It was also the last ride of the clowns. Derek was fleeing the dying half of the empire for Byzantium, also known as California. It wasn’t a rushed choice: he had established a new career and relationship during the time I spent building a better dick joke. Years of sitcom-grade schemes had come to the natural conclusion of one of us becoming an adult.
But first, one more.
“We’re going to be psychics,” I explained, one week earlier. “I’m finishing an article for my website, which is read by many attractive and intelligent consumers. It’s your chance to be a part of history, really.”
I made the pitch during a picnic, assuming that food made people more pliable. Derek didn’t need any convincing. He is, by far, the more active half of our pair. It usually falls to him to pull me out of the mausoleum I play Dark Souls in to see the sunlight. The fact that I’d put an idea forward was a genuine omen. Something I’d learned to recognize as the local oracle.
“Yeah, let’s do it!” Some people can speak in exclamation points at normal volume. It’s an effect I’ve never been able to produce, but it comes to him naturally.
On the chosen day, I waited beside a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe’s shadow wasn’t enough to keep me from sweating out yesterday’s mimosas. The sun was killing me, racing ahead of time and the preservatives in Nature Valley bars. When Derek appeared, I assumed that it was a blonde mirage. That idea faded as I realized he wasn’t Uma Thurman.
“There are spots with more traffic,” he said, giving my corner an analytic glance. “Being a psychic mostly seems to be about telling people what they want to hear. Is that your plan?”
“Exactly,” I lied.
Our war chest consisted of a dozen slips of paper, a Samsung laptop box, and a boombox. I stared at this material for six minutes before coming up with the outline of a real plan.
The first bullet point was the cards. Despite a full week of experience as a self-trained psychic, I knew nothing about reading the traditional tarot. The major arcana were far too worn out to hold my attention, let alone a crowd of rush-hour commuters. The Devil has better things to do, towers are more associated with profit than disaster, and temperance has no place in the modern world. I was forced to start from scratch, and draw a set of symbols that resonated with me. The spirits appreciate creativity.
Next, we needed a sign. A good sign is essential for distinguishing your brand of nuisance in a city park. Some of the best ad copy on Madison Avenue comes from the homeless. A crust punk with a malnourished dog often demonstrates a creativity that could be used to sell Corona to Imams. The bar soared past “Need money for weed” in 2010, and it’s been a branding arms race since.
In better times, I’d have used the boombox to play something to the effect of “The Call of Ktulu” to set the mood. But we were in a downtown park, and Darth Bratton had just publicly committed to fighting “quality of life” violations within six feet of a baby boomer. Not everyone appreciates homeless creativity the way I do. I’d never slander the commissioner by calling him a regressive fascist. His pet “broken windows” theory is the hallmark of a forward-looking, 21st century fascist. The boombox was demoted to propping up the sign.
Finally, Derek was on notes. My flirtation with writing about the world outside my head had convinced me of one truth: every historian and reporter that claimed to recall a direct quote before the invention of audio recording was lying filth. There wasn’t a dovetail in human eloquence when Edison came around, just a sudden and crippling onset of accountability. Derek’s iPhone lacked my many petty biases and commitment to sounding cool.
Our first customer didn’t wait for us to get presentable. The second I’d finished scrawling “Free Psychic” on the Samsung box, we were approached by a park worker with a light grin.
“Make it quick, I’ve got to get back to work in five minutes.”
My first instinct was to ask for a minute. We’d only gotten as far as propping up the sign, and I’d planned on testing out canned fortune-cookie messages on Derek before taking any real challengers. But this was a city employee, and the entire game lived and died on her patience.
“Take a seat,” I said, gesturing towards a metal green chair looted from the dog park. Her smirk stood out over her height, mass, and elaborate braids. It was a challenge. I had to turn her into a believer.
“Five minutes is easy. I’ll have you back out there in three.” Bravado is everything when you have no idea what you’re doing. From the psychic’s seat, the customer is the enemy. Instead of aces, you have to convince them that you’re holding the abridged history of man.
“Oh, okay I guess,” she said, off-balance. Game on. I laid my cards out in an arc.
“They call me Darius the Great. My game is simple. You choose three cards of your own, err, choosing. Then I tell you what lies ahead.”
She abided. Each card was drawn tentatively, as if half were rigged to explode. She clearly appreciated the historic power of the Blind Monkey tarot. I flipped them over without decorum. We were on the clock.
“You’ve drawn Reagan, Dio, and Corn Syrup. Dire. Reagan says to avoid new investments, for profit will not trickle down. Dio means you should look out for steamrollers. Lastly, corn syrup means someone will try to poison you in the near future. I wouldn’t take any free samples.”
“We’re still setting up. The spirits aren’t aligned yet.”
She took the city’s business elsewhere. This was a win: we hadn’t been kicked out the park. We took the opportunity to spice up our presentation.
My next supplicants came as a pair. Two black men with professional shirts and professional fades. I knew the look: I had it when I worked at S&P. Fitting into finance company culture requires wearing cubicle chic or tattooing three sixes on your forehead. It’s rewarding work. Every e-mail you forward brings Mammon’s return one day closer.
“I couldn’t read your sign at first!” the leader said amicably. The follower hovered dutifully behind him, waiting for his turn.
“The sign isn’t important. Your future is.”
“Are you a psychic?”
“…Yes.” The leader held an expectant stare. “I’m known here as Darius the Great. On the West Coast, I’m known as Darius the Mediocre. The spirits are more competitive. Care for a reading?”
The leader nodded, and I explained the rules while shuffling. He beamed with enthusiasm the whole time, meaning I’d already improved someone’s day. The cards were kind.
He drew The Bride, Locusts, and Dio.
“The cards are not kind. Don’t rush into new relationships, you’re in the shadow of Beatrix Kiddo. Locusts represent an extended period of great desolation, so invest in a good pair of headphones and a dating simulator. Oh, and watch out for steamrollers.”
The Leader snapped and pointed. “That’s the guy from Jojo, right?”
“Dio’s influence takes many forms.”
“I love that show! That steamroller junk is classic. Could you do my friend too?”
The follower took the cue to take a seat. His cards were more interesting: Censorship, Codependency, and Liver Failure. I drummed my fingers and nodded, as sages do.
“You self-censor too often, let your opinions on religion and the election flow more freely during dates. Jump into new relationships at top speed. Liquor is the express route to true love.”
The follower laughed and started a comment, so the leader stepped forward. We’d exceeded the follower’s daily quota for attention, and it was time to return back to the forefront.
“Do you do this a lot?” he asked.
“Sure,” I lied.
“Impressive,” the follower slipped in edgewise.
“How’d you find the time to set this up?” asked the leader.
“I’m very easily bored,” I admitted. Preparing for graduate school seemed like a waste of lifespan. If I wasn’t flipping cards I’d be hitting on tourists.
Derek and I took stock. We hadn’t used any of the canned fortunes written in my notebook. This was unfamiliar territory, which made it more interesting. Nothing guaranteed to go smoothly was worthwhile, we needed the chance to hit an iceberg.
Instead, we ran into a sprite. A middle-aged man flowing with all the energy I lacked approached us.
“Ooh, a psychic! Are you doing this for fun? Do you expect a tip?”
“Not at all. I’m Darius the Great. This is my partner, Iago,” I said, pointing to Derek.
“I’m Charles!” the sprite volunteered.
“Good to meet you Charles. I’m out here today to serve man. I think that we can all benefit from a little foresight. Of the future. From psychics.”
“It’s like the Twilight books!” Charles said with contagious enthusiasm. I feigned understanding.
“Exactly. This is my first day, so I’m quite experienced. Ten minutes with the spirits is worth a year.”
“Experienced? Did you do this at school?”
“Princeton still doesn’t have a mystic arts program.”
“Wow, you must be pretty successful!”
I tried to hide the chest pain this caused me. Optimistically, it looked like I was thinking instead of spiritually hemorrhaging.
“Yeah. Interested in a reading?”
“Sure! But I need to be on third avenue in five minutes.” He offered his palm.
“Actually, I need you to take three cards.” I made a show of shuffling. The wind chose this moment to blow the top card off the deck. That card probably wasn’t his destiny.
Charles swiftly pecked at the pile. I hovered over his choices, thinking about fate, the will of the spirits, and dinner.
“The Bat encourages fighting for your beliefs, no matter how many madmen you hospitalize. Co-dependency warns against trusting new people. Any new people. Self-importance says you have a strong identity. Celebrate it. Then make others celebrate it.”
“That’s great! Can you do it again?”
A true believer. I made the deck presentable again. Charles turned over Corn Syrup, Liver Failure, and <Redacted>.
“These three are avoidable with some wisdom,” I advised. “<Redacted> suggests the NSA and TSA are on to you. Don’t trust your neighbors. As for the other two, eat your Wheaties. With milk, not tequila.”
“I watch what I eat very carefully! Can you tell how old I am?”
“Forty?” I hazarded. The spirits are surprisingly reluctant to help with guessing games.
“Fifty-seven!” Charles declared. I reconsidered my relationship with tequila. Derek didn’t drink either, and was at least two points closer to the cover of GQ. I can make a group shot in Jet or XXL, if my barber avoids a mid-haircut stroke.
My next customer was a waitress named Ayami. She was my age and saying words to me, so my notes are non-existent. Rest assured that it was hilarious, and you have been robbed of quality internet content. Dostoevsky meets romantic comedy. When my body finally collapses, I will remember the one-liners I stole from a starving planet.
Now John? I have plenty of notes about John.
John approached me about three minutes after I learned about Ayami’s unrequited love for her manager. After twisting Reagan into a sign for her to “seek opportunities in new places,” I felt I’d finally hit my groove as a psychic. I could adapt to any surprise. This egotism summoned John.
“You a psychic?” he asked. He pushed a shopping cart that wasn’t his.
“I’m very good.”
“You looking for money?”
“It’s free. I’m Darius. This is my assistant Tonto.”
John didn’t stand as much as he loomed. When he sat, he still loomed. This sounds imposing, but he also looked lost and wore a dress shirt that fit twenty pounds ago. As a psychic, I had a hint that things were going to get more entertaining.
“Pick four,” I said, raising the ante. “Ah, <Redacted>, Reagan, the Bat, and Dio.”
“Witchy stuff,” John said gruffly.
“That’s the idea. Now, <Redacted> means you’re being watched.”
“I know that. I’ve seen things I can’t even tell you. You’d say I’m crazy.”
Derek moved closer. He detected a promotion from stenographer to bodyguard. Meanwhile, I beamed. The game was getting quotable.
“Interesting. What kind of things can’t you tell me?”
“The agents. I can spot an agent for a mile. They don’t have suits like the movies, they dress like you and me. White, black, Chinese, agents are all over this park.”
“Interesting,” I said more truthfully than usual. “The next card is Reagan, an ill omen. You should beware white men in suits, and Republicans bearing gifts.”
“What if I told you I’m a Republican?”
“Trust the cards.”
“I don’t believe in voting, though. People should mind their own business,” John said didactically. “I’m smart, that’s how I pick out the agents.”
Unpacking the logic was pointless, I’d just fall behind the exchange. I moved on to the next card.
“The Bat says that you have the potential to change the world. All you have to do is find a few billion dollars.”
“You’re saying I can be a millionaire?” This was clearly his tune.
“With a b.”
“Good. We both know black men need money. Chinese and arab girls don’t talk to black men, because they’ve got all the money.”
I leaned in. When the conversation takes a hairpin turn, you have to adjust your weight.
“Dio means you should look out for steam-”
“It’s about neighborhoods. They leave their neighborhoods over there, and makes shops in black neighborhoods to get the money. They only talk to white men.”
I gave up on the last card. We were clearly on a different ride.
“I told you, I know a lot. I’ve seen experiments. A couple of months ago, there were so many satellites over Brooklyn that you couldn’t see the stars. Now they’re all gone.”
“Part of the war on terror?” I asked.
“What’s wrong with the war on terror? There’s no war on arabs. There’s a war on black people in their neighborhoods. And America isn’t against Mexicans either. A drunk white girl would cheat with a Mexican, but not a black man.”
“I…what?” I said eloquently. Maybe he really was a Republican.
“Every kingdom is winding down. Americans, the Russians, all of them. But we’re distracted. They want you to focus on your iPhone, and assume people like me are stupid. Then the black man suffers.”
“It’s true. Do I look stupid to you?”
“You look like someone that knows where the agents are.”
Derek looked wary. This was fair: I wasn’t in any position to defend myself. After two years of Capoeira classes, I knew less about fighting than the general population. My first instinct in conflict is to do a cartwheel and start singing in Portuguese, which is why my murder will be ruled a suicide.
“See, you get it. You’re good at this witchy stuff, and listening. It was nice talking to you.”
“Come back anytime,” I lied. We’d be packing up in seconds. And without an assistant, I wouldn’t be bringing fortunes back to the people anytime soon. Someone has to take the pictures.
You see, assclowns aren’t meant to work alone. It’s against the laws of nature. There needs to be a balancing element to say “No, you’ll go to jail for that. Forever.” Mine’s moving to sunnier fields. Until yelling fire in a crowded theater is finally decriminalized, I’ll be at a pointed disadvantage.
Good luck in California, Derek. Don’t trust the kale.