We don’t have to start if you’re not ready
The late-morning coffee shop was empty. He was the first customer. He walked in wearing a tan bucket hat and stopped short, surprised to see that it was a one-man operation. I was all there was, no helper in sight.
It was too late to turn back. He took the seat nearest the door and, without removing his hat, sat staring woodenly out at the bicycle he had ridden over. The moment felt unreal. A gust of wind gently rattled the windowpane, creating a noise like an earth tremor.
The silence made it unnecessary for me to say anything or for him to place an order, so I reflexively brought out a cup and saucer. The small shop sank into an uncanny stillness the moment the mill began grinding beans.
He was on his feet before he’d finished his coffee.
Moving ahead of him, I opened the door and walked out. I didn’t want to hear a word from him or take his money, so I went all the way to the junction to wait for him to leave. A long time passed and I assumed he was still inside. But when I looked back, I saw that he had walked out through the glass door and was sitting on a raised flowerbed under the overhang, drawing furiously on a cigarette that had burned down to the filter. His cheeks were sunken from the effort, but he refused to toss it away, like a gambler who has lost everything.
Luo Yiming went home after finishing that cigarette and, I heard, fell ill.
He went up to the roof of the house to sit in his wrought-iron chair, his favourite spot to read and gaze at the distant hills that clung to the bends in the river. It must have been early afternoon, though someone said that it was dusk. A neighbour was out gathering clothes drying on her balcony when she saw old Mr Luo abruptly stand and, as if following a cryptic order, climb onto the railing.
She screamed, drawing a stream of neighbours out of their houses. The neighbourhood warden called the local watch team, whose arrival blocked the squad car that drove up to the alley, so that the police could only watch from a distance. Mr Luo’s face was ashen when he was finally helped down, his legs still quaking, but he refused to answer any questions. All anyone heard was the woman crying as she repeated to the police what she had witnessed: she’d seen a flock of pigeons soar into the air, the most she’d seen since moving in five years before.
Several days later, when I was at the market, I was given a noticeably cooler reception by shop owners I knew fairly well. Street vendors resting on their haunches did business with me, but few were friendly enough to look up. It wasn’t until I had moved on after making my purchases that they turned to talk to one another. I left quickly, head down, like a guilty man, for the town seemed to be quietly but unanimously expressing its anger at me.
There were a few occasions when people came up to talk. I didn’t know them, but they obviously shared a common emotional bond, for they started each conversation by expressing their concern for Mr Luo Yiming, praising him as the town’s philanthropist, a man who was approachable and compassion-ate in his dealings. The homeless often gathered outside his house, for Luo San would always come out and give them something to eat.
This talk of Luo Yiming’s charitable acts wasn’t idle gossip. According to a friend who volunteered at an NGO, at the end of each month Luo withdrew money from the credit co-op and stuffed it into envelopes. Putting aside those he sent to public charities, which had to be sent by registered mail, he placed the rest of the envelopes, big and small, in his cycle basket and delivered them by hand, like an industrious Santa Claus, creating a festive mood in the coastal town not unlike that of the New Year celebrations.
I was also told the heart-warming story of the new postman who had tried to deliver a letter to the Luo residence while he was off attending a wedding banquet. Neighbours heard the postman shouting three times outside the house that he had a letter for an ‘anonymous recipient’, and by the name on the envelope, they knew that it was a donation receipt. Despite Luo San’s desire for anonymity, his good deed was found out, and, through the new postman’s lack of discretion, his moving reputation as a secret benefactor had been confirmed.
After Luo fell ill, everything he had meant to the people was reheated like leftover food. All their praise flowed together to form a tune that played on the streets day and night, retain-ing its endearing warmth even with repetition, although now, when I think back to it, I feel only a contrasting sense of sadness.
But without a doubt, when I first met Luo Yiming, I too was filled with respect for the man. I was even convinced that without him in our society, our humanity would be incomplete; that without his graceful demeanour we would be denied a model of benevolence.
Even when what happened later totally destroyed the life I’d just begun, I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone. Society needs harmony. While the town continued to bathe in the illustrious glow of its hero, I shared everyone’s hope that he would make a full recovery. For only when he was clear-headed enough to feel, now and then, the irony contained in the people’s applause and experience the torment of someone else’s pain would he recall the one man who could never forgive him.
And the truth is, my heart was tied in knots, and pain bored into the marrow of my bones when I heard about his illness. Honestly, I was heartbroken.
The Luo house I visited was a rare old building in the town, in that it had not got a single ceramic tile. It was built with metal features, aged wood, and stone from Yilan, and topped with black roof slates. Propped up by a great many stilts, the two-storey structure floated three metres above its foundations; an extensive veranda with creaky wood flooring ran across the front of the house above the garden.
I recall what Luo Yiming said when we first met, seven years ago: This is a property passed down through the generations, I’m only its caretaker, not its owner. I have to wait till I retire to have the good fortune of making it my home.
Though he played it down, I admired his background and experience. He was an important figure in a major commercial bank which itself had a decisive role in the financial sector. He was in charge of loans throughout central Taiwan. To put it mildly, he was someone who enjoyed both high status and great power. During the week, he resided in a flat owned by the bank, only returning to the family home on weekends and holidays.
For him, coming back here was a holiday, though he spent only a night in the house each week and usually had only a brief morning to work in the garden. When Qiuzi and I arrived that first time, he had already raked the fallen leaves into a pile and swept the ground. He quickly washed his hands in the pond so that he could escort us into the house through the veranda.
He wiped his forehead as he chatted with us. His striped shirt was soaked in sweat and his feet were still clad in short yellow rubber boots. We followed him inside, where he disappeared briefly and re-emerged in a white shirt and clean black trousers. His shirt was buttoned up to his throat, making the slack flesh of his neck quiver when he talked.
To me he seemed noble and yet unpretentious, an upright person at first glance. I was spellbound by the aura of the house, and particularly grateful for his enthusiasm, for I had to wonder who ordinarily could expect to enter a place like this – certainly not us. After only two visits I was already entertaining a base thought: I wished he were my father. The only possible explanation for this absurd notion was my actual father’s inability to help me when my childhood illusion was shattered.
Qiuzi seemed more eager to visit the Luo residence than I was. She’d enrolled in a free photography tutorial he was giving, and that was how we had found ourselves with the privileged status of guests at this ancient abode of the super rich. Not everything about my wife was likeable, but she was uniquely persistent in the things she was learning, including her new hobby. She was childishly giddy in front of this expert, her eyes shining bright in Luo’s class, oblivious to the possibility that a camera lens can sometimes be imperfect and miss the tough questions in life. Most likely, her purity had impressed Luo Yiming and caused him to treat her like a daughter. I didn’t think that anyone could casually enter the house of such a wealthy man.
She was happy to learn from Luo, of course, but I too tried hard to enjoy the visits, for I was concerned about my lack of sophistication. Whenever Manager Luo extended one of his generous invitations, no matter how difficult it was for me to get away, I managed to leave the construction site in Taipei County and rush back to Taichung, where I sped on towards his house in Haikou, with my wife on the back of my motor scooter. We would shout happily into the wind, loud enough to drown out the engine. With her arms around my waist, we bravely forged ahead, the wind in our faces, buoyed by the love of newlyweds.
Qiuzi normally sat by the telephone in Luo’s living room, while he sat in a chair to her right. Gesturing constantly at the photos in his album, they talked animatedly, like two fish sizzling in a pan. Luo enjoyed sharing tales from his early years studying photography and showing some of his favourite photos, transforming the table into a mini photo exhibition. The newspaper and ashtray were swept out of the way, in the same way that I was relegated to the sidelines, happy to be ignored.
Generous with his advice, Luo explained photographic concepts and techniques to Qiuzi as he stood by the window like a thoughtful elder. Holding a series of negatives up to the light, he spoke as if to a captivated audience, absorbed in the details of his own coaching. With his salt and pepper hair, he had a beguiling presence.
As for me, my ignorance at the time meant I could only browse the photographs, for it is an art form that requires passion if it is to be discussed intelligently. Luo’s house was huge, more spacious than any dreamworld. The architecture was Japanese in style and gave the building the air of an official residence. The subtle fragrance of aged wood was ever present, and I wondered how that sort of ambience would affect most people. They might feel a sense of despair, be filled with shame at their own inadequacy. But not me. A glint of jealousy existed, sure, but that was soothed by my imagination; I wasn’t yet forty, and if Luo stopped to wait for me, I would have at least two decades in which to catch up with him.
As my imagination ran wild, I sat waiting for Qiuzi, an eager learner. Sometimes she asked odd questions. Take the darkroom, for instance. She wondered aloud if she needed to enter it wearing dark clothes. Or black-and-white photos. ‘What do I do when, um, the camera lens captures a colourful bird?’ Her desire to learn exposed many weaknesses, which were manifestations of her innocence, such as the purity of her neck exposed beneath her short hair. When a faint frown appeared on her face, which was like a clean sheet of paper, she looked as if she had been carelessly soiled by dust from the adult world.
But I liked Qiuzi the way she was. It was better to be slightly stupid than to be smart, for that allowed for the possibility of learning from others, unlike a clever mind that stagnates in its egotistical calculations. Actually, she wasn’t stupid; she just displayed a hint of foolishness, a trait that made me love her all the more. I myself had lost all traces of purity and innocence. She lit up my shadow, relieving a certain heaviness in my life.
Which is to say, I couldn’t live without Qiuzi. I was happy only when I saw her smile, and I shared in the praise and favour given to her. Holding a cup of hot summer tea in both hands, she listened quietly to her teacher, eyes blinking constantly on a face that radiated joy. She often laid down the cup to pick up her notebook and say, Please slow down, Laoshi, so I can take better notes.
I was sure she also provoked strong feelings in Luo Yiming. A man with a natural grace, he was reserved in many ways. When he was pleased, he smiled faintly, his teeth hidden, happiness stealing into his raspy voice. On our first visit, he enthusiastically invited us to stay for lunch. Knowing that he lived alone, however, we declined the invitation after exchanging glances. If everything had ended on that day, it would have been one of our most unforgettable moments. Unfortunately, however, we returned for a second visit not long before the flower season. The big cherry tree beyond Luo’s window, still canopied in green leaves, had yet to bloom, its dark purple branches glowing enigmatically in the lightly shaded garden.
When she left me, the cherry tree was in bloom, and we lost that spring together.
Luo Yiming’s sudden illness created quite a commotion.
Two policemen from the local station arrived, one speaking in the local Haikou accent, while the other, likely a rookie, began to rifle through the shop the minute he walked in. He gave out an odd cry when he spotted the curtain hanging from the low ceiling, as if he’d stumbled upon a drug den; he was so tense I thought he might draw his weapon.
After telling me to bring him a ladder, he nimbly climbed up it to reach the dark, cramped loft, where he paused, obviously unsure whether or not he should proceed. Probably itching to show off his athletic skill, he surprised me by pulling himself up into the opening, using the boards around the sides like parallel bars. His head preceded his audacious body and banged against the dark ceiling, producing a loud thud.
The ladder tilted to one side, leaving his upper body still in the loft, legs dangling. Haikou Accent steadied the ladder to help him down. His cry of pain having tempered to a moan, he rubbed his head and looked daggers at me. The scene had become almost farcical. I poured two glasses of water, placed them on a table and waited for the interrogation to begin.
‘What’s going on?’ Rookie asked, miffed, still rubbing his head. ‘What’s up there?’
‘A bed, a pillow and a radio.’
‘Everyone in town says you came for revenge, and that’s how I see it too.’
Haikou Accent concurred. ‘People are saying your coffee shop is just a front. I tend to agree. Selling coffee here makes no sense. Why don’t you offer herbal tea on a hot day like this?’ He spoke consolingly to the injured head next to him as he entered the details from my ID card into his device. While we waited for its feedback, he copied my data onto a notepad.
He leaned close to me, the device having sent back its information.
‘All right, you don’t have a record. But what is it with you? What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘I’m just here to sell coffee.’
‘There are plenty of empty storefronts in town.’
‘I’m close to the ocean here.’
‘Like hell you are! Have you seen any crabs around this dump?’ he snorted. ‘Don’t even think about lying to me. Anything relating to Mr Luo is our business. Have you got a grudge against him? Let me put it this way: are you really here for revenge? Because to be honest with you, I can’t wait for some real action to save me from a shit career catching petty thieves. So go ahead and do what you want, turn the town inside out, just so long as you leave him alone. Our Mr Luo, he’s the only person in this town who cannot die, and you’d better make sure he lives, so that I can breathe easy.’
Two customers entered and paused at the door. Haikou Accent put his cap back on and, walking ahead of Rookie, turned to whisper:
‘If anything happens to him I’ll be back.’
After making and serving the drinks, I slipped outside and sat on a bench to smoke, feeling somewhat deflated. It was just a little shop I had there, dispensing a cup of coffee every now and then, but it would stay right where it was even if coffee one day disappeared from the face of the earth. I’d keep it open for my Qiuzi.
Truly, I had not expected Luo Yiming to barge in. From a distance I saw a bicycle passing slowly by; the rider looked ordinary, like some old villager. How could I have known that he would get off his bike and send me into sorrow, fear and despair? I couldn’t tell if his arrival was the portent of a new disaster or a mere spectre.
He looked healthy, and I wondered why he had taken early retirement. He was obviously still robust enough to ride his bike all the way here. To him it was a carefree outing, much like an idle stroll, during which he would pause at spots he’d previously overlooked and take in interesting, unique, or dreamlike scenes of beauty. He was enjoying every day of his post-retirement life more than anyone else could.
Besides, having a cup of coffee was commonplace to him. His favourite coffee had a musky aroma, no sugar added, the black liquid enlivened by a profound imagination. Back then we’d sat in his living room, trying to savour its bitterness. The complexity of the coffee was lost on Qiuzi, and I too failed to grasp its far-flung flavours, of course. Too timid to make a sound, I fearfully held the golden saucer tight and tucked my arms in close, afraid that the expensive elegance of the coffee would expose my undue anxiety. We did know, however, that we were expected to quickly sniff out its worth. Instead of praising it in familiar, comfortable tones, we were to approach the coffee with a sense of bitter sorrow towards life, in order to wholeheartedly welcome its complexity into our hearts, from where the image of a lonely soul would arise. Then we were to suppress a furtive belch and let it linger shyly between our underactive oesophagus and our throat.
And so, on this ill-fated morning, he came only for a cup of coffee. He’d surely heard about a fool from out of town opening a little coffee shop in the remote outskirts of this desolate place. On this day, with nothing special in mind, he had taken one of his usual carefree cycle rides, and, since it was not yet lunchtime, had decided to stop for a cup. That must have been how it was.
If he hadn’t made such a spur-of-the-moment decision, everything would have been the same as before, and he and I wouldn’t have been simultaneously hurled into sorrow, fear and despair. He could have quietly stayed in the dark, where there was little trouble, since darkness is harmless. Only during a confrontation do we experience the sudden fear of losing ourselves when we cannot see our adversary, at which time darkness is tinted with terror and threatens to push both sides into a bottomless abyss.
Unlucky, then, that he set out. He may have ridden along the embankment on a little path that curved abruptly before leading to a bridge. To reach the Luo residence, which was located on the far side of the bridge, you passed by the Catholic church in the centre of town. It was close to the amusement park, and from its grassy slope you could see his ancient Japanese-style house, with its old cherry tree in full bloom.
As he slowly rode over on the shaded path, ah, what was I doing at the time? Maybe I was getting ready to open or wiping down the empty bar. In any case, there was no sign from heaven, nor did my eyelids twitch to alert me, so naturally I had no inkling that we would soon meet under very awkward circumstances.
As he reached the spot below the embankment where the path curved upward, he would have whistled out of tune, as was his habit. If he’d had a sudden ominous premonition, he would still have had time to turn back. There were plenty of places he could have roamed. He could have ridden into an alley that would have taken him back to the town’s old streets, or he could have pedalled through the bustling fruit and vegetable market, following the lumber mill’s access road.
Regrettably, he did neither. Just as, when the opportunity arose to live out his life with honour, he let it pass.