Marlene Olin

Sometimes the Magic Works

The female octopus produces offspring once during her lifetime. She lays up to two hundred thousand eggs and, depending on the species, spends as long as four years brooding over her hatch. She does not feed while nesting. Her body becomes dull and slack.  When her eggs have matured and her progeny is no longer at risk, she gracefully succumbs to her death.
It was Cookie Steinkoff’s firm conviction that her mother would outlive them all. She had outlived each of her friends and now she had outlived Zeena. As much as Cookie dreaded going to a funeral, she dreaded seeing her mother more.
One by one she checked off her list. She asked the art gallery to delay her show.   She told her doorman to keep an eye out for packages, carried her aquarium over to her neighbor’s apartment, packed and re-packed her suitcase then checked the stove twice. She had moved to Manhattan right after college and now nearly two decades later it was time to go home. For a week tops. She checked the stove again. Her forearm itched. If only she could scratch it. If only she could take her fingernails and rake them slowly from her elbow to her wrist. She shuddered at the thought. Sex was not nearly as satisfying as watching her skin split and weep. She dug a nail into her forearm, closed her eyes, and counted to ten.
Visualize, said Dr. Weitz. Give the pain a head a body something you can stab at something you can confront. But just thinking of her mother erased years of therapy. Cookie visualized the remote control to her television and with her index finger moving in the air pressed a pretend button. PAUSE.  It was time to PAUSE. Breathe, Cookie, breathe.
Five hours later she was driving a rented convertible on the causeway with her hair blowing in the wind. To her right was the port of Miami. Vast cruise ships honked. Steel derricks with huge containers in their maws gaped and lunged. To her left, a series of man-made oases. She pushed down on the brake and pulled in front of the guardhouse. Palm Island was the former domicile of Al Capone and the assorted rich. Old rich. Newish rich. Christian rich. Jewish rich. Home.
The guard was multi-tasking. Watching a Spanish soap and the security cameras at the same time.
“I’m Cookie Steinkoff. 1009 Espanola Way. Cassandra and Kip’s daughter.”
The guard put down his sandwich, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stared at Cookie’s breasts.
Yo soy Cookie Steinkoff. Llama a mis padres. Rapidamente.”
The words flew like birds. Cookie had the same facility for languages as her father. She only had to hear a conversation once to figure out the big picture. Twice and she understood the details. A third and she was holding up her end of an argument. Kip had been a Professor of Romance Languages for over thirty years.
But Cookie was never comfortable receiving gifts, especially from her parents. She turned down cash and tore up checks. A person with her talents could have toured the world. Translated novels. Perhaps worked at the UN. Instead Cookie berated lackeys in Spanish, cursed dullards in Italian, and fucked her lovers in French.
Vai a casa a tua moglie e i bambini, stronzo. Go home to your wife and kids, asshole.”  Then Cookie floored the gas.
The house looked remarkably the same. Terracotta roof, white walls, sprays of bougainvillea. A hacienda the size of a hotel. She knocked at the door and waited. Her mother always insisted that people wait.
The woman greeted her with a smile. “We were expecting.” Hispanic. Could have been forty. Dressed in a white polyester uniform with white canvas sneakers on her feet. “You have good trip?”
Three more doors opened and there was her mother. Cassandra stood under the portrait Kip had commissioned right after the honeymoon. Almost fifty years later, she had hardly changed. Fine blond hair swept back in a tasteful chignon. The suit a navy St. John’s knit. A single strand of pearls. She was pickled in a brine of venom, thought Cookie. Some people never age.
“Well, well, well,” said Cassandra. “Let’s take a look.”
She grabbed Cookie’s elbows and pecked first one cheek, then another, their arms locked in a cage. Cookie felt Cassandra’s eyes as they scanned the furrows on her forehead and the creases on her neck. Then in a flash, she reached toward Cookie’s scalp and plucked a hair. “Well, well, well,” said Cassandra. “Someone’s turning gray.”
Cookie stared down at her feet. She was expecting to see clogs or PF Flyers or some other kind of shoes she hadn’t worn since she was a kid. Her mother always had that effect on her. Cookie’s tongue skimmed her teeth checking for braces. She hadn’t worn braces since 1989.
“The funeral’s tomorrow,” said Cassandra. “Do you have something appropriate to wear?”
Cookie pictured the remote control in her hand. Her thumb pressed down on her thigh hard enough to leave a print. DELETE. DELETE. DELETE. “How’s Percy?”
“He came home around a week ago…just in time to see his mother die. No one’s heard from that brother of his…What was his name? The one you always had your eye on?”
“Of all the boys to waste your time on, you had to pick him.”
Her thumb pressed down harder. “Where’s Dad? I want to see Dad.”
Cassandra’s chin shook. It was a barely perceptible wobble, but Cookie noticed. In her family, earthquakes started with the smallest of tremors. “He’s in the den. Do you remember where the den is? Or do you need me to show you the way?”
Cookie slipped past her mother and walked down the hallway. Kip, she had been warned, was “under the weather.” As usual, he sat at his desk facing the window. From the vantage point of his back, he looked the same. His hair, still perfectly groomed, was a little whiter. His shoulders were square. Outside, the sun threw diamonds on the limestone patio. The waters of the bay churned.
All the old habits kicked in. On tiptoes, Cookie carefully closed the door. Then like a ghost she glided to his chair and cleared her throat. Her father hated to be disturbed when he was working. Her shoulders curved inward. She felt her knees folding. Kip always found her dull and uninteresting. Why would anything change?
“Dad, it’s me. It’s me. Cookie.”
He glanced at her then looked down. The front page of The New York Times was placed in front of him. With his chin cocked, his right eye focused on the paper. A long slender finger traced the words.
“It’s me, Dad. It’s Cookie.”
The right eye was inches from the paper now, the lashes nearly sweeping the desk. The room was so quiet Cookie heard the door knob turn.
An older woman burst in carrying a tray with tea. Her skin was the color of almonds, her long gray hair neatly plaited down her back. Yolanda. Two cups. Four cookies. Lemon and no milk. She remembered.
“He doesn’t recognize anyone,” said Yolanda. “Not your mother, not me.” She put down the tray then wrapped her arms around Cookie. Cookie breathed in her hair, her skin. She always smelled liked freshly made churros. A little sugar. A little cinnamon and something else.
“The newspaper is…how do you say???…a charade…an act…people like your father follow scripts…How do you do?I am fineHave a nice day.” Yolanda paused then took a deep breath. “A little Spanish. Some Romanian. You never know.”
While her mother had barely aged, her father had disintegrated. Someone had taken great care to dress him. To comb his hair and to trim his beard. But there was no hiding the fact that his arms were twig-like, the sleeves of his suit hollow. A tie dangled around his long thin neck like a hangman’s noose.
Que quiere?” he asked. “Quien es?”
He lifted his head to glance at the water. “Yo! Yo! Yo!” he mumbled.
Cookie leaned down and placed her mouth inches from his ear. “What do you want Dad? A book? A snack?”
“Yo! Yo! Yo!” He lifted a finger as if he were pointing to God.
            I. I. I. thought Cookie. Maybe that’s the game plan. Maybe we were all destined to become our worse selves, to have our weaknesses distilled and purified until all that’s left is Yo Yo Yo.
As she had done when she was a child, Cookie retreated to the boat house on the dock. A small skiff was inside, tethered by a rope. Cookie lay down and felt the gently breaking waves. She’d have to see Percy soon. She couldn’t believe that one night, one stupefying impulse had defined their relationship for the last twenty years. Once he had been her best friend. Perhaps her only friend.
“He’s wiped the slate clean,” Dr. Weitz told her. “Why can’t you?”
The glare of the flashlight found her. Cookie opened her eyes and splayed her hands in front of her face. “Maledetta. Shut it. For crying out loud. Turn it off.”
“You know, you’re not as much fun as you as you used to be,” said Percy.
“Isn’t that a fact.” Cookie sat up and grabbed the sides of the boat. Somewhere a large wake, a growing circle of ripples, worked its way towards her. The dizziness was overwhelming. She watched her hands straighten her blouse. Her fingers combed her hair.
Percy pasted on a smile. Jesus, he could smile through anything. Percy had always wanted to be an actor.
“Look how cute you’ve turned out. The hair…the complexion…by God you’re using mascara…let me check…are you wearing Spanx?”
In the distance, they heard the loudspeaker of the boat. “Around the bend, you can see the home of Barbara Walters. Nick Nolte used to live…”
Percy grabbed Cookie’s hand and together they ran to the edge of the dock. PAUSE, thought Cookie. REWIND. In unison they turned around, dropped their pants, and mooned a hundred tourists who had paid to see the home of Al Capone.
They found the archway in the bougainvillea and slipped through a small gate that led from one yard to the other. Percy’s parents were New York-seat-on-the-stock-exchange wealthy. Old money dating back to the Mayflower. Their home wasn’t nearly as large or pretentious as Cookie’s. It didn’t have to be.
“We don’t have to skulk anymore, mon amie,” said Percy. “Tres tragic. It’s just the two of us now.”
If the Steinkoff mansion was a Keep your voice low! Don’t touch! Don’t run! art museum, the Huffington home was plump couches, tattered rugs, chintz curtains. Cookie had eaten dinner every night with Percy for as long as she could remember. They did their homework together in his room.
“The place hasn’t been dusted since the millennium,” said Percy. “As soon as the funeral’s over, I’m having it washed and blow-dried.”
Cookies’ parents had a rotating staff—no one could put up with Cassandra for more than a year. But the Huffingtons only employed Yolanda and Bertram. Yolanda was their full-time nanny and cook while Bertram cleaned and chauffeured. Whatever part of Cookie remained whole was in no small part due to Yolanda and Bertram. Twenty years later, Cookie’s and Percy’s feet followed the old footprints. Within minutes they were back in Percy’s room.
Percy sat at his desk, his leg crossed, his foot bobbing. Meanwhile Cookie paced the floors and scanned the walls. “I can’t believe the Farrah Fawcett poster is still here.”
As soon as he had started dressing himself, Percy preferred girls’ clothes over his own. His stepfather had panicked, hoping that the site of a babe in a hot red bathing suit would set things right.
“Which one was it again?” asked Cookie. “Herb two, three, four?”
It was their inside joke, a little banter to ease the pain. Per
cy’s parents had been married for almost ten years before he was born. Then one day when Percy was nearly a month old, Win left the house to get a quart of milk and never came back. Once Percy’s father was out of the picture, a revolving door of suitors took his place. The children called each of Zeena’s successive husbands Herb.
“Do you know you live five blocks from me in Manhattan?” said Percy. “I’m on fifty second. You’re on fifty seventh.”
Cookie scratched her forearm. “I’m only staying until Wednesday. That’s two days. Tops.”
He uncrossed and crossed his legs again. The other foot bobbed. “Do you realize that your nose is perfect? Remember how we worried? How when they peeled off those bandages you started crying? My God, you asked for Julia Roberts and they gave you Sissy Spacek. Two nostrils and a chin. How we cried.”
She turned to look at him. “I still have nightmares,” said Cookie. “Nightmares when I wake up and don’t recognize who I am.”
Percy pulled down their middle school yearbook from a shelf. “You mean the seventh grade Cookie? The one who was twenty pounds overweight with the Dirty Dancing nose and frizzy hair?”
“Her I recognize. Her I expect.” A full-length mirror hung near a dresser. She stood in front of it and pointed. “It’s this person I’m not familiar with.”
Ten minutes passed. Cookie circled the room, revisiting memories she had long ago shelved. Percy, a twitch of moving body parts, tapped his fingers on the desktop and hummed.
“You know I kept all our stuff.” He walked into the closet, hefted a huge cardboard box, then dumped it on the bed. “Da duh!” A hot pink boa, black top hat, white gloves, a rainbow of scarves came tumbling out.
“You were the worst magician ever,” said Cookie. “And I was the worst assistant.”
“Remember when we did the Kleinman Bar Mitzvah?” Percy found the juggling pins and tossed them in the air three at a time. “The rabbit…”
“Marshmallow…the rabbit’s name was Marshmallow,” said Cookie.
“Marshmallow ran away and crapped all over the Viennese table.”
The list was endless. The children’s party where the doves flew over the roof and kept on going. The coins that fell out of sleeves and rolled on the floor. But Percy would remain nonplussed. He never let the little stuff bother him. Instead, he’d throw a smile as big as a spotlight at the audience and shrug. “Sometimes the magic works, folksand sometimes it doesn’t.
“Phillip’s coming tomorrow,” said Percy. “Going to make a grand entrance, I’m sure.” When he tried to add a fourth pin, everything fell apart. It always did.
Cookie ran her finger along some books. Just the mention of Phillip’s name made her mouth feel cottony. Phillip and his college friends had crashed their senior prom, rumbling into the school parking lot in their BMW convertibles. Cookie, as usual, was Percy’s date. For some reason she could never fathom, she sprinted out of the auditorium and ended up in Phillip’s car.
She woke up the next morning at a suite at the Hyatt with Phillip passed out at her side. It was the greatest humiliation of her life. Percy sulked for weeks. First his father had walked out and now his closest friend. Out of a lifetime of memories, that one night haunted them both.
Cookie leafed through a novel. “You know what they say about quarterbacks of the football team. He probably peaked in high school. Probably has a wife who weighs three hundred pounds.”
“Actually,” said Percy, “he runs a Fortune 500 company and his wife’s an editor for Town and Country.” He dumped the pins and tried juggling the bean bags. Bean bags were easier to grasp.
“I’ve seen these books,” said Cookie. “I know these books.”
Percy put down the bean bags and began shuffling a deck of cards. “Bertram would bring them over. When they couldn’t make me an athlete, they tried cultivating my brains.”
Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Hawthorne and Hemingway. All of the margins were penciled in her father’s hand. “There’s a whole library here…” She opened The Great Gatsby. It was a first edition. Kip’s gifts usually were.
Percy had found his trick cane. “Somehow this used to fold in half.” He whacked it on the floor. “When you left, I hung around for a few years. Did some community college. A lot of partying.”
Cookie pressed PAUSE. “Why are you tilting your head like that?”
“Like what?” asked Percy.
“You’re leaning in. Like you’re trying to see with only one half of your face.”
Percy studied the cane. “I’m looking for this tiny release button…I’m nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other. Weird, huh?”
Cookie walked over to the cardboard box and buried her hands. Then one by one she extracted their costumes. A slinky fuchsia gown. A black cape.
“You realize,” said Percy, “that the act was just an excuse for us to dress up.”
Cookie held up a sequined magic wand and swooped it over their heads. “Zeena loved it. Remember how she did our hair and make-up? How she schlepped us to her fancy luncheons? How she clapped louder than anyone else?”
They sat on Percy’s old twin bed elbow to elbow. Cookie’s eyes swallowed the room. “Do you see that water stain on the ceiling? It’s growing fur. If I had one of those styluses I could move it around. Make a beard, some hair, maybe a mustache.”
“How did you find out?” asked Percy. “How did you find out that my mother died?”
“Yolanda called me,” said Cookie. “Yolanda asked me to come home.”
The next day a hundred mourners huddled around a green tarp at the cemetery. A minister recited a one-size-fits-all speech and muttered a few prayers. Other than a few elderly relatives, most of the people were paid employe
es of the family. A landscaper. The accountant. Cookie stayed by Percy’s side, threading her arm through his. Overhead, planes headed for the airport. Closer by, they heard either a gun fire or a car vroom. The president of the woman’s club spoke. One of the Herbs started to cry. And sure enough, minutes before they were through, a red Porsche pulled up along the curb. Phillip, Percy’s older brother, leaped out of his car and ran to the casket.
“Am I late?” he asked.
“Of course not,” answered Percy. “We’re just wrapping up the dress rehearsal.”
Phillip slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and ogled Cookie. “Wow,” he said. “You look great. Wow.”
“You had your shot,” whispered Cookie. “And it lasted around nineteen seconds.”
One by one the mourners dispersed. Cookie and Percy took seats under the tarp. Meanwhile, Phillip kneeled by the casket, the knees of his bespoke suit swabbing the ground. Cookie felt Percy squeeze her hand. “It’s ninety degrees out here today. He must be sweating buckets.”
“You know theater,” said Cookie. “The greater the guilt, the more they sob.”
Out of the shadows, an elderly couple walked up to them. Cookie squinted. The daylight was dazzling. White. Sharp. As bleached as bones. Under the tarp the four poles cast long black lines over the headstones. Dark. Light. Hot. Cold. The world started to spin.
“Hello, Cookie.” The old man had a full head of hair. Eighty years old and at least six feet. He looked vaguely familiar, as if Cookie had seen him in a photo album or in a picture on the wall. The woman leaning on his shoulder was her mother.
“Cookie,” said Cassandra. “This is Win Huffington. Zeena’s first husband.” Looking back, it was at that moment that Cookie knew the truth. All those years she had been gazing through the wrong side of the telescope. Suddenly everything was clear. Win was a weathered version of Phillip, down to the neatly combed part in their hair. They both stood with one hip higher than the other, their right foot turned outside like a prima ballerina’s. Regal. Self-assured. Confident.
And Percy was the image of her father, the father Cookie remembered when she was small. Buzzing like an electric wire. Twitchy. Lanky. Kip’s mind was a clutter of languages, his hands constantly moving. They were the hands of a magician, thought Cookie. They were the hands of his son.
“I suppose introductions are in order,” said Percy. He stood up, squared his shoulders, and held out his palm. “I’m Percy. Your second born. I made the honor roll once in eighth grade. I graduated Bowdoin with a 2.8 average. And last year, I’m proud to say, I acted in my first off off off Broadway play.”
The tremor started in the man’s hand and worked its way up to his head.  Then his chin nodded No No No No No, in violent spasms.
“Had a stroke a few years ago,” said