The Fortune Tellers

Our dad owed a lot of money to The Wrong People. That’s how this started. He couldn’t have paid them back in a hundred million years and they were going to kill him. In a fit of desperation, he offered up, “My daughters can read fortunes and make them come true.”

My dad named me “May Marie” and my sister “June Marie.” So, where he came up with this bout of creativity, I’m not sure. It was utter bullshit. I mean, it’s how fortune telling works in the movies, not in real life.

But we were young, so this didn’t piss us off. We were relieved to have a way to help our dad and not yet old enough to understand what a terrible thing it was to put us in this position in the first place. And who knows why The Wrong People would have believed this was even remotely possible? I can only guess that maybe they were as desperate as our dad.

The Wrong People hooked us up with a guy named Paul, who was built more like a piece of furniture than a man. If you’d laid him on his side in your living room, you could have used him as a couch. We never learned much about Paul. He knew how to walk so that the floor never squeaked under him and he moved with a kind of grace you don’t normally see in guys that size. Before we did anything, he ate–usually a steak cooked pretty damn rare–and what we didn’t eat, when we ate with him, he finished.

The sum total of words I heard him say were “I’m” “we’re” “here” “sit” “shut” and “up.” He never said “shut up” to June or me. That was reserved for the people we went to see. He seemed to like the teenage chaos we brought with us everywhere–the gossip about crushes and which teachers were stupid and can you believe who said what seemed to comfort him. I always wondered if he didn’t come from a family of sisters.

I don’t know how old Paul was. To us, he seemed old like our dad was old. But our dad was the age I am now–thirty-seven–when he got in this jam. And thirty-seven seems too young to have the burdens my dad and Paul had. He handled his gun with confidence, but with caution. Maybe he’d been in the military. But maybe not ours. I thought he had an accent. June wondered how, from the six words he ever said, I could tell.

So, this is how it worked. Paul would park outside our apartment building or our school, depending on what time it was, and call one of us.

“I’m here,” he’d say and, no matter what, we’d go and get in that car. Then we’d drive all over the city, into the shittiest neighborhoods you can imagine or up some of the nicest drives you’ve ever seen. Paul would park his car and he’d lead us into our destination. I know, looking back, that he must have picked the locks or busted down the doors, but in my memory, it’s always very quiet when it comes to Paul.

June and I would wait right by the door once we got inside. We’d already checked a million times to make sure that we had our cards, but this was the point we checked again. We’d nod at each other, just to reassure each other that we had them. Meanwhile, Paul was sneaking through the house to collect our querent. He’d come back with the querent either walking ahead of him at gunpoint, or tucked under his arm like the Sunday paper.

“Sit,” Paul would say to the querent and he would shove him–they were almost always men–into a chair, usually at the kitchen or dining room table. “Shut up,” he would bark next.

One of us would sit across from the querent. Usually June went first. She would pull three cards.

“Oh, I see you just came into some money. Your family is thrilled. You intend to use it to benefit them,” she would say, kind of making up a story based on the pictures on the cards. I leaned over her spread. And then I put my three cards right on top of hers.

“You have a lot of nerve,” I might say. “You think you can fuck whoever you want, but your wife better never stray. Too bad for you we came along. She’s going to take a lover and spend your money on him.”

Rarely, very rarely, the people we gave new fortunes to squared things up with The Wrong People and we went back and gave them another new fortune, one that overrode the one we’d given them.

This went on for years. I was in junior high when it started and I was a senior when it stopped. Here’s what happened. As usual, Paul came and picked up June and me. We went to a restaurant, ate, and then made our way out into the suburbs to a house we’d never been to before. We went inside. Paul went to grab the querent and we went to the dining room to get ready.

“Paul!” we heard a voice from the other room shout out. “How are you, old friend?” Then a man thin and wiry, but as tall as Paul came out with him into the dining room. He was not afraid until he saw us. “Oh, man, are those the witches? No, Paul, you have to understand, I can get them the money, I just need a little time.” But Paul just put his enormous hand on the man’s shoulder and pushed him into the chair.

June turned three cards–the Hanged Man, for a man who is trapped, the Five of Cups, because all is lost, and the Ten of Swords, because there’s going to be a murder. June hadn’t ever gotten a spread for someone’s current fortune that was so dire. And before I could turn over my cards, to rewrite his fortune–and I sometimes wonder if we were there to deliver bad news, or if we might have given him a better fortune and he just freaked out before he could see what cards we would pull–he pulled out a gun and shot Paul, and then turned toward us and shot June.

He aimed the gun square at me, right in my face, but before he could pull the trigger, Paul shot him, dead. Good thing Paul’s friend was such a bad aim. Both Paul and June were hit, pretty bad, but Paul and I were able to get June to the car and I got them to the hospital, where they were stitched back together. They were both still back with the doctor when my father arrived.

“How could you let this happen?” He screamed at me as soon as he saw me. He ran over to me, both hands raised like he might strangle me when he reached me.

How could I let this happen? I was seventeen. My sister was fifteen. A hitman regularly carted us around town and we couldn’t say ‘no,’ or our dad would die. Let. As if I could ‘let’ anything happen. As if I had that kind of control over my life.

“Fine,” I glared at him. “It’s too dangerous. We’re done.” I let that sink in and then I turned away from him. By the time he got over to me, he was deflated.

You suspect, when you’re a teenager, that your parents don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But when you’re confronted with the full truth that they can’t rescue you, that they don’t know any better than you how to fix things, it’s a terrible blow. You lose something between you that you can’t ever get back. Even if you suspect this is the great secret of adulthood, it doesn’t prepare you for knowing it.

And so it was on me to save my family from this terrible life our dad had given us. I knew Paul wouldn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer than necessary. He didn’t want to talk to the police and gunshot wounds would certainly have been reported to them. And I knew there was no way my dad would let the police talk to my sister. Fate had bought me some time.

I waited by Paul’s car for him to show up. Sooner, rather than later, he lumbered over, still wearing his hospital gown.

“I’ll drive,” I said. “Just get in.” How could a man who only spoke six words argue with me? He got in. “Point me to them.” I said and he did, motioning at the lights which way I should turn.

“Here,” he said, quietly.

“Paul,” I said, trying to muster all the authority I could, “stay in this car. I’m going in there to fuck these guys up and I don’t want you caught up in it. Promise me.”

He nodded. As I got out of the car, I noticed he was sweating and grimacing in pain. He’d left before they gave him any pain killers.

I went into the bar we had parked in front of, a dingy rat trap that, even from the curb smelled like smoke. I checked to make sure I had my cards and I pushed open the door.

They all turned to look at me, every man in the bar, and with the exception of a working girl near the pool tables, they were all men.

“You lost, little girl?” One of them hollered. I reached into my deck and pulled out a card. It was The Devil. I held it up for them all to see. And, watching their faces, I saw it quickly dawn on them who I was.

“I will pull three cards for the fortune of this organization, unless I have your word that my father’s debts up until this moment are forgiven and my sister and I will be forever left alone. Right now, your fortune is your own, to make or lose how you wish, but you know, when I turn three cards, that fortune cannot be undone unless I undo it.” I paused to let that sink in. “Here is your first card, gentlemen–The Devil. You know that can only mean betrayal. You will never be able to trust each other, because you’ll know everyone is looking for a chance to sell the rest of you out. You want me to go on?”

“I’m not afraid of some little bitch,” one of the men said.

“Shut up, Dima,” another snapped. I pulled a second card.

“Justice,” I showed them. “I hope you have good lawyers.”

“Fine,” Dima snarled. “Your father’s debts up until now are cleared. You and your sister are free to go. But good luck keeping your father’s nose clean.”

“I didn’t ask for you to ignore the things he does wrong in the future,” I said. “I expect my sister and I will not be dragged into it. I expect, no matter what my father offers, for you to keep your word to me.”

“Give me the third card,” Dima said. “Face down, slide it along the bar to me.” I did as he asked. Dima took out an enormous knife and drove it through the card into the bar. “Someone go get a hammer and some nails.” I heard later that the card was so securely nailed to the bar that you couldn’t even get a corner of it up.

When I got back to the car, where Paul was waiting, I flipped through the cards and saw it was the Five of Swords that was missing–the outnumbered man who defeats his opponents. I laughed when I saw that. I was their fortune all along.

I picked out three cards for Paul–The Fool, for new beginnings, the Knight of Pentacles for seeking and finding his fortune, and the Ten of Cups for a happily ever after. I handed them to him face down and said, “When you’re ready, you can have this.”

I don’t know if he ever flipped them over, but I never saw him again.

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