The Last Tuesday: 11/21/06.
Dreamed I was sitting in the bar doing voices: Cary Grant, Groucho, Bullwinkle J Moose, Richard Burton, Wallace from Wallace and Gromit (“Chee-ee-eese, Gromit!”) and there’s a guy at the end of the bar who is getting so incensed at every new voice coming out of my mouth that he finally leans over, cocks his head, looks me in the eye and roars: “Will you use your own voice? Use your own voice, God damn it!” The “God damn it!” is a dead giveaway—despite the fact that he doesn’t look like him at all, this is my father talking. So the first question I ask myself when I wake up is the question I ask myself all day long: whose voice am I using? And if it’s someone else’s, then where’s mine? And how does my God damn father know which voice I use is the real one anyway, huh? Huh?
At work, I get an e-mail from Randi. The séance that was supposed to be tonight has been postponed to Thanksgiving. Evidently one of the people she asked to participate pointed out that contacting the spirit world when you have two floors of spirit-imbibing New Yorkers is like trying to hear the lute in PDQ Bach's Sinfonia Concertante. “It’s a very nice lute. We hope you enjoy it. Think of it while you’re listening to the bagpipes.”
After a forgettable day at work, I see The Vertical Hour with DJ. It’s a cleverly written play which, on one level, is the usual David Hare position piece where the intent is noble but the execution is inadequate; and, on another level, is a textbook case of the difference between someone who acts in films and someone who acts in films as well as theatre. Julianne Moore is the former; she spends the first act totally uncomfortable in her body and only comes to life in the second act when she’s raging, and letting her anger move her, and not thinking about how she can get everyone to see her in close-up so no one will notice how clumsily she’s galumphing across the stage. But because she can’t make the character’s tensions alive enough to justify where she ends up, like say Laila Robbins or Jennifer Jason Leigh could have, she makes the play feel like a badly-executed puppet show. Which is exactly the opposite of what Bill Nighy does. He’s alive for every second. So come for her and stay for him.
After the show, I head down to the Pine for a nightcap. When I get there, at ten minutes of 11, the upstairs bar is already closed, and the downstairs bar is two deep. I walk past the window twice, once going south and once going north, to see if I can recognize anybody in there, but I already know inside that I’m not going to walk in, I’m just going to call it a night and go home. Besides, I told Maddie I wasn’t coming in tonight, so somebody else has already taken my Regular Shift.
And then, just as I’m walking away to head to the subway, I hear a BANG behind me and turn around to see that the metal gates in the sidewalk in front of the bar, the ones leading down to the Keg Switch, are both open. For a moment nothing happens, and then Dominic pokes his head up. Terrific. “Come on DOWN!” he says in his game show host voice. “We’re setting up for Thursday. Don’t forget to bring your Tarot deck.” Even more terrific—Randi is telling him what we said to each other. This really peeves me more than it should.
When I get down, I look around. Dominic has put a card table where the stage used to be, and has strung six clip lamps along the wooden support beams to throw light from three different angles on the area. Not a bad job of lighting design, says the theatre technician in me. He goes back to hanging two lights from above, positioning them so that they’ll shine on the center of the table.
Randi is sitting on a keg against the south wall, where the petrified branches of some dead underground tree are poking through the brick and mortar that goes back to the 19th century. She's sawing the tops off Number Two pencils, and then sharpening them in a tiny little bright red pencil sharpener. I get the sharpening, but I don't understand the sawing, until I realize: aha—metal. She's making sure the pencils have no metal on them. Girl has been doing her research.
“Wells,” she says. “Landis,” I reply. “Goodbye, Dominic,” she calls out. I turn to see Dominic climbing up to the street, and realize that Randi wasn't remarking on his departure but ordering him to make it. “So,” she says. “So,” I say, and then I ask her who else is coming tomorrow, and she says “Ned and Nancy.” Smart move, I think. If there's anyone who could make a séance work, it'd be Ned. But I don't say that to Randi; instead, I give her a confused look and say “Why Ned, of all people?” Randi looks at me with the same smile she gave me after she asked whether I'd seen Sunday and Dominic at the Ace Of Clubs. “Do you ever betray a confidence?” she asks. My turn to smile. “That would be betraying a confidence.” Randi sighs. “Sorry,” she says, “I keep forgetting how much you live in your head.” “USE YOUR OWN VOICE, GOD DAMN IT!” I hear my father shout at me.
“So let me betray a confidence to you,” Randi says. “Nancy and I have Talked. So I have a pretty good idea of what's going on with Ned. But you know all about it, don't you? So I want to hear it from you.” “It's not my story,” I reply, and Randi immediately comes back with “And just what IS your story, Wells?” Not something you'll hear from me tonight, I think. “What do you know about the history of Table 118?” I ask. “The Washington Irving table? What does that have to do with Ned?” “Let me tell you about the table,” I say, “and if you still need me to spell it out, I promise I will.
While Washington Irving always claimed that his 1819 story "Rip Van Winkle" was written while he was in Birmingham, England, the truth is, it was actually drafted after an April 30, 1815 dinner at Booth 118 in which Irving listened to itinerant fiddler Edmund Shapinsay tell the story of how he heard music coming from a low hill in what is now Central Park, and after entering a small door in the hill, came upon a group of trowes throwing a party. After drinking their ale, smoking their pipe-weed, and playing his fiddle for them, Shapinsay emerged from the hill the next morning to discover that fifty years had passed, even though he was barely five hours older. He offered to show Irving the location of the hill, but a day-long search failed to find it, and Irving wrote off Shapinsay as a delusionary drunkard even as he wrote the first draft of what would become his most famous story. As for Shapinsay, he soon found out that, whenever he was asked to confirm his wild story, he could only find Trowes Hill when he was alone. Three months later he disappeared, and was not seen again until April 30, 1846, when a young man meeting his description staggered into the Knotty Pine and asked what year it was. Since then, they say, Shapinsay has reappeared every 40 or 50 years to sit at Booth 118 and share a light-brown meerschaum pipe of curiously strong tobacco with whoever will buy him a drink, most notably the actor Joseph Jefferson in 1896, who made a career of playing Rip Van Winkle on the 19th Century stage. The details of their meeting can be had from singer/songwriter Edmund Shay, one of the current regulars at the downstairs bar, who claims to be Shapinsay’s great-great-grandson and will regale anyone with tales of his ancestor for a free drink while he puffs on a deep brown meerschaum filled with curiously strong tobacco.
What are the odds?
“Edmund as in Ned?” Randi asks, and I nod my head. She takes that in for a moment, nods her head twice, and looks at me. I can't read it, and this peeves me as well. I've never told anyone about Ned, and giving Randi a chance to put two and two together feels like a betrayal. If she actually gets four, that is, and doesn't think I'm a five-star crazy person.
As usual while I wait for her to make the expected move, Randi lands on a completely surprising square of the conversational chessboard. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she and Sunday were separated at birth.“You didn’t happen to bring your Tarot deck, did you?” she asks, and I say I did, but only because I put them in my bag last night, knowing that I would totally forget to do it in the morning. I pull out the chamois pouch that contains the cards, and the Rachel Pollack guidebook. “Spread me,” Randi says. Twenty-five lewd responses race to the toll booth in front of my tongue and crash into each other in a pile-up that leaves me speechless for a long three seconds. I let one of the PG responses through. “Can't we at least have dinner first?” “Very funny.” She reaches out. I hand her the pouch. She pulls out the cards, shuffles them, cuts them twice, hands them back to me.
Ace of Pentacles – Empress reversed – Five of Swords reversed
Judgment – Six of Wands reversed – Six of Pentacles
Four of Pentacles – Two of Pentacles – The Emperor
“So here’s what we have,” I say. “Four earth signs—the Pentacles. The practical, everyday realities. One air sign, reversed—the Six of Wands. One fire sign—the Six of Swords. Reading this like a comic book? Ace of Pentacles is abundance, but also security. That's your starting point. The given. The establishing shot. The Empress reversed is detachment, the blocking of desire or sensuality. So you start from a place of security, but there’s a block—you have the power to be the Empress, but you doubt it, you undercut it, you pull back or shut down. This leads to the Five of Swords reversed, which is a defeat, but the kind of defeat you refuse to accept, so you speak out. Which results in Judgment, or positive change. A new beginning. Except that this gets met with the Six of Wands reversed, which is pessimism, self-doubt, a creative block or the need to believe more strongly in yourself. This is a recurring pattern, like every advance gets checked by something inside you that doesn’t want to step forward. This has happened twice now, so we should expect something to break the pattern, and something does—the Six of Pentacles: assistance. To get through this, you’re going to need help. But not a crutch, or a debt, because the next card is Four of Pentacles, power and security—not from someone else, but from your own skill—a goal attained because of your own talents, because of something inside you. So someone helps you to either see this or realize this or find this goal. Which results in the Two of Pentacles: balance and harmony. If it’s balance in your work, then you are able to create something that expresses or views both the good and the bad, the hidden and the seen. If it’s balance in your personal life, then you will find a yin to your yang. Which makes sense here because the next and final card is the balance card for the Empress—the Emperor.”
I think for a moment. Pentacles are also about writing, and there are three of them in this spread. Is Randi a writer? I don’t think so, but I have no idea. And I have no intention of reading myself into this as either the reason why there are so many pentacles, or the person she might turn to for help. In the end, I sum it up this way. “You have a history of self-sabotage, either because of something inside yourself or because you take criticism to heart. You're going to lose the security of your job, and then doubt yourself. This will lead to a defeat which you will not take lying down, but you'll lose again because of chronic self-doubt. In order to break the pattern, you’re going to need help, which means you're going to have to ask for it, which is something you hate to do, not because it's in the cards, but because I know you. But! That help will be given freely and it will release a skill inside you that will get you what you want. Balance, personally and professionally. You will end up with your equal, because you will be helped onto the road that will lead you to him.”
"Wow," Randi says. And that's all she says. Okay; fine; whatever. I take a picture of the spread. “I’ll send this to you with notes in the next couple of days,” I say. And then add: “There—you’ve been spread—you can have that cigarette now.”
Randi slides me the deck. “Your turn,” she says. So I shuffle and cut and shuffle and cut and then cut again, and slide the deck back to her. She deals out the cards one by one. On the third card, we’re both saying “Shut the front door!” By the time we get to the sixth card, we’re looking at each other like expendable extras in a horror movie. I don’t know about Randi, but the seventh cards shuts my mind down, and the eighth makes me laugh hysterically, and the ninth makes me say, “So have I ever told you about Chapel Perilous?” Because the card spread is exactly the same. The same nine cards, in the same positions, in the same order.
And the odds against that? 106,868,920,913,284,600 to 1. I think. I haven’t taken in the possibility of a reverse, which might factor the number even higher on the base 78 scale. To put it in real world terms, I have a better chance of winning a Tony, an Emmy, an Oscar, the Pulitzer, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in the same year. But the universe gives me this instead.
And then I realize—no, not just me. Me and Miranda.
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells