Five minutes into my first appointment of the day, I’m explaining to Evelyn Markoff that her dead husband’s ghost is telling me something about airplanes.
Her breath catches in her throat, her eyes darting away from mine like she's a child caught in a lie. This is the effect the power of Victor the Amazing frequently has on the emotionally troubled. Her husband gave flight lessons on the weekends before his Cessna took a dive last week. I know this because I read the newspaper obituaries over breakfast every morning. That’s all it takes. Add some leading questions, some interpreting of body language and you’ve got yourself a marketable supernatural experience.
She starts crying, which makes me want to take a smoke break. Also, I’m afraid that she’ll drip her running mascara on the blue tablecloth, and the cleaning cost will probably come out of my paycheck. Lilac may be a new-age hippie type, but she’s still my boss, and like all bosses what she really cares about is the value of a hard-earned dollar.
“He loved planes, you know,” Evelyn says, wiping a tear away with the back of her shaking hand. “He said if he could die any way, it’d be in the sky, as free as a bird, as close to heaven as a man can get.” She reaches into her purse, producing a small set of pilot’s wings, their polished silver surface glinting in the flickering orange candlelight. “I want you to take these. Keep them in this room, so he’ll have them nearby.” I nod solemnly, take them, and place them on the shelf behind me right next to pile of plastic human skulls. The wings are a new addition to the sparsely decorated Spirit Room, something that the aura of the place will have to assimilate over time.
I want to tell her that airplanes are not metaphors, that they are intricate contrivances hewn from steel and iron, machines wrought in the great furnaces of high industry. I want to point out to her that planes are enormously heavy. I want to ask her if she can think of anything less likely to fly.
Instead, I clasp her hands in mine, offer a sympathetic smile, and remind her to pick up some incense or perhaps a scented votive candle from the gift shop on her way out.
Evelyn is still weeping when she leaves, so I follow her out of the Spirit Room and into the main shop a few minutes later, hoping that Lilac will have seen her emotional exit and taken it as a sign that I have definitely just scored us another regular visitor. Lilac Birchwood’s actual name is Jennifer Thompson, which she thinks I don’t know. Bills frequently arrive to The Wistful Glade addressed to her, but I pretend not to see them because Lilac values her mystical image and I value continuing to have a job. Lilac's flowing blouses and hand-made broom skirts do nothing to improve her sub-par looks or to combat the unfortunate fact that she looks as if she lives in a cardboard box. She believes that her name was given to her in a dream by Epona, a Celtic horse goddess, and that acknowledging the former existence of her secular name disrupts the flow of her spiritual energy. We used to have a cashier, Eric, who once called her “Jenn.” Lilac picked up an astral gemstone from the pile she was sorting on a table near the door and threw it across the room. It hit him in the forehead. She really did that. She told me later that she performed a healing ritual involving mint oil and a color-copy of the photo he’d attached to his resume when applying, but apparently something didn’t quite work out – Eric never showed up for work again. Still, it was a sweet attempt at fixing things on her part. So, now it’s just me and Lilac. Lilac is mostly a force for good, but sometimes when she gets angry I see her eyeing that same pile of gemstones and looking at me like, come on, give me a reason.
Instead of congratulating me on a job well done, however, Lilac looks up from a fantasy novel and after a moment says: “Victor, your robe has a cigarette burn near the collar. You owe me ten dollars, kiddo.” I go to the mirror in the bathroom and confirm that she is correct. We can order packages of robes wholesale since The Wistful Glade is an occult-centered bookstore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cost money. The cheap faux silk of the robes seems to attract stray embers like a magnet. All of the robes we order are blue, because Lilac says that blue is the most mysterious color and also because it complements my eyes. Despite being nineteen years old, wearing a robe makes me look like I’m fifteen, which is also a good thing. The younger the psychic reader appears, the more apt people are to trust them. It’s an innocence thing. I still carry around the awkward lankiness of a pubescent high school kid whose growth spurt never really came to fruition. At least it's a selling point.
The bathroom is painted purple with little yellow glow-in-the-dark stars hanging from the ceiling by wires, and above the mirror there’s this framed poster of a little nymph with a speech bubble that says: “A day without fairies is like a day without sunshine.” I sold Lilac this poster as a part of a fundraising drive for a new basketball gym during my senior year of high school. Convinced that I was a cunning salesman, she hired me the following summer on my eighteenth birthday, after I’d moved out of my family’s house and just before I’d decided to fake supernatural powers. Always a peripheral member of any given social group, I quietly bided my time in high school, eagerly anticipating the day I could set out alone.
I am convinced that some of us are simply better off alone. I don't think there's anything tragic about it.
I walk back into the main lobby, slap a ten dollar bill onto the table in front of Lilac, and then go back into the Spirit Room so I can start up the Mist of Dreams fog machine before my 11:30 appointment shows up.
I immediately recognize my 11:30 appointment for what he is: a usurper. A doubter. I instantly suspect from the arrogant gleam in his eye that he’s a college psychology student or a habitual skeptic or something equally irritating. He says his name is Jacob. He’s wearing a collared shirt tucked into khaki pants, and when he leans across the table to offer his hand I don’t bother shaking it. “In this ethereal sanctuary, we do away with mundane human formalities,” I tell him, and that seems to shut him up for a second.
“Well, okay then,” he says. “So, are you going to read tarot cards or look at my palm or something?” He cracks this amused little smile, eyes wandering around the room, and for just a brief moment I find myself wishing I had a handful of astral gemstones or channeling crystals or at least the guts to tell him to fuck off.
“Typically, I specialize in channeling the dead.”
I do my best to lower my voice a bit, narrowing my eyes to convey the maximum amount of seriousness. Despite my striking state of serenity, the client needs to feel like they’re peeking into the esoteric, the dangerous, the unfathomable. Jacob seems unimpressed.
“What exactly does that entail?”
“I try to get in touch with a deceased individual and you get to ask them questions.”
“What would the point of that be?”
“They’re on the astral plane. No longer living. They’re privy to certain knowledge that we’re not, since we’re still alive.”
Jacob leans back in his chair, considering this point. He folds his arms over his chest and shrugs.
“And how come you can talk to the dead?”
Now we’re treading on familiar territory, and I lapse into my normal patter: “My full name is Victor Malossini. My mother was a Romanian gypsy who traveled into Italy, dancing for men wherever they stopped. She met my father, Antony, this way. The occult is a powerful part of gypsy culture, Jacob, and since my mother could channel, so can I.”
None of this is true, of course. My mother’s name is Marie, and she currently resides with my father in upstate New York.
“And what if I don’t buy that?” he asks.
“Well, you did. You paid 25 dollars to enter the Spirit Room. No refunds. I can’t channel for people with closed minds. It disrupts the entire process.”
Jacob leans forward, resting one elbow on the edge of the table. "Convenient, isn't it? It seems to me that what you're doing is taking advantage of people who are hurting or searching for an answer. That's sick."
Insulted, I look him in the eye, trying to project some negative, hateful energy. It doesn’t seem to be working, so I tell him, “I hope getting this off of your chest has been worth the appointment fee.”
Standing up, he scoffs. “So then, give me my money’s worth. Can you produce for me any tangible evidence of your abilities? Can you offer me even one tiny fragment of proof that there is any truth to what you do or say?”
After a moment's silence, I ask him: "Can you?"
I take the rest of the day off, telling Lilac I’ve got to go home and recuperate after a vicious attack on my psyche. She tells me to look out for my spiritual well-being and agrees that it’s best to decompress after someone tries to sabotage your life’s work. I tell her she’s a good boss and that Eric doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Sitting on the balcony of my apartment, I light a cigarette in the moonlight, its dull orange glow illuminating my face with each inhale. Smoke curls upwards in dizzying wisps, crawling towards the sky like the spirits I claim to believe in. In this quiet hour of the evening, I hear in my head the stories I’ve been told about the fictions I’ve channeled, the greatest hits of calamity. I’ve listened to desperate questions that deserve divine answers. There was Jane, who was convinced that her husband was cheating on her and wished to consult her father. There was Ted, the college student, asking his mother why she left him in a foster home. There was Stephen, the twenty-something with terminal cancer, begging his grandfather to tell him what it’s like to die. And there was Evelyn, who just wanted to say goodbye. When you play the role of supernatural confidant long enough, you see how worry seeps into lives through the cracks caused by doubt, see the cracks grow more pronounced with each day of constant gnawing, and you just know that these people are going to fold, one by one. I figure out what they want to hear, and I tell it to them.
If you get right down to it, they lie to themselves as much as I lie to them.
A few minutes later, as I’m crawling into bed, I feel for the first time a lingering sense of guilt. I think briefly about quitting my job, then remind myself that lying is the only marketable skill that I have. I fall asleep thinking about ghosts, wondering if life on the astral plane is lonely, wondering if spirits have secrets and if they need someone to tell them to.
The next morning, as I’m walking from the parking lot towards The Wistful Glade, I see people holding signs. There are about ten of them, and they’re waving their signs up and down at passing cars. One of the signs says, “SPIRITUALISM LEADS TO HELL,” and when I get close enough I can see that it’s Jacob, the bastard from yesterday.
The protestors are chanting, “Leave the dead alone! Leave the dead alone!” They stop when they see Jacob turn to face me, anticipating a powerful and life-affirming spiritual showdown.
“Victor the Amazing,” he says, “We’re picketing The Wistful Glade.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you consort with Satan.”
I pause for a moment. “But I don’t.”
Behind him, a few of the protestors roll their eyes and go back to waving their signs. I spot one sign that says, “PSYCHICS: THE DEVIL’S HOAX.”
Jacob says: “I’ll pray for you.”
With my mind-boggling powers of clairvoyance, I deduce that this will be bad for business, so I step inside the store without saying anything else.
Lilac is sitting at the front counter, eating a salad with chopsticks. She says: “Let me tell you something about Heaven, Victor. If those people outside are right and Heaven is a real place, then it will be the worst party you’ve ever been to. All you’ll have to look forward to is day after day of holding hands with those sad fuckers, listening to angelic choirs and dancing through the clouds. If there’s a Hell, which I doubt, they’ll have red wine and Jimi Hendrix. I’m sure I’ll be there, too. Think about it.” She looks out the front window at the protestors and huffs and puffs before finally going back to her salad, shaking her head in disgust.
Since Lilac is my boss, I do what she says and think about it.
I walk down the hallway, past rows of books on summoning circles, aura photography, and self-cleansing rituals. My robe is hanging on a hook near the door to the Spirit Room, so I slip it on over my t-shirt and jeans and settle into my chair.
Inside, my first visitor of the day is already waiting. I think, great, I can’t exactly turn on the Mist of Dreams with a customer in the room, because it will ruin the otherworldly quality of my sanctuary if she sees me do it.
I notice that the client is Gracie Malone, and my heart skips a beat.
I went to high school with Gracie, though I didn’t know her well. She looked ordinary, in truth, that dangerous kind of ordinary that hits you in the guts every time you see her holding hands with some guy in the hallway. You’d think she’d done a thousand secret things to enhance the way she carried herself, the way she spoke, the way her dirty blonde hair fell over her eyes in just the right way. She was a walking secret in a short skirt and flip-flops, the kind of girl that guys fell all over themselves to speak to even though they could never tell you why they liked her.
She dated my friend Walter. Another friend of mine claimed that most of us, to some extent, wanted to be him. Walter wore a German officer’s jacket that he bought from an army surplus store and drank a lot of coffee. He wrote poetry. Good poetry. He told me once that he wanted people to look for him in dissolving crowds, to seek him out for his idealism and radical thoughts. I didn't want to be anything like him, but he did have things I wanted - the effortless gait, the endless hallway of open doors, the prettiest of the girls; all of it. But behind closed doors, where I knew him best, he was never quite so sparkling, and the same incredible romanticism that won Gracie and many others over also apparently gave him license to get drunk and hit her.
“Victor? I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
Within these walls, I am a mystic. I can penetrate the deepest secrets of the universe. I can commune with the deceased. I can read people like an open book and deduce from the subtlest of gestures whether or not they believe anything I’m telling them. Still, I grimace like a moron because she remembers my name. It’s the first time we’ve ever been in a room alone together. I want to impress her with my newfound abilities, to show her that I’ve gained insight into some of life’s great mysteries. Instead, I say: “I know. It’s been, like, an eternity.”
“When did you start doing this whole thing?”
“After school. It pays well. Why are you here, anyways?”
I’m envisioning an opening of hearts, a laying on of hands. I’m eagerly awaiting the moment that she shares with me some deep secret, a tale of a hidden love for a kid in high school that nobody really knew. She purses her lips slightly, looking away, and says: “Well, we came to ask you to quit your job.” I glance down at her t-shirt and see that it says “River of Life Baptist Church” across it. Gracie is with the protestors. “You were always a nice guy. I don’t know why you’d make a living doing something like this.”
Indignant and betrayed, I shake my head. “I can’t help what I am.”
“Everyone can. Jacob says he was here yesterday and that he knows you’re dabbling in dark powers that you have no right to dabble in. I volunteered to talk to you because I’m the only one who knew you. Also, I’m concerned about your spiritual well-being.”
"Thanks for the concern." I stand up from my chair, offer a forced half-smile, and leave the room via the back door, where I have a pack of cigarettes hidden behind the gutter drain.
I spend the next hour restocking the bookshelves with Lilac, trying to decide how best to avoid any more encounters with Jacob or Gracie. Lilac, meanwhile, talks to me in a never-ending stream of sentences, punctuated by the occasional pause. Whenever she stops talking, I say “yeah” and nod my head and continue not listening. It may come as no surprise that Lilac’s favorite things in life are horses and cheap replicas of ancient Celtic artifacts. It's really difficult to bore me. I mean, let's be realistic - even though I couldn't care less that the American Quarter Horse her father bought for her as a child was 12.4 hands tall or that her new broadsword was custom-made for maximum flesh-cutting potential, I don't really have anything else going on between readings.
“By the way, you're making a public apperance tonight,” she says.
Now I’m listening. I slide a copy of Angelic Encounters into its place on the shelf and shake my head. “Why would I do that?”
“To combat some of this bad publicity. Earlier I got a call from the Channel 9 News team. They’re going to send someone over here to cover the Baptists. They’ll put anything with protestors on TV. It’s for the good of the business, Victor.” In my limitless clairvoyant vision, I see fingers pointing at me as I stand in a crowded room in front of a microphone. I see people laughing at my blue robe and teenage features. I see Jacob and a troop of well-meaning youth group kids standing up and calling me a fraud right there in front of Gracie Malone, who looks at me with disappointment on her face.
“I won’t do it.”
“If you don’t, you’re fired.”
That pretty much settles it.
The rest of the afternoon passes with a growing sense of inevitable catastrophe. In the Spirit Room, things are safe. There is a table and some candles and pair of silver pilot’s wings. They are a reminder that someone appreciates my craft. At the front desk, Lilac spends most of this time looking up and trying out recipes for various kinds of fudge, which she plans to sell to the crowd.
I leave for dinner, and by 7:00 the Wistful Glade is overflowing with strange faces, a mixture of the indignant, the curious, and the believers. I come in through the back door to avoid the horde outside, and waiting for me in the Spirit Room are two men in tight black t-shirts, wearing expressions of deadly seriousness. “We’re security,” one says.
I recognize him as an occasional boyfriend of Lilac’s, a man named Don who used to be in the army before he got a job as a security guard at the mall. Despite being unattractive, Lilac is popular with the young men around town because, at least in her case, being a proponent of spiritual harmony and free love means that you are easy to sleep with. She attributes it to the potency of her love charms.
“Why do I need security? The only people here that hate me are church protestors, and I’ve never heard of a Christian riot breaking out.”
Don laughs, clapping me on the shoulder hard enough that I cough. “It’s just for show. We’ll just be standing around. We do this sort of thing all the time for some extra cash. Nobody gives us trouble.” He motions to the guy beside him, who is sipping a Diet Coke and sitting in my chair. “Paul there broke a drunk guy’s arm once when he threw a punch at a concert we worked, but we drove him to the hospital afterwards. I think they’re friends now.”
Paul nods. “Yeah, that’s Jason. Good guy.”
“Have it your way,” I say, and though I know that Don and Paul are there because Lilac wants me to look more impressive, I can’t help but feel that they inject into the situation the potential for random, unmitigated violence.
I open the door from the Spirit Room and stand face-to-face with a hundred or so people who immediately go silent, quiet murmurs rippling across the room as the din of the crowd dies. Someone snaps a Polaroid, and I’m positive they’re trying to capture a "before" for the inevitable "after". In the front row, I see Jacob and Gracie holding hands, a Bible on the floor beside them, the whole thing a dazzling reminder of my position: that, for the first time ever, I’m going to be scrutinized. The protestors are standing near the back of the room, still holding up their signs as if to say hey, asshole, we're not going anywhere.
I feel my stomach contort and taste the burning sickness of bile rising in the back of my throat. I tell myself to say something, anything, perform, lie through your teeth, anything, anything at all, but all I can muster is a cough and a pained look. Lilac is standing near the door with a tray of fudge squares and looks vaguely disenchanted. I want a cigarette. I scan the faces in the room, some barely able to contain their condescending gazes. I decide, then, that I’ve had enough, that this is the worst that it gets.
From the back of the room, I can catch the fingertips of a kid straining to reach his hand high enough to be seen. He can’t be older than fourteen, almost abnormally thin, with brown hair in a bowl-cut around his head. I nod to him.
“Can you tell me my future?” he asks, his face unreadable, a blank slate, giving me nothing to work with. He’s wearing a football jersey a few sizes too big, and his voice cracks when he asks the question.
I see it. I close my eyes, and I see running sprints in full football gear and never starting a game. I see the awkward shuffling of feet while he stands against the wall at a junior high school dance. I see his desire to save his allowance money for three weeks in order to spend thirty minutes with a fake psychic in a dimly-lit back room of an occult bookstore and gift shop. And since his future is up for grabs, I decide to follow a lark.
“I see that you’re afraid. I see that you don’t have a clue who you are, and I can tell you that you won’t for years. I foresee disappointment and loneliness, a particularly dangerous strand of it that works on you slowly, creeping its way into your bones until one day you look around you and realize that you have no idea how you got to where you are. You will hurt people, and be hurt, and you will keep secrets, because they are the only thing nobody can take away from you.”
I can see that he’s about to start crying, which makes me want to call it a day. People in the audience are whispering to one another, sharing disapproving stares, trading their ideas on what may have happened to make me this bitter. “There may never be a climactic time that changes the course of your life,” I tell him. “There doesn’t have to be. You just sit there as the years pass and things never change, so you grow to hate it. After a time, hating it gets old, so you stop caring.”
He’s watching me, his hands stuffed into his pockets, and asks, “So what do I do?”
I narrow my eyes, trying to channel the spirits of a hundred dead men who’ve gone before this kid, grasping for the straw that will point him towards something better. In a brief, revelatory moment of insight, I realize that I care whether this boy is happy or not. “You tell the people that you care about that you love them. When you get older and you’re surrounded by upwardly mobile, smarter, more talented friends, you ignore the polished shoes and power ties. You don’t need it if you don’t want it. You wake up every morning and feel thankful that you’re not dead, that you’re not being called up to answer the questions of people you left behind. You take it all one day at a time.”
He nods blankly, and I can’t look him in the eye anymore, so I wave briefly to the crowd and walk back into the Spirit Room, fumbling for my car keys as I hear them burst out into loud conversation once again. As I pass through the Spirit Room to get to the back door, I catch sight of Evelyn’s silver pilot wings sitting on the shelf, and can almost hear her husband whispering into his cockpit radio, “Don’t look back, kid.”
It is late when I get home.
Wraithlike, I glide alone through the darkness of my apartment, too comfortable with low lighting to bother turning on the lamp near the door.
As I drift into sleep, I silently thank nobody in particular for the secrets I’ve been offered, each of them all the more valuable for their subtle element of tragedy, the quiet and haunting reminder that life could be far worse than an ongoing psychic charade punctuated by a few religious picket signs. I sleep soundly, knowing that I’ve lost my job, knowing that I’ll never wear a blue robe again as long as I’m alive.