Every year I dress up in scarves and hoop earrings. I set up a card table, get out the tarot cards, and tell fortunes at my kids' school carnival. Madame Wishbone, two tickets a telling. And I am good at it. I don't know anything about tarot, but I have downloaded a cheat sheet that I surreptitiously peek at. I make the kids put their hands on my crystal ball (an old light fixture from our kitchen with a tea light in it) and ask me a question about their future. It has to be a yes/no question. Then they cut the deck and draw two cards, and I read them.
Maybe all acts of faith are like this, but the more convincingly I perform, the more I believe in what I'm doing. "Will I be a vet?" a 5-year-old girl asks, with her big eyes and a dog silk-screened on her T-shirt. The cards tell me she's a gentle person, a caretaker. That she really, really loves animals and understands them. "Yes!" She nods, and I am the carnival wizard pre-Oz, who riffles through Dorothy's things and understands all that matters to her.
Or maybe it's the fortunetelling version of the placebo effect: The premise is fake, but the power is real.
"Will I get a horse?" one kid asks, many kids ask actually, and while their mothers try to catch my eye, mouthing the word "No," I turn over the cards. I speak in a heavy Slavic accent, so convincing that kids I know become confused about whether I'm me. ("You khev two brothers!" I say to one child, and he says, alarmed, "I do!" before his mom reminds him, "Henry, it's Catherine. Our neighbor.") "Khorse," I say. "Hm. You vill get many, many things you vant. Khorse I don't see, igzectly. But khappiness, yes."
"Will I be a horse when I grow up?" another little girl asks, her legs juddering beneath her gym shorts, and I say, "get a horse?" and she repeats, impatient, "be a horse." The cards suggest she won't — although power and speed are in her future for sure.
Will I be happy? Will I have lots of friends? Will I be a teacher, get a dog, win a prize? Their hands are so sticky with cotton candy that I have to wipe off the globe between customers.
Grown-ups come in, too, wedge themselves on my tiny chair. A friend, grieving a sister she nursed into death, wants to know if she'll find ease. She flips two different knight cards, armored warriors on horseback, fists in the air, and we both laugh. "Maybe not so much," I say, and she puts her head down on my table. One year an ancient woman comes in, asks if she'll have a good year, and then draws the death card. It is the one time I've forgotten to remove it from the deck. "Ah," I say lamely, "the card of transitions!" And, bless her, she laughs.
What I don't know and don't predict is that one of my favorite people at the kids' school, the mom running the concession stand nearby, who brings me hot dogs and flirts and trash-talks me, is about to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and then, right after that, she's going to die and leave behind a terrible bereftness.
She hadn't come in for a reading that year, but even if she had, I wouldn't have known — just like I wouldn't have known, reading my own cards, that I was about to lose my best friend of 43 years, also to ovarian cancer. I'd have looked in her face and listened. I would have seen her, like everyone else, with their longing and their love, their fear and hope and flaws and perfectness. I would have said, in one way or another, as I always say, "You're here now. That's about all I know." Not the future, but the present. The humble, mortal, slightly magical present — which is all there really is, anyway.
Catherine Newman is the author of "Waiting for Birdy." Her new book, "Catastrophic Happiness," comes out in April. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.