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Meeting Rozzy Halfway
By Caroline Leavitt
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1980 Caroline Leavitt
All rights reserved.
It begins like this. With my mother's stories of the fifties, back when she was Bea Natalie Simpson, twenty-five and single, and living in Detroit. She was beautiful, with black eyes and olive skin and that rippling of shiny black hair that she would later pass on to Rozzy, the one true gift Bea ever really gave her. Bea could have married many times. There were always men hanging around her, sugaring the air with their talk full of shadows and stars and their hands full of blooms, but Bea was fussy. She kept a mental scoreboard on every man she dated, and no one ever quite measured up. They were too shy with her, or too bold. This one made her pay for her own lamb chop at dinner; this one screamed at her in public when she slid a rose into the buttonhole of a waiter at the Regency Diner. Besides, she was a great believer in destiny. She was looking for signs, for omens. She didn't think she really had to worry about choice.
Her parents chided her. Her mother kept reminding her that they could get the old Unitarian church for a wedding, but only with plenty of advance notice. Bea didn't care. She had stopped going to church a long while back, and she had stopped hearing her parents, too. She moved out of the house and shared a cramped apartment with another girl, a nurse who slept days and worked nights. Sometimes the two roommates didn't see each other for weeks. Bea didn't mind. She liked being alone.
Bea hated getting up in the morning to drag herself into work. She was too tired to make herself a lunch, so she frequented a tiny vendomat nearby and had an apple and vanilla pudding from a tin and a waxy carton of lukewarm milk. Evenings, she ate Italian food from cans. She was a perfectly good cook—a gourmet cook, in fact—but it was boring to cook for herself and she wouldn't cook for a man unless she felt he was worth it.
She worked at the Champion Book Market, a small, messy, two-story place run by an overweight old Italian, Mel Torrino. Mel spent most of his time across the street at a pizza place, eating slices of pizza and forgetting the store. His wife Deena came into the shop almost every day to check up on things and to pick up some new hardbacks to take home and read, inevitably returning them a week or two later, the corners of the pages turned down. Bea was startled when she first saw Deena. Deena was as blond and bland as a baby, and as overweight as a steer, but she insisted she had danced with the New York City Ballet. She still wore her frizzled hair in a bun, but she waddled rather than glided, and she was always telling Bea to stand up straight, to get her rib cage over her feet, to stretch up. She had two poodles with lambcuts. Deena took her dogs to a psychiatrist to find out why they weren't mating. She even gave them special yellow pills. "Here," she would order Bea, "walk my babies." She handed Bea the leashes, while the twin animals struggled at the ends. Bea loved walking the dogs. It was nice being outside, the dogs were a conversation piece, and it beat working the cash register, where Mel wanted her mornings.
People treated Bea as if she were part of the machine. They shook their heads in disbelief when she handed them the wrong change; they tapped their fingers on the counter while she penciled out some sum or another. No one had ever bothered to explain to her how to count up change. One man was so annoyed with her jumbled math that he strode past the counter and reached into the register himself. Bea thought he was robbing her, but he just took his change, pocketed it, and walked out muttering.
In the afternoon, Mel came back to the store and let her shelve all the new books. She began learning, getting a varied education despite herself. She sampled art books, religion, history, science, and anthropology. She kept a watch out for Mel, leaning against one of the heavy wooden shelves and reading away the long afternoons. When the shop was busy, she was supposed to ask people if she could help them. She hated that. People were so thickheaded. She had to resist making a sour face when they asked for some pulpy fiction or when they mispronounced a name. ("Never correct a customer," Mel had once scolded her. "They won't buy a book they can't pronounce.") The college students annoyed her. She'd get excited when they asked for a title she knew; she'd want to discuss what she had read, but they weren't interested, not really. She could tell by the way they took the book from her, by the stormy indifference in their faces. But kids were the worst. Kids came in with remnants of their lunches on their hands, mustards and relishes and chocolate, and they quickly transferred them onto the clean white book pages. They plopped on the floor and cracked the tight spines of the books and they never bought one thing. She wanted to jerk their hands away. She was curt to their mothers and felt a special satisfaction when these women looked sloppy and harried, or when their husbands trailed after them, indifferent. Mothers got what they deserved. Bea told Mel that the kids' books didn't sell, hoping he'd order less and less, until the entire children's section disappeared. She misplaced a lot of the books, stacking them behind the philosophy section. But Mel loved kids. He even bought two little red leather chairs and a brown wood table and set them up by the children's books to encourage reading.
Bea had been working for two years when she began to get restless. Her roommate was serious about some doctor and began sleeping her days away at his place, so Bea really had the apartment all to herself. There wasn't even the clutter of her roommate's clothing to reassure her. She began dreaming in the shop, counting the people who wandered in, suddenly feeling that the twentieth would be someone interesting.
Bea told me that she didn't even notice Walt when he came in. She always insisted on that detail. He was so small and squirrelly, with that dark hair that he slicked back as if he were some sort of dandy, that smooth hairless face. He was a book salesman anyway, and had nothing to do with her. He jerked out a flat white hand to Mel, letting his eyes slide around the shop, settling on the book titles from his publisher.
It was several weeks later, when she was dusting the bottom rows of books, on her haunches, swearing and sweating, that Walt reappeared. He tapped her on the shoulder. "Come have some dinner with me," he said. Bea blinked at his hand stretching out to her. She took it; she let it lift her up.
"Right now," he said. "It's nearly closing time, isn't it? You don't even need to change. You look delicious."
"Why should I go out to dinner with you?" said Bea. "You've never said a word to me."
"Sure I have. In my mind. We had whole conversations. Weren't you listening?"
Bea leaned against a shelf, watching him.
"Oh, come on," he said. "I'll be off on another round of business in two weeks, so if you decide you don't like me, I'll be gone." He grinned. "For a while anyway. I'm based right here in town."
She had expected an ordinary dinner at a small restaurant, but instead they went to the supermarket and bought boxes of Cracker Jacks and packages of yellow cheese, and they walked around town eating and talking, pulling off sections of cheese and feeding it to the birds. He brought her home early, kissing her hand, slipping something inside her palm. When he was gone, she uncurled her fingers. It was a cheap yellow ring from the Cracker Jacks, and she took it as her first omen.
They had a funny kind of courtship. Bea told me she had never met anyone so unpredictable. He would show up at her door with two sets of brilliant parrot-green skates strung around his shoulders, or he'd get tickets for the Mr. America contest at the Y. They went to the zoo or the circus, or they stayed home. "Those were the best times," Bea said. "We were like two old marrieds, sitting around in our socks watching TV and talking, two dyed-in-the-wool homebodies."
Walt worked out of Detroit, but once a month, he hit the road to sell books. He hated it. "Those stupid traveling salesmen jokes. Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I lie and say I'm in real estate. What do I need traveling for? What's there to see? All those places look like the inside of a hotel room to me. I want to stay home. With you." He always brought her back souvenirs. T-shirts with the names of the cities stamped on the chest. If he couldn't find the shirts, he bought them in plain white and scribbled in the city name himself with felt pens. Bea wore the shirts to sleep in. They ran in the wash. Even when she did them by hand, the ink tinted the water blue.
Walt was as superstitious as she was. One hot sulky day they were prowling around the city edges when a little girl with curly black hair, dressed in a pink smock, tugged at Bea's hand. She gave Bea a slip of paper, an advertisement for palm reading. "Upstairs." The girl pointed. "My mother does it and she's pretty good. You should go on up. You need it. I can always tell."
"Are you a gypsy or something?" asked Walt.
"English," said the little girl. "It costs ten dollars. Each."
They went up four flights of polished stairs into an ordinary living room. "Ma," called the child, and a middle-aged woman in shorts and curlers came in. "Thanks, Ceci," she said, ruffling the girl's curls and making a scooting motion to her. "I'm Mona Killington. Excuse the curlers and have yourselves a seat."
She immediately took Walt's hand. She studied it for a moment and then she shook her head. "Nope, I won't read this." She gave him back his hand, brushing her own off against her shorts. "Two lifelines."
"So?" said Walt, leaning forward, curious, but the woman was adamant. She wouldn't even look at Bea's palm or take their money. She stood up. "Ceci," she called, and the little girl skipped in. "Show these nice people out, would you, love?"
"I don't understand—" began Walt, but the little girl was clacking down the stairs, impatiently glancing back at them. When they all reached the bottom and the bright sun, Ceci said, "Aren't you glad you came in like I told you? My mother's good, isn't she? I told you."
It bothered Walt for days. He kept staring at his palm, tracing the twin outlines, studying them against Bea's cool white hand.
"She's not the only palm reader in this town," Bea told him. "We can just go out and scout us up another." They spent an entire Saturday combing the streets, looking for the shabby signs that advertised "Reader," "Adviser," "Spiritualist." It was always the same though. No one would tell them anything. Faces folded up like telescopes, eyes deadened. Normally boisterous women became silent and stiff, polite. It wasn't until they wandered into an occult bookshop by the park that they found someone who would talk to them.
She was very young, about fifteen maybe, and she was sitting in a corner by the door, leafing through the books on palmistry. She twirled one long strand of her hair in her fingers, and she chewed gum. Bea nudged Walt.
"Uh, you read palms?" said Walt, digging his hands into his pockets, hiding the lines as if they were stains.
"Yup." The girl looked up, squinting. "You want it done?"
"I have two lifelines," said Walt.
"Like fun," said the girl, plucking out a wad of gum and tucking it into a piece of tin foil. He held out his hand and she took it, pursing her lips.
"Jeez," she said.
"I told you. What's it mean?"
"No one will tell us," said Bea, drawing closer.
The girl traced Walt's double line with her index finger. "Two lives," she said, looking up at him. "Maybe you were born dead and then got yourself revived. Or maybe you're going to have some sort of accident and get yourself killed and brought back to life again. It could even mean you got two people living inside of you, like two personalities." She shook her head. "I don't really know for sure."
"No one really. That's probably why they don't want to read your palm. No one wants to look like a jerk, do they." She smiled, showing gap teeth. "But look at it this way, look at it as having two chances where everybody else gets stuck with just one. What are you worried about?"
"Read hers," said Walt, taking Bea's hand and placing it in the girl's. "Please."
"We'll pay you," said Bea. "Is ten dollars good?"
"OK," said the girl.
Bea's fate claimed Walt; it calmed him down. She was to marry very soon (when he heard this, he placed his hand on Bea's shoulder and she twisted around to smile at him) and she would travel. Walt dug out a ten-dollar bill from his pocket and paid the girl. "Any time," she said.
But it took Walt weeks to get the twin lines out of his mind. He kept feeling the weight of them, wondering what exactly it was that they might be etching into his life. He drove Bea crazy. "Would you please relax?" she said. "I think it's kind of special. Interesting." She rubbed his forehead where small lines were deepening. "Come on. I like that about you. I've never met anyone with two lifelines before."
It never stopped bothering him, but something else, some stronger emotion, was usurping his worry. Four months later, he proposed to Bea. They were sitting in a booth at Frenchie's Deli, eating corned beef sandwiches and slugging down red cream sodas. Walt pried his gold pen from his front pocket and began scribbling something on one of the yellow napkins.
"What are you writing?" said Bea, but he ignored her, shielding the napkin with his hand.
Walt stopped writing and looked up at her, smiling. "You got some mustard there," he said, laughing, grabbing the napkin and dotting it on her chin. Bea kept her eyes on his face as she unfolded the napkin. There, smeared with mustard, was a wedding announcement—their wedding announcement. "How does December sound?" said Walt, reaching for her hand. Bea couldn't stop smiling. She tucked the napkin into her purse. Her purse smelled of mustard for days. Later, she would keep undoing the click lock to inhale the memory, to relive it.
"So what happens now, do we do the parents bit, set up dates, or what? I have just one more trip to make, and come next week, I'm going to try to find some other line of work. Maybe one of those paperback stores, maybe I could manage it. I'll call you every single damned day I'm gone, and when I get back, we'll firm things up."
They began planning out their dream house, etching it into Walt's faded carpet with their nails. "You want kids?" Walt asked abruptly, not looking at her. Bea drew a wobbling line across their kitchen.
"But you're not all that set on them, are you?" said Walt. "I guess I'm just selfish. Kids do things to a marriage, though, don't they? I've seen it happen, and I can tell you, I understand. It's kind of like a rejection, like a slap in the face. I couldn't help feeling that a kid would mean that I wasn't enough for you, that you needed more." He searched her face. "Sick, right?"
Bea swung her arms about his neck, grinning.
"I've got to always feel that I'm number one, Bea. I bet I couldn't even cope with a dog."
"I'm allergic to dogs," said Bea.
From then on, they had a shared joke about kids. They made faces at one another whenever they saw some kid hanging on to the back of his mother's dress and whining, or some mother pivoting furiously to whack her offspring half silly. Walt labeled all pregnant women beach balls and stroked Bea's hard flat stomach in admiration. "It's a deficient relationship that needs kids," he told her. "We'll never be like that."
Walt left on a Thursday, and Bea's life immediately cracked open with loneliness. She called her folks and told her mother she was getting married, and her mother cried, which irritated Bea.
Walt didn't call and she began to worry. At first she told herself that he was just busy, but then she started to panic, imagining him in some terrible crippling accident, losing his memory and wandering forty years in some tiny unfindable country. She kept having dreams about him. He was transformed into a giant bird with huge red flapping wings. He'd swoop down and catch her in his talons, but then he always released her, sending her helplessly floating down in an endless expanse of gray sky.
She waited a week and then called his Detroit office, where a breezy secretary told her that Walt was no longer with them.
"What?" said Bea.
Excerpted from Meeting Rozzy Halfway by Caroline Leavitt. Copyright © 1980 Caroline Leavitt. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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