July 2017 Story: Steampunk Man

Nicotiana lives in a Seattle neighborhood where old magic is inherited.
Steampunk Man
 by Phoebe Matthews

Nicotiana turned in the driver's seat, grasped the steering wheel for support, and stepped out of her car. At six feet tall she didn't need heels and never wore them except on meeting nights. There was simply no way to find boots without heels that had the correct look for a steampunk costume. Boots were a necessity. They were third on the list after goggles and gadgets.
As she ducked out, she felt the car's door frame knock crooked the  goggles perched on her hat. She thought a simple bit of magic into the goggles and they straightened. The hat felt crooked, too. Glancing up at the brim, she corrected it.
A deep voice beside her said, “Nice goggles. They really are the secret handshake, aren't they?”
She turned, startled. Had he seen her straighten her hat and goggles without touching them? Nicotiana forced her mouth into the small smile that she wore to greet the bereaved at the mortuary where she was employed. The man looked familiar. He was stocky and had gray sideburns and a weathered tan that etched nice laugh lines in his face. Her three-inch heels made her half a head taller.
He was dressed in the usual khaki, but in the style of a Victorian officer's jacket, with extra rows of shiny buttons and a multitude of pockets. A miniature brass telescope hung from a cord around his neck. His pith helmet was of course topped with goggles.
He pointed at her wide-brimmed hat. “Very Truly Scrumptious, the whole outfit. I'm Ford. I should know your name. Sorry.”
“Nicotiana,” she said. “You're going to the steampunk meeting?”
“No, I always dress like this. It amuses the neighbor children.”
Was he joking? Yes, he must be. Not sure what to say, she gave her usual pleasant professional reply. Actually, she meant to say that he looked nice, but what she blurted was, “The outfit suits you.”
“Oh, I hope not!”
And then she remembered why he looked familiar, even if the name Ford sounded wrong. He had stood quietly by a casket in a dark suit, his face stiff in an effort to hold back tears. She was all too familiar with the expression.
No, she wouldn't mention it. Obviously, he had forgotten where they'd met.
“Love your name. Is it your real name?” he asked.
He slipped his hand around her elbow, barely touching her, and directed her toward the coffee shop. She almost shrugged him off because she really did not like people touching her. Years of shaking hands with visitors clicked in. Instead of shrugging, she smiled at him.
“Of course it's my real name. Why wouldn't it be?”
“Some of the members make up names. I thought maybe, well, anyway, let's go in. I haven't been here in ages.”
“I joined recently.”
His smile deepened the laugh lines around his mouth. “That's why I don't know you. A lovely lady like you, I would remember.”
Nicotiana had no idea how to respond. It was the sort of comment that her niece, Nicky, must hear all the time, she thought. It had been Nicky's idea that Nicotiana meet these people, and now, of course, Nicky was off with a new boyfriend, not the one who had originally introduced them to the group, and Nicotiana had to come alone to the meeting.
She told herself to be fair. She didn't have to come at all. However, she knew so few people outside of her own neighborhood. These people were different and Nicky kept telling her she was in a rut and needed a change. Unlike most groups she had visited, they were all very friendly plus they didn't pump her for details of her private life.
He held open the coffee shop door and bowed her in. “You first. You're the one who can make a grand entrance. I'll sneak in behind you and maybe no one will laugh at me.”
It was a slightly drafty place, very casual. The management didn't care how long they stayed and  talked. The group had already pushed together chairs and tables and were busy comparing costumes and discussing the different ways that they could change a cell phone into something that looked like it came from Caractacus Potts's laboratory.
The man was right, the women tended to dress along the lines of the costume Sally Ann Howes wore in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ribbon and flowers and dust veils and topped with goggles. Most wore costumes with leg-o-mutton sleeves, fitted bodices, and colorful skirts that stopped at boot tops. They'd all grown up with that movie.
“The moment when Chitty goes off the cliff! I remember, I was five and my heart just stopped! And you'll love the costumes,” one of them had told her.
Nicotiana had never seen the film. After the first meeting, she had rented the DVD and watched it, pleasantly surprised by the action and a bit puzzled by the humor. It seemed racier than she expected in a children's film.
When they entered the coffee shop, the waving crowd called them over to their corner. They'd staked out a couple of tables and circled them with chairs.
Ford held her coat while she struggled out of it. Her blouse sleeves were so much wider than the coat sleeves. Nicotiana appreciated the help and at the same time, felt embarrassed. She worked on keeping her smile in place. As they approached the group, Nicotiana thought a little magic into her crushed sleeves to make them puff up.
“Fordy, how good to see you!” they said a dozen different ways. One of the ladies added, “You've met our new friend already!”
“Picked her up at the curb. Aren't I clever?”
“You look dashing,” the woman responded.
He winked at Nicotiana. “That makes twice in two minutes I've been told I look good. I must be a good catch.”
She continued to smile and had no idea what to say.
“Nicotiana, you find yourself a chair and I'll get the coffee. You know, I really love that name. Maybe I can turn it into a song.”
That idea was so appalling, she hurried away from him, not that he noticed. He stopped at the other table and she heard him chatting with the men.
None of the men in the coffee shop had the dash of the young Dick Van Dyke, nor the slim shape required by his costumes. They settled more for khaki jackets with extra pockets. Like the women, they wore the type of hats or caps needed for driving around in the open automobiles of the early 1900s, and of course, the caps were always topped with goggles. Definitely the headgear required for a flying airship.
Some of them collected Jules Verne or H.G. Wells novels. All of them went to films like The Golden Compass or watched bootlegged copies of TV shows like Legend, stories featuring opulent costumes and steam engine technology mixed with science fiction surprises.
“Wild Wild West,” one of the men said. “The show, not the movie, that's the best stuff ever. Great gadgets.”
“Certainly the best tight pants,” crowed a woman. “And, of course, he always loses his shirt halfway through the episode!”
Nicotiana nodded, not admitting that she had never watched the show and had no idea what they were talking about. She supposed she should see if it, too, was available from Netflix.
She slid into a chair between two of the women. Carefully, she straightened her hat, this time using her hands, and tucked in a stray wisp of her dark hair.
“Nicotiana! What a wonderful blouse!” the woman next to her said. “Wherever did you find it?”
“Goodwill Store,” she said. It was a long-sleeved blouse with a fitted bodice. Nicotiana had tied a wide strip of ribbon around her neck and pinned it in place with an imitation cameo pin, also a Goodwill find.
“Wonderful! You've given it a true Victorian look!” 
As Ford walked past them to the serving counter to order coffee, the woman nudged Nicotiana and added, “Aren't you the clever one! We never thought Fordy would come back.”
“Oh, he's not with me,” she said quickly. “We met outside just now.”
The woman laughed. “Well, he makes a perfect accessory for you. We all need a male accessory. Come sit down, Helen is showing us these darling necklaces she's made from old buttons.”
The men were accessories? Oh, that was meant as a joke. Nicotiana had trouble with jokes. She tended to take comments literally. The bereaved seldom joked. When they did, it was something so sad, the only proper response was a smile. If anyone laughed, the laugh could turn hysterical and then dissolve into tears.
Accessories were what these people made for their costumes, anything that had that machine look from the age of steam engines. Brass was the favorite metal.
“You can find it in all the fun places,” one said. “We spend most our Saturdays rushing around to garage sales, digging through piles of  broken jewelry and tools, anything with old metal parts that can be used. Nicotiana, you should join us. Any time.”
Because funerals were often scheduled on weekends, she was seldom free on Saturdays, but she didn't want to explain.
“I'd love to if I ever get caught up on my gardening. I turn around twice and the place is full of more weeds.”
“Slaves to our homes, that's what we all are. But take time some Saturday. You'd be surprised at the trinkets we find at garage sales.”
That was much of their charm for her. They didn't sew elaborate costumes. Instead, they put them together from old clothes and then hung metal bits all over. Nicotiana had never been a seamstress, but she liked handmade art projects. Going through her late mother's trunks, she had found brass keys, small brass knobs that might have once been drawer pulls, plus a broken clock case with a missing face but all sorts of wheels and springs in the back of it. She meshed bits together to create a tool belt. The first time she wore it, they all gushed and told her how clever she was and they sounded sincere.
Ford set a cup of coffee down on the table in front of her. “I forgot to ask, do you take cream or sugar?”
“Oh! Oh no, black is fine.”
“That's how you keep that nice figure,” he said.
Nicotiana had no idea what to say to that, but fortunately a woman across the table did. “Listen to you, Casanova!”
“No, don't,” he said quickly. “Sorry, I just meant, she looks so pretty in that costume, doesn't she? And now I will take my big mouth, with my foot in it, over to the other table.”
Should she hand him money for the coffee? Or would that be rude? Once years ago Nicotiana had a very short, very unhappy marriage. Since that time, her relationships with men were limited to business. Obviously, she needed to ask her niece how she should respond to such a gesture.
She started to say, thank you, then realized he had turned away and joined the men at the other table. They were discussing boats, wooden boats, and how one man was building a steam-powered dinghy in his basement. Typical Seattle, she thought, with the men it is either sports or boats. She knew that much from making polite conversations with the bereaved.
“You've done it again!” a woman beside her crowed.
She caught Nicotiana's wrist and held it up.
Another attic find was her grandfather's upright typewriter. Nicotiana had dismantled the ink ribbon spool and chain-linked the four round metal ends into a bracelet, then dangled a couple of brass keys from the links.
“Nicotiana, you are so talented!”
Leaning forward across the table and lowering her voice, Helen said,  “Talk about clever, you did all notice who brought Nicotiana her coffee?”
“Nice of him,” Nicotiana agreed. “Is that his real name? Ford?”
She knew his face but couldn't remember his name.
“It's what everybody calls him. Oh gosh, what is his full name? Her name was Patty, oh right, Westford McDarlith, that's it.”
“Married twenty years and then that tragic illness. I didn't think he'd ever get over it,” another woman said.
Westford McDarlith. Yes. And Patricia Edwards McDarlith. Nicotiana had arranged a lovely viewing in the Flanders Funeral Home chapel, very tasteful. Banks of flowers. Soft music. There had been lines of people signing the guest book. They hadn't known Mr. McDarlith but they all remembered Patricia from her school days.
All right, now she knew and so now she could put him out of her mind. That's the only reason she had noticed him, she decided, simply because he was familiar and she wanted to recall exactly who he was.
Now she could concentrate on admiring everyone's costumes. The women explained their latest craft projects and Nicotiana paid careful attention to the details. She tried not to listen for his baritone voice but the tone was a pleasant note drifting over from the conversation at the other table.
People moved, switched chairs, shoved in between each other, and he brought her more coffee.
Leaning over her shoulder, he said, “Let me get you something else. They have pastries.”
“Oh no, I'm fine.” She found herself smiling up into that pleasant face.
That's why she'd had trouble placing him. The first time they met, in the Funeral Home's consultation room, he had been courteous, rather stiff, but he had never smiled. She hadn't expected him to.
When the group broke up, they headed out to their cars together. Somehow he was beside her, holding her coat and then walking her to her car and holding open her car door for her while she slid behind the wheel.
“I'm going home to work on that song,” he said.
“What song?”
“Nicotiana, Nicotiana, I love the name Nicotiana,” he sang softly. He not only spoke in a lovely baritone, he could also carry a tune in baritone.
Shaking her head, she laughed at him. And bumped her hat on the car roof. She reached up with both hands to lift it off and set it aside on the passenger seat. “You can add a line about Nicotiana with her hair sticking out in all directions,” she said.
“That's tricky. I'll need a rhyme. But I'll work on it and be ready for you next week.”
“You do that,” she said, not for a second believing that he would.
The next day she woke up worrying about him. If he remembered where they'd met, would he feel uncomfortable? Would he prefer to avoid her and the attached memories?
No, she decided over her morning tea, she would not worry. She would simply put the steampunk costumers out of her mind. They were a pleasant group and she liked them.
And so did he. What had one of the women said about Ford? We never thought he'd come back.
Yes, that's how it went for the bereaved. For some it could take a long time to find the courage to start socializing again. If the steampunk group was made up of his old friends, he needed them more than she did.
She had her job and her home to keep her busy. Plus a lifetime's worth of neighbors. That was her niece's favorite complaint about her, that Nicotiana had lived in the same neighborhood all her life and never made new friends or tried new hobbies.
Well, she didn't need new friends. She had old friends. Safe friends. And she had her lovely house, with its peaked roof and white siding and blue shutters. She had decorated it to suit herself, with lots of white trim and bookcases and flower-patterned curtains. A picket fence enclosed the front garden and on any sunny day she could putter outside and pause to visit with neighbors.
Nicotiana's great joy was her garden. She spent the weekend in rubber boots and a sheepskin jacket doing the weeding around the tips of new bulbs poking out of the soil. Overhead the spreading branches of the ornamental plum trees were already thick with opening blossoms. Their fragrance mingled with the scent of damp soil.
Her niece, Nicky, stopped by, always a bonus. Long ago Nicotiana had learned to nod and sympathize while Nicky explained her current problems with her current boyfriend.
Nicky was as tall as Nicotiana. They both had the family tendency towards dark hair, pale complexions, and a bit too much nose. Nicotiana knew the resemblance ended there. She was large-boned and plain, yes, she knew she was plain and she no longer minded. Her niece was slender with lovely bones, a graceful walk, and the most beautiful face, an oval with eyes so large and lips so full, the family nose seemed in perfect proportion. Nicky looked exactly the way Nicotiana had always longed to look, back when she was a girl.
“I tried to phone. Where were you last night?” Nicky asked.
“I went to a meeting of that steampunk group.”
“Really? That bunch that Gary took us to meet?”
Yes, that was the boyfriend's name. Gary. Nicky had so many boyfriends, Nicotiana seldom remembered their names.
“I didn't see Gary there.”
“That's Gary. All excited about something one day and then he drops it a day later. Can't stick to anything. Auntie, I've met the most darling man. He brought me roses and chocolates last night. You'll love him.”
“I'm sure I will,” she said, and didn't ask his name. Whoever he was, he wouldn't last more than a few weeks at which time Nicky would decide he was a loser and dump him, or Nicky would adore him and be shocked when for no reason, he dumped her.
Occasionally, when Nicky sobbed over a recent breakup, Nicotiana thought that perhaps life was easier without so much beauty. Nicotiana had only attracted one loser and that was over. Now her life was her own, comfortable and calm. Her niece's life was never calm.
Even today, Nicky had popped in, complained that Nicotiana had not been home when she phoned, and then gone dashing off without ever saying why she had been looking for her aunt.
Nicotiana thought about Nicky as she knelt in her garden and scraped mud off her hand trowel. Last night's drizzle hadn't lasted long, just enough to leave the soil damp. Now the sun shone warmly on her shoulders.
Setting the trowel on the ground, she paused to peel off her gloves and turn back the cuffs of her sheepskin jacket. Too late. There was already a bit of mud on a cuff. She would spot clean it in the laundry sink as soon as she went indoors.
“I do remember,” that baritone voice said.
Nicotiana went motionless, kneeling by the flower bed, her back to the gate.
“I kept wondering about you. You looked familiar. Sorry, I couldn't remember where we met. I even asked a few people where you lived or where you worked. No one knew. So I decided to wait until next week to see if you came to another meeting,” he said.
Then what are you doing here? she thought.
“Nicotiana, may I come in, please?”
She left the trowel and the gloves on the ground. Standing up slowly, she turned and faced him. With nervous fingers, she brushed bits of soil off the knees of her work jeans.
He smiled at her, all the lines in his face in the right places, laugh lines at the edges of his eyes and around his mouth.
She said, “The gate is open.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“What sort of invitation do you need?”
He lifted the latch and walked into her garden, pushing the gate wide.
“Sorry. I don't mean to upset you. What I wanted to say is that I remember you now and I remember why I like you. You are the very kind woman who arranged my wife's funeral last year.”
She nodded. “I haven't mentioned to anyone at the group that I work in a mortuary.”
“No reason why you should,” he said.
“Sometimes that information makes people uncomfortable.”
“It might. I don't think I'll tell people that's where we met. Meeting in a coffee shop sounds so much better.”
All right. She had to know. “May I ask, why did you decide to have Flanders handle Patricia's funeral?”
“She grew up in this neighborhood.”
“Yes. And then she left when she went off to college and she never came back, even to visit friends. Even to visit her grandmother.”
“I know. I can tell you, she felt very badly when her grandmother died. Very guilty. Patty loved this neighborhood.”  He looked away from her, gazing slowly around the garden. “It's like a fairy tale.”
“What is? The neighborhood?”
“Your house. Your garden. You have flowers, even in February. About Patty. She just, she just didn't want, how can I say this?” 
It happened. Some of them, like herself, could not imagine living anywhere else. Some, like Patricia, couldn't wait to grow up and move away. Usually they moved far away to another city, or even across the country to the east coast. Patricia had been a bit of a surprise, settling in another Seattle neighborhood only a few miles away. When she never came back to visit, everyone knew her reason.
“She didn't want to be different. I don't suppose she told you why,”  Nicotiana said.
“Did she tell me that some of the families here have inherited magic?  And that the secret name for the neighborhood is Mudflat? And that no one who lives here ever tells outsiders about the magic? Yes. She told me. She had a little magic herself and she didn't want secrets between us.”
“Patricia had magic? I didn't know that.”
“A bit. She liked to make costumes. She could add glitter by snapping her fingers.”
Nicotiana picked up the trowel and gloves. It gave her a reason to avoid looking at him. “I hardly knew Patricia. We were a couple of years apart in school. Well, that's interesting. About the magic, I mean. I don't suppose you believed her?”
When he didn't answer, she had to look at him and there he was, smiling at her. The sun lit his face. The silvery sideburns were perfect.
“I believed her. She was a wonderful woman. I loved being married to Patty. I don't like living alone at all. I keep getting introduced to nice ladies.”
“You're picky,” she teased, relieved to move away from discussing why Patricia had left. Next she'd give him a tour of the garden and name every plant and tree. Boredom would drive him out the gate. Whatever it was he wanted, he wasn't going to find it in her garden.
“The problem is, none of them have any magic,” he said.
“Excuse me?”
“Now that I've lived with magic, I could never be satisfied with less.”
She let out a sharp laugh, startled. “If you go around telling people your wife was magic, they must think you're crazy.”
He grinned at her. “I've never told anyone but you.”
Nicotiana's smile dropped into a frown. She knew what it did to her face and she didn't care. She was not going down this road. She had accepted who she was long ago. She'd stayed in the neighborhood, worked in the neighborhood, probably made a big mistake thinking she could have friends any place else.
“I don't know what you're talking about. I really need to finish my gardening.”
He didn't try to touch her. She could feel the thought in his mind. Or maybe she saw it in his face. She wasn't sure which, but she knew he wanted to touch her, put his hand on her arm or something. She took a step back away from him and he stopped smiling.
“All right. I'll leave. I'm sorry. I've upset you. I didn't mean to. But let me say one more thing and then I won't bother you again. I know you have magic, Nicotiana. And I think that's wonderful. You're very lucky.”
She gave him a closer look. Was he making fun of her? “Why would you believe anything so absurd?”
That grin flickered at the corners of his mouth. “I saw you puff up your sleeves last night without raising a finger.”
She stood perfectly still, staring at him. Without her heels, she was only a bit taller. And he was heavier, such a solid man that he looked bigger.
He continued, “I wasn't sure I should go to the coffee shop last night. Almost turned around and went home. And then I saw you get out of your car and straighten your hat without touching it and I couldn't help wondering. You looked so charming in that costume. It suited you, like your garden.”
“You should keep going to their meetings. It's good for you to get out and see people,” she said, and hoped she didn't sound like a grief counselor.
“I do like the group. The only trouble is, I don't like the clothes. That pith helmet is hot. And that jacket, it's cut so tight, I feel like I'm wearing a tux. I'm not the tux type.”
He waved his hand in a gesture at his loose trousers and at his plaid wool shirt, open at the neck and sleeves rolled halfway up his arms.
“Oh!”  She felt herself melting. “Oh. Of course you aren't. You know what you should wear? A striped shirt with full sleeves and one of those fancy vests, the silk kind, with pockets for a ray gun and a deck of cards. Those cute brass binoculars you had hanging on a cord around your neck last night? They must bump against you every time you move. You should hang them on a hook on your belt.”
“Silk vest?”
“You could dress like a riverboat gambler or a gunslinger.” She dug into her memory of past conversations at the meetings. She hadn't yet seen the show, but she'd heard enough conversation to guess at the costumes. “You know, very Wild Wild West.”
Now he was the one to snort. “I'm not wearing pants like those guys wore! Skin tight! No, not even for you.”
“Oh please,” she protested. “That's not what I was thinking.”
“But I might be willing to go bare-chested as a pirate once in awhile.”
Nicotiana blushed, an odd feeling at her age. She looked at the nice man standing in the middle of her garden, obviously trying to flirt with her. He thought he understood Mudflat women. Did he?
It was too late to deny her magic. He'd spotted it. She might as well tell him the whole truth. He could either handle it or he could run screaming.
She reached out a trembling hand and touched his arm. “Ford, do you realize I have more than a little magic? Quite a bit more. I am a witch.”
“Really? Can you turn this old frog into a young prince, do you think?”
“Be serious. My skills are limited to warding my doors and adding extra bloom to my garden.”
“You underestimate your skills. I know that you can fluff sleeves,” he said. And then he stood in the middle of her garden, feet planted firmly, no sign of running, and grinned at her.
“Oh you!”  She slipped her hand around his arm, oh yes, very nice firm biceps under the sleeve, she decided. “Would you like to come inside and have a cup of tea?”
Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews
The idea for the short story titled Steampunk Man, and included in the Wicked Good Stories anthology, was inspired by a local steampunk group, with a description of one of their meetings. All I had to do was send Mudflat’s Nicotiana to the meeting.
An urban fantasy short story will be posted here each month for Phoebe's Newsletter readers. If you are not receiving the Newsletter, with its news about free and promotional offers of urban fantasy material, email mudflatbks@aol.com and we will be delighted to add you to the group.

 Here are the eight published novels of the Mudflat Magic series.

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