"Misinterpretation" Flash Fiction Contest Winners / November 2012 (Issue 19)

People Are Fundamental (以人為本)

by Tom Mangione

I met Old Rui when I joined the Shanghai Number One Construction team. He'd been there between the harvests for 15 years. He was from Henan like me. I liked him. Everyone did. He told dirty jokes that none of us had ever heard. He knew ghost stories about pale women demons walking the streets. His breath was stale; his hands were rough like concrete.

The one thing Old Rul loved to do more than anything else was paint the walls on the construction site. Slogans especially. Once I saw him painting people are fundamental on the wall, slathering the thick red paint over the stencils. He pointed to the words and smiled strangely, saying, "Painting these words helps make everything alright. Understand?" I told him I understood.

At the end of a project, another worker received word that his wife had given birth to a son. We drank baijiu on our cots, growing drunk. Everyone bragged about their family. Old Rui said nothing. Someone finally asked him about his family. There was that smile again.

Later that night, I awoke, hearing Old Rui walk out. I followed him. He stood there pissing on the wall under the words people are fundamental. I called to him jokingly, "Having some time alone with the words?" He turned to me, eyes pale, face full of fire in the moonglow. "You misunderstand. I paint these words because the more you paint them, the less they mean."
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