"A real wizard?"
"Scout's honor," said Wuju holding up two fingers.
"We're not talking, like, a pinball wizard, are we?" I asked. "We're talking long robes and pointy hats with stars and moons on them, right?"
"You got it," said Wuju, this time with an amused smile. "Fill this up again, will you?"
"Maybe you've had enough," I said, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Tell you what," he said, "just Coke this time. It'll balance things out."
I filled the glass. "So what happened with Janet?"
He glanced down at the fifty-dollar bill between us and then looked up at me with an arched eyebrow. "You can't guess?"
I looked him over. "Obviously, she married Phil and you're just getting back from the wedding."
I reached for the bill, but he put his hand over it before I could. "There's much more to it than that, my friend," he said smiling and shaking his head.
I topped off my own drink. "Okay, I'm game."
"Things were coming to a head and everyone knew it," continued Wuju.
When I say everyone knew it, I mean everyone knew it. I was not hallucinating those wonderful warm toasty looks. Other people were seeing her directing them at me. Art knew it. Customers we'd never seen before instantly assumed we were an item. Maybe I was just self-conscious, but I suspected that the evening shift we relieved knew it and the morning shift that relieved us knew it. One thing for certain, our boss knew it.
Kris Haster had several habits that related to her very successful business. One of them was to show up every morning just before the morning shift took over for us and make sure we had done what we were being paid for.
This particular morning was not much different from any other. She came in through the kitchen door at 5:45 and skimmed over the time cards.
"Good morning, children," she said. Kris was a ruggedly built brown-haired woman in her early fifties. She had a big heart, but a short temper; sort of like a cross between Mom and your favorite Marine drill sergeant.
"Morning, Kris," said Janet. That was a mistake. The first person to talk to her when she came in to check on us in the morning was inevitably the one who got stuck with any task we'd missed during the night. This was a trap my partner fell into about three times as often as I did.
"Scrub the sink down," Kris ordered her.
I palmed a snicker and Janet shot me a glance that was definitely not warm and toasty. I just shrugged innocently, and that earned me a little half-smile and a shake of her pretty head.
Kris followed me to the service counter and made sure the cases were filled with fresh donuts, all six pots of coffee were full and fresh (regular, decaf and extra-strong regular; the latter had been my idea), and the cooler was fully stocked.
"You know," she said as I handed her the envelope with the night's receipts, "I wouldn't be surprised if I came in here one morning and found you two making out in the broom closet. I wouldn't be happy about it, but I wouldn't be surprised."
One of Kris's other business habits was to know everything about each and every one of her employees. She wasn't exactly nosy, she just figured keeping close tabs on her people made good business sense. Kris knew when her workers were having school or relationship problems; she knew whose kids were doing well in school and whose parents had anniversaries coming up; and she was consistently four or five days ahead of the rumor mill when it came to the subject of workplace romances. Fortunately, anything she found out she kept to herself unless it had a direct bearing on a person's work.
I looked back at Janet. She was cleaning the sink and had the water running, so she hadn't heard Kris's comment.
I sighed, partially in relief that Janet hadn't heard the remark, and partially because of what I had to say next: "She's engaged," I reminded us both.
"To a man who's three thousand miles away and whom she hasn't seen since April," Kris pointed out.
I looked back at Janet again and Kris gave me a sympathetic look. It was then that it occurred to me that she had known all along that I wasn't the one who'd taken the long-distance phone call that first time way back when.
"You know, it's not absence that makes the heart grow fonder," she said.
"I know..." I started.
"Morning shift's here," Janet interrupted shutting off the water and drying her hands.
"See you next week," Kris told her.
"Pick me up around six?" Janet called to me as she punched out.
"You bet, partner," I answered.
She gave me the warm toasty look as she left and a million angels did the Macarena on the head of a pin.
"...That's what worries me," I finished, turning back to Kris.
I wound up not going to the beach after all that day, and I didn't sleep too well that afternoon either. Still, I got up at around five, took a shower, and shoved as much of the junk and clutter as I could under my bed. Then, in a moment of rare domesticity, I even made the bed.
Janet's apartment, which she shared with a roommate named Teri, was a tastefully decorated two-bedroom deal in a relatively new apartment complex. In comparison, my studio was essentially my not-so-tastefully decorated old dorm room relocated from campus to the basement of a middle-aged building on 52nd Street. Between the two places was about a half-hour walk or a ten-minute drive. I drove.
Janet was running behind schedule when I got there.
"She'll be right out," Teri told me. Teri was a pretty brown-eyed brunette who stood just barely over five feet tall. "Come on in." She looked me over. "You're dressed up tonight," she observed.
"I am?" I had grabbed some stuff out of the closet. I was wearing a long-sleeved black button-up shirt, dark pants and boots.
"Maybe I'm just not used to seeing you in anything that doesn't have flour and grease stains on it," shrugged Teri.
"Yeah. Maybe." Of course, now I was concerned that maybe some sub-conscious motivation had caused me to dress the way I did. I tried to think back to what I had been thinking while I was getting dressed.
I was self-consciously buttoning the top two buttons of my shirt when Janet came out of the bedroom. I caught my breath.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said putting on an earring. Janet had on a blue dress that left her arms and shoulders appealingly bare. I was making a conscious effort to close my mouth when a glitter of gold and diamond from the vicinity of her left hand jolted me back to cruel reality. Janet generally didn't wear her engagement ring to work -- too much chance of it winding up in a donut -- so I didn't have to deal with it then. It was when we were together off the clock that the light would reflect off the thing, making it wink at me. It was almost as if it was alive and taunting me.
Teri's voice brought me out of my heartache-induced paranoia. She was looking at Janet. "Boy, both of you," she was saying, her hands on her hips. "Are you going to a party that I didn't get invited to or something?"
"Just the usual," said Janet.
"You look great," said Teri.
I uttered some sort of agreement to that. My heart was still going a little faster than I would have liked.
Janet looked a little uncomfortable. "Uh, it was the only thing that was clean," she said, and then added: "Laundry tomorrow, Wooj."
I nodded. "Ready?"
Teri looked us both over again, her eyes narrowed. "I've got a date tonight," she said. "I probably won't be back till late. Maybe real late."
We drove downtown to a little Italian place we liked. I had the lasagna, she had the spaghetti with mushroom sauce and we split a half-liter of wine. After dinner, we did a little window-shopping together. I don't remember what we talked about that evening. I do know that we laughed a lot. I do remember feeling maybe as happy as I'd ever felt in my life.
Somewhere along the line, I forgot who I was with and put my arm around her. Janet didn't object. Far from it, she slipped her arm around my waist and snuggled closer. It felt right.
We eventually found ourselves at a little storefront on the corner of 34th and Vine. Art's place. Neither of us had ever been there before, so we went in. The door chimes played the theme to The Twilight Zone.
"Oh, that magic feeling...
Nowhere to go..."
The Beatles, "You Never Give Me Your Money"
It was a dark and cluttered little place that smelled of esoteric incense and ancient secrets. The shelves were stocked with glass vials filled with colored powders and liquids. There were glass cases containing crystals of all shapes and sizes along with a variety of presumably magically significant jewelry. Near the front door were shelves stocked with the recent trendy New Age literature while further back were shelves and shelves of older and much more authentic-looking volumes. A huge horned owl stared down at us from his perch at the back of the shop, just above the Shirley McClaine dartboard. Beneath the owl, Art was standing behind the counter talking to a kid a little bit younger than me and an attractive green-haired woman. Art winked at us as we came in.
Janet led me over to a clothes rack in one of the far corners of the store and started casually thumbing through the different garments.
Art's shop struck me as being a little creepy. Not creepy in a bad way, but creepy-weird. Creepy-wonderful. With as much clutter as the shop contained, it should have felt cramped, but it didn't. Although roomy or airy were not words that would have immediately sprung to mind, the place felt big; bigger, in fact, than it should have been. The ceiling looked just a little bit higher than one might've expected in a small shop. There seemed to be more corners than an ordinary room ought to have. Now, I may not be too bright where matters of the heart are concerned, but I can count to four real good. Except....
Except, to this very day, I never have been able to get a handle on how many corners Art's shop has. I do remember that however many of them there were, they were all dark and all of them contained wonderful magical secrets waiting to be whispered to anyone who believed enough to listen to what they had to say. I suddenly understood what Art had meant when he said nobody cared about real Magic anymore, and the understanding made me a little bit sad. Real Magic was mysterious and wonderful and unexpected; it was what I felt whenever I was with Janet. It was something that might be gone from my life forever come September. It made me wonder exactly what I'd be willing to do to prevent that happening. Was I willing to cast aside any and all sense of caution and emotional self-preservation and openly declare my love for her? Willing to tell her there was no Magic in my life without her?
Was I willing to presumptuously confront her with her own feelings for me?
And what about Janet? What would such action do to her? Put her on the spot, make her choose between me and the faceless entity with whom she'd consented to spend the rest of her life? It would be difficult. It would hurt her.
I didn't like that.
What if, horror of horrors, it was all some ghastly mistake? Or even if it wasn't, what if she chose Phil anyway? What would become of me? Would I grow old alone, ever mourning my loss?
Maybe. I didn't like that much either.
What if it went the other way? Would faceless Phil grow old alone, ever mourning his loss? I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, much less someone I'd never even met.
Supposing I simply chose to keep my peace? I might spend a lot of cold nights wondering, but I wouldn't have really lost anything or hurt anyone.
Lost in my own head, I tripped over a black cat who was intently watching a twisted fragment of a large ruby and gold amulet in one of the display cases. The cat stared at me a moment and then, as if suddenly realizing he was in the wrong place, darted through a darkened doorway in one of the shop's many corners.
"C'mon, Skeeve." That was the voice of the green-haired woman as she led her companion out of the shop.
"Sorry I couldn't help you," apologized Art as the door chimes tinkled The Twilight Zone theme again. He looked over to where I was getting up. "Hello Wuju, Janet," he said. "Had a funny feeling I'd see you two here tonight."
"See us in your crystal ball?" I joked.
Art just smiled enigmatically which distracted me from the dilemma I'd been grappling with and put me back in touch with the creepy-wonderful feeling I'd experienced when I first came in.
"So what brings you here this evening?" asked Art conversationally.
"We were in the neighborhood and thought we'd come visit our favorite customer," answered Janet from the corner where she was trying on a cloak in front of an antique full-length mirror. "There," she said turning around to face us. "What do you think?"
As I said before, the dress alone had been enough to induce mild cardiac arrest, but now she was wearing a white cloak. It was the color of moonlight -- maybe even a little bit luminous, it was hard to be sure -- and fastened with a silver brooch set with a bright blue gem. She was wearing the cloak with the hood up, but the effect made her more mysterious, more magical, and devastatingly sexy. Maybe my balance was off from tripping over the cat, but I had to steady myself against the display case.
"It was hand-woven for me by a business associate of my late wife," said Art. "There are fibers of actual moonlight sewn into the fabric."
Janet laughed and pulled the hood back. "I can almost believe it," she said. "It feels so soft and cool."
Art smiled. "Nothing but the genuine article here. Guaranteed," he assured us, then grimaced and jerked a thumb at the displays toward the front of the shop. "Except for that New Age Garbage."
"How much is it?" asked Janet laughing again.
"Believe me, you really don't want to know," said Art.
"I don't know," said Janet. "It might turn out to be worth it. What do you think, Wooj?"
"I think I..." I began, and then, collecting myself, finished truthfully: "I believe in Magic."
That earned me the warm toasty look and the cloak Janet wore seemed to glow softly white with it. If Janet or Art noticed the effect, neither of them said anything about it.
"The boy's got good taste," commented Art.
"He does, doesn't he?" smiled Janet turning and looking into the mirror again.
"It's my judgment I'm not too sure about," I mumbled catching the glint from her ring again. Janet hadn't heard my editorial aside, but Art looked at me curiously.
Janet took off the cloak and hung it back up, and, just for a split second, I thought I saw her image in the mirror slightly out of sync with her movements.
"We'd better get going," Janet said to me. "Otherwise the only videos left'll be those movies you like." She wrinkled her nose and her reflection in the mirror did the same.
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