[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock image.]
Ever since he first saw Wanda Lee behind the counter of her father’s pharmacy, Chuck knew that one day he’d ask her to marry him.
He even had the line picked out: “What would it take to get you behind the wheel of a Chuck Timpless Chevrolet…for the rest of your life?”
But Chuck knew you couldn’t rush a deal. That was the difference between him and the other salesmen at the car lot, guys like Johnny Earl who’d make whipping noises behind the backs of buyers who said they’d have to ask their wives. Chuck focused on the long game, and if he didn’t sell a particular car to a particular customer today, well, that was okay; Detroit was always making more cars and God was always making more customers.
The key to a sale was not needing a sale.
So his courtship of Wanda Lee largely involved sauntering over to the pharmacy after his bachelor’s dinner at Woolworth’s, mounting the Wate and Fate machine, dropping in a dime, and tipping his hat to Wanda while the gears clicked out the little card. The weight number — a trim buck sixty five, thank you very much — never changed, but the fortunes did. GOOD NEWS IS COMING FROM AFAR it might say one day, and SAVE TODAY FOR TROUBLE TOMORROW the next.
He didn’t read them closely because he was reading Wanda closely, watching her reaction through the glass. She seemed to be a nervous sort, her shoulders tensing and her eyes going narrow when she saw him in what Chuck thought of as a coquettish wince. Or maybe a flirtacious grimace.
But that was okay. It’s what buyers did, begged you to sell them the dreams they didn’t know they had. Chuck had a pocket full of dimes for that machine, long enough to wait out his fate with Wanda Lee.
One evening in October, though, he received a different kind of fortune. The only reason he looked at it twice was because he noticed the word LOVE.
LOVE IS THE LIE OUR BODIES TELL OUR SOULS, it said.
He blinked at it a moment but then shrugged. He’d always imagined that wizened crones somewhere in the Chinese countryside typed the messages for the Wate and Fate company, maybe throwing coins or yarrow sticks with that holy book like he’d seen in the war. Sometimes a weird one would have to come through. That’s how you knew they were true, right? They were supposed to be a little vague to give you room from interpretation.
The next day, the message was OUR HEARTS MAKE WISHES AND CALL THEM FEARS.
“Huh,” he said to himself, glancing up at Wanda who was watching from behind a display of medicated powders. She made no sign of guessing what the fortune said, but then, she seldom made a sign of anything in his direction, furtively returning to work or to one of those notebooks where she was always writing.
“That girl’s a weirdo, you know,” Johnny Earl told him more than once. “Reading those books all the time. You don’t need that.”
The third evening, the card told him YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A CAR, which seemed a very specific metaphor, uncanny even. But it was a big world and there were cars all over, and if you weren’t literally killed by a car, you might be killed by the press of mechanical civlization it represented. That’s what Mrs. Childers in high school English might have told him once.
Chuck looked up and once again, Wanda looked away.
On the fourth evening, it said YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A 1957 CHEVROLET BEL AIR.
“Sedan or coupe?” he asked aloud to the machine, though he knew it couldn’t hear him. And even if it could, surely the spools of fortune cards were shipped from their Chinese temples in armored trucks, delivered across the sea in guarded cargo holds, shipped to little drug stores all across America in sealed boxes. Who would dare tamper with the Wate and Fate machine?
He glanced up. A cloud smeared something like a beard across the blue. The sky knew him. It was watching.
He swallowed and inserted another dime.
THERE WILL BE GLASS IN YOUR EYE AND STEEL THROUGH YOUR HEART.
He shook the machine, not sure why, and then he tried another.
WILL YOU SELL OR WILL YOU LIVE?
Chuck Timpless stumbled back from the machine. Would he sell or would he live? What kind of question was that? Couldn’t he do both? Couldn’t he sell cars and own a house and marry Wanda Lee and eat the meat loaf she made for dinner in a baby blue apron and still live? Couldn’t he do that?
The Wate and Fate machine said no. The Wate and Fate machine, cold white metal, did not love him or hate him. It merely weighed him, his body and his soul, and it told him what was.
Chuck slipped in another dime. The next message had to be happy, right? It had to be.
THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE.
Somewhere down Main Street, a door opened and Chuck recognized the din from Sammy’s Bar. From the television inside, he heard a familiar voice that didn’t quite break through the haze of his thoughts. “It shall be the policy of this nation…” came the words, but they didn’t find their way to meaning in his brain.
He put in his last dime, his last hope for a message that made sense, that made it better. Down the sidewalk, he heard the quickened patter of running footsteps and just behind them, the huffing voice of Johnny Earl.
“Jesus, Chuck! You gotta come listen. That goddamned fish-eating mick is about to nuke the Russkies!”
THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE.
The Wate and Fate machine clicked its wheels and calculated his destiny, but Chuck Timpless didn’t wait to read it. He loped off to Sammy’s Bar with Johnny Earl to see that message instead, the one shimmering in black and white on the TV above the liquor bottles.
The last card fell with no one to catch it, no one to read it, and to no one it said COME IN AND ASK ME.
Wanda Lee shouldered past her father to the back room of the pharmacy, crying.