Afternoon Performance

Ana’s Pick
Howard Waldman


Calistro’s day finally came. For weeks before Christmas, the paper magician had been everywhere at once, like a foretaste of his promised marvels. Wherever the patients found themselves—wonderfully vertical in the hydrotherapy pool, or maintained that way by hypertrophied triceps between parallel bars, or seated in the drab corridors down which they pushed or were pushed—they’d seen his imperious gaze beneath the words Calistro Bends the Laws of the Universe to His Will! Beneath scotch-taped plastic sprigs of holly,
posters all over the place announced the magician’s special afternoon performance.

It was an unlikely spot for magic. The Rehabilitation Center, a dark-brick five-story building, stood close to the river in a landscape of cracking-units, scrap heaps, and factories, largely disused. Those magnetic mountains of crushed cars deprived the patients of television. Most had few if any visitors. On Sundays, when the industrial haze thinned, those
whose gaze could reach the level of the windows often killed time by watching the tide push in and leak out past rusting freighters awaiting dismantlement. Weather permitting, they could make out the capital’s white towers, forty kilometers downstream, and enabled freighters heading for the sea.

Today, though, things beyond the nearby rusting freighters were blanked out with a sullen yellowish fog, like prelude to snow, unheard of at this latitude. Not even the juvenile patients dreamed of a possible white Christmas.

The big multi-functional room was used for rehabilitation on weekdays but today the gym mats had been rolled up and placed in a corner along with the weighted pulleys. A spotlight in the rear printed a full moon on the closed green curtains of the stage where the patients were often exhibited to medical students, their condition expounded in carefully incomprehensible
terms. On holiday weekends, as now, the stage sometimes offered live performances. On Sunday morning, a priest performed mass there. A novelty today was the antique Victrola standing on a table to one side of the curtains.

Jammed together, prone or seated, waiting for Calistro, the patients badly outnumbered the visitors chatting doggedly in their temporary wooden chairs next to the permanent chrome and leather ones. The strange cold and the yellow fog provided a precious topic.

Calistro was already twenty minutes late. With the exception of the fidgety children, half-believers in magic, the patients waited patiently for the magician to materialize. Patients in this place had to have patience, as the staff often told them evasively, not adding: a lifetime of patience.

But each time the door opened, patients lost patience and (if they could manage the movement) turned toward the door in faint hope of a particular visitor. Seconds later, most of them turned back to the closed green curtains. The ones seated near the windows returned to the unclear perspective outside, still hoping. Occasionally they saw a headlight blur quit the
fog-shrouded freeway and head for the Center. The car would slowly emerge, sometimes the right color for one of the patients but the wrong model, sometimes the right model for another patient but the wrong color. Sometimes one of the cars was the right color and model but the wrong man or woman got out.

Finally, an attendant drew the window curtains shut, depriving most of them of the world outside. Through the inch gap between the curtains, though, the better-placed patients managed to salvage a view of an empty sliver of the car park.

The young Activities Director stepped out from behind the green curtains into the spotlight, arms outstretched. Charley had a winning smile and an enviable build emphasized by a white sweatshirt. He thanked the audience for the fine turnout and announced a wonderful last minute addition to the program, a distinguished artist, famous for over a half-century on the music-hall stages of London, stepping out of retirement today just for us, you all know him (Charley paused and glanced at the card in his hand): Harry Lane!

A very old man with a cane slipped from between the curtains into the circle of light. He wore a striped jacket of antique cut, a flowing cravat, yellow spats on black pointy shoes and a cocky-angled straw hat. In his chalky makeup, his bright red lips were set in a smile. Charley invited the audience to give him a great big hand, which they did, within the limits of their possibilities.

The old man beamed. He blew kisses until the last ripple of applause died away. He collected himself, drew a deep breath, and then deflated into bewilderment. Finally, remembering, he walked stiffly to the Victrola with its flaring horn like a giant drab morning glory. A phantom orchestra struck up a jaunty tune.

The old man shuffled about and sang in a thin cracked voice that he hadn’t got pounds, hadn’t got pence, hadn’t got hounds, hadn’t much sense, but by jiminy, but by crickity, criminy, jickity, got me a girl, regular pearl, all my own, best I’ve known, name of Sue, forever true, Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

The tap dance that followed was like a feeble attempt to scrape filth off his soles. The children squirmed about restlessly. The creaks of their wheelchairs seemed to come from the old man’s joints. He tried to twirl the cane. It clattered to the stage. He bent down to recover it. The straw hat fell off his head, disclosing bumpy baldness between white fringes.

The children started laughing. The hat wobbled over the edge of the stage. A visitor recovered it. The old man gratefully took it back and crowned himself at the same cocky angle. The children laughed harder.

Sweat or tears trickled down his rifted cheeks. The adult patients hushed the children. The tinny music stopped. Puffing badly, the old man made it to the Victrola and put on a new disc. The flaring horn evoked a faint memory of a piano.

Back in the spotlight, the old man launched into the next song. He urged the audience to keep smiling, to make December May, to keep smiling for a smile will pay, to chase the gloom away, to keep smiling all the livelong day, not to mope, ’cause there’s always hope.

Just as he began urging again, the Victrola wound down and the music collapsed.

The old man too wound down. He stood there helplessly, slack-armed and blinking. The audience murmured in discomfort.

Charley bounded onto the stage, smiling, and linked his arm under the old man’s, thanking him in the name of all present for his fine performance. He overcame Harry Lane’s feeble resistance and hustled him out of sight behind the curtains. The audience could hear the old man’s pleas and Charley’s soothing voice. Finally, Charley returned to the spotlight. He removed the prompt card from his pocket.

“And now, friends, allow me to introduce a man celebrated in five continents for incredible feats, materializing objects out of nothing.”

A high mocking nasal voice behind the curtains cut him off: “Fraud. Out of nothing, nothing.”

Confused, Charley lost his place in the card and then resumed. “Able to defy chains, buried but resurrected.”

Again the scoffing hidden voice: “Illusion, machinery, mirrors, hoaxes.”

Charley tried to continue with his catalogue of marvels but the voice behind the curtain sabotaged each of the extravagant claims and ended by routing him off the stage. The audience creaked and murmured.

The curtain tugged open.

Calistro stood there, finally, in flesh and blood, white-gowned, before a large draped table bearing a black mantelpiece clock, two empty flowerpots, and what looked like a fortuneteller’s globe. From the posters the patients recognized the melodramatic shock of white hair above the commanding forehead, the aquiline nose, the masterful chin, the thin-lipped ironic mouth.

“Let there be no light,” the magician commanded in the high mocking voice that, seconds before, had disclaimed his vaunted exploits.

He pointed at the spotlight and there was darkness.

The clock started tick-tocking loudly. The fortuneteller’s globe began glowing yellow, stronger and stronger, like a private August sun in winter, blinding the spectators.

Calistro’s finger subdued the yellow glare. He turned to the audience. Saffron-hued, they participated marginally in the miracle.

“Hidden wires, they say. Charlatanism, deception, sleight of hand. Out of nothing, nothing, they say, but… but… what is this?”

A bouquet of roses materialized in Calistro’s right hand.

The audience forgot the painful fiasco of the ex-music-hall star. The real performance had begun. Accompanied by the ironic nasal patter, the prestidigitator’s swift hands contradicted the pretend skepticism of his words.

A white silk scarf turned red then yellow then blue and then vanished.

Juggled balls, too, changed color and vanished.

More things.

At 3:36 by the tick-tocking mantelpiece clock, the rear door opened for the seventh time since the beginning of the performance. Another late visitor negotiated the labyrinth of wheeled stretchers and chairs. Many turned about in stubborn hope. An attendant finally got up and locked the door, putting an end to the recurrent disturbance and to the recurrent hope.

At 3:47, a brawny volunteer attendant tested a chain. He wrapped it about the magician and padlocked him into paralysis. The fortuneteller’s globe turned blinding red. Even before they heard the jangle of the chain on the stage, the audience knew he’d be free for he was a professional escape artist. When vision returned, so he was, free, but with a bonus: the chain transformed into a garland of white roses about his feet.

The tick-tocking mantelpiece clock marked 4:03 when Calistro, standing behind the table, passed his hands above the empty flowerpots. The fortuneteller’s globe went out. After five seconds of darkness, light returned on full-bloomed azaleas, one red, one white, occupying the pots.

Calistro was acknowledging the applause when Harry Lane’s faint querulous voice started up.

Frowning, the magician turned to the left wing of the stage and snapped a few words.

The old man’s voice broke off and Calistro resumed with a quick-handed multiplication of coins, enhanced from copper to gold.

At one point, a flourish of his arm caused one of the coins to fall, perhaps out of his ample sleeve. It bounced off the stage and rolled under a weighted pulley.

At 4:26, the magician displayed a photograph of a bikinied girl. Paraplegics whistled. He shredded her, placed the fragments on the table, covered them with a shroud of white silk, executed a pass, and snatched the shroud away. She was whole again. Paraplegics cheered.

“And now, my friends—”

The magician’s solemn phrase broke off.

Harry Lane was back, this time visible to the spectators. He blew kisses at them. The children protested. They wanted magic. Why didn’t Calistro magically dematerialize the old man as he’d done to bouquets and scarves instead of negotiating his withdrawal?

Finally, the old man tottered off stage.

Calistro returned to his magic. But his authority was shaken. He got fewer exclamations of wonder as things came and went.

At 4:43, in a strange abdication of authority, Calistro pretended not to see what everybody saw, the old man hobbling toward the center of the stage. The magician began his routine of summoning an object into existence while proclaiming the impossibility of it.

This time, the object refused to materialize.

Confidence gone, the magician repeated his formula, reciting again “Out of nothing, nothing” just as the old man started piping the song about Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

Nothing came out of nothing. The spectators were humiliated for Calistro.

Harry Lane launched into the tap dance. He tripped up on himself, blundered against the table and collapsed into a sitting position, the straw hat shoved over his eyes. The jarred fortuneteller’s globe started pouring out a chaos of colors. The clock had suffered too. The loud tick-tock accelerated. The hands swept the dial faster and faster. The globe short-circuited into a white glare and died.

Darkness.

The globe started flickering deep violet as the furious tick-tock slowed and halted.

The funereal violet light revealed the two azaleas reduced from opulent bloom to black skeletons, a miracle in reverse.

The bikinied girl was in shreds again.

The garland of roses on the floor was back to chain.

Calistro stood contemplating his wrecked magic, drained of arrogance, slack-armed and blinking, like the old man at the collapse of his first performance.

Finally, the magician broke out of apathy and turned to the audience.

“No! Like all things, this can be undone, but you must assist me. Our united wills can achieve the thing. Will it!”

He raised his trembling hands towards the dead azaleas.

“I feel it coming, yes, stronger and stronger, your will coming and uniting with mine.”

A fountain of glittering dust took form above the table. The fortuneteller globe struggled out of mortuary violet, gathered strength in yellow, and culminated in blinding sunburst.

The clock returned to life, not tick-tock tick-tock but tock-tick tock-tick, in accelerating reversal.

When vision returned the spectators saw, O!, the last of the glittering dust settling on the azaleas, summoned back from death to glossy green and perfect bloom, settling on the nearly naked girl, whole again, settling on the reborn garland of roses, settling on the inert old man, settling on the wildly tock-ticking clock with its hands whirling counter to future.

Now the furious tock-tick backwards halted and then resumed as tick-tock at the normal petty pace, the hands creeping imperceptibly into the future.

Glittering with dust, the old man slowly rose to his feet as the orchestra started up from the giant morning glory horn of the Victrola, wound up by no visible hand, the scratchy century-old music miraculously updated, quadraphonic in fidelity now.

The old man repeated his earlier routine, enjoining smiles all the livelong day, but back to ancient competence, his body supple, his voice full and true, belying the furrows and wrinkles of his face. He leaped about the stage with incredible grace, defying gravity, no need for the buoyancy of the hydrotherapy pool. His cane twirled about faster and faster, a blurred propeller reinforcing his limber leaps. Won’t he take off, rise and hover above them, levitated like a Tibetan monk?

The music triumphantly climaxed.

The afternoon performance was over. The old man and the magician bowed to applause, bowed to greater than applause, the tribute of exalted faces, some tear-stained.

The green curtains began tugging shut when Harry Lane grasped Calistro’s arm and pointed at a curtained window with an inch gap, strangely white.

The attendant swept aside the curtains on the raging snowstorm, inconceivable at this latitude. Did the audience take it for a continuation of miracle? Just before the curtain hid him, Calistro converted his astonishment into an expression of brow-knitted power, raising his wonder-working hands, taking credit for the meteorological quirk.

The swirls of snow parted for an instant like ragged stage curtains.

The patients near the window thought they’d caught a glimpse of possibly the right car below.

If so, wasn’t it possible that the right person was just yards away, waiting outside the locked door?

After all those afternoon miracles, wasn’t that little thing possible?

The chairs pushed or were pushed into a metallic mass stalled before the door.

Waiting, a few patients noticed the coin that had fallen out of the magician’s ample sleeve and rolled under a weighted pulley.

In a few hours the cleaning woman would come to tidy up for tomorrow morning’s performance of mass. The priest, an irascible white-haired old man, had already complained about the Saturday afternoon disorder. She was sure to see the coin too. It was copper, hardly worth stooping to. But she was poor. It was predictable that she would kneel and pocket it.

The door opened.

The coin was forgotten.

The chairs and stretchers started moving toward that opening and what might possibly lie beyond it.
pencil

Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in Verbsap, Gold Dust, Global Inner Visions, and other publications. He has published three novels with BeWrite Books: Back There (2005), Time Travail (2006) and The Seventh Candidate (2007). A fourth novel, Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die, came out in late 2007. E-mail: howard.waldman[at]orange.fr