THE YOUNG AND MAGICAL MAGICIAN — SUSAN WOODRING

That year for Christmas, their fifteen-year-old son asked for a magic kit.

But neither parent thought this was a good idea. Brandon was too old for such a toy. The dad was embarrassed on his son’s behalf, though he tried not to show it. He didn’t want to think about the theatrics involved with magic—the costumery, the various stage antics and flourishes. Also, he worried his son simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Magic, the dad knew, required finesse and perfect timing. Brandon was instead good at math. He went about life completely unself-aware, slack-jawed. The dad had often wondered: how do you cure that? What, parentally, was he supposed to do about his son’s moony gawkiness?

The boy’s mother feared just the opposite—that the boy would excel at magic, a form of trickery, and she further worried where his success might take him. A boy she went to college with had practiced magic at dinner, in the cafeteria. He did a cup and ball trick with sugar packets and upturned coffee mugs and waggled his eyebrows at his spectators in a way that simultaneously unsettled her—it was just weird—and made her hate him a little. It was arrogant, she decided. An arrogant eyebrow waggle.

The boy’s mother had spent the greater part of her son’s childhood searching for his niche, his special talent, his place. There had been pee-wee soccer at age four, tee-ball at age six, carpentry camp at age seven, and archery at age nine. At age eleven, she had signed him up for SCUBA diving lessons at the Y. Nothing had stuck. Mostly, the boy wanted to watch Japanese cartoons and play video games online with players from Tennessee and Brazil.

Neither parent mentioned their misgivings to the other. That night, after Brandon had shut himself up in his room, they stood in the kitchen and told each other this was a good thing. The dad said performing, even if it was just for family, or the old folks’ home, might bring him out of his shell a little. The boy’s mother believed it would improve his imagination. Maybe, the dad said, he could even earn a little money. There was an Italian restaurant in town that hired a magician to entertain people while they waited for a table.

The mother frowned. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Nobody’s saying he should plan on this as a career or anything, the dad said.

I had a friend in college, the boy’s mother said, who did very well as a magician. I mean, he was very good at it and everything. He entertained us.

On the day of Brandon’s first performance, the mother put out Rice Krispy treats and red Gatorade and their living room filled up with grade-school aged children; many were the younger siblings of the children Brandon himself had played with when he was a child. To his parents’ considerable relief, Brandon wore his regular clothes, just jeans and a short-sleeve polo, even though the kit they gave him had come with a cape and a top hat. He looked like a regular fifteen-year-old kid. He looked like their fifteen-year-old kid, but happy.

The children were seated on the floor; it was time to begin. Brandon came strolling out from the kitchen into the living room with his hands clasped behind his back. He appeared not to notice the audience at all but was instead looking for something he’d lost. He searched behind the couch, the drapes, the potted ficus. He scratched his head, scowled in mock-frustration, and finally looked to the children. Had they seen his pet crocodile? The children, intrigued, shook their heads. They hadn’t seen the crocodile. But, just as Brandon shrugged, then said, Well, in that case, we better just get some magic started, something green and lizardy climbed up his shoulder from behind. The children cheered. Brandon kept up the bit for a few more beats, feigning ignorance. They saw a crocodile? Really? Where? When finally he acknowledged the tiny reptile on his shoulder, smiling warmly at it, relieved and happy to have found his long-lost pet, the creature opened its tiny jaws, its sharp teeth so tiny they looked premature, as if the creature was still in a kind of gestational state, not all the way formed. It snapped at Brandon’s cheek, and all the children aahhed. How cute it was! All the mothers standing in the back of the room, including the magician’s mother, gasped.

Oh, Tom, the boy chided. Where have you been?

He put the toy-sized crocodile on a book shelf—Stay!, he instructed—and the show continued. Brandon turned out to be a glorious magician with an off-handed, seemingly hapless style. The children were transfixed. He pulled quarters from behind their ears and, after inviting several children to come up and report what they saw in the ficus tree’s pot—dirt, and that was all, they each reported—he drew out from nowhere a fluffy white rabbit. Wow, Mom, he said, looking up at her, smiling a lopsided, almost flirtatious smile. An actual dust bunny. He pretended to consider this further, then: A dust bunny made flesh. The mothers in the back of the room giggled, and the boy’s mother smiled uneasily. He winked at her. I’m just joshing you, he said. Don’t worry.

He laid a handkerchief on the coffee table then told it to dance. He made a girl’s wristwatch disappear. He swallowed a screwdriver from his father’s workbench. At this,the mother turned to look at the father, who stood behind everyone, almost not even in the room, with his hands in his pockets. She tried to catch his eye: how had Brandon done that? She was also wondering: where had their son procured a crocodile? But the boy’s father, like the children, was watching the show with rapt attention.

The magician pulled a bouquet from one of the mother’s pocketbooks and instructed a boy on the front row to smell the flowers. Do they smell good? He asked the boy, and the boy nodded. I don’t know why, Brandon said, shrugging at the audience. They’re fake.

All the while, the rabbit from the ficus plant hopped tentatively among the children, its pink nose twitching, and Tom the crocodile paced back and forth on his little space of shelf. After the bouquet trick, which she hoped was nearly his last, the mother noticed a second ball of white fur moving among the rows of seated children. And then, while Brandon implored the children to help him beckon a shy chipmunk from its home inside Brandon’s backpack, a third rabbit appeared. The chipmunk, named Charlie, fortunately emerged a puppet, but the three rabbits were definitely real. And then, after Charlie the chipmunk had performed his own magic—mind-reading—the mother saw that there were no fewer than five rabbits hopping about her living room.

Well, the magician said, they are rabbits.

At the end, Brandon offered his palm to the crocodile, who climbed on board, once again opening and closing its terrifying but simultaneously, inexplicably endearing little jaws. I just want to eat him up, one of the little girls said. Brandon ran a finger down his pet’s scaled and armored back, all the way down to the tail. Oh, Tom, he said, you fierce thing, you.

When the show was over, Brandon bowed to his audience, thanking them for coming, and disappeared with his crocodile into his bedroom. His parents stood in their just-emptied living room, littered with crumpled napkins and little plastic cups with traces of red Gatorade at the bottoms, and looked at each other. The rabbits were no longer there. Without the children there acting as obstacles, they’d hopped on to explore the other rooms in the house.

Well, the mother said.

Well, the dad said. At least it was something of a success. He shrugged as if to punctuate his praise with a drop of modesty.

I suppose, the mother said carefully. I could have done without the dust bunnies joke.

Oh, that. The father laughed.

I don’t know where he got the rabbits, the mother said. Not to mention a crocodile.

The mother watched her husband’s eyes move to look out the window.

The rabbits, she began.

Who cares about the rabbits? the dad said, suddenly angry. He turned to look at her, a terrible dark scowl passing over his face, and the mother flinched. But then, his expression softened just as quickly. Did you see, he said, that handkerchief trick? His eyes were shining. Did you see it dance? I don’t know how he did that, he said. How he got that handkerchief to move around like that.

Over the next several weeks, into February, then March, the rabbits found places to hide under the beds and in the bottom kitchen cabinets, and the crocodile grew. Soon, he was too large to sleep in the bathtub. Brandon’s next show—for more neighborhood children, but from a wider radius—involved a dove and a parakeet who, after the performance, sparred, fluttering from the branches of the ficus tree to the glass cabinet in the hallway to the top of the refrigerator. Afterwards, the parents went out to the front steps. They sat side by side not looking at each other, the front door shut snug against all the bizarre creatures that now occupied their house. In addition to the warring birds, Brandon’s new act had featured a monkey. It was a small creature, barely coming to their son’s knees, and long-haired, a burnished brown color. All monkeys, of course, are good climbers, but this monkey’s particular agility and quickness surprised the mother. She couldn’t quit thinking of it. It was, in a way, a beautiful thing—how that monkey had scaled the bookshelves, had leapt to swing from the ceiling fan.

Now, she wondered aloud about the monkey’s breed—its specific species—but the dad was saying something else, something about the boy’s new handkerchief trick which involved, like before, the dancing, but now finished with fire. A snap of flame, a puff of smoke, and voila! The handkerchief was gone, burned so completely, there weren’t even any ashes left behind.

The mother had become as skittish and frightful as the little rabbits; ironically, it was they she was mostly afraid of. They seemed to turn up everywhere. She opened the dryer and, impossibly, there was one, snuggled down in a fresh, warm towel. It was brave, encountering her, and did not cede its place. The mother quietly retreated, leaving the dryer door ajar in case the rabbit wanted to get out. She had talked herself into believing the door to the upstairs bathroom, wherein the crocodile was contained, had been permanently sealed. She imagined it was so, that someone had fitted its lock and all the spaces between the door and its hinges and the doorjamb, between the top of the door and the ceiling and between the bottom of the door and the carpet with titanium-strength concrete. The door was impenetrable, the mother believed.

The next morning, the boy’s parents rose automatically and picked their way around the animals as they dressed for work. The mother, drinking coffee in the kitchen, was more tired than usual. She was, she thought, aggressively tired; tired in a way that felt like an attack. She imagined a predator, wholly different from the reptile trapped in the bathroom, subduing her with some kind of animal-manufactured narcotic; she was being incapacitated by exhaustion so that the creature, whatever it was, could devour her.

She drank her coffee. Everything was quiet upstairs; the boy and his father had already left, and the crocodile never made a sound. The mother was thinking of the time in her life before Brandon was born. They had suffered two miscarriages early in their marriage. That was how she explained it to others—that she and her husband had suffered—but the truth was, the suffering had been all hers. Her husband James, who possessed an unswervingly practical view of the world and all its possibilities for happiness, knew that, statistically speaking, two early term miscarriages meant very little in terms of their ability to eventually procreate. We will have a baby, he had told her. I promise, he’d said. It was only now, drinking her coffee inside a house overrun with magic show animals, that his statement comforted her, and not for the reason he had originally intended. It was the fact that he had made her a promise. She could almost cry, thinking of it. He had believed that promise, through and through.

Later, when the phone rang, she was startled out of her reverie, which wasn’t really a reverie at all but instead a kind of suspension: for several moments that morning, while her son’s magic show crocodile slept, out of her sight, on cool bathroom tile, and the monkey, in another distant-feeling, unseen room, worried the dove, while her husband, having dropped their fifteen-year-old at the high school, drove down the flat, billboard-studded interstate to the community college which, like an airport, was off by itself, a ways away from town, Miranda Holingsfield floated somewhere immaterial and far, far away.

The ringing annoyed her. Only telemarketers called on the land line. Everyone who actually knew them used their cell phone numbers.

But she answered, even though it meant she might be late to work, and she was immediately glad that she did because here was someone, a woman, who sounded distracted but polite, completely pleasant, asking: was this the parent of Brandon Holingsfield? It was the school calling. Brandon has been hurt; he twisted his ankle in the hallway. Apparently, the woman continued, he had been performing some kind of a magic trick or something, a card trick, maybe? In homeroom and was hurrying to make his first class. The mother heard a smile in the woman’s voice. A boy performing a magic trick in homeroom: how amusing, how sweet.

Anyway, he was resting in the office; it didn’t look too serious, but maybe she should stop by? The gym teacher was with him now. It didn’t look like a sprain to him.

Yes, of course, the mother answered. She rinsed her coffee cup in the sink. A couple of the rabbits were squished in together at the base of the dishwasher and she had to nudge them away with her foot to open it so she could deposit her cup. Of course, she said. She would be right there.

***
Susan Woodring is the author of the novel Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) and a short story collection Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008). Her short fiction has appeared in The Cupboard, Passages North, turnrow, Literary Mama and Surreal South among other anthologies and literary magazines. Her short fiction was shortlisted for Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 and Best American Short Stories 2010.