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Bob Kottage

Clarence 

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 little.

"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.

Clarence shrugged. "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 ferret's.

"'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!"

"Balthazar, Caspar, Melchior," the television said. "Gold, frankincense, myrrh."

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 stepfather said.

When she lifted the lid, Clarence was horror-stricken.

"Oh my goodness!" the mother said.

"What is it, what is it?" the girls said.

"It's beautiful."

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 chattered.

"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. "Naaah waaah!"

"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, Clare."

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?"

"Love Daddy."

"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.

 

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