What Happened in Twentynine Palms
If you pull an eight-hour drive, you’ll get to Reno by the evening. The landscape is monotonous, but there are moment when you crested a ridge and it stuns you: vast sweeps of alluvial plain, sun splaying clear and white over the sagebrush, jumbles of granite and joshua tree twisting in with pinon pines and juniper. The sun has an aura of dust and plateau-light. Last nights dream rides in the seat beside you, leaning on your shoulder. The towns, made of mobile homes and plywood shacks painted with JESUS SAVES, are far apart. Most of the people here work for the mines, and a few ranch cattle. Your own parents do groundwater consulting a few highways north in Banning County. The San Gorgonio river, that had run by your hotel this morning, also ran by your childhood home. Your sister drowned in that river when she was four and you were three.
You stop once at a gas station to fill the tank, get breakfast, pee. Then it’s three hours of driving till you stop in 29 palms for lunch. It’s the biggest town you’ve seen all day, but it’s small enough that it has just one of everything: one laundromat, one chinese restaurant, one appliance store, etc.
You park in front of the town hall. The chinese place advertised a seven-dollar lunch buffet, so you go there. King of the Wok, that was the name.
Getting out of the jeep you noticed a strange woman sitting at a booth on the city hall’s mostly-dead lawn. She’s wearing a peasant blouse tucked into a tiered skirt. Tiny mirrors and intricate beadwork lace the hem. Long dark braids spill from her headscarf. She has hoop earrings and heavy makeup, witch is going soft and greasy in the heat. A handwritten sign reads Madam Cilyanka, Fortunetelling. You kind of smile at her as you lock the car, but she stares straight ahead into space.
Inside King of the Wok it is tight and dark. You sit at a fake-mahogany table with it’s deep red stain and watch the clownfish in their tank as you eat. You have broccoli lo mein and sesame chicken and an eggroll. It’s delicious. Your ice water has a maraschino cherry and a c***tail umbrella in it. Last night (in your dream, you remind yourself) your sister stood up to her shoulders in the water. Just like you, she had gotten older, and now she is twenty-three. Slender as an aspen. Long black hair plastered to her back. Sassy hand gestures as she talked, darting eyes. She said, come into the water. She said, I’ve been waiting for you. In your dream, you remind yourself. She said, the river took me. In your dream.
You lick your fingers. Wonder about the strange gypsy woman out in front of the town hall. She looked so out of place, yet so self-assured. Maybe she was the real thing and maybe she was a fake, but either way you could tell she believed she could reach into the future and pull you out a shard of it. You licked the grease from your fingers. That morning you’d padded out of your motel room in sock feet, over the parking lot, and parted the reeds by the river. You’d felt silly standing there, in the soft black mud. Starlings had jeered from the telephone wires. There it was, floating on the water: a strand of long black hair.
It could have been a piece of horsehair or something, you remind yourself. Maybe even fishing line. You pay for the meal and leave through the glass door with it’s jiggling little bell. The sun and the pavement, the sky and the dry hill are all a pale blinding glare.
The fortune-teller is still there on your way out.
“Hey.” you say. “Many, uh, clients today?”
She beckons you. “You want fortune told?” You can’t tell if the accent is real or not. Either way, it’s smoky and savory.
“You tell fortunes?” You say in a gawky attempt at smalltalk.
She points to the sign. “Five Dollars.”
“Um.” You say. “Alright” You wrestle out five ones-dollar bills and hand them to her. She takes your hand and lays it on a small cushion of crushed velvet. Up close, she smells like egyptian musk and cigarettes. Her kohl is drifting towards her temples, lips an insane shade of red.
She traces the lines on your palm like roads on a map, or like the courses of rivers. She bends her head down so far you can feel her breath on your wrist. Then she straightens up.
“There is a point where your headline and your heartline go in different directions.” she says. “You must believe yourself.”
“I must believe in myself.” you say.
“No. Believe Yourself.”
You thank her, walk back over the dry grass and to the jeep. You leave 29 palms and head to Reno. Towards where you’d merge into the highway. But then you pull to the shoulder, with your heart, you head back.