By Veronica Randolph Batterson
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” the girls chanted, as I skipped the rope they threw faster and faster.
“Two little love birds sittin’ in a tree,” they continued loudly, my heart pounding with every jump.
My friends were trying to get me to trip so I was determined I wouldn’t, even though it meant I would probably have at least thirty children with the little boy named Robert. I didn’t mind since I had harbored a secret crush on him for at least a year. It must be true love, I reasoned, for how else could a ten-year-old like someone for so long? He was the dream of the fifth grade and I wasn’t the only girl at Eastman Elementary School who fancied him. Even though he was shorter than all of the girls in my grade, it didn’t matter one bit. True love prevailed over something as minor as height.
“Thirty-two,” and with that, the rope stung my ankles and it was the end of my turn at jumping. Squeals of laughter followed as the three other girls teased me about the number of babies I would have. I laughed too since I knew I could jump longer and better than any one of them.
It was then that I noticed her. She was strolling lazily across the grassy knoll of the park and was turning heads as she passed. The woman appeared quite aware that everyone was staring at her and she was enjoying every minute of it. It seemed that was her intention. She was the most unusual looking woman I’d ever seen in my life. I would later learn to describe her as exotic but all I knew at that moment was she appeared very different. There was certainly no one I had ever seen in our small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi who could even compare.
Her hair was as black as coal and she wore it pulled back from her face and wound tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck. There was a red flower tucked to the right side of the knot and I wondered how she managed to keep the flower in her hair. Her skin appeared to be a mixture of creamy brown and gold that was further enhanced by the bold colors of her clothing. The dress she wore had shades of the same red as the flower, yet other colors were interwoven as well. Purples and yellows contrasted vividly together as the swaying fabric gently played around her hips and legs as she walked. Yet the woman’s walk wasn’t just any walk. Her stroll was like gentle waves rolling softly on a calm sea and was so enticing that you had to watch.
And we all watched. My friends and I stopped jumping rope and gazed upon the woman as she made her way through the park. We had even stopped laughing, as how could any laughter come from mouths that were gaping open in surprise? Then I caught sight of the effect this mysterious visitor was having on everyone else in the park.
Miss Ruby and Miss Joanna sat perched on a park bench just to my left and they were gaping too. The park custodian and the mothers with babies in strollers were gaping. Gaping seemed to be the natural reaction to the creature that suddenly entered our little world without warning. Yet there appeared to be two types of gaping. Miss Ruby, Miss Joanna and the mothers with babies in strollers were gaping in a shocked sort of way. The custodian and a few of the older gentlemen who were strolling in the park were gaping in an interesting sort of way. I couldn’t put a finger on it but it was definitely different.
The woman made her way across the grass to the sidewalk and was nearing our group of girls. As she approached, I was able to get a better glimpse of the individual who was making that day in the park the most exciting I had ever experienced. She was not beautiful but something about her made you want to attach yourself to her like bees do to honey. I noticed the slant of her almond shaped eyes and the little smile she wore on her painted red lips. She pulled her shawl closer as she walked past and I watched the black fringe float softly down her golden arm. As she made this movement, a little tinkling sound jingled and there on her arm was a heavy charm bracelet. The fringe of the shawl was gently tangled around the charms on her skin. And when she passed, the sweetest scent of flowers mingled in the air. The fragrance reminded me of honeysuckles and lilacs on a warm southern day, and I thought that I would enjoy being near this woman just because she smelled good.
My friends and I watched her as she walked past, as did Miss Joanna and Miss Ruby. She walked and we watched until she was out of sight and it was as if we didn’t know what to do when she was gone. She exited our little park that day as suddenly as she entered it, but left such an impact that I knew things would never be the same. I almost felt it was her intention to shake things up in our sleepy little town and that was certainly what had happened. Somehow I knew the woman was here for a reason, and I couldn’t wait to find out what it might be.
The buzz around town was about the unusual woman named Carlotta. She hailed from about a dozen locations in the world, according to various sources. Some of the places I had never heard of and many of the stories were so far-fetched, I didn’t believe half of them. One story was that she came to our great town of Holly Springs to escape pirates who had kidnapped her from India. Another tale was that Carlotta was a gypsy and was recruiting southern men to steal away with her and join the traveling caravan that awaited her in the next town. Some accounts involved clandestine meetings with the mayor and I’m certain the mayor’s wife didn’t appreciate hearing any of them.
I came upon the truth of Carlotta on my own one day. At least I believed it to be the truth since it came from Carlotta herself, but I would later learn that the woman could embellish tales to make them more interesting to her audience.
My mama worked at the public library in Holly Springs. It was always a treat for me to go to work with her, as I loved reading more than anything else in the world. I reasoned that walking into a library for me was like walking into a candy store for most children. It was difficult to choose the books I wanted to read as there were so many and I could spend hours looking through all that the library had to offer. Since it was summer, I was able to go with my mama more often as she didn’t like leaving me home alone all day.
It was here that I first talked with Carlotta. I smelled her before I saw her. As I was browsing through book after book, the same flowery scent that followed her through the park that first day wafted toward me and mingled with the musty odors of old books and dusty shelves. I knew she was near. The thought brought great anticipation of a possible encounter with the woman who was the talk of the town.
As I moved to the end of the aisle, I saw her sitting at a table with a pile of books in front of her. She appeared deeply engrossed in one particular book and didn’t seem to notice the stares she was receiving from those around her. Her clothes were different from the ones she had been wearing on that day in the park, but she still wore clothing I had never seen on any woman before. She wore her hair in the same manner but with a jeweled-looking comb next to the knot at the nape of her neck, instead of the flower.
I couldn’t help it but all I could do was stare. It was as if she held some fascination for me that nothing else ever had. Maybe it was because she was mysterious and came from some far away place. I didn’t understand it, but the attraction was there and I stood near her table, boldly watching her every breath. Of course she sensed my presence. How could she not? I was standing less than a foot away form her chair and directly to her side. So without looking up from the book she was holding, she asked, “May I help you?”
Her words held a funny accent and she did not sound like anyone from Mississippi. As a matter of fact, she didn’t sound like the people I had encountered anywhere in the south. I wondered if any of those rumors I had heard about her might be true. She repeated her question, and it was then I realized she was addressing me.
I looked into her face and her almond eyes seemed to hold some kind of amusement. They appeared to twinkle as she gazed at me. I couldn’t for the life of me find my own voice. So I just stood there making guttering noises as my hands perspired uncontrollably. Oh, why could I not speak? Words wouldn’t come from my mouth. I felt embarrassed and wished she hadn’t noticed me.
“Perhaps you would like to sit down,” she whispered, “please.”
She pointed to the chair opposite her at the same table. That gesture drew my attention once again to the charm bracelet that dangled so delicately from her wrist. I somehow convinced my feet to move toward the chair and clumsily I plopped down.
The woman stared so intently that I felt she could see right through me and straight to my soul. I was willing to bet she could guess what I had dreamed the night before. So I was startled when she asked me abruptly if she could read my palm. Before I could answer, she grabbed my hand and laid it open faced on the table in front of her.
Her fingers were light as she traced them along the lines of my sweaty palm. I stared in fascination as she summed up my life in one brief moment. I didn’t care that everyone in the room was staring at us.
“You are a smart girl. You like to read, no?” Carlotta mumbled as she gazed at my hand. She had hooked me with those words and I was ready to believe anything she had to say. Later, I realized that anyone might make that assessment as I was in a library. However, I wasn’t ready to rationalize my encounter with Carlotta.
She proceeded to tell me about herself, and I must have appeared eager to hear what she had to say since she continued with no hesitation. I discovered she was a widow and had no children. She had no family either, and was entirely on her own in the world. She made a living by reading palms, styling hair and giving dance lessons to those who were interested. When I asked her where she was from, she was vague and I thought perhaps she had traveled so much that she couldn’t give a specific place. I would later learn otherwise.
Carlotta glanced at the clock on the wall and abruptly said she must leave. “I can not be late on my first day!” she exclaimed, as she gathered the books she had been reading. “Come see me,” she continued, “I am working at the Chalet of Hair starting today.”
And with that, she was gone, just as quickly as she had left that first day in the park. The scent of her perfume mingled in the air for a few seconds as a reminder that she had been there. Yet I did not need any reminders of the fascinating woman who had just sat opposite of me and read my palm. I wondered what my mama would think of this occurrence as I went in search of her.
Mama had heard the rumors and she wasn’t willing to comment on Carlotta one way or another. She wasn’t a gossip like the other women of the town. Mama didn’t like to cause controversy and would always keep her opinions to herself. She said it was best if you kept quiet then no one’s feelings would get hurt. I suppose she was right, but, for some reason, I wanted her to like the town’s newest resident.
A week later, Mama made an appointment at the Chalet of Hair and I begged to tag along. She knew I just wanted to see the salon’s recent employee and I suspected Mama wished to glimpse the woman herself. So we went on a mission. She was spying on Carlotta under the pretense of getting her hair done, but I didn’t care if it meant I could go with her. I had wanted to see Carlotta all week, but couldn’t come up with a reason for a visit to the Chalet of Hair.
As Mama and I entered the beauty shop, I shivered with anticipation. It was only the second time I had ever been there and it was a beehive of activity. We were greeted by a teenage girl who sat in front of a sign that read, CUTS AND CURLS TO GO. Mama gave her name and we sat down to wait. I picked up one of the many magazines scattered on the table in front of me, but I couldn’t concentrate. Too much was going on and I began to pick up tidbits of conversation here and there.
“Oh, do you think Carlotta would like this?”
“Hon, don’t forget to let Carlotta read your palm after she does your nails.”
“Sonny and I are trying Carlotta’s new dance class tomorrow night. Should be fun.”
Every bit of conversation referenced Carlotta and it seemed the talk was good. It amazed me since she had only been in town such a short time. Eventually, Mama’s name was called and we made our way to the back of the salon. There were rows of hair dryers on either side of the room and each one contained a woman underneath. It was difficult to determine who was who as each person was draped with a plastic pink cape and the faces under the hair dryers were beet red from the heat. Farther back were the sinks for shampooing. There was one open space for my Mama and she sat down. It was like an assembly line. One comes in and another moves on. I stood to the side and watched my Mama’s head become a big lather of fruit smelling foam.
Then I heard Carlotta. That lilting accent I would recognize anywhere. She was stationed behind a big fern and appeared to be doing someone’s nails. Or maybe she was reading palms, I couldn’t tell from where I stood, but she had an audience just the same.
When my Mama’s hair was the cleanest I think it had ever been, we made our way to a stylist’s chair. Carlotta noticed us then and she quickly called out “Angel, it is so nice to see you again, no?”
She surprised me, as no one had ever called me that before. I suppose Angela could be shortened to Angel but it was a first, so I felt that was Carlotta’s special way of connecting with me. I liked her even more, if that were possible. Mama wished to meet her, I could tell, so I took her hand and we made our way to my new friend. Carlotta’s eyes sparkled as she looked at us.
“Is this your mama, Angel?” she asked as she looked from me to my parent.
I assured her it was and she proceeded to brag about me and she complimented my mama on the pretty shoes she was wearing. A glance in Mama’s direction told me that she too was impressed with the Chalet of Hair’s manicurist and palm reader. It wasn’t very long before Carlotta convinced Mama into getting a palm reading once her hair was fixed. I was surprised that Mama agreed to that since she was such a sensible person. Such was the effect Carlotta had on people.
While the stylist worked her magic on Mama’s hair, I made my way to the little area where Carlotta was perched. She was reading a palm, while another person waited for a manicure. I noticed Carlotta seemed to say whatever her customers wished to hear, and her readings were vague, but positive. It made her popular but it was transparent to me that she truly didn’t know how to tell fortunes. I didn’t like her any less for it as I felt it made her appear human.
Every once in a while, she would look my way and wink, as if she and I shared a secret. Of course, it was meant to make me feel special and I did. That was the reason she was so well liked. She weaved her magic with everyone.
Mama came to the back of the room and waited her turn. She appeared uncomfortable and I could tell that she was just about to whisper to me that we should go, when Carlotta asked her to sit down for her reading. Carlotta took Mama’s hand in hers and looked at the heavily lined palm for what seemed an eternity. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with respect.
“You have worked very hard for your little Angel. All by yourself, you make certain your little girl wants for nothing,” Carlotta soothed.
I looked at Mama’s face but could tell nothing by her expression. She was very controlled in that respect. It took a lot for Mama to show her emotions and I knew she wouldn’t allow a stranger, not even charismatic Carlotta, to see through her. I could tell that Carlotta was getting frustrated. No matter what she said, Mama would not react to it. It occurred to me that it was a person’s reaction to a reading that fed Carlotta. She could determine which way to go based upon someone’s reaction to what she was saying. But Mama was giving her nothing and Carlotta was stumbling around blindly. I almost felt sorry for her. Suddenly, Carlotta announced that it was getting late and she had better move on to the next customer.
We said our goodbyes, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. I had hoped that Mama and Carlotta would like each other. But I wasn’t sure after the palm reading that had just occurred. Mama wouldn’t say anything other than Carlotta seemed like a nice lady, but I could tell by the set of her jaw she wasn’t impressed.
Carlotta’s dance lessons were a hit, as were the palm readings and manicures. I heard that the Chalet of Hair’s receptionist was so enthralled with Carlotta, that she dyed her hair jet black and began dressing just like her idol. All of the men in Holly Springs, Mississippi melted in Carlotta’s presence and the women wanted to be just like her. Material of bold colors flew off the fabric store shelves, and retailers could not keep shawls in stock. The whole town was awestruck. But I gathered Mama’s mind changed once Carlotta began to read her palm. Maybe she saw through Carlotta as I did, but I was willing to accept Carlotta as she was. I suspected Mama wasn’t able to do that.
Several months passed and the storm known as Carlotta suddenly abated. Then rumors once again started flying and they were just as abundant but of a very different nature. These same rumors weren’t told in giddy amusement, but in amazement and defense of someone the town had grown to appreciate. For the people of the town had allowed Carlotta to grow on them, and they didn’t appreciate hearing that Carlotta was human after all.
It seemed she wasn’t who she claimed to be. My mama gently broke the news as she had suspected for quite some time. Apparently Carlotta was a former actress from New York. She had been diagnosed with a mental illness and could no longer work because she couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. Her real name was Barbara and she lived in a make-believe world, and in her mind, she was truly Carlotta. But Barbara had wandered from home. Her family had been searching for her for years. She wasn’t married, but her parents and brother were her caretakers. Barbara traveled from town to town by bus, setting up shop for a while, making a little money and eventually moving on. Because she never stayed very long in one place, it was difficult for anyone to find her.
It was Mama who eventually discovered the truth. She researched in the library and online looking for any information she might find on Carlotta and eventually discovered a newspaper article about a missing woman. She contacted the newspaper and ultimately the family. One thing led to another, until they were reunited with their missing relative. Barbara returned to New York with her family.
Shock followed. Our small town couldn’t believe the exciting company of Carlotta would no longer be felt. No more palm readings, dances or manicures. We didn’t blame Carlotta for deceiving us as and I hoped no one blamed my mama for returning our favorite citizen to her family.
A depression clouded our community until one day Miss Ruby and Miss Joanna boldly appeared at the grocery store wearing their brightly colored black-fringed shawls. Someone said they thought Miss Ruby was wearing a charm bracelet.
From that moment, Holly Springs, Mississippi embraced the memory of Carlotta and what she meant to the town. Carlotta allowed us to see that people are different. If you accept that, life can be so much more exciting. Carlotta departed Holly Springs as abruptly as she entered, but left behind were bold colors, laughter and the occasional dance class.
Veronica Randolph Batterson is the author of the juvenile fiction book, Billy's First Dance. Her short stories and essays have been published in various publications, including Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Originally from Tennessee, she now lives in the Chicago area. Her next book, Funny Pages, will be published in 2011. More information is available on her website, www.veronicabatterson.com.