It was an overcast bastard of a Friday, with one of those sulking skies that would rather hang over your head in cloudy petulance than give you the satisfaction of ever seeing it cry. I don’t remember how long I spent walking around, but somehow I wound up in Hell’s Kitchen; an area of the city I’d always found tiresome. At one point it’d been one of the tougher neighborhoods around town, filled with Runyon-esque working stiffs and old, sweaty warehouses; now it was just another yuppie stronghold, a castrated, gentrified, overpriced nightmare inhabited by an endless brigade of well-heeled muldoons, humming with ambition and reeking of cash. Pretty soon there’d be no place in Manhattan for the working man, there really hasn’t been for a long while now.
Having spent much of the week indoors, poisoning my internal organs with an endless stream of hard liquor and tobacco, the fresh air was starting to make me sleepy. Pausing for a moment to fetch yet another cigarette from my pocket, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt someone grab the tail of my coat, giving it a sharp tug. My heart ticking like an egg timer, I turned around to find a dark eyed woman, wrapped up in a full-length lavender parka, trying to get my attention. Looking up, I realized that I’d been standing next to one of those psychic storefronts, the kind you’re always getting bombarded with flyers for out on the sidewalk.
“You are ill at ease,” she spoke in a lulling manner.
“This is New York City. Everyone here is ill at ease.”
“No, don’t joke,” she chided. “There’s been too much joking already.”
“Riiight, well I appreciate your concern, but I’m running late for, uh, pretty much anything else, really,” I said, stepping away.
“But it is not too late for you. Your talent, it is not too late. You’ve been away, and now it is time to return…I can show you how.”
“Yeah? Where’ve I been? Jeez, I hope I unplugged the coffee maker before I left the house.”
“You are a funny man,” she sighed. “Tell me, has this helped you?”
Grabbing my wrist, she fixed me with a long, hypnotic stare and said, “The path of the man on a high-wire lies straight ahead, those who choose the prudent ground can only hope for the sky.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as cynical as the average New Yorker – even more so – but I have to admit, there was something about the way she spoke that affected me. I don’t know, maybe it was her eyes, empathetic and kind, yet at the same time authoritative, like a mystical guidance counselor.
What are you selling, anyway?” I asked.
“Come…come with me inside,” she said, pulling at my coat.
“Hold on a minute.” I hesitated. “How much is this going to cost me? I don’t have much money on me.”
“This we can talk about later.”
“No thanks, I’ve got a limited amount I can spend.”
“Forty dollars it will cost.”
“Forty dollars? That’s all?”
“Yes, yes…come now, we go upstairs.”
“You mean we’re not going to do it in the front parlor?”
“No…no…upstairs. I do all my special readings upstairs.”
Every fiber in my being was screaming for me to beat a hasty retreat. I mean, the idea that someone like me would even entertain the offer of something as chicanerous as a psychic reading was unthinkable. Yet, for some odd reason, I found myself following her into the building.
“You’re an artist, no?” she asked.
“Uh, not exactly,” I answered, as we climbed up the first flight.
“No…you are a writer,” she corrected herself.
“And what would make you say that?”
Her guess had not surprised me much; I can’t say why, but it was almost as if she could predict my responses before they left my mouth. The rational part of my brain figured it had to be a mentalist trick, that she was somehow picking up on my unconscious cues; she was profiling me, categorizing me – that had to be it.
“You are a writer,” she continued, side-lining my question. “But you have not found much…success.”
“You could say that about everything in my life.”
“This we are going to fix,” she proclaimed with confidence.
When we reached her floor, I was sweating like a pack mule, the funk of nicotine and booze rolling off my clammy body in spicy waves. The hallway leading to her door was dim and fusty, looking like something out of an old gangster movie from the thirties; the tenement residence of Jimmy Cagney’s beloved ma. As she withdrew her keys from her coat pocket, I started to have second thoughts.
“You live here?” I squeaked.
“Yes, yes, I live here, I work here,” she said, in a weary singsong.
When we got inside, I was struck by its square footage; it had to be at least twice the size of my cubbyhole, maybe more.
“It’s through here,” she said, leading me down a spacious corridor that opened up to a large living area. Off to the left, lay a galley kitchen, to the right, a dark hall, and ahead, what appeared to be a small pocket door. The main space was furnished with a floppy, anthracite couch, a glass dining table, and an enormous flat screen TV, around which sat a couple of equally sizable bruisers playing a seizure-inducing, first-person shooter on the Xbox. I was almost certain that the two were brothers – or at the very least related – due to the similar slope in their foreheads, and a shared obliviousness in their heavy-lidded eyes. They looked to be in their mid-to-late 20s, and gave off a palpable air of menace; you didn’t have to glance twice at them to know they were a couple of boys you didn’t want to fuck with. When we entered the room, they barely lifted their heads up from the game – which they had cranked up to ear-splitting levels. In a tongue I could not recognize, my guide bleated a few sharp words in their direction, which they acknowledged with sullen resignation, then they both rose in reluctant unison from their seated position on the floor. Waving her hands in a comical fashion, she hurled a few more angry-sounding phrases at them. Lowering his head, the slightly bigger one turned off the tube, and both of them shuffled down the hallway on the right.
“Please, follow me.” She smiled, sliding open the door to reveal a bright alcove, not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
This is some apartment. It seems to go on forever.”
“It suits my purposes.”
In the center of the floor, sat a card table with two folding chairs on either side, and through a large window, I saw a young boy huddled out on the fire-escape, knees pressed against his chest.
“BOBO, get off of there! How many times I tell you? You break your neck, one of these days, you crazy monkey!”
Jerking open the sash, the child clamored back inside.
“I’m sorry, mama,” he whined. “Hey! You gonna do a readin’? Can I stay and watch?”
“You know better, Bobo.” She sighed. “Go…go! Let me work now!”
Despite its size, the place had a dreary, claustrophobic quality and by the time we’d taken our seats, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
“Bobo, what I say?” she shouted at the boy, who had paused by the door, staring at me with a silly but endearing expression.
He was a strange looking little guy, skinny as a twig, with a tiny, perfectly round head and sad, dark eyes like his mother. I couldn’t tell whether he was mentally challenged, or perhaps just a bit slow, but there was something off there. He was a cute bugger though, in a funny kind of way.
“Okay, okay! Ya don’t have to yell, mama.” He laughed, sliding the door closed behind him.
“Now, we can begin,” she said, retrieving a tarot deck from her coat pocket.
Arranging the cards on the table with an elaborate, ceremonial flourish, she went into her spiel.
“You see this here?” she asked, turning one over to reveal an illustration of a yellow haired dandy hanging upside down from a tree by his ankle. “You are at a crossroads…unsure of your next move. This answer can be achieved by letting go of what is holding you in the past.”
“That’s pretty vague.”
As she flipped another, a look of validation came across her face.
“This is not vague!” She chuckled, tapping the card with her middle finger.
“Death?” I croaked, reading the underlying caption.
“Something has happened in your life,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “…something unexpected. Do not be afraid! You have lived too much like this already, in fear. You must embrace this new horizon.”
“And if I can’t?”
Shuffling the deck, she lay three cards face down, asking me to choose one. After a bit of thought, I pointed to the one in the middle.
“Take and give back to me please,” she ordered, ratcheting up the drama.
Lifting it from the table with an unsteady hand, I passed it over. From the serious look on her face I could tell it wasn’t good news.
“The ten of swords,” she said, gasping.
“That’s bad, huh?”
“But you see, this does not have to be. It is all up to you. As I have told you, I can show you the way.”
Gazing out the window, I could see that it finally had started to rain.
“Alright,” I said. “So show me the way.”
“This will cost you 500 dollars.”
In a flash, I was snapped back to planet earth.
“You told me 40,” I said, shifting in my seat. “There’s no way I can pay more than that.”
Shooting me a disconcerting smile, she shook her head. “But you have already agreed.”
“I did not!” I protested. “I agreed? When did I agree?”
Grabbing my wallet out of my coat, I threw down a couple of 20-dollar bills.
“That’s what I agreed to,” I said, rising from the table.
“No…no. You sit, we will work this out. It is important that we finish.”
“There’s nothing to work out. We set a price, I’ve paid you, and now I’ve got to go.”
“You sit,” she repeated, lifting herself from the chair. “We cannot leave it like this. I will be back momentarily.”
Before I could argue further, she’d already hoovered the money from the table, and whisked out of the room as if it were ablaze. Soon I could hear raised voices outside the door, flying back and forth in agitation; my psychic was arguing with the two brothers. I couldn’t make anything out too clearly, but I thought I’d heard her say “40 dollars” to which came the ominous response “we need more.” I was trapped; if I got up to leave they’d stop me – maybe even try some rough stuff. I couldn’t tell for certain what they had in mind, and I was in way too weakened a condition to find out.
After a few nerve-wracking minutes had passed, Bobo burst into the room like a hyperactive muppet; he was carrying a large tennis racket and grinning from ear to ear. I’d never been so happy to see another human being in my entire life.
“Whatcha doin’?” he asked, out of breath.
“Waiting for your mother. Uh…you wouldn’t know if she’s going to be very much longer would you?”
“Nawh, mister. She’s in the other room yelling at my cousins, they’re all real mad about somethin’,” he said, hopping across the room to the window. “I dunno how long they’re gonna take.”
I leaned back in my chair, studying the boy. I still couldn’t quite make out what was exactly wrong with him; he was a friendly kid, I’ll say that much, with a high-pitched cheep of a voice and a ready smile. There was something about him though, a concentrated innocence. Probably a prime target of his classmates, I imagined – if he even went to school that is.
“Are ya’ happy with your reading?” he asked, taking a seat on the window ledge. “Mama’s real good, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is. She’s a very smart woman.”
“Yeah…I’ve got a smart mama.”
“So, Bobo, you like tennis?”
“Then what are you carrying around that racket for?”
“That’s not a racket mister, that’s my guitar!” he explained. “I’m a singer.”
Striking a rock star pose, he began to jump around the room, screeching like a bent steam whistle. Concerned that his mother would think I was strangling her child, I did what I could to settle him down.
“That’s great, kid,” I hushed. “You’ve got a lovely voice. What else do you like to do in your spare time, besides singing that is?”
“I really like Speideman!” he enthused, still bopping around, strumming his racket. “Like a whole lot!”
“Speideman?” I asked. “Who’s that?”
“Speideman!” he repeated in exasperation. “You know, from the movie?”
“Oh, Spider-Man! Yes, I like him too, very much.”
The way he’d pronounced the name made him sound like a Jewish attorney; Harvey Speideman, partner at Speideman, Kranzberg and Weintraub, the personal injury specialists: “When they ruin your day…we make ‘em pay!”
“I like the way he can climb up walls, like a big spidah,” he explained. “I wish I could.”
“Who knows, kid? Maybe someday you’ll be bitten by a radioactive bug, just like he was.”
“You really think so?”
“Anything’s possible. Listen, how long is your mother gonna be, ‘cause I’m in a real hurry here, Bobo.”
“I call him Big Red,” he said, ignoring my question.
“You call who Big Red?”
“Speideman! That’s my nickname for him.”
“Big Red?” I said with a giggle. “Why do you call him that?”
“You know, ‘cause he’s big and red!”
“You think? I guess he is pretty big, but his costume, it’s red and blue, you gotta admit that, Bobo!”
“I dunno,” he said, spinning around like a goofball.
“Come to think of it, Spider-Man already has a nickname – Spidey!” I continued. “Hey, some people even call him Webhead.”
“Nawh…he’s Big Red to me. That’s my nickname for him.”
“Yeah, that’s a good one,” I agreed.
I could still hear his mother outside, arguing with the two galoots. Jesus, she was taking forever; I wondered what evil scheme they were hatching. Maybe they were going to drag me to an ATM at gun-point and slit my throat in some grimy back alley before I got the chance to rat them out to the coppers. Poor bastards, they were shit out of luck – I was broke as a spoke. The more I thought about it, the more petrified I became. Desperate thoughts tore through my brain as I searched for a way out of my predicament; then it dawned on me what I had to do.
“You wanna hear another song, mister?”
Plucking the racket from his hands, I asked him to have a seat across from me and quiet down for a bit, informing him that I had a secret to share.
“So, what’s this secret?” he asked, his speck of a nose twitching with expectation.
I lowered my face, close to his. “You promise not to tell anyone?”
“I promise, mister. Cross my heart and hope to die!”
“Don’t say that,” I said, tussling his hair. “Crossing your heart is good enough for me.”
Taking a very deep breath, I got up from the chair and moved over to the window, drawing it up with deliberate care.
“Well, you see, I’m Speideman,” I said, climbing out onto the fire escape. “I’m Big Red!”
“You are?” he squealed with joy.
Popping my head back into the room for a moment, I maneuvered my tired body into position.
“Wish me luck, Bobo, I’m off to save the Universe!”
Gripping the handrails like a vise, I moved with swift purpose. Above my head I could hear the kid calling after me, but I couldn’t respond; I just kept winding my way down that rusty, wet rib cage Feeling for my pulse, I kept a steady pace, limiting my gaze to the slippery steps beneath my feet. I was surprised how composed I was. When I landed on the pavement, I felt invincible.
From the safety of the street, I looked up to see that the poor little guy was hanging half-way out the window, flapping his arms in a frantic state.
“SPEIDEMAN!!! SPEIDEMAN!!!” Bobo shrieked down at me. “Don’t leave me!!! SPEIDEMAN!!!”
“Bye-bye kiddo!” I called up to him. “You be a good boy now!”
Backing up to the lip of the curb, I could see his mother nudging him out of the way.
“Why you go?” she cried out. “You are not ready yet! Listen to me…please! You are not ready!”
Not bothering to respond, I turned up my collar and started to jog home. Like I said, it was a miserable bastard of an afternoon, grey and petulant as a spoiled child, but as I splashed down the rain-puddled sidewalk, my lungs burning and tight, the whole world appeared before me in glorious Technicolor.