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The Reader in the Square

Story by Sara Johnson Allen (Read author interview) June 18, 2018

Collage by SmokeLong Quarterly

I don’t read the future. The present has enough to say, and the past won’t shut up.

My father the estate lawyer and my mother the nurse practitioner did not pay St. Anne’s Parochial tuition for me to read tarot. When my friends graduated to Tulane and Boston College, I set up a folding table in Jackson Square by the cathedral. To my mother I say, “I live in the shadow of God. Isn’t that what you wanted?” When my father puts another brochure on my pillow for the B-school at the University of Louisiana, I shout through the wall, “It’s only Q2, Daddy, and I’m already 64% to my sales goals.”

I have more customers than anyone in the Square because rule #1: no phones. Kaylee’s a good reader from bayou country, but no one stops at your table if you’re scrolling Instagram. Clients want old magic, and believe me, it is here. That’s what attracted me in the first place. I could see it. Look at Lydia who has real gypsy blood and levitates a single card sometimes, just for a second, a quarter inch off the table.

The fact I look the part was a marketing opportunity I couldn’t ignore. People say, you are a descendant of that voodoo lady, right? No, but if your thinking I’m related to Marie Laveau makes you want to pay me more, then go right ahead because my strategic plan is tight. They call them hostels today, but when I open mine, it will be a “boarding house.” I will post it on Airbnb and VRBO, but when you walk through the door, it will be 100 years ago. I’ll have a smoking parlor and see what I can do in the way of absinthe, or at least edibles. Anyone can get readings, but only women can rent rooms for the night. Obviously, bigender and transgender folks are welcome too.

It’s not that I want to discriminate. I just can’t ignore my experience with men. It’s usually women at my table because they are the ones ruled by doubt. This morning, first reading of the day, I had a big lady rocking back and forth with so much worry I thought she would break the folding chair I hauled from my parents’ basement in Metairie. The Moon and the Five of Cups told me she was the kind of sad that never lifts. She drew the Wheel of Fortune, so I told her she would experience a win soon. I could see in her face she already knew better. The cards are relative. When you don’t have shit, fortune doesn’t add up to much. She tried to pay, but I couldn’t take money from that kind of sadness.

When men stop at my table, they usually want something else. Like tonight, a man from Pennsylvania with stooped shoulders and stubby fingers, older than my father, sits down and says, “I bet you would have been one of those beautiful placées presented at an octoroon ball, wouldn’t you?”

Then he waits for me to thank him.

I wanted to say, you know that is fucked up, right? Just because you take a carriage tour doesn’t mean you understand. This city is still twisted, but it was depraved when it was still a swamp where they sent casket girls from Europe, 14- or 15-years-old because there were no women, and men will die without someone delicate to fuck. And just one woman isn’t enough, so once they were rich, they created an entire system of selecting mistresses from the mixed-race girls too black to marry, too white to enslave.

Actually, I would have been at a quadroon ball, Pennsylvania, but fuck you and the forefathers too.

I just told him to shuffle the cards.

The Tower in his spread told me his life was imploding, but only good news brings payments at the top end of my revenue structure. On top of the two twenties, Pennsylvania slipped me his room number at the Hotel Monteleone and said, “There’s more where that came from.”

It’s not the first time that’s happened, but it is the first time my cousin Clara works at the front desk of the hotel in question. I did another $280 worth of readings, but I couldn’t focus.

Maybe it’s not healthy to sit in the Square as the light fades with bronze Andrew Jackson staring down at you, a man who would have drawn the Devil again and again. He stands where the city gallows used to be, where they hung runaway slaves as warnings to others who hoped.

Hope is all anyone is after, card after card, reading after reading, life after life. Those past lives run right through us in the Square, the Hanged Men, the Fools, the Lovers, all smoke wisps occupying whatever empty space they can find. A girl like me with plans has to pay them no mind. I might not read it, but the future is what we will have, if we aren’t swallowed up by the past.

When I see it, the swerving, reversing S of the snake moving along the edge of a raised flower bed, I’m up so fast, I almost knock my table over.


In the Monteleone lobby, Clara hands me the key and says, “Don’t get me fired.” For strength in the hotel elevator, I invoke the ghost of Julie from 734 Royal Street. Two hundred years ago, her man said he would make her his mistress, if she spent the night naked on his roof. She froze to death while he drank with his friends. Lesson learned. Never love someone so much you bare yourself in December. Lesson learned. They always take more than you agreed upon. Believe me.

The snake squirms heavy in the pillowcase as I listen to the silence inside room 212. Know this, Pennsylvania, I am the Sun. I am the High Priestess, and I often draw the Justice card when I’m reading myself.

About the Author

Sara Johnson Allen was raised (mostly) in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her MFA from Emerson College in 2005. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Redivider, The Bangalore Review and was submitted to Best New American Voices. She was recently awarded the 2018 Marianne Russo Award for Emerging Writers by the Key West Literary Seminar for her novel-in-progress, We Make Them Pay.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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