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Switchback, 1994

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July 15, 2014

At the center of all the commotion lay the victim, his blood pooling on the road.

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Image by Yun Fei Ji

A Public Security Bureau officer banged on the bus doors and pulled himself inside. He looked down the aisle, past the sacks of vegetables, at the stack of bricks. The driver knew the PSB had him. The bus was grossly overweight. Through the windscreen, the passengers in the front rows saw three trucks, a minivan, and another bus parked in the crook of the next switchback. They’d been creeping through the mountains since midday and it was getting dark. Even if their driver had his papers in order, and enough for a bribe, it wasn’t likely he’d be able to get the battered green school bus moving again. They’d barely been moving as it was. The engine had cooked itself miles ago. It gave off raw grinding yowls when forced into a lower gear. It yowled when they climbed. It yowled on the short level stretches. Its shocks had been cut from granite.

Only on the downhills did they make any speed, and then the driver didn’t so much steer as ride the thing like a brakeless train…

Only on the downhills did they make any speed, and then the driver didn’t so much steer as ride the thing like a brakeless train, flying around corners, the doors flapping open, blasts of icy wind washing through the cabin, tires making that horrible ripping sound on the pavement that it seems can only be followed by the dead silence of their complete detachment from the road. In the mountains, everyone drove like this, all over the road, drunk on the freedom of locomotion, but there was an element of pragmatism to their fear of low speeds. In a head-on collision, speed gave you a survival advantage, your momentum propelling you, like a plow parting sod, through a slower, ascending party. The hulks of buses driven by the slow and unlucky lay in nests of shredded trees down in the valley.

Their only hope of getting through the mountains was to maintain momentum. Now they were stopped cold on an incline. In the middle of the bus, a chest-high stack of mud bricks blocked the aisle, the handiwork of a peasant who had, one armload at a time, carried aboard five hundred pounds worth, while her husband dutifully stacked them. It had taken forever because, as it turned out, half the passengers were experts on brick stacking, and the husband had to stop every five seconds to defend his methods. At first, he’d just muttered and waved off their commentary, but after ten minutes, he was openly engaged in shouting matches with at least three different farmers; another faction was shouting at the first to leave him alone so he could finish, and yet another was shouting at everyone else to shut up. The job eventually got done, and it was then that the driver, in a blue parka and green track pants, rose from his seat where, feet up on the dash, he’d been smoking dreamily for the duration of the episode. He sidled back to the brick stacker and said, “You can’t put these here. They’ll throw off the vehicle’s center of gravity. Move them back there.” He waved his cigarette at a spot five feet aft.

It was lost on no one that, should the confrontation escalate, there were plenty of bricks to go around.

Half the passengers were Tibetan pilgrims, and he was counting on them to mind their own business, but in the face of this despotic behavior they united with the peasants and really let the driver have it. He gave as good as he got, threatening to eject everyone from the bus if they didn’t shut up and move the pile back. He picked up a brick and held it by his head like a religious totem, using it to punctuate his points more than to directly threaten the passengers, but it was lost on no one that, should the confrontation escalate, there were plenty of bricks to go around.

Eventually, in a stirring show of brotherhood, the pilgrims and peasants defeated the megalomaniacal overlord, rising up against the driver and shouting him back to his seat. His protest was a bravura performance. He threatened to charge everyone a transportation tax for the bricks. He told the brick layers he’d make them ride on the roof. In a final show of anger he dashed his brick on the steel floor. He called them bandits and accused them of conspiracy, but with an exasperated sigh, he relented. It was high time to get the old bucket moving again.

The PSB looked down the aisle at the bricks and examined the faces of the passengers. This time the Tibetans were silent. They weren’t going to go out of their way to antagonize a PSB, but a few of the Han Chinese onboard made some noise about the unscheduled stop. They shut up when the PSB swiveled his boxy head in their direction. Everyone figured this for just another instance of government-sanctioned highway robbery: a toll or road improvement tax cooked up on the spot by an enterprising officer. The driver would pay the bribe and they’d get moving. But after a quick conversation with the PSB, he cut the idling engine and followed the officer off the bus. The passengers groaned weakly, and everyone, the Tibetans, the Hans, a pack of old Muslim ladies whose faces were studies in erosion, clambered over the bricks, squeezed past the bundles of vegetables farther up, and disembarked.

The late afternoon sky was passing from light blue to purple. Down the slope, terraced rice fields tripped toward the river like the contour lines of a topographic map. In the valley, the roofs of a village overlapped one another like the scales of a tremendous snake. A cold sliver of sunlight cut into the shank of the mountain high above them. The bus’ hood tinged as it cooled, smelling of ozone and burnt oil, hot metal.

The passengers followed at a safe distance from the PSB, past the three flatbeds loaded with sacks of cement, scrap metal, past the minivan, past the other bus, and around the switchback. As they rounded the corner, they saw farther up the road a Russian-built cargo truck, probably a troop transport in a former life. There was a familiar gracelessness about it, a uniformity of design that hinted at the existence of a factory that manufactured gray Communist boxes of various sizes. A size five box would become a car. A size five box bolted to a size twenty box, a troop transport. A thousand size twenty boxes, a ministry building in Beijing.

The truck’s tires were as high as a grown man. Tiny birds picked at insects spattered against the steel bars of the truck’s grille.

There was a crowd, and there was a man in the road. The snarled bicycle lay beneath the front of the cargo truck, and a pack of cotton-jacketed farmers stood off to the side, their rakes and hoes rising above their heads like aerials. The truck’s driver, a slouchy-looking man with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, was playing back the accident for some very skeptical PSB. The more he waved his arms, the tighter the grim set of the PSB mouths became. He was in big trouble. He’d killed a man.

He was not mangled, but he was in a position no living man could withstand, his limbs at jagged angles.

At the center of all the commotion lay the victim, his blood pooling on the road. There was his foot, the black slipper, the thin white sock embroidered with a line of four brown diamonds, a single blue thread bisecting the diamonds and disappearing beneath the cuff of his long underwear. Black creased pants. His face was turned away from the crowd. He was not mangled, but he was in a position no living man could withstand, his limbs at jagged angles. There was grey dust in his black hair. Blood trickled from his ear and dripped steaming to the pavement. The pool of blood had grown a custardy skin in the cold, so that as the wind blew, it strained and jiggled. The birds hopped from the truck’s grill to probe its edge. The Tibetan pilgrims began to pray, beads clicking in their hands.

The farmers know the man on the pavement. His name is Tong Fushan, and he lives with his family only a short distance up the road. He’d almost made it home. Fushan was a college graduate, thirty years old, a teacher in the village of Longliebu down at the base of the mountain. He also ran a bookkeeping service for the farmers, which brought him a stipend from the government. A farmer had set off on foot to inform Fushan’s parents.

They were a bad luck family. The Tongs’ daughter had been struck by a seizure while planting rice, and though the water had been shallow, she’d been alone and had drowned. Afterwards, Fushan had returned home from Nanjing to help his parents, but despite being an educated man with a good salary, had not been able to find a wife, and now the family name would die out. These acts of fate were inexplicable. The Tongs were honest people who worked hard. They shared with their neighbors in lean times and had always repaid favors. In any person’s life it was possible to find tragedy, but in some equal measure, also happiness. The Tongs were out of balance. There, looking at the corpse, an old farmer named Lung Bonu, whose family had lived in the mountains for five generations, theorized that a Tong ancestor had acted in bad faith during his life and his family was still paying off his accounts.

The whacking sound of the Tongs’ two-stroke farm vehicle echoed off the mountainside. It resembled a mantis, and came creeping slowly down the road above the switchback, navigating the PSB vehicles arranged to block passage, the rime at the edge of the roadside crunching beneath its tractor tires. Tong Po was in the plow seat, driving by manipulating two long rods fitted with levers. His wife, Lu Meifang, was sitting in the cargo flat behind him with the farmer who’d brought them the news. Her back was to her husband, facing away from the place of her son’s death, her right hand holding the rough wooden railing, her left hand on her thigh. Her padded cotton pants and jacket made her appear much rounder than she was. The farmer, seated on the wheel well opposite her, balanced two quilted blankets on his lap. His brown, creased hands lay atop them. His nails were cracked, knuckles fat with arthritis.

A PSB jogged toward the vehicle, at first waving his arms, then planting his feet and insisting that they stop. The vehicle bore down on him, but at a comically slow velocity, like a slug approaching a rock. Just before the front tires met the officer’s black boots, Tong Po released the gear lever and applied the brake. Po could see the crowd, made up of strangers, but he could not see his son or his friends, the farmers, who were standing beyond the body.

“There’s been an accident here,” the PSB said over the popping engine. “You’ll have to dismount until the road has been cleared.”

In his seat, Po was taller than the PSB. He looked at the crowd, back at the officer.

“He is my son,” Po said.

The officer stepped forward, grimacing, tapping his ear. “Turn off the motor.”

“My son,” Po said, louder this time.

The PSB digested this, said “Wait here,” and walked back into the crowd. They knew without being told that the man on the farm machine was the father, the woman in the back the mother. If he’d been a farmer trying to get somewhere, he’d be arguing and fighting his way through the crowd. But this was his final destination. There was no urgency in the man. He sat atop the machine, saturnine, unblinking, his mouth hanging slightly open, a portrait of ruin.

The PSB pushed back through the crowd, followed by two more officers, who hung back when the first approached Po.

“Shut it down, follow me,” said the PSB.

Po reached down by his foot and killed the motor. He climbed off the seat and went around back. “Come on,” he said to Meifang. She followed him, shuffling numbly, the bundle of blankets beneath her chin. She was a glacier about to calve, her eyes looking nowhere, seeing nothing. The crowd parted to let them through. No one spoke. The wind shushed through the leaves of the trees, and the passengers’ heavy coats flapped in the gusts.

She went down in a crumple, all her will extinguished. The crowd closed around her, arms under her arms, arms around her back to lift her up.

The sight of her son’s body crippled Meifang. She went down in a crumple, all her will extinguished. The crowd closed around her, arms under her arms, arms around her back to lift her up. Po saw his son and tried to recognize him. He studied the face carefully, then the jacket, pants, socks, shoes, the hands. His son’s face was dusty, his eyelashes covered in grey flecks, lips dry. There was nothing familiar about him. The pool of blood like pig’s blood on the slaughterhouse floor.

Po crossed toward the truck, where most of the PSB were standing, passing by his dead son as if he were a tree fallen in the road. The senior officer stepped out to meet him.

“I should take my son home,” Po said.

“Honored one,” the PSB said, “we are conducting an investigation. This is a crime scene.”

Po looked back at his son’s body, the truck, the bicycle. He saw the driver standing in the shadow of one enormous tire, his eyes wild with fear, scarcely breathing, a cornered rabbit who might well die before the dog’s teeth sink in. He saw his friends, their hoes and rakes.

“There’s no need for that,” Po said.

“Old uncle, it’s not for you to decide. The state must finish collecting forensic evidence.”

Po looked up at the sky. “It’s going to be dark. The wolves are going to come down.”

“We’re properly trained, old uncle. Nothing will happen to your son.”

Meifang’s sobbing rose.

“How long will you make me wait?” Po said.

“We’re nearly finished,” the PSB said. “We had to call down for a camera, but it’s just arrived.”

“You’ll make photographs and then we can take our son?”

The PSB sighed. “Yes, old uncle. We won’t waste time.”

This satisfied Po, and he went back to Meifang, who was squatting on the asphalt, face in her hands, body heaving.

“They’ll let us take him soon,” Po said, squatting down beside her.

“He needs to lie in his bed,” she wailed.

The sun had dropped behind the range across the valley, and suddenly it had become night. Passengers were softly asking their driver when they’d be able to get going. He didn’t know.

A flash illuminated the roadbed. Another one. The PSB moved to get a different angle. The flash went off three times in quick succession. The body lit up, threw shadows, disappeared. The PSB turned on their sedan headlights to help. More flashes.

The process took time, and the PSB wanted to document everything properly because of recent investigations into police practices that had resulted in officers losing their jobs. A provincial level deputy political commissar had even been thrown in jail. But this wasn’t a complicated case. The old farmer hadn’t even asked to speak to the truck driver who’d killed his son, and the officer in charge took that as a sign that he wouldn’t have to deal with this patch of road again, at least not until someone else died here.

He sent one of his juniors over to collect information from the victim’s family. When his man returned and handed over the notebook, he told the junior officer to let the family know they could remove the body.

Po and Meifang rose and walked over to where their son lay. She knelt down in the headlights and took his head in her hands. It was so heavy. In the harsh light the pool of blood was just a black mark on the road. Po went about straightening his limbs, first the left arm, then the right, then straightening the left leg, then the right. Po looked up, toward his friends, and they all moved forward, laying down their tools and surrounding the two parents and their child. Meifang cradled his head in her lap, brushing the dust out of his hair, then gently lowered it to the concrete without a word and reached for a blanket.

“Underneath,” she said. Their friends took his body and lifted it while Meifang spread the blanket on the cold road beneath him. They lay him down on it, and she brought up the sides of the blanket to cover his arms. Po draped the second blanket over his son’s body.

The farmers lifted him up and carried him slowly toward the crowd, which again parted to let them through. The bus driver who’d stopped first had cranked up his engine and turned on the lights so they could see where to go. They processed toward the Tongs’ vehicle and laid the body in the back. Meifang climbed in beside him and sat down on a wheel well, her hand on his chest. Po climbed up into the seat and started the engine. They had one motorcycle-style light attached to the front, but it was enough. Po knew the road with his eyes closed, and he released the brake and executed a tight loop in the switchback, then pointed up the road toward their house. The banging of the two-stroke echoed over the valley.

They tossed the mangled frame into the scrub on the side of the road and climbed in on the other side.

A PSB climbed up into the Russian troop transport’s cab and another couple of officers wrestled the bicycle out from beneath its front axle. They tossed the mangled frame into the scrub on the side of the road and climbed in on the other side. Gears grinding, it headed down the mountain to the station, followed by the PSB sedan.

The crowd dispersed to their busses and trucks. The first bus, already warmed up, roared off, followed by the scrap metal and the concrete truck. The third truck pulled away as the last passenger boarded the second bus, where the track-suited driver was priming the engine, praying the thing would start. When he turned the key and pressed the starter, the engine chugged, caught, then chugged some more. He could hear the belts rasping, the fan blades cutting the cold air around the block. The lights dimmed and flickered with each revolution of the crankshaft. He took his finger off the starter. The bus was quiet except for the creaking of the passengers’ seats as they settled in the cold. It was dark outside, dark inside. The only lights were far down in the valley, pinpricks in a black sheet. He tried again. The engine chugged, then caught, and roared as he gave it the gas. He let it run for a while, warming its bones, revving the engine every so often, before depressing the clutch and pushing the gear shift. It knocked back, shuddering in his hand, but he waited for a gap and pushed it forward again. The bus fell into gear and he released the clutch, gassing it up, giving it what it wanted, letting it strain against the brake before lifting his foot, the bus then groaning forward, toward the bend in the road, its tires breaking loose the frost that had settled in their treads. He cranked the wheel around the switchback’s arc, over the dark stain on the pavement, meaning to look down to make sure he didn’t guide the tires directly through it, spreading the poor man’s blood all over the road, but he looked too late and couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t. He checked his watch, raising the luminous dial right up to his nose. Behind schedule, and three more stops before he’d be able to sleep. He could make it up on the backside of the mountain. Once they’d crested the pass, he could really open it up and let it run.

G

Excerpted from The Dog: Stories, forthcoming in August 2014 from FSG.

Jack Livings’ debut short story collection, The Dog, will be published by FSG in August. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, StoryQuarterly, Tin House, The New Delta Review, and Best American Short Stories, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. Livings received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He is at work on a novel.

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