I never set out to be a Tarot reader. I didn’t have a burning desire to tell people their husbands were unfaithful, their daughters might be doing drugs, and evil spirits had taken up residence in their kitchen drawers.
But my mother’s early death left me with bills to pay and an answering machine heavy with despairing messages from her clients. You see, my mother was a professional Tarot reader. I wasn’t, but I was about to play one in my own life – Julio saw to that.
It was my third tenuous week at Mountain Mortgage. I was typing a letter when Jeff, one of the underwriters, turned the corner of the hallway and approached, his hand already holding out a piece of paper. “LeeLee, can you—”
A canine scream of rage came from under my desk.
“Jesus!” Jeff lurched backward and hit the arm of the guest chair with his thigh. “Ow! Dammit! What the hell is that?”
“It’s Julio, my dog. He’s sick today.” Julio wasn’t really my dog, and he wasn’t sick. He had been Mom’s dog and he hated me for replacing her, but if I left him at home he began to bark around three o’clock and didn’t stop until I got back. My elderly neighbors had been understanding up to a point , then had threatened to call the cops. I didn’t know what I was going to say when I brought Julio to work the next day. Maybe it was chronic, this hypothetical illness of his.
“He can’t actually get to you,” I told Jeff. “He’s in a carrier.”
Jeff rubbed the back of his leg and grimaced. “What kind of dog is he, anyway?”
“Couldn’t you put him in the supply closet or something?”
“I tried, but Margaret complained about the doggy smell in the confined space. I’m really sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He edged forward and handed me his piece of paper, now crumpled. “Could you file this wherever it goes?”
Jeff was only the first visitor to my desk that morning. By three o’clock, Julio’s presence had resulted in a twisted ankle for Donna, a run in Kelly’s stocking, and a joke about lawsuits that wasn’t really a joke from the UPS guy. Plus, Julio had refused to relieve himself when I took him outside and had instead pooped in his crate. I picked up his warm droppings with paper towels, kneeling awkwardly in my suit skirt, and flushed them down the toilet, but the reception area and even the corridor beyond still smelled vaguely of dog shit.
So when Maria from Human Resources walked purposefully toward my desk at four-thirty, I can’t say I was surprised. I put a hand up and made sure the bobby pins in front of my ponytail were still in place.
She was five feet away when Julio made a noise like a raccoon in a fight and threw himself against the side of his crate. It tilted, banging against the oak privacy panel. I heard his claws scrabble on the plastic as he righted himself.
Maria hesitated, then took a seat in my guest chair. Julio settled into a steady growl. She looked toward the sound and shook her head. “LeeLee, I’m afraid we can’t have your dog at work. If he gets sick, you need to leave him with a friend.”
“I’ve pretty much run out of friends. He’s not very good with strangers, but maybe being in the office will socialize him more.” I smiled hopefully.
“I’m afraid that’s not an option. You must know someone who’ll do you a favor and take care of him. How about a family member?”
“I don’t have any family members. My mother was my only family.”
“You don’t have a father? Brothers and sisters? Grandparents?”
“I’m an only child, my father died when I was little and I’ve never met my grandparents. I’m not even sure where they live.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry.” She crossed her legs, causing Julio to snarl viciously. “The fact remains, if Julio gets sick, you need to kennel him or hire a pet sitter.”
“I will absolutely do that,” I said, nodding. “As soon as my finances stabilize. I’m still paying off the debt from my mother’s health care. I was wondering if you had some extra projects I could do, maybe on a contract basis.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Do you have time for extra projects? Sherry says you had to leave work twice last week to take care of dog-related issues.”
“I came back in the evenings, to make up the time. Maybe I could do some work on weekends. Julio wouldn’t bother anyone then.”
Maria gave me her best I feel your pain but I have a job to do look. “Evenings and weekends are not when we need you, LeeLee. The phone’s not ringing then, and that’s not when people need secretarial support. Have you thought of taking him to the Humane Society?”
“No one would adopt him right now. I’m hoping he’ll calm down.”
She picked up my staple remover and toyed with it. “Given the circumstances, perhaps you should have him put down.”
“I can’t do that.” My voice was barely audible. “He was my mother’s dog.”
She sighed. “Then I’m going to have to ask you not to come back tomorrow. We’ll pay you through the end of the week. I’m very sorry.”
I left Mountain Mortgage and walked through the parking lot to the bus stop, Julio snarling every time the carrier bumped my leg. It had taken me a long time to get that job. At twenty-six, I had left a position as office manager to move home and take care of my mother. After she died, I didn’t have the energy to do anything but grieve for a while. When I realized I was almost out of money, I took the first job I could get. Life was transient and painful, but I still needed to eat.
I reached the bus stop and set the pet carrier on the sidewalk, trying not to breathe too much exhaust from the cars whizzing by. After a minute, Julio’s paw came through one of the vents in the plastic and raked my leg. I sighed and stepped out of his reach.
I was too poor to afford a noise-nuisance fine for a barking dog, too poor to kennel him. He was a furry, snarling albatross around my neck, but I couldn’t get rid of him. My mother had loved him, and he still loved her, with a passion that made him sleep on a pile of her old clothes and stare at her favorite chair for hours at a time. He was a deeply unhappy dog, but after five months I still hoped he could get better.
The bus hissed to a stop in front of me, and I picked up the carrier. I would go home, make a cup of decaf and call my best friend, Kat. She was an idea person.
Kat was heavily involved with a brand-new boyfriend, so I hadn’t seen her much in the last couple of weeks. But when I called with the news that I had lost my job, she was instantly sympathetic.
“I cannot believe they weren’t more understanding,” she said, her voice throbbing with outrage. “They should have at least given you some warning, something!”
I shifted the phone to my other ear. “They gave me three days pay for work I didn’t do.”
“Considering your situation, I’d expect a little more compassion.”
“The real question,” I said, “is what kind of job will pay lots of money or let me work from home?”
“Phone sex,” Kat suggested.
“Have you done that?”
“Don’t be silly. But my friend knew someone who did and she made a lot of money.”
“Forget it. I couldn’t do it without laughing.”
“Maybe you could become a caretaker for some old lady – a really deaf one who loves mean little dogs.”
The employment section of the paper sat on the kitchen table in front of me. I gave it a little shove. “I looked for caretaking positions. There’s an amazing shortage of deaf old ladies with poor judgment.”
“Well, there’s always Tarot.”
There had been Tarot for as long as I could remember. When my father, a binging alcoholic, got drunk on my third birthday and killed himself behind the wheel of a car, my mother took the life-insurance money and moved from Detroit to Boulder, Colorado, where she reinvented herself as a Tarot reader. Mom built up a lucrative and devoted clientele over the years, none of whom seemed to hold it against her that she didn’t see her own illness coming.
Tarot was like a second language to me, as if my mother were American and my father the King of Cups, but Mom always made it clear she wanted me to do something better with my life – something more respectable.
“I’m not a Tarot reader,” I said firmly.
“You could find a metaphysical bookstore or coffee shop and set up a table there. You’d get to pull from their walk-in traffic, and they’d get a cut of whatever you made. You could go home and visit the dog in between clients.”
I was quiet.
“What? It’s a great idea!”
“It is a great idea. I’m just a little conflicted. Mom would be spinning in her grave if she knew I was considering this.”
“She’ll spin faster if you lose the house. Just do it until you come up with something else, LeeLee.”
She was right, of course. We hung up and I got out the phone book. There were several suitable businesses within walking distance of my house. I hit pay dirt on the third call.
I arrived at Unknown Horizons New-Age Bookstore at eight-forty-five AM the next Monday, hoping to make a good impression on Don Barber, the manager. Ten minutes later, a tall, weedy guy in his mid-forties trudged up to the store. His goatee was worthy of a stage magician, and he wore a black T-shirt with a picture of an alien and the slogan, Area 51 – Hardhat Required. “Ready to work, huh?” he said. “Can you hold this?”
I took the box he held out and sagged under the weight. “What’s in it?”
“Goddess statues. Guess those girls could stand to lose a few pounds, huh?” He gave a whinnying laugh and unlocked the deadbolt.
I waited for him to take the box, but he strolled inside and waved at the front counter. “Just put it there. Thanks.”
The strap of my heavy tote bag threatened to slide off my shoulder as I edged over to the counter. It contained a couple of sets of Tarot cards, a velvet cloth, and my lunch. I stuck my elbow up so the handle wouldn’t slip down and take the skin off my wrist.
“Tarot table’s in the back.” Don disappeared down one of the dim aisles.
I thumped the box down and followed, speaking to his back. “I brought a cloth, but I didn’t know if I should use my own decorations or if you want me to use things the store sells.”
“Sure, whatever. You should probably make a sign, too. I don’t have time for that kind of thing.”
I wanted to say, You don’t have time to promote a Tarot reader who’s giving you twenty-five percent of her walk-in take? But just because Don wasn’t professional didn’t mean I shouldn’t be.
I reached the end of the aisle and stopped in front of a small, round table. An oil lamp in the shape of a sleeping cat rested in the center. There were two wooden chairs and a gauzy purple curtain that pulled around the whole thing to give the reader and the client some privacy. It was surprisingly adequate. “This is great.”
“Good. I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got some naked ladies to put stickers on.” He leered slightly, but I could see it was more from habit than anything else.
I centered my black-velvet cloth on the table and set a deck of cards next to the cat lamp. Then I pulled a piece of paper from my tote bag and went to the front of the store. I had called some of my mother’s most regular clients and told them I was doing readings. I handed the list to Don. “These are clients I already have appointments with this week.”
“Fine.” He glanced at the three names and set it aside. Then he pulled a book from a box behind the counter. “I’d like you to promote this today. It’s brand new.”
This was not an official part of our phone agreement, and it occurred to me that I should probably make up a written contract. I took the book and looked at the cover. “Sexual Secrets of the White Witch?”
“Yeah. Should sell like hotcakes.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Oh, and do you have a lighter for the little oil lamp?”
He squirmed a hand into the pocket of his black jeans and took out a chromed Zippo with a panther on it. “Bring it back.”
I almost rolled my eyes. “Of course.”
With the lamp lit and the lighter returned, I went back to my table. My scheduled appointment arrived a few minutes later.
Mrs. Martinek had a collection of cardigans with floral designs that she embroidered herself. She wore them with permanent-press slacks and low heels, and her silvery-white hair always looked freshly done. My mother had referred to her as “that sugar-coated viper.”
“Good morning, LeeLee.” She sat in the chair opposite me, leaned forward and blew out the cat lamp. “Let’s not go native.”
I took a breath. It was supposed to be calming but was audibly shaky. “Good morning, Mrs. Martinek. Do you have a particular subject for today’s reading?”
She folded her hands across some embroidered zinnias. “I want to know if my new Mexican gardener is cheating me.”
This was typical of her requests, but I was not about to help her vilify some guy I’d never clapped eyes on. Mom had explained that people like Mrs. Martinek weren’t actually seeking advice. As her reader, I was simply one of the people paid to listen to the continuing story of Mrs. Martinek versus the world, along with her pedicurist and the woman who set her hair.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t do that kind of reading,” I said. “I’m here to help you explore your own issues.”
She nodded. “Okay. Let’s explore my fear of being ripped off by this Mexican gardener.” She made an impatient gesture at the Tarot cards I still held.
I tightened my fingers around them. “Why do you think he’s ripping you off? Have things gone missing?”
She shook her head, an irritated gesture. “He’s more subtle than that. He says he planted Tasso daisies, which is what I paid for, but I think they’re Pomponettes, which are cheaper.”
“Why don’t you get a second opinion?”
She looked at me as though I were dim. “Because that would cost more money, and I’ve already lost enough to this bozo.”
I didn’t point out that she wasn’t getting my time for free, at fifty bucks an hour. Instead I began laying cards face up on the table. “Is there a big difference in price between Tasso and Pomponette daisies?”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
I put the tenth card down and mustered a smile. “It’s a wonderful thing that your primary worry today is the difference between two types of flowers. Let’s see what other blessings life has in store for you.”
Mrs. Martinek pointed to a card. “Forget blessings. Is that fellow running off with a checkbook?”
“That’s a monkey god, and he’s holding a banana leaf offering.”
She peered at the picture. I couldn’t blame her. I had chosen the Romanian Dream Tarot for her reading. The pictures were done in collage and looked as though the artist had taken an acid trip in a room full of National Geographic magazines, while watching David Lynch films. Most of the pictures bore little resemblance to classic Tarot cards, and all the text was in Romanian. I hoped this would make it difficult for Mrs. Martinek to quibble with my interpretations.
I tapped the first card. “Do you see the image of the beggars? That represents our own perceptions and how they sometimes make us feel like victims when we’re not.”
“So you’re saying they are Tasso daisies.” She scowled at me.
“I don’t pretend to be psychic, Mrs. Martinek. The cards are a way to bring up emotions you might not know you have.”
“You’re off-topic, LeeLee,” she snapped.
“I’m just trying to explain. You’re here to improve your life, right?”
“No, I’m here to find out whether I should nail that little beaner to the wall by his fertilizer.”
I made an elaborate gesture of pushing my heavy black hair away from my face. “Mrs. Martinek, for all you know I’m Mexican.”
“With a name like Moldovar? You’re probably some kind of Polack. Come on, what do they say?”
I stared down at the cards. I wanted to tell her to leave, but her gardener probably had fewer bills than I did. “I don’t see any evidence of deception. Of course, anyone can make an honest mistake.”
“Uh-huh.” She picked up her purse and took a checkbook from it. “Your mother died not long ago, God rest her, so I’m prepared to cut you some slack.” She scribbled on a check, which was decorated with tulips and the slogan, A Gardener’s Heart is Full of Flowers. “Maybe next time you’ll be a little more on top of things.” She tore it off and handed it to me.
I looked at the amount. “This is for fifteen dollars.”
“I think that’s pretty generous, considering I’ve only been here ten minutes.” She stood. “I’ll see you next month.”
The sound of the bell over the door marked her exit. Don sidled out from behind a nearby bookshelf and came over, shaking his head. “I can’t believe that old bitch called you a Polack. Still, you’d probably have been safe telling her the Mexican was a crook.” He winked.
I felt too battered to protest this further display of bigotry. I gave Don a cold look and dug through my tote bag until he wandered off.
I wished I could ask my mother how she had dealt with Mrs. Martinek. I wished I could ask her how to deal with Don. I wished I could look at her face, in person, for five minutes.
I sat at my table for a while, breathing the scent of incense and books and pulling myself together. Finally I took out the newspaper I had brought with me and started looking through the want ads. I was halfway through the first column when I heard a voice.
“Oh, hey! A Tarot reader.”
The man who walked toward me looked like an amalgamation of every sexy, young professor I’d ever had a crush on – the ones that were barely older than their students, but who somehow made Medieval History seem fresh and full of passion.
His wavy chestnut hair was a little long, he wore a tweed jacket with jeans, and his wire-framed glasses gave him a soulful, intellectual look.
Something inside me took a weak breath and fluttered to life. I resisted the urge to hike up my skirt and say, “Read your cards, mister?” Instead I smiled and said, “Hi, there. LeeLee Moldovar, Tarot-based counseling.”
“I’ve never done that before.” He glanced at his watch. “And it looks like I have some time to kill.”
This was amazing. When men consulted any kind of oracle, which was rare, it was usually an astrologer. My mother said they found it easier to take advice from rocks in space than from a woman.
He tugged the purple curtain around us with a jingle of its hanging rings, making the space small and intimate.
I nudged the chair across from me with my foot, pushing it out for him. “Sit down. What’s your name?”
“Matt.” He took a seat and ran his fingertips over the velvet cloth. “Don’t the cards slide off the table when you deal?”
“You must be thinking of poker. I lay each one down with the utmost care.”
He grinned and leaned his elbows on the table. “Of course you do. I can tell you’re a caring person in general.”
With a little shock, I realized we were flirting. “Are there any particular issues you’d like to explore today?” I asked, emphasizing the throatiness in my voice.
He straightened and sat back in his chair. “Can you tell me what’s going to happen with a relationship I’m in?”
Apparently I was the only one flirting. I took off my sexy face and put on my serious, compassionate face. He was probably gay anyway, with those looks. “First of all, you should know that I’m not a fortuneteller.”
“Then what exactly do you do?”
“I use the cards as a catalyst, to bring up feelings you may not be aware of, or to give you different ways of looking at things.”
He nodded. “Got it.”
“Then let’s get started.” I reached into my bag and pulled out my most elaborate cards – a reproduction of a fourteenth-century Italian deck. He deserved them.
“Those are beautiful,” he said, as I laid a star pattern on the black velvet.
“Mm-hmm.” My hand slowed as I placed the last few cards. Usually a Tarot spread could be interpreted in a variety of ways, but this was gloom and doom from start to finish.
Matt looked at the array of suffering images with interest.
“They’re so pretty, I’ll show you some more,” I said, scooping them up in one quick movement.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked, watching me shuffle them into the deck.
“False start. It happens.”
His eyebrows came together above his glasses. “I thought the cards were just catalysts. Did you see something you thought I wouldn’t like? Because I’m not invested in any kind of outcome with this woman. She’s perfectly nice, but sometimes things just don’t work out.” He reached out and touched my wrist, stilling my hands. “You can tell me if there’s something I ought to know about her.”
Not gay, then. The attraction I felt tightened its hold on me. My limbs felt fizzy, as if a dose of caffeine had just kicked in. “It sounds to me as though you’re looking for a reason to break up with her.” I blinked. It wasn’t like me to say something that blunt.
He frowned at the table. “Not really. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s pretty, successful, funny.”
I dealt out a couple of cards, but I was totally focused on the man across from me. “Then you must be looking for something else.”
“All right, maybe I am looking for someone a little more unconventional. A muse.” He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. I’m a classical musician. We sometimes talk like that.”
I looked at the cards I had dealt. The Knight of Wands gazed back at me, passionate and impulsive but not always the best at commitment. I looked Matt in the eye. “You know what I think?”
“If you’re not serious about this woman, you’re not doing her any favors by keeping her interested.”
He gave a wry smile and studied the cards. “You don’t mess around, do you? Which one says all that?”
None of them did. Tarot mostly functioned as an excuse to ask advice from an unbiased stranger. “That one,” I said, pointing to the Page of Swords. There was no point in killing the magic.
I spent a full hour with Matt, the chemistry between us increasing by the minute. When the reading ended, he paid me fifty and tipped me ten. I wondered if Don expected a cut of my tips as well. Too bad.
I was a little disappointed that Matt didn’t ask for my number or set up another appointment, but mostly I was grateful to have left my own life behind for a while. And he knew where to find me, after all.
Kat and I were due to meet on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall for lunch. As I opened the door of Unknown Horizons, Don asked, “Where are you going?”
I turned around. “Lunch.”
His expression said that this was extraordinary. “What should I do if someone comes in and wants a reading?”
“Tell them to come back in about an hour.”
“About an hour?”
“I will be back in one hour and fifteen minutes.” I pushed the door open.
Outside, the air was balmy with the start of summer. I took off my cardigan and looped it through the handles of my tote bag before strolling down the brick lane of the mall.
Kids jumped and screamed in the random spurts of water from the children’s fountain while their mothers looked on fondly. I suppressed a stab of sadness. Mom would be proud of how I had regrouped today. I could take comfort in that.
I spotted Kat on a bench a little way past the fountain, looking like a film actress who had wandered off the set and into real life.
Kat had shiny blonde hair, shiny white teeth, and a sweet, shiny job as a public-relations agent. In some ways, I was the drab, diminished foil for her glorious life. That’s not to say she wouldn’t have liked me if I were successful and happy.
I sat next to her and noticed a Bluetooth headset stuck in her ear. Kat’s car sported a bumper sticker that said, Love me, love my phone.
She held up one finger to show she was finishing the conversation. “Okay, send them over as soon as you can. Bye.” She took off the headset and looked at me over the top of her sunglasses, eyes sparkling. “I know something you don’t,” she said, singing the words.
“No, you don’t, because I’m a Tarot reader and I know everything,” I joked.
She giggled and picked up her purse. “That reminds me – I need to pay you for Adrian’s reading.”
“Your new boyfriend? When’s he coming in?” I reached into my bag and took out the Tupperware containing my lunch.
Kat held out a ten and three ones, grinning. “He already has.”
“What?” I stared at her.
She fell against me, laughing helplessly. “I wish you could see your face!”
My throat felt tight. “Matt was Adrian? The guy you’re seeing?”
“It was my idea. I thought the reading would be more fun if you didn’t know who he was, but I didn’t want the store to get part of your money. Then I realized I could just pay you the difference.” She pushed the money into my bag and broke into fresh laughter. “And it was totally worth it for your expression right now. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
“Stunning.” I certainly felt stunned. “Um, how did he say it went?”
She gripped my shoulder. “Honey, he said you were brilliant. But I knew you would be.”
I looked at my lunch and put it away, feeling queasy. I had basically told my best friend’s boyfriend to dump her. Oh, and I had come on to him.. “What did Adrian say, exactly?”
“I begged him for details, but he just said you were profoundly perceptive.”
Was I? Had I subconsciously guessed who he was and tried to break them up out of envy? Maybe Adrian hadn’t taken me seriously. Or maybe he was absolutely crazy about Kat and had been pulling my leg the whole time.
She patted her chest, laughter still bubbling in fits and bursts. “Oh, God, that was funny! We really got you, didn’t we?”
“You sure did.”
“Where’s your lunch?”
“Oh, I ate half of it in the store,” I lied. “I’m not really hungry.”
“Then let’s go to the sushi place. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“No.” I stood up and looped my bag over my shoulder. “I’ll buy you one.”