by Anne Leigh Parrish
The crystals in the window would have thrown a rainbow in the sun. The sun wasn’t out, though. It was winter, and the world was gray. The woman was gray, too, not just her hair, but her suit, whose only decoration was a small pin in the shape of a seahorse angled on her right lapel. She didn’t go by Madame Zolara or any sort of exotic name that conjured an intimacy with the spirits, but by Gwen. Psychic Gwen. Painted in gold loopy letters across the dusty glass door.
Emily was there for research. She was writing a book on sooth sayers, visionaries, and fortune tellers, women with a gift, women beyond the mainstream and how they had been perceived – and treated – over time. She’d done enough reading, and needed a primary source, so had driven up South Hill in the snow, struggling to find the right address among the storefronts whose numbers had faded or disappeared.
Psychic Gwen gestured to a folding metal chair by a small, round table. Emily sat down, and then Psychic Gwen took the chair opposite her. Emily didn’t know what to do next. The last time she had interviewed anyone was back in high school, when she’d worked for local newspaper as an intern. The person they matched her up with was a local politician, a Second Ward alderman, a crusty old Irish Catholic who talked about “bad elements” moving to Dunston, and then offered her a cigarette.
After a moment, while Psychic Gwen held Emily’s gaze in a way that made Emily uneasy, she said, “There are some things I’d like to ask you.” It was a short list: When did you first suspect that you were psychic? Did you tell anyone? If so, what was the reaction? Psychic Gwen reached across the red velvet tablecloth and took Emily’s hand. She gazed into the palm which had suddenly dampened with sweat, then turned it a little towards the only source of light in the room, a small lamp on top of a large and very dusty roll-top desk.
“You will live a long life,” Psychic Gwen said. “Much of it alone, but not all.” She peered more closely. “You will not have children, yet there was a child once.”
At twenty-two Emily had had an abortion. Her boyfriend was in love with someone else, needing Emily for comfort until his true love opened her heart. Emily never told him about the baby. She never told anyone.
Emily reclaimed her hand.
“Please. There are things I must ask,” she said.
Psychic Gwen took out a deck of Tarot cards from a drawer on her side of the table. She spread them out, face down, with the skill of Las Vegas dealer.
“The cards hold all your answers. Point to one,” Psychic Gwen said.
Emily sighed. This was a bad idea, she now saw. She pointed to a card.
“The Chariot,” Psychic Gwen said. “This means you desire to exert control and find it difficult to do so. Now, choose again.”
Emily pointed to a second card.
“The Hanged Man. You want to let something go, change direction, reverse your fortune. These cards are in opposition, as are you, torn between two objectives, unsure of the outcome. The third card will decide your fate.”
Emily’s third choice was the Ten of Swords. “You feel like a victim, on the receiving end of another’s folly. You have put this person’s welfare above your own.”
Psychic Gwen put the cards back in the drawer, and told Emily she had a stain on her soul.
“You have carried it there a long time. Yet one day, you may wash it clean.”
Emily gave up on the questions she’d prepared, and handed Gwen the twenty dollar bill she’d been asked to pay when she made the appointment on the phone, refused a receipt, and rose to go.
“I will see you again,” Psychic Gwen said. At those rates, Emily didn’t think that likely.
The snow fell harder. What had taken over thirty minutes to get to Psychic Gwen’s became over and hour to return home – to the house she had taken possession of from her mother and father when they moved to Arizona. They hoped to put it on the market within the year, and counted on Emily to supervise the sale. She lived there rent-free, because at the time the arrangement was made, she was in school, plugging away on her doctoral thesis. Her parents assumed she still was. Emily had withdrawn from the university the previous autumn after the man she was having an affair with went back to his wife. At that point, school became too much.
She kept on with the project though, the book. Several weeks after seeing Gwen, she changed tack. Psychics were interesting (and unnerving, she had learned) but she wanted a wider subject, to emphasize current thinking about aberrant behavior, and then say how society had changed its mind over time about why people did what they did. Witches were just people who didn’t fit in, didn’t do what the world expected of them, lived outside the mainstream. Today those witches would be labeled with low self-esteem, or attention deficit disorder, be obsessive-compulsive, have an addictive personality, have repressed memories only the most skilled therapist could uncover. People weren’t evil anymore, they were afflicted, subject to cure given the right tools, the right environment, a guiding hand.
Emily explained this to her friend Lisa over a shared six-pack of beer, imprudently consumed on an empty stomach.
“You know why you’re so into this, right?” Lisa asked.
“Because I want to know about the human psyche. The soul.”
“No one knows anything about the soul. Except when it hurts.”
“Or has a stain.”
Lisa stared at Emily, then burped with the gusto of a seasoned drinker.
“The psychic told me my soul has a stain,” Emily said.
“Yeah, and its name is Melissa.”
Emily’s sister wasn’t exactly a stain, Emily thought, though she’d definitely left her mark on the members of her family.
Two days later Melissa showed up in the middle of the night from Boston, carrying all her possessions in one large backpack. Things had dried up on her there. Her contacts had moved on, and with one arrest for possession four years before, she didn’t want to chance anyone new, some zealous undercover cop, maybe, out to climb the departmental ladder. So she came home. She hadn’t been back two days when the calls started. Old friends, deadbeats wanting to hook up and get high, people she hadn’t seen in years showed up at all hours, woozy and smiling, or sullen, strung out, wanting to sleep on the couch.
Emily stayed out of their way. She was raised on tip-toeing around. Also on the theory of redemption. One morning, when Melissa got up before noon, Emily asked “What about What’s-his-name? Tom? Why don’t you give him a call?”
“No fucking way.”
Tom was someone Melissa had slept with on and off for years. He’d already offered her a bed at his place, but Melissa knew better. He had a bad habit of trying to rehabilitate her. He didn’t give her money, because he’d done that before, money for food and some classes at the community college that she put up her nose. Staying with him meant a lecture on free will and right choices, all the bullshit she’d heard forever.
As if sensing her return, their parents called one night. She was out again, and Emily was free to fill them in. They made nice noises. That must be hard for you, and you’re so good to help out. The baton had been passed. Melissa couldn’t be abandoned. They just couldn’t turn their backs. A hand had always been extended, and also would be. They sent money. Emily took her share above living expenses. She was building a little bank account. As for the rest, Melissa would need new clothes – nothing expensive, just basic, practical. Jeans, shoes, underwear. Their mother was keen on new underwear. Emily would do the buying. Melissa was not to be trusted with cash. Or valuables, either, for that matter. Two years before, Melissa had pawned their grandmother’s diamond brooch. The five thousand dollars kept her and her most recent boyfriend in pot and booze for six days in a Vegas hotel suite. Their mother’s face stayed hard for a month. Their father retreated behind the closed door of his study. The time for threats and rebukes had ended years earlier, after Melissa’s second arrest for drunken driving.
The judge assigned her to substance abuse counseling. The sessions often involved a group. Melissa made friends easily with anyone who bought her a drink afterwards. Her parents put her in therapy, first with an older woman who lived on a farm and raised goats. She felt Melissa was responding to an unspecified childhood trauma. Then they sent her to a younger man who wore sweaters and pressed pants. Melissa tried to pull his heart-string. She wept through several sessions. He prescribed anti-depressants. She said she’d prefer Vicadin. He refused. She offered him oral sex. Again, he refused. She threatened to say he was the one who’d propositioned her. He gave her the prescription, and told her never to come back. After that, the help of outsiders was no longer sought.
On a gray, freezing Tuesday, Emily awoke with a taste of doom. The silence of the world was both final, and fatal. Her mind’s eye gave a scene of total destruction. She had had these dreams before. The lone survivor. The keeper of the truth.
And there he was on the couch, snoring. A man she didn’t know. Her gentle nudge didn’t rouse him. Her hard slap did.
“What the fuck?” he asked. He’d brought his dog, a leggy mutt with a bald patch who’d shit everywhere, then dug up Emily’s rubber tree plant.
“Out,” Emily said.
“She said she lived alone, man. Who the fuck are you?”
He sat up. His eyes came into focus. “Yeah, right,” he said.
Emily raised her hand once more.
“Jesus. You got any coffee?”
Emily gave him five dollars from her purse, took his backpack, and tossed it out the front door. The dog ran after it, and peed liberally on the first bush it came to.
Afterwards she banged on Melissa’s door until she answered. Melissa emerged. Her face was puffy, and her breath stank. She looked at the mess and nodded. Emily dressed, and escaped.
She thought of walking by the lake, but the wind was bitter. She went to a coffee shop and sat a long time. Melissa wasn’t bad. She was just weak. As a child, Melissa could never resist temptation. She opened Christmas gifts early. She ate treats saved for guests. Emily, two years older, tried to correct her. They often fought. One time was particularly harsh. Their grandmother died suddenly when Melissa was six and Emily eight. Melissa said she knew it had happened when the phone call came. The grandmother was healthy and strong. They’d seen her only a week before. Her death shocked them. But not Melissa, who swore she sensed it as her grandmother kissed her good-bye and went down the walk to her car. Emily said Melisa didn’t know anything, that she invented the whole thing.
She went home. The house was clean. There was a vase of white carnations on the kitchen table, her favorite winter flower, and a card with a picture of a kitten and Melissa’s words, To new beginnings.
Melissa came home late, drunk, eyes dilated, stinking of cigarette smoke and sex. Her attempt to move silently through the house was foiled by breaking a glass in the kitchen. Since she had removed her shoes trying not to make noise, the shards had cut the bottom of one foot, right through the thin socks she wore. Emily found her sitting on the floor, looking at her bloody sole, sobbing.
Emily helped her to bed. She thought the scope of her research had to include normal people affected by the spiritually lost.We are like the light they fly to, she wrote in her notebook, then crossed it out.
Two days later Melissa forgot her key and banged on the door well after midnight. Emily was still up, trying to organize her thoughts. She’d resurrected the light idea. We are the beacon that guides them home. When Emily didn’t answer, Melissa stood in the yard and shouted. Then she threw small pebbles at Emily’s bedroom window. Emily peered through the crack in the curtains. Melissa had no coat. Emily sat another minute. She’d have to confirm if her theory were historically accurate. Had the visionaries had stable companions around them, people who helped them along? The idea of more research was both thrilling and tiresome. Emily was a good researcher, though. Of that she was sure.
When she opened the front door, Melissa said, “You hate me.”
“Only the things you do.”
Melissa went to bed. Emily realized that her book still lacked the proper focus, and would never grab anyone’s attention. The next day, she put her work away in a drawer, and left it there.
Spring came. The trees filled the blank spaces of winter sky with tiny soft buds, and the air, still cool, was lovely and fresh. Melissa went to Florida with a college student she’d met in a bar, and Emily had the place to herself.
Her parents called again. They said there was no point in doing anything with the house while Melissa was still there. Emily was relieved. They asked how her work was going. She said it was coming along nicely.
Melissa returned. She was tanned and sober. She had new clothes. The college student seemed to have a little money. She didn’t mention him, or say much of her time away. She wanted to make dinner for Emily. Emily didn’t like the idea, but she consented. Melissa was a decent cook, when she put her mind to it. She’d once talked of making a career in the kitchen, attending cooking school, even having her own restaurant one day. She asked Emily for thirty dollars to buy groceries with. Emily said she should make a list, and she’d shop, herself. Melissa said she didn’t know what she was going to make, yet. She’d take her inspiration from what looked good at the store. Emily hesitated. Melissa got upset.
“You don’t trust me,” she said.
“No, it’s not that, it’s just . . .”
“I know, I know. Can’t you see I’ve changed, though?”
She did look different, Emily had to admit. She was clean and neat. Even her nails were free of dirt.
At seven-thirty that evening, Emily sat alone with a glass of wine. Melissa had been gone for hours. She hadn’t called. Emily actually believed she would call. She hated herself for that.
The next morning Melissa returned. She wasn’t clean or neat. Her jacket was stained with mud, and her hair, tidy and clipped the day before, hung in her face. She’d been crying.
Emily sat her down, and gave her a cup of coffee.
“He threw me out,” Melissa said.
“The college kid?”
Melissa nodded. “He said his parents were coming up from the city, and I couldn’t be there. He didn’t want them to meet me.”
“Did you want to?”
“It’s just the principal of the thing, right?” Emily said.
Again, Melissa shrugged, but Emily knew she’d hit a nerve. Even Melissa, with all the harm she did others, didn’t want to feel like a low life who wasn’t good enough to meet someone’s family.
“You can’t expect people to treat you better than you act,” Emily said.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“You make bad choices. People get tired of it, and they move on.”
“Yeah? Well, fuck them.”
“Easy to say.”
Melissa hung her head. She was still drunk, Emily could tell.
She looked around the dining room where they were sitting. The wallpaper had a pattern of daisies and bluebells. It was old, outdated, and ugly.
Melissa sneezed. “I think I’m getting sick,” she said.
Emily put her hand on her forehead. “You feel warm. Go take a shower and get into bed.”
“Is there any wine in the house?”
“It’s ten-thirty in the morning.”
“Tell my head that.”
Emily got her a glass of wine. Melissa’s mood got better. She became expansive. She made fun of the college boy, said he was pudgy, and too fast in bed. Emily laughed. Melissa’s charm had always been like a crystal, throwing light here and there. Sometimes it fell on you, and you were a little brighter for a while, too.
Melissa showered, got into her pajamas, and let Emily tuck her in. She was soon asleep. Emily took the manuscript she’d hidden in her desk drawer, tossed into the fireplace, and lit it. A lot of her life turned to ash as she sat and watched. Maybe that’s what she was best at – sitting and watching. It didn’t really matter. There were no visionaries, or special spirits, or gifted hearts. Only people who broke the rules. And others who covered their nakedness, kept them safe, and loved them so blindly that they never grew up or improved in any way.