At the Beautician's
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
He recalled helping to escort a contingent of hemorrhaging undergraduates from a certain technical institute across this fifties-vintage Soviet-built bridge; even then it had been barely adequate to handle the traffic. Now, as he squeezed among the hordes of pedestrians and livestock, trucks, buses and farmers' handcarts, and “honey” wagons rolling the morning's precious piss and shit back out to the cabbage fields for recycling, he was conscious of his own stench.
Fifteen years in the countryside he'd languished, a victim of the mass rustications—so much time lying flat on his back in a hinterland commune. But now Bu Yu was back, and not pleased with what he saw.
Factory workers could be seen dragging racks of Hong Kong-plagiarized clothing into town, and peasants pulled in handcarts of strawberries, a rarity in Bu Yu's day but seemingly common in this time of cash crops and self-indulgence. The last time he was here, those handcarts had brimmed with dead bodies, and those racks had writhed with class enemies on their way to public struggle sessions.
On every surviving old building, running along the entire length of some of the facades, there were squares and patches of whiteness. These were the covered-up Mao quotations painted by Bu Yu and his friends and enemies. But still, one could see scarlet strokes where unquenchable fervor had burned through cowardly plaster. Bullet holes screamed out, myriad mouths still gaping gloriously under the whitewash.
Bu Yu's own family home lay buried somewhere under this gummy asphalt.
He headed for the fried tofu shop of a former comrade's father, Spikeface's father, hoping to make a connection. In the old part of town he came to the address, but found something strange on the site. It was still a shop of some kind, but a couple of the foreigners' words were written in light bulbs across the top:
On the front was a facade of fine-edged, blue-glazed bricks with a pure white mortar smoothed between, instead of strained Chinese mud. It made the place look like a tiny slice of one of the German-built cadre mansions in Qingdao which Red Guards had unsuccessfully stormed in 1966.
But a closer look revealed that the bricks were nothing more than a roll of adhesive-backed linoleum, like the fake parquet on the floor of some village matriarch's office. The edges of ersatz flashiness peeled away from typical "modernized" plaster which, in turn, crumbled off the slogans of a more mobilized and enlightened time.
In and out paraded a string of Chinese youth who were evidently in disguise. Their bizarre form-fitting jumpsuits and pastel patent leather accessories crawled with foreign writing, and their bodies were festooned with fake gold chains, metallic flakes dandruffing everywhere. In their eyes a petulant look, bored and pampered, puddled up like day old milk fat. On top of their heads, hair was piled like wood shavings. With excess wealth and henna they had contrived to dye it the same orange shade that malnutrition had turned their elder brothers' hair in the Ten Years' Struggle.
From the neck up they reminded Bu Yu of those old photos of perfumed lap poodles belonging to the wives of French concessionaires in the gangster days. Yapping and snarling from their mistresses' jellied thighs, the rat-like animals made themselves useful by nipping at the pigtails which the oppressed rickshaw pullers had been forced to retain, even after the overthrow of Emperor Pu Yi, to maintain the picturesqueness of the Shanghai foreigners' life. On their way back to their hovels after "work," the rickshaw pullers were often ambushed by well meaning proto-revolutionaries and forcibly deprived of their plaited queues, only to show up at the outlanders' compound the next day to be beaten and fired for the alteration in their appearance.
Bu Yu had no pigtail for them to nip, so these poodles ignored him. They clearly considered him just another of the hopelessly straight-haired proles and suburbanite peasants who gathered on the sidewalk to stare at their pricey pleasures.
Then out came the most preened and primped of them all—larger, ten years older, obviously the equivalent of their commissar. It was, under all the western-style frippery, none other than Spikeface himself. He was clean-shaven for the first time in Bu Yu’s memory, and wore French style rouge on his enormous face. It was the exact shade of rouge Madame Minister had slopped all over their knuckles and the walls when the two of them, Bu Yu and Spikeface, had interrogated her in the basement of the Number One Key Middle School not two kilometers from here.
Spikeface had maintained a few of his muscles, particularly his pectorals, and was obviously supposed to resemble the foreigner in the ubiquitous posters, this vacuum-eyed SYJVESTER STAJJONE.
"Move on, this isn't a zoo!" he shouted, chasing the unfashionable gawkers away with a fraction of his former energy. Then he looked into Bu Yu's eyes and reluctantly recognized this shoeless ghost.
"You've lost some hair, Comrade," he said, whispering the last word.
Instead of ushering Bu Yu straight to the dinner table for a warm welcome, Spikeface--this man in whose arms Bu Yu had once lain all night stowed away on a pig truck alongside three disemboweled comrades--ran in to parley with a fat woman of early middle age whom Bu Yu recognized, with difficulty, as The Vengeance.
Obviously, this son of a fried tofu vendor had kept his promise and had bribed their respective families to get permission to marry The Vengeance after the smoke of the Cultural Revolution cleared. But she had turned out to be a fox-demon who had fastened onto him only to become a sow. She'd put on twenty jin around her thighs, which undulated now like undercooked tea-egg whites as the couple conversed in Cantonese, the language of all budding capitalists. Though Bu Yu could not imagine where they had picked it up, he recognized it immediately, for Cantonese was like no other dialect, full of snaps and grinds and sizzles and thuds, like the percussion section at a Guangdong opera.
They allowed him to come part of the way into the rear corner that constituted their living quarters. It was obvious from the meager foodstuffs they'd accumulated that they were trying to grow back the pimples of Cultural Revolution days, the better to relate to their adolescent clientele. They fed him, not delicious fried tofu, but a single fen-sized chocolate disc, supposedly imported from Italy or France or someplace; and they served him, not tea, but greasy, gritty instant cocoa, heated up slightly by a curling iron dipped in the cup. It was a warm but not too warm welcome, indicating that he needn't stay long, as he was interfering with business in this one-room apartment/beauty salon.
These two lovebirds took their nightly rest among the residue of crimped hairs, on twin barber chairs that had evidently cost so much they couldn't afford beds or even hammocks. There wouldn't have been room for normal sleeping arrangements anyway.
Too nervous to talk much at first, Spikeface retired to another corner of the shop. Apparently as a further enticement to his customers/admirers, he added a third layer of noise over the disco cassettes and the Voice of America. (16M SW2, the devil’s frequency, played loudly in an open street shop! Bu Yu could hardly believe his ears.) These piles of meaningless sound precluded any political discussion; Spikeface was playing right into the hands of the bourgeois leadership, which had recently approved of narcotizing the young with such mind-numbing noise.
Spikeface, formerly designated Chief Struggle-Master because of his ability to scream like an insane person while still maintaining the bass resonance of the Jiangxi tiger, had become a tenor--no, a male soprano; and now his mitts, once so bloody, caressed that western abomination, the guitar, as he warbled along with the V.O.A. in the hard rrr'ed lingua franca which he had always disdained:
Where do I begin
He vibratoed like a whore faking an orgasm. Anything, even conversation dipped early into contention, was better than the whimpers of this ideological castrato.
So Bu Yu repeated a favorite line of their youth, which they'd uttered as a formulaic insult, a kind of threat or warning when someone began to lose the spirit of Leningrad 1917-style privation.
"You capitalist classes really know how to live."
There'd been a time when Bu Yu would have feared for his life to insinuate this man was a capitalist roader. But Spikeface and his fat wife simpered and said, modestly, in unison, "Oh, no. You praise us too highly."
Bu Yu looked with disbelief into his friend's eyes, and wordlessly implored him to end this sick joke. But Spikeface just lowered his head and murmured, "To get rich is glorious, it is said."
"But that's the pepper-farter from Sichuan talking, whom we three and millions of others like us denounced long ago as the saboteur of our revolution!"
Spikeface stood and positioned himself between Bu Yu and his patrons of his cosmetic brothel. He said, in a whisper almost as fierce as in former times, "Watch your mouth, boy! Fortunately for you, most of these young people's political apathy is only exceeded by their ignorance, and they are unaware that our leader is from that particular province. Besides, my wife might report you, for she admires old Deng."
"And what about your hero? Did he have to tread so lightly around Eva Braun?"
"Don't start on that after all these years, Bu Yu. You'll recall that it was my Blitzkrieg fanfa, my fast attack based on the Li Lisan line, that got your little ass safely out of Putian."
"Who else's ass did you save, and to what purpose? A man's death can be heavy as a mountain or light as a feather. And to die for fascism is--"
"A feather death. Chairman Mao, 1939. Don't try to quotationize your betters, boy."
They were off. It was as though the ten years since their last dispute had been ten minutes. Spikeface's bouffant-heaven had obviously vanished around his huge head, for he was talking theory now with an equal for the first time in--how long? In his adult life, certainly. His poodle-pets could have been three thousand miles away kicking trees in Tibet.
"I never understood your ideological basis for comparing us to that adventurist. In putting down the oppressor, Hitler turned out to be nothing more than a large-scale Robespierre. His Beer Hall Putsch was aptly named, for he was the classic putschist who got carried away with blood lust, just as you always did. You were a blood-rabid putschist."
"Next you're going to remind me of how the Japanese killed fifty of us, by hand, for every gassed Jew, but we are the long sufferers of the world who don't whine well, and lack the revisionist skills of the big-noses.”
"There, see? You always were one for throwing the racist epithets about. It's the old standard ruse to obscure with effeminate emotionalism the class-based lies you build your heavy rhetoric upon."
"Yes? And what causes you to suddenly upgrade your status from encircler to encircled?"
Almost on cue, with Spikeface seeming to anticipate the action by eyeing his meager rucksack, Bu Yu dipped in and gathered up the loosening, crumbling pages of the Quotations, the old crutch, and the whole discussion degenerated into a duel of Maoisms. Spikeface actually quit his face-on position and came around to stand next to Bu Yu, shoulder to shoulder, reading over the top of his head for the lines that best fit his purposes at this particular moment. Bu Yu realized suddenly that they were both approaching middle age. Each had lost the major portion of his old Red fever.
"Where's your Little Red Book, Spikeface? Why mooch off mine? Did The Vengeance eat yours?”
His wife stepped into the fray.
"How can you look down on us?" she hissed. "Right opportunist petty bourgeoisie, are we? Just because we earn our own keep? You're shoeless and filthy, Bu Yu, but under the grime, where your sweat and tears have eroded streaks of bare skin, you're pale as us. You're not black as a Vietnamese rat meat peddler, as might be expected. How have you been living? Whose dole have you been on in the wilderness? Or are you a slave runner out there? Perhaps a marriage broker? I hear that amounts to the same thing among the idiotic rice buckets who infest your part of the world."
"Allow me a little face, Vengeance. It's not my part of the world."
"It's my face that should be allowed. I'm no longer The Vengeance. I'm Ming Mei, Pretty Lotus. But won't you answer my question? I'm really curious. My customers are as well."
Indeed, they had all gathered around.
Bu Yu began to account for himself, though he knew exactly what the reaction would be.
"I coach the peasant children in philosophy for their junior middle school entrance examinations. My philosophy--and, up until this moment, I had always assumed yours as well--is superior to our little sisters and brothers', for we actually studied, first-hand as you'll recall, the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin--"
Laughter began to dribble from the corners of some of the rosebud mouths.
"--by candlelight if necessary, though we went unschooled in many other areas because we were too busy making rebellion to learn math, music or the foreigners' tongue." Bu Yu pointed to the sign that said SYJVESTER STAJJONE'S and said, "What in hell is that supposed to signify, Spikeface?"
"It's way over your head, Cousin."
"Say," sneered the Vengeance, "I hear your mama-huhu brother is trying to compensate for your ignorance in that shit-pit university down on Taiyuan Jie. He's probably in the vanguard of the trouble-making democracy demonstrations that are going to get all our tiny freedoms ripped from our hands just as we are beginning to take advantage of them. I, for one, don't intend to throw away my pin-curlers, my pomade, my disco tapes and movie star photos and start churning out the standardized shingle-bobs of two decades ago. Tell your brother to stay in bed at night from now on, playing with himself like a good boy."
"How can you call Younger Brother 'mama-huhu'?" Bu Yu's voice began to crack with emotion, eliciting more laughter from among the coiffed ranks that were now crowding around him in the garish canary-yellow light. "Don't you remember him, a small but stalwart child, weeping to my mother to let him join us on our marches? Mao de Xiaohaize we called him. Mao's baby."
The hooting response almost shook the pornographic posters off the walls.
"Stupid fool," muttered the Vengeance. "All your little brother did for us was to preach in our ears, the pompous insect."
"You are nothing but black-class curs," said Bu Yu in his darkest voice, to no effect at all but an increase in the hilarity.
"You forgot to add capitalist to your list," she said, pulling something from a biscuit box on the table. "A foreigner came in here once and bought a large bottle of red shampoo. The foreigner gave me this. Do you know what it is?"
Bu Yu had never seen anything like it, but even without reading the words he could make a guess: foreign exchange currency. A grotesque invention.
"Sniff it." She held out the oily ten yuan note. "That's how I want my whole body to smell."
Instead of smelling of meat and sugar as it does now? thought Bu Yu. But his mouth proved less courageous than his mind.
"Where's Comrade Wan Fuliao?" he asked in a lost boy's voice, abandoning this conversation, these people, in desperation.
"Comrade Red Mountain?"
The catalogue went on. Dead. Suicide. In America for further study. Dead. Dead. Joined the hooligan classes. Perhaps in Qinghai death camp eating paper. Executed. In solitary for life. Suicide. Prison. Abroad. Vanished. Disappeared. Death camp. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. Soon it just took an almost bored nod of the head to indicate the same, or similar answers. Nobody left to help.
Trying not to weep, Bu Yu couldn't prevent himself from making what he knew would be regarded a preposterous suggestion.
"Play the Internationale on your guitar before I go, Spikeface. We can all sing it together."
The young ones in their barber bibs, their fingers in murky manicure troughs, didn't know what he was talking about, and neither Spikeface nor The Vengeance seemed about to enlighten them.
"Too old fashioned?" asked Bu Yu. "Perhaps the Maoist anthem, 'A Certain Kind of People Take a Certain Kind of Stand'?"
Everybody laughed out loud. "Pretty Lotus" turned up the volume of the nasty western music and flipped her fingers in his face as if shooing a fly away.
Spikeface followed him out onto the street, still maintaining the appearance of scoffing so as not to incur the wrath of his household empress, but evidently about to offer something by way of apology, perhaps for old times' sake. Bu Yu eagerly watched for the enormous hands to emerge from the skin-tight cowboy pants pockets with some soft currency, or perhaps some flattened cloth shoes. But they remained concealed. All Bu Yu was about to receive was advice.
"You can live and travel with the construction brigades," he said. "They're everywhere now, what with the modernization. They're scruffy and thin like you and go anywhere with no interference from the police. They're mostly from Shaanxi, so that strange accent you've picked up in the communes won't attract attention. These people are outcasts because they don't bother to bargain with the peasants over food, so prices rise wherever they go. People leave them alone and only wait for them to move on. They have no love for the locals and will never betray you as long as you do them a favor now and then, because they respect a man who goes his own way and keeps himself unencumbered and free, as you seem to be doing."
Bu Yu ignored the oblique compliment. "More budding capitalists," he said. "I’ll have nothing to do with them. I'll cast my lot in with the beggars and cripples if necessary. Thanks for the useless advice. Go back to your primping now. Your perm is beginning to sag a little in the direct sunlight. Prepare your young friends for the times to come."