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Working for the Mystic by Gretchen Schrafft

Gretchen Schrafft's short fiction and journalism has appeared in Hobart, Midway Journal, The Rumpus, and San Francisco. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is currently at work on a short story collection that explores contemporary manifestations of magic.

I’ve been working for the mystic for almost six months now. So far, I like it a lot better than my previous job — cocktail waitressing at a strip club in North Beach called The Condor. “It’s not half bad,” I told my friend Diana after I first got hired. “I don’t have to wear stilettos, and no one calls me ‘sugar.’”

We were having drinks on a sunny patio and I was buzzed off the way the liquor trapped the light in my glass. The mystic’s office, with its lace curtains and crystal chandelier, felt like a minor and not unpleasant hallucination. I took an indulgent sip. “But if I’m still doing this a year from now, you have to promise you’ll kill me. Seriously, Di. I won’t be able to live with myself.”

The patio was halfway across town, but I might as well have leaned over the mystic’s shoulder and muttered the words straight in her ear. “Janine, I need you to pick up more lavender candlesticks,” she said to me the next day, arching a delicate eyebrow. “That is, of course, unless you think the strain would do you in.” Weeks passed before the mystic asked me for anything without making some crack about death, coffins, next of kin.

I hadn’t told my father about The Condor, or the way the Craigslist interview lines sweep round the blocks of this city like a red tide — former chefs, i-bankers, and computer programmers all stomping in place, popping their gum, trying to keep a tenuous hold on their dignity. You’d think the financial crisis was my fault, the way I try to cover it up. Eventually, though, when everything had begun to feel more or less routine, I told my father about the mystic.

“I know times are tough, sweetie,” he said, “but they can’t be that bad.”

My father’s whole life has been about boxes: putting things into them, taking other things out. When he was a kid he packed fish, in his twenties he assembled cars, and the forty years since have been dedicated to increasingly higher-paying and more sophisticated variations on the same theme. His career has outlasted two wars, six presidents, and both his marriages. Sometimes he’ll call me at nine or ten p.m. his time and I can tell he’s standing alone in the kitchen, spoon melting through a carton of Cumberland Farms chocolate chip, thinking about this. We never talk about it though. My father loves me very much, but more than anything else, he loves to compartmentalize.

So when I told my father about the mystic, he didn’t say any of the things some part of him must have been thinking. He didn’t say I could have retired off what I’ve spent on your education or but you’re this country’s last hope for the future. He didn’t say the thing I live in fear of hearing, which is that, with his stepchildren’s graduation from college and the recent defection of his second wife, I’m all he’s got.

“What about the massage certification course?” he asked kindly. “That sounded promising.”

“Yeah,” I said, remembering the time a wall-eyed, receding-haired businessman had under-tipped, and I’d stood beside his table longer than I should have, wondering what he’d be willing to shell out for a hand job. “That got to be a little too touchy feely for me. I think you’re overlooking the opportunity here, Dad.” I tilted my chin and tried to say it with the same authority the mystic does whenever Florence, who runs the boutique next door, stops by to ask her how she does it. “Mysticism’s a recession-proof business.”

“Is that so?” my father asked, not a little sadly.

“That’s right,” I insisted. “The more uncertain things are, the better you do.”

. . .

I went into this imagining mostly lonely middle-aged women dressed in shades of purple and gray hoping to relocate their high school sweethearts or reconnect with their deceased parents. But sitting in the corner, transcribing the notes that can be purchased for an additional $25, I was surprised to learn that particular demographic makes up only about a quarter of our business. Today, for instance, we’ve also seen a young girl looking for her puppy, a guy in his twenties looking for nirvana, and an older gentleman looking for his daughter. “Are you sure?” he’d asked, pushing her photo across the table. “I’m positive she’d come here. This was the last place we had a postcard from her mother, after she left us.”

More and more though, we get people who aren’t looking for anything. They sit down and their eyes flit bewilderedly around the room, as if they can’t remember what they’re even doing here. Their confidence is rattled, their belief system disbanded. At this point, they’re willing to try just about anything.

. . .

The mystic hired me on the spot — didn’t even pretend to look at my résumé, at the sad clumps of ink detailing my overpriced education, my thesis on suppressed eroticism in the work of Mary Cassatt, the dates of my grad program tailing off suspiciously at the point where the loans started to grow larger than anything I’d ever expect to make. But I was prepared for this. They had laughed at my résumé at The Condor and later I saw it in the trash, covered in used toothpicks and drenched in olive juice. The mystic’s reasons were different, though. She pushed a glass bowl of Jordan almonds over the table toward me and asked her one interview question before it ground to a halt.

“Why?”

I swallowed, stared at my hands, wished I hadn’t decided to paint my nails magenta. “Why what?”

The expression on the mystic’s porcelain-white face didn’t change. Her gray eyes didn’t move. “You know what. The rock. Your stepsister. Her seventh birthday.”

Instantly, I saw Zelda in our driveway, twirling around in her yellow party dress. She was going so fast her skirt and bright red hair shot out sideways; her freckled face glowed as if lit from within. She was more roman candle than little girl.

Sitting there in the mystic’s embroidered armchair, the tag of my blouse biting into my neck, I realized that this scene had been playing on a reel in my mind the entire time, that all the things I’d done or said since were merely background noise, the respectful murmurs of an audience at a film. In that film my stepsister never stops spinning, never howls, never puts her hands to her mouth to the bloody gap where her front tooth was supposed to be. I reached to scratch at the tag, my lip curling: That rock hadn’t stopped a goddamn thing.

The mystic was tapping her nails against the tabletop. “Well?”

“I don’t know. I was bored. It was sunny. Her hair was too straight.”

The mystic folded my résumé in half, then half again. “Not the most self-aware, are you?”

I was standing up and grabbing my purse when she told me I had the job.

. . .

The work I do for the mystic is fairly straightforward. Every morning I arrive at nine to vacuum and dust, to light the candles and buff all surfaces to a high sheen. The mystic arrives exactly forty-five minutes later, carrying two coffees, one for me, the other already claimed by the mauve lipstick kiss mashed into its white plastic top. She strides around the place, high heels silent on the Oriental carpets, running her fingers over the moldings and along the radiator. Inevitably she will find some dark recess she wants me to return my attention to because she knows, just knows, it’s still dirty.

“I don’t see anything,” I protest on mornings when I’m feeling particularly surly.

The mystic fixes me with a look of deep contempt. “Just because you don’t see something…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I say, picking up my rag. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

Mondays and Tuesdays are our slow days. I spend most of these running errands around town — places like The Sword and the Rose in Cole Valley and the Asian apothecary shops scattered around Outer Richmond. I have to admit it’s nice barreling down Cabrillo on my bike toward the ocean at midday, the sun sparkling off the concrete and terracotta, feeling like the rules don’t apply to me.

The people I deal with are nice too. There’s a grandmotherly type without much English who smiles out from within her bower of dried marine curiosities and always offers me a cup of green tea. And a man who seems to have an endless supply of children, their various successes mounted under the glass of his countertop: debate club, JV soccer, middle school graduation. His college-age daughter is working today and as a result the ancient shop feels almost hip, full of patchouli-scented incense and Alice blaring on the radio. She hums as she rings me up.

I wander over to the shelves that hold the candles. “What’s this one for?” I ask, pointing to a deep red candle in an ornate holder.

“Love,” she tells me.

I touch a sky-blue one. “And this?”

“Health.”

“What about this?” I say, indicating a puke-green candle on the bottom shelf.

“Hmm,” she says, leaning forward over the counter and squinting through her mascara. “Career.”

I bend down for it. “This too. Separate bill.”

By the time I have everything on the mystic’s list it’s late afternoon, the fog rolling in off the ocean like a bad dream. Weighed down with supplies, even cutting through Golden Gate Park is a workout. The fog is quicker than me, snaking around my wrists and over my shoulders; the toes of my Converses appear to be pinwheeling over nothing. At the top of the hill, by the buffalo enclosure, a package slides out of my basket and I have to stop, dismount, rearrange everything. I stand there for a minute, eyes closed, chest heaving. Over the sound of my wheezing I can just hear them, the great hulking ghosts of the American West, tearing at the grass in the gloom.

. . .

“She can’t be getting married,” I say to my father. “She’s, like, two years old.”

“I’ll tell her you send your congratulations,” he says. “Though I’m sure it would mean a lot more if you called her yourself.”

We’re talking about my stepsister Zelda, who’s twenty-two now and has only recently graduated from college. I received a card in the mail a few months ago: Zelda clutching her diploma and smiling winningly, showing all her perfect adult teeth. Sorry you couldn’t make it. XOXO. She looks unbearably sweet and — despite her name and the temperament of the woman who gave it to her — actually is.

“Who’s paying for it?” I ask, all spite. “You?”

My father is unfazed. “I’m the only dad she’s got. But it’s not going to be anything over the top — just a simple ceremony before the baby comes.”

I open the freezer, feel around for the vodka. “I see. So that’s what this is all about.”

A baby was all Zelda had ever wanted. As a child she played with dolls all day: singing, rocking, kissing their cherry-colored lips. She was a good student but her heart wasn’t in it. College was hard for her. She transferred twice. I could never understand why she bothered, why she didn’t just admit her interests lay elsewhere. Now here she was with a degree, a fiancé, a baby on the way, and a decent-paying entry-level job with excellent benefits that she hadn’t had to break a sweat to get.

When I was a kid, I painted pictures, thousands of them. I turned my bedroom into a museum and charged admission. I graduated summa cum laude.

I pour the vodka into a tumbler. “You tell her,” I say to my dad. “I’m sure it’ll still mean plenty.”

. . .

The mystic warned me about the pinch-faced men from City Hall, that they would come around asking questions, but I made a mistake when I asked if it had anything to do with the mayor’s initiative to stamp out fraud. The mystic went immediately to the center of the room, to the antique cherry table she uses for readings. She grabbed hold of the brocade and pulled; candlesticks, tarot cards, and crystals went flying.

The mystic rapped her knuckles hard against the bare wood. She banged the table over on its side, passed her fingers through the air where it had been. “See anything? Well? Do you?”

“No,” I said. Essential oils were leaking all over the rug.

The mystic marched past me toward the back. “The very idea.”

That night I had a dream I was shouting at the mystic. I told her exactly what was wrong with her, the world, my place in it. In my dream, I was a thousand times more articulate and cutting than I’ve ever been in real life. The next morning when my alarm went off, I got up, showered, went to work.

The mystic can be seriously bitchy, to be sure. But to call her a bitch would be like calling a Gauguin pervy or a Van Gogh yellow. The mystic has a multitude of personalities. She is by turns superior, maternal, frivolous, warm, lewd, vain, particular, nasty, seductive, bitingly clever. One way or another, she has the entire neighborhood in her thrall. Storeowners are always stopping by with gifts, begging her to come by and sample their wares on the house. Not once have I known the mystic to purchase the fresh flowers that adorn the cherry table or settle what must be an extensive dry cleaning bill. I don’t think she’s bought a coffee a day in her life.

Even the men from City Hall, it turns out, are not immune to the mystic’s charms. “Quick, light the jasmine incense,” the mystic tells me, when she makes one of their gray-suited forms coming toward us down the sidewalk.

“I’m here about the operations tax,” they always say. “Our records show you haven’t paid it.”

“Hmm,” the mystic says. “Why don’t you have a seat?” Next thing the City Hall men know, they’re sitting across from her while she tells them about their brothers’ debts, their wives’ pregnancies, how exactly to get the mayor’s ear.

All this is to say, the mystic is not above a little manipulation.

But the mystic I like best is the one who shows herself after the last customer’s gone and we’ve turned off the neon and done the vacuuming. She sighs and kicks off her shoes, takes the pins from her hair and lets it fall around her shoulders. As she counts out her take and enters it in a ledger, the mystic pours me a glass of wine. I sip it, watching the people pass back and forth outside on the sidewalk, speculating about who they are, where they’re going, what they want. There’s something comforting about it, like when, as a kid in the back of my dad’s car, I’d stare out the window and let my mind go flat and glassy, thinking about the pictures I wanted to paint.

“That man from the other day,” the mystic says tonight. “The one looking for his daughter. He was handsome, wasn’t he? Not too clean-cut, not too scruffy?”

I make a face. “He had hands like a woman.”

“A man can’t have beautiful hands?” She looks down her nose at me. “You have so much to learn.” Her eyes drift over my stained blouse, the frayed hem of my skirt. “Like how to sew. No one likes a sloppy dresser.”

“Whatever,” I say. I think about The Condor, where on my first night, the manager had wrenched off my glasses and told me my tips were going toward contacts. “I haven’t had a problem yet.”

The mystic smiles wickedly. “So you’re going to get married in sneakers with your hair in knots?”

I grin. “Watch me.”

“Come on,” the mystic says, reaching out and tousling my hair. “Don’t you think on that one day you might want to do something just a little bit different? A cute updo, maybe?”

Zelda’s freckled face intrudes on me. I grind the base of my wine glass into the table. “I’m more focused on my career at the moment.”

“Oh really?” the mystic asks casually. She looks down, pencils a number into a column. “This interests you, does it?”

“Oh I didn’t mean this.” I give a little laugh. “This is temporary. You know, just until the economy recovers.”

“Right,” she says, and in the silence that follows I discover one more thing about the mystic: It is possible to hurt her feelings.

. . .

“Okay, so I’m a little bit obsessed with her,” I admit to Diana. We are at Rainbow Grocery, looking for nutritional yeast flakes.

Diana studies the ingredients on a jar. “Sounds like Stockholm syndrome to me.”

“She’s got great eyes. And her skin! If I could have skin like that ever, let alone at her age…”

Diana rolls her eyes.

“I had this dream about her the other night —”

“Seriously?”

“What?” I am indignant. “The mystic says you should always pay close attention to your dreams.” I drop a package of dried seaweed into my basket. “She was leaning in a doorway. Her arms were crossed and she was looking at me like she was waiting for me to do something. She was wearing the most gorgeous red dress. What do you think she’d have to say about that?”

Diana sets the jar down. “I don’t know about her, but Freud would have a field day.”

. . .

When I come back from an errand late in the day, the mystic is in the middle of an appointment. I cringe at the wheedling sound of the client’s voice; she’s a regular, and not one of the more appealing ones. “But,” the client is insisting, “you said.” Her hands flutter anxiously through the air. “It’s fall. The equinox was yesterday. I’m supposed to — It’s supposed to —”

The mystic plucks the woman’s hands from the air, presses them down onto the table. “I’ve told you before. There is no ‘supposed to.’”

“What?” The woman squints in confusion, shakes her head. “But you said —”

The mystic sighs.

“Some people,” the mystic says, after the woman has made a reluctant exit, “get obsessed with the future.”

“Heh.” I pick up the empty water pitcher. “Some people.”

I beat a hasty retreat to the back room, uselessly hoping that the mystic can’t sense my shame, can’t rewind my life to last night, to just before sleep and just after the bar and the four manhattans and Diana leaving with that moronic bike messenger. I’d hate for her to see the version of me who staggered up the stairs and into the bathroom, where the puke-green candle sits, disguised as aromatherapy. I flicked the lighter, stared into the hissing flame. “Do something,” I whispered. “Please.”

I do the vacuuming, and the world outside comes alive for the evening. There is a show on across the street at The Independent: taxis and buses are pulling up, bouncers ushering early arrivals into lines. Over on our side of the street, the sidewalk is frantic with comings and goings.

I put the vacuum away; the mystic pours me a glass of wine.

“What about him?” she asks, tilting her glass at a harried man in horn rims carrying a number of bags from the market.

I squint at his departing back. “Mid-forties. Two children, a boy and a girl. And…” I consider for a moment. “His trial separation is about to become permanent.”

The mystic points in the direction of a café table, where a lanky blond guy is just setting down an empty pint.

“Looks twenty-nine but is actually more like thirty-nine. Likes brunettes, American Spirits, and IPAs. Works as a bike messenger but tells everyone he’s writing a screenplay.”

“You’re cheating.”

I shrug. “My friend Diana’s sleeping with him.” I look down at my glass. “That woman,” I say. “The one who was here earlier?”

The mystic nods.

I want to ask about the future — what, if anything, the mystic knows about it for sure, but my nerve instantly abandons me. “How do you put up with her week after week?” I ask instead, forcing a laugh. “I mean, if this were a restaurant someone would have spit in her food by now.”

The mystic returns her attention to the window. “When I was a girl,” she says, “I went to see the psychic in our village. I lied to my mother to do it, told her I was going out for eggs.” She laughs faintly. “I was always doing that, lying to my mother.”

A homeless woman passes by and begins trying to work the café tables. Her shoes are mismatched, her hands fixed around her shopping bag and paper cup like claws. The people at the tables hunch their shoulders and study their drinks, as if what she has is contagious.

“Pretty girl,” she says. “That’s what the psychic kept calling me. She grabbed my hands and looked at my palms and told me that one day I’d meet the man of my dreams. She said our time together would be brief, but that he would make me whole.”

The mystic takes a sip of wine. “There was something cruel about the way she said it, but at the time I didn’t know enough to pay it any attention. I was never so excited as I was walking out of her house.”

I nod. It’s almost as if I can see the mystic as she was in that moment — not yet poised, not yet glamorous. Her too-long bangs are falling awkwardly over her eyes, and the laces of her black leather shoes are coming loose as she skips over the pavement, toward home. The thought makes me smile.

“So?” I ask. “Did you meet him?”

The mystic gives a bitter laugh. “I met him all right. He was the doctor who stitched me up after I had my daughter. I was lying in the stirrups, half-dead from twenty hours of labor, looking like a plucked turkey waiting to be stuffed. He walked in and he was perfect, and in that moment, I understood exactly what that bitch had been talking about.”

Her gaze doesn’t leave the window. “He was so kind while he was putting me back together, so attentive. Told me what a beautiful daughter I had, what a wonderful mother I was going to be.” She sets her glass down. “I cried the whole time.”

The mystic turns and looks at me. Her eyes are hard. “I don’t care how little you like someone. That sort of reading — it’s not what we do here. Understand?”

A collective cheer erupts from across the street. The bouncers have just started letting people in. I turn my head, pretending it’s distracted me. Silence stretches out between us.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” I say finally. “Where is she now?”

The mystic returns her gaze to the street. “Lost,” she says, with so little inflection that the word could mean anything: confused or deceased or simply left, like an umbrella in the back of a taxi.

. . .

“It’s gotta go,” Diana says, wrinkling her nose. “Your whole place is starting to smell.” She opens the bathroom door, reaches for the candle.

“No,” I protest. “Don’t!”

Diana studies the mass of melted wax in her hand. “What are you screwing around with this for? If you think she’s so great, why don’t you just ask her?”

“Well,” I hedge, eyeing the candle, wishing I’d never let Diana up. She thinks all this is bad enough without me admitting that I’m desperate to do just that. But it’s not my pride that’s keeping me from asking. One of the terms of my hire the mystic had been very clear about was that she wouldn’t do any readings for me. “It just causes trouble,” she’d said. “I lose more help that way.”

“It’s complicated,” I say finally, hoping Diana will let me leave it at that. She’s my best friend and I’d be lost without her, but she actually likes her job, doesn’t mind that they’ve been paying her for two straight years as an independent contractor rather than putting her on payroll and giving her insurance. She gets along with the other women she works with, and every Wednesday night they go out in the Mission for margaritas and salsa dancing. Sometimes it makes me wonder: Where’s her sense of outrage?

I reach out and pry the candle out of her hands. “It’s cool,” I say. “I’ll get rid of it.”

. . .

Partway through the afternoon, I emerge from the back to find the mystic standing at the window, hands clasped around her arms. In the time I’ve been gone, the light has changed: Tapers of fog are drifting over the street, licking at the corners of buildings. The room feels like one big indrawn breath.

“What is it?” I whisper, unable to help myself. “What do you see?”

The mystic spins around. Her face is flushed. Her hair is disheveled. If it wasn’t so completely improbable, I’d guess she’d been crying. “Do I look like a fortune-teller to you?” she barks at me.

“Geez,” I say. “Forget I asked.” I decide I better go out for more coffee.

I am standing in line at the café when I realize that the woman on her phone in front of me is speaking the language of art: composition, flow, negative space. I close my eyes and listen, try to pretend for a minute that I live in her world, that the rest of my day will be full of light and color instead of gloom and premonition and make sure you’re getting this all down Janine.

“Let me just get a pen,” the woman says. She fumbles one-handed with her purse and it slides off her shoulder. Coins clatter against the café floor.

“Shit,” the woman says into her phone. “I’m gonna have to call you back.”

I bend down automatically. “Thanks,” she says, stooping down too. “I’m an idiot.”

I pick a penny, face up, off the ground. “Sorry,” I say, “but are you an artist?”

“I run a gallery. Just opening.” She dumps the change into her wallet, extracts a card, and hands it to me. “You should come check it out.”

. . .

“Everybody’s always going on about how when you meet the one, you just know.” The mystic’s client tugs earnestly at her blond hair. She wrinkles her nose. “And I think I know. I really, really think I know, but I don’t know I know.”

I sigh. I could take notes on this session in my sleep. I let my thoughts wander toward the gallery, the kinds of pieces that would hang on the sparkling-white walls. I am imagining re-introducing myself to the owner, telling her modestly but assertively about my ambitions, when I feel something go wildly wrong, as if the car the mystic is driving has abruptly swerved off the road.

I stand up, unsure of what to do. The mystic shoots me a look over the client’s shoulder. I bite my lip.

“You — you made a mistake.” I blurt, once the client’s shaken the mystic’s hand and strolled out the door, all smiles.

“Oh?” the mystic asks. “How’s that?”

“Her boyfriend’s cheating on her.”

The mystic raises an eyebrow. “That’s right.”

I feel a throb, like the dull shadow of a migraine. Then a deluge. I put a hand to my temple.

“Here,” the mystic says, pulling out an armchair, “you look like you need to sit down.”

Images present themselves: my best paintings, what I was doing when I made them. My adviser, pushing my thesis proposal back over the table at me. It’s a great idea Janine, but you can’t sustain an argument on intuition alone. That shiny pink bike with the horn and the streamers that I knew they were going to give Zelda for her birthday. My father holding the ice pack to her mouth, patting her hair, calling her his princess.

My eyes race across the scarlet and green of the Oriental carpet, over the toes of the mystic’s shoes, up the length of her silver dress. Her eyes are carefully blank, but in the twist of her lips I find it: a hint of triumph.

“You lied.” As the words come out of my mouth I know they’re true. “You did it on purpose. You wanted me to see.”

Color rises in the mystic’s face but she just shrugs, pushes the chair closer. “Really Janine, you’ll feel so much better if you sit.”

But I don’t sit. I stand, seething. “If I wanted to be taken advantage of,” I growl, “I would have stuck it out at the strip club.”

I look the mystic square in her gray eyes. Something is rising in me — a kind of excitement. This is it, my chance to say all the things I’ve only ever said in dreams. I am just getting started.

But the mystic simply waves her hand, brushing away what’s unsaid like so much smoke. “Come on, Janine,” she says, as if I’m the one in error. “Why did you think I hired you? This isn’t a welfare office.”

. . .

I call the number on the card and soon I am speaking to Trisha, the woman from the café. Turns out she is in need of an assistant. On Monday, instead of doing my pickups in Richmond, I ride the Muni seven squeaky stops in the opposite direction. I find the address on my second pass of the street, the sparkling-white walls glowing through the grainy, graffiti-tagged windows. It is everything I’d pictured.

“How’d you do it?” I ask, as Trisha shows me around.

“Tech money!” she chirps, then covers her mouth to muffle a giggle. “They wanted it back once the NASDAQ took a nosedive, but I told them tough shit.”

I reach out, touch the edge of a gilt frame, think about how badly I need this.

I steal a glance at Trisha’s curly-haired snub-nosed profile. Raised by her mother. Got everything she asked for. Likes women but can’t admit it.

“So,” I say, letting the back of my hand rub against hers. “What’ll you start me at?”

I am walking triumphantly back through the Tenderloin when I notice a girl sitting hunched over on a bench: knees up around her chin, arms muffling her face. She is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a high school tennis team and her hair could use some brushing. I stop. “I don’t know who gave you directions, but you belong in the Haight, not here.”

She takes down her arms. Despite the dirt and tears, I recognize her from her photo right away.

“Goddammit,” I say, wishing I still believed in coincidences.

. . .

The mystic offers the girl almonds, puts a hand on her shoulder. “Your father’s been looking for you, sweetheart. He’s worried sick.” She takes out her phone, places it in the girl’s grubby fingers.

“I could have done that,” I hiss as the girl cries softly into the phone.

“Yes,” the mystic replies archly, “you could have.”

I wait until a flight has been arranged, the girl tucked safely into a taxi bound for SFO. “I’m giving my notice.”

The mystic, in the middle of applying fresh lipstick with the aid of a compact, doesn’t look up. “Found something else, did you?”

I nod.

She purses her lips at the mirror, closes the compact with a snap. “I suppose the pay’s better?”

I grit my teeth, try to brush the hair out of my eyes. “It’s not about that.”

The mystic stares at me. In spite of the lipstick, she seems older than usual: her eyes tired, her face worn. “Jobs aren’t magic, you know.”

“Well obviously,” I say. “No shit.” But for the first time in all these months I feel afraid of her, of what she might say. As she steps closer, I reach desperately for my mental picture of the gallery: myself in smart clothes, sporting a cute haircut. Confident and relaxed. Happy.

The mystic leans forward. My nose fills with the scent of her perfume. She reaches out, tucks the hair behind my ear. “It doesn’t work like that,” she whispers.

. . .

That night I dream I’m back at The Condor. I’ve lost my glasses somewhere; patrons and half-clad women are clutching at me. There’s a table in the back corner that I need to get to, but the room is too blurry and my heels are too tall and I spend the night tripping, almost falling, fighting to keep my balance.

I wake too early, hit the bedside lamp, fumble for my glasses. In the bathroom, the remains of the green candle flicker fitfully. “Thanks for nothing,” I tell it. I stare at my reflection in the dingy mirror, the light throwing odd shadows across my face, and put my hand to my cheek, to the place where the mystic’s lips had grazed it. I close my eyes and try to dream my way toward her, to see if she said what she did out of spite or foresight or experience or possibly love.

I am the first customer at the hair salon down the street. The stylist snaps the apron around my neck, picks up her shears, and together we watch the dead ends fall like rain. She tells me I have left this too long. I tell her that I know. She asks me if I have to work. I say that I do, that today is my first day. She tells me I must be really something, landing any kind of job right about now, and is the money any good? I admit it’s not bad, but I won’t be saving much for a while, on account of my sister’s wedding. The stylist groans her sympathy, reaches for the blow-dryer.

The sun warms the back of my neck as I stroll away from the salon, past convenience stores, cafés, and bars. Owners are unlocking their gates for the morning; delivery guys are pulling up with pallet of vegetables and soft drinks, bundles of newspaper and kegs of beer.

The bell on the door makes its familiar music as I twist the key and pull the handle. The Oriental carpet gleams in the sun. “Hello?” I call, not really expecting an answer.

I stand by the window for a long time, watching the people pass back and forth outside. When the doorbell jingles, I turn away. A young man pokes his head in. “Are you open?” he asks nervously.

I gesture toward the table, the empty chair.

“Yes,” I say. I sit down and slide the Jordan almonds his way. “Have a seat.”