Fred the Conjuror

The magician paced and plotted in the candlelit room. His mind was sweating and his gut was twisted into a sailor’s knot. The self-doubt that stalked him for years wasn’t comped a ticket to this practice performance.

 

Fred Crowe wouldn’t mesmerize the audience with overly sophisticated tricks and complex sleight of hand. He wasn’t his dad, who gained some local notoriety with his free performances at Winton Woods. A kind of Shakespeare in the park for a man who called himself Edward the Elegant Enchanter. Kids loved him for making the unreal real. Parents loved him because he distracted their kids. He was a born showman. His sugar-dipped charm and bullhorn voice and salesman’s tongue demanded attention at the park, summer festivals, or when grilling burgers with other members of the trade. But beneath the lavender cape and mutton chops lived a tired, solitary, fragile man who spent most of his adult life trying to pull validation, stardom, and a healthy bank account from a disgruntled black hat. He died a busted drunk, welded to a stool, who droned on and on like an invasion of cicadas about how folks only wanted instant gratification anymore. How they’re addicted to digital entertainment, microwave meals, and sweatpants instead of taking the time to get cleaned up, slide downtown for some mango mojitos and grilled shrimp, then relax in a chilled auditorium for two hours as the greatest illusionist in the history of Fairfield, Ohio duped and entranced every last one of them. 

 

His son could never be him, his social awkwardness and rudimentary skills were impediments, and being a mirror of his dad would mean having everyone around him disappear without the assistance of a trapdoor. But he still plugged away at the family craft with an admirable passion and focus.

 

The crowd was so silent you could hear a beard grow. Fred imagined eyeballs ripping into him, the tension as thick as a pot of Texas chili. This night belonged to him, it was his time to rise above his genetic code, to separate himself from the legend of his father and all the masters of magic who carried the Crowe name.

 

He was dressed in his thrift store black suit, the only one he owned. It earned its keep by also appearing at funerals, weddings, and the rare job interview. The suit was a double-breasted Swiss Army knife. Cheap gel molded his hair into a greying helmet. His right hand held a stone wand purchased online. A wine glass, lit cigarette, gas can, aluminum baking dish, and a bowl of ice sat on a mahogany table in front of him.

 

Growing up, his father said it wasn’t a concern if Fred couldn’t hit a curveball or field dress a deer or solve complicated math equations. He taught him that a boy becomes a successful man when he can fool an entire audience of smart people. When they believe a lie is a truth. And a real man doesn’t chase applause, the applause chases him. The crowd is a wolf, misdirection is the rabbit.

 

“The tuna casserole ain’t gonna eat itself, Freddy. Get on up here,” his mom yelled down into his lair of spells.

 

“Come on. You just blew the rehearsal,” he shot back at a door that had already shut. Deflated, he tore off his clip-on tie, blew out the votive candles, flipped on the lights. Coco and Brutus were sleeping like cadavers on the carpet; they didn’t seem to care much about witnessing the mystical smoking pool of arctic fire illusion. “Lazy freeloaders,” he said, stepping around them. The nesting dolls sitting on a bookshelf chose silence. Their wooden eyes wouldn’t risk even a glance in his disappointed direction.

 

On the way up the steps, he wondered why he never invented a trick to make failure disappear. Or a way to saw it in half. Or maybe he should’ve studied necromancy and reincarnated his elegant father. He had so much more to learn from him. Fred wished he could conjure that kind of dark magic in his basement theater.

 

Tangerine

 

 

 

This story first appeared in print in Ellipsis Zine. Enough time has passed that I thought I would share it on my blog.

Once a month at midnight, a redbird with wings like circus tents landed at 17 Riverstone Way. Tonight, it stood still on the lawn. Inside the home, Megan’s withdrawn face was pressed against the bedroom window.

 

They talked through the screen. Megan told her about school, how lunch was her favorite subject. Cynthia laughed like a cherry bomb, told her that eating pizza was better than pecking on rocks tossed by that boy three towns over. 

 

“Why don’t you just eat him? You’re big enough to do it,” Megan asked, her finger tracing circles in breath fog on the glass above.

 

“He’s just confused. I don’t hurt people, Megan. You know that.”

 

“Sorry. You’re a good bird.”

 

“And you’re a wonderful girl. Everybody says so.”

 

“Except them,” she said, pointing her thumb backwards. “They don’t say anything nice. Sometimes I wish I was a can of beer.” 

 

Cynthia tilted her head. “I think it’s time. You ready?”

 

“I don’t want to hear them yelling again. Let’s go.” She stepped through the window, climbed inside her friend’s golden beak.

 

They flew as one above snowcaps, rain forests, and oceans, eventually descending into a sweet-scented oasis called Tangerine. Megan caught everything at the same time, her walnut eyes darting from rejuvenated kids riding atop elephants and giraffes to glaciers made of vanilla cupcakes to flowing streams of bubbling cream soda.

 

“Go on now,” said Cynthia. “We only have a few hours before the sun wakes up and we fly back. Sing, play, do whatever you can’t do at home. I’ll be over here eating rocks.”

 

Megan’s laugh mimicked birdsong as she ran through a vibrant valley choked with marshmallow trees, popsicle flowers, and honey bees the size of grandfather clocks. She ran until her feet were drowning in cool morning dew. 

 

Love Therapy

I knew I was in trouble as soon as she entered the room. A bunch of us mentally ill people were gathered together for group therapy. I don’t recall the topic or why I was even there, but when Jennifer walked in, my heart basically stopped. Not to dote on her looks, but she was an attractive woman with chestnut hair and eyes and small figured, meaning she was short. I’m tall and I’m drawn to short women for whatever reason. Anyway, I was hooked as soon as I saw her.

 

A few weeks later I got lucky. My current therapist at that time was leaving the company to run a hamburger joint and she recommended a new therapist for me, Jennifer. I played it cool and just nodded, but my heart was pulsing with activity.

 

She was a great therapist. She was a good listener. I spilled my soul about depression, gambling, and homelessness, and she always had a way of making feel comfortable talking about difficult subjects. She taught me techniques to deal with the monster that my depression was. Jennifer always had a smile on her face and never judged me. She just sat there and looked me in the eyes and listened. She was wonderful.

 

Around this time, I began to write stories for the first time. I remember I wrote a horror tale that was just awful and she said what if you’re daughter read that? She was right. But over time my writing improved and I started getting published here and there and Jennifer read all my stories. I loved that, it made feel good that she would read my stuff. She had a genuine interest in my progress as a writer. She supported and encouraged me. Jennifer was invested and soon became my muse. A lot of my early stories had a character based on her, and she knew it and didn’t seem to mind.

 

One day, out of the blue, I told her that I was in love with her. She reacted weirdly, walking around the office picking things up and putting them back down. She was rattled, but eventually calmed down and took a seat and talked to me. I told her it was about an old gambler’s saying that says a gambler secretly wants to lose to punish himself. That’s what I was doing, knowing she was my married therapist. The session soon ended and we both felt a little awkward.

 

A couple of days later she called me and said she was “all in.” I was elated. Jennifer was still going to be my therapist. It wouldn’t last though. All I wanted to do was talk about her, us. And she did, too. Her feelings were mutual, I knew she was attracted to me, but I won’t go into detail to protect her. I liked her and she liked me and it was never going to work because she was my married, christian, therapist. Failure was the only option available to me. So, eventually, she told me she could no longer be my therapist because of the circumstances. I was more than devastated, I was paralyzed with grief and loss. 

 

Not long after that, the company had an office Christmas party at the local YWCA, All clients were invited. I usually never went, but I did this time in hope Jennifer would be there. And she was. I was standing against the wall like a wallflower when she approached me and we began talking. We moved to the hallway then outside to finish our conversation. The chemistry between was so overwhelming that I wanted to kiss her, but thankfully I did not try. We talked for about thirty minutes about everything and nothing, then she reached down and grabbed my hand and said bye. As she walked away, she turned around and smiled at me then headed to her car. I was crushed by that smile. And that would also be the last time I would ever see her again. My whole world capsized.

 

Four months later she called to tell me that she was leaving the company to take another job. One again I was devastated. We talked for about twenty minutes. I asked her out for coffee and she said she couldn’t do that. I asked if we could remain friends and she said that she had thought a lot about that but how would it look? Finally she just simply said she was married and that was that. The conversation was over. She became a ghost.

 

I briefly thought about suicide in the aftermath of her leaving, but I knew that wasn’t the answer. I just missed the hell out of her and I still do three years later. Sometimes I pace the floor in my house thinking about her, hoping that every phone call I receive that I don’t recognize will be her. I’m a fool, I know. I hardly even date because I compare every woman to Jennifer and they never measure up. All I can do is fantasize about her.

 

Because she’s gone.

And she’s never coming back.