Tango for Sale

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She said they didn’t have any great skills but that’s why people enrolled in dance lessons, right? So they saw their new ad and here they were.

Sadie was a talker but they both shared a lot, how they liked to do things that required far less sweat–watching movies, enjoying six course meals, mastering the art of checkers. Carlos was a factory worker so when he was off, he was done. Sadie was manager of a tapas café until the owner’s daughter took her job. Now she worked at her aunt’s collection business.

“Collection stinks. How can I harass people who don’t have the money to meet basic needs? It’s indecent.”

Janelle tried to not listen as she showed a student how to stretch, but how could you avoid such a voice? She couldn’t imagine what it was like getting Sadie’s phone calls or living with that decibel. But the way he patted her shoulder, brushed her bangs from her eyes and bent down to kiss her long nose–some might say large–said it all. He was handsome in a beat-up way, Janelle thought. Must be newlyweds.

They wanted to live better, lower stress, they said. Janelle and Baron had an ad in the neighborhood weekly but this month they’d run a special. First three classes for ten bucks each, then after that the regular rate of twenty an hour. Or ten for one-forty, a real savings. Not so many people wanted dance lessons when they had trouble paying bills. It netted them a half-dozen newbie so far.

“I gotta keep myself in shape,” Sadie said, rolling her eyes. “I’m edging toward thirty-seven and you know where that leads.”

Janelle smiled and handed her a schedule.

Carlos watched the group learning the tango.  He seemed restless; Janelle assumed Sadie had dragged him there. He didn’t ask questions, shrugged with hands in pockets. But in ten minutes it became apparent the guy had a sense of rhythm. He tapped his foot, bounced a little as he paced, and studied the moves.

“Sign us up for this one. I can tell he likes it.” Sadie beamed at her man and he shot her a hundred-watt smile.

Janelle took her check for three lessons and talked over attire and rules of the dance floor. Just to be clear. Sadie had worn a long brown sweater, tight jeans and heavy boots.

Baron whisked by, then paused. “You like tango?” He was the expert on this dance.

Sadie shrugged. “We like games, checkers or dominoes, t.v. shows after work. I don’t watch football like him but I used to play volleyball awhile back. I had a bike, rode it every day. Got ripped off. Tango, yeah, well, I used to dance a long time ago. I’m game to try anything and I love Latin music. And Carlos.” Her laugh boomed in the small space and a few people looked her way.

The couple hustled out the door, Sadie waving like they were old friends, saying they’d be back.

Baron chuckled as he stepped back on the floor. “He might be a natural.What a couple of characters!”

Janelle threw him a sideways glance. Her husband: six feet three, a balding redhead, brown eyes that could scald or light her up depending on his mood. He never took off the long necklace with crystal and jade pendants. He denied being superstitious but she knew better.

Of course, she was not a flawless fifty. A bit soft, okay rounder than she’d planned. But she had thick, long, silvery hair; it saved Janelle from despair some days. Ridiculous. But every morning after the mirror check she said aloud, “I’m still a dancer and a better teacher.”

“I bet the woman can dance,” Janelle confided in Baron that night as they closed up. “And that Carlos may be a natural.”

“In the end it doesn’t matter, darling girl. Two more students! We’ll make a decent profit this session.”

He rapped the scarred wooden desk top three times.

The next week the couple turned up. Carlos seemed embarrassed and Sadie did not when they bungled their first steps.  They took a sail around the room to loosen up more despite Janelle and Baron’s frowns. The group appeared more relaxed with the breezy twosome there. Baron noted it felt less like pulling teeth to get them to commit to the steps.

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“Look,” Sadie told everyone, “just act like you know what you’re doing and mirror our teachers’ movements–they’re perfect!”

Carlos held her tightly. They were stiff in each other’s arms. Then tango music crescendoed, intense rhythms shaking up melody, Sadie’s laugh punctuating their goofs.

The room felt good, the atmosphere livelier.

“See?” Janelle whispered. “Though they could be a little more serious.”

He nodded slowly, eyes on the new couple.

There were twelve total on the floor. The ones who improved were those who let down their guard a bit. It wasn’t just feet, arms and head placements. The tango was a passionate dance, a lover’s dance, and relayed what words couldn’t begin to say. Some people were too scared to welcome that sort of power. Others would find their way. And some, like Carlos and Sadie, got in the thick of it because they wanted to be right there.

The second class was a success; everyone learned what they were supposed to, on time. The group began to jell. The third class demanded more, putting  more complicated steps together quickly. Confidence was required.

Sadie leaned into Carlos as they veered away to the group’s edge. She’d worn a floral skirt and scuffed red dance shoes and when he guided her she responded with the trust needed to move in concert. They executed more difficult moves, moved instinctively. They were engrossed, enchanted–by the music’s heat, the challenge of the dance, each other.

Baron and Janelle watched in surprise. They’d been practicing. They had, it seemed, real promise. Everyone stole admiring glances at them. Sadie and Carlos were beautiful to behold; their electric presence brought back Janelle’s and Baron’s past, when they were young, fresh, excited by the grand emotion of it all.

“I love those kids,” Baron told her as they watched the floor and the students. “Carlos and Sadie have the spirit. How can you teach the essence of tango? I know we didn’t teach that in three classes.”

“No, but we still get to show them the way. Look at them glow.”

She said it with such reverence that Baron slipped an arm around her waist. He absently touched the necklace. He wondered over  the new couple.

“They’ve got something besides talent, Janelle. They know something, a secret that makes them good so fast.”

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She shook her head but the way he said it, his hand on those darned pendants–she knew what he meant. She shivered a little and followed their moves. Turning in the light and shadow, their bodies in sync, their profound silence infused with something Janelle couldn’t name. When the song drew to a close, all the students clapped for each other. They were so pleased to have taken this class. And they had two stars in the making right before them. They were drawn to Sadie and Carlos–the first pink-faced and panting, the second animated and shiny with sweat–like bees to clover. They lingered awhile, chatting until Janelle and her husband had to lock up.

When the students trailed out, the two teachers sat and looked at each other. They were having success. Happiness coursed through them like a veritable transfusion. Janelle got up and settled on her husband’s knees. He closed his arms around her.

The fourth week came and they waited and waited for Sadie and Carlos to come through the door. The students took their places. The tango music swelled; work got underway. Janelle looked at the clock, at the door. Baron called the commands, adjusted a few couples’ positions and threw her a glance, fingering the pendants. Everyone seemed stiffer than usual, not quite on task. They missed their inspiration, waited for the golden couple.

“It has to be another appointment or the flu. Or maybe they ran out of money and just didn’t want to tell us.”

“No,” Baron said. “Tango meant too much already. They should be here.”

The fifth week, no show, no call. Janelle tried Sadie’s number but  no answer. The sixth week everyone took their places without a word; if the other two showed, good and if not, well, a mystery. Janelle was on the phone–there had been so much interest lately–when Carlos walked in. The room erupted in cheerful greetings until they saw he was unshaven, hair a mess, and eyes dull. The group gathered around him, hands to chests.

“What, Carlos?” Janelle put her hand on his arm.

“Sadie has a weak heart. Can you imagine her with a bum ticker? Yeah, I knew. And she had more and more trouble breathing.” His eyes filled. “Had to have surgery. She’s not so great.”

It was clear he didn’t know when or even if she’d get back. But she was home. Their shock and sympathy were a soft murmur.

“We’ll go see her, okay, Carlos?” Baron spoke with firmness. He grabbed the tango CD from the player and got his jacket.

Janelle got her coat and one by one they all prepared to follow.  When they trooped upstairs and the neighbor who’d been staying with her left, they squeezed into the bedroom where she lay, eyes suddenly wide. It was a little strange, being in this intimate space with someone who had seemed far different. Her presence had been so big at the studio. Now, she looked very small.

The new friends shared encouragement in near-whispers. Sadie listened and an easy smile usurped her frailness, while her eyes tried to hide fear, pain, grief. She seemed nearly transparent. So young to be lying there. Such an ill-begotten and terribly unwanted thing possessed her. But she held out her hands to them in thanks.

And then the music started. She heard the tango boldly wending its way into her room with its smooth, sly beauty, sensual and bittersweet, wrapping her in vivid life. She closed her eyes and she was dancing, feet strong and body lithe as she pulled it into her faulty heart. Carlos was there showing her the way. Her spirit leapt. There were lights like stars and a broad swath of velvety blue and she danced right to the moon. It was what she’d needed.

Carlos sat on her bed to make certain her chest rose up and down and he felt the music seep into her marrow and his. The crowd filed out of the bedroom like a collective sigh.

Baron and Janelle called out to the two left behind.

“See you both sooner than you think!”

“We’ll pray for speedy healing and more dance!”

The music played on. Carlos lay beside her and stroked her face. She breathed his tenderness and they fell asleep, tango taking them away._wsb_410x262_CornerT

Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

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.

The Enchantment of Fairs

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If closing day of the fair had been the day before, Marisa would’ve been on the divan sleeping off the hang-over left her from their monthly card party. It would have passed her by. Today her energy returned and a better viewpoint with it. She made Toby what he wanted for breakfast (two eggs over easy, two pieces of bacon and a bran muffin with blackberry jam), waited around to see what he was up to, then waved good-bye from the side door.  He had promised to work on his best friend’s car and seemed to have forgotten the fair altogether.

That was the first surprise of the day. He always remembered it. He hated it, said his mother had vanished when he was eight because of the damned fair. It came into town; she left with it. Marisa didn’t understand his reasoning; the woman was obviously unhappy or she would have stayed. No adult used a fair as a reason for running away, not since the turn of the century. But to abandon her child was brutal. It was something that had drawn her to him, a well-hidden brokenness. Her parents didn’t understand it; she was level-headed. He had a need far greater than hers. Studying nursing was just no match for mending hearts, so that was that. It had worked out. When she felt restless, his love was a magnet.

But she might check out the fair even though it was not an event Marisa particularly enjoyed. She had memories of the cows as encountered as a child, their dirty, dusty smell, their breath on her legs. The horses were excellent though they had a terrible ability to stare her down, their gaze fierce then disinterested. She imagined them jumping the gates, then taking her along with them and this idea thrilled her more than their beauty. The worst of it was the pigs and the Ferris wheel. They both promptly made her gag even though her father had encouraged her. The crowds were unruly, the food inedible her father agreed. They liked the quilts, science experiments and horse show. Her mother, of course, never went. She couldn’t handle the odors and cacophony, both triggers for mean if infrequent migraines.

Maddy sat on the stoop, chin in hands. She found herself wondering lately if her mother could have finally accepted that she married Toby. If she would berate her for not having children or not being in school.

Her family was one of a handful that lived in the hills, in fact, one from which you could glimpse the fair. It had been a large house by any standards, cool inside with pale leather furniture filling the cavernous living room. Lilies everywhere leaned their heads over the rims of glass vases. Meryl McCann had been one of those women every one wanted to know. Marisa, an only child, had trailed after her from room to room until it was unseemly to adore your mother. Then she spied on her, memorized her ways, caught fragments of conversations. She organized, made things happen. Meryl knew how to laugh even when you weren’t funny and smile even when she was in pain. Maddy was sixteen when her mother died of an aneurysm. It was a summer day but stormy and before she had gone up to her room, she had reminded Maddy to not be afraid.

“The wind always rattles the house, you know that. It’s just nature at work, God ruminating. I am going to rest a bit.”

She had placed her hand on Marisa’s face, then alongside her own temple as the storm wailed. For months afterwards Maddy felt her fingers on her right cheekbone, a caress interrupted by thunder.

Toby had always been good to her. He was a great mechanic and machinist, but his skills did not recommend him to her father. What it took was her begging to marry him and thus remain in town rather than attend college. They would be there for him always, bring grandchildren around. It was barely enough; Brett McCann wanted more for her. She was nineteen.

Here it was three years later, no babies, no changes in her father’s lack of warmth toward her husband. The three of them shared a drink now and then. Unbeknownst to her father, Marissa drank alone at times; she felt her mother scold her. It was summer’s malaise, she thought, the way the heat siphoned off her energy and good intentions. It was even more likely being twenty-two without accomplishments to feel proud about.

She shook off the thought as she stood, hand shading the sun from her eyes. The transparent blue sky blinded. She felt less like staying home than going to the fair so she got her purse and put on her sandals.

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The first tent held the usual array of creatures, sheep, goats and somnolent cows and steers. She glanced left and right, thinking they deserved a better fate. They no longer bothered her as much as tugged at her pity. The horses seemed less fearsome and more beautiful but she  didn’t understand them. Marissa suspected they knew it; they nodded perfunctorily.

She admired the handiwork of quilters when she spotted her father’s balding head bobbing above the crowd. He carried a beer in one hand and bent down a little, talking to someone. Why hadn’t she thought to ask him to come along? She hurried through the throng until she recognized Esther Thorne’s auburn hair shaking free of a barrette. She laughed and lifted a paper cone of blue cotton candy to coral lips. Marissa’s father pulled her aside and his lips grazed hers. When he looked up he saw his daughter there, mouth wide open,  hands up in the air and eyes big with astonishment.

“Marissa!” He and Esther strode forward as she stepped back.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Marissa, dear!” Esther held out her hand as though they were next door neighbors. No more, not for a long time.

They exchanged meaningless words and Marissa excused herself, running past the vendors and rides and tents, up the hill. She ran until something pricked her heel and she had to stop. It was sweat or tears that wet her face but she ignored both as she surveyed the fairgrounds, then trudged home.

Toby was washing grease off his hands in the bathroom. Marissa wiped her face before sitting on the toilet seat.

“What’s up, gorgeous?” he asked.

Marissa touched his arm. “I want to have a child but I want to go to college first.”

He dried his hands, leaned against the wall. “What happened?”

“The fair. You’re right. They have unreasonable powers. But I came back and always will. I’m just ready for more.”

When he touched her she knew what he felt; she felt it, too.

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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.