I shall tell you the tale of your grandfather, A-Gung, Grand Pimp of the East, Celestial Don and Supreme Bawse of Old Cathay, by this and all true accounts. Call me a liar and I say fuck yourself—too often our history is remembered by victims, and victims are the bitches of time.
A-Gung was a mack, for the man took no shit, building palaces from pocket lint, smoking fools, stacking paper like pagodas to the stars. He ran a tight game ’cross the land likes of which had ne’er been seen, then or since, though the old country is not unacquainted with wild and miraculous shit: bearded dragons and rock-born monkeys and flying bamboo swordsmen. He was in that, until destiny directed his business beyond the ocean to this country and to you.
And so it was that the old country had gone to shit in the wake of a war and in midst of another, friends going ham on one another, hauling their neighbour’s daughter or wife or hobbled-ass grams into the street and shaming her, public, with a village’s nightsoil poured slow through her hair, dripping down steaming in the first yellow rays of the day. You knew it was bad when the playas of old were ditching the game for Hong Kong or bedding down in the rural smokedens the Party hadn’t yet raided.
The sky was a spent hearth, nothing but rain in the ashes. A man in red moved beneath it down an empty road towards the only shop still open for business.
There was a clack of bamboo.
“We’re closed,” said guy behind the counter, not looking up. “Buying time’s over.”
By the dust it was clear shit wasn’t moving like once. Fact that guy wasn’t stressing his make was just a sign of the times: even the poor had given up.
“Hear me, motherfucker?” he tried again. “Closed means the same for everyone, even deaf-ass sons of bitches.”
Dude worked a pen in some tea-stained logbook, like he had numbers to run. Another minute passed, and when this last customer still didn’t move, dude finally looked up at the figure standing in the entrance of his store. The man was not particularly tall or short, but the details were hard to work out through the oxblood folds that wrapped him.
“Whore,” said the shopkeep under his breath as he set down his glasses. He stood in front of the stone gentleman, spread his feet with his fists on his hips, and tried to make shit crystal: he was closing this bitch, then heading back to his dankhole abode to burn a cow pie, warm a shred of saltfish, and in the dirt of his shack do whateverthefuck.
He stared hard as he could into the cloaked facehole before him.
“All right then, Cunthead Sinsaang,” he said. “What?”
With two hands the man removed his hood. The dusty air shimmered and in an instant the shopkeep went hesitant as shit. Silence moved like window shards past his tongue, made him cough.
“What do you need?”
Shopkeep cleared his throat, reached again for his glasses sitting open on the counter. “I’m a hardware store,” he added quiet, and for no reason he could guess.
Can I come in? A-Gung asked.
The question came not from his mouth but by some force of will. This is how A-Gung spoke—the message shone flat in his eyes over the rims of the blackest black shades the shopkeep had ever seen.
“Please! Come in and look around. We’re closed but—”
“But I suppose I can stay open for a bit longer.”
A-Gung seemed to grow as he stepped from the threshold, revealing a clean dome and rough jaw dark with the beginnings of a beard supreme in magnitude. He moved into the glow of the failing gaslamp.
I’ll help myself, then.
“Come in, please,” said the shopkeep as the man re-shaded himself and stepped past him towards the shelves.
What does one say to a motherfucker so moved? Chinksta with strides long as kwan blades, eyes eternal as mountainous white pine? You don’t, the shopkeep realized as he shuffled in tow of his mysterious guest, not far but never close.
He watched in amazement as a variety of tools disappeared, reappeared on the shelves, apparently weighed and analyzed in the folds of faded red in front of him for a purpose his bespectacled ass dare not guess. A thick set of pincers. A few gnarled bucktooths. Axes of various heft and mayhap staying power if a dude so desired, and this dude struck him as the type who, in a blink, might turn shit sideways on a fool. Or maybe he was just fixing a roof, a home or the ramshackle temple, perchance, on the outskirts of town—dude had a holiness no doubt, but of what sort the shopkeep couldn’t figure.
“Please,” he said, “let me know if you need anything.”
A-Gung stopped, turned slightly to reveal an iron nail flat in his palm. He considered the deep twist in its shank with the pad of his thumb, then underhanded it to the shopkeep.
These, but bigger.
The message in his eyes was simple; he was a man seeking permanence, the shopkeep understood. The kind that outlasts a life.
“Of course,” said the shopkeep, hustling himself to the back of the store and leaving his guest to continue his search.
Was dim as shit in the stock room, but there was no going back empty-handed, even if just for a lantern. Shopkeep fumbled around for a prybar, tore chunks from his hands getting into the crates of forgotten stock—he was a twitch-case, had turned milksop, he suddenly realized, and shit started messing with his pride. Since when had he, Mister Fuckin Shopkeep, son of Shopkeep Senior, the original hardass and hustle-king before him, eaten log so willingly? He tried to remember.
Was it the day he watched Uncle take a katana in the face? Or the night he discovered his daughter in a smokeden? When he first poured a cup for the kickback collector, maybe? Or last week when he at last took a pipe next to his little An Ping to chase the dragon with her? He looked at the metal that stung in the raw patches of his grip, the mess of six-inch ties in his left and the weighty, blunt bar in his right already flecked in red, and wondered if now might be the moment when his shitstack of a life toppled, having grown too high, if today was the day he’d at last say fuck it and go all-out beastmode.
Down the store’s second aisle he found his guest still scoping, back turned and assessing either a chisel or longneck screwdriver—thing moved too quickly through the man’s hands to tell without getting right up behind him. Pause. Had he stones enough to coldblood the man? Mr. Shopkeep did not know, but he felt the sudden urge to check, and perhaps at the same time to readjust his downstairs business so as to make for a smoother lunge forward with the hooked iron club now raised high over his head.
Maybe winging the thing would be safer, he thought, rooting his feet and shutting an eye, taking aim. He switched eyes, then switched again, did a small shuffle to reverse his throwing stance. Should he slip off his shoes for better grip on the dusty floor? Maybe tighten his belt? Roll up one sleeve or both and how high up the arm or would the man hear it and by then would it all be too late? What if he missed? What if he hit, but did not pwn? Could he really, actually bar up on a mawf? What of the body? The blood? The chances of it all working out? He glanced longingly at the ruled lines of the logbook sitting open on the front desk, then back again at the spot where the man was supposed to be waiting, smooth head like a swollen gourd waiting to get beat. Pause.
His guest had apparently settled on a hammer.
Missing from its bracket on the wall was the burly doubleface the shopkeep had sworn would never sell—he smiled briefly at this. He’d received it in trade from a traveller some years ago, and though he’d long forgotten the mason’s face, he remembered the peculiarity of the hardware handed to him. It seemed that all aspects of its construction had been carefully considered, except for its handle. Though the weighty tool bore a sturdy wrist loop, its leather-wrapped oak shaft seemed to have been sawed-off, none too suited for conventional purpose. As he considered the hammer’s vacant spot on the wall, he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder that caused his whole reminiscent-ass face to drop, along with the handful of spikes he realized he still carried.
The robed man loomed like some granite-biceped temple guard, looking upon the scene, giving less than a fuck. He reached down and retrieved a nail, and held it aloft to examine. There was a tinge of rust on the mawf, but the helix ran deep and the point was sharp sharp.
A-Gung tossed the spike back into the floorpile which the shopkeep had already begun to gather in his arms, then walked calmly towards the front to pay.
“Will these be all?” said the shopkeep, rounding the desk and spilling the awkward mass of metal on the counter.
And the hammer.
When A-Gung made no move to reveal it, the shopkeep understood with no little amazement that it hid somewhere in the folds of his cloak, weightless as the paper his guest now produced.
“That’s more than enough,” said the shopkeep as he searched the empty drawers in front of him for change. “Really too generous.”
Keep it. But tell me, now, which way to Cloud Gate?
Eyes downcast, he directed the man to the infamous smokehouse. Not far for one seeking it. Just a few twists through the dying streets.
As the cloaked man made to leave, the shopkeep felt a strange urge to follow. He had changed somehow over the past ten minutes, had become at once more aware of his own limpdickedness and more resolved to take charge of it. He would pimpify his store. He would kick the tooth-rotting dreamsmoke. He would retrieve his daughter and honour his uncle with incense and prayer on the daily. But for this inspiration, no word of thanks seemed to suit.
“Good luck with the house,” he said.
The man faced him and the shopkeep motioned at the fresh supplies tucked away in his sleeves.
House … came the reply. Something like that.
The man in red seemed to glow. He huffed like a lion shaking sleep from his mane, jaws almost curling a grin as he exited the store, leaving the shopkeep to his answers, questions.
The sudden memory of the prybar, the would-be skullcaver in his grip only moments ago, brought the shopkeep back to the dusty store, his empty aching palms. Where had he put it? Had his intentions been revealed?
Shopkeep’s search was short. There before him the prybar’s sharp curl stuck, biting deep into the wood of the desk through the brittle pages of his logbook. He studied the sculpture, the moment of paper and metal for a long while before turning to bow at the empty threshold, the lost echo of bamboo.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Sifu.”
Jon Chan Simpson grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, and lives in Toronto. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA creative writing program, and his work has been featured in Ricepaper. His first novel, Chinkstar, is coming out with Coach House Books in summer 2015.