The paper fortune teller — also called the cootie-catcher, salt cellar, and chatterbox — is an art project which appeals to everything for which a child yearns. With a few simple folds, a sheet of paper becomes a three-dimensional interactive device. Creation! With a few marks of a pen, he or she is cast among the company of the Delphic oracle, Tiresias and Amos and Ezekiel, as one who can foretell what the future holds. Prognostication! And yet, what a curse, what hellish poop-crust is this excrescence in the lives of men?
“Daddy, choose a number!”
“Choose a color.”
Here we pause for much laborious unfolding with my son’s tongue slipping out of his mouth as is its wont during the most taxing of tasks.
“You’re going to be stinky!”
Humfiddle, Twatty ploof! Oh, I get steamed. I get as steamed, alright, as steamed as a dress shirt or a pudding. No, it’s not quite the same flavor of irritation that arises passing those sad storefront windows whose neon lights spell Psychic, and which illumine sad-eyed ladies of the Caucuses sitting forlorn in front of a statue of the Buddha and an amethyst. For $5, they say, they’ll tell your future. And this, I feel like screaming at them, is this what someone told you your future would be? To sit spider-like, waiting for every sucker caught in the gossamer filaments of what might be to stumble in?
No, as my kids, grubby fingers shoved deep into the paper orifices of their fortune tellers, approach me, I rage not against the futility of fortune telling but at the sheer stupidity of their device. Even if you could divine the future, it would take more than two piddly questions to do so. And certainly, I swear by the old gods and new, there’s got to be more than eight possible outcomes to my life!
This is the source of my ire: That my boys have rendered the unpredictable so predictably predictable! 5. Blue. Stink. 3. Orange. Live Forever. 2. Orange. Watch television. Despite the deadening repetition, I am asked to choose for hours on end. This is a source for immense enjoyment for my children but equally immense is my suffering. If fortune is this banal, please make me unfortunate.
But, as my blood pressure spikes and my superficial temporal veins pulse, I wonder what is it really that gets my goat? What is it that triggers a torrent of rage about a piece of folded paper and the joy with which my son plays with it?
Perhaps it is this: Though the mechanism is crap, the truth endures. Maybe this is what fortune holds, maybe the universe is precisely as dumb as this fortune-teller, maybe what lies in store for all of us is series of limited and banal choices. 5. Blue. Stink. 3. Orange. Live Forever. These might just be my only options and if that is the case, my rage shouldn’t be toward the teller but against fortune itself.