Not in the Cards
How do you revisit your life some twenty years in the past without wondering who you were, how you could have been a person so small, so large, so stupid or precocious? What you could have told that person if you could have seen ahead, and maybe you could have, but the real impossibility is visiting the person left behind. Did you think you would always be so broke, so handsome, so successful, or not as jaded? Did you have coherent thoughts, in particular when your body was telegraphing messages back then: be a man, be a woman, girls, girls, boys, boys?
Twenty or so years ago, when I was still scrounging at home, I visited a medium. The “psychic” operated one of those tawdry roadside palmistry stations. Remember? They used to dot the Old South. They may have become bygones. Relics. I have two definitive, remnant impressions—I must have been in a severe pit of depression; secondly, “Madame Hand” looked like living death.
Thin. Unhealthy. Don’t say gaunt. Don’t downplay the kind of gaunt that made you see a holocaust victim in the back of your mind. I can’t put a finger on exactly why she was nasty. How come these people are always still wearing robes at midday? She was a skeleton in soiled lingerie. I heard her coughing before she answered the door; the cubicle I entered smelled like cat litter. Memory remains heavy with the smell of transience. It must have been picked up from the many desperate losers passing through, including myself. The chair was stained. Nasty viruses licked the skin of every new dupe.
Remember how the kids used to talk? I felt like backing away. But I felt a rise too. The passion for an old crone. Like Madame Hand. Like Marlene Dietrich. For a musty crone. Nasty metaphors. A rise in my Levi’s. Lust. Like a hiccup.
I blushed. Feeling something sexual left me pathetically embarrassed. In reality, it was how I responded to Madame Hand’s skinny titties. The Old South was lined with strip joints. Yankees called them Red Light Districts (like the Old South’s classic Jim Crow neighborhood but in this case, sections of town were segregated for the propagation of sleaze); they may be bygone, yet back in the day, in every club on every street corner you could find strippers going sickly and toothless like emblems of the wages of the flesh. The “professional erotic dancers” were rarely fleshy and nubile. They were skinny bitches, in droves, wearing pasties and shimmering beneath lurid lights. No wonder I responded to Madame Hand’s emaciated decadence. No wonder I felt nervously susceptible to a thinly-dressed hag’s seductions. I had lived in the South too long. I had become a loser. A John.
The strip joints’ gaudy neon signs competed back to back. None fancier than any other. The psychic parlors—like Madame Hand’s—were usually located just a bit further out of town. Nondescript. Little more than roadside boxes. They were indicated by the crude naiveté of the exterior signs, usually little more than chalk outlines displaying astrological symbols, lines as thin as blood veins. The two institutions hardly competed with each other; but I deeply believed they belonged together. They were both perversities.
The titty bars reinforced the message of the Old South: live today and die tomorrow, ignore social ills and philosophical conundrums. Chase girls. Chase drunkenness. The psychic parlors were necessary to provide hope, or appease your frustration if you couldn’t live that way. I couldn’t.
Remember? How insatiable youth was? How coarse life was? I suffered under a boot heel. It was as natural then as it is today to have sexual appetites, but still. It was an expectation back in the day that “boys” (which meant young men) had to spend the weekends “chasing pussy.” It was presumably available and hey, frankly, maybe the college girls were easy (if they believed you had future prospects) but I was such a failure at the game that I spent long weekends wondering why, why, why, and even when I met a sweetheart who was nonjudgmental and paired up for a while later that night, she frowned and I ended up stumbling over my shoes and wondering why, why, why, but maybe the problem was that I dated so few because I was penniless and I scrounged off my parents, and I spent the little that I earned ogling old broads at titty clubs who were less picky, whose clothes were scant (and in the short run dropped their drawers) so like the way Madame Hand’s flimsy throw-over emphasized her cleavage and I couldn’t look away from her dry jugs and parched buds. She didn’t bother to smile. (Marlene Dietrich-style.) She asked me what I most wanted while touching the cards. I started to plead (but stopped myself), help me get laid.
I had begun noticing the prevalence of psychic parlors when I took Sunday drives, recuperating from Saturday night frustrations. I was nearly nineteen, after all. I was sick of the tasteless charms of the Old South. I needed something in my life other than the cheesy décor of strip joints named Club Tahiti or Downtown Lounge. Remember? Back in the day, slightly beyond city limits, the I-95 highway was lined with clairvoyant stations and road signs. A promise was planted in my mind by a sign that read Unlock the key to love and life.
I paid the decrepit Madame Hand two visits. My first visit occurred after deliberating for several weeks. Whether I should take a risk on a clairvoyant. What choices. My lonely days culminated in my weak knock beneath the sign. Unlock the key to love and life was an ironic temptation from the vantage point of a frustrated virgin. My entry. My tremors.
Madame Hand stayed impassive. But her sultry, deathly pallor still overwhelmed me. She finally offered the slightest smile, a grimace marginally proposing try your luck. I didn’t know what to say. But I don't know that the simple truth would be that I solely wanted a sex partner, a girlfriend. I let the details remain vague. I was like everyone else. I was a normal customer. I asked for happiness, success and help. What kind of help? Help at work? Help at finding a partner? How much will you be willing to pay? I bristled but wagged my head like a puppy. I supposed I most wanted to communicate with others. With who? Friends? Family? Madame Hand frowned. Puzzled. But at that point she sensed my enthusiasm. My raised expectations. I believe she tasted blood. Through the blur of years, I just remember that before she spoke, she methodically tapped the cards. They were like her instrument. She stroked the cards with her fingers; she tapped them like her ritual timpani drums. The light from the window barely penetrated the interior. I couldn’t see the cards. But she laid them out. And she played me.
I knew within an instant that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. I assumed the tarot deck spoke a language of symbols. Of course. Health. Home. Work. Love. I assumed. I have trouble remembering how drastic my days were, back in the Old South, or if certain horrific conversations necessarily happened. Madame Hand may have said, Do you really want to know? I may have nodded, so she, in effect, tricked me into asking for my humiliation. The seminal, if not the first words out of her mouth were No No No No.
The gaunt, skeletal bitch! Then she began speaking very swiftly. Like a madwoman. Cackling. No No No in response to all my hopes, however putrid and adolescent. I left less than twenty minutes later, feeling overwhelmed. I stepped into the blur of afternoon sunlight (it was still bright despite how little of it penetrated the parlor) feeling like the rays of sunlight were cracks in a bright mirror. I noticed the interplay of shadow and sun; they created fissures. It was a small relief to be out of the dank parlor, but the withered crone’s blather still echoed. I had asked what was in the cards. Madame Hand pulled The Tower. I had known little about palmistry before I entered; I left knowing that The Tower represented failure and dysfunction. No No No No. And the remainder of the reading left me shattered. And the narrative behind the cards implied scant hope. New beginnings. Not in the cards.
Often prattling, Madame Hand (still with reasonable accuracy) described my “sexual inefficiency” or “my little problem.” Madame Hand had several hands. In fact, she was a Hydralike mythological beast with innumerable tentacles reaching across an emotional gulf and enveloping me, leaving me less than a man. She asked with a look of serious concern how much I was willing to pay to her “to meditate.” My “problem with the ladies” was likely intractable. Psychic meditation, however, could alleviate its ramifications. Love. Companionship. Success. Not in the cards.
I stumbled home. I stared at the ceiling. No sleep. I had no dreams. I despised the South while my eyes stayed open, but as soon as I closed them I despised myself. I wandered past my parents’ room, hid in the bathroom, played with a razor and briefly contemplated closure. Madame Hand’s card tricks doubtlessly included death, as well as love. I pictured her cold, wizened hands. Looking back, I can spot a scam.
I wish I could reach back through time to comfort myself. I wouldn’t criticize myself at all. I would simply put a hand on my shoulder. I would tell myself what I know regarding the future. In life, despite the reading, I made a go at reshuffling the deck. I escaped the South—in terms of time, distance and livelihood—and within five years after the reading that promised not in the cards, not in the cards, I married. The second year of marriage saw us leave my provincial hometown; I couldn’t have been happier. Nothing is fated; prophesy is foreshadowing. The person I was has blurred into the person I am. Change unpredictably happens. I have no idea how it happens. Twenty years have passed.
The sign reading Unlock the key to love and life is gone. The titty bars have gone; the Old South is gone. Gone. Its decadence stinks—it may stink for a long time—but inevitably a breeze takes it. I doubt it ever produced an ideal spring. Before I took charge over my life and left, I visited Madame Hand again. It was on a Sunday morning. I was still hurt. Sometimes, on weekends, I was enraged. I believed I was a eunuch. I knocked beneath the sign; its irony was unbearably belittling. I have no idea if she recognized me. I raised a fist. I heard a swish—her robes entangling with her collapsing body—and a thud. Then I shut the door.
darryl lorenzo wellington
is a poet, playwright, performance artist, essayist, journalist and syndicated columnist whose articles on poverty, race relations, civil rights, Southern history and African American history have appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic, Dissent, The Washington Post, New Politics, Crisis (The NAACP magazine), Huffington Post, N+1, Talk Poverty, and The Guardian. His chapbook Life’s Prisoners is the recipient of the 2017 Turtle Island Quarterly poetry chapbook award.