An Intimate Hour With a Penniless Stranger
I was talking a sunset walk on the Beaches in Toronto, stretching my legs after a long day. That morning, I had travelled from one house sit to another, which meant an early wake-up, a long bus trip, an achy back, and an exhausted brain that refused to pay attention.
The sky was foggy with an occasional airplane masquerading as a star. The air damp but pleasant. Winter had ended, but spring hadn’t yet begun. Some people were out in shorts, others in winter coats.
I had been out for an hour already and began to walk back to the house. On my way along Queen street, I saw a Foodland grocery store across the street and figured I’d stop in for some veggies. Out front, a man in a blue t-shirt had his back to me and said something to a thin woman with pink lipstick and an oversized coat. She replied, most of it inaudible to me.
“…want to check my bag?” I caught her saying.
The man went indoors, and the woman stepped a few feet away from the store.
As I approached, I heard her ask someone if they could spare 50 cents or a dollar. I fished into my coat for some change, and handed her everything that was there. I thought it was 50 cents.
“God bless you,” she said kindly, making eye contact. When she saw I was returning her gaze, she quickly added, “Want to get your palm read?”
On any other day, in any other situation, my answer would be “No.” But that day, with her, I held out my hand and said, “Sure.”
She uncurled her fist, which contained the coins I’d just given her. “Now, let’s see,” she said, as if estimating a quote based on my payment, “That’s…”
It was a dollar and a quarter. She put the change in her pocket and took my hand. Her fingers felt cold, and her nails had two-week-old, cracked silver nail polish. She smelled of perfume. Her face was lined and her hair thin. Her eyes were tired, but kind. She smiled shyly under my gaze and looked down at my hand.
“Let’s see your life line. Okay… Yes, you’re going to live until at least 90. Maybe 100. Someone in your family… a grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, great-grandmother… they lived to be very old, and so will you.”
“It’s genetic,” she added matter-of-factly.
With one hand, she rolled up my coat, which insisted on rolling back down, and with the other she rubbed my palm. She started massaging my fingers and bending them back gently, which made images of her breaking them run fleetingly through my head. But then, I looked at her—wispy hair, tired eyes, pink lips, oversized coat. The thoughts stopped.
“You’re a very generous person,” she said, concentrating on my hand, “And kind, and you care about people. And you know a God-loving person and good people when you see them.”
She looked up and widened her eyes, “One of the guys who works here, he was out for a smoke. He asked me if I stole the strawberries! Asked me if I put them in my bag! I told him I was just looking at them. Told him he could check my bag. Thought I was a thief! I mean, I went to the cosmetics counter and put on this $50 lipstick and this expensive perfume, but you know, I’m not Liz Taylor.”
She shook her head, and her eyes looked at me pleadingly.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” I returned her gaze. I meant it. I thought of how different my life would be if people assumed the worst of me at a glance.
“Okay, now,” she got back to business. “You are not stubborn. You go with things. If a friend calls you up and says, ‘Do you wanna go to the movies or darts or something like that, you’ll go. And you’re trustworthy. If you were looking after someone’s house, then when they got back, it would be in great shape. You’d never take anything, and you’d make it look nice. And, hmm, okay, you’re psychic too. And your career, just when you think it’s not going anywhere, it’s going to blossom like a bunch of cherries. You’re going to have a great career doing something you’re interested in, passionate about. And you’ll have two lives, you know. Another life, after this one.”
She turned my hand to one side and said, “You’re going to get married once, but he’s going to be great. Your soul mate! And kids…” she turned my hand over again, “you’ll have one kid, at least one kid. Okay, now roll up your sleeve, we have to look at your wealth.”
She gazed at my exposed wrist, “Yep, okay, four times in the future you’re going to come across a big sum of money.”
She let go of my hand and smiled. “How is that? Is that a good reading?”
“Yes,” I nodded and slipped my hands in my coat pockets. The post-dusk air was getting chilly.
“Was it,” she hesitated and reached into her pocket, “Was it worth another 50 cents or so?”
“It was,” I replied, “But I’m out of change. I only have a credit card.”
I looked to the store, thinking I could ask her if she wanted me to buy something for her. She caught on quicker than I could speak. “Could I, would you get me a turkey sandwich?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I’ll come in with you,” she said, “Maybe I’ll run into that guy again, and maybe he’ll want to see my bag. Geez! Thinking I took those strawberries. I mean, I know I’m an old bag, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting stuff in my bag, you know?”
I laughed, and followed her to the sandwich section.
“This one,” she picked one out without any searching or hesitation, like she had eyed it many times, “Is so great, it’s like a full dinner.”
We made eye contact. Her eyes were bright now, full of life. She smiled, hesitated, then added, “Can I get a drink?”
“Sure,” I led to the drinks section. She started looking at neatly lined bottles, but then looked back at me.
“Let me see your palm again, now we’re in the light. I want to do a good job for you.”
She turned my hand over again, looking at some of the same spots. Concentrating, she said, “So you’ll be married once, and one kid. And…” she scrunched my hand lightly to show the inner creases, “You’ll always have your own money from your career. You won’t need to rely on a man. Don’t do that,” she looked up at me seriously, “It’s not good to rely on a man for money. Then you gotta do all the laundry and all of that. You know, I had a boyfriend for 24 years, and I had to do his laundry. It wasn’t good.”
She looked down, letting go of my hand, “But he’d do this cooking. You know he’d buy this beef and he’d make stew for 3 hours! Three hours! Yep. And he told me he’d give me 100 bucks a month if I quit drinking. And I quit for three years for him, I really did. It was great, but now,” she paused, her eyes sad again, “Now he’s gone off to live in Boston, and I never see him. We don’t talk or anything.”
She took a deep breath and looked back at the drinks. She said, “I like that mocha stuff. You know the mocha drink? The…” she found a mocha smoothie and touched it. “This one?”
At the checkout, she told me she used to draw portraits. She stayed behind while I paid. She smiled at the cashier and told him to have a good day. I didn’t ask if he was the one who had questioned her about the strawberries. Something told me he was.
When we got back outside, she asked me how the palm reading was, if it was accurate.
“You said I would take good care of someone’s house, and I just arrived at a house sit today! That was spot on,” I said.
She beamed at me, happy she’d found some way to contribute. Eagerly, she asked to see my palm again. “I just want to see if there’s anything else. Let’s see… You know God people when you see them. Good, nice people. And you know evil too. You’re psychic. You can tell when someone gives you the evil eye, and you stay away. And your career, you’ll do something you love and make people happy. And you’ll teach them! You’ll teach people how to do what you do. And education, if you have any education, you…” she trailed off.
“I hated school,” she looked up at me and let my hand go, “I was the quiet girl and didn’t talk to anyone. I was good at drawing, that’s it. I used to draw portraits. But school… it wasn’t good there for me. I told my mom I didn’t wanna go. When I was 12, I tried to take three bottles of Aspirin, tried to kill myself. Didn’t want to go to school! And my mom said, she said, ‘You’ll go or I’ll kill you!’”
Her eyes widened. She shook slightly, recounting this story. She inhaled sharply. Behind her, a car pulled up with its windows down, a man’s voice singing moodily into the darkened city streets.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” I said, “Do you want a hug?”
She nodded. When I put my arms around her, I could feel her bones through the thick jacket. She hugged back weakly, awkwardly, like she was out of practice. I rubbed her back lightly.
“My mom died,” she added. “On Mother’s Day.”
Before I could reply, she pulled away and asked, “What’s your name?”
I told her, and asked for hers. She replied, “Melody. M-e-l-o-d-y.”
“Like music,” I smiled.
“Yes, like J-a-m-e-s. James Brown. That’s my favourite singer, but this,” she pointed to a car behind us, “David Bowie is good too. Music is good. And you, you’re great,” she looked up at me, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I answered.
There was a pause, and she said, “I should go.”
“I hope you have a good evening,” she smiled at me sweetly.
“You have a good evening too, Melody.”
I watched her walking away. The bag with her sandwich and drink hanging from her hand. Her too-large coat swishing back and forth with each step.
As I walked back through the emptying city streets, I wondered how many times she’d eyed that turkey sandwich and mocha drink. I wondered how long she’d have stood there tonight if I hadn’t come, or hadn’t given her change. If I’d said, “No, sorry,” like so many faceless strangers in her life. I wondered what it would feel like to pick up a sandwich or a box of strawberries and fantasize about it.
I regretted not asking her if she still drew portraits. I wished I’d told her to keep drawing, to sell them, to never give up. She had spilled her life story to me, and I felt that I should have said something encouraging.
But maybe I didn’t have to say anything. Maybe, as I’m sitting here, remembering Melody, she’s thinking about me too. Maybe no one needs to tell us to believe in ourselves or treat ourselves kindly. Maybe, sometimes, we just need someone to believe in us. To be kind. To give a little attention to our humanity, our story. To get the random palm reading. To look us in the eye. To treat us like an equal.
Some say we’re wired for selfishness. But what I did that night felt good—better than any self-indulgence. I felt better after talking to her than I did beforehand. And spending that money on her felt better than spending it on myself. And that’s something beautiful. Maybe we’re wired for kindness too.