The French Quarter had a special allure in the summertime. It ushered in folks from all walks of life to enjoy its offerings in merriment. I, for one, always took advantage of every second I could spend out in the New Orleans sun. I’m a country boy, through and through, so I was always in my element. The beads of sweat that trickled down my neck enhanced the misty glow given to me by this southern heat.
I’ve always been an avid reader. My favorite genre was historic fiction, specifically period pieces about the south. So I sat under my favorite tree in Jackson Square and nourished my imagination with tales of scandal from the 1800s. What got me, always, was how infrequent the characters were willing to confront their demons–not because it surprised me, though. It’s quite common, actually. There is liberation in secrecy. We can be whoever we want to be when no one knows who, or what, we truly are.
In my nineteen years on this Earth, I’ve learned to understand others better through literature. Aside from reading, a hobby of mine was conversing with total strangers in efforts to see who they really were. I have a bit of a talent for helping people open up.
I must have gotten through about three chapters of a novel called “The Daring”, a story about twin sisters who ran an underground brothel. Except, these women were no ordinary sex workers. They preyed on and lured in sex offenders from all over the world. What they did with them, well, you can guess. It wasn’t the madness that did it for me, but the methods behind it. I was virtually homeless, as I do consider myself a nomad, but my home base was with a good friend of mine named River. So, that was where I ventured off to after my afternoon read in the Square.
River was there for me in the best of times and the worst of times. From the moment I was exiled from my home in Baton Rouge after my Christian parents found magazine clippings of nude men underneath my mattress, to teaching me how to do palm and tarot readings at sixteen, which eventually became an avenue of income for me, River was there and acted as my support system. She performed under that alias five nights a week at the Cock & Tail nightclub, home of the horny, the broken, and the free-spirited. It’s also where I met my extended family, Candy, Tulip, Starlight, Kitty and a host of other friendly performers. I’ve found more motherly figures in the drag queens who groomed me than the woman who birthed me.
I walked in to Candy and Tulip on the couch doing what they do best, constructing wig units and rolling joints. I kissed both my aunties and helped myself to a few pulls. River stood in the kitchen, in all of her six foot two frame. Even at home, she was dolled up in a wig of bountiful brunette curls, a lemon-yellow silk nightgown, fur slippers and a French tip manicure. When she saw me, she embraced me better than my mother ever could.
“How was your day, sweet pea?” she asked through the same folded lips she used to grip her lit cigarette as she prepared dinner, seafood gumbo. We always ate good.
“Pleasant, thank you for asking.” She taught me manners. “Made $50 doing palm readings on Bourbon Street. Would’ve made more if the shop owners didn’t call the cops on me.”
River chuckled. “Now, you know you can’t be foolin’ with them people down there, chile.”
“I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t disturb the peace a little bit.”
We both laughed.
“You coming down to the club tonight, ain’t ya?” she asked presumably.
“Of course! Come on now. You know Friday night shows are the moneymakers.”
“Oh! Before I forget,” River trailed off into her bedroom and returned back with a deck of tarot cards wrapped in cloth. “Gotcha somethin’. Know you done got tired of using that beat up set from years ago.”
“Well those had character, but I’m excited to break these babies in.”
“Maybe you can use them at Cock & Tail tonight. Candy and Tulip can get ’em nice and drunk, me and the rest of the girls can make ’em laugh, and you can get some readings goin’.”
“Not a bad idea, River,” I rubbed my chin, thinking of the potential cash flow. “Not a bad idea at all.”
Age didn’t matter down at Cock and Tail. At least mine didn’t. The whole staff was family. Besides, I wasn’t a liability. I could outdrink the best of ’em, any night, and strut out as sturdily as I went in. There was something about summer Friday nights at Cock & Tail, though. People just seemed to be under a spell. Bourbon and tobacco thickened the air; laughter, skin, and sin lightened the mood. As much as I enjoyed the sunlight, I had always considered myself a creature of the night.
I donned my favorite leather jacket that night, over my mesh top with a crescent moon patch I stitched onto the front. I slipped into the tightest, blackest ripped jeans I could find in my wardrobe and paired it with my favorite studded cowboy boots. To top if off, I donned my black beret and favorite pearl chandelier earring. It was the only thing I could steal and leave Baton Rouge with aside from the clothes on my back. It belonged to my maternal grandmother who’d passed when I was only two. Hopefully she wasn’t as horrible as my parents. Guess I’ll never know now.
I stood in the mirror, grabbed my dick and blew a kiss at my reflection.
“Damn, I look good.”
Sex sells at a place like Cock & Tail. So if I expected to draw in anyone from that kind of crowd, I couldn’t rely on just my undeniable charm. I also had to look the part. This was going to be a smooth night, or so I thought.
I hitched a ride down to the club with the girls and parted ways with them at the parking lot. I lit a cigarette and pulled out the deck of cards River gave me from my satchel. They were designed beautifully, printed with raised etchings and lovely hand-drawn pictures. To top it off, each card had gold trimming. Though I liked my aged deck, I could already tell these would have a special character to them once they started developing their own wear and tear. River was special to me, so I held the gifts she gave to me very closely to my heart. I ashed my cigarette on the bottom of my shoe and slipped in through the back entrance.
Once I said my round of hellos, I made my way to the bar. Candy and Tulip already drew in quite the crowd but I finagled my way to the front.
“Dark & Stormy, please. Top shelf. Y’all look amazing tonight.”
“Thank you! Looking good, yourself. Comin’ right up, baby,” Tulip replied with a wink. Candy waved at me with a bright grin from the other end of the bar.
I swayed to the music while I waited, and even in the crowded nightclub, I could feel a pair of eyes on me. I turned to look across the room, and there stood a man looking back at me. The space was dimly lit, but I could still see him leaning against the wall with his glass in hand. He was as handsome and alluring as he was mysterious. I stayed planted, sipped on my drink, and paid him no mind.
River got on the mic at the DJ booth to get the crowd’s attention.
“Ladies, gents, and those non-conforming, the basement is now open and we are ready to start our drag show! Please remember to tip your bartenders and performers well, so we can keep this joint up and keep you hoes ENTERTAINED!”
The crowd was in an uproar and, at a moment’s notice, made a mass exodus from the dance floor to the basement for the drag show.
I set up shop, which was really a table and chair, toward the back of the audience in a repurposed broom closet. It was roomy enough to be inviting, yet small enough to promote intimacy. My clients involved a married couple, a military veteran, a recent college graduate, and even a shrink. All drunk and most receptive to my readings. There was about 10 minutes left in the show, so I began to shuffle my deck as I waited to help close up shop. That was when he came to me.
Up close, he was much taller than he’d appeared to be from afar. The gentleman had to be about six foot two, easily. He would still tower over my 5’9, slender frame. However, from my seat, his size and stature was quite intimidating.
“Got time for another?” he asked. His voice was deep. I could tell from his accent that he was a southerner, like myself.
I didn’t really do white men, but he looked like a crossbreed between Johnny Depp and John Stamos. They were edgy white guys. This one was a silver fox, though, with the gray of his buzzcut matching the hints of gray in his beard. Not to mention, he wore this suit that made him look absolutely dashing. Printed lining, notch lapels, golden buttons, a designer tie clip. While the suits and ties frequented the Cock & Tail, this man was no regular. He was fresh meat, but more importantly, he was rich.
I figured I’d bite. I gestured toward the seat in front of me. “Sit.”
“I’m ashamed to admit I don’t really know how this works,” he said with a bashful grin. It was disarming.
“Well,” I responded, placing the stack of cards neatly to the right of the table. “You tell me what it is you seek, and I take it from there.”
He watched my hands attentively, and I watched him, as I moved the deck to the center of the table. Our eyes locked briefly, only for me to shift my focus to the deck. The thing about tarot readings is to never appear uncertain. However, this man had an aura that I was not too sure I wanted to explore. Should I have turned him down?
“Before I pull my first card, tell me, what’s your name?” I asked.
“John,” he responded. Go fucking figure. “And you?”
“Alright, Sir Basil, tell me,” he paused to look at me with a smirk. “Am I a truly happy man?”
What a peculiar question to ask. Usually people want to know who they will become and not who they are. I said nothing, though. I pulled my first card.
Reversed Six of Wands: private achievement, fall from grace, egotism.
“You are,” I replied, looking at him.
“But?” he asked, expectingly.
“No one person is truly happy, are they? I mean would I be here, asking you, a total stranger, if I were happy if I knew I was?”
I maintained my composure. Usually, I’m the one doing all the talking.
“Happiness is fleeting, John,” I replied instantly. “You may want more than what you’ve been given, but that’s natural human desire.”
“Human desire is an… interesting way of putting it.”
I said nothing and pulled the next card. Reversed King of Swords: quiet misuse of power, manipulation. Again, we lock eyes. I could sense the hazard, but there wasn’t anything I know that could break my zone of comfort. So I decided to flirt with danger.
“Perhaps you’re conflating happiness and fulfillment.”
“Oh?” John asked with a raised brow.
“Think of it as drinking water. If you take sips while you pour sips, you’ll always be thirsty. However, if you take sips after you pour a full cup, you’ll quench your thirst.”
“And what about you, Sir Basil?” he folded his arms on the table and smirked.
“What about me?” I asked calmly.
“Is your thirst quenched, or is it…” he paused to scan me with his eyes. “…insatiable?”
I leaned back in my seat, chuckled to myself, and, almost foolishly, gave in to John’s conversation.
“I consider myself a floater.”
“And what exactly does that mean?” John asked.
“It means I chase happy impulses.”
“So, by your example, wouldn’t you say you’re taking sips while you’re pouring sips?”
“Not necessarily.” He was right, but I wasn’t quite ready to give him that satisfaction just yet. “I like to maximize the moments that I find happiness in.”
“But that’s not enough. Is it?”
I paused, glaring at him. Now, I had only known John for all of thirteen minutes, but he was asking me questions as if he already knew the answers. I could try to bluff my way out of this attempt at making me feel an ounce of vulnerability by a total stranger, but how would that work? He was clearly too intuitive.
“Tell you what,” I said, pulling back the two cards I had dealt. “It’s getting pretty late. Bar’s closing up. I gotta help out around this place before I head home so why don’t we just call it a night, huh?”
“Wrapping up on me so quickly, Sir Basil? Not gonna finish my reading?”
“No, Sir John. I’m not.”
“Well let me at least pay you for your time,” he asked, placing several hundred-dollar bills on the table. I stared at the money, hungrily, and snapped out of it just as fast. Almost caught me in a moment of weakness.
“This one’s on the house.”
“Please, don’t be so humble…”
“Really, John, I’m very tired. I–“
His tone became heftier. His gaze sharpened and he sat completely still in his seat. Without saying anything else, I knew he was commanding me to sit down and finish. I obliged, but I didn’t like it. He gestured to the deck I had already reshuffled. “Shall we proceed?”
I just sat there for a minute and asked myself what the hell was going on. Was this guy a friend of River and the girls? Are they playing some kind of trick on me? Where exactly did he come from? I downed the rest of my drink. If my discomfort hadn’t been detected before, it damn sure had been at that moment. John must have been pleased by that, because he smiled at me almost as if nothing was odd about this scenario.
“I saw you looking at me by the bar,” I said. “Is there a reason you came to me specifically?”
“Yes,” John replied.
“And what might that reason be?” I asked sternly.
“To receive spiritual guidance. To have the wise connect me to my inner wisdom. Isn’t that what you do?” He played with the ring on his finger. It was gold and had a symbol on it.
My eyes didn’t deceive me; I had seen this symbol before. Throughout my dealings with people from various walks of life in New Orleans, I had come across a woman, two years ago, who sported a wrist tattoo of that very symbol. It was the Sigil of Baphomet, the official insignia of the Church of Satan.
I figured John had probably come to troll me, as I’m aware most followers in the occult frown upon tarot readers like myself. As the woman rudely stated to me two years ago, it “trivializes the essence of why establishments like the Church of Satan exists.”
“I’ll just humor him, do his readings, have him patronize me and my work, then go home,” I thought to myself. To answer his question, I simply responded, “that is correct.”
“True wisdom comes with experience, though. And true experience comes with time. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, but I’ve experienced quite a lot in my life. I’ve been to Hell and back to be honest with you, John, so ‘wisdom’ is not exactly inaccurate when describing my attributes.”
He let out a hearty chuckle. “‘Hell and back,’ you say? Interesting choice of words. I must disagree and stand my ground on this one, though. You’re only nineteen years of age. This world hasn’t yet groomed you for Hell, let alone put you in it.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, adjusting in my seat. “How did you know my age?”
“No…no. You said that as if you knew. In fact, you’ve been talking to me that way this whole time.”
“I guess you could say I am wise, then, huh? Look at you. You truly are the real deal.” He laughed and even applauded me, then slid the cash an inch or two closer to my end of the table.
“Who are you?”
He cleared his throat and kept a smile on his face, then gestured toward my deck of cards, of which I had not yet pulled a third. Finally, I drew it.
I could feel my heart beating in my throat. My whole body froze as I stared down at it. Usually, there are attributes associated with pulls that the spirit guides communicate are that of those receiving the reading. There is always an ambiguity to the cards. This time, deep down in my gut, I just knew there was nothing ambiguous about the card in front of me. I instantly regretted asking John who he was, because before me was the answer.