Incident at Dongwuyuan Fuzhuang Shichang. A short story

The nuisance of the uncooperative customer

“How much is that?”

“That’s for post-pregnant women. Were you pregnant?”

“Oh.”

“You want one of those instead. Why do you need it? You’re not fat.”

“She thinks she is.”

“I want it anyway. Does it work?”

“Sure. What size are you?”

“I don’t know. I can’t try it on here?”

“You’re probably medium. Come inside the booth and duck down.”

“Duck down?”

“There are hardly any men around. Or let me hold up a sheet in front of you.”

“How much is it?”

“Try it on first.”

The wholesale clothing market across from the Beijing Zoo, popularly known as the “Zoo” for short, the market not the zoo that is, is the haunt of women of every persuasion for its variety and cheap prices. The place is mindboggling in its scale, a jumble of huge buildings each with hundreds of tiny rented stalls on every floor, bursting with heaps and piles of garish clothes, an enormous honeycomb of cells oozing cotton and synthetics. The heat from the torrent of bargain hunters requires many of the sellers to strip down to spaghetti tank tops and black bras, a delightful sight for the odd male visitor. But although there’s a party atmosphere to this female jungle gym, it’s not all fun and games.

“Mei, how do I look?”

“Not bad, I guess. How much is it?”

“200.”

“Oh, that’s too much. Can you lower the price a bit?”

“I’ll give it to you for 180. That’s the lowest I can go and still earn a profit.”

“No, it’s much more than I thought it was. Maybe I could buy it for 100.”

“No way.”

“Let’s go.”

“Hey!” The seller waved them back with a nod. Hesitantly they retraced their steps.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? I’m giving it to you now for 100.”

“I’m still thinking about whether I want it or not. Maybe for 80.”

“Now, wait a minute. You offered 100 and I agreed. You have to take it at this price.”

“I didn’t agree to buy it.”

“Miss,” said the thug who had appeared out of nowhere, “she went out of her way to accommodate you, so you should buy it.”

“I don’t have to buy anything if I don’t want to.”

“Please, show some limao, some courtesy. She’s selling it to you at cost and is treating you like a friend, and you treat her like this in return?”

“Less than cost, actually. I’m losing money at this price.”

“She offered you the price you wanted, and you agreed. You can’t go back on that now.”

“What do you mean? I never agreed to anything.”

“Why did you come back, then?”

“We’re still thinking it over.”

“You’re playing with us. We don’t have time for this. Here, take it. Off you go.”

“Miss, the money.”

“Jie, let’s go.”

“Hey, get your hands off me! My glasses! Where are my glasses? Oh, god, I just stepped on them!”

“I’ve got them. Let’s get out of here.”

“You hit me!”

“Fuck off, bitch!”

“Let’s get out of here!”

“Are you okay? We should call the police. Let’s get a taxi.”

“I think so.”

They told the taxi driver to take them to the nearest police station.

“Really, are you okay?”

“My glasses are broken! I can’t see without my glasses.”

“What happened?”

“We were bargaining for something and they tried to force us to buy it, and when we refused a man punched her in the face.”

“You should have stayed there and contacted the building security.”

“What security? No one helped us! How’s your eye?”

“Blurry.”

“You have to find them. They can contact the police. Once you leave the scene, the evidence disappears.”

“No, the police will go back with us for this. And there are witnesses.”

“Are you kidding, miss? They all know each other. They’re all southerners, right?”

“Maybe. I can’t recall their accents.”

“They stand up for one another, protect their turf. You know what will happen when you go back? They will be gone. You’ll see a new face behind the counter. And the rest will act mum. They’ve never seen you before, don’t know what you’re talking about. The cop will be annoyed at your wasting his time and that will be that. If you had just stayed there, it would all seem more urgent and authentic. You should also have taken pictures of them with your cellphone.”

“But she was hit in the eye. Look, her glasses are smashed. She’s nearsighted and can’t see without her glasses.”

“Did he hit you hard? You don’t have a black eye.”

“He hit me right on the eye.”

“You’re nearsighted? Maybe you should go to the hospital and have it checked out. I have a friend who is nearsighted, and he bumped his eye once and detached his retina. He didn’t realize it at first but the next day his vision was blurred. It was pretty serious and he had to be operated on right away. Cost him a lot of money, but he would have gone blind in that eye without the operation. The doctor said nearsighted people are really susceptible to detached retinas.”

“I don’t think I have a problem. It doesn’t hurt so much.”

“Maybe we should go to the hospital, Jie.”

“But then we can’t go to the police.”

“Your health is more important, miss.”

“What should we do?”

“All right, then, take us to the hospital.”

The taxi pulled up to the hospital gate, turned around and headed back the other way. They had decided to go to the police after all.

“Who is she?”

“My younger sister.”

“You’re a postgraduate student in Beijing, from Hebei Province, I see,” the cop said, fingering her ID. “What is she doing in Beijing?”

“She’s visiting me.”

“Here’s the situation. Because you left the scene, it might as well not have happened. If I go back there with you, they won’t recognize you, providing they’re still there, that is. They probably took the rest of the day off to play it safe. Any other sellers who witnessed it won’t recognize you either, since what could they possibly gain by implicating their friends? They all know each other, you know. They’re competitors, yet also friends.”

“Don’t they have security cameras there that could be used as evidence?”

“Yeah, they have them, but they won’t necessarily do you much good. We’d have to get the building security to go through the trouble of letting us view the recording and we’re not going to be able to do that unless we have a strong case. The recording may be of no help anyway if crowds were in the way and things happened too fast.”

“But look how he smashed my glasses! Isn’t that evidence?”

“Possibly, but your eye doesn’t look so bad.”

“He hit me on the eye, not around it. We were on the way to the hospital to check it out but came here first.”

“If the doctor produces an injury report, that might help you. Did you take any cellphone shots of those people?”

“No, it was all so sudden and we were scared and ran off quickly.”

He was persuaded to accompany the sisters back to the market.

“They came back,” announced the seller and thug when the sisters arrived at the booth. “Hey, officer, look at what that terrible woman did to my friend. She scratched him viciously on the neck! I had to take him to the hospital and get him stitched up. The emergency treatment cost 2,000 kuai, and I also lost money from missed business while we were away. She should pay us compensation money for that.”

“What? I never scratched him.”

“No, she’s lying! She never scratched him.”

“Look!” The thug peeled back the edge of a swath of gauze taped to his neck where the stitches became visible. “See the stitches? Here’s the hospital receipt. The total costs are 1,850, plus the taxi fee.”

“No! They’re lying. We didn’t do that.”

“They are dishonest customers who came here only to waste our time and make frivolous inquiries with no intention of buying anything—”

“Dishonest? How dare you.”

“Officer, this is what happened. After I let her try on the girdle and agreed to her asking price, she rudely tried to push my friend out of the way so they could run off without paying for it. She still had it in her hand and we assumed they were going to steal it. That’s when she resisted and scratched him, and in self-defense he accidentally knocked her glasses off. She stepped on them and broke them and then blamed him for breaking her glasses!”

“Miss, I thought you told me at the station that he smashed your glasses.”

“This is all wrong. We never tried to steal anything—”

“I can’t recall exactly how the glasses got broken. He knocked them off when he hit me and I stepped on them.”

“See, I told you she’s a liar.”

“This is unbelievable. We never—”

“Calm down. Lady, these girls wouldn’t have come all the way to the police station if they were making this up.”

“Why not? What’s to stop them from scheming up something like this? Ask any of the shopkeepers here. They all witnessed it.”

“It looks like this is going to take forever. We could make everything much easier if we tried to resolve it amicably. How much compensation money do you want?”

“2,000 for him and 1,000 for me for missed business.”

“Mei, there’s a dark shadow forming in my field of vision. I want to go to the hospital.”

“Hey!” shouted the three at them as the sisters ran away.

 *     *     *

exact

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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