“The Magnificent” by Michael Tager

Issue 12 / Winter 2018

 

There was a hole where Magnifico’s rosebushes had been. He contemplated the void, a large gold coin dancing between the knuckles of his left hand. With his right hand, he removed a rock from heavy, scented paper lying on discarded thorns. The handwriting was lilting cursive.

He pocketed the coin, whistled at the beautiful curves of the Y. “If you wish to see your roses again,” he read.

He mumbled into his white beard and wished, just for a moment, for a cold glass of gin.     He balled his fists until the craving drained, then returned to his wife where she hovered in the doorway to their suburban home, twisting the sleeves of her blue nightgown.

“They left a note.” Magnifico held her blue-veined wrists.

Annalise’s hands twitched as if to seize her nightgown, before settling on his heavily starched sleeve. She batted the proffered note. “We don’t need this, not after that woman called again, raving on and on about Magnus. She didn’t care about my roses.” With one long fingernail she pointed to the churned earth where the blue ribbon flowers had been only last night.

Magnifico brushed past his wife, careful not to jostle her. She was quick-tempered when aroused. He ambled through his quiet home to the kitchen, filled a glass with cool water and pretended it was gin. Annalise joined him. A radio chattered about the Jets and Magnifico listened while Annalise made coffee.

After he finished the water and the coffee, he said, “I investigate, nu?

Outside, Magnifico’s skin puckered as he walked through his freshly-mowed lawn. His doctor demanded he mow for exercise, walk regularly, and weightlift before the television. His energy was packed with his youth, in boxes stowed in his study, filled with props stowed.

Magnifico still had his height, his beard, but was he trim? Strong? When he looked at his youngest, at Magnus, he saw himself: broad shoulders, long eyelashes, even the yellow eyes, layer of fat.

When last they’d spoken, Magnus had sworn sobriety. Magnifico’s chin dropped to his chest as he surveyed his quiet street, remembering when he’d sword the same.

“Magnifico.” Annalise had sung in choirs for decades and her lungs still possessed that exuberance, joy in dancing, shrieks for toilet seats left up, the anti-Semites around every corner.     Now, Magnifico turned at her call. “Your breakfast. For strength.” She placed a sandwich in his hand, eggs and bread with nearly-burnt sausage. He smiled, even while Annalise thrust a handful of tiny pills at him. “Your pills also, you old fool. You will not fall over without finding my roses.” She wore the black bathrobe he bought for her birthday, the one she said was too big.

He ate quickly, finishing with a weak ta-da. She said, “You will find my roses or you will sleep on the couch with the cat.”

After the door slammed, he watched desolate remainders of roses poking from the churned dirt. Yes, they had won at the state fair three years running, but why would someone take them? They were worth more for sentiment: Annalise had planted them with Magnus.

His gaze rose to the cul-de-sac. There were nearly identical houses on either side of their white home. He had no contact with the houses to his left, the Muellers and the Jacksons – the anti-Semites, Annalise said. But they kept to themselves and had no interest in the old yids. Unlike the closest house on the right, his favorite neighbors, the fagalas. Recent arrivals, they spent hours landscaping rock gardens, flowerbeds, hedges. They’d helped root out the gutters the past autumn when his arthritis flared. Perhaps they could help; perhaps they’d seen something; perhaps (it was unlikely, but perhaps) they’d stolen the roses.

He admired the beautiful note again. The script reminded him of his mother’s gorgeous handwriting. She’d taught him to write using quill, tracing letters and characters, her hand over his, her breath smelling of garlic and cheap tobacco. Sometimes at night, he’d fry garlic in a pan and light one cigarette, leaving it in an ashtray until it burnt to the tip.

A heavy trail of dirt and matted grass led into his backyard. Instead, he crossed to John Buckner’s blue door and knocked.

John Buckner was tall and strong, with a well-trimmed black beard. He favored checkered flannels and jeans – dressed like a man should – though he answered the door in black sweatpants. Buckner was covered in sweat, but not in dirt or rose petals. Buckner’s eyes blinked, curious, wholly relaxed.

“Can I help you?” Buckner asked in his pleasantly deep voice.

“You did not steal my roses, did you?” Magnifico glanced into the clean foyer, saw nothing suspicious.

Buckner peered over his head. “What are you, oh shit, your roses are gone,” he said. “Do you know where they went?”

“If I did know, would I be here, boy? Maybe I should talk to your little boyfriend. He is the smart one.” Ignoring Buckner’s look of irritation, Magnifico grunted.

Buckner wiped sweat from his brow and said, “It’s kind of early, Mr. Seifert.”

Magnifico snorted and pointed at his house, at Annalise peering from a window. My wife has forbidden me from returning until I recover the roses. Have you heard of such things?”

“I guess I haven’t.”

Magnifico smiled and his hand delved, then emerged from his pocket with his gold coin. The coin danced along his knuckles and caught Buckner’s eye, enough for Magnifico to nudge the door open until he was inside, next to the nice fagala and asking for coffee, which the boy should have offered anyway, seeing as Magnifico was an elder.

“Come on in, I guess,” Buckner said.

The coffee was better than at home. Annalise bought wisely, not for extra taste. She was not cheap, no, but thrifty. Her pension and their combined Social Security were enough to live comfortably, but they had little savings. Every month it seemed, that woman phoned from Baltimore asking for help with rent or braces for the youngest grandchild.

Just this morning at dawn, before the discovery of the roses, she’d called again, wailing about Magnus; he had not heard the whole conversation. He did not want to think about it. Blaming and recriminations and endless accusations. He’d heard enough.

John Buckner’s foot now tapped against beautiful hardwood floor and Magnifico blinked. “So, what’re you going to do? About your roses.” They sat on Buckner’s deck, overlooking undeveloped woodlands that stretched for acres to the south, east, and west. Many mornings, Annalise would wake him to look outside at deer. They did not keep kosher, but still, Annalise forbade venison.

“We will go to the woods. I imagine the thieves have the roses there. They would not be seen there, yes?”

Buckner’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by ‘we’?”

He stood and drained the coffee. He felt strong. The day was young. “You will help me. Your little boyfriend is not home, but you can assist your elders. You respect them, I know,” he said, grabbing his young neighbor by the bicep. Buckner was firm with strength but he did not resist when hurried along.

Over Christmas, he’d seen older folks – parents, presumably – file in and out of their house, deferentially treated. Unlike his own son, who let that woman call every Father’s Day. His other two children did their duty, but Magnus was his soul’s child. Why couldn’t he call?

He shuffled his feet while Buckner put away weights and a yoga mat. “It is good to make time for health,” Magnifico said. “It is good to be strong. I tell my children this.” He patted a muscle through his white sleeve. “I keep up exercises. And not just for strength.” Buckner nodded and Magnifico flourished his hands. “You see nothing, correct?”

“No?”

“Then what is this?” he asked, drawing a handful of cards from under his sleeve. He was deft still, enough that Buckner’s eyes widened. “I was a magician. Magnifico the Marvelous. I had hoped my son Magnus would take up the Magnifico name but Magnus did not understand strength. But it is not important. Come,” Magnifico said, “let us find the roses.”

Before they stood, they heard a sound and as one they turned. Next door, at Magnifico’s own wooden deck, Annalise stepped outside, closing the sliding kitchen door behind her. In one hand, she held a magazine. At the sight of her husband, her face darkened. “What are you doing, old man?” she asked. “Why are you bothering the nice fagala?”

Annalise had changed into faded jeans and a white t-shirt. Nodding at Buckner, she continued, “Thank you for helping my old, foolish husband. You are a good boy for helping.”

To Magnifico, she glared and then she went back inside. He turned to the boy, shrugged in apology. “Women, yes? I am right?”

A small smile tugged at the corner of Buckner’s mouth. “She reminds me of Mom.” They started down the wooden steps that led to the backyard and the trees beyond. Buckner asked, “What does fagala mean?”

“It is Yiddish. It means ‘little bird’. You know.” Magnifico waved his hands in the air, whistled through his teeth, minced on the grass.

John Buckner kneaded his temple. “You get one more,” the boy mumbled, loud enough to be heard. “Respecting elders goes only so far.” Magnifico pretended not to hear, started into the woods. The line of dirt from the front lawn – from the roses – led him.  Soon enough, he heard Buckner call out and then the sound of youthful legs pounding the dirt.

When Buckner caught up to him, Magnifico already held aloft the rose petal he’d seen on the wide animal trail. His heartbeat roared. “The thief came this way.” His face flushed and he closed his eyes. He opened them to see Buckner’s eyes soft with concern. “Do not worry, boy. I am still strong.” He thumped his chest. “Worry more about your dirty ears.” Reaching out, he plucked a large coin, seemingly from the air. He handed the fake gold coin to Buckner, who handed it back. “A classic requires deftness, surety of hands.”

“You looked bad for a second, that’s all.”

Magnifico snorted. “I am old. We will walk slower. I will lean on you, yes?”

Buckner nodded, worry lines smoothing. “You think that whoever took your roses went to that shack, don’t you?” he asked.

Buckner referred to a long-abandoned trailer. A new housing development had once been planned, though nothing had been built before money ran out besides a cheap mobile home that had been intended for a temporary office. It had been left behind and many nights when the weather held, he and Annalise listened to shouts of laughter and the thumping of that rap music that Magnifico secretly liked. The youth, it was known, gathered there to drink.

He had his own problems with gin and Schlitz, but it had come to him late in life, when he was a man grown. He failed to see why children would look for ways to hurt themselves. Why they would want to damage their bodies with poison.

“It is a bad thing, to lose your body,” he said. At Buckner’s glance, he said, “I speak my inner thoughts sometimes. It is nothing.”

Further into the woods, more rose petals littered the path. And as they got closer to the not-development, he saw beer cans and empty bottles of liquor lying half-covered by weeds and dead leaves. Any that lay directly in his path he picked up and handed to his neighbor. “We will take these back for the recycling bin.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Seifert.”

“That is not my name. It says that on the mailbox, yes, but you will call me Magnifico. Life is work, is it not?” He held another can to the sun, winked and with a flick of the fingers, made the can disappear: a simple trick. “I worked for many years, and I am Magnifico more than any else,” he said, removing the can from its hiding place under his shirt.

“Sure thing, Magnifico,” Buckner said, taking the can.

They exited the woods. Saplings sprouted around the clearing, a natural reclamation begun. The little building was near them, its windows empty of glass. Spray paint adorned the walls and mounds of empty beer cans were piled in and around a lone trashcan.

He paused and told Buckner to put the cans and bottles they’d gathered with the rest. “I used to drink like this,” he said.

“That so?” Buckner asked, laying the cans on the ground in a neat pile.

“My performances, some I do not remember. Magnifico the not-so-Marvelous, I am told.” He laughed, scratched at his beard. He smiled and gripped Buckner’s shoulder. “Magnus was my assistant. He saw me drink often.”

Magnifico coughed. “Onward, yes?”

The trail of petals stopped at a set of tire tracks that led to a paved road and disappeared. The tracks were wide and deep-grooved in the dirt. Many people owned trucks, he told himself, not only Magnus. He focused on the shack, choosing to be certain. He took the note out of his pocket and read the delicate writing out loud.

“A thousand bucks?” Buckner asked. He whistled.

“The thief does not know,” Magnifico said. “We do not have that money.”

“You don’t?”

“We send much money to our son’s family. His wife – that woman – she constantly begs for money.” He grunted. “Magnus married her and our troubles began.”

“What does Magnus say?” Buckner asked.

His voice whispered. “He does not speak.” He waved his hand. “It matters not.”

The front door to the shack was closed. They shuffled their feet. Magnifico produced his coin, danced it over knuckles, flipped it and looked to Buckner. “Choose.”

Buckner looked to the sun and said, “Heads.” Magnifico showed the tails sitting in his palm and pointed at the door. Buckner knocked. The door opened shortly.

A young girl in a sweatshirt and pajama pants stood bleary eyed. She was perhaps sixteen, thin, pretty, face round, snub nosed. She could have been his granddaughter if his son had married well.

“Who the fuck is it?” Another girl appeared, this one with short red hair and a black jacket. She had a beer and looked as if she hadn’t slept. She would grow heavy-set.

Magnifico narrowed his eyes. She looked like Magnus’ wife.

“What do you want?” the squat girl asked. The pretty one sat against the wall.

“I want my roses,” he said. The girl – that woman’s clone – took a sip of her drink, her square jaw thrust forward. How could she be drinking so early? What time was it? Magnifico swallowed dizziness. That woman had lied to them this morning, had said that Magnus had been drunk for weeks, high as well. She was a liar. His heart raced and he gritted his teeth.

“Roses? What are you talking about?” the pretty girl asked.

“We don’t have any roses,” the girl who looked like that woman said, taking another sip and closing the door.

Magnifico stuck his foot to block the door. “You should not be here,” he said. “You should not have that.” He reached to take the can out of the girl’s hands. She pulled it from his reach, her mouth open for flies.

Buckner held Magnifico back from stepping through the door. “Mr. Seifert, I think –”

“My name is Magnifico, boy,” he said, freeing himself with a wild push. He focused on the floor beneath the girls’ feet, unwilling to meet their eyes. “You need to be good children.” He took a step into the doorway toward the girls, his hand a fist.

The pretty one yelled and her hand flew forward. Something hard hit Magnifico in the forehead. Sticky, smelly liquid sloshed down his face and shirt. He stumbled. If Buckner hadn’t been there, Magnifico would have fallen. Instead, he groaned and stared at the half-empty can that had struck him. It lay on the ground, beer dribbling. “You girls,” he said, holding his aching head, “need to respect your elders.”

Buckner pulled him away. The girls’ faces flushed red. The squat one reached to take the pretty one’s hand. One or both sobbed. “You must see they don’t have your roses.”

He waited for the pounding of blood in his ears to stop. “The girls should be with their families, not drinking in the woods. They should not abandon –” he stopped himself, seeing the girls and the red rose petals on the ground. They’d fallen from his pocket.

Magnifico willed his breathing to return to normal. “They do not have my roses.” He touched his forehead where the can struck him. His fingers came away wet with beer, sticky with blood. “My apologies.” He wished he were home. He wished to speak with his son.

“We should go,” Buckner said, still supporting him by his shoulders, and Magnifico again admired the man’s strength.

They backed away from the shack. Magnifico said, “My apologies. Your parents, they are worried, I promise you.” He attempted a smile. It died on his face.

“For you,” he said. His hand waved and a bouquet of flowers burst from his sleeve. He left the bouquet on the steps.

The door slammed shut. Voices drifted from the broken windows, nothing he understood. No words about roses, but Magnifico heard the sound of a beer being cracked.

They walked back in silence. Near the tree line, when they could see their well-kept houses, Magnifico spoke. “You were good to help me today.”

“Of course. But we didn’t find anything.”

Magnifico pushed the boy’s back to hurry him along. He did not want to explain but he saw he must. “A rose bush can be replaced. Nearly anything can be replaced—neighbors, friends. But children? Children cannot be replaced.” His breath abandoned him and he coughed.

Buckner asked, “Are you ok? You don’t look so good.”

They were at the backyard between their houses. Magnifico waved his concern away. “I am well enough. It has been a busy day, nu?” He did not want to talk about his age. “My wife, she will care for me. I am home. I am grateful for your help.” He forced a grin. “Go home, say hello to your little boyfriend for me.”

“My husband, you mean,” Buckner said, folding his arms.

“He is your husband?” Magnifico blushed. “I am sorry, of course, your husband.” He thought for a moment, added, “You want children?”

“Eventually,” Buckner said. “When we’re older.”

“It will be good to have children in the neighborhood again.” He patted Buckner’s hand. “You are a good boy. A man would be proud to have you for a son.”

After he said his farewells, Magnifico walked up the wooden steps to his deck with heavy feet. The steps needed painting. Everything cost money.

Finding the sliding door unlocked, he opened it and stepped inside. Annalise stood in the kitchen, slicing garlic with a large knife, her white hair tied back in a bun. She greeted him with a wave of the knife, then a yelp. The radio played polka, the volume turned so high he could not hear himself think.

“Your head,” she said, rushing over, touching him with cold, garlic-flecked hands.

“I did not find the rose bushes,” he said.

“Who cares about the roses? You are hurt.”

“I am not dead, yet.” He passed her, washed his hands in the sink, dried them and turned the radio volume down. He took the knife. “I will cook the lunch.”

Annalise grabbed a paper towel, held it to his face. “Hold it in place, you silly fool.”

When he followed her command, she stepped away, her thin shoulders drooping, an anxious smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Magnifico wanted to devour her with his embrace, but instead fumbled at his pocket with his free hand. He shoved the gathered rose petals at her, several drifting to rest on their feet. “We will not find the rest, I think. They are gone, poof.” He held his fingers to his mouth and exploded them outwards, a flash of light from concealed pellets vanishing into smoke. “Magnus and his truck, likely. He is not well, our son.”

“He is not.” Her eyebrow twitched and Annalise took another paper towel and let the roses slide from the palm of her hand. She folded the corners. The concern in her face drained away with apparent effort. “I will make tea, perhaps. You will drink it?”

“Of course, it has been a long morning.” Magnifico was grateful she did not pry, that she let their thoughts die in the wind.

Annalise patted the roses in their paper towel and her fingers drummed the tabletop. “That woman called while you were gone. I thought she might have stolen our roses. She is that kind of woman you know.”

“But her penmanship is so terrible.” When Annalise smiled, he chuckled and let it all go. His forehead ached still and though he winced at the pain, he was happy to feel something.

Annalise picked at a scab on her thumb. “Yes, her penmanship is quite awful. Not like yours or our children’s. But she said Magnus called her. He was not sober, she said.”

Magnifico nodded, slicing garlic.

“She apologized for this morning. I told her not to call so early, and then I told her about the roses. I was nice.” Annalise finished her story and sat tall, proud.

“You were very respectful to Magnus’ wife.”

“The fagala treated you with such respect. He made respect seem so easy, nu? The fagala had the respect our son should have.”

It seemed too hard to explain, but Magnifico knew he should. “They are married. They want children.” He continued to slice. “Perhaps fagalas is not the word.”

“I did not know,” she said. She twisted her gray hair in her hand. “You are right, yes. You are a good man.” She fell into silence and, after a time, said that she was going to lie down. He agreed that was best and said he would call to her when lunch was ready.

When she left, he turned the radio to a rap station and put one of the garlic cloves in a pan with a little butter. As it heated, he went to his study. In one of the many boxes, he found an ancient pack of Lucky Strikes. He brought it to the kitchen and put a cigarette between his lips, bent to the gas stove until the cigarette lit. He pulled a chair up to the stove and sat, taking his dirty coffee cup from the sink and setting the cigarette on its lip.

He removed the paper towel from his forehead. It was soiled with his dirty blood. His hand shook. He removed the large gold coin from his pocket, placed it on his knuckles, and made it dance. The shaking subsided.

He trembled with exhaustion. A man should be strong. He had tried to teach his children strength, but how does a weak man teach that? He taught only his flaws.

When the cigarette burnt down, he returned to making lunch.

 

Michael B. Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, The Collagist and elsewhere. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. His likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince. Keep up with him on his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter @ideosinkrasee.

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