Mona’s removing the hard water stains in Betty’s toilet bowl. Betty’s watching her from the doorway. Most of Mona’s clients would be embarrassed to watch her clean their toilet with a pumice stone, but not Betty.
"Look at you, scrubbing away with that thing!” Betty says, in the voice she uses with her cats.
“I am not an animal,” Mona wants to say. She puts the pumice stone away and cleans the toilet rim, using the ridiculous potpourri-scented Windex Betty insists upon, which is hot pink instead of blue.
“I just got a flash of you in a past life,” Betty says. “You were an African woman living in a hut in the middle of the bush.”
She looks over her shoulder. Betty’s wearing the solemn expression she reserves for channeling Mona’s past lives, which apparently number in the hundreds. In each of these past lives Mona is overweight and destitute, relegated to a life of domestic servitude. She also has a habit of contracting a venereal disease and dying young. Betty appears to be staring at Mona’s ass-crack, her eyes out of focus.
“You were walking with this enormous jug balanced on top of your head,” Betty goes on. “A beautiful jug. And you had this big poofy skirt on…and your hips were swaying from side to side.” She puts her hands on her hips and makes a disturbing swaying motion. Mona is fascinated by Betty’s ability to deliver utter tripe with a straight face.
“So I was poor and fat,” Mona says. “Again.”
“Maura,” Betty says. “I didn’t say you were fat, for God’s sake. And I’ve told you a thousand times: I can’t help what I see.”
Mona flushes the toilet.
“I didn’t ask for this gift, Maura,” she says and sniffs.
Betty has a habit of punctuating her sentences with people’s names. Too bad she’s using the wrong one—she’s been calling Mona “Maura” since the day they met. For whatever reason Mona neglected to correct her and now, almost two months later, feels it’s too late. She suspects that only a deeply fucked-up person would allow her client to call her by the wrong name, week in and week out, but Mona’s also delighted by the irony of it, considering Betty’s profession. Betty’s apparently gifted enough as a psychic to get away with charging a hundred dollars an hour and her calendar is fully booked.
She cleans the bathroom floor on her hands and knees. Betty, still in the doorway, watches her work. Because Betty seems to think she lives in an Italian villa rather than a trailer, the tiles are porcelain and imported from Rome.
“Can I make a quick confession?” Betty asks.
Betty’s confessions are precisely the reason Mona feels so tired lately. Mona doesn’t answer; she keeps her back turned like a priest, and cleans around the toilet.
“As a teenager I poisoned my mother,” Betty says. “I’d finally worked up the courage to tell her my brother was molesting me. First she didn’t believe me, then she said it was my fault, that I had somehow seduced him—me, an eight year old, seducing a thirteen-year-old—can you imagine? So I put a little rat poison in her wine one time. I never regretted it.”
“Did it work?” Mona asks.
“No,” Betty sighs.
“Say three Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father’s,” Mona says and makes the sign of the cross.
“I’m not Catholic,” she says.
What deserves punishment, in Mona’s opinion, is treating your cleaning lady like a garbage disposal, as if the poor chick doesn’t have enough of your dirt under her fingernails already. Last week Betty confessed to an intense hatred of both old people and children. She said that sometimes, when she saw a child laugh, she wanted to slap the smile right off its face. The week before, she confessed to lifelong anti-Semitism, a fear of dying alone, and to fantasies of being sexually humiliated by black men. With each new confession, Mona feels increasingly drained and bloodless.
The bathroom is finished, so Mona progresses to the bedroom. Betty follows and stretches out on the bed. In the corner stands a small bookcase filled not with books—Betty only reads palms and trashy magazines—but twelve prominently-displayed porcelain dolls, all dressed as brides. The bridal theme makes sense, given Betty’s obsession with marriage. According to Betty, Mona will one day be married to a man with a goatee and squinty eyes. This man also has a bad knee and sometimes walks with a cane. The cane happens to pull out into a knife, if needed. “I can see him standing next to you,” Betty sometimes says, when Mona is doing the dishes or dusting. “Every time I see him lately, he has bags under his eyes. I think he has insomnia.”
“He sounds really appealing,” Mona says. “I’m super excited to meet him. He’ll probably stab me to death with his cane.”
“He’s the love of your life,” Betty says.
Mona is supposed to have two children with this mysterious man, one of whom will eventually struggle with addiction. The marriage is supposed to last twenty-three years.
Betty herself was a bride once, fifteen years ago. His name is Johnny, and they met in Vegas, where they’d both been living for a number of years, Betty as a professional psychic, Johnny as a professional gambler and alcoholic. Johnny approached Betty at a gas station while she was filling her tank and asked her to dinner. They married two weeks later. The marriage lasted all of three months, which seems about right to Mona. She can imagine how a person could be initially bewitched by Betty—she has undeniable charisma and a number of physical charms, including a sizeable rack and shapely calves, but after a few months Mona imagines those bewitching qualities start to seem…just plain witchy.
Mona can only guess as to why it didn’t work out. Betty says that Johnny left her suddenly, in the middle of the night. He was from New Mexico originally and they lived here for the last three weeks of their marriage. Betty stayed, even though she has no friends or family in the area. Mona can plainly see that Betty is still desperately in love with Johnny and wants to keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t marry someone else.
She still wears an engagement ring. Not the one Johnny gave her, but a ring she purchased herself. It’s a vintage ring with a platinum setting and a huge, impossible-to-ignore diamond. “So you’re engaged to yourself,” Mona said when Betty first explained the ring. Betty frowned and said she didn’t like to think of it that way.
Mona cleans the mirror above Betty’s bureau. She dampens the rag with Windex and starts in on Betty’s vintage perfume bottles, which require special attention. They’re delicate things and have a way of making Mona feel apish, slow-witted and, now that she thinks about it, a little like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. She’s already broken one by accident. She’d had it in her palm and was sort of petting it with the rag—gently, she thought—and it had somehow shattered. Luckily, Betty wasn’t home at the time. Normally Mona would have left a note about it, but it happened on the same day she found the poem under the nightstand, and she’d been too distracted. The poem was handwritten, untitled, and addressed to no one:
A silly poem, probably a joke, but disturbing nonetheless, particularly the last two lines. She actually rooted around in Betty’s closet looking for the damn thing, but only found a disturbing collection of rabbit fur coats from the ‘80s. She looked under the bed just for the hell of it, and, lo and behold, there it was: the machete, an antique, it looked like, its handle bound in criss-crossed leather. Mona had finished cleaning and high-tailed it out of there.
“Maura,” Betty suddenly says from the bed, “Let’s call it quits. You’ve done enough for today and everything looks great.”
"Really?” Mona asks. “Cool.” She begins to gather her things.
“Wait, I want to try something with you,” Betty says. “In the living room.”
Crap, Mona thinks. She’s going to read my palm and tell me I’ll always struggle with money. Again.
They go into the living room, a tiny space made even tinier by an enormous red velvet couch, a marble-topped coffee table, and Betty’s psychic throne, an ornate walnut chair upholstered in pinkish-gold brocade with a high, straight back. Betty takes the throne, Mona the couch.
“Okay,” Betty says. “I want to do a little experiment with you. I’m going to think of a number between one and twenty. You’re going to first see it, then read it to me. You’re going to have to look me right in the eye and really concentrate.”
I’d rather have a rock thrown at my head, Mona thinks.
“Okay. I’m thinking of a number,” Betty says. “I’m projecting it nice and large.”
Mona stares at Betty’s left eyebrow, but can only concentrate on the strange guttural noise one of her cats is making outside. The cat sounds as if it’s repeating the word “ouch.” Owww-chh, it keeps saying, over and over.
“Betty,” Mona says, “Is that your cat? It sounds like it’s in pain. I’d feel really bad if it got eaten by a coyote while I was reading your mind.”
“She’s fine,” Betty says. “She’s just in heat. Now stop stalling and look at me.”
Mona locks eyes with Betty. A whole minute seems to go by. “Eleven,” Mona says.
Betty shakes her head. “You have to really concentrate.”
“Eighteen,” Mona says, after another minute.
“You’re guessing,” Betty says. “Don’t guess. Just wait until you see it.”
“Very good!” Betty says, clapping her hands. “Now it’s my turn. Think of a number and project it nice and big so I can see it.”
“Project it where—on my forehead?” Mona says.
“Just hold it in your mind.”
“Maybe we should be wearing aluminum feelers on our heads,” Mona says. “Might make things easier.”
“Do you have a number?” Betty asks impatiently.
“Yes,” Mona says. Two-oh, two-oh, two-oh, two-oh, she repeats to herself, visualizing the number.
“Twenty,” Betty says, after ten seconds.
“Good guess,” Mona says. “I must be inadvertently cuing you somehow.”
“Oh, please,” Betty says. “I’m psychic, silly! When are you going to stop mocking me?”
Probably never, Mona thinks.
They go back and forth several times. It doesn’t get any easier for Mona, but after staring into Betty’s eyes for a minute or two, she can suddenly see the numbers, large black numbers on a blue background. When she reads the number out loud, a kind of euphoria washes over her. She feels drunk and in love.
As Mona’s leaving, she asks, “Why do you think I can see the numbers? I’m not psychic.”
“Everyone has some psychic ability,” Betty says. “It’s just a matter of being open. You have to learn how to see first, then you simply read what you see. Sometimes it’s very clear-cut; other times it takes some interpretation on your part. Then there are certain other kinds of knowledge that are already there, inside you, and the process of seeing and reading is a process of recovery, of recovering knowledge you already know.”
Mona tilts her head as if she’s hanging on to Betty’s every word, but she’s actually in screen-saver mode—physically present, yes, but the rest of her is miles away, in her apartment, disrobing and climbing into bed.
When she does finally go to bed that night, she sleeps a miraculous twelve hours straight, without once getting up to do the usual things: guzzle water, despond, pee, eat peanut butter from the jar, despond again.
On Thursday Betty doesn’t follow Mona around, but stays on her throne in the living room, reading her favorite magazine, The National Enquirer.
“You see the irony in the fact that you live in a trailer and subscribe to The Enquirer, right?” Mona says at one point.
“Pffh! This is hardly what you’d call a trailer,” Betty answers.
When she’s finished cleaning, Betty invites her to sit down. “I can’t read your mind today,” Mona says. “Took too much out of me. I almost died in my sleep that night.”
“You’re a crack-up,” Betty says with a straight face. “What I want to do today is actually very different. It requires the opposite of concentration.”
Mona sits down heavily and removes her sneakers, suspecting she’ll be there a while. She wishes she had something better to do, but the sad fact is she doesn’t. Her only plans that evening are to bathe and watch television, and Betty is better than television. Or network television, at least.
She stiffens when she sees the large box of loose photographs at Betty’s feet. She’s always equated the viewing of other people’s personal snapshots with hearing about the dream they’d had the previous night.
Betty rummages through the box and pulls out a small handful. She shuffles the photographs like a deck of cards, then deals one to Mona, placing it face down on the table in front of her. “Okay, here’s how this goes: I want you to turn the picture over, look at it, then say the first words that come into your mind. No thinking and no editing. Just say whatever pops into your head. Okay?”
“I guess so,” she says.
She flips the photograph over and finds a man on a horse. This must be Johnny. The man has long black hair, dark skin, and is wearing head-to-toe denim. He’s sitting bareback on a white Appaloosa with grey spots and a blue eye. In the background stands a snow-capped Taos Mountain under a pink sky.
“Feel free to really handle the picture,” Betty instructs. “You know, with your hands.”
Mona holds the photograph closer and peers at the man’s unsmiling, handsome face. “He looks like the stoic type,” Mona says.
“See, now you’re thinking. No thinking allowed. Just whatever pops into your head.”
“My thought bubble is pretty empty, Betty, to be honest. It always is at the end of the day. You have no idea how many chemicals I inhale on a daily basis. I’ll probably die of brain cancer in five years.”
“I just said I’m not interested in your thoughts,” Betty says. “Just look at the picture and tell me if any images or words come to mind.”
You forgot to say please, Mona thinks irritably. Words are in fact coming to mind. Not just words, but snatches of poetry—very specific snatches from a very famous Plath poem. Fuck it. She wants to know what’s on my mind, I’ll tell her.
“Daddy,” Mona begins. “I have had to kill you.” She pauses and looks at Betty, who’s literally on the edge of her seat.
“Don’t stop!” Betty commands.
“Bean green…language obscene…I could never talk to you. Clear beer, neat mustache. Love of the rack and the screw. There’s a stake in your fat black heart. Daddy, daddy—” Mona stops there. She almost recited the rest of the last line—“you bastard, I’m through,” but thought it might be too recognizable, not to mention dramatic and over-the-top.
“Wow,” Betty says, pleased. “You gave me goosebumps, Maura. That’s called channeling, and you are gifted.”
It’s called plagiarism, Mona thinks. But thanks.
“‘Fat black heart’—I wonder if Johnny has heart disease,” Betty says anxiously. Mona shrugs.
Betty shuffles the deck again and places another photo face down. This time Johnny’s in a hotel swimming pool with his back to the camera, treading water in the deep end, his long hair in a bun. He’s looking over his shoulder, squinting toward the camera, but his expression is unreadable. The phrase KING OF KINGS is tattooed across his shoulders in big black letters.
“Nice tattoo,” Mona says. “That’s a Jesus reference, I take it.”
“No thinking!” Betty says. “First words that come into your mind.”
Mona closes her eyes and improvises. “Rotten teeth. Bitter children. A fist pounding on a steel door. Freezer burn. Bloody gloves. Blue feet.” Jesus, she thinks. Maybe I am good at this.
“Oh my God, he’s going to have a heart attack!” Betty says, her eyes filling up. “And he’s going to need surgery.”
Mona’s taken aback. “Are you kidding? I didn’t say that.”
“Trust me, I know what I’m talking about,” Betty says, wiping her eyes.
“You never told me you were married to a hot Mexican dude,” Mona says, trying to change the subject.
“Be careful who you call Mexican around here,” Betty says. “Johnny and his family, along with everyone in their neighborhood, trace their lineage back to the Spaniards who conquered New Mexico in the 1500s. They identify as Spanish, not Mexican.”
“You’re definitely still hung up on the guy, that much is clear,” Mona says.
“Can we do one more?” she asks.
“Sure.” Mona makes a mental note not to mention hearts or blood.
The last photo is a close-up of Johnny’s face, a face Mona suddenly recognizes. “Wait a minute, I know this guy,” she blurts out. She detects an instant change in the atmosphere of the trailer—subtle, but palpable—and thinks of leaves on a tree turning over, baring their spines in anticipation of a downpour.
“What do you mean you know him?”
She backpedals. “I don’t know him. I met him once, when I first moved to town. He bought me a drink.”
“At that bar where he works—the Tom-Tom Room.”
“TT’s,” Betty says, nodding. “Go on. Tell me everything.”
“Not much to tell. I happened to sit next to him at the bar and he bought me a drink before his shift started. He works the door, he said.”
“So how did he seem to you?” she asks urgently. “Happy, sad, angry, what?”
“I don’t know,” Mona shrugs. “It was months ago. He seemed fine. He was wearing orange.”
Mona remembers their brief exchange well. He’d introduced himself as John, not Johnny. When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face. Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable, but he laughed easily. She remembers liking his mouth and the way he tipped his head back to laugh, exposing his throat. He’d bought her a beer and introduced her to the bartender. When she left, a little over an hour later, he’d offered his hand for a shake, then faked a buckling of his knees when she grasped his palm. “Jesus,” he said. “Talk about an iron grip.”
But Mona can’t tell Betty any of that. Everything between her and Betty is different now.
“Are you any good with a camera?” Betty asks suddenly.
“I majored in photography,” Mona says, then kicks herself. She can see where Betty’s headed.
“How would you feel about taking some pictures for me? I’d pay you, of course.”
“You mean how would I feel about spying for you,” Mona corrects.
“All I need are a couple of decent pictures. The ones I have are over a decade old.”
“And why do you need them?”
“Because then I’d know for sure when Johnny’s going to die.”
“This is going to sound crazy, but why don’t you just call him and ask how he’s doing?”
“Believe me, I’ve tried. He wants nothing to do with me. Whenever I see him around town, he runs the other way. It’s like he thinks I’m a vampire or Satan or something. Do you know what it’s like to be in love with someone who hates your guts? Hell is what it is. Hell on earth.”
“Have you tried therapy?” Mona asks.
“He’s my soulmate.”
“If he was your soulmate, don’t you think he’d know that? I mean, wouldn’t it be mutual?”
“He knows, he knows. I mean, deep down. He’s just scared. He had a terrible childhood. He was sodomized—”
“Betty, listen—that Daddy stuff? It’s called poetry. Poetry by a famous person. There’s nothing the matter with his heart.”
“Maura, you don’t know how this works, okay? It came into your mind when you looked at the picture. It could be poetry or a brand of toilet paper. Either way, it counts.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do, follow him around with my camera? I don’t think he’ll appreciate that.”
“All you’d have to do is go to TT’s with your friends, hang around, have a drink or two, and take some pictures.”
“I don’t have any friends,” Mona says. But the idea of spying on him actually appeals to her, more than a little. She’s always wanted to be a private eye.
“You’ll figure it out, Maura,” Betty says. “And I’ll pay you fifty bucks per picture.”
She sits at the horseshoe-shaped bar, drinking a vodka-tonic and waiting for Johnny. In an effort at disguise she wears a straw cowboy hat, except it isn’t very low-profile as it’s pink and mangled on one side. She doubts Johnny will recognize her anyway—she only met him that one time, nine months ago now.
The problem with spying in a bar, she soon realizes, is that you get tanked while you’re waiting for something to happen, and she’s never been one to nurse a drink. By the time he shows up she’s half in the bag. He looks exhausted. In fact his weariness seems stitched into his skin. He’s also gained a few pounds. His cheekbones had been as sharply prominent as coastal cliffs but now look buried in sand, and his gut peeks over the waistband of his Wranglers.
He sits directly across from her at the bar, orders dinner from the bartender and proceeds to ramble about some motorcycle he’s planning on buying. When his dinner arrives she watches him work on a plate of ribs. He briefly examines each rib before chewing the meat off quickly and unselfconsciously, sucking on the bone a little before tossing it in the bread basket. He licks each of his fingers before wiping them on his napkin. She wonders if he ever even thinks of Betty. Her instinct says no. Something—the finger-licking, perhaps—tells her he’s a present person, untormented by the past.
It’s strange knowing so many random facts about him. She knows his middle name (Michael), his sun sign (Cancer), his moon sign (Gemini), his brother’s name (Daniel), his favorite dessert (Ding Dongs), where he’s ticklish (just above the knee).
She’s never seen someone so engrossed in his meal. This is your chance, she tells herself. Don’t be a pussy. She removes her camera from her purse, turns it on, and makes sure the flash is off before setting the camera on the bar. She takes several pictures while pretending to fiddle with the settings. Then she feels Johnny glaring at her.
“Hey, Oven Cleaner,” he says.
“Why you spying on me?”
She snorts. “I’m not spying.”
“Yes, you are, and you’re taking pictures,” he says, pointing to her camera.
“You know, there’s a support group for people like you,” she says. “It’s called Paranoia Anonymous—”
“How do you know Betty?”
He rolls his eyes.
“I’m her cleaning lady,” she confesses, looking down at her lap.
“How much is she paying you to spy on me?”
“Enough,” Mona says. “Hey, if you wouldn’t mind posing for some head shots, I’ll totally split the money with you.”
He laughs. “I think I’ll pass.” He looks wistful all of a sudden. “I suppose she wants pictures to channel her bullshit.”
“Yeah,” Mona says. “She’s convinced you’re about to die of a massive heart attack.”
He puts his hand on his chest and frowns.
“Don’t feel bad,” Mona says. “I only have a year to live.”
“Listen, my shift starts in fifteen minutes. Let me buy you a drink. I want to talk to you about something.”
He directs her to sit at one of the tables and then brings her a refill. “On the house,” he says, placing it on a coaster in front of her. He sits down heavily. He has what looks like sheet creases on the side of his face. She wipes imaginary crumbs from the tabletop and then sips her drink. He smiles at her.
“How long you been working for Betty?” he asks.
“So you’ve figured out she’s not right in the head.”
“She’s pretty weird,” Mona admits. “But I wouldn’t say she’s barking mad or anything. Although, I found this crazy poem once about a machete—”
“I wrote that,” he says, laughing. “I can’t believe she still has it.”
“Still has the machete, too.”
“Well, that was my inspiration. That and her off-the-wall temper.” He adds a stick of gum to the wad in his mouth and chews solemnly. “I’ll tell you a story about Betty, just to give you an idea of who you’re dealing with. You see these scars?” He points to three white marks, one on his left eyelid and the others under his right eye. They look like miniature quarter moons. “Betty and I went out to dinner one night and I told her I was leaving her. This was years ago. She freaked out and got really drunk. Only she doesn’t drink, so I had to carry her to the car. I put her in the backseat and she passed out.
“So I’m driving down 74, which is two lanes, headed back to the mesa, and it’s pitch dark, no moon or nothing. I’m doing about 80. Then all of a sudden she’s awake. So what does she do? She sits up and puts her hands over my eyes—while I’m driving. And not just peek-a-boo-style—she’s trying to claw my eyes out with those fucking talons of hers.
“There’s traffic coming in the other direction. I can see the headlights through her fingers. I take my foot off the gas and one of my hands off the wheel and try to snap her wrist. Meanwhile, we sail off the highway and the car rolls into an arroyo.” In a gesture she recognizes from staring at him, he runs a finger over the scars beneath his eye.
“Was this in her Cadillac?”
“No, thank God. And it’s mine, by the way, not hers.”
“She told me she won it in the divorce.”
He shakes his head. “Not part of the deal. I never signed it over to her. She forged my signature.” His jaw tightens.
“You don’t have a heart condition by any chance, do you?” she asks, trying to change the subject.
“Listen,” he says. “You and I have met for a reason.” He parks his gum in the side of his mouth. “We were supposed to meet, I mean.”
She rolls her eyes. “You sound just like her.”
“This is going to sound crazy, but you’re supposed to get my car back for me, and I’m supposed to introduce you to my nephew.” He starts chewing again. “I just figured it out right this second.”
“By ‘get my car back’ you mean steal it, right?”
“It’d be the opposite of stealing, since it’s my car.”
“Well, if you’re the rightful owner, why don’t you go and get it yourself?”
“Because it’s complicated.”
“It sounds pretty straightforward to me.”
His face reddens and he looks at his hands. “Betty has some dirt on me,” he says. “That’s all I can say about it.”
“How am I supposed to get your car back? Just out of curiosity.”
He leans toward her and lowers his voice. “I have a set of keys, okay? You drive it to my brother’s place in Arroyo Seco. Ten miles. That’s it. You put it in his garage, he drives you home, and it’s all over in an hour.” He smiles at her. “Or maybe my nephew gives you a ride.” He winks.
She imagines herself behind the wheel of the Caddy and smiles. Then she imagines Betty chasing after her with a machete.
“I don’t know,” she says. “What’s in it for me?”
“Is he, like, a male prostitute or something?”
“No! He might be your new boyfriend. He’s weird, like you. Artsy-fartsy or whatever. You’re perfect for each other.”
“Maybe I don’t want a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, you do. I can see it in your face. Listen, I’d give you money if I could, but I’m broke. You can ask anyone. So meet my nephew and just think about it. You don’t have to worry—I’m not holding you to anything.”
“You should probably let me photograph you now. As a gesture of good will.”
He hesitates. “Fine,” he says. “What should I do?” He brushes his hair out of his face. “Should I smile?”
“No, look natural. Look in my direction but not right at me.” She takes a few pictures. “You should look like you’re talking to someone. Tell me your nephew’s name.” She continues snapping away.
“That’s his name—Jesus.”
“You mean Jesús? I can manage the Spanish pronunciation.”
“No, it’s Jesus. He was born on Christmas. His mother’s white.”
And out of her mind, obviously. “How old is he?”
“Twenty-seven. Trust me, you’ll like him.” He smiles. “Come by tomorrow night around 10 and I’ll make sure he’s here.”
They’ll probably be mutually horrified by each other and the meeting will be over in five minutes. He’ll excuse himself and go to the restroom, then climb out a window. Or vice versa.
But maybe not. Johnny seems utterly confident of their destiny together. She’s touched by his enthusiasm. Perhaps dating Jesus will somehow get her into heaven, if it exists.
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