The parking meter in the living room conducted itself with perfect parking meter civility and no untoward manifestations whatsoever, until the day of the graduation party when I was making magic brownies.
The meter had rested in the corner to the right of the fireplace for months. It had shown up late one night, slung over the shoulder of Tiara’s boyfriend Bronco, whom I privately considered “a gigantic beauty of a stallion”—a phrase I had found in one of the poetry books that Bubbles flung around the house like so many used hankies.
According to the official story, Tiara and Bronco had closed down their favorite bar that night. On the walk home Tiara leaned against the meter which leaned away from her and nearly sent her tumbling. She laughed and said the meter must be drunk too. Then, realizing it was loose in the concrete and not actually intoxicated, she tried and failed to lift it, nearly popping her delicate spleen. Enter Bronco, who picked the meter up as she would have a hairbrush. Drunken hilarity ensued, and the three of them staggered home together.
“Where do you want this thing?” Bronco had asked back at the house, and when no one offered a coherent suggestion he set the meter in the corner on his way up to Tiara’s bedroom.
And there it stood, nothing but upright good manners until the day of the party. All three of my roommates were graduating that winter term—Tiara, Bubbles, and Wren, plus Bronco and a small stampede of other friends. I had already placed an ad in the paper to fill the vacant bedrooms after they left.
My name, Salamandra Sinclair, had been on the lease of the house for ten years. I would have kept the place occupied with paying tenants for my own sake, but the house itself seemed to demand it. If I let a room stay empty for even a month, hinges whined, stained-glass windows rattled in their casements, and the furnace went on a sulky strike. With the rooms full, however, the house settled into its foundation and hummed.
The afternoon of the party, I was almost ready. The keg cooled its heels in a vat of ice on the porch off the kitchen, logs were laid in the massive fireplace, and three pots of stew gurgled on the stove. We had slabs of cheddar and Swiss laid in plus half a dozen loaves of bread, so all that remained was the triple batch of brownies I had promised, one batch per roommate.
I made the brownies from scratch, melting imported chocolate and stirring in my own homegrown herbal supplement, which I tucked surreptitiously among the plants out back and dried in the attic. The brownies’ effect was well worth the effort. They activated things somehow, things like perceptions, and parts, and passions. I had seen ice maidens drag chess nerds into closets after one bite of those brownies, and militant straight girls leap into each others’ laps. All thanks to my mother’s recipe, Mama Salamandra, rest her soul in peace.
So the batter came into being. Only then did I realize that the kitchen’s timer was gone, and the brownies had to bake for exactly thirty minutes, no more and no less. I searched drawers, cupboards, pantry and fridge, but no luck. Then the parking meter caught my eye. A big, tall, heavy timer.
“Time Expired,” the red flag behind the glass read, and below that, “30 min for 25 cents.” I rummaged in my skirt pocket—I was wearing my Lady Salamandra outfit, all scarves and shawls and bangles and bobbles, up to and including golden hoop earrings—and found a quarter. I popped the brownies into the oven then slid the quarter into the meter and turned the dial. The meter began ticking. But when I turned around, there was Mama Salamandra, her soul not resting in peace at all.
Her swarthy skin gleamed and light sparked off her dusky green eyes, but her hands and feet were nothing but wispy blurs of white mist. The scent of green tea swept the room.
“Listen to me, Sally,” Mama Sal said, her face earnest, her voice far away. “Burn the cards. Today. And none of your attitude here. This is important.”
I had not touched the brownie batter. To taste too soon was to jinx the flavor, so I was sober as a sledgehammer. And my dead mother was speaking to me.
“Ma.” I glanced around the room with the same anxiety I’d felt as a kid when Mama Sal showed up at school in her own Lady Salamandra costume. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m serious, noodle,” Mama Sal answered. “Burn the deck. He’s on his way already.” She sniffed the air and frowned. “Don’t let them cook too long, for heaven’s sake.”
She vanished as the aroma of baking chocolate drifted in from the kitchen. The parking meter stopped ticking, and the red flag clicked up. Thirty minutes, already? The thing had to be broken. But when I opened the oven door the brownies were perfectly done, and a wave of chocolate heat washed my face. Had the brownie-charged air been potent enough to elbow the parking meter into producing a phantom visitor? To let me see her? I hustled the brownies out of the oven, turned it off, and headed back to the meter.
It looked no different than it had before. I laid one hand along its face. Normal metal, cooler than my hand. I knocked on the glass, pulled change from my pocket and put in another quarter. The timer started ticking, but nothing else happened. I waited all of ten seconds, then put in another quarter. And another. I looted the house—knapsacks, pockets, the change jar over the clothes washer—and found a handful of quarters, none of which produced the slightest response.
Leave it to Mama Sal to use a parking meter as a channel to the world of the living. But who was on his way? And how could she have said such a thing, about burning the cards? They had been handed down through five generations of Salamandras. Besides, I needed them for Lady Salamandra’s Tarot Table at the market downtown, where rich women paid to sidle up to the invisible realms. Mostly professors’ wives, they spent their days shopping and drinking and sputtering about conservatives, mystified as to why they were strangers to themselves.
Worse, burning the cards would be like burning Mama Sal, and Granny Sal, and the great-grannies I’d never met. Those cards had soaked up my family for so long they could practically speak. I’d been holding the deck the day Wren’s rent check told me the phone was about to ring with the news about her dad, and the day Bubbles would have lost her thesis to a hard drive crash if I hadn’t shouted for her to back up her work right then.
But it was getting close to party time. I climbed the stairs to my room, found the cards in their wooden box, and tied them into the scarlet sash around my waist.
People arrived, and drank, and danced, but I mostly watched the party from the sidelines. Tiara, Wren, Bubbles and the others let that good time roll as though it were their last, perhaps in anticipation of striking out into the grown-up world. I, on the other hand, would stay in the house and play den mother to an even younger crop of puppies, continuing my education in dribs and drabs by means of leafing through their textbooks. Would I still be doing this when I was forty? Fifty? Sixty?
Later, after everyone had stumbled off to home or bed, I found myself alone downstairs. The brownie pans were licked clean, the keg floated like a beach ball in the melted ice, and mugs with varying levels of tired beer littered every surface.
I wobbled to the fireplace, still tipsy, and sank down on the carpet, pulling the cards from my sash. I tossed more wood onto the wheezing coals, and the house creaked contentedly beneath the weight of the overnight guests. I pulled the pack from its box as heat from new flames spread across my forehead.
Great-Great-Granny Salamandra had painted the cards the year she put traveling aside and settled in a house. Granny Salamandra had glued them to new cardboard. I had learned to read them as a child, as I learned to speak. I drew a card—the five of cups—and held it toward the fire. Flames backlit the paper, making the edges glow. What self-respecting Salamandra would burn the cards rather than read them to find out what Mama Sal meant? With the house and the fire for company, I shuffled. I cut. And I dealt, for the last time in my life.
I could feel the message even before I laid the final card. If I had read those cards for a customer, I would have warned her to beware of doors, that malevolence was a real force, that she ought to listen to her elders. But I couldn’t give the cards to the fire, could not force my hands to destroy the deck. I placed the last card, the Empress.
Three knocks sounded on the front door. As though in a dream, I walked to the entry, turned the knob.
A man stood on the porch. He wore a tailored black suit and a shirt made from lemony silk. His shoes gleamed like his hair, reflecting the night back onto itself, and he held a folded newspaper, opened onto the classified section.
“Rooms for rent?” he said. His mouth moved when he spoke, but his voice seemed to snake into my mind from another world. Then he caught sight of the cards in my hand. He tossed the paper aside and reached for them as a cold breeze gusted in around his body, a chill that entered my chest, waking me, telling me in the implacable terms of winter that the cards had to be burned, right then, no matter what.
I ran back to the fireplace, but he was fast, and he was strong. He shoved me face-down on the carpet. I was close enough to throw the deck into the flames, which flared up like brimstone. I kicked at him and scooped cards from the carpet to fling into the fire. All but one, the Empress, which fluttered free as he picked me up and threw me into the corner.
My forehead smacked the head of the parking meter and I landed on the floor. I had to blink to keep my eyes open and a shrill buzzing began. The man picked the Empress up from the carpet and slid the card into his inner jacket pocket.
I hauled myself to my feet, blood running down my face. On the mantel among a cluster of beer mugs a glint caught my eye—a sticky quarter which had been the center of some lively drinking games earlier. The buzz rose. Could the parking meter call in outside assistance? I slid the quarter in.
A wind of green tea blew my hair into my eyes. I turned and there were four Salamandras standing beside me, all swaddled in the bright garb of fortune tellers, all their expressions eager, ready for a rumble. I grabbed two half-full mugs from the mantel, and we five Salamandras charged the man together.
I tossed the beer into his face. His mouth gaped as he blinked the sting from his eyes, and I cannonballed into him, grasping for his jacket pocket. Twin bursts of pain erupted in my earlobes—he had ripped the gold hoops out through my skin. But I had the front of his jacket inside out, with a grip on the lip of the pocket. He pushed me away. I sprawled on my back but the pocket ripped away in my hands, and I had the card.
The other Salamandras pressed up around him, gliding on mist instead of feet. He reeled and retched, apparently at a terrible smell, and I lunged for the fireplace. He landed on me as I stretched my hand out over the flames to drop the Empress in, his weight pressing me to the floor.
“You can burn too, little witch.” His breath smelled like rancid cologne.
He held my hand in the flames. The Empress curled at the edges and blackened. The buzzing squealed higher and my palm bubbled. Doors all over the house banged open and shut, and I screamed right along with them. When I paused to take a breath, the parking meter ticked off. Time expired.
The man’s weight lifted. I rolled over. The other Salamandras were gone but there was Bronco in a pair of boxer shorts, Caribbean blue covered with cartoon fish, which did a terrible job of hiding his slabs of abdominal muscle. He held a man in a black suit over his head. My hand throbbed.
“Where do you want this guy?” he said.
But was he holding the man who had come in the door? The suit was frayed and dusty, and thin limbs feebled at the air.
I gestured to the sofa. I must have had some brownie magic still lurking in my system, because an urge to lead Bronco back to my own bed swam up from my belly. Not that he would agree, and not that I would do that to Tiara, who burst out of the bathroom just then in a cloud of seafoam negligee, the box of first aid supplies clutched in her bare arms.
Tiara came to earth at my side, ointment and gauze bouncing from the box. As she fussed at the wounds she let loose a scolding that would have made Mama Sal’s eyebrows rise in admiration. I bore up under it for a few minutes, then extricated myself and crawled to the man on the sofa.
“Geez,” Bronco said, looking over my shoulder. “I thought you were old, Sal. How did he beat you up?”
I scowled at Bronco, but he was already heading back to bed, scooping Tiara up on the way with the attitude of one whose work there was done.
Bronco was right. The man in the suit looked three hundred. Skin like dried cauliflower, jaw sagging open, breath rustling in and out as though his teeth had turned to paper.
“Hey.” I jabbed his arm and jerked my hand away.
His eyes blinked open. They lay deep in their sockets, and deeper, as though they were sinking away as I watched, all but the faintest trace of blue drained from the irises.
“Witch.” The word rasped on his laboring, distant breath.
“Who are you?”
“You’re all the same, all of you.” He turned his face away and shooed me off with one spotted hand. “At least you’re the last one. End of the line.”
I felt his forehead. Colder than my hand, colder than the parking meter. His sinking eyes closed and he dissolved into a pile of mottled dust—charcoal and bone—right there on the sofa.
I woke up later that night alone in my room. Gauze wrapped my head and right hand, and tape itched on my earlobes. A rhino of a headache rampaged around the confines of my skull, thanks to the beer and the parking meter. Not to mention a writhing twist of self-pity. The cards were gone. How was I to make money? And who would listen to a fortune teller who couldn’t wear earrings?
I took a shuddery breath. The heating register across the room kicked on and the warm, wet, grassy smell of green tea rolled over me. Mama Sal sat at the end of the bed, resting her ghost weight on the mist of one absent hand.
“Where’d you come from?” I said. “We’re out of quarters.”
Mama Sal smiled around the room, wall to ceiling and back to wall. “The house let me in, just this once.”
“Hush.” Mama Sal patted my foot with a vapor hand. My toes felt the slightest touch, like a breeze blowing over the quilt. “The real question is, when will you learn to listen?” Mama Sal’s lips pursed as they had so often in life.
I reached my good hand toward her, but let it fall on the blanket. “Who was that guy, Ma?”
She shook her head in disgust. “An old creature. Very old. He hated us, always did, even though he fed off us. The cards would have let him hold on for a long time yet.”
“The same way we drew the future from them. Except he would have used them to draw life from you. He caught a whiff of the cards through your ad in the paper, somehow.”
“And you never told me about him because…?”
“I thought there weren’t any of his kind left.”
I heaved a sigh, theatrical even to my own ears. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“Oh, stop it. You’re alive, aren’t you? Not everyone can say that much.” She held her misty hands up by way of evidence.
“Yeah, yeah. I get it.”
“Do you? Not being alive is no big deal. But being alive, well, deals don’t come much bigger than that.”
I opened my mouth to comment on how a lack of aliveness hadn’t changed her fundamental know-it-all nature, but she moved forward, floating beside me and leaning down over my head. The pressure against the gauze sent a pocket-sized earthquake into the wound, and the scent of green tea swallowed my face, lungs, heart, and skin, until I closed my eyes to let it take me home.
Mama Sal was gone when I opened them again. But the next morning, when I unwrapped the bandage, the gash on my head had healed into a puckered white scar which I came to think of as the permanent print of a parking meter’s kiss.
Joanna Gardner is an assistant fiction editor at the literary journal Many Mountains Moving. Her stories have appeared in Drops of Crimson, Halfway Down the Stairs, Expanded Horizons, and others. You can visit her online at www.joannagardner.com.
© 2009, Joanna Gardner