Mapo Tofu with Spicy Cucumber Side
“Brain is like…black orb number eight,” Przemyslaw says.
Orange light streams into the diner. Usually, the reporters just ask a few questions, shoot video, and scatter. Not this time. Przemyslaw fingers the fresh cut on his head, his gaze wandering to the parking lot where he might be allowed to smoke. She sits opposite, palms pressed against her eye sockets, massaging a dull ache.
“All day, you rattle orb, and is making you decisions,” he says, shaking an imaginary sphere in front of her. “Should I take coffee? Yes. Should I wear blue shirt? Asking Again Later.”
“Magic Eight Ball,” Emma says with some effort. Her brown hair is either matted or frizzy depending on the angle, a result of restless contact with the vinyl bench. Slow, ragged thoughts congeal inside her head.
“Magic. This is like…Djed Mraz, yes?” he asks. She stares blankly. “Djed Mraz, is man giving toy to child in Christmas.” His breath causes her eyes to water as if she is staring into a tailpipe. Emma nods in silence. “Yes. So, why does magic orb not choose white shirt today? Then underarms will not be dark with this…” He waves his hands underneath his own armpits. “For this matter, why you bought blue shirt in desert?”
“Fashion advice from a talking cigarette,” Emma says, pulling her arms into her body. She traces her finger down the length of the sugar jar and considers what it might do to a mouth full of yellowed teeth.
The bench squeaks as Przemyslaw leans back with a nervous smile. “I mean no insult. Orb chooses blue shirt for reason. Maybe grudnjak shows through white shirt?” He cups his hands over his breasts. “Or, green shirt is not good with skin. Many reasons. But, you do not anticipate this oven.”
“Look, this is all fascinating…” she says too loud.
“Yes, yes, I explain.” As he touches the sleeve of her shirt, the waitress moves toward their table. Przemyslaw sits up and straightens the wispy blond hair on his scalp. “Thank you…Jor-eesh” he mispronounces the nametag. The waitress looks hard and walks away. “How do you decide shirt color?” he whispers. “Never enough data. Or, too much. So, you go with belly. Yes? Or, very American, you are blasting from hip.” Air bullets shoot from his fingers. “Of course, nowhere is gun or želudac involved. Is brain. Chemical potentials balance, like ledger. If you buy shirt ten times, maybe brain tells you buy ten different. Red shirt with pasta. Yellow shirt with collar. Appears random, but always is reason.”
“Pasta?” she asks. He holds an imaginary string between each thumb and forefinger and runs his hands the length of his torso, up to the neck.
Emma mutters disapproval as the waitress slides a plate of huevos rancheros in front of Przemyslaw. No matter what the wiry mathematician says, something below her neck has decided that she must avoid this abomination. Even though she likes salsa, enjoys eggs on occasion. A river of undeniably visceral impulses has defined her life, led to this exile in the desert.
“What does any of this have to do with the crash?” she asks. Her translucent visor beckons from the table.
Hours before she learned anything about Djed Mraz, Emma walked into Javier’s kitchen wrapped in a sheet. “That’s not fair,” she said. “I was going to sneak out on you this morning.” Instead of playful banter, it came out like a threat. His fingers froze, bunny ears floating above the tongue of his shoe. Like magic, her visor dinged from the living room and she stumbled backward, digging through the clothing next to the sofa. Automobile Accident, US-40. By the time she rushed back, he was gone. There was only the refrigerator, and the diffuse reflection of her pale, naked body.
The visor dinged again and she grabbed her blue, sweat-stained shirt, and raced to the bathroom. Soft blue-green light danced across the device as she placed it over her eyes. The sludge inside her head dissolved as she scanned a recipe from the night before, searched car accidents, and talked Alan off a ledge. Her car hummed through darkness toward the accident site while colors flickered against her forehead and cheekbones.
Place wok on low heat.
Honestly, you sound kind of crazy right now, Alan.
Out with the Old. The manual-drive vehicles looked apologetic as they rode flatbeds toward scrap yards and recycling plants. Automobile Accidents Plummet! They pleaded from the windows of museums that it wasn’t their fault. Add quarter cup of oil.
It had been many years since Emma had seen a crash in person. She remembered passing a particularly bad wreck as a child. Lights flashing in the median, flares burning beside twisted metal. Add peppers to oil, and cook for several minutes. A woman sat in the grass with a cut on her forehead. How silly, she thought now, the image of her mother’s hands on the steering wheel as they drove past the wreck. A woman unable to operate even the most basic of appliances.
We all have exes, Alan.
Her car stopped along the shoulder of a four-lane highway. Sheer rock walls loomed on either side, ink-black against the pre-dawn sky. Portable lamps illuminated the stretch where a vehicle had fused with the rock face. Stir until oil becomes bright red. A small group, mostly police, shuffled near the crumpled front end, shattered glass twinkling in the gravel under their feet. One man stood just outside the circle of light, his head obscured inside a cloud of smoke.
I still talk to Ian.
Emma hopped out and placed her camera on the roof of the car. When she tapped the device on her wrist, the camera whirred to life, spinning off the roof and hovering into position. Terrence West in Fatal Car Crash! Images raced before her eyes: dark highway, twisted vehicle mated with rock wall. Remove oil from heat and set aside.
His wife doesn’t care.
Video popped up on the usual sites. A young boy swiped a piece of cake from his fictional sister. Child Star Dead! A teen marched down the road in a ridiculous green jumpsuit. Glass glittered on the shoulder.
I don’t know—although I did sleep at Javier’s last night. Heat one-quarter cup of oil over medium burner.
Emma tapped her wrist again and the camera light blazed. Add pepper corns and cook for two to three minutes, stirring occasionally. On a small section of screen, she lined up the shot. Smashed vehicle over right shoulder.
I know. He has the most amazing teeth.
She raised her head to the camera. “Emma Clarke, Mojave 3. I am at the site of a tragic car crash outside of Kingman that has claimed the life of Terrence West. Mr. West was best known for his role as Billy Carter on the popular program He Did What. Officials behind me are working on details, but there is no information yet on what may have caused this accident.” Increase to medium-high heat. “We’ll keep you updated on this very sad developing story.”
Mother Gets the News! Emma leaned against her car, watching the video stream. She didn’t recognize the reporter who jogged up the driveway toward the house. As other reporters began arriving, competing video feeds burst onto her display.
We went to this little Sichuan place. Add ginger and garlic.
The jogging reporter knocked on the door and a phalanx of cameras blinded the woman that opened it. Middle-aged, bit of gray at the sides, confused. When garlic becomes fragrant, turn to high heat. A brief exchange followed. The lead reporter held out a tablet and, a moment later, Mrs. West crumpled to the floor. The reporter peppered her the whole way down but, through painful sobs, she managed to close the door.
“What are the car companies doing to make us safe?” an old woman yelled into the camera. 35 Percent of Americans Afraid to Drive! Her hand smoothed the fur between the ears of an orange cat.
You stay away from him, Alan.
A spokesman stood in front of an idealized cityscape. “Driving is safer than it ever has been. In fact, it’s safer than not driving.” Add ground pork and cook through. “Ten years ago, thirty thousand Americans were killed in car crashes each year. This year it will be less than one hundred.” Add spicy bean sauce to the mixture and stir well. “And, with our integrated medical alert technology, we save ten times that number from stroke, heart attack, and other medical emergencies. Driving saves lives. My own uncle…”
That’s not the point, Alan. Why do you care if Justin talks to his ex?
“Terry had one hell of a drug problem,” a man in a bathrobe said. He ran his hands through a tangle of wavy, brown hair. “I don’t know, he must have OD’d a dozen times.” A clip of Terrence West leaving a Los Angeles emergency room earlier that year. Press conference, Kingman Regional Hospital. Emma hopped into her car and sped toward the hospital.
Add two-thirds cup of chicken broth and stir for one minute. A young friend wiped a hand across his mouth. “It got so bad, we started dosing in the car. No need to call anyone with all those sensors and…whatever. If we got bent, straight to the ER.”
A doctor in light blue scrubs stood under the covered entrance to the hospital. “Terrence West died this morning as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident,” she said. “Emergency medical services received an automated alert early this morning and found Mr. West in a coma at the accident site. He was quickly transported to the hospital, but did not regain consciousness. He was pronounced dead at 4:03 AM.”
I’m sure I have pictures of Ian somewhere on my computer.
“Were there any drugs in his system?” a man shouted.
“I can’t answer at this time,” she said. Place one-quarter cup of water in a small bowl.
“Well…did he display any symptoms that might indicate the use of illegal drugs?”
I would be upset if you went through my stuff like that.
“Mr. West was brought to the hospital unconscious, with severe head injuries.”
“Unconscious…isn’t that a symptom of excessive drug use?”
The doctor paused, looking up at the awning.
Drugs and Death? “We are witnessing the beginning of a shocking new trend,” a man said in front of a neat bookcase. “Expect to see more ‘suicide-by-car’ in the future.” Add cornstarch to water and dissolve.
“This is smiješan,” a man in a blue windbreaker laughed. The image of his face was sandwiched between the man with the books and an animation of a car repeatedly driving over the side of a cliff. Break up clumps with fork. He disappeared into the bottom left of the frame, emerging with a thin line of smoke trailing from his nostrils. Emma drove back to the accident site for daylight video.
Are you telling me you don’t have any pictures of any of your boyfriends?
Foul Play? A woman’s face slid across, then filled the screen. “The Chinese could be hacking into your car right now!”
“He owed a lot of money around town…” Who Killed Terrence West? “…mostly to drug dealers.”
Emma emerged from her car as the sun rose over a gap in the cliffs. West’s vehicle had already been pulled free from the rock, the front end compacted to half its normal size. “Emma Clarke,” she said to the main in the windbreaker. “You with National Traffic Safety Bureau?”
Smoke swirled above his head. “Przemyslaw,” he grasped her hand. “Transportation Board.” He crushed a cigarette underfoot.
Wait—he’s naked in the pictures? Add cornstarch mixture to sauce and stir until it thickens.
“Naked?” Przemyslaw raised his chin and looked around.
Emma shook her head, pointing at her visor. “Did you say chef transportation…?” Add chili oil and stir.
“Chef? No, no…Przemyslaw,” he said slowly.
That would be a deal-breaker. Add tofu and gently toss in sauce.
Przemyslaw looked down at his hands. “Who is breaking?”
Toss. “Right, National Transportation Safety Bureau.”
“No, is Safety Board. Look, please to take this off?” he reached out to touch the visor but she stepped back quickly.
Ha, I knew it! It’s not about the pictures. Cook for three to five minutes.
“OK, you are taking…” he said, hands outstretched.
How big is it? Add scallions and stir. Serve wi— Her left hand grabbed at his wrist while he pried the visor up and over her head.
“Ow!” she yelled. Her balance fluttered, right arm flailed. The tablet in her hand came down on his head with a sharp crack.
“Car crash here not like my country,” Przemyslaw says. “There, is human error. Every time. Old man goes around corner, kobasica rolls off seat. He bends to pick up and…” he claps his hands together.
“Kobasica?” Emma asks.
“Sausage. Is like…cylinder for meat.” He mimes the shape with his hands as she waves him off, pain spreading from the front of her head into her neck. When she squeezes her eyes shut, tiny flashes of light wink at the corners.
“Chicken flies into road.” He claps again. “Here, all sensors and computers. Many things have to happen for crash.”
“You don’t think he was killed?” Emma asks, scowling as Lech spoons the soggy egg concoction into his mouth.
“You should try,” he says, pushing the plate toward her. “Helps with…” he circles his hand around his head.
“Is possible…” He scoops up more of the egg. “But, so many safeties. You cannot simply loosen screw and wheel comes off. Is like making airplane crash. Not so easy, yes? Most accidents are from nature. Tree falls. Deer runs across road. If this is too fast for sensor…crash.”
“Everyone thinks it wasn’t an accident,” she looks down at her visor.
“Everyone, everyone. The last poll…”
“Which Pole? Maybe I am knowing him.”
“Poll. Survey. Ask lots of people what they think.”
Przemyslaw sniffs. “What kind of thinking this?” he says. “If I tell you one person does not have enough information to decide even white shirt blue shirt, imagine you are asking one hundred people. This is like…crack open all black orbs and pour cubes in pond.”
“Well, I didn’t see any sausages or chickens in the road.”
“This is correct. Is like…we stand on shore of big lake. Wave comes, but you do not see boat. Reason for wave is not…apparel. Yes?”
“For someone wearing a plaid shirt, you have an interesting fixation on…”
He shakes his head and stands up from the table. “Here, I show you.”
Przemyslaw walks out of the diner and crunches through the parking lot. A cigarette appears instantly in his hand, but he decides to wait until they are finished. It rests comfortably between his fingers as he walks into the middle of the highway. Emma follows at a short distance, her hand raised in salute against the glare. The intensity of the sun continues to amaze her in this place. She stops in the shoulder. Doris and a man in a dusty baseball cap peer out from the diner window.
“What are you doing?” Emma asks as a speck of car appears on the horizon.
“Will go around,” he says. He rubs his thin hair vigorously so that it stands on end, wincing as he brushes against the cut. “You never walk in traffic?” he asks above the approaching whine.
“Not at two hundred miles an hour,” she says.
“When first cars drive themselves, is all lasers, sensors. So, accidents stop. Everyone happy.” He jabs his cigarette into the air in front of him. “Then, everyone decides, store all data one place. Use big computer to talk to cars. Traffic is better, save energy. Very good, yes?” In an instant, the car is on him. Tires screech and the vehicle swerves at the last instant. “See…” he raises his palms as the car screams away.
“Can we discuss this back inside? I’m not feeling great.” She cradles her midsection with her free arm.
Another car appears. “Here, I show,” he says.
Emma paces as the second car approaches, but it is already switching lanes. As it flies past, dust swirls wildly around the Slav’s head. He stoops to pick up the cigarette that has blown out of his hand.
“Already it knows I am in road,” he says. “Big computer is telling car there is crazy man in middle of road. Go around.”
“So…ask Big Computer why the car crashed.”
“Ah!” A smile stretches across his face, tightening the skin around his eyes. “This computer is not regular.” He steps out of the road. “Too many decisions too fast, is more like brain. Can you tell me why you buy blue shirt? Is same problem.” Emma squints and begins to walk toward the diner. “There is always reason. Same for blue shirt as car.” He talks quickly as she hurries through the parking lot. “If you are in second car and there is no man in road, you ask, ‘Why did car move?’ Seems like…magic. Second car only sees ripple, we need to find pebble.” He sweeps his hand across the cliffs behind them, “Maybe is something in mountains? Sensors malfunction with certain rock? Certain time? Maybe combination. We only see outcome at edge of pond.”
Memories and thoughts swarm unfocused inside her head and she wants to vomit. “I have to go,” she says, barging into the diner.
“Black orb always has reason,” Przemyslaw shouts, holding the door open. The man in the baseball cap rushes to the other side of the dining room. “Perturbation in water, shape of decision cube. Fluid mechanics.”
Visor in hand, she trots to her car and slides into the seat. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I hope you find your rock.” She closes the door and fits the device snugly over her face. Cut cucumbers in half lengthwise. The nausea begins to release. Strike! A Phoenix man with a handful of grenades has barricaded himself inside a bowling alley. Cut cucumber halves into half-inch sticks. Brightly colored information untwists her brain, her thoughts soften.
The car pulls away and she watches Przemyslaw get smaller through the window. The diner disappears as she directs the car to Phoenix, the next story. Place cucumber sticks in bowl, sprinkle with salt, and allow to drain. She buttons her blue shirt against the cold air.
Star’s Mother Talks. “I always thought he would die in a car, just not like this,” Mrs. West says, wiping at her nose and eyes with a tissue. Place a small pan over medium heat. “They were always shooting up, just driving around.” Add oil, garlic, and pepper flakes. “It was like their own personal ambulance service. I don’t know who is in charge of all that stuff, but if it was me,” she looks into the camera with a wry smile. When garlic browns, remove pan from heat. “I’d have been…”
“Stop,” Emma says. In a medium bowl, combine rice vinegar, sesame oil, and…
She removes her visor as the car eases to one side of the street. Ahead, shiny vehicles navigate the intersection like schools of silver fish darting silently between one another. For a moment, she nearly sees it all. The great, black orb controlling traffic from a cool, windowless room. A river of decisions flowing, even now, around her parked car. The temperature in the room rises as the drug addict climbs into his vehicle one more time. On a dark highway, there is an impulse. Glass rains onto the dirt and the room begins to cool. The great orb is still.
But, the area behind her eyes is tender and new swelling brings on a potent headache. She sits very quietly, but is unable to grasp the stone. She lifts the visor back over her face and her dreams of orbs and accidents fade along with the pain. Add oil mixture to bowl, stir, and allow to cool.
“I don’t know why,” Emma mumbles, looking down at her blue shirt.
No, not you. Hey—you remember that guy that I told you about last week?
Toss cucumber sticks in dressing.
Yeah, great smile.
There is a crazy man in Phoenix. Her car merges into traffic and speeds through the intersection. Serve at room temperature.
Chris Merchant ([email protected]) is a physicist and writer. He lives in Alexandria with his wife, three mobiles, and a Honda Fit.