Sadly, scholarships did not cover partying. Nighttime in the city found Lenny downtown again. Being a poor college student attending River Bend College, a four-year private liberal arts college he had no money for frivolities. He walked Third Avenue in River Bend, Indiana, a mid-sized city on the Ohio River, southwest of Louisville.
As he strode along the city’s center past tall office buildings and upscale shops, his slender frame and dark curly hair reflected in the plexiglass in the bus stops and shop windows.
He loved the sights and sounds of night on the boardwalk, the clubs and party places. Two long wharfs jutted into the wide Ohio River from River Road and he loved to walk and stop, lean on the rails of the boardwalk, and people-watch.
Now he was at the first boardwalk and was ready to walk out, when he noticed a small shop. The door was solid wood, old and painted purple. There was a single incandescent light under a hood above the door. A hand-stenciled sign arch-shaped near the top of the door read, “Fortune Teller,” and beneath it was a hand-painted picture of a Ouija board. He stared at the sign for minute until a passerby bumped him.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he said to himself. He stepped to the purple door and turned the knob.
A bell tinkled as he entered and his nostrils filled with the sweet aroma of jasmine. He liked sweet incense. He passed through a bead curtain, of course, it would have been a little disappointing without one.
A woman’s voice came from deeper inside. “I will be right out. Please take seat.” She spoke with a husky Romanian, or eastern European accent. There were three chairs along the wall and he sat.
The woman came into the room from a back room. She wore colorful clothing, as he expected. She wore a print floor-length skirt, a floor-length purple sash, a white and red pillowy blouse, and a loose fitting and buttoned print vest. She also wore a red and black bandana over black hair, a curly lock hung down her forehead. And she had so much jewelry everywhere, on her forehead, her arms, and her fingers, she jingled when she walked. She wore dark mascara and bright red lipstick.
She stopped at a shelf, bent and did something out of his view, and went straightway to the small table in the center of the room. She sat with her back straight and stared straight ahead. She raised her eyebrows and put on a pained expression like she had sucked a lemon and she was much younger than she sounded. She had captivating blue eyes.
“Next please,” she said, looking straight ahead.
Lenny looked to his left. He was alone.
“Next please. Come now or be skipped to next person.”
Lenny looked around. There was no next person. He would play along.
“That’s me, I guess.”
He sat in the chair opposite her, scooted his chair up to the table and got comfortable.
The Ouija board promised by the sign outside sat centered in the table between them. The lettering on the board, familiar to him faced him.
“The rates are as follows: twenty dollars for thirty minutes, ten dollars for fifteen minutes. Do you understand mathematics?” She asked staring straight.
Her eyebrow twitched. His mathematical prowess must have delighted her.
“I accept cash, debit or credit cards, no checks.”
“You take debit cards?”
“English is second language, no?” She asked, straight-faced.
Lenny grinned and reached his wallet from his hip pocket and pulled out his debit card.
She looked him in the eye…and he lost himself in her sparkling blue eyes.
“You have speech problem?”
“Oh, I want fifteen minutes, please.”
She pulled out a cell phone, from somewhere, and plugged in a square credit card reader, thumbed the phone, connected, and swiped his card. She looked up and gave him his card.
“Insufficient funds. You have more cards?”
“Memory is bad place to keep money numbers. Cash?”
He dug in his pocket and produced seven dollars. She leaned over the table and looked at the wadded bills. She leaned back and thumbed her phone.
“For seven dollars, I give you ten point five minutes.”
He paused. She shoved the phone in his face. The calculator showed 10.5 in big black letters. He nodded.
He looked down and she snatched the bills. They disappeared somewhere.
“I will now set timer.” She produced a white kitchen cooking timer with a dial face from somewhere. She twisted the dial paying close attention to the stopping point. She put it close to his face.
“10.5,” she said. He nodded. It was halfway to 11.
She pushed the little lever. It started ticking. She put the timer at his right side of the Ouija board. She stretched her neck from side to side and rolled her shoulders a couple times.
“Put fingers on planchette.”
He looked around the board.
“Funny white thing I have fingers on.” He put his fingers opposite hers on the planchette. “Now concentrate. Enter valid email address.”
He smiled and chuckled. “What?”
She picked up the timer and shoved it in his face. He could hear it, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
She set it down and they put their fingers on the planchette and spelled out, s-t-u-d-m-u-f-f-i-n-0-0-7-a-t-g-m-a-i-l. He paused.
“D-o-t,” she said. He spelled, d-o-t-c-o-m.
“Why email?” He asked chuckling.
“It goes into spirit world, you get valuable discount coupon. Now, optional phone number.”
He was still chuckling. “Okay,” he said and moved the planchette. 8-1-2-6-7-2-9-5-4-2. “Now what?”
“Relax. Close eyes. Concentrate. You came for answers. They will come. When you are ready, ask question.”
Lenny closed his eyes and put his fingers on the planchette. He spent his last seven dollars on this. He scoffed to himself at being broke all the time, broke and disenchanted. Journalism turned out to be not as much fun as he thought. Sure, he had gotten a couple articles published while in high school, and yes, NPR interviewed him, but that was then.
She quietly put the timer near his face. tick, tick, tick, tick, tick
He laughed despite himself and opened his eyes as she set down the timer.
He closed his eyes and chuckled. “Am I in the right major?” he asked.
The planchette darted to NO.
Her eyes widened and she squinted one eye and looked at him with a grave expression. “Close eyes. Concentrate. Consider next question careful.”
Lenny closed his eyes, tight this time. He was the big man on campus in high school. But his goods deeds carried no weight here. What mattered was now, right now. In journalism, anything done five minutes ago was old. His fame made college harder, not the whistle-by he had daydreamed. The expectations of him were too high. The pressure was a killer.
tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick
He laughed out loud. This girl was something else. He started to say something but had the giggles. He opened his eyes and she wore the lemon-mouth expression. But there was something different about her face. Her cheeks were rosy and for a fleeting second, her lip twitched into a grin.
“You have question?”
Are you having fun with me? was the question he wanted to ask. Her eyes sparkled.
“Where would I be happiest?”
“Too broad. Close eyes. Concentrate.”
He closed his eyes and thought. Was his early success enough reason to pursue it for life? Was struggling to write and the long hours the cause of his perpetual loneliness? Loneliness! He hadn’t realized it before. It was because he was so lonely he came here to River Road when he had the chance, waking the streets at night.
tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick
He laughed and opened his eyes as she replaced the timer. “Will I meet someone soon?”
With both their fingers on the planchette it moved across the board. It went to YES.
She put her hands in her lap straight-faced as ever, but he thought he saw something in her blue eyes. “Go in peace. May you find happiness. Next person!”
Lenny hesitated. He looked at the kitchen timer. The dial on the face was at zero, so was his heart.
He rose, and turned scooting the chair. There was no next person. He walked through the beads to the door. The bell tinkled as he left the small shop. He couldn’t remember ever having laughed, having such an effortless fun time with a pretty girl like her. He tried to think of a way to find more money so he could buy more time. There was no more money. He walked back to campus.
He went to breakfast the next day in the student cafeteria. There was no use asking his roommate. He knew he had no money to lend him to go back to see her again. He couldn’t ask his parents either.
He was very thankful for the meal tickets his parents bought every quarter. They could not afford to send him more. Mother managed to put twenty dollars a week on his card, most times, and he squeezed it as hard as it would go. Partying was out of the question. He hated burdening them. They paid for his phone and he did not use it unless he had to. They said good grades would be enough repayment and it saddened him and made him terrified to make mistakes. He sat near the window and nibbled at breakfast.
He tried to resign himself to the deprivation of it, to suffer the pain of love lost, and slid his breakfast away from him. No, it was not the right ending, it couldn’t be. He leaned back, hugged his shoulders, and stared at his eggs. The opportunity was slipping away. There must be something he could do about it. There was but one thing to do. Go back.
A shadow fell over his tray and he looked up to see a bosomy woman standing by the table. He scooted his chair back to stand but she motioned to sit.
“May I?” she asked pointing to the chair opposite him.
“Of course,” he said. She sat and tossed back her shinning, full-bodied, long blond hair.
“My name is Elise,” she said. She had bright blue eyes like the fortune teller. “And you are Lenny, correct?”
“Yes. A pleasure Elise. How do you know me?”
“We have a mutual friend, Leona, the fortune teller.”
“Yes! I met her last night.” He was anxious. Any information from her was like gold. The girl in front of him was beautiful, however, he wanted to hear more of the fortune teller.
“After you left, she and I had a conversation. She did some digging and found out you did an investigative piece on a drug trafficking ring in your high school. She said your efforts brought the police to the ring leaders. You impressed her, to say the least. She liked you, but now she likes you more. She wanted me to meet you, and to give you this,” Elise said and held out her hand. It was his crumpled seven dollars.
He stared at it for a moment, and folded her fingers back around it.
“But it was all you had,” she said.
“I would give everything I had and more to do last night over again. I can’t explain it and it’s going to sound weird, but I loved her ways, the way she made me listen to her clock tick, the way she held back her laugh. I want to see her eyes sparkle again, and to make me laugh again the way she did. No, no, give the money back to her. I got a bargain.”
Elise nodded. She put her small clutch bag on the table, opened it, stuffed the bills inside and took out a slip of paper. “She said you should have this.”
He took the slip of paper. Elise stood and Lenny stood with her. She took a small coin and placed it on the table. It was a bus token. She turned and walked away.
He read the slip of paper. She gave him a valuable discount coupon, and a bus token. It made him laugh.
That night he stood outside the purple door on River Road. He had paced in front of the door four times and stopped four times, unsure. Elise said Leona liked him. What did he have to lose? He had to see her again. He turned the knob and stepped inside. The bell tinkled and he walked through the beads.
He paused. Elise stood at the Ouija board table, leaning on it with her hands behind her and her head down letting her hair cover her face.
“Elise?” Lenny asked. “Why are you here?”
She looked up. “I saw you pacing from the security camera under the lamp hood. I thought you’d never open the door. If you had paced one more time I was going to go pull you inside.”
“I didn’t expect you. I thought Leona would be here.”
Elise chuckled. “Leona’s not here tonight, dummy. Give me the coupon.” She held out her hand. Lenny put the coupon in her palm. She unfolded it and read.
“Good for 10.5 minutes,” she said in the Romanian accent.
His jaw dropped. “Is it you?” he asked.
She curled the corner of her lip in a grin. He smiled. She shook her head in disbelief. She took both his hands in hers and pulled him to her. “Close eyes. Concentrate. Answer will come to you,” she said. He closed his eyes and she pressed her lips on his.