Mama greeted my new girlfriend, Erin, with a one-pump wrinkly handshake, her eyes staring at her naturally copper-colored hair for a moment and then smacking me across the face with her fierce glance. "Irish, is it safe to assume?" she said, directed at me.
"Yes, Mama, she's Irish and an eighth Italian." I made a face to let her know I didn't approve of her antics, which Erin caught as she looked at me in confusion.
"No," said Mama with certainty. "Half Irish, quarter Scottish, mix of Finnish and French. One great-great-great grandfather German." She dropped Erin's hand and marched back into the kitchen, the old wooden floors creaking under her ponderous weight.
"Jesus, I'm sorry, Erin. That was the Linebacker Thug version of my mom. Let me get your coat."
As she removed her parka, she asked, "How did she do that? She's exactly right. Did she look me up on Ancestry while we were in the Uber on the way here?"
I helped her out of the puffy blue sleeves and hung the coat in the mothball-smelling closet near the front door. "Well, no, she was always able to do that. Read people."
We walked over to the couch and sat down on the plastic over the cushions, displacing the obese Norwegian forest cat for a few moments until it returned and flopped over Erin's lap and looked up expectantly, strands of thick gray and white already weaving their way into her navy blue sweater and black tights. She scritched its ears in an acceptable manner to the cat and it started purring in a rumbly, gravely voice.
"Mama is Strega. What you would call a pagan or a witch, except the Italian version." I started playing with the giant tufts of fur on the cat's ears; it was my favorite tactile feedback that reminded me of growing up in this house. I whispered, "Goes back through a long line of bad-tempered women."
Mama bellowed out from the kitchen, "I'm not bad-tempered."
Erin stopped petting the cat and whispered back, "How did she hear that?"
I pointed at the fuzzball, who rolled over to get some belly rubs. "Mama," I yelled through the beaded archway leading to the dining room and, further on, the kitchen, "get your spy out of here or PusPus is going to get locked in the bathroom after I make a stink."
Erin started rubbing PusPus' stomach while the kitty curled its toes in ecstacy. "No, he can stay. Just be nice and respectful, okay?" PusPus rumbled undying love and devotion, as long as the petting continued at least.
I put my face next to the cat's ear. In a voice even Erin could barely hear I asked, "What's for dinner and should I go get some wine?"
"I have a nice chianti on the sideboard, we're having lasagna. You can open the bottle, the corkscrew is next to it."
Erin looked at me with a spooky expression, not quite sure whether she should stay or flee back to the dorm of the college we attended. PusPus batted at her hands as a reminder that Erin had a job to do. She almost jumped off of the couch, startling the cat who bolted over the back of the old beige couch and headed off to the kitchen.
"Oh, shit, I'm sorry. Can you call the cat back?"
I shook my head. "Nah, maybe we can talk with some privacy. Seriously, it's really weird but you get used to Mama doing strange things. Once she warms up to you, expect her to constantly complain you're too skinny and she has to cook some huge meal to keep you from wasting away."
Erin smiled and relaxed a bit. "Well, I do love Italian food. I just don't want her to hate me before she gets to know me." She tucked her legs up underneath her body. "My grandmama was weird too. She used to do these strange things around Halloween."
Mama suddenly appeared next to us, a large wooden ladle dripping marinara on the carpet. She pointed a crooked finger bedazzled with a large silver ring. "I knew it. You're Cailleach. I knew there was something odd yet familiar about you. You're Monaghan's granddaughter." She wagged her finger and the ladle splashed some of the sauce on the couch. "Your family owes me a great debt, and I want it paid off now!"
Erin tumbled over sideways onto me and I wrapped my arms around her. "What the hell, Mama?"
Mama snapped the fingers of her left hand under Erin's nose. "C'mon, c'mon, pay up that old hag's debt."
"What does my grandmama owe you?"
Mama looked up and thought for a moment. "With interest, probably a nickel."
Erin felt around in her jeans and produced a dime. "Here you go, keep the whole thing."
Mama picked up the dime from Erin's palm and left a shiny new nickel behind. "I told the old bat that she couldn't jump over that log. A penny bet is an obligation. Come with me, I'll tell you about your grandmama while you roll meatballs."
Erin looked over at me, eyes as wide as saucers.
"Don't worry, you're in," I said. And that's when I realized, in a flash of supernatural insight, that she and I would never be together again. She was destined to meet my Mama to learn more about herself and her gifts, and I thought to myself that it would be nice to think of her, once in a while, still smiling.