Flashes

by Renaissance Makoto J. (ルネサンス・真・J)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/300800.html)

flash
[flash]

noun (pl) -es

1. (magic, illusion) to accidentally expose a trick’s secret:
“There were flashes here and there, which ruined the overall trick.”

My life changed the night David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear on TV. I was in my pajamas, sick with strep throat, and I hadn’t left the house in over a week. My throat felt like a ball of steel wool had been shoved into it and left to rust. It hurt to eat. My eyes were dry and scratchy.

But there was Copperfield, larger than life, and that man knew how to do dramatic. So helicopters were circling over the water, bright lights made Liberty glow like daytime, and intense music blared, like in a scary movie. I know I had a fever, and that I tend to hallucinate when I’m sick, so my memory of it isn’t quite right. But here is what I think I saw: There was a pause, like a skipped heartbeat, and then the statue was gone. I thought I’d seen a miracle.

Now, you can find video of this trick easily enough. I watch it again, from time to time, but it’s never how I remember it. For one thing, Copperfield hides Lady Liberty behind a curtain. I don’t remember that in my fever-addled memories. I just remember the statue vanishing.

But the curtain is important because of the Rule. You know the Rule; you just don’t know you know it. I’ll tell you what you know: Magicians have to hide something to make it disappear. That’s how the trick works. Behind that curtain, the magician is doing something not so magical at all: opening a trap door or placing a mirror just so. Even the best magicians in the world have no way of getting around the Rule: You can’t make it disappear if you don’t hide it in a box or behind a curtain first.

Audiences expect it. They may not understand how the trick works—the mechanics of the thing—but they know it’s a trick the minute something is hidden.

This is going somewhere, just wait for it. That’s another thing with a magic trick: you have to be willing to wait for the payoff. There’s the setup first, then the payoff.

First, let me get this out of the way: There is no such thing as magic. There are stooges; there are palmed cards; there’s plenty of smoke and lots of mirrors. There’s just no real magic. There’s an audience, and they want to be lied to for an hour or so. There’s a magician, and he wants to deceive them. That is the heart of magic. Once you truly understand that, you can see how any trick is done.

After Copperfield and Lady Liberty, I learned everything I could about magic. The sad truth is, the more you know, the less you’re amazed. I’m rarely amazed. Knowing the trick is what I do. I am a connoisseur, a fanatic. Magic tricks are my life. This is the story of the one and only trick I couldn’t figure out.

*****

I was shuffling out of the theater in a line of small children, old ladies, and the kind of bored Hollywood types with younger wives who introduce themselves as screenwriters or producers. The magician was already in the lobby, in a suit and tails and white gloves, shaking hands with everyone as they exited. It was part of the trick because he’d ended the show soaking wet after escaping from a tank of water, chained up in nothing but a white shirt and shorts. Now he was bone-dry, his hair styled and shining.

I’d already forgotten his name, to be honest. I see a lot of magic; had another two magicians to see that night. But you have to build connections, have to be friendly. The world of magic is small—getting smaller all the time—and my livelihood depended on networking. So I’d wait in line, shake his hand, and tell him I enjoyed the show. It’s just what you do.

He looked like he’d stepped out of a black and white movie, just a bit out of place with his old-fashioned looks. He played it up, too: spoke like Clark Gable; moved in an elegant way. He had eyes lined with kohl and rouge on his cheeks. It worked for him. It’s a neat gimmick, looking like an old-school vaudeville showman. I’ve seen it done a few times—these young magicians all wish it was 1920, before the Internet, before Youtube—but this guy did it better than anybody else I’d seen. Something done so well hinted at obsession, like everything he did he did all-or-nothing.

I was next in line, but when he shook my hand, he didn’t even look at me, didn’t acknowledge my friendly, “I enjoyed the show.” Instead, he looked at the guy behind me.

And, to be fair, the guy behind me had deliberately tried to screw up his act. He’d given a fake name (screenwriters: they all do that kind of shit), and seemed to delight in ruining a pretty standard locked-box prediction trick. So it was fair that this magician would laser-focus on the screenwriter and ask, “So what is your name, anyway? Your real name this time?”

He released my hand without ever once looking at me.

“I did give you my real name at the end there,” laughed the screenwriter.

“It really is Jim?”

“It really is Jim.”

Being ignored like that didn’t bother me much. I think I just shrugged it off. I’m nothing too great to look at so I’m used to slipping off people’s minds, like a silk handkerchief off a crystal ball.

I walked down the stairs and out onto the street. It was dark, cold for Southern California, and the bars were still doing brisk business all around the small theater. I looked at the placard on the sidewalk, an old fashioned illustration of the magician levitating a deck of cards. Cartoony bolts of power were coming off his gloved fingers and the font was dime-novel perfect.

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

Oh, right, that was his name: Aleister Lafayette. I was kind of charmed by the contradiction he had going on there with his namesakes, but, whatever. Stage names are always a little silly.

I saw two other magic shows that night. The first was mostly just a rock musician with a loud band, flashing lights, and girls flouncing all around. I’d figured out I was gay at age thirteen, so the girls didn’t distract me. The man sitting next to me kept adjusting his pants, so I understood their effectiveness in that corner. But me? I saw the gaps in the magician’s techniques, the sloppy mistakes that no amount of rock music and girls could hide.

The second show was in West Hollywood, a woman—pretty rare out here—who did a solid card-based act. She had flawless technique, but her persona was lacking. She was all business, no panache.

Then I was back in my hotel, on the phone with my editor. It was two in the morning in New York, but when do editors sleep?

“Nah, he’s too obscure to have a write-up anywhere else,” I was saying. “I’ll look into it just in case.”

“He any good?”

“Ah, I don’t know,” I said. I’d given up smoking two years ago and regretted it most on nights like this when I felt anxious. L.A. could make a Buddhist Monk anxious.

“Well, did he do anything new?” Marty was a persistent guy, understood my moods and quirks. Good editor, too.

“Nah, nothing you haven’t seen before. Little sloppy with his card-work. He’s got this Houdini thing going on. Old-school gentleman. Looks like Fred Astaire or something. You can tell he wants to do the big stuff, make cars levitate and all that. That’s where he shines. He did this water escape. Pretty solid.”

Marty was smoking; I could hear the long, slow exhale through his nose. My fingers twitched, a phantom cigarette burning in my imagination. “A water escape? Man, he does want to be Houdini.”

I laughed at that. Hell, everybody wants to be Houdini. “But it’s not a bad act,” I said. “I’ll write up a little something.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll wait for it. Anybody else?”

And that was that. I stopped in at the Castle for a few nights—nothing new there—and then headed up to San Francisco. I passed through L.A. on my way back east, but I didn’t think of Lafayette even once. After a quick stop in Vegas—same old, same old—I was back home.

If I’d thought L.A. was cold, Manhattan told me I was wrong. I sat down at my laptop, wrote up a draft, and sent it in to Marty. You can still find it if you search for it: L.A. Magicians Bring Glamour to Tinsel Town. I spent most of the article praising the woman and her great card tricks.

And that’s how the story starts. For me, anyway. L.A. and the article were the beginning. The setup.

Now, about me: I write more than just reviews of magic shows. I have to eat, and magic doesn’t feed anyone but the biggest names. And a guy who writes about magic gets fed even less than the guys who make magic. So I write about concerts and art house cinema; I write about stand-up comedians and improv circuits. But Marty knew about my obsession, tolerated my insistence on writing about every magician I could find. I toured America, looking for something.

I’ll tell you what Marty understood: I wanted to be tricked again. I wanted to see something I’d never seen before. I wanted that Statue-of-Liberty-disappearance feeling back. It hadn’t happened in twenty-five years.

Now, here’s the important thing about Copperfield: He brought the statue back.

*****

When I saw Aleister Lafayette again, he’d changed his name. I didn’t recognize him right away. Instead, I had that feeling you get when you see an actor in a movie and you just know you’ve seen him before, but you can’t remember where. It itches at your mind, can give you a headache.

What had caught my eye when I’d seen the event advertised online was that he wasn’t performing at a theater. Somebody had given him permission to use Grand Central Terminal.

He had been billed, simply, as Sam Lee. It’s not a magician’s name, it’s just a name. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and looked like the least magical person I’d ever seen. He had a couple of assistants—five, rough-looking guys dressed the same way—and that was all. There were some cops on crowd control, but they blended in. It didn’t feel like a magic show at all. It felt like any other day on any regular train platform.

But I love Grand Central Terminal, to be honest, so making the trip over wasn’t a hardship. The constellations dancing on the ceiling (backwards, so there’s some trivia for you); the endless windows; the clocks and the bustle; the impossible scale of it—all of it combined just naturally has that magical feeling I search for. Well, you can’t get more magical than that in Midtown.

We were on track 13, the Hudson line. It’s a busy enough spot so that I couldn’t tell how many people were there to see the show, and how many of them just wanted to go to Poughkeepsie. Sam Lee looked so normal that the only way I knew it was his show was that he’d set up a small stage right in the middle of the platform. It was off the ground about two feet and just big enough for one man. I shoved my hands in my pockets and waited.

He didn’t introduce himself, didn’t even have a megaphone. I never heard him utter a single word. The train arrived—just your standard, ugly, commuter train. A flood of passengers got off, and a flood more moved forward to get on, but the doors slammed shut before they could board. There was a collective gasp, then some angry shouting. Sam Lee didn’t look bothered to find himself on a packed platform with unhappy New Yorkers, which either made him brave or stupid. He hopped off his little stage and walked to the train, trailed by his assistants. They formed a line facing the cars, about ten feet between them. Then all the assistants stepped forward, crouched down, and wedged their hands underneath the carriage.

All at once, they strained up and the train tilted back. Not just where they lifted, but the entire train, every car all along the track. Something like a mechanical protest echoed off the ceiling. Everyone on the platform took a wise step backwards. And I felt something like that fever from when I was a kid, that kind of tremble and shake.

Then Sam Lee walked right up to the train and placed his hands on one of the dirty, grease-stained wheels now exposed to us all. He held it like a steering wheel and then, just like making a left turn—one hand over the other—he twisted it. A groan and a high-pitched squeak sounded up and down the track. A lady next to me covered her ears. A short guy was cursing just in front of me.

“What the fuck, man? What the fuck?”

The assistants weren’t straining now. They were just holding up this big train like it weighed nothing at all. And Sam Lee kept turning the wheel and then this happened:

The train started to shrink. Only, it wasn’t really a shrink. I can’t call it that. It was more like when clothing gets wrapped around the agitator of a washing machine. The train did that, spinning and compressing in around that wheel. The first and last cars whirled away, then the ones next to them. At last, only the train car in front of Sam Lee was left. All the assistants had stepped back with nothing left to hold up. They appeared disinterested, like they’d seen it all a hundred times before. Sam Lee twisted the wheel three times more and then the entire train was gone. He had that giant wheel left in one hand.

He looked at it, turned it this way and that, and then tossed it to the ground. It hit hard, made this awful, clanging sound and people nearby leaped back. You could feel the shake of it hitting all along the platform, rattling up your legs like a rumbling gong.

Then Sam Lee wiped his dirty hands on his jeans, gave a half-bow, and then took the stairs up to the terminal. His assistants quickly disassembled his stage and followed after him. That was the entire show. That was the only trick.

Now, the critic in me was thinking that it was a strange way to end a performance. Kind of foolish if you think about it since the whole performance definitely goes down as the strangest I’d ever seen. But that’s where my mind was right then. You’ve never heard such a silent train platform in New York.

The short guy in front of me walked to the wheel like a guy in a horror film checking to see if the monster was dead. He hunched over it, got his hands on either side of the wheel, and tried to lift it. It was like a cartoon how his face turned red and nothing happened.

“Shit is heavy as fuck,” he exclaimed. A few other people tried: they couldn’t shift it at all. Something kept me from even approaching it. That fever feeling? That churning in my gut?

No one applauded. About ten minutes later, another train arrived. The passengers boarded, silent with their heads down and creases between their eyebrows. I didn’t leave. Hell, I couldn’t breathe. It was like Copperfield all over again.

I stayed until the small hours of the morning when only a handful of people get on or off each train. I walked up and down the platform, scrutinizing the track and ceiling. I got to my knees and looked under every train that arrived.

That remaining wheel was tormenting me. I tried to lift it at last. Yes, it was heavy as fuck. No, it didn’t so much as wobble when I tried to move it.

Sometime after four in the morning, I went to a store on some dark corner, bought a pack of cigarettes, and chain-smoked my way through the entire thing.

Here’s the truth: I had no idea how he’d done it.

*****
Now, the problem with making something disappear is that there has to be a very good reason not to make it reappear. The Statue of Liberty, for example—you’ve got to put her back for the simple fact that you never made her disappear in the first place. It’s a trick, remember?

With Sam Lee and the train, one of the things I couldn’t figure was why he didn’t bother to put it back. He’d left the wheel, after all. And surely somebody was going to miss an entire train?

Now, just in case you were wondering, train wheels are usually connected by an axle and weigh over 2000 pounds. Having a single wheel left behind when trains don’t work that way…add it to the list of things I didn’t understand.

I finally remembered Aleister Lafayette when I went to see Marty. His name literally popped into my head in the elevator on the way up. The relief that comes with putting two and two together washed over me, but the trouble with the trick was still festering away. What difference did it make if I knew who this magician used to be? I still couldn’t tell you how he made a train vanish.

Marty lived in this wide, run-down condo. Had for years. Cigarette smoke had permeated every piece of furniture and it made my mouth water. I sat down near his piano and he paced back and forth with his usual nervous energy.

“Then he used a curtain? Some kind of screen?”

“No, I’m saying he didn’t cover it up.”

“And people were on the train first?”

“They got off and the doors closed. Then these guys—”

“What guys?”

“Assistants, Marty. He had these assistants. Five guys and they lifted the train.”

Marty paused. “The whole train?”

“The whole thing. Even the cars they weren’t touching.”

“Okay, okay. Who the hell is this kid?”

“I wrote about him once before. Aleister Lafayette. Only now he doesn’t use that name.”

Marty grunted, turned on his heels, and gestured for me to follow him to his office. He fired up his ancient computer and poked around for a minute. “Oh, this old piece,” he said when he found it. “Okay. Same kid? What happened to the Houdini thing?”

“Between then and now, I guessed he changed his shtick.”

“Hah,” said Marty. “That’s quite a change. How’d he bring it back?”

“He didn’t,” I said. “He didn’t bring the train back. I called the transportation authority. You know what they said?”

“What they say?”

“They said that train had been ‘decommissioned’ for repairs. Something like that.”

“So it’s just gone?”

“It’s just gone.” I thought for a moment and added, “To be fair, Copperfield didn’t bring back the Orient Express.”

“You and David fucking Copperfield,” he said with a sigh. “You had a poster of him when you were a kid, didn’t you? Right next to Pamela Anderson, right?”

“Gay,” I reminded him. “It was George Michael.”

“And Copperfield.”

I sighed. “And Copperfield. A little autographed picture. Happy?”

“Happy.” Marty said with a smile. But then he was back to the mystery at hand. “Where are the videos of this kid with the train? Youtube?”

I shrugged, almost an apology. “I never saw a single person reach for their cell. I’ve been checking the Internet every day. A couple people posted blogs about it, but there’s no picture. No video.”

“Stooges?”

I shrugged again. It wasn’t unheard of. “My gut says ‘no’. That’s a lot of stooges. But maybe. I don’t know where the passengers ended and the audience began.”

Marty was thinking hard, lighting up another cigarette and tapping his foot. “Okay, I’m gonna say this and I don’t want you to be pissed. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I don’t think we can run anything about this act.”

I had lied: I was instantly pissed. “Why not?”

“Because no one will believe you. If you don’t put it in a box or cover it up with a curtain—but you make it disappear anyway—it’s not a magic trick anymore. That’s just fucking magic.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s just a very good trick.”

“A trick even you can’t figure out?”

“A trick even I can’t figure out. I went to his website. He’s got a list of shows. I’m gonna take some time, see him do the trick again. Maybe if some other paper or magazine corroborates, we can run something?”

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe. Don’t hold your breath. This all sounds nuts to me.”

“You think I’m lying?” I asked. I was hurt by the idea.

Marty stabbed his cigarette into a novelty Betty Boop ashtray. “No, I just think you missed it. The flash. It’ll be something simple. The bird in his coat. The trapdoor.”

“Well, the minute I see it, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Hah. This kid sounds like a real piece of work. You figure it out, he’ll move on to something bigger. Airplanes.”

“Boats,” I suggested with a smile I didn’t feel.

“Sure, sure. You go and see him again. And take a picture this time, okay?”

And that is what I decided to do. The next performance I had a chance of catching was in Chicago. I had to beat him there, so I flew in.

It may piss you off to hear it, but to me, everything in Chicago is like the sad shadow of something bigger and better in New York. Same with their Union Station. I don’t love it. I don’t really like it.

I was waiting on the track hours before the show started. I looked at every passing stranger, trying to recognize one of his assistants. What a waste: When the show began, his assistants were five new people. Just like before, Sam Lee said nothing.

The train was lifted, the big wheel was turned, the train shrank. It wasn’t any less impressive, but I wasn’t watching it as I had before. Now I was only watching to figure out the trick. I pulled out my cell phone and moved closer. Before I got within ten feet of the magician, a stranger from the crowd caught my shoulder and tugged me back.

“Just enjoy the show, man,” he said. I opened my mouth to argue, and only then noticed that my phone was gone. Neat trick. Okay, so at least some of these guys were in on it. But how many?

There was no way to know (no way to get my cell back in time before I missed something), so I focused on the trick. Look hard, look hard. You can figure this out. Only then, the bastard up and changed the trick.

Here’s what he did: the wheel was all that was left from the train, but he didn’t throw it this time. Instead, he walked to the center of the platform. We all scurried back—me, I was dragged back by the stooge—leaving a wide circle for Sam Lee to work. He carried the wheel to the center of the crowd, placed it upright on one end, and then gave it a gentle push, like spinning a coin. It started to spin, faster than a top, never wobbling, not even drifting around. The noise of this thing was unbelievable, like a train on a track, barreling at full speed.

I blinked, rubbed at my eyes. The wheel was shrinking into nothing and dust was flying off of it with each rotation. Seconds later and there was a pile of it on the ground, forming a simple string of letters. His website. Cute.

When I looked up, the magician was gone. I swung around just in time to see him walking away, followed by his assistants carrying the pieces of the stage. I’d half expected him to try a disappearing act, but no, he just walked away. Like he couldn’t be bothered to disappear.

Only—and I swear this is true—just then, he stopped in his tracks. He turned completely around and looked dead at me. I felt pinned in place by his eyes. My mouth was hanging open like I was trying to say something, but no words came out. I don’t know how long we stared at each other, but it felt like an eternity.

He only turned away when one of his assistants caught him by the shoulder and made him move again. The spell was broken. He was gone.

I wanted to follow him, but I don’t really know why. What would I say? I enjoyed the show? Give me a break. And just like in New York, he didn’t bring the train back. A woman at the information booth informed me that the train had been decommissioned. Sure, why not?

I reached into my pocket, somehow knowing what I’d find. Of course my phone was back. Someone had even sent me a message that said, “Hope you liked the show.” There was a link to Sam Lee’s website because I guess a message written in magic dust wasn’t enough. The next performance was in St. Louis. I bought a ticket. Figured I’d take the train.

*****
Each city, the trick was different. In St. Louis, he made the passengers disappear, too. It was a full train when it arrived, but no one was inside when the doors opened. Again I was stopped from getting near. Again someone took my cell phone, even before I could reach for it. It was back in my pocket at the end of the show with another text message telling me about the show in Jefferson City.

About that town: it is quiet and eerie. Unless you’re going to see a swell magic trick, I say give the whole place a pass.

That time, Sam Lee did the trick in a wide open train yard. He made the train wheel turn into water in his hands. I was starting to see some familiar faces, people who had been there in Chicago, some who had been in St. Louis. I talked to a few of them after the show. They were real magic fans, even read my column. They wanted my autograph, which was flattering.

“Do you know how he does it?” they asked in hushed, reverent voices.

“No,” I said. “For once, I have no idea.”

*****
I’d taken to smoking again. Yeah, I was mad at myself, but there you go.

At night, I holed up in my hotel room and tried to put together what I’d seen. I talked to Marty frequently, hashed out ideas with him.

“A projection?”

“Where’d he put the projector? How’d he avoid shadows on the screen? Where’s the damn screen?”

“Hey, hey, how do I know? You’re the magic junkie.”

And Marty was right. I was the one with the obsession. I was the one who was supposed to know. And what the hell was wrong with me? I’d spent my life wanting to be amazed, and then the minute I was, I couldn’t just take it? Deep down I knew I was supposed to sit there in my pajamas and marvel. I was supposed to be that kid again, thinking I’d seen a miracle. Only…no. I wasn’t that kid anymore.

There were plenty of ways to make the passengers disappear, but the train. The damn train…

I thought about Aleister Lafayette constantly. How did a guy change his routine so extremely in a few short years? I’d known before that he wasn’t good enough for small magic. I’d known that he clearly wanted to do larger tricks, but this was something else entirely. A trick of this scale, a trick requiring so many assistants—the ones I could see and the ones I couldn’t…

It took a magician of a higher caliber than Aleister Lafayette to pull this off. When I searched for that name, my article was the only one that came up. When I searched for Sam Lee, I got nothing but a few vague mentions of his train trick.

No one at the Castle had heard of him. None of my Vegas contacts knew him. If you’re wondering, yes this is impossible. In this age of Google and Facebook, there is almost zero chance of a magician appearing out of thin air.

Forgive the pun: I couldn’t resist.

*****
When I was a kid, long before Copperfield changed my life, I had other obsessions. They came in phases, stuck around for a bit, and then fizzled out.

First it was cars, then trains. A brief affair with the piano. Last came magic. Imagine me, under my blanket with a flashlight, reading about the Great Cardini when every other boy my age was jerking off to a picture of a girl in a skin mag.

It’s the one obsession that didn’t go away. I don’t know why it stuck when nothing else did. Of course I wanted to be amazed. Sure. But that’s not the whole of it. Maybe it’s because tricks are elegant in their simplicity. They seem complicated, but the solution is usually very easy. Does that mean that my obsession stemmed more from wanting to know the secret of a trick than wanting to be amazed by it? Maybe.

Here’s another thing about David Copperfield: He made the Statue of Liberty disappear to make people appreciate how valuable Freedom is. The F was capital when Copperfield said it, you just know it was. Gravitas like that can’t be faked. Copperfield always had something he wanted to say with magic, a story he wanted to tell.

Sam Lee didn’t seem to have a damn thing to say. Near as I could tell, the message was that he could, so he did. That…bothered me.

*****
Kansas City, Missouri, has a Union Station on par with New York’s Grand Central Terminal in beauty, if not in scale. It has history, too, and that doesn’t hurt its case. There’d been a massacre there in 1933, and the tour guides will gleefully tell you that the bullet holes are still visible. That’s Kansas City for you: they’ve got history, they just don’t know what to do with it.

I got there hours before the show would begin to walk the site. The big deal with this performance was that a Big Boy would be coming through. For anyone who didn’t grow up obsessed with trains, let me explain:

Big Boys deserve the name. They were the largest articulated steam engines ever constructed, operated through Union Pacific. They were beautiful, beastly trains, the kind you see in movies. Most of them are on display at museums, relics of a bygone time. When one does run, rail fans flock to see it. That was the crowd at Union Station that day. There were lots of excited kids and old men with train patches on their vests and hats.

Imagine how mad all of them were going to be if Sam Lee made this train disappear and left nothing behind but a wheel. If he didn’t put it back. Any old commuter train, sure, why not? But a Big Boy? That’s no ordinary train.

Nobody else had ventured out yet and I was on my knees, running my hand along the edge of the platform when a voice interrupted me.

“What are you doing?”

I knew it was him, I recognized his voice. He’d lost the Clark Gable some, but the timbre remained unchanged. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I got to my feet and faced him.

He was in jeans and a t-shirt again. His hair was loose, a little wild. Up close, he wasn’t so very young—funny that I always thought of him as a kid—and he looked…not unfriendly, but weary.

I didn’t answer him. What was I going to say? That I’d hoped to see him setting up the trick? That I was driving myself crazy trying to figure it out?

“You,” he said. “I saw you in Chicago. St. Louis.”

I wanted to tell him I’d seen him in North Hollywood years ago when he was still Aleister Lafayette; that I’d seen him in that no-name theater, playing at being Houdini. I wanted to tell him that I’d shaken his hand. I didn’t. I didn’t say anything, just waited, watching him.

“What are you doing?” he repeated.

“I’m trying to figure out how you do the trick,” I said. I have no idea why I bothered to tell the truth. I could have lied; I could have walked away. Sometimes I wish I had.

“Does it matter how I do it?” Sam Lee asked.

I thought about that for a moment. “Yes,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because you don’t cover up the train,” I admitted.

He tilted his head from side to side. “Like Copperfield, right? The Orient Express?”

“Yes. Just like Copperfield with the Orient Express.”

He sighed. “You want me to make the train disappear the same way he made the train disappear?”

“No,” I grumbled. “Not exactly. But there are rules.”

He took a step closer and I noticed that he looked tired. He held out his hands, a showman’s gesture. “Who says magic has rules?” he asked in a big, P.T. Barnum voice. He was that vaudeville gentleman again, the remnants of his old act flashing at me.

“Everyone,” I said.

He dropped his arms and he was once again Sam Lee, just a guy in jeans. He squinted at me like I was a difficult equation on a blackboard. “Everyone. Fair enough. So. Let me buy you a drink,” he said.

I think I hid my surprise pretty well. I looked back over my shoulder at the track, as if the Big Boy would suddenly pull up early.

“Now?” I asked.

“Yes, now,” he said.

“Don’t you have to set up the trick?”

“No,” he said. “No, I don’t.”

He had to be lying. Why else was he there so early? And his offer of a drink? That was his way of getting me off the platform so his army of assistants could swarm in and prep. I almost said he could take his drink and shove it. But if I kept the trick from being set up—kept it from being performed—by trying to solve the mystery, I’d never see what he did with the Big Boy. I wanted to see that more than anything.

I followed him inside, to a little bar just through the entrance. The ceiling of the station was a decorative, sculpted confection. The floors shone so cleanly that I was almost afraid to walk on them.

He ordered a beer for himself then asked me what I wanted.

“Whatever’s on tap.”

Our drinks came and we kind of stared at each other over them.

“You in the business?” he asked me.

“No,” I answered.

“You don’t do magic? Nothing?”

“Not well. I dabble. I’m no good,” I admitted. It was true then and it’s true now. I love magic, but I never had the skill for it. I’d learned the tricks I knew well enough, but I’d hit a plateau and never managed to get off of it.

“So. Want to see a magic trick?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I can’t help it: I always want to see a magic trick.

“Here, watch this,” he said. He tossed nothing into the air and watched it fly up, then come down. When he caught it, the nothing had turned into a silver dollar. He rolled it over his knuckles and then flipped the coin into the air. What he caught was the Queen of Hearts. He flipped her over twice, and she changed into the Jack of Spades. He blew on it, and the card fluttered to the table as confetti.

I was impressed and gave him his applause, as did a small group at the table behind us. He bowed lazily.

“Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waiters.”

“That was very good,” I said with a smirk. And it was. Unexpectedly, he had become better at small magic. What a difference a few years make, huh? Most magicians can’t improve at both big and small tricks to this degree. You have to pick one. It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of practice for either skill. Yet here he was, making both trains and silver dollars disappear like it was nothing.

“I worked hard at it,” he said. “See, I got a harsh review a few years ago. It said I was ‘light years behind your run-of-the-mill street magician’. Kinda stung, you know?”

I took a sip of my beer to keep from saying anything to that. I couldn’t tell if he was toying with me. Okay, so he’d read my review. It had been enough to push him to improve. Was he buying me a drink now in thanks? Or did he not know who I was?

“Your turn,” he said after a moment of silence. He was watching me and it made me feel like a bug on a slide in some science class.

I let out a loud breath and patted my pocket. Coins jangled. That would do.

I held up a penny, flashed it from side to side, tossed it over my wrist, caught it on the other side, and held up a dime. I reached forward with the dime, right behind Sam Lee’s ear, brushing it with my fingertips. When I pulled away, I was holding a quarter.

“And that’s about all I’ve got,” I said, eyes to the bar. He applauded, a very generous thing to do, and he was smiling, looking youthful again, not so tired.

“Not bad for someone who merely ‘dabbles’. You just gave up?” He leaned in closer. His body language was almost flirtatious. I started to wonder exactly what was on his mind.

“I see a lot of good magic, you know? It was…It is my hobby. Watching magic. You see enough good magic, you start to get a picture of where you fall on the food chain.”

“You satisfied just watching?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Yeah. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Well, your trick with the train is starting to eat at me a bit.”

He laughed then, a loud, boisterous laugh. “Then I consider my work done,” he said before slapping me on the back. His hand lingered. Then he was standing and tossing some bills on the bar. He had finished his beer.

“See you in a few hours,” he said. “You wouldn’t miss it, would you?”

“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

He smiled bigger and I thought for the first time that he was handsome. “And who needs the world, anyway?” he asked flippantly as he left. I finished my beer, didn’t try to go back out to the track to spy.

A few hours later, the Big Boy arrived.

*****

The thing about Big Boys is, even people who know bubkes about trains are awed by them. Each one weighs over a million and a quarter pounds. They can’t be lifted. I saw one when I was a kid and it was like facing a giant. I figured seeing one as an adult would cut it down to size, but I was wrong. The train was more than a little frightening.

The train junkies were going crazy, setting up their cameras and snapping pictures from the minute the Big Boy first appeared in the distance, smoke clogging up the sky. Some even had sound equipment set up to record it running, the ring of the bell. They would play it back for their model train sets at home to make them more authentic. And here I thought I was a magic junkie—the train guys put me to shame. There were film crews, I swear.

The steam engine dwarfed everything around as it slowed to a stop. Police and volunteers in matching hats kept the crowd back, but their primary job was to protect the train, I think. It pulled in with surprising ease, louder than you can imagine. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The complexity of the machining was like muscles and sinew. The cylinders alone made me feel small and insignificant. I was that kid again, playing with my model set, dreaming about open country and the wild, still-untamed West.

My heart was hammering in my chest, but not just because of the train. I didn’t know how Sam’s stooges were going to get rid of every single camera and cell phone. If secrecy was what he wanted, this was the end of it.

The Big Boy steamed and popped on the track, the steel cooling slowly, and the rail fans filmed and photographed the entire thing. You could hear the shutters of their cameras even over the sound of the Big Boy.

About ten minutes later, Sam appeared. The police helped clear a path for him to his position. There was no stage this time and the crowd made it more difficult to see him.

He walked right up to the Big Boy. He couldn’t touch it; it was too hot. Instead, he just lifted his hands before it, like a Baptist minister praying over the congregation.

He closed his hands into fists and a driving rod tumbled to the ground with a crash, followed by a valve with a clang. The whole crowd gasped. Hell, I gasped.

The driving wheels tumbled off. Then there was a metallic pitter-patter of bolts dropping off from everyplace, hitting like a rain shower. The volunteers in the matching hats didn’t seem worried and that put me at ease, but a few children were crying loudly and there was this murmur of confusion rising up from the crowd.

Sam unfurled his fists and whipped his arms out to either side. The train shattered. It avalanched in a jumble of parts and wheels and metal. The noise was deafening. In seconds, all that was left of the Big Boy was a hulking pile of parts. Chaos hit. The police were struggling against the surging crowd, trying to keep a few terrified seniors from stepping off the edge of the platform behind them.

I stood on my toes to look over the crowd and saw Sam’s solitary figure, like Jack before the giant’s carcass. Five minutes of panic reigned; five minutes of me getting jostled by confused, scared people and screaming cops. I couldn’t take my eyes off Sam.

Suddenly, he turned to face the crowd and raised his hands again. Everyone went still and silent. Lafayette was flashing at me again, his elegant gestures easily controlling the crowd. It was so quiet you could hear traffic, the blare of an ambulance in the distance.

Behind Sam, a small valve soared into the air, stopped, and hovered as it rotated. It was joined a second later by hundreds of bolts. If you squinted at them, they formed the rough shape of the steam engine, like a bizarre puppet armature waiting for something to support.

The cylinders sprang up followed by the rods and the pins. The smokebox reformed and floated like a soap bubble. The only sound was that of metal clanking here and there, the steady click, click of camera shutters. It took a mere minute for the train to be whole and perfect again.

When Sam lowered his arms, he exhaled, and it sounded loud in that deep silence. Then he bowed his lazy bow and disappeared into the speechless, unmoving crowd. I followed his progress with my eyes, but he didn’t look back at me this time.

I found the nearest bench and just collapsed onto it. I was exhausted and I hadn’t done a damn thing. Honestly, I felt like I’d lost ten years of my life from shock. It took over an hour for the platform to clear off. People were studying every part of the train, arguing about what piece went where and if everything was in the right place.

I was finally alone once the last cop left. I smoked cigarette after cigarette and my hand shook each time I took a puff. I don’t know how long I sat there before Sam came back.

“Better than your run-of-the-mill street magician?” he asked from behind me. There was a smile in his voice. I figured he really was toying with me, but what did I know?

“Now you’re just showing off,” I replied without looking away from the slumbering Big Boy. This man had taken my childhood obsessions and smashed them together into the greatest magic trick I’d ever seen. I didn’t want him to leave, but I didn’t really know what to say to him either.

“I was showing off from the start,” he said. “Did you like it?”

He plopped down beside me and I stole a quick glance. He had that flirtatious look on his face again, one eyebrow high. He seemed pleased with himself. He also seemed to be fishing for compliments. Hell, he deserved compliments, but I wasn’t capable of much of anything right then.

“You put it back,” I said instead of answering him.

“It’s no ordinary train. People would miss it.”

I really looked at him then, found that he was flat out staring at me. It’s funny the things you notice about somebody all of a sudden: his eyes were brown. I’d followed him from city to city and never noticed. They had warmth in them. Interest.

I reached out and touched his cheek, maybe just checking to see if he was real. He could do impossible things. For all I knew, his being there beside me was just another trick.

And, hell, I figured that if I was reading this wrong, he’d slap my hand away, maybe call me a fag, and that would be that. He didn’t, though.

Instead, he said, “You have a hotel?”

I let my hand drop. “Yeah,” I said. I was more interested than I thought I should be, trying to play it cool and probably failing.

“Good,” he said.

The low growl of his voice made my interest grow, but I felt suddenly sly and said, “It’s not really close. If yours is closer, we should go there.”

He smiled tolerantly. “You know I can’t take you back to my hotel room.”

And my mouth was watering like it did when I needed a smoke, imagining all the diagrams and equipment in that room, all the things that made the trick work. I wanted to see them so bad my fingers were twitching, too.

“Yeah. Okay. I drove here. Come on.”

“Won’t you need these?” he asked, and held out the keys to the rental.

“Nice pull.”

“Harsh review, remember?”

We didn’t really talk in the car. He stared at me and I stared at the road feeling nervous. At the door, of course he had my keycard. Fucking magicians.

“Remind me to put my wallet in the safe,” I grumbled.

“What, this?” he said and tossed my wallet to me.

Inside, I was surprised when he pushed me up against the door and kissed me. I mean, come on: When was the last time you kissed a one-night stand? We got undressed pretty quickly—I’ve never found undressing sexy, but I liked what I saw once his clothes were piled on the floor. He was thinner than he’d been when he pulled the Houdini years before. This was tough, wiry muscle. He was looking me up and down, too. His expression made it hard to remember how he’d ignored me back when he was Lafayette. Now he just looked like he wanted me.

I tumbled us to the bed, kissed anywhere that looked nice. He had this silly tattoo of an ace of spades on his hip and I kissed that, too. I learned that he had sensitive nipples, liked to have them sucked. We ended up on our sides facing each other, touching here, rubbing there. Kind of easy and slow.

He licked his palm a few times, which normally looks pretty goofy, but he had this way of doing it that made my cock twitch. He must have noticed because he smiled. Then he wrapped a hand around both of us and started a slow, perfect stroke. I held tight to him and rocked into the movement.

When he kissed me again, it was another surprise, but a good one, like that last gift on your birthday you hadn’t expected. I’ll say this: If you can get jacked off by a guy whose job it is to be good with his hands, I recommend it. Sam had this down to a science: the right pressure, the right speed. A hand job shouldn’t be that exciting, but there you go. And he was a talker. He had a filthy mouth, said things you wouldn’t expect to come from someone with that face.

“Fucking good. Yeah, come for me. Gonna make you come so fucking hard.”

So, yeah: filthy mouth, but it worked for me. We came at the same time—also a nice surprise—and the wet splash on my stomach was the best end to a night I’d had in a long time. He released me with a final stroke, kissed me again with a lot of tongue, and then pulled back. Suddenly, there was a towel in his hand—magicians, man—and he was wiping me off with slow, gentle strokes.

“Can I stay here?” he asked.

I considered him. His lips were wet and red from all the kissing. I could see myself waking up to that.

“Yeah. Hit the lights?” When the room went dark, he pulled me close. Surprises all around with Sam.

“We’ll sleep for a bit,” he said, mouth close to my ear, breath a warm tickle, “then fuck again in a few hours.”

I laughed. “I’m beat. I don’t know if another go is in the cards.”

“I’m a magician: cards are a specialty of mine. I guarantee you it’s in the cards.”

He was right, of course. He woke me up with that mouth of his and kept me up until morning. I don’t think you’ll be surprised when I tell you he was gone by the time I forced my eyes open around noon.

*****

And just like that, a pattern emerged.

In all the cities along the way between Kansas City and Dallas, you could find Sam in my hotel room, kissing me, bringing me off hard with his hand and his mouth. You could find me on my knees in front of him, mouth full, jerking myself off to the sound of his orgasms. It felt unreal. Even on nights when he didn’t perform, he still showed up with those kisses and touches that drove me wild.

We didn’t talk much, to be honest. We certainly didn’t talk about magic. I mean, what I wanted to talk about, he wouldn’t tell me. We got along fine in other ways. I liked how uninhibited he was, how free with his attentions. Though I never got the idea that this was something he did often, fucking complete strangers in cheap hotels. The part of me that had clearly become obsessed with him wanted to believe that I was the first and only time.

No, I didn’t learn much more about him. Where was he from? Was Sam Lee his real name? What about Lafayette? Why abandon that act when it was obviously still a part of him? The persona was so ingrained that Sam couldn’t quite keep it from surfacing. Was Sam Lee the persona, then, and Lafayette just quietly biding his time until he was ready to return?

And there was the biggest question of all: the trick itself. Had Sam been its architect? If not, then who? The trick was almost like a silent bedmate, curled up in the space between our bodies after sex so good I still fantasize about it. City after city, hotel after hotel. Sometimes Sam hit me with a look so intense that I got the feeling he knew more about me than I could ever know about him.

I can’t explain it, but it started to feel like a regular thing, not just a one-night stand extended over several major cities. Every time I saw the trick, my determination to understand it grew. Every night I spent fucking Sam only made me want him more. Funny, huh?

In Tulsa, I needed him so much I barely let him get through the door before I was on my knees, mouthing at his cock through his jeans, getting the denim wet and hot. I peeled them off of him, like unwrapping a present. Did I mention he was a talker?

“Suck it, yeah,” he said and thrust in and out of my mouth hard, but not as hard as I could take. “Let me fuck your mouth.”

And I liked it. God, I liked it. I know I’ve said it before, but I really want you to understand this: It was good between us—a little wild, no rules, and no strings. He was always gone in the morning, but maybe he felt playful in Dallas because there was a message on my phone waiting for me.

That was fun, it said. Come see me in Houston. And dammit if he didn’t send along a link to his website. Real cute.

*****

Houston wasn’t meant to be. Bad luck hit and my plane wasn’t allowed to take off because of a mechanical problem. I missed the performance by three hours. I’d have to catch Sam in San Antonio. I considered driving, but couldn’t stand the idea of all the nothing on either side of every road that Texas has to offer.

So I booked another flight, sat at the gate, and used my phone’s browser to find what Sam had done in Houston. There was a post on a magic forum that said he’d turned the wheel to dust again.

Someone had uploaded a video of the Big Boy trick from K.C. It had over 9,000,000 views. I watched it over and over. I’m in the crowd, my mouth hanging open stupidly. Yours would have been, too.

I made it to San Antonio in time. The crowd for this show was bigger thanks to the video. There wasn’t enough space on the platform for everyone and people were being turned away. The police looked frazzled and on edge.

Sam threw the wheel—made a couple people scream in surprise—and I couldn’t figure out if there was a pattern to which variation of the trick he did. Were there more variations? When would I see them?

Sam didn’t leave me waiting on the platform long after the show, just walked right up to me and kissed me.

“Houston?” he asked against my lips.

“Delayed flight,” I sputtered. People were staring.

“Car?”

“Parking garage.”

He took my hand and led the way. In the parking garage, he hit the unlock button on the key fob for my rental. I snatched the keys back and gave him a nasty scowl. He shrugged, remorseless.

We fell asleep holding each other again, panting, sweating, and satisfied. When I dreamed, it was of the steam engine tumbling to pieces like a tower of blocks.

I woke up mid-morning and just sat with my back against the headboard, watching Sam sleep. He’d stayed the whole night and that was…different. I don’t know if I thought about what it meant. I don’t think I had my head on straight at all. Regular, fantastic sex with a mysterious guy—not to mention the mother of all magic tricks—seemed to have turned my brain to mush. I wanted a smoke, but I couldn’t make myself move.

It took another hour for Sam to wake up. The light through the curtains hit his face in a slice across his eyes, making him seem otherworldly. He blinked up at me, smiled, and smacked his lips once or twice.

“Morning,” he said. It was that satisfied, last-night-was-good way of saying “morning.”

And I meant to say “Morning” back, but what came out instead was: “Tell me how you do the trick.”

To my credit, I knew this was a mistake right away.

His expression turned ugly. He wasn’t asleep anymore; he was awake and mad as hell. I leaned away because I honestly thought he was going to haul off and hit me. He didn’t, though.

Instead, he said, “You know what? Fuck you.”

Then he silently gathered up his clothing, dressed, and left me sitting there in the center of the bed feeling like a moron. It occurred to me right about then that I maybe had my priorities messed up.

*****

With Copperfield, each trick had to be bigger than the last. How do you top making the Statue of Liberty disappear? You fly over the Grand Canyon. How do you beat that? You walk through the Great Wall of China.

And maybe after a while, you just stop doing magic because there’s nowhere left to go.

*****

I figured Sam would try to outdo himself for the finale. It was a vague notion in the back of my mind, hanging out with another notion that said I should apologize to him. Between San Antonio and San Diego, he never came to me again. I tried to catch his eye during his act. No dice.

The size of the crowds was insane now, mesmerized admirers following him everywhere. Just like me, I guess. I tried to get close to him to say…something. But he made it pretty clear he thought I was scum. Hell, I felt like scum. His stooges did a great job of keeping me at a distance.

“Sorry, buddy, but that’s as far as you go.” Assholes.

I missed kissing him most of all, if you can believe it. Even more than the sex, I missed kissing him. Pretty pathetic, right?

The last stop of the tour was Los Angeles Union Station. The city where it all started, I thought. The setup. Now I think of L.A. as the end. The payoff. Only, of course I didn’t know that, then. I was just following Sam blindly across the country.

I was in L.A. days early, having skipped two of his shows: one in Escondido and one in Palm Springs. I wondered if he’d looked for me, or if he’d been glad not to have to see my face.

I had a stray thought as I went to sleep that I hadn’t missed the shows at all. Maybe they hadn’t happened in Escondido and Palm Springs because I wasn’t there. Everyone else watching Sam perform was a stooge and Sam’s shows were all for me. It was a silly thought. I guess I was getting romantic from missing him. From regret?

The next day, I went to the Castle after realizing I hadn’t seen another performer in weeks. I was surprised to find the woman with the excellent card technique from years before. She had panache at last, having developed a persona that worked with her looks and skills. She recognized me, shook my hand, and told me my review had inspired her to improve. Honestly, it was nice to return to a world with normal magicians who did normal tricks. Being amazed was taking its toll on me.

It was probably due to nostalgia, but I ended up in North Hollywood, back at the little theater where I’d first seen Aleister Lafayette. It was gone, of course. In its place was a restaurant specializing in chicken wings. Big televisions on every wall played basketball and golf. I shook my head and turned away.

I went back to my hotel room, opened the door, and I wasn’t even surprised to see Sam on my bed. He was practicing fans with a crisp-looking deck of cards.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I replied.

“Thought we could fuck,” he suggested.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I said. I shut the door behind me, threw the deadbolt. He did a modified bridge with the cards, a little flourish, and had them stacked neatly on the nightstand in an instant. He started unbuttoning his shirt.

It was a nice view, but I said, “I’m kinda gross. Mind if I take a shower?”

“Not at all,” he said. His hands stilled and he flopped back onto the bed like a kid. And just like that, I guess we were okay.

I ran the water hot, which is the point of hotel showers. I took longer than usual, thinking things over. Why had he forgiven me? Had he forgiven me at all?

When I was done, I wrapped a towel around my waist and padded out into the room. Practical of me, right? I was feeling bold so I walked to edge of the bed and stood there waiting for him. Sam smiled, planted his feet on the ground so that his knees were on either side of mine. He caught at the towel and used it to tug me closer, his knuckles warm and soft on my stomach.

He jerked the towel off and, yeah, we were on the same page. I got him undressed quickly. He was half-hard, just as nice as I remembered, better than my fantasies. I pushed him down, clambered on top of him, and used my mouth to get him hard. He was into it, fucking my throat, talking dirty with one hand clenched in my hair.

His fingers slid from my hair to the side of my face and he pushed against my hollowed cheek, touched himself through the skin and tissue. I bobbed up and down, let him feel his cock moving in my mouth.

Then he was grabbing at my hair again, tugging me up. His cock went pop out of my mouth and I said, “Hey!” I’d been enjoying myself.

“Sorry. Sorry,” he panted. “I have lube. Condoms. Let me fuck you?”

I blinked up at him through that hazy kind of lust you feel sucking someone off. This was definitely not one-night stand type of stuff. The last guy who fucked me, I’d been dating for six years. No matter what porn flicks say, anal isn’t casual sex.

I sat up, touched his chest as I thought. “Yeah, okay,” I agreed.

Yeah, don’t ask. I have no idea, but I wanted it. Right then, with this impossible man, I wanted it. He really had come prepared: the lube and condoms were unopened, still in a shopping bag. I caught a look at the receipt and it was from two weeks before. So he’d been thinking about this in all those cities. All those train platforms with him ignoring me, and this had been on his mind. We’d lost so much time.

I think we made up for it that night. Sam didn’t rush, kept me interested with his mouth and tongue while he prepared me. It had been years for me, but he seemed to understand. He praised me with that filthy mouth of his, got me slick and open carefully like it was my first time, instead of just my first time in a long time. Soon enough I was ready, wet deep inside, and my cock hard and leaking. I helped him with the condom—his hands were too slick with lube—and then he was trying to roll me onto my stomach.

“Like this,” I said and resisted. He looked like he wanted to argue, but I stroked his chest and said, “Like this,” again.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll give it to you any way you want it.”

A pillow was wedged under my hips. Sam dropped on to one elbows, kissed me hard, took himself in hand, and then pushed inside. I shouted and clung to him, panting against his shoulder.

If you’ve never been fucked like this, it’s hard to understand. Some guys can get off on anal no problem, and more power to them. But for me, there’s always been discomfort and pain with just a thin layer of pleasure over the top. My ex liked to fuck me, so I learned to focus on the good parts for his sake. I’d never really loved it. But with Sam, it was just good. Honestly, it was the best sex I’d ever had.

What little pain there was faded away and left these waves of heat and need washing over me. I was noisy, desperate for more, jerking up into his thrusts. I needed him to fuck me harder. I needed him to hold me and kiss me while he fucked me. I needed his tongue stabbing into my mouth and his hand squeezing my thigh and my ass. Sam was crying out with each jerk of his hips. For once he seemed so overwhelmed that he wasn’t cursing or talking dirty. Instead, he made hungry, heavy sounds.

It felt like this endless, wonderful thing, but, come on, how long does sex actually last? Even really good sex isn’t necessarily marathon sex. Maybe it was over in minutes, but those were some spectacular minutes.

He didn’t even have to touch my cock. I just came, shouted out some incoherent sound. He hissed and I knew what it was like to have muscles clamp down on your cock like that: too good, too much all at once. He came loudly, jerking through it. For a crazy moment, I imagined doing this without the condom. Right then, I wanted to feel that hot rush inside me more than anything.

He fell on top of me—knocked the wind out of me—but I didn’t mind. It took a minute for his breathing to even out. He tried to roll off of me, but I just held him.

“Don’t. Not yet. Stay. Shhhh.”

“Fuck, fuck,” he was saying over and over, hips still twitching. I stroked his damp hair and kissed his neck. We should have been doing this in San Diego. We should have been doing this every night since San Antonio.

He pulled out, eased off the used condom, kissed me again, and then disappeared into the bathroom. He came back with a towel and wiped me down with this tender look on his face. It did funny things to my insides, like a little flip flop.

“Please stay,” I blurted out. It must have been the right thing to say because he smiled, hit the lights, and then wrapped himself around me.

“You’ll be there tomorrow?” he whispered.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Who needs the world, anyway?”

He left first thing in the morning—wouldn’t even stay for a quickie—and I was disappointed, but I understood. After all, he had one last train to vanish.

*****

Union Station in Los Angeles is not much to look at from the outside, but the interior is beautiful. Heavy, padded wooden benches run the length of the floor, and the ceiling comes to this elegant peak of exposed beams.

The Metrolink trains hub out of Union Station and they are some of the ugliest things I have ever seen. Hulking, white, double-decker, commuter trains, they make stops at major cities like Anaheim and San Bernadino. They’re utilitarian workhorses, not elegant machines like the Big Boy. Why Sam would pick such ugly ducklings for his finale, I couldn’t understand.

The crowd for this last show gathered early. The police and the sheriff’s department turned out in force to keep the peace, but they looked dangerously outnumbered. Night fell. The sky was a murky velvet color with sparse pinpricks of light, the kind of sky you only see in L.A.

At eight o’clock, there was a ripple on the platform. Sam was struggling through the crowd just to get into position. Police had to escort him. He caught my eye as he passed and smiled a secret smile. I was shaking, actually shaking. No one knew what to expect, least of all me.

The Metrolink train pulled up. The Orange Line, bound for Oceanside. Passengers exited, some looking confused by the crowd on the platform. The doors closed in a whoosh and the whole world seemed to be holding its breath. The show began.

Sam walked to the edge of the platform, facing the train. He lifted one hand out to his side and the huge thing jerked on the track. He splayed his fingers and the train rocked alarmingly like an earthquake had hit.

Sam raised his other hand and the train lifted right into the air. It was a giant metal snake, gently slithering on top of nothing.

“Son of a bitch,” someone cursed from my left.

I think I stopped breathing right about then. The woman beside me clutched her chest and then signed herself.

The train hovered about a foot in the air, swaying from side to side. Sam raised his arms above his head slowly and the train lifted up higher and higher. Soon, we all had to crane our heads back to look at it. I’d never seen the undercarriage of a train so clearly before, the mess of metal crammed together to form a working thing. I remember being afraid that it would drift over our heads and come crashing down on top of us.

I was only vaguely aware of Sam swinging his arms forward, clapping his hands together loud enough that people jerked in surprise. By the time the echo of that clap faded, the train was gone. It had vanished in mid-air. It was there, and then it was gone.

Somebody screamed and just about everybody had their mouths hanging open. We were a pretty sad looking bunch of people right then.

How do you top ripping a train apart in seconds? Apparently you make it fly. Then you make it disappear. I wanted to hop off the platform, feel around to see…I don’t know. Something. The police and sheriffs kept me and everyone else back behind the yellow line.

“Show’s over! Show’s over!” they shouted.

Nobody tried to stop Sam as he left. I was right by the stairs and he stopped at the top of them, looked at me with a mischievous expression.

“Just like David Copperfield, right?”

“Yeah. Just like David Copperfield,” I said.

He gently touched my face, and then took the stairs down two at a time. I have to be honest: The rest of the night was pretty much a blur. By the time I staggered back to my hotel—and Sam opened the door of my room wide before I could even get to my key—all I could do was slam the damn thing shut, push him up against it, and kiss him until he was squirming against me.

“You’re a bastard,” I said.

“Yes,” he answered with a gasp and I cupped him, squeezed the heat between his legs.

“A real fucking bastard,” I said and started rubbing hard and fast.

“Nng. Yes. Fuck. Yes.”

It sounded nice, so I gave him more, decided I was going to make him shoot like a teenager right there in his jeans. He came with a cry against my mouth and I swallowed it, shoved my tongue against his and drank the sound down.

“Shit,” he cursed and then kind of sagged against the door. “Shit, shit, shit.”

I stepped back and adjusted myself, liked how he looked all red and sweaty with a damp stain on his jeans. I started tugging off my clothes, not caring where they fell.

“Come to bed,” I ordered and then climbed in myself. He joined me a moment later, and all that skin pressing against me almost made me forget that he was a terrible showoff and a bastard. He reached between my legs, started a slow, lazy stroke.

“You didn’t put it back,” I groaned.

“It’s an ugly fucking train,” he said. “No one will miss it.”

*****

In the middle of the night, I awoke to find him still there, wide awake, and staring at me. I reached for him, but he pulled away. There was a strange look on his face made stranger by the weak moonlight coming through the curtains.

“Hey, hey. What’s wrong, huh?”

At first he said nothing, but then he asked, “Do you want to know how I do the trick?”

He had a real bad habit of making my heart stop. What was going on? The finale of a tour didn’t mean the trick was dead. He could sell it to another magician, make millions. Telling me would ruin the whole thing. I knew I should say “no,” especially since I’d fucked up so hard in San Antonio. Even still, I didn’t even hesitate.

“Yes,” I said.

Then, ever so slowly, he leaned forward, pressed his mouth close to my ear.

And he told me.

*****

If you’ve ever seen a flash—the assistant’s feet as she hurries behind the curtain, the wire holding up the table, the gaps in the Chinese Rings—you know how disappointing it can be. You went to see a magic show to be tricked. And when you know how it’s done, you’re not being tricked.

At the heart of every magic trick is an audience wanting to be lied to.

*****

I woke up the next day sweating with a fever. My throat was desert-dry, my head stuffed full of cotton. I remembered strep throat from when I was a kid and this was ten times worse. Sam helped me to the bathroom when I had to vomit, wiped the sweat off my forehead.

I don’t know what had hit me so hard. The flu? Some kind of stomach bug? All I can tell you is the more I thought about the trick—how he did the trick—the worse I became. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to move. I had fever-dreams that Grand Central Terminal was being crushed by a Big Boy as large as a city, flattened into a pile of debris. Once the train came to a stop, it fell to pieces.

Sam was there every time I opened my eyes with this strange little frown on his face. I could only croak out words to him because my throat felt like a string of pain had been pulled tight around it, holding in my words.

“The train,” I muttered. I was delirious, I know that now. Hallucinating.

“Yeah,” said Sam. “The train?”

“It…disappeared.”

“Yeah.”

“I…I started to think,” I tried, but coughed so hard he had to give me water. I settled back against the sweaty pillows, tried again. Behind my eyes, the Big Boy was smashing into buildings. “I started to think it was real.”

His face was somber. “Did you? It’s just a magic trick.”

I coughed again. I was trembling. There was sweat in my eyes. “I think…I’m disappointed.”

He looked at me steadily. “And that’s why a magician never gives away the trick. I thought… No, never mind. I shouldn’t have told you,” was all he said.

I faded in an out of consciousness for a day or two. I think a doctor came, but I don’t know about that. Who does house calls anymore, anyway? There was medicine, and it tasted awful, but seemed to help.

It was probably days later that I was able to talk to Sam lucidly again. I was muttering to him about David Copperfield.

“I saw that special, too,” he said. “Making Liberty disappear. Do you know how he did it?”

I laughed roughly and said, “I think everybody knows how he did it, now. It was a long time ago, and he was very famous. It’s been ripped apart.”

Sam’s mouth turned down. His fist clenched on his thigh. “That’s the thing about a great trick: there’s always someone out there scrutinizing it, trying to figure it out. Trying to ruin it. Even you. Why do you think that is?”

I shifted my head from side to side. “I don’t know.”

A coin appeared in his hand and he lazily flipped it over his knuckles, watching it with rapt attention. “So. Would you like to see a magic trick?” he whispered, never looking up.

What else could I do? I said, “Yes.”

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes. Show me.”

Now, let me say this: I know I had a fever. And maybe I mentioned to you that I tend to hallucinate when I’m sick. But here is what I think I saw:

He tossed the coin in the air. It never landed. Then he stood, reached up, and tugged at a hair on the top of his head. I winced at the idea of how much pain he must have felt, yanking out his own hair like that. It took a moment for me to realize that he hadn’t, in fact, done that at all. He hadn’t yanked it out. He was pulling at it, and the hair just kept coming, longer than was possible. Soon it was as long as a shoe lace and as thick as yarn and he just kept pulling.

I gasped. The top of his head was gone. He was unraveling.

If you’ve ever found a stray string on a sweater and tugged it, watched that sweater collapse into formlessness, you understand what I was seeing. Like that ruined sweater, Sam was coming apart, loop by loop.

That string was the color of his skin now, the end of it was on the ground, piling up as he pulled. I rushed forward to try to stop him, but he held out a hand, halting me. A second later and that hand was gone, too, falling to the floor in a tumble of yarn.

His belt fell apart, his pants, his shoes. There was nothing left but this colorful pile of yarn. And then it was over. That was the whole trick. He didn’t even bother to bring himself back. The bastard.

I simultaneously wanted to pick up the pile—maybe hold it to me or something silly like that—and didn’t want to touch it at all. Some of the yarn was red like blood and I didn’t know how thorough Sam had been.

I must have sat beside that pile of yarn for hours, thinking. As near as I could tell, I didn’t have a fever anymore. I felt, in fact, pretty damn good.

Any magician will tell you that transposition isn’t easy. This particular variation seemed impossible. How did he make the switch without a box or curtain? My mind was going a mile a minute, tumbling the problem over and over.

When my cell rang, I grabbed it blindly. “Yeah?”

“Did you like it?” asked Sam. He sounded far away, like maybe he was in a payphone on a busy street. In China.

I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I said.

And it was true. It had been a very good trick. I had no idea how he’d done it.

“Where are you?” I asked.

In answer, my phone beeped, signaling that a message had come through. It was a link to his website, which I opened. I scrolled down to a new list of tour dates and cities. Huh, China after all.

I wondered if I could get a flight in time for the first show.

 


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