2008 submission by “Portland Fiction Project” (Jeremy Benjamin, Alice Clark, Matt Corum, Doug Dean, Heather Nordeen, Turquoise Benjamin, and Jacob Aiello)
Who could remember when it last snowed? The township employed just one plow-truck, a battered ‘72 GMC with flaked brown and white paint. It had only been used to scrape sand and dirt from the shoulder of Main Street. But early that morning, it was deputized to ply itself against the coming tide of white. The snow winning, the town looked as it had before, long before, cut-off from the world by an endless stretch of prairie.
Here, somewhere under this snow, sat Sushi Ichiban, a small establishment run by the widow Wu and her daughter Ruth. The restaurant, in a former life, had been a small hardware store and was wired accordingly–tracks of florescent light did little to enhance the mood, simply illuminated. A checkered vinyl floor alternating creamy yellow and navy blue was cracked and pulled back at the seams. And the door was rigged to ding when opened, a vestigial design feature that seemed odd, considering that once the door was opened, you couldn’t help but see the widow Wu, and she you.
The restaurant had no tables and chairs, but a counter with bar stools. The stools were lined up in a straight line facing the prep area and Mrs. Wu head-on. You could not remove yourself to a corner to face a date or establish a private conversation. Instead, everyone was in conversation with Mrs. Wu, who, for her part, did not speak much; her English was poor. When customers asked questions, Mrs. Wu would smile and lean toward her daughter, or simply point to items pictured on the menu. Mrs. Wu was too busy listening to answer. Her mind was too busy to learn the necessary words.
The Lunch Rush. Although today, none of the customers seemed to be in any hurry. Everyone in town was woefully unprepared for the turn of the weather, piling on everything they had in their closets. They now seemed unwilling, or at least unmotivated, to head out into the cold again. They resembled woodland creatures, beady eyes barely visible beneath heaps of coats and sweaters.
Mrs. Wu swayed as she worked, to hear and to quiet herself. Her shirt, pants and apron—all black—gave her the appearance of a muted soothsayer. As she filleted the fish, she whispered tiny apologies to something she didn’t understand.
They always misunderstood. Sushi was not to be confused with sashimi, the delicately sliced meat atop vinegared rice. But her customers were good at confusing these things; those ladies in dress shirts and oily hair who came in giggling every Wednesday and Friday for lunch, and the men with gray cobblestone-colored beards who fumbled with their chopsticks and snuck glances at the women. Mrs. Wu knew their faces. Yellowtail, tuna, salmon, eel, she knew them all. Massaging her fingers into the soft, striated flesh, waves washed through her. She felt it in her stomach. She felt it as she watched the woman across the counter; the woman with the aquiline nose.
Mrs. Wu gave in to the sensation and swam with it, because swimming against it was too tiring. She no longer wore plastic gloves, even though it would have been easier to resist the visions with them on. She could see the woman across from her tending to her bowl of miso soup. She could see inside her mouth, down to the bone and deeper and deeper as her palm lowered its weight against the pink, tingling meat.
She was tired of seeing. She saw the woman with the aquiline nose leaving the restaurant and returning to her place of work. Mrs. Wu knew nothing about the place but she could see the way it made her feel, and she knew the things that would happen to the woman later to make her pulse run faster with excitement. Wu rolled the meat in sheets of nori, her hands moving faster as she saw the woman moving faster through the rest of her day. This was what Wu did.
Mrs. Wu disliked when the customers reached over the counter. She feared they might learn her secret if they got any closer to the whole fish. It was safer if she quieted the fish into pieces before handing it to them, standing on a wooden stool so she could reach without coming from behind the counter. She preferred it this way.
A tall, oddly wrought man made his way through the entrance, the door dinging his arrival. Mrs. Wu waved him to the stool on the far left. Unlike the other customers on lunch break, this man never wore a suit and tie. His jeans were stained, dirt encrusted under his fingernails, but he was always well-mannered and respectful. Mrs. Wu appreciated these qualities. She looked forward to serving him.
Drumming his fingers absently, he waited for Mrs. Wu to take his order. Perhaps because of the snow, he decided to ask about All Girl Summer Fun today instead of his usual. “When did you put that on the menu?” She smiled; she did not understand the meaning of the name.
“What’s in it?”
Mrs. Wu opened a menu to the correct page, pointing out the entry as she handed it to him. He studied it for a moment.
“Who came up with that name?”
She shrugged; it had been her daughter, but she could not think how to say that. She nodded in her daughter’s direction.
“Well, it sounds great.” He looked outside at the snow. “Can I have that and a Sapporo and some edamame to start?”
All Girl Summer Fun consisted of shrimp, calamari, avocado, boiled carrot and roe with patterned dabs of Sriracha, all encased in a bowl-shaped puff of seasoned egg whites. The roll began with a base of sweetened rice no larger in size than an ice cube. For the balance of the layers she would build around it, it was important that the rice held together firmly with a smooth surface. She then bound the rice in a single thin band of nori, encircling it like a ring on a finger, one layer thick. After the nori strip was sealed, she would pause for no less than seven seconds before continuing with the next layer.
She always paused before applying the first slice of fish. Her late husband worked in the masonry trade. She had never asked him but had always wondered if it was customary for bricklayers to pause for a brief meditation before positioning the first brick on mortar. If the builders of houses made a point to bow and silently thank their building materials before the day’s labor began, such houses would be a joy to live in.
Mrs. Wu considered her vocation to be of comparable importance to the building of houses. The shrimp and soft, white slices of calamari danced around the nori-bound rice, accumulating mass as her hands deftly navigated its rolling path across the cutting board. Spears of avocado were then pressed around the outside. The egg was the easiest part. The roe was added as a finishing touch, more for aesthetic color balance than for taste.
Mrs. Wu’s hand closed around the perfect texture of All Girl Summer Fun and then stopped. Her fingers flexed involuntarily; it was the fish flexing from inside the rice. She saw him, and she saw his Siamese cat. He was lying crumpled in a twisted heap on the carpet, lifeless. The cat pawing at his pale wrist, nibbling at his dirt-encrusted fingernails.
Mrs. Wu was paralyzed, but her hand continued the motion it knew so well. She sliced the roll and arranged the slices on the cutting board with a ball of wasabi and fine flakes of pink ginger. The fish was dead. Her stomach was a wall of sand, the man was dead. It seemed strange that he could only see himself as happily and stupidly alive at this instant, leaning against the counter.
She looked up at him. He had finished his edamame and was almost done with his second Sapporo. He seemed impatient, drumming his fingers, but not absently. He looked at his watch.
Every meal was important; every meal was the most important meal until it was finished, wherein the next meal became the most important: a gradual escalation of importance until the final meal, the Last Supper, the tastes you taste when your heart stops; what an honor to make a man’s last meal, thought Mrs. Wu. Or, a curse.
All Girl Summer Fun was done. He could see it there behind her on the board and he knew it was his. “Is it ready?” he asked.
She lowered her eyes, unsure how to respond.
He smiled obliquely; he was exasperated, but he wouldn’t yell at her. “Look. I’m sorry, but I have to go to work soon. Could I please have my order? Soon?”
Could she make something else? No, it would take too much time. She hesitated, staring at the fish on the board, afraid to turn around and face him again without anything to serve him. She turned around.
“Sorry, sir. I can’t do order. It took me longer than I expected, so you have to…something else?” She looked up into his face, hopeful, and watched it fill with frustration.
“What? No. I don’t have time–isn’t that it over there? It looks fine to me. Let’s have it.”
She shook her head. “It’s no good,” she said. “You order something else. The California roll. Very good. Very filling.”
“What are you talking about? Can I please have my order?” He raised his voice. Other customers had started to watch. Her face turned red. “C’mon,” he went on. “Give me my All Girl Summer Fun!’” Laughter erupted from the counter.
“I can’t. I just can’t.” Everyone was watching. It had to end. She walked back to the board, scraped the roll onto a plate and carried it to the garbage can. When she turned back to look at him, his face was red. He was biting his lip.
“Fine,” he said, slamming his hands on the counter. The loud thwack made her jump. “I can’t believe this.” He turned and stormed out.
After he had gone, she picked All Girl Summer Fun out of the trash. It went into a small plastic bag and into a larger plastic bag and then back into the trash that she tied in a knot and threw into the dumpster. She did not trust in her vision and yet she trusted it too much. She couldn’t risk that even a rat, a stray cat would find it. Nothing but the maggots and the flies would ever touch All Girl Summer Fun.
Later that night she stood in her kitchen fixing herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Her daughter used to always laugh at her sandwiches. “People pay to eat your food and you come home and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? It’s not even good peanut butter! And you use grape jelly! Mom, only poor people use grape jelly.”
“I like them,” she would say. “I like the salty and the sweet.” She also liked how American it was, how when she ate it with a Budweiser in front of the television she could just as well have blonde hair and blue eyes and memories of summer camp and young boys with inappropriate behavior.
At least that’s what she used to say. Now she ate the sandwiches so she wouldn’t glimpse her own future. She ate food out of cans. She never owned a cat.
Mrs. Wu never saw the well-mannered man again. She would watch for him when the people began coming in around eleven-thirty and she held her breath until One o’clock. She hoped he wasn’t dead. She hoped his cat had plenty of food in its bowl. She hoped the well-mannered man had just found some other place to take his meals.
© 2008 Jeremy Benjamin, Alice Clark, Matt Corum, Doug Dean, Heather Nordeen, Turquoise Benjamin, and Jacob Aiello
Filed under: 2008 Submissions |