He wasn't always a great magician. Sometimes he said he was the seventh magician in his family, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Celtic sorcerers. Sometimes he claimed years of training at the feet of Oriental wizards. But his press releases never told the truth, that from the moment Charles Carter the Fourth first learned it, magic was not an amusement, but a means of survival.
All magicians had boyhood stories. Kellar, Houdini, Thurston, and many of the best found inspiration during periods of illness and bed rest, when a relative would bring them a magic set to while away their days.
But not Carter. Instead, his first performance took place in a deserted house in the dead of winter, when he was nine years old. At first, the house was full. He grew up in San Francisco, Pacific Heights, specifically Presidio Heights, 3638 Washington Street between Spruce and Locust. This was a three-story Italianate built in 1874 to house the Russian consulate. But after a decade of poor fur-trapping seasons, the Russians could no longer pay the mortgage. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Carter III, newlyweds, moved in.
On the ground floor was the foyer, then the parlor and the drawing room, with chairs and tables from Gump's and window boxes around the fireplace where the ladies sat for tea in winter. The grand piano was in the parlor, and there Charles was forced to sit upright twice a week, pecking note by note through "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and other tunes from Instructive Melodies, the worn cloth songbook his humorless teacher pointed to with bony fingers.
Running from the parlor to the back dining room were forty-five feet of freedom, in the form of a hallway with rugs that always slipped, and when they were being cleaned, Charles tiptoed from room to room, looking for every adult -- mother, father, nurse, cook, valet, maids -- and if all of them were upstairs, he kicked off his shoes and skidded down the floors in his stocking feet. Then he was the lookout while his brother James had a go. James, younger than Charles and devoted as a duckling, never instigated, and was brilliant at behaving innocently when called upon. They never pushed their luck. Just two or three transits down the floorboards, enough to find exactly the right posture to carry them farthest and fastest -- they were racehorses, freight trains, comets -- then Charles would crouch in the breakfast nook, retying his shoelaces, and James's, and putting on his sweetest face to ask Cook for a glass of milk.
The house was paid for, as were most houses in Pacific Heights, on the trading of stocks, bonds, and notes. Their father was an investment banker, and better than most in his character and intuition, riding out the occasional panic and run on gold with good humor. Further, Mr. Carter was blessed with a hobby to which he could apply his imagination: he collected. When it was fashionable to collect European artwork, he did so, and when fashions shifted to Japan, the Carter house was home to three -- but what three! -- scrolls mounted behind glass that showed the cast of Genji Monogatari. Though the Japan mania caused many of the Pacific Heights social set to fill room after room with woodcuts of every single one of the 53 Stages of the Tokaido, Mr. Carter believed that to have three of anything was a collection. Then it was time to move on.
Charles's mother, Lillian, was a complexity: she had grown up in a house of New England Transcendentalists and passionately pursued the riches of interior life. A robust woman who could argue the politics of suffrage for three hours straight, Mrs. Carter also suffered fainting spells, allergies, and the overaccumulation of nervous energy. In one year, she received a neurologist, who said she had a depletion of phosphorous so that her nerve cells conducted electricity improperly; a somatic hygienist, who prescribed bed rest to replenish nutritional energies lost to excessive thinking and feeling; a psychoanalyst, who wanted to explore her girlhood conflicts with her parents; a hypnotist, who put her into trances to relieve her overstimulated emotions; and a spirit medium, who led a séance to rid her of abnormal spirit clusters.
"I have many, many neuroses," she declared at a parlor room tea to which Charles and James had been invited as long as they were quiet.
"I have them, too," said Mrs. Owens, who was competitive.
"But I've been invited to Boston for a study," Mrs. Carter said, which defeated Mrs. Owens and caused many of Mrs. Carter's other friends to ask questions: was she following the theosophists? Or a more traditional field?
Mrs. Carter was in fact to be a patient of Dr. James Jackson Putnam, a psychoanalyst and Harvard professor. "He recommended this book," she explained, displaying with pride her inscribed copy of Psychic Treatment of Nervous Disorders.
"Oh, psychic treatment," Mrs. Owens said. "That was popular...several years ago." Her lip curled with sympathy.
"No, no, this is quite new. Honestly." Mrs. Carter looked to her husband for support.
"It's..." Mr. Carter met his wife's eye and he charted another course. "It can't be dismissed."
Charles, almost nine years old, followed the conversation with an interest that deepened as he realized his mother was considering a trip to Boston. How long would she be away? Could he go with her? He glanced at James, who was just six years old, and who turned the pages of a stiff-backed Famous Men and Famous Deeds, humming quietly to himself. He almost whispered, "James, pay attention," but he didn't want to be dismissed from the room. The topic was abandoned, but Charles listened for the rest of the afternoon for clues: was his mother actually going away?
A few nights later, she sat at the end of his bed and explained that he and his brother wouldn't be left alone: there was his father, and Fräulein Reinhardt, and of course the rest of the servants.
"I need you to have a stiff upper lip," she continued. "James will look to you for guidance. You can't let him down." Charles watched her twist her necklace between her fingers. "He's so young he'll wonder why he can't come with me."
Charles considered, then, a different question to ask her. "When are you coming back?"
"That's a tremendous question, Charles. There are circles within circles. In fact, Dr. Putnam compares the experience to the Divine Comedy. You know." His mother nodded at him, and he nodded back, to show he understood. At bedtime, she had a habit of talking as if they were allies sharing a confidence. "First, you descend into your emotional life with a doctor as your guide, and then the repressed memories are washed away in the Lethe."
When she spoke -- she was adept at speaking and annoyed at those who merely talked -- his mother drew on many dramatic gestures whose source Charles could hardly guess at, as she shunned the theatre itself. Describing her progress through psychoanalysis, she flamboyantly waved her fingers and winced as if in pain. "You pass the moaning souls in the lake of fire, but you must push on past that despair" -- she displayed a faraway gaze of contemplation -- "till you come to" -- with a sigh of release -- "inner resourcefulness."
Charles followed the gestures and the sound of her voice, but little else. She was going to have an adventure, and when she came back, she would be more experienced and in better mental health. But there was no way to know how long it would take.
His last sight of her that night was in the doorway, her hand on the wall as she dimmed the light, her face illuminated by the dying orange cast of the gas jet. Lillian Carter knew how to leave a room with a flourish, and Charles loved the pauses before she left. She whispered, eyebrows arching, "The next time we see each other, we'll both have changed so much!" She put her fingers to her lips as if she'd just told him a secret. As she closed the door, slowly, stepping backward into the hall, Charles memorized the look of promise on her half-shadowed face, the way she anticipated a great mystery. It would be his last sight of her for two years.
Copyright © 2001 by Glenn David Gold