In which the trouble really starts, and which introduces a gun above a mantle, figuratively if not literally
Thanksgiving Eve, I saw Veronica at a Foolish gig, and we made plans to get coffee that Saturday at the local Barnes & Noble in the only strip-mall complex for miles, a classic-casual outing that on occasion flirts with being more than it is, date-wise, but never actually manages it. I don’t know what you’d call the fringe collar of the black suede coat she wore when she showed up, but it looked like short strands of fine, grey yarn all around her neck, which only brought out her green-blue eyes, lending to them the gravity of an imminent thunderstorm and all the ferocity of lightning. But still she smiled, and it made her float.
I don’t remember much about that conversation, but I’m sure it was like any conversation Veronica and I have ever had—long, digressing discussions of classes and life and movies and music, lyrics and dialogue. I’m sure it wasn’t long before conversation came back around to me and what I was doing, and when it did . . . well, it all just came out in one long, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy Kerouac would have needed Benzedrine and toilet-roll typing paper to keep speed with. I told her about how writing had ground down, how I just didn’t know if I had the juice left to say much of anything worthwhile, and that, at the worst possible time, when I thought about devoting my energy to something else, that was when there didn’t seem anything else to devote that energy to.
“So what’re you doing?” she asked.
I told her I’d paid rent through January. I told her I’d tried to find other ways to occupy my time, but Manhattan was expensive, and without a regular gig my financial resources were limited at best and running on fumes at worst.
“So what’re you going to do, then?”
And I stopped, because I had to admit, I didn’t have a damned clue. A few months, hell, a few weeks before, I would have had an answer ready even if that answer probably would have lacked any real specificity: “What am I going to do? Ah, I dunno. I’ll figure something out. Always do, right?”
Right then, though, I discovered I couldn’t find the confidence for words like that. I shrugged. “I don’t—you know, I don’t actually know. I’m trying to pretend I can make the best of it, really, but I don’t have a clue what the best of it is,” I told her as I pushed my waxed-plastic cup away. Talking about everything had made me restless.
“You want to get out of here?”
I tried to chuckle. “I’m probably not the best company at the moment, am I?”
“No, it’s not that,” she reached forward, squeezing my forearm. “It’s just—you seem anxious, and I figured sitting here, in the middle of a bookstore, glugging down caffeine while the loudspeakers play Christmas carols . . . makes you want to jump out of your own skin, doesn’t it?”
“That obvious, huh?”
“So I was just thinking, we’ve been sitting here, and we drank our coffee and all, so why not take a walk? Get out of the mall, away from crazy shoppers and discount crap?”
Never hesitated: Veronica was right that I damned near wanted to jump out of my own skin, and probably the only reason I didn’t was I knew that I would only become a very confused skeleton still completely uncertain about what to do next. So we left the bookstore, into bracing cold and the kind of near-on winter world you feel like a brick to the nose. The mall itself was big enough, but just like everywhere else, various retail stores and chain eateries had sprung up all around it: Target and BestBuy, Outback and Red Lobster. Nothing ever actually closed, just changed: the Ground Round gave way to some generic Western-BBQ themed family joint, and the Olive Garden had once been a TGI Fridays. Veronica and I headed away from there, and just around the corner, the blatant store-lights gave way to a mom-and-pop diner and a few plazas we both knew well because we’d grown up only a few towns over.
We didn’t talk much as we walked. By then, I was used to walking in Manhattan, block after block of tall buildings more spectacular than you ever imagined, life on not just the most enormous scale possible but also in time-lapse—a New York minute passes like a by-rushing subway train. I got preoccupied by how startlingly different it was where I’d grown up. I spent a lot of time shuttling—between Manhattan and home, between home and Foolish gigs—but so rarely did I venture much beyond the routine of certain pre-set routes that I realized, as I walked with Veronica, how much I had forgotten about where I grew up. When you livin in Manhattan, you can forget the frustrated strip malls and desperate shopping plazas of suburbs. Manhattan is so fast and so . . . well, itself, really, that you can easily forget not only that the rest of the world has problems but even that it exists.
I realized, then, that Veronica had said something, but I’d been so preoccupied I hadn’t caught it. “Huh?”
“I think I’ve got change coming.”
“I offered you a penny for your thoughts.”
“Oh. Sorry. Just thinking about how different it is down here. Compared to Manhattan, I mean. As obvious thoughts go, way up there, so you probably actually deserve a refund.”
“You like Manhattan?”
“It’s—,” I said, but I broke off. Because I realized, then, I didn’t know how to finish that thought. Manhattan doesn’t just transcend any adjective you can think of so much as it laughs them off with a self-awareness somehow divorced from either arrogance or hubris. Manhattan isn’t proud if only because it’s so busy doing other things it rarely stops to bask in how completely awesome it is. “It’s New York,” I finally settled on.
“Well, yes, that is true. But that’s not what I asked.”
“It’s hard to say. It’s like Manhattan exists beyond liking it or not liking it. Like Shakespeare.”
“Well, except that one is a major metropolis and the other wrote plays—.”
“No, but I mean it’s a bit beyond liking or not liking it, isn’t it? You can call a play like Titus Andronicus weak when you compare it with Hamlet, sure, but it’s still Titus, and it still has beheadings and lots of actions and all the brilliant stuff Shakespeare managed to pull off later. I remember I never actually used to get Shakespeare until I got to sophomore year and took one of those random lit survey courses you have to take, and we got to King Lear. My professor asked me to read one of the early speeches, either Edmund or Edward or Edgar, whatever, but I started to read it like I’d always read Shakespeare, and he stopped me to say I was hitting the linebreaks too hard, and then he suggested another way, and suddenly Shakespeare was an epiphany. Suddenly I got it. And I think that’s what Manhattan’s like. It’s not good or bad or you like it or don’t; it’s something you either get or you don’t. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with not getting it, but if you do, well, it’s fucking Manhattan, isn’t it?”
“And you get it?”
Leave it to Veronica to ask that sort of question. I could pontificate and bloviate all I wanted, but she’d nail it in a go, just like always. “Mostly, I think, yeah, I do. There are moments it’s exhausting, but mostly it’s Manhattan, and mostly it’s the kind of awesome that’s hard to cope with.” We rounded the corner and found ourselves on a sidewalk, walking down the street with a row of houses on one side and a park opposite. Up ahead, we were coming up on a strip plaza with a Blockbuster and a Wawa convenience store. “I heard this story, once, about this town whose citizens had this brilliant idea to use lightning for power. So it did what any normal town wanting to use lightning would do—.”
“Installed a lightning rod.”
“No, this giant reactor. Kinda thing that could absorb, like, a go-jillion watts.”
“I guess that’s one way to go.”
“This town sank millions into this absorption-reactor thing that could handle trillions of watts, like more energy than is generated by ten or twenty atomic bombs, and then it basically said, okay, now all we need is a good storm. And along comes a storm. And you know what happened?”
“Something suitably ironic, I hope. Otherwise it’s not that interesting a story.”
“The reactor blew. And not like it just shorted out, I mean, went off like the devil in a church in a crowded room. Just the one little strike of lightning, and the reactor just explodes. Like, they build it strong enough to withstand a nuclear damned blast, and a flash of lightning, and puuf,” I waved my hand to emphasize the sound.
“So, what, Manhattan’s so amazing it blows out your awesome receptors?”
I remember thinking, right then, that I wasn’t surprised she had put it together like that. Sure, the story was only tangentially related (and arguably not very good at that), and even as I told it I planned to pull it all together in major revelation, but I distinctly remember thinking, “Of course she got it right away. She’s Veronica.”
I know that continues to paint her as some outlandish ideal, but what would be the point otherwise? Maybe she’s not; maybe her eyes have a little more brown in them than green; maybe her smile is a little crooked; hell, maybe she twists at the mirror to eye with chagrin her hips, her waist, her thighs, lamenting genetics and that most recent beer she didn’t need, but that’s not the point, is it? When you meet someone like Veronica, all that gets cast straight out of your head. You don’t mean it, and you don’t realize it, certainly, but I know that if you don’t know the feeling, you’ve probably never been in love, because in love does that to you. Being in love is like living in Manhattan; it blows the same awesome receptors, and like mason jars attempting to restrain lightning, reason and logic and rational thought do their best impersonations of fireworks, zing-pow into the night and the darkness, a calm but rushing whistle bursting into Roman candle brilliance and hyperkinetic light-crackles.
“Yeah,” I told her. “Pretty much that exactly.”
“So maybe you just need a bigger reactor.”
“You said it was exhausting. So maybe you need a bigger reactor to hold all that awesome.”
“But then the problem’s how to do that, isn’t it? Not like I can just buy a reactor. Especially since we’re speaking metaphorically. Metaphorical reactors are hard to come by.”
“Maybe. But—last semester, I took a theology class. My professor was a trained Buddhist, and he once mentioned a belief Buddhists have about cups and faith. Like people say their cups runneth over? He said that one of the tenets of Buddhism is not just that we need more faith to fill our cups, but also that we spend our lives trying to grow our cups so that we can hold more faith. So maybe you’re all full of awesome right now, and you need a bigger cup.”
“I might be full of something, but I doubt it’s awesome. But hey, at least metaphorical cups are easier to find than metaphorical reactors.”
“You just need a challenge.”
“I just lost my job.”
“Since when was your job challenging?”
“It was a good job—.”
“Maybe it’s not about work. Maybe you need something more important, like writing.”
“But I just told you—.”
“Right. You told me you had some existential writing crisis, and maybe that’s just it. Writing wouldn’t be worth anything if it came easily, would it? Doesn’t there have to be some challenge? Something you have to fight for, to finish it? Otherwise it’s just too easy, and you end up with cookie-cutter books like Dean Koontz writes.”
“Hey, dude makes some good coin. And I used to like his books.”
“Key words being ‘used to.’”
I conceded her point as we came to a stoplight and rounded its corner, and that’s when we both simultaneously seemed to see up ahead the sign for a psychic reader: a great big eye in the center of a stylized hand on the palm of which were scribbled symbols that were as likely Arabic as Tibetan or Japanese or Pagan or somehow more esoteric. Squiggles and whorls, crinkled juts and zaggy lines, all of which made Veronica next to me squeal. I felt her hand on the inside of my elbow, an insistent squeeze. “Oh, we should totally stop in there.”
“Since when are you into psychics?” As long as I’d known Veronica, her family had always been so Catholic she attended midnight masses on both Christmas and New Year’s Eves with her parents and siblings, and I’d always thought Catholicism had dismissed as heretic any of the arts that hadn’t to do with the Christ Jesus and his holy parents. This I mentioned.
“One of my roommates hired a fortune teller for a party we threw. She read my tarots earlier this semester. It’s not like I’m sacrificing goats to the dark lord.”
“Well, no, but aren’t you divining the future by way of questionable means?”
“It’s not about divining the future. It’s about seeking guidance considering present circumstances, and honestly, given present circumstances, I think you could use all the guidance you can possibly get. So come on,” she said. She grabbed my elbow to guide me down the gravel driveway of a non-descript house. Around the corner, up a concrete stoop to a screen door marked solely by an “open”-calligraphed sign. Through the screen wafted a sweet scent that stung my sinuses and made me want to blink.
“It’ll be fun,” Veronica said. A small, silver bell wrapped with a fresh shoot of some indiscriminate herb tinkled when she opened the door for me, then followed behind.
Inside, that scent was even stronger. The room beyond the door looked like a cross between someone’s living room, someone else’s curio closet, and a third person’s sitting room, and none of them appeared to get along. Dark-patterned threadbare rug over a hardwood floor, two metal folding chairs next to a cabinet that looked like it should have been filled with fancy plates but instead contained makeshift, wooden figurines; a few crystal balls; and a few good-sized shards of quartz. A doorway, hungdown with wooden beads, close enough to obscure whatever was in the next room.
“Lovely,” I whispered.
“Give it a chance,” Veronica said.
“Yes, please do,” came a voice as a woman parted the beaded curtain. It’s silly to say, and it feels sillier to write, but something about that woman struck me hard enough in the gut I couldn’t speak for a moment. It wasn’t that she was beautiful, though yes, there was that: she was short and petite, slender with long limbs and the kind of body that moves like it would rather be dancing, and she wore her spectacular red hair down, layered in waves highlit by a streak of white like a jagged edge to a sunset. She wore her green, crushed velvet dress tight enough I could probably guess her measurements (34c, 23, 33), and it scooped down from her pale, slender neck above her ample cleavage. And her eyes: green like jungles and foliage, green like growing things.
But it was more than that. It was a sudden feeling of comfort, which inspired vulnerability; I think, in the weeks previous, I had worked hard on restraining my emotions, preventing them from showing, putting up a brave face and a convincing façade. I didn’t realize it until that moment, when the appearance of that woman in that room, so close to me, caused it to slough off like so much dead skin. It was like she had a cool, clear aura, and the scent of her, like citrus and freesia, like a slight breeze across a lake on a warm summer day, cut through the smell of incense like, well, a breath of fresh air. I breathed it deep, and I couldn’t help smiling.
“Come in, come in,” she ushered us slightly forward and closed the door behind us. “You must be cold. Can I get you anything? Tea?” She asked as though we were guests in her house, and not prospective customers.
“We just saw your sign,” Veronica told her. “And we thought—.”
“You seek truth?” the woman said.
“Doesn’t everyone?” I asked.
The woman chuckled, a bright smile with bells. “Not everyone, no. Many seek hope, or glamorous lies, or placation. Many still come to be told the future, and many more again desire guidance,” she said, but she did so implying that she couldn’t help those customers.
“So you turn them away?” Veronica asked.
“Heavens no! Hope and glamorous lies are among the many services I provide. I only ask that question up front to decide how best to serve you. So long as you seek the truth, we can do away with the window dressing.”
“The window dressing?” I asked, surprised at her candor.
She nodded toward the curio cabinet I had noticed.
“They’re fake,” Veronica said.
“That’s authentic quartz, and those figurines were carved by wise shaman of ancient tribes with greater knowledge than mine. But none are required for the truth.”
“Only for the glamour,” I said.
Her amused smile made her eyes sparkle, less like emeralds than like leaves after a recent storm. “Exactly that,” she said, and she looked me up and down, as if in appraisal or curiosity. I wondered if she would say more, and then she did: “You’re tired,” but more as if to herself than to either me or Veronica.
I looked at Veronica. “We said we wanted the truth.”
“So you did. And there are as many ways to tell the truth as truths to tell. I could read your palms or—.”
“Do you do cards?” Veronica asked, a little eagerly.
“You ask as if you know them.”
Veronica’s cheeks colored just slightly. “I’ve been—I guess I’ve been practicing with them? At school—.”
“They teach the tarot in colleges now? Whatever will they think of next?”
“No, no, just on my own. I bought a deck from a card reader we hired for a Halloween party—,” she said, opening her purse and withdrawing from it a small, lavender velvet pouch, which she opened just a little before the woman stayed her hand.
“Oh, dear, someone who read your cards at a college party sold you a deck? And you’ve been using it to study yourself? You’re a sweet girl, and so pure,” the woman told her, and she said each as though she had commented on the color of Veronica’s eyes or that she was wearing jeans. “If you’re going to study the tarot, you’re going to bring something very special, and very beautiful about yourself, to it, and so you’ll require better cards than these. Wait a moment, let me just see,” she said, and she opened the curio cabinet to reveal beneath the visible glass sections a set of drawers. She opened the top one and pulled from it several small, velvet pouches, each much like the one Veronica had withdrawn from her bag but also somehow very different. I’m not sure how they could appear more dense, there in her hands, but somehow, they managed it; the only way I can describe it is that they looked more real or more intense, like a high-def television.
Across from the curio cabinet was a small display case with a glass top, beyond which was a chair and the sort of old cash register that popped numbers for sales, and the woman moved around the case. She set each bag, five in all, down on the glass, and from each she withdrew two cards, placing one face-up and the other face-down in front of each bag. A black pouch with pink backs like hot neon and art-deco faces; from a light blue pouch came backs like cresting waves and nautically themed fronts. The middle pouch: turquoise cardbacks and faces like open books. Besides those three, a leopard-print pouch with faces like animals, and finally a white pouch with grey backs and techno fronts.
“Choose,” the woman said.
“Oh, I wasn’t planning to buy a new—.”
“I’m not asking you to buy them, dear. Simply to choose among.”
Veronica hesitated, eyes glancing toward each card, each deck, in turn. “They’re all so beautiful,” she said.
“But each is also unique, and comes with its own qualities. And as you study and practice, you will imbue your deck with your own energy, which is why it’s so imperative you have the right deck to use, the deck that’s going to absorb and complement your energy, and why it’s so imperative you choose carefully. So please . . .”
Veronica seemed to deliberate, then to decide. “I do like the black pouch.”
The woman looked at the neon pink backs and smiled. “There’s a lot of energy in that deck. Some people might argue there is too much, in fact, because it can be difficult to control it,” the woman said as she picked up the two cards and returned them to her pouch, which she cinched tight and then offered to Veronica.
“But I said, I wasn’t—.”
“You said you hadn’t planned to purchase a deck, and I am not offering them to you for sale. I offer them to you with two conditions. The first is that you study the tarot well and you apply as much discipline to them as you would to school.”
“Okay,” Veronica said, but like she was a little unsure of doing so. Then: “And?”
“And that you chuck those other cards. There’s a wastebasket right behind you.”
Veronica turned, hesitated just a moment, then took the pouch again from her bag and let it fall into the trash. “Deal,” she said as she took the pouch from the woman. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure. Now, you said you were interested in having your fortunes read—.”
“Actually, I was more interested in getting his fortune read,” Veronica said.
“Mine?” I said. I hadn’t realized it was a one-person pitstop.
“I can do my own, and you’re the one with so much going on.”
“Lots going on,” the woman said as she came back around her counter. “I thought as much. You’re at a crossroads.”
“I am,” I tried to ask, but it didn’t quite come out with a question mark on the end of it. It wasn’t exactly a statement, but neither was it something I didn’t already know, merely something I hadn’t realized until she pointed it out. “Yeah, I am,” I said again. In a way, it felt good to say, as though I were asserting my own power in the universe by acknowledging that I no longer knew either my place or my direction within it. Letting go came with a certain amount of power, a certain sense of: “Bring it. Hit me as hard as you can with whatever you’ve got. Go on. I can take it.”
Because I could. Or I thought I could, anyway.
“So you’d like your cards read,” the woman said.
I shrugged. “I guess so, sure. Why not?”
“Oh, no, no, that simply will not do. You can approach the cards skeptically or dubiously, confidently and hopefully, for personal knowledge or personal gain, but the single way one must never approach the cards is ambivalently. You get from the cards what you bring to them, and if you bring nothing to them, they will offer you nothing in return. So I ask you again: would you like me to read your cards?”
“Yeah,” I told her. “I would.” And then I had a thought: “Only, could you use that deck? The one with the books on the fronts?”
The woman smiled. “The deck speaks to you.”
“I guess so,” I told her, then, quickly, “Which I don’t mean as ambivalence. Just, I’m not quite sure what you mean, but yeah, I like the deck. It seems cool to me.”
“It’s probably the books,” Veronica said.
I nodded. “Partly. I like the backs, too, though. It’s such an interesting color,” I said, even as the woman scooped up the two cards she’d put on the counter and slid them into the bag.
“You just wait here, and you use the time to familiarize yourself with your new cards, shuffle them to your heart’s content, while I bring your friend into the next room to read his,” the woman told Veronica, even as she took my hand in a gentle but forceful grasp and pulled me through the bead curtain.
Who is the red-haired woman? What will our young narrator’s fortune contain? Is there a cure for being emo? Find out next week in another exciting installment of Meets Girl!