Chinese New Year: Chapter One
His Cabernet Red Simpson’s Medical-Grade Deluxe Two-Button Folding aluminum walker gleamed in the hot early-summer sun, the aluminum dangerously slick from the thick humidity. It was 4:09 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Alton Booth was late.
His voluminous khaki pants and long sleeve, brown corduroy shirt gave him the look of a safari guide. It was as hot in Baton Rouge as it was everywhere in the northern hemisphere, but this is the type of outfit an old bag like Alton can get away with. A summer breeze in Louisiana is best compared to the gentle puff of a diesel’s exhaust. The stifling heat paired well with the daily 3 o’clock rain shower that swept over the tops of magnolia blooms but evaporated before the roots covering the ground, retreating into themselves these last few years, could lick a sample from the ground. The outfit matched his closet of earth tones and sensible outerwear. The sleeves protected him from the roving gangs of mosquitos and gnats that corrupted this otherwise harmless stretch of city block, and the pants hid an embarrassing scar from a botched knee surgery decades before, when Alton tore a ligament genuflecting outside the first pew before mass. It was his second-to-last time in a house of worship. He elected to skip the calisthenics for his wife’s funeral two years prior.
His pants were patched in the crotch numerous times, usually with whatever non-matching fabric the Vietnamese women at Tin’s Tailoring had lying around. “More yard work,” he’d mutter loud enough for them to hear when dropping off each pair of pleats, either in khaki, olive, or navy. Alton loathed the color black—despite its capacity to slim—and refused to allow even a pinstripe that would attract that kind of heat. The holes in the pants were not from laborious feats, but from years of aggressive sitting and even more aggressive stubbornness to avoid shopping at the mall. Big box brands’ fashion departments hadn’t yet caught up to Alton Booth’s unique shape. Years of online shopping and online returning made shoe buying a chore he wished to avoid, so Alton had a sensible pair of tanned leather sandals encasing his eggshell-white prescription compression tube socks. The German sandals were the one luxury item Alton couldn’t see living without, and he insisted on his old friend and attorney, Charles Logan, including them in his latest will.
Mr. Booth’s son, Archie, called him the driver. Alton waited. His old wagon failed industry standards years prior and was labeled unsafe for human transportation. Alton had accosted the portly woman at the Kwik Kar inspection depot near the bank of the Mississippi River’s levy with a barrage of customary promises to get the 4 lights on the dash looked at soon enough, but it didn’t work, and his once proud wagon sat idle in the carport.
Then it was 4:12. His pocket, wrist, and ear buzzed. A soft, comfortable female voice echoed throughout his head like a warm embrace.
“NEW MESSAGE FROM ARCHIBALD BOOTH. INTERESTED?”
“Interested!” Alton shouted, standing at attention, alone on the street corner, “Interested!”
“READ, DELETE, OR—”
“Read! Read!” cried Alton, interrupting like a child. The voice changed to his son’s when the message swept through his auditory canals.
“Dammit,” Alton shouted to the bustling family of squirrels trolling across the powerlines connecting Park and Tulip street. The lines snaked from house to house, vines of industry, pumping each living room with just enough air and television to make one forget about their collective unceremonious end.
The soothing voice responded: “REPLY WITH ‘DAMMIT!’ YES OR—”
“No! No!” Another squirrel scurried up a nearby crape myrtle, struggling up the leafy, slender branches until the tops bent unnaturally over and around the strong neck of a Tudor’s brick chimney.
“REPLY WITH A MESSAGE, ALTON?”
“Yes. And don’t call me Alton.” His petulant voice lowered with this demand. Remembering he was in public, and speaking to one of his closest companions, he put on a smile and sounded like a mother of four speaking to a teenaged waiter. “Please, LIZA,” through gritted teeth.
“I UNDERSTAND, MISTER BOOTH. WOULD YOU LIKE TO REPLY WITH A MESSAGE… MISTER BOOTH?”
“Yes,” Alton was still smiling aimlessly in the direction of a passing cloud. “Tell my son the car hasn’t arrived. Ask him where the car is. I’m late.”
After a short time, LIZA responded, “HERE IS YOUR PENDING MESSAGE, MISTER BOOTH: Tell my son Archie the car hasn’t arrived. Ask him where the car is. I’m late.”
“LIZAAAAA,” he muttered, making sure to smile as a car swept by, a bag flying through the passenger window, sending aluminum cans clunkily dancing across the pavement. “Translate to the first person, please, ma’am.”
“OKAY, MISTER BOOTH. YOUR MESSAGE IS: ‘THE CAR ISN’T HERE, MY SON ARCHIE, AND I DON’T KNOW WHERE IS IT, BUT I’M LATE.’ CONFIRM?”
“Yes. Send message.”
“DO YOU CONFIRM, MISTER BOOTH?”
“OKAY, MISTER BOOTH. YOU HAVE CONFIRMED THE MESSAGE. NOW, DO YOU WANT TO SEND, DELETE, OR HOLD FOR—”
“SEND! SEND! SEND!”
“THANK YOU, MISTER BOOTH. THREE MESSAGES SENT TO ARCHIBALD BOOTH.”
Alton looked towards the cloud a bit more deliberately and, following Dr. Addison’s guidance on misplaced hostility, screamed. “Merry Christmas!” It wasn’t Christmas, but the Verba-LIZA 6.0 had been a Yuletide tiding from Archie a year before. A sleek model of cochlear implants that aid the elderly in communication and cognitive connections—as ran the ad campaign. The promise of less predictive text, the ever-more out-of-focus keys, and an interactive female voice, convinced Alton to give it a try. The AMBER alerts from Tangipahoa Parish proved to be a new-age lobotomy.
Alton’s eyes caught the blunt glint of an old black sedan rounding the corner. Archie had told him the car would be Midnight Black, but Alton couldn’t get LIZA to explain what that meant—she only pulled up different dark images on his computer’s screen.
As the car approached, Alton spotted the predictable flurry of stickers across the side of the vehicle: the driver’s preferred political party, operating system, social media, and something about their pet’s social worth. Alton gave a sharp grunt as each sticker came into focus.
It wasn’t as if Mr. Booth was anti-Driver’s choice of political party, but at some point, around 2020, Mr. Booth had decided politics were for the Dodos, and he certainly couldn’t stomach what he referenced as the abhorrent, hostile overtaking of corporate cookie-cutter advertisers from the real creatives of his day, the last stronghold of artists: the cereal slogan writers.