October 24

1926 — Houdini’s Final Performance


“Do you believe in the miracles of the Bible?”

A small man dressed in dirty, oversized clothes leaps up from a city bench as you pass.  One of his hands grabs your wrist.

“Sure,” you say.  “Sure.”

As you yank your arm, hoping to move forward, you feel like a magician attempting to escape from handcuffs.

The key is in your mouth.  You’re afraid you’ve swallowed it.

Usually the street people want money, but the crazier among them are unpredictable.  If you say the right thing, the guy will release his grip.  The wrong word, the wrong “key,” and he’ll pull you close, start yelling and waving his arms, maybe punch you in the stomach a few times for good measure.

“Mysterious ways,” you say, hoping it sounds reverent enough to satisfy the stranger’s opening salvo.

“Indeed.”  The man smiles, apparently satisfied, but does not release his grip.  Where his arm stretches away from your own, you glance into the oversized sleeve of his jacket and think you see a living creature in the dark folds.

A pair of red eyes blinks at you from within the sleeve.  Feathers ruffle.  Whiskers twitch.  A tail shifts position over a furred torso.

You’re accustomed to imagining such tricks, from your days as an amateur magician.  Clothes were bulky for only one reason:  to hide things, including multi-colored scarves, playing cards, sponge balls and silver dollars.

A dove or two.  A rabbit.

“I’m in a hurry,” you say, nodding your head toward a high-rise apartment building far in the distance.  “I’m wanted at home.”

You think of other tricks — not when you produced items from thin air, but when you made them disappear.  A handkerchief over a glass of water; a black cape waved over a tower of colorful boxes; a bedroom sheet lifted to obscure your lovely assistant, who disappears when the fabric is removed.

And you imagine grabbing the man’s coat, turning it inside out over his body, and with fanfare and magic words — more mysterious ways — you twist the coat, wring it out, and the man beneath is somehow gone.  Vanished, to great applause.

“Spare a couple ’a dollars?”

You shake your head, mutter a standard apology.  The man finally releases his grip and lets you continue home.

This section of street rises at a steep angle.  Only five blocks further to go, but it’s essentially an obstacle course.  There always seems to be construction at one block or another, with orange cones blocking parts of the sidewalk, or scaffolding jutting from building fronts.  At an apartment across the street, a heavy tarpaulin drapes a makeshift metal frame along the side of the building — to contain asbestos, protect open windows from rain, or simply to hide unpleasantries of unfinished work.

Strangely, the workers have chosen a black cloth to cover the construction-in-progress.  You wonder if people still occupy the building.  It must feel, to them, like they’re shrouded in perpetual night.

What would happen if some giant magician pulled the tarp away with a flourish, revealing that the building beneath had disappeared?

You keep walking, steps falling into an automatic rhythm, barely registering your all-too-familiar surroundings.

You blink in disbelief.  There’s another building ahead, similarly shrouded.  It’s the local grocery, with three floors of rentals on top.  Right now, it looks like a black circus tent.

Several blocks further, and you’re almost home.  While you weren’t looking, a contraption of dark cloth had fallen over your own apartment building — as quickly as if it had dropped out of the sky.

You could swear it hadn’t been there before.  There wasn’t time for a construction crew to set up a scaffold, to raise tarpaulin with ropes and pulleys.

Trying not to panic, you race breathless up the street, getting closer to your obscured home.  Out of the corners of your eyes, you notice that a few more buildings are covered, the neighborhood apparently overtaken by sudden, ominous construction.

When you reach your address, you pause outside the black-skirted building.  You stand amazed, like a child waiting for the final surprise of an incomprehensible magic trick.  There’s no sound from beneath the cloth, only the shape of the building — or a memory of the shape.  Drapery on a collapsible frame.

You grab the cloth.  Give it a pull.