One Fateful Day

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I got an e-mail with the subject line, “Eric, an urgent message about your future!” The use of my first name let me know this was a friend writing me, and the word “urgent” informed me of the great importance of the message, but the exclamation point is what sealed the deal. Wide-eyed and sputtering, I threw my chalupa to the floor, genuflected hastily in the general direction of Mecca, and opened the e-mail.

It began, “Eric, you must have friends in high places.” I thought, “Well, yes, I have met Michael McLean.” It continued: “I’ve been authorized to issue you a Free Tarot Reading!”

My heart leapt within my breast, and I suffered a mild stroke. At last, I could gain a foothold on my life and wrench myself free of the crippling sense of doom that overcomes me every time I leave the house or encounter other people. Everything I’d ever heard about tarot cards gave me the impression they were highly accurate, non-satanic tools used by college-educated people who don’t live in trailers. Now was my chance to put these powers to work for me! I’d have them start with the front lawn, which desperately needed a trimming.

There was a toll-free number to call: 1-800-308-1673. The e-mail said, “Please do not give or use this number for anyone other than yourself. It’s a special number meant only for you!”

Now, it is not often that special phone numbers are established just for my use. If I’d had any doubts about the Free Tarot Reading — and surely I had not — they were now melting faster than a bucket of ice on Penelope Cruz (because she is HOT! Yowza!). I skimmed to the end of the e-mail and discovered who it was from: MISS CLEO.

Miss Cleo! Having watched more than five seconds of television in the past six months, I knew exactly who she was. She’s a Jamaican psychic with a song in her voice and a rag on her head. She knows everything, except grammar, which she doesn’t know. Would she be at the other end of 1-800-308-1673? This day was just getting better! It was like Christmas in whatever month this was.

I dialed the number and heard a recorded message not in Miss Cleo’s voice. It said: “We’re sorry. Based on the area you are calling from, we are unable to bill your tarot card reading to your home phone. However, for a limited time, when you use your Mastercard, Visa, or pay with a check by phone, you can enjoy speaking to a master psychic for as little as 1.99 a minute! That’s a savings of more than 60 percent off our regular prices. Just call 1-800-840-8284 to learn more!”

I was more confused than I had ever been, even more than when Luke and Bo disappeared and Coy and Vance showed up on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Why did Miss Cleo need to bill my home phone if the Free Tarot Reading was free? Doesn’t “free” mean “without charge”? Or have the kids changed it with their slang, like how “bad” means “good” and “phat” means “I can’t spell”?

Unsure what else to do, I called the new number. This time, the recorded message was from Miss Cleo herself, telling me to press 1 to purchase psychic time (as little as $1.99 per minute) with a credit card, or 2 to pay through my checking account. I pressed nothing and got a live operator instead.

OPERATOR: Thank you for calling —
ME: Is this Miss Cleo?
OPERATOR: No, sir.
ME: Is Miss Cleo there?
OPERATOR: May I have your ZIP Code, please?
ME: 84604 (not my real ZIP Code; I was testing his psychic powers). Is this where I can get the free reading?
OPERATOR: No, this is where you can pre-pay some minutes with a credit card.

He explained that the Free Tarot Reading is free, but only for the first few minutes, and then they start charging you. I could not afford this, of course. Miss Cleo had snookered me. I admired her tenacity even as I cursed her name. Crestfallen, embittered and sad, I hung up the phone and shuffled slowly out into the night, where I was immediately struck by a bus.

Either I'm being really sarcastic and ironic and using a lot of exaggeration in this column, or else I'm playing a character who is not me (though we do have the same first name). I like the idea of playing someone else, someone who really does believe in tarot cards, gets confused by "The Dukes of Hazzard," and would genuflect toward Mecca to cover all his religious bases. Some of the themes expressed here made me think of a short story I'd like to write, if I ever decide I can write fiction.

I like this column a lot, actually. I'm proud of the number of different types of jokes I used (irony, wordplay, sudden reversals, literalism, etc.), where usually a couple of tones are consistent throughout.

This was my 200th published "Snide Remarks" column, which might have called for a minor celebration or something. But it was only the 132nd in the Daily Herald era, so I didn't do anything special. Discussing psychic hotlines was a bit of a throwback to one of my very first columns, though, if you're really aching for nostalgia.

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