Miss Bonnie. “Thank you for giving me Christmas….” (Illustration: Art Lien)

He called himself “Pickle the Prodigious,” a magician of middle-age, middling talent and, for the past week, while others wrapped presents and hung lights, sick with resentment.

Ralph Pickle picked up menial side work around Baltimore, making just enough to drop everything when a gig came his way. He lived for magic; had believed in it fervently since receiving a ZENITH DELUXE SET for Christmas when he was 10-years-old; many, many Decembers ago, when the people who’d loved him were still alive. He could conjure rabbits and ice cream sandwiches and silver dollars from the air. But he could not bring back the beat of a heart grown cold.

Now it was Christmas Eve once again, a red and green shadow between the murder of John Kennedy and a brighter light still to come, an evening when so many people watched the Sullivan Show that crime dropped in New York City.  And the great Pickle was headed uptown to work a children’s party.

“No, I don’t make balloon animals,” he’d told the woman who’d hired him that morning. “And I don’t juggle. I’m a magician.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “Please be prompt.”

The day before, he’d been expelled from Demon’s Magic Club for stealing another man’s act. He needed a drink and he needed directions. After making a few wrong turns, he stopped by chance at a tavern near Patterson Park, the glorious, unerring punctuality of chance.

The red-headed barmaid, a woman named Bonnie who owned the place and lived upstairs with her mother, was on the phone. The place was empty with just a trace of Christmas, the voice of Elvis on the jukebox: “…it’s Christmas time in the city.

“That’s what I told her,” said Bonnie on the phone. “Nobody remembers what you say. But they never forget how you make ’em feel.”

She hung up and Ralph ordered a shot and a beer. Bonnie served him and noticed a stain on the collar of his tuxedo.

“A little tune up before the big party?”

“I do magic,” said Ralph.

“No tricks in here,” said Bonnie.

“Don’t worry about that.”

Maybe because it was Christmas – and she was generous by nature – Bonnie asked something she’d learned not to ask by the time she was old enough to serve drinks in the family bar.

“What’s wrong, mister?”

“I belong, I used to belong, to a distinguished society of magicians, goes all the way back to World War I. You’ve got to be very good to get in.”

“Yeah?”

“They threw me out.”

Pickle looked up and Bonnie looked him in the eye. “And why’s that?”

Ralph downed his shot. “Said I stole another guy’s act.”

“Did you?”

“Just nibbled around the edges,” he said. “Don’t know why I did it. I’m better than most of them anyway.”

Bonnie excused herself to check on dinner beyond a curtain in the back, thinking that he must not be a very good magician if he got caught. She returned on the warm scent of clove, maple syrup and pineapple and Ralph asked if she knew how to get to Roland Park.

“Sure,” she said. “Up there where it smells nice.”

What did Fells Point smell like when Baltimore was still a factory town? The tang of stewed tomatoes at the Lord Mott cannery, diesel fuel from the tugboats, sickly sweet hops wafting down from the Gunther Brewery, fresh baked bread and the odor of hawsers dipped in the Patapsco a thousand and one times.

“Well,” she said. “You’re still working.”

Pickle nodded, though he didn’t think work was the right word for what he did. When he finished his beer, Bonnie asked him how he’d gotten caught.

“I tried to explain,” he said. “But they didn’t believe me.”

                                                                          II.

If Santa Claus was real – and surely he was, his face was on every house, saloon and corner store as Ralph drove north toward Johns Hopkins Hospital – all the magician would ask of him was a vehicle in the shape of the victual for which his family was named.

A Pickle-Mobile!

Wouldn’t that show’em!”

At Hopkins, where Santa was too busy visiting sick kids to go car shopping for a worse-for-wear wizard, Ralph turned his old, institutional green Ford toward downtown. On each side of the car: THE PRODIGIOUS PICKLE. Beneath which street urchins often drew obscene pictures.

Downtown to uptown where flood lights shone on the Merry Mount Road destination. A loudspeaker behind decorated pine trees played an orchestral version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

And it smelled nice. It pays, thought Ralph while walking up the brick-paved path to the door, his tricks in his father’s old doctor bag – to advertise in the right places.  A Black maid in uniform answered the door, took his overcoat (but not his top hat) and led Ralph to the lady of the house, a thin woman who shifted a cocktail to her left hand and extended her right.

“Mr. Pickle?”

“The Prodigious,” he said, bowing.

The woman smiled – how cute – as her slightly tipsy husband came up behind her, put his hand on her bare, porcelain white shoulder and said, “I’ll pay you double to saw her in half.”

Shrugged off by his wife, the man turned to one of his law partners and said, “With my luck, I’d get the half that talks.”

Hardy-har-har. Slaps on the back. Let me freshen that up for you.

Handing Ralph an envelope, the woman said, “The children are in the playroom. We’d like to wrap things up in an hour.”

“Certainly,” said Ralph.

“Grace will show you the way.” 

The maid led him through the kitchen – where a crown roast of pork was cooling on a board – to the back of the house. The “playroom” – once a screened in porch and now walled in by windows, a blaze in a wood-burning stove – was as big as Bonnie’s bar.

At the threshold, Ralph put on a smile and his top hat and announced, “Boys and girls, please make way for Pickle the Prodigious!”

And they did, making a circle near the warmth of the fire as Ralph turned his briefcase into a table, his pen into a wand and the children’s anticipation to applause. The kids were worldly-wise – had not France launched a cat into space just before Halloween? – and attended the best schools. Pickle would have to put a fine point on this one.

He began with some spiced-up hogwash about the seen and the unseen, told a joke that fell flat – “What do you call a dog that can do magic tricks? A labracadabrador!” – and, in the dead silence that followed, told a boy near the front to come forward.

“What’s your name, young man?”

“It’s David,” shouted one of the older girls.

“My friends call me Davy.”

“And how old are you, Davy?”

The girl again, “He’s six and he smells!”

“Shut up, Kitty,” said Davy, angry to the point of tears.

“Now now Miss Kitty,” said Grace from the back of the room.

Oh boy, thought Ralph, fingering the envelope in his pocket. Oh boy, oh boy.

Pickle blindfolded himself – tying the knot with one hand – tilted back his head and put his hands close enough to the fire to feel its sting.

“Kitty is your sister, yes Davy?”

“Lucky me,” said the boy.

“And she is in the fifth grade?”

Davy bit his lip, nodding as Ralph waited for an answer.

“My mother told you!” said Kitty and the other kids laughed.

“The Pickle knows all,” said Ralph.

More giggles.

“Then what’s my favorite color?”

“Blue.”

Ralph had guessed correctly; not only was blue the most popular of all colors but Kitty – grumbling that her favorite color was “actually robin’s egg blue if you want to know” – didn’t have the measure of a girl who favored pink.

Removing his blindfold, he told Davy to sit down, opened a black velvet bag and from it performed tricks – several alleged to be stolen – better suited to a nightclub than a kiddie party. A few of the children wandered away. Others went looking for their parents and some were drawn to the TV room where Mister Magoo was starring in “A Christmas Carol.”

Kitty told her best friend (mesmerized by the brazen girl’s confidence) that she knew where the presents were hidden and by the time Ralph had finished his last trick – making the fire leap in the shape of a sleigh – he and Davy were alone in the room.

“Well,” said Ralph. “How’d I do?”

“Good I guess.”

When Ralph had packed up, he walked to the back door of the playroom and invited Davy to go with him to his car.

“Without a coat?”

“Why not? Here, hold my bag.”

Davy took the bag, thinking it would be heavier, and followed Ralph outside.

“Was all that stuff real?”

“What do you think?”

Turning the corner of the house – the adults inside laughing and chatting, some with arms around their spouses, a picture postcard of holiday cheer – Ralph asked Davy if he ever cheated.

“No sir.”

“Do you steal?”

“Never.”

“Good,” said Ralph, taking his bag from the boy when they were beside the car. “Then I can trust you with the secret.”

Over the magician’s shoulder, Davy saw his mother calmly peering out of the large front window and knew she was looking for him. In the garret at the top of the house, he could see Kitty and her friend opening and closing closets.

“Ready?”

“I’m ready,” said Davy.

“If the eye believes it, it’s real,” said Ralph. “The magician’s job is not to argue.”

And then he pulled a $10 bill from the boy’s ear, one of two from the envelope in his pocket, and gave it to him.

“Get your Mom to buy you a magic book,” he said. “Practice in secret, every day.”

Davy nodded.

“Explain nothing,” said Ralph. “A year from now you’ll be able to pull a live snake out of your sister’s nose and make her …”

“Throw up?”

“At least scream.”

And then he got behind the wheel and drove off with the boy’s laughter in his ears. Back inside the house, Davy found a four-year-old neighbor boy in footie pajamas staring out a window. He pointed to the treetops and told the child, “You should have seen it. He flew away on a pickle!”

“Practice in secret, every day…”

                                                                    III.

Ralph stopped at Bonnie’s on his way home so he could tell someone what had happened at the party. He pulled open the door and was met with twinkling lights and tinsel, garland, a small poinsettia on a couple of tables, a wreath atop the mirror behind the bar and a bust of Elvis in a Santa hat.

Bonnie was on the phone again and an older woman in a print dress and heavy black shoes – her matka – was decorating a tree in the back. Some of the ornaments were brought from Poland when the family immigrated nearly a century before.

Holding up an index finger to Ralph – “wait a moment” – Bonnie thanked the person on the phone, saying “You gave me Christmas.”

Hanging up, she turned to Ralph resplendent: velvet dress, hair done up, golden earrings studded with stones that matched her hair and a string of pearls, the gift of a neighborhood sailor just back from the Orient when she was in high school.

“How’d it go?”

“Magic,” chuckled Ralph. “Pure magic.”

“Did they feed you?”

“I’m famished.”

Bonnie brought the ham to the bar and made a thick sandwich for him.

“Good rye bread from Stone’s. Mustard or mayo?”

“Mustard, thanks.”

“American or Swiss?”

“Swiss.”

“Pickle?”

Ralph smiled. “Of course.”

Bonnie served him on a red cloth napkin with a glass of beer. Her mother went back to the tree and, as Ralph enjoyed the sandwich she asked, “Wanna see some real magic?”

Ralph swallowed, took a sip, and wiped his mouth.

“I surely do.”

“Let me get my coat. Mom, I’m locking the door, don’t let anybody in and don’t stay up late.”

The woman hung an especially fragile ornament – white on red,  Wesołych Świąt – and waved goodnight. Ralph didn’t ask where they were going (Bonnie would not have told him anyway); he was just glad to be going somewhere. 

The moon shone bright above the Patterson Park pagoda, clouds hanging low along the waterfront. “Smells like snow,” said Bonnie, turning toward downtown. It was almost midnight and they had a dozen blocks to go.

Ralph, who’d moved to Baltimore from South Carolina after being accepted in the Demon’s Club, was as unfamiliar with this part of town as he was Roland Park. Bonnie seemed to know everyone and everyone seemed to be as dressed up as her and going in the same direction.

They passed Harry’s Bakery, its window featuring Christ and JFK side-by-side amid fake snow, silver bells and extravagant holiday cakes that would be given away if no one claimed them.

The baker – Harry Grezskowiak, 77 – had arrived in Baltimore from Warsaw as a toddler. He lived above his shop as Bonnie and her mother did a block away and lay in bed listening to the radio, a heated brick in an oven mitt at his feet, no way of knowing that this would be his last Christmas.

If he’d had . . .

What?

If you knew that this would be your last Christmas…

What?

“Left here,” said Bonnie when they reached Ann Street.  Nothing but bars, thought Ralph, bars and funeral homes and then, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, a modest brick church within sight of tugboats painted red with white circles on their stacks. Snow was beginning to gather on their cold steel decks.

They’d walked briskly and made good time, reaching the doors as midnight Mass was about to begin. Ralph had grown up without religion. Beyond his ability to fool foolish people, he wasn’t sure what he believed.

Just inside, they were greeted by a young nun named Sister Dolores, who told Bonnie there were a few empty seats in the choir loft. As Ralph and Bonnie climbed the winding stairs she told him that Dolores’ brother was a stevedore and that the ham he’d eaten had come off a ship.

She whispered: “Priest blessed a crate of them right on the docks.”

The church bells rang and the show began. Two rows of Saint Stan’s school children in cream-colored gowns – boys on the right, girls on the left – entered with battery operated candles. Each wore a halo made of coat hanger wire and aluminum foil.

Behind the procession walked two altar servers – the Karcz boys from around the corner – and behind them, the blesser of stolen goods carrying a life-size plaster Jesus. Bowing at the altar, he laid the child in a manger with real hay and began the Mass “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost …”

After 20 minutes, Ralph was as bored as the kids on Merry Mount Road.

“What did you mean on the phone?”

Bonnie knitted her brow: “What?”

“You thanked somebody for giving your Christmas.”

She hushed him. “Pay attention or you’re going to miss it.”

The priest held a chunk of rye bread before the crowd and said, “This is my body, which shall be delivered for you.”

“He’s got to say it that way,” whispered Bonnie. “If you don’t say the right words, it doesn’t work.”

And then the priest held up a chalice made of gold from the smelted wedding rings of deceased widows.

“This is my blood,” said the priest as the faithful stood for Communion. “Do this in memory of me…”

Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church. “Do this in memory of me…”

Rafael Alvarez is the author of the Highlandtown Christmas story Aunt Lola. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com

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