Instead of posting one of the seven unfinished stories I’m still wrestling with (they are winning), I’m going to just tell you what happened to me recently. Maybe this little distraction will help dislodge the dam from the other stories.
Every word of what follows is absolutely true… as I remember it.
. . . .
Traffic was unusually heavy during my commute home last Thursday. While waiting for light number 12 to turn green, I saw a hand-made poster held to the base of a metal street light by strips of silver duct tape.
In bold block letters someone had written, “Spiritual Adviser: One Free Question”. A phone number was printed along the bottom of the sign. I took a smart phone photograph of the sign and continued on my commute. I forgot about the event until I noticed the image on my phone.
Alone in the kitchen over the weekend, I rehearsed my introduction speech. “Hello, I’m Todd. I saw your advertisement, and I’m calling to ask my one free question. Is now a good time?”
Idiot, I thought. Drop that last line. You just asked your one free question.
“Good point,” I said out loud. I tapped the number into my cell and touched the green call circle.
“Hello,” she said. She answered on the first ring, as if expecting a call.
I imagined the voice belonging to a women in her late 40s. Her accent was formed from the smoke of incense, from veils blowing to form rainbows with out-of-order colors, and from midnight music played by firelight on instruments handed-down through generations of Europeans.
In my head she wore dark, layered clothing with over-sized sleeves, several necklaces that cling against each other and earrings that swing in response to the slightest head movements. She was born in Budapest, or Prague, or maybe Armenia. I listened for gypsy-related background noise, as if I knew what that meant.
“Hello,” she repeated, in a delicious thick accent.
I couldn’t speak.
“Who is this?”
My rehearsed speech had left me.
“Hello,” I said, as if a robot.
“Hello? Who is this?”
Her accent became thinner, and more of a blend of different dialects. My mind remained blank. I went stupid. I felt like a kid again.
My rehearsed speech came back to me in disjointed chunks. I remembered something about a call, a sign, and a free question.
“Sofi? Is this you,” I heard myself ask.
I asked myself the same question. Who the heck is Sofi? Gather it up man! Concentrate!
“How did you get my number,” she asked.
The eastern European accent was replaced by one that reminded me of a friend from Boston.
“Is John there,” I said.
“John. Is John there? This is a friend of John’s. I’m John’s friend. A friend of his.”
I had panicked. Where are you going with this, idiot! You’re a grown-aged man for crying out loud, I told myself. You think on your feet for a living. When she says, “Sure. Here he is,” then what?”
“What do you want? How did you get this number,” she pressed. “Who are you?”
“Uh… I may have the called the wrong number. I probably did. Sorry.”
“You are not going to hang up until I find out how you got my number.”
Lady, the entire city has your number by now. That’s what I wanted to say. I wondered if the advertisement had been a prank. Maybe she didn’t know about the sign. My call could be one of many.
“I don’t actually have your number. I dialed it by mistake. This is a mistake. I’m sorry. Good bye.”
“Wait. How do you know John?”
She’s still on the line, I told myself. You haven’t blown it – yet. Be calm. Think. Forget John. Just tell her you’re calling for a free physic reading. That’s it.
“Who… is… this?”
She was losing patience with me, but too stubborn to hang up. She had dropped all dialect or accent. She could be from anywhere. She is just a woman in the Carolinas with dirty clothes and dishes, a house to clean and bills to pay.
“Wait. I need to tell you a story,” I said. “Give me five minutes.”
I thought I told you to think!
“I visited a fortune teller one summer,” I said, in one long multiple-syllable word.
“I was thirteen. It was my favorite summer. My favorite summer of my life. It was full of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, writing, drawing and skateboarding. I had begged for years to visit a fortune teller – spiritual adviser, but Mom wouldn’t take me. That summer on vacation, she did.”
“She never showed. The fortune teller I mean. I sat on her front porch for at least twenty minutes. I knocked, at first timidly. My second, third, fourth and fifth knocks got progressively louder. I looked in the small glass panes of her door. I walked around the house and looked in windows.”
“I saw lights on inside her house. It was warm and smelled of wild herbs and wine, I’m certain of it. I saw a small round table between two chairs made of dark wood and exotic upholstery. On the table was an over-sized deck of cards and a handkerchief. A crooked candle was in the middle of the table. The candle was lit.”
I heard music, but I didn’t know if the melody came from my memory or from the open phone line.
“I know she was in there somewhere but she refused to answer the door. The fortune teller wouldn’t let me in. The sign out front said she could tell my future and my past.
“That was my test. I wanted her to guess – to know – about my past. I wanted her to tell me things that I already knew.”
“You went there for the wrong reason,” she said.
“Yes. No. Maybe.”
Silence. I finished my story.
“In the parking lot, my impatient mother motioned me back to the car. As a strategic move on her part, Mom kept the engine running. I held up five fingers. Just give me five more minutes, Mom. She threw a cigarette butte out the cracked window and blew the horn.
“I cupped my hands around my face and looked one final time through the keyhole in the front door. The horn sounded again. Just as I took my hands away and started to walk away, I saw a shadow move across the keyhole.
“I looked through the side window again, but I saw nothing. Mom laid into the car horn and I almost tripped on the porch rug running back to the car.”
After about thirty seconds, the voice on the other end of the phone spoke. “That’s sad,” she said.
“Mom said that was a sign that I wasn’t supposed to do such things. I promised her I would never go back.”
“Then today I found you, Sofi.”
Tell me anything and I will believe it, I thought. Please tell me what I need to know. Are you real? Please tell me you’re real.
“Just answer my one question and I will never call you again. Please tell me what I need to know.”
“You’ve yet to honestly answer anything I’ve asked you,” she countered.
Please tell me you’re real, I thought. Confess. Please tell me you knew that I was going to call you today. You answered the phone too quickly not to know. You expected me.
Just like your mom knew. Knows. You are her daughter, aren’t you? You’re the daughter of that fortune teller I nearly met when I was thirteen. I feel it, I said to myself.
“At least I know you can’t read minds,” I said.
“I heard you.”
Did you hear this: The strangest thing was the welcome mat, I thought.
“It was backwards,” she said.
“It read ‘WELCOME’ as you left the house, not as you entered.”
“You were in that house that summer day, weren’t you? You saw me on the front porch. Say it. That’s my one question. Answer it. You are her daughter, aren’t you?”
She released an audible sigh but said nothing. She refused to answer and refused to hang up. I wanted to smash the phone through the kitchen window.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I heard myself say.
“John’s gone. He died in a terrible accident this afternoon. He suffered horribly. He cried out for you before he took his last painful breath.”
“John’s dead. I recommend a closed coffin. Your number was in his cell. That’s why I called. Now you know. Good bye.”
“He got what he deserved. I knew something bad had happened,” she said. “I felt it.”
She seemed satisfied, as if I had finally gotten to the point and given her resolution.
“Of course you did,” I said.
“Please say it,” I begged. “Please say my name, Sofi. Please. What’s my name? At least answer that simple question. Who am I, Sofi?”
I heard breathing, and muffled rustling sounds, as if she were readjusting the phone or switching ears. No doubt her long brown hair had gotten tangled in a dangling earring she got from her gypsy grandmother. Still, she remained mute.
“Are you crying?”
She didn’t answer. In fact, she didn’t say another word.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have called.”
“I’m hanging up now,” I said.
“I really am this time. Bye.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear and extended my arm in front of my face until the screen was in focus. I tapped the red circle and ended the call.
I tossed my phone face down on the counter, and fought back a combination of tears and laughter. I had forgotten how powerful and intimate a phone conversation with a stranger could be.
I started to remove my tie but only loosened it, then went outside in my dress clothes to play in warm sun and mud.
In my head, Sofi stared at my number. She would keep it, in case she ever felt like calling someday, if only to reminisce about a life unlived.
Maybe she would tell me a story about how she got that small scar on her left knee from dancing drunk around a campfire, or maybe she’ll tell one of her many stories about a broken heart.
Until then, I imagine that dark-skinned, brown-eyed perpetual teenager, begging her mom to unlock the front door and let the boy stranger inside for his first reading.
Afterwards, after the boy stranger finds out who he really is, was and will be, Sofi will take his hand and lead him along an uneven path where it is warm and muddy, exactly like the one he is on now.
Maybe then she will say his name.
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