Lake Effect, Spring 2010, Volume 14: The Face Painter's Tale

Judith Slater


The Face Painter’s Tale

It’s only ten to five, but the Aura Lady is taking down her tent, and Mac the Crystal Guy is counting out the day’s profits and getting ready to lock up his cash box.  The past life regressionist checks her watch obsessively.  It’s always seemed funny to Susan that the fortune teller and the past life regressionist wear watches.  Why do they care what time it is now?
Susan’s in no hurry for closing time.  Just the opposite.  She’s already homesick for this tiny, foggy ocean town she’s going to leave tomorrow, and she’d like to spin this day out as long as she can. 
And there’s always one straggler wandering in, oblivious, just as the tents are coming down.  The Aura Lady glares and the palm reader sighs, but Susan smiles at this last customer: a young woman in a purple parka, carrying a sleeping baby across her chest in one of those kangaroo-like pouches.
Susan’s no fortune teller, but all it takes is one look at the woman’s face, at the rip in the sleeve of her parka, to know she’s been shopping for the week’s groceries, counting out food stamps.  Her car’s that rusted-out Oldsmobile in the corner of the parking lot, a car seat in the back that she bought at Goodwill, the gas tank hovering on empty, just enough to get home on.  She hadn’t realized there was a psychic fair in the Safeway lot this weekend.  But now that she’s here, she can’t resist.  It’s always the people who can’t afford it who pay to have their fortunes told, their auras read.  Nothing to hope for but long shots.
The woman hands over a crumpled five-dollar bill.  “Is this enough?” she asks.  She’s got one of those husky, cigarette voices.  Or maybe—Susan cocks an ear and leans in—it’s not a cigarette voice but an on-the-verge-of-tears voice.  At first Susan thinks the woman wants her own face painted, but she lifts the baby out of its pouch, and there’s something in the way she hands it over—like she’s giving the baby away as a present—that gives Susan a chill.  She was just reading about a midwestern state—she can’t remember which one—that had to rewrite its Safe Haven Law, a law that let desperate parents drop off babies they couldn’t care for at hospitals, because the law had neglected to specify a cut-off age, and people began dropping off not just newborns but nine- and ten-year-olds, even teenagers.  
Susan’s been with the psychic fair more years than she cares to count, and she’s known for a long time that it attracts desperate people, people who’ve come to the end of rational solutions to their problems.