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The Magician’s Assistant

12669813_10207322414211388_510106016_oThe magician comes home, but his assistant has disappeared. He checks in his hat. He checks up both sleeves. He checks beneath the Table of Death and the Goldin box where he used to saw her in half and once, after too much wine, let her saw him because, she said, one of him wasn’t enough. He checks the Inexhaustible Bottle, the Sands of the Nile, the Zig Zag Girl.

In the bedroom, her things are all gone, but for the sequined dress she wore in his shadows and one high heel. When he does not find her under the bed or in the bathroom or behind the shower curtain, he goes out on the front stoop, where some nights he would find her, very late, smoking and watching the lights of the city wink off one by one.   

While he is standing on the front stoop looking for signs of her, a small boy notices him with his cape still on. Soon a crowd has gathered, expecting some trick. He wants to tell them there is no trick, that he has made a woman disappear and now cannot find her, but this gives him an idea, and so he begins to pull items from his sleeves. He pulls out letters he wrote to her from Sioux City, Iowa, and Carbondale, Illinois, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, in those days she didn’t make his shows, before she wore the sequined dress and stood by his side on the stage, smiling. He pulls out silk handkerchiefs with her scent still on them and is reminded of the moment after the show, in the delirium of applause, when he would kiss her behind the curtain so she would see she was more than two parts, more than a body to slide a sword through. He pulls out the high heel she lost in one of his shows, and he never returned. The eyeliner she didn’t wear at home. The pearls of a necklace he broke when hurling knives at her head. All the empty parts she wore on the outside as if these things will cause her to reappear. He keeps pulling one thing out after another—ticket stubs to concerts they saw, his and hers bath towels, a faded picture of the two of them together in the photo booth at a Chuck E. Cheese across the street from the hotel in Davenport–until he runs out of her, and when he realizes there is nothing left he takes the rose from his lapel and lets the petals fall and a child that could very well have been his daughter, in another universe or a different life, holds up her hands as if to catch them.

At this point in the show, on stage alone, he would call out for his lovely assistant to join him. She would step through the curtain, sequined and shining like the spotlights in his eyes. The cameras always caught them there, the magician holding out one hand to help her step down onto the stage.

Looking back toward the door of his empty house, hand outstretched as if waiting for her to appear, the magician remembers moments that might have meant something, like the announcements he makes before the next illusion.

It’s always about the magic, she had said in the snow outside Cincinnati, headlights of coming cars haloing her hair, and he had the feeling she did not mean sleight of hand nor sawing in half.

You cut me, she said the next night near Cleveland, applying lipstick like blood, but he thought she meant a mistake on stage.

For the unobserved, he thought, his tricks were magic. But for the initiated—especially assistants who stood in the shadows—the magic disappeared over time. It became not miracle but mundane. He stopped noticing the way she shimmied into her sequins before each show. The arch of an Achilles as she slid on her shoes. He focused on the deception of dismemberment and not the deep breaths she drew after he slid something that wasn’t a sword inside her. She became something expected, the magic he saw every day but no longer paid attention to. Like illusion, is love.

What the gathered see standing on his front stoop as he checks his sleeves is not what she saw before she slipped away, so what he needs now is a grand gesture to get her back, some mummery to renew the magic. But he does not know, standing there, what legerdemain can fool love. In this minute all his magic is mute. His devices devoid of her form, the Inexhaustible Bottle as empty as his insides in the moment he made her disappear.

“Ladies and gentleman,” the magician says, dropping the last rose in the realization she isn’t returning, “as you can see, I have nothing up my sleeves.”

Paul Crenshaw

PaulCrenshaw2Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, Brevity, and North American Review, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.

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4 comments
Heath Flor
Heath Flor

This is an amazing story. I was completely floored by the emotional depth. I apologize for having never read your work before, Paul, but after finding a few more stories on the web you have earned a fan for life! 

tonisha
tonisha

This was lovely and sad and true.

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