Selling Hope

Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Feiwel & Friends

May 1, 1910

Seventeen Days

till the End of the World.

News Headline

Earth Will Pass Through Comet’s 24-Million-Mile-Long
Tail on May 18

Cross-Eyed Jane poked her head into the tent. Her kinky yellow hair puffed in after her.

“We gots fifteen more minutes with the tarot cards before she and Nick go on.” Cross-Eyed Jane addressed me as “she,” even when she was talking directly to me. This, coupled with the fact that she was cross-eyed, often made it difficult to know who Jane was talking about. But I was the only other person in the tent, so I assumed her “she” was me. I smiled.

Jane smiled back, her wrinkled face carving into deep ruts, and gazed over my shoulder. I moved my head up and to the left to where I thought she was looking, but those crawly eyes of hers crept right past me. Erm…left past me.

I’m tellin’ ya, the old gal was so cross-eyed, when she rolled her eyes, she hit her ears!

Huck. There it was—the surest sign that I needed to leave this vaudeville circuit once and for all: those awful wisecracks. I guess everyone has a little voice inside his or her head, pointing out all of the things that are funny and fantastical and odd. But my internal voice? Equipped with the kind of one-liner jokes that made vaudeville famous. Not exactly the conscience of your average thirteen-year-old.

I adjusted my robes, the ones I had “borrowed” from the costume trunk, so I’d look more like a true medium. The robes were crafted of a thick red tapestry and weighed upward of twenty pounds. It took half my strength just to keep them draped across my tiny frame. But the robes added an air of mystery to our booth, accented by the massive candles, which threw skipping yellow light across the canvas walls, dripping colorful wax on the dusty ground beneath. Did I know how to put on a show! I should—I’d learned from the best.

Jane and I had set up shop—and by shop, I mean our little canvas booth—next to the other peddlers, just outside the vaudeville theater in Des Moines, Iowa, our latest tour stop. There was a row of us who made a little extra green that way. The actors and stagehands peddled everything from sheet music to medicinal elixirs to stuff they’d purchased in the last town, plus 20 percent. The theatergoers loved this makeshift storefront; for them it was part of the vaudeville experience. And too, Mr. Whitting and the other managers took a healthy cut of our profits, so they saw our little side businesses as just fine and dandy.

“Lead the first Coin in,” I whispered to Cross-Eyed Jane. She clicked her tongue at me; she hated it when I called them that. I began to hum, quietly at first, then letting it grow into a noisy, low moan. I told myself I was getting into character. Plus, the moaning sounded good to the Coins. That’s what I called our customers—the Coins.

Hummmmmmm. Farewell, Hope McDaniels. Greetings to Mademoiselle Ari, Gifted Child Medium and Foreseer of the Future.

Cross-Eyed Jane ducked out of the smallish tent, then back in again, goading a female Coin before her. Jane cupped her hand about the Coin’s elbow, trying to lead her to the table where I sat. The Coin yanked her arm from Jane’s grip and shot her a look of utter disgust, as if she might somehow contract Jane’s crazy eye “disease.” This particular Coin was so big, she almost knocked over three of my candles entering our booth.

I’m not sayin’ the gal was overweight, but she was plump in places where most folks don’t have places!

Jane jutted her chin at me. “That’s her,” she whispered to the Coin. “She’s young, doncha know, but her youth allows her channels to be fully open to the future.” Jane tried winking her spacey eye at me, but it appeared as if she were winking at the heavens instead. I cleared my throat to stifle a giggle. That “open channels” bit always got me.

I had to hand it to Jane. When she came up with this idea of a “child medium,” I was skeptical. Adults forking over a jitney to hear a thirteen-year-old talk about money and love and death? Most of the adults I knew didn’t even pause to hear me discuss the weather, much less pay an entire nickel to hear it. But Jane was right—the Coins loved me. I relaxed them, as though I was simply peeking ahead in a lighthearted parlor game of Ouija board, as though I couldn’t possibly be the bearer of bad news. And I must admit, I loved the power that came with telling adults what they should worry about.

Our partnership was a good one, mine and Jane’s. I asked her once why she didn’t just read the cards herself and keep all the money, instead of just half. She’d snorted, she’d laughed so hard.

“Me, read fortunes?” she’d said with a cough. “People want to see their futures as fresh and lively, like Hope, lassie. A withered old grouch like me don’t exactly set the proper backdrop for a prosperous road ahead, eh?”

Yes, Jane was no spring chicken. She was so old, she looked like she gave her pallbearers the slip!

Jane and I split all money fifty-fifty. And there was nothing like having a wad of cash stashed in your grouch bag. Because I would never—never—not have money again.

Jane now folded herself out of the tent, and the Coin she’d procured perched on the caned chair opposite me. Her knees wouldn’t fit under the tiny folding table between us, so she sat sidewise. I began flipping tarot cards onto the shimmery tablecloth, placing the worn papers into a large, deliberate cross. The middle of the cross I left bare, for the moment. I’d come to discover that flipping that middle card is the Grande Finale and should be coaxed slowly. Coax and hoax rhyme. Huh.

The pips that I turned for this Coin were all minor characters, like The Page and The Queen. What. A. Bore.

“Mmm. Mmm-hmm,” I muttered, and nodded knowingly. The Coin shifted, and the tiny chair moaned. I flipped another card: Judgment.

“Oh!” I said. The Coin gasped.

Did I mention? I didn’t know the first thing about reading tarot cards. The cards themselves were beautiful—blues and purples and reds and oranges that swirled and twined in inky vines, taking forms such as The Empress and The Hanged Man and Death. Each card was a masterpiece. The worn, beloved deck belonged to Cross-Eyed Jane, but she always said, “Lovey, these cards tells me they belong to her.” (That would be me.) When I was ten, she’d allow me to play with them like they were paper dolls. Now I played with them for money.

Next from the deck: The Magician. One of my least favorite cards, not because my father was a magician, but because his love of magic rendered me essentially homeless. I groaned.

The Coin’s eyes grew wide. “What is it?”

The cross of cards was complete, except for that final middle card. Now for The Show.

I placed the remainder of the cards on the edge of the table. Then I rubbed my hands together and blew on them, as if they were icy cold. I swirled my hands mere inches above the incomplete cross, feeling their energy. The Coin ate up this hooey like, well…apparently like she ate up everything: with gusto.

“You are…” I closed my eyes for a moment. “Unhappy.”

The Coin nodded.

Zing. Well, honestly, that one was common sense. The only people who went to a medium were unhappy people. I always started with that one, and I always got it right.

I narrowed my eyes and studied my Coin. Wedding ring, decent clothes, furrowed brow. Pretty, in a plump sort of way.

“You’re worried about something.”

The Coin nodded again. She leaned forward in the tiny chair, and her brown eyes widened. She apparently thought I was on to something.

“You’re worried about your marriage.”

But the Coin shook her head and her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. I knew I’d guessed incorrectly before she even spoke. “No. No, I have a wonderful husband.”

“Yes, yes, of course. You’re worried about money.” Always the next one I tried.

The Coin shook her head again, more fervently this time. Her eyes blazed, and her face screwed up like a twisted dish towel. “No, money’s not an issue, you imp!” she shouted, and pounded the table with the palm of her hand. “I knew this was a waste of my time!”

Money’s not an issue? Fancy that! Money’s an issue for everyone, lady. I felt a little flame of anger ignite inside me at this sudden turn. No money problems! Pah!

But I needed this nickel. “You’re worried about…,” I continued. My hands hovered over the bland cards that this Coin received for her reading. I wasn’t quite sure what to try next. Awful marriages and money problems covered almost everyone. “You’re worried about…your health.”

The Coin drooped in her chair, and I thought for sure that I’d lost her, that she’d had enough of this hoax. But she surprised me. “Yes,” she whispered into her lap. “Is it going to kill us all?”

My mind whirred. It? Kill us all? The only thing that could be was…

“Halley’s Comet?”

“Yes!” The Coin bolted upright and gripped my wrists so tightly my skin turned white beneath her fingers.

“Let go, please.” I said it softly, so as not to alarm Cross-Eyed Jane, who might very well enter the tent with a cocked pistol if she thought I was in danger. The Coin tightened her grip, her fingernails piercing my skin. Her eyes shifted between my face and the cards sprawled on the table between us, and there was a black spot of—fear?—that hadn’t been there before. My heart raced like a locomotive.

“Are we all going to die?” she said. “Will the poisonous gasses suffocate us? Will the comet ram into our world? Why, the impact alone would…”

I shook my head in disbelief, wriggling to free myself from her grasp. Sure, I knew Earth was going to travel through the tail of Halley’s Comet later this month; everyone had been talking about it since the turn of the new year. But kill us? Pah! The newspapers said the world’s top scientists didn’t believe that, so neither did I.

This Coin is such the fool! What a shame I’m not a mind reader. I could charge her half price.

I freed myself quickly from her grip. My “real job” as a magician’s assistant required me to don handcuffs quite often. That rarely had its benefits, but this was indeed one of those times.

My wrists were tender to the touch, perhaps bruised. I rotated them in circles to regain feeling in my fingers.

The Coin had commenced to gripping the edge of the table and swaying to and fro in the tiny, groaning chair. I picked up the deck of cards and shuffled through them in my lap, hand-selecting the Grande Finale card:

The World.

I flipped it into the center of the X and widened my eyes like I truly saw death and destruction in this Coin’s future. “It’s—it’s…too black! Too black! No light! I…can’t…breathe!” I raised my hands to my throat, gagging and choking and making an all-too-obvious spectacle of myself.

The Coin leapt to her feet, toppling the table of cards and kicking aside the tiny chair. She shoved her way under the wall of the tent, rather than ducking through its flap, and dragged down two burning candles in the process. Blazing candles touched dry canvas and the tent ignited. Flames were soon eating our booth from the bottom up.

I had one pitcher of water, which I threw on the fire, dousing part of the blaze.

“Jane!” I yelled. “Water! Quick!”

Cross-Eyed Jane came in but moments later with a bucket of water, and the fire was soon nothing but a steaming pile of wet, reeking canvas. I was shaking, partly the result of being so near a large fire, and partly the result of having to defend my self against this unstable Coin.

“Lovey! She’s all right?”

I had a gaping hole in my booth caused by a desperate Coin who thought the world was going to end in seventeen days, and my funds would be largely depleted after I paid Jane for the damages. I lived in teeny railroad cars and shabby boardinghouses scattered about the country, and my best friend was a fifty-two-year-old cross-eyed gypsy. I wore twenty-pound robes that stank like smoke, and now my father needed my help performing magic tricks, a feat that he believed might allow him to someday change the course of the world. Honestly, he believed his sleight of hand was a gift that could unite the masses. Illusion or disillusion? You tell me.

I threw off my charred costume, revealing the next costume underneath.

“I’m the candy, Jane. Really,” I sighed. “Does Nick need me onstage yet?”

 

I loved backstage. It was quiet, except for the occasional burst of howling laughter from the audience that penetrated the lush, velvety curtains. Stagehands rushed on tiptoe and communicated with gestures and pointing. The illumination was secondhand, provided solely by the few rays of light that bent around corners from the searing-hot stage. If only the entire world were like this—muffled and dark and once removed.

I had this little routine that I conducted before I went onstage. I didn’t do it for good luck nor to ensure a good performance. No, I did it so I could remember the things I felt I was in danger of forgetting.

I unfolded the square of red flannel and rubbed it against my cheek. It was gritty, not as soft as it once had been. Likely from years of absorbing apologies.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whispered into it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”

I smelled the flannel, too. It smelled like…well, grubby fabric. Still, I imagined I smelled my mother in there. I do not remember what she smelled like.

I worried about this, but Cross-Eyed Jane assured me that I would be a marvel if I remembered anything about her. I was only eight when she died. Nick never discussed her. Never. I had a gritty red square of quilting fabric that was hers. Everything else was pawned before we left. One must travel light on the vaudeville circuit.

Speaking of traveling light, did you hear the one about the boy who did just that? All he packed was kerosene and matches!

Oh, thank you, folks. Thank you. No applause, please. Just throw money.

 

Standing onstage was akin to standing in a box of sun: bright, hot, and full of squint and sweat. Beyond the perimeter of the stage dwelled the murky outline of the heads of the audience members. I stood next to my father in a pose that, if it were struck anywhere but a magic act, would be beyond odd: one arm lifted in the air, one arm outstretched toward the shenanigans, one toe pointed forward—a deranged ballerina. Absurd.

I suppose there is no need to underscore the fact that I was not a performer at heart.

My father, however…his eyes were shut and his fists were balled and raised to the heavens, as if he were gripping the air above his golden head. Nick was more alive here than anywhere else on the planet. Not here, as in Des Moines, Iowa, but up here, in the box of sun.

“If you live in doubt and fear,” Nick was saying. He tucked his hand behind the lapel of his jacket and rummaged around for his prop. While so doing, he shot me a quick wink. I smiled. I actually liked this bit; it was one of the few acts in which I was little more than another of his props—and, yes, being a prop was fine by me. It beat the alternative, by which I mean taking an active role.

“If you dwell in a state of constant fear and dread…” Nick was having some trouble with this trick. He fumbled around inside the breastplate of his jacket until…yes!

He pulled an object from his jacket. The audience strained to see it. It was…it was…

A snake!

“If you cannot break free from the shackles of fear and dread, you contribute naught! You bite and suck but give nothing! You are a drain on the kingdom!” He steered the black snake deftly toward the front row of attendees, and it hissed as if on cue. Wheesh. Nick was on fire tonight.

“But…” Nick jabbed the air with his finger, and his voice dropped to a near-whisper. The audience took its cue and hushed itself after the excitement of the snake. “If you accept goodness and light into your life…” I handed him a folded newspaper, which he flipped open with his left hand while still gripping the snake with his right. He gently wrapped the snake in newspaper and placed it on the table in front of him as if it were frankincense and myrrh.

“If you yearn for justice…,” Nick said.

Then he pulled a tattered book from—where? The audience murmured at this point, as they always did. Had that book been behind him the whole time?

A book. That was new. He usually used a brick in this bit.

Nick raised the book above his head, the title Leaves of Grass facing out toward the crowd. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, a poet, philosopher, and the reason why Nick believed that a two-bit magician and his daughter plodding about the country could alter the cosmos. “Alter the cosmos”—Nick’s words, not mine. Well, Walt Whitman’s words, actually.

“You. Can. Transform!”

At that, Nick slammed the text down onto the newspaper. The crowd shrieked. He then lifted the book and placed it gingerly next to the damaged package. He unfolded the newspaper piece by piece, reeling in the audience like a giant, singular fish gasping for air.

“You can…transform,” he whispered, and the wad of crumpled newsprint he held in his palm quivered, producing a sensuous white dove. It then flew, circling the wildly applauding crowd once, twice, thrice, before perching on Nick’s shoulder.

“Leaves of Grass?” I mouthed when we took our bows.

Nick beamed. “Brilliant, is it not?” he shouted above the applause. We bowed to the other side of the dingy theater. “Far better than the brick we used to use. A brick—what kind of message were we sending, anyway? Why, we might as well have shouted, ‘Use violence, you brute!’ No, indeed. But a book! The power of knowledge! To the masses!”

Nick thrust a fist in the air and practically floated offstage. I shook my head after him, but I couldn’t help but grin. Leave it to Nick to worry about educating the masses in a crummy vaudeville theater. And he truly believed it could be done, city by city. Nick was out to alter the cosmos.

My father was a river rock, worn soft and smooth by years of tumbling water. Not like me, a rock that had been chipped and chiseled into something other than its original form.

Yes, Nick was flowery and flighty and, I believed, fragile. And yet here we were, in the midst of a band of con artists traipsing about the country.

Good thing he had me.

SELLING HOPE Copyright © 2010 by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb