On a sweltering July afternoon, an electric scooter carrying its owner Zhang Yongming, aged twenty-two, an employee of the food delivery company E Si Le, was hit by an intercity bus while attempting to cross West Zhongshan Road near Wuzhong Road, Shanghai.
The scooter was instantly transformed into an unrecognizable heap of metal, leather, cheap plastic, and wicker baskets with the remnants of xiaolong dumplings. The collision propelled Zhang Yongming’s body onto the pavement, where it was immediately run over by a monstrous tricycle transporting bottles of mineral water.
The tall, scrawny tricycle driver jumped off his decrepit vehicle and wailed, waving his hands:
“I didn’t do anything! It was him! He just flew! Like ... whoosh! You guys all saw that?”
“Ai-yooo!” A dignified-looking Shanghainese lady, donning a T-Shirt with the mysterious words Sexy Camel Toe engraved on it in playful Edwardian script, produced a kindly smirk. “That will cost him, I say ... The hospital fees today... ai-yoooooo!”
“That’s what we’ve come to, eh? Eh?” a burly pancake seller chimed in angrily, wiping his forehead. “Trampling people like this ... go trample your grandma’s neighbor!”
Like an ensnared wolf, the tricycle driver shook his head violently, a grimace of despair embedded on his swarthy face. Realizing that the predicted hospital fees would invariably exceed the cost of his tricycle together with all the mineral water it was carrying, he leaped over the pancake stand, pushed away a pajama-clad young woman walking a grinning Samoyed dog, and disappeared in the crowd of older people performing aerobic exercises to the sounds of the popular local song Communist Party Brings Us Good Weather.
Meanwhile, the attention of the spectators was distracted by the strange behavior of the victim. Zhang Yongming stood up, scratched the back of his head, and uttered in a feeble voice:
“It’s okay! I’m okay...”
The T-Shirt Lady exchanged indignant glances with the pancake seller, and they both gawked at the survivor with haughty contempt.
“Impostor!” the pancake seller roared heartily, pouring flour over a gigantic cast iron pan. “Go pretend in front of your aunt’s hamster!”
“Ai-yooo, “ the T-Shirt Lady retorted, sticking out her lips as if she intended to kiss someone. “No hospital fees, then?”
Zhang Yongming turned his back to the disappointed faces in the crowd and started to walk away.
“Doctor, are you sure?” Zhang Yongming asked.
“But I fell,” Zhang Yongming said, gazing at the tip of his shoe.
“I know,” the physician responded patiently. “You were incredibly lucky, that’s all I can say. No fractures, no internal bleeding, not even a bruise...” He shrugged his shoulders. “We’ve performed a thorough examination, sir. You’re saying you collided head-on with an intercity bus and then were crushed by a heavy tricycle?”
“Well...” The doctor spread his hands wearily. “Then I guess it’s a miracle.”
The following evening, Zhang Yongming took his girlfriend to a karaoke bar. He was unusually silent and even refused to sing Liuyang River, offending his patriotically-minded friends from Hunan province.
Watching his girlfriend traipse through mud in her red, glistening stiletto heel shoes on their way back from the bar, Zhang Yongming inquired thoughtfully:
“Hey, Tingting. Can you hit me?”
“Can you hit me?”
“Why should I hit you? Are you drunk?” The girlfriend was visibly annoyed.
“I slept with Guona a week ago,” Zhang Yongming declared carelessly.
“I slept with –”
He didn’t finish the phrase. Tingting’s acid green nails dug deep into the skin of his right cheek. Zhang Yongming made no attempt to defend himself. He didn’t even flinch when Tingting proceeded to furiously kick him with her stiletto heels, trying to hurt him where it was supposed to hurt most.
“What’s wrong with you, you... tortoise egg?!” She applied one of the most offensives Chinese expletives to her boyfriend. “Are you high?”
“No.” Zhang Yongming beamed. “I just don’t feel any pain. I can’t be hurt. At all. Look!”
Triumphantly, he took out a pocketknife, opened its blades, and stuck it into his mouth.
“It doesn’t even tickle.” The words came out blurred as he industriously chewed on the metal. “And it can’t cut me. I’m like Superman. Only more super than Superman.” He took the saliva-covered knife out and handed it to his girlfriend, smiling. “See? No blood. Isn’t that awesome? And forget about Guona, baby. I was messing with you. I just wanted to do an experiment ... Haha!”
“Get away from me, you freak!!” Tingting squealed and scurried away, stumbling and sobbing.
Zhang Yongming was alone.
The jazz club Be Flat & See Sharp was almost empty. A lonely androgynous bartender stood behind the counter, giving mental orders to his dishwasher iDevice app with a melancholic expression on his sullen face. On the back sofa, two foreign customers were having slow-motion electronic sex, discreetly surrounded by an opaque hologram advertising the latest brand of nano-toothbrushes. An inebriated musician was packing his keyboard, diligently stuffing it into the breast pocket of his scruffy jacket.
A young man clad in old-fashioned blue jeans and a white shirt entered the bar.
“Hey.” The pianist made a few steps towards the guest, grinning and shaking his index finger. “I know you. You’ve been here before. Your last name’s Zhu, right?”
“Zhang.” The customer’s voice was emotionless.
“Yeah, whatever.” The musician stretched out a sweaty hand. “I’m the piano-man here. Name’s Wang Keda. Everyone calls me Lao Wang.”
The stranger nodded.
“Have a drink?” Lao Wang winked at the guest and climbed onto a bar stool, almost falling off it during the process. “I know! I know!” He raised his hand apologetically. “I’ve had too much ... But ... There’s trouble to fix, if I do say so myself. You heard about last week? Archie Bloedtraum ... Man ... The guy, like, totally lost his marbles. And now I gotta fix it. Because I’m the pianist, dude. Pianist! It means I’m the smartest. Who else can play eight notes in a voicing for Phrygian sus flat nine? Who? Don’t say ‘guitar’, man. Guitars suck!! They play chords on the beats and all that shit. Piano’s the best. Am I right or am I right? Hey, did I tell you the joke about the guy who got a twelve-inch pianist from a deaf genie? ... No? Anyway ... Liquor’s the best. Liquor is like having sex with Thelonious Monk, you know? Only not today, and not in a gay way, as the poet said.”
“Which poet said that?” The stranger was listening attentively.
“How should I know? I hate poetry.” Lao Wang hiccupped. “Hey! Bar-ten-der!! Give me something ... for the stomach. And the soul. Nobody cares for the f•©king s-soul nowadays.” He sniffled.
The bartender commanded his iDevice to mix two Negroni cocktails.
“Soul...” the guest uttered softly, raising his glass and squinting at the golden liquid. “I don’t know what that word means.”
“Seriously? Man, soul is ... like ... that’s what you are, man.” Lao Wang took a generous sip of his drink.
“What am I?” A weak smile appeared on the stranger’s pallid face.
The pianist stared at his new friend and burped.
“Dude ... What kind of a question is this? You are young, dude. You’re, what, twenty-something?”
“Haha! ... Right! ... Noooo, I’m not that drunk,” Lao Wang giggled.
“I’m eighty-four.” The stranger looked straight into the musician’s eyes. “I was born in 1995. I don’t age. At all. I can’t be hurt in any way, either. I’ve tried everything, from pocketknife to sulfuric acid. Nothing works. I’m immortal.”
“You’re ... what?”
“Hey, I’m immoral too, dude.” Lao Wang hiccupped playfully. “I’m sleeping with the owner’s daughter and her best friend. You know the owner ... Cao Muqin? His daughter is sweet... She’ll come to pick me up any time now. Don’t tell!”
The stranger suddenly grabbed the pianist by the lapels of his shabby jacket.
“I’ve lived that long,” he spoke quietly, articulating each word, “and seen nothing. Only pitiful, worthless parasites scuttling around, overworking yet so lazy at the same time, knocking themselves unconscious with booze and drugs, and screwing each other in every sense of the word. Why do you live? Look at you. You’re beyond pathetic. This world is beyond pathetic. But you know what?” He leaned forward and whispered into the other man’s left ear. “I can’t even leave it.”
Lao Wang opened his mouth, trying to say something.
A young woman entered the bar.
Lao Wang and the stranger turned around almost simultaneously. The pianist grinned, displaying a set of yellowish teeth. The stranger’s pale lips slowly stretched into a thin smile.
“Yes, my dear. Yes.”
“You can’t die.”
“Everyone dies, Yongming.”
“Everyone except me.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing.”
“How can it be a good thing? You are dying, Jinjin. I’ll never see you again.”
“You have to be there for Harmony. Take care of our daughter.”
“Harmony? Please. She hates me because I don’t allow her to hang with those awful foreigners. Listen, Jinjin ... Before I met you, my life was meaningless. The moment I saw you that night, in the bar ... Alright, at first I just wanted to lay my hands on you. But then –”
“It was wrong, Yongming. I was wrong, not you.”
“Seriously? You regret dumping that pathetic, drunken –”
“Are you going to be jealous now, Yongming? It’s a little bit late for that. No, I don’t regret being together with you, because I love you. But what I did wasn’t right.”
“Right, wrong ... What are you talking about? There is no difference. I’ve lived long enough to know that.”
“Maybe you need to look death in the eye to know the difference, Yongming.”
“Jinjin, don’t die. Please. I beg you, my love. Don’t die.”
“It’s good that you’re crying. I think you need that. I’ve lived a happy life, Yongming. Thanks to you. You’ve been a good husband. A good father ... well, most of the time. That is more than enough. There is nothing you can do now except living.”
“But for what, Jinjin? For what?”
“Maybe someday God will answer that question.”
“Don’t tell me about God. It’s been more than a hundred years, and I still haven’t seen him.”
“And yet he sees you. Otherwise he wouldn’t have given you this gift, my dear.”
“It’s not a gift, Jinjin. It’s a curse.”
“Hey, sir! Money-money? Ehh, hao pengyou!”