by Heather Pagano
I watched Ellen wander between tables, oblivious to Milo’s waving hand. She leaned against the counter and toyed with ketchup and mustard bottles. Her faraway, blue-green eyes were so pretty, but sad, too. I still couldn’t believe such a beautiful woman stayed with me.
“I ordered the grilled cheese,” Milo shouted, loud enough for both me and Ellen to hear, although Ellen did not hear.
Milo scowled at Ellen’s back, his hangdog jowls trembling with outrage. I hurried to Milo, one of my regulars and a vegetarian, and whisked away the burger Ellen had placed in front of him.
“I always order grilled cheese,” Milo said, “every damn day.”
“I know,” I told him, ignoring the stares of other customers. “I’m sorry.”
I replaced the offending burger with a slice of Ellen’s apple pie.
“On the house,” I told him, refilling his coffee. “And the grilled cheese is coming right up.”
“Penny,” Milo said, “I know it hasn’t been easy since you lost your dad. And it’s kind of you to have taken her in. But, honestly, life would be easier without that waitress.”
“Take a bite of the pie,” I told Milo. “Ellen bakes three of them, every morning before we open.”
Milo took a big bite. His eyes rolled up in the sockets, the droopy lids slid shut.
“And there goes my diet,” Milo said, his gravelly voice tinged with real regret.
Milo opened his eyes and patted my hand. All seemed forgiven.
Ellen first walked into Penny’s Diner in late September. She wasn’t dressed for Portland. She wore flip-flops. Her billowy yellow blouse and denim skirt were dark with rain. She had the distracted air of the spellbound. She apologized for dripping water all over my floor, but no embarrassment reached her cheeks. She mopped her dripping face with napkins from the dispenser, cheap paper melting in her hands. Even half drowned, Ellen was the beauty I never was and never will be.
Ellen sat at my chrome rimmed counter and ate the tuna melt I made her, drank my piping hot, herbal tea. I took her to my little apartment above the diner to towel dry her long, auburn hair. The tea made her so drowsy, she had no choice but to lie down on Dad’s old bed. I secured the knowledge of her name, as her eyelids fluttered, fighting sleep. I kissed her forehead the moment she succumbed to the tea. Ellen was now a resident of Penny’s Diner.
There’s magic in the gift of food and drink, a warm, dry bed on a rainy night, the sharing of a name. Sometimes that magic is strong, sometimes it catches only for a moment, like a leaf on a sewer grate, then quickly washes away. In Ellen’s case I wasn’t sure whether my subtle brand of magic had been effective at all. She had no place else to go and nothing in particular to do. She was happy, in the way of a stray cat, to have found someplace warm and dry to stay.
And the longer she stayed, the harder I longed for her.
Tricky thing, a love spell. To start, not all women fall in love with other women. Then there is my face, which wouldn’t have been much to look at even if my mother hadn’t dropped a scalding hot iron on it when I was only two years old. And of course the age factor- I have a good twenty five years on pretty little Ellen. But the reason we have love spells is to overcome just these kinds of obstacles.
Herbal satchel placed beneath her pillow. Waxing moon. My midnight saltwater bath. I shaved in all the least comfortable places, salt stinging every tiny cut. Three candles guttered on the drafty bathroom windowsill until, finally, they were spent. The bathwater went cold. Little floating hairs slicked the soap scum. I was as sincere as any magic user can be.
Next morning Ellen found the herb satchel and thanked me for it. She told me it made her room smell nice. She asked if she could play my dad’s old ukulele, which she’d found beneath his bed while searching for the source of the herb smell. From then on, oldies from the sixties twanged through her half open bedroom door. She never once sang to the music.
I decided the love spell didn’t work because Ellen was already spellbound. I’d hoped my spell might break the former enchantment that befuddled her, that my kinder bondage might leave room for her head to clear. I’m an ethical magic user. I wouldn’t bind anyone to me for life, just long enough to let them see the real me, the person beneath the thinning hair, the scarred face.
Penny’s Diner closes Tuesdays. Ellen liked to spend her day off at the Rose Test Garden, or, on rainy days, she’d go to Powell’s and treat it like the library. I’d expected her to seek the young crowd, go to pubs, bring back a boyfriend skewered with piercings. But the only things she ever brought home were used books for me, or an outfit for herself from the thrift store, looking like it was from the epoch of her ukulele music.
I spent Tuesdays cooking us a romantic dinner. Candlelight, the pretty china, Beef Bourguignon. I was gratified to see the red wine bring a little color to Ellen’s cheeks, and I took advantage of her candor to learn anything that might help me with my next attempt at the love spell.
“Where, exactly, in California are you from?” I asked, refilling her wine glass.
“Near the Pacific Ocean,” she said.
Prying details from someone spellbound requires more patience than the deepest ocean has water.
“Sounds pretty,” I said. “What was the name of the town?”
Ellen wriggled, a little uncomfortable in the upcycled dining chair.
“Half Moon Bay,” she said at last,
“I was born in in Half Moon Bay,” I said, pleased by the connection. “Ages ago. Before Dad and I moved here.”
“Small world,” Ellen said, nibbling a potato.
“Why did you leave the sunshine to come live in the rain?” I asked her.
Ellen shrugged. She stared at the reflection of the candles in the darkened window glass.
“Seriously,” I said, laying my hand on her hand. “Why did you come here?”
“I didn’t so much come here as leave there,” Ellen said. “I left California.”
“Too much sunshine?” I asked, teasing a little, trying to curve her rosebud mouth into the tiniest hint of a smile.
“I left my family,” Ellen said.
Any color the wine had brought to her cheeks drained. The fork suddenly seemed too big and heavy for her hand.
Pained for having hurt her, I backpedaled. We talked about her interests: the rose garden, ukulele chords, The Zombies. She was a willing partner to my Netflix obsessions and brightened when talking about our favorite characters.
I tried introducing her to Charlie. He’d worked for my dad all through college, and still came by the diner from time to time. You’re supposed to introduce your significant other to family friends. I hoped introducing Ellen to Charlie would make me more significant to her. Charlie was a little taken aback to learn that Ellen was both my employee and roommate. But, like everyone, he went crazy for Ellen’s apple pie.
“She doesn’t seem, well, all the way there,” Charlie told me when Ellen was waiting on other customers.
“Something happened with her family,” I told him.
Since learning she was a runaway, I’d been making up all kinds of reasons Ellen might have left home: a handsy stepdad, a druggie mom. Maybe a sibling put a spell on her, casting her head into the San Francisco Bay fog.
“Whatever happened, she needs resolution,” Charlie said, his job editing self-help books giving him an air of authority.
I pressed Ellen further. What had compelled her to run from her family?
“It’s not what you think,” Ellen told me, polishing the chrome on the counter until her sad, lovely face was reflected in it like a mirror. “I didn’t run away from my parents. I left behind my husband. And…”
Husband? Was she spellbound to the husband? My heart raced. Perhaps she’d tried to cast a love spell on the husband. Love spells cast on someone who already loves you can do strange things.
Ellen grew lost again, the now familiar faraway gaze smudging the brightness from her eyes.
“And what, Ellen?” I prompted, shoving a cup of coffee into her hands. “You left your husband and?”
Ellen sniffed the steam, not drinking any.
“I left my husband and our kid,” Ellen said.
I was stung. My mother left me and Dad, not long after the incident with the scalding iron. Guilt for burning me, Dad always said.
“Why did you leave your kid?” I asked, raising the calming lavender oil I’d intended for Ellen to my own nose.
“Because…it was complicated. She didn’t…I couldn’t…”
Tears welled in Ellen’s eyes. I let them.
“I don’t know why I left, Penny,” Ellen said. “I had to get away, but I can’t remember the exact reason. I can’t. Honestly.”
Ellen’s blue-green eyes were wide and frightened, tears trembled on her long, dark lashes. She was looking to me for help.
I taped the same Family Emergency sign to the door I’d stuck there when they took Dad to the hospital, and again on the day of his funeral. I called Charlie, and he let me drive his old Civic down to Half Moon Bay.
Ellen and I barely spoke on the long drive through the night, except to summarize my family history in brief: that my mother left Dad and me when I was only two years old. I told Ellen however bad she felt about their separation, her kid was feeling ten times worse.
As the rising sun pinkened the highway, I took pity on Ellen and tuned into a classic rock station on the radio. She fell asleep to the droning chords of Lighter Shade of Pale.
I woke Ellen when we reached the sea.
Half Moon Bay sprawls along like any little village: strip malls, quaint Main St., houses and schools- then, ocean. I hadn’t been there since I was three, so the Pacific kind of snuck up on me.
I woke Ellen. She startled, squinted, like the sun was searing her eyes. She waved a hand and directed me toward her home. We pulled up next to a tiny house enclosed by a chain link fence. There were kids’ toys in the yard- sandbox flecked with hot wheels and miniature construction vehicles, a scooter on its side. Basketball hoop. Giant yellow Tonka trucks. It looked like a little boy lived here, not the daughter Ellen mentioned.
I turned to Ellen to find an elderly woman sitting next to me.
“I remember, now,” Ellen said. She tucked a wisp of snow white hair behind her ear. “Charlie was right. Coming here, confronting this, helped.”
“Is this even your house?” I asked, unsure whether she’d noticed her physical transformation.
“Not anymore,” Ellen said. “We did live here, once upon a time.”
Ellen smiled. Her face, though lined, was still striking. But every bone of her body seemed to have thickened, stiffened. This must have been the woman Milo and Charlie and all the other diner customers had been seeing.
“This trip helped you, too,” Ellen said. “You can see me, now.”
Ellen didn’t have to tell me she was my mother.
“Now I can explain what happened,” Ellen said. “You see, I cast a love spell.”
“On Dad?” I asked.
Ellen shook her head. She gazed at the little, fenced house, as though she could see right through its walls.
“On you,” Ellen told me.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I’m ten times uglier when I cry, but I couldn’t help it.
“I just stood there, you know,” Ellen said. “You pulled the cord, the iron fell on your face. You screamed, and then you fainted. Steam billowed out of that damn, useless, hellish appliance, and I couldn’t budge a finger to help you. I hope I wasn’t frozen for as long as I remember, but it certainly seemed like I left you, burning, for a terribly long time.”
I could not breathe. Some part of me still remembered the cord, wanting my mother’s attention. Pulling.
“I was so afraid you’d blame me for the pain, the fear, for that scar on your face. For the way others would see you,” Ellen said, tracing her finger above the scar without ever touching it. “I put a love spell on you, so you would never stop loving me as much as I love you.”
“Love spells do funny things when they’re cast on someone who already loves you,” I told her.
“Hmm,” Ellen said. “So it seems. And it was a strong one, too. As strong as I could make it.”
I thought of my mom, wandering the streets of Portland all these years, confused, vaguely guilty, not even remembering why.
It’s a rare thing these days for Mom to confuse a customer order, but mistakes happen. When they do, she’s ready with a conciliatory slice of pie- which, I now know, contains both apples and a little magic.
Mom has been putting that magic pie to several uses. There’s a new regular who stops by for coffee on her way home from work- name’s Tanya, single, she’s always carrying around a book. Mom sweet talks Tanya into having a slice of her pie. The magic doesn’t do more than make Tanya a little happier, a bit more relaxed, willing to linger a few extra minutes at the chrome counter. It gives me the chance to offer her a refill, gives us time to exchange a joke, a book, our thoughts on the latest episode of our favorite Netflix crush. It’s ethical magic, just opens the door to allow something nice to happen.
* * *
Heather Pagano is more than a polyglot ukulele player. After growing up in small town Iowa, she studied classical trombone in Upstate New York and has since lived in Italy and New York City. She now lives in Silicon Valley, California. Her fascination with language, philosophy, and music permeates her writing. Her stories have been published in several magazines.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?
I love fantasy stories that combine a sense of wonder with constraint- nothing comes for free. Magic makes the impossible possible, but that doesn’t mean problems dissolve with the wave of a wand. There’s a price to pay for using magic, and the cost in my favorite fantasy stories is paid by characters’ willingness to know themselves more fully and confront their fears and insecurities.