Assignment with Faustus
By Susan Tepper
The brownstone a block behind West Broadway looks pretty nice. Neat and tucked in. Much nicer than I expected. I don’t know exactly what I expected. Not a pristine brownstone with a lacquered, red double door, and low black iron fence surrounding a little front garden with rose bushes. The guy who lives here is a famous psychic.
I try the iron gate and it creaks open. Good sign. A creaking gate is more in line for the house of a psychic. Who knows what or who actually creaked when I pushed the gate open. Or perhaps it’s all part of this day. Late spring. Sultry without making me sweat. Everything almost at full bud, the breeze just warm enough. Maybe all this is a mirage. The brownstone is actually a crumbling dump. And I’m too stunned by life to notice.
I walk up the front path and use the brass door knocker.
A man opens it right away. He looks startled. It is I who startles him, which is kind of surprising. I’m dressed simply, light-blue denim shirt and khaki capri pants. My hair is to the shoulders, and I feel pretty. For the first time in I don’t know how long I feel my prettiness come back. His chubby face registers a combination of insight and confusion and shock.
In almost a screech he says, “They sent me fucking Emily Charlotte Bronte.”
Stunned I can only nod. They sent me is not entirely surprising.
“You’re a poet!” He belts this out. I’m still on the front steps, while he holds open one of the red doors.
“Yes.” I nod again. Go with the flow. Don’t want to ruin things. So much already ruined. I came to try and get a fix on what is left of my life.
“A poet,” he repeats. Beaming in a self-serving way.
In his formal Victorian living room I sit at the table where he indicates, taking the chair he points to. The table is old and round and made from glossy dark wood. Nearly black. Its edges carved into a lacey squiggle. I think of a large cake plate. He takes the chair across from me. Padded chairs in good fabric. The living room is narrow, and dim due to the drawn, pale silky drapes.
“I like to keep the sun out, the place stays cooler,” he tells me.
“That’s a good idea.” Though I’m certain an air conditioner is on somewhere, the place is air-cooled and there’s a slight hum.
Without being obvious, I take in the room. Lots of antique furniture and beautiful vases. A white marble fireplace. The Oriental rug is striking and plush underfoot. A person could get a good night’s sleep on his rug. That he enjoys the finer things in life is apparent. My eyes skim an entire wall of books. Which might explain his initial reaction when he saw me.
“I guess you read a lot of poetry and literature,” I say.
“Never. I’ve hardly got time to scratch my ass.”
“Have I read you before?” he says.
“No, I’ve never been here.”
As he’s peering at me, a small white dog jumps in his lap. A yippie-sounding dog.
“Adele, what do you think?” he says to the dog. “Have I read her before?”
“Adele is my mother’s name,” I say.
“I’m holding your mother in my lap.” He laughs as if this is the funniest joke on the planet.
It’s really not funny. I don’t know how to answer. But I’m not afraid, alone in this house with him. He’s not the sort of person who makes you afraid.
“Adele is cute.” A direct lie. I wonder if he knows— being a famous psychic and all.
He makes some banal chit-chat then pushes the dog off his lap. He asks to look at my palm. He does the bit about my life line which I find kind of cliché. Then he taps on the line. “This is the affair,” he tells me continuing to tap that spot. Tapping again. “Right here.”
“The one you’re going to have, darling.” This announcement makes him twinkle. He points at another line. “Now this is where your life stopped dead.”
Then he looks up at me in the most solemn of ways.
I can only look back.
“But it’s not so bad, right darling? You still get to travel and have other good things.” He’s squinting at my palm again. “Yes, yes,” he says. “It all stopped here. But you can still have a good life.”
Oh you think so? How can I tell this stranger that I haven’t been able to rest my head on the pillow in more than five years. That sharing a bed with my husband and his history causes violent trembling inside me. I stare at a single white orchid twisting up from a Chinese blue vase.
“You’re different from the other girls who come here,” he’s saying.
Different how? I’m assuming it’s meant as a compliment. But maybe not. Maybe they have their shit together and just come here so he can ice their cake. I don’t have a cake and I sure don’t have a life.
He springs up walking to the book wall and taking one out. “See this?”
The book cover shows a sculpted male face. Almost feminine. Asian. Extremely handsome. “What is it?” I say.
“My son wrote this book. My adoptive son. He’s Vietnamese. It’s been translated into six languages. It’s him on the cover.”
I guess this is meant to impress me. It works. “Does he live here with you?”
The psychic waves an arm as if to indicate the impossibility of such an arrangement. “West Coast.”
“I see.” I don’t see at all. He sees. He is the psychic. I’m the Emily-Charlotte Bronte mix. I don’t think he actually knows Emily’s last name. It just came upon him, I guess, when he first saw me.
“I adopted the boy after the war,” he says. “He’s grown up now and has written this book about his life.”
“That’s wonderful.” I’m thinking about the huge amount of money this reading is costing, and we are sitting here talking about his son’s life.
I stand up to take a closer look at the son’s book. A fake gesture of politeness. “It has a good cover,” I say.
“Yeah. He’s a good man. He turned out good. It didn’t have to be that way. But it was. He suffered. He suffered more than you will ever know. You should stop your belly aching and get on with things.” He arches an eyebrow at me. “Emily Charlotte Bronte.”
I pause a moment then sit back down at the table.
“Translated into six languages. Christ. He could have been a Vietnamese orphan, a street kid, a glue sniffer.” He slides the book back in its slot in the wall.
“We’re done,” he says.
Susan Tepper has been a writer for twenty years. Her most recent book, ‘dear Petrov’ (Pure Slush Books, 2016) is a novella set in late 19th Century Russia during a time of war. Tepper writes the monthly column ‘Let’s Talk’ at Black Heart Magazine, and is the founder/host of FIZZ a reading series at KGB Bar, NYC. www.susantepper.com
Photo by: Gessy Alvarez