THE NEW GIFT

Fred McKay, an organic plumber in his late forties, had a special gift. He was able to tell the fortune of a person from the way water branched out on the asphalt of his driveway. A bucketful, strategically dumped, was usually enough to produce a filigree of lines — fork of fortune, as he called it — that he was able to read just as easily as other mortals read the local newspaper. He’d discovered his special talent quite by accident one memorable afternoon, eight years before, as he was attending his neighbor’s, Frank Lebart’s, barbeque. There, gazing at the wet sticky pattern left by a gallon spill of Sprite, he’d been overcome with a rush of recognition: he saw trends, sharp possibilities, a pattern that congealed in a vision. As he gazed at the shiny, branched surface glittering in the sun, he’d felt a faint ripple on his skin, a sense of something bad in the making. That night he went home irritated and confused, and slept badly, but kept the incident to himself. When he learned, just a week later, that the usually nimble Frank had fallen off a ladder and broken his leg that very night, he started shaking, and the ancient biblical curse went around and around in his head: Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin — the Writing on the Wall.

McKay had vowed never to use materials harmful to the earth, and never, ever to use plastic parts. Passionate gardener that he was, he saw how things were interconnected in nature; he envisioned the difficulty of gardening centuries later when toxic junk might pop up in every crumb of soil. The high price of copper made him lose a lot of business, but he accepted his humble place in the world with pride.

In his new life as a part-time fortune teller, he had successfully predicted two weddings, three funerals and one bankruptcy, and had located a spaniel that had been lost for five weeks in a Grand Union parking lot – dehydrated, the poor thing, but otherwise unharmed. He was a good, conscientious plumber, and practiced his unusual craft only on weekends and only when he was able to help people in deep distress.

“Just let it run, your fortune is done!” his weekend business card said under the logo of a crystal ball surrounded by two loops of a garden hose. He charged a flat 50 bucks, and he had yet to encounter a customer who’d objected to this deal.

McKay, a bachelor, lived in a small house in an area of the town that was known as The Jump. The Jump was separated from the rest of the residential areas by the arches of an expressway. Part of it was wilderness; brush and tall weeds spread from a nearby creek into the backyards and into the cracks of the unmaintained road.

On a bright windy Saturday morning — it was late summer — McKay received a phone call from a Mr. Petersen who requested his service in an urgent matter.

“You got slope in your driveway?” McKay asked Mr. Peterson after listening to him long enough to know it couldn’t be a prank.

“Without slope there’s no hope,” he said, chuckling. “That’s what I always say. Meaning, there’s no use; I might as well stay home.”

Pressing the receiver against his ear, he looked out his window into the beautiful rolling field of weeds that stretched from his house to the expressway.

“It slopes down pretty handsomely,” Mr. Peterson said. “You might even venture to say it declines.” Apparently turning to his wife, as McKay judged from Peterson’s muffled, suddenly distant voice, he said, “the area is pretty clear of puddles, wouldn’t you say so, Hon?”

“You got a garden hose?” McKay asked, patiently waiting for the building of a marital consensus.

“Sure do. A brand-new one, as a matter of fact.”

“Long?”

“Fifty feet.”

“Ok, that should do it. Just get it out. I’ll be right over.”

“Say, what’s the secret behind this business?” Mr. Peterson asked.

“Huh?”

“How’d you do it? How does it work?”

“I’ll be right over. Then you just watch.”

* * *

When Fred McKay arrived in his rusty pickup truck, wearing blue overalls and a broad reassuring smile, the Petersons greeted him on the doorstep of their house: Mr. Peterson with his wife and two kids, a boy who looked twelve and a girl around seven. Their faces were weary and pale as though they had been standing in front of the door for days. The wind had increased in strength.

“Glad to meet you. The name is Harry,” Mr. Peterson said, stretching his hand out.

“Pleasure,” McKay said, shaking Harry’s hand firmly. “I’m Fred. You must’ve seen my business card.”

“That’s Jane here my wife,” Harry said. “And Andy right here. This young lady here name’s Betty.”

“Hijane, hiandy, hibetty.” McKay gave each a firm smile, and then his eyes went back to Harry. “How can I help you?”

“The thing is this . . .,” Harry said, scratching his head.

“Can you do magic tricks?” Betty blurted out, half-hiding behind her mother.

“Shhh!” Jane reprimanded her. “No time for games!”

“The thing is, we’re trying to decide if we should move. Business is drying up out here,” Harry said.

“Where to?” McKay said.

“California,” Jane said with determination in her voice. “If we go at all.”

“And what exactly do you want to know?”

“We want to know if it’s going to work. Friends of ours have moved before, and we never heard from them again,” Harry said. “Might be a good sign, or it might be they are in deep shit.”

“I want to see the Golden Gate Bridge,” Andy said.

“Bridges are boring,” Betty said. “I want to see the seals.”

“This is a big decision, then?” McKay said.

“You could call it that,” Harry said, his arm around his wife’s shoulder, though she wiggled herself free.

“Then let me get to work.”

As they were talking, the wind had increased to gale force. Harry brought a new blue-green garden hose from the basement, a heavy coil of 50 feet of double-enforced supreme quality, and showed McKay the tap on the side of the house. The children watched him, whispering to each other. Jane stood by, watching the mechanical ritual, pressing her light skirt to her thighs with both hands to keep it from puffing up. McKay unwound the hose, connected it, and placed it strategically. As he turned on the tap with experienced hands, controlling the flow, the Petersons stepped back respectfully. A few seconds passed. The water went uphill, driven by the strong buffeting wind.

“I’ll be damned,” said McKay, staring at the ground. “Never happened before.”

“What does that mean?” Harry asked, worry in his voice.

“What it means . . .,” McKay stammered, at a loss of what to say. “What it means, . . . what it probably means, to be honest, is I won’t be able to tell anything about your future. But I guess I might be able to say a thing or two about the past.”

He stared at the couple, frightened by what he’d just said. But it was too late. Unwittingly, he had unleashed a torrent, difficult to call back.

“You fucker, you get the fuck out of here,” Harry shouted into the plumber’s face, ushering his wife and kids toward the house.

Perturbed, as he stood motionless, water still splashing out of the hose, unerringly finding its way uphill, McKay saw the little family rush into the front door and heard the door slam. From inside came Jane’s shrill voice over the cries of the two kids:

“I knew it. I knew you had something to hide, you bastard!”

“Knew what? Knew what, for Christ’s sake?” came Harry’s thunderous but hapless voice.

McKay shook his head as he turned the water off. He wouldn’t see a penny for coming all the way out into this suburban wasteland, and made a quick decision. He disconnected the hose, rolled it up into a coil, all 50 feet of it, and fixed the coil with a rope. It might be twenty bucks, better than nothing. The screaming and jelling in the house went into a crescendo. He threw the heavy, still dripping bundle on his pickup, then jumped into the cabin behind the steering wheel.

As he slammed the door and started the ignition, he had a revelation. He thought of the new gift, opening a whole new dimension to his second trade. Excited, as he sped away, he thought about the new business cards he would print, with writing on both sides.

Past Fortune, the other side would say.

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