I wondered how long I could go without breathing? It was the summer of 1995, and California was in the middle of a blistering heatwave. The hot, dry air was suffocating and I was abundantly sorry that I hadn’t scraped together the money to get the air conditioning in the car fixed. As I drove Highway 50 up into the Sierras, my eyes fixed on the seductive heatwaves that danced on the road in front of my car. They flared, they rolled, and they wavered. They were interesting and mesmerizing.
I had driven this road uncounted times; I knew every bump on it; I knew exactly how far I was from my destination at all times. I was sure I could drive it with my eyes closed. For most of the years, a small voice in the back seat would singsong, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" When I heard that, I would start thinking about hitting the Foster Freeze that was on the first exit in Placerville. They actually served real ice cream there. My husband had patiently ignored everything but the notes he was jotting down about the things in the area that he wanted to visit. That was then, but this was now.
This was my first trip up the mountain alone, and for me, this time was about the destination, not the journey. This morning I had gotten up and told myself that it was time to find the courage to be an unmarried woman. I had to keep moving forward. This trip was my stepping out. There was something about the tall trees that populated the National Forest that just helped me breathe. Their longevity was always reassuring to me, and these days, I needed every anchor I could reach.
While I was commiserating with myself and letting the heat waves seduce me, I was caught off-guard by a large piece of truck tire rubber in my path. I hit it, and it bounced up under my car and reminded me that I was supposed to be paying attention. Truck tires shed their skin all of the time on the highway. There could be more in the road. I wished they had put a guardrail along the highway. It was a long way down on my left. I gripped the steering wheel tighter, and as the sweat rolled from underneath my hair, I saw the sign, “Placerville, Six Miles Ahead.”
When you’re alone, there is no one to distract you from your thoughts. As the hot miles slide under my car tires, I thought about how many hours a week I spent dedicated to writing the city’s newspaper back home. It was a small paper. I was the editor; the chief cook and bottle washer. I did the interviews, took the pictures, and wrote the stories. It was a lot of responsibility. I thought about how empty the house was since my daughter went out to live her own life. Isn’t that what I wanted for her? Of course, it was. All good parents want their children to leave the nest and fly on their own. I thought about my divorce. I knew that I deserved better than the lying, cheating SOB but it was going to take a while for me to make new routines. I once read an article that said that the real definition of life, was change. I was about to be on change overload, life ahead.
I came to the first exit from the Highway. I could have just continued up the mountain, but there was something comforting about the small, quaint town of Placerville. I drove across the train tracks and turned left. I went on past Foster’s even though ice cream did sound good. Maybe I’d drive back down tomorrow and get some. I drove past the Hangman’s Tree, where a dummy hung as a historic symbol of the town’s wilder days. I loved the small shops that lined the street. Once I passed the Bell Tower, I knew that I was almost at the end of town and that I’d have to re-enter Highway 50 – but my eyes took note of a large “Fortune Teller” sign that hung from a porch railing, and I impulsively decided to stop.
Maybe it was the gypsy in me, but I already knew what she would tell me. “You will live a long, successful life. You will find love with someone you can trust; someone who needs you as much as you need him. You are a good person, and there are good things ahead for you. The novel you are writing is going to be a best seller.”
Blah, blah, blah. After all, how much business would a fortune teller get if she told truths?
As I got out of my car and approached the porch steps I noticed the peeling, pale blue paint on the building. When I stood on the first step, I heard it creak. I thought out loud, “She must not be very good at her business if she can’t afford the upkeep of the building.”
I muttered, What the fuck am I doing? I need to get up the damn mountain to my mother’s air conditioner house, but what if this fortune teller is the real deal; the proverbial needle in the fortune teller haystack? What if she really can give me good news?” I dropped down on the step to think. To go in, or not?
I heard the door open, and I turned. A woman in a purple tunic and a long, patchwork skirt came down the stairs, and sat down beside me. Her hair was wrapped in a turban, and she had a twinkle in her eyes. She introduced herself. “I’m Madam Selena. Were you going to come in today?”
I was honest. “I don’t know. I’m thinking it’s a silly waste of time; fortune telling is something fun that is meant for the young on Saturday nights.”
She laughed at me. “I understand.”
“Do you tell a lot of fortunes?”
She blew out a breath, and said, “I used to. These days people are in a rush to get over the mountain to the casinos. Strangers pass this way when the weather or an accident slows the traffic. To be honest with you, I haven’t told one fortune in seven years.”
We sat and chatted like old friends, and just as I was starting to relax, she said, “You remind me of myself. On my last day, there was a horrific snowstorm. The ice on the road was three inches thick; on yours, it was a sleep-inducing heat wave.
Uneasy shivers ran up my spine. I am usually a good judge of character, but in this case, I had been taken in by her warm smile and easy nature. She was a nut. I stood and made my excuses, “I really have to get going. I’m expected.”
I took two steps away from her and stopped. “Where is my car?”
She softly said, “It’s at the bottom of the ravine six miles out of town. How about you come in and have a glass of iced tea, and then I’ll show you where to catch the light, so you can finish your journey. Perhaps, I’ll even go with you. I should have already gone, but I knew you’d be stopping in so I decided to wait for you. There’s a better life up ahead.”