The Fortune by Amy DeMatt
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2018
The tiny scrap of paper just caught his eye as he walked down the street with his eyes downcast. It only caught his eye because of the color, gold foil with black lettering. It was a shred, really, and he wasn’t even sure why it stood out to him. It had to have been the glint from a headlight hitting it, as the gray sky was casting dark shadows on the normally sunlit street, unusual in San Francisco. In any event, it stood out, and when he picked it up, he saw that part of it had been ripped off.
It was a fortune, the kind that comes folded into those small and crisp fortune cookies that come with fresh, sliced oranges at a Chinese restaurant. He could imagine the bright, fat orange that must have accompanied it, and he judged by the heavy gold foil that the restaurant meal itself must have been rich and extravagant. It seemed exotic and rare. He wondered who the original recipient of the fortune had been, and whether he was also a fateful recipient by virtue of seeing it from the corner of his eye and feeling compelled to pick it up.
He picked it up and flattened it. It read “You will make good choices,” no period. What followed that phrase could only be guessed, as the rest of the strip was torn off. He stuffed the tiny fortune in his pocket. He was not usually one for paying much attention to fortunes. However, today he would set off for a tour in the Pacific, and who knew what the future would hold or whether the fortune was some sort of harbinger for his trip. He had been in the Navy for only two years. He had a sweetheart at home. He’d proposed to her a year ago, but the marriage was not to be. His sweetheart’s mother had forbidden the marriage “until he finished his tour.” She was afraid he would be killed. He remembered how disappointed he’d been to tuck his carefully selected ring back into its little red velvet box. His sheepish smile had remained plastered to his face. He was unable to come up with another expression that made sense. Anger? It seemed inappropriate to the occasion. Hurt? He would never sport such an expression, even if he’d felt it. He felt mostly bewilderment at the fact that his girlfriend’s mother could be so brazen about his chances of returning to the States alive. She treated him as though he had enlisted in the Navy just for spite.
His mind wandered to the moment that he’d decided to propose. Had that been a good choice? He wasn’t even sure. No one had ever contemplated the possibility that he might meet an attractive girl in his travels. In fact, he’d seen quite a few, particularly during his time in Hawaii. Girls on the island were exotic, beguiling, but he’d stayed true. He imagined his sweetheart now. She was three years his junior, but her face still had the cherubic cheeks of a child. Her eyes had brimmed with tears when she’d pressed the engagement ring back into his hands. She never would have had the courage to go against the wishes of her parents, though. If only she’d received the fortune, it might have been enough to cause her to think more deeply about the wishes of her own heart. He didn’t blame her. She was raised not to think too deeply. During the tough times of his first year, he’d resolved to make sure that he’d return home alive. An internal fire fed by resentment had caused him to outperform many of the other men, and he had already been told that he was progressing well, his chances for advancement, good.
As he walked, large raindrops began to fall, pelting the sidewalks and turning the streets dark. He had a few dollars in his pocket, and had planned to buy cigarettes, but as he crumpled the tiny fortune in his pocket, he couldn’t bring himself to make the purchase. It didn’t seem like a good choice. Instead, he ended up ducking into a book store, where he had enough money for some stamps for writing home, and some Pep-O-Mint LifeSavers. He also bought two of the extra-large, chunky chocolate bars, the kind with raisins and nuts. That was an indulgence, not as valuable as cigarettes for trading and bartering, but novel and satisfying when Navy slop got old. Besides, his partner had a soft spot for this kind of chocolate bar. His partner, Jim, used to get them in the mail from his sister. He’d seen Jim, who usually swallowed dinner without chewing, savor these chunky chocolate bars almost as much as he did a letter from home. He would surprise Jim with them, and one night they could eat them together as an after-dinner treat.
He and Jim had been put together as partners early on. All Navy men had partners, for safety reasons. He’d never have guessed that they would get along. He, himself, was generally quiet or brooding, and Jim was known for his love of drinking, girls and boisterousness. Perhaps it was their opposing personalities that made them a good pair. Jim was always cutting up, imitating the captain’s nervous habit of twirling his mustache behind the captain’s back and playing jokes on the other men. Once Jim had found a baby rat on the ship, and instead of killing it, had created a tiny nest for it in an old cigar box. The other men had taken a liking to the baby rat, named him, and saved scraps for him as he grew. They taught the rat to stand on his hind legs and to walk in a circle. It had lightened the mood for some time when the seas were gray, monotonous and depressing.
There were only a few hours until it would be time to board. He had agreed to meet up with Jim and a few of the other men to catch a movie just before they departed. They’d watched the movie, a comedy, just the kind of movie that a guy wanted to see knowing that the next several months would be gray and mirthless. He could see that Jim had already tied a few on. Jim had pulled out a flask from his jacket and taken a few swigs, and he had the contented face that he usually had when he was approaching drunkenness. He reached for his pocket and briefly contemplated pressing the fortune into Jim’s hand. Jim’s habit of drinking had become more frequent the longer they were away from home. He knew Jim should lay off. They’d be leaving for their tour soon, Jim could sleep it off, and dry out for a while.
A glance at his watch told him it was time to go. The men humped it back to the ship, packages and contraband bulging from their pockets. The sky was more foreboding now, not a good sign for a crew that had an ocean voyage ahead of them. Already orders were being barked at the men, and they were attending to duties. The giant ship held over 200 men. It was gray and imposing. It stopped for nothing. Robert saw men scrambling down the stairs, men fiddling with controls and men carefully logging information in books. The shore was rapidly receding behind them.
He estimated that they’d been in the water only for about forty minutes or so and he still hadn’t found Jim. Partners were supposed to keep an eye out for one another. He’d seen Jim board the ship and unsling his large, soft pack into the tiny beds into which the men had been packed like sardines. The ship was pitching. Even with as large as the ship was, it was as though you could still feel the pitching of the rough sea under it. He saw Jim leaning over the ship’s railing. The railing was gray, like the sea, like the sky, and he could barely make it out but for Jim’s crumpled form hunched over it. He was sick. His lips became a tight line, like a parent who sees a child doing something self-destructive. He was satisfied to see that Jim was learning a lesson. It was hard to watch someone suffer, but on the other hand, at least Jim would have an unpleasant memory of getting drunk. He looked away. He’d always found seasickness to be somewhat revolting.
He looked back and expected to see Jim gasping for air. Instead, he saw that the deck was empty. He walked slowly toward it. Jim had not walked away. The wind picked up, and cold air began to whip around his shoulders. He just wanted to be in his cabin, unpacking and getting situated for a long tour of duty. He scanned the sea all the way to the horizon. He then saw it: something bobbed up out of the water. He felt a cold shiver up his spine. The thing bobbed up and down in the water raucously, then he saw more motion. He squinted, willing himself to see something other than what his fears suggested. Before he could consciously understand, he recognized that it was Jim. He must have slipped through the railing during one of the pitches, or he must have leaned too far over the railing. Now he was in the water, a speck, and not likely to last long in his state of drunkenness. The Navy had trained him in reacting quickly. He began shouting and running wildly, yelling to stop the ship. He fought his way through men, breathless, until he finally identified the captain.
Before he could ask the question, he knew the answer. The ship would not stop. There were over 200 men on the ship. If a man went overboard, it was nothing but his own carelessness that was to blame. Only stupid, careless sailors went overboard. One of the first lessons to be learned on a large ship was that the lull was dangerous, and that one must always be on guard not to relax into a state of carelessness. That, in fact, had been the reason that the Navy assigned partners. Men were too irresponsible. It was inevitable that someone would do something foolish, and it was the partner’s job to minimize or prevent the harm. It had only been because he had not been by Jim’s side that Jim had plunged into the water. Beads of sweat began to form on Robert’s hands, and he felt his face drain of blood. He felt nauseous himself. Then the world went black.
When he came to, he was wet and cold and sitting in a tiny dinghy. He was confused. He did not know the people he was with. He recognized Jim, who was wrapped in a woolen blanket. His skin had taken on a blueish tone and he was shivering. The others told him what had happened. He’d seen his friend slip off the ship, and in a fit, plunged into the water in an effort to save him. He’d done this, and now he and Jim were being rescued, sent back to San Franciso to recover and await whatever punishment or reward the Navy might bestow. As the story was relayed, he recovered a memory of feeling afraid. He’d not been afraid of plunging into the water, rather, he was afraid of what it would mean if the big Navy ship kept moving on, not turning around. If the captain did nothing, the world was cold and unfeeling, but if he did nothing, he was worse: a traitor to his partner, who’d trusted him. He’d made a choice, one that he thought was good, at least under the circumstances.
Now he was unsure about what the future held. It would take time to get back to shore. He was cold and hungry. He was told he and Jim had been in the water for hours. When he closed his eyes, his memory again returned. Large black waves that broke over his shoulders. He knew enough to dive when they came, but he’d sucked great lungsful of air, so quickly that it had hurt to take breaths. He remembered kicking until his legs burned with lack of oxygen, and hauling Jim’s head out of the water, paddling and counting breaths, thinking that they would both die soon. But they had not. Strangely, he could only remember his fear and then waking up again.
His companions on the dinghy had retrieved the two chocolate bars, and they now read hunger in his face, and pointed to the bars. He smiled, and kicked one towards Jim, who was smiling groggily. He opened the silver wrapper. Nothing ever looked so good. He had to slow himself down, or he’d choke. Raisins, peanuts and thick, dark chocolate filled his throat and he closed his eyes. He thought of the time—hours ago? days?—when he’d made the purchase before leaving for the tour of duty. He saw Jim’s face and Jim took a great bite of his bar. He didn’t savor it but chomped down on it hungrily. He was glad he hadn’t chosen cigarettes, which would have been wet and useless when he plunged into the water.
A few more hours until they would reach the shore. That provided ample time to think about what had happened. He couldn’t believe that he’d dove overboard the ship. He remembered the tiny gold fortune he’d seen on his way to boarding, and how it had influenced his choices: how he’d pondered that the fortune had seemed to find him; how he normally would never pick up trash; how he’d decided to do something selfless instead of buying cigarettes to barter with the other men. Finally, almost incomprehensibly, his decision to risk his life to save Jim’s. It all seemed to fall in line with what fate had planned for him that day, and he wondered what other choices lay ahead. Now he was offered a cigarette, and he accepted it. He knew that the little fortune had come to him for a reason. He would go back and marry his sweetheart. He would talk to her and convince her that he wouldn’t wait another five years. He had to make good choices, and if she wanted to leave him, then he wouldn’t be hampered from pursuing other women. His life wouldn’t be on hold, waiting for the safety of proceeding with someone else’s approval.
When they arrived again in San Francisco, he called his sweetheart. His tour of duty was over, he was given an award for his bravery. He’d also been offered an advancement in rank. He’d heaved a sigh of relief, learning about that, having been worried that the Navy would view the risk as foolish and insubordinate. It didn’t seem to matter. Jim was not even disciplined. The Navy must have been relieved not to have to report a death to another family. He and Jim had spoken little about the incident. Jim had been sent to the hospital immediately, to be checked over for general health. He had already been cleared and was therefore determined to call his sweetheart and meet to talk about their future.
He’d located a pay phone, made a call and when he relayed the abridged version of his adventure, his sweetheart had agreed to fly out to San Francisco to meet him. She’d be there in a few hours. He still had an affinity for the city, having ported there so many times. He felt as though the streets were familiar. He intended to meet up at a restaurant. He’d recognized a luxe little Chinese restaurant, with the perfect ambiance for becoming familiar once again. The rooms were dark, and the walls were painted a deep red. Candlelit lanterns adorned the ceilings, and mirrored walls gave the restaurant an exotic, art deco feel. He’d perused the menu.
His sweetheart walked in. She was wearing the same cherubic smile and a sundress that showed her curves and a smile that covered tears of relief. He’d never been so glad to see a face from home. When he flipped through the menu, he recognized what had seemed familiar to him on walking in. There was a leaflet, made of gold foil, with red lettering. The leaflet admonished patrons that they would make good choices “if they ordered off the menu on Thursdays, Half-Price Night!” He was stunned. All this time he’d viewed the “make good choices” phrase as a personal message to him, and it had prompted him to act in specific ways. He’d done things he normally would not have done, only because he’d believed that there was something important for him to take from the fact that he stumbled on the little scrap of paper.
Now he saw that it had only been coincidence. He needn’t have foregone a selfish choice. He’d misconstrued an accident. He’d mistaken for divine intervention what was only a vestige of restaurant marketing. And now, he was about to summon the courage to persuade his sweetheart to defy her mother, only because he was convinced that he’d been ordained to do so. It was stupefying. He’d been so malleable, so acquiescent. She’d seen the look on his face and was asking what was wrong. He told her a white lie—nothing was wrong. The menu seemed to metamorphose. Now it consisted only of letters on a page. Choosing what to eat seemed rather paltry considering his more recent decisions. She looked into his eyes. Really, she wanted to know what was wrong. He decided to tell the truth, he feared that his life up to now had been only acquiescent, and maybe hers was, too. She nodded, and he couldn’t tell whether she understood or not.
The waitress came to their table. She was delicate, demure. She spoke only broken English. She wanted to know what kind of soup they wanted, and whether they were ready to order. She was quiet. She could see that they were involved in a serious conversation. She offered to come back, but he didn’t need time. He ordered number 16, not knowing what it was, and then he returned to weightier decisions. He would ask his sweetheart to marry him, and if she didn’t—well, he’d move on.
updated by @americymru: 02/12/19 06:06:05PM