he UFO extruded a long, mechanical arm and yanked a confused cow from the field below. On board the spaceship, a green-skinned man in an apron lit a charcoal grill, his antennas waving excitedly.
Sighing, Greg turned his sketchpad around so his customer could see the drawing. “Something like this?”
The man laughed. “That’s great, bro! But make my apron say something funny.”
“Fine, whatever.” Greg wrote “Something Funny” on the apron and handed the man the caricature. “That’ll be twenty dollars. And if you’re interested, I also have some actual art for sale.” He gestured to a large, wooden screen covered with watercolor portraits and nature scenes.
“Nah, bro.” The man folded the caricature in quarters and shoved it in his jacket pocket.
“Somehow, I didn’t think so.” As the man walked away, Greg stood up, stretched his legs, and wiped the dust off his paintings. “I might not be selling any art, but on the plus side, I haven’t had to buy paint for over a year.”
The beach had been chilly and windy all morning. The boardwalk was mostly empty, but he had managed to make just enough money to cover gas and lunch. On warmer days, the area attracted hundreds of beach goers and tourists, but even then, they weren’t exactly in the market for fine art.
His section of boardwalk was between a retired couple who made turquoise jewelry and a homeless surfer who sold seashells. Of course, the beach was covered in thousands of seashells, but these were special. They had plastic googly eyes glued to them. On the other side of the boardwalk, about twenty feet away, stood a long row of candy machines, soda machines, souvenir penny makers, and other mechanical money-wasters.
Two women walked quickly up the boardwalk, high heels clacking on the wooden planks. The first looked to be in her early forties. She was wearing a waitress’s uniform and a dingy sweater missing most of its buttons. Her friend was ten or fifteen years her junior. She had on tights under her dress and a scarf around her shoulders, but was still shivering in the cold.
“What’s that?” the waitress asked, pointing at a glass booth. It looked something like a cross between a ticket counter and a vending machine. Inside the booth stood a mannequin dressed like a gypsy woman in an old horror movie. The mannequin was staring down at a large crystal ball surrounded by tarot carts. Its lips were parted slightly, as if it were just about to speak.
Her friend laughed. “Oh wow! It’s one of those fortune telling machines! You should do it, Marcie!”
Marcie pulled some change from her purse and dropped it in the slot. The crystal ball lit up, and the mannequin waved her hands mysteriously. The machine buzzed and clunked, and a white card appeared in the slot below. The waitress took the card and turned it over. “It’s just a green square. What kind of fortune is that?”
“Hmm… Well, green stands for money, right?” her friend said. “Maybe there’s money in your future!”
“That would be great. God knows I could use some… Cathy, you’re always playing those scratch offs. Do you have one in your purse? I’ll pay you back, I swear.” Her friend handed her a scratch off ticket and watched her scrape away the silver surface with a fingernail. “Oh sweet lord… I won two thousand dollars!”
“I’ll split it with you.” Marcie tried to pass the card back to her friend, but she just waved her hand away.
“No, no, no. You can keep it all.”
“Don’t be silly!” Marcie said. “It’s two grand! We can take a trip together! Go to Vegas, meet some hot guys, and –”
“I don’t need it. I… I won ten million yesterday.”
Marcie laughed. “Oh, sure you did. And I’m the pope. …Wait, you’re serious!”
“That’s why I wasn’t at work this morning.”
Marcie looked down at her uniform. “Because you quit. You’ll never have to see the diner again. You’ll never have sore feet from standing all day, never come home smelling like burned grease, never get called a dumb bitch because you forgot someone’s fries… I’ll burn through this money in a week, but you’ll never have to work again.”
“Can’t you even pretend you’re happy for me?”
“Oh, sure I can. I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending over the years. When my brother got that football scholarship, when my ugly sister got married first, when my friends all got better jobs, there I was, big smile on my face! Hooray, everybody gets to have a perfect life but me!” She balled her hands into fists, crushing the ticket. “So yes, Cathy, I’m so happy for you I could fucking scream. Have a great life, you dumb bitch.” With that, she turned and stormed away.
“I was going to pay for you to go back to school!” Cathy called after her. “Anywhere you wanted to go! But now I hope you’re stuck at that shit hole diner forever!”
During this exchange, Greg kept his eyes on his sketchpad, pretending to be hard at work on a drawing. “I wish people would go someplace else to argue,” he thought. “People always act like I’m not even here. Even when they’re sitting in front of me for a drawing, they still don’t see me.”
When he looked up, the women had gone. Except for a few seagulls fighting over some spilled popcorn, he was alone. But even when the beach was full of people, it still felt empty.
A man in a pea coat came down the boardwalk with a woman in a shapeless maternity dress. She was around six months pregnant. “Look, David!” she said, pointing to the fortune machine. “Do you want to ask it a question?”
“Those things are so silly,” he said. “Julie, we can’t waste money. We need to save up.”
She rolled her eyes. “I think we can spare fifty cents. Have some fun for once! Go ahead and try it! I’ll catch up.”
He put some change in the machine. The mannequin’s crystal ball lit up and its hands waved. The machine buzzed and clunked. He took the white card out of the slot and cheered. “It’s a blue square!”
“Don’t you see what that means? It says we’re going to have a boy! We have to hold on to this card. If the prediction turns out right, we can frame it and hang it on the nursery wall. It’ll be a great story!”
For a moment, she was silent, motionless. Finally, she said, “It’s correct. We are having a boy. I went for an ultrasound… with Rachel.”
“Rachel? You’re still talking to her?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I thought… I thought that was just a college thing. I thought you were over that.”
“I was going to tell you when the time was right… We wanted a baby, and you’re tall, and healthy, and a good provider.”
“Oh, so I’m a child support check with good DNA.”
“No, you’re a great guy, but Rachel knows how to enjoy life. And I need that. I’m sorry.” She reached out for him, trying for a hug, but he pushed her away.
“No, you’re not.”
Silently, she turned and headed for the bus stop. David stared out at the water until the bus came and took her away. Tossing the card to the ground, he walked down the beach and sat in the sand.
As the sun was setting and Greg began packing his things, three men in wetsuits were carrying surfboards up from the beach. They were in their early twenties, possibly students at the local college. They strolled down the row of vending machines, pressing coin return buttons and checking the ground for any dropped change. The tallest of the surfers was apparently successful. He approached the fortune telling machine and dropped in his winnings.
“You want to know your fortune, Kevin?” one of the other surfers said. “I predict you are a loser, will continue to be a loser, die a loser, and be a loser in the afterlife.”
“Shut up, Ricky,” Kevin snapped. The fortune machine flashed its lights, waved its hands, and spat out a card. “A yellow square? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe you’re going to get lucky with some blond,” the third one laughed. His surfboard had the name “Gavin” painted in large, green letters.
The three traded insults for a while, then went back to look for more change. This time, they pooled their winnings on some vending machine pizza. While they devoured their snack, a blond woman strolled up the boardwalk, walking alongside an expensive-looking bicycle. There were several bike paths near the beach, but the boardwalk too was bumpy and uneven for riding. As she passed the surfers, she glanced in their direction and ran her fingers through her hair.
“Did you see the way she looked at you, Kevin?” Gavin said. “You should go talk to her.”
He suddenly became very interested in his feet. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Ricky rolled his eyes. “Well, I would start with ‘hi’. If she doesn’t pepper spray you and call the cops, then ask if she likes long walks on the beach… back to the parking lot… where you’re both headed.”
“Sure, and we walk together, and then what?” He looked up at the woman and her bike receding into the distance. “Let’s just go home… after she’s gone.”
Greg finished packing his art in a large suitcase and folded up his display screen. “Alright, I can’t stand it anymore. I have to know what’s going to happen to me.” He dropped some change in the fortune machine and drummed his fingers on the glass. Once more, the fortune teller mannequin waved its hands over the glowing crystal ball. A white card popped out of the slot.
“Wait a minute…” He flipped the card back and forth. It didn’t have a colored square. There was nothing but white. He checked the machine for instructions, or a telephone number he could call to complain, but all he found was a small, brass plaque under the window.
It gives life direction or keeps you lost in a haze
The stain on your heart will color all your days
“That’s it, then? My life has no purpose? You predict things for all these other people, but nothing is going to happen to me. My life is never going to change. I’ll never do anything worth remembering… No one will know I was ever here.”
Clutching the card tightly, he walked up the boardwalk, leaving the screen and suitcase in the sand. He passed by his car in the parking lot and continued into the street. Closing his eyes tightly, he stepped in front of a white pickup truck.
The next morning, a man was pushing a dolly full of cardboard boxes up the boardwalk. The patch on his jacket read “Raymond’s Vending”. He took out a large ring of keys and unlocked the back of the fortune machine, pulling it open. “Oh man! I just refilled this thing last week, and the printer’s already out of ink.”