Someone had hung an enormous red banner across the back of the newsroom that read “Farewell and Long Life, Li Pai!” The man of the hour had positioned himself at a metal folding table directly beneath it. Young reporters came with his memoirs open to the title page, then solemnly presented letters of recommendation they had written for themselves. Li Pai signed them all. Ning had spent the morning watching from his cubicle as they filed by, so worshipful, so eager to drink from the font of the great one’s knowledge. The whole damn thing turned his stomach. Had anyone asked, Ning had no quarrel with him: Li Pai was a treasure. But Ning wasn’t one for celebrations.
There was to be a party that night at the Green Room. Just thinking about it made Ning cringe. He knew how it would play out. Fang, the economics editor, would kick things o’ by delivering a speech listing her own accomplishments and thanking Li Pai for his contributions to her stratospheric rise, and old Bang Wen would stutter his way through a selection of Du Fu’s poetry. The chief would grunt out what ever he’d written on his BlackBerry on the way over, while everyone, arms crossed, stared at the floor and listened for their cues to laugh. The toasts would go on so long Ning would begin to fantasize, like a man crawling across the Gobi, about a single drop of lukewarm beer. And by the time every editor in the place had said his piece, the drunks from the copydesk and production would feel compelled to chime in. But, much as he wanted to, Ning couldn’t escape it. He was the only one old enough to have known Li Pai from the beginning, and the chief’s assistant had been hounding him for weeks about his speech.
Like Li Pai, Ning was in his sixties, and for longer than he could remember, he had marked time by the various injustices the thoughtless world visited upon him, the speech being one. Another prime example occurred just after lunch, when one of Li Pai’s acolytes called across the newsroom, “Hey, Ning! Great news! You just got scooped by the Baby Reds!”
Ah, perfection, he thought. He’d taken some extra time to do some deep research, and here was his reward. If he’d been younger, he’d have hopped a bus over to the China Youth Daily’s dotcom operation and taken it out of the kid’s hide—he didn’t have to be told who’d stolen this story from him. He already knew. But he had a bigger problem, which was how to explain himself to the chief.
“Hey, no shame, no shame,” said the chipper young reporter in the cube next to Ning. He was wearing a necktie and had a pencil tucked behind one ear. He’d been on the job exactly one week, and he’d been a constant annoyance to Ning for the full length of his tenure. “I’m sure this happens to everyone from time to time,” the reporter said, his voice expectant.
“What a comfort,” Ning said. His phone was ringing but he ignored it. With some effort, like a man feeling his way through a blacked-out room, he located the story on the Youth Daily’s site and printed it before turning his attention to his neighbor. “To think. All these years without you. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to find my own dick without your sage counsel.” The reporter shrugged and rolled back into his cube, unfazed. It was perhaps the least offensive thing Ning had said to him all week.
Ning didn’t much care about good stories anymore, not his own or anyone else’s, and he’d given this one about as much thought as he would have the purchase of an umbrella during a downpour. It was about a security guard who’d acted courageously and had been stabbed nearly to death. The doctors had sewn him up, and he was on the mend, but because he’d refused to tell a white lie that would have harmed no one, his case was tangled in red tape and the hospital was refusing to discharge him. Ning had visited the guard, and as he’d listened to his story, he’d felt himself leaning in at one point, eager to hear more, but he’d lost interest again almost as soon as he’d left the hospital. Instead of filing the story, he’d burned the rest of the week doing research on thoracoabdominal penetrating injuries, and now he was going to hear about it.
Sure enough, before Ning had even had time to finish reading the story, the chief’s assistant arrived at his desk. Her blue cotton dress had red flowers printed on it, and atop that she wore an apple-green sweater buttoned up to the neck.
“Mercy,” he said. “Is it mating season for your species?”
“Don’t start with me, old man,” she said.
“So you’ve come down from your lofty perch just to subject me to this thing,” Ning said, pointing to her outfit. “I’m nearly blind as it is.”
“You don’t think I called first?” She had the face of a middle schooler, and though she claimed to be twenty-five and a college graduate, Ning had his suspicions. She was someone’s niece, or her father was in real estate.
“I didn’t hear it,” he said, his chair creaking as he leaned back.
“You didn’t hear it,” she said.
“Who can hear anything in here?” he said, waving a hand at Li Pai’s table.
“If you read your e-mail—” she said.
“I don’t read e-mail.”
“Of course you don’t,” she said. “How inconsiderate of the rest of the company to communicate in such a manner. I’ll draft a memo immediately and have a copyboy rush it down. Shall I have the little urchin rinse your inkpot and wash your brushes while he’s at it? Ning Wang’s wish is our command.”
“Tell me,” he said, “how exactly did you avoid becoming an infanticide statistic?”
She flashed her eyeteeth. “Please, at your convenience, grace us with your presence. I’m sure the chief will be happy to wait,” she said, and walked away, her dress cutting around her legs.
“I’m sure he will,” Ning yelled after her. He put up his feet to make clear that he didn’t take orders from anyone, least of all her, and began to read slowly through the Youth Daily story. He paused every so often to laugh derisively, loud enough so that the reporters near him could hear, and when he finished, he made a show of dawdling around his desk before sauntering out to the elevators for the ride up to the eleventh floor.
“Well, I’m here,” he announced when he arrived outside the chief ’s office.
“He’ll be overjoyed,” the chief’s assistant said, picking up the phone to buzz the chief. She waved Ning in. “Always a pleasure!” she called after him.
Inside, the chief motioned for him to sit. “Took you long enough.”
“She’s as unpleasant as she is ugly,” Ning said, gesturing through the glass. “You really ought to kick her down to production. She makes me go soft every time I lay eyes on her.”
The chief didn’t answer. He was scribbling on a layout for a weekend insert, and Ning waited without saying anything else. When he saw the thick red pencil stop moving, he went on the offensive.
“I know why I’m here, and let me just go on the record as saying that it’s a hack job,” Ning said. “You know it, and I know it. This kid who filed it—I saw him at the hospital. Probably followed me there.”
The chief stared at him.
“Second of all, this is exactly why I don’t file to the Web. It’s nothing but garbage like this. I’ve seen better stories in school papers. I bet you haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing, have you? I have a printout right here,” Ning said, holding up the story. “This thing’s got so many holes, you can hear the wind whistling through it. Really, it pains me to read it,” he said, before doing just that, aloud and in its entirety. The chief reshuffled the layouts on his desk and went at a new one with his grease pencil. Ning read, pausing every so often to affirm his amazement at the reporter’s incompetence. He punctuated the end of the story with a hearty guffaw.
“You done?” the chief said.
“Just give me the afternoon and I’ll have a draft for you. For the sake of our readership,” Ning said. “For the sake of the historical record!”
“Since when have you cared about either of those things?” the chief said.
“The kid missed the whole point of the story,” Ning said, rattling the paper. “Why do you think I’ve been tied up with it all week? It would take anyone else two weeks to do what I can give you by tonight.”
“Is that so?” the chief said. He put down his pencil and pushed his glasses up to his forehead, where they sat atop his white brows like a second set of eyes. The skin on his big bald skull was as rumpled as a plowed field.
“I’ve been doing some thinking,” the chief said. “Li Pai’s last day and all. You’ve been on my mind, I’m sorry to report.”
“That can’t have been a pleasant experience,” Ning said.
The chief snorted. “I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the vagaries of the human condition, but I’ve made an exception in your case,” he said. “I’m of limited intelligence, but I’ve given it my best effort, and I’ve come up with a theory. You used to be a bull with sharp horns. But, now—” The chief made a puffing sound, his fingers releasing chaff into the wind.
Ning jumped in. “Youth Daily’s constantly doing things like this. Those goat fuckers. We’d never go with something this weak,” he said, shaking the printout. “You’ll see what I’m talking about if you read my file.”
“Where is it?”
“I can have it on your desk in a couple of hours. Maybe three.”
The chief ’s expression softened just enough to change the air in the room.
“What?” Ning said.
The chief studied the dark ravines below Ning’s eyes. With age, Ning’s eyebrows had all but disappeared, his cheeks had sunk, and he wore a permanently severe, gaunt expression, ever squinting into a fire only he could see. At this moment his lips were pursed with impatience, as though he were dealing with a recalcitrant child. Not so long ago, the chief would have told Ning to get out of his office and file the story, but now he had his own job to worry about. Thee time had come.
On his best days, Ning was petulant, ill-tempered. His presence soured the mood in the newsroom, and he’d gotten worse in the weeks leading up to Li Pai’s retirement. The chief had been under assault from the desk editors, who’d banded together in a campaign to get rid of Ning. He told them he’d take it under advisement, but he really had no choice. If he didn’t act, they’d go over his head, and for good measure they’d see that he got tossed out on the street with Ning.
The chief was seventy-one, and he harbored few illusions about his own character. He didn’t deny his moral failings, but this one, this long-standing weakness when it came to Ning, was unpardonable. When he was covering the American War in Vietnam he had seen the same lazy sentimentalism in officers who got enlisted men killed by allowing them to talk their way into stupid, heroic-sounding missions. The heart had to be kept out of the command chain. Yet he’d utterly failed to obey that dictum, keeping Ning on purely out of loyalty, payment in return for years of service. That he hadn’t been able to discard Ning as he would have a broken car part troubled him. He preferred to think that he was coldly pragmatic, if not ruthless, when it came to assessing the utility of his reporters.
“Do you want to hear my theory now? You lost your will after Li Pai’s book came out. That’s my theory,” the chief said.
“You might have something there, Chief,” Ning said.
“You thought you deserved more than a footnote.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” the chief said.
“What for? You didn’t write it.”
The chief laid his hands on the desk in front of him. “I’m afraid you’re done here,” he said.
“That’s a mistake, Chief. Story’s got legs.”
“You’re terminated, Ning.”
“Effective today, you’re no longer employed at the Guangzhou Post,” the chief said.
JACK LIVINGS’s stories have appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, StoryQuarterly, Tin House, New Delta Review, and The Best American Short Stories, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. Livings is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He lives with his family in New York City.
Excerpted from THE DOG by Jack Livings, published in August 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2014 by Jack Livings. All rights reserved.