Our studio was split into two small rooms that were connected through a door. We were supposed to split each room by function, one being for painting and the other, for drying, but plans are so seldomly followed through on. Now, we used both rooms for painting and just dried wherever we could.
Of course, since our studio doubled as our home, we had to make space for homely things. We had a small drawer in which we stored some of our clothing. We hung our coats on the same racks we dried our paintings on. An unfortunate consequence of such was that we always got paint on them. I never cared, so long as the coat could still keep me warm, but Liya was always upset when it happened.
“It’s not like we’re going anywhere fancy,” I tried to tell her. “And besides, a bit of colour makes you look prettier, no?”
“Just because we live less than human,” she said, “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least look like one.”
Quiet dignity was the word she always used. I think everyone should be allowed some vices. For many, it was alcohol. For others, gambling. Other than cigarettes, Liya had only ever indulged in having the occasional clean clothes to wear. I don’t think it was too much to ask.
As we loaded another month of paintings into the truck, I thought to myself, if it’s not too much to ask, then why? Why can’t I fulfil even her most basic wants?
We had no home, no car, and nothing clean to wear. Twenty years of my life, and I had nothing to show for it.
Kevin Connolly scratched his chin with the backside of his pen. “I won’t lie, I didn’t think you could make it.”
“Neither did we,” I said. And it was true. Every day for a month, we slept for only four hours and only in shifts so that we could maximise our time. There was not a single moment where there wasn’t someone painting in that studio.
“You look like shit,” Kevin told me.
“I feel like shit.”
“Liya isn’t with you?”
“Not today. The moment she finished her shift, she laid on the ground and immediately fell asleep.”
“Let her rest.” He licked his fingers and counted yuans out of a paper bag. He handed me a thick stack of them. “You guys are missing a couple of paintings but I’ll let it slip just this once. Get her something nice, Xiao Zhou. She’s earnt it.”
I held the yuans in my palm. How thick they felt for something so thin. “Thank you, Kevin.”
“I told you to call me Xiao Jun!”
I left the warehouse before he could say anymore. From the harbour, it wasn’t a long way to the heart of Shenzheng, where there were tall buildings and deep pockets. When I was young, we made a game of weaving through the vegetable paddlers and passing rickshaws without slowing. Now, though the rickshaws were still aplenty, automobiles were becoming incredibly popular, and all of a sudden that childish game became a lot more dangerous. That didn’t stop kids from trying.
Once in the city, I savoured every little breath. Unlike the smoke and fishness of our studio, the city held exotic smells of every kind. Every street and alleyway introduced me to a unique scent, and each food vendor alternated between fragrances of spicy and sweet. It took all of my strength to not indulge my hunger. Even with the money we had, we couldn’t afford two luxuries in one day.
I found some reputable clothes stalls, and spent some time going through them, fingering past their racks of coats. They were old and they had a bit of musk, but they were nice and most importantly, they were clean.
“Which one’s good, uncle?” I asked the vendor.
I knew his answer before he said it. “Everything’s good.”
I settled on a lovely navy coat, noticeably nicer than all the others. Satisfied, I paid the full amount without haggling. I didn’t know exactly how good the value was, but it felt like I had gotten the better deal. Although, I’d imagine the vendor felt the same.
I rested the coat on my arm as I trekked back uphill. The canning factory laid at the hill’s peak, where it watched over the entire city. Had the city been a finer sight, I would never come down, though I would say Shenzheng’s night sky was absolutely spectacular. Or maybe that was just my own biases; one always had a fondness for their home. Kevin once said to me, even though I was born in Britain, I have always longed for the long-shu mountains and the yellow river. When I took my first step here, I knew I was home.
On my way up, I felt something brush against my leg. I leaned down to pick it up. It was a football, so deformed it was more a blob than a sphere.
“Mister!” I heard a voice shout. It was a small group of children, gathered by the side of the road. They played barefoot in the mud, with sticks that marked the edges of the goals.
“Throw it here, mister!” they said.
I knew I played football as well as a turtle could sprint, so I opted to just walk the ball to them. “Here. Go wild.”
“Thank you,” said some of the kids. One of them asked me, “are you the artist who lives in the fish factory?”
“It’s a canning factory.”
“But it sells fish.”
“Canned fish,” I sighed. “And yes, I’m the artist.”
“Can you draw me?”
I shrugged. It was still early in the day and I didn’t need to work until tomorrow. Why not? Liya could sleep for a bit longer before I surprised her.
I took a stick and dipped it into the wet mud. Then, I squatted by the road and drew upon the stone. All the kids huddled around me to watch.
I made quick work of the sketch. After twenty years of painting, the only thing I had to show for it was skill.
“Woah!” The kids gushed. “That’s so good!”
“Okay.” I dipped the stick in more mud. “Who’s next?”
“Me!” a girl yelled. “Me! Me! Me!”
I drew her head and hair before starting on her torso. She wore a torn Mickey Mouse shirt– or at least it was meant to be. As far as knock-offs went, I suppose it had a passing resemblance to its source.
“You know that’s not actually Mickey Mouse,” I said.
I gestured to her shirt. “Mickey Mouse doesn’t wear blue. And the face is drawn all wrong.”
“Oh.” She didn’t even look down. “Okay.”
“You don’t care?”
She shrugged. “It’s Mickey Mouse.”
I don’t know how long I spent there drawing, but by the time I left, every kid had at least two portraits of themselves, and the entire roadside was splattered brown.
Once I reached the top of the hill, I remembered glancing back to find the children, as tiny as ants, waving at me. I waved back. I hope they saw it.
“Liya?” I said, unlocking the studio door. “Are you up yet? Sorry I’m late, I played around with some of the local kids. Might’ve gotten some mud on my pants. I know how much you hate that, sorry.”
I hung up my own coat and tiptoed my way to the next room. “But I’ve got something here that doesn’t have any mud on it. I hope you don’t mind I used some of the money. You’ve worked really hard this month so I just wanted to get you something nice as a reward.”
I waited for a response but none came. “Liya? Are you still sleeping?”
I rounded the corner, and dropped the coat to the ground. My blood ran cold. I could feel my heartbeat throb against the back of my throat.
In a man’s life, there were times where for better or worse, a memory never left you. It would be sealed unto your mind, like a seal unto wax, and no matter how hard you tried, it always came back to haunt you, as vivid as the moment it first came. It was for this reason that bars would never go out of business, and man would remain an imperfect creature.
For me, I would never dream of Van Gogh again. Every night since that incident, I woke up screaming to the memory of my wife on the floor, in the midst of a seizure.