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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Secret Keeper

“A secret is a funny thing, Harry. If you know a set of facts, they lie there in your brain like a potato – completely ordinary and not especially tasty. But if someone tells you, 'that set of facts is top-secret,' you won’t be able to wait to set it on a silver platter and show it to at least one other person. A secret will give you the bends, Harry, and you will want nothing as badly as to share it, just to take the pressure off. You must resist that impulse, boy. For if you share the secrets I’m about to tell you, that will be the end of all your hopes and dreams.”

I was 15 years old and in the first year of my apprenticeship when my teacher said those words to me. He was the great Professor X, the finest illusionist in Europe and the Americas, at the time.
We were seated in the parlor of the Ritz Hotel in Madrid before a roaring fireplace, and there was to be no show that night as it was Christmas eve. There was a plate of sweets before us and mulled wine spiced with Valencia oranges. Idly and effortlessly, he made the sweets disappear then reappear at various points around the room, although he never left his chair. A marzipan horse would leave the plate and rematerialize upon the mantelpiece. A star-shaped cookie vanished only to be found in the lap of a dowager lady at a whist table yards away.
My teacher did all this while quietly lecturing me on the need for utmost secrecy. And true to his word, he never told his audience how his tricks were done. I, and I alone, was privy to those instructions.

In the third year of my apprenticeship, I brought a set of drawings to the Master and asked him whether he would let me try to perform an act of dangerous and daring enterprise. I spread the plans on a long wooden table and explained that I would escape from a locked box submerged in a cattle trough of water after being handcuffed in full view of the audience.
“This,” I said, pointing to a sketch, “is how it can be done.”
He studied it closely for a long while, saying nothing. Then, “We will attempt to do it in a practice session tomorrow morning, when you are fresh,” he answered.

I was ecstatic. I wanted more than anything to prove my worth as an original magician. I went over the illusion time and time again, rehearsing each step mentally until I felt sure no harm would come to me whilst in performance.

The next morning, my Master hired a carriage. We loaded all my equipment on it with two burly assistants and headed out to the countryside to some land owned by a cattle farmer. My Master paid the man handsomely for the use of a giant cattle trough and for his discretion.
I set out all the necessary pieces – a pair of handcuffs, a trunk, plus sturdy iron chains and a lock to wrap around the trunk once I was inside.
My Master handcuffed me firmly, I ducked into the trunk, and then he and his assistants wrapped the chains. Finally, they heaved the trunk into the watering trough.

Minutes passed, and nothing happened. I did not pop out of the trunk. There was no noise or movement from within. When ten minutes had elapsed, an assistant became much concerned and said, “Oi, there’s not enough air in there for a man to last much longer!”

When another five minutes had passed, the group became alarmed and voted to reach into the water and unlock the chains so that the trunk might be opened and I might be freed. There was much fumbling and wetting of shirtsleeves, but soon the trunk lid was popped and the onlookers waited for me to emerge. That I did not do.
Prof. X leaned down and peered into the empty trunk in which there was my hat and a pair of empty handcuffs.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. And it was then that I walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said in my best British Bobby’s voice, “Eh? Wot’s all this, then?”

Ah, so many years have passed since that sunny morning, and I have amazed so many audiences great and small. But never have I enjoyed an illusion as much as that – my first – which brought shouts and murmurs of amazement from the lips of my beloved teacher.
He was right, of course: nothing burns as hotly as a secret kept.
And nothing feels as sweet as the begging of another magician who wants most desperately for you to tell it.

This story first appeared on LitFire in response to a prompt from Jared Handley.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Postcards From The 104

Jackie Ruth, my best friend, and I were students at the Morris Winchefsky Yiddesheh Shul two days a week after regular Anglo school. We were small, patient children, able to entertain ourselves with word games and spelling quizzes while we waited for the 104 bus to lumber its brown self around the corner of Monkland Avenue and carry us to class.
In Shul, we learned to read and write Yiddish words, from right to left, and speak in a dying tongue.
The class consisted of 8 boys and girls, and everyone was called by a Yiddish name that was different from his or her Anglo name. We bent over our exercise books with care, forming the unfamiliar Hebrew-like letters that aren't quite Hebrew, adding this lexicon to what we already knew of French and English, the two official languages of Quebec.
Later, returning home on the 104, we quietly sang a little song (Gayen mir Shpatzeeren) while around us swirled the glottal stops and wide open vowels of a dozen other languages that we had yet to learn, that we had yet to dream of.

The year I entered Monkland High School, the 104 became more than a bus to me. It was a magical ferry from dull home to exciting school corridors, and everything – EVERYTHING – depended on how good your hair and eyeliner looked when you boarded that bus. The 104 was where I had first morning glimpses of the cute boys who lived in my neighborhood and my end-of-the-day glimpses, which were fatally important because if someone was going to ask you out, getting-off-the-bus-time was when it happened.
Three classes of boys rode the 104. There were the band members who lugged around instrument cases; the exceptionally smart guys like Stanley Godlovitch who could not only excel at math, but also WRITE; and the middle-of-the-road but absolutely GORGEOUS boys who made you hold your breath for fear of saying anything less than sparkling. Hard as it might be for Americans to believe, it was the uncool boys -- the ones with flunking grades and greased down hair -- who drove cars to school.

I saw my first dead person on the 104 bus. Madame Louise Chevalle was the landlady over three short, shitty-brown apartment buildings that formed a U-shape at the corner of Fielding and Montclair Streets, and she was a pinch-faced, almost-bald bitch of a hag, notorious for crowding new immigrants in, at exhorbitant prices.
The buildings were hot in summer and ice cold in winter, and more than half the electrical circuits hadn't worked since Louis St. Laurent was prime minister (think Truman-Eisenhower). If a tenant fell behind on the rent, Mme. Chevalle would send her three sons in to "correct the problem."
On Jan. 14, 1967, the coldest day in recorded history, the 7:45 a.m. 104 bus pulled up to its Montclair stop where the good Mme. Chevalle lay flat on her ass on a sheet of frozen blood for all us riders to see.
Police investigations later showed 17 knife wounds in her back and neck, many of them made by different blades,but the perp or perps were never found as no one in that U-shaped hell-hole had heard or seen a single thing.


He was nondescript in every way except one: his penis was out of his pants and standing at attention right there on the 104 bus!
What on Christ’s home planet was the man thinking?
And how come I was the only rider who saw it?
Later, between Latin and history, I told Annie Shapiro about it. She said that I should stop looking at men’s crotches if I didn’t want to see flashers.
“They’re everywhere,” Annie said nonchalantly, as if men routinely opened their overcoats to just air out their genitals, to just treat them to a nice, warming blast of bus fumes for health’s sake, to just share a special moment with a confused-looking school girl in her navy-and-white uniform and be burned into her memory bank, forever.


Eventually, like rivers to the sea, all city buses ended up at The Forum, which was okay by most Montrealers, since that's where the hockey games were played.
One evening, and I don't remember how, I was in possession of a ticket to go watch Les Canadiens play the Boston Bruins. I rode the 104 downtown to the terminus when an urge took me to a bar next to the hockey rink.
The 104 bus driver was taking his dinner break in there, too, and I realized with a jolt that I had been riding his very bus throughout my childhood and high school years, and now I was old enough to go sit in his lap and legally cadge a drink.
I wanted to stand before him and say,'You drove me to music lessons and Yiddish school and to every day of high school, and I laughed and cried on your bus, which makes me almost your own child.'
But his eyes were dull and his uniform had a wet-wool-sour smell, so I let him be and took my story elsewhere.

My mother rides the 104 bus, her 90-year old body bent into a question mark by rheumatoid arthritis. She lives alone now, taking buses to her many doctor appointments: the one for her heart condition, the one for her deafness, the one she talks to about her depression.
She has not yet asked if she can live with me, has not said the words, “I cannot remember what I am supposed to do, today, or how to do it,” which she will say eventually. She is still fending for herself with a kind of courage specific to the very elderly, carrying her groceries on the 104, her footing not so sure and her bones as hollow as a bird's.
On the day that my mother gives up her independence, she rides the 104 one last time to pick up her medical records, a stack of files that require their own suitcase when we journey to America.
Now, many years later, I hold onto a small red leather change purse of my mother’s in which there is one Loonie, a safety pin and a senior’s bus ticket.

* A Loonie is the Canadian one dollar coin with a picture of a loon on it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Falling Man

My Pa, a riveter by trade, died building the Golden Gate Bridge. On Feb. 17, 1937, his work scaffold collapsed. They had stretched a safety net under the floor of the bridge from end to end, but it was only capable of catching men and their tools. It had saved 19 men from a cold drowning. Those lucky ones, they laughed and called themselves the “Halfway to Hell” club.

But my Pa’s scaffold was too heavy, and it broke clean through the net, carrying him and ten others down into the freezing, salty strait.Three months later, when they opened the bridge to pedestrian traffic, my mother put on her Easter bonnet and best shoes and took us kids to walk “that bridge.” All the Golden Gate widows were given a place of honor beside the mayor on a platform, and in the warm spring sunshine with a cheering crowd, the bridge boss, Smiling Joe Strauss, called out the names of the men who had died “giving California this greatest of gifts.”

We walked the bridge, and my mother pointed to the soaring red towers, each with 600,000 rivets, she said, put in place by men like my Pa, by their sweat and arms as hard as balcony railings.“It’s a modern marvel,” everyone said, and they posed for happy photographs.

I wanted to love the bridge, then and ever since. But all I can see of it is cold unyielding steel and a falling man pleading with the sky.