Thursday, March 16, 2017

From the Archives – The Crystal Ball


One of the unfortunate habits of the middle-aged is our tendency to bemoan the decay of our minds and bodies.  It’s like picking a scab that, rather than healing over, grows all the time.  We can’t remember things, we’re always tired, we’re putting on weight, and blah, blah, blah.

How refreshing, then, to look back at my prime, almost thirty years ago, and see that I was bitching and moaning about my decline even then.  Since I was obviously possessed of a fine mind and body in those days, but didn’t’ want to admit it, I now have hope that my current complaints are similarly exaggerated.

Better yet, looking back at the story below, I can’t help but admit that my writing has improved over time.  Join with me as I mock my younger self.

Letter from UCSB – “The Crystal Ball” – ca. November, 1988         

Well, I took a good, hard look at myself today and I’m not too pleased.  I got my French midterm back:  84%.  Had it been a hard test, I would have still been miffed, but might have cut myself some slack.  But this was a really easy test; I’d made every dumb mistake in the book.  I wasn’t worried about the grade, but only about what it might mean:  I’m obviously losing my ability to think clearly.

And now that I think about it, my mind isn’t the only part of me in decline.  My gut has been getting awfully big this year.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the weight off.  When I went back home last summer, I got a lot of crap for my spare tire.  I tried to deny it, but it is obviously becoming a problem.  Even my cycling has suffered lately.  I didn’t ride much at all last week.  The only thing I’m getting better at is making excuses.  What could be the root cause of my descent toward mental and physical decrepitude?  Probably a bad attitude and low motivation.

I figured maybe a shrink could help me with this.  But psychiatrists charge too much, and besides, so many people who go into therapy never make it back out.  But I heard about this medium named Wanda who is supposedly very insightful.  For something like 20 bucks, she has helped lots of college kids, according to this tall goony guy I ran into in the University Center.  I was looking at the bulletin board and caught the guy looking at me looking at the bulletin board, which was kind of creepy, but he did hone right in on my mental/emotional distress, which showed more insight than my friends had.  So I decided to check out this medium for myself.

The goony guy drew me a map, or I’d never have found her tent.  It was a greasy, frail, ratty old thing in the middle of a field west of campus.  Every so often, it was said, the cops go and bust her for vagrancy, so she has had to move quite a bit.  This hadn’t done wonders for her tent, but I wasn’t there to pick up tips on interior decorating.  The medium herself was more like a large.  She seemed like a pretty wretched old woman, with long, grey, stringy hair that fell in front of her eyes.  “Wanda?” I asked.  She gave a little nod, as if to say, “Who else?”

I mumbled a question about personal coaching and insight into my soul, etc.  She just stared at me, as if she were truly sad that I’d shown up in her tent.  Finally she spoke:  “I don’t do anything but show you the future.  You wanna see it, great—you’re a client.”  She chewed on her hair as she spoke.  Her voice was low and gravelly, as if she had smoked a pack a day for the last ten years.  I knew, however, that she wasn’t a smoker, since cigarettes would have covered up her hideous breath, which smelled a bit like mold and a bit like the thick, mustard-colored ointment my dad uses.

Wanda gestured to a card table flanked on one side by a little wooden stool and the other by a lawn chair.  I sat on the stool.  On the table was a lump covered by a black, oily cloth.  With a practiced, but half-assed, flourish, Wanda snapped back the cloth, exposing a crystal ball the size of a grapefruit.  Wanda intoned, “My crystal ball can tell you all, how high you climb, how low you fall.”  I couldn’t suppress a little snort.  Dropping into the lawn chair, she continued, “Fine, I’ll spare you the incantations.  Five bucks for the first minute.  A buck a minute after that.  Just look at the ball and if you like what you see, keep the green energy flowing in my direction.”

I handed her my five spot.  I’d been clutching it, all wadded up, in my hand and it was damp with sweat.  Wanda stuffed it down the front of her gown, but she wasn’t wearing a bra, so it continued southward.  Reflexively, I watched its descent.  It stopped around her belly, which I didn’t want to linger on, so I kept dropping my gaze until it reached the edge of her dress, which was almost black from dragging on the dirt floor of her tent.

I raised my gaze to Wanda’s face.  “Don’t look at me—you’re on the clock!” she said.  “The ball!  Look at the ball!”  For half a minute, I stared at the ball and saw nothing.  I decided I’d been had.  There was nothing happening on the surface of the “crystal,” which looked like nothing more than frosted glass.  Closer observation revealed a crude seam and a tiny “Made in Taiwan” label.  I glared at Wanda.  “Fifteen seconds,” she growled.  I was about to protest, but then a faint glimmer appeared on the ball.  It resolved into a clear image of myself, sitting in my French classroom.  I slipped Wanda another five-spot and stared intently, in disbelief.  The vision in the ball was like magic.

The ball showed me sitting in my French classroom, drumming my fingers nervously on the table.  The teacher was passing back exams.  “I know I failed this final,” said Molly, the blond girl next to me.  “I didn’t study at all.”  She snapped her gum.  I was in love with her.  This was not important, though, in the moment.  The teacher handed her her test.  Molly had scored a 92%.  The teacher handed me my test.  It was a 68%.

I jumped in my seat.  It’s true!  My life is unraveling!  I returned my attention to the ball, staring until my eyes watered.

I was riding in a bike race.  I seemed to be keeping up, but I was with obviously riding with a group of beginners.  As we rode into the mountains, my breathing became faster and heavier.  The entire group rode away from me.  I stared remorsefully at my stomach.  It sagged lower than I had ever seen before.  The elastic waistband on my shorts was so tight it was digging in.  I took both hands off the handlebars, seized the waistband, and ripped it in two.  Now my belly was liberated, but my shorts began falling down in back.  I reached back to pull them up, and realized to my horror that the crack between my buttocks had climbed at least an inch up my back since the night before.

My heart skipped a beat and I looked up from the ball.  Wanda removed her index finger from her ear and stared at the fingernail, which was long, chipped, and dirty.  “I want to see farther ahead!” I cried.  She pointed indifferently towards a button on the base of the ball, labeled “>>.”  Fast Forward.  I pressed it for a few seconds and released. 

I was in a bike shop, trying to remove a crank from a wretched old Peugeot.  My physique was somewhere between E.T. and Moomintroll.  My jaw hung slack, as I’d become a mouth-breather.  My legs were somehow thin and flabby at the same time.  I grunted slightly as I shoved on a crank extractor.  The threads in the crank I was trying to pull were stripping rapidly.  Realizing my catastrophic failure to have removed the fixing bolt, I flung my wrench across the shop, cursed, and spat on the floor.  A young man in a clean shop apron, who was working on a beautiful pro racing bike, said nothing and left the room.  A moment later, an older man walked into the shop, shaking his head, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Dana … I’m lettin’ ya go.”

The crystal ball winked out.  Wanda was staring at me, her hand out.  I gave her my checkbook and pressed Fast Forward again.

A man was lying slumped in a dumpster, clutching an almost empty bottle of Yukon Jack.  His hair was past his shoulders.  There was no way to know what color his ragged overcoat had originally been.  His shoes didn’t match.  A bag of garbage flew into the dumpster and landed near his head.  His face was haggard, filthy, and—mine.  “NOOOOOOOOOO!”  I yelled.  I seized the crystal ball and threw it at Wanda.  It missed, and shattered on the dirt floor of the tent.  Wanda flew into a rage.  “You little bastard!” she shrieked, and came at me across the table, her arms outstretched, her long fingernails bared.  The table collapsed, and we grappled atop the wreckage. 

Wanda had her hands around my neck.  She was immensely, supernaturally strong.  I couldn’t get any air.  She herself began to wheeze.  Her hands were getting sweaty.  A tiny ridge of my skin found its way between her thumbnails, and then something amazing happened:  a perfectly ripe whitehead burst, discharging its seed-like head on her nail.  She instinctively recoiled and frantically wiped her hands on her filthy gown.  I took this opportunity to make a break for it, charging the light leaking through the flap of her tent.  I ran and ran and never looked back. 

Was the crystal ball’s forecast binding?  Or was there still time to turn my life around?  The next day was Saturday and I spent eight hours in the library, studying with a fervor I’d never before had.  Then, exhausted, I snatched up a copy of the school newspaper, seeking a poorly-written story as diversion.  The front page headline read, “VAGRANT DIES OF VELVEETA POISONING.”  I wiped sweat off of my forehead and went back to hitting the books.

Later—how much later, half an hour? an hour?—I found myself waking up, slumped in the study carrel with a stiff neck, a puddle of drool forming on my French textbook.  I checked my watch: 7:28 P.M.  I looked around for the newspaper article on the gypsy.  Had it really said Velveeta poisoning?  But that headline was nowhere to be seen.  The lead story was “UCSB TO OFFER ‘COED STUDIES’ MAJOR IN ‘89.”  The gypsy, the tent, the crystal ball, the visions of hopeless decline … they had all just been a dream! 

And my poor score on the French midterm … could that have been a dream, too?  I flipped open my binder.  The exam peered out at me, with “84%” written at the top in red ink.  Damn!  Still … things could always be worse.

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