Chinese New Year: Chapter One

Chinese New Year: Chapter One

The window rolled down, and the roar of a blasting air conditioner and the soft hum of house music shook a few blue-spotted cotingas from their limbs. A pair of sunken green eyes looked out at Alton from behind thick gold-rimmed eyeglasses that transitioned from clear to shade as the sun-splashed in through the lowered window. “You Mister Booth? Alton?” 

“That I am. And you’re late.” 

The driver fell into his horn, laughing. “Okay, now that’s a good one. Sorry about being late, but, hey, I’m here now. And you know I don’t really control this thing.”

“So why am I paying you and not the car?”

“That’s a good question. That’s a really good question!” the driver said, shaking his head in agreement. “But, hey, I gotta eat, right?”

“I suppose,” Alton said, with a hint of sincerity, as he inched slowly over the scorched grass blades towards the curb’s precipice.

“Need some help?” the driver asked while going for his door handle.

“Stay in your car! Stay… in… your… car.” It was enough of an obstacle this late in the afternoon, but to talk while descending the curb might’ve overwhelmed Alton if not for the sheer embarrassment of masculine vulnerability that put a fragment of pep in his sandal soles.

“You got it?”

“I got it. I got it. It’s these damn sandals.” Alton hopped down onto the pavement. “They were made for more social affairs. Not outdoor recreation.”

“Okay. Well, let’s get to… 225 Park Boulevard?” 

Alton was perplexed by the lack of punctuality and the question. 

“Are you asking me? Don’t you know the way? If you don’t, won’t this thing?” Alton said, one hand dismissively waving to the car.

“Just confirming, Mr. Booth.”

“Confirm!” 

Alton slowly descended into the backseat of the car, a process he’d mastered over years of training. He swiveled on each heel until his backside faced the open car door, then fell into the pleather seat. The walker quickly dissembled, folding effortlessly at the patented four joint buckling system, just like the salesman said it would. Like an arthritic acrobat, he was learned in the art of intermittent bursts of energy followed by controlled breathing.

He was in no mood to talk. 

“Water? Gum?” The customary ride-share mise en place.

“Just a ride, thanks. And more A/C if this thing has the goose-power.”

“Oh, it’s got the goose-power.” The driver smiled, revealing a row of almost blinding white teeth, and he turned a large dial to the right as a small snowflake burned blue on the dashboard. Alton could feel the power of what he assumed was an older model Subaru Outback—a car advertisers lined up for a rebrand sometime around 2039 when the Outback was deemed too harsh a reminder for selling purposes. A sensible buy, nonetheless, Alton thought.

“Didn’t wanna sit up front, huh? No problem, no problem. I understand. Been driving for too long not to understand. You’re gonna need to buckle up before the car lets me go anywhere though.” The cheerful attitude of the driver and the minor inconvenience of putting on a seatbelt caused an involuntary clinch of Alton’s eyelids. Riding in the back allowed him to feel he was wealthier than if he were riding shotgun like a kid on the way to laser tag. 

“My name is not late, by the way. It’s Sikander.”

Sikander extended a dark olive arm up to ­his rearview mirror and turned it until Alton sat square in the frame. The driver studied him. “You aren’t hot in that get-up?”

“I long for the days of just hot,” Alton said, with waning interest. “But I’d as soon die of heatstroke as I would be eaten alive by these skeeter hawks passing along whatever disease they’ve conjured up in some shrunken bayou around here.” 

“People say it’s getting hotter out there every day, but I don’t really see it, but I guess you can’t really see heat, so maybe that’s a good thing, huh? At least, I heard that on the news.” 

“I guess you’ve never been to New Mexico,” Alton replied. 

“I actually have. Twice. But it was to ski, so it was decades ago.” It doesn’t snow there anymore.

Alton opened one wrinkled eyelid to study his chauffeur’s age. He’d have guessed the boy a greenhorn of sorts. His bright, unwrinkled yellow shirt shown in the shaded cabin. Alton always wondered how people went about wearing clothes all day and not picking up a wrinkle along the way. He guessed maybe 33, but that would’ve put him at 3 or 4 a couple of decades ago? Surely not in ski-school age. Rather than ask, Alton concluded Sikander was either a winter sports phenom driving a shuttle service for extra money or a liar. Baton Rouge was a peculiar offseason destination for a man about the mountain, so he concluded a liar.

“Skiing? Really? I prefer to vacation on vacation. Always felt a bit busy, zooming about this way and that.”

“Oh, it was wonderful,” Sikander said, turning his slim shoulders around to face Alton. Alton snapped his eye shut to appear uninterested, waiting for Sikander to turn around. “I was young, but you bet I kicked some ass out there! Yep!”

“Okay, okay.” Alton said while waving his left hand like he was breaking up a cloud. “We appear to have gotten too excited. Eyes on the road, please.”

“But, I don’t need—”

“It makes me feel better if someone is watching other than a satellite,” Alton said. “And maybe if my tip is good enough, we can get you up to Arkansas or Alaska for some of your precious skiing. Somewhere up north, I guess,” Alton said, again gesturing wildly with his left hand, eyes still tightly shut.

Sensing a lull, Alton let his head sink into the rest and his mind wander. “Skiing,” Alton thought, smiling slightly. “What a fruitless endeavor. No money in it.”

“So, what do you do for work, Mr. Booth?” 

Alton’s eyes shot open, staring at the putty-colored ceiling of the Midnight Black sedan. Begrudgingly, Alton replied, “I’m retired. Was a professor. Of…literature.” 

Alton spent his first eight years out of high school toiling through college and an extensive graduate program until he landed a position near the top of the bottom—associate professor of composition at the local community college. It was only temporary, he told his wife, she told her friends, and they told their children 25 years later. His friends and family referred to him in person, as a professor even though for most of his career his students assumed he was a volunteer. All universities made the switch to online classrooms within a decade after a particularly vicious pandemic in 2020—he tried a myriad of different positions on the side but they either disagreed with his mental fortitude or finely tuned schedule of relaxation. Jobs were scarce in the fully digital age. An industrialized man had few choices beyond tech or craftmanship, and Alton was handy with neither saw nor circuit board. He didn’t have enough energy to take part in a pyramid scheme—top or bottom. He moved up, but education is no match for pure, uncut apathy. Eventually, Alton became the head of the virtual English department at Parish Community College, which gave him the raise he needed to buy a leather chair and get leather patches sewn to the elbows of two of his nine brown jackets. He wound up being hounded into retirement in his mid-to-late 70s. 

Alton looked back in the rearview mirror and noticed the wrinkles around Sikander’s eyes. His skin cocoa-rich skin was dark and smooth, and you could make out some waves of age around his eyes. Alton now guessed Sikander was only 10 years his junior. He could see his reflection in the mirror as well—a stark collage of blotched whites, soft, rash-like pinks, and a muted green from the ever-increasing tributary of a vein, that only appeared when he became frustrated with his situation, matriculating from behind his left ear up to his temple, peaking from the depleted groves of chalk-white hair. A European-American cocktail shaken and stirred for a millennium.

“Oh, just a professor? I thought about becoming a professor once, but I make more just driving, and I didn’t want to take the weekend certification class. That’s why I’m still here. I wouldn’t say I’m a rich man, but I do make a living and work when I want. Yep, making my hours has its benefits, let me tell ya.” 

Alton’s body curdled with frustration; the vein stretched across his temple.

“You know a bunch of people making money in the A/C like this?” Sikander shook his head, his bottom lip sticking out in a gesture of confidence. “No, sir! Man, this is the life.” Sikander’s shoulders danced as he nuzzled into the khaki seats, letting the cooling air ripple through the seats and up onto his bare, hairless calves.

Alton wanted to find a path to disagree. He once would have questioned Sikander’s drive. Wondered why he felt nothing was the life. Asked whether he wanted to make a mark somewhere before the dust settled and a sweaty imprint on a faux leather, futile driver’s seat was all that was left of Sikander. Where had his life turned? The thought rummaged in his innards, somewhere deep, where his hope in humanity dwindled years before. Somewhere near his thumping, heavy liver.

“Let me tell you about the time I picked up three girls from a bar—”

“No!” Alton shouted, his eyes fully open, born back into the world and his surroundings. “Sir! I have listened past my ears’ content. You, as a gainfully employed, hourly-waged chauffeur to the masses, should know how to read the cabin of your office space! I am late for an appointment. I want to get from point A to point B without the jib-jab!” 

“So, you—” Sikander recoiled in his seat. A blank expression of embarrassed silence materialized across his brow.

“Without the jib and the jab!” Alton reasserted.

Silence invaded the car’s cabin like hipsters on an apple farm. 

A voice said: “PLAY THE JIB JAB VIDEO YOUR GRANDSON MADE. CONFIRM?” Rang into Alton’s ears, reverberating to his very core. His hands gripped the seats at his sides and his eyes tightened.

Alton let out a moan for approximately 9 seconds—his longest in weeks.

The car bumped over the cracks of the concrete-covered oak roots on its way to meet Archie for supper. 


Illustrated by Tara Mulliss

*This is chapter one in a series for an upcoming novel from American writer C.E. O’Banion*

About The Author

C.E. O'Banion

C.E. O'Banion is a graduate of Louisiana State University's undergraduate arts program and law school. He is currently teaching fiction and creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles. O'Banion has held positions within several publications, including The Southern Review Literary Journal, The Houston Chronicle, and The National Enquirer. O'Banion is the politics editor of Mouthing Off Magazine and contributor in fiction and prose. He's got a wife, two kids, and a cat named EZ Mac.

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