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Paper Fortunes

Jim Tushinski

Conner and his father George sat in the living room, smoking a joint and watching reruns of Hollywood Squares on TV. George kept the curtains drawn. He smoked to stop the nausea, but it was still illegal.

"Closest house is a mile away, George," Conner said. "Can't we open a window?"

"Narcs have telescopes," George replied. "And narcs have cameras with telephoto lens, too."

Most days, Conner gardened and mowed at the Country Club, but it was Wednesday, his day off, so he could take his time. He watched the smoke curl up from the joint, forming wispy helixes in the air that evaporated when he exhaled into them. The light from the television gave everything in the room a blue tint, even when there was nothing blue on the screen.

After a while, though, Conner needed to stretch. He stood and bent over, touching his hands to his toes. His floppy bleached hair hung halfway to the floor in this position. He shook his head, watching the hair swing, wondering how long he should let it grow. Blood rushed to his face. He felt the muscles in his legs stretch and pop and tingle with a pleasant burning.

George and Conner lived in a small, whitewashed house in the Gates of Slumber Memorial Gardens. A caretaker had occupied the house once, but when a corporation bought Gates of Slumber, no caretaker was needed. Services were contracted out and the house put up for rent.

"It's like living in a big, beautiful park," George told Conner before they moved in. "It's not ghoulish at all. And there's a bedroom for you. In the morning, birds sing."

George was right. Gates of Slumber was an island of grass surrounded by cornfields. It had no tombs or mausoleums, no ancient trees, just acres of manicured lawn dotted with shrubs. In fact, Conner rarely felt the presence of the dead in the park. As he walked around the grounds, he saw small, rectangular plates of polished granite, names and dates carved into the rose- or chalk-colored surfaces. The tombstones were like historical markers along a highway -- uniform and understated. The mourners Conner saw were modest as well, quiet and always at a distance, as if they wished to leave the place exactly as they found it. Sometimes, the cemetery made Conner think of his mother, who had been dead for 15 years and whom Conner could barely remember. He only remembered that she had blonde hair and liked red lipstick. The day of her funeral was hot and he remembered how his shirt itched.

George took another hit. The audience screamed.

Conner stopped touching his toes and looked at his father. George, too, had let his hair grow for several months now and hadn't shaved for three days. Conner thought it made George look even sicker than he was.

"You're not working today?" George asked.

Conner shook his head.

"I got to get out and move around, George," he said. "You be all right for a while?"

"I can still make it to the bathroom on my own, so I'll be fine," George said. "We could use some more grass though."

"See what I can do, George."

In the hallway, out of the artificial darkness of the living room, Conner worried about George doing nothing but watching television all day. Yet Conner rarely saw him depressed. The pot kept George from feeling too sad or too sick. Conner wondered what would happen if George were exposed to sunlight again. In the glow of the television, George's face was thin and shrunken and blue. The veins in his temples and neck pulsed under his skin. In sunlight, would George look like one of those plastic anatomy models -- his face all bone and arteries and transparent muscle? Conner opened the front door and stepped outside. Despite the sunshine and a crisp, mown grass smell in the air, Conner still felt cooped up.

He walked along the shoulder of the road for two miles following the tall corn until he reached the strip mall on the edge of town.

Inside the arcade, it was cooler. The attendant looked up from his reading and, without a word or change in expression, looked down again. Past rows of pinball machines and whooping video games, Conner made his way to the rear of the arcade, where it was darker. The fortune-telling scale stood alone off to one side. Conner liked the machine because it didn't flash. It glowed red around its dial and for 25 cents, as you stood on the scale, it spit out three seemingly random fortunes. Not many kids used it, but Conner collected its fortunes, wanting to see how many unique fortunes the machine could dispense. He had 20 in a small wooden box all ready, each one different. His two favorites were: Buy many dream boxes: ask a friend to select one…dream together and You will be wise not to seek too much from others. He liked the first one because it sounded magical and innocent. He liked the second because it seemed an instruction for surviving.

Conner stood on the scale, deposited a quarter, and scooped up the three flimsy strips of paper the machine ejected.

Combine business with pleasure, the first fortune read. The second said Happy events will take place shortly in your house. The third was Simplicity and clarity should be your theme in dress. All three were new to him.

Conner felt someone put an arm around his shoulder. He knew it had to be Bill.

"How's your Dad?" Bill asked, pulling Conner close in a gesture of masculine affection that no one would suspect. Conner blushed but didn't try to pull away.

"He's OK," Conner said. "Needs more medicine though."

"Sure," Bill said. "Let me play a game or two, then we'll stop by my house. I can give you a ride home from there."

Bill preferred pinball machines, but played them without finesse. He liked to shove and pound. When Conner leaned against the side of the machine to watch Bill, he felt the jolts in his stomach and crotch. He rode each push as if Bill were pushing him around, roughing him up in jest. Bill was shorter than Conner, but stockier and stronger -- a former high school quarterback grown a bit dissolute. His demeanor was stuck in jock adolescence while his body had become fleshy and hairy as he approached his late twenties. Droopy, bloodshot eyes made Bill look sadly appealing, like a stoned farm boy. Conner thought Bill knew just about everyone in town -- stoners and others -- at least casually. It's better that way, Bill told him. No one would suspect the frequency or number of visitors to his house. Sure, his business depended on making connections, but Conner thought Bill genuinely wanted to be liked.

At the end of the second game, Bill slammed the machine one more time and winked at Conner.

"Come on," he said and took Conner's arm as if he were a security guard escorting him out of the arcade and into the sunlight.

They never spoke about what happened at Bill's house. By now it was understood that they would share a joint, then wrestle on the floor until Bill pinned Connor and slowly leaned in for a kiss. The sex would be wordless and secretive. When it was over, there was always awkward silence between them. This time was different. This time, when the sex was over, Bill kissed Conner's neck and intertwined their fingers with a strange new tenderness. Conner could see the cloudless sky out of the living room window. He pulled away after a few seconds.

Later, as Conner sat sipping a cola, Bill threw a pair of airline tickets on the kitchen table in front of him.

"I'm going to Hawaii," Bill said. "You want to come?"

Conner didn't know what to say. He tried to look mildly interested, but not surprised.

"Kauai, really," Bill said. "I'm going for business. You'd be on your own. Come and go as you please."

Conner took another sip of his cola and still didn't speak. The tickets had Conner's name on them and he realized he'd never seen his name on an airline ticket before. He reached out and touched the ticket, moving it a little so his name showed completely.

"What about George?" Conner said. "I can't leave him alone."

Bill smiled and, for a moment, seemed younger than Conner. He nodded as he spoke.

"I thought of that already. I've got a friend who's a retired nurse. She's really great and she owes me a favor. It's only for a week."

Conner moved the tickets a little more and took another sip of his cola.

"You should have some time off," Bill said. "It's not good for you to be looking after someone all the time. You're too young."

Conner decided to go. He decided instantly, without having to weigh the possibilities or worry about details. Perhaps it was the strange pleasure he received from seeing his name on the tickets -- standing out from all the other numbers, letters, and dates as if it glowed. Just as Conner was about to say "OK," Bill came up behind him and stroked his hair. He'd never done that before, not during sex and not afterwards.

"OK," Conner said, his voice quick and dry. "It sounds fun."

He stood up and turned to face Bill, who blocked Conner's way out of the kitchen. For an awkward moment, neither of them spoke or moved, then Bill reached up and touched Conner's cheek. His eyes were still glassy and blood-shot.

"You're so sweet," Bill said, leaning in for a slow kiss.

Conner felt a tingling that started in his lips, then quickly moved through his chest and to his stomach. The kiss lasted for several seconds and when it was over, Conner was breathless, but not aroused. He knew, without putting it into words, that what he felt wasn't love or lust. What he felt was a rush of power.

On the drive back to Gates of Slumber, they barely said a word. Conner knew everything was different now even if it all looked the same. When they were just down the road from the cemetery, Bill stopped the car. As Conner opened the door, Bill grabbed Conner's other hand and caressed it. Conner jerked away, but caught himself and gave in, though he only looked into Bill's eyes briefly before scanning the road ahead.

"Call me tonight," Bill said. It was almost a question.

When Conner tried to get out of the car, Bill did not let go and Conner had to pull away. He wasn't even sure he had Bill's number.

"Yeah," Conner said. "OK, but it depends on how George is doing, you know?"

He felt a wince of dishonesty, using his father's illness as an excuse, but it didn't last. Conner was surprised at how easily he lied, how simple it was.

As Bill's car drove away, Conner stood watching for a minute and saw it disappear over a little hill. Across the road, the corn blocked his view. Conner imagined that town was just through those stalks. He imagined walking over and stepping through into a more interesting version of town, someplace with Chinese restaurants and huge flowering trees.

George still sat in front of the TV and the house smelled of marijuana and of milk left out too long. Conner hadn't noticed the sour smell of neglect before but assumed it had been there a while. He stuck his head in the living room to check on George, who smiled and waved, but said nothing, then went to the kitchen to make lunch. Conner sniffed around, trying to locate the source of the smell, but while it was pervasive, the smell seemed fainter in the kitchen. He checked the milk in the refrigerator, which was fine.

"Lunch time, George," Conner said. He carried in a tray with a sandwich and a glass of lemon-lime soda on it.

"I'm not very hungry. How was your walk?"

"Yeah, but you should eat something, George. Come on." He put the tray on George's lap. George just sighed. "How about some pop? That seems to help."

"I suppose." George brought the glass up to his lips and took a labored drink. Then he smiled and the shadows on his face deepened. He looked almost mummified. Conner sat in the armchair next to him. "You should try the sandwich, too, George."

"OK," he replied, but didn't touch it. The television filled the silence with applause and music.

"How was your walk?" George asked again.

"You should come with me, George. A little walk would make you feel better."

George continued to smile.

When Conner looked at George, a fear overtook him which seemed to extend beyond the fact that George was dying. It was a sudden, dizzying plunge, without an adrenaline rush, and for an instant, the world seemed completely unreal, like some other world lurked just behind it, frightening and out of reach. But Conner smiled back.

"Really," he said. "A walk would do you good."

"I worry about you," George said. "You spend so much time cooped up with me. You should be out with friends."

"Oh, I'm fine, George. I ran into a friend while I was out just now. And besides, you're my friend, too."

George cringed. "I'm your father. That's different from a friend. And I'm your sick father. That's worse."

Conner stood up. "Come on, George, what's with you? Feeling down?"

George shrugged. "Guess I need my happy medicine."

Lifting his T-shirt, Conner reached into his pants and pulled out a plastic sandwich bag one quarter full of marijuana.

"Ask and you shall receive," Conner said.

"My boy, you are amazing. Shall we fire some up?"

"I'll load it for you. I'm sitting this one out." He filled the pipe.

"So George," he said. "I told you I ran into this friend of mine."

"Right." George's attention had returned to the television. Conner walked over, gave him the pipe, and then lit it for him.

"Well, he asked me to go on vacation with him. Hawaii. Well, Kauai, actually. Wild, huh? I told him I couldn't go, but still, it was very cool."

George exhaled. He looked right at Conner, then reached for the television remote control and turned off the TV. The room was so dark now that Conner couldn't see the details of George's clothes -- his robe and pajamas were indistinguishable from the chair he sat in. Only George's pale skin stood out in the gloom, vaguely phosphorescent, as if the television glow still lingered on it.

"You ever been to Kauai, George?" Conner asked.

"Which island is that? Is it near Honolulu? Is it the really small island?"

"I'm not sure," Conner said. They didn't have a map or globe in the house.

"You should go."

"I don't think I can, George." Conner looked at his father, who wavered in the darkness like smoke.

"You should go," George said.

Conner paused a moment. "My friend. He has this friend who's a nurse."

George nodded.

"She would stay here for free and make food for you."

George stared at the television as if it were on. "You should go," he said.

Conner took the remote control from his hand and pointed it at the television. The room brightened with light and screams of laughter. George didn't move, so Conner patted him on the shoulder and went to his room, stopping in the kitchen for an apple first. As he ate the apple, he poured out the fortunes from their wooden box, spread them on the floor, added the three new ones he'd gotten that day, then turned each slip over so the words were hidden. He chewed the apple, slowly mixing the fortunes up until he had no idea which was which.

He wondered what it would be like to have Bill kissing him all the time in Kauai. He knew he didn't like Bill's kisses, but he didn't dislike them either. They just didn't mean anything. They were like drinking water when you're not thirsty. Conner turned one of the slips over.

If you abide in firmness, there will be good fortune.

He hoped Bill would leave him alone when they weren't having sex. Conner had things he wanted to do there -- wake up to a different sky, smell dense green trees, walk barefoot on the side of hot asphalt roads and down dirt trails to the sea. He turned over another fortune.

It would be advantageous to cross the big stream when you reach it.

And another.

You will be wise not to seek too much from others.

Conner looked out his window at the clouds flying westward over the corn. He knew eventually they hit the Rocky Mountains and that some of them, just a few, went much higher than the other clouds and were pushed over the mountain tops to the sea. Maybe he'd find one of those same clouds when he got to Kauai. Maybe it would travel around the world, coasting up near space. Or maybe it would never leave the cornfields, getting caught up in a thunderhead and dying in a scream of wind and rain.

In the living room, George watched a re-run of The Match Game. He couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so he closed them to the sound of applause that comes before the final commercial break.

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