He carefully pulled open the unlocked, light grey security door and saw an outdated, pale yellow plywood door. He was thrilled. His previous experience in lockpicking helped him effortlessly enter this shabby apartment. Rumour had it that such kind of apartments might contain secret treasure of corrupt officials. He inserted his tools into the keyhole, and the door clicked open. This simple lock was too easy for him to open with his professional skills. He could not help thinking the host was a fool.
Closing both doors, gingerly, he picked up a slipper and threw it, making the subtle sound of a cat landing from a jump. No response was provoked. He straightened his back and walked inside the apartment, feeling safe.
“Kid, is that you?” The question did not make him pause because he thought it was only in his brain.
Otherwise, it would not have sounded so calm and quiet.
“Would you like to start with mopping the floor or cleaning the windows?” This time, he heard the sound clearly – it was from a middle-aged man, whose presence had not been noticed as he sat on a sofa in the corner of the dark living room, its curtains closed.
“Damn, I’m screwed!” he groaned inwardly. He retreated to the doors, ready to run for his life.
“Go get the kettle in the kitchen and make two cups of tea,” ordered the man, who remained on the sofa. “You’ll be entertained by the second-grade Maofeng green tea, grown on Emei Mountain.”
He dared not make a sound.
The man on the sofa kept talking in a low voice: “I know you’re dumb. My sister told me that the first time she introduced you to me. She said you were sharp-eyed, clearheaded, and would be all ears when I talked. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for you. Even if I’m not able to see, when you’re here with me, I feel like there’s light inside me.”
He was relieved to learn that the man was blind, and abandoned his attempt to escape.
“Is the kettle here? Would you like to have some tea before doing the chores? Take your time. You could just mop the floor. Forget the windows. I think only the kitchen, bathroom, and living room will need mopping. You don’t have to do the bedrooms. Why not just skip the housework and, instead, sit with me, tasting the tea and listening to me. You’re about to come clean this house. The tea was bought by my big sister using my first wages. My sister is very kind-hearted. She’s the one who raised me after the premature death of our parents. She has been unemployed for years, just doing odd jobs in an agency to provide for my nephew and me.”
He changed his shoes to slippers, and followed the instructions of the man, bringing out a kettle from the kitchen and making two cups of tea. He started to feel sympathy for the blind man.
“To be honest, kid, you’ve earned my respect. Even though you are dealing with a voice disorder, you support yourself and your disabled parents.”
He had the urge to tell the blind man that he was not that kid or disabled, but just a loafer with healthy limbs. However, he could not do it. Today, he was one of them, being mute. Today, he was that kid.
“Help yourself.” The man on the sofa invited him to tea.
He took a sip and tasted bitterness.
The man on the sofa continued: “I’m now working for a massage center that employs visually-impaired people. I made this decision because of you. You have inspired me that if you can earn your own way in life, I can, undoubtedly, too. Also, I need a job to share the heavy burden with my sister. She deserves a life better than toiling herself for a mere salary that is all spent on us two useless men. Her son is 19 years old this year, but, because of polio, he has trouble standing and so spends most of his time in bed. Her husband went insane under the pressure from unemployment and has gone missing. She has exhausted all her savings, even her house, on the search for her husband. That is why we live in this rented apartment. I salute my sister: She’s a heroine tougher than any hero.”
An irresistible impulse forced him to take a mop from the bathroom and clean the living room floor. “Kid, if you’re bored by my chatter, stamp your foot and I’ll know when to stop. Come, join me for some tea.”
He finished cleaning the living room and then took another sip of the tea, tasting a delicate fragrance in it.
“The tea has a taste beyond words,” the man commented in an exciting tone. “You already know that taste, don’t you? This is my first experience. Now, I have learned that true happiness in life is when you live on the money you earn with your own hands.”
He was deeply touched by the blind man and his perspectives about life.
“Could you fill my cup? I’d like my nephew to taste this tea, too.” The man stood and walked steadily into a bedroom with a cup of tea in his hand.
Cleaning was done at 3 p.m. He left four five-yuan notes on the table and was just ready to leave when the doors squeaked open. A sturdy young man of his age, carrying a canvas bag, walked in the apartment, communicating with him through gestures. He nodded, made way for the young man, and then left.
There were rays of light shining on the stairs.
Selected from Chinese Flash Fiction, compiled by China Flash Fiction Society, and published by New World Press.