They opened the door, Lee took one look around the joint and was immediately struck by the large African with his mouthful of chili cheese fries.
The African shouted through a mouthful of fries. “MOAH!”
Maya said, “Thulani, so good to see you again.”
His mouth still full, he held up a finger as if to ask for a second. The finger was covered in chili and cheese. He looked at it, swallowed, licked all of his fingers, wiped his hands all over the artisanal napkins, and stood to hug her.
In the hullabaloo, Lee noticed a bit of chili cheese fry stuck to Maya’s back where the man had patted her. For the second time that day, he reached over and touched her shoulder, removing the debris.
She turned, less hostile to his touch.
He held up the cheese.
Once seated, the man said, “Get this woman a beer.”
The server finished making himself a pour-over at a place that did not sell artisan coffee. Lee wondered if he had brought it himself. Eventually the man let the filter and the water do the work of brewing. He grabbed something and headed over to them, ready to take an order.
Maya piped up. “I’m really not a huge beer drinker, Thulani.” “No beer?” the waiter asked.
“She is today,” Thulani said. “Beer.”
“Dude,” the waiter said, “we don’t just have a tap with the word BEER on it. You’re gonna have to pick. Want something from Founder’s or Mother’s or…?”
“Ooooh,” Maya said, “I do like this one. I didn’t think they’d have beer like this here.”
“I’m kind of amazed myself,” Lee said.
“Maya,” Thulani said, “do you plan to introduce me to your friend?”
“He’s not my friend,” she said. “Yet,” she added. “But he tries hard.”
Lee didn’t know what to say, so he squirmed in his seat instead.
“Maya, be kind, come now,” Thulani said.
“Uh…” Lee said – he hated feeling like an accidental documentary filmmaker, stuck in the awkward reality of two close coeds with nothing to show for it but his own testimony as a witness. He’d hated that feeling for some time.
He tried to talk. “I’m from–“
“Your name?” Thulani asked.
Lee said, “Lee.”
“He’s from here in town,” Maya said. “Seems to know his way around.”
“This is good,” Thulani said. “We’ll need someone like that if we plan to save some time.”
“No,” Maya said, “we won’t. We’re fine without him.”
After finishing his bite, Thulani said, “Uh huh. We can take him to city hall with us.”
“What’s at city hall?” Lee asked.
“Art,” Maya said. “Art Thulani wants to touch.”
“Like one of those school exhibits?” Lee asked. “Or like a weird petting zoo?”
“No,” Maya said, “not like that. It’s worth millions of dollars.”
“Oh, like the one at start of The Thomas Crowne Affair,” Lee said.
“The apple face dude.” Maya said, “Other than high-priced paintings, I really don’t follow the link.”
“That was the link,” Lee said.
“Stop comparing and settle for this: there’s an expensive work of art in city hall that this crazy African wants to touch.” His body moved as if physically obstructed by the words she said. As if shoved by the sounds.
After swallowing again, Thulani added, “And the crazy African always gets what he wants.”
Lee asked, “You want to touch this multi-million dollar work of art?”
“Yes,” Thulani said, “with my blade.”
“You want to CUT this multi-million-dollar work of art?” Lee asked.
“Not the canvas. Only the paint. And only a little paint,” Thulani said. “A sliver. Won’t be missed.”
“Um, yes,” Lee said, ”yes I think it will be missed. Especially considering it’s a large African man cutting a chunk off a canvas on candid-city-hall friggin camera.”
Thulani said, “It’s only a little bitty bit. It’s like cutting the first spoonful off a bucket of lard.”
“In that case,” Lee said, “it will for sure be missed. First footprint in fresh snow’s the clearest.”
“We shall see,” Thulani said.
“No we shan’t,” Lee said.
“Shan’t?” Maya asked.
“Trying to keep up with Shakespeare over here,” Lee said. “Shan’t for two reasons. One: we won’t try it. Two: if we did try it, it would be at night and we wouldn’t be able to see for ourselves.”
“Sure,” Thulani said and smiled again, “great point. Let us go and look for ourselves.”
“Wait. No, stop. Not us. You, you… you people,” Lee said, he drew a midair circle around the other two. “Not me.”
“Maya?” Lee said. “Stupid, right?”
“Stupid doesn’t come into play for your only way onward. People in front of an avalanche don’t have time for names like ‘stupid.’ Move or don’t.”
“I can’t believe this,” Lee said.
“Well, you’re an accomplice now,” Maya said. “You can either turn your brand. New. Friends,” she smiled an enticing smile, pausing for effect, “into the police or trust that we’re neither thieves nor out to hurt the good people of Joplin. Your people.”
“Gentle, gentle, Maya,” Thulani said. “We don’t need to take this down some too-eager pathway. Why don’t you come to city hall now and review the painting with us, Mister Lee from Joplin?”
“No,” Lee said. “Absolutely not. I will not break into City Hall with you.”
“’No I will not go out with you,’” Maya mocked. “What is this, grade school? No I will not break into–“
“Technically, Lee,” Thulani said, “We’re not breaking into this city’s meeting hall. We’re simply leaving a little late.”
Lee scoffed. “Like that’ll stand up in–“
“Come on,” Maya said. “Come be bold with us.”
She smiled and added. “With me.”
“Unless it’s the next version of Elder Scrolls, I don’t do adventurous,” Lee said.
“Today’s the best day to start,” she said. “No time like the present and all of that needlepoint pillow crap.”
“No. Sorry, no. I wish I was better at this kind of thing.”
“Of course you do,” she said and then with a devious grin, added, “but if you were already bold, what would you have to look forward to?”
Lee paused and thought. It reminded him of his past friends who, by inviting him to their little drinking party, had delayed the inevitable moment when he walked in on his father and mother shouting. An invitation. So simple a thing. So ominous. So promising when considering the domino effect in aggregate. “The Visitor’s Bureau’s in there. We could totally get a map of the sites and I could give you a tour of–”
Maya snorted. “We’re not here for a tour. Unless by tour, you mean that old Greek word for a lathe. Tornos, I think. The shaping of things to come. I like the symbolism there… not seeing the sites, but shaping the sights. Sculpting Acropolis. A tour. Sure, that’ll work.”
“Well I… I guess I still haven’t seen that other mural – the one his grandson painted – so I’ll walk you over there, grab a pamphlet or two and if things get weird, I’m gone.”
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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