(Photo credit: The University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf4-03422-xml, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)
It was the result of a challenge that I ended up in an unattractive dress seated in a claustrophobic tent for four hours. It was for the good of the school, Bentley College. They held a fair every first week of school, a way to get our last little kicks as well as fund more Student Union activities. Soon classes would doom us to hard work and chronic weariness. The newbies came as well, just sprung from their bucolic hometowns, ready to jump into the world of hand-picked Bentley students. Lucky them, luckier us since we knew the ropes. So it was a welcoming party by default.
Nate and Erica got me to volunteer after she told him about my palm reading sessions last spring. The part she left out was that I conducted them reluctantly. Instead, she wove a tale of how effortlessly I read the landscapes of students’ palms. She insisted I mentioned things they noted were correct. The seekers came to my room surreptitiously and demanded I reveal future outcomes–whether they would fail or pass a mid-term or if some boy was the bona fide one and only. I was an excellent guesser, a tad intuitive at my best. It was nothing to get excited about.
It was bothersome at the least, and embarrassing at worst. I had heretofore been known as a budding intellectual. I wanted to become a research psychologist. Now the word was that I was a fortune-teller. I should have squelched the talk, as mother would have disowned me. My father–well, he would find it unthinkable and therefore untrue.
Nate didn’t know about my palmistry avocation because guys had no interest in that sort of thing. They lived in their own worlds. For Nick, that meant his main pleasure, after making Dean’s List, was gambling. Poker to be exact, nothing better than that. He was good, that we all knew as word travels fast when a boy on the verge of manhood has the money to drive a car that takes your breath away. It was the most attractive thing about him, although I suspect it was his father’s loaner. Nate didn’t talk to me much the first two years so when he challenged me to dress up and tell fortunes at the Fall Revels I promptly declined. Then Erica and he concocted this scheme of betting on whether I would or not. The money: fifty dollars donated to the Union, fifty to the winner. It worked. I relented to get them out of my hair. Erica is a moderate friend of a dear friend so I could manage to do this once. Nate, simply an irritant. He later bet me I wouldn’t make one hundred the whole night, at two dollars a palm reading.
The night was cooling off, fortunately for all. I shifted in my chair, waiting for people to line up. Moths flew around the candle light first then several had been shepherded my way and I said the right things, remained ambiguous enough to thrill them, and saw good tidings in the distance. More dropped in to say hi and get “the inside info.” It was going well, after all.
I recalled enough from reading Madame Palantine’s Handbook of Palms and Fortunes to indicate the tracings on the hand and their professed significance. It had been left on the train my family took to Yellowstone the summer before twelfth grade. It fascinated me. I have a good memory, you could say unusually so, and after I read it twice I had the details.
Anyway, it was easy. People want to believe things. They want to hear their hopes given a vote of probability. They have secrets they won’t tell to most people, but if put them in a dimly lit tent with a person seated with confidence, create a hint of mystery, and they give themselves away somehow. It’s my foreignness, I think. I have an accent courtesy of having lived in Croatia the first half of my life. If I let it slip it adds interest and it attached itself to my predictions.
I was entertained; so were the customers. But by eleven o’clock I was tired, I wanted an iced cold drink with my friends. When a straggler sat down, I said nothing. I may have sighed but so did she. I was startled. She had hooded hazel eyes that must have informed the whole world of heartbreak. They were brimming with quiet, painful things. I took her hands in mine. They rested like baby birds sleeping, twitchiness enclosed in elegance. I felt her sadness pierce my center. Boldness swept over me.
“Your aunt, she has left,” I said.
She leaned closer.
“I’m so sorry she died. What do you want of me?”
This girl filled the tent with an invisible net of aching. I saw her hands, how narrow of palm, how tapered the fingertips, the many fine, long lines that mapped her skin. She was fragile yet there was a survival instinct that gave strength. I could feel her taking my measure. September’s piquant air was inhaled as though it cleared her mind.
She gave me a crooked smile. One eye let go a tear.
“Aunt Sari back.”
“Of course you do. But do you want the house she left? On the riverbank?”
She swiped at her wet cheeks. “How can I know? I haven’t gotten to that point! I just came to college to get away from the family!” Her voice was now a considerable force. “Who are you, anyway?”
“I don’t know, well, I was just sitting here and you came in and then I realized your aunt–”
She drew back and stood to leave. Not so much angry as just done. I was, as well. We entered the velvety night and gazed at the crowd. People were restive, milling about, chattering away, the night having bestowed good cheer on all. I felt stunned. In fact I wondered if she would run off and complain and if I should make amends when she turned to me and gave me a little shake of the shoulders.
“Well, then, I’m Favor Wexler. I haven’t a clue about what you just did but it marks the start of an interesting year.”
“I’m Celia,” I laughed–why not? “I’m not really into this, I just… well, I prefer to be known as a serious student of human nature.”
“Really? Good job,” she said and managed to almost smile.
We threaded our way through the clumped groups of students. As I walked up to Erica and Nate I held my hand out to him.
He raised an eyebrow at me, but he beamed as his glance slid over to Favor. He got out his wallet. I made a prediction right then and there.