We are not northern. Yet in winter, as now, we will freeze. Snow falls and the paths turn to mud. My cheeks burn with cold. Where the months drag on there is still traffic. I have lived here a long time. Call me what you like. My name is Xiao Huo.
I yell up at the building. “Zhang Luo Ying!” My morning voice is reedy and nasal. I am out of the habit of shouting. Also, there’s no answer. “Zhaaang! Luo! Yiiinnng!”
These buildings were put up in stages. Project money came and went. Not every building is finished and it has been years. Some windows are gaping holes. Some floors are entirely just empty shells. One building, little more than foundations and the sketch of ten stories, has long threatened simply to fall over. To look at it is held up only by shifting wooden scaffolding. The walls lean under a burden of snow. Some buildings, such as hers, have glass and are barred. The shiny chrome cages were bolted on some time before they arrived, before they knew no one else was coming. This side of the complex is called Heaven. I think it is the loneliest place I have ever known, but I am not sure. I haven’t been to other places.
Beyond the buildings are flat fields. I come here often because it is open. This is the yellow earth I mentioned and beyond is the mighty worthless river. In winter you cannot tell that it stinks. In summer weeds stand as high as my waist and the lumpy, soft earth is hard to judge. The smell is strongest on still days. In winter though, the air is too cold to have any strong smell. And the weeds are gone. Instead there is this sea of mud. Walking here sometimes means sinking or sliding. Some days you can see to the far side of the river and all the construction over there, equally tall and empty as here. Today the mist arrived before I did. I hope it is clean but I cannot tell. There is nothing to see.
I arrive at where there is more water than mud. I have a stone I have been carrying. This I hurl. There is something wrong with the inside part of my shoulder. I cannot throw well or often, but I am in training.
My boots were ruined long before I stomped through this mud, but the way they don’t support me today makes me angry. The mud is slick and loose and I knows it is not natural, that it is not real. This mud has been disturbed too many times, moved from here to there, been cut up and twisted and turned over and never left alone. And by now we have only this silt and dust left. No fixed and firm ground. No good earth.
All the things around here that have names are like that too. They are shells without notable mark. Featureless. The only thing alive around here is…
– plain jane
Merchants shuttered their stores, apartment dwellers packed up their belongings, the people left. I stayed. You could call that a mistake because goddammit I’m hungry right now, but I’ll find something. I always do. There’ll be someone local still.
I saw a crowd, top of the street. Didn’t approach. They all had that same look, nearly aimless, somberly wrapped for winter, all faced that other way. Black hair all of them. An extended family. They didn’t see me. See, if there is one thing I’ve learned, the way a person expires, it isn’t an event. It’s a process. And times lately, it’s gotten to being a long one.
All right, that’s enough from me. I can’t be sitting here like this.
Damn cold out, freezing hands. Can’t stay here long. Meanwhile, I don’t see people walking today. Did see some cars, like patrolling, moving slow. Don’t know what that’s about. Bonus though, got microwave pizzas from the supermarket. Girl in there was weird. Nice day, I told her. I don’t know the local dialect. See looked at me strange. Just stared. Is that my fault though, that I don’t know? Is it my fault there are monsters in the streets? You know what I’m thinking though, is the electricity can’t last. Gonna need something to do when that goes.
What I’m thinking now is condiments are key. If you have power and water still, then it’s condiments that make the difference. Yellow curry sauce goes well on salty peanuts. Some old udon and an equally elderly “sausage” are jazzed up considerably by a Neapolitan sauce from a jar. Tomorrow I might try them the other way around
While I was congratulating myself on my condiments some guy came to the door. That was unexpected. Also, I only think it was a guy. He didn’t speak. Just knocked several times. Then knocked next door and went on downstairs knocking as he went. All the apartments. Don’t know why he started at the top. A salesman, somebody checking up? My phone didn’t show anything. This high up, someone knocks on the door, they’d call first, right? If he knew me. Knocked on my door longer than the others. Better keep a lower profile.
The other thing is can I start with stealing yet? I’m pretty sure I know this place isn’t gonna last, but I don’t know if the people will come back. If they do, and I’ve been stealing, I’ll be in trouble. But how about if they don’t. I’m gonna look pretty stupid then. Pretty cold, maybe frozen. Because it’s a generator I want. Or fuel. Seems to me a supermarket would have a generator anyway. Maybe I’ll go see that girl again tomorrow. Find out why she stayed. If she stayed. She might not have stayed.
Supermarket didn’t have any tools. Kitchen junk, pans and so forth, and some flimsy-looking carving knives, but nothing like a pry-bar. She flashed the lights while I was back there looking – she’d had to turn them on special to let me go in that far – and it helped me not stand there trying to think how any of this junk could possibly be what I was looking for. There was a gas cook top there and maybe I can come back for that tomorrow, but I’ll need a pry bar first. I don’t cook and haven’t in years so the cooktop I have is rusted out. Sits in the tiny kitchen doing nothing. But more importantly, I don’t have gas – no connection and no bottle of my own. So I need that pry bar.
What I did get was another bottle of water. Makes six I have now. Can’t drink what comes out of the faucet and the water guy isn’t coming back any time soon, so yeah. Also got a, what I want to call a duvet-quilt. It’s not a duvet and not a quilt, but something in between. Made of cotton stuffing, pretty thick, but loosely woven. Denser than a duvet, but not solid like a blanket. Anyway, damn warm if needed. Usually they’re used like a mattress but they’ll work wrapped around you in a cover. Smells of mildew. Not an old stink. Strangely fresh. While I still have the air con I can dry it out probably.
I asked her if I had to pay. She said I’d better. So is this your place? I said. It’s small in that there are only two checkouts and one of them is never used. But it’s a large store in that she’s too young to own it. She didn’t answer though. Just counted up the total and told it to me. It doesn’t matter. I paid. You don’t know where I could get a pry-bar, do you? I said. She didn’t. If I can get into another apartment and get a gas bottle, then I don’t have to try finding a generator. Generator would be loud anyway, and I don’t know how they work too.
A car came very close to me just now. Pulled in like I wasn’t even there. Only me on the street and that’s where some SUV wants to three point turn? No driver to see. The windows were shaded. That’s on me though maybe. Struggling along like that, head down, not focused. Weighed down by this quilt and condiments and water. But fuck him man, there was only me on the road.
He didn’t roar off especially. Just drove. Maybe lives around here too. I might be taking your car some time buddy so just you watch out.
Power’s out. I don’t know, is it not supposed to get really cold in this part of the world, we only have air con for heat in winter, and nothing’s efficient. When the power stops, you can feel the temperature drop in the room. I put on an extra layer underneath. I don’t like doing that, it keeps the heat in, but messes up your skin too, but no choice. While I was still warm enough to get in out of clothes, it was the thing to do. That was it though. The day was only just started and I’d had enough. I wrapped up on my new blankets and settled onto the sofa. Hands got cold. Feet too. And my nose. The rest of me though, I started to heat up. I was warmer than I’d been in days. Went to sleep. Now, sitting here still, I can see my breath.
Phone shows a signal. Pretty sure that means the power out’s just local. So is this day over? It’s—12:40pm. What’s my picture for how this day can be over and then tomorrow is okay? I’ll think about it some more. Picture in my head keeps coming back to that supermarket.
See, what I’ve learned: death isn’t an event; it’s a process, and it can be a long one.