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The Fourth Wish: Chapter 7 - Surprises

The McCormick children and their friend Arthur go to buy a Christmas tree - and once again they encounter Mondo the Magician, only this time he is driving a taxi.

Elizabeth Varadon continues her delightful magical story for children of all ages. To read earlier chapters click on The Fourth Wish in the menu on this page.

The next morning their mother cooked their traditional Start-of-the-Holidays Breakfast. On the first Sunday of Christmas vacation, she always made waffles with maple syrup. Then Melanie and Erin would make her sit down while they acted like waitresses, setting out glasses of water and bringing the waffles, syrup, bacon and orange juice to the kitchen table.

When they were nearly finished eating, Melanie peered into her mother's empty cup.

“More coffee, ma'am?” she asked. Her mother nodded, and Melanie whisked over to the stove, like Daisy, to get the coffeepot.

“I'll have more juice,” said Cory.

“You know where it is,” Melanie said, pouring the refill.

“But, I'm a valued customer.”

“You're a busboy,” she reminded him. She sat down and ate her last bite of waffle. “You and Arthur,” she added, after she swallowed, “if he ever gets here.”

Every year Arthur, his father, and their landlady, Mrs. Sloan, came from across the alley to spend Christmas Eve with the McCormicks. Last year Arthur had also slipped into the breakfast and tree-picking ceremony as well. After breakfast they would all walk to the farmer's market under the W-X Freeway to buy their tree from Mr. Wainsworth. “We were busboys last year,” grumbled Cory. “Why do we have to clear the table?”

“Because we're waitresses. And we set the table.”

“If you're a waitress, you have to get my juice. I'm not a busboy until I finish eating.”

“I already gave you juice once!”

Their mother gave a deep sigh. Her heart-shaped face under her tousled reddish-blond bangs looked resigned.

Melanie felt a twinge of guilt. “Oh, all right.” She grabbed Cory’s glass and went to the refrigerator. A sharp rat-a-tat knock sounded at the hall door. Erin ran to open it.

“You're late,” Melanie informed Arthur, as she gave Cory his juice.

“Not that late,” laughed Mrs. McCormick. “Have some breakfast.”

But Arthur was already at the stove, helping himself to everything.

* * *

When the table was cleared and the dishes washed, they left for the farmer's market. It had rained again the night before. Reflections of Christmas lights shimmered in the wet pavement, and car wheels made splatting sounds along W Street, echoing the freeway traffic above the slope on the left. Melanie and Erin walked on either side of their mother, Erin skipping. The boys walked behind, talking in low voices. The name Mondo floated to Melanie a couple of times.
“Careful!” Mrs. McCormick cried, as Erin skipped into a puddle. “Erin, you have to learn to watch where you're going! Shoes don't grow on trees! Oh… never mind.”

Melanie saw the fleeting anxious look as her mother took Erin's hand. She could almost feel her mother's determination not so say anything that would spoil the morning. Last week Melanie had seen her sorting through the mail, a tired, distracted expression on her face. She thought about the extra days her mother worked now at Soup du Jour after Elsie, the full-time waitress, had gone part-time. Melanie remembered her mother's overly bright smile when she informed them. Now Melanie wondered if that smile had been hiding relief.

Erin giggled. “Shoes don't grow on trees,” she sang. “Shoes don't grow on trees.”

Melanie's thoughts drifted to her father. Before the divorce, if he was home in December, he would go tree shopping with them. And if his ship didn't return in time for Christmas, his presents always arrived early; they would save them to open on Christmas Eve. But this year—the first Christmas after the divorce—no package had come. What could that mean? Worries tossed in Melanie's thoughts like restless waves. Maybe an iceberg had sunk his ship. Where was he, anyway? Maybe he had come down with a strange illness.

Or maybe he was starting to forget about them. Melanie shivered and hooked elbows with her mother, finding comfort in the familiar, worn, red sleeve of her mother's jacket.

“Hey, Melanie....” Arthur's voice broke into her thoughts. “You wanna go to the matinee again after we take the tree home?”
“We have to decorate,” Melanie reminded him. “Besides, most of our allowance is gone.” There was only the Christmas money for shopping, and she wasn't about to touch that.

“Decorate tonight,” Arthur insisted. “I'll raid my piggy bank.”

“And treat all of us? That must be some full piggy bank.” She glanced over her shoulder. “You'd better save it for Christmas shopping.”

“You-know-who will be back on the job,” he replied.

“Yeah,” said Cory. “Hey, Erin, you wanna go see Mondo again?”

“Oh, Mommy, can we?” All Erin had talked about the night before was the magic show.

“The magician who did all those incredible things?’ Their mother roused herself from private thoughts of her own to give an indulgent smile. Melanie could tell she believed less than half of what she had heard about the show. “I don't think so, honey, not today.”

“But, I want to see…,” Erin began.

“We have to decorate,” Melanie repeated, and the fierceness in her voice surprised her. “It's Mom's day off. We always decorate!”

“You don't have to bite our heads off,” said Arthur.

They walked along the south side of the park, Erin with her thumb in her mouth. Passing the lake and tennis courts, they crossed W Street and pushed through clumps of morning shoppers to Mr. Wainsworth's stand.
“Well, if it ain’t my favorite bunch!” He grinned. The familiar cigar stuck out one side of his mouth, as if he hadn't finished smoking it from the year before. Melanie marveled how he could talk around it. He gave a woman a jar of apple butter and some change. He motioned with his thumb at the truck filled with trees and the group of trees on stands next to it. “Take your pick,” he told them.

Cory and Arthur liked the tall furry spruce hanging out of the bed of the truck.

“No way,” said Melanie. It had to be small enough to go on the coffee table—small enough, too, for the boys to carry it back to the apartment.

“How about this one?” Mrs. McCormick fingered the branch of a small fir that was about Melanie's height.

“That's a nice one,” agreed Mr. Wainsworth. It was neatly symmetrical. The feathery needled branches released a spicy fragrance that brought memories of every other Christmas rushing to Melanie in an instant.

“Yes, this one,” she said softly.

Mrs. McCormick paid for it, and Arthur hoisted it over his shoulder, clutching the tip with one hand. Cory walked behind, balancing the crosspieces of the stand.

They headed in a cluster to the curb, where a red taxi had drawn up. The sign on the door in large white letters said BEAGLE CAB COMPANY.
For some reason the cab driver kept staring at them. His face seemed oddly familiar to Melanie, as did the copper-colored shock of hair under his red cap and the matching eyebrows and mustache.

“Mondo!” shrieked Erin. She gave an excited hop. “Mommy, it’s The Great Mondo!”

The Great Mondo kept staring from large brown mournful eyes as they drew closer. He pushed back his cap and scratched his head. “It is you,” he said in a perplexed voice. “The kids I saw yesterday. The ones who....” He held up a forefinger, as if trying to locate an invisible button that would reveal some answer if only he could find and push it. He shook his head, then, as if the whole thing eluded him.

“You their mom?” he asked Mrs. McCormick.

She gave a wary nod.

“Funniest thing,” he told her. “I can't shake this feeling that I know them, not just by sight. It’s like...there's some connection.” He scratched his head again.

Mrs. McCormick folded her arms and looked him over with a sleety expression. “My children don't usually speak to strangers.”

“But, Mommy, guess what? It's The Great Mondo,” cried Erin. Then she asked the question Melanie had been wondering. “Why aren't you in your magician suit?”

“Yeah, how come you're driving a taxi?” asked Cory, still balancing his end of the tree. Instead of answering, Mondo leaned across the edge of the lowered window and extended his hand to their mother.

“Name’s Pete Garrity, ma’am. Can I give you and your kids a lift?”

Their mother hesitated, then gingerly shook his hand. “I still don’t know how you know my children, but... nice to meet you,” she said with stiff politeness. She let go of his hand. “We’re walking, thank you.”

“With that tree?” He nodded at Arthur and Cory.

“It's not far.”

“It’s far enough….” Arthur said.

Melanie poked him. Couldn’t he tell her mother was probably worried about the taxi fare? But after a grimace in Melanie's direction, Arthur gave a little flourish with his free hand.

“Mondo, this is Mrs. McCormick.”

“Pete,” corrected the magician. “Pete Garrity.”

“Mr. Garrity, this is Mrs. McCormick.”

“Mrs. McCormick, I can put that tree in the trunk in nothing flat,” said Pete. Before they knew it, he had opened the door, jumped out, and whisked the tree away from the boys. In a few seconds he had it secured, the top hanging out of the trunk and the lid tied down.

“My treat.” Pete Garrity opened the back door, extending his arm in a grand gesture. He gave them all a lopsided grin. “Call it Christmas spirit!” His voice had the buoyant tone Melanie remembered from the previous day before his show had gone out of control.
Mrs. McCormick hesitated, then leaned down and got in, pulling Erin along with her, followed by Melanie, then Cory. Arthur ran around and got in front. As Pete Garrity pulled into the one way traffic on Sixth along the west side of the park, Arthur ran his hand over the red dash.

“You should use this taxi in your act, Mr. Garrity. Like, drive across the stage and jump out, go, ‘Presto!’ and bow.”

Mr. Garrity grunted. “I'll be happy if I never do another act! Lucky for me my boss called and asked if I wanted my job back. I guess because the holidays are so busy.”

“Huh?” Arthur looked around at Melanie just as Cory nudged her with his elbow.

“This is your job?” Melanie asked Mr. Garrity. “You drive a taxi?”

“I guess it was a little reckless, quitting for a trial run at the Majestic,” he admitted. “But you can't do parties forever. There’s a time when you finally have to take the leap, right?” He made a fist and gave a little pound on the wheel. “Hmmm,” he said after a moment. In the rearview mirror, a doleful look settled briefly over his long face. “When I think of it, that was one of my ex-wife’s complaints. The main reason she left. But, hey, I’m a risk taker. No risks, no rewards, you know? Gotta recognize your opportunities, right?” He tossed a grin back at them.

Melanie slid a glance toward her mother.

“A risk taker.” The words dropped from her mother's mouth like flat, clunky chunks of ice. “You are lucky, Mr. Garrity. Not everyone can get their job back so easily.”
“I hate driving a cab,” he said. His eyes grew mournful again.

Into the long silence that followed, Cory said, “Turn right at T Street.”

Melanie thought about their mother's comment. One of her complaints about their father was that he was a risk taker. He never saved money. He drove cars too fast. He had totaled their car a little over a year ago on his last trip home before the divorce.

“Then you won't be at the Majestic today?” asked Arthur.

Pete Garrity gave a small bitter laugh.

“What happened?” asked Mrs. McCormick in a softer tone. “The kids, well, Erin said you were very good. She just raved about you.”

“That's an interesting question.” Mr. Garrity’s brow wrinkled in the mirror. “I thought I was good myself. I could swear everyone was having a great time and the show was going well. They were cheering for me! One of the ushers even shook my hand, but I can't remember why. Then Cottler—he’s the manager—just blew his fuse. I still don't know what made him so mad. I uh....” Mr. Garrity’s face and neck reddened. “I blacked out a couple of times. There’s...parts of the show I don't remember.”

“You have blackouts?” Melanie's mother sat forward in concern.

“I never have before.”

“You should see a doctor. It could be something serious, like a tumor.”

“Your wife left you for quitting your job?” asked Arthur from his own line of thought. “That's cold, man.”

“Nothing like that,” said Mr. Garrity. “I've only been driving a cab since I moved from the Bay Area last year, after the divorce was final. I was a house painter before that. It’s a good business, but Sacramento is overrun with house painters. So, when I moved here, I decided to make a clean sweep. See,” he confided, “I’ve wanted to be a professional magician for years. So, I thought, okay, I'll drive cabs until I get my act just right, then go for it!” After a pause he mused, “I thought I knew what I was doing!”

“Can't you drive part-time and do magic part-time?” asked Arthur.

“And you know what?” Erin burbled. “You could even come to our school.”

“I've...lost my touch.” Pete Garrity's voice dropped to nearly a mumble.

“Lost your touch?” Cory echoed.

“I’m all thumbs. I can’t do magic anymore. I can’t even shuffle cards. This morning I dropped a whole deck.”

Arthur craned around at Melanie. She tried not to look at him or Cory, though she could feel Cory’.

“Mr. Garrity, you’ve got to get yourself to a doctor,” said her mother. “If you’re blacking out and dropping things, that doesn’t sound good at all.”

“It’s Pete,” he reminded her.

“Excuse me?”

“Call me Pete.”

“Oh. Well. Um...Pete. You need to go for a good checkup.”
“Maybe so.”

“But guess what?” said Erin. “A nice surprise could happen. Someone could even make a wish, and you could get all your magic back.”

“Aw, that’s sweet,” said Pete. “You and your husband have nice children, Mrs. McCormick.” Their mother smiled.

“They are,” she agreed. “But, it’s just us. Well, I mean, my husband and I are...divorced.” She said the word as if it had sharp, hot edges. “I don't know what I’d do without my kids,” she added.

Melanie felt suddenly embarrassed. “Arthur's our neighbor,” she mentioned, for something to say. Pete laughed.

“And how many children do you have, Mr., um…Pete?”

“Oh, we didn’t have any.” His voice was full of regret. “Me? I like kids. I always hoped I’d have a big happy family, like mine was when I was growing up. We always had a full house. Everyone was always joking. But my ex-wife says no kids for her. She wants a career, she says.” He sighed. “Some women don't know what they really want.”

“Oh?” Mrs. McCormick’s voice turned sour. “I’d say some men don’t know what they really want.”

Pete’s face in the mirror became flustered. “Look, uh... if I said something wrong, Mrs. McCormick....”

“Turn right at Ninth,” said Cory when she didn't answer. “And then left at V.”

“We’re on the left side of the street,” Melanie added as her mother stared ahead, lost in thought. Since there seemed nothing more to say, they rode the rest of the way in silence.

© Elizabeth Varadan 2006

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