“You can put those away now. Halloween was yesterday. Today is Cheap Candy Day. Tomorrow is Christmas.” A brown slouch purse collapsed on the table as the purse bearer slouched into an uncomfortably bare steel chair. Her hands now free of their burden, one sought the pocket of her oversized denim jacket while the other pulled a time faded hood over her face. This pushed her wind-styled mess of hair to cover her face. She gladly hid behind the tangles while sighing how done she was with the world.
“Lemme guess, Lisa. It went to shit again.” Anyone who heard and understood the words would have instantly known that the speaker was the last person to be surprised that it had gone to shit again. If anything, it would be fair to infer that the speaker knew it would go to shit from the start and that it was Lisa who had to learn this the hard way.
Lisa said nothing as she slumped further into the chair. For what was an uncomfortably long minute to one and a satisfactorily long minute to the other, the only sound between the two people seated at the unadorned steel table were that of cards being slipped from a deck and those cards tapped onto the table.
“No, really. Put those damn things away.” Lisa watched as the cards continued to be laid out on the table in obvious defiance of her order.
“Can’t. I might actually win this round.” Another card was slipped from the deck, held for a moment, then tapped to lay over already present cards.
Lisa pushed her hair away from her face to see the card player clearly. She wanted to talk shit about the faded sweater but remembered that the jacket she’s wearing looks worse. She wanted to talk shit about how the different styles of rings were jarring to look at but remembered that the only thing coordinated about her own clothes at the moment was the fact that they were worn.
Lisa always wanted to somehow take the card player’s ego down a notch or five, but always wound up taking comfort in her presence instead. Suddenly feeling the need to save face and/or a reputation, Lisa targeted the cards on the table even as she felt like she was jumping on a bandwagon to do so.
“Are you, like, fucking playing fucking solitaire with god damn tarot cards?”
Another card found its place on the table. “Like. Fucking maybe.”
“How does that even work? Aren’t there like, unequal suits or some shit?”
A card is pulled but held above the table. “I see your bait and I’m ignoring it. You can always mope at home, you know. Your cube d’rosé won’t call you out on your shit.”
Lisa tried to pull her hair back in front of her face and entangled it further on a previously overlooked hangnail. “Shit. You know, Becky, for someone who has a job interacting with the public, you can be shitty sometimes.”
The held card quietly found its place on the table. The held deck was just as mutely laid to rest as well. Hands adorned with rings on each finger folded themselves in a slow, deliberate motion that highlighted the lack of color on the nails. “Rebecca.”
Lisa snorted at the correction, closed her eyes, and leaned further into an uncomfortable posture as if by putting on airs, she could put on defenses. The silence stabbed her conscience and she opened her eyes to find Rebecca still seated with her hands folded on the laid cards. Rebecca’s face was disturbingly gentle. Rebecca’s eyes were hard to read.
“There you go again, assuming a level of control where there is none. I did not give you leave to rename me. Now you’re going to sit there and try to stir up me defending myself into another excuse to distract yourself with, but I’m not having that out of you today. My name is Rebecca, not Becky. And you knew damn well that you were unprepared for the interview and that for once in your privileged life, you’re going to have to do more than breathe if you want to get what you want.”
Lisa sat up in the chair. “God damn… Rebecca. Shit. I’m just trying to destress here.” She had slouched in the chair for too long and she winced as sitting up properly now caused her back to complain more than slouching in the first place.
“You know my boundaries and that I am quick to defend them.” Rebecca started to gather up her cards and used the action to settle one topic and engage with another. “It would appear that my game is not winnable under the rules I have written. Time to rewrite the rules and start again.”
Lisa leaned forward a bit to attempt to stretch her back. It didn’t work. “Rewrite the rules? Who’s running now, eh?”
“Who’s employed now, eh?” The gathered deck of cards tapped the table to transform the question into a cold statement.
“That’s dirty.” Lisa stood up with the intention of storming off whilst huffing dramatically as her bruised ego was demanding be done. Her back required her to celebrate her freedom from the torturous chair by aggressively stretching and making her back feel worse in the process. “Ow! Ugh, god, these chairs suck! Of all the places to camp at, why do you sit here!”
Rebecca shuffled her cards a few times before answering. “Because of all the places I’ve camped at, only the regulars know to bring cushions for themselves. That, and to make sure that the only people who sit with me are those who want to sit with me. You didn’t come here to destress, demean me, or have a coffee, as you have failed at all three.”
She placed the shuffled deck at the center of the table and looked up at the bothered woman. “Why are you here?”
Lisa remained standing but did not take up her purse. She stared at the cards for yet another uncomfortable moment. She looked around the café space to the other patrons who might as well be paintings on the wall for the complete lack of interest and interaction they gave her. She looked back at the cards on the table, then looked at Rebecca’s furiously patient face.
She nodded at the cards. “They’re paper and ink.”
“But they work.”
“You saw my interview going to shit and said so last time.”
“To be honest, Lisa, I don’t need the cards to know you don’t have your act together. But, yes, I did read a confirmation in the cards, last time. Stop trying to avoid whatever it is that’s eating at you and either tell me why you’re here or leave.”
Lisa shoved her hands into her pockets. She bit her lip and was reminded that her hair was still just as disheveled as when she arrived. She pulled the now wet lock out of her mouth and grimaced at both the taste of the slick hair and the words she felt on her tongue.
“This is going to sound strange.” She looked around at the other patrons before glancing at the indifferent staff. That no one was looking at her bothered her more than if anyone was. When she spoke again, it was low and conspiratorial and as if she was revealing a deep and terrible secret. “I wanna learn how to do tarot like you do. Teach me.”
“Oh.” Rebecca picked up the deck and held the now worn and familiar cards with both hands. “No.”
“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN, NO!” Lisa earned all the attention that just seconds before, she was upset at not receiving. Being the center of attention despite everyone’s attempt to leave her be gave her a feeling of control that she never wanted to lose again. Rebecca held the keys to more control, and by hell, she was going to get them if it meant snatching the cards out of her hands this instant.
Rebecca, however, was far too amused by the manner of Lisa’s request, demeanor, and temper tantrum to take any part of Lisa’s actions seriously. She tried to keep what she thought was a mature facial expression, but watching Lisa spit out a few more chewed upon hairs broke the last restraint. Her laughter drowned out the echo of Lisa’s outburst. The same people who had just looked at Lisa in alarm, saw that Rebecca was not concerned, and they turned back to their personal matters leaving Lisa standing in front of the table with a red face from the lack of embarrassment.
“I’m serious!” She stomped her foot and realized that the card reader probably saw through that petulant action just the same. She sat back down, ignoring the renewed complaints from her back. “Really! If it’s true that tarot cards are just paper and ink, and that there is no religious or even spiritual requirement that has to be met before someone can use them, then I can use them, and I can see how to get on with my life instead of coming to someone who is too busy pretending to be interested with me and more interested in how much I can entertain them!”
Rebecca’s snorting laughter curled with a cold edge to the tone but Lisa ignored that too. She waved a ten dollar bill at Lisa before putting it on the table. “Get me a medium mocha and get whatever you want from the rest. If you really want me to influence how you learn tarot, you better get a boost of some sort before I start.”
Lisa looked at the money then looked back at Rebecca who had already put the gaming deck away and was rummaging through her tote bag for something else. Rebecca pulled out a box only to note in the light that it was not the box she was looking for. As she delved back into the tote, she spoke at Lisa’s presence. “Go ahead, there might be a line and the less time you’re in it, the faster you’ll learn tarot.”
“But… Like… Can’t you get it yourself. I mean… You’re asking me to, like, fetch something for you. That’s rude.” Lisa’s hands found their way back into her pockets as her ass pushed into the deepening bruises previously engraved by the chair.
Rebecca took a deep breath as she paused her determined search. With her gaze still focused into the depths of her bag, she addressed Lisa. “Earlier you accused me of wanting you to hang around me because your bullshit entertained me. Even though you inserted yourself into my awareness by heckling me at a private party I was hired to read at. You demand that I teach you the entire body of knowledge and understanding of a skill and a tool that you, not even ten minutes ago, derided as mere paper and ink and judged them as damned. And yet, you can’t even pretend to be thankful enough to spend someone else’s money to benefit yourself for five hot fucking minutes.”
She retrieved the goals of her search and laid them on the table: A plain white envelope sized to fit a plain folded letter, a pack of what appeared to be poker cards held with a rubber band, a black pen, and some folded papers. She tapped the ten dollar bill still lying where she had left it. “If you want to learn, fetch my medium mocha with the money I have placed and buy whatever you want from the change. No mocha, no lesson.”
Rebecca interlaced her fingers together on the table with a slow and deliberate motion, signaling the end of her exposition and the beginning of her patience. Lisa continued to keep her hands in her pockets and stared first at the money, then at the deck of cards lying just behind it.
“Well, it’s your fucking money, so I fucking guess.” Lisa snatched the money off the table before she had fully risen from the chair. As she turned to face the register, she was surprised by the quiet line of people that had assembled while she was sulking. “No fucking way…” Even as she continued her bitching with her thoughts, she went ahead and got in line as she was told. She looked back and saw that Rebecca was writing something on the cards.
The line which initially felt like it stretched across the parking lot, was actually very short and very quick. The coffee house’s prices meant that there wasn’t enough money left over for Lisa’s usually complicated and performative drink choices. She would have to settle for something as simple and unremarkable as Rebecca’s mocha. “A small latte with an extra shot.”
Lisa brought the two drinks back to the table and set the mocha down where the money had been sitting before. The large deck of playing cards had been replaced with a much smaller stack. A thick stack of worn cards, different than the cards she had seen earlier, were on the table as well. The pen had been returned to the tote. The envelope was under the smaller stack of cards. Of the folded papers, only a torn half remained in place. Rebecca’s hands were again folded behind everything.
Lisa was surprised to hear Rebecca sincerely thank her for fetching the mocha. She opened her mouth to snark about it, but looked at the promising deck and silenced herself. The two women sat and delicately slurped their hot drinks as one does in a coffeehouse.
“Okay.” Rebecca sat her mocha on the table. “Let’s clear up a thing. Tarot will not fix your shit. Tarot is a tool, like a fork, or a makeup case, or a car, that you use to help yourself fix your shit. Tarot can be misused, like eating something you’re allergic to, like wearing contacts for too long, like driving faster than you can control, and like everything else, you can wreck your shit by not paying attention.”
“Yes, it’s paper and ink. But it’s also a mirror, a sounding board, a prism, and a diary. How you interact with tarot will determine how tarot acts for you. Come with bullshit, leave with twice as much while believing that you have uncovered the secrets of the universe. And Lisa, you have a literal buttload of bullshit that you’ve been carrying all this time, and these cards aren’t going to shave them off your ass anytime soon.”
As Rebecca refreshed herself with a polite sip, Lisa just held her cup to her mouth to keep herself from saying the angry thoughts that were yipping in her head. She just wanted Rebecca to get to the good shit already, how can paper and ink give her the power to resume her comfort in life?
Rebecca’s cup returned to the table. “Now, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with a history of the tarot, real, imagined, reconstructed, verified, and or what the hell other you want to hang your beliefs on. If you want to chase that, the Internet is anyplace else but here. Instead, I’m going to start with the most generic overview ever, because this is how I started.”
She picked up the thick deck of worn cards and handed them face down to Lisa who immediately brightened at receiving them. “Are you giving these to me?! My first deck is supposed to be gifted, right?”
“No, and wrong. I’m allowing you to view one of my older decks because when you start looking shit up on the internet, chances are these images like these are the ones you’re going to see most often. Again, I’m not going to get into the legacy of Pamela Colman Smith or the history of Arthur Edward Waite or the Golden Dawn or any of that. Look that shit up yourself. I certainly didn’t know any of that when I first started. I had a deck, a little booklet that came with it, and no sense of self-preservation. All else that followed came because I sought it out.”
“Oh.” Lisa looked at the dingy edges of the nicked deck. The once white edges had yellowed where the lamination had eroded away, which made the deep blue of the card back feel even deeper allowing the false gold stars to stand out. Lisa rubbed her thumb over one of the stars, expecting it to be a foil imprint. The smear left behind alarmed her and she tried to rub off her fingerprints. Instead, she found she was adding to the unintentional art of smears.
Rebecca noted her actions and chuckled. “Yea, old cards love fingerprints. I’ve tried taking an alcohol wipe to them when I was actually worried about destroying their value as a collector’s item. Now, I just take a cotton cloth to them when they feel grungy.”
“Aren’t all decks collector’s items?”
“Oh hell, fuck, no. And save that question for your internet search. Just know that any deck I’m willing to allow other people to touch are decks that are easily replaceable.”
Lisa turned the deck of cards over. What was the bottommost card was now the topmost and facing her. A richly robed man sat on a large throne holding a plate with a star in one hand and an oversized rattle in the other. Grapevines were everywhere and Lisa couldn’t make out where the decoration on his clothes ended and the vines around his throne began. He looked happy under the yellow sky but the two bull heads on his throne looked menacing. “KING of PENTACLES” was printed in handwritten block letters under his portrait. In small print was a copyright notice, but the lighting was not enough for Lisa to make it out.
“What’s a pentacle? Isn’t that witchy shit?”
Rebecca’s long sigh informed Lisa that this was probably one of those questions best left for looking up on the Internet. She slipped the King of Pentacles to the bottom of the deck and examined the next card.
A tall, young person with long red hair is standing on a lump of ground. The wind is whipping their hair as they stand like a ballerina while holding a long sword up. Lisa noted that the background trees had their canopies blown to the side and high above the person’s head, ten birds could be seen as a collection of wiggly lines. “I get it! This is a card about wind!”
She lifted the card to face Rebecca. “It’s…” She lowered the card to read the title then lifted it again. “It’s the Page of Swords!”
Rebecca smiled warmly. Lisa realized it was the first sincere smile she’d seen from Rebecca since she forced the card reader to pay attention to her. When she realized that this smile was also one of the reasons why she kept seeking out the card reader, she felt something uncomfortable and put the card in the back of the deck immediately in hopes of burying the feeling as well.
“Something wrong?” Lisa didn’t understand how Rebecca could be so angry one moment and so concerned the next. The uncomfortable feeling intensified and Lisa looked for something to deflect with. The next card in the deck gave her an excuse and a distraction.
“Why is this card upside down? Aren’t you supposed to read tarot cards all right side up?”
Rebecca saw Lisa’s discomfort and that Lisa was also avoiding any acknowledgement of it. But because she didn’t know the cause of it, she followed Lisa’s lead. “Some decks you can. Some decks you can’t. Some readers do. Some readers don’t. With that deck, I do read cards upside down. It just means their regular meanings have been tweaked in a way that may mean the opposite or the worse of the thing.”
A person in red and white clothes stood at the end of a table. On the table, was a star plate, a fancy cup, a sword, and something that looked like a long rod that was broken at one end. Red and white flowers framed the bottom and top of the card. The person had a halo, but the usual circle had been twisted into a figure 8. They pointed at the ground with one hand, and in the other hand, they held up something like… uh… well…
“Oh, what card are you looking at that got you blushing?” Rebecca leaned forward to see what Lisa was peering so intently at. Lisa clutched the card to her chest to hide it.
Rebecca laughed. “Looks like a dildo, doesn’t it. But it’s not. It’s a wand.”
Lisa, realizing that Rebecca most likely knew her deck best, placed the Magician on the table with the rest of the deck. “Wand, eh. Pre-Hitachi?”
Rebecca answered the question with silence. She did not want the impending lesson spoiled. Lisa reached for the deck but Rebecca picked it up first. Lisa pouted as Rebecca put her treasured deck in a fitted bag before putting it back in her tote.
“So how do I get from finding hidden dick shots to reading the future?”
“Wrong question. How do you establish a personal connection to tarot? That’s the question I’m going to give you the tools to answer for yourself.” Rebecca picked up the small stack of cards and handed them with the envelope to Lisa.
Lisa looked over the plainly numbered cards with confusion. “What the fuck is this?”
“A deck of cards. I’ll leave it to the purists if it’s a true tarot deck or not. To me, they’re a Majors Only Deck. To someone on the internet that doesn’t even know I exist, they’re a hot mess. I don’t give a shit. You wanted to learn tarot, right? I’m a card reader, not a card teacher. If you want to learn how to read cards the way I do, then you’ll have to learn how in the way that I did. From the cards.”
Rebecca held out the torn sheet of paper. “Here. This is a list of catchphrases for each card in the Major Arcana. Over time, you’ll likely develop your own set of keywords and catchphrases that will have differences from mine. But you need a place to start, and here it is.”
Lisa took the sheet of paper. On it was a list titled “78 TAROT CARDS”. In a very basic list format, a bold header declared “Major Arcana”. It was followed by twenty-two entries that were numbered with roman numerals. But the list started with the number zero and ended with the number twenty-one. Following the last entry was another header but it was incomplete. The page had been ripped at that point and the only surviving word was “Minor”.
Lisa waved both the cards and the paper in frustration. “What. The flying fuck. Is this bullshit? I thought you said the cards didn’t require any magic or religion or abracadabra fuckery! And you’re giving me a list that has a magician, a high priestess, and… what the fuck is a hi… hero… hyreo… what the fuck?!”
Rebecca nodded in obvious enjoyment of Lisa’s frustration. “A Hierophant was originally the priest who would escort celebrants of the mysteries into sacred chambers. The word is now generally accepted to mean a formal priest of an organized religion. It also happens to be the title of a major arcana tarot card. Its ordering number is five. Again, the internet is your friend and foe. I suggest you compare the list to the cards.”
Lisa slammed the handwritten cards on the table. “I want a pretty deck! Like the one you showed me first!”
“Get a job, save some money, and buy them yourself.”
Lisa opened her mouth to scream profanities at Rebecca, or so she told herself. No sound came out as she realized that the reason she was demanding to be taught how to read tarot was so she could find out how to get a job without trying in the first place. Rebecca’s calm face was a silent rebuttal to the fury that Lisa chewed on and swallowed back down as she accepted that either she work towards getting a job or work towards understanding the cards.
Well, if nothing else, she could start advertising herself as a card reader and make money that way. How hard could this be anyway if the teaching tool were twenty-two cards with a name and a number handwritten on them.
“Okay. You got me. I’m listening.”
Rebecca pointed at the handwritten cards. “I’m no artist, and to be honest, with all the boutique and niche decks that are floating around out here, the artwork all turns to mud after a while. When I started out, I just needed to know what card was I looking at and what did it mean in relation to the others I’m also looking at. Think of each card as a profile for a character, a trope, or a cliché. One card is a statement. Two cards could either be friends or enemies stuck in a situation. Three cards is the plot of a book or a movie. It’s all how you interpret them, but first you have to understand what you’re looking at.”
She pointed at the list. “Ask a hundred card readers what any one card means, and you’ll get at least two hundred and fifty meanings. Nothing is set in stone, but most decks will define their cards around a central set of ideas. This list happens to come from a website I lurk at. As you get better familiar with the cards, you’ll tweak this list to suit you.”
Lisa read some of the phrases and realized the wording was unusual for some of the entries. “So what’s to stop me from looking up this website, getting the full list, and going on to learn tarot without you?”
Rebecca picked up her cold cup and drank the remaining mocha without flinching. She set the cup on the table with a satisfying tap and smiled smugly at Lisa. “To be honest, I’m hoping you’ll do exactly that. I’m a terrible teacher and I don’t think it would be in your best interests if I meddle any further in your tarot education.”
The idea of being banished from Rebecca’s attention made Lisa feel uncomfortable again. “So. What’s my homework, teacher?”
“First off, do not ever call me your teacher again. Because I’m not. You’re not going to learn from me. You’re going to learn from the cards. Secondly, go through the list I gave you. If you want to jump all in and start looking shit up on the internet, go for it. There are many who would love to tell you that they know the perfect way to read tarot and that everyone else is full of shit. They usually charge a lot of money.”
Rebecca leaned forward and picked up the handwritten cards. She sorted them in a particular order, then moved one card from the back to nearly the front. She held them out to Lisa. “My… suggestion… is that you sit with the cards in the order that I have placed them. Start with this top card and see what its catchphrase is in the list. Then go about your day and keep your eyes open. How does this catchphrase manifest itself in your life? What moments would be picture perfect to be the artsy scene for this card? That is how I learned to read tarot, by recognizing tarot moments in my life away from the deck.”
Lisa grabbed the deck but Rebecca did not release it. “Of course, I have to give you a warning, because the way I learned the tarot does have side effects. I’ll be the first and last person to tell you that a tarot deck is paper and ink, that it isn’t haunted, demonic, spiritual, cursed, or whatever the panic keyword of the week is. But Tarot, capital T, has a presence of its own, probably built up over the centuries of use as a divination tool. And Tarot, capital T, doesn’t give a shit what your religious, spiritual, or magical beliefs are. If you engage with it, it is going to engage with you. How it engages with you will be bounded by how you engage with yourself. So I suggest you start off using the tarot to find out how to improve your personal self and start doing just that.”
Rebecca released her grip on the small deck, leaving Lisa holding the deck in mid-air. “Are you trying to scare me?”
Rebecca gathered her things and her trash. “I work with full disclaimers. I hate gotchas and I always make sure anyone I’m working with knows what they’re getting into.”
Lisa laid the handwritten deck on the envelope on the table. “Anything else I should know?”
“Yea. Before you come to me with any question, go through all twenty-two cards at least once. At the very least, be familiar with the catchphrase that goes with it. Think of this list as your homework’s syllabus. Sit down with each card’s concept, especially if it’s one that you don’t personally like. You may find in your reflection of the cards, that you discover what it is about yourself that you don’t like. If you do, you know what to fix so you won’t fuck up the next interview.” Rebecca pulled her purse strap over her shoulder. “Time for me to go. See you around, Neophyte.”
Lisa picked up the deck and stuffed it into the envelope. As she stuffed the envelope and torn paper into her purse, she started to ask about the meaning of the word “neophyte”.
She looked up to find that she was standing alone at the table. “Of fucking course she would ghost me like that. Twenty-two cards, if I sit with one card a day, that’s just over three weeks. I still have money for the next two months, three if I call Auntie.” The way Lisa grimaced when considering calling Auntie all but confirmed that she will never make that call. “It’s just like being back in college! Without the patchouli. Well, maybe I can learn enough to convince people to give me money for telling them how pretty their wedding will be. That will be enough to get by for a while longer.”
Lisa hoisted her purse, snagged her fingernail on her mussed hair again, and quickly left the coffee house before the setting sun could show her reflection in the windows.
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