If magic transforms the world around us, does it matter if it's all an illusion?
Tommy Goldin's bright yellow pants were soaked through with drizzling rain. His jeans underneath, glued to his thighs, showed blue-green through the thin yellow. He shivered. Water dropped out of his curly red wig like rain out of a shaken tree. Glancing down the street, Tommy wished for a bus to appear--Now! But none did, so he put his hand through the side slit into his jeans pocket and fished out a crumpled twenty, considered the soggy wad on his white gloved palm, then flattened the bill on his polka-dotted chest and carefully rolled it up, pencil size.
He peered through the tiny hole. Nothing but rain.
With the tube upright between thumb and forefinger, he eased a tiny red corner out of it until it blossomed into a large red triangle. A matching white one was tied to its end. Behind that came a blue, a green, a yellow and then a red again.
Tommy undulated the happy garland through the mist like a Chinese dragon, then whip-snapped it once. It disappeared.
He unrolled the twenty, folded it twice and slid it down the side of his big red plastic shoe. There was a trolley stop across the park. The trolleys always ran and the stop had dry cubicles, with benches.
He flapped past gray trees and cozy invisible squirrels.
Flap. Flap. How many flaps to a trolley stop?
Two hundred and seventy two.
Tommy sat on the bench behind the glass, the gray and the rain outside, still cold, but he wasn't getting wetter.
Jeremy Coombs, the birthday boy, had swung a stuffed raccoon, one of his brand new presents, by the tail all day, following Tommy wherever he went, batting him with it.
"Do more magic!" Jeremy screamed at him.
All the kids laughed when Jeremy hit Tommy with the raccoon.
"Do more magic!" they screamed along with Jeremy.
Tommy only had eighteen tricks. It was usually enough.
"Because you want to be a clown?" his father had said when Tommy told him he was dropping out of college. He was a junior at Boston University. A business major.
Tommy shrugged at his father and made a quarter float in the air.
"I will not tell people my twenty-one-year-old son wants to be a clown."
Mr. Goldin tromped out of the room.
That was the last time they'd spoken.
Tommy had to agree with his father that there were easier ways to make money than clowning. But if he was careful he could make the twenty last the week. Chicken legs, hot dogs, a big bag of rice, canned peas and carrots, milk, Cheerios, peanut butter, jelly, bread. All your basic food groups.
Veronica, his roommate, was flexible about the rent, nice enough but sometimes intrusive. It drove her crazy to see him rationing meals the way he did.
"Here, take this," she'd said last night, holding a ten in front of his nose. "Please. Get yourself a decent meal."
"I'll be fine," he said in between crunching bites of his supper, a bowl of dry corn flakes. "I'm doing a party tomorrow. Besides, if I take money when things are tough I'll develop a false sense of security." His tone of voice was quiet but firm.
Veronica said "Whatever," and tromped out of the kitchen.
They were just roommates, weren't sleeping together and didn't intend to. He'd met her his first night as a busboy at the Ninety-Nine restaurant, and at the coffee station she'd confided to him that she needed a roommate, quick. Tommy coincidentally needed a better situation, so the next Friday he checked out of the cheap rooming house where he'd been staying and carried himself and his suitcase over to Veronica's.
He moved in one day before he got fired from the Ninety-Nine for pretending to take out his eyeball, then pushing a pearl onion slowly out from between his lips onto a spoon at a table he was busing. The kids at the table went absolutely bananas but their mother became ill all over her half-finished dinner. He didn't mind being fired--he hadn't planned to stay there long.
That was four months ago. Veronica was still waitressing at the restaurant and reciting an unchanging litany of complaints about it, daily and nightly and in between. Things hadn't been going well at the apartment lately, either. Veronica couldn't understand him wanting to be a clown. Sometimes Tommy couldn't understand it himself. Then he'd juggle for children on the street and it all made sense again. A party like the one today, though, made him wonder.
Still, he had no regrets about becoming a clown. Tommy precociously realized most people couldn't recognize what was valuable until it danced down the street in front of them. That was why he liked magic: it got people's attention. And laughter, because it got to the heart of things. Some people--his father and Veronica--couldn't see how serious he was about fun and wonder.
He took off his rubber nose and breathed easier, wondered why he hadn't before, then swung his head to shake the rain from his wig. The water flew out around him in a circle.
A girl was walking toward the cubicle in the rain without an umbrella, dancing to some music that wasn't there. She wasn't wearing any headphones, as far as he could see. She was dressed all in black except for blue jean cutoffs; black nylons, black paratrooper boots, black leather jacket. Her hair, though, was the same color red as his.
She came up to the door and swung around inside, flopping onto the cold metal bench.
"Whew," she said, pulled her hair straight up, then bent her head forward and drew her hands down along the hair to squeeze the water out. Tommy half-expected it to drip red. She threw her head back and shook it left and right.
"Hey there, clown," she said. Her face was as white as a marble statue's. "When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. Might as well be dead. I don't mind." She stretched her mouth straight, a red-lipped knife-edge which he guessed was a welcoming smile. "I like the rain. Less regular people."
He assessed her face. It was plain, puffy with the last vestiges of teenage baby fat. The red lipstick and black eyeliner exaggerated her features, but underneath it was the face of any high school girl. Except for the dark circles under her eyes. Tommy managed a smile.
The girl cocked her head, slanting her eyes thin.
"Hey, you better not be some creepo clown--John Wayne Gacy the second or something. I got mace right here." She slapped her leather jacket pocket, but it was flat.
The girl cupped her nose in her hands and sneezed. Her fingers were stubby, the black polish on the short, bitten fingernails nearly all scraped away.
Tommy reached into his pants slit and extracted a black stick with white ends. He held it horizontally between both gloved palms. The girl noticed and worked her eyes slowly out of her hands, staring with a mixture of childlike curiosity and adult wariness.
He thrust his arms forward. The wand flew out into the air between them--and then wasn't there. In its place, a white handkerchief was gently floating down. The girl's mouth dropped open. Her eyes were wide.
Tommy smiled inwardly, knowing the expression well, having put it on children's faces hundreds and hundreds of times.
She caught the handkerchief in her fingers.
He took out his rubber nose, put it back on over his own, curled his hand around the bulb, uncurled his first finger and pointing at her nose, squeezed. A bicycle horn honked.
"Man..." she said, shaking her head. "This is so weird. Glad I'm not high."
She blew her nose loudly into the handkerchief, then folded it and held it out to him. Tommy frantically waved his gloved hands at it, fingers outspread cartoonishly.
"Oh, okay," she said, sticking it into her jacket. "Cool."
The horn honked again.
"Hey, how about you talk now, okay? Sorry what I said there. The world's fucked, you know? You got to be careful."
He looked down at his shoes, then said hesitantly, "The world's full of magic, if you believe in it mostly."
The girl winced. "Oh, man. What, you gonna give me a pamphlet now? Lemme guess--Clowns for Jesus, right?"
"No. I'm not preaching." He shrugged and looked away, then back at her. "I just decided a while ago to focus on things I liked, instead of things I didn't. So I try to find magic and put what isn't to the side and forget it." He shrugged again.
The girl laughed like leaves rustling in a graveyard.
"Yeah well, there's some things you just can't forget. You know?" She squinted at him. "Well, maybe you don't. Hey, what's your name, anyway? Your real one."
"Mine's Angie." She wiped her hand on her hip and extended it. "Pleasure's bound to be mine."
Tommy's brow furrowed into a question.
"I'm not the easiest person, I mean. I can be a pain."
She bent forward, elbows denting her black nylon thighs.
"Who says? You know what that sounds like? Kids. Ha! That's funny. I says, that's who says. You are different."
"I hereby declare you not some creepo clown." She made a cross in the air with the edge of her hand.
"I never was," he said.
"What'd I just say? You like museums?"
"Come on, then. Best thing t'do in the world on a rainy day."
Angie ran into the rain, dancing to music that wasn't there, and Tommy followed behind, happily flapping.
The woman in the blue suit jacket taking tickets called the guard over as Angie scowled. The woman was peering at the card Angie'd given her as if it would reveal some hidden truth if she stared at it long enough. The guard--a rotund, balding man--gave the card a cursory glance.
"Looks okay to me," he said.
"Yeah?" the woman said.
"Your museum doesn't discriminate against redheads, does it?"
The guard looked at Angie. The woman looked at the guard.
"So she gets in? The clown too?"
"Well, it's a preferred membership card. You're Angela O'Connell?"
"Yes," she snarled.
"Got an I.D.?" the guard asked.
She sighed and pulled a card out of her pocket. The guard looked at the tiny picture, then at Angie.
"Hair's different," he said.
"Yours too, probably," she said, and yanked both cards as he handed them back, sticking them in her pocket.
"Okay," he said.
The ticket woman moved back from the turnstile, eyeballing them as they walked through.
"Creeps," she said to the guard when they'd passed.
"Creeps," Angie said to Tommy and danced through the foyer, gaining distance. "Follow me," she yelled.
"Where?" he shouted.
Angie angled the corner akimbo and disappeared. Tommy jogged after her, his flaps echoing loudly off the marble walls.
She was standing at the end of each long room as he came in the opposite, then she was gone. He flapped past Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, disappointing Moderns, Asian Buddhas, Roman friezes, miniature pyramids, and Egyptian statues with serene African faces and jackal heads.
At the end of the Egyptian room, the corridor stopped. He looked left and right, then heard faint humming.
There in the sarcophagus room, Angie was leaning over a mummy case, face beatific, nose pressed to the plexiglass. He flapped across the floor and stood beside her. The mummy's desiccated features stared at him, slack-jawed, frozen in a palsied grimace.
"Isn't he beautiful?" Angie said.
Tommy had an uncle named Norman who'd contracted polio as a child a few years before Dr. Salk discovered the vaccine. Norman lived in a wheelchair at home with his mother, Great Aunt Eddis, a cheery woman who courageously fussed over Norman up until his death at the age of forty-six.
At family gatherings when young Tommy said hello, Norman drooled out of the corners of his mouth, twisting his already-twisted hands in an attempt to shake while desperately trying to mouth a few words Tommy could understand. Then Tommy did tricks for his uncle, who followed each movement with his eyes, carefully, at the conclusion clapping spasmodically, making noises like a seal. Great Aunt Eddis always told Tommy Norman loved his tricks more than anything. Tommy would have liked to think so, but could never tell for sure.
In the grayness of the late day in the windowed museum room, looking down at the mummy's sunken face, Tommy could have sworn it was Norman's.
"I had this uncle who died," he said, his face resting beside Angie's on the glass. He saw their reflections, white faces and red halos. "Do you think people are happy when they're dead?"
"Of course," Angie said. "Who wouldn't be? No pain, no world, no people, no El Supremo Scumbags. Just sleep. Forever."
Angie gazed down enraptured.
"His expression isn't real happy, though," Tommy said. "Probably from having to hold it all those centuries."
"Arf, arf, joke," she said.
"I'm a clown sometimes," he said.
They hung over the case gazing at the whiskered husk.
"Borges," Tommy said suddenly, turning his head to hers.
"Jorge Luis Borges. My favorite author."
"Oh well," Tommy said. Angie looked at him.
"Um... you were talking about Borges?" she said.
"Oh, yeah. In this one story, Borges says that these people on a planet named Tlön believed that when they dreamed, they were actually living another life someplace else."
"That's cool," she said. "I like that."
"Yeah. But what I was thinking was, what if when you die, if death's just like sleep, what if you go on living another life someplace else, a dream life that's real that happens someplace different than here, someplace where what you want is how it is. A place Uncle Norman could shake my hand."
"Yeah. This uncle I had who had polio."
"This disease they used to have."
"Oh. And if you got it you couldn't shake hands?"
"His were all twisted up."
"Like Jerry's Kids?"
"Yeah, like that."
Angie pointed her finger down at the mummy's face and ran a circle on the glass.
"So you mean someplace like heaven?"
"No, someplace like Earth, only better. Fun World."
"Fun World. Right," she said. "Yeah, well, as long as there aren't any El Supremo Scumbags there, I'll go."
"So what exactly's an El Supremo Scumbag, anyway?"
She glanced over at him laconically, then pushed away and danced across the room to another display case.
"C'mere, see the baby."
The mummy baby was a miniature of the other, in a little wooden coffin. Angie kissed the glass, leaving a red smear.
Out in the rain again, Tommy began to shiver at once. Angie ran down the sidewalk to the front of the museum and danced around the statue of the American Indian on the horse with his arms outstretched as if begging for an answer. A young man in a Punchinello suit and jester's cap whizzed by on Rollerblades, giving Tommy the peace symbol as he passed. Tommy honked. The drizzle and cold were regluing his jeans to already raw legs. He was wondering what he should do, what she would do, when she planted both feet square in front of him.
"Hey, Tommy the not-some-creepo clown. You like macaroni and cheese?"
"Cool. Then follow me," she said.
Angie danced and Tommy flapped and the rain drizzled down onto the cold gray world.
"This is it," she said, pointing to the brick façade of an old warehouse. "C'mon around here."
At the corner of the building they went down a narrow littered alley until Angie stopped at a rusty metal door with the numbers 666 painted in black, took out her key ring, and turned the lock. They stepped into a musty basement lit by a single bulb on a cord and walked past a boiler and some bicycles chained to a pipe. She stopped at a padlocked door framed in two-by-fours, keyed the lock, and with its bar in her mouth, pushed the door inward with both hands.
"Mi catha," she slurred. She spit the lock out and Tommy heard it clunk, then she pulled him, pushed the door shut and he was in total darkness. A light switch clicked. Blood shadows enveloped the room. The lamp was on top what he assumed was a kitchen table, a rectangle of plywood resting on four stacks of plastic milk crates. The lamp itself was an art-decoish statue of a woman in a roman toga with her arms held up over her head, hands under the lampshade as if holding the bulb. Tommy guessed the lamp woman was originally all white, but her face had black eyeliner and red lips crudely applied, and the toga dress was magic-marker black. Her white arms were toned red-orange by the bulb, like a moon in eclipse.
The apartment was one large long rectangular room, its walls painted black, with an oval island of gray shag rug sitting in the middle. On one of the long sides against the wall on the floor was a mattress; on the other, a television sat tenuously atop an aluminum stand, its bent antenna splayed eerily over it. An unlit yellow bulb hung down over the rug on a cord. Above the television, to its left, was a window--four panes on the top, four on the bottom--all painted black except for the top right, which was still clear.
Tommy walked to it, looked out and saw the full moon hanging in a narrow gray slot between high brick walls.
"Make yourself at home," Angie called out, "I'm getting supper. Turn on the TV. It only gets UHF, so no news--just cartoons, the Munsters, Dick Van Dyke, cool stuff like that."
He was sitting on the mattress watching Danny Partridge explain to his mother why he'd sold the tour bus when Angie came in with two plates and plopped them down beside him. In the gray light of the TV screen the food looked like white worms and pennies, until he recognized it--macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs.
"I'll get water," she said.
When they finished eating, he put his plate on the floor and watched the Partridge Family sing and sway their way through the closing song, each face beaming cheery good fun.
"I never saw this in black and white before," he said.
"Everything looks cooler black and white, I can almost stand crap like this." Her head bobbed along. "Nice family, huh?"
"I think they should have given the little girl something better to do than just shake a tambourine. I can even believe Danny on bass, but that little girl always ruins it for me."
"Well if Mom Partridge just married an El Supremo Scumbag, he could've thought up something for the little girl to do."
The beaming family kept singing.
"My guess is you want to tell me," Tommy said.
Her finger went across the plate under her knees.
"The El Supremo Scumbag?"
"It's not very nice..."
"Well what the hell, right?" Angie said, and drew her finger over the plate, then sucked it thoughtfully.
"Okay... well, once upon a time, okay, I was in a happy family too. Mom was good little housewife. Dad was a good Dad. We did everything families do, went to the zoo and the circus..."
"...yes, we saw the clowns. I was in Girl Scouts, I did good in school, we had a green yard, we weren't rich but we weren't poor. We were a happy little family. Then, when I got to be about twelve something happened. My dad... changed. Up till then he was just Dad, who loved me more than anything, who bought me toys, gave me Dentyne, said he'd climb the highest mountain and kill the meanest dragon for his one and only little girl, my idol, my best buddy and all that..."
--her lips pulled tight and she looked down and lolled her head side to side--
"...crap. So then one day, he decides to peel off his Dad mask. See, all that time there was somebody else hiding behind it, busy getting me ready for what he really wanted, and that somebody was--ta-da!--the El Supremo Scumbag of the Universe. But not my Dad, see..."
--she looked up and past the television--
"...the way I figure it was, the El Supremo Scumbag somehow took the place of my Dad and then waited there behind the mask for me to get old enough. What happened to my real Dad, I don't know. But when I got to be twelve, the Scumbag told me he was going to start teaching me something important that everybody had to learn, and it was best he was the one who taught me, since he was my Dad, even though the bastard..."
--her mouth twitched at the corner--
"... wasn't. Anyway, he said over and over it was our secret and not to tell anybody not even Mom, all the crap you've heard before. He taught me pretty slow, I'll say that. Waited for me to bloom to the ripe old age of thirteen-and-a-half before he actually did it to me all the way, so I guess you could say he wasn't a real sicko perv like the ones that do it to babies, just your ordinary Dad perv, even though he wasn't..."
--she sucked in deeply--
"...my Dad. I knew for sure he was fake when he started pretending to be even nicer than my Dad ever..."
--her face was lifeless except for her lips moving--
"...was, so I got this idea I'd pretend, too--pretend I was dead, whenever he did it. I don't know how I thought of that, I just did. Afterwards I'd say to myself, `Well, you were dead so it doesn't really matter.' Then pretty soon I started acting dead all the time, about everything. For a while there I think I really thought I was dead. I was pretty screwed up..."
--the Partridges were gone from the screen--
"...then when I was around fifteen I told my best friend Cathy Livingston and she freaked. That's when I figured out it was really way wrong. I thought about telling somebody but I didn't think they'd believe me. I had this weird feeling Mom wouldn't, or else she already knew. Then we had a field trip to the museum from school and I found other people who were dead like me and right away I loved that place, bought a membership with my savings account, started going all the time..."
--a smile threatened the edge of her lips then died--
"...for about a year, then I got thinking, I'm sixteen and a half, what the hell, you know? So I ran away. Found this place nearby, been here a year. I do chores and stuff for Mrs. Spinneli, the old lady who owns the building, I move stuff around for her upstairs. It's all storage rooms. Met her when I was scrounging the alley one day. Wicked lucky. She likes me, for some weird reason. She made me tell her the whole story before she let me move in. Doesn't charge nothin', just chores, even pays me sometimes."
She shrugged and looked at him.
"So now you have mummies," Tommy said, his mouth inverted. A tear fell out his eye, down his white cheek.
"Aww," Angie leaned forward. "Don't cry. Jeez. Here, come on." She wiped his face with the palm of her hand. "Stop, okay. Okay? Please."
He wiped his eyes with her hair. Angie sat back.
"Don't get weird on me, Tommy the not-some-creepo clown." She patted the mattress. "Lay your head. You wanna stay over? You can. I gotta tell you, though, I don't do anything. I mean anything sex-wise. I can't. So don't try, okay? 'Cause it'll just ruin everything. But you can stay. If you want."
"Well, I'd like to take this stuff off first."
"Absolutely," she said, yanked him up and took him to the bathroom.
Back on the mattress, the television off, they lay in near darkness, a long rectangle of moonlight draped over them. Tommy stared upwards. Angie looked at him, her chin on her arm.
"You have a nice face, now that I can see it," she said. She leaned close and put her lips to his ear and whispered, "Even though we're not gonna be having sex, you could give me a baby."
Tommy elbowed himself up. Angie was lying back on the pillow, grinning wickedly.
The ticket-taker that afternoon was the same woman who'd first bothered them. This day she wearily waved the now-familiar couple through as Angie brightly flashed her card and Tommy honked his nose. The woman sneered sourly, like always.
It didn't bother Tommy. He was happy today. The last four weeks had been the best, living with Angie in the black apartment, holding each other while they slept, like kids sleeping over.
They loitered in front of the paintings for a while.
"Okay?" she said. Tommy nodded and they went hand in hand to the mummy room.
Angie smiled and made faces at the baby. Tommy stood at her side, arm around her waist.
"Coochie coo," she said, poking the glass. She kissed Tommy on the cheek and danced out of the room. A minute later her head popped into the doorway. Tommy honked a questioning honk. Angie nodded.
From out of his sleeve came a slender propane tube no wider than a hot dog, then a long brass nozzle that he screwed on top. Tommy turned the knob and snapped his fingers. A thin, pointed blue line of flame shot out, yellow at its tip. He moved the yellow point slowly through the casing like a knife carefully through cake. The oval piece finally fell forward onto Tommy's gloved hand and he placed it on the floor, then put the tube away somewhere inside his pants and opened his billowy polka-dot shirt. Gently, he lifted the baby up out of its coffin through the oval hole, lowered it into the child harness strapped on his chest and buttoned the shirt over it.
Angie was standing in the corridor beside a glass case with a model of a pyramid inside, its tiny workers dragging big beige slabs. Tommy took her hand and they strolled proudly through the museum, walking out the turnstiles beaming at the sneering ticket lady.
Angie lay sleeping beside him on the mattress. Tommy lifted a card off the top of the deck. Strange, he was thinking, being there in a room with black walls with her. Strange. Most of the time it didn't seem so, but when it came on him, it came in flashes, like watching a ceiling fan whirr and your eye suddenly catching it mid-spin, stop-action. Not what he'd imagined his adult life was going to be when he was twelve or fifteen. His adult life--that was now.
But strange actually wasn't, if you belonged in it. Strange was all over everybody. Every future came out of a past made of strange.
Pick a card, a future. Change it into another. Pick a past. Make it disappear.
Sleight of hand. Magic. Tommy knew tricks.
He turned around the card in his fingers.
He snapped and it disappeared.
The baby was resting quietly beside the bed in the cradle Tommy'd built out of old boards from the basement, a plain little trough angled wider at the top with its bottom curved so the cradle rocked gently at a touch. Painted on the side was a top hat and a wand with white ends.
From out in the inked night moonlight streamed through the one clear windowpane, laying a milky-water square over Angie's quiet face. Sleeping now. Faraway face.
He looked out the window, thinking of the people of Tlön, wondering whether they knew they were dreaming when they lived in their dreams.
Tommy put his head down into the yard of light beside her and closed his eyes. Then he was asleep and they were in a different place, where no monsters hid behind Dad masks, where the rooms had white walls, where she didn't bury her heart with her pain, where their souls liquefied making love, where their baby's face wasn't brown leather and sunken sockets but rosy pink, its bright eyes watching the magic in wonder. And there was Uncle Norman, clapping with both hands, wide straight smile, shouting Bravo! each time Tommy did another trick.
William Routhier (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Boston and has written for Stuff Magazine, The Improper Bostonian, The Boston Book Review, and Living Buddhism; his fiction has appeared in Happy and atelier. He is currently working on a novel and a book of essays.
InterText stories written by William Routhier: "Graceland" (v7n3), "Fun World" (v8n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 William Routhier.