The cut blue ribbon hung limp on either end of the automatic doors. Two mechanical clowns stood at either end, frozen plastic smiles on garish faces faking fits of laughter. They waved their hands to each other, bowing still and low when customers passed by. The store logo, a stylized stomach with two black-dot eyes and a wavy smile, was pasted on their fat bellies.
"Welcome to The Happy Stomach!" squawked the black voice boxes under their feet. "EEE-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk!"
"That's it?" A-Ko asked, standing before the entrance door-clown. "You call this customer service? No real live human customer greeters, unlike other stores."
"Sad, ain't it?" Leroy said. "So much for progress."
"I think it's creepy," C-Ko added.
"And I'm getting it all on my micro-video camera," said Ippei. He held a thick, ball-point-pen-sized object to his eye. "As soon as I can, I'll put this stuff on our website."
"But -- but it's traditional to have those pretty door-greeter girls at big markets like this. I mean, you'd never get away with this in Tokyo or Osaka." A-Ko turned to face Leroy. "To my mind, this is un-Japanese." The clown above her lightly rubbed its fist across her thick bangs, laughing at the same time. She froze, stunned.
"Th-th-th-that thing j-j-j-just gave me a noogie!"
"Let's get y'all inside before it does somethin' else," roared Leroy. The quartet rushed inside the market, and ripped a shopping cart from its row. They whisked through the dairy section, snagging milk jugs and cheese as they went. Next was the noodle and rice aisle, with stiff squares of ramen thrown into the cart. They came to a screeching halt at the meat section, gasping for breath, arms hanging over the counter's edge. Their collective breath fogged up the display windows.
"Lord have mercy," Leroy blurted, getting to his feet. "This is waaaaaay too crazy." He looked over the wrapped packages of beef and pork, searching for the right cut. "I could kick myself for shame," he murmured. "Seven years in Japan and I still can't decipher half the words on these things." He picked up a package. "This could be flank steak or pot roast, for all I know."
"Don't fret, honey," A-Ko said, brushing dust off her knees. "You're not the only one who has problems with Japanese. Our language has four 'alphabets', for lack of a better word. And we do sometimes mix them up in writing and printing."
"But still," said Ippei. "I think it is nothing compared to learning English. I mean, it has only twenty-six letters and forty-four sounds. Simple compared to our stuff."
"Those four you know," A-Ko said. "I mean, hiragana, katakana, romaji, and the Chinese-style characters."
"But those few building blocks make up one of the world's most complex and frustrating languages. To this day, it is still one of the hardest to learn anywhere. Right, A-Ko?"
"Oh, Ippei, don't get me started. Leroy, just take the word 'ate', as in 'I ate some rice.' That is the same sound found in the number 'eight'. Different word, same sound. No big deal to you, perhaps, being a native speaker. But to everyone else, that's one tip of a big iceberg."
"And I wonder about the word 'zucchini'," C-Ko added. "I think it's spelled funny."
"How so?" Leroy asked.
"The 'c-h' in the word doesn't say anything. It looks like it should be pronounced 'zuk-CHEE-nee', don't you think?"
Ippei stopped up his mouth, suppressing a sudden flood of giggles.
"Stop it, Ippei," A-Ko chided. "Only girls cover their mouths when they laugh."
"I dunno, C-Ko. You'd have to ask the Italians. We borrowed the word from them."
"Oh? When will you give it back?" Ippei buried his face in his coat, as giggles became guffaws. Sighing, A-Ko took the meat package from Leroy, plopping it back into the case.
"Attention, shoppers," came a voice from the overhead speakers. "Stop by our beer and wine aisle for our inaugural weekly liquor special: an ice-cold six-pack of Democracy Beer. Japan does have its problems, and its biggest one is YOU!"
"WHAT?" A-Ko yelped.
"But that's okay, because you drink Democracy Beer. It's the only alcoholic beverage that insults its customer base every single time, and gets away with it. A six-pack is only nine hundred yen, this week only at The Happy Stomach. Buy something today, or else we'll shoot you!"
The store went dead silent, as all heads turned toward the speaker.
"Sorry, folks, just kidding. Thanks for shopping at The Happy Stomach! EEE-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk!"
"Huh?" A-Ko asked, hands on hips. "Is that guy on acid?"
"Fluoride in his tap water, I'll bet," Leroy murmured.
"What the heck?" C-Ko spat out. A-Ko gasped, mouth open.
"C-Ko, how could you? Watch your tongue." The Princess blushed, bowed her head.
"I'm sorry, A-Ko."
"Hold on a second, honey," Leroy said. "I hate to say this, but I've heard worse -- much worse -- than what C-Ko said."
"Me too, A-Ko," Ippei chimed in. "That phrase won't even classify as a cuss word today."
"Yeah, but we're talking C-ko here."
The men stared at her, then at each other, and then at C-Ko. She lifted up her head and smiled.
"Good point," they said. C-Ko shrugged and stuck her hands into her jacket pockets.
"Hey, we're not trying to gang up on you, C-Ko," A-Ko said, walking to her side. She put her arm around her shoulders. "We just don't want you to end up -- well, corrupted."
"It starts with the bad words, and goes on down from there. And you're got that something in you, something innocent and special we don't want to lose. Me and the guys have to deal with the gunk within our hearts every day. We just don't want to see you going through the same thing we do. That's why I freaked out like I did, and I'm sorry."
"Awwww, A-Ko." The Princess leaned her head on her friend's heart. Flashing lights drew their attention to the produce section. A gaggle of photographers snapped pictures of the produce manager. He gave them a wide smile, his thumbs stretching his overall suspenders.
"That's where our story lies, Elroy."
"Whatever. Come on, you guys. I need video footage to nail these goobers to the wall."
"Hold on, Ippei." C-Ko pulled some crumpled paper from her jacket pocket and flattened it on A-Ko's chest. "Let's see. My grocery list says I need some bok choy, watercress, kale, and ... yeah, dandelion leaves. Then I can fix up my Mystery Salad properly."
"Is that your next assignment for R.H.E.?" A-Ko asked.
"Yup, and I hope it'll keep Mr. Suzuki off my back. Oh, by the way, do you know if dandelion leaves still taste bitter if they're steamed in vinegar?"
"Ahhhh -- don't ask me, C-Ko. I never ate 'em before."
"No? Then don't you worry. I'll make a second Mystery Salad, with lots of them in it -- just for YOU."
Laughing, she skipped her way to produce, dragging Ippei behind her. A-Ko turned to Leroy, and leaned her head against his heart. "Honey, dare I ask 'why me'? Should I?"
"Not 'less you're prepared to hear the answer. By the way, I don't have it."
"You're right," she sighed, hugging his waist. "I'm not ready."
"Yes, yes, I know of what I speak," the produce manager said to the photographers. He slid a few thin strands of black hair over his fat bald head. "After all, I've been involved in produce for twenty years, managing in different stores. I've seen every form of food fad pass by me, both good and bad. But this is more than a fad, it is a revolution."
"Most of the produce you'll see here -- about ninety-two percent -- is genetically engineered. But it isn't just any run-of-the-mill splice-and-dice job, noooooosir. The engineered produce was all grown from the seed up, using a top-secret patented process known as the Intelli-Plant Process. Each fruit and vegetable not only knows when to ripen, but also how to stay ripe, how to retain moisture and vitamins. They even know how to best resist diseases and blights which plague them, without any outside intervention."
He stuck out his right hand toward the bins and aisles, filled to overflowing. "Ladies and gentlemen of the press, DAGGR presents to you the Future of Agriculture."
"Hap-py lit-tle car-rots, wal-king down the street," the Princess sang behind him. He spun around and spied a pair of the long orange roots seeming to dance above a pile of turnips. "Hap-py lit-tle car-rots, good e-nough to eat."
He cringed at the wave of low chuckles behind his back from the media pack. He barely noticed a tall redhead in a snowsuit whiz by him toward the carrots. "C-Ko, what are you doing?" she shouted. The Princess "walked" the vegetables down the side of the bin, as if they were legs.
"Cute lit-tle car-rots, wal-king down the street --- ."
"C-Ko," A-Ko chided, fists on hips. "I asked you what you're doing."
"Havin' fun with 'em," she answered, a carrot in each hand.
"They're not toys. People are going to eat them, y'know."
"Then why do folks use them for snowmen's noses? Isn't that treatin' them as toys?"
"C-Ko, it doesn't justify -- "
"Maybe not, but does that justify treating them like dirt? Where would Irish stews or American Thanksgiving dinners be without 'em? Chinese veggie stir-fry dishes wouldn't be the same without 'em. Garden salads would be less colorful without 'em. Bunnies have loved 'em for centuries, so they don't find 'em boring, do they?"
"But -- "
"Have some respect for 'em, A-Ko. Carrots are people too, ya know." The Princess lay the carrots down on the bin, then walked away singing her tune. A-Ko turned her back to it and raised her eyes.
"Age 23, and she STILL plays with her food," she groaned. "This is too silly to be a dream." The pair of carrots rose up and walked to the other side of the bin. "I guess I just have a low level of tolerance for the weird." Ippei walked up to her side and cupped his hand by her ear.
"Psssst, A-Ko. I just shot some footage of -- get this -- BRIGHT BLUE bell peppers in the middle bin."
"You're joshin' me, right? Blue?"
"I wish I was. Take a look for yourself. Leroy's there right now, taping the shoppers' reactions. And they don't sound good."
"Blue peppers? That's unnatural!"
"ATTENTION SHOPPERS," the overhead speakers wailed. "Stop by our seafood and sushi section for your share of 'Green in the Gills' Krill Grill Thrillers. Now you too can enjoy eating the same tiny Antarctic shrimp-like thingies that whales ingest by the ton every day. Each ten-krill serving is wrapped in seafood substitute made from spirulina, the edible algae, ready to put on your indoor grill for an unusual taste treat. A half-kilo box is on sale for 2500 yen, this week only. Buy some today, or we'll arrest you for having racist, sexist, homophobic, Eurocentric, fascist, patriarchal, or Judaeo-Christian viewpoints!"
"What?" everyone yelped.
"Man, are we good at messing up your minds or WHAT? Thanks for shopping at The Happy Stomach! EEEE-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk!"
"Oh, why don'tcha do the First Amendment a favor and shuddup?" Leroy griped aloud from the peppers bin, pointing an angry finger at the ceiling. Some shoppers behind him murmured their agreement with him.
"We don't have to, stupid," the speaker blared back. "We don't have a First Amendment here. Besides, we're running the globe, and you're not! Ha-ha-ha!"
"For the moment, mister. Not forever."
"Awwww, gee," Ippei said, pushing the shopping cart toward the bin. "I'll bet George Orwell never dreamed of this. Interactive speakers." A-Ko slipped behind him, picked up a pepper. She spun it under her nostrils and made a face.
"You weren't kidding, Ippei. It doesn't even have that earthy, spicy odor bell peppers are supposed to have. Even looks like it's made of plastic." She flipped it back in the bin and turned toward the squashes. She spied C-Ko's oversized jacket shaking in front of the bright yellow spaghetti squash.
"Hey, C-Ko, what's wrong?"
"I'll take care of this, A-Ko," Ippei said, sliding to his girlfriend's side. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"
"Here, honey, take a listen." Removing his earmuffs, she put a squash over his left ear.
"I don't hear anything, C-Ko. What gives?"
"I've shaken it and shaken it, and I STILL don't hear any spaghetti sauce sloshin' around." He covered his eyes with his hand and sighed. "C-Ko, if they put the sauce inside the squash, there would be no room for the seeds." She blinked, mouth open, as his reply sank in. "Hey, I never thought of that."
"Besides, most spaghetti sauce is made from tomatoes. If there was sauce inside them, they wouldn't be squash any more."
"Good point," she said, putting the squash back. "I'm so lucky to have you, Ippei." She cupped his chin in her hands, while the squash wiggled up to the top of the bin. "You're too good for me, really." He bowed his head, blushing.