“Sudden Sight” – Fiction by Edna McNamara

Clairvoyance – Rene Magritte, 1936

The lives of a father-and-son clairvoyant act are turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious woman in “Sudden Sight,” Edna McNamara‘s seductive short story from our Summer 2017 issue.

{ X }

I WATCHED MY SON MAKE A FOOL OF HIMSELF IN THE WET HEAT of a June night somewhere outside of Lewes. Under the wings of a drooping tent, Billy larked about on the stage pretending to be talented. Pretending to be a first-class mind reader. Pretending to be me—though at 17, he’d set himself an impossible task. Unlike my performance, his routine lacked style and refinement, despite having followed me up and down the East Coast as the lesser half of The Clairvoyant William Asgard & Son. He’d been listening to my patter since his birth at the end of ‘14 but still hadn’t cottoned on. That evening I’d offered him a golden opportunity, yet there he was, the buffoon. People laughing in his face.

“La-Dees and Gen-Tel-Men.” In his spit-shined boots, Billy swayed, one tetchy foot to the other. He gawped, plucked at his third-hand suit. “I will now read the mind of a member of this audience. Someone come on up here next to me.” Like a bad waiter, he flapped at a chair on the stage while mumbles rolled through the crowd. “I promise it don’t hurt, folks.”

Maybe thirty or so lounged on their small-town backsides in the tent we’d rented from an evangelist with a sore throat. A good deal for a rainy night. Trapped under the canvas, I saw shadows quiver with bugs killing time, waiting for an opportunity. The Lord only knew what infections and fevers these folks’d carry home as souvenirs. Like the preacher man said, He moved in mysterious ways.

And there was Billy, working himself up. “You, sir?” He pointed to a man stuffed into a yellow shirt and red suspenders. “No? How about the pretty girl on the side there?” His hand swept the tent. “I guarantee you’ll be amazed.”

No one looked put out by his low-class tricks. We charged little, enough to cover room and board in a cut-rate hotel. Times were hard here along the Delaware coast. Hell, times were tough all over. Almost two years since the market crash in ‘29, folks were just trying to keep their families together. Feed them. Find jobs. Have a good time, laugh. And Billy pulled them in. My son’s a nice boy, easy on the eye. Shorter than most but no noticeable defects. Blond and blue-eyed, he took after his mother.

“Come on, folks,” Billy tried again. Like kids at Sunday school, the crowd giggled and poked each other, but no one volunteered. Sweat bowled down my spine as I bore the heat of the godforsaken tent, and even the yellowed grass below my feet had given up the Holy Ghost. The air oozed with the stench of farmers fresh from the barn. Housewives in dull cottons smelling as sharp and bitter as their dung-spattered men. Why in the hell had I chosen this place?

Still, no one moved. I pondered yelling fire until a woman stood up.

“Thank you, miss, step right up.” With a grin like he’d been saved, Billy slapped his palms together. “Let’s give this lovely lady a hand.”

My first glimpse of her, she was dainty. Skirt gathered in a gloved hand, she climbed to the stage with an eye-catching waggle. Older than Billy, maybe ten years younger than me, but within kissing distance of 30. Some might have thought her pretty with her satiny dress, her neat little hat and purse, but I was partial to a certain type. I decided to watch and see.

Billy stepped forward. “May I have your name?” A tough breeze hustled through the flapping tent and chewed up her words. To hear better, I strolled to the side of the stage where her perfume sugared me like a twirl of cotton candy. She cocked her head and repeated her name. “Miss Eliza Reynolds.” I swear she batted her painted eyes.

“Your hand, Miss Reynolds.” Billy led her to the chair in the center of the stage. “Now, close your eyes. I promise it won’t hurt.”

That’s when I saw him look at the woman. Look at her as if sudden sight’d galvanized a blind man. Like he’d realized that there, her hand clutching his, sat an honest-to-God real live woman. Despite my help, Billy’d always been a bit backward in picking things up. Or so I’d thought.

            He hauled his eyes away and turned to the crowd. “I will now read Miss Reynolds’s thoughts. She will feel relaxed and happy once I have delved into the recesses of her mind.” One of my lines. Guess he’d learned something.

“Please calm yourself.” The woman took long, deep breaths. While her impressive bosom rose and fell, the glittery brooch nuzzling her low neckline flashed at me in the lantern light. An intriguing sight. Not that Billy noticed. “Concentrate on a color, any color.” He scrunched his eyes, mashed his brows. With a gasp, he said, “Green. You’re thinking of the color green.”

“Yes!” she gasped back. “That’s exactly the color I had in mind.” Had she just winked?

“Praise the Lord” and “Amen” blessed my boy while the audience clapped. They were roused. Any show would do now.

Charged, sure of himself, Billy moved on. “Now, think of a flower,” he commanded. While the woman appeared to concentrate, he paused, playing for time, screwing up his face, rubbing his forehead. The crowd shuffled about, some coughed. A male voice said, “Hah. Takes his sweet ol’ time, don’t he?”

At last Billy spun on his heels, showing off. “Delphinium.”

“Oh.” The woman’s hand flew to her lipstick-red mouth. “I was just thinking of my Aunt Margaret’s delphiniums.” Billy turned for applause. A little loose, a bit ordinary, but the crowd bought it.

That’s when Miss Reynolds spoke up, surprising Billy, though I guess I hadn’t expected it either. “Mr. Asgard, tell me what I’m thinking about right now.”

“Right now, Miss Reynolds?”

“Right now, Mr. Asgard.” She was toying with him, baiting him. Who was she? Why had she picked my boy?

Billy sputtered, looked down at the first row. “Looks like I got a live one here, folks.” They laughed, they were in his pocket. He scrunched up his nose. “You’re thinking that I’m the damn cutest thing you ever saw.”

That took the cake. People laughed, slapped each other’s shoulders. “Hell, he’s a corker, ain’t he?” Billy had not only stolen the show, but he’d fallen in love. A father could tell. He reached for Miss Reynolds and raised her up, like a gentleman. Like I would have. Her hand in his, he brought her to the very front of the stage, smiling a mile-a-minute. Like he’d won first prize at the carnival.

 

We were a team, me and Billy. Like draft horses we pulled together, worked hard, and made our traveling show the best on the coast. He was my son, the kid I’d taken care of by myself since he was ten months old, learning to be a father along the road. In my own way, I’d loved his mother and missed her some after she passed on.

A silent baby, he’d ridden wrapped in my arms in the saddle or propped up in the wagon. He ate what I put in front of him, wore what I gave him. Did the chores I set with only a complaint or two. Sometimes I had to give him a good smack to make him understand me, to stop his questions, but hardly ever a wallop unless he disagreed. He learned to stop bickering and I grew to love him. My boy. But now, almost a full-grown man, he still wasn’t interested in drinking or having fun. Had never had a woman.

Me? I enjoyed the intimate company of many women. After all, a man had to keep his creative spark flaming, and, even though I’m not a looker, too long and prickly-boned, I washed up good and gussied myself in double-breasted suits. Smoothed hair over the wispy spot on top. The ladies pegged me right off—they were lonesome and I was available. My sugarcoated manners kept them happy. And sometimes I even meant it.

So, I understood ladies all right but had never seen the likes of pretty little Eliza Reynolds. With light fingers, she’d nabbed Billy’s heart like a handful of candy from the counter at the Five-and-Dime. Barely a jangle. Hardly a scratch. Scarcely a drop of blood. Who was she, this woman, there on the stage holding my son’s hand?

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give a big hand to my new assistant.” Where had he gotten that? Was he thinking on his own? Peculiar, that. “For the next part of our show, Miss Reynolds will read my mind. She will see my secrets and dreams, but,” he laughed, “I promise she won’t get far.” The crowd was with him. “No one ever broke into this hard rock.” He tapped against his skull, smacked his boot heel three times. Another trick of mine. Silly but effective.

She was ready. “Mr. Asgard, please take the chair.” Ankle strap shoes clicking on the floorboards, she high-stepped toward Billy, standing close. I saw the silk of her dress slide across his knees while he stared up at her, his face afire, like he’d just remembered Christmas. With gloved fingers, she soothed his eyelids. “Don’t worry about a thing,” I heard her whisper. “You’re safe in my hands.” Then a bit louder. “And I don’t bite, sir.” She flashed a grin to the crowd and even the old ladies tittered. This woman was a pro.

“Now let your mind drift. Sleep.” Her voice a lullaby. “Allow your dreams to take you where they will.” She leaned over and stroked Billy’s temples while sweat bubbled along his hairline. He twitched, rubbed his thighs. His leg juddered. My son had no idea.

“I will count down from the number ten. When I get to one, Mr. Asgard, you’ll open your eyes, and I will be able to read your mind.”

A smile for the crowd. People craned their necks and some jumped up for a better look. Folks shushed each other, while the overstuffed man in the yellow shirt, his face like an eggplant, appeared to be having an attack of some kind. Not once had Eliza looked over my way, though I kept her in my sights, appreciating her jiggle. Her sweet carriage, her trim length of leg.

“Are you ready, Mr. Asgard?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Squeaking like he had as a child.

“Ten, sir. Nine, eight, seven…” She turned and raised her hand, nodded for help. “Six,” the crowd chanted. “Five, four, three, two. One!” With a grin, Billy opened his eyes.

“Let us begin.” While she sashayed back and forth, I gloried in the roll of her hips, marveled at the swish of satin as it caressed her legs. “You’re thinking that I don’t know what I’m doing.” A cackle from the crowd. She stopped, raised her hands slow-like to peel off her gloves, one sweet finger at a time. “Glory be,” someone gasped.

“Now, sir, you’re thinking about your family, aren’t you? Possibly your mother?” Her syrupy words carried. “You’re thinking how she used to cradle you. Love you. Isn’t that right? I said love, Mr. Asgard. We’re all looking for love, for affection. And that’s what I see in your mind. A man looking for the love of his life.”

Billy’s head jerked. He was a goner. I felt for the boy as I wiped the sweat from my forehead.

“A handsome and intelligent man looking for love.” The crowd hushed, like an angel of God had passed through the tent, calling everyone to attention. Like the angel on the stage had called each of their names, promising the love they deserved. Some old farmer snorted into his fingers while a couple of ladies sniveled, mopped their wet cheeks.

I’d never witnessed an act this good, except for my own. Where had she picked up those lines? She was quick, reading Billy like a newspaper with a three-inch headline. Looking for love, for affection. I had to admire her act but needed to pull my son from her sticky fingers.

With a bounce, I landed on the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the team of Mr. Billy Asgard and Miss Eliza Reynolds.” I tugged my son from the chair and clasped the woman’s hand, raising our arms in the sour air. “Let’s hear it for the Coast’s best mind readers. Clairvoyant twins!” After the expected applause, I made them bow along with me. “Thank you, one and all, and come to see us in Bridgeville on Tuesday.”

Again I made them bow as the audience abandoned the tent. “Well, Miss Eliza Reynolds.” She blinked her gold-plated eyes at me. I blinked back. She fingered her dark curls. I straightened my tie. I wouldn’t let this be easy, but my son couldn’t keep his trap shut.

“You were wonderful,” Billy gushed, reaching for her. “How do you do that? Can you teach me?”

“Yes, Miss Reynolds. Can you teach us both?” I raised one eyebrow, something my ladies found amusing.

She squeezed Billy’s hand but looked directly at me. “It would be my pleasure to show you everything.”

Before I could stop him, Billy shot off his mouth. “You’d do that for us?”

“Of course. I’d be happy to show you what I can do.” With a laugh, she bared her neck. Splashes of taffy-colored freckles, the white nick of an old scar. Violet smears at her throat, akin to the bruises I’d tried hard not to give Billy’s willful mother.

She put a fast hand to her throat when she saw I’d noticed. “I left my position with the Mystic Seer a few weeks ago. He’s too old, can’t get anything more from him.” She flickered big eyes at Billy. “Your show is where I want to be now. If you’ll have me.”

The rain pattered and the mugginess set in heavy as we scuttled to the Sand Dune Hotel where we left Eliza at her door. After I’d kicked off my wet boots, I stopped Billy’s chattering about her, then plunked onto the bed for some hard thinking.

It’d always been the two of us, just me and my boy, and I’d thought it would stay that way forever. But now there was the spanking-new Asgard Trio. How in the world had I allowed that to happen? Why had I let Eliza in? Underneath all of her sparkle, did I suspect something? While I gnawed at my raw thumbnail, practical notions got to their feet, tussling in my head. Could I feed and house the three of us on the little bit the show made or would the addition of Eliza bring in more cash? Did I have to pay her? What would become of me and Billy?

In the days that followed, while we moved on to other small towns and other soggy tents, Eliza kept things business-like, show after show, least when I was around. She was good on stage, knew what she was doing, but I saw that she’d mesmerized my son. This I could not allow. One breathless night in Wilmington, me and Billy on top of our sheets, too hot to sleep, I flat-out told him Eliza was too old, too smart for him. He snickered and turned away. Honestly, though I tried to keep them apart, Billy held his first love. A father could tell.

He sat drunk-like at breakfast one morning, beaming to beat the damn sun. Couldn’t take his eyes off Eliza as he shoveled lumps of porridge into his mouth. She, one cool customer, I gave her that, pretended that nothing had happened. What could I say? Billy was not a child. When Eliza left the table, I looked at him, wondering if he could walk, if he could talk. The boy was in a daze.

I’d seen it coming, just not that fast. It wasn’t what I wanted for him, what I’d planned, but, all along, Billy’d been growing up, thinking on his own. Making his own decisions without my help, without asking me, and that was bothersome. But what’s done could not be undone. During the hot days while we practiced our act or rode on to the next little burg, I kept our threesome tight, professional. We had to do well. We needed to be better than the next group of charlatans.

Each night, though, as I enjoyed private time with a lady from the audience or maybe a shopkeeper’s daughter, Eliza took note of my comings-and-goings as if she, God forbid, owned me. As if she had a stake in my life. Me and her, if we talked at all, it was about the show or what towns to visit next.

Then, one flat-out steamy noon in New Castle while Eliza and I rehearsed a fiddly stunt, she walked in front of me once too often, much too close, and my heart rose and I took her. She snuffled fast through her nose while I pushed her splendid bosom against my bedroom wall at the Seaview Hotel. As I burrowed into her delicious heat and licked the stickiness from her neck, my hands found pleasure in her round belly, rigid, harder than expected under my palms.

“You’re pregnant.” I jerked away. “For God’s sake, this’ll ruin us. What am I going to do?” I raised my itchy hands to strike her, then recalled Billy’s mother.

Her eyes stabbed me. “Don’t even think about it, William.” She tugged at her undergarments and twitched her rumpled dress, scraped wet curls off her forehead. I shut the door after her before Billy finished his lunch downstairs.

The next morning, my son jostled me awake. “Hey, Pa, I’m going to marry Eliza. Can you believe it?” His hair flickered in the dawn rays as he shook his head. “I’ve never known anyone like her.” Of course he hadn’t, but what could I say? He sat upright in the bed next to mine, the quilt scrunched in his hands. Looking like he had at eight, telling me he wanted a pony for his birthday. “I know I haven’t known her long,” his boy brows crumpled, “but she makes me feel good.”

How do you slap down a kid and tell him you can’t afford a horse? That there’s no Santa Claus? That a woman can’t be trusted?

“Well, that’s great, son.” I’m sure I smiled. “My best wishes to you both.” What else could I say? Break the news she’s pregnant? It came down to pure cowardice, and I said nothing. Not proud of that.

After a visit to the justice’s office downtown that same July day, the newlyweds left to honeymoon in Baltimore, and I nestled into the Seaview. On my own but not alone. The days moseyed by as I took life slow, enjoying the warm company of one fine lady or another, whiling the time away until, somewhere in mid-August, my son and Eliza returned. His love scarcely cooled, though she had blossomed. Skirt strained over a melon-like belly, she walked smartly, her gloved hand through Billy’s hooked arm. Hadn’t he counted the months since they’d met? Had he learned nothing at my side?

While Eliza sweated out her time the next couple of months, I cloaked her in shawls on stage to conceal her problem. She had stopped looking pretty, though Billy still scampered about her, despite how she talked to him. She got real crotchety and picky, and if he said anything back, she’d smack him down with words as hard as if she’d hit him. I’d see the look on his face, like she’d marked his cheek, but said nothing. This was marriage, not a threesome, and I had no place in it.

On November 30th, two days after Billy’s 18th birthday, the baby came. Tiny Ruthie, with dark ringlets and blue eyes-turned-brown. Not Billy’s breed. While we settled in Rehoboth Beach for the holidays, Ruthie slept, swaddled in the bottom drawer of a dresser in the bedroom Eliza shared with Billy, while I, in the room next door, spent nights with a pillow clamped over my ears, though I still heard too much.

“I do love you, Eliza, you and Ruthie. I know we just got married, but a man has to do what he has to do. My Pa’s always saying that to women, and he’s a smart guy. I’m a grown man, and it’s time I head out.”

“What about the baby? What about me?”

“Don’t worry, my father will take care of you. And, I’ll come back, I’m pretty sure I will, once I’ve seen the world.”

Billy’d started using his head. Started thinking like me. Night after night, well into January, the fighting and yelling went on, though Billy never once questioned being Ruthie’s father. Not once. I didn’t know he had such a voice, such strength, such spirit. He told Eliza that he needed to make it on his own, that a baby would tie him down. Then one sleety night at the end of the month came a fight so loud I thought we’d all be kicked out of The Breakers. While Ruthie shrieked blue blazes, dull thumps echoed in the dark hallway. Eliza had shoved Billy and his suitcase out their door.

“Go then, damn you. You and your big plans.” I’m sure the other hotel guests listened at their keyholes. “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it, Billy. Just get out.”

A slam, then a scratching at my door. “Pa?”

I let him in to say goodbye and it damn near killed me. I loved that boy. He made me feel like I’d done something right. You’d have thought I had words to stop him from leaving me, but I didn’t. He had to go, and I had to let him. Though I should never have let him marry that woman. He’d been a child. My fault, not his.

We clung to each other, swiping our noses, pretending not to cry. As a parting gift, I handed him a lock of his mother’s hair that I’d kept for some reason, and he walked out as the sun rose. I gave myself time to snivel. Then, with no thought about it at all, I lunged under the bed for my cashbox. About eight dollars in coin fell from my hand. Not the $23 that had been there yesterday.

Eliza. She’d planned this all along, hadn’t she? Took my boy, took my money. Was she even next door? Had she and Ruthie fled along with Billy? Though she’d been working with me most of yesterday, and I could trust her, couldn’t I? So, not Eliza. Maybe the hotel’s maid? The shifty night manager?

Then it came upon me—don’t ask why or how I knew—it’d been my boy. My son. Billy’d robbed me, his own father. The man who’d raised him, taken care of him his whole life. The little thief. He’d betrayed me, stolen my money as easily as if he’d plucked it straight from my outstretched palm. As if I’d said, here, boy, take it. Take my money, take my love. Take everything I’d ever dreamed of for you. Steal my heart.

I slammed into Eliza’s room and flew to her, my hand raised to lash out. I needed to hurt someone. To hurt her as much as Billy’d hurt me. But I stopped, stopped at the face of the woman I’d grown fond of. The woman I’d grown to admire, perhaps to like more than I’d even considered.

“What more?” She covered my fist with her hands. “Is it Billy? Is he okay?”

“Oh, ho,” I snorted. “I’m sure he’s fine after stealing all of my money.”

She didn’t seem surprised, and, for one or two seconds, I was sure she’d been in on the heist. Then I considered that she’d thrown Billy out, even before he’d been ready to go. Then again, maybe this was part of a bigger plan to rob me of everything? My head spun with possibilities, none of them good.

“It’s only money, William.” She shrugged, like it was another bump in a long road flattened by letdowns. “You’re fine and I’m fine. We’ll make more money together, I promise.”

Ruthie squawked, and, while she soothed the child, I decided, there and then, that I needed to put the stolen money behind me. After all, what could I do? Billy was the thief. I had no proof that Eliza’d been involved, and she didn’t look guilty. I decided to be another, better kind of man. The kind of man that could forgive my son. A man who could match Eliza’s spirit. I also knew I had to curb my hands. More revelations. More pledges.

I swore to Eliza that I’d never hurt her like I had Billy’s mother. “I didn’t know that I could break a woman so badly. I used to lash out when she provoked me.” With a step, I was beside her. “Honestly, I’m not like that anymore.” I reached out to pull her into my arms, but she stepped away. I couldn’t blame her.

“I’ve known men like you. It’s wrong to hurt a woman, real wrong.” Her face creased up, looking old. Bit yellow, worn out, if truth be told. She sniffed, clutched the baby. “I will not let that happen again. Not to me or Ruthie. Do you understand?”

I raised my right hand. “On the baby’s head, I swear it. God help me, I’ll never raise my fist to either of you. I’m a different man now, you’ll see. Please believe me, I’ll never ever hurt you.”

She took me at my word and had her nice name, Mrs. William Asgard, all legal-like. Because she said nothing more about Billy, I shut my mouth about that, too. But, before I could say anything else—it fell shaking on me. Why she’d tailed the show. Why she’d been so fast to join me and Billy. Why she’d taken us on despite his thick-headedness and my sweet-talking ways. And I’d thought Billy’d been slow. Eliza was one smart woman, I grant her that.

So, along with coffee and scrambled eggs at breakfast, I took on a child. Not Billy’s. Not mine. I took on some other man’s child again, just as I had with Billy. Newly-hatched responsibilities, so to speak, and promises to be kept. We are watchful of each other now, me and Eliza, tied tight by the pink strings of Ruthie’s crocheted bonnet.

{ X }

EDNA McNAMARA retired after years of public service and immediately opened her laptop to enroll in writing workshops. She’d shamefully left the practice of creating stories behind in college. While working and raising a family, however, she indulged in reading many novels and short stories and credits this lifelong addiction to her love of storytelling. She has had work published in Philadelphia StoriesChantwood Magazineand Wraparound South.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s