A young girl enjoys a magic act full of wonder, melancholy, and hope
"Evie! Please, slow DOWN!"
A young girl, with dark-brown hair wrapped behind her shoulders like a plush cape bound by a silken silver ribbon, caught her bold, bouncing step and pivoted around to meet her father's furrowed gaze with an innocent smirk.
"Sorry, dad! Just real excited!" The corners of her knit, pink windbreaker desperately clung to her lean shoulders as she whipped back around to face the street.
Panting, her father laid a hand on her back and admitted, "I know", as though he believed the action might root her to the ground for more than a moment. "But it's dangerous. Walk with me."
Fall's icy, bitter claws raked across her face as she wrestled with the hood of her windbreaker. Underneath a whirling, whipping red skirt, splattered-paint leggings kept her from shivering. Her father made the best of a brown-fleece, hood-less jacket he'd refused to replace for years. His leather boots brushed away a large pebble as his hand engulfed his daughter's.
Crossing the next intersection took them several careful minutes. Swarms of people spilled over the cracked islands in the dirt and Evie leaned into her father. Her mother considered coming along but declined. Evie found it better this way, with just her dad.
He was noisy, sighed a lot, and didn't really understand things (which he claimed were "simple") but he was better than having mom pressed against her shoulder. Mom had a way with words which Evie couldn't begin to understand. She might say, "Go to your room", with all the same effort as Evie and with a tone she could mimic, but only mom's words summoned boulders of obedience in her stomach.
Those rocks were gone and, inside her head, she could imagine flying through the air like the amazing Linette Pritchard. Her father's hand couldn't hold her down. Her pink-sandaled feet soared, if only for an instant, at each step.
As the crowd cleared enough to see Eastside Park before them, Evie spotted the orange-and-brown banner spanning across a set of lights, one at the edge of a baseball field turned into a grassy concert and the other flanking the oldest schoolhouse in the area. The banner read, in fancy script, "Welcome to the Brook Valley Fall Festival!"
The shuffling masses approached a set of small, barely-painted wooden booths with nervous teenagers squeezed inside. Evie's father begrudgingly plopped down a five dollar bill as he recounted how admittance used to be free, a promise of local taxes. The teenager just nodded and apologized as he beckoned to the next person in line.
As always, they made their way around the schoolhouse and Evie's dad picked up lots of little books and a free bag. Trinkets and toys were spread across tiny booths. Fresh honey and spicy nuts were sampled. Musical acts performed under the large tent. Science contraptions spilled out of another tent, sponsored by some aerospace company. Though the temptation of carnival games drew Evie's eye for a moment, she was looking for one thing: The Amazing Wiznick & Bellaclair.
She could recall every prickle of the cold, damp grass trying to turn her legs to ice as her spirit was dizzy and toasty with excitement. Bellaclair, with a neon-pink wig and a white, clown-face with cartoonish blush, smiled with her eyes and her spirit. She gave every child a big hug. During the show, she would pratfall several times, lose or break equipment (and gesture to the crowd not to tell Wiznick), and communicate only with a golden squeeze horn. Her body language, frowns, and squints told more than enough. As Wiznick performed and said a lot of words Evie didn't understand, Bellaclair used her hands to playfully-mock how long he was talking.
Not to say she didn't like Wiznick. His puffy, blue wig with golden streaks always seemed to puff up bigger and bigger. His rainbow pants always hid something impossible inside their pockets. His eyes twinkled in a way she thought only happened in movies. He felt like the grandfather she always wished she'd known, dead thirty years before she was born.
She dragged her father towards the tent before the next showtime. The magic steamer trunk of secrets was there. And the colorful table of silly junk. Even the totem of special air. But Bellaclair was nowhere.
Evie expected her to blow a kiss and then wiggle like a snake or point to someone who wanted a balloon animal. She was always on stage. Evie did her best not to fret. She probably had to go to the restroom or take care of something and she would be right back. But, sitting on the left edge of the mini-bleachers instead of the slimy grass, Evie had a nagging itch in her stomach which she just couldn't shake.
Wiznick felt off too. He put things away and he wore a smile but his wig seemed to droop and his smile wasn't quite as bright. She wanted to jump up and ask him what was wrong and what happened to Bella but she stayed put as her father put all his bags together.
Slowly, the tent filled up with junior high guys and girls many years older than her on the right side. They were noisy and annoying. They made fun of things, like the trunk, Wiznick, and his face paint. She scowled at the lot of them as they rattled the whole row by stomping their feet then cackling like it was the funniest thing.
Evie was glad when a large family created a block between them and herself. When showtime rolled around, the grass was empty and a little more than half the seats were full. She hoped that meant she might have a good chance of being picked to help.
Still, Bella wasn't around. Evie fussed as Wiznick puttered and began his show. With a tooting calliope that played itself, Wiznick began, "Ladies and germs. Joys and whirls. Children of all ages and kids at heart. Welcome to the show!"
He sounded like the old Wiznick. Soon he filled balloons that hovered across the stage. People batted at them but they danced safely away. One looked like it had a flame inside. With a beckoning gesture, they returned to his side.
With a twirl and a snap, one balloon no longer had an opening. Wiznick turned it around and around but couldn't find it. He threw up his hands and it finally returned. He all but wrestled with the balloon as the end slipped into his pocket like a living puppet.
From there, he made a drawing of flowers into real flowers and scribbled out one color for a better one. One of his balloons self-inflated because it was mad at him, an angry face swelling larger and larger but he calmed it down and the face changed to a smile. Another balloon became like ice with fog wafting out of it. Act after act, Evie clapped. And, when the moment came, she raised her arm to be the one who would actually fly on stage. She pushed and propped her arm up with her other one to get a little more height.
Unfortunately, a blond girl a few years older than her was picked. Evie bitterly-envied her as Wiznick's magic hoop lifted her up and up. The girl looked excited and shocked but giggled and wobbled until she drifted back to the ground.
The classic battle with a thieving sock animal finished the show along with a fun ring tick that made one into five. Then they merged together and finally spilled, as dozens of rings rolled over the grass.
After a bow, Wiznick cleared his throat and announced, "I want to thank everyone for coming and...just say that Bella really wishes she could be here today. Being here without her is like being without my right hand. Honks for the best assistant."
He squeezed a golden bulb horn like Bella's as the crowd gave a chorus of honks of their own. With that, Wiznick started making balloon animals for those who remained. They always floated and hovered, even though he just blew them up with his mouth. Evie was smart enough to see he had a high collar and plenty of places where he could hide something up his sleeve but she didn't want to question it.
She waited patiently as the rude, older kids demanded balloons in the shape of characters from TV. Wiznick did his best. He had a little fun with them by sending off the balloons just out of their reach, so they had to chase after them. With Evie's turn, she realized she hadn't given it any thought. She nervously wanted to retreat behind her father and just ask for a simple frog when Wiznick gave his twinkle and pronounced, "You. A balloon of yourself zooming through the air. Just a minute."
It took several balloons all scrunched up together but he made a simple version of her down to her pink hoodie and dark hair. He made the silver ribbon with a little, gray marker. Evie was afraid to hold it, worried that her hands might somehow destroy it. Her mouth stumbled for enough thanks. Her father pushed her to thank harder. She thanked again as Wiznick waved his hand and assured her that her smile was enough.
Quietly, Evie smiled and protected the balloon.
At a crafts booth, her father bought a bit of ribbon, which she used to make pink laces at the feet of the balloon, to hold onto it easier.
The rest of the day melted away with unfair games and heady rides and barbershop quartets as Evie nibbled on a hot dog.
Her dad took a long time in the bathroom by the swimming pool. She waited, watched, and felt trucks and vans huffing hot breath. Electrical equipment filled the area by the brick wall, a mobile home park on the other side.
Evie knew not to wander alone but she spied Wiznick over by a lime-green van. He wasn't too far. There were plenty of other people around. She walked over and said, "Hi. I think you're the best...Mister Wiznick."
With a groan, Wiznick shoved a trunk, not the steamer one, under something and settled on the floor of the van. He smiled. "Thank you. I really do appreciate it. Hope you liked the show. Decent way to go out."
Evie's eyes widened. "Go...out?"
Wiznick dipped his head. "Yes, indeed, little lady. I just gave my last show. There's a bubble artist tomorrow. Nice fella. You oughta check him out."
Evie shook her head. She refused to believe what he was saying. Wiznick couldn't just end. He was always at the Fall Festival. He was the best part of it!
When she protested, he kindly fanned his hand. "Believe me, if I had any say in it, I'd keep doing this forever. But things don't always go the way you want."
Tightening her lips, nervous that her dad might know she was gone, but aching to understand, Evie asked, "Is it Bella?"
Gently, Wiznick slipped off his wig to reveal wispy, askew silvery hair a lighter shade than her father's. It looked so normal. Sighing through his nose, Wiznick answered, "In a way. She got sick last Christmas but held on till this summer. Sweet Bella."
A flood of shame made Evie feel hot. "I'm sorry..."
"Ohhhh...don't be sad. She can hear you being sad and she won't have it. Smiles till the end. Forty years of smiles. So short a time. And yet every week now... feels like an eternity."
The twinkles around Wiznick's eyes looked like lost stars to Evie. She took a deep breath and told him, "Thank you. For the show."
He doffed an invisible hat to her. "The pleasure is mine. Even with the pain, I would go on but....uhh...it's fine. I'm old vaudeville. No one needs me."
Here, Evie professed and hammered that he was needed, that this was amazing, that everything was amazing. The whole show. It was beautiful. "Bella would be so happy you did it."
Wiznick set a hand against his white makeup without smearing it. He pronounced, "You...are something special, kiddo, to make an old nobody like me feel like I'm special."
Pressing, Evie asserted that, "OF COURSE", he was special. He agreed and relented as she pressed this point. With the kindly sort of twinkle in his eye instead of the melancholy one, Wiznick conceded, "I've always had a few things I can do. The helium and gasses? All me. No tricks. Just a special little talent." He shut one eye and put a finger to his lips.
Though she didn't understand how that was possible, her mind fired with all the same excitement she had wondering what it would be like to meet Linette some day. But, through the haze of her thrill, she heard the top-of-his-lungs cries of her father.
She flailed, fumbled, and nearly lost her balloon. Wiznick rose and put a hand on her shoulder. "Sounds like someone is looking for you. Come along."
Calmly, he led her over to the crazed shrieking of her father. As he started to scold her, with his face bright-red, Wiznick bought a halt to her father's fury, explaining that "Evie", as her father had been screaming by name, was helping him.
Then, the fury turned on Wiznick. Her father looked him over, called him "creepy", and dragged Evie away by the arm. In the struggle, she lost her grip on her balloon. It wavered through the sparse trees and slipped around a tent before shrinking to a stark, colorful dot in the cloud-mottled sky.
"Made? Ya alright?"
Hector Piroso set his hand on Madelyn Oats' shoulder as she stood behind the old restrooms at the park. Once Eastside Park, now Sheffield Park. It felt unnaturally empty.
It had been a long time since the Fall Festivals. The last ones were held not long after Wiznick, or Paul Wiśniewski, retired. He passed away that same year, right before the anniversary of Belina Wiśniewski's death.
That took Madelyn years to discover. All she knew was the city council moved the Festival to some fancy park on the west side and wanted to make it more "serious". No more clowns and bubble artists. A few years after that, they cancelled the event indefinitely because it was considered "a waste of vital city funds". Despite being the most beloved event of its kind in the state.
Madelyn could feel the scathing words she wanted to say about her hometown every time she came around here. But it wasn't fall. It was political primary season, on the cusp of spring, and they had to keep moving.
But it felt good to wander deep into the desert for Linette on the anniversary. However, most treks back here were about an active shooter at the hospital or far too many missing persons cases. Almost enough to make her forget. But....not quite.
Magic. Powers. Love. And whirling joy.
It was real. All of it. She couldn't prove it. But she could feel it, like electricity on her tongue, like a breezy fall afternoon full of wonder.