MAKIN’ MAGIC by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Nicole was my friend in 6th grade and she never knew her daddy. Her and her mama lived in a house back off the road behind the railroad tracks. She stuffed her bra with toilet paper and had boyfriends. Her bed smelled like pee because she wet it still sometimes. She was the only person I knew who had a computer in her bedroom. We’d stay up all night playing The Sims, taking turns, working on building our families. You’d have to get two Sims to kiss romantically over and over until the window popped up asking if you wanted a baby and then the bassinet appeared out of a bloom of flowers.
Before you entered a house on The Sims you saw an aerial view of the neighborhood. The blocks were nice and tidy, nothing rotten falling down. Here chester drawers were called armoires. Other words I didn’t know but learned: maître d’, cabana, charisma, bird of paradise.
The first time I realized that I lived in a poor place was when I came home from my Freshman year of college, drove by the pool in town. It’s private so basically poor white trash and blacks aren’t allowed/can’t afford it. Even still the pool didn’t have a diving board for the longest time.
At my 9th birthday party the kids from the other towns complained about it. I didn’t even know their towns had diving boards. I just thought that was something that pools in California had, like Mary-Kate and Ashley movies.
But now fresh-from-college Ashleigh drove by the pool she loved learning to swim in with her daddy late into the night, bats swooping at their heads. And she saw the shutters falling off the house beside it, remembered the black kids who stood behind that house separated by a fence, they had kittens, watched us in the afternoons. Where the fuck did the black kids learn to swim?
Growing up, on the way to school we’d always pass that house where the teenboy killed his folks the night of prom. The story goes that he wanted to go to prom but his folks wouldn’t let him. So he shot them and left a note on the front door.
Don’t worry about us. Gone to Nags Head. —The Odoms
The boy took off in their truck. When they caught him he was already in Georgia. He was 16. And when they put him in the detention center, he escaped from that too, out the air conditioning vents. But they caught him again, hiding under the bushes in the woods like something Biblical. A couple years ago I found his Prison Pen Pal profile. Interests: Music, I like to write. And I thought, me too.
And I thought about the teenboy’s girlfriend a lot, still do. In the story I want to tell about it, the one I’ve been trying to write over and over since I left home from all different perspectives, the girlfriend’s name has always been Candi. And teenboy tells her they’re running away.
And tonight here in my cold old house I think that Candi is Nicole’s cousin. And me and Nicole are back having a sleepover, staying up late thinking about Candi. She’s missing, been gone a while now.
Last time we saw her she did our makeup with a special color palette from Claire’s in the mall in Roanoke Rapids. She’s 15 and knows how to roller skate and has glitter Cotton Candy spray too. She has braces and everytime we see her, her bands are another pastel, baby blue, peach, Easter yellow. So we want braces too.
And all we know is that Candi’s riding in a truck somewhere with her boyfriend, her first boyfriend who she loves more than anything. She wants to have his baby, she told us so. And we’re playing The Sims and praying Candi’s all right somewhere safe, taking turns waiting up all night, making the people kiss over and over until the blossoms bring the baby. We name the babies Candi then Mandi then Shannon.
When the teenboy named Jason picked Candi up for prom there was Nascar commemorative plates hung up round the top of the living room walls in the trailer. And Jason was nervous because he’d just killed his folks so he slammed the storm door and one of the plates fell and broke on the linoleum. It was Dale. Dale was dead by then, took too soon at Talladega, we all remember watching that race. (It didn’t look bad, it really didn’t.) Dale is Candi’s Mama’s favorite but she says over and over, “Oh it’s all right,” as she sweeps up the pieces real quick, so quick she can’t get all of it. She’s just so excited for her baby girl going to prom like she couldn’t because she was carrying her in her belly and sat on the porch steps of the family farm watching all the folks she grew up with drive to school in their fresh washed cars. Some of them waved at her.
And Jason stands there fidgeting with the keys in his tux pocket that he rented with money he’d stole from his grandaddy’s safe. Money that Jason remembers seeing his folks pull up from the yard when he was little, it’d been buried in jars and, “This here is how people used to do it,” they told him.
And Candi is down the hall of the trailer hollering that she’s ready to come make her grand entrance. She’s hasn’t let Jason see the dress. Her mama took her all the way to Greenville for it. In her mind she’s thinking she wants this to be just like the movies. And here she comes looking like Cinderella, her dress poofs out so pretty and she turns a turn like a princess when she gets in the light coming through the storm door, the sun’s reflecting off the azaleas outside, the crepe myrtles opening, the pink bands on her braces, her shoulders glowing, an angel, everyone is in awe. She gives them another spin, and glass grinds into the linoleum.
Last week I was on a date with a city boy. Convinced him to drive all the way out here to see me, bring me some fresh falafel. On the ride home from Ahoskie I pointed and showed him where all the people had been killed the past year.
He didn’t say much, even though he was an Aries. And after I said something about the stars, the rest of the night we sat in my living room drinking tea, huddled under blankets and we didn’t talk about why I’d moved back here in the first place. It was the start of October. I’d been here since July. He didn’t leave until 10:45 to go back to Virginia. I told him to be on the lookout for deer. “Bucks come out at night when it first gets cold like this.”
I remember driving with Daddy at night here. “This is where they get real bad,” he’d say, coming in a curb, “You better slow down, it’s buck snawt season. They get to rutting, fighting over a doe, don’t know if they’re coming or going.” Like he’d say when I told him I was going to a party in the city, “Them boys are gonna be bumping into the walls.”
All I could do driving then with Daddy was to beat on my horn as we drove so slow, so the deer would hear us coming.
A cry calls out from the wilderness.
Truth is I knew it wasn’t gonna work out with him before he even came down from Virginia. I just looked forward to having someone to ride around with, wanted to get out of sitting alone in my old house.
And all the folks here that’ve never left and don’t know about the flowerterrible I found in e.e. cummings on the second floor of the Meredith College library, and tzatziki and sneaking flasks into real live symphonies. And all the indie rock kids who paused to dedicate songs to me in basements.
And I don’t know how I’m gonna heat this old house either. It’s the coldest winter of my life. It’ll only get colder.
Last night I stayed up until 3am watching folks play The Sims on Youtube. I saw the baby bassinet bloom from flowers. Stray cats chased each other out the yard. Bees made honey. Cuckoo clock cuckooed. Chimeway & Daughters piano played Schumman in the hall. And then I saw one I’d forgotten. In Makin’ Magic, a magician cuts a woman into 3 parts. Everybody claps.
Daddy wasn’t dying when I was 12 and in Nicole’s bedroom.
I didn’t want to write about this tonight but here we are. There used to be a time when everything didn’t lead back to him. But I’ve just got back from trying to feed him supper in his home. He’s in the memory care unit now, on hospice, dying, the last stages of Alzheimer’s and he choked and choked trying to swallow. I said, “Okay Daddy now you gotta swallow, here look here’s some drink.” Can’t use his hands, can’t talk—communicate, put straw to his lips. Choked and choked. Moved home to be with him now. I said, “Good job, I love you.”
And I’m alone here and it’s late and I don’t want to have to think about how he looked, skin and bones, body breaking down, hips pushing through. There’s a hole in the floor under me blowing in winter. I need to sleep.
See I just wanted to write something cool about The Sims or a nice short story that ends with Candi in her beautiful prom dress. Standing on the beach at sunset, something she’s always dreamed of. The sparkles, she’s smiling. Her dress is petals shining and the water is warm.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from Woodland, North Carolina. She wrote Sleepovers. Her stories appear in the Paris Review and the Oxford American.