Huffing and puffing small clouds of steam out into the cold Chicago air, Melvin Jacobs waddled the distance between his job as a security guard at Loyola University and the train station where he would board a train for home.
It would be a short ride. Melvin only lived five blocks from the school. Four if he walked home from his post in the parking garage rather than walk in the opposite direction. Melvin Hardin, however, wasn't one to walk farther than the nearest train station, bus stop or standing cab. Weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds, walking was always more trouble than it was worth.
It wasn't the strain on Melvin's soft and heavy body that caused him to avoid walking whenever he could, although his physique certainly didn't encourage it. It was the looks he'd get between wherever he was and wherever he was going. Melvin couldn't stand the way people looked at him.
Being the fattest person on campus brought with it a terrible popularity not entirely unlike the fame he endured in high school. The difference was that in high school, he'd been a star football player. He was the anchor of the De La Salle defensive line. Almost no man alive got past him and the few that did paid a heavy price for the honor. He was everyone's friend (who'd want two hundred and seventy pounds of muscle as an enemy) and the girls, while not exactly fighting over him, were always available.
Now, he was a security guard at the same school where his football career ended. Double-teamed by a knee injury and a relaxed training schedule, Melvin ballooned up to three hundred pounds and rode out his academic scholarship on the sidelines. Having graduated with a degree in criminal justice and few skills save those his diploma suggested he possessed, Melvin became a security guard at the school. He was working the only job he was qualified for with the only people who would hire him.
And since then, he had to deal with the look.
The look said "Why are you here?" It was pitying and accusing at the same time. In a single glance, usually accompanied by the person quickly looking away to avoid eye contact, people would ask him the question he asked himself every chance he got. What happened?
When he was still in college, shuffling back and forth between classes, he at least appeared to have a purpose. A reason for being there. As long as his scholarship held and he continued going to classes, he could fool himself into believing he was actually accomplishing something on that campus.
Now, with his life summed up in a stiff canvas badge that was sewn on his shirt, he could no longer afford himself the delusion of believing he was moving towards a goal. Having encapsulated his entire life into the five blocks between his claustrophobic little apartment and his worthless little job, he couldn't even delude himself he was moving towards anything at all. It was over. This was where he would spend the rest of his life. His only realistic hope was that he would die young, suffering a pointless life rather than a long and pointless one.
Melvin stared out the window on the subway, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. The dirty brick buildings outside rattled past as the train coughed its way through Chicago's north side. Melvin looked at the crumbling structures and realized that he would look at these same buildings every day for the rest of his life.
He spent the rest of the ride staring at his shoes.
With an uncharacteristically gentle stop, the train hissed into the station nearest Melvin's home. Melvin considered just riding the train to the end of the line and letting his mind run free. He'd contemplated his future more in the past twenty minutes than he had during his entire college career. He wondered what conclusions he might come to, what he might learn about himself if he were to just stay on the train and think on his situation.
His thoughts were interrupted by the realization that he was watching the train doors slide shut right in front of him. Standing on the train platform, he watched it pull away, leaving him behind in all-too familiar surroundings. He considered for one brief moment getting on the next one and thinking about what to do next. What really to do next. Surely he could do better than this?
Oh well, there was always tomorrow's train ride.
Melvin was making his way along the dark, shadowy street where his apartment was when he heard a voice call out to him.
"You! Come here!"
Turning around, Melvin saw a street vendor with her wares on a small wooded table underneath a picnic umbrella. She wore a greasy red scarf over her silver hair. Large, golden hoop earrings hung from her withered ears. Even from across the street, Melvin could see what must have been dozens of rings on her fingers.
Melvin looked to either side of him to see if there was anyone else she might have been calling out to. After all, she was all the way across the street. He knew though. He knew he was being called as surely as if she'd actually said his name.
The old woman looked up from her table and locked eyes with him. They were piercing, even at that distance. She held up a glittering hand and gestured for him to come to her. There was no kindness in her face, she didn't smile or take her eyes from his. It was less as if she wanted to sell him something and more that she wanted to impart some grim and disturbing information. She looked like a surgeon about to tell a family member that the patient wasn't going to make it.
Melvin made his way carefully across the street. Melvin's mother had instilled a fear of crossing the street in him at a young age, making it abundantly clear that if a car was coming at him, there would be little either he or the car would be able to do about getting their massive bulk out of the way in time.
Standing in front of the woman's table, Melvin could see she was selling candles. "Gypsy Candles" was written in black marker on a paper plate. Melvin reached out to examine one of them when the woman spoke to him in a harsh voice.
"That one is not for you boy."
"I see you walking towards your little house," the woman said in a child's mocking voice. "You are sad inside, unhappy. I know what you need. You need a gypsy candle. I will pick the one that is for you."
Melvin had half a mind to walk away. He didn't like her high-pitched, swaying voice. It had the quality of a teasing child's song. He was about to turn around right then and there when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.
One of the candles was lit, it's flame still and steady despite the constant blasts of legendary Chicago wind that came whipping down the street every few seconds. The huge picnic umbrella over the table bent and skittered with every gust and the woman's colorful scarves and robes danced in the breeze as well. The candle's flame never even flickered.
"You see," the woman said. "My candles are special. They bring luck."
Melvin was impressed, but he wasn't ready to dive off the deep end with this lady. The candles were special all right. Probably the best made in the history of the craft. He wasn't ready to believe that they were magical though. She had him pegged for the wrong kind of sucker if she was trying to sell him a "magical" candle.
"Real nice lady. I'll give you five bucks for one of the big ones."
The shriveled little gypsy hissed and made as if she would spit on him.
"No," she barked. "I will pick the one you need."
She reached into a wax-stained cardboard box beneath the table and pulled out a blood-red candle that could have been no more than two inches high.
"Twenty dollars," she demanded as if she was offering him wealth beyond his wildest dreams and he should be grateful.
"Twenty! For that thing," Melvin made a sound that was half-laughter, half-disgust and almost sprayed the woman with spittle before turning away to leave.
The woman's voice was icy and hard. Melvin found himself turning around, his desire to leave washed away in the sound of her voice.
The old woman picked up a burned match from the assorted debris on the table and placed the scorched charcoal tip between her thumb and forefinger. With a swift motion, she snapped her fingers and held the now lit match up for Melvin to marvel at.
"Neat trick lady. I still don't see how that makes these candles worth twenty bucks," Melvin said. Still, he was beginning to feel uneasy. The woman didn't seem to be performing for him. Her movements were deliberate and practiced. This seemed less like a magic trick and more like a ritual.
Ignoring Melvin altogether, the old woman touched the tip of the match to the candle's wick. It caught instantly and the flame crawled down the cloth wick towards the red wax of the candle. The old woman was staring intently at the candle. When a strange smile broke out across her face, Melvin leaned in closer to see what she was seeing that he wasn't.
Melvin's first thought was that the candle was burning faster than it should. Wax was pouring down the candle in every direction trying to escape the flame. In a few minutes, the candle would be nothing more than a puddle.
Then he heard a woman moan.
Instantly he looked up at the gypsy, but before he could wonder whether or not she'd made the sound, he heard it again.
It was coming form the candle.
Melvin looked closer at the candle. It had taken on a definite shape in the few moments it had been burning. It appeared to be a tiny sculpture of a man and a woman locked in embrace. Melvin watched in amazement as a rivulet of wax ran down the side and, as it did, the man's arm moved from the woman's waist to her arm, then to the back of her neck.
The entire image was moving. Her leg encircled his waist, he bent to kiss the side of her neck. Melvin could even make out the ripple of the man's throat as he kissed his mate and the woman's fingers clench the man's ribs in response.
"My God," Melvin said under his breath.
A low chuckle came from the gypsy as she blew out the candle and the image instantly disappeared. Now, it looked like little more than a misshapen glob of wax with a burnt little strip of fabric sticking out of it.
"You see now," the woman said.
Melvin only nodded.
"Twenty dollars is nothing for my magic eh," she said softly. "Nothing at all?"
"How," Melvin began, having to clear his throat several times before continuing. "How does it...how do you make these?"
"Bah," the woman said, the sound a bubbling growl in her throat. "As if I would tell. As if you could understand. Is old family recipe," she said as if telling some wonderful joke. "It works. That is all you need to know."
"Okay, I'll buy it," Melvin said, removing his wallet. "But how do I get it to work."
The woman clapped her hands and smiled a wide, toothless grin as she took the money from Melvin. "It is strong magic. Just light candle in the same room with woman you want, and you will have her."
"Wait, it does more than just...it's not just to look at?"
"Bah! Just to look at? What kind of magic is that? All magic does something."
"So this is a love potion or um, a love spell?"
"Bah, potions and spells," the woman said, throwing up her hands as if she were tying to explain the mysteries of the universe to an embicile. "Is magic, that is all! Light the candle in the same room as a woman and you will have her. You don't need to know more."
Melvin suddenly looked up and down the street for anyone who might have overheard their conversation. At that moment, he saw a woman turn the corner. He'd seen her several times since he'd moved in, but he'd never even spoken to her. She was carrying several bags of groceries so it was impossible to make out any features save her eyes, but even at this distance, her eyes were intense.
"Any woman," Melvin asked.
"Yes," the woman hissed, pressing the candle into his palm.
Melvin looked down at the candle, about to demand a fresh one, but the wick was white and clean, as if it had never been lit and the wax had taken on the shape of a man and a woman again.
"It magic! Now go!"
Throwing a battered twenty at the old gypsy, Melvin quickly crossed the street, ignoring how his belly jiggled up and down over his belt. He put the candle in his pocket and noticed it was warm. He wasn't entirely certain how to feel about that, so he decided to ignore it. Like the gypsy said, what did he know about magic?
"Can I help you?"
The woman peeked over her packages at Melvin and after considering him for a moment, smiled and handed him the largest of her bags.
"Thank you," she said in heavily accented English. "I'm Nadia."
"I'm Melvin," he said as he turned towards the apartment building. "I'd shake your hand, but it appears to be full."
"Aha," she laughed. "Just a little. I promise to shake your hand once we get these inside."
"It's a deal."
Inside, Melvin waited with double armfuls of groceries while Nadia fished for her keys. Once she'd opened the door, she invited him inside.
"Could you put those over there," Nadia asked as she hung her jacket on a wooden peg near the door.
"No problem," Melvin huffed as he set the groceries down on the kitchen countertop. When he turned around, Nadia was standing there with her hand extended.
She was breathtaking and Melvin had to thrust his own hand out to avoid staring at her too long. Her eyes were a dark gray, the exotic color of smoke. Her skin had a hushed olive tone to it and looked like polished mahogany in the weak light of her apartment's single lamp. She wore plain jeans and a pink sweater that not only set off the color of her skin, but hugged her body in every conceivable way.
"I promised you a handshake Melvin," she said wrapping his thick fingers in her own soft and slender grip. "I always keep my promises."
"Well Nadia," said Melvin wiping some sweat off his lip. "You need anything else, I'm at the end of the hall."
"Oh, so that's you I hear?"
"Um," Melvin said taken aback. He'd been so expectant to hear 'All right, goodbye' that he actually didn't understand what Nadia had said.
"Your music," Nadia said with a smile. "I hear you playing jazz records at night."
"Oh," Melvin said. Still regaining balance from this sudden change in conversation. "Yeah, they help me sleep."
"Me too," Nadia said. "When we first came to this country, my father bought jazz records. He loved the jazz."
"Where did you come from?"
"Romania. I am a gypsy."
"Really," Melvin said. "Do you know the old woman?"
"Mama Tadescu? Yes, she was a friend of my parents when we came to this country. She made sure I knew the old ways. She would tell me stories."
Melvin wanted to ask how old the woman was, but he didn't want to seem rude.
"What kind of stories?"
"Stories from the old country. Fairy tales and ghost stories. She told me her mother was a witch and one day she would show me how to do magic like in the old country. Foolishness like that. Things to frighten and amaze a small child."
"Yeah," Melvin said as a cold chill traced a streak down his back. "Foolishness."
"So," Melvin said, quickly changing the subject. "You like jazz huh?"
"Very much so," Nadia said. "But I was young when papa died and mother sold his records. Mother hated jazz. I think it reminded her of him. I was never allowed to listen to it until after she died. By then, it had been so long, I couldn't remember any of the songs."
"Well," Melvin said, venturing far into territory that had been unfamiliar ever since he left high school. "If you want, you can stop by and listen."
"Can we listen now?"
Melvin actually took a step back as his mind staggered under the force of her request. He'd been unprepared earlier, but this was shocking. Their meeting had gone beyond going well. This was amazing. For the first time since he pocketed it, Melvin could feel the heat of the candle against his thigh.
"Uh, yea. Just let me tidy up a little. I'm not exactly prepared for company."
"Oh yes. You're still wearing your clothes for work," Nadia said, looking him up and down. Her face didn't wrinkle up when she saw his size and she didn't seem to care that he was a security guard. He could have kissed her for that.
The he realized he was probably only a few records away from doing just that.
"I'll tell you what," Nadia said. "I was about to cook some dinner. I'll get it started and we can eat and listen to music at your apartment."
"All right," Melvin said as calmly as he could. His hands were clenching and unclenching uncontrollably, but since neither he nor Nadia looked down, neither noticed.
*** *** ***
Melvin couldn't remember the time spent cleaning his apartment but when Nadia came knocking on the door but it was spotless nonetheless. Right before he opened the door for her, he set the gypsy's candle on the coffee table next to the couch. He hoped she would see it, perhaps rekindling their earlier conversation. Nadia never even glimpsed it, however, offering him a steaming pot of food as soon as she came through the door.
"Here it is," she said with a smile. "I hope you like beef stew."
"Sure do," Melvin said taking it from her. Actually, he hated beef stew, but he wasn't about to say so. Besides, his appearance suggested that he disliked few things that were edible. There were probably worse insults to a person's cooking than having a three hundred pound man turn his nose up at it, but Melvin couldn't think of any.
He took a large pot from her and set it on his stove. After spooning out two bowls of stew, he took them into the living room where Nadia was flipping through his CD's.
"There's so many," Nadia said as she set the bowl on her knees and continued to flip through his music collection.
Nadia had changed into a peach colored sundress with white sandals. Melvin forgot how hot the apartments got when the superintendent turned the heat on and he was already heating up in slacks and a button-down shirt.
Melvin selected a CD at random and popped it in. The two ate in silence while the music played. Nadia entranced by the melodies and Melvin entranced by her. Nadia closed her eyes and seemed to feel each note. Melvin just watched her breathe, her chest rising and falling beneath the thin dress with each breath.
Melvin put the dishes away and when he returned, Nadia was hypnotized by the music. One of her hands was in her lap and the other was between the cushions on the couch. Her thighs were slightly apart. He could see the shadowy crease of her cleavage through the top of her loose sundress.
Melvin looked over at the coffee table next to Nadia and he saw the candle sitting on a small brass stand. He could vaguely remember putting it there earlier. Even though it was small and well over six feet away from him, he could clearly make out the male and female figures embracing.
Then, it lit itself.
Melvin watched, unable to move, as the white wick slowly turned black. It curled up, and then a tiny orange flame spurted from its tip. An instant later, the candle was lit.
Melvin looked down and saw Nadia lying on his couch. She had pulled her sundress off one shoulder and she was clenching and unclenching her fist, balling the dress up near her hips. Melvin could just make out the smooth white curve of underwear between her legs.
Melvin watched as Nadia slid her hand between her legs and began to rub herself. She pulled air in between her teeth in a slow hiss as she dug a furrow in the white cotton of her panties. Her thighs parted farther and she lifted her knees slightly.
"Mmmm, Melvin," she said. Her accent even thicker with lust. Melvin gently sat next to her, afraid to touch her for fear of breaking whatever spell she was under. As soon as the couch accepted his weight, Nadia snaked her free hand out and squeezed him between his own legs.