Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 71
The salmon nigiri rotates past the couple for the third time since they sat down several minutes ago.
Years ago, one patron, an older man, had slyly flicked a sharpie marker against the conveyor belt to time how long it took for the sushi items to pass through the entire restaurant. It was four minutes, twelve seconds before the tiny ink-mark made its way back to him.
“You would be fully booked, right from the start,” the woman tells the man.
She is trying to entice him back or forward into some job opportunity. The salmon can’t be sure which.
But by then, the plate of sushi has slid away again.
The conveyor belt never stops rotating. Round and round it goes.
When the aging nigiri returns to booth 17, it is wiser, more somber, and stoically resigned to its fate.
The man is rationalizing.
“Look, the only reason I left in the first place was I needed space. You know. Because of her.”
“But, didn’t she break up with you?” the woman says.
The man says nothing in response to this. He seems trapped.
It’s not that the nigiri is unsympathetic, but it is on a conveyor belt. It is, once again, whisked away.
If no one selects it soon, a chef will throw it in the trash.
The sushi hopes that will not be its fate. To be tossed in the trash like some disposable thing? Awful. Please, no.
Of course, the alternative isn’t all that appealing either. To be selected from the hundreds of rotating plates and then eaten alive? The sushi considers both outcomes and waxes philosophical, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
Round and round the salmon sails; it is living on borrowed time, and it knows it.
The last time it passed through the kitchen, Ichiro, the oldest itamae in the kitchen, gave it one of his glares. The man had squinted at his wristwatch and scrutinized the surface of the salmon. The restaurant had a reputation to uphold, and Ichiro felt strongly about never serving stale sushi. The manager could eat cake for all he cared.
“But I left. Wouldn’t it be setting a dangerous precedent? To welcome me back with open arms?” the man says. He is sure the answer is no.
Since the pandemic, the nigiri knows, massage therapists have been a hot commodity. Earlier in the day, an outspoken unagi roll shared with the nigiri the delicate balance that currently at play between massage therapists and owners.
How an unagi roll which was younger than the nigiri could know such a thing, the nigiri never thinks to ask.
The woman, clearly expecting this defensive ploy, begins countering his hesitancy.
The sushi admires, almost envies the man. It has perhaps one or two more trips around the restaurant before landing in a tummy or the trash. It feels its mortality looming large. If a patron doesn’t pull it from the rotating track within the next five minutes (nigiri are notoriously bad at keeping track of time), Ichiro will toss it in the smelly trash can.
The sushi has never once heard the word ‘existentialism,’ but it could – if asked within the next three hundred seconds, give a good, serviceable working definition of it now.
Life is absurd?
Existence precedes meaning?
The finitude of life?
Oh, yes. The sushi understood all of it.
The ‘two fingers’ of salmon resting upon a firm mound of pressed vinegar rice could lecture for the entire five minutes it has left upon all the tenants of existentialism. It hasn’t studied philosophy; it has lived it.
“I would want a raise if I come back,” the man says. “In this time, this year especially, every massage therapist should negotiate a higher rate. I’m sure the owners would rather pay therapists another dollar or two an hour than re-open without enough therapists to meet the demand.”
The two of them negotiate a new rate. Though the salmon still isn’t sure if the man is serious about returning.
The only thing the sushi is sure of is its time is rapidly running out.
A patron will eat the nigiri soon, or they will dispose of it; what a cruel life.
The sushi underestimates how much time it has left. It makes seven more trips around the mid-sized restaurant, enough time to see the man and woman at table 17 finish their lunch meeting.
They seem like good friends. The nigiri feels the two have known each other for a while.
They live in a country without socialized healthcare that is poised to re-elect the worst leader ever. They are both concerned and answer the usual litany of questions similarly enough to be politically interchangeable.
Yet, both of them occupy a more compassionate world than that of the nigiri.
When the server delivers the check to table 17, the two of them fight over the bill.
‘What a strange world,’ the sushi thinks.
These beings would struggle over who gets to pay for lunch.
The server looks harried but patient as the man and woman sort through which one will pay.
Both of them insist it is ‘their turn.’
In a decisive, moment-ending gesture, the woman shoves her credit card towards the timid Japanese server.
“Just take it!” the woman says.
The server recoils as if slapped. But then the nigiri slides past booth 17 for the last time.
Luckily for the nigiri, two booths past number 17, an overweight American teenager named Paul pulls it from the conveyor belt, and with a single fluid motion, devours the sushi. It is a merciful ending, the nigiri thinks, as it slips from its existence into Paul.