“Nothing?” was what the clients always said.
“Absolutely nothing,” was what I used to say, gazing down at their hand in my hand using the extremely professional, highly courteous, impeccably scientific approach that any self-respecting palm reader would adopt. “Your life is absolutely free of any significant events. Until the day you drop dead, you will lead a more or less healthy life despite the amount of sugar and processed food you stuff into your body. You will even get a few promotions at work despite your obvious lack of interest in your career, for around you, there will be people who make their lack of interest in their careers even more obvious.”
This was when the client would stop repeatedly asking Nothing? Which was when I’d assume (wrongly, stupidly, inexperiencedly) that they were simply overwhelmed by the good news, and continue on:
“Even more encouraging: despite your lukewarm attitude, your spouse won’t leave you.”
“Same with money. No going homeless, no going bankrupt. You’re truly blessed.”
“Oh, in that regard, I guess. But no… big adventures?”
“And no… great true love of my life?”
“So my life’s gonna be like this for…”
“Forever. Until the day you die. Of natural causes.”
It was then that I used to beam at the client across the clean white square table. That table, and also the simple white walls and the bright energy-efficient lamps adorning the ceiling, had been an obvious choice. Same with the name of the business: the Scientific Palm Studies Institute.
What else would a self-respecting palm reader of the 21st century choose for their fortunetelling salon? Candles that posed a significant fire hazard? And one of those tacky antiquated round tables with soft purple velvet thrown over them? What, was I also supposed to wear bone ornaments in my hair, along with some raven feathers, then suffocate and blind the clients with thick incense by intentionally removing the windows while ignoring the building code? Clients who, according to their self-descriptions, consulted a palm reader out of the pure desire to know the truth and nothing but the truth?
Yes. The answer was a resounding yes.
I’d learned this the hard way, after one hundred and thirty-seven clients who left one-star reviews on Yelp and no tips. I’d told them nothing but the truth, yet there I was, in my spotlessly clean salon, which, in hindsight, looked more like a dentist’s office than anything else. And yes, I’m not exaggerating. It took me one hundred and thirty-seven to realize that something was awfully wrong.
Mostly, the reason it’d taken so long was that I simply couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to be lied to. Do not lie. Lying is bad. That was something I’d been hearing for all my life, thirty long years, in kindergarten and elementary school and junior high and high school, then “society” thereafter.
But come to think of it, my mother never told me that. She’d never recommended lying, but she hadn’t told me to not lie either. So I should’ve read between the lines. My mother had been a wise woman.
Everybody and their neighbor’s dog thought they could handle the truth. But the truth was, they couldn’t. And once I realized that I had been the one who’d been lying to myself by accepting people’s self-descriptions at face value, everything had become simple.
What people wanted to hear when they visited a palm reader—not a doctor, not a priest, and not a private investigator—was a lie. Though they claimed they didn’t want no drama and doom and gloom in their lives, they wanted to hear they still had a chance to live like the movie stars: with a passion, open to turmoil, facing heartbreaks and tragedies but also welcoming romance and victories.
At the very least, they wanted the experience of finding themselves in a place that felt as if it had been frequented by other people whose lives were going to be dramatic, exciting, risky.
Hence me, now. Long skirt, long blouse: think gypsy, hippie, bohemian. My hair done up, ornamented with an ivory U-shaped binyeo, carved from the bone of my great-great-grandmother, bejeweled with little aquamarine, emerald, and jade charms—oceanesque wonders. (This thing had seemed too morbidly out-of-place when I’d still flailed in my dentist-look phase. But now it fit perfectly. The ends of the U-shape were so sharp, they could even double as weapons if shady customers happened to visit. And shady customers did visit. With all the mysticism that I’d plastered around here, of course they did.)
Tall white candles illuminated and threw shadows of each other on the walls, painted violet. My eyes hurt. For anybody who came after Edison and Tesla and Bell, attempting to read anything under candlelight was simply too frustrating, including the reading of a palm. This was especially the case when layers of incense smoke filled the airspace between you and your client, who sat across a round table with purple velvet thrown over it.
Suppressing a grunt, I squinted over this particular evening’s client’s palm, holding it with both hands.
Oh, wait. The bell.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Must communicate with the spirits.”
With one hand, I rang the little bell—one of those handheld things that the royals used to use to summon their servants.
The client let out a restlessly disappointed-sounding “Oh.”
I guessed he was just pretending as if he’d expected anything less from a palm reading salon. Some people found it mortifying to admit that they wanted a little pretend-magic in their lives. You never knew if a client was one of those. You couldn’t tell if they were the type to secretly care that you weren’t using a Tibetan singing bowl.
At any rate, in the grand scheme of things, what mattered to most clients was this: that I at least went through the motions of using all the literal bells and whistles. I did sometimes use whistles—for “special” cases when the clients clearly expected me to be dealing with particularly cranky spirits, such as that of their feisty cat, dead seven years.
I put the bell back on the table. How extremely not-professional, highly not-courteous, and impeccably not-scientific I was!
But the truly important element that was missing now, unlike three years ago when I first opened this salon as “the Institute,” wasn’t that. It also wasn’t the hygienic white ceiling or the clean white walls—basically, everything that implied modernity, science, and measurable skills. It was that I wasn’t a self-respecting palm reader anymore. I was just a regular palm reader. I was another one of us who’d succumbed to lies instead of the truth. Which was ironic, because, remember the truth was that people wanted lies? In that case, was lying the truth, or was truth-telling a lie?
Same as this person’s lines.
Extraordinary, really. What the heck of a palm was this? I’d never seen a human hand with such fine yet deep-rooted lines before. These were more like crevices than lines. See what I mean? The candles. Impossible to read anything.
I cleared my throat.
“Would it be all right if I turned on the lights?”
The client tensed. He was a tall man, extremely lanky. If he hadn’t held himself with such a regal air, I would’ve described his limbs as inelegant. But the fact was that it didn’t matter what you were born with. What mattered was what you did with it. And this man knew how to move his could-have-been inelegant long arms and legs. He did so with full awareness, alertness, appreciation.
I’d taken a risk by asking to turn on the lights. Was this another one-star review for me, for breaking the spell that the client thought he was paying for?
But he only said, “Of course.”
That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to give me a one-star. From experience, I knew by now: all sorts of passive-aggressive folks pretended to be fine with something, then stabbed you in the back. But I’m proud to say that the incidence of one-star reviews decreased to exactly zero since I redecorated this place. And ever since I began serving each client with honey-drenched raisins at the beginning of our sessions, the percentage of two-star reviews decreased dramatically, so I was hoping this client would be one of those who valued the gifting of sweetness by a stranger.
I got up and walked up to a wall. The switch was painted the same violet as the rest of the surface. I flicked it. A little lone lamp, looking almost apologetic on the ceiling, lit up.
I headed back to the table. On my way, I beheld the client once more, which was a strange experience.
This guy. I remembered him from when he’d entered the salon earlier. The sun had been setting outside so that he’d been nothing but a silhouette. And I didn’t much care for examining people’s faces (I was a palm reader—utterly fair and impartial in my lukewarm interest in most other parts of the human body) but you didn’t miss such a beautiful, cinematic moment. I’d just turned on the neon sign for the evening. In big bright green, yellow, and violet lines it read: Madame Polonaise’s. Under that, in smaller letters: Palm Reading. This sign was the second most tacky object in my salon, after the round table that I’d salvaged from a flea market.
When he’d opened the door, the little bell there (another must) had rung. With him entered the cool late-autumn breeze that blessed the greater Los Angeles area with unbiased benevolence. Before the door closed, I heard the sound of newspapers and fliers rustling on the streets as the wind swept by. People in this neighborhood never knew where their paper stuff went. And the size of the cleaning crew was one of the things that wasn’t unbiased from neighborhood to neighborhood, so that all that paper stuff just kept circling around the streets and creating an atmosphere of casual abandonment.
“Madame Polonaise?” the client said—in the reading room, here, now; not at the door.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to shake off the goosebumps that’d risen on my arms.
The problem, the part I didn’t remember, was his face. I not only could not remember him due to my usual lukewarm interest in the human face and the backlight from the sun turning a silhouette out of him, but… at all. I couldn’t remember the presence of his face.
Even as I sat down across from him, I couldn’t see him.
The haze from the incense? Intoxication? Near-suffocation? Could they do this to my brain?
Yes, I’d degraded myself by updating my name on my business card to Madame Polonaise instead of the CEO of the Scientific Palm Studies Institute. And I’d lowered myself by using words like “mystical” and “esoteric” and “cryptic” in my bio instead of “objective” and “logical” and “accurate.” But I hadn’t fallen so low as to remove the windows in the reading room. I respected the building code and valued human lives. Sure, the air was a bit thick right now, but couldn’t possibly be toxic enough to cause a hallucination. Besides, the man seemed so at ease, with his long legs crossed and his one palm on the table, ready for me to examine once more.
I gazed down at his right palm. Grabbed it. And for the first time in many years, without fearing what star rating I was going to get, without worrying about bills and retirement savings, I held up his palm close to my face.
Sweet honey and raisins, from the crevices of his palm.
“You’re not human,” I said, looking up at the part of his face where his eyes should have been.
“Finally, a truth-teller,” he said eagerly.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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