Cowboys and Indians by Charles Lowe
The youngest daughter of the youngest sister of the Chiang family thought she was a big shot.
She had big eyes and would puff her chest out so that the green pockets of the Red Guard uniform were a couple of moons. My sis and I were a couple of black classers; black classers had ancestors who had property, didn’t matter how much; our father’s great-grandfather had nearly a lí, enough to grow a pocket of vegetables but also enough to get my family thrown into exile, and we had been back in the District a few months when my mom started to open the apartment up, first because my sis had an accident as a kid and was bedridden; then, as every family was called a black classer on our block, just about every kid came over and stayed till all hours except for Chen. She was Red Guard and wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing us.
Then, one day, Chen did come over, her eyes swollen. Her father had jumped. “He was a bad person,” that was what she said, and might have believed.
After that, she came over to our apartment with the other kids. You might wonder, what had happened to the Chiang’s? The Chiang’s weren’t like us, no bad family background. Who knows, it might have been her father’s job. Mr. Chiang wasn’t a lead cadre, but he certainly was a big shot; maybe subordinate had complained, wanting to get a bump up, that was my mom’s guess, but whatever the cause, Mr. Chiang was dragged through the alleyway with a dunce cap on his head and black paint on his face, in small streaks like in one of those cowboy and Indian films.
My dad had called his wife’s younger sister’s husband weak, and if pushed, I’d have to side with dad. Not much had really happened to the fellow compared to many. Mr. Chiang hadn’t had his arm stretched until his arms looked like the wings of a jet plane. But certainly enough had happened that Mr. Chiang felt the need to climb to the top of a four story block (it was brick: one of those buildings put up by an American engineer named Hoover) and jump, leaving a slight dent in the walk that’s still there.
Chen never did mention her father. None of us did in front of Chen, and she was happier with us than when Chen was the daughter of a big shot; I am sure of that. It might have been as simple as mom didn’t have curfew. Chen could come over to our apartment and stay up all night. But if forced, I’d have to say it was dad. She worshiped him, and dad took her as a third daughter and taught her to play mahjong. Chen was the best at it of all of us.
My dad also taught her another skill; well he taught us all. You see, my dad believed that he dug out squat down toilets better than anyone and would demonstrate each night the proper technique, his pajama bottoms about touching the tiled floor while pointing with his right hand to show how the straw blades in his left were caught in his right hip pocket. Dad’s eyes were clear saucers, and he had a wide grin. Dad had a desk job at the Teacher’s College and had lost his job when the Red Guard had found out about the vegetable plot owned by his great-grandfather. But dad had looked relieved to give up the place at the College along with a two-pack-a-day habit and as he’d liked to say, the backbiting.
Mom was not at all pleased with the new circumstance. She came from a family of factory workers, true red classers, and had been proud to be married to an intellectual with babashou, shitty hands (that was mom’s favorite tease) and dad certainly wasn’t allowed to lay his hands on a thing in our home. Mom of course hadn’t bargained for a marriage to an intellectual with babashou, and she’d make me and sis stand by our bedroom window every evening, waiting for dad to appear in a stained yet well pressed uniform (mom still ironed his uniform nightly).
While sis filled the bucket with a hose, I’d lug down the scalding water to an iron tub in the back of the apartment house, not too early. “The water had to tear at the skin”: that was the standing order: mom was certain that dad was born a careless black classer (she had married into the curse).
So the entertainment was put off until an hour or so after I was done with the chores including helping mom stir the congee, a thick rice cereal that was a warm brick in the stomach. Then, Chen, I, and sis would sit at the table, all waiting for Dad to recycle his favorite talk on the proper technique to dig out a squat down toilet, “bend down,” dad would say before arching his back; “take the shovel like you were dancing with a special friend,” dad would add, pretending the broom was a shovel before pretending that the shovel was his dance partner and planting the stringy hair from that dance partner in his right hip pocket. Mom would pretend to be pleased to watch her husband show off his technique at the dinner table, though it was understood mom preferred to forget.
But Chen and I remained curious and went to the campus only a block or so from our apartment to see dad’s technique in action, the two of us darting about the collection of four-story blocks like we were a pair of spies, not that we had a reason to worry. Dad wouldn’t have known what we were up to if he had caught us, which was unlikely; dad’s work unit was pretty demanding, but still, we moved tenderly from one block to the next, trying to find which squat down was dad’s work, a truly impossible task as the toilets were all dug out by the same work unit, until we were a catty corner from dad’s old office (I used to love the aroma of my dad’s well grained desk) when we saw XX.
Xiao Xiao, or XX for short was Chen’s older brother. He had thick eyelids and was looking at us as though he was asleep on his feet. I don’t think he ever got over his father’s suicide. I don’t mean to say that Chen did either. She must have felt some scars; only I never saw them, she married an up and coming property guy, and they moved into a modern set of villas out of town—very clean but XX was different. He walked around like a sleepwalker; then, married a girl who became our maid. Once, she told us that Xiao Xiao beat her with the edge of a leather belt. The woman dropped her pants to show off the black marks; mom bending down in the same way that she might have to inspect a kitchen floor while clicking her tongue like she was unhappy with the work. But Dad had his own view, as usual. “XX hadn’t ever slept,” dad smiled and after, pretended to close his eyes as XX might have done when the Red Guard beat XX’s father before the elder Mr. Chiang had left a permanent dent in a walkway on campus.
Mom didn’t look too convinced and went back to inspecting the kitchen floor. Obviously, she didn’t trust our maid and became irritated whenever she saw a mark whether the mark could be scrubbed out or not. Just as plainly, mom wasn’t ready to go along with her husband that Xiao Xiao had learned his technique from the Red Guard. And if pressed I’d have to side with mom. Xiao Xiao was cruel way back. He used to tease my sis, once wielding a stone, leaving a mark on sis’s forehead—and this was well before the terrible times when his father was still lording it over people and the boy should have been happy.
Charles Lowe’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Fiction International, Pacific Review, Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for the 2011 Pushcart Prize. He lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai where he teaches at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.