--SOME PEOPLE NEED TO DIE TO FEEL EXCITED
The Fortune Teller
The two runners were so odd together that joggers and cyclists on the path did double-takes, same as when spotting minor celebrities in random locales. The tallest one was bald, with a peculiar, fetus-shaped head and wary, disconnected eyes. The other was short and compact like a modern-day appliance, with more hair on his body than your run-of-the-mill llama. And yet, for their many differences, the pair had a few remarkable things in common, their maleness being obvious and their cache of untold secrets being less so.
One of the runners was a pastor and the other—the tall lopsided-head runner-- a bank executive, who was also covertly a drug addict. The addict’s habit was so long-standing and familiar anymore that it was not unlike a scar you wear below your eye—a wound received brutally during your youth-- but now never see. The addict had even done a few bumps this morning instead of coffee--“moguls” they’d called the miniature domes of white powder in college, and his heart kick-drummed strong for the moment.
They were only on mile three, with fifteen more to go. Their alignment was off emotionally and physically. Thus far their conversation had been awkward and choppy as they tried to fend off feelings of embarrassment for being together at all. At the same time they struggled to find a rhythm to their strides so that they could match pace.
The addict’s name was Preston. Preston was nervous for several reasons: he had never run eighteen miles in his life, let alone on blow, let alone with a man of God, who, even if he was wearing tight shorts and wife-beater mesh tank, was still a pastor. Preston wondered how many guesses it would take the common person to name the pastor’s occupation dressed in such a get-up. Preston thought of all the uniforms he had worn in his life, from boy scouts to a mouse costume for Halloween to a wedding dress because one kinky night his wife had asked him. We all wear uniforms, he thought, depending on the event and which wound we’re trying to assuage or deflect attention from. Halloween really was an everyday affair if you thought about it.
“You okay?” the stocky pastor asked. He ran robotically, but with an efficient use of his limbs. His hair was dry, not a drop of sweat on him anywhere. It was chestnut-colored and wavy, shaped in a mullet. Preston did not know it was permissible for pastors to have such a hair style.
The pastor’s name was Adam, same as the planet’s first man. Adam meant mud or earth or soil, in Greek or Hebrew, Preston remembered from Sunday school classes. God made man from the earth and then gave him a straightforward no nonsense name.
Adam felt cursed. Partially he blamed his parents. His father had been a Baptist Minister while his mother championed the choir. Adam was led to the Lord before he was old enough to understand if that’s the route he actually preferred. And then there was the issue of his name. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground.” His name, its earthy essence, annoyed Adam from the very beginning. It felt burdensome, like a weight vest he’d been forced to wear even when swimming. It seemed impossible to live up to such a name. The only one worse would be Moses. The inability to meet the name’s expectations left Adam feeling perpetually dirty. Others saw something different, but he knew, and the fact that he did ate away at his inner confidence much the way a parasite feasts on its host, becoming visible only through its eventual physical wreckage. Adam grew delirious. His equilibrium was shot. He had heavy night sweats. His vision was blurry and spotted. When he closed his eyes he saw squiggly particles floating across his retina and then other shapes and forms, those of boys he knew, posing naked. This war raged on, day by day, ravaging Adam’s sensibility. Living became an exhausting chore, the demands of presenting a false front unbearable. He despised himself. He had not grown up in a hunting family, but occasionally he’d slow down when driving past the little red store with the triple sign shouting, GUNS! AMMO! BAIT! Adam had been raised to be solution-oriented and a weapon could certainly solve his dilemma. Yet suicide was a sin, too. Adam’s head spun and he chuckled to himself, thinking about his predicament, his preposterous charade.
“You all right?” This time it was Preston’s turn.
For a moment Adam had forgotten where he was, what he was he doing. This happened sometimes, actually often, and privately Adam believed it might be the onset of Alzheimer’s, a wicked rebuke for a man so duplicitous. “I’m fine,” Adam said, hawking. “I must have got a bug caught in my throat.”
Preston rubbed his bald head and wished he’d worn a cap or at least had sense to apply sunscreen. The day was cloudless and stern. Beyond the heads of the bushy cedar trees the sky hung an arrogant blue color seen only during Pacific Northwest summers. Sweat trickled down his chest, into his pubic region making him want to scratch.
One morning several months back Lisa, Preston’s wife, had just got out of the shower and was toweling her auburn hair dry when she stepped on his misplaced vial of coke. Preston made up a story about seeing old college friends, how one had presented the tiny cylinder as a belated birthday gift. Lisa didn’t like it, not the story or the drugs themselves, but she let it go until Preston woke up in the middle of the night a week later and did a different vial of powder, half a gram in just two minutes. He hadn’t even bothered going to another room to do it or to turn on the bathroom fan in order to camouflage the sound of his Hoovering the white dust. Lisa clutched the lacy fringe of her bedtime camisole. “Oh my God,” she said. In that first instant, Lisa’s shock wasn’t directly about the drugs, but rather the fact that her husband resembled a bludgeoned victim. Yes, the rims of Preston’s nostrils looked like they had dried toothpaste stuck on them, but an inky crimson flow streamed out of them, drenching Preston’s neck and coating his chest and belly though Preston hadn’t yet noticed.
He didn’t go to rehab. Instead the couple compromised and Preston agreed to attend church with Lisa every other week. That was where he met Pastor Adam, when he got into an uncomfortable discussion about nothing, Adam clasping him on the shoulder or patting Preston’s arm in a way that Preston took as signs that Lisa had spilled the beans. To compensate, Preston mentioned he had been a runner, same as Adam. Preston had almost made the Olympics years ago. Preston had just done a line in the church bathroom, seated on the stall and flushing so as to overpower the snorting sound. Now the drug surged in Preston’s blood stream becoming a living entity independent of Preston, a pit bull baring its fangs through a chain link fence. In a matter of five minutes Preston had agreed to run with the pastor who was training for the Seattle Marathon. Preston didn’t realize what he’d done until he was home that night and sneaking another line. He hadn’t run in years, not even a block. And now he was going to run eighteen miles, with a man of God no less.
They’d met in Duvall, a halfway point between their homes in Monroe and Falls City. The Snoqualmie Trail went as far east as Montana, Adam explained, its name changing a few times in between.
“That so?” Preston said, and it was a feat just to get those two words out. They were on mile five. A sharp needle stitched Preston’s side and made him think of that scene in “Jaws” where the giant shark leaps onto the boat and the captain slides into the fish’s bear-trap mouth.
“You okay?” Preston wasn’t, but he thought he’d slug the pastor if he asked that again. He hawked and spat and picked up his pace, not answering.
Preston’s mother had been a housewife at first, then after her husband died she tried selling baked goods door-to-door around the neighborhood, garden vegetables outside Hanlon’s hardware store with permission from Leonard Sikes, a man with curling white nose hair, gout and a class ring from Pasco Senior High, same as Preston’s mother. “Cucumbers, get your cucumbers! Ten cents each!” his mother yelled, waving the phallic green stumps overhead. When he wasn’t in wrestling or choir practice, Preston was required to go along. He knew many of the customers and since there was no probable means of hiding—what with the wagon full of vegetables, the political campaign-style signs, and his mother shouting like a carnival barker. His humiliation was sealed and, in this and other ways, featuring other forms of shame, Preston was self-taught.
The pastor wore a running belt with small, plastic canteens of colored sports drink. He swallowed hardily, as if it was tequila. He handed Preston the bottle without breaking stride. Preston swallowed but didn’t accept it. He’d forgotten to bring any of his own liquid for rehydration. “That’s okay.”
Adam arched a wooly eye brow. “You sure?”
Preston nodded. He held up one palm like a traffic cop while the other hand fisted involuntarily.
The curbside salesman gig didn’t last long, though, thank God. Anxious and inventive, Preston’s mother moved onto other schemes.
Her first venture was charging people for weather forecasts. These were mostly rich folks from the north end who didn’t trust the inaccurate broadcasters on television (they weren’t yet known as meteorologists, same as janitors weren’t maintenance workers and used cars were just used instead of pre-owned.) Rich people counted on a thick blanket of snow for good skiing and didn’t want to make a trip to the mountain, only to be disappointed.
Preston’s mother suffered from severe arthritis that left her stooped, with a sack-sized hunchback and knobby, twisted fingers. The upside was her ability to detect weather, her joints a Geiger counter whenever rain or snow storms loomed. She developed something of a reputation and earned loyalty from even the most jaded socialites.
Then came the profession that suited her, the one she would be known for, the one that would change many lives, including the boy’s, for the good and bad.
“Your folks live around here?” Adam asked. Preston had been wondering how long it would take for the stupid small talk to come around.
“No,” he said, the word blunt.
“Well that’s a long story.”
Adam held out his hands as if claiming he hadn’t stolen anything. “We’ve got twelve more miles.”
“We do?” Preston said.
“Hey, if you’re not up for it.”
“I’m good. Don’t worry about me.” That’s what he told Lisa, too.
“Whatever you say, chief.”
Preston’s mother had always been a believer in destiny, and now she’d found hers. Yet she knew survival hinged on whether or not she could make a profit from it.
“A fortune teller?” Adam said. This was not unusual, Preston tripping himself up. Why hadn’t he just invented a story? Why had he even started talking about his mother? His running partner was a pastor for God’s sake, and here was Preston, pitting one supernatural arm against the other. But it was too late to back out now.
“She didn’t call it that.”
“Well, what then?” Adam asked, putting an extra foot of width between them.
Except in cases where the customer requested them, his mother abstained from using tarot cards. They made her feel gaudy and cheap, contrived and uninspired. Same with the crystal ball; no matter how long or how hard she stared, Preston’s mother never saw anything other than air bubbles frozen in the glass. She preferred a more modern approach, a far more intimate experience such as cupping a patron’s hands in her palms. She thought of it as a safe spoon position for strangers just starting to get acquainted.
She read her first customer’s palm and confidently declared he would fall in love that very day and be married by month’s end.
“Impossible!” the man said. His eyes were squishy and his breath in the enclosed space gave off the hint of whisky overlaid with spearmint gum.
Preston’s mother puckered her lips and leaned forward, squeezing the man’s scratchy calluses. “It’s true,” she said, and the words blew from her lips like a Monarch butterfly.
The man blinked several times.
“It’s true,” she repeated, making him shiver.
Perhaps she did get a sign that day, or maybe it was ploy, nevertheless Preston’s widowed mother and the man, Frank Stojack, an unpublished playwright and auto mechanic, fell into a spiraling, molten romance. By the end of that June, the pair was married.
Adam thought about his own mother. In the mornings before church she ironed his dad’s shirts and slacks in the kitchen, humming while young Adam sat writing out bible verses to memorize. Often Adam’s mother would fall into a trance and so he’d be free to stare unabated, taking in her A-line dress. With its compressed waistline, pie-shaped upper torso, with the wavy, curtain-effect skirt, the gown became a sort of satin sculpture in Adam’s mind. The young boy imagined the maker of the dress sitting down in front of an easel with all the aplomb of a master painter. The designer might hesitate for a second, scratching his face as he searched his memory for the illustration that had come to him during a dream the night before, and once he’d captured it, he’d take the large pad and begin furiously sketching. If he was so inclined—and if there was enough time for Adam to finish his daydream—the designer would retrieve a bolt of fabric and scissors and cut and stitch and perfect each pucker until his drawn creation became the real thing, fitted now precisely on the frame of his hymn-humming mother.
Imagination wasn’t always enough. On occasion, Adam needed to break through the veneer, test the waters, so to speak, and determine the authenticity of his inner desires. Every so often he was left home alone and during those times he’d sneak into his parent’s bedroom and flip through his mother’s closet, his vision keen and discriminating. Adam’s favorite frock was the speckled blue organza. With a sheath of netting across the shoulders, it was a cross between cotton candy and an Easter egg. He wore his mother’s lavender lipstick with it, her pushup brassiere, a pearl necklace and matching bracelet. If time allowed, he might even curl his bangs. Then, Adam became hostess of a grand party. Everyone in attendance was a friend and each commented on his stunning attire. “Why thank you,” he would say, clasping his cheek or chest and blushing freely.
That night, after his parents had come home, Adam laid awake, staring at the ceiling where a fresco of the disappointed messiah looked back at him. If Adam closed his eyes, he saw nude school boy models. If his eyes were open, he saw the forlorn Christ. He finally got out of bed and, using the blunt point of a paperclip, cut open his skin. The sight of blood was a relief. He watched it bead up, then pool and spill over his wrist. The drops were shy at first, then assertive as they exploded brightly into the thick white shag carpeting.
In the morning Adam, came to breakfast with the tender wound wrapped in strands of torn bed sheet.
“What is this?” his father asked. “No son of mine gets a tattoo.”
Adam’s mother unknotted the bandages with the deliberation of an experienced nurse, like a prostitute undressing a virgin. “But look,” she said, exposing what Adam had done. Her eyes shimmered with moisture. She couldn’t vocalize her pride, not with her husband the minister there, but later she would whisper in the boy’s ear. “I think it’s lovely. What a brave thing to do,” she said about the holy cross he had carved into his skin.
As they approached mile nine the trail swung northward, bring them close to Highway 202. Being that it was a Saturday and being that they had started their run so early in the morning, the road had very little traffic, yet distant stereo music blasted in the air. The music was bass-heavy, hip hop. It bounced through the atmosphere like Morse code you felt rather than read. Adam heard it first, then Preston. The taller of them created his own word set, rhyming “murder” with “absurder,” “twenty street ho’s” with “pimped up gringo’s,” “great tail” with “make bail” and “my little sista’s trippin’” with “see what you been missin’.” It meant nothing, none of it, but during creation, it passed a little time.
Preston’s mother hadn’t necessarily been husband-hunting. Oh sure, she got lonely from time to time, but she wasn’t looking for a financial hand out as some people assumed. On the contrary, now that her first hand-holding prediction had come true, she felt emboldened. She became more ambitious and career-minded. She read, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” She set goals and listed them in florid, cursive writing, the spiral notebook pages torn out with their frilly edges taped to the mirror.
At their wedding, Preston’s mother gave out home-made business cards that read:
The Answers You Need, From the Person You Can Trust
Some cards she tucked in the palms of awkward relatives she’d not seen since the moon landing. Some poked out of the cake plates by the folded tip of a napkin. Many surprised men—and wives--would find her card days later, placed in the breast pocket of a suit jacket or starch-encrusted dress shirt pocket.
The runners reached the beginning of the incline. It was slight, yet Preston’s legs felt leaden from the added strain. Perspiration kept dripping into his eyes, burning. His nose ran. Sweat squiggled into his ears, in between his buttocks. Every inch of him was soaked. How many more miles did they have? “Mind if I borrow a hit of that sports drink?” he asked.
Adam gallantly handed the container over, his expression not changing.
Preston spit the first swallow out. It tasted like century-old tea mixed with urine.
Adam wasn’t one of those that forced-fed unbelievers God. He knew the power of patience. After all, it wasn’t a sales pitch he offered, rather eternal life. Adam tried to be an everyday Joe, unthreatening, accessible, a good listener. Privately, though, he wished he was funnier. On stage, in front of the pulpit, he could make the congregation laugh, but those were jokes culled from various research sources. Entertaining folks wasn’t as easy as it looked, no sir. Adam spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet. Sometimes he surfed the web the entire day and into the night.
Once he got used to the taste, Preston drank three-quarters of the bottle. Greedily, he considered downing the entire jug. “Thanks,” he said, handing it back.
When Adam shook the container it pissed Preston off more than it should have. So what if he’d drunk all of it? The guy had five others.
Preston’s mother would never read his palm. She’d shoo him away each time he asked-- “Go, get out of here!”—like a pest or the neighbor’s dog. She feared seeing bad news. Such a thing was not altogether uncommon in her line of work. In those cases, Preston’s mother had to decide if she should lie and save her customers from undeserved fear and torment, or send them into terrible panic regarding their unfortunate yet inevitable future. She well understood that fibbing could possibly endanger her professional credibility. “You told my sister she would have a long, happy life, and look—she’s been hit by a train!”
Preston’s mother loved her little boy enough to spare him a reading. In his case, she was satisfied learning as they went.
Adam’s mother loved her boy, too. In fact, she was the boy’s best friend. She was soft and familiar and, up until he was well into his teens, Adam might come home from a difficult school day of being bullied and curl up against her downy bosom. She always smelled of cooking scents: rosemary, oregano, paprika, or cinnamon if pie-making had happened earlier in the day. She would smooth his forehead and kiss it there, her palm as hot as his skin. “God loves you so much,” she would whisper, making Adam convulse even harder.
At mile twelve Adam’s pace had not slowed, he was charging hard.
“How fast’re we going?” Preston asked.
The pastor had all kinds of running accessories, including a GPS watch that reported heart rate, location, calorie burn, stride length and speed. It could make a map of everywhere they’d been and anticipate where they were going. All the answers were there in the watch.
Preston’s mother claimed the answers she got came from the bloodstream emanating from the heart. “Its nature and chemistry, that’s all. Heat rises through the skin pores, and these vapors, they’re invisible smoke signals, if you can picture it with me, wisps of a code. And that code is the truth,” she told him, her eyes distended. She had a thick German accent which seemed to slur when she was excited. “A person with—“ she never wanted to use the word “gift” because she felt it sounded hokey, like a breakfast cereal gimmick”—the ability can see what no one else can. To that person the pictures and words are the same as if they’ve been written on a blackboard, you know, like in school?”
“We’re tearing it up,” the pastor said, not even breathing hard. “We’re going seven and a half minutes per mile.”
Adam was thirty-five years old and he needed a race time of seven minutes and twenty-seven seconds to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which was his goal. At the pace they were going, however, Preston would be dead within the hour.
Adam was thirty-five years old and he needed a race time of seven minutes and twenty-seven seconds to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which was his goal. At the pace they were going, however, Preston would be dead within the hour.
“Hey, man,” Preston said, still running, but pulling up some. “I’ve gotta slow down. Sorry.” He tried not to pant so hard, yet he needed air. “Go ahead if you want, I’ll catch up.”
“Nah,” the pastor said. He seemed to be running in place, a carousel pony sliding up and down while the world turned.
“Go,” Preston said, his voice snarling.
Adam took off.
Adam wished he’d started running sooner in life. He wished he’d pursued it seriously. In school he’d never even thought to turn out for track. He had many regrets, and as each one began to float up to be accounted for, he pushed them away and said a prayer aloud, asking for God’s intercession.
Preston watched the pastor sprint on. He thought about stopping altogether. Indeed, he waited until the pastor’s shape was too far away to discern.
His mother was big on platitudes. “Quitters never prosper,” she said. “A stitch in time saves nine.”
The boys in junior high football were so much larger than Preston. He quit two weeks into summer workouts with a broken rib. His mother demanded he continue, but Jack Stojack intervened. “Look at him, will ya?” Jack was a dried-up Irish drunk, shriveled like a happy raisin. “He’s built like a goddamn gazelle, not a footballer. It’s a rib broke now, next it’ll be his neck and when he gets himself paralyzed, how’ll we foot those bills?”
“Quitters never prosper,” his mother said.
Preston did opt out of football, but he remembered his mother’s call for persistence.
He began to pester her about a reading two, three times a day. Instead of a salutation, he said, “When are you going to give me my future?” He invoked issues of fairness. “You’re my mother. You do it for strangers and yet not for one of your own.”
“Well, they pay me, don’t they?”
“Ah, they do, and so will I!”
She slapped him, catching herself halfway through the motion so that the impact was not as severe as it might have been otherwise.
“I’m sorry, Preston, but there’s two things at work here. One: you’re back-talking me. Two—and I’ll just come out with it--I’m afraid.”
He hugged her around the waist, their two hearts bumping into one another with aggression.
“But don’t call me a fortune teller, whatever you do. Sometimes it’s not a fortune I see but the opposite. Sometimes I see mighty, awful ruin.”
She led him to the anteroom in the back of their house which was dimly lit except for the swath of sun that illuminated the banks of the drawn curtain. She told him to sit. She drew up a chair for herself. She told him to shut up and think of nothing but the universe in all its glory, flocks and flocks of twinkling star points.
“I’m getting dizzy,” he teased.
She patted his hand. “This is serious business. If you want fun and games, go and play your damn Pac-Man.”
Not another word was spoken. He saw the universe in a dream. It was one, unending black carpet bejeweled with rhinestones. He flew upon it, ebony wind rifling through his hair and bringing his skin to goose flesh. When he looked down he saw the shells of glowing planets, none of them earth. He could have stayed like this forever but his mother snapped her fingers with a crisp, bat-cracking sound, and he opened his eyes.
“You future is golden,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“What I just said.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
She wrinkled her nose and Preston noticed for the first time that she had a long black hair growing out of the tip of it. He cursed himself for getting distracting by the errant nose whisker. He’d meant to search her eyes. They always held the truth. The eyes either confirmed what a person spoke, or they wavered and withdrew, and if they did the latter then you’d know it was lies you were getting. That’s what his mother had told Preston early on when she was explaining a few tricks of the trade.
His mother stood up. She walked fast. Preston wondered over the length of her stride, the speed of it. Was it exaggerated? Why would she offer him only her back and conceal her eyes unless her eyes had a dark story to tell? Why was she being so evasive if the truth was nothing but good news?
“Mother,” he screamed after her. “You’re lying, aren’t you? Something terrible’s going to happen, isn’t it? Tell me the truth. I want the truth!”
One of the first things Adam learned about the bible was that “The Gospels” meant “The Good News.” The apostles were to spread the good news about Jesus, forgiveness, grace and salvation. That was a key responsibility of all Christians, including him.
Adam wondered about a God that could overlook heinous acts with a simple confession and declaration. That kind of love was unfathomable. Indeed, the good news seemed too good to be true.
And it haunted him that he thought this. Alas, it tortured him that he might likely be the only person on earth to contemplate such a thought.
This fear and confusion slithered through Adam’s intestines, sending his gut rumbling. He stopped running and staggered over the side of the path, gasping, hands on hips. He looked up into the trees and saw a haughty crow staring back at him, its eyes unctuous and bright yellow.
Preston thought he might be sick. Then he thought he needed to pee or do the other. His mind played the tricks his body was asking it to play, and he felt entirely helpless to disobey.
He looked into the chest of a swaying husk of an evergreen tree. The space between branches formed a triangle of perfect white, and Preston imagined it as a mountain of cocaine, pure and plentiful and potent, as well as the end of things.
Just then the brush on the side of the path shook. Tree limbs, too.
A buck staggered out in a fury, its legs springing crookedly, chaotically, with none of the beauty Preston associated with deer. Might it be under pursuit? Cougars were known to lurk in the foothills around Issaquah and Snoqualmie, bear as well.
Preston expected the buck’s trajectory to take it from one diagonal side of the dirt path to the other, but the creature was entranced by a bizarre force, bucking like a rodeo bull, eyes bulging, tongue foamy.
Preston sprinted as it came after him, skipping in jagged prances.
He believed the animal was about to pounce. He heard its suffocated screams, throaty and rust-coated, buzzing but a few feet behind him, the animal’s soupy mouth practically in his ear.
By the time he caught up, the pastor was kneeling on the side of the path in a shaded spot. He was speaking rapidly. Preston didn’t recognize the language. The pastor’s eyes were open, bulging like the buck’s that had attacked him moments earlier.
Preston wasn’t sure what to do, what to say.
He stood for several minutes, watching, listening to chunky sentences of garbled language, trying to determine some kind of cadence, but finding none.
As he made his way down the slope, pine needles crackled.
Sunlight streamed through the breaks in between the evergreen boughs whose limbs now swayed like the robed arms of a choir.
The pastor’s hands had been upraised. Without looking, he reached for Preston.
“Hey,” Preston said. “What?”
Preston took the hand in his. He allowed himself to be pulled, thighs to face, against the pastor. The pastor hugged Preston’s legs. “I’m sorry,” he said in English. “I just need forgiveness.”
The pressure against Preston’s legs forced him to either break the pastor’s grip or kneel. He chose the latter.
“I know you don’t believe,” the pastor said, “but will you do this with me?”
Preston looked over the pastor’s head, over the crest of the path. He thought he heard the buck stomping.
He put his arm around the pastor and awaited the truth.