The front door is locked. Maybe Lao Zhang isn’t home. Maybe he’s already over at the Warehouse for the show. I use my key and go inside. I’ll have a few jiaozi, I figure, leave the rest here, and try the Warehouse.
The house is basically a rectangle. You go in the entrance, turn, and there’s the main room, with whitewashed walls and added skylights, remodeled to give Lao Zhang better light for painting.
The lights are off in the studio, but the computer’s on, booted up to the login screen of this online game Lao Zhang likes to play, The Sword of Ill Repute. A snatch of music plays, repeats.
“Lao Zhang, ni zai ma?” I call out. Are you there? No answer.
To the right is the bedroom, which is mostly taken up by a kang, the traditional brick bed you can heat from underneath. Lao Zhang has a futon on top of his. On the left side of the house there’s a tiny kitchen, a toilet, and a little utility room with a spare futon where Lao Zhang’s friends frequently crash.
Which is where the Uighur is.
“Shit!” I almost drop the takeout on the kitchen floor.
Here’s this guy stumbling out of the spare room, blinking uncertainly, rubbing his eyes, which suddenly go wide with fear. “Ni hao,” I say uncertainly.
He stands there, one leg twitching, like he could bolt at any moment. He’s in his forties, not Chinese, not Han Chinese anyway; his hair is brown, his eyes a light hazel, his face dark and broad with high cheeks—I’m guessing Uighur.
“Ni hao,” he finally says.
“I’m Yili,” I stutter, “a friend of Lao Zhang’s. Is he . . . ?”
His eyes dart around the room. “Oh, yes, I am also friend of Lao Zhang’s. Hashim.”
“Happy to meet you,” I reply automatically.
I put the food and beer down on the little table by the sink, slowly because I get the feeling this guy startles easily. I can’t decide whether I should make small talk or run.
Since I suck at both of these activities, it’s a real relief to hear the front door bang and Lao Zhang yell from the living room: “It’s me. I’m back.”
“We’re in the kitchen,” I call out.
Lao Zhang is frowning when he comes in. He’s a northerner, part Manchu, big for a Chinese guy, and right now his thick shoulders are tense like he’s expecting a fight. “I thought you were going to phone,” he says to me.
“I was—I tried—My phone ran out of minutes, so I just. . . .” I point at the table. “I brought dinner.”
“Thanks.” He gives me a quick one-armed hug, and then everything’s normal again.
“You met Hashim?”
I nod and turn to the Uighur. “Maybe you’d like some dinner? I brought plenty.”
“Anything without pork?” Lao Zhang asks, grabbing chipped bowls from the metal locker he salvaged from the old commune factory.
“I got mutton, beef, and vegetable.”
“Thank you,” Hashim says, bobbing his head. He’s got a lot of gray hair. He starts to reach into his pocket for money. I wave him off. “Please don’t be so polite.”
Lao Zhang dishes out food, and we all sit around the tiny kitchen table. Lao Zhang shovels jiaozi into his mouth in silence. The Uighur stares at his bowl. I try to make small talk. “So, Hashim. Do you live in Beijing?”
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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