The lies I told as a psychic
Anita had only positive things to say about everyone's future. Trust me, no one wanted to hear otherwise. I had never called a psychic hotline, but Mom's friend Grace had read for me in person. (She didn't use cards.) Positive or not, I didn't always agree with what she said. Naturally, I liked the occasional bits of conversation when she told me the things I most wanted to hear, like that I was going to (eventually) find lasting love.
So I gave every card a positive spin. "Oh, I see we've pulled that Death Card. How exciting! You've overcome a lot. This means good things are going to happen for you."
In response to what most women wanted to hear, I said: "Well, of course you'll find love. And soon."
And for men: "A new career opportunity will give you lots of options and more money."
About half of the callers were onto me immediately. They would tell me that they thought this was nonsense and that I was a fraud. The first surly customer I encountered pummeled me.
"Thank you for calling. This is Anita. Is this your first reading?"
"I don't believe in this garbage," Angry Man said.
"I'm so sorry you feel that way," I said in the most chipper tone I could muster. "Have you had a reading before?"
"I'm shuffling my tarot cards." My voice got higher. "Now ask me a question, and we'll see if they can give you some of the answers you're looking for?"
"OK, genius. What's my wife's name?"
"Oh," I stammered, "It doesn't really work that way. That's not really what I do. I …"
I panicked. The trainer said that if too many calls ended before the three-minute grace period, and monthly calls didn't average a minimum of 10 minutes, the company would dump me.
So I tried a different tactic, agreeing with people's concerns about psychics and 900 numbers and convincing them that I only spoke about what the cards revealed (as if I actually understood how to read them properly). People liked the idea of the cards having power instead of me. Some customers still screamed and quickly hung up. But a surprising amount of skeptics enjoyed telling me off for several minutes to vent their disgust while intermittently asking about their futures.
But I began to realize why I got rejected from the theater program in college. My role-playing skills sucked. This job came more easily to others. My friend Russ, a talented actor, worked for another psychic hotline. He thoroughly enjoyed perpetrating a fraud. He told me that he started each call by saying that he just drank a vial of lamb's blood to give him fortune-telling superpowers.
"You can't be serious. Does that really work?"
"Some idiots believe me," he said. "But most people just think I'm funny, and we wind up having a nice talk."
A few of my calls lasted an entire hour and consisted of me reassuring the person on the other end of the line that everything would be OK. Those folks really didn't give a damn about psychics or readings. They just wanted to talk to a friendly voice. Some people had terrible problems and cried a lot. I had a list of crisis hotline numbers to give to those who confessed to thoughts of suicide and other equally alarming problems. I kept these calls short, told the troubled souls on the other end of the connection to save their money and gave them toll-free numbers for help.
An 18-year-old caller from Alaska helped me more than I helped him. He wanted to know if he should enlist in the military so he could pay for college. He talked about the long, dark days of Alaskan winters and the exciting prospect of being stationed in a warmer climate. He spoke longingly about the way this choice would take him to places he had never seen. He didn't have any money, and his parents were gone.
I cringed. How was this poor guy ever going to pay for this call? My stomach hurt. I identified with his uncertainty, his searching for a place to fit in, and his desire to escape, but I had a safety net. He didn't. That's when it occurred to me that I had no business trying to guide anybody's major life decisions. I had enough trouble with my own.
"So what do the cards say, Anita?" He sounded so hopeful.
I stared at the untouched deck in front of me. "Honestly, I don't know. I think you should talk to your friends and relatives. Or maybe ask your pastor for advice."
We had only been on the phone for eight minutes, but I told him I had to go. He didn't get mad, which actually made me feel worse. That's when it dawned on me that burger flippers, toilet scrubbers and those who facilitate elephant mating had cleaner jobs (and probably took more pride in their work) than I did. My psychic days ended with that call.
In retrospect, the only satisfying tête-à-têtes during my stint as a telephone psychic came from errant horn dogs who thought all 900 numbers were created equal.
"Hi!" I began. "What is your question for me today? What would you like to know about your future?"
"You sound hot."
"Well, aren't you nice! What would you like to find out about today?"
"You know what I'm doing?" he said, panting.
Once I met my 10-minute minimum, I gave up trying to steer the conversation toward my fake tarot reading. "Oh yeah, I know."
"Well, what do you think about that? Do you like it, baby?"
"Fine by me," I replied. "You're the one who's getting screwed."
• Erin Auerbach is a writer, former features reporter and a past recipient of the Art Buchwald Award for Humorous Writing. She can't tell you your future, but you can email her at [email protected] More: Erin Auerbach.