The Crystal Wall

Art by Norman E. Masters

"The way I have this world figured out," she said slowly, "is that truth is
the only important thing in it. It's not the only thing that matters. Love matters."


by Paul Powlesland


His clothing was a ragged sack of tatter and tears. In a matchbox with a rubber band around it in his watch pocket he had twenty-two cents -- two dimes and two pennies. And then there was about his waist the valuable golden belt all aglitter with its many jade eyes.

His recent background (and this was surprisingly similar to that of the dreamer) had been a mental hospital. He'd had six months of insulin treatment and had been on the good ward when he'd run away. (Not that conditions had been too bad: at the Christmas party everyone had gotten a small box of candy with a red ribbon tied around it and a cigarette apiece.) It was just that he'd suddenly grown weary of it. But the background in which he now found himself was more weird and surrealistic than any insulin dream he'd ever had.

He was standing in front of a joker's mouth. Or was it a clown? Over the joker's head could be seen, spelled out in yellow light bulbs: PARADISE PLAYLAND. Below this was an ENTRANCE arrow pointing to the joker's mouth. Through the mouth was a seemingly endless tunnel and at the end of the tunnel, a fortune teller's tent. The fortune teller was in front of it, beckoning to him.

Hesitantly, he stepped through the joker's mouth and started down the tunnel. There was nothing on the walls (no paired cards) and nothing at the end except the (beckoning) fortune teller (no pears growing from a branch on a crystal wall).

"Hello," Miss Vann said.

She was the fortune teller. No silver stars and crescent-bedecked black conical hat like one of the witches in "Macbeth", no long black gown, no black cats or skeletons. Just a tiny woman with a brace on her leg and a small scar on her cheek, wearing a brown suit.

"Hello," he said, wondering if she knew about the belt he was wearing.

"There's something strange about you," she said.

He gulped.

"Is there?"

Did she know that he'd escaped from the mental hospital?

"Take a card."

That was it. This was a come-on. And he only had twenty-two cents. Strange. That was his age. He'd never thought about it before. And the money was for a meal.

"Not now," he said. "Maybe later."

"Take a card," she repeated quietly.

"I've only got twenty-two cents," he said apologetically, not really wanting to say it, knowing this wasn't the reason. He knew she knew it. She knew he knew she knew it.


"Free," she said.

She fanned out the deck.

He took a card, looked at it.

"It's a joker," she said.

"It is." He wasn't startled at all. "So?"

"Like to look at the deck?"

"Not especially." She was a person he could trust.

"Sit down."

He did.

"I'd like you to tell my fortune."

"But aren't you the one who --"

And then they were laughing together, not merely because of the incompleted sentence but because they both knew about his ability to tell fortunes. Odd, he'd not known about it until he'd come here. He picked up the deck.

"Wait a minute," Miss Vann said, and taking the deck from him, shuffled it thoroughly. "Lay them out in four vertical rows of thirteen." That had been the way he was going to lay them out.

He laid the cards out meticulously. Miss Vann gasped, and when he had finished her eyes were wide with amazement. There were two rows, one of spades, one of diamonds, and all the cards were paired -- from deuces at the top to aces at the bottom. The clubs and hearts were paired from bottom to top. Miss Vann reached for the sole card remaining in his hand. It was the joker. "It may have been a coincidence," she said.

"Maybe," he said.

"Or maybe it was..."





"Think so?"

She handed him the deck after shuffling it. "Try it again."


This time he got the same result, except clubs were paired with diamonds, spades with hearts. He looked at the joker in her hand.

"Do you feel as if you had any control over the cards?"

"No. Hadn't thought about it."

"Would you do me a favor?"


"Tell me Mrs. Romano's fortune."

"All right."

Mrs. Romano was Miss Vann's last customer. He knew it without her having to tell him. He laid the cards out, silently, knowing they were in correct order, all jumbled -- hearts with diamonds and spades, clubs with diamonds, the joker with the queen of hearts. She told him that the cards were in the correct order and thanked him.

"What for?"

"For proving yourself," she said. "And me."

He shuddered when she arose.


"I was just going to call --"

"I know. Doctor Tiernan."

"How did you --" She bit her lip. "Your personal maturity depends upon his objective judgment. Mine is too subjective. Please."

She was a strategist, and yet he knew he could trust her. She probably knew nothing about the hospital and he wanted to discover more about this (talent?). Doctor Tiernan was the local doctor. The title Paradise Playland over the joker at the beach's entrance reminded him of the hospital, for some reason. He was beginning to understand about the tunnel.

"All right" he said.

Doctor Tiernan was a big jug-eared man with a pair of thin tipped-over parentheses for eyebrows and he was very very official. Miss Vann had undoubtedly told him about the cards and the chances of ESP. He had come rather skeptically. He shuffled the deck and after withdrawing four cards, handed him the deck.

"Lay them out," Doctor Tiernan said abruptly.

He very nearly balked, but received a silent command from Miss Vann's glance and remembered: your especial maturity depends upon his objective judment. He laid the cards out. This time they were all confused, and all queens except the queen of hearts and the joker were missing. Tiernan drew in his breath sharply and looked at Miss Vann. She looked back at him, not blinking.

"Try it again."

This time the symbols on the cards had changed into pears. At the change he ground his fists into his eyes, then gaped at blackness. Tiernan led him to a chair. Miss Vann put a small hand on his shoulder.

"This is too much to be coincidence," Tiernan said. "Are you working?"

"No," he said.

"Do you have any money?"

"Twenty-two cents," he said, started to say "the belt," snapped his mouth shut, blurted "the hospital," then snapped his mouth shut. Now they knew.

"The authorities --" Tiernan started.

"Wait," Miss Vann said.

"But he's --"

"-- perhaps a genius," she said quietly.

"More likely a convict," Tiernan said sarcastically, and pivoted on his heel. "A phone call --"

Sighing, Miss Vann reached around and grasped him by the tie, nearly choked him, hit him twice: once in the layer of fat which had deposited itself around and above his belt, again squarely on the tip of his nose. The latter light blow was sufficient to knock him over backward, where his elbows for a minute double-jointedly played hopscotch over his shoelaces, then collapsed into a lumpy tepee altogether into itself.

He blinked.

His empty-stomached sickness was mixed with horror. He was twenty-two, had twenty-two cents and a golden belt but was he sane or insane?

The memory:

At his Aunt Eurinda's house there was a clear crystal wall separating the living and the dining areas. On a mystical branch which sprang from the wall there grew half a dozen golden pears. But, as a child, whenever he had reached for them, they had always been just a little beyond his grasp. Were maturity and sanity going to be, like the golden pears on the magical crystal wall, forever just a little beyond his grasp?

Rising, he began to run.

"Wait," Miss Vann cried, a tiny figure with a brace on her leg and a small scar on her cheek. He did not turn back, but was running down the endless tunnel.

Suddenly he realized why he had been familiar with the tunnel. It resembled the third floor corridor through which he'd returned after taking treatment -- only instead of being lined with doorways and signs -- Dentist, Physical Therapy, X-Ray, Hydro -- the tunnel was hung with large grotesque paired cards: kings, queens, jacks, aces, jokers, deuces... And at the end of the tunnel, just before he awoke, he caught a glimpse of the magical crystal wall, and growing from the branch, a half dozen golden pears.

It was frightening to lie there in bed, thirsty and corduroy-tongued, not wanting to go out into the kitchen for a glass of orange juice. Had it been merely a dream (or more currently, a nightmare)? Or was there more significance to it? Stumbling in the dark, he got out of bed and turned on the light. The orange juice tasted good and it would have been all right if he hadn't noticed the paired windows in the dining room, the paired pillows, his slippers, and above all, the paired decks of canasta cards on the dining room table. He was in no mood to deal the cards out, and relaxing finally after about half an hour, he went to sleep.


He was running back down the tunnel, which had no cards hung in pairs, toward the Playland, toward the small bobbin-bright and smiling figure of the fortune-teller, Miss Vann.

"Sit down," she said when he got there.

"But --"

"Sit down," she said, a hand firmly on his shoulder, easing him toward the chair. He sat down.

"I was in an auto accident once," she began quietly.

"I was a senior in college," she said quietly. "Engaged and very happy. Everything was wonderful and the world was o-small. That's an expression we used then for big. My parents were well-to-do; they'd just gotten a new car and were going to give me their old one -- a half year old -- as a wedding present when I got married in July. It was only December and until I got married I could drive either car around all I wished to.

"It was cold that winter. The snow on the front walk came up to my neck. Lying in bed at night you could hear the nails popping out of the house. The roads were icy. Three other girls wanted to go for a ride. We did. There was a high hill outside the city where I lived. Not steep, but very winding. It dropped nearly two miles from the hill to the city. A dangerous spot on it named Bennet's curve after the man who drove his truck off there to keep from crashing into a schoolbus full of children which had stalled on the road below. He died. They have a bronze plaque with his name on it in the city hall.

"But the curve didn't bother me at all. I got past it safely and took the new car all the way down the last hill before coming into town. Everything was safe. Even the ice was gone; the road was snowfree. I was not going very fast and the road ahead was perfectly free except for the telephone pole which ran into the car.

"I'll never know how it got into the middle of the road because I certainly didn't drive over to the side to meet it. I just sat there with the steering wheel in my hands listening to the wheels spinning in the snow and looking through the shattered windshield at the pole lying across the hood. I didn't feel the pain until I stopped to think about it. I turned the motor off because the sound of the wheels whining in the snow bothered me. It was a very annoying sound. Then I just waited for the ambulance to come.

"The doctor said it was a very unusual accident; the bone at the knee had not been broken; just the muscles splattered and flattened out so they were all over inside. But below the knee it had been broken twice. Of course it would heal; it had to because my parents were very rich; they didn't mind about the car at all; the other girls had been hurt only a little, because I was engaged to be married in July and besides the first doctor and the second one and the third one too all assured me that it would heal.

"It did not heal. My bones are very light. The doctor shook his head as he put on the brace -- only a temporary one then -- saying it was the most unusual accident he'd ever seen in his life. The boy who had been my fiance thought it was too. So did my parents and everyone who saw it. I was the center of attention. It was all so very much like a story that you might read in a child's book that I was amazed every time I thought about it. Except that there was no wonderful fairy godmother.

"The lovely young Doris had vanished and in her place was left Miss Vann, a fortune teller. An ugly little busybody who'll be lugging around this worthless metal brace the rest of her life just because -- "

"But, you're not ugly," he said. He really meant it. "You're... You're beautiful."

"I'm ugly," the woman said calmly. "But you're right. Because we're talking about two entirely different things. You're talking about aura and I'm talking about these." With her hand she touched the cool smooth metal of the brace and then the scar which went down her cheek an inch in front of her ear.

"I don't understand. You must --"

"Finish it."


"You were going to say that I must want something in return. It's true; I do. I want you to tell me about yourself." She waited.

"Nothin' much to tell."

She waited.

"What do you want to know?"

"Don't say it that way. Tell me only the things you want me to know; if you don't want to tell me anything, don't say a word."

"Well gee I..."

And then he was talking to Miss Vann, telling her things which he knew could not make sense to anyone else because they were mostly only half-remembered things which made little sense even to himself. But the woman listened quietly without saying anything. He was telling her about the golden belt and the crystal wall, his being twenty-two.

"Almost twenty-three," she said.

He talked rapidly but not in any orderly manner as he remembered it, one thing leading to another; occasionally something which he'd thought he'd forgotten forever would remember itself. He enjoyed telling someone else about himself, yet it almost seemed as if he were talking about someone else as he looked down the long avenue of years and saw the mixed-up pattern which had been his life. Then he was silent and looking at the clock, discovered that he had been talking for almost an hour without stopping. His tongue suddenly felt thick and heavy. He had not noticed it until he'd stopped talking.

"None of it make sense, does it," Miss Vann said.

"No. Gee. Nothing makes sense at all."

"You'll get used to the feeling. Everyone has felt that way some time in his life; most of us feel like that forever. You take a look around you at the world. Even at the small world which is your own life, as you have just done, and nothing seems to make sense. And it gets even worse as you get older."

"Doesn't life make any sense to you either?"

"Not much. Why did this strange thing happen to me?" She touched the brace. "I can think of no explanation. Unless..."

"Unless what?"

"Unless it was to show me the truth."

He looked at her.

"You won't understand what I'm going to say until you're older. But I'll tell you anyway. The way I have this world figured out," she said slowly, "is that truth is the only important thing in it. It's not the only thing that matters. Love matters. Beauty matters. Personal beauty doesn't matter at all. Yes it does; it matters very much. But it's like tact. Or money. Or a high school diploma. They're all things which matter mainly to people who don't have them. The people who have them never have to think about them. These things -- love, beauty, can and do exist without truth. That doesn't necessarily mean truth in relation to human terms though -- good is true and bad is not and oh dear." She laughed gently. "I did so want to explain everything so you could understand it and now I've gotten so complicated I can't even understand myself."

"You said it gets worse as you get older."

"Yes because you keep running into more than in the world outside your hometown which makes even less sense than did the things which baffled you while you were in at least a place you were familiar with and could partway understand. That was an awful sentence wasn't it? But things also get better because you learn not to think so much about it. You just accept it and try to make something out of your life. Many people learn to live well and happily and not think about it except at rare times."

"A lot of times the world hurts you," he said.

"No," Miss Vann said. "I don't think it does. Nothing can ever really hurt you -- or perhaps physically very deeply -- as long as you learn something from it. Piecing the world together is a little like the detectives you read about in the mystery magazines. Isolated facts don't mean an awful lot to a good detective, unless of course it's a fact which will disprove a theory because one fact can disprove a theory which it would take a thousand facts to prove. For him and for everyone there should be a broad pattern into which all the facts fall and mean something or fail to fall and mean nothing. Experience should aid you in forming better patterns, meaning ones in which the highest possible amount of meaningful facts fall, rather than in merely observing mere facts."

"Doesn't anyone ever understand it?"

"No. Not completely. Some know more than others. Philosophers. Priests. Poets." She smiled. "Fortune Tellers."

"Do you think everyone is searching for truth?"

"Yes, but everyone is searching in his own way. Some find it. Others claim they have found it and want to show you how to find it. These people are the ones who are the farthest from it. In this respect truth is a little like love. Once you've found it you no longer feel the need to tell anyone about it."

She waited. "You wanted to say something else."

"Well it's just..."

And then he was telling her about the only girl he'd ever known, only they both knew while he was talking that he'd never known a girl because of the golden belt which he was wearing. But she understood and they laughed with each other.

They discovered that he could control the cards in almost any manner that he wished, and that he was much better at it with her help. Spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts --- he could line them up any way he wanted to, no matter how much they were shuffled.

"Come with me," Miss Vann said.


"We've arranged a group to test -- and prove your ability."

"But they may --"

"Make fun of you." It was not a question. She pulled him out of the chair with one hand effortlessly. "Who can tell what it is that you'll discover when you plummet to the depths of your knowledge or ascend to the height of your instinctive learning?"

She was right.

"Come with me," Miss Vann said. "And if anyone mocks you, just ignore them."

Frightened about the group and Doctor Tiernan, he went with Miss Vann to a small wooden building and sat in a chair next to her, uncomfortable.

"Perhaps this experience is to show you the truth," Miss Vann said quietly.

"Perhaps," he said, reassured, but still a little nervous.

There was only a small group of people in the building, perhaps ten or twelve. On a phonograph was laying, of all things, a record by Harry Belafonte, who was one of his favorites. Everyone present seemed to be a little tense, waiting for him.

Dr. Tiernan, just as Belafonte began "In That Great Gettin' Up Morning" got up and a young man leaped to the small platform and socked him in the nose. And that had been just what he wanted to do: physically say "The hell with it all." Did his ability extend to other people: could he control them also? Then the fight was over; the young man was escorted off the platform. Then Doctor Tiernan called him and he slowly went up and sat down in back of the table.

On the table, instead of cards, was an official questionaire.

"What's this?"

"An official questionaire."

"What's it for?"

"Official purposes. Fill it out."


"Sign your name."



He wrote South Street instead of North Street, crossed it out, rewrote it.

"Have you been in school?"

"Uh... yes."

"You have?" Smiling. "What school?"


Slowly, he wrote out the name of a school. There seemed a sudden tenseness throughout the group. Then Tiernan said, "Why don't you try to help yourself a little?"

And then he was.

He laid the pen down and got up. Reaching under his shirt he took off the belt and laid it on the table, then walked to where Miss Vann was waiting for him.

"Where are you going?" Tiernan said.

"Back to the hospital," they said together.

"I'm not ready for ESP -- yet."

And then they were walking together across the playland and out through the tunnel. He remembered a refrain from an old song, or was he making it up as he sang it to her softly:

"For thee, love, will I cast off
the jade-eyed belt forever,
For thee will I pluck the golden pears
From the magical crystal wall..."

[pp. 24 - 36, PARADISE PLAYLAND by Paul Powlesland, NO-EYED MONSTER #17, Summer 1969]

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