Last year my friend Allen Walker allowed me to publish his story “The Year That Was”. It’s that time of year again so I thought I’d re-share it.
It was in that brief lull between Christmas and New Year’s that I decided to see the psychic. I’d been by the business, a small former home perched on a hill between a small car dealer and a strip mall, every day on my way to and from work. In the evenings the red neon hand with a blue neon eye in its palm would be lit, and I’d think, I should try that just for fun. I called and made an appointment. I wasn’t sure what to expect; incense and scarf-covered lamps and candles, crystal balls and skulls, chimes made of strange gewgaws all seemed too cliché to be real. When I stepped in I found that, if not for the Zodiac poster and framed papyri of Egyptian gods, it could have been a small tax accountants office. I wondered if she also did a booming business from early January through early April.
When Hilary, the owner and resident psychic, introduced herself, I wasn’t surprised to have my semi-serious image of a dark-eyed woman in a bandana with hanging gold bangles draped in a long, flowing dress completely dashed. She wore a long sweater, black jeans, and her eyes twinkled behind wire-framed glasses.
“Most people just go for the basic reading,” she explained. That was the $10 one I’d seen advertised outside. ”It’s a numerological reading based on your name and birth date, to give you an idea of where you are and where youre going. It’ll say a little about what’s to come, but it’s pretty general.” I bet it is, I thought skeptically. There’s a reason youre doing this and not winning the lottery every week. But then I chided myself. Keep an open mind. This was supposed to be fun, and I had neither the skills nor the desire to do an exposé. I wasn’t even entirely convinced she was a fraud. As I looked over the list of services she offered–card readings, past life regression, romantic advice, reiki healing, business and home cleansing and protection I thought most of her customers just wanted a sympathetic ear and to be told they were all right. She probably wasn’t that different from degreed therapists, and at least as helpful.
“This time of year I offer a big special, an overview of the year to come. It’s a cast of the cards that goes month-by-month, highlighting big events to come in your life.”
I decided to spring for that. There’s no time like the present to think about the future. And if I could sell an article about it I could write it off as a business expense. Hilary took my name, birth date, and credit card. Then she took a purple velvet pouch and produced a deck of oversized cards. “Hold these with both hands, close your eyes, let your fears and desires infuse the cards. Think about the future.”
I wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to hold them, and had a little trouble focusing on the future since she was also charging by the hour. I let about thirty seconds of the future tick into the present then the past then handed the cards over. She began dealing them across the table in pairs, twenty-four cards in all. Once that was done she began turning them over. She let out a low whistle.
“What is it?”
Hilary gave me a very serious look. “You have Major Arcana in every month. You’re going to have an interesting year.”
I remembered hearing that there was a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Then I remembered that a Chinese friend of mine told me he’d never heard any such thing. I braced myself to find out how interesting the year to come was going to be.
Hilary moved her hand along to the bottom left hand row of cards. She pointed to one of a young man in a motley blouse and tights. He looked like he was stepping off a cliff. ”Things start with The Fool. Anything could happen to you. This is a card of untapped possibilities, but also a lack of awareness. Hes paired with the Three of Pentacles, which represents coming into a small fortune through luck.”
January-Kenny, the assistant editor who, thanks to nepotism, had risen above his level of incompetence, had shelved my piece on Yellowstone for six months. Finally he exercised his right of first refusal and refused it, and asked if I could do something on local gamer culture. I’d just heard that the last video game arcade in the area, a relic that operated more like a social club than a business, was closing. It was being forced out by the closure of the mall where it had been since the 80s. I covered that. I also sent the Yellowstone piece to an editor friend at another magazine. He liked it and put the check in the mail.
She went to the next pair of cards in the row. It was turned toward me, so I could see it was a nude couple. The card was titled The Lovers. “Since this card is reversed,” said Hilary, “it means rejection and disappointment. But the Nine of Cups with it means a gathering, like a party.”
February-Malcom and Pat invited me to join them for dinner at Marko’s on Valentine’s Day. Then they also invited Chaz and his girlfriend, then Lydia and Rose, and they asked if Kelee could come along too. We laughed about a small crowd of us making reservations for a table on the biggest couples night of the year. As we were chatting over desserts I felt someone’s arms around me and a soft, beery kiss on my cheek. I turned around. There was a handsome young man in a suit standing behind me. He took a step back. ”I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you were someone else.”
“The Plague,” said Hilary. “I guess you know what this one means. Its disease, but it can also be disruption, or a sweeping change. The Two of Wands with it means futility.”
March-All winter I’d avoided getting sick. I’d gotten the flu shot, washed my hands regularly, kept a bottle of antibiotic in my pocket and used it until my skin cracked. Then during a wave of cold that broke the early spring I woke up with a hundred degree fever. For two days I dragged myself around my apartment in a haze. I moved back and forth between my bed and couch, barely conscious enough to even follow daytime television. Mrs. Schwarzherz from downstairs brought me some of her special soup. It smelled like feet. As I was pouring it down the sink I felt my fever break.
“Next is The Knight of Swords, whos brave, but also reckless. He’s paired with The Lightning Struck Tower.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Its not always bad. Sometimes it can mean a revelation, or something unexpected.”
April-I was more than a month late getting the oil in my car changed. There were no openings on Saturday, so I made an appointment and left the car at the shop on Monday morning and took the bus to work. I picked up the car in the afternoon, and was halfway home before I realized one of the technicians was asleep in the backseat.
Hilary raised her eyebrows. “You have the Ace of Wands paired with The Devil. You’ll feel impulsive, but directionless. You’ll suffer indecision and instability. If you’ve made plans they’ll go wrong.”
“I hope I dont have anything big planned then.”
May-Every Friday I had the same thing for lunch: clam chowder, bread, and a large green tea. On a whim I decided to change my order.
“I’ll have the broccoli cheese soup.”
The woman at the register looked behind her then turned back to me. ”Sorry. Were out of broccoli cheese today. Would you like something else?”
…” I was suddenly overwhelmed by the menu behind her head. I looked to the left and all I could see was cherry pastries and chocolate chip cookies. There were fifteen people in line behind me, and I could feel thirty eyes burning into my skull.
“I guess I’ll have a clam chowder.”
“Do you want chips or bread?”
The word chips was right on the tip of my tongue, but I stuttered. It took me a moment to recover, and I blurted out, ”Bread!”
“You want a drink?”
I looked at the drink dispenser. The bright labels blurred together, while the metal tabs hung like tongues laughing at me. What did I want? I looked at the menu. Drinks? What drinks? Starting to sweat I said, “Green tea.”
“For here or to go?”
I could hear fifteen exasperated sighs behind me.
“Dont worry,” Hilary smiled. ”The Hanged Man isnt as bad as it sounds. Its a change in perspective, a different view. The Page of Cups with him means laughter, humor, a bright outlook. This looks like it will be a happy time for you.”
June-Chaz, Simon, and I were standing around the water cooler when Kenny came in. He looked at us. ”I see you’re all working hard.”
“We were just talking about that freak snowstorm,” said Chaz. “Did you see it? Just came out of nowhere.”
Kenny looked at him then at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Covered the whole area. Really dusted the trees.”
Simon cleared his throat and shifted uneasily. Please don’t spoil this, I thought. We’d let Simon in on it, even though he preferred to stay out of doing anything.
“I dont get it,” Kenny muttered, and went to his office. A minute later he stomped out again.
“You jackasses better get in there and clean every one of those styrofoam peanuts out of my office STAT. Including the ones all over my fichus plant. I shouldn’t have to tell you never to go in there. And never open my window. Ever.”
As we were picking crushed styrofoam out of the carpet Chaz hissed, ”Or I’ll tell my uncle!” in perfect mimicry of Kenny’s nasal voice. We cracked up, and Simon, who’d come in to help us, surprised us all by laughing and throwing handfuls of packing peanuts in our faces.
Unlike most of the other cards the next one didn’t have any figures, just a dark swirl. I could make out a tiny sailing ship just at the edge of the center.
Hilary said, ”The Maelstrom means forces of nature working against you. It could be a storm of events that shake up your life or force you to change your plans. This card may also mean that others come with you. Like you bring them along, like a crew of a ship. This is interesting. It’s paired with the Queen of Wands. With her present you’ll be able to come through whatever storm youre facing.”
July-Michael and I invited Chaz and his girlfriend to join us in renting a beach house for a week, but they’d hit a rocky spot in their relationship and didn’t want to come. So we invited Simon along, since he’d loosened up a lot. We also thought he needed to get away from the office. Who knew a tropical storm would arrive the same day we did? Michael had to cancel his plans to troll the beach for babes, and we all had to cancel our fishing trip. One day I braved the storm to visit the small aquarium at the other end of the island where I petted stingrays and watched seahorses glide about. Most days I was content to sleep late, have a bagel for breakfast, and watch the rain-spattered windows melt sea and sky together into an abstract study in gray while I worked. At night we piled into the car and went to one of the three restaurants. Michael flirted with the waitresses while we drank beer and gorged ourselves on fried pickles and oysters. The morning we left we woke to a clear, sunny sky. I stood on the patio and could see porpoises curling over the water.
“The spreading tree is life, rejuvenation, renewal, or even new growth. Putting down new roots, maybe, if you move somewhere else. The Page of Cups is reversed. That’s loss and confusion.”
”That sounds like a contradiction.”
“You can’t take the cards so literally.”
August-It was time to take the glass Id saved to the recycling center. As I emptied the box under the sink I was racking my brain. How did I go through six bottles of olives in a month?
I could read the next card, which showed an old robed man with a staff climbing a hill. ”The Hermit,” I said. “That sounds like me.” Hilary nodded. “The Hermit is isolation, loneliness, but also inner contemplation, questioning, and discovery.” She tapped the card next to it, a hand holding a sword with a crown over its tip. ”The Ace of Swords means strength in solitude. These cards really enhance each other.”
September-I got home late and picked up the mail off the floor. Among the bills and catalogs was an envelope from my high school reunion committee. I paused, realizing how many years had simply slipped by. It wasn’t the worst time of my life, but I didn’t feel any nostalgia for high school either. After moving halfway across the country Id lost touch with almost everyone I’d been to high school with. I turned off my phone and locked it in my desk drawer, then locked the door of my apartment and went back down the steps to my car. I turned down a back road that briefly ran parallel to the interstate on-ramp, then turned off through woods, into darkness. The oldies station on the radio played songs that were new when I was in ninth grade. Soon there were black hills on one side of my and the river on the other. My headlights beamed into nothingness. Saturn was directly overhead. I could be anywhere, anywhen.
Hilary reached up to the final row. “The Queen of Wands reversed means chaos, disorder, anger. She’s paired with The empress who brings wisdom, generosity, and helpfulness.”
“So kind of like order out of disorder.”
“Something like that. This is an obscure and difficult pairing.”
October-At first I thought it was the radio, then I remembered I hadn’t turned it on. I strained to listen, then stuck my head out of the shower.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
Panic ran through my like an electric current as I heard movement outside the bathroom, then a knock. I grabbed the shower head. The door opened, and I heard a lilting, slightly accented voice.
“Hello. It’s just me.”
I ducked back behind the curtain. ”I’m in the shower, Mrs. Schwarzherz!”
“Did you have a date last night? I saw you come here with someone, and from downstairs it didn’t sound like one of your friends.”
“This isnt a good time!”
“I heard thumping and thought it might be your bed. I hope you used a condom.”
“I’ll talk to you later!”
“I left you some peanut butter raisin cookies on your counter. They’re on a paper plate, so you dont have to return it right away.”
I hit my head against the tile. “Get out! Please get out of my bathroom!”
She’d already left.
A bright yellow orb glowed from the upper corner of the next card. A nude figure knelt down next to a pool. It was hard to tell with the card upside down from my side of the table, but I thought the figure was scooping up water into a jug, or possibly pouring it out. “The Star,” Hilary said, “means renewal, cleansing. It’s also the myths that help us make sense of the world, that give us order and comfort. The Ace of Pentacles is reversed, meaning the status quo is reversed.”
“Sounds like Ill be sitting at the kids table at Thanksgiving again.”
November-One of my six-month dental checkups was always scheduled a few days after Halloween, a mistake I’d made years earlier and never gotten around to correcting. I blamed a succession of cavities on my weakness for leftover candy, although there might have been a conspiracy by the American Dental Association. Yet I looked forward to seeing my regular hygienist, Janet, who was bright and friendly. As I was settling into the torture chair she told me one of her earlier patients had been a hockey player. I said, “You know, I went to a fight once and a hockey game broke out.”
“Wait, what?” Janet stammered then laughed. ”That’s backward. Okay, I get it. Has anything been bothering you since you were last here?”
“Well, that whole situation in Russia has me pretty concerned.”
Janet held up her pick and mirror. “Open your mouth and shut it.” Once the cleaning was done she patted me on the shoulder. “All right, rinse and spit and you’re good to go.”
“Yep. Everything looks good. You’ve got six months to come up with new jokes.”
On my way out I popped a caramel in my mouth.
“Death.” Hilary sighed.
“I thought the Death card just meant change. Not actual death.” I didn’t know much about the Tarot, but I’d heard that somewhere.
“Sometimes. It’s all about placement. And it’s paired with the Ten of Swords, which means being overwhelmed. Depression, darkness. I’m sorry. There’s just no good way to read this combination.”
She began putting away the cards, leaving the last two. I turned them around to study them. I could see what she meant about the Ten of Swords. It showed a figure lying face down, pinned to the ground by swords in his back. Blood seeped from his wounds. Overhead a black sky seemed to push down. The Death card was also intimidating. A scythe-wielding skeleton against a sickly yellow background looked up at me. Its wide round eye sockets and exposed teeth seemed to be laughing at me.
“I see what you mean,” I said.
“Yeah,” replied Hilary. “Any way I look at it it’s bad.”
December-I’ve always prided myself on being a skeptic, and yet as the year end approached I started to feel uneasy. Things seemed to have fallen into a pattern over the previous months, or was I just imagining that? It didn’t help that things at work, and outside of it, were going so well. I got all my holiday shopping done early, and even sent out cards for the first time in years. I also accepted every invitation I could. I helped Malcom and Lynne decorate their tree, celebrated the first night of Hanukkah with Maya and Kim, went to a Solstice party with Chaz and his girlfriend, and had tea one afternoon with Mrs. Schwarzherz. We nibbled stale ginger snaps while flurries skittered by the window. I drove back to my old home to spend Christmas with my parents, then got back in time to go to Simon’s New Years Eve dinner party where we ate Cornish hens and played Trivial Pursuit. Everyone else faded out around ten oclock. I didn’t want to admit I was anxious. As I drove a slightly drunk Michael home I thought about getting him to spend the night on my couch, but then he played songs on his phone and sang along. Badly. At home I huddled in bed and read until I heard fireworks outside and my bedside alarm clock chimed. The next morning I slept late, and woke to streams of bright sunlight. Nothing had happened. I was still here. What a coincidence.