My arthritic aunt Herbertha always gives me a gift certificate for clairvoyant services at Christmas: a Romanian gypsy storefront operation, usually, but sometimes a Priestess of Isis in a proper temple if she's feeling especially benevolent. This year, the economy being what it is, the gift certificate was from Studio Madame Ceaucescu, the place with a neon moon sign in the window above the closed Chinese restaurant in Gormenghast Street.
"Clairvoyant gift certificates are much more fun than one of those boring Amazon things," my aunt said, as I opened the envelope and forced another smile of gratitude. Perhaps, although they are also far less useful, if you ask me. My confidence in gypsy fortune tellers was completely eviscerated by Madame Svevo's miserable failure to predict my hospitalization for bypass surgery the previous February: "You may experience some slight browning of your soul in early June" being the only vaguely pertinent remark that the old Carpathian fraud made concerning my health in 2011. She did also receive a psychic communication from a long deceased relative of mine, apparently a nineteenth-century surgeon called Aloysius Baldwin, but his channeled voice merely announced that he was with Great Aunt Ermentrude and that everyone was very happy on the other side; conversational subjects of negligible interest to me.
So it was with a weary step, guided by the neon moon with gift certificate in hand, that I climbed the stairs to Studio Madame Ceaucescu one morning last week. Her rooms smelled strongly of joss sticks, musty fabrics, body odor and ineffective blasts of lemon-scented Lysol that hung around to revel in their own failure. There was a rickety table upon which a crystal ball balanced precariously; two chairs fitted with threadbare cushions; a doorless portal to a back room that was strung with colorful beads; and a small cabinet in the corner supporting the bust of a mouse-headed deity of indeterminate gender. The only pictures were a dog-eared tourist map of Cairo haphazardly pinned to the wall, and an elaborately framed aquatint of a tiny shepherd standing amid oblong rocks, unconvincingly titled Stonehenge in the Olden Time.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much: some mumbled nonsense about ill-omens for my non-existent business interests; a suggestion of back pain at some unspecified point in the future; a possible trip across water in the summer; you know, the usual, obvious drivel.
The appearance of Madame Ceaucescu herself only reinforced this poor impression. She was dressed like a Pre-Raphaelite vision of one of the Three Kings of Orient, most probably the king bringing the gift of myrrh, if I was forced to specify.
"You come seeking knowledge," she stated flatly in an ersatz Bela Lugosi accent, as if the upstairs of a Chinese restaurant was a perfectly normal place to find the secrets of the universe revealed.
"Yes. I come seeking knowledge," I explained. "And I can cross your palm with a gift certificate for forty dollars."
"Ah. You must be nephew of woman called Herbertha. The messengers of the stars said you would come soon. Please, take seat."
And so I sat down at the rickety table, resigned to hearing Madame Ceaucescu pretend that everything my aunt had told her about me was actually clairvoyant wisdom from the astral plane.
"The five of lozenges reversed," she exclaimed, turning over the first Tarot card. "It signifies health problems in the past. Maybe an operation on heart. Health is better now but care must still be taken."
"I had a double bypass," I confirmed wearily.
"Yes. The ten of hoops says this. And the ace of hoops next to the ten means less of the fats must be consumed in your foods every day."
It was nearly noon, and the pungent stench of Kung Pao Chicken lunch specials began seeping through the floorboards of Studio Madame Ceaucescu as she continued interpreting the cards.
"Do they say anything about who will read about this experience on my blog?" I inquired, trying hard to prevent any note of derision from creeping into my voice.
She exhaled noisily and gave me a significant glance, holding my gaze for what seemed like an eternity before flipping over the last card: The Fool, reversed.
"I knew that was going to happen." I said. "It always does."
Madame Ceaucescu nodded: "Yes. It means you should tell your aunt to just give you the cash next Christmas like everybody else does."