Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sidney's Gift

(I published this in 2006 in a literary magazine called Rhapsoidia, which few people read but I was excited about anyway. It's outdated and kind of clumsy, but I think there's some quality there too. Judge for yourself. All rights reserved, yadda yadda.)

            Sidney was my best friend, and he was a witch. Technically he was a warlock, but gender distinctions are unfashionable in these politically correct days. Whatever you called him, he could cast spells, real spells, to predict rain, tell the future, or even cure small ailments like sore throats or stuffy noses. Not that Sidney was Wicca. No term so connected with naturalism and spirituality could ever be plausibly associated with Sidney, for whom spirituality began and ended at Wawa. Most of my friends could not imagine why the two of us had been close since high school, which can you believe ended ten years ago?
            “Sherman died Wednesday,” Sid said, licking cookie dough from the mangled tube clutched in his right hand. 
“I’m sorry to hear it.” I myself was snacking on celery sticks, although part of me would have preferred a hit of the cookie dough.
Sid took an enormous bite from the tube. “I tried recalling his soul last night,” he remarked, giving me a glimpse of chewed but unswallowed cookie dough.
“His soul?  I didn’t know mice had them.”
“Every living thing does. Humans aren’t the only creatures who have souls,” he said in his I-know-something-you-don’t way, “but they’re the only ones who think they do.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing,” he said glumly. “Except my apartment now smells like sulphur and my mouse is still dead.  I did everything right,” he whined, tossing the nearly empty tube on a side table. I winced as a tendril of cookie dough splatted down on my good table. “The herbs, the incantations…I even used his exercise wheel to help call him back. Nothing.”
“Maybe you should stick to good luck charms,” I said uneasily. “That death magic sounds pretty dangerous.”  Sid glared.
“I think you know me well enough to arrange protective spells,” he huffed, retrieving his cookie dough and taking a small bite. “Besides, I’m getting tired of glamours, and potions.  It’s small shit. Necromancy is where it’s at!”
He did not just say “where it’s at”.  I didn’t dare laugh; Sidney could be obnoxious, but his feelings were easily hurt. “Maybe you just need to study more,” I offered, to diffuse his frustration.
“Maybe,” he mused, suddenly pensive.  “Necromancy’s an exchange, one thing for something else of equal value. That’s what the texts say.” Books of magic were never just books to Sidney. They were texts.  “I think I needed a more personal item; something he was closer to.  Too bad I never made him a little mouse-sweater.”
Just then Michael came in, a bundle of files tucked neatly under one arm. “Hi Sid,” he greeted as he set down his briefcase and scouted for a place to rest the pile. I noticed him noticing the cookie dough on the table, as well as the flash of annoyance that flickered across his handsome face. I’d been with Michael for four years, and he still hadn’t quite grown to like Sidney. Sidney flicked a hand in greeting, and I set aside my celery and crossed the room to deliver a quick kiss.
“Hey there Lucky,” Michael said, his annoyance vanishing. He was the only person in the universe who could use that nickname and not sound sappy. Michael had started calling me that after finding out my name was the super-Irish Kelly O’Hara. The fact that it didn’t make me projectile-vomit told me right off we were perfectly matched. I kept the kiss short; Sid regarded displays of affection as unseemly, most likely because he’d never had a date in his life, and the way he was going probably never would. It was a real kicker, I guess, that despite all his spells and charms and potions, I got the life partner, and he got dead mice and a run-down apartment.
Conversation turned quickly to sports, the one and only topic Sidney and Michael had in common. I’d never told my lover about Sid’s witchy activities, but as it happened he found out for himself.

Michael’s firm was located on Broad just down the street from my office. I hated that old-lawyers place, with its psychic aroma of conservatism, so I waited in the lobby. The revolving doors chuffed around, spinning the lunchtime crowd into the streets, and my mind wandered back to Sidney and his forays into necromancy.
Sidney was smart, and could work like the devil when he was motivated, but his spells had always been fifty-fifty at best. Once, years ago when I was single and recently dumped, he had made a love potion that he guaranteed would get me attention. It sure did. Sometimes gay people forget just how many straight women frequent gay clubs, but I got a vivid reminder that night as I fended off the advances of a dozen women who just couldn’t believe I was gay. Eventually I escaped through a fire door, but I learned a lesson about the reliability of Sidney’s magic. Screwing up a love potion was one thing, but messing around with the dead…well, I’d seen “Poltergeist.”
Michael stepped out of an elevator and I lifted a hand to gain his attention. No kissing or hugging here; as far as his lawyer buddies knew, Michael was straight as a line and for today I was just a friend.  “Waiting long, Lucky?” he asked, grinning in that way that meant I’d like to take you right in this lobby.
“For a big-shot lawyer like you?” I replied, sending out my own reply: On my back or on my knees?  It’s amazing how telepathic you become after four years, and how randy you can be even though you just had sex a few hours ago.  I didn’t want to sit through lunch with a hard-on, so without further ado I pushed through the revolving door, sensing his eyes on me.
The day was unseasonably warm for November, so we went jacketless along Chestnut Street among hordes of business-suit types.  Fortunately, we graphic artists can get away with khakis and polo shirts, so I didn’t feel too much like a lemming on the way to the suicide drop.  Michael was as usual dressed to the nines, and I reflected that nobody, but nobody, filled out a suit the way he did.  That brought me again to the back vs. knees issue, but this time Michael wasn’t getting my telepathy.
  “Want to go see that weapons exhibit tonight?” Michael asked as we waited for a green light.  He loved anything medieval, and the art museum was currently displaying a whole slew of swords, axes, crossbows and other hurty stuff from the Dark Ages.  When we eventually bought a house, I knew that one room would become a mini-armory for the weapons he’d collected over the years, which currently resided in storage.
“I can’t.  I told Sid I’d go with him to that Bruce Willis movie.  You know, the one with the psychic kid.”  Actually, I was going to help him cast a spell to find out if either Willis or the kid was going to snag an Oscar nomination. The lie came easily, just as the next would come when I had to explain how Sidney and I had missed the movie because “we’d just gotten talking”. 
Michael was silent for a moment, and I guessed he was wondering for the umpteenth time why blond, gym-buffed me had ever become friends with lanky, acne-ravaged Sid.  Michael thought Sid childish and pedantic, but Michael had never met the Sidney who’d always had fun things to do on our dateless Friday nights, like making pencils write by themselves or turning my hair bright green. (How my mother screamed!) Michael didn’t know the Sidney who’d been my only friend in high school, back when coming out in tenth grade was not the fashion statement it is today.  How could I tell this to Michael? It was just Sidney, and you had to know him.
Luckily, Michael let it be. “Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go myself, then. The exhibit will be closed by the time I get done in New York, and I don’t know when it’ll be back.”
“That’s fine,” I told him.

“The kid is a shoe-in,” Sidney insisted, scooping up the black candle stubs that were all that remained of his spell.  “The Old Ones are never wrong.”
“Remember that time you dropped two hundred bucks on lottery tickets because the Old Ones said you’d win?”  I peered around his cluttered apartment, stroking my chin thoughtfully. “Let’s see…where’s that money now?”
Sidney flashed me a look of imperious disdain, but I could see the smile in his eyes.  He was less annoying than usual tonight, which I attributed to his acquisition of a new mouse. Custer lay motionless in the cage formerly occupied by Sherman, not deigning to use Sherm’s beloved exercise wheel. No pets were allowed in Sid’s building, but white mice were insignificant enough to pass the landlady’s radar. “As I always say, just because I occasionally misread the signs doesn’t mean–“
“That the Old Ones are ever wrong,” I finished for him. “Fine, fine, looks like psychic boy gets a nod this year.” I folded up the black cloth, revealing a pitted and scarred wooden table that had seen better days, then took a seat while Sidney put candles and cloth in the wooden chest where he kept all of his magical accoutrements. I didn’t know much about the Old Ones, except that Sid called their names during divinations, and that they gave unreliable advice. The lottery ticket was the least folly they’d prompted, so needless to say I wouldn’t be placing any bets on their Oscar picks.
“So where does Michael think you are tonight?” Sid asked, moving to the fridge. He kept spring water around for my use only, and he now filled a glass.
“Seeing the movie instead of casting spells about it,” I replied shortly, accepting the glass and sipping. I was uncomfortable lying to my partner, and even more so discussing it.
“And then you’ll say ‘we just got talking’ when he asks about it,” Sidney said, sitting down with a Pepsi. “I know you too well,” he said, “and I wonder why you lie to the guy you share a bed with.”
That cut a little too near the bone. “Maybe you should stick to witchcraft and leave relationships to me,” I shot back.
“Guess you’re right.” His eyes dropped and he fiddled with the plastic Pepsi bottle.
“Hey, look, I didn’t mean to say that…” I began, feeling six inches tall.
He shrugged. “You’re right, all the same.” He began peeling the label from the bottle with enviable dexterity, and it struck me that Sidney’s hands were his most attractive feature. “That’s a magic I have yet to master.”
“It’s not easy,” I told him uncomfortably. I was never comfortable discussing his love life, or the lack of it. What could I say? That he was single because he was obnoxious and unpleasant?  There are some levels of honesty no friendship should attain, and on this topic we had reached our limit. “And it’s not magic. Believe me, Michael and I get on each other’s nerves plenty, and there are times when I almost wish I was single again.”
“’Almost’ he says,” Sidney said to the room. “You can’t fool me. Michael’s the most important thing in your life, as important as my magic is to me, and more.  As important as you are to me,” he finished, flushing. I reached across and took his hand, and his cheeks went from pink to red, but he didn’t pull away. I think I loved Sidney best in those moments when he was just Sidney, not a witch or someone who always knew more than I did. I nearly said there’s a lucky woman out there, but I was lucky to have gotten away with the handholding; empty platitudes would definitely have been pushing it. 
Sidney broke the awkwardness. “But none of you are as important as Ho-Ho’s.”

Michael died twelve hours later, when a tire fell out of a truck on the New Jersey Turnpike and smashed through Michael’s windshield. It also smashed through Michael’s chest, I’m sure, although the emergency room doctor left that part out. She probably thought she was being kind, but nothing could have hurt me after hearing he was gone. The truck driver never even realized what had happened until the New York State police caught up with him an hour later.
Friends, family, and coworkers came in a parade, and they all brought food, as if it were a component in one of Sidney’s spells. Instead of belladonna and incense, they worked their magic through casseroles and fruit baskets and pies. Michael’s mother had aged twenty years, and his father broke down and wept in my arms. That was the worst part (except, of course, for the newsbreak from the kindly emergency room surgeon). Sidney had clumsily offered me condolences, and then confined himself to being pale and preoccupied. I suppose I should have been angry with him for not doing more, but Sidney was as awkward with emotions as he was in body. Besides, what could he do besides magically dye my hair or get the scoop on this year’s Oscars?
He did clean my apartment, however, which was unusual since he rarely took a broom to the rat-hole he called home. He didn’t do a very good job, mind you, but in my state I hardly cared. While I received visitors and acted like I was just fine, Sidney went through the place with dust-rag and Windex, his substitute for cakes and casseroles. A small blessing, since his culinary skills were even chancier than his witchcraft. Sidney cleaned, and I got used to things around the apartment being out of place. I never thought anything was wrong until I went looking for Michael’s college ring.
Michael’s sister had asked for the ring after the funeral, and I didn’t see any reason not to give it to her. A rather ugly thing, I recalled, rummaging through the bedroom, which was why Michael had stopped wearing it. I sat down on the edge of the bed and reflected that it was no longer our bedroom, just as the ring was no longer his. Everything plural in my life had been rendered singular in an instant, punctuated by Michael’s encounter with a highway cannonball. For a moment I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. I just sat on that singular bed in that singular bedroom, feeling an ache that was too deep even for tears. I looked around at the things that had been his which were now mine: the shoe polish kit tucked neatly under the nightstand; the hair gel I’d teased him about buying standing on the dresser; the four neckties looped casually over the back of the closet door. One tie for every day of the workweek, that was meticulous Michael’s way.  No picking through the closet in the morning for him…
I counted out the ties: one red, one blue-striped, one mix of dark green and pale yellow, another blue, but where was the fifth? He’d been wearing a tie the day he died, but not one of these five. He never wore any of his regular rotation when he was traveling, and now one was missing.  I poked around in the closet but came up empty.
Had Sidney moved it while he was cleaning? Maybe, but why had he moved one and left the others? I swung the closet door idly back and forth, watching the four ties flutter, bereft of their fifth comrade. Sidney had taken the tie, but why?

maybe if I'd made him a little mouse-sweater

I froze for a moment, letting the door swing free. The four ties flapped one last time then hung limply, like dead fish.

            mice

            Suddenly I knew exactly why Sidney had wanted the tie, and what he was going to do with it. I snatched my car keys from the dresser, scattering loose change and unopened mail, and bolted for the door.

            Sidney’s apartment was on Callowhill, in a triplex he shared with a young married couple above and three college girls below. I shoved open the paint-peeling front door and pounded up the stairs, my face hot and my heart slamming in my chest.  How could he, how could he? I never thought Sidney would be so low as to use Michael’s death as a little experiment. I hoped he’d studied up on his fist-protection spells, because I was going to pound his ugly face.
            Sidney’s door was locked and, unlike the rest of the building, solidly made. I pounded on the wood. “Sidney, open up! Goddammit, Sidney!” I heard chanting from within, and it was like oil on a fire. I attacked that door with fists, feet, shoulders – at one point I clawed at the wood like a cat, screaming in rage and grief. Doors opened and voices sounded behind me, but they were in another world. Sidney, like an acne-spotted Gypsy, was going to conjure Michael’s spirit, and I was going to kill him for it. Inside, the chanting reached a crescendo, and even in my red cloud of fury I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. The voices behind me fell silent, as if they too could sense the energy Sidney had invoked.
            Suddenly the chanting cut off abruptly, and something inside fell with a thud. I dropped back a step, trembling with fear and anger. From the apartment I heard hesitant footsteps, a bolt being drawn, the rattle of a chain disengaging. The door opened and Sidney stood there, smelling of herbs, eyes wide and unbelieving. I stepped forward and those eyes met mine, stopping me coldly in my tracks.
            “Lucky?” he said.

            The neighbors never called the police, although it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. All the police would have found was a funny circle of runes chalked on the floor, a few black candles, and a small brazier filled with ash.  Hardly evidence of a suicide.
            We got out of the lease without much trouble; apparently Sidney’s landlady was not sorry to lose him. I donated his things to Goodwill, except for his magic stuff, which I keep in a spare room of our house. There are two spare rooms. The first is filled with wall-hung weapons: swords, daggers, axes, and a crossbow that had been purchased in England. The second is empty except for an old chest filled with books, candles, and pouches of herbs. All that’s left of Sidney.

            Sometimes I hate Sidney for what he did, because he was right about necromancy: For everything you gain, you give up something equal. Sometimes I cry because I feel guilty, and sometimes I cry just because I miss him. His days of botched love potions and magic dye-jobs are over. But when I lie at night with Michael, his acne-pitted face in my hands, his lanky, awkward body pressed against mine, I can’t help but feel grateful for the gift.

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