The pizza joint was half-filled with people who were taking bites only after having removed their facemasks, the masks hanging off their faces or discarded to the side. Lee noticed, and wondered: why facemasks? Had a new flu virus emerged? He hadn’t heard anything. Odd, yet familiar in a weird way. After all, the Joplin he remembered was a town built on quirks. Still, there had to be a reason.
The man he was looking for was sitting at a table midway through the row of booths. He’d surprised him with the tap on the shoulder, had taken his seat. They’d ordered and began discussing the reason for Lee’s visit.
Before the pizza came, Lee said, “When can I see her?”
“Can’t for now,” the man across from him said. “Why don’t you get acquainted with everything that’s changed around here?” He laughed. Even in his humor, he had a way of setting his face, his jaw, laughing down at you.
But that word can’t?
That was the worst part. Lee hated that word. Mouth half-full of pizza, Lee struggled to say, “I came here to see Mom. That’s all. Even brought her a ton of stuff she loves from The Candy House.”
The giant of a man was ignoring him, even with Lee’s offering extended.
So Lee pushed forward and said, “I’ll just drop off this chocolate and be right out of your hair. Today at least.”
“I”ll take it to her.” He was smirking.
Lee didn’t like the smirk. The smirk meant my little nephew. The smirk meant not in my town. The smirk meant all sorts of unspokens that had built up over the course of years from the first belittling Christmas card to the most recent offer for a full ride to school. This from a man who was completely ignorant of the money Lee had made developing that stupid smartphone game: Befooled.
Lee took a breath and said, “Uncle Monroe, really. I’m gonna see my mother before I leave town with or without you. What did you do, pull her into home care again?”
“Did you?” he asked. “You did, didn’t you. Is she at your house?” Or worse. There were places — big, dark, secret places — where his uncle had often hosted big thanksgiving dinners: a bank vault, a forest mansion, a cave — that sort of thing. Show off. Lee always suspected that if Uncle Monroe wanted to keep some business of his under the table, he would first bury the table behind some bank vault door or under eighty feet of limestone. “Well?” Lee asked again.
“Spend some time shopping,” Uncle Monroe said. “You’re practically a foreigner. Lots of stuff happening here now that you don’t know a thing about.”
“Fine,” Lee said. “Call you later, Uncle Monroe.”
“Have fun with the locals. See you around.”
As the man left, Lee got a chill. He looked around the place – again, normal pizza joint but for the masks and the occasional wet cough. He packed up and headed out, leaving the tip his Uncle should have left.
He saw a girl standing at the counter and the last thing on his mind was family stress. She wasn’t just cute — she was intriguing: her dark hair adorned with several plaits adorned with symbols and skulls, as if instead of hair she had wind chimes. “No, not my karma,” she was saying. “I don’t believe in karma. I’m a kismet girl. I meant that one restaurant. Supposedly downtown? Meeting a friend.”
“Oh, Instant Karma!” the pizza cook said. Daniel? Was that his name? Lee wondered if he was still curating the music scene. “Down the street a few blocks,” the guy said, “on the left.”
Before he could react, she was already out the door…
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brought to you by the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau
photographed & directed by Mark Neuenschwander
written & directed by Lance Schaubert
produced by Carrie Puffinbarger