Proactive Fortune Cookies
“So, your assailant was wearing a twelve pack of beer as a hat.”
“You’re not listening. He had something on his head, like an empty case, the cardboard wrapper or something, I don’t- when a drunk psycho comes charging at you on two wheels yelling ef this ef that he’s gonna kill all the heathens and queers and- you don’t hear half what he says because people are honking their horns, he’s riding in the street like he doesn’t even notice that cars are there, but he sees you, and he’s pedaling his fastest and trying to run you over, and all this happens in about five seconds, you don’t- details like attire can escape you. If you want to write in your report that the assailant was operating a tavern on his bald scalp, whatever. It’s your report.”
“Can you describe to me in complete detail everything that happened, starting with your attacker’s directing hostile remarks at you while advancing toward you on a bicycle? How certain are you that he was under the influence of alcohol?”
“How certain are you that you’re listening to a word I’m saying?”
The officer settled back in his chair, folded his arms across his badge and looked Billy in the eye. “Are you sure I’m the person you should be talking to tonight?”
Billy was sixteen when he told his parents what they already knew but had no ability to hear. It was on a road trip from Florida to Vermont. They stopped off in Boston for one night. Clint and Maggy — their first names were more natural to Billy than ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ — had been arguing about fish. It was either the price of salmon or labor relations in hatcheries. Or maybe they were talking about the effect of hydroelectric dams on aquatic ecosystems. Whichever it was, it probably segued into a debate over the veracity of Uncle Louie’s oral legend of the man-sized trout he caught that split his canoe into two pieces one sticky, humid August morn in Kentucky. They also might have been analyzing the portrayal of talking shellfish in a recent Disney movie. Billy was not sure what the topic of conversation was, except that it was somehow, directly or indirectly, related to fish. He had tuned out somewhere between North Carolina and wherever, and was listening to Miles Davis through headphones while reading a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories the entirety of which he had already read.
When the family Buick slowed to a halt in the parking lot of a rest area with a brightly lit, looming logo of a fast-food chain Billy had never heard of, it seemed that he was jerked out of a deep sleep, only he had been wide awake the entire drive. As they got out of the car, Billy’s father’s eyes followed the skirt of a thirtyish woman with blonde hair talking on a cell phone. He looked at Billy, searching for recrimination, or maybe for validation of his lechery through the sanction of sixteen-year-old lust, or perhaps in search of a crude, simple and failsafe initiation of a father-son bond, as the husband-wife bond appeared to be temporarily out of order. That was when Billy knew he had to tell them.
After walking the entire Freedom Trail and attempting to visualize Paul Revere traversing the cobblestones over which the three listlessly progressed, feet dragging bodies that were still molded to the shape of car seats, Billy’s father said, “Who’s up for Chinese food?” Billy wondered how many historical figures had uttered important words from that exact spot.
Billy thought of telling them over egg-flower soup, but did not want to taint the entrée to follow. Over shrimp chow mein, he tried to picture their reaction, whether his father would laugh and exclaim something dubious or whether they would both fall silent and the echo of forks falling to the table would resound like a collision on the highway. When he opened his fortune cookie and pretended to look down and read it, his heart was splattered against his abdominal wall like a raw hamburger patty dripping grease through a barbecue grill. Getting the words out was like willing the red processed flesh to squeeze itself through the metal grid and into the coals.
Billy was the official fortune cookie comedian at family functions. It began at the age of seven when he recited his very first fortune cookie out loud without help and misread ‘you have a penchant for sympathizing with strangers’ as you have a pant for spatting with straws. At Chinese restaurants, he was always the last to read his fortune cookie, and it always resulted in a laugh fest, because he would never read what was actually written on the fortune tab, but would cleverly make an allusion to a recent topic of conversation and phrase it to sound exactly like a fortune cookie (the actual message in the fortune cookie was a personal secret intended only for him).
He performed that function throughout his childhood because the adult conversation at the table bored him and his role as comedian gave him something to occupy his mind throughout the meal. He began the concentrated effort of formulating a joke from the moment they sat down at the table, and would normally juggle several candidates in his mind while eating, but would not make his final decision until the moment of delivery.
Billy’s father continued to chew his fortune cookie.
Billy’s mother was sipping her tea when Billy said the word. She finished the steaming liquid in her cup. It was too hot to drink, but she threw her head back and downed it. They did not look at each other.
Billy felt no relief. The pressure that had built up behind the two words in his throat was still in his throat and he worried that it might constrict his breathing if he did not release it by some action. He wondered if saying it again would help. It would not.
Billy’s father laughed deep inside his chest — it was a lurch of something mechanical and greasy, something absent in Billy’s anatomy. “That’s a bold claim for a fortune cookie.”
Billy’s mother sent a hand sailing across the table. It lost momentum and fell back to her lap before reaching Billy’s shoulder. “Was, um, that a joke, dear? I fear it went over my head.”
“Of course it was a joke.” Clint playfully poked Billy in the elbow with two knuckles. His knuckles felt like keys being jabbed into incompatible locks and trying to twist. “You’re always a laugh riot with those things.”
Billy squeezed the crumpled white fortune slip in his fist. It already felt lifeless, but he squeezed harder just to be sure. It seemed that the white paper should bleed, that it should burst into great globs of salty, crimson mucus in his hand in response to his disclosure. It was just a tiny slip of paper, and that was all it had ever been. Those pithy statements of wisdom and foresight came from a manufacturing plant somewhere in New York City, and the laugh fests came from someplace else.
He held up the ball of mangled fortune and dropped it into the teapot while making eye contact with the space between his parents’ faces. He wanted to smash plates on the table. He wanted to tear his shirt off and scratch the word GAY onto the flesh of his stomach with his fork. He wanted to get back in the car and have it drive backwards all the way home, to hear Miles Davis in reverse and forget each H.P. Lovecraft story one word at a time. He wanted to have told them a long time ago, at home, in the morning, perhaps, he could pause on his way out the door as he was running late for school, turn around and say, by the way, I’m a homosexual, try and get used to it, running late, see ya later, perkily slam the door and give it a day to sink in. There were an infinite number of ways he could have broken the news, and all of them would have been better than here, tonight. The best one would have been not telling them at all. At least until the fact became so obvious that it was a moot point.
Billy looked at his hand. It was motionless. He looked closer. His hand was taking slow breaths, palm creating a suction with the frictionless table, slowly peeling itself off and arching on to his fingertips and then back around.
“Well, um.” Maggie’s posture became warlike. “I’ll always be supportive-”
“Shut up.” Billy did not intend to say it loudly, or to say it at all, but it caused heads to turn. After he said it, the pressure was gone from his throat, but did not leave his body. It re-circulated to the bottom of his stomach in the form of a fiery ember that tickled.
Billy’s father’s body did something similar to what a hunting bow does when the string is pulled back as far as the hunter’s ear, elbows and fists straddling his plate to keep from flinging in unknown natural directions. His eyes widened to fill the space between his ears. Billy had seen his father make that face only once before, the time a state trooper pulled him over for driving sixty-eight miles per hour in a sixty zone, coming home from a football game at the state college.
“You cannot speak to your mother like that,” Billy’s father said in a low voice.
His mother was focused down at her lap and was probably folding and unfolding intricate shapes with her napkin. That was what she did when relatives discussed disagreeable financial prospects.
His father was studying a family at a nearby table with a toddler in a high chair and an adolescent girl wearing a baseball cap. Then his mother said to his father something about fish, something that was presumably funny. They both tried very hard to chuckle, but whatever the joke was and whatever the conversation was to which it was alluding, it had to have paled grossly in comparison to a typical Billy fortune cookie witticism.
Billy nodded a silent apology and stood. “I got to pee.” He walked out of the restaurant and into the streets of Chinatown. He actually had intended to visit the restroom and return promptly to the table, but once he stood up, there was nowhere to go but outside. The interior of the restaurant shrunk around him and squeezed.
The moon was up. He walked to the end of the block. He told himself he should take a deep breath, but there seemed to be no reason to.
A woman with red, feathery earrings that looked too big on her stood on the opposite street corner. She wore fishnet stockings and a tight leopard colored vest and dark purple eye shadow and had the posture of a woman who was waiting for something. Like Billy’s father, the woman on the street corner looked like somebody who would be comfortable with a bow and arrow in her hands at all times. Billy vaguely recalled hearing a certain neighborhood of Boston referred to as the ‘combat zone,’ in comparison with portions of other cities that were known as ‘red-light districts.’
Billy paced. He saw his dad walk out of the restaurant, looking confused. His dad spotted Billy. His eyes moved from Billy to the woman with the feather earrings and the purple eye shadow. His body turned itself to Billy, and then to the woman, back and forth once more and he made up his mind and walked over to the woman and started talking to her with the same hand gestures Billy had seen him use when negotiating prices with plumbers.
They both looked back in Billy’s direction at the same instant, and Billy’s dad’s eye released an arrow into its target.
Billy’s mom came out of the restaurant and looked around. His dad motioned to her, somewhat excitedly. Billy turned away from both of them and continued to pace. He knew what was transpiring, but had no ability to believe it.
“Billy!” His dad yelled hoarsely and motioned him over with a hand gesture that looked like something a gear in a hydraulic press might do.
He walked across the street slowly, enjoying the chill of the air in his lungs.
Billy’s mom placed a hand on Billy’s shoulder and said, looking at the woman with purple eye shadow, “Billy, this is Francie. Francie, this is our son Billy.”
Francie looked Billy over from his shoes up and said, “Jesus Christ, how old are you?”
“He’s sixteen,” said his dad, “and about to become a man.” He patted Billy’s other shoulder. “Think you can take care of him?” He winked. Billy found the wink more disgusting than anything he had ever seen his father do with his body.
Francie had not made eye contact with Billy yet, and seemed as though she would consider doing many other things with Billy before she would venture to look him in the eye. She said to Billy’s mom and dad, “Listen, I’m not sure I…this is a little-”
Billy’s dad slapped some money into Francie’s hand and said to Billy, hooking his arm through Billy’s elbow in the way he used to do when disciplining him for skipping school, “You’re not gay. You’re confused. Unfortunately, we can’t take a confused young man to Aunt Gracy’s house in Vermont, and that’s where Francie here can help. Her services have already been paid for, she’ll lead the way, just do whatever she tells you. We’ll be waiting outside to pick you up and take you back to the hotel. Or, if you decide you’d rather spend the night with Francie-”
“Dad, hold it.” Billy looked to his mom, but her gaze was fixed on Dad. He looked to Francie, but Francie’s eyes were fixed on Mom. “Um, you’re fucking crazy. Can’t we even talk about it? And mom, didn’t you just say you’d be supportive…”
She nodded her head with severity. “Your father and I discussed this, and-”
That was when the bicycle rider with beer instead of a helmet careened through the street yelling curses and Francie screamed as the bicycle flipped up over the curb and elbows hit pavement and police sirens sounded.
Billy thought again of Paul Revere.
He told the officer that some things happened that needed to happen, and that that was his final statement.
On the road for Vermont, Billy’s father asked Billy what he thought.
“Nice architecture, I guess.”
“Are you an expert on architecture?” Maggie played with her voice in her endearingly sarcastic manner, like twirling a radio dial back and forth.
“Boston is full of raging nutcases.” Clint rubbed the bruise on his arm from the skirmish with the mad bicycler. “I’ll bet that guy was a former client of Miss Francie’s who wanted his money back.”
“There’s no reason to bring that up, dear,” Maggie said through jaws tightly wound like bear traps.
“Just my observation.” Clint glanced to the back seat. “How you doing there, kiddo? You’ve been awfully quiet.”
Billy breathed deeply and exhaled more deeply. He reached in his pocket and felt for the folded up fortune cookie tab that was not there, and then remembered that he had destroyed it. He wondered what it had said, and then quickly stopped wondering. An anthology of comedy that had been birthed by the words you have a pant for spatting with straws was sealed with an I’m gay. Billy was not sure how much farther Vermont was, but he estimated that he had anywhere between three and twenty days before the next occasion for Chinese food would arise. If he started thinking now, in the car, that would give him ample time to compose a winning knee-slapper of a sarcastic fortune. You have a penchant for sucking dick came to mind. Fuck you, I am who I am also came to mind. In the end, he would settle on:
It’s just a cookie. Try not to think so hard.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED