Listen in Chinese (read by Polly Xinyang):
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Listen in English (read by Scott Major):
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There was nothing in the world that Xian Mingliang couldn’t dispose of with the single phrase: Wheels are round. ‘Wheels are round, so just forget about it.’ ‘It has to be this way; wheels are round, after all.’ ‘All right, let’s do it that way: wheels are round.’ ‘You just do what you please; either way wheels are still round.’ ‘That wheel there? Fixed it. Wheels are meant to be round.’
No need for further examples. He never stopped saying ‘Wheels are round’; it was his catchphrase, the way some people never speak without first uttering a drawn-out ‘Uhhhh…’: usually unnecessary, often quite meaningless. Wheels. Wheels. Wheels wheels wheels. Xian Mingliang was a driver, you see.
He was already a driver when I met him, as a boy growing up in Zhejiang Province. Back then most of the men on Flower Street were either in trucking or shipping, including those who had married into the neighbourhood. When he was twenty-four he married in from Heding down-river, becoming the live-in son-in-law of the boat-boss, Huang Zengbao. Huang’s daughter had been married before and had a two-year-old girl, but her husband had died while working on Huang’s boat. It was a bizarre death. He’d been standing in the prow of the boat, smoking. Huang had called him below deck to eat. He’d turned his head, and then just toppled into the water like a wooden post. When they dredged him up he was cold. That husband had married into the family, too. Huang had been good to him, and had planned to leave him the boat when he himself was ready to throw in the towel. But fate said otherwise: the 85-kilo brute just turned his head and died, with no room for discussion. Huang only had a daughter, and he was determined to bring in a son-in-law to carry on the family business and take over the boat that Huang had worked his whole life – he couldn’t abide the thought of leaving it to someone who wasn’t kin. Xian Mingliang had come to Flower Street to be a trucker, and he followed the old driver Chen Zigui everywhere he went. On long hauls he would drive and let Chen Zigui nap, slumped over in the passenger seat. He loved the feeling of operating those big Liberation-brand trucks all by himself.
When he wasn’t behind the wheel Xian Mingliang seemed to deflate, and went around hands in pockets like a morose idler. All year round he wore the same style of black slacks – loose in the rear, suddenly narrowing at the calf – and let them ride low on his hips. Every time I saw him I felt they were about to fall down, and wanted to hike them up. He would greet absolutely everyone on Flower Street, and ask each kid the same question: ‘Hey, little guy, did you know that wheels are round?’ He was addicted to these tedious little games. If the kid knew, he would give him a piece of candy. If the kid didn’t know, he’d give him the piece of candy anyway. That day on Flower Street, as he was playing with Huang’s two-year-old grand-daughter, holding out a piece of candy and asking if wheels were flat or round, a fortune-teller arrived from the east.
In those days plenty of fortune tellers roamed from town to town making money – they said the blind ones had true vision. But the fortune teller that day wasn’t blind. He couldn’t be: besides telling fortunes he could also read bones, faces and palms. A crowd immediately gathered from all around – Flower Street was home to plenty of industrious folk, but even more idlers. As a demonstration of his abilities the fortune teller tugged his goatee (the facial hair favoured by nearly all fortune tellers), and read the faces of a few people picked out of the crowd. Meng Wanwan had a mealy face, he probably sold rice. Lan with the pockmarks – though his face was a wreck, his gaze was calm and a little weak: he was probably a tofu maker. Ma Banye had a fierce look, like he knew how to use his fists: he was sure to be a butcher. Dan Feng… He looked Dan Feng over, and considered his words for a long time before speaking. She would eventually find a man she could rely on. He could see at a glance that her trade involved opening her door to men at midnight.
Many on Flower Street had traveled extensively and knew that fortune tellers often had no skills at all. They simply made certain inquiries through certain channels ahead of time, and then used that knowledge to deceive their listeners. Once they’d gained some trust they commenced spinning yarns, blathering at will, and the money came rolling in. Someone pointed at Xian Mingliang and told the fortune teller to read him – he came from Heding, and they reckoned the fortune teller couldn’t have done his homework that thoroughly.
The fortune teller took two turns around Xian Mingliang and Huang’s granddaughter, then tugged his goatee and said: ‘Something’s not right here. This young man is plainly unmarried, and yet this girl is his daughter… though not by birth. This connection is clouded to me.’
Everyone laughed, and began to disperse. Xian Mingliang? Connected to Huang’s family? What a lark. They’d caught him out after all. At that moment Huang’s daughter stepped outside to throw out the laundry water, and the fortune teller suddenly pointed at her, saying: ‘Those two are a couple!’
Everyone laughed all the harder, and said to Xian Mingliang: ‘Why don’t you help your wife throw out the water?’
The blush on Xian Mingliang’s face spread all the way down to his navel but, laughing weakly, he said in his deflated way: ‘I’ll help her, if she agrees to be my wife. You can’t tell me wheels aren’t round.’
‘Do you see? They will be husband and wife!’ The fortune teller slung his bundle on his back and prepared to move on. ‘If they’re not together by the next time I pass through, you can dig out my eyes and fry them like quail eggs.’
The fortune teller arrived again three months later. Ten days before that, Xian Mingliang had moved in with the Huang family. It was because of the fortune, too. After Huang had come in from the river and heard what happened, he called Xian Mingliang in and they’d settled things on the spot. Xian Mingliang’s only family was a step-father in Heding, so he was able to make this momentous decision on his own. So what if he was marrying into his wife’s family, instead of bringing a wife into his own? He was still a man, and now a father, too. The fortune teller did a spanking business that time. He held court in a tavern by the canal docks, and people came from Flower Street, East Street, West Street and South Street, cash in hand, wanting their fortunes told. My own grandfather had his face read that time, and learned that his visage bespoke great fortune: a great talent would be born among his children’s children. I had just started elementary school then, and my grades really were quite good. My grandfather asked if I would attend university. He won’t stop there! said the fortune teller. My grandfather was beside himself. The price was one hundred and fifty yuan: he gave two hundred.
A few years later I moved to Beijing, though not to attend college as the fortune teller had predicted. In my junior year of high school, when I was seventeen, I withdrew from school because of weak nerves. I couldn’t concentrate on my books, couldn’t sleep, and all day long my head felt like it was trapped in the cursed circlet they used to control the Monkey King. If I’d stayed in school, I would have gone mad. All my classmates were knuckling down, trying to edge their way through the door, while I wandered through the schoolyard like a lost spirit, an outsider, a nervous wreck. One day I found a secluded place and broke down and cried, then returned to my dorm, collected my things, and went home. I told my family I’d rather die than continue my studies. I was done. My father couldn’t understand how a perfectly ordinary-looking head had gone so wrong. All right then, he said, it’s idleness you’re after, right? Go with your uncle to Beijing and help him with his work. Earn yourself a little money, and give that strange head of yours a rest. So I followed Hong Sanwan to Beijing, and settled down in a one-storey house in the western suburbs of Haidian District. We really were out west – it wasn’t all that different from being in the countryside. When we weren’t in the city itself, the only way I could see it was by climbing onto the roof and looking east: Beijing was a patch of tropical rain forest, made up of endless tall buildings and the glow of neon lights.
The work I did consisted specifically of pasting little advertisements everywhere. I did it for my uncle Hong Sanwan, who made and sold fake IDs. Baolai and I were responsible for advertising his services by disseminating his phone number as widely as possible throughout the city. Baolai was in his early twenties and had been doing this a while; we slept in the same room, in bunk beds. There was another set of bunk beds in the room, where Xingjian and Miluo slept. They pasted advertisements for a different maker of fake IDs, named Chen Xingduo, and were both a little older than me. Now I’ll tell you about Xian Mingliang.
‘Yup, wheels can only be round, goddamn it.’
I heard a voice speak those words, and after all those years my ears still twitched. At the time I was eating dinner with Baolai at a donkey-meat eatery near where we lived. No one else would ever say anything like that – even the tone of voice sounded deflated. I turned to see Xian Mingliang sitting at another table together with a fat man with black, oily hands. Xian Mingliang was sporting a ‘7-3’ parted hairdo, and wearing jeans instead of his old black slacks. The cuffs of his jeans were frayed at the back from being stepped on, and I guessed he still wore them low on his hips. The right side of his mouth twisted up in a grin – he appeared to have drunk too much beer. As he propped his left leg up on a stool he caught sight of me and Baolai. ‘Oh, you two!’ He stood up and approached us.
The fat man with the oily hands said: ‘So, Mingliang, are we agreed?’
Xian Mingliang flapped a hand and said, ‘I said wheels are round, didn’t I? You’ve got to treat my two young friends here to dinner.’
Xian Mingliang wanted a job in the fat man’s car repair garage, and after four bottles of beer, six donkey-meat sandwiches, and three plates of garlic cucumbers they’d come to an agreement. Xian Mingliang was a skilled worker, and wasn’t asking much. Earlier, when he first arrived in Beijing, he’d worked for a maker of fake IDs, and his specialty was making fake driver’s licences, but he’d only made forty of them when his boss had been caught. That was the thing about this line of work – you could go in at any time. Lucky for Xian Mingliang he was a fast runner, otherwise he probably would have gone in too. He’d gone hungry for two days before finding this garage boss.
Before coming to Beijing he’d been in jail four years. He’d run someone over with his truck.
After he got married, Huang had insisted that he switch professions. After two years of apprenticeship he’d be able to run his own boat. Then Huang could finally retire and dandle his granddaughter on his knee. A grandson would be even better – he was counting on Xian Mingliang. But Xian Mingliang wouldn’t listen: the only way in which he disobeyed Huang. The people on Flower Street praised Xian Mingliang, saying even a natural born son wouldn’t be so accommodating, and Huang had done well. But he refused to change his profession, because he’d wanted to be a driver ever since he was small. When he didn’t have a car he’d ride a bike or drive a tractor, and would help people run their tractor-barrows for free. Later he decided to follow Chen Zigui and finally became a driver, and could tell everyone he saw that wheels were round.
‘I can’t be bothered to argue with them,’ he said with a smile when questioned about his docility. ‘I just do what they say. They’re not asking me to commit murder or arson; why should I worry about it? I’m fine so long as I can drive my truck – wheels are round, don’t you know?’
His married life was happy, or at least it looked that way. He was very good to his abruptly-acquired two-year-old daughter, and would bring her back nice things to eat from his long hauls. The girl called him ‘Papa’ as though he were her real father. But just when everyone had started thinking of him as a Flower Street native, something happened.
He never thought the court should have ruled on the accident the way it did. Before he’d died the poor man really had begged him: ‘My friend, I’m begging you to end it. I’ve got no desire to live at all. Come on, friend, I’ll thank you even after I’m dead.’ That struck Xian Mingliang as macabre, and the man had tried again: ‘Friend, just back the truck up, my gratitude will know no bounds.’ Xian Mingliang thought it couldn’t be a great sin to grant a dying man his last wish, so he got back in the truck, his knees knocking, put it in reverse, and heard the man’s final cry of thanks.
It was something that could only have happened at night. Given his skill as a driver, it also had to be at a fork in the road, and when he’d been drinking. He’d really pushed the boat out that day. At dusk, as he passed through the town of Tianchang in Anhui Province, the breeze had carried a sweet scent into the cab of his truck. It was a beautiful time of evening, and his truck seemed to fly. The colours of dusk rose up from the earth like drops of ink soaking up through paper, and the whole world sunk into black and grey. ‘There’s nothing so relaxing as driving at this time of day.’ Even now Xian Mingliang thinks fondly of that evening. ‘Then I got to the fork. Why must wheels be round?’ His face begins to change; his lips tremble. Then it was truly dark. A bicycle hurtled out of the right-hand fork, and bang – by the time he’d braked to a halt, he’d gone right over it.
Xian Mingliang got out of his truck and heard someone crying out; he knew immediately he’d been in what they call an accident. He’d never in his life imagined he’d have an accident. Five meters behind the truck a man was lying next to his bicycle; both were misshapen. The bike’s rear wheel was still spinning, with difficulty. The man spoke, agonizingly: ‘Put me out of my misery.’
‘I’ll take you to the hospital,’ said Xian Mingliang, shaking from head to toe.
‘No, just kill me…’
Xian Mingliang thought he’d misheard. He steeled himself and approached the man. He was handicapped, there was a wooden crutch nearby – it was hard to imagine how he’d ever gotten on the bicycle. But now he was paralyzed, the truck had crushed both his thighs.
‘I’ll take you to the hospital.’
‘No. Look at me.’ He spoke haltingly. Though he wanted to die, he could hardly stand the pain. ‘I waited for you at this fork for a long time. Just back up the truck, you’ll be doing me a favour.’ Then he began to beg.
Xian Mingliang, who must have been scared out of his wits, agreed. ‘‘He was asking me for help, I had to do it. As I backed up my whole body shook, from inside out, and I was covered in cold sweat – even my fingernails and toenails were sweating. Truly, you have to believe me: wheels are round no matter what. I backed the truck up five metres, six metres, seven metres, and I heard a great cry, a sort of cry of joy. I kept backing up until the front wheels crossed over as well. I didn’t know why he insisted on dying, but he wanted it so badly I had to help. Then I stopped the truck and sat by the roadside, completely soaked in sweat, waiting for the next car to come by. Ten minutes later a motorcycle appeared and I gave the driver ten yuan and told him: “Do me a favour, brother. Find a phone and call the police, tell them I’m waiting for them here.”’’
He told them everything, but the blue hats didn’t believe him – they believed him even less when they found he’d been drinking. It was hopeless; they would do what they needed to do. However you looked at it, he’d run someone over. In court they asked him: ‘Do you confess?’
He said, ‘You won’t believe me, so I guess I have to confess. Wheels are round.’
‘What did you say?’ they asked.
‘I said wheels are round. That’s for sure.’
‘He’s mad,’ they said. ‘Put him away!’
After he’d done four of his five years they let him out for good behaviour. He couldn’t say whether his behaviour was good or not, he just did whatever they told him and spent the rest of the time napping against the wall. When he was awake he imagined his truck, from the whole to its parts and back to its whole again, mulling endlessly over every piece. In the last year he was given the opportunity to look after the upkeep of the prison vehicles; that was when he was happiest. In order to spend as much time as possible with the vehicles he would break a little something here even as he fixed a little something there; that way he could spend all his time going
from vehicle to vehicle, as though it were a regular job. When he had no cars or trucks to fix he could still enjoy fixing wheelbarrows. When he got out the prison officials praised him: He’s a handy fellow.
When he returned to Flower Street he found that things had changed – there was now a one-year-old infant boy in the family. He could have understood if the little guy were three or four, but he was only one: it was a surprise. But when you got right down to it, wheels were still round, and there was nothing that couldn’t be made sense of – if there was something you couldn’t make sense of, it was because you didn’t want to make sense of it. Xian Mingliang didn’t want to, but of course he understood. Huang was smoking silently with a hired boat-hand in the other room. Huang’s daughter sat across from Xian Mingliang, holding her yearling son, and said:
‘If you don’t want to accept this son, we can get divorced.’
Xian Mingliang rubbed his bald head. ‘Do you want me to accept him, or do you want to get divorced?’
‘It’s up to you.’
‘That means you want a divorce.’ He stood up, walked into the yard, and called into the other room, ‘I’m leaving, you can take my place.’
The smoking boat-hand coughed once, an expression of heartfelt gratitude, and tossed his unneeded dagger on the ground.
Baolai and I met Xian Mingliang in a donkey-meat eatery. After the accident and his time in jail Xian Mingliang couldn’t find any work as a driver back home – no one would have him. Even Chen Zigui’s appeals on his behalf did no good. There were superstitions in that line of work: you couldn’t drive over clothing in the road, and you had to steer around dead cats and dogs, too: they were unlucky. Getting into an accident that resulted in loss of life was least auspicious of all. I examined Xian Mingliang’s new look: he’d exchanged his shaven head for a parting, but clearly his hair was the only thing he’d spent any time on. He’d let his hair grow long just so that he could get a look at himself in the mirror, when he brushed it in the morning. A buddy in jail had told him that: you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror every day, you’ve got to think about what you need. You can’t just muddle through the days.
‘So, Mingliang,’ asked Baolai. ‘Do you know what you need?’
‘If I did, I’d shave my head again and quit looking in the mirror.’
‘You need wheels to be round,’ I said.
‘My ass,’ said Xian Mingliang. ‘Don’t you know wheels are already round?’
I wasn’t sure if I knew or not. Just saying ‘wheels are round’ didn’t mean I knew it for a fact.
Xian Mingliang had nowhere to sleep that night and wanted to stay with us. That was fine with me, I could give him my bed and squeeze in with Baolai. Baolai was fat; I was skinny. I wasn’t more than ninety kilos soaking wet.
We had too much beer. Just before dawn Xian Mingliang woke with a bursting bladder, and as he headed for the bathroom he saw Baolai and me sitting on the top bunk like wise men on the mountaintop. Not only that, Xingjian and Miluo were lying awake as well. ‘What are you all doing?’ he asked. ‘Mass qiqong?’
‘We can’t sleep,’ I said.
‘Someone’s setting off fireworks!’ said Xingjian, turning over.
‘Fireworks? Little punk! If my snoring is annoying you just wake me up; wheels are round, right? Anyway, the sun’s
almost up,’ he said, getting dressed. ‘I’m going out for a stroll, you can go back to sleep.’
‘The sun’s almost up,’ said Baolai. ‘No one’s sleeping.’
‘Whatever. Just don’t say I interrupted your sweet dreams.’
By that point we really didn’t care if we slept or not. We mostly pasted our advertisements at night. We often didn’t get to bed until sun-up, and we’d only knocked off early the night before because Xian Mingliang was visiting. He came back from the toilet and told us that we all ought to learn to snore, the louder the better. He’d learned it on the inside. If you couldn’t do it, then forget about sleeping at night – everyone snored like it was a competition, each one louder than the next. Xian Mingliang’s snores were out of all proportion to his physique – he ought to have been fifty kilos fatter. ‘Do your worst,’ he said to us.
Despite that, he went to sleep on the roof the next night. He arranged himself on four chairs under the canopy of the sky, and the next morning awoke with his head soaked in dew. He’d expected to live at the mechanic’s garage, but there wasn’t room and the stink of petrol was too strong anyway. With the door open the boss would worry about burglars, but with it closed he’d be fumigated. He liked cars, but not enough to be fumigated. But he couldn’t sleep longterm in the open air either – the wind changed to come from the north and Beijing cooled down. It was breezy on the roof. The roof was used for a lot of things: we played a card game called ‘Ace of Spades’ up there. Whoever drew the Ace of Spades was the enemy of the other three. You had to keep that close to your chest. If they knew you had it they would gang up to destroy you, and if you were destroyed you had to treat everyone to beer and kebabs. Xian Mingliang would come up on the roof when business was slow in the garage and play ‘Ace of Spades’ with us. It used to be Baolai who always drew the ace, but now Xian Mingliang drew it hand after hand, and hand after hand was attacked by the rest of us. Empty bottles from all the beer he treated us to were lined up in ranks along the wall. The roof had another important use: it was where we climbed up to look at Beijing.
A couple of weeks later Xian Mingliang got his first salary advance, and rented a little room in the alley to the left of us. The first day he was too late to buy a sleeping mat, and he spent that night on the bare mattress. He lived simply, and enjoyed his work in the garage. He had a hobby, which was to gather together unused car parts – he said eventually he’d have enough to make his own car. Normally such parts could be sold for scrap, and even the small ones brought in a little cash sometimes. His fat boss bemoaned the loss and said: ‘You can take those away, but when customers come in the future you’ve got to use the best parts on their cars; you’ve got to earn it back double.’
‘So long as they follow my suggestions,’ said Xian Mingliang.
While I was out jogging I’d often pass by his room. The doctor had told me that the best cure for weak nerves was jogging, which would gradually restore flexibility to flaccid nerves, and once they resembled elastic bands fresh from the factory, you were cured. So now I jogged every day, imagining my head to be full of elastic bands that grew gradually tighter the more I ran, and I’d stop at his room any time he was home. The scrap metal heaped in the corner really was scrap, pitch black and filthy – given my weak nerves I lacked the imagination to see that heap becoming a shiny new car. But he had a detailed blueprint in his head, and knew precisely where each piece of wrecked metal would go.
‘Behold, comrades, our mighty capital!’ After a game of Ace of Spades, Miluo would gesture south-eastwards like a great leader, and that lyric right arm seemed to extend farther and farther until it became a bird that flew right over Beijing. We four young men (counting me, who’d never graduated from high school) viewed this vast and bustling capital with boundless expectation. Everyone in the whole country knew this place was full of money, you only had to bend down and pick it up; everyone in the whole country also knew that opportunity here was like birdshit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich.
From what I’d seen, however, there were fewer and fewer birds in Beijing; the place used to be full of sparrows and crows but you hardly ever saw them now. They said it was because the glass in the skyscrapers dazzled them and led them to smash against the walls. There were still some parrots, thrushes, and magpies but they were mostly in cages; you couldn’t expect them to fly up and shit opportunity on you. In the end we might be left with a single bird in the sky – Miluo’s lyric right hand, which no matter what would never shit on you. But that couldn’t disturb the sweet dreams of all the young people rushing towards Beijing.
We gazed out from our heights. As the westering sun slowly sank the twilight rose up from the streets that lay like narrow ravines between the buildings, mixing with the exhaust from uncountable cars and the sour breath of the exhausted office workers heading home. We gazed on Beijing together.
Xingjian said: ‘If I could just earn enough, I’d buy an apartment, marry a wife nine years older than me, and spend my days lying in bed. A twenty-eight-year-old woman… Just thinking about it gets me excited!’
Miluo said: ‘If I had money I’d have a house and a wife, of course. Also I’d take a taxi every time I left the house, I’d take a taxi to the toilet! And I’d find a bunch of people, like you guys, to go around in the middle of the night and paste advertisements for me. I’d have more money than fucking Chen Xingduo! Too cheap to buy a car? I told you I’ve got no sense of direction, the Third Ring Road’s enough to make me dizzy. I could set out for Fangshan and end up in Pinggu.’
Baolai said: ‘I’d own a bar, with the most expensive wallpaper, and I’d tell everyone who drank there to write whatever they wanted to on the walls.’
It was my turn. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. Maybe I should have let my hair grow and looked at myself in the mirror each morning.
‘Just say you had 500,000, man. ’
500,000 – that must be what they meant by an ‘astronomical figure’. I had no idea how I would spend it. Would I build a new house where my sixty-year-old grandma and grandpa could live out their years? Buy my dad a truckload of point-eight Zhongnanhai cigarettes? Exchange my mother’s rotten teeth for a set of the best ceramic dentures, and then dye each one of her prematurely-white hairs back to black? As for myself, if anyone could cure my weak nerves I’d give them the rest of the money.
‘Fucking weak!’ said Xingjian and Miluo. ‘Your turn, Mingliang.’
We all looked at him. He hiked up his jeans (at last I’d seen him hike up his trousers) and wiped his mouth – articulating his great ideal was a hazardous thing. Perhaps what he needed at that moment was a mirror. But he looked out over Beijing’s distant rolling skyline, his gaze soaring like Miluo’s right hand, then sliding on down to rest on a highway at the other end of the town.
‘I’d like a car,’ he said, dropping into his chair and propping one leg on the other. I’d find some empty road and drive. Just keep driving. Wheels are round, you know.’
It was a pretty disappointing ideal. Just driving around in some wrecked car – what was the point of driving?
One evening Xian Mingliang visited our room and asked us to help him move. His voice was nasal, sounding as though it were coming from Beijing’s distant eastern suburbs. His nose dripped a clear liquid and his eyes were red. His room was so packed with spare parts that he’d had to move his bed just outside the door, and after sleeping there two nights he’d gotten a bad cold. We could hardly imagine how he could sleep on such chilly nights, a skyful of stars hanging over him. I felt his blanket – it seemed like a firm squeeze would wring water out of it. The five of us could only worm our way into the six-square-metre room through cracks and gaps. The scrap metal really was just junk, though he’d arranged it convincingly (we didn’t understand a thing, of course, but getting all those bits and bobs in one place had to count for something) – filthy and black, it wasn’t very confidence-inspiring. We nearly exhausted ourselves moving the whole pile out under the eaves, then helping him bring his bed and an old table back inside. These two jobs done, we put up a little shack under the eaves, to cover the car guts – Xian Mingliang didn’t want them exposed to wind and sun and rain. Xian Mingliang knew exactly what to do with this incomprehensible pile. ‘Just wait,’ he said. ‘When it’s done I’ll take you out for a spin; you can’t tell me wheels aren’t round.’
A week later he called us over again – the car guts were gradually taking shape, and needed to be moved to the garage, where they’d eventually be joined up with a chassis and wheels. We borrowed a bicycle cart from the old grocer next door and made two creaking, straining trips. The fat boss wasn’t happy to have so many idle young men hanging around his garage, but Xian Mingliang passed him a cigarette and explained we were all buddies from the same street, and we were all clean. It was like we were there to steal something. What the fuck is this? asked Xingjian.
In the garage I saw a half-made car body welded together out of rusty metal sheeting, little droplets of metal stuck to the seams. There were wheels, too, four of them, apparently of different sizes. Xian Mingliang said he hadn’t been able to find four identical wheels, and it was a miracle that he’d found two matching pairs. I’d once thought that, if he couldn’t find four, he could just start by making a three-wheeled car. A three-wheeled car is still a car, and wheels are round. I couldn’t imagine how a three-wheeler would look driving along Beijing’s thoroughfares – perhaps like Neanderthals appearing on our Flower Street?
After that, Xian Mingliang had good news for us each time he came to the roof to play Ace of Spades: ‘Almost
there!’ We were waiting for the day when he drove himself over. And one weekend, after Xian Mingliang got off work, he really did drive over. Scared the crap out of us. I can say with confidence that no more than a handful of human beings have ever laid eyes on a car like that one: it was a monster. Its skin was still rusted sheeting – I mean not a speck of paint – that was all he could afford. Never mind that, there wasn’t even enough to go around: he’d been obliged to make a convertible. The rust-spotted convertible was covered in bright patches where he’d ground the metal droplets from the welding seams. Only those polished patches gleamed under the sun. Leaving aside the wretched seating, scavenged from other people’s castoffs, the major problem seemed to be that the front wheels were smaller than the back wheels, and the whole car seemed to lunge forward angrily.
‘Get in!’ said Xian Mingliang. ‘These are the roundest wheels you’ve seen!’
We got in and took a turn through the local alleys – it would be dangerous to go on the main roads without a licence plate. It wasn’t too strange, same as being in any other car, apart from the way it tilted forward: I had to brace my feet against the legs of the seat in front to keep from sliding forward. ‘That was fixable: just raise the seat.’ The licence plate could also be resolved. A word from me and Hong Sanwan would make a fake one, and it wouldn’t cost more than a few bottles of beer. Two days later everything was sorted, and we decided to try the main roads.
It had horsepower, just like Xian Mingliang said. It made a lot of noise, but it certainly moved. The low front and high back made it seem like it was raring to go, like it couldn’t be stopped. He’d used the best materials he could find in the rubbish on this car. There weren’t many cars out at night in the countryside beyond the suburbs, and they all drove fast, but we overtook them all. We howled as we passed each one – the cold wind swept over the open car, and we had to do something to keep ourselves warm. The drivers we passed could only gaze in despair at our fake licence plate. Then, somewhere in Mentougou District, the engine stalled, and we were stranded in the wilds.
Xinjian and the others got out and opened up the last two bottles of beer while I held the light for Xian Mingliang as he worked out what went wrong. As the beer cooled off we started feeling the chill ourselves. Xian Mingliang fiddled with every part he could think of, but the car remained a pile of metal, even colder than we were. Soon our main priority was getting warm, so Xian Mingliang gave up and set us collecting dry grass, branches and bricks from the side of the road. He drew a little gas from the tank and lit the branches, and we baked the bricks and rocks. Around the time that both we and the rocks started to warm up he suddenly slapped his forehead, reached behind the steering wheel (formerly Honda), and the engine turned over.
‘God damn it!’ He yelled. ‘Wheels are round!’
He showed us how to wrap the hot rocks in newspaper and hold them in our laps to keep warm – one of the survival tactics he’d learned as a truck driver. Restored to roaring life, the car leaped forward as if desperate to get out of there.
‘Let’s name this thing!’ said Baolai.
Xinjiang said: ‘Iron Horse!’
Miluo said: ‘Land Tiger!’
I said: ‘Stallion!’
“Stallion’ it is,’ said Xian Mingliang. ‘Wheels are round!’
We hadn’t anticipated the influence ‘Stallion’ would have: within ten days it was the mascot of the boss’ garage. Just parked outside it was a constant advertisement, less a car than a piece of rough-hewn art. What skills this mechanic must have, to create such a powerful, mad-looking machine out of abandoned parts! The fat boss was happy at first, but less happy later: Xian Mingliang often left the car parked in his own alley, and when customers who’d come to the garage to gawk – and maybe buy some spare parts and get some repairs done – saw nothing outside, they simply sped away.
‘You’ve got to leave that car outside the garage,’ said the boss.
‘I suppose I could,’ said Xian Mingliang. ‘But I’m worried someone will mess with it, and that fake licence plate isn’t going to hold up.’
‘You’ve got to.’
‘All right, I will. I can’t help wheels being round.’
The garage was about a twenty-minute walk from where Xian Mingliang lived, a walk Xian Mingliang never minded before, but now that he had the Stallion it seemed awfully far. Worse than that was, any time it started to rain or blow he had to run over and put a raincoat on it. Then he had to come back. He wanted to buy some car sheeting and cover it up at the end of each work day – the money could come out of his salary. The boss glared at him: what was the difference between covering it up and just driving it away? If he wanted to cover it, he could only cover the steering wheel and dashboard. That was infuriating, but Xian Mingliang had no choice – wherever the Stallion was it had to be protected from wind and rain; he had to go and swaddle it.
But that wasn’t the end of the issue: some meddling bastard came to the boss wanting to buy it. He thought it was cool, it had personality: the perfect combination of artistry and practicality. ‘Sure, it’s cool,’ the guy said. ‘But it’s the roughness I like. I’ll give you a figure.’ He wiggled some fingers, wiggling the fat boss right out of his gourd. He revealed this figure to no one, but it was enough to buy a brand-new Toyota. The guy added that scrap metal by itself was worthless, but once made into something like this…
The boss brought Xian Mingliang to the donkey-meat place and ordered four bottles of beer, four donkey-meat sandwiches, and a plate of five-spice donkey meat. There’s something we’ve got to discuss, he said. Xian Mingliang drank the beer and ate the meat: ‘What’s on your mind?
Either way wheels are round.’
‘Just leave the car outside the garage, I’ll give you a raise.’
‘No need, I made it in my spare time.’
‘I’ll triple your salary,’ said the boss, opening the fourth bottle of beer, ‘and the car belongs to the garage.’
‘It’ll be yours?’
‘That’s not what I’m saying. It will belong to the garage. And the garage belongs to all of us.’
‘It already does belong to the garage.’
‘Well just sign here, then.’ The boss pulled a paper out of his trouser pocket. At the top was written: Deed of Transfer. He’d already signed under his own name.
Xian Mingliang said it was the first time in his life he’d just walked out. He stood, called for the bill, dropped thirty kuai on the table, and left. He came to our place to finish dinner. His luck was bad, he was caught out with the Ace of Spades, and had to pay for four bottles of beer. At the time we had no idea that a price had been offered for Stallion, we were just pissed at how he’d been treated: ‘Our Xian Mingliang grubbed in the trash each night, putting it together screw by screw and you were just going to take it away?’ we wanted to say to the guy. ‘Are you local government or something?’
Xingjian said: ‘Listen to me, brother, keep your eye on that thing. Wheels are round, right?’
‘Yup,’ said Xian Mingliang. ‘Wheels are round. All I wanted was a car. Even one as run-down as this: why was that so hard?’
The next day he returned, saying, ‘He said I used his tools, his electricity.’
‘What did you say?’ we asked.
‘I said I could pay him.’
The day after he came again, saying, ‘He said I got a fake licence plate, that’s illegal.’
‘What did you say?’ we asked.
‘I said I could get a real one.’
‘He said I’d already broken the law. And I’ve got a record, if they take me in again I’ll never come out. God damn, wheels are round.’
The day after that he came again, saying, ‘Today a police officer came to the garage and walked around the Stallion three times. He asked me where I was from, and about my family, and whether life was good in Beijing.’
‘What did you say?’ we asked.
‘I said my stepfather died and I had no family. I said so long as I could see that car outside, I thought life in Beijing was pretty good.’
That day he played Ace of Spades with us on the roof until we couldn’t see the cards in our hands. He treated us to beer, donkey-meat sandwiches and five-spice donkey meat. As the sky darkened we couldn’t see his expression, and couldn’t be bothered to look too closely; we all had good hands, and were fidgeting in our haste to catch the Ace. The five-spice donkey meat was excellent, it included donkey heart, donkey liver, donkey lungs, donkey tripe, and so on.
A couple of days later we heard that something had happened to Xian Mingliang. Something had happened to his fat boss, too – when he was going to make a booze delivery to the Zhang family at the foot of the Fragrant Hills. Xian Mingliang asked if he could drive the Stallion there. He drove fast – it was the Stallion, after all – and as he was making a left turn the front left tire fell off. His boss, sitting in the passenger seat, flew out of the car then turned over a few times with it. The remaining three differently-sized wheels spun against the evening sky. The boss went headfirst into a tree trunk and pushed his head right into his chest – it took the doctors ages to pull it out.
The four of us went to visit Xian Mingliang where he lay in the hospital with four broken ribs. His head was wrapped in an enormous bandage, and his left arm was broken. Miluo – who’d resolved never to drive a car as long as he lived – timidly asked the question we were all curious about: why hadn’t the boss worn his seat belt?
‘Is there a seat belt on the passenger side?’ asked Xian Mingliang with some difficulty. ‘I’m sure I never installed one there.’
Miluo wondered if he’d remembered wrong. When he’d sat there last time, wasn’t it the seat belt Xian Mingliang had insisted he fasten?
‘Did they find the wheel?’ Every time he spoke, four ribs hurt.
‘They did,’ we said. ‘It rolled into the dry grass at the roadside. Don’t worry, it didn’t lose its shape – it was still round.’