the fortunate ones
At a small wooden table in the back of her tent, the fortune-teller consults her tarot deck. She couldn’t care less what it means. But she enjoys lazily shuffling the broad cards, holding them in her hands and looking at the beautifully-drawn characters. The Lovers. The Magician. The Fool. She smiles as her fingers caress their worn edges. With her other hand, the fortune-teller fingers a cigarette, twirling, but not lighting, it. She will smoke it later, when she has reason to. Beyond the thick drapes of her tent, she can hear the madness of the boardwalk carnival, the joyful shouts and tinny mechanical music, but the sounds are muffled and she feels at peace within her private space. She glances at her watch. It is after midday.
Tucking the cigarette back in its case, she throws some colored veils over her head and puts on a few more rings. A few salted peanuts chased with a swig of warm diet coke and a stick of gum, and she’s ready. Ready for more of the questions she’s been fielding all morning, those hopeful voices desperate to know what their futures will hold. Always the same questions, never the ones they should be asking. Questions that they already know the answers to deep down. She pushes through the curtain and into her booth, cracking her gum and blinking in the sunlight.
The boardwalk is busy but today no one is stopping at her tent. She is situated along the main route, and from her perch between symmetrical velvet drapes she can see a fairly large expanse in either direction, including a slice of the glittering ocean. The fortune-teller shuffles for a few moments in silence, watching the crowd. Parents corral their over-stimulated children, men from eighteen to eighty valiantly attempt to win neon-colored stuffed animals for their women. Snacks are gobbled up, spilled on the ground, tread on by hordes of hurried feet. The same scene, day after day. The fortune-teller cracks her gum again. To her left stands a giant man shaped like a bowling ball, stuffing a hot dog into his mouth and providing a large amount of shade for the rest of his family – three surprisingly waiflike children and a bowling ball wife. The wife is wearing a backpack and sneakers and dark brown roots are showing beneath her bleached hair. She looks as though she doesn’t want to know what her future will hold. The fortune-teller’s gaze moves past them to a group of pre-teens pointing skeptically at her tent. She raises an eyebrow at them, and they laugh and turn away. The fortune-teller shuffles her deck extra hard. What are these kids doing at the pier by themselves anyways?
Her roving eyes land on a family.
A harried-looking young woman in a floppy drawstring hat is barely holding on to her squirming son, who is clutching a massive cloud of pink cotton candy. His mother, efficiently licking her left thumb, attempts to wipe it off his cheek but succeeds only in smearing it further. The cherubic child is not deterred and aims the fluffy pink mountain at his face again. His sticky hands wipe at his tiny white shorts (what a mistake that was) and blue and white striped sailor shirt. It can even be seen in his golden locks, as he brushes the sparkly pink sugar from his eyes. Grabbing fistfuls, he laughs delightedly. What fun! And look how it dissolves to syrup in his hands. He stomps his tiny feet in excitement.
The fortune-teller leans forward slightly, her eyes locked on the boy. Carnival games whirr and ding, children scream as the rollercoaster shudders around another bend. Such pure joy is spread across the boy’s tiny features. Did she ever look like that?
She closes her eyes and for a moment she can feel her small hand in her mother’s rough one again, fingers spread as her mother reads her palm. Patiently sitting on the threadbare velvet couch they had rescued from a traveling antique show, little legs kicking as long fingers traced lines on her hand. She can see her grandmother’s disapproving face in the doorway, feel the rumbling hunger in her stomach. She hears the echo of her mother’s silvery voice: You’ll know when your destiny arrives. Your fate will find you. The fortune-teller is lost for a few minutes in the images that she has tucked away for years, in the mantras her mother sang like lullabies in her ear.
The young boy’s mother seems to give up, and looks to her husband, who is looking to a gaggle of lotioned and lacquered girls posing for an old-fashioned camera. All bikini strings and pouty lips. The fortune-teller watches the father watching the girls. Does one of them remind him of an old girlfriend, perhaps from his youth? Is he wondering what she’s doing now, if she ever got married? Does she have a tiny son of her own covered in pink sugar?
The mother sighs, waves her hand. Hello? Your son is turning into a human candy cane.
The father snaps to attention. Picks up his small son, who shrieks in protest. Carries him off to get cleaned up.
“Hey, where’s Clover?” the mother calls after the tangle of retreating limbs.
From the worry on the mother’s face, the fortune-teller knows Clover wasn’t supposed to go off on her own, but she must be at that age. The mother looks hurt. They used to be close, the fortune-teller muses. Maybe they made forts together, whispered secrets, ate cereal out of the box.The fortune-teller sees on her face the sting of being shut out by your teenage daughter after so many years as confidant and co-conspirator. The eyes of a mother unwilling to accept the passage of time. If the fortune-teller knows anything, it’s that time passes whether you want it to or not. She shuffles her deck slowly, the cards falling from one hand to the other.
She watches a young couple munching on either end of a churro, laughing as their cinnamon-dusted lips inch closer together.
Then, closing the curtains of her booth, the fortune-teller steps outside and lights her cigarette. How careless, she thinks, losing your daughter in a crowd, even if she is the type to wander away without warning. A mother should be better tuned to the movements of her children. After all, dangers are lurking everywhere. You don’t need to be a real fortune-teller to know that, and in fact she isn’t. Her red hair is dyed from a cheap box and she toasted her deck of cards with a bic lighter to make them look old. She is from Nevada, and grew up on a ranch.
The fortune-teller kicks at a balled-up foil wrapper and takes another drag. No sooner does the mother disappear down the pier in search of her daughter than the freshly-scrubbed boy and his father return to what appears to be the family’s Designated Meeting Point. Looking around and finding the mother absent, the father leans back on a bench and takes in the scene, holding his son’s small hand loosely at his side. The fortune-teller watches the father side-eyeing the girl she imagined reminded him of his former girlfriend. Blatantly staring, now, as if there is no one else around. As if he doesn’t have charge of the now-squirming child, who has spotted the cotton candy tent again. Little feet already stomping in anticipation of the fluffy delights ahead. Presumably lost in memories, the father does not notice when his son wriggles out of his hand and runs off down the boardwalk.
“Where are you going all by yourself?”
Trusting child that he is, the boy gives a gummy smile and points to the cotton candy tent.
“Well,” says the fortune-teller, pinching his rosy cheek. “That can be arranged.”
Eight-year-old Belle-Anne’s cheeks flushed with the heat, tiny curls of hair stuck to the nape of her neck. The room was dusty and unbearably hot. She and her mother, Celia, were on the bed they still shared, sprawled out on a quilted blanket telling each other stories. They often did this at night, having no one but each other for company. Belle-Anne loved it, loved the tales her mother seemed to spin out of nothing, and she too would try to invent the lives of people she imagined were out there somewhere in the world. Sometimes they would give each other a made-up person and the other had to describe their life. Who were they, where did they come from and what did their future hold?
That particular night, Belle-Anne was halfway through the description of an old woman who kept bees in her hair. She couldn’t stop giggling as she described the hive and the withered old woman who hosted it. She had just collapsed onto the pillows in yet another laughing fit, picturing the old woman carefully combing honey out of her hair, when her mother glanced up at the clock and then vaulted out of bed as though she’d been catapulted.
“Shit, darling, I’ve completely lost track of the time! They’ll be here soon!”
She threw off the white cotton tank top she’d been wearing and started rummaging around in the top dresser drawer where the small lacy things lived. Sometimes Belle-Anne sorted through them and marveled at how thin they were, more delicate than her grandmother’s fanciest tablecloth. She never tired of watching her mother get ready, even when she knew how the evenings would end. When Celia had finished painting her face and strapping herself into various items of clothing, she looked truly otherworldly to Belle-Anne. A creature of rolling hills and valleys, bright light and shadows, all slightly blurred at the edges. Like a clown, except that there was nothing funny about her. Belle-Anne thought she was beautiful.
Climbing off the bed, she perched on a threadbare velvet couch in the corner of the room and watched her mother adorn herself with layer after layer of silver and turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Celia studied her reflection in the mirror, careful to check every possible angle before applying a thick line of waxy eyeliner and several coats of mascara, the latter of which had turned to a clumpy paste. As she pushed a particularly tight ring over her knuckles, Celia looked over at her daughter, as though surprised to find her still sitting there.
“Do you want something, honey?” she murmured as she knocked around the bottles of oil and perfume on top of the dresser.
Belle-Anne silently kicked her legs back and forth on the couch.
“Well,” Celia continued breezily, “I won’t have time to cook tonight so make sure Grandmother fixes you something to eat. I imagine she’ll be back soon.”
Jessie, Belle-Anne’s grandmother, had gone out that morning to pick up a package from the post office and hadn’t returned for lunch several hours before. It was only forty-five minutes into town, but Jessie often disappeared for the day and came home after dark, looking tired but grimly accomplished. Belle-Anne’s stomach was already rumbling but she just pressed a hand to quiet it and hopped off the couch as her mother ushered her out of the room, murmuring about how she needed to check the cards.
“I have a good feeling about tonight, my love,” she said, patting Belle-Anne on the top of her head. “There’s someone very special coming. He has a true appreciation for the psychic arts, according to Mary. Her cousin is a part of a group in California and he’s the leader. He’s here visiting for a week, so I told her they had to bring him tonight! Just think, this could be it. Our chance to get out of here. Mary says he owns a huge house and he lets people come and stay if their energies feel right. So it has to go perfectly.” She paused. “You have to follow your destiny when it finds you, my darling. You never know when it might show up.”
She spread the cards out on the table and lit some candles around them. Belle-Anne lingered in the doorway watching her mother’s practiced actions, as she had so many times before. Celia needed to be alone for her ceremonies.
“Okay, shoo, sweetie,” Celia said sharply. With a small push to her daughter’s upper back, Celia closed the bedroom door firmly behind her. Belle-Anne wandered off through the sweltering house in search of her grandmother.
“What’s your name,” the fortune-teller asks as they walk hand-in-hand toward the colorful tent with the spun-sugar clouds.
“Calvin,” the boy replies shyly.
Calvin. A nice name. She pictures herself calling it out as she sets the table for dinner or, looking up at oncoming storm clouds, calling him inside from playing out in the yard.
Calvin is soon absorbed in a swath of purple cotton candy at the back of the fortune-teller’s tent. She has closed up for the day, and is sitting across from him on the ground eating a small box of raisins. After a few minutes, she places Calvin on a red velvet-cushioned stool with gold tassels and disappears behind a curtain to change into jeans and a black tank top. She zips the jeans up over jutting hipbones, pulls the tank top down over apple-like breasts. Her body is taut, compact, nothing more than is needed. She wears no jewelry save a thin silver ring encircling her right middle toe. She peers into the small oval mirror hanging on a hook, regards the lines already forming on her barely thirty-year-old skin. Her long red hair hangs down to her waist and her eyeliner is smudged around her tired eyes. It’s been a long week. A long life. But no matter. She has a purpose now. You’ll know when your destiny arrives. All these years later, and she still feels a surge of anger when she thinks about it. As if a path will just appear before you and all your troubles will be solved. But she knows better. You have to make your own destiny. She thinks about Calvin. She will be a better mother, a real mother. The kind of parent every innocent child deserves. A parent who is there. The fortune-teller emerges from behind the curtain and sits down next to Calvin, popping a few raisins into her mouth and chewing slowly.
“Do you like the beach?” she asks him softly, running her long red nails through his tangled curls. “I live right on the beach. We’ll have to move, of course, but we’ll find another place near the ocean. You can build sand castles and I’ll stop smoking.”
She looks around the small tent and wonders if she’ll ever be back. It’s a thought with no nostalgia attached, no emotion for her chosen profession. Predicting other people’s futures all day. People who want to be told what will happen to them, who are too weak to make something happen for themselves.
The fortune-teller closes up the tent quickly, locking the rusty metal chain looped through the canvas and dropping the key in her purse. She picks up Calvin, shifting him to one arm. Her hurried actions are causing him to sense something is not as it should be, and he begins to squirm, his wide eyes filling with worry. She reassures him that everything is fine. We’re going to find your parents, she explains, they’re nearby. They’re looking for you and your sister. She bounces him slightly, combing her nails through his curls again. He blinks those huge eyes, placated for now. The only trick will be avoiding the parents, but she knows a back way. The fortune-teller holds Calvin close and slips through the throngs of people like smoke.
“Watch the fire,” Celia instructed. “Tell me what you see in it.”
Belle-Anne felt the heat saturating her face. She looked hard but all she saw were the red-orange flames licking the night air, sparks shooting up occasionally and the charred wood that broke apart beneath them. She looked back at her mother, whose eyes were now closed. On her face was an expression of utter joy.
“I don’t see anything unusual,” she ventured, but Celia wasn’t listening. Belle-Anne had seen this look on her mother’s face many times before, and so she turned away and wound a path through the other people at the gathering, making her way toward the outside of the circle.
Clustered around the fire were women of various shapes and sizes. As she walked, Belle-Anne put them into categories. The ones that were swelled up like colorful balloons and the ones shaped like straight lines, bending this way and that but never breaking. The ones with big clouds of poufy hair and the ones whose hair was slicked down, plastered in waves to the sides of their faces. The ones whose faces were painted so heavily they looked unreal, and the ones whose wan faces were blank, wanting to be colored on. The ones who had come with dates and those whose eyes flickered and flashed toward the single men, those leather-clad, tattered, scattered, scruffy men who Belle-Anne always tried to avoid making eye-contact with. Belle-Anne catalogued the various types of costume jewelry the women were wearing, which of the men had silver belt buckles, whose dark eyelashes were the thickest.
On a rickety wooden table off to the side sat various dusty bottles and glasses, and on it her mother had also placed a stale loaf of bread and some cheese. Belle-Anne tore off a piece of the bread and began gnawing on the crust, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear.
Celia was now seated cross-legged on a large flat rock by the fire reading palms. Belle-Anne inched closer to listen; her favorite part of these gatherings was hearing the fortunes her mother told to her guests. Her mother’s friend Mary sat on the bench across from Celia with her cousin and a man Belle-Anne had never seen before.
He was leathery. That was her first impression, leathery and stretched-looking, as if he didn’t have enough skin. His eyes looked sunken, and he was wearing a pair of rattlesnake fangs on a chain around his neck. Belle-Anne heard Mary’s cousin introduce him as Hank, saw her mother take his hand in hers, bright-eyed, like a puppy getting a treat. Celia spread Hank’s fingers out slowly and ran her thumbs across the rough surface of his palm. He watched her face. She murmured something that Belle-Anne couldn’t hear, but his cracked lips parted to grin and Belle-Anne noticed he was missing a tooth. Celia continued the reading for the next twenty minutes. Belle-Anne lingered by the fire, watching and picking up what words and phrases she could. New connections. Prosperity. See a large amount of… Freedom to… Additions. Usually, Celia projected her voice so that her other guests could enjoy hearing the insight she imparted, but for this reading her voice was soft and low.
Eventually Belle-Anne realized the reading had ended and the two were now standing and talking. Hank was looking at Belle-Anne as he spoke to her mother, and Belle-Anne thought her mother looked nervous. She watched as Celia leaned up and whispered something in the man’s ear. He chuckled lustily. Grabbing Celia’s backside, he flashed another grin at Belle-Anne before following her mother away from the group. Belle-Anne kicked at a rock and shivered despite the heat radiating from the fire.
She looked past the fire pit to the ranch, a silhouette against the darkening sky. Her home. She had only ever known this empty, dusty place, full of her mother’s predictions and promises of a better life far away. Of an ocean paradise where they would both live, happy and free. Eventually her mother returned to the gathering and began shaking more of her special dried-leaf powder and who-knows-what-else mixture onto the fire, swaying as though she was in a trance. The leathery man named Hank was leaning against a stump behind her. He removed a toothpick from his front pocket and jammed it between his incisors.
Later, after everyone had left, Belle-Anne walked over to the fire pit and poked the cold remains with her finger, trying to find a sign or a message in them, but the ash just blew away into the night.
The fortune-teller and Calvin have reached the far end of the pier, where the wonders are stranger. They pass a mermaid swimming around in a tank just slightly bigger than her body; her fins and tail press disturbingly against the glass and her submerged lips look blown-up and distorted. She has a desperate look in her eyes, and the fortune-teller’s own eyes meet them for a second before she looks away. Next, they pass by the funhouse, where round light bulbs flash and slightly maniacal music plays. The smiling man with the fat roll of tickets winks at the fortune-teller, who quickly ducks around the side of the arcade.
They are almost at the rickety wooden staircase leading down to the sand and parking lot beyond, where the fortune-teller’s rusted green car is parked. She’s visualizing the quickest path to it, already thinking about how she will buckle Calvin firmly in his seat. How to best keep him secured, should he realize that he isn’t being taken to his parents after all. She’s planning out the route she will take home, all back roads, of course. Her mind should be frenzied but instead she feels calm and organized, as if she’s been preparing for this moment her entire life.
Destiny. The word keeps repeating in her head. She had lost her mother to that man with the rattlesnake skin and the missing tooth because of it. Stop crying, her mother had snapped as she stuffed flowy skirts and turquoise jewelry into an old duffel bag, Hank’s hand circled possessively around her waist. This is my destiny. Wait for your own to arrive.
The fortune-teller is halfway down the staircase when she hears a shriek from above.
The fortune-teller pauses for a split second, as Calvin twists around in her arms and begins to wail at the sound of his mother’s voice.
“No,” the fortune-teller says, attempting to sooth the sobbing child through the biting surge of anger she feels. “Shh. It’s okay.”
The fortune-teller looks ahead to where her car is parked, just waiting to whisk them off to a new life. She imagines reaching the car, getting in, the mother receding into nothingness in her rearview mirror. Maybe Calvin would be miraculously calm, maybe he, like she, can already feel her fingers gently washing the salt and sand out of his hair. And yet even as the promise of that life glitters like the ocean beside her, she sees it receding with the tide. The mother is moving towards them very quickly; she has already seen the fortune-teller, and there would undoubtedly be a scene and a chase and the chances of the fortune-teller getting away with the boy would be very slim. She’d have to ditch her car, change their names; the police would never stop looking for the boy. Their beautiful life would unfold on the run. As much as she burns to rescue this boy, the stability of their life together is looking less and less possible. Besides, there will be other moments. Other children. Other paths, other destinies to choose from. And this mother, look at her worried face, the way her body propels itself toward her child. Listen to the way she screams his name. Maybe she is one of the good ones, after all.
The fortune-teller turns around and waves at the mother, beckoning to her. The mother rushes down the steps, and the fortune-teller hurries up to meet her. When they come together, the fortune-teller is the first to speak.
“Is this your son?” She manages to sound both worried and slightly accusatory.
“Yes!” The mother reaches out breathlessly and pulls Calvin away from the fortune-teller. He wraps his arms around his mother and buries his face in her neck. The mother stares at the fortune-teller. “What are you doing with him?”
“I’m so glad you saw us,” the fortune-teller says. “I found him wandering around by himself. I was just going to get the police.” She gestures to a police car idling in the parking lot.
“By himself?” The mother looks skeptical, and the fortune-teller feels a twinge of annoyance, of regret, for not taking off with the boy when she had the chance. Yes, she wants to say, while you were off looking for your other lost child. Instead, she fixes her face into a sympathetic smile.
“Yes, by the cotton candy tent. I looked around for a parent but I couldn’t find anyone.”
The mother lets out a sharp exclamation, and hugs Calvin tighter, digging her hands into the back of his tiny striped shirt. “Thank you so much,” she says finally. “I can’t believe this happened. Thank goodness you found him.” And then, after a pause: “I’d like to pay you in some way, is there anything I can give you? And, I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
The fortune-teller hides her smile.
“Angie,” she replies graciously, extending her hand. “And no, nothing, although that’s very kind of you. I’m just glad he’s alright.”
“Yes, the mother says, a sob choking her voice. “So am I.” She shakes the fortune-teller’s hand warmly and then heads back to the boardwalk, arms wrapped tightly around her son. The fortune-teller watches them walk away for a minute.
And then she follows behind, back to her tent, to all the people who need her to show them the way.