Queen of First Impressions

When two women realize their Aunt Rose is simply the best at misjudging people based upon first impressions, they decide to use her skill to their advantage in this new humorous short story by Blake Shuart.

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Being miserably bad at something is an undervalued skill in life. Statistically, it is just as difficult to be elite at being deficient as it is to simply be elite, and at times it can be equally valuable — as in the case of Rose Beauford. Ms. Beauford was unremarkable in every sense, with one remarkable exception: She was the best in the world at misjudging people based upon first impressions. Poor Ms. Beauford was utterly incompetent at separating the good from the bad, the well intentioned from the charlatans and everything in-between. You would trust a blind man to guess the size of your shoes by sniffing the soles before you put stock in one of Rose’s character assessments.

Whether Rose was tainted by long-forgotten relationships gone awry, devoid of intuition, or perhaps just flat out of touch with reality was the subject of much discussion within her family, but the answer was of no real consequence. Rose could not be changed at her old age, and no one bothered to try. It took her only a matter of seconds to formulate her opinions, and once she rushed to judgment, the roadmap was set for all future interactions. Rose would entrust complete strangers with her most precious possessions if she found them to be honest, and she would unleash bitter tirades on her new neighbors based on perceived slights that most people would never even notice. She never entrusted truly honest people with anything, and she never unleashed her temper on new acquaintances when it was actually warranted.

On one occasion, Rose was leaving the drug store with a small shopping bag containing a few sundry items when a young man in his 20s asked if she could use help getting to her car. This particular drug store was in Times Square, as Rose had taken the 7 train in to do some early Christmas shopping. Neither the young man’s feigned ignorance to the unlikelihood of Ms. Beauford having a car parked down the street nor his zeal to help carry a plastic bag with travel-sized facial tissues and mascara for an able-bodied lady in her 50s struck Rose as amiss, and she indulged the man in further conversation, taking great pains not to draw attention to her fascination with the tattoo of a rat gnawing its way through a human carcass slithering down his right forearm.

When Rose responded that she was riding the subway, the man persisted. “I don’t want to see nobody take advantage of a sweet young lady like you. If you pay for my train, I’ll ride back home with you to make sure you don’t get hassled or nothin’.”

The man was sweating profusely despite the frigid temperatures. It seemed like a kind offer to Rose and one that she would be remiss in rejecting from such a polite and endearing boy, who she had already determined was perhaps simply a victim of careless parenting. The two of them shared a seat as Rose went on about her strikingly beautiful and desperately single niece, Tanya. When the train stopped in Flushing, Rose wrote down Tanya’s phone number on the side margin of the MTA ticket, handed it to the man, and got his name: Felix. She even offered to call Tanya right then and there on her cell phone and pave the way for Felix’s call, but Felix vehemently advised Ms. Beauford not to reach into her purse on a crowded train.

When Rose had completed the half-mile trek back to her apartment building, she retrieved her keys from the purse, and reached for her phone to call Tanya and relate the good news: Finally, there was a nice boy in New York who wanted to take her out for a date. There was one problem, however: The phone was missing. So was her wallet, as well as a tanzanite bracelet she had just purchased as a Christmas gift for her sister.

Poor Ms. Beauford let out the type of shriek that could only emanate from the gut of a lady whose purse had just been compromised. She wailed to the heavens at her stupidity in letting such valuable items fall out of her purse somewhere in transit, and to the president of the Junior Parish Council for the Holy Church of the Incarnation, who happened to be passing by on the sidewalk at the time, it appeared as if she would faint.

Although he was late for his volunteer work at the local homeless shelter, where he mopped the floors after weekday lunches, the young parishioner rushed up the steps to assist. “Ma’am, are you okay? Can I help you with anything?” Rose looked up from her purse and gave the young man a full once-over — noting the scuffs on his brown leather shoes and the nibble marks on his fingernails. She could tell instantly that he was a fraud, as nail-biting was a sign of insecurity, which was a further sign of weakness and suppressed rage. He was the type of self-loathing youngster capable of snatching her remaining possessions and scampering away, leaving her stranded. Later in his life, he would no doubt segue into violent crime — eventually dying cold and alone in Rikers.

“You get away from me now, or I’ll call the police, you hear? You disgusting creep!” The poor boy sprinted down the street toward the homeless shelter, with Ms. Beauford shaking her finger at him all the way. “These kids,” she muttered to herself. “We need more policemen around here.”

Neither Felix — also known as Victor Joseph Braden, Victor Alan Medina and “Vic the Rat” — nor Rose’s belongings were ever located. Tommy O’Sullivan made it to the shelter just in time to begin mopping the restroom, where he found a man in the throws of a diabetic seizure, and called 911, ultimately saving the man’s life.

On another occasion, Rose bore witness to an armed carjacking on Flatbush after leaving her podiatrist’s office. She was able to catch a glimpse of the suspect’s face from her vantage point approximately one-third of the way down the block, and was called into the precinct along with four other eyewitnesses for a photo lineup. The officers were fairly confident in their ID of the suspect, as he had been linked to six other similar events in the past five months, and the verbal descriptions set forth by the other four witnesses were a direct match. After brief discussions, the officers laid five photographs out on the table. Photographs one, two, and five were of other non-violent offenders who met the general description of the suspect: 5’9”, 165 pounds, and bald with a gray goatee. Photograph three was the suspect, Otis Tereshchenko — a henchman in the local Ukrainian gun-running syndicate. The final photograph, No. 4, was of Lorne McWilliams. Mr. McWilliams was a very minor celebrity around Brooklyn, most known for his tireless work as the long-time director of the largest battered-women’s shelter in New York. When not working to help women escape dangerous relationships and restore their sense of self-worth and independence, Mr. McWilliams also ran a canine rescue operation out of his house.

Rose was the last of the five witnesses to participate in the lineup. Unbeknownst to her, the previous four had all selected the Tereshchenko photograph, No. 3, without hesitation. Rose entered the room, positioned her eyeglasses and began inspecting each photograph in order. As with her predecessors, Ms. Beauford was able to quickly dismiss most of the suspects, but two remained: three and four.

Photograph three matched the suspect’s facial features as best as she could recall, but something gave her pause as she gazed into his soft brown eyes. Neither his shy and forgiving smile nor his shapely cheekbones painted a portrait of a vicious criminal. This was a family man — the type of man who walked his children down the sidewalk to church on Sundays, and spent the rest of the day teaching them their multiplication tables before pressing their clothes for school, reading them a basket full of books, and kissing them goodnight. Rose was sure that a man like this would not be allowed to stay in our country if he was up to some type of mischief.

After dismissing photograph three, she focused her attention again on No. 4. This gentleman’s facial features were more dissimilar to the suspect than No. 3, but she could not dismiss him. As she gazed into his steely bluish-gray eyes, she did not see kindness. She saw anger. The longer she stared, the surer Rose became that the man pictured in photograph four was the suspect — the type of man capable of unthinkable acts of violence. She suddenly found herself unable to look at the photo a moment longer, and turned to the officers, gulped, and pointed at No. 4. “This is him. This is the man who attacked that poor lady and stole her car. I can see it in his eyes. He’s a bad, bad man. Please catch him, officers. This face will haunt me for as long as I live.”

Approximately two weeks later, Rose and her cousin Eunice were enjoying Sunday afternoon tea when Eunice pointed at the newspaper on the kitchen table. “Isn’t this that man you saw commit that awful crime?”

Rose looked down at the paper, and saw photograph three staring her in the face, right above a headline: Ukrainian Gangster Tereshchenko Linked to Wave of Car Burglaries. She turned the page immediately, as if it would make the story disappear. At the bottom of the following page was a smaller story with another photograph above the headline: Women’s Advocate McWilliams Given Lifetime Achievement Award. Pictured in the photo were a group of six women flanking a familiar face. It was the man from photograph four.

“No, Eunice. I think that’s a different story. I don’t recognize that man.”

Two of Rose’s nieces, Tanya and her cousin Daphne realized at one point that Rose’s special skill could be valuable in wading through the countless profiles of the online dating sites to which they both belonged, and they devised a secret system for selecting promising candidates. Each Sunday evening, Rose, Tanya, and Daphne would scroll through several profiles, and Rose would share her impressions based upon the photos and information provided.

“I like him,” Rose would say. “He says here that he has been on disability for chronic bowel disease for three years, and is looking for a woman who will be patient with his frequent long restroom breaks. Says he wants to work in the custodial field. That’s the kind of go-getter you both need. Men are lazy these days.” Naturally, that one would be rejected.

“I like this one too. Has just left inpatient treatment for an unspecified mental disorder and has been encouraged to seek meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. If he’s that honest, he’s a keeper.” Another rejection.

“Not this one,” Rose would say on other occasions. “He’s a cocky one — look, he’s got Harvard Business School here, and CEO of a software company in Manhattan. It says he recently lost his wife to cancer before they had children, and is struggling with re-entering the dating world, but really wants to start a family. See, you don’t want to be tied down at home with a bunch of kids, just so some self-proclaimed hotshot can go work for 18 hours a day.” This one was definitely a keeper.

After enough keepers had emerged from the process, both young ladies found permanent ones, and always thanked their Aunt Rose for setting the wheels in motion. After Rose passed, and their children got older, both women would entertain the family with stories about the trouble their beloved aunt got herself into by virtue of her unique and skillful shortcoming. Through these stories, their children learned that being terribly bad at something is not bad at all. It’s a cause for celebration.

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