Who needs astrology? The wise man gets by on fortune cookies.
Jessica was a creature of habit (and she loved coupon specials). You could tell this, just by observing her lunchtime eating habits.
On Mondays, she ate corned beef on rye, with a kosher pickle, at Wanowski's Deli. Taco Tuesdays were always at Tio Burrito's, when the tacos were two for the price of one. Wednesday would always find her at Mama's Little Italy for the spaghetti special. Thursdays were for chicken salad sandwiches with watercress, at Lucy's tearoom. Friday's, well, Friday's had been clam chowder day at Mickey's Diner. Until she had that first fateful date.
Her predictible behavior was somewhat ironic, given that her profession the past two years, had been that of a telephone psychic for the FortuneTeller's PhoneBank. A job she'd stumbled across in the want ads when she was desperate after college. She never thought of herself as truly psychic, but she did have a knack for knowing what people wanted to hear - a little reassurance that things would start looking up; life would get better. She felt she gave them hope, if nothing else.
It had paid well enough to keep her housed in her tiny studio apartment and gas in her little VW. It kept her in reading material, and made it possible to eat out once a day, for a slight change of scenery - however, predictible that scenery might be - as well as giving her some sense of companionship.
The cashiers and waitresses all came to know her by name. They would greet her with a smile, "Jessica! I kept your table for you. The usual, right? Here's your iced tea, with a lemon slice. I'll be right back with your order."
She'd nod and smile. Sit down with her stack of magazines to look at while they hurried to put in her order. Then they'd chat for a bit, about the weather or the latest celebrity scandal. Then after her order came, she'd flip through her magazines, while she nibbled.
Afterwards, the waiter or waitress would say, "See you next week!" She was always careful to leave a 20 percent tip, sometimes a bit more if it were near a holiday. So she came to be a favorite customer at her chosen lunchstops, and they watched out for her, too. That's how she came to meet Frank.
"Jessica, you're too young and pretty to always eat alone!" The fatherly counterman, Jeff at Wanowski's Deli, told her one Monday. "I know a nice guy. You'd like him - he's a reader, like you." He saw Jessica look at him a little skeptically.
"No, he's good-looking and everything. He comes in while you're eating, that's why you probably never noticed him. You always have your nose in your books by then. But I've seen him take a second look at you - more than once. I'm pretty sure he's interested, but he don't want to interrupt you, him being a reader, too and all. I point him out to you today, when I come to clear the table. You give me a nod, and I'll set it up next week to introduce you." Jessica smiled wistfully. It had been a long time since she'd had a date.
Jeff pounced on her opportune silence, "What you say? Sound good? C'mon, you can't eat alone all you life - you gotta live a little!"
Hesitantly, she nodded - more to end the conversation, than anything else; she'd heard the bell ringing as the door swung behind her for another customer.
She went about her usual routine of eating and reading. When Jeff came to pick up the paper napkins and the paper-lined, red plastic basket that had held her corned beef on rye, he gave her a wink, and nodded towards a guy in the corner. A paperback book held in one hand, a pastrami sandwich in the other, his dark hair was a little on the long side, but clean and trimmed evenly enough to show he cared about his appearance. He was dressed casually, but fairly stylish. What was he reading...hmm, she thought that was the best-seller she'd just been eyeing in the window of the bookstore on her way to the deli today.
She took a deep breath and nodded. Jeff was right she needed to live a little. Jeff told her to come 10 minutes later next week to place her order.
Though she was a creature of habit, she forced herself to dally longer at the bookstore the next Monday. When she arrived at Jeff's, sure enough, there was the guy in line ahead of her, and Jeff managed to finesse the introduction in a fairly subtle way. Before she knew what was happening, Frank was seated at a nearby table - talking across the aisle from her, discussing books, charming her with his insight into characters and plotlines.
She came to look forward to running into Frank at the deli on Mondays, and apparently he did, too. Always following her to a nearby table, then eventually, she asked him to join her at her table. The following Monday, he asked her to lunch with him on Friday. She glowed, and nodded shyly. Then he suggested a Chinese restaurant, that was apparently his favorite Friday dining spot.
She'd balked at first (at least a little), when Frank invited her to lunch at Choo's Chinese Palace. Not only was it not in her usual line-up, but it was well, so foreign, to her. She'd always felt a little intimidated by Chinese restaurants. She never knew what she was really ordering, and even when she asked for the ingredients, her imagination couldn't seem to get past the descriptive names of the dishes. She would read 'Phoenix nest,' on the menu, and her mind would picture a flaming chicken, spreadwinged eagle-style, atop an intricately built nest of fried chinese noodles, and there would go her appetite.
But it had been more than a year since her last date (which had ended disasterously at a Greek restaurant when her date had accidentally shish-kebabed his thumb - one more reason she distrusted stretching outside her carefully-constructed daily diet). More than a year, though. Surely, the shish-kebab incident was a fluke. She needed to get outside her comfort zone and live a little, just as Jeff had said - that's what she was always reading in O and the other women's magazines she would peruse during her solitary and boring, but so predictible and comfortable, routine lunches.
Frank was understanding - he was himself a bit of a routine-luncher, but was willing to try the clam chowder at Mickey's, if that's what it took to gain an hour alone with her. That's when Jessica made up her mind - if he could be willing to bend his routine for her - and he was paying - shouldn't she be gracious enough to try his Friday favorite?
To Jessica's delight, those first few Friday's at Choo's were phenomenal. When Frank found out about her fears, he patiently described the various dishes, ordering a different one each time, while she stuck with ordering safe chow mein, just so she could see what they really looked like, and even hazard a taste from his plate, which he always offered her.
She found that potstickers with pickled ginger, were actually quite a tasty delicacy. Not at all the horrid lumps of blackened scrapings from the bottom of the burnt pans, she once imagined. The Pu-Pu platter was definitely more pleasant than anything she'd previously imagined it to be. But her favorite part had come to be the little finishing touch - the fortune cookie at the end of the meal.
This had become her favorite, since their first date at Choo's, when she had opened her fortune cookie and read, "You will soon receive a gift of flowers." Frank had laughed when she'd read it aloud.
"I never gave much credence to those, till now. But I guess it's time to give you this." She'd hardly paid attention to the gold foil box on the seat beside him. She'd thought it was a gift for his mom, he'd picked up on the way to the restaurant; he'd certainly talked about her enough.
He handed her the box, and sure enough, when she opened it there lay a long-stemmed, perfectly shaped, pink rosebud surrounded by baby's breath and fern leaves. A nice touch that - pink; sweet but not too heavily romantic for a first date.
Somehow she had suspected that perhaps Frank was responsible for placing the notes in the fortune cookies - they always seemed to fortuitously predict some small happening such as the flowers. Perhaps he bribed the waiter to place a certain cookie? But how could that be, it would be quite a stretch even for someone who was desperate to get lucky, to find or make these particular fortune cookies, reseal them in the plastic, bribe the waiter...still she wondered. There were always such strange synchronicities....the flowers. The day it predicted she'd share an umbrella with someone special - it hadn't even really looked like rain to her, but Frank had brought an umbrella to lunch with him, and by the time they left the restaurant, there was a downpour in progress. He wouldn't have been able to predict the weather - there hadn't been a forecast for rain; he'd just said he'd been meaning to take it home from work for awhile. These little serendipitous fortune cookies happened several lunches in a row, as their weekly lunches went by.
Then the fortune cookies seemed to take a turn for the worse. They predicted she'd be walking home barefoot - and not only had the heel of her shoe broken, but someone stole her beloved old VW. The cookies warned her to keep her windows closed, lest her treasure fly out through the window. That day, she'd left the bathroom window ajar after showering to let out the steam in the summer heat, and forgotten to close it before leaving. She arrived back home to find someone had broken into her apartment through the window, and stolen her TV.
She began to look suspiciously at Frank, during their lunches, and consequently they bickered over their food, the books they read, and how much he talked about his mother. He called her psychic profession a "sham," and told her that she was taking money from people desperate for any solution, while only offering them platitudes.
That last fortune cookie, on what turned out to be their last date, had read, "A suspicious mind will always find something wrong with others."
Though he hadn't shown up at Jeff's or called her, Jessica went back to Choo's the next Friday. She didn't find Frank there. Their usual booth sat empty. She forlornly picked at her plate of plain chow mein. It wasn't much fun ordering anything else, without Frank to share it with. At the end of the lonely meal, her fortune cookie read, "If you wish to find truth, first you must seek it."
She asked the waiter where the restaurant bought their fortune cookies. Dutifully, he went to the kitchen and came back with an empty box, stamped "Fan's Famous Fortune Cookies" with the address printed below it.
"We buy them by the case, every week from here." He let her take the empty box with her.
Still car-less since her VW had been stolen, she rode the bus to the other side of town, to the address on the box.
She wasn't familiar with this part of town. Fortunately, the bus stop was at the very corner where the tiny factory was located. She double-checked the address on the front of the small, square warehouse. The outside appeared like any number of other non-descript, steel-doored warehouses in the area. Nothing special. She took a deep breath and strode up to the door.
She opened it to find a little old man seated behind the counter. There were banners written in Chinese hanging behind him, and a small potted bamboo stood on the counter, next to a gold Buddha figurine. He nodded and smiled a toothless grin at her. "Can I help you?"
"I certainly hope so," said Jessica. She'd been rehearsing this scenario in her mind, the whole way on her bus ride here. "Do you have someone who writes the fortunes you put in your cookies - here
at the factory?"
The old man's smile, suddenly froze. "Why you ask?"
Jessica crossed her fingers behind her back. "Well, I just would like to have a word with them, if I could. Um, I'm writing a story. For a newspaper article on fortune cookies. It could be good publicity for your company."
The man's smile returned. "Oh, yes! I show you to her." He opened a door behind him, and motioned Jessica to follow him.
The moved through a small commercial bakery - done baking for the day, a few workers remained cleaning machinery. He led her to an office in the back.
The old man preceded her into the office, speaking rapidly - and to her in what sounded like an angry tone - in Chinese. She peered around him to see a young Chinese woman close to her own age, seated at a computer desk. The girl bowed her head to the old man, and replied softly in their shared language. The old man turned abruptly, gave Jessica a quick, false smile, and motioned her on into the office. He then stepped outside the office; though he lurked near the doorway, pretending to pick at something on the wall beside the door.
"My uncle says you are writing an article for the newspaper. How can I help you?" the girl asked, with only a trace of accent.
Jessica glanced back at the old man, still by the door. "Is there somewhere else we can talk, in private?"
"Here - let me take care of this," the girl said. She spoke to the old man briefly in Chinese. He scowled; grabbed a broom from beside the door, and made a show of moving off, sweeping invisible crumbs with it. The girl closed the door behind him, and turned around to Jessica with a slight smile.
"Please excuse my uncle; he worries that I'll say something to disgrace the family business." She sat back down at the desk, and waved Jessica to an odd, lone barstool sitting beneath the window that looked out over the bakery floor. Jessica could see the old man glance back toward the office window; then, hurry back to sweeping when their eyes momentarily met.
"Why? Has that happened before?" Jessica asked, as she sat down in on the stool opposite the girl.
"Well, in a way; to his mind, I suppose it has." The girl shrugged. "Not really anything scandalous. He just worries too much."
She looked at Jessica's hands. "Shouldn't you be taking notes? Asking me my name or something?"
Jess looked down at her empty hands, sans notebook or pen, and realized she needed to bring this ruse to an end.
She gulped. Took a breath and managed to stammer out, "Um - well, actually I'm not a reporter."
The girl sighed, and covered her face with her hands. "I knew he was right, I just didn't want to believe it." Jess could just barely hear her mumble from behind her hands.
She leaned forward, "Right about what?"
The girl dropped her hands, and regained her composure. "Oh, nothing, nothing....You tell me why you're here."
"Well, I was wondering how you came up with the fortunes, that go into the cookies...do you have a book or something?"
The girl seemed slightly agitated. "If you're not a reporter, why you need to know so bad? Come all the way out here to ask me? Why don't you go to a library like a normal person?" She half rose from her chair. "I got stuff to do. I need to go home. The day's over."
Jessica put out her hand to stop her - "No, please - wait a minute! I'll explain." Slowly, the girl sank back into her seat.
Jess took a deep breath, and launched into her story. Her dates with Frank at the Chinese restaurant; the many instances the fortune cookies seemed to actually foretell the future - both good and bad.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I need to know - has someone ever paid you, to type up certain uh, fortunes? A young guy, with dark hair, maybe?"
The girl looked at her sadly and shook her head, slowly, 'no.'
"Thank you. I'll just go now. I'm sorry to have taken up your time." Jess slid off the stool, dejectedly; feeling embarrassed. What on earth had possessed her to come all the way out here on this Fool's errand, anyway?
As she put her hand on the doorknob, the girl stopped her - "Wait. There's something - something I should tell you."
Jess turned and looked back at her. Now the young Chinese girl, was the one who appeared to be embarrassed.
"Someone did ask you to type those fortunes?" Jess gasped.
"No, no - nothing like that." The girl tucked her short black hair behind her ears. She looked around the office; anywhere but at Jessica; while she summoned her courage to speak. "It's me. It's just me."
"You - you followed me or something?" Jess was totally confused by the turn the conversation had taken. "Are you interested in Frank..." this was the only possible hyposthesis she could come up with, why a total stranger would orchestrate such an elaborate scheme.
"Frank? Frank, who? Oh, your boyfriend. No, I don't even know your boyfriend. I don't have to know him. It - it just happens this way." Finally, she looked Jess in the eye. "You think you the only one this ever happen to? Well, you're not. You the fourth person this year, come all the way out here. I'm sorry. It was your destiny. Your fortune; or I suppose your misfortune. I - I'm just a messenger." The girl looked down sadly at her computer keyboard. "I don't want to be. I try not to be. I try to just type happy, hopeful things. But sometimes, when I'm not paying attention; they just slip out." She looked back up at Jess. "My family, they used to think it was a gift. Now they think it's a curse. I think so, too. I need to find a different job, I think. Go back to baking, even though it's hot as the Sun out there. It'd be better than always upsetting people." She pushed away from the desk. "There; now you know. It's not your boyfriend; it's not even really me. It just is Fortune."
Jess stared at the girl, with her mouth hanging open. "So you just type up fortunes - that get baked into a cookie; then those cookies just happen to go to the person that will actually have that fortune happen?"
"Something like that. I don't understand it either. It just happens that way. No worries - I'm not going to type them anymore. I tell my uncle, I want to bake again and to have my little brother type them from now on. He reads English better anyway, and he's a computer geek. He doesn't even believe in any of this telling fortunes stuff. Even though he probably won't like it - at least no one else will get scared by their fortune cookies."
Jess thought for a second. "But you really do? Tell fortunes, that is?" The girl nodded.
"You don't have to go back to the hot baking, you know." The girl looked at Jess inquiringly."I think I know the perfect job for you. And if your brother doesn't want to type fortunes, I think," she took another breath, "I think I know someone, who may not be much good at telling the future - but I know what people like to hear. I know words to make them happy."
She and the girl looked at one another. "You want to trade jobs? Let me tell you about the FortuneTellers Phone Bank...."
Oh, and as for Frank? He never went to the Chinese restaurant on Fridays again. He can be found eating clam chowder on Fridays at Mickey's diner, with his mom, though...
So Jessica did have some good fortune, after all.
Thanks for hanging in there through this, if you're still out there! Sorry, I didn't intend for this to be so long - I sat down with sort of a vague idea of fortune cookies that came true (I had that happen once - the flower fortune - it was flowers as a "thank you" at a Lion's club meeting years ago, not a romantic date), but really had no idea where this was going - it just kept going, and going...So I let it go, till it ran out of steam! I hope it was worth reading, and that the ending wasn't too hokey.
If you're still hungering for more to read, check out Sunday Scribblings to crack open some more Fortune Cookies.
Oh - Ray (Rachel, the Story Lady from the UK) and I, are forming a writing group - Write the Damn Book! (as inspired by Laini and Alexandra), if any fellow writers would like to join us in the journey. Our goal? To give ourselves, one year to write our Damn Books, starting September 23rd. Leave a comment (or e-mail) if you think you might be finally ready to write your own damn book (you can leave me a comment even if you don't want to join us, too :) It's not a pressure/critic type group we have in mind, just a support group, to help us try and finally make our dreams come real. At least the writing of the book part. The publishing of the book part is a whole 'nother thing. But at least we'd finally have it written down, instead of carrying these stories around in our heads all the time. Gets a bit top heavy, with all those characters and ideas in there. Fiction, non-fiction - everybody's welcome.
Think about it and let us know if you're interested.