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Penumbra by Rachel Ephraim | Word Riot
Short Stories

January 15, 2010      

Penumbra by Rachel Ephraim

“Don’t be shy now,” Mama Rita says as she welcomes Andy and me into the cramped apartment. “Come in, come in. One visit is all you need, and I’m glad you’ve made yours today.” Andy squeezes my hand and we enter. If she hadn’t referred to the ad directly, I would have thought we were lost; it’s not what I expected. There’s a rusty bike in the corner and an empty crib next to an old TV. I can see her un-made bed, and her red satin sheets make me uncomfortable.

Mama Rita is wearing a robe and slippers. Her dark skin and white braids has her looking like an old photograph, and I wonder how long she’s been in business. She bolts the door and turns her back to us. I finger the button hole of my blazer and watch as she walks the few feet from doorway to kitchen—a pigeon-toed shuffle. A skinny dog sniffs my crotch then curls up by Mama’s feet. Something’s on the stove. She cuts a tomato left waiting on the cutting board. It’s in fourths, spilling it seeds, before into the pot it goes.

“How much is this going to cost?” I ask.

“Depends on what you need. How large is this problem you want solved?” Her voice is two parts syrup, one part sandpaper, and I don’t know how to bargain. I like to hear facts, and then take them or leave them, so I say nothing, not sure how to proceed. She interprets my silence as a negotiation and puts her hand on her hip as a rebuttal. “That large, huh?” Mama Rita wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and lets out a deep breath of air. It’s late summer in New York, but all that’s cooling this place is an old table fan. The blades move so slowly that I can make out their individual shape.

How large is my problem? Since I don’t really have a problem I have trouble assessing its size. I look at Andy for some direction, but we only met an hour ago and trying to read his expression is an equally complicated task. I imagine my father saying, “You’ve got a thirty dollar problem, kiddo,” so I tell her this and take out my wallet.

“God asks a lot of us,” she says as she counts the money twice before stuffing it into her bra. “God asks a lot, and he thinks it’s important to support those who do his work.”

From the flier on the subway, I think we both had the impression that Mama Rita would be more of the crystal ball type. We had even placed a bet on how many bracelets she’d be wearing. I’d guessed 11, Andy 25, but the only decoration on her arm is a purple towel draped over a chubby wrist. Seems we’ve caught her in the middle of cooking stew. She sees me eying the pot.

“Would you like some?” she asks. “It’s extra, of course, but everyone needs to get paid for God’s work.”

“We’re fine,” Andy steps in. “How do we do this thing?”

“Child, we’re already doing it. You just ‘aint realizing it.” She grins and shows us a set of the straightest, whitest teeth I have ever seen.

“Oh. I thought it’d be more of a question and answer thing. This way is fine too, though,” I say. Andy laughs. It is a full, hearty laugh and Mama Rita joins in. I chuckle as well, though I’m not sure why.

Have spells? Can’t hold money? Want luck? Want loved ones back? Want to stop nature problems? Or want to get rid of strange sickness? If you are seeking a surefire woman to do for you the things that are needed or wish to gain financial aid or peace, love and prosperity in the home, you need this woman, Mama Rita, today. She tells you all before you utter a word. She can bring the spirit of release and control your every affair and dealing. You are bound to be satisfied. Satisfaction doubly guaranteed! One visit is all you need. If you really want something done about the matter, here is a woman who will do it for you in a hurry. See her in the morning. Be happy at night. Take the A train to 104th street.

Earlier, I was on the A train, on my way to work. The crowded car was being held in the station, and everyone seemed to be huffing and looking at their watches at the exact same time. I didn’t mind the delay so much.

A stranger handed me a flier. He scratched his short beard and looked into my eyes, held them too long.

“We should go,” he said.

I took in the commuters in their suits. Some were reading newspapers, others listening to music.

“Ok.”

He smiled a fifth grade smile. “Mama Rita is probably already expecting us.”

As we got further uptown the train cleared. We were really doing this. It was as if we had just found out that we were having a baby together; we were in this for the long haul, on this journey that couldn’t be stopped.

The train doors opened and closed. “How do you think it will work? Do you think she’ll be all scarves and read our palms?” he asked.

“She’ll probably say really vague things, like ‘you’re going through a transition,’”

“Or, something unexpected is in your near future.” We laughed. “I’m Andy.” A homeless man passed and Andy gave him some change. Then we sat, silent, holding hands, our palms sweaty and fixed in position like we were teenagers watching a movie.

Andy and I are comfortable, shoes off and sitting cross-legged on hard-backed chairs around the kitchen table. Mama Rita’s still standing, pinching salt and shaking spices.

“Now, down to business. God’s business. What brings you here today?” she asks.

“We are seeking advice, I guess.” She stirs the pot.

“I know it. Now what seems to be bothering you, child?” She looks at me, then Andy, then the clock on the wall. She raises her eyebrows.

“All right. I guess I can go first,” Andy begins. “I want to know—” He stops himself mid-sentence, swallows the words before attempting again. “When will I be old?” His voice is a whisper but his question surprises me. Who is this man? Where am I? This isn’t right. No, it’s not right at all. The dog is rising, and I imagine him jumping at my face, sinking his teeth through my flesh. But Mama keeps stirring the pot.

“When will you be old? Oh, honey, not till later. You’ll be old when you’re 68.”

“68?” Andy’s face is tight, as though he’s doing calculations in his head. After a moment, he relaxes—smiles even.

“Now what seems to be your trouble?” Mama’s pointing the ladle in my direction. Before I can stop him, Andy goes over to the dog, hand outstretched and ready to pet. It’s as though I can see it all unfolding in front of my eyes: there’s blood and barking. I’m having a vision and, in it, we all end up in the hospital.

But my vision is wrong.

The dog wags his tail and Andy lets the mutt tongue his face.

“Yes?” she asks. “You have a question or don’t you?”

The words have trouble climbing my throat. I twirl my hair and look down at the crumbs on the table. I push them into a circle. “Mama, how will I know?”

Mama Rita turns up the heat on the stove. She’s waiting for me to finish, but I’m done. “How will you know what, child?”

“Just know,” I say. I close my eyes for a moment.

“Oh, I see.” She raises the wooden ladle to her mouth and gives the soup a taste. “It’ll be clear as day.” She pauses, waiting for my approval. I scratch my leg.

“There will be a sign. Don’t worry about it so much. Everyone worries. Things are in your control and they are not.”

“That’s it?” I ask.

“That’s it.”

She puts the spoon under my nose and says, “Try this.”

“It’s good,” I say.

“Sure you don’t want any? I usually charge five dollars, but you can have it for three.”

“No, thanks.”

“Well, you have yourselves a great day, and come back anytime.”

Andy gives the dog one last scratch on the small of its back before he hugs Mama.

“Thanks,” I say from the door. We put on our shoes and I leave my laces loose, half-tied.

“Tell your friends about Mama Rita,” we hear as the door closes behind us.

“Well?” Andy asks in the hallway. “Was that lady a trip or what? 68! I have so much time. I’m so young, so alive.”

“You’re kidding me, right? That whole thing was nonsense.”

“Can we pretend it wasn’t?” he asks.
  

The street outside Mama’s apartment is foreign, the shops and people unfamiliar. It would be a good stage for an act. I look at a pigeon on the sidewalk darting its head back and forth. And there it is, just like she said. This sign. This knowing. Finally. If I jump in a cab I can still make it to work. Afterwards I will go home, prepare dinner, and put away my clothes, I think. But I stand there, stretching his question from here to Brooklyn, watching the cabs pass by, listening to the subway rumble under my feet.

About the author:

Rachel Ephraim is a creative writing instructor for Writopia Lab, a non-profit organization that holds writing workshops for kids 8-18. She is also Founder and Director of FreeBird Workshops, a grassroots workshop for adults in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently getting her M.F.A. from Columbia University and is working on her first novel, which is getting weirder and weirder every day.

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