Elena handed me the deck. It was an international one, one where each card was printed in six different languages. Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, and one I didn’t recognize, maybe Afrikaans or Dutch. “You read, no?” she said. Her long black hair looked cobalt in the light, her bare arms muscular and dark.
“Maybe,” I said, hedging. It was almost three, outside the full moon like a hoof. A mangy dog poked its head in the open doorway, but Pedro snapped a rag at it and the dog backed out. I had only been coming to La Tranquera for the past week. Soon the dancers would master the choreography and I could fly back to the States. It had been another long day in rehearsals, another day spent teaching strangers how to move the way I wanted them to, the way I saw it in my head, each dancer part automaton part princess. I’d been to South America once before, Buenos Aires with its Bolivar Avenida wide as the Mississippi, but Lima was new to me, the air so dry mornings it made my nose bleed, and after another day of constantly riding the dancers with their fragile egos, I didn’t feel like talking much.
Elena wiped something off the bar. Everywhere the chairs were up on the tables, the ashtrays heaped and smoldering and waiting for Pedro to empty them. “But you do read,” Elena said, winking. “I can tell.” Her accent was lush and thick and I wondered what made her so sure, if it was the reason why every night for the past week she’d let me in well after closing.
Pedro stood mopping the floor, slowly boxing himself into a corner. His tight black T shirt said Tantrum, and I couldn’t help noticing how plump and shiny his lips were, the elegance of his mouth. Elena moved behind the bar and poured me my last pisco sour as was our habit. Three and then I would totter out the door. “Already I have a question,” she said, lighting a cigarette. I’d only ever seen Elena there in La Tranquera after closing, but already I knew enough about her life for almost any amateur to give her a decent reading. How Pedro’s father was killed in the early nineties by Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path. How she once introduced President Fujimori to one of his indigenous mistresses. How her preferred vacation destination was Ipanema in Rio.
“I have a question,” she said again. “Don’t you want to know what it is?”
Outside I could hear a siren getting closer. Tomorrow we would begin dress rehearsals, and I was still not pleased with the way the principle dancer was isolating her hips. I looked at my watch. In LA it was almost eleven. I took the deck and gave it a quick shuffle, all the while concentrating on whether or not I should be doing this after what happened in Berlin. I cut the deck, then flipped over the top three cards for a simple yes-no. Temperance and the Six of Wands appeared upright while the Star was inverted. I had my answer.
“Okay,” I said, handing Elena the cards. She took them and spread them out on the bar, making sure to touch each one at some point as she shuffled. Her cigarette stood straight out from her mouth like a perch. I told myself I was doing this because I didn’t believe in it. What happened in Berlin was just a matter of timing. Everyone knew Inge was depressed. Everyone except me. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have read the inverted Judgment card so harshly. I wouldn’t have used words like punishment and severity, Inge’s face struck white as salt.
There in La Tranquera I’d give Elena some good news about her life. She’d probably ask me something about La Tranquera itself, about whether or not she’d get a write-up in Lonely Planet. She’d ask about her love life, if the police detective she was seeing was a good match for her. She’d ask about money and her health. She’d ask about the future, what to avoid. People always did.
A slow song was playing on the stereo, a woman’s voice lamenting something or other in Spanish. I watched Elena shuffle the cards, divide them into piles. I felt something flutter in my stomach. She knew what she was doing, her hands so fast I wondered if she’d ever worked in a casino. I didn’t need to tell her to concentrate on her question while she shuffled, to pick the pile she was drawn to. A car alarm started bleating in the distance. I rubbed my eyes. Elena tapped the pile furthest on the right with her finger, then nodded toward Pedro who was standing sleepily in a small circle in the corner waiting for the floor to dry.
“What’s his story?” she said.
I glanced over at Pedro upright on his small dry island. I couldn’t believe how wet the floor was. I figured he must not have wrung the mop out before he started. I thought he could stand there all night and in the morning the floor still wouldn’t be dry.
“What about Pedro?” I said.
“You know,” she said, holding her wrist limply in the air.
I felt my jaw tighten. Just a second ago the Star had been inverted. I should have paid more attention. He was just a teenager. Elena stood looking at me. “The Tarot is meant to answer questions about you,” I said.
“This is a question about me,” she said, pouring herself a shot from a bottle shaped like a cross. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t speak English.” I expected her to pound her drink but she stood coolly sipping it like it was an afternoon cocktail.
Why did I keep going? Why didn’t I just drop my money on the counter, finish my pisco sour, walk out into the Peruvian night? I don’t believe in tarot, I told myself, I don’t believe in any of it. For a moment I could see my mother sitting at the kitchen table waving the King of Cups in my face. I was eight years old and having a problem with a bully at school. It was the only way she knew how to help. “The man of amiable but passive disposition becomes enthusiastic only when aroused,” she said. “Such a man often takes the easiest course and resorts to deception in order to indulge his appetites.” From time to time she looked up at me with her head cocked, as if to say are you getting any of this?
I sat sipping my pisco sour, the sugar bitingly sweet. Shut up, Mom, I thought. I remembered how she made my prom date Lizzy Collins cry just as we were leaving the house. I’d forgotten to buy flowers and was just coming in from picking some tulips in the backyard. They were sitting in the living room, Lizzy holding the Death card in one long white glove as my mother tried to explain it could mean good things.
Elena waved her limp wrist in my face. Outside another alarm began to scream. “Well?” she said, tapping the pile of cards again.
“Fine,” I said, then restated the question before us. “Is Pedro a flaming homosexual?” Elena didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm in my voice, or if she did, she didn’t care. I flipped the first card. On the stereo the woman was holding one note for what seemed like an eternity. For a moment it sounded like Inge’s throaty contralto. Internally I girded myself. I thought of the last thing I’d ever said to Inge. “Don’t try to stop whatever’s going to happen.” How she just blinked back tears and nodded.
Elena hoisted her drink in the air. “Salud,” she said. She was wearing a large iron ring on her left thumb. The ring was thick and medieval looking with some kind of mythical creature staring out from the center. It looked like something the pontiff might have worn during the Inquisition. I felt myself wishing I hadn’t noticed it. My mother was always decked out in crazy rings and crystals. No matter where I went in the world, she always wanted me to bring her back “something with energy.”
I decided to give myself a lot of leeway and go with the four elements. It was a solid layout involving twelve cards, which meant there’d be enough on the table for me to say just about anything I wanted. I flipped over the first three cards quickly. They were all swords. The Two of Swords, and the Eight of Swords and the Knight of Swords both inverted. Elena whistled through her teeth. Nice shuffling job, I thought, though I’d watched her do it and had been impressed by how thorough she was. I began laying out a second row.
“The four elements?” she asked.
Something in my stomach tightened. The lady knew her tarot. “Yeah,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll have a lot to work with.”
The next six cards weren’t much better. Three pentacles came up and then three cups, and in the last row the Devil appeared next to the Hierophant. I couldn’t believe the breakdown, the way everything had sorted itself out by suit, and the way the major arcana were now appearing distinctly in their very own row.
“Mal Dieu,” said Elena lightly.
“Oui,” I said. I’d never seen a spread like it before, not even the time my mother gave the man who turned out to be the local pedophile a reading in our parlor—on the coffee table the Devil surrounded by a circle of Knights, my mother closing one eye suspiciously as she looked the man up and down.
Outside the alarm was still going strong. There was only one more card to flip. I tried to clear my mind. Pedro was still standing in the corner leaning on his mop. For his sake, I found myself hoping for the Magician, a being with the skill to conjure the light from the dark.
Elena lit another cigarette off the tag end of the one she was smoking. “What are you waiting for?” she said. I flipped the card and there it was, the same word in both Spanish and Italian. La Torre, La Tour, Der Turm, De Toren, the Tower. On the card a man and a woman were falling through the sky from a great height as a bolt of lightning hit a mountaintop turret, the structure flaming and in ruins. Elena nodded and kissed the tiny gold crucifix around her neck. “Buenas noches,” she said.
“We have to read the cards,” I said. I could hear something in my voice, something desperate. “You’re just looking at the pictures.” She raised an eyebrow. In the moonlight her ring glittered on her finger like a glass eye. I realized she wasn’t asking the Tarot if her son was gay. She was asking me if he was.
“You read them,” she said, and walked away.
On the stereo the woman was in a sudden fervor over something, and for a while I sat back and let the singer be Inge singing to me from the dead, Inge with her pale face, her legion of problems, her wrists like tiny throats. I looked at the cards again. Maybe it was better this way. No matter how you read them, over the next few years, Pedro was going to have a tough time of it. In my own way I was having a tough time of it too, my mother always a phone call away, a deck ready in her hands.
I watched Elena count down the register. She looked nonchalant, the smoke shirring around her head like a lemniscate, the symbol for infinity pictured in so many of the cards. There was something peaceful about her, her arms a little more relaxed, a little less wiry looking, as if all were well with the world and I hadn’t just delivered the bomb of bombs in this Catholic country. My mother was right. In the right hands the cards were a tool, something to help us accept the things we already knew.
On the stereo I heard Inge breathe the word gratias, then the English word forgiveness. Had I heard right? Elena looked over at Pedro and smiled. It was a smile I’d seen before, a smile mixed with love and sorrow, the Virgin Mary smiling on the baby she has just birthed among the animals. I thought of all the readings my mother had given me through the years, the different decks with their various iconographies. Outside a dog was barking. I started to cry. It had always been on the table, I could see that now, but unlike what I did with Inge, my mother never told me what I couldn’t bear to hear. Watching a woman smile at her teenaged son at three in the morning in a small bar in the Miraflores District of Lima, Peru, I finally became the man I should have been.
All this happened ten years ago. Tonight I sit in the back of a cab with James as we make our way downtown. My mother died a few years ago of colon cancer, one of the most treatable cancers if detected early on. When I buried her she was adorned in all the things I’d brought back over the years from the ends of the earth.
Sometime in my dreams I see a figure silently watching me off in a corner away from the action, the figure’s body shining in the dark. During the very last reading my mother ever gave me, I drew the King of Wands.
“The impulsive man acts with fierceness,” she said. Her voice was weak, her hands shaky. I have been back to Peru twice, but I have never seen Elena again or had a pisco sour in La Tranquera. Sometimes in passing I’ll notice a young man with plump shiny lips and think Pedro must be twenty-five or so by now. I can still picture him standing in a circle of water, the moonlight limning him through the window.
The last time my mother read my cards she reached for one of her bottles of painkillers. “The man with a generous heart acts on impulse from noble motives without thinking of the consequences,” she said, tapping the card. In this life we need all the help we can get. I looked at the picture. The card was inverted. She was reading it wrong.
“Does that sound like me?” I said.