A Novel

      Miss Darling was a citizen of the universe. She had been an Egyptian princess and a tobacco farmer in Virginia. She traveled the stars at night and lived in a mud hut near a canal bank by day. She’d been one-third of a song-and-dance act in vaudeville. She was a cripple, a poet, a palm reader, a fortuneteller, her soul living in the last of its nine bodies. She was five-hundred-and-sixty-two years old. Miss Darling cast spells, threw curses, mixed herbs, wrote anti-war letters, smoked Pall Mall Menthols when she could afford them, and rarely, if ever, bathed. She boarded five Pomeranians—you don’t own other creatures, she said, doing that can untoss the cosmic salad—one of which sported a dusty yellow, crocheted sweater over its pink furless body and all of which twirled in circles when they yapped, which was often. Miss Darling stood four feet nine inches and shrinking. Many people who knew her and most who sought her advice thought she was a witch. We didn’t know if she was or not.
      “Nine lives? You mean, like a cat’s?” Lenny sat in the back of my mother’s Dodge Dart, directly behind Miss Darling who sat in the passenger’s side. Rarely did Lenny crack the obvious joke—his mind wasn’t wired that way—but then we realized he wasn’t kidding.
      “Nine cycles. It’s the cosmic order. Queenie! Git outa here, Queenie! Go on!” Miss Darling eyed the dogs, which were starting to move away. “Give me your right hand.”
      Lenny scooted forward, scrunching Julie and Greg into each other against the car door. He held his hand out and poked his head over the front seat.
      She peered down at his palm as though into a deep well. “Your right hand gives me your future, the left your past.” The middle finger of her speckled hand traced the lines of Lenny’s palm. Her breathing wasn’t exactly heavy but you could hear it, a low hum as though a chord strummed deep inside. “You’re sensitive, especially to nature. You’re like a coyote. You sniff the wind and rain without thought.”
      Greg threw his head back, pursing his lips as though ready to howl. Julie smothered a giggle into her wrist.
      “But your hands are kind and very creative. They express who you are and, like everyone’s, they tell me your destiny.” Letting go of his hand, Miss Darling turned and studied Lenny over half-moon reading spectacles. They were black-framed with white tape wrapped at one corner to secure the earpiece and pop-bottle lenses that made her eyes jump out. “‘Your path may be clouded, uncertain your goal / Move on, for the orbit is fixed for your soul. And though it may lead to the darkness at night / The torch of the Builder will give it new life.’ What’s your birth date?”
      “September twenty-ninth.”
      She raised her short arthritically swollen index finger and began figuring, as though it were a piece of chalk. Lenny stared at the imaginary chalkboard. Miss Darling’s toothless mouth moved, whispering calculations. “One.” Her hand dropped. “Go on, Queenie. Go on now.”
      “One?” Lenny glanced at Julie, Greg, and me.
      The car was parked in what might have been a driveway behind Miss Darling’s adobe hut if it weren’t for a stand of kochia weeds already tall enough to brush the underside of the car when we pulled in. Through the sun-streaked windshield I could make out the tips of the dogs’ tails and ears bounce as they moved to the dirt beneath Miss Darling’s old Cadillac; it was the only shade around that didn’t grow weeds. Three of the Caddy’s tires were flat and the right front wheel, which once held the fourth, rested on a split of oily tree stump, the wheel’s rusty edge cutting into it. The Caddy’s windows were smoky white and rolled up, and the inside was packed to the roof with cardboard boxes.
      “One what?”
      Julie and Greg squirmed for elbowroom, the skin of their legs adhering like tape to the vinyl seat covers, but Lenny wouldn’t budge.
      “One cycle. You’re a young spirit, you see—an infant soul. ‘You are and you will be, know while you are / Your spirit has traveled both long and afar. It took on strange garbs for eons of years / And now in the soul of yourself it appears.’” Miss Darling cackled and readjusted her garments under one arm, the smell of raw chicken rising from her, chicken left out too long. “That’s from my poem ‘Child of Infinitude.’ Did you know I was in Who’s Who of American Poets in nineteen-fifty-five? This is just your first body to inhabit. In your next life you’ll be a woman. Good Queenie. Good dogs.”
      “I will?”
      Julie coughed, muffling another laugh.
      I frowned at her. “It goes every other life, Lenny. Right, Miss Darling?” My sister Dana had brought me to Miss Darling’s the Friday before, when I first heard how everyone has nine lives before leaving this planet, alternating between male and female, how you could figure out the cycle you’re in by adding the numbers of your birth date.
      Miss Darling nodded. “September is the ninth month, nine plus twenty-nine is thirty-eight, plus fifty-three is ninety-one. Nine plus one is ten.”
      “I thought you said I was in my first—”
      “One plus zero is one.”
      Lenny shook his head, sitting back in the seat.
      Julie scooted over to give Greg more room. If Julie had it her way she would have kept Greg pinned against the upholstery for the rest of the day, night, and into the next morning. She pinched Lenny’s cheeks. “I told ya you’re just a baby.”
      Lenny was one of the oldest members of our graduating class but looked the youngest: five-foot-seven, slender, whiskerless, and a boyish face that the girls in our class found cute. Yet cute hadn’t helped him find a girlfriend during our three years of high school and he was sensitive about it. From a distance his loose-limbed gait made him appear even younger. Walking down the hallway at school or down the street afterward, he gave the impression that he was off to one of the carnivals that stopped in Grand River every summer or to a party or anywhere but to class or that weird home of his. But his quirky artist’s brain made up for his apparent lack of years. Besides, Lenny was wiry, could run the shorts off anyone in the valley, and was a pretty good one-hundred-and-twelve-pound wrestler.
      “Actually, I’m in my tenth life. I’m already in a higher realm.”
      Greg snickered. “Actually, you multiply not add. One times zero is . . .” He rolled thumb and index finger into a zero, then pointed at Lenny.
      I cleared my throat, glancing over my shoulder. “Miss Darling, we came over because our friend Greg Woods here—”
      “Hi.” Greg waved.
      “—well, we’re all graduating from high school next week and Greg wants to know if he should accept a scholarship to the—”
      “—an appointment to the Air Force Academy.”
      Miss Darling jerked her head around and studied Greg. “Air Force? So you can fight?”
      Now it was Greg who scooted forward. Being a pragmatist, albeit a maniacal one, Greg had been against the idea of seeking Miss Darling’s advice. That he came at all was an indication of what he was going through (not to mention that this was Magic Club, the only rule being that you had to attend every meeting—if you could even call them meetings).
      “No, uh, I’ll be in school for four years and by then Nixon’ll have us out of—”
      Miss Darling held up her hand, then motioned to Greg. “Come up here.”
      I climbed out the driver’s side and Greg got out the back, slipping his sunglasses off and into his front shirt pocket. As we passed each other he stretched his mouth and eyes wide in a silent scream and wagged his head back and forth. With his long angular face, he looked like the guy in the Edvard Munch painting. The shapes he could twist his face into were a source of entertainment to us; in fact, everything he did was for amusement, from annoying teachers with his irreverence and then spiting them by getting straight A’s, to risking his physical well-being for a laugh (like when he drunkenly skied off the Chalet Hotel into the swimming pool; we had to fish him out using a ski pole because as soon as the skis hit the water, his boots popped from them and took on the properties of an anchor).
      Greg’s face returned to its sarcastic gleam as he slid in behind the steering wheel.
      Miss Darling took his left hand. “Greg Woods, was it?”
      “Gosh, you’re already one for one and we’ve barely started.”
      She looked at him then threw her head back and cackled wide-mouthed, revealing toothless gums. “He’s a corker now, isn’t he?”
      “Two for two.” Julie and I laughed.
      If ever there was a corker, it was Greg Woods. You either loved or hated him: co-valedictorian, court jester, editor of both the school newspaper and yearbook, juvenile delinquent, president and sole surviving member of the Chinese Language Club (Julie was the only other charter member, but after a month and a half of learning nothing but “hello” and “good-bye” from Greg and “penis” on her own, she was unanimously voted out—two to zero; they both knew it wasn’t Chinese she was interested in), boozer, number one player on the tennis team three years running, captain of the debate team, and as he liked to put it, all around bon vivant. And then, of course, there was Magic Club: his idea.
      “What’s your birth date?” Miss Darling brought his hands to her lap.
      “December fifteenth, fifty-three.”
      “Ah, a fellow Sagittarian.” She calculated under her breath. “An old soul, too. You’re in your eighth cycle.” She began kneading his hands between thumbs and index fingers.
      “What’re you doing?”
      “For your headache.” She turned his left hand over. “Self-induced, I believe.”
      Greg smiled. “Hmm. Guess that makes you three for—”
      “Shhhh.” She studied the palm, tracing the lines with her middle finger. Greg leaned back against the car door, right elbow resting atop the seat, head propped at an angle.
      “This line that runs under your thumb around the Mount of Venus here is your life line. See how it sweeps along here? This means you have a great capacity for work, for physical endeavor.”
      Greg shrugged, huffed the fingernails of his free hand before shining them on his shirt. “Naturally.”
      Julie opened her mouth and stuck an index finger in, pretending to gag.
      “But see how the life line tends to end up near the Mount of Moon here? This means that sometimes your energies are unstable and badly directed. Be mindful of this.”
      We covered our mouths and pointed at Greg, mocking him.
      “Yes, you have a long head line, as well.”
      His eyebrows arched. “No doubt a reflection of other parts of my—”
      Julie snorted before she could catch herself. She held up a hand, thumb and index finger indicating an inch.
      “This is a sign of a good intellect. You have good concentration and you can be quite practical in many matters. See how your head line curves up at the end?”
      “Then again, Greg, probably not a reflection of—”
      I elbowed Julie to shut up.
      “You sometimes lack empathy. You don’t always take others into consideration. Let’s see what your heart line says.” Miss Darling’s face drew closer as she traced under the faint calluses of his hand. “Your heart line is quite short compared to your head line and life line. This is somewhat unusual in a fire sign. See how straight it is and how it ends, pointing at Jupiter. You’re more a pragmatist, a thinker, than an emotional type, aren’t you?”
      Greg shrugged. “I guess.”
      Julie laughed out loud. “You guess? Are you kidding?” Her lust for him was a well known fact. That they remained friends at all was less a testament to Greg’s charm than to Julie’s persistence, although his ability to make light of her affection—as he did almost everything in his life—helped ease her frustration.
      “See these lines?”
      He bent forward and nodded.
      “They tell me you’ve lived overseas.”
      Miss Darling looked up as he continued to stare at his hand. The three of us in back glanced at one another.
      “Somewhere across the Pacific. You were very young. You probably don’t remember.”
      Greg licked his lips, slightly nodded. His father had worked for the State Department in Taiwan, returning when Greg was six.
      “Let’s have a look at your future.”
      He pulled his left back as Miss Darling took the right. But instead of looking down, she closed her eyes, clasping his hand. “Someone has been sick on your mother’s side.”
      “Yeah, my mother—she has a cold. She’s probably on her side right now.” Greg looked at Lenny and wagged his eyebrows, rolled his eyes, and flicked an imaginary cigar.
      “No, this is serious.” Her eyes remained closed. “Your mother has a brother. He’s younger, right?”
      Greg stared at her; his left hand moved from his head and he slowly gripped the steering wheel. “Yeah. My Uncle Phil.”
      Miss Darling nodded. “Something inside him isn’t right.”
      She released her hand and pressed her own mid-section. She opened her eyes. “His stomach or something.”
      He bit his lower lip. “Colon. He has cancer.”
      Julie gawked at Lenny and me, mouth open. We knew his uncle had been sick for a long time, moving in and out of hospitals, but hadn’t realized how sick.
      “If you want to see him or say anything, do it now. He’ll soon pass through to his next cycle. This uncle—Phil, you say?”
      Greg nodded.
      “He likes you very much, but he’s worried.” She took his hand again, brought it closer, flexing it at the wrist. “These lines tell me how long you’ll be in this cycle. Each complete line represents thirty years.”
      He pulled his hand away. “Look, Miss Darling, this is very interesting—really—but we’ve got to get back. Henry said I could just ask you a couple of questions.”
      “She’ll do that after she finishes reading your palm, Greg.”
      “Hey, I’d like that, Hank, I really would, but we have to get to class. We have that history final. Remember?”
      Miss Darling threw her head back and cackled. “Oh, you’re a Sag all right. As impatient as I. No matter. Now, what’s the question? Should you go into the army?”
      “Air Force. The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.” He glanced at Julie and rolled his eyes.
      “Give me back your hands.” She clasped them in her lap and, closing her eyes, began kneading them again. The humor in Greg’s face was gone now as he stared and waited. The car was suffocating in the afternoon heat. The leaves of the single cottonwood that loomed over Miss Darling’s small home hung limp, and the only movement was from one of the dogs circling to reposition itself near the Cadillac.
      Her eyes popped open. “Do you want to go or do your parents want you to?”
      Greg’s jaw flexed and then his mouth broke into a lopsided smile, which it did whenever he felt tested. “Is that your answer?”
      She let go of him. “I can’t answer. I can only tell you what I feel.”
      “Which is?”
      She grinned. “Your parents want you to go, but you don’t.”
      He looked down, shaking his head. “But should I go?”
      Miss Darling’s grin faded and she lifted a crooked index finger. “No. No one should go. It’s wrong. The war is wrong!” She jabbed her glasses up her nose, the pall of raw chicken washing over us. She stared at Greg and then turned, scanning across our faces, eyes enlarged and jumping out at us through the lenses, before narrowing. “‘From cycle to cycle through time and through space / Your life with your longings will ever keep pace. And all that you ask for and all you desire / Must come to your bidding as flame out of fire. You are your own devil, you are your own god / You fashion the steps that your footsteps have trod. No one can save you from error or sin / Until you harken to the spirit within.’”
      She suddenly grinned. “That’s from that same poem, The Child of Infinitude. Oh, it’s a lovely poem. I’ll let you read it sometime. Okay, that’s all for today. Tell your friends. See you next time.”
      I jumped out the back seat and hustled around to the passenger’s side. Julie got out also and we each took an arm, helping Miss Darling from her seat. She stood in the weeds, steadying herself against us, and grinned up at me. I smiled back, nodding. “Thanks, Miss Darling.”
      She continued to grin.
      “Oh—” I jammed my hand into my jeans pocket and pulled out a wadded five-dollar bill. I looked at Julie, but she shrugged and shook her head. I poked my head into the car. “Hey, you guys, I need another five.”
      Greg had already gotten into the back seat with Lenny. Rarely did Lenny have money so out of habit he looked to Greg. Greg arched up and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, unfolded it, and removed the bill. “Kind of an expensive poetry reading there, Hank. I thought Magic Club was supposed to be free.” He handed me the five.
      Miss Darling was struggling through the tall weeds with Julie. Her legs bowed wide, causing her to walk on the outside edges of her feet. Her upper body moved side to side from the hips, like a dwarf’s.
      “Would you believe, dear, that these legs use to dance?”
      Julie smiled. “Really?”
      “I was once a member of vaudeville with my uncle and twin sister, bless their souls. We performed in Denver at the Brown Palace for the vice-president of the United States and the governor.”
      I hurried over to support her other arm. The Pomeranians were up again, yapping and twirling around us in the weeds as we worked our way to the gate of a tall chain-link fence, which looked to be the most expensive thing she owned. It skirted the house—or what was left of it—not three feet from the adobe bricks, many of which were scorched. One entire room was burned out, and the charred smell wafted through the room’s window and mingled with perfume from a Russian olive. Miss Darling braced herself against the gate, cheeks puffing with exertion.
      “See how I have to live?” She fumbled in the sweater pocket. “This valley . . . has been nothing . . . but misery for me.” She pulled out a silver ring of keys. “Since I moved here in fifty-seven—Queenie, stop it!—that Ute curse has clamped onto me. I’ve done everything in my power to break it, but I still haven’t managed to. My last cycle on the planet and I’m going out like this. I believe they call it a cosmic joke.” Miss Darling laughed, softly this time.
      I glanced at Julie. “Curse?”
      “Come back sometime and I’ll tell you about it. Here, Queenie. Come on.” She unlocked the padlock and the dogs scampered through the gate. Bracing against the fence, she struggled in. I handed her the money as she gave me the lock.
      “Could you lock that for me? My fingers are all stoved up today.”
      I closed the gate and snapped the padlock as she moved the few steps to her door.
      “Come back to see me. And bring your friends. Thank you. I’m fine, now. Good-bye.”
      “Bye. Thanks, Miss Darling.” Julie and I started back through the weeds to the car.
      “Wait. One more thing—”
      We turned.
      “—about your other friend.” Cradling one of the dogs, she tilted her head forward to look at us over the lenses, through the hatch pattern of fence wire. “He must be very careful around cars. I sense extreme danger for him.”
      Julie and I looked at each other and nodded, then watched the door swing shut, Miss Darling and the Pomeranian she called Queenie disappearing behind it.