The Fortunate There are those who believe that anything out of place is a sign, as if the physical world were a giant dream to be interpreted over and over. Some woman playing cards discovers a missing ace of diamonds and thinks her fiancé is about to leave her. She throws the whole deck out in the trash, then lays watchful for a sign that she has skirted fate. On trash day, she has forgotten the whole thing, now obscured behind a hundred other myths and signals, until the neighbor’s dog, whose name begins with the same letter as the fiancé’s, is seen tearing open the trash, throwing the deck halfway down the sidewalk. She scares the dog away, but the damage is done. Fate lays out its hand, and it’s a nearly full deck.
It’s not a particularly tidy block, so no one will take notice of the cards, except now, how can she avoid them, all those diamonds shining in front of someone else’s yard? And how can she not count them, all thirteen spades, laying on the ground, as though they are poised to dig thirteen tiny graves?
A neighbor five doors down walks out the same morning and as he reaches for the morning paper, sees a jack of hearts beside his feet, staring up at him with the calm loyalty of a cartoon. How can he not think it’s a sign, that he should be a lover, or that a lover is soon to appear? Unlike the fortune cookie at the bottom of the Chinese carry out bag that he cracked open last night, which told him he would achieve great things alone, this singular playing card seems as sure a sign as an x-ray diagnosis. It is delivered by the complicated parade of random events right to the steps of his front porch. The playing card, he contemplates, must originate in early Europe—some ancestral signifier, an ancestry that is far closer to his own than Chinese fortunes.
He begins evaluating if he is ready for this lover, or for becoming a lover. He looks up at the sky, at the line of moon so thin he first mistakes if for a jet trail. The moon is a jet trail, he thinks, and I am a jack of hearts! Anything is possible, he concludes, as the neighbor’s dog is apprehended at the corner, gnawing on the last of several chicken bones. The owner yells over and over for the dog to spit them out, but the dog just keeps crunching down, as though it is practicing voodoo in the street, conjuring up a spirit of a chicken, strong enough to let it grow wings, to free it from any ownership, powerful enough to escape any force of love.
Liana feeds me cinnamon cookies, a recipe that came from Russia. We drink gunpowder tea from a dark green bowl with a thousand cracks in the surface of the glaze and sit on the floor as the sun is setting, leaning against pillows she’s bought from a Goodwill. And the steam from the bowl smells like smoke as it rises up through the darkening evening, and the short blue candles perched on top of clear bottles seem to give off more and more light.
We have just come inside from the dock out back where the river lapped loudly against the wooden piers, and the trees seemed to bend as soft as seaweed in the wind as it came down from the mountains in deep breaths. We were wrapped only in wool blankets, heavy and gray, and the wind slid down our bodies as she lifted her hand and pointed to an uncertain place on the surface of the water where a ship had once sunk. It had been full of sleeping sailors, waiting for their leave at shore. On the far bank, she told me, there’d been a missionary camp where the children used to climb the wide oak tree and drop from its limbs into the water, back when the river was clean and still enough to do it.
Now in the room full of candles, the blankets still around us, she looks away while touching the corner of the table beside her like it is an ear or nipple, and says, “I can hold my own.”
I nod, but I don’t know what she means—or else I do, and I never doubted it, until now that she’s said it, which seems to make it untrue.
“I used to think,” she said, “that my heart was a clay pigeon, made to be broken.”
“And now?” I ask, lifting the bowl to my mouth, the steam rising warm on the skin of my face.
“Now I feel it’s a pie that was meant to be eaten,” she says and laughs.
I want the tea to burn my tongue or mouth just a little bit. I want to feel some deep hurt as well. I see then how a strand of her hair has curled from being wrapped around her finger, and I think how it seems like her future, repeating itself, repeating its pattern, but projecting outward, forward, so that she imagines it is going someplace entirely new.
She is still laughing as she takes a bite of cinnamon cookie, and the crumbs fly out like tiny projectiles from her mouth and land on the small ledge of her belly and in her lap.
The blanket she is wearing is draped open, and below her belly, the hair between her legs forms a shape like a slice of pie. I stare at it and the crumbs and wonder what in the world is not loss or food or desire.
The ice cream truck plays its four measure xylophone jingle over and over, approaching like a psychotic clown. You imagine for a moment pulling the shades of your living room windows and the noise will be shut out, like hot air in an oven.
But it is the first nice day of spring, and you cannot shut the windows or pull the shades, and already the jingling is upon you and the truck has stopped its music, the loud engine that cools its freezers humming now in its place. It is an industrial water torture of sound that seems to loosen your ribs and vibrate your internal organs into butter.
But now even that is barely heard over the sound of a dozen neighborhood kids. Or is it just two or three, talking with the shrill sound of a dozen that only children who are strangers can evoke? It reminds you of the sounds kids make at pools when they play and splash. Their voices are like sharp coins, surprisingly adept at drawing your attention and slipping into the folds of your body.
They fight, ask questions, repeat lines from hiphop lyrics, though most of them are white. “Back back back,” one of them says as a threat, and the others chatter around him. You imagine seagulls fighting over bread crusts, pecking the smaller ones out into the periphery.
Then there is a hush. They each are served. One of the kids actually says thank you. And then the truck inches down the street, its jingled turned off, a few coins heavier, a few fudgecicles lighter. Can you now hear the small mouths sucking on their long cold treats? Or is that the sound of their shoes, pressing into the sticky tarmac, then pulling free as they make their way back to their homes?
And here now again is the sun, alone, pouring into the window, as it has been all along, but how quickly it no longer seems enough, how quickly you miss the sounds of the ice cream truck and the children on your block, miss them like you would a phantom arm, and you wonder how you will ever get through the day, in all that silence, as you putter alone around in the house.
About the Author: Nathan Alling Long has work in over 50 journals and anthologies. He grew up in a cabin in rural Maryland and lived on a commune in Tennessee, but now resides in Philadelphia where he writes and teaches. Find him @ http://wp.stockton.edu/longn/.
Story songs: The Fortunate - whatever comes on the radio when you sit down to read it. Liana - "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. Ice Cream – the sound of an ice cream truck.