One thing makes me crave Chinese food. A hangover. That’s why I leaned my bike against the front glass of the Wok Express Chinese Takeout this morning. To satisfy a craving.
Tom Wong greeted me as my eyes adjusted to the Wok’s reduced carbon footprint.
“Hangover Mr. C?” he asked.
You’ve got to love a small town. Everybody knows your name, and your business. I grunted at Tom and told him Bob would be along soon. He led me to a table where I collapsed into a vinyl stack chair and ordered Chinese Coffee. The ceiling fan cut brutal slices of air as I waited. Finally Tom brought a small glass mug of steaming relief. A thick dark layer of espresso lay beneath a warm blanket of condensed milk. I was pretty sure my stomach wouldn’t handle seeing the layers swirl together, so I closed my eyes and stirred. That’s when Bob thundered to the table.
“Whoa, Doc. You look kinda beat up. Out campaigning for the Democrats last night?”
Thankfully, Reverend Bob’s huge frame eclipsed the sunbeam that was trying to bore a hole in my temple. But when I turned to flash him a sarcastic smile, a stray beam glanced off his massive forehead and caught me in the eye. I swear I felt a cataract start to form. I closed my eyes and groaned.
“Tom!” shouted Bob, “Bring me what Doc’s having.”
Doc’s having… Doc’s having… Doc’s having… echoed through my brain, and another cup of Chinese Coffee materialized. I didn’t watch his layers swirl together either.
Reverend Bob sat across from me patiently stirring and sipping while I pulled myself together. Soon the coffee had jump-started my heart, and my brain seemed to be firing on more cylinders.
“You know,” said Bob, “We have the French to thank for this delightful coffee.”
I nodded slowly, knowing it was pointless to try to stop the story I’d heard a dozen times already. “French colonists introduced this bold, expressive coffee to the Vietnamese. From there, it migrated to China. One sip of this rich espresso and you know why the French call American coffee ‘jus de chaussettes’. That means juice of socks, you know.”
I did know. He retold that story every time we cured one of my hangovers. I knew it so well that I mouthed the words juice of socks along with him. History tells me the only way to derail this narrative of the French influence on the world’s coffee preferences was to launch into a joke.
“This guy was just diagnosed with a fatal disease,” I started.
He took the bait like a sunfish on a grasshopper.
“Yeah. So he went to a dozen doctors who all told him he was going to die. Then he went to this Chinese doctor. The Chinese doctor told him to take a long mud bath every day. The guy said, ‘Will that keep me from dying of this disease?’”
Reverend Bob hung on my every word.
“’No,’ said the Chinese doctor, ‘but it’ll get you used to the dirt!’”
Reverend Bob’s face lit with delight. “Oh Doc,” he said stifling a laugh. “That’s horrible. Morose. From the sound of that joke, you might need more than just Chinese Coffee.”
“Yeah, Friar,” I moaned. “I could use a different life.”
The Chinese Coffee may have jolted my body back into function mode, but it didn’t do much for my capacity to sort out time and space. As I sat moaning, my poor booze-battered brain slipped its leash and wandered to my memory banks and to last night at the Buffalo Tavern.
The bartender slid another bourbon in front of me just as I noticed the girl standing by the pool table. A small group of women had gathered at one end of the table while the men played a game of eight ball. A quick head count paired up couples and showed numbers in my favor, so I let myself look a little longer. She was tall and blond, and the kind of home-grown pretty that can only happen in a small town. Then she moved a stray curl from her face. I noticed a stunning lack of glitter on her left hand.
My heart tumbled. My fantasies locked on her face, on the curve of her neck, on how her long blond hair caressed her bare shoulder, and I reached for my drink. The glass slipped out of my hand, bounced on the bar, and splashed the guy next to me, before shattering on the floor. The crash drew her attention and I looked away as her eyes met mine.
The guy next to me was sure my drink had destroyed his designer jeans and insisted that I pay to restore his wardrobe. But the bartender quickly brought him another beer and put it on my tab. Then he refilled my lost bourbon on the house. When I glanced back to the pool table, the blond was gone.
I caught sight of her as she walked toward the exit. She glanced toward me and once again we made eye contact. And once again she captured a stray curl with that naked left hand, tucked it behind her ear and smiled.
Her smile said, “Hello.”
It said, “You’d better get off that bar stool.”
It said, “I’m leaving.”
And as I sat paralyzed, it said, “Good bye.”
Reverend Bob’s voice snatched my brain back to the Wok Express.
“You still with us, Doc? You seemed to wander off there for a bit.”
“I’m still here, Friar,” I said. “I was just thinking about last night. I think I really missed a chance at something special.”
We ordered food and fumbled with chop sticks as I told Bob the story of tall, blond and available. Tom brought the check and a couple of fortune cookies as I finished groaning that my life sucked and was going nowhere. I reached for a cookie, but Reverend Bob brushed my hand aside and said, “No, no, my son. Allow me.”
It cracks me up whenever the Friar calls me ‘my son’. We shared the same locker all through high school. We marched in band together, stole watermelons from Charlie Ott’s farm together, and hid a camera in the girl’s locker room together. As a matter of fact, if he hadn’t fallen for the daughter of a preacher, we would have sat together at the Buffalo last night. Only then, the guy at the bar would be washing blood out of his designer jeans this morning, along with my bourbon.
“Wisdom advises,” Bob continued, “that you accept the fortune you are given; that you play the cards you are dealt.”
“Yeah, yeah. I saw Star Wars too. What does it mean, Obi-Wan? I’m just trying to get a cookie.”
“I simply mean that the fortune doesn’t come true unless someone else hands you the cookie,” Bob said, handing one to me. I gave the other one to him. He cracked his open and unfolded the tiny scrap of paper inside. It read, ‘Your heart is larger than your wallet’.
I laughed. “Well Friar, here’s to your enlarged heart. It looks like I’m buying lunch, Reverend.”
My cookie crumbled in my hand. I picked the scrap of paper from the cookie dust and unrolled it. My fortune read, ‘You hold the keys to riches far greater than gold. Your lucky number is 3423703-11132277.’
“What do you think it means, Doc?” Bob asked in his most guide-me-to-your-answers-within voice.
“No clue, Friar. The only keys I have are my house keys, and that’s a rental. Not much riches there for anybody but the landlord. And what’s up with that lucky number? How freakin’ random is that? Maybe it’s the number to a secret Swiss bank account. Or maybe the combination to the bus locker where DB Cooper stashed his loot.”
“The Chinese are an inscrutable people, Doc…”
“These fortunes are as Chinese as the espresso, Friar,” I said. I wadded the fortune and tossed it into the dregs of my Chinese Coffee cup. Then I dropped some money on the table and got up to leave.
At my bike, I buckled my helmet on and rolled up my pant legs for the ride home. All the while, Bob continued to defend his stupid idea that a fortune cookie might hold some profound meaning. I knew he’d scraped the bottom of his prophetic parallels when he concluded, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
At my house, I rolled up the driveway, dismounted, and hung my bike from a hook above the front porch. As I dug for my house keys, I felt a small wad tucked deep in my pocket. I pulled out the scrap of paper and gently smoothed it to read the fine red print. It said, ‘You hold the keys to riches far greater than gold. Your lucky number is 3423703-11132277.’
A surge of adrenalin cleared the last smog of hangover and shot my thoughts back to the Wok Express. “I know I tossed this at the restaurant,” I murmured. I could see myself wadding up the stupid little Chinese fortune. I saw myself toss it into the coffee mug. “What the…?”
I’d been at my computer for an hour when the phone rang. I answered and Bob said, “How’s the hangover, Doc?”
“Bob! Something crazy happened,” I said, and I told him about the Chinese fortune wadded in my pocket. “Now I’ve been all over the internet looking for hidden meanings to the word ‘key’ and ‘riches far greater than gold’.”
“What have you discovered, my son?” said Bob, using his show-me-your-insides voice again.
I laughed, “Well, the internet is pretty sold on the notion that wisdom and grace are worth a lot. But other than that, I haven’t found much.”
“And what about your lucky number?”
I paused. “I Googled the number, too. I found a couple of formulas for calculating the distance to the sun, but not much else. Google Maps came up on one search, though. It appears those numbers also represent a dot on the map. I don’t get any of it.”
Bob seemed interested in that last part. “It came up a point on the map, Doc? Maybe the numbers are coordinates of some kind. Maybe they lead to a Geocache.”
“G-O-Cash? Like Go-Money? Is that some kind of debit card?”
Bob loves to know something I don’t. “No,” he said, “ it’s Geo-cache. Geo, like in geography. Cache, like a treasure or a stash of some sort. Geocachers hide treasures, post their GPS map coordinates online, and then other players go find the treasures.” He talked slowly to make sure I understood these complex principles. Whatever.
“Treasure?” I asked.
“Well, yes. Usually the treasures don’t amount to much, though. The fun of the game is finding the treasure, more than the treasure itself,” said Bob.
“So, we load these map coordinates into a GPS and go find treasure, right? Let’s go!”
Fifteen minutes later we piled in his car and headed wherever the little arrow on his phone pointed. We’d loaded the coordinates in Bob’s phone. It turns out that he and the other geeks who hang out at Todd’s Used Books go geocaching regularly. The Friar drove while I held the phone and navigated. As we drove south, the distance to the treasure displayed on the phone continued to decrease. When we crossed Juanita Street the numbers started to increase.
”Whoa, Friar. The numbers are getting bigger. We passed it. Turn around!”
Bob turned around in the Mason Eye Care parking lot and headed back. He then turned east on Juanita, and tucked into the parking lot at Family Dollar.
“What’s it say now?” asked Bob. “How close are we?”
“It says we’re at 475 feet and it’s over there, toward the Buffalo,” I said.
We got out of the car and slowly walked in the direction of the Buffalo. We huddled together around the phone like a Geiger Counter in a 1950’s spaceman movie, sweeping it back a forth, following every flicker of the tiny arrow on the screen.
“So, what kind of treasure do you think we’ll find?” I asked. “Are we looking for a treasure chest?”
Bob laughed, “No. Nothing as grand as that. The caches are usually small. Sometimes really small.”
“Small, yet more valuable than gold,” I thought aloud. After all, the fortune cookie said I hold the keys to riches far greater than gold. And I’m the one holding the phone. And we do have the coordinates of hidden treasure. “Diamonds are small. And they’re more valuable than gold, right?”
The Friar tried to mask his geeky enthusiasm for being on a treasure hunt by using his Reverend Bob voice to bring me back to earth. “Doc, the last time I went geocaching, the cache held two Hot Wheels cars, a broken pencil and a fishing lure. Nobody’s fortune is made by a geocache.”
“And how many times do you find your coordinates in a fortune cookie, Reverend Geocache? Answer me that.”
I nearly launched into how crazy it was that a fortune cookie could follow me home and give me the coordinates to hidden treasure, when the phone beeped.
“It’s beeping! Bob, what does it mean?”
“It means we’re close, Doc. Take a look. The numbers say we’re within just a few feet.”
“What do we do now?” I asked, shoving the phone at him. “Is that thing going to blow up or what?”
He took his phone and tucked it in his pocket. “Now we look around,” he explained. He spoke slowly to make sure I understood these complex principles. “The GPS isn’t sensitive enough to lead us to the exact spot. Now we look around for the cache.”
“How do we know what it looks like?” I asked, as I picked up an old Pepsi can and looked inside.
“Just look for anything that looks out of its natural place.”
Pepsi dribbled onto my sweatshirt so I tossed the can. We searched all the nooks and crannies around the back of the Buffalo Tavern for about ten minutes and turned up half a pack of cigarettes, a Bic pen, and a dozen other pieces of trash the crows wouldn’t eat. Bob pulled a plastic bag from his coat pocket. “Cache in, trash out,” he said, and we filled the bag with parking lot flotsam.
That’s when I spied something shiny, peeking out from under the leaves up against the building. “Found it!” I shouted, and began brushing twigs and leaves off my treasure. Bob rushed over as I picked the cache from the debris.
“What is it?” huffed Bob.
“Keys,” I said, holding up a set of car keys on a large silver ring. “Now all I have to do is find the Honda that fits them, and I’m all set.”
Suddenly a voice came from behind, startling both of us.
“I think they’re mine,” she said. She was tall, blond and the kind of home-grown pretty that can only happen in a small town. When our eyes met she moved a stray curl from her face, tucked it behind her ear, and smiled. “My friends thought I’d had too much to drink last night and tossed my keys. I caught a ride home with a girlfriend. I think those are my keys.”
I looked down at the keys in my hand, and then at Bob’s astonished face.
“Holy shit,” murmured Bob.
I held the keys out to her and said, “My name’s Jeff, but my friends call me Doc. I think I saw you here last night.” Then I blushed and added, “Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?” With my gaze resting on her face, on the curve of her neck, on how her long blond hair caressed her shoulder, she lowered her head and smiled that smile again. Then she looked in my eyes and said, “I’d love to.”