Short Story – The Empress and the Fool by Sara Dobbie
She hasn’t worked here very long, this is only her second shift. She doesn’t enjoy cleaning rooms all day, but needs the money. She stands in line in the laundry room to collect sheets and towels, the scent of bleach mixed with lingering tobacco is heavy in the air. A sea of uniformed women move mechanically toward their carts, but Chelsea is dragging. The stern faced supervisor hands her a clipboard with a list of twelve rooms to be done by 2:00. She tries not to make eye contact, instead joins the mass exodus of maids.
Within the hour she is behind schedule. The girl working across the hall disappears into a room to strip beds. Chelsea steals some soap from her cart, because she forgot to stock her own with toiletries. She feels guilty, but the time it would take to get what she needs would put her even further behind. By noon she has only five rooms clean with two hours left before the new check-ins will arrive, and she’s dead tired.
It occurs to Chelsea that she needs to put fresh towels in the last room she cleaned. She hurries down the hall, but trips over a vacuum cord. White towels fly all over the place. Sprawled on the floor staring at the swirling pattern of blue and gold in the carpet, she hears a disembodied voice.
“Honey, you’re all right. I know it seems like a nightmare, but it’s not so bad.”
Chelsea looks up to see a woman wearing the same uniform as herself, with frizzy brown hair greying at the temples. The woman kneels down, scoops up the towels and refolds them easily.
Her voice has a rasp to it, like a singer or a smoker. Now that she’s close, Chelsea can see her name tag. Ursula. She smells like patchouli oil.
“I don’t even remember,” Chelsea says.
Ursula stands up, balances the stack of towels on one hand, and takes Chelsea’s clipboard.
“I’ll help you out, darling, since you’re new.”
Chelsea scrabbles around dropping complimentary hand lotions everywhere while Ursula glides from room to room fixing her mistakes. The pillows aren’t facing the right direction, the corners of the bedding not smooth. Fingerprints on the window, a forgotten adapter cord under the desk. The supervisor would have lectured Chelsea on her failings, but Ursula says nothing.
“Thanks for doing all this, I know you didn’t have to.”
“True, but you have an interesting aura, so I decided to help.”
“We’ll talk some other time. Right now you can hand in your clipboard and go home.” Relieved that the shift is over, Chelsea hurries out the back, avoiding conversation with the other girls.
Chelsea’s boyfriend Jesse lives in a dingy basement apartment. His furniture consists of a futon and a metal table with four mismatched chairs. His fridge is empty except for a six pack of Coors Light and some takeout. He’s a waste of time, but Chelsea’s used to him, and has nothing else to do. She lounges on the floor half-dressed, flipping through old snowboarding magazines while Jesse plays video games.
Occasionally Jesse will complain about something or other in his monotone voice. He’s hungry, he’s tired. Really, this means he’s bored, which irritates Chelsea, because he’s unemployed and doing nothing about it. She’s hungry too though, and so she gets dressed, tries to coax him into going out. He doesn’t have any money, as usual. She’ll pay for his groceries, doesn’t know what else to do. They’re walking through the produce aisle when they run into Ursula.
“Chelsea, what on earth are you doing?” she asks.
“Buying stuff for dinner.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Ursula glances towards Jesse. Chelsea is acutely aware of his stained t-shirt and ripped jeans. He used to look like a musician, but these days he just resembles a homeless person.
“Nice scarf,” he says, and points to the paisley bandana tied around Ursula’s head. She doesn’t reply; he shifts his weight and turns to the vegetables.
She says nothing. She doesn’t have to.
Sundays at the hotel, Chelsea discovers, are brutal because guests don’t leave by check-out time. She endlessly vacuums the hallway, waiting, but once they do leave, it becomes apparent that every room is trashed; empty beer cans and wine bottles strewn everywhere. Cardboard boxes with half eaten pizzas on stained bedding. Towels stuffed in the sink, behind the night stand, or in the closet. The supervisor barks that if they can’t get the rooms done on time she’ll find other girls who can.
“Almost makes you want to go to school and get a real job, eh, darling?”
Ursula leans against the door, the lines in her face drawn tight. She sighs, picks up a rag and a spray bottle. She looks tired, but Chelsea knows she can’t finish on time without her.
“I’m getting better at this,” Chelsea says, wiping behind the toilet on her hands and knees, “eventually you won’t have to pick up my slack all the time.”
“Hopefully you won’t be here too long, you’re not cut out for this place. Trust me, I’m a mind reader.” Ursula goes on to ask about Jesse. Says she got a bad vibe from him, that she thinks he’s a criminal.
Blushing, Chelsea gets up off the floor. How could Ursula know that? She replays the events of the night before. Jesse wanted to stop at the liquor store to get a bottle of wine. Chelsea paid for it, but when they tried to leave an alarm sounded. Jesse had stashed a couple of mickeys in his pockets. The police arrived, arrested him, and questioned Chelsea for an hour before they decided she wasn’t involved. This isn’t the first time this has happened.
Humiliated, Chelsea informs Ursula that Jesse is history. She doesn’t really care about not seeing him anymore, the things she liked about him were not things that people should base a relationship on. His skin, the way he walks. The way his hair feels in her hands. A knot of disgust at her own stupidity settles into her stomach. She entertains the absurd notion that Ursula knows all this, that she can actually read minds.
“Ursula, can I ask you something?”
“Are you some kind of psychic?”
Her expression is indecipherable, but then she smiles. “You could say that.” She tells Chelsea about her grandmother who grew up in Prague and believed in the old ways. How she taught Ursula about superstitions and potions to ward off evil. Tea leaves, palm readings, even séances. At first Chelsea is incredulous, thinks Ursula’s making fun of her. Ursula assures her that she is completely serious, and begins to speak about tarot cards.
Ursula talks all morning about the cards and what they mean while they scrub bathtubs and strip beds. She explains the Major and Minor Arcana, the different types of readings. “You should see these cards I have,” she says, “They are absolutely gorgeous.”
Chelsea is grateful for the diversion because the work is exhausting. Maids carry empty beer cases down the hall and stack them by the employee elevator. The maintenance man comes and takes them down to the staff room. Ursula says that some of the girls will take the empties back to the beer store for money. Why, Chelsea wonders, do these women have to work so hard for every single cent?
A blonde lady with highlights and a manicure passes by in a sleek business suit, texting on her cell phone. Chelsea glances down at her uniform, overcome with embarrassment. “I’m glad you’re here, Ursula,” she mutters, “otherwise, I think I would quit.”
“You have to take pride in your work, darling, no matter what it is. Everyone has to make a living.”
She points her finger at Chelsea and narrows her eyes. “I want you to come for a reading.”
This prospect fascinates Chelsea, and she agrees. She wants to know more about Ursula’s psychic bent, wonders if they met for a reason, if maybe she can get some answers.
Ursula lives downtown, in the main floor of a Victorian house turned triplex. Overgrown plants and weeds border a wraparound porch in need of a paintjob. Chelsea stands on the mat hesitating until the door opens and Ursula pulls her in, all jangling bracelets and wispy fabric.
The front room is an old fashioned parlour with velvet drapes and antique furniture. Various china cabinets stand against the walls displaying what looks like hand-made jewellery with price tags tied to each piece.
“Do you make all these yourself?”
“Yes, I don’t make much money, but between the readings and the hotel, I break even. Barely.”
They sit down at a round table laid with maroon cloth. The tarot cards are stacked alongside a leather book that looks ancient and worn. Chelsea opens her mouth to ask a question but Ursula puts a finger to her lips. She closes her eyes and lays her hands on the table.
“All right, let’s begin,” she says after a long moment of silence. “What I’m going to do is a Celtic Cross Spread. It will provide insight into your past, present and future, regarding the question.”
“What’s the question?”
“You already know, just close your eyes and focus.”
Chelsea hears shuffling sounds, and opens her left eye a crack to see that Ursula’s eyes are shut tight as she handles the cards. They seem to leap out of her hands. Each time one does, she lays it face down in a particular spot until eventually a cross shape emerges with more cards lined up on one side.
Finally, she tells Chelsea to open her eyes. The first card, which represents Chelsea, is The Fool. The illustration shows an innocent looking, blind-folded boy with a bundle on a stick slung over one shoulder. He’s walking through a dreamy landscape with one foot forward, about to step off a cliff. Chelsea sighs, but Ursula shakes her head.
“This isn’t a bad card. It means that you’re on the brink between youth and adulthood; you must move forward even though you are unsure of yourself, have blind faith.” Ursula speaks with confidence, her knowledge of the cards is absolute.
They come to the card representing the past, The Empress. A pale faced goddess with dark hair sits on a throne above the earth, stars and flowers encircling her. Ursula describes this character as beautiful and wise, a caring mother to all the world. Chelsea chews the inside of her mouth, unwilling to speak about her own mother. She’s surprised by a wave of some old feeling that makes her throat close up and causes pain in her chest.
A knock at the front door breaks the spell. Ursula goes to the largest of her cabinets, takes out a brown paper bag with a business card stapled to it, and delivers it to someone on the porch. She apologizes for the delay.
The cards are intriguing, and Ursula explains the four suits; Hearts, Swords, Pentacles and Wands. Chelsea listens to her interpretations with an increasingly open mind. Her accuracy is amazing, almost disconcerting at times.
“I know you don’t like to talk about yourself, but I can read you better than most. Your mother died, didn’t she?”
Chelsea nods. Cancer, a rare and aggressive form. Diagnosed two weeks after Chelsea’s thirteenth birthday, and dead two weeks before her fourteenth. She can’t remember what her voice sounded like. Can’t picture her face, has to rely on photographs.
“And you’re Father’s so sad, he doesn’t quite know what to do with you.”
Chelsea’s father suffers from a permanently broken heart. She used to try to fix him, but at some point, gave up. In the midst of their grief for the dead, they’ve neglected each other.
“Well my darling, it’s time to pull yourself together. Now that you’ve stopped hanging out with that loser boyfriend, you need to focus on yourself. I sense a determination underneath all that confusion, also a desire to help people. If you put your mind to it you could get back in school, become somebody. Your mother wants that for you. What are you interested in doing?”
Chelsea used to volunteer at school to play with the little kids and help them with their homework. Always planned on becoming a teacher, but her marks slipped a little too much in high school to get in to university.
Again someone knocks at the door. Ursula sighs and stands up. “Honey, I have an appointment with these people. But please, take all this to heart. Success is yours for the taking.”
She hugs Chelsea and then answers the door. A greasy guy in dark clothing comes in, followed by a thin girl who constantly pulls her hair to cover her face. Chelsea thanks Ursula, and leaves feeling heavy; it weighs on her to talk about her mother.
She continues to work at the hotel with a new enthusiasm. She puts money in the bank. Without Jesse to throw it away on, she actually sees the balance increase. She applies to college, spends more time with her Dad. They paint the living room and change around the furniture, aware now that they need each other, like people waking up from an unpleasant dream. All of this, Chelsea knows, is because of Ursula and her cards.
On a Friday morning Chelsea goes into work feeling confident. She’s going to give notice to the supervisor because she’s going back to school.
“We’ll miss you, you’re a good worker,” she says. Chelsea had always thought the supervisor disliked her and her work.
“One more thing. You’re friends with Ursula, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Chelsea says, and that familiar knot returns, taking shape quickly.
“She’s been arrested on drug charges. She’s in jail.”
“Oh.” Temporarily speechless, Chelsea collects her thoughts. “So what, she was selling pot or something?” Jesse smoked up all the time, it was harmless.
“According to the article in the paper it was more serious than that; heroin and cocaine.”
Chelsea is confused, but manages to thank her for the information. Outside, the bus pulls up and she gets on, not knowing where she’ll go. She rides through the streets thinking about Jesse and the stolen booze. About those people knocking at Ursula’s door. They weren’t buying bracelets, they were buying drugs. The tarot cards were right, she’s as blind and naïve as the fool in the picture.
At home her father sits on the couch reading. A brown paper package sits on the coffee table and he says it’s for her. She takes it to her room and stares at it, turns it over in her hands. Her name is written on the front, but there’s no return address. Eventually, she tosses it on top of a heap of laundry and tries to sleep, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon. Waking daydreams muddle her mind until she can’t stand it anymore. She rips open the package.
It’s a set of brand new tarot cards. And a shiny book, filled with glossy illustrations and explanations for each card. Chelsea flips to the front cover; no inscription, no apology. No letter, no note. Maybe Ursula feels none are necessary. As her anger begins to dissipate she realize this is true, Ursula doesn’t owe her anything. Chelsea is the one indebted to Ursula; after all, she was right about everything.
Chelsea never sees Ursula again, but keeps the book, frequently defers to the cards. She doesn’t even know if she’s doing it right. Just closes her eyes and shuffles, waits for one to jump out, as Ursula did that day. The answer she needs always comes, sometimes in the words, sometimes in the picture. What Chelsea understands now, is that people are always hiding something, but it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important to find out what she’s hiding from herself.