As seems to be his only talent, A Lun has ruined Ning’s plan. She hoped to be the best dressed person in the parlor tomorrow, but now that honor will probably lie with the deceased, who according to rumor, will be looking resplendent in a red wedding dress.
Another makeshift tradition, Ning and several others who had a place in Yaxin’s life are spending the eve of her funeral at Greek Myth Karaoke Bar. This was A Lun’s idea. Ning’s cousin was certainly the most burdensome member of the family. It is the thought that counts, but his thoughts are entrenched in those of Eternal Edge Village, where she no longer feels at home. This night, with its tinny soundtracks, bottles of Tsingtao, and sweaty gamblers gathered around the bamboo table, has been an ill-judged trip down the already-congested memory lane.
And to make things worse, A Lun has spilled red wine diluted with Sprite on the lap of Ning’s white Dior dress while toasting overzealously.
Most attendees play cards or engage in drinking competitions while Ning sits with her legs crossed, watching her cousin with more politeness than is in her nature to muster. He clutches his chest while crooning with agony about the unattainability of uncomplicated love.
Four women, ranging from their early twenties to middle age, wander into the room. “Yaxin’s colleagues from the supermarket,” A Lun announces.
They are still in their black uniforms. Most are forgotten women: old maids, divorcees, those who miscarried. Ning shakes their hands and curtsies but avoids hugging.
As disastrous as this night is proving, Ning reminds herself that it is the thought that counts. She summons her cousin over. He walks with comically good posture, his biceps thrusting at the air as he moves. “I wanna sing next,” she shouts in his ear as he sticks a thumb in the air. She takes one last look at the battered printing paper, which she used to practice the foreign-language lyrics on the plane over.
A Lun picks up the microphone. “Everybody! Yaxin would be proud, so proud, that her best friend, Ning, looking pretty as ever, has taken time away from her big city career to pay her respects.”
After countless drunken nights of overuse, the microphone is missing its layer of foam; it pops with every plosive. Every time it does so, one of Ning’s half-remembered middle-school classmates shouts “poof” to amuse his fellow poker players.
A Lun chats on: “Ning grew up with Yaxin in Eternal Edge. Look at her now.”
The intro plays and A Lun presses the “canned applause” button. Nobody present knows how badly Ning is pronouncing the foreign-language lyrics, but they suppress laughter nonetheless. Every note of this song – the one that reminds her most of Yaxin – comes out like a kidney stone.
This is what Yaxin’s final years must have been like, having men snigger at her every move. Before returning to her hometown, Ning has thought she might be armed against similar belittlement, but she was wrong. Her Gucci shoes are useless here unless used as a weapon against a certain clueless male cousin, which would violate Ning’s hard-earned composure.
“Good job Little Ning,” says A Lun when the song ends.
In recent years, Ning has grown used to underlings trembling with respect at her every word. She digs her burgundy nails into her palms after A Lun’s says “Little Ning.” She reaches a decision.
“I can’t go tomorrow.”
“I can’t go to the funeral.”
“I just received a message. My daughter’s sick.” The illness is factual, the message is fictional. Ning stumbles out of the room, raising her wrist for a tepid goodbye.
Lying in her hotel room, Ning pictures the scene at Greek Myth in her absence. The gossiping may have begun as to why Yaxin took her own life: “Maybe she got too depressed about her friends being more successful.” “Maybe she gave up on ever finding a husband.” “Maybe she got knocked up by some married guy who abandoned her.” That’s the thing about the countryside. It is not that people make too much small talk; it is that everything they discuss – even death – becomes small talk.
Ning hides her head under the pillow. Indecision is weakness. She has definitely done the right thing in moving her flight up. Even if the funeral is a beautiful ceremony, the banquet will be a parade of superficial niceties. The confetti of humor and kindness that Yaxin sprinkled over people’s lives will be swept away. Plus, the spicy local cuisine will give Ning acne.