The astrologer received his throat cancer diagnosis on the day of his second Saturn return. I know because he told me so himself, at the Milwaukee Spirit and Mind Expo. Both of us plied our trades at metaphysical fairs, but it didn’t take a psychic to tell that Jim was ill.
Jim had been rotund for years, stuffing himself with Polish sausage and Italian beef sandwiches. His was a standard Chicago diet. Eat or be eaten. Predators everywhere.
Jim had run a successful metaphysical magazine in Chicago since the early 1980s. “The Daily Astro-Pulse” started as a long, two-sided piece of paper, covered with tiny letters and esoteric symbols. Jim traded his services with a guy at a suburban Insty-Prints—a monthly, under-the-table gig, all the copies he wanted in exchange for four ounces of Mexican pot.
Over the years, the Astro-Pulse grew larger, expanding to a full-color, glossy magazine with ads and in-depth articles. Jim wandered the floor during metaphysical fairs, hawking ad space to practitioners. He didn’t spend much time inside his own booth. Usually, he just tossed a tapestry on a long table, covered it with free copies, and left for the day. Jim made a lot more money selling ads for his magazine than he did doing readings.
His wife Julie was much less outgoing. Folks often overlooked her existence, since she never spoke for more than a few seconds at a time. Usually, she just stayed home. Her life’s mission was to agree with every word that came out of her husband’s mouth.
Jim behaved in an especially gregarious manner towards women. He’d hit on me at fairs numerous times. Jim always used the same pitch. He’d ask my view of polyamory, then steer the topic towards hypothetical astro-configurations that might make a person embrace such a lifestyle.
When he finally moved in for the kill, it was easy to fend him off. Jim didn’t push hard, at least compared to a lot of men. He retreated when asked, apologizing for getting out of line. The astrologer possessed a certain earnestness that made it hard to be angry with him. Besides, he was so damn smart. His expo lectures were standing room only. People listened with rapt attention while he expounded about planetary transits and world events.
Despite his lofty intelligence, Jim was the quintessential Chicago guy. He peppered his written accounts of daily astral maneuvers with such warnings as, “Mercury-Pluto conjunction at 6:42 PM, followed by 7-hour moon void-of-course. The crazies will be out everywhere. Folks won’t have both beaters in the batter. Observe the usual cautions. Better turn in early tonight.”
Some new age folks decried Jim’s style as “too negative,” but I loved it. Jim didn’t clutter his descriptions with niceties, since the Astro-Pulse afforded limited space for verbiage. He needed to fill those spots with ads for water ionizers, animal communication, and aura photography.
I never purchased an ad. Jim offered me numerous deals, and I always told him I’d think about it. I liked to do tarot readings on a drop-in basis, since I was too Neptunian to keep track of appointments.
Yet here he was, at the end of the Milwaukee Expo, Day One, ready to give me a discount on something. Jim stood in front of my booth, gaunt but smiling. “What are you doing tonight after the show?”
The poor guy had lost so much weight I barely recognized him. “I’ve got stage four throat cancer.” Jim’s voice sounded tiny and choked, like part of his throat had been removed. “You’ve probably already heard.”
I’d done my best to disregard rumors of Jim’s ill health. These denials stemmed from my stubborn unwillingness to imagine him as anything other than robust and obnoxious.
“I still get hungry, though,” he continued. “You want to grab a bite after the show? I’m going to shower and change clothes up in my room. We can meet in a couple of hours, if you’d like.”
Two ruthless hippie capitalists hosted the Spirit and Mind Expo, a nationwide new age consortium. In early March, the expo made two Midwestern stops—Chicago and Milwaukee. The Milwaukee show was housed in the conference room of an airport hotel. Every year, a different low-budget chain bought the decrepit establishment. The proprietors offered cheap rates, so vendors crashed upstairs when the show ended.
“I’ll be at the pool,” I said. “I need to relax after all this bullshit. But yeah, come find me. We’ll figure something out.”
Jim nodded and edged in the direction of his booth. “Twenty more minutes until it’s over,” he announced. “Thank God.”
The ever-nebulous concept of God was especially vague at new age events. Jim felt as disgusted with the psycho-babble as I did. We’d both done the traveling circuit for over a decade.
I did my best for clients, using tarot symbols to help them make their own decisions. Still, folks wanted me to behave like a trained seal, with their future on a ball at the end of my nose.
The pool area was empty. Most of the vendors had retired to their rooms and turned on their televisions. A surprisingly large number of them embraced conservative politics. They ordered hamburgers from room service and watched Fox News. I dog-paddled in slow, lazy circles, rolled onto my back and stared at the fly-specked ceiling.
Suddenly, Jim appeared in the doorway. He flashed an appreciative glance, then looked away. Cancer or no, Jim was still a horndog. The astrologer stood a chance at survival, even though he looked like hell and could barely speak. If you possessed an appetite, it meant you wanted to live.
“Give me fifteen minutes,” I promised. “I’ll put on some clothes and meet you in the lobby.”
I rose from the water and wrapped a towel around my body. It felt good to hide from Jim. I’d been chubby since my post-baby thirties and couldn’t imagine why anyone would be happy to see me in a bathing suit.
After changing clothes, I wandered back downstairs. “You’re back,” Jim said with obvious relief. “How do you want to do this? Two cars, or separate? I’m not sure where we’re going.”
I pondered for a moment. “It seems more sensible to take one car.”
Jim nodded. “We can go in my pickup. I’m parked right outside the door, in the handicapped spot. One of the perks of my condition.”
We wandered outside. I glanced at Jim’s truck–a mid-90s, red Toyota pickup with a dingy cab attached to the back. Not fancy, but it looked safe enough.
“Sure,” I finally said. “If you don’t mind.”
We clambered into the cab, and Jim fired up the engine. After shifting into second gear, he reached into his ashtray and pulled out a joint. “Want to get high? This is pretty great stuff.”
I stared at him with amazement. “You still smoke? I wondered about that.” I already knew about Jim’s fondness for marijuana but assumed he’d quit since his diagnosis. On the other hand, the man was an unrepentant stoner. He could’ve opted to go down with the ship.
Jim shrugged. “I figured I might as well.” He lit the joint, took a deep drag, and exhaled. “I mean, I never smoked cigarettes. Only reefer. Supposedly, marijuana isn’t a carcinogen, but since my diagnosis, I can’t help but wonder. What do you think?”
“Cancer patients can get medical marijuana in some states. So none of it makes sense.” I accepted the joint, drew in a lungful of smoke, and shook my head. It was sweet, really, that Jim had even bothered to ask my opinion. Usually he just told other people what to believe.
Jim groped under his seat, pulled out a CD and popped it into his stereo. His hand found the volume knob, and Frank Zappa’s voice filled the cab. I recognized the tune immediately. “Trouble Every Day,” I said. “One of my favorites.”
Jim turned his head towards me and smiled. “You’re my kind of woman.” He returned his eyes to the road and took another hit from the joint.
A comfortable vibe prevailed as we passed the joint back and forth. I felt relaxed, like Jim and I were close friends. We’d known each other a long time but had gotten high together only twice. Two years earlier, I’d smoked a bowl with him in his hotel room after the fair ended for the day.
Not surprisingly, I had to fend off a pass afterward. He withdrew without argument, and I returned to my own room. The next morning, at the expo, we were pleasant to each other, as though nothing unusual had happened.
Jim was too ill to hit on me now, but he appreciated my presence—perhaps more than he ever had before. We pulled into a service road, then headed towards an arterial. Undaunted by the ingestion of THC, Jim guided his vehicle into the post-expo traffic. His movements were brisk and expert.
After a few blocks, traffic thinned, and he turned towards me again. “Anywhere you want to go? It seems to be mostly Denny’s and MacDonald’s in these parts. I’m pretty careful about my diet now, as you might imagine.”
The astrologer still loved to talk, even though he couldn’t manage more than a croak. I had to lean closer to him to hear what he was saying. “I mean, there was a time when I didn’t even think about it. I ate for volume, not health.”
We tooled down the road for a couple of miles, but nothing materialized. Jim’s face assumed an anxious expression. “This area is a wasteland,” he complained. “Should we go downtown? I don’t think there’s anything nearby.”
Suddenly, I spotted a tiny, rectangular building on the right-hand side of the road. A sign overhead read, “Gloria’s.” The adjacent parking lot was huge, but almost empty. I gestured towards the restaurant. “Let’s eat here. It’s not a gourmet establishment, but we should be able to find something edible.”
Jim pulled into the lot and cut his engine. We entered Gloria’s, found an empty booth, and slid into our seats. A middle-aged waitress in a white polyester uniform deposited a couple of menus on the table, then wandered away.
Jim squinted at his menu with disgust. “I’ve been avoiding red meat, and that seems to be all they have.”
“I don’t eat much meat,” I replied. “A grilled cheese sandwich seems to be the safest option.”
“Sounds good.” Jim closed his menu, placed it on the table, and smiled. “I’ll do the same.”
Twenty minutes later, the waitress pushed a couple of plates in front of us and strolled away. Jim and I stared down at our food without expression. “Well, this looks pretty mediocre,” I finally said.
Jim held his sandwich in the air and peered at it more closely. A couple of globs of Velveeta cheese dripped onto his plate. “Hard to believe Wisconsin is supposed to be the dairy state.” He took a nibble of crust and swallowed with heavy effort. “This tastes kind of like orange glue.”
So many toxins everywhere, and yet most of the time we managed to survive. My gaze shifted towards my own soggy, flat sandwich. It was slightly burned around the edges. A stray bit of goo protruded from one corner.
“Milwaukee is a Capricorn city,” Jim said. He took another bite, masticated slowly, and choked it down. “Just the basics. Germanic, no-frills. Work your ass off in the factory, retire after fifty years.”
“My family is from Racine,” I replied. “Grandma hung out with Johnson Wax executives and their wives. Lots of brown cocktails. Not much beer, though. That was for the working class.”
Jim shook his head. “The Midwest is the most classist part of the country. Worse than the South. I was always tempted to go West, but I could never convince my wife to leave. She has a lot of family out here.”
He peered at me from his perch on the other side of the table. “Are you heading home after the expo ends tomorrow? I take back roads to get to Chicago, so I won’t have to drive on the interstate. My pickup doesn’t go much over 60, and I hate paying tolls. Besides, there’s a seafood deli on the Illinois side of the border. The owner gives me deals.”
A faraway look came over Jim’s face, as if he were recalling a lost love. “They make a stew that has at least half a dozen types of fish. Huge pieces, too. I stop there every chance I get.” He shoveled a final piece of crust into his mouth and sighed. “It’s a damn shame when your meal is so bad that you plan your next one before you’re even done eating. Come on, let’s go.”
We paid the bill and cleared out. The sky loomed above us, pitch-black and cold, and a couple of gray snowflakes skittered across the parking lot. Jim became quiet as we headed towards the hotel. He peered over the dashboard at the road, pale face drooping. Even in semi-darkness, I could see the rings under his eyes. The poor man had shed so much weight that his cheeks appeared concave.
Jim pulled up to the hotel and found his previous parking spot. We climbed from the cab and wandered towards the fluorescent entrance lights. The astrologer’s movements were slower than they’d been earlier that evening. He pulled open the heavy door and stepped aside so I could enter first. “Thanks for keeping me company,” he said. “I’m going to get some sleep now.”
Limping on one foot, Jim headed towards his ground-floor room. His retreating back grew smaller until he disappeared around the corridor’s far end.
Despite my exhaustion, it took a while to fall asleep. I shifted from one uncomfortable position to the next. Every bone in my body seemed to penetrate the mattress, causing its hard, bumpy surface to press against my internal organs.
The aging process was brutal, even for healthy people. Some of us made it further than others. Jim had discovered his illness on the day of his second Saturn return. Both astrologers and clients dreaded the 29-year cycle, a transit synonymous with hardship and loss.
The expo was quiet the next morning. Nothing unusual for a Sunday. Lots of folks came to the metaphysical fair directly after church, a choice that never failed to amaze me. They liked to cover all their spiritual bases.
I sat in my booth for a couple of hours, plying my trade without much success. Finally, I drifted over to Jim’s spot. His chair was empty, and the table covering was askew. I scooped up a copy of the Astro-Pulse and thumbed through it, searching for the daily report.
“Sunday, March 12. Moon/Saturn conjunction in late morning. Make home improvements and take stock of essentials. Gloomy mood prevails, but spirits should lift dramatically at 4:47 PM when moon enters Libra. Matters become focused on issues of equality and fairness. Spend time with partner.”
It sounded about right. I tucked the Astro-Pulse into my purse and headed towards my booth, feeling dejected. Sundays could be interminable—nine hours of smiling at folks as they drifted around in sparse clumps. Every corridor was devoid of customers. A few vendors looked at me with interest, then averted their eyes when they realized I wasn’t a potential client.
I finally spotted Jim at the far end of my booth. He stood beside a long table, reading one of my promotional fliers, face set in concentration. When I cleared my throat, Jim lifted his head and smiled. “I like your verbiage. No bullshit. Did you sleep well?”
“Not at all.” I sidled past Jim and approached my card table. I’d decorated its velvet-draped surface with stones and a couple of Ganesh statues. Though I didn’t know much about Ganesh, I liked the fact that he was the Lord of Obstacles. People needed all the help they could get. “How about you?”
“Miserable,” Jim replied, but his tone was cheerful. “You up for some seafood tonight? We must try for a more positive dining experience.”
I nodded. “No doubt about it. I’m always ravenous after these expos. It’s like I’ve been doing physical labor.”
It had likely been a while since Jim had engaged in physical labor. The astrologer looked better than he had the previous evening, however, with a dab of rosy color in his sallow cheeks. Perhaps he really did stand a chance at survival.
“See you back here at seven.” Jim trudged down the corridor, eyes darting from side to side as he searched for potential advertising revenue. I settled into my chair and prepared for a long afternoon.
My life had an undeniable sideshow element. I couldn’t fathom how I’d ended up a tarot reader, since I had always wanted to be a journalist. Grad school wasn’t in the cards, however. I was too unfocused for academia, and too poor. My vocation suited me. Besides, I looked ridiculous in business attire.
Jim appeared at my booth a few seconds after the expo ended. “I’m done,” he announced. “Let’s go.”
I grabbed my bags and headed towards the parking lot, moving as slowly as possible. Even without baggage, Jim’s pace was measured and deliberate. I had to stop a couple of times to wait for him.
The astrologer hadn’t been kidding when he said his vehicle was slow. It sputtered along, eventually picking up momentum until it reached the speed limit. Somehow, the damn thing managed to run. You could always count on Toyotas.
An hour later, we pulled up beside a nondescript building. A plain white sign read, “Bill’s Deli.” Jim limped towards the door, smiling. “You’ll love this place,” he said. “The owner’s a great guy. He gives me deals.”
The no-frills deli featured a large counter, a few tables, and several glass-covered coolers. Various fish lay spread-eagled across ice—some with heads, others without. A couple of them sported sharp teeth and huge, protruding eyeballs. The effect was both comical and terrifying. I shifted my gaze to the overhead menu. Though I loved seafood, I didn’t enjoy looking at the bodies.
The owner finally spotted us. He raced out of the kitchen and enveloped Jim in a hug. “Hey, we’ve been expecting you, man. Who’s your lady guest?”
I hated waiting for introductions, especially from men. “I’m Leah.” My voice sounded firm and even.
Bill offered his beefy hand, and I gave it a squeeze. Years in the Midwest had taught me the importance of a strong handshake. “Good grip,” he said, impressed. “You like fish? I’ve got everything.”
“The stew,” Jim said. “Two bowls, please.” He turned towards me. “My treat.”
Bill rang us up and smiled. “Stew’s the only thing Jim orders. We’ve got six kinds of fresh fish today. I’ll make sure you get lots of good pieces.”
Five minutes later, the owner set two steaming bowls in front of us. He wandered away, and Jim and I dug into the stew.
The astrologer’s hand trembled as he lifted the spoon towards his mouth. “What’d I tell you?” he croaked. “Best fish in two states.”
I sloshed a spoonful down my throat and nodded. “Helluva lot better than last night.”
Jim flashed a wan smile and continued to labor his way through his meal. He set the spoon down, rested a few seconds, then lifted his utensil again and resumed eating.
An uncomfortable silence fell upon us. I tried my hardest not to look at Jim’s face. The circles under his eyes had grown darker, and bits of stew remained around the corners of his mouth.
Jim mopped his face with a paper napkin. “You know, stage four throat cancer has only a 25 percent survival rate. I’m determined to live. I’ve got speaking engagements lined up for the fall expos. I have to do lectures, or I’ll die.”
I felt a sudden, hard lump in the pit of my stomach. “Of course.” I dropped my eyes to my almost-empty bowl. A tiny chunk of leftover cod glistened at the bottom.
Jim’s face assumed a dreamy expression. “You know King Spa, in Niles? The huge Asian place? I go every weekday and sit in the heated rooms. The owner lets me come free in exchange for a full-page ad.”
“I love King Spa,” I replied. “Next time I’m there, I’ll look for you.”
Jim shoveled the last bite of stew into his mouth and rose to his feet. “We’d better go now. Julie’s probably wondering where I am.”
I pushed back from the table, almost toppling my bowl in the process. “I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you, Jim. I’d better head home, too. It’s getting late already.”
Bill sprang from the kitchen, clutching a Styrofoam container. A thin plume of steam rose from the plastic lid, and a tiny amount of broth sloshed over the top. He placed the container on the counter and tightened the lid. “You need more stew. Compliments of the house.”
Jim lifted one of his hands and flexed his palm like a crossing guard. “No, I’ll pay for it, Bill.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a tattered billfold. “How much do I owe you?”
“Put your money away,” Bill demanded. “I can’t accept any more payment from you, Jim. You need your vitamins.” He turned towards me and shook his head with amusement. “We go through the same routine every time. It’s his schtick.”
“Well, okay,” said Jim, feigning disappointment. He stuffed his wallet back into his pocket and emitted a heavy sigh. “You should let me pay occasionally. You’ll go broke at this rate.”
“Fat chance of that happening.” The owner’s voice was cheerful. “We’ll see you next week. And the week after that, no doubt.” Bill placed the stew in a plastic bag and twisted the ends into a snug knot. He turned towards me again. “Did you like the fish? We get fresh shipments every morning.”
“Oh, yeah,” I assured him. “Totally lived up to the hype.”
Averting my eyes from the cooler, I inched sideways towards the doorway. Jim stood on the threshold with his bag of seafood. He stared at me for a long moment, pinched face drawn and uncertain. “I guess I’d better go. I’ll see you in the fall, I’m sure.”
I watched Jim’s retreating back as he steered his body towards his truck. His thin, stooped shoulders seemed to sway in the wind like sails. Jim’s gaze remained fixed as he inched his way forward. The man was nothing if not obstinate. He would take the back roads all the way home, just to avoid paying tolls.
Jim pulled open the truck’s door, eased himself inside, and fired up his engine. When he reached the edge of the lot, the motor’s roar diminished to a sputter. He paused for a moment, then made a left-hand turn and headed down the highway towards his suburban home.
I grabbed my coat and headed towards my own vehicle. Its cluttered interior felt familiar, comforting. I turned on the radio, tossed my phone on the passenger seat, and tried hard not to feel anything.
So much of what I thought of as choice was really just a matter of luck. People had to take chances every second, and sometimes they failed for no reason at all. There really was no such thing as cosmic justice. The spring expo season was over, and I felt certain I would never see Jim again.