The Life and Times of a Phone Psychic

I bought my first deck of tarot cards when I was nineteen from a B. Dalton bookstore, I believe. I’m not even sure if those stores exist anymore; I think they’ve been taken over by Barnes & Noble. This deck came into my life during a precarious time—that brink between high school and college, kid and adult—and the idea of divining the future appealed to me. It still does, really.

The deck was a simple Rider-Waite, probably the most common, and I can remember feeling jealous of a friend’s deck that had what I thought were more superior illustrations. Now, I’m happy with my Rider-Waite deck; the images are iconic, and if I see the High Priestess, in a flash I get the card’s story, its positive and negative meanings, and how that might affect a querent. That’s what the person who’s asking questions is called in tarot-speak: the querent.

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In college, many of my friends read tarot, and sometimes we’d sit around in a circle and give each other readings. I learned a lot from that: setting the stage, analyzing the cards and matching them up to what I knew of my friends’ experiences, and getting the story rolling. It’s like therapy, doing everything you can to make your querent feel comfortable so they’ll start revealing their worries and secrets. You’d be surprised how accurate I could be in a reading. I’ve always liked to think of my cards as mirrors, and because I knew my querents, I could give them a worthy reflection of who they were and what they wanted to be. It’s not lying; it’s weaving a story between what the cards represent and what I knew was going on in my friends’ lives.

I also would read for myself, which usually happened when I was scared, stagnant, or not sure of what direction I was going. It’s comforting shuffling the cards that are almost too big for my hands, making me stretch my palms, the sound of slapping them down on my bedspread in the shape of the celtic cross, my favorite layout. (I’ve tried more exotic layouts at times, but I always go back to the celtic cross.) I know every crease of my cards, can almost pick out which one is which without looking at its face. That’s how much I’ve used them.

My deck got quite a workout when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and couldn’t get a job for months. My friend Susan was my roommate, and she told me about how she had worked once as a phone psychic. At the time her schedule was erratic and working as a phone psychic fit since she could log in whenever and take calls. The company sent her a check every month, and though it wasn’t big money, it was money.

She’d just had a baby and couldn’t work a regular schedule, and with my dim prospects, we decided we’d start up a psychic hotline and work it together, using a combination of astrology and tarot cards. We rented out a house with four or five different roommates, so we had a separate phone line installed in our basement, where we could have some privacy. Susan scrounged up a phone—probably something that a past resident had left behind; it was clear plastic showing different-colored wires and it lit up when it rang.

Suz and I set up our work area on an abandoned futon frame and put down carpet squares beneath that. Then we had our assorted astrology and tarot books spread out around us so we could easily consult them. Before we opened up our business, we drilled each other on the quintessential celebrity for each star sign. Kurt Cobain was our classic Pisces while Madonna worked for Leo.

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Our psychic network work space.

When we had time and were ready to work the psychic hotline, we logged into the system, letting the powers that be know we were available, and calls started being forwarded to our extension. Our ranking on the hotline was based on how many calls we took and how long we could keep a querent on the line. We were encouraged to keep people talking as long as possible because after the special rate, or first free three minutes, the charges really started to pile up.

Susan and I would log into the system and tag team as calls started coming in. The one on the phone would get the necessary information to construct a star chart and start laying out the tarot cards while the other consulted sources and drew up a rudimentary star chart that was used to supplement the reading.

We were just barely scraping by money-wise at the time and knew the value of a buck, so when people called and just wanted a quick reading, we aimed to please. Our reasoning was that they would be repeat callers, requesting us as their personal phone psychics, and we’d quickly climb the ranks. Susan and I had a steady stream at first.

I was very nervous when we started taking calls, and during my first few sessions, my voice would quake. I can remember a pushy woman from the East Coast who was concerned about if a check was in the mail. There were Pentacles in her reading, but not an immediate money card. Though I tried to tell her this, she kept saying, “So the check’s coming—it’s in the mail.” It wasn’t a question; this was what she wanted to hear.

Finally, I said with guilt, “Yes, looks like it.”

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We coached each other through the calls and were learning more about astrology and just plain human nature through the stories we heard. Really, a lot of what we did was counsel people through dark times—a bad relationship, conflicts at work—but with a kiss saying that the universe had ordained it.

I answered a call from a woman addicted to drugs who wanted to know if she should get off them. I knew the obvious answer, but I shuffled the cards, used my soothing voice, and dealt out ten cards.

“You have Death as the heart of the situation.”

“Death?! I’m not going to quit if I’m gonna die.”

“No, that’s not what Death means here. It means a complete change, transformation.”

I tried more and more to calm her down, to guide her to the realization that it was time for a good change, but between her interpretation of death and worrying about when her boyfriend would get home, it was hard to keep her on track.

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I think the scariest call Susan ever took was from an immigrant woman who was pregnant and suffered many miscarriages before; she called the psychic hotline when she started having some troubling symptoms. Suz ended up with the Hierophant in that reading and told the woman she saw a doctor in the cards, recommending that she seek out medical advice. The Hierophant represents authority usually interpreted as religious, but it can be a healer or assistance, too, and that was what her querent needed to hear.

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These were the calls where we weren’t really qualified to help, but at the same time, through an ad on TV, we were who these people chose. Who knows if they would seek out help in any other way.

During one frenzied session, Susan and I did so many readings that our two tarot decks got mixed up together. I went to put my deck away in the dove-gray silk shirt that I’ve kept my cards in forever and discovered that I had two Eight of Cups. We separated out the cards so we each had a complete deck, but for sure I have some of Susan’s cards and she has some of mine. Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve been bonded together so long. I’ve known her for more than twenty years, lived in five different states with her, and seen her raise her daughter from an infant to the sixteen-year-old she is now.

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Eventually our rating in the psychic network dwindled, and sometimes when we logged on, we wouldn’t get a call at all. Giving customers a good deal didn’t count for much with the company. We both found another job that would pay the bills, and I haven’t read cards for money since then. But it’s a skill I still cling to, thinking, If the editing work ever dries up, I’ll just become a full-time psychic. Right now, that’s my retirement plan.

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James Smythe’s Rereading Stephen King Series Is Brilliant

I stumbled across James Smythe’s blog series for The Guardian while having my lunchtime Internet break at work, and I was immediately taken by the concept. Like me and so many others, Smythe has been a Stephen King fan since childhood, rereading his novels over and over again so much that he is intimately familiar with King’s work and recognizes the bigger patterns in it overall.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

King was the author who ushered Smythe into grown-up reading, and the same thing happened to me. My mom was checking in with me when I was eleven years old to make sure that I knew what menstruation was. I let her know that school had pretty much covered this. “Good,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you like Carrie.” I asked her what Carrie was, and as she told me, my eyeballs got wider and wider, especially when she got to the part about pigs’ blood and prom. I had to read that book! I went to the library to check it out, but Carrie wasn’t there. I settled instead for Salem’s Lot, which kept me awake all night at a Girl Scout sleepover, and I never went back to the juvenile section again. Not when there were so many horrors to be had in the K aisle.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister's well-worn Stephen King books.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister’s well-worn Stephen King books.

Smythe has grown up to be a writer himself, and he has set himself the task of rereading all of King’s work, aiming to post a blog entry on each work about every two weeks. He estimates this will take him about two years. This is an incredibly ambitious project considering some of the gigantic tomes that King has put out—It (1104 pages), The Stand (original version—823 pages; uncut—1200 pages), Under the Dome (1088 pages), 11/22/63 (880 pages), to name a few. Just rereading one of these books in a week or two’s time is almost a full-time job, and that doesn’t include the writing, research, or critique time that Smythe puts in. Each one of his King entries (he’s at Week Seventeen so far) draws many comments from readers, and Smythe gets down in it with them, arguing the finer points, coming up with Top Ten Favorite King Books and Least Favorite Five King Books as readers ask for such lists. And though he is a King fan, he realizes there are some real clunkers in King’s oeuvre and does not hold back in his reviews. He also mentions his first feelings about reading the book as a child or teen and how he views the work differently now as he rereads, and he is not afraid to change his mind about what he now considers King’s best. Sometimes, the entries get clogged with literary references, especially the short story collections where there are so many tales to cover and quite a few of them feed into King’s novels. How can you not cover them? Also, Smythe is a huge Dark Tower/Randall Flagg fan, which I never quite got into, and he points out appearances all the time. I’d probably like these parts of the blog better if I was in on the joke, and I might give the Dark Tower series another whirl so I can decide how I feel about this omnipresent character. So far Smythe has reviewed most of King’s good work, but I can’t wait to read his critiques of the really bad works, like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Black House (which I couldn’t even finish after reading one hundred pages of the narrator flitting around from scene to scene, “setting” the story). I only wish that it was easier to read these entries one after another. However, this is the book blogs section of The Guardian, so I have to page through or click on links in the sidebar and then go somewhere else to find readers’ comments, which is a big part of the fun with this series. Already, though, I’m envisioning this project as a book, and I hope Smythe does, too, and puts this out in a more user-friendly format. This far in, I can see Smythe having a nice pile of summary, criticism, and memoir that will be book length by the time he’s done. I’m happy to take this trip since King has been such an important influence in my personal and literary evolution. He’s been the backbeat for most of my life, and reading the blog posts and other readers’ comments, I can see that I’m not the only one. Smythe gives me ideas, too, for my own literary odyssey. I believe my lady, Joyce Carol Oates, has written even more than Stephen King. What if I read and reread all of her works in the order they were published? I think I would need more than two years, though, to complete this task, and a Medici-like benefactor to support me during all of this reading and writing.

Another shelf holding our King books--the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Another shelf holding our King books–the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Week One: Carrie

Week Two: Salem’s Lot

Week Three: The Shining

Week Four: Rage

Week Five: Night Shift

Week Six: The Stand

Week Seven: The Long Walk

Week Eight: The Dead Zone

Week Nine: Firestarter

Week Ten: Roadwork

Week Eleven: Cujo

Week Twelve: The Running Man

Week Thirteen: The Gunslinger

Week Fourteen: Different Seasons

Week Fifteen: Christine

Week Sixteen: Pet Sematary

Week Seventeen: Cycle of the Werewolf

Week Eighteen: The Talisman

Week Nineteen: Thinner

Week Twenty: Skeleton Crew

Week Twenty-One: It

Week Twenty-Two: The Eyes of the Dragon

Week Twenty-Three: The Drawing of the Three

Week Twenty-Four: Misery

Week Twenty-Five: The Tommyknockers

Week Twenty-Six: The Dark Half

Week Twenty-Seven: Four Past Midnight

Week Twenty-Eight: The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Week Twenty-Nine: Needful Things

Week Thirty: Gerald’s Game

Week Thirty-One: Dolores Claiborne

Week Thirty-Two: Insomnia

Week Thirty-Three: Rose Madder

Joyce Carol Oates’s Sourland

Joyce Carol Oates got some great reviews for her most recent short story collection Sourland and was only doing one event to promote the book (as far as I could tell). Luckily, for me, the Sourland reading took place in New York, so I’m almost able to graduate to two hands when counting the times I’ve seen Joyce Carol Oates live. (I don’t count the time I passed by her at Bryant Park.) Since the last time I’ve seen her, her husband has died, and in Sourland, it seems that Oates is coming to terms with his unexpected death by mining the experience over and over again, covering aspects in her different short stories.

Many of the stories’ protagonists are widowed women who have unexpectedly lost their partners and are trying to figure out how to live, and most of the stories are about lost love. A couple of the widowed characters have to deal with the experience of probate court, which appears to be humiliating, justifying who you are and what you are entitled to based on how your relationship is documented on paper–marriage certificate, death certificate, etc. Another widow finds herself restricted to two rooms that she cannot avoid: the kitchen and the bedroom. The rest of her house has become ghost rooms because she can’t be in them without being haunted by memories of her husband. Love comes up again and again in these stories, especially how one in a relationship loves more and the other less.

My favorite story in the collection, though, stars a young woman who’s twenty-six years old and sports a pair of prosthetic legs. The best part about the character is how she flaunts her disability. Jane dreaded people’s stares as a child after the accident, but now she invites them, dressing up to show off her prostheses in short-short skirts and patterned tights. She wears these clothes like armor, announcing, “Here I am!”:

“On this windy April day I was wearing a pleated skirt made of cream-colored wool flannel, that resembled a high school cheerleader’s skirt, & I was wearing a crimson satin blouse with a V-neckline glittering with thin gold chains & small crystal beads, & if you dared to lean over, to peer at my legs, or what was meant to represent my “legs,” you would see the twin prostheses, shiny plastic artificial legs & steel pins & on my (small) feet eyelet stockings & black patent leather “ballerina slippers.”

“Amputee” reminds me so much of my favorite Flannery O’Connor story “Good Country People,” but Joyce Carol Oates goes much further than Flannery was able to. What Flannery hinted at–well, Oates fills in with lurid detail. And it’s ugly and beautiful.