#291: Talking Heads, "Talking Heads: 77" (1977)

The girls in the dorm said Cheryl could do magic. Not like scarf tricks or a rabbit from an old top hatshe could read your palm or tarot, silence an enemy, mix you a perfume to wear on your left wrist that would lure your crush close. Her side of the room was decorated with red string lights and leopard print, bottles and oils, spices lined neatly on a shelf above her bed, a suitcase record player on a small stand near her desk.

The magic was instinct, she told them. Not from a book.

When her mouse of a roommate went to study at the library, she put the Talking Heads on, 77, just loud enough to hear it if you came to her door. She was open for business. The music is the magic, she told them. Melody is ritual. If the spell was complicated, she might play a song a few times; "Don't Worry About the Government" before a worrisome test, "The Book I Read" for a love spell, "Psycho Killer" when a mean girl with straight hair and slipper-pink nails taunted you across the dining hall.

Services were by trade, by trusta bag of crisps and candy left quietly hanging on her doorknob, a neck massage during finals week. If she carved your ex's name into an onion and buried it underneath his window by a waning moon, you were expected to do the laundry she left outside your door the next morning without complaint.


Becky wanted a love spell. There was a boy in her math class, Ryan, who had an Indian tan and strong arms and wild eyes who smiled at her sometimes, but not enough.

Cheryl warned her that love spells were potent, not to be fucked with, best to use as a last resort when he just wouldn’t make that final move. Love spells are more powerful than anything, she said. They cannot be broken. Make sure this is what you want, that you know him well enough to cast this. But Becky begged, and she relented. The spell was cast, his name carved in a slim red candle dressed with rose oil. Becky burned it in her window for seven nights, letting the smoke drift out in a thin whisper. She stared at him in class. Each day he smiled a little bit more.

And on the eighth day, when the candle was nothing but a small stub buried in the forest at dawn, he asked her out. She left a gift card taped to Cheryl's door.

There were flowers and love songs played on a guitar. Champagne on a one-month anniversary, declarations of love every minute of every day. Becky moved into his apartment, coming back to the dorm only to get clothes and say hi. She stopped sitting with them at dinner. The girls in the dorm hardly saw her at all.

But Ryan loved her too much, grew possessive, then violent. He drank hard at parties and shook her when she begged him to call a cab. Checked her phone, demanded to know why she was late coming back from class, told her she didn't need to go to class at all. Brought his father's gun back after Thanksgiving, threatened to kill both of them if she ever tried to leave him. She fled while he was asleep, hid in her old room, refused to come out for class. The girls told her to go to the cops, but she couldn't. He would kill her. No one would believe her anyway.

But a love spell could be broken, right? She pleaded with Cheryl. I warned you, she chided. Love spells are not to be wasted on fools. But she agreed to help. There would be no charge this time.


Becky needed a banishing spell. Something strong to keep him away for good. Cheryl played "Psycho Killer" backwards and handed her a vial without a label. Something sweet, she promised. To restore his sweet temperament. Becky poured it into the electric blue backwash he carried to lacrosse practice and sent him out with a kiss, a silent prayer that Cheryl's promise would take action quickly. She didn't have eight days anymore. She wasn't sure she had eight hours.

He collapsed on the field. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Antifreeze, Cheryl said without a smile when Becky told her what happened. Sometimes magic isn't enough.

—Libby Cudmore