“Help, I’m Being Held Captive in a Bullshit Factory,” read the fortune cookie. At the bottom of the tiny piece of paper, there was a phone number. No name. Just a seven digit number. No area code. Strange. I hastily shoved the fortune into my shirt pocket, sipped a last mouthful of tea, grabbed the check, dropped a five dollar tip on the table, paid my bill, walked to my car, opened the door, got in, started the motor, put on my seat belt, adjusted my rear view mirror, put the transmission in gear, and eased my way out of the Chinese Restaurant parking lot. I would be lying if I said that I was paying attention to any of the aforementioned actions. They came as a matter of habit. An afterthought.
What I was thinking about was the phone number. Should I call? Was this a prank to be tossed aside or a gateway to adventure? Could it be a local number? The first three digits were the same as my own. Maybe. But, then again, there are probably lots of phone numbers in the USA with the same three digits but with different area codes. It seems more likely that a fortune cookie factory would be in San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles. Someplace with a greater Chinese population than here in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
The mystery deepened and my imagination took flight. Perhaps the fortune was not folded into the cookie dough at the factory? Maybe it was carefully placed in my cookie by one of the employees or patrons of the Chinese restaurant. Perhaps a customer took leave from a table full of friends or co-workers and, with a concealed, unbroken cookie in hand, went to the bathroom, entered a stall, carefully removed the original fortune paper, then inserted this desperate plea for help? The customer, returning to his or her table, could have placed the cookie amongst other unopened cookies knowing that the bus boy had probably been instructed to recycle all unopened cookies. I am fairly certain that a lot more than unopened fortune cookies get recycled at many such establishments.
Maybe the person is being held captive in a real Bullshit Factory and needs my help, I thought. But I wouldn’t know where to begin because I don’t even know what a Bullshit Factory is. Is it some place where cow dung is recycled into fertilizer or is the author writing metaphorically? Maybe he or she works at some AM talk station where various idiots spew out complete nonsense 24/7/365. National idiots, local idiots, it doesn’t seem to matter much. I have a hard enough time listening to a few minutes of complete in-your-face gibberish from a bunch of highly paid douche bags with a national audience than to have to listen to the clueless Neanderthals and narcissists that many local stations spew into the world of talk radio.
Anyway, as my mind was swimming with the possibilities of the Fortune Cookie Mystery, I was not fully focused on the act of steering my vehicle when I felt a sudden hard jolt. I had just run my car up on the curb and, in the process, blown out my right front tire. “Crap in a gunny sack!” I hollered, “Not again!” Not again, indeed. This was the third time this year that I blew out the same tire in the same way. Sure am glad I bought that road-hazard insurance with my last set of Firestones. Best thirty-four dollars I ever spent.
I carefully steered my wounded, wobbling car off the road and into the parking lot of a closed-down convenience store. I sat there, slowly simmering and psyching myself to replace the damaged tire with the oversized bagel that passes for a spare these days. I figured I had about 136 miles on this little rubber-flavored Life Saver already and would soon have to fork out sixty bucks for a replacement. In the meantime, it would have to do.
It was mid-summer on a sunny day in the Deep South… hot and humid. Lord, I hated having to deal with this shit wearing flip-flops and shorts. Luckily I had a large cardboard box in the trunk which I was able to fold out and use as I knelt there on the hot asphalt parking lot, glaring at the shredded tire and muttering to myself. Maybe muttering was the wrong word. It was more of a low-pitched primal howl. Good thing I was on the right side of the car and not clearly visible to other drivers. The last thing that I needed right then was for some cop car to pull up in response to some citizen’s dutiful report of a banshee, possibly drunk, screaming on the side of the road. From the relative safety of my less-than-comfortable perch, I howled again like a wounded wolf and, with my face low to the pavement, I let out yet another howl…much louder this time. The seagulls that had gathered at the edge of the parking lot hurriedly flew off, squawking and beating their wings in a hasty retreat from the strange man with no bread crumbs. I howled at them once again for good measure and grudgingly returned to the task of changing the tire.
“Curse my rotten luck,” said I…only this time, in a normal, howl-free, non-guttural voice. Just angry, not primeval. I went to the back of the car, opened up the trunk, and pulled out the spare tire along with a little factory wrench and a pitiful screw jack that came with the vehicle. Lying on the cardboard box, I fumbled around with the jack to get it in the proper spot. Oops! I remembered that the owner’s manual said to loosen up the lugs before jacking. I got back on my knees and did so. Again lying down on the cardboard box, I turned the abysmally slow screw jack. Gradually, the vehicle rose when, oops, again! I had forgotten to block the tires before jacking up the vehicle. I had to improvise. Turning my gaze to a weedy area next to the run- down convenience store, I looked for anything that would serve as a tire block, like discarded bricks or cinder blocks. I spied a few short pieces of treated four by fours. “Just what I need,” I congratulated myself.
As I walked towards the pile, I realized that I was not alone. A kid, maybe eleven or twelve years old, was sitting beneath a scrub tree next to the store. The young fellow was enjoying a popsicle in the shade, his bicycle lying on the ground next to him. I didn’t say anything. I just nodded. He half-heartedly nodded back, more intent on his popsicle than the accidental stranger he had just observed howling in the parking lot.
Returning to my car with the improvised tire blocks, I knelt before the useless tire and continued with my unpleasant, unscheduled chore. Wrestling the old tire off turned out to be a bigger deal than it should have been because an exposed piece of metal protruding from the back of the tire had cut my right hand deeply. It was more of a puncture than a cut. The wayward wire penetrated the lower side of my hand opposite the thumb. About an inch or so I reckon. Snatching my hand off the wire, I let out another howl, more human this time because I had company. I found a clean T-shirt in the car which I wrapped around my hand to stem the flow of blood and act as a temporary bandage while I finished my unpleasant chore. I glanced over at the kid sitting in the shade next to his bike. He seemed oblivious to all but the popsicle.
“Damn,” said I, less howling than whimpering, “What a screwed up day this has been.” I exhaled a tepid, “Oh, well, here goes.” As I got the bagel spare positioned and started to place the lug nuts on the bolts, I heard a faint laugh from the kid under the tree. I glanced over and there he sat, still working on the popsicle rolling his eyes and giggling. “You think this shit is funny?” I said. Still sucking away at the rapidly diminishing icy treat, the kid didn’t so much as look at me.
“Screw him,” I muttered as I hand-tightened the lug nuts and reached for the wrench to finish the job. I then remembered that the owner’s manual said not to fully tighten the lugs until the jack was lowered, so I backed off the lugs about half a turn and let the jack down. Still, on my knees, I slid the jack from underneath the car and finished tightening the lugs on the temporary tire. I threw the tools in the trunk and grabbed the shredded tire with its still useful wheel, tossing it amongst the jumble in my trunk.
I got in the car and sat for a moment, more than ready to put this experience behind me. Pausing to readjust the makeshift bandage on my wounded hand, I looked up, startled to see the popsicle kid straddling his bicycle right next to my window. He motioned for me to roll the window down and I did, figuring the little reprobate was going to beg for some spare change to buy another popsicle. Turns out, popsicles were the last thing on his mind.
He craned his head into to the open window, lips, gums, and tongue all painted orange, looked me in the eyes, and whispered urgently, “Mister, don’t forget to make that phone call!”