The Floor of Pipes, by Cao Kou
Born in Nanjing in 1977, Cao Kou probes feelings of existential boredom through his deceptively plain short stories.
It was the rhythm of the voice that first attracted me to this story: long before the unexpected incongruities start to stack up, the texture of the prose offers a hint that there is something not quite right in the head of the narrator, or in the world he inhabits (or both). Chinese writing generally tolerates a greater degree of repetition than English, but here the repeated words seemed quite deliberate, and I attempted to preserve the same feeling in my translation. It feels as though the narrator is paying careful attention to the construction of his precise and ponderous sentences, but is completely unaware of the bizarre, startling ideas they end up revealing.
I’m not sure if this is something that happens to everyone when translating, but certain pieces start speaking in a distinctive mental voice as I’m working on them. I came to hear this story in the voice of Wilson Fisk, as played by Vincent d'Onofrio in the Daredevil TV series (although not, I hasten to add, Wilson Fisk attempting to speak Chinese). Something to do with the impression of words being strenuously expelled from somewhere deep down inside, I think. But that’s probably just me; I hope you will feel free to read this story in the voice of any supervillain you like.
The thirty-fifth floor of this building is known as the floor of pipes. This is how Wang Li referred to it on the phone. She did not actually say the thirty-fifth floor. Wang Li is presently in an office on the floor of pipes, and I am going to find her.
The regular work lift goes only as far as the twenty-sixth floor, so getting to the floor of pipes necessitates squeezing into a different lift alongside workers with their building materials. The total number of workers is: two workers. Not one fat worker and one skinny worker but two workers who are both skinny. Theirs cannot be any ordinary variety of skinny, with the weather as cold as it is. As I approach the lift they are transferring sack after sack of cement into the lift. They see me and they stop and gawp. When they inspect the interior of the lift they discover that there remains room enough to stand, and they begrudgingly let me in. I scoot into a corner while they continue to move cement. They seem angry, and perhaps this is because I am now occupying the space or the weight of one cement sack.
With each new sack of cement I feel the lift sink down and then bounce back up again. With each bounce I sense the lift straining to do better. Having been stuffed so full it must actively fight against the pressure or else it will never rise again, like a man with a broken back. I was expecting them to join their cement in the lift but this is not what they do. The lift bleeps because it is too full, and the one whose leg was holding the door open steps nimbly outside. They watch the cement and me, and they are still watching as the gap between the doors narrows to nothing. They stand there like they are an elderly couple in the autumn breeze and they are saying farewell to their departing children.
Then the cement and I begin to rise. An amusing idea occurs to me, and the amusing idea is this: that the cement is a gift I have brought to give Wang Li. I have not previously met this woman whose name is Wang Li. We have spoken on the phone twice. Her Mandarin has a Taixing twang and there is nothing particularly special to the sound of her voice. On this basis, I have formed a favourable impression of her. I hate people who speak flawless Mandarin. Perhaps the “office” on the floor of pipes is not a proper office (for what kind of office could there be on a floor of pipes?) but is in fact her home. An as-yet unfurbished home, with bricks stacked like ribs against each wall. Being a home, it must be furbished sooner or later, and decoration requires cement. The thought of thirty-fifth floor furbishment makes me imagine her as a swallow. It is in high places that swallows build their nests and feed their young. When she has nothing better to do she spreads her wings and soars away on a flight that has no purpose (purposes might include: catching worms, also gathering mud). If Wang Li is amenable then she might give me a lift when we have finished, and I would not have to take the elevator back down because I would be riding on her back.
On the way to the floor of pipes (perhaps this description is insufficiently precise) the lift stops several times. Workers who look identical to the first pair of workers step in every time the lift stops and the doors open, but the difference between these workers and those workers is that these workers each move one sack only. There is one floor where the workers merely peer into the lift and then send me on my way without moving anything (perhaps this description is also insufficiently precise). When I finally arrive at the floor of pipes I notice that one sack of cement remains in the lift. Seeing it hunkering there and remembering the thought that occurred to me previously, I am tempted to go back and take it with me.
The floor of pipes does contain many pipes. They are of varying thickness and disparate shape, and I am frequently compelled to duck my head to get under or over them. If the building is analogous to a human body then this must be the belly. Guts, everywhere: the foregut; the midgut; the hindgut; the meat-stuffed sausagey gut. Some of these guts leak puffs of steam like in a movie. The walls are covered with doors, but Wang Li’s office is not hard to find because there is only one door that bears the marks of frequent use and only one gleaming door handle that is not covered with rust.
Had Wang Li not left this door ajar then naturally I would have politely knocked. This is what happens instead of a knock on the door: me approaching the door and looking through the opening. Behind a desk there is the shape of a woman, facing away from me. To be precise: the shape of half a woman. The top half. Mostly the top half of the top half, upwards of the point where the bra is fastened. Or possibly not, because her hair is very long and very black and this makes it difficult to tell. I am making an estimate on the basis of my previous experience. There is no sound inside the office and there do not seem to be any other occupants at present. Or perhaps she has been the only person in the office all along. I admit it: I am suddenly quite afraid. Her hair is so long that I imagine I will step inside and she will turn to face me and I will still see hair and only hair. In other words: the front side of her head and the obverse side of her head (which is currently visible to me through the door) are identical. This idea has come to me from the faceless ghost in the television adaptation of Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio. The faceless ghost had her hair in a thick, black braid, and all you could see when she turned her face towards you was a thick, black braid.
The phone is on a table next to the water flask and if the phone had not suddenly started to ring then I would not have entered so quickly. I push open the door and step inside before she can turn around to answer the phone and see me lingering.
The first time I spoke to Wang Li on the phone it went like this:
It is an ordinary afternoon and I am sitting around at home and wondering what to do with myself. The phone rings.
Hello, who is it? I ask.
Oh, hello, my name’s Wang Li. This is what she says.
Then she explains the thing to me, and after she has explained she asks me: When will you come over?
I’m pretty busy these days, I say, I won’t be able to come today.
Well, when then? she says, you tell me.
I’ll give you a call in a few days, I say, when I’m not so busy, and we can fix the time then.
Okay, she says.
They we say goodbye to each other and then we hang up.
That was the first time I spoke to Wang Li on the phone. As soon as I hung up I wanted to pick up the phone and call her back and tell her I shall come over right now. But no, I must stick to my story: I will be unable to call her until have cleared some space in my schedule by delegating some of my affairs or shelving them temporarily. So I circumnavigate my home five times and every time I pass a window I stop for a moment. This feels like an appropriate length of time to have got my affairs in order. I clear my throat, I take a deep breath, and I call her. This is the second time I speak to Wang Li on the phone.
Ahem. Hello. Is that Wang Li?
Yes, she says, and who might this be?
It was I who called you forty minutes ago. After I offer her a précis of our previous conversation I hear her elongated ohhhh. When I hung up just now, I say, I was struck by the importance of that thing that you mentioned and so I plan to come over at once. Would that be convenient? Requesting her permission seems like the polite thing to do.
Very well. Then I shall come over now. It will take me approximately ten minutes. I immediately regret revealing my proximity by specifying ten minutes.
Oh? She does seem startled, but she continues, sure, okay.
What I expect her to say at this point is: See you soon. But what she actually says is: I’ll be waiting.
It seems I have alarmed Wang Li. She turns to face the stranger standing in her doorway and pulls back the hand which is reaching out for the phone. Before she can shriek or cry for help I hastily explain: It is I who you spoke to on the phone twenty minutes ago, and it took me more than ten minutes because of the traffic. It’s rush hour, I add, as you know, and there are many people going home from work.
Her expression turns to irritation and she reaches out again for the phone. With her other hand she gestures for me to sit down on the fake leather sofa by the door. Out of habit (or: out of politeness) I go to shut the door behind me, but after contemplating the matter I restore the door to its original angle instead of closing it completely. Then I sit down
Then I leap back to my feet with a shout on my lips, because I discover that there is another man behind the door, a man who has been sitting but who stands up at the same time I stand up and bows slightly as though in greeting. But then – aha! – it all makes sense, and I sit down again. It was a false alarm. The other man is: me. It is merely a mirror behind Wang Li’s office door. She is a woman and, like many women, she requires a mirror in the office in addition to the mirror in the home, in which to observe her reflection as she comes and goes. Some mirrors are installed in the office by the company. Some women must install their own mirrors. This is how these things work.
Wang Li is still on the phone and she only occasionally glances at me. It seems to be an informal conversation. Her swivel chair swings from side to side, so that I sometimes see her and sometimes do not see her.
It is a terrible shame that she is not attractive. A bulbous nose. Numerous pinkish acne pockmarks. I am compelled to look around the office instead. There is only the desk and the other table and nothing else except for a chest of drawers and the sofa beneath my bottom. And on the walls: several large charts and labels. The wall-mounted air conditioner is a Japanese model and I can hear its low-pitched hum. It is also possible that this hum may be coming from the many pipes outside the door.
Wang Li offers me an apologetic smile when she has finished on the phone. She does not get down to business right away. First she asks me if I would like some water. Not for me, I say. Then she nods, and then she gets down to business.
The business is this: she opens a drawer and takes out a handful of identical books. She opens each of them in turn and looks at the title pages. She lingers on the title page of the book that was on the bottom of the pile and stuffs the others back into the drawer. When this is done she proffers the remaining book in my direction. This is yours, she says. She is indicating that she wants me to take it. But the distance between the sofa and her chair is greater than the length of my arm. If I don’t stand up to take it then perhaps she will come out from behind the desk and hand it to me. And if that happens then I shall be able to see what kind of figure she has. She may have a good figure, and a good figure would make up for the disappointment of her face. But unfortunately I do stand up. I leave without seeing what kind of figure she has.
I don’t leave at once, of course. That would be very rude. After I take the book I sit back down on the sofa and open it to look at the title page just like she did. The following words are written there in pen:
For Cao Kou's consideration. From Zhu Bai.
Then I remain seated for approximately five minutes. During these five minutes I plan to find out more about Zhu Bai from Wang Li. She tells me that she doesn’t know Zhu Bai, and it was a distant relative of hers who passed on the book. The husband of this distant relative knows Zhu Bai. My plan is thwarted. There is nothing else to do but stand up say goodbye.
I turn back to Wang Li on my way out. Thank you.
It’s nothing, she says with a smile, see you.
For a moment I am stunned, then I comprehend: her see you is as meaningless as my thank you.
I do not take the lift because I do not want to see the workers or their cement again. I go down the stairs leading to the fire exit, one flight at a time. I'm deeply impressed with myself. But by the time I get to the twenty-sixth floor I am exhausted, and I have to take the other lift.