The Magic Circle

First runner-up in the 2016 Great American Fiction Contest: On a fall night in 1963, a young immigrant struggles to support his family and hold on to a dream.

Magic Circle
Each night I found a stick and drew a circle in the sand, and curled up inside. (Saibarakova Ilona/Shutterstock)

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Peering out at the view through the cracked eye, I see Water Street in all its glory. It may be 2 a.m. but cars still cruise to and from the river, their meeting place, the bushes at Curry Corner, where everything from drugs and bodies to stolen TVs can be exchanged for cash. I hear Spanish music blaring from the Mofongo Bar & Grill a few doors down. A car horn blasts — two long, two short. Someone screams, “I see you, don’t think you can hide!” A fall night in 1963 in Darktown, the armpit of Winterville, the armpit of New Jersey, the armpit of America. And here we are, all the way from Morocco to the corner of Water and Limestone, the Elmalehs and their restaurant, the Couscous Caboose. Fourteen succulent varieties of couscous cooked by Lili Elmaleh, and jazz performed by Danny Elmaleh and The Magic Circle.


I turn from the window. My daughter, Sophie — 13 going on 30 — weary, shadowed eyes, and a permanent question mark etched in her forehead. She approaches, hugging herself in red flannel pajamas. Like me, always cold. “What is it, baby? Bad dreams?”

She shakes her head, a cloud of soft dark curls. Like me, can’t sleep. “Tell me a story, Daddy.”

I set down my trumpet on the stand on the small stage and follow her upstairs. I confess: Sophie can maneuver me wherever she wants me. Far shrewder, smarter, prettier than any adult I know, she wants to be a detective and singer for my band. “That will be my cover,” she tells me solemnly. “While I’m singing, I’ll watch people and no one will know that I’m solving mysteries.”

Solving me, baby. I know.

Last night I drove her and Memphis to the Winterville Autumn Fair and left them alone for an hour. One hour, that’s all. I gave them money to buy snacks and to play games. I knew Memphis would go right for the funnel cake — something like Lili’s beignets, smothered in powdered sugar — and Sophie for the fried-potato-and-cheese pierogies. Lili had made me swear I wouldn’t leave them alone, but I knew in my gut they’d be okay.

When I met them an hour later in front of 4-H Hall, where proud farmers displayed huge prize-winning pigs and pumpkins, Sophie was grim, eyebrows raised high and lips tight — a miniature Lili — and Memphis was in 11-year-old boy heaven, mouth smeared with chocolate and powdered sugar. I couldn’t figure out why Sophie was so mad. She couldn’t have seen anything. I let her grab my hand in her small firm grip and lead me and Memphis back into the fair.

“Sophie, we have to go home.”

“I want to show you something first.”

Memphis’s sticky hand nestled trustingly in mine. “Did you have a good time?” I asked him.

He nodded, golden-brown corkscrew curls bouncing. “Except for Sophie bossing me and not letting me play the birthday guessing game and calling me Ned. I hate when she calls me that!”

I grinned at his woeful face. Not only did Sophie insist we call her “Nancy,” but she called Lili “Hannah,” Memphis “Ned Nickerson,” and me “Carson.” I often felt her critical eye on me. “If you’d only cut your hair, wear shoes, and get a job as a lawyer, you’d be just like Carson Drew.”

It was a fall night, and the moon shone orange, bright as one of the prize-winning giant pumpkins. Sullen teens walked by in the fiery light, mothers wheeled strollers. We passed farmers with mottled skin and chin beards, and enormous women, hair tightly pulled back in hairnets, who sold rounds of pale farm cheese, twisted pretzels, and foaming blue birch beer. Bikers in sleeveless black leather swaggered. The smells tempted me, and I suddenly realized I was hungry. Burnt sugar, dark molasses shoofly pie, frying pierogies, sweet apple dumplings, hot corn pies, and funnel cakes.

Sophie stopped hard in front of an enclosed area illuminated with spotlights. A sign announced:

Amish Wedding!
See How the Plain People Get Hitched!
Shows Every Hour on the Hour!

About 20 people had gathered in front of a huge green chair that rose 10 feet in the air on long stilt legs. A young couple, about 20 or so, mounted the stepladder to the chair. They turned and smiled down at the small crowd. The guy recited something, but people’s shouts drowned out his words. I stared from his scuffed work boots to the round black hat tilted back on his head. The girl, a pale redhead with a dimpled smile, wore a white bonnet and apron over an ankle-length blue-and-white checked dress, dirty sneakers peeking from under the hem.

She yelled, “I, Sarah, promise to honor and obey you, Samuel! I promise to work for you! To keep your house clean, to cook for you and raise your children! To mend your clothes when they’re torn! To be true to you and to God! Not to think wicked thoughts about other men, and to be satisfied with my life with you! For as long as I shall live!”

Oh, so that’s what this was about. Sophie watched me ferociously, willing me to absorb the vows. People clapped and whistled. Someone cried, “Show us how the Amish do it!” Sophie squeezed my hand until I finally looked down and met her enormous eyes — so much like Lili’s — black-and-silver swirls, like rain. I used to call Lili my rain girl.

We stared at each other silently. Dissected, judged, and found wanting by my daughter. The Amish boy shouted out his vows. Memphis’ hand was warm and sweet in mine. She knows, I thought. I have no idea how, but she knows. I broke away from the staring contest first.

The newly married couple climbed down the stepladder to ride away in a black horse and buggy. As the girl entered the buggy, she glanced back over her shoulder and smiled faintly. She could have been smiling at Sophie as well as at me, but Sophie shot me an accusing look. “Okay,” I said brightly. “Who wants ice cream?”

Memphis raised his hand as if he were in school. We stopped at the ice cream stand, and I ordered three soft vanilla-and-chocolate swirled cones, with orange and black sprinkles for Halloween. I sensed Sophie’s moral dilemma. She struggled mightily at my side, not wanting to accept a bribe from one she considered a sinner. I held her cone in one hand while licking my own. I did not glance at her, but I suffered with her, and when she held out her hand in defeat, I immediately gave her the cone. We ate the ice cream as we walked back to the hill where the cars were parked. I marveled each time I saw the silver-and-white ’57 Chevy, its silver fins like wings. The first car I’d ever owned. If business at the Couscous Caboose didn’t pick up, it would be the last.

“You parked in a different place,” said Sophie. Her voice was resigned. Memphis licked his ice cream in painstakingly exact circles to ensure that some remained in the cone for a final triumphant bite.

Instead of fighting Memphis to sit in the front seat next to me, she got in back. I turned on the radio. My luck, it was the Singing Nun, shrilling “Dominique, nique, nique.” Sophie’s eyes in the rearview, twin flames of righteousness, held the Nun’s song as further proof of my lowness. I turned off the radio, and we drove home without saying a word. I parked in the alley next to the dumpster. Memphis said shyly, “Thanks, Dad,” and ran inside to tell Lili about his adventures.

Sophie didn’t move. I glanced at her glittering eyes in rearview before quickly looking away. “The car smells funny,” she said.

“Does it?” My voice was strangely high. I coughed.

“Smells like perfume.”

“Must be your mother’s.”

“No. It smells like Millie. Was she in the car?”

I thought briefly of lying, and then figured it would be less trouble to tell the truth. “Yes.”


We’d hit the heart. She’d been playing with me till now. “I saw her at the fair, and she needed a ride home.”


Saints Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, help me improvise a way out of this. “She was feeling sick.”

“Why did she ask you?”

Good question. I cleared my throat. “We ran into each other.”

“How did she get to the fair if she needed a ride home?”

“She had her car, but she didn’t feel well enough to drive home. She’ll pick up her car tomorrow.”

She considered. My heart was beating fast. The absurdity of being cross-examined by a 13-year-old did not strike me. Sophie was no ordinary 13-year-old. When she announced one morning, “I’m going to solve the world,” I believed her. “Why did Millie sit in the backseat?” she asked.

“Why did you?” It was weak, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

I felt her contempt. A long silence followed. Long enough to make me feel like the lowest of the low, and to wish I could rewind the night, and backtrack to Lili kissing me good-bye and making me promise to stay with the kids and not get distracted, and herding them outside, and not stopping to look in the dining room where Millie sat alone at a table, curling a glossy strand around her finger, and smiling when she saw me, smiling as if she’d been waiting for me.

Let me backtrack. It began a few nights ago. After a hot set, I lowered the trumpet, wiped the sweat from my face and blinked, returning to the real world. The Darktown-world, where clocks ticked, Lili scolded, kids needed winter clothes and dentist appointments, I punched in my timecard at the A&P and hung up on bill collectors, or most shameful of all, let Sophie and Memphis answer, with their smooth American accents. The opposite of the song-world, where instead of running from the dark, I ran towards it, blowing back and forth between Morocco and America, Jewish kid to father, musician to husband, crashing sea to stinking brown river, all merging inside me, pulsing through my throat and fingers. The song I played had no end.

As soon as I left the stage, Millie cornered me. “I have to have you now. This minute.”

Still dazed, I shook my head. She gestured towards the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. “I’ve been coming here for weeks, watching you. I know you’re married. I don’t care. That’s forever-time. I have a husband in forever-time too. But this is now. Like the music. You and me. This minute. That’s all that really matters.”

She saw in my eyes that I understood. This was one of the main lessons I learned during the war: the difference between forever-time and now-time. I learned to live in the now. On stage, blowing, communing with my musicians. Asking questions with my horn that they slammed back at me with the piano, bass, drums, and trumpet. The rest of life — eating, sleeping, drinking, talking — was what I had to get through to return to the now, when the clock stopped ticking, and life became its promise, and I did what I was meant to do. My dream was to live in an eternity of now. A dream that was dying a fast death in Darktown. But I had never followed the dream out of the song.

Until now.

The clock ticked, ticked through the car, harder and faster than a heart. Sophie opened the car door but didn’t get out. The river smelled like ripe black olives, pungent as argan oil from Mogador.

“Don’t do it again, Daddy. It will hurt Mommy.” She closed the car door quietly behind her.

I come to with a jerk and sit up. The sun is gone. My trumpet teacher, Prosper’s voice is gruff in my ear, You’ve lost the beat, my boy, you’ve lost the beat. My feet are icy. I lie on my stomach and creep forward like an alligator, until my face hovers over the water. My city is reflected below. Glittering and wavering towers and castles, the street of blue torches, pink cobblestones, vivid sardine boats shaking with the force of the waves, the white roof I ran across to escape my father’s belt, the one I toppled from and broke my nose. I search the city till I find him. Standing on the fortress wall, trembling with rage. He points his finger at the sea and screams. The sound ripples like a stone, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I lean over farther until my nose touches the cold, dark water. He sees me and spits in my face.

That old song, “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” could have been written for Halloween night. Lili and I sit on the front step, the basket of candy bars between us. She slaps my hand when I steal one, but I feed her half. Hershey bars are still a marvel to me, brown-and-silver packets tossed at us from smiling American soldiers on Liberation Day in Casablanca. We watch the parade of ghosts, goblins, witches, horned devils trailed by parents … the three old men on Chico’s bench in front of the barbershop across the street, handing out lollipops between guzzles from their paper bags … the drunks out in full force, huddling in doorways and sitting on the stoop of the No Name Bar … shouts of laughter and eerie cries.

Next door, Mrs. Krapp hands out Hall’s cough drops, one by one. Last year she kept her house dark. Rumor is she hides razor blades in apples. I believe it — her razor eyes slice me when I walk up and down the street.

At the foot of the street is Curry Corner, edging to the river. In Mahendroo Wash & Dry, Naveen and his cousin, Mr. Singh, play backgammon while waiting for clothes to dry. Sheets and towels come out smelling faintly of curry. Chico told me, “We’ve got the whole world here: India at the foot, Africa at the head, Puerto Rican hips, and a few Polacks and Russians — Anna Bolotovsky’s bra — in the chest.”

The first Halloween Lili baked walnut cookies, marzipan sweets, and delicate flaky fadzwellos dripping orange syrup. The masked and costumed kids looked puzzled, shook their heads, and withdrew. Later, the manager of the Mofongo Bar & Grill explained to a hurt Lili: “Too many crazy people, like Mrs. Krapp and the old lady on the corner of Ridge who bakes poisoned cookies. Parents warn their kids not to accept anything that’s not sealed.”

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Like the A&P. Aisle after aisle of sterile sealed cans and boxes, no smell — except in Meats and Produce. Peas, beets, corn, beans identified only by the pictures glued to the cans. A food hospital. No vendors shouting the glories of their wares, no customers tasting and bargaining, no music. Only the ringing of the cash register, the stacking and sorting and sweeping to get rid of any crumb, any clue that there is food in this place. I do my best to rearrange the produce and fruit, creating tapestries of color and texture … until Sid, the manager, sees what I’ve done and yells, “What are you doing, Frenchie? You outa your mind?”

Lili’s mad at me tonight. Again. I came home late, forgot I was supposed to take Memphis to the dentist. She had to send Carlos, my drummer, with him. And wasn’t I supposed to pay the electric bill? We got another call threatening to shut off the lights and heat. And if I think this heater is going to survive another winter, I’ve lost my mind. Instead of waiting until the middle of a snowstorm when it will surely break down, wouldn’t it make sense to take care of it now?

I don’t answer, don’t talk. I sit next to her, holding up the basket while fairy princesses and cowboys trip up the steps to us. The night air is still warm, a gift of summer spilling over. The moon, an orange pumpkin, perfect for Halloween. I smell chocolate and spilled beer. Curry wafting up Water Street, and cilantro and cinnamon coming from inside. And fumes shooting from the factories in Elizabeth across the bridge to us. The train whistles, like a foghorn, blowing a warning. No, I didn’t write this song, but tonight it sings to me. Tonight I feel part of it. Or it feels part of me. I have lost the beat. I know I have. My trumpet sits on its stand in the music corner in the dining room. Waiting. For what? For me to wake up, grab it and run out of here. If I do, where will I go? The city, of course. A phone number burns through my pocket to my thigh. Woody the piano player told me to call him when I move to New York. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said. “A player with your ear and your sound.”

My ear. My sound. I don’t trust my ear anymore. And what is my sound? If I still have one, I don’t recognize it.

“Trick or treat!” A group of suspiciously tall kids march up the steps. A hard voice demands, “Treats!”

“Who’s that?” I ask. “Aren’t you a little old?”

A masked cowboy with distinct whiskey breath leans in my face. “Aren’t you a little old?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you?”

“Relax, Danny. It’s just me. Tommy Garello.”

A year older than Sophie, but the kid looks 18, and as sullen as his father, Mike. Lili mutely holds out the basket. Tommy and his gang grab half the candies. With a yelp, they leap down the steps. On the sidewalk, Tommy turns back. “Hey Danny, next time get the ones with almonds. Haha!”

Haha, Garello. I know Lili is remembering when we first arrived in America, and Tommy asked her if Memphis could go out with him and shoot streetlights with BB guns. Four years ago. That year I took Sophie and Memphis door to door. She was a ballerina, shivering in her pink tutu and tights, but too stubborn to wear a coat. Memphis was a doctor, in a white coat, a plastic stethoscope around his neck. I wore a jeweled caftan that had belonged to Lili’s brother, maroon tasseled fez on my head, and pointed yellow babouches on my feet. Sophie thought I was the Black Sultan, the bandit hero of the tales I tell them.

From the cracked sidewalk I watched them climb the concrete steps and go to each redbrick apartment building and ring the doorbell. When the door opened, they held out their bags. Sometimes they were invited inside, and I watched them through the lighted window as if they were on TV. Standing in the dark, looking into the gold-lit windows, brought me back to 1943, when I ran away to Casablanca. I wandered the streets, staring hungrily into illuminated windows and open doorways, melting into the shadows whenever an officer or policeman appeared.

Eventually I made my way to the beach and slept on the sand. I did something strange, that I’ve never told anyone. A holdover from the days of listening to my cousin the Kabbalist who wore dark glasses, even indoors. He always handed me sweets — palm to palm — so my father wouldn’t see. One day he told me about the magic circle. No harm can come to you when you’re inside the circle, and you can ask God for anything you want, and he will listen. Each night I found a stick and drew a circle in the sand, and curled up inside.

But since our first year in America I loved Halloween. This was how life should be: all the evil spirits and djnoun sidling next to you on the street, and every house open, no locked doors keeping out the stranger, the wanderer. Since that first Halloween our door is never locked. I don’t care what Lili or anyone says. If you’re a djinn after me, or a Hitler-ghost after Lili’s sister, Zizou, a locked door is not going to keep you out. Come and get me. I don’t draw with a stick anymore. With my finger I trace a magic circle around me and Lili in bed, praying to keep us safe and together. She thinks I’m gesturing to music only I hear.

“This is what you don’t get,” says Lili. I must have missed something. I have no idea what it is I don’t get. I murmur something, and she says, “That’s right. This is your life. Our life. Us, here, now. This is it, Danny.”

“I know that.” I clear my throat. Her eyes are silver in moonlight. The street song fades for a moment, and all I see is her face — sad and luminous. “I’m sorry, Loulou.” Always a safe thing to say.

“Stop saying you’re sorry.”

Apparently not tonight.

“I’m sorry,” I say again without thinking.

Her eyebrows meet, eyes glare, lips purse tight. She’s fighting a smile. I’m not sure why she’s mad — besides the usual — or why she’s smiling inside, behind her mouth, behind her eyes. I hear the faint sweet question, the way I did the first time we met, and say impulsively, “Let’s go to bed.”

It’s ridiculously easy to make her blush. “Now? It’s Halloween! We’re in the middle of a … the trick or treaters … the kids …”

I bring her hand to my mouth, try to ignore how chapped and rough it feels, and suck her index finger with its short chopped nail. “Come to bed with me, Loulou.”

“No! I’m mad at you. You’re a little boy who will never grow up. You leave every worry and problem to me. Even the smallest thing I ask you to do. Take your son to the dentist, pay the bill, do —”

I lean over and kiss her on the mouth. She’s struggling inside, the smile still fluttering like a little bird trying to escape. “What if I die tonight?” I ask.

“Oh my God, Danny! What a baby you are. What a child I married. You’re not going to die.”

“But if I do. And you turn me away. How will you feel tomorrow? And the rest of your life?” I’m kissing her ear now, lifting her hair, and rubbing against the back of her neck, her melting spot.

“You won’t,” she begins.

“Shhh. No more words. Let’s go in.”

Later, I follow Sophie up the creaking steps to the second floor, where Lili sleeps in our bed, and Memphis dreams in his room, and Lili’s sister, Zizou, lands wherever her nightmares lead her, and to the third floor, where my drummer and bass player, Carlos and Billy Black, share a room, and Memphis’s guitar teacher, Lucius Green, curls on a cot on the landing, next to Keith, the young sax player visiting from Newark, and tiptoe up the seven narrow stairs to the attic, where I fixed Sophie her own room. Once we got rid of the bats, it was cozy and warm, and she didn’t mind that she could only stand straight in the middle of the room, where the wood rafters crisscrossed to form a pointed ceiling.

She gets in bed and lies back, her dark curls covering the pillow, hands folded neatly on the stubby pink blanket, the one Zizou drapes around her shoulders when she’s in the grip of la folie. Sophie’s cheeks are flushed and rosy, her eyes bright and dark. So beautiful she steals my breath. Mine. My blood. My girl.

“A story, Daddy,” she says calmly, and I know she forgives me.

I don’t deserve her forgiveness, don’t deserve her, or Memphis or Lili. Looking down at my daughter, I wonder if my father ever felt this dizzying rush of love, a wave that almost knocks me back. Suddenly I can’t meet her eyes. I sit on the edge of her bed and turn toward the round porthole window over her bed, always smeared gray, as if it’s storming outside and we’re sailing away in a ship. A sort of magic circle, I never noticed before. The smudges turn into Prosper’s tousled gray hair, the forest-green beret and wobbly teeth, his endlessly generous smile, If the war taught me anything, it’s that we must learn to become human.

Help me, Prosper, please. Help me become the man they need. Help me be strong.

Sophie reaches for my hand and tucks it between hers. Cold cold hands. Like mine. She rubs my hand with all her strength.

“I love you madly,” I tell her, the way Duke Ellington does, though it’s just words, and words can’t touch what I’m feeling right now, this instant, looking at my little girl, wishing I could be the father she deserves.

She sighs. “I love you too, Carson.”

I’ll make it up to you, baby, I swear, I’ll make it up to all of you. Prosper is gone from the window, but I feel him here, looking over my shoulder. Louis and Duke, too. Watching over me. After all, I survived my father and the war, and made it all the way to America, where every man has an equal voice and the right to be heard. I can do this. I can make up a new story, one that hasn’t been told yet because it’s waiting for me to tell it. I clear my throat and begin, “Once upon a time …”

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