The Tea Leaves   

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By Mitzi Dorton

The girls I knew in my high school fed off me like a tick. If they saw me with a cute guy, they sauntered up and tried to use me, while professing our friendship. The next thing I knew they would be off on a date with him. The same thing happened with Mama.

Mama didn’t especially like to go down to Ruby Vance’s place. Ruby read tea leaves, and some of the ladies like Opal were wild about going there. Mama didn’t believe a word of it though, and she fussed, “I just wasted my money. Ruby said she saw a rook in the top of my cup.”

“What’s a rook?” I asked. “Oh, she told me it was some kind of bald-faced crow. She said it meant changes in a personal relationship for me. Then she turned around and said she saw Opal with a true companion who would bring joy into her life. Opal just stood there grinning like an old cat.”

Opal was our neighbor who lost her husband, Arvis, to a blood clot. Mama had asked her how she first met him.

“Arbutus, might have been my best bud, and their names did sound good together. Ar-vis and Ar-butus,” Opal replied in a mocking sing-song tone, “but I beat her time, and Opal and Arvis wasn’t bad,” she quipped further.

Two years after Mama lost Daddy to a horrific accident, where his body was crushed under the weight of a heavy concrete pipe that fell from a truck in the town center, she started dating again. It was Stanley Prewitt, a man she had known since she was a teenager. When she saw him downtown at the bank, he asked her if she’d like to go out.

Mama and Stanley started taking disco lessons at the Star-lite Dance Center. They practiced in our living room and invited me to watch. When they began counting their steps, “One, two, three four” they nodded at one another with pride, as they chanted aloud, “Now bump!” Stanley seemed a nice enough man, and I was glad to see Mama enjoying herself, but being a teenager, I always found an excuse to escape out the front door.

This was usually when Opal dashed up the sidewalk in front of our house. “Is Stanley over here?” she asked me, as if she hadn’t been snooping. Then she’d wink and pat me on the arm, rushing up the steps past me. Mama said Opal always stuck her head in the front door, her neck bent sideways, winking at Stanley too.

Opal claimed to have been best friends with Stanley’s dying wife. She always said to him, “Boy, that Mary Jo could cook, couldn’t she? I’m working on a fried chicken, or pork chops, or catfish,” whetting Stanley’s appetite and knowing poor Mama didn’t like to fool with being in the kitchen that much.

Mama had kept a watch on Opal out her front door window, too. “Look!” She had said to me, standing on tiptoes, her cheek pressed to the window frame as she eyed Opal out the half circle window of our front door. “Isn’t that awful!”

Before Stanley had become single, Opal had prepared meals for his dying wife, and Mama had pointed it out. When she saw Opal trotting up and down the street with various covered dishes, Mama fumed.

When Mama and Stanley displayed their newfound joy in Disco and doing the bump for Opal, it surprised them when she said, “Oh no, I don’t dance. I was brought up in church. Dancing is sinful!”

Before we knew it, the joys of disco dancing faded out of Mama’s life, and Opal and Stanley’s wedding portrait appeared in the local paper. Mama had not been informed of the engagement or invited. Opal’s daughter, Jeweldene, delighted in telling me that Opal and Stanley were now travelling the world together. These two, mother and daughter, were some of the ladies who populated the local church where they stated their motto, waving a finger flutter to Mama and some of their other competitors, voices laced with frost, “All’s fair in love and war, girls.”

Mama decided to withdraw her money at the bank where Stanley was president. He was gnawing on a chicken leg at his desk with a big pile of green beans and a wedge of cornbread in front of him. Mama’s high heels clicked on the floor tiles, as she marched straight up to the counter and asked the cashier to please withdraw her life savings. Mama said Stanley looked like he’d swallowed a big pill when she passed his desk with all that money in hand.

Then Mama started dating another man named Garnet. When Opal saw them together at the Piggly Wiggly, she flutter-waved and said she might invite Mama and Garnet over to play Rook sometime with her and Stanley. Mama ignored the offer, turned and told Garnet, “Hmmph, I don’t know how to play,” but she didn’t tell him the whole story.

When the holidays rolled around, Garnet brought Mama a little package wrapped up for Christmas. She exclaimed it looked like it might be expensive jewelry, maybe a ring! She brought it into my bedroom after he left, where she opened it, hands trembling with anticipation.

Then Mama stared at it in disbelief. I felt her wounds as if the edge of a can lid cut through the tendons to the bones of my own fingers as she peeled open the wrapping and exposed the contents. Mama dropped the open box on the bed. “Is he crazy?!”

It was only a pack of Rook cards with the bald-faced crow Mama had described to me, pictured on the front. I knew Rook as a trick-taking game, something someone had designed as an alternative to “sinful” playing cards. Opal came to mind, grinning like an old cat in her wedding veil down at the church. Then I thought of Ruby Vance, and wondered how she knew.

That’s when my boundaries changed. I was never going to entertain competition with other women. Mama was too sweet and didn’t have a good shield around her. I had been the same.

It wasn’t long before I found myself at a ballgame seated next to a new crush. He was from another school, and I could see the girls eyeing him. Cora Lee Edmonds was holding a toddler. Must have been one of her relative’s. She edged over through the students headed for refreshments to me and stood next to my seat. After what I learned from Opal and Mama, I was dead set on not giving her any of my energy. She turned securing the baby outward in an awkward position on her hip so his legs were dangling in front of my face, his tiny tennis shoes bobbing as she bounced him. I did look up and noticed her sideways grin at the group of girls across from us, Jeweldene among them. The baby was cute and tempting.

Usually, I took the bait and responded, but I looked straight ahead, right through the wiggling legs, not cooperating with her plan. I could just hear her in my mind from a past experience if I responded, “Heavens, I’m so sorry, honey, I didn’t even realize that was you. I just moved over here to get a better look at the game. Then, “Oh hi,” she would say, extending her hand toward him, “I’m Cora Lee.” The last time she had even added, “What beautiful blue eyes!” when she reached her arm across in front of me with my former date.

Before long, Cora Lee began to exercise the baby’s leg, so the little shoe swung out in front my face. Even if I had to look cross-eyed, I ignored it. I didn’t want to live in constant competition with other girls. Before the little shoe hit me in the nose and Cora Lee would make her apology, I leaned over to my crush and whispered, “I know we are going to have to dodge a whole row of seats, but I want to sit on the top row anyway. Could we move? And I directed him past five occupied seats to the left of us to avoid her.

“Excuse me, excuse us,” we said. When we got to the top, I could see Cora Lee walking back to the group, shaking her head at the failed ploy. After what happened to Mama, my shield was up, and I wasn’t allowing people to shift the floor beneath me by letting them into my headspace, and certainly not while I was on a date. That would be one good thing from the outcome of Ruby’s Tea Leaves. I wouldn’t answer Cora Lee tomorrow in the cafeteria when she would ask, “Who was that guy? I wouldn’t even sit at that lunch table. I’d sit with Brittany Diamond, the girl with the big horn-rimmed glasses, who seemed sweet and studious. I would look for supportive friends. Friends I could support. Women should be that way toward one another.


Mitzi Dorton was published by SEMO Press, Rattle, Willowdown Books, Sheila-Na-Gig/Women of Appalachia Project, Rubbertop Review, Bloodroot, “Rise,” 2020 Colorado Book Award, Northern Colorado Writers and others. Her essay is upcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her book, “Chief Corn Tassel,” a historical narrative, is forthcoming soon from Finishing Line Press. Follow her on Twitter @MitziDorton.








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