The Feast of Love (Charles Baxter)

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  I can be so unmotivated. For example. You know the dust that can, like, float in the air? Me, I was totally capable of sitting in a chair for hours, watching the dust-fuzz hanging in front of me. If there was sunlight in the room, just the particles of visible molecules or whatever, I was excellent and enthralled.

I'm not saying that I'm deep, I'm just saying I watch the dust, and I'm not stoned either, when I do it. Just observant. I'm concentrating on it, figuring out its mystery, its purpose for being here in the same universe with us.

When I tried to get Oscar to study the dust, he went: you're so, like, Looney Tunes, Chloé. Jeez, dust. He was smiling when he said that, criticizing my dust interest. But you could tell that he didn't get the profundity of dust at all. Poor guy. Well, some people can't sing, either.

But what I'm saying is, I can get motivated when I have to. I can stop dust-meditating and get off my ass and get the job done. Which means that when I had to figure out the future, I took steps.

Oscar's friends, these boy-men from his high school jock clique--Speedy and Ranger and Fats (who was not fat‹where do guys get names like this.?)--came by our apartment, grab-assing Oscar and demanding that he come out to play basketball, it being early summer, and the two of us, Oscar and me, not having to work at Jitters that day. Oscar! Hey, man, they said, first of all hollering up to our window, dude, you just gotta come shoot some hoop, dooooooode, Oscaaaaaaaar, we just gotta have an other guy. Oscar hears the call of male needs, he barks his yes downward to them, so then he puts on his shorts and his Nikes and kisses me and gets his shoulders punched in the parking lot and his ass whapped and he is gone. Like poof, like a husband. Empty nest.

I had to figure out if Oscar and me had any prospects at all, as a couple, together. So there I was, me, Chloé, alone. But with the keys to Oscar's ancient AMC Matador, and I sat there, and I'm like, I gotta find out the future from an expert. So I took some money and put it into my pockets and my shoes in case I got robbed, and I drove over to Ypsilanti, where the psychics are. You can't do psychics off of TV. The TV psychics are mostly wrong, and way too expensive besides.

I had been reading my tarot cards on Oscar and wanted a second opinion. And I figured I'd need to take something of his, so I took a mungy sweat sock and his track team relay baton and one of his knives, which he had told me not to touch, but which I did touch, for his own good and mine too.

You gotta go to Ypsilanti to find out the future. Or Willow Run. See, what you do is, you leave the ho-hum middle class environs of Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township, and then you explore your way down the strip, past the used car lots and the Arby's and the Dairy Queen, and then there's Eastern Michigan University with its stiff-dick watertower (but there's a brick condom on it--go see it for yourself if you think I'm kidding), and then downtown Ypsi, but then, when you get east of there, that's when it turns really interesting and nasty over there in the Twilight Zone, that's where the future-experts ply their trade.

I mean, most cities have got their own Twilight Zones, right? Where the old wrecked factories and warehouses live? 'Cause East Ypsi has got these ancient car assembly plants, these old humping kickass grounds of steel and scrapyards, and the scrapyards sort of find their way next to topless bars and tattoo parlors, and these freakazoidal video stores where you don't want to know what or who they're renting in there, and outside on the curb the underfed cats and dogs are staring at you and begging for puppy chow when you drive past, and then there's razor wire around most of the warehouses, so you just know the karma's really complicated there. It's like the future has already happened, and it's all past by now? Like that?

Anyway, you gotta drive over there on a sunny day. Otherwise it doesn't work. You get bad head colds in your psyche if you go there on a cloudy day. Then your psyche sneezes your good karma out into the ozone layer, where, of course, it burns away.

And that's how come I was driving the Matador in the sunshine past Odd Lots Supermart and a pawn shop and a gun shop and then a vacant patch of struggling grass, with a thing in the middle of it you couldn't identify except it was metal, and no one had ever found out how to work it, and it was ultra-dead. Rust never sleeps, said the bard. I'm bummed. Where's the professional psychic whose office I thought was here? I saw it once last time I found myself located in this locale. In this hyper-slum there were, like, shoes everywhere, shoes without anybody standing in them, old shoes. On the sidewalk here and there, brown leather shoes. Very Plan 9 from Outer Space. So how come people, such as men, leave their shoes out here? What's going on with these shoes out on the pavement? My advice is: Guys, find a wastebasket.

And now I'm near Willow Run, where they made the big World War Two bombers back when life still had a purpose in this area and people knew what their work was good for, and I'm seeing more pawn shops with iron bars on the front, and bunched-up tall-boy-beer-in-the-brown-bag guys standing but mostly sitting on the sidewalk doing their smiling openmouthed but no teeth chickenshit thing, har har har, hey man, there's a girl in that big ol' Matador, is that door on the driver's side unlocked, and then I see the place I was looking for, that I'd seen the last time I was over here. And which I knew was here. Which had to be here.

Professional Psychic
Fortunes Told
Tarot or Palm Reading

I park the Matador out front, which is a dangerous move to start with, but I figure the psychic has got to have some control over what goes on outside her store and in the neighborhood--she's psychic, after all, right?--and I go inside.

It's dark. No crystal balls. She's in possession of this gross corduroy sofa that smells of spilled meatloaf and cat food, and over to the side there's a partially assembled table and two chairs, and a church rummage sale table lamp with birds and bunnies painted on it, and over on the walls there's a Laurel and Hardy clock, with their eyes moving back and forth, like pendulums except not quite. There's other Laurel and Hardy stuff in the room: L&H porcelain cups, and a souvenir L&H dinner plate mounted on the wall, and a one-foot-high L&H statue set in the corner. On the other wall is a picture of down-by-the-old-mill-stream that you'd buy at Woolworth's. By my ankles a black vampire-cat is stroking against my legs and purring. God, I hate cats. I'm the only girl my age I know who hates cats.

Meanwhile, country-western, moron music if you ask me, Tricia Yearwood or somebody, your-cheatin'-this-and-your-cheatin'-that is playing off some staticky AM radio in the back. I hear this voice, "I'll be right with you," and then the sound of a toilet flushing and somebody gargling.

In comes Mrs. Maggaroulian, which I know is her name because her business card is out on the table, and her name is also in little print on the front window, and she says, "Hi, I'll be with you in a minute, honey."

I look at the wall. She's posted the prices. Tarot readings are twelve dollars, and palm readings are twelve dollars, and the guaranteed predictions of the future based on psychic determinism, which she happens to know how to do, are also twelve dollars. It's all twelve dollars each. If I get everything she's offering, one from column A and one from column B, plus dessert on column C, this is going to cost me a full day's salary.

But! you can't get your hands on the future for free, fuck and alas, so I shell out almost every piece of folded money I have, and I give them to Mrs. Maggaroulian, and she puts on her reading glasses that she has on a beaded chain around her neck, and she locks the front door and puts my money in a little steel box underneath the table, where it's hiding. By this time I am noticing that Mrs. Maggaroulian is big, I mean she is really big, the way a giant is big, at least compared to the way women usually are shaped and sized, and she has a mohair wig, it looks like, and something there on her jaw that looks like facial hair. Her nose looks like it's made out of modeling clay. Her dress didn't even come off the rack, 'cause it's a tablecloth fastened together with safety pins. She wears black nail polish, not the sexy black but the scary black. She's got big hands and feet, big hoppers and big choppers. This Ypsi chick is not the Better Business Bureau's idea of a respectable psychic. But, duh, if she were prettier she'd be broadcasting on the Dionne Warwick psychic network at forty dollars per minute and she'd be whispering predictions to Oprah. Hey, I don't give a shit if she is a drag queen, I'm cool with that, she could be the fucking Queen of the Day for all I care, I just want the future out of her, provided it's one hundred percent accurate.

She sits me down at her table and says, Honey, whatcha want to know about? So I say that I've got this boyfriend, Oscar ... and Mrs. Maggaroulian nods, 'cause of course she knows what I want to know, being able to read my mind. She says we'll do a palm reading first.

She takes my hand, opens up the fingers and studies my palm like a road map. She frowns. "This is your love line," she says, tracing her hnger along a crease. "Notice this."

I look at it. "What?"

"You have a relationship with this Oscar? This Oscar relationship," Mrs. Maggaroulian says, "is soon going to be over, it would appear."

"How do you mean, 'over'? You sure about that?"

"We could ask the cards," Mrs. Maggaroulian informs me, as if she really doesn't like my hand at all and doesn't want to read it anymore, and she takes out her tarot cards, which, get this, she kisses first, on the box. Me, I would never do that. I would never kiss a deck of cards. She tells the cards in painful detail the questions she wants to ask and she proceeds to lay them out on the table. I will not tell about the cards that came up--that is such bad luck--but it was, like, a magical mystery train wreck.

"Well," says Mrs. Maggaroulian, in a sort of guy-imitating-a-woman Monty Python bagpipe drag queen voice, "I've certainly seen better cards, I'll say that."

"Is there any hope?" I asked. "For the two of us, Oscar and me? 'Cause I love him and everything."

"Did you bring any item of his?" Mrs. Maggaroulian asks, emphasizing the word item like it was word-candy. "Any of his possessions? That he's touched often?"

"Besides me, you mean? Yeah. This sock," I say, plopping it down on the table, "and this track team baton." I wait for a moment, and I do my very best to grin. "And this knife."

She takes the sock in one hand, and the relay baton in the other. She looks up at me, and the wig on her head shifts a little, to the right, toward one o'clock. I can hear Laurel and Hardy ticking my precious time away. I'm afraid she's going to tell me about her glory days when she was on the track team herself. "I don't have to hold Oscar's knife," Mrs. Maggaroulian says. "You can hold Oscar's knife. I can see everything clearly enough without it. Honey, what did you say your name was?"


"Chloé, honey, you know we're not always right. Sometimes it's a good idea to take the future with a grain of salt. We psychics, well, I don't know. Psychics have bad days, too. We have our up days and our down days." She puts the baton and the sock back on the table.

"Is this your bad day, Mrs. Maggaroulian?"

"Yes, it is, dear. I have a headache. I have a very terrible headache. All those little hammers."

"What do you see about Oscar, Mrs. Maggaroulian?"

The room really filled up with the smell of meatloaf right about then, like a freight train of meatloaf just went by. I was beginning to want to get out of there, in the worst possible way. I could feel the cells of my skin revolting against the room. My individual skin cells wanted to get free of me just for being there. Mrs. Maggaroulian kept trying to smile at me, and she kept failing at it. "Well, honey," she said, "everything I see about your boyfriend is not so hotsy-totsy. Both Laurel and Hardy are telling me that his future prospects are not bright. Did you say he was still alive?"

"Oscar? Oh yeah, he's still alive." I decided not to ask her about Laurel and Hardy, or how she talked to them. Some things don't stand much looking into.

"Well, that's wonderful. You go home to him and give him a big kiss and a bear hug, honey. That's what I would do if I were you. You know, I haven't seen all that much in your future, so I'm going to ..." She stood up and went over to her little steel cashier's box and took two fives out of it and handed them back to me. "I'm going to give you a little refund. Ten dollars. Think of this as a refund on your future. You should stop and get a cheeseburger on the way home, honey. Get two cheeseburgers. And some fries. Take it all to Oscar. He'll be so grateful, I can guarantee. If you love him, he's bound to stay alive for a while. Then go out bowling tonight with him like a good girlfriend. Do you like bowling? You do go bowling, don't you?"

"I guess."

"Okay. Go bowling with Oscar. 'Cause what I see is ... you want something to eat? I'm making some meatloaf back there, in the kitchen."

"No thanks." I figured I had to ask. "Is it bad, Mrs. Maggaroulian, what you see? You gotta tell me. I paid you all this money. It's like this week's savings. Wages and even tips, that our customers put in the jar on the front counter? I have to know. About Oscar?"

"Listen to me." She gave me a moment to look into her eyes. There was another person living in there, at least. You couldn't tell if what was inside Mrs. Maggaroulian was human or just an honorary human. Maybe she was a resident alien. The IRS wouldn't dare audit her, 'cause they'd find out she was an alternate life-form, and they don't have income tables for that. "I can't believe he's alive, this Oscar of yours," she said. "But if you really love him, he'll stay alive for a while longer. Trust me on that. People can keep other people alive, you know. Now go, honey. You drive home."

"I will." I stopped at the door. "Mrs. Maggaroulian," I said, "are you really a girl?"

She didn't even look up. "No, dear," she said, sniffing. "I am a lady."

When I came into the apartment, Oscar was all over the bed half-asleep after his exertions and his shower and his beers. He had the TV on to baseball, and his eyes were closed, and I figured, worst-case scenario, that he was dead. So I took my shoes off and I put the two cheeseburgers and the big thing of French fries on the kitchen table, and I went running over to where he was, and I gave him a good shake. And, just like that‹presto‹his eyes open.

"Hey, Chloé," he says, "whassup?"

I'm straddling him, and shaking him, and he smiles at me. "How was basketball?" I ask.

"Great," he says. "Man, I was so hot, I was like an action figure. Hey, I see you took the car. Wheredja go?"

"Ypsi," I said. "I went to a psychic. Mrs. Maggaroulian. I wanted to find some things out."

"Yeah?" he says. "Cool. What'd she say?"

And that's when I took a deep breath, and I looked down at Oscar, and I said, "Oscar, I've got this idea. Don't get mad at me, okay?"

"Naw," Oscar says, "I wouldn't get mad. What's your idea?"

"Well," I say, "I know it's early and all, and maybe we should go slow and everything, and I know that girls aren't supposed to say this, but after talking to Mrs. Maggaroulian I've been thinking that maybe I should. I mean, this is going to sound real weird, 'cause here it is Saturday afternoon ... anyway, what I was wondering was, Oscar, maybe we should get married. Oscar, would you marry me?"

And Oscar, who's said that he loves me about a thousand times in the last week alone, he doesn't even stop to think about it, he just sits up a little in bed, and he says, "Oh, yeah." Just that, "Oh,yeah." Like it's a great idea that he hadn't thought of recently, but should have. Then he says, "That's a real cool idea, Chloé. You and me married. Like I'd be your husband, and you'd be my wife, right? Wow. I'd like to do that."

Some things you think can't ever happen, and then they do.

I gave him the hugest kiss he'd ever had, and then I went over and got the bag, and we did a four-alarm fuck, and afterward I fed him the cheeseburgers, both of them, his and mine too, from my hand to his mouth, bite after bite after bite after bite after bite.

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Excerpted from The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2000 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.