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.


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]

Elysian Vestibule

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa

Many windows
Photo Credit: Lorianne DiSabato

Marcia yawned as she stood at her cashier post by the gift store entrance.

“How wonderful to work at such a spiritual place,” gushed a Norwegian tourist.

“Awesome,” Marcia replied, as she tried to smile to make up for the traces of sarcasm that saturated her words. It is hard to sell earnestness when you really do not aspire to earnestness.

Olga (the Norwegian tourist—yes, that was really her name) politely ignored the sarcasm. Olga was a physician and secretly pitied everybody without an advanced degree, prestigious job, and blonde hair. She masked this superiority complex with exceeding friendliness and a lovely Nordic smile.

Marcia reflected on her luck. She had been trained to avoid the hot spots. In her teen years, Marcia’s great aunt had secretly been a teleporter and had disappeared into a hot spot. The rest of the family avoided the hot spots as if they were telemarketers (the hot spots not Marcia’s family).

Yet here was Marcia working at the landmark hot spot, the granddaddy of hot spots. Some savvy developers about a generation ago had found the spot and christened it the Elysian Vestibule in the hope of creating a destination for pilgrimages and tourist visits. Pagan spirituality was very big at the time. In twenty years’ time, the site had become huge.

The vestibule itself was lovely. The plain slate floor in the center was surrounded by various shades of highly-polished rock flooring. Petrified wood benches provided seating in the pseudo-forest of potted trees that surrounded the sacred tourist destination. The roof opened up to a tall skylight in the center of the rotunda. Fountains splashed down from the walls surrounding the rotunda into small koi ponds. Birds filled the air. Marcia had to admit it was lovely. Except for all the friggin’ tourists.

The developers had added the obligatory learning piece for the intellectuals who felt the need to justify their curiosity with the excuse of cultural importance. Well-meaning parents brought their children dutifully through the exhibits about the history of teleporters in the region and the world, about the dark days of their persecution at the hands of our very own now-enlightened government, about the folk history and tales of teleporter culture, and about the now famous teleporters who had broken through those stereotypes to succeed. Meanwhile the children longed to splash in the koi ponds, feed bread crumbs to the koi (or the occasional M&M causing a koi riot—hugely entertaining—but I digress), chase the birds, and run through the sacred hot spot. Yes, the hot spot was open for all, but it was not really a problem. Due to the fact that the teleporter culture had largely been exterminated, Marcia had only ever seen one person teleport: Wayne Haguebak, resident teleporter.

The coup de grâce of the developers had been to hire a real live teleporter to consult on staff. He could answer visitor questions and, twice a day, Wayne would teleport for the entertainment, enlightenment and edification of the visitors. The developers had found a golden goose. Wayne had found a headquarters for his fan club.

Wayne had written six novels milking the pain of growing up the outsider, the teleporter, the special one, the only sensitive and literate boy in his high school. Scores of adoring middle-aged women showed up at the readings that accompanied each new release. There is nothing quite so hot as a man embracing his status as a geek. He had finally cut off the embarrassing ponytail. It is harsh to say that the novels “milked” his pain. The truth is, Marcia loved his writing. It was funny. It was specific yet universal. It showed instead of told. It made her laugh and cry. All the clichés about good writing applied.

Marcia’s writing was goopy.

This train of thought was cut off by Wayne’s greeting from the door as her boss Marion swooped in to fawn all over him. Wayne winked at Marcia and then flirted with Marion until Marcia’s stomach could take no more. It seemed that the stacks of books at the rear of the store needed dusting, urgently.

“Do you have any more copies of The Viking Vestibule?” a tall blonde man asked. Another Norwegian.

“We are sold out. But I can give you a web address,” Marcia replied, wondering at the vast popularity of this insipid publication touting a connection between the hot spots and Scandinavian culture.

Marcia went to the counter to find the information card for the customer who thanked her, commented on her good fortune to work there, and left.

Wayne sauntered in and leaned on the counter. “How’s the thesis coming?”

“Tremendous! At this rate, I will have a full paragraph by next month, ” Marcia replied, surprised and gratified in spite of herself that he remembered about her graduate program.

“You know, you are the only person I know who has not asked me about teleporting.”

“I assume you get tired of talking about it.”

“I think you just don’t like me.”

“Does it matter?”

“Do you like being disliked?”

“Why, who dislikes me?” Marcia made a big show of looking around in paranoia.

Wayne laughed and looked at his watch. “Showtime!” he announced and headed out into the rotunda.

Marcia watched through the glass doors of the gift shop as she did every day. A hush fell on the room as parents settled their children. The more spiritual in the group sat cross-legged closest to the center. Wayne touched his fingertips to his temples, stepped onto the slate, and disappeared. A murmur went through the room. Marcia wondered as she always did what it must feel like to just disappear.

A small child ran into the center of the rotunda, and his embarrassed mother pulled him back. There was a rumor that a small child had run through and disappeared in the early years of the site. As fascinated as everybody was with the teleporting, most were secretly glad not to be teleporters and avoided the absolute center on the off chance that they too would disappear. Very few teleporters managed to make money off of it as Wayne had. Most just went crazy.

Reflecting on Wayne’s work, Marcia felt he gave a very unsatisfactory account of his time beyond. It sounded so lovely—mountain-top gardens and views of fjords. Why not just go there and stay? He seemed to always come back so quickly. She was dying to ask, but she did not want to be one of them… although she did not quite know why.

Wayne had disappeared for a little longer than usual today. Marion was looking around with a forced smile. There was a certain length of time that was optimum for these shows. If he returned too quickly there was no tension. If he took too long, the tension that developed started to dissipate. Dissipation was definitely the order of the day. A few people had wandered into the gift shop and gave increasingly perfunctory glances toward the rotunda as they wandered further away.

Wayne popped into view. He looked slightly shaken, or maybe Marcia was mistaken. Wayne winked at one of the more surprised-looking women who blushed obligingly. The crowd erupted in cheers. All was right in the world. The afternoon proceeded as usual. Many purchased his book. Many obtained his signature. Many purchased bits of the “sacred” granite fashioned into jewelry or bookends or tchotchkes. Little time for Marcia to work on her reading for her thesis, the real reason she had taken this mind-numbing job.

Several hours later Marcia locked up. Marion had some pressing engagement and had again left Marcia with the keys. She headed across the rotunda to the exit, but paused when she heard a sigh. There was Wayne, sitting behind some of the greenery, his back against a tree. He held his temples, but not the way he did for his performances. It looked like he was trying to hold his head on his body. He was obviously deep in thought.

“I’m forty today,” he announced.

Marcia jumped. “Happy birthday,” she said.

“Gena is leaving me.”

Marcia looked around uncomfortably. There was a bottle of Riesling at home calling her name. And she had never liked his girlfriend Gena. Marcia felt for him, she really did, but looking at those searching puppy dog eyes, it just all seemed way too messy. She liked him a lot, they joked all the time, she enjoyed taking him down a few notches, and she liked the way things were. She did not want any deep insights into his soul. The moonlight was shining through the windows above. Marcia laughed at the irony. How many women would love to be in her shoes? And then she thought she thought how bitchy it was to be unwilling to listen just because other women would want to. She put down her backpack and headed over to sit next to him.

“Why?” Marcia asked. “Why would your girlfriend want to leave you?”

“She thinks I am a pretentious has-been who flirts too much.”

“Are you?” Marcia snapped back. “Sorry, I am not good at the sympathetic ear thing.”

Wayne laughed. “Actually, I realized today that she is right. I worry more about my ego than I do about anything or anyone else.”

“Wow, that must have been some trip to the fjords today.”

Wayne looked at Marcia oddly. “Fjords?”

“You know.” Marcia gestured to the circle.

“Have you ever tried?” Wayne asked.

Marcia realized that she wanted more than anything to know. She wanted to see the fjords. She stepped into the circle. The rotunda vanished. There was no mountain-top garden. There were no fjords. She was surrounded by mirrors, mirrors that looked into her mind and soul. She saw in those mirrors all the times she had spent joking with Wayne. She shifted uncomfortably as she realized how she felt about him. She had to tell him. She took a step back and the rotunda reappeared.

Marcia was just in time to hear Wayne saying, “I am so sorry” to Gena as they embraced.


Email: jpantusa[at]