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endless Joy at cookie to Fortuning

     The morning meeting ran late as always, and the usual gang voted to get lunch at the place with bad wings served by teens in fantasy costumes. Tim bowed out. It was Thursday; on Mondays and Thursdays, he went to Jade Panda Garden for the complimentary hot-sour soup. It was also his birthday, though only he knew because in middle management thirty-seven was nothing to advertise.

     Mama Guiju chatted happily with the lunch crowd as she moved from table to table in her floral top and sensible shoes, depositing maternal warmth along with the heaping platters of dumplings, sticky rice, and chicken feet. Mister Guo sat in the back, stuffing fortune cookies with handwritten notes, echoes of his youth as an underground poet spreading the truth after Tiananmen Square. There were two waitresses, Mama Guiju’s daughter and niece. Tim was never quite sure which was what. Qiu Jin looked to be in her mid-twenties and was possessed of a pair of dazzlingly intelligent eyes. Ditto, much younger, stayed in the background, face in her phone.

     The food at Jade Panda Garden was no better and no worse than a dozen other Chinese restaurants along that stretch of Buford Highway, but here Tim felt at home.

     All guests received a warm welcome. Those who neglected to leave a tip departed with Mama Guiju’s, “Xie xie, dà bí zi. Come again!” From nearby, Ditto giggled.

     Mama Guiju treated Tim differently--more like a son. “I see gray hairs. You need black sesame buns and black walnuts. They’ll make your gray hairs to turning dark.” Tim accepted the extra sides, not counting too heavily on the homely values of the food but enjoying its flavor.

     “You enjoying your beer, handsome Tim?” Mama Guiju never lectured him when he ordered a second Tsing Tao at lunch. The rice flavored brew went well with the meal and the effect carried him through his afternoon session at work. Tim helped the American dream function. He was a vice president at Balfour Analytics, which syphoned data from the web and served it up hot to anyone who could afford their services. They worked the dark arts, transmuting money into power.

     Once in a while, Qiu Jin would open up while removing empty bottles and dishes. “Mama Guiju was a student. The soldiers killed her fiancé in front of her eyes,” Qiu Jin said once while Mama Guiju was busy with another table. Tim would ask questions and try to piece together the fragments of her answers. “She loved China with all her heart, but the Communists did not love her. She had to make a choice. Indecision is death. Mama Guiju married her fiancé’s brother, using her dead fiancé’s papers to get them both to San Francisco.” So, Mister Guo was his own brother, or at least used his dead brother’s name? That’s how Tim heard it, but maybe it was the beer fog. “We came here to Atlanta a year ago. The previous owners here were no good, so we bought for cash … fixed it up. We put in decorations for to please the dà bí zi …” Her small hand indicated the gilt dragon on the wall and the plastic cat waving at customers from its perch by the register: perpetual, monotonous, expected. “… and serve the food they are liking.” So, the family lived month-to-month. The place was never too busy. It wouldn’t take much for them to lose it all.

     This was not Tim’s main concern, however. He pressed to learn Qiu Jin’s story; there must be one. She was focused and smart, but there was more, a sad shading about her pretty face.  

     “Well, I’m glad you’re here now,” Tim ventured.

     “We do not to fit this place,” she said. He wondered where Qiu Jin did fit. He allowed himself a fantasy of walking with her along oriental streets, stopping into millennia-old buildings to sample unfamiliar meats and spiced noodles.

     As Tim nursed his beer, Mama Guiju came over with a sticky rice ball sporting a small candle. Mama Guiju motioned Qiu Jin away, then set the plate in front of Tim with a smile. “Happy Birthday, Mister Tim.” How in the world? She stayed with him as he ate the ridiculous offering. He wanted to ask her about Qiu Jin, but hesitated.

     Qiu Jin brought the check, on a tray with orange slices and a fortune cookie. A hand-made sign on the door promised ‘endless Joy at cookie to Fortuning.’ He crushed the brittle snack and nibbled absently on the bits while waiting for Mama Guiju to process his credit card. (With his DOB. Data, you devil!) Not really caring, he turned over the white slip on which Mister Guo had scribed. “Ten thousand cherry blossoms fall,” it read. 

     Dodging maniacs and potholes on the drive back to Buckhead, Tim considered Mister Guo’s missive. Not one of his best. “Cherry blossoms fall.” Time passes. Got it. I’m middle-aged; of course, I get it. Carpe diem, jackass, he told himself.

     His team was hard at work, refining social media posts. Duke McLaws, a local developer with a stake in many sizeable projects, wanted a seat in Congress. His bona fides included a decade under the Gold Dome fighting for Voter I.D. and an acquittal in a family planning clinic arson case. His campaign ads featured rather unappetizing still photos that somehow linked abortions to illegal aliens. 

     “It’s not bad,” his underling, Conway, said, “but it lacks focus.”

     “Machine gun it, like we did with Cobb last cycle.” The words came out of Tim’s mouth easily. He could say these things in his sleep. ‘Machine gunning it’ was office lingo for presenting talking points rapid fire. For Cobb, they’d actually used a machine gun sound effect—something Cobb’s base could relate to. For McLaws, whose supporters liked to call him ‘The General,’ they could cook up a series of emotionally loaded stills with a doleful fiddle track, like something from Ken Burns’ playbook.

     “Bing-bong, post it!” With that, Tim closed another meeting.

     The fall dragged on. By the time the heat finally broke, people were exhausted. Tim’s boss, Eric Ludgen, had his own way of wearing folks down. The team was turning in fine work, meeting deadlines and budgetary targets.

     Still, Ludgen offered damning critiques, using belated foresight gleaned from watching Tim’s team actually do the work. He knew better than to accuse his boss of second guessing. Tim was a Madeleine hire. Madeleine was three CEOs ago. Ludgen was making room for his own players, demanding tribute for himself and his chosen while grudgingly noting the hard effort of others. “It’s what they’re paid for.”

     The Georgia-Georgia Tech game was coming up. The boss didn’t want to waste tickets on minor clients. In order to bury the hook good and deep, to get him to commit to a much bigger campaign, Ludgen decided to invite McLaws out to lunch and dangle the prospect of prime seats. Aloud, he considered lunch at the Cheetah, where they’d just rotated in a new batch of girls. Before Tim even realized the words were coming out of his mouth, he seized the opportunity and suggested Jade Panda Garden. ‘Cherry blossoms indeed,’ he thought.

     The day came. After some hesitation, Ludgen included Tim in the plan, making him promise to stick to the script he laid out.

     Sitting across from the men, Tim wanted his usual two Tsing Tao’s, but held back. This was not the day for liquid charm and bluster.

     His mind drifted in and out of the conversation. “We’ll get it passed,” McLaws was crowing. “Development can move forward quickly.”

     Qiu Jin pushed the dim sum cart to their table and presented some dishes.

     “Jesus, what’s this?” McLaws squawked.

     Qiu Jin said, “Chicken feet. Give you good heart.”

      “Feet?” Ludgen blew air through his pursed lips. “Darling, just bring us some Colonel Sue’s Chicken, OK? There’s a good girl.” Qiu Jin’s face offered no response to the diminutive. Tim looked at her and felt embarrassed for her but said nothing. She withdrew with the cart and set off to find an order of General Tso’s Chicken.

      Ludgen told McLaws, “The Blacks would love chicken feet. They eat all kinds of ungodly shit.”

      McLaws said, “The Blacks and Mexicans don’t come to Koreatown.”

      Tim corrected him: “Chinese. They’re Chinese.” How could they not see the waving cat or the koi pond in the atrium? There were Chinese characters all over everything, not Korean with their little circles.

      “Whatever.” The word oozed from McLaws’s mouth with a slow burp that resounded ominously like thunder in an old horror film.

       Ludgen gave Tim the stink eye.

      After that, Ludgen did all the talking for the company. They discussed campaign strategy. McLaws also suggested Balfour Analytics could help him leverage certain bills now before the legislature that were favorable to real estate growth.

      “Cheap labor is everything,” he said. “We’ve got a lil beauty of a bill ‘at funnels public funds into trucks to collect the beaners and ferry em to work sites. S’posed to be a guy to get em registered all nice and legal. S’posed to be. When the job’s finished, a well-timed call gets ICE there just before the pay goes out. Hasta la vista, beaners!”

     Tim considered saying something but bit his tongue.

     Mama Guiju brought over the bill on a small tray that also held orange slices (which the others ignored) and fortune cookies. McLaws tore open his cookie. “‘Your friends reflect you like a pond,’” he read. (Tim wondered whether that message was directed at him.) McLaws turned the slip over and frowned. “No lotto numbers, mama-san? Tsk tsk tsk. Maybe you have another way to give ‘happy ending, eh?’” McLaws and Ludgen flared in laughter.

     Mama Guiju looked to Tim, her eyes full of hurt at the slur. Mama Guiju waited, her pleading eyes on Tim. He merely sat in his chair, checking for messages on his phone.

     Ludgen shared his fortune: “‘The beautiful lotus is dearer than gold.’ Sure it is.” He tossed down the bits uneaten.  

     Tim picked up his cookie, but in a flash Mama Guiju snatched it out of his hand and walked away. They paid and stepped out under the gray-blue sky.

     McLaws and Ludgen, laughing together like pirates, piled into an Uber, leaving Tim to take his car back to work. An HR guy was waiting for him at the front door.

     No one’s fool, Tim called in some favors and landed a job at a firm in Sandy Springs, farther north.

     It took him weeks to get back to Buford Highway. When Tim looked for Jade Panda Garden, he found an ugly barrier. Crews had erected a chain-link fence. Behind it, heavy machinery was hard at work reducing the whole block to rubble. A sign hanging from the filthy links promised ‘The Magnolia Avenues’ would soon rise above the squat surroundings, as a work-live-play complex.

     Tim drove up and down Buford Highway, searching for a place to have lunch. Nothing looked good.