“Flames from the lips may be produced by holding in the mouth a sponge saturated with the purest gasoline.” Harry Houdini
I had one trick, not a trick really, where I’d put my hand over the opening to a glass candle holder until the candle went out. I did this when I was drunk enough to take the pain because, like I said, it wasn’t really a trick. I’d wake up the next morning with a blister, sometimes two blisters the size of quarters on the palm of my hand. I told coworkers it was from setting my hand down on an electric stove, coal that popped from a fireplace and landed underneath my palm, or hot steam from a recently running radiator. What a klutz I was. Eventually the pain became too much and I stopped performing tricks.
I have though in my life met two real magicians. The first was my cousin, who for a short while many years later became my roommate. He knew these little tricks when we were kids, pulling thumbs off, making quarters appear, that sort of thing. But he also knew card tricks. I have always been easily mesmerized, and after one particularly spellbinding trick, I begged him to tell me the secret. He wouldn’t. He had a little sneer that crept into his lips and his skin turned red, shining beneath the blond hair his mother kept long. It made my knuckles itchy, and I grabbed him by his hair and slammed his face into the top of the picnic table he had just shown me the trick on. I jumped behind him and wrapped my arm around his neck and got his face down to the dirt. I pushed down on the back of his head and held on with both hands in his hair, rubbing his red skin in gravel. I know it sounds bad, but he’d already done the same if not worse to me, and it would be years before we didn’t burst into moments of violent rage with each other.
When he was finally able to scramble away, he ran towards the house. Inside, our mothers were chatting about pleasant things like knitting lace and breast feeding their successive newborns, their afternoon was about to be spoiled by my cousin’s newly painted face. In the time I had before one of the mothers came to punish me, I flipped over the cards on the table. They weren’t normal. On some the images were cut off at angle and blank beneath. On others the image repeated, like the nine of diamonds. I still couldn’t figure out how the trick worked, but I knew at least it wasn’t coming from any kind of secret power my cousin had. The cards were fake.
The second magician wouldn’t come around until years later. She was a woman my friend, Marcus dated. I didn’t know at first she was a magician. I met her when Marcus took me over to a bar she was sitting at, eating her dinner. She wasn’t small, but she had tiny facial features, and Marcus had veiled her in a thin film of exotic by reminding me, whenever he mentioned her name, Jade, that she used to be a stripper. That night I don’t even think we had a beer with her. She was mid meal, so we left to let her finish eating, and went to a different bar a block away to drink while Marcus waited for a text from Jade to let him know she was finished. When the text came I went home to my wife and Marcus went back to Jade.
* * *
A month later Marcus agreed to feed Jade’s cat while she was out of town and took me with him. She lived in an old apartment in a recently gentrified part of town. The rent was probably higher than both our rents combined. The building was brick and the front entrance was framed in concrete. The door had a triangle shaped top and the concrete framing the door was triangle shaped as well. I’d never seen anything like it in all the buildings I used to maintain.
Her apartment was on the fifth floor, and we took an old tiny elevator with an ornate gate up to it. Inside her flat, the walls were thick creamy plaster and the entryways were outlined in dark wood. Little odd shaped pass-throughways and windows overlooked an interior courtyard. Her decorating style was leather-like and bony; paintings, pictures, found objects and sculptures of things dried out in the sun; driftwood candle holders, steer skulls, clay planters, black and white photos of sand dunes and a floor to ceiling mirror with antler border; leather couch the color of a worn saddle, even the pillow coverings were suede. The cat was skinny and hairless.
“What does she do again?” I asked.
“She was a stripper,” Marcus said.
“I know, but what does she do now?”
“I probably never told you. On purpose.”
“Why? What is she?”
“She’s kind of an escort. She doesn’t like sleep with dudes, but they buy her things and take her to dinners and stuff. They’re just her sugar daddies.”
I doubted she wasn’t sleeping with these men, and I can’t say for sure Marcus actually trusted her or was just passing along the lie to give it strength. He seemed to read my thoughts. “I’m the only one she’s sleeping with. There was a dude before me, but he’s gone now.”
“Alright alright,” I said. “I believe you.”
I went through all the rooms while Marcus fed the cat and scooped its shit. There were three bedrooms, one lined with racks of clothes, cubbies for shoes and a pegboard wall of accessories she was using as a closet, another with two little beds for the children Marcus hadn’t told me about yet, and finally her bedroom. The dusky look of the apartment continued in there. On the floor alongside the bed were two dried out cowhides and above the headboard was a painting of the sun, thick strokes of hazy yellow with a white circle off center. In the bottom corner her name was written, Jade. The closet had nothing inside but an ornate chair like a throne, and in front of the chair was a velvet pillow for somebody’s knees. On my way out of the closet I noticed a trunk at the edge of the bed. I imagined it was filled with all sorts of sex toys, and I wanted to get an idea of what Marcus had been playing with and not telling me about. An antique padlock hooked through the clasp, but it was unlatched, so I slid it out and opened the trunk. Packed inside the trunk was an old Time-Life series of books dealing with the occult, decks of cards, wands, hats, trick boxes and other tools of sleight.
Marcus found me looking through it. “Fuck, man. I’m not supposed to go in there.”
“Do you want to know what’s inside?” I said.
“Come have a look.”
Marcus was over my shoulder, frozen in the doorway. “I don’t want to know. If I don’t know I can’t get in trouble.”
“Alright, but you’re missing out,” I said, and closed the trunk.
* * *
I wasn’t invited back. A week later he called and told me it was over between him and Jade.
“She knew the trunk was opened.”
“She just knew.”
“Fuck. Sorry, man. Do you want to know what was in there now?”
“I really don’t care,” he said and hung up the phone.
* * *
He didn’t talk to me for awhile after, but eventually he was over it, and I was leaving my pregnant wife at home to go out drinking with him again like old times. We carried on that way through fall and winter, into late winter, until it was the middle of March and I’d given up hope for spring. For months the gray Wisconsin sky hammered down on me. He called me around then and said, “Jade died.”
“Who?” I had completely forgotten about her.
“You came to her apartment with me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. Then it all came back. I remembered everything. “The box.”
“She jumped in the lake.”
“What do you think?” Marcus sighed. The man she was with before, and after Marcus was having a fundraiser for her children at a bar Jade was a regular at, the bar she was eating at when I first met her, and Marcus wanted me to go with him.
* * *
He didn’t tell me there would be karaoke, but when we showed up, and there was, he didn’t act surprised. There was a jar near the entrance—the gallon type that normally sat behind the counter with eggs or pig hooves floating inside—and on the jar a piece of paper was taped that someone had written JADE CHILDREN FUND. There was also a photograph of her in sunglasses and tank top, holding her daughters in a park, a sea of grass behind them.
We sat down at a table with one of the karaoke binders and a guy and girl Marcus knew. As soon as we did, my keys fell out of my pocket and Marcus gave me a look like I did something stupid. I was wearing better pants than normal because I was trying to dress up a little, but it was clear the moment we walked in that dressing up wasn’t necessary, and I’d be stuck all night with these pockets that couldn’t hold anything. I said, “Hey, can you hold onto my keys?” Marcus nodded, took them, and shoved them in his coat pocket in the corner of the booth where all four of us had piled our coats.
The girl in our booth picked a song and went up to sing. It was a sad song that everyone knew, but still, hearing her sing it so unprofessionally was making it seem like Jade’s suicide, and her two, now motherless children, was being treated like a joke.
“Why is there karaoke?” I said.
Marcus shrugged. “It’s karaoke night. Jade liked karaoke.”
When the girl who was at our table came back, Marcus went up and sang. The song wasn’t specific to the event because it was the same song he always sang at karaoke. I’d heard him sing it a hundred times. After he sang, others mostly just sang normal karaoke songs, but occasionally said something like, “This goes out to Jade” or “We love you, Jade.”
“Are you going to sing a song?” The girl across the table asked me.
“No,” I said.
When my beer was empty I went to the bar to get a new one, and also ordered a shot to take alone. I didn’t normally do this when I was with people, but I needed to do something to loosen up the knots. The bartender misinterpreted my anxiety drinking for grief drinking and poured herself a shot alongside mine. “How did you know Jade?” she said.
“She was a friend of a friend.”
The bartender nodded but didn’t seem to hear. She was staring up at the karaoke singer with tears dripping off the bottoms of her lashes. “Those poor children,” she said. Then she tapped her glass on the bar and held it up. “To Jade.”
Back at the table I asked Marcus, “Which one is the guy who set this up? Who she dated before and after you?”
“He’s not here yet.”
“Are you going to kick his ass?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? Aren’t you jealous?”
“Yeah, but she’s dead now, so it’s not like it matters.”
“If it doesn’t matter, what are we even doing here?” The jar had barely filled with dollars. “Whatever those kids get from this will last a week at best,” I said.
“Go put some money in it then.”
“I don’t have money for that.”
Marcus wouldn’t look at me. He was watching for the singer to finish because he was next, and when the singer finished, he went up and sang again. I took another shot while he was up there and ordered another beer. I was finally starting to feel untied. I sat back down and noticed a candle flickering in the window above our booth.
“You guys want to see a trick?” I said to the couple at our table, and grabbed the candle.
“What are you going to do?” The guy said.
“Just watch.” I put my palm over the opening of the candle holder.
“Oh, I had a friend who used to do that,” the girl said. “I don’t think your beer’s wet enough.”
“Your beer. The trick is you get your hand wet on your beer, then your skin doesn’t burn. I know all about how it works.”
I put the candle back in the window. I hadn’t known that about the trick. The part with the beer.
Marcus finished singing and stood at the end of the booth. “That’s the dude,” he said, and waved his chin at the entrance.
“Who?” I said.
“The dude she dated before and after me.”
A man in a cowboy hat and duster was shaking hands with someone near the door. He had a mustache and was short. When he walked by the table I could feel the vibrations from his cowboy boots through the floorboards. He made his way up near the DJ. Nearly everyone knew him and was greeting him as he made his way. When the person on stage finished, she got off and gave the cowboy a fist bump. In a flourish he removed his coat and threw it over the back of a chair. He stood behind the microphone. The DJ already knew what song to play.
I could tell you the name of the song, but you would never believe he walked in looking the way he did, and sang this particular song as some kind of memorial to a woman who had chose to leave the Earth instead of being with him, and her two children.
When he finished everyone cheered. Many were crying. He put his duster back on and took a shot at the bar. He walked by our table again; this time he tipped his hat at Marcus. He went back through the door and was gone.
I thought maybe I’d slipped into a movie Marcus was playing a supporting role in. “What was that?” I said.
“That was the dude,” Marcus said.
There was a slight clearing out when the cowboy left. Like most people were just waiting for him to show up and sing, and now that he had their obligation was fulfilled. The couple that sat with us collected their coats from the pile in the corner and about a third of the other singers and patrons left. The jar filled about halfway with dollars as they exited.
“Even if that fills up all the way it’ll be nothing,” I said.
“It’ll be more than nothing,” Marcus said.
After that, things settled in. I felt the calm of understanding from Marcus that we’d be drinking until bar close. We sat and watched the people sing without any plans to go anywhere until we were told to leave; like another set of decorations the bartender would need to clean up at the end of the night.
* * *
When we finally did leave we found ourselves in a puzzle, both our sets of keys had disappeared. We stood outside Marcus’s car in the freezing March morning. Marcus checked his pockets again and again, and then he made me check his pockets. We turned to go back and search the bar, and all the lights went out inside. Marcus jogged the half block back and pounded on the door.
“We’re closed,” the bartender called through the glass.
“I think my keys are in there.”
“I can’t let you back in. Where were you sitting?”
“The middle booth.”
I was bouncing up and down, trying to keep my muscles from locking up in the cold. Marcus hunched his neck into the collar of his jacket while he waited. The bartender came out a few minutes later. “No keys,” she said.
“Can’t I look?” Marcus said.
“Trust me. You won’t find anything.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. Call a cab?”
Marcus looked at me, waiting. “What?” I said.
“You gotta call. My phone’s gone too.”
“My phone’s dead.”
The bartender watched us talk and shiver pathetically. “It’s too cold to wait here,” she said. “If you’re not going far I can give you a ride.”
There was a 24 hour restaurant nearby, and we asked her to take us there. I let Marcus sit in front. The bartender started her car and was letting it warm. She told us her name was Kate. As we waited, Marcus kept holding his wrists up to the streetlight.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I don’t think this is my jacket.”
“Whose jacket is it then?”
“Who’s that?” I said.
“The guy sitting across from you all night.”
“Cara’s boyfriend?” Kate asked.
“Yeah,” Marcus said.
“I know where Cara lives.”
She parked outside an old building with ventilation tubes running up and down the side for all the driers in the laundromat on the ground floor. “She lives there.”
“Which apartment?” Marcus said.
“I don’t know. I just know the building.”
“C’mon,” Marcus said to me and got out.
We gazed up at all the steel tubes and dark windows. The building looked asleep. At the front there were three mailboxes; two had names printed on them. We rang the doorbell of the flat that corresponded to the missing name, and waited a long time. No one answered. Kate was still waiting and we took the ride she offered to the restaurant. She ate breakfast with us. She wanted to talk about Jade, but it was clear Marcus didn’t know her the same way the bartender did. “She’d do anything for a friend. Once she gave me her pants because I ripped a hole in my crotch,” she said.
“What did she wear then?” Marcus asked.
“She turned her shirt into a dress.”
“I didn’t really know her,” I said. “But if she was really so generous would she have jumped in the lake?”
Kate glared at me.
“Dude,” Marcus said.
“Can I tell you what was in that trunk now?” I said to Marcus.
Marcus took a drink of coffee. “Sure.”
But it was obvious he didn’t want to hear anything. He wanted to keep things invisible. Even if I screamed in his face about it he’d never see what I was actually trying to show him. “Never mind. You wouldn’t believe me,” I said.
“Whatever you say, man.”
Kate was done listening, she was leaving money for her part of the bill. “We should get out of here,” she said to Marcus because Marcus was going home with her.
I didn’t know what I should do. I didn’t want to go back to my wife and wake her up. I’d rather go after she woke up, and realized I hadn’t come home. I hoped she’d think the worst about where I’d been.
It took forever to become morning. I sat at my table alone, my drunk fading into hangover, and the overnight waitress filled my cup with the most transparent coffee I’d ever seen. I was planning to leave when it was morning enough to see the sun above the building across the street. I’d go home to my wife, who as it would turn out, did not even realize I hadn’t come to bed. But before then, when the sky fizzed into blue from being black, and the sun was maybe an hour away from rising, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were four or five of me scattered around the diner, and the waitress. All of us waiting out the night together, ticking away the moments, counting on pulling off our greatest trick again.