“Where the hell am I?” Delilah whispered to herself.
She was seated on a toilet in what should have been a toilet stall except there was no stall, only exposed toilets projecting from a wall. The seat next to hers was occupied by a black female. To one side sinks, to the other urinals, one being used by a white female facing forward, tunic hiked up over her hips. The only thing separating the so-called restroom from the noisy space on the other side was a screen. Then a white male came up and grabbed the toilet on Delilah’s other side. “Neihou,” he said to her.
She jumped up and went over to the sink. The black woman was soon at the sink next to hers, washing not only her hands but her face and chest as well, sticking her hand through the sides of her sleeveless tunic to get under and between the breasts. Delilah stared.
She emerged from around the screen and recognized the restaurant yet didn’t recognize it. It had the same layout and black-and-white checkerboard floor and metal-banded retro tables, and that was about it. All the customers were wearing patchwork tunics like she had on, so she wasn’t noticed until a waitress saw her confusion and asked, “Yatwai?”
“It’s the public cafeteria but it’s changed. Where’s the counter?”
“What language are you speaking?”
“Ngo ng ming.”
“Chinese? But this is New Gary. I’m so confused. Jeff was right. It’s really the future.”
“Nei mousi aa?” the waitress asked, looking concerned. She led Delilah to a table. “Ngo cing nei jambui je?” she asked, miming a beverage.
The waitress returned with a bowl of soup and steamed greens.
“Wonton soup? That’s it?” She looked around. “Why is everybody eating the same thing? That’s all you have? Hey, how can I get to the Heartland Cafe from here? Is there public transportation?”
Delilah brandished the map of Chicago Malmquist had drawn for her. “Look. Now we’re in New Gary, but Jeff didn’t include it on the map. So we’re about here and I want to go to this place here.” She drew her finger from a point on the table and across the paper.
The waitress stared at the map. “Taai jyun,” she said, shaking her head and drawing her hands apart. “Joekmou jatmak gungleoi.”
“I know it’s far, but there must be a way to get there.”
Other customers had turned around. “Ji jau neje mantai?”
“Houci ji dongsat lou liu.”
They conferred a bit. The black female seen in the restroom was just finishing up her meal and said to Delilah, “Gan ngo loi.”
“Oh, great, you can help me?”
They got on public bicycles outside the restaurant and road toward the city center.
“Oh, my god! What happened to the residential buildings? They’re all painted over in so many colors and trees are growing out the windows.”
They took a left on Broadway, crossed under I-90 and headed out to the lake, stopping at a crowded pier where a ferry was docked.
“That’s how we get to Chicago from here? Aren’t there any cars? No aircars either? I haven’t been to Chicago in years. This is so exciting.”
The girl wrote down Delilah’s stop on the map to show to the attendant.
“How do I pay?”
“Ng sai maai piu,” she said, pointing to the line.
“But I don’t have a ticket.”
“Heoi!” she pointed. “Nigo hai minbei ge.”
“How can I ever thank you? Oh, let me give you this.” She pulled out a spare coin from her tunic, US mint 2060.
The girl examined it with interest. “Nei hai zinbai sauzonggu me?”
Once on board Delilah climbed to the upper, open deck. There were no seats. The passengers sat right on the floor, carpeted with fake grass—no, real grass. She found an empty space next to two twenty-something couples, who were laughing and smoking a blunt.
The ferry made several stops along the great length of the Chicago shoreline but oddly bypassed the city center. The skyline was still there: the starkly looming Aon Center, and in the distance the eerie black edifices of the Willis Tower and the John Hancock, now as old as the Eiffel Tower was when she was born. But something was wrong with the skyscrapers. They looked darkened, damaged, until she had a closer look. Their glass skin was gone and objects were protruding from the windows: trees.
“Why aren’t we stopping at Navy Pier?” she mumbled. “Oh, I remember Jeff saying something about slaves not being allowed downtown.”
“Nei syut ge hai neje jyujin?” asked one of her neighbors. They were sitting next to her cross-legged, their genitals exposed beneath their tunics. They passed her the ganja.
“Oh, thanks. I can really use this now. Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.”
“Yingman? Nei hai bindou leige?”
“Nei gwai sing aa?”
“Mason,” said a guy with a shaved head and a long red beard, holding out his hand.
“Oh, I’m Delilah.”
“Hou hoisam jingsik nei.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
Mason introduced the others—Billy, Jo, and Steph. They invited her to sit with them and open her legs. When she had inched closer, Mason gave her pubic hair a tug and sat back, waiting. She looked confused. He guided her hand to his cock. She yanked her hand away. “Oh, no, this is too weird for me.”
Jo, a mixed-race black Asian with micro braids, tried next and successfully got Delilah to reciprocate on her pubis.
“Oh, I see what’s going on.”
Jo then leaned over and looked more closely at Delilah’s groin. “Keoi hou hausang,” she said to the others.
“You guys sure have some strange rituals.”
“Nei heoi bin?” they asked her.
“Oh, you mean, where am I going? Yeah, can you help me? I want to go to the Heartland Cafe,” she said as she pulled out the map.
“Aa, zidou! Heartland Gafei. Ngo jan gonggwo daan haimou heoigwo.”
“I need to meet with an old guy named Cornelius. He speaks English.”
“Cornelius. He’s old and tall and has a huge cock.”
To illustrate these concepts, Delilah stood up on her toes and raised her hands as high as they would go, before stooping her shoulders and trudging with an imaginary cane. Then she pulled out of her groin Pinocchio-style an infinitely long penis, betraying embarrassment at its length.
The others were laughing.
“Oh, his cock is tattooed, and he also has a parrot.”
Pulling up her tunic to show them her Led Zeppelin runic tattoos, she pretended to peel them off and transfer them onto Mason’s member, grabbing it by the head with one hand while she pressed the imaginary tattoos firmly onto the shaft with the other. She tried to depict a parrot but this only made them laugh harder.
After two hours on the boat, the “Loyulaa” stop was announced. The couples disembarked with Delilah and walked down Sheridan Road until they reached the entrance to Loyola University.
“Oh, you’re all university students? I wish I could go to university. But most of the students are Chinese!” she said, looking through the gate at the campus.
Mason, Billy and Steph waved goodbye and were let in the electronic gate. Jo continued on with Delilah up the street. “But why are all the students Chinese? And why were your friends allowed in?” she asked.
“Keoidei hai noudai. Hoksang hai keoidei ge zyujan.”
Jo brought Delilah not to the Heartland Cafe but to a police station. A youngish female officer appeared. Delilah again tried to explain that she was looking for an old man named Cornelius who could be found at the Heartland Cafe.
The cop dismissed Jo and conferred with a superior officer, noting with evident curiosity that Delilah was wearing one tunic over another. She fingered the outer tunic’s fabric. Next, she had Delilah lie back on a couch with her legs spread. She applied lubricant to a latex glove and gently inserted her fingers in Delilah’s vagina and pumped her until she grew wet, before scooping up a bit of her lubrication in a digital spoon and announcing the reading to the superior. They then got on bikes and the cop escorted Delilah over to the Heartland Cafe Museum a few blocks away.
“Neihou Wingyee,” said Cornelius. Turning to Delilah he asked, “Nigo houzing ge hausang jyuhai bingo aa?”
“Oh, so you’re Cornelius?”
“I’m your man. English! Well, if this isn’t—“
“And you’re Wingyee?” she said to the cop. “You’re the one I’m trying to find. Jeff said Cornelius could help me find you, and you’re both here!”
“Yes, I’m here. Be here now. Well, that must explain how you’re able to speak English. It’s that drug, man. The STP he told me he was on. It’s so potent it can make you speak another language. Where can I get some of that shit? Jeff is the trippy guy?”
“Yeah. He said he met you.”
“Where is he? She’s looking for him.”
“He’s back in New Gary. I was sent here from there. The past. I’m his emissary.”
“Where do you two hang out at anyway? I thought he was taken into custody. Nei miu zoeng go gong yingman ge jan keoilau hei ma?”
“Haige daan keoi zaulatzo. Ngodei ng zidim,” said Wingyee, who appeared as confused as Cornelius.
“I’m telling you I’m not from here, and he isn’t either.”
“Keoi gong neje?” said Wingyee.
“Keoidei taaigu sik.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Delilah Power. They’re looking for me here, when I’m 72. I go by the name of Ray then.”
“You must be her granddaughter.”
“No. I am Ray. Her younger version. Look. Do you recognize these tattoos?” She showed Cornelius the Led Zeppelin runic symbols on her belly.
Cornelius stared hard at Delilah. The waitress Belinda came up, suckling her baby, Cornelius’ parrot on her shoulder. “Jau mei hou sanman?” she said.
“Keoi waa keoi hai aak Ray.”
The three stared hard again at Delilah.
“Keoi sang dak houci.”
“You’re the spitting image of your grandmother,” said Cornelius.
“That’s because I am her.” Turning to Belinda she said, “You’re so beautiful. Just like an—”
“Angel,” chirped the parrot.
“Can I hold the baby?” She took the baby from its mother’s nipple and into her arms.
“Keoi waa nei houzing,” Cornelius explained to Belinda.
“Nei dou hai,” Belinda responded, smiling at Delilah quizzically. “Daanhai butsang zo neje si aa? Ngo ng ming.”
Once again the three stared hard at Delilah. “Keoidei zyudeoi hai hyutjyun gwaanhai,” said Wingyee.
Cornelius considered for a moment before asking, “Tell me something about Ray.”
“How can I tell you about her if I’ve never met her?”
“You haven’t met your grandmother?”
“No, I mean I haven’t met myself—my older self. I haven’t gotten there yet. Well, I have now, but I’m missing.”
“She never told us she had a granddaughter. So she must have taught you English. But why would she have brought you up in secret?”
“I am not her granddaughter. I am her. We’re the same person. You guys still don’t believe me?”
“Keoi waa keoitung hai tungjat go jan,” Cornelius said to Wingyee.
“Keoi jaume zinggeoi aa?”
“What evidence do you have?”
“What evidence do you have that I’m not her? Oh, let me try this.” She wrote on her tunic: “JEFF, THEY DON’T BELIEVE I’M FROM THE PAST.”
Shortly the words faded and were replaced by an incoming message:
NO NEED TO SAY MUCH
ONLY YOUR PASSIONATE GAZE
WILL DISSOLVE EVERYTHING
“No, he’s not online now.”
“Yes, he showed me that. That drug is so strong it seeps out of your skin and gets your clothing high.”
“If you wait till he gets back online I’ll prove it to you. I can get him to repeat any conversation you had with him. Damn you, Jeff, where are you?”
A new message now appeared:
THESE FEW WORDS
CONVEY THE GREETINGS
FROM A FRIEND AT A DISTANCE
PLEASE TREASURE THE OLD DAYS
“I’ve got an—”
“Idea,” said the parrot.
“Your parrot is—”
“Funny,” chimed the parrot.
“Have you been to Ray’s place before?” Cornelius continued.
“No, but Jeff told me about it.”
“Let’s go there now, the three of us.”
“Cool! I want to see what my place looks like in the future.”
The bird was returned to Belinda, and Cornelius and Wingyee took Delilah over to Ray’s. Deliberately they slowed their pace and let her take the lead, but she appeared not to know the way. Once inside the basement pad, Delilah walked around in wonder. “These are my old black light posters!” she exclaimed. “These ones here. Those ones I must have acquired later.”
“Do you recognize any of your old records?”
“Oh, yeah, my record collection. But it’s so much bigger.” She quickly picked out several. “These are some of the first records I ever bought. Antique rock, 1970s vintage. Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick. Deep Purple, Machine Head. Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy—the greatest album cover ever, until thousands of people were arrested and sent to New Gary for owning it.”
“What was wrong with it?” asked Cornelius.
“Child porn. But I seriously scratched mine and it’s no longer playable. Look.” She pulled the LP out of its sleeve and showed them the scratch. “Hey, I have an idea! Can she test for fingerprints? These records will have my fingerprints all over them and no one else’s. I made sure of that. I never let anyone touch my records. If I’m not the same person as Ray, you’ll see two different people’s fingerprints on this record.”
“Good idea. Hoji caksi ziman maa?”
“Hoji,” said Wingyee. “Daan ngo jigging zidou keoi gongge hai satwaa.”
“Me? Nei dimzi ni?” said a startled Cornelius.
“Ngodei hai cogun deoi keoi zouzo DNA gimcaa. Keoi hai Ray.”
“She said they already genetically confirmed you’re Ray at the police station.”
“Then why did you go through all this trouble if you knew I was her?”
“Ngo jathoici ng seon, jiu zeon jatbou kokjing,” Wingyee explained.
“She couldn’t believe it at first and needed more proof.”
“Okay, so anyway, now that I’ve enlisted you, we need to get to work,” said Delilah. “I’m to take Wingyee with me to Chinese Rome and see if we can find me there.”
“Run that past me again.”
“We have to go back to the year 2060 where I’m from. But not New Gary, where Jeff is. We need to go to the fake Ancient Rome in China, where we think Ray might be hidden.”
“Why do you think she might be there?”
“Jeff thinks she might be there.”
“But if you’re looking for your 72-year old self in this fake Ancient Rome, why not go there now rather than 55 years ago?”
“But he said he wanted Wingyee to go there when he’s there. Now I’m confused. In fact I can’t remember which year exactly we’re supposed to go there.”
Cornelius explained all this to Wingyee.
“She says that if she accepts you’re from another time and place,” he told Delilah, “she has to accept you can take her to another time and place. And it’s her only lead.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
“She needs to go back to the station first to prepare a few things.”
Cornelius and Delilah returned to the Heartland and waited for Wingyee over an ale. “Do you always go naked?” she asked him.
“Six months out of the year. The air is me clothes. Nothing more comfortable to wrap around you than a warm breeze.”
“What about in cold weather?”
“A parka. Sometimes I wrap myself in a big old American flag.”
“I love to go naked myself but where I’m from it’s not—Wow, what happened to your boobs? They’re so much bigger.”
Wingyee had arrived. She lifted up her tunic. A Bowie knife and a gun were strapped in a holster under the breasts.
“Oh, I see.”
“Ngo jau siusiu ganzoeng. Zau zicin ngo jiu jatbui bezau. Keoi ngoncyun aa?”
Cornelius ordered another round of ales. “She says she’s a bit nervous and needs a drink first. And she wants assurance from you it’s safe and she’ll get back here all right.”
“I’m sure she’ll get back. We’ll find a way. Oh, but she needs to wear a travel tunic. Jeff said you can get them at this restaurant for free. Or maybe not. Let’s first try using the police tunic she has on. All I do is write the name of the destination on my tunic. Oh, shit! I just realized I don’t know how to write the name of the place. It has to be written in Chinese, right? How to write ‘Rome’ in Chinese?”
“How did you get here, then?”
“Jeff got help in writing the Chinese word for ‘Chicago’ but I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Keoi waa nei jiu yong zungman sezyu lomaa ni go ci,” Cornelius told Wingyee.
She downed her ale at one go and started to write the word for “Rome” on Delilah’s tunic in Chinese.
“No, wait! We have to hold hands. With your other hand. And it wasn’t just ‘Rome.’ We don’t want to end up in the wrong Rome. Oh, I think it was ‘New Rome’—I remember Jeff saying. How do you say ‘new’ in Chinese?”
Cornelius conveyed this to Wingyee.
“Sanluomaa? Houlaa, ngo si.”
“And how do we choose the year anyway? Do we write 2060 or 2115 after it?” said Delilah while grabbing Wingyee by the hand.
Wingyee was already writing on the tunic, and as soon as “新羅馬” was traced out they disappeared.
* * *
Forthcoming January 2018:
The Kitchens of Canton, a novel