Fortune Cookies


Lenny Levine

Ellis McKenzie balanced his small, battery-powered amp on top of the turnstile with one unsteady hand as he swiped his MetroCard with the other. He stuck the card between his teeth and pushed through, clutching the amp and taking care that the rotating bar behind him didn’t smash against the guitar on his back.

A wave of hot air hit him in the face as he made his way toward the station platform. It was only eight a.m., but it was already a hundred degrees down here. By noon it would probably reach a hundred and ten.

He generally started out at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station because it was a transfer point between two lines. Hundreds of people would pass by him today during rush hour as he sang and played, a smile on his lips and his head moving from side to side. A few, hopefully, would put money in his plastic cup, which he seeded each morning with coins and a couple of dollar bills to make it look good. Today, as it happened, the dollar bills were his last two.

By 9:30, when he took a break, the money in the cup, mostly coins, had reached almost five dollars, not counting his two. He spent three dollars of it on an overpriced bottle of water and two candy bars and then waited for the next train, which would take him up to 96th Street.

He stood on the uptown platform, his amp between his feet, his guitar hanging down his back, breathing the oven-like air. Then he saw the Girl Scout again.

She was standing across the tracks from him on the downtown side, a tiny black girl amidst a group of white men in suits who didn’t seem to notice her. Her hair was in cornrows, and her uniform, as always, was neatly pressed. She was holding her clipboard and a box of cookies, and she was staring across the four vacant subway tracks at Ellis.

He figured his granddaughter might look something like her by now. Maybe that’s why she seemed so familiar. He knew he had a granddaughter because his daughter told him so, just before she stopped speaking to him altogether. He waved to the little girl, as he had at other times, but she didn’t respond. She never did. He blinked, and then all he saw were the three businessmen.

She’d been appearing to him more often since the heat wave began, but he didn’t think that was it. It had been happening from as far back as January, or it could have been longer. There were so many gaps in his memory. He knew she wasn’t real, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Nothing he could do about anything. A Number One train arrived and he got on it. It would be tempting to just stay there, ride it up to the Bronx and then back to South Ferry. Then do it again.

But sooner or later a cop would come by and throw him off, and besides, he couldn’t just sit there with his thoughts. His thoughts were something to be avoided, and the only way to do that was to sing and play, sing and play, sing and play.

The train pulled into 96th Street, and he stepped out of the air-conditioning, back into the oven. He put his amp down in the middle of the platform, plugged in the guitar, and started.

Motown tunes were always good, and he knew plenty of those. Beatle songs too, even obscure ones like “Old Brown Shoe” and “Hey Bulldog.” He didn’t get every word right, but he had a repertoire of over two hundred songs, all of them hits, none of them his.

He used to write songs, good ones, and he could really sing ’em too. Audiences loved him. People bought his records. But that was long ago and far away.

The commuters streamed by, noticing Ellis from time to time, many of them feeding the cup with coins and, sometimes, dollar bills. His Marvin Gaye medley even got some hand claps.

He was starting “Light My Fire,” Jose Feliciano version, when two trains arrived at the same time on the local and express tracks. The roar engulfed all sound, as people crowded past him to the edges of the platform. He stopped singing and glanced at his cup, where there looked to be about twenty bucks. He reached down for it, but before he could, a hand grabbed his arm.

“How you doin’, old man?”

It was a punk kid with a gold tooth in the middle of a grinning mouth. His right hand was clamped around Ellis’s arm, while his left scooped up the cup. “You don’ need this, do you?”

The doors opened on both trains and passengers poured out, adding to the others on the platform as they ran to change from local to express and vice versa, surrounding Ellis and the punk kid as they elbowed by, screening them from view if any cops were around.

“Hey!” Ellis cried out, struggling to free his arm, vainly trying to reach over the guitar for the cup with his other hand.

“You take it easy now,” the punk kid said, giving him a shove and moving away, the grin widening.

Ellis staggered back and almost fell over another punk kid who was at his feet, pulling the patch cord from his amp.

“Hey!” he said again, but it was too late. The amp was snatched up and taken, just as he felt someone else behind him undoing his guitar strap. He spun around to see yet another punk kid, who pulled the guitar off him and ran, disappearing into the crowd.

It all happened in no time. They’d moved in different directions, and he couldn’t tell if they got on one train or both trains, which were now pulling out. For all he knew, it was no train, and they were already up the stairs and on the street.

Ellis stood dazed in the middle of the platform. Everything was gone. Everything. How could that be?

He turned in slow circles, looking around and moaning, “No, no, no, no…” His left hip struck a nearby bench and he fell onto it, scattering a woman and her six-year-old boy, who just managed to get out of his way. The woman glared at him as the kid burst into tears, but he didn’t notice. He was lost in a bottomless spiral of despair, as he buried his head in his hands and wept.

And then he heard a voice.

It was a little girl’s voice, and it sounded far away, like it was calling down a deep, dark well.

“Hey, mister?” it said with a soft lisp. “Hey, mister?” The voice got closer. “You wanna buy some Girl Scout cookies?”

He lifted his head and there she was, standing right in front of him with her clipboard and her box of cookies. Again, he had the feeling that he knew her somehow.

“Are you my granddaughter?” he asked.

“No, mister, I’m a Girl Scout.”

He shook his head. “But you ain’t real, are you?”

“Nope,” she said.

“Then why do I keep seeing you?”

“I dunno.” She shrugged and held out the box to him. “You interested in buying some Girl Scout cookies?”

The box was bright green, something called Thin Mints, with a picture of happy young girls bagging up leaves in a backyard and the words “Girl Scouts” above them.

He half laughed and half sobbed. “What am I supposed to buy ’em with? I got nothing. Nothing!” He began to weep.

She gave another shrug. “It don’t matter if you got no money anymore, mister,” she said softly. “You still got a soul, don’t you?”

He snorted. “If you say so.”

She gave him a shy smile. “Then that’s what you pay with.”

She held out the box again, and the picture on it had changed. The sky was now dark and angry. Lightning flashed above the girls, whose laughing faces were now contorted with effort and pain as they struggled to lift the bag of leaves. The bag seemed massively heavy, like it was filled with boulders. He could almost hear their grunts and moans in his head, as the driving rain lashed their faces and they threw themselves against the bag, again and again.

He saw that the words above the scene were changing too. The letters in “Girl Scouts” were melting and reforming, until they now spelled out “Guilty Souls.”

A train roared in on the express track and a blast of hot air hit him straight on, but all he felt was a chill. He looked again at the girl, who still had the same sweet smile.

“Who are you?” he asked, trembling. “Are you the Devil?”

The question made her giggle. “Right now, let’s just say I’m being a Girl Scout.”

She giggled again, and another chill went through him. On the edges of that giggle, he’d distinctly heard the overtones of screams.

“Okay,” she said in a soothing voice, “never mind the Thin Mints. Maybe you’ll like these here; they’re called Savannah Smiles.”

The box turned from green to yellow. Instead of the struggling girls, now the picture was of two smiling Girl Scouts above an image of sugar-coated lemon cookies. An inset picture showed a stately southern mansion and the words “Celebrating One Hundred Years of Girl Scouting.”

His eye was drawn to something moving on the cookies. The granules of sugar were beginning to vibrate. They writhed like static on a TV screen and made a white noise that grew louder and louder. He covered his ears but it didn’t help. The sound was coming from inside him.

He was about to cry out, when the noise stopped and the static cleared. The picture was different now. The inset mansion had become a shabby row house, and the two Girl Scouts were gone, replaced by a scene in a living room. A boy of about three or four was singing and playing a toy guitar as two beaming parents looked on from the sofa. It was the living room of his earliest memories, and he recognized the boy as himself from old photos. But those people sure weren’t his parents.

His daddy was a nightmare, the scariest person he ever knew. He’d get drunk all the time and beat Ellis’s mother, then go after Ellis and his two sisters for good measure. They lived in terror of him for years, until, when Ellis was seven, he died of a heroin overdose. But instead of feeling relieved, Ellis’s mother went crazy. He and his sisters got taken away from her and put in foster homes. No way this ever happened, he thought. No way!

“Way,” said the Girl Scout. “It did happen, once. Just like that. You got the memory of it somewhere; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to show it to you.”

She looked down modestly. “Anyhow, you keep those Savannah Smiles in mind.” She held out the box to him again, as its color turned from yellow to aquamarine. “Maybe you’ll like these here; they’re called Dulce de Leche.”

The scene on the box was a soccer game, with two Girl Scouts, one black, one white, cheerfully pursuing a ball. Below them were the words “Dulce de Leche” and several caramel-chip cookies, which immediately began to spin.

They went faster and faster, the caramel chips blurring together in a dizzying pattern that made him queasy. He looked away and saw that the white girl in the picture was fading. The black girl was coming closer and closer, until she filled the frame. But instead of a little girl, now she was a woman, an achingly beautiful woman. The words beneath her read “Dulce de Lesley.”

His breath caught. There she was, just like she’d looked the first moment he set eyes on her. The only woman he’d ever loved. The only woman who, incredibly, loved him too. Even as he ruined her life.

And for what? So he could be free to destroy himself and she wouldn’t be there to stop it? Why did he have to hurt her? Why did he, so casually and unfeelingly, inflict pain on the one person in his life who mattered?

He couldn’t bear to look at her now. “Oh, God!” he wailed.

The Girl Scout’s giggle was a cute, bell-like sound this time, with no shrieking overtones. “I love it when people say that, I really do,” she chuckled.

The box changed again, from aquamarine to red. The picture was of a group of young girls paddling canoes on a lake, above an image of peanut butter cookies coated in chocolate and the word “Tagalongs.”

“You’ll like these,” said the Girl Scout. “At least, you used to.”

The cookies morphed into vinyl records as the lake became a crowd of people at a concert. The canoes disappeared, and the girls who were in them turned into teenagers dressed in tight jeans and skimpy halter tops, like the groupies who used to follow him around. They stood with their arms out toward him, while, in his head, their voices called, “Me! Me! Pick me!”

“Mmm, Tagalongs,” said the Girl Scout.

He remembered how disappointing it was, never the way he’d fantasized, how he was too stoned most of the time anyway. But he still kept doing it because it was there.

He was very open about it with Lesley. He told her it didn’t mean anything, and it didn’t. He was just being honest, even as he knew it was killing her. But he couldn’t stop.

“Hey, don’t worry about that stuff,” the Girl Scout said, interrupting his recriminations. “What’s done is done and you can never change it…” She paused and gave him a sly glance. “Most of the time.”

He stared at her. “What do you mean?”

The sly look turned sweet again. “What I mean is, check out these cookies.”

The box changed to a light blue, and the scene became a group of Girl Scouts around a circular table. On it was a large white bedsheet that they were decorating with paint brushes, making colorful patterns around the word “beautiful.” Underneath the picture were some light brown cookies and the name “Trefoils.”

It didn’t stay that way for long. The bedsheet slipped away, revealing a conference table in a plush office, while the girls became men in suits sitting around it. They all looked toward the man in the middle, a man Ellis recognized, as the letters in “Trefoils” rearranged themselves in an anagram, spelling out “Leo Frist.”

It was his manager, the son of a bitch! The motherfucker he’d stupidly given power of attorney when he had no idea what he was signing. The man who’d stolen every penny Ellis ever made.

“These Trefoils got another name,” the Girl Scout informed him. “Maybe it’s even better. They’re also called Shortbread.” She cracked up laughing, a raucous, dissonant sound. “Get it? Short bread?”

He felt an anger inside him that he hadn’t felt for years. He had a sudden, murderous urge to leap up off the bench, grab that skinny Girl Scout, or whatever she was, by her scrawny neck, and throw her right off the plat…

But he couldn’t move. He glared at her in helpless rage as she shook her head and wagged the tip of an admonishing finger at him.

“Don’t be silly,” she teased.

“What do you want from me?!” he wailed, as the words were drowned out by a train coming in on the local track.

She smiled her biggest smile yet. “Just the price of one box of Girl Scout cookies,” she said placidly. “Now if you didn’t like those Trefoils, mister, that’s okay. I’ve got one more kind to show you.”

The box turned yellow, as it had for the Savannah Smiles, because these also were lemon cookies, lemon sandwich cookies. The scene showed a group of happy Girl Scouts and Brownies running through the woods.

His mouth went dry and his heart rate increased, even before the picture began to change, because he’d read the name below it and he sensed what was coming. The cookies were called “Lemon Chalet Cremes.”

The ground beneath the young girls heaved violently. It tossed them into the air like pieces of paper, as trees swayed and fell all around them. He could hear their terrified shrieks in his head.

Something massive was coming up from the ground, its pitched roof emerging first, followed by the rest of the structure. Ellis knew what it was, even before it had blasted its way up to completion. It was the yellow ski lodge in Stowe, Vermont, where he and his band had stayed twenty-five years ago.

They weren’t there to ski, which none of them could do anyway; they were there for the Mansfield Rhythm & Blues Festival. It was the first time Ellis had ever been to such a place, three feet of snow piled up on the sides of the roads, mountains that looked like giant cakes with pine trees, and he thought, Lesley would love this!

The walls of their apartment back in Jacksonville were filled with paintings she’d done for art class, and they were all scenes like this. It would be perfect. And besides, damn, he missed her.

He called home and told her she had to come up there. Convincing her wasn’t easy, especially about leaving two-year-old Kwaneesha with her parents, but he could always be gently persuasive if he talked to her just right, and he’d already bought the plane ticket. She reluctantly agreed.

“Don’t worry, baby, you’ll see,” he said happily. “This is gonna be great.”

One hour after her plane arrived, the snow began to fall. And once it did it was relentless, the biggest blizzard the area had seen in a decade. This was good news for skiers, but bad news for that evening’s performance, which was cancelled. They’d all be stuck in the chalet until morning.

Ellis didn’t mind. He warned the rest of the band not to disturb their privacy; then he took Lesley upstairs and they made sweet, sweet love into the night.

But once she fell asleep, he found that he couldn’t, not this early. He lay there in the dark listening to her soft breathing, and he wondered what the guys were doing downstairs. After a while, he decided to find out.

Now, as he stared at the chalet on the front of the cookie box, Ellis could see through the snowflakes into the large, plate-glass window. He saw a younger version of himself coming down the stairs to an empty living room.

He couldn’t stand to remember what happened next. There were sounds of raucous laughter coming from the garage, so he went over to the connecting door, opened it, and looked inside.

There they were, his three bandmates, who froze at the sight of Ellis in the doorway. Rudy, his drummer, and Jamal, his bass player, were leaning against the rear fender of the rented Jeep Cherokee, freebasing. His keyboard player, Devon, was standing over them. When he saw Ellis, he remarked, “Shit, man, the principal’s here.”

“So what?” muttered Jamal as he went back to what he was doing.

“Why are you guys in the garage?” Ellis asked.

“Why?” said Devon. “Why are we in this motherfuckin’ cold garage? ’Cause you told us, ‘No drugs in the house,’ didn’t you? Not as long as Mother Teresa is here.”

He and Devon had never gotten along. In fact, Ellis had been thinking about firing him once the tour was over. The man could really play, but he was a grade-A asshole, and to prove it, he kept talking.

“If you got eyes to join us, bro, then stick around and wait your turn. But I wouldn’t if I was you. Not if I had hot little Miss Goody Two-Shoes up there. I’ll bet she’s just waitin’ for you to come back and slip her some more of that ‘privacy.’ In fact, if you don’t want to, I will.”

So Ellis punched him in the mouth.

Devon fell backward into Rudy, who stumbled against Jamal, sending the piece of aluminum foil and its precious cargo flying in the air. It would have been comical, except for Jamal’s scream as he gaped at the sleeve on his right arm. It was on fire.

Whatever material Jamal’s shirt was made of was not fire-resistant. In fact, it went up like tinder. They all stared in horror as the flames began to engulf him.

Jamal thrashed about, bouncing off the Jeep, beating his flaming arms against himself. Ellis saw that another fire had started near the rear of the Jeep. There must have been gas fumes in the garage, or maybe it was a fuel leak, but suddenly, the whole place was about to go up.

He dove back through the door, into the house, desperately trying to get upstairs to Lesley, wake her up, get her out of there. He was halfway across the living room when the Jeep exploded.

The blast blew him through the plate-glass window, twenty feet out into a snowbank. Just before he lost consciousness, he could see that the whole house was ablaze.

He’d survived by a miracle, with only three broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and multiple cuts from the glass, none of which had hit major blood vessels. Everyone else, including Lesley, was dead.

He looked at the Girl Scout now with tears streaming. “Why did you show this to me?” he sobbed to her.

“’Cause it’s your chance, mister; you got a choice to make. Each kind of cookie is a time you can go back to, just like you were then but knowing what you know now. You’ll have one shot at making things different. So think about it. Which cookie do you want to buy?”

He considered it. Not the Savannah Smiles; what could he possibly do as a three-year-old to change his toxic parents? The Dulce de Leche, well, that was out too. It would’ve been incredible to meet Lesley for the first time again, but he wouldn’t have changed a thing. The Tagalongs were not even worth thinking about, and as for the Trefoils, he was never smart enough, even today, to deal with people like Leo Frist. No, there was only one choice, really.

“If I go back to the chalet,” he asked the Girl Scout, “will it be in enough time to stop the explosion?”

“It’ll be in the afternoon, a little while after you get back from the airport.”

“Okay, that’s the one I want,” he said.

“All right, then, good choice.” She held the clipboard out to him. It had already been filled in. It read, “One box of Lemon Chalet Cremes. Price—One soul.” He took the pen from her and signed it.

There was a brilliant flash, and, suddenly, he was standing in the driveway in front of the chalet. The snow was just beginning to fall, so she hadn’t lied.

He remembered now; this is where he’d been. He’d come out to the equipment van to get one of his guitars when the snow started, so it wouldn’t be left out there. Lesley was up in their room, unpacking.

But he could make things different now. He could leave the guitar in the van, because he’d be driving it. He and Lesley were going into town, and they were checking into a hotel.

He’d been surprised the first time to see that there were still rooms available, even during ski season. They’d told him that people wanted to rent ski lodges. Well, not him. Not Lesley. Not today.

His heart pounding, he began to walk up the driveway toward the chalet, rehearsing what he’d say to her, stunned by the incredible fact that he was actually going to see her, to be with her.

And she’d love the idea of a hotel. She never liked being around those guys, anyway.

He was just starting to smile when, abruptly, the earth seemed to open beneath him. He felt himself falling into blackness.

He landed with a thud on something very hard and dirty, and his cheek struck cold steel. He looked around him and saw that he was on the subway tracks.

How did…? He struggled to get to his feet, and in that instant he knew. He knew why the Girl Scout looked so familiar.

It was because all of this had happened before.

An uptown Number Three Express sent him into oblivion.


* * *


Ellis McKenzie balanced his small, battery-powered amp on top of the turnstile with one unsteady hand as he swiped his MetroCard with the other. He stuck the card between his teeth and pushed through, clutching the amp and taking care that the rotating bar behind him didn’t smash against the guitar on his back.

A wave of hot air hit him in the face as he made his way toward the station platform. It was only eight a.m., but it was already a hundred degrees down here. By noon it would probably reach a hundred and ten.