by Alice Woodrome
"Madam Celeste?" Scott asked the woman who answered the door of the rundown house on Dressler Avenue. She wore a long shirt over leggings that bunched around her ankles. The only thing about her that seemed right for a fortune teller were the large hoop earrings that nearly touched her shoulders.
"Yes," she said without smiling. "Are you the young man who phoned about a reading?” She brushed a strand of gray-streaked hair behind her ear.
"Yeah," he said, stepping through the doorway as she moved aside. "I guess that’s what you call it."
“Back this way.” She led Scott from an ordinary sitting area into what in most homes would be the dining room. The small dimly-lit room was curtained off, and unlike Madam Celeste and the parlor, did not differ greatly from his expectation. Brocade drapes with tassels darkened the window, and a large glass ball was positioned in the middle of a round skirted table. The scent of jasmine drifted from a Buddha incense burner on a shelf. Even Madam Celeste fit the part better after she draped a purple-fringed shawl over her head and shoulders, casting lacy shadows across her eyes. She sat at the table and motioned for him to sit in the chair opposite her.
"It’s customary to get the business out of the way before we begin," she said.
He hesitated a moment, confused. Then his faced flushed warm as he dug into his back pocket." Oh yeah, sure. I’ve never done this before. Twenty, was it?"
She nodded and took the bill, tucking it into the shirt pocket under her shawl. "Is there something in particular that brings you here today? Something that’s been troubling you?"
"I heard about that man from Crawford—the lottery winner. I never thought there was much to all this psychic stuff until I heard he got the number from you. I could sure use a winning number that.” He’d covered his share of the rent last month by asking his mother. He couldn’t do it two months in a row or they’d start harping again about getting a full-time job—”a real job.”
"Let me see your right hand, young man." Madam Celeste reached over the table with both of hers. "I can only tell you what I see."
Scott offered his hand to her, palm up. She took it, examined its structure from both sides, and traced some of the lines with her fingertips. "You have an interesting hand." She looked at him, her dark eyes narrowing with concern. "I hope you are living well. Are you happy with your choices?”
"I just finished playing the part of Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing. You know, Shakespeare on Parkway?" he said proudly. "Maybe you’ve seen some of our productions? I’m in rehearsal for Julius Caesar now, playing Cassius. It’s just union scale, but I love it.”
"Good," she said, somewhat sadly. "It is important that you are enjoying your life."
Scott’s brow furrowed. "Why? Do you see something there?"
"I see a wise young man who is enjoying his life now instead of putting it off until it is too late.” She smiled for the first time. "We should all follow our dreams."
“It'd be nice to have a more lucrative dream.” He gave a nervous laugh. “I wait tables part-time at Olive Garden, trying to make ends meet, but I had a spell of bad luck a while back when I had to get my car fixed, then it died on me anyway. I ride the bus now and my rent is two weeks past due. I was hoping that you could give me a winning lottery number."
"The man you spoke of was destined to win. I only foretold it." Madam Celeste turned her attention to the large crystal ball on the table. "I can’t change your future. Only you can do that. I can only report what I see," she repeated.
"Tell me what you see then. At least tell me if I’ll be able to make a living as an actor. I mean, I love it, but I’ve got to eat, too.“
"Shhh—silence, please." Celeste looked deep into the translucent orb. She turned it slightly on its base and gazed deeply into one area. "Something is there. I see a number. It’s 3—then 1, and a 5.”
“What’s the rest?"
"That’s it, just those three numbers: 3 1 5.”
"My lucky number? Too short for a lottery number. What is it? A date, maybe? Is it a date?"
"Perhaps, but I just see the numbers.” She looked into Scott’s eyes again, then tilted her head and squinted. "I don’t get the sense that this is a lucky number, though. I think rather, it is one to avoid."
"Oh—an unlucky number?” Scott turned it over in his mind quietly for a few moments, nodding his head slowly, then his eyes widened. “March 15th. That’s the Ides of March—you know, like in Julius Caesar. ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ That won’t be for another four months, though. That’s a long time to worry."
“It may not be a date,” Madam Celeste warned. "I wasn’t given that. But you must stay alert—be careful.” She peered into his eyes with a disconcerting intensity and added, "Don’t be caught unawares when this number appears."
Scott took the bus back to the walk-up apartment he shared with another actor. He wished he hadn’t spent the twenty. All he got for the trouble was something else to worry about, and he didn’t even know what it was. Maybe a date; maybe not. Like he didn’t have enough problems. He could have eaten for three or four days on that twenty—longer in a pinch.
He dialed his mother’s number as he climbed the stairs to the apartment, hoping his father wasn’t around. “Mom, I’m sorry, really I am. But I’m short again. If I don’t pay my share of the rent, I’ll be on the street by the end of the month. Brian is sympathetic—but he’s struggling, too. He needs a roommate who can pay on time.”
“Your father thinks I should cut you off until you get practical about your situation.” His mother’s voice was taut. “He says you’ll just live in fantasy land until you’re forced to face reality.” She sighed. “Honestly, Scott. I can’t keep doing this. I’ll send a check this month, but this is it. I can’t help you again.”
He couldn’t blame them. They’d worked hard to raise him and his sister, who was now married and on her own. His dad’s health was not great, but he still worked as a carpet installer, and had hopes of retiring soon. It had to be frustrating to have a grown son still asking for help. But Scott wanted more out of life than working nine to five at a job he had no interest in. If he could just hold out until he got a break.
Scott rode the bus to the restaurant that evening, thinking about the fortune teller’s warning. Three One Five. It was all foolishness, but he couldn’t forget it. If she’d just told him for sure it was a date, or a time, an address maybe or—it could be anything. It was impossible. He tried to put it out of his mind, but he had trouble concentrating on work all evening, and his tips reflected his preoccupation.
He had to get a grip, but he found himself looking out for those numbers everywhere—in prices, pages in a book, within telephone numbers and addresses. Just before 3:15 every afternoon, he stopped what he was doing and looked around, suspicious that calamity was just waiting for an unguarded moment. He got so he woke before 3:15 at night, to check the doors and windows.
When he couldn’t pay his rent at the beginning of the following month, Brian gave his room to Dirk, another actor in the company, and he slept on the futon in the living room.
With rehearsals for Julius Caesar, it seemed increasingly clear it must be a date. The Ides of March hung over his head all winter. He was reminded with every rehearsal and then with each performance of the play. Scott was glad when the play closed the first Sunday of February and he was delivered at last from the constant reminder of the unsettling counsel. His respite was short-lived, however, because when March was upon him, the 15th loomed large. There was no forgetting the dreadful number foretold in his future.
When the 15th came, Scott was relieved. Just a few hours and he could be done with it. Everything he did that day was deliberate and with uncommon caution and attention to detail. He slept late then sat at home the rest of the day, as his roommate came and went. He ate cornflakes for lunch then made mac and cheese from a box for supper, chewing every bite carefully. He read a whole novel and watched a classic movie on television. Brian rolled his eyes occasionally, but Scott had to be watchful lest some detail would be his downfall. When the phone rang, he ignored it, wary that he might be tempted to leave the apartment. He didn’t even walk downstairs to get the afternoon mail. Nightfall found him unharmed, and none the worse for a day of anxious vigilance.
In the following days, the matter slowly receded into oblivion. Dirk moved out, complaining about the inequity of a “squatter” living in the apartment without paying his fair share.
“Listen, man,” Brian said to Scott “I hate to be hard-nosed, but the free ride is over. If you want to stay, you have to pay your share of the rent. I can give you two weeks to either move out or start paying half the rent—on time.”
Hopes of an acting career faded as Scott began looking for a full-time job. He borrowed money from his sister to pay his rent.
“I’ll pay you back as soon as I get my first paycheck, Sis. Promise. A couple places I applied look real promising.” Promising? There was nothing promising about a future as bleak as the one that stretched before him.
He didn’t audition for Othello, the next production of Shakespeare on Parkway, and passed on the auditions for Beauty and the Beast at the Jewel Theatre. There would be no time for the theatre, no matter how passionate he was about it. He found a full-time job at Costco that made his parents and Brian happy. It took him a couple of months to pay his sister back, but he was finally in the black.
The relief of not owing anyone was little consolation. The only connection he had with the theatre was through his roommate, and that only served to make him miserable when their friends came over and talked about all the things he was missing.
“Can you believe Jon got the part of Cassio in Othello,” Brian said. “The guy is too green for the part.”
Scott would have been perfect for Cassio. Jon was a nice enough guy, but it should have been him. As he rode the bus to a job he hated each day, he daydreamed about being on stage playing the role.
Through the gray days of Spring, each one indistinguishable from the next, the loss of his dream burned deep into his psyche. He reminded himself that not everyone who hopes to be an actor can make it work. In fact his story was probably more typical than the few lucky ones who were successful. He’d tried and he’d failed. So what if he wasn’t happy? This was real life.
On the last day of May as he walked along a busy street to the bus stop to catch a ride to Costco, he thought he caught the scent of jasmine in the air. An image of Madam Celeste came to his mind—the hoop earrings—the concerned look in her eyes. He had rarely thought about her in recent weeks, or his preoccupation last Winter with the Ides of March. Hard to believe now he’d been swayed by the words of a twenty-dollar fortune teller in leggings and a purple shawl. He looked around at the people walking close by, but no one was there who even vaguely resembled her.
Scott didn’t want to think about her, or his dream of acting. It served no useful purpose to dwell on such things. But, dismissing the thoughts was difficult as the aroma grew stronger. By the time he got to the end of the block, the scent of jasmine was overwhelming.
And so it was that before he stepped into the street, he looked around again to see where it was coming from. When he turned again, the number 315 barreled toward him in the marquee of the cross-town bus. He didn’t feel the impact.
As his life drained from him, the words of Madam Celeste floated through his mind: "I see a wise young man who is enjoying his life now instead of waiting until it is too late.” He looked up at the blue sky—past the horrified faces that had gathered around him—and took his last breath.