by Ronald Hobbs, Oct 5, 2009
The webby neon sign in the store-front window read, "Psychic Readings $5" and below that, "Advice on All Matters by Madam Laura." Checking my finances I find seven fifty and a half-pack of cigarettes. Taking my cue from the "Open" sign, I go inside and am announced by the jingling of a little bouncing bell, which the door strikes as I enter.
No one is present, but the room is inviting, if a bit shabby. There's a Louis XV style fauteil chair that had seen better days, a round table complete with crystal ball and cards, a small leather box, two unremarkable folding chairs and a rack of votive candles with images of St. Jude, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and such. In the cornerwas an old wind-up Victrola with a big black horn.
After several long minutes of hanging out, I sit down at the table and begin to fiddle with the cards. Turning one, I find the Five of Cups; another, The Queen of Wands, and so on. Tiring of that, I peer into the crystal ball. I see that I have very fat lips and a pointy head. More minutes pass when, finally, the door opens and Madam Laura enters the room, a distinct odor of sausage and pepperoni pizza following her, that vanishes as she closes the door. "You are a good waiter. You'll need that because you're going to live to be ninety-two. When you get old, you have to wait a lot."
She sat across from me in one of the folding chairs, moved the cards unceremoniously aside and just looked at me. "You don't believe me. You're just here window shopping. Do you still live with that stringy-headed girl who plays the guitar? Nothing good's going to come of it, I'll tell you."
Somewhat stunned and stimulated with curiosity, I handed her the five-dollar bill.
"I see you a long time ago. I recognize you now. You were a gypsy too, then. There is a big fleshy woman. She loves you. Two little kids. Everybody in the camp calls you "Papa," even the elders. Life is happy; then terrible darkness comes. Many people died including them, and you leave. You lose your way.
"Sweetheart, you need work, but you cannot afford me. Hell, just the candles cost two hundred dollars apiece, and then there is my fee, which is a thousand dollars. Because you were a gypsy once, I will help you-a little bit. (More was said than I record here.)
"You have an Alligator mouth, but a Rabbit ass. That gets you into trouble that you run away from. Be careful about that. There are some spirits, though, that really like you. They gonna help you if you straighten up. Now give me just two dollars more and I will tell you what you must do."
Somewhat annoyed, but still intrigued, I paw around in my levi's and produce two crumpled one-dollar bills. This time I speak to her, but is it me, I wonder? The voice is mine, resembles mine, but the question is alien, "By all means tell me what I need to do. I am so lost and so afraid. Can I find my way to God?" I don't ever recall having said anything so stupid. I felt my ears turning red.
"Some men storm the gates of heaven, but you are no warrior. Some people arrive there through their piety, but that won't work for you. You will have to steal your way to heaven.
"Do you have any rich friends? Steal something from them-it doesn't have to be much, a teaspoon will do. Their good luck will rub off on you then. If you don't have any rich friends, steal from several friends who are just sort of rich to make up for the difference.
"Of course, if you steal something valuable you will have better luck. The timing, how daring it is, the object you take-all the elements work together."
There must have been some peculiar look on my face as I grappled with this utter absurdity. Madam Laura stopped and sighed. Reaching into the leather box on the table, she took out a cigarette, a Viceroy, and lit it. With a blow of smoke and a wag of a finger in my face she spoke in a near shout. "Don't you patronize an old woman! You think I'm making this stuff up? You can't find your ass with both hands, boy! I'm trying to help you!" I was almost in tears, but were they crying tears or laughing tears?
"It was at the Cruxifixion, a Roman Centurion had just taken a spear and thrust it into the side of Our Lord, and blood was pouring from his guts. Another centurion decided to do the same thing on the other side, but there was a gypsy in the crowd who saw that, and he swiped the centurion's lance and hid it under his cloak! Jesus saw that and, raising his eyes, looked down on those gathered there and said, 'Blessed is the gypsy. From this day forward he may steal with impunity."
I did cry this time, my tilt threshold seriously jarred. I had no context, not one bloody associative hook upon which to hang any of this. Reason couldn't handle it and my faithful skepticism had disappeared.
"Now sweetheart, you will understand some day. But there is one more thing I must warn you about. You put bad wishes on people, and that's just too dangerous for you to do. Your bad wishes are boomerangs. You get mad. You say, 'Bang! Bang! You son of a bitch, take that!' Then you lose your rent money or catch a bad cold, or the stringy-haired girl won't give you any. I can put bad wishes, but, even for me, it's a tricky business and I don't use the crappy methods you do."
Something had taken place. There was a new energy. Madam Laura brought a couple of cans of Pepsi from her room and offered me one of her Viceroys. She went over to her Victrola, cranked it up and put on an accordian rendition of Lady of Spain as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do.
"Now give me just fifty cents more and I will ice your cake."