Getting right with Mao (first draft)
A shite short story by Biff Cappuccino...
Another bottle flew at him unseen, shattering on the wall beside him and he cringed at the glittering sound. Shards peeled through his hair pell-mell like a rush of mad insects, glass filaments like fine sand brushed over a cheek. A dank pea-green smell in his nostrils accompanied a wave of panic, too late to do any good in any case, which rushed through and spent itself in seconds. He clutched his chest, felt his heart. Still here, still in one piece, still solid. He was old, shaky, but clear. And too important to be shoved off the human stage as collateral damage, to become a newspaper statistic, a number sliding into oblivion in a reeducation camp. At his age and in his wobbly, leathery, varicose veiny condition, he’d go in to the camp but not come out. He breathed deeply. He was okay. Just out of practice. Shy like a virgin all over again. He pulled himself together as he trudged away.
A dozen yards off and he looked away from the mass fighting going on in the street. He’d seen it all before. He looked back at the wall again. The Job Wall. Between the struggling men and cops, above the arcs of rocks and bottles, the trajectories of staves and billy-sticks, he could still make out posters and graffiti offering opportunities in Chinese characters for the literate and in the Roman alphabet for lip readers. Work offered, men wanted. Lost and found ads, not for missing pets, but for missing children and addled elderly. (“Have you seen our child/father. He answers to the name of…”
Today, however, by popular demand, it was the Protest Wall.
Usually, a herd of unemployed men squatted and shared cigarettes in front of it, day in and day out. Some even slept out under the stars, early birds chasing worms. Worms! That was about right. It was the 1930’s Great Oppression all over again.
Glancing to his left, he saw his son doing his part, learning on the job, earning his digs, acquiring a reputation. Exhorting, managing, executing, fighting, bloodying, destroying. As a father, he was ineffably proud to pass down the revolutionary tradition. Jesus, Jefferson, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Mao. Throwing the money lenders out of the temple! Off with their heads! Magnificence incarnate!
Today was the first anniversary of the county’s introduction to the novel and advanced concept of eminent domain. Banditry was the word on the street for this meat-eating flower of urban planning. No jobs but plenty of pollution, stolen pay, illegal levied taxes, back taxes, interest on taxes, new excuses for raising taxes. Special interests, special dispensations, judicial privileges, oligarchy, elitism, nepotism, cronyism. The solution? Activism. They were fighting back, enacting a citizen action, celebrating the anniversary with a DIY riot. The old man saw himself as a lotus sprouting in pure blossom from decrepit mud. The government vermin privately called such folks opportunists: strippers bursting out of rotten birthday cakes.
Times were tough, and the tough got going. Different men with different skills sought different opportunities, making the most of the mostest: Some came for jobs, others for rubes to rook, pockets to pick, tourists to shake down. Public morals were in the toilet, treading water with floaters.
Toilets reminded him of night soil which reminded him of food which reminded him of digestion. He belched, cocking his head forward to release a pungent gust of garlic and beer. He passed a sheet of wind to lighten his load, the reassuring collegial phweep! lost admist the howling of the crowd. He blinked again to soak up the wet from the eternally wet eyes of his golden years. He blew out his cheeks and reflected with frustration, not for the first time. How had it come to this? He knew who would have had the answer had he still been with the living. The Great Helmsman. He who had always set the example of purest rectitude, of self-sacrifice, of courage, of undying love for the People.
After 1949, during the torrid palmy days of liberation they’d chased the running dogs out of the garden and into the weeds and smashed them to death with shovels, picks, and hoes. They’d been in great humor then. Laughter and gaiety and pride and honor and camaraderie and unity ruled the zeitgeist, filled the newspapers, preoccupied their hearts. Pride and patriotism fueled them all to achieve prodigies of optimism. Now, after decades of exhaustive communal pruning of their dreams, the diligent cultivation of the national flower of human civilization, and the fruit of their efforts was now rotting on the vine. A lifetime of work come full circle to naught, ashes to ashes, dust to dust!
The golden mean of the Communist Manifesto dashed to nothing, he sighed. He reviewed his favorite lines of Marx. Like all poetry of the first water, it was heaven-kissed eye-candy, an ecstatic brain-fart that gnawed itself blissfully into the brain: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” Amen, comrades. “It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Oh my brothers! “In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” He went silent. What was there to say to this, which had been said so well?
He sighed, reflecting that these days it was everyone for themselves. Five finger discounts, smash and grabs, eat and run with the chef close behind, a cleaver to butcher you with as you skedaddled for your life. All good men, all driven to bad things.
Another bottle crashed nearby, releasing some brown filthy liquid in a spray. Judging by the aroma, probably a shit bomb. Judging by the strength of the stench, the spray had dampened his clothes. No matter.
Friendly fire. A lot of that today. Clumsy fools. They’d almost botched the main event before it happened. But he’d always found human clay a dodgy material. Still pondering the melee absentmindedly, he shook his hair out, pressed his hands over his skull like an ER doctor, trolled the back of his neck for damage. Right as rain. He straightened himself, pulled down his army surplus shirt. Dignity important as ever. He would go out like a proper PLA soldier, liberating the people.
Confident he wouldn’t be deliberately molested, he reached absentmindedly for a cigarette in his left trouser pocket but only found his lighter. He took it out, a solid man-sized fistful of shiny metal. He fingered it, grinned like a child and snapped it open, memories of decades of revolutionary activism tripped back into life by the mechanical musical tinkling of: “The Sun Sets Red over China…”
Those were the days. Now Mao’s workers paradise was defunct. The weeds were choking up the garden. The fox was in the chicken coop. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics! He snorted. The sun was setting in the East, the orb once again crooked just as it was under the reign of the Manchu emperors. The mandate of heaven was warping, like a drunken rainbow that now only glimmered in shades of grey.
He dodged a heavy stick that came whirling at the wall. It caught the cement lip, bounced up over the glass safety topping and disappeared over to the other side. He wasn’t excited by danger anymore. He was resigned to his fate. No. More like content. He knew what he had to do. He looked at his timepiece, an oversized pink-purplish Disney mood-watch that hung slackly off his wrist. Five more minutes.
All around him, men were pushing and shoving, the dull grunting, miscellaneous shouting, and unified chanting of slogans on both sides combined to make a tremendous racket. Everywhere was the smell of disturbed earth and rank sweat. And that putrid shit bomb. But his eyes glazed as he took in the melee. He had time for reverie.
He looked into the melee with a hard gaze that came naturally to him, an inner fortitude he hadn’t risked earlier for fear of attracting attention. Looking like a bent-up old man, penniless, and short a few marbles, had kept him safe up to this point. Now he could reveal the cutting virility within him, the strength of his mental discipline, his adamantine resolve. The smile left his face, replaced with a cop stare. But inwardly he was still dreaming, still the sentimental soul at heart. Reviewing a lifetime of accomplishments, contribution, giving back to society, leaving behind a better world for the next generation. For the children. And the grandchildren.
He hadn’t led a life unexamined. He’d left the beaten path. Gone for an extended walk on the wild side. He was an extraordinaire.
The nineteen-forties were another hard but productive time. He and Nienwen had headed guerillas hiding in the hills not twenty kilometers from here, planning actions by day, sleeping by night in slipshod shelters of rough-hewn wood and thatch. Fresh branches laid over to hide them every night. No Russian money, no German advisors. No aid or assistance. Just an ideology burning brightly in their breasts. Their peckers were in nobody else’s pocket but their own. Down below, ensconced in the valleys lay the landlords and their serfs, allies of Chiang Kai-shek, traders with the Japanese, leeches sucking the bloodied teats of American capitalists.
Their last guerilla unit had just wandered in, a unit of thirty men reduced to five healthy and three walking wounded. He was aghast at their losses, though he tried to hide it. This was the third unit to be decimated in the past month. They’d have to pick up and haul camp again, but fast. The third time they’d moved in the past thirty days, goddammit! He gave the order and a panicky packing up began. Morale was hitting rock bottom. They wouldn’t survive this. Fear spread through the air like pneumonic plague, the spiritual lifeblood of courage and fortitude was sapping out and draining their revolutionary guerilla commune.
What to do? He wondered.
First priority, assess the wounded for portability. One of them, a friend from his ancestral village, clearly wasn’t going to survive the bullet he’d taken in the lower back. He was too weak to stand now. He’d rolled the man over and gently inserted his finger into the wound but couldn’t reach the bullet. Others reached in and tried, but nobody could find it. All they had were plaster poultices, alcohol and acupuncture needles. Even a shaman of the savages could do better than this he thought dejectedly. And opium was banned, a party policy he’d never seen the sense of. It was traditional medicine. Even if they’d had it, none of them knew surgery. So what was the use of regretting something which was only useless to you anyway, he reprimanded himself.
Nobody wept. At least not in public. Bad for discipline. He looked away, went outside the soon-to-be dismantled thatch hut to collect his wits. He looked into the inexorable darkness, into the abyss of the valley and the abyss looked back. He nodded to himself.
Back into the hut he marched. Resolutely, he ordered Nienwen, “Assemble the commune in the green area. Immediately.”
Nienwen cringed, dropping his shoulders as if in an act of supplication, but protested, “But what about packing up? The landlords will have sent out posses to trail our comrades. They could be just minutes away. And recent intelligence suggests the KMT wants to mop up our area. Maybe they’ll put out a spy plane to locate us.”
“KMT pilots?” he winced. “Drunk or stoned at this hour. Assemble everyone now! Two minutes from now, I want everyone in the green area.”
“But even if that’s true, once the posse gets close, we’ll have to shut down all our oil lamps. We can’t dismantle the camp effectively without light.”
“Now! Do what I say! And bring the wounded out too.”
He distracted himself by running over one of the regional maps again, hand drawn and surveyed by his own people on foot. They were constantly reinventing the wheel out here, he muttered. But this was all extraneous. The contingency plan for their next move had been drawn up and agreed upon weeks ago. He would make no change of plans. He fidgeted, his hands opening and closing. He read his own palm to make sure his future hadn’t changed.
In the green everyone assembled. Only two hundred of them were left. Down from five hundred just one year ago. Times were tough, and even the tough got going. People disappeared. They picked up camp and moved on. New recruits appeared. But mostly they didn’t last. Everyone here was hardcore but morale was dangerously low. Dedicated yes. Suicidal no. He had to set an example. They couldn’t afford any more attrition.
Out on the green, everyone was lined up. The wounded were laid out in front on makeshift two-poled stretchers of branches and supporting thatch, looking like the travois the Amerindians pulled with horses. He spoke, delegating authority for their march through more Guangxi jungle and giving rough notice of where their destination lay. Nothing too specific. Everything here was on a need to know basis. Just in case of attrition.
He spoke again, “Bring Chang Wei-lei up front and center.” Two men pulled him over, roughly but not deliberately so. The wounded man was conscious but weak. He said, “Chang Wei-lei can’t make it. We shall have to leave him here.” Chang’s eyes opened wide. There were gasps of disapproval but he shut them down speaking firmly: “We need to pull together. This is a time for strength.” What more was there to say? He took out his pistol, aimed it at Chang’s heart, and let him have it. Twice to be sure.
Chang twitched slowly, like a man hung, like an insect beheaded. He distracted himself from the awful scene by reproving himself for wasting precious bullets to make a political point. But of course a knife wouldn’t do. He needed a clean kill. Something noble. Noble savagery. Which isn’t to say it was easy for him either way. But he wanted to make sure this was a group experience, a rallying point.
He recovered charge of the scene by accusing the others of weakness. By blaming them. It was their fault. “It was bourgeois sentimentality to imagine we could take him with us. Walking wounded only.” Their faces were long, a mixture of shock and despair. He tried another tack, “Don’t the Japanese shoot their own wounded? Their spirit is stronger than the putrid flesh enwrapping it. This is strength! This is the fount of their redoubtable power to overcome. Chiang Kai-shek is weak. An opulent man addicted to wine and women. Mao is strong. A spirit-warrior. We too must be strong.” He couldn’t tell if they were convinced. The hell with it! They’d learn. He’d never admit error. For there was no error to admit to. Besides, there would be no debate. No dissenting voices.
They marched for four days, one direction during the day, often double-backing during the night. They suffered no attrition this time. Murmurs of approval ran electric through the camp. Things had changed immensely for the better. Smiles abounded. His approval rating was up. Yet there was a lurking fear penetrating all comrades. The bar for the death penalty had been lowered. Plunged even. Yet he observed an excellent side benefit emerge from his mercy killing. Ironically, morale rose along with group fear and self-censorship. Now everyone trusted everyone else. Get with the program or its curtains for you buddy. Nothing succeeded like success. And so he was popular with the soldiers, admired by his officers, and an apple in the eye of the ladies again. Nothing worked better for life than death. A miraculous discovery. The importance of setting a new moral example. Of revaluing values.
Now that the cat was out of the bag, there was no more playing. They took their work more seriously. They kept new recruits now, made inroads into Nationalist territory. Captured their first village. Everyone naturally organized, party members or otherwise. Like minnows schooling, there was strength in numbers and networking. He’d set a new moral example. The People pulled together. He’d done it. The leader leading. And an only recently liberated feudal people easily played follow the leader.
He went on to a string of successes. The anti-landlord campaigns of the early 1950’s and teaching by example how to trip up landlord sophistry and beat offenders to death for their crimes and the inherited crimes of their ancestors. He helped round up useful idiots fleeing the crackdown after Mao’s crafty Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign. The Great Leap Forward was a boon in his area, opening up new farmland and improving production. The Cultural Revolution was a harder time as the national economy went tits up for a time. But it was necessary. He squired young fanatics to local temples and led local boys ferret out the last bad eggs and capitalist elements. They’d driven a couple hundred into a river, drowning the lot of them. Waste not, want not, they used their organs for traditional medicine, the local pharmacology particularly stressing the nutrition of human livers. It was a time of deprivation, not of depravity. Only the guilty were eaten. Either that or their worthless bodies pushed up daisies to be eaten by cattle to be eaten in turn by good folks. They’d just sidestepped a couple of stages in the food chain. Just being efficient. No need for bourgeois sentimentality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The melee continued in front of the Protest Wall, in the square overlooked by the vermin still peeping out of city hall. The fighting was mostly heat and noise now though. Hands shook weapons, but it was mostly waggling in the air. The paid dragoons were tightlipped and rubbernecking now. Their implements of destruction were held high, but the whole scene was now more like an air-riot, rapidly approaching farce. It wasn’t just the mutual fatigue and the climbing sun, but as noon approached, the protestors were clearly flagging somewhat.
Then there was a lull, an air of waiting. Trepidation spread throughout the ranks. One of the stooges recognized a cousin on the other side of the skirmish line and whispered. “Hey! A-fah! What’s going on? What are you monkeys up to?”
“Fuck your grandmother, running-dog.”
“I’ll have your sister for lunch too, okay?” He frowned. “Happy? Quit talking shit. What the fuck is this about? What are your demands?”
A-fah, looked around him, blank faces everywhere, but people he knew. All his own people. In fact, it was all his own people, on both sides of the skirmish line, “Hell if I know. It’s an anniversary or something.”
“Yeah, somebody’s celebrating their marriage. Haha.” He said sourly. “Fuck you! Tell me. I need to know.”
“What do I fucking look like? The fucking Guan Yin Goddess?” He looked away disrespectfully.
Everyone was like soldiers marching time, motion but no real movement. The protesters had their orders to stop at noon. The new equilibrium was predictable. The government stooges wanted pay, not injury. The more they worked, or appeared to work, the more poppy they could negotiate. Everyone went through the motions of motion, but instead everyone waited.
It was his turn. He hardened himself for the finale. No chicken-shit waffling. No punk out. He would go out on his knees, lotus position; not standing up, reading to bend over and take it in the ass from corporate man. A real man, a virile man, a man of action and gallantry, had to make a call. Think of posterity. The ultimate sacrifice was called for. For the people. It’s what Mao would have wanted.
He was proud to be a soldier. A people’s soldier. Not some pussy like Lei Feng waiting for sloppy seconds or thirsty thirds, content with wiping up after the main event, doing the laundry when the boys got back from the dirty work of fighting a cruel and foolish world. Han traitors and their running dogs, captains of industry, imperialists and their lackeys, bad elements. No, he was more like a general winding up the war and closing down the show. He looked out, took in the grappling, the shouting, the shoving, the cursing, the screaming, the howling. He calmly assessed the trajectories of beating sticks, the Mandelbrot patterns of blood, the body count. Like a poet-warrior, an esthete of the fighting arts, he took in the violence and nodded almost imperceptibly his approval. He was surveying his domain, this scene of tumult and turbulence, that he’d grandfathered. He prepared to issue climax to this morality play and bring the house down.
Everyone could feel the tension. The cops, the protesters, the city hall vermin peeking out of the only barred windows in town. A protest was a protest. Hiring petty gangsters and contracting gangbangers was just a cost of doing business. The mountain aborigines were happy just to have an excuse to beat up Han Chinese. They worked for peanuts. You got the feeling they’d almost do it for free. And yet something was different. Something was going to go down.
The old man pulled out the plastic bottle from his right jacket pocket. A slight quiver in his hand gently shaking the liter of liquid inside. Not trepidation. Age. Maybe Parkinson’s. He’d never know. The bottle carried the moniker of a popular provincial brand of tea. The yellow stuff sloshed about, appealing to him even now. He wanted it. But he was saving it for when he really needed it.
He’d prepared for weeks, grandfathering this campaign, organizing the smarties into ranks, writing agitprop to stir up the lower animals, working the entire underground into a lather of righteous discontent. He’d done it all before. Child’s play. But the consummation of this action was his crowning achievement, his way of going full circle, repaying Mao’s eternal gratitude, giving back to the country, which, by the by, was a stretch of land ringed by the borders of a southwest China backwater county being invaded by a metastasizing suburb.
He removed the bottle cap. He took off the clear plastic film, thin like saran wrap, cut from a plastic shopping bag. The heavy raunchiness of engine rooms and grease-monkeys wafted out. It was the earthiness of an earlier more muscular modernity. He inhaled deeply. Got a little high. Memories flooded back. He got a little slow. Wasted. He was getting right with Mao. He overdid it and was so messed up he almost took a sip. Blinking, he recovered his senses, tried to raise his head, found his neck slackened, his noggin heavy as a watermelon.
He was dawdling in the dirt square now, leaning a foot on the edge of a rut, looking at the county government seat. Two young doughnut cops lolled outside, swatting flies and shooting the shit, shifting their weight back on forth on dusty heels. They were under the veranda, dodging the sun, staying out of trouble.
His son asked, “Are you okay father?”
“Yes.” He blinked and almost fell over. His son smelt the gasoline and retched, the smell and the nature of the finale threatened to overwhelm him. His father forced out, “Everything is a go.” He couldn’t see straight. “Keep it together son. Is it time?”
“Yes father. Give me your hand.”
No longer pretending, he fell back into his role of simpleton without trying. He was stewed. But still a potent symbol. Making the ultimate sacrifice. Showing moral courage. He was feeling no pain.
As he lurched forward, like a drunk studiedly placing one foot in front of the other, the crowd gave way like a red sea. The riot police were nervous, almost paralytic, something spiritual, something inauspicious was about to take place, something decreed by heaven. Fear spread like an infection, and all motion ceased now. No one would intervene. He could set a new moral code. Death would breed life. He was leading by example again. Proud to go out like a spiritual warrior. He pulled out the lighter. The old song burst forth. He upended the liter of gasoline above himself. He extended his hand and flicked the flint. Nobody spoke. Nobody needed to. There was nothing to say. He was getting right with Mao.