It all began at a very strange bar. One that I knew, or did I?
The Universe is a Rubik’s Cube
It was 1:00 a.m. Jimi had just left the tiny bar saying, “Well, I’ll come back another night soon.”
The time and the words he made sure never to vary.
Tonight, the Mama-san had answered, “Don’t play around anywhere else,” which had given him hope. Sometimes, she gave another reply which meant he had made some crucial mistake. Once, she had said, “It’s raining. Do you want to borrow an umbrella?” and things had turned out terribly. Tonight, she gave her usual which was a good omen.
Jimi started going down the exterior stairwell of the lean four-story building. He was slim, yet each step he took on the metal staircase caused the frame to sound like a crumpled gong. He paused long with his hands on the rails looking outward. If anyone watching were thinking he was nauseated from drinking too much at the third floor bar they would have been wrong; he was scanning the skyline. Tonight, the sky was clear as it should be, and the lights of distant skyscrapers were visible. His eyes scrolled away from the horizon and toward his position. The buildings were blunt and ordinary. Noticing nothing unusual in the sprawl, he dared to hope.
He studied the street directly below. Most people had already taken the last few trains home. The streets were lonely as usual which cheered him. Everything looked all right. But, wait, the drugstore sign didn’t seem normal; the letters were black with a red background, hadn’t they been navy with a yellow background? And, the soda vending machine at the corner looked different; hadn’t it been wider and selling tobacco? Jimi agonized, but he couldn’t be sure. Starting to doubt the brick walls and display windows, he calmed himself by thinking there weren’t any glaring changes, in fact, things hadn’t been this good in a long time. He reminded himself that some parts of the city often changed. When he ended up in places that had major changes it usually meant things would turn out very differently. At least he was in familiar surroundings
Jimi looked back over his shoulder. He exhaled in relief. Chao’s sign and door were no different. So far that had never changed, or worse, disappeared, but he feared they would. Continuing his descent, Jimi stopped, as he always did, on the last step. He knew he would never figure it out, yet he wondered how the world could change with one step. The bottom step was like the boundary between land and sea with the building an island. Step off the stairs and he would enter into an altered state. How he always made it back to the apartment he and Naomi rented was another thing he couldn’t explain. It were as if he’d woken up in the middle of a dream, knowing it had been a dream, yet feeling he was still in it.
There were five different apartments they lived in so far. He never knew beforehand which one he would end up in. Three of them were in the north of the city, one was in the south, and the last was in the west part of town. The north was where he wanted to be. West was good, but not how things should be. The first time Jimi had ended up there, he was surprised they could afford to live there, on a hill in an upper-middle class area and across from a nice park. South was called the baddest part of town and every time he lived there it was as they said.
He rewound his memories to yesterday.
Jimi was in front of a liquor store with a bottle in a brown paper bag, when the surroundings slowly came into focus. The street lights were just switching on. He took a swig. Damn, he was on the south side. He didn’t know how long he’d been there looking at the gray two story apartment building across the two laner. It was a messy place to live and probably meant he had two jobs. Nearly certain nothing would be as he wanted, Jimi planned to return to Chao as soon as he could. He patted his jacket for the cluster of keys. Sure enough, he felt a hard lump of angles. He took another swig, then crossed the street to get it over with.
Stopping in front of the mailboxes attached to the side of the building, Jimi pulled the keys out of his pocket. One of them seemed small enough to fit. It was at this time, when the bottle in the bag was in the way of using the key, that he realized how odd it was that he had it, for he almost never drank. It was always this way, wherever he went; something about his habits changed. It sometimes took quite an effort to impose his will. Putting the bag with the bottle on top of a mailbox, he inserted the key into each mailbox till he found a fit. Now, he knew which apartment was his, 205, the one on the end. With leisure he took the stairs up.
He opened the door with another key, stepped in, and shouted, “Naomi, I’m home.”
Her voice was raspy and tired. “Welcome home, Jimi. I’m in the kitchen.” .
Going through the narrow corridor, he poked his head into the kitchen. She was taller and thinner with big round eyes and a thin nose. Her hair was shorter and dyed blond. Her makeup was much more obvious. She was sitting at the table wearing a t-shirt and panties with a cigarette between her lips and a glass in her hand. Probably, something with alcohol. He smiled and said, “Had a rough day, huh?”
She sighed. “Yeah. It started with a bunch of tourists coming in. They were shouting all the time and all at once. No manners. Then, some brat booby trapped the floor with some ice cream. I slipped on it with my hands full of dishes. You shoulda heard the dishes breaking and them tourists screaming and yelling in their funny language. It was hell. Scrooge took my tips. I saved my job by promising him a hand job.”
Jimi laughed like Eddie Murphy. He caught his breath, then asked the rhetorical question, “He didn’t take it seriously, did he?”
She exhaled a cloud of blue smoke. “I saw him thinking before he laughed. How was your day?”
Jimi’s eyebrows arched, his eyes rolled up, and he shrugged as he said, “I changed the world. The same routine.” He pulled out a chair and joined her at the table.
She didn’t know what he was talking about, but she was tired and thinking how she could get her tips back. “I wish you could get us outta here. I wish luck came our way just once.”
He wanted to say be careful what you wish for, but he kept his mouth shut.
The ice clinked on glass as she played with her drink. “Jimi, we really need the tips I made today. Do you think you could talk to Larry?”
He figured Larry was her boss. “Talk to Scrooge? His purse strings are tighter than a virgin’s asshole.” He clenched his hand as he struggled to regain control, for he couldn’t believe he’d just said that.
Naomi laughed. “He’s not that bad. You know I exaggerate. All you have to do is ask. Please?”
One side of his face twitched. “You want me to beg for a few dollars?”
She knew he was getting angry. If she could just use it to her advantage, she might get some results. “I didn’t say that. I meant you could use some persuasion on him.”
He grinned. “Some persuasion, huh? Alright, babe, I’ll see what I can do.”
Naomi leaned over and kissed him. “Thanks, Jimi, I knew I could count on you.”
After he left the apartment, he went to a diner and ordered coffee. Away from Naomi, Jimi could think. When they lived in the south part of town, they were always hard up for cash with Naomi doing some physically demanding job. There was usually some crisis. This time was no different. What exactly was she expecting him to do? There seemed to be a rule that all the women in his life knew him better than he knew himself. He thought he didn’t have to help her, for Chao was always open. On the other hand, he wanted to help her, and maybe, her boss wasn’t so bad. Maybe, Larry just had a quick temper, and after cooling down would regret taking the tips. After all, even the London Scrooge saw the light. Deciding to give it a try, Jimi finished his coffee. From the name on Naomi’s uniform, Paolo’s Roman Restaurant, he got the address from a phone book in the diner. He left and took a bus.
On the bus, Jimi rehearsed what he would say. He would eat and stay till closing time so Larry would be free. After introducing himself, he would apologize for Naomi breaking the dishes then ask for the money saying they would really appreciate his forgiveness. He was in the middle of a rehearsal when the driver shouted that they had reached the stop nearest Paolo’s. Thanking the driver, Jimi got off.
Ahead and across the street, he saw the red, white, and green letters of Paolo’s Roman Restaurant stretching in a rainbow across a large plate window. Underneath the rainbow were the words “Refrigerated Cool & Dry”. Walking to the corner, Jimi observed the street. The parking lot beside the restaurant was nearly empty: two cars, a pickup, and a bike. The sign in the window of the tobacco shop on the corner caught his eye: “Get Your Panama Reds Here!” The light changed and a tune played. He crossed the street.
Striding to the door of Paolo’s, he pushed the door open and stepped in. The brightly lit interior and the cold air sharpened his senses. Instantly, Jimi noticed the one table occupied by a young couple. Walking past, he sat at the second table past them. No one seemed to know him. He guessed it was his first time here.
A gum smacking waitress sauntered over taking a notepad out of her pocket and a pencil out of her hair. He knew he’d seen that before. Before she could ask what he wanted, Jimi told her: a cheeseburger, fries, and a cola. She peeked over her glasses while writing it down, smiled, then turned without saying a word. He ate taking his time watching the employees and learning their names. Anita was the gum chewer, Tony was behind the bar, and some guy in the kitchen was Max. He saw a man, perhaps fifty, in a gray suit talking to the young couple who were leaving. Jimi assumed that was Larry. Five minutes later, he came to Jimi’s table, smiled, and said, “We’ll be closing in five minutes, sir.”
Jimi smiled back. “Are you Larry?”
Larry’s smile remained the same, but his eyes searched Jimi’s face for anything familiar. “Yes, I am. I’m sorry I don’t remember your name.”
“No need to apologize. We’ve never met. My name is Jimi. Could you sit down, Larry? I have a request.”
“If it’s for a job, I’m not hiring.”
Jimi waved his hand. “No, I’m not looking for a job.” He pointed his open hand at the seat across the table. “Please.”
Larry let out a deep tired breath and sat down. “Okay, whaddya want?”
“Naomi’s my wife. She told me about the accident. She said her tips were taken away. She’s very sorry about the dishes.” Jimi looked into Larry’s eyes and saw he wasn’t angry. He continued with rising hope. “You know how things are, every dollar counts. We’d really appreciate if we could have the tips.”
Larry’s smile widened. “Sure, I understand.” He dug some bills out of his pocket. “Here you are, Jimi. This is the tips Naomi earned today.” He placed the bills in front of Jimi.
Jimi smiled. “Thank you, Larry.”
Larry rose. “You’re welcome.”
Jimi stood and offered his hand. They shook. Larry headed to the bar while Jimi pocketed the money and went for the door. Jimi was halfway there when Larry said, “I’ll take the cost of the dishes out of Naomi’s next pay check.”
Jimi stopped, but he didn’t turn around, for he knew if he saw a smirk on that face, he’d would try to erase it. Anita was standing near the door watching him, with her face frozen in anticipation of violence. He heard Tony lay something down on the bar and from the corner of his eye saw him lean down for something. Jimi had a snub-nose under his belt. He almost went for it, but he knew that was what Larry wanted him to do. Without a word, he resumed walking and left Paolo’s while Larry laughed.
Things were now worse for Naomi and he felt responsible. He would look less in her eyes. It probably meant the end of their relationship, at the least it was another nail in the coffin. He hailed a taxi and gave directions to Chao. He thought about what had happened at Paolo’s. Being nice hadn’t worked out, hadn’t fit the characters. Yet, taking the forceful approach might have been even worse with results like what had happened in other places: people shot, stabbed, or strangled. He sighed, things were never perfect.
The taxi braked in front of Chao. Jimi paid the driver, then rushed up the stairs, his shoes pounding the steel frame. He paused at the door, told himself to calm down, pulled open the door, and stepped in. Mama-san had a hand towel rolled up and ready for him. Handing it to him, she said, “Welcome back, Jimi. You must be tired. Sit down and relax. A highball?”
“Yes, please.” He unrolled the ice cold towel and rubbed his face. Almost without thinking he started to change things; the crocodile on his polo shirt became a penguin, his jeans turned into khaki. Mama-san didn’t seem to notice and, like always, there were no other customers.
Mama-san took a rectangular bottle with grooves meeting at right angles out of the freezer compartment of the small refrigerator. The nearly frozen whiskey slid rather than flowed into a tall ice filled glass. Next, she poured soda water down the tilted glass. Squeezing a wedge of lemon over the glass, she gave the concoction a twirl with a long spoon and placed the drink on the counter. “I love you, Jimi.”
“Thanks, Mama.” He took a deep drink and felt in total control, for he and Mama-san had done the exact same routine dozens of times. Now, he would have to concentrate. Look back to the first night when he had discovered he could change things in this bar just by willing it. He’d been in a daze of shock that first night, thinking his brain was melting down. Then, he’d stepped into the street, and found himself in another world. He’d tried to adapt, but while each new Naomi looked similar, they never spoke nor acted like she had. They were nice, but not really his Naomi. He’d tried to change things back to what he had remembered things to be, but he had that power only when he was in Chao.
So, here he was trying to remember. If only he had known, he would have taken notes. He studied the row of bottles on the wall behind the bar. There was a Johnnie Walker with a purple label that he thought should be red; he switched it to the proper color. The Jim Beam on the bottom shelf wasn’t there the last time, but maybe it should be there. He decided to let it be.
He looked at the walls which were beige. They should be a warm yellow, he thought. There was a large splotch on the carpet that shouldn’t be there. He erased it. The furniture looked okay. Wait, the ash trays were glass, he made them ceramic. He spent the hour drinking his highball carefully checking everything and making changes till he was done. He chatted with Mama-san. Then, he left and descended the stairs.
That was the end of the reel. Time to put in a new one.
As Jimi stepped off the stairs into the street, he lifted his head and asked the sky, “Hey, did I get it right tonight? Can I cry if I fail again?”
He didn’t hear an answer, but he thought he saw the moon waver.