Tea Story: Reading Leaves

By Mike Bevel


Grandma Laverne saw signs and omens everywhere; in the way sheets flapped in the wind, in the number of cats that came to the backdoor, in how many times the morning newscaster brushed her hair off of her forehead.

"She needs a haircut," my mom would complain. "She's about to finish off my last nerve."

"Hush, Gaye. Three times means I'm going to get money by mail."

Grandma Laverne saw signs everywhere - but she was pretty much never right about them. She'd almost given up on her calling as an augury of things to come -- that is, until she found out about tealeaves.

Grandma Laverne had a tolerable relationship with her next-door neighbor, a woman she felt put on airs by replacing the spinning daisies in her front yard with one of those fake wishing wells. "That woman oughta wish that she don't drown next time it rains what with her nose so high in the air," Grandma Laverne said when the offending lawn decoration went up.

The neighbor traveled a lot, and Grandma Laverne would pick up the woman's mail and feed her cat. Her most recent trip took her to England, where she toured sites mentioned in most of the Jane Austen novels. As a token of appreciation, she brought Grandma Laverne a tin of tealeaves and a mug with a clock on it. "So you'll know when it's tea time," the neighbor explained.

"You got a cold or something? You sound funny."

"No."

"I know what it is. You sound like one of those fancy guys on the television from that channel that's always asking for money and showing the ballet."

That evening, while my mom cleared the supper dishes and washed the table, Grandma Laverne pulled her box of Lipton tea bags from off the pantry shelf. "You should make some of that tea your neighbor brought instead," mom suggested. "English tea might be better."

"It ain't in a bag," Grandma Laverne complained. "What the hell am I supposed to do with it?" She sniffed the leaves in the tin suspiciously. "Gaye, smell this."

"Maybe it's gone bad. Can tea leaves go bad?"

"This is why I don't like foreign things," Grandma Laverne said. "You don't have no idea what they've done with the stuff in their country. This smells like bark."

"Maybe it'll taste better, you know, brewed."

Grandma Laverne set the kettle on the stove, pulled down the mug her neighbor had given her ("So I know when it's time for tea," she explained. "But I guess anytime I put tea in this mug is when it's time for tea, so I don't see what use this clock here is.") and spooned a heaping tablespoon of the tealeaves into the cup. "I suppose that's how you do it," Grandma Laverne said. "I don't see no other way."

Once the kettle started whistling, Grandma Laverne turned the stove off. "It's now or never, Gaye. You ready for this?"

"I'll just get a couple bags of Liptons ready. You know. Just in case."

It didn't take long for the water in the mug to turn almost midnight black. Leaves swirled up from the bottom before settling back down again. "It smells better wet, I'll give it that," Grandma Laverne said. "Let's see how she tastes."

It wasn't a success. Grandma Laverne took a big swallow of tea and spat it out, taking the Lord's name in vain, as well as a few other choice words, along with it. "I had no idea she hated me so much. She must have heard me bad-mouth her damn wishing well," Grandma Laverne sputtered while dumping the contents of the mug into the sink. "I don't care how rude it is, I'm giving her that stuff back. And I'm not giving her cat anymore chicken livers."

Mama was boxing the tea tin up for Grandma Laverne. "Hold up a minute, Gaye. Come over here and take a look at this." She was peering into the kitchen sink. "What does that look like to you in there? The patterns in the leaves?" Mom, who wasn't much for future gazing, just shook her head slowly while seeing nothing more than a sepia-toned mess. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think those tea leaves were trying to tell me something." She put her face deep down in the sink, her nose inches above the clumps scattered no longer randomly. "I bet this means your cousin Chloe's baby's gonna have a clubfoot or something. Doesn't that look like a baby with club foot right there?" Grandma Laverne went to the hall closet to get the Polaroid camera. "You best go ahead and leave me those tea leaves here, Gaye. Ain't no telling what those leaves'll want to tell me next."