“Little Magic” by Tom Howard
Uncle Seymour was magic. None of the grown-ups believed it, but me and my cousins knew strange and wonderful things happened whenever he visited. My family lived on a mountaintop that my dad and his brothers had bought and divided, and whenever someone was sick or a storm threatened, traveling Uncle Seymour would show up and things just mysteriously got better. He was Mama’s only brother and as different from her as could be. She was quick with a switch or a cross word and had no magic in her whatsoever. Uncle Seymour had never married, didn’t drink a lot, dressed in the same old suits he’d always worn on his route, and was the favorite uncle of all of us kids. It wasn’t because he brought candy whenever he came or provided me with his unsold paper to draw on but because he talked to all of us kids like we were grown-ups ourselves. He was just as interested in my latest drawings as he was in Dad’s opinion of the new mayor.
Yeah, Uncle Seymour was as different as different could be. When termites took out almost all the apple trees in the lower orchard, his favorite tree didn’t have a one on it. Heavy rains might wash roads out all over the state, but he always made it up to our place in time for supper. You could tell by looking at him he rarely missed a meal. Dad used to complain that Uncle Seymour could always find the kitchen at our house but never managed to find a grocery store on the way there.
One hard winter when the road up the mountain was completely covered by a foot of snow, I got scarlet fever! Other kids got mumps and measles and maybe an appendix had to come out, but I got stinking scarlet fever. The town doc actually came all the way out to the house to check on me and ended up having to have his car pulled out of a ditch on the way back. He told the folks he didn’t know how to get the medicine that I needed in time. I was too hot and nauseated to care, but the folks were beside themselves with worry. Just then, Uncle Seymour showed up unexpectedly with a package for the doc. He’d been delivering forms to Nurse Nancy (Uncle Seymour was a paper salesman) when the box was delivered and thought he’d bring it along, no matter how high the snow was. Guess what was in that little cardboard box? You guessed it, the exact hard-to-find medicine I needed. Someone had sent it to the doc by mistake, and he wasted not a minute before he filled a syringe and stabbed it into my butt. The folks thought it was some kind of miracle, but as I slid into the first sleep I’d had in days, I knew it was typical Uncle Seymour magic.
I mean he couldn’t change lead into gold or even do a decent card trick like Aunt Rosie, but when he was around, good things seemed to happen – small things no one noticed. If Uncle Seymour was taking you to the movie and you needed money for candy, you could just about guarantee you’d find a quarter on the sidewalk on the way there. Not a dollar, not ten dollars, just the amount you needed.
His car only broke down after it pulled into our driveway, he always had the exact kind of paper the customer needed, and if Dad was looking all over the county for a tractor part, chances were good it would show up in Uncle Seymour’s trunk as payment for some delivery he’d just made. The grown-ups all thought he was just lucky, but as a little boy who watched too many television shows, I knew better.
Like everything about Uncle Seymour, his car was in “woebegone” (Mama’s word) condition. I wasn’t allowed to repeat what Dad called it, but Uncle Seymour loved his pale green car, and I think it secretly loved him. The little foreign job was an Opal Rekord, and although Dad swore it ran on rubber bands and was a Jerry version of an Edsel, it managed to get Uncle Seymour where he wanted to go. Every time.
When I was thirteen, Uncle Seymour took me with him when he went hunting for a used transmission for his prized possession. When we got to the only gas station in town, we discovered it was closed due to the power being out. I was disappointed because I was becoming interested in cars myself. I was looking forward to seeing some local junkyards. Just then, a full tanker truck showed up for its scheduled delivery and the driver – the brother of a girl Uncle Seymour went to school with – filled up the car on the spot!
Opal Rekords are few and far between, and Dad said snowballs in Hades would be easier to find, but before we’d driven fifty miles, we found two! They were half-buried beneath some brush behind a diner. Since it was around lunchtime anyway, we went in for open-faced roast beef sandwiches and blackberry pie and to find out who owned the jalopies.
Beatrice (according to her nametag) poured both of us coffee (another treat since the folks thought it would stunt my growth even more) and gave us the scoop. “Those heaps? Been trying to get rid of them for years. My husband, Joe, is the cook here and let some crazy old coot who lives back in the mountains leave them out there. They used to have For Sale signs on them, but after that bad Columbus Day storm–” Her face got a funny look as the little bell above the front door jingled.
“Well, I’ll be,” she began. “It’s the old man I was telling you about!”
Ten minutes and another slice of pie later, Uncle Seymour had handed over a fifty dollar bill to the surprised old man for the title to the junker with the newest transmission. We told Beatrice and Joe that my dad would tow it home during the week.
No one seemed to think it was even a little bit coincidental to have gas at a powerless service station, cars when there shouldn’t have been any, an old man who only comes down from the mountains once a year coming into town on the very day we show up, a reasonably priced car, and a diner serving my uncle’s favorite kind of pie.
On the way home, I told Uncle Seymour it was about time he confessed and let me know how he did the wonderful things he did. Oh, he tried to talk about Uncle Eugy’s new wife and a recent sale of a ton of purple dolphin paper, but I wanted him to tell me once and for all why he didn’t use his talents in Vegas or go prospecting for gold somewhere.
He pulled off the road and looked at me with his big gray eyes behind the large frames of his glasses. “It don’t work that way, Neddie. It just don’t. It’s what I call Little Magic, not something I can control. You’ve seen your Aunt Rosie beat me at cards every time I’ve ever played. I can’t win a sweepstakes to save my life or inherit a million from a rich aunt I didn’t know I had. I get what I need when I need it and have to be content.”
“But you helped me when I got sick!” I insisted. “Even the folks say I’d be dead if you hadn’t brought medicine right to the front door!”
“Yes, and I’m happy I did, Ned, but I didn’t even know you were sick, much less what medicine you needed. When I took that box along for the doc, I was just helping Nancy out.”
I thought about it. “So, it’s some kind of accidental luck?”
“Little Magic,” corrected Uncle Seymour with a laugh. “If I try to make it work, I end up with a tooth knocked out or lost in some neighborhood where they’re burning salesmen at the stake.”
I raised an eyebrow. Everyone knew Uncle Seymour had all his teeth and never got lost.He rubbed the top of his bald head in exasperation. “I couldn’t save Uncle Eugy’s first wife from cancer, but if you need an extra ink pen, I’m your man!” Most people lost pens, but Uncle Seymour’s pockets attracted them as if by…accidental luck. He ground the car into gear (the transmission was bad, but I knew it wouldn’t go out completely until Dad got the replacement in the front yard) and headed for home.
“Little Magic, huh?” I repeated, disappointed but glad Uncle Seymour had told me the truth even if he couldn’t do real magic like on television. “Could you store it up and use it in one Big Magic?”
“I couldn’t with your Aunt Candita,” Uncle Seymour said sadly. “It’s got to be unconscious and improbable but not absolutely impossible. Whatever it is, it protects me and mine as much as it can. I just go with the flow.”
I nodded, deciding it was our little secret and feeling foolishly pleased with a world that produced open-faced roast beef sandwiches, blackberry pie, and Uncle Seymours.
The summer I turned fifteen, a strange thing happened to me. It was a nice long summer filled with lots of fishing and avoiding Dad’s list of chores. That summer, I discovered kissing a girl was exciting and didn’t always end up with getting my face slapped.
One day after unseasonable rainy weather, my cousins and I welcomed the sun back with a visit to our favorite fishing hole. I didn’t wait for my older cousins to unload the pickup and unpack the beer they’d liberated from my uncles, but ran, long and hard, through the alders up a well-beaten path leading to a small natural landing. The location was perfect for dropping a line and talking about cars, the sawmill (where most of my cousins worked), and the attractiveness of certain girls in our little town.
I was probably thinking about the latter when I topped the rise and discovered the entire peninsula was gone, washed away by the swollen, angry river below. Unfortunately, my eyes discovered the disappearance seconds after my feet had. My forward momentum caused me to step over the abrupt – and unexpected – edge, and I slid down the cliff face almost without touching it. There was no time to scream or regret that I didn’t know how to swim as the deep water rushed up at me. Then, after barely registering what danger I was in, I found myself jarred to a standstill six inches above the churning waters. Carefully, I pressed myself back against the naked cliff face and found one of my heels had solidly wedged itself into an exposed root running horizontally across the bank just above the water level.
Not believing my luck, but knowing the ribbing I’d get if my cousins had to rescue me, I made my way carefully along the exposed root to a deadfall hanging down the bank and managed to climb back up to the path and meet my cousins as calmly as I could. They were shocked that the river and our fishing spot were unrecognizable. If they noticed how pale I was or how quickly I agreed that we should return home, they never mentioned it.
I wanted to tell Uncle Seymour about it, but he was doing poorly. He didn’t visit as often and when he did, he looked gray and was out of breath. He still smiled at his favorite nephew – our private joke since I was his only nephew – and occasionally took me to rustic diners in the area to sample their pies and coffee. But I noticed he didn’t eat as much as he used to and actually had to borrow a pen once from someone to write a check.
However, he was still observant. “Ned, you’re awfully quiet these days. Everything okay? Do you need more sketching paper?” Mama swore the reason I was such a good artist was because I’d been drawing and painting on his excess paper since before I could walk.
“Sorry, Uncle Seymour,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do when I graduate.”
Uncle Seymour nodded. “Want to keep your appendages, do you?”
I had to smile. Many of my cousins worked at the local sawmill and had at least part of one digit missing. “I’ve got to get out of here, Uncle Seymour. I love the mountain and the folks, but I want to travel and see the world, like you.”
Uncle Seymour looked surprised. “Me? Ned, you don’t want to be a traveling salesman, trust me. All those bad meals and rough miles take a lot out of you. But you’re right about there being a big world out there, and you need to see it. You’ve got talent, Ned. You should go to art school someplace.”
I hadn’t even considered it, but before I could respond, a cute blonde appeared at my elbow.
“Mr. Ambrose?” she addressed my uncle. “I just want to thank you again for the amazing dolphin paper you found for my sister’s wedding invitations.”
The young beauty standing at our table was Janis Jefferson, head cheerleader at my high school and a goddess worshipped by short art geeks everywhere. She turned her beaming smile from Uncle Seymour to me. “Hello, Ned! Are you ordering paper from Mr. Ambrose?”
While I was trying to unwind my tongue from my tonsils, Uncle Seymour took pity on me and introduced me as his nephew. Unbelievably, her smile grew even wider, and she thanked my uncle again before she said good-bye, giving me a small wave and turning away before my face went completely crimson and my sputtering became audible. Uncle Seymour put his hand to his chest and laughed.
Back on the mountain, Dad promised me that if I baled the hay in the south pasture and laid it away in the barn before school started, he’d pay me real money and help me fix up a junker if I bought one. So I put Uncle Seymour’s ashen pallor and Janis’s bright smile out of my mind and worked like two grown men to get load after load into the barn, salting the green bales so they’d dry out and not rot in the cooling weather.
Not long after school started (but before I got a car), Dad picked me up at the high school instead of letting me walk home as usual. Seeing his old truck in the school parking lot was never a good thing; either he needed help butchering a wild animal he’d shot in Mama’s strawberry patch or something had happened to one of the family.
From the grim look on his face, I knew there wasn’t a deer carcass hanging from the A-frame in the back yard. “It’s your Uncle Seymour,” Dad said as he pulled onto the highway leading to the town hospital. “His heart’s finally gave out.”
“His heart?” I asked, having a little trouble with my own. “Will he be okay?”
Dad shrugged. “He was up at the hospital visiting an old buddy when he grabbed his chest and collapsed.” He smiled in spite of himself. “Only your uncle could have a heart attack in a hospital.”
“But he’ll be okay, right?” I repeated.
“He’s been taking pills for a while now and trying to slow down,” said Dad, “but the doc says his ticker’s in real bad shape.”
Silently, we left the truck and made our way to Uncle Seymour’s room. I was sick with worry when I saw him, Mama standing on one side of the bed and a nurse on the other. He was as white as the sheets and had tubes and pipes running into him but still managed a weak smile for me. He reached for my hand as I approached.
“How’s my favorite uncle?” I asked, trying bravely to return his smile. He squeezed my hand weakly but was unable to speak. Mama, almost as white as Uncle Seymour, clutched Dad and he led her out of the room to find the doc to find out what happened.
Inanely, I rattled on about how my art teacher had sent one of my drawings to a contest in Chicago. Even if I didn’t win, I might get to go see it in a gallery there. And I’d asked Janis Jefferson to the school dance and she’d said yes. The school bully (Janis’s old boyfriend) had fallen down the bleachers and was in this very hospital in a full-body cast just down the hall, and…
In slow motion, Uncle Seymour’s hand slid limply out of mine and left me clutching something. The nurse gently pushed me out of the way to verify his absent vitals. Another nurse appeared and led me into the hall on the way to get the doc. My last glimpse of Uncle Seymour was his body staring unblinkingly out the window, a peaceful smile on his face.
Mom cried and hugged me tight and both of us tried to be strong for each other as the doc returned and shook his head. Something fell from my hand, and Dad picked it up. It was a familiar key ring.
“Where’d that come from?” Dad asked.
“Uncle Seymour gave it to me,” I realized. “The old guy left me his Opal!”
“And his insurance,” said Mama. “He said he wanted you to go to art school.”
Dad looked at the closed door to Uncle Seymour’s room. “Let’s go get some coffee.”
“My purse is still in there,” said Mama, wiping tears from her eyes with Dad’s handkerchief.
“It’s okay,” I said, spotting a five dollar bill lying in the hallway. “I’ve got it covered.”
About the Author
Tom Howard is a banking software analyst in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the last year he has sold stories to Andromeda Spaceways, Fear and Trembling, Twisted Tales and Tower of Light.
Much of this story is based on Tom’s own rustic upbringing in South Bend, Washington, and ink pens tend to reproduce in his pockets.