There’s a Magic to It

John Herring


The last hole of the mini-golf course was to land the ball in a hatch that fired a toy jet into the air towards a tiny bedazzled airport, landing upright on the lanes was the goal. Heija and his noodle limbs were up, loading back and swinging through like the fall of a rope and people cheered like a sitcom track. Farrah only looked up when the jet plopped onto the grass, and she cursed over their pushed sighs.


They got orange soda after. It was nearing sunset, the three lying on their bean bags with the L.A Women album on repeat. Whoever complained about the home or the country had to make dinner. Farrah spent a lot of time watching for Heija who’d sometimes turn around and gaze into her and ask a very nonsensical yet specific question like how much sweat she produced in a year or what her last Christmas present would be and she’d always find an answer, learning to grab one. He did it the first day they got here and now it was a thing that happened every so often.


Their current act was a musical about human clumsiness and Heija and Campbell played lousy salesmen while Farrah was on the drum set: cymbal crashes and drum rolls to their loud accidents. The act had gotten increasingly more brutal and extravagant as Campbell pushed for a stronger sense of irony. It was held at the neighborhood gazebo.


At night by the quay Paco told her she wasn’t that interesting. Coming here for the summer and then going right back. The boat lights shone towards the city, she was mushing it with her index finger and pinky; he said it was like not coming. His eyes stayed on hers but she didn’t move and he asked if she was tired and she said yes and they went to his home in wrapped hips and when they got in she went to his bed and curled her body all the way in.


The morning streets were quiet. Their steps crunched along the sandy footpaths. Buildings were dark and a dusty haze flew in the air. They did not speak the whole way except for when Paco named the species of a flower.


Paco’s grandmother’s house was a small yellow house with silver menagerie and rows of family pictures. She was sitting on a sofa chair in a green dress. Paco kissed her on the cheek and said hello but she caught Farrah looking at the pictures and called out that those were all her old family who used to work for royalty here. She brought them into the kitchen and leaned against the cracked wooded counter, and began to tell the story of a man who had given her a whole beef stew today at the pharmacy, swinging around on line and handing her the large sweaty pot, saying it was better in her hands. She did not like being an old woman or wearing colorful clothing because people treated her like some sorceress woman. Paco argued that she herself was still beautiful, that people just drew to aweing appearances. The stew was on the stove but Paco had turned it off and already ordered some restaurant food; Farrah said it was true she was still beautiful. His grandmother looked at Farrah, surveyed her, told her to do a salsa.


They went to the beach the next day, and Farrah ran right for the water grabbing Paco’s arm. She threw him in, forcing him down under the cold waves and mushy foam until he broke free, surging out of the water with a mask of seaweed and she dashed away. She kicked her legs as hard as she could all the way up to his grandmother in her tent chair and breaking to the sand.


“You have beautiful legs,” his grandmother said, “ They will love you for your legs.”


She didn’t sleep over that night and caught the last train on schedule, seated across two laborers arguing about what would eventually destroy this earth. There was a party going on that night with free food and drinks and music and she was invited; the leader Marc from the airport who’d told her about the need for community here and to be able to celebrate comfortably and all she needed to do to join Les Etrangers was go to the events. She got off at her home stop and watched Jeopardy.


She watched Jeopardy for the next three days, eating packets of rice and using the show as an exercise in line with right or wrong answers. History went okay but the machinery questions gave her some burn. She finished the whole series in the three days, coming outside for the rice and feigning cough or injury when the guys or their friends had called her out to join.


She read the self-help pamphlet from under her bed which said that helping others was the number one cure of stress. Two adult men feeding an old lady adorned the cover. She tacked the pamphlet to her wall and called a therapeutic hotline. A concerned greeting of a woman appeared and Farrah slowly and thoroughly described the backstory with all of the adjectives she knew of her past of family and dreams and rejection. The woman suggested going on a date, or at least imagining she had one. When Farrah asked for elaboration she said it was just a certain for change, that inevitably she’d act differently. Farrah acknowledged her agreement and inquired about courting methods.


The next day Farrah wrote her friend Kelly a letter. It addressed the shoplifting incident which Kelly did not get since she didn’t have an immigrant mother. The arrest at Macy’s was the ultimate stab to the tyrant, an escape from this fear-based rule. Kelly was not wrong in thinking Farrah was a con. She did things to get hers just like everyone else got theirs but just in her own special swag. It was impossible to think that the free meals and the skips on lines were not badass. Her and Kelly were just not friend material. And the best thing was just to know that. Kelly should take that waiter job at the diner since that would be good for life and Farrah would dig further in this country, this strange country, life was strange.


Paco picked her up in his jeep at dawn and they drove onto the freeway. It bumped and hobbled over rocks. The white sunlight crept into the car and shone on the glass and she had to tent her eyes to look at Paco’s mouth. It was smirking the whole time, not just with the cheap jokes or the her not knowing things but through the entire car ride.


The lake was a clean sheet, a few glistenings. Each graze of the water rippled through the lake in soft and lengthening arrows. A woman had sacrificed herself here, he said. Tigers used to live by lakes. A drop of sweat had fallen from his cheek and she flicked it off.


They climbed up the mountain under the screeching hawks. Her legs cracked with each step. Rocks crumbled from below and pounded violently against the long slope. Paco made no noises except for his quick huffs. At the last lunge he came behind her and heaved her to the top and she fell onto a large field entirely covered in violets.


She asked if this was something he knew as a child or from his family and he said that he planned this for her. She held her look at him until he pointed to the view and she followed the point. The horizon, the eternal line, a milky blue and a sharp purple, finely divided and blending into each other at the same time.


In the view there was a hint of a green color that was the green of her old pajamas and the walls of many doctor’s offices. She watched it as Paco spoke of his feelings and how his life all progressed to this moment.


Their lips pressed together roughly and saliva rubbed around their mouths. She’s kicked the water canister off the cliff. They went to the ground and on the first touch of the violets a swan had flown over.


Campbell had written a new play called “The Lemon Jackets,” a play in the life of a woman which was set to be performed at the downtown seafood restaurant. It focused on a woman from their home country. The play began with Farrah stepping out to the crowd with a speech, on how no one would get in the way of her living a life, doing weird things and making questionable decisions. Not even the beautiful ones could stop it or these so-called friendly types. She proceeded with several moves and skits like a combat fight with her mirror or a snag of someone’s drink. The crowd reacted intensely during the show, wooing and clapping throughout and getting increasingly louder. She ended the play with a claim on how this new country better not be any different, that it couldn’t be otherwise. The crowd rose in ovation and got even stronger when Campbell came out as the writer but he gestured it to Farrah to give the credit of the play to the actress.


Her dresses grew more flowy over the days. It only showed itself when people at bars thought she was from their border country. They asked what she did with herself here since she seemed so uninterested with her present situation like her body had no interest with itself. She’d shrug and sip her beer, usually, maybe a nod if they kept going.


She started to be outside. She followed one of the paths out of her gate and traveled through the spastic city, coffee mills, homeless shelters, trade schools. The city was filled with people and structures but at some times fell into these voids, these pockets of non-reality. Many farmers would sleep on the beach here. Sheaves of vegetables hung on the doors in different color schemes. She never said anything of her walks except for when a mother cow was being prayed over.


The next play was on Labor day. The seats were filled and the room buzzed with chatter and excited giggles. Farrah stood behind the curtain in a frayed cotton dress and frizzed-out hair. The owner announced the name of the play, Love, and she came out onto the stage, stomping around angrily.


A drill of questions, why didn’t anyone know who she was, what she hated or who she wanted to destroy. She stepped down to the floor and walked right up to a woman and said she had the least excuse. The stage then darkened and lit up to her at a bar with a man, Heija, leaning over drinks and teasing each other. Each of them were marked to their countries; she was submissive, cold, and resigned to life but he was far worse, the infection of this world, the obnoxious, stiff, narcissistic spirit who had come here to spread his illness. She asked if he was happy with himself and he showed his nice teeth with a smile.


Next was a sped-up reenactment of their going home together: leaving the bar and walking the streets and passing a druggie and sharing their pasts to each other; she was tight on Heija’s stories like a patrol, waiting for that old violation. He did eventually say that he came here to live a more natural and spiritual way of life, that was the case. She scoffed in the air before he finished speaking.


They entered her apartment hugging a bottle of wine and fell to the leather couch. There was a moment of needing to say something, sitting straight on, their eyes glowing, a prolonged exchange of breaths.


She said he was not attractive. There was a feeling in him of an errand boy. It did the opposite of getting her to put up. She jumped from the couch and went to the kitchen and Heija had held still in his perched-over position, in conversation pose. There were a few seconds of nothing, the water running, until Heija’s raspy voice poked out and said to excuse his behavior, there was just this magic to her. The water cut off and he continued. Only one epiphany had ever occurred in his life, when he was 17 and he visited his dying father’s sparse hometown and realized that everyone in the world had a story, amazing or shitty or revolutionary or nothing, each one of the billions of people had one and they all swirled around simultaneously on this earth along with his, forever until it all ended. But today he also learned that anger was good. Beautiful, actually, with her skillful jabs and cynicisms that brought them deeper into the shallows. She turned this ugly mood into a work of art, a thing necessary to human spirit, and in no way could he achieve anything like that. Since always anger was an evil and an unneeded emotion to survive in this world, taught by his old pastor parents. But a door had opened today. And many more doors would open, if she stayed along with him. There did not even need to be any touch. He got up and looked at her but she was turned to the sink washing the dishes.


Farrah got an email asking if the play was really about that. Heija got a similar email but in a harsher tone. Farrah went to the owner and showed it to him and he said that he had given out their emails because the crowd had pressed him like he had created the thing. Farrah went home and opened into Campbell’s empty room and pulled out all of his notebooks and took pictures, the descriptions and the faded drawings of women and the spark words like ‘lost’ and ‘blinded’, and she sent them to all of the inquirers. She deleted her email and returned the cotton dress to the store.


The morning was flurrying. Church dresses grazed along the streets and string lights poured golden haze into the air, the city floating. She slipped through the crowd of families and elderly walkers into the center of the city, the cultural district. She turned into the large plaza with many statues and sculptures and sat at the fountain of a warrior swan, a swan with the legs and arms of a human thrusting its shiny beak to the sky. She finally looked at all of the things in the streets.


Paco no longer ate dairy products. He also wanted to limit his relationships since those could be the key to one’s well-being. He asked if she still did the plays and she said no, and seemingly at the same time they shrugged.


Paco had a two-sidedness to all of his actions, she said, even when he did a good thing. He recalled those gifts he gave her before the plays like the relaxing lotion. And the trip to the field of violets, that was the last thing his father showed him before he was admitted into a mental hospital. Farrah shoved her fist into her mouth, chomped down.


She did wear the lotion sometimes, she said, on her nape. They sat on the quay kicking over the water with their fingers grazing. Paco pointed out a small boat with green searchlights and called it the arrival of aliens, but Farrah snapped that it was just evolved dolphins. A buzz of teenagers ran around the area, holding drinks and speakers, Farrah called out their rowdy behavior, said that 100% she would rather be a stupid fucking teenager.



Winner of the 2020 Barry Hannah Prize for Fiction


Of “There’s a Magic to It,” Maurice Carlos Ruffin says: “There is a magic to the astounding use of language that I’ve never seen before. It encompasses the protagonist’s feeling of alienation, dislocation, and interruption without occurring meaning. Farrah is complex, alive, impossible to forget.”


JOHN HERRING is from Valley Stream, New York. He currently lives in Oakland, California, working as a Special Education aide. He spends his time teaching, traveling, and writing stories. He hopes to continue to do these things into the foreseeable future.