Then said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be.
She was a bad psychic when she arrived in Querosa, New Mexico, not because she didn’t possess the powers, but she couldn’t control them. Her husband moved them to the small town to teach at the college and she didn’t have anything to persuade him not to. “We’ll make it fun,” he promised, and after thirty days on the High Plains, the Great Drought began. People seemed friendly.
In Los Angeles Jenny had dealt with all sorts of clients. In her first few months in Querosa she encountered only three—people who wanted to believe in God and still wanted to make sure; women who wanted to know how much longer they had to endure their husbands; and dairy cowboys in soiled jeans and boots who didn’t want anything they could articulate but who came nonetheless. They expected crystal balls and tea leaves, but all they had to do was take off their boots and socks. Sometimes Jenny read hands, but it was looking at their feet that told her most about the people coming to her small place on Avenue D.
Her hair was strawberry blond, her complexion of a near yellowish white, and freckles abounded. How could they not? Jenny liked to joke that when it came to all things magic, you could do worse than having long, red hair. She said her boobs helped too, they kept shy men coming.
She might have been Irish but wasn’t, and there were rumors spread carefully throughout her family’s history that her great-great-great-grandmother had been a witch from the Black Forest who’d barely escaped Germany to the New World. Jenny was rather fond of that cobwebbed tale, mended by each generation of women. They kept it intact, even though their last names changed and tore the women apart. Grandma Vollmer, the witch was called, and Jenny had been born a Kestendorf and quite gladly switched to Preston.
Carl Preston, her husband, was easy to live with, a big man of great enthusiasm, which he bestowed on most everything. On his job as an anthropologist at the small, regional university, on their new house, their first, and on the plants and the lawn which were always close to death from the 100-degree heat, and on Jenny. He had an enthusiasm for her body, which turned him as loud and awkward as a Great Dane spotting a cat, and his good-natured assaults on her were a series of grunts and thrusts and yelps and brief barks. Then he leapt up to devote himself to work or garden and left her bruised and listening to his sounds around the house or in front of her window.
They’d been married for seven years. He hadn’t slowed down.
On the fields just north of their house, on a street named after a state she would have willingly offered to Mexico or Canada or used as a fenced-in asylum for anti-abortionists, Limbaugh lovers, and the entire Bush administration, cows grazed, dust was lifted into the air and dropped onto their windowsills. On many days it smelled as though she were rubbing her nose in their two dogs’ nether regions, but Carl hardly noticed. In his air-conditioned office in one of the nicer campus buildings, he noticed little about Querosa. His truck displayed the slogan ‘Pray for Rain,’ as though he belonged here, and yet he didn’t know Taco Town, the other side of the railroad tracks, where migrant workers and poor farmhands lived. Mostly Mexicans, legal and illegal alike.
He didn’t know about the gun raffle at Leighton’s Feed Store. Carl didn’t know how often the freight trains came through town or that there hadn’t been a passenger train in forty years and that the old train station was for sale and would have made for a nice restaurant and bar, if someone had had the eye to see its potential. But in a town of barely 10,000, who would have eye and money?
The ethanol plant and the peanut plant opened and closed their doors, fired and rehired workers constantly. More people seemed to be out of work than have a steady job.
Carl knew campus, and his enthusiasm for work and home blinded him. Jenny knew the German word for her husband: kindskopf. Carl, the kindskopf. She loved his childlike demeanor —she’d been attracted to his boisterous self that seemed to plough through problems as though they were as immaterial as the first snow at the end of November.
At night she woke sometimes, assured by his loud breathing and wished for more. More darkness maybe, more dangerous undercurrents, treacherous depths. Anything that might scare her. She wanted a sharper pain.
In Los Angeles, where Carl had finished his degree at UCLA, she’d first worked out of the dining area of their one-bedroom apartment. Friends of friends had arrived and she’d read them their fortunes. Jenny had tried to read tea leaves and coffee grounds and hands. She liked hands well enough, the wear and tear that chronicled a life better than faces could, especially in LA where faces were something you aspired to. Yes, it was a cliché, the old, so old LA cliché, and yet Jenny had admired the discipline with which actors and doctors and lawyers and people with the time and the money kept their faces in check. She understood the art behind the smooth, taut features.
Yes, she’d liked hands, but she’d found her opening to character and future in feet. This was hard to admit, and harder to tell her clients. People trusted her with their hands but they felt silly and naked when Jenny took their feet in her lap and stared at bunions, neglected nails, squeezed toes. And the carefully manicured feet were no different. Shy and awkward, children hidden away in closets, blinded by the attention. Still.
The lint between toes, the shape of the big toe, the length of toes—it was there that Jenny saw futures. Maybe it was a result of the clients’ reluctance, their smiles of disbelief, their horror at taking off their shoes that made her grasp the person.
LA had been easy—many of her customers had been raised in flip-flops, but Querosa was another matter. The very first person to come through the door of the compact stand-alone building on Avenue D seated himself at the small, round table and when Jenny asked the 50-year-old to remove his heavy boots he grinned, shook his head, whistled, and walked away. The sticker on his truck endorsed the GOP in no uncertain terms. In Querosa that didn’t mean much. God was spelled GOP.
No matter how her day went, she made sure to take what she called her sanity-break. She couldn’t stay six or eight hours in her office without going home and returning to herself. On bad days that meant eating way too much for lunch without even looking at the food. On good ones, she just wandered through her house, that modest brick ranch, or sat in the sunroom with some tea and a magazine. She fed Xerxes and Shibuya, her dogs, watched them sun themselves in the yard. Her breaks rarely lasted longer than an hour. She didn’t need rest, she needed to remember and recognize her life again.
The first customer who stayed was also a man, younger, though not young. He wore a flannel shirt and a white cowboy hat, called Jenny Ma’am and pulled off his boot without a second of hesitation. “She’s not sure,” he said, as though this explained why he’d come.
“You want her to be?” Jenny asked. She’d chosen a thin sweater to wear, with a nice neckline, a soft bra that outlined her breasts. She wore jeans and simple mules. She didn’t want to read other people’s lives with bare feet.
Her red hair she wore open and the simple outfit was designed to put customers at ease. In LA she’d worn more colors, more make-up. LA was fickle. Here, the only hint at what she did were turquoise earrings and a matching necklace. Everything else was a matter of lighting.
“I’ll marry her if she is,” he said.
“But you don’t want to?”
Jenny smiled, put his right foot in her lap, with care, not tenderness. It was a white foot with dirty nails, a steady foot with a good-enough arch, a bit rigid though. She looked at and felt it. She noticed the very dark hairs growing on the man’s toes.
“She’s not for you,” she said after a few minutes. “And she’s not pregnant. But if you go back to her she will be. Soon.” She exhaled. “What does your wife know about this? She doesn’t yet, right? But she’s on to you. This is the first time you strayed. You like your wife better, but…” She stopped. There seemed to be a knot in her thoughts, as though the foot in front of her had produced it. “She’s older, no, no, but she is…” She let go of the man’s foot. It fell to the floor like a dropped cup, only it didn’t shatter.
He didn’t seem to mind, his eyes hung on Jenny.
“You must leave her,” she said before she could stop herself.
“Why? She’s my wife,” the man said. “So I should go with…”
“Just leave. Leave your family. You’re living in a trailer next to your parents’ house. Leave, go, just get out of there, get out of this town.”
“Now you’re talking crazy shit,” the man laughed. He was 39 maybe, 38. He put on his boot and took the agreed-upon twenty from a stitched leather wallet. “She’s my wife.”
“You would have left her for your girlfriend.”
“Yeah, but she’s no good, right?”
“She’s not pregnant, she’s not in your future.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” he said, and his grin was not so different now from that of her first visitor. “We grow green chile, it’s the family tradition. We’re a great family. I’m needed.”
Jenny nodded. The man stood up, waited for a last word from her, and she forced herself to say, “You take care now,” and then failed to see him walk out to the parking lot, failed to listen to his truck’s mangled exhaust pipe.
What she saw was his wife in his older brother’s bed, and the child she would soon carry, and she saw the man’s path forking and also knew that he would take the one that would lead him back to his family and some future event that felt like bile shooting up her throat and she opened her eyes wide to let her surroundings convince her that she was still in her office and only when she stopped did she notice she’d been crying. She didn’t have another customer that day.
STEFAN KIESBYE’S stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. It has been translated into Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. Kiesbye’s second novel, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, was published by Penguin in 2012. It was a Top Ten pick of Oprah Magazine, made Entertainment Weekly’s Must List, and Slate editor Dan Kois named it one of the best books of the year. It was translated into German and Spanish, and is forthcoming from East Press, Japan. In Spring 2014, the literary thriller Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht (Knife, Fork, Scissors, Flames) was published by Tropen Verlag/Klett-Cotta, Germany. Die Welt wrote that “Stefan Kiesbye…is the inventor of the modern German Gothic novel.” His LA Noir Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles (Vanishing Point) was released by ars vivendi verlag in January 2015. Kiesbye teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.
Adapted from The Staked Plains, by Stefan Kiesbye, Copyright © 2015 by Stefan Kiesbye. With the permission of the publisher, Saddle Road Press.