I Know What You're Thinking

The show ended near midnight--a fiery old blues band he liked--and he slid away from the coliseum and his colleagues, sure that he'd parked in a small lot near the Veterinary Sciences building.

He felt foolish standing on the sidewalk beneath a lamppost, fat luna moths darting above him and pinging into the metal pole. His head ached, his ears rang, he was no longer even slightly stoned, the others had gone their own way, and he could not find his car. He'd be a basket case if he didn't get at least six hours, and the students in his early morning remedial English class would surely know he'd been out late smoking, drinking. In class the indolent 17-year-olds regularly grinned at him across the room, interested only in studying his face, his eyes. Their dulled intellects belied an acute sense of all things primal.

A red-faced, sweaty boy in an ATO t-shirt tottered up, a grinning girl on his arm.

"Hey man, you look like you just lost your best friend," said the frat boy. The girl giggled, elbowing him in the ribs, their beer bottles clinking.

"I can't find my car."

The girl hissed, covering her mouth, but the boy suddenly became serious. "Call the Psychic Car Lady. A buddy of mine lost his keys, and he called her and ten minutes later she told him where they were. That shit's freaky."

He knew all about the Psychic Locator Service. PLS. She was still doing it.

"The number's back there on the board behind you."

"Thanks, but I'll manage."

"Ten minutes," the boy repeated, shaking his head. They wandered off, the girl laughing in fits.

He would pass the lighted kiosk when he retraced his steps. He wouldn't look at it. He could find the car on his own, he didn't need her help. But of course his eyes were drawn to it: a laminated 4x6 card with trippy red and yellow flowers--she'd said people were attracted to them, like bees--floating over her cartoon head and that of a lost customer, each cradling their own telephone receiver. At this distance he couldn't read it, but he knew the tagline by heart: Lost Something? Call me, I want to help you find it.

He could wander for hours and never find his car. Maybe it had been stolen. She would know. She would. Despite her unique talents he still thought psychics were a sham, but all he had to do was call. Besides, he was exhausted, his throat tight and scratchy like he might be catching something. He palmed the phone in his pocket. He knew the number, took out the phone and held it for a block before dialing. He stopped walking to avoid sounding anxious, but his heart pounded in his ears as he awaited her voice. Just business, he repeated. She picked up on the third ring.

"Psychic Locator Service, what can I find for you tonight?" Jenn's soft Irish brogue melted him.

"I've lost my car," he said, surprised by the drowsiness in his voice. "I'm at the university." He began walking once more.

There was a pause on the other end. "Stephen. Are you well?"

Again, the accent. So authentic; her best one, but a complete fake. Jenn wasn't Irish, had never been to Ireland, hadn't even hoisted a pint at an Irish pub as far as he knew. She was an actress and conducted workshops in town and at his high school, where they'd met--accents were her strength.

"Cat got your tongue?" she crooned. He pictured her at the phone in the hallway, the dark little antique side table, the ladderback chair with its midnight blue cushion against golden moon and star pattern, the small mirror behind her head just to the left. And her hair, raven colored and long, loose curls dangling about her robe--soft, dark and whispery. God, he missed her, but he remembered the dull, hollow ache when he saw her in the arms of others. She wanted so many people, men and women, though she said she wanted him too. He couldn't live with such dangerous excitement and uncertainty, and had moved on. He was with Debbie now, almost a photo negative of Jenn--stable, predictable, level-headed, blonde Debbie. She said she loved him. She was the type of unremarkable woman with whom he always imagined having kids and spending the rest of his life. With her there would be no surprises.

"Did you look in the right place, Stephen?" He heard rustling, shifting sounds in the background and wondered who else was there, what needy young thing languished in the other room.

"I need help finding the car, Jenn. I just want to get home and go to sleep."

"Yes, you do sound tired. I'll get you home." She slowly told him where to walk. "How's your friend? Debbie, was it?"

"Is, yes. We're fine."

"Can't she help you find the car?"

"I'm alone."

"You poor thing," she pouted.

"No, I mean, I met some friends here for the show -- Debbie's not a big blues fan."

She paused as if probing; then, playfully, "Debbie isn't much fun, is she."

"Debbie's a lot of fun. Shešs normal, down to earth." Why was he doing this? He didn't need this crap, he should just walk away. Literally, he could simply hang up and walk home. Or call someone else--yes, why hadn't he done that? He knew, though, that calling Jenn was the quickest way to get home.

"The car, Jenn. Let's remember what's important here, the reason I called."

"Debbie's not important?"

"You know what I mean, just concentrate on the car. Can you do that for me?"

Silence. He hoped she was finished playing, and now truly concentrating. He heard nothing, no breathing, no background sounds, no static. Nothing. He pulled the phone from his ear, noticed the display's happy green glow, then listened again. "Jenn?" He heard delicate fabric shifting, almost like an evening breeze through branches of a fully canopied tree in summer.

"I miss you," she said softly, her Irish accent thicker than ever. Indeed, she was very good. "I want you. Tonight."

He'd made a clean break and hadn't seen or talked to her in six months, twice as long as they had been together. But the short time he spent with her seemed timeless, the hours lingering like perfume on a collar, every minute dazzling magic, completely mesmerizing.

Then, she'd become distracted by others. First the young boy, a senior at his school and a student in her workshop in town; and later a fellow teacher of his, younger, and female. Jenn was worlds ahead of him, or just in another world altogether, a darkly magnetic one that both repelled and tugged at him. When she told him her appetite for pleasure was bigger than he could ever imagine, he'd decided to end it.

"Look behind you, Stephen."

He swiveled around expecting her to be there.

"Do you see it?"

He stood at the edge of a crumbling asphalt lot beside a darkened brick building he'd never seen before. Forgotten trees and brush crept from the lot's fringes.

"Yes," he whispered. "It's here." His car sat alone underneath an old oak tree. He didn't tell her how amazing she was, but walked to the car and got in."What do I owe you?" His throat tightened again. He knew she never accepted money for her services.

"Let's see," she said. "Where will you go now?"

"I'm not sure." He turned the key, desperately trying to project Debbie's bright face in his mind. "You tell me. What am I thinking?"

She was quiet but he could almost see her face, see the change in it like the first time he ever asked her this question. Then he heard the smile in her voice: "Yes, Stephen. I'll leave the light on for you." He was already off, away, slipping silently through the dark streets, flying headlong towards her.

About the author:

James Simpson is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction hasappeared in print and on-line in Lit Pot, Pindeldyboz, Big City Lit, Word Riot, Flashquake, StorySouth, and other journals. He was also a finalist in Night Train Magazine's 2002 Firebox Fiction contest, judged by Pamela Painter. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters, and is currently working on a novel tentatively titled It Could Be Worse.