“TURN your heel toward me,” Pingping told Nan, holding a pair of large scissors in her hand, which was sheathed in a latex glove. She was scraping his feet for him. Both of them were sitting on low stools, a stainless-steel bowl between them. His left foot was steeped in the warm water while his right one rested on her lap covered with a khaki apron. It was early morning and their son had just left for school. A cuckoo cried from the depths of the woods across the lake and set the air throbbing. Between the pulsing calls surged a scatter of birdsong. A flock of mallards was quacking in the backyard, waddling around, and some flapped their wings so vigorously that they sent out a faint whistle. Two ducks had been hatching eggs in the monkey grass along the lakeside, so these days the Wus didn’t go there for fear of disturbing them. On the dogwood tree near their deck two squirrels were chasing each other, shaking dewdrops off the branches in full flower.
“Your athlete’s foot looks better than last time,” Pingping said. “Be careful. It can easily get worse in the spring.”
Nan nodded, still immersed in a volume of selected poems by Auden, whose photo appeared on both the front cover and the spine of the book. He loved Auden and had learned some of his lines by heart when he was in China. Yesterday morning he had chanced on this copy of poetry at the Goodwill store on his way to work and had bought it for a quarter. To his delight, he found the poem “September 1, 1939” within, a poem Auden himself had excluded from most of his collections. Nan was still happy about the bargain. In Gwinnett County, the public libraries would discard all the books that hadn’t been checked out for more than a year and would sell them dirt cheap, so Nan, now that he had his own house, had started collecting books again. He’d rummage through the book sections in thrift stores and go to libraries’ book sales whenever he could. Sometimes Pingping complained that the house would soon be cluttered up with books, but he simply couldn’t stop.
Since they had married, Pingping had scraped Nan ‘s feet five or six times a year, because he couldn’t do it thoroughly by himself. In the beginning she had been frightened by his feet, the heels and the skin between the toes gnawed by fungi, and she had wanted to have them cured so that she and their baby wouldn’t catch the ringworm. She’d soaked his feet in warm water, then cut the calluses with scissors, rubbed away the dead skin with a chunk of emery wheel, and applied antifungal cream to them. This gradually developed into a habit, and Nan enjoyed being treated by her. Although his athlete’s foot was never cured, she had managed to keep it under control. Still, Nan wore socks all the time, even in bed. He liked taking a hot bath, which she urged him not to do, afraid the fungi might be spread to the other parts of his body. But a bath was so relaxing that he couldn’t help running one every few days. To date, his body had never been affected by fungi. Ever since moving to Georgia, the Wus had noticed that many people here suffered from skin diseases, probably on account of the humid climate. Sometimes at supermarkets they came upon cashiers whose hands and forearms were scaly with scabs and running sores.
“Ouch!” Nan cried.
“Did I hurt you?” Pingping stopped the scissors. “Don’t scrape too hard.”
“All right, but I won’t be able to scrub your feet again this spring. We’ll be weak until summer.”
Indeed, pollen had already set in and had begun to torment them. From now on they had to conserve their energy and keep all the doors and windows shut. These days they each carried a bottle of nasal spray in a pocket to prevent their allergies from becoming fullblown. The miserable season enervated and even pacified them-they became more gentle to each other, as if too tired to raise their voices.
On top of that, Pingping was no longer worried about Nan ‘s obsession with his first love. Seldom did she see the woeful clouds that used to darken his face. She was right: Nan had indeed mellowed a lot. He hadn’t often thought of Beina in the past two years, although she’d appear in his dreams now and then. The numb pain still lingered in his chest, but it was no longer as acute as before. Every day he was too occupied to indulge in fantasies. When he got home at night, he’d go to sleep within an hour after taking a shower and reading a few poems. He felt that physically he was strong now, but his mind was empty. He simply didn’t have the energy to think of ideas, much less write anything.
To some extent he was pleased by this state of affairs. In his mind would rise the lines by the ancient poet Tao Chien: “Human life runs the same course, / Whose end is to secure shelter and food.” Nan was peaceful, determined to stand on his own ground and willing to be a devoted family man.