The Past is Blind

by Cat Weaver

Olive Headman sits in front of the television watching the impeachment hearings. She seems to be responding to the speakers, talking earnestly with them. But as I lean in to listen, it strikes me that she is, in fact, anticipating the lines of dialogue: stating, seconds before they are spoken, the questions of the interrogators and the responses of the witness. 

How in hell is she doing this?

No one knows. Olive herself doesn’t seem to know. Although, she will tell me later, she may be creating it. She feels responsible, sometimes, for creating events. 

As a dealer in outsider art, I find myself often in this situation. I am in someone’s home, in a place, a neighborhood, a town, a country sometimes, that is unfamiliar to me. At the mercy of my hosts, I eat and drink things I’d normally avoid, I test my diplomacy on delicate subjects like the sanity of family members, the veracity of witnesses, and the sensitivities of local politics. I’ve seen mostly, varied types of squalor. Right now, the Headman’s trailer, half buried in snow, is just another variant.

What brings me upstate New York in mid-winter, this time, to sit with Alice Headman at a small crumb-covered kitchen table with a cup of instant coffee in front of me, is the promise of a new discovery. Olive Headman makes pictures on cardstock, cut to the size of playing cards. They are mixed media drawings, paintings and collage. She makes two or three a night for weeks at a time, then pauses a few days, then starts again. To date there are something like three hundred of them.

I’d read about Olive’s “tarot cards” in a clipping sent to  me by my mother. Snipped from the local newspaper, The Worcester Times, the single column article described “13-year-old Olive Headman” as a local phenomenon who “paints the future.” Examples cite were pretty lackluster: one of her cards depicted a madonna with her sister-in-law’s photo as a face. It turns out, Ginny Headman, the sister-in-law, had not yet learned of her own pregnancy. Slightly more intriguing, another of Olive’s cards used the text, “I’m not your piece of the pie” – a line that would hit all the gossip magazines worldwide as Caston Reeves, famed celebrity art collector, filed to divorce his very young celebrity chef wife, Ashley Lawson. How had she come by that phrase before it was ever spoken?

A perfunctory Google search gave only the Reeves/Lawson result and no prior coinage. Still, if the paper had not included a few fuzzy photos of Olive and her art cards, I’d have filed it under “later.”

As it was, I looked up Alice Headman, Olive’s mother and she invited me to come by to see the cards and talk to the family.

Now, turning from Olive and the tv, I ask Alice, “How accurate is she?”

“Pretty spot on. Boyd, my boy— he likes to play a game with her. She tells him stories about what’s going to happen — tomorrow, next week — you know, and he writes news headlines. Boyd’s smart that way. He can really write them! Anyways, they get a few right and a LOT close to right.”

“Wait. You mean she tells him about events that turn up in the news?”

“No, “Alice shakes her head, “Nope. She tells Boyd stories. About what people are doing. Like she’ll say, Horace Blakely is telling Myra Lake to pack it up and just write a book. Or, anyway, something like that. And, I swear, sometimes we don’t even know who she’s talking about. But then, sure enough, some accountant for some big shot social media bullshit company — this Myra Lake— shows up in the news with a tell-all book and this Horace Blakely is her lawyer.”

Indeed, I knew the story, had seen ads for the book.

“I’m afraid the child will just lose her mind completely,” says Alice, leaning over the small table that dominated the trailer’s front room, “I mean, If I were Olive, I’d suspect that no one else existed— the world was in my mind.”

I made a mental note that Olive may be influenced by her mother’s thinking on that matter. And sure enough, when I did get Olive to go for a walk with me, she revealed her worry that she was creating events from her imagination.

She takes me on a dirt trail, past a couple of barns, toward a pond.

“I can’t help it,” she tells me, trudging along in bright red UGGs. “If I empty my mind, I want to die. I have to keep it full. But when I do, I might make things happen. If I put it on a card, and it’s not even what I thought I was making — but it happens. Like Ginny. I just wanted to use her pretty face. It was the first one I made. But now it’s like. I can’t even make something because they’re all like waiting to see if it will happen. So now I try to make things that I think will happen. And they do. So now I’m stuck.”

She sneaks a look at me. I’m thinking so I don’t have anything to say.

She continues, “A lot of the time, I think, I’ll just make something dumb that just can’t happen. But, you know all those stories where someone makes a wish and they get what they said they wanted but it’s not really what they wanted?”

“Like the lady who wishes for her dead son to come back to her and he does come knocking on her door but he’s dead?”

“Yes. Like that.”

“Have you ever tried the past?” I ask her.

Olive’s face washes over: “It’s like you didn’t even have the right to look that clearly into the past. Like you’d go blind.”

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