“A person could put up with one of those checkout aisle paperbacks if it meant they got to meet some people and have a stimulating conversation.” A short story in which a yearning for connection leads to a blossoming of possibilities…
by: Colin Wolcott
Bruce is at The Great Wall. He’s reading Brideshead Revisited and taking his time with a plate of sticky-sweet sesame chicken. The sauce is starting to turn tacky. Without raising his head, he peeks over the top of his wire-framed glasses at the remaining patrons and staff. No one is paying him any attention. Bruce has been sitting in this chair so long he’s become part of the scenery. Slipping his hand underneath the brim of the olive green fedora on the table, he grasps his hip flask, brings it to the partly-drunk plastic cup of Coke in his lap, and gives the cola a heavy pour. Sliding the remaining whiskey back under his hat, Bruce stirs the drink with a straw and takes a long pull. He has to make a conscious effort not to grimace. It’s strong.
Too strong? No, Bruce thinks, for occasions like solitary Friday night dining at a Chinese buffet, a stiff, sweet drink fits perfectly.
He turns back to the book, but his eyes don’t focus and his mind is blank. He stares at the black-and-white page as thoughts fade like pebble-made ripples from a pond, and for a time he merely sits, unblinking, breathing slow, mind and body still.
A young woman in a white blouse approaches his table and deposits a small tray bearing the check and a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie. Bruce presses himself back into focus and glances up at her. She is Asian and has youthful, cheery features framed by shoulder-length hair. He quickly looks back down at his novel.
“We’re closing soon, so if you’d like to get anything else…”
Bruce fumbles to mark his page and shuts the book before clattering his silverware onto the plastic plate. He pushes his voice towards the lower end of its natural range, “No, thank you. I pay at the front, right?”
She nods. He’s been here a dozen times.
She picks up his utensils and is reaching for the drink before he snatches it off the table. “Thank you very much, sir. Goodnight.”
She walks away. Only two other patrons are left in the restaurant now, a young man and woman sitting at a small table near the back. He is wearing a green sweater. Her jeans are tattered above the heels. Both are leaning towards the other and talking softly but animatedly, with his hand resting lightly atop hers.
Bruce supposes he could be like them. Why not? They must have things in common. They were all here at the restaurant tonight so there had to be similarities. He could lose his blazer and put on a shirt without a collar if it would help. Maybe they’d read Waugh, that could be an interesting conversation. They looked smart and educated, and might be discussing a novel right now. People like that were in book clubs; perhaps he would be allowed to join. He could read anything, it didn’t have to be literature. A person could put up with one of those checkout aisle paperbacks if it meant they got to meet some people and have a stimulating conversation.
Straw in mouth, chain-sipping from the drink, Bruce stares at the table in front of him, brow furrowed. He is trying to discern the approach, the words that will open and bind these people to him. The television said objects aren’t as solid as they look, and that matter is mostly empty space. You could stick your hand right through a wall if you did it correctly, it was just a question of knowing precisely where to push. Where should he push? What should he say?
As he sits like a chess player considering the next move, the two rise. She pulls on a long maroon coat and tugs her dirty blond ponytail free of the collar. Glancing around the room, her eyes briefly touch Bruce’s. She turns to her companion and says something. Both laugh.
They pay and leave, and Bruce is alone, slurping at melting ice. He sighs.
Oh well, he thinks, they seemed nice. Maybe they’ll be back next Friday. He can stop by then to check or even a few times during the week.
Abandoning the cup, Bruce stands and shrugs into his battered brown jacket, retrieves the flask, and leaves three dollars on the table. Hat in one hand, check and fortune cookie in the other, he walks to the front to pay his bill.
The cashier is older and also Asian. Bruce wonders why it is that you always see Chinese people working at Chinese restaurants. He had heard from a co-worker who travels that the food at these places bears little resemblance to what is actually found in China. As a matter of fact, Darrell had said, “they don’t have very good Chinese food in China.” Bruce hands the woman a twenty. If the staff here were Chinese but the food wasn’t, didn’t that give the whole affair a veneer of undeserved authenticity? It seemed misleading.
Outside on the pavement, he fights with the jacket’s recalcitrant zipper before closing it against the damp chill. He stands for a moment, looking at the darkened strip mall storefronts and parking lots around him.
He doesn’t feel ready to walk home yet. Where can he go now? What is there still to do?
Bruce looks down at the fortune cookie in his hand and thinks of the waitress. He tears the cellophane wrapper open, breaks the stiff dough and pops a piece into his mouth. It is crunchy and mildly sweet, but not too sweet. Not decadent. Not…pushy. He smiles. Delicious but moderate; a modest dessert for a modest man. He removes the exposed paper and eats the other half. Bruce is lucky today as the cookie has in fact yielded two fortunes. It is dark under the strip mall overhang and difficult to read the small type. He steps off the curb and into the parking lot where the large red “The Great Wall” sign above provides a tepid crimson glow. Bruce holds up the two slips and squints.
— A DREAM YOU HAVE WILL COME TRUE —
— PERSIST. AFTER RAIN THERE’S ALWAYS SUNSHINE —
He drops his hands and is motionless, looking down at the sweet-scented paper in his palm. He knows that to receive two fortunes is rare, but to get a “negative” one — well, as negative as they can be, anyway — even rarer. And to have both a good and bad fortune in the same cookie — that had never happened before. What must the odds be? Could this mean something? Surely it carries significance.
Bruce stands there a full minute. He holds up the slips and reads them again. He wants to be certain.
This is an incredible thing, truly amazing. The two fortunes — negative and positive — are like the Yin and Yang. His mouth twitches upward in a smile, and he looks around the darkened lot, hoping for another witness to call out to.
On television they had said Chinese civilization is old. It spans the last four thousand years. Maybe five thousand. Bruce can think of nothing more emblematic of that culture than the Yin and Yang. And here it is: Yin and Yang in one cookie. His cookie. This is a distillation of five thousand years of culture and wisdom all compressed into one little packet of plastic-y dough. And all for him.
He hops back and forth from leg to leg in a little dance reminiscent of a child needing to go to the bathroom Who can he share his excitement with? Who wouldn’t be excited by this find? Bruce wants to tell the waitress who gave him the cookie, but the “OPEN” sign is already dark, and when he tries the door it’s locked.
Nonetheless, his enthusiasm is undiminished, and Bruce is still beaming as he tucks the sibling fortunes into the hatband of the fedora. He will not set off for home. He will walk down the street a bit instead. Somewhere there must be an establishment, a restaurant or bar perhaps, with smiling people who are open and interested. Tonight’s remarkable find is a key. It is a way to put his hand through the wall and grasp someone on the other side. And because of his fortunes, they will be eager to grasp back.
Bruce strides away from The Great Wall. His steps are longer now. This is it. This discovery is a sign for him, a portent. Things will be different.
This time he is certain.
Colin Wolcott lives in Portland, Oregon where he writes, hangs out in a planetarium, and sometimes plays handbells. His work has appeared in Strangelet, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Pseudopod, and Idle Ink.