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The Palmist: A Short Story from Birds of Paradise Lost:

Apr 01, 2014 | Updated May 31, 2014

The Palmist is a short story collected in Andrew Lam's latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost. It was published in March of 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award and is currently a finalist for First Fiction of the California Book Award 2014. It was read on Selected Shorts by Tony-winner James Naughton, and by the author himself on American Public Media, Thestory.org

The palmist closed up shop early because of the pain. He felt as if he was being roasted, slowly, inside out. By noon he could no longer focus on his customers' palms; their life and love
lines had all failed to point to any significant future, but blurred and streaked instead into rivers and streams of his memories.

Outside, the weather had turned. Dark clouds hung low and the wind was heavy with moisture. He reached the bus stop's tiny shelter when it began to pour. He didn't have to wait long, how- ever. The good old 38 Geary pulled up in a few minutes, and he felt mildly consoled, though sharp pains flared and blossomed from deep inside his bowels like tiny geysers, and they made each of his three steps up the bus laborious.

It was warm and humid on the bus, and crowded, and a fine mist covered the windows. He sat on the front bench facing the aisle, the one reserved for the handicapped and the elderly. A fat woman with rosy cheeks who stayed standing gave him a dirty look. It was true: his hair was still mostly black, and he appeared to be a few years short of senior citizenship. The palmist pretended not to notice her. He leaned contemptuously back against the worn and cracked vinyl and smiled to himself. He closed his eyes. A faint odor of turned earth reached his nostrils. The palmist inhaled deeply and saw again a golden rice field, a beatific smile, a face long gone; his first kiss.

The rain fell harder on the roof of the bus as it rumbled toward the sea.

At the next stop, a teenager got on. Caught in the downpour without an umbrella, he was soaking wet, and his extra-large T- shirt that said "Play Hard . . . Stay Hard" clung to him. It occurred to the palmist that this was the face of someone who hadn't yet learned to be fearful of the weather. The teenager stood towering above the palmist, blocking him from seeing the fat woman, who, from time to time, still glanced disapprovingly at him.

So young, the palmist thought, the age of my youngest son, maybe, had he lived. The palmist tried to conjure his son's face in his mind but could not. It had been some years since the little boy drowned in the South China Sea, along with his two older sisters and their mother. The palmist had escaped on a different boat, a smaller one that left a day after his family's boat, and, as a result, reached America alone.

Listen to author Andrew Lam read The Palmist on American Public Media Thestory.org

Alone, thought the palmist and sighed. Alone.It was then that his gaze fell upon the teenager's hand. He saw something there. He leaned forward, and did something he never did before on the 38 Geary. He spoke up, rather loudly, excitedly.

"You," he said in his heavy accent. "I see wonderful life!"The teenager looked down at the old man, and arched his eyebrows."I'm a palmist," said the palmist. "Maybe you give me your hand?"

The teenager did nothing. No one had ever asked to see his hand on this bus before. The fat woman snickered. Oh, she'd seen it all on the 38 Geary. She wasn't surprised. "This my last reading, no mon- ey, free, gift for you," the palmist pressed on. "Give me your hand."

"I don't know," the teenager said, scratching his chin. He was nervous. He felt as if he was caught inside a moving glass house and

that, with the passengers looking on, he had somehow turned into one of its most conspicuous plants.

"What, what you don't know?" asked the palmist. "Maybe I know. Maybe I answer."

"Dude," the teenager said. "I don't know if I believe in all that hocus-pocus stuff." And though he didn't say it, he didn't know whether he wanted to be touched by the old man who had wrinkled, bony hands and a nauseating tobacco breath. To stall, the teenager said, "I have a question, though. Can you read your own future? Can you, like, tell when you're gonna die and stuff?" Then, he thought about it. "Nah, forget it," he said. "Sorry, that was stupid."

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The bus stopped abruptly at the next stop, and everyone who was standing struggled to stay on their feet. But those near the front of the bus were also struggling to listen to the conversation.

"No, no, not stupid," said the palmist. "Good question. Long ago, I asked same thing, you know. I read same story in many hands of my people: story that said something bad will happen. Disaster. But in my hand here, I read only good thing. This line here, see, say I have happy family, happy future. No problem. So I think: me, my family, no problem. Now I know better: all hands affect each other, all lines run into each other, tell a big story. When the war ended in my country, you know, it was so bad for everybody. And my family? Gone, gone under the sea. You know, reading palm not like reading map. You feel and see here in heart also, in stomach also, not just here in your head. It is, how d'you say, tuition?"

"Intuition," the teenager corrected him and tried to stifle a giggle. "Yes," nodded the palmist. "Intuition."

The teenager liked the sound of the old man's voice. Its timbre reminded him of that of his long dead grandfather, who also came from another country, one whose name had since changed several times due to wars.

"My stop not far away now," the palmist continued. "This your last chance. Free. No charge."

"Go on, kiddo," the fat woman said, nudging him with her el- bow, smiling. She wanted to hear this boy's future. "I've been listen- ing. It's all right. He's for real, I can tell now."

That was what he needed. "OK," the teenager said and opened his right fist. The old man leaned forward, his face burning with seriousness as he trailed the various lines and contours and fleshy knolls on the teenager's palm. He bent the boy's wrist this way and that, kneaded and prodded the fingers and knuckles as if to measure the strength of his resolve. He made mysterious calculations in his own language, mumbling a few singsong words to himself.

Finally, the palmist looked up and, in a solemn voice, spoke. "You will become an artist. When twenty-five, twenty-six, you're going to change very much. If you don't choose right, oh, so many regrets. But don't be afraid. Never be afraid. Move forward. Always. You have help. These squares here, right here, see, they're spirits and mentors, they come protect, guide you. When you reach moun- taintop, people everywhere will hear you, know you, see you, your art, what you see, others will see. Oh, so much love. You number one someday."

The palmist went on like this for some time. Despite his pains, which flared up intermittently, he went on to talk of the ordinary palms and sad faces that he had read, and the misfortunes he saw coming and the wondrous opportunities he saw squandered by fear and distrust. Divorces, marriages, and death in families he read too many. Broken romance, betrayals and adulteries, too pedestrian to remember. Twice, however, he held hands that had committed unspeakable evil, and he was sick for a week each time, and once, he held the hand of a reincarnated saint. How many palms had he read since he came to America? "Oh, so many," he answered his own question, laughing. "Too many. Thousands. Who care now? Not me."

When the palmist finished talking, the teenager retrieved his hand and looked at it. He found it heavy and foreign somehow. Most of what the palmist said made no sense to him. Sure he loved reading a good book now and then because reading was like being inside a cartoon, but for that same reason he loved cartoons even more. And even if he got good grades he hated his stupid English classes, though it's true, he did write poetry, but only to himself.

But he also played the piano. A singer? Maybe a graphic artist? Maybe a movie star? He didn't know. Everything was still possible. Besides, turning twenty-five was so far away, almost a decade away.

Before she got off the bus, the fat lady touched the teenager lightly on the shoulder. "Lots of luck, kiddo," she said, and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.

Nearing his stop, the palmist struggled to get up, wincing as he did, and the teenager helped him. The teenager wanted to say something to the old man but he did not. When the bus stopped, he flashed a smile instead and waved to the palmist, who, in turn, gave him a look that he, in later years, would interpret as that of impossible longing. In later years, too, he would perceive the palmist in various lights, cruel or benevolent or mysterious, depending on how he fared in his quest, and once, in a fanciful moment, the palmist would appear to him as the first among many bodhisattvas in his life, and indicate that theirs was an inevitable encounter in the cosmic sense of things. At that moment, however, all he saw was a small and sad-looking old man whose eyes seemed on the verge of tears as he quietly nodded once to the teenager before step- ping out into the downpour.

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The teenager lived near the end of the line, past the park. As usual, the bus was near empty at this stretch, and he sat down on the bench that the palmist had previously occupied. He could still feel the warmth of the vinyl.

With everyone gone now, he grew bored. He turned to the fogged-up window behind him and drew a sailor holding a bottle standing on a sloop. It sailed an ocean full of dangerous waves. The boat, it seemed, was heading toward a girl with large, round breasts in a hula skirt and she was dancing on a distant shore. Behind her, he drew a few tall mountains and swaying palm trees. He hesitated before mischievously giving her two, three more heads and eight or nine more arms than she actually needed to entice the drunken sailor to her island, and then he pulled back to look.

Among her waving arms, the teenager saw a rushing world of men, women, and children under black, green, red, blue, polka- dotted umbrellas and plastic ponchos. He watched until the people and storefront windows streaked into green: green pine trees, fern groves, placid lakes, and well-tended grass meadows.

The park . . . beyond which was the sea.

Hear Andrew Lam read "Grandma's Tales" on Thestory.org

The rain tapered off, and a few columns of sunlight pierced the gray clouds, setting the road aglow like a golden river. The boy couldn't wait to get off the bus and run or do something--glide above the clouds if he could. High above the clouds, a jet plane soared. People were flying to marvelous countries to take up mysterious destinies.

With repeated circular movements of his hand, he wiped away sailor, boat, waves, and girl. Where the palmist's thumbnail had pressed into the middle of his palm and made a crescent moon, he could still feel a vague tingling sensation. "A poet!" he said to him- self and gave a little laugh. He looked at his cool, wet palm before wiping it clean on his faded Levis. "What a day," he said, shaking his head. "Boy, what a day!"


Andrew Lam is editor at New America Media and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees struggling to rebuild their lives on America's West Coast.