State of Misfortuneby S.E. Rindell
The woman coming up my walkway moves with a heavy swagger, as if the path is actually a suspension bridge instead of a strip of poured concrete. Her movements are liquid and swishy, but she’s moving fast, the hips of her super-tight jeans alternately rising and falling in a hurried twitch. I am amazed by how easy it has been – all it took was a little ad in the local PennySaver and a plastic sign staked into my front lawn, and almost immediately I had all sorts of types trekking all the way across town to come and find me amidst this sprawl of suburban jungle. As I watch, it occurs to me that the woman’s swagger is somehow a product of the thick heat. That maybe when you live in the humidity of Pensacola, you are obliged to move that way – that you don’t just move through this kind of air, you have to sort of swim through it.
When she gets within range of the front door I let the curtain drop and resign myself to peeking at her through the eyelet holes. I usually do this – that is, I let them stand there for a second and wait at the door while I size them up. It helps a lot later on when they get inside and I have to second-guess everything they want me to say. If I get a good enough feel for them before they get inside, it allows them to really believe me when we get down to the mumbo-jumbo part. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I’m really good at acting the part. Sometimes, I do a little bit of an accent, just for effect. I don’t do anything Cajun or Creole or anything, and I’m certainly not stupid enough to try to out-voodoo the South. The accent I do is a faintly Russian, eastern-European sort of thing, on account of my vampiric skin, ink colored hair, and vaguely slanted eyes. I think people buy into it like they do all things – they see the familiar shapes of something they know from movies and television, and swallow it down whole without asking any questions. In America, pretending to be a gypsy is just a matter of imitating Hollywood.
I look this woman over, tight jeans, blousy white men’s shirt tied into a feminine knot at the waist, metal-spiked heels that could probably double as a murder weapon. Her cluttered jewelry gives her the air of a low-budget consumer. Her hair is red and curly, though the tight wind of the curls make me think it is probably a perm. A patch of her chest reveals a stippling of golden freckles; the apples of her cheeks are round and sun-kissed. All that is missing is the leopard-print handbag and heavy eyeliner, and she’d look like another Hollywood stereotype – something straight out of the movie Thelma & Louise. Of the two, she’d be the Geena Davis character, flashy and footloose, and maybe even a little bit blissfully ignorant – like a teenager who swipes her mama’s lipstick and gin without the slightest hesitation. But then I take notice of her mouth, which right now is set in a firm line. I decide against using the accent today. She knocks again, more firmly, and I leave the window to open the door. Like always, I take a deep breath and hold it while I turn the knob.
It’s easy at first; she swaggers straight into the room and does all the talking. Ideal. She has a twenty dollar bill out at the ready, clutched in her hand. She hands it over to me in a business-like manner. I tuck it away in a cigar box while she prattles on, disclosing the current details of her life in a matter-of-fact tone. But then I catch onto to what it is that she wants me to do for her; the secret she wants unraveled. I freeze in apprehension. It’s a typical problem – probably even more typical than ever in this town. There is a baby on the way, and then, of course, there are Ray and Joe; which one of them was it? Look lady, I say to her, there are doctors and official tests for this. She tells me that, unless she wants to appear on an episode of Jerry Springer, this is not an option for her. This is not what I do, I protest; I read the future. You want me to tell you about the past. Which, I silently add in my head, is something you should already know about.
She sighs and gets up from her chair. She doesn’t look at me, but instead moves around the room in irritation, fingering all the knick-knacks on the mantle, brushing her hand over a crocheted doily on the back of an armchair. I start to worry that she’s working up her nerve, that she’s about to ask for her twenty back. Suddenly, she lifts her head and looks me straight in the eye. The future, she echoes back at me. I nod. Okay, she says, which is it gonna be?
I blink in confusion. Huh? I ask.
The baby, she replies in a prodding tone, boy or girl?
This is a surprise. I am silent for a moment and the room falls very still. It feels like gravity is pulling us more thickly to the floor. Then suddenly I move; I break the thick stillness. I cross over to her side of the living room and put my hand against her belly, leaving it there for several minutes until my palm is completely hot.
Girl, I say authoritatively, retracting my hand. I don’t know why I said girl; I guess I just like little girls better. When I was carrying a child, it was a girl; the doctors told me so. But again, that was back in Vegas. A billion lifetimes ago.
Hmm, a girl, she says in a low murmur. She is looking at me with a privileged, knowing smile. I panic a little bit inside. Is that patronizing amusement I see? Has a doctor already told her the sex of the baby and right now she’s just testing me? But no, I calm myself, besides the fact that she doesn’t seem the type to go in for a lot of prenatal exams, she can’t possibly know yet. No one can. It’s too early. She’s not even showing.
Joe once said he always wanted a little girl, she says, fully lost in her own reverie of remembrance. You know, some men just love to make little princesses out of their daughters. This is good, I think to myself. Keep her talking. Get over this little awkward scrape you’ve gotten yourself into. I ask more questions about Joe. She relaxes and falls right into chatter, going on as if she’s catching up with an old friend. According to her, Joe is a Boy Scout. Any woman in her right mind would be plum crazy not to try and snap up a catch like Joe, she tells me. Her Southern drawl almost makes plum crazy sound like a good thing, but I try to focus on the meaning of what she’s trying to tell me. She started dating Joe when he fixed her car and refused to take money for the job. She’d had that happen with mechanics before but never with one who wasn’t married already. She goes on and I begin to get a clearer picture of Joe. Working class. Simple. Defined by his blue collar. Shy and easily awed by women. Utterly adulatory when it comes to the woman talking now, sitting in my living room, paying me to psychically solve her problems. He sounds great, but of course, I can tell there must be drawbacks – without saying it directly, she tells me that Joe is spineless, opinionless. Ugly when he cowers under her angry wrath. She is the sort of woman who foolishly craves a good struggle; the kind of woman I used to be. I deduce that Joe is too easily won. She is not in love with Joe.
This means the one she truly loves is Ray. Ray, of course, is everything that Joe is not – in the worst way. Ray is dominating, aggressive, controlling. A salesman by trade, Ray qualifies as white collar, but just barely, and in a way that makes him feel insecure about it. Still, she points out, Ray makes for a better breadwinner and he likes to give gifts. He excites her, redefines what she means when she says she is a woman. He doesn’t treat her too badly; only when he gets angry and she promises me that it takes a lot to get Ray angry. You just have to be careful not to spill anything on his convertible Chrysler Sebring, a car he calls “his Kitten.”
Stop, I shout out suddenly. The woman falls silent. I will help you, but it will require a little bit of a ritual, and you will have to help. She nods, compliant. I’m not sure if she really believes I know how to diagnosis the paternity of her baby, but either way she looks relived that I have finally agreed to try. Will this cost extra, she asks, reaching for her purse. No, I tell her, waving her off with a hand, this is what you came here for. I have no idea, now, what’s just come over me. We go to the kitchen, where I pull a pomegranate out of the refrigerator. Immediately, little droplets of perspiration begin to bead up on its waxy crimson-brown skin. I step on the flip-lid of the trashcan and pull out a handful of chicken bones from last night’s dinner. We go out into the backyard. I’m improvising, of course, but I feel inspired – almost legitimate. I saw something on PBS about women in the Sahara Desert predicting the number of children they will have with a pomegranate and the fact that there happened to be one in my refrigerator seems auspicious. Not that I believe in any of that stuff, of course. But some days the elements are such that I just feel better about what I do. The chicken bones have no great purpose; I’ve just grabbed them out of the trash because they make better stage props. I use a thighbone to draw a giant circle in the black soil of my damp backyard. I always meant to plant something back here, but after moving I just never had a chance to get around to it. Now, perhaps, I’ll have a couple of pomegranate trees. I hand the woman the cold, round pomegranate. She looks at me, questioningly.
You must strike it hard against the soil, so it splits open, I instruct her. This much is right, according to the PBS special. She continues to hold the pomegranate, cupped in her hand, her delicate wrist turned up to the sky, looking expectantly to me as if she is waiting for me to give the signal.
Smash it down – hard, I say impatiently, as if my first instructions were not clear enough. She nods, and reaches up high in the air to bring the pomegranate hurling downward. It hits the soil with a thud and cracks open, spilling a few seeds here and there about the circle. I crouch down and inspect the soil, pretending to read some sort of mystical message there. I trail a few lines through the middle, drawing what look a little like early hieroglyphics. Finally, I rise and straighten up to a standing position, brushing the wet clingy soil from my hands.
Joe, I say firmly. The child you carry belongs to Joe.
I wait for my words to sink in. Meanwhile, my mind reels, baffled by the bizarre nature of what I’ve just done. Not just the weird ritual I’ve concocted, by the final diagnosis I’ve given. It sort of violates my code. Just don’t screw with anybody’s life, I’ve always told myself. People want to be confirmed, not changed, I often remind myself.
Why have I taken Joe’s side anyway? I don’t even know these men by anything other than a couple of secondhand descriptions. Maybe Joe’s a total wife-beater. Somehow, I know he’s not. Just like I know that what I’ve told this woman won’t stick. She doesn’t want to hear that Joe is the father of her baby; she wants a reason to foolishly resign herself to the domineering clutches of Ray and call it fate. I look at her pretty, cherubic face closely, and suddenly I hate her. In fact, I want to scream at her, throw her twenty back in her face, and punch her in that beautifully pregnant belly. What some women wouldn’t do to be pregnant with the child of a gentle, loving man, and here this bitch wants to throw it away for the worst reason – because that sort of life would be too nice. I think of my own marriage; the casino manager who winked at me when he checked my ID after I’d won big at the slot machines. How quickly he impressed me, and how I let him put a ring on my finger before the ink on his last divorce was even dry. How things were after it all turned sour, and how I couldn’t bear the thought of keeping a baby that had been conceived by brutal, unconsenting force. I still know I would have hated my daughter every time I looked in her face. I know it for a fact, just like I know the sky is blue today, and that it will be blue again when I wake up tomorrow. I just don’t know what kind of person that makes me.
The woman is quiet now, my words still sinking in. She staggers over to a rusted iron lawn chair, and lowers herself into the seat carefully. She is moving differently, as if she is suddenly officially pregnant now, and before it hadn’t been for real. Awkwardly, I strike up some small talk in an attempt at conversation. I pretend to admire her nails, and ask her where she got them done. She smiles faintly and tells me about “her girl,” giving her manicurist a good recommendation. We gently segue into how nice it will be to have a little girl, how fun to buy the frilly clothes and the feminine toys and how of course it will be easier because everyone knows little girls are not as difficult to potty-train. Then we tell a few stories each about how we gave our own mamas hell as we were growing up and I even tell a few of the real stories from my childhood, instead of the fake ones I’ve been handing out lately. For a few moments, I think again of how she looks like Thelma in Thelma & Louise, and how that would make me Louise. I briefly consider recommending that she abandon both men and come away with me instead and together we can ramble about the country busting balls and feeling the freedom of the road in an old Cadillac convertible coupe. For whatever reason, this thought makes me deliriously happy. I wonder if I am in love. Just when I’m about to voice my suggestion out loud, the woman rises up out of her chair, and brushes down the wrinkles on her stretchy blue jeans.
Well, I guess I’ve gotten my twenty bucks worth, she says, with a kind, sad smile. I feel my heart sink. She heads for the backyard gate, takes a few steps, then pauses. By the way, she calls back to me, what’s your name?
Suddenly suspicious, I feel my skin bristle a bit.
Why, I ask.
Because I want to know what I’m going to name my little girl, she replies in a flippant, good-natured tone. I look at her, considering for a moment.
Cassie, I say, on impulse. The lie prompts unnecessary elaboration. Short for Cassandra.
Cassandra it’ll be then, she says, and disappears through the backyard gate. I listen to the hinges squeal as it shuts and remind myself of a long list of things I need to oil. Nothing stays dry for long in this swamp-ridden state.
Cassandra was the name I’d picked out for my daughter, when I still thought there was a chance that I could face her, when I still thought maybe I’d find the grace to be her guide in this fucked up world. But in the end, there were no guarantees that I’d be able to find strength like that, and I didn’t think I could do it. What can I say? I just knew it wasn’t in me.
The woman must have come on foot; I listen but I never hear a car engine. Oh well, wherever she’s gone, I know the trajectory of her path has been set already, and despite my dumb attempt to play God I haven’t served to alter it one bit – which, given my code, I guess I should be happy about. But I also know that she might look back and remember this visit someday, and instead of making her feel justified, it will only make her feel horrible. People don’t like to think they had choices, or that the world is infinitely open-ended. It makes them feel lost, nauseated even.
But maybe she won’t think of me at all. She’ll probably end up having a boy, and find out that she’s given twenty bucks away to a total fraud. I’ll just be that con artist depraved enough to pull chicken bones out of my trashcan and pretend a pomegranate can predict the future. I can picture her telling Ray about it, thinking it will be funny to him, that it will make him laugh. Ray will yell at her for letting herself be hustled and criticize her stupidity, and later he’ll apologize by telling her that he didn’t mean to call her stupid exactly, just naïve. I guess that would truly be the best thing for her. But then, maybe she’ll have a girl. After all, no one knows the future. Not for certain.