“Just shuffle the cards, dear,” Mrs. Bondazza said. “I want to get your vibrations from them. That’s it, dear. Now give them back to me.”
We sat in the cluttered front room of her small house, the gypsy and I on opposite sides of a wobbly card table with a portrait of Jesus and one of John F. Kennedy hanging behind her on the wall. In one corner stood a small television, in another a fish tank where two cats slept on a worn purple couch.
I was a person displaced in my own life, then, not yet adapted to losing my family, bankruptcy threatening my hardwood sawmill like a storm from the west. Although neither astrology nor crystal ball gazing had ever appealed to me, I felt weak and vulnerable enough to find assistance wherever I could. They were an entertainment, like a movie or a play or a prostitute pretending to passion. Diversion, yes, but harmless. Yet, perhaps in her strange way, the gypsy could tell me where I was going.
I had been careful not to identify myself when I called to make our appointment. Twice she had been sick or busy or just couldn’t see me. Her voice over the telephone gave her age away. It was sharp and crotchety.
Here in her chamber, she sounded more reassuring. A small woman, close to eighty, with her gray hair pulled tight into a bun, she wore an old red housecoat turned inside out. She sipped from a cup throughout our meeting, and I’m sure it wasn’t tea.
“Let me see, now,” she said. “Now, let me see. Your vibrations are very strong.”
I was beginning to realize this was not a harmless diversion. Did I really want to know my future?
Mrs. Bondazza turned several cards face up on the worn surface of the card table.
“Now, let me see. Do you know a Donna?” she asked. “Who is Donna?”
“Yes, I know a Donna,” I replied. I didn’t want to offer any information.
“Well, all right. All right. Who is Donna? Tell me, who is she?” Her voice had a Delphic confidence. She had struck a familiar chord.
“Just a woman I met recently.” You tell me, I thought.
“All right. Anyone else?”
“We had a baby-sitter named Donna. I liked her.”
Mrs. Bondazza turned over another card.
“I see someone who fell down. Someone who is crippled now.”
I was intrigued. A friend of mine did, in fact, fit that description. Like a good magician, Mrs. Bondazza had pulled a couple of rabbits out of her hat.
“Well, all right. All right. You must be very careful. I just want to say to you, now, that you should pursue the woman you love.”
“I have to find her first,” I said.
Mrs. Bondazza did not smile. And I made a mental note never to joke about the future, especially not with a fortune-teller.
“And who is gay?” she continued solemnly.
“Is that a name?”
“No. Someone you know is gay. Homosexual. Someone who is close to you.”
I hesitated, not wanting to say anymore. Mrs. Bondazza was doing a nice job of guessing my past, and I thought suddenly about my wife’s fear of disclosure. ‘Who have you told about me? Rick? Bernie? Your brother!’ And that night, the last and surely the least passionate coupling of all, Marge wore a tempting nightgown, her slim body and small bosom outlined by night’s accidental light. ‘If you have to,’ she said, ‘but I’m not in the mood.’ She had been to Boston that afternoon. I knew she had just seen her lover. ‘And hurry, I’m tired,’ she said. Afterwards, I rolled away from her, no pretense about what we had done, and no pretense that love had any part in it at all. ‘Don’t turn away,’ she had said. ‘Why are you turning away?’
It seemed as if a whole host of visions and voices had begun to press around me, summoned up by my vulnerability and Mrs. Bondazza’s para-consciousness. I was genuinely frightened by the trance she seemed to be concentrating on me, by the memories she seemed to be calling up. I felt as if I were on the television screen, speaking without restraint, telling everything to everyone.
Mrs. Bondazza coughed and excused herself. She returned quickly, her teacup filled again.
“All right, all right,” she intoned. “Let me see.” She flipped over another card. “And who is Audrey?”
“Another friend. I bought furniture from her when she moved.”
“And who lost the tip of his finger?”
“My father-in-law. He closed the garage door on it.”
“You have to be very careful. Very careful,” she warned. “He can cause you a lot of trouble.”
I shrugged. He’d always been nice to me, but Mrs. Bondazza’s eyes searched my face. She touched another card on the back, but did not turn it over.
“Who is Frank?”
I thought for a moment, trying hard to dredge up someone named Frank to confirm her insight.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I can’t remember any Frank.”
“Well, all right. All right.” She paused. “Then tell me about your burn.”
“You burned your arm,” she insisted. “Tell me about it.”
I stared at the back of my right hand, at a barely visible white blotch, a Rorschach spot in which I saw my son’s close call with a fiery death. Had she noticed? She had said, ‘arm’, and in truth my right arm, covered by a sweater, had suffered the worst burns, purple welts that I hoped would never fade, wounds that reminded me how lucky Michael was to be alive.
“Yes,” I said. “My son started a fire, accidentally.” I wanted to continue with the story, but Mrs. Bondazza stopped me with her eyes. She moved the cards and coughed.
I remembered a Saturday afternoon, raking the spring lawn. Out the front door he came, racing across the damp grass, screaming in panic: ‘Daddy, I’m burning the house down!’ I dropped my rake, ran into the house, into the kitchen. A potful of wax flamed out of control on the stove. Michael’s candle-making kit was scattered on the counter. Flames licked the plaster ceiling, shooting up from the pot as if from a flame-thrower. Was it too late? I grabbed the pot by the handle, and miraculously the flame followed. I walked slowly, oblivious to the pain searing my hand, holding the pot outstretched until I reached the door and a draft of spring air whirled the rod into a fiery cloud around me. For an instant, I became a human torch. Boiling paraffin coated my right arm as I hurled the pot onto the lawn and ran for Michael and sped to City Hospital, my skin blue-puckered and scabrous, like the ravaged image of some horror movie victim. ‘I didn’t know what to do Daddy,’ Michael said. ‘I had to call you.’ I hugged him and tousled his hair. ‘You did the right thing. You’re a brave boy.’ How lucky his hair hadn’t caught fire, his head scarcely above stove level. Can you guess how happy these scars make me, Mrs. Bondazza, how willing I would be to put my arm into the flame, once more, to spare him any pain? Do you know how scarred my soul would be if ever I lost him?
“I want you to be careful. Be very careful.” Mrs. Bondazza paused. “Who do you associate with the violin?”
“I don’t know. Two people.”
“One of them is going to die.”
Two people, I thought. My daughter studied violin. My elderly Aunt Ethel, who lived in Florida and could play Mozart.
“Well, all right. Who is Lou?”
“I don’t know any Lou,” I said. I was adamant this time. No doubt about it, I didn’t know any Lou. I was beginning to get annoyed.
“Who is a bartender?”
“There are a lot of bartenders,” I said. If you couldn’t joke with a gypsy, maybe they would appreciate sarcasm, I thought. “I don’t know any bartenders. I pay for all my drinks.”
But Mrs. Bondazza was on a roll. She was unfazed. She turned over a few more cards. She moved on to another vice.
“Someone you know will be involved with drugs. It will surprise you. Even someone as worldly as you.”
She was getting farther a field, but I didn’t care. I was enjoying parrying with her.
“And who is Marion?”
“My wife’s psychiatrist.”
That was it, I decided. Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.
“Well, you mustn’t go back to her. She is a very mixed-up person. She will cause you a lot of trouble. She will use your children against you. Now you must be careful. And who is the Polish family?”
Mrs. Bondazza was on the express track. I wanted to stop the train, find out how she knew what she knew. I needed proof that she wasn’t guessing.
“I don’t know any Polish family.”
Then I realized my baby-sitter, Donna, was Polish.
“Who is in Florida?”
“My mother and father. They’re retired.”
“Well, all right. All right.”
I couldn’t stump her twice in a row. She turned another card.
“Now I want to ask you a question. Who is Mary?”
“Mary is a woman I dated more than a year ago.”
I thought everyone must have a friend named Mary. My Mary broke up with me just about the time those four-hundred-mile trips to the sawmill became so painful, trying to cope with partners in a desolate market where no one came to buy. But, still, Mary had saved me, at least for a while. ‘I see so much pain in your face,’ she had said to me the first night we met. Mary took me home that night, skidding on the icy streets in her Japanese car. ‘You’re so tense,’ she said. ‘Your face, your arms, all your muscles.’
“Tell me,” Mrs. Bondazza said. “Tell me about Mary.”
I am telling you, I thought. Mary brought humanity into my life. She reminded me that work was good if it was humane and fruitful, that striving after money was not important. She took me out of my lonely life and let me get inside her own, ever so briefly, in a loving way. She took my hand, a generous spirit leading a moral cripple. She imagined herself overweight because she had large breasts. She had an aquiline nose and full lips, and I loved her tentative way of brushing a kiss across my lips as she kneeled over me.
“Tell me,” Mrs. Bondazza repeated. “Tell me about Mary.”
Marge and I had just separated. I took Mary to the boxing matches to see a local favorite, a tough young middleweight. No one recognized us there. We’d drive back to her apartment; turn to music on the radio. Mary smoked some weed, and we made love slowly. Although she asked, I never said I loved her.
“I am telling you about Mary, Mrs. Bondazza,” I said.
Mary saw me as a romantic and a realist. That’s how she saw me. Sometimes a business fox, a lover of sorts, a nervous wreck, a jock, a saddened lover, a loving father.
“Now, I just want to say to you, dear,” Mrs. Bondazza interrupted, “be very careful in your business. You’re having trouble there.”
“That’s right,” I agreed.
“Be very careful with your partners. Don’t trust them. I see two men who are trying to push you out of the business.”
I wanted to ask her how long the paper mill in Canada would be on strike. For seven weeks we had had to dump our valuable wood chips. No other markets close by. A long strike would surely push us under. Do you read the Wall Street Journal, Mrs. Bondazza? What are your feelings about commodities?
But the gypsy skated across the surface of my past.
“All right. All right. Who is from California?”
“Well, all right. Now let me see.”
That satisfied her, but I wanted more. Were they honest? Were they competent? For my twenty-five dollars I wanted TRUTH. I was waking up at three-thirty in the morning panicked by what I didn’t understand. Why my partners couldn’t buy logs cheaper or collect bad debt or listen to my pleas for a merger. Why was production down? Where would we sell our wood chips?
“Who is in California?” Mrs. Bondazza asked again, forgetful.
How could I connive more sales to furniture plants whose inventories of hard maple were so high they couldn’t afford to make even one more La-Z-Boy Rocker? I couldn’t sell pine if no one was building a house. Old rooms were full of old furniture.
Mrs. Bondazza coughed and exhaled a fruity smell of alcohol. She left the room to refill her teacup. She made me feel as if she were the one that was suffering.
All the years of financial struggle were at an end for me, an end to all those years of arguing with Marge who had been so impatient for my success. I had run to the woods to get as far away as possible but could still not escape my ruin, four hundred miles over the steep Adirondacks to the wilderness of northern New York, to great forests of hard maple and yellow birch, and dairy farms with fields of cow-corn and piles of urine-soaked sawdust left to rot outside the barn each day.
Can you hear me, Mrs. Bondazza? Can you read my mind?
“All right. All right. Now, who has epilepsy?”
I was helpless now, but I replied.
“The guy who fell off the bridge.”
My gypsy seemed to be going around in circles. But that was the shape of my life. One foot nailed to the floor but running madly.
“Now I want you to be very careful,” she said one more time. “Someone will have a piece of steel stuck in their eye.”
I had to laugh. “Mrs. Bondazza,” I said, “I’ve been out of the scrap metal business for years, as you should well know. If anybody’s going to have anything stuck in their eye, it’s going to be a log.”
She didn’t flinch.
“Someone’s car will be stolen.”
“Anyone I know?”
“Someone had an abortion.”
“That’s true,” I remembered.
“Who is the illegitimate child?”
“I don’t know any.”
“Yes, you do,” she insisted. “Someone you know is an illegitimate child.”
“No one I know.”
“Someone is an adopted child.”
“Yes,” I sighed, my beautiful son, who had kept me sane.
And there Mrs. Bondazza ended her chant. She took a deep breath.
“Keep a charm or a cross in your billfold,” she advised. “I will pray for you.”
Yes, pray for me, Mrs. Bondazza, I thought. Pray that somehow I will survive to lead a simpler life. Pray that I will stay a father to my children. Pray that I will meet someone who will want less from me and more of myself. Pray, Mrs. Bondazza, for all the good and human needs.
Joel Harris’ writing has been published extensively, including in Carleton Miscellany, Prairie Schooner, Transatlantic Review, Palo Alto Review, Compass Rose, Confrontation, The Chaffin Journal, Escapade Magazine, Pindeldyboz, The Long Story, Northwest Review, Westview, Perigee-Art, The Texas Review, Memoryhouse Magazine (U. of Chicago), Abstract Magazine, and Fiction International. After studying economics at Harvard College, he worked in scrap metal and operated a saw mill, a commercial shipyard, and a maritime terminal. He is married with one daughter.