Qingdao, China

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A Short Walk Home

It's after sunset that a Beijing alley becomes the most colorful.
On an unmarked side street hidden between Mao's tomb and the gates to heaven, the road hangs heavy with soot and exhaustion from a hard day's work.
An old woman shuffles home past a pile of garbage and empty beer bottles. She doesn't notice the dank wetness that clings to her shoes and kneads her hands together like she is working out a hundred years of tension. A motorbike speeds by and she doesn't flinch.
This is her alley and she's seen it all before.
           To the side, a group of men huddle around some type of game board with serious faces. They sit close to the makeshift table, knees touching, eyes fixed, waiting. The stakes aren't high, but they are playing for pride. Half a world a way from the Marlboro man, one player pulls a cowboy killer deep into his lungs and slides his game piece forward. He leans back onto his black plastic crate seat and exhales.
He's made his move.
          Out of sight, a man hacks up the day's inhaled pollution and works up a mouthful of phlegm. His lungs are full and he hocks his load onto the street while rounding the corner.
           Intersecting his path, a toddler rolls a watermelon from his mother's fruit stand to a rickshaw where she is packing tomorrow's load. The mother flashes a toothy grin and bends down to rub his buzzed head. She is proud of her little man.
           Across the street in a nook not quite dark enough, a boy pees in the corner. No one seems to care that he's urinating in public, outside of their homes, next to a food stand, or that he is up so late on a school night. In a few hours, when the sun wakes the city, the alley will reek of his marked territory. But now it smells like the meat on a stick a man grills for a late night snack.
          With long dirty fingers, he rolls the kabob across small flames and gulps Asahi from an oversized can. A small dribble leaks from the side of his mouth and he wipes it away with a shoulder. A yappy mutt calls to him from his ankles. The dog has matted hair and no collar.
He's searching for an owner.
The man at the grill lifts his foot to nudge it away but the relentless pup keeps talking.
He might be tomorrow night's meat on a stick.
The man snatches a piece off the grill and tosses it between the long dirty fingers before popping it into his mouth. Yum. Tastes like chicken.
The old woman's shuffle slows down. Still wringing her hands, she pauses before pushing herself through a worn red door. She glances over her shoulder at the scene unfolding and stops kneading her fingers.
She is home.

Kate Leshko