My office was like a secret room you'd come upon in a dream.
Every morning I climbed a rickety back staircase to the north wing of our old Tudor to my haven, where crystals hung in the windows, casting rainbows on the white walls. I dressed in white and used my real name so people would trust me. If people trusted me, I could feel it. If people trusted me, I did a better job.
In that room, I became Miriam the Phone Psychic.
At 7:30 AM, with ten readings scheduled, I needed peace and quiet. I wrapped one of my red corkscrew curls around my finger, then pulled it down straight, to an inch above my elbow. When I let go, it rolled back up to shoulder length like a deflated party horn. I took a deep breath and, on the exhale, let out a long "Om," my hair crackling with static. My thoughts were like leaves floating past me on a pond. I let out another "Om." The details of my office began to blend together as if I were in a steambath, everything edgeless, fuzzy.
Before I could receive any message, a note slid from under my door across the white carpet. I could see my husband's letterhead -- MIRROR PHARMACY. My trance state was pierced. Annoyed, I stretched out my foot and swept the note to me. I had asked Rory to leave notes for me in the kitchen so I could digest them with breakfast.
I need 1,100 bucks right away. My bills are still overdue because none of the Medicaid checks came in yet. Please get out our bonds from the vault and bring them to Mirror so I can sign and cash them before the bank closes. Maybe some bagels from Best Bagels, too. Three sesame.
Bonds and bagels? Rory's attempt at breeziness frightened me.
"Om," I chanted.
The leaf-strewn pond was gone. My thoughts went through me like a dentist's drill. I couldn't let myself worry about our problems when I was working, but Rory's business reversals might make us late on our mortgage payment. Our credit cards were already maxed out. I breathed deeper.
I thought about the whiteness of my mind. My anxiety began to lose its sharpness, like a rooftop under snow. Then the phone rang, snapping me out of myself.
"Hello, Miriam?" the voice said pleasantly. "This is Ellen Minsk."
I had never met Ellen before, but now, hearing her voice, it was as if our noses were touching. I saw curly black hair, soft brown eyes that drooped at the outside edges. I imagined myself wearing an armored breastplate that grew thicker, but still I felt an ache in my heart.
"Your heart is hurting," I said. "Was there a broken engagement?" I heard her draw in her breath.
An image flickered. An owl. When it landed, its head swiveled 180 degrees. I knew what that meant, but I was loath to tell her. "Your fiancé wasn't right for you. He was always looking at other women, even when he was with you."
I wanted to tell her something that would fill her, but I could feel my trance fading because of soft footsteps on my stairs. I glanced at my clock. Rory and Cara should have left already. I took three more deep breaths. Information came with oxygen.
"I see a wedding cake for you."
"How soon?" Ellen asked urgently.
"Give me a moment, please," I said. Sometimes images came rapidly, with startling clarity. Other times, it was as if I had to try on a dozen pairs of eyeglasses to get a sharp picture. I took another breath and began to see something dim. Then it got brighter -- a big blue number eight. I couldn't bear to tell her that she wasn't going to meet him for eight more years. I heard the loud ticking of her biological clock. And then I saw her future husband. He had a black ribbon pinned to his lapel. A widower. Next to him were his four children, all frowning. Through no fault of her own, each of his children would hate Ellen Minsk more than the next. Her lovely brown hair would go gray.
You could tell people the truth, but there were many truths. Destiny was like an underground route with branchlets, each sprouting a different life possibility. All I had to do was nudge Ellen toward one of them that would lead her to a prince, a man closer to her age, without children, a man who would be easier to live with. I had to see what would draw him to her so her new destiny could start to unfold. I breathed. Even with my eyes open, her destiny shimmered before me. A rush of hope zipped through me. I was sure I was going to be able to help Ellen.
My doorknob jiggled. The door opened, and Cara peeked in, her face taut with anxiety. "Mom," she whispered, "you done yet?"
The shimmering began to lift. The real world began to intrude. I put my finger up to tell Cara to wait. She was silent now, but I could feel her listening intently.
I put my finger to my lips and closed my eyes. Ellen Minsk had been dressing like a sparrow. I had to get that widower off her trail. A red rose fluttered into my mind. "Get a red coat," I said. A silver bird appeared. "And go first class on your next business trip."
"I just had my eye on a red coat in Bloomies, but I thought: red? It reminded me of a heart, and mine was broken. I put it back on the rack, but now I'm going to go straight to Bloomies and buy it." She laughed. "Of course, a red coat. It's exactly what I need to get out of my rut. Then, who knows what can happen? Miriam, you're terrific. I feel different already."
I could see Ellen emerge, and I felt a giddiness, as if I'd had four glasses of champagne on an empty stomach.
I hung up and turned to Cara. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a butterfly clip. She wore a black Lycra V-neck with long sleeves and tight jeans. The skin under her green eyes was shiny from concealer. Even though Rory and I always told her how smart she was and urged her to relax, she studied into the night, and anything less than an A sent her into tears.
Sometimes, looking at her, I felt an eeriness, as if my own mother were looking at me. At seventeen, Cara had my mother's green eyes, glossy brunette hair, cinch belt waist, and Rockette legs, too. She was chic and slender. And like my mother, she hated my "hippie" clothes: my tunics, my long flowered dresses, my shawls. And they both hated my "wild hair." More than that, they hated my psychic gift, inherited from my bubbe, my father's mother, who had been a famous psychic in Russia. My mother had said it was something from the Dark Ages, that I'd end up a crazy babushka lady.
"Cara, you know you're not supposed to interrupt, not unless it's an emergency."
"It is." She pulled at her V-neck. "Dad was supposed to drive me to school, but he's fixing his car in the driveway. I have a physics test first period, and I want to get there extra early to study some more."
A high school senior, Cara was the kind of student my mother had wished I had been. I was glad she'd be accepted into a top college, but the amount of pressure she put on herself worried me. I got a flash of a test paper, Cara's name on top. A ninety-one. "You don't have to get to school early to study," I said, tapping my finger to my temple. "You're going to do very well."
She frowned. These days, she hated my predictions, even the good ones.
"The kids in my honors classes are geniuses. How can I do 'very well' when I have to study ten times harder than anybody in the class to get a decent grade?" She rolled her eyes. "God, I wish you didn't work as a psychic."
"Honey," I said quietly, "this is what I do. This is who I am. You know that."
"Couldn't you be someone else once in a while?" she asked, wrinkling her nose at me the way my mother used to do when she was alive. I couldn't help but feel a twinge of deflation, and that niggling of self-doubt, as if I were the teenager in the room.
I had tried to do other things. When I got out of college, I got a job as a promotional writer at a publishing house, but when it slipped out that I was psychic, the managing editor had me doing readings for all her friends for free. I stayed after hours, the cleaning lady vacuuming around my feet, only to be fired for low productivity. The managing editor didn't say a word in my defense. She just handed me a tissue after I burst into tears. Afterwards, former coworkers began phoning me. The phone didn't stop ringing. "See?" my father had said. "At least you made a lot of friends."
"No, Dad," I'd told him. "They're only calling to ask whether they're going to get promoted or whether their husbands will be transferred out of state." But I was used to being used for information. I didn't resent it. Not yet.
Doing readings helped unburden me. For most of my life, I'd walked around like a big antenna, picking up private hopes and future secrets from passersby, indiscriminately. I suffered from sensory overload. The opportunity to "read" my former colleagues provided a release...and practice. Though it would be a few years before a chance phone call inspired me to open my own phone psychic business, those early readings -- and Rory's unflagging support -- helped me see what I might be capable of, if given the chance.
I shook myself from the memories and got a vision of Rory next to his white Ford Taurus, wiping off his hands.
"Your father fixed the car," I told Cara. "He's ready to roll."
"Darcy will be driving Courtney and me home," she said, then ran down the stairway.
Cara and Darcy met in nursery school, a time when Cara would sit in my lap while I did readings, gazing up at me, wide-eyed. Sometimes she patted my cheek, as if to encourage me. "Mommy's stories," she'd call my readings, and listened to them as entranced as when I told her a fairy tale. Back then, Rory's business was flush, too, and he had lots of time for both of us.
I looked at his note again. I had just made ninety-five dollars in twenty minutes. I had nine more clients today, but it was only a drop in the bucket of our enormous bills. I peeked out the window. Rory, his sandy hair damp with sweat, was trying to rub a smudge from the sleeve of his pharmacy jacket. I could see how tired he looked, how worry clung to him. The previous night he had told Cara that he couldn't drive her to Vermont for the ski club in November, because that was the beginning of the flu season and his busiest time at the pharmacy. He planned to work six and a half days a week -- and take half a day off on Sundays.
I watched them climb into the car and drive off. I could help other people's businesses. Why couldn't I help Rory's? I had told a man not to invest in an ice cream parlor in a shopping center in New Jersey. It was next to a supermarket that folded, and all the other stores around it folded, too. I had told a woman that she would be ruined if she got involved in a certain multilevel marketing scheme that her friend was urging her to join. Her friend ended up bankrupt.
I had tried to guide Rory -- gently and directly, both. But Rory wouldn't listen to me any more than Cara would. He wanted to do it "on his own." Now, when I should be thinking of other people's lives, I was preoccupied with my own. I saw Rory's worries that he'd lose his business. I saw Cara turning from me, shamed by what I did. And I saw myself, struggling for everyone's approval. I could help strangers put their lives together, but how could I keep mine from falling apart?
I twined my fingers together. Palms facing outward, I stretched as high as I could, imagining myself reaching up to the spirit world to touch the soles of my bubbe's black lace-up shoes.
I wished my family trusted my gift the way I'd trusted Bubbie's.
Copyright © 2004 by Rochelle Shapiro