He knew that most people shared one obsession: the desire to know things they could not possibly know, such as the future. Contrary to whatever reason or good judgment they possessed, he was certain that many people would repeatedly pay other people posing as fortunetellers to make fools of them. They would pay in person or over the phone for elaborate horoscopes and crystal ball forecasts that would tell them how generous and smart they were, despite the fact they were spending two hundred dollars on a thirty-five minute phone call to a bored, depressive college dropout who sat in a basement in Milwaukee or Des Moines eating potato chips while she pretended to know what was coming.
Something else he was certain about: hope was an addiction. It was always there, no matter what, shining and ungraspable. Despite the outward signs that nothing would ever be different for the lonely horoscope-seeker, except for his bank balance and self-respect, both already wobbling on the verge of collapse before the call to Milwaukee, he continued to hope that his tiny, sodden life would soon be cast off in favor of beauty, money, and effortless romantic conquests.
His plan was small but ambitious. He began by designing business cards on his computer, using purple ink on white paper and Clip-art pictures of Merlin’s hat, a crystal ball, and a spray of stars that arced upward from his name. Since a single mother of one in Scotland had appeared on the scene in the ’90s and forever changed the publishing industry and people’s belief in the nerd’s ability to perform magic, everyone was as crazy for wizards as they were for hope. He gave himself a trade name, Lazarus H. Potter, knowing the allusion would trigger the sweetly childish hope that he really did have magic powers.
His girlfriend, in spite of herself, was impressed by his scheme, though she had several doubts. “You don’t know how to tell fortunes,” she said. “You don’t even know how to read palms.”
“It’s all on the internet,” he said, both defiant and embarrassed.
“If it’s really psychics who are posting that stuff, you’d think they’d know better than to put the secrets of their trade on the Web. They should be able to see that someone like you would come along and steal them.”
They were drinking coffee in the kitchen, he sweating from it, she already showered and crisply dressed for the day. It was early, not yet eight o’clock, both of them unable to sleep past seven if they went to bed after midnight, an exhausting but so far unchangeable condition. “It’s probably amateurs who put up those sites,” he said.
She rinsed her cup, splashing the countertop. Almost every day she forgot to wipe it off, and when he leaned against the lip of the sink later to rinse his own cup, the water would soak his fly. “If you put that wizard stuff on your cards,” she said, “people are going to think you’re a magician and ask if you can work at their kids’ birthday parties.”
He looked up at her, seeing her conciliatory half-smile. They both knew she was right, but he had already printed two hundred cards, and the paper had cost him almost fifteen dollars. “It says ‘Seer and Fortuneteller’ under my name,” he said. “They should be able to figure it out.”
“I’d get rid of the ‘Seer’ part. It sounds pretentious and most people probably won’t know what it means.”
He wondered if she was trying to pick a fight, which she sometimes did just before she left for work because she didn’t like her job. “If they don’t know what it means,” he said, “they won’t know it’s pretentious.”
She was holding one of his cards, tracing the magician’s hat with a fingertip. “Do seers have email addresses?”
“This one does.” He paused. “I thought you said this would be a good idea.”
“It is, but what if someone tried to sue you if you don’t tell their real future? You’d better have them sign a waiver before you start making things up about them.”
He studied her pale, pretty face. She was wearing the silver hoop earrings he had given her for her last birthday, her dark blond hair pulled into a thick ponytail. Other men noticed her, all of the time. He wondered if he should practice his fortunetelling on her, but knew he wouldn’t be able to do it, fraud that he was or no. “I’ve never heard of a fortuneteller going to court. I think most people recognize that they come to someone like me at their own risk. It’s like buying a lottery ticket, but you get a little more for your money.”
It was this that he found most irresistible about his plan: everyone knew, in their more lucid moments, that no one could predict the future, but fortunetellers continued to exist, some of them doing very well by counseling millionaire celebrities who already seemed to have everything a person could reasonably or unreasonably desire. His aspirations were less grand—he would only be Lazarus H. Potter a few hours a week, and maybe, if things went well, he would rent a booth at summer festivals. It would be reprehensible but basically legal fun, a way to earn the extra money that he and Candace needed to move out of their apartment with its sepulchral kitchen and suspicious-smelling entryway, the neighbors and their subwoofers and guitar amplifiers and late-night arguments left behind to torment new tenants.
They had house lust, he and Candace, new-car lust, and better-life lust, though it embarrassed them. They sneered almost daily at the most visible pursuers of the American dream but felt the effects of its imperatives on their nightmares and sleep-deprived daydreams. He wanted material pleasures, hard and soft goods, along with what he’d been taught to want in college, the best being contemplative leisure and a smiling tolerance of strangers’ annoying habits and idiosyncrasies. Wanting things, better things, shinier, more expensive and useful things, did not seem wrong to him. From what he could tell, plenty of people had them.
Whether or not these people could afford them, whether or not they were eight credit cards deep in debt, he could not be sure. But he did not plan to lie down and let the country’s predatory bankers trample him. He would fabricate strangers’ futures instead. The idea had come to him while he listened to the drone of the public radio station on an afternoon when he was supposed to be proofreading the 400-page dissertation an illiterate European history student was paying him to edit. Someone who hunted ghosts was being interviewed by a bemused journalist. “You really do believe in ghosts?” she kept saying. “Really?”
Candace agreed to put out his cards at the office supply store she capably managed, well-prepared for a life in retail by her college degree in art history. As she had told him one night, having drunk too much wine at a friend’s thirtieth birthday party, she had finally found her true calling—cynicism, but she was not very good at it yet because she kept hoping things would improve.
The store was on K Street, near the law firms where wealthy attorneys professed to have senses of humor and the public interest at heart. It was only two days after Candace set his cards out that he received his first queries. Remembering her warning against potential lawsuits, he was wary about agreeing to meet with the two paralegals and the one lawyer who each asked to see him as soon as he was available. But he said yes, both excited and nervous.
By the way, what were his fees?
He had only a vague idea of what he should charge, not yet having given this aspect of his business prolonged thought. This omission seemed to be his conscience’s way of reminding him of its existence, or else his subconscious’s ungenerous belief that nothing would come of Lazarus H.P.
“Twenty dollars for a palm. Thirty-five for Tarot cards. Thirty for tea leaves.”
“Wow,” said the first caller, a paralegal named Naseem. “You’re cheap.”
His stomach plunged. “Those are my fees for first-time clients,” he said hastily. “They increase a little for follow-up visits.”
“Do you really do tea leaves? My grandmother in Delhi used to do them but she’s dead now.”
He cleared his throat. He had no idea why he had blurted this out. The psychics of the world were probably now aware of his presence and were mailing off malevolent vibrations. He was a fool to think he could pull off this crap, an absolute drooling fool. “I do them if someone wants me to,” he mumbled.
Candace stared at him when she heard about the tea leaves. “Are you serious? You’re even more of a nutcase than I thought, Josh. Tea leaves?”
“It’s on the internet,” he said, his armpits prickling. “And thanks for having so much faith in me.” He was always sweating now that he was on the verge of becoming an underpaid impostor.
He went ahead, despite his flopsweat, each of his nerves having metastasized to the size of a fried egg, and met Naseem the paralegal, Bill the lawyer, and Suzanne the paralegal. He had studied forty-four different Web sites over the course of eight days and had begun to believe, to his dismay, that fortunetelling might be based loosely on fact, or at least on a fringe science like water-divining, though he would not have admitted this to anyone, never having aspired to being the butt of a lot of jokes. He met each of his clients at a caf� near Candace’s office supply store and discovered immediately that he liked being Lazarus H. Potter. His alter ego spoke in hushed tones and had eschewed a cape and a decorative forehead scar for a black dress shirt, jeans and black calfskin loafers; he also wore sunglasses for the first ten minutes of each consultation, long enough to ensure that he cowed his clients a little by not letting them see his eyes. He was tall and lean and more or less handsome. He knew that he did not fit his clients’ stereotypes. In their private hearts, they wanted, he suspected, a big, turban-wearing gypsy with motherly breasts and colorful beads and huge rings, but by the end of the tea leaves and the two Tarot readings, they liked him, possibly even held him in esteem. They would call him again, each said, handing him his money, all of it in cash, crisp and fragrant from their billfolds. He felt a little love for them then, for their eager, hopeful faces, and a little guilt-tinged pity, a minuscule part of it due to the fact he wouldn’t be paying taxes on his Potter money. He had cheated both his clients and his government, though he had been a convincing cheat, which he knew was more than many other cheats could say.
Naseem called him five days after their meeting. “You were right,” she exclaimed, not bothering with hello. “Big changes actually were in store. Both at work and in love! There was even a dog involved, but it didn’t bite anyone, thank God. I’m sitting here at my desk totally in awe of you. You should charge tons more than you do. I think I might even have a little crush on you. Wow. Did I really just say that? You probably knew it already though, seeing as how you can tell the future.”
“I don’t deserve any credit,” he said, feeling his face turn warm. “I only told you what I saw in the bottom of that teacup.” The dog had been a fluke, but when he saw its shape, he had been compelled to declare it.
“Even my grandmother wasn’t as specific as you were. I’m sure she made stuff up all the time, but you actually saw things.”
“I try to give people their money’s worth,” he said, embarrassed and flattered.
“You’re a lot more of a bargain than my therapist who doesn’t listen to a word I say. She keeps saying I need more hobbies, even though I’ve never once said my life is boring. I hate people with hobbies. Their hobbies are all they talk about. Can’t they just sit around once in a while instead?”
One or two potential clients emailed or called almost every day, asking in sheepish or hesitant or brave tones for Mr. Potter. He was dazed by this early success, not sure if he should be thrilled by his entrepreneurial daring or irritated that everyone was so damn gullible. It really did seem that each minute yielded the fruit of a newborn fool.
But who was he to complain? This was what he had hoped for—he had started to make money and for the first time in his life, it seemed he might become a member of an exclusive club that had no rules for admittance but had previously been impossible to gain access to—the club of those who made Real Money. How easy it could be, despite all the hype. He only needed one solidly absurd idea and the cash would start pouring in: Beanie babies, ThighMaster, pet rocks, and now, Lazarus H. Potter.
Over the next several days, he saw three more people who were happy to be parted from their money if he pretended to know the secrets of the universe, but something had begun to happen that he had not expected. It seemed that he might actually be predicting the future. Images sometimes arrived in his head when he sat across from a client, images that had not been created by his own, mostly serviceable imagination. He was getting richer, but things were also getting a little spooky. The last two clients he had met were, he was almost certain, soon to be greeted by calamity, but he hadn’t thought it wise to reveal this. No one wanted bad news, even if they claimed to be able to handle it. Bad news they could have for free. Good news, by contrast, they would pay well for.
He saw eight clients in the first three weeks and earned almost five hundred dollars because some clients had wanted both the palm and the cards. Did he do the I Ching? Did he do soul readings? He had no idea what soul readings were, but found them on the Web—they were, in fact, ‘sole’ readings, fortunes deciphered from the bottom of people’s feet. No, he did not do sole readings. And he wasn’t sure if he ever would, not being that excited about feet, especially ones sweating all day in ill-fitting shoes. Three weeks of cavorting with the collective unconscious, of tempting the universe to smite him as a charlatan, and he had made good money from only a few hours’ work. “You’re not counting the time you spent on those Web sites,” Candace helpfully reminded him. “I’m sure it was at least 30 or 40 hours.”
“That was a time investment that’s now paying big dividends.”
“Should we start looking for a house?”
He smiled at her, gazed straight into her gray eyes and saw her putting a pair of black stockings into her handbag at Nordstrom. She stole things? Yikes. He saw her wolfing down two chocolate donuts at work and tossing the spinach salad with its costly toasted pecans, a salad she’d made at home that morning, into the wastebasket underneath the cash register. He saw her stuffing several miniature packs of Sixlets into her mouth, running to the gloomy bathroom in the back of the shop and throwing them up, then crying. As he never had before, he felt her unhappiness, her bewilderment, her self-loathing. She was, it seemed, much more of a cynic than she realized.
How he loved her! She was more sadly flawed than he would ever have guessed before the advent of Mr. Potter. He understood something else too—she would never leave him, and he finally had proof of this, but he didn’t plan to brag about it.
“Do you really want to start looking for a house?” he asked. “We haven’t saved anything for a down payment yet and I don’t know if these rubes are going to keep calling. What if someone sues me?”
“Ha ha,” she said. “Very funny.”
“It could happen.”
“I doubt it.”
“I like how my fraud money brings out the confidence in you.”
“It brings out the confidence in you too,” she said. “You never sit around and watch TV with me anymore. You’re always poring over something at your desk.”
“I’m obsessed with my new hobby,” he said, smiling at his private joke. He hadn’t told Candace about Naseem and her crush, though he didn’t intend to act on it. Naseem had a boyfriend now anyway, a guy who walked dogs for a living and dressed up part-time as a giraffe for children’s birthday parties, along with two friends who dressed up as a hippo and a monkey. In any case, he loved Candace. He wanted to buy her a house, a gazebo and several dozen rosebushes, a gleaming Audi, a Gucci bag, a trip to Cap d’Antibes and the long platinum blond wig she had joked about for months, pretending she only wanted it for Halloween so that she could go as Veronica Lake. He would even pay for breast implants which she still secretly yearned for, though she didn’t need them and he was pretty sure that one of the saline bags would break when she fell off a horse and landed on her chest in the mud. She wouldn’t break any bones but one of the bags would rupture and she would be embarrassed and miserable for weeks afterward, cursing her vanity and how asinine her sister was for insisting they go horseback riding for the family reunion she hosted every single fucking August.
He did not want to know this stuff. Not about her! Not in a million years.
She was looking at him, pursing her lipsticked lips. “What,” she said.
“You can tell me.”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“You’re lying,” she said.
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re thinking something. I know that look.”
“I’m always thinking something, but most of it isn’t worth mentioning.”
He shook his head again, unhappy about the lie. “Really, there’s nothing to say.”
Before the end of the month, he saw six more clients. All told, he had made $870. Proofreading a history student’s dissertation usually paid about $550, took at least twenty hours, and was agonizing. It made sense to him now why some people were crooked. Crime often did pay, and very handsomely.
Several days into the next month, however, a problem visited him, one his fledgling clairvoyant’s powers had failed to alert him to. The problem’s name was Peter Kline, a fake name, Josh could tell. Peter Kline had trash in his past, having been a robber of convenience stores and the slow-moving elderly. His conscience could not hide this, though it had been a few years since his last crime. Peter Kline was also, against his better judgment, an occasional cross-dresser and had a wife and a son who did not know about this hobby. Josh had already learned of more-unusual hobbies than cross-dressing, but Peter’s shame over this pursuit was almost crippling. He asked Josh for celestial guidance, saying that he was trying to break a bad habit, but wouldn’t name it.
“Do you mind paying me first?” said Josh. He could picture Peter ducking out of the caf�, feigning a trip to the bathroom. Peter paid him, the last three dollars in quarters and dimes. Josh felt his conscience seize. He tried to remind himself that Peter was a scumbag but still felt guilty.
Halfway into the consultation, the truth slipped out. “You need to put away the tights and the bras,” said Josh. “Put them in a shoebox, drive them to the nearest dump and toss them.”
Peter stared at him, his face ashy. “What did you just say?”
Josh closed his eyes, unable to look at the other man’s whiskery face. His chest tightened. On a rainy night not far away, he could see himself getting jumped by a tall assailant in a white raincoat and red vinyl boots. “I know things,” he said, opening his eyes. “I’m sorry, but I do. That’s what you’re paying me for too, I think.”
“You’d better not say a word about this to anyone,” Peter hissed, “or I’ll find you and do something we’ll both regret. I’m not kidding, Potter. What the hell else do you know about me?”
Josh hesitated, thinking that in this case it might be best to lie, even if a lie was a mockery of his newfound gifts. Still, he did not want to get beaten up. Candace might make him quit too, despite her affection for his improved earning potential. “You don’t like slasher movies because the villains always remind you of someone you know,” he finally said. “You’re allergic to strawberries but not to peanuts.”
The cross-dresser regarded him. “Are you serious? I’ve been allergic to peanuts for twelve years.”
Josh shook his head. “You’re not allergic to them. It’s a psychosomatic condition.”
“It’s true. Go to a doctor. If I’m not mistaken, the peanut allergy was self-diagnosed.”
Peter eyed him warily. “You’re freaky.”
“You have an older brother.”
“Yes, he’s in prison for robbing a farmer’s market.”
“There’s only so much I can do to help you with your bad habit,” said Josh. “It’s up to you to break it. Tell your wife and work it out together. She’ll accept it.” She wouldn’t, no way in hell would she accept it, but he didn’t like Peter and wished him semi-serious ill. If necessary, he and Candace would move. They were going to move anyway, once they bought a house.
“You’re kind of scary,” Peter said before they parted. “I might have to see you again.”
Josh tried to smile. “No, no, don’t feel obligated. I’m very busy right now anyway.”
“I’m sure you could fit me in. I’d like to tell you what happens with my bad habit.”
“The dump. Remember the dump. That’s key.”
Candace wasn’t home when he returned, and he tried to siphon from the shadow world some sign of where she was, but he couldn’t do it. When she came home two hours later with three shopping bags, he felt sick. “You paid for everything in those bags, didn’t you?” he said.
She looked at him, her face guilty. “What are you talking about? Of course I paid for everything.” She hesitated. “Well, I charged most of it.”
He covered his face with his hands. His forehead felt hot. He hoped Peter Kline hadn’t given him the flu. “I’m better at this job than I want to be.”
“I don’t see why that’s a problem.”
“I think I really can tell the future.”
She laughed so hard she snorted. “I’m not one of your clients. You don’t have to try to con me.”
He dropped his hands and looked at her. “You think I’m kidding? With each new person, I know more and more of their secrets. I didn’t ask for that when I started this business.”
“You’re losing it, Josh. I highly doubt you can tell the future. But if for some weird reason you can, that’s great news.”
“The guy I saw today had robbed people and gotten away with it. I should have turned him in. Instead, I took his forty bucks and told his fortune, such as it was.”
“Do you have any proof that he robbed people? No, I bet you don’t. Things are finally starting to go well for us. Please don’t fuck this up. If you have a gift, use it.”
“Would you say that to a safe cracker or a child molester?”
She regarded him. “You’re neither of those things. Don’t be melodramatic. If you get some sleep tonight, you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“I don’t think so, Candace.”
“Stop being so negative. We’re finally starting to do all right. Isn’t this what you wanted? You’re making good money and it hasn’t been that hard. Maybe I should start telling fortunes too.”
The idea horrified him. “You don’t want to get mixed up with some of the types who call me. You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself if one of them turned on you.”
She smiled and he could see that she thought he was being melodramatic again. “Aren’t you able to defend yourself?” she said. “It’s not like you’re having your meetings with them in a dark alley.”
“Sometimes it feels like I am.”
She pulled a soft black scarf out of one of the shopping bags and handed it to him. “I saw this and thought you’d like it. It’s cashmere. Now stop being such a sourpuss. I’m happy. You should be too.”
He could see that she was happy. She had started to laugh as much as she had when they’d first met. The blond wig and the desire for bigger breasts were receding. But despite her prediction, the next morning he did not feel better. It was gray and rainy and six new messages had arrived for Potter. The money was out there, as were the menacing secrets. He had made his wish, rubbed the genie’s magic lantern and gotten his hands dirty in the process.
There was a chance it was all a fluke. Maybe he knew nothing. Maybe he only felt like he knew something he didn’t want to know. So many people, a staggering number, were desperate to believe that every character flaw, every negligible or serious problem, would magically disappear if they wished for this hard enough. He no longer knew if he was any different.