The Cold Reader
My 7 o'clock shows up at 6:45. Mid-fifties,
Jewish last name, sisters. My initial feeling: mother. Mother's always a good place
They seem confused when I lead them into the
living room. Probably, they've done this before, and expected the usual: Beaded
curtains, incense, large wooden table, crystal balls and ouiji boards, tarot cards
and palmistry charts. Occult tchotchkes. Props. I don't use props. My living room
is spare, simple from wall to wall. Whites and browns. Leather couch. My chair.
Glass table. One bookshelf filled with contemporary novels, popular nonfiction,
biographies, mountain-climbing stories, tragedies at sea. No Sylvia Brown, or
Edgar Cayce. No Madame Blavatsky. No theosophy. No Manly P. Hall. No dusty leather
bound volumes full of diagrams, and arcane discussions of the humors, or energy.
I even have my latest Skeptical Inquirer on the table.
learned very early the benefits of eschewing paranormal clutter. Some clients
like all that. They savor the gypsy trailer experience. Let them go to the circus.
My clients are upscale. Yuppies. They want legitimacy, not New Orleans. Science,
or something approaching it. And, I also think they feel like I'm closer to the
departed without the props. Nothing attenuates the contact. They're whispering
right into my ear. I'm a clean, direct conduit in a nice green turtleneck, and
expensive leather shoes.
Shoes are key, too. Not just for
job interviews, like they tell you.
This is my home. I've
brought them into the place where I sleep and eat. At one time, I used an office.
This works better.
At one time, I advertised in weekly
newspapers. Now, it's all referrals. My rate tripled when I started doing it that
way. I'm exclusive. I'm a private counselor to the bereaved.
sit down, and I offer coffee, tea, Merlot. They take the wine. That's a good sign.
They'll be at ease, and it'll be a cinch to read them. Nice, clear tells.
getting an older female coming through," I say. No hesitation. That's an
important element for me. Skeptics don't think I'm sizing them up, or preparing
anything if I jump right in. And, the rest-the believers-are impressed by the
power of my connection. I'm tuned in quick. They also feel important to the loved
Older female is a good place to start, as well. Like
I said, for the sisters, I'm guessing Mother, but if the old lady hasn't kicked
yet, Grandma surely has. Or, favorite Aunt. If you're life isn't riddled with
older female headstones, you don't come to see me. You stay at home and have dinner
with the family.
Mother. Everyone wants to reattach to
the nipple. Good relationship, lousy relationship, it's still a constant.
female gets the slightest eyebrow arch from Older Sister. A tell.
and conmen know about tells. So do Mamet fans, I suppose. It's when you tell me
something without saying a word. You squeeze a hand. You widen your eyes. You
jump slightly. Your lip twitches. You quietly gasp. I don't even need to see you,
really. I've heard a thousand tells.
I'm in love with a
tell. I love a blush or a start. It makes me warm. My fingers tingle. I get goosebumps.
I fall for my clients every time they gasp. I've held myself back more times than
I can remember, when I've felt inclined to move over to the couch, sit between
Mr. and Mrs. Whoever, put my arms around their shoulders. I've fantasized about
nuzzling in, stroking necks, nibbling ears or fingers. Clients are so open to
me. It's such a turn-on.
I don't do a lot of guessing initially.
"Now, when someone comes through like this, I tend to sense age and familial
ties, but not the exact nature of the relationship. The departed can be very direct,
or very vague. It's in the nature of depature. So, I'll just ask: Has your mother
Younger sister nods. They look at each other
and slump. This is what they wanted to hear.
because I'm getting a maternal feeling, but that could also be a grandmother or
aunt, if one was close."
"We are close, but Aunt
Judith hasn't departed yet."
"Is she sick, though?"
brace. Yes, older sister nods.
"Hasn't departed yet,"
she said. Expectation in the phrase. Grief in the phrase. And, if they're close,
and she's not here, there are two possibilities: She's a skeptic, or she's bedridden.
And families believe or don't believe together, I think. The skeptic in a family
of believers will still believe half of anything.
because I get the sense that she wants her sister to know she's watching her."
scoot closer together, a rippled fricative of buckling leather, expanding and
contracting as their weight shifts, sounds, breaking through the somber mood of
the living room. The sisters look at each other, embarrassed.
heard that," I say, working with it to lighten the mood. Clients love levity
in the departed. It assures them of amusement in the afterworld, and reminds them
of better times with the departed. Even a humorless crank becomes a cut-up on
the other side. My natural inclinations taking over. I can't help it.
didn't joke around," a client might say.
departed tend to lose the burdens and inhibitions on the other side," I tell
them. "It's palpable, too. I get a sense of a stronger quality to their energy,
like all that stuff they carried around was lifted away, and they remained powerful
enough to shoulder it. I like to think of it as an energy fitness program. And,
I get the feeling he's really making up for lost, time, too. He's incorrigible."
Clients always buy that.
The sisters smile. "Yeah,
she's laughing about it," I say. "God, she's infectious. She has so
much, well, I hesitate to call it life, but I've never found a better word, you
They nod. They know. "And I'll bet she
was a handful towards the end, wasn't she."
she was," they agree.
"October. What's October?"
I ask. "Birthday? Did she die in October?" Anybody? Any birthdays or
deaths in the month of October? "What's the connection to October?"
Judith," says older sister. Older siblings are always better with dates.
They always stumble onto something. "Her birthday is in October."
going back to the aunt. They must have been close."
yeah," says older sister. "They went through a lot together."
really could kiss older sister. I stifle the urge to leap up, grab her, and stick
my tongue in her mouth, caressing the back of her neck. I also stifle the urge
to tease out whatever story she's just alluded to. Another death, probably. Abuse,
maybe. A murder? I should wait, though, and go back to poor Aunt Judith, lying
in her hospital bed.
"When did they discover the tumor?"
There's the first gasp. "How did he know?"
they wonder. Older woman, dying of cancer. What are the odds? That's a nice question,
too, because I haven't really specified whose tumor. See that? Could be Mom's,
Aunt Judith's, older sister's.
"Seven months ago,"
says younger sister, and moves a hand to her belly.
"Pancreatic," she replies.
I'm feeling it in the abdomen. And she's been..."
been in the hospital since."
"Found it too late,
though," I say.
"Yes, they did."
getting a sense from your mother that your aunt has lived longer than expected?"
says older sister. They always underestimate. I think maybe doctors want us to
feel like we've accomplished something, outliving a grim prognosis. Stick it in
your ear, Dr. Doom. I'm still around. Not for much longer, they think, but at
least there's that final victory; a week or two more than expected.
about the cruise?" I ask. Again, they give a little gasp.
knows about the cruise," the older says.
you're mother told me about the cruise," I say.
took a cruise a couple of years before she died," says the younger.
Aunt Judith," I think.
"With Aunt Judith,"
says the older. See, saying it loud would've just been showing off.
stereotypes are such a boon to my day-to-day operation. Keep in mind they are
cultural, and regional. In this city, in upscale Jewish neighborhoods, the sister
cruise is a sort of birthright in your sixties. These two will do it soon. Going
on the cruise is a rite of passage. Having gone on the cruise proves one has led
a full life. Envy those who have been on the cruise, because they have attained
fulfillment and it can never be taken away from them. Pity those who haven't been
on the cruise, becuase they do not know what it is to truly live, and they may
never. They may not culminate. They may die incomplete.
then there are the experiences all families inevitably have.
getting another feeling now, but I think we're moving away from Aunt Judith. I'm
seeing a male relative, a thread between he and your mother, but there's also
a wall between them. She's bringing you in as well, and I'm feeling like you're
on her side of the wall. Advisers? Allies? The wall is gold. Money. I think she's
trying to say something about money."
It's Joshua. Is he there, too?"
"Younger. He was our cousin."
they had a falling out over money?"
says the older, sipping here wine. Younger and older give each other such a look.
Silently they scream "if only."
died before there was a reconciliation."
of years earlier," says the younger.
and your mother grieved together."
did. They needed one another."
"Because it was
so sudden. Well, she wants you to know they've been able to reconcile. The wall
between them has come down."
The sisters sigh, but
I can tell they want more.
"Remember, material disagreements
mean nothing to you after departure. All of it is pretty meaningless." They
nod. I'm running out of steam, though, so it's time to take a shot.
what I like to call them: shots, like shots in the dark. Introduce something new,
something common, and see if it can be pulled into the story.
this about the car? He died in a car crash?" Sudden. Hundreds of thousands
of them a year. Pretty safe shot.
the younger, her brow furrowing. Older and younger exchange glances. Best thing
to do is press, even if it seems like you're losing them.
showing me a car," I say. "There's some connection to a car." And
for some reason, I decide to really gamble. "And a B name. She's showing
me a car and a b name."
"Oh my God, Beth!"
says the older. "Joshua gave some of the loan to Beth so she could buy that
Again I fall in love with the older and her
bottomless well of gossip. Press harder, dig yourself a hole, and inevitably some
family member will jump in with you and let you climb out on their shoulders.
The mind so loves to make connections, no matter how tenuous. It loves symmetry,
it loves puzzles, and it loves webs. I've made wild claims, played around with
unlikely elements, and seen clients put things together in astonishingly creative
ways. They want it to make sense, and they will work until it does. This was an
easy one, though. Almost no challenge at all. I'm bored.
pulling back. This can be tiring for the departed. We should schedule another
session." The sisters agree. "Maybe I can come down to the hospital,
so we can involve Aunt Judith and her energy. House-calls are still reasonably
priced, I think." The sisters, again, agree. I show them out. At the door,
they hand me the check. I let them know I have a good feeling about this.
mother is very strong. I really enjoyed communicating with her. Thank you so much
for introducing us." They smile, a tear or two welling. "I look forward
to speaking with the three of you again," I say and shut the door.
And this is my job.
© Matthew Simmons