There was a kid in my neighborhood that definitely would have ended up in that short bar, or thin slice of the pie chart, labeled “ineffective” or “unresponsive” or sometimes just “other” in the graphs usually found about halfway through articles published in medical journals about the effectiveness of lithium and other anti-psychotic drugs on treating violent criminal behavior, because two and a half weeks after being placed on a regimen of lithium by a judge following an incident in which he cut a man’s hair without first asking permission, Jimmy Gutierrez nevertheless continued his bad behavior by breaking a neighbor’s Disney-themed water sprinkler toy, and this was evidence enough to the State of Illinois that Jimmy was a repeat violent offender and was thus eligible for a spot at the Joliet Men’s Correctional Center, which may seem a rather extreme measure given the circumstances of the crimes, until, that is, one knows the circumstances of the crimes.
The haircut, for example, that initially brought Jimmy to the attention of a Chicago judge did not start out to be a haircut, but was instead, according to witnesses, a fairly unambiguous attempt to cut a man’s head off with an axe. Even though the man did call Jimmy a “punk,” most people would probably agree the axe-wielding response was out of proportion to a remark that, while certainly insensitive and hurtful, was after all made under the man’s breath and from one corner of his mouth after he had just lost $18.40 in a poker game due to an apparent inability to appreciate the odds against filling an inside straight and a certain carelessness that came from having drunk four 40-ounce bottles of Mickey’s Malt Liquor so early in the day.
When Jimmy politely excused himself from the game to “get a little Valentine’s Day gift for my sweetie,” none of the five players around the table took notice, even though it was August. They didn’t notice when Jimmy slipped into the apartment an hour later, and indeed were not aware of his presence until he had grabbed the maker of the earlier remark by the hair and pulled not with the kind of reckless emotion with which you might see two high school girls pull each other’s hair during a schoolyard fight, but rather in a way calm and dispassionate, like a Sinclairian Stockyards worker stretching the neck of an animal so as to get the sort of clear swing necessary for a clean, effortless removal of its head.
But this wasn’t the Stockyards, which were long gone anyway, and Jimmy was not a Stockyards worker, nor had he ever read The Jungle even though it had been assigned each time he went through the 10th grade.
“I don’t even have a job, your honor!” Jimmy managed to shout out before his 26-year-old public defender could pull him back down onto the hard wooden chair. Jimmy had somehow gotten the idea that they were putting on a mental defect defense, an idea the public defender was now regretting he did not opt for, and Jimmy thought that if he could show that he was both unemployed and unemployable, the judge would have no choice but to set him free. Maybe even give him bleacher seat tickets to Wrigley Field, the only baseball stadium in the country without lights* and, consequently, site of the largest weekday congregation of the city’s unemployed.
Because Jimmy had missed the neck of the uncooperatively wriggling man, removing not his head but just a few inches from a fistful of hair, and because the judge was appointed to the bench as the result of political connections and in fact did not even have a law degree (but did possess an excellent copying machine, and a younger brother who did have a law degree), Jimmy was released “on his own incontinence,” and in place of Chicago Cubs bleacher seat tickets, was given a plastic container of lithium and told after his persistent questioning that, “yes, yes, they will let you into Wrigley Field if you show them the pills.” You know, just to get him out of the court building downtown.
He was out of the court building for only two and a half weeks, when he was brought back in cuffs for having lopped the head off of Donald Duck. A Donald Duck water sprinkler toy, to be precise. A plastic replica of Donald’s head atop a 5-foot long pole that had been planted behind his neighbor’s building, between the reddish brown apartment building and the alley, in one of the little patches of grass found cowering in the shadows of the heavy brick three-flats built all across the city after The Great Fire, a humble green expanse of the earth’s surface referred to by Chicagoans without irony as a “backyard.”
Jimmy had watched this sprinkler toy from his second-story apartment. He watched the children quietly gather around it, smiling nervously and pushing each other, trying to anticipate when Donald’s head would suddenly pop up and begin spraying them with water. Silence, silence, silence, POP! and the children screamed and ran in every direction. Silence, silence, POP! silence, silence, silence, silence, POP!
Silence, silence, silence, silence, silence, silence, “Irashyaimase!” Startled, I dropped my sushi onto the counter. It rolled once, twice, and stopped at the very edge of the counter, fish side facing out. I smiled, relieved, then watched curiously frozen as the thin slice of fish slowly separated from the rice oblong, hovered briefly at a 91 degree angle to the counter, then toppled over and fell with a sickening “fwap” onto the floor of this kaiten sushi shop, a “fwap” that reverberated in the absolute silence that had returned shortly after the sushi-makers cries of “irashyaimase!” I looked around, embarrassed. Not an eyebrow rose, not a muscle twitched. Oh, these people are good, I thought.
The customer who had just entered and triggered the sushi assemblers’ cries of welcome, slipped soundlessly into an open slot among the bodies hunched at the counter, all of them seated shoulder to shoulder yet profoundly alone, each staring joylessly at the parade of little plates of sushi on a narrow conveyer belt that came out of a hole in the shop’s back wall, proceeded at a dignified pace for 15 meters, took a sharp right, went on for another five meters, hung another right, and returned the 15 meters to a second hole in the back wall five meters to the left of the first one.
One of the diners had had enough. He stood up, and the girl from the register hurried over to count the tower of plates trembling in his wake. She expertly separated the plates into three stacks, pale blue, red and white striped, and deep gold with yellow flakes—100 yen, 150 yen, and 250 yen respectively. The customer walked slowly and sushi girl counted quickly, and they met at the register at precisely the same time, where they settled accounts without a word or wasted motion, without breaking the smooth surface of quietude at this kuru kuru** sushiya. They did it without even making eye contact.
The customer stepped before the automatic glass door, and at the very moment the electrical impulses completed their journey from the infrared sensor mounted above the automatic door to the mechanism that was about to slide the door open, the sushi-makers cried out in deafening unified gratitude, “Maido Okini,” causing me to squeeze my chopsticks too hard and pinch my piece of sushi in half, one of the halves then rolling off the counter and joining the bit of fish on the floor that I had lost earlier. The customer exited, allowing a brief blast of August heat to rush in just before the door shooshed shut, flash-frying the fish on the plates nearest the door, which were then quickly removed by the university student working part-time washing knives, mixing sushi rice, wiping counters, and removing the fish that browned occasionally in the blasts of Osaka summer that managed through the automatic door.
Just then, like a mirage, I saw a ornate silver-stemmed cup with a generous glistening scoop of ice cream move slowly from right to left on the little sushi conveyer belt. I sat up straight, and rubbed my eyes like they do in the cartoons, and it was gone. The heat, I told myself, that blast of air from the outside. I hunched forward again and resumed the 1,000-yard stare commonly employed in jungle warfare and kaiten sushi shops. Tuna, tuna, egg, shrimp, yellowtail, mackerel, tuna, shrimp, mackerel, tuna, tuna, squid, ice cream, tuna, tuna . . .
“ice cream?!” I shouted inside my head, and would have turned to watch the shiny scoop retreat to the left, towards the hole in the back wall, but at kaiten sushi shops, like at public urinals, one simply does not look too far to either side. Without moving my head, I shifted my eyes as far left as possible but could see no ice cream. I shifted my gaze to the right, upstream, at the advancing parade of plates, and waited. Fish, fish, fish, fish, egg, fish, fish, something chopped up that might be fish, fish, fish eggs, egg, fish, shrimp, fish, ice cream . . .
I waited, heart pumping wildly. The conveyer belt slowed to an unbearable crawl. I nearly screamed when I saw a man three stools reach out in the direction of the silver cup, and wanted to rush over and hug him after he allowed it to pass, taking instead the tuna immediately to its right. I waited. I waited some more, and imagined people could hear my heart pounding in the absolute stillness of the shop. I had to wait until the ice cream was directly in front of me before I could reach out and grasp it, another rule kaiten sushi shops share with public urinals. The ice cream seemed to actually stop in front of the man to my right, seemed to hesitate there for several minutes before it finally came to within my personal space, an area, again like urinals, determined by the width of my shoulders. I reached out with trembling hand and took hold of the red and white striped plate the ice cream was on. Then, with the tall, stemmed cup rattling unsteadily on the plate as I moved it slowly, carefully from the conveyer belt to the counter, the automatic door shooshed open. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened in horror.
I rushed, and set the plate on the counter too hard. I held my breath as the top-heavy cup tottered back and forth, threatening to topple over at any moment. The cup finally steadied, and I fought to control myself from crying for joy and disrupting the silence that had returned to the shop by the time the customer who had just walked in had taken his stool. Then, there was the familiar blast of superheated Osaka summer air before the door closed, and I noticed that it seemed to have no effect on the ice cream in front of me, and this gave me pause. It gave me pause and caused me to think, and in order to think more effectively I furrowed my brow, making a great effort to do so noiselessly (one may not think brow furrowing carries with it a sound, but in the absolute silence of a kaiten sushiya, it is possible to hear even bright colors)
I looked closely at the yellow surface of this ice cream I assumed to be vanilla but, in Japan, could have been anything from melon to sweet potato. It was beautiful, textured, luscious. It was, in fact, too beautiful. My brow furrowed further. I looked around for a spoon, but there was none. My brow nearly creaked, so deeply did it furrow. I grasped my chopsticks, moved them toward the ice cream, and stopped just short, torn between logic and that part of my brain that really likes ice cream, which in my case is 90 percent of the big part in front that is said to separate us from apes but in my case mostly just makes me slow down in frozen food aisles of supermarkets. Logic lost, and I thrust my chopsticks toward the ice cream, which of course was not actually ice cream, which any fool knows would melt instantly in the summer heat, but just a plastic model provided for customers to point at and order wordlessly.
My chopsticks struck the hard plastic orb with a deafening “CLICK!” which was quickly followed by a noise like that of 40 tennis balls being dragged across the surface of a swimming pool. This was the sound of my fellow diners’ eyes rotating in their watery sockets to see the cause of this racket now echoing off the walls of the little shop, and when they did see the cause, when they saw a foreigner banging his chopsticks against a plastic model of ice cream, there followed a million tiny popping noises, which were of course the sounds of blood vessels rupturing in the brains of everyone around me as they struggled to keep from laughing. One poor fellow lost consciousness and his head fell heavily onto the conveyer belt. Little plates of sushi began to pile up against his face like a scene from a Japanese version of I Love Lucy. Another guy, a little younger than the others, began to jerk uncontrollably, finally jumping to his feet and spinning around and around, laughing the whole time, just like Donald Duck before Jimmy Gutierrez went downstairs to cut his head off with an axe and get himself put in that short bar, or thin slice of the pie chart, labeled “ineffective” or “unresponsive” or sometimes just “other.”
*Wrigley Field installed lights in 1988. This has had no appreciable effect on their success, but has made it much more difficult to park your car anywhere on the North Side during a home game. –Assistant Consular Officer L. Doyle
**”kuru kuru” is Japanese onomatopoeia that isn’t really onomatopoeia since it doesn’t represent a sound but rather an action, that action here being spinning or rotating. So a “kuru kuru sushiya” is a spinning sushi shop, which is ridiculous because if the sushi were truly spinning, the little flaps of fish would wind up all stuck to the wall, and if the shop itself were spinning, it would be even harder for me to eat raw fish without getting nauseous. –Consular Officer Dirkins