On Fantasy Flights

Flash
Mandira Pattnaik


Photo Credit: The Children of War/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

We sew-girls can read minds. People don’t believe us. We don’t care about the negation.

So, when Dallapuri crumples the paper into a ball and throws it at Azma, and Azma reads the note in the shadow of her palm, nods twice, then hides it within the folds of the brocade skirt she had been embroidering, we know one of us has read a mind.

Eighth ball that has got thrown today in the six hours we have been pigeonholed in our Ma’am quarters, ensconced in frigid soundlessness. Only the fourth correct reading.

We girls aren’t happy compatible spouses. Or claim to be Gods.

I wrote one to Gudi,

Sewaiyyan, tonight?’

I was sorry I was wrong, more because her eyes remained downcast for long. We can hardly afford it, unless it’s payday.

We sew-girls play this game away from Ma’am’s eagle-gaze every day. Observe eyes, shoulders drooping or upright, hands nimble or sloth, and then throw a guess, stopping our busy fingers sewing in a fold or the hemline of a petticoat. If the girl nods twice, we giggle and sway like trees in monsoon until Ma’am cranes her neck from her place shoo-shooing us.

We girls pat ourselves—we can read minds.

We tuck our lips in. Go back to attending to the uniformity of the stitches.

Presently, our curiosities rise when Dallapuri winks. And we catch the slipping sun etch a blush on Azma’s face.

Azma pulls the paper out and fashions it into an origami bird which she holds by its belly to imitate a flight on giant wings.

How we girls want to fly! How we stow away dreams in our heads, readily embark on flights of fantasy.

Rashid asked me to elope seven times. Said he’d abduct me the next time he was here if I didn’t agree. We could set up home with dusk-colored curtains, and windowsill plants in Mumbai, where he worked a mason’s help. What’d be the color of my wedding sharara?

No more paper balls acquire plumes.

When the hour gets over, we ignore Dallapuri and crowd around Azma, letting our eyes do the talking.

‘Muku’s left her cage again and I’m afraid, she’ll marry Kalua’s ugly partridge.’

There is a collective gasp before she continues,

‘All that’s left are her parrot-green feathers from her struggle with the cage. What color will their nestlings be?’

She blushes again—faint rust.

We don’t wait to answer her, for we’d miss the boat taking us back to our homes in the riverine delta.

Picking up our rickety bicycles fallen in a heap by the roadside, and fussing over the knots of our dupattas, we pedal hard so we can make a dash to the jetty.

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Mandira Pattnaik’s work has appeared or is shortly due in Watershed Review, Splonk, Citron Review, Gasher, Heavy Feather, Lunate, Spelk, FlashFlood, Night&Sparrow and Star 82, among others. She was recently shortlisted at NFFD NZ 2020 and RetreatWest Microfiction Contest. Her tweets are @MandiraPattnaik Email: mandira.pattnaik[at]hotmail.com

Prayers

Flash
Nora Nadjarian


Photo Credit: Long Thiên/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For this food, we thank you. My mother leans forward praying with all her heart for the food we were about to receive, her hands in prayer, my father watching us, or praying too, watching over us, that’s what my father does. He watches over us.

For what we are about to receive. My husband is in the picture and I can’t remember who took this photo. Maybe God, maybe God takes pictures of everyone who is in prayer, the rapture—is that what they call it? I remember I’d been crying in church. In church, I cried for Mary Magdalene.

This family, this family. For what we are about to receive, for these full plates and empty minds and heavy hearts, dear Lord, for what we have done and not done, for what my husband knows and doesn’t know. I can’t remember what I’m grateful for. I’m clenching my face to make myself be grateful for something, for anything.

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Nora Nadjarian is an award-winning poet and writer from Cyprus. She has had poetry and short fiction published internationally. Her work was included in various anthologies, among others, in Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey Archive Press), Being Human (Bloodaxe Books) and Europa 28 (Comma Press). Her latest book is the collection of short stories Selfie (Roman Books, 2017). Email: noranadj[at]gmail.com

Down the Hallway

Flash
Mike Dillon


Photo Credit: Miss Lazy/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In America, it’s a dolorous sax down a dingy hotel corridor blown by an indigo soul.

Here, in northern Italy, it’s a soprano’s sweet voice trying to follow the slow, minor-key notes of a piano.

You lie on your sleeping bag on top of a dirty bed in an old hotel. You’re in the middle of your backpacking year through Europe after working a night janitor’s job at a posh athletic club in Seattle.

You lived like a monk and saved $6,000—a lot of money in 1975. Europe was cheap then.

And so you lie there watching the white scarves of your breath in a room without heat while the distant snow mountains out the window vanish in the deepening dusk.

She sounds young—talented but unfledged. Sometimes she falters as she negotiates the haunting pathways of a Schubert lieder:

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz.

“The night is quiet, the streets are at rest,
In this house lived my darling.”

The words belong to Heine. Your high school and college German has served you well on your journey.

Her voice shines with promise. Maybe she’s around your age, twenty-four. Sometimes, just like you in your own life, her timing can be awkward. Sometimes, when she falters, the piano breaks off like the snap of a stick in a frozen forest.

Then the chase resumes, her sweet voice clear as creek water.

You close your eyes and listen. You can almost see yourself as clearly as if your body has risen and you look down from the ceiling. That tall young man stretched out on the bed, unshaven, a little pale, listening with eyes shut, is you. These slow, cold moments feel like a remembrance out of some old novel.

She retraces familiar ground: Still ist die Nacht…

Far from home, you wonder what story you’re in.

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Mike Dillon, a retired community newspaper publisher, lives on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. A previous contributor to Toasted Cheese, he is the author of four books of poetry and three books of haiku. His most recent book, Departures, a book of poetry and prose about the forced removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor was published by Unsolicited Press in April 2019. Email: miked7003[at]gmail.com

Carla as a Redwood

Flash
Susan DeFelice


Photo Credit: Tyler Hewitt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

By the time Carla hits twenty-one, she has become a redwood in varying shades of burnt orange from her hair to her amber-tinted toenails. The wavy hair is her best feature, like twirling leaves in autumn springing out from branches. Either that or her pale hazel eyes, murky behind the thick glasses she wears. Carla’s vision is shot because even with those thick glasses she has to squint.

Carla lacks womanlike curves. Her legs thump down as she walks. There is very little light showing between them, even when she is pacing. They seem to be matted together. Her skin is covered in freckles, some distinct dots and some bled together in a patch. A tall redwood of a young woman.

It wasn’t the case when she was a dainty girl, had possibility, when her skin was creamy olive with tiny freckles fanned over it, her eyes bright and erring on the green side of hazel. She’ll show you a picture of herself dressed up at about age ten for a birthday party, glassesless and with vibrant skin. That is the only proof she was ever a different form of herself.

Carla paces the hospital hallway, driven towards reaching the other end, and when she gets to the barricaded door at one end of the vast hallway she abruptly turns around and is driven to reach the other end, with its barricaded door, searching for it through her opaque glasses. Each time she completes a hallway length could be like the first in the startled way Carla spins around when she reaches the end. When she’s finished ten laps she stops, snaps those trunk-like legs together in an armless salute and stands like a statue. Occasionally there is white foam coming out the corners of her mouth from exhaustion and dehydration.

By the time Carla hits forty-five, the walking is long over, and so is the shelter of hospitals and other types of suitable environments. In fact there are no suitable environments except the outdoors at this point. Why, Carla has depleted those types of institutions and whatnot, people explain dismissively, as though Carla pointedly exorcised all available choices and the outdoors was her natural destiny. She sits outside balled up but still has those trunk-like legs that reach her chin when she bends them, although she is smaller and her arms, wrapped around her legs, are thinner and wispy, like branches used for roasting marshmallows.

She applies fuchsia blush in small circles on her cheeks she says to protect herself, like war paint, and the skin on her face has turned into one immense reddish age spot by this time. The wild cloak of hair is more wiry and, of course, more gray than red. Carla still has the picture, faded now, of herself as the sharp-seeing olive-skinned girl in a dress at a party, although she’s forgotten how it came into her possession and who the little girl is.

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Susan DeFelice lives in Washington state and has a BA degree from Sonoma State University. Her stories have been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and Literally Stories. Email: susan.defelice[at]hotmail.com

Change Of Scene

Flash
Tim Conley


Photo Credit: Janne Räkköläinen/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The day after the news of the architect’s death, his buildings began to mourn. Naturally their shapes and dimensions did not change (though perhaps the tallest among them seemed to bow just a little) but the behaviour of those within his buildings was not just affected but gradually transformed. In his city halls, mayors and councils began to pass a series of resolutions exhorting citizens to be kind to and patient with each other. From his museums came many reports of visitors weeping and embracing each other in front of the exhibits, apparently no matter the subject. The terms of loans and agreements became more compassionate in the banks he had designed. In due course all mortgages were written off, debtors were forgiven, nobody went to jail.

I might carry on with this story if I had a mind to, but just now I am being called to join the dancing in the streets outside.

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Tim Conley’s most recent collection of short fiction is Collapsible (New Star Books, 2019). He teaches at Brock University in Canada. Email: awethorrorty[at]hotmail.com

Five Poems

Poetry
DS Maolalai


Photo Credit: Paul Downey/Flickr (CC-by)

My Grandfather

heavy the tread
like a box
with flowerpots.

his fingers
dust brown
and warm soda
bread. a man
is a knuckle. made hard
with antique.

with simple food,
with hot tea,
with sunlight,
with cigarettes.

watering a plant.
watering a plant.
watering a plant.

 

On the Apartment Balcony

faces; flashing flowerpots
from someone else’s garden. light
beaming, the river
for once blue
and not grey. people on the quays,
smoking cigarettes
or walking. enjoying the heat
in general
like cats amongst activity
which prowl about a garden
playful in their chasing
of butter-
and mayflies.

I stretch my arms southward
and slouch on the apartment
balcony. in the kitchen
chrys makes cocktails
out of gin and crushed mint
leaves.

 

Alberta

I liked it a lot.
this was Calgary,
and our rented house
took the top of a hill, lurching
on a view
which went rolling down
past mountains and downward
into the river.

all around the edges
wood hung
like the dribbles
of enormous candles. swamps
with pine needles;
rain
settling on rain.

once
I woke up at 5 a.m.,
filled a glass of water
and went to the garden
and smoke
was stalking the street
in wisps.

we were fine,
the neighbours told me,
out early
gathering apples.
the wildfires
were 200
miles off;
we were only seeing it now
because they were bad
in particular this year.

 

Smoking

3 a.m. bar
closing. mr
and dame cigarette

outside. her back
on the wall,
his hand
braced against it. cold

damp stone
such as might be found
in caves
or the quiet moisture
of subway platforms.

his head
is half dangled. hers
tilted back. elbow
cupped, very
stylish. she blows

her smoke. it mingles,
goes up.
becomes stars.

 

The Fish Tank

after two years
he pulled out the suitcase
that had been sitting at the bottom
of his wardrobe
and discovered it had only ever
been half-unpacked
when he moved in.
those old shirts went in the trash
along with most of the things
he had saved that time—

bunches of letters
and movie-ticket stubs
kept in a drawer to decay after first dates,
a secondhand radio
and some pictures bought from street vendors
and all the empty bottles
bunched beneath the sink.

the rest he threw in,
not bothering to fold things,
and found there wasn’t enough there
to completely fill it up.
he fished out some of the old letters
and threw them in on top.

then he put on his coat
and placed a note in front of the fish tank
asking his landlady
to give the fish to her daughters
or at least
to not flush them away,
left the keys on top of the fridge
and opened the door.

the room looked much as it had when he arrived,
no plaque up with his name on it,
no new paint on the walls.
the goldfish were his only addition
and a bedside locker
he had found on the street
with the door hanging loose
and repaired.

everything else
was white walls,
cheap pine,
and a stain on the toilet.

he picked up his suitcase
and the plane ticket from the stripped mattress
and was very careful to shut the door
properly behind him.

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DS Maolalai has been nominated four times for Best of the Net and three times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden (Encircle Press, 2016) and Sad Havoc Among the Birds (Turas Press, 2019) Email: diarmo90[at]live.ie

Four Poems

Poetry
Mark Hammerschick


Photo Credit: Srikanth Jandhyala/Flickr (CC-by)

In Arizona Distance Long by Wide

Moon rocks beckon
in an Arizona distance
deep with desert
long by width wide with height.

Heat
Sand
Snakes
Saguaro

Lizards leap in tangled underbrush
bright greens, yellow, crimson
flowers thorny
spikes, thistle, cutting.

Silence, complete, suffocating
dances alone as
ghosts of Navajo
hunt death’s valley.

Women weep
in caverns dark
while waters flow upward
into time’s steep ascent.

They chase shadows
of forgotten ancestors
who once roamed
these lands wide below trenches

of misery and pain,
not knowing the knowledge
of death’s refrain.
And so they weep…

 

Out of the Boardroom (Boredroom)

Looking upward through a skylight
at clouds slowly moving north
destination unknown on a summer day
late in a July afternoon.
Shadows from a whiteboard in a conference room
fingers of shadow for each phase
of past jobs lived lifelessly
among targets and profits meetings and marketing
how those charts no longer matter
and probably never did.
Goals and objectives, appraisals and reviews forgotten
when a life is lived with trousers rolled
and shirts untucked, ties a distant demise.

 

Corner Office

It is dark.
A boy shovels snow.
With each neat pile
he shovels his future
in the moonlight of this present past.

Saturday is weeding day.
First Mrs. Wilson’s garden
dodging the pesky schnauzers
then Cora Anderson’s place
under the cool Catalpa canopies.

On some nights he helps his mom
at the Lions Bar and Grill
as the general kitchen helper,
scraping, cleaning, boiling and frying
chickens for the Friday night regulars.

After fifth grade classes at St. Andrews
he scurries home to outrun
the Gaylords gang hanging out
under the El on Roscoe Street.
They don’t like the Catholic boys.

It is night.
In a small room
enclosed with books
he counts his money.
Careful, methodical piles
take shape, penny mountains,
quarter valleys and nickel canyons.

Seasons pass, winds move.
The boy scrapes pots and pans,
scrubs floors, shines silverware
at Martha Washington Hospital
as the dietary aide after high school classes.
On Sundays he’s the cook’s assistant
learning the mystery of hospital cuisine.

He is not one to complain.
He has a plan, he has a vision.
Work is work, an end to a means of approach.
Forever winning, near the goal…

Years pass, seasons come and go
like the women in that room
speaking of Michelangelo.
The boy now a man sits
enclosed in an Italian leather chair
high in the corner office
of a glass and steel tower.

So many Saturdays
and so many Sundays
early and late
in the small hours
and in the large hours
in the wide valley of youth
and now in the narrow crevice of age.

The sign on the door says
Executive Vice President.

No one knows how
the shovels of youth
can form the mountains of age,
how pulling weeds
and frying chickens
and scrubbing floors
can lead to the corner office.

The boy-man knows this
and is proud.
A life lived long,
lean, focused and charted
like some square rigger on the high seas.

So, they give him the gold watch
inscriptions and pats on the back.
What a run they say, you deserve it
they chatter, drinks raised, toasts made.

The man now sits in this yard
sipping a dry Martini
yearning to start shoveling again,
pulling weeds and frying chickens…

 

Mai Tais on the Bay

It started in the dirt
weeding the rose bush beds
for five dollars per hour
big cash for those days
lived on the Bernard
in a fractured yard
of splintered dreams
not yet imagined

it grows
it moves
it learns
it grooves

then onward and upwards
to the grill
at the minimum wage
but heated to the maximum
macs large in an oiled purgatory
of fries laced with Lazarus stench
oozed into blue aprons
impaled on tender breasts
not yet pierced
by the pernicious propensity
of ambition

it roils and rolls
into bewildered adolescence
based on black beauties
Hawaiian expansion
dazed and confused
broken on the bottle
shaved inner thighs beckon
and then
the descent
into Shantih
beyond the brutality of breath
the longing of Tantalus
so near so close
yet so far from
the warm cloak of Pompeii
where the womb one
floated into free fall
waiting

paths
move
mountains shift
rivers do what they do
it gathers itself
as it descends into steel towers
doing what needs to be done
moving up
into quantum cubes
infected with fantasy
dreams not only deferred
but only dried raisins
on that road to
Selma, Bataan, Auschwitz

In the inner
you fight to live
you pray to flee
but memory
can make you free

it grows old
moldy, moody, mottled
and then the day
when it leaves the corner office
out of the blue and into the black
certainty of Groundhog Day
another severed brain
lost in the labyrinth
of what could have been
of what was wasted
which is now
the here and now
of trousers rolled
belts slung high
and flesh fleeing itself
as it ascends
into Mai Tais on the Bay

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Mark’s poetry will be appearing in The Metaworker and Breadcrumbs Magazine. He writes fiction and poetry and has been published sporadically. He holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and a BS and MBA. He is a lifelong resident of the Chicago area and currently lives on the north shore, most of his professional career has been focused on digital strategy and online consulting as a digital architect and transformation strategist. Email: hawthorn2414[at]att.net

Rainforest In Russet by Cynthia Sharp

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Rainforest in Russet by Cynthia Sharp

“Elegant, evocative, nostalgic” are three words that come to mind after reading Cynthia Sharp’s dazzling poems from Rainforest in Russet (Silver Bow Publishing, 2018), a collection that drew me in from the first lovely lines of the title poem, “Rainforest in Russet.”

In the silence

between
breaths,

my truth rises.

I fall into the space
Where the forest

captures
light.

The poems in Sharp’s collection pay tribute to earthly delights. They are evocative vignettes of emotion, steeped in longing, a nostalgia or a gratefulness for something or someone. Gratitude is a word I have heard a lot of lately. I have thought a lot about its meaning and for me, how evoking its presence brings comfort in uncertain times.

Gratitude

The shades of orange
in the petals of a daisy,
the scent of sea in summer,
the beach on a Tuesday evening,
sunlight and slower days,
the way it’s possible
to love again,
a groundedness in home,
like the stars there every night,
waiting on the moon.

Nostalgia is another theme that shimmers below the surface. I caught a glimpse of it in an autobiographical poem called “A Tribute to Orange” where Sharp uses tints and shades of color to paint a picture of her past.

the glow of the neighbor’s porch light
Through rain
Amber warmth reflected in puddles
Like Paris café candles in the night.

The first colour I see
Mixed with violet
When I close my eyes.

I loved the way she ended this poem and yes, I closed my eyes.

Many of the poems have this dream-like quality that create a sense of finding joy, peace in the moment such as in the poem, “The Sojourner’s Way,” which reminds me of my late afternoon wooded walks with my dog, Skye, where my problems start to shrink with each joyful step and I return to myself.

In the haven of silence
I no longer carry
everyone’s blind spots
put some of it down
let nirvana return.

My fallen tree uprooted no more
thunder, rain, time
cherry petals in a sea of blue
the swoosh of a sand stream
emptied of unwanted current
gentle mist beyond

slow journeys
the softness of wind in birch leaves
heart of green   earth   breathing
these afternoons before I go to the forest

only a tiny fraction makes it to the light
but that fraction embodies all.

Indeed, Sharp’s poems also capture the idea of the connection of the human spirit to nature. A communion. Nature abounds in all the poems, particularly in the changing of seasons.

This collection seeped into my soul. My typical routine when reading a collection is to go slowly, reading each poem with careful thought with my morning coffee, and then think about them through the course of my day, pondering meaning and finding truth. Living in a pandemic changed my world in unexpected ways; I found solace in Sharp’s collection. My daily walks tripled, and I began taking a closer look at the beauty in my backyard forest. I watch the trees, looking for signs of renewal—of Spring as l wish for summer winds to blow away the pandemic and its accompanying chilly spring. I daydream of June.

amid quiet full trees

waking up in June with sunlight and time
the invisible rise up
the way the tips of the dogwood touch clouds
and luminosity returns
waiting on the birth

Halfway through Rainforest in Russet, I noted a shift in Sharp’s poems. A new landscape and subject. The words were still evocative and natural but there was something else more personal. Poignant.

The Summer We Never Had” and this excerpt from “the Bohemian” speak of time and a place and lost love.

along the way,
as I lost myself
into late autumn evenings,
a lonely barge along the night river,
still seeking you
as red leaves fell softly
into dark water.

My heart pinched when I read this part of “Somnambulant Web” in its very visual graphic layout on the page.

I hold on
Because deep down,
I know,
There was only you.

This next poem was my favorite and even though I’ve never heard of its title, I understood…

Selenophilia

Reflecting back
to long lost loves and youth,
days of working in restaurants
in fast-paced east coast cities
and falling in love
under stars and fireflies at night,
I surrender my sorrow
to the cherry petals,
fluttering on the wind
like a thousand tiny butterflies
lingering in the light.

Rainforest in Russet is a gorgeous collection that is a perfect read for today’s new world. Its evocative scenery takes the reader on a wooded walk within its pages and is a nostalgic time-travel to a different earth. It belongs on every teacher’s shelf. Cynthia Sharp’s collection casts a dreamy, dazzling light that beguiles the senses and the spirit.

*

Cynthia Sharp was the city of Richmond’s 2019 Writer in Residence, where she taught poetry, flash fiction, and screenwriting. She is a full member of The League of Canadian Poets, The Writers Union of Canada. Sharp served two years as a regional director for The Federation of British Columbia Writers and a 2020 judge for the Pandora’s Collective International Poetry Contest. She is the founder and main instructor for The Zen of Poetry, a Zen workshop writing series for individuals and groups. Cynthia is featured at numerous literary events throughout North America. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Toasted Cheese, Nature Poems, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, My Word Wizard, and Piker Press. She has been recognized globally, nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. Email: inthelightwt[at]gmail.com

The Zen of PoetryCynthia Sharp Poet’s Corner
Cynthia’s Goodreads Author Page | Cynthia’s Amazon Author Page

Readings from Rainforest In Russet

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Photo credit: atmtx/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“When are you going to tell him that you don’t like magic?” Dot questioned as she flipped through the channels. Dot sat, as always, cross-legged on her beloved ottoman.

“I am not sure that is something he ever needs to know.” Maggie and Sam were a new item. Maggie had fallen in love (well, strong like) with Sam for his hangdog expression and, in part, the sheer geekiness of his embrace of legerdemain. She loved rescues, just not the animal variety.

“Why is he in small town Easton if he is trying to get his career going?”

“He is honing his craft.” Maggie replied as she sank into the sofa opposite Dot.

“He is honing something.” Maggie threw a pillow at Dot and dug into the kettle corn that Dot had brought back from the Farmer’s Market.

Maggie and Dot had been roommates for long enough to have been through a few Mr. Rights for both. They were waiting tables in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in town. Maggie was taking classes at Chesapeake College for the time being. Sam had joined the circle when he came on as a cook at the Kitchen Table. After watching the news recap, Maggie and Dot got ready for work.

On the way in for the dinner shift, the three wandered into the Gallerie de Folie, one of Easton’s ritzier boutiques. They giggled as Sam re-arranged what appeared to be ceramic Lego people. “Which hand is it under?” he said in traditional magician patter.

The salesperson was not amused. “Kindly do not touch the objets d’art,” she commanded. The three philistines left the store duly chastened, almost not laughing at all as they headed to the Kitchen Table.

“Did you see the price on those? One hundred dollars each! Insane!” Dot remarked.

Colleen had started the Kitchen Table as an homage to home cooking. Easton was a small town full of retired people who love to eat out. It was a good place to launch a business, but could be risky in the long term. The Kitchen Table was a little kitschy—avocado refrigerator laden with magnets and children’s art near the entrance, waitresses in robes and moccasin slippers. Her concept might have sold better with a slightly younger demographic but things were coming along. Thursday nights were meatloaf night—a popular night. Her staff rolled in at 3:30 and started their prep work.

As they worked, Maggie and Sam grinned at each other over the counter separating the actual kitchen from the front of the house. Colleen and Dot rolled their eyes at each other. Colleen went over the specials based on what she had found at the Farmer’s Market that day.

Around 4:30, people started shuffling in. And then more and more. Soon they were in the weeds and the side conversations stopped.

Maggie enjoyed working with most of the customers. She figured the small talk and smiles were good practice for her future as a nurse. Having a fun group to work with made it that much better. A busy night did not just mean extra money; it meant the time rolled by faster.

As the evening wound down, Officer Smith strode into the restaurant. Dot looked up as the door swung open. “Officer Wiggum. How are you today?” Officers were given complimentary coffee to encourage their presence.

“Is that a comment about my superior physique,” Officer Smith said, patting his slight paunch ,”or my superior intellect?” Middle age was starting to soften the edges of Officer Smith, and as tough as it could be on his vanity, he found he liked himself a little better as a person for it. He walked in and helped himself to a cup of coffee at the counter. He chuckled as he added milk from the full gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He smiled at “You guys do really capture the kitchen table experience.”

“We aim to please,” called Colleen from the kitchen.

“What’s new in the law and order business?” Maggie asked.

“Actually, we have a case,” Smith announced.

“In Easton?” said Maggie and Dot in unison.

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

“No way,” Sam said, walking out of the kitchen to get himself a coffee.

Three people had reported their wallets stolen this afternoon. Sam made an exaggerated reach for his back pocket. “I still have my wallet but all my money seems to be gone,” he said brandishing the empty wallet with mock horror.

“You didn’t have anything there to start with,” retorted Maggie.

“Oh, right,” said Sam as he retired to the kitchen.

“Pickpocketing seems to fit with your skill set, Mr. Magic,” said Dot archly.

“Sure, blame the new guy,” he shot back.

“You are stealing too much of my roommate’s time,” complained Dot. “That alone makes you a thief.”

The conversation took a turn toward other pressing Easton gossip as they cleaned up and closed up for the night. Their laughter echoed on the empty street as they headed home. All talk of the robberies was forgotten. The magic of a quiet, small town night was restored.

“Check it out,” Maggie announced the next day as she was entering the apartment with a copy of The Star Democrat. “There has been another robbery. One of the objets d’art from Gallerie de Folie. I don’t know if I feel safe living in Easton any more. I mean, the crime.”

“Like you have anything to steal. Wait, you mean the shop we were in yesterday?” Dot scrutinized Maggie’s face. Maggie could feel herself blushing. She knew exactly what Dot was thinking: Sam. But there was no way that awkward, bumbling man-child was a stone-cold criminal. No way. She rolled her eyes and went back to her homework.

Later in the restaurant, Colleen broached the subject awkwardly with Maggie after Maggie could have sworn she saw a glance fly between Colleen and Dot. “So, how much do you know about Sam?”

“We’re not getting married yet,” Maggie shot back a little more aggressively than necessary. She looked at Colleen’s worried eyes peering out under salt and pepper bangs. The concerned scrutiny made her squirm guiltily. How much did she know? But then, how much did she really know about Colleen or Dot or even herself? Maggie’s thoughts ran in philosophical rivulets, allowing her to evade the question at hand momentarily.

“Did you know that Sam is not even his real name?” Colleen’s question yanked Maggie back into the practical, concrete present.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is not his first nor middle name. It is not even a version of his last name—McGill.”

“How odd,” said Dot entering from the kitchen and staring pointedly at Maggie. Maggie kept rolling silverware in napkins.

Since Sam was not working that night, and the restaurant was slow, the thought was able to fester and send noxious tentacles into Maggie’s thoughts. Her mind developed labyrinthine plots that alternately indicted and exonerated him.

Sam showed up to walk Maggie home. Dot had left early since it was a slow night.

Why do you go by Sam?” Maggie asked hoping to sound casual, as if she had not spent the last four hours trying to decide how to ask.

Sam blushed. “Well, I adopted it as a kid because I thought I should have a stage name.”

“Why Sam?”

Sam hesitated. “It is so geeky. I thought I was being clever. It stands for the Society of American Magicians.”

Maggie’s laughter rang out against the brick walls. Her relief made her want to applaud as if he had just pulled off a masterful sleight of hand. Then she felt ashamed at the thought of the wasted anger and fear of the past few hours spent inventing reasons simultaneously to fear Sam and to be angry at him. All was right in her little world.

The following Wednesday was Sam’s stage debut at the Avalon Theater. Maggie sat next to Dot in the small theater, and the newly minted girlfriend was possibly more nervous than the performer. With her eyes, she followed the art deco design up the wall along the stage and over the stage and down the other side. Circle, triangle, flower… how do people generate these random designs? Do I even like these colors together? How did they pick the colors? What if he is awful? Should I be honest? I really don’t even like magic, and I am picky about comedy. Her thoughts fluttered around like leaves, unable to cluster and form a critical mass needed to start a conversation.

Mercifully, Dot excused herself to go to the restroom. Maggie could just sit and let her mind spin for a few minutes. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her. A classmate called and waved from the balcony, and Maggie managed a wave and smile. When would this show start? When would it end? Dot made her way back across the room. Maggie could see her wiggling her way through the conversations straddled across the aisles. Then Dot was back, and the house lights were going down.

Sam tripped onto the stage. Literally. That was part of his thing. Every ounce of his awkwardness was poured into his stage persona. Tricks went horribly awry to emerge as a different, still awesome, trick. And there was a collective holding of the breath as the audience decided. Maggie could not hear his spiel. She could only feel the room deciding. She almost held her breath. There were a few awkward, pity laughs. And then suddenly, magically, roars of laughter and the occasional gasp and round of applause. They had decided. They liked him. And she could relax and enjoy the show.

Maggie and Dot had planned to meet Sam at the bar next door after the performance. Maggie watched Sam work through the crowd over to them. He shook hands with people congratulating him on his show, remarking on some random detail they had in common, and asking fruitlessly how he performed this or that trick. He grinned at her. She grinned back and raised her wine glass.

Meanwhile, near the bar there was a disturbance. A woman was yelling ,”I know I had my wallet. Somebody here stole it! You need to check them.”

“Ma’am, I can’t search everybody at the bar,” the police officer was calmly explaining. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at home accidentally?”

“I think that is our cue to leave,” Sam said, arriving at Maggie’s side.

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

The three headed out the back door into the relative quiet of the night time street. Maggie enjoyed that hush, that release of pressure on the ears that always accompanies leaving a crowded bar. She was not really a crowd person and was glad her compatriots had been ready to leave. But later in her bed she wondered—had Sam had an ulterior motive for wanting to leave?

A few days later, Maggie got back to her apartment from jogging to see an officer on her stoop. “We are asking you to come down to the station; we have a few questions.”

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

Maggie grabbed her purse and followed the officer. She answered the questions that seemed to be about everybody from the restaurant. She giggled a little at the thought of grandmotherly Colleen pickpocketing the well-heeled gentry of Easton. The officer did not seem amused. It just seemed so absurd that anybody in her circle could be involved in the recent spate of robberies — Sam’s skill for sleight of hand notwithstanding. But they kept circling around to questions about Sam. And Maggie couldn’t help feeling that they knew something that they were not telling her. If he was a risk, shouldn’t they tell her?

On the way out, Maggie saw them escorting Sam in. He gave her a sheepish shrug. She spent the ride home deconstructing that shrug. Does he know something? Was he admitting guilt? Did he just assume as Maggie did that the whole thing was misguided?

Maggie went home and showered and sat glumly at the kitchen table trying to study. Dot came in and slumped across from her. “So, they questioned you, too?” She asked.

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

“Small towns are magical, aren’t they?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing. I kind of like it. Finally, something interesting is happening here. Maybe thanks to your boyfriend.” Dot flounced off to the shower.

Maggie sat drowning in confusion and terror. Sam texted her and she ignored it. What am I supposed to think? She asked herself. She tried to convince herself to study and stared unproductively at her text books. For an hour. Then another hour.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. Maggie answered it to find a sea of police officers.

Confused, Maggie assumed they were there for Sam. “I swear he did not do anything. And he is not even here.”

“We know. It’s Dot.” They were already swarming past Maggie ,”Dorothy Detrich, you have the right to remain silent.” Maggie watched feeling underwater as officers flooded her apartment.

“We had you all under surveillance from early on,” explained Officer Smith, the one friendly face in the swarm. “And we really thought it was Sam, but then a review of some of the surveillance tape showed that Sam was not even at the Farmer’s Market on one of the days with the most thefts. Luckily the tape surfaced because he did not have an alibi. You were in class. We checked with your professors.”

“How…” Maggie’s jaw yanked on its hinges as she watched the officers pull the stolen items out of the ottoman, the very ottoman Dot sat on daily. Maggie consciously closed her mouth and stared in amazement asking silently how her roommate had done it, seemingly right in front of her.

“Ta da,” announced Dot, taking an awkward bow as they led her away in handcuffs. “It’s magic!” And Maggie’s mind went through all the times her mind had attributed guilty motives to Sam when Dot had done or said the same things. Sometimes it was Dot herself misdirecting like any good magician. What a trick.

Maggie’s phone lit up with another text from Sam: Why aren’t you answering? Are you okay?

“Hard to say,” she thought as she watched her roommate leave in cuffs.

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Jennifer is a teacher, mother and wife who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she arrived by way of New Jersey,  France, Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana. She has been published once before in Toasted Cheese.  Email: jpantusa[at]talbotschools.org

Fetch the Tuna

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jason Porterfield


Photo credit: petrr/Flickr (CC-by)

Gordon Charles always tried to make an immediate impression whenever he stepped out in front of an audience. It mattered to him if there was a crowd, and it mattered to him that their eyes turned to him.

He dressed for the attention. A purple cape spilled from his shoulders to nearly brush the floor. His suit was the bright orange of a roasted butternut squash and clashed gloriously with the scarlet fedora that crowned his stringy dark hair. Tiny bells concealed in the cape jingled as he swooshed in and assumed center stage.

Today’s stage happened to arrive at Belmont, southbound for Fullerton and onward through Chicago’s Loop, to Chinatown and Hyde Park before terminating at 95th Street. Not that he would go that far on the Red Line. He usually got off after the train left the Loop, sometimes at Roosevelt, sometimes at Chinatown. Every now and then he would go all the way to 35th Street to catch the crowds going to White Sox games. He called the run his Mobile Baseball All-Star Magic Show.

Gordon didn’t always make it down that far. Sometimes riders were indifferent or outright hostile, jeering at his card tricks, his vanishing scarves, or at Little Gus, the fuzzy black cat who rode on his shoulder and played a key role in the show. Or riders called the police on him. Or train operators called the police on him. Or the police simply happened to be around and noticed him.

It was hard to hide while wearing an orange suit and a purple cape. If they didn’t notice the colorful attire, officers were sure to hear the bells. He became swift and agile in moving from car to car, weaving through the crush of passengers and up the stairs to the street.

He always called these brushes with law enforcement his greatest trick, announcing it to his audiences the minute he spotted law enforcement on a station platform.

“My last trick is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!” he would declare to the riders, whether they put a few dollars in the fedora and applauded or booed and threw things at him. Then through the doors, whether the main ones or one of the forbidden, between-car passageways to elude capture. Up and out. Swift and nimble. He was home-free as soon as he hit the street.

In the months he had worked this route, he had never been caught. There were some close calls, and there were times when he had to retreat from the Red Line in favor of the Brown or Purple lines on the elevated tracks. A cop almost grabbed Gus once, but the little cat ducked out of his grip. Another once blocked the stairway in front of Gordon, only to have the magician winkle under his grasping arm, the cape fluttering up into the cop’s face and causing him to lose his balance. He had sacrificed more than one of his props over time. They could be replaced and new tricks learned.

His favorite working time was four p.m. The trains weren’t yet crowded with work commuters. Instead, the riders were mostly tourists or people going to or returning from some attraction. Or they were fans going to games or leaving games. He liked the tourists best. It was easy to get children interested in his cups as he played the game out on a little folding table that he would extract from the depths of his cape. They followed the ball from one to the next, never spotting the moment he palmed it and always amazed that it wasn’t under any of them. Gus would purr on his shoulder.

He had one trick he perfected with Gus. Patience and long hours of hard work were required before they got it right, and there were still times that it didn’t work right.

He called it Fetch the Tuna. He would place Gus on the El car’s floor and call out “Fetch the tuna!” and the little cat would scamper through the car, all the way to the back. Even people who weren’t engaged in his cups or his cards would turn to watch the cat’s progress, giving the magician several seconds in which to slip wallets out of the back pockets of any standing riders near him. His subtle touch never failed him. The wallets disappeared into the folds of his cape before anyone noticed.

Gus would return from his charge through the train car to leap high into Gordon’s arms. The magician would exclaim “Good kitty!” and proceed to pull a long scarf decorated with a fish-print pattern from the cat’s ear to general applause. Even hostile audiences were typically impressed with that one. It usually functioned as the show’s finale and he would get off at the next stop. There was no point in hanging around long enough for the lucky riders to realize they had been robbed.

“It keeps you in wet food, little friend,” he would tell Gus. Gus didn’t really need Gordon to justify the trick. Gus was fine with the cat food, litter, catnip, and assorted toys that their riches brought them. “It’s just until I land myself a stage show. We’ll be under the lights, in front of a paying audience!”

Fetch the Tuna was turning out to be a lucrative trick. Gordon didn’t always have a chance to stage it due to police activity, hostile riders, or Gus’ occasional recalcitrance. If Gus refused to run, Gordon would produce a cat treat from his pocket and use that to tempt the cat into his arms. The trick could then proceed as usual, but without the pocket-picking that made it so worthwhile.

It was following one of those incidents that Gordon had his first talk with Benny Chain. He and Gus pulled off the abbreviated Fetch the Tuna, the audience applauded them he picked up a hat laden with coins and bills when a nicely dressed man standing nearby introduced himself.

Gordon was initially unnerved. Benny Chain had been one of his prospective marks. Gordon had already noted the position of Chain’s wallet (right rear pocket) shape (slender bi-fold) and speculated on its contents based on Chain’s suit (gas station card, platinum credit card, loyalty card from a yuppie grocery, ID, insurance card, and $320 in cash that would be used to tip valets, waiters and doormen). At first he panicked, wondering if Chain somehow read his thoughts and was about to pound him into a brightly colored paste. But Chain was smiling broadly and offering a broad, manicured hand to shake.

Gordon extended his own, noting the number (three) and size (huge) of the jeweled (diamond, diamond, ruby) rings on Chain’s fingers and the gold watch (Patek Philippe) on his wrist as they made contact. Chain’s hand was soft and his grip strong, that of a man who worked out in the gym and wore gloves while hitting the weights.

A card sharp, Gordon decided. A fellow tradesman whose fingers were sensitive enough to detect subtle bumps on the back of each card in a deck, distinguishing suits and values based on their pattern.

Chain introduced himself and Gordon returned the favor, while Gus took up his usual position on Gordon’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented man, Mr. Charles,” Chain said as Gordon tucked his little table, cups, and cards into his cape’s many pockets as the train pulled into Grand. The hat probably had $40 in it, he calculated as he stuffed the money in place. Not terrible for a five-stop ride without the full Fetch the Tuna. “How do you feel about getting paid for a little private performance?”

Chain had Gordon’s full attention at “paid.”

“How private?” he managed to ask calmly as he passed through the doors and into the station with Chain at his left elbow.

“It’s a very exclusive party,” Chain said, dropping his voice to a low whisper. “These are people you want to know. They can open doors for you.”

Visions of entertaining appreciative audiences who actually paid at a box office to see magic danced through Gordon’s mind. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to not have to board trains, dodge the police, and pick pockets to get by. He and Gus could shop for real, without most of their excursions to the grocery store serving as opportunities to shoplift desirable commodities such as fresh broccoli and cans of tuna. Maybe he could move out of his basement apartment, the one that his landlord had illegally rehabbed in a building that certainly wasn’t adhering to the latest dictates of the city’s building codes.

Success means different things to different people. To Gordon, it meant living a little further away from the ragged fringe of society and paying his utility bills on time.

“I like this idea, Mr. Chain.”

“Benny. You call me Benny and we’ll get along great. You call me Mr. Chain and I’ll start looking over my shoulder to see if my gramps is behind me.”

“Okay, Benny. I am very interested in your proposal. I am, as you see, a working magician. Every magician wants to be noticed. We want bigger audiences. You saw where I perform. The idea of doing magic in a place that doesn’t move really appeals to me. I would appreciate this opportunity very much.”

Chain beamed. “Magnificent!” He clapped Gordon on the back. Gus clung to the cape as the blow pushed Gordon forward. Chain handed him a business card. “Call this number tonight. You’ll receive detailed instructions. They’ll also give you a quote on a fee for your services. It will be generous. I recommend that you accept it without haggling. Remember, these people can open doors for you.”

Three days later, Gordon stepped out of a hired car and onto a sidewalk with a briefcase containing his paraphernalia. Gus rode on his shoulder, as usual. The driver glared at the cat as they got in, but didn’t say anything. Or he could have been glaring at Gordon, who was dressed exactly as he ordinarily would for one of his El performances. Half of the money for the show had already been wired to his bank account. He had already made more on this show than he often made in a year. He wouldn’t let these people down.

He was in Lincoln Park, not far from the Red Line that kept him fed. The lake was east, its harbor full of boats that cost as much as homes in other parts of the city. This street was steps from the park itself, with its lagoons, nature areas, and zoo. He wondered if this job could eventually lead to him living in a neighborhood like this, alongside doctors and lawyers and bankers.

The home he was performing in was aggressively modern, its three-story facade a ringing endorsement of natural stone and reflective, polarized glass. A man with a polo shirt emblazoned with a logo matching the one on Chain’s business card ushered him inside and through a long hallway to a room that in more formal times would have been called a ballroom. Gordon gave in to the old habit of noting exits as he walked through, his eyes taking in the edgy abstracts lining the walls and the sculptures on every surface.

A quick mental headcount told him there were more people milling about in this room than could fit comfortably in three El cars. He brought his things to what appeared to be the front, where his back would be to the French doors leading out into the backyard. A phalanx of Benny Chain’s associates were preparing food and serving drinks out there as guests drifted in and out, enjoying unfettered access to the patio.

He set up, checked his equipment, and glanced at his watch. Three minutes until showtime. Gus nuzzled his neck and he gave the little cat a treat from up his sleeve. He noted Chain’s associates ushering people into the room and the chairs lined up on the floor. Definitely more than three train cars of people. Maybe a whole Friday afternoon train’s worth of people. Gordon experienced a small flutter of nervousness that he quickly repressed with visions of not having to filch wallets and groceries.

The watch ticked down to seven p.m. Everyone was seated. The French doors closed. He was pretty sure Chain’s people were locking them. A more captive audience than usual, he mused. Chain’s people ranged around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the doors. Some were in the halls. He watched one remove a painting. Another pair hefted a bronze statue and began dragging it down the corridor toward the entryway.

The nervousness returned and congealed into dread. He had been recruited into a robbery crew.

“How’re we gonna play this, little friend?” he whispered to Gus. Gus nuzzled him again. More treats, he seemed to be saying. The best way to handle adversity was to eat more treats.

“Good thinking, most valued assistant!” Gordon told the little cat. He rang his bell and all eyes turned forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled!” he announced. His voice boomed in the massive room. “You will see things tonight that you will never see again!”

He performed with fluid grace, the cape billowing and the orange suit seeming to glow as cards flashed, cups moved and items vanished, only to reappear. Fetch the Tuna worked like never before, as Gus made a circuit of the vast space, the audience and the workers alike following the cat’s progress and giving Gordon ample time to unlatch the door behind him. They roared their approval as Gus leaped into his arms and he pulled the scarf from his assistant’s ear.

“Oooh boy, this cat has some serious fish breath!” Gordon announced. “Maybe it’s time to clear the room. What do you think?” They applauded. He took a deep breath. “This one is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!”

The lights went out.

Gordon was sprinting east to the lakefront when they came on again, Gus secured inside his cape. He didn’t hear the roar of applause, or the murmur of confusion that followed when he didn’t reappear. He didn’t see Chain’s people scramble around, looking for the vanished magician. Nor did he see the event’s host realizing that the caterers were trying to make off with millions in inscrutable art, or the cops coming in to arrest Chain and the crew.

No one remembered anything about the magician, other than the colorful clothing.

They slowed at the lake. Gordon took Gus from his pocket and the little cat assumed his usual position on the magician’s shoulder.

“Maybe we’ll try one of those improv theaters that hosts talent nights next, little friend,” he said to Gus. “It was nice to be still for a while.”

Gus nuzzled his neck and was rewarded with a treat.

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Jason Porterfield is a journalist, researcher, and writer living in Chicago. He is still looking for the ace of spades he made disappear when he was in elementary school. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com