The Red One
The night it starts to go to hell, Martine reads her fortune first—but not before joking, “You now have worms.” Ashley stink-eyes her, and Martine says, “Okay, okay. A stranger will change your life for the better.”
Doug reads his: “A loss in the family will strengthen ties.” Uncle Curtis, the shriveled malcontent, is always in and out of hospitals for one thing or another—a prime candidate for a cookie hit.
Ashley reads hers: “Buy the red one.”
Doug scoffs, asks Ashley to justify her belief in these things. She ignores him, stands, crosses the cloudy lobster tank: there’s three tonight, like them, backlit by green bulbs, passing for little aliens modeling rubber bands. Chang’s is barely lit, as usual—more opium den than dumpling eatery. Martine insists it’s to obscure roaches. Look—cheap beer, plus Chang’s has enough foreign mystique that after a couple large Tsingtaos you can pretend you’re in some exotic locale. A glittering, gold-framed portrait of Chairman Mao straddling a horse hangs over the bussing trays, in tribute or ridicule. In the corner sits the other Mao, Zhao Cai Mao, the good-fortune porcelain cat, frozen there in mid-wave, nailing Doug with a glossy gaze. Martine’s words snap him out of it.
“You can just grab her, you know. I won’t mind.”
“Yeah, sure you won’t,” says Doug.
Doug and Martine went together a while, but Doug’s with Ashley now. Doug knows Martine’s still enamored of him, despite denials. They’d flowed together like floating bay trash, drawn by casual currents, drifting again within weeks.
“Like I give a shit if you and Ashley are diddling one another.” She holds her palms out mime-like: “Citizens, stop the presses! Someone somewhere’s fucking.”
“Besides,” she says, “I’ve already met my future husband.” She gestures to the ponytailed busboy, who’s setting dishes into a plastic tub. She’s over “pussy grad students” and “sensitives,” she says. The guy looks like he was birthed in the pokey—deep-V-neck t-shirt, exposed tattoos of hearts, angel wings, fiery dice, the number 37 beneath his right ear—either his IQ or the number of kids he’s liable for.
Ashley returns, says she’ll put money on the fortunes coming to pass. “Within a week,” she adds.
Her bullheadedness is cute tonight.
“You’re on,” says Doug, “but these things are mass-produced, Ash.”
Ashley shrugs. She promises them a hundred bucks apiece if she’s wrong. If the fortunes come to pass, they each only owe her fifty.
Martine says she’s on. Doug nods—innocent enough. Easy money. That’s Tuesday night.
Three days later: Doug and Ashley at 7-11. They queue behind an obese woman with arms like packed tenderloin and her rail-thin companion with retreating eyes. Three kids swarm around the counter, rearranging impulse-rack inventory, while the woman demolishes a Klondike Bar.
Ashley leans to Doug, whispers, “What do you think keeps couples together?” Doug responds that if she’s referring to this sideshow, probably an ankle monitor. The clerk stares straight down while the man fishes change from his oversized plaid shorts that nearly sweep the floor. This plaid warrior here’s Martine’s dream, a veiny cock without remorse—and all the child support, Valtrex, and community service to prove it. One of the kids belches, surprising even herself.
When they’re up Ash grabs a red scratcher with gusto. She pinches a communal penny, bellows behold! Doug stares blankly.
“The red one. Buying the red one.”
Doug recalls the fortunes. To be safe, maybe he should call Uncle Curtis—not that the codger would recognize a ringing phone. On the fortieth ring he’d probably spill his fish-oil capsules and hold his slipper to his mouth.
Ash scrapes away, holds the scratcher up, pouts. Doug pays and pats her back, hands her a jerky, tells her to settle up when she has the money—no hurry, since she must be broke going around making bets this stupid.
Next day: Salvation Army parking lot. Doug inventories his finds—shirt, paperback of How to Increase Your Sunday School Attendance, Beefheart cassette (Ice Cream For Crow), $4.27 total. He once-overs the shirt and something crisp and flat’s in the breast pocket—a hundred-dollar bill. The shirt’s a blinding red in the sun and the fact that he bought the red one hits him as a queuing car leans on its horn.
Following morning: Martine calls after Ash leaves. Before Doug can say hello, she says Ashley’d better be right about the goddamn fortunes, because she’s banking on a stranger. Doug begs pardon.
“Going out with Mr. Bigarms Busboy mañana.”
“From Chang’s? Ponyboy?”
“Yup. Ran into him at Conrad’s last night. Solo on the patio, drinking black coffee, smoking . . . he’s fascinating. And those jeans—the right kind of tight, know what I mean?”
Doug says he most certainly does not have any idea whatsoever what she means. He keeps mum regarding the shirt, not wanting to buy into any of it. Plus Buy the red one was Ashley’s fortune, not his. Coincidence.
Martine chuckles. “Happy for me?”
“Have a great time. Bring hand sanitizer. Bring everything sanitizer.”
“Go memorize a villanelle, schoolboy.” She hangs up.
Chang’s, couple days later: Doug and Ashley meet for the lunch special. Egg roll, hot and sour soup, rice, no-frills entrée—six bucks. Beer: same price, always. The space lobsters, down to a lucky two now, shuffle through wet fog. Ashley’s not wearing makeup. Doug sports his new-to-him shirt, which itches his back something fierce, just out of finger-reach.
Doug’s shoveling Kung Pao chicken when Ashley says, “So my aunt died this morning.”
Doug stops, his fork trembling between his face and plate.
“Went to sleep, didn’t come back. Stroke, maybe. Too soon to tell. I know it’s dumb, but . . .”
Doug nods. “Say it.”
“Well, that was your fortune, not mine.”
“And the strengthened ties part?”
Her uncle called her dad and they talked for an hour. They’re meeting tomorrow. Haven’t spoken in years—some spat over dividends. Doug holds his hand over his face. Feels red as his shirt.
“Really? Nothing to say to me?”
Doug clears his throat, tells her how sorry he is, of course, he’s sorry. He grazes her fingers. She seems to relax. He tells her about his purchase.
She retracts her hand, lifts her water glass, takes a big chug. Doug swigs beer and pushes his plate away. They sit quietly, a recycled breeze swinging the paper lantern over the table.
Ashley finally says, “So yours was the family death, and I got it. Mine was the red-one thing, and you got it.”
Doug nods. “So Martine gets her own then, right?”
“Is that how it works?”
“You’re the expert here,” Doug mutters. “We should call Martine.”
Ashley stiffens. “My aunt’s dead, and you want to call Martine.”
Doug says there’s been no sign of that Ponyboy asshole today, which could be because after hacking Martine to chum he lifted a trailer and made for Death Valley wearing her underwear across his face.
“You just wanna call her. You’re twisting this to mean what you want it to.” Ashley scoots her chair back: a cold, hard crack sounds off. She turns to face the waving cat and it’s squinting off a chair-blow that’s taken half its face. Doug scoops shards from the floor with his napkin and balls it up, breast-pocketing it. Zhao’s remaining eye fixates on Doug.
He sits, dials Martine. It goes straight to voicemail. He asks if Ashley’s talked to her in the past few days.
Ashley shakes her head: “Of course not. Why would I? Have you?”
Doug says he and Martine are friends so of course they talk because friends talk a couple times a week and that’s what he and Martine do since they’re friends and all. Friends.
“You just said you’re friends like four times.”
“Because we are friends, me and Martine, all of us. You too.”
“Oh, so you and I are just friends too, then.”
Doug stammers, says Martine took a chance based on their stupid game and they’re obligated to ensure her well-being.
“If our fortunes are coming true, Martine’s fine. If not, she’s also fine.”
Doug stands, pins the hundred under a teacup. Ashley offers smaller bills but Doug wants no part of that hundred. He motions to the cat: “Plus, that.” The lobsters turn in sync as they pass, restrained pincers reaching for the heavens. Chang calls out a faint, “No cookie?”
Forty minutes later: Doug knocks hard on Martine’s apartment. Ashley pants through her nostrils, mouth pursed shut. Martine cracks her door.
“What the hell.” She slips into the hall, wearing only boxers and an unbuttoned man’s shirt gripped at the chest.
“Sorry. You weren’t answering your phone.”
“Right. That’s because I wasn’t answering my phone.”
“So you’re all good then,” says Ashley, looking to Doug.
Doug asks too loud if Ponyboy’s inside.
“Excuse me, but we’re kind of in the middle of something.” Martine points southward, mouthing the words my vagina.
Ashley motions, says, “See? Fine.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“The fortunes,” says Doug.
“Yeah, the fortunes.” Doug recaps about the shirt.
“Means nothing,” says Martine. “And it’s hideous, by the way.”
Doug tells her about Ashley’s aunt. Martine says sorry. Ashley nods.
“So, regardless of fortunes switching, I’d have been fine.”
“That’s what I said,” says Ashley.
“Doug, I would’ve gone out with him regardless. It wasn’t because of fortunes. I wanted to ball him. Which I was just doing before you, Ashley, and your ugly shirt interrupted.”
Ponyboy’s voice comes high and nasal: “Baby? You okay, girl?”
Martine leans in: “Yeah, Hon. Just friends.” She looks back at Doug as she says friends, catching his eye as he peeks at her left breast, which spills from Ponyboy’s shirt. She looks down, fastens two top-middle buttons. Doug tries to pretend he was scanning the hall in circles. When he looks to his right, Ashley’s at the stairwell. Martine shakes her head, slides back through her door. By the time Doug hits the street, Ashley’s nowhere.
Chang’s, six-fifteen, next night: Doug’s still in the red shirt. Neither Ashley or Martine will take his calls. Ponyboy’s here, sweeping, whistling, a spring in his step. Doug hate-chews ginger pork, downs Tsingtaos, glares at him.
The cat’s gone, replaced by a bamboo plant. Doug stands and looks around for old Zhao. Ponyboy sees him snoop and Doug makes for the latrine.
He rinses his hands, reads Sharpie-fortunes off the mirror: distant land hold pickled cuisines, luck find you no matter what, a family loss will strengthen ties, look both ways, perception can blind, they under your bed. The paper towel dispenser’s empty. He unrolls a tissue from his pocket and Zhao’s face clatters into the sink. Doug’s ghostly reflection hovers behind the scrawls: four-day beard, patches of face-crust, saddlebags swinging from his eyes. Both Dougs tilt up at each other and smile like Zhao, holding it until their eyes thirst and blink. They go to scratch their backs and can’t reach. Doug turns away and yanks the shirt off, wiping his face on the red polyester. The shirt swishes perfectly into the mounted trash bin with a whispered whoosh.
The check’s on the table, pinned under a gold-wrapped cookie. Chang stops clearing glasses and backs away. Doug swigs the remaining beer, unwraps the cookie after smashing it against the table. The slip reads, Buy the red one.
He throws down twenty, starts for the stairs. A solitary lobster idles in green tank fog, one antenna slow-scraping the glass. Doug turns and startles Ponyboy at the counter, orders the remaining lobster boiled, sauced, delivered. He jots down Martine’s address. Ponyboy looks it over twice. Doug doesn’t tip, drops the balled-up fortune in the desolate tank on his way out. It resembles an abandoned stage. Pissing in the alley, Doug spots what’s left of Zhao beside the Dumpster and carries him onto the Metro, where he gets an indecent-exposure ticket from a lady sheriff with a harelip scar and garlic breath. Hundred bucks, just like that.
Two months down the line: Uncle Curtis expires during a botched colonic—Doug never did call. Martine phones post-honeymoon and says Chang’s got boarded up by the health department and Ponyboy just loafs around the apartment now, depressed. It cheers Doug up a bit and he lets it show before hanging up. Zhao smirks at him from the coffee table, backlit by neon signs from some outside business. Doug runs his finger across the white depression in Zhao’s fractured face, thinks how fortunate he was to find him.
Jason Bargueño is a PhD candidate at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he teaches composition and pretends to write and study. His fiction's previously appeared in Belletrist and TAMMY.