Ma Bole’s Second Life - Excerpt
Ma Bo’le’s return home took his wife by surprise, but she reacted indifferently to the reality that his business had failed. No arguments, no questions; it was as if the news did not register. She employed the silent treatment, avoiding direct contact by a series of sidelong glances. Sometimes she looked at him as if he were a total stranger.
When the maidservant came to call them to dinner, she picked up Jacob and walked out without her usual comments of:
“Dinnertime,” or “Let’s eat.”
This did not affect their little daughter, as she looked back over her mother’s shoulder, clapped her hands, and called out, “Daddy!”
All this brought tears to Ma Bo’le’s eyes.
He was partial to the children, who were not aware that their daddy had returned home in disgrace. During dinner, no one at the table spoke to him, and he was not invited to join their conversations.
Father had not said a word at mealtime for a couple of days. His silver chopsticks clanged against his rice bowl as he ate. After he finished his first bowl of rice, Mama Geng came up to give him a refill. He waved her off, put down his rice bowl, rose from the table, and walked away, followed by his younger son, Ma Bo’le’s brother and rival for their father’s affections, such as they were, and inheritance.
The big family cat jumped from its perch on the windowsill onto the cushioned chair Father had just vacated, where it crouched and purred. It was black, and very well fed. It returned Bo’le’s stare.
The prodigal son had no choice but to get up from the table before a second bowl of rice, thus leaving the dining room neither full nor hungry. Later on, his father even refused to eat at the same table with his older son, taking his meals alone in the living room. When he finished, he rinsed his mouth so loudly that Bo’le felt personally threatened.
Mother’s mood was dampened by her husband’s obvious displeasure. The maidservant stood off to the side, not daring to say a word.
When Jacob clamored that she wanted some egg-drop soup, her father spooned some into her rice bowl. But before she could get the first spoonful to her mouth, her mother snatched the bowl away from her.
“With your bad stomach the past couple of days,” she complained, “I’m not going to let you fill up with soup.”
Jacob started to bawl.
“What harm can a little soup do?” Bo’le asked.
His wife responded by picking the child up and walking off without giving him a passing glance.
Bo’le’s family had begun treating him the way Satan was treated in the Bible. Now even little Jacob would no longer let him near her. So he decided it was time to move out of his wife’s room and into his study. And that is what he did. He took all his trunks, in which were stored his clothes, his shoes, and his socks. Even things that had accompanied him on two sojourns to Shanghai, went along. It was as if he and his wife had negotiated a formal separation.
She took the move with equanimity—not a word or a second glance. No sign, verbal or visual, that she approved of his action, or, for that matter, opposed it. He got the message that he was free to do as he pleased, that it was no concern of hers.
On the final trip, when he came to pick up his soap dish, he gave his wife an ugly look after opening the door with a ferocious kick. He then made a show of searching the room, pretending not to notice that the soap dish was on the dressing table, keeping a furtive eye on his wife the whole time. As he rummaged through drawer after drawer, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye to see how she was taking it. All the while she was lying on the bed playing with her daughter.
“Bloody Chinese!” It was a muted protest.
They were sad days for Ma Bo’le. At night he opened his window and looked outside—the moon was out, and he intoned thoughts that came to him.
“When the moon comes out, the sun disappears.”
“When it rains, the streets get wet.”
In the autumn, fallen leaves covered the courtyard and lined the hallways. Night winds whipped them against windows as Ma Bo’le tossed and turned in bed, his mind flooded with chaotic thoughts. In fact he thought so hard that his head began to ache. He felt a little better after getting up and drinking a cup of tea. Looking out the window into the dark night, he embarked upon a soliloquy:
“Without the moon there’s total darkness.
“Leaves fall to the ground when autumn arrives.”
This led him to a series of related musings:
“The rich look down on the poor.
“Officials look down on the common people.
“My wife looks down on me.
“When the wind dies down, the leaves stop falling.
“If I were rich, my wife would look up to me.
“If I were rich, Father would still be Father, the kids would still be my kids.
“That’s what life is all about.
“Life is being alive.
“Death is not being alive.
“Suicide leads to death.
“When it’s time to flee, you have to flee.”
The thought of escape was tempting, but he knew that this was not the right moment. Bo’le stayed home for a long spell this time, some seven or eight months.