Just five seconds earlier, she had seemed too good to be true. He should have known there was something a little off, just waiting to reveal itself.
“Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll pay for it,” Karyn said while the two of them waited for their dessert.
“You don’t really believe in all that?” Larry replied, trying to hedge his tone between faux worry and gentle kidding. “Do you?”
Larry Pemberton really liked this girl. As a guy who always had standards a little too high for his side of the ledger, he didn’t find many women he wanted to see the socially accepted three times. Through two dates, Karyn had seemed like a good match. She was smart, accomplished, beautiful … And, it turned out, a believer in mystical powers.
“It depends,” she said, interrupting his skeptical thoughts. “You have to go to the right one, obviously. A lot of them are just making things up, or telling you what they think you want to hear …”
The concept of a “right” psychic was a concept Larry found pretty silly. He’d thought so even when he was a little kid watching television with his mother on days he was too sick to go to school. One of the daytime talk shows she used to regularly watch would sometimes feature a “celebrity” psychic named Priscilla. Larry must have been home sick for a disproportionate number of her appearances because — despite his mother’s claims that the show usually promoted authors and actors a young boy would find more interesting than a withered woman in a kaftan — Priscilla seemed to show up almost exactly as often as his childhood colds.
“The first time I went was when my friend Monica thought her boyfriend was cheating on her,” Karyn continued. “She only had to ask her a couple of questions …”
Thinking about Priscilla for the first time in years, Larry never really understood why certain psychics broke through as celebrities. Her fame sure wasn’t based on her predictions, which somehow managed to be wrong even with all the vague language she used to hedge against making a definitive call. He couldn’t help but think of some of his favorite examples. One year, she predicted repeatedly that the Detroit Tigers would win the championship, only they lost in the World Series to the Cardinals; Priscilla insisted her second sight didn’t necessarily mean the world championship, and that the American League title qualified. That did provide the saving grace of getting Larry’s mother to stop watching her appearances; Mr. Pemberton had put a pretty significant bet on the Tigers. Even Priscilla’s verbal gymnastics to explain her 2000 election predictions hadn’t accomplished that.
“A lot of people thought it was obvious, but Monica knew as soon as Ms. Aurelia …”
The worst example Larry could remember happened when he was in high school, though it involved a different psychic. When one of his classmates had disappeared for three weeks, the desperate suburban police department struggled to find leads, and hired a local woman who advertised her medium services on bus benches and in the free coupon flier from the grocery store. The move got a lot of local attention, and the psychic’s bloody visions of what had happened to the girl would have made a pretty good plot for a crime novel. The only flaw was that Larry’s classmate turned up a few weeks later, very much alive and not at all dismembered, after hitching a ride back from a trip to follow Phish around the Pacific Northwest without parental permission.
“I’m just saying there’s no way you can know if you’ve never tried it. I never did until college …”
Karyn mentioning college reminded Larry that the girl sitting across from him had gone to the University of Chicago. With a master’s in political science. That she was now a prominent fellow at a think tank on economic policy. She was a lot smarter than him in most ways. Then again, he read once that Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies, and Larry personally knew his share of otherwise wise people who still feared the devil literally.
“Besides, it’s not like I’d ever ask her anything important. Usually she just reassures me if I’m on the right track or has some pretty obvious advice. I guess sometimes it’s comforting to hear it from a stranger.”
“Well, I guess I don’t see any harm in that,” Larry said. “Maybe it could be fun. We’ll go on the way home, I promise.”
This eased his mind a little. He did really like this girl. She could have suggested trying just about anything short of ritual animal sacrifice and he would have agreed to give it a try. Plus, it closed the subject for now and let him shift the conversation back to more comfortable territory.
After they finished their profiteroles and paid the bill, Larry got their jackets from the coat check, and they started to walk up Clark Street. He felt he’d picked a perfect night for a long stroll, with the temperature just cool enough to justify jackets but just warm enough for them to enjoy the walk. It wound up not mattering much, as they’d barely walked three blocks before Karyn pointed out the address of the psychic she wanted to visit.
If Larry hadn’t been skeptical already, he would have been as soon as he learned that this supposedly brilliant seer advertised with a short plastic sandwich board placed in front of a mechanic’s garage that had already closed for the night. The cheap letter decals spelled “Miss Aurelia. Psycic. She Knows ALL You’re Secrets. Open 5-10.” The letters were accompanied by a few cone-shaped wizard hats, crescent moons, and stars. Larry checked the time on his cell phone, hoping dinner had run later than he’d thought. It was only 9:32.
“The grammatical errors don’t exactly inspire confidence,” Larry said.
“Okay, smart guy,” Karyn replied, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. “Just show me you can be flexible on this, and maybe I’ll show you how flexible I can be, if you catch my meaning.” As she said it, she twirled her hair in just the right way, knowing she’d just won that argument. Larry smiled as Karyn rang the doorbell and a loud buzzing sound indicated they could enter.
Miss Aurelia’s door opened to a narrow flight of stairs that led up to what was obviously a pair of residences. The one on the right side had a welcome mat in front and children’s handmade Halloween decorations hung below the brass knocker. The one on the left of the stairs had a frame surrounded by chasing lights and a huge sign reading “Miss Aurelia. Enter and Learn All.” Larry couldn’t help but wonder how often the poor family across the hall had to contend with Aurelia’s customers banging on their door.
“Come in,” a voice called when Karyn rapped gently on the psychic’s door, and the pair entered what struck Larry as the unfortunate result of a major sale at the local head shop. Miss Aurelia had turned her kitchen into a makeshift waiting room, with a pair of upholstered benches and a table full of old magazines positioned next to the front door. The kitchen walls were covered with a patchwork of glow-in-the-dark moon and star decals, and the overhead light fixture had some kind of gel inside that bathed the whole room in a green tint that Larry assumed was meant to be eerie. A few framed photos of specific tarot cards covered the kitchen cabinets, and the round table in the center had a series of card decks in various states of stacking. It also held a half-filled ashtray, the scent of which the various incense burners around the room weren’t masking as well as Miss Aurelia seemed to hope they would.
Then there was Miss Aurelia herself, who entered the kitchen through a curtain of multicolored glass beads. The accent of the voice that told them to come in sounded like some kind of Creole, with a hint of Caribbean inflection thrown in, but Larry could tell right away that it was an affectation. The woman who greeted them was a ruddy-faced Caucasian woman of about 60, with a damp mass of unkempt red hair and a pudgy figure like that of a grandmother in a child’s storybook. She wore an oversized dress that could have been either a large dashiki or a hippie’s maternity wear, and a pair of thick-framed glasses that made her appearance even more comical than her accent.
“Karyn, my chile, how are ya?” the psychic cooed as they hugged, and then turned to shake Larry’s hand. “And dis must be ya new man.”
“That’s some impressive deduction right there,” Larry said, careful to make it sound like a joke, even as the older woman gave him a sideways glance.
“Will ya be wantin’ one reading together, or one each?” Miss Aurelia asked. As she spoke, she was wrapping her hair in a white bath towel, making Larry wonder if it was supposed to look like a turban on a cartoon mystic or if their arrival had interrupted her shower.
“One each,” Karyn said, as she reached into her purse and pulled out a pair of 20s. Larry made a motion to pay, but she waved him off and reminded him that it was her idea and she’d offered to pay.
“Who first?” the psychic asked. She lit a clove cigarette, and the smoke caused Larry to cough, as years of living in a city with no indoor smoking had made his lungs lose their immunity to it.
“First-timers first,” Karyn said, gently pushing Larry forward between his shoulder blades.
Miss Aurelia stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray in a silent gesture of accommodation, but not without a grudging eye roll in Larry’s direction. “Dis way,” she said, leading Larry through the beaded curtain and down a hallway into a room that was designed to serve as a guest bedroom but which was decorated in the same garish style as the kitchen. They sat on plastic chairs on opposite sides of a card table, as the psychic began shuffling a deck of tarot cards.
“I apologize,” she said. “Do ya want da tarot? I can also read ya cards from da I Ching, or read your lifelines.”
“They’re all just as accurate, huh?” Larry said, no longer trying to mask his sarcasm now that Karyn was several rooms away.
“Ah, I can see ya da not believe in da power,” she said. “How da ya want me to prove it to ya?”
“You can start by dropping the phony accent,” Larry said. “If you really have psychic powers, you can tell me all about it in your regular voice.”
“Oh good,” Miss Aurelia said, instantly taking the lilt out of her voice and letting her accent revert to a standard Midwestern one. “The accent’s hard to keep up sometimes, but I like to give customers the full experience. It adds to the whole sense of intrigue and mystery, don’t you agree?”
“That’s all it took to get you to admit this whole thing is fake?”
“No, I think you misunderstand,” she said, choosing the I Ching deck and shuffling it instead of the tarot. “The power is absolutely real. People just don’t get as excited hearing it in my real voice. One of my mentors said I sounded too much like everyone’s high school English teacher.”
“Well, my high school English teacher was an old man with an Irish brogue …”
“Your sarcasm is noted, sir. Okay? But your girlfriend paid for a reading, and I don’t plan to take her money without giving you an accurate one. As you can see, I’m already shuffling your cards. I want you to clear your mind and focus on one question, anything you want answered. Once it’s in your head, I want you to tell me to stop shuffling three times, and the cards I land on will tell you the answer to your question.”
Not wanting to leave Karyn alone in the waiting room too long, Larry stopped arguing and went ahead with his reading. He didn’t think of any particular question. He just stopped the shuffling at three random intervals and watched Miss Aurelia spread the three cards in front of her, as she explained that every combination of three cards made up a hexagram.
“I can count to six,” Larry said, urging her on with his hand. “So what does it say?”
“You’ve chosen oppressed, a tree surrounded by walls,” she said, pointing to the rows of broken and unbroken lines formed by the cards. “It means ‘Confined, creating success. Constancy of a great person, good fortune. Not a mistake. There are words, not trusted.’ Does that answer your question?”
“I don’t trust these words that you’re saying. Is that what it’s supposed to mean? I’m right?”
“It means it answers your question. Only you know how the answer fits.”
“So in other words, it’s purposefully vague b.s. that anyone can twist into any answer they want.”
“Fine. What will it take to convince you?”
“Something concrete. Something that can be proven right or wrong. Tell me something about me that you couldn’t possibly know.”
“Okay. You really like the woman out there.”
“You don’t need to be a psychic to see that. I’m pretty sure the waiter at dinner figured that one out.”
“Your name is Larry. You’re a professional, probably a lawyer …”
“She told you the first part, and this suit makes the second part a pretty obvious guess.”
“You don’t believe in anything you can’t prove.”
“Me and most people.”
She paused in thought briefly. “Ah, I think I know how to prove it to you.”
“Yeah?” Larry was quickly tiring of this exchange.
“I am going to put a curse on you, one that will have real consequences for your future.”
“Right. That I’d like to see. Go right ahead.”
“So be it.”
With that, Miss Aurelia clapped twice and the lights in the room all turned off, except for the row of black-light lamps on the back wall. She stood and leaned back, with her hands raised toward the ceiling. Tilting her head up, the psychic began to rant in what was either a language Larry didn’t recognize or gibberish designed to sound like that. Then she leaned forward with both arms outstretched and pointed at Larry.
“I curse you Mr. Larry! As a direct result of this meeting tonight, misfortune will befall you, and you will question the way you reacted to me! With all my powers, I assure it!” She didn’t yell it but said it with a hard edge of anger in her voice. She stayed locked on Larry, thrashing her arms at him for a few seconds, then leaned back again. When she sat down and clapped for the lights to return, she instantly reverted to her previous, bemused-but-polite demeanor.
“Wow, that was really scary,” Larry said. “Guess I’m cursed now. Better make sure I don’t walk under a ladder on my way home.”
“Just remember that I told you so,” Miss Aurelia said as she walked to the door and led him back toward the kitchen. “You’ll soon encounter your misfortune.”
“Sure,” Larry said as they passed through the beaded curtain and back to where Karyn was sitting on one of the benches, leafing through a two-year-old issue of a New Age magazine Larry had never seen before.
“How did it go?” Karyn asked as she stood up, giving Larry half a hug. “Told you it would be fun.”
“Yeah, it was really fun,” Larry said, sounding sincere this time. “I guess you were right again.”
“Come chile, it’s ya turn,” Miss Aurelia said, immediately regaining her faux accent. She gave Larry a dirty look before smiling at Karyn and leading her back to the reading room.
While Karyn got her reading, Larry sat on the bench thumbing through magazines before settling on some decade-old National Geographic issues to admire the photography. He couldn’t tell if Karyn’s reading was taking substantially longer than his or if it just felt that way because of his boredom and the oppressive smells of contradictory incense blending.
When Karyn eventually emerged through the beads, without the psychic, Larry asked how the reading went. “Good,” she said. “She answered some important questions.”
“I’ll bet. Ready to head back?”
He walked Karyn another few blocks north to her apartment, again thankful for the weather. Larry made a few light jokes about some of the psychic’s specific guesses, like the shocking observation that he was into the girl he was dating. Karyn laughed, and Larry thought it wasn’t worth bringing up the alleged curse. He wasn’t worried about it, but he also didn’t want to freak her out, knowing she actually believed in some of this hokum.
“This is me,” she said when they got to the front stoop of her brownstone. “Thank you very much for dinner and for coming with me to Miss Aurelia’s.”
She didn’t make any motion to kiss him, and the lack of an invitation to come upstairs left Larry standing there awkwardly, unsure of what to say.
“Um, is there something else you’d like to do?” he tried, hoping to break the tension. “Maybe get a nightcap?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Karyn said, shifting nervously. “The thing is, well, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
“What? Did I do something …”
“It was something Miss Aurelia said. She told me you have a dark aura that can only bring bad things to me. I know you don’t really believe in it, but she’s never steered me badly when it comes to relationships …”
Larry tried to protest, but after a few minutes it was clear nothing he said was getting through. He stopped listening closely as she explained further, gave him a short and unemotional hug, and went up her front steps. He tried to gather his thoughts before he turned around and headed back to where he’d parked his car in front of the restaurant.
As a dejected Larry walked, he again saw the psychic’s plastic sandwich board in front of her place. When he looked up, he saw her watching him from her open window above the mechanic’s and smelled the clove cigarette she was smoking. She wasn’t wearing the turban or the oversized glasses anymore, but she did wear a sly smile on her face.
“Hey, Mr. Larry,” she called down. When he looked up, she pointed directly at him, and yelled, “Told you so, you silly man. You should not have doubted the power.” With that, she slammed the window and closed the curtains.
Larry again stood awkwardly for a few seconds, trying to gather his thoughts. Then he went to recover his car and drive home alone, but not before kicking over her sandwich board and jumping on it a few times.