A Writer’s Notebook: tarot story

Last week, riffing off a clip of The Daily Show, I wrote short bit about how cool it would be to do live “writings,” like a reading in a bookstore or a library but instead of reading existing work, we’d write something new, live, on the fly, according to ideas tossed at us from an audience. And then, to (sort of) make good on the idea, I solicited ideas for last week’s Writer’s Notebook, and last weekend, I wrote the first idea to be submitted.

This is the second.

This week’s exercise is a bit long, but it could be a LOT longer — I’ve cut it short just to save space. But I’ll explain more below.

When my wife left me, I went for a long, long drive, out of town, across the state, nowhere in particular, and when, after five or six hours on the road, I neared the edge of Sweetwater, Texas, I spotted a big sign painted on plywood in the shape of a hand. Palmistry, it says, as I sit in the driveway, and Fortunes Told, and Madame Jule. Not Jewel, but Jule. I shut off the engine and climb the wood porch, the steps dry and cracked, the welcome mat made of crumbling jute and woven with a yarn fairy. I knock on the door. I’m going to ask for a tarot reading, but I want my fortune told in reverse, as if, knowing what had already happened between me and my wife, I might somehow prevent it.

Jule is a redhead, her hair so thick and curly I almost don’t notice the plastic horns she wears on a novelty headband. When she answers the door she’s carrying a bunch of red grapes, dewy from the fridge, and she plucks one and holds it out for me before I can even introduce myself. I eat it, the flesh cold and tangy, too sharp, the grape not quite ripe. When I explain that I want a card reading, she reaches inside my shirt collar for the gold chain I wear, takes it gently in her little fist, and pulls me inside.

Her front room is dark, the windows draped in orange cloth so heavy it blocks the sunset even in the west-facing windows. The walls are a bright, cool shade of lavender, but she’s painted her ceiling black. One wall is lined with cheap replica swords like a shop display at a Renaissance fair. She offers me a glass of water, then we sit at a square table away from the window. I’d expected it to be round, and I wonder where she keeps her glass ball. As she arranges herself, I scan the room and find the orb,on a short console table by the entryway, right next to an ornate silver box marked “Donations.”

I feed her a story about being on vacation, passing through town, feeling a mysterious pull into her driveway. I tel her I want to know what’s coming down the road. Jule spreads the cards and talks about tomorrow, next year, my desires and my obstacles, but really, she’s full of shit, because I get what I’d really come for: all I see is my past.

The first card she turns over, she places it right-side up to me but she calls it “reversed.” She starts talking about who I am, what I’m doing, my present state, says I’m lost and wandering, seeking my fortune (she means money), but to hell with that. I can see what had happened before, how I’d been unseated in my own home. Me pouring a beer into a glass the way my wife liked it and her pouring out on the carpet of our living room, throwing the mug into the wall where it dented the plaster. “You’re not even listening,” she screamed. Behind me, in the kitchen, the smoke alarm went off; our fish lunch was burning in the frying pan.

Jule turns over another card, places it crossways over the first. She starts explaining how much hard work I’ll have to do in the near future, tells me to be careful about driving too late or picking up strangers on the road. When she warns me to avoid conflict in the near future I almost laugh in her face. I see the bars in the window of the gas station where I’d bought the beer my wife had poured out, the shadows from the morning sun cutting across the dingy linoleum, the smell of fish still on me from the market at the wharf. I see the fish wrapped in newspaper on my passenger seat, the beer on the floorboard, the rainbow sheen of gasoline in a puddle in the gas station drive. At home, my wife was packing her bags, nothing folded or stacked, just fists of clothing twisted into bundles and tossed in whatever bags she can drag from the closet. Across town, her lover was waiting. In the gas station parking lot, I was blinded a moment as a passing semi threw the morning sun in my face.

Jules turns over a card and sets it across the table, on my side. She sees my future, sees me overcoming all obstacles and achieving my goals. I see the house of that fucker who stole my wife. I’d gone over there, before I left town, before I’d given up; I’d thought I might somehow talk her out of this crazy shit, might win her over if I just fought for her. I stood outside for ten minutes banging on the front door, the front windows, until suddenly I got hit from the side and went sprawling in the guy’s lawn — he’d come out the back door and around the side, refusing to open up where I might force my way in. His grass was wet, my pants and elbows soaked. As soon as I got to my feet he shoved me again and I reeled backward across his lawn; he followed me, hands ready, shoved every time I caught my balance. When I managed to wheel free of him I ran for my car, the door still open, and pulled an old ax handle from the front seat. I think I might have killed hi, not on purpose but who knows what might have happened, except when I turned around he was already there and he grabbed the ax handle. We wrestled in the driveway, gaining and loosing ground. At least on his concrete, I had a better foothold, but when I thought I was gaining some kind of leverage over him, he let me come and pulled me back onto his lawn, where I slipped in the grass and went to my knees as he wrenched the ax handle from me. He held it up and I covered my head, then I heard a hard crack as he smashed my front headlight. He kicked me back into the grass as he passed me; he kept my ax handle.

Among the many very cool ideas that came my way last week, only one turned up here on the website, over at the Writer’s Notebook intro page. (The rest came my way through Facebook or via email.) This idea came from Evelyn, who wrote:

Play with a tarot deck and write a story based on a spread or card that you pulled. The story can be from the point of view of the reader of the cards, the person the cards are talking too, or use the spread as the plot line, or character details/development for the fictional story. Also you could try writing an imagery poem based on what you see in the card, color, picture, story, elements, or overall tone of the card.

I’d planned to tackle the poem idea, just to shake things up a bit, but today, two things happened: 1) I chickened out. And 2) I read a piece in this week’s New Yorker about an artist doing interpretive painting of the major arcana in which he replaced the traditional figures and imagery with people and locations he knows in New York City. And even though that could still have led me to poetry, I got caught up in the stories behind this guy’s paintings and starting thinking about ways to tell a story with a tarot deck.

This short piece only shows three cards, but the tarot spread I’m working with in this story is the traditional ten-card spread, with a six-card cross and four additional cards lined vertically to one side. So you can see why I cut things short — I’d have been writing forever (and might still be — I’m kind of intrigued by the story unfolding here, even though I’d likely ditch the tarot device in later drafts).

Additionally, I used the cards to describe Jule and her divination room, and I thought it might be fun to share with you the five cards that wind up in this story. (For people who know tarot: I used the Universal Waite deck, which are also the images I’ve included here.)

For the description of Jule, I turned over The Devil:

For her front room, I turned over the 10 of swords (reversed):

The first card Jule turns over is the King of Cups (reversed):

The second card is the 8 of Swords:

And the third card is the 7 of Wands:

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: tarot story

    1. Thanks!

      And thanks for noticing the typos. Seriously. I say so because A) I’m awful about them, but also, B) because I rarely bother correcting them in these Writer’s Notebook posts. As I see it, the Notebook is about the exercise, so whatever appears between the “page” graphics is allowed to be sloppy, the roughest of first rough drafts.

      Of course, the intro and the explanation of the exercise are another matter, and I almost always need to go back and clean those up! Like I said, I’m awful about typos. And any excuse to re-read and polish is good. 🙂

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