The Hand You Are Dealt

The girl stood, her chair screeching against the cheap wooden floor. She stared at Kendra, hoping she would say something more—to qualify what she had said, to soften the blow. Kendra’s silence was answer enough and the girl turned, opened the curtain and headed for the front of the store in a gait that threatened, more than once, to turn into a run.

With the curtain open, fluorescent light and stale air streamed in, washing away the orange glows and cozy smells from the candles that filled the small room. As her eyes adjusted to the light, Kendra brushed her long auburn hair off her face, let out a long frustrated sigh and raked the cards from the table with her fingers. After removing the crimson cloth from the table she carefully draped it over a small, purposely antique, wooden chest. She arranged the cards into an orderly deck, turning their colorful faces down, and left the deck in the center of the small wooden table, its slick black surface amplifying the grey pentacle at its center.

Kendra stared out through the main store. Drew was working behind the counter, reorganizing the jewelry displays, which always needed it after the weekends. Kendra didn’t envy her, she’d done it too, hundreds of times over the past two years. Initially she had found it captivating; picking through the wands, studying the displays of crystals, playing with the topaz rune stones a customer said were the exact color of her eyes. But eventually the novelty had worn off, and tediousness was not something Kendra dealt well with. Now, whenever she worked the store she hated every minute. But she liked Drew—she had always found her both intelligent and easy to talk to, a rare combination—and was about to offer her help when she saw the front door open.

Ian walked in precariously holding three lidded paper cups. Kendra smiled as he, a little too casually, placed one of the cups on the counter in front of Drew. Ian always brought drinks—an amusing peculiarity. He was the first person she had named after the Tarot. He was the Page of Cups. It wasn’t the best-suited card for him, after all, artistic he was not, but she thought it appropriate for someone who was known by name in at least ten different coffee shops. Most days he’d stop by the store on his way home from work, sometimes he stayed a few minutes, sometimes he helped them close the store.

Kendra quietly watched the two and smiled as they went through their afternoon pleasantries. Drew always carried the conversation, and Ian spent far too much time pretending to look at the jewelry, and not enough time looking her in the eyes. She thanked him for the drink, her hand brushing his, and offered to pay—she always did. He politely refused, and gave an awkward flutter of his hand, that he meant to be a wave and headed toward Kendra in the back of the store. Drew’s stare followed. Kendra wondered how long it would be before he finally asked Drew out—he’d known his last girlfriend for almost a year and Kendra for almost two before he’d mustered up the courage.

He walked into the back room without waiting for an invitation, set Kendra’s drink on the table, and slouched into the chair across from her. They played this game often, and Kendra knew the next move was hers.

“What do we have today?” she asked, her eyes glancing toward the plain paper cup.

He straightened in his chair, mockingly formal, as if presenting to an audience. “Costa Rican, rainforest, shade-grown, roasted.” The delight was apparent in his eyes.

Gently, she took the cup in both hands, letting the warmth soak into her fingers. She brought the cup to her nose, closed her eyes and took in the soft aroma. A relaxed smile spread across her face. She knew Ian was watching closely, hopefully, and when she placed the cup on the table in front of him he sagged.

He pushed the second cup across the table and, with as much scorn as he could manage, said, “Raspberry hot chocolate, skim milk, no whipped cream.” She was able to hold in the laugh, but not the grin. He took the coffee for himself and leaned back in his chair. “Savage. “

Their game complete, the conversation gave way to a comfortable silence, each sipping their drink. She felt a small flash of irritation as Ian spoiled the silence, “I hear you had a little excitement.”

Ian had a sometimes annoying, often entertaining, habit of starting a conversation in the middle, like he couldn’t be troubled with all the prologue. Kendra couldn’t keep the look of confusion off her face. She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table, “What are you talking about?”

“Drew said you chased a girl out of here so fast she almost took the door off the hinges.”

Kendra grabbed the deck from the middle of the table and, fixing Ian with a forced frown, began to shuffle the deck. “Drew has a penchant for exaggeration.”

Ian watched silently as Kendra shuffled the cards. As far as he was concerned she had only one graceful feature, her hands, and he never tired of watching her use them. That she was a wizard with a deck of cards was an added pleasure. He forced himself to interrupt, but his eyes remained on her hands. “And you have one for understatement. What happened?”

She put a lot of energy into her sigh, hoping to convey precisely how little she wanted to talk about it. “She didn’t like her fortune.”

His expression did not change. For a long time she had wanted to know whether Ian was too naive to pick up on these subtleties of conversation or if he simply chose to ignore them. Naive wasn’t even the right word; straightforward was more like it. With Ian you never wondered where you stood.

As explanation she stopped shuffling and pulled the top card off the deck. With a dramatic, practiced sweep of her arm she placed the card on the table, face up, in front of Ian. In rich detail, the card showed a man and woman in a standing embrace, her leg luridly wrapped around his waist, a castle in the distant background. Underneath the couple, in elaborate letters, read ‘Lovers’. “The Lovers, reversed,” said Kendra. “Her relationship is not going to work out like she hoped.”

Ian smiled. He’d watched her hands since she picked up the deck, and he still couldn’t tell how she’d done it. He knew many of her tricks—she’d shown him in excruciating detail how she could stack a deck, deal from the bottom, force you to pick a particular card—but unless he watched for a particular trick he never could see it. And she had a knack for knowing who was looking, and for what. He’d only caught her once or twice over the years, when she got brazen. He picked up the card and gently placed it back on the deck. “Sometimes I think you enjoy giving bad fortunes.”

Her smile was genuine. “Sometimes I do. When I get someone who comes in here for fun, I’ll really play up the dark cards. I make them sound ten times worse than they really are, give them a good show—I can almost hear the organ music rattling the walls. It’s like a Ouija board or a fortune cookie—harmless fun.”

“And what about the others? What about the people who come for answers? What kind of fortunes do you like to give them?”

“I don’t give fortunes, because there are no fortunes to give. Listen to yourself; they put their faith in colorful pieces of paper. I’m not going to placate their superstitions.” She cut the deck, took the top card and placed it, face down, in front of him. “This is a carnival game. ¬Three Card Monte—you pay your money and you get a show. If you start thinking it’s real…”

He looked at the card for a moment, hoping she would return it to the deck, but knowing that she wouldn’t. When he turned the card over neither of them could keep a straight face. Staring back at him was a picture of a court jester—The Fool. He replaced the card, and set the deck at the edge of the table. “If you’re customers caught you treating your cards like that they’d never come back. You’d only be able to get hordes of giggling teenagers in here.”

She retrieved the deck. “I’d prefer that,” she said as she began shuffling.

He watched her for moment, trying to decide what was real, what was bravado. “You used to like this job you know.”

She deflated. “It used to be different. Now I get the same questions over and over. Is he cheating on me?.. Should I change jobs?.. It’s maddening and it’s depressing. I don’t have answers.” She paused, and when she continued Ian wasn’t completely sure she was talking to him. “Sometimes, I wonder how this is all going to end.”

His face softened, “You know, most of them only come in here for one thing. Hope.”

She paused, considering what he had said. She leaned forward and, quite deliberately, placed the deck in front of Ian. “No. This is what they come in looking for.”

Kendra peered at him over the rim of her glasses and sipped her cocoa. Ian imagined he could see canary feathers at the comer of her mouth as he leaned forward and turned over the top card. The Magician. Ian laughed so hard he almost knocked over the table.

As she turned the card back over Kendra heard the shop door chime. Standing in the doorway was a frail shadow, its edges burned away by the fierce sunlight behind. After a long pause, the door closed revealing a small dark-haired woman, her head low as if ashamed of attracting attention. She walked forward, her head turning this way and that glancing at certain books and displays, her feet never changing course. She walked straight to the counter. Once there she singled out a small basket of fetish stones and played her fingers across the individual stones. But her eyes scanned the counter, eventually resting on a small stack of flyers less than two feet to her left. As her hand began to move toward the flyers, stones fell from the overfull basket, beating a sharp staccato on the glass counter. Kendra heard the woman’s gasp from across the store. Meekly, she placed each stone back in the basket and quickly and moved to the flyers.

The announcements were rather overdone. The paper was inexpensive copy paper that was supposed to look like parchment, but didn’t. Thick, dark borders crowded with arcane symbols, whose styles and meanings clashed, dominated the page. Nestled in the center, in careful handwriting, was a simple, understated description of Tarot, and offered a reading for the “gift of $20.”

Kendra knew, because she had seen this dance far too often, that the woman would work her way through he store, pretending to study every trinket, book, piece of jewelry and incense burner before, awkwardly, stepping through the curtains into the back room.

Kendra leaned across the table and whispered to Ian. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

Ian stood, cup in hand, and walked around the small table to Kendra’s side. He bent over, placing a gentle kiss on her right cheek, and on his retreat managed a parting shot. “Show Time.”

She watched Ian walk out of the room, toward the counter, drawing Drew’s attention away from the anxious woman. Kendra quickly ran her eyes around the small room, moving her cocoa out of sight, placing the deck of cards in the wooden chest, spreading the crimson cloth evenly over the table, its four tasseled corners reaching for the floor. She pulled the curtain-closed, just enough to soften the light intruding from the store, but open enough to seem inviting when the woman happened by. As Drew caught Ian, talking about something Kendra couldn’t hear, the woman quickly made her way toward the back room.

As Kendra finished smoothing the cloth over the table a gentle hand grasped the curtain, moving it slightly aside. A voice, less timid than Kendra expected, asked, “Do you have time for a reading?”

Kendra smiled as warmly as she could manage, “Of course.” She gestured toward the chair across from her. “Make yourself comfortable.” As the woman entered Kendra noticed that her dark brown hair fell unevenly over her shoulders and the cuffs of her blue jeans were frayed. She walked to the chair, but didn’t sit as Kendra closed the curtain behind her.

The girl—though she was at least thirty, Kendra thought of her as more of a girl that a woman—seemed anxious; Kendra wouldn’t have been surprised if she ran from the room. She offered the woman her hand, and a genuine smile, “I’m Kendra.”

The woman nodded, and returned a timid smile.

After a long silence Kendra continued. “And your name is?”

“Rowan.”

Kendra gestured toward the seat again, “Please have a seat, Rowan.”

Rowan reached into her pocket, and pulled out a handful of bills. With a trembling hand she held out the crumpled ball to Kendra. When Kendra didn’t take the bills she laid them in the center in the smooth cloth. As Kendra reached out to take the offering, she put her hand back into her pocket.

Kendra was on edge as she smoothed out the bills, counting one five dollar bill and seven ones. She watched as Rowan pulled her hand out of her pocket, heavy with coins, and began to pick out quarters and stack them on the table in front of her.

With one hand Kendra folded the bills in half, while she reached out to Rowan with the other. She placed her hand over the woman’s, and for the first time since she entered the store, Rowan met Kendra with her dark eyes. Kendra was embarrassed that her voice lacked conviction, “This will be enough. Please make yourself comfortable.”

A brief look of relief passed across Rowan’s face, but she said nothing.

Kendra ached for a way to give back the twelve dollars, but she knew that her refusal of the coins had embarrassed the quiet woman. Giving back the money would only make her feel worse. She decided to leave things as they were. She’d see if she could slip the money in her pocket when she left.

Kendra found Rowan’s silence odd. Most of her customers were talkative; with all their get-to-know-you-chit-chat she usually knew why they were there before they sat down. The quiet ones, usually the ones who would never admit they came to a psychic, would blurt out their question and answer everything else with monosyllables, or even grunts. But just about everyone said something. “Have you ever looked to the Tarot before today?”

She nodded. “Once. A few years ago.”

That told Kendra all she really needed to know. She could tailor the reading to someone mildly familiar with the cards, she probably wouldn’t have to go too deep. She reached toward the wooden box to retrieve the cards, her hands and mind sinking into the mire of routine. “Did it give you the answers you were looking for?”

“No, not what I was looking for. But it told me the truth. I don’t remember the reading very well, but I do remember the last card: The Tower.”

The Tower—unforeseen catastrophe. Kendra knew that those unfamiliar with the Tarot usually dreaded the Death card, but really it only indicated change. The Tower was a card worth dreading. If The Tower had shown her the truth, then those scars on her wrists probably told a morbid history of Rowan’s life.

Kendra placed the deck face up in the center of the table, and with the fingers of her right hand fanned the deck out into a complete circle, leaving a narrow wedge of each card visible. “First we select a card to represent you.” She spoke in a smooth, practiced voice as she pulled the Queen of Swords from the deck with one finger. “This card represents you—not a girl, but a woman, with rather dark hair and eyes.”

Rowan acknowledged with a slight nod.

She picked up the deck with her left hand, and as she placed the Queen of Swords in the center of the table, she noticed Rowan was watching her instead of the cards. Kendra smoothed the edges of the deck with her fingers and held the deck out to Rowan. “Now you shuffle the deck, anyway you see fit, but always face down. While you shuffle concentrate on the question you want an answer to. You don’t need to tell me what it is, just concentrate.”

Rowan looked at Kendra as if she held a snake in her hand. Slowly, she pulled her arm out of her lap and reached out to take the cards. Kendra watched as she shuffled. Her hands, though graceful, moved awkwardly, not only unaccustomed to the cards but uncomfortable with the attention focused on them.

Rowan paid the shuffling more attention than most of Kendra’s clients. Her eyes were fixed on the deck, and instead of shuffling them as she would a deck of playing cards as most did, she cut the deck into different piles and turned them in different directions before restacking them. When she was done she combined the pile into an orderly deck, and held the deck in both hands, glaring at it.

“How is it all going to end?”

Startled, Kendra looked up. Rowan’s whispered question rang in her ears like a church bell.

But Rowan’s eyes were intent on the cards, for the first time, oblivious to Kendra’s presence. Kendra was shaken—that was her question. Never asked aloud, never to the Tarot, but her question nonetheless. But as she watched Rowan, she came to realize that it was her question as well. She stared hard at the cards, challenging them, pleading with them to tell her how it was going to end. Kendra knew what her own question meant, but now she couldn’t help but wonder what that same question might mean Rowan.

She reached out and took the cards from Rowan’s hands. She cut the deck into three piles in the center of the table, and restacked them, reversing their original order. She held the deck in her left hand, her right hand resting by the Queen of Swords. “Are you ready?”

Rowan nodded.

With a measured pace, Kendra took six cards from the deck, one at a time and positioned them carefully, face up, on the red cloth. She placed the first two cards atop then across the Queen of Swords, covering it and forming a small cross. The next four cards were placed around the pile—above, below, left and right—to complete a larger cross.

Kendra leaned back slightly in her chair, reading the cards before her. She still held the deck in her hand as she surveyed the cards before her. She let the silence ferment, forming her conclusions as Rowan guessed at their meanings.

Her finger glided over the table, resting on the first card—Four of Cups. Three figures, robed in blue, holding large overflowing cups, offering a fourth to a hooded stranger. “This card covers you; it represents your current environment.” She waited until she saw comprehension on Rowan’s face. “It tells me that you are dissatisfied, both with yourself and your life. You long for change, but you are hesitant.”

She watched Rowan, looking for signs of doubt. Instead Rowan’s eyes widened slightly, no doubt awed that the card was correct. Kendra smiled, that card describes most people I know, including myself.

“This card crosses you,” she said dragging her finger to the card atop the pile. “It represents what stands in the way of what you want. A woman stood atop the Earth, nude except for a carefully placed white scarf, her arms lifted above her head, in each palm a spiral galaxy. “The World, reversed. Your world is upside down, you fear the necessary changes and are too passive to attain your goal.” She heard a sigh from across the table. Whatever question she had asked, it seemed the cards were giving her an answer.

I wonder how it’s going to end.

Rowan leaned closer to the table, her long chestnut hair lightly brushing the cards and the cloth; Kendra pointed to the third card, her hand grazing through the rough strands. “This card crowns you. In represents what you hope for, but has not yet happened.” The Ace of Pentacles. Kendra imagined the hand on the card as her own, reaching up out of the darkness grasping the single gleaming pentacle. “You hope for complete contentment, personal and professional bliss.”

“The Nine of Swords,” she said pointing to the fourth card, “is beneath you. It is the foundation of what you have already experienced.” The card pictured a woman sitting on a bed, her legs pulled to her chest, crying; nine swords hanging above her. “Failure and disappointment have hounded you. This card indicates a miscarriage or a disastrous business venture.” Like working here, she thought. Rowan straightened and leaned back in her chair, away from the table. Kendra heard her whisper the name Lucas.

I wonder how it’s going to end.

The next card showed an ancient -woman, deep in concentration, her wrinkled hands resting on the open pages of a large, worn tome; behind her floated eight ghostly staves. “This card represents your past. The Eight of Rods, reversed implies guilt, jealousy and domestic chaos.”

“Before you lies The Hermit—the seeker of knowledge. The robed figure represents you, searching for answers. To find your answers you will have to look within yourself. The lantern he is holding before him represents a guide—maybe this very reading.”

Kendra was distracted. The reading was vague, the Tarot always was, but it bore a striking similarity to her own situation. As she continued her monologue, she wondered if this reading might be her own. She might be the Hermit, seeking a new path, and this frail, scared woman across from her might be her lantern.

“These six cards represent your life, they are your reference, what you need to understand about yourself in order to find your answers. The next four cards concern your question; they are your answers.”

Kendra stole a glance at the next card. It wasn’t difficult. Rowan’s attention was fixed on the spectacle of her life spread across the table. The Six of Cups.

Before she turned the card over she glanced at Rowan. Her hands were resting in her lap, hidden by the table. Taut folds marred the smooth surface of the red cloth. “Are you all right?” Kendra hadn’t had a customer this anxious in some time. “These are only answers.. .you do with them what you will. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Slowly, the tension on the cloth vanished.

I wonder how it’s going to end.

She turned the next card over, placing it to the bottom and right of the previous cards. Six golden cups were continuously filled with liquid from six overflowing lotus blossoms. “The Six of Cups shows your attitude toward your question. You think a lot about the past, things that have vanished from your life. You have a strong desire for change.” She looked across the table, we both do.

Kendra looked at the next card; the Queen of Rods.

She turned the next card over placing it above the previous one. A beautiful woman, robed in green walked boldly through a flowering garden, a green ropy staff held before her. “A warm, honorable woman may come forward to show you the way.” Kendra stared across the table waiting for a stare she knew would not come. Are you my Queen of Rods, or am I yours?

The next card was the Ace of Swords, a positive card—but it was reversed.

I wonder how it’s going to end.

She placed the card next in line above the others. A feminine hand held a sword, upright, the arm disappearing into murky waters. “This card indicates your hopes and fears regarding your question. The Ace of Swords, reversed, implies extreme emotion, either love or hate or ambition, which can lead to disastrous results.”

Kendra bit her lip, and realized she didn’t want to deal the last card. Regardless of the fact that the reading was bogus, the random flutterings of decorated paper, the woman across form her didn’t deserve more pain. She believed what she saw on the table, and she would believe the outcome. Kendra didn’t know how the reading would end. The nine cards on the table didn’t spell disaster or triumph, pain or happiness. It was a jumbled reading, and only the last card would clarify it.

I wonder how it’s going to end.

She lifted the corner of the next card.

The Tower.

Unforeseen catastrophe. A forbidding tower rose out of blackness, its top crumbling, a streak of lightning striking deep inside, flames flowing from each window and door, two figures robed in purple fall, helplessly into an abyss.

Kendra’s jaw hurt. She realized she was clenching her teeth. Hard.

The only catastrophe here is that last card. Why do you have to believe in this? Why can’t you laugh it off? It’s just a game. Why did you have to get the damn Tower?

Kendra looked at the deck, a withering stare that would have knocked a person down. It looked back at her with its single grey, unblinking pentacle. Suddenly that pentacle disturbed her, and she turned it away.

Slowly her face relaxed, a fierce frown losing ground to a thin, secret smile, and she basked in the imagined warmth of a painted sun.

“The last card indicates the outcome. This is the answer to your question.”

You want to know how it’s going to end? It will end the same way for you that it ends for me. However I want it to.

Rowan’s eyes shifted nervously, from the deck to the blank space on the table where her answer would appear. Kendra watched Rowan’s eyes, and when they left the deck she dealt the last card…from the bottom of the deck.

The Sun. A beautiful waterfall, two naked children playing in the deluge, an enormous and brilliant sun rising in the background.

“The Sun. The power to achieve all your goals is very close. Look within yourself. Unexpected action will have positive results.”

Kendra placed the deck on the table and leaned back in her chair. Comprehension appeared slowly on Rowan’s face, followed closely by a small, unsure smile. Rowan studied the cards silently, and Kendra noticed that her eyes never left the Sun.

When she stood the smile across her face was larger. She opened the curtain all the way and squinted when the afternoon sun hit her face, but she didn’t turn away. When she said thank you it sounded strong and genuine.

Kendra stood up, bumping Rowan rather hard. And as she placed her hands on Rowan’s hips to steady herself, she slipped twelve dollars into the right pocket of her jeans. Awkwardly she straightened herself. “It was a good reading,” she said, hoping her smile seemed as casual as she wanted it to. “I hope it helps.”

Rowan’s smile didn’t seem forced.

Kendra followed her out of the room, leaving the curtain open, the room empty except for the warm sunlight. Kendra stopped when she reached Drew, and watched the quiet woman leave the store.

“Something just occurred to me.”

Drew raised her eyebrows.

“Twenty dollars isn’t a bad price for peace of mind.”

Kendra saw confusion on Drew’s face, but didn’t try to explain.

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