It’s Magic!

“Pick a card, any card,” he said, and winked.

pickacardanycard

 

I went for the top card on the deck, but pulled my hand back.  That would be too easy.

“Crafty,” he said, smiling.  I shrugged.  I was twelve years old, and this was the first time I’d ever met him.  “Cousin Ed,” we called him.  He was actually my grandmother’s cousin–I wasn’t even sure what that made him to me.  I just knew he was fun, lived in Boston and spoke with an accent so thick you could hear the chowder coating each syllable, and loved to perform card tricks.

chowder

 

“C’mon, Mike,” my oldest brother said.  The entire family was gathered around the table.  It was a warm, humid evening in late July, the windows opened, the metallic hum of the cicadas and the steady, thrumming chorus of the crickets filtering in.  “Will you pick a card already?  Geez!  This isn’t exactly rocket science here.”

cricket

 

Cousin Ed laughed out loud at this and tapped on the deck.  “Listen to your brother,” he said.

I picked a card near the bottom of the deck.

“Okay, now show everyone here your card,” Ed said, “except for me, of course.”  My mother and father, brothers and sister moved in close as I showed them the card.  It was the seven of diamonds.  It’s funny–the things you remember through the years.  I have forgotten so many things–countless details that have evaporated from my conscious memory like smoke on an autumn wind.  But I remember the seven of diamonds . . .

sevendiamonds

 

Ed held out the deck, cutting it in two and shielding his eyes for effect.  “Kindly put the card back,” he said.

I did, and faster than the eye could follow, he slapped the deck back together and began to shuffle.  He shuffled like no one I had ever seen, his hands a blur, his fingers maneuvering, redirecting, reconfiguring.  We all knew we were in the presence of a master of his craft.  He made the hyper-speed shuffling look easy.

shuffling

 

This went on for over a minute.  And then, finally, Cousin Ed placed the deck, facedown, on the table and tapped the top card.

“Turn the top card over if you would, my good man,” he said.  But it wasn’t the card I had chosen.  “Darn!”  Ed said.  “Guess I must’ve tapped the deck too hard.”  “Hard” came out “hahd,” the “r” silent, the chowder sticking to the word, rich and thick like paste.

bostonaccent

 

He tapped the deck again, then turned it over, revealing the bottom card.  “Now I know that must your card,” he said.

I shook my head, and my sister snickered behind me.

“Hmm.”  Ed rubbed his chin, then fanned the deck, face-up, along the surface of the table.  He rubbed his chin harder, thinking, frowning, and then reached for the seven of diamonds.  He said nothing as he held up the card; he just smiled.  The smile said it all.

“How . . . ?” my brother said.

Ed bowed, smiled wider.  “It’s magic,” he said.

magictrick

 

Later, I had a moment with Cousin Ed alone.  I asked him, point blank–how had he done it?

He told me it was all in the sleight of hand, the art of shuffling, the showmanship and banter, and, most important of all, making the audience’s eyes follow where he wanted them to go.  “It’s not much of a trick, once you know the secret,” he admitted.  “That’s how tricks are.  It’s the not knowing that makes them magic.”

sleightofhand

 

I didn’t want to hear that, and again urged him to show me how he’d done it.

“Aw, why not?” he said.  “Not sure when I’ll be out here visiting again.  But I’m tellin’ ya, you’re gonna be disappointed . . .”

And when he was through, when the dense morning fog had rolled out to sea, replaced by the clear, bright light of day, I realized he’d been right.

The trick had lost its luster.

The magic was gone.

fog

 

*************************

There are many details authors must account for in a single novel.  Events that occur in chapter two reverberate throughout the story and affect the goings-on in chapter twenty-six.  Characters grow and evolve.  Twists and turns arise, unexpectedly, sprinkled in as if by mischievous literary elves intent on leaving their pixie footprint on every page.

elves

 

And sometimes, especially in science fiction and fantasy–but by no means limited to speculative fiction–the unexplainable happens.  Time warps occur.  A series of deja vu moments takes place for the protagonist that somehow seem connected–but to what?  And when?  And where?  Or, as the case may be, mysterious little “ghost girls” with swirling blue eyes haunt the dreams of seventh-grade boys and open portals to other, distant dimensions.

alternatedimensions

 

Much to Marc Kuslanski‘s chagrin, the endless blue void in The Eye-Dancers; the strange psychic connection the boys share with Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl”; and the extent and methods of her paranormal abilities are never explained.  They are hinted at, lived through, coped with . . . but never explained.

I debated this as I wrote the novel.  Should a coherent, logical (or perhaps even pseudo-logical) bow tie of an explanation be given?  Should the unexplainable, in fact, be explained? What would be gained if it were?  What would be lost?

There was a moment during the writing process when I thought back to old Cousin Ed and his card trick, the way I had felt, like a pin-pricked balloon, when he shared the secret with me.  And I knew the approach I needed to take.

pinprickedballoon

 

Granted, Marc, always the scientist at heart, tries to explain everything that happens, using quantum theory as the bedrock of his analysis.  But the novel never fully confirms, or refutes, his conclusions.  Perhaps some of them are correct.  And perhaps others are 100% wrong.

It is left for the reader to decide.

unansweredquestions

 

******************

After Cousin Ed returned to Boston, I was determined to learn how to shuffle like a pro so I could perform his card trick when school opened in the fall.  I spent hours that summer practicing, and on the first day back to class, I made sure to bring a deck of cards with me.

At lunch, with several students watching, I whipped out the deck, asked for someone to pick a card.  Any card.

pickacardanycardend

 

When it was over, I had achieved the desired end result.  I wasn’t nearly as skilled as Ed, but the performance was good enough to mystify and confound.  My friends asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?”

I shrugged, smiled.

“It’s magic,” I said.

And no matter how many times they asked, I never did reveal the secret.

magic!

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Hardest Words . . .

In The Eye-Dancers, each of the main characters has his issues, his hang-ups that he needs to get a handle on.  For Joe Marma, his number-one hang-up is his temper.  He is quick to throw a punch, reluctant to stop and think, and reconsider.  But at one point in the story, his impetuous nature nearly ruins everything.  It takes his friend Ryan Swinton to intervene–a very unlikely occurrence, since Joe has always been the leader, and Ryan the follower.  It’s an epiphany moment for Ryan.  He finally realizes he can make the hard decisions, confront a difficult and tense situation head-on.

But it’s also an epiphany moment for Joe.  He at last comes to see that sometimes it’s better to walk away from a fight.  He’s no angel–he never will be.  But a lesson is learned, and he realizes he’s been wrong before.  He’s lost his head.  Gotten into trouble.  He finally admits it, and resolves to do something about it.

Admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy.  “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” may be the most difficult words to say in our or any language!  They often curl up and die before ever leaving the lips.  But wouldn’t things often be better for all of us if we did say these words?  I know I have regrets. . . .

One of them occurred over twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school.  Looking at the details of the situation, it may not seem that important–it may seem trivial, in fact.  But it meant a lot.  It was a big deal to me.  And it changed the dynamic of an old friendship.  Besides, aren’t the “small” things, the “little” things, often the triggers that set off a conflict?  Maybe we have unspoken frustrations we’re feeling toward someone else.  We bury our hurts.  And then . . . something small, something that should be insignificant (a misplaced item, an errand forgotten due to a busy and stressful day . . .) sets us off, and we spew out our pent-up anger.

Joe Marma learned this difficult lesson, just in time.  I wish I could have.

What follows is a personal essay I wrote recently.  I guess I wrote it for myself.  But I’d like to share it.   And, Tony, if you ever come across this post–I hope you read it, old friend . . .

“I’m Sorry, Tony”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

Tony eyed the just-thrown card, shook his head.  “You don’t want to play that,” he said.  “Pick it up.”

Ken looked at him, puzzled.  I was, too.  What was this about?

“What do you mean?” Ken asked.  All around us, the sounds of the cafeteria buzzed—students carrying their lunch trays back to their tables, girls laughing and talking, varsity lettermen bragging about their conquests on the ball field.

“Just pick it up,” Tony said.  “Throw something lower.”

As soon as Tony said that, I knew what he must be up to.  If Ken threw a lower card, Tony might be able to nail me with the Queen of Spades, hitting me with thirteen points.  But why did he want to resort to such extreme measures?  I was the one who had taught these guys how to play Hearts a few weeks ago.  Each day, during lunch, Tony, Ken, Joe, and I played.  And now he wanted to cheat, just to dump the Queen on me?

Ken picked up his card, threw a lower one, just as Tony had said.  I guess that was to be expected.  Tony had a way about him.  It wasn’t only that he was the most muscular tenth grader in the school.  People just responded to him.  If he said to do something, usually you did it.  But this was crossing the line.  I felt the blood rush to my face.

Tony smiled at me.  Well, smirked was probably more like it.  “There you go,” he said, and laid the Queen of Spades atop the small pile of cards, face-up, on the tabletop.

I swallowed.  “No way,” I said.  How did he think he could get away with this?  And why did he do it in the first place?  We’d been friends since the third grade—he was my oldest friend in school.  I thought we liked and respected each other.  I wondered if I had been wrong about that.

Ken and Joe both sat there, probably not too worried about any of this.  Surely, Tony and I could resolve it.

“I’m not taking the thirteen points,” I said.  From the table behind us, someone told a joke, and his friends moaned at the punch line.  “I mean, c’mon, you cheated!  You told him to throw another card.  You can’t do that.  Let’s just replay the hand.”

Tony smirked again.  “We don’t need to replay any hand,” he said.  “That Queen is yours.  You’re the one who got stuck with it.”

Brilliant.  Just brilliant.  My heart rate accelerated.  It was getting more difficult to think clearly.  He couldn’t just expect me to go along with this nonsense.

I told him again I wouldn’t take the points.  It wasn’t fair.  But he would hear none of it.  When I realized he wasn’t going to budge, I decided I’d make a deal with him.

“Okay,” I said, “listen.  Why don’t you take seven points, and I take six?  I mean, you told Ken to pick up his card.  Why don’t we just split the points, then?”

Tony shook his head, and actually appeared offended at the suggestion.  “I’m not taking any points,” he said.  “That’s your Queen laying there.”  He muttered under his breath, as if to say, Stop being such a stupid jerk.

I couldn’t believe it.  How could he be getting mad at me?  He gathered up the loose cards, placed them onto the deck, then put the deck away.  We were finished, at least for today.  I noticed that Joe and Ken now looked a little troubled.  I’m sure neither of them had expected this situation to escalate.  I hadn’t, either, but why was Tony being so unreasonable?  Couldn’t he just admit that he cheated and put an end to this?

Apparently, he couldn’t.  I don’t remember the rest of that lunch period very well.  All I remember is feeling betrayed and disgusted that my friend would act this way.  Tony didn’t say anything more to me the rest of the afternoon.

The incident stuck with me, didn’t let go.  That night, as I lay in bed, I thought about what to do in the morning.  Should I go up to Tony and tell him to forget about it?  That we should just drop the matter?  No!  The more I turned it over in my mind, the angrier I became.  He had some nerve acting upset with me for telling him to split the points between us.  I had been trying to do him a favor with that idea!  And I still didn’t understand why he’d cheated in the first place.  What was his angle?  Whatever it was, he was the one who had done something wrong, not me.

Tony avoided me the next morning.  Normally, he walked down to my home room and struck up a conversation with me for a few minutes to start each day.  But he was nowhere to be seen.  Later, in class, neither of us regarded the other.  The same rage I had felt the day before rose up in me again, only this time it was even stronger.  I hadn’t expected him to act like this.  I had really thought he would apologize, or at least admit he’d cheated.  But he didn’t do anything.  He acted as though I were the one who should come clean.

By the time I sat down at lunch, next to Joe and across from Ken and Tony, my nerves were as taught as coiled springs.  I hoped Tony knew better than to break out the cards.  I didn’t want anything to do with Hearts.  Not now, not ever.  At least, not with him.  Not until he admitted that he’d cheated.

Sure enough, after we had eaten and still had a good half hour left before we had to go back to class, Tony reached into his pocket and took out the box of cards.  Then he opened it, removed the deck, and prepared to deal.

“Wanna play?”  He made it seem like he was asking everyone, but I knew he was asking me.  There was no apology, no “I was wrong.”  Apparently, there never would be.  He wanted to pretend he had never told Ken to pick up his card and throw another in its place.  He wanted yesterday’s game to count.

I knew this was the key moment.  If I said, “Okay, let’s play,” everything would be forgotten.  Except . . . that wasn’t true.  I wouldn’t forget.  And I couldn’t let him get away with this.

“No,” I said.  “Never again.”

It’s funny.  As soon as I said those words, I felt both justified and terrible.  Mine was a righteous stance.  I would no longer play cards with a cheater.  If Tony wouldn’t come right out and say he had cheated, if he wouldn’t agree to disregard yesterday’s game, why should I ever play with him again?  But at the same time, I knew I was making a mistake.  It seemed like a small thing—just a card game at lunchtime.  But it had sprouted bristles and fangs and long, sinuous veins, and turned into something much larger.  Even back then, even in the heat of the moment, I understood that.

Tony’s features hardened.  His face turned red.  I could tell he hadn’t expected me to say that.  He acted as though I had slapped him, or embarrassed him.  Maybe I had.  Any opportunity we might have had then to talk the problem out, to come to some kind of agreement, passed in an instant.  He picked up the cards, put them in the box, then back in his pocket.  I just sat there, silent, wondering what I had done, and questioning whether or not it had been worth the price.

Tony and I didn’t speak after that.  We’d pass each other in the halls without even a glance.  Oh, we still sat together at lunch with Ken and Joe, but we never talked to each other.  I would talk to Ken and Joe, and so would Tony, but I wouldn’t say a word to Tony.  Ken and Joe must have hated it.  They were caught in the middle . . . though I didn’t take that into consideration too much at the time.

After a while, I hoped Tony and I might patch things up.  But I expected him to make the first move.  Besides, this new silent treatment had begun to define our relationship.  It’s strange how something like that can seep into your bones and steel your heart.  I hated it, but felt powerless to do anything about it.

The worst moment came a few weeks later, in English class.  The teacher wanted us to pair up, and Tony sat in front of me.  He was supposed to turn around and work with me.  But he didn’t.  Everyone waited.  All the other students were paired up, but Tony remained seated, face forward, back to me.

Finally the teacher said, “Tony, what’s up?  Why aren’t you working with Mike?”

There was a pause.  Then Tony said, “Because I don’t like him.”

I wanted to fall through the floor, into the basement amidst the boilers and rusty metal pipes.  I hadn’t wanted to work with Tony, either, under the circumstances, but I was shocked he would publicize his new attitude toward me in front of the whole class.  And was it really true?  Did he actually despise me now?  It was all so weird.  We had been friends for years!  How could one card game completely overpower everything else?

But it had.

The remainder of tenth grade was trying.  I continued to eat lunch with Ken, Joe, and Tony, even after the English class fiasco.  I just wanted summer vacation to arrive so I could get out of school.  I breathed a sigh of relief when it finally did.

But the fall came too quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for my junior year to start.  I hadn’t thought about Tony much throughout the summer, but as September neared, I resolved that something had to be done.  We couldn’t just avoid each other.  And yet . . . I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go up to him and try to set things right.  I’m not sure if it was pride, fear of rejection, uncertainty about his response . . . maybe it was all three.  Maybe I was just stubborn.

Before home room, the first day of school, Tony walked up to me.  I tensed.  But then he just started talking, acting as if the last semester of our sophomore year had never happened.  Acting as if we had never argued over a stupid card game.  He didn’t come right out and apologize, and I didn’t, either.  We just picked up where we had left off before our quarrel.  Or so it seemed.

It was a great relief to have Tony back as my friend.  But it wasn’t the same.  Sure, we got along fine, but there was something unspoken between us, something that flowed beneath the surface like a toxic river.  We had buried the hatchet, it was true.  But we hadn’t dealt with the issue.  Why had he cheated?  Why had he gotten so mad when I called him out on it?  Why did I make such a big deal out of it?  We never addressed any of these questions.  And I don’t think our friendship was ever quite the same again.

I haven’t seen Tony or talked with him since we graduated from high school.

Now, more than twenty years later, I still look back on that card game with regret.  I wish I could go back in time, shake myself, and say, “Don’t take it so seriously!  It’s not worth the cost.”  Or I wish I could whisper in the ear of my sixteen-year-old self and say, “Did you ever wonder why he cheated?  Maybe you did something to get under his skin without realizing it.”  That is certainly possible.  I never thought of Tony as a cheater.  He was a good kid.  And I did sometimes mouth off back then, get a bit too full of myself.  Maybe I had made him feel stupid when I was teaching him how to play Hearts.  Maybe I had said something condescending about the way he played a hand once.  I don’t know.  I don’t remember.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if the root of the trouble began with something just like that.

More than anything, I regret my smallness, my pettiness.  I cringe when I think back to that moment when Tony had pulled out the cards and said, “Wanna play?”  In his own way, he was trying to move on, I think, to put the argument behind us.  I could have said, “Okay, but don’t tell anyone what card to throw anymore,” and I’m sure he would have responded well.

And I feel bad that, on the first day of eleventh grade, he had walked up to me.  He had made the first move.  I wish I had.

All I can do now is say, “Tony, you did cheat, and that did make me mad.  But you must have had a reason, I guess.”

And I can say, also, two decades after the fact, but better late than never, “I shouldn’t have overreacted the way I did.  I should have been able to let it go.

“I’m sorry, Tony.  I was wrong.”

*******************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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