“I always want to remember from where I came,” Mr. Luo said, unzipping his dirty work coveralls. He looked like a new man, with a dark blue suit, white shirt, and yellow tie underneath.
With the wave of a hand and a few words in Chinese, he directed a subordinate of the little bicycle repair shop to bring forth his new acquisition; an aging English Midland bicycle.
I gaped in awe. The only time I had ever seen such a novelty was over forty years ago in the movie “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” Bright yellow in color, it was in fabulous condition. I dared not touch it.
Now a billionaire, Mr. Luo ran an empire of fertilizer that stretched to all corners of the earth. At all hours of the day, conveyor belts heaved up thousands of tons of festering porridge from the bowels of large cargo vessels, spewing the dark mix upon huge mounds. His company processed, fortified, and packaged this muck for resale abroad. There was nowhere on the planet where his fertilizer was not used. The air that we breathe daily in this city along the coast, and its ghastly aromatic tint, was a never-ending witness to his success.
“Go ahead,” he encouraged. “Take it.”
I put my hands on the bars. Emboldened, I rang the bell. Studying the bicycle so as not to look him in the eye, “I asked, “Why did you name your company Sha Gua? Doesn’t that mean idiot?”
With a blank face, seemingly unable to place himself back in time from where the name originated, he answered without emotion.
“The name of my company? Again, I do not ever want to forget from where I came, nor do I want others to forget.”
I was puzzled, and it was evident to him.
“Many years ago, before the new development, times were hard in China. Perhaps you know of this time?” His face was still without emotion as he asked the question.
“The Cultural Revolution? Though American, Mr. Luo, I’m a professor at your university. Of course I know it.”
“This was my first shop, my first vocation, my happiness. Occasionally, I even traded in pig droppings so that they could fertilize their small fields.”
I mounted the yellow bicycle to gather a feel of the seat. “And Sha Gua, the idiot?”
“You are impatient, aren’t you?”
“No, I just woke up with Pink Eye this morning. I best be getting to the clinic before work.” I checked my watch for the time.
For the first time, he smiled. “Of course. It will be faster if you ride the bicycle.”
I turned my head once again to meet his eyes.
Expressionless, he continued, “Sha Gua, the name of my company, comes from the words on the high pointed hat that I was once made to wear as I was bound and dragged through the streets by the Red Guards. I was called a speculator, the most heinous of accusations, for selling dung. I was the idiot, and all were to know this.”
Now, it was my face that matched his blank maw.
“But, times have changed,” he added.
“Yes. I suppose they have,” I replied.
“Leave the bicycle with the doctor there. He will be only too glad to ride it back.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You know the abominable Doctor Feng?”
“A jest. When I walked by yesterday he had a cigarette dangling from his lip. His lab coat was filthy as usual, and he was cleaning a used syringe with a handkerchief. Some old guy was sitting listless next to him. Not sure if he made it. Abominable seems fitting.”
“Ride the bicycle to him.”
I nodded. I pushed the yellow bicycle through the garage door of the shop and quickly made my way down the street to the clinic.
Once there, a small crowd of onlookers gathered. I thought they were curious as to the nature of the resident foreigner’s visit to the clinic. This was not so. They instead circled about the yellow bicycle, as if beholding a holy relic. I noticed Dr. Feng was there at the door of his clinic, looking at me as well. An intense individual, perhaps now in his late fifties, Dr. Feng was tall and strikingly handsome, despite his disheveled appearance. He immediately discerned the reason for my visit, looking at my red and swollen eye.
Fumbling through a cabinet, he produced a vial. He placed some drops in my eyes, letting me know with a few words and sign language to do the same every four hours. Then, he gathered a patch to place over my eye. Despite my hesitancy, I allowed him to put it on.
Adjusting my sight, I peered across the room. Standing, I lifted up the patch upon seeing my reflection in one particular picture. The image was of a long time ago. It was Chairman Mao Tse Tung smiling, seated upon a yellow English Midland.
A large, red Cadillac STS pulled up at the curb beyond the throng. The driver exited, opening the rear passenger door. It was Mr. Luo, the king of crap. I paid Dr. Feng, and then met the aging gentleman outside.
I uttered, “Dr. Feng was your tormenter, wasn’t he? He was the young man who dragged you through the streets with the dunce cap on your head.”
Mr. Luo feigned a smile. Then, he pointed at me and observed, “You look like a pirate. Perhaps now you have a Chinese name. We shall call you Jiang Hai Dao – The River Pirate.”
“Arrrgh!” I grumbled. Giving a two finger salute, I bid him a good day, and headed down the street into the city. At the corner, I stopped, something urging me to look back. As I did so, I saw Mr. Luo and Dr. Feng locked in embrace. My chest heaved, water from a river of emotion beyond sight filling my eyes.
Indeed, for everything there is a season.
Written by: Say Simba
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal