This is Your Brain on Magic —What’s Real and What’s Really Real?

This is Your Brain on Magic

            “She would have made a marvelous widow. Now that was a role she was meant to play! Don’t laugh. I mean it.” Grandpa chuckled before he continued. “Up every morning for mass. I’ll bet she was confessing to, let’s say, ambivalent feelings about me coming home that night. Still I outlived her. Always wondered about her dying words — was it ‘Shit, Mike screwed me out of a good time again!’ or something worse?”

“Grandpa,” Fred tried to speak, but the word got lost somewhere between his brain and his mouth. “Grandpa…” He tried again. His grandfather had been dead for twenty years, but this medically induced delusion was charming and clever. Too charming and clever to be a product of Fred’s work-a-day imagination.

“As I see it, people are driven by various motivators — greed, lust and the rest of the big seven sins among ‘em but there are more. Some people are all about power. They want to dominate every room they enter — to be a star. And then there are the people who are all about the notion of a happy family. You’d think that was all ‘play nice’ and sugar & spice, but not really. It’s all about the picture of that happy family. If I’d have died first, Claire would have told stories about her perfect marriage, made me into a hero — the perfect husband, father, man…. She’d have told them I was a prince among the froggies.

“Remember what Tolstoy said about happy families? What he should have said is that all happy families are alike because there are none — or just so few it’s a statistically insignificant amount. That’s right up your alley, Fred, a statistical analysis of literary tropes. You were so good with numbers as a little tike. You mystified her, you know, her first grandson and he’s a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. She just wanted you to be the cute little boy in the photos — a little boy from a Norman Rockwell — not a real little boy.

“She was all about family pictures, lining us up all smiles. We all know how that worked out. That’s just something you should think about, when you think about what you want to do next. Whatever time you have left, whatever you want to do with your life. You should understand what drives you — not what you think should drive you or what you want to drive you, it’s about what’s really in the driver’s seat.

“You see for me it was all about magic.”

Fred, unable to speak, wiggled his thumbs in a vain imitation of shuffling a deck of cards.

“Nah, not card tricks and illusions — the real deal. All the time I was on the beat, all the hours I logged as a detective, I was always on the hunt for the inexplicable, the impossible, the magical in the world…. It’s there. Not God, not religion, magic — I swear it’s there, hovering along the edges and just out of sight.”

“Graaaaaaa…” Fred tried again.

“Well, catch up with you later. Take care of that noggin. The men in our family can’t afford to waste brain cells.”


Fred woke up in a cushy chair, in a row of cushy chairs, in a room full of cushy chairs filled with people tethered to IV drips. A nurse was checking his blood pressure. She was a short and round, Latina of impossible to determine age, with soft, skillful hands and breath that smelled of peppermint toothpaste. She released his arm from the cuff.

“Professor Clark, Fred, how are you doing?”

“Grand…” His mouth felt stuffed with cotton balls and numbed by the kind of topical anesthetic his dentist used. “Grand…”

“Grand! How lovely. Some people hallucinate. You didn’t, did you?”

Fred shook his head. He was not going to tell the nurse he’d just spent the last half hour in a conversation with his long dead grandfather. A few minutes later, when his mouth and brain reconnected, he told her that he’d had a dream about his grandfather.

“That sounds good. Falling into a deep sleep and dreaming through the treatment is best. Some people aren’t as fortunate as you. You’re one of the lucky ones.”

Fred stopped feeling lucky the day he got his diagnosis.

“So we’ll see you back here on Thursday. I hope you have sweet dreams again.” Her dark eyes glimmered with the beginning of tears.


Magic? What the heck was his imaginary grandfather telling him? Fred wasn’t stupid. He knew he was really talking about his own subconscious. Or was it his unconscious? Or maybe it was his id? The treatments were exhausting. Or, perhaps, his decline was coming faster than predicted. He didn’t have time for imaginary conversations. He needed things to be real. The specialists said he was terminal.

“Everyone is terminal,” Fred replied.

“In the larger sense, Professor Clark, that is true. We’re all going to die someday. I’m very sorry about this, sorry to have to tell you….” The doctor, looked down at his tablet. “Your time is limited and there’s not much we can do. It’s such a rare neurological condition. There’s no protocol for treatment. There’s one experimental treatment. It’s being used on a related disorder in a drug trial right now and…”

The doctors negotiated with the researchers and the drug company. Fred’s rare diagnosis was added to the trial’s scope and he was added to the pool of patients as its sole representative. It was not, on the surface, a logical scientific or economic decision, but his diagnosis inspired sufficient curiosity among the scientists to override the objections of the money people. He agreed to the intensive monitoring and, as he’d been healthy for his entire 55 years, his participation in the trial was helpful in terms of determining the frequency of a host of common side effects, including high blood pressure, disturbing liver enzyme counts, dry-mouth and the rest of a list that went on and on. It sounded like the speed-whispered fine print at the end of a TV commercial for an impotency drug.


He swiped his metro card and found a seat on the R train. This was real —the turnstiles, the sounds echoing off the tiled walls, the clatter of footsteps and the hum of voices — all solid and free of magic. The grandfather he remembered with thinning gray hair and neatly trimmed beard, dressed in dark blue suits, comfortable shoes, starched white shirts and impeccable striped ties, was real. Magical reminiscences were, by their very nature, not real. And still he couldn’t completely shake the feeling that he’d just been to visit his grandfather.

Fred read the ads above the seats. The channel 4 local news anchors smiled down at him, promising to share the city’s feel-good news along with up-to-the-minute breaking stories; a doctor offered an end to his back pain forever; and Madam Ludmila invited subway riders to discover a “greater understanding” of the “great beyond.” Fred wanted to attack all three posters with a red pencil. He ached to “fix” the text.

To accommodate his treatments he was down to one class this semester and supervising three undergraduate honors projects. This left him with an overflow of desire to red pencil everything he saw in writing. Next semester? That was a mystery. University Human Resources suggested a medical leave of absence. Fred did not like that suggestion. It was like giving up in advance — cashing in his pencil and wasting away into a useless void before he really had no other choice. Fred wanted a choice.

The train jerked to a halt between stations and the usual, nearly unintelligible, announcement explained that the train was being held back due to an emergency in a station ahead. It might have said more about the emergency or less about the station, but the voice rumbled and shook with distorting static. The announcement was repeated with even more distortion.

Train is being held due to supernatural occurrence on the track.

Fred laughed at his own auditory hallucination. When you look for magic — it appears. The train began to roll again. A young blonde-haired woman clung to the pole, her arm wrapping around it like a snake. No, not like a snake — it was a snake! No, it was just a snake tattoo on her arm. She unwrapped her snake-like chokehold on the pole and pulled her phone from her overstuffed backpack. “Fuck, shit, fuck, shit…” She said to the phone. “Can’t be late, can’t be late…” Fred thought of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Oh, my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting.

She flew out of the doors as soon as they opened and Fred went back to re-writing the advertising copy on the subway ads. The text ran over the friendly photo of the “news team.” The female anchor’s elegant hand was draped over the sportscaster’s shoulder. Her slender talons dug into his meaty shoulder and a small bloodstain spread on his summer weight wool sports coat. And then it was gone. The photo was back to normal. Fred smirked. Grandpa was right. Magic was everywhere.


Fred put a folder full of to-be-graded undergraduate literary criticism papers on the coffee table next to three aging issues of People and last month’s National Geographic while he hung up his coat. The specialist’s waiting room was like every other doctor’s office he’d visited in the last six months — crowded, infuriating and beige. When he sat down next to his papers, he found an attractive redhead, skimming the first paper in the pile.


“These are yours. I suppose you wouldn’t be up for sharing?”

“It’s not…”

“Right, yes, it’s not Kosher. I shouldn’t be snooping. I left my Kindle at home and I must have dropped my Times on the subway. I can’t seem to work up a great deal of enthusiasm for Hollywood weddings and divorces. And I definitely don’t care about a pregnant country and western singer.” She cocked her head in the direction of the magazines, so worn and read as to be greasy to the touch.

“I don’t think my students’ analyses of Lewis Carroll are that much better than gossip.”

The woman recited his favorite stanzas from “Hunting of the Snark.”

He had bought a large map representing the sea,

Without the least vestige of land:

And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be

A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,

Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”

So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply

“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!

But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank

(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—

A perfect and absolute blank!”


Fred laughed and began to ask her how she knew it was his favorite portion of the poem, but he stopped, realizing that the woman — with her sleek business suit and stiletto heels — was likely to be yet another figment of his magically enhanced imagination. Of course she was attractive, she came right out of his daydreams.

“It reminds me of Congress,” she spoke again. “The only thing they can agree upon is proclamations about National Chocolate Cookie Day and snarky nonsense.”

Fred nodded in agreement, reluctant to continue to speak to his hallucination, fearing someone would see him talking to an empty chair.

“Anne Kramer?” the receptionist called out, and the redhead drifted toward the exam rooms.

Fred looked at the empty chair. Even in his fantasies, attractive women waltz off.


“To be honest, Fred, I’m not sure about this diagnosis.”

“Really? They’ve got me on this experimental drug and…”

“I know. I don’t want to second guess…”

“But that’s what second opinions are…. Going to another doctor is second-guessing. It’s the nature of the beast.”

“Yes, I see what you mean.” Dr. Rose muttered half to himself, half to Fred. “I want to send you for some additional tests, different tests. I want to explore an alternative scenario.”

“A scenario in which I live?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not… Fred, it’s OK that I call you Fred?”

“Yes, yes, of course. If you’re going to be wandering around inside my brain…”

“Well, Fred,” Dr. Rose paused. “I’m not reading the tests the way Dr. Emmet is. He’s the foremost expert in that corner of the world, but… but he may be interpreting the test results through his own particular lens.”

“If you are a hammer, everything is a nail?”

“Yes, exactly.”

Fred congratulated himself on being so perfectly in sync with the eminent specialist. But then it occurred to him that the doctor might well be yet another hallucination. And yet he felt compelled to continue the conversation as if he were certain that the doctor was an important resource and possible savior.

“The experimental treatment, should I continue?”

“Umm… Excellent question. Have you experienced any side effects? Increased blood pressure, rashes, difficulty sleeping…”

The list went on and on. Fred listened carefully to the list, but Dr. Rose did not say “hallucinations.”

“No, no, no….” Fred repeated to each question. “No rashes, no night sweats, nothing.”

“Then I don’t see a downside to continuing the drug trial. Obviously, we can reevaluate when the results come back from my tests. Talk to Agnes, two doors down after reception, and she’ll help you schedule the tests. The sooner the better, Fred.”

“Yes, the sooner the better.”


Being sick takes up too much time. Fred went straight from his Thursday morning class to the lab for the first of Dr. Rose’s tests and then spent two hours in the afternoon on one of the cushy chairs communing with his grandfather.

“Magic is everywhere. It’s just elusive,” his grandfather began to speak again.

By this time, it seemed perfectly normal to carry on a conversation with his long dead grandfather. Fred swallowed a few times and managed to form a few tentative words.

“Did you ever see any magic?”

“That’s an interesting question — one without a simple answer. First, we must define our terms, agree what is and is not magical and since I’ve never managed to nail down step one….”

“You never found magic?”

“No Fred, I think I did. Over and over again I was struck by impossible situations, improbable coincidences, implausible responses to questions that turned out to be correct, so magic was operating. It was just behind the scenes.”

“At work?” Fred stammered.

“Oh, yes. So many times, I’d approach a crime scene and some little piece of evidence would somehow call out to me. Oh, I guess you could call it deductive reasoning and observations made by an astute and highly trained detective but… it might have also been magic making itself known. After all, everything scientific appears to be magical…”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Fred recited Arthur C. Clarke’s famous remark.

“And here I thought you would quote Sherlock Holmes about eliminating the possible. You surprise me Fred and I’m very hard to surprise.”


“You’re awake,” the nurse said. “Another dream?”

“Yes another dream,” Fred replied. He started to ask her why he seemed able to speak today and his mouth was full of marshmallows after the last treatment, but a business card clipped to the folder she held against her chest grabbed his attention.

Madam Ludmila 917-333-4444

The number was too easy to forget, so as soon as he was outside on the street he called it.

“Madam Ludmila speaking, how can I help you today?”

“I’m, I’m not sure…”

“Then uncertainty is your quandary. I’m certain I can be of help. Why don’t you come to my shop. I’m conveniently located on 51st Street between Second and Third Avenues.”

“Yes, very convenient.” Fred replied. He was ten minutes away on foot.

Having been a lifelong skeptic, Fred had no idea what to expect when he spotted the small sign in the basement window of a brownstone tucked between a shoe repair place and a charity consignment shop. Madam Ludmila opened the door before he had a chance to ring the bell.

“Come in and we’ll see if we can see a way out of your uncertainty.”

Fred now understood that Madam Ludmila’s advertising copy reflected her uniquely repetitive speech patterns. She offered him a Cheshire Cat’s smile and cup of aromatic tea.

“I shall read your tea leaves as you leave me with the impression that you have no interest or trust in Tarot cards and crystals.”

Fred nodded and drank the tea, leaving what looked to him like a spikey blob of damp, brown leaves.

“Ah yes,” Madam Ludmila began. “Yes, I see your uncertainty. Everything in your life is ‘on hold’ and holding fast to what little you understand is, in a sense, overloading your senses. This is your life, Professor Clarke, this is your life on magic. This is your brain on magic. But, like all good things, and bad too, this too shall pass.”


Fred felt an uncomfortable pressure on his arm, like someone was poking him with a finger. He blinked, to find someone was poking him with a finger.

“Fred, Fred it’s over,” Dr. Kessler said. “It looks good, very good.”

Dr. Kessler and Madam Ludmila seemed to have a similar repetitive speech tics.

“Good?” Fred asked.

“Yes, yes… I think it’s all fine, all fine and good.”

“Fine and good?” Fred was incredulous.

“The tumor is benign. I’ve got the tests back and here, benign. No need for surgery or…”

The doctor continued, but Fred stopped listening.


“The whole thing, the diagnosis, the experimental treatment, the tea leaf-reading psychic — all a dream?”

“No, not a dream — just your brain making sense of things that don’t make sense. Big things like mortality and loss. You lost your way so you told yourself stories, to find your way back.”

“It was my brain on magic.”


“But Grandpa, why are you still here?”

“How should I know? It’s your brain and your magic.”

The old man chuckled.

For one terrible moment Fred was certain that he’d fallen back into some kind of hallucinatory fugue state. All those stories about dreams within dreams and Twilight Zone-like thoughts about life on earth as merely a daydream of a superior intelligence rose in his throat like the worst news at the worst time.

“Maybe making up all these stories is the point? Maybe it’s time to put down the literary criticism and just write?”

“Could it be that I just want you to be here?”

“That works for me, Fred. Let’s go get a beer.”

They meandered in companionable silence until the reached a basement level doorway in an old building on Christopher Street.

“This was a speakeasy,” Grandpa said.


“Good grief Fred, don’t they teach history anymore? I was fifteen-years old when prohibition ended. Very unlikely I’d be haunting a place like this for bathtub gin in teacups. I was a choirboy.”

“Early set starts in five,” the bartender’s version of a greeting on autopilot, rolled off her tongue. “We pass a bucket around for the musicians.”

“Beer,” grandpa replied.

“Beer, yes, I’ll have whatever you’ve got on tap.” Fred said.

For a moment, really a split second, he wondered if the bartender saw the ghost at his side. But the music started and the blues guitarist skillfully remade Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” into a soulful howl of love and pain.

‘This is your brain on magic,’ Fred whispered to himself. ‘And it’s not half bad.’

Perhaps it was time to hang up the red pencil and start writing? He was already telling himself stories, maybe it was time to share the magic?