It Hit Her on the Head

a strange tale of Chinese food and minor head injury

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

Note: This story is a reworked version of my very first Rear End column, published in 2004. Since then, I’ve written over 300 columns. I hope this one improves on the original.

What follows is the true story of one of the more bizarre and oddly poetic moments I have ever experienced in my entire life. It involves Chinese food.

It was early spring, 2003, and past my suppertime. I was driving the dark streets of Eau Claire with my fiancée (now wife) Shannon when I realized something important: I needed some teriyaki chicken. As luck would have it, so did Shannon. We soon found ourselves walking across a chilly, starlit parking lot and through the doors of a strip mall Chinese eatery.

To protect the innocent, I shall invent a fake name for the restaurant. And that name is “Chubby Panda Asian Cuisine.”

A voice inside my head whispered, “All is not what is seems at Chubby Panda Asian Cuisine.”

The fluorescent lights in this place were blinding. Plastic Chinese lanterns hung from red strings paperclipped to the drop tile ceiling. A few other couples were in there, eating noodles and rice as a high school kid took telephone takeout orders. Back in the kitchen, a cook whipped up a Szechuan hurricane in a wok the size of a small bathtub. We studied the menu. We ordered to go. We sat down.

The only sounds in this place were the cook’s metal ladle scraping and banging the wok, the sizzle of sticky sauces, and a strained undercurrent of hyper-stereotypical Asian Muzak.

Right here. This is where things get unsettling.

From behind us came a shattering noise as if the front window had collapsed – which is to say it was loud. We flinched and turned to the noise.

It wasn’t the window. One of those fake Chinese lanterns had fallen from its paperclip and landed directly upon a woman’s head. From there it had tumbled to the hard tile floor where it shattered into a confetti of tiny plastic shards. Hundreds of them.

The woman slowly rubbed the top of her head, but no one else moved. Time didn’t stop, but it went all gooey in a very Zen, “there is no time” kind of way. We all just looked at the lady as dinky-dinky-dink-dink Chinese restaurant music sputtered through the speakers in the ceiling. A voice inside my head whispered, “All is not what is seems at Chubby Panda Asian Cuisine.”

I will pause now to say, in the years since this night, I have asked myself many questions about that lantern. Why did it fall? Was it the string, its knot, or the paperclip that finally failed? And why, in an almost empty restaurant, out of its many dusty lanterns, was it this one, the one hanging directly above this particular woman? 

I have no answers.

Finally, gradually, we followed the woman’s gaze across the table to her baseball cap-wearing husband/boyfriend/companion. He starred back at her. Mute. Then he raised a plastic forkful of fried rice to his to his mouth and just kept on eating. The lady blinked a few times, but she too went back to her meal. She didn’t even check her plate for chunks of decorative lantern.

Time shifted back to a more normal speed.

I was dazed and, yes, confused. Shannon, however, composed herself and asked, “Are you OK?” The man swallowed and looked over at us to say, “It hit her on the head.”

No kidding, Casanova.

The cook hopped from behind the front counter and yelled, “Uh-oh!” And that was all he said. After the most awkward of pauses, he just turned around and hurried back to his wok. More people came in, ordered food, and didn’t seem to notice the plastic shrapnel scattered across the floor. By the time we got our food and walked out into the night, back to our frosty car, I was wondering if any of this had actually happened.

I regret to say I made fun of these people for months. I yapped about how apathetic these people had acted, about how hilly-billy stupid it seemed to have a pointy object fall from the sky, smack you on the noggin, and show zero emotion. I’ve told and retold this story in bars, asking pretentious things like, “What’s this say about America? How are we to care about the bombs we drop on other countries when we don’t even care about what falls upon our own heads?!” I’d snort-laugh and swig my beer. Like I knew what I was talking about.

And through it all, nobody ever asked – and not once did I wonder – why hadn’t I jumped up to help the woman?

I have no answer.