April was gazing at the counter. She had been doing this, off and on, for several minutes now and Dennis was getting curious.
"Penny, or even a quarter, for your thoughts?" He asked.
"Hmmm?" She turned toward him. "Sorry, that singing lobster behind the counter… just wondering what it’s doing there."
Dennis looked at the lobster. He had noticed it but had only watched it a moment. There was a grainy, cheery tune emanating from somewhere inside it and its red plastic tail and claws flicked back and forth to the music. It wasn’t his kind of thing; he wasn’t into tacky. But he wasn’t surprised that April liked it.
“Who knows,” he said.
The restaurant, a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place they had stumbled across, was empty except for them. They sat in a booth in the corner, waiting for their orders. Both of them had opted for combo #1 — chicken balls, rice, chop suey and no substitutions allowed. It was typical of the type. The food would definitely be good, though maybe not great. And there was no debit or credit, only the giant-handled manual cash register. It was chicken balls and cash only.
Dennis remembered the newspaper clipping tacked to the drink cooler that he had perused. "Well, they’ve been open for a long time, since like the ’60s. So, they’d have a lot of history. Perhaps some regular customer gave it to them for excellent rice, or egg rolls and chicken balls that were never soggy."
April smiled at him. "Could be. I guess we’ll never know."
The young Chinese girl, the one who had taken their order, returned. She laid beverages — water for April and Coke for Dennis — on the table, smiling all the time.
Dennis decided to find out what he could.
"Umm, excuse me," he said. She looked at him, no doubt expecting a call for chopsticks or extra cherry sauce. "We were wondering why you have that singing lobster behind the counter?"
She grimaced a little; or did she? Dennis couldn’t be sure, it had happened so quickly. Then she smiled again — it appeared a little forced to Dennis — and said, "I’m not sure, it’s just always been there."
Then, without another glance or word, she was gone, vanishing into the kitchen area behind the counter. They were alone with the sound of mellow muzak — versions of forgotten ‘80s hits. Punctuating it from time to time was the thunk thunk of chopping and the sizzle of hot oil.
"I guess that’s that then. Thanks for trying though," April said.
Dennis wasn’t finished though. The server’s reaction had ignited his determination to solve the mystery. That was how he was; once he got something in his mind he had to see it through. It was like a disease.
When he had been in high school a girl had turned him down for a date. This hadn’t been a unique occurrence, but he felt that she hadn’t given him a good enough reason. So, day after day he asked her — Why? Why did you say no? And she would only say that he wasn’t her type. And so he’d ask again. He had paid for those enquiries with weeks of detention but it had not put a damper on his inquisitiveness. Now he was determined to find out the origin of the dusty lobster. He looked at it, sitting there on the shelf, nestled between packs of gum and boxes of standard staples. Staples? Dennis shook his head. Why not staples, he supposed. That was a question for another day.
The waitress returned, carrying two plates of food, steaming hot and smelling delicious. April licked her lips, she was so hungry. They had walked for an hour before they had located a restaurant that looked appetizing and on which they could both agree. The food was barely on the table when the waitress started to turn away. Then she stopped, remembering her duties, and looked back over her shoulder. "Is there anything else?"
Dennis was sure he could see apprehension on her face. Was it the lobster? Did she know more than she had let on? Only one way to find out.
"Yes, actually," he beamed at her, "about the lobster…"
Her mouth almost dropped open but she caught it at the last moment, pursing her lips. She didn’t say anything, didn’t make an excuse or move away, so Dennis continued.
"Is there anyone here who would know where it came from? Your parents perhaps, or aunt and uncle, whoever runs this place?"
"I’m sorry," she said. And, Dennis thought, she did look apologetic. She glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen. Was she nervous? "My family, ummm," she said, looking deep in thought, "purchased the restaurant from another family. Yes, that’s right."
An obvious lie. The girl had not even tried to cover it up. Dennis decided to relent. There was some reason she was being duplicitous and he didn’t want to get her into trouble with her family.
"Okay, I guess I’m just too curious." He smiled at her. She smiled back and walked away.
“Let it go,” April said.
She shook her head. “I know what you’re like.”
“Really, it’s forgotten,” he said. “Let’s eat!”
They ate their food, digging in. Neither said a word, they were so focused on eating. They shovelled forkfuls of dripping chop suey, clumps of tangy rice and crisp, cherry sauce covered chicken balls into their mouths. April hardly paused to chew.
"Good, hey?" Dennis asked.
"Umhmmm," April mumbled through another bite.
"Come back again sometime?"
When they finished Dennis sat back, looking at the remnants of his meal. Hardly enough to take with him. Nah, why bother?
The girl returned, placing her hand along the rim of his plate. "Finished?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Wrap it up to go?" she asked. She had a look in her eyes, almost pleading.
Dennis shrugged; why not? "Sure, thanks."
She took the plates with a smile and disappeared again.
"That was odd," April indicated.
"Yeah, well I guess she doesn’t like to see good food go to waste."
April paid for their meal. She left a healthy gratuity, reams of compliments about the meal and promises to return again. And they would. Dennis had to know about the lobster. Yes, he’d told April that he’d let it go but it ate at him. Ate at him like he had attacked his meal.
Dennis, carrying a stapled paper bag, TOP written in black marker on it, waved and left the restaurant. April followed, waving as well.
"That was awesome," she announced as they waited for the bus a few minutes later.
"Yeah," Dennis answered.
"Let it go," she said, knowing he was still thinking of the lobster.
He shook his head. "How? It’s such a mystery."
"Right." She shook her head.
The bus arrived and they clamoured on board, escaping the cooling evening air. Dennis sat with the bag of leftovers on his lap.
“Fortune cookies, we didn’t get fortune cookies,” he said.
“In the bag?” April suggested.
“Let’s have a look.” Dennis pulled against the pressure of the staple. The bag came open and he lifted it to peer inside.
Fortune cookies, two of them, peered back at him in their shiny, semi-transparent wrappers. But there was something else too. Nestled on top of the polystyrene container was a piece of loose leaf, folded over. He withdrew it from the bag.
A note? Dennis’ excitement grew. He knew there had been something odd about the way the girl had asked to wrap his food. And now he had his explanation. Did the piece of paper grasped in his hands hold the secret of the lobster? Was it as hush-hush as she had made it out to be? He hesitated, wanting to know the answer and yet not wanting to spoil the intrigue he had built up in his mind.
"What is it? April asked.
"A note, I think. That serving girl must have put it in the bag."
"Huh? Perhaps she has a crush on you." She smirked.
"Har har. No, I believe it’s about the lobster."
"Oh, c’mon." April rolled her eyes.
"Seriously. Here, hold this." He handed her the leftovers. "Thanks."
With trepidation he unfolded the paper. It was covered in small, feminine handwriting, written with a ballpoint pen. He read it slowly, having to pause from time to time to re-read and decipher the handwriting.
It said: I apologize for not saying all I knew about the singing lobster. It is a… sensitive subject for our family. It belonged to my mother. She loved to watch it sway and hear its song. But my mother died, several years ago. My father has since remarried. His new wife is, um, cranky. She made my father get rid of every trace of my mother. He did not tell her of the significance of the lobster. So it stayed, a reminder of my mother and her laughter. I didn’t dare tell her about it. Sorry. Now I have said too much but I wanted to share the story with someone. I cannot speak of it with my father because the witch might be watching. Thank you for your business and I hope to see you again soon. My mother would be happy for your interest. And that makes me happy too. And a signature: Ling.
"Ha." It wasn’t a laugh, Dennis just said ha. It was more from surprise at the raw honesty and sincerity of the note. Ling had bottled up her affection for her mother, hoarding it against the witch her father had married. And she had released it, left it for safekeeping, with him. He felt honoured.
April had read over his shoulder. "Wow, that’s nuts."
"Yeah." He folded the note and placed it in his coat pocket where it would be safe.
"You’re keeping it?" she asked.
"How could I not? This is, well, she poured herself into this. Why would she tell us, strangers, unless it was something she was carrying around for a while?"
"I suppose you’re right. Not much we can do for her though."
"I think we’ve already done it," he said, smiling.