Part III of this story for you. I’m well past this part, actually, but I’ve had to rewrite it again and again and again: it’s challenging to say what you want to say, deal with something fairly technical, and try not to debunk every single great illusion ever at the same time. I feel like the first part STILL drags on, but hell, what’s a girl to do?
If you like it, lemme know.
It was show night.
Russell combed his hair in the bathroom, climbed into his dusty black suit. He collected his handcuffs and thumb cuffs and card decks and sponge balls and tinctures and trick coins in a duffel bag and loaded it into the back of his Cavalier. He secreted a few lock picks about his person, one in a sleeve cuff and one Houdini-style under the skin of his upper arm. He was very conscious, as he made the little incision on the inside of the bicep, of how crazy this looked–a pale young man, long haired and wild-eyed, inserting what was not at all a thin piece of metal into is own body. It hurt like a bitch to do, and he hated doing it, but it had saved his life on more than one occasion. He might have had a death wish, but it wasn’t an irrational one: he blotted the blood where he had made the incision with a piece of toilet paper and put a band-aid over it. It would continue to bleed for a while, but that was quite all right with Russell. It could bleed as long as it wanted. Blood made for a better effect, in the tank.
He grabbed his dove jacket from the spare room closet–black on black, tailored to him and more expensive than the rest of the closet put together, smelling faintly now of birdshit and feathered nests.
He thought of his little doves, tame and good-natured, in their cages at the workshop. He had tried to learn dove magic, had seen enough good dove acts to understand the value of it, but when it came time to shove the fat little birds in the jacket he simply hadn’t had the heart. They accepted it too easily, accepted the close, black space inside the jacket sleeves too easily.
He had felt like he was betraying them. Doves never died inside a dove jacket, unless you fell or sat down or got punched in just the wrong place, but he didn’t want to take the chance. They could still suffocate, be crushed. He did tend to get punched. The doves were more like pets now, studio pets: their cooing soothed him while he worked. The jacket, however, had been too expensive to merely abandon, and he often wore it as a suitcoat for cold-weather shows. Its bulky shape, at odds with his thin frame, had been one of the reasons people assumed his suits were all secondhand.
He put the dove jacket on. It was November, it was cold enough for it. He combed his hair one more time, the red-brown strands that had given him his childhood nickname crackling in the dry air and clinging like staticky silk to his neck.
Perhaps he would wear the jacket into the tank tonight. It would ruin it, but he almost thought he would like to ruin it: he derived a strange pleasure from ruining his most expensive props. It was one of the reasons he never made any money, one of the reasons he clipped coupons and was sometimes late on the rent.
(No, his common sense told him. People don’t like to see a fully clothed man in the tank. They like him half-naked, defenseless, vulnerable. You’re still a showman. Actually: you’re nothing but a showman.)
He checked the time. Might as well head out, he could have a beer before the show if he left now.
The drive was five miles–Russ couldn’t afford to live closer to downtown. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, running them up and down like a crowd of ten doing the wave at a football game. His fingers were thickly muscled, strong and dexterous. They had to be. He could pull a nail straight out of a wall with them. He could push his thumb through an apple or a plum.
They were magician’s hands. Of course they were; he was a magician.
Why did he have to keep reminding himself? Why did it feel, in some way, like a lie? When he told people what he did for a living–told them, I’m a magician–some little part of him looked around with nervous eyes, waiting for someone to contradict him. You’re a fake, he thought.
But of course he was. It was part of his job, to be a fake.
The Pissed Pig’s parking lot was already full when he passed by. His name on the marquee was missing an s: The Astounding Rus ell A. When you were booked at The Pissed Pig you learned to expect certain things, and working lights weren’t one of them. He pulled into the back entrance and parked next to Howie’s SUV. Employee’s and Performer’s ONLY, read the peeling sign on the back of a piece of cardboard. ALL OTHERS TOWED STRAIGHT TO HELL.
Inside, in back, Howie and Tenko were waiting for him. Tenko had her toolbelt draped over the giant motheaten boar’s head that had, before some long-ago remodel, been the Pissed Pig’s only sign. The glass eyes glittered in the dark, as did the beers they were both holding. The backstage area bristled with props, not all of them Russell’s own.
“There’s the man of the hour,” Howie said, sipping his drink. “Oy. We almost got the tank filled without you. Want to check everything, make sure it’s as it should be?” He dragged another beer from the plastic rings, popped it and handed it to him.
“Thanks, Howie. I trust you guys.” He swilled. He watched their eyebrows rise.
“So,” Howie asked at last. “Where’s your girl? Mimi or Katie or whatever.”
“She left.” He gestured, mutely, to nowhere in particular. “Apparently, I’m an asshole.”
“You are,” Howie agreed. He patted Russell’s shoulder. “‘S all right. We love you.”
“Sure you do.”
“Of course we do,” said Tenko. His stage hand and sometimes assistant, a four foot ten girl with a perfect pointed little face, was wearing a diaphanous black evening gown and a pair of silver maifa sticks in the long dark mass of her hair. She was also toting the biggest tool belt Russell had ever seen, short of softcore porn. Her real name was Natalie. She was from Hoboken, New Jersey. “Boss, I was wondering. We’re doing a production of Romeo and Juliet at school, and I don’t quite have the room I need to build the balcony scene. Could I use your studio, maybe? And the truck?”
“Sure, sure.” Actually: “That’s perfect. I’ve got to go out of town for a few days, maybe you could look in on the birds too? Just feed them, touch them, talk to them a little. You know what I do.”
“Okay.” Tenko grinned.
“Just put the tools back in the right places afterwards.” He stripped the spare studio key from his keyring and handed it to her. “And don’t work after three in the morning. It annoys the drunks who sleep it off in the unit next door.”
“Okay, okay! Whatcha doing? You got a new lady already?”
“My father died. I’ve got to attend the funeral.”
There was silence. The cheap canned music filtered back from the bar, the sounds of evening drunks getting loud and rowdy.
“You okay, Boss?” Tenko asked at last.
“I’m fine.” Russell shrugged defensively. “I didn’t get to know him, you might say. Ma wants me there, though.”
“Oooh. The ma.” Howie imitated his faint southern drawl, the accent Russell couldn’t entirely kick no matter how hard he tried. “All right, mama’s boy, say no more.”
“Sorry about your dad, Boss.”
“Don’t be.” Russell looked around him, looked through the rising smoke and the rising dust and the faint smells of vomit and sweat from the main bar. “He was more of an asshole than I am. How long until showtime?”
“All right.” If he strained, he could hear the murmurs of his crowd out there. “All right. Tenko, would you get my stuff set up for me?”
“Sure, Boss. Rings, then fire, then cards, then water, right?”
“Right. And one last thing. The tank?”
“Already on stage being filled up, Boss.”
“I know that. Put a lock on the sliding door.”
“You heard me.”
Tenko blinked incredulously. “Boss,” she said slowly. “That little trapdoor is your lifeline. If everything else goes wrong, you can still slide that door open and get some air. Nobody in the audience will ever know if it’s there or not. Why the fuck would you want to do a stupid thing like that?”
“I’ll know it’s there,” Russell said. He was surprised by the roughness of his own voice. “I’ll know. C’mon, Natalie. I know we have a lock for that thing somewhere around here.”
But Natalie, alias Lady Tenko, was shaking her bemaifa’d head. “No,” she said flatly. “Hell, no. That’s suicidal, Russ. You’re not a real magician, you know. You can’t magic yourself out of there once I lock you in. I won’t kill you. I won’t feed your stupid pigeons forever.”
“I can force the door. Those hinges are shitty anyway.”
“Like hell you can force the door! That tank’s taller than you, what’ll you push off of?” Lady Tenko, Mysterious Illusionist of the Orient, was now fully Natalie Ng, Hoboken-born bitch. It showed in every line of her crossed arms, the maifa sticks bristling like two hedgehog quills from her hair. “Give it up, Russell. I’m not gonna do it. I won’t kill you.”
“You and Howie’ll be right there timing me.”
“Which just means we’ll be the ones who have to pull your drowned corpse out of the tank. No, Russ. No fucking way am I locking that door. What is all this about, anyway? Is it because you broke up with your stupid fucking girlfriend?”
“I need to do it,” he said quietly.
“God, that’s it, isn’t it? Some trashy peroxide whore dumps you, and you want to drown yourself in front of a live studio audience. You’re insane, Russ. You are one hundred percent insane. I don’t even know if you need to be doing your show tonight. You’ll probably try to strangle yourself with the fucking silks, you deadbeat full-of-shit piece of…”
“If he says he can do it, I believe him,” said Howie.
Even Russell stared at him. Unperturbed, Howie finished his beer, wiping a few errant droplets from his multiple chins.
“He’s the Astounding Russell A, right? When has he ever been wrong before? If he says he can do it, he has a plan to do it. Remember the pirhanas, Nats? You said the same thing about the pirhanas. And not a one of them touched him.”
“This is different,” Tenko said hotly. “Even with the pirhanas he had a trap door. Right now, the Astounding Russell A is making A stand for asshole. And making a decision like that fifteen minutes before the show goes on–fuck! Russell, I’m worried about you. I am really and truly worried.”
“Just do it,” said Russell.
It must’ve been something in his voice, or the rising sounds of the crowd outside. She locked eyes with him, and for a minute it was just the two of them, magicians, and then the rest of the world. Could she see, he wondered, some little glimpse of what he was thinking?
It wasn’t the crowd’s reaction at all. They didn’t know about the sliding door on the top of the tank; they’d think the same thing either way. It was about the challenge. It was about doing something impossible.
It was about magic.
“I’ll want a two hundred buck bonus,” Tenko said at last. “Consider it stress pay. Howie gets another hundred too, straight from your pocket and not through the bar. And you’re going to do what you always say you’re going to do and buy me a drink after the show, because you’ll be alive and well and I will be, trust me, so fucking happy I’ll be unable to order myself one from nervous laughter. And if you are one second–one second–later than two minutes in getting out of there, we come in after you. I don’t care about your death wish, Russ. You aren’t going to die with us right here.”
She stood on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. “Russell the Astounding Asshole,” she said fondly. “I hope you have a plan. I really do.” She grabbed her toolbelt from the boar’s head. “Gimme five minutes.”
It left Russell and Howie alone in the half-dark, staring at each other.
“You do know what you’re doing, right?” Howie said.
“Oh,” said Russell. “Fuck, no.”
The first part of the show blurred by, dreamlike. Russell appeared and disappeared his rings, shuffled his cards, turned the cards into roses and the roses into silks and the silks into walking sticks. His fingers made the gestures almost naturally, he stood at the right angles almost naturally. This wasn’t what his audience was here for. He knew it and they knew it. It was a prologue of sorts, a gentle introduction. Their faces, clustered around the Pissed Pig’s always too small stage, were politely appreciative. Their applause was equally polite.
The hadn’t come for illusion, for flash cotton and red silk. They had come for the water escape. Houdini’s water escape, really, just like he had Houdini’s lockpick in his arm. The tank, covered by a huge black cloth, loomed behind him. It was waiting for him.
It knew what he was going to do.
Could they feel it, he wondered? The tank’s heavy presence, its brooding, its casketlike properties. Its locked lids and doors.
He could feel it.
If there was one sort of real magic in the world, he thought, it was magic between people. Your audience could sense what they were seeing in some way that went deeper than the mere visual. They could sense your sincerity, your honesty. And this particular audience could sense that he was about to do something stupid and dangerous. They longed for it, like a fifteen year old girl longed for a boyfriend. They were impatient with his usual toys, with the rings and the canes and the cards. They wanted what he, through gesture or stance or telekinesis, was promising. They wanted his skinny ass in the tank.
It was almost sensual. Almost erotic, this longing.
With ten minutes left in the show, he caved. He signaled Tenko out: she took his table and his rings. He produced a bouquet of roses for her from behind his last silk and handed that over as well. She accepted with what must have been the phoniest smile in show business.
“Are you sure about this?” she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. He nodded. He kept up his own showman’s gloss.
Tenko raised the bouquet up high, Howie’s signal in back. The velvet curtain hiding the tank cranked up.
“If you die,” Tenko hissed, “I will haunt you in hell.”
Russell kept smiling. He removed his jacket and handed it to Tenko. The crowd, sensing the thing they had come for in close proximity, gathered close to one another. He unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. He dropped his pants. He stood, in his plain black boxers, in front of a live audience.
“Two minutes,” Tenko hissed.
Russell knew he was pale. Pale in the way only a natural redhead could be: ice-pale, milk-pale, the deathly freckled pale of a corpse or a freshly laundered sheet. He knew he was skinny, the muscles from years of training standing out more like tumors than sleek bodybuilt health. He knew a good effect when he saw one and knew, the first time he had seen a tape of his show and watched his own deathly white figure silhouetted against the black backdrop, that he would never do a water escape clothed again.
The audience oohed and aahed as he folded up his pants and passed them to Tenko. Behind him, the backlit tank cast a sepulchral blue-green light over the scene. The lockpick from his jacket cuff, which he had palmed and slipped between his fingers while removing the jacket, was a single sliver of cold against the warmth of his tense body.
Tenko left his clothes in back for him, returned laden with handcuffs. She locked him in the first set, the second, the third. She pressed the thumb cuffs over his flexing thumbs. His arms felt heavier. He knew from watching the tapes he was bending over a little with the weight. When she added the chain around his arms, locking it as they had agreed right above his heart, he sagged a little more.
The audience was stone silent as he ascended the stairs to the top of the tank, guided at the elbow by the diaphanous Tenko, who was, out of the line of audience sight, glaring at him like he’d just killed a family member. She was still glaring at him as she helped him into the water. It was tepid, smelled chlorinated. He felt his boxers ballooning up around his ass.
“Don’t die, please,” said the diaphanous Tenko. She sighed. “You about ready, Boss?”
“Sure,” he said.
He emptied his lungs. Took a deep breath, several small breaths.
She rested a hand lightly on his head. “All right. One, two. Go.”
He submerged. He heard, reverberating through the water all around him, the sound of the top door locking. The curtain came down.
The curtain had been Tenko’s idea, and it was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. He would never stop telling her how brilliant it was. A semi-sheer curtain, ombre dyed dark red to cherry blossom pink. His figure, he knew from the tapes, was perfectly silhouetted by backlighting on it–a womb-curtain, the escaping Russell broadcast in a crepuscular haze of organ-pink. The crowd could see his large movements, but not his smaller ones–not, for instance, the shrugging off of the thumb cuffs, the movement of the lockpick from between his fingers to his palm.
His lips pursed in the pounding silence of the water. The handcuff lock was an old lock, familiar. He could pick it in his sleep. He picked all three of them with barely a pause.They must’ve done it five hundred times, in water and out of water, naked and fully dressed and drunk and sober.
The handcuffs fell to the bottom of the tank. He felt rather than heard them, in the flow of the water. His heartbeat was a deafening drum, was a funeral march, was a frenetic adderol roar. He picked the band-aid from his upper arm with his teeth, caught the head of the pick inside him with his teeth. He ripped it out.
The water took on a faint pinkish quality. He knew, when the curtain raised, the murmurs this would get from the audience. The audience would be roaring right now–roaring and murmuring, standing up, craning their necks. They had seen the thumb cuffs drop, the handcuffs drops. But the chains?
What did he have left? A minute? His head was starting to ache. His lungs screamed at him.
He went for the chains, heavy lengths of metal purchased at a local hardware store where Russell, enterprisingly cheap magician that he was, had a discount card. He felt the lock’s teeth, felt the pick inside them. He knew what Howie, voicing over the crowd, would be saying outside of his blank watery prison:
The stunt that killed Houdini! The classic of modern magic! Can Russell escape a watery grave?
Can he? Russell wondered dryly. The lock gave, the chains fell to the floor of the tank. Ordinarily, he would have stretched his arms at this point, but he knew better than to expend the extra energy underwater. He could hold his breath for two minutes without movement fairly easily, but with the energy expenditure of picking all those locks, and the shock of the small wound in his arm now bleeding pink ribbons into the water, he was pushing it.
He readied himself to push open the trap door. He braced his legs against the sides of the tank. He imagined the scene outside–the audience whispering, his own ghostly silhouette climbing up the walls of its womb. Wasn’t this taking longer than normal? Tenko looking theatrically at her watch, shaking her head. Howie, backstage, his hand on the axe. Russell was very proud of the axe, had found it himself on Craigslist. It was ancient, chipped, massive. A businesslike looking axe. The sort of prop that built serious suspense.
His arms were beginning to tremble. He braced himself, pushed.
The door didn’t budge.
He pushed again.
Nothing. His feet slid downwards along the glass sides of the tank.
Russell began to panic.
What the fuck–what in the blue fuck–had he been thinking? He was an illusionist, a performer, a sad latterday Houdini. He wasn’t a fucking wizard. How on earth had he thought he was going to get enough purchase to push open a locked door from inside a water-filled tank? What had possessed him?
Tenko had tried to warn him. Hell, Tenko had tried to force him to not do it. She knew about magic, knew what he was doing. Howie was just a stagehand for The Pissed Pig. What the fuck had he been thinking?
He banged his fist against the trapdoor. Nothing happened. He might as well have been banging against a brick wall.
A minute left, probably less by now. His vision was blurring. He could feel pain all the way to his kidneys.
Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Howie would be onstage, with his stupid fucking theatrical axe. The audience would be on tenterhooks.
This, Russell reflected, was how magicians died. Stupid magicians. Stupid magicians, he appended, who forgot they were just fucking performers, who forgot they couldn’t actually do magic. Which didn’t, in all actuality, exist.
His vision was narrowed to a thin and ragged gash in reality. Things were going red, then going grey. Oh, God. What a stupid way to die.
The thing he felt most, he reflected, was shame. Well. Shame, and incredible pain and pressure. His lungs were screaming inside him. His eyeballs were probably about to explode.
He pushed, and pushed, and pushed. His pushes were getting weaker. His feet were losing their purchase on the inside of the tank. Things were, incredibly, seeming less urgent. If he could just breathe.
He was deep inside the wood, the trees making their crisscross ceiling of green and brown over him, the underbrush tickling his ankles. It was cool here, and quiet. Delightful.
The grey-haired man was glaring at him.
“Granddaddy,” he said. “What’ve I done?”
“You know damn well, boy. Be glad I’m the sort of gent who likes to break rules. Be very, very glad.”
“Shush,” he said, scowling. “No buts. You best be buying that girl a drink, son.”
But, but. The trees rose, blurred. Disappeared.
He felt–felt, rather than saw, because as deeply wrapped as he was in his own pain he saw nothing–the lock give.
He felt the trapdoor open.
He burst to the surface, just at the moment he should have done so–just as the backlighting, cued by Tenko to the side of the stage, flickered and went out.
It was incredible how fast the pain went away. How fast his vision returned, his sense of hearing. The crowd was shouting, screaming his name. There was only one answer to that.
Russell breathed deeply. He breathed greedy lungfuls of shitty bar air. He ducked behind the tank, back behind the curtains. He made his way through the backstage area and staggered through the side wings. He slipped out, through a service door, into the main bar area.
Lights. Sounds, murmuring, smoke.
And God, what timing. What incredible timing. He could see Tenko and Howie on the stage, Howie with the big axe over his shoulder, Tenko gripping his dove jacket as though, if she wrung it hard enough, he would appear inside it. He must’ve just made two minutes. Just made it. A second earlier and the backlighting would’ve still been on, the audience would’ve seen him duck behind the stage.
“Raise the curtain,” Tenko screeched. “Raise the goddamn curtain.”
There was nothing in the tank, of course. Nothing except pinkish water and abandoned chains. Tenko climbed the steps so fast she tore a great piece of netting out of her gown. He could feel the tension in the audience like a string pulled taut in front of him. His heart was starting to beat normally again. His breaths were no longer deep gasps.
“Holy shit,” he heard Tenko whisper hoarsely.
He stepped closer to the stage, hoisted himself back up on it.
“AHEM,” he said.
Eventually, the lights found him.
The audience didn’t know exactly what it had just witnessed, how it had been different from the other minor escapes he had pulled for them. But they could sense it. Maybe it was Tenko’s tears–genuine tears. Maybe it was the way Howie rushed down the steps, picked him up like a pale bedraggled doll and spun him around in the air. Maybe it was the ribbons of blood still dispersing in the tank.
Tenko kissed him full on the lips. The crowd exploded. Some of them were climbing on stage to touch him, their fingers brushing his fingers, his shoulders, his dripping hair. Howie had to push them back, had to raise his axe even.
“Holy shit,” Tenko whispered. She wrapped the dove jacket around him. He was shaking. As feeling came back to his extremities, he realized he was freezing cold. “Russell, holy shit. How did you do that? How?”
“I guess the door gave,” Russell said. “Hey. I owe you a drink.”
“Like fuck you do,” Tenko said. She smiled at him through tears and runny mascara. “I’m buying you one. I’ll buy you fifty, if you never put me through something like that ever again. That was the most amazing thing–the most incredible magic–fuck, Russ, I wish we could tell everybody what you just did and have them appreciate it. I can’t for the life of me figure it out. “
“The door gave,” Russell repeated. “Why is that so amazing?”
Tenko laughed. “Fine, fine, if that’s how you want to play it. Keep your secrets. You forget, Russ–I looked at the lock.”
“Sure,” Russell said, frowning. “And?”
“And how did you do it? God. It’s almost like real magic. Did you have that door rigged somehow? Some sort of hidden latch?”
“What’re you talking about?”
Her laughter was a little crazy. “Russell,” she said, magician to magician. “I’m not an idiot. You picked that lock from the inside.”
For the rest of the evening, time was slippery. Russell got dressed and came back out to the bar to chat with his fans. He bought Natalie a drink: in return, she bought him four. He gave three of them away. Strangely, he didn’t feel much like drinking.
You picked that lock from the inside.
Even once the band started–and this Mala was indeed Mala Engelhoff, whom he had been in freshman English with in college–most of the people stayed in the main bar. Around him. He was touched, caressed, made much of, photographed and chatted up. A chubby Goth girl with a snakebite piercing more or less forced her tongue into his mouth. She got a picture of it and seemed happy, so Russell supposed that was all right.
He sat, numbly, and let things happen around him. He drank one or two of the thirty or so drinks people bought for him. The rest went to Tenko and Howie, who by the middle of the night were both curled stuporously on the old leather couch by the door with a plastic bucket in easy reach beside them.
You picked that lock from the inside.
When the Maenads’ set was over, Mala Engelhoff came and sat next to him. Yes, she remembered him from college. Boy, had his act been incredible. She was beautiful, just as he remembered, like a punk rock statue carved from warm amber. She was wearing a t-shirt with holes slashed in all the right places. When she kissed him, her lips warm and smelling faintly of cherry chapstick, he felt nothing, nothing, nothing.
From the inside.
It was impossible. Tenko had missed something. After all, she had been worried and afraid when she looked.
Nobody could have picked that lock from the inside of the tank.
He had forced the door, just like he had planned. He knew this because it was the only thing he could have done. Anything else just wasn’t possible.
Well, maybe Tenko hadn’t locked it all the way.
Maybe she was fucking with him.
He looked over to the couch, where Tenko and Howie were leaning saggily against one another. Neither looked capable of ambulatory motion, much less great fuckwithery. The plastic bucket, he noticed, had a thin layer of grey vomit inside it.
From the inside.
At some point, he kissed Mala Engelhoff again. They held hands outside the bar, her hands cool and lotioned. She asked where he was living these days, which he knew to be an invitation. He ignored it, for once in his life, for maybe the first time. He left the sweetly sleeping Tenko a note, reminding her to look after the birds.
He climbed into his car, his suit smelling of smoke and bar and Mala’s hand lotion, and started driving home. After all, he had a funeral to go to. And he was already wearing a suit.