Fortunes Told

Excerpted from Painting Over Mistakes

It's a hot Kentucky summer night in1986, when 27-year-old Emily's husband of 10 years informs her of his infidelity and the pregnancy it has produced. Emily has had enough, and her goodbye note is a sign in the front yard: Kenny's Affair With Shelby Sue Duke Has Ruined My Marriage. She begins pursuing the life she thinks her late mother would want for her; but she is a decade behind, estranged from her father, mostly alone, and unprepared for the larger world. As she struggles to create a life, she meets loneliness, self-doubt, and Ethan, a seemingly-perfect man. His secret quakes Emily's world to its foundation, changing her direction once again and eventually leading her home to Kentucky.

In the wee-hours of a 1986 morning, Anthony and his girlfriend walk up a mid-town Manhattan street and encounter a fortune teller who informs Anthony of a future he's not sure he wants. When it all begins to happen seven years later, he learns the surprising truth about the fortune teller and knows he must make a difficult decision to prevent a great injustice. Then he will deal with the fortune teller’s next prediction: a year of chaos followed by relocation to an unimaginable destination, Kentucky.

Emily's and Anthony's paths lead toward one another, but they must still face the ghosts of their pasts when they come calling in the form of a KKK rally, the return of Kenny and his child, a surfaced memory, and the final outcome of Emily's goodbye sign painted many years before. Only with love and help from friends and unfathomable sources can they endure.



You turned up West 41st because Gwyneth wanted you to and because you were so horny you’d have done anything she suggested. Behind you Times Square felt relatively safe despite its seedy hotels and tawdry strip joints that held no romantic charm, regardless what musician had once stayed there. On that night it was all sleaze and filth without a hint of the Disneyfied street it would become a couple of decades later.

“How dare a Manhattan bar close!" Gwyneth's voice was a slurred Texan drawl, but her eyes and body were wired. You suspected she’d scored some coke in the back of the bar when she went to the ladies’ room and wondered how long it would be until she came down. And you were only beginning to get sleepy since you’d dozed through most of Cats, having seen the play already a few times and not caring if you'd see singing felines ever again. Fuck T. S. Eliot and Mr. Mistoffelees and that song, "Memories." You just wanted to go to your uptown apartment and to fuck and then sleep off the sex and booze until Sunday afternoon. You did not want to walk up this dark side street.

A dozen or so people peppered the sidewalk, and others loitered on the fire-escape landings and stairs. A man with a huge afro approached you. He wore bell bottom pants and a ruffled purple shirt on his thin frame. A bright floral strip of fabric circled his cranium at his forehead. He stood several inches taller than your five-ten. “Got a cig, man?” he asked.

You didn’t smoke but didn’t want any trouble so you slipped a five-dollar bill from your pocket and handed it to him.

He stared at the money in his open hand and then stepped close. “What the hell’s this for? You think any brother looks like a bum? I ain’t no beggar, man. Can you dig it?" You smelled gin on his breath, pot on his clothes.

You stepped back and raised your palms in peace. “For smokes, dude." If your mother ever heard you say the word dude, she’d wash your mouth out with soap, despite your age.

He held the cash at eye level. “This oughta buy a car load of Lucky Strikes. Right on, man." He walked away, and you heard him mutter, “Stupid, rich honky.”

Gwyneth had wandered ahead, and a group of men watched her mini-skirted ass twist and her blonde hair bounce. It was so puffy, it looked like it could lift her off the sidewalk, but her shoulder pads kept her grounded. You jogged toward her, and “Piece of My Heart” blasted from a building you passed. More than a dozen people sat on the fire escape stairs, and a girl with frizzy red hair sang along, loud and off-key. Gwyneth’s steps kept beat with the time, her poker-red cowboy boots gleaming in the dim light. You reached her as the song ended, and the DJ said something about October 1970 and Janis Joplin joining Jimi Hendrix in death. The redhead screamed and sobbed, and you thought she was probably higher than your girlfriend.

“Hey,” you said to Gwyneth. You put your hand around her model-thin waist and moved your thumb toward the curve of her breast. “Don’t go running off like that. Let’s go back to Broadway and catch a cab." You wanted to get off this street. You wanted to go to your comfortable apartment at 82nd and Park where no one bummed a smoke or wore a ruffled shirt, where you’d be more likely to hear “Moon River” through an open window, Mancini instead of Joplin. You wanted to get home before your mother came down from her penthouse apartment to walk the dog at six sharp, which she did even on a Sunday morning. The dog’s name was Camilla. You called her Pampered Pooch, though not to your mother’s face—or the dog’s.

Gwyneth giggled. “It’s here somewhere.”

You tried to play along, worried all the wining and dining and the fucking singing cats would be in vain if you made her mad now. “What’s here somewhere?”

She grabbed you by your tie and pulled you in for a wet kiss. “You’ll see, silly boy."

“How would you even know about anything on this street?”

“Because the guy at the bar told me.”

You wondered then if you were being set up to be robbed. Your father would not like seeing your name in the newspaper, especially since you worked for his law firm. “Which guy?”

“You didn’t meet him. He was in the back telling these great stories about Andy Warhol. His name was Mark Adams, and he said he went to Studio 54 one night in 1977, did a shitload of heroin, and then he came to our bar and died.”

“How’d he look after being dead a decade?”

Gwyneth thought. “Amazingly tired." Her voice was sad for him.

You chuckled. “He was pulling your pretty leg. Let’s go back.”

She pointed a manicured finger across the street at a neon sign; the words Fortune and Madame Zora Sees All were in red, separated by a large, watchful purple eye.

You glanced at your Rolex, careful to not flash it. “Gwyneth, it's four-twenty."

“I want to go in." She whimpered, sounding more like Pampered Pooch than you’d like to admit. Her perfectly coifed hair, you realized in that moment, even resembled the dog’s. Gwyneth leaned her body against yours and dry humped you, using the nickname you abhorred in a sing-song voice, “Please, Anthony Schmanthony."

You pushed her away, loathing doing so, and were turning her back toward Broadway when she brightened. “There she is!”

A woman in a multi-colored skirt and electric-green peasant blouse stood on the stoop under the sign, beckoning the two of you.

Gwyneth ran across, and you started to follow when a horn blared. A yellow cab swerved and then careened in front of you, inches from your toes. “Asshole,” the driver shouted. He stuck his arm out the window and, while he’d already moved into the darkness, you knew he’d flown the bird. You looked to your left before crossing to Gwyneth, who bounced up and down from her knees and clapped her hands together. “Please, baby.”

“Why?" There was a touch of a whine in your voice.

She snuggled up to you. “So we can see if we’ll be together forever and ever."

You could answer that for less than whatever Madame Zora charged, but now the wrinkle-faced charlatan motioned with more fervor. “Come along,” she said. “I’ve been waiting an eternity for you.”

You rolled your eyes and under your breath said, “It’s been thirty seconds.”

Madame Zora scowled. “Maybe for you, but for me it’s been an eternity.

“She couldn’t possibly have heard that,” you whispered.

Gwyneth pinched your arm. “Behave,” she said.

You moved your hand from her waist to her hip. “Do I have to?" With that question you’d used your last ounce of playfulness.

“Behave now, and you don’t have to later." Gwyneth’s violet eyes gleamed as much mischief as her sexy boots.

You walked to Madame Zora’s door and on through.

Business came first: two readings at twenty-five dollars apiece added up to fifty. She did not take American Express and did not find your question about that at all humorous. You doled out two twenties and a ten. So far the venture up West 41st Street had cost you a total of fifty-five dollars, counting your earlier contribution to the don’t-get-your-ass-kicked-on-West-41st-Street fund. You had enough left for a cab ride home.

“I’ll read you first,” Madame Zora told Gwyneth.

“Can’t we go together?” you asked. Mother would be walking that damned dog at six, no matter what. She did not need to meet Gwyneth, nor did Gwyneth need to meet your mother.

“Yes, together,” Gwyneth said. She squealed like a school girl of thirteen instead of a woman of twenty-three.

Madame Zora slammed the possibility shut. “That will not do." Her gravelly voice came from within a throat that had you suspected had experienced too much smoke and whiskey. She motioned Gwyneth toward a room, and as Madame Zora disappeared you noticed that the scarves on her head, at least three of them in bright colors, were tied in rough knots in the back and their ends dangled past her waist and along the fabric of her skirt, which looked like scarves, too. It flowed so low to the floor it was impossible to see Madame Zora’s shoes. To cover her bed hair, your mother would be wearing a single silk scarf in a light pastel color; it would be tied neatly under her chin. If she saw Gwyneth and you coming in, her lips would become so thin they'd barely be visible.

You waited on a threadbare sofa near the window of the minimally decorated room and dozed. Once, Gwyneth’s laughter drifted through the door and woke you. And another time you heard her shout, “No, no,” and Madame Zora’s voice rose but not enough to understand the words. A fire engine, sirens blaring, went up the street. The red lights made the sheer curtains seem like they were aflame, and you felt the urge for sex. To let the idea go, you tried to decide what school you’d tell your mother Gwyneth had attended if they ended up meeting. Vassar? Bryn Mawr perhaps? Not Radcliffe—your mother had earned her MRS there when she’d met your father. She’d been a freshman; he was third-year at the Harvard School of Law. She dropped out after he graduated; and thirty years later she was married to a man who owned a law firm so prestigious, Fortune-500 CEOs had his home number on speed dial. You’d learned to make lies to your parents believable so kept thinking of a good one about Gwyneth. The truth, a model from Texas who had a taste for cocaine, would not do.

By the time it was your turn with Madame Zora, the booze was wearing off and your liver had picked up a hammer and aimed it toward your head. Pound, boom, pound, boom… You tried to tell Madame Zora to consider the rest of the money a donation, but Gwyneth would not hear of it—and neither would Madame Zora. “We are here more for you than her,” the old hag said. She motioned for you to go through the door from which Gwyneth had just exited, so you did.

The space was lit by candles, and their earthy scent assaulted your nostrils. In the room was a round table covered with scarves, these of every print and color imaginable. The woman was a scarf shy of being a cliché, but what made you want to laugh sat on the table, centered with perfection: a glass globe, a crystal ball. If she waved her hands over it you would leave, even if it meant you never got to lay Gwyneth again. But Madame Zora instead handed you an oversized deck of cards and told you to shuffle, and you did for a few seconds, and then you pulled a card. A man stared from it. “Is this the King or Joker?” you asked.

“The Tarot is not to be trifled with, young man,” she replied. There was no humor in her gun-metal gray eyes. “Shuffle until I tell you to stop.”

You shuffled until she told you to stop. Then she had you draw several cards from the deck, and she studied those with great care. You tried to comprehend the significance of the cards yourself, but they were upside down from your point of view and made no sense, so you watched her. With each card she perused, her face changed expressions. You were relieved when the final one prompted the only smile that graced her lips that evening.

“So, are Gwyneth and I going to live happily ever after?”

Her eyes gazed at you over her hawk-like nose. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know that will end.”

“You told her we weren’t going to be together?”

“I did, though she undoubtedly knew already. She’s not stupid, just void of discipline.”

“What else did you tell her?”

“Her fortune is hers. Yours is yours. I have traveled a great distance to share it with you. Do you want to know?”

The woman could lay it on thick. “Sure, go ahead,” you said, "since we’re both here."

She looked at the cards laid out on the table. “Your work bores you and makes you wish for meaning.”

You huffed a protest, but then considered that she had correctly comprehended this. No one who knew you realized how much you despised working as a lawyer for your father’s firm. His corporate clients would have eaten their own if it would have garnered a multi-million-dollar bonus. They made you sick. But no one at the firm asked much of you, so you sucked it up from eight to five on weekdays and seldom worked on weekends. Sometimes your dad gave the recurring lecture about being his son and setting a good example, and then you stayed late most nights for a few weeks except on evenings when your mother had committed the two of them to a social event. On other nights, you gave him time to get out of the building before slipping out. None of this made you popular with co-workers, but they liked that you never ratted them out when they gave a smaller client a break on billable hours or they took their spouses along on business trips, diluting their attention, or for being Democrats—all major infractions in your father’s book. And occasionally a colleague would spout off about your dad, forgetting you were related, and you never repeated the words. Their indiscretions and yours evened out.

Madame Zora retrieved two cards and held them up for you to see. They were colorful but looked like gibberish even right-side up. “You will play for seven years. And despite yourself, you will learn during that time. Doing more work will help with the boredom you feel. But then a dark day will arrive, and you will have to make a difficult choice, an impossible one.”

The hardest choice you made every day was which tie to wear with your navy Brooks Brothers suits. “What choice?”

“It will change everything.”

What choice?”

“If you make the wrong choice, your life will be miserable from then on. You will lose everything. You will be in hell." She put down the two cards and held up another one to prove her point. She put it back down before you could study it.

“And the right choice?”

“There will be a year of chaos and after that you will have seven years when you will be alone. During that time you will go to the other side of the law.”

“I’m going to become a criminal?" Your tone mocked her.

But she could snip, too. “There are many other sides.”

“What do you mean by alone?" A future with Gwyneth was starting to look pretty good, even one with your mother and father. Alone did not sound fun.

“There will be a year of chaos after the decision. Loneliness will burn your soul. Then seven years of penance when you will question everything and wonder if you are in hell after all. But your life's work will begin to make sense to you, and then you shall meet the woman you will love for the rest of your life. You will have found your way to happiness.”

You counted in your head—seven plus one plus seven—and then the time after you met this mystery woman... “So I’m not going to marry for more than fifteen years? My mother will not like it taking that long. Got any grandchildren there to ease her temper?”

“There will be two children to love, one yours, one not. But your mother and father will not be in your life after your decision.”

“Not even if I make the right decision?”

Especially if you make the right decision.”

“What is this choice I’m to make? How will I know what to choose?”

She studied the cards on the table. “You will seek advice, and you will receive it.”

The room undulated from the effect of the booze lifting and this woman’s preposterous words. “Where will I go for the advice?”

“A Catholic priest.”

You chuckled. “Catholic?" Your Episcopalian mother would have you committed if you sought help from a Catholic priest.

Madame Zora held up another card. “The man you are now will disappear, and a new one will take his place. You would not recognize the old Anthony if you met him on the subway platform."

You already didn’t particularly like yourself, but over the years the chatter in your head had developed into something to which you’d become accustomed. You’d worked hard in college and made the Review, and you figured out things when you put the time and energy toward them. You could be charming if you wanted; and since it opened paths to what you desired, you usually were. Would you like this new you? What if you became a nicer guy who used his charm for good more times than not? But what if you instead became an asshole like your father who treated everyone in his office like they were born to create billable hours? You stopped yourself from entertaining the thought. “Say this is true." Your voice didn’t sound like you believed a word of it. “Let’s just say you're right. What’s the point in knowing?”

“You need to learn how to be a lawyer, to think like one, and how to be on your own. Everything but your freedom will be pulled from under you when you make the right choice.”

“And if I make the wrong choice?”

“Even your freedom will be gone.”

“Isn’t that a lovely thought." You could taste sarcasm on your tongue.

“And one more thing,” she said.

“Oh, joy.”

“You will move out of the city.”

You’d grown up in Manhattan and had only gone away to law school but then came home. Your mother had insisted you buy an apartment in the building where she and your father lived and ordered your father to give you money for a down payment. Manhattan was home. “What, to Queens?” you asked Madame Zora.

“You will go to Kentucky, and you will be happy there.”

And with that you knew the old woman was bat-shit insane.

About the Author

Diana McQuady

Diana McQuady's work has been published in anthologies, newspapers, newsletters, and journals, including a novel chapter, 'Fortunes Told,' in The Write Launch; a story, 'Flaming Star,' in the 2019 Cosumnes River Journal; and essays in the anthologies New Growth and I to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists. She was the 2007-2008 Writer-in-Residence at Western Kentucky University and was co-chair of the Southern Kentucky Book Fest's Kentucky Writers Conference during its first five years. Diana holds an MFA in writing from Spalding University, works as a technical writer/communicator, and teaches at WKU.

Read more work by Diana McQuady.