Mixed Fortunes — from Adrift in the Sound

This scene takes place in 1972 on a blustery November morning in Seattle, before my yet-to-be- published novel Adrift in the Sound begins. Comments and questions about this bit of backstory to the novel are encouraged and welcome.

A bell tinkled as Lizette stepped out of the Seattle rain and into the old fortune teller’s shop. It smelled of last night’s onions and simmering mildew. A white angora cat, curled in a velvet swivel chair looked up, watched the newcomer with bored blue eyes, watched her stamp water from her boots, squinted in disapproval as the intruder softly shut the door.

The cat got up in a puff of fur and waddled into the back, rubbed Madame Lora’s ankles as the tea kettle whistled. “Be right there,” Madame called over her shoulder. “Shoo, Sweet Pea.” She nudged the cat aside with a fuzzy slipper and poured boiling water into a china cup, bounced the tea bag a few times in the water then clattered through the beaded curtain that separated the fortune-telling shop from her tiny living quarters in back, took a deep breath, glanced around.

“Ah. Lovely Lizette!” she said sarcastically, recognizing her visitor, and set her cup on the table where she read palms and told fortunes. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. You here for a reading or a handout?”
Lizette shuffled as she watched the old woman go to the shelves where books on the occult and talismans were arranged and stood silent while Madame straightened boxes of Ouija boards and Tarot cards. The shop was a dank basement studio apartment in downtown Seattle, on the edge of the public market. The main room had a sweaty picture window that looked over Lake Union and the ferries that plied Puget Sound. Although the place had been haphazardly renovated through the years, now, in the 1970s, the musty shop had worn shag carpet covered in cat hair, a swag lamp that burned a sickly yellow, a table and a few chairs. Madame’s clients included widows, lovers, tourists and hippies, along with a few nut jobs, and the city’s vice mayor.

As she stood there, Lizette studied the sketch she’d done of Madame last year, looked for ways to improve it. She saw the lines were lazy, indifferent in their strokes, speaking more about her feelings for the subject, she realized, than her ability as an artist. She thought about her mother painting in her sunlit studio, her father pouring over manuscripts and artifacts in his study as he prepared lecture notes for his anthropology classes, then feelings of the oppressive silences between them made her squirm. Dark images of the streets welled up. She shook her head to dispel the shadows.

She’d slept on Madame’s floor from time to time, like the others who hung out at the market. She’d only crawled into her creaky double bed, holding her breath as the silly old woman exhaled garlic and the curdled smell of old age, when she was numb from the cold and broke. She’d allowed Madame to rub on her belly and thighs with shriveled, claw-like hands, explore her body with her vulture’s talons. Everybody on the street knew that if you didn’t ask too often the old gypsy was usually good for a few bucks, if you could stand the pawing.

Madame stopped fussing and wrapped her purple robe around her jiggly middle and re-settled her turban. Lizette laid a ten-dollar bill on the table. Madame eyed the money and sat, gazed into the crystal ball before her, then picked up what looked like a salt shaker, tilted it back and forth, lifted Lizette’s limp hand, quickly wiped light peppermint oil on her outstretched fingers. Madame took a slurp of tea, before gazing deeply into Lizette’s palm.

by Nancy Diaz

 “Coffee,” she said, matter-of-factly, taking another swig of tea.

Lizette nodded as the old woman slid the money across the velvet cloth and out of sight. “That’s it?” Lizette waited to understand what Madame saw, waited for a better explanation.

The old fortune teller crinkled her eyes as if to smile, thought better of it, relaxed her wrinkled face, and repeated herself. “Coffee.”

“With cream?” Lizette said, annoyed.

Madame Lora snorted, shook her head, leaned toward Lizette. “Not to drink, dummy . . . To work!” She pulled back, smoothed her robe across her lap. “Up the street.” She waved her arm in the air, flapping her hand toward the wall. “They need help, a counter girl. One of the coffee shop owners told me that the other day. At the Downtown Rotary Club meeting. I’ve been in Rotary for years, always work their Christmas parties. Last week, the Vietnamese ambassador spoke, talked about the Communists and the war ending. Very interesting. ”

“I came for you to throw the I Ching, not get a lecture on the Viet Nam War. I could get that at home or on the street. I want to know what’s going to happen.”

“Happen? . . . What always happens! What do you think?”

“But, I . . . ” Lizette began to protest, looked in the direction her money had gone.

“Oh. I’ll throw the I Ching. The palm reading’s free. A bargain. I give extra to my best customers.” She winked, her mascara-caked lashes stiff around her puffy lids. “You’re lucky today. I see things.” She pulled a bottle from under the table, splashed amber liquid into her dainty cup, took a pull.

Lizette brushed wispy strands of hair from her forehead, squinted in the room’s dimness to understand. She fixed her stare on the paisley design in Madame Lora’s turban, became entranced, felt the silence, picked up the rhythmic tick of a clock, waited to hear what Madame saw.

Madame rapped three times on the table with her knuckles, retrieving Lizette’s attention. She tossed three Chinese coins on the table’s velvet cloth, did this five more times. Lizette watched like a sleepy child awakened from a nap, rumpled and ready to pout. She yawned, displaying perfect teeth.

“Your present hexagram shows you are a seasoned traveler who knows that a special kind of decorum is called for when venturing far from home,” Madame said in her smarmy fortune teller’s voice, all business now.

“I grew up by Greenlake, not far from here,” Lizette said impatiently. “I’ve been here twenty five years now. I’m not going anywhere.”

Madame withheld a sharp remark and shushed her, slipped back into her fortune teller’s voice. “You must maintain a yielding nature, so your hosts open doors for you. But inwardly, you know it’s sometimes impossible to discern the true intentions of strangers. I see a large group, mostly men. You’ll know when they’re secretly hostile or opportunistic.”

“I know all about men,” Lizette said, crossing her arms over her chest and twisting sideways on the chair, thinking about Rocket and the Dogs, the crash pad on Franklin Street. “That’s the problem. I just need to figure out where I should go. How I can get in. I don’t have a regular place to stay.”

“Go? My child, any journey is ruled by the twin houses of mystery and discovery,” Madame said, puckering her painted lips like a pink sea anemone. “Each day is launched on a fresh canvas. Though travel is often a great teacher – and a great equalizer – there’s a definite art to living on the road.”

“Art? I am an artist,” Lizette said, confused. “And, I’m in the street, you know that.”

“The last time you were here you said you were a housekeeper.”

“I am. That too. But, look, I’m trying to be an artist,” Lizette said. “Like my mother. She was a real artist, except . . .”

“Except what? I don’t shrink heads. I just read cards.”

“If you can’t tell me what’s next, give my money back.”

“What’s your problem?” Madame pouted. “You still owe me from the last time.”

“You’re not making sense,” Lizette said, anger edging into her voice.

“Like you would know,” Madame snapped.

by Kate Campbell

  As they sat glaring at each other across the velvet, the November sky outside opened and it poured ice and rain. Lizette got up to watch the downpour, long silver needles of rain striking the pavement and bouncing. People hustled past the shop to the shelter of Pike’s Place Market. She could faintly hear the fish monger singing snatches of Italian opera, pictured him beckoning theatrically, flapping a limp red snapper at drenched shoppers as they scurried through the market’s concrete cavern, driven by the rain.

Lizette turned to Madame, nodded for the reading to continue. Sat back down, frowned.

“If you’re entering a new environment of any sort – attempt to be patient,” Madame admonished. “Be flexible and undemanding. You must get rid of attitudes that weigh you down or make you stand out.”

“What does that mean?” Lizette snapped.

Looking at Lizette, wrapped in a collection of scarves that barely covered the grimy thermal underwear she wore, Madam fell out of character. “It means don’t be an oddball. Get some clothes. You can’t run around half naked in your underwear, especially in this weather. I have pants and a shirt in the back. You can have them for a few coins. Cheaper than Salvation Army.” She got up and went into the back, clattering the bead curtain.

Lizette took off her boots and untied the scarves on her legs and arms, folded each one neatly, put them in her big canvas bag. As she stood there, stuffing scarves into her bag, thinking about the trip Madame foretold, a man holding an umbrella stood under the shop’s sign and watched her through the picture window. Lizette felt a flash of anger, at the gawker, at her circumstances, thought what the hell, rolled her bottoms down first, mooned the window. Then she turned and faced the glass, stiffen her expression into a taunt and lifted her top over head.

A few more people gathered in front of the window and peered into the shop. Lizette pulled scarves from her bag and waved them overhead, snapped them to release wrinkles and fluttered them in circles, dipping and lunging like a matador. Gossamer pink, lime green, sky blue, Chinese red, burnt orange. She floated the scarves over head and twirled around the tiny shop.

Madame came in from the back, clothes draped over her arm, and saw the faces at the window. She went to the drape pull and tugged, fast, hand over hand, until they swept shut. Lizette saw her look of disapproval and sat down, completely naked.

“A time of trouble is indicated for you,” Madame said, all business. “But the second changing line is the worst. It shows a bird whose nest has burned up and a small child abandoned. Something bad is going to happen.” Lizette gulped and gripped the seat of the wood chair to keep from shaking.

Madame paused, admired Lizette’s pink nipples, thought about tucking her into bed, refunding the money for the reading, filling a few more tea cups with Scotch and napping. Pretty girl, Madame thought. But, big feet. Like rubber flippers. Swedish blood. Too bad she’s such a head case. Doesn’t even know she’s asking for trouble.

“I’m ready for the shirt and pants,” Lizette spoke off-handedly, as if addressing a maid.

Madame Lora handed her a blue and white flannel shirt and a pair of jeans across the table. Lizette put them on, pushed up the sleeves and hoisted the loose pants, puffed out her belly to hold them up, then sat and laced up her hiking boots.

“Go across the street.” Madame stared into the orb’s milky center. She saw Lizette’s future, saw the calamity, and it made her eyes water, a tear rolled down the side of her wrinkled nose. Face stiff, voice flat, she directed: “Ask for a job and your journey will begin.”

by Kate Campbell

Lizette gathered the straps of her canvas bag and stood. Madame came from behind the table, arms open. Crushed to Madame’s lumpy breasts, Lizette bent down and kissed the old gypsy’s forehead, on the spot where she imagined her third eye winked. Madame whispered, “Be careful, Sweet Pea.” The bell above the door tinkled as Lizette Carlson stepped into the chasm that was her future.

Lost, lonely, half out of her mind, Lizette Carlson is trying to get her bearings in a world shifting from the free-love 60s into a more menacing time. My new novel, Adrift in the Sound, is the story of her journey. This scene with Madame Lora is back story and takes place before the novel begins. Although finding an agent and a publisher for the book is taking longer than a Hippie high, I hope you’ll follow my journey by reading my blog and buy a copy of the book when it comes out. While we’re waiting, look here for occasional excerpts from Adrift in the Sound.

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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