Susan Murphy
The Great Crestini

"Do not walk away!" a voice shouted after them. Leah's aunt did not flinch, did not so much as lift a perfect eyebrow, but continued down the sidewalk, fixing her attention on her rare mid-morning indulgence, a single scoop of vanilla yogurt on a sugar cone. Leah paused, shifting her untouched bag of salt water taffy to her other hand.

The park was full of people, older women and their dogs, parents with strollers, tourists emerging from their waterfront hotels after the brief early morning rain. A heavy set woman in the grassy area ahead of her hovered over a faceless man in a massage chair. The woman kneaded the muscles between the man's shoulders, her gaze fixed steadily on the orderly rock wall at the water's edge. Beyond her, a dark haired woman sat at a card table behind a hand-lettered sign that said, "Psychic — Palms Read — Fortunes Told." She shuffled a deck of oversized cards and spread them face down in front of her.

"Do not walk away!" the voice boomed. Leah turned to find a man gesturing wildly in her direction. He was a short, stocky creature, with great waves of black hair billowing from the neck of his nylon tee shirt. The shirt was tight, navy blue, with thin straps that stretched almost down to the top of the man's equally tight Spandex shorts.

Leah had seen that type of outfit before. A year ago ... or could it be a year and a half now ... she had dated a boy on the school wrestling team. He had asked her to the Homecoming dance, a friend of a friend, and they had continued on from there. Leah followed the team bus to every conference meet, where she sat on the bare bleachers, her sweater folded neatly in her lap. It didn't take long to learn the basic wrestling moves and strategies, but she found the uniform curious, offering very little warmth or coverage, just an easy way for your opponent to hold you against your will.

"You can't hang on to it, Leah," the boy explained. "You'd be disqualified immediately." It didn't matter now. He had broken up with her long before the state championships even started.

"Do not walk away!" the little man bellowed again, lifting a pair of folding chairs, remnants from some aged gymnasium. Tourists continued aimlessly past, content with their conversations.

Suddenly, the little man lurched forward and heaved a dented white stove onto his barrel chest. "The Great Crestini will balance this stove in his teeth!" he shouted.

It was preposterous, of course. A full sized stove there on the lawn next to some empty soda bottles, as if the man might any minute whip up a batch of macaroons and place them at the crowd's feet. Crestini grunted loudly and tossed the stove aside like a set of well-traveled luggage. The metal door clanged and shuddered as it hit the grass.

Now, now the crowd turned, elderly people with clip-on sunglasses, parents with toddlers on their shoulders, children with ice cream dripping down their arms. They all stepped into the shade at the edge of the sidewalk and waited.

Leah glanced down the walkway. Her aunt had apparently finished her ice cream and was entering a bookstore, no doubt searching for literature on the surrounding area, local maps, historical landmarks, native plants and wildlife. Surely there was time.

They were due to board the ship at five-thirty. Leah had already handed over her suitcase. Somewhere, a steward was unpacking her things, putting her short sets and socks into a well-oiled drawer, sliding her dinner dresses onto the closet rail. The brochure that Aunt Norene had included in Leah's graduation card boasted of the staff's impeccable service. Their room steward would remember how she liked her tea and whether she preferred roses or daisies in the vase next to her bed.

Aunt Norene was used to that kind of extravagance. She had traveled everywhere — Africa, Asia, the great capitals of Europe. They would attend all the lectures, dress for dinner. Leah looked down at her khaki skirt and cotton blouse, her painfully pale skin. It had all been arranged.

The Great Crestini pulled an empty soda bottle from the cardboard box at his feet and balanced it on his lower lip. Even from a distance, Leah could tell that his lips were firm and dry. Slowly, the little man leaned forward and placed another bottle on top of the first one, widening his stance and swaying to keep the two aloft.

A few seconds passed. Crestini took a step backward and allowed the bottles to tumble into his hands. He nodded at the smattering of applause, then with a flourish, set the tip of the leg of one of the folding chairs onto his outstretched tongue. Leah swallowed. She could almost taste the metal in her mouth. The chair wavered in the air above them, swaying noiselessly until, with a sharp nod, The Great Crestini let the chair fall into his arms and back to the earth below. The crowd applauded and Crestini grinned, his teeth white against his dark complexion.

"Now ..." He spun around and pointed at Leah. "You sit."

Leah stood transfixed.

"You sit," the man repeated, indicating the folding chair now directly in front of him. The crowd turned to look at Leah, waiting.

"Please, you sit," Crestini continued with a grand gesture. "Nothing will hurt ... too much."

The crowd laughed and Crestini led them in a rhythmic chorus of clapping, slow at first, then faster and faster, pounding, pounding, urging Leah to step forward. The psychic at the table did not lift her head, but turned another card.

Crestini approached. Leah tried to protest, but the little man took her hand and led her to the earthbound chair where she sat, clutching her bag of taffy in her fist.

"You eat later." Crestini pried the candy from Leah's hands and gave it to a lady in the front row. "Now, you hold on."

Leah gripped the edge of the chair, curling her fingers into the underseams, the metal thin and cold against her palms. She could feel the little man standing behind her, his breath coming in gusts across the crest of her hair. He placed his dark hands on her shoulders.

"And now, I will take this lady for a ride."

The masseuse on the lawn stopped to watch, her hands poised in midair.

The Great Crestini stepped back, took a dramatic breath, and Leah felt herself being lifted. She moved farther from the ground with each angular burst, the chair swaying under her weight. There was a single jerk, and suddenly, Leah was sitting above the crowd. She did not move, did not even breathe, but kept her eyes straight ahead, looking out over the tiled roofs of the tee shirt shops and pretzel stands, over to the bookstore where her Aunt Norene had probably found some fascinating information about ocean currents and migratory birds.

Leah could feel Crestini swaying below her, hear his powerful breath rushing from his throat, but she did not look down. Farther along the sidewalk, there were balloons in great bunches, their Mylar surfaces reflecting the sunlight, and a white horse-drawn carriage carrying a middle-aged couple holding hands. Leah turned, almost imperceptibly, until she could see the whitecaps arcing across the water and feel the salt air on her face. She raised her hand to brush the hair from her forehead, perfectly balanced above the crowd.

It was only a moment, a single breath, and then the chair lurched. Leah grabbed for the metal at her sides. She fell by inches, short clutching bursts, until she was once again on the ground below. The crowd cheered and whistled. A small boy waved to her from behind the leg of his father's trousers. Leah waved back.

The Great Crestini gave her a nudge. Leah rose and with a snap of his wrist, Crestini tossed the vacant chair against the cardboard box and rushed to pass a hat through his appreciative audience. Leah stepped back onto the sidewalk, taking her bag of taffy from the trusted lady's outstretched hand.

Another man, much younger, held up his digital camera. "I got a couple of good shots. Give me your email address and I'll send them to you." Leah looked at the man's face. Something about the way he was smiling made her believe that he actually would. She scribbled down her address on the bag of taffy and handed it to the man who was already looking past her at The Great Crestini posturing once again on the lawn. "And now, the stove ..." Crestini announced.

There was no drum roll, no fanfare, just the tin-like clanging of the metal door. Leah did not wait for the stove to fall but continued down the sidewalk, gazing at the creases in her palms.