It was spring when Mrs Pohvalich went down to her husband’s workshop in the basement and hammered together a sign declaring: Palms Read.
“Yelena,” said her husband, Morris, as he watched her struggle up the steps, plywood board in tow, “where are you going with that?”
“To the front yard. Open the door for me, please,” she said, and he obediently held the door open and watched as she planted the sign in the half-thawed ground. It tilted lazily to one side but Mrs Pohvalich seemed satisfied.
“Morris, where are our lawn chairs?”
“What lawn chairs?” asked Mr Pohvalich, who had last seen the chairs in question some fifteen years before, when their boys had been small and liked to run through the sprinkler in shorts. Before puberty, before sports and cars and girls.
Mrs Pohvalich shook her head and brushed by him, hammer dangling lightly from her fingers.
“We never had any lawn chairs,” said her son, Tony, who was busily lifting barbells in a corner of the living room.
“What do you know about it?” asked Mr Pohvalich. “Put down those weights and go take your mother’s sign out of the yard. Palms read! What does Yelena Pohvalich know about reading anyone’s palms?” he shouted.
Mrs Pohvalich came up from the basement with two lawn chairs in her grip. “I want something done in this house, I do it myself.” She unfolded the chairs’ aluminum frames, dusted at them with a dish towel, and waited for her first customer.
“My grandmother learned from her grandmother,” Yelena Pohvalich told the woman who sat uncomfortably in the lawn chair next to her own. “There’s no telling how far back this tradition goes.”
Doris Kuchek listened intently, strips of plastic weave suffering under her weight. She’d seen through the slats of her blinds the brawny figure of Tony Pohvalich pulling what looked like a sign from in front of the house and watched as Mrs Pohvalich patiently hammered the sign back into place.
They’re moving, thought Mrs Kuchek, and she slipped a scarf over her hair and walked across the street to see for herself.
“This is a tradition?” asked Mrs Kuchek. “Putting lawn chairs in front of the house and offering to tell the future?”
“One great-grandmother sold love potions to young women in Bulgaria. The potions were made of frog parts and the crushed bodies of spiders,” Mrs Pohvalich said matter-of-factly.
“I only came over because I thought you were moving,” Mrs Kuchek said. “I saw the sign in the yard.”
“My own grandmother taught me some of what she knew,” continued Mrs Pohvalich. “Give me your hands, Doris. I’ll read them.”
Mrs Kuchek held her hands tightly in her lap. “I just wanted to know why you were moving.”
Gently, Mrs Pohvalich took Mrs Kuchek’s hands and held them in her own.
“Do not resist, Doris. Do not be afraid.”
“But what if I don’t want to know the future?”
“Not even a little bit?” asked Mrs Pohvalich, smiling.
“Well, maybe a little. But what if it’s something horrible?”
Mrs Pohvalich closed her eyes and spoke in a strong voice. “At six o’clock my son Tony will take a shower and use up all the hot water. My other son Andrei and his wife Katya are coming for dinner with us. Andrei will eat all the rolls and Katya will refuse everything except a piece of lettuce and three glasses of wine. She’ll offer to help with the dishes but I’ll be afraid to let her handle the glassware. Besides, there won’t be any hot water. Morris will fall asleep in his chair watching the ten o’clock news. That’s my future, Doris. How could yours be any worse?”
Challenged, Doris Kuchek gave in. “Do you charge for this?”
“This isn’t as difficult as a love potion,” Mrs Pohvalich explained, unfolding Mrs Kuchek’s hands and tracing the creases with a fingertip. “There are no smelly toadstools to boil or blood to mix with bone. For you, Doris, the first one is free.”
That night at the dinner table Mr Pohvalich advised his family. “Whatever you do, don’t encourage her.” His wife was in the kitchen. “I don’t think it’s serious, yet, and maybe if we don’t talk about it she’ll forget. Women sometimes go a little nuts when they get older.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the word menopause, not in front of his daughter-in-law.
“Not serious!” exclaimed Andrei, piling his plate high with rolls. “My mother starts behaving like a gypsy and you don’t think it’s serious?”
“I am not behaving like a gypsy,” yelled Mrs Pohvalich from the kitchen. “Gypsies ride in wagons and have gold teeth.”
“She sure impressed Mrs Kuchek,” Tony informed them.
“Mrs Kuchek! Now she’s done it! There’ll be a line of women out there tomorrow, waiting to have their fortunes told!” Andrei prophesied.
“We could make a fortune from this,” Tony divined.
Mr Pohvalich, stricken by the tragedy that had befallen his family, did not speak again that evening. After dinner he retired to his chair in front of the tv where he was destined to fall fast asleep. He dreamed of expensive gynecologists, of Jungian analysts, of naturopaths in white lab coats, all of whom told him that for what ailed Yelena Pohvalich, they could find no cure.
Katya visited the next day.
“Mother Pohvalich,” she implored, “won’t you please tell my fortune?”
“My grandmothers used to sell love potions to the young girls in Romania,” began Mrs Pohvalich, “but they never sold one to their own families.”
“They weren’t up to robbing their relatives, is that it?” shouted Mr Pohvalich from the other room. “Or poisoning them with crushed frogs?”
His wife ignored him. “Some people are foolish and let love take them where it will,” she said to Katya. “Some are foolish and never let love take them anywhere at all.”
“Do any men ask to have their palms read?”
“Don’t encourage her!” instructed Mr Pohvalich from the depths of his chair. “She’ll forget all about this!”
“Oh, men,” said Mrs Pohavlich with a decisive wave of a hand. “They’d rather not know the future. They don’t have the rezistenţă, the strength.”
“Now you speak Romanian?” yelled Mr Pohvalich. “Men make the future! We don’t need you to tell us what’s going to happen.”
Sighing, Yelena Pohvalich took Katya’s right hand into her own. “Daughters, my darling. You are going to have six lovely daughters, and they will be the light of your long life.”
“Oh! Mother Pohvalich! Is that what you foresee?” asked Katya.
“No, my sweet. It is what I hope for.”
“This is the last fortune I shall tell,” said Mrs Pohvalich a week later. Doris Kuchek sat with her at the dining room table.
“The last? Why, Yelena, when there is so much more waiting to be told?”
“Coffee, Doris?” Mrs Pohvalich poured from the percolator. “Cream?”
“When did you decide this?” asked Mrs Kuchek, determined. Nothing so exciting as a fortune teller on her own block had happened before and such occurrences are not let go of easily.
“My grandmothers knew when it was time to stop. Wars, famines, plague could not keep them from practicing their art. But when the time comes, there’s no getting around it.”
“I noticed the sign was missing from the front yard,” confessed Mrs Kuchek. “That’s why I came over.”
“Give me your hands, Doris.”
Yelena Pohvalich peered deeply into the lines decorating Doris Kuchek’s palms. “I am not an entertainer, here to amuse,” she said. “I could tell you things you don’t want to hear. Things you don’t want to know about and will hate when they happen.”
Mrs Kuchek squirmed in her seat. “I distinctly remember that I left the oven on at home. And the iron.”
“You came to hear pretty stories about handsome men and new cars. Air conditioning and all wheel drive.”
“What do I care for a new car?” asked Mrs Kuchek, aghast, because a new car was her dream. Red exterior paint and leather seats.
“You just want to hear about your husband’s future accident and how much you’ll get from the insurance ruling,” continued Mrs Pohvalich. “You want to know when the airlines are going to reduce their rates and what number you should choose in the lottery.”
“You could tell me what number?”
Mrs Pohvalich tossed her head like a coquette. “Of course I could. It’s no easy trick, mind you. My own mother told me how. She used to whisper such things when I was little.”
“Would you tell me?” breathed Mrs Kuchek, hardly daring to ask. “Just one tiny number?”
“You won’t be satisfied with one number and week after week you’ll be on my doorstep, asking for more, for bigger and better numbers.”
“I won’t. I promise,” pledged Mrs Kuchek.
And so Yelena Pohvalich, in whose veins flowed the blood of women who once sold love potions to the young girls of Bulgaria and perhaps even Croatia and Kosovo, whispered in the waiting ear a number that, if used correctly, would yield surprising things.
K. B. Thomas has been a book lover and bookseller since dinosaurs roamed the earth. She works, writes, and walks her dog in Portland, OR. Find more fiction at: kbthomas.net