They Make It Look Empty With Mirrors

The kid asks me to take to him to the magic show in the middle of a very important play in the football game I’m watching. He stands there in front of the TV, rocking back and forth in his pajamas like he’s going to piss his pants, and I miss the catch that everybody is talking about for the rest of the season, that eventually gets the guy the Heisman. I see it on the replay, but it’s not the same as seeing it when everybody else sees it, when nobody else has seen it.

“No,” I say, turning up the volume so the roar of the crowd rises up around him, “I won’t take you to the magic show. Go brush your teeth.”

“You’re taking the kid to the magic show,” my wife says later, in bed.

“No, I’m not,” I say.

“It’s his eighth birthday,” she says.

“Great,” I say, “wonderful, let’s have a party – just you, me, and the kid. You can bake a cake and I’ll have a few and dress up as a clown.”

“It’s important for the kid to believe in something,” she says.

“Magic isn’t real,” I tell her, “and I don’t need to pay fifty bucks of my hard-earned money to be reminded of it.”

“He doesn’t know that it isn’t real,” she says, “and it’s good for him to believe in something, and, by the way, when was the last time you made any money?”

It always come to that. She was real sweet, real understanding about it in the beginning, would whisper things like “leave of absence” and “sabbatical” and rub my shoulders, but now she’s a comedian.

You take the kid if you like it so much,” I say, “maybe the magician can make you disappear.”

She doesn’t say anything, just rolls over. I can feel her staring at the back of my head.

When we were living together before she got pregnant and we got married, there was a problem because we both liked to sleep on the right side of the bed, and she would say, “Well, we can both sleep on the right side,” and snuggle up to me tight.

What I decided was that we should flip a coin and whoever won would get the right side of the bed, forever. I could see it, the little catch in her eyes when I said “forever,” and I know that’s only reason she agreed to it. It was stupid of her – I’ve had a double-headed quarter in my wallet since middle school.

After I won, she gave me those eyes she does and said, “I thought you were joking.” I kissed her on the forehead and then rolled over into my side. The pillowcase was cool and crisp against my face.

She hasn’t brought it up in years, but I know she still holds it against me, at night. She’s always been a poor sport and that’s one of the things I don’t like about her.

I take the kid to the magic show so I don’t have to talk about it anymore. The tickets, with tax and Ticketmaster fees, cost one hundred and seven dollars and 43 cents. For a magician. I don’t even think he’s that famous – I’ve never heard of him.

On the way to the magic show, I stop at the toy store. As I’m parking, a loose shopping cart rolls over and bumps into the side of the car. Who’s buying so much crap at the toy store that they need a cart?

“Are you getting me a present?” the kid asks, as I check for scratches. He’s got jelly or some kind of sticky candy on his face; it’s disgusting. I tell him to sit tight and not mess with the radio. I lock the doors and leave the heater on – I try to be a good father.

Inside the store, my feet stick to the floor because of all the candy and spit and it makes my shoes make noises that I don’t like. There’s kids running all over, like farm animals busted out of their pens. My head throbs.

I pass through an aisle of bikes, shiny under the fluorescents. The kid can’t ride a bike because some doctor said he has bad knees. It’s the same reason he can’t play baseball or football or basketball or even some non-sport like soccer or something.

I didn’t believe it when my wife told me – I thought it was one of her plots to make the kid like her. I marched right into the doctor’s office and I said, “You’re telling me my son can’t play ball?” and he said, real smart-ass, “Not if he wants to be able to walk for the rest of his life.” I got a second opinion, but it was the same thing. The doctor said it was a genetic disorder and asked me if I knew of a history of it in my family. I blew out my knee in college but it was because I was sliding in to home plate to win a game for my team and there’s nothing genetic about that, not at all. It’s just an unlucky thing that happens sometimes when you give everything you got.

I get to the video game section and pull out the post-it that has the name of the baseball game I’m buying on it. One time, when I was playing on the system at home, the kid came up to me and said, “Sports games are boring.” “You’re boring,” I told him, and kept playing.

After I buy the game, I rip the box open, take out the cartridge, and put it in my pants pocket. I throw all the trash in a can by the register. When I come back to the car empty-handed, the kid gives me a look like I’ve shot Santa Claus dead and then kicked him for good measure.

The kid and I park 5 blocks away from the theater because it’s cheaper. I tell him walking is good exercise, that it builds character. On the way, I teach him about jaywalking. I love jaywalking. Besides watching baseball, it’s my favorite thing in the world.

I tell the kid that the crosswalk is for old ladies and people in wheelchairs. “Are you an old lady or a person in a wheelchair?” I ask him. He says no. We start walking across the street and I don’t time it right so then we have to run to make it. There’s honking.

On the corner outside the theater, I pull out the tickets and hold them over my head.

“Two front row seats,” I yell, “150 bucks!”

The kid says he’s cold. “Maybe if you’d worn your parka like I told you, you wouldn’t be so cold,” I say.

He’s wearing the suit we bought for his grandfather’s funeral and a cape, because “that’s how magicians dress,” he says. It’s a black cape my wife made for him out of velvet and it has a button at the neck. A cape.

He’s been wearing the same damn thing for the last three days. “Look how excited he is,” my wife said, taking a picture for her memory book. When I was a kid if somebody had worn a cape we would’ve pulled it over his head and knocked him in the dirt.

It’s pretty damn cold. I shove one arm into my jacket pocket and with the other keep holding the tickets high up in the air, like I’m the Statue of Liberty. I used to be so good at selling things that they put my picture on the front of the company newsletter.

I see a cop car coming down the street and I put my arm down and the kid and I go inside. It’s warm in the lobby. There are a lot of people and none of their kids are wearing capes. I try to keep a little distance between me and the kid, but he stays on my coat like lint.

“Do you have to go to the bathroom?” I ask him.

“No,” he says.

“Why don’t you try to go the bathroom?” I say.

“I don’t have to go,” he says.

I go in the bathroom, figuring if I go, he’ll go. He stands right behind my urinal, leaning against the wall. I know he’s staring at me, so I can’t go. I flush anyway, but don’t wash my hands.

The kid and I sit down front row center. I didn’t count on front row center, I counted on the back row and forty dollars to get the fight on pay-per-view.

The kid asks me for a program. “Look around, listen, smell, take it all in. Your memory is better than any program,” I say.

I pull the kid’s portable videogame out of my coat pocket and plug in the baseball cartridge I bought at the toy store.

“You bought me a new game?” the kid asks. He starts beaming and doing pull-ups on my arm to see the screen.

“Yeah,” I say, peeling his fingers off my arm, “I bought you a new game, but, you know, technically it’s not your birthday until Thursday, so you’ll have to wait until then.” I tell him he can sit quietly and watch me play.

I switch on the game. Nothing happens. I switch it off and on again.

“Did you break your videogame?” I ask the kid.

“No,” he says, “the batteries are dead. I asked you to get new ones yesterday.”

“You know your mother does the shopping,” I say, frustrated.

I don’t usually have to be alone with the kid without TV and I don’t really know what to do. I buy him a damn program just so he’ll stop looking at me. On the back of the program, there’s a picture of the magician, altered to make it look like he’s standing with Houdini, handcuffed to him. When I was a kid, I read a book about Houdini and do you know how that ends? Houdini dies from a punch in the gut. Some magic.

Finally, the lights dim and the curtain goes up. There’s nothing on the stage but a TV on a rolling cart. The magician’s head shows up on the TV set. After some yammering, he crawls out of the screen and the crowd applauds. I whisper in the kid’s ear that he was hiding in the rolling cart, that they make it look empty with mirrors.

The magician does some card tricks. I paid a hundred and seven dollars to see card tricks? It’s the same routine every other freak who’s ever worn a tuxedo stuffed with scarves has done. We’ve got a lander on Mars, they’re cloning sheep, and this jackass is still doing card tricks? I yawn, loud.

He turns a card into a bird and the audience claps. “The bird was up his sleeve,” I whisper in the kid’s ear.

He does some tricks with guessing cards. I tell the kid it’s all math, like Vegas. I tell him to study his times tables and he can do that, no problem.

He saws a lady in half, except this is big budget, so he does it blindfolded and with his saw on fire. He brings out this girl in red heels and a skimpy little dress. She has tits like you wouldn’t believe, but, of course, they’re the first thing to disappear into the box.

The kid says he has to go to the bathroom. “Fine,” I say. While we’re peeing, I tell him it’s two girls, that’s the trick.

We get back in the middle of something with a duck. After that, the magician looks at the kid, says, “I’ve heard it’s someone’s birthday today.” He jumps down off the stage and offers the kid his hand. He’s got so much make-up on his face he doesn’t even look real.

He says to the kid, “You know son, you’re magic. Do you want to know how? Is this your father? Let’s have a big round of applause for these two,” he says.

Everybody claps. I hate my wife.

The magician tells me to sit down on a rug in the middle of the stage. Because of my trick knee it takes me a second. The magician wraps the kid in a black cape with stars on it. He tells the kid that for the magic to come out of him, he has to concentrate really hard. He gets the kid reciting some junk and waving his arms and the rug and me on it start to go up into the air. I get up there, pretty high, and I can see over everybody and they’re all watching me too. I can feel it in my stomach – it’s kind of like being stuck at the top of a roller coaster, just about to go down the hill.

I want to reach out to one of the corners of the rug, pluck the fishing line that I know’s holding me up, scream out, “It’s just fishing line, you idiots!” But I don’t like showboats, people who always have to be the center of attention. When I played, I played for the team, not for me.

The kid waves his arms another way and the rug comes down. I get up and go stand by him. The magician says some crap, then taps the kid on the head and in a puff of smoke, the kid disappears. There’s a trick I’d like to learn, I think, coughing.

The magician does a card trick for me. The card he gives me says on the back “YOUR SON IS GOING TO FALL, BE READY TO CATCH HIM.” I read the card and I wonder where he’s going to come from, how it’s going to work, what’s the trick. I haven’t picked him up in so long and I don’t know how much he weighs now.

“Yes,” I say, trying to make my voice sound as phony as possible, “My card is the Ace of Spades, how did you do that?”

There’s a flash and the kid drops down into my arms, strung on a wire. When he hits me, it knocks the breath out of my chest, but it feels kind of good, like taking a tackle in practice. I’ve got him – he’s really not that heavy at all. In the confusion, somebody unclips his harness and runs off the stage with it. The smoke clears and there I am holding him, in front of everybody. I’m a real hero. The magician thanks us and we go back to our seats.

“Where were you?” I whisper to the kid. He says he can’t tell me, it’s magic.

The lights cut down for the magician’s big finale. The magician’s assistants set up a big sheet of plate glass at center stage. The magician says this is his most dangerous illusion and that it depends on everyone’s total belief and concentration. He closes his eyes and rubs his temples, like he’s either talking to God or has a bad headache.

This big dope from right behind us gets picked to come on stage and tap at the glass in different places. “It’s real,” he says. Moron.

The magician says what magic is really about is crossing over to the other side, so he’s going to dive straight through this plate glass window. He asks for absolute silence so he can concentrate. I tell the kid this one is an old one, it’s done with mirrors.

The magician walks over to the far side of the stage, slowly. He stands there for a second doing some deep breathing, then starts to run. I am leaned forward out of my seat, watching so close because I want to pick out the seams, the gaps that the mirrors don’t reflect. The magician leaps and straightens out his body like a diver. He smacks into the glass and it shatters and I put my arm in front of the kid like in traffic. The pieces of glass spray out like surf and fly off the edge of the stage. The magician lands hard on his neck or his shoulder, I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good. Everybody gasps. All the house lights come up and EMTs run in from off stage. The magician isn’t moving. The kid tugs on my arm, like I can fix it. “Let’s go,” I tell him. “You don’t need to see this,” I say, holding my hand in front of his face. His head’s so small with my hand in front of it.

I look at the magician and I see, through the EMTs and their machines, the blood on his face, the stains on his white shirt. His eyes are closed and he’s only moving a little, trying to roll back and forth. They’re ripping open his tuxedo and I put my hand on the kid’s shoulder and pull him up the aisle.

We’re halfway to the exit when there’s a bang and the lights flicker. Everybody starts freaking out. I pivot, hand still on the kid, and the magician’s gone, the EMTs, all of them. Vanished. I catch the eye of that dope who checked the glass before the trick and he’s crying, like it’s his fault, like he didn’t do his job right.

Something soft hits me on the head. I grab at it – it’s cotton candy. I look up and there’s tons of it, falling like snow from nets in the ceiling. Big pink and blue clouds. I guess the nets were there the whole time, but who looks up? I put a piece of it in my mouth and it melts. Blue was always my favorite flavor. I give the rest to the kid. Everybody’s eating it, just standing in the aisles with their coats on.

The magician’s voice comes over the intercom, loud and clear. He says that just because it’s a trick doesn’t mean it’s not magic. He says some other crap too. I grab the kid’s hand to go and it sticks to mine because of the sugar. It’s sticky as hell.

One Response to “theymakeitlookemptywithmirrors”


  1. […] the one common factor in all undergraduate writing workshops (or at least all the ones i took) is a lot of sucky, sucking, suck-filled work. david foster wallace is right, it’s an order of grey pellets with a side of crank-turning. in fact, a lot of the work sucked so much you couldn’t even tell what influenced it (maybe nothing!) but if it had achieved some level of competence and readability, the fact that it was derivative of palahniuk or delillo or tobias wolff often became readily apparent (i was no exception to this rule – my senior year, i published in our school’s literary magazine the best darn “cathedral” rip-off ever). […]


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