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Apr/May 2004 fiction

Sleight of Hand

by Dennis Tafoya


Art by Janet L. Snell

 

Derek was practicing his flourish. It was two in the morning, and his job collecting tolls on the New Hope-Lambertville bridge left him long quiet stretches to read or practice card tricks.

He had started playing with sleight of hand at the residential rehab center in Warminster, after the first few days of staring out at the dying lawn. He had picked up an ancient, creased paperback on the Tarbell system, and he started teaching himself close-up tricks to pass the time and give him something to focus on. His counselor said it was a great idea—he would need new things to break his old habits and associations. He kept the radio tuned to a jazz station in Philadelphia for the same reason. Music could have the same effect on him that old friends had, or certain smells, or really, to be honest, anything at all. Sometimes when he was feeling especially antsy, he would take a dollar from the tray and pass it under his nose, and the smell of the money would weld some synapses together, some old levers in his addict brain would fall, and his gums would go numb. It was the association of rolled up dollar bills with the ozone smell of cocaine. It gave him a little thrill to think of his body as a kind of electrochemical machine that could do wondrous, frightening things beyond his control.

Now he sat on his stool and worked at the ribbon spread, laying the cards flat and then using the end card to create a wave effect back and forth. He was supposed to be working in front of a mirror, and he tried to catch his hands in the reflection from the window. He would stop from time to time and sip coffee or consult the book he had bought that week at Farley's. He was clumsy tonight, his movements slow, and his hands wouldn't stop shaking. He held them up in front of him and watched them, transfixed by the involuntary movement and the electric sensation at his fingertips. He went back to working on the spread, but the end card would stick when he lifted it, or he would accidentally push the cards off the narrow ledge he worked on, and he would have to drop to his knees to chase them around the booth, coming up cursing.

He had done modest conjuring shows in rehab, and he found that junkies made a great audience. They would watch raptly, grateful for the distraction, and with a brittle and empathetic eagerness for the tricks to work. No one wanted another addict to fail at even the smallest thing.

He scooped up the cards and worked at the Jordan count, his shaking fingers disobedient and sluggish. He thought again that he needed a persona. He had read that Cardini, who created the modern image of the magician as a dandy in tails and top hat, practiced tricks in the trenches in France during the First World War. He could never warm his hands, and the gloves that had begun as a neurotic's obsession became part of the act, the white gloves of the high-society swell. Derek had thought about calling his act "The Twelve Steps of Dr. Lao," but he doubted anyone would get it.

The night was finally cooling off, and fog was slowly seeping out of the river, making the other end of the bridge fade into a silver and orange cloud. He imagined himself in a science fiction movie about the last man on earth as he watched sinister shapes form and evaporate in the mist. A truck came through the EZ Pass lane in the other direction, the driver waving. He could hear the phone ringing in the bridge commission building, but there was no one inside to answer it, and he didn't know how to switch the call over to the phone in the booth so he could pick it up. He rifled the money in the drawer and thought that even when he was alone, sobriety was an endless night in front of a tough crowd.

He kept thinking about the book he had seen in the bookstore in New Hope before his shift. It was a book of simple tricks for kids, and there were two boys on the cover with antique flat-top haircuts. He got a flash of himself and his brother standing next to his mother's bed, trying to do the ball and cup trick on the bedspread. His mother, pale and thin lipped, her lungs riddled with cancer, smiled her lopsided smile while his brother tried to do the patter he memorized from a magic kit they had won on the boardwalk. Derek acted as assistant, pointing with one his father's drafting pencils as Christian moved the cups.

The kit was cheap, and the weightless foam balls rolled around and got lost under the bed. Christian, three years older, got mad and stomped off. Their mother called him back and gave them both a hug. Derek could remember feeling her protruding ribs and the bitter smell of the creams his father rubbed into her papery skin. It must have been the winter she died. He tried to call her up again, other times or places, but couldn't. He remembered the funeral and keeping his eyes shut tight at the viewing so as not to see his mother dead in the casket.

At a little after three, he took his yogurt out and a plastic spoon. A blue van appeared out of the New Jersey fog and came across the bridge. It slowed to pass the tolls and then crossed the divider and looped around, almost clipping the concrete barrier that was supposed to stop truckers who fell asleep in their cabs. It pulled up to the booth, the window went down, and Derek saw that the driver was his brother.

"Derek?"

"Chris? Jesus, I thought it was some drunk kid." Derek hadn't seen his brother in more than a year. He noticed that Chris's eyes were rimmed with red, and his face looked slack. He had gained weight, the flesh of his face pulling down toward his chin.

"What's going on?"

"I tried to call. It's Diana." Chris started to cry. Derek looked around helplessly. The van was canted away from him, too far for him to touch his brother without launching himself awkwardly across the gap between the door and the window. He put his hands out, but he could only gesture emptily as if he was signaling for his brother to back away.

"What's going on, Chris?"

His brother had covered his face with his hands. After a moment he put his hands back down again and exhaled. "Can you come with me?"

"Now? I don't even know how to, uh..." He gestured at the building. He hadn't been there long and had no idea what to do. He decided to call the night supervisor down in Trevose. While he waited for someone to answer, Chris told him that Diana, the oldest daughter, had been missing for two days. The cops had called Chris and his wife to tell them there was an accident on River Road, and the police thought they had her body at Saint Mary's. Derek felt the sensation of all the blood draining down through his body to pool in his legs.

He hadn't seen Diana since her fourteenth birthday, when he had gone over to Chris's with half a load on, bearing a bow and arrow set for a gift, saying anyone named Diana needed to know how to hunt. She was tall and skinny and wore a lot of eye makeup. Chris's wife Sherry hovered nearby, flinching every time Diana pulled the bow back. Derek pointed with his beer bottle, showing her how to sight down the shaft of the arrow. She loved his gift and had a natural grace, clearly enjoying the satisfying smack of the arrow into a hay bale in the backyard. Derek could also see that Diana appreciated how nervous Derek and the savage-looking hunting arrows made her mother. It was one of those memories from his using days that left Derek with a hollow feeling under his ribs. Another in a long list of amends he hadn't gotten around to making.

He argued with the supervisor, who wanted him to wait until he could get someone in place, but in the end Derek just locked the gate in the up position. He stopped to write a note, but he couldn't think of anything that wouldn't be ridiculous, gave it up and got in the van. Another dead-end job over, he thought, and tried to clear his head of his troubles as he climbed awkwardly into the passenger seat.

Chris told him that Diana had gone out with her eighteen-year-old boyfriend on Sunday afternoon and hadn't come home again. She and Sherry had been fighting about the boyfriend and curfew and school. Chris couldn't understand why it was always cats and dogs with them. "She's a little wild," he said, and looked out of the corner of his eye at Derek.

"Think she got it from her uncle?" Derek tried to keep a smile on his face, showing that it was okay if that was how Chris thought. Chris seemed like the kind of person who had never had any trouble in his life. For sure, he had never courted it with the intensity that Derek had, always pushing everything hard, like the time when they were teenagers and Derek had sat in the driveway revving the engine on his Dodge Dart. Chris had come out of the house and made a motion with his hands to take it easy. Derek grinned at him from the driver's seat. He and his friend Wynton were high. Wynton called him "Da Wreck" and slapped him on the shoulder, while Derek pushed at the accelerator until the engine collapsed with a grinding snap and cloud of blue smoke. Wynton ran off laughing, and Chris just shrugged his shoulders and said, "How are you going to get to work, genius?"

Chris circled around and started south on River Road. They would be at Saint Mary's in about fifteen minutes, and Derek wasn't ready for it. He thought to pat himself for cigarettes and realized he still had the deck of cards. Chris looked over at him.

"What's with those?"

"I should have left them. I didn't realize they were still in my hand."

"Solitaire?"

"No," he said and tried to explain about the card tricks. He realized Chris didn't know he'd been in rehab, and he had to explain about that, too.

"What made you finally go?" Chris glanced over. Derek shrugged his shoulders.

"You remember Wynton?"

"Yeah, sure, that goofy bastard from up the street. Whatever happened to him?"

"Ah, we were out riding with this other friend, and he rolled the fucking..." Derek brought himself up short, suddenly remembering where they were going and what was at the end of the ride. He said quickly, "I just figured that was enough of that, that I ought to get straightened out."

"Jesus, anyone get..."

"Oh, no, it was just... stupid." Christ, why had he started this story? "You know Wynton."

Derek looked out the window. Wynton had fractured his spine and was in a wheelchair in jail somewhere in Jersey. The friend, really a girl he had been seeing from Abington, had been killed when she was thrown out of the car. Derek took a breath and let it out slowly, feeling his heart move in his chest like the doomed engine of the Dart, ready to snap and smoke. He remembered the carnival-ride feeling of Wynton's car rolling over, then sitting up in a field of long grass without a scratch on him.

In the driver's seat, Chris was shaking his head.

"What's the deal?" He hit the steering wheel, and Derek held his breath. "I mean, is life so fucking bad you have to get high all the time? You have to just snap your fingers and everything's perfect?" Derek thought he shouldn't say anything, that Chris was talking to Diana more than him, but then Chris turned his head expectantly.

"I don't know, Chris. I'm trying not to do that. Anymore." He did wonder, though. Was it something in the blood? Something he could pass along, like blue eyes? He wanted to help, after feeling like he had failed his brother more times than he could count. "Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people. People who can't imagine things going wrong, and people who can't imagine them going right."

"So, I don't get high and drunk all the time because I have no imagination?"

"That's not what I said."

"You know, Derek, everything that happened to you, happened to me, too."

They were moving down 413, the fields dark around them. Derek opened the window and let the air wash over his closed eyes. They rode through Newtown, the city shuttered and sleeping. When they pulled into the hospital parking lot, he felt the blood roaring in his head and wondered if he would pass out. He looked up at the hospital and had a vivid memory of a night just before his mother died.

He remembered his brother slipping out of his bed across the room. It was late, and he got out of bed and followed Chris through the house, past his father sleeping on the couch, the TV white and hissing, through the rancher on Belmont Avenue that seemed to go on forever, a maze of halls and dead ends that looked unfamiliar in the dark. He stayed back, out of his brother's sight, and crawled the last few feet to the door of his mother's room. He saw his brother standing on a chair. His mother's face was a numinous white, and the sound of her breathing was a terrible scraping rasp, air moving over bones. In his brother's right hand was the pencil wand, and he was waving it over his mother and saying something that Derek couldn't make out. His brother was crying and casting a spell, and Derek wished with all his might that Christopher, who could name all the parts in the kit and read the instructions without any help, could somehow make his mother well again.

A book Derek had back in his apartment in Buckingham said that the oldest recorded tricks were done by a conjurer who brought three animals back to life for an Egyptian king. He cut the heads off a goose, a duck and an ox, and then he made them dance out from behind a curtain. Derek tried to think of tricks he had taught himself and the ones he wanted to learn. Vanishing Deck. Miracle Prediction. The doors of the ER opened with a hissing noise, and they stood for a minute, blinking in the light. Impossible Location, he thought, and his mind went blank. A state trooper materialized from behind a curtain and took them aside. His face was professionally neutral. He looked at a clipboard and got their names.

"This young lady was the passenger in a pickup that rolled over on River Road. She's got no ID, but she matches the description your wife—I guess it was—gave the radio room. A green t-shirt, brown hair, blue eyes..." Chris sagged a little, and the trooper grabbed his elbow and propelled him into a chair. "The driver, also with no ID, is in a coma upstairs. The other passenger is being examined and doesn't fit the description." He looked at the clipboard. "Black hair, tattoo."

"I'll do the, uh..." said Derek, and then tried to wet his lips with his tongue. "I'll go inside." A small, blonde nurse came from behind a counter and gently touched his arm. She wore a sweater over her whites and looked to be about twenty-two. Derek looked back at Chris, who was staring at the floor like there was something written on it. The nurse led him down a line of curtained-off areas toward a room with a frosted glass door. She took a ring of keys from her belt and let him in. There was a small figure on a bed under a bright light, with a sheet pulled up to her neck. There was a dark stain on the right side of the sheet that he tried not to take in and a piece of gauze on the young girl's head. He tried to wrack his brain to get a clear picture of his niece and thought of her in bright sunlight with an arrow pulled taut to her chin.

"I need a drink," he said, and couldn't believe the words had come out of his mouth. The nurse went to a sink and started running the water before he could stop her. She brought a tiny, fragile paper cup that he took in one shaking hand. He almost laughed, but he sipped the tepid water and handed her back the cup like a child.

"Is this her?"

He didn't know what to say. He shrugged.

"I haven't seen her in years. I should have asked for a picture." He felt like a fool. He pointed to his face. "I know her eyes are blue."

The nurse stood at his elbow. He stepped closer to the light and really looked at the girl on the stretcher. Her eyes were half-open, and he could see they were blue, like his. Black eye makeup had run down into the creases by her mouth. The fact of her death overwhelmed Derek, so that it was impossible for him to say whether he knew her. Her lips were slightly parted, her skin pale as wax. The nurse bent close and cocked her head. She extended one small hand and lifted a pliant eyelid. Derek squinted, wanting to see and not see.

"Wait a minute." With her free hand, she extended one finger and plucked a contact lens out of the girl's eye. The room swam, and Derek had to grab the rail of the stretcher. He turned away from the body, and the nurse held a tiny circle of liquid blue under his nose: a tinted contact lens. He looked back at the dead girl's face, which now had one blue eye and one muddy brown.

"Magic," the nurse said.

He stepped back out of the room and returned to where his brother sat slumped in a chair. He started down the row of cubicles, yanking back the curtains. Behind the first was an angry-looking young kid with his hand in a bowl of ice; behind the next was an old woman pulling at a white restraint. The nurse followed, telling him to stop. Here was a white-haired man with a cast on his leg. Chris stood up and watched, his eyes wet. Here was an exhausted mother holding the hand of a boy getting stitches in his chin. Behind the last was a big-bellied cop, a doctor rubbing sleep out of his eyes, and Diana.

She was wearing a white halter-top and red shorts. Her hair was cut short and dyed black. She was crying and telling some kind of story about running through yards and being chased by a dog. She looked from Derek to Chris, then screamed and pushed off from the stretcher and held out her arms. Chris ran to her, and she cried a bright trail of tears under the hard light. On her bare shoulder, Derek saw a new tattoo, the skin still red and irritated: Bugs Bunny in a top hat and tails.

Chris called Sherry. After he hung up the phone, he hugged his brother hard and thanked him. Derek's face was hot. He wanted to say he didn't deserve it, but the truth was he did feel like he had done something. He felt some small electric charge running through him, something that bound him more to the world of the living than the world of the dead. It was the smallest possible thing. The calamity had still happened, but they had sidestepped it. Some other family would be crushed under the weight of this stone. Was all good luck just bad luck for somebody else?

He arranged to get a ride back to the booth with the state troopers so that Chris could stay with Diana. They stood and talked at the door of the van for a minute, and Chris handed him the deck of cards he had left on the passenger seat. Derek promised to come by soon.

When he got back to the tollbooth, the sky over New Jersey was starting to turn pink, and he stood on the bridge and waited for morning. Cars slowed at the open gate, passing hesitantly like tame animals being released into the wild. He rolled the cards out in a fan and snapped them smoothly back into the deck with one hand. There was a fullness in his chest that felt like love, something that grew out of him to encompass all of sweltering New Jersey. He was ready for the next trick, for Stab in the Dark or Cupid's Arrow, for Disintegration or Resurrection. Nothing up his sleeves, he looked out over the river and willed the sun into the eastern sky.

 

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