Tell Me What You See
by Kathy Lanzarotti
It’s 9 am when I ring the medium’s doorbell. I don’t have to lean in too close to hear the descending peal of St Michael’s chimes on the other side of the crimson door. There’s no window to see inside, just a wreath of tangled grapevines spattered with white pip berries. The house is a small ranch of neat yellow brick. I take a quick peek in through the bay window to the left, but it’s a beautiful bright day and all I can see is my own silhouette.
I hope I’m not early. I am pretty sure I said 9, but I may have said 9:30. My memory of our phone conversation a little over a week ago is a little hazy. I remember trying very hard to sound sober, which probably only made me sound drunker than I actually was. I shift the bag with the picture in it from my left hand to my right. It’s flimsy and plastic and says Thank You! over and over again in red like it wants to make sure I know that I’m appreciated. I’m surprised it hasn’t split open. The picture seems a lot heavier than it should be.
The door opens soundlessly on an unsmiling woman about my age. She’s thin. Really thin. Her clavicle protrudes like His and Hers towel rods over the top of her black boat neck sweater.
My mother would be envious.
“Cressida Harrison?” she asks.
“Yes,“ I say with a smile.
I can’t stop looking at her face. Her skin is a deep mahogany creped by too much time in the tanning bed. Clear blue eyes glow from their sockets like a pair of deep-sea jellyfish. Her hair is black, shiny, and severely pulled into a bun, smooth as an eight ball, at the nape of her neck.
“Please come in,” she says.
I do and she shuts the door behind me.
She points to a black basket filled with light blue medical booties.
“Please,” she says, and watches as I slip them over my flats.
The house is alarmingly clean, with pure white walls that disappear into snowy deep pile carpet. All of it is offset by black lacquer furniture polished to a high gloss.
“I’m Theresa Fiduccio,” she says and offers her hand. It’s surprisingly cold. I expected her to be warm, like banana bread just toppled onto a cooling rack. I press lightly over the rails of veins and fine bones.
“Please call me Tree,” she says as she leads me to a gleaming black dining table. She motions for me to sit on one of the dark cushioned chairs, and takes a seat across from me. “Now before we get started, I want to tell you what it is that we’re going to be doing today.” She humbly places a ropy hand to her chest. “I’m a medium, which means that I can communicate with those who have passed over.” She arcs the hand over the curve of the table to illustrate. “I can’t see the future and I can’t read your mind.”
Under the circumstances, this is a good thing.
A black jar candle burns between us on a sterling silver dish that shines white under the chandelier above us. The scent is cloying, something green and resinous that makes my head ache.
“So!” She continues with a laugh that doesn’t reach her eyes. “I hope you weren’t expecting crystal balls or creepy symbols on the walls.” She rakes a pinky finger along her temple to move a phantom black hair from her face.
I shove a hand into my purse, and crunch receipts and old gum wrappers until my fingers find the unzipped side pocket where I placed her card. I hand it across the table. “My neighbor gave me this,” I tell her. “It was in his mailbox.”
She nods and a small smile nudges up the side of her mouth. Three little wrinkles appear above it, like the WiFi icon at the top of a computer screen. “Great,” she says. “I’m glad I can reach new people.”
“Do I pay you now or later?” I ask her as my fingers brush my wallet.
“I’ll collect after we’re done.” She blinks slowly. She reminds me of one of those dolls with the sleep eyes that close when placed on their backs.
“Great,” I say with a smile. “I brought this.” I hand over the picture in its pounded pewter frame. It’s an old photo. My mother still has her hair. Baby Rooney sits on her lap, a brown and yellow stuffed giraffe held to her lips. Christened Ziggy by the manufacturer, its orange horns are misshapen by her new baby teeth.
Pictures were the top suggestion under the heading, What do I bring to my session? on the FAQ link on Tree’s website. Other options were clothing, jewelry or “personal effects”, which made me think of something the medical examiner’s office hands to the family in a manila envelope after a tragedy.
A long-haired white cat with a flowing sepia tail soundlessly hops onto a zebra print armchair in the corner. Blue eyes, eerily similar to his owner’s, glimmer from the hickory colored mask of his face. He winds his tail in front of him, twitches it once and rests his chin on it.
“Your cat is beautiful,” I tell her. “I love animals.” I really do. They are so much better than people.
Tree presses her lips into an unconvincing smile.
“What breed is he?” I ask her. “I’ve never seen anything like him. Is it a him?” The cat stares at me with his intelligent eyes.
“He,” she says as pulls her chair forward and settles herself closer to the table, “Is a Balinese.”
“What’s his name?” I ask.
She places my mother’s picture in front of her. “Mendax,” she tells the photo.
What?” I ask a little too loudly.
She looks up suddenly, her face serious. “Mendax,” she carefully enunciates both syllables. “It’s something in Latin.”
My mother pushed the classics on Miranda and me. We were forced to take Latin in high school. I dropped out with a D after two semesters. Turns out two semesters was more than enough.
“It is,” I tell her. ”It means liar.”
Tree looks down at the picture again, and then back up at me. “Well then it’s not surprising that that’s the name my lying sack of an ex-husband chose for him,” she draws out the words, her voice a growl. “Takes one to know one I guess.”
I hold up both hands. “I’m just saying, as a skeptic it’s not much of a confidence builder.”
She looks up again, her eyes narrowed as she chews the inside of her lower lip and blinks her clumped lashes.
“I’m sorry you feel that way Ms. Harrison,” she says, her tone sharp. “But the cat isn’t running this session. I am. And I might remind you that you made the choice to come here. If you don’t trust me, or don’t feel comfortable, you are free to leave at any time.” She turns in her chair and points at the white six-paneled door behind her. I get a clear view of the perfect globe of hair at the base of her skull and I can’t help but wonder what product she uses to get that sort of sheen.
“It is not my job to prove myself to you.” She turns her attention to the picture on the table for a second before she looks up at me. “Would you like me to continue?
I sigh and take off my coat.
She gives a little nod in the direction of the picture. “Who is it that you would like to contact?” she asks.
“My mother passed away recently,” I tell her. “But if anyone else interesting pops up I’d be happy to chat with them instead.”
Tree glares at me for a second and I’m afraid she’s going to throw the picture at me. The frame is solid. It would definitely hurt.
She shuts her eyes then and is quiet, both hands spread across opposite ends of the picture. She opens her eyes suddenly and sits up straight.
“Okay,” she says.
“Have you got her?”
I peer over her arm to see what she’s seeing. It’s just the picture. Same as always. The light from the crystal fixture illuminates layers of fingerprints.
“What’s she saying?” I ask.
“Hey, mom!” I raise my voice. It is long distance after all.
Tree raises her head slowly, her eyes wide.
“Where are you?” I call out.
I watch Tree look over at the cat, the corner of her mouth set. She shakes her head slowly. The cat heaves his body in a labored sigh.
“Are you in Purgatory?” I ask, my attention back on the picture. “Is it a real thing?” Suddenly I have so many questions.
“Ms. Harrison!” Tree thumps the table with the flat of her hand and makes me jump.
“What?” I ask.
“She can’t hear you, she’s passed over.” She fans a hand near her ear. “She can only communicate with me.” She tilts her head from side to side. “That’s why they call me a medium.”
I realize I’m hunched over the table. I let my chin slip into my open palm. “What if she’s been reincarnated, as a puppy or something? Maybe some cool species of spider—“
“Shhhhh…” Tree silences me with an open palm. Then she drops it to smooth the image between her hands. Her nails are long. Red shellac with white peace signs on the third finger and lots of outgrowth. She’s due for another appointment.
I wonder what her reaction would have been if I told her I was here to contact Ziggy the giraffe. I feel a giggle creeping up and I cough into my fist to hide it, but it’s no use. I don’t know if it’s stress, or one of the stages of grieving, all I know is that I’m laughing and it feels great.
Tree stiffens and brushes an invisible something from the frame with a stiff swipe.
“I’m sorry,” I say once I’ve caught my breath.
She inhales deeply and mumbles something I can’t make out.
“I have to be honest,” I say. “I don’t believe that you can talk to my dead mother any more than I think that I can talk to yours.”
“My mother is alive,” she says.
I press my lips together and nod in her direction. ”Well, that’s … great! I’m glad to hear it.” I fold my hands in front of me on the table. ”But, because I don’t believe you. I was wondering if I could maybe ask you a test question?”
She breaks away from the picture and looks up at me. “A what?” she asks.
I repeat it slowly, “A test question. Something that only my mother and I would know.”
“I don’t do test questions.” She directs her response to Mendax, along with a blatant roll of her eyes.
He blinks at her and nibbles a dark paw.
“Of course you don’t,” I say.
She sits up in her chair and starts to push herself away from the table with both hands. “You know Ms. Harrison--“
“Cressida,” I say. “Please.”
“Cressida.” She closes her eyes on the name and sinks. She opens them and shudders impatiently. “Fine. Ask your test question.”
She slivers her eyes at me at me and then gives me the little half smile again.
“Okay.” I sit up in my chair and fold my hands together. I talk fast before she can change her mind. “My parents took my sister and I to New York City for our sixteenth birthday. After dinner, Miranda walked to the hotel with my dad. My mom and I got into a taxi.”
Tree nods at me slowly.
“Anyway, It started to rain. Hard. And the streets were slick, and the driver was listening to this weird tinny World Music. Of course, they didn’t call it that back then, but anyway, he was driving like a maniac, cutting in front of cars and slamming on the brakes.”
Tree pointedly looks at the clock on the wall. A pendulum swings quietly below it.
I clear my throat, “My mom and I were both laughing. Hysterical, nervous laughter, because we were pretty sure we were going to die in that taxi cab and my mother looked at me and I looked at her, and at the same time we both said--“
I hold my hands out in her direction.
Tree looks at me expressionless.
“What did we say?” I ask her.
She looks at me, “That’s your question?”
“The test question.”
“What year was this?”
I shrug, “1990?”
“I’m pretty sure they called it World Music back then,” she says.
“Do you think?”
“Cressida,” she says patiently. ”You expect your mother--” She taps the frame with one of her long nails. “--You expect your mother, who has passed, to remember a conversation you had in the back of a taxi cab a quarter century ago?”
I think about it for a second. “You expect me to believe you’re talking to her,” I say. “So, yeah. I guess I do.”
She fills her cheeks with air. “Okay, alright here goes,” she says. It’s one long exhalation.
Tree closes her eyes and I stare at her eyelids as the orbs dart back and forth beneath the delicate skin. I startle when she opens them.
“She doesn’t remember,” she tells me.
“Oh come on!”
“No, really,” she says. “She does remember the crazy cabbie but not anything specific that either of you said.”
I fumble behind me for my coat.
“She wants to talk to you about a boy,” Tree says suddenly.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say as I push my chair away from the table.
“Something with an E?”
“Nope,” I say. “No boys with an E.” I stand up and fish in my pocket for my keys. “I’m not paying for this by the way,” I tell her.
Tree doesn’t answer me. Her eyes are closed again. All of a sudden she opens them.
“Your mother says that you should stop worrying about cab rides from two decades ago and worry about what you’re doing to your husband and your daughter and those two little girls.”
I stare at down at the object in my hand. It takes a second for my brain to register it as my key fob.
“She says you’re making a fool of yourself carrying on with a boy that age—“
“He’s not a boy!” I look over at her and snap. “He’s a thirty seven year old man!”
Tree bats her eyes and purses her lips. I watch her try not to smile as she spreads her hands to either side of the picture like she needs more room to see. She stares at it hard. I lean over the table, but it’s still just a picture. I can see Rooney’s chubby cheeks and the fine ponytail that rises from the red bow I clipped to her head almost twenty years ago.
I sit back down.
“She says you should stop now before everybody gets hurt.” Her voice is calm. “That the relationship is a loser, and it can’t end well. She says that you should stop being selfish and think about those innocent little girls, even if he does have beautiful eyes and that lean runner’s body.“
I feel myself flush. My head shoots up so quickly I hurt my neck.
“Her words,” she says. She flips up a hand and nods in the direction of the picture.
When Mendax hops in my lap I barely notice. I absently run my hand down the long silky fur of his back. He starts to purr and rubs his cheek against the front of my t-shirt.
”How did you know about Ian?” I manage to squeak. I sound pathetic. Defeated. “Nobody knows about Ian,” I say it more to myself than to anybody else.
Tree turns her head slowly from side to side. “I don’t know anything about Ian,” she stresses the long E sound on the first part of his name. “I only know what your mother’s told me.”
My dead mother knows my secret, and as usual she’s blabbing to the first person who will listen.
“Now Cressida,” Tree says as she leans toward me. “Perhaps you’d like to take a minute while we’ve got your mother here, and you can tell me what, if anything else that you would like to know?”
I don’t need a minute. I peer over her arm at my mother’s picture. She looks happy, with her strong, bright smile. I had forgotten what her teeth looked like before they rotted out of her mouth.
“How’s she doing?” I ask quietly. A tear slips off my cheek and lands on Mendax. He flicks a cocoa colored ear to shake it off.
Tree pauses for a second, head tilted like she’s listening to something. Then she lowers it and laughs. It’s not a jovial laugh, it’s more of an “I know something you don’t” laugh.
My dead mother and this stranger? They ‘re laughing at me, not with me.
Tree sits back in her seat with a happy sigh. She looks across the table at me.
”She’s dead,” she says. “How do you think she’s doing?”
Kathy Lanzarotti is co-editor of Done Darkness: A Collection of Stories, Poetry and Essays About Life Beyond Sadness.She is a Wisconsin Regional Writer’s Jade Ring award winner for short fiction. Her stories have appeared in (b)OINK zine, Ellipsis, andCreative Wisconsin.