Plain Old Magic

by Sasha A. Palmer


Last name “Cooper” conveniently provided by his paternal ancestors, “James Frank” was chosen to honor the two passions in his parents’ lives: his mother’s silver screen crush and his father’s fascination with sea novels. Some adjustments had to be made: “Frank James” (known to the world as “Gary”) became a less conspicuous “James Frank”, when at the same time giving a more distinct nod to “James Fenimore.” It took a certain amount of persuasion on both parts, but in the end the name was an example of the Golden Rule of marriage at work – compromise. 

His mother not so secretly hoped James Frank would one day be a famous actor. “He certainly has the looks,” she would say. His good looks were questionable, but, sadly, his lack of talent or desire for acting, were not. He was not much of a reader, either. By the time he turned twelve, it was obvious his one true passion lay elsewhere. On the skating rink, to be more precise.

His father, though not a hockey player himself, approved, for the game was manly and appropriate. On his son’s fifteenth birthday he took him to a store and let him pick out a hockey stick for himself. If they had waited, they would have got a laminated one that was invented the same year. But they could not wait, and it was James Frank’s best birthday present ever.

Three years later he still could not help grinning as he remembered the sheer thrill of holding that brand-new ash hockey stick crafted from a single piece of wood. Whether the sea roots in his name had something to do with him enlisting in the Marines or not – hard to tell, but there he was, onboard of a Navy ship in the Pacific, in the midst of war, grinning. He was eighteen, and immortal, and the girl with black bouncy curls was waiting for him at home.

James Frank and his wife never had kids and over the years passed their treasures to the neighbors’ children and then grandchildren. They probably gave away a small fortune – costume jewelry alone would have sold well. Most of their possessions were not worth much, though. But to the Coopers, her mother’s brittle hat with a “fashionably vintage look,” or his father’s cracked magnifying glass, once used to trace the lines of the “Leatherstocking Tales,” were priceless.

The Coopers were generous. There was one thing, though, Mr. Cooper would not part with.

“It reminds me of myself: heavy, not very forgiving and extremely durable,” he joked.

“But, Mr. Cooper, we’ll be so careful with it, we won’t break it, please, Mr. Cooper…”

No matter how the boys pleaded, he would not budge.

“One of you will get it, when I’m gone,” he promised, “but not till then. I need it still. You have to understand: it’s not your ordinary hockey stick. It’s magical.”

And the way he said it, they believed him.


That boy. Jim? Yes, Jim Cooper. That’s his name all right. Left his hockey stick on the rink, made her trip. Now her side hurts. No ice skating for a while. She won’t tell on him, no. Never has been a snitch. And he did apologize. Snowflakes sparkled in his hair. 

She fell. Big deal. No, she will not tell anyone. Not even the angel.

“It’s Grace, Ms. Julie,” the angel says, “how are you today?”

“Fine, just fine, thank you.”

“Good…good,” the angel says.

She wonders what other people’s angels are like. Hers is short and plain, with kind hands and tired eyes. The white feathers rustle as the angel moves through the air. Checking, and fixing, and straightening, and tucking. Attending to the guardian duties. Then a smile, a wave. Gone.

Perhaps she can go to the rink tomorrow after all. She will be well enough to go. Yes, she is quite sure. It’s just a little bruise, that’s all. Jim Cooper will be there. He’s there every day. Kicking the puck with other boys. She’ll put on the red beret – a present for her fifteenth birthday. Mom made it herself. She’ll wear it on one side, letting her black curls bounce on the other. She’ll skate past him. A queen of the ice. Bow to the queen. Forget the silly puck.

Hey, he’ll call, catching up with her, we met a couple of days ago, remember?

Oh, it’s you, she’ll say matter-of-factly, yes, I remember now. You made me fall.

Sorry about that, he’ll say, how are you feeling?

I’m better, thank you, she’ll reply with a gracious nod.

And they’ll skate, and skate, and talk about nothings, and then he will take the queen’s hand, and she won’t mind. Won’t mind one bit. They’ll skate, and everyone will watch them. And Liz will watch too, green with envy. How beautiful they are together, everyone will say, look how they glide, and turn, and…

Muffled voices. The silky rustle. Soon. Soon.

She stirs. It’s her angel. Hovering in the doorway.

“This way, Mr. Cooper,” the angel says softly.

A boy walks in. Her heart explodes. Can it be? Oh, yes, it’s him all right. It is him. That boy. He has been outside in the snow without a hat on. It really is him. He has found her. She grins. Forget the royal pride.

“Hey,” he calls, “remember me?”

“I do,” she says, “you made me fall.”

“How are you feeling today?” he comes closer.

Snowflakes sparkle in his hair. They don’t melt. 

“I feel fine now,” the shards of her heart burn her chest, “Jim?”

“Yes, Julie?”

“You remembered my name, how sweet of you,” tears stream down her cheeks, “Jim?”

“Yes, my darling?”

“Will you take me skating tomorrow?”

“I will.”

“You won’t take Liz instead?”



“I do.”

“Will you hold my hand?”

He takes her withered hand in his.

“I will, my love,” he says, “always.”

“Always,” she echoes.

She sighs quietly.

And, content, she watches the hot breeze of July play with the window curtain.


 “It’s a difficult town to fit in, Sergeant.”

“It’s Bill, Mr. Miller.

“Right. It’s a tough place to fit in.”

“How so?”

“Just is. I’m from out of state myself, but my son was born and raised here. Still he never felt he was a local.” Mr. Miller fell silent.

“I heard about your son,” Sergeant Parker said, “I’m sorry.”

“He was twenty-three,” Mr. Miller nodded slightly, “How old are you, Sergeant?”

“Forty-two, Sir.”

“He would have been thirty-six now. Hard to believe.”

The front door of the house next to Mr. Miller’s half opened quietly, and a little head with a halo of blond curls peeked out from behind it. The head turned, registered Mr. Miller and Sergeant Parker standing in the driveway and ducked back inside. The door closed.

“What was that?” said Sergeant Parker.

“That would be Liz Benson,” Mr. Miller explained.

“Was she afraid of me?”

“Why would the old girl be afraid of a policeman?” Mr. Miller answered with a question.

Sergeant Parker had no idea.

“Guilty conscience perhaps?” Mr. Miller suggested. “Yep. There’s a thought. Why don’t you investigate her, Sergeant?”

Sergeant Parker stood staring.

Mr. Miller grinned. “She wasn’t afraid of you,” he said, “she was avoiding me.”


“Oh, it’s a long story. She hasn’t spoken to me since…forever.”

“Old grudges?”

“Beats me, Sergeant,” Mr. Miller shrugged his shoulders. “You know…” he paused, “…my son, he was an only child…had this puppy, loved it to pieces. Introduced it to Liz, said, Ms. Liz, this is my brother.He meant it, too. He was about four then. And Liz goes, What a cutie! Looks just like my sister’s puppy. It died, isn’t that something?…That’s Liz Benson for you.”

“Interesting folks around here, uh?” Sergeant Parker said.

“Don’t like strangers much,” said Mr. Miller. “Specially from a big city.”

“I thought that has changed.”

“Some things never change, Sergeant.”

“Tough to fit in.”

“Right. You’ve got an advantage, though. Great to have a police sergeant for a neighbor.”

“Thank you.”

“Just take it slow. You’ll be all right, Bill.”

“Thank you, Mr. Miller. Appreciate it.”

Sergeant Parker was walking to the car when from the corner of his eye he saw Liz Benson. She’d made it down the porch steps already and now hurried toward him, smiling and waving her little hand.

“You must be our new neighbor,” she said in a surprisingly young voice, “I’m Liz Benson.”

“Sergeant Parker. Bill Parker, Ma’am.”

“Welcome, Bill, welcome,” she beamed. “You know, you look just like his son,” she quickly gestured in the direction of Mr. Miller’s house, “just like Johnny! Can you imagine, fell to his death one day, isn’t that something?”

Now that Sergeant Parker saw Liz Benson up close, he found that it was impossible to guess her age. She must have looked exactly the same for many years. Would look the same forever.

It’s funny, as he stood there on the sunlit sidewalk, Sergeant Parker suddenly felt very small. Just a boy. No more than four years old.


Mr. Cooper saw his parents today. They had been dead for thirty-five years. It was nice to see them. Dad sat in his favorite armchair, tracing the lines of the “Leatherstocking Tales”with a cracked magnifying glass. Mom – at the table, admiring her collection of postcards featuring famous actors.

When Mr. Cooper entered the room, they both looked up and smiled. Mr. Cooper did all the talking.

“I missed you guys,” he said, “how have you been?”

They nodded, smiling.

“You look well,” he continued, “I’ve been okay, too. Julie…she’s got this…memory problem. Has to stay at the hospital for a while. Wish she were here now.”

Mr. Cooper thought he saw Mom pout and suddenly remembered that she and Julie never got along. Maybe it was for the better his wife wasn’t home.

“Next time,” he said quickly, “next time for sure.”

Mr. Cooper walked over to the closet.

“Recognize this, Dad?” he reached to bring down something lying on top, “Gosh, it’s heavy.”

It was a battered ash hockey stick. The kind they made in the old days. Crafted from a single piece of wood.

“I remember the day we got it like it was yesterday,” said Mr. Cooper, “My fifteenth birthday. The best present ever.”

He gripped the handle tight. Now, almost seventy-five years later, his fingers still tingled with excitement. The same way they did at the store when he pointed at the stick, and the clerk handed it to him.

“I don’t care it’s not laminated. I’m glad it isn’t. This is better. This is special.”

He knew it the very first time he touched it. It was magical.

Mr. Cooper shut his eyes and saw the old skating rink and a young boy, himself, kicking the puck with friends. His hat was stuffed in his pocket and there was snow in his hair.

So much snow. Everything was white. Except for the tiny red flame moving about. Flickering in the white mist.

That girl. She wore her red beret on one side letting her black curls bounce on the other. He left his hockey stick on the ice, made her trip. It was an accident.

I’ll wait for you,she said three years later as he palmed her dear face and kissed her goodbye.

He was eighteen now. Onboard of a Navy ship in the Pacific. Happy, because he was going to war. Because death didn’t exist. Because Julie waited for him at home.

Mr. Cooper opened his eyes, coming back. His parents were still there.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, lifting up the hockey stick, “perhaps it’s time to pass it on. Remember the Millers? A nice family, moved in next to Liz’s? Had a little boy Johnny?”

His parents smiled, nodding.

“Well, it’s the Millers’ grandson. John Miller Junior. The newspaper boy. Just turned sixteen. His mom is a nurse. She’s been very good to Julie.”

Mr. Cooper was silent for a moment.

“You know,” he spoke again, “if I had a son, I would want him to turn out like this kid.”

Now that it was decided, Mr. Cooper set to work without delay. He cleared the table. (Mom collected her postcards to make more space.) He found all the supplies he needed. He wrapped the hockey stick very carefully, securing the many layers of tissue paper with little bits of scotch tape. Just in case. With a permanent marker he wrote on the package To John Miller Jr., then added Grace Miller’s son. He laid the package on the table, dragged himself to the couch and sat down heavily.

He had never been that tired in his whole life. Or that content. Mr. Cooper closed his eyes and there he was again. In the middle of the old skating rink.

Hey, remember me?he called, chasing after the girl in the red beret.

I remember you,she said, glancing over her shoulder, You made me fall.

Sorry about that. How are you feeling?

I’m fine now, thank you.

And they skated, and skated, and talked about nothings. And then he took her hand, and she didn’t mind. Didn’t mind one bit.

The snow was coming down hard. All turned white but for the tiny red flame shining through the thick mist. But then the flame, too, flickered and went out.

Mr. Cooper

A regular day in July it was. John Miller Jr. arrived at the distribution center before dawn, picked up the newspapers and the route. Close to home, good, he thought. He liked the job. He just turned sixteen, and getting up at four was no fun, but once he dragged himself out of bed, he was okay. He liked the soft crackling of the tires on the cool surface of the road. The crisp breath of morning through the rolled down windows. He imagined himself at the beginning of time. The first, the only man, on the verge of some wonderful discovery. The town lay at his feet. Not a soul in sight.

Except for one.

“Morning, Mr. Cooper,” he would say, getting out of the car.

“Morning, John,” the old man would extend his hand to take the paper, “thank you, son.”

“Gotta run. Have a good day, Mr. Cooper.”

“You too, John. Give my regards to your mom. She is a good girl, that Grace.”

“Will do. Goodbye, Mr. Cooper.”

“Bye, son.”

John would get in the car and drive away. Sometimes just before the turn he glanced in the mirror, and the old man nodded and waved the newspaper at him. Then Mr. Cooper would disappear. But the following morning he would be there again. Waiting.

I should chat with him a bit longer someday, now that he’s all by himself, John often thought, perhaps, stay to watch the sunrise from his porch. There’ll be time.He liked the old man. Mr. Cooper was ancient and agile, like the sea. When John was younger, he believed Mr. Cooper was a pirate captain. Or perhaps a wizard. Or both. Mr. Cooper had lots of cool stuff. Treasures, in boys’ eyes. There was one thing in particular–a battered hockey stick–that everyone coveted. Mr. Cooper claimed it was magical. Gave him his strength. It must have been true, for the old man was always there.

But not today. John got out of the car and slowly headed for the house. Carefully laid the paper down on the empty rocker. Then rang the doorbell. Rang it. No answer. John reached for his phone.

“It’s 5:30 in the morning,” Sergeant Parker said grumpily, “maybe he is still in bed, sleeping?”

“He never misses his morning paper, Sir,” John said, “something’s wrong.”

They found Mr. Cooper on the living room couch. He looked like he was taking a snooze.

“You may go now,” Sergeant Parker said to John quietly.

“Thank you, Sir,” said John, “I need to finish delivering the newspapers.” John walked to the door, past the couch, and Mr. Cooper, and stepped outside. The red ball of fire rose in the East. Mr. Cooper’s paper lay on the still rocker. John placed his hand on the back of the chair and pushed slightly. Then he punched the back hard, hurting his knuckles and sending the rocker into an awkward jerky motion. The newspaper slid onto the floor. John ran down the porch steps and to the car. He drove away fast. He never looked in the mirror.


She was not beautiful. She learned and accepted that early in life. Growing up, while other girls spent hours in front of the mirror, she never bothered. She was what she was–plain–and that was not going to change. And yet, somehow, effortlessly, she was always popular. Everyone liked her. In high school boys were competing for her attention. She finally noticed one of them, the tallest and best looking, and if at the prom there had been a contest for the most mismatched couple, they would have taken the prize.

They married two years after graduation, as soon as she got her nursing degree, in another year they had John, and in another two she became a widow. Her husband was an arborist. A tree man. Had a bad accident. It was one of those surreal things you can never prepare yourself for or understand completely. Sometimes Grace wished for the blissful unawareness of her patients. The comfort of their worlds. She envied Julie Cooper. The ninety-year-old Julie, forever fifteen, reliving the happiest days of her life over and over again.

“Shouldn’t she know about her husband, Mrs. Miller?” Sergeant Parker said in a low voice, glancing at the old woman smiling at him from a hospital bed.

“I’ll be back in a little while, Ms. Julie,” Grace called.

 “She won’t understand,” Grace said, once they were out of the room, “let her be, Sergeant.”

“It’s Bill actually,” said Sergeant Parker.

“Okay, Bill,” Grace said, “call me Grace.”

“How’s your boy, Grace…how’s John?”

“He’ll be all right. Thank you, Bill.”

“Mr. Cooper left something for him.”

“He did?”

“It’s in the car, I’ll be a minute.”

Sergeant Parker returned with a long carefully wrapped L-shaped object.

“Whatever it is, it’s heavy,” he said handing it to Grace.

The inscription in black marker read: To John Miller Jr., Grace Miller’s son.

“It’s obvious, you’re new in town,” Grace smiled.

“Why is that?”

“Everyone around here would know what this is.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Mr. Cooper’s magical hockey stick.”

“Magical…” Sergeant Parker raised one eyebrow.

“Brings happiness,” Grace nodded.


“We’re about to find out,” Grace said.

“I would like to see it someday,” said Sergeant Parker.

“John will be happy to show it to you.”


“I have to go check on Julie now. Thank you for everything.”

“When can I see you again?”


“About the Coopers,” Sergeant Parker cleared his throat, “I still have some questions.”

Grace looked closely at Sergeant Parker.

 “How about tomorrow?” she said.

“When do you finish work?”


“I’ll be here at six.”

“Till tomorrow then, Bill?”

“I’ll see you soon, Grace.”

Sergeant Parker was a respectable man, in his forties, uniformed. Walking back to the car he only skipped on one foot once. But he whistled all the way.

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5 Responses to “Plain Old Magic”

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