Literary Orphans

Excerpted from “Visitation Rights,” from Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories by Wendi Harris Kaufman

deborah_by_marta-bevacqua

My mother is psychic. She has second sight. “A family gift,” she says often. “Or a curse, depending on how you look at it.” My grandmother also has the gift. All the women on the Ryan side of the family have it; a female legacy passed down mother to daughter through the generations, a common trait like strong nails or curly hair. Until me.

“I just don’t understand it,” my grandmother says, shaking her head sadly. “It makes no sense; I can see it right here.” She pushes her glasses up to the top of her forehead, squints her eyes and looks again at my palm. “You have the gift as plain as day. See for yourself.”

She holds my own hand up to me to examine, as if I could see it by simply looking. We are sitting outside on my grandmother’s stoop in Brooklyn, a warm, windy day in March. I am nine years old. My mother is sitting next to me, humming a song about the breeze and the trees and I am staring at my own hand, looking for clues in the crooked-looking M that marks the center of my palm.

“Where does it say that?” I ask, staring at my empty hand.

My mother laughs. “You’re barking up the wrong tree with Missy,” she says, taking my hands in hers. “Don’t even bother. She doesn’t know how to open her eyes; she has to think about everything too much.”

“It’s right there,” says my grandmother, taking my hand back and showing it to my mother. “Plain as the nose on your face.”

“Maybe,” says my mother. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

 

My mother doesn’t believe in anything she hasn’t seen herself, firsthand. And she’s seen a lot. She has visions. Usually they happen around dinnertime, after her second scotch and soda, minus the soda. She can see around corners, knows who is about to ring the doorbell, what grades I get in school, when the phone will ring. But those are minor things. Her big showstopper is that she can communicate with the dead. She has the ability to deliver messages from the other side, a talent always strongest in November. “It’s the weather,” she always says, pulling her sweater in close around her. “Less interference this time of year.”

For some reason dinner is the perfect time for otherworld guests to drop by. It is not unusual for my mother to look up from a steaming plate of food and announce that a recently deceased friend, neighbor, or relative is with us. “Mrs. Abrams is now in the room,” my mother says in a welcoming voice, putting down her soup spoon and smiling. Pearl Abrams was the previous owner of our house; she died the summer after we moved in. “She wants to see what we’ve done with the place.”

“How does she look?” my father asks, not looking up from his plate.

“Not bad,” my mother says. “More tan than I remember, like she just came back from Miami Beach.”

Novembers are always a busy time for spirit traffic around the house. Once, in the middle of the night, all the dogs in the neighborhood started howling, keening the same low moan. The sound woke me up and sent me running to my parents’ room, terrified that something was horribly wrong.

“Shh. Don’t be scared,” my mother said, lifting the blankets and moving over to make room for me in the bed. I settled down into the warm spot where her body had just been. “It’s Harry Stevens from across the street,” she said, mentioning the neighbor boy who had drowned while away at summer camp. “He wants his mother to know he’s alright, that he’s just late getting home.” I fell back to sleep that night snuggled in close, curled up under her arm, a baby chick under the wing, while she continued her conversation in low murmured tones with a boy I couldn’t see.

 

My grandmother draws the line at nocturnal visits from the other world. “If you can’t stop by at a decent hour, don’t bother,” she says. “I can’t be up all night communing with the spirits. I need my beauty rest.”

My grandmother really is a beauty. She’s drawn appreciative stares and comments all her life from both men and women for her black curly hair, piecing blue eyes, and what she calls her “dancer’s legs.” No one has ever seen her in long pants.

Things between my grandmother and mother never go smoothly. Their connection is strong and volatile, filled with high drama and hurt feelings; I guess it’s easy for their feelings to get hurt when they can read each other’s minds. During their many arguments it’s not unusual for my mother to point at the phone, seconds before it rings, and say, “That’s your grandmother; tell her I’m not here.” My grandmother does the same, waving a finger toward the old black wall phone and announcing, “Your mother is about to call; please ignore it.”

When my mother and grandmother are on speaking terms, all is right with the world. My grandmother calls for long phone chats and my mother always lets me speak to her first. I hold the receiver close to my ear and listen to my grandmother’s soft voice and the gentle swoosh, swoosh of tarot cards in the background. Those cards are her constant companion and she keeps them either in her hands or wrapped in a square piece of linen tucked tightly under her pillow while she sleeps. Cards, tea leaves, palms: My grandmother reads them all; everything is a sign, warning, a prediction or portent.

It rained the day my mother married my father, on a day that called for sunshine and blue skies. “God’s tears,” my grandmother said, her disapproval of my mother’s marriage no secret. “It’s a sign,” she said. “This should not happen.”

My grandmother has never approved of my mother’s marriage—my father is twenty-five years older than my mother and working on his third marriage, not exactly what my grandmother had in mind for her only daughter. She and my mother didn’t speak for thirteen months after my parents were married, until I was born. When my grandmother came to the hospital to see the baby and to collect the placenta to bury it in the backyard, my mother held me out to her as a peace offering: a chance to do things right with this daughter.

“We’ll call her Melissa,” my grandmother said. My mother agreed, shortening the name quickly to “Missy.”

My grandmother takes an active hand in my raising and I spend weekends, holidays, entire summers in the same brownstone where my mother was raised, sleeping in her childhood bed, playing with what is left of her toys. I am entirely devoted to my grandmother, her constancy and unconditional love, but when it comes to training me to read cards, to see the next foot about to fall, I am hopeless. “You’ll get it one day,” my grandmother always promises. “Don’t feel bad. You’re just a late bloomer.”

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… The November I turn twelve, my mother’s ex-boyfriend Willy starts visiting. On long, cold evenings when my father is out at a committee or local council meeting, Willy stops by. He was a pharmacist, shot dead in the street in Sheepshead Bay on his way to visit my mother. Now he has finally found his way back to her. On these nights, the house fills with the strong smell of pipe smoke and bourbon, a strange combination, so strong that even I, who usually see nothing, can’t deny it. “What is that?” I ask my mother. “Go to your room,” she says. “I have some unfinished business here.”

Willy’s visits leave my mother weepy, have her refreshing her drink several times and singing “It Had to Be You” in a throaty, off-kilter voice. I lie on my bedroom floor next to the heat register, listening to her sing and waiting for my father to come home. When he does, his voice mixes with my mother’s and rises with the warm air to the second story of our house, finding its way through the register to my ear. Each snippet of conversation comes with a warm blast of air, calming me until I feel sleepy and reassured that everything will be alright.

The year I turn twelve, my grandmother wins the Guy Fawkes discussion without an argument. “I need some time to rest,” my mother tells me as I am shipped off with an overnight bag and the promise of a quick return, though it will actually be two weeks before my parents will get around to picking me up again.

 

“It’s time,” my grandmother says. “You’re almost grown up, a woman. We need to have an important talk about how things work in this world; you should know some things.”

We are sitting in her yellow kitchen at a Formica-topped table flecked with gold stars.

“If this is about getting my period, we’ve already had that talk in school,” I tell her, trying to act bored by the whole topic.

“Please,” she says. “This is about energy. People give off a color or a feeling. It’s time for you to learn these things. Has your mother taught you nothing? Look at me, look hard and you will be able to see it.”

I look for what feels like hours, trying, sitting and squinting my eyes, staring at her until my vision becomes blurry and doubled. Nothing.

“Relax,” she says. “You’re looking the wrong way. Try it again, only this time close your eyes.”

My parents call two days after the party. My grandmother sends me out of the room before the phone rings, even though I can hear her clearly through the wall, warning my mother about the dangers of missed school and truancy. I don’t have to be psychic to hear my mother’s full-throated laugh, her voice when she says to her mother, “Missy has enough to learn from you; don’t worry about a few missed school days.”

“Don’t worry about your parents,” my grandmother says when she hangs up the phone. “Unfortunately, they will be just fine.”

I find this reassuring and watch as my grandmother lays her cards out in a simple cross on the table. I am not allowed to touch her deck. The cards are worn thin and, in places, the light actually shows through. For the first time, I am given my own deck, a bright yellow box with a magician on the cover. I am told to copy her pattern with stiff cards that do not bend easily in an unpracticed hand. I am twelve years old, I miss my parents, and this is a game that doesn’t interest me.

“Look at the pictures,” my grandmother tells me. “Don’t worry about the words, or what they are supposed to mean; just look and tell me what you see.”

I look closely at the patterns, the colors of hair and images of water; women in gowns, the men in armor.

“Look at the wands,” my grandmother says, pronouncing it as wants. “The coins, the cups.”

“I don’t know what I see,” I say. “It just looks like a bunch of stupid pictures. They don’t make any sense to me. Let me try your deck.”

My grandmother is reluctant to part with her cards. “Here, I will lay them out for you. Look at them and just tell me a story, say something, anything. It doesn’t have to be true.”

“What kind of story isn’t true?” I ask.

“Some of the best ones,” she says.

Editor’s note: Wendi died August 27, 2014 after a long battle with cancer, just before the release of “Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories,” her first story collection. I was in the midst of interviewing Wendi for this issue at the time of her death. I am grateful to her publisher, Stillhouse Press, for permission to excerpt the collection instead. – Anna March

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Wendi Harris Kaufman graduated from George Mason University’s MFA program in English/Fiction, Kaufman’s fiction has appeared in various literary journals and magazines, including The New YorkerFictionNew York Stories, and Other Voices. For over a decade she was a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and The Washingtonian.

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Bio photo by Elizabeth Osborne

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–Art by Marta Bevacqua

–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden

–Art by Seamus Travers