Gao Wen hoisted his fishing pole over his shoulder and started home. The sun broke through Wuhan’s perpetual haze and played in trapped prisms over the lake. The boy had been coming here to fish for a long time, ever since his uncle had taught him. He had once asked his uncle if the fish were all from Wuhan, or if they had migrated here like his parents had. His uncle had taken a drag from one of his small, homemade cigarettes, and told him that fish could go everywhere. All they had to do was swim.
The boy knew that if he were a fish he could go anywhere he wanted, but as it stood, he was not a fish. He was the only son of two merchants, and he was going to the only place he could: home.
So he followed the road beside the lake. There were benches with older brothers and sisters but some chose the grass, all on that large barrier where road met grass, grass met concrete, and concrete met lake.
Green, brownish stuff was accruing at the shoreline. Gao Wen knew better than to ever drink this water and so did his classmates, but the promise of 20 RMB had changed the mind of one boy who had spent the next week or so puking up his meals. After that, no amount of money could convince Gao Wen to drink it, not even a thousand U.S. dollars.
He also knew not to swim in the lake and so did his classmates, but something had changed the mind of one boy, who after school had discarded his backpack and gone in. Gao Wen and the other classmates had watched the boy swim out a little ways, then disappear under the water. They never saw him again. The boy had left their mouths first, then their minds, and along the way people had been very direct about what had happened to him. Gao Wen pretended to go along with it, but he knew what had really happened.
His classmate had turned into a fish, and swam away.
He passed twin towers. This university was rich, with a lot of minorities and when he’d asked father if he’d one day come here, the old man had laughed. Not here. Wuhan University, Beijing University. Places like that awaited him.
Good study, day day up. That’s what powered him at school. Next year they had the Zhong Kao. Hard, but a mere prelude to the gauntlet awaiting them in a few years: the Gao Kao. The college entrance test.
College. The boy couldn’t even begin to imagine that.
Past the towers he turned left at a half-globe with English letters balanced atop a hollow, silver mound. He passed more school buildings and took a right. Tucked in a nook were motorbikes and the entrance to the backstreet and beside this a guard chatted with an old man, his face a crumpled quilt. He leaned on a bamboo cane as the boy’s grandfather once had and his lips sucked at a cigarette, draining its leaves of their poison vitality and both blew smoke, laughing and talking, the guard in Wuhan Hua, the old man in a toothless Hua only his friends could decipher.
The boy stepped on to the backstreet. He did his walk past the stores, the puddles, the shanties. The trash. He had been doing this since he learned how to walk.
Down the road, two old men faced each other on stools playing weiqi on a door laid sideways over two poles. Others played Mahjong and smoked and faintly he heard mealtime cries of Gan bei! and powerlines over shanty metal roofs hung low to the ground, tied together in a strangled mess at the entrance to an alley.
The boy turned.
Down a short hill the ground changed from cracked street to hard mud. A bit further on an old woman sat on the steps before a great oak door framed in red strips of paper. She was perched on a cane, her skin a coarse leather.
“Xiaowen!” her ancient croak filled the alley.
They greeted each other and the woman’s laugh matched her voice, a thick speech more ancient than the revolution itself. From behind her came the call to lunch. She pivoted on her cane and stood, her feet shaped like diamonds in handcrafted moccasins.
“Gai ci fan le.”
She swayed up the steps and through the door.
He went over to his home, unlocked the door, laid the pole against the wall and went back out. At the end of the alley he turned right. Further down, the street opened to a lot. Golden characters arched over a gate, the name of a high school. And at the corner, his parents’ store.
Father had his head down on the counter. Gao Wen went up the steps.
There was a small room in the back of the store with a bed and a coal stove. Mother had food, one meal ready, another frying.
“Tai re le ma?”
He got a bowl of rice and stood eating as his mother finished the second plate and then piled a little of each into two bowls of rice and took them to his father. The boy followed.
Out front they sweated and ate and talked.
“Wo jin tian he yi laowai suo hua le,” the boy said.
“Ah,” father said. “Ta shi na ge guo jia de?”
“Bu zidao. Wo xiang ta si ge laosi.”
“Nimen shuo zongguo hua ma?”
He giggled. “Dang ran shuo de, suo yi ta han yu bu tai hao.”
“Ni yingyu ne?” mother asked.
While they were eating, an uncle approached.
“Nimen chi fan ah!” the uncle called.
Father went over to him offering a cigarette. The uncle took it and the two stood smoking and chatting.
Gao Wen sat on a short stool, listening. Mother disappeared in the back and returned.
“Jin tian re si le ah,” she said and handed him a fan.
They spoke too fast to catch every word, but the boy heard enough.
The uncle wanted Gao Wen’s parents to loan him money. Like always, father did not say yes or no. The boy wasn’t even sure which uncle this was. He had many uncles, not all of them true kinsmen. Father had many uncles too, plus eight siblings. All with uncles of their own. For all he knew, half of Wuhan was an uncle in some way.
The uncle went on his way and father returned to the counter and lit a cigarette. Mother came and they discussed whether to loan the uncle any money, and at the end they were no closer to a decision than before. And all the while, Gao Wen stared at where the uncle had gone, trying to place who he was, and what he needed the money for.