The fortune teller
by Brittany Ackerman
James called and asked if I still had the ecstasy. I did, and I knew it would be the only chance I had to see him on my birthday. I worked at the office until 6:00pm and told him to come over after. I wondered if he’d remember it was my birthday; if he would bring flowers and a gift, take me out to dinner before we spent the night on drugs. I parked on the street so he could have my spot in the garage. When he arrived, he handed me a birthday card in a plastic bag that wasn’t signed, the receipt paper tucked into the card.
He said he wasn’t hungry, but we walked into town and sat down at a brewery. We both had blonde beers and I ordered a cheese pizza. He ended up eating most of it, but I could tell he was anxious to do the drugs. I took the capsules out of my purse and placed one in his hand. He broke his open, fast, and dumped it into his beer. I opened my pill and put the powder straight on my tongue, washed it down with cold water. It tasted like chemicals.
James asked if I could spot him for dinner. I paid the tab and we went for a walk. It was the end of January and it was cold in Los Angeles. I wore tights under my dress and he wore a leather jacket with a beanie. We looked like we didn't know each other. We went into a CVS for cigarettes. While we were in line, I saw that James was grinding his teeth. I could hear a lady in the far back of the store scratching her head. My senses were becoming acute. I added a pack of gum to James’s cigarettes and remembered I had to pay. When we walked back onto the street I knew it was hitting us. We were embarking on a journey together, a journey of drugs, and once it started we would never be the same. I wasn’t sure if he was the right person to do this with, but it was too late either way.
James did a karate chop in the air. He told me to try. I felt the weight of the air, heavy under my hands, I saw a light emit from the movement. Everything felt like the color blue.
I'd known James for three years. We met our junior year of college in an extra curricular class. He was studying to go into finance and I was in the English department, but somehow we got stuck in an art history class together. We sat next to each other in a giant lecture hall while slides of Renaissance work flashed before us. I remember something about early paintings of Jesus and Mary, how they all had halos painted over their heads. James saw how diligent my notes were. He said the class made him fall asleep and I told him I could send him my notes. We started going on coffee dates even though I didn't drink coffee. I liked the smell of his lattes, the way his breath always smelled like smoke. It reminded me of my dad.
He told me he was named after James Taylor, that his mom listened to “How Sweet It Is” on repeat while she was pregnant with him. There was a problem when she was six months pregnant. She had to stay in bed for the last three and listened to that song over and over again.
James had moved to LA a year before me. I followed him. I know that. I followed him and I would have followed him to the ends of the earth. I felt strongly that God had conspired for us to meet, that he was my soul mate. When we made love, he always told me I was the best lover he’d ever had. His tongue tasted like sugar cane. But college is different than the real world. His studio apartment in Venice felt so different than his college dorm room. His purple comforter and record player had once seemed regal, and now felt pathetic, sad, lonely souvenirs from unfinished journeys in adolescence. I liked that our relationship had spanned across time and space, but what difference does magic make if someone loses interest? James had seen other people before I got to LA, and I had too, but it was mainly to try and get over him. We had a sort of back and forth, the kind of thing that made me dream whenever I was away from him or without him. I dreamt about the next time we’d meet, a fantasy, a thriller in my mind. He told me recently he might love men more than women. I thought I could show him how my love would surpass all those ideas. Ideas are like fish, I had heard once. The bigger the idea, the harder it is to catch.
We ambled around town, high as Georgia pines. We didn't touch and kept our distance. But we laughed and sauntered and enjoyed the night. James pointed out a sign for a fortune teller. A young girl stood outside smoking a cigarette next to a neon sign that said “Psychic Healer, Palm Readings, Tarot Cards” and suggested we go in. I would have gotten a tattoo if he had proposed that idea, so I followed him inside the door. The smoking girl put out her cigarette and came inside too.
“Good evening,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“We want to have our palms read,” James said. His pupils looked like marbles. He looked like a cartoon version of himself. He kept coughing into his hand and smoothing out his hair.
“My mother is out tonight,” she said. “But I can read palms too, if you’d like. She’s taught me everything she knows. Who wants to go first?”
“Her,” James said and pushed me towards the fortune teller. I stumbled and my purse flew towards the girl in front of me who must have been twenty-two or twenty-three, like me. She reached down to pick up my purse and handed it back to me and shot James a look. I’ll never forgive James for that push. Metaphorically, he was pushing me into an evil I didn't know existed yet. Our whole love story felt that way, now that I think about it.
“Wonderful,” she said. “And if you don't mind, I like to do the readings alone.” She gestured for James to wait outside.
“Oh, for sure,” James hurried out to the sidewalk and lit up a cigarette.
We sat in another room that was still in view of the storefront. There was a round table, almost too big for just two people, with a red cloth draped over. The girl wore a black dress that hit right above her knees and a black sweater that kept sliding off her shoulders. She wore red lipstick, too, the color’s frequency felt high in my ears, a ringing, a magic bell.
“What’s your name?” the fortune teller asked. She lit a candle and walked around the table slowly.
“Bethany,” I said, trying not to make it obvious I was starring at James.
“My name is Bethany,” she said and sat down across from me. I was sure she was lying, like this was part of her bit, but it comforted me in the moment. It made me feel connected to her, which I understand it was supposed to, but I mean, it worked. “God works in mysterious ways.”
I believe in God, the devil, heaven and hell, but I never thought a psychic would. I wondered if we believed in the same God, or if maybe she had some gypsy God, another form of idolatry, and it wasn’t the real thing. I wondered if she could tell I was Jewish.
“So, Bethany, wow, I can’t believe it. We’re like sisters,” she said. “So, tell me what you’d like to know.”
“Oh,” I said. “I'm not sure how this works. Sorry. I guess I just want to know about my future.”
“Love, money, afterlife?”
“Love, I guess, is the one that’s troubling me most now.”
“Ahh, okay. Let me see.”
Bethany rubbed her temples like she was getting a headache. She then reached across the table and grabbed my left hand, flipped it over. Her fingers were thin and she wore purple nail polish. She traced over lines on my palm with her pointer finger. The ecstasy was still coursing through my body. It didn't feel sexual, what she was doing, but I could hear her fingers in my brain, like she was scratching my brain in a pleasing way.
“You’re going to live a long life,” she said. “So that’s good, right?”
“Sure!” I beamed for no reason. I just thought that was how I should respond to the news.
“Oh…but love is tricky.”
“What do you see?”
“Someone in your life is not who they say they are,” she let go of my hand.
“Is it…him?” I pointed outside to James. He was pacing outside and smoking another cigarette. He was opening and closing his hands and looking at them like they were being controlled by someone else.
“This person was put in in your life before you were born. You were meant to have this person follow you until you could cast them out. It’s all destined. All in the stars.” When she said stars her hands waved across the room like she was cleaning a window.
I wanted her to tell me what to do.
“If you want to know more, it’ll be fifty dollars.”
I told her I would come back another time, without James. She said if I didn't come back, things would just continue to get worse and worse. I promised her I’d return, that I wanted to break the curse, and I wanted her help. At the moment I thought I was just telling her what she wanted to hear, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it all night.
When James and I had sex later, he seemed less like a man, but more like a demon ensnaring me in his grip. His eyes seemed black. His features, harsh; the way his body weighed down on me. I worried that James was the lie that was cradling my life, the person put there since birth. I wanted to be absolved. He fell asleep after sex and I couldn’t. I stayed up coloring and smoking weed and chewing gum and trying desperately to come down while James slept soundly on my bed. He left early the next morning right when I finally fell asleep.
I slept until the afternoon. What happened the night before felt like a dream. But I knew it was true. I had Bethany’s card in my purse. “Psychic Healer, Palm Readings, Tarot Cards.”
I got dressed and stopped at Jamba Juice for a smoothie, my only food for the day, and went to the fortune teller. A large woman sat out front eating peanuts from her pocket.
“Is Bethany here?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was crazy.
“I was here last night. Bethany was helping me.” Just then Bethany walked outside and smiled at me.
“Hi, girl,” Bethany said. “Ma, this is the girl from last night. Remember I told you?”
The woman grinned, flecks of peanut in her teeth. She picked one out with a fingernail.
“Ahh, yes. I’ve heard. Come in, come in,” she started to get up.
“No, Ma,” Bethany said. “She’s for me.”
Bethany grabbed my hand and took me back inside. I was wearing a white hooded sweatshirt and jeans with flip-flops. Bethany was wearing leggings and a big t-shirt. It looked like we could be two girlfriends hanging out, going to the movies.
“You’re here about the curse, right?” Bethany asked.
“Wait, it’s a curse?” I asked. “Like, a full-blown curse?” Up until that moment I didn't really know why I had come back. It was true that I couldn’t stop thinking about what Bethany had said, but something had drawn me back there.
“I can clear it for you,” Bethany said.
“Like, remove it. Cast it out of your life forever.”
“How do you do that?”
“I have candles. I say prayers. It takes eight days. After that, it’s over.”
“What happens if I don't remove the curse?”
“Then nothing will change. But let me ask you this. Haven’t you always felt like something was wrong? Like even if things seem okay for a while, there’s that feeling that won’t go away?”
“I guess.” But she was right. I had always felt that way, like no matter what I did, I was always unhappy. I went to a great school, found a job right after college, made enough money to support myself. But I was never content. Especially with James, like no matter how much time went by or where we were, our relationship just wasn’t right. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I needed to get him out of my life, and maybe Bethany could do it, but I’d always hoped that my life would work itself out the way it was supposed to because of like, fate and destiny, and not because of a fortune teller. “How much does it cost?” I asked.
“The candles cost $120.00, but since you paid $20 for the reading last night, I’ll only charge $100.00.”
“I have to go to the ATM,” I said.
“I can go with you,” she said. “I was going to take my smoke break anyway.”
Bethany walked me out onto the sidewalk and pointed to a Wells Fargo across the street. I banked with Citibank, but I went with it anyway. I didn't want to be difficult. I was scared of her, like she had complete control over what was going to happen to me. I also wanted her to like me for some reason, like if she found out what a neurotic loser I was, maybe she wouldn’t want to help me.
When we got to the ATM Bethany leaned against the wall and smoked. I put in my pin number and got $100.00 out of my account. I was working in advertising and was making good money, but knew that spending it this way would upset my mom who was all the way across the U.S. in Florida. She was probably on the beach reading a book and hoping that I was finally happy.
“So, do you like being a psychic?” I asked Bethany to try and make conversation.
“It’s a gift, it’s not like any old job.”
“Oh, I know, but do you enjoy it? I mean it must be rewarding to have that kind of clarity.”
“Yes, I do. It’s a gift from God. God gives us all the things we need and sometimes a little extra and that’s how I got my gift.”
I wondered what my gift was. Sometimes I thought my gift was to love people, set their worlds on fire and be a sort of muse. I wondered if I still did that for James. James did post production for a film company, but he was an artist by passion. He once made a stencil of me and spray painted it on a wall in Venice. He took a video of the whole thing and sent it to me. I loved that I could inspire him. But he hadn’t worked on his art in so long. It seemed like all he wanted to do was drink and stay home and ignore me.
“You know,” Bethany spoke. “After this is all over, we can like totally be friends.”
I imagined Bethany and I walking around the Century City Mall, popping into stores and using the cash she made from me on a new pair of earrings or facemasks. I tried to imagine where she might live, the idea that I could come over and we could make dinner and hangout. But the images were coated in a haze, like bad dreams, and somehow I knew it would never happen. I knew that no matter what, she would always be the woman who took my money, who distracted me for a while from my problems, problems I wasn’t ready to admit I had.
“That would be cool,” I said, casual, almost meaning it.
After four days Bethany called while I was at work. I was in a staff meeting talking about Upfronts for an upcoming season of a reality TV show. I ducked into the stairwell to talk to her. I had hidden out in the stairwell many times before on calls with my mom. I’d call her on my lunch break for no specific reason other than to tell her I hated my job, how much I hated who I was and that I wanted to die.
“There's a problem,” Bethany said.
“What do you mean?”
“The curse is stronger than I thought,” she told me. “When I was praying last night, I realized that the curse runs too deep for the kind of candles I have.”
“I thought you said the curse was there from when I was born?”
“Yes, but it's too deep for the kind of candles I have.”
“Can't you just like, pray harder?”
“No. I need another type of candle to keep going. And if I don’t get it, the ritual will be ruined and I'll have to start all over.”
“How much is this candle?”
“Five-hundred dollars. It's stronger than the ones I have now.”
“That’s crazy! I don't have that kind of money. I can’t…”
“I'm afraid since I started praying that the curse will only get worse now. We've awakened it.”
I thought for a moment about the logistics of this. The candle, the prayer. I imagined a green candle burning and stopping, its wick blown out somehow, or turning red, a violent fire. Bethany sitting cross-legged on the floor and gasping. I imagined her pacing, holding her phone and wondering if she should call me, hoping it wouldn't hurt our friendship to tell me that she needed more money.
“I work until 6:00,” I told her. “But I can meet you at 7:00. I need to stop and get some cash.”
“Okay, just meet me at the office.”
I wondered if she burned the candles at home or in her office. The answer to that question would completely change everything, so I didn’t ask. I also wondered why she called it her office.
I used my lunch break to go to an ATM outside the cafeteria. I was happy to see that they had little envelopes next to the machine so I could conceal the money. I wrote Bethany on the outside. It made me feel good to be able to provide for her in a way. Maybe she could fix her mother's teeth. Maybe she could buy a new purse.
I went to the cafeteria and bought a Coke Zero and a chocolate bar. I wasn't paying attention and accidentally got dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. I didn’t realize until I was in the elevator eating it. It was too bitter and I knew I'd have to throw it away. I hated that I had made such a mistake, something so small that ended up ruining my afternoon.
Traffic was crazy when I left work. I didn’t get to Bethany's office until around 7:30. I had also left a little late because Dan, the guy in charge of our screeners, needed help labeling some of the Upfronts and I was the only one who could help. As I helped him pack up the tapes into cardboard boxes, he asked if I wanted to go for a drink. I said I had a boyfriend. It felt bad to lie to him. He had curly hair and always wore denim on denim to work. He drove around a lot getting our content from one place to another. Dan was such an important part of the job, but I was still holding out for James. James hadn't called since my birthday and I knew I wouldn’t hear from him again until he got lonely. I had an urge to call him and tell him that everything was going to be okay. “This is how you can be happy!” I’d say. “This is how life can be!”
There was nowhere to park on the street. I saw Bethany waiting outside and smoking a cigarette. She smiled when she saw me and waved me into a red zone. There were cars everywhere driving every which way. I put my hazard lights on and rolled down my window.
“It’s fine,” Bethany said. “People leave their car here all the time.” It started to look like it might rain, the sky taking on a dreary grey instead of its usual deep blue when day fades into night. I was wearing a wool poncho and didn't want it to get wet. I had curled my hair that day too and was hoping she’d notice.
I got out of the car and stood before her. She looked weathered, her hair in a messy ponytail and wisps streaming across her face, her skin dull, her teeth yellow. She wore pants a few sizes too big and kitten heels. It was all wrong. I waited for her to say something, something reassuring about how happy she was that she’d finally be able to break my curse, that the money would be in good hands now, that the money would be returned to me by the truest path of the universe, that all income and outcome will cross and translate and be one with our ever-loving God, but instead she just stood there and looked so sad, like she knew that I knew it was all fake.
As I went to hand her the envelope, a police officer pulled up next to my car and got out to give me a ticket.
“Wait!” I said, rushing over to him just a few feet away. “That’s my car, I’ll move it.”
“Too late,” the officer said. “You can’t park in a red zone.”
“I was just dropping something off,” I said.
“Yeah,” Bethany chimed in and I couldn’t have been happier. “She has to give me something, she’s leaving now though.” Bethany grabbed the envelope from my hand to show him. He looked at her and then at me. I hoped in my heart that my mother would forgive me for this someday.
“Sorry, ladies, but the law is the law.” He wrote the ticket and handed it to me. I opened it up. It was a ticket for $100.00.
Bethany looked at the ticket and opened up the envelope.
“Here,” she said. She handed me a crisp $100.00 from inside. “Use this to pay for the ticket.”
I took the bill from her hand and held it. It was my money that I had earned. I had been ready to give it up to her, and now it was returning to me. The ticket would be paid for, absolved, gone.
“But what about the candle?” I asked.
Bethany smiled and it started to drizzle. The drizzle quickly turned into a heavy rain that would last a few days. Los Angeles needed the rain. The city was always in a drought, a perpetual drought. I wondered if the rain had the power to wash away my pain, to release me from its grip, if the curse could be removed with a flood so great it could end all suffering.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches Archetypal Psychology and American Literature at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, and more. Her first collection of essays, The Perpetual Motion Machine, is out now with Red Hen Press, and her debut novel, The Brittanys, will be published with Vintage in 2021.
“Ava looks away, feeling herself flush. She hates the smell of smoke, but she’s also seen this scenario unfold way too many times before on the green line. The hulking, sullen transit cops who would squelch onto the train car right before the doors would close, yelling at passengers to have tickets out. ”