Priscilla at Loose Ends

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(Photo: “Priscilla” Joseph Szabo, 1969)

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m watching my friends  surf a last time in the season when this kid comes up and grabs the cigarette out of my hand.

“Are you crazy? Give it back–you’re about the age of my niece and she’s only ten!” 

But she inhales nice and easy like she’s a pro. I’m not sure what to make of it. I stand up and make a grab for it but she steps back. I take another tact.

“Who do you think you are? No one grabs a smoke out of a stranger’s hand. It’s rude. For you, also illegal.”

She smiles, and the thing is, it’s a charming smile despite the cigarette dangling between her small white teeth. It fits snug against the space between the two in front. I’m disgusted by her smoking but I wave her closer. She pulls up her pants and puts her hands on skinny hips.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

She blows out a thin stream and watches it slink between us as though it is a standard greeting from a little monster. Because I think that’s what she may be or at least tries to be.

“Priscilla.” She lifts her chin a notch and peers down at me. A smaller smile starts and stops.

The sound of her voice is smarmy, like she’s trying to impress me with her kid wondrousness. I would’ve thought she’d had a nickname to offer, but how do you nicely shorten a name like that?

“Well, Miss Pris, I’m Constance, Connie if you’re a friend of mine which you’re not. What are you doing out here, anyway? Where’s your mom or sister?”

Priscilla makes herself at home a few feet away from me, sits and smokes, her hair flying in the cooling breeze. She holds it between her thumb and index finger, handing it back to me. I examine it, take a short drag, and smash it into the sand.

“Well?”

She shrugs, shoulders held close to her ears for a few seconds, lips puckering. When they come down, she looks away. “Don’t have one or the other. I live-” she opens her arms and indicates the beach and surrounding park”-just here.”

I guffawed. “No, you don’t. You’re too clean for that. You’ve got shiny hair and nice clothes and a look in your eye that tells me you’re up to something.”

Priscilla takes off her red tennis shoes and digs up the sand with tanned feet, making the sand spray at me. It’s not silky sand like you’d want to lay on in a bikini. It’s grainy, cool and none too clean. She narrows her eyes at me.

“What are you doing here? Looking for a boy? Trying to be cool  with your Frye boots when it’s only sixty degrees out?”

I have an impulse to swat her like I would my niece but of course that can’t happen. “No, fool, I’m with my friends. They’re surfing out there. ” I point. “Don’t change the subject. Do you live around the neighborhood?”

She turns and gazes at the ocean so long I about give up and take off.

“I used to. In that big house at the end of the road.”

She pointed at a nearby two-story grey house with black shutters. It was large enough for two families, at least. There was a covered veranda that looked empty and a very long dock where a boat, a small yacht, really, was tied up.

“Hmmm, nice.”

“Yep,” she asserted and turned her attention to me again. “But Father lost all our money in a bad business deal and mother, well, she took off with her best friend, went to Hawaii, and never returned. So now father lives in a crummy little apartment. I have this narrow, cramped bedroom with a day bed, that’s what he calls it, which means it isn’t really a bed, at all. He works at a car place, you know, where they sell used cars.”

I sink down beside her, pull a last cigarette from the crumpled pack, and shake my head when she tries to reach for it. I light it. “So, what are you doing here alone?”

“My father gets home late so I come down here sometimes. I have this dream that I will find my mother.” She scrunches up her face and rubs her eyes, sniffs a little, the trains her big brown eyes on me. “I’m twelve, anyway.”

I get an odd sensation. The girl’s tone is dramatic, strange, too old for her age but I feel her sadness, too, so maybe her parents did have bad times. “I’m sorry. But you can’t just wander around here all afternoon. It’s not safe, Priscilla.”

“Oh, I’m fine. I know the area. The apartment is just a bus ride away. I have my crappy old cell phone.” She pats her pants pocket for reassurance.

I can see my friends coming in. They’ll wonder why this kid is hanging out and I have to be honest, though I’m worried for her, I want her to get lost. I have plans. I don’t want to feel responsible for a smart-alecky waif who steals cigarettes and who knows what else.

“Good,” I say, “because I have to meet up with my friends. We’re going to eat, then have a bonfire later.”

She looks at me imploringly.

“No, you can’t stay. Do you need money?”

“No, I’m good.” She shakes her head, then walks away.

I watch her as she ambles down the beach. She stops a couple times and looks back, then stops by a man in a straw hat, hands in her back pockets, her stance like a tough kid’s, which she sort of is. I’m about to turn away when I hear her laugh. She sits down by him. Alarm runs through me.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking.”

I turn to see who’s talking to me. A guy, medium tall, tan, scruffy and pleasant-smelling. Older than me. He looks like a runner, all trim in tank top and shorts, low-cut socks and sneakers.

“She stole my smoke this morning, too. She’s a brat, really, but what can you do? I can’t break her of her bad behaviors and dad is very busy these days. Pris is too smart, funny, and a little rougher since  mom left.” He looks down the beach and nods. “Looks like dad interrupted her stroll.”

I follow his gaze to Priscilla and the man. “Ah. Your dad. You live over there?” I point at the grey house.

“Yeah. I’m George. Come by later and join our barbecue. It’ll be a crowd like no other!”

Relief surges within me but I wave him off. He smiles the family’s magnetic grin and starts running. I head down to shore and catch up with my friends. I am sorry and scared for Priscilla but also stunned. That’s the only time I plan on being conned by a ten year old. But I worry it won’t be the last time she snags cigarettes or chats with strangers. I wonder if my friends want to stop by a barbeque tonight.

Finding Favor

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(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.

“Pay up!”

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.