A brief account of a casualty after the lockdown is lifted in 2021.
Feelings of both dread and hope wrestled for predominance within my tired soul as I grabbed a coat and headed out the door. The world was finally open after a long protracted lockdown.
After walking five blocks and passing at least two dozen shops with "for lease" placards in their windows, one couldn't miss Marco's Mexican Cuisine's restaurant sign; it's overused Brush Script font painted red with a green shadow against a banana-yellow background would have given Andy Warhol a headache. Ironically, it was the only color highlighting this unbecoming strip of Ventura Boulevard that over a year ago was teaming with life and purpose. Now it looked like an empty set for a zombie movie filmed in the San Fernando Valley. And I felt like an extra that showed up a day late.
Regardless, today would be different. It was the first day restaurants, nail salons, movie theaters, and other establishments where people associated with each other closely were open for business since the outbreak a year ago gave Pharma the justification to co-opt the nation's power structure and lockdown its citizens. And of all days, they chose Valentine's Day! They might as well have prepared a barbecue after the funeral of a burn victim. But tact was not one of the overseers merits, if there were any to be found.
Unfortunately, masks were mandatory. It made me wonder what the point of all this was. The host greeted me.
"Are you waiting for anyone?"
"No. Just me."
"Is the corner booth over here okay?"
"Mariko will be your server. She'll be there shortly."
He set the menu on the paper placemat, smiled with her eyes, and walked off. I looked around. A sea of masks, mostly green, with a few homemade ones here and there.
"Hi. I'm Mariko. Are you ready to order?"
Her eyes were downcast, her hair in a bun. She tried somewhat but not entirely successfully to hide her sadness. Her voice was deadpan. But something about her looked familiar.
"Uh...I guess I'll have the chili relleno plate and a glass of Malbec."
She nodded dutifully, turned and left. I watched her as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Just then, the roar of laughter erupted at the round table in front of me. Four suits each with a beautiful girl at their sides toasted to some occasion and emptied their glasses. A waiter walking by grabbed the wine from their wine cooler and grasping the neck raised in up high... He suddenly crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings were cut. I had never seen anything like it since the demolition of the Twin Towers. Before I could go over there to see if I could help, the wait staff were already there lifting him up and carrying him to the kitchen. His body was limp.
Mariko came with my food and drink.
"Hey, what just happened to that waiter?"
She hesitated. "He was about to do something he shouldn't have been thinking about doing."
"What? I don't understand!"
As she placed extra napkins next to my plate, she rolled her eyes and blinked trying to catch the tears welling up underneath her eyeballs. Her lower lip quivered. She took a breath, looked straight at me and then, without moving her head, moved her eyes up toward the ceiling. I looked up and saw the 6G meter. That waiter must have upgraded his tracking app not realizing it automatically instilled the new thought decoder. Most people didn't know that yet. Fine print could now legally be four points in size and who read the fine print anyway?
"I'm sooooo sorry!," I whispered barely audible. She nodded, turned and left. I felt helpless--for the waiter, for her, for all those who got injected...I didn't realize how lucky I was. Schrader, my former roommate who now works for the government, in a parting gesture of friendship had my universal ID card activated without body trackers. I avoided injections but the State could catch up with me if I made the slightest mistake. Shrader couldn't email, text, or call me now that I was "off the grid"--the State wouldn't know this unless I attracted attention to myself--but we frequented The Coffee Fix and when I did bump into him, he would update me on the "fine print."
I poked at my chile relleno losing my appetite quickly. My glass of red was almost gone. I waved Mariko over. "Can I get another glass of Malbec?" "Sure," she quivered. She had been crying. And despite her fewness of words, I knew that voice, but from where? It didn't matter. I felt bad for her. I can't imagine how many different reasons she could have to be upset. These days, the list seemed to be endless with freedom in general being a distant memory. The homelessness, poverty, increased police force, and the daily delivery of plastic coffins made us all think about what would have happened if we had rebelled a year ago while we had the chance. It couldn't have ended up much worse and might have changed our circumstances for the good. Who knows. But do-overs are only in the realm of fiction. Reality is relentlessly linear and unforgiving.
I heard an argument, looked towards the conflict and saw Mariko being lit into by who I presume was her boss. It ended abruptly. She stopped at the bar to get a glass of wine and then I knew. She was wearing a pair of sneakers I recognized--scarlet with white trim; the shoes I bought for my daughter a week before she passed away from a medical mishap. I had them in the back seat while I was driving home at night a few months ago. I had seen an asian teen on the street at the corner of Ventura and Coldwater by the Sportsman's Lodge one night, barefoot, reading The Art of War. I stopped, grabbed the shoes and gave them to her guessing they would fit since she was about the same age and size. I knew my daughter would have approved. I only had time to hear her say thank you for I was double-parked, but I never forgot her voice or her long black hair and sweet yet sad face. Several times a week I passed by Coldwater on my way home and saw her there most of the time sleeping. Now, with her hair in a bun and a mask on, all I had to decipher her identity were those shoes.
After she placed the glass of wine on her serving tray, she headed over to my table. As she set it down I said, "Have you finished The Art of War yet?" Mariko froze. "Who are you?" "I gave you those shoes a few months ago. Glad they fit." She paused to process the new information. "That was you? Thank you. I love them."
"Mariko!" yelled one of her superiors. He was flanked by two other men in suits. She spun around so fast, her wallet fell out of her pocket and onto my seat. I grabbed it before it fell on the floor. Before I could say anything, she was off walking fast towards the three men who seemed unconcerned about making a brief scene in front of their customers. They disappeared with Mariko into the kitchen.
Part of me wanted to quickly return Mariko's wallet by hailing another waiter and asking them to return it to her. The more intuitive part of me knew I was about to go against my own standards of decency. I needed more information to know what to do. I slid over to the very back of the booth and surreptitiously glanced through Mariko's wallet. The first thing I noticed was a typical prom photo of her and the waiter that had collapsed a few minutes ago. Now I really felt bad. I continued rifling through the different compartments and felt something hard. I pulled it out; it was a foldable knife made from what I assumed was a 3-D printer. It had that light, hard composite feel to it and had no finish or ornamentation. It was a weapon for functional purposes only, and not containing any metal it could avoid 6G detection. Clever. And dangerous. This was not something Mariko's boss would be happy about if he discovered it. But he wouldn't. Not today.
After about thirty minutes, I flagged down the host and asked if I could get the bill from my server. He returned a few minutes later with the bill. "Is Mariko available? I want to give her a tip personally." The host cleared his throat. "She's...she won't be available. She left." "Is she okay?" The host strained to come up with something. "We are working things out," he said a tad slower than he normally spoke. My plan to give her back her wallet was thwarted. I handed him cash and left with the wallet in my coat pocket. Maybe I'd have better luck tomorrow.
At home, I sat on my couch in silence not knowing whether to pour myself another glass of wine or do something else. Nothing else came to mind. I hadn't watched TV since the State bought up all the stations. The dramas and sitcoms were all reruns and the "news" programs tried to make bad news sound good. They were only fooling themselves. I had read most of my novels twice. All the new books being published were only available in digital formats which I loathed but understood why. Books required wood fiber. What little was left of the forests didn't grow. The barium, strontium, and aluminum nano-particulates sprayed over the entire Earth not only killed most life forms but were desiccants; what forests didn't spontaneously combust, the moisture they depended on was absorbed by these chemicals.
I pulled out Mariko's wallet. There were other items I hadn't seen: there was her universal ID card, a Kung Fu San Soo ID, a beat up scrap of paper with Japanese characters on it, another photo of her and her boyfriend, this one at a water park, and a beautifully typeset haiku that read:
You must be of use
Find yourself and change the world
You are what you do
I thought of her red shoes. I imagined her as a superhero with a kick as strong as Thor's hammer.
She would walk up to the White House gates and say to the two guards, "Look at this, guys!" She'd pull out her Universal ID and cut it up with a scissors in front of them while wearing a delightfully nefarious grin. "Whadaya think of that?" she'd say with her chest out and hands on her hips. The two guards would reach for her in slow motion while she filed her nails and glanced up now and then. When their hands were one inch away from her arms, time would switch back to normal and she'd kick them each one at a time through the bars of the iron gate like meat pressed through a sieve, their bodies now hanging limp on both sides. Parents, children, and the elderly walking by would stop and clap and laugh with joy...
Somehow, I found myself back in the 20th century when barbaric attitudes of revenge were commonplace. I shook my head and snapped back to the here and now. Justice, I had to remind myself, was a slow process. I closed my eyes and spoke words of wisdom from the Baha'i writings:
A touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay out of which this perverse generation is moulded.
Then I reminded myself that the above quote referred to generations spanning several hundred years. Before my head blew a fuse, I stood up and made a beeline to the freezer and grabbed a pint of Haagen Dazs. Problem solved. Temporarily.
The next morning at eleven, I strolled toward Marco's Mexican Cuisine. I laughed thinking that the last word should have quotation marks around it. On the way, I saw a new for lease sign being placed in the window where Nora's Dry Cleaners used to be. A truck delivering plastic coffins drove by; a daily occurrence becoming more ubiquitous than garbage trucks on pick-up day. A couple pushing an infant in a stroller passed by me from the opposite direction with faces so forlorn I felt sad for the baby.
The host at Marco's gave me a perfunctory smile. I asked, "Is Mariko working today?" "She doesn't work here any more. I'm sorry," he said hurriedly before being called by the manager. I casually headed toward the bathroom hoping I wouldn't be questioned and thinking there must be someone there who knew where Mariko was. As I relieved myself at the urinal, I read words scratched into the tile in front of me, "For a free coffin, speak your mind." At least bathroom graffiti had evolved beyond numbers to call for a good time.
As I exited, I peered around the corner at the customers enjoying their "cuisine" hoping for a plan to enter my brain. Nothing seemed to be unusual. Suddenly, I saw a pair of scarlet sneakers entering the dining area but they were not worn by Mariko. I waited for the server to deliver three plates of food and then cornered her. "Hi. Where's Mariko? Those are her shoes!" Her somewhat surprised face morphed into sheer grief. Her mouth contorted and she started breathing heavily. "Hey!" spoke the manager in a loud whisper. "You cannot talk to the servers unless you are to eat. Check with the host if you want a table or please leave." I could tell he was trying to be polite but had no clue how miserably he was failing. I turned and the server in Mariko's shoes was gone.
As I had no appetite, I left. I decided to head over to The Sportsman's Lodge in case Mariko was there. She would need her Universal ID to buy food at least.
When I was a half block away, I saw a crowd of people. I picked up my pace. Once there, my heart replaced my Adam's apple. There were flowers and photos strewn around a wooden cross in a patch of dirt next to the sidewalk that said Mariko Mochizuki 1997-2021. About a half dozen of the onlookers sat on the pavement some conversing softly and others in silence. Three people stood. None were Japanese. I took everything out of Mariko's wallet except the photo of her and her boyfriend at the water park. I stuffed the wallet in my pocket and carefully laid the other items among the flowers. I pressed her 3D-printed knife into the top of the cross. I turned and left.
The sun burned like fire. I wanted to get drunk but needed a friend more. I headed to the Coffee Fix in hopes of seeing Shrader there. It was the longest six blocks I had ever walked. Finally I saw my destination with Shrader sipping his usual Americano in a chair outside by the entrance. Once I was fifteen feet away, he spied me and stood up with his arms outspread as if he knew something I didn't. But of course he did. He worked for them.
After I soaked the shoulder of his shirt, he gave me a transcript of Mariko's last day. I turned and left without saying a word. On the way home I stopped at Abe's Nursury and bought a moringa plant. At home I gently lifted it from its plastic container, wrapped the transcript around the roots, and planted it in a ceramic pot on the patio outside my living room.