MONDAY: Slight of Hand

BY PHILIP COHEN

Copyright is held by the author.

MAGIC IS the perfect metaphor for life, my father would say.  It’s a mystery until it’s not. When you know how it’s done, how the rabbit came out of the hat, or the right card got pulled from the deck, or the coin appeared where it couldn’t possibly have been, it’s not a trick anymore.  It’s a technique that you then want to understand down to its underwear and then to replicate the thing like a drowning man wants oxygen.

On the other hand, the mystery of magic, surrendering your will to the guy with the wand, the desire to sit or stand and watch the trick unfold before your misdirected eyes is more delicious than premium ice cream with melted Swiss chocolate. Cards manipulated, objects disappeared only to reappear in impossible places, torn objects whole again, tiny balls performing impossible things under cups, coins moving around the table as if with wills of their own—that and so much more, all guided by the magician’s constant patter that distracts and amuses (and let’s be honest, friends, mainly to distract and deceive) holds the viewer, young or old rapt.  How in the world did he do that?

Still, there’s the desire to know, for it is in the end merely a trick, an illusion.  We desire deeply to understand how in the name of Hades’ ghost the guy did it, how he made that scantily dressed assistant reappear perfectly reassembled across the room, she looking none the worse for wear for having obviously been teleported, deconstructed molecule by molecule only to magically prance through the audience and back up on stage to wild applause.

And we do so love magic; we face the delicate dialectic between misdirection and deception of our own volition over and against the desire to know, the pure wonder of the trick mitigated by the scientific urge to know.

A few of you may remember my father, the Great Gesunte, the Magical Mystical, Marvel, known for one magnificent illusion.  He’d travel the country appearing in secondary venues, smaller circuses, back alley casinos in Vegas, little one-horse towns where the residents were starved for live entertainment. He carried with him a bag, and I do mean a bag, of conventional magic tricks.  He was supposed to make a cut rope whole again.  The balls under the cups were intended to bounce around in unpredictable patterns and fool them all the time.  Coins were supposed to disappear and reappear in unpredictable ways. Being on a budget, the disappearing rabbit was stuffed.

Problem was, my father was a lousy magician.  I’d say thank God for his day job if he had one, but he didn’t have one, so we relied on imperfect magic for meat on the table.  His agent, one Max Shimmel was the true magician. Through the magic of his silver tongue he could regularly make sufficient gigs appear to keep The Great Gezunte’s family from starving or living without gasoline for our aging Chevy.

My dad would walk on stage to some raucous recorded music and immediately go into his shtick. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m the Great Gesunte, and I’ve come all the way from Paramus to mystify you and change your world.” (Unless he was performing in Paramus, in which case he’d say he was from Trenton. Actually, we lived in Newark.)

He’d bring a member of the audience onto the stage, usually an attractive woman, and ask her to pick a card. “Now show it to the audience,” he’d say while he turned his back.  Dutifully and usually shyly, she’d wave the card so that most of the audience, numbering usually no more than fifty or sixty, could see that it was, say, the Jack of Diamonds.

He’d push the deck toward her. “Now put your card inside, anywhere at all. Don’t let me influence you.” Sometimes he’d move the deck in circles as if trying to get her to put it into one precise place, but it was a joke. “Now shuffle it good,” he’d say, and the girl would clumsily move the cards around. He’d ask for the deck back.

“You put it wherever you wanted to, right?” he’d ask.

“Yes,” she’d say.

“Now I’m going to shuffle the deck some more,” he’d say, and he’d give the deck a healthy shuffle.

Then he’d do some razamataz, for instance breaking the deck into four piles and by process of elimination that seemed random, by the end there’d be only one possible card to turn over.  And with high drama he’d raise the card from the table and say in a deep magician’s voice, “Is this your card?”

And with genuinely sad eyes the girl would shake her head and say, “No.”

And my father’s eyes would grow large and his brow would furrow, and with an indomitable flourish he would select another card, and say, “Is this your card?”

“No.” she would say, and often the audience member would look like she was about to cry.

By the third try, the audience was no longer with him. A predictable murmuring, soft but growing louder, would arise from the crowd.

And so, the Great Gesunte would plow through his act, achieving about a fifty percent success rate, barely enough to hold the audience’s attention. The rabbit might not materialize out of the hat, more often than not, the soft orange ball appeared beneath the wrong cup, the coin wasn’t behind the ear of the volunteer from the audience. Like I said, about a fifty percent success rate, not bad in a game of horseshoes or darts, perhaps, but disastrous for a magician’s showmanship. And yet his magician’s demeanor would not abate; he’d hold onto his air of confidence and mystery even as the coin, or the card, or the rabbit did not behave in the intended way.

What rescued my Dad’s act — and our livelihood, what gave him an adequate enough reputation for the ingenious and indefatigable Agent Shimmel to book him gigs in the smaller towns in the out of the way highways and byways, lay full square in the climax of the show, what Dad called The Big Black Box. If the audience could only hold on until those final moments of the show, they’d be rewarded by a spectacular piece of legerdemain so phantasmagorical the feat bordered on the mystical. If in the back of most minds did not lay the sure knowledge that everything that happens on the magician’s stage is fake, merely an illusion, this one had the capacity to carry the entire audience over the edge and slip into another dimension of reality. If that germ of skepticism did not reside in every audience member’s mind, people would believe the Black Box illusion had brought them to the edge of the miraculous, an event comparable to the splitting of the Red Sea.

“We now require a few moments to set up for the final illusion,” he’d say, having gone through his usual material. The lights would go out completely, the house thrown into a darkness so black no one could see even their fingers. No one would move for fear of falling over a person or the railing. Before the authorities might barge in and demand minimal lighting per regulations, the stage would light up in the queerest purple would illumine the goings on.

My father, dressed now in a French roast brown monk’s robe, would enter from stage right, confidence in his step, and walk next to a large black box, perhaps six feet high, that had been placed there during that moment of darkness.

“Now, thus far, you have seen me deliver the usual fare of the traveling magician, and I’ve acquitted myself beautifully,” he’d say, inevitably receiving more than a few catcalls from the by now cynical audience. “But like the man said, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” to which someone predictably would say, “You can say that again, buddy.” And there’d be laughter, which my father would ignore.

“Now, look closely,” he’d say.

He’d face the crowd square on. He’d invite several audience members onto the stage, and he’d ask them to look him up and down and identify specific characteristics of his face, clothes, and feet.   Each one would take their turn noting eye colour, a scar on his cheek, an earring in one ear, his sandals and his strange toenails, his hairline and coloru, his yellowed teeth — whatever they could identify that made him unique. One by one each of these characteristics would be meticulously noted on a projector and appear on a screen. His entire body and ensemble would be thoroughly examined and described aloud, and duly notated for all to see.

He’d walk to the edge of the stage, and, speaking the exact words each time, he’d say, “You are about to witness a little mystery I picked up from the great Kabbalistic mystics in that baffling city Tsfat nestled in a mountain in the far north of the Holy Land. On a religious quest as a youth right out of college, after much journeying and seeking, I came upon that great city. There an old, wise rabbi with a long white beard befriended me and took me under his wing. And not to make this story too long, I will simply tell you that this old rabbi taught me the secrets of the mystical Kabbalah, and you are about to behold the best of them all. Now pay the most careful attention, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and you will witness first hand that for which the word abracadabra was invented.”

And now silence would reign as my father would light a cigarette, pull open a door to the box, and step inside. For a very long moment, that would be all, as if that were the trick.  No music, no noise from the box, nothing but silence. One could hear a fly fart across the room.

But suddenly in the rear of the theatre, a light of uncertain origin would shine on a corner and upon a robed figure. My father. He’d appear as if out of nowhere, pull of the hood, and walk over to one of the patrons sitting in the back and shake hands like it was Sunday in the park with fried chicken.

“Hello,” he’d say.

“Hello,” the patron would answer, but with enough uncertainty to fill a gas tank.

My father would ask him to rise. They’d exchange some pleasantries about the weather or some such, and then my father would speak.

“Look at the list on the screen. Pick one or two of the characteristics listed there and see if I have it on my person.”

This patron would usually identify the earring or the scar or something else easy to see on his head or face.

My father would puff on the cigarette, now perhaps a third of the way burned down. The light would go out and he’d disappear.

But then another light would shine in a different corner of the theater, and my father, the glowing cigarette, now halfway burned down, would appear and he’d shake hands and chat up another patron. This one would identify his strange toes, or a mark on his robe.  Cigarette toward the end of its life, my father would vanish and reappear in yet a third corner, and follow the same routine.

The piece de resistance would occur on his fourth appearance, when he’d appear smack dab in the middle of the audience in the middle of a row. And at the same time — could it possibly be true? He’d appear at one end of the row, and simultaneously at the other end of the row. All three were flesh and blood iterations of my father, smoking a now nearly exhausted cigarette, all dressed in a monk’s robe, all shaking hands with astonished members of the audience who struggled to match the man standing before them with the distinguishing marks projected on the screen. As they held his flesh and blood hand, the cigarette in his other hand would come to its end, and all three of my fathers would disappear one last time.

In the dimness of the theatre, as the audience would sit in silence, two minutes would pass, then three, then four. People would grow restless and some would become uneasy, feet shuffling, hats returning to heads. Had my father disappeared into the electrons, they’d wonder. If he had, it would be no surprise. Perhaps Kabbalistic magic was imperfect magic and the illusion had failed.

But no!  With a flourish, the door to the black box would swing open and out the door my father would stagger as if a little intoxicated, hood up, face dark inside. He’d face the crowd and swiftly throw off the hood, and with wide eyes look the audience over as if seeing them for the first time. He’d shout as he was being greeted by stunned silence, “That old, wise old rabbi knew a thing or two about being in two, no, three places at one, did he not?”

He’d bow, and the crowd would go apoplectically insane, applauding like tomorrow were unimaginable. After several minutes of basking in that wave of appreciation, those purple lights on the stage would fade to black and my father’d disappear backstage to be among his collection of strings and balls and coins that he’d travel America Minor with.

I traveled America with him in the summers of my high school years, working as his roadie, setting up, taking down. That included The Big Black Box, which as far as I could ever ascertain was just a big box empty of any doodads, nary a mirror, much less any electronic gear that might begin to explain his secret. I saw that stunt performed over and over from Fort Worth to Fort Wayne, to Fort Lee and places in between and beyond. It always went the same, the exact same spiel, the same impeccable timing, the same audience reaction. I would sit in different corners of the venue precisely to observe this trick from varied angles, and I’d never glean the faintest clue as to how he did it.  As we’d return to our hotel after each show he’d invariably be wearing the identical look on his face from the end of the last show and the one before that, and before that, an easy smile that whispered to the world he’d just killed the canary for the umpteenth time. “Cracked it again,” he’d always say to me. Then he’d place a hand on my shoulder and we’d walk together to the hotel for a late supper.

I’d raid my dad’s workshop back home in New Jersey. Going through all his stuff, the materials themselves along with the reams of documentation he’d collected over the years, it became easy to learn how he performed all his usual trickery; they all came, you might say, from The Boilerplate Guide to Stage Magic. Given Dad’s general clumsiness when performing them, after some years of practice, I could do most of them — well, all of the  better than Dad.

But the Big Black Box always remained a mystery. How could he possibly make himself appear and disappear and reappear throughout the audience like that? And three flesh and blood Dads at once?  What combination of smoke and mirrors and misdirection, all with handshakes and chat, could make that feat remotely possible in this world?

“Tell me how you do it, Dad” I’d asked often during that return to the hotel when he seemed so triumphant.

“A magician never spills the beans, Danny,” he’d say, and he’d said it so many times I eventually gave up, though not without frustration, as if he were withholding my inheritance. But that’s how it went with me and my father on the matter of that singular stunt. During those summer weeks I’d accompany him, traveling around the real America, as he’d call it, setting up and taking down, setting up and taking down. We’d speak of things a father and son might, politics, life on the road, the Yankees, my plans for the future, how he fell into magic, about my mother, who’d died when I was a boy. I loved those summers; wouldn’t have traded them for anything. But his unwillingness to explain how he could bounce around the theatre with a declining cigarette in his left hand — this was as out of bounds as a foul ball hit into the far-left field stands, and I wasn’t happy.

As the summers passed and high school fell farther and farther behind, as I married, had kids, and we moved across country to take a job in California, I grew remote from Dad’s act and its secrets, as with him and he with me.  One day — I was well into my 50s — I received the call from a hospital no one wants to receive, that Dad wouldn’t make it more than another few days, and I flew out to Jersey without my wife to be with him.

I came into his hospital room. He lay on the bed connected to a wealth of tubes and other things. He looked old and was barely able to speak. But he did speak.

“I’m so glad you came, Danny,” he said in a hoarse whisper that I had to lean into him to hear.

We exchanged the kinds of news and pleasantries one does in these moments. He asked about my kids and smiled when I assured him of their well-being. He volunteered what the doctors were telling him about his condition, which as I already knew wasn’t good.  We talked about the DNR in place, which I promised to honour. Then we spoke of things he liked: music, baseball, wine, who’s current in the world of magic. “That tall guy with the pony tail and the mute guy his partner, they’ve got a great act,” he said. “But you know, on top of that, they’re real smart. They know stuff.  You can tell in their act. But even they couldn’t have figured out the Box.”

He had a coughing fit which produced some blood.

“It won’t be long now,” he said, with a finality not nuanced with any sense of tragedy, as if to say, it’s time to go and I’m ready. “It’s been a good life, good enough anyway. Always some things you wish you did different. Your Mom,” he said, and I nodded. “Guess I wish I could’ve handled that sleight of hand business with a bit more finesse, you know? But the Black Box — that always got ‘em, by God.”

“Sure did, Dad,” I said, nodding. “No one ever left the theatre without being mystified.”

He coughed again, not as bad the last time. When he was through wiping his lips, he found that old smile of triumph and he put it on.

“Wanna know, Dan?”

“More than anything,” I said.

“Lean in close.”

I did.

“It was magic,” he said, and it took all his strength. “Real black arts, hocus pocus, supernatural, unearthly, metaphysical, freaking magic. That rabbi on the mountain in Israel, he took me in and taught it to me. Made me promise not to use it for anything other than for show biz.  He didn’t want me turning into a super hero or anything like that. “Just use it for a trick and make a living,” he said.”

Then he closed his eyes and proceeded to die. The room filled with personnel to observe but not to act, as demanded by the DNR.

Only my Dad fooled us. He didn’t die. His heart kicked back on, he opened his eyes, gave me a look of surprise that he was still around, then he put on that smile of mild triumph again. He rallied another hour or two. In his weakened condition, I didn’t dare raise the issue, though I desperately wanted to, like some detective on a cop show who needed a dying man’s testimony to catch the bad guy. All I did was respond to his request for ice chips and the like. Beneath the pile of blankets, he aged before my eyes.

“C’mere,” he said perhaps an hour after his resurrection. His voice was little more than a murmur.

“I lied,” he said. “Wasn’t magic. I never went to Tsfat, never met a rabbi with a beard.”

“Okay,” I said, a shockwave passing through me.

“Nah, I was just messing with you.”

“You did a good job of it, Dad.”

“I didn’t expect to go just then. Figured I’d get the laugh and tell you the truth.”

“Ha, ha,” I said.

“Sorry, son. Now listen, because I’m leaving for real now any second. I can feel it coming on,” he said, another cough filling the room.

“The whole damned thing was an act. I mean the incompetence, that I couldn’t make the rope whole again and like that. By the time I got to the Box they had no faith in me.”

Damned right, I thought.

“But then the Box, with me appearing all over the place. It woulda wowed them normally.  But how could such a sloppy guy do such a fantastic thing they all thought. It made the illusion more powerful, like I became a different person right before their eyes.” He coughed, and his eyes glazed.  “Look,” he said, barely comprehensible. “When it’s over, go to the workshop. Under the Oriental rug. A trap door. A book. Explains every. . . ”

This time he was gone for good. He closed his eyes, took a final breath, exhaled slowly, and that was it.  Dad was no more.

I had the funeral held at the graveside. Who would come? I was wrong. It turns out the Great Gesunte had a following, and the tiny area around his grave was packed with a multi-generational crowd from as far away as Baltimore. When the time came to perform the ritual of placing a shovel of earth on the lowered coffin, most of those in attendance wanted to partake in this sad gesture of farewell. At the meal, I’d arranged at a local restaurant, nearly everyone who joined me told me how much they’d loved Dad’s act.  Some even followed him on his journeys around the country like he was Jerry bloody Garcia. My Dad had groupies, for God’s sake.

“I just loved when he appeared in three places at once. Three places at the same time. Amazing,” one person told me. “Pure magic.” I heard some variation of this sentiment over and over. Who’d have thought?

At the end of that long, exhausting day I found myself in his workshop, staring at the Oriental rug turned drab after so many years of living beneath my father’s feet. I took a breath, bent down, and lifted it up. My action provoked a dust storm, and for a moment I focused on blinking the dust from my eyes and coughing it out of my throat. But, yes, a trap door had lain hidden from me every time I’d made my way in here to play with my father’s stuff. I pulled the handle and it yielded easily, revealing nothing more than a cavity no larger than the drawer of a small dresser. In it lay a coffee table sized book, which I gingerly lifted up.  On it in large black letters were the words “The Big Black Box.”

I opened the cover of the book. On the left side was an eight and a half by eleven photograph of someone who I was pretty sure was my father. Next to him stood a short man with a long white beard wearing a fedora and a black coat. Underneath it read, “My Teacher and I, Tsfat, Israel.” I opened to page one.

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