A Blessing and a Curse

“Carol, what did I do with my keys?” her mother asked.

Carol immediately summoned the mental picture of her mother coming in the door loaded down with purse, bags of groceries and wet umbrella. It was as vivid to her as if it was happening at that moment.

“You shake out the umbrella and put it in the stand, dump the groceries on the counter, take off your coat, drop your purse and the keys slip under the chair,” Carol said, reporting in present tense what she was seeing in her mind. She could have added the cat sits on the window sill looking out at the bird feeder, Mother wears a red sweater and brown skirt and has that little furrow between her eyes that means a headache, but she’d learned long ago to edit. Nobody wanted to hear all that.

Her mother thought her extraordinary recall came from God. Her father believed Carol was a genius and got it from his side of the family.  She was strongly encouraged not to show off, so few people outside the immediate family knew that Carol had eidetic – often called photographic – memory.

Carol’s ability to visualize the pages in her textbooks made for great test scores. Only a couple of her more thoughtful teachers worried that regurgitating facts was not the same as critical thinking. Carol’s easy A’s made her lazy. The summer after high school felt like free fall. Without structure, she floundered. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, just something that wasn’t too much work.

Then she discovered blackjack.

It was her dangerous older cousin, Sean, who introduced her to the game. He was a dealer at a casino, which deeply impressed her.  When he offered to take her to see him work, she was thrilled. At eighteen, she wasn’t old enough to gamble, but because she was with Sean, nobody checked. Besides, she was just watching.

The game was bewildering: hits and stands and double-downs and splits, and a huge number of cards in the shoe. But as she watched, she realized it was merely a matter of visualizing the cards that had been played and the cards that were left. When she got home she shuffled together six decks of cards, pulled up blackjack rules on the internet, and began dealing to an imaginary table of players.

The next night she walked into the casino by herself with $150 tucked in her purse. The security guard remembered her and waved her though. Seated at another blackjack table, not Sean’s, she placed her first bet and began winning. Watching the pile of chips beside her grow was the most fun she’d ever had. This was an easy way to make money and it suited her just fine. Who needed college?

“Pick up your chips, Ma’am. You’re through here.”

The voice was accompanied by a steely grip on her elbow. She looked around in surprise at the large man who stood behind her.

“But I’m not ready to leave yet,” she protested.

“Yeah, you are. You’re too good for this game.”

Carol tried to catch Sean’s eye, but he suddenly didn’t know her. Clutching her stack of chips, she allowed herself to be led on a humiliating walk to the cage, where a stone-faced cashier shoved a stack of bills through the bars. The large man never loosened his grip on her elbow.

“But why are you doing this to me?” she asked through tears when they reached the casino door.

“You think we wouldn’t notice you countin’ cards? No casino’ll put up with that,” her escort said.

Carol was bewildered. “I didn’t cheat, I wouldn’t even know how. If I can keep track of the cards, why is that wrong?”

“The house don’t like to lose. Don’t come back, you won’t get in the door.”

Driving home, Carol felt sick with embarrassment.  She’d been having fun playing a game, that’s all; she’d meant no harm. She knew she’d never forget this evening. It would remain in her memory, no matter how much she wished she could erase it.

By morning, her shame had curdled into anger. It wasn’t fair! She’d been ill-treated and penalized just because she had a good memory. Card-counting wasn’t even illegal; the casinos just didn’t like it. While she wasn’t old enough to get past an I.D. check yet, that day would come. Carol formulated the first long-range plan of her life.

While she was waiting for her twenty-first birthday, she’d study education for gifted kids. Carol knew how easy it was for people like herself to skate by, but that wouldn’t happen in her future classroom. Her students would learn to think, not just remember.

Then, as soon as she was legal, she’d hit every casino within four hundred miles. She’d map out a blitz, zipping in and out fast before her picture was circulated and she got turned away at the door. Her last stop would be Sean’s table.

“I’ll play once in each place and never go back,” she told herself. “Once will be enough.”

The money wasn’t important, except that it would buy sweet vengeance.  Something to remember for the rest of her life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Deal

Sidda wasn’t happy with her body. Despite the fact that it worked and played, ate and slept and woke exactly as she asked it to, she was hung up on how it looked. She used to joke with her girlfriends that she needed one day, one hour, even one minute, in which she could rearrange it. Take a little from here, put it there. Smooth out that, perk up this. No tiresome year-long diets, no sweaty work-outs at the gym, no liposuction, no Spanx.

Sidda toyed with the idea. She’d make a deal with the devil. For sixty seconds, let her flesh become like Play-Doh which could be pushed and pulled and shoved until she got the shape she wanted. She couldn’t lose any of it; only rearrange it. Reconstruction would last exactly one year, and then there’d be another one-minute opportunity.

Like planning what you’d do if you won the lottery, it was just idle speculation. The devil never showed up when wanted, that was part of his devilishness. But one day, as she stood disconsolately contemplating her nude body in a full-length mirror, a shadow appeared in the upper right corner. It spoke.

“You want to look better?”

“Sure. But I don’t want to do all that diet and exercise stuff.”

“So how’d you like to move things around, reconfigure a bit? You know, like you’ve been wanting.”

“Yes!”

“Okay. You’ve got sixty seconds. Ready, set, go!”

It was abrupt, but Sidda was mentally prepared. She grabbed her suddenly malleable pot belly and pushed it up, up, up to her left breast. It took longer than she’d anticipated. Fat turned out to be not so much like Play-Doh as Jello – slippery and hard to handle. The result was lumpy, but the clock was ticking. She pushed up again to the right breast, which didn’t look quite the same size as its sister. A good bra would hide that, though. Okay, now the hips. But where to put those pounds? She couldn’t get rid of them, that was the deal, and her top half was pretty well at capacity. Maybe slide some down to the calves? Oops, slippage to the ankle. She’d come back to it. The thighs! Only time to push them in at the sides. Frantically, she grabbed at her double chin, but as she pinched it between thumb and forefinger, a celestial chime rang and her flesh became solid again.

Fearfully, she gazed in the mirror and took inventory of her new look: one cankle, one large calf, a slimmer left hip, but she hadn’t had time to get to the right one. The chest was certainly larger, though asymmetrical and lumpy. Her stomach was flat, but so tautly stretched she could hardly stand upright. She hadn’t even touched the bags under her eyes, and oh, dear, her chin. What had been a slightly soft profile now looked like the wattles on a turkey.

The shadow was still lurking in the mirror. Sidda thought she discerned a mean grin on its wispy face.

“All set for the year?” it said.

“No! I can’t go around for a whole year looking like this.”

“Afraid your time’s up. Sixty seconds – that was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but it wasn’t enough time after all. I look like a freak. What am I going to do?” Sidda wailed.

“Diet. Exercise. Plastic surgery. Spanx,” said the shadow. “See you next year.”

 

Penny

Penny went to work in a factory at sixteen. Girls did that sometimes in 1944. There was a war on, factories needed workers and Mother needed the money. Penny was tired of school anyway.

She meant to concentrate on her job like Mother said, but inevitably she met a boy. He was just there one day, walking out with everybody else when the quitting whistle blew. He fell into step beside her.

“May I walk you home, Miss Penny?” he asked.

“How do you know my name?”

“I’ve seen you around. I always notice the cute girls.”

She felt grubby and tired and far from cute, but Mike kept the conversation flowing as though they’d known each other forever.  When they arrived at Penny’s house, he made a point of coming in to meet her mother, whom he charmed in ten minutes flat.

After that, Mike showed up every night and their time together was full of experiences Penny didn’t expect.  Somehow he knew her fears. They rode the elevator to the top of Atlanta’s Rhodes-Haverty office building, twenty stories up, because Penny was afraid of heights. Dogs scared her, so Mike insisted she walk the aisles of the local animal shelter while big dogs lunged at the doors of their cages. Horror movies gave her bad dreams, so they saw every one that came to town. Penny found she would risk anything to make him hug her and call her his Lucky Penny. With each day, she felt a stronger bond, a greater desire to please him, to overcome what he called her challenges. Did he love her? She wasn’t sure. But she knew she loved him.

“How about I take you for a spin on Saturday?” Mike had somehow acquired a car and this was the first time he’d invited Penny out in it.

Penny felt a rush of happiness as she climbed into the passenger’s seat with her wicker picnic basket.  The sun was shining and they were just an ordinary couple out on a date, like any other young people. In her heart, she knew this was not true. Her time with Mike never felt ordinary.

“Come on, tell me where we’re going,” she begged.

“It’s a surprise. You’ll have to wait and see.”

Eventually, the unmistakable outline of Stone Mountain appeared on the horizon.

“Is that it, Stone Mountain?” she asked, frowning.

“That’s right. Surprise!”

It was a surprise, but not a good one. Penny knew the stories about Stone Mountain,  how it was a gathering place for Ku Klux Klan rallies. There was talk that the city of Atlanta might buy it and develop it into a park, but that was a low priority during war-time. The old stone quarry’s sheer granite cliff loomed over them menacingly.

“I’d rather not go there,” she said.  “It’s wild and deserted and scary.”

Mike laughed and ruffled her hair.  “I’ll take care of you. You know you can trust me.”

Of course she could; she was being silly, Penny told herself. They’d have their picnic in the meadow, just the two of them, and it would be fine. Romantic, like in the movies.

“C’mon, let’s hike up to the top,” Mike said, holding the picnic basket in one hand and reaching for Penny with the other.

“Please, can’t we just stay here? You know I don’t like heights,” Penny said.

“Hey, where’s my Lucky Penny?”

He sounded so disappointed that she stifled her protests. His warm, strong hand pulled her upward. He would take care of her just as he said. She trusted him.

When they reached the summit, Mike walked her slowly to the edge of the cliff.  She didn’t resist. She no longer felt the familiar, anchoring tug of fear as she gazed into space. But when the earth shook, Penny turned to Mike in alarm. In his place stood a tall, glowing figure with muscular wings that swept the ground.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“I am Michael, Archangel of Death. I’ve come for you.”

His voice echoed in Penny’s head.  She couldn’t look away.

“But why did you choose me? Why did you spend so much time making me love you?”

“I don’t do the choosing, only the taking. The old and sick come willingly, but you were young and your will to live was strong. It’s easier if you want to come with me. And you do, don’t you?”

Penny nodded slowly. With a long sigh, she abandoned what was left of her will.

“Did you ever love me?” she asked. It didn’t matter anymore, but some part of her still wanted to know.

“Of course. I love everyone I take. Ready?”

He held out his hand, his warm, strong hand, and she took it trustingly. She stepped into the air.

The Eight Hundred Dollar Bet

Felicity would bet on just about anything. Even as a child, matters of chance drew her like a metal filing to a magnet. Which ant would cross the crack in the sidewalk first? How many blue cars would she see on the way to school? Would it really rain on Tuesday? She’d bet on it.

As she got older, her wagering habit grew with her. It wasn’t about the money, although she liked money. It was the thrill of winning, of being right, of predicting. Events were unpredictable, and that bothered her. Plan as she might, life had a way of sneaking in the unexpected left hook that flattened her. To bet on the future gave her an illusion of control, so she never stopped trying to guess what might happen next.

When she met Troy, she found a kindred spirit. Their first encounter was behind the outfield fence at a Little League game in which their brothers were playing.

“Bet you a buck the Artful Dodgers win,” he said to her.

“I’ll take the Bat Boys by three points,” she replied.

After the game, she pocketed Troy’s dollar graciously and nodded yes when he asked if she’d like a ride home on the handlebars of his bike. En route, she collected another dollar and paid him two, betting on how many cars could sneak through amber lights. They were even, and they looked at each other with mutual respect.

After that they were inseparable. All through junior high and high school they bet on ball games, test scores, which teachers wouldn’t last out the year, and how many times Mr. Lowenstein would clear his throat during fifth period algebra. At the end of the week, the winner would treat the loser to burgers and shakes. It was a friendship, that’s all, she told her girlfriends. She didn’t know there were bets riding on how long before she and Troy became a couple.

One Friday night Felicity slurped the last of her chocolate milkshake, looked around the diner and said, “Hey, I’ll bet you I can tell who’s married and who’s not without looking for wedding rings.”

“Oh, that’s not even worth betting on,” Troy said scornfully. “The ones who aren’t talking to each other are married. Duh.”

“Okay, then, I’ll bet you I can predict who will marry and who won’t.”

“How you gonna do that?”

“Simple observation, my dear Watson. See that couple at the third table over? She’s counting on getting married, but he’s not feeling it.”

“And you know that…how?”

“Because she never takes her eyes off his face, but he’s watching the door to see if someone better comes in.”

“Okay, I’ll bet you I can identify a couple who will get married but they don’t know it yet.”

“You’re on. Where are they?”

“Right here in this booth.”

“Here? You mean…us?”

“Yep. I’m betting it will happen.”

“No way. We’d be a disaster – we’d gamble away the baby’s toys.”

“Well, take my bet then.”

“How much?”

He pulled out his phone and summoned his bank balance. He was serious, a side of Troy she’d never seen.

“Eight hundred dollars,” he said. “That’s all the money I have. If you and I get married, all bets are off. If we don’t marry each other, then the first one to the altar pays up. Can you cover the bet?”

“Done.”

She didn’t think of it as a proposal. They were only sixteen. A lot could happen.

~*~

She told herself Troy was just a memory from her youth, along with all those crazy bets. They’d gone to colleges on opposite sides of the country, getting together during holidays when they could. After graduation they’d somehow lost touch in the flurry of new jobs and new cities. She wouldn’t have admitted to anyone how often she still thought of him. But that was then, this was now, and today was her wedding day.

Her husband-to-be was a stock broker like herself, only he was the stuffy pin-striped kind. She worked on the trading floor where there was always the possibility of disaster in the next transaction. The risk kept her interested. Her fiancé…not so much. But she was tired of waiting and he was a nice enough guy.

In spite of the lecture she gave herself about being silly, she folded eight crisp hundred dollar bills and tucked them in the tiny hidden pocket of her gown, the one meant for a tissue in case she was overcome with emotion during the ceremony. Not much chance of that. Then she fluffed her veil and walked calmly to meet her father for the trip down the aisle.

Instead, life hit her with that solid left hook again. For there was Troy, grinning like he always did when he won a bet. Felicity’s heart turned over as she realized she was about to lose the most important gamble of her life. Troy extended his hand, palm up. His grin faded as he looked at her searchingly. Slowly she pulled out the money. It was too late. Wasn’t it?

“Double or nothing?” she asked.

“You’re on!” he said.

Her smile matched his as they clasped hands and ran down the church steps to freedom. Neither noticed the eight Benjamins flutter to the floor. It was only money, and money had never been the important part. You could bet on that.