BEYOND EXPLANATION

I stood shivering in the cold hallway of a Chicago two-flat on an early winter afternoon. The exterior of the house with its unremarkable red brick resembled so many other homes in the area that had not yet been renovated. On assignment for McCall’s (out of publication since 2012), I had come to interview Robert, a psychic “reader” who came highly recommended by several friends as the “read deal.” When Robert finally opened the door to his first-floor apartment, he motioned for me to sit down in a worn green velvet chair in front of a fireplace that, from the absence of wood, ashes, or smell, appeared unused for a long time. The combination living room and “office” was dark and dingy, with heavy velvet curtains blocking out the limited light from the north. I kept my wool coat wrapped around my shoulders as protection against the cold and against the strange man who looked like he’d just gotten out of bed. His dark hair was uncombed; his wrinkled shirt only half tucked into his pants. He never bothered with pleasantries; he was all business.

Before the assignment from McCall’s I’d spent over a year researching and writing a book about teen suicide. The book contract from Atheneum arrived on March 15, the Ides of March. I knew the date from history classes and general chatter but didn’t grasp the omen of landing a book contract about suicide on the day Romans celebrated the life of one Anna Perenna, the sister of the tragic, love-sick, suiciding Carthaginian queen Dido in Vergil’s TheAeneid. That “coincidence” ignited my interest in the paranormal. I saw an astrologist, talked to a transchanneler, had a psychological inventory, or blueprint, of my life done by a top-rated palmist, and interviewed experts pro and con about their studies on ESP.

But for several months before seeing “Robert The Reader,” I had struggled with a rough bout of insomnia. I fell asleep quickly but would wake up with a start sometime during the middle of the night and, without a sleeping pill, could not go back to sleep. By the time I met Robert, I was exhausted and addicted to Ambien.

Robert took a seat across from me. A rather elaborate but dilapidated oak table separated the two of us.

“On what day will your life change?” Robert asked, reaching for a pad of paper and a pen.

“You mean what day out of three hundred and sixty-five?”

“Yes,” he said impatiently, having already turned the pad of paper face down on the table.

“I don’t know,” I muttered. I took a wild guess. “How about May fifteenth?”

He turned over the pad of paper. He’d written May 15, with May 23 in parentheses. “You think it will be May 15, but it will actually be May 23.”

I was impressed but not convinced. It could have been a lucky guess. Besides, I had no idea how my life was going to change. For better? For worse? Was I going to win the lottery or battle a horrific disease? Would I divorce my husband or land a lucrative assignment? The possibilities stretched like Route 66.

Robert must have sensed my skepticism and wanted to demonstrate that his extra sensory perception was not a hoax. “What are you going to call your new book?”

I shuttered. How did he know that I was writing a book? Maybe he’d run a computer check on me. But this was 1987, long before the launch of consumer search engines like Google. I watched nervously as he wrote on the pad of paper.

Just that week, after months of deliberation, I’d decided on a title that I’d shared with my husband and editor. I wanted to get their response before I made a final commitment.

“I’m not absolutely sure, but I think I’ll call it Dead Serious.

My heart pounded as he turned over the pad of paper. It read Dead Serious. I fidgeted in my chair. I’d gotten way more than I’d bargained for.

“You’ve been waking up in the middle of the night,” Robert said. “Why?”

Did I look as exhausted as I felt? I thought I’d put on enough makeup to conceal the puffy bags under my eyes and the small but suddenly noticeable crows’ feet at the corner of my eyes.

It should have been obvious to me that my brother Robin had been trying to contact me. Hell, I was writing a book about suicide as a way to come to terms with his death; he had probably “come around” to help me. But not until Robert asked me why I’d been waking up in the middle of the night did it dawn on me what was going on.

“I know!” I said, wondering why it had taken me this long to figure things out. “Because my dead brother is trying to contact me.”

Robert pushed the pad in front of me. “Turn it over and read,” he instructed.

My hand shook as I turned the pad over. It read, “Your dead brother Rob is trying to contact you.”

I pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders. My stomach roiled and, for a moment, I thought I was going to heave. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of this man’s apartment.

“Your brother has a lot to say to you right now,” Robert said.When you get up in the middle of the night, listen to him.”

Robert stood up and moved toward the front door. I should have felt relieved that our session had ended. He’d scared the hell out of me with all that he “knew” and exacerbated my fear of unending sleepless nights.

“This isn’t an easy life I lead,” Robert said. “I see too much. I walk down the street, pass a complete stranger, and know her future.”

Why was he telling me this? Did he want my sympathy? If he was so psychic, he already knew that I was both attracted and repelled by his “gift.” And he should have known that since Robin’s suicide I’d become more interested and more of a believer in ESP, visits from the dead, even tarot card readings. But I’d never considered the challenges of his personal life. I’d always suspected that most of us are born with highly developed intuition or whatever it’s called. And I understood how parents and even strangers discourage kids from “going there.” There were things we couldn’t possibly know, and that was just the way it was.

He was a man in turmoil with a delicate hold on life. It was if he couldn’t decide whether to engage or run away. A large poster of Marilyn Monroe hung on the living room wall. Did he “see” her early demise and feel some kind of camaraderie with another tortured soul?

Standing there not quite out the front door, I realized that I hadn’t asked any of the questions I’d planned to ask about when he knew he had psychic powers, whether or not he was ridiculed growing up, what he knew about his own future, what was his take on the nay sayers who claimed their scientific studies proved beyond a doubt that psychics are a hoax and that psychic readings are in the eye of the beholder — and there only.

Those questions remain unanswered. But my belief in ESP from gifted seers remains resolute.

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