By Bettyann Moore
Celia drove slowly through the town, letting Esme see where her mother had grown up.
“Grandma,” Esme soon asked, “what do people do here? For work I mean. Back home there’s huge banks and factories and lots and lots of malls ...”
“Hmmm, well, let’s see if you can figure it out,” Celia, said. “Okay, now when we drive by all the houses, take a look in the corners of the front windows, or on door windows.”
At first, Esme didn’t know what her grandmother meant, but as they slowly drove down the street she saw discreet hand-drawn signs in many of the windows.
“I see a hand,” she said. “There’s an eye in a circle. That looks like a giant queen of hearts. That one just has a bunch of weird shapes … Grandma, what do they mean?”
Celia sighed. She guessed she really shouldn’t expect the girl to know, given how overprotected she was.“The hand is for palm reading,” Celia told her. “The eye is for crystal balls. The card represents Tarot card reading. Then there’s rune casting … phrenology … I Ching … everyone’s specializing these days.”
Esme turned to her grandmother, her eyes wide. “You mean they’re all fortune tellers? But if they’re all doing it, who are their customers? Why are their signs so small?” she asked, remembering the huge, neon-colored signs outside buildings in Chicago that shouted PSYCHIC READINGS!
“Not ‘fortune tellers,’ truth tellers. And there are plenty of customers, trust me. Everyone has a following. They don’t need big, ugly signs because what they tell people is the truth, not some generic made-up crap … pardon my language.”
Esme smiled. Only her grandmother would apologize for using the word “crap.”
“Mom says people can’t handle the truth,” she said. “She says I have to be careful ...”
“And you do, you do!” Celia said, reaching across the seat to pat her granddaughter’s knee. “None of it should be taken lightly. It takes time and practice. With your genes … oh, my,” Celia got all misty-eyed, remembering. “Why your own mother is the best I’ve ever seen.”
“You mean ‘was,’ right?” Esme asked, never missing a thing. “You said she ‘is’ the best.”
“Was and is!”Celia said, pounding the steering wheel with her palm. “She’s modernized, of course, using the computer and all that,” she huffed, “but she can’t give it up and ignore her heritage!”
Esme grew quiet; her mind raced. Was that what her mother did for work? Tell fortunes … truth … on the computer? No way. Maybe … Esme thought back to all the times Rosemarie clicked away from a screen whenever she was near, how she avoided talking about her work, saying only that she was in the “fulfillment business.” Esme crossed her arms over her chest. “Hmph!” she said.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Celia cried, reaching inside her purse. She pulled out a clear plastic bag and handed it to her granddaughter.
“Jelly beans?” Esme said.
“Not just jelly beans,” Celia declared, “homemade jelly beans! I made them myself, just for you. Cinnamon, of course, and licorice.”
Esme hated licorice.
“Now, I know you don’t like licorice,” Celia said, “but you might know someone who does ...”
“Wow, Grandma, that’s cool!” Esme said. “I didn’t know you could actually, like, make jelly beans.” She opened the bag and, avoiding the black candies, took out a handful of the red ones and popped them into her mouth before her grandmother could stop her.
“Oh dear,” Celia said, “that might not have been a good idea.” She slowed the car and pulled it over to the curb in front of a small, white bungalow.
Esme gasped. Her eyes began to water. “Hot!” she managed to say through the mess in her mouth.
Celia grabbed a handful of tissues from the glove compartment. “Here, spit them in here,” she said, holding it under Esme’s chin. “I’m so sorry, child, I should have realized. I used this amazing cinnamon from Madagascar … it’s probably way too spicy for you.”
Esme turned her head away from the proffered tissues and clamped her jaw tight. She held the candies in her mouth for a second and then began to chew again while Celia watched in amazement. When she was done, she swallowed and looked at her grandmother triumphantly.
Celia shook her head and grinned. “More like your mother than you could possibly know,” she said, putting the car in ‘drive’ again.
As they drove, they climbed, eventually coming to a series of hair-pin switchbacks that rose higher and higher. The glimpses of the land below mesmerized Esme. At one point they had to stop the car altogether to let some mountain goats cross the road. Esme had never seen a goat outside of a petting zoo.
Finally, they reached their destination, the small Lincolnville Ski Lodge. Just a few cars were parked outside the building and Esme could see one lone skier coming slowly down the mountain.
“I thought you might like to try some skiing while you’re here, dear,” Celia told her as they got out of the car. “Not today, of course, but we can find out if Tony – that’s the owner, Tony Winter, perfect name, don’t you think? – has some time this week to teach you.”
“Awesome, I’d like that!”
They went inside the dark, low-ceilinged lodge, their eyes adjusting to the dimness. A fire burned in a round fire pit in the center of the room, a soot-covered metal chimney funneling the smoke up through the ceiling and outside. Sagging cowhide chairs and a sofa were pulled up close to the little heat it gave off. A small bar with three stools sat in a corner, its broken neon sign reading C ORS. Someone had attempted a bit of cheerfulness by setting up a spindly lodgepole pine in another corner and stringing it with popcorn and cranberries. It had no lights.
“Celia!” a voice boomed from a doorway. “What brings you here?” The man, a big bear of a man with a huge beard and even larger stomach came out, wiping his hands on a none-too-clean rag.
“Tony,” Celia said, reaching to shake his hand. “This is my granddaughter, Esme, and I want you to teach her how to ski.”
Esme couldn’t imagine this man on skis any more than she could imagine a polar bear on them.
“Pleased to meet you, Esme,” he said, then turned to her grandmother. “Celia, you know I haven’t been on skis since I busted my leg two seasons ago!”
Celia looked momentarily flustered and embarrassed, but Esme thought she caught a gleam in the old woman’s eye.
“Surely there’s someone who can teach her!” Celia insisted. “She came all this way and she’ll be bored silly with us old fogies.”
Esme hung her head. “No, it’s okay, grandma, really,” she said. “I brought my iPad ...”
“Nonsense!” Celia shushed her. “Tony?” she asked, cocking her head and looking up at him.
“Well, you’re in luck,” the man said, never able to resist Celia’s charms. “My grandson is here this week and he’s a whiz on the boards, just like his granddad used to be. He’s coming down the slope right now, I’ll go ask him.”
Esme wanted to run and hide her head. Who would want to give up their vacation to teach some little kid to ski? She wished she’d stayed back at the house and taken a nap. Celia noticed her discomfort and pulled her close.
“Sometimes,” she said, “the biggest things come from small steps.”
Esme was going to ask what she meant by that when the door flew open and sunshine flooded the room. Tony came through, followed by a figure dressed in ski pants, sweater and goggles.
“Here’s my boy!” Tony bellowed. “He’ll be glad to take on a pupil!”
Esme cringed as the boy – and he was a boy, probably no older than she – pulled off his goggles to reveal piercing green eyes, eyes as bottle-green as hers. His, however, were rimmed red from the glasses. Esme wished the floor would swallow her up.
“Connor, this is Esme, come all the way from Chicago,” Tony said, slapping the boy on the back. Esme couldn’t remember Chicago coming up in the conversation before. She eyed her grandmother who was beaming up at the tall young man.
“I’m … we’re … so grateful you could accommodate us, Connor,” Celia said. “What time is good tomorrow?”
The boy looked down at his feet. “Any time’s good,” he said, raising his eyes to meet Esme’s.
“Excellent!” Celia enthused. “Tony, would you mind showing me your rental skis?” She took the older man by the elbow and led him to an inside door. “Be back in a minute, kids!” she added.
The two teenagers stood silent for a minute. The boy fiddled with his ski boots while Esme dug her hands into her pockets. She pulled out the bag of jelly beans.
“Want some jelly beans?” she asked. “My grandmother made them. I only have the two flavors, cinnamon and licorice. Cinnamon’s my favorite. What’s yours?” She bit her tongue, willing herself to just shut up.
“Licorice, actually,” Connor said, reaching for the bag. “I can’t get enough of it.” He threw a handful into his mouth, then nearly choked.
“Uh, they’re probably pretty strong,” Esme said, worried, but smiling at the same time.
Connor chewed rapidly, his face red, eyes bulging. “No, uh,” he said, swallowing, “they’re really good.”
“More?” Esme held out the bag. He took some more. Esme was impressed.
The adults came back just then and Esme shoved the bag back into her pocket.
“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then, huh?” she said.
“Yeah, sounds good. You ever been on skis before?”
“What? In Chicago? That’s a big N-O.”
Connor laughed. He had a nice laugh. “We’ll start slow, then,” he said. “We don’t really have a bunny hill, but we can figure something out.”
“All set then, sweetie?” Celia said at Esme’s elbow. “Everything working out … I mean, did you get everything worked out for tomorrow?” For the first time, Esme felt uncomfortable under her grandmother’s scrutiny.
“It’s all good, Grandma,” she muttered. Then, remembering her manners, added, “Thank you, and thank you, Mr. Winter … and, uh, Connor.”
The drive home back to her grandmother’s house went too quickly as far as Esme was concerned. She had a lot to think about, and a lot to talk to her mother about. Was she really doing “truth-telling” online? Why did she ever want to leave Lincolnville in the first place. Did she ever have a boyfriend here? Was she ever in love? Esme reached into her pocket and fingered the bag of jelly beans.
“Grandma, do you have any more jelly beans?” she asked.
Celia gave her a sidelong glance. “You bet I do,” she said. “I made scads of the darn things, black and red. They’re in the pie safe in the kitchen. Just help yourself.”
Esme didn’t know what a pie safe was, but she’d find out before tomorrow.
Celia hovered in the background while Esme told Rosemarie about their day, and Connor. Rosemarie kept her cool, but sent looks full of daggers her mother’s way every time she got a chance. It came back to her in spades why she needed to leave this town – and her mother – in the first place. And now she was meddling in her daughter’s life and she just wouldn’t have it. The day after Christmas and they were out of there. All the work she’d done to keep her daughter protected … gone, like magic.
That night, as Rosemarie tucked her daughter into bed, she steeled herself for the inevitable question about her online work, but Esme surprised her.
“Momma,” she said, using the name she used to use when she was little, “were you ever in love, I mean really in love?”
Not this, Rosemarie thought. She knew the girl wasn’t asking about her own father; she already knew that story and knew it was planned and involved little emotion.
“Of course, Esme, I’ve been ‘in love’ as you say.”
“With who?” Esme leaned up on her elbow and tried to read her mother’s unreadable, guarded face. “Was it someone here, in Lincolnville?”
“Yes,” Rosemarie, replied. “But it was a long, long time ago.”
“What was his name? Was he cute? Did he live here? How come you’re not still together?”
“It’s complicated, Esme,” she warned.
“Tell me anyway. Please?” Esme scootched over so her mother could sit on the side of the bed.
Rosemarie sighed. Pandora’s box was open.
“His name was Mark, and, yes. he was cute. At least I thought so. He wasn’t very tall, but he looked tall, if you know what I mean.” Esme nodded. “He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, even bluer than a Colorado sky.” Esme looked dreamily up at the ceiling. “He didn’t live here, but that’s where it gets complicated,” Rosemarie said.
“When I met him,” Rosemarie went on, “I thought he was just some guy passing through town. It happens. There’s a creek not far from here where people do rafting in the summer. The rafters drive their cars to a point down the creek and a bus takes them, and all the rafts and paddles, up the creek where they put in. They float down the rapids and the bus driver drives back, alone, where he or she picks up the next group.”
“Okaaaaaaaay ...” Esme wasn’t sure where this was going.
“Mark was one of the drivers, and one day, on the last run down the mountain, his bus got a flat tire. It blew out about a block from this house.”
“Yeah, ‘oh.’ You didn’t know him, but my dad – your grandfather – could fix anything. Mark couldn’t get the lug nuts off the tire and didn’t have the proper jack. He tried a couple of other houses, but no one would come to the door. He ended up here and my dad helped him. It was … it seemed to be … fate.
“I was 16, restless and bored. Bored with the town, bored with the boys my mother kept pushing in front of me, bored with myself. There were no surprises, but that day I could feel something coming … something new and dangerous. So, when this young, strange man came to the door, I was ready.
“Funny thing was, I should have known something was wrong with the whole thing. In the first place, I couldn’t read him. It was like there was a veil over his eyes. And once the tire was fixed, Mother – someone who avoids outsiders like she avoids Republicans – invited him in for supper.
“He said he was heading to college in the fall and was working for the rafting company to help pay the way. He’d never set foot in Lincolnville before, which, in fact, turned out to be true. By the time supper was over, I was head-over-heels in love and, it appeared, so was he.
“Mother never interfered, which also should have alarmed me, but I just assumed that she wasn’t worried because Mark was heading off to college and he’d soon be out of sight and out of mind. It was an amazing summer; we spent every minute together that we could. Sometimes, I’d even ride the bus all day long with him, sitting right behind the driver’s seat.
“He did go off to college in California, but we didn’t grow apart. We wrote to each other most every day and talked on the phone at least once a week. When the next summer rolled around, we were closer than ever.”
“So what changed?” Esme broke in. “Where is he now?”
“Time to cut to the chase, huh?” Rosemarie said. “Long story short, it turned out that, though Mark had never set foot in town before that day the bus broke down, he had roots in Lincolnville.”
“So, I was set up. Mark had been chosen for me, by my mother and by the whole damn community. While I was thinking that he would take me away from this place, he was planning on settling in. The people here had set up the ‘chance’ meeting, had used their collective power to keep me from seeing inside his mind; they were even planning on building a house for us … the whole shebang. When I found out, I stopped talking to him, bided my time here and got the hell out the day I turned 18.”
“I still don’t get it,” Esme said. “I mean, so what? You loved him, right? He loved you, right? So what if he was ‘chosen’ for you?”
Rosemarie stood up and began pacing. “You don’t get it, Esme! My life wasn’t my own! How could I even trust that he loved me after that?”
“Did you ask him?”
Rosemarie stopped in her tracks. “It’s not that simple, Esme,” she finally said. “Besides, the fact remained that my mother was choosing a life for me. She was over-protective, manipulative and completely ignored my feelings. You wouldn’t understand.”
Esme snorted.“Well, I think it is that simple and trust me, I do understand. I’m tired, I want to sleep now.” She slid back down under the covers and shut her eyes.
“Out of the mouths of babes,” Rosemarie whispered, standing there for a long moment.
As Rosemarie lay in bed thinking about Mark, the first time she’d allowed herself to do so in many years, Celia appeared at the open door.
“It wasn’t a set-up,” she said.
“Which one, Mother?” Rosemarie spat. “Mark or this Connor?”
“Oh, come on!”
Celia moved cautiously into the room and sat at the foot of the bed.
“Oh, I admit I … we … might have helped it along, but what was to be was to be.”
Rosemarie snorted, sounding a lot like her daughter. Celia found herself growing angry.
“Maybe,” she said, “if just once you would stop thinking about yourself and your needs, your wants, you’d put some of that power of yours to good use for a change!”
“Mom ...” Rosemarie cautioned.
“Don’t ‘Mom’ me,” Celia said, just getting started. “You broke that boy’s heart! You were so determined to get out of this town, you used the little bit of meddling we did as an excuse and you know it!” It was the first time Rosemarie had ever sat still to listen and Celia took advantage of it.
“Did you ever even talk to him afterwards?” Celia asked, echoing Esme’s words. “Did you ever wade out of the muck of your own supposed hurt to even contemplate his, or ours?” Celia was almost shouting and, for the first time, Rosemarie looked sheepish. Celia took a deep breath to calm herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said, rising. “I shouldn’t have yelled. I love you, Rosemarie, and I love that young lady down the hall. I only want what’s best for both of you, what’s meant to be. Denying your heritage will only hurt you both in the long run.” When Rosemarie didn’t reply, didn’t even look up, Celia backed out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.
At breakfast the next morning, the three women tiptoed around each other, cloaking their thoughts with unfailing politeness.
Esme worried that her mother would forbid her from skiing and would pack up their stuff to head home. Celia was afraid she’d crossed a line and worried about the same thing. She was about to suggest – against her better judgment – that Esme skip the ski lessons and the three of them drive down to Denver to go shopping, when Rosemarie loudly cleared her throat.
“Apparently,” she began, “two of the most important people in my life think I’ve been a stubborn idiot.”
“No, Mom ...”
“Now, sweetie ...”
Rosemarie held up her hand to stop them.
“Well, after a lot of thought, I’m going to have to agree, but ...” she added, holding up her hand again, “I think that’s true of all of us.”
Esme and Celia looked at each other.
“Esme,” Rosemarie continued, “I want to apologize for keeping you from your rightful place in this family and community. From here on out, I’m going to teach you how to use your gifts, not ignore them or be afraid of them. Your grandmother can help. But mother, I need you to promise that you’ll quit meddling. If things are truly to be as how they are to be, quit helping them along!”
Celia looked down at the floor and murmured a promise. It was a promise she’d break in small ways time and time again, but not for lack of trying. She was only human, after all.
“Now,” Rosemarie said, “Don’t we have to get to the ski lodge? Maybe I’ll see if I can still remember how after all these years.”