“Are you an art collector?” I ask in English.
“Art dealer.” She smiles mischievously. “Collecting is for wealthier people than I.”
Her English is excellent.
“She has Shanghai gallery,” Sloppy adds.
“Wow, cool,” I say. “Hey, I’d better go. If you see Lao Zhang, can you tell him I’m looking for him? My phone’s dead.”
Lucy Wu sits up a little straighter, then reclines in a perfect, posed angle. “Lao Zhang? Is that Zhang Jianli?”
Sloppy nods. “Right.”
Lucy smiles at me, revealing tiny white teeth as perfect as a doll’s. “Jianli and I are old friends.”
“Really?” I say.
“Yes.” She looks me up and down, and I can feel myself blushing, because I know how I must look. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I was hoping to catch up with him while I’m here. I’ve heard wonderful things about his recent work. You know, Jianli hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition as an artist.”
“Maybe that’s not so important to Lao Zhang,” Sloppy mutters.
Lucy giggles. “Impossible! All Chinese artists want fame. Otherwise, how can they get rich?”
She reaches into her tiny beaded bag, pulls out a lacquer card case, and hands me a card in polite fashion, holding it out with both hands. “When you see him, perhaps you could give him this.”
What a bitch, I think. Then I tell myself that’s not fair. Just because she’s tiny, pretty, and perfectly put together, it doesn’t mean she’s a bitch.
It just means I hate her on principle.
I order some takeout and head to Lao Zhang’s place. Lao Zhang’s probably working, I figure, walking down Xingfu Lu, one of the two main streets in Mati Village. When he gets into it, he paints for hours, all day, fueled by countless espressos—he’s got his own machine. He forgets to eat sometimes, and I’m kind of proud of myself for thinking of bringing dinner, for doing something nice for him, like a normal person would do. It’s been hard for me the last few years, remembering to do stuff like that.
Maybe I’m finally getting better.
As I’m thinking this, I stumble on a pothole in the rutted road. Pain shoots up my leg.
I can barely see, it’s so dark.
There aren’t exactly streetlights in Mati Village, only electric lanterns here and there that swing in any good wind and only work about half the time, strung up on storefronts and power poles. Right now they dim and flicker. There’s problems with electricity sometimes. Not so much in central Beijing or Shanghai, but in those “little” cities you’ve never heard of, places with a few million people out in the provinces somewhere. And in villages like this, on the fringes of the grid.
But the little market on the corner of Lao Zhang’s alley is decorated with tiny Christmas lights.
I buy a couple cold bottles of Yanjing beer (my favorite) and Wahaha water (the label features this year’s perky winner of the Mongolian Cow Yogurt Happy Girl contest) and turn down the alley.
Lao Zhang lives in one of the old commune buildings, red brick, covered in some places with red wash, surrounded by a red wall. The entrance to Lao Zhang’s compound has two sculptures on either side, so there’s no mistaking it. One is a giant fish painted in Day-Glo colors. The other is a big empty Mao jacket. No Mao, just the jacket.
Inside the compound are four houses in a row. Sculptures and art supplies litter the narrow courtyards in between. Lao Zhang shares this place with the sculptor, a novelist who also paints, and a musician/Web designer who’s mixing something now, a trance track from the sound of it, all beats and erhu. Not too loud. That’s good. Some loud noises really get to me.
Excerpted from Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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