The Tahitian was lit up. The marquee was blaring white and the lobby, too, broadcasting illuminance onto the sidewalk of the Main Drag. The full moon has nothing on a fully-operational movie theater. It was the end of the evening, and evenings did a magic trick in Little Aleppo: you’d blink your eyes and it would be night. Locals used to say it was like the sky pulled a rabbit out of its ass, until The Spectacular Gordon actually pulled a rabbit from his ass during his routine at the Magic Fortress. The sun going down was not like that at all, locals thought. Nothing was like that. (The Spectacular Gordon doubled his price after that show, as from then on, promoters would pay him extra not to do that particular trick.)
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, had been to the Magic Fortress years ago. Right after college with a guy she knew from college, some dipshitty fuck named Browner. That was his first name, and he was too tall. Gussy liked tall guys–everybody likes tall guys–but he was duck-beneath-doorways tall, clothing from specialty shops tall. But he had invitations from the Magic Fortress, and you needed an invitation to get in, and Gussy had been living under the building’s spooky-ooky glare all her life. It was a third of the way up Pulaski Peak, the tallest of the Segovian Hills, sprawled across half the west face of the slope. Grays and blacks and midnight blues, and eaves and gables and widow’s walks, and windows that didn’t connect to rooms, several Escherite columns, and an outbuilding you could’ve sworn was on the other side the last time you looked. There were the Hills, and there was what was on them; there was the land, and there were the marks upon the land. Harper Observatory up top, the Magic Fortress below. All her life, there they were. They existed just the same way that the moon did, or the harbor.
She was 23, and her father was dead; she was ambivalent about both of those facts. She felt way too old, and far too young; she loved her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, even though he was an asshole. It takes a lot to get a girl to stop loving her father, and he did not reach those depths. He was not wicked. Her bedroom door was never opened late at night. He was not physically violent towards her, or her brothers, or their mother. He was just an asshole. He never laughed, and he never listened to music, and called the people he loved “stupid” all time. He yelled and he sneered. He hated men for specific reasons, and women in general. But Gussy remembered him running behind her cheering the first time she pedaled her bike down the street without training wheels, this disconnected memory, and so she still loved him and missed him. Her father was dead and she was 23, and she floated through the neighborhood drinking too much, and smoking too much dope, and fucking all the wrong people.
Like Browner. Gussy wasn’t attracted to him, but she found his gorkiness fascinating. And was a bit of a size queen. She was rewarded in that assumption, but it took 20 minutes of sucking and licking and stroking to get him within spitting distance of erect; when Gussy heard that he came out of the closet several years later, she was happy for him, but mostly just vindicated. Relationships and love and all that were confusing, but I know how to suck and lick and stroke, Gussy thought. You’re not hard after my sucking and licking and stroking, well: that’s on you.
But they hadn’t fucked yet, they were still at the Magic Fortress. The lobby is unmanned but for a larger-than-life statue of Houdini with his hand extended as if to shake. The carpet is very busy, and there are bookshelves along the walls.
“Anybody home?” Gussy said.
They looked around, and then at Houdini’s hand, and then each other, and then Gussy shook the statue’s hand. The bookshelf to their right swung open, revealing a maitre d’ in a tuxedo.
There was a dress code, and so everyone in the dining room was in suits, ties; dresses, heels. Gussy was in red, and Browner had a blue blazer with little gold buttons, the ones with anchors on them. Gussy tried her hardest not to make fun of them, and made it almost all the way to the entree. The food was beside the point. He was drinking bottles of Arrow beer, and she was drinking Lubyanka vodka with chocolate milk; she called it a Brown Russian.
“You gotta have one!”
“No. It sounds awful.”
“Brown Russian! Your name’s Browner! You gotta fucking have one!”
“I’m really okay.”
Browner was a pill, and Gussy began to tune him out after his reluctance to even try her delicious concoction, but she was still going to fuck him unless he called the waitress a cunt or said something really racist or whatever.
And then the shows. The Big Room had the big tricks, the ones that required a stage and setup and a pulchritudinous assistant wearing, for some reason, a bathing suit and high heels. The magicians made the women disappear. They sawed the women in half. Anyone could do magick, but magic was just for the boys. He threw a curtain up around her, and then she was wearing an evening gown, and the curtain went up again, and now she was in a spacesuit, and once more, and now she was wearing the same tuxedo as the magician. This got a laugh, for it was absurd. Gussy was bored. Just quick-change outfits. She did enough theater when she was at Harper College to not see the velcro seams and bulges.
She led Browner out of the Big Room, and at a table in the anteroom was an old man. The kind of old man they don’t make anymore: tiny and wizened and well-dressed. The Grand Imbrogliaro’s dusty evening coat had two sleeves, but only one of them was full; the right one was sewn tight to the side of the jacket and the cuff was in the pocket. He lost the arm in the Old Country. Which particular Old Country, the Grand Imbrogliaro would not say. He was not missing any hair at all, though it was stark white. There were two chairs on each side of the table, except for the side he occupied, and he smiled and invited Gussy and Browner to sit. They did, to his right.
“I need you to watch carefully,” he said.
He wasn’t holding a deck of cards–Gussy would swear to that–and then he was. His hand was bigger than Browner’s, and his fingers were muscled and long. Fresh manicure, the slightest crescent of edge above the pink plate. The pinky and the fourth finger hold the pack in place, and the thumb and first withdraw the cards, and then the empty pack is flicked across the table and the Grand Imbrogliaro blows a raspberry at it.
“Useless,” he said, and the cards flung themselves around his knuckles: they fanned out in a perfect circle, and then cascaded over one another trying to get back to their original position; he flashed their suits to Gussy and Browner, and then the backs–royal blue–and then they were in two piles, equal in number, and back again into one via an interriffling in which no corner caught corner, and then spread out in an equally-spaced line across the table’s green felt surface. Face down. The Grand Imbrogliaro smiled at the couple and his hand passed over the cards like he was giving benediction and SHWOP picked one from the line faster than you could see: it was the Two of Hearts, and he smiled at the couple again. There was a tip jar on the table.
He took the Two of Hearts and ran it along the line and the cards kicked in sequence like dancing girls, and now they were face up. The Two of Hearts is placed face down in front of Gussy, and he gathered up the rest of the deck in his great hand and FAMP slapped it down on the table. He pointed at Gussy’s card with all of his fingers, and said,
“Would you mind?”
She flipped the card. Seven of Clubs. He flipped the top card on the deck. Two of Hearts.
“You need to watch carefully.”
He handed Browner the deck.
He did, clumsily. The Grand Imbrogliaro could not help but wince. Browner placed the deck in front of him, and he shuffled it now, in his one hand, with his fingers working in unison and independently and in parallel. FAMP onto the green felt, and then he dealt the top four cards. All kings.
He took up the four kings and fanned them out and showed both sides of the cards, then laid them back down and showed the palm and back of his right hand. Gathered up the cards and threw them in an even line, face down, one above the other vertically. The palm, and the back of his hand. Then he flipped the cards face up. All queens.
“Things can change so quickly when you don’t pay attention. Were you paying attention?”
They protested that they were, and the Grand Imbrogliaro smiled.
“I’ll do it again. I’ll do it slower,” he said.
And he did. The shuffle, the pull, the fan, the spread, the palm, the toss, the reveal. He did the trick at half-speed, and Gussy and Browner bulged their eyeballs out at his hand and refrained from blinking.
“Did you see it?”
“No,” Gussy said. “Do it again.”
“How about even slower?”
His hand shifted in increments. His knuckles flexed and extended. The only impediment to his tempo was gravity; if only he could make the cards fall from his hand to the table less rapidly. And still: Queen queen queen queen.
“Even when you know it’s a trick,” the Grand Imbrogliaro said, “you still trust your eyes.”
The movie was playing in the auditorium, and Gussy lit a cigarette in her tidy office; there was an explosion, just pretend, but all the same it rocked the building that blared light onto the Main Drag, which had recently fallen into night. A Mustang, driven by a woman with an axe, was headed up into the Segovian Hills, past magic and onto magick, and a horse was, too, in the company of a boy with a rifle. Gussy didn’t know about either journey, just knew what was in front of her eyes, even though she had been warned against trusting them in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.