Just a few minutes ago I began to feel the tide tugging a little harder, the fog closing in, and I knew without looking at my watch that it was close to quitting time. I’m tired — bone weary, really. In the space of only one afternoon I took a threesome of middle-aged women back, one by one, to 18th-century Lisbon (a fisherman), 16th-century London (a minor Elizabethan actor), and 14th-century Montepulciano (a nun, though not a particularly devout one). Even more exhausting was the youngish couple trying to inject a little excitement into a dying marriage. I’m no fortune teller, but I could predict it wouldn’t work, even though he’d been an apprentice to Michelangelo, and she’d been a flapper and a close friend of Zelda’s. They’d eyed each other suspiciously afterward — bad enough to have secrets in your present lives without dredging up past ones. “Did she have an affair with Scott?” he asked, and didn’t believe her when she said no.
They smell peppermint, and their senses awaken….
I’ve been doing this for years now. Working at a grocery store isn’t the most exciting life in the world. I needed something more. Not a past life, but a double one. The psychic fair is like a traveling circus. They start in southern California and work their way up the coast. By the time they get here, their last stop, it’s October, the tag end of the tourist season. I can’t afford to travel with the psychics, but when they come, they let me set up my tent and join them for just those few days. The fair doesn’t have another past-life hypnotist, or even a garden-variety hypnotist, so it’s not like I’m taking business away from anybody. I look forward to it every year. I rearrange my work schedule at Safeway. It’s like a vacation, except that I make some extra money instead of spending it. And who needs to go on vacation, when in the space of one afternoon I can travel thousands of miles, hundreds of years?
For the few days of the psychic fair, I replace my cashier’s name tag (“I’m Jennie! How may I help you?”) with tie-dyed silk scarves. I put on a long gauzy skirt. I become mysterious. None of the locals ever recognize me. Context is everything, and no one expects the check-out girl at Safeway to moonlight as a psychic, even though the store lets the fair set up its tents in the parking lot.
No one takes me seriously at first. People treat the psychic fair, and me in particular, as a lark. They’re on vacation, and on a drizzly day things can get dull — they can only spend so much time walking on the beach looking for agates, and the psychic fair is a little adventure they can tell their friends about later. I was a Benedictine monk, I was a miner in the California gold rush, I was a cabaret singer in Berlin. I will marry a much older man and have twins, I will win the lottery, I will have a visit from a long lost friend. My aura is silver-blue, my aura is purple, my aura is bright green. I bought a healing crystal from The Crystal Guy, who brought it back from a sacred mountain in the Himalayas. I had my chakras balanced.
My tent is made from a fabric you can almost see through. On a day like this, late afternoon with the darkness and fog drifting and my peppermint candle lit, people walking past can see the silhouette of me swinging my necklace. They smell peppermint, and their senses awaken. They can’t see who the customer is, but they see shadows of what’s happening, and maybe if they get curious enough and steal close enough, they begin to feel a little hypnotized too. Because I’ll tell you something: it’s not that hard. People think there’s something mystical about hypnosis, but there’s not. We put ourselves in hypnotic states every day of our lives without realizing it. For example, think of the time you found yourself, for no reason at all that you can trace, transported back to when you were eight years old and hiding in a corner of the school playground after the bell rang. You were back in time, not just remembering, but actually being there, feeling the cool shadow of the brick wall and the twinge where you’d skinned your knee.
The necklace I use to get things started is a string of fake pearls I bought at Target, something neutral, no emotional attachments, nothing that ever belonged to anyone else. That’s important, because objects have past lives too. I swing it slowly before people’s eyes, and their eyelids grow heavy no matter how resistant they are. I’ve never known my Target necklace to fail. “You are going back in time,” I tell people. “And you will find this easy, very easy to do, like leafing backwards through the pages of a book.”
People ask me sometimes, do you ever hypnotize yourself?
Before I became a hypnotist, or a cashier at Safeway for that matter, I used to not notice people much; I had trouble making eye contact, never really looked at anyone. But now, when they’re in their trance, or when they’re in line at the supermarket, I’m invisible, and I can look without fear. I see their crow’s feet, the puckered mouths, and creases in the foreheads of even the prettiest women. And the ones who’ve had Botox and face lifts, who’ve searched for their past life in this one.
It amazes me that people trust me, a stranger, with their lives – their past lives and their present ones. Even now sometimes I worry – what if I can’t bring someone back? What if they like it too much back there? Because really there’s only one true reason why you’d want to go back to a past life: to escape the one you’re in.
“Just breathe,” I tell people. “Listen to the ocean and match your breathing to its rhythm.” The ocean makes it easy. Who can resist those waves, that low rushing sound filling your ears, filling your whole body? It’s a wonder half the people in this town don’t go around in a semi-hypnotic trance all the time — or maybe they do.
It’s hard not to believe. Some of my customers go into such deep trances, and they do all the things you hear about people doing – speak in languages they don’t know, speak a whole octave lower or higher than their normal voice, talk in convincing detail about places they’ve never been. And yet. I don’t know. Some people are very good actors — maybe they don’t even know they’re acting. Or they’re more persuadable than they think, more gullible. Maybe having paid that thirty-five dollars, they have to believe it was worth it. Yes, thirty-five dollars. I know it’s a lot. I charge more so people will think twice before doing it, so they won’t treat it as a joke. The fortune teller charges twenty — sometimes a sale price of fifteen or even ten. Why is it people want to go backward instead of forward? Even on a slow day like today, people stood in line in front of my tent, while the fortune teller sat alone tracing the lines on her own palm.
The fortune teller hedges her bets. She issues disclaimers. “There are no guarantees,” she tells her customers — my tent is next to hers, and I often overhear. “I don’t believe in predestination. You have the power to change the future. I only suggest possibilities. Life is a road with many forks and you always have a choice.” Which ought to be reassuring, but instead it seems to make people nervous, all that future ahead of them, all that uncertainty. With a past life, everything is over — the bad choices, the missed opportunities. No more mistakes to make. There’s a comfort in that.
I was born for this job. I’m much better at it than making change or remembering what aisle the cereal is on. History was the only subject I was ever good at in school. My daydreamy nature stood me in good stead there, if nowhere else. I could fall right into a book, and when my mother called me for dinner I didn’t hear, so lost was I in the world of the past. Now, I suppose it’s no coincidence that when I’m reading a book on the Russian Revolution, the people I hypnotize tend to discover that they were Rasputin’s cousin in a past life, or Czar Nicholas’s footman. And then when I take that book back to the library and check out another one on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, my very first customer the next day turns out to be the trainer who led that parade of elephants across the bridge as a publicity stunt.
“Who was I?” people say, when I take them out of their trance and return them to their present lives. They never remember. But they seem happy to be where they are — refreshed, maybe a little relieved, to find themselves returned to an ordinary life and no worse off than they were before. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that they don’t remember? Maybe it’s a good thing to have a past you can’t remember, instead of a past you can’t forget.
People ask me sometimes, do you ever hypnotize yourself? Who were you in a past life? No idea, I tell them. No. How could I go back to a past life without someone I trust, someone like me, to guide me through the journey and bring me back safe and whole? It’s not something you can do alone.
All day the ocean has been the same flat gray as the sky. No horizon line. I can’t tell you where the sea ends and the sky begins, where the sky ends and the sea begins. I can’t tell you where the past ends and the present begins, where the present ends and the future begins. This should be a good thing, maybe, a feeling of unity or grand timelessness, but somehow it makes me sad. Sometimes my customers at the grocery store, when they look at me at all, say, “Don’t look so sad.” “I’m not sad,” I say. “I just have one of those faces.” My boss has told me on more than one occasion to smile more. I should. But my customers count out nickels and pennies to pay for a bag of oranges. They buy cheap wine too early in the morning. My own future looks like that ocean, a flat gray of sea and sky, ringing up purchases of milk and lettuce, lettuce and milk, waiting each year for the psychic fair to come to town.
It’s quitting time. Everyone’s tents are down but mine. A gray cat runs past, crouched low, like a wisp of smoke, like a tail of the fog. Who were you? I ask it. Peppermint is said to improve memory and mental clarity, to sharpen the senses. I blow out my candle, and the scent of peppermint floats away on the fog, until only the barest hint of it remains, and then not even a hint.
Who was I? my customers ask. They always ask, in eager voices, full of longing. Who was I? Who was I?