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.”
* * *
CNN. Wolf Blitzer, spread over apocalyptic purple. COVID spheres like spiked wrecking balls. A thunderpeal of drums, doomsday infection counts. I walk around on my hands in my kitchen to drain the images from my head. My Chunky soup bursts in the microwave and I think up a pandemic name for it—Super Spreader Steak and Potato. Dewy, Sanjay’s brother, would be proud. Whenever Dewy calls Sanjay at the restaurant, Sanjay whitens and clears a chinchilla out of his throat before answering. Dewy is the brother with the money and runs the restaurant from India. I once overheard Sanjay try to say no to Dewy and saw sparks discharge from his phone. The pandemic food names were Dewy’s idea. So were the dictators. Dewy thinks the dolls are kitschy. But people aren’t in the mood for kitsch these days. Certainly not staged assassinations, whoever’s doing them. Nobody wants to be reminded of death right now.
A friend texts me.
where have you been snob? zoom tmw? i miss you!!!—
I don’t respond. Suddenly, everyone longs to be connected. Friends and family tugging on threads. Spiders reeling in their prey. Not me. This pandemic is a re-set for the human race. Mother nature telling us we need a time out. I’m good. The WhoopAss I knew is gone. I have no threads. I was custom built for a pandemic. Social distancing for the socially distant.
* * *
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.”
He rants about his daughter, an eight-year-old with chronic glue ear. If the restaurant shuts down again, he won’t be able to pay for the drainage tubes.
The rest of us—servers, busboys, cooks—sit at the tables with the dictators: Stalin, Mussolini, Gaddafi, and a new one, Julius Caesar. Sanjay establishes an interrogation post in the kitchen. Apparently, Dewy suspects the assassinations are an inside job. We file in one by one for interviews. Sanjay’s questions boom through the restaurant:
“What issues do you have with those of the inflatable persuasion?” and “Wax dummy. Mannequin. Blow up doll. Which is most deserving of an untimely death?”
Quentin the dishwasher sits beside me. His eyes dart. He makes a noise like he’s gulping sawdust. He’s a hypochondriac who lays claim to a rare auto-immune disease that doctors refuse to recognize. If he declines work, he won’t get employment insurance. But if the restaurant shut down on its own . . .
Sanjay calls him. He shuffles towards the kitchen like a man headed for the gallows, then exits a few minutes later and calls my name to go next. When I enter, Sanjay’s near the plate warmer. He writes on a pad with a grease pencil. He leans in close, his face shield breaking that six-foot distancing barrier.
“Hayley, you’re my most trusted employee. Who’s doing this?”
“If it’s staff,” I say, “they have something to gain by shutting us down.”
“Isn’t that everyone? Does anyone really want to be here, risking their lives to serve Ventilator Vegetable Jalfrezi?”
I shrug. “I’m just happy to be getting a paycheck.”
Sanjay adjusts his face shield, leans in further.
“What are your thoughts,” he says, “on authoritarianism?”
* * *
WhoopAss breaks free of the nurse pushing her wheelchair and elbows Mrs. Uchiyama as she rolls past. She snatches a ball under her bucket, and then lobs it at the back of Mrs. Angelloni’s head, just missing her.
“Come n’ get some,” she says, flexing a wing, slapping her flabby bicep.
I’m in the day room gowned in PPE, watching a live-action game of Hungry Hungry Hippos: nurses zooming the residents around in wheelchairs, chasing balls with brooms affixed to square buckets. Catheter Flats is out of lockdown. Family can visit.
After the game, WhoopAss and I share the New Normal Navratan Korma, Pandemic Papdi Chaat, and N95 Buttered Naan I brought. WhoopAss forks the papdi chat into her mouth. I spill the korma on my gown and am reminded of stolen midnight snacks under my blanket, the mess I’d make. As punishment, WhoopAss would pretzel me into a leg lock and chew my toes. It’s been a long time since she last seemed to know who I was. Years. I remember a hug. She told me my mother had no idea what she’d left behind. I doubted that. She knew exactly what she was leaving behind. That’s why she left.
“Mmm,” WhoopAss says, savouring a bite.
A beat. A microsecond of recognition in her eyes. I’m almost tricked into thinking she’s who she used to be. She spits out a cumin seed and it clings to her chin. I try to engage her:
“So, when do you plan to retire from the ring?”
She calls over a nurse.
“Get this two-bit poser out of my face.”
“Eat with her, dear,” the nurse says. “She’s all you have.”
WhoopAss cocks an eye at me, holds up her pinkie finger.
“I can inflict pain,” she says, “with just this.”
* * *
At the restaurant, Armando the busboy says to me:
“I’d make almost the same on employment insurance as working.”
Since the interrogations, Armando has displaced Quentin as the prime suspect. He lives with an immunocompromised mother. Every second at the restaurant is another moment he could expose himself and, consequently, her, to the virus. During his interrogation he stated that mannequins were more deserving of death. Then he said wax dummies. Then, that he didn’t wish death on anything, or anyone.
Pro-life declarations. The obvious mark of an assassin.
I watch him during the lunch shift. He passes Mussolini to clear a depleted tin of Antibody Basmati, brushes Julius Caesar’s arm while carting away a Sanitizer Chicken Sizzler. I look for suspicious movement. The placement of a pointy object, a pencil jab, but see nothing. I’m helping him clear a table when a loud bang jolts the restaurant.
Table 7. Muammar Gaddafi has exploded. Table, chairs, floor: all spattered in a bloody gore of tomato chutney.
Diners bolt, fearing for their lives, neglecting to pay. Staff cover their mouths, muffling gasps. Sanjay rockets out of the kitchen. When he sees Gaddafi’s sagging body, his face behind the shield goes equally limp. On the floor is the husk of an exploded firecracker dressed with electrical tape. Someone lit and stuck it to Gaddafi. A long wick would have accommodated an easy escape. The chutney could have been planted in a baggie or something beforehand. It could have been anybody.
Quentin, late to the party, comes peeling out of the kitchen after Sanjay and smacks into him, and they end up on the floor, a tangle of arms and legs, thrashing around in the chutney.
“Those dictators,” Armando says to me. “Whose bright idea were they anyway?
My cell rings. It’s Catheter Flats, a nurse. With all the noise and commotion in the restaurant, I’m only able to process a few words. Grandmother. Stroke. Hospital.
* * *
Mount Sinai is shut to visitors. Those little spiked COVID wrecking balls have knocked out resources, staff, the normal processes for visiting loved ones. I’m squatting kitty-corner from the hospital in front of a Mr. Lube, scrolling through WebMD facts on strokes. She’s okay, she’s okay, I think. Then I wonder why I care. She’s been gone for years. I’ve had nobody for years. A doctor finally calls.
“She’s had a hemorrhagic stroke,” she says. WhoopAss is in what they call a persistent vegetative state. A coma.
“Will she come out of it?”
“It’s unclear at this stage.”
No, I can’t see her. COVID protocols. The doctor is sorry.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what the next few days bring,” she says.
That’s all I manage to squeeze out before Sanjay’s text slides onto the screen:
Shutting down the restaurant. So sorry. Pls come tmw to pick up yr belongings
* * *
On the bus to the restaurant, passengers hug the windows to avoid the smutty COVID bus air. I didn’t sleep. I was up all night thinking of who to call. I couldn’t think of anyone. I don’t have my mother’s phone number. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. My head machine-guns against the juddering window.
At the restaurant, Sanjay sits at a table working on a laptop. No PPE this time, just a suit and a mask. He’s joined by the last of the dictators—Mussolini, Caesar, Stalin—as if he were hosting some kind of global peace summit. He waves as I enter, a warm light behind his eyes. From the kitchen I hear a chatter of cutlery. The cooks, doing a final clean up. Otherwise, the restaurant is empty.
I get the hoodie and backpack I left in the office, and then use the bathroom. When I return to the dining room, the global summit of dictators has broken for lunch. Plates of food litter the table. Sanjay beckons me over.
“Hungry? We need to finish the leftovers before they go bad.”
I shrug, and sit at the long end of the table, across from Sanjay. Before us: Essential Worker Egg Curry, Rounding the Curve Kanchkolar Kofta, Fatality Rate French Bean Aloo, Abundance of Caution Aloo Matar, N95 Naan, Antibody Basmati, two Murder Hornet Mango Lassies. And… a bowl of tomato chutney.
We de-mask and tuck in. Sanjay attacks the chutney with the naan. I ask him why he’s brought the dictators to the table.
“A farewell, of sorts,” he says.
“Any updates on the assassin?”
He speaks between chews.
“Doesn’t matter. Dewy’s taking the explosion as a sign. He wants to shut us down until the pandemic eases up. Until it’s safer.”
I tell him about my grandmother. He stops chewing.
“I’m so sorry, Haley.”
“Your daughter,” I ask, “how’s her ear?”
“It’s not just the ear. It’s her whole immune system, since birth. She can’t leave the house now.”
I complete his next sentence in my head, the one he can’t say aloud:
And I’m terrified of infecting her. Terrified enough to sabotage the restaurant, to trick Dewy into shutting us down.
We keep eating. I don’t let on that I know his secret, that he has someone to look out for who’s bigger than himself and this restaurant. Bigger than Dewy. I can practically see the spider threads on his arms, his shoulders, linking him to his daughter, reeling him in.
He spoons egg curry onto his plate and smothers it with the tomato chutney.
“My daughter loves egg curry,” he says.
“My grandmother does too.”
I’m not sure what gives me away. A hitch in my voice. The way I swallow after I say it. Sanjay looks up at me.
“Haley, you know, you’re not alone.”
I wave his comment off.
“I’ll be okay. She’s been sick a long time.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
Sanjay nods, raises his mango lassie.
“To the end of this, then. Someday.”
I don’t know what to say. The end of what? The pandemic? Misery? Loneliness? Life? Crushing, debilitating life? Something inside me fragments. Spit gouges my throat. My heart feels too large for my body. The heart of a buffalo. A muskox.
I raise my glass.
“To the end,” I manage to squeeze out.
I take a sip. The lassie is bright, soothing. She’d love this. Sunset in a glass. She’d really love this. I take another sip.
G. S. Arnold has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and works at a career college in Toronto, Canada. His work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Echolocation, Event Magazine, Ninth Letter, Asia Literary Review, Glimmer Train, Prairie Fire, and The Puritan. His unpublished short story collection Pagodas of the Sun has been a finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and he has received numerous Toronto, Ontario and Canada Arts Council grants. Along with a Pushcart and a Journey Prize nomination, his stories have been short or long-listed in contests such as the Writer’s Union of Canada Short Prose competition, the 2019 CBC short story award, and The Masters Review’s Short Story Anthology Volume XI contest. He has recently finished his debut novel Sea of Clouds, set during the 1923 Tokyo earthquake.