KR OnlineFiction

Hurry Down the Chimney Tonight

She asked him to jump out of a cake. She was Becky Grist. He was The Real Magic Pete. He remembered her from Burnt Cabins High. Halloween dances. She’d costumed herself as a sexy mouse, a sexy cat, schoolgirl Britney Spears. The same costume each year; only the ears changed. Now, she was thirty-five, divorced. Her son’s name was Justin. How could he say no?

The Real Magic Pete shimmies off the stepladder, worms through the hatch. The cake is made of stepped plastic cylinders decorated in loops of sea-foam-blue fiberglass icing. Becky follows him up the ladder, hums to herself as she climbs. The Real Magic Pete can’t identify the tune: it sounds like “Santa Baby” but could be “Hey, Big Spender.” She clamps the lid. Inside, industrial carpeting, an odd smell: mildewed beach towel yet sweet, hints of boardwalk, cotton candy.

The Real Magic Pete intended to major in early childhood education. “I want to work with kids,” he said. After three DUIs, he concluded it might be unwise. He dropped out. He saw some strange shit. Floaty lights over Corona, NM. A monk in Reno, NV, who swore they’d drowned together, twin sisters, in a flooded rice paddy in a previous life. Hell, he’d died once himself, sideswiped by a Toyota while attempting to run barefoot across Utah. Woke in a ditch off of US Route 40, no tread marks upon him, still a tad blissed, admittedly, on psilocybin, but memories clear as cut crystal of spilling over a Camry’s hood.

He ended up in VT. Learned to sculpt balloon animals at Bread and Puppet Theater. Some table magic too. Later, he received a message from his stepmother, Marjorie. “Huntington’s, heard of it, Houdini? Your dad has it. Drag your ass home, wayward son.”

The Real Magic Pete listens as Becky rolls the cake through the corridors of the American Legion Hall, the patter of its wheels on the tiles’ seams. He imagines he’s a kidnapped spy, locked in a car’s trunk, and must remember these sounds so he can forward clues to would-be rescuers. Squeak of wheels as Becky rounds a corner? Clatter and swoosh of cake shoved through swinging doors? Women’s voices: whistling, catcalling. “It’s Raining Men” crackling over the PA system Becky rented for the bachelorette party. Then, silence.

Four weeks after his father took his life, The Real Magic Pete contemplated his belly in the mirror of his childhood bedroom. He thought, My belly is pale and paunchy. He wondered if paunchy was a real word. He considered Googling it. He thought of a poem he read in college. Couldn’t remember the title, only that it was about abs and ended with the line, You must change your life. He considered Googling it. He decided to change his abs and/or his life.

The latch is stuck. The Real Magic Pete tries to force it, bangs the cake’s lid with his shoulder and the back of his head. It won’t budge. Becky texts from outside: Tech diffilties w/ cake. Out soon!!!!! (?) The Real Magic Pete hears women’s voices but quieter. They’ve moved on to dinner: chicken Marsala, better-than-sex cupcakes soaked in rum. The Real Magic Pete waits and waits and waits and waits and waits. It seems like a long time. Is it? Who knows? Time flows differently when you’re inside a cake.

She introduced herself at the Boggstown Fair, though he recognized her at once: Becky Grist, mouse, cat, schoolgirl, class of 2002. She was waiting in line with her son, who was glum, surly, too old for balloon animals. The Real Magic Pete played it cool. “What can I make you, my man?” The boy asked for a sniper rifle. “Anything else?” A bloody heart chained in razor wire? The Real Magic Pete spent thirty-five minutes balloon-sculpting a sacred heart braided in thorns. The boy, Justin, seemed pleased. Becky said, “That’s disturbing as fuck but thanks.” They don’t call him The Real Magic Pete for nothing.

They call him The Real Magic Pete because he received a cease-and-desist from Pete Cruickshank, aka Magic Pete, out of Orlando, FL. He thereafter changed his stage name to The Real Magic Pete.

The Real Magic Pete thinks of his friend Blas Chascarillo, the Safeway in Sedona, AZ, the night crew, restocking shelves. How Blas competed in breath-holding contests for barbecue grills, not because he desired prizes but because he was convinced he could flit between worlds if he held his breath long enough.
        The Real Magic Pete helped him train: scuba masks and duct-taped lips, whimpering, bluing, until Blas passed out. “How long was I gone?” Blas would ask when The Real Magic Pete roused him, tore the tape off his lips.
        “Shit, man. I don’t know. Days?”
        Blas never questioned it. Time flows differently when you’re flitting between worlds.

Days after Boggstown Fair, at the YMCA fitness center in Burnt Cabins, PA, Becky recognized him, still not as Pete Orbanek, class of 2005, but as The Real Magic Pete. She said, “Hey, Real Magic Pete, your triceps are looking sweet.” He said thanks, selected dumbbells from a weight stack, feigned some triceps exercises. After she left, he returned to the ellipticals. The man on the machine next to him said, “I’m going to crush me some General Tso’s chicken tonight, bro.” The Real Magic Pete felt good. He crushed himself some General Tso’s chicken.

The phone’s screen illuminates the cake’s interior like summer heat lightening. Sorry!!!!! Hang in there!!!!! The Real Magic Pete blinks. He is lightheaded, thirsty. It is late. He checks his phone. It is not late. It is 9:37 p.m. Outside, Becky is saying, “Good night. Thank you for coming. So good to see you again.”

It wasn’t a date—only an invitation to watch football, eat spaghetti. When Becky opened her condo’s door, The Real Magic Pete saw she was wearing a Steelers jersey. He wore a T-shirt with a timber wolf vomiting a psychedelic rainbow. Justin said, “Cool shirt.”

During halftime, Becky clicked off the TV, hustled out of the room. The Real Magic Pete heard her lob cutlery into the dishwasher. Justin clicked the TV back on. They watched a commercial for a local power-sports vehicles dealership. A stocky man with a crew cut slouched on an ATV; he encouraged viewers to take advantage of financing opportunities. Also, to vote Republican. Then he drove his ATV into a muddy creek.
        “That’s my dad,” Justin said.
        The ATV kicked mud onto the camera’s lens. An electric guitar grunted grumpy-sounding heavy metal riffs.
        “He seems like an asshole,” said the Real Magic Pete.
        Justin said, “He is.”
        Later, The Real Magic Pete said, “My dad was an asshole too.”

The Real Magic Pete helped Becky and Justin wax her car. After, sipping sweet tea in her garage, he flipped the pages of Justin’s sketchbook, where Justin was gathering ideas for quote, unquote kickass balloon art. Justin stabbed a page, a drawing of a skull, jawless, in a patch of wilted grass with a ball-peen hammer embedded in its temple and lumpy junk spilling out of an eye socket. Dirt? Worms?
        “Maggots,” Justin said.
        The Real Magic Pete said, “Hmm.”

Becky texts, Going 2 Harris’s 2 get crowbar!!!!! Back soon????? She sends a selfie—puppy dog apologetic face, reclining on a metal folding chair. The hall is empty, candlelit. The ceiling is clouded in scarlet balloons.

The trick to maggots, they found, was fleshy peach-colored 12-centimeter latex. Do not inflate for vermicular effect.

The Real Magic Pete is bored. He looks up the entry on “pop out cakes” in an online encyclopedia on his phone, reads how Romans began the practice of surprise cakes by serving one animal inside another. A pig cooked in a cow. A rabbit in the pig. A mouse in the rabbit.
        Blackbirds began flying from pies as early as the 1400s.
        The first person to jump out of a cake? Sir Jeffrey Hudson, November 5, 1626.
        It was the cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, who coined the phrase “big bang theory,” though he rejected the theory itself. A world-creating explosion? Too undignified a way for the universe to begin—too much like “a party girl jumping out of a cake.”

The Real Magic Pete sat in a booth at Applebee’s with Becky, her mom, Dottie, and Dottie’s new fiancé, Harris. Becky was planning Dottie’s bachelorette party: Jell-O shots, a bride-to-be sash. The Real Magic Pete nibbled a house salad.
        Becky worked in a bank. Dottie managed a medical database. Harris was a senior lead administrative consultant. The Real Magic Pete tried to imagine their jobs. He pictured Becky in business casual. Dottie typing on a laptop. Harris in a tie beside a water dispenser.
        He pictured himself retching a knotted line of rainbow-colored hankies.
        “The Real Magic Pete can do it,” Becky said.
        “What?”
        “Jump out of the cake.”
        “Me?”
        “Why not? You have great abs.”
        “I’m not really qualified to cake jump,” said The Real Magic Pete.
        Dottie patted his hand. “Sure you are, dear. You’re a professional entertainer, aren’t you?”

Justin asked for his help. The eighth-grade semiformal’s rules stipulated that boys must wear ties, dress pants, button-front shirts. Nothing about face paint. Justin and his friend, Urijah, were planning to quote, unquote Day-Glo the fuck out those punkass chickens. Could The Real Magic Pete paint their faces?
        “Me?” said The Real Magic Pete.
        “You’re an artist, aren’t you?”
        Justin’s gaze trailed. They were eating oatmeal in Becky’s kitchen. Outside, chickadees shook the birdfeeder, fought for seeds.
        Justin whispered. “Urijah’s special to me.”
        He stared at his hands. His spoon trembled.
        The Real Magic Pete said, “Sure thing, my man.”

The Real Magic Pete taps Morse code on the cake’s walls: SOS. Save our ships? Save our souls?
        He thinks of the last night he saw his father—how they argued. His father insisted: the test for Huntington’s, Pete needed it. What was the point? Pete countered. Knowing he was dying the slowest of deaths? Knowing wouldn’t change a thing. He cracked a joke. Had his father heard about that incurable sexually-transmitted terminal disease? It’s called Life. His father interrupted. A living will, Pete needed one. The Real Magic Pete misunderstood—confused living with last will. It’d be pointless, he said. He’d nothing to bequeath. No one to bequeath it to.

Once, The Real Magic Pete tried to convince Becky he’d attended Burnt Cabins High. “We went to high school together?” she said, “You and me?”

The Real Magic Pete listens for Becky’s return. He can nearly hear it: the crowbar’s bite. She will lift the lid—a circle of softer darkness opening overhead, her arm a rescue rope flung down a wishing well.
        He thinks of the YouTube clips he watched on his phone the night Marjorie called him in Vermont—men and women trembling in wheelchairs. He thinks of balloons, black birds exploding from pies, universes bursting from birthday cakes. He sings to himself in the dark, Hey, big spender, hurry down the chimney tonight. He considers what he might bequeath. He holds his breath. He holds it more.

For Justin, Day-of-the-Dead calavera in Day-Glo banana-yellow, turquoise, and pink. For Urijah, lunatic clown face shattered by post-Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt and quote, unquote a fuckton of glitter. The Real Magic Pete even sculpted balloon boutonnieres, silver snakes on emerald escutcheons, the symbols of House Slytherin. Becky snapped photos of Justin and Urijah pinning each other, laughing nervously, biting back grins.

The Real Magic Pete waits in the corridor, wearing nothing but canvas sneakers and a gold lamé Speedo, a cell phone tucked in his thong. He studies a wall of old black-and-whites, “Hometown Heroes” who served their country. Faces stare across time. Becky’s heels echo down the hall, crisp, chirpy taps. Her breath is winded from hefting the prybar. “How’d you get out?” she asks. The Real Magic Pete shrugs, murmurs something about holding his breath. Real magicians never reveal their secrets. Inside, the cake is latched tight.

Photo of Joshua Shaw
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Booth, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Sundog Lit.