The last card (unpublished)

Olga’s Psychic Boutique is a squat, beat-up house up the street from a gas station in northern Chicago. Hanging in one of its windows is the international calling card of those on mysticism’s payroll: the gold neon outline of a giant hand with its fingers spread wide. If I was still confused, I could read the word PSYCHIC stuck on the bright red door leading inside.

I visited Olga’s out of curiosity. An observation on the psychological effects of tarot card readings, I told myself. But the closer I got, the more that curiosity changed into the tightly controlled hope that masquerades as curiosity – the kind you stuff in a sack well outside your heart and drop if it doesn’t pan out.

On February 7, 2002, someone shot and killed my brother, Tim. The Palm Springs police never found a gun or a bullet. We never found out who did it, or why. I tried to accept I would never know, but I had a habit of leaving room for miracles in my thoughts. Reason and rationality hadn’t told me anything. What would a Tarot card reader say?

I expected Olga to wear purple robes and a hood. Her hair – curly and black, with streaks of gray — would poke out from its edges that framed a wrinkled face. She would hiss out prophecies while her eyes rolled back in her head.

Olga, in fact, stood about six feet tall, weighed around 300 pounds, had stringy black hair, wore a billowing pajama-like shirt, silky gray pants, shiny black penny loafers and called himself John.

John’s office – long as a station wagon and wide as a pool table – was a cheerfully bright sunroom hidden behind the drawn blinds of the shop’s windows. Grover-blue carpet glowed like a sapphire shellac in the afternoon sun. An unopened case of bottled water sat next to the door leading back to an attached apartment. I heard a television. Alex Trebek?

I took a seat in one of two chairs facing each other along the far wall. Between them was a table lamp. After claiming the chair across from me, John laid a stack of tarot cards on the circular glass table and told me to cut the deck three times. I did so and we began.

A tarot deck has 78 cards. Fifty-six of them are divided into four suits, each suit having a king, queen, knight, page and 10 cards numbered one through 10 – modern playing cards, more or less. The 22 other cards are where the real fortune-telling action takes place. Each of them represents a different aspect of life or human nature. Exactly how that representation looks is up to individual artists, but image themes have included cats, dragons, royalty and pop culture.

“The imagery has come out of people’s spiritual search,” says Dr. Tina Tessina, an author and psychotherapist in California who occasionally uses Tarot cards to help her patients. “It has grown out of the human search for meaning.”

For $45, John glanced at the Disney-like images of medieval royalty on his cards told me I was “looking for security.” He also noted I “have to be happy in what I’m doing.” I’m going to be successful, both in love and work. In October I’ll get some money. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought.

Then John said he saw cancer in my cards. My birthmother had died of it in 1980, four years after I was born. I was surprised.

How’d he do that?

“People are misled into thinking that these readings are unique to them,” said Professor Charlie Wynn, author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends . . . and Pseudoscience Begins. “We all go through pretty much similar stages in life. We all pretty much encounter the problems that are associated with these stages in life.”

Maybe John made a lucky guess. Obviously I’m over 25 years old and no one comes to a tarot card reader to discuss happiness. They come for answers they can’t get anywhere else. Death is one big question and cancer kills a lot of folks.

Guns do too – 9,369 people were murdered by firearms in 2002 according to the FBI — and I was even more surprised by John’s reaction to my story about Tim’s murder.

“Did they find him in his apartment?” he asked.

I told him yes. Tim’s landlord actually found him in the shower. The water was running.

“Your brother had a temper,” he went on. “I think he was around the wrong people.”

True and true, but not the work of a seer. Then John told me he saw two men and drugs involved in the crime. I would never find out what happened to Tim, he said, unless I found these two men.

That stuck.

John kept on talking and I kept on thinking. Two men. Even if John was right, should I start looking for them? Where would I start?

John told me I would be inheriting a house, told me I was locked in a room as young child and still felt angry over it. Neither meant much and I didn’t really register what he was saying until the end, when he told me he was sorry about my mother and brother. It seemed sincere. I gave him two twenties and a five and he pushed out of his chair to sweep me toward the door.

“Your brother is not coming back,” he said as I was stepping out.

“I know,” I said.

John’s matter-of-fact lack of pity or mercy – dead was dead – felt pure and I almost thanked him for saying the simple words.

He said another quick goodbye and closed the door.

I wasn’t going to do any searching for two men. I wasn’t going to go through Tim’s old phone records all over again. I wasn’t going to fly out to California and start interrogating people.

Like John said, my brother wasn’t coming back. Even if I found the two men, Tim would still be gone.

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