One remembers. One forgets. Snow drifts down and specks the tops of things. A man crosses the street to buy a sleeve of scratch cards from a kiosk. All the newspaper headlines are gloomy and ecstatic. A cheap pack of cigarettes now costs twelve bucks. Running into an old friend is like two roads converging in a wood. Turns out, one was just the long way around.
Today, we leave winter behind with an issue full of cacophony and bad sense. We leap into tales of ill-fated scuffles and ill-conceived plans, and we explore cave spaces and gorges and spare rooms and hospitals. We ask how one is supposed to know the right way to act at a party, and we wonder, and the end of the day, if politics comes down to a button and a smile.
~Bram Shay, Editor
There Ought to Be a Manual by C. Wade Bentley
Burning Wishes by Guiseppe Getto
One Poem by Couri Johnson
Spare Room by Suzanne Richter
Evil Wise Girl by Dvorah Telushkin
Bad Creatures by Ana Prundaru
Muslim Apologies by Alia Hussain Vancrown
Cambridge Close by Raquel Moran
Of Masters and Marionettes by Faith Thomas
The Magician by Dylan Henderson
It’s like the first time someone who is not your mother sees you
naked. Because you don’t know, do you, if all your parts
are in the right place, shaped and sized appropriately, according
to convention?—because your mother would never tell you,
which means there you are, pulling down your pants over
what might well be a preposterous ass. So, to my point,
you don’t know, likewise, what to do, how to be, at these grown-up
parties, so much depending on first impressions, decisions
about where to sit, what to drink, how long and loud to laugh
at pretty much everything, as far as you can tell, whether anyone
has noticed the fear-sweat creeping up the small of your large back
and pooling in environmentally catastrophic oil spills under
each arm. Or how, when you leave the party ten minutes
after arriving and return home, you confront, equally unprepared,
the task of “putting down” your dog—will it be like it is
for the Kentucky Derby winner who breaks his million-dollar
leg after crossing the line? or like the farmer who takes his shotgun
and the children’s 4-H pig out behind the barn?—this dog
who can only look up at you, these days, as you come in the door,
who doesn’t pant anymore so much as rattle, who has seen
your ass, listened to you laugh long and loud at Julia Child
pummeling the pastry dough, who has a thousand times taken you
outside for a little sun, and who has always given it to you
straight—like yesterday, when he told you that one of you needed
to grow a pair, and since you had taken his, it fell to you,
he said, to figure out how it was meant be done, how death
for one could be brought about, how going on, for the other.
The rains have come again, out of the canyon vertex
of interstate and commuter suburbs.
Reaching for edges of the glacial cut valley,
granite cliffs press inward, outward, downward,
limey-gray, holding gravity for the aerial view,
spring, summer, fall, winter, and spring.
Tree roots hang from the rim of the gorge.
And if the meadow near the cutting
is the best campsite, it’ll be filled with people, guaranteed.
How tadpoles are born into a dying lake, just to turn belly up
and slime slowly into whatever first starlight
traveled farthest to reach us tonight,
is another story.
Someone said they never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself. Me neither, but it seemed sometimes
like they ought to be. The bark beetles that crunch
in and out of their white fir tunnels
and branch outward until each thorax, leg,
and instinct intersects, becoming a web
A cold snap couples indeterminately with wind velocity
and the fracture lines of ice particles, killing only incidentally.
And apparently when a trail is called a shuttle, it’s because
you can’t get home on your own, back to where
Slide Mountain’s melt water-soaked shoulder sloughed off,
roaring down Ophir Creek Canyon clear to the highway
eighteen years ago.
Down in the valley someone is cheating on me, my Lord,
Kumbaya, but I will toss each lit match into the wet fire pit,
hoping. What else is there after years of echoes?
After a forest outstrips even its own pathology?
Out of your letters I make
a mannequin. Distance allows
for subtle perversions of memory.
Paper you is a diligent lover with
palms large enough for me
to crawl into & sleep.
You become my cave-space
a cage, a mirror
That I can hand feed my secrets.
I will mold you new skin. Spit
will make it pliant & soft.
Together, we’ll become
uncanny, enough so that
strangers will see me
on the street & stop & shudder.
While you are on the other side
of the globe I will feel your
doll hands round my throat
& maybe it will feel true,
or if not true, at least
I must learn to love the dark—
dank, cloistered spaces, the small of the back,
the thicket at sunset.
My sister is certain I never lived with her
on Dixmont Avenue.
But I am there, in photographs,
standing by the stove, slightly out-of-focus
in my salmon-colored shirt and behind the wheel
of our mother’s Volkswagen, indistinctly smiling,
the camera too near my cheek—
Everything blurred. My sister doesn’t remember,
how she wrapped her head in scarves, tied them
on the sides of her handbags, refused to eat the meat,
and the floorboards that sighed each night
under our mother’s restless feet.
We were small things, hoping to change—
perhaps escape. Only Casey ran—his long
dachshund ears flapping as he jumped the kitchen
stairs, raced up through up the den and back.
He died in the fire. We didn’t.
I must learn to love spare rooms.
I lie in my sister’s house, quiet as Juliet,
hands folded on my chest—
Earth-bound, moss-approved, capable
How much have I forgotten?
Morning. I’m jiggly as a marionette.
I drive my sister’s car through West Trenton,
past the delicatessen where we bought
our lunch meat, past the high school
full of sunflower seeds where I forgot to speak
and where so many souls are left whirling
on a potter’s wheel. Ghosts now, shoulder
to shoulder. I drive past Parkway Avenue,
where I saw the cat when I was seventeen.
That’s what it was like—being run-over,
head askew, thrown off to the side of the road,
dull eyes reflecting the passing lights.
The past bobs on the dashboard. Around it,
everything crawls—the traffic, the dry leaves,
thoughts I seem to overhear.
A thirsting bird picks at the back of my throat,
and the wind murmurs strange, lurid words.
The darkness may have merit, but I require sun.
I have shade enough for two—umbrellas that pop
open and snap shut: yes no yes yes no stay, go.
I know now
That you live inside me.
That you’re mean.
I know that
You curse my children
On a specific trigger
From a vacuum.
The trigger sparks
Like the woman from Bank Street who told you she only works
Is not speaking to parents.
Or the psychologist at High School
“We’re back where we started with Sherry…
Her knapsack again. Unorganized again.”
You take over…
Like an animal
“They failed us. They failed our child.
They have small minds.
Do they say one word about her drawings?
Do they say one word about her paintings?
Do they say one word about her interpretation of the Greek Myths?
No. The pencil isn’t sharpened.
I bark. But it’s you barking.
You, in truth, are the boss.
I smile sheepishly when you bark at my husband.
And I smile sheepishly when you bark at my children.
And the sad truth is I smile when you
Bark at me.
The lackluster entrance hall reminded of a soulless corporate office, if you could think away the ambulances, that is. I took a seat on one of the sumptuous couches and admired the well-manicured yard. From there, I was shown into my room. What I saw on the way was not pretty.
By that, I don’t mean the lady wiping tears as she stared at a wall, or the young woman banging her fists under the table in the recreation room. What was baffling was that while patients were in distress, the staff was either locked in their offices or chatting right next to them.
It turned out the woman was banging her fists against the table because the medications made her feel on edge. She couldn’t reach a doctor in a week and soon she gave up, idling between synthetically enhanced dreamlands and the fluorescent lights of the corridors.
But let’s begin with the origin of a bizarre turn of events that placed me in the care of a mental hospital. Roughly a decade ago, I was bitten by a tick. I found it on my bed: a blue, swollen little monster that had just feasted on my blood. Doctors showed little concern for the facial paralysis and debilitating fatigue that arrived soon after, dismissing them as stress reactions.
I have lost my hope, rebuilt it, and watched it shatter many times in the years that followed, as nobody attempted to piece together the ever-expanding list of symptoms: elevated liver enzymes, iron anemia, hormonal imbalances, migraines, muscle stiffness, skyrocketing blood pressure, chronic fever, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and excruciating joint pains. It was much easier to call them manifestations of my mind. Blood tests for Lyme disease were never ordered during several hospital visits, even after mentioning the tick. Instead, I was referred to psychologists, who, despite being unable to formulate a diagnosis, treated me with medications, cognitive-behavioral therapies and anything in-between.
Around the same time I was bitten, a friend was brought into one of the hospitals I had been to. His fatigue and joint pain set off alarm bells in physicians and despite a negative Lyme test, his doctor put him on precautionary IV antibiotics. It turned out to be Lyme disease, but it was caught early and our friend made a full recovery within a few months.
Meanwhile, almost every doctor would send home with condescending advice like, learn to handle stress, or watch less distressing world news, while I struggled to function with multiple parts of my body refusing to cooperate.
They emphasized my disheveled appearance, the nearly transparent skin and shaky hands, my hair falling out—in their view, clearly a sign of depression. I felt I was expected to be presentable, even during lowest lows, if I wanted a shot at being taken seriously by male physicians. Speaking to male friends, I sensed that doctors rarely scrutinized men’s mental health, even when they presented a similarly desolate appearance and symptoms.
Numerous medical research studies mirror my observations of gender bias. The Journal of Women’s Health found in 2009 that the majority of chronic Lyme disease sufferers were women. One reason for this is the selective diagnosis criterion of a bullseye rash—which mostly presents in men. Aucott reports that 54% of Lyme disease patients who present without a rash are mostly women and misdiagnosed. In addition, the laboratory tests that Baker recommends for Lyme disease diagnosis have a sensitivity of only 46% and appear to yield results that are biased against women.
What is worse, a diagnosis does not in itself guarantee adequate treatment, since many doctors are in denial about a chronic course of Lyme disease. Women often encounter hurdles, not only in receiving much needed antibiotic treatment, but even when it comes to pain management. In a study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, titled “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain”, the writers came to the conclusion that “women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed, and were more likely to have their pain characterized as ’emotional,’ ‘psychogenic’, and therefore ‘not real.’” Perhaps it does not come a surprise then that an alarming number of statistics point to the link between healthcare misogyny and suicide of female patients.
Based on multiple statistics, medical biases toward women appear most visible in mental health. In my case, doctors had convinced me all symptoms—including paralysis, rashes, and other visible changes—were in my head. That brings me back to my first day at the mental hospital, which I spent wandering around aimlessly and demanded to speak to someone, until a nurse threatened me to stay in my room. As the empty days piled on, I finally learned that, due to poor scheduling, I wasn’t able to start treatment for another week. I spent the time getting to know the others.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: I cannot give enough praise to the other female patients, who bridged cultural and social barriers to create a safe community in that greedy and dysfunctional station. From my own observations and those of other patients’, about 80% of the patients were women. Out of those, a staggering 60% were foreigners. Roughly half of the female patients reported being there for three months and longer. In contrast, most of the male patients—including those who were brought in by police in handcuffs and needed continual supervision—barely stayed a few days and were scarcely, if at all, medicated.
A Ukrainian woman who spent the afternoons chatting with the hospital’s hairdresser in the belly of the building, said the reason for her stay was that her husband had beaten her and she was deemed safer away from him. I agreed with her that she was safest in hospital, but disagreed with the hospital’s predominantly drug-based treatment that offered her little help in tackling her abusive relationship.
The worst part was that hers was not at an isolated case. Some women had pre-existing illnesses exacerbated by unhealthy living situations, but about half had problems directly related to being dependent on their husbands in one way or another. A middle-aged patient pointed out she had been unjustly punished twice: once by domestic abuse and a second time by having her freedom taken away in hospital. Another told me her husband had lured her to the hospital on false pretenses. Once there, he pressured her into signing him over all rights. I admired these women—all foreign—because, despite being triply disadvantaged due to their sex, residence status, and language barrier, they didn’t crack in the face of adversity. Instead, they comforted others in need.
Still, I felt transported back to the 19th century, when women were degraded for their so-called “sensitive” nature and victimized if they didn’t conform to limiting stereotypes of dutiful housewives. How was it possible that in this time and day, and in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, misogynistic attitudes continued to oppress women?
As near as I could ascertain, the mental health professionals did not display the kind of unfair gender biases that constituted clear and convincing proof enforceable in a court of law. Nonetheless, higher ranked individuals were culpable through their collusion with oppressing husbands—and by omission, since they did little to improve the life of female patients.
Women worldwide live in a hypervigilant state, as a result of lifelong objectification and stigmatization, making them more than twice as likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. If a life of intimidation in modern-day patriarchal societies was not sufficiently distressing, sexism in healthcare can have fatal results. A study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health suggests that young women hesitate to seek medical help when they have heart attacks, because based on past experiences; they feel doctors would not take their symptoms seriously and would label them as hypochondriacs. Another study, by the New England Journal of Medicine, found that women under 55 were twice as likely to succumb to heart attacks as men. This discrepancy may well explain the troubling link between improper diagnosis of women and early death. It goes without saying that in the 21st century, we should be long past asking women to conform to double standards or fall victims to outdated medical attitudes.
Public campaigns aimed at raising awareness of misogynist attitudes among doctors have made remarkable strides toward closing the gender gap for patients—and in opening a dialogue on gender equality in medicine. Nevertheless, I suspect it will take much more effort and time to address the biased attitudes and lack of empathy women experience with their care providers. My suggestion is for medical students to attend feminism seminars and regularly role-play patient scenarios with the aim of learning to put themselves into women’s shoes. A new study conducted in Europe makes similar recommendations, by promoting gender-based medicine education in order to improve the diagnosis and treatment of women. Ultimately, what makes a doctor competent is an understanding of science, as well as people.
 J Aucott et al, Diagnostic challenges of early Lyme disease: Lessons from a community case series, BMC Infectious Diseases, 2009.
I inherited the world’s problems when I was born Hussain.
My grandfather didn’t mean to, but when he whispered the Shahada in my ear, the eardrum grew from infancy to rainstick.
I cover my hair in scorn.
I fashion a staircase from books other than the Qur’an to see over and beyond the wall.
On the other side, tree limbs are weathered by four seasons.
I absorbed the knives that were sunk in my back and requested tattoo artists use them to brand my temple with permanent love.
I bit the hooks that pulled me from deep sea and left my tongue pruned at the surface.
I am too Indian for Pakistan, too Pakistani for India, too brown for America, too American for refugees.
I am too spiritual for atheists, too cynical for agnostics.
I am too haram for halal, too halal for haram, and if you believe the words hell and heaven, there is nothing but the sound of inhalation.
I am a choke. A bellow. An exhalation.
I am a preacher of ideals and a practicer of failures:
the abuse I could not stop
the boy I could not save
the women whose gossip I could not evade
the in-laws I could not win over
the man I could not fairly love
the dead I could not bathe
the coffins I could not carry
the animals I could not feed
the shelter I could not afford
the money I could not count
the air I could not clean
the body I could not starve into nothing
the skin I could not scrub to shine
the mouth I could not shut.
The patches on the quilt I weave say
With adulthood has come illiteracy in Arabic.
The only prayer I remember is the one that comes each night I ask my dead for permission to laugh.
I used to be moved by sunsets, but now even they are an everyday dimming.
Since I was born, I have been waiting and waiting to sight the moon for myself.
—Alia Hussain Vancrown
Chris never forgave me for buying a newly built house in a shithole lost somewhere between Barking and Ilford instead of bidding for that smaller house in Victoria Park she’d fallen in love with; therefore, the less reason to forgive me for getting seriously hurt in an early afternoon fight against four yobs who should’ve been sleeping off Saturday night’s hangover at that time – no big loss there then.
It’s high noon and we’re four to one. We’ve been grabbing our balls for nearly six months – beware that time is a storyteller not to be fully trusted though – for these almost six months have felt more like a decade. They’ve tried everything: terrorising our two boys when they play football in the close with their friends; shouting at Chris and verbally abusing both of us; stealing the plant pots in our front garden; throwing rubbish at our doorstep; stoning our ground floor front windows and slashing the car’s tyres. It reads like an anti-social behaviour book of table manners. On my part, I’ve also tried everything that can be tried: the police, the council, and bringing them to court, as we know them so well by now.
I don’t sleep well and Chris has lost a stone due to stress, but what is unforgivable is the boys’ fear. Their fear. God knows I wasn’t Oxbridge educated to avoid doing what I preach, and this is the origin of refusing to live in such a place as Vicky Park and my insistence to inhabit the realms of the bigoted but truest England of this part of Essex. It’s closer to our jobs, anyway.
It’s high noon and they are playing football outside our own front garden. Four of them – loud, insolent, defiant. They don’t look at the house. They don’t need to; they know we’re at home and staring at them from behind the Venetian blinds. I knew they’d end up messing with the cars and so they have. They’ve smashed one of the car door mirrors with the football. ‘Oh shit!’
If they’re expecting police, police will arrive. They’ll talk to them in a low voice: ‘No need to shout, mate, we’re just having a civilised conversation about a broken door mirror.’ Then these yobs will hide the football, pretend it wasn’t them, perhaps get a penalty, or else will run away to their council estate, just at the opposite end of the park, and keep a low profile for a week or so.
Chris cries in the kitchen, saying that she can’t stand it anymore, being harassed outside our own front door, and that if we are not moving out before the end of the year, that’s it, she’ll leave with the two boys in tow.
So I open the front door, as much to face the four angry-about-what-kind-of-hard-life-bullshit-you-said-you-lived-since-you-were-in-primary-school young men as to walk away from my wife’s pleas and plots and complaints and criticisms. I open the door and walk towards them. The football stops invitingly at my feet and I pick it up in my hands. It’s heavy and rugged and I suddenly realise, whilst I hold the ball in my hands and I hear Chris calling me, ‘John, John, what are you doing? Danny, take care of your brother!’ and I can feel her a few paces behind me, by the front door, that I have a choice. For I am out, on this hot, humid, Sunday afternoon in August – fags and beer for them, roast and park for us – to win. To win over them.
The first option is to gather them together and ask why they’re doing this; why they’re playing football outside our door and not in the nearby park; tell them it’s wrong and they know it and ask what they’re gaining by being like this; tell them to go somewhere else and that it’s about time to move on. Abel – the social worker, the good policeman, the in-the-know youth counselor, the cool teacher – will reassure them that if they leave us alone for the remainder of the month, he’ll forget about the cracked Ford Focus right mirror and stop all court proceedings. He will be as detached and clinically matter-of-fact as when he is agreeing to his boys’ school external exclusions – he’s been a parent governor there for the last two years and a good one at that. He’ll have a friendly lads’ chat, possibly turning back and asking Chris to fetch five beers out of the fridge. He’ll clear the air with the boys; it’ll take time, but down the road they’ll understand, they’ll comply. Yes, Abel will win them over with his goofiness and his awkwardness.
However, it is Cain who grabs him first, by the back, unannounced, I swear. He’s always been the first and foremost. He’s the firstborn, a few precious seconds wiser and savvier than his brother, but they are advantage enough – time, never to be trusted. Cain will pass a strong, heavily tattooed arm around his neck. Oh no, not to strangle him, but to stop him in the first stage of his good deed, and he, Cain, will whisper in his ear, almost in a rippled wavy caress, that once, just for once, he has to win over them using their weapons. Yes, just this once, to show them he can swear, shout, threaten and cause upset just as well as they do. Possibly better, yes, certainly better: Oxbridge.
He throws the football at the face of the oldest young man, the ring leader – so the police have told him and he agrees – and snarls: ‘Oi, you piece of shit, yesterday I fucked your mother and she told me I do it better than you. Apparently, she’s never had the heart to tell you your dick is too small for her big ass.’
Chris has begun to yell at the same time as two of them pin me to the ground while the other two kick me hard with their dirty counterfeit Adidas trainers. The pain is unbearable, but amid Glen’s recriminatory cries: ‘Stop, you’re killing him!’ and my wife’s screams for help, I have enough poise to stand up on my knees, smile and spit blood at the gang leader before the most powerful kick yet sends my head down to hit the hot pavement with a bestial cracking thud.
I then hear Cain’s stentorious laughter and accept that for the victory to be truly magnificent, the price to pay has to be equally phenomenal.
The Senator had married Helena because of her dainty wrists, perfect for waving, and because of her majestic cupid’s bow, perfect for modeling the classic red lip. He had also married her because she was named Helena. She was the final warhead needed to complete his political arsenal, shrewdly stored beside his nine-month deployment in Cambodia and his degree from Berkeley. It was a wonderful repertoire, and partly self-built, too. His parents had nudged him in the direction of bureaucratic ascension by helping him into student council and apprenticeships, but his diplomas and honors were products of his own ambition, not theirs. Besides, above all, Helena had been his choice, and quite possibly the best choice he’d ever made.
As qualified as he was, he knew he couldn’t have been elected without her. Marred by his perceived arrogance, broodiness, and cutting cheekbones, the Senator was softened by Helena. She was the Eva Perón to his Juan, adding color and estrogen to his polished but cool persona.
Helena’s lips were pursed as she faced the mirror, elbows bent by her ears while she skewered her chignon with a bobby pin. Today, they had yet another appearance-boosting excursion scheduled, one filled with podiums and sweaty hand-shaking. They were to arrive at the local high school in under an hour. The Senator glowered at his Rolex, then leaned against the door frame as he waited for his wife to finish her sacramental primping.
“We have photographers meeting us at North,” she said.
Her eyes remained fixed on her reflection as she added coolly, “And yet, you’re wearing that tie.”
He looked self-consciously down at the garment, which was a stylish yet unassuming grey. He liked grey.
“They’re high school students, sweetheart, not morticians.” Her tongue curled around the endearment as she padded across the boudoir, toeing her nude flats. Helena refused to wear heels – some element of her charm rested in her short, petite stature, which neutralized the Senator’s colossal build.
He could feel his face reddening, his muscles straining angrily against the fabric of his sport coat. As she pegged him with a coy smile, he fought to keep his temper in check. After fifteen years of marriage, he knew all too well that rage could never weather her.
“Instead of condemning my fashion choices,” he said, “you could help me in the first place.”
Her eyes locked with his as she trailed a finger down his lapel. “Oh, now, Senator. You should be able to make the big-boy decisions yourself.”
He flattened his palms against her shoulder pads, gently but insistently shoving her away. She must’ve been expecting the push – this wasn’t a surprise, as nothing short of him severing her matrimonial stipend could catch her off-guard – because she didn’t even flinch. Shaking her head, she disappeared into the walk-in closet only to return almost immediately with a maroon tie, one to match her pencil skirt perfectly. “A ticket for your re-election,” she said, draping it over his wrist.
He’d have to put the damn thing on himself, per usual, since she couldn’t be bothered with something as trivial as knotting neckties. As he loosened the one around his collar, Helena slipped out into the hall to wait for him, and when he joined her, she snaked her thin arm through his. Her grasp was disproportionately firm compared to her stature; her fingers were like a hawk’s talons, slender but throttling.
He was quick in escorting her to the foyer. Their driver was waiting for them out front. The sooner they were seated in the Escalade, the sooner they would arrive at the school, which meant they would be that much closer to being the Senator and the Senator’s Wife, and not Helena and Helena’s Husband. It seemed like such a minute technicality, but that shift in persona was the exact reason he had the blood pressure of a seventy-year-old McDonald’s addict at only forty-two. Not even conversations with Democrats could fluster him as thoroughly as she could.
They paused at the entrance so the Senator could fetch a water bottle from the kitchen. He left her at the base of the staircase, dipping two fingers under his collar to let some cool air graze his skin as he marched through the dining room. It only took ten feet of separation for the air to become breathable again. He tugged back the fridge’s door – the kind so fancy that magnets couldn’t stick – and rifled through its contents, pushing aside last night’s takeout from Le Moulin and a half-filled bowl of raspberries to fish out a water bottle.
When he returned to the foyer, Helena was toying with the top button of her blouse, clearly deliberating whether to undo it or leave it be. Feeling bold, he opened the door and said, “They’re high school students, sweetheart, not solicitors.”
It would’ve been a low blow had Helena been ashamed of her experience with “solicitors.” But for the past three years, she’d proudly maintained that since he couldn’t keep her sated in that department, she had every right to find her fill elsewhere. And what was he to do? Surviving a scandal of infidelity was challenging enough for any elected official, never mind one whose public image rested so comfortably on the shoulders of the unfaithful party.
Before passing through the threshold, she arched her brow, her lips slightly parted, as if she was almost impressed by the comment.
And then, breezing past him, she popped the top button open.
“The Coffin Trick,” Loveman said, picking at a piece of chicken caught between his teeth, “That was—hands down—the best goddamn trick I ever saw.”
We were sitting in the front row at the Antiquarian Theater on Cherry Street, staring at the ragged strip of curtain as people trickled in from outside.
“The Coffin Trick,” I mused, watching the curtain sway beneath the air-conditioning vents. “I think I know the one you’re talking about. How’s it go again?”
Loveman grinned. “Oh, there’s nothing to it,” he said, leaning over the armrest. “The assistant wheels in a coffin or a box or—in better theaters—an iron maiden and climbs inside. You see, the coffin is riddled with holes, and the magician, after a certain amount of grandstanding, starts stabbing a sword through these holes. Of course, the girl just drops through a trapdoor in the stage, but,” he shrugged his broad shoulders, “it can still be pretty impressive.”
A man on crutches limped past us. I could see the sweat beading on his forehead as he staggered to his seat. Something about his appearance, the look of pain in his eyes perhaps, made me shudder. I looked over at Loveman.
“What’s so impressive about that?” I asked. “It sounds simple enough.”
Loveman, wiping his greasy hands on his slacks, straightened. He loved to discuss magic. “Oh, there’s nothing impressive about the trick,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s all about the goddamn girl. She carries the show. The first time I saw the trick performed I was in Paris. This Russian had this girl with him…” Loveman, biting his lip, flicked something at the stage. “Well, you can imagine. Short. Tiny waist. Huge tits. She couldn’t have been more than… Christ, I don’t know, but she had that look, you know?”
Loveman was warming to his tale. “Anyway, she climbed into the coffin and closed the lid, and this huge Russian ape picked up a spear, and he started stabbing the coffin. It was like he’d gone crazy. I mean, he was smashing this coffin into splinters, and as soon as he brought the spear down, the girl started screaming. I mean, she was howling.” Loveman’s gray eyes sparkled in the dim light. “The audience was silent. Everyone was staring at the stage, and then the screaming stopped, and there was just this… whimpering coming from the coffin, this… moaning. I couldn’t move. The Russian was standing there with his hands on his knees, out of breath, and then someone gasped, and I looked over my shoulder, and there the hussy was, smiling from ear to ear as she walked down the aisle.”
I shook my head. The wooden seats were beginning to hurt my back. The show was almost half an hour late, and the theater was empty.
“The Russian installed a stereo in the coffin,” I said, bored. “The girl flipped a switch or pressed a button, turned on the recording, and then dropped through the floor.”
Loveman snickered. “Yeah, it sounds easy, but she had to press the button at the exact moment the spear crashed through the lid of the coffin. If she was too fast, the audience would hear the scream before the Russian struck the coffin. You know what I mean?” he shrugged. “Now if she was too slow… hell, that would’ve been her last performance.”
“I suppose,” I said absentmindedly.
Loveman had pulled a box of candy out of his suit jacket. He fumbled with the package for a moment and then offered the box to me. “What about you?” he asked. “What’s the best trick you’ve ever seen?”
I waved the candy away. I never ate during a performance. “It’s all about the mechanics for me,” I said slowly. “I don’t like the flash and the showmanship and all that. To me, it’s like a murder. You study it. You analyze it. You spend the next week thinking about it, trying to figure it out.” I pointed at the shifting curtain. “The magician,” I mused, “He’s the murderer. He taunts you. He tries to provoke you with his crimes, but sometimes he slips up. He leaves clues behind. You just have to put it all together.”
Loveman leaned back in his seat. He popped a jellybean into his mouth, and grinning, shook his head. “Is that what your wife does? Does she put all the clues together?”
The stage lights were off, and aside from a few naked bulbs burning high up in the ceiling, the theater was dark. I couldn’t even see Loveman’s face. Only his big, pearly teeth were visible as he chewed.
“No,” I said, struggling to get comfortable in the wooden seats, “she doesn’t know anything about magic. I showed her a few card tricks when we were dating, and I had to explain each trick afterwards to convince her it wasn’t real.”
Loveman laughed. His brash voice boomed out over the empty room. “What about you?” he asked, elbowing me in the ribs. “Don’t tell me that you never believed in magic.”
I shook my head. There was a rustling behind the curtain. For an instant, the angular form of a machine or an apparatus of some kind made an impression on the cloth, as if the person wheeling it onstage had brushed against the curtain, but no one else seemed to notice it.
“I saw Ward Phillips perform when I was a kid,” I said slowly, watching the stage. “I don’t suppose you remember him. I don’t think he was particularly famous.” I frowned, straining to remember back to that night. “He worked with animals. Elephants, lions… crocodiles even. He would make them disappear, or he’d shrink them, or he’d make them float, paralyzed, over the heads of the audience.” I scratched my ankle absentmindedly. “I didn’t have a clue how he did it. I mean, I knew it wasn’t magic, but I couldn’t figure it out. I spent the next two or three weeks trying to puzzle it out, but I didn’t get anywhere.”
“Come on,” I said, annoyed, “I was just a kid. My dad had taken me for some reason. I remember how bright and clear the town looked when we walked out of the theater that night. It was just a small town, but everything seemed… transformed somehow. It was like someone had turned up the contrast on a computer: the colors were rich and saturated. Like when you get new glasses. And I remember how my dad and I walked to the car through this drifting cloud of cotton… The evening breeze was blowing through the cottonwood trees. I remember that more than the show. It was just one of those moments, you know?” I smiled at my own foolishness. I could imagine the smirk on Loveman’s face.
“My hometown didn’t even have a theater,” I continued. “That’s the funny thing. I keep trying to remember exactly where it was, but I can’t. I must have imagined it all somehow.”
Loveman rubbed his nose. His eyes flashed merrily. “Well,” he asked, “how did he do it?”
The air in the theater was stale, and I felt queer, drugged even. I didn’t understand at first what he meant. “Oh, you mean, how did Phillips do his trick with the elephants? It took me years to figure that out. I asked my dad, but he didn’t know. I asked him a week or two after the show, and he had already forgotten all about it. He was a practical man. He didn’t usually let stuff like that bother him.”
I leaned back in my chair, and glancing at my wristwatch, crossed my legs. “But,” I continued, “I saw something similar in Denver when I was a teenager. This hack led this old elephant on stage, and then he whispered some sort of incantation, and he struck the stage with his wand, which sparked this explosion… You can imagine how hokey it was… Anyway, when he struck the stage, this fog rolled over the audience. When the smoke finally cleared, there was this baby elephant sitting on the stage. You could see that it wasn’t the same animal. I mean, the coloring was all wrong. But everyone cheered.”
The audience, even though it consisted of just a few couples, had gotten loud, and I had to lean over the armrest so I could be heard. “The magician had taught both elephants the same mannerisms, you see. That was the only clever part. People saw this baby elephant stroking the magician with its trunk, and they lost everything they ever knew about logic and reason.”
I paused for a moment, and then I jerked my chin in the direction of the stage. “That man could’ve convinced those people he was the Son of God, and they would’ve believed it.”
From somewhere offstage, organ music began to play. We paused to listen. The instrument, poorly tuned, groaned the opening to a classical medley and then stopped. I heard the click of shoes as someone walked across the hardwood stage and a few tensely spoken words. I glanced again at my watch. The theater was still empty.
Loveman yawned. He was rolling his tie into a ball and then unrolling it. “I’d be surprised if there’s a show tonight,” he said, watching a group of teenagers leave the theater. “This guy’s supposed to be the best, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the crowds he brings in.”
“Tulsa’s a lousy town for magic,” I grumbled, uncrossing my legs and sitting up in my seat. “You go to Budapest or Berlin—or Prague if you know anything about magic—and you walk down these narrow alleys, and you climb this flight of steps in the darkness, and the only light is pouring through these diamond-paned windows, and you’re already falling under a spell. Oklahoma isn’t old enough to have magic. The Cherokees have been here longer than anybody, and they haven’t been here for that long.”
Loveman was getting restless. I could feel him squirming in his seat beside me. “Magic’s all about timing, coordination.” He pulled at his nose. “This guy can’t even start the show on time.”
“Montgomery says this guy is the real deal,” I said carelessly. My eyes had returned to the curtain, hypnotized by the way the threadbare cloth swayed in the stuffy theater.
Loveman slapped the armrest with the flat of his hand. “Christ,” he thundered, “Monty doesn’t know a goddamn thing. Have you ever been to his apartment? The man actually believes in magic. That crazy wife of his practices spells at their kitchen table. They’ve got books on the occult stacked beside the toilet.”
I grinned, but my eyes didn’t leave the curtain. I could still hear, just barely audible over the murmuring of the theater, the click of footsteps on the stage. “I think I like Monty,” I said slowly. “He’s a sap, but he’s genuine. I’ve seen him sitting on that wormy sofa of his leafing through books of forgotten lore, his pudgy face wide-eyed with wonder.” I smiled at the recollection. “You can’t dislike the boy.”
The organ croaked out a few notes, and the audience fell silent. The curtain was actually moving. Creaking as it jerked back and forth, it slowly retreated from the stage, revealing a thin, crooked-looking man dressed in an ill-fitting suit and brown boots.
Loveman, smirking, elbowed me in the ribs. Someone behind me giggled.
The magician bowed low, and the organ offstage began to swell. We were so close to the stage I could see the sweat on the man’s brow as it dripped with an inaudible splash onto the hardwood floor.
The strange man said nothing as he performed a few routine tricks. He whistled to a pigeon that was perched in the rafters, and it flew down and landed on a woman’s shoulder. He took a cane from an old man in the audience, and throwing it on the floor, transformed it into a sickly looking garter snake. The reaction from the audience, which clapped obediently, was feeble.
Loveman was whispering in my ear. “He’s not much to look at, is he?” he asked. “You know, I saw a magician in Dallas who turned a woman’s panties into a vampire bat.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. I didn’t like to talk during a performance, no matter how bad it might be.
With one last, asthmatic note, the organ music died away, and the magician began to hand out cards to two stooges from the audience. Loveman groaned out loud when the showman pulled two matching cards from an inside pocket.
As for me, I could feel the audience behind us growing bored. The magician had made no effort to entertain, performing each trick with a minimal amount of fanfare. He worked quickly as if he were racing through all the required tricks in order to end the show as soon as possible. He didn’t even bother to talk during the performance, though he occasionally whistled or hummed a scrap of music.
Loveman left at one point to use the bathroom, and he didn’t reappear until almost fifteen minutes later. His breath smelled of whiskey, and I suspected that he had gone to the bar across the street to drink and smoke. Several others in the audience had, grumbling, left the theater. I could hear them talking loudly outside the door.
Something about the magician’s face intrigued me, and I enjoyed watching his eyes as he worked. He was, without a doubt, uncommonly ugly. His dingy red hair was thinning, revealing a peeling scalp and a multitude of reddish sores. Like a simpleton, his jaw hung open at all times, and every now and then, I saw him lick at the drool that pooled at the corners of his mouth. His eyes were set deep in his skull, and I noticed that he rarely looked at what he was doing. His thoughts, it seemed, were elsewhere.
“Let’s go,” Loveman whispered in my ear. “It’s not too late to get something to eat. What time does the old ball and chain expect you home?”
I shrugged him off. “It’ll be over soon,” I mumbled. “Look,” I nodded in the direction of the stage, “he’s starting the final act now.”
Truthfully, I couldn’t be sure of what the magician was doing. I was hypnotized by his face, the inward-looking expression conveyed by his eyes, and if he moved his arms or crossed the stage or waved his hands, I wasn’t aware of it.
The smell of old popcorn and sweat, which had permeated the theater, began to fade, and I wondered if someone had left a door open because a breeze began to blow through the room, and I thought I smelled cut grass or maybe clover. Whatever it was, the odor waxed, increasing every moment in intensity until the theater was filled with the aroma of hay and horses and honeysuckle. The complexity was overpowering, and I felt as if I had shoved my face into a dog’s furry coat, and taking a deep breath, inhaled his musty scent. It was the smell of stables and chicken coops and spring-fed creeks, and I flinched in shock when I recognized it.
Loveman muttered something, but I couldn’t hear him. The magician was staring out over the audience, his face contorted by concentration, and suddenly I heard something. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, thinking that the magician—or maybe a heckler—was whistling, but the sound continued to grow. It was too sharp, too high-pitched to come from any human’s vocal cords, but whether or not the magician’s lips were moving, I couldn’t say. Then, in a flash of recognition, I knew what it was.
It was the sound of the Missouri Pacific approaching town. I could hear it clearly now. Judging by the direction of the sound, the train had just crossed Coffee Creek. Sitting on the front porch, I could hear it rumbling as it curved away from Main Street, and passing the old hotel, headed north for the brick factory. There were other sounds too, softer yet deeper in pitch. I could hear the cicadas humming in the pecan trees and the buzzing of bees as they meandered through the tall grass. A dog was barking across the alley, and I heard our beagle August paw at the backdoor. The hinges creaked, and I knew that Mom had let him out. Somewhere nearby, a newspaper crinkled. Dad said something, and I thought I heard, faintly, so faintly I didn’t know if I had heard it at all, the hiss of pork chops frying on the stove.
I was leaning forward. Whether I was sitting on the edge of my seat in the front row of the Antiquarian Theater or on the porch swing in front of the old house, I didn’t know. But I could still see the magician before me. His emaciated face gleamed feverishly, and I saw for the first time the pecan trees growing behind the curtain and the sidewalk running alongside the stage, and I followed it with my eyes as it passed Billy Hammond’s house and John Hartman’s old place and the little grocery store that used to be on Seminole, and I heard Billy calling me, and I put my book down on the porch swing, and I would’ve jumped up, for the sun was just beginning to sink beneath College Hill, but I saw that the lightning bugs were already beginning to appear, and then the sky darkened, and the cicadas grew quiet as the crickets in the hedge began to chirp, and the honeysuckle growing on the fence waxed with the evening breeze, and the moon rose above the stage, only now its pale light was harsh, garish even, and I heard scattered applause and the sound of people reaching for their bags, and the curtain, creaking and shuffling, closed, and Loveman, swearing, pulled me to my feet.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked, and I nodded. Together, we followed the others outside, and we stood under a flickering street lamp as Loveman smoked cigarette after cigarette, and neither one of us said anything. The parking garage was across the street, sandwiched between two vacant storefronts, and I watched, without really seeing, the red and green blur of heavy traffic moving up and down Cherry Street. I remember standing on the corner beneath the neon signboard and waiting for the stoplight to change, and though there was no sound but the mechanical grinding of automobiles, I recall listening, with a strange sense of expectancy, for the gentle hum of the cicadas in the pecan trees.