Jen Currin: "The Magician"
Four a.m.: the dregs of the party. A few rockers doing bong hits in the kitchen, two sparkle-shirted sisters holding each other up and puking over the back porch railing, slumped figures on the floors, a heavy stench of smoke and beer. Trance music pulsed from one of the upstairs bedrooms. Angela's very high girlfriend Jake was in an achingly long philosophical conversation with a woman who wore a chain linking her lip, nose, and ear piercings. Angela kissed Jake on the cheek and slipped out.
The street sparkled with ice and the remnants of midnight. Angela loved walking at night, especially in winter. The air so cold it singed the hair in her nostrils, the tree branches a broken calligraphy against the sky, the moon whitely grinning or opening its mouth wide to aaahhh, to sing. The silence of the empty empty streets.
She was surprisingly sober. It had been hours since she had finished her share of the gin—it had left her clear-eyed and thoughtful. She would walk and think.
It was a cold two miles to her apartment. The wind was mercifully at her back, pushing her forward. She had left her gloves at the party but her scarf warmed her neck and her wool hat was like the reassuring hand of a grandmother. She buried her hands into the pockets of her long black coat. The wind felt like it might lift her up like a witch on a broom. A witch on a broom. Where had that myth come from? Fear of sweeping, of "women's work"? Brooms to sweep spirits out of the house? Cleanliness close to godliness? But witches weren't thought of as "godly".... Angela remembered her grandmother singing to herself as she swept the kitchen, telling her it was bad luck to leave the broom lying on the floor or propped upside down in the closet. But riding the broom like a horse—was the broom a phallus, then? A very long dildo, a cock without a man...
Steeped in these thoughts, she didn't notice the man jaywalking, trying to cross his path with hers, until he was suddenly in her periphery, a dark figure limping quickly towards her. Then he was in front of her, white face glowing, thin black moustache quivering over thin lips, watery seeking eyes.
At first Angela did not recognize him. She assumed he was one of the addicts who lived in the falling-down Victorians on this string of drug blocks. Then the streetlight caught his cheekbones, turning the rest of his face to shadow, and she remembered the black top hat he had been wearing at the party. Without it, his black hair whipped in the wind. His eyes were light blue and he seemed to have difficulty focusing. He acted (was he acting?) as if he didn't recognize her.
"Got a smoke? So cold out here. A smoke?" He was shivering in his thin layers of black and purple clothes. His jacket had a huge rip down the sleeve, from shoulder to the elbow. She wondered if he had been in a fight since he had left the party.
At the party, he had been in every room she entered, trying to commandeer the attention of everyone with tricks involving cards or coins and glasses of water. In one of the upstairs bedrooms where she had left her coat, she found him surrounded by a small, very stoned audience as he spread tarot cards out on the bed, a silver ring flashing on each finger. Later, she came into the kitchen to refill her drink and heard him attempting to regale a beautiful redheaded trans woman with a series of dead baby jokes. He told them hurriedly, one after another, as if doing a stand-up routine: "What is the difference between a pile of dead babies and a pile of bowling balls? What is the difference between a Cadillac and a pile of dead babies?" She fumbled with the gin, spilling some on the counter as she tried to get out of the kitchen as fast as she could. As she was leaving, he started on the pedophile jokes.
Now this—there was no other way to put it—this character was in front of her. It was as if he had stepped out of some movie she never managed to watch during her teenage years, some bad young adult novel about first love and vampires. He wore a garland of long necklaces, some with skulls and daggers, some with beads and fake diamonds. At the corner of his mouth a cold sore festered. His eyes kept trying to meet hers and kept failing. He seemed to be glancing up at the branches above her head or over her shoulder at some ghost.
She felt an anger growing in her. Here he was. In her way. Blocking her path. He felt free to interrupt her walk, her time alone, away from Jake, away from the party drunks. This was one of the few holy spaces left for her in the entire world. And he was trying to ruin that.
"What do you want?" she asked coldly. She felt like she was pulling the ice out of every tree branch, out of every ragged blade of grass, off of every pane of glass in every frozen window and directing it into his watery blue eyes. It was a trick her grandmother had taught her. Most of her grandmother's tricks she didn't remember, but there were a few she still used. This one—her grandmother called it "the frigid gaze"—had worked for her many times. She hoped it would work for her now.
The magician—as she had decided to call him—shrugged and shifted, then clutched his arms. She realized in that moment that he had no plan but that he would probably try to hurt her if he could. The pathetic shivering was part of his act. Or was it? He was alone; he had obviously not scored at the party as he hoped. None of his tricks had worked. Despite the black jeans hugging his slender thighs and the wave of hair falling over his eyes like a crow's wing, he had not managed to woo a single person.
And now he wanted something, someone. She was the someone who had appeared. He probably believed he had summoned her. And now she wondered: Had she summoned him? Why? And out of what coffin hidden away in what cellar or attic? She smiled at the image, borrowed from some black and white horror film. What would her grandmother say? The familiar firm voice was suddenly in her head: "He isn't worth the breath of a fly on a mirror. Send him back where he came from."
The magician hugged himself and shivered. "You were at that party, right?"
She looked across the street behind him, at a shabby turquoise three-story with an uncharacteristically well-groomed lawn. The moonlight glassed the grass, turning it into a silver crew cut. The magician was quite high, and by the smell of him, so drunk that if she struck a match she would catch his breath on fire. She remembered Marianela, a buzz-headed friend from Calgary who used to read her tarot when she lived there. This Marianela was tiny, barely five feet tall and probably ninety pounds, but she wore heavy black boots and frighteningly thick leather belts. She cut hair for a living and drank whiskey as a hobby. And she often walked home alone. One night Marianela had been followed by a luggish lumberjack type. "I'm going to rape you!" he bellowed. "You'd better watch out! I'm going to rape you!" This had gone on for blocks, the lumberjack yelling at her back, Marianela growing more and more incensed. Finally, a few blocks from her house, she stopped and turned to face him. She planted her feet squarely and waited. As he barrelled toward her, she lifted one foot and kicked him as hard as she could in the balls. He stumbled to the ground and she ran, terrified and laughing, home.
Where was Marianela now? And what had her grandmother said about getting rid of flies? Where were those scissors she had used to sever bad energetic ties? She recalled her grandmother giggling as she waved burning sage through the house, as she tied a bit of mint to the broom. What had that been for? And what about the little horse-headed stick she had given Angela for her seventh birthday? How she had loved that toy, riding it around the neighbourhood like a hero, its yarn mane flying. Would that it was here now, so she could fly away. Yet, she felt the wind on her face and the traces of gin glinting a cold clarity in her blood and she did not feel afraid. She would talk to this stranger, this magician of unfortunate jokes, his white face hanging in front of hers like a forgotten ornament on a January Christmas tree. She would talk to him for just a moment and then she would cross the street, or he would cross the street, slink back to his house, back to the shed or tent or drafty room he slept in.
"Yes, I was at the party," she said. "And you..."
Just as she started to question him, he lurched forward, tottering for a moment, and then abruptly fell back, sitting heavily on the curb.
"I'm gone," he said. His pale face glowed greenish, glossy with cold sweat.
She could see that he wasn't acting; he was indeed severely wasted. Yet she could feel no sympathy for him. At any minute he could lunge up and grab her throat. At any minute, also, she could kick him with her boots, now that he was down. His neck glowed whitely vulnerable through the strands of his black hair. She felt her hands burning in her pockets. She was prepared to hit him if that is what it would take. She curled her hands into fists and dug them deeper into her pockets. Something cold and angular poked her. Her phone. She could call someone. But who? Jake's ringer probably wasn't on. And even if she did answer—what then? She would enter the scene as a hero, intent on saving the damsel in distress. Jake wouldn't be able to help it--she would have to punch this pathetic man, who would end up in the exact same position he was in now, except his nose would be broken and he would be bleeding into the street.
Angela had never seen her grandmother hit anyone. Her grandmother wouldn't even slap a ghost, though she might kindly sweep one out of the house. But she had once seen her after an argument whip a rug against the stairs so violently it seemed it might explode into a fury of thread. Her grandmother had been capable of harnessing tremendous rage. And her grandmother had taught her that there were people you should avoid and people you wanted to avoid but wouldn't be able to. But what was the trick to get rid of such people?
At her feet, the magician leaned closer towards the street and started retching. A pool of pinkish bile formed at his feet. In between pukes he gasped for breath. "Water," he said weakly.
Angela suddenly felt weary, the weight of the long night heavy upon her. She should be home by now, stirring honey into a mug of strong ginger tea, lighting a candle and running a bath. She loved the smell of just-washed hair, the feel of fresh sheets as she slipped between them. She loved going to sleep alone as the sun was starting to rise, as the rest of the world was waking up.
And now she remembered what to do. She would keep walking. That was the spell: To keep walking. To say a few words if one had to, but to keep walking. She relaxed her hand around her phone. Her grandmother
had seldom used the phone when she was living, and Angela didn't need a phone to reach her now.
"Hey," the magician feebly called after her as she started to cross the street. "Hey." And then more weakly, "You bitch." His voice floated down to the concrete like a lost feather.
She felt her shoulders lift as she reached the opposite curb. Her feet felt light in her boots, the sidewalk solid beneath her. A lamp clicked on in one of the dark houses. Angela tightened her coat around her and looked up at the lightening sky.
Jen Currin’s stories have been published in Geist, The Capilano Review, and Room, among other places. She has also published four collections of poetry, most recently School, which was a finalist for two prizes, and The Inquisition Yours, which won the Audre Lorde Prize for Lesbian Poetry in 2011. She lives in Vancouver where she teaches creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
More about Jen online: www.jencurrin.com