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The Illusionistby Dinitia Smith
I first saw him one wild October night at the Wooden Nickel bar high up on the headland overlooking the river on Old Route 27. In Sparta in late October the wind sweeps in off the river, it can make your eyes tear, it can make you weep. Across the river, the sky over the palisades was dense with cumulus clouds, thick and silvery and shot through with light, and the leaves in the trees sang and rustled and shook in the wind. Down below, the great river glided by, like a sheet of gleaming metal two miles wide.
When I walked out of the cold into the Wooden Nickel that night, I spotted a young man I'd never seen before, sitting at a table in the big room adjoining the bar. A cone of golden light shone down on him from the ceiling, tiny specks of dust whirling about in it. He was surrounded by a small crowd and he was doing magic tricks — pulling quarters from behind people's ears, making his playing cards seem to leap from deck to deck and then magically rearrange themselves into groups of blacks and reds and aces and hearts. And as he worked, his hands moved as quick as water.
There was something about him that just struck you right away, that made your eyes rest upon him and made you puzzle. I know now that I wondered what he was, the question passed through my mind without being formed into words. I guess you always remember your first sight of someone who will become important in your life, even though you can't know it at the time. It stays a picture in your mind forever.
He was small and thin. He wore a black cowboy hat perched on the back of his head, and an old deerskin jacket with a fringe on it, even though it was hot inside and the wood stove was going full blast. Yes, he was beautiful. He had high cheekbones, reddened with wind, big green eyes, slightly prominent, shining like globes in his head, as if he had just been running. His mouth was full, with well-shaped lips drawing to two points under his nose. He had a little bit of an overbite, and long white healthy teeth.
His brown hair was short, but shaggy. And I noticed that he was wearing two flannel shirts, one on top of the other.
Brian Perez was his victim. Brian was sitting opposite him, watching him intently through his long, curly, light blond hair the color of burnt ashes that hung over his face, his mouth set in a thin smirk.
The atmosphere in the bar was thick with smoke, and you could smell the salty smell of wood burned over the generations, embedded in the walls of the place. Behind the dark wood-paneled bar, a mottled deer head hung, strands of tinsel dangling from its nose. Carl, the owner, liked to decorate. He made the place a home for us, and for himself. The old paneled walls of the bar were covered with calendars and clocks and neon signs for Genny and Michelob and give-aways from liquor companies, calendars with their pages stuck at 1954, and 1976, and black-and-white photographs of bowling teams, brittle and cracked and curled with age.
Aerosmith was playing on the jukebox. The Bills and the Giants were on the TV above the bar, but for a few minutes at least, no one was watching it. Even Carl had come out from behind the bar to watch the magician. Carl, white-haired, bright blue eyes, old boxer's body, stood holding his towel, and slowly wiping a glass. "Hey Chrissie," Carl said when he saw me. And then his eyes went back to the new person.
"Who's that?" I asked Carl.
"Dunno. Never seen him before. He just came here tonight for the first time."
Now the young man slapped his cards into three piles on the table. "Okay, pick a card from the top," he told Brian. "Look at it, but don't show it to me."
Brian took a card, glanced at it, said nothing. Then put it back facedown on one of the piles, keeping his eyes steady on him. Brian had hair like an angel, and pale blue, slanty eyes, Chinesey eyes. Brian would've been handsome if he weren't so empty, so dangerous and unpredictable. He was on parole, had just served three months in Sparta Correctional for arson. There was some kind of dispute with his landlord on Washington Street — he shared an apartment there with Jimmy Vladeck. One night Brian got drunk and just trashed the place and then he set fire to it. I saw it, the flames shooting up in the sky in the night, the families out on the street, the volunteer firemen and the fire trucks converging on the place, it was a spectacle.
Behind Brian stood his sidekick, Jimmy, big, pot-bellied, stupid, long brown stringy hair tied back in a ponytail, the odor of mildew somehow always around him. I'd known both of them all my life. I'd gone to grade school, then high school, with them, though both of them had ended up in Special Ed and neither one of them had made it to graduation. Brian's family was trouble, his mother's boyfriend beat him as a kid. Jimmy's dad was a deputy sheriff, but I think Jimmy was slow or something. I suppose Brian and Jimmy were a part of me in some way, like the air you breathe; the way anyone is whom you've known all your life.
Jimmy had a charge on him too. For car theft or something. There were always charges floating around Brian and Jimmy, all the time.
The new young man took a sip from the can of Mountain Dew next to him, and fluttered his long, thin fingers across the three piles of cards on the table. "Okay," he said to Brian. "You could've taken the card from here" — he touched one of his piles — "and put it here." He touched the other with his fingertips. "But instead, you put the card here. Now, cut the cards as many times as you want."
Brian cut the cards, all the time examining him, with his thin smile, his skinny leg jiggling restlessly beneath the table.
"So, what's your name?" Brian asked.
"Dean," he said, not looking up.
"I will now cause your unknown card to rise to the top of the deck." He spoke into his chest, his voice was vaguely hoarse.
Now, Dean closed his eyes, and passed his hand over the deck. "Okay, which card did you choose?" he asked Brian.
"Four of spades," Brian said. Every word from Brian was reluctant.
Dean nodded at the deck. "Okay. Take it."
Brian turned the top card. I peered over Brian's shoulder at it. Four of spades. On the top!
"Hold it up," I said to Brian. "So they can see." I was already taking Dean's side, though I hadn't even spoken a word to him yet. Dean had that effect on you, on women especially, drew you in, made you want to protect him.
Brian held the card up, reluctantly, so that people could see.
Dean raised his eyes to the crowd and smiled, a mischievous smile. I saw Brian's eyes flash in his anger. Then his face seemed to flatten out, became expressionless, as if he were trying to hide his humiliation. There was a ripple of applause.
I'd never seen anything like this in the Wooden Nickel, someone doing magic tricks. There was something old-fashioned about magic tricks. In fact, nobody did much with their hands in our town any more. They mostly just hung out, drank beer, played Nintendo, watched TV. For someone to do something creative — artistic — like magic was unusual, weird. But it wasn't unusual enough to hold people for long.
Soon the crowd grew restless, drawn back, as if they couldn't help themselves, to the football game above the bar, to the familiar things that had a greater hold on them.
He did a few more tricks. He made a rubber band jump magically from one of his fingers to another. He asked Brian for a quarter — he seemed to focus on Brian, as if early on, even then, he was drawn to trouble — and then made the quarter disappear and reappear.
Brian stood up. When Dean saw that he was leaving, he hurriedly started another trick, as if to hold Brian's interest. But Brian was deliberately walking away, Jimmy following him.
I sat down at the table, watching Dean. He took a shot glass from the inside pocket of his leather jacket and splashed some water in it. "I'm Chrissie," I said.
"Dean," he said, eyes on the glass, slowing the movement of his hands down, as if he were practicing the trick now. "Dean Lily," he said, not looking at me.
"Where you from?" I asked.
"Up near the border."
He balanced the shot glass filled with water on the palm of his left hand. He had thin wrists, I noticed, bowed like bird's wings. Then he sealed both hands tightly over the shot glass, opened them. And the shot glass was gone.
"How'd you do that?" I asked.
"I'll never tell!" He smiled.
I looked up. Brian had drifted back, followed by big, lumbering Jimmy, drawn back again to Dean in spite of himself. Dean spotted Brian, smiled. It was almost like he was flirting with Brian or something.
"Wanna go outside?" Dean said, and swept me and Jimmy with his eyes to include us too.
Brian stood squarely above him.
"I got something good," said Dean.
"Yeah," Brian said. "What?"
"Come with me. You'll find out."
"I don't go anywhere unless I know where," Brian said.
Dean leaned back in his chair, hands on the table in front of him, looked meaningfully around the room. Then, "I got the best Humboldt you ever had. None of that Jersey swamp weed. Beautiful, big bud. Nice purple hairs on it. Guaranteed best you ever had."
"Better be," Brian said. I saw him hesitate, look at Jimmy, who never said anything. Jimmy nodded.
"Not here," Dean said.
"Down by the river?" I suggested.
"You coming?" he said to Brian. Brian nodded.
So we left, the three of us, me and Brian and Jimmy, following Dean.
Copyright © 1997 by Dinitia Smith
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