Research for The Reluctant Fortune-Teller

 

As I was writing the first draft of The Reluctant Fortune-Teller (whose original title was How to Tell Fortunes with Cards), I thought I should go and get my fortune told. Research, you know.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I used to do this all the time. I won’t say it was all baloney, because it just wasn’t. While I did have many experiences of paying good money to hear pure nonsense, there’s no denying that there were also several times I was actually deeply impressed and knew that something I could not understand or explain was going on.

That was very cool.

Looking back, my impression is that there were a couple of straight-up scam artists, but the majority were trying to tune into their psychic energy and deliver a real reading.

Mrs. McKee was a neighbor in a little rural town I lived in. She read cards in her front room while her unemployed husband and teenagers sprawled before a blaring TV in the living room. She claimed that she’d been taught to read cards by an old Gypsy, and that this gift can only be passed down from a gifted clairvoyant to one, single, solitary person, and she was that chosen person. She said that one day in the future, when she was very old, she would pass it down to one person, too. There was nothing remarkable going on with Mrs. McKee, however. She was a sizer-upper of people, and a very good one. She just advised people using good old fashioned common sense.

There were others I consulted later on, in the 80’s, including a woman called Marge who lived in an apartment full of cats. She actually was able to tell me very specific things about people in my life—facts that I did not know at the time to be true, and only later learned were true indeed. I went into my first reading with her without my wedding ring, thinking I’d fool her by asking when I would get married. She dismissed the question easily. “You’re already married. You’ve already got your Sagittarius.” My husband is, in fact, a Sagittarius. Odds were one in twelve she’d guess that on the first try.

I stopped seeking out oracles as I developed more confidence in my ability to create my own future (or at least, some aspects of it). I only decided to try one more time, decades later, while I was writing Norbert’s story. I thought I should remind myself what it feels like to be the customer—or the “querent”—as Norbert would say. And I thought I should objectively observe the work of the fortune-teller.

I reserved 20 minutes with a “psychic” called Sue, who works at a local restaurant. She was seated in the back, behind some folding screens. She told me she was clairaudient, meaning that spirits spoke to her. She said, “Whoever shows up, shows up. I can’t request specific spirits. So we’ll see who comes forward for you.”

Fortune-tellers must be high tech now, because she asked me to state my full name clearly and slowly while she looked down and held her hand to her ear. I didn’t need ESP to guess that someone in another location was listening to me state my name, and was Googling me. Sue asked me to be silent for a moment while the spirits came forward to talk to her. After a couple of moments, she told me seventeen things, none of them true. All misses, and no hits. I wrote it all down.

She asked if I had any questions.

I went for it. “Actually,” I said, “I am writing a book.”

“Oh, really,” said Sue. “The spirits are nodding their heads. This book will be published. It will be very successful.”

“Oh, that’s very encouraging!” I said, hoping it was true. Maybe, I thought, she is a real psychic after all!

“What is your book about?” asked Sue.

“Well, uh, funnily enough… well, it’s about a man who has trouble making ends meet, so he becomes a fortune teller—even though he doesn’t believe in it—just to be able to pay his bills, you know…” I trailed off.

Sue’s expression had changed from a dreamy self-assurance to panic and watchfulness.

I felt I was being rude, so I broke off that line of thought, and instead asked her questions about her experience with spirits, just to let her regain her balance. Her expression went back to misty smugness again. She really was an interesting woman.

I’d done my research. I thanked Sue, and I crossed her palm with silver.

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