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Jinghu by Mark Hage

Jinghu by Mark Hage

Fiction, Vol. 5.1, March 2011

Wei Min rides a bicycle. The bicycle has a basket. He takes his finger out of his ear, we all put fingers in our ears. The delivery call is yelled; he rushes in through the aluminum front. The cashier slides him a brown bag. Wei Min lifts the stapled tab. Shit, he thinks in Cantonese, It’s going to the lady near the Gingko tree, many drop-offs and never a tip. Wei Min looks for Teng Fei. Teng Fei stands behind Wei Min, tight behind him since his first day. Slow night, Wei Min says. Here rookie, you deliver this. Teng Fei takes the bag with two hands, holds it up like coronation day. Outside, Wei Min angles against the stucco, the bicycles around him lean along. He holds his cigarette gangster style, two fingers up, three tucked in. He squints when he inhales. He watches Teng Fei pedal away. Only a coward wears a helmet, he says to the air. Teng Fei turns right on 51 st. There’s the Gingko with its braids, there is an awning with green and gold. He chains the bicycle to polished brass. No menus on the sills, the doorman says, no fucking menus, you hear? Two of you guys and their restaurants are banned. Teng Fei smiles and shakes his head, Teng Fei does not understand. A white glove stabs an intercom, it points to Teng Fei and a corridor. Stand back, the man in the elevator says. A lever half-moons left, walls and doors cascade down. Teng Fei exits onto marble and wax; his shoes squish, his white bags swoosh. He pushes a button inset in teak, a dog barks, paws scratch. Lucy, enough, a voice commands. Better be Kung Pao Chicken, she tells Teng Fei, last time’s mistake was thrown away. Teng Fei says hello and smiles; a missing tooth paints a square. The lady looks up from the bag. You are not the usual guy, she says. Teng Fei smiles and says hello. With bills and coins she pays exact, she swings the door and steps back. Teng Fei pedals, Teng Fei waits. Wei Min decides who gets assigned. Teng Fei is sent to those who give little. Teng Fei shit blood on the ship, owed the traffickers two years of work. Teng Fei pedals, Teng Fei sleeps. The restaurant bought his labor debt; he works for tips, until it’s paid.

Thursday again, the lady calls. You are not the usual guy. Kung Pao, he says and he smiles. Stay put, she says, and goes inside, an aria plays behind the foyer wall. Teng Fei leans into the entry space. There is a blue vase on a console; there is a painting with Chinese characters and pines. To the right, a two-stringed instrument and its bow rest on a stand. The lady gives him two extra bills. He listens through the shut door, hums the refrain, listens again. He glides his bike down Beekman Hill, wraps his arms around his chest, Yaaaaaaahh he screams, Yaaaahhhh he sings.

A week. A delivery is called again. Wei Min gives Teng Fei the bag. Here rookie, you know this one. Teng Fei pedals, the lady smiles. She opens her purse, he points to the instrument on the stand. Jinghu, he says, and points again. Is that what it is called? she asks. My father brought it from Shanghai; he was in The Foreign Service, an expert on The East. Are you from China? Jinghu, he repeats with the same pitch, points at himself, mimes a bow swing. She points at him, she mimics his moves. She pulls the instrument from its stand. He sits on the floor, crosses his legs. He plucks and tunes the crafted knobs, plays for her the way he was taught, by the man in the village everyone called old. I knew you were different from that other unpleasant guy. He never looked me in the eyes, only stared at the money in my hands, never noticed any of these artifacts from his own land. He only cared for the tip, so he got none. Oh my, look at me rattling off, and you don’t even understand. She scribbles for a while on a pad. Come back on this date, you will play for my guests; this inspires me to have a Chinese theme. The way I discovered you, will make for an amusing account. Have someone read you the details I wrote, you understand? Here, you take this. Yes, you take this.

Wei Min watches Teng Fei return, Teng Fei hands the cashier a large bill. Wei Min puffs, Wei Min squints. The lady owed only $18.95; she gave you the wrong note, the cashier says. No, she meant the gift; her and I became friends, I played the Jinghu for her, she loved my skill. It is a mistake; Wei Min chimes in, that lady never tipped anyone, and never will.

Just in case, Wei Min decides, he will deliver to her the next time she calls. Maybe she is senile, giving her money away.

The call comes in, on a frozen day. Wei Min rides north on the margins of the road. Kung Pao, he made sure it was, with extra duck sauce. He pushes the bell, a maid unlocks. The lady here? he asks, holding back the bag. How much? She replies. The lady, not here? It is not up to you to know; how much? He shows her the ticket; she gives him exact change, keeps two dollars crumpled in her hand. She pushes the door toward his face; he slips his foot in like a wedge. He pushes back; she stumbles and falls. You fucking bitch, he yells in his dialect. I am fucking poor too. You and the lady never tip. What have I done to you? What have I done to you people? I deliver what you want, you never give me a tip, I pedal fast, your food is warm, you fucking people, you fucking rich people. He walks into the foyer, he slaps the vase, it shatters on the floor and sends the King Charles into the adjacent space. He topples the console, lifts its legs up in the air: road kill on Beekman Place. He dismounts the musical instrument, holds it by its long neck. Fuck you. Here’s what I know to do with your Jinghu. It looks like a fucking hammer; I know how to use a hammer. He swings it against the mirror, here’s what I do with your Jinghu. He pounds the walls, as if driving a spike, slams it against the console legs, mangling it into linear shreds. He throws its carcass at the spaniel that came wagging back. He slows and reads the Chinese characters on the silk scroll, dismounts the slender painting from its hook, rolls it, places it carefully inside his coat. This is not yours. This is China’s, he yells. Fuck you. He follows the maid into the living room, pulls the intercom from her hand and throws it down. He pushes her with small shoves into the bathroom and closes the door. Stay here, he yells. Don’t you move, you fucking rich people.

Wei Min takes the N train. Wei Min lives with five men. The men share meals and sing along. They too are owned for a while.

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