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Bad Readings

by Greg Kearney

I’m missing the hermit. I spent all morning rooting through my things. Winnowed my hand behind the bookcase and came up with cat hair and a red dent across my wrist. I picked at the corner of Judgement ‘til it split, in case it was two stuck together. I was late for Mrs.Lunt, though I know she’d never notice one missing card. The hermit – did I use it as a bookmark?

"Something about transportation. Be careful getting on and off the handi-trans this week, Mrs.Hoffus." I’m yelling, but Mrs.Hoffus just keeps smiling and nodding. Her old black Lab wakes up at the sound of her name.

Last week it was something about dropping a plate. Most of these women are shut-ins. You really have to reach for a reading that won’t leave them rolling their eyes.

Mrs.Hoffus is one of the livelier ones. I once told her to get ready for a surprise trip; when she got out of the hospital, she sent me a fifty-dollar cheque.

But you have to be careful. Leave out the grandkids, for one thing. That’s a standing rule I have with all the ladies. Even with an innocent prediction, like a good report card, she’ll be on the phone to the daughter before you’re out the door, and you’ll have one less client – and one angry son-in-law banging down your door.

Also: I won’t do time and place of death. They can sulk all they want, ply me with stale banana bread, slip me another twenty, I’ll only change the subject.

It doesn’t matter how close they were to my grandmother. "Oh!", they’ll say, "You gave such comfort to your grandma, telling her how she’d go like you did", and I’ll know they weren’t all that close to my grandma.

I know old women. A man my own age introduces himself, and I have to ask him to repeat the name three or four times before it sinks in. An old woman turns her head to the side, or lifts her kettle from a stove-top element, I can see her life laid out before me like the cards I spread so gravely, six days a week.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at what I do. It makes me sloppy, like the bored baker who veers so far from the recipe, his cakes start coming topped with nails and hair.


She was washing, I was drying. 6 o’clock sun in our eyes through the filmy yellow curtain. We were both full of Seven Layer Dinner.

"That was more like a No Layer Dinner," she said, taking off a sudsy ring and placing it on the window sill. "That was more like a mess! Good though." Smiling, squinting in the 6 o’clock sun.

I said it absently, under my breath, just the way the thought itself came to me – matter of fact, after dinner, at the sink.

"You’re gonna have a stroke pretty soon, Gramma."

She laughed it off before I could back pedal.

"We’re both gonna have strokes, all that cheese we ate!" she said.

I was not a spooky kid. I never startled the teacher, blurting out the question and the answer before the chalk was in her hand. I had lots of friends. I watched so much TV, I’d go to bed with a glowing blue square still floating before me in the dark.

Still, we both knew. The sentence stood there between us with hot certainty, like a third person at the sink. Gramma called all her friends that week, making a joke of it, but repeating the story again and again.


Something about Mrs. Hoffus, or Mrs. Hoffus’ house, always makes me hungry so I go to Hap’s for a hamburger. I go there every day. It’s always empty. There’s only one waitress. We agree to act as if we’re strangers; I always have a burger, but she still brings a menu and gives me lots of time to decide.

I like it here. I like that the menu is handwritten – each one in pen, not photocopied. It gives me something to read, in the off-chance that anyone I know, from high school or when I worked at the cookie store, comes in when I’m there. They’ll see that I’m deep in thought, that I’m the kind of person who makes informed choices even when it comes to lunch. I part my hair differently every day.

The cookie people know that I rip off old women, and they’ll see the box of cards on the table, but they’ll also see my parted hair and the way I study the menu, and maybe think to themselves, "Who is he, anyway? What’s he all about?"

That thought relaxes me. I chew my burger slowly. I order a refill of Coke.


Mrs. Kell found her on the lawn.

In the taxi, still in my apron from the cookie store, I listened to the sports call-in show the driver was blaring.

"Dollar to a donut, he’s not getting knee surgery, he’s drying out at some rehab farm!"

"Well, we don’t know that for certain."

"Oh, come on, half the NHL is on some kinda hard drugs!"

"Let’s move on. Dave from Red Lake…"

They went on and on, all these blunt men forgetting to turn down their radio, on and on about who should retire and which coach should get the boot and what were they thinking when they made that trade.

I sat in the backseat, convinced that I’d found the answer. I would fill my head with hockey trivia. I would memorize the sports page, every pearly scar on every broken nose, I would buy a walkman and listen to sports radio from the moment I awoke until the moment I fell asleep again, the headphones still warm beside my pillow. How could anything, least of all prophecy, get through to me in that case?

"What station is that?" I asked the driver.

"It’s far away. Iowa something. It fades in and out," he said.

That wouldn’t do. I’d need a stronger signal.


Anyway, what happened was: I didn’t have any more psychic flashes, but it was still the only interesting thing I could say to strangers. At the dock, where all the fags go late at night, I’d sit and swing my legs and pretend to be transfixed by moonlight on ice, like everybody else. Handjob in the alley or blowjob in the bush, and then, if they spoke, I’d do my best to keep the conversation going.

What was your name again?

What was it again?

What did you say it was?

Hi, Ted. I told my gramma she was going to die, and then she did.

Maybe I didn’t just blurt it out like that. But it is one of my lines. Who cares that my name is Bill, that I’m part Irish, part something? I can mention the eleventh toe, or I can bring up Gramma. What else is there to say?

Ted regretted talking to me, as he stood straddling his bike. I was going to ask him over when I heard his heel slap the kick stand off the ground. But! That was the night I met Mick, wasn’t it? I hung around a bit longer, and met the one who liked to listen to my stories, both of them. "I’ll bring you some nail polish next time," is what he said when I mentioned the eleventh toe.

That’s the right kind of joke to make. Kindly, unflappable in an old, country doctor sort of way, with the leisurely promise of a second date thrown in for good measure. Next day at the cookie store, when I dropped a jam-jam on the floor, I didn’t put it back in the case. I threw it away!


Mrs.Binns has been with me the longest, I guess I should honour her loyalty, but if she doesn’t stop crying it’s over.

She went through the Depression, lost a husband, son, and both of her breasts to cancer, and all of her close friends are dead. You’d think she’d be a bit grizzled. That she wouldn’t go through every Kleenex in her bra when I tell her that her favourite girl wouldn’t be back on her favourite morning show.

She’s my last for the day, and thank God for that. On the bus home I sort the bills from the cheques, line up all the jittery signatures and stick them in my daybook, on top of the hermit. The hermit!

I forget how to do this. When I started, I entertained the notion that I’d found my calling. Like it or not, this would be the thing I would always do, my story written up in the paper, beside the recipe section. I’d adjudicate talent nights at the high school. Lunch on the house at Hap’s, for the beloved Tarot card reader and all-around good person.

Mrs.Binns took on her husband’s job at the paper mill when he went off to war. "I had to stir big, hot vats of tree soup. I’d sweat and cry," she said, crying. "Some days I didn’t know if I missed him more than I just wanted off that awful, hot job."

I hear you, Mrs.Binns. At home, on the bus, in all these dirty living rooms crammed with old furniture, I feel like I’m filling in for someone overseas who’s got it down pat but still only left me with a one-line note of scant instruction. I’m not a psychic.

I, too, keep waiting for the overseas someone to take this stupid, ill-fitting job off my hands, and then come home to eat the lunch I’ve made, the little bit of industry in my otherwise quiet day of morning shows and the odd, drop-in visitor.


"You’ve got a knack. You could make money from it," Mick said on our date in the mill parking lot.

He meant the Gramma thing, not the artful way I lolled my tongue around his foreskin as he spoke, his knuckles white on the wheel.

He was the one who gave me the cards. I found them in my parka pocket after he dropped me off.

That gift, and the fact that I never saw him at the docks again, made me wonder – suggestible, not-psychic me – was he a ghost? Even when, months later, I did see him -- behind the counter at Radio Shack, staring gravely at the pocket on his Radio Shack shirt – he retained a certain mystery.

I considered going up to him, not to rekindle, but to tell him about the readings. I thought telling him that I took his advice would make me feel substantial, dogged, highly effective. Then I thought: does it matter? What does it mean, that everything I do is largely in homage to people I’ve lost, or a past instant of pleasure, or strictly for lack of a better idea? I recall telling Mick that I liked his car stereo, and lo and behold, now he works at Radio Shack. If we inspired each other, we’re both still well below the poverty line.

And so I walked out without speaking to him. Also there was a lineup.


The house that Gramma left me is overrun with plants. They crowd the windows, hang from hooks. We’ve never needed curtains. I bumped my head on the English Ivy in my mad rush this morning; I walked around with a stray leaf in my hair until Mrs.Hoffus picked it off. I should water them.

Tonight I go to bed early. My legs ache from all the walking I did today, and there’s nothing good on TV. It’s almost dusk. I’ll lay here and watch the streetlight come on. I can barely see it through the limp lines of the spider plant – the last shoot that Gramma planted. The leaves graze the floor now. You couldn’t kill it if you tried.

Greg Kearney lives in a homely bungalow in East York. He is a humour columnist for Xtra! magazine, and his play, "The Betty Dean Fanzine!" goes up at Theatre Passe Muraille in February.


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The Danforth Review is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. All content is copyright of its creator and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of its creator. The Danforth Review is edited by Michael Bryson. Poetry Editors are Geoff Cook and Shane Neilson. Reviews Editors are Anthony Metivier (fiction) and Erin Gouthro (poetry). TDR alumnus officio: K.I. Press. All views expressed are those of the writer only. International submissions are encouraged. The Danforth Review is archived in the National Library of Canada. ISSN 1494-6114. 

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