The problem with having a psychic in the building is we are often mistaken for clairvoyants.
The fortune-telling business is one floor above, yet people are forever coming into our office and asking for a reading. This, despite our being a fully functioning vision care facility complete with rows of eyeglass frames on the wall and all the other accouterments of ophthalmology.
“Oh, you want the business upstairs,” I tell them, and only then do the seekers notice where they are. They excuse themselves and scurry out the door.
These people, they seem haunted, or perhaps burdened is a better word. What I mean is, they seem to have problems, and the problems appear to be sitting squarely on their shoulders.
I like to think they find what they’re looking for. Despite the need to redirect often, I think it’s cool we have a mystic in the building. It gives the nine-to-five just a hint of magic and mystery.
My boss, Doctor Lu, is not so enamored. A woman of science, she has considered changing the name of the practice to cut down on the oddballs that roam in.
“Janene,” she might say one morning as she fills her coffee mug, “what if we called the practice The Eye Spot?”
“It’s OK, but it sounds like there’s a spot on your eye. That doesn’t sound good.”
“You’re right, Janene. I’ll keep thinking.”
And away, Doctor Lu goes to look at photo scans—to review images of eyes as orange and magnified as Jupiter.
That our business name is Clear Vision is undoubtedly part of the problem, but even if we were to change it and all that would entail: new sign, new business cards, new URL, new phone directory listing, and so on, I doubt it would matter much. We could name the business “Eye Doctor,” and we would still get people coming in for the wrong reasons.
Desperate people don’t read signs, that’s what I think. Even when the signs are all around them.
We see the psychic from time to time, but it’s rare. He keeps irregular hours.
Claude Kilmer wears tailored suits, often gray, that match the steely hair curling over the back of his shirt collar. He is ruddy-complexioned with striking blue eyes and wears a large ruby ring encased in gold on his left ring finger. If he is married, to our knowledge, we have never seen his wife. When we have seen him, we agree he is a quiet man, very somber and preoccupied. Words rarely breach beyond hellos and the weather and good evening.
This pairing of science and the paranormal in our two-flat is odd, but there are stranger things in this neighborhood. For example, a puppet shop above a bakery. A jeweler above a live kill butcher. This is the city. These pairings are inevitable. For what it is, we get along.
Of course, I have been tempted to get a psychic reading at times, but a receptionist’s wage does not offer much room for frivolous spending. Also, if she found out, Doctor Lu would not be pleased. On more than one occasion, she has referred to Kilmer as “The Charlatan.”
When Kilmer first comes through our door, we’ve been sharing the two-flat for nearly three years. He stands tall and dignified in his gray pinstripe suit and wingtip shoes, and I smile and greet him with practiced warmth. His expression is troubled.
“Hello, Mr. Kilmer,” I say. “How are you?”
“Hello. I wondered if Doctor Lu could fit me in today,” he says. “I seem to have a problem going on with my eye.”
He points to his left eye, which is awash with red streaks.
“Oh, I think so. Just let me check one second. Um, do you happen to have an insurance card?”
“Actually, I don’t,” Kilmer says. “I’m willing to pay cash. I just need a professional opinion . . .”
“Oh, OK. Let me go see if Doctor Lu is available.”
I go back to the examination room.
“Excuse me, Doctor,” I say. “Mr. Kilmer from upstairs is here. He’s asking if you might be able to see him about some trouble with his eye.”
Doctor Lu swivels around in her lab chair, tilts her head like she didn’t quite hear me.
“Mr. Kilmer?” she says.
“From upstairs?” I say. “He says he has a problem with his eye. It’s red. He doesn’t have insurance, but he wanted to know if a quick look was possible. I told him I’d check. The three o’clock canceled, so we don’t have anyone until four-fifteen.”
“Oh, OK,” Doctor Lu says, her face clouding. She comes out to the reception area.
“Hello, Mr. Kilmer. Janene says, you are having some trouble with your eye?”
“Yes, with my left my eye,” Kilmer says. “I believe it might be conjunctivitis. It’s been red for a few days. Very nasty looking . . . I told Janene I don’t carry vision insurance, but I hoped you might be able to take a look. I’m willing to pay cash . . .”
“Why don’t you follow me? We can have a look and see what’s going on.”
I know from experience what comes next. Doctor Lu will ask Kilmer to take a seat in the exam chair. She will wash her hands in the tiny sink and dry them. She will conduct a brief interview about the problem, then ask him to cover one eye and the other with a plastic spoon and read an illuminated wall chart, the smallest line he can manage. Then they will get down to the exam proper. A dye will be applied to the problem eye, and Doctor Lu will swing a lighted scope around his eyeball several times, asking him to look up or down as she makes her inspection. This procedure usually takes less than ten minutes.
I get curious when fifteen minutes pass, then twenty. They don’t emerge until a full thirty minutes later. When they do, Doctor Lu is instructing Kilmer on the use of medicinal towelette samples she has given him. It isn’t pink eye after all, but eyelid inflammation, possibly due to mites or abrasion.
“Thank you so much, Doctor,” Kilmer says, tapping the blue sample box.
“Certainly. My pleasure,” Doctor Lu says. “Janene, the exam charge will be waived today.”
“Yes, actually Mr. Kilmer offered to do a reading in exchange for the exam. He already did mine. It was quite . . . illuminating. He said he’d do one for you also if you were interested.”
Kilmer nods. “I’d be happy to.”
Buoyed by Doctor Lu’s positive endorsement, I stand up. “Seriously? Oh, I’d love that!” I say. It’s hard to contain my excitement. One doesn’t get a free psychic reading every day.
“Excellent, then why don’t you come upstairs, and we can do a proper reading for a half-hour? If that’s OK with your boss?”
Doctor Lu nods and urges me to go. “You can take a half-hour if you like, Janene. Go on.”
“Um, OK. Do I need to bring anything?”
“Just yourself, Janene,” Kilmer says.
“OK, then.” I follow Kilmer upstairs.
The office space is sparsely furnished and far from the mystical place I’d envisioned. There are two mismatched cloth couches along the walls, a large tube TV, and a coffee table that has met many cups of coffee or tea without the benefit of protection from coasters. On the walls hang a few cheaply framed Monet prints that have faded from too much sunlight. Along the dusty floor, some suffering house plants are strewn haphazardly.
Kilmer invites me to sit on the scratchy brown couch that faces the TV, which is airing an episode of Judge Judy. It’s muted but closed captioning is activated. A dispute is going on between a former boyfriend and girlfriend over a set of expensive garden tools.
Kilmer produces a pack of everyday playing cards from his pocket and begins shuffling them on the table.
“This will be a standard reading,” Kilmer says. “Do you have any questions before we begin?”
“You use normal playing cards?”
“For standard readings, yes,” he says. “They’re almost as effective as the tarot and easier to interpret.”
“Oh, I just never heard of that before,” I said. “OK, then.”
Kilmer shuffles the deck one last time and places a card face up. He focuses intently on it before he speaks.
“I see you are struggling,” he says. “Sometimes, you experience a lot of frustration. It may be with commuting to work. Is this true?”
I nod. “I’ve had some car issues lately.”
He flips another card. “And here I can see that you may be dealing with a difficult situation in your family. Someone there is difficult to deal with . . . Your mother, perhaps? A sister?”
“My mother,” I say. “I don’t have a sister.”
“Yes. Sometimes we fight. She thinks she controls me even though I’m three years out of college, living on my own.”
“I see that. I see that she wants what’s best for you, but you feel like she’s controlling you, and you want to spread your wings. Am I right?”
“Sometimes. I suppose that’s true,” I say.
He flips another card. “I see a long history of this difficulty going back to when you were a teenager. There were times when you experienced a lot of anger toward her. At times you found her embarrassing to be around. She could often make a scene . . .”
Kilmer looks up at me when I don’t respond. He flips another card, a queen of clubs. “But, you always managed to work out your differences in the end.”
“Yes, usually so,” I say. “Do you see anything ahead in the future for me?”
Kilmer produces an ace of hearts. “Oh, the good news here. In May. A raise, perhaps? Or a settlement of some kind. Are you involved in a court case at all?”
“Then, a raise is likely.”
“Oh, I hope so,” I say.
“The finances are difficult for you,” Kilmer says. “The bills seem to be the only thing in the mail most times, am I right? You aren’t able to afford all the things you want. Like that pair of shoes, you saw a few weeks ago. The sexy shoes . . .”
I glance at the TV rather than meet Kilmer’s inquisitive probe. Sexy shoes? Judge Judy is siding with the defendant on this one.
“Um,” I say.
“You are single right now?”
Reflexively, I lie and tell him I’m with somebody going on six months. Truth is my love life has been on the skids lately.
“Dating. I’ve been with a guy for about six months now.”
“I see some changes ahead. Good changes. You might have found the one.”
Kilmer places four of hearts down. He points to the card and taps it definitively. “And this,” he says. “This is telling me there will be a little girl in your life one day. A baby.”
“Not too soon. But soon enough.”
“Oh, OK,” I say. “I’m in no hurry for that.”
“But you always wanted a baby. The girl will look so much like you and have the same laugh and smile. She will be adorable.”
“Is there anything I should look out for to avoid?” I say.
Kilmer flips a card, a seven of diamonds.
“Horses in Mexico,” he says. “If you go to Mexico, don’t get on a horse.”
“Roger that,” I say and laugh. I glance at the clock above the TV. Most of the half-hour is chewed up. “Well, I really should be getting back to work. We have a patient coming in soon . . .”
“Oh, certainly,” Kilmer says. “One final thing . . .” He picks up the deck and shuffles it. He lays six cards face down and asks me to turn them over one by one. He writes a string of numbers on an index card and passes it to me.
“These numbers will be auspicious for you one day,” he says.
I wonder how he derived the numbers from the cards, but I don’t have time to inquire further.
“Oh? Great. I can always use some more luck in my life . . .”
I stand up and thank Kilmer for the reading.
“If you ever want a more in-depth reading with the tarot deck, I can give you a reduced rate.”
“Really? Well, thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks again. It was very interesting,” I say.
“My pleasure. Take care now.”
I let myself out and return downstairs to work.
“So, how was it?” Doctor Lu asks when I get back.
I frown. “Um, I don’t know . . . It seemed like a lot of generalizations, stuff that could apply to just about anybody. Did you—was yours good?”
Doctor Lu smiles. “He thought I’d been a victim of a serious crime, but that has never happened, thank God. He said I had a mystical experience on a mountain once, but that’s not true, and he said I’m really good at math. That is almost racist.”
I laugh. “He’s horrible, isn’t he? His office is really run-down. You wouldn’t believe it.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Oh, stuff about fighting with my mom when I was a teenager, which is like, every teenager. And some other stuff completely wrong or really general. He finished by giving me some numbers to play in the lottery.”
“Well, now we know he’s a fake,” Doctor Lu says. “No more wondering, right?”
In the days that follow, it’s depressing to think about the deception taking place above my head. Magic has been replaced by a cheap con.
When people walk in looking for a psychic, I still tell them to try one floor up, but I’m less kind about it. “This is a medical office,” I say.
My thinly veiled impatience doesn’t sway anyone, though. The desperate head upstairs anyway.
Can I blame them? They don’t know. They’re just looking for hope like everyone else. A better job. A new love. A spiritual awakening. Something to balm the drudge of days ahead.
And that’s why, even knowing Claude Kilmer is a fake, whenever lottery jackpots get high, I can’t help but play the numbers foretold to me:
Six numbers that could mean nothing.
Six numbers that could change everything.