It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure. When Marlene starts to work at the tea room she quickly discovers that she is all that stands between her clients and the psychic world full of all kinds of dangers and wonders.
I held the folded newspaper under my arm as I crossed the Boston Commons and headed for the door across the street that said Rita’s French Tearoom. It had been a short walk from my apartment across the open space that had once been city land for cattle grazing. The Commons was a legendary public area, mostly a park, but a park in the heart of Boston and deeply tied into the history of the city. On one side was the heart of Boston’s old town. On the other side was a jumble of small businesses and ramshackle apartments with one of which I had taken as a college student to Boston State. College had ended, but my passion and desire for a psychology degree gave me no job credits with a mere bachelor’s. Eventually I would need my masters and doctorate. But that would have to wait for more funds and more energy. So I was looking for a job that was just a job, not something I would pour myself into, or care about after hours. Just a nine to five with some benefits and salary. I’d gather some cash and catch my wind before entering the upper academic whirlwind. After a long round of interviews for shop clerk’s girls, a set of tests at a temp agency and an offer to be your own boss doing telemarketing, I circled the ad that said, “Are you Psychic? Tea Leaf reader wanted.” Almost as a lark. I went past the downstairs wig shop that could have served either cancer patients or working girls or both, from its window into the elevator that took me to the second floor where the tearoom was. I asked for a cup of tea and casually laid down the circled newspaper ad.
The woman who served me was a well cushioned black lady with a smile as warm as Georgia. “Hmm,” she said, looking me up and down. “Young lady, Rita going to want to talk to you.”
I blinked. “Who is Rita?”
“Child, you looking for a job or not? Trust me, you want to talk to Rita. Come with me.”
She turned with my teacup in hand and led me to an office in the back of the room. As I entered, a huge blue macaw in a birdcage lifted one wing and said “Tell me what you see! Tell me what you see!” Then he turned his head at me as if he expected my answer.
“Rita will be here in just a moment,” the woman said, leaving me with the bird and my tea.
I almost tipped my teacup over, waiting for the reader. I touched the silver charm at my neck for luck. Nona gave it to me so long ago, I couldn’t remember before I had it. It was a silver crafted hand with an evil eye bead center. “For you, Cara mia,” Nona had said as she pressed it into my hands. I could feel her with me whenever I touched it. I wore it always at my throat.
The tearoom featured a tiny dining area with Victorian striped wallpaper. The decor was ladylike without being cute in any way. There was nothing French about Rita or the tearoom, or, for that matter, the tea. In the world of psychics, you were who you said you were. But everyone lied or misdirected, just a bit.
Rita entered and sat at the desk across from me. “What do you want me to read for you today?” she said, smiling. Rita should have been ugly, but she had far too much presence for that. Her hair was piled on top. She wore a plum print dress. Her body and face seemed to be made of round clumps of clay. The animation in her face changed that perception. When she read she was electric.
“Your name?” she asked as she sat by me.
I finished my sandwich and sieved the last of the tea leaves with my teeth. “Marlene. My name is Marlene Calley.” I stumbled over my name.
Rita turned my cup over.
“Tell me my past. Tell me my future. Tell me what you see.” I was echoing something I’d heard before. I couldn’t remember who said it.
“They’re not that separate, you know,” Rita said. She settled into her chair and my cup. “A journey, but not too far. A man you’re with and two men you’ll meet. You won’t want the first two once you’ve met the third. The second man hunts where the others seek. The third no longer hunts because he’s found who he is. You’re at a new passage. A new road but you can’t walk it until you know your past. You think the past is gone, but it rides on your throat and sits in your pocket. You’ll attend a party that changes everything. Pay attention. Don’t let the drink dull your senses. It’s not your friend. The car you’re using isn’t your car. But be careful. I see a car crash. Beware of fire. It will not burn you but it’s the enemy of what you are trying to save. There’s a snake in your cup but it will not hurt you. It belongs to a friend you haven’t met yet.” Rita rattled on. “Do you know any priests?” she asked me. I shook my head no. Her reading was different from my college friends. She read well. She was correct in the details. But I suspected the purpose of Rita’s reading primarily served her.
I got a glimpse of the leaves in my cup. I’d been reading tea leaves with college friends since my freshman year in college. I learned picked some of it from them.
She looked straight at me. ”You have a powerful gift.”
I hadn’t thought about it like that. We drank tea and read cups in college to avoid our homework.
She put down my cup. ”I could read more for you. But will you read for me?”
She got us both another cup of tea. We both sipped and talked about the weather. When I held her cup, my hands shook a bit.
Her cup overflowed with images of people and enterprises. Odd buildings. A clothes press. Small people coming to her in streams. I learned later that the tearoom was only a small part of her fiscal empire, which entailed tenement housing. She also owned a dry cleaners service. But the tearoom was her heart. It was who she was. She’d read for years and had an enviable stable client list. She’d been married, divorced, remarried and widowed. She had become precisely who she pretended to be.
After I’d read she said, “Your gift is strong. Why don’t you come and read for me here?” It was surreal. I had a bachelor’s degree I’d just earned in psychology. And I’d just learned that it would gain me 85 cents per hour more than a high school diploma at the clothing shop I applied at. ”How much do you pay?”
Rita smiled. ”It doesn’t work like that. We read for tips. But with a gift like yours… The clients are generous to readers they can trust.”
I was twenty-one years old. I’d spent all of that being time safely practical and practically safe. My mother was dead and past being shocked. I had no other prospects. And not much to lose. I felt the pull of my own gift. So I came to read at the tearoom. So much for a low-pressure salaried job with benefits.
What is gift? The ability to see the past, the future, the now. It’s about perception. Readers perceive more than the present. Their sight stretches from past to future. Gift comes and goes. But at the tearoom you needed to be able to read when asked, never mind whether the gift was flaring or dormant. Rita taught me the observation that could fill the gaps. She could have taught my psych professors volumes.
“Look at their eyes first,” Rita explained. ”It means you see them. See how they hold themselves. Three quarters of the reading is in their posture and eyes. Their clothing shows you who they are physically. If you are wrong and they correct you, nod as if it’s what you just said. And always end with something you know they want.”
I was dumbfounded. “How do I know what they want?”
“It’s not that complicated,” she explained. ”Everyone wants to be safe. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants their best self to be recognized. Everyone wants to pass down what they’ve learned. If you end on one of those, they’ll come back to you for years.”
In fairness, Rita didn’t scam people. Some readers frightened clients with the “terrible forces against them” and for a small fee would light candles for your protection, or cleanse you from evil spirits or remove curses. It was a vile scam that tended to make clients into slaves. It also made buckets of money.
Rita’s gift was genuine. She was not so honest that she told them everything she saw, not if she thought it would harm them. She wasn’t above making up a happy ending. She told them what she thought would help them most. She protected the people she read for. They loved her for it.
I stayed at Rita’s room and she treated me much as a daughter. She spent time on my training. My own mother was gone; it was a lot like being under a dragon’s wing. I was warm and protected, as long as it was okay with the dragon. To read, you had to detach from the present to see the future and the past. Cards, cups, palms and auras all functioned as a focus.
Rita brought out her best crystal ball. She draped black silk behind it, and sat me down. As she spoke I recognized her tone. She worked a mild form of hypnotism on me in training sessions. Her velvet voice shut the door on the outside world. ”Focus on the center. Can you see the swirl in the center?”
It was not the crystal that swirled. It made my stomach tip a bit. I looked up from the ball, not so sure. “Stay with it,” I heard Rita say. ”No thoughts. No problems. At least not any of your own.”
I thought I saw movement within the stone structure. But I couldn’t put words or pictures to it. It was not enough to read from. Twenty minutes later I was still at a blank spot.
We scratched the crystal ball.
I already knew tarot. At least, I knew the meanings of the cards. But Maggie taught me how cards fit into a whole.
Maggie was a huge-hearted black woman who had a gift like a thunderclap. She was, perhaps, the strongest psychic there. She looked at my tarot deck and sniffed. ”Why you gotta read on those old nasty things?” she asked me. ”I love to have you read for me, child, but not on those. Rita,” she called out, “Have you got a plain deck of cards?” Maggie took the new deck into her hands and shuffled like a poker master. Maggie taught me that the cards in tarot were the basis for a playing deck, and how to translate tarot into ordinary card decks. If you hit a level of perception, the meanings of the cards separately faded into a whole picture. It was like blending letters into words. The images had meanings as a whole, past separate meanings.
Maggie didn’t need a deck. Or a teacup or your palm. She just knew on sight. Maggie couldn’t teach anyone how she read. It was pure gift.
Rita taught me reading palms and astrology. I read hands well. I never mastered the math behind the astrology charts.
We had other readers who purely cold read, without any gift of sight. Their gift was observation. Since they told everyone what they wanted to hear, their clients loved them. They seemed faded though. They appeared to be translucent. They had a thin dreamy quality, as if they were already a little bit dead.
Rita also had an accountant, Will, who came in twice a week and reconciled the books. He slid past the readers at their tables, mildly afraid of them, and ensconced himself safely in the office where the numbers knew nothing of psychic powers and would not trouble his sleep. He was a big soft man in his fifties, loyal to Rita, planted firmly in the day-to-day world of accounting. Most of our clients were middle-aged Bostonian women on their lunch breaks or out of the house for the day. They came to be entertained or stroked. It was a massage session for the ego. They wanted a time in their week that was all about them.
But a few of them wanted something different. A fair number of those worked as psychic practitioners themselves. In the same way you wouldn’t do your own psychotherapy or your own tooth extraction, you didn’t do your own reading. For about the same reasons.
My first reading was for one of Rita’s regular clients. Betty Rider was in her late forties. She was plump, colorless woman, as contented as a matronly cat. Her colorless hair was in a slightly overgrown bob, her clothing a bit too tight around the middle. But that did not interfere with her enjoyment of her muffin or her tea.
“Betty, this is our new reader, Mirella,” Rita said. “She’s really wonderful. Do you mind if she takes your reading today?”
Betty pouted for a second as Rita popped another muffin on her plate. “She’s good, right?”
“She’s new,” Rita admitted. “But she’s very gifted.”
Betty nodded assent as she pulled the second muffin apart. She drained the last of her tea and placed the cup upside down on her saucer. “Turn it around three times to the left, “I said, as Rita had taught me. I held up the teacup and peered inside.
There was a room full of tables with toys all around. “You teach primary school, don’t you?” I started.
Betty smiled. “Yes and no.” I cocked my head, listening, and continued as if I hadn’t heard. “Your car needs new tires.” I saw the car itself with one wheel flattened. She nodded. I saw coins rolling away from the car itself. A stream of tea fell out of the cup taking the money with it. “Be careful who you take it to. I don’t think the tire guy is honest.”
I went on. “You have mice in your classroom.” I saw one sitting in her hand. “Are they pets? Do the initials OZ mean anything to you?”
Betty laughed out loud. “She’s not only good, Rita, she’s precious. Yes, I teach primary after a fashion. I teach art to adults, which means I teach them to play like kids. Yes, my tire went flat and the guy I took it to was a scumbag about fixing it. He way overcharged and didn’t tell me he was going to until he handed me the bill. I have a frightened little lady who’s my class mouse. Oz is my cat. She can read for me any time, Rita!” Betty slipped me five dollars, a respectable tip, and collected her bags to go. She hugged both Rita and me, and skipped out the door like an eight-year-old.
I read regularly for Betty after that. Almost every Saturday morning saw her at the tearoom waiting for a reading with me.
Usually her concerns were small, everyday things. People in her class. She didn’t seem to have a boyfriend or husband, but her cup was full of friends and activities. Her passion for food and cooking also showed in her cups. As did her cat.
Oz the munificent was a long-haired, Buddha-sized, gray cat, She herself was catlike and Oz was the male cat who ruled her world. She finally ‘fessed up’ that she cooked certain things especially for him. One day she came in and asked me to see if I could see anything about him. His appetite was off, and he was olderb. I looked into her cup and saw him flat on the rug. He looked dead.
I tried to remember what Rita told me about seeing the hard, bad things for people. I knew Oz was the love of her life. I tried to be gentle.
I started with a huge understatement. “I don’t think Oz has been feeling well. You might want to take him to the vet.” I said it as mildly as I could, although I knew it was bad.
“He’s sick?” she asked, hovering on my answer. “He’s not going to die, is he?”
Confronted outright, I said what I was sure of. ”He seems to be just lying there.”
“Is he going to die?”
What could I say? The answer was yes, sometime. Everyone dies, sometime. I didn’t think I could tell her that.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He doesn’t look well.”
Betty’s face pinched in. She grabbed her purse and ran out the door.
Later that day, Rita got a call from her. “You tell that Mirella I don’t ever want her to read for me again!”
Rita was, of course, her conciliatory best. “Did she read poorly for you? Was she in some way impolite?”
“Oz is dead. I had to put him down. Today. She knew. I know she knew. And she didn’t tell me.” Rita shut the door to her office so I couldn’t hear her response. Except when she put down the receiver. I went over to take whatever punishment that was waiting for me.
“What exactly did you say?” she asked me.
“I told her Oz wasn’t feeling well.”
“Did you know Oz was dying?” Rita tapped her fingers as she scanned my face, looking for some inner explanation.
“Maybe.” I answered. I shook my head and looked down at my hands.
“There wasn’t a right answer, you know,” Rita said. “Had you told her, she still would have been dreadfully upset.”
Several weeks went by. Mary Lou was an angular woman dressed in black and gray. Mary Lou spent her days looking after her older mother. Once a month, respite care would give her a morning out. She spent it partially with us. She wore gray that matched her gray hair although sometimes she spiced her color combination with rose beige. Her skin now was almost the same color. I peered into her cup, appalled to see a coffin.
Again, I was so unsure what to say. It seemed unambiguous. Her mother had been hovering over the grave for months. I tried again to soft pedal the news. “Is your mother unwell?” I asked.
Her smile was rueful and terrible. “ Mother died three days ago.”
I saw her relief and grief, both too strong for me to bear. I stumbled through the rest of the reading. Mary Lou said almost nothing. She just folded things into her purse and left. I sat shaken by her pain, by her loss, by her evident relief and her attending guilt.
Rita came over to my table with a muffin and a teapot. She poured a cup of tea for me, which I drank. Then she picked up my cup. “Let me read for you,” she said.
Rita slid gently into trance. “You’re going to meet gypsies. There’s a fire storm you need to be careful of. Look for a man whose name starts with E. He’ll be your friend, but he’s not your lover. He’ll ask for something you can’t give him. Look for another man whose name starts with R. You don’t think so, but he’s the person you need. There’s a lady whose name begins with B who will bring you all kinds of clients. You will go to a wedding where there are ghosts who need you. You’ll meet a mermaid. Be careful of large birds. A shaman will give you three feathers and a dog. You’ll meet a nun who will be your mentor. Her best friend is a two hundred year old witch. I see you running from a tiger. And from a boy in brown shoes.
You’ll have power in your day. But you can’t be confused. You can have power, you can wield power, but you never are a power. No one is. It’s a delusion. Beware of being right. Beware of proving you are right.”
The images splashed over me. I couldn’t hold on to them. As I listened to Rita read, I understood that she was telling me what my life as a reader would be like. It would be full of amazing people, some crazy, some broken, some astonishing. Full of people’s stories. Full of the solutions they would have to find for themselves. Full of witness to their lives, their pain, their growth, their triumphs and their losses.
“No matter who opens the door on their pain, whether they do or we do, it is opened,” Rita said. “Aired. Allowed to breath. Kept from festering. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt terribly. Sometimes they’ll lash out in their pain. But we give them a space and place to sort it out. We’re readers. It’s part of what we do.“
“Part of what we do?” I asked. I was puzzled. What more could there be?
Rita smiled. “The best of us hold the line between good and evil, living and dead, while we figure out what part of the future we can and can’t change. Or maybe just should and shouldn’t. And we entertain them. All clients like to be entertained.” One of her eyes slid shut. Had Rita winked at me?
I fingered Nona’s charm at my throat. I suspected reading was something Nona had done as well at some point.
If Nona could do it, so could I.