Matthew put the dried fish into his pocket and ran out the laundromat into the cool evening air. He hopped into the back seat of the car, squeezing past the laundry that didn’t make it into the trunk.
“I passed a pizzeria here in the complex,” his mother began explaining, “and it smelled pretty good. Is that okay with you?”
Still reeling with the discovery of the fish and the laundry kami, “Sure, Mom.” Matt quietly acquiesced as he attempted to make sense of what he had seen. The old lady didn’t specifically tell him he couldn’t tell his mother, but he had the feeling he should keep his recent experience to himself.
This was the second day he had ever been in this shopping complex, the first time he and his mother had done a drive through, marking it on a map as a place to shop and probably eat. They didn’t even get out of the car the first time.
Having been in Big City for less than a month, school had been the only place Matthew had been on a regular basis almost immediately upon arriving here. They were a uniform-wearing school, so there was no chance for Matthew to flex his growing sense of individuality.
His mom got his uniforms delivered to the house while they were unpacking so she could be sure they would fit. As far as Matt was concerned, there couldn’t be a more boring place on Earth than school. The students looked the same, all about the same height and weight, most had blond hair, with a few brunettes, and there were even a few other Black students, so Matt didn’t feel so alone in the sea of yellow hair and blue eyes.
School was so painfully dull, Matt found it difficult to stay awake and only his habit of snoring loudly and disrupting class forced him to make an effort to remain conscious. All of the teachers had the same boring monotone voice, more than half of them wore glasses, really thick glasses, so thick it was hard to imagine how they managed to see out of them.
Though the teachers didn’t have to wear uniforms, most of them just happened to wear suits of brown, black, blue or grey nearly every day, making them appear almost as uniform as the students. From Matthew’s perspective, the school seemed designed to be as boring as anything could be.
The rooms were almost all the same size and, with the exception of the science laboratories and shop classes, every room was painted white with grey borders. Posters were allowed only in the science labs and they were designed to be informative, not interesting, keeping one from staring at them for too long even if they were the only color in the room. To be fair, everything looked pretty new and well maintained. Even if it was as boring as it could be, it was at least clean and well kept.
At least half of Big City seemed just like his school in that regard, clean, grey, and unremarkable in any way. The first few days they had been in town, Matt’s mom had driven to the center of the city’s financial district and the giant buildings covered in marble and glass were all so similar, it was hard to tell any two of them apart. People bustled, a sea of grey and black men’s shoulders and oh so dull haircuts. Matthew’s mom, Clare, wore a burgundy dress and stood out like a weed breaking through the sidewalk.
At the time, he didn’t think much about it but now his experience made him rethink that visit and now he knew what stood out but he didn’t understand it at the time. There were no other children in the center of Big City. None. No little kids, no mothers carrying babies. Not even the occasional pregnant woman. That revelation made his stomach sink and now he understood the feeling he had while he had been there. A feeling he should make every effort to leave the center of the city. He put it down to nerves at the time, but now, away from the place, he could feel the difference. This section of the city called the Lower Quarter did not have that vibe, that feeling of oppression. There was so much more to this place than he knew.
After parking the car and walking to ‘Big City Pizza’ a family came out of the restaurant before Clare and Matthew entered. They looked just like families at home. Happy, smiling and… what was that? There was a bow in the hair of one of the girls. She had to be about six or seven. At first it looked like a hair bow but as they passed by, the wings rose up and fluttered for a second and then returned to sitting perfectly still.
He blinked, stopping to rub his eyes in disbelief. He watched the family vanish into the lot before running to catch up with Clare. The restaurant was a mixture of old things and new things. There was a fountain, a wall where water ran down shimmering on a washboard-like surface making a tinkling, splashing sound. A large wooden Buddha sat in the corner near the door. These gave way to a modern environment complete with chrome trim and stone tables with red leather padded booths.
There was a short line the two of them had to wait in for a few minutes before being served. When they got to the front of the line, there were lots of pizzas and sizes to choose from. “I’ll have the super-combination please.” Clare paid while Matthew found the seats. That was a long standing tradition between he and his parents. Something they started when he was a little kid and it’s one of those things he could still do with his parents even though they were no longer together. The thought stung a little whenever he considered his father with that woman, Jasmine. He didn’t really hate her, but he wanted to.
His mother and father barely spoke other than to hand Matthew off on the weekends. Strange as it seemed, the only person who talked to him like he was normal was Jasmine. But he still wanted to hate her because whenever his mother looked at Jasmine, her face became so cold, so sad and lonely. He didn’t like anything to hurt her.
She was looking like that right now. Whenever we went out, dad’s absence was noticeable. Mom wasn’t a great cook, so we ate out often and dad’s muscular bulk always seemed out of place in most restaurants. “So Mom, how are things at the new job?”
“It’s fine, honey. People seem nice but I am focused on finding my way around. My new boss doesn’t seem like the easy-going type. How’s school going? Are you adjusting?”
“If I tell you I’m as bored as heck, would you be mad?”
“Only as long as you get your homework done and you don’t make your teachers mad, be as bored as you want.”
Awkward moment. This seems like a good time to go to the bathroom. “Did you see where the bathrooms are?”
“That-a-way, soldier.” Clare smiled and pointed toward the rear of the restaurant.
Eek. Restroom sign. Gotta pay better attention.
The pungent scent of bathroom air freshener slapped him in the nose as he opened the heavy bathroom door. Felt like he was opening a vault door. A sigh of relief was released while he liberated his bladder of its pungent payload. The cake at the bottom of the urinal paid him back in spades with a scent so strong his eyes started watering and he felt a little nauseous. Zipping up quickly, he got ready to run out to escape the smell and began to push the door.
It didn’t budge.
Feeling sicker, he pushed harder. A voice from the door responded to his push with an awkward statement: “What, you don’t believe in washing your hands? You can transmit disease that way. And you touched me with that hand. Get it off…get it off…get it off!”
Surprised, Matthew drew his hand back and stared at it as if it had become a cobra. “What do you mean, disease? That’s just a rumor.”
The door kami chuckled quietly. “Do you know how many people put their hand on that handle when they use the bathroom? Nearly all of them. Today that means one hundred and twenty seven people have used that urinal. All but two touched it. The first one to touch it was a homeless guy who sneaks in as soon as the door opens. He left a wonderful influenza right there. Something nasty. Since most didn’t wash their hands, they should be starting to show signs right…about…now.”
A nearby sneeze can be heard at almost exactly that moment. “That was young Daniel in the kitchen. You are certainly fortunate our kitchen kami are on duty or you might be enjoying a delicious flu-encrusted pizza with all the trimmings. Now young man, wash those hands immediately.”
The commanding tone of voice had Matt moving before he realized he was doing it. He looked at his hand harder and saw tiny hair-like cilia waving back and forth and getting larger before his eyes. Then he looked at the urinal bars and could see the same cilia-like strands waving back and forth. Then other strains bore new colors, bacteria with different body shapes, longer, faster tails, others with tiny chains of balls, some with large pitted spheres jittering back and forth against each other. The walls and floors soon showed their colors as other kinds of unknown bacteria moved all over them, where people had wiped their hands as they probably had to pass each other.
Matt washed his hands furiously until he couldn’t see any of the organisms he saw earlier. He tried not to look down as the floor was a sea of bacterial and viral action. Once he dried his hands he asked the door a question. “What are you and how come I can see you?” Now that he knew where to look, he could sense the kami in the door. A flicker of light gave it away. But to see it, Matt had to turn away and see it out of the corner of his eye.
“I, my dear boy, am a kami. Every building has a kami, a spiritual force which channels the energies of nature in a harmonious path through a home, ensuring fortune and prosperity and warding against spirits of misfortune and woe. I was once a house spirit, a spirit of a particular place.”
The door kami paused as if in deep reflection, then it continued, “When my home was destroyed in an earthquake, my family loved me so, that it freed me and I was able to move beyond the foundation of my former home and I wandered to and fro for years. Not sure of what I was looking for, but I was certain I would know it. I was pulled to this place one day and I was welcomed by the house kami and given the important task of keeping this place clean. I decided to stay. To pay my keep, I ensure hands are washed by those who are still able to see me. They are The People and we have to keep them safe.”
“I only understood up to the part when you said something about protecting the people. You couldn’t mean me, I just came to this town.”
“Are you seeing me? Are you hearing me? Are you unable to leave? Then you are The People. Now, dry your pants there and get back out to your mother. Your plague-free pizza will arrive shortly.”
Matt took another paper towel and wiped down the front of his jeans from where his furious washing splashed water all over him.
Matthew got ready to touch the door and then paused. “May I?”
“Of course, my dear boy. Your hands are splendidly clean – but, use a paper towel so you beautifully clean hands don’t have to touch this nasty door nob again.”
Before pushing the door open, he asked in an earnest voice, “What do I call you?”
With a flicker of light, the door kami zipped around the frame of the door and across the boy’s field of view. “Door, of course. If you must know my formal name it’s Door, Northwest Frame. Do you see that pay phone? That’s how you reach me. As to when you can call me, never after eleven and never collect. Take the number, kid.”
“Why would I need to call you, Door?”
“Like you said, Kid, you’re new in town, you’ll have questions.”
“Meaning no disrespect but I have to say, you’re a bathroom door, what could you know?”
“I know you were about to walk out the bathroom without washing your filthy hands.”
Chagrined, Matthew put his head down and slipped down the hall. He didn’t stop by the phone to get the number.
Watching Matthew return to the table with his mother, Door thought to itself: I also know not to let the fish in my pocket get wet. The kami smiled inwardly in his secret knowledge.
The light played across Door’s surface, languidly flickering, like laughter in the dim hallway light.
Small Fish, Big City © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved