Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

The Mirror Trick. (Part 2 of 2.)

(This is Part 2 of 2 of a short story. To read Part 1 click here.)

mirrortrick1I could tell Max was teeing me up. He wasn’t looking at me but I knew it was coming. My notepad was black with marks from every time he’d said “you”. I was on the far left. He was staring at the center of the room. “I was about to ask you the same thing!” he said. Another mark and then I raised my hand. At the same time I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the other side of the room. Max looked over that way.

“Yes sir?”

I saw someone stand up and heard him speaking. “I have a degree in psychology and have worked in the field for decades…” I craned my neck to see who was talking. I didn’t want to stand up. It looked like a bald guy, like me, but that was all I could tell. I looked at Max. He wasn’t giving anything away.

“Thank you sir. I did learn this from a psychologist, and I know it’s a way to build rapport and trust with a potential customer.” Then he started his wrap-up. He pointed to the product cases and binders he had stacked in the back. The starter kit. All for one low fee. I got in line and pulled out my checkbook.

I took the kit with me and loaded it into my rental car in the hotel parking lot like a lot of the real customers. Then I took a drive out to the boonies. Signs pointed to a zoo that wasn’t there anymore, and a campsite. I had a bacon cheeseburger and a beer at a place on the edge of town called Shylock’s. Shylock. That’s another name I’ve forgotten since school. Then I went back to my hotel room and took a nap in front of a cop show marathon. Every other episode in these shows there’s a guy who looks like me. Bald, maybe a little white beard, hunched over. At least I think he looks like me. I don’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Sometimes he gets mugged, but he’s got these special cop moves he uses to protect himself. Maybe that’s why I never get mugged. I look like that guy. Maybe it’s because I don’t go out in the streets at night.

Quarter to eleven I went two floors up. Maybe it was the cop shows, I thought, when I thought I saw a guy coming out of Max’s room who looked like me. Same shirt, same slacks. His head was bent down. I wondered if this was the guy who stole my speech earlier. I gave the door our special knock. It opened and there was Max unbuttoning his shirt.

“Oh, Mike, was there something else? I thought we got all your expenses covered.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Oh, no,” I stumbled. “I just remembered what it was.”

“Yeah, good night then.” He closed the door. I looked at my watch. How was it eleven thirty already?

The room was full. Bigger turnout than usual for a weekday. I was in the back corner with the exit just to my right. Max was getting to the end. I could feel my blood pressure going up. Heart pumping in my ears. The whole room felt hot to me. He was wrapping up, and I froze. It was my job to raise my hand, but all I did was sit there with my palms on my thighs. Max pointed out into the middle of the room, not at me.

“Yes sir?”

Someone stood up. I couldn’t get a good look. I heard them saying, “I have a degree in psychology and worked…”

“Who is that?” I muttered. I tried to stand up, but some guy next to me shushed me. I looked over at him and it was like looking in a mirror. He looked just like me. If I didn’t know better I would say he was me. “Who are you?”

He looked over at me. “Are you gonna shut up or do we need to step outside?”

Yeah, I would have said that too. Something was up here. I looked around. Every person in the room was me. It was a damn hall of mirrors.

I stood up and yelled. “Who are you? Who are all of you?” A hundred pairs of my own eyes looked back at me. Then the room rumbled with a hundred identical voices saying, “I was about to ask you the same thing!”

Max was up there on the stage grinning at me. He held out his hand.

I backed out of the room. Something funny going on here. Maybe I needed a doctor, but I thought I’d better lay down instead. I went out to the elevators in the hall and pushed the button for my floor. Then I changed my mind and punched the button to make the doors open. I walked to the lobby, brushing the wall with my hand as I went.

The lounge was a dark enclosed room just off the lobby. The bartender looked at me.

“Haven’t I seen you before?”

I didn’t know if he was being cute. If I thought he was in on it I’d have taken a swipe but instead I just asked for a Scotch. There was a buzzing in my ear, like bugs or something. I reached up to swat it away. Nothing doing. I decided to let it be.

“Are you all right?”

The bartender was looking right at me.

“You can sit here as long as you want, sir, I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I looked down at my scotch. Half melted ice cubes were floating in the glass. I pulled out a twenty and pushed it over to him.

“Keep the change.”

It took me about ten minutes to get everything packed. Then I got a taxi. No fooling with the bus this time. Max could take his whole cloak-and-dagger bit and shove it. At the airport I dropped off my rental car. Whoever got it next could have the case of Silverskin products in the back. On the house. I cashed in a wad of miles to get an earlier flight. With layovers it would be about the same, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be on the move.

The taxi dropped me off at the end of the driveway and I hoofed it to the door. The lock was sticky. Sometimes it does that. Humidity I guess. I jammed it and nearly broke my key. Inside everything looked the same. I hit the code for the burglar alarm. That was reassuring. Nothing had been touched, nothing had been moved. All my stuff was where it was supposed to be. Okay. I locked the door and took a nap.

I woke up in the dark. Max hadn’t called. I checked the caller ID to make sure, but nothing. I had expected him to call, but then I didn’t expect him to call.

A week later I knew he wasn’t going to call.

Sometimes I see someone who looks like me coming down the street from the opposite direction. I cross to the other side. Sometimes when Max is in town I go see him. The timing has to be just right. Too early he won’t open the door, even if I use the special knock. Too late and I’ve already been there. There don’t seem to be that many of me in the area. That makes it easier. Max doesn’t look at the dates on the receipts so he doesn’t notice I’m handing him the same ones over and over. Expenses plus the fee, just like always. It’s a little added income. In the spring I plant flowers. It’s good being me.

rays

The Mirror Trick. (Part 1 of 2)

The following is a work of fiction, unlike some of the other things I write which are no more than 70-75% made up.

mikeAnother day another crappy hotel. I didn’t even know if it was Illinois or Iowa. Maybe I’d make a note of it when I got back to the airport. Never did before. Same thin olive carpet underfoot, same conference room at the end of the hall past the lobby. The location of the lounge, pool, and restaurant were the only things that changed. Not even that much, except when we stayed in that medieval themed hotel in Kentucky. I remember we met in the Grendel room. Who was Grendel? Somebody I forgot since school. I’d done this two dozen times, and what did I have to show? Seven thousand two hundred dollars and a shitload of frequent flier miles I’d never use. Oh, I mean crap load. Sorry Lucy.

I didn’t take it because it was an easy job, but it was. I filed in with the other potential customers. Max gave his selling pitch, and I’d try to stay awake. Sometimes I’d carry a notebook and make a note every time he said “Silverskin”. Or if I was really knocked every time he said “and”. Or every time he walked back and forth on the stage.

“I’m not here to sell Silverskin skincare products!” was part of the start. “I’m here to get you started Silverskin skincare products! And if you do what I say every one of you could earn a thousand dollars a month. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” And off he’d go. I could tell by looking at the faces around me that he didn’t need to do much to sell them the stuff. That’s what he was doing even if he thought he was really in the business of making middlemen. Maybe he even believed that “I make people rich!” button he wore on his jacket. And the stuff wasn’t too bad. Same as the expensive stuff, I guess, but not made by a company big enough to make it famous. Max always told me that wasn’t why he was selling it to regular people. “These people aren’t chumps,” he told me in one of our private meetings. Maybe he really believed that. And like I say the stuff wasn’t too bad. At my age I don’t give a rat’s…I don’t care what I look like but I dipped into the free samples he gave me. The exfoliant was weird, like oily sandpaper. I don’t know what that was supposed to do. The wrinkle cream seemed like it helped the bags under my eyes. None of it smelled bad either. That’s what made me put it up. It reminded me of Lucy. I wish she’d been around to try it. She was sensitive to smells and things like that. Allergies even though she worked in the yard every day she could. Maybe it was just the synthetic stuff that made her break out. I watched her pull poison ivy with her bare hands. I didn’t think I could do that but I thought I’d help her out when I retired. Plant whatever flowers she liked. She only bought annuals because she liked the planting. Then just after I retired the cancer came. Her friends and even our kids told me she was lucky it was quick. I wanted to tell them they didn’t know jack shit, but Lucy wouldn’t have liked that. “Keep it clean, Mike,” she would tell me. So I didn’t say it. I have more respect for her than they do. And I cut them some slack. They don’t know what it was like to sit in an empty house. It’s why I started working for Max.

He liked to be very cloak and dagger about the whole thing. We traveled in separate cars, mapped out different routes to the hotels. We never arrived at the same time and always stayed on separate floors. If I wanted to eat I had to go out. The farther from the hotel the better. Or get room service. The day of the meeting I had to leave early, take a cab to the bus station, then bum around and take a bus back to the hotel. Camouflage. Max wanted me to look local. I didn’t see the point but I played along. He was paying the piper, and it tickled me a little.

Once he sold them the idea of Silverskin skin care products he really started in on what they wanted to hear. He sold how to sell. How to greet, how to get invited in, never put your foot in the door. Standard tips that would be in the manual too, but he wouldn’t tell them that. Then once he got the basics he started in on the psychology angle. “It’s called the mirror trick. If the person you’re talking to crosses their legs you cross your legs. If they scratch their nose you scratch yours. Not right away, but within thirty seconds. And keep it subtle. You want to avoid them thinking you’re copying them if you can. And if they say ‘Are you doing what I’m doing?’ or ‘Are you mimicking me?” don’t panic. Do not panic. Laugh. Laugh and say ‘I was about to ask you the same thing!’”

Sometimes this would get a laugh. Sometimes it didn’t. It was what he said that was my signal. I raised my hand. He’d be looking the other way then he’d look at me. And he’d look confused. Did it really well. Between you and me I still don’t think he’s too bright. He would say, “Yes sir?” and I’d stand up.

“I have a degree in psychology and I’ve worked in the field for more than forty years, and what you’re saying is one of the best kept secrets there is. Psychologists know about these techniques and they don’t want regular folks to know them. Thank you for sharing them.” Max would look impressed and he’d thank me as I sat down.

“Thank you sir,” he’d say. “I learned these tricks from a psychologist. They’re a proven way to build up trust with a new customer, and I’m sharing them because I want every person in this room to succeed.”

I had a degree in psychology from a state school. The “field” I’d worked in was sales, just like Max. Takes one to know one. I just sold lumber instead of skin cream, and worked one on one instead of big rooms. I never did know where Max got the mirror trick. He told me he read it in a psychology book. Maybe he made it up. All that mattered is he got the whole room to line up and spend two hundred bucks on a case of Silverskin skin care products and a manual of the whole sales talk he’d just given. Minus the mirror trick. He kept that for himself. Most he would never hear from again. Selling is harder than they wanted it to be.

Around eleven that night I’d go to Max’s room, give a special knock, and he’d let me in. We’d total up my expenses and tack on my fee. That’s how it went. That’s how it always went.

Part 2 will be published April 10th, 2015.

It’s Part of a Ceres.

Scientists land probe on dwarf planet.—News item

orbit“Guys, come here. Check this out.”

“What is it?”

“Dunno. It’s metal. It’s been forged. This is some real quality work. This is beyond anything we could make. Way beyond it.”

“Uh oh.”

“What?”

“They found us.”

“Who found us?”

“I always knew it would happen eventually.”

“Quit stalling and tell us.”

“Remember that girl?”

“Which girl?”

“The one who came and stayed with us for a while. The one who cleaned the house and cooked and stuff.”

“I remember she was a terrible housekeeper. One morning I found a chamber pot in my sock drawer.”

“Yeah, and then she ate that poisoned apple and fell into that deep sleep for, what, a year? Remember how we made that nice case for her? And then we ran her stepmother off a cliff.”

“I haven’t had an apple in ages.”

“Shudwarft up. I thought all that was resolved when that prince kissed her and woke her up and she left.”

“Remember why we left? That crazy stepmother had to have relatives. I knew sooner or later they’d come looking for revenge. That’s what this is. It’s a weapon.”

“Get out of here. No one knows where we are. I didn’t tell anyone where we were going. Did you?”

“No.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“See? No one could know where we are. There’s no way this is a weapon.”

“What if it is?”

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts…something something something. I used to know the rest of that. Anyway this doesn’t even look like a weapon.”

“I haven’t had nuts in ages.”

“Shouldn’t we at least be prepared? This could be serious. We could all be in terrible danger. Come on guys, get your picks and axes ready.”

“Hey, that’s not a pick. That’s my leg.”

“And that’s not an axe, that’s my…and wipe that stupid grin off your face! Do we have to take him?”

“We’re not leaving anyone behind. There are only seven of us.”

“Six. Remember? We lost the one who was in a bad mood all the time on the way.”

“Oh, yeah. I still regret cutting him loose.”grumpy

“You’re the only one.”

“Hey, look at this. It’s a camera. This isn’t a weapon. It’s just for exploring.”

“You’re sure it’s not spying on us?”

“Don’t be paranoid. Come on guys, line up. Let’s do something fun for the folks back on Earth. Come on, everybody gather around. You—get that stupid grin back on your face. Okay, all together now!”

“CHEESE!!!”

“I haven’t had cheese in ages.”

dwarves

Try The Caviar Cluster

February 13, 2015

Wexler Candy Company
Valentine’s Day Deluxe Assortment Focus Group Testing
Session CRM-114

Sample 1
Participant response:
Part.2: Oh, I’ve had these before. These are really good.
Part.5: What the classic caramel lacks is a crunch factor to punch it up a bit and make it stand out a bit more.
Part.3: I like it, but it sticks to my teeth too much.

Conclusions: Mixed responses, but overall positive. Recommend continuing to include the classic Maryland caramel in this year’s selection.

Sample 2
Participant response:
Part.7: I love the little sprinkles on the dark chocolate. I just wish they wouldn’t fall off.
Part.2: The round ones are soft on the inside, right? I like those. Sometimes those caramel things are hard to chew. I’ve had fillings come out. Really I have.
Part.3: I feel funny.
Part.1: I like the texture of the inside. Fluffy. Cool, it’s pink! What are these little spots? This is really good.

Conclusions: Overall responses were positive except for Part.3. Emergency services got him to the hospital in time and legal affairs is arranging a settlement. Other participants liked this enough I think it’s worth keeping.

Questions: Do we want to risk including the Dragonfruit whip after what happened? What are the odds? Check with the FDA, see if we need to update warning to "Contains nuts, peanuts, and dragonfruit". We don’t want a repeat of the mocha chewing tobacco debacle.

Sample 3
Participant response:
Part.6: I’m, uh, I’m not a real big fan of nuts, you know? I mean I’m not allergic or anything. Not like that other guy. Hey, does he still get paid?
Part.5: Did you consider white chocolate? That would be a subtler flavor playing off the saltiness of the cashews, really bringing it out.
Part.4: Hey, you know what you should call this? "Cashews Clay"! Har!

Conclusions: Overall positive response. Add the cashew cluster.
Questions: Forward "Cashews Clay" idea to marketing. Possible boxing tie-in?

Sample 4
Participant response:
Part.1: I’m sorry, I don’t care for this. It’s not very sweet.
Part.7: Yeah, if this were the first thing I pulled out of the box it’d be a real turnoff.
Part.5: Maybe it’s us. We might be better off with a sugar-free sherbet or ice as a palate cleanser instead of just bottled water.

Conclusions: Withdraw Bordeaux truffle.
Questions: Put it in the carb-free collection?

Sample 5
Part.1: What is this? I’m afraid to put it in my mouth.
Part.2: (spitting out sample): It tastes like moldy wet onions and smells like raw sewage.
Part.4: Is this a, what do you call it, a control? I just call it nasty.
Part.5: Is this something avant garde?
Part.6: I like the taste, it’s kinda sweet, and custardy, but I don’t know if I can get past the smell.
Part.7: This greenish color is almost as big a turnoff as the smell. Are we supposed to eat it or thin paint with it?

Conclusions: Discontinue durian fruit cordial immediately.

Sample 6
Part.1: This is different. Kind of salty. Is it peanut butter?
Part.7: Yeah, I think it’s peanut butter, but there’s something different about it.
Part.5: It has more umami than you’d expect from a traditional peanut butter, and a spiciness that plays well off the chocolate. The texture is unusual, with a kind of melting quality that’s very nice.

Conclusions: The gravy cream is a success.
Questions: Participant 5 watches too many cooking shows. Guys, can we screen for this sort of thing?

Final conclusions: Implement changes immediately. Have marketing prepare a press release.

Prep the next focus group. This afternoon we’ll have them testing the new line of chocolate-covered sushi.

The Year That Was (Part 3 of 3)

deathtarotUnlike 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 you’re 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 isn’t 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 don’t 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 I’ll 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.””

“”I’’m clean?””

““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 Year’s Eve dinner party where we ate Cornish hens and played Trivial Pursuit. Everyone else faded out around ten o’clock. 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.

The Year That Was (Part 2 of 3)

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. He’s 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 ‘80’s. 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. It’s 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, who’s brave, but also reckless. He’’s paired with The Lightning Struck Tower.””

““That doesn’’t sound good.””

““It’s 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 don’t 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. We’re out of broccoli cheese today. Would you like something else?””

““Ummm……”” 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.

““Don’t worry,”” Hilary smiled. “”The Hanged Man isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s 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 don’t 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.

The Year That Was (Part 1 of 3)

egyptianIt 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 accountant’s 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 you’re 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 you’re 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.

sword

If You Have To Ask You Can’t Afford It

December 12, 2014

From the Klay & Vellum Catalog:

Item: Woolly Mammoth
Your cavemen ancestors hunted the fearsome Woolly Mammoth. Now thanks to a scientific breakthrough you can too! Your own personal Woolly Mammoth will be delivered right to your doorstep. Once it’s arrived you’re all set to hunt the great Woolly Mammoth with a gun, bow and arrow, or the old fashioned way with your own stone-tipped spear (sold separately, see page 54.) Tusks are optional.
K+V is not responsible for any damage to property or personal injury, including death or allergic reactions to mammoth hair, skin, or meat. Gift wrap not available.

Item: Rocket Sled
An elegant bright red nosecone gives way to a sleek, tapering chrome fuselage and beautifully curved fins, making this retro-styled rocket launcher beautiful as well as functional. Able to achieve speeds of up to MACH 1 it comes with 500 miles of track and enough fuel for three trips. Fuel refills and additional track are also available.
Customer Wile E. Coyote of roadrunnercatcher.net says, “Finally! A rocket sled that works the way it’s supposed to and doesn’t flip over, fly backward, knock me over a cliff, fall on top of me, and explode. Thank you, K+V!”
Express delivery only.

Item: Edible Outerwear
We know it sounds crazy, but as soon as our CEO bit into a sock and said, “Tastes like chicken” we knew we had something special Now we’re bringing it to you! Indistinguishable from regular clothing this new line is made from special fabric that’s completely edible and so tasty you won’t believe it. Never have to worry about your favorite foods staining your favorite shirt, because they’ll be one and the same. Never worry about having to sneak snacks into movie theaters or having to pay extra fees to bring your own food on an airplane. Pants shown are available in chocolate or whole wheat. Jacket shown is available in sage, blueberry, oyster, licorice, and rhubarb cherry plaid. Shirt shown is available in vanilla, lemon, key lime, strawberry, and bleu cheese paisley.
Sizes: S-9XL

Item: Personal Hospital.
Having trouble finding just the right healthcare? Wish you didn’t have to wait when you go to the doctor’s office, or sit in a waiting room full of sick people? Tired of having to go all over town for your ear, nose, and throat appointments? Ever wished you could redecorate and warm up your hospital room? Well now with this unique, limited-time item you can. It’s your very own hospital. Comes complete with wards for general practice, radiology, an infusion ward, transplants, physical therapy, dentistry, and veterinary practice.
Medical staff and personnel sold separately.
Ground delivery only.

Item: Time Machine
Imported from Belgium, this new time machine is, unlike other models we’ve tried, user-friendly and easy to use. The controls are straightforward and can even be customized depending on whether you prefer North American date notation (Month/Day/Year) or European (Day/Month/Year). The localized singularity drive also provides up-to-the second accuracy, and easy neutron flow reversal allows for quick maneuvers through time eddies and loops. Download the optional app for your phone or tablet to take advantage of additional remote functions. Entertain your friends with stories of (spoiler alert!) things to come, and educate your children with a real taste of the past.
Adult supervision recommended. This is not a toy. Temporal paradoxes can unravel the entire space-time continuum.
Order by December 27th to guarantee December 24th delivery.

The Best Trick Or Treat Ever

October 31, 2014

It was the first Halloween our parents let us go trick-or-treating by ourselves. As my friend Stephen and I walked along past the smiling pumpkins and happy skeletons he muttered, “This whole holiday is getting way too commercial. There was a time when it was all about the candy. And tipping over outhouses.” I agreed. Indoor plumbing had ruined the holiday. It was time to put the Hallow back in Halloween.

I was dressed as Boba Fett. Stephen was Raggedy Ann, because his sister had stolen his Han Solo outfit. Our first stop was the Scoot Sack down on the corner, where we shoplifted four cans of shaving cream and bought some turkey jerky, for the protein. As we were walking out Carbuncle Clarence, the seventeen-year old who was perpetually behind the counter, stopped us. Stephen had shoved the shaving cream cans down his shirt, so he now looked like a pregnant Raggedy Ann. I was sweating behind my mask, and Stephen’s eyeliner had started to run, making him look like a goth Raggedy Ann. “Hey you kids,” said the Carbuncle. “Didn’t I see you in here earlier?” We both shook our heads. He pointed to a bowl of those peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers. “Take some. Happy Halloween.” We thanked him and hurried out back to the neighborhood.

The first four houses we hit were decent enough, giving away chocolate bars, caramels, little bags of jelly beans and candy corn. The fifth house was dark. Not being home on Halloween wasn’t a personal affront to us, because we were on a mission, but we decided these heretics must be punished. We filled their mailbox with shaving cream. This didn’t seem quite enough, though, so we covered their mailbox with shaving cream. There was still something missing, so we set it on fire. This was a fair warning, but for good measure I left a note in their door apologizing for the fact that the baked Alaska they’d ordered had been delivered late. We then moved on.

Two doors down we found a pumpkin carved with a smile, which was an insult to everything Halloween stands for. I whipped out my pocket knife and turned the smile into a snarl. Then we used a combination of shaving cream and chewed turkey jerky to make it look like the pumpkin was vomiting blood. A sweaty guy with a garden hose came around the house and asked what we were doing, so we ran to the next block. The first house there belonged to crazy Mrs. Morrison. She gave us each a light bulb and a whole box of chocolate laxatives. She also gave me a roll of electrical tape. We made a note to stop by her house again on the way home. She never had candy, so she gave away whatever she had handy. The previous year Stephen had gotten a license plate and a potato. I got a chandelier.

A few doors after that was my summer school history teacher Ms. Sheldon. She apologized for forgetting that it was Halloween. She hadn’t bought any candy, so she said we’d have to pull a trick of some sort. We liked Ms. Sheldon and really didn’t want to do anything bad to her, but she didn’t have an outhouse. Since we couldn’t think of anything else we settled for breaking one of her windows and setting a bush in her front yard on fire. The next house was empty because it was for sale. Damaging the mailbox didn’t seem appropriate for a house that wouldn’t get any mail, so instead we used the shaving cream to write cuss words and warnings about the dangers of apostasy on the brickwork.

Moving on to another block we found some young kids who’d had their candy taken away from them, so we shared what we had along with the rest of the shaving cream. We also promised to take care of the infidel responsible, and directed them to Mrs. Morrison’s house. We both knew who the candy thief was, and only had to follow the trail of smashed pumpkins to our old nemesis, Kevin, the school bully and son of the town proctologist. We split up as we approached him. He was dressed like Lee Marvin in Gorky Park. He saw me first and tried to run, but Stephen had crept up behind him and wrapped a candy necklace around his neck. Using it as a garrote Stephen whispered in his ear, “What’s this we hear about you taking little kids’ candy?” Kevin gulped. “I didn’t do nothin’,” he gasped. I said, “Let’s see,” and took his bag of candy. While Stephen tied him to a stop sign with electrical tape I replaced all the Hershey’s, Snickers, and Three Musketeers bars in his bag with laxatives. And I took all his peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers.

After we stuffed a handful of orange circus peanuts in his mouth a big sweaty guy with a garden hose came around a corner and asked what we were doing. We realized it was Kevin’s dad, so we ran back to my house. My parents weren’t back from their euchre tournament yet, so we dumped out all our candy in the living room floor and started to go through it. First we separated out the peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers. We licked each one and added it to the big ball in my closet. Since it now weighed at least twenty-seven pounds we agreed it was time for phase two. The next day we’d dump it in the school swimming pool before class. We then turned to separating and categorizing the real candy, putting chocolate in one pile, jellybeans and gummies in another pile, pixy stix, jawbreakers, and sweet tarts in a third, and so on. Stephen was allergic to licorice, so I traded all his for my candy corn, a light bulb, and a pencil sharpener I’d found hidden in an apple. The radio was on, and as we sat contemplating our haul “Werewolves of London” began to play. Stephen and I realized we’d experienced the real meaning of Halloween, so, to celebrate, we dressed all in black and went back out and set Kevin’s house on fire.

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