I went to Houston to work and to visit an old friend. I wanted to escape bad news back home. I didn’t realize my friend would have far worse problems than me. It took a chain-smoking psychic to learn this.
One afternoon, when Jen got off work early, we criss-crossed Houston, penetrating the city. We visited a museum, ate some fine Mexican food, and looked for a tattoo parlor. I’d wanted to find interesting people in Houston to write about, and no place has more interesting people than a tattoo parlor. Jen’s tattoo artist friend was off for the day, so we decided to see a psychic instead. It’s the next best thing, we figured. The tattoo artist puts something in the skin of their clients, the psychic reveals what’s underneath. We were going one level lower.
Resting literally in the shadows of the highway on-ramp, the psychic’s “office” is the only house within miles. It looks as if the almighty State of Texas wanted to put up a highway, paid off all the landholders in the vicinity, but were unable to coax this one family into making a deal. The bustling highway surrounded the home like a little boy hugging his toys in a sandbox.
There was a sign on the side of the house, conveniently confronting the traffic as it whizzed by, which read “Two free questions on first call”, then it listed a phone number. I imagined ringing up and asking who would win the next World Series or how to cure cancer. But neither of those things are all that exciting, when you think about it.
We pulled in, Jen and I, amused at our hippness. We were going to see a psychic. What were other people doing today? Nothing this cool.
The door had a wrought-iron facade. We rapped at it and waited. A long minute later we could hear the person unlatching a complex series of locks that secured the entrance. Apparently, the psychic had no idea if someone may be coming to rob the place.
A young Hispanic man of short stature opened the door and asked us what we wanted. It seemed a silly question considering the obscenely large sign in their driveway, but Jen’s sheepish reply was even sillier.
“We want to see the psychic.”
Like the eccentric doorman with a handlebar mustache in The Wizard of Oz, the young man waved us in.
We were going to see the wizard!
In the car on the way, Jen and I had shared the nervous dance of conversation that one must do when going on such an expedition of folly. We laughed at how silly it was, how crazy people had to be to believe in this stuff, and how we were going on a lark. We fancied ourselves like a grownup playing tic-tac-toe with a toddler, we knew something they didn’t know: that the game is fixed. But now, as we were led into the dwelling of a real-life know-it-all, part of us wanted to believe we were about to experience something special.
Maybe I was expecting magic eight balls, skulls, dark lights, and crystal balls, but nothing of that sort was in sight. This looked like a normal house. It could have been the house I grew up in.
Sitting behind a desk in the front room was a woman named Sister Sara. We knew this by the simple way she greeted us.
“I’m Sister Sara.”
We explained ourselves as best we could. Sara told us she offered two options: a simple reading for $25 or a detailed reading of the palm and with cards for $50. We didn’t have a clue as to what the difference could possibly be, but we agreed to the $25 reading. Jen flipped the money at Sister Sara. She was to go first. I was led into the living room.
“Put on the television for him!” This is what Sister Sara growled at a young woman who we learned was her great niece. Her name was Paula.
Paula and I sat on a leather couch that was situated far too close to a gigantic flat-screen television that was hanging precariously on the wall of the living room. Paula didn’t know how to work the remote control, and I didn’t care because I was quite certain that if the TV was filled with electricity it would tumble on top of me, leaving me squished and useless to a psychic, but intriguing to a medical examiner. Besides, I wanted to talk to Paula. This was a chance to find out what the hell was going on in this peculiar little house that sat dangerously close to fast-moving semi-trailer trucks.
Paula revealed that she’d married Sister Sara’s great-nephew (the kid who’d opened the front door). They had been married just three months. She had moved to Houston from New Orleans to be with him and his family. She and her fresh-faced husband were both unemployed. I immediately thought that this girl needs a psychic much more than I do. “Sister Sara, will we qualify for emergency unemployment benefits?” she would ask.
There are three things I can do better than I have a right to be able to: throw horseshoes, parallel park, and coax information from strangers. Armed with the last of these skills, I began my interrogation of Paula, the Newlywed from The Big Easy. She was a sliver of a woman, maybe 90 pounds. She was attractive enough at 19 years old, wearing a wool(?) brown skirt and top, with her dark blonde hair twisted around the top of her head. She was dressed for some occasion far more important than the reading of my future.
She admitted she was nervous about being so far from her family in a strange city. She said her husband didn’t get along well with her parents, but I guessed by the way she said it that they didn’t like him. She was attending school, or maybe she wasn’t, I didn’t really trust her commentary on the subject. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do or what degree she wanted to earn. But who does at 19?
She looked like the type of girl who would marry for money. She could, perhaps with the skillful addition of $5,000 fake breasts, serve as arm candy for some poor schmuck. I wondered if Sister Sara foresaw this possibility and had alerted her great-nephew?
She asked me a few questions, but I was careful not to reveal too much, even throwing her some fake clues. I didn’t want Sara to get any tips from this young apprentice. When I told Paula that I had been married and divorced, she said, “I’m a little psychic too, and I’m sensing you had some difficulties in the marriage, and it was hard for you.” Ooh, eerie.
I wasn’t sure how someone could be a “little psychic”. I figured it meant she hadn’t had enough time to learn the scams taught to her by her Great Aunt Sister Sara (now that must be confusing at family reunions).
Eventually, after I had peppered Paula with several questions, to the point where I sensed she was uncomfortable, Sister Sara beckoned me to her chamber. Jen took my place on the leather couch in front of the giant leaning television.
The psychic asked me to sit at the dining room table. Behind her chair was another small table littered with religious artifacts, many of them looking as if they were recently purchased at Wal-Mart. There was the cheap-looking ceramic statue of Jesus, a golden-framed picture of the same, several candles that had never felt the heat of a match, a porcelain Buddha, and the Holy Bible.
Sister Sara was eyeing me. This had to be her bread and butter. A psychic has to be a keen observer of people. While Sara was staring at me, I tried to capture every detail of her. She was in her mid to late 60s. She was plump and squat, almost egg-like. She had slightly ruddy skin, like that of a smoker, which she was. Indeed, her ash tray was always orbiting near her wrist, poised to receive the flick of her cigarette. Sara had a kind face, something she surely benefitted from in her profession. She could have been anyone’s grandmother. Though she seemed sincere with her gradmotherly looks, she also had a strange edge to her, like she could snap at any moment. Not crazy, but in the neighborhood.
She asked me a few questions about myself, which seemed like cheating. I was vague. I’m a writer, I said. I haven’t been seeing Jen very long (this was a lie, Jen and I are friends from high school and aren’t romantically involved at all). I told her I wanted to find out if I would find some peace after a few rough months.
Sister Sara took my hands very gently and very briefly. I was surprised at how little she held them. Was this the express lane? She asked if she could light up, and I nodded. Second-hand smoke was the least of my worries. She sucked another Pall Mall into her lips and grimaced at me.
“You are having some tough times,” she said. “But they will not last, and they are only part of a cycle. A cycle that will turn and will bring you better times. But not for about three months. Until then, things will be difficult.”
She asked me about my occupation and my personal life. They were leading questions, and when I revealed something, she jumped on it, as if she had revealed that herself. “You have written a book, but you are not happy with the success of the book.” No shit, sherlock, have you any idea of how difficult the publishing business is? When you learned my name wasn’t Stephen King, it was a good guess I was a struggling writer, if at all.
She told me that I loved Jen. That we had not been dating long, but that I loved her, even though I didn’t realize it. I tried to steer her from romantic issues, I didn’t need a psychic to tell me I’d fall in love and mess that up. I’d seen that movie before. I wanted to ask big questions. Come on, Sister Sara, give it up!
But Sister Sara wasn’t going to satisfy my thirst for cosmic answers. Sister Sara told me she was the supreme leader of her church and had been for more than 40 years. She had traveled the world and visited “dozens of countries” teaching people about Jesus. She still traveled she said, but her husband was sick and she couldn’t do that as much. This was the same husband she barked at when he didn’t answer the phone quickly enough in the middle of my reading.
Sara told me that I should accept Jesus into my life. She sensed I didn’t believe in God, maybe after I had asked her if she believed in God and if he existed. She lectured me for a few minutes, quite puzzled at my failure to have faith in a supreme creator. She urged me to read the Bible to learn about Jesus and his Twelve RECIPLES. This butchered phrase rolled across her nicotine infested gums a few times, to the point where I couldn’t suppress my giggles.
Then Sarah dropped a bomb. My friend Jen had a curse placed on her, probably by someone close to her years ago. The curse was a dark cloud following her. She could never shake it, it was like a tin can attached to her ankle.
Sister Sara said she could remove Jen’s curse in a ceremony. The cost was $500. Sister Sara explained that I did not have a curse, I was merely in a bad cycle which would turn in my favor. Phew! I’d dodged a cosmic bullet.
But Jen was screwed. She needed professional help, and Sister Sara could rescue her.
Of course, she’d told Jen this in her reading. She told me now, undoubtedly gauging my reaction, scanning my face for any signs that I was buying it. Hoping at any moment that I would whip out my wallet and peel off five $100 bills.
Instead, I listened to my new psychic friend and wondered. Earlier I had asked her a question that nearly caused her to stagger in bewilderment: Did she believe in God? It was a “big” question I wanted an answer to.
But now, here at her dining room table, with the smoke of her Pall Malls hanging like a curtain between us, I wondered something else: with all she was trying to pull off, did Sister Sara believe in herself?