It’s beautiful, far too much so to be actual food. Nevertheless... “Well, if it’s good enough for them...” And he pops two of the jewels into his mouth.
Alcohol and starlight bubble in his stomach, and a cool breeze washes over him. A weight is lifted. Wailmoore starts back toward the sofa, wanting to grab onto something heavy, afraid that he’ll float away. He makes it exactly twelve steps.
The rats hear Thud.
“Xiaoxiao, Xiaoxiao, how much for five kilograms of candy?” Uncle sounds excited. He always sounds excited but, even by his normal bouncing-off-the-walls-I’ll-be-rich-any-day-now-just-you-wait-and-see standards, he is manic. Xiaoxiao tries to think of a respectful response, but it’s not easy; he just sounds too much like a kid.
“Well, Uncle, I don’t have any more candy. I—”
“Can you make some more? Can you make some more?! Teach me! How much?! I’ll pay you whatever you want! Whatever you want!”
Xiaoxiao counts down from twenty, closes her English book, and stares up at the naked bulb, which casts shadows that make Big Uncle Fu — wild-haired unkempt and corpse-thin on the best of days — look positively ghoulish, rather than merely haggard.
“I’m a little busy, Uncle. Can’t you get candy elsewhere? There’s plenty of good candy—”
“Not like this, there isn’t!” He blurts it out, almost as a single word.
She is about to say something short, but she stops herself. Humor him. He is your father’s elder brother after all keeps looping over in her head. She smiles. What else can anyone do when faced with Uncle?
“What do you mean, Uncle? It’s just berries and sugar.”
“Ha-ha!” He jabs his finger in the air, turns, and bounces out of the room with enthusiasm veering into the uppermost levels of the human capacity to experience such things.
“Uncle? Uncle?” She calls out again, loudly this time. “Uncle!” She hears nothing.
Uncle Fu sometimes ends conversations this way, with a triumphant point that he never quite articulates but is entirely certain he’s made well enough for all and sundry to understand even though they don’t and a victory lap around the building, only to pick up the exact same conversation on the exact same syllable several weeks later, apropos of nothing. Xiaoxiao is beginning to wonder if she should turn back to her books.
Then she hears the struggle, and the oddly-timed, springy steps of Uncle. He’s back at the door, grunting, a canvas bag over his shoulders. “Xiaoxiao, Xiaoxiao! Help me!”
Xiaoxiao jumps up, the chair flying out from behind her. There’s something suspicious about the bag, something a bit too corpse-like about the shape of its contents. Oh God, he’s killed a hooker!
“What have you done, Uncle? What is it? What’s in the bag?” Xiaoxiao can hear the panic rising in her voice. She takes another breath.
“Xiaoxiao, get a knife. She’s still too big!” He groans under the weight.
“Uncle,” she inhales, “What’s. In. The. Bag?”
“Xiaoxiao, get a knife! Now!”
And she does, sheepishly handing it to him. A hopeful thought enters her mind: If he didn’t have a knife, maybe she’s still alive! If he didn’t have a knife... But I just gave him one!
He stands the corpse up. It doesn’t slump over, but it’s not rigor-mortis stiff, either. A good sign. Well, for the moment.
“Xiaoxiao, Xiaoxiao! We’ve wanted to show you this, but we had to keep it a secret. We couldn’t let anyone know! I had to carry her like a bag of potatoes! Like a bag of rice! We can’t even let them see her feet. Not even her feet!”
“Uncle, what...” and she stops herself. Wait. “Uncle, we? Who?”
Fu cuts at the drawstring frantically with a desperate, childlike excitement. He finally gets it undone. He readies himself, posturing as though he’s a magician.
He pulls the sack away.
And the bag drops, revealing the woman, still very much alive.
“Fat... Fat Auntie Ma?”
But she — the long-suffering wife of Uncle Fu — is not fat. Her clothes hang off her. They’re four sizes too big now, and even her chubby feet, the ones Fu thought needed to be hidden, have lost their Jell-O jiggle. She’s... perfectly normal.
“How... The candy... It can’t...”
Formerly Fat Auntie Ma offers the same slightly mocking, put-upon smile she’s offered everyone for the last twenty years. But it’s different. There’s no tension behind it, no pain or struggle. Just acceptance. The two women stare at each other, not knowing what to say.
Uncle Fu butts in. “Tell her! Tell her what you told me, wife! Tell her!”
“I’ve been eating less, Xiaoxiao.”
“She can see that, wife! Tell her why! Tell her why! Tell her why!”
Auntie Ma narrows her eyes to slits, stares at her husband, but says nothing to him. She turns back to Xiaoxiao. “No matter how much I ate, it wasn’t going to make me any happier. Your uncle is about the best I could have done anyway, and even if he weren’t, life is what it is now. Overeating didn’t help.”
Xiaoxiao nods. Auntie Ma is right, but... “What does this have to do with candy?”
“One bite of candy and my illusions died. I understood everything.”
“So... the candy?”
“Destroys false hope. It leaves only reality.” Auntie Ma sounds serene, perfectly serene.
“It...” Xiaoxiao is struggling to understand.
“Makes everything clear!” Uncle Fu can’t hold his tongue for more than a few seconds. “Get it!”
Xiaoxiao turns the idea around in her head, weighing the probability that Fu’s craziness has spread to his wife. Shouldn’t Auntie Ma have already been infected before now, or be immune? Something clinks at Xiaoxiao’s feet. Coins? She looks down.
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph McKinley