The Number Room

world web The Number RoomI sat at a table in a windowless restaurant on Bayard Street, eating shrimp lo mein. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Write the numbers on fortune cookie fortunes!” I told my friend Tom. Behind us 70’s soft rock music played.

“What?” Tom replied.

“The numbers on those little slips of paper, inside fortune cookies,” I explained. “After the fortune—or sometimes on the other side—you see ‘Lucky Numbers’; then there’s a series of numbers, like 4, 19, 26, 31, 42. Usually they’re in ascending order.”

“Oh,” said Tom. “I never exactly noticed.”

Michael Martin Murphey was crooning “Wildfire” above us:

Oh, they say she died one winter

When there came a killing frost

And the pony she named Wildfire

Busted down its stall …

As we were leaving, one of the waiters approached me. (Tom had walked out the door and I was putting on my coat.) He was a young man with shiny black hair. “You really want choose numbers in fortune cookies?” the waiter asked.

“Yes, very much,” I found myself replying.

“Then come Wednesday, 3 p.m.” He wrote swiftly on a small piece of paper: “3 Mott 4F.”

“I will be there,” I answered.

Entering the musty lobby of 3 Mott Street, I found the 4F bell. I pressed it, then heard a faint vibration in the door. When I pushed, the door opened. I climbed four flights of a decrepit stairway.

The waiter—now in his civilian garb—opened the 4F door. (His shirt was blue instead of white, and the top button was open.)

“I knew you come,” he said.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Call me How,” he said.

“How?”

“Yes, How.”

“My name is Sparrow.”

How nodded, as if he already knew. He led me into a small kitchen where liquid was simmering in a blue enamel pot. Silently he ladled some into a glass. “Drink this,” How said, handing me the glass. “This help you choose numbers.”

We entered the living room, and sat on the sofa. I waited for the tea to cool, then drank it. It tasted like a mixture of nutmeg, onions and baby powder. As I drank the tea, I looked around. On an end table next to me, black-and-white photographs were displayed in plastic tortoise-shell frames. In them, Asians stared out unsmiling.

When I finished my drink, How led me to another room. Inside, an ancient Chinese man sat on a stool, wearing a royal blue gown decorated with white suns and moons. All the walls were covered with numbers, written on 5-by-7-inch sheets of paper. The numbers were in no order, but I noticed that none was higher than 59.

The old man gestured at the walls filled with numbers, and spoke swiftly in Chinese. How translated: “A number is like name. Your name may be Frank, but also may be 36.” The aged philosopher paused, then continued. In his hand, he held a dart with a rubber suction cup. “Thirty-six very fine name. Better name than Frank!”

The old man laughed, almost silently. Suddenly, he threw the dart. It landed on the number 21. He lifted up a clipboard on his lap and wrote “21” in a shaky hand. “Twenty-one is like beautiful girl,” How translated. “Twenty-one is definitely girl.”