The summers here blister like a slow roast. Around mid-August, I wonder if God cranked the Fahrenheit, and this flat, Texas land is the roast he left to burn. Hell, some days when there’s not a single cloud out there you feel like the wick off a match, anxious for any spark to render a fire. It can be a mindless drone cutting you off on the highway at eighty miles (fuck your hypocritical I-have-a-baby-on-board car sticker) or a few words remarked by careless casualty. Good sir, allow me the pleasure to do my job as I do. You condescending-basic-bourgeois trash. It can be any look or anyone, and trust me, working long hours at the local sushi restaurant for weeks on end, beside the Lord’s Day, shortens the fuse. Of course, I am the uncanny sort who conceals the boredom on his countenance, imagining the cucumbers I slay over and over as my demons to exorcise. In the months ahead, the phrase “skill is the repetition of habit” became an understatement. During those blunt hours of honing wet blades on a block of stone is when the thought this line of work is beneath me cut a wound so wholesome I squeezed wasabi into my eyes just to calm the raw nerve.
Despite the mindset, a starving bank account is the cat o’ nine driving my own flagellation; to quell all thoughts on pride so I can buy a fucking happy meal and all of which that entails to eat the damn thing.
* * *
A family had sat at the bar in front of me. They were chatting with the waitress and exhibiting normal behavior for being seated at a restaurant: shifting of elbows, flipping through menus, fawning at eccentric decor. In the midst of this, I observed every detail. There was an older man, mid-forties, dressed casual with a Rangers cap and worn t-shirt. The mother, thin, had fair complexion and the warm smile of someone who tended to zone off. Her eyes rested by the fish tank and I wouldn’t blame her. Her two kids were absorbed in their phones with the same lifeless gaze in their eyes as the fish I filleted each morning.
“Hello, welcome to the Kyoto Origami,” I said rather nondescript. (Sometimes, I wield an Asian accent just to hara-kiri myself out of boredom.)
The man nodded.
I left one eye on the family and the other on the scoreboard. Before this profession, I had loathed these distant moments of truth, but now, I could tolerate small talk as a necessary nuance. Solitude is not your friend; the lesson a thousand 12-bundle-packs of English cucumbers had taught.
“Oh bo-yyy, that Pete Laurinaitis is on a tear. If he keeps this streak the Rangers may have a shot,” I said to the man.
“Yea yea, we might win four games down this stretch with Garcia back in,” the older gentleman replied. “But you got to watch out for Detroit, they’re deep. Y’all ever watch baseball? It’s fun when you’re at the games.”
He glanced at me and then back towards his family, searching for their expressions with his mouth agape and waited awkwardly for them to join in. Their eyes never left the menus, but this man was not a quitter.
“You know, some kids won’t touch anything from the water or anything with a tail,” he said with a thicker, more deliberate drawl.
I interjected, “There are beef and pork opt—”
“But these sure ain’t tho-o-o-se kids. They like the expensive stuff. Sure do,” he hollered with two knee-slaps and a big smile. “Right Honey?”
“Dave…” she flustered. “You’re my ray of sunshine.”
I dropped my knife, startling the four of them. She shifted her attention towards me. Her smile…she had Anna’s smile.
“Excuse me,” I said.
I walked out the bar into the kitchen. A few illegal Mexicans were in a melee with a live lobster.
“Chino, how long till the Bari Bari Roll?” one of them yelled. After I burn a smoke. I made my way across the grime-stained floors to the back-exit. In one motion, I scraped the part avocado, part aged tuna off my foot and kicked the door.
The cigarette had been in my mouth before I took in a breath, but not the dry air or even the warm, fiery light would have subdued the pang from that woman’s smile, of Anna’s smile.
* * *
“How come you’re not eating?” she asks.
The waiter set the black mixture on the table and I look over at the tables around us. Their expressions agree with the ensemble like a Disney soundtrack—the tune playing at the end of the movie. There are even little ones chasing each other in circles of laughter with oversized mittens.
“I’m not hungry,” I reply. My stomach rumbles, but it is negligent to my pride. I look at her to smile.
We talk of work and about how she needs a new dress shirt. We trade barbs of where life would take us on the crossroads, the crossroads we name Karen and a dog that she calls Skip…
I regret cutting that conversation short.
She asks, “Do you want to drive?” I open the door for her as an answer.
She touches my wrist and imparts a kiss.
“My mother, she told me to stay away from the bad boys, but you, sir, you are not one.”
The sedan doors slam. We wait, the minutes achingly crawl off, but the car is old and the icy veneer sticks to the glass despite the blasting heat.
“Fuck it,” she says.
Another five minutes pass. She talks faster in monologue, the noises outside blurring with the faint hum from the radio and the cars and streetlights until I felt as someone beholding a dream on the edge of the world, but the person on the edge inside the dream is…
“Slow. Down. Slow the fuck down!”
* * *
We drank forty’s on a foggy night years and days after that noon of work. I can still taste the turpentine of that Marlboro red and feel how the sun washed over like diving into scalding water. My brother poured another glass, disrupting the reverie as he smiled a devilish grin. “It’s going to be alright.”
It had never been alright, but the thought only occurred later that night as I stared at the blankness of the ceiling. I spelled the words: N-o-l-o-n-g-e-r, and said to no one, “Sorrow, a median to the mist.”