At the height of the pandemic, Two Guys from Mumbai struggles to stay afloat. Despite renaming their dishes to fit the times (who doesn’t want to chow down on some Community Spread Chana Masala?), the restaurant’s clientele is scared away by an increasingly worrying trend: The inflatable dictators they’ve stationed around the restaurant to socially distance their booths are being systematically assassinated. Sanjay wants to know who’s responsible, and so he enlists the help of our narrator Haley, his most trusted employee, to find out.
Lunch. Ferdinand Marcos sags to the floor, a corkscrew quilling from his thigh. Again, the tomato chutney. This is the third execution in five days. More customers leave mid-meal. Sanjay holds a staff meeting before the dinner shift.
“Two Guys from Mumbai is under attack,” he says. He raises a gloved finger, his face shield a monsoon of foggy breath. “Dewy will spare no expense to root out the malefactor. Except video cameras. He won’t pay for those. Or a private investigator. But we’ll find the culprit. Mark my words.”
Saddam Hussein has toppled into his Shelter in Place Strawberry Falooda, the air gone out of him like a popped tire. Crimson guck pools around the tandoori skewer pronging from his side. I dab a finger and sniff.
Tomato chutney. Again.
Sanjay swishes up in fluid resistant coveralls, gloves, a plastic face shield.
The restaurant is half-full of diners distanced by tables of blow-up dolls from the Inflate a Dead Dictator website. Each dictator sits in front of plastic displays of pandemic-themed food. Joseph Stalin eyes a glossy plate of Trying Times Tandoori Chicken. Benito Mussolini samples PPE Papadum. Muammar Gaddafi poises a fork over his Community Spread Chana Masala. Yesterday, a customer screamed when she spotted Kim Jong-il face-down his Socially Distant Dal Tadka, his throat slashed and smeared with the same tomato chutney.
“Haley,” Sanjay says, each word blossoming as fog on his face shield. “Someone’s trying to make a statement.”
He scans the restaurant for a suspect. De-masked diners stare open mouthed at Saddam’s deflated body. A woman asks for the check halfway through her State of Emergency Shahi Paneer.
“Bad for business,” I say, and start rolling up Saddam so he’ll fit in the trash.
“Dewy’s going to blow a gasket,” Sanjay says.
* * *
Catheter Flats Assisted Living. WhoopAss is watching wrestling on TV again. I rap on her ground-floor window outside and pretend to elbow-drop the bag of food I’ve put on the grass. She scowls at me, slaps her forearm. She has no idea who I am.
When I was little, my grandmother and I would eat Indian takeout from Chutney Buddies, slurp mango lassies, and watch WWE. She took me to Wrestlemanias in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. After my father passed, my grandmother took me in when my mother disappeared into a bottle of Glenfiddich. (I often wonder if she’s still inside that bottle, floating on her back, I don’t really know.) If I misbehaved, my grandmother would threaten to open a can of whoopass on me. The name stuck. When I was seventeen, dementia played its sweet chin music and super-kicked her into a befuddled state. She soon marked me as her pro-wrestling enemy. Now I indulge her, clotheslining the air, performing spinning heel kicks. My way of trying to relate to her, I guess. So she doesn’t feel like she’s gone off.
I take my bag of Speaking Moistly Shrimp Pakora to the front desk. WhoopAss still loves Indian food, even though she doesn’t really know what she’s eating. Ironic. She’s the one who used to tell me that food was memory. That taste and smell connected you to your past, to people. That it was a cure for loneliness.
I hold up the bag to the nurse.
“Lockdown’s another three days,” she muffles through her mask. “Nothing comes in, nothing goes out.”