ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Road Most Travelled By," a story by James Kincaid

I don't have a girlfriend. But I do know a woman who'd be mad at me for saying that.
Mitch Hedberg

Love is like a virus. It can happen to anybody at any time.
Maya Angelou


“I know just what you’re thinking.”

“What the hell?”

“I mean... I know just what you’re thinking.”

“That you’re a terrifying creep?”

“That’s a good one.  I mean, I have this feeling that we’re tuned in together, you know.”

“No.”  She edged her butt leftwards on the barstool, not toward him.

This wasn’t going the way they said it would in class.

“You feel like Chinese?” 

He had no idea what she meant but didn’t want to appear rude or, just as bad, dorky:   “Sure!”

She looked at him in a way he couldn’t decipher, but then he often couldn’t decipher looks.  Words either.  But he was used to it, had learned to cope.  No, he hadn’t.

Knowing better than to say anything, he did:  “So, you’re fond of Chinese –the Chinese?”

Perhaps she smiled at that, looked a little like a smile.

Smile or not, she was very pretty, much more attractive and, for all he could tell, sophisticated than the women he usually met at this sports bar.  He usually met no women at all at this bar – or any other.  But, as his friends kept telling him, “Don’t give up, Ben; it’s just a matter of time.”  Up to now, it hadn’t seemed like a matter of time; it had seemed like a matter of no women being interested.  Maybe his luck had turned.

As it happened, the Chinese she felt like was food.  Fine by him.  The funny thing was he’d never had Chinese food, maybe the only person around anywhere who hadn’t, apart from very poor people, of whom there were so many, and why did he think of that depressing subject right now? 

The place wasn’t too far from the sports bar, turned out.  They walked along, mostly in silence.  He tried to think of things to say, but truth was he was a little surprised, a little spooked by the route she took – alleys, twists, darkness.  But then there they were, a restaurant – of sorts.  Pretty dingy, the dinge not altogether hidden by the low-level lighting.

The menu was in English, half of it, and there were 47 combinations available, very reasonable too.  As it was all the same to him, he decided to go for something in the middle, number 23 or 24, that would be, make it 24, moo goo guy pan.

He started to order, then realized his mistake.  Wait for her.  He was sure she hadn’t caught his slip.  She said something to the waiter he couldn’t decipher, so he said, “Me too.  My favorite.”  Forget moo goo guy pan.

Both his date – he decided that’s what she was – and the waiter stared at him. 

“I just asked where the Women’s was,” she said, but not icily. 

“My mistake.”

“You thought I said “moo shu pork,” right?”

He laughed.  Neither his date nor the waiter joined in.

To cover his error:  “Good idea.  I’ll join you – in the Men’s.  Not jointly.  Then we’ll be ready to order – after.”

The waiter was visibly annoyed, blocked his way out of the booth for a moment, several moments.  That was odd.  This guy was almost baring his teeth.  Weren’t these people supposed to be patient, at least inscrutable? 

But he made it to the Men’s, which was a little embarrassing, as he proceeded, by habit, to a urinal, only to discover he had no need of one.  So he faked it for 30 seconds, which seemed reasonable, washed his hands, and returned.

His date and the waiter were there, apparently waiting for him.

“Or...“ he began, not knowing here he was headed.

“I’ll have number Four, steamed rice, tea, and double fortune cookie, fortune cookies served as appetizer” said his companion or date, whose name he hadn’t caught – hadn’t heard, hadn’t asked..

“Me too.”

“I’ll have to check,” said waiter, “on the eels.”

“Maybe there’s been a rush on them,” the woman said.  She and the waiter laughed.

Eels.  Hope they were fresh out.  Or at least out.  Or, worst case scenario, fresh.

Waiter shortly reappeared.  “Turns out you’re OK.”

His date seemed relieved, happy.. 

“If you’re short on them,” Ben whined.

“No, no.  Got just enough.”

“How many eels in an order?” Ben asked, before he could catch himself.

Nobody answered, which was just as well.

Waiter vanished, then reappeared in four seconds with fortune cookies, two.

“Open your cookie,” she said.

“That sounds raunchy.”

“Yeah.  Open your fucking cookie.”

“OK.  It says, ‘Advancement will come with hard work.’”

“How true.  Wanta hear mine?”

“I don’t know.  I’m still trying to absorb the advice I got.  Maybe I’ll try it.”

“Hard work?”

“No, just the advancement part.  What they really mean is ‘Advancement comes from dating the boss’s daughter.’”

“Am I the boss’s daughter?”

“You could well be.”

“Are you dating me, Ben?  It is Ben, right?”

“Ben’ll do.  No, it’s Ben.  Let’s say I am dating you, the boss’s favorite daughter.”

“And you expect advancement?”

“Why else would I date you, comes to that?”

“I see.  And what can I expect from all this dating?  Can I too expect advancement?  Are you the boss’s son, different boss?  Will dating you bring me advancement of the right sort, the sort to which I have become accustomed?  Or should I date many, play the field, forget you altogether.  I so want advancement, but not just any old advancement.  I crave the sort which is suited to me, and only me. Can you guarantee me that by sleeping with you, otherwise unthinkable, I will find my dreams? 

“Ah, as for you advancing, I can answer all your questions with confidence, ignoring none of your understandable concerns.  Yes.  In ways that matter most.”

“I have spiritual needs too, you know.”

“I took those into consideration.”

“Ignoring the physical?”

“Precisely.  I mean, no, both, physical every bit as important, balanced like seals on a seesaw.”

“Balanced?  That’s disappointing.  I expected you were disguising the blunt physicality of all this by faking spirituality.”

“I admit it.  Rather, it’s just the reverse.  Nothing really physical, not bluntly so, just spiritual every minute.”

“I’ll advance toward spiritual perfection.”

“Well, no, perfection is unattainable, and you wouldn’t like it anyhow.  But you’ll accrue more and more of the spiritual, lay up for yourself treasures where thieves do not break through and steal, moth and something do not corrupt.”

“That sounds good.  A vault.  Mine says, ‘The road to success is always under construction.’”

“I never thought of that before.”

“You should have done.”

“It’s a tough one, really, meant for those who are not going to panic just because they are faced with a labor-intensive project, a puzzle.”

“A poser.”

“Yours should have said, ‘People will like you better if you stop puzzling over fortune cookies and words like “construction.”  Your cookie should say, ‘Disregard messages that contain nouns.’”

“All sentences contain nouns, you know, or pronouns.”

“How about, ‘Watch out!  Run!  Don’t Shoot!’”

“Back to my puzzle, Benny Boy.  I think it means that women have it tougher, that you, on the other hand, can find success by way of your pecker, which you had no part in obtaining.”

“Though the maintenance is not easy.  But you’re right about a man’s route to success – and with the boss’s daughter.”

At this point the eels arrived.  He decided he’d fill up on rice, which he started to do, losing track of the laborious conversation.  His date had not, picked it right up.

“No, we were wrong to limit your success to daughters, considering the range of authority available to you by way of your well-maintained whang.  By flashing it before men senior to you, shaming them, wowing them, and...”


“Promising that you won’t use that against them, will never reveal their inadequacy, will keep your lips and your fly zipped.”

“So long as they give me what I want.”

“A shot at the big time, a seat at the table, a ride on the power train.”

“Which won’t happen for you because your track is under construction.”

“Road, not track.”

“I think these fortunes are metaphorical.”

“I need to hire some poor shits to repair the road before I skitter on to success, right, making sure the construction people are competent, which means no women need apply.”

“Right.  No, no.  I didn’t mean that.”

“Yes you did.  You are a master of the game.”

“Or caught in it.”

“There’s no difference.  So, here’s the plan.  You marry me and force your Daddy (not mine) to take me into the firm as a senior partner.  That artfully reverses the usual course of things but doesn’t really violate your cookie, Ben.”

“Daddy is devoted to me, will do as I say.”

“Naturally, so our wedding will clear the debris, allow me what I want, which is immediate and undeserved success.”

“And me?”

“You’re my steam shovel, Benny. Be satisfied with that.  They also serve who only stand and wait a while for directions on how best to serve.”

“No man could aim higher—nor no woman neither, it comes to that, though that has nothing to do with me.”

“Ah, Ben, but it does!”

“Well, Jill, you ready for desert?”

 “You tiring of our lively banter, Benny?”

“It’s not that.”

But it was that.  He was exhausted, wanted just to go home.  He was used to that, going home after yet another failure.  Failure was what he had grown accustomed to, and right now it didn’t seem so bad.

Then he glanced at Jill, thinking to inaugurate a get-me-out-of-here prelude.  But she looked so different now, somehow no longer smart-assed and scary, more like sad.

“You OK, Jill?”

“Thanks, Ben.  I guess I am.”

“You know what I was just thinking?”

“Yes I do.”

“Well, I’ve stopped thinking it.  Your place or mine?”


Along with several academic and non-fiction books, James Kincaid has published about thirty-five stories and some novels: A History of the African-American People by Strom Thurmond (co-authored with Percival Everett), Lost, You Must Remember This, and Wendell and Tyler (a new adult trilogy). He has taught at Ohio State, Colorado, Berkeley, Southern Cal, and is now at Pitt..
This is his first appearance in Offcourse.

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