Aletta watched the double-winged airplane with the open cockpit fly across a pale blue sky, its propeller buzzing like blades on a fan. Everything else faded away, and Aletta stared mesmerized even as the high-pitched hum of its engine turned into a series of sputters and groans. Suddenly, the small yellow plane tumbled end over end until it smashed into the earth, pieces of it flying everywhere, seeming as fragile as the shell of an egg dropped on the floor.
Aletta started so violently that Clester Henry yanked his hands from in front of her eyes. “My Lord, Lettie, I didn’t mean to scare ya,” he said.
The vision of the smoldering plane crash faded away and the gymnasium returned, with its smells of popcorn and sweat and the noise of squeaking sneakers and clapping fans. Aletta checked to make sure Gyp, her toddler, was still playing at her feet, then turned around and saw Clester, a guy she’d known since high school, his narrowed hazel eyes looking at her with concern from under his John Deere cap.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You jumped like a wildcat.”
Aletta forced herself to speak. “I didn’t see you when I came in.”
Clester had sneaked up behind her and placed his hands over her eyes. “Guess who?” he’d whispered, but she hadn’t heard him because the moment he touched her, the little plane buzzed in her ears and the horror of it going down played out in front of her eyes. Her psychic gift had sprung to life when he touched her, just as it did when she touched someone. Usually, she could control how much she saw, but when she wasn’t expecting the visions, they came on through like a runaway train.
“My littl’un’s right out there,” Clester said, pointing to the court where nine- and ten-year-old girls with pink faces and ponytails played a chaotic game of basketball.
Mine too, on the other team,” Aletta said, trying like hell to regain her composure. She watched her daughter, Ruby, yank the ball from another girl’s hands and dribble it furiously toward the goal.
Aletta stood up abruptly. “ ’Scuse me,” she said, and scooped up Gyp. “I gotta go to the ladies’.”
With wobbly legs, she made her way down the bleacher steps and found Randy, her chubby, sweet older son, playing underneath them with a couple of other kids. “You stay right here,” she said sternly.
“We’re just playin’, Mama,” he said.
Aletta felt her throat beginning to tighten as she rushed out of the gymnasium into the rainy afternoon. She ran to her ’57 Chevy, holding Gyp’s head to her chest to try to keep him from getting wet, and climbed behind the wheel. She covered her eyes with her hands and saw the plane shatter to pieces again and again. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said aloud.
Almost two years before, her drunk bastard of a husband had run off on her, leaving her to care for their four children on her own. Out of desperation to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, she’d put a sign in her front yard on Main Street in Okay, Oklahoma: aletta honor, psychic reader. In order to make a living and stay at home with her kids, she’d had to face her own painful past. When she was eleven years old, her father and uncle had been shot and killed when they confronted a man who claimed that Aletta was a witch.
The deaths of her husband and brother caused Aletta’s mama, Nadine, to turn bitter and to believe the devil was at work everywhere she turned. Her relationship with Aletta got worse the older Aletta grew, until they barely spoke even while living in the same small town. It wasn’t until her mother lay dying a few months after Aletta put her sign out that they were able to make amends. In addition to all of this, she’d also fought a local church for the right to continue her business. After all was said and done, she’d actually become somewhat of a success.
At first, she had thought she was set, that she’d be able to earn a decent living from telling her customers what she saw when she touched them. A little part of her actually thought she could help people. But there was a huge burden in knowing things about folks before they happened or seeing how events in their pasts were affecting them now. How much should she tell them and what should she keep to herself?
One of the first things she had decided was that she’d never tell anyone anything unless they were her paying customer. It was none of her business unless they came to her directly.
With her own family, she didn’t get the visions, but she was careful not to touch other folks. She didn’t want to deal with what she saw. Sometimes, however, she couldn’t avoid it, and an old friend like Clester Henry would sneak up on her before she could do anything about it.
Aletta forced herself out of the Chevy and back into the gymnasium with Gyp. Randy was still playing underneath the bleachers, so she returned to her seat next to Clester.
“That girl of yours is a real player,” he said just as Ruby banked a shot home.
“Thataway, Rube!” Aletta yelled, and pumped her fist.
On the opposite side of the court, Jimmy, her ex, stood up and yelled through cupped hands, “Keep shooting, girl. You’re the offense!”
He showed up at every single one of Ruby’s games. It was the only thing she could count on when it came to Jimmy.
“She loves it,” Aletta said, then continued without taking a breath, “So, you flying airplanes these days?”
Clester grinned like a kid. “You saw my shirt. I been taking lessons for six months. I’m certified since last month and just bought me a real beaut. You oughta see her.”
Aletta read his T-shirt. henry hawk’s flight school, it said, under a severe-looking hawk with its wings spread wide. “Maybe you shouldn’t fly. It’s so dangerous,” she said.
Clester’s grin faded. “Now you sound like my wife. I’ve wanted this since I was just a kid, and it makes me happy, Aletta. I work my ass off all week, and this is my reward.”
“I just wish you’d take a break or something.”
“I believe I will,” he answered with sarcasm. “I’m gonna go smoke a cigarette right now. Nice seein’ you.”
Aletta watched him as he walked down the bleacher steps and out of the gym. Frustration and worry clumped together inside her stomach like curdled cream as she watched the rest of the game.
The young man who sat on Aletta’s couch looked like he might burn a hole in her Elk in the Forest landscape painting, the way he was staring at it. She didn’t always work on Saturdays, but he’d said he wanted to see her right away, and she needed the money, so she booked the appointment. Now she wished she hadn’t. This handsome young man with silky brown hair and sad eyes was forcing himself not to cry.
Aletta gazed up at the painting, as she had so often since she’d set up this office for her psychic reading business over a year before. She’d fallen in love with the piece of art as soon as she’d seen it at Good as New, the thrift store down the street. Even though she knew the sprayed gold frame was a bit tacky, she didn’t care. She’d wanted something beautiful in her office, something that would take her away, even if only for a moment, from duty and worry and chores. The painting did that, pulling her into its luminescent sunlight washing over a forest meadow. The elk, with its enormous antlers and gleaming brown eyes, seemed almost mythical to her.
She pulled her gaze from the painting and looked back at her customer. “It ain’t that big a deal, Corliss,” she said finally. “Sometimes I just don’t get anything.” She was lying to him. She had seen something when she’d taken his hands, but it was something she wasn’t willing to divulge. The risk was too high that he would freak out, as her fifteen-year-old daughter, Sissy, would say.
His blue eyes cut at her, then went back to the elk. “You have to help me, Ms. Honor. I feel so different from folks around here, like I don’t belong at all. Jenny wants to get married, but I just want to run off and hide when she talks about it.”
“Maybe you better not get married,” Aletta said, a little too forcefully.
“Why not?” Corliss turned to her hopefully. “Can you see that sometimes I have these feelings?”
Aletta turned away from his sweet blue eyes. This was breaking her heart, but she couldn’t tell him the truth, could she? It might be 1977, but around these parts a man falling for another man was still some serious sinning, and the repercussions she could face for telling this young man that she’d seen him happy, living in California with a man named Scott and a golden retriever, was more than she could risk. She knew darn well that her vision was just one possibility for Corliss, that it was up to him to make the choices to get him there. She’d already fought off the Burning Bush Church just for putting her sign out, and she couldn’t be expected to fight another battle. It was just too much.
“Oh, it just sounds like you’re not ready for marriage, is all,” she finally answered. “Sorry I couldn’t help you more.”
They walked to the front door, and Aletta kissed his cheek. “I don’t take payment unless I get something, so keep your money.”
Sissy, who sat in the kitchen eating an apple, pushed her feathered brown hair back and blinked twice when she saw Corliss. She got off the bar stool and leaned against the door jamb, watching her mother and Corliss say goodbye.
“I want you to remember something,” Aletta told Corliss. “I been on the so-called fringes of society since I was yea big, and living there in hiding was the worst thing in the world. If you feel like you aren’t like other folks, don’t you worry about it. You’re all right just as you are.”
A tear finally escaped from his eyes, and when one came, the rest followed all too easily. Beginning to sob, he rushed out the door to his El Camino. Sissy came to the door, and she and her mother watched as he sped away.
“Who was that? He’s gorgeous,” Sissy said.
“Don’t even think about it,” Aletta answered.
“What’d you say to make him cry?”
“He’s a sweet young man tryin’ to find his way, just like the rest of us,” Aletta said, more to herself than to Sissy. She grabbed her macramé purse. “I got an appointment over at Joy’s. Watch Gyp, you hear?”
Aletta said a little prayer for Corliss as she walked the twenty yards to Joy’s Femme Coiffures next door.
“Come on over and take a seat,” Joy Trippi said, swiveling around in her rose-colored faux-leather beautician’s chair.
Aletta stood where she was, her hand covering her mouth. “Wow,” she said finally.
“It’s been a hoot just watchin’ people walk in the door today, ” Darla, one of the other beauticians, said out of one corner of her mouth. The other corner held bobby pins.
Joy laughed, and several of the women in the salon laughed along with her. Joy’s hair was in a full Dolly Parton–style blond meringue whip.
Joy started singing in her smoke-scratch voice. “Come on, little dear, and let me cut that head a hair . . .” She started moving her skinny hips and beckoning Aletta toward her with pink-nailed fingers.
Aletta laughed and plopped down in the chair. She eyed Joy with a grin. “You look a lot like her, except for two things.”
“So I need about five more cup sizes, and my lyrics stink, but I got the hairdo down,” Joy said, lighting a long, thin cigarette.
Aletta relaxed back into the chair and took a deep breath. She figured that how she felt when she got her hair cut was how rich people must feel when they go to Hawaii—pampered and special.
“Nothin’ fancy,” she said to Joy. “Just a cut.”
Joy sighed her disapproval. “I swear, my mission in life is to get you into a Farrah Fawcett and some heels.”
Aletta smiled patiently. This was nothing new. “I don’t have time to fix my hair every day for an hour. You know that.”
“But it’s such a shame. You got the natural looks, with those cheekbones and green eyes. All you need is a perm, a bleach job, and some Maybelline and you’d knock ’em dead.”
“Just the regular, please, ma’am,” Aletta said, then relaxed as Joy’s skilled hands moved through her hair. She’d long since been able to control the visions with Joy, just ignoring anything that sneaked through.
“So how’s it going with Eugene? You feel any better about things?” Joy asked.
“I can’t tell you how much I wisht I did,” Aletta answered. She’d been dating Eugene Kirshka since just after she and Jimmy split the summer before, and at first she’d thought he might be the man for her because he was so kind, responsible, and steady. “I know he’s such a good man—”
“Hard to find these days,” Joy interjected.
“And he’s great with the kids, but the truth is he doesn’t challenge me in any way. Not my brain or my soul.”
“Or your body.”
Aletta shook her head sadly. “Not that either. Besides, I want to see what it’s like not to have a man telling me how to live for once in my life.”
Joy hooted. “Now, the first deal I can buy, but don’t try to give me that crap about wanting to be alone.”
“No, I mean it. I feel so unsure about everything—men, my business, raising my kids even. Maybe being on my own will help me get my footing,” Aletta said.
“It sure sounds like we’re gonna find out.” Joy hummed along with the Merle Haggard tune on the radio as she snipped Aletta’s ends.
Aletta closed her eyes and sighed. “My mama would’ve loved Eugene. She sure did hate Jimmy Honor, though.”
“Don’t we all,” Joy said. “Looks like Eugene’s got the credentials but not the chemistry,” she continued. “Nothing you can do about that. No matter how much I wish you’d stay with him, you better get it over with sooner than later and let that poor man find somebody else.”
Aletta opened her eyes. “Hey, let’s change the subject, please. How ’bout I let you roll my hair just this once?”
Joy brightened. “Now we’re talkin’.”
Aletta looked at Joy’s reflection. “Joy . . . I don’t think I can do it. Will you call him for me?”
Joy’s eyebrows knitted together in disbelief, then she started examining Aletta’s neck. “Hmmm. Your head must be comin’ loose.”
“I’m just kidding.” Aletta pouted. “But I dread it so bad. I don’t want to hurt him. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be relieved.”
“Ha,” Joy scolded. “Think again.”
After getting beautified, Aletta walked back to her house next door. It was April, and the sun was shining for the first time in three days. She lingered outside, standing on her driveway with her hands on her hips, breathing deeply the after-rain smell. To her, the only thing that came close to being as good as the scent of her kids when they were babies was the smell of the sunshine after a spring storm.
She inspected the sign that stood in her yard for damage from the rain. People still occasionally drove by on Main Street yelling threats of hellfire and damnation, and her kids still got teased some at school. But besides Jimmy’s small amount of child support, it provided every penny she and her four kids lived on.
Before turning to go inside, she decided it was time for a new paint job as soon as the spring rains were over.
“It’s a beautiful day,” she said aloud, trying her best to dry up her worry about Clester and Corliss and Eugene like the sun dried up the rain.
Eugene showed up right on time, as usual. He wore pressed Wranglers, a cowboy shirt, and boots, also as usual. They were supposed to go to Oklahoma City for dinner at Steak & Ale, but Aletta asked if they could watch the sunset at Lake Overholser first.
“Whatever you want, sweetie,” Eugene said. He drove his souped-up Nova SS through downtown Okay, passing his auto shop on the way to Oklahoma City. They rode the ten minutes to the lake.
He stopped the car under some big elm trees, and they watched a river of light from the setting sun glow across the middle of the lake. Aletta got out of the car and sat on the hood. The wind was cool, and she crossed her arms to warm herself.
She looked back at Eugene through the windshield and half smiled. He caught her gaze for a moment, and surprise and sadness played on his face like the light on the lake.
He got out of the car and sat next to her, crossing his boots. “What’s going on, Lettie?”
“Do you know I been with a man, nonstop, ever since I was sixteen and me and Jimmy got together?” She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t.
“Course I do. I’ve known you almost your whole life.”
“Went right from him to you.” Her curls played around her face and shoulders.
Eugene cleared his throat, like he couldn’t swallow what she was saying. “Hope you’re not comparin’ us two.”
“No, sir, not for a minute. You have been so good to me and my kids—reliable as a John Deere, putting up with my craziness, doing all sorts a things around the house. Jimmy, on the other hand,” she said, waving toward the water, “he’d leave me to drown in that lake if he thought there was a party onshore.”
Eugene shifted his weight on the car. “So what’re you sayin’, Aletta? Might as well let me have it.”
She hopped off the hood and stood facing him, putting a hand on each of his long thighs. She wanted to tell him a version of the truth that would make it easiest on him. “I gotta start figurin’ out who I am, Eugene. I gotta stop relyin’ on a man to decide it for me. It ain’t you. It’s me.” She moved her hands to his shoulders and looked in his gray-blue eyes. Tears were forming in the corners. “I wanna be your friend,” she said.
He jumped up so fast, it scared her. “Well, I don’t wanna be your friend,” he said, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “I got enough friends. I’m pathetic enough without hangin’ around to have you throw me scraps of love every once in a while.”
“You’re not pathetic, Eugene. Why do you say that?”
“ ’Cause I always loved you more’n you did me.” His voice broke as he spoke. It bled through pain on its way out of his mouth. “I’ve tried hard, you know, to be good to you, to treat you right. I thought you wanted someone to take care a you. What’s wrong with that?”
“I do. I did. But you treat me more like a child than a woman.”
He turned away from her, got in the car, and slammed the door. “I’ll take you home now.”
She got in next to him. Now it was her turn to cry. “But I don’t want to lose you.”
He was silent.
Before they even passed Okay National Bank, Aletta could see Jimmy’s black Trans Am in her driveway, lit up by her porch light. Eugene did a U-turn and stopped on the street in front of her house.
“Want me to come in and get rid of him?” he asked, his voice hoarse and hurt.
“No, thanks. I can handle it.” A lie.
“Oh, right, I forgot,” Eugene said flatly.
Just then, Jimmy barreled out the front door, and Aletta hopped out of the car. Sometimes she wouldn’t see him for a few weeks. That’s when she knew he had a new girlfriend, but then he’d always come back, eating her food and begging her to remarry him.
“Jimmy, you’re not supposed to be here,” she said, but he ignored her and bent over to look through the Nova’s open passenger window.
“Eugene Kirshka, you old son of a bitch,” Jimmy said. One side of his face was lit by the yellow streetlight. He was forever handsome, with a square jaw and strong cheekbones, full lips, and heavy eyebrows over mocha-colored eyes. But right now, his skin was flushed red. That and his odor were all Aletta needed to know he had been drinking. “Why don’t you just leave her alone?” Jimmy asked.
“Jimmy, shut up,” Aletta said.
Eugene shoved the car into gear. “You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” he said. His tires made black marks that looked like scars on the pavement as he sped away.
Jimmy turned around and smiled at Aletta. He wore cowboy clothes, but unlike Eugene, who worked a small farm on the edge of town in addition to being a mechanic, it was only for show. “You broke up with lover boy?”
“I’m not speaking to you, Jimmy. Go home.” Aletta walked across the grass toward the porch. It was still moist from the rain.
Jimmy followed. “I need to talk to you, Lettie. It’s important.”
“That why you came over drunk?”
“I ain’t drunk.” He grabbed her arm and turned her around as she opened the screen door.
The door closed hard. “Dammit, Jimmy. Keep your hands off me.”
He let her go but reached over her head and held the door shut so she couldn’t get inside. “I need to talk to you without the kids around.”
She sidestepped him and got out from under his armpit. “What in blazes do you want?”
“Charlotte wants to live together.”
“Charlotte?” Aletta pondered. “Oh, the brunette with the teeth.” She put her forefingers to her mouth, making fun of Charlotte’s slightly protruding eyeteeth. “I think it’s the most brilliant thing I ever heard. Maybe she’ll cook for you, so you don’t eat all my food.”
“I wanted to ask you first, because you know I want to come back, so I can be with you and the kids.” Jimmy adjusted his crotch. “And now that you and that redneck have split up, it seems like perfect timing.”
“Jimmy, let me get somethin’ real clear. You are out of your mind to think I will ever take you back, so you and Charo should go on ahead and live happily ever after.”
Just then the door opened, and Ruby, her green eyes wide and scared, looked out through the screen. “Mama, you all right?”
“Yes, baby. I’m comin’ in. Your daddy’s leavin’.”
She went in the house, then shut the screen door behind her. She and Ruby stood there and watched him through it, waiting for him to decide what to do.
Jimmy ran his hand through his black hair, and his nostrils flared a little. Aletta felt her own fear and the fear coming off Ruby as if it was as solid as the door handle she held closed against his anger.
He pointed at her with a finger, the rest of his hand forming a fist. “You’re gonna live to regret this, Aletta. I swear to God.”
Aletta wanted to say something mean back to him, something that would pierce into his heart and explode, leaving little shards of pain that he would have to carry around with him like she carried the scar from his fist over her eye. But it was the memory of that fist that made her keep still.
He stood there watching her, waiting to see what she would say, as if he was standing on the edge of a diving board ready to plunge back into the drama they had shared throughout their relationship. Finally, the energy that pulsed between them subsided a little. He took a step backward, dropped his hand, and looked down at Ruby. “You wanna shoot some hoops, Rube?” he asked.
“It’s dark outside, Daddy,” she said.
“Well, maybe tomorrow, then,” he mumbled, and walked back to his car. And for the second time that evening, a man screeched away from 1110 Main Street.