We went on a lark. Friends of long-standing, we were all young, in our twenties that spring of 1969, but old enough to know that True Love, Fulfilling Work, Success, and all the rest of it would not be automatically conferred upon us like high school diplomas, or for that matter, college degrees. In one of our shoot-the-cosmic-shit convos someone mentioned they’d heard of a famous fortune teller right here in Southern California. She lived in an isolated trailer on acreage in a high desert area not all that far from Riverside. Someone suggested, instead of wondering about our futures, let’s go ask!
We had heard she only worked Saturday and Sunday and only took so many clients a day, first come, first serve. So on a Friday evening we caravanned there and camped overnight in a field beside a narrow road and across from her place, a dreary looking double-wide set on a low hill. We brought sandwiches and chips and an ice chest with beer and entertained one another with what-ifs. “What would you do if she told you….” Ha ha ha. We finally crawled into our respective sleeping bags, and slept in our clothes. Someone brought an alarm clock. Waking at dawn we waded through the weeds downhill to pee and then stowed our gear in the cars. Across the road, in front of the double-wide people were already lined up.
Everyone ill at ease. No one wore a wedding ring.
I cannot remember the fortune teller’s name, so let me just call her Madame S. Madame’s assistant, a plain woman of indeterminate age, finally opened the door and allowed about twenty of us in. She took our names and cash money ($25? $50? Can’t recall, expensive in that era when gas was 39 cents a gallon, and cigarettes were 25 cents a pack.) The assistant told us to wait on utilitarian couches and chairs that lined up, facing each other. Florescent light fixtures buzzed overhead. The place vibrated with that same silent unease you find in a doctor’s waiting room. (How sick is that dude across from me and what’s he got?) Except for me and my friends, everyone else was middle-aged, and I noted, no one wore a wedding ring.
Before Madame was to see the first client, the assistant informed us of protocol. We should not talk to Madame until she spoke to us. She would allow each person two questions. No more. And when she was done, even if you were not, you would be shown to a back exit. (Thus no one staggered back through the waiting room, looking stunned or haggard or joyful or confused.)
Yes, she had a crystal ball.
Madame S. must have had a buzzer or some such, because the assistant knew exactly when to call the next person. Each client got about fifteen minutes. I studied the framed photographs on the walls, glamorous Hollywood types who left florid testimonials and gratitude to Madame S along with their signatures. As the waiting room began to empty out, and one by one my friends exited and did not return, I began to get what is formally known as the heebie-jeebies. Finally my name was called and I was pointed to a door. I opened it, walked down the short hall and opened another door.
“Will my brother Doug come home from Vietnam?”
After the florescent glare in the waiting room, my vision faltered. It was a small, close room, lit only dimly by a single lamp and some votives, the one window covered by heavy drapes. The walls were hung with many scarves or shawls of varying lengths and hues. Madame sat at a small table, and yes, she had a crystal ball. To my recollection she was probably about sixty, stout, even dumpy, wearing a loose caftan in dark colors, her graying hair in a braid. Her thick glasses (the proverbial Coke-bottle glasses) obscured her eyes. She pointed to the chair across from her and I sat down. She took my hand, petted it, not as though reassuring me, but as though tugging at me. I remember nothing of her mumblings, except for two things.
One of my two questions was complex, but the other was simple: “Will my brother Doug come home from Vietnam?”
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation.
At that an unseen assistant entered the room, and brushed aside a shawl.
Just before Madame S. let go of my hand, she said, “North and east.”
“Your future lies north and east.”
The assistant opened the door and I stumbled outside, blinking against the brightness, the blue sky. I was alone. Down on the road my friends waved to me.
We’re in Southern California, lady!
Driving back to Riverside we talked about what she’d variously told us, and decided it was mostly stupid. We dismissed her as a charlatan. I said, “North and east? Really? We’re in Southern California, lady! South of here is Mexico and west is the Pacific Ocean. Where else is there to go? ” We had a good laugh and I forgot all about Madame S.
One of the great undeserved mercies of my life.
That fall—on an impulse, really, what amounted to an utter whim—I quit my job, went to the East Coast to visit. I did not come back to live in California for three years. Some of the most consequential years of my life. I made the friends of a lifetime. I got a Masters in history. I stood up in front of a college classroom posing as a professor who knew her shit while I struggled to live up to the responsibility. I lived in a community that was, for me, the equivalent of Junior Year Abroad. I met the man I later married, father of my sons. I took part in massive anti-war protests in DC. I drove across country and down the coast to Florida. I went to Europe. And though I could not have known it then, living on the east coast was one of the great undeserved mercies of my life.
Why? Because I was not in Southern California when my brother returned from Vietnam. Doug was riddled with malaria, hepatitis, skin afflictions, hallucinations and drug addiction. He was denied any kind of help or care from Veteran’s Administration due to his Undesirable Discharge. His care fell wholly on my family; the shock and loss and terror at what he had become left indelible stains on the psyche of everyone around him. I was not around him. I did not see these events firsthand.
I wished I been more specific.
When I did come home, when I saw my brother. I thought instantly of Madame S. and wished I’d been more specific. I should have asked: Will Doug come home from Vietnam and still be a whole human being?
How would she have answered that? How could I have guessed what war would do to him? Of what war could do to any eighteen year old boy who cavalierly dropped a class at the community college and was thus so ripe for the draft that he up and enlisted. The army basic-trained Doug Johnson at Fort Ord, took his photograph in a smart uniform, and shipped him off to Vietnam, just another 4th Infantry grunt. Oh, and in May 1970 they sent him into Cambodia, the country that Nixon had assured the American people he did not intend to invade. My mother saw Doug in Time magazine photograph standing in front of a helicopter in the jungle with a bunch of other hapless grunts, one of them making a weak peace sign. Doug went AWOL in Cambodia. All that before he was old enough to vote. I wish I could say the rest was silence, but it was not.
I moved north to take a Visiting Writer gig for only six months
In 1984 on another whim, I packed up my two little boys, got in the car, stuck La Traviata in the tape deck and drove north to Washington state to take a Visiting Writer gig that would only last six months. It lasted five years, as it turned out, and when it ended, I stayed on in the house I had bought. I made a life with my sons. I made a living with assorted teaching jobs and workshops while writing and publishing nine books between 1989 and 2006 the year my youngest graduated from college. I still live in the same house, eighteen miles from the Canadian border.
North and east indeed.