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The Missouri Review 29.2 (2006) 117-130

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Runes and Incantations

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I've always believed in signs and will do almost anything to predict the future. Often the first to pry open my fortune amid the remains of a Chinese dinner, I inhale the smell of the cookie itself as prophecy: that honeyed shellac, the faintest bitter whiff of lemon. I like best those moments just before my future will be revealed, the cookie still whole in my hands, my fate untouched within its folds.

When the time comes, I read the fortune aloud with scorn, I laugh with my dinner companions, I add the words "in bed" to every line because that's what's done these days. But secretly I believe anything the fortunes say; I stash these ribbons away in my purse, where I'll come across them weeks, months, years later and won't be able to remember if what they said came true.

This predilection for the mystic has been with me ever since I was a child. The best present I ever received as a girl was the Magic 8-Ball: every day I asked it a question, my hands in a death grip on the black orb; then I turned it over so the answer floated up with sharp clarity from the murk: It depends. No. All signs point to yes. I found such limited and simple answers liberating rather than confining; I suppose I felt comforted by the possibilities whittled down to a certain few, the future determined in the simplest words. Even if the answer disappointed, I resisted asking the question again, wary of contradiction. Once answered, forever answered: that's what I believed. I could [End Page 118] hop on my bike—the pink Schwinn with its white wicker basket—and pedal up the cul-de-sac to carry out whatever course of action the 8-Ball dictated, whether it was playing hide-and-seek with the Steinberg kids—notorious cheaters, every one—or asking for a swim in the Goldmans' pool (the most lovely blue water, the most suggestive mermaid shape, but always hidden behind a latched gate), or dropping my best friend, Stacy, because she had spread my current infatuation with Bill French all over the fifth grade.

I realize this constant truck with the Magic 8-Ball might imply I was an anxious child, chronically indecisive, raised in an unpredictable household. But nothing could be farther from the truth. My parents were mild people, given to rare outbursts of anger, but on the whole thoroughly predictable: my father drank the same glass of Ovaltine every morning; I knew where to find my mother at any time of the day. They drank exactly one glass of Manischewitz wine on the holidays, and three days out of seven we ate Jell-O chocolate pudding for dessert, mounded with tantalizing swirls in fancy glass cups. My future—my day-to-day future anyway—was never in question: I knew my father would always have a job (he worked as a midlevel engineer for RCA and later ITT; he retired after forty years and said all he missed was his daily bridge game at lunch). I knew my mother would come home from the market every Thursday with bags and bags of food for us to plunder: soft rye bread with caraway seeds, boxes of Hostess cupcakes, Cocoa Krispies. For years I knew I would get up from my bed every weekday and walk to school: first the elementary school a couple of blocks away, then Patrick Henry Junior High, a little farther, then Granada Hills High School, across the busy intersection. It would always be seventy-two degrees and warm, or ninety degrees and hot, and the eucalyptus trees would continually shed their bark but never disappear. The 7-Eleven would always have root-beer Slurpees, and I would have the money in my pocket to buy them. [End Page 119]

I had the same friends year in and year out: Valentina (whose name was...


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