Monday, April 21, 2014

A Story -- The Fortune Teller's Bad Rap

On a blustery November morning in 1972, Seattle street artist Lizette Karlson ducks into Madame Lora's fortune-telling studio. Lizette doesn't care about the future or the hungers of the old fake. She only wants to get warm, sit down on something besides the sidewalk. This scene is backstory to the novel Adrift in the Sound

A bell tinkled as Lizette stepped out of the Seattle rain and into the old fortune teller’s shop. It smelled of last night's onions and simmering mildew. A white angora cat, curled in a velvet swivel chair looked up, watched the newcomer with bored blue eyes, watched her stamp water from her boots, squinted in disapproval as the intruder softly shut the door.

“Ah. Lovely Lizette!” Madame Lora said and set her teacup on the table she used to read palms and tell fortunes. “Haven’t seen you around lately. You here for a reading or a handout?”

Lizette watched the old woman go to the shop's bookshelves and finger the dusty spines of guides to the occult. She stood silent while Madame straightened boxes of Ouija boards and Tarot cards. The shop was a basement apartment on the edge of the public market. The main room had a sweaty picture window that looked onto the sidewalk and across Lake Union where ferries plied Puget Sound.

As she waited for Madame to take her seat at the table, Lizette studied the framed sketch she’d done of her last year, a close likeness, but she looked for ways to improve it. She saw the lines were lazy, indifferent in their strokes, speaking more about her feelings for the subject, she realized, than her ability as an artist.

She thought about her mother painting in her sunlit studio, her father pouring over manuscripts and artifacts in his study as he prepared lecture notes for his anthropology classes, thought about crying and then feelings of the oppressive silences between them welled up in her chest. She shook her head and dispelled the shadows.

Like a lot of the street kids, she’d slept on Madame’s floor from time to time. She'd only crawled into her creaky double bed once, holding her breath as the silly old woman exhaled garlic and the curdled smell of old age. She’d allowed Madame to rub on her belly and touch her thighs with shriveled, claw-like hands because she'd been so cold and didn't want to face the streets that night. Everybody knew, if you didn't ask too often, the phony gypsy was usually good for a few bucks, if you could stand the pawing.

Madame stopped fussing, wrapped her purple satin robe around her jiggly middle and re-settled her turban. Lizette laid a ten-dollar bill on the table. Madame eyed the money and sat, gazed into the crystal ball before her, then picked up what looked like a salt shaker, tilted it back and forth, lifted Lizette’s limp hand, quickly wiped peppermint oil on her outstretched fingers. Madame took a slurp of tea, before gazing deeply into Lizette’s palm.

by Nancy Diaz
 “Coffee,” Madame said, matter-of-factly, taking a swig of tea and looking up.

Lizette nodded as the old woman dropped her hand, waited for more, felt Madame's silence harden. “That’s it?” Lizette waited to understand what Madame saw, waited for a better explanation, a ten dollar answer. 

Madame crinkled her eyes as if to smile, then repeated: “Coffee.”

“With cream?” Lizette said, annoyed, and shifted sideways in the chair.

Madame Lora snorted, shook her head, leaned toward Lizette. “Not to drink, dummy . . . To work!” She pulled back, smoothed her robe across her lap. “Up the street." She waved her arm in the air, flapping her hand toward the wall. "They need help, a counter girl. One of the coffee shop owners told me that the other day. At the Downtown Rotary Club meeting. I've been in Rotary for years, always work their Christmas parties. Last week, the Vietnamese ambassador spoke, talked about the Communists and the war ending. Very interesting. ”

“I came for you to throw the I Ching, not get a lecture on the Vietnam War. I could get that on the street. I want to know what’s going to happen.”

“Happen? . . . What always happens! What do you think?” 

“But, I . . . " Lizette began to protest, looked in the direction her money had gone.

“Oh. I’ll throw the I Ching. The palm reading’s free. A bargain. I give extra to my best customers.” She winked. “You’re lucky today. I see things.” She pulled a bottle from under the table, splashed amber liquid into her dainty cup, took a pull.

Lizette brushed wispy hair from her forehead, squinted into the room’s dimness to understand. She fixed her stare on the paisley design in Madame Lora’s turban, became entranced, felt the silence, settled into it, picked up the rhythmic tick of a clock, waited.

Finally, Madame rapped three times on the table, retrieving Lizette’s attention. She tossed three Chinese coins, did it five more times. “Your present hexagram shows you are a seasoned traveler who knows that a special kind of decorum is called for when venturing far from home.” 

“I grew up by Greenlake, not far from here,” Lizette said impatiently. "I've been here twenty five years now. I'm not going anywhere."

Madame shushed her, slipped back into her fortune teller’s voice. “You must maintain a yielding nature, so your hosts open doors for you. But inwardly, you know it’s sometimes impossible to discern the true intentions of strangers. I see a large group, mostly men. You'll know when they’re secretly hostile or opportunistic.”

“I know all about men,” Lizette said, crossing her arms over her chest and twisting in the chair. “That’s the problem. I need to figure out where to go. I don't have a regular place to stay right now.”

“Go? My child, any journey is ruled by the twin houses of mystery and discovery,” Madame said, puckering her painted lips like a sea anemone. “Each day is launched on a fresh canvas. Though travel is often a great teacher – and a great equalizer – there’s a definite art to living on the road.”

“Art?” Lizette felt confused. “I'm in the street, you know that.”

“The last time you were here you said you were a housekeeper.” 

“I am. That too. But, look, I’m trying to be an artist,” Lizette said. “Like my mother. She was a real artist, except . . .”

“Except what? I don’t shrink heads, just read cards. I don't have time for a sob story.”

“OK, but if you can’t tell me what’s next, give my money back.”

“What’s your problem?" Madame pouted. “You still owe me from the last time.” 

“You’re not making sense,” Lizette said. 

“Like you would know,” Madame snapped. "Look at you!"
by Kate Campbell
As they sat glaring at each other across the velvet, the sky opened and poured ice and rain. Lizette got up to watch the downpour, needles of rain striking the pavement and bouncing. People hustled past. She could faintly hear the fish monger singing snatches of Italian opera. She turned to Madame, nodded for the reading to continue.

Looking at Lizette, wrapped in a collection of scarves that barely covered the grimy thermal underwear she wore, Madam fell out of character. “Don’t be an oddball. Get some clothes. You can’t run around half naked in your underwear, especially in this weather. I have pants and a shirt in the back. You can have them for a few coins. Cheaper than Salvation Army.” She got up and went into the back.

Lizette took off her boots and untied the scarves on her legs and arms, folded each one neatly, put them in her canvas bag. As she stood there, stuffing scarves, she thought about the trip Madame foretold, and didn't notice a man holding an umbrella watching her through the picture window. Lizette felt a flash of anger when she realized the gawker was surveying her circumstances.She rolled her bottoms down first, mooned the window. Then she turned and faced the glass, lifted her top over head.

A few more people gathered in front of the window and peered into the shop. Lizette pulled the scarves from her bag and waved them overhead, snapped them to release wrinkles and fluttered them in circles, dipping and lunging like a Swedish gymnast. Gossamer pink, lime green, sky blue, Chinese red, burnt orange. She floated the scarves over head and twirled naked around the tiny shop. The crowd grew.

Madame came in from the back, clothes draped over her arm, and saw the faces at the window, went to the drape and pulled viciously until they swept shut. Lizette saw her fury and sat down.

“A time of trouble is indicated for you,” Madame said, imperious, all business now. “I wasn't going to tell you, but the second changing line is the worst. It shows a bird whose nest has burned up and a small child abandoned. Something bad is going to happen.” Lizette gulped and gripped the chair seat to keep from shaking.

“I’m ready for the shirt and pants,” Lizette said, dully, as if addressing a maid.

Madame Lora handed her a blue and white flannel shirt and a pair of jeans across the table. Lizette put them on, pushed up the sleeves and hoisted the loose pants, puffed out her belly to hold them up, then sat and laced up her hiking boots.

“Go up the street.” Madame stared into the orb’s milky center. She saw Lizette's future, saw the calamity, and it made her eyes water, a tear rolled down the side of her wrinkled nose. Face stiff, voice flat, she directed: “Ask for a job and your journey will begin.”
by Kate Campbell
Lizette gathered the straps of her canvas bag and stood. Madame came from behind the table, arms open. Crushed to Madame’s lumpy breasts, Lizette bent down and kissed the old gypsy’s forehead, on the spot where she imagined her third eye.

 Madame whispered, "Be careful, Sweet Pea." The bell above the door tinkled as Lizette stepped into the chasm that was her future.

Adrift in the Sound, is the story of Lizette's journey.