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the rice cooker conman

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In order, three lies and one truth: Feng Xi was a salesman more passionate about his products than his profit. The cookware he peddled was of the highest quality, and not modified from the cheapest listings on Taobao. His customers never faced any issues operating them; they provided excellent ratings and rave reviews. Despite every aspect about his business, a regular customer kept visiting him.

He met him on a sunny summer day. While Feng Xi sat at the cash register, A He, Feng Xi's accomplice and assistant, walked inside, the tips of his blonde bob swaying with every lazy stride. The latest customer he had wooed strolled past the entrance. Most of A He's victims were moved by his steady grip, but the man who followed behind him had his arms tucked behind his back. Neat hair framed his flawless face; crisp and expensive clothes clung to his perfect figure. He looked around the shop, taking in the boxes of culinary machines, the colorful collection of silverware.

"Wow," he said. He did not appear wowed at all.

"As I was saying, we have lots of cooking supplies here. Some are more experimental, some are more traditional. You'll find something you will like. If not," A He said, pointing at Feng Xi before Wu Xian could turn to escape, "Feng Xi can find something for you."

"Welcome." Feng Xi rose up from his seat politely.

"Wow," Wu Xian said again, looking at Feng Xi. His face had not changed, but his voice had taken on a breathy quality.

Feng Xi wandered the aisles with Wu Xian while A He went outside to terrorize more passersby. Wu Xian’s heart wasn't stirred by the discounted soup knives, nor was his soul fired up by the chicken-scented oven mitts. In fact, he was far more keen to stare at Feng Xi than any of the products he was showing him. The longer he stuck around in the store, the more difficult it seemed to make a sale. And the way he carried himself—unhurried, calm, and confident—was the way of a person who usually got what he desired, and not a person Feng Xi could persuade to desire anything.

Still, everyone wanted something.

"I see," Feng Xi said. "You're interested in cooking for your son.”

Wu Xian nodded. "He's at an age where nutrition is especially important. If he also learned how to cook, it would be best for our family."

His eyes seemed to soften for the first time as he talked about his son. An odd pain pricked Feng Xi's heart. He had put off his current dreams of status and success to work at the shop to support his own family. Years of taking care of his brothers, two young and one old, had taught him that children were difficult. He was sympathetic to Wu Xian’s plight.

Being sympathetic wouldn't help him find anything that worked well in the shop, but he was sympathetic regardless.

"But you're struggling to figure out what to make," Feng Xi said, aligning the tips of his fingers together.

Wu Xian nodded again. "I try my best, but I could always do better. No matter what I make, he never seems to like it.”

Feng Xi laughed lightly. “A picky eater?”

Wu Xian suddenly became interested in the spinning cake mixer with neon lights. “You could say that.”

"Then I think I have just the appliance for you." He brought Wu Xian to a line of rice cookers. "I think it's great that you care about your son's nutrition and his education. And when taking care of someone, you should always start with teaching them the basics and working them up to more complex items. Why not find a great rice cooker? Rice is simple, but it should be cooked well. It's the foundation of every meal. Therefore, its quality should not be taken lightly."

He patted one of the cookers on the lid. "This cooker will provide you with the best possible rice. It's from a brand that works exclusively with our shop. It has a quadruple heater for the perfect temperature and a removable lid for the condensation. I would use it for myself."

Wu Xian looked over at one of the rice cookers, lined with baby blues. The friendly colors and minor cosmetic modifications, completed by Ye Zi within 15 minutes, seemed to clear any suspicion. "Are they safe for a beginner chef to use?"

"Of course," Feng Xi said, smiling. "The greatest part—is that anything cooked with this appliance never burns. I have two younger brothers at home, one 10-years old, and even I would trust them to use this properly. This cooker is incredibly simple to operate, too. You just place the rice in, shut the lid, and then finally—" he took Wu Xian's hand in his, and guided it to the single blue button in the center "—you press the button."

"Oh," Wu Xian said. Feng Xi didn't notice, but his ears had turned pink. "That sounds good.”

At his words, Feng Xi smirked. It was time to deal the final blow.

"Now," Feng Xi said, clapping his hands together. "It does have one problem: the unfortunate price. It's an exclusive foreign brand, you see...so it costs around three thousand yuan."

Wu Xian frowned slightly. Before he could decline Feng Xi's offer, Feng Xi smiled gently at him.

"But I know how difficult family members can be to take care of. I want you to get out of here with something you’d love, and something that would provide the best rice possible for you and your son. So—I’d be willing to offer it for two thousand, five hundred yuan. How does that sound?”

Wu Xian thought it over for a while, but by the time he opened his mouth, Feng Xi knew he had won.

“That sounds too cheap. I'll pay the original price.”

Five minutes later, Wu Xian walked out of the store. His pockets were emptier of three thousand yuan, and his arms were heavier with a rice cooker that would never properly cook rice.

***

Repeat visitors were a rarity at Feng Xi’s store. On the occasion they arrived, they were usually upset. So when Wu Xian stood at the entrance alone, Feng Xi immediately packed his notebook secretly titled “Plans for Ascending Through Society” in the compartment below the cash register and stood up for damage control. The harsh noon sunlight illuminated Wu Xian’s cold face, and his figure cast a long shadow on the floor. An intimidating omen.

The shop had multiple protocols for dealing with unhappy customers. Feng Xi ran through the list in his mind. Option 3 may turn out to be dangerous. Option 5 would maybe work, but it was also risky. He finally settled on option 4 as the most likely to hopefully appease Wu Xian.

Clearing his throat, Feng Xi prepared his most devastatingly kind voice.

“Wu Xian, we do not accept returns.”

"I'm not here to return anything.”

“We also do not accept responsibilities for any defects, leakages, or explosions—”

“There were no explosions,” Wu Xian paused, and then added, “At least none that you have to take responsibility for."

"Then," Feng Xi swallowed, "what are you here for?"

Wu Xian walked over to the counter. "I'm just here for another recommendation. Your first one made me and my son very happy."

Feng Xi re-analyzed his face. His expression was still, but the lines around his eyes were soft. It seemed strange that a rice cooker, much less a rice cooker from his shop, would make him so happy. 

But as an expert liar himself, Feng Xi could tell Wu Xian seemed to be telling the truth. 

"Okay." Feng Xi relaxed, the tension fading from his shoulders. Maybe Wu Xian had lucked into one of the better Taobao purchases Ye Zi had made. Or maybe he was just a chef so great he could make Ye Zi’s items work. Regardless, he and his coworkers would certainly not mind a repeat customer. "Of course I can help. Tell me, what would you like?"

They ambled through the shop side by side, weaving through the boxes of Ye Zi's new experiments and jumping over the jutting knives. Feng Xi began placing each knife in a less precarious place as Wu Xian stopped before the section for ice cream makers.

"I'm looking for something that would make a dish my friend likes," Wu Xian said. “He’s an old colleague from work.”

“What sort of work?” asked Feng Xi.

“I’m not sure it matters too much. But I’m a professor at the college nearby,” Wu Xian said. “My specialty is chemistry.”

Feng Xi clutched the handle of the final jutting knife. He tried not to look jealous or impressed. The college nearby was extremely prestigious, with students clamoring to test in fewer and fewer spots every year. If Wu Xian was working there, then he was surely blessed with as much talent as his beauty. He wouldn't need anything like the notebook tucked under the cash register.

“By the way,” Wu Xian added, interrupting his thoughts. “If you’re curious, my friend is not my boyfriend. I have no boyfriend at all right now.”

“Certainly,” Feng Xi placed the final knife away. No need to get sloppy. “Tell me more about your friend.”

Wu Xian turned back to face Feng Xi. "He was my mentor when I was a college student. One of the wisest people I know, but also often irritating,” he said, with a warmth that meant his irritation was not irritation at all. “Unfortunately, he’s also retired now, so I rarely see him these days. He’s a bit of a shut-in; rarely comes out of the house—and I’m worried about that. I’ve invited him to my house for dinner, but he refuses or dodges my request every time.”

His eyebrows drooped. Slight lines appeared on his forehead. Feng Xi was beginning to tell that Wu Xian’s micro-expressions were as significant as another person’s major expressions. This was an issue that troubled him deeply. 

Feng Xi disliked seeing that trouble on Wu Xian’s face. Wu Xian, for all his increasingly complicated feelings for him, seemed like a decent person. He thought over what he could say, and then brightened.

"I have an idea for you. Pick any appliance here that would make something he'd like. And then, instead of inviting him over, why not go give him this gift directly?”

"Hm.” Wu Xian crossed his arms behind his back. “Elaborate further?"

Feng Xi folded his arms together. "In my opinion, it’s impossible to change another person if they don’t want to change. But even if it seems difficult, you should always fight to make sure your feelings are heard. Meet your friend where he’s at, and then tell him everything you’ve told me.”

“Do you think it will move him?” Wu Xian asked.

“I can’t say. But I will say this—“ Feng Xi put forth. “Hearing you talk certainly moved me.”

The corners of Wu Xian’s lips curled up, revealing the first smile Feng Xi had ever seen from him. It was so soft and tender that Feng Xi’s heart skipped a beat.

“Thanks. I’ll trust in your advice again.”

That day, Feng Xi almost regretted handing the ice cream machine Ye Zi had bastardized over to him. Almost.

***

Wu Xian visited often afterwards. Every Monday afternoon, Feng Xi would hear the ding of the tell-tale doorbell, the click of the door opening. If there were other customers, often elderly old women or gullible college students, Wu Xian let Feng Xi help them first while waiting for his turn. He would hover in the shop, a quiet and calm presence who soaked in compliments from strangers.

When they were alone, Wu Xian would indirectly request a new appliance from Feng Xi. He would tell him about who he wanted to cook for next, and then let Feng Xi extrapolate the best item for that person. In this way, Feng Xi heard about the coworkers who had high potluck standards, the old neighbor who provided him and his son snacks, and the cat who didn’t like him.

Wu Xian only broke this pattern once. “What appliance do you think would be the best for cooking braised pork trotters?” 

“So specific today? You must have thought of this request quite a lot,” Feng Xi teased. “Who’s this for?”

“For me. This is my favorite.”

Wu Xian’s love for pork trotters wasn’t the only new thing Feng Xi learned about him. A cursory Internet search revealed a long list of accolades and papers. From his stories, his coworkers, friends, and family respected him deeply, even if Wu Xian never seemed to know. Every week seemed to reveal that Wu Xian had yet another thing that Feng Xi had also once hoped he would have.

But Feng Xi also found a lot to like about Wu Xian. There was no need to hide his business with him like he did with his family, or to plan his business like he did with Ye Zi and A He. He was taciturn, but prone to talking at length about topics he loved. He never hid what he worked on, and he didn't have much of a sense for deception. It was always refreshing to talk to him.

The visit Feng Xi liked the most was the visit on the day it rained. In the background, the raindrops pitter-pattered, light taps outside. Wu Xian looked down in his bag and said simply, “I forgot my umbrella.”

Feng Xi gazed at the deluge outside. “Feel free to stay until the rain stops, then.”

So Wu Xian stayed and they talked as the rain continued to pour, pooling in the streets and dripping into the gutters. They talked as the air turned sticky warm, as the street lights flickered on and off, as the cars splashed water on the sidewalks. When the rain finally stopped, Wu Xian continued to stay because it was so close to closing time, and why not let Wu Xian help Feng Xi and Ye Zi and A He close up the shop. And then, after that was done, Feng Xi took Wu Xian to the convenience store with the best tea eggs he had ever tasted—just because it was on the way, you know, and it would be a nice treat to take home to his son.

As they sat at the counter, the savory smell wafting in the air, Wu Xian chewed one egg slowly and swallowed. Feng Xi waited with baited breath for what he would say, how he would judge him. Finally, Wu Xian placed his chopsticks down. Instead of looking at the eggs, he looked fondly at Feng Xi.

“I think this is my favorite, too.”

When Feng Xi got home, Xu Huai offered him cold medicine because his face was still red.

***

Based on Feng Xi’s calculations, Wu Xian had visited the shop enough times to fill an entire dysfunctional kitchen. Surprisingly, he had still never complained.

So in the middle of a cardboard box fortress, Feng Xi slipped his hands in his pockets. “You know, you visit this shop more than any other customer we’ve ever had.”

“Really?” Wu Xian asked. "Everything here is life-changing."

At his passionate declaration, Feng Xi coughed delicately. “Well, I’m not saying that our shop doesn’t deserve repeat customers. But it takes a very particular person to find them life-changing."

Wu Xian shuffled his feet. He asked, "What would...you think of such a person?"

"Well," Feng Xi said, putting his hands on his hips, "Enthusiastic. In need of my help more than anyone else. But if the light hits him just right, I sometimes think he can be—a little cute.”

Wu Xian quietly laughed. “Just a little?”

“Only a little.” Feng Xi laughed with him. "Anyways. Those are just my thoughts. It would be bad customer service if we didn’t focus on yours. So, who would you like to cook for today?"

Wu Xian smiled. "How about you?"

***

A He and Ye Zi disagreed with Feng Xi over what to do.

“What if he wants to make a meal out of you?” A He drawled.

"Depending on what kind of meal...I may not mind," Feng Xi said slowly.

"Or," Ye Zi continued, "maybe he's planned out a revenge plan after you sold him a rice cooker."

"Even if he did, he's bought so many of our items. We owe him a lot."

"And that's the problem," A He said. "No one who likes the cookware we’ve gotten that much can be a normal person."

"Hey!" Ye Zi responded. “I put a lot of effort into refurbishing those.”

"Am I wrong?"

"No. But you didn't have to say it." Ye Zi frowned, crossing his arms. "A He brings up a good point, though. He could be a criminal."

"We're all criminals here," Feng Xi replied. “We’re committing fraud.”

"But a hardcore criminal. Like—a serial killer. A jewel thief. Whatever the sandwich shop owner down the road used to do."

They continued to argue an hour after the shop closed. In the end, Feng Xi went home slightly disheartened, but unpersuaded. He said his greetings to Luo Zhu, Tian Hu, and Xu Huai after they came home, made them all dinner, and then went upstairs and planted himself face-first in his bed.

He knew that A He and Ye Zi were wrong. True, he didn't know who Wu Xian really was beyond the small tidbits of information he shared with him during every visit. But Feng Xi prided himself on being a good judge of a person’s weaknesses and strengths. Wu Xian being a sneaky jewel thief or a cannibalistic serial killer on the side seemed quite unlikely on top of a prestigious 9-5 job.

What really worried Feng Xi was himself. Wu Xian didn't know anything about Feng Xi either. He didn't know that he had conned him regularly, or that he had made a living like this for so long he sometimes wondered if this was the only path available to him. The help Feng Xi had offered him and all his clients was not help but hurt. Out of all the people in the world, Feng Xi was the last person who deserved affection from someone like Wu Xian.

Still, everyone wanted something.

Feng Xi turned on his phone. The number Wu Xian had entered in his phone earlier that day was emblazoned on the screen, inky black on white. Finally, he pressed the messaging button, and then he began to type.

***

They took a while to schedule their dinner, choosing a time between their jobs and when Wu Xian's child was away with a friend.

Wu Xian lived not too far from Feng Xi's own place. His apartment was located in a wealthier neighborhood with colorful, cheerful doors. Small plants were tucked on the balcony, and a pink flowering tree grew outside. On the outside, the place was just as clean and put together as the man who owned it.

He welcomed Feng Xi inside with a simple nod. "Feel free to make yourself at home. I'm still working on dinner."

"Thank you," Feng Xi said. "If that's the case, do you need any help?"

Wu Xian smiled. "I’d feel bad about asking. You've helped me a lot already.”

"Don’t worry. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it,” Feng Xi said, smiling back.

“Alright. Then, if you don't mind, I do have a few vegetables that need to be cut. Follow me.”

In the kitchen, Wu Xian pulled up a chair for Feng Xi, and then he passed him vegetables. Garlic, carrots, strawberries, Chinese broccoli. Feng Xi got to work on dicing them, and then passed each piece to Wu Xian when he was done. Meanwhile, Wu Xian worked on the actual assemblage of food.

The vantage point Wu Xian had provided was excellent for Feng Xi to observe him at work. While Ye Zi did show Feng Xi how some appliances worked once in a while, Feng Xi had never observed an actual customer using them. In practice, they trembled constantly, and were nearly on the verge of falling apart. Dangerous. Hazardous. Nearly explosive.

Yet Wu Xian approached them with calm and grace. Skill, Feng Xi first surmised, must have been how he had dealt with the appliances time after time again. Under the comfortable atmosphere of his home, Wu Xian moved with even more confidence than in the cramped little shop.

But then Feng Xi's eyes widened as he noticed something odd. He squinted, and then he stared harder.

"Oh. Why are you putting frozen fish directly on a frying pan.”

***

Feng Xi sat in the front of the dinner Wu Xian had made. The rice was fragrant, the individual grains snowy white and gleaming. The fish looked up balefully with its seasoned eyes, the flesh juicy and perfectly cooked. Each leaf of the Chinese broccoli was emerald green. The ice cream looked perfect, too. Strawberries studded the chocolate cream.

None of the beautiful items soothed Feng Xi's mind. Instead, his mind was alive with pairing every conversation they had ever had with the context of the affront to cooking he had just witnessed. He didn't consider himself much better than a regular home chef, but he did consider everything Wu Xian had done to break every rule he had ever known about the art of creating anything edible. Cooking frozen food directly, heating the rice in the cooker past recommended levels, and following recipes completely out of order.

And yet. And yet.

Somehow, his ruinous techniques had resulted in the perfect dinner in front of him.

"Tell me," Feng Xi asked. "Why has it been so long since your friend stopped visiting your house?"

Wu Xian stabbed the fish with a fork and chewed it primly. "I don't know exactly why. It was after I invited him over for dinner once. Afterwards, he turned green and ran out of the house.”

"I see. And what did you mostly eat before you started visiting our shop?"

"Takeout. Cooking was cheaper, but my son would only take one bite of food before throwing it away."

Feng Xi shuddered at the poor boy's plight. "And the rice cooker. What happened to all the other ones you used before?"

"Well," Wu Xian said, still very well, "They always burned."

"The rice in the rice cookers?"

Wu Xian gave a nod. "Yes, but also the rice cookers themselves.”

Feng Xi put his head in his hands. The distant mention of explosions rang in his mind like a deafening gong.

At Feng Xi’s less than enthusiastic response, Wu Xian wilted slightly. “Do you...still want to eat with me tonight?”

Feng Xi groaned. “How can I eat after I’ve heard all that?”

“Because things have changed. I met you.”

“Me?!”

“I can admit that I may have been a...less than competent chef before. None of the appliances I used helped. None of the recipes I followed worked. Cooking was always just one of the other places where I struggled to take care of others. But after I started buying your appliances? For the first time, I started making something good.” Wu Xian said, folding his hands into his lap.

"Is...is that so..."

“But I don't mean to imply that's the only reason why I've invited you here today. Beyond your appliances, your advice has really helped me. You always seem to know the right thing to say to address my needs, or to address the needs of others. You know me so well. And well.” He mumbled, his voice suddenly hushed. “I may also really like looking at you, too.”

“You do?”

Wu Xian didn’t elaborate, but his ears flushed delicately. “Regardless, please stay. Please eat. More than anything, I want to get to know you as well as you know me.”

A silence fell across the table as Feng Xi digested this new information. He had thought Wu Xian seemed inhumanly powerful, given beauty and talents and the lifestyle he had wanted. Now, he still thought Wu Xian seemed inhuman, but not in the same way.

Simply put, on top of all his accolades, skills, and looks, Wu Xian was a fool. His incompetence was so strong it had counteracted the dysfunctionality of the cookware and made something good. All the while, Wu Xian had managed to best Feng Xi at his own game. Entirely effortlessly—by accident even—he had conned Feng Xi into believing he had no weaknesses. His poor communication and Feng Xi's plotting mind had done all the work for him.

Even so, looking at his face and at the little dinner he had prepared for him didn't inflame Feng Xi's anger. Infuriatingly, it still warmed his heart. Feng Xi was happy. He was so happy. He felt relieved that Wu Xian found something he needed from him, that something beautiful could be made from the foolishness between the two of them. Even unintentionally, Feng Xi had genuinely helped him.

And now, after everything he'd seen that day, Feng Xi knew that the right way forward would be to help him again. This time with truth, without any lies.

So Feng Xi clenched his hands into fists and summoned all his courage. "I will stay," he declared. "But before we continue—I do need to say something important."

Wu Xian blinked. "Alright. What is it?"

"You need to throw out everything I’ve ever sold you," Feng Xi said. “Every item in your kitchen is on the verge of self-destructing.”