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For a psychic, bad news is big business
On the sixth floor of the Paddock Building downtown, a line of people milled restlessly along the hushed hallway.
They paced in front of a wooden door, which looked more like the entrance to a broom closet than the law offices surrounding it. The curious leaned inside, hoping to catch a whisper of someone else's fate.
Kathy, a 48-year-old occupational health and safety specialist, gripped the edge of a table, covered with a few flickering candles and rows of jewel-toned tarot cards.
"What do you see?" Kathy asked.
"It ain't good, honey," said Alex Palermo, 42, psychic and owner of the Original Tremont Tearoom.
Palermo hunkered his 6-foot-3 frame over the table. His brown eyes rolled back, eyelids fluttering. Seconds passed.
There was the Ten of Swords -- the word "ruin" scrawled alongside disembodied eyes. The Five of Pentacles -- a lone figure trying to balance massive globes in the air. The Four of Cups -- a swirling vortex of blue and purple, sucking in everything within reach.
He girded himself to tell yet another client bad news.
Her mother's health? She's going to die soon. Plans to sell her home? Don't bother. Then he chastised her for splurging on kitchen and cooking supplies.
"I see bags," Palermo said. "I see you buy things you don't even have room for."
Kathy bristled, then eventually nodded in agreement.
Palermo is stressed out by divining bad news, but it's part of the business. It's been busy at the shop lately. His appointment book is filling up. Regular customers have stopped by more often. New visitors are paying for the $110 hourlong reading rather than the 15-minute prediction for $30.
With the diving economy, Palermo has been working six days a week. He has also started discount readings on Sundays and half-price specials for spiritual channeling.
But the pace has taken its toll. He's had unsettling dreams, and his stomach churns over what he tells his clients. He's withdrawn from friends and stopped dating. He smokes a lot.
After several readings, Palermo grabbed a pack of cigarettes and headed for the door.
Downstairs, out on Tremont Street, Palermo leaned against the window of a rare-coin shop and lit a cigarette. He took quick puffs as he shivered in the rain.
He understands people don't believe all of his predictions. Some come to be entertained. Some want hope, others validation. "But what they leave with is a greater sense of who they are in the present, to help them obtain the future they want," he explained.
Stubbing out the cigarette, the psychic went inside. By the time the elevator reached the sixth floor, Palermo was wheezing. He has asthma.
He sat down and took a gulp of coffee. It was the color of sand and smelled sweet from the sugary creamer. Palermo's diabetic.
For six hours, he doled out insight to others, his voice growing hoarse.
In the hallway, the scent of sandalwood incense warmed the air. Pacing footsteps echoed across the polished white marble floor.
Tammy, 47, fidgeted in the chair across from Palermo, arms crossing and uncrossing over her chest. She was a nurse, working with pregnant teens at a local hospital. Her boyfriend died last spring of cancer.
The nurse shuffled the tarot deck, then handed it to the psychic.
Palermo divided the deck into three stacks of 26 cards and asked her to choose a pile. She pointed to the one in the middle.
He picked up the stack and turned the cards over, one by one. The edges were worn in spots. He placed the cards in four rows, their borders overlapping. Palermo's shoulders tensed. He coughed. He drank more coffee and cleared his throat.
There was the Three of Swords -- blades mounted on a graffiti-covered wall, with someone gazing from the street below. The Hanged Man -- a man suspended upside down, arms behind his back. The Eight of Cups -- overflowing goblets floating in nothingness.
Palermo sucked in his breath. In a soothing voice, he spoke about the death and how someone from her past would reemerge.
Suddenly, he changed subjects. His stomach rolled. "You're job's going to change," he said. "Sorry."
"I'm going to lose my current job?" Tammy asked.
"You're going to leave it. . . . After June, your job is over," Palermo said.
Tammy sat in silence, listening to the murmurs of other fortune tellers and customers whispering over Styrofoam cups of spiced apple tea.
It bothered Palermo to see the fear in her eyes. His throat tightened.
He handed Tammy a different deck for another try. She shuffled the cards with hands that barely shook.