This story first appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology IV, Spring 2014.
A small man stood on the Mitchell’s front porch holding a big yellow box. He said, “You half problem viss zee mouses?”
“Sorry?” Mitch said. Behind him, arms crossed, Carol eyed the old school bus the man had just parked out front.
The man repeated, slowly, “You have problem with the mouses?” His voice was high-pitched, the accent German or Polish.
“Mouses?” Carol said.
“Ah, sorry,” Mitch said. “You must be the exterminator.”
“Alex Hermann,” he said, tipping forward in a stiff half bow. “Pleasing to meet you.”
Mitch held the door open. “Come on in.”
“Thank you very much please,” Hermann said.
Mitch rolled Teddy’s pedal car into the living room so Hermann could set the box down.
“How does that work, Mr. Hermann?” Carol said, glancing from him to the box and back. Her words were hard-edged chirps.
“The. Mice,” Carol said. “How. Do. You. Catch. Them.”
“I am looking at the house and seeing what we are doing.”
“Don’t you just set traps?” Carol said.
“The traps are not safe for the children. You have, yes?”
“Teddy,” Mitch said. “He turns seven this month.”
“He is the lucky boy, yes?”
While they toured the house, Hermann’s hands and lips and eyes moved constantly. Thin fingers danced spiderlike across his bushy mustache, through his wavy black hair. He peered deep in drawers and cabinets, hunched into closets, and slid behind dressers. He skipped across the rafters in the attic, swept his hands under beds while looking at the ceiling, poked in the dark corners of the basement. The Mitchells followed, exchanging silent frowns and raised eyebrows. Back in the foyer, Hermann drummed his fingers across the top of the bright yellow box.
“The box will work.”
“Great,” Mitch said.
Carol asked, “How?”
“I am showing you.” Hermann bowed and took his box to the kitchen.
Carol clutched Mitch’s forearm and whispered, “I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”
“It is if he gets rid of the mice.”
“You mean ‘zee mouses’?”
“Come on, Carol. He was a Super Service Award Winner last year on Angie’s List.”
“He better be, parking that piece of junk out front.”
Hermann sat cross-legged on his box in the middle of the kitchen.
“How does it work?” Carol asked again.
“I am opening this,” Hermann said, leaning over to lift a hatch low on the box’s side. From a pocket, he drew a thin pamphlet. “And I am reading this.”
The Mitchells waited as he began reading aloud.
“Pleasing to go,” Hermann said, glancing up. “I must be concentrating.”
The Mitchells retreated to the living room couch.
“So weird,” Carol said. “They’d better be gone before the party.”
“Carol, we need to talk about that—”
In the pause, Hermann’s voice came through, low and rhythmic, like a chant.
“Money’s tight, hon, you know that. I haven’t closed a loan in weeks—”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, how will we pay for it?”
Carol said, “Charge it.”
“We’ve been charging a lot lately.”
“For God’s sake, Mitch! Do you want to tell Teddy we can’t afford his birthday party?”
They were still arguing when they noticed Hermann standing in the doorway, holding his big yellow box. They heard the scrabbling of many little feet.
“I have the mouses.”
“Gross,” said Carol. She tapped Mitch’s arm. “Get the door.”
As Hermann slid the box in the back of the bus, Carol said, “That was so creepy. He was just standing there, leering at us. What did he do?”
“No idea. Whatever he did, I hope it worked.”
“Is he done?”
“I don’t know,” Mitch said, “his box sounded full.”
“What if there are more?”
“Then I’m sure he’ll come back.”
A few minutes later, Hermann presented his bill with a bow and a flourish. Carol rolled her eyes. The bill was hand-written in a thin script. The sevens looked like backward F’s.
“What are you charging us for?” Carol asked. Her arms were crossed again.
Hermann looked surprised. “I take the mouses away.”
“Mice,” she said. “How do we know you caught them all?”
“The mouses love the box.”
“You did a great job,” Mitch said, holding out a credit card.
“I am only taking the cash.”
Carol looked at Hermann. “Who doesn’t take credit?”
“I’ll write you a check,” Mitch said. He made it out for eighty-five dollars, seventy-five for the service plus a ten-dollar tip.
“Most generous, Mr. Mitchell.” Hermann bowed again. “Pleasing to call if the mouses come back.” Hermann smiled and held out his hand. Mitch reached out and laughed when a business card slowly extended from beneath Hermann’s outstretched fingers.
Mitch said, “How’d you do that?”
Arms crossed, Carol said nothing.
“Magic,” Hermann replied. “Like the mouses.”
Printed on the card in large black copperplate was “HERMANN THE MAGNIFICENT” and below it in smaller letters “MAGICIAN.”
“Pleasing to help with the party,” he said with a more elaborate bow, left leg forward, right arm sweeping in front of him, his hand scooping the air.
“Uh, thanks,” Mitch said, holding out the card, “but we really can’t afford it.”
Hermann wagged his finger. “This I do for nothing.”
Two mice-free weeks later, on a cloudless Saturday afternoon, a throng of laughing children swarmed around Hermann in the Mitchells’ back yard. Several dozen parents crowded the deck, drinking and chatting. The talk was money, mostly–mortgages, car loans, healthcare, 401k’s, college funds. While Mitch manned the grill, Carol was everywhere, dropping in and out of conversations, distributing drinks and quips, the perfect hostess. She didn’t mention the magician was also their exterminator, or thank her friend Melissa for the recommendation. Everyone was having mouse problems but no one wanted to talk about it.
Hermann waded among the children in a black cloak and top hat, his bushy mustache, tamed with wax, coiling at the tips. He produced baubles with effortless grace: a sweating Pepsi from his empty top hat, a coin from behind a well-scrubbed ear, a bracelet from thin air before the amazed eyes of a freckled little girl. Hermann made sure each child received a small gift, then mesmerized them with further sleights of hand: magic knots, melting ropes, even the old severed finger routine. This last caused Teddy, the birthday boy, to catch his breath, eyes widening, nearly erupting into tears before Hermann distracted him with a well-placed licorice plug.
When he made the stainless steel grill vanish, smoke and all, the children looked at each other, gap-mouthed. Mitch kept thrusting and flipping with his spatula until the grill reappeared. None of the adults noticed, nor did they see Hermann transform the garden hose into a writhing green mamba, or the glint in his eyes as the children sank back in horror. But when the snake coiled back into a hose, the children laughed and clapped. The parents remained oblivious, even when Hermann briefly turned them all into brightly plumed birds, all beady-eyed and cawing. The children’s gasps turned not a single beak.
“Now for something beautiful,” Hermann said.
He pulled a stack of multicolored papers from his cloak, and waved it in the air, fanned himself with them. He pressed them between his palms, hands together as if in prayer. He placed his lips against his thumbs and blew. With each breath, a paper flower, soft blue or pink or green, popped and crinkled up from between his palms. Dozens of little hands reached for the spray of pastel blooms. Hermann leapt onto the deck and pressed the bouquet into Carol’s hands. She glanced down, smiling vaguely. Their check nested in the center, shaped like a soft blue tulip, the stamped words “INSUFFICIENT FUNDS” snaking across the petals.
Hermann hopped back onto the lawn, landing easily among the children, holding a pamphlet. He waded among them, reading softly, his free palm brushing over them like wind across pendulous wheat. The children moved their lips. They groped for him, hollow eyed but smiling. They followed Hermann down the street in single file, holding hands, a long curving tail swishing to the rhythm of his voice. At Carol’s request, he had parked at the end of the block.
One after the next, Hermann lifted the children into the back of his old yellow bus. He taught them new songs as he drove away, which they sang together until the highway and the darkness lulled the children to sleep.
Just before dawn, Hermann pulled into the parking lot of a middle school in a tree-filled suburb hundred miles from the Mitchells’ home. He whistled softly as he moved down the center aisle past the cascading hair and chubby hands projecting from the padded benches. He sat on his little yellow box and read from his pamphlet, his voice low, a sympathetic rhythm to the soft breathing of the children. Soon, mice scampered off the benches and down the aisle into the box. Once they were all safely gathered, Hermann carried the box out of the empty bus and into the sleepy neighborhood.