Issue 129 of fabulous fiction brings you great distractions. From life’s misfortunes to frightful fortunes, these stories take you away from the here and now. Sit back and let Neil Robertson, Andrea Danowski, and Eric Hawthorn take you on an out-and-back that may just leave you out there.
That woman across the restaurant—dark hair, eyeliner, velvet blouse—yeah, her. She’s been watching you for the last 20 minutes with a mix of curiosity and desire.
Thomas sits more upright in the booth of the Chinese restaurant. He reads his fortune again, just to be sure: dark hair… velvet blouse… watching you
This may be the most specific fortune cookie ever.
The restaurant resembles an airplane cabin. On the other end of this noisy fuselage, the woman in question—Velvet, he’s named her—is sitting with her friends. She and her friends are finishing their meal and laughing about something. Lacking anything better to do, Thomas polishes his glasses on his faded Iron Maiden t-shirt. With his glasses off, the woman is a velvety blur. Glasses on, she’s—incredible.
Thomas works to fit his glasses more comfortably along his temples. He needs new glasses. Not a new prescription, but a new frame. As Mother puts it, he’s “gained a little weight around his head.”
Thomas doesn’t usually read his fortune—he’s just here for the orange chicken—and he only read it this time because he’s waiting for Mother. Still, he’s never known a fortune cookie to display such awareness. How could a fortune cookie know who’s looking at him, let alone what she’s wearing? The fortune is 100 percent correct: dark hair, eyeliner, velvet blouse (skin-tight, plunging neckline, Thomas confirms with another glance). Maybe some bored members of the kitchen staff enjoy spying on the patrons, printing out custom fortunes and slipping them into the cookies right before the waitress, who’s probably in on it, brings them out with a quartered orange and their check. But if that were the case, how would these pranksters know which cookie Thomas would open? There were two: one for him and one for Mother, who’s using the ladies room. Thomas is dying to open Mother’s fortune cookie, but she’ll want to do that when she gets back.
Thomas reads his fortune once more:
That woman across the restaurant—dark hair, eyeliner, velvet blouse—yeah, her. She’s been watching you for the last 20 minutes with a mix of curiosity and desire.
Curiosity and desire? What does that even look like? Thomas imagines Velvet gazing in his direction. Once they lock eyes, she’ll do something really provocative, like scoop an ice cube from her water and roll it across her tongue (which is pierced, Thomas decides), the melting ice dripping past her so-red lipstick and down her chin and neck, over her bosom.
Maybe that’s a little much. But certainly this is the image that the Chinese restaurant’s bored kitchen staff, Ang and Minh (who are Korean, anyway), intended to conjure in Thomas’s mind. Probably, Ang and Minh are waiting right around the corner, hoping Thomas, buoyed by the fortune’s encouragement, will make his way down the narrow dining room and attempt to engage this woman in conversation. Of course, Velvet—many divisions higher in the dating league—will promptly shoot him down. At which point Ang and Minh, the bastards, will scurry back to the kitchen to high-five and do hilarious reenactments of Thomas’s humiliation in their native Korean. The orange chicken begins to turn in Thomas’s gut.
There’s another possibility. Maybe the kitchen staff made a custom fortune for Velvet, too! Maybe her fortune cookie has a slip of paper like Thomas’s, only it says something like:
That man across the restaurant—glasses, big head, Iron Maiden t-shirt—yeah, him. He’s a rapist.
This prank has turned extremely cruel. Will she call the cops? You don’t need to be convicted of a sex charge to have it completely destroy your life. No, of course he’s not a rapist! This whole mess is a fabrication of those Koreans in the kitchen! he’ll try to explain. Ang and Minh, the lead prosecutor will correct, are Vietnamese, not Korean. If nothing else, they’ll get him on racial prejudice or something. There’s no way Thomas won’t come out looking like a creep, especially since—look at her! Look at him! Who’s the jury going to believe?
Mother is tottering back from the lady’s room, her walker tapping before her. Thomas is ready to leave—seriously, like, right now—but Mother wants to open her own fortune cookie. She cracks the cookie in her shaky, blue-veined hands. Thomas lays a few bills beneath the check. He has a very bad feeling about Mother’s fortune cookie. He can’t be here for this, for Mother’s discovery, whatever it may be. Dizzy and nauseous, he excuses himself to the restroom.
The floor seems unsteady, this fuselage of a restaurant caught in a turbulence only Thomas can feel. He can’t look in Velvet’s direction, so instead he tries to focus on the restaurant’s polished metal ceiling, at his fat blur of a head moving past the noisy, oblivious blurs of other patrons. The aisle narrows as he passes Velvet’s table. Before slipping into the restroom, Thomas glances around the corner, to catch Ang and Minh plotting in the kitchen. He can’t see anyone.
A water-stained poster beside the bathroom mirror proclaims it’s the Year of the Pig. Thomas’s eyes are bloodshot. This—this discovery—will absolutely crush his poor mother, he thinks, a trace of a tear in his eye, a sandpaper rawness in his throat. After a few splashes of water, he realizes he was looking at the wrong year. It’s actually the Year of the Rat.
When he comes out of the bathroom, Thomas sees Velvet following her friends out of the restaurant, these women departing in a flock of high heels and chatter. With Velvet’s departure, the floor becomes more stable.
But before the door swings shut, Velvet looks back. There’s brief eye contact. It happens so quickly, it’s hard to know for sure, but the woman’s expression seems less seductive than—shy?
The door clicks shut.
Mother is holding her fortune in shaky hands. There are shards of fortune cookie on the table before her, but she’s looking at the door, following Velvet’s departure through the glass. Mother looks confused.
That—girl, Mother says, still looking toward the door but pointing at their table. Lying there, innocent on the corner of the table, is a foil chewing gum wrapper. It’s neatly folded in half like a Chinese fortune.
Without looking at Mother, without pausing even a moment to track Velvet’s departure, Thomas unfolds the wrapper. He swallows. On the white inside, in tiny deliberate writing, in red ink, is a phone number.
Eric writes from Philadelphia, where he uses his MFA to teach poetry to kids.
The Silent partner
So you arrived. You arrived unannounced and I didn’t even notice, with a limp and a smile, a hole in the back and oil stained face. You disappeared for so long with no explanation. I dismissed you from my memory because to think of you hurt too much, but you return intermittently and I’m grateful for that. You return in the skies above my head and the air as I walk down the street fending off attacks from imaginary enemies made flesh just by thinking about you.
I turn down my vacuums and my pulse, the pace of reality burning holes in my retinas, my idiot ideas and purposeful gait already gaining momentum. You’ve change your shape again, from velociraptor to dreadful beaked hulk, from lively mannequin to pale dark shadow, from flailing disciple to sycophantic misanthrope. You changed your shape and I barely even noticed.
Your desperate lunge towards the heart of me, your last push for distraction and idealism becomes outwardly punishing, my limbs like black pistons churning the earth for an answer, digging and ploughing my way through your webs and your lies, through the false hopes and many diversions. All the time your ever-changing myriad faces delineate themselves into some form of conquest, surrounding me with fake odours and listless smells, the reality of dreams, the realness of concrete.
I change your dark smile and I keep your old clothes, in a bag, in a basket, in a hole in the wall, behind brick and old drawings, you hide away in these places. You lurk like dark meanings with malice and divinity. Black dogs on my shoulder are always the same, the four-legged doom merchants twisting my mind, in between summer’s last grasp at a fortunate outcome, the vines. A populated masquerade in an abandoned mine, drowning dead miners and lipid excuses, five hundred televisions tuned to the wrong channel each and everyone crying loudly at me to find the right position, cling to the correct posture, the flowering idiocy of messed up mad puppets, a kitchen full of derision, knives and bad odours, codex and inert notions.
You slipped away from the house quietly, I never knew you had gone, so slowly you closed the door, so chaotically you drift through my life without bastions of ritualistic goodbyes or half-hearted denials, I outlived your expectations by three by four by five, you lowered your whole body one step at a time down my inky stairwell, the darkness materializing without my permission but there it was, there it wasn’t.
Neil writes from a tiny confused room in Manchester, England, where he is exploring the inner reaches of his psyche, and reaches all of his conclusions by simply looking and remembering.
Head and Diaper
Claire brought the baby. She struggles with a stroller the size of a small mobile home that she parks beside the table. I set my book down. She leans over to give me a quick hug. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says. The tiny person in the stroller wiggles as Claire unsnaps things, unhooks them, and pulls. “The tech who was on call is sick, so of course they called in Jack.” She lifts the baby out. “You were supposed to spend today with daddy, huh?” she says, not quite in a baby voice, but in a tone that confirms she is not speaking to me. She sets his feet the floor, freeing him. And finally she makes eye contact with me. “I’m so sorry,” she says again. “I hope you don’t mind I brought Dugan along.”
The lie feels automatic when I say I don’t mind. Her son toddles backwards, his eyes locked with mine, grinning. I force a smile, my eyes opening wider than I want them to, and wave to him. I wonder if my smile looks just as dumb as his – his which does not fade even when his head and diaper hit the wall of the cafe with a light thunk.
Claire sweeps crumbs from the table into a napkin, crumpling it. “I’m going to get us something to eat. Do you want anything?” she asks.
I shake my head and sip my coffee. I tell her I already ate a bagel.
She throws the napkin away and heads to the counter. “What do you want to eat, sweet boy?” she asks, addressing the menu hanging above the espresso machine rather than her son who is now crawling under an unoccupied table.
I pick up my book, but my attention strays to the baby. He picks up something that looks like it might be a potato chip or a banana chip or maybe a paint chip from the floor under the table and pops it into his mouth. I look to Claire. She is chatting with the girl behind the counter, showing off her new debit card with a picture of Dugan on it. Dugan picks up a piece of string from the floor and studies it before letting it drop.
Claire finishes the transaction and joins me back at the table, sipping on an iced tea. I set my book down again. She smiles, and I notice she has started wearing those invisible braces on her near perfect teeth. “Oh, I’m so glad we decided to do this,” she says. “I’ve missed you.” She reaches over and sets a cool hand on mine. Dugan crawls out from under the table and walks steady like a drunk on his stiff baby legs over to the booth against the far wall.
“You know,” she says, “the shop across the street reminds me of the funniest story.”
Dugan rests the top half of his body on the booth, his arms outstretched. He lays his head down for a moment before trying to scoot his bottom half up onto it.
“Do you remember Margot? From school? Maybe you never had classes with her. But so she was telling me that a few weeks ago she went to see a friend of hers in the hospital who had just had surgery.”
The baby forces little jumps, trying to heave himself up.
“So she stopped at this place on the way to get flowers.”
He swings one foot out, landing it on the wall.
“It’s called Sweet Buds or something.”
Feet against the wall is the key. He climbs up onto the booth and lays there for a moment, face pressed against the vinyl.
“So she walked in and realized that it wasn’t a flower shop at all.”
He pulls himself up and stands on the booth; he bounces.
“It was a medical marijuana dispensary!”
I am sure he is going to fall. He will catch his face on the edge of the table, leaving everything a bloody mess. Or he will miss the table entirely and crack open his skull against the floor. He will break his brain, he will bruise it.
“Can you imagine? She was so embarrassed.”
He doesn’t fall, though. He drops to a crawl and travels the length of the wall, his baby track suit swishing against itself and the booth. He presses his forehead to the front window, leaving tiny clouds of steam on the glass. An aproned boy brings out their food and sets the plates on the table. Dugan stares at a dog tethered out on the sidewalk.
“Dugan, little mister, come get your lunch,” she calls to him as she picks apart her sandwich with a fork. When he smacks at the glass with the pudge of his hands instead of joining us at the table, Claire gets up to retrieve him. She grabs him around the waist and swoops him off the booth, carrying him under one arm. When she flips him in front of her and pretends to drop him before setting him in the booster chair beside her, he giggles.
She cuts his pancakes and sausage into pieces and places the unused cup of maple syrup on my book. I pick up the cup and set it out of the baby’s reach next to the salt and pepper shakers, but it leaves a ring of sticky on the back cover, framing the author’s face.
“So April told me that you went on a trip last month. Chicago I think she said?” Claire scoops a spoonful of potato salad into her mouth. Dugan shoves a fistful of pancake into his.
I sip my coffee and nod.
“I so envy you and your freedom.”
Dugan grabs a piece of sausage in each hand and pops them into his mouth.
“If I didn’t have Jack and Dugan, I swear, all I would do is travel.”
Before he finishes chewing, the baby forces two more pieces in.
“There are just so many places I need to explore!”
And then he pushes in more pancake.
“April was telling me she’s going to Cancun next month. She invited me to go with, but I just can’t get away. Not with Jack’s schedule right now.”
He picks up another piece. It is too much. The sausage he ate must be snuggling with his esophagus by now. I watch his color, wait for him to shade to blue. He will not cry when he chokes.
“I could really use a drink in Cancun right about now,” Claire laughs, prodding the bread on the plate with her fork. “Remember spring break in Cancun? Oh, maybe you didn’t go with us. It was so beautiful. And so much fun.”
Dugan throws down the clump of pancake in his hand and finally chews what is in his mouth.
“Jack keeps saying he’ll take me to Boston. He really wants to take Dugan to Fenway.”
He swallows. I will not have to perform The Heimlich. His attention strays to the bus boy sweeping around the counter and under the tables.
Claire sighs as she pushes her plate away. “Someday I’ll go on vacation again. Right, little boy? Just one more bite and then you can get down.” She wipes his hands with her napkin and gives him two grapes from his plate.
She frees the baby to the floor, a grape clutched in each of his hands. As Claire picks at the sandwich carcass on her plate, she asks if I’ve tried online dating. I tell her yes, once or twice a few years ago, and remind her of the online date who accompanied me to her wedding.
“So my neighbor, Judy,” she says. “Did you meet her at Dugan’s birthday party? Maybe she wasn’t there. Well, she’s a really cute girl. A photographer. But she has the worst luck with dating.”
Dugan wanders over to the front door and peers outside.
“She was emailing this doctor for a few weeks.”
A man opens the door from outside. He stands there holding the door open. Dugan looks up at him. He looks down at Dugan.
“Very attractive. She sent me his photo.”
The man smiles. I am sure he is going to grab the baby and run. Or the baby is going to run. Run right out the open door into the street like a stray dog. He will get lost. He will be killed. He will be abducted.
“So she finally decided to meet the doctor.”
The man maneuvers around the baby blocking his way and walks to the counter to order a latte. I look to Claire, but she is digging her in purse for something. She pulls out lip gloss and a mirror.
“She meet him at Catalonia, you know, that new Spanish restaurant downtown.”
Dugan bends in half to look for a grape that has rolled under a planter. Unsuccessful at retrieving it, he plops in front of the door, the landing cushioned by his diaper. Two girls in yoga pants stop behind him, blocked from leaving with their smoothies. They look around, then at each other. Claire confirms no parsley strayed and stuck in her braces and throws the stick and mirror back in her bag.
“And you would not believe this.”
The baby pokes the decals on the door.
“He was gorgeous and wonderful. A runner. A real humanitarian. And he thought Judy was just adorable.”
The girls step over him and leave. And as the door closes, I look to Dugan’s fingers.
“But his voice–”
Surely those fat little fingers will get caught in the door as the wind catches it and slams it shut.
“She played me a voicemail he left after their date.”
There will be blood. So much blood. And so much crying. There will be stitches later, and scars that will never quite disappear.
“High pitched. With a lisp. He sounded like a cartoon character.”
But there is no blood. The door closes. The baby pokes at the decals with a grape.
“Oh, it was just horrible. The poor girl.”
Claire looks at the time on her phone.
“I hate to eat and run,” she says, “but I have to pick up one of my girlfriend’s little boys for our Saturday afternoon play group. We’re supposed to go to the park, but I don’t know if the weather is going to hold up,” she says, eyeing the gray outside. “Anyway. It was so great to catch up.” She stands and places their dishes into the bus tray on the other side of the counter.
“Little Dugan,” she says, “I hate to interrupt you, little boy, but it’s time to go play. You’ve been so good today.”
She scoops him up from the mat near the door and nestles him inside the monster stroller. There are clicks and buckles and snaps, and then they are ready to go. She leans down to hug me quickly again. “Let’s talk soon,” she says. “Say goodbye, Dugan.”
I wave to the baby, force that dumb smile again. But he just stares. He turns, peeks his head outside the stroller to watch me as they leave. I am sure the back of his head will crack against the door frame. But he faces forward just in time, just as Claire yelps and points to a dog running past, running into the street.
Andrea writes from Southern California where she has given up shoelaces and endeavors to finish her undergraduate degree from Antioch University Los Angeles sometime before the world ends.