Susan M. Silver
A Fairy Tale
A long time ago, but still within memory, there was a man known as Mister Nothingburger. He paraded himself around the streets of the Village in a sweeping black cape,
now somewhat bruised by time, carrying a gold-tipped cane. And just as the neighborhood was now a shell of its former self, when the coffee houses crackled with creativity,
so it was with Nothingburger. Rumors long percolated that he had been a musician or a master of games or even a magician. But except for the enigma, his personal magic
seemed to have vanished.
No one had a clue how apt his name really was. The fact was that Mister Nothingburger had no reflection in the mirror. None at all. This shamed and horrified him, but
there was nothing to be done. His was a psyche covered with scars from misadventure; his heart was frozen in time, grieving for the lost promise and poetry of his youth.
He confined himself to the Village, and even when the summer air was spun with the scent of ripe grass and roses and the earth embraced by a clear aquamarine arch, he would
march through the park with a performer's perfect posture, occasionally swinging his cane, a deadpan expression on his face.
On the rare occasions that anyone addressed him, he would deign to respond with some curious comment like "Tango is what happens between the steps." Or he might
burst out, in a robust cappuccino-flavored tenor, "Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! Figaroooo! " Most often he would simply say something like "indubitably"
or "quite," and move on. But all the while he was thinking, How sad, to have everything and still be desperately lonely.
So it was quite a shock for him when, as was his habit, at two a.m. he disappeared behind the peeling green front door of his side-street tenement building and walked up the
five flights to find a beautiful plant in front of his apartment. It had white, magenta-veined leaves that looked almost like butterflies, with small heart-shaped magenta clusters.
"PLEASE CARE FOR ME," read the tag. "PS: CALL ME OLIVIA THE ORCHID."
Mister Nothingburger had not cared for anything—including himself—for quite some time. Mortified, he fled to his secret spot for contemplating secret thoughts:
the rooftop. He studied the night sky, dominated by a pearl moon, around which hovered a dusting of diamond-chip stars. Could a frozen heart, old and flawed, undertake this journey?
"If you care for this plant," whispered the Universe," she will care for you in return, bringing you more love and beauty than you could imagine."
Indeed, a skeptical Nothingburger said to himself.
He returned to his cramped one-room cold-water flat—the floor's sole occupied unit—where a clawfoot bathtub was jammed next to the stove. Placing Olivia on the tiny table,
he fed her water. Instantly, the room took on a reassuring roseate glow.
If he was to nurture the orchid, Mister Nothingburger realized he needed knowledge. The next day, uncharacteristically, he walked beyond the boundaries of the Village to the
farmer's market on the Square. He made his way past sassy black-eyed Susan trees and petunia plants in high-voltage violet and pink.
"Not too much water, not too little," advised the elderly little plant man. Unlike Nothingburger's, the man's skin was deeply creased from long years of gardening.
"Neither too much heat, nor too little. And," he added, twinkling, "remember to nurture her soul with a little music."
"Understood," replied Mr. Nothingburger. "Thank you."
On the way back, Nothingburger felt the gentle rhythm of the park as it inhaled and exhaled. Lavish sycamore and elm trees swayed in green syncopated rhythms. He sensed a
slight shift: a feeling of connectedness. That evening sweet guitar music flooded the fifth floor of the tenement building as Nothingburger sang of lost flowers and lost love.
Just before turning out the light, he happened to glance in the mirror and saw…the traces of an eyebrow. Olivia the Orchid beamed a smile of purring contentment.
To everyone's amazement, Mister Nothingburger was sighted around the Village during the daytime, carrying a guitar case, occasionally having coffee at his once-favorite café. Some
afternoons, his cape draped around him, he would sit on the grass in the park, under his personal linden tree – behind the chess tables where he had long ago dazzled spectators with
a champion's moves—reading a book.
Despite himself, Nothingburger seemed to have become approachable. One day while he was leaning against his tree, just "being," a familiar neighborhood figure, Svetlana,
the long and coolly lovely dancer with shining black hair, walked over to him. She handed him Peter the Poodle, her prize-winning show dog.
"Nothingburger, I need you to dogsit Peter today," she said softly through red-velvet lipstick. "Have fun!" Pressing the leash into his palm, she pivoted in her
ballet slippers and was gone.
Mr. Nothingburger was nonplussed. He felt the impulse to run his fingers through the dog's dense black curls, but he hesitated.
Peter the Poodle looked Nothingburger over. "You need to break away," said the poodle. "Let me show you."
"Break away? From what, pray tell?" asked Nothingburger, confused and somewhat defensive.
"Mostly from yourself," asserted the dog knowingly.
And so, snatching away the leather leash, Peter the Poodle walked Mister Nothingburger. The dog took him far south to a spot stretching along the river, all the way hugging trees and
twirling like Barishnikov. Such an expedition was so far removed from Nothingburger's comfort zone that he felt himself freeze like a popsicle, on the hottest day of summer. But he
At the riverside oasis, Peter demonstrated rolling unrestrained on the palatially plush grass that was spread out before a radiant tapestry of purple flowers. Warming to the idea,
Nothingburger put down his cane and joined in, removing his cape to reveal a fit, T-shirted older man in jeans. The dog showed him skateboarding. They tried a little rollerblading.
And they laughed. For Nothingburger, the experience of laughter was buried deep in his past, so it was almost a new one.
Finally, Peter and Nothingburger sat together on a bench at the river's edge to watch the setting sun, bathed in pink, spill pink-gold leaf on the skyscrapers and across the water.
They exchanged some views and some secrets. And they filled the silence, broken only by the sound of an occasional bird and a wisp of wind on the waves, with the bond of friendship. It
had all crept up on Nothingburger subtly, without his even noticing.
Upstairs, grand opera filled the fifth floor, as Mister Nothingburger intoned great tenor arias in his rich cappuccino-flavored voice, to Olivia's rosy delight. No one would have guessed
that it was two a.m. or that the flat's single window faced aging yellow brick. Nothingburger's mask of a face softened enough for a faint smile to cross his features. In the mirror appeared
the etchings of a hairline and a mustache. Clearly, petals of his frozen flower-heart were starting to melt.
Now it was Nothingburner's turn. The following day found him seated at the park tables under dappled sunlight, giving chess lessons to rapt pupils of all ages. For several hours he
pontificated about bishops, pawns, "strong moves," "ugly moves," and "beautiful sacrifices." After the third or fourth lesson, as though he were an entertainer
who suddenly realized he was on stage before a live audience, he became awkwardly shy. He excused himself and disappeared into the afternoon.
Quite unexpectedly, teaching had burnished Nothingburger's spirit and brought him a feeling of harmony. At home in the wee hours, he reveled in the intense pleasure of having shared his
knowledge, igniting the passions of others. And it seemed the more he gave, the more what he had to give increased. Was this the beginning of…self-love?
Mister Nothingburger regaled Olivia the Orchid with a new genre: rock music. The taped sound of an opera-influenced rhapsody permeated the building. Warily, he checked for any change in
his reflection. The mirror stunned him: It showed a pair of searching eyes and a mouth.
As the intense heat waned and autumn's chill invaded the nights, Nothingburger realized that Olivia would not survive the winter in his cold-water flat, deprived of sufficient heat and light.
They had become each other's treasured rock. With pain, he gave her to a woman with a skylight apartment and a famed flair for orchids. Nothingburger had learned from his encounter with
Peter the Poodle that the friendship belonged to him forever and would not end when he and Olivia were physically parted.
By this time a full-color Mister Nothingburger was reflected: a serious older face, still
handsome, with an intriguing patina of experience. He understood now the resilience of the human heart, which, if it can rebound from disappointment, grows stronger and more giving over time.
He understood that some dreams come true, some dreams are lost, and other dreams replace them. He no longer needed to hide behind the armor of his cape, long an integral part of his identity.
Mister Nothingburger had recaptured his magic.
He handed the cape to a young man with a cup, seated near the park's fountain. "Use this as a coat or a blanket in the cold months," he said. "It is not food, but it will
nourish you just the same."
"Thanks a lot, Mister Nothingburger," said the young man, plainly moved. "There's just one thing," he added as Nothingburger was turning to leave. "You have a
wrong name. You're really something."