The Gift of Listening
This week wouldn't be complete without a Halloween-inspired short story about a tarot card reader who could see everyone's future but her own.
“The Gift of Listening” is a short story by Rose Margaret Deniz, who lives in a Turkish village near the Aegean Sea. Like what you see? Then share the love, my darlings … Enjoy!
While Rona slept, an earthquake rattled a tiny distant shore on the Sea of Marmara 5,128 miles away from her pre-fab duplex in Connecticut. Down the hall, her dental hygienist neighbor resigned herself to divorcing her trucker husband on the grounds of desertion. On the news, Toyota reported its first annual loss since 1950. It was almost impossible to be both cheerful and clairvoyant at the same time.
Rona’s natural auburn hair was streaked with highlights from a home kit, and on her pillow in the morning, glossy strands stuck to her sheets and clothes. Reading the morning newspaper was redundant. She had dreamed about tornado destruction in the South and a 5-car pileup on I-91 the night before. She dreamed about Columbine and 9/11 for weeks before they happened, her premonitions giving her insomnia. The only thing that prevented Rona from staying buried under her cotton duvet was an extra-strong cup of coffee in her lucky psychic coffee mug that said,
Think Santa Claus knows if you’ve been naughty or nice? A P-S-Y-C-H-I-C (spelled out in bold letters and offset with sparkling stars and confetti) can read your mind day or night!
The mug, a Goodwill relic, made her laugh even though she was raised by atheist Jews. Rona pulled off the t-shirt she slept in, the one that said, My higher self wants to meet yours for a drink and rummaged for something she didn’t have to iron. Discarded cigarette butts lay twisted in a cut crystal ashtray on the bedside table. A stack of wire-bound half-filled notebooks on the floor chronicled amazing but true real-life stories her clients told her. Rona channeled her psychic abilities into late-night hotlines doing tarot readings. On the job, she called herself Thea and never revealed her real name.
For $2.99 a minute, Rona also did a natal chart and helped people like her ex-boyfriend Mike sort out their rising from their moon sign free of charge.
Mike had a taste for vintage wine and obscure bands. One night, unannounced, he lugged in a wooden wine crate full of mint LP’s. He pushed aside her candles and incense burners from a shelf on her bookcase and filled it with Star Wars figures.
Mike reminded her that he had no other place to go and draped his arm over her shoulder, suggesting she make the best of it.
Her skill failed when she applied it to herself, and no other clairvoyant that she’d turned to over the years had been able to help. They would frown and switch subjects when it came to her love life.
Rona sat on her bed and cried while Mike went to the corner store for snacks. When he returned with potato chips and beef jerky bought with her credit card, he placated her by reminding her he would be famous one day. According to what Rona had told him when they met at a poetry reading at Osiris Tarot, he was likely to secure a record deal. The day after they met, he bought an old van for his equipment. He slept in it at first but moved in with Rona by the end of the week. Dark psychic energy clung to her apartment until he drove away for good.
She had to protect herself. She skipped most of the psychic accoutrements: headscarves and clusters of quartz gemstones in a glass jar on her coffee table. Still, she did burn Nag Champa on a wooden incense holder. Its pungent odor made one corner of her bedroom smell like vanilla and spice. On her altar, she kept a collection of crystals and silk scarves. The most essential talisman of her job, though, was her ability to remember minute details about people she’d met or only talked to on the phone once. Favorite cafes. Dreamed about, but never realized, vacations to Italy. The name of a childhood pet hit by a car. The Mexican fast-food chain where an elementary school teacher from Oklahoma met her banker boyfriend for the first time. Rona never omitted the truth of what she saw, not even when she visualized a child stillborn after a long-awaited pregnancy, a devout wife discovering she was a lesbian, or a college grad being single for more than six months. She was good with words. She described her visions in a way a querent could understand and tapped into the heart of what people wanted – security, success, and reasonably good sex.
Rona had, since the tender age of 12, realized she had the gift of listening.
She was talked about her over dinner parties, in knitting circles, or on the phone with a best friend confessing they went to a psychic. Angry clients didn’t seem to hurt her business. In fact, fueled by their disbelief and fear, they gave her more customers. Sometimes people would admit they contacted her because they heard about the misfortune of someone else. They wanted to know if maybe she could tell them about their deceased mother or the value of their property in ten years.
It’s the first time I’ve ever called a psychic, they would say. I used a 25% off coupon.
“You can tell me your name if you want,” Rona would suggest with warmth to put them at ease. She liked to hear the intonation of their voice because it carried a hint at their successes and downfalls, even if it was a cover name. People trusted her because she had certification from the American Association of Professional Psychics. She offered them insight, a glimpse of who they might be and might become. She didn’t promise anything.
On a routine Talk-to-a-Real-Psychic hotline shift, Brian appeared in her life. After accepting all charges for his call, he nervously poked and prodded the conversation to life.
“Um, yeah, what can you tell me about my dad?”
Rona flicked over a tarot card. The ten of swords. An unhappy relationship. “You’re not close anymore, are you?”
“Not really,” Brian said. “He’s pretty sick right now.
She looked at her cards, the four of stones upside down. “Hmm, cancer, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, you’re right! He has prostate cancer.” He snorted with choked tears, or maybe it was laughter.
“Well, maybe you should consider calling him,” Rona suggested. “Seems like now would be a good time to patch things up,” she offered but then flipped over The Magician, reversed. Misused power. Imbalance. Rona waited for a second to see if Brian would respond.
“Brian, are you there?”
There was only static.
He called back six more times over the next week, each time glad to hear her voice.
He incessantly tapped a pencil in the background. On the seventh call, Rona considered blocking him. Something didn’t seem right. She pulled her own cards on him and drew a messenger card and the Tower, but no voice in her head explained why. He seemed harmless. After all, he was asking about work and switching to something outside of the health industry. Rona said it sounded like a good idea. Brian said he’d done a little research on psychics and was wondering if she had felt ostracized by her peers as a child. Did she sit alone at lunchtime? Did she hide in the library or tattoo ink drawings on her arm? Did she have a tattoo? Rona sidestepped the personal questions. Brian said they had a lot in common. Then he asked if he would make his rent this month. She confirmed.
On day eight, Brian asked about his love life. “Are there any ghosts from my past haunting me?”
Rona flipped through the channels of her TV on silent and drew the two of cups reversed from her tarot deck. “Just an ex. But she’s likely to be out of the picture soon.”
He started pestering her about her name. “Thea sounds like a made-up name.”
Rona rolled her eyes. Did he really think she’d use her real one? “I’m named after a figure in Greek mythology. My parents were historians.”
“How long have you been a psychic?”
“That’s like asking when was I born.” Rona toyed with her ponytail and refilled her glass of water, thinking ahead to her shift at Osiris Tarot.
“No, I mean, a professional psychic.”
“For a long time.”
His voice was ingratiating. He was paying by the minute, but she wanted to cut this short. “You can read about it on my website.”
“Thea, Thea,” Brian intoned. “Why the impatience? You call yourself a psychic, but I knew from day one you didn’t know who I was.”
Rona’s skin prickled.
“Thank you for your time,” she said quickly and hung up the phone, putting a block on his number in the system.
It was hard for a girl in the psychic industry to get a sincere date. Before Mike the musician, she was married briefly in her early 20’s. This was when she realized she could make money as a psychic. Nudged by her then-husband Brandon, she set up a website and added a private line. Brandon drank coffee out of a tiny metal thermos, was fond of Rona’s pierced tongue, and swore they knew each other from a former life. She divorced him because he came home blackout drunk once a week. The divorce was messy. He sent her messages. You are my Goddess forever. I’ll find you again. She changed her address and her phone number.
The last time he came home drunk, he broke his leg and walked on it home. He swore while he pissed all over himself that he knew the secrets to the universe. He held the keys to higher consciousness. Even then, on the verge of leaving him, she had waited for him to share.
Desperate not to be completely wrong about him, she whispered. “What is it, Brandon? What do we need to know?”
He passed out, and the secrets had to wait. She called an ambulance when she couldn’t rouse him and paid for it out of pocket. She felt no remorse for leaving him in the hospital. He was into dark magic and quoted Aleister Crowley. One night he carved what he called sweet symbols of love on her upper arms and thighs with his ritual knife. He broke the skin, and she still had faded scars.
Rona’s cell phone range as she ate cold chicken salad and flipped through a Crystals and Gemstones magazine on a lunch break. She recognized 603 as a local area code. Her stomach dropped when she heard Brian’s voice.
“How did you get my number?” she asked.
“I want to take you out for lunch.”
“You live in New Hampshire. That’s a little far for lunch,” she said quietly.
Brian laughed, and his accent changed to one that was more nasally. “Right! You’re always right, Rona. Actually, I live in New Haven now, just like you. But you’re allowed that one mistake. I was raised in New Hampshire. You know I didn’t lie about that.”
Rona’s heart thumped irregularly, which usually only happened when she was over-caffeinated or ate gluten. Why hadn’t she seen through that fake accent and caught that lazy, confident note in his voice until now?
“How do you know I live in New Haven, Brandon?” She hoped she sounded calm. Last she’d heard, he was in California teaching Dahn Yoga and conducting ESP experiments. Although she was casual about saying she was East Coast born-and-bred to her psychic callers, Rona did not give out details about where she lived. He could have found out from Osiris Tarot near Chapel Street, where she gave tarot readings in person. But she was known as Thea there, too. She had purposely never posted a photo of herself online or in the store. Among other spiritual accessories, Osiris Tarot sold slices of amethyst. They offered 15, 30, or 60-minute readings from three different people, including a distance-learning student of Wicca working towards a diploma.
“That’s a story to tell you over lunch,” Brian said.
Rona hung up the phone. He called back and left a message. “Let’s let go of the past. How about it?”
She blocked him again.
“I hate how my abilities fall short for myself.” Rona sighed as she explained the Brandon situation to her friend Gretchen at Open Eye New Age Books. “Once someone is close to me, my wiring gets fried.”
Gretchen grimaced. “I think he’s counting on that.”
Gretchen twisted the opal and silver rings on her fingers as she confessed she saw someone lurking around the occult section a few weeks ago. It wasn’t long after Rona had picked up her annual lunar calendar with space for jotting down astrological notes.
She served Rona a cinnamon-sprinkled latte and seasonal cookies from behind the coffee bar of the bookstore where she worked part-time. They had just celebrated their 15-year high school reunion. Brandon may have seen Rona talking to Gretchen while blowing the steam off her non-dairy cappuccino. Gretchen said she saw the same guy later paging through Scott Cunningham’s Wicca and Margo Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon.
“He left them lying on the floor. Terrible,” she said.
“How can we know that was him? Can we check security footage?” Rona asked. It could have been any awkward guy with a bad haircut, beer belly, and residual acne scars.
“He had a limp from that broken leg,” Gretchen nodded knowingly.
When Rona was married to Brandon, she questioned his sense of style and tried to change it. When he wasn’t on the job, promoted from live-in caretaker to 4-person hospice manager, he wore dress shirts with holes in the pits and baggy jeans. He “fixed” the shoes he wore to their wedding with duct tape.
“These boots are my babies. Eight years old. Haven’t worn another shoe since I bought them,” he told her.
On their first date leaving Denny’s, Brandon grabbed Rona’s hand, and his palm was clammy and chilled. When they got to her car, a battered turquoise Honda, he pulled her in around her waist just a little bit and planted a chaste kiss on her cheek.
“See you later,” Brandon said with a wave and walked to his truck. He gave her another wave as he pulled out of the parking lot and gestured, I’ll call you. His confidence that she wanted him to call made her curious.
By the time she got home, Brandon had left a message on her home phone. “I’m thinking of barbecuing tomorrow. Do you have a grill?”
After that, they spent every weekend grilling out when the weather was nice, pulling the grill under the awning of her first-floor apartment patio when it was cold. Rona wore gloves and Brandon’s oversized parka while she flipped burgers. Brandon sat inside on a recliner drinking Newcastle.
When they went home to meet her parents for the first time in Florida, Rona introduced Brandon as her boyfriend. Brandon corrected her and said, “fiancé,” while holding her hand. He grinned at Rona’s mom, tipsy on gin and tonic.
He got down on one knee and held out a red velvet box holding an engagement ring with an imitation diamond. Later, he insisted to Rona that no one could tell the difference. They both wore ivy headdresses and Rona a green dress she sewed herself. A few months later, Rona switched out the fake diamond for a green tourmaline gemstone ring.
Sometimes what Rona intuited about others came in the form of words. Other times a thought or a color would emerge, and from that, she saw glimpses of someone’s history. She explained it as a kind of translation, taking information and pairing it with the energy she felt from that person. Often her clients gave her almost everything she needed to know. She filled in the gaps and showed them their lives from a different point of view.
Not long after she blocked Brandon, she greeted Osiris Tarot shop owner Ariel Sharpe with a kiss and half-hug as she walked in the door. Ariel wore deep purple nail polish and an assortment of amethyst jewelry. With her wide skirts and hair swept up in a bun, Ariel appeared like a genuine clairvoyant compared to Rona. Still, Ariel couldn’t even predict who would get a parking ticket in front of the shop. Standing side by side, Rona looked like she should work retail, not supernatural.
Ariel beamed at her while delicately touching her shoulder, a move that created a kind of warm static electricity around her and soothed her. “There’s someone to see you in the reading room. He was waiting on the steps when I opened up.”
The front room was empty, but the energy in the room had a sharp, almost electric feel.
That morning, Rona had left her air conditioner on to clear out the humidity because the heat was starting to get stifling. She had wall-to-wall carpeting with Turkish rugs thrown casually over her living room floor and bedroom. She had new window treatments done last year. She used carefully placed mirrors and crystals for Feng Shui purposes and to keep out bad energy. What good had any of that done?
Brian or Brandon, she predicted without needing any psychic help, was waiting for her. In the twelve years since she’d left him, she had learned how to change the oil in her car and pay off credit card debt by consolidating her payments. She had secured a small legion of dutiful clients and created a sanctuary of her own with meaningful work.
Rona pulled her tarot cards out of her purse and the silk bag she kept them in. She shuffled. They wouldn’t fail her now. Whatever card she drew would tell her what to do. Ariel peered over her shoulder. Together, they looked at the card she pulled out.
In silence, Rona put it carefully back in the deck and faced the door.
(Farm-girl turned expat Rose Margaret Deniz lives in a Turkish village near the Aegean Sea, where she writes novels for adults and teens and brews up stories on creativity, yoga, and wellness for ARE Living.)