The dumplings had gone cold, their once steamed flesh now wrinkled and rubbery. Aaron prodded at one’s side with the tips of his chopsticks and chuckled as it brought back not so found memories of seventh grade science class. After realizing that it most likely wouldn’t get any fresher sitting on his plate he popped one in his mouth. His lips pursed as the slightly warm juices sloshed about in his mouth.
“Why did we come here again?” he asked Chuck after choking it down.
“Cause we were hungry and this buffet was right near the Stereo Hut,” he responded as he stirred his pepper steak. “You’re the one who needed the cables for his new, huge ass TV.”
“Yeah, but I also remember protesting about eating here.” Aaron and Chuck had been friends since high school, a strong bond that lasted through many hardships, lost jobs, break-ups, and even deaths. They were always available to help one another out in any situation, like helping hook up Aaron’s new, huge ass TV.
“We could have easily waited till we got back near my house and got something good to eat, like tacos.”
“But then I would have to listen to you whine all night about your empty stomach,” Chuck said with a smile. “Just think of it as a sacrifice.”
“You certainly picked the right word,” Aaron held a piece of kung pao chicken up for examination as if he were discerning the future from the ragged and ripped bit of poultry. He decided that it barely passed for chicken and deemed it inedible. He then began the dreaded task of separating what was called chicken from the rice and veggies, if he couldn’t have kung pao chicken, he would settle for kung pao something or other.
“Did you try one of the dumplings?” Chuck shook his head and swallowed a mouthful. “Well don’t bother, it’s like eating a wet, moldy sponge, … and cold, too.”
“Jesus, Aaron, … somebody might hear you.”
Aaron looked to the counter where he saw a woman of some Asian decent who was possibly giving him a dirty look. “Delicious,” he said loudly while lifting his can of pop towards her in toast. “Relax, Chuck. They know their food sucks here. Why do you think it’s so cheap?”
“It’s a buffet, that’s why. And we’re just lucky they let us get the buffet, they were closing it down for the night.”
“I wish the county would close it down,” Aaron said with a chuckle.
“It’s cold, but it’s still good.”
“Then eat a dumpling,” he told Chuck, pinching a dumpling between his chopsticks and waving it towards his friend’s face. Chuck closed his eyes and pulled his mouth away. “Come on, eat it,” Aaron dared him again.
“No,” Chuck nearly belted.
“And why not?”
“I don’t eat dumplings, never have,” Chuck answered quickly.
“Bullshit!” Aaron squealed. “I remember one time when you ate all the dumplings and you tried to hide it!”
“Okay, okay. They don’t look that good, you said they were cold.”
“So, what should we do then?” Aaron asked, taking a long sip from his ever-quickly emptying can.
“Nothing,” Chuck said with a sigh. “It’s a buffet, we picked it out, we can easily put it aside and grab something else that might be better.”
“I think that’s a lazy reaction.”
“Lazy?” Chuck laughed and wiped some sauce from his chin. “This coming from you, the one that once devised a method to change the channel with out getting off the couch when the remote broke?”
“That wasn’t being lazy,” Aaron began. “That was being energy efficient. Besides, if I recall correctly, my ‘extended finger’ came in real handy when we had that bird in the apartment.”
“Ok, Edison, how should we deal with this?”
“This is how it goes. When you buy a seat in an all you can eat buffet, you get all you can eat, right?”
“That’s the idea,” Chuck responded.
“But when you start eating and realize that you’re eating shit, should you just slide the plate aside and go up and scoop more hot, steamy shit onto a fresh plate? Mmmmm … all better?”
Chuck’s face was screwed up in disgust and he glared with horrified eyes at his friend. “Jesus, Aaron, think you can get more graphic? Besides, this is far from the shit you described.”
“You’re right,” he began. “ At least the shit would have been warm.” he laughed hard again and Chuck couldn’t help but smile. As rude and crass as his old friend could be, he could still make him smile at his most dismal of displays. He looked about and saw that the people back in the kitchen were in fact taking notice of Aaron’s diatribe.
“Oh, now you did it. You pissed off the kitchen.”
“Who cares,” Aaron said with a chuckle. “Just because their Chinese doesn’t mean they know karate or something.” Aaron just went back to eating his kung pao vegetable medley. “Interestingly enough, do you ever think they hire non-Asians to work here?”
“Never thought about it, most likely not. I’ve never seen a non-Asian working in a place like this.” Chuck just felt dirty, just simply taking part in such a conversation. It had been years since he made a promise not to let Aaron suck him into things like this, and it has been days since the last time that Aaron was successful in doing so.
“Another interesting thought,” Aaron said, clearing his throat. “Do you think that restaurant kitchens in Mexico are chock-full of illegal Americans?”
Chuck laughed again with his full gut. He felt himself ease into a calm state. “Yeah this food is bad,” he said with a sigh of loss.
“Sometimes I think you just argue with me to argue with me,” Aaron quipped.
“Maybe you’re right,” he responded, “But, I like to think that I’m the ying to your yang.”
“Wow, that sounds a little off.”
“No, I mean we’re the opposite, . . .”
“I know what it means, Chuck, I’m not a total moron.”
“I just mean that you can be negative sometimes and I tend to be more positive.”
“You mean, you tend to be a bit more gullible,” Aaron said with an accusing glare.
“Well, that too.” Chuck had to admit that he was always the one to believe anything that sounded even remotely true. “I blame my mom for that. She was always easily fooled.”
“That she was,” Aaron felt a tightness in his stomach. It had been a while since he had thought of Chuck’s mother. It had only been eight months since her passing, but it seemed his mind edged her out in a morbid form of self-preservation. “How’s your dad doing by the way?”
“He’s good. He’s still not over her, but who would be?” Chuck slouched a bit as he spoke, each word a little harder to say than the last. “My sisters think we should put him in a home.”
“What?” In Aaron’s eyes, Chuck’s dad had always been a strong and verbally commanding man. The idea that he could be so weak as to bring his validity into question was outrageous.
“I know … they’re so wrapped up in their lives, their new families and jobs, that they forget their old families. The ones that know just how despicable they can truly be and still find a way to love them.”
“But, like you said, you still have to love them.”
“That’s just it, Aaron, I don’t know how I can love them still.” Chuck pushed his near empty plate away in disgust. “I mean … how do you choose which one to love? How do you know which one deserves your loyalty more? Sure, they’re my sisters and I love them, but you should see the indifference in their faces when we talk about him. It’s as if they could care less.
“And they think that I should be the one to take him if we don’t put him in a home. My main concern is that I don’t think he belongs there in the first place. When did they stop caring?” There was a pause and Aaron wondered if his friend would cry. He didn’t know what to say, he’s not a psychiatrist or anything close to it. All he had to offer was an ear. “You don’t need to hear all about this.”
“It’s okay,” Aaron found himself saying. “You need to get it out, I understand that.” The woman who had been shooting what Aaron assumed were evil glares walked to their table and sat down a plate of two fortune cookies. She wished them a good evening through clenched lips and wandered away. “What a sweet heart,” Aaron said.
Chuck picked up a wrapped cookie and held it between two fingers, looking at it fondly. “I remember when I was younger, my mom told me to wish on fortune cookies.”
“It’s a cookie, Chuck, not a delicious birthday cake.”
“I know, I know … but my mom really had me believing it.”
“Exactly what we talked about earlier,” Aaron said as he picked his own cookie up off the dish. “That’s something you inherited from your mom.”
“She said that you had to make the wish before cracking the cookie in half.”
“Well, at least you don’t still believe that stuff.” Chuck just smiled at him as he unwrapped his cookie. “Come on … you can’t be serious. You still believe that stuff?”
“Why not?” “Cause it’s ridiculous!”
“No more so than believing in God.”
“That’s your argument?” Aaron asked with a laugh.
“This is what I meant when I said you’re negative. You are the most pessimistic person I have ever met. Can’t you ever have hope? Can’t you hold faith in anything?”
“So that maybe my wish can come true.” Aaron sat there, not knowing what to say. Arguing about something so insane was totally pointless to him. He just had to let it go. Chuck held the cookie up before him and braced each end with gripped fingers. “Okay … I wish my mom was alive … and well, living with my dad.” With that he broke his cookie open, it’s fortune fluttered to the table top.
“Oh, Chuck,” Aaron looked at his friend with a feeling of despair as he read the little white fortune slip. “I don’t know what to say … but it doesn’t work that way.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause it just doesn’t.”
“But, how do you know?!”
“Cause, is she alive now, buddy?” Chuck sat there for a moment and thought about it. His face became blank. “Wouldn’t you know if she was?”
“Maybe not, since I made the wish.”
“So, she’s just sitting at home … alive … and everyone knows about it but you?”
“Yeah, that could be it … maybe it’s a wish loophole? Like, since I made the wish I am aware of the change due to it.”
“Then why don’t I know? Hmmm? I didn’t make the wish.” Chuck, smiled a bit and shook his head back and forth.
“Proximity rule? I don’t know … It’s not enough that you don’t have faith in anything,” Chuck began. “You also have to argue against and attack what I have faith in?” Aaron felt horrible. He didn’t know how to fix it anymore.
“It’s not that I want you to be miserable, it’s just unhealthy to wish things like that, it’s counter-productive.”
“Just shut up, you despondent, hateful asshole.”
“Hold up,” Aaron said as he stood up from the table, “I’m just looking out for your mental well-being.” “Sure, whatever you say. That’s what you’ve been doing all these years? Looking out for me all those times that you make fun of me, put me down, or anything else that you do?”
“That’s it,” Aaron began to walk away.
“Go ahead, leave.”
“No,” he went back to the table. “You think I’m such a bastard? Then why do you follow me around everywhere?” he grabbed the cookie from the plate and held in a tight hand. “I knew we shouldn’t have come here, this is what started it all after all,” he said, holding the cookie up in the light. “In fact … I wish we never came here,” he said loudly, crushing the cookie in his fist.
The crumbs slipped from between his fingers as he opened his hand up. He looked down at the white slip with it’s red ink type, it simply read: Remember, not all fortunes are good ones. Then the slip crumbled away, right before his very eyes. It looked as though it had been incinerated into microscopic dust then carried away by a slight breeze.
His eyes widened at the sight and when he looked up he didn’t see Chuck. Where his friend once sat was a display of cell phone accessories. And to the right of that was a rack of car chargers. “What the Hell?” he muttered almost to himself.
“What the hell you doing?” he heard from behind him. Aaron turned to see Chuck standing in a short line for the check out counter. In the window he saw the evidence that he needed, the words tuH oeretS painted on the glass in bright yellow letters.
“We’re at Stereo Hut?” Aaron exclaimed with the vibrato of shock.
“Yeah,” Chuck laughed out. “You were the one that wanted to come here, right?”
“What about the Chinese buffet?”
“You didn’t want to go there, what, now you want an egg roll?”
What happened, Aaron wondered to himself. Didn’t we eat at the buffet? Why are we here now? Then he thought about that fortune cookie, that damned fortune cookie. How did it send them here, and if it did, why doesn’t Chuck remember?
And if his wish came true, tossing them down the street and deleting the whole meal at the buffet, then what of Chuck’s wish?
Tears welled up in his eyes as he realized that Chuck’s wish was never made. It tore him up inside to think that for a moment in time, the universe allowed his friend’s mother to live again, to breath. Then in a snap, when he uttered his silly, pessimistic wish, she was vanquished from this plane. And he never knew, he thought, tears streaming down his face.
“What’s wrong?” Chuck asked. Aaron knew that he couldn’t tell him. He couldn’t risk telling him, running him off in anger. That’s what would happen, he knew it deep inside.
What was it he had said to him, ‘it’s not enough that you don’t have faith in anything, you also have to argue against and attack what I have faith in’. It was true, but not true at the same time. There was only one thing he had faith in, and that was Chuck. But telling him that would deflate it, simply taking his only faith away.
“Nothing,” he finally said, “I’m just hungry.”
“I knew you would get moody without food.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Aaron started. “We should hit that Chinese buffet.”
“You sure? You were pretty adamant about not going there.” Maybe he can still make his wish, Aaron thought. There was still a chance. He could still make it right. And if Chuck’s wish wasn’t enough he would wish even harder for his mom. “Yea, let’s go there.”
“Okay,” Chuck said, rubbing his temples. “Maybe we can still make the buffet.”
Aaron chuckled, “I think I’ll just order off the menu.”