The Bottom of the Mug

The fairground had been bustling, teeming, crawling with people. Now they trickled, bouncing from stand to tent like pinballs. There were barely any of them left, and they were outnumbered by the bottles and cups and straws and plates and napkins and balloon animals littering the ground, tossed and crumpled on the withered grass. Penelope was walking, staring at nothing in particular, down a path trodden between games and tents. She was walking toward the tent at the end.

Her day had been a long crowd of bewildering events with strange faces. She’d only just gotten to the fair after missing two trains and losing her phone. Now she walked with purpose toward the gray tent, the plain one with scarves for a door and a solemn sign outside. It read, “MadamE Clara’s TEa REadings” in a blue scrawl. She kicked aside paper cups and empty bottles as she walked.

Once Penelope reached the tent, she hesitated. One hand paused at the scarves. Even barely touching, they whispered against her skin. She took in a breath, pushed them aside, and stepped in.

Inside the tent, she blinked with surprise. She had been expecting MadamE Clara to be something else. The picture in her head of a tea leaf reader was that of an old woman, perhaps with a turban. Knowing this, she’d expected MadamE Clara to be very young, or a man maybe. The inside of the tent was dim, a lantern scattering yellow light onto the dark colorful walls of cloth. In this sparse light she could see a wrinkled face, lines etched around blue eyes, and indeed there was a turban threatening to fall off the wispy white hair. She opened her mouth to speak, and MadamE Clara handed her a mug without a word.

It was a mug, not a proper teacup at all, and she sipped without thinking. The tea was sweet, lemony and strong. It must have been made a minute ago, for in the chill night air it had already cooled to the solid warmth that didn’t burn her tongue at all. She drank, looking over the rim of the mug at MadamE Clara, who nodded at her. Penelope drained the mug, feeling the leaves float over to tickle her lips, and then she handed it to the old woman.

MadamE Clara took it, folded her hands around it, and looked inside. She stayed like that for a while, making a moue with her mouth and squinting this way and that. Then she spoke, in a startling gravelly voice.

“Try to avoid strong brews, my dear. You’re probably more of a mint sort of person, perhaps chai? Certainly not assam, I’m sorry to say.” She said this in a kind way, her eyebrows stretching up as if trying to soften the blow.

Penelope stared at her. “Pardon. What? What are you talking about?”

MadamE Clara shook her head, seeming impatient. Her turban swung back and forth, but clung on despite all odds. “Tea, dear. You ought always to add milk, but you could probably really do without lemon, and I get the sense you don’t like too much sugar. Just do, for the love of all that is holy, do avoid awful bagged tea and make it the proper way with a strainer.

Penelope nodded, her mind tumbling. She must have looked as bewildered as she felt, for MadamE Clara patted her shoulder with a gentle wrinkled hand before pulling the scarves aside to let her out of the tent. Penelope walked through, somewhat numb and very confused.

She half-turned when the old woman called out after her, “And you should really put the milk in first, then pour the tea. It’s not how it’s meant to be done but it’s more sensible. Otherwise you scald the milk.”

Penelope managed a smile and walked with her head down until she reached the edge of the fairground. It had been a very long day. Perhaps she just needed a drink. Not a hot one.

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A Goldfish

The shrill song of a child’s voice cuts through the air, but only for a moment. It’s lost in the muddle of screams and yells, punctuated with electronic beeps and trills. The fairground is busy in late afternoon when the sunlight sweeps across the crowd, and there are people pushing and dragging one another in a jumble of elbows and shouting mouths. The child is still pointing, tugging at her father’s pant leg. There’s a game with the prizes swimming out front, in a tank with a stack of plastic bags draped over the side.

It’s one of those games where the player has to toss rings so that they land around the neck of the bottle, catching onto it and whirling like a dancer swinging in circles until they settle peacefully against the glass. Her father still isn’t paying attention, because her mother is speaking. But they are talking about boring grown-up parent things, and she wants a goldfish now. She raises her voice as high as it will go, and shouts for a long breath. Her father turns and his face is angry, and she quiets and looks contrite at once.

He glares for only a second, and then turns back to the mother. They talk for another minute, while the girl sulks by their knees, alternating longing glances at the fish and deadly narrowed-eyes gazes upward to her parents’ faces. Finally they turn to her, and her father says, “Okay, sweetie, what is it? You need to not shout, it’s loud enough here as it is.”

English: An image of a Common goldfish

Photo credit: Wikipedia

She pulls a frown over her face and snaps at him, “Daddy, I want a fishy. Get me a fishy!”

He sighs, throws a glance at the mother, and crouches next to her to follow her pointing finger, dutifully raised again now that they were looking. He walks over to the booth, casting a baleful look at the girl and her mother as they hang back by the cotton candy – No, she’s heard already. No more sugar. Absolutely not.

He doesn’t get it the first time, but at the threat of a wail he uncrumples another dollar and hurls out the plastic rings again. Once more, and he wins, but the prize – the booth owner is oblivious – the prize is a stuffed animal. Does she want a turtle or an aardvark?

She shouts. She wants a fish. Her father is explaining now, shamefaced, to the man running the game, who peers over at the girl. She gives him her best big-eyed frowny-face until he relents, his shoulders slumping in defeat. The grown-ups are simply powerless against the frowny-face.

Finally the day is over. Her parents are stifling yawns against the backs of their hands, clutching the empty soda cans and cotton candy cones. She’s holding onto the plastic bag so tightly that there will be creases in her pudgy fingers when she lets go. The bag bulges around the water in it, cradling the fish. It’s a beautiful golden creature, flipping its tail as it turns and staring out with big black eyes. She promptly names it Goldie and grins, pleased with her ingenuity.

She doesn’t notice, swinging the bag to bounce against her leg, that the plastic is split. The water dribbles down the taut surface, over the gleam to dangle as one pendulous drop until it lets go and splashes against the concrete. The bag is shriveling slowly, and by the time they reach the car it’s only leaking halfheartedly. It droops from her hand, and she flings it to her mother without looking.

When they get home, the fish is swathed in a plastic shroud, flapping feebly and gasping, tiny gills flaring. Both parents huddle to confer, and the father ushers the girl off to bed. In the morning, the mother makes an early-morning errand to the pet store, and the substitute goldfish is swimming in its bowl as if it has always belonged there by the time the girl gets to her bowl of cereal.