When Mrs. Wang passed away, Mr. Wang did not go outside for a month. Every day, as told by the neighbors, the front door was shut at the Wang’s house, and every room was covered with dark curtains, leaving all but darkness inside. The house was too big for just the couple. It was a traditional Siheyuan with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, one guest room, and a huge yard in the middle. In the yard, a plum tree stood in the center as a guardian for years. Other retired people who grew up in the area have seen the tree since they were little; construction workers have seen the tree for years; the old man who sells candied fruit down the street remarks that the tree has become a landmark of the Hutong. People reached the consensus that Mr. Wang planted the tree for his son thirty years ago.
Even through the gaps of the curtains, said one neighbor, nothing could be seen—there was no light inside—all the lights were turned off, and the room remained quiet for a month or so. No one knew how Mr. Wang survived the month or did anyone bother to probe. All people felt was pity for the man. After losing his son, he now lost the only family member he had. Some people even questioned the point of life for him—why live when everyone he loved is gone?
One month later, when Mr. Wang finally stepped outside the yard, people were surprised to find him alive. Although thinner, skin dryer, wrinkles wider, Mr. Wang made it through the month.
During the one month, the only person who entered the room was Charles, as everyone calls him. Charles is in his thirties and is a handsome young man—the kind of man every parent wants as an in-law. Charles has delicate facial features—his black watery eyes spark wisdom; his face is clean and perfect; even his mouth, small and red, makes people happy with the words that come out. Charles puts care in what he says. When he goes in and out the Siheyuan of Mr. Wang, he always greets the neighbors with the most genuine smile and wishes. “Mr. Zhang, you look so good today. Must have been working out lately,” he would say to one neighbor. “Little boy, you are growing taller and taller. Congratulations,” said Charles before he crosses the street to enter Mr.Wang’s house.
In every way, Charles stands out from the people in the neighborhood. He wears nice suits every time he is seen—different color and design too. Charles, as told by the gossipier neighbors, smells like fresh flowers with the heavy cologne. Even his manner, the way he talks, walks, and looks at people, is radically different from the locals. He talks with care, walks with grace, and looks at people with faith and gratitude. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, the words are powerful and give listeners comfort. Despite his superior appearance, Charles has a down-to-earth personality and acts like he belongs to the Hutong. No one finds it possible to dislike a nice gentleman like Charles, and he is warmly welcomed in the neighborhood.
No one would dispel successful men out of their town. It is said that Charles went to college in the United States, graduated from Yale University, and had a job in Wall Street, New York City. Nobody knows what prompted his return because “he is becoming one of the richest Asian in Wall Street”. What is more incomprehensible, is his relationship with Mr. Wang. Before the death of Mrs. Wang, Charles visited every Saturday, always holding bags of presents in both hands—sometimes he brings Chinese tea, sometimes fruit baskets, sometimes health products, but every time, what does not change is the special red bag, a bag full of toys for little boys.
Mrs. Zhu, the neighborhood aunt (yes, it is a thing), the one person who oversees everyone’s business, believes that Charles takes care of many old men regularly—it was part of his charitable duty, and Mr. Wang is one of the many men around the city whom Charles visits. Many people doubted Mrs. Zhu’s assumption, claiming that no one would be so kind that they visit old couples regularly without clear benefits, especially when there are no kinship connections. The skepticism, however, began to disperse when Mrs. Zhu formed her new theory—she now holds the conviction that Charles’s act is part of his plan of painting an image of a successful and kindhearted businessman. People felt worse for Mr. Wang—the only person who cares about him turned out to be a pretentious and sly man.
After Mrs. Wang passed away, things grew odder. Charles was seen coming in the house every single day, taking care of Mr. Wang from sunrise to sunset. Only the earliest group of people reported seeing him enter the house; only the latest group of people could watch him leave the house at night. “He is doing too much,” some people would say. “We all know that he is a charitable man, but why come here every single day to fake it?”
Some people’s attitudes began to change. They were genuinely moved by Charles’s perseverance, no matter what intentions he held—whether he wanted to become a featured character on the Times magazine or to be voted as the youngest philanthropist remained unknown. At this point, no one seemed to care anymore. People were simply comforted by his presence, feeling good to see him accompanying an old man who has nothing left.
Looking at Mr. Wang’s grave face when he came outside the yard a month later, it was hard to tell that he used to be happy, very happy. Mr. Wang had a bright boy, but no one saw the boy after he turned twenty. Everyone was certain that Mr. Wang’s poor boy passed away in some accident. Mr. Wang, on the other side, does not seem to believe a single word of the story. He holds the strongest faith on earth that his dear little boy is still alive somewhere, and he waits for him to come home every day. Every April 4, on the birthday of the son, Mr. Wang would buy a birthday cake with growing numbers of candles each year. Unfortunately, the boy never came home. It was always Charles who came, with a bag of toys.
“Charles, could you please do me a huge favor?” people can always hear Mr. Wang ask the same question. “Mingming loves toys. I know that you wouldn’t mind going to the mall to buy some for him as his birthday presents.”
Charles, the philanthropist, of course always consents the request. Every time, he would carry a giant red bag full of toys into the house and leave with his hands empty.
Maybe because of Charles’s kindness, maybe his contagious integrity, Mr. Wang has become especially fond of his company. Mr. Wang enjoys sitting in his yard, talking to Charles for hours about his past times—about his own memories as a young student, soldier, and teacher. What Mr. Wang talks more about, is Mingming, his beloved son who never returns. Charles makes a great listener; he listens to the same stories over and over again, but always with the same curiosity and attentiveness. He is the kind of person who shows genuine care in the conversation, the stories, and the person who tells those stories; Charles asks detailed questions, showing actual interests in whatever Mr. Wang says. “So how did you end up going to war?” he would ask. “Tell me more about your son. How did he disappear?” Hearing the questions, Mr. Wang could go on and on, although Charles has already heard the stories countless times before. Mr. Wang, on the other hand, never seems to realize that his memory now resides on the same specific past moments in his life.
Although Mr. Wang now has Charles by his side, he still couldn’t stop talking about his son Mingming. He would tell Charles about the time when Mingming fell into the river and almost lost his life; when Mingming won first place in every calligraphy competition; when Mingming grew up and became the star basketball player in high school. Only when Mingming comes up in the conversation does Mr. Wang’s eyes shine with pride and happiness; Charles, however, is always saddened by the topic of Mr. Wang’s son.
One month after Mrs. Wang’s death, Charles came again with birthday cakes, health products, Chinese Longjing tea (Mr. Wang’s favorite), and the red bag of toys to celebrate Mingming’s birthday. This year, Mingming would be turning 32 (if he’s still alive), and he has been gone for 12 years now. Even 12 years later, no one knows where Mingming went, not the police, not the neighborhood aunt, or Mr. Wang himself. The only person who strongly believes that Mingming is still alive is Charles. He consoles Mr. Wang and tells him that his son will come home very soon.
On the 32nd birthday of Mingming, Mr. Wang finally lost faith waiting. As soon as Charles opened the birthday cake, Mr. Wang burst into tears. “I really miss Mingming. Why doesn’t he come home? It’s been twelve years. I don’t want to think that he is dead.” He then said something that broke Charles’s heart. “Little Mingming is coming back from school today. I am going to pick him up.” He then started walking towards the front gate, at the same time mumbling to himself: “Mingming, just wait for another ten minutes. Daddy’s coming to take you home.”
Hearing these words, Charles darts to the front gate and held the hands of Mr. Wang.
“Dad, I am Mingming. Why don’t you remember me?” he cried.
Mingming left home for New Haven twelve years ago, and since then Mr. Wang has been diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. After Mingming returned from college, Mr. Wang could no longer recognize his beloved son. He only knew him as Charles, the kind, charitable man from Wall Street who visits regularly.
“Dad, it’s my 32nd birthday today,” said Mingming. Pointing at the plum tree in the yard, he said, “you planted the plum tree for ME.”
Written in Claremont, California