"Do you want your payment in cash or check," a pretty teen asks, negativity rippling under gray skin like waves in a troubled ocean. Uncertainty flits through her eyes as they take in my ivory table, guilt stiffens her spine and begs her to readjust her shoulders. Paranoia jumps in her hands and she folds them over a plaid miniskirt. Inconsolable doubt swells in her lower lip and she shreds it. From her shuffled entrance, not unlike that of a prisoner to his execution, to her fall into the dingy velvet seat, more could be gathered than needed to give her a proper reading. I could help her. That's always the hardest part, I could really help her.
"Cash." She doesn't want my wisdom or experience. She doesn't want help. She's already sought it all from men and God and monsters who claim to be both; it hasn't worked. It never does for girls like these, like us. That's why my business booms. She asked for a tarot reading; she seeks reassurance.
Leather clad hands take the cards from their satchel and lay the stack before the accused. "Ponder what puzzles you most and shuffle the cards." I don't notice that her hands twitch as she takes the deck. Her life lines are long, red ruts in her thin palms. Those hands have seen war and bitter stalemate, she needs change. If she had asked for a reading, I'd have told her this. I know folds, and these were not those of hope and prosperity but of smoking and promiscuous winter exposure, they are the hands of Famine carved into every plane- no one wants to hear that warning.
"When do I stop."
"Whenever it feels right to."
Now. Before you end up like me. Now.
Shaking hands let a card- The Fool- flutter out of their grasp. Nervously, the owner looks up before returning it to the pile. The laminated paper cackles as it shifts over its sisters, a familiar sound that holds no comfort. She slides the cards back to me. I don't notice her regret. I don't acknowledge her pained expression.
I lay the first card out before her. "Eight of Swords." A bound woman looks down upon another. "You are oppressed, but you can leave the situation at any time." She stares, eyes wide and cafard. It isn't the answer she wanted.
I flip over the next without giving her a chance to speak. "Four of Pentacles." It fits. "Your reliance on material things, or even material people, could lead to your demise." Then again, they all fit. If you squint, if you lie.
"The Moon." I finish, looking her in the eye. "Things here aren't what they seem. Things are never going to be what they seem. The world is full of lies; make your own decisions." I gather the cards up into a neat pile and slip them back into their satchel haphazardly.
"Do you really believe in all this?" She whispers quietly. I see the faded bruises that litter her collarbones, they suit the weary crack in her gravel lungs, is such things could be considered suitable by any means. She's been walked all over all her life; she's already an alcoholic. I've seen her in the bar across from my Shoppe before, seen her drive a polished BMW to Mass at the church adjacent. Her kind, they spit on my practice until it's all they have left.
Do laypeople question the clergy, "Do you really believe in all this?" Do students question the teacher, "Is this all true?" Padre Pio had his doubts, Mother Theresa never conquered hers. I'd say it hardly matters, my belief.
I once believed there was no such thing as morbid curiosity. Once. I know for a fact now: this is true. No one comes in without the least hope it will work. I once believed that that their was always an answer, even if you had to summon one yourself. Everyone believes in possibility, everyone that enters that door. That is, of course, excluding myself.
She's like all the others, a fool, trying to find The Fool. He doesn't exist, not in a place like this, not in a Magick Shoppe in a back alley of New Orleans with more chapels than sinners to fill them. She wants reassurance, not the truth. Well, that doesn't exist in a place like this either.
"Everything in this world is both real and imaginary." I obfuscate. "Spiritual and Mortal walk the same plane, whether you choose to believe or not."
I don't see midnight settle in her young eyes, I don't know that she's returning to the same Hell she's sought liberation from. I can't help her.
I don't see the ultimatum leaking from her thoughts and setting her jaw in a twisted curtain call, it's beyond my powers to know that she no longer believes in encores. I can't help her. Even if she's decided it's all an act in a play she doesn't care to perform anymore-
Don't say a word, you can't help her.
"Thank you." She leaves a few dollars in the table before ducking under the tapestry of an entrance, entering the main wing once again. I see you again in my near future, it lies. I count out the money instead of watching her leave. I never specified an amount; it's too much. Years ago, I'd chase down girls like her, give them back their money, give them sound advice instead. At the end of the night, they all end up in the same gutter. I've wasted my breath and the last of my compassion. Cruel, perhaps, but inevitable. We all have to make a profit, after all.
The best I can do now is dish out advice from the decks of execution to best advise the situation at hand. Girls like her, they only believe in ideas as concrete as the ones they'll die on.
Tarot cards, checks, cash, documents, bills, taxes, eulogies: it's all currency printed from the same trees. It's justifiable by their standard. That, or they aren't afraid of desperation anymore.
I lock up shop and seek solace from something much more fluid. I live at the bottom and rise to the level that others fall from. At the end of the day, I know I'm no teacher, no saint, but I'm no trickster either. I lie to others, but I've never lied to myself. For that, I don't feel guilt.
The bartender's hands are rough and calloused when they brush mine, gloves removed. Strong and soft, they contrast the girl's, not that I think of her. I don't hear her sobs in the booth behind me.
As I pay the bartender, a dollar slips from his grasp. Sheepishly, he picks it up and slides it back into the stack with the rest of my change. I ignore the coincidence and stuff the bills in my back pocket. Stuff like this,
it doesn't mean a thing to me anymore.