This happened before the masks. We still talked to strangers and huddled together in long lines waiting for things we wanted but didn’t need, like the crispy chicken sandwich that had taken the country by storm before the pandemic did.
“It’s worth the wait!” said the young woman behind us. She was about twenty with dark brown hair. My husband remembered she wore glasses, but I couldn’t say for sure. She said she lived around the corner and came here often. That’s all I remember about our pleasant but forgettable small talk.
It was our turn so we parted ways. After we ordered, we sat in a booth and waited for our number. A few minutes passed. Then I noticed her, the same woman, sitting across the aisle. Her torso was bent forward, her nose almost touching the tabletop. She made small, frantic motions with her fingers, as if rushing to knit a sweater for a pet gerbil or create a tiny tapestry for a dollhouse wall. Yet I could not see what she held, or if she held anything at all.
The woman finally got up. I said something to my husband like, “Our order should be next.” My blood sugar was dropping and I wanted my sandwich. Then this happened: The woman walked past us and dropped a scrap of paper onto our tabletop. I thought, why is she leaving us a note? But it wasn’t a note; it was a crisp, new dollar bill, folded into a dress shirt complete with short sleeves, collar, and tie. We turned around to thank her, but she was out the door.
The girl was thin and college-aged, with a snow-white crewcut and a perfectly sculpted face. I imagined her a vegan, which was unlikely given we were waiting in line to order the new chicken sandwich that people on both sides of the political divide were now hankering for.
“It’s more crowded today,” she said. She told me she was a vegetarian, but the sandwiches were for her brother, who was laid up at home recovering from a gunshot wound received at a recent school shooting, or maybe a sprained ankle suffered when he was shoved to the ground at a peaceful protest, or maybe, simply, the virus. No, not the virus. Then we’d all be wearing masks and standing too far apart for casual contact.
OR, maybe she was a tall, middle-aged Black woman with short natural hair. She wore a bright orange blazer and flowered skirt and was from New Orleans. She said that if I wanted real creole cooking, I should go to Cajun Heaven in L.A.
“L.A. like Los Angeles,” she said. “Not Louisiana. Of course you could go there, too.” We both laughed.
From here on in my story, that same business happens with the origami shirt and tie, except—sorry for backtracking—I’m here alone so I can go home and tell my wife about the Origami Woman. (I’m also a man in this version.)
I went home and told my wife about Origami Woman and my wife was convinced that the shirt and tie had supernatural powers. I said, “That’s some offensive ‘magical Negro’ trope you’ve got stuck in your head from watching too many bad movies,” but she insisted we unfold it and look for a hidden message.
I refused. “I’ll never get it back the way it was.”
The next day I tried to solve the mystery. Were origami shirts a trend, like people paying it forward at Starbucks? I found no clues online, only instructions on how to fold my own origami shirt and tie.
Suddenly inspired, I dug a crisp new bill out of my wallet and wrote six numbers separated by dashes between the pyramid and the eagle. Folding the bill with my fat guy fingers was challenging, and the end result nowhere as neat as the Origami Woman’s. Fortunately, my wife has little aesthetic sense, only an overabundance of curiosity and superstition.
“I told you!” she said, waving the now weirdly pleated bill in my face. “It’s lottery numbers!”
She loses, of course. Then our hero unfolds the original origami, which reveals the winning numbers. Oops. Or maybe it wasn’t a Black woman but a stiff White dude in a grey-green shirt and tie that matches his origami. He says it’ll bring us good luck as long as we never spend it. Then my stupid wife, a card-carrying member of some skeptic club, unfolds the bill and releases the coronavirus.
On November 5, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a man was stabbed to death over a chicken sandwich. On November 14, 2019, at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, a few miles from my home, a sixteen-year-old boy shot two kids to death and injured three others before killing himself.
A week before we’d met the Origami Woman, I had gone to Popeye’s alone. A large sign said they were out of sandwiches, but I decided to stay and get regular chicken instead. Waiting behind me were two teenage boys talking about the shooting at their school. They said they were at an early morning football practice when they heard the blasts.
The shooter’s motives were elusive. No note or manifesto was found. We can only guess, just like I can only guess why a stranger gave us an origami shirt and tie. Was she feeling particularly magnanimous that day? How long had she been thinking about doing this? Why did she choose us?
I keep the origami shirt and tie in a clear plastic window in my wallet. I keep it for good luck; someday I might need that dollar. I keep it for inspiration; maybe the Origami Woman wanted me to write a story about her. I’m not sure this is it.Laurel DiGangi has had fiction and creative nonfiction published in The Chicago Reader, Denver Quarterly, Fourth Genre, SLAB, Asylum, Atlanta Quarterly, Cottonwood, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Under the Gum Tree, among others. A former graphic designer, illustrator, entertainment journalist, and film critic, she now teaches all sorts of writing at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.