This story's genesis occured after a friend, visiting from his tiny, rural community and I drove by a sushi bar. My friend said there were two bars in his small town, and they only served frozen pizza and packets of beef jerky. He wondered how a sushi bar would be received back home. This turned out to be my response.
Gunnar Sundstrom's Sushi Bar
I hadn't been back home to Warby (pop. 702) since the fifteenth reunion of the high school class of 1974. But when our class president, Bart Thiesen (whose seminal study of rabbits, Among the Orytolagus Cuniculae, was published by Municipal Teachers' College Press) died of tularemia, I returned to Warby for his memorial service.
After the graveside ceremony, another classmate, now living out of state, suggested we adjourn to the old Buckhorn Bar on Main Street and hoist a few in Bart's memory. Someone else said that the legendary Buckhorn was no more, that Stash Macjiewicz, who dispensed countless boilermakers to farmers and feed mill employees for 48 years, had sold the place several weeks back to Gunnar Sundstrom, who had recently returned to Warby after decades pursuing greener pastures elsewhere. Though none of our crowd knew Sundstrom, some had heard that he'd scored well with a string of Taco Shack eateries during the last 20 years and had returned home to live in semi-retirement.
I was morosely contemplating the decline of the old Buckhorn, when Jeff Rongild spoke up. "Hey, whaddaya say we at least check out the new place. I hear it's big city fancy. That dude put in a sushi bar."
Togey Stockard, who never left Warby, and repairs cars in his yard just east of town on County Road AA, said, "Yeah, and he charges an arm and a leg for stuff you could get a hell of a lot cheaper at Byer's Bait and Tackle."
Old Togey hadn't lost his puckish sense of humor.
Then Wally Weise, who also still lived in Warby said the sushi bar was in the midst of its grand opening, and that there were supposed to be special prices through Saturday. We were in luck because this was only Thursday.
Togey said if we were looking to slam down the beer-and-bump standby, we'd be disappointed. "I checked it out," he said. "It's no place for a guy to get soused, that's for sure. You feel outta placed just talkin' loud. No pinball machines, no juke box, no ballgames on TV, just raw fish and seaweed."
"Well, Toge," Ben Lundberg said, "if you don't want to come with us, it's a free country.
"Hey, I got nothin' against raw fish and seaweed," Togey shot back. "The old lady and me like nothin' better than to go trollin' on Lake Wassitucki. When one of us catches a big old pike, why shoot, we just pass that sucker back and forth between us, takin' bites and spittin' bones and scales and guts till she's all gone." He rubbed his belly. "Can't beat it for fresh," he added.
While the exterior hadn't changed much since Stash's departure, Gunnar Sundstrom had removed the World War II pinup calendars from behind the bar, those same pinups that our mothers and the Lutheran Ladies Guild used to rail against. Also gone were the neon beer signs, the moth-eaten mounted deer heads, and the two lacquered largemouth bass. Sundstrom had removed the old cigarette-scarred horseshoe bar and installed on that was circular, of glass and stainless steel.
And that wasn't all. A little moat was in the middle of the bar, and there were tiny paper boats containing various sushi delicacies floating in the moat. Sundstrom had hired three local women to work behind the bar, cutting pieces of fish and wrapping them in seaweed before sending them bon voyage to the locals who were used to pickled herring, pepperoni sausage or beef jerky.
These little vessels contained all manner of sushi: nori maki, tekka maki, kappa maki, shinko maki, and other alien comestibles. We could tell right off what everything was because Sundstrom had the women put little paper flags on toothpicks describing each boat's cargo. As the boats bobbed by one might snatch a boat and eat its contents, if one were so inclined.
Most of the customers seemed tentative. "We're not used to this sort of thing around here," said a self-described Buckhorn regular. "Too quiet. And hells-bells, you gotta be half starving to eat this stuff. I'd eat minnows first. Just give me a liver sausage sandwich with a pickle and forget it. I mean I could go for a bag of chips right now."
Nobody in my crowd was sampling either. We were waiting for someone to take our drink order. Finally I signaled to one of the women working the sushi bar. She didn't notice me because she was slicing an octopus tentacle that oozed a tobacco-brown liquid. She wrinkled her nose and put down her knife. "Gunnar," she shouted. "I can't do this anymore. I'm gonna be sick."
"Okay, okay," hollered the wiry, balding proprietor. He wiped his hands on the white apron he had tied around his gray business suit. "I'll take over here. You go 'round and see what people want to drink, all right?"
The woman wiped her brow with a towel, an act not unnoticed by Togey Stockard. "Towels," he muttered. "When Stash ran the joint he wiped everything from the bar to the glasses with his shirt sleeves."
"Hey people," Gunnar Sundstrom yelled. "Listen, you gotta try this stuff here. Look." He popped a morsel into his mouth and smacked his lips. "Hey, is this good, or what? Sea urchin, they call it in Japan, and we call it the same thing here in Warby."
Following that announcement, Togey reached for a boat labeled "sea urchin," brought it to his lips, then lowered it again. "Geez, this smell all right?" He hesitated before taking a small bite, chewed once and spit on the floor. "It tastes like the inside of a fishbowl," he growled.
Sundstrom offered a shrug of his shoulders and a slight, apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, my friend. Sea urchin is what you call an acquired taste. You should try it again and again, and voila! —you like it." He sampled another bite of sea urchin. "Um-mmm," he said, kissing his fingertips.
Togey wiped his tongue dry with his handkerchief and groused about not having any beer. He reached across a table, grabbed an open bottle from another customer, and took a healthy swallow.
"Hey, what the hell—?" A guy in a seed corn baseball cap jumped up. For a moment it looked like a return to the familiar mayhem of the Buckhorn. But Togey simply held up his hand. "Cool it," he said. "I'm buying."
Just then Sundstrom came out from behind the bar to mingle with customers again. I asked him why he'd open a sushi bar in Warby.
He grinned and clapped me on the back. "Very simply, I wanted to do something sensational for all my old friends in this town." He extended his arms and spread them. "And hey, why not? Everybody here was very good to me when I was a kid growing up. These folks are the salt of the earth. But on the other hand, they've been denied access to urban sophistication. I've been a successful man in business. I travel. I see how things are. I go to sushi bars in Boston, in Chicago, in Sandusky, and hey, I say to myself, why not here too?" He licked kelp residue from his fingers and grimaced slightly. "I just love these people," he said.
I tried an oshinko pickle with grated ginger wrapped in seaweed. Unlike Togey, I managed to swallow without spitting.
Sundstrom watched me chew and nodded gravely. "You go to clubs and restaurants around here, and what do you get? Steaks, burgers, chicken, and chops. Once in a while a Friday night fish fry. I'll tell you something, my friend. Fish is good for you. What we got here are very rich in 3-Omega fatty acids. You know what I'm saying? You reduce cholesterol, lower your triglycerides and you live a long time. I mean, let me ask you—you ever see an Eskimo keel over from a heart attack?" He chuckled. "And that's the point. Way things are these days, I'd rather eat some mackerel, a little tofu, some rice, and now and then a little eel or octopus. To hell with tacos, pal." He chuckled, then excused himself, rushing to the door to greet Merle and Meryl Oftedahl, two long-time Warby residents, who had come by after participating in a polka dancing competition over at Pillager.
Merle was holding a large plaque above his head. "Second place," he shouted. "Me and the missus took second place." The Oftedahls were in uniform: blue slacks and white shirt for Merle. Blue skirt and white blouse for his wife. Both wore red blazers decorated with patches signifying excellence in old-time Terpsichore.
Meryl Oftedahl was at least 65, several years younger than her husband. Except for her trifocals, and white hair puffed into a bouffant, she had changed little over the years. "Gimme a brandy and Seven," she hollered.
"Oh, forget that," said a smiling Gunnar Sundstrom. "A little warm saki would be better, and let me bring you some of our nice futo maki. We got this giant clam here too, you might like. Otherwise, I can have Bessie bring you some tuna. Very good today, the tuna."
Meryl seemed disappointed, but said maybe she'd drink a Molson. Merle passed around the plaque he and Meryl had won at the Beer Barrel Polkafest. "Hey, it was terrific this year," he shouted, an unlighted cigarette bobbing between his lips. "We just glided over that floor like nobody's business." He wiped his glasses and looked around. "Old Gunnar got himself a nice little establishment here," he said, settling into a booth. "But between you and me, I sorta miss the old Buckhorn."
"I tell you, I miss it too," said Sundstrom, extending a lighter toward Merle's cigarette. "But," he said, turning to gaze at the customers in his new enterprise, "the Buckhorn is history. You can't stop progress." He rested his hand on Merle's shoulder. "Hey, buddy, I'll have the girls bring you and the lovely missus a nice platter of nori maki, on the house. Celebrate," he said, clasping Merle's hand, beaming into Merle's unsmiling face. "Enjoy. Hey, are we gonna party, or what?"