Zoe Heller in America: Two Cassandras can't be wrong: and they weren't

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The Independent Culture
IN THE past ten days I have consulted two fortune-tellers. The first was an Armenian woman from Queens, operating out of a neon- lit hell-hole on 48th Street. The second was an Armenian woman from the Bronx, who had a stall at the San Genaro Fair in Little Italy. (Armenians seem to have the divination and prescience business pretty much tied up in New York.) Both of these Cassandras thought my prospects looked lousy. 'Youse gonna have a long life,' the first woman said, 'but youse a sad person. Youse never gonna have a husband and youse never gonna have kids.' I laughed gaily. 'I see,' I said. 'And what else?'

'There's a lot of sadness in your life,' she said. 'Youse gonna be alone all your days. Youse have a lotta trouble. Very sad . . .'

'OK,' I said, a little tetchy now. 'What's the good news?'

'Listen, I just tell youse what I see in the lines,' she droned. 'I can't control what I see. Youse an unlucky girl.' She bent over to my ill-starred palm once more. 'Well,' she said hesitantly, after a long, long pause, 'I see that youse never gonna be really poor. You'll always have enough to put chicken and peas on the table. But still, youse going to be sad.'

On the street, I rejoined my girlfriend, who had been having her fortune told in a separate booth. 'God, what a bunch of old swizzlers,' I said as we strolled towards Fifth Avenue. 'You'd think they'd at least try to tell you some uplifting lies.' My girlfriend was silent. 'I mean, it's one thing being suckered,' I continued, 'but you want to be suckered in a cheerful, entertaining way, right? What is the deal with all that doomy stuff?'

'Actually,' my girlfriend said, shyly, 'my woman told me some really nice things. She said I'm about to fall in love with a wonderful man. She said I would have a very successful career. She also said I had a beautiful aura.'

'You're kidding.'

'Why, what did yours tell you?'

'Oh, you know, pretty much the same. She just didn't have much charisma, is all.'

The next fortune teller, at the San Genaro Fair, started off well enough. 'Youse gonna have a long life,' she said. 'Money's no problem for youse. Youse gotta man and he cares for you more than you know . . . Hey, Shirley, get me a Philly cheese steak, would youse?' (The PCS is a white bread roll containing fried slices of indeterminate meat, fried onions and globs of melted, bright orange cheese. Mystic Meg practically wet her pants when hers arrived. 'Mwah]' she groaned, cramming the thing into her mouth, 'I do love a Philly . . .') When she returned to my palm, her eyes widened in hammy horror. 'Oh . . . but I see youse got troubles,' she said. 'Somebody is jealous of you. They don't want youse to have what you got. The affair with this man is cursed. Your love is doomed. Maybe if youse come to my office tomorrow, I can cleanse youse of this curse. I'll burn some black candles and see what I can do.'

After some deliberation, I decided against the black mass with Madame Tza-Tza. I figured it was easier and cheaper to look on the bright side: I wasn't going to end up in the poorhouse and I was going to live a long (albeit miserable and accursed) life. But even this pale ray of good cheer was extinguished when my companion and I moved on to a guess-your-age stall. The age-guesser - a man who earns his living by making such estimates - took a long, hard look at me and told me I was a 39-year-old. I am 29. I won prizes for being younger than I looked, but a framed picture of Michael Jordan and a lavender- coloured teddy-bear with a pretend-clock pasted, inexplicably, to his navel, are not very satisfactory compensations for looking like Miss cowing Havisham. I thought of returning to the Philly cheese steak seer to see whether she and her black candles could do anything for premature wrinkles, but my companion ruled it out. We moved on to a test-your- strength machine and presently I forgot all about my grim fortune.

In fact, I didn't think about the Armenian portents again - until yesterday, when I returned to my apartment to discover that I had been burgled. I had been out buying winter boots at Bloomingdale's - a beautiful pair of suede clumpy things - and I was in the rather despicable good humour of a person who has been spending money on herself. As I wept for my stolen property - in particular, my stolen Powerbook, the pages and pages of copy that I'd never put on a disk, the friendly little Pearl & Dean 'Ba-baaah' noise it used to make when I turned it on every morning - it came to me: This is it, this is the curse.

Later, two policemen came round. I knew they weren't going to do anything except sit and drink my tea, but I thought the presence of large uniformed men in my apartment might cheer me up. 'This is a valuable lesson,' one told me, as he sloped lugubriously about my kitchen. (He had ginger hair and looked a bit like David Caruso in NYPD Blue - only heavier.) 'In life, you gotta remember, people may seem nice, but there's always someone lurking in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of you. It's a bad, dark world out there . . .' Old freckle-face looked as if he was about to start crying when he had finished. 'Perhaps I should get more locks on my door,' I said, trying to be positive about the situation. 'Yeah,' said the dark-haired policeman, who looked like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, only skinnier. 'You could do that, but you know, you're never really safe - especially if you live alone, in a basement.' Boy, were these guys fun to be with. I don't know why Precinct One didn't just send me a recording of Vincent Price reading The Fall of the House of Usher and have done with it. Next thing, the redhead began filling out his report card. 'Get out of here]' he cried when I told him my date of birth. I smiled, expecting him to tell me I shared a birthday with his mother or something. 'S'amazing]' he went on, 'I woulda said you was a lot older.'