The idea began around Thanksgiving when I found a cheap ring on a sidewalk in Albany, CA. For some reason I liked the idea of a worthless ornament, and in my mind I associated it with a defective Aladdin’s Lamp, and thought this would be a decent basis for a story. That story turned into “If Wishes Were Horses” where I completely forgot to include the un-magic ring. Realizing that, another short story began to build itself up – this time a revision of the old Cashier World novel, but told from the point of view of the psychic wife rather than the cashier. Ideas began to percolate and it turned into a rather vintage “Tom Lichtenberg” story – based on a familiar trope but with new unwritten rules and exceptions (exceptions are what make rules interesting, and rules are what makes speculative fiction possible).
by Tom Lichtenberg
Outside of the office, Charlotte Ann Waddle avoided eye contact with other people as much as possible. Instead, she tried to focus her thoughts on the un-magic ring she wore from a bronze ball-bearing chain around her neck. The ring was a gift from her late husband, given to her on his last day on Earth. It had been a better gift than his unfortunate last name, which she still retained for sentimental reasons.
“It’s nothing special,” he’d told her. He’d just found it lying on the sidewalk, a piece of junk, a ten cent bubblegum dispenser prize, but it was special to her. She hadn’t seen it coming, and anything unexpected was a genuine gift for Charlotte, a.k.a. Madame Carlotta, a professional psychic who operated out of a second floor office in an old Victorian above the U-Glo Beauty Salon on Florida Street near Gates. Like most psychics, hers was a family tradition, inherited from her mother, who’d been known as Madame Sheila and had run a successful business out of the same spot for nearly forty years. Eye contact was their trade secret. Charlie, as she preferred to be called, had the so-called gift of “pre-membering” other people’s lives through the expression in their eyes.
“It’s a lot like the way we remember our own past,” she’d try to explain. “It’s like a mesh, a net, wound tighter up close, and looser and looser the farther you get, like how you remember the past hour clearly, but the hour before, not so much, and the day before even less, and then a month, a year ago hardly at all. This is how I see their futures. The immediate future is right there in front of me, it’s written all over their face but especially in their eyes. Further out on the time line there are more and more holes in the picture, but that’s okay. Most people don’t want to know about all that anyway. No, mostly they want to know what’s going to happen next, if it’s good, and nothing at all if it’s not.”
It was not an easy job, and many times she’d thought of giving it up, doing something else instead, but her options were limited. Anything that involved contact with the public was out of the question. She could never work for a boss or supervisor. Direct engagement with anyone was problematic. It wasn’t as if she could turn it on and off whenever she wanted. She looked and she saw, and her own face gave her away, or so she felt. It seemed to her that people could sense her accidental invasion of their privacy. They sensed her reading of their minds if not their destiny, or else she merely imagined their fear and hostility. David, her late husband, was always reassuring her that no one was actually noticing anything on her face.
“They’re too busy with their own lives,” he’d say, “to pay any attention to anyone else.”
But how could David know? He was a special case. She could look him in the eye and … and nothing. She saw nothing in his eyes except their own smiling light. Until she’d met him, she hadn’t realized there were exceptions to the eye contact rule other than mirrors. She could look into anyone’s eyes through a mirror and not see the future. This was true even for herself. She had no idea of her own fate, since the only way she could see herself was through a mirror and mirrors were exempt, for some reason. There was an immunity there, as there was in the case of David Henry Waddle as well. She had looked into his eyes by mistake. He’d been working in a bookstore where she’d stopped to buy a magazine. Normally she managed to get by in the world without looking at people. Most people considered her odd, if not rude, but that couldn’t be helped, she couldn’t let herself be too concerned about that. She had to protect her own self first. So she’d placed the magazine on the counter and kept her eyes lowered. She noticed his face in the reflection on the glass counter and noted that he seemed like a nice young man, tall and gangly with long dark hair, innocent-looking and kindly. She thought of herself as his physical opposite. She was short and compact, “thick” is how she would put it. Her short hair was naturally blonde to the point of white, her face-covering bangs died bright green by the ladies at U-Glo. She was dark-skinned with unusually dark and violet eyes, blood-red lips and a silver nose ring which secretly matched a tattoo she had above her navel. She’d been imagining David’s voice to be as innocent sounding as his face seemed to appear, so it was a surprise when he came out with a deep bass sound asking if she’d found everything she was looking for. She’d glanced up and found herself looking directly into his eyes. She winced in anticipation of seeing and knowing things she had no desire to see or know, and it was a long moment before she realized his immunity from her gaze. Then she laughed involuntarily and he grinned right back at her and said,
“I know I’m funny looking but seriously.”
“No, no,” she sputtered. “It’s nothing like that.”
One thing had led to another and then she was somehow Mrs. Waddle and regularly happy for the first time in her life. Her own future had always been a blank but now it was a joyful stretch of possibilities. David was a constant mystery to her. He had no ambition. He had no drive. He had none of the hooks into him that usually drive a man onwards in this world. He was content with what he had, and especially to be a cashier, a position he inexplicably savored. As a cashier, he would tell her, people expect nothing of you. You are not even a machine. You could be anyone, anything at all and no one would give you even a second thought. It was a refuge from expectation, from the scourge of potentiality. It was so low down on the social totem pole that it didn’t even count at all. From his place behind a cash register he could look everyone directly in the eye and see them for exactly who they were, because the opposite was equally true. If as a cashier you were nobody nowhere, then to a cashier everybody else was nothing but a money-giving monkey. You could be the President of Paris or the newspaper delivery guy, but when you were buying something from a cashier, none of that mattered at all. It’s the great equalizer, he would say.
Maybe that’s why he was exempt from the psychic curse, maybe that’s why all cashiers were immune. Charlie had not realized it at first, but after listening to any number of David’s exposition about the glories of his cashier world, she decided to risk it and engage in eye contact with other cashiers and found, to her great excitement and amusement, that it was true, that they were all immune. They were a breed, a group, almost a tribe of people with whom she could freely and happily engage in direct contact. She took advantage of every opportunity, and soon found herself collecting an assortment of friends who all had that one trait in common. Somehow it made her day job more bearable. Whereas before she had dreaded each and every customer, and had gritted her teeth while dealing with them, barely able to maintain an aura of politeness while she informed them of their impending little triumphs and setbacks. After David came into her life she became more human, is how she put it, and her smiles were genuine when telling her clients of their probable promotion, or crinkling her own eyes with sympathy at the news of the sudden illnesses awaiting their parents or child or spouse.
They still gave her the creeps. That much would never change. While premembering was mostly a visual affair, she also felt people’s futures in a physical way, as a sort of body temperature change. Some pre-memories brought warmth, some brought heat, some coolness, but occasionally there was the unmistakable chill of sickness or dread or even death, and there was that potential sensation every time the doorbell rang, every time someone new trod up the steps to her rooms. She would never know until they’d seated themselves at her small round wooden table in front of the bay window, with the red drapes drawn behind them, and their worried hands clasped in front of them. Only then would she look up from her candles and her cards – the customary props she used for show but had absolutely no use for – and look straight into their eyes, where she immediately saw everything she needed to see, always more than she wanted to know. She’d look away as soon as she had enough information, and for the rest of the session carefully keep her eyes averted from theirs while she communicated as much as was needed to satisfy the customer and collect her reasonable fee. The day she felt that one particular chill from that one particular paramedic was the day she’d decided she would never re-marry. That paramedic was the one she saw looking down at the fractured body of David Henry Waddle later that day and there was nothing she could do about it.
Months had passed and she was slowly turning back into the person she’d been before she’d met him, avoiding nearly everyone outside of the office, even cashiers, only noticing other people through their reflections in store windows or in mirrors. She had a regular table in Kitty’s Diner on Gates where she forced herself to look at people when she felt she was in danger of becoming permanently reclusive. She knew the regulars at Kitty’s, and her table alongside the wall-length mirror allowed her to look at them as much as she wanted. Some of the regulars knew her as well and were content to greet her through the venue of the mirror, exchanging glances and even chatting a little sometimes. Madame Carlotta, the eccentric young woman who will only look at you directly if you pay her a fee for that service! It was nearly laughable.
One day at morning coffee in Kitty’s a non-regular appeared and took up a seat at the table next to hers. Where she sat on the door side, this man sat on the opposite side of his table so they were sideways facing each other. She noticed him in the mirror before he saw her sitting there, and she totaled up his features in her mind. He was built like a football player, like a linebacker, genuinely thick and dark, with short-cropped dark hair and large white teeth. Clearly he was a man in charge of himself, was her initial impression. He liked who he was and was confident that everyone else would agree.
She only had a minute to gather all that in, because as soon as he ordered from the waitress he turned his attention to her. He caught her looking at him in the mirror and he returned her look and said,
Charlie turned away from the mirror and tried to pretend that she hadn’t even heard him, but he persisted.
“Hello,” he said again, this time leaning over towards her and waving. He had a smile on his face which she would have seen if she had glanced again at his reflection, but she kept her head down.
“May I join you?” he asked, and started to stand up. She quickly realized that here was a man who was not accustomed to taking no for an answer, so she spoke up and said,
“You’d better not.”
This answer surprised him enough that he sat back down, and pondered his next move for a moment.
“I’m Ahmed,” he announced, whether she cared to know that information or not. Charlie said nothing. She didn’t want to be rude, but couldn’t decide what to do or say. It would not have been easy to explain what she was thinking or feeling.
“I’m sorry,” was all she could say. “I don’t mean to be impolite”
“Then don’t be!” Ahmed cheerfully replied. “I just want to talk.”
“It’s not that easy,” she murmured.
“I could come see you professionally,” he said. “Yes, I know who you are, Madame Carlotta, but I’m not interested in seeing you professionally. I don’t want to know the future. I’m happy to make it myself, as much as that’s possible for anyone. I’d just like to talk to you.”
Charlie sighed, and after a moment shrugged, which was enough of a signal for Ahmed to get up and join her at her table. Settling down, he looked directly at her but she kept her eyes on the table.
“I understand you have this limitation,” he said gently. “I don’t mind, though I would like to see those lovely eyes for myself.”
“You seem to know a lot about me,” she said.
“A little,” he admitted. “Lola at U-Glo, the girl who did your bangs? She’s my cousin.”
Charlie nodded, and relaxed a little. She did like Lola, a chatty young woman who did wonders with color.
“She also told me about your husband,” Ahmed added softly. “I was sorry to hear it.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said after a pause. She suddenly had a hopeful thought.
“What do you do?” she asked him, and she could sense Ahmed puff himself up as he said,
“I own three stores. World of Pants do you know it? I have two on Mission and one on Clement.”
Charlie shook her head. She did not know World of Pants, and was disappointed that he was not, after all, a cashier. She thought that maybe she would look at him anyway. He was being nice, and he did say that was what he wanted. There seemed to be no other way, either. Ahmed seemed determined to engage.
“Lola said you have the most beautiful eyes,” he said.
Charlie took a deep breath, prepared herself for the involuntary vision that was undoubtedly to come, and slowly raised her eyes to meet his. Ahmed’s eyes were soft and brown, friendly eyes on a friendly face, but had no special sparkle for her, no magic. There were as un-magic, as ineffective as the worthless ring on that chain around her neck. Good for someone, but not for her. Intended for another, and she saw it clearly, instantly, automatically. Ahmed was on the verge. He was looking. He’d built his businesses with a single-minded passion and all for one reason, to become a real man, a man who could provide for a real family, in his own traditional way he was preparing his traditional self for a traditional life, and he only lacked the final ingredient, the woman who would make it all complete. He was on the prowl, on the hunt, on the case, and he was so close. He had no idea how close he was.
Ahmed blinked several times, feeling her gaze boring into him. He saw so much in those eyes, on her face. Her expression told him everything he needed to know and he smiled. He reached across the table and gently placed his hand upon hers.
“Thank you,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”
She suddenly felt like crying and stifled a sob
“I have to go,” she told him, getting up, and he released her hand and watched as she walked away. She stopped at the cash register by the front door where an unfamiliar young woman was standing.
“That’ll be six twenty three,” the cashier announced. Charlie looked at her and said,
“You’re new here?”
“Yes I am” she replied “I’m Shelly.”
“I’m Charlie. I come here a lot. It’s nice to meet you, Shelly.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Charlie.”
“I’d like to pay for my other friend, too,” Charlie said, indicating Ahmed. She had seen it. A dollar twenty two was all it would cost her to make that conversation happen, where Ahmed and Shelly would meet for the first time, and one thing would lead to another, as it always did.