One year they bought Clarence a
magic kit for Christmas. He peeled back the foil paper and sat
staring at the black, shrink-wrapped box. He picked his nose a
"Wha'd you get,
Clare?" one of the baby sisters asked.
"Know what that is?"
his stepfather said. The tree's multicolored lights flashed on his
glasses, like fireworks on the surface of a gray pond. Already his
face was flushed, his breath vodka-soured.
"Tricks," he said.
"That's right!" the
stepfather said. "You hear that, Mother?"
"Uh huh," she said.
When she smiled, her face seemed to come to a point, like a
"'Tricks', he says. That's
our smart boy."
On TV, a crimson cardinal stood
at a gilded marble altar, droning through Christmas morning Mass. He
was dwarfed by the gigantic crucifixion behind him. Christ's head
hung to one side, and he gazed up at the vaulted ceiling as though
bored to death.
"What's this, Mommy?"
one of the girls said. She shook a small package, then held it up to
her ear. "Open it!"
Melchior," the television said. "Gold, frankincense,
The mother popped the scotch
tape with her thumbnail and clawed the paper apart. Inside was a
long, velvety case.
"Even the box looks
nice," she said.
"Open it, Honey," the
When she lifted the lid,
Clarence was horror-stricken.
"Oh my goodness!" the
"What is it, what is
it?" the girls said.
Eerie, churning light shone from
the gift and turned one of the mother's cheeks purple, the other
yellow. Clarence couldn't tell whether she looked transformed, or
more like herself than ever.
She took the present out by its
chain and looped it around her neck, then fiddled with the clasp
behind her bowed head. The medallion dangled between her breasts,
its center boiling like dividing cells.
Without knowing its name, the
boy recognized exactly what it was: paranoid schizophrenia.
"How does it look?"
"Lemme see," one of
the girls said.
"It's like bubbling,"
the other said.
The stepfather got up from his
recliner, pecked the mother's glowing cheek, and nearly fell over.
He sat down hard on the couch beside her, then squinted over at his
empty chair with a stupefied expression.
"Now it's your turn,"
the mother said.
She set a package in his lap.
When he tugged at the ribbon, the green tissue seemed to unfold of
its own accord. He pulled off the cardboard lid and tossed it aside.
"Hey," he said.
"Now there's something."
The sight of the gift was too
much for Clarence. He began shivering uncontrollably, and his teeth
"Warned in a dream not to
return to Herod," the television said.
The stepfather raised the gift
by its arms and held it up. A black-and-white design zigzagged all
over its surface, turning salmon-colored wherever the light hit it.
The pattern was an infinitesimal maze, which appeared to be
moving--completing itself from several different directions at once.
Clarence knew it was cirrhosis
of the liver. "Looks
like it'll fit," the father said. "Thank you, Dear."
Everyone was startled to see
that Clarence had gotten up. He stood amid the wrapping paper,
pointing at the gift, an animal sound gurgling from his throat.
"What's the matter,
Clare?" the stepfather said. "Spit it out."
"Waaah," he said.
"We don't understand,
sweetie," the mother said.
"Aw, what the hell is this
kid's problem, anyway? Huh?" The stepfather flung his present
down. "You want the damn shirt, retard? You can have it."
He stormed out and banged the bathroom door shut behind him.
Bright organ music came from the
television, while the girls began whimpering. The mother put her
hands to her temples, clamped her eyes shut, and said, "Leave
me alone, leave me alone."
That night, while Clarence lay
in bed, the stepfather came up and stood in his doorway.
"Daddy didn't mean to yell,
A pale frame of light surrounded
his black figure.
"You're my smart boy. Never
mind about them tests, right? They can stick all them tests where
the sun don't shine."
Clarence held his breath,
waiting for him to leave.
"You love Daddy," the
stepfather said. "Don't you, Clare?"
"There's a good boy."
Once he was alone and the house
was asleep, the boy slid his magic kit out from under the bed. He
dug the deck of cards, the dice, the colored scarves, the trick
decanter, the magic rings and the wand out from their plastic tray
and laid them side-by-side on his dresser. Then he wondered what he
was supposed to do with them.
Bob Kottage is a freelance
writer and editor currently living in Tampa, Florida.