In swirling, ornate script, the sign above the storefront read: “A GREATER UNDERSTANDING OF THE PRESENT, AND PERHAPS A PEEK INTO THE WAYS OF THE FUTURE - INQUIRE WITHIN. CASH ONLY.”
I opened the door, but was immediately waylaid by a snagged, restrictive cascade of beads. A man sat at a table in the far corner, hunched over one of those newfangled portable computers. In those days, I hated computers. They weren’t necessary. I didn’t even know a modem from a floppy disk.
The cashier, I assumed. I pointed to another doorway leading to the back of the establishment, silently asking him if that was where I went for the amazing portents of things to come.
He shook his head and beckoned me to sit across from him. I moved into the chair slowly and wondered what happened next… Which, now that I think about it, was a big part of the reason I was here.
“Do you—er—have a crystal ball, or something?” I asked him.
He typed something into his computer but did not look up from the screen. With the glow of the monitor, I had to admit that it almost looked as if he were peering into some sort of mystic orb.
“What do you want to know?” the mystic asked.
Sure, I’ll bite. But, really, this fellow could have committed to the stagecraft of this activity if he really wanted me to play along. “What’s in my future?”
He shook his head slowly. “It doesn’t work like that… not exactly. I can tell you things about the here and now, though. Things you couldn’t find out through any other means.”
“So, you’re going to tell me that I’m here to see a fortune teller? That’s pretty spooky.”
He kept typing, but a tight, wan smile leaked from his mouth. “That’s funny. I’ve never heard that before. No. Ask me about someone that you’ve lost touch with. I can tell you…” he finally stopped typing and scrutinized something on his screen. “Everything you want to know.”
I eyed the exit but figured I had come this far and there wouldn’t be any harm in staying. Unless this guy’s fortune teller schtick was prelude to an impromptu game of three-card monte, I’d be fine. Also, I probably needed to get my three-card monte habit under control.
“Okay,” I relented. “There was a… teacher I had. Fifth grade. She was terrible to everyone. I don’t want to say I wish that she was dead, but it wouldn’t be the worst news I ever got in a day.”
He started typing. “Do you have a name?” As he continued his work, the inner core of his computer glowed a bright mint-green. The device appeared to jump of its own volition. Lightning bolts cracked forth from the keyboard.
“Miss… uh…” The name had briefly escaped my grasp. Definitely shouldn’t have wished death upon somebody whose name I couldn’t remembered. Then, it came back to me. “Chalmers. Miss Chalmers.”
He continued typing.
“Do you need a first name?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied, and then finished typing. “There. Miss Chalmers. She’ll retire from teaching in another two years. Twenty years from now, she’ll be raising Alpaca.”
I wondered if the banal detail was too specific to be false.
He clicked a few more keys. “Also,” he added. “For lunch on April 23rd, 2018, she’ll have a Cuban sandwich. It’ll be yummy.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
He rolled a small ball below his keyboard and clicked a nearby button, and I heard thunder in the distance. “The cosmos works in mysterious ways. Anyone else you want to know about?”
Something didn’t feel right, but owing to some deep, unfathomable feeling I could not shake, I stayed right where I was. The Cuban sandwich thing was so specific—so voyeuristic—that my mind started racing with other possibilities.
“Billy Bloom,” I said, calling the bet. That asshole always sucked up to Miss Chalmers so much, I was sure he was in love with her.
“Ah, yes. He and Chalmers…” he said between key strokes. “They’re going to be friends.”
“What does that mean, ‘they’re going to be friends’?”
He stopped typing for the first time in my memory of him. “Oh? Uh. They’re… They’re friends. They get Cuban sandwiches together twice a month.”
“Oh. They’re friends in the future…?”
“That’s right. Do you want to know more about him?” he asked.
I pushed the questions about what “friends” meant and re-engaged with this new high. “About Bloom? Sure. What is he, fat? Is his wife ugly? Or is it something even worse?” My next question came out quickly. Probably too quickly. “What do you know?”
He shut his computer suddenly and his face shifted from barely tolerating me to being consumed with outright contempt. “I know that people in the future will be able to see just as much about you as you will about them. So maybe, when that inevitable future comes crashing down all around us, you’ll cut the voyeurism out of your life. It’s a big beautiful, strange world out there, and it’s probably better if you don’t spend time trying to figure out what everyone else is doing.”
The man cackled, a noise that chills me to the bone to this day. The computer let out another belt of lightning and the air pressure in the den changed. In a brilliant flash of smoke, the man and his mysterious machine disappeared. I left with more questions running through my head than when I had entered. Did he ever really exist, or had I imagined him? Could he really see the banal details of the future? Also, where could I get a Cuban sandwich nearby?