Cat calls, p.1
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       Cat Calls, p.1

           Cynthia Leitich Smith
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Cat Calls

  “Hey, Tiff, how ’bout a man in your future?” Aiden calls from the nearest concession stand as he pours butter-flavored oil into the popcorn popper.

  The scent of rotating sausages and heating cheese makes my stomach rumble, but I yawn and hurry on my catty-corner path across the main drag toward my grandmother’s tent. What with working nights, I can’t seem to get enough sleep anymore. I spent this afternoon on the living lot crashed on a hammock in the sunshine.

  The carnival scene is only vaguely freakish. Sure, talk has it that the carousel is haunted and my grandma really has the sight and the owner is some kind of shape-shifter, but that’s just talk. And our roustabouts are on the tough side, but you could say the same for the losers back at my high school in Detroit. Other than one bit-off ear and one small-time drug bust, nothing remotely interesting has happened all summer.

  Right now, we’re set up on the outskirts of Nowhere, Oklahoma. It’s July, just past sundown, and the front gates open in fifteen minutes. It’s also ungodly hot, dry from the drought, and pink clay dust is blowing everywhere.

  As I saunter on, exaggerated kissing sounds trail me from the ex-con taking position at the Ferris wheel. A low whistle emerges from his brother-in-law, who’s touching up the red paint on the barred wagon labeled MAN-EATING SNAKE.

  Alongside a tin-can-alley game, I glimpse white teeth, the shadowy profile of a lean cowboy. A stranger. As I pause for a better look, he’s gone.

  Still, I stretch my arms over my head and arch my back, just to give the rest of the boys something to look at, showing off how my orange baby-doll T and denim cutoffs accent my curves. I’m a flirt, I admit it. I love the attention, especially ’cause it’s so new.

  I’m what people call “a late bloomer.” This May, not long after my sixteenth birthday, I finally started my period for the first time and shifted from blah to bombshell overnight.

  For me, it was a relief. My mom, on the other hand, had a full-scale panic attack. Before you could say “Xanax,” she packed me up and shipped me off to my grandmother, who at the time was predicting the future in Missouri off I-35.

  I tilt my head at one last whistle as I enter Granny Z.’s tent.

  “Cat calls,” she mutters, glancing up from the table where she’s filing her long nails. “You’re late.”

  I find Granny fascinating. She’s a tightly built woman, with golden-brown hair like mine, turned rusty from the dust. She goes by “Madame Zelda,” pretends like she can read my mind, and looks anywhere from age seventy to a hundred and ten.

  As I wiggle out of the T and shorts, Granny strolls over to hand me a loose-fitting, gauzy dress. It’s black and lavender with sheer, draping sleeves, silver sequins, and long fringe. Matching funky scarves drape from a beat-up freestanding coat hanger in the corner. The rest of the tent is the fortune-teller’s stage.

  My grandmother honestly believes in crystallomancy and claims “psychic ability is common among the women of our line.” It’s no big deal. She’s a little nutty, but who isn’t? I’ve been amazed by how many people believe in this crap.

  Tonight will be my first behind the ball. It was Granny Z.’s idea, apparently inspired by the one time back in June when she tried to read my future in the crystal. Granny claimed I’d someday join in the family tradition, and said she’d let me know when the time was right.

  At first, it sounded kind of fun, playing the fortuneteller, like dressing up on Halloween. So far as I can tell, it’s mostly a matter of watching your marks for clues and telling them what they want to hear.

  That sounds easy enough in theory. But here, tonight, moments away from facing real live people, the whole thing suddenly feels a lot more complicated. What if I totally blank? Or the marks get pissed at me for being such a lame and obvious faker?

  “I’m not sure I can do this,” I admit, though I’d hate to let her down.

  “You?” Granny smoothes my long hair and tucks a strand behind my ear. “Who knows what you can do? You don’t even know yet.”

  She’s always saying things like that. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

  “I’m off now,” she adds. “See you at breakfast!”

  “What?” I put my hand on her forearm. “Wait. You’re leaving me here? Alone?”

  Moving away, she says, “I’m leaving you to your future.”

  “Are you kidding?” What is she thinking? I can’t believe it! I mean, OK, yes, she does mysteriously disappear overnight sometimes. I’m sort of getting used to that. But what could be so important tonight? “What if something goes wrong?”

  Ignoring my protests, Granny Z. continues on her way, and I wonder for the first time if she might have a boyfriend. She’s quite the vixen for a grandma, and I see her playing cards sometimes with the old alligator man.

  Granny is my father’s mother. He died on I-96 when his Harley-Davidson was sideswiped by a Greyhound bus. I wasn’t even born yet.

  According to Mom, I was the product of an adolescent hookup at some house party in Ypsilanti, Michigan, involving vodka, a speedboat, and a Pink Floyd album. Dad died two days later, before they knew about me or even had a chance to really talk.

  Granny Z. showed up for the first time, unannounced, at our front door when I was ten. She inspected me like I was competition livestock, cooked pork chops for dinner, and after I went to bed she spent all night whispering with my mother in the kitchen.

  Granny left after pancakes the next morning and never visited again. Once in a while, though, Mom would mention that Granny called her at work. I didn’t get any phone calls, but Granny did send me cards, each with a dollar in it, on my birthdays.

  I thought this summer would be my chance to get to know her, to finally learn more about my father. I underestimated the hell out of how tight-lipped the old lady can be.

  Granny Z. uses a palm-sized crystal ball for her own purposes, but she breaks out the seven-inch diameter one for professional readings. The large quartz is exquisite, flawless, sits on a matching stand, and is so heavy that I need both hands to lift it.

  The ball, the outfits, the ambience . . . like in the movies, Granny says. It sells.

  I tie a long scarf around my hair, light the votive candles and cypress incense, and set a short stack of business cards on the black tablecloth.

  If I’m going to pull this off, I’ve got to get into the spirit, so to speak, or at least manage a halfway decent job of acting the part. Taking deep breaths, I try to do as Granny Z. instructed me. I gaze into the crystal, trying to unfocus my vision, trying to imagine myself in a room of white light, trying to feel any vibrations.

  By the time my first customers arrive, I’ve still failed to convince myself that the mist rising within the ball has some mystical source. I’m positive it’s just a product of the humidity and shadows.

  I lean out of the tent and smile at the fire juggler across the way. He raises his eyebrows suggestively, and I resist the urge to smirk.

  Instead, I use one finger to beckon a couple of townie girls to join me inside. They grab each other’s hands, giggling, and I cover my growling stomach with my hand.

  We don’t ask for money up front. The sign reads:




  The two minutes is my window. If I can reel in the marks, they’ll pay a buck for each additional two.

  I pull up an extra chair from the side of the tent, and the girls elbow each other playfully as they settle in. Usually it’s better to field “clients” one at a time (they’re less sure of themselves that way), but I took one look at these two and knew I’d lose both if I tried to separate them.

  They’re about my age, probably a little older, which doesn’t help my credibility.

bsp; I’m grateful for the dark, the flickering candlelight.

  Hoping they haven’t caught a good look at me, I snatch an additional gauzy scarf, drape it over my head, and bring the sides down to cover more of my face.

  Then I study the girls. Obviously, they’re from the local small town. They feel safe enough in their world to wear real gold jewelry to a carnival. One set of earrings is heart-shaped, the other clover-shaped. Their thin rope necklace-and-bracelet sets look alike. Their matching hairstyle is about three years ago. Clear fingernail polish, no tats, no extra piercings, easy on the makeup, wardrobe by Wal-Mart. They’re good girls, middle class, possibly honor roll, probably churchgoing, and definitely best buds.

  From their breath, I can tell that they both had corn dogs and onion rings with lemonades for dinner. Walking into my tent is about as close as they come to having a wild side.

  I poise my elbows on the table and place my fingertips beneath my chin.

  “What would you have me ask the ball?” I’m using a voice I practiced earlier. It’s lower and breathier than my regular one.

  The girls exchange glances. Then the one with the heart earrings nudges her friend. “Ash, ask her about —”

  “Shut up!” is the answering exclamation. The blush that goes with it is clue one.

  I show my palms. “I must have quiet.”

  It’s important that I stay in control. I inhale deeply again and again.

  I don’t see anything in the ball, except maybe my own reflection. It’s my fault, a rookie mistake — since I shut the tent flap, the flames have been burning steadily. I’ve got no flickers, no shadows or intriguing shapes to report.

  “I see a boy,” I claim. “Or is it a young man?” Obviously, that’s want they want to hear. That’s what most girls want to hear. “I, um, I see a heart and a . . . clover.”

  Sweat trickles down my spine.

  Before they make the connection between my reading and their accessories, I nod to Ash. “I see you with a young man in . . .” In? In? Scrambling to tie it together, I conclude, “A field of clover! He’s your great love.”

  Their eyes go wide, and Ash bites her lower lip.

  “I may be able to tell you more, but the mists are dissipating. For only a dollar —”

  Ash’s laugh turns from a giggle to a bark. “I don’t think so.” She reaches for her friend’s — no, I realize — her girlfriend’s hand. “Wow, do you suck at this!”

  As they jump up to leave, I call, “Wait, the signs can have many meanings!”

  The couple drops hands before exiting the tent, but neither one glances back.

  Well. Ash was right. I do suck at this.

  God, it’s not even 8:00 p.m. yet. I’m looking at a long night.

  Before I can worry too much, a middle-aged lady sticks her head in. “Is it my turn? I don’t mean to press, but if anyone tells my husband I’m —”

  “Come in.” It doesn’t matter whether she’s embarrassed about seeing a fortune-teller or that her husband will think we’re both acolytes of the dark powers. I’m eager to do better this time.

  I move briefly to the rear of the tent and prop the back flap open with the extra chair to let in the warm breeze. At least the flames will be moving. “Sit.”

  She practically scurries into the chair. I’d guess she’s in her early- to mid fifties, about forty pounds overweight. She colors her short hair a dark brown, and she’s wearing a faded denim jumper with an embroidered ladybug design over a short-sleeved white T-shirt. The smile lines around her eyes are deep, but so are the worry ones above her eyebrows. It’s all I can do not to choke on the smell of her hair spray and floral perfume.

  “My name is Brenda,” she says.

  “Welcome,” I reply in my stage voice. “What would you have me ask the ball?”

  Her hand goes to a silver cross hanging from her necklace. “My son . . .”

  “You’re worried about him?”

  She nods. “His job is dangerous.”

  I’m thinking he’s military, police, fire, or maybe in high-rise construction.

  I repeat the ritual, fighting to relax. I close my eyes until I can visualize myself surrounded by white light. Then I gaze into the ball. To my surprise, the mist is there, or at least it really looks that way in this lighting, and so are the shadows, but it’s hard to make out any definite shape.

  I peer, concentrating, and a moment later I actually have something to report. “I see a shell. A bean?” The shadow turns. “A wheel.”

  “He’s on a ship,” Brenda tells me. “He’s on the ocean. You know, seashells. And we had black-eyed peas on New Year’s for luck. That was the last time I saw him. Could the bean have been a pea?”

  People work hard to make the connections. They want to believe.

  “It’s possible,” I say, still using my stage voice. “The mists are difficult to read.”

  “What does it mean?” she wants to know.

  This is the point where I should ask for a dollar. Instead, I peer again at the crystal and dump the phony voice. “Never mind the pea. That’s a reflection from your thumb.” As she moves her hands to her lap, I spot the wheel and shell again, or at least I think I do. “What the ball reveals isn’t always what it seems,” I explain, using one of Granny Z.’s trademark lines. “Signs can mean different things.”

  I have a laminated cheat sheet of common symbols and their meanings, which I of course forgot back at the trailer. Technically, that shouldn’t matter. I should trust in my ability to interpret and not take anything too literally. “Like the shell, it could mean the ocean, and with the wheel, um, together they might suggest a faraway destination.”

  Brenda nods again. “He said he wanted to see the world.”

  I’m back to my military theory. I try to remember the meanings from the cheat sheet, but it’s no use. Maybe I’m just picking up on her fear, but one possible interpretation occurs to me again and again. Hesitating, I add, “Or it could mean death.”

  Brenda’s intake of breath is sharp.

  It’s all I can do to bite back the apology. My job now is to decide which way the reading will go — positive or negative. I ask the ball instead. “Will Brenda’s son be safe?”

  The mists flicker, then rise, and I know what to tell her. “He will,” I say. “He’ll visit many places, traveling on the seas, but he’ll survive the voyage. That’s his future.”

  If Brenda’s son is in the navy or whatever, no fortune-teller is going to bring him home safe. At least this way, maybe she’ll feel a little better.

  Brenda dabs her eyes, looking more doubtful than comforted, and rises to leave.

  I try not to feel guilty about letting her go without charging at least a dollar. Granny Z. needs all the money she can get. But Brenda wasn’t here just for fun. She wouldn’t have been paying to be entertained by a low-rent carnival act.

  On her way out, Brenda asks, “You’re sure he’ll be OK? Not to be rude; it’s just that you’re a bit young.” She pauses. “Then again, so is he.”

  “Really, Kevin will be fine.” I hope that it’s true.

  I’m surprised by how much she brightens in reply.

  “Thank you! Thank you!” Brenda gushes before rushing out.

  “Wait!” I call, but she’s already gone.

  What just happened? I saw a shell and a wheel, which was kind of interesting, and I tried to reassure her. But I could tell that, as much as she wanted to, she didn’t fully believe until . . . until I said Kevin’s name! A name she never told me!

  I replay the session over and over in my mind and finally conclude that there’s no logical explanation. Somehow, I just knew. What I don’t know is how on earth to feel about that. Only one thing’s for sure: boy, do I owe Granny Z. an apology. . . .

  Psychic or not, I’m starving and, besides, eating is a normal, everyday activity. Maybe a solid meal will make me feel more like myself again.

  I stick a note reading BACK IN FIVE on the sign outside and v
enture out to score dinner from Aiden. He’s the nearest vendor who’s hot for me and not so old that it’s icky.

  “I’ll have three beef burritos, nachos, fries, and, um, a large Coke.”

  “Damn, Tiff!” Aiden exclaims. “You want a horse to go with that?”

  I give him a half smile. “Why, you got one to spare?” I don’t know what’s with my appetite. For the past few months, it’s like I can’t get enough to eat. I don’t mind, though. I’m putting on only a little weight, most of it dancerlike muscle.

  I take the brown paper bag and my drink back to the tent, leaving the note where it is. Nobody’s waiting, anyway.

  Half an hour later, I’m polishing off the greasy fries when I smell something a lot more appetizing than burritos. I look up and am startled by the most extraordinarily smokin’ young guy. He’s standing in the middle of the tent, only steps away, like he belongs here.

  There’s a gold T in the center of his silver buckle. It fits with his western-style shirt, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. Glancing to his face, I see that his square jaw is covered with sexy stubble. His eyes are a mesmerizing hazel, more gold than green, and he’s looking at me like I’m dinner.

  I drop my fry. Part of me wants to swat the stranger for barging in. Part of me wants to cower, mortified at being caught off guard like this. Mostly, though, I want to lick his sweat dry and rub myself all over him.

  The last thought surprises me. Since my growth spurt, I’ve generated plenty of interest, but until now, I haven’t been that jazzed by anyone myself.

  “What the hell are you doing here?” I demand.

  “I’m here about the future.” He takes off his cowboy hat, like out of respect for my being a lady, and runs a hand through his thick, tawny, shoulder-length hair.

  Oh, of course. But right then, it occurs to me that he could be dangerous. We’re alone in the tent, the flap is closed, and carnivals can attract some scary folks. “I’m on break. Didn’t you see the note?”

  “Relax, Tiffany,” he says. “Your grandma and me, we’re sort of related.”

  I shove my trash into the bag and toss it toward the back of the tent. “Related how?” Granny Z. didn’t mention any family in Oklahoma.

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