Going Past the Magic
What is reality? Is the disintegration of my teddy bear from a laundry mishap the same realness as the death of an unmet grandfather? I know my tears at the loss of the favorite companion are real, but I don’t know what to feel for the absent grandfather. And is the silent uncle who gives me my favorite dolls and dollhouses as sinister as my parents believe? All I know is that my father and he exchanged blows and stopped being brothers. Is Poor Willie, the town recluse in his ancient windowless car, really poor, or does he just prefer to eat lettuce from the grocery dumpster?
In the beginning of one’s life, there is an absence of truth, because there is an absence of reality. I don’t know what is possible, or what is improbable. I’m a child. Such unknowing makes a fertile setting for magic. Or it can breed the monster under the bed. And that is why a day is a year to a child.
During my play with stiff cardboard paper dolls, names printed on their bases, my hairdresser mother gives a townswoman a permanent. It’s what mother does, and I assume, wrongly, that she enjoys doing it. Suddenly, I hear “Help! Help!” coming from somewhere down the street. Mother and her customer appear to be deaf to the urgent call. I step onto the front landing and hear the plea again. I jump onto my pale green Schwinn with red stripes and orchid accents and race toward the sound. I will, I decide, go watch the lady with the opera voice get rescued (for rescue is the only scenario I can imagine). My bike, Betsy, is full-sized, while I am tiny. I have to stand on the pedals to pump her. I’ve already forgotten the painful early lessons from the days before I knew how to ride the bike, when I would brake and fall against the handlebars. I speed toward the demanding cries, past the house with the talking crow. Past the house of the boy who wears skirts with more flounces than I have ever worn. Past the welded gate comprised of iron tools. These have become normal things, while someone in distress is not normal.
The cry is steadily insistent. And, so I discover that peacocks sound like distressed humans. I learn some cries for help are deceiving. Peacocks will cry “Help!” in full voices, without a sign of trouble to be found anywhere near them.
In the shadows of a large wire cage, a quivering fanned tail seems to carry its owner back and forth. The tail has eyes, a choir-full of mysterious eyes, and the feathers on the bird’s body glimmer like gasoline. The fowl seems an impractical bird, but is more entrancing than anything I have ever seen.
The peacock’s owner, an elderly woman, steps out onto her back steps. I panic, thinking she will suspect I had made the bird scream. I scramble to get to my bike. My bare legs thrash and tear through a bramble patch of un-pruned roses. Scarlet stripes soon mark my legs as I speed away. But, even as I pump with all my might, I know I will return.
I spend much of the remainder of the summer hidden in a clump of bamboo near the birds’ cage, watching for safe moments to advance nearer to them. There are two birds, one a showy male, the other a shy hen. I have my heart set on obtaining one of the eye-embellished, iridescent feathers, which are seen discarded on the ground in the cage. It never occurs to me that Mother could simply ask the woman for a feather; I don’t know Mother knows the birds’ owner. I believe I am invisible in a town that practically knows my every step.
Sometimes, as I wait and plot the theft of a feather, a pedestrian walks past the bamboo thicket without ever noticing me. Once or twice, a couple of people walk by engaged in conversation. I find it intriguing to hear people talk when they don’t know I am nearby. It is different from when people talk in front of you as if you weren’t there. Sitting in the bamboo is how I hear something not meant to be heard.
“The box is stuffed with the dead, but no one will notice.” All I see of the voice’s owner is brown pants and brown wing-tip shoes (I don’t know they are called wing-tips, I only know they are fancy men’s shoes).
My heart races. The word “dead” is terrifying to me. I don’t fully understand it, even though the mother of a boy I was enchanted with last year died a few months ago. Death scares me so much that I can’t even talk to him anymore.
When the man says “dead,” I know I have to rush home and tell my parents what he said. I struggle to commit his statement to memory. But just as I climb out of the thicket after the man and his companion turn at the corner, I notice some children playing with a rubber tire swing hanging from an exceptionally long rope. My curiosity won’t let me miss an opportunity to sit in the tire and have these kids twist it around a hundred times. The effect is that I spin three hundred times at such rapid speed that when I step off the swing I can’t walk a straight line, or pedal a straight trail, and someone has to walk me and my bike home, where I throw up and go to bed for the rest of the day.
That night I try to remember what the voice had said. And I try to think who it might have been. The next morning while eating breakfast in bed (because I am still nauseous), I tell my mother I heard a man say he had put a dead man in a box. She asks me where I had been when I heard this. I tell her I was sitting in the bamboo by the house with the big birds.
“By Mrs. Hanover’s,” she says. Adults seem to feel it’s important to know other people’s names. I see Mom is concerned about the news I’ve delivered. I can tell that her head is working on the meaning of my words. I can almost hear her head cranking.
At noon, Dad comes home, probably summoned by Mother, and asks me to recall exactly what I had heard. I tell him the man said he had put a dead man in a box. Dad asks me if I am sure he had said “dead MAN,” or could it have been a woman or a baby? I decide that what I heard could have referred to any dead person. “Did he say dead HUMAN?” my father asks. No, not exactly in those words, I say, but I am sure, I tell my father, that the man didn’t mean dead cat, or dead dog, or dead horse. He had most certainly meant a person. In fact, I recall he had referred to many dead people. Then, I remember it was something like bodies of the dead.
“Dead stuffed in boxes,” I say in triumph. That’s what the voice had said.
Dad, a serious man and always concerned with determining exact truth, calls the police who come and write down what I tell them. They question me like Dad had done, until my statement is quite exact. It was, I am sure, one box stuffed with several dead bodies. Dad steps out onto the landing and talks in a low voice with the officers, who nod their heads, and then wave farewell.
Dad loses his campaign for mayor. But he seems sure he shouldn’t have lost, and he officially contests the results. I accompany him to the recount at the city hall. Lost in elbows and belts and butts, I hardly see what is going on and I don’t really know what it all means.
Later Dad explains to me what has happened. In checking the ballots, it was discovered that 30 deceased people had cast their votes for Dad’s opponent. Still, Dad didn’t have enough votes to carry the election. He emphatically decides not to run again. He says he has come to realize that politicians are too much like snakes. I guess he is afraid Mom will be less attached to him if he were to become mayor because she is terrified of snakes.
I sit on the landing that night and watch two teenagers walk by. Fireflies flit across their path. They never once grab at one or even acknowledge that the magical lights dance before them. I realize the magic is draining from me. I half expect a puddle at my feet, but I guess magic is not liquid. It’s more like sparkling dust.
I develop an uneasiness around the mayor, who attends our church and wears brown shoes just like the ones I saw outside the bamboo.
The years fall forward like dominoes in a line. The reality of that year is stark because of things that happened later. The relative on the unicycle married, and later went to prison for shooting his wife in the back. The silent uncle jack-knifed his 18-wheeler and my grandmother hired a photographer to take photographs of his funeral, which none of us wanted to see. She probably was driven to take them because my father, estranged from his brother, refused to attend the funeral, and she wanted us to see how lovely it was. Poor Willie, the dumpster scavenger, died and left behind a great sum of money found hidden in his drafty shack. Unsuspecting nephews reaped the rewards of Willie’s lack of culinary scruples.
The mayor’s wife left him, his grown daughters abandoned him, and townswomen learned to give him a wide berth, or risk his undesirable attentions.
I grew up. Endings are never perfect like in some old movies, because reality keeps going right on past the magic, just like children growing up in a magical world that always turns real. At least, there can be magic in memories. I still have the peacock’s shimmering feather.