From the factory loading dock, the cousins, Mr. Han and Mr. Won watched the trucks depart with skids of fortune cookies destined for restaurants and take-outs across America.
Once a philosophy professor in Shanghai, Mr. Han was reminded of Plato’s argument that two disparate events could be linked by a common, underlying principle termed The Third Man. Mr. Han noted two such events: the departure of the fortunes he’d contributed and his staying put. What could be The Third Man uniting them? He didn’t know.
His cousin’s factory, a small building in Seattle’s Industrial District, housed a shuddering, century-old wonton-making machine. During cookie-making weeks, flour-dusted workers fed dough into its huge, aluminum cone at one end of the room. Extruded through rollers, a continuous, thin sheet vibrated along a conveyer belt while a thudding perforator punched it with circles that were collected at the far end for baking. Mr. Han’s fortunes were enfolded as the cookies cooled.
Mr. Han asked, “Why do the Americans seek their fortunes in cookies?”
“For amusement. Their own crazy invention,” Mr. Won explained. “Ha-ha. Such a funny country!”
A hopeless case, Mr. Won thought of his undocumented, brains-strewn-in-clouds cousin. He didn’t understand that as an illegal hiding in the utility closet near the aluminum cone, he jeopardized Mr. Won’s business. Mr. Won could only hope his good karma would hold.
Flour blew under the utility closet door, floated cloud-like catching light, stuck to Mr. Han’s slippers. Caked triangles filled corners. Everything–overhead bulb, camp stool, metal shelving and table, notebooks, pens–was floured. Under his fingers, paper felt both slick and gritty. But it was safe. No bamboo-wielding villagers from Mainland China appeared to beat him back home.
Two years earlier, Mr. Han had disembarked nauseous and frightened at Humboldt Bay Harbor, California into a spring rain. He’d walked the coast north, then west. He’d slept in the roots of giant trees, inside utility pipes, beneath bridges. He’d encountered the network of American Chinese, kinder than his natal villagers, who offered food, explained the walking route to Seattle, even bought his ferry ticket. They were magnanimous; their expansive gestures and bold laughter implied lives without fear. They were never beaten.
By autumn, he’d reached the surprised Mr. Won who quickly put him in the utility closet, shut the door, and telephoned Mrs. Won for advice. She’d sent over a sleeping roll and an offer to drive Mr. Han to Pearl River Market to buy necessities.
Mr. Han returned his humble gratitude, but unlike most mainlanders, he shunned material possessions. His legs ached. He was grateful for the solace of the utility closet, bright with light and air from the high window that hinged open three fingers. Mr. Han could wash and relieve himself across the street at a gas station owned by an excitable but kind Tamil. He needed nothing more.
Mrs. Won sent him food and water, daily with her husband. Truly, the Americans were generous. Still, he rarely left the utility closet, fearing reprisals from the cunning mainlanders.
“What life is this, lived in terror in a closet?” Mr. Won exclaimed after three months. “Wash dishes at Wok Around The Clock, my friend’s take-out kitchen. Earn money to move on!”
He personally walked the trembling Mr. Han to Pike Place Market. “After this, you walk alone!” The market shops teamed with crowds of Asians and others. The Africans spoke and gestured expansively, like the Americans who ranged so widely in skin hues and hair styles. Loose laughter, calling out, people touching–so unimagined, this world!
Mr. Won left him at the door of Wok Around the Clock. “Next step: move closer for greater convenience. Have a good day.”
That night, leaping mainlanders maimed Mr. Han in dreams. That morning, humbly grateful for his cousin’s generosity, he turned over his earnings in exchange for the closet.
Hmm-m…quite good karma! Mr. Won accepted.
Washing pans to a blaring radio, Mr. Han, a brilliant mimic, ably replicated the atonal English, its consonants and diphthongs. He learned easily. He soon replaced the teenager who erred with change and credit cards at the cash register, excelled there, too, learned to banter with customers. Still, mainlanders strangled him in nightmares.
Mr. Han had never imagined leaving China until the village committee began its brutal thrashings in proxy for a run-away sister. Thuggish men stalked his Shanghai apartment and clubbed him unconscious with bamboo canes numerous times, returning unpredictably, demanding she reappear. Mr. Han understood his obligation but knew, too, that no philosophy advocated beating to improve humanity. Some philosophies glorified–others vilified–the life that followed death, but to live in this life, like his sister, he should flee.
Several attempts failed. He was returned repeatedly to his natal village and clubbed until his leg bones fractured. Unable to walk, he purchased advice on stowaway survival and locating family in America, the preferred escape country. There, flogging was illegal, and people got rich. Suspecting his advisors would reap a reward by reporting him, as soon as could, he limped in darkness to the docks, his savings inside his cap. He joined a mass of crowds waving bribes for passage. Not his most onerous endurance, that nauseating voyage on a cargo ship.
A rhythm developed between the peaceful utility closet and customer banter, and still no mainlanders. His worries unclenched enough for him to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of America, where it was illegal to harm others, and people were kind-hearted and jokey. He had studied Plato in Chinese, but he could study others by learning to read English. What better use of nights in the closet for a philosopher?
The Tamil explained the library system and urged Mr. Han to join one near his work. Courageously, he obtained a card from the understanding librarian and borrowed several books asleep for decades, according to the usage dates.
To improve his understanding of impenetrable sentences, he copied them into a notebook, paragraphing them in the western manner. In review, the sentences made even less sense. Nonetheless, the mysterious purpose of the paragraph was revealed: sentences preceding and following a specific idea were meant to interconnect. Meaning came from the paragraph not isolated sentences.
Equally, did one’s life, lived in real time, derive meaning from what preceded and might follow the present moment? His life was a succession of single sentences: the closet, the Tamil, the librarian, customers. Moments. No past, no future. He lived only to be alive. Why?
“What is life’s meaning?” he queried the Tamil, and was barraged by definitions of Hindu logic and mysticism, dualisms and gods. “Cannot be!” argued Mr. Han.
They began disputing in the evenings in limited English, managing heated exchanges of intense, mutual interest. Mr. Han often left the gas station elated. He had a friend.
“My notebook is useless, but it is wasteful to chuck it. A dilemma,” he admitted to Mr. Won.
Ditch Mr. Han! America no longer welcomes illegals. Crazy America: harboring is a crime, but paying illegals is not, his friends said. They had started paying their formerly free labor forces of mainland escapees. No more big profits! Mr. Won considered his friends’ warnings. He had his own dilemma.
Mrs. Won said no! Mr. Han was family. He stayed! If Mr. Won could pay him, occasionally–a little job for which the utility closet was his office, she suggested, only Mr. Han would be liable for arrest.
Brilliant! Mr. Won would offset the expense of Mr. Han by having KwikKopy typeset and print paper slips of his sentences by the millions, since in crazy America, the larger the purchase, the less the unit cost.
He got Mr. Han a typewriter. “Here is a solution for your sentences. I will pay you and cancel my standing fortunes order from San Francisco.”
Mr. Han quit the cash register to apply himself to the typewriter’s alphabet. He matched letters with his large, clumsy writing in the notebook. He studied his sentences for fortunes but was doubtful. He should research topics.
The Tamil recommended fortunes that extolled The Individual, what Americans valued.
Mr. Han disagreed vehemently, having studied Kierkegaard. The Individual was a concept that undermined the State.
The Tamil pushed: then why was The Individual the most American of concepts? They disputed.
Mr. Won grew impatient. “Efficiency matters here! No research! Use your notebook!”
Mr. Han settled on five sentences at random:
There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases and vice versa.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The moment we want to be something, we are no longer free. (This, the Tamil’s contribution.)
No one knows whether death may not be the greatest good.
Mr. Wan shook a glassine envelope in his face. “See this cookie?” Crushing it, he extracted the crumpled strip produced by the San Francisco distributor. “Fortunes include Lucky Numbers and Learn Chinese. Add those!”
But how to choose from limitless numbers and words? Efficiently, of course. He would deploy only ten numbers and five words in different combinations. For greater efficiency, he would stick to what he knew. “Is it presumption to broadcast self-reflecting words?” he asked the Tamil.
“Never! Americans appreciate individual expression.” The Tamil grinned. He’d won.
Mr. Han used his birth year, the current year, and his age: 19 72 20 02 30. He translated into Chinese: Break-bones beatings, Bone-chilling terror, Sea-nausea vomit, Utility closet hiding, Nightmarish fears.
KwikKopy delivered the pre-cut reams of paper slips.
“How many cookies, then?” Mr. Han asked, as the trucks pulled out.
“Maybe twenty–thirty million?” Mr. Won anticipated excellent profit margins.
Mr. Han experienced real pleasure to launch five philosophic statements into the world of kindly Americans. Like any dedicated teacher, he vowed to improve with research, and in doing so, the mainlanders receded from his dreams.
Over the next three years, millions of Americans ate Szechuan and Asian Fusion, phoned for Delivery on rainy Fridays, grabbed egg rolls and fried rice from take-out kitchens. They crushed open their ubiquitous cookies. Hundreds of thousands exclaimed to the waiter, their delivery guy, the old man at the cash register. What anarchist weirdo wrote this crap?
Via the network of managers, restaurateurs and middlemen, it took three years for such anecdotal complaints to reach the ears of Mr. Won. Not one compliment! What had Mr. Han done? “Show me!”
The philosopher, hair now streaked white, not just from flour dust, summoned to Mr. Won’s office for the first time, was shaking. Over time, he had been carefully replacing the original statements and words with his personal experience. He had Friendship, Generosity, Laughter, Sweet Dreams, Happiness.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
A man’s character is his fate.
To be is to be perceived.
Leisure is the mother of philosophy.
No man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.
Mr. Won snorted. Nothing wrong here. Just American, Wouldn’t-Recognize-Good-Karma-If-They-Tripped-On-It whining. He dismissed Mr. Han. “Well done, cousin!”
Mr. Han bowed to his benefactor. Mr. Won’s kind acknowledgement established a clear and precise moment, a shining one to separate life before, and from now on, life to come. It was so obvious. He was a paragraph. He was The Third Man. His heart sang.
Under the pen name Ariadne Apostolou, Kathryne Andrews has authored the novel, Seeking Sophia, (2013) published by Five Directions Press, about a young woman who takes to heart a Confucian adage in a fortune cookie. Her West End Quartet, four interconnected novellas about activist members of a political commune who reunite in middle age to assess the past and look forward, will be published by Five Directions Press early in 2015.
She resides outside Philadelphia, PA.