Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part V
“Nope, man. Try again.”
“Hey Moog, why haven’t you asked the big guy about becoming manager of this place?”
It was a slower night, only a few diners at the bar. One guy who had become a regular no longer asked me for specific drinks but instead just told me to make up something creative for him to try.
“I have, man,” he sighed, watching me pick out a combination of bottles for the man’s next drink, “but, you know how it is.”
“How what is?”
“You know, man.” He shrugged. “No matter how good I am at this, Boss Man’s not gonna make me a manager.”
He pointed to his skin, “I don’t look like one…”
Then to his mouth, “…don’t talk like one…”
Finally, he smiled at me, “…and I don’t have a fancy degree with made up stuff on it.”
“I keep telling you analytical systems eng—“
“Right, man. It’s real, it’s real. Okay.” He chuckled and started wiping down his sushi knives.
“Come on, Moog! You’re brilliant. You keep this place spotless and running smoothly. You make better sushi than any five star, oceanside resort ever could. You taught me everything I know. You already basically run the place.”
He didn’t answer me. It was quiet for a minute as I poured some ingredients into a shaker.
I thought about what Moog was saying. The reasons he gave for not asking to be made manger…none of them made sense. This wasn’t the 1950s. Unless…
“Moog, are you telling me,” I finished making the drink, strained out my concoction into a glass and grabbed a straw for a quick taste test before handing it to my patron, “that The Boss is racist? Did he do something to you?”
My regular looked up from his phone with eyebrows perked. Ooh, drama at his favorite watering hole. I realized we probably shouldn’t be having this conversation in front of a customer so, smiling at him, I gave a quick, “excuse us one second,” and left him to his drink. I walked to the other side of the bar where Moog was prepping some carrots.
Moog started, “He don’t mean it, man, it’s just how people are without thinking about it. People see me walking down Pike’s Place, they give me extra space so I don’t steal nothin’. They see me working here, they assume I’m either some master asian chef prodigy or the janitor. People see you and assume you’re in charge. Ask anyone in here who they think the manager is and they’ll all assume it’s you first. It’s not racism, not on purpose at least. Just how people grow up to think around here. Been dealing with it ever since I moved to this country.”
I sighed, “Where did you move here from?”
“Nice try,” he chuckled. “No man, you still gotta guess. One day, though, man, I’ll live the dream,” he said with a sigh. “All I’ve ever wanted since coming here was to have a place I could make my own. A staple of the community. A place where folks could hang out, eat, drink, and live life smiling. That’s what my folks did back in my home country—which you still gotta guess.”
He continued, “There wasn’t much to smile about back home. Not like here in the States. But my folks managed to do it anyway. And they made every single person in the neighborhood smile, too. They had a tiny little shop but everyone loved it, and they loved my folks. No matter what was goin’ on in the country or in people’s lives, they’d show up to my folks’ place for some good bites and drinks, conversation, it cheered them up. It was the heart of the community. People fell in love there. People broke up there. Kids would spend the day hanging out while their folks went to work. You name it. Whether you wanted to hang out, be alone, meet someone, whatever, you did it at my folks’ shop.”
He was looking down at his feet now, smiling. “I grew up in that shop, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, eventually cooking and doing the money. My folks wanted more for me, though, so they saved up the money to send me Stateside. I told them before I left that I’d carry on the tradition. Be the heart of the community, like they were.” He looked up at me from his reverie, “Someday, man.” He smiled and punched my shoulder before going back to prepping the vegetables.
Clearly, he had opened up enough of his past for one evening. Unsure of what to say, I gave him a smile, “You’ll get there, man. And I’m excited to try all the free food and drinks you’ll give me for being your top employee.”
“Ha! Man, I’d have to charge you double just to make up for how lazy you are. Psh, I’d be hiring you out of pity, not talent, man. Get back to work.” He waved me off. That was the Moog I had come to know.
Humorous balance restored between us, I walked back over to check on my regular while Moog put the carrots away and wiped down his sushi station—keeping everything immaculate and in its place.
“How’d you like the drink, friend?” I nodded at my regular, trying to distract him from the fact that I just called our boss a racist in front of him.
He was scrolling through his phone and looked up at me, “It’s good. Real boozy and fruity, but with…I don’t know, did you put some salt in it, maybe?”
“That’s cool. I really like it.” He looked at the burnt orange hue of the liquid, “You know, it sounds crazy, but it actually reminds me of a time I was out hiking with my dad as a kid. It was crazy hot, sun beating down on us, dripping sweat. It took us all day to reach the top, but once we got there, there was a wild blueberry bush at the peak. We sat there sweaty and eating blueberries while we watched the sun set.” He stirred the drink, smiling at his memories. “That was a good day. And a great drink,” he nodded to me as he raised his glass, “I like it.”
I smiled, “Good to hear.” He didn’t talk much whenever he came. Usually just sat at the bar and looked at his phone. Being a person who loves a good story, I was always trying to coax something out of him, and usually used his nonchalant approach to ordering drinks as a chance to break the ice, trying to make up some unique flavors that might get him to open up.
I enjoyed mixing custom cocktails. Each drink was a like a story. I picked flavors, colors, smells that brought up different mental pictures—throwing them together like words on a page. Gin made me think of forests and pine trees. A salty scotch brought up pictures of the ocean. A good rum took me to the tropics and so on. I tried to create different scenes in my head and recreate them in my drinks.
It seemed to work well—my regular never complained. That hiking story about his dad was the most he’d ever shared, all because a drink reminded him of it. Funny how something we so often take for granted—like a plate of food or a cup of liquids and chemicals—can communicate so much.
Or, maybe he was just drunk and talkative tonight. Alcohol tends to do that, too, reader, no poetic, memory-inspiring flavors required. Drink responsibly.
I was going to test my two theories by asking him more about his hiking story.
Where were they hiking? Did he hike often with his dad?
If you watched the sunset from the peak, then how did you get down?
Were you always fond of eating random berries that grew on mountainsides?
Before I had the chance to, though, he embedded his attention back into his phone with a renewed focus that I felt uneasy about breaking.
Personally, reader, I always felt disconnected from this aspect of the world’s culture. I wasn’t a big fan of scrolling around on my phone much. I really only kept one for emergencies…and so I’d have a phone number to give restaurants and bars when they offered a discount if you gave them your information. As a result, the only messages I ever got were from coffeeshops and bookstores offering me coupons for coming back or a restaurant receipt. My inbox was starting to look like a travel diary of its own, documenting—via automated marketing attempts—the random shops from the random towns I had passed through that year.
Those automated messages and coupons were also annoying, though, and I mostly tried to ignore my phone. Could I have gotten a job a lot faster if I had searched online as opposed to going door to door? Probably. But remember, the place I was working at now wasn’t even advertising any job openings. I never would have found Moog or this bar if I had stuck to online searches.
And when that wonderful old midwestern lady at the gas station told me about Omaha and the hot air balloon festival, I could have stopped right there, pulled out my phone, discovered that the city had a unique relationship with furniture stores, sex trafficking, and hot air balloon theft, and then turned my bike around right then and there. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to ride over and check it out. I wouldn’t have met Alice. And I certainly wouldn’t have had that nice conversation with the old lady over a gas station sandwich and coffee. (Also, reader, only two of those three things about Omaha are true.)
In other words, if I had turned to my phone for everything, my story up to this point would be unbearably boring, lacking people and places and conversations and…life. You would have quit reading after page one for sure, reader.
I was wiping down the counter, watching my patron watch his phone when The Boss came out of his office and nodded at me.
“Swing over to my office if you aren’t busy right now,” was all he said before turning back around and closing the door.
The Boss had a name, but Moog and I always just called him “The Boss” because that’s how he acted. He rarely came out of his office. Our only interaction with him was when he re-stocked our inventory or wrote our checks. Moog and I didn’t mind though, that’s why we called him The Boss. It wasn’t derogatory, it’s just how we saw him.
In the time that I had been working here, though, The Boss had never called either of us into his small, cramped office.
Did I do something wrong?
Moog just shrugged. This was new behavior for him as well. My patron pursed his lips and pretended not to notice. How come we only had his attention when bad things were happening? Go back to your phone, man.
I walked into his office carefully, slowly, like a kid trying out the temperature of the ocean at the beach, dipping one toe in at a time. I peeked my head in through the door, as if to double check that I heard The Boss correctly and he actually did want me in here.
“You called for me, Boss?”
He made for a funny sight. He wasn’t an overly large man, but the pathetically small size of his desk made him look like a giant.
“Yeah, yeah. Get in here. Shut the door.” He waved me in.
The folding chair that I sat on when interviewing for this job was gone, replaced by a small stack of binders. With no other furniture in the room except for the lilliputian desk behind which The Boss sat, I just stood in front of the door.
As he looked up from his computer at me, I had trouble reading his face. Was I in trouble for something? Did a customer complain? Did he overhear me call him a potential racist? How would I explain that? Oh no, sir, you misheard. I only assumed you were a racist. Moog set me straight and explained that your racism was more of the unconscious sort.
Finally, with his trademark flat, matter-of-fact tone, he spoke.
“I’m making you manager of this place.”
What do you do when you need to clear your head, reader? When your world feels like a mess. When it seems like you’re in the middle of the ocean and each new thing in life crashes over you like a wave, slamming you under the surface, knocking your head so hard and swift that you don’t know which way is up? How do you keep from drowning?
I heard that some people go for long runs. Others might journal and get their thoughts out on paper. Or, maybe you read fiction to get away from the stresses of daily life.
(If that last reason is why you’re reading this story, reader, then convince all your friends to start doing the same. Maybe I can start a career in fictional therapy…)
I, like many others, go for walks to sort out my thoughts—wandering through dense, bustling neighborhoods full of life and color, or empty isolated pockets of nature. Luckily, Seattle had both of those in spades.
In particular, walks gave me a chance to scout out the area for my lost balloon—the whole reason behind my travels to begin with. Though, in the weeks I had been in Seattle, I saw no sign of it, not the slighted hint.
I was on the sidewalk just outside of Pike’s Place, wandering to clear my head. The street was filled with people of all sorts. Locals and tourists. Coming and going. It was a warm, busy Sunday afternoon, just a few days after The Boss told me he was making me the manager, was giving me Moog’s dream that he had been working so hard to achieve. I hadn’t told him yet. I didn’t know how to tell him. I was supposed to start in a week.
I felt an uneasiness in my chest. It was the same way I felt when I saw Alice riding away from her husband, her town, her life, from the vantage point of the hot air balloon.
I was impacting people’s lives, but I had no control over how I did it or what the result would be like.
A street musician was playing the violin and had gathered quite a crowd. I listened for a bit before walking a few streets over and caught of view of the water. I watched the boats coming in and out, saw the docks full of port workers scurrying about with a sense of purpose, the sun setting over Puget Sound.
On top of this seeming lack of control over how I impacted others, I had to consider the whole reason for my journey in the first place. I had a mission—a purpose—out there in the world. I had a lost childhood balloon to find. Over that water, past this town. Even past this country, possibly. I never meant to stay here. I just needed enough money to continue my travels. I could save up enough to book a flight somewhere, but that was only a one time fix. I needed a more permanent mode of transportation if I was to search with any real chance of finding it. In that respect, Alice’s hot air balloon may have been a blessing in disguise.
But, I knew nothing about hot air balloons, and to be honest, every time I thought about lifting back into the air in that thing my breath would get caught in my throat as thoughts of the storm that brought me here crept slowly into my mind like deadly ice forming on a plane’s wings, killing its airworthiness a few frozen drops at a time.
What was I supposed to do? What would you do, reader?
The days trickled by as I tried my best to avoid Moog. He was my only friend in this city, and we normally spent our off days hanging around downtown, too broke to really do anything but enjoying the life of Seattle anyway. Plus, the outdoors were nearly always free. We spent plenty of days hiking up peaks and backpacking through plenty of mountain trails.
One time, I took him to see my wrecked hot air balloon. Moog was a clever guy, and was soon looking at the wreckage with a wizened, logical eye. “The frame looks mostly intact,” he’d said, running his hands along the metal structure, “so that’s good. Probably won’t have to do any welding. The fuel system ’n burner all look in workin’ shape, too.” He disconnected a propane tank and hefted it, smirking at me, “Tank’s bone dry, though, look at how light it is.” Without warning, he chucked it one handed across the clearing and it hit the dirt with a hollow pang. “Used to carry these tanks around my parent’s shop for their grill as a kid. When these things are full you can barely lift ‘em, man.” He was a rather strong guy. Not big, big not someone you’d want to pick a fight with.
It was nice getting a second opinion of things. When I’d first crashed I was, understandably, not in the best state of mind. Everything looks more dramatic in the moment, reader. I never really gave the balloon a close inspection since that initial crash landing, afraid to look at the damage too closely and risk being heartbroken. In fact, since I only came here to sleep, I rarely saw what it looked like in the light of day. It actually wasn’t too terrible.
“Canopy is pretty shredded in those trees, though,” he’d shrugged. “Better take up sewing while you’re here, huh man?” He punched my shoulder.
Seattle was a big, busy place, but Moog had become my confidant—hanging out with him made me feel like a part of the community. Like I belonged. In all my months of traveling before Omaha, it was a feeling I had forgotten all about. I wasn’t a bird gliding over the water anymore, looking down into a world I would never know. I was a fish swimming in a reef. A small fish, albeit, in the big, colorful reef that was Seattle, but a part of the ecosystem nonetheless.
And all that belonging and friendship was about to be destroyed when Moog found out I had stolen his job, robbed him of getting one step closer to his dream. I’d stop being the fish and turn again into the lonely bird looking down into the water, forever an outsider.
Sure, I would have to leave Seattle at some point to continue my lost balloon search. But isn’t it always better to leave with your friendships intact? Knowing that, if you ever came that way again, there’d be someone with an open door and conversation to welcome your return visit?
Why should I—someone with no intention of staying—be allowed to become the manager when all Moog had ever wanted was to create a heart for the community. He would do so much more than I ever could as manager.
There was no question that I would have to tell Moog, and it had to be before we went back to work later this week. It would be best if he heard it from me, obviously. No good to have him find out at the bar with an Oh, by the way, Moog. I know you taught me everything I know, but I’m your boss now.
It was decided, then. I’d ask him to meet up somewhere tonight, buy him a drink or a bite to eat down at Capitol Hill to break the news. I’d text him about it right now.
But, then, something else happened.
I still remember exactly where I was, reader. I can picture it more perfectly than anything else in my story so far. You ever have those moments where you can recreate the exact sights, sounds, even smells, of specific snippets that unexpectedly changed your life forever? Unaware of the moment’s significance until it happened?
One second, you’re having a perfectly normal day. The next, everything you know about your story changes and that moment is frozen for you to memorize? To replay over and over in your head?
I was sitting near a fountain in the shadow of the Space Needle, watching the crowds go by. There was a fresh pizza smell wafting through the park from a nearby storefront. The free advertising worked—I stood up, intending to grab some lunch, as I reached into my pocket for my phone so I could get ahold of Moog. But, right before I grabbed it, it vibrated.
New text message.
I narrowed my brows in scrutiny. There were kids nearby, playing and laughing near the fountain.
Probably another random coupon from a coffeeshop I’d visited halfway across the country.
The kids were loud enough to drown out the monorail which, in turn was just loud enough to drown out the birds in the trees.
“HEY! I can’t believe I found you. Or, at least, I hope this is you. How do I start? Are you okay? Where are you? I’m so sorry about leaving you like that. I guess I…froze. I don’t know. I can’t believe I left you in a freaking hot air balloon. You didn’t even know how to fly it. I’m horrible. I’m so sorry. I hope you’re ok. I have good news, though. When you get this message, call me. I have something for you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Thanks for reading! If you want to read up on previous installments of Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor, start here with part one! https://lostballooncafe.com/2019/08/23/maybe-true-mostly-metaphor/