Gina pulls up in her black Volkswagen, reaches across and gives the passenger side door a shove. “You look like crap,” she says to me. “Sally will know what to do.”
Sally is Gina’s psychic. Gina is taking me to see Sally as a welcome-home gift. Gina thinks this is a good idea. I do not, but because Gina means well, I try to be open.
A trio of Virgins dangles from Gina’s rearview mirror like a tiny ballet troupe, their feet pirouetting on snakes. A blue statue of Mary bobs on a spring on the dash. Around Gina’s neck there’s another small gold Virgin, a St. Christopher medal, and a red Italian horn. The whole car smells like vanilla air freshener and peppermint gum. New Age music clinks around on the stereo. The music sounds like coins being dropped by handfuls into a metal sink. It’s meant to be soothing, like rain maybe, but it isn’t.
I buckle up and check my face in the visor mirror. Gina’s right. I look like crap. I look like someone who hasn’t been sleeping. I haven’t been sleeping. A few days before, I fell face down on the sidewalk. I had not been drinking. I had not been dizzy. I had not tripped on any discernible thing. I had just gone down flat beneath a sign for Jesters Tattoo Shop. Jesters’ logo is a laughing devil in a flaming jingle bell cap. There is still gravel in my chin. My right hand is scabbed over. My right shoulder aches.
Gina flicks her mirrored sunglasses onto her head, slaps the visor up, and says, “You won’t be sorry.”
Ever since I moved back to Pittsburgh, I’ve been a wreck. My father is dead, and my mother is heartbroken and sick. She has breast cancer. They tell us it’s in remission, but now her heart, the actual organ, is failing. “A bee’s nest,” the doctor says. The list of possibilities is long, awful—heart attack, stroke, embolisms. “It’s hard to say what will happen,” the doctor says. “We’ll do what we can.”
When I asked my mother if she wanted me to come home, she said, “Do what you have to do. We’re fine.”
We, she said. We’re fine.
There was no we. My mother was alone. After fifty years of marriage, she couldn’t give my father up. “It’s freezing out,” she said the day he died. It was snowing. The wind felt like a slap. My mother tried to stop the funeral director from lowering my father’s bronze casket into the ground, like she was worried my father would die out there. “We can’t bear it,” she said, meaning the cold.
Now she couldn’t remember how to write a check. Some days she didn’t get dressed. There were so many pills to take. “We do what we can,” she said.
And so I came. I left my job in New York. I left my tiny rent-controlled apartment in Queens. I left a man I’d been seeing for years. He and I hadn’t liked each other much, but it was something. I thought of this move back home as temporary, just until my mother got better, just until things settled down. That’s what I still tell my old boyfriend when he calls. When he’s drinking or lonely, he thinks he wants me to come back. “When?” he says, and I say, “Soon.” It’s an easy lie because sometimes, when I’m lonely or drinking, I want to wish it true.
The first thing my mother said to me the day I moved home was, “Well, it took you long enough.” She said, “What did you have to do that was so important?” She ran her fingers through my short blonde bob and said, “You always did look better with long hair.”
Then I saw the way her fingers shook when she held a pen, the way her breathing sounded like static when she fell asleep in a chair, and I knew how much my mother needed me, though she would never use that word, need.
Sally the Psychic is in Butler, Pennsylvania. Butler is not the kind of place you’d expect to find a psychic. Butler is the kind of place where you’d expect to find cows. Tractors and slag heaps. You can get great cabbage in Butler. The whole area is pretty, if you don’t mind the smell of manure. There’s a lot of patchwork farmland to ogle, and I bet somewhere, in some little diner run by an old woman in fuzzy slippers and a housecoat, you can get a great slice of pie. I just can’t figure out who, other than Gina, would travel miles of rickety back roads that seem paved with corn to get advice from someone who, in her off hours, sells cat paraphernalia at a store called The Country Kitty.
“Sally’s an expert,” Gina says. “Womb-regression therapy. She can take you back to before you were born. You can see where things went wrong.”
As Gina turns towards the Turnpike and Butler, an ambulance races past. I feel my breath catch. Every time I see an ambulance, I’m sure it’s my mother. “It happens all the time,” the funeral director said after my father’s wake. “One goes, then the other.”
Whatever our problems, my mother has always made it clear she loves me. And I love her, desperately, in the way that daughters with fierce mothers often do. I can’t separate my life from hers.
“When you lose your mother,” a friend told me, “you have to re-make yourself.”
I can’t understand this. I never want to understand it.
An hour later, we pull up to Sally’s house. There’s a sign nailed over the porch. It looks like something a kid made in woodshop, ragged letters burned into a piece of driftwood. The sign says Psychic Spiritual Counselor. It says, Walk-Ins Welcome. There are no neighbors.
Sally hears us pull up and comes out. I’ve only seen city psychics before. They always dress the part—lots of heavy jewelry, maybe a bandana. Sally is wearing cut-offs, a wifebeater, and a pair of old boat shoes. She has long blonde hair that frizzes in the humidity. She is tan and pretty and completely un-psychic-looking.
“Gina, honey, my computer’s acting crazy,” Sally says. “Maybe you can take a look? It keeps flashing on and off. Like it’s possessed.” She giggles. Waves her tiny ring-less hands next to her face, like possessed jazz hands. “I’ve got my life in that computer. I mean, my life. Everything.”
I think someone with psychic abilities should have the foresight to backup her computer files, but I don’t say so.
“Gina, honey, you’re good with those things,” Sally says. “You have a gift.” Then she turns to me. “Let’s go in and have some tea.”
The kitchen is filled with copper pots and dried herbs. On the counter and sill there are ceramic cats. The cats are playful—one with a ball of yarn, one licking a paw, one tipping over a little carton of milk. On the refrigerator, there is a large star-shaped magnet. The magnet’s glittered message: “Psychic Spiritual Adviser to the Stars.”
“Do you want sugar?” Sally asks me. “I’m not supposed to have sugar. Screws up my perception. Caffeine, too. But I love it. Sugar and caffeine. My two main food groups.”
When Sally laughs, she makes a little yapping sound. She finishes with the tea tray and we go back to the computer room. Other than the computer, a card table, and one folding chair, there isn’t any furniture. There are a few pillows on the floor. Sally and I sit on these. Gina tinkers with the computer until Sally’s screensaver, a picture of lions in the wild, stops flashing. Gina fiddles some more, then hits the volume button. A tin version of the theme from “Born Free” cracks and chirps.
“You are a genius!” Sally says. “I’ve been saved!” She begins singing.
I am glad for Sally, glad her computer has not eaten her life like a nit. But she’s brought a deck of tarot cards on the tea tray and I’m waiting for her to pick them up. She doesn’t. She and Gina make computer small talk instead. I try to drink my tea. It’s herbal. It tastes like licorice and pond scum. It tastes medicinal, like something my mother might have forced on me as a child. “Just hold your nose and drink,” she’d say and push the cup to my lips. “You want to get better? You have to help yourself.”
A few moments later, mid-sentence, Sally stops talking. She looks at me and says, “Well then.” She eyeballs me in a way that feels probing and intense and psychic-like. She says, “Close your eyes,” and I do, even though I’ve always hated closing my eyes in front of other people. It makes me feel vulnerable.
“Relax,” Sally says. Now that I can’t see, her voice seems different, deeper, steadier. “Breathe,” she says, and I breathe, deep and full, a good patient.
I know now what I want, why I agreed to this. I want a diagnosis and a cure, whatever way it comes. Gina has her dashboard virgins, her medals, her New Age hope. I’m not sure what I have. The priest at my father’s funeral held my hand. He said, “Pray with me.” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even open my mouth.
“In. And out,” Sally says.
I feel myself float. My lungs fill and roll like waves.
Soon Sally will tell me that Armand, my spirit guide, says I should take vitamins and get my eyes checked. She’ll say I should take up painting and possibly ceramics. Mid-session, she’ll pull her hair and break down weeping over her own failed marriage, her rotten husband who’s taken most of the furniture and sent her business belly-up.
“Never trust a Leo,” she’ll say between sobs.
But in these first few moments, with only the sound of her voice and my breathing, Sally gives me something and I’m grateful.
“I want you to visualize,” she says. “Let the images come.”
For what seems like a long while, there’s nothing. And then there is a face.
It’s an old man I saw on the day I fell in front of Jesters Tattoo Shop. He seemed drunk, like he’d just left a bar, but he didn’t stagger. His steps were careful and sure, like he’d been doing this for years. He was dressed in work clothes, the way my father had dressed—a faded blue shirt and worn jeans, steel-toed boots, a handkerchief in his side pocket. He may have just been getting off night shift. He may have stopped for a few beers before heading home.
“Ah, sweetheart,” the man said. “Took a dive now?”
I expected him to help me up. Instead, he stepped around me and kept going.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said. “We’ve all been there.”