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Old Lee's Wallet
   by Lulu Li

After his son and daughter-in-law had taken their daughter to her Sunday piano lesson, Old Lee, a retired government clerk in Canton province, took up the task of proposing to the maid, a big, tall, hard working woman from Jiang Xi Province.
     "Gao Mah," he started, after standing in front of the cabinet in the steaming kitchen for ten minutes, pretending to arrange the jars and boxes that were slightly out of order.
     "Yes?" answered the maid quickly, stopping her chords at hand.
     "Has it occurred to you that, my son's house, is too big?" Ask the old man, in his planned words.
     The simple minded woman didn't understand what he meant, but answered cheerfully anyway, in her usual, sonorous voice, "too big? No, the bigger the better!"
     "So you like big houses?"
     "Who doesn't? In the village I'm from, everybody likes to build bigger house than his neighbor."
     "How big is your house?"
     "Oh, our old house? Well, when my late husband first built it two decades ago, it was about a thousand square meters, but my sons had each added a little to it when they got married, now I don't know how big it actually is."
     "A thousand square is already very big. Two thirds of this one," said the old man gloomily, thinking about his house given by the government that was about five hundred square feet. Then he raised his voice, "but don't you think it is wasteful to have such a big house? Paying a lot more to purchase it not only, and spending more on the remodeling and furniture. And it is too much work to take care of such a big house! You have to spend more time to sweep and mop the floors, wipe furniture and arrange the content of them, and that is to say, you become the slave of your own house!"
     The maid was overwhelmed by the speech itself and the emphatic tone at the end. Her red cheeks paled a bit after she tried to understand the implication, "I wipe them everyday, Mr. Lee, if that's what you're worrying about."
     "Oh, no, no, don't misunderstand me, please, that's not what I mean, what I'm trying to say is, is," he stammered, wiped the beading sweat from his forehead, "well, you spend more on a big house besides the purchase. For example, it takes more electricity to cool it off on such a hot day."
     "Oh!" the woman cried out, and quickly went to the kitchen door, closed it, and said, "I thought I had closed it when I came in, sorry." It was Old Lee's habit of closing the kitchen door to prevent the heat of the stove to counter the effect of the air condition.
     Old Lee immediately remembered that he was the one who had forgotten to close it, and dreadfully he explained himself, "no, Gao Mah, I'm not blaming you for wasting the electricity, neither am I complaining your work. I, I, I merely want you to know that, some small houses are nice too, like the one I have in the suburb, which only cost me very little, about a hundredth of this one. Only idiots like my son would pay such a enormous sum to live in an expensive place like this, they have to pay managing fees for the tennis court and swimming pool which no one in the family even uses . . ."
     Feeling relief because the old man was only doing what he habitually did—complaining about the cost of living, the maid replied immediately, "of course, of course, small houses are good too."
     Before Old Lee proceeded on his quest, the pot of soup being boiled on the stove gurgled as the content rose. Before the two people rushed to lift the lit, the powerful liquid had triumphantly escaped the boiling pot, splattered on the stove and put out the fire.
     Gao Ma immediately switched the pot to another burner and cleaned the stove. And after doing that, she realized that the leaves of the fan had become too oily, so she took them off and started to wash them. Lao Lee watched her finish all that patiently, and before she started to do the laundry, he asked her, "then would you like to live with me in my small house at Spring Water Town?"
     "To work for you?" Gao Mah asked, "what do Mr. and Mrs. Lee think?"
     "No!" Old Lee, after hearing such an unexpected response, got quickly to the point, "to be my, uh, my companion!"
     Gao Mah didn't utter a word but staring at Old Lee with such great surprise and for such a painfully long duration that Old Lee began to regret about his foolish action.
     "Let me think about it," the maid finally said, Old Lee stole a glance at her face and found a trace of smile.
     In the bathroom Old Lee contemplated. He obviously had acted silly and might have confused, if not frightened, the woman quite a bit, but there were facts he had to find out before he could make the move. He had to make sure that Gao Mah would not marry him for his bank account. From three months' observation her personality had proved to be favorable. And his son had told him that she had never asked for a raise and had a habit of declining holiday gifts. Also, her two sons were both independent, each worked on a small farm that gave them enough to eat. Now he was very happy to find out that she wouldn't mind small houses. She wouldn't mind living in small houses with him then. Old Lee couldn't wait to get out of the city. It had become insufferable to live here with his son's family. The way they squandered money was terrifying. They would buy things and throw away things without a second thought. The other day his son had spent a thousand yuans on a new, imported toilet—cost ten times more than a domestic made, and threw away the old, but perfectly good one. His daughter-in-law, who earned a salary enough to buy about two such toilets a month, spent all her money on clothing. And even the five year old girl liked to buy toys. Old Lee had been living here for three months and had decided he would never come back again once he left. Last month his son had even borrowed money from him to pay the installments for the house, because the earnings from his business got stuck, so he said. One reason he stayed here till now was waiting for his son to return him the money, although at the same time he worried about more borrowing. Another reason was of course, Gao Mah. She possessed such abundance of virtues. Hardworking, cheerful, healthy, and above all, frugal. His son had complained to him that in the first month Gao Mah worked here, she spent only a third of what they gave her for food, and returned the rest. Even now, under the high standards of Old Lee's daughter-in-law, the good woman was reluctant to spend more than necessary on fancy produces. Such a good woman. So unlike his ex-wife, who wanted good furniture and good interior design and who divorced him because he wouldn't satisfy her vanity. Now what had she left him? A spendthrift son with a wife as vain as herself!
     Just as Lao Lee was again being enraged by the thought of his son and daughter-in-law, they returned home with shopping bags full of goods. The first thing his daughter-in-law said after entering the house was ordering Gao Mah to buy some rice porridge with pork and preserved eggs from the market.
     "I'll go with you," said Lao Lee to Gao Mah, thinking that he needed to further evaluate her.
     "You need some new shoes," Lao Lee said to Gao Mah as they passed a shoe store.
     Gao Mah looked at her shoes and said, "oh, my shoes are old, but they are very comfortable."
     "It seems to me you don't care too much about clothing," the old man said with an ambiguous tone, "which is unlike other women."
     But the honest maid answered, "on occasions I like to dress up too."
     "So you like shopping too? Like my daughter-in-law?" the old man asked nervously.
     "Of course not!" The maid cried, but before Lao Lee could feel relief she added, "but if I had ten house-keeping jobs, I would shop like your daughter-in-law!"
     Lao Lee laughed as he knew it was a joke, but couldn't dismiss the possible truth in it and therefore sighed as they entered the porridge shop.
     It turned out that the pork and preserved egg porridge was not available for the day. Gao Mah suggested that they should call the house and ask his daughter-in-law whether they would like to have other types such as pork liver, or duck kidney.
     "Did you bring the cell phone your son bought you?" Gao Mah asked.
     "No," answered Lao Lee quickly, "I would never take that piece of trouble with me to the streets."
     "Why? It hardly weighs anything!"
     "But I don't want being robbed! I have heard many cases of cell phone being snatched away from the users on the streets. And I am not going to be the victim."
     So they walked to a phone stand operated by a young man with hair dyed to yellow and trimmed to the shape of a bird's nest, most likely someone who had failed the high school entrance exam and couldn't find a decent job. Before Gao Mah took the receiver, Lao Lee asked about the fee, "is it still two maos?"
     "Two Maos?" the young man scoffed, "that must have been before you lost your hair. It now starts two yuans within the area," the youngster answered impatiently.
     "What? Went up ten times in five years?" Lao Lee cried, "but you can't charge us that much because we're calling within the block, look, you can even see the building over there!"
     The young man gave Lao Lee a dirty look, and said, "why don't you walk over there instead of using the phone?"
     In fact, that was what Lao Lee had in mind, but Gao Mah went on to dial the phone and told Lao Lee not to worry about it. For a moment Lao Lee wished he had brought the cell phone with him instead of locking it in the drawer. He wondered whether it was wise to let Gao Mah pay for the phone, anyway she would get reimbursed by his son. Yet driven by a faint desire of showing gallantry in front of the high school dropout, he reluctantly took out his wallet, which was a salvaged tissue paper packet folded like a wallet with a pocket on each side. As soon as Gao Mah put the phone down, Lao Lee gave the young man two yuans despite her protest and his own heartache.
     "If I were you, uncle," the young man said to Lao Lee sarcastically after snatching the bills from his hand, "I would switch to the "Blue Bird" brand facial paper, since their plastic bags are thick and one packet bag would last for the rest of your life."
     "I would use a regular wallet if I wanted thick and durable. I have good wallets and I don't like to use them!" Lao Lee replied angrily and would have said more had Gao Mah not dragged him away.
     "Don't mind him," said Gao Mah, as they headed home since no substitute for the porridge was desired by any one in the house.
     "But it is perfect for a wallet, don't you think?" Lao Lee took out his tissue paper packet-turned-wallet in the middle of the street, a thing he had never done before.
     "It does look like a wallet," said the woman.
     Not getting as much approval as he had wished for, Lao Lee started to explain, "the main reason I use it of course is not because it looks like a wallet, I possess half a dozen real wallets, one of them is even made in Italy, the reason is, a facial paper packet is very likely to escape the claws of a pick-pocket." He finished with a smile, and waiting for Gao Mah to compliment his cleverness.
     "Is that so?" The woman cried, rather loudly, with an expression of being amused, and laughed loudly. When she stopped laughing she said, "Mr. Lee, you're very funny, you reminded me of the old days during the cultural revolution, when we opened the doors when we had potatoes for dinner, but closed them when we had pork. You're still living in the old days!"
     Lao Lee sensed the slight disapproval, so he replied, "well, you see, Gao Mah, the world hasn't changed at all. It is still a dangerous place to live. There are countless ways you could get cheated or swindled nowadays. Don't you remember the SARS crimes just a few months ago? The scoundrels who pretended to be school authorities and made phony calls telling people that their kids got infected and needed money for the hospital?"
     Gao Mah went on laughing a little more, and said, "well, Lao Lee, you are very clever, and very vigilant!"
     Lao Lee believed that it was a compliment after all.
     That night Lao Lee tossed and turned quite a bit in bed. For a moment he worried what he had done during the day was foolish. It occurred to him that it might be a bad idea to allow Gao Mah to live with him. Should he trust her? And why did she need time to decide? Wasn't she struck by luck? Didn't every maid in stories wish to be the mistress of the house she worked for? Although he didn't own this house, his son did. And given her age, what could she expect? She couldn't possibly mind his shortness or his baldness. No, her smile and laughter were auspicious. He could have been more straight forward instead of wasting all that time in the beginning. He finally fell asleep with content.
     The next day Lao Lee asked about Gao Mah's decision as soon as everyone else had gotten out of the house, either to work or to school. Gao Mah unambiguously declined his proposal.
     "Why?" Lao Lee asked with much of a surprise, for everything happened in the previous day seemed to be propitious to him.
     "Because I have to work, I need this job." The maid said sincerely, looking into his eyes.
     "But you would still have to work when living with me. You would do the same thing you're doing now, cooking and washing. But you would be the mistress of the house!"
     "Exactly, I would do the same thing but I wouldn't get paid," Gao Mah smiled as she said that.
     Lao Lee was disappointed when he heard that, but still he asked, "what do you need money for?"
     "My sons are building a new house," the kind woman answered, "the old one is big, but too dingy. We don't want to be the laugh stock of the village."
     Lao Lee went out to the patio with his head hung low. The magnificent condominium buildings stood in front of him haughtily. Idiots, he murmured. Wastrels. He had never thought that Gao Mah would be such a foolish woman. Apparently she had not saved a penny for herself in all these years. All she had earned with her hard work she had sent to her sons and turned it to bricks. For vanity! She was no different than his ex-wife after all. But what luck he had had because Gao Mah had revealed herself before too late. Just imagine, in case she moved in with him, found the hiding places of his bankbooks, and then poisoned him. Imagining the effect of the poison, he shivered under the scorching sun.

Copyright©2004 Lulu Li

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