This present tense story shifts POV again and again with large white spaces marking the changes. "Magic Man" consists of Sandra, her three young children and her distraught sister and some flashbacks including the matriarch, Sandra's mother. Both Sandra and her sister are married to despicable men who cheat and beat.
The story opens with Sandra holding one of her children on her lap as she listens to her sister make excuses for her "heart surgeon" husband. Her sister is obviously upset and sad. Then we learn that they are at a hotel swimming pool. No other guests are around and only waiters stand at the ready. It is
The POV shifts to that of the eight-year old child who sits on her mother's lap and knows she is too old for that behavior. She is referred to as S.P. which the mother is no longer sure what it stands for, either "Sweet Pea or Sweety Pie or maybe it's Simply Perfect." S.P. knows that her mother is having some sort of crisis and she wishes she could fix it for her mother. S.P. feels like she has to force herself to be the perfect version of a daughter. S.P. takes a lot of responsibility for her two younger sisters so that their mother can have more time to sleep. She told a scary story, "About the Magic Man. He's called Proppy…" This is the first reference in the story to the title. The eight-year old, S.P. takes on the responsibilities that she knows her father should handle helping Sandra with the children but he is gone most of the time. "He seems to S.P. to be very bored with his duties as a father and husband."
The aunt finally gets up to go and S.P. notices a bruise under her sleeve and wants to wander away to find someone her own age to play with. She makes an excuse that she needs to go to the bathroom so she can get off of her mother's lap.
Sandra closes her eyes for a moment even though her three and five year old are sitting next to the pool. She thinks of herself as a younger woman and feels a disconnect to the "heavy body she finds herself now." Alice, the middle child, wants Sandra to play with her but Sandra "tells the child that she feels weighted down with stones."
S.P. walks away with her eyes shut as well. She then realizes a man is standing in the shadows. He does not look like she thought the "Magic Man" would look. When the man approaches her, she remembers that her nickname, S.P. means Special Person. She shakes the man's hand and agrees to go with him to find his little boy so that she can play with him. It is clear that the man is a pedophile.
The tension increases because the man is luring the little girl away and the POV shifts happen faster at this point from S.P. to Sandra. Sandra is warned by the waiter that there are bad men in the area.
Finally S.P. "can see he has been telling her stories, like her mother does about her father going to Brussels" and "she understands for the first time that he cannot do any magic at all, that on the contrary, she's the one who has to do some magic for him, that like her own mother, it is he who needs her to help him."
When her mother finally goes looking for her she calls versions of S.P. because she doesn't really remember which one is correct. She knows "that her mother will not come and save her." This is so sad that an eight-year old already knows and understands that her mother is not there for her and is incapable or doesn't care to protect her daughter.
A very disturbing story but it shows how a selfish and careless mother can put her daughter in harm's way by ruining her daughter's sense of self. The shifting POVs worked well with the present tense which gave the story suspense. The use of S.P. and Sandra's lack of remembering exactly what it stood for set the story off in the right direction for the theme that, for me, is about women and their self-worth. I think that not only is this a great story, it is important.
Sheila Kohler has written 10 novels and 3 volumes of short stories. She was born in the early 1940s in South Africa and lived and studied in France and the United States. She has taught at many universities and is currently teaching at Princeton.
"Magic Man" was first published in the Yale Review and then included in the 2013 issue of Best American Short Stories.
Sheila Kohler's web page