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Life Lines
Marlene Olin


The storefront stood wedged between a pawnshop and a pizza place.  Painted on the window was a huge palm, its fingers outstretched, straining toward the sky.  A middle-aged woman stared back at her reflection.  Gaunt and tired. Her hair streaked gray. Her collarbone thin enough to snap.  

Marianne had walked in front of the store every day for years. But only when her husband left her, only when she came home to find his closet empty, did she press her face to the glass. Inches away a gauzy lace curtain provided a portal. A glimpse of a couch. A slice of light. A tease.

She walked inside. There was nothing to lose, her prospects few, her afternoon a clean slate.  She was surprised by the darkness. Only a single bulb hung from the ceiling, the cord swinging like a noose. A breeze brushed her face, slamming the door behind her.

"Can I help you?"  The voice--Slavic and choppy--cut the air like a hatchet.  

Marianne pushed aside another layer of curtains.  Thick, velvety, the color of blood. Then she walked into the next room. The woman sat at a small wood table. It was eighty degrees outside, a typical Miami day. Yet the woman's head was swathed in a kerchief, her body bundled in sweaters.  In front of her was a deck of cards.

"Do you play gin?" the woman asked.

"No," said Marianne.  For a moment she thought she walked into the wrong place. She'd been making so many wrong choices, so many turns in the wrong direction. She'd just add this one to the list.

"That's a shame, " said the woman. "I love a good game of rummy. Perhaps I can offer you some tea?"

Marianne had forgotten to eat lunch. Her days used to be punctuated by her husband's demands. The dry cleaners.  The grocery store. Supper at the club at six.  Perfume and a peignoir by ten. Now time stood still like a blinking clock.  Each day had no beginning and no end.

"Tea would be nice," said Marianne. "I would love some tea."

The woman disappeared behind yet another set of curtains. Five minutes later she came back to the room carrying a tray.  She poured two cups. Holding a tiny set of tongs, she dropped a cube of sugar in each one.

"My mother," said the woman," used to sip tea from the saucer. She'd hold the sugar cube between her teeth while she drank."

 Somewhere a baby was crying. Or a cat screeching.  Who could tell the difference? Marianne willed her pulse to slow.  

"With tea one needs biscuits,"  said the woman. Her skin was cross-hatched, her shoulders bent.  When she smiled, there were two three black gaps where they should have been teeth. Her age was anybody's guess.  She walked over to a shelf, picked up a tin of cookies, and carried them back to the table. Taking off the cover, she offered one to Marianne."My mother. She had the gift. Finding lost children. Curing the sick. She even picked horses at the track." Her laugh was like a smoker's cough. More of a bark than a laugh.

"I don't know why I'm here," said Marianne.

"People come here for one reason. They come to heal their pain."

Marianne looked around the room. The air smelled musty. A lone lamp was swallowed by a cloud of dust motes.  A sink. A cabinet filled with glass bottles. One wall was lined with books.

"I want my husband back," said Marianne. "I want a do-over. I want to press the pause button and erase the last six months." 

The woman inched back her chair. She was sitting in the shadows now. Marianne guessed the movement of her face. The arch of an eyebrow. The tilt of a chin. "For a hundred dollars," said the woman. "We revisit the past."

"I don't want to revisit the past!"  blurted Marianne.  She was surprised when a tear rolled down her cheek. She thought she had used them all up. "My son's been backpacking in Central America for three years. I don't know if he's alive or if he's dead. And now my husband says he doesn't love me. He says he's met someone else." She turned her head and looked at the books as if the books had all the answers. "Honest to God I don't know if anybody cares. If I disappeared off the face of the earth, not a soul would notice."

She fingered the pearls roping her neck and waited for the woman to speak.

"I take Visa, MasterCard, American Express," said the woman. "The past may be paved with heartache, but the future glistens in gold."

The next week she came again. This time the woman charged $200. They sipped their tea while Marianne spoke.

"He said he was busy at the office. Dinner meetings. Trips out of town."

The woman listened.

"I knew things were different.  He'd smile and he'd joke around when he was with other people. A regular life of the party. But the minute he walked through our front door he changed.  Like he was washed and folded and tucked inside a drawer."

The woman nodded.

"I dyed my hair. Bought a new negligee. Blew two hundred dollars at Nordstrom fixing my face."

"And?" said the woman.

"And while part of me wants him back, the other half is wondering what I did wrong, is thinking that after twenty-six years of marriage I shouldn't have to tart myself up, is thinking at the end of the day he's no Prince Charming himself."

The next week the woman demanded more money. Always sipping tea and nibbling on the cookies. Sitting in and out of the shadows.

Marianne talked about her son. The way her husband pushed him to become an athlete.. The summer the poor boy was sent to a tennis camp in Tampa only to come back deflated, a tanned and shriveled version of his former self. Her husband was a force of nature, she told the woman. You got swept up. Windblown. Tossed under the waves. All Marianne could do was pop up her head and breathe.

At first the woman said nothing. Then she walked over to the tin of cookies. When she shook it, a single cookie rattled around. "Next week bring $400 and some more cookies," she said. "We're running low."

"Some more cookies?" said Marianne.

"My mother was a great baker," said the woman. "Me? Not so much. Sometimes, even if you do everything right, no matter how carefully you measure and you pour, the recipe just doesn't work."

"You want me to bake?" asked Marianne. Even the smallest of decisions overwhelmed her. What to wear. What to eat.

"Next week. Same time. Same place." A gnarled finger was waved in her face. "Bake."

The chore consumed her. Marianne hadn't gone grocery shopping in months, foraging whatever food was in her pantry. Now she found herself skimming through cookbooks, pushing the cart up and down the aisles. The first three batches were a disaster. She added more flour. A touch of baking soda. A pinch of salt. But the fourth batch was nearly perfect. Butter cookies with a dollop of raspberry jam on top. She carefully placed them in a small cardboard box and laid a sheet of waxed paper on top.

"Did you know," said the woman, "that I used to have a sweet tooth?" She pointed to the gap in her mouth and laughed. Then grabbing a cookie, she swallowed it whole.  

"My husband wants a divorce," said Marianne.  She reached in her purse and pulled out a wad of papers. "He treats me like a stranger. He's forgotten who I am."

"Love comes with a price," said the woman.

"Anything," said Marianne.  Her heart jumped in her throat and she swallowed it down. "I'll pay anything."

The woman pointed to Marianne's fingers. "Then we fight fire with ice."

"What?" said Marianne. Suddenly she felt detoured, thrown off track. "You talk like a fortune cookie," said Marianne. "You talk like the subtitles in a foreign film."

The woman pointed to Marianne's fingers again.

"My diamond wedding band?" asked Marianne. "My engagement ring?"

A flood of stop signs and yield signs flashed in front of Marianne. This was crazy. This woman in her twenty sweaters was coated in crazy. Forking over her jewelry would be the craziest thing she ever did.

The woman shivered and poured herself another cup of tea. "When the cost is great, the rewards are greater."

Suddenly Marianne remembered the day her father slapped her face for dropping a glass of water. She remembered the week she failed the same Algebra quiz three times in a row. She remembered the Christmas party where her husband flirted with her best friend.  Somehow the algorithm of her life had gotten all out-of-whack. She needed to shake things up.

Marianne slipped off the rings.

"Good," said the woman. "I'll see you next week."

At first Marianne felt naked. She'd frequent familiar stores and imagine everyone staring at the white halo where there used to be a ring. But in a few days time she felt lighter, as if a handful of stones was lifted from her pocket.  And when her husband called on the phone, her voice seemed louder, stronger, braver. No, she heard her voice saying. I will not sell the house.  Yes, I want half of everything. The stocks. The investments. I want it all.

She contacted every friend her son had in high school and in college and was both relieved and saddened by what she found. He lived in Panama, she was told. On a farm. Married and with a child.  Now all Marianne had to do was to punch his email address on her keyboard.  She knew one day she would do it.  She had figured out the why. It was just a matter of when.     

Before long it was time to visit the woman again.  Marianne felt a new resolve in her step. She raised her chin. She drew on lipstick. In her hands was a container filled with brownies. She had improvised the recipe. A little coffee. A little cinnamon. As usual, they ate them with their tea.

"I suppose my marriage is in the crapper," said Marianne.

"Yes," said the woman, "that's right."

"Can we make him suffer?" said Marianne. "I want to tear his hair out. Cut him. Maim him. Hit him where it hurts. Can we do that?"

"Anything is possible," said the woman. "As long as you're willing to pay."

The woman fingered the pearls around her neck. "What do you want? What would it take?"

"Outside there's a car," said the woman.

"My Cadillac?"  Her husband had bought it for her five years ago. Driving the thing was like steering a barge.

"Give me the keys and it will be done," said the woman.  When she clapped her hands, the table shook. A book fell off a shelf.

The following week Marianne drove to her appointment in a new car. It wasn't much bigger than a golf cart. She pulled into the smallest of parking spaces without a whit of trouble. She snuck in and out traffic snarls like a thief. So unencumbered and efficient! Everywhere she drove she imagined eyes watching her, envying her, wondering who that clever and competent driver must be.  She walked into the palmist's shop holding a coffee cake.

"My husband was furious that I gave away the car," said Marianne. "Practically had a coronary. Went on and on about the blue book value. About what an idiot I was."

"And what did you say?"

Marianne stood up, planted her feet, and gestured widely with her arms. "What about my blue book value, Steven? What's a wife worth who stuck by your side for almost thirty years?"

The two of them sat together in silence.  So many words had been spoken. So much had been said. Yet somehow their time together still was not complete.

"Those pearls," said the woman. "You are always wearing those pearls. They're truly lovely."

Marianne clutched her neck. "These were my mother's." She remembered being walked every day to school. She remembered her hair being brushed until it gleamed.  She remembered a hand on her forehead. The smell of vanilla. A sigh.

The woman inched back her chair once more into the shadows. On the wall loomed her silhouette, a specter eight feet tall and growing. "Haven't I helped you?" asked the woman. "Your husband rues the day that he left. Your son will beg you to bring him home."

"These pearls are a part of me," said Marianne. "I'd rather die than give them up."

Somewhere a peal of thunder promised rain.  The woman nodded.  "Then that," she said, "is that."

Marianne pushed her way through one set of curtains after another. Outside the sunlight struggled through the clouds. Children were playing. Birds huddled on tree branches, squawking.  When she pressed her face one last time to the storefront, she glimpsed a woman in a kerchief, laughing. She never saw the car when it jumped the curb. She only heard the glass when it shattered.               

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Slippery Elm, and The American Literary Review. 

She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.