“They said that batch of molten steel was unusually red, just like the evening glow of Zhanjiang.”
When I saw Hongsheng again, it was in the summer of Sunshine City, two months since I lost my job. I couldn’t find any work anywhere, my savings were dwindling. I couldn’t afford the rent, and finally reached the point where I had no choice but to leave. Hongsheng heard about my predicament and asked me to come to Sunshine City to see him.
“I am on a long business trip here for several months and living in a hotel near the company, and it’s reimbursable. You can come over here since you’re looking for jobs online anyway.”
I sold most of my belongings before leaving, and left the unsold things to my landlord. I kept noting but a small suitcase with essential items, a few summer clothes, and two books. Somehow, I thought that I wouldn’t feel completely destitute if I bring two books with me. I took a last look at the rented room, which now seemed empty and hollow. Several years ago, I came to Shanghai to make a living, and I had been living alone in this small room with brick walls. Now, I was leaving in a sorry state, with nothing left except a few old magazines that couldn’t be sold in the bookshelf. My gaze involuntarily dropped down.
The summer in Sunshine City was refreshing, just like its name. Not a single trace of clouds could be seen in the sky; it was a pure expanse of blue. Leaving from the cool train compartment to bask under this generous sunshine. I felt a tingling sensation on my skin and couldn’t help but squint my eyes. Hongsheng stood on the square outside the high-speed rail station, wearing shorts and slippers. I waved my hand from afar when I saw him.
“How’s the journey?” He took the suitcase from my hands.
“Not bad. It’s quite fast to come here. I spent the whole day packing yesterday and now I just want to lie down,” I said. Hearing my old friend’s voice in a standard Mandarin with a slight Chongqing accent, I suddenly felt a comforting sense of relief. “It’s really hot here” I added.
“Yeah, it has been quite hot recently, without a drop of rain. Take a rest for a while, let’s have some ice-cold beers tonight.”
He still looks the same as he did two years ago without much change, except that his face has become tanned from the sun since he often goes on business trips. On the way to the hotel, he asked about the room I rented in Shanghai.
“Sold all your belongings?”
“Pretty much. I left some things to my landlord. A good guy. He didn’t ask me for any breach of contract fees when he heard that I lost my job.” I nodded.
“Pity. One day you will buy them again. You should have kept them for now,” he said.
“There’s nothing valuable. It even won’t cover the shipping cost if I send them away. And I can’t send them home neither, or my mom will know I’m out of a job,” I said absentmindedly as the car gradually approached the seaside. The sea emitted a faint blue color, distorted by the heat rising from the road. I looked at the scenery outside the window, said casually.
The hotel was separated from Hongsheng’s workplace by a street. From the room, I could see the steel plant in the distance. The red and white chimneys stood tall, emitting thick white smoke. Those interlaced steel structures supported huge smelting furnaces, like towering towers.
“Go rest for a while, I’ll call you later. There’s some work to be done,” he said.
Hongsheng sat at the desk and opened the computer. I lay on the bed, surrounded by the faint sound of keyboard typing. Occasionally, a car passed by the window, carrying the sound of its engine as it drifted away. Fatigue gradually crept over my body after a few days of hard work. Soon, I fell asleep. I slept soundly and had a simple dream. In the dream, I returned to that rented room. It was empty, and I saw myself lying on the floor, breathing steadily and evenly. It was raining outside, and raindrops tapped against the window, splashing water droplets. I lay there motionless. Soon, I heard a few steady knocks on the door outside, and someone called my name.
“Are you asleep?”
“Yes,” I replied, gazing at the light above my head, which is emitting white light. “I’m already asleep.”
“It’s raining outside.”
“I know,” I saw my lips move. “Do you want me to open the door?”
I tried to get up and open the door, but my body was already asleep. Only my eyes remained awake, and I could see the light above my head clearly. The light was pure and impeccable, resembling an empty void. The knocking on the door continued steadily, I decided to ignore it altogether.
Later, the sound gradually faded away, and the person outside the door disappeared. The rain also stopped, leaving only the white light. Endless white light poured down from the hole above my head, enveloping me. I started to sink little by little, being submerged in this pure white night.
When I woke up, the sun had almost set, and the sky turned into a faint pink hue. I sat up in bed, feeling a dry and bitter taste in my mouth, and my heart raced with a sudden urgency.
“Awake?” Hongsheng asked without taking his eyes off the screen.
“Yeah,” I opened a bottle of mineral water, gulped down a few sips, the bitter taste is diluted, and my heartbeat gradually calmed down. “Did you call me just now?” I asked.
“I didn’t. This damn conference took quite a long time, and you were sleeping like a log. What’s wrong?” Hongsheng replied.
“Nothing. I had a dream, someone was calling me,” I said, looking at Hongsheng. It seemed like he had finished his work and was now playing mahjong with his legs crossed.
“You sleep too much. Come on, let’s take a walk. We’ll have a barbecue by the seaside later,” he said, closing his computer and getting up.
We strolled slowly along the sidewalk, and the evening sun had already disappeared behind the distant buildings. Only a few thin streaks of evening glow extended across the sky, looking like fish scales. As we reached an intersection, Hongsheng pointed to a building diagonally across from us.
“That’s our company. We’ve rented a few rooms over there temporarily,” he said.
I saw a square-shaped building, crudely imitating the appearance of European castles. There were a few sparsely spaced marble sculptures on the sunken terrace on the rooftop, which had turned into a rust-like black color after enduring wind and sun. The railing along the street was pushed aside, and Hongsheng moved away the “No Trespassing” sign. I followed and squeezed in through the gap.
“The main entrance is quite far, and I’m too lazy to go around. I squeeze this little shortcut every day,” Hongsheng said.
“That’s nice. I don’t even have a little shortcut to go through,” I replied.
“You will.” Hongsheng said, standing with hands on his hips, looking at his workplace. A warm halo was radiating from behind the building, gradually dissipating into the air.
We walked through the company’s campus and arrived at the barbecue bistro he frequented. The red sign outside was already lit up, and in the small glass water tank at the entrance, the crayfish crowded together motionlessly. Only a few seemed to be inexplicably panicked, darting around in the water, stirring up a bit of turbidity.
“Take yourself,” Hongsheng said, looking at the crayfish in the water tank. “Waiter! Please give us three pounds of crayfish!” he called out to the owner.
We ordered barbecue and seafood, asking the owner to deliver them to the beach later. Hongsheng then brought out two folding chairs from the corner of the wall. “Borrow your two lounge chairs, we’ll return them later!” he said.
“OK!” The bistro owner responded without looking up, pressing the calculator in his hand.
In the distance, only the deep purple afterglow remained, and the buildings merged into a vague black silhouette. The moon’s outline became clear. The beach scenery was perfect with few people and no wind. The tide lazily washed over the sand, leaving damp dark imprints. We chose a spot not too far or too close to the sea, and set up the lounge chairs. Hongsheng collapsed into the chair, letting out a comfortable hum as the chair sank. I also lay down. Hot air disappeared, but the beach still retained the warmth from the afternoon. My feet were half-buried in the sand, only the toes exposed, like two hiding crabs.
“Why do we have to work” he gazed at the distant sea, sighed. “It’s better to just lie down.”
“Indeed,” I sank into the lounge chair and agreed.
A figure approached from afar. The waiter in the bistro cames. Carrying a red plastic bucket in his right hand, and a large plastic bag with bamboo skewers sticking out of it in his right hand. Under his arm, he held a small folding table. I stood up and took the things from him, laid out the table, and placed the food on it. The plastic bucket was buried in the sand beside my feet, and the ice-cold water inside emitted an inviting chill. Hongsheng took out a bottle of beer from the bucket, and water droplets dripped down the bottle’s surface.
“Taishan real ale, only seven days shelf life. You won’t find it outside Shandon. Try it?”
He shook the beer bottle, popped the cap open, and gulped down a few mouthfuls, followed by a long and distant burp, facing the waves surging onto the shore. “Really Refreshing,” he patted his belly contentedly, making a few crisp sounds. I also opened a bottle, took a few sips, and felt the aroma of malt filling my mouth.
“You arrived a bit late,” Hongsheng turned to the side and picked up a crayfish from the aluminum foil tray, gently cracked it open, revealing the tender white crayfish meat inside. “If you came half a month earlier, the crayfish would have had roe inside,” he said.
“It’s a pity, I should have been laid off earlier,” I said, pinching a crayfish.
He laughed, “Just consider it a few months of rest. Besides, what’s the use of going back to work? Dealing with those old foxes in state-owned enterprises? Totally a waste of life. I’ve been wanting to run away for a long time.” He continued while munching on the crayfish, “They do nothing except taking credit, like dogs seeing bones.”
“Here’s the thing, though, you still have money to earn. Unlike me, I’m miserable, struggling to even afford the rent in the end.” I tried to imitate Hongsheng’s way of peeling the crayfish, but I wasn’t as skilled, and the sharp edges of the crayfish shells made me wince in pain. The crayfish meat also ended up in bits and pieces. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had this stuff. It feels like I haven’t really eaten much of this since leaving school,” I said, sipping on the shredded crayfish meat.
“It has been eight years since graduation,” he took a sip of beer and looked at the waves in the distance. “Time flies.”
At the seaside, a couple strolled leisurely with a playful little dog ran ahead, followed by their daughter, running and playing. They held hands, watching the playful child tenderly. “Yes, time flies,” I said, my gaze lingering on this heartwarming scene.
“I’ve been working here for over five years,” Hongsheng waved the half-eaten crayfish in his hand and said, “It’s time to move on.”
“Nowhere is good. You should be grateful having a job, don’t mess it up,” I said. As the couple gradually walked away, my gaze returned to the sea. “By the way, how’s that ship of yours? Weren’t you coming here to build a ship or something?”
“Ship unloader, that thing over there,” he pointed with his finger. I followed his direction and looked into the distance, where I could faintly see a harbor. Giant iron giants stood in silence under the night sky, gazing at the moon.
“It’s used for unloading ore for the steel plant, made by the Japanese. It can excavate 2,500 tons of ore per hour. The front of that thing is a long chain bucket, extending into the cargo hold, and the material is brought up bucket by bucket.”
He took out his phone and showed me a video he recorded a few days ago. The towering crane arm swung deep into the dark cargo hold, and the steel conveyor belt emitted a rhythmic roar as the ore was scooped up bucket by bucket, flowing like sand. “You have to stand on the gantry to truly feel how massive it is. The excavators below look like toys. One of my colleagues climbed halfway up, frightened with legs went weak, I helped him down.”
“Are you not afraid?” I looked at the rugged machine on his phone, asked him. Hongsheng shook his head. “Not really, it’s just windy up there. Feels like I might get blown away.”
“That’s impressive. I might even not be as good as your colleague.”
“There are railings on both sides, nothing to be afraid of. He’s just too timid. But I’ve only been up there once too. We don’t deal with the unloader; we work on the one below.” He leaned over and pointed down to the small shovel below. “When the cargo in the hold is almost excavated, we use a shovel to pile up the remaining materials; otherwise, the unloader can’t reach them. Currently, workers handle it, but we want to make it automated.”
“Impressive, autonomous driving.”
“Garbage thing. Come, have a skewer!” Hongsheng grabbed a skewer and started eating. “This one is good, try it. Their beef butter skewer is the best.” He handed me a skewer, and I took a bite. The butter melted in my mouth, leaving a rich milky flavor.”
“Indeed”, I said
The moonlight tonight is exquisite. It has been a long time since I last saw such a pure moon. Against the unobstructed black background, the soft yellow light radiates from the moon, creating a blurry halo. The bright yellow moonlight sways on the deep sea surface with the waves. I feel the tides gradually awakening, and the waves seem to be getting closer to us. Not far away, someone is singing loudly towards the sea, and the ethereal singing intermittently reaches my ears.
“Tell me about the things at the steel mill,” I swallowed a sip of beer, feeling a slightly bitter fragrance surging to my head, as if I was getting a bit tipsy. “I’ve been writing a novel lately, so give me some material.”
“Nothing but boring trivial matters.”
“Like those employees who slack off every day, they gather around at three in the afternoon to take a shower and then directly leave work. And those useless managers, you can’t find them when there’s work to be done, but they are the most enthusiastic when it comes to reporting, as if they did everything themselves. Not to mention the countless drinking sessions, a tradition in state-owned enterprises, celebrating big and small events, and drinking before discussing anything.” Hongsheng patted his round belly. “I’ve been drinking a lot these years, my belly has grown bigger,” he shook his head. “Meaningless.”
“Really meaningless, cheers!” I extended my beer bottle, and the glasses clinked, producing a crisp sound. Hongsheng lifted his head and finished the remaining beer in one gulp. I heard him exhale a barely noticeable sigh. “Our job is not easy either. Since our project started, there have been workers trying to sabotage us behind the scenes, trying to obstruct us in any way they can.”
“Once everything is automated, they’ll be out of a job and left with nothing.” He played with the empty beer bottle in his hand as he spoke. “I’ve been here for less than two months, and our equipment’s cables have been cut three times. We all know who’s behind it, though.”
“Then what to do?”
“There’s not much we can do. Without evidence, it’s hard to catch them, and they are all in cahoots. Later, we had no choice but to encourage reporting anonymously about the sabotage of the supplier’s equipment, and the company offered a reward of twenty thousand yuan for reporting. That’s when they quieted down a bit.” He threw the bottle to the ground. “These people are not united either.”
“Great idea, divide them from within the enemy.” I said.
“Dealing with these shit every day, really exhausting.” He frowned and rubbed his temples. “Sooner or later, I’ll have to leave.”
“It’s the same everywhere,” I said.
The person who was singing loudly seemed to have left, or maybe he stopped singing. The surrounding air returned to silence, and only the clear sound of the waves could be heard. I picked up a chicken wing and started munching on it. “Quite boring, right?” said Hongsheng.
“Not really. I’ve only heard about how state-owned enterprises are like, but not in such vivid detail as you’ve described,” I said while looking at him. “I think I can write a story.”
“Let me take a look once you finish writing,” he said, fully engrossed in eating the chicken wings with oily mouth. “There’s nothing much in the factory besides these things. Either that or various accidents. I had dinner with some security personnel from the steel plant, and they told me a lot about these incidents recently. Want to hear?”
“Say some.”I said. “I would like to hear. After all, hasn’t someone said before that death and destruction are the highest-grade nourishment for novels?”
“Okay, I’ll tell you some,” he said, tossing the leftover chicken bones on the table and wiping his hands with sand. “Last month, during a meal, a security chief told me about something that happened several years ago. There was a couple of workers, riding bicycles home after work. The man was cycling faster and as they approached a railway crossing, the railway gate was about to come down. He urged his wife to hurry up and cross, but she panicked, and her bicycle got stuck on the gate.”
“Then the train came over?”
He nodded, “When the security chief rushed over, there was a crowd gathered near the railway track. He said it was the first time he saw such a scene, with internal organs scattered all over the ground.”
“A bizarre and bloody scene emerged in my mind: at the railway crossing bathed in the slanting rays of the setting sun, a crowd stood at a distance, while a man stood by the railway tracks, half tilting his head, emitting a hollow howl like a dazed wild beast. A bright red heart rolled to his feet, dipping into the dust by the railway, resembling a fallen nestling.
“Too tragic.” I replied after a few seconds of silence, not knowing what else to say.
I turned my head to gaze at the Steel Plant in the night’s darkness. While the city slept, I knew the steel plant remained awake. Gentle white mist still flowed from the top of the chimneys, appearing even more pure and thick in the deep night. On top of the unloading machine, the giant red eyes flickered in the darkness.
“Have you ever seen the scene of steelmaking?” Hongsheng asked.
I shook my head. “No, what does it look like?”
“I’ve seen it in Zhanjiang. The trains pulled in with carriages full of torpedo-shaped containers into the plant.”
“Torpedo-shaped containers. “
“The containers which hold tens of tons of molten iron. Just like torpedoes.” He gestured with an exaggerated circular motion. “Resembling a torpedo.” I saw a train slowly approaching from the distance, carrying the glowing hot molten iron, and the whistle let out a long, distant cry.
“I looked down from the suspension bridge, and the torpedo-like containers were open, filled with molten iron, and there were some slag floating on top. Do you know how it feels? I stood on the suspension bridge, and I could feel the heat coming up from under my feet,” Hongsheng recounted his experience in Zhanjiang. “I felt like I was going to melt, it was really hot.”
He seemed to recall something, paused for a while, and continued telling me, “Around the same position I was on that suspension bridge, a worker died here about a year ago. “
“He fell into the molten steel?”
“He fell into the molten steel.” He nodded. “He jumped in himself. I heard it from my colleagues over there. They were all stunned at that moment.”
“What kind of person was that man?” The man who jumped into the molten steel piqued my curiosity.
“Not sure, only heard that he was a temperature measurement operator, around forty years old, quite young. Before the ladle enters the furnace, they have to measure the temperature, and these temperature measurement workers use a long measurement gun to take samples from the molten steel.” He reached into the plastic bucket, feeling around. “This is the last bottle of beer, let’s finish it and head back, the tide is coming in.”
The night tide surged with white foam, coming closer to us.
“OK.” I said.
“That happened after they renovated their workshop. The plant introduced a batch of robotic arms, and even temperature measurements became automated,” said Hongsheng as he poured some of the alcohol from the bottle into mine. “They just have to stand by and watch every day. Then one day, that man climbed onto the bridge, looked at the ladle of molten steel, and jumped straight into it.”
Standing on the suspension bridge, I saw a worker’s broad back in the distance, his eyes fixed on the temperature measurement port, from which emanated the fiery glow of molten steel.
I started to imagine his background. It was around the early 2000s when he graduated from high school, with dreams of becoming an artist, perhaps. He tried to get into art school for two years but didn’t succeed. In the third year, his family used connections to secure him a position in the steel plant. Since then, he had been doing the same job - inserting a long temperature probe into the blazing mouth of the furnace, immersed in the searing molten steel.
Not far away, the melten steel in the ladle poured into the furnace, forming a sticky and fiery red sunset. He felt the furnace mouth was like a brilliant black hole, greedily devouring coal, iron ore, and also his youth and dreams. These things burned inside the roaring furnace, leaving nothing behind but a wisp of smoke, as if everything had been completely consumed.
After one day, the massive presence of steel machines took over the factory. The cold and stern robotic arms faced the boiling flames, inserting the temperature probe into the molten steel and then pulling it back out, impassively and precisely. He sat on a small stool, watching the robotic arms move back and forth on their tracks.
I saw him standing on the suspension bridge, not far from me, facing sideways. His face was reddened by the reflection of the molten steel. I looked down from the bridge and saw rows of torpedo-shaped containers with the Sun intensely concentrated inside. He stood there for a long time, mouth half open, as if trying to say something, but unable to make a sound. Then, as if determined, he turned around, straddled the railing, and jumped down.
His body traced a graceful arc in the air, like a soaring bird, spreading its wings to embrace the sun. I saw a golden flower bloom inside the torpedo-shaped container, causing ripples to spread and then quickly settling into calmness again.
“They said that batch of molten steel was unusually red, just like the evening glow of Zhanjiang.”
The tide was almost reaching my feet, and the alcohol was surging in my body. I felt a moment of dizziness, but my senses became even clearer. My eyes seemed to sense the differences in the waves. I staggered to my feet, took a few steps forward, and the cold seawater soaked my feet. I let out a roar, but the sound was swallowed by the waves.
“You’re drunk,” Hongsheng looked at me. “Let’s go back.”
“I am drunk,” I said.
We walked back along the same path. Hong Bo carried a beach chair in one hand and supported me with his shoulder. I stepped on the soft sand, as if walking on floating clouds.
“Any plans for the future? Are you going back to Shanghai?” Hongsheng asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know, probably not. But where else can I go?”
“Let’s take it one step at a time. Tomorrow, I’ll go to work, and you look for a work,” he said, trying to keep me walking in a straight line. “We both have a bright future ahead.”
I turned my head back, and the moon stood alone in the sky, emitting a faint bluish-white light. The waves fully awakened, roaring and crowding as they washed away the traces of our presence. I watched the tide, like cold, stern iron, scrubbing the shore over and over again.
Just like an empty and desolate long song.