The Apartment Block

a short story by Dorothy Tse

Corridor, 13th Floor

“The shoes at home have all burst into flower,” said A.

As A was speaking, a ray of sunshine slanted in through the corridor window, falling between him and K. K saw dust motes drift over A’s face, making him look exhausted. The sunbeam finally landed on a shoe rack under the number plate of Apt. 2. The stems of insanely colored sunflowers entwined wearily together and the shoe openings vomited floral foam that spread in clumps all over the floor.

Five minutes before, A had phoned the management office, and K knew that it must be something to do with J’s Third Auntie. He put down his half-finished bowl of fried noodles and the book, Enemy, that he was on the point of finishing, and realized he had a strand of noodle stuck between his teeth.

In the elevator, K tried every which way, but he could not get the noodle out. With his tongue, he explored his teeth to find where exactly it was, before giving it up as hopeless and ringing the doorbell of Apt. 1.

It was no surprise that J wasn’t home. K sat in front of the iron security gate all morning, but there was no sign of J. Where could she have got to?

K was just about to shrug and suggest to A that they give up, when the door to Apt. 1 slowly opened. A bright red mouth gaped at K, showing a row of rugged, yellowing teeth. The teeth reminded him of a country trail with the wind whistling along it, wafting the scent of greenery.

In the doorway stood a woman. Her slim body looked insubstantial in her billowing nightgown; only a pair of shriveled legs gripped the floor like old tree roots. K saw that her feet were soaking wet, and the water trickled over the floor towards his own feet in a fantastical way. It was only then that he heard the sound of water slopping out from behind her and saw the watering can in her hand. She was still smiling, faint crow’s feet radiating outwards like another kind of sunshine.

Apt. 4, 13th Floor

O peered through the peephole into the thirteenth floor corridor, certain that the footsteps belonged to the caretaker. He was standing at J’s door but O was not about to tell J.

“No one’s here yet,” said O.

The bedroom door banged shut and there was the sound of sobbing inside. O imagined J curled up on the other side of the door, her legs tucked under her and her long hair falling over her chest, licking herself as a cat does.

If O had gently pushed the door open, he would have seen J at his feet, like a discarded bundle. Then O might have bent down and picked her up in his arms like a package, laid her on the bed and untied the string. There would be the sound of brown wrapping paper tearing, as J’s limbs unfolded and sprawled across the bed.

O lit a cigarette.

Sitting on the sofa, O reflected that the sky this afternoon had depths all its own, and was more evocative even than a girl’s naked body. The sounds in the bedroom gradually faded to silence. No doubt J had taken the scissors out of the bedside cupboard and, climbing onto the bed, had stabbed them into her chest…

O imagined her blood soaking the bed sheet on which he and his wife had slept the night before, and then dripping onto the floor. Some hours later, when he mopped J’s floor, he discovered the bloodstain looked just like a flower.

But he could not see his own expression, so he retraced his feelings to another sunny, cloudless afternoon. Drably dressed pallbearers had stepped out of the funeral parlor carrying a heavy coffin. Mourners followed silently behind, heads bowed. He was the only one who slowly raised his head. A black kite fluttered in the sky above the funeral parlor. He had observed the kite the way he now observed these elegant musings.

At a moment like that, would Third Auntie have been standing in the crowd watching him?

O remembered how J had nestled against his legs just an hour ago, and told him about her Third Auntie.

Her head in her hands, J said earnestly, “One day I might kill her.”

At that moment, O was only wondering what pattern she had on her bra today, and did not know what to say in response. But there was probably no need to say anything because J was soon absorbed in a gossip magazine. On the front cover was a color picture of a man and a woman seen from behind. The caption identified them as two famous actors. They were walking along a dun-colored trail and their figures were so blurred that it looked like they might soon disappear. O felt like he recognized the couple — they looked like his wife and a good friend of his.

O was just about to take a closer look when J suddenly closed the magazine and dropped a kiss on O’s calf. O felt deeply touched, until he remembered that his feet always stank. Fortunately, J quickly moved her mouth up his calf and, as she did so, O carefully pressed himself back on the sofa, watching as J rose up to him like the sun.

O remembered having this feeling when J first moved in. She had suffused him with a warmth that made him break out in a sweat. J gave him her card, and he thought it was a paper handkerchief. She was a reporter for Sun Magazine. She could work as she pleased and did not need to spend long hours in the office, she added.

“That’s perfect!” O burst out.

“Why? Are you a reporter too?”

“No, no,” O felt himself flush, “I do cartoons for people.

What I mean is…we’ll have lots of time to relax at home during the daytime.”

And what he had imagined came true. O shut his eyes and felt as if he was in an ancient pagoda with dark red flowers growing up the walls. He climbed up their branches and, one after another, the flowers burst into bloom. He looked up at a window at the top of the tower, longing to learn more about the exhilarating light that shone from it. It seemed as if J’s whole body was going to become transparent.

Just then J suddenly pulled away and asked, inconsequentially, “How come it’s not here yet?”

O opened his eyes and saw that J was frowning. He was nonplussed, until he realized she was referring to the take-out they had just ordered. “It’ll be here soon,” he said vaguely.

But J was very agitated. She yanked open the drawers of the wardrobe and rifled through a pile of leaflets from take-out food joints. She extracted one and tossed it at O. “That’s really annoying! You give them a ring,” she urged him. “Tell them to get a move on.”

“How can I ask that?” said O unwillingly.

J refused to look at O. She seemed pissed off with him and went off to the other end of the sitting room.

As O watched, she paused and then, cat-like, lifted a fingernail and scratched his Michael Jordan poster. Then she bent her head a little and a tear rolled down her cheek. She made a sound that O found unbearably shrill.

Footsteps suddenly sounded in the corridor. “That’s it, isn’t it?” O said, and went to the door.

Apt. 2, 13th Floor

A pea rolled across the dining table and stopped by D’s finger.

D looked up to see a pallid-looking man sitting down beside her. She remembered that this was her new husband, A. There were four lunch boxes in front of A. He was just selecting a pea from one of the boxes with a toothpick, so focused on the task that his eyes glared like a fighting cock.

“One day I might stuff those flowers up her ass.” It might have been something like this that A said when he came in a few moments before, or maybe not. He was carrying a shoe rack and went into the bathroom. D watched his slender figure disappear through the bathroom door, leaving behind a patch of sunlight that changed shape as the curtains fluttered. The scene made her feel like their marriage was both make-believe and, at the same time, very real.

D remembered when she first came here with A, six months back. The white muslin curtains were not yet in place and the walls were glaringly white. The building manager had been babbling about something; it sounded like the pattering of rainfall inside her. She saw her shadow retreating under her feet and felt she was about to go moldy and rot.

Nowadays, she often saw her husband deftly arranging her underwear on the clothes rack, then leaning out of the window and using his long arms to hang the rack in the sunshine. When the sun shone on her multi-colored panties, D felt as if its rays were shining all over her own body.

Just as she always did, D had woken up today and stood at the window watching the sunshine move along the street. When the sun was at its fiercest, she often saw a young man delivering take-out food in a plastic basket, sauntering across the street. The basket swayed on his arm until it looked as if the food would tip out onto the ground. The young man was soon out of view, leaving only the sun traveling down the street. After a little while, she would hear the doorbell ring. When she opened the door, she saw a man standing there, holding two lunch boxes. That man was her husband.

However, when she opened the door today, she failed to notice that it was not A standing there. She took the boxes from the delivery man and shut the door. Then it occurred to her that her husband had not come back.

Now, the four lunch boxes sat on the table, and A was still focused on picking out peas and putting them on the sheets of old newspaper spread out underneath.

“What are you doing?” asked D, watching her husband with some impatience.

A said nothing. But after a while, he looked up. “You don’t like orangutans, do you?”

D could not remember whether she did or not. She looked away and used the remote to turn on the TV. On the screen, a woman with long, flowing hair holding a butcher’s knife in one hand and a crying baby in the other, sat on the ground.

“You don’t like orangutans, do you?” D heard her husband ask again.

On TV, the woman brandished the knife as if she was going to stab the baby, but then the knife halted in midair. D could not tell whether this was a film or a news clip.

“I don’t understand why you don’t like orangutans.” At that, D turned to look at her husband. He was pressing on a pea with his forefinger. Its skin had split and the pulpy flesh was stuck to the tabletop. He looked exasperated.

A banged the table with his hand. It seemed like a hard blow, although it only made a faint sound. The peas on the sheet of newspaper remained intact and did not move. Then he took a glass vase from the table and rushed into the kitchen.

D wondered what he was going to do with it. It was such good weather today — perhaps her husband was going to smash the vase against his head. The fragments of glass would rain down, landing on the tiled floor with a tinkle. The blood would trickle down her husband’s bony face onto his shirt collar, staining the white fabric bright red. D sighed faintly at the thought. She seemed to see her husband sitting that evening in the bathroom, wearily bent over his shirt as he washed it. The blood stains from the shirt mixed with the water in the dark blue washbasin, their crimson spreading senselessly outwards and eventually staining a pair of her panties that were also in the basin.

On the Stairs (1)

L, the cleaning woman, dragged a heavy rubbish bag down the stairs, heedless of the sound of broken glass, or that she was walking over a scattering of sunflowers and treading one of them to pulp. On this warm afternoon, she seemed lost in thought, unaware that one of her hands was roving across her chest…

On the Stairs (2)

When H met L on the stairs, his face wore an odd smile. He pretended to be going up to the fourteenth floor until he could no longer hear the cleaner’s footsteps, then he doubled back down the stairs to the thirteenth floor.

H went up to the window on the stairs and looked out. He could see a woman in an apartment one floor below practicing aerobics, her voluptuous flesh wobbling as she did so. H unzipped himself…

Apt. 3, 12th Floor

The mahjong tiles on the table had not moved for nearly an hour.

M watched as P’s chunky arm jerked up and down in front of her, her belly rolls jiggling in time with the swaying of her body. It annoyed her intensely. No wonder P’s husband wanted to…thought M, with a smile.

To P, M’s smile seemed malicious, though she did not make the connection with her husband. She knew he was working hard to finish Paragons of Youth, which was due for publication. Yesterday evening, P had had an argument with her husband about the plot of the comic. She did not understand why, in a book written for wholesome young people, her husband insisted that the girl he called Sunflower should strip naked in front of those paragons of youth. P’s husband had put an end to the argument with the words, “You’re soon going to weigh more than two hundred pounds!”

What really interested P now was the bowl of beef noodles in M’s hands. P was on a diet and the slurping M made as she ate her noodles made her belly rumble with hunger.

But M’s gaze had shifted to a dark corner of the sitting room. On a side table, a few sunflowers drooped in a Japanese-style vase. To one side of it, H sat on the floor, his face flushed and one leg crooked, snipping half moons off his toenails and sending them flying across the room. H had been pacing restlessly up and down the room when he suddenly grabbed his keys and said, “I’m off to buy something.” M had been deeply suspicious, wondering why this seventy-year-old was rushing off to buy a few wilting sunflowers. It reminded her of the sunflower at home, whose stem was soon to be snapped off.

Yesterday evening, M’s husband came home crooning a pop song and gave her a sunflower, which was unusual for him. After dinner, when M was washing up, her husband suddenly reached out stealthily, grabbed the saucepan lid from her hand, and pulled her into the bedroom.

This morning, M had sauntered out of the apartment and, on an impulse, slapped the cleaning woman, L, on the chest. M remembered the woman’s astonished expression and could not help laughing.

H looked up bleary-eyed at M’s laugh, as if he had been in a drunken sleep. He glanced at the jumble of mahjong tiles on the table and looked down again.

An hour before, C had sat down at the mahjong table, tiles in her hand, hesitating a long time before playing any of them. Her eyes flickered. Then finally she sighed and flipped over all the tiles and rushed off to the bathroom. She was in such a hurry that one of her leather slippers fell off, and lay upside down on the floor, its sole stained with age-old dirt.

H had no way of guessing what his daughter-in-law, C, was doing in the bathroom, nor was he interested.

Behind the silent bathroom door, C sat on the toilet, her eyes closed. Her head was tilted to one side and she looked as if she might topple over at any moment. Her pink panties were down to her knees, her left arm hung down and she held something in her hand. In the dimness, it was hard to tell if it was a book, a hairbrush, or a knife. And there was a continuous dribble from the corner of her mouth, which might have been saliva, or perhaps blood.

Downstairs

It was dusk when K cycled away from the apartment building and, compared with daytime, the contours of the street were softer, as if it might change direction at any moment and take passersby to a different, unknown place.

The shouts and cries of children at play came from the park opposite. K saw a child in red hurtling past the park gate. A girl standing at the top of the slide suddenly shot down. From where K stood, she seemed to vanish from sight.

Something — he was not sure what — made K stop and look back at the apartment block. Sunflowers tumbled down from one of the windows but, with the last rays of sun in his eyes, he could not tell which one. Dust and bits of litter bowled gently along the street, blown by the evening breeze. The scene filled K with a rush of sweetness.

By the time the sunflowers landed on the street, K had already hurried past. He was thinking that the first thing he would do when he got home was to clean his teeth, and extract that bit of noodle stuck between them.

Dorothy Tse is one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed young writers. Her Chinese short stories have won numerous awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including the Hong Kong Book Prize and Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award. She was a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2011. Snow and Shadow, her first collection of short stories translated into English, was just published by Muse.

Illustrations above by Chihoi. “The Apartment Block” has also been created as a free iOS mobile app.

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