The Traveling Variety Show:
Fortune is, first, a daughter. A well endowed accident happens to make eye contact with the good knuckled sound of dice aiming to land. And where there are dice, men. There is something unbearably human about bad men. For example, there is no doubt that they will die.
Jose Kelly’s pin striped suit, his gold watch on the chain. His fat Brooklyn fingers bringing to mouth a cigar. I see it through a pitch corridor, in parts:
my platinum hand running the length of the pin stripes / my platinum body in a satin room
It was fortune that saved my life one winter night while lost in the woods. And I thought of you then, Jose Kelly, knowing that if you had lived you would be an old man now, that we would be a couple of old hens.
You would say: Lady, how about a conversation about art. For you called our trysts conversations about art. I’ll come by later you’d say. We’ll talk about art. How we laughed when you would say so, because you knew nothing about art and what you meant was fuck. And you did not like to talk while doing that. And you did that like you boxed. Now an old woman hip deep in snow, saying in my mind to you, Jose, how about it.
It was by fortune that I have always been discovered. That night in the woods by the proprietors of the Traveling Variety Show, that night in hell hot Havana in a smoky back room, Jose, by you.
We were neighbors which is how the proprietors discovered me lost in the woods, standing blue and still, wearing a snow hoopskirt. They were en route back to their temporary camp. I with my pension of sold things, living in a desolate cottage slowly losing my mind, and they a road show of the type that is no longer popular, wintering before moving on. After our fortunate meeting, we had tea and a game of domino’s then did so every evening.
That winter the proprietors acquired The Chicken Man for their Traveling Variety Show, an acquisition wrought with tender love. They visited the Chicken Man all winter and ate breakfast with him. When spring was sure to happen, they went to his cottage one morning but instead of eating breakfast, they held out their hands as one might to a child. Chicken Man took their hands and never looked back. He wept a weeping that one experiences when one is just parted from life and knows it. One feels sad for the shadow body one leaves behind, and one weeps.
I felt a bloom between bones, painful as unexpected things are, a humid, bloody petunia. So it was that one night I said, trying to appear casual, that like Chicken Man, I too wished to join the Traveling Variety Show. The proprietors held their hands out to me and we left the cabin. It was like dying, and I wept because I felt that this was their plan all along, that the countless nights of domino’s and tea drinking were the proprietors exercising an astonishing patience. An astonishing patience because for ever after the proprietors could not drink tea, indeed, it was, as it turns out, at great personal risk to themselves that they ever drank tea. But that was how they were. Too humble to speak of it directly, it was understood that people of their lineage are extremely well mannered, even at the expense of their own lives. The metaphysical analog to disorders such as hemophilia, they said politely.
Once I joined the Traveling Variety Show I was unsure as to what my contribution would be. I reviewed possible talents.
I had been a back up dancer in a number of Hollywood musicals, and as a result had participated in outrageous acts of hedonism at Hollywood parties. Once, I popped out of a birthday cake naked. I had worked in an envelope making factory. I was a fourth wife of a banker thirty three years my elder, the very age of Christ at his death between us as husband and wife. I spent several years pretending to be a belle from Texas and consequently survived an entire episode of plague performing the role of sexual secretary for an evil general highly ranked within the Regime of Wickedness. I took the waters and I also took the rations. I was what they called a Dame, a phenomena currently out of production. I could participate in the Traveling Variety show in a sideshow capacity, as a relic.
As the caravan guffawed and twisted deeper into the spindly woods, the proprietors said that seemed kind of depressing. Well, yes, I said, I guess so. And anyway, they said, we already have a showgirl, which is kind of like a dame. Why don’t you be a Fortune Teller. Yes, they said in unison, be that.
Fortune is, first, a daughter. My mother was the daughter of Stormy. Stormy was not her Christian name, but then she wasn’t Christian. Heathen Stormy begot a Stormy, who begot a Stormy, who begot another. The first Stormy taught the second about reading the cards, and so on. When I was a girl I would sit in on my mother’s fortune telling sessions. I was fascinated by the rich women’s tight, powdered skin and how their handbags matched their dresses. They perched like nervous bids at the kitchen table while my mother lit the white candle in front of the Virgin Mary statue, then dramatically lit a cigarette. Do you mind, my mother said to the women in her throaty, sexy voice, if I have a smoke. Not at all, the rich women said, Not at all.
The fortune teller, my mother said, should be a desirable woman. Though of course this is not always possible, thank god, she said, our blood line seems to be exempt from the iniquitous curse of unattractiveness. My mother explained that the fortune teller should be sexy because Mystery was sexy, that it made rich women feel sexy to get their fortunes told.
Why, I wondered, did rich women have to go through all of that to feel sexy. At which point my mother, who could also read my mind and therefore knew everything I was wondering, would quote a passage from one of her books for she always had stacks of books surrounding her bed and she called these books “romances”.
She had already allowed her delectable lover to pluck that flower which, so different from the rose to which it is nevertheless sometimes compared, has not the same faculty of being reborn each spring.
Before a card reading my mother, who usually wore thin cotton house dresses, would put on the Big Blue Ring, which had belonged to the original Stormy. She’d slip into a flowing dress reserved for these occasions, and would wrap a beaded shawl around her. She applied rouge and pitched her dark curly hair atop her head and it would cascade about her face in ringlets. She would transform the kitchen into the Temple of Mystery.
I would answer the door and ask the rich women to sit in the den because my mother “would be with them shortly”. After saying this, I would bow. When I bowed they curtly nodded as if they understood I was no regular girl. When the women went into the kitchen my mother was the picture of calm, and it was as if our kitchen was never a kitchen but always the Temple of Mystery.
There was an art to reading the cards, there were secret hinge mechanisms passed down by which the craft was possible. It came with a price tag that was, at times, expensive. In the cards my mother could read the deceits of her lovers. She did not want to read her lover’s cards for this reason, but like all bad men, the lovers wanted to know the score. They were men of business but the business was under the table and they needed all the help they could get. I recall her large, blue eyes as she turned over the cards, her lips quivering, her eyes slowly lifting to look into the eyes of her lover, saying: Why? Why have you forsaken me? A phrase I myself once used when the banker husband told me he was leaving me for a mere girl, barely menstrual, who would become his fifth wife. Though I never loved the banker husband it felt appropriate to say Why have you forsaken me since I had a history of hearing my mother say it and also because of the symbolic number of years between our ages that added up to Christ on the cross.
Though learning how to read cards took not only practice, but also numerous small ghastly rituals, the most important thing I ever learned about cards from my mother was this: for all of the reasons people desire to have their fortunes told, it is really just the one thing that they want to know. They want to know that they are loved.
So whatever it was my mother saw in the women’s cards, she also told them that they were loved. My mother didn’t tell the women who loved them, only that they were loved. Very few women ever got a card reading from my mother in which they did not, at some point, cry. Telling the women that they were loved was generally the point at which the women cried.
Telling them this not only gave them what they most wanted to hear, and by default secured future visits and therefore payments for my mother, it also, as my mother said, “cracked it to the begin.” Which meant that after the women cried, they were cracked open, and my mother could really read their cards because it is never cards the reader reads, but the person, and a person cracked open is transparent. After they cried my mother could really see things and so advise them, though at that point the women were so cracked open my mother was never sure if the women were able to do anything with the actual information that came through. A rather unfortunate irony of the trade, my mother said.
My mother also taught me that the space in which the reading happened was important, thus making the kitchen look like the Temple of Mystery. Theatre, my mother said, I’ve always adored a good picture show.
It was in this way that my mother taught me another important thing about being a good fortune teller: skillful will. Which means working with what you’ve got to create the best possible outcome. For example during the Civil War fancy ladies did not have money to buy ball gowns, so they ripped down their window treatments and made evening dresses from curtain material. That, she said, is skillful will. That, she said, and the fact that they continued to have balls during the middle of a war.
My mother used every day items to create the Temple of Mystery because the every day looks different in the light of candles. Her pink satin robe spread over the wooden chopping block topped with multiple prayer candles and piles of blue cornmeal, offerings to all the other Stormys, she said, insinuated a “shade of Atlantis”. Before a batch of readings, she would soak the tattered lace table cloth in a bucket filled with one part tap water, and one part cheap Indian Rose Water so that when the cloth dried and was spread across the table it would retain the scent of roses and the scent of roses would fill the room “Like a miracle” my mother said.
The Temple of Mystery made the women feel like they had gone somewhere far away from their normal lives. It inspired within them a kind of generosity because people feel better about themselves when they mix with the exotic. Making a special space for someone, my mother said while madly scrambling to turn the stove into an altar of Saints, makes them feel special, and special people believe they are rich, and rich people, at least in theory, leave better tips.
I don’t know that my mother ever felt special. No one made a Temple of Mystery for her. Not only did the cards fail to aid her in understanding her own life, but contrary to what you might expect, her self destructive tendencies didn’t dull her ability to see into the secret corners within the lives of others. A rather unfortunate irony of the trade, my mother said between glasses of bourbon.
Unlike my mother I didn’t put food on the table by reading rich women’s cards. Instead my table was laid out for me, in fine linen, with china and real silver. I used the cards less to tell people’s fortunes, and more in strategic moments of banter as a way to arouse intrigue in potential lovers. Thus it was that I met you, Jose, that you stayed with me when you should not have. You were superstitious and considered me a good luck charm because I was of the cards, and you liked to play them.
All of that was a long time ago.