MARIA AND I became instant friends. I saw a subject for a column, and she saw a summer sucker. Or maybe she just saw an older woman trying to look young in shorts and top from the GAP who might have some bucks on her.
I was trying to escape the heat of the day by getting off the beach, so I was wandering around Rehoboth Beach, Del., looking for an air-conditioned stop. A pizza or salt water taffy place, even a video arcade -- anything that offered cold air.
I saw a sign, ''Readings by Maria.'' And this was not a hangout for poets-in-residence reading from works in progress. This was palm reading.
Wow! I hadn't had my palm read since I was 16, and that reader told me I would be married four times. Don't think I didn't watch who I dated for a couple of years.
When I got into Maria's storefront she was under a fluted fiberglass roof, two fans and some palm trees but no AC.
I didn't tell her that I was working undercover, that I was really a column-hunter getting out of the noon day sun. Besides, I figured, what the heck, I might find out who I was going to be in my next life or when I was going to come into some real money.
She gave me her price list.
She did not look like a gypsy. She was 64 -- looked 50. Palm reading must pay off in peace of mind.
Her hair was drawn back in a bun. She was lithe and attractive. She did not wear a scarf-headdress, hoop earrings, or have a crystal ball. She wore high heels and polyester slacks and she chain smoked. She sat in front of a table with an oilcloth cover and some slightly warn tarot cards.
She had a wonderful accent. She was from Vienna, Austria, and I knew her accent was real because when she dropped a cigarette ash on the table cloth she swore in a foreign language.
Maria has been doing Rehoboth for eight years and was reading palms back in Austria as early as age 15. Her husband is in local construction. In winter she works at flea markets.
But let me get on with my palm.
''You have a very long life-line and you should have gone into business for yourself.''
So far so good, however the only time I was in business for myself was when my brother and I ran a lemonade stand the summer of 1936. We made $10, mother lost $40.
How accurate was she?
She told me I had four children, and that I had made a big change in my life and needed new hobbies and new friends.
All true. I had been looking for a hobby for about six months, since I write just one column a week now. And yes, I am making new friends in my volunteer work and at the supermarket where I linger longer now, looking for bargains, and at the driving range where I am a threat to other golfers as I try to learn the game.
She told me my oldest daughter was worrying about something. Yep, right on there, my oldest daughter has been worrying over her job future. However, all my children worry, it is a family hobby.
Finally, I had to tell her the truth. Not only was I getting hotter but even Sam Donaldson eventually says who he is when doing an ambush interview.
I leveled with her. ''Maria, I really want to know what it is like to read palms all summer. I'd like to write about it . . . do you make a living doing this?''
''No, no living, but I have a good time. I have to pay to the city, where I work always, a license fee. My family read palms before me, and my children are into tarot cards too.''
''What type of people come to you?''
''All types, young and old, and I have many steady customers. I like to help people. I have even read the palms of babies. The tarot cards tell me more. The customer picks them up and shuffles them, picks out 10 cards, then I hold the cards and get vibrations.''
But business is good, she told me, the recession has not hit palm reading.
Maybe more more people want to know their future.
But the Reagans and their reliance and obsession with astrology did not help Maria's business.
''People laughed and made fun. I don't do astrology anymore,'' she added.
I gave her $10 for one hand, and asked her if she would go to a cool place and have a soda with me.
She declined. ''I might lose a customer." And she shuffled her tarot cards again.
In closing, she told me, ''Money wants to be with you.''
THAT was worth my $10, which wanted to be with her. But what did it mean? I will have to wait until next summer to find out, Maria -- on a cooler day, and I will have to wait for the other palm to find out where that money is.
Oh yes, she also told me I'd had three other lives. But I didn't want to hear about them, I have a hard enough time keeping up with the present one.