A Short Story by Bill Garwin

There once lived a completely unremarkable man. He was not tall, but not short. He was not handsome, but not bad looking. He lived in a San Francisco complex of 207 apartments. He only barely knew his neighbors. If he could be summed up in a single word, it would be “average”. None of us aspires to average. In the beginning, we all anticipate and strive for more, but eventually we settle because, after all, average demands most of us.

He worked as an accountant in a large firm, at a desk hidden in the bowels of the 14th floor. He was competent. Not great and no one would ever call him “boss”, but he showed up every day and completed a reasonable amount of work with a minimal number of errors. He was dependable. Should he so desire, he could keep his job for another thirty years with a token, but sufficient, annual raise.

He was not without introspection. Of late he’d come to believe he was spending his life an hour at a time and receiving little in return. Tomorrow promised less than yesterday and this bothered him greatly, which is why the fortune cookie seemed so important.

Three days a week he ordered Chinese to-go from the restaurant on the corner. Without fail, sweet and sour pork, fried rice and egg rolls.

“Golden Dragon. May I help you?”

“This is Mike.”

“The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Dinner always included a single fortune cookie. More than one fortune only begged confusion.

Mike ate dinner as the fortune cookie obediently waited its turn. After twenty minutes, he carefully broke open dessert. As always, he first read the script on the strip of paper, but this time it seemed to offer more.

“Find Hope and You Will Find Happiness.”

Until that moment he hadn’t understood that what he was missing was hope.

Had he reached a level of desperation so low he would follow the instructions on a fortune cookie? The answer was simple. Yes. Tomorrow was Saturday. He silently vowed to start his search.

He awoke the next morning excited, anxious and faced with a quandary. Where to begin? Applying something approaching logic, he reasoned since the fortune cookie was Chinese, he should start in Chinatown.

He passed under the ornate entry arches, took the second right and came upon “Lucky Massage”. Hope and luck are inextricably intertwined. He entered the small shop to a series of chanted greetings he could not understand.

A row of five unoccupied recliners faced a wall of televisions all playing Chinese soap operas. Middle-aged ladies were stationed at each chair. An elderly woman approached Mike with a menu from which he selected the 50-minute foot massage for $40. Apparently, hope could be purchased rather cheaply.

Mike slid into a chair and immediately a masseuse brought out a large, wooden tub of steaming tea. She helped Mike remove his shoes and socks and placed his feet in the tub. He began to relax. After a few minutes, the lady started on his feet. At first it tickled, but then he was pervaded by a sense of well-being. His mind slowed, completely occupied by the comforting sensation. He could drift asleep, but believed if he was to find hope here, he needed to stay awake.

After precisely 50-minutes, she was done. He was instructed to take his time and relax, which he did. He finally rose feeling a pervasive calm. Maybe this was hope. He hadn’t felt this way in maybe forever. But as he took each step, he seemed to lose a little of the euphoria and as he focused on making payment and stepped out the door he realized he had rejoined the world unchanged. Hope was not in Lucky Massage.

Most of the day still remained; he pledged not to give up, but where to next? A homeless lady approached with an outstretched hand. A common sight in San Francisco. He simply shook his head in the negative but had a thought.

While the misfortune of others saddens us, it simultaneously leaves us grateful for what we have. Maybe hope could be garnered by comparison, but where to go for that experience. Certainly, someplace hopeless. His eyes wandered toward the San Francisco Bay only to come upon one of the most hopeless places in the world. Alcatraz.

The boat ride to the island of despair was short and brisk. Mike obediently followed at the back of the tour group led by a park ranger. He learned Alcatraz, originally constructed as a lighthouse, had served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Sitting 1¼ miles off the coast and surrounded by frigid waters patrolled by sharks, the Feds used the island for prisoners too unruly for other penitentiaries. 

Small, damp, cold cells housed the worst of the worst. The place reeked of despair. Mike immediately knew this would not work. He felt no elation, only a blending of academic wonder and sadness for those who had inhabited Alcatraz. The day was winding down and his life was in no way more hopeful.

Back ashore, Mike wandered until he realized he’d missed lunch. Such is the lot of a man in search of meaning. He surveyed the landscape for food and spotted the FC Diner. Maybe the FC stood for Fog City, maybe not. It was fashioned after a railroad car and offered “Home Cooking”, even though that wasn’t possible from someplace not home. He walked in and followed the instructions to grab a menu and seat himself.

The place was packed. He chose a navy blue, faux leather booth which was seriously underpopulated by his party of one. He quickly browsed the menu and decided on a hamburger and fries. He scanned the diner for a server. He saw only one.

She was a waitress in the classical sense, if for no other reason than diners should have waitresses. She was about his age wearing an ice blue, neatly starched uniform with crisp lines and white piping. Her silver name tag bore an inscription he couldn’t make out across the diner.

She was not pretty, but cute. Not tall, but not short. She didn’t walk. She glided. There was no other way to describe her movement. Her smile was luminescent. She glowed leaving everything else in the diner shrouded and ordinary. As she approached each table she brought on joy and grins as if spreading pixie dust.

He watched her. Actually, much more than watching and each time she glanced his way it was as if she was looking into him rather than at him. At that place and time nothing else occupied his thoughts. He was consumed by infinite possibilities of aspiration and expectation.

She approached, her expression pleased, but also quizzical. He ogled.

She didn’t ask “Are you ready to order?”

Rather, “Don’t I know you?” More of a statement than a question.

His eyes shifted from hers down to the name tag. At that moment, he knew he had found happiness.

Bill Garwin has several degrees and a third-dan karate black belt. He believes stories indelibly enrich our lives and relishes in their telling. The opening chapter of his current project, City of Schemes, received first place, Utah League of Writers 2020 Quill Awards.

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