Short fiction by Bryan Jones has appeared recently in Bartleby Snopes, Eclectic Flash, and Concisely. He lives and works in Texas.Drifting Fortunes
OVER THE COURSE OF MY PAINSTAKING research, I pieced together the key documents that allowed me to construct a timeline of how I lost my seafaring father. He did not die with the rest of the crew on the night of the shipwreck. For more than a month after that terrible disaster, he survived as the lone castaway on a desert island in an uninhabited region of the South Pacific.
After spending so much time poring over the clues and studying the ship’s cargo of restaurant supplies, I imagined what his existence must have been like on that tiny patch of earth surrounded by the sea. I wondered about his attempts to make contact with the outside world. He must have built fires in the hope of signaling airplanes. But pilots who flew in those parts during that time reported seeing nothing.
I managed to assemble a partial record of my father's attempt to send his version of a message-in-a-bottle. My father had very little in the way of writing paper on the island; instead, the long rescue note he composed was written on hundreds of tiny strips he found inside the fortune cookies that were packed in one of the ship’s wooden crates that I speculated he must have used as a kind of raft in order to get to the island. Obviously, he also had at least one fountain pen.
As I read the words on the few strips of paper I had obtained, I imagine him opening the plastic wrappers and breaking open the cookies that served as a source of sustenance. I can see him writing, on each little piece of paper, a portion of his long message that could be read only by laying out all the strips side by side, from left to right. My father never had very good penmanship. He only managed a word or two on the back of each fortune. One strip has the words HELP ME written on the back. He didn’t number the strips; it makes it difficult to know if the fortunes I have belong at the beginning or the end of his note. On other fortunes he wrote DISASTER, UNKNOWN CAUSE, UNBEARABLE HEAT, AFRAID, SALT WATER, HYPOTHERMIA, STARVATION. One fortune just reads ALL ALONE.
I gathered that after my father had written all these messages he put the pieces of paper back inside the crate, which he sealed as best he could before casting it adrift on the sea. Of course, I was never certain that I had my facts straight, and I had to stitch assumptions and conjectures together to knit an imaginative pattern that partially revealed what my father’s life was like on that island. I logged many hours in nautical libraries and in the offices of the international shipping authorities, studying the prevailing currents and tides, and trying to figure out what happened to that crate that carried the record of my father’s final thoughts.
Eventually I concluded that, a month or so after my father put the crate out to sea, sailors on a cargo ship found it. The dripping crate was laid on the deck in front of the ship’s captain who noticed a manufacturer’s name and address stenciled on the lid. The crew never opened the crate. When they put into port, the captain made sure it was returned to its rightful owners.
The CEO of the fortune-cookie manufacturer was more than a little concerned when his employees opened the returned crate in their warehouse. They found only a damp pile of paper fortunes that must have looked something like a heap of used confetti on the dewy morning after a major holiday celebration. A telephone transcript from the manufacturer showed that a call was made to the captain of the ship. The captain was asked a great many questions about whether the sailors who had returned the crate had eaten any of the cookies. The call became awkward when it became apparent that there had been a terrible mistake that was still the subject of some lingering litigation. Sometime the year before, the CEO explained to the captain, all the cookies produced by the manufacturer had been contaminated with harmful chemicals. If anyone ate the cookies, it would certainly be fatal. The CEO assured the captain that the problem had been corrected and governmental authorities in his country had certified that all new cookies made by the company were perfectly safe to eat. The CEO was relieved to hear that no one on the ship had eaten any of the cookies.
I uncovered another document with the help of a lawyer trained in international law. It revealed that a low-level employee back at the manufacturing plant stacked the crate containing my father’s messages in the same room with the other printed fortunes that were waiting to go into the next shipment. The workers responsible for inserting the fortunes were at first confused when they found a crate in the room containing more fortunes than they appeared to need. However, because they had not been instructed to do otherwise, they went ahead and made use of all the paper fortunes.
From here my research became exceedingly difficult. But I reached the conclusion that all the cookies with my father’s messages went into one shipment that was delivered to a restaurant in New York City. The owner of the restaurant quickly grew exasperated at having to explain to his perplexed customers what the strange two-sided fortunes meant and decided to send the shipment back to the manufacturer. Unfortunately, the shipment was sent off with insufficient postage. It ended up at the wrong location entirely. Through another misunderstanding, the shipment was delivered to a subsidiary of a multi-national on subcontract with other large corporations and the cookies had been stuffed inadvertently into a brand of piñata that is still very popular at children’s birthdays in Latin America.
For the better part of an exhausting year, I made inquiries with certain families in Costa Rica. It proved to be a difficult process that finally convinced me I would never find all the paper fortunes that my father had used to compose his final plea for rescue. The day came when I had to face the fact that I wouldn’t find any more of my father’s final message because most of it was lost forever.
I interviewed several parents who had experienced a strange moment after their children’s little wooden sticks swatted through the papier-mâché and spilled out onto the ground not the hoped-for pile of brightly colored candies but instead a heap of individually wrapped fortune cookies. Many of these parents simply shook their heads at the bizarre consequences of the increasingly global economy. By and large they tried to make the best of things, even as their children opened the cookies and held up the little strips of paper and asked what the English words meant. One pair of bilingual parents tried to translate them as best as they could to the little upturned faces, which had clouded with confusion over how one side of the message had promised them something nice about wealth or wisdom while the other side had displayed a lonely, scared, or desperate-sounding word or two.
The parents explained to me how they had felt put on the spot to reassure their children about the world. There was a great deal of pressure on them to make sense of things so as not to spoil the festivities of the party. I asked them how they handled it. They said they told the children to focus on the happy part, and try to forget about the other. That’s all you can do in life, they said to the children as they crumpled up the papers and threw them into the trash. That’s all you can do.