We travel back in time to the 1950s, my favorite of the many decades that I have had the good fortune of experiencing.
It was a hot-and-humid summer day following my being freed from second grade. I knew something unusual was about to happen when my mother, to use a popular 50s expression, was “dressed to the hilt.”
“Come on, Donald, we are going to take a walk.”
I panicked. “We’re not going to the dentist, are we?”
“No, we are going to someplace special.”
That gained my attention. “Where?”
“To a fortune teller.”
“A fortune teller. Someone who can tell what is going to happen in the future.”
“How far do we gotta walk?”
“Not far. Just to the other side of St. Elizabeth’s Church.”
“You’ll need to put on your school clothes.”
“Because this is someplace special.”
I wasn’t happy about having to change my clothing, but seeing a fortune teller made putting on school clothes okay. I thought that I might be able to figure out how the fortune teller knew what was going to happen. Then I could find out what was going to be on the tests at school, and sell the answers to the dumb kids for a nickel.
As we walked along, I had visions of entering a palace, though I had never seen anything remotely resembling one anywhere near St. Elizabeth’s, or anywhere else in my hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts.
My mother stopped walking ten houses past the church and said, “Here we are.”
I stared in disbelief at a small, one-story house that looked like it was ready to be wrecked by my father. (Among the many jobs he had in the past was that of wrecking old buildings.)
Any hope that my mother had brought us to the wrong place was dashed by a cracked, white sign with hand-painted stars and a crescent moon topped with the name Madam Zarkova.
So much for getting rich.
“I think the fortune teller stole her name.”
“What do you mean?”
“She stole it from Doctor Zarkov.”
“Who is Doctor Zarkov?”
“Are you kidding? Everybody knows Doctor Zarkov.”
“Well I don’t.”
“Betcha Dad does.”
“I’m sure he does. Now who is he?”
“The scientist in Flash Gordon.”
“Well I’m sure she didn’t steal his name.”
“Betcha she did.”
She ended the conversation by knocking on the front door. Nothing happened. We waited. She knocked again. Nothing happened, so I turned the knob and pushed open the door.
“Donald!” scolded my mother.
“Well, shouldn’t she know we are here?”
She had no answer for that and instead decided to walk into what was a small room that was close to being totally dark. No lights were on and the shades were pulled all the way down, covering the room’s only two windows. Trailing behind my mother, I resisted the temptation to make ghost sounds. To be honest, I was a little bit scared.
The room had four wooden chairs and a wooden table with a turned-off lamp on it. Nothing else.
While my mother was debating whether or not we should sit down, there was a creaking sound accompanied by the slow opening of a door opposite the entrance to the house.
In walked Madam Zarkova. She wasn’t much taller than my Grandma Sophie who was slightly under five feet, but she was considerably heavier. Covering her entire body was a black robe filled with stars and a bunch of crescent moons. She had some kind of black cloth wrapped around her head.
I figured her hair was wet.
“Welcome. And who do we have here?” she asked while looking at me.
“This is my son, Donald.”
“And your name is?” she said to my mother.
I wondered why she didn’t already know our names.
They briefly engaged in small talk before we were ushered into the fortune-telling room. It was just as dark as the first room. The only window was covered with a black-velvet curtain that blocked out all but a sliver of light from entering the room. A lamp with a dim light bulb located in a corner of the room was the only other source of light.
My mother sat on a chair in front of a round table covered with a black tablecloth that extended down to the floor.
Madam Zarkova sat opposite my mother. I was relegated to a far corner of the room. I’m sure Madam Zarkova would have preferred me not to be in the room.
My mother paid upfront. It was obvious that she did not want me to know how much she was paying as she kept her back to me so that I couldn’t see the exchange of money.
I wish I could definitively say whether or not there was a crystal ball on the table, but I can’t remember if there was or not.
Madame Zarkova spoke in a whisper as did my mother. No matter how hard I tried to listen, I could only pick up an occasional word or two. The only words I remember are “handsome stranger” and “Cadillac.” At the time, I don’t believe I knew what handsome meant. My parents never owned a Cadillac and, to the best of my knowledge, they never associated with anyone who drove one.
As we were leaving what for me had been a very disappointing visit, Madam Zarkova made the mistake of telling me that if I wanted to ask one question, she would be glad to answer it.
Before thinking about it, I blurted out, “If you can tell what’s going to happen, how come you live in a junky house?”
“Donald!” admonished my mother.
Madam Zarkova glared at me. It was a good thing she wasn’t a witch or I would have been turned into a frog or a rock.
On the way home, I asked my mother how much she paid Madame Zarkova.
I knew that was going to be told to Father Tell-Me-All-Of-Your-Sins the next time she went to confession.
We walked a few more steps before she said, “Donald, I really should tell your father about your disrespect.”
The tone of her voice implied that she wouldn’t tell him what I said to Madame Zarkova, if I wouldn’t squeal about her going to see a fortune teller.
Without another word being spoken, the bargain was made and honored.