Truth or Consequences

By Dana Christensen

Tanya had to stop painting to answer the phone.  It was Gina from La Paloma Resort, calling to tell her that a spa visitor had requested her for a tarot card reading later that day.  The break in concentration would have been unforgivable but for the prospect of making forty dollars that afternoon. 

She hung the phone up on the wall and caught herself in the mirror.  Most moments with her reflection were casual, a passing with a longtime acquaintance she did not bother to acknowledge.  This glance startled her. She stood before an old friend she had not seen in years.  Her aging reminded her of a lost past and everyone’s promised end.  She had to soften her loathing; forgive this companion, with her pewter hair, matted from sleep.  Who else knew her as well as she?  She grabbed a hairbrush and watched its teeth rake through the ash that swept over her shoulders.  Wet grey paint on her palm transferred to the handle marked by the other colors of her painter’s hands’ previous absentminded touches.

She carried the cooled remains of her coffee and stepped out on to her porch.  A few scant clouds hung in the eternally blue New Mexico sky.  No one had wanted her for a tarot reading in a long while, even though she priced herself at least twenty dollars lower than her competitors.  She did not bother to advertise herself like Mikael, with his hokey full page ads in the Truth or Consequences tourist brochure—holding his Himalayan cat, wearing a bandana across his forehead, a tie dye t-shirt.  He embodied the hippie stereotype that was the foundation of Truth or Consequences’s reputation.  “Trust fund baby,” she muttered to herself, thinking of him and his two-room bungalow he had bought at the end of Mims, perched next to the Rio Grande.

Tanya’s cement slab of a porch faced west.  She oscillated in her rocking chair at an unhurried pace, taking in the late morning.  She thought of methods for executing her current painting, what brush would create the texture of the field or blend the gradation of an overcast day.  Soon, she was thinking of nothing at all.

David would credit himself for turning her on to meditation.  She remembered his rambles that weaved in philosophy, several religious traditions, and pop science, delivered with the assurance of a preacher who saw himself as a scholar.  She knew all about stillness long before his Long Island accent ever pontificated about such paths to enlightenment.  She spent her whole childhood as a farm girl in Ohio observing the world, taking in its details and praising them in the mediums that were available to her—crayons, pencil, eventually oils.  The sky of her youth was the same as the one in New Mexico —that all-consuming blue connecting the plains with the desert.  But it regularly hosted all mixtures of grey, as well.  She had been lost in rendering this gunmetal atmosphere for several days now, her limited palette itself a painting of countless meetings of ultramarine, burnt umber, and white.  A local reporter once asked her why she didn’t paint in a more realistic, trendy style after seeing some of her pencil renderings.

“A painting shouldn’t render a vision exact, like a photograph.  It aims to honor life, a visual fiction of sorts.  I want my colors to speak a truth more honest than the material universe itself.”  That newspaper clipping, with the quote highlighted, hung pinned and weathered in a corner of her studio.

Tanya’s back ached as she got up to search for her tarot cards inside.  It had been so long since she last did a reading that she could not quite remember where she put them—even though borrowing a set of tarot cards would be like knocking on a neighbor’s door to ask for a cup of sugar in this town.  This was bad practice, using someone else’s cards, but what would this future client know?  The deck eventually revealed itself, on a shelf behind a box of paints.  Tanya never bothered with wrapping her cards in a silk scarf, another tarot rule that she shirked off as superfluous.

As was its nature, time had suspended itself while painting, and the stove clock reminded Tanya that she had less than forty-five minutes before the reading.  It was only a two-block walk to the resort, but Tanya did not want to jar her painting mind up against the demands of a reading.  She threw the cards in a canvas bag and put on her wide brim black prairie hat. Is that your Georgia O’Keefe hat? She could hear David sneering in her mind.  Sometimes she could wear it without thinking of him mocking her.  She shook off the thought by revisiting herself in the mirror, this time, smiling. She stepped out and decided to treat herself to more caffeine at Black Cat Books and Coffee.

She crossed the street to visit the tall rose bushes her neighbor Evangelina tended to with faithful devotion; their white, pink, red, and lavender blooms supported by the wire fence lining the edge of her yard along the street.  Evangelina, a dignified woman in her 70s, rose at dawn to water the roses.  Sometimes, after Evangelina finished watering and pruning, the two women drank coffee on Tanya’s porch—she offering Evangelina the rocking chair. Tanya would listen to Evangelina tell stories of being a daughter of migrant farm workers, her long and winding government career, the anatomy of her four marriages and two divorces, and neighborhood gossip.  Evangelina was good with dirt, Tanya thought, glancing at the base of the rose bushes and laughing to herself over a recent story of hers.  It involved Mikael trying to impress some pretty young out-of-towners at the one upscale hotel bar in town. He got so drunk that he fell asleep at the bar and the girls left him with the tab. 

Tanya was surprised to see the store crowded with people when she stepped inside.  Truth or Consequences is a resort town that never took off, or never could take off, given how far away it was from anything.  Geothermal grace blessed its underground with a hot spring aquifer with some two and a half million gallons flowing daily right under the dry parched crust of its barren landscape.  The Native Americans knew what was good before the white settlers started soaking in hot mineral water in the late nineteenth century, with many incarnations of spas, retreats, and wellness centers sprouting up and down and back again through the decades. 

Tanya first heard of Truth or Consequences from some art school friends in Columbus in ’78.  She could not shake the name.  The town was game or desperate enough to name itself after the old T.V. quiz show.  It would have been easy enough for her to hitch a ride with just about anyone heading a few hours north to the high desert to get to her intended destination, but a flat tire and no cash on a road trip to Santa Fe found her cleaning rooms at La Paloma in exchange for staying in one of its tiny suites with other wayward college drop outs like herself. 

Of course, David was the biggest reason for her staying, initially anyway.  A few weeks together turned into months and years, as life goes.  Once he left, she was able to get the library gig and buy her house between that and the sale of the family farm.  Now, she laughed at her yuppie counterparts by enjoying early retirement and living off her modest state employee union pension. It was cheap to live here.  It gave her the time to paint.  It kept her in this tourist town.

Tanya saw Crystal Gary at a table in the back of the cafe and sat with him.  Despite living in a house filled with crystals of every shape and color, Crystal Gary could be counted on for a conversation based in reality.  General pleasantries about the weather and the crowded bookshop shifted seamlessly into a topic of substance.  Crystal Gary’s mind was on the Riverbend Spa owners and their attempts to put an end to people drilling their own personal pump into the hot spring aquifer, a desired investment for most Truth or Consequences residents.  He followed this entrepreneurial couple and local water issues like an obsessive investigative reporter.

“Wilkenson’s vying for Utility Office Manager,” he told her, his wrinkled, ruddy face and worried blue eyes looking out the window to the south of town.  “That snake will be in charge of approving everyone’s drilling permit.  You know he’ll put a stop to anyone wanting to have their own hot spring.  The bastard owns half of the resorts in town, but that’s not enough for him.”

“Man, that’s messed up,” Tanya said halfheartedly, sipping her cappuccino.  “Good thing I got my drill permit a few years ago,” referring to the white drop-in tub she had a summer fling install for her in her backyard.  She could draw her own personal serving of hot spring water and soak under the stars, hidden by the tall wooden fence around her lot.  It helped with her back pain.

Crystal Gary shifted to look at her, “This ‘bout more than just you, Tanya.  This ‘bout greed.  It’s the breakdown of—”

“Whaddua mean? I said it was messed up.” Tanya hated when people got so self-righteous with their politics, which was often inevitable with folks like Crystal Gary.  However, they knew this orbit between them well, their relationship’s tug and pull—an acceptance won over years of being friends, a brief trajectory as lovers, and as always fellow citizens of Truth or Consequences. 

“I just can’t stand the idea of that asshole having his way with the water here, ya know?” he said.  He fumbled with his topaz ring in Tanya’s silence.  He asked in a purposefully casual tone, “sold any paintings lately?”

“Yeah, two in town a few weeks ago,” Tanya replied with a neutral detachment.  Her paintings sold—in the galleries in Truth or Consequences and through dealers and art shows scattered about the Southwest—but she wasn’t in any books or lectured about, she didn’t even have an Instagram account.  She was not famous.  She doubted she ever would be, not in her lifetime, anyway.

“That’s great!” Crystal Gary said.

“Thank you.  Covers the light bill for a while.” She hated talking about money, especially when it came to her paintings.  “Say, I gotta go do this reading at La Paloma.”  Tanya gave him the peace sign.  “See you around.”

“See ya,” said Crystal Gary, tipping his coffee mug to her with a weak smile.

Tanya welcomed the breeze as she walked over to La Paloma, taking in the adobe buildings, palms, and cactus plants bleached in the spring light.  She let herself into the side entrance near the activity room at the end of the resort. Tanya stood in the doorway, the client’s back to her.  The girl—she was not a girl, but a young woman.  She did not know when people started to call girls women.  The girl looked down to check her phone with an addict’s twitch, filling the void of an idle moment.  Tanya moved before the girl could notice her observing. 

“Hello, there.  You requested a reading?” She took her seat at the table lit only by the afternoon sun.  The girl looked up and smiled at Tanya, exposing straightened teeth and sunburned cheeks. 

“Yeah, hello, my name is Megan.  Today’s my birthday,” she paused, waiting for a response.  Not receiving any, she continued, “That means I’m a Taurus-Gemini cusp.  I have my moon in Cancer and an Aquarius rising.”  Tanya only nodded.  “I am really excited to do a reading with you.  I read cards myself and I would love to learn more about your perspective on them.”

Tanya smiled to fight off a grimace.  She detested giving readings to people who fancied themselves card readers.  They spent most of the time they paid for a reading debating her over the cards’ meanings, throwing her off her groove and exposing her lack of scholarship on the subject. 

“What deck do you use?” the girl asked.  Tanya had forgotten her name already.  Some trendy name from the 80s that every child seemed to have if their parents did not name them Spring or River.  She showed her the card carton, generic, labeled “Tarot Cards.”

“Huh, it looks like it’s in the style of the Rider-Waite.  Why don’t you wrap them up in a silk scarf?”  she asked in a tone of both judgment and concern shrouded in innocent curiosity, tucking her long brown hair behind her ear, exposing a dangling crystal. 

“It’s not necessary,” Tanya responded, taking the cards out and handing them to the girl.  “Shuffle and think of what you want to ask,” she instructed while looking out the window.  She looked back to see the girl, eyes closed, concentrating as she handled the cards.  The girl gave the cards back to Tanya and asked if she was going to do a Celtic Cross reading.  Tanya answered in the affirmative, bracing herself for the tedious thirty minutes ahead of her. 

The reading began, running the course of so many over the years, which amounted to an assessment of a client’s expectations and reactions to Tanya’s performance.  She preferred to read for her friends, the people she knew, where she could weave in some context of their lives to go along with the cards’ symbols, without any pretense to her presentation.  With strangers, she had only little breadcrumb clues made from their gestures and admittances to guess what would resonate most with them in a reading.  For example, it did not take long for the girl to mention that she was a graduate student in some branch of engineering in El Paso.  This helped to explain the academic rigor of the ordeal.  The girl asked several questions for each card laid, synthesizing the information with previously discussed cards to fine-tune the overall dissertation of the reading.

“I’ve always wondered what the B and J stand for on the pillars in that card,” the girl said of The High Priestess in the Past position, looking up at Tanya for a response.

“Blowjob,” Tanya said, holding back a grin.

“What?! Oh, my God, I can’t believe you just said that!” The girl’s eyes were wide, “I’ve always read that it has to do with the Temple of Solomon!”

Tanya shrugged, her irritation cracking through. “If you knew the answer, why the hell did you ask?”

“Well, I just, I just wanted to hear your take on it, that’s all,” the girl said, her face flushed.  Tanya tried her hand at smoothing things over.

“It’s just the general consensus on what the ‘BJ’ means here in T or C, that’s all.” Tanya said with a wink. The girl let out a nervous, confused laugh.

Tanya tried to guess the girl’s age, somewhere in her twenties, no veins on her hands or crow’s feet.  She did not think about young people all that much, except when she thought about how old the one she miscarried would be now.  Twenty-eight?  Is that how long it had been since David left for California?

“Do you think it matters if a card is in reverse or not?” the girl asked about an upside down four of wands in the Future position.  Tanya hoped that, if she had either kept the one or not lost the other, her child would be less irritating than this girl.

“Not really,” Tanya responded with a shrug, dodging the girl’s continued attempts at discourse.  Also, she never bothered to learn the reverse meanings. 

Tanya felt the girl’s attention change, sitting erect in her chair, when it was time to discuss the Lovers card.

“What does the Lovers card mean, in this position?”  Of course, the girl knew the meaning of the card’s placement. Tanya drew in a breath and held back a sigh.

“This is the Self, what you bring to the situation,” Tanya answered.  “In this position, Lovers could mean the love you have for yourself.”

 “What else?” the girl asked, frustrated, hungry for more.  Tanya approached her readings with what she considered a minimalist sensibility.  She hoped a multitude of meaning fell from what she chose to say.  This may have been the using artistic pretense to cover up her lack of talent for bullshitting beyond the basics: feminine sexuality and harvest for the Empress, solitude and circumspection for the Hermit.  This was clearly not enough for the girl. 

“You will cultivate the love you have for yourself and celebrate your own inner beauty,” Tanya said, grasping.  Tanya never saw tarot as an excuse to be someone’s psychoanalyst, or to predict the future.  Tarot was a relic of another era that banked in places like Truth or Consequences like twigs and leaves in a river bend.  She saw tarot as a social activity, how some might join a choir as part of churchgoing or play golf as an excuse to rub elbows with other rich people.  She picked up tarot as a party trick from those who settled in Truth or Consequences like herself.  Some of the people she read tarot cards with when she was young moved on to yoga, acupuncture, or methamphetamine. Others moved to Albuquerque or Las Cruces so their children could go to better schools. Card reading went from a fun way to pass the time to a means of making an extra buck off the slow but steady stream of people trickling in to soak in hot water while listening to Enya. 

“Like, I should date myself?” the girl asked. 

“Yeah, something like that.”

The girl crossed her arms and frowned.  “I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

“Well, maybe take a cue from that BJ card and you might have some more luck!” Tanya interjected in hopes of both bringing some levity to the reading. 

A silence followed.  Tanya was not always this tongue-in-cheek with her readings.  But most people did not bring this level of urgency, expecting her to perform miracles like a psychic emergency room surgeon. What could she say to this girl excavating for meaning in random cards on the table?  Now it was the girl who was avoiding her eyes.  Tanya could see that they were lined wet with tears. 

“Why do you hate me?” the girl asked.  This took Tanya aback.  Who threw around the word “hate” at a spa other than maybe when talking about one’s tea preferences?  Tanya stifled a wave within her that would have given the girl a reading of another kind all together.  She saw the desperation in the girl’s eyes, and hated how familiar it was to her, still.  A clear vision of David came then—as a young man, sad and craving, out roaming when she stepped out of a party to be alone because she felt so lonely.  They found what they longed for in each other, then.  Tanya took the high road.

“I don’t hate you.” Tanya paused, she thought she could get by without learning the girl’s name.

“Megan. It’s Megan,” the girl said, curtly.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry.  I don’t hate you.  It’s just.  Look, no one really knows what’s going to happen, right?  You come here, hoping for me to tell you that you’ll find the love of your life, what, tomorrow?  The hell if I know.”

“Well, isn’t this your job?”

“I’m a retired librarian.  I’m a painter.  I just tell you what the cards say, which seems like you know plenty about anyway.  I don’t know why you need me to tell you.”

The girl scoffed, “this is such a joke.” 

“Life’s a joke, Megan!  You’re here wishing for this big love, right?” Tanya shrugged, exasperated. “I mean, people come and go.  Even the love of your life could leave or die before you go out, ya know?”  This did not sound comforting when stated.  A pause came over them.

“That’s depressing.” The girl sulked. 

“Does it have to be?  Everyone you ever loved lingers with you, you know.  They shape you.  So, you never really lose them either. There’ll be joy and there’ll be sorrow, but that’s love.”

The girl seemed caught off guard by Tanya’s attempts at comfort and insight.  She mulled over the idea.  “Yeah, I get that.  But, I want to find the one that will shape me.  That big love, like you said.”

“Just live your damn life!  You’ll get plenty shaped, don’t worry.”  Despite her intention to avoid creating intimacy with the girl, Tanya continued.

“I wanted someone so badly when I was young.  I found an anyone and tried to make them the one,” Tanya said.

“Who was that ‘anyone’?”

“It doesn’t matter who that was.  You’ve got to want something more than someone else.”  Tanya paused.  “Maybe it works out for some people.  They get lucky, at least on that front.  But I like to think there’s more to life than that, don’t you?”

“I guess.” The girl pouted.  At that, Tanya gave up on dealing out what little wisdom she had on love to the girl.  Any further attempts would put her in the role of a mother overindulging her spoiled child.  She cleared her throat, gave her best warm smile to the girl until she reflected one back, and moved on to the next card.

The reading ended with Strength.  This card was a latecomer, one after many in the last post of the Celtic Cross, the Outcome.  Some traditions allow for a reading to end on a minor note, a Three of Swords or Nine of Pentacles, a square in the comic strip of life.  Others insisted on drawing cards until something from the Major Arcana come along—big, overarching themes—like Justice, the Emperor, the World.  Tanya preferred to wrap a reading up with only one card for the Outcome, but the girl insisted on ending on a Major Arcana card when the reading ended on a Seven of Wands, with its picture of a peasant fighting off six sticks with a stick of his own.  “As you wish,” Tanya said, as she threw down five more cards before landing on Strength. 

“Oh wow, Strength, my favorite!” the girl exclaimed, looking up at Tanya.  She was relieved to see the girl cheerful. 

“Yeah?  I’ve always liked this one, too,” Tanya said.  She did admire the image of the young woman taming the bright orange lion with just her hands on his mouth, her face gentle and serene. 

“What do you think strength means for my future?  With, I don’t know, meeting someone?” the girl asked. Tanya humored her, knowing she could soon get on with her day and not have to navigate the mine field of this twenty-something’s emotional landscape much longer.

“Well, you know, you’re young,” Tanya started.  “You’ve got your whole life in front of you.  I don’t doubt that you’ll find it, some day.  You seem like a lovely girl.” 

Feeling the girl’s stare, she reached for more. 

“You might want to loosen up a little.”  Tanya could see the girl’s resentment flash across her face. She tried to recover.   

“But you seem like fun, too.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s your birthday, soak it up.”

The girl leaned back in her chair, satisfied, or resigned to what she was going to get out of this reading. 

“Yeah, you’re right.” The girl sighed.  Before Tanya could say it, the girl said, “well, I guess that’s that.  Thank you . . .”

“Tanya, it’s Tanya.”

“Yes, thank you, Tanya.  This has been . . . insightful.”  The girl pulled out her wallet from her designer black leather bag and fished out two twenties and a ten.  Tanya did not think she was worthy of such a tip, but she did not protest, either.  She knew the girl offered such a generous amount not for the quality of the reading, but out of the pity well-to-do people have for locals when vacationing in areas known for both poverty and amusement in equal measures.  They said their goodbyes.  Tanya excused herself to use the bathroom, hoping the girl would be gone when she got out.  This time, the woman in the mirror looked stirred, like she had been reminded of something rather unpleasant.  Gina walked in, startling her. 

“Is she still there?” Tanya asked.

“No, she signed her up for a private bath at four.  She told me it’s her birthday, again.”

“Yep, sounds about right.” Tanya put on her hat and said goodbye to Gina and walked out to the La Paloma courtyard.

The sun was still high above her.  There were the lightest whispers of clouds smeared across the clear sky. Tanya was not thinking of it at the moment, but later that day she might walk to see if Evangelina was on her porch, where they would visit for a while over a beer or two.  Or she could dip her feet into the current of cold water rushing from the mountains, too quick for the sun to warm.  She would always paint.  Such decisions were for another time, not worth troubling herself with them now.  She turned to head west.

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