Ruckert had precious little in the way of dining options out in his neck of the woods (a phrase, incidentally, that he loathed, that he found utterly inexplicable, but which nonetheless was used so often in his neck of the woods that it had become, even for him, a helpless verbal tic for which he could think of no substitute that didn’t somehow sound pompous), and the closest takeout establishment was a filthy little chow mein place that --other than an insurance office that looked like the museum of an insurance office, and a long-abandoned museum at that-- was the sole remaining tenant in a moldering 50s-era strip mall that appeared to have once been the home to a half-dozen businesses. This strip mall was located just outside the scant remains of a town that had been mostly abandoned when a stretch of interstate highway was completed twelve miles to the west back in the late 1970s.
From every indication the Chinese place was an original tenant, and its existence in that godforsaken place, let alone its continued survival, was to Ruckert one of the great local mysteries. He also regularly thanked the otherwise forsaking God for its presence; were it not there he would have to drive eighteen miles to find a place to eat. The ruins of the town that was still home to the Chinese restaurant were a manageable six-mile drive from Ruckert’s home. He drove there often for takeout, sometimes as often as several times a week. And though he never ordered what he considered an unseemly amount of food for one man, the old Chinese woman who was always at the cash register routinely tossed three fortune cookies into his bag. Ruckert couldn’t decide whether it was a taunt, or a gesture of generous pity, an attempt to stack the odds in her clearly downtrodden customer’s favor. Either way, Ruckert hated fortune cookies (the cookie part; he wouldn’t consider putting one of the things in his mouth). He was, however, superstitious, and thought he was somehow tempting fate by not removing and reading the fortunes themselves.
Ruckert also felt it was wrong --cheating somehow-- to open all three of the cookies that the old woman put into his takeout bag, and increasingly of late he had found himself engaged in some absurd deliberations as to which of the fortunes to extricate from the inedible cookies. Sometimes --and the helplessness of this behavior infuriated him-- he would close his eyes and engage in a sort of shell game, moving the three cellophane-wrapped cookies around on his kitchen counter and eventually plucking one from the bunch.
He nonetheless struggled with the question of what to do with the remaining cookies and the unread fortunes, and had long since gotten in the habit of stashing them in a drawer next to his stove, a drawer that was large and deep and designed apparently to hold cookware, but which was now literally crammed with unopened fortune cookies. Ruckert resisted the urge to open a second cookie when his first selection yielded a particularly unsatisfying fortune --and this, he felt was increasingly the case; more and more often the excavated cookies yielded not fortunes, but blunt statements, proclamations, and even demands (many of which he found shrill). He had saved every fortune he had ever received, and kept them in an old cigar box he had found in his basement. One day, he thought, he would do something with them, although he had absolutely no idea what that would be.
Then, during a particularly rough autumn when he was feeling even more emotionally vulnerable than usual and found himself resorting to takeout Chinese on an even more alarmingly regular basis, his fortunes started to seem overtly hostile, and even menacing, and Ruckert began to suspect deliberate taunting on the part of the old Chinese woman at the restaurant. He couldn’t imagine how such a thing was possible, but he became more fiercely convinced that some elaborate joke was being played on him. For several weeks he stockpiled the evidence, and fumed, even as he continued to patronize the restaurant.
“Those who have no luck never worry about it running out.”
“Live apart, die alone.”
“Dreams are hard to catch once they disappear.”
“Unfinished things - a sad story.”
“Soon you will be done. Great relief.”
“A fatal flaw is hard to change.”
“Far away. More far all the time.”
“Do what you say, or be silent.”
“Ask yourself: Why does no one call?”
“Work uncomplainingly, and without reward.”
“A fool is struck blind when confronted by a mirror.”
“Why not try to make yourself useful?”
Ruckert was not a man for confrontations. An old colleague had once accused him of being passive-aggressive, but Ruckert steadfastly refused to believe this was true or even to understand what it meant. He had heard the phrase tossed about so recklessly for so many years that he felt it was safe to conclude that it was meaningless. Passive, he would admit to that. It was one of his growing inventory of handicaps. And his aggression was fierce, but almost purely or exclusively manifested itself as fits of private rage and bellowing and knocking things around. He was also still partially capable of considering that he was being paranoid about the fortune cookies.
This came to an end the night he cracked open a cookie and read the words, “The just punishment for a man who wastes his life is the life he leads.” So furious was he that he broke his policy of longstanding and tore open a second cookie, smashed it on the edge of the counter, and fished the fortune from the crumbs that were now scattered on his kitchen floor. As he held the fortune up to the light under his oven hood, Ruckert noticed that his hands were trembling and he was bleeding from a gash in one knuckle.
“I am a surgeon to old shoes,” the fortune read.
He spoke these words slowly aloud. What the hell? He went to his computer and googled the phrase, which he discovered was some bit of inexplicable nonsense from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He then typed in the phrase from the first cookie and got a batch of quotes from Schopenhauer, none of them with the exact phrasing, but close enough that there was no doubt the Chinese were either paraphrasing or working from a bad translation.
In a rage, Ruckert stomped back into the kitchen and yanked open the drawer containing his backlog of fortune cookies. The cellophane on the first one he grabbed from the heap refused to open, and he twisted and tore at it for several moments with no success. He removed a steak knife from the dish strainer and hacked and sawed at the wrapper, his anger escalating as the cellophane refused to yield. Next he tried a scissors, but even they proved helpless against what he assumed was a petrified wrapper. After a protracted, absurd, and ultimately futile effort with the scissors, Ruckert put the fortune cookie back on the counter and smashed it with his fist. The wrapper still would not give, so he spent several moments twisting and turning the thing with his fingers, trying to remove the fortune from the fragments in the cookie while it was still enclosed in the wrapper.
Despite his best efforts only two words came into view. They were barely legible, disclosed or obscured as they were by the printing on the wrapper. Ruckert fetched a tweezers from his medicine cabinet, as well as a small magnifying glass --a remnant from his childhood-- from his desk. He made a further attempt to tweeze the entire fortune into a free and clear place within the wrapper. Unsuccessful, he was still left with only the two words --illegible with his poor eyesight-- partially revealed. He turned on the overhead light in the kitchen, and bent over the recalcitrant wrapper with his child’s magnifying glass. There were not, in fact two words, but rather one word and a fragment: -ld laughs.
-ld laughs, he thought. -ld?
He racked his brain for words ending in -ld, but given his state of agitation, had a difficult time.
He scrutinized the words again through the magnifying glass; yes, no mistaking it, the word was “laughs,” and the phrase presented logical and grammatical problems with many of the combining options he was coming up with. In one final act of desperation he struck a match and held it to one corner of the wrapper. In an instant the entire package erupted in flames in his fingers, and Ruckert, howling, flung the burning fortune cookie into the air --a helpless impulse-- and it landed on the counter, where it immediately ignited a roll of paper towels, which promptly fell over and set fire to a dish towel.
Suddenly Ruckert’s kitchen counter seemed to be a conflagration. He fanned at the blaze with another towel --a foolish decision, he immediately realized; too late, alas, as the flames were growing higher and clearly scorching the underside of his kitchen cabinets. Ruckert could also see the counter top beginning to bubble and curdle. He cursed the fact that he owned no fire extinguisher, he, the son of a man who had run a hardware store for forty years. He tried to remember: was it wise to attempt to douse a fire with water? In some instances, he seemed to recall, it was counter-productive, but he had no idea what those instances might be. Meanwhile, his smoke detector had begun to drone at a deafening volume.
What the hell, Ruckert thought, did not firemen use hoses to bombard fires with water? He grabbed an old plastic ice cream pail from under his sink, filled it in the sink, and spastically flung the contents in the direction of the blaze, which seemed to have run out of readily flammable material. The roll of paper towels, however, were burning more fiercely than ever, and churning up a shower of sparks and ash. The kitchen had filled up with a toxic-smelling smoke. He filled the pail once more and this time dumped it more slowly and carefully on the fire. This second application of water succeeded in reducing the pile of burning items to a damp, smoking heap of smoldering embers, allowing Ruckert the opportunity to remove his dish strainer to the stove top and, using a pot holder, sweep the mess into the sink and extinguish it completely using water from the tap.
His counter top was ruined; several layers had been melted away, and the result looked like the sort of mottled, blistered, and textured monstrosity he’d too often encountered on museum walls. The fire contained, Ruckert turned his attention to the braying of the smoke alarm, located in the hallway outside his bathroom. He had to fetch a chair to reach the contraption, which turned out not to be simply a battery-operated model, but rather somehow wired into the house’s electrical system. It was probably, Ruckert thought, connected to the circuit box in the basement, about which he knew nothing. At a loss, he twisted the disc free of its base and yanked the wires from the ceiling, an action that resulted in a loud pop and flash, followed by a shower of sparks and smoke.
God almighty, he thought, he would burn the place down yet.
Ruckert stood for a long moment beneath the hole in his ceiling, until he was reasonably satisfied that his bungling would not be the (at least immediate) source of another fire. He then sat down on the chair beneath the ruined smoke detector. Only then did he realize that he was hyperventilating and sweating profusely.
All this, he thought, over a fortune cookie.
But as he thought about it a bit longer, and replayed the calamitous chain of events in his head, he realized that he could not view this incident as purely quixotic. The fortune cookie thing was somehow of grave importance to him; the whole episode continued to smack not of fate or absurdity, but of conspiracy. Ruckert got up and went back into the kitchen. He was appalled by the whole mess, but particularly appalled --and outraged, horrified, even chilled-- to discover that the fortune cookie that had started it all had been entirely erased by the fire.
He looked at the clock on his microwave oven; it was 8:22. He felt certain the Chinese place was open until nine. He found a menu in his silverware drawer and dialed the number. After a half dozen rings a woman answered; Ruckert was sure it was the old woman who routinely rang up his order.
“What is the source of your fortune cookies?” Ruckert demanded.
“We get them from our regular supplier,” the woman said in what sounded almost like a slight English accent, which he had never noticed before.
“Are you familiar with the fortunes they contain?” Ruckert asked.
The woman clearly hesitated.
“Somewhat,” she said. “I open them sometimes for amusement.”
“And you’re willing to swear to me that you don’t meddle with them in any way?” Ruckert said.
“I’m not sure I understand,” the woman said.
Ruckert sighed. “I have a problem here with a particular fortune,” he said. “Only a fragment of it is legible.”
He spelled it out for her. The woman hesitated again, and then finally said in a cold, deadpan voice, “You cry. The world laughs.”
Ruckert was suddenly aware that he was bent over and resting his head on the stove top. “May I please ask you in what possible way that can be construed as a fortune?” he said.
“I am not an oracle,” the woman said. “I am not a philosopher or a psychologist. I give you three cookies and still you complain.”
With that she hung up the phone.
Ruckert then spent an hour sitting on his kitchen floor, surrounded by puddles of water and soot, opening each of the fortune cookies in his huge drawer. Halfway through the pile he understood exactly what was happening, understood that he was trapped in a nightmare from which he would never awake, yet he plowed through to the end.
Every one of the cookies was empty.