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The Heartbreak of O.J. Mayo, Part II: Coffee, Curses, and Vengeance

Halfway across the world, in a restaurant in Dubai, OJ Mayo finally found the reason for his catastrophic fall.

This is the second installment in a five-part series. You can read previous installments here:

[Author’s Note: The following is a work of (mostly) fiction. It is dedicated to IKC.]

Today’s soundtrack is: “I Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down” by Charlie Parr

December 31, 2016

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It’s New Year’s Eve, and O.J. Mayo has found himself in the sprawling, international city of Dubai, where he’ll be welcoming in 2017 in the luxurious upper floors of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

But there’s still hours before even the least fashion-conscious will begin arriving for the night’s festivities, and Mayo, still adjusting to the time change, is wide awake and, more importantly, hungry.

Eventually, the search for food leads him to the Intercontinental Hotel’s Anise Restaurant. It’s Saturday, and the restaurant, with live cooking stations offering a range of cuisines from Arabic to Chinese to Japanese, is in the middle of its regular Saturday Arabian Brunch. Mayo’s picked the ideal time to eat. It’s nearly noon, and the restaurant’s patrons are prone to late lunches in the early afternoon. As a result, the crowds are thin, giving Mayo his pick of the buffet’s offerings.

Mayo makes three trips through the lines, sampling a little bit of everything: al machboos served with rice; a wheat dish known as al harees; a fusion shawarma roll from one of the Japanese counters; Chinese sweet and sour pork.

His appetite sated, Mayo is on his way out when he spots, to one side of the room, a table covered in a beautiful orange cloth embroidered with gold and silver flowers. On top of the table sits a two foot-high blackboard, on which is written, in big block letters, the words: COFFEE READING. A woman occupies the lone chair behind the table, her black-nailed hands clasped in front of her. A simple silver clip holds up a fistful of her thick, black hair, but the rest falls in rich, dark waves that lap at the shores of her neck and shoulders.

Mayo freezes as her dark eyes lock onto him. He’s never considered himself superstitious. At least, no more than the average athlete, with whatever assortment of pregame rituals he's collected over a lifetime of playing basketball competitively. But the sign, the idea of divining the future from something as mundane as a cup of coffee, piques his interest. Before he can stop himself, he's standing in front of the table, offering his hand and exchanging introductions as he takes a seat.

Miss Zainab, as she introduces herself, fills a plain white cup to the brim with coffee as dark and thick as tar. The cup is settled onto a matching white saucer before being offered to Mayo.

“Relax and sip slowly,” Miss Zainab says. “Be sure to only drink from one side of the cup, and when you've reached the bottom, leave one sip of liquid in the cup. It aids in the swirling process.”

The drinking passes in awkward silence. Mayo’s concentration is on forcing himself to stomach the brew before him. He's never been one for coffee, and this particular concoction, devoid of whipped cream or even the slightest hint of sugar, elicits a cringe with every bitter sip. Across from him, Miss Zainab appears content to watch the crowds passing by outside. She doesn’t speak until Mayo is nearing the end of his drink. Craning her neck, she takes a look at the coffee. “When you are taking your last sip, you must make a wish.”

“A wish?”

Miss Zainab nods. “It can be anything. Just one wish you must make in secret.”

When he finally comes to that last sip, Mayo closes his eyes and, after first thanking God that his tongue has taken its 39th lash, makes a single, simple, predictable wish.

With Miss Zainab guiding him, Mayo follows through the next steps. With the index finger of his right hand, he swirls the coffee around in the cup — “to spread the grounds evenly,” Miss Zainab says — then flips the cup onto the saucer, squeezing the pair together into an awkward porcelain kiss, and holds it out directly in front of his chest.

After peering at the cup and giving a satisfied nod, Miss Zainab reaches out and takes the cup and saucer from Mayo’s grasp to set it delicately in front of her. “We will let it sit for 5 minutes,” she says, “to drain and cool. Then, it will be time for your reading.”

While drinking the coffee, Mayo repeatedly told himself that he should enjoy the reading, that he shouldn’t take anything she says seriously. But in spite of himself, Mayo can feel a growing discomfort in his stomach, and he’s uncertain whether the culprit is nerves or the coffee he’s just consumed. “So,” he says, “how does this work?”

“Once the cup has cooled, I will turn it over very gently. Then, we begin the readings.

“The coffee cup can be divided into three sections: the top, representing the future; the middle of the cup, representing the current times; and the bottom, which represents your past. I always begin from the cup’s handle and work my way down, looking for images and symbols which must be interpreted. This is how it works.”

Finally, Miss Zainab determines enough time has passed. With one hand, she lifts the cup. For a brief moment, it clings to its mate, lifting the saucer an inch off the table before the two separate. The saucer rattles onto the table, and, as it does, a small cluster of grounds drips from the cup, landing in a neat pile in the middle of the saucer.

Miss Zainab smiles at Mayo. “That is a good sign,” she says. “This means you will soon be coming into some money.”

Mayo doesn’t even bother trying to hide his eagerness. “How much money? How soon?”

“I’m afraid those are questions I don’t have answers to,” says Miss Zainab. “The coffee is clear in some things, but in others, it can be… mysterious. Now, let’s continue with your cup.”

Miss Zainab tilts the cup around, squinting, peering at it from every conceivable angle, interpreting the symbols and images as she happens across them. “They are lighter at the top. That is a good sign for your wish. I believe it will come true. There’s a bird. This means good news. And a spider! This confirms what we have seen with your saucer, that you have money coming to you.”

Zainab’s finger traces the grounds deeper into the cup, and, as it does, her smile slips and her brow furrows. “The signs are much darker here,” she says, her voice just above a whisper. “There is a mountain here, some obstacle you must overcome. And a nail… you have recently experienced some suffering.”

Across the table, Mayo sits bolt upright, then leans forward. Whatever skepticism he carried to the table with him has vanished. “What else do you see?”

“That is all I see for your present,” says Miss Zainab. Then, as she reaches the bottom of the cup, she reaches up with a black-nailed hand to stifle a gasp.

“What is it?” Mayo asks, his voice shaking. “What do you see?”

“Your past is nothing but a dark cloud.” Miss Zainab turns the cup around, and, sure enough, at the bottom of the cup, there’s an enormous clump of coffee grounds, thicker even than what sits on the saucer in front of them.

“What is that? What does it mean?”

“I believe… I believe that you have been cursed.”

“Cursed? But… how?”

Miss Zainab shakes her head, unable to tear her eyes away from the cup. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she says. “There… there’s words in here. Actual words.”

“What does it say? Does it say how to break the curse?”

Squinting, Miss Zainab tilts the cup, holding it within an inch of her face. Finally she lowers it. Her head tilted to the side, puzzlement written on her features, she gazes across the table at Mayo.

“Who is Hasheem Thabeet?”

His story finished, Mayo turns to me, grinning as he watches me puzzle through everything the same way he did just a week ago in the Restaurant Anise. When he recognizes the realization in my eyes, he laughs.

“Don’t worry,” he says, clapping he firmly on the back. “I didn’t believe it at first, either.”

“So,” I say slowly, “you’re saying a woman told you that you were cursed, and, somehow, this curse is linked to the worst draft pick in Memphis Grizzlies history?”

Mayo nods.

“And so you’re out here because you want to… break the curse?”

“What better place to put a stop curse than where it was first born.” Mayo points south. “Thabeet was from Tanzania. And first thing tomorrow morning, that’s where we’re heading. Here, come look at this.”

Standing, Mayo leads me over to his tent. He disappears inside for a second, then reappears, a bundle of cloth clutched in his hands. He kneels down and unrolls the cloth. Inside, Mayo’s assembled a utility belt of curse-breaking tools: a bottle of holy water; magic mirrors; an assortment of voodoo dolls; a consecrated amulet; incense; silver bullets; and a wooden stake. The last two, I can only assume, are there in case the curse has somehow grown sentient and transformed into a werewolf or vampire.

“You really came prepared,” I say.

Mayo nods, still grinning. “I’m going to end this curse,” he says, his voice carrying the unshakeable tone of absolute self-confidence. “I’m going to put a stop to it once and for all.”

Story continues tomorrow...