Contemporary Fiction Coming of Age



              Ken Goldman                                                                              

The article in the morning paper about Denise Duncan covered little more than two inches of column space. There was no photo, no mention of her accomplishments, and nothing about what had led her to do what she had done.

It had been over ten years since she had sat in my fifth period English class, but she was the kind of student a teacher doesn’t forget. How many 11th graders could write essays that still haunted you after a decade? I wish I had kept more of them, but I remembered a brief one she had written that I had filed with the few other student essays I had saved. I read it again, and the damned thing still got to me after all these years.


    by Denise Duncan

Tommy Watson got hit hard yesterday during the fourth quarter of Harrington’s play-off game against Washington Prep. I watched him writhe in pain on the forty yard line in his blue and gold uniform,thinking he looked like some kind of large tropical fish who had flopped out of its tank. A few moments later when they carried Tommy off the field, the stadium exploded in cheers for his valiant effort.  

But I didn’t cheer. I wanted Tommy’s leg to be broken in six different places for what he had done to me four years ago.  

One cold Sunday when I was twelve, Tommy had kept me waiting for an entire day with the promise that we would be going to a movie. I dressed in my best new clothes and my mother let me put on make-up for the first time. But Tommy never showed, and he never called. I cried all night.

My mom somehow took care of it, because she was good at that sort of thing. She told me that after a while, the hate and hurt would go away, and for these last few years I thought she had been right. 

So I smiled whenever Tommy was around and acted like he didn’t know me. I smiled when I saw him walk down the hallway holding hands with one of the cheerleaders. I even smiled when I saw them together at the Junior Prom. And I smiled yesterday, when I saw Tommy flopping in pain and I could only think “Now you know how it feels!” I wondered how long it would take for Tommy’s pain to heal?

 Probably nowhere nearly as long as it has taken mine ... 

Denise Duncan kept the pain well hidden, but the smile she had strained so hard to maintain did not show in her eyes. Still, her writing indicated a vague optimism that happiness waited in some magic place that she could create for herself.

I hoped Denise’s files might provide me with the answer to her magic place, but I had no idea what a chore I had set up for myself. The school system doesn’t computerize the records of any student who graduated before 1983, and there’s a quarry where the old Harrington High School building had once stood. I had to go down to the Central Administration Building, and it took two hours there before anyone could even find her name listed.   

Finally a temp named Patty, who was on her lunch break, took me to the eleventh floor and led me to a small filing room lit by a single bulb that I had to reach for a chain to light. I told her I was a teacher and that I wasn’t breaking any rules being there, but she never even asked for my name. I mentioned I needed a photocopy machine just in case I found what I had been looking for. She pointed down the hall, and that ended our conversation.

The filing cabinet listing 1982’s graduating class from Harrington High School clearly hadn’t been opened for years, and for a moment the dust itched my nose. I searched under the “D’s” and there she was : Denise Duncan, Honors Course, Straight-A student in her senior year. A yellowed photo (which showed her at age six smiling minus one front tooth) was affixed to her medical records. There was a separate folder for awards : Future Leaders of America Award in her sophomore and junior year; winner of the Scholastic Achievement Essay Contest in her senior year; honorable mention for her volunteer work at the Clayton Home for the Aged throughout her four years at Harrington High School. She had received a full paid scholarship to Midwestern University three months before she graduated.   

I figured the awards would be a good place to start. The essay award was easy to track down. I remembered the day she won it, because she must have shown it to every student in my class. One phone call to the Scholastic Achievement Society and I had the essay in my hands by the weekend.  But until last week I had never read what Denise had written in tribute to her mother.

My Mothers Magic Bag

  By Denise Duncan

When I was eight I got the measles. “Mom!” I screamed. I’ve got these big, red, ugly blotches all over my face! How can I let anyone see me like this?” I really believed that I would have those ugly blotches for the rest of my life, and I cried all day long.  

That night my mother told me about her magic bag. “Denise,” she said with just the trace of a smile. I had planned not to tell you my secret until you were much older, but maybe it’s time you knew about my magic bag.”  Upon my bed she placed what appeared to be an ordinary black pocketbook, just like the one she used to carry with her to the grocery store before Dad bought her the shiny new one. “Can you keep a secret?”

I assured her that I could.

“This bag once belonged to a beautiful young princess, and it contains three wishes,” she whispered. “I haven’t used any of them yet, and I have to be the one to make each wish ... but I’m going to make that first wish right now.” My mother closed her eyes as tight as she could. “Magic Bag! Magic Bag! Please make the skin of my beautiful daughter as lovely as it once had been.”

My mother opened her eyes and told me to reach into the magic bag. I pulled out a slip of pink paper, with a single sentence written upon it : “Your daughters skin will be as beautiful as ever in exactly one week.”  

“Thank you! Oh, thank you!” I cried as I threw my arms around my mother. And then, wiping the tears from my face I added, “I promise I’ll never tell anyone, Mom. Not ever.”

When I was twelve Tommy Watson had asked me to the movies. I spent all Sunday morning dressing up, and I waited in front of my house for over two hours. But Tommy never showed, and when I called his house, his mother told me that Tommy had gone to a baseball game with his friends. I cried right through dinner. My mother leaned toward me.

“Let’s get the magic bag,” she whispered.

Together in my room my mother again spoke the words I remembered as a child. “Magic Bag! Magic Bag! Will you grant my second wish to ease the pain of my beautiful princess and give her the gift of love?”

Again she told me to reach into the magic bag, and again I pulled out a pink sheet of paper with a single sentence upon it : “Within the next week you will forget Tommy Watson and be loved more than you have ever thought possible.

Although I truly wanted to believe in the power of the magic bag, I couldn’t see how it could possibly grant me this wish. I forced a smile for my mother, and she whispered into my ear, “Always remember ... the magic bag never lies.”

The following Saturday morning I was awakened by a dozen enthusiastic licks from a tiny warm tongue.  I opened my eyes and found myself in bed with the most furry, blackest cocker spaniel puppy I had ever seen. Her wagging tail and countless licks across my face showed that she could not love me enough. As I held my new friend close to me, my mother stepped into my room. She stood by my bed smiling.

“Oh Mom, you were right!” I cried. “The magic bag never lies!”

It rained heavily on my seventeenth birthday, and the sky remained a muddy brown all day. I sat alongside my mother’s bed in the hospital and waited for her to awaken. Months of chemotherapy had turned what remained of her hair to wispy straw. After several hours she finally awakened.  

“Denise? How long have you been here?”  she asked in a voice I might not have recognized had it not come from her lips. “I didn’t want you to see me like this on your birthday. I must look like ... ”

“You look beautiful, Mom, just like the mother of a princess,” I assured her. “I came because I wanted to ask you to do something for me.” I reached under the chair and placed the old, beat-up pocketbook into her hands. “It’s the magic bag, Mom ... and I want to ask you to make that third wish now.”

My mother looked down at the bag without saying anything for several minutes. The words seemed caught in her throat. I took her hand, and holding it tight I leaned forward. 

“I want you to ask the magic bag ... I want you to ask it to make you better, okay? Will you ask it to do that for me, Mom? Will you ask the magic bag to do that?”

She seemed to struggle to find the right words. “Denise, you know I can’t ... that the bag isn’t really ... ” But her words trailed off. I squeezed her hand and smiled. She smiled back, and looked down at the bag. She began to recite the familiar words, and my lips silently formed the same words as she spoke.

“Magic Bag ... Magic Bag ... ” she began, again struggling with the words. “Will you grant this third wish for my daughter? Will you make me ... ? Can you make me ... ?” She closed her eyes and held my hand firmly. “Will you make me well ... for my daughter?”

I whispered close to her ear, “Look in the bag, Mom.”

Hesitantly, she reached inside and pulled out a slip of pink paper. Upon it was a single sentence written in the scrawled handwriting of a seventeen year old girl who desperately wanted to believe in the power of all the magic bags that had ever existed: “Within one week you will find more peace and love than the world has ever known.”

I held my mother in my arms and whispered to her, “Remember, Mom ... The Magic Bag never lies.”         

I remembered those words with a smile when, exactly one week later, I watched as my mother’s casket was lowered into her grave.

Denise’s essay told me much about the person I’d thought I’d remembered but little about what I’d wanted to know. Clearly she had wanted to believe in the magic of her mother’s magic bag. What had happened to its magic? Her essay was only one piece to the puzzle of Denise Duncan, so I returned to the folder I had photocopied.

I thought perhaps Midwestern University would have some information about her. But when I called the transcript office, no one could find any record of a student named Denise Duncan from Harrington High. Yes, she had received a scholarship back in 1982, but she had written back to Midwestern the following summer that she wouldn’t be accepting it after all. And except for an old man named Reggie who still lived at the Clayton Home for the Aged, no one remembered her. He told me Denise stopped coming to the home shortly after her mother had died. He remembered that she had acted a little strangely during her last few visits. On her last visit Denise had told Reggie that by spreading her arms like a bird’s wings she had learned to fly.

Denise had found her magic. 

I searched through Harrington’s alumni magazine, The Spokesman, and found a poem Denise had written two years ago for some obscure New York literary journal that called itself Millennium :

I hid from Death but he found me hiding inside my youth.                                                                              

And when he came he took me aside and whispered,               

         “So how was it, your life?”                                

  And I told him , Ill let you know when I am done.                                  

 I have not yet flown like a firefly nor kissed a handsome prince. 

         And I would enjoy a walk along the Seine.”             

We argued for a handful of my dreams.                       

 But in the end he took them all.

Phone calls to her classmates and former teachers provided me with few clues. Nervous exhaustion, someone said. A complete breakdown, said another. Drugs, depression, the whole nine yards. No one knew how it happened. No one knew why. 

Last week a high school cheerleader saw Denise Duncan standing on the hill that overlooks the quarry where Harrington High School once stood. The girl claimed Denise had held her arms straight out like a bird’s wings preparing for flight, and with outstretched arms she plunged two hundred feet to her death.

I wonder if she left behind an old black bag that had somehow lost its magic. And I wonder if she ever got to kiss her prince.


May 13, 2022 16:26

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