Sunday, January 15, 2012
I got the inspiration for this story from something I heard on NPR several months ago. Yes, I listen to NPR. If that makes me a hipster then I guess I should go buy some Birkenstocks. Anyway, I might take a few weeks off from short story writing after this entry. I have ideas for other entries, don't worry. I just plan to focus all my writing energies right now into sending query letters to publishing agents. Yes, I'm really going to do it this time!
Anyway, here's the story. Enjoy!
Aaron Matthew Smith
“Me next,” said the big man in the puffy overcoat. He sat down next to me on the hard tube bench. I grinned and took his five pounds, stuffing it into the pocket of my jeans.
“Okay, you have to ask your question when I cut the deck,” I said, tugging my scarf away from my neck. I opened the little wooden cigar box I kept my deck in and started shuffling. As I was cutting the cards, Puffy-coat Guy said,
“Am I going to get that promotion?”
I laid out the top four cards of the deck in a diamond shape on the molded plastic bench between us. I glanced at the man, my hand frozen on the top card. His eyes were transfixed on the face-down card, oblivious to me or anything else. I waited a heartbeat before I flipped it over.
“In the romance position, two of pentacles, reversed,” I said. He glanced at me, awaiting my appraisal. “Bad news. Discouragement.”
“That’s okay, I’m married,” he said. A few of the people who’d gathered around us chuckled.
I flipped over the left most card. I looked up and smiled at Puffy Coat Guy. He must’ve taken encouragement from it because he smiled too, eyes crinkling.
“Career position, Temperance, upright,” I announced as if I was calling the winning horse in a race. “Patience, confidence, harmony.”
Puffy Coat Guy pumped his fist as if he’d been betting on the horse I just called.
“Yeah, I’ll bet that’s what it means,” said a woman’s voice from the back of the crowd. I didn’t look up from the cards. I moved on, flipping the rightmost card.
“Finances, the nine of wands, upright. Preparedness, perseverance.” The guy clapped both hands together. His enthusiasm had drawn a little bit of a crowd at this point; we’d arrived at the next stop on the line, but nobody was getting off. They were all trying to look over his shoulder at the cards.
I flipped the last card. “Happiness, Page of Swords, reversed.” I tugged at my scarf, trying to remember what that card meant. After a second of silence I decided upon, “Caution. You should be careful, something unexpected might happen.”
“If I do get that promotion, it’ll be unexpected!” he chuckled. He stood up and grabbed his briefcase. “Thank you young lady, you’ve made my day!”
I grinned and bowed my head. “I just read the cards.”
He grinned and walked to the open door. Now that the reading was over the crowd was beginning to disperse. I started gathering my cards back into the cigar box when a tall, spindly woman in a coat the color of stale mustard came over to me.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she hissed. I glanced up. She looked down at me over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that were too big for her face but too small for her nose. “Taking honest people’s money.”
“I’m just reading cards,” I said quietly.
“And taking money from people with real jobs, pedaling this pagan voodoo nonsense like it’s gospel,” she said in a voice that would peel paint from concrete. “You’re just telling people what they want to hear and keeping their money for yourself.”
“I’m just reading the cards,” I said again, not meeting her eyes.
“It’s witchcraft and lies is what it is,” she continued unabated as if she and I were alone in the car. “What’s your name? How old are you?”
“Claudia,” I said, still not meeting her eyes. “Fourteen.”
“Well ‘Claudia’,” she said my name like it was a four-letter word, “You’re what’s wrong with society, young lady. I have half a mind to report you for panhandling.” She gathered her purse in her hands as if I was going to try to snatch it away and stalked stiffly out of the car.
Most Saturdays I rode the tube for a couple hours doing readings. I was doing a reading for a strung-out looking blonde woman who asked “Is my boyfriend going to propose soon?” when I saw Mustard-coat Lady again. This time she didn’t say anything, just stared at me over the shoulder of the other woman as I flipped cards.
“Romance, Queen of Pentacles,” I said. The blonde woman stared a hole through me. “Over-dependence, mistrust.” I winced as the woman’s blue eyes flared. She got up and stomped off before I could read the rest of the cards.
“You should be ashamed,” Mustard-coat Lady scolded.
I did another few readings before getting off the tube and grabbing a sandwich for lunch. An hour later I’d already taken a seat on the hard bench before I noticed who was sitting across from me. She looked like a grizzled old cactus that had been planted in a mustard-colored pot, her sharp features and dyed black hair like spines.
“Are you following me?” I asked.
“You need to stop,” she said. “You’re cheating these poor gullible people.”
“Leave the kid alone lady,” said Sal, a big Italian guy with a mustache. He was a regular. He sat down next to me and smiled beneath the wide brim of his hat. I gave him a quick reading; be patient with his wife and a potential investment opportunity might fall through, the cards told him. He tipped his hat and I thanked him for the support and the five quid.
After Sal left, Mustard-coat Lady started in again. “Do you really think anyone believes this card nonsense? You can’t tell the future any more than I can fly across the Thames!”
“I just read cards,” I said innocently.
Her beady gaze smoldered on me before she stomped off, heels clicking like the nails of a dog on a tile floor.
She’d succeeded in scaring away most of my customers for the afternoon, so I decided to wait for the evening commuters then head home for supper after rush hour. I was just flipping over the card in the happiness position for a college guy when I sensed her presence. I just knew she was there, like sometimes how you glance at a telephone right before it rings.
“Happiness position, Ace of Cups, rightside up,” I said. “New beginnings. Good things on the horizon.”
He grinned behind a set of black plastic frames. “That’s amazing, I just started class today and I love my new program.” He passed me a fiver. “Thanks again. See you tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” I said. He stood and walked away.
As if she’d been waiting all day for the chance, Mustard-coat Lady plopped down right next to me. For a moment she just sat and glared at me. I didn’t look up at her. I focused on carefully shuffling my deck, stacking the cards neatly into my cigar box.
“Well, go on,” she spat.
“Excuse me?” I looked up as if noticing her for the first time.
“You heard me. Go on. See if your silly witchcraft can tell my future.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Just leave me alone.”
“Look here Claudia. You’re scamming these people, and I intend to prove it. You’re going to read my fortune.”
By now the car was full of people on their way home. She hadn’t been speaking loudly but by the way she was leaning across the empty seat it was plain that she was angry. People were stopping to notice.
“Why would I tell your fortune?” I asked. “You’ve been awful to me all day.”
She tugged a five pound note from her purse and threw it at me like a grenade. “There, that’s what you want, isn’t it? Now do your voodoo. Tell me a lie.”
“I’m confused- am I just lying, or am I doing black magic? I can’t very well be doing both,” I said. A big guy in a stocking cap chuckled.
Her small dark eyes were as cold as a snowflake down the collar of your sweater. “Deal one card. Read my fortune.”
Everyone in the car was squashed together around us in a human hedge, watching. I couldn’t disappoint a crowd. So I shuffled. I felt my face heat up as the cards flew between my hands. Finally I cut the deck.
“You only asked for one card,” I said, trying to stay focused, “So this is going to regard your immediate future. Alright?”
“Young lady I already know what my evening holds,” she said, her voice an icy razor. “I’m just waiting for you to be wrong about it.”
I felt my cheeks flush, but I didn’t let it show as I finished cutting the deck and placed the top card face down between us. Her thin lips turned up at the corners. Her smile was an odd broken shape, like a crack in a mirror. I was starting to sweat under my hoodie. I wished now I hadn’t worn the scarf. “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove here,” I grumbled. “I’m just reading cards. My fortunes are for entertainment.”
“I’m making a point,” she snapped. “Now read.”
I flipped the card and read it aloud, “Nine of Pentacles, reverse.” I glanced at the card, back up at Mustard-coat Woman, and back at the card.
“What does that one mean?” she asked, her voice like the subtle snap of ice breaking underfoot.
“Potential loss, caution. Danger. Be wary of strangers.”
“Ha!” She snapped. “The only person I need be wary of is young girls trying to take my money. Just as I said, nonsense. Foolishness.” She stood and looked at the people who’d watched the reading unfold. “I hope you all paid attention and learned a lesson.”
The tube suddenly lurched to a halt, the crowd swaying with the car as it stopped. The door opposite us started to open.
“I have nothing more to fear from strangers than—”
“Excuse me ma’am,” an authoritative voice sliced the crowd apart like a hatchet. A uniformed police officer stood in the open doorway beyond the gap. Mustard-coat Lady spun on the spot. “I have reports of you harassing a young girl on the tubes today. Is that true?”
“That’s her, officer,” said a familiar voice, and Sal poked his head around the edge of the door. “That’s the woman who’s been stalking Claudia.”
“Stalking? Harassing!?” She sounded as if she’d been slapped in the face. She whirled on me. “You and he planned this, didn’t you?” She pointed an accusatory finger at Sal, then at me. “You’re trying to make me look like a fool!”
That was when the crowd turned on her. She tried to shout them all down, which only made the officer more irritated. Pushing hands and ushering arms moved her out of the car and onto the platform. I could still hear her screaming at the policeman as the doors slid shut and the tube took off again.