David Skibbins Eight of Swords David Skibbins
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Eight of Swords
Chapter One

Eight of Swords “Don'cha know baby, I'm the one you need. Don'cha, don'cha baby!” The ebony '89 Cadillac Coupe De Ville sported tinted windows, thick whitewalls and gold trim that sparkled in the early afternoon sun. Its bass speakers echoed down the street. My client looked up and lip-synched along with Pfat Gangsta'. She never heard me turn over the last card and say, “Oh, Jesus!”

Reading the Tarot is a gig I do on Friday afternoons and the weekends so that I don't have to say, “That blouse looks perfectly delightful on you!” My previous job was a two year stint on the floor of the Nordstrom's Correctional Facility. Working curbside on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue was a real change of pace. Scabby dogs pissed on the legs of my table. Schizophrenics, smelling like outhouses, hurled prophesies at me. I'd been hit with half-empty beer cans, bird droppings, and hailstones the diameter of quarters.

Still, it pays the bills. I can clear $100 on a sunny day. Most of the time I rattle off this fortune-telling jive without paying too much attention to what I'm saying. One reading blends into another. Clients don't care how articulate I am. They just want to know when they're going to win the lottery, or if they're going to get laid.

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I'd been working this corner for six years. Traffic noise, rap music, fire sirens, psychotic gibberish, nothing bothered me that much any more. What bothered me were this chick's cards. Sometimes the cards reach up and grab me by the throat. The cards in front of me were screaming that my client was heading straight for Armageddon.

She'd walked up to my table and said, “Hi. My name's Heather. My step-dad thinks you're all a bunch of charlatans and con artists.”

“Sit down, Heather, my name's Warren. Let's find out if he's right.”

She said, “I'm game, I hate the SOB anyway. How much does it cost?”

Heather was on a shopping trip, passing my table on her way to The Gap. She was maybe sixteen, slightly overweight, decked out in a suede mini and a taut gray tee shirt with “Girls Football Number 29” printed on it. The lettering matched the green of her skirt and the green of her eyes. Her forest-green knapsack and taupe fanny pack coordinated well with the rest of her outfit. Her short, brunette hair was loaded with mousse and spiked to look like Tank Girl. She was dressed for a manageable adventure.

Heather told me her mom was into “all that psychic shit” but it just wasn't her thing. She'd never used Tarot cards before. She'd sat down here for the fun of it. Fun? Not this reading.

She wanted to know about her boyfriend. I'd laid out the first set of four cards in a ten-card, figure eight relationship spread. The beginning of the reading was dull normal.

“The first card is the Knight of Pentacles. A shrewd man with a dark complexion is coming into your life.”

She giggled, nodded and said, “That's my boyfriend.”

Reading the Tarot is 90% observation and 10% inspiration. I already knew a lot about Miss Heather. I knew she was from out-of-town. She wasn't decked out in Berkeley grunge. Below the waist any Berkeley girl her age, rich or poor, will be dressed in ripped jeans and sneakers. She wasn't from San Francisco either. I knew that for two reasons; girls from The City don't come here to shop, and her miniskirt wasn't black.

It was a chilly noon on Telegraph. The fog had just burned off. But Miss H. was wearing Alice Roi wrap-up gladiator-style sandals, and her toes had dark green polish on them. Her mini looked fresh off the rack of some nouveau boutique. I'd deduced that she dressed this morning in a balmier climate. She was slumming it in Berkeley, a tourist from some upscale white suburb in Contra Costa County, the sunny nirvana on the other side of the hills.

She'd laughed at me when I called the person dark complexioned. Why? I guessed that he might be black. Another confirmation that she wasn't from around here. Interracial dating is commonplace in the politically correct East Bay. She wouldn't dare giggle. But it was still risqué and daring in the well-heeled boondocks.

A woman wants a reading about her boyfriend for two reasons — either to find out if he's cheating on her or to find out how devotedly he loves her. Heather looked cheery, so I picked door number two. Time to take a chance. If I was right, I'd look like a wizard. If I'm wrong, I'd improvise.

“In fact your boyfriend is black, and I can see from the next card, the Five of Wands that there is opposition from your parents about this new relationship.”

She was shocked and delighted. I had batted 1,000. “God, you're really good. Both my mom and my step-dad hate his guts. How did you do that?”

I tried to looked wise and mysterious. “And the fact that his card is next to the Page of Cups indicates that he is successful in the world but a bit naive in the ways of the heart.” What young man isn't? She nodded.

Then I laid out the next three cards and the reading went to Hell. One sinister Major Arcana card after another: The Tower, The Devil, The Hanged Man. It was clear to me that the Dark One had targeted her and was coming to get her. And I don't even believe in this New Age crap.

I got to the card representing her, the Eight of Swords. That's when I used God Jr.'s name in vain, just as the pimp-mobile with its fifty pound woofers went rapping past.

I placed that card in the center of the spread and I waited for her to look back at me. I looked hard into her lovely emerald eyes. Was she ready for this?

“You have a problem here,” I said. “You see this card? The whole spread revolves around it. Here, look at it.” I picked it up and handed her the Eight of Swords. It depicts a woman, bound and blindfolded, with eight long swords driven into the ground around her.

As she examined the card she said, “Creepy!”

“This is what faces you in your immediate future. And the long term outlook isn't much better, see.” She followed where I was pointing, and saw the Devil card; Lucifer was sitting on a throne that had a man and a woman chained to it. I went on, “This theme of being restrained, tied down and bound runs all through this spread. What do you think it means?”

Her brow wrinkled and she frowned. It didn't look like she was having a lark. Before she could respond I heard the opening notes of the Toccata and Fugue in G minor coming from her lap. “Shit, just a sec,” she said, zipped open her fanny pack and pulled out a stuffed animal that looked like a blue Eeyore. She flipped it over, punched a button, and held it to her ear. That's when I figured out it was a cutesy cell phone cover.

“Hi, Mom. Yeah, I'm fine. I'm in Berkeley. Hey, you should be happy, I'm getting my cards read. . . . Yes, I'm alone! Mom, give it a rest will you! . . . Sure, I'll be home by then. OK, later.” She turned off the donkey-phone and stuffed it back into her pouch.

“OK, where were we? Oh yeah, being tied down. I think it's about my step dad. He's a total control freak. He adopted me, and made me take his last name: Wellington. Gross! What a preppy name. And that was just the beginning. I had to sign a will, and then he registered the car that my real Dad left me in his name. He picks out the clothes he wants me to wear. He reviews my homework before I turn it in. And he's a fossil when it comes to dating. I mean, he believes in curfews. He waits at the door when I come home after a date, all ready with the inquisition. He is positively archival!”

I didn't think Dad's dating rules had anything to do with her oncoming cataclysm. It looked more like she was just about to get strapped down on the Amtrak railroad tracks and run over by the San Joaquin Express. But there's a limit to what I say to cute young clients. I wasn't going to call her a liar. I turned over the ninth card. Whew, light at the end of the tunnel. I decided to end her reading one card early.

“The last card in your spread is Strength. This is a powerful image of a Goddess gently opening the mouth of a lion. In terms of your relationship with your boyfriend I think it represents the reality that you have the upper hand with him, and you can call the shots. Am I right?”

She nodded. “I know, he's so sweet. Not like my last boyfriend. Curtis always wants to know what I want. I think he's the nicest guy I've ever known. But you're right, he does follow my lead, thank goodness!”

I went on, “This card also stands for the strength you have inside you: strength you'll need to face everything that will be coming your way.” I picked up one of my address labels and pasted it on the bottom of the Eight of Swords card. This was a marketing trick I learned years ago. I used it to end all my sessions.

I told Heather, “Here, I want you to take this card with you, and know that whatever befalls you, it will ultimately turn out all right. My phone number and e-mail is on the label on the bottom of the card. Contact me if you want to set up a private Tarot session in a few weeks to find out more about how these patterns are about to play themselves…”

A sharp blast of a horn interrupted me. “Hey Heather Feather, how do you like your Mister Chocolate Sundae Motherfucker?” A tall chunky white guy in his mid-twenties was hanging out of the window of a silver Pontiac Grand Am. He was wearing a blue bandanna and a tee with sleeves cut off and a picture of a rabid rodent holding an AK47 on it. A gangster wantabe.

Heather looked up, and then said, “Shit!” under her breath. She never broke eye contact from the jerk yelling at her while she whispered to me, “Speak of the devil. That's Hal, my ex.” Then she stood up and gave him the finger. Go Tank Girl.

The cretin yelled back, “Yeah, well fuck you, too. You going to fuck this old fortuneteller? You fuck everything else that wears pants.” I could see why he was an ex-boyfriend.

I was just about act like a real jerk back at him when the light turned green and he sped off, laying rubber and waving his outstretched middle finger at both of us. Heather sighed. “You know sometimes it feels like he's stalking me. He comes by and dumps shit on me at the weirdest times. He lives in Concord. What's he doing here?”

I said, “I wish he'd been on foot. I'd have enjoyed teaching him a few things about proper manners towards women and his elders.”

“Not a good idea, Warren. He's really mean, and the gang he runs with is worse. Stay away from him. Thanks for the reading.” She took my card, stuck it in her backpack, tossed a twenty on the table and hurried off.

I opened my backpack and riffled through the big pile of cards I had with me until I found another Eight of Swords. I slipped it into the deck on the table. I carried around about a dozen loose packs of Tarot cards with me. It always impressed clients when I did the “Give them the card” trick. I had snagged a lot of private sessions that way.

But I doubted that I'd ever see Heather again. That reading had been too heavy for her. Out of curiosity I turned over the last card in her spread, the one I had avoided looking at while she was there. There was a skull looking out of the helmet of his black armor, riding his chalky horse right towards Heather Wellington.

There's a coldness that descends in the presence of Death. No one wants to be around it. We move away, avert our glance, occupy ourselves somewhere else. In Medieval times people were more direct. They held up crucifixes, genuflected, or made their fingers into the shape of the cross to ward off the Reaper. At least these gestures gave them something to do beside shiver and feel sick.

I wanted to pretend that I didn't know what was slouching towards Heather. After all, there was nothing I could do about it. Right?

© David Skibbins

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