Excerpt: TELEPHONE

Here’s the second chapter of this weird hedge apple story I’ve been writing. I’ll probably post a few more, since I got positive results to the last one, and possibly release it as a .99 novella somewhere for your cheap but enjoyable perusal. Keep in mind this is first draft stuff, because I am just THAT brave, and I’m worried it’s a little stately in pace.

Yes, Russell is kind of a dick, I hate that his first name has to be my last name, but it kind of has to be for this story to work, and that kills, kills, kills me, Also, forgot the quote in the last chapter that begins the whole thing:

“That which lives on reason lives against the spirit.”
–Paracelsus

II
PHONE

Russell Attridge, now twenty six, was sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen eating his dinner when the phone rang.

His girlfriend answered it. She was able to get to the phone before him even when he was only sitting a foot or so away. He had never wondered why, though the effort it took her to cross twenty-odd feet of living room and kitchen in the time it took him to look up from his lasagna must have been considerable. She was a curious little person, his Amy. Sunny and social. He attributed it to that–she liked to answer the phone. He didn’t.

“Attridge residence, Amy speaking,” she said brightly.

In the seconds of silence while Amy listened to the reply, Russell lost interest. He went back to the lasagna. It was three days old, warmed over, still cold in the center. It hadn’t been that good of a lasagna in the first place. He wasn’t a cook, and he would be the first to admit it. Eating was something you did to survive and so was cooking. He did one so he could do the other. That was it. End of story.

“No,” Amy was saying, drawing the vowel out: no-ooo. “I’m his girlfriend. Three months. He didn’t? Wow.”

Russell ate as much of the lasagna as he could. He dumped the rest into the garbage can. He cleaned his plate with his fork, metal scraping against bargain-bin ceramic. He washed the plate and dried it. He put it back in the cabinet, stared for a moment at the neat stacks of black plates therein. It was about time for a new set. He had touched some of the chips in them up with Sharpie, but who knew what it did to you to eat Sharpie? It was probably poisonous, cancerous maybe. He imagined ending up in the cancer ward at the hospital, an armory of machines belching out the frequency and rhythm of his vital signs, Amy holding his hand, her eyes reddened under their long pale lashes.

“Mhmm,” Amy said. “Okay. He’s eating right now.” She looked over at him, pointed to the phone. Russell shook his head.

“I can take a message,” Amy said.

He imagined the silence of the ward at night, the squeak of a nurse’s rubber-soled shoes on the tile outside. The machines beeping, a sort of medical tinnitus. Gentle background noise to cover the sound of the cancer growing, the cancer ravenous, the cancer as conqueror. He couldn’t imagine what death would be like, but he thought this might come close–a lonely room at night, plastic-covered mattress, blankets that never quite kept out the cold.

“Okay,” said Amy. “I’ll let him know. Have a good night.”

She hung up. When he turned to face her, she was looking at him with both hands on her hips.

“That was Howie,” she said. “From the Pissed Pig. They’re moving your show on Saturday up to eight–there’s some band they really wanted to book in the ten slot.”

“Which band?”

“Mala and the Maenads is what he said, I think.”

“Oh. Mala Engelhoff?”

“How would I know?”

“I think I went to school with her,” Russell said, but Amy was already on to something else, her eyes darting towards the package on the tabletop, her pink-manicured hands curled into grasping claws, lips parted in avaricious need.

“Ooh,” she breathed. “Russ. Is this for me?”

Sunny, Russ reminded himself, forcing his jaw to unclench. Social.

“It’s just my new handcuffs,” he said. “For the show. The kind they have now without the chain. Police issue.”

Her face fell.

“Oh,” she said.

There was a moment of silence that filled the kitchen, overpowering as Amy’s cheap vanilla body spray. Russell waited, knowing from past experience that trying to run or attempt conversation would only make what was coming worse.

On the other hand, if it built for too long it was going to be bad anyway. And Russell Attridge had a death wish. He knew it. His fans knew it. His shrink knew it. The local lifestyle magazine, for the rather stately sum of $800 per half page, published it.

Mystery! Magic! Terror! The Astounding Russell A!

“You could lock me up in them,” he offered, unable to stop himself.

“Russ.”

“Time me. C’mon. You used to love doing that.”

“Russ!”

“C’mon. Here. Here’s the fucking keys.” He ripped into the package, ignoring the rain of tissue and packing peanuts until he found the little envelope containing them. He ripped into it, held the little keys out, faced her. He made them disappear.

“C’mon. Isn’t this what you fucking want, anyway? C’mon.” He took out the cuffs and snapped them over his wrists. He held out his manacled hands. “You can keep the keys right where they’ve always been for me, in your fucking sn–”

She slapped him. The keys, jarred loose from their hiding place in between his fingers, clattered against the tile floor.

“You’re such a dick,” she spat. “I’m tired of it. You know what Howie said, Russ? He didn’t even know who I was. Three months–three months–of me going to your stupid show and sitting at the front table and buying drinks on your fucking tab, and he had no idea you had a girlfriend. This isn’t going anywhere I want to be. I’m going. Find somebody else to fuck with, you useless lying sack of shit. Find someone else to dry clean your suits and answer your fucking phone.”

Russell’s cheek burned. He felt a raw spot, a tiny scrape, where one of her nails had dug into him. She was so close he could smell her girly deodorant under the body spray, the hint of salad dressing on her breath.

“Goodbye, Russ,” she breathed. She bent, picked up the keys.

She dropped them in the garbage disposal.

“Go fuck yourself,” she added. The door slammed behind her. It slammed so hard a few pieces of popcorn ceiling dislodged themselves and landed in Russell’s hair.

He looked down at his own handcuffed hands.

“Fuck,” he said.

It took him thirty seconds to get the handcuffs off. Twenty seconds of that was spent finding a pen with a cap of the right size to pick the lock.

****

The first thing Russell did after freeing himself was gather up her toiletries. The shampoo and conditioner, the portable hairdryer, the argan oil for softer hair. The lotion and the brown sugar body scrub. The sunless tanner. The toothpaste–she had insisted on having her own tube of toothpaste. Crest 3D Extra Brite Whitening; she swore by it. Russell was uncertain how toothpaste was supposed to be 3D, but there you were. She was a spoiled, high-maintenance bitch, and spoiled high-maintenance bitches believed candy-colored words in big bold fonts on packaging.

He tied them all up in a grocery bag and threw them in the dumpster.

He made a special trip for the body spray, which he had never been able to stand. He tore off the spray-cap and poured it on the ground, a foul-smelling libation for the absent gods. He threw the bottle in the dumpster so hard the plastic cracked.

He wasn’t crying. He was a grown man. He was a magician, dammit. Magicians didn’t cry. Especially not in front of an apartment complex at nine in the evening. Not beside the dumpsters, leaning against someone’s shitty ’96 Civic. Not in boxers and a t-shirt, not in house slippers, and especially not when they were him.

He wasn’t crying.

He wasn’t.

Eventually, it became true.

As he climbed the apartment stairs, he thought about it. She was, what, the sixth in two years? Not even quite two. They always liked him at first, liked what he did, liked the mystery and romanticism of it, watched with bated breath and shining eyes as he escaped locked boxes, cut himself in half, impaled himself on pikes, walked through walls, emerged, unbroken and phoenixlike, from the ashes of his own construction. They thought his silence was a brooding silence, his aloofness that of a man keeping great secrets.

In fact, Russell Attridge was a little shy. He was a little slow. He was a bit of an ass. His silence was half sullen, half disinterest. His magic was smoke and mirrors and levers and wires. And, once they figured it out–once they figured out the tricks behind the boxes, the hydraulic lifts in the grass–they had figured him out. There really wasn’t all that much to figure.

Everybody, he thought sourly, wished magic was real. It would be great if it was, wouldn’t it? It would solve a lot of problems.

But it wasn’t. It was smoke and mirrors, levers and wires. It was hard work and training and careful angles. It was months, years, of preparing to wow an audience for a single second. It was beauty, performance, art, and skill. It was physics and chemistry.

There’s nothing here you don’t know, he told his girls, while they would still listen to him. You got it all in high school, except maybe the lockpicking, and that’s easy to learn. Any magic act in the world–any–if you can watch it slow enough, and you have a good enough brain, you can figure out how it’s done.

It was illusion. It was pitiful. It was a sad, sad substitute for something else. Something that he could almost feel–when he was deep underwater, when he was in the dark box, when he hung suspended, ten feet in the air, from a chandelier. When his faro shuffle went well and the cards slotted into one another perfectly, when the two halves of the deck slid together like well-oiled parts, when he could pull a chosen card out of the deck at will, when he almost couldn’t feel the break he was holding in it with his thumb.

There was some transcendence then, if the moment was right, if the lighting was right, if his head was in the right place. He could almost feel that the thing he was about to do–this amazing thing–was somehow not his after all, was foreign and separate. Was magical.

He could smell, then, a hint of loam and rot and dark earth. He could smell mystery. It was a tangible thing, mystery, with a weight that settled on his chest, that nestled against his neck. It had a little heart that beat bird-rhythms against him, that tattooed his need and want of it into his soul.
But then the moment ended. He forced the card selection, he picked the locks, he turned the mirror in the wall. The audience applauded. He took a bow.

Magic wasn’t real. He was an adult. He knew this.

But it wasn’t, perhaps, a lie.

One critic from the News and Observer had come to his show and written a good review of it. It was the only good review Russell has received that he treasured. He had a copy of it in the old warehouse building downtown that served him as a workshop: it hung in a baroque silver frame amongst the power tools and wood scrap and beer cans and bits of broken mirror that made up the only place he really felt at home.

Attridge, the reviewer had written, doesn’t amaze with the creativity of his illusions. The boy will probably never make it to Vegas, and you rather get the feeling he doesn’t care if he does or not. It’s basic stuff, stuff Copperfield did fifteen years ago. The classic illusions of magic, strutted out on a filthy stage for a crowd that seems more bar than performance art worthy.

What makes Attridge great–what earns him his Astounding sobriquet–is his intensity. When he steps onto the stage, thin and hollow-eyed and dressed in an obviously secondhand suit, conversation stops. Even the hardest eyes in the crowd follow him. You gets the feeling–the creepiest feeling–that, in spite of all expectations, you’re about to see real magic. You want to tape the show, watch it over and over.

The man’s been touched in some way the rest of us haven’t. He is different. He believes in himself, even when the rest of us don’t. His water escape, which should be a tired old horse for any magician, is pristine. Some of it is because, at the top of his tank, you see no inch or two of clear air. His curtain is sheer. Russell Attridge, magician and greatest believer in magic of our age, actually holds his breath while he picks the locks. It is, at best, half an illusion. At worst, it is magic made very, very dangerous.

It was the greatest compliment Russ could imagine receiving.

His alarm went off, the muffled beeping from the bedroom intruding unpleasantly into his consciousness. Was it ten already?

It was. The clock by his low plain bed showed it. He took a bottle of pills from the bedside table, uncapped them, shook two out into his powerfully muscled hand. He took them without water. They were small pills, and no trouble to swallow.

Russell lay down on the bed and slept, somewhat fitfully, for about ten minutes. He was awoken by the ringing of the phone.

It took him a few rings to remember Amy wasn’t around to answer it.

He jumped up and ran. He caught it on the last ring.

“Attridge,” he said.

“Rusty?”

The voice was staticky, as though the call were coming from very far away. Which, he supposed, it was–there was only one person who would call him Rusty.

“Ma?”

“Rusty, honey. You need to come home.”

“Why? I’ve got a show Saturday, Ma. If I cancel, I’m out a thousand bucks.”

The pause, sullen, let him know exactly what Ma thought of a thousand bucks, and his need of it to do such things as pay rent, pay utilities, pay for his car.

“Your pa’s finally died, Rusty,” she said at last. “Your papa’s dead. The funeral is Sunday. I don’t give two figs about it, but you might just. I just thought I’d let you know.”

“Oh,” Russell said.

He thought the old bastard had died years ago.

“In prison?”

“No, no. They let him out. He died a few days later.”

“What of?”

“How would I know?” Ma said irritably, reminding him, for just a moment, of Amy saying the same thing just a few hours before. “Lord knows I didn’t love the man, Rusty. But he was your pa. You should come home.”

Russell thought for a few moments. “What time’s the funeral?” he asked at last.

“Six, I think.”

It would be expensive, to book a flight this late, but the drive would be at least nine hours, ten if he didn’t put pedal to the metal. He could do it, maybe, and still keep the show. He’d certainly need the money, either way he chose to go.

“All right,” he said at last, picking up the abandoned pair of handcuffs from the kitchen table. He snapped them around one wrist idly as he talked, picked the lock just as idly. “Can I stay with you and Al, then?”

“Of course, honey. We’d love to have you.” With a hint of motherly pique, she added: “it’ll be the first time in three years.”

“I came down for Christmas!”

“You didn’t even stay the night. Old Al would love to see you, boy. As would I.” For a moment there was a hint of her old affection in her voice, her old warmth for her only son. “Hear you’ve been doing some sort of acting show down there. It’s gotten some good reviews on the news.”

“Mhmm,” said Russell, who wasn’t particularly eager to talk about cutting himself in half for a living in front of his mother. She hadn’t even approved of the card tricks he had started doing when he was in middle school, the sleights of hand that made him popular in the lunchroom as a teenager. Seeing his show would probably devastate her. Even hearing of it, he suspected, would be worth a heart murmur.

“I’ll tell you all about it when I come down,” he lied.

“See you soon, honey.”

“See you.”

“Rusty!” This last as his hand waivered over the receiver, before he ended the connection entirely. “Rusty, boy. I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, Ma,” Russ said, frowning. He hung up.

She must know he felt the same way about Pa as she did. He hadn’t spoken to the man in years, hadn’t heard from him, hadn’t tried to track him down. He knew when he was in and out of prison because Ma called and told him. That was it. Why would this news make him particularly sad? All pa had ever done for him was to occasionally drop by and steal the silverware.

But he was sad, as he went to sleep. That was the strangest thing. Lying alone in his bed, feeling intensely the empty space behind him where Amy usually rested, fresh-bathed and oiled and lotioned and conditioned, he was sad.

Perhaps, he thought as he drifted off, a missing father took up space too. He wondered sometimes if that wasn’t the story of his life–one big absence, a Russell-shaped hole in existence.

It didn’t matter.

He fell asleep with these words on his lips, and dreamed of forest.

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2 thoughts on “Excerpt: TELEPHONE

  1. I almost mistook him for Quentin, until I remembered how Quentin believed he was brilliant, and this guy seems pretty in-touch with his abilities. 😉

    Yep. Love it. Got a little wordy about him not crying–you only needed to write “he wasn’t crying” for the point to come across. Seriously. Anyone who says, “I’m not crying,” to himself, either is, or on the verge of.

    Love the three paragraphs about how his illusion made him almost touch magic, in the forest. I love how it tied into chapter 1, and the rot and loam. My favorite paragraph was near the beginning, and it starts, “He imagined the silence of the ward at night.” I was all, “Oooh? Ooooh!” I actually said that while I read it. Boom. THAT was what stuck in my head while I read. Sweet as shit.

    He’s a particular dick, but not malicious about it, which makes things much easier to swallow than otherwise. I guess if he was malicious, he’d be an ass and not a dick. Hah. Yes, I still want to know more. You have a downright cunning piece here, all up-and-inspired and stuff. This could also be a really good novel, if you decided to make a man out of him (hah hahah).

    Finally, I have a profound respect for women who spend so much time on themselves to warrant a whole bag of thrown-out toiletries. More power to them. That’s magic in itself: how can one administer so much stuff?!

    Chris

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