“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

“I am a Wolf Raising a Human Child and My Wife Thinks It’s Time for him to Learn to Shave” By Jason Gong

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After a long day cooped up in a sweltering cave, I decide to meet up with my buddy, Buck, down at the watering hole like we always used to do on big moon nights.  It’s one of the few times a month I can just relax and not have to worry about the pack or the wife or the pups, including the one human we adopted after his parents starved to death in the woods and we ate their remains.

The watering hole isn’t a nice place to hang out.  The trees around it are hollow and decayed, and a thin layer of scum covers the murky water.  It’s so shallow that most wolves think of it as more of a mud pit than a respectable place to socialize.  But ever since we were young and trying to look cool for the she-wolves, it’s always been the place for Buck and I to grab a drink.  And this was one of those nights where I really needed a drink.

I almost never get to see Buck anymore.  As pack leader, I’m usually at the den pretending to give a damn about whatever bureaucratic shit is thrown my way, and as a hunter, Buck is usually out trying to find foode.  Buck isn’t his real name, obviously. We gave it to him after he let a big deer get away and Buck told us, “When I looked into his eyes, I saw myself looking back,” and Buck never says poetic shit like that, so we had to give him this nickname, so he could never live it down.

Buck is my go-to guy because he’s a straight shooter and when you’re the leader of the pack sometimes you just need someone to shoot the shit with.  My father always said, “If you’re gonna shoot the shit, may as well shoot it straight,” and hell if I know what that means, but the ol’ man was alpha so his word is law.   

So anyways, I go down to meet Buck, and when I get there, he’s already there drinking and for some reason his fur is all slicked back nice-like, and I see he’s put some dead frogs in the water for flavor.  I sidle up next to him and he takes his scruffy snout outta the water and says, “First rounds on me,” like a frigging big shot.

Before I say a word, I put my own big muzzle in the water and lap it up.  The frogs he found were pretty tasty, and with the right amphibians you can get a nice buzz going too.  I stay in there a while- I’m talking like my whole face, almost up to my eyeballs, which doesn’t even make drinking any more efficient since we lap up water with our tongues, but it feels refreshing.  When I’m finally done, I pull my head out and Buck says, “One of those nights, huh,” and I say, “Don’t I know it,” and he says, “So what’s up?”

And before I come out and tell him how I’m on double shit duty between the pointless pack meetings at work and the rowdy pups at home, I ask him, “What’s with your fur, you dress up all fancy just for me?” and he grins, as much as a wolf can grin, and says, “Nah, I saw Cassidy tonight,” and I say, “If you saw Cassidy tonight, what the hell are you doing here?” and he just shrugs, as much as a wolf can shrug, and goes, “Tonight wasn’t my lucky night,” and I say, “Me neither, brother, me neither.”

He doesn’t say anything.  He has this rule where if he asks “What’s up?” or “What’s wrong?” and you don’t answer the first time he doesn’t ask a second.  So we take a couple more swigs from the water and I say, “Mel thinks it’s time for Cain to start shaving.”

“What’s shaving?” he asks me.

I furrow my brow and say, “I’m not really sure.”

And then I tell him how Cain has started to grow more of his long fur on parts of his face and crotch that he never grew long fur on before, and Buck says, “That’s great, that kid has almost no fur,” and I say, “I know, he only had it on the top of his head for the longest time,” and Buck says, “I didn’t want to say anything, but I always thought it was weird,” and I say, “It is fucking weird!”   We both howl with laughter.

A few coyotes in the distance howl back.

“But anyway,” I continue, “Mel says that humans aren’t supposed to let their fur grow too long, and that for Cain to become a man he has to cut some of the fur off, and that’s shaving.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Buck says.

“I know,” I tell him, “But apparently it’s a human ritual and if a human male wants to become alpha they must learn shaving.”

“I dunno,” he muses, awkwardly raising a hind leg to scratch his scruffy chin, “Sounds like a myth.”

“That’s what I said,” I say, “But then she pulls out these papers with pictures of humans on them that we found near his human parents and points out all the male humans and how none of them let their face fur continue growing too much.  She always notices stuff like that.”

So Buck thinks about it for a while and says, “Okay, but how do you know when the right time to start shaving is?”

And I say, “I don’t know, but I think it’s too early, Cain is just a pup.”  And Buck says, “Right, how old is he again?” And I tell him Cain is 12 human years old, since humans count four seasons passing as a year.  And Buck says, “That’s not that old.” And I say, “That’s what I told Mel, but she says that 12 human years is like 53 wolf years,” and Buck says, “Wow, Cain is old as fuck,” which made me snort frog water out of my nose.

“She says I need to be the one to teach him,” I say, and suddenly I find myself staring at the ground, unable to meet the gaze of my own reflection in the murky water, “But I don’t even know how to do it.”

“Right,” says Buck, “Is he supposed to use his teeth?”

“I have no idea,” I say.

And then we don’t say anything for a little bit, and my head is still drooping, and Buck breaks his rule and asks, “What’s wrong?”

I sigh and tell him quietly, “I don’t get Cain sometimes.  Sure, he hunts with us, and eats with us, and suckles on Mel’s breasts with the other pups.  But other times he picks up things with his paws instead of his teeth, and climbs up trees, and turns rocks and sticks into helping things, and I just don’t get it.”

“No father ever fully understands his pups,” says Buck, in spite of having no pups of his own, the lucky bastard, “But you’re trying.”

“I don’t wanna try.  I just want to raise him right.  But I don’t understand these rituals.”

“Look,” Buck says, looking at me, “The shaving ritual may not make sense, but the fact that you’re worrying so much over it means that you care.  That’s the most important part of being a father.”

I shake my head, “My father never did rituals with me.  He was so busy he couldn’t even take me on First Hunt. But that just made me stronger.  Strong enough to be pack leader.”

And Buck says, “Not everyone wants to be pack leader.  Most wolves would rather have a good father.”

And I feel a pain in my chest.  I glance down and somehow see in the water my years as a pup.  My father, returning to the den angry after a hunt turned up empty.  Me running to Buck’s small cave, where his family let me stay whenever my father bared his teeth at me.  Buck’s oldest brother by my side during First Hunt, as if I was his own pup. It reminds me of why I adopted Cain in the first place.  I decide then that I will teach Cain shaving.

“I will teach Cain shaving,” I say.

“Good,” says Buck, “You’re a good father.  We’ll think of a way to do the shaving.”

“A sharp rock or stick,” I suggest.

“Yes,” Buck replies, “Or maybe fire?”

I nod my head.  Fire could work.

“The next time I’m on a hunt, I’ll keep an eye out for a sharp rock, or stick, or fire and let you know, and you can perform the shaving ritual with Cain.”

“Thanks, Buck,” I say.  I find myself saying that a lot.

We hear a howl from the distance, and Buck’s ears perk up.  We both howl back, along with all the other wolves within earshot, but we all know it’s for him.

“That’s Cassidy,” he says, “She wants to know if I’m still awake.”

I look up at the moon.  It hangs high and bright in the sky now.

I grin at him, “You dog.”

He starts to turn away, but shoots me a final sly look and says, “I guess tonight’s my lucky night after all.”  Then he bounds off into the darkness.

I turn back to look at the water once more, and no longer see the pup I once was.  My reflection looks older than ever. My whiskers droop, and my once dark scruff has started to fade.  This doesn’t come as a surprise though. My son is old enough to shave.

 

 

Jason Gong is a Philadelphia-based writer and professional technology guy.  He has written for Points in Case and Philosophical Idiot, and co-written several short films.  He runs a podcast called Page to Frame, where he and his friends read books and then watch movies based on the books, and then talk about them.  You can find him on Twitter @page2frame. 

“La Torera” by Aila Doyle

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Cheers roll in the distance like the thunder of an impending storm. The faint rumble reminding me it’s time for battle. The muscles in my arms tighten and my heart pounds in my chest. I force myself to move forward. Force myself to face it again.

The chanting grows to a roar as I enter the stadium. My name on their tongues beckoning me into the arena. At first, the faces blend together. Fleshy masses without independence. But I strain my eyes, forcing myself to focus on each one. My mother. My father. My brother. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Ancestors lining the bleachers like a parade in Dante’s underworld. Friends with concern and curiosity lean their bodies forward in anticipation.

A door across the arena slides open. The scratch of wood against wood makes my heart race faster. The revealed room is dark. Sweat drips into my eyes as I await his arrival. The horns are first. Then a snout breathing so heavily the sand of the arena floor kicks up into the air. His brown eyes leer at me, and I swear I see a glint of recognition. We’ve met before. Numerous times. He’s studied my moves and fine-tuned his attack. He’s grown stronger.

I let him charge me. His hooves shaking my soul with each blow of the ground. Coming for me, ready to bowl me over. Just to dodge him at the last moment, with a flourish of the cape. A twirl, a dance, the beast and I do. A triumphant feeling floods me as the bull runs pass and trots around realizing his failure. Closer and closer he gets with each attack. His horns scrap my skin, the heat of his breath falls on my arm. The triumph fades and the fear grows. Both of us cannot survive the fight.

In the corner of my eye, I see a tall, bearded man leaning against the wall. He nips at his thumb as he watches me. Looking at him I feel a hope I haven’t felt in a long time. He holds the sword I need to end my dalliance with the beast. I run to him. Closer and closer I get. With each step, his smile grows, summoning me forth. But as I touch his hand, he dodges. Twirling and dancing away with each pass I make. I plead with him. I tell him I’m worthy. But his sideward glance reflects my own skepticism. Desperate, I chase him—knowing he’s the one that can save me. But he ignores me. I look to the crowd for the support. I wait for their jeers. But the bleachers are now empty. What remains is a deafening silence that is only broken by my own voice.

I feel the ground shake behind me and I prepare for the inevitable. The horn pierces me. The sharp pain catches in my gut. My breath is sucked from my body. I look up at the man. His grin deepens and he walks out of the arena—my hope evaporating as he fades into the distance. The horn of the bull vacates my body, leaving an emptiness searing in me.

Sated, the beast trots back into his pen. Alone, once more, I recount all the prior loses, pray for a single victory.

 

Aila Doyle resides in Chicago, where she currently is working on two novels. She tweets from @ailadoyle2.

“Wolf” by Bram Riddlebarger

 

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After she fell down and screamed about the wolf, I couldn’t really think about saving the chocolate chip cookies from burning. The oven just consumed them like a sacrificial doe on the altar of desserts.
            So we stopped and listened to the wolf without eating our sweets and the wolf licked its jowls and made us forget our silly worries.

 

Bram Riddlebarger is the author of two novels, “Earplugs” and “Golden Rod”. He lives in Athens, Ohio.
twitter: @B_Riddlebarger

“The Lady in the Water” by Chris Atack

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He had dreamed of the lady in the water again. Lady? Yes, show respect. She was older than him, but not impossibly so. Grave and yet not forbidding. Would she talk to him? She had looked at him soberly as he drove his goats down the dusty bank of the dream river – and then suddenly he had arrived again in the waking land of heat and flies and bad smells. Just himself of course – the goats were dream goats, perhaps the ghosts of his herd, slaughtered long ago in the war.

The nurse had woken him to give him his medicine. It was early morning, and the tent where they had brought him two days ago was cool. But not for long. With an effort he reached for the enamel cup beside his cot and took another sip. The water was warm and tasted of metal.

Exhausted by the effort, he closed his eyes. Already he was sleepy again. It was the medicine, or the Virus, or the hundred little diseases the Virus had spawned throughout his wasted body.

She had been wearing fur. Why? Because it had been cool in the dream. Cool, and the water had sparkled. He had longed to jump in, but her presence had stopped him, her silence. The time was not yet.

He drifted into an uncomfortably doze. His eyes closed, he was vaguely aware of people clustered around him, their low voices the murmur of wind in the leaves. His knees hurt, and his breath rasped and grated. “Not long,” he heard the young doctor say. Not long for what? He was hot, and his throat was very dry.

And suddenly he was by the river. And there was the lady, standing with her back to him, her fur coat floating in the cool water, the cool pleasant water. But still he hesitated on the bank. Then, she turned and gestured to him to come, a languid summons that could not be refused.

He hesitated, then moved to the edge of the river bank, and put his foot in the slow-moving flow. It was cool and delicious as the breeze at sunset of a sweltering day. He stepped into the water, now up to his knees, his waist, and began to walk across the sandy bottom. His body no longer hurt, and he was cool at last. The murmurs of the doctors became the murmurs of the river as the lady reached out to take his hand. “Come,” she said in a low voice, and together they walked out to where the river ran into dreams deep and far away.

 

Chris Atack has published two near-future SF novels as well as short stories and poems  in various literary mags. He is a keen sailor, cross-country skier and serves as coxswain with the Canadian Auxiliary Coast Guard. Chris lives near Montreal, Canada, with his wife and their cat Maggie (aka the Iron Kitten). You can find more of his work here.

“The Tony Harmon Magic Show” by Chip Jett

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I’ve spent most of my life performing magic for people. Not ‘tricks;’ magic. Real magic. While some of my act does include store-bought magic – what you might classify as ‘tricks’ – I have real-deal magic as well. But I work at the fake stuff, too, the tricks that aren’t real. I’m so good at what I do, no one can tell what is real and what isn’t. That’s what makes me a great-not-good magician.

But, as I said, one of my tricks is real. I’ve only got the one real trick; everything else I do is a sham. I can’t explain my skill. It’s like a politician’s promise; I do it smooth and easy and nobody expects it to be real. But it is, and it’s the oldest one in the book, I guess.

I make coins disappear.

I don’t use sleight of hand for coin tricks, and I have nothing up my sleeve; I make coins disappear due to some magical intervention I cannot explain. I concentrate on the coin, and it goes away. Simple as that. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter, either. I can vanish pennies, dimes, half-dollars – anything. I’ve even made little commemorative coins disappear. My favorite target, however, is quarters.

I had hoped, growing up, that my little bit of magic would win favor for me in certain aspects of life. I had hoped for fame and fortune, glory and women. But none of these came to fruition. No one believed my magic was real, and the truth is, no one cared. People make coins disappear all the time; I couldn’t convince people that what I did was of any consequence. Such insignificant magic; who should care. No one did.

So that’s the good news, if you will: I can do insignificant magic. The bad news is that I don’t know where the coins go, and I cannot bring them back. My hope is that somewhere out there, in the place where my vanished coins go, they are accumulating.

I often wonder why I wasn’t granted some other magical gift, such as invisibility, or maybe the ability to fly. But I wasn’t. I can only make your spare change go away. This ability, this magic, has been with me my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I was neither aware of it nor able to do it. It’s always been there.

As I got older and was the only person both aware of my talent and impressed by it, magic became my obsession, to the point that I developed obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve never been diagnosed, of course (what do I really say to the doctor?), but I know what it is. I cannot go a large amount of time without vanishing a coin. I’ll buy a coffee at a drive through and pay in bills in order to get change back, change that will feed my compulsion. If I find a coin on the ground, it’s always good luck, heads or tails. I was devastated when payphones became obsolete; I had no reason to ask strangers for quarters. And so it goes. I must have coins, daily, and I must make them disappear with my magic.

Like many who suffer from OCD, I couldn’t hold down a job. I tried teaching, but I couldn’t even collect lunch money in the mornings. My need to make coins disappear overwhelmed me. I got caught around Christmas, my first year teaching, while selling snack. I guess they were on to me by then, and I didn’t see the principal watching me take up snack money. All those quarters falling into my hand was too much. I’d wow the kids in line with disappearing coins and hand them their Cheetos. When snack time was over that day, Mr. Jenkins sidled over and asked me for the money. It was gone, I explained, but not where or why, only that he wouldn’t be getting it back. I don’t think he expected me to answer him this way. He told me not to come back after the break. I spent four years in school preparing for a career in education, and it was gone in the blink of an eye.

My forays into the working world were equally problematic. Stocking shelves on the big box night crew was no good; I hassled my coworkers for change and bothered late night customers. I tried fast food, warehouse work, tire express places, and music stores, but it all ended the same: fired for stealing coins.

My last job ended when the boss caught me banging quarters from a washing machine at the Wash Bowl All Nite Laundroama. The boss who introduced himself as Larry. Larry Beam.

“What is this?” Larry Beam had screamed. “You said nobody used that machine because it wouldn’t spin the clothes. I wasted money replacing parts on it – twice – and here you are, fishing out money!”

What could I say? I do magic and have an obsessive need for your quarters? I don’t think he would have been sympathetic. So ended my career as a wash bowl night clerk.

Little did I know, things were about to take a turn.

The staff room at the Laundroama was small, and we employees had room enough to stash a jacket and maybe a pack of crackers for a late-night snack. We worked in pairs for safety, and my partner the night of my exit was Trudy Carnes. Trudy fit the description of what my mind stereotyped as a laundromat worker: she was a divorcee, she said, and needed the extra cash to fix her car. I learned the rest of her story that night, and the things we had in common,  gathering my belongings in the breakroom.

I couldn’t explain my OCD to people because magic, to the rational mind, doesn’t exist. Trudy couldn’t explain hers either because – well, I can hardly put it into words here.

When I walked in the breakroom that night, around 2 a.m., Trudy was sitting there, in front of my locker, with her back to me. I must have startled her because she turned her face to me, something she rarely does when surprised, even to this day. Her mouth was open and she had straw paper hanging from the corners of her wide blue eyes.  

“What the heck,” I whispered.

“Oh my God! Don’t you knock or anything?” she asked, scrambling to turn around, to pull straw paper from her eyes, to move away from my locker.

“What were you doing? Just then. Was that straw paper hanging out of your eyeballs?” I knew it was because I saw two opened straws on my locker shelf. Plus, I knew what I had seen.

Trudy just looked at me. “Please don’t tell anybody.”

When you’re caught, you’re caught; she couldn’t lie her way out of it. But that night, I almost didn’t care. Almost.

“Oh, I won’t tell,” I said. I spun a cheap plastic chair around and sat down in front of Trudy. “But you’ve got to tell me what that’s about.” I could hardly contain my laughter.

“It’s twirlies,” she said, and I almost lost it. She slapped my arm, hard. “You laugh, and I won’t tell you any more!”

I shut up and let her finish.

“I can’t help it. I like how it feels to take straw paper, roll the ends into sharp little points, and stick them in the corners of my eyes. I discovered it when I was a teenager, and I love it. It’s the best feeling in the world. I drive the minivan with twirlies, I read with twirlies. And until tonight, I came back here, in private, and had twirlies on my break. But don’t you tell a soul.”

I wasn’t laughing anymore. I told Trudy, “I got fired because I need to do magic,” she didn’t flinch, “so I’m out of here. And I’m not making fun of you. You ever hear of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? I think that’s what you have. I have it, too.”

I had found a sympathetic soul, one with whom I could make a plan B. I was used to coming up with plan B.

“I don’t know what it is about tonight, but it’s as if the universe just showed me something. Trudy,” I said, “come with me. Let’s get out of here and do something else.”

And that night, with a new friend and no secrets, the Tony Harmon Magic Show was born.    

I knew students, I knew teachers; I knew they both liked getting out of sixth period on a Friday to watch an assembly – any assembly. To that end, Trudy and I traveled around the country with the magic show, she the assistant and I the star. My fee has increased over the years (we charge three hundred dollars per appearance these days), but I have always had one caveat to the payment and one special request: Fist, half of my fee must be paid in rolls of quarters, and second, I need two dozen drinking straws, each individually wrapped in paper.

I know the fee is steep, but the show is worth it. Not only do I tie my patter to educational topics, but the magic is very realistic. Just how realistic only Trudy and I really know.

Trudy has learned how to keep my compulsion at bay. Whoever pays our fee gives the bill to Trudy. During the show, Trudy will toss quarters at me, and, like a trained seal and with a wave of my hands, I snap them up. We leave each school behind with our secrets intact. I guess if anyone ever rummages through our trash, they’ll be in for a confusing moment of discovery. There are wrappers from empty quarter rolls and two dozen straws, sans paper.

The Tony Harmon Magic Show has rambled on now for the better part of twenty years. I do about two hundred shows a year, and Trudy and I split the money. A quick calculation says that, somewhere, I should have a nice retirement nest egg stored up to the tune of around $600,000. That doesn’t include my life before the magic show. My honest guess is that somewhere in Neverland, there must be at least a cool million, maybe more. Honestly, maybe a lot more.

Part of my obsession is the act; the feel of the coins in my hand, the moment of true magic when I will the coin to vanish and it does. Just thinking about it, here, now, makes my heartbeat quicken. But the other part of my obsession comes immediately after I make a coin disappear. That part of my disorder has haunted me every waking second of my life: where do the coins go? I’ve always wondered. But now, as I inch closer to retirement, I have to know. Surely I wasn’t given this useless ability to make coins disappear. There must be a reason.

I say this, out loud, from time to time. Trudy looks at me, long, slender rolled up twirlies dangling from her eyes.

“Sometimes there’s no reason, Tony. Sometimes the magic is all there is.”

It was a Friday when The Tony Harmon Show rolled into the small town of Graceville, Missouri one bright Fall afternoon. It was just that right time of year I like, when the midday air is crisp and cool, no humidity, and the sun isn’t hot at all; in fact, it’s a welcome addition to a perfect October afternoon. Trudy and I unloaded our props from the trailer and set up on the stage.

“Three hundred dollars, Ms. Carnes, including thirty rolls of quarters,” the secretary, a kind and familiar face, said. “If you’ll notice, the lady at the bank said one of those rolls is all ’76 Bicentennials, the one with the drummer-man on the back.” She seemed pleased about that, but I didn’t care; one quarter vanished as good as any other. I thanked her anyway.

“And we found an entire box of wrapped up straws in the supply closet by the fridge.” It was manna from Heaven for Trudy. “The art teacher, Stan Hightower, will be your faculty volunteer. Kids’ll be in the cafeteria in half an hour, if that’s okay.” Trudy said it would be, and we finished setting up.

Little towns like Graceville are a dime a dozen, and that’s what I love about them. We’ve come to recognize the staffs in the most of the places we visit, but nobody gets to know us too well. Everyone is friendly, and we put smiles on the faces, as they say. Maybe we change a life here and there with an inspirational anecdote, and maybe we don’t. I like to think we do. Either way, I get my quarters and Trudy gets her straws, and we operate on the outskirts of the norm, satisfied, anonymous, and protected from ridicule. We are free to search for answers as we may, and we scratch out a modest living in the deal.

I never expected to find an answer in Graceville, Missouri.

A single crow cawed at us from the branch of a hemlock as we brought in the last box of books. It barely registered. The second crow, however, perched over the door, got my attention.

“’One crow means sorrow,’ right?” Trudy asked, quoting from a Wylly Folk St. John book we had stashed among the props.

“Yep, and ‘Two crows mean joy,’” I said. “Maybe the joy is your case of straws.”

The lesson this year was on the wonders of travel and the books that could take you around the world. It was a good show, one of the better ones we’d come up with in twenty years. I mastered the tricks and the patter that sold them, and if all else failed, the vanishing coins would bring down the house.

The show started on time. The students were chatty but quieted as the tricks and stories began unfolding. There were the usual “ooohs” and “ahhhhs,” and I carried on with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, which, believe it or not, was a good deal considering the number of shows we did. Trudy sat backstage, happily unwrapping straws and sticking twirlies in the corners of her eyes.

We set the show to music at different intervals. This gave me time to showcase certain tricks, the newest I had invested in, while Trudy operated the ipod from behind the curtain, twirlies secured in place and hidden from scrutiny.

As the last musical number faded away, I prepped for the finale by asking for a teacher to join me onstage. As instructed, I called the art teacher, Stan Hightower, to ‘volunteer.’ Teachers were always good sports, though they would sometimes shake and sweat worse than the kids. Stan’s face flushed red as he made his way up front, but he seemed willing to participate.

“Just go along, and I’ll do all the work,” I instructed Stan as we shook hands. He took his place next to Trudy, who left her twirlies backstage for this part of the show. She slipped me the roll of quarters and said, “It’s the Bicentennials.”

We attached a microphone to Stan’s collar, and I began the patter. I used sleight of hand to make his pen disappear and reappear in his front pocket. More trickery as a glass of water that should have poured onto his head let loose a bouquet of multi-colored daisies instead.

Finally, I told Stan, “This is the last one, Mr. Hightower. Thanks for being a sport.” I handed him the roll of quarters and instructed him to take them, one at a time and toss them at me.

I thought he was playing along, acting, when the look of shock settled on his face. But he recovered, and I carried on.

Stan did as I asked and tossed the quarters at me. One by one, the Bicentennials spun in my direction. I raised my hands dramatically at each one and made them vanish before the assembled eyes. “Oooohs” and “ahhhs” again because this tricked looked real. And why shouldn’t they be amazed; it was real. We repeated this dance, Stan the art teacher and I, until the roll was gone. The crowd went wild.

And Stan, mic’d up for all to hear, said, “Holy shit.”

The cafeteria got quiet, instantly, probably waiting to see what the principal would do. Stan Hightower was probably finished as an art teacher at Graceville Elementary, that was certain. The look of shock had returned to Stan’s face, and he was staring at me, mouth hanging open.

“Hey, man, it’s just a trick.” I said.

Stan shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “All these years, and it’s been you.”

I couldn’t imagine what Stan meant and told him so.

In response, Stan Hightower plunged his hands into his pants pockets, both left and right. When he brought his hands back out, he brought with them quarters. The quarters spilled onto the stage in the silent cafeteria with the myriad, chaotic ping of change hitting the ground. I looked at them, some rolling at my feet, some coming, at last, to a stop. I bent down and picked one up. It was a Bicentennial. And so was the next one, and the next. I didn’t bother picking up all the quarters that fell from Stan Hightower’s pockets. If I had, I’m quite certain they would have all been Bicentennials, and there would have been exactly fifty, the number in the roll of quarters I had just sent to my Neverland of coins.

I was too stunned to know what to say, so when Stan grabbed my arm, I jumped a little.

“This has been going on all my life,” he said. “Quarters appear in my pockets, out of nowhere. I’ve got over a million dollars of quarters buried around my house. I’ve been too scared to take them to the bank. How do I explain these things, appearing in my pockets out of nowhere?”

Trudy had, by this time, cut power to the mics and disappeared backstage. We didn’t pay attention to teachers gathering their classes and ushering them from the cafeteria. There was no last round of applause for this show, but none of us on stage noticed.

“I had no idea,” I told him. “I swear. I just make them disappear. I wondered where they went, but I never knew.”

Stan was shaking, tears filling his eyes.

“I thought I was crazy. I thought I’d end up in jail or something. I never knew why.” He wasn’t crying, but he was close to it. “Why?” he said. “What does this mean?”

I had searched most of my life for an answer, for a reason I could perform real, if insignificant, magic. I found a career and a friend in Trudy. She and I both found happiness in the freedom from judgement we feared every day. But at that moment, in a cafeteria emptying of students and at the ruin of a humble man’s career, I couldn’t offer him any words of comfort or wisdom. I put my answer into words the best way I understood.

“Sometimes, Stan, the magic is all there is.”

 

Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia.  His stories have appeared in several literary magazines, online at “Cadaverous Magazine”  and “Ripples In Space.” He has stories forthcoming in “Inwood Indiana”, “Petrichor Audio Magazine”, “Temenos”, and “Curating Alexandria”. Find him on Facebook at Jettstories, on Instagram at chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.

“BEWITCHERY” by Meeah Williams

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So instead of executing me, they blindfold me, tie my hands behind my back, and drive me miles outside of town. There they leave me to my fate. To prove they aren’t entirely heartless, that they’re Christians after all and better than me, they shove eight dollars into my dirty palm. “Good luck, baby!” I hear one of them yell, laughing, as they drive rattling off in the pick-up.

Naturally, it immediately begins to rain. I stumble around aimlessly in the mud for a while. The soaked blindfold slips down. The binding on my wrists loosens. Eventually I come upon a farmer who has a thing for half-bound barefoot girls with no future. He takes me in. He warms me by his fire. He fucks me silly.

Sometimes at the very height of intimacy, he puts his big calloused hands on my throat. I don’t even flinch. “Go ahead and kill me if you like,” I say. “I don’t even give a fucking damn!” I mean it, too. If you don’t mean it, the spell won’t work. He howls like a wild beast and comes inside me, shouting obscenities like a French poet. Then he covers me with kisses as if he’s hiding a crime under white roses.

One day, I’m boiling peas and it hits me, “Wow, I really am in love.” No one could be more surprised than I am. Meanwhile, he acts so nonchalant, self-satisfied, as if he planned it all along.

 

Meeah Williams’s  work has appeared in Otoliths, Phantom Drift, Uut, The Conium Review,  The Ginger Collect, Anti-Heroin Chic and lots of other places, more places than you’d expect for someone seemingly uninterested in communicating with the world outside herself as she so often appears to be. She lives in Seattle and tweets from @pussy_nagasaki.