Awful Magic
Adam Reger

I.

The cursor had come to rest on the next item in Robert’s Facebook timeline, a video, and without any further invitation the video began to play, and his eye was drawn to something titled “World’s Worst Magician!”

A man in his early twenties, tall and slender, with a pencil-thin mustache, stood on a street corner dressed in a top hat, with a silky red cape draped over a faded denim jacket. In the background, a battered, green metal shutter was drawn down over a storefront. Someone had spray-painted TRANCE across the shutter at an angle, the E just three horizontal lines.

Smiling wolfishly, the magician fanned out a deck of brown and orange cards and offered them to a tiny old Asian woman. The woman touched a card and the magician muttered something and the woman pulled the card, looked at it, and put it back. With exaggerated flourish, the magician collapsed the fan of cards, shuffled them fluidly, and with a triumphal look doffed his top hat, reached inside, and pulled out the four of clubs.

“Is this your card?” Robert could read his lips.

The Asian woman shook her head. The magician flushed red.

Robert laughed, a short loud noise that surprised him.

The magician presented another card, this time more insistently. The woman shook her head. She’d clasped her hands behind her back, and her utter serenity made Robert laugh again. He was taking a break from drafting a marketing brochure on a new condominium development just outside Pittsburgh. Edward, his ten-month-old son, was sick today, and Robert was keeping the boy out of daycare and working from home. The marketing copy was due in a week, just after Labor Day, and Robert was rushing through it, getting just the general idea down for now. He’d come back later and clean it all up. He would have preferred to go through it slowly, dwelling on the details and word choice as he’d done when he still wrote fiction, but this was how he had to work now that Juliet was gone. The baby monitor was beside Robert’s laptop on the desk, softly humming. It was quiet for now, but Edward would wake soon enough.

The magician, scowling, turned away from the woman toward a small crowd that had gathered and singled out a tall man with thinning blond hair and glasses. The man reminded Robert of his father-in-law, Vincent, a shopkeeper in Juliet’s hometown of Laval, Quebec, but he had a large red birthmark on the right side of his neck and thus was not Vincent.

At the very tip of the cursor, an arrow pointing at her face, there appeared a thin woman with chestnut hair and a long, pale face, her lips resting in a faint smile. It was Juliet, his wife.

The blond man squinted at a card and pushed it back into the deck. Juliet was in the background, out of focus, but he recognized the way she covered her mouth with a hand as she laughed when the blond man shook his head. (“No, that’s not my card,” his lips said.)

Juliet disappeared as the camera zeroed in on the magician. His shoulders slumped and his head fell back. His top hat fell off and rested brim-up on the sidewalk, as if a rabbit might pop out. The video ended.

Robert watched it again. Juliet was there from the beginning as a dark shape, her navy blazer over the Asian woman’s left shoulder. At the twenty-two-second mark, her slender wrist moved in the background. Brushing her hair out of her face, no doubt wondering whether to keep watching this silly spectacle or keep walking. But where had this been, and when?

On the monitor, Edward began to stir, murmuring at the end of sleep.

The video was posted on June 3rd, just two and a half months ago. No, that was impossible. Edward settled, but Robert knew it was only temporary.

He watched the video a dozen more times, even as Edward’s cries became more insistent, no longer the murmurs of sleep’s end but the cries of a little boy waking up all alone in a darkened room and yelling, shrieking to be heard.

II.

The stranger had reached out to Brian through the Awful Magician website and now this man, Robert, was driving from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to meet Brian here at the Golden Nugget diner on Hamilton Avenue, a few blocks from the lake. Robert had said only that he’d like to pick Brian’s brain about a particular video. An amateur comedian, Brian thought at first. When he asked which video Robert had in mind — there were a dozen on the website — he answered that he’d rather show it to Brian “cold, so I can get your natural reaction.”

Robert had offered to pay Brian his “hourly rate.” On a slow night at Best Buy, sneaking looks at his phone back in the car stereo department, Brian debated what to ask for. Negotiating over e-mail made it easier to shoot for the moon and ask for fifty dollars an hour. Robert wrote back fifteen minutes later, agreeing, and as they firmed up the details — September 1, at noon, the Golden Nugget — Brian wondered if he could have gotten more.

“I look forward to our meeting,” Robert wrote, and said that he’d be wearing a red carnation in his lapel to help Brian identify him. Brian found this odd, slightly corny detail endearing, and on his dinner break, sitting out in his car eating Burger King, he searched Robert’s name and found his Facebook page. He was surprised to see that Robert was on the younger side of middle age, probably only ten or so years older than Brian. He was a good-looking, stubble-chinned man whose photos showed him with a wife and child.

Brian scrolled down Robert’s page, moving backward through time. His photos showed a chubby baby growing younger and younger, its fair brown hair growing thinner, its face getting mushier, its eyes less focused. Brian was ready to close the tab — Robert was a dad, okay; maybe he was going to perform a certain gag at his son’s birthday party and for some reason was willing to drive to Cleveland and pay to learn its secret — when he spied a photo of the baby sitting on the lap of a woman with sunken, haunted eyes and stringy hair. She was in a hospital gown, and no wonder. The woman was not well. He scrolled down and watched as she regained color in her cheeks, vibrancy in her eyes, until she was back in the hospital, only now her face was alight with happiness. This time Robert was standing behind her with his arm around her and the chubby little baby was a tied-up bundle in her arms. Brian’s break was nearly over by this time. He gobbled up the last of his sandwich and went back to work with an uneasy feeling he couldn’t quite name.

Now Brian found a parking spot right out front of the diner, beside some noisy construction being done to the building next door. The bell over the door jangled as he entered the Golden Nugget. He spied Robert at once but made a show of searching the restaurant, his eyes circling back and finally alighting on the red carnation.

Robert rose to meet him, approaching with his hand extended. He was tall and broad-shouldered and wore a sea-green blazer, made of velvet or something like that, doubtless very expensive. The flower in his lapel seemed like something a stylish foreigner would wear, not at all silly. His handshake was firm, and he wore a silver wedding band.

“Good to meet you,” Robert said as they sat. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“Not at all, not at all. Drive okay?”

“Fine, fine,” Robert said. “Kind of boring, actually.” Robert’s fingers played at the looped arm of his coffee mug.

The waitress came and told them the specials and took their orders.

“So,” Robert said, “I came across this video.”

“Right, yes. Can I walk you through a bit, or...”

“Someone very close to me appears in this video,” Robert said. It was as if he hadn’t heard Brian at all. “I’m hoping you remember this person, anything about that day. Who they might have been with, any details that might help me locate this person. I reached out in the comments section of the video, but all anyone could tell me was that you were based in Cleveland, and the video was probably shot here. I tried contacting whoever took this video but I never heard back.”

“Ah. I hate it when that happens,” Brian said. So this meeting wasn’t about any of his gags or tricks. The “this person” business was interesting. For some reason, Robert didn’t want to tip Brian off as to who the person was.

“Let me set this up.” Robert swiped and punched at the screen of his phone, then turned it toward Brian and leaned it against a sugar canister. “Here we are.”

“All right. Let’s take a look.” The video had already begun to play.

It was one of Brian’s early performances, he could see that right away by his haircut and the red satin tablecloth his mother had hemmed into a cape. In this one he was still going by The Great Tostini, the extremely embarrassing name he’d used as a serious magician. Brian wanted to ask how Robert had found this. This certainly wasn’t one of the videos on his website. Once he changed his act and became The Awful Magician, he’d wiped out all the Great Tostini videos he could find. Here, clearly, was one he’d missed.

The trick was a spread cull with his trusty Cleveland Browns deck. Very basic. The first mark didn’t recognize her card and even now he couldn’t see why the trick faltered. You were supposed to collapse the fan of cards and quickly cut the deck, spiriting the mark’s card away in a flourish of fancy shuffling, but Brian could see his hands were shaking and he lost track of the second mark’s card.

He’d gotten much better since this video was recorded. You could see it in his body language, his almost nonexistent audience patter, the way he went to pieces after the first trick fell apart; he’d been an amateur then, he hadn’t known who he was or what his strengths were.

Brian was better, much better now at reading the mark, responding, giving them what they wanted. The irony was that the essence of his act, now that he was The Awful Magician, was to play at the very real incompetence on display in this video. And that took real skill. Brian needed actual talent to botch a shuffle in a great, dramatic spray of cards, and to do it at just the right moment, and to make his face turn crimson in apparent rage as he stooped to gather up the cards. Far more skill than he’d had here, as The Great Tostini. As a serious magician, Brian had been stuck on street corners, begging for strangers to pick a card, any card. As a comedian, he was booking shows; next month he’d be performing at the Cleveland Comedy Festival.

When the video ended, Robert said, “At forty-four seconds, a woman appears on the screen. I’d like you to tell me if you remember her.”

Brian restarted the video and nudged the little white ball at the bottom of the screen until it approached the forty-four second mark. Sure enough, at that moment a woman appeared, partially obscured by the crowd. She was slender, with fair brown hair.

“She’s pretty blurry,” Brian said, “but I see her. Who is she?” Was this the woman in Robert’s Facebook photos? Brian supposed there was a distant resemblance.

“Any recollection of that day, anything you remember about this woman?”

Brian moved the video forward and back, watching the woman appear and disappear. He frowned thoughtfully at the screen, pushing out his lower lip.

“I’ve done so many performances, the faces all run together.”

Robert opened the manila folder beside his coffee mug and took a flier from a stack of them and pushed it across the table.

“This has better-quality images. Tell me if she looks familiar now.”

On the flier were four photos of the woman beneath the headline, “Have you seen me?” A phone number was printed at the bottom of the page. Two of the photos were stills from the video, and two were proper photographs of the woman. Brian recognized her from Robert’s Facebook photos, the blank-eyed woman in the hospital gown.

He stared at the photographs, stroking his mustache and presenting his genuine confusion as deep concentration. He had thought he understood the shape of things with Robert, but evidently he was wrong. In the photographs on the flier, the woman was healthy and happy, smiling brilliantly at whoever held the camera. Her hair shone and her big green eyes twinkled. She was beautiful and alive.

“How long has she been missing?”

“This doesn’t ring any bells?”

“I’m sorry, no,” Brian said. “I have to ask — you’re sure it’s the same woman?”

“What about where this video was shot. Is it near here?”

Brian found Robert’s habit of ignoring his questions off-putting, but he didn’t sense any malice in it. It was more like Robert barely saw him at all. Anyway, he thought, the customer is always right.

“That I can help with,” Brian said. He recognized the green shutter in the background. It was at East 9th and Lakeside, a corner he used to work at lunchtime. Office workers passed by on their way to a line of food trucks parked along the lake. It was maybe six blocks from the diner, he told Robert, not hard to get to.

“What about when this was shot?” Robert asked, fingers drumming on the edge of the table. “It was posted June third of this year, but I’m not sure about that date.”

“No, that’s way off,” Brian said. “This is from three years ago, at least.”

Robert’s forehead flattened out in apparent relief, but immediately the color bled from his face. Brian didn’t understand this reaction in the slightest.

The waitress set down their food and said that she’d be back with coffee refills.

“Does that help at all?” Brian asked.

Robert closed the manila folder and set it on the booth beside him, out of view.

“Oh, immensely.”

III.

Robert ate half of his Cobb salad and drank most of the coffee. When the waitress came around for another refill, he held his hand over the mug and asked for the check. The magician tried to make small talk, asking about Pittsburgh and whether the summer had been very hot, but Robert’s mind was far away — probably he had that distant look that Juliet had always remarked on — and the magician turned his attention to his Monte Cristo.

After he left this place, he’d dump the fliers in the trash. Juliet wasn’t out there somewhere, she was neither avoiding him nor waiting to be found. He’d known that.

Robert had met her in the latter half of his twenties. The nonprofit where he worked, writing grants and press releases, sent him to a conference in Boston and he went with what he’d thought was a secret sense of irony, of playing the sort of model employee who nodded thoughtfully through panels on direct-mail fundraising and the embryonic potential of social media, all the while concealing the fact that he was a budding novelist, a writer of genius. He wore the green velvet jacket he had on now, a secret signal, if only to himself, that he was more than some dull office scribe. He was wearing it when he met Juliet at a wine and cheese mixer, recognizing a real professional when he saw one. She was genuinely interested in growing her organization’s membership base, and sniffed out his irony at once.

“So are you in a band?” she asked, smiling. “Working on a screenplay back at the hotel?” There was a French flavor to hotel, the h barely there at all. Later, after another plastic cup of wine, she touched the lapel of his blazer, running the soft fabric between her fingers. “It matches my eyes,” she said, smiling widely up at him, close enough that he could smell her lavender perfume.

“That corner you mentioned,” Robert said. “How do I get there?”

The magician, startled, looked up. He swallowed a morsel of food and said, “I can draw you a map.” He dabbed at the corners of his mouth and produced a pen from his pocket. Before Robert could protest, he turned over the flier and began laying out the city.

If the magician insisted that he have a map, then fine. He was an odd young man, Robert thought, glancing over the magician’s thin mustache, his long, slender fingers. On his website, Robert had watched all of the magician’s videos, the same joke repeated: he was bumbling and inept, exploding in frustration when a hidden coin tumbled from his sleeve, a rabbit escaped from his top hat, or a simple card trick turned into a shower of cards.

But the magician was young, Robert thought, pushing his salad around the plate, and he had the gift of the young to be guileless. Someday, long after he had given up on magic in any form, the magician would be glad he’d stood on street corners wearing a cape and a top hat, affecting that ridiculous mustache, just as Robert was glad of all the time he’d spent on his quiet little short stories and his doomed, unwieldy novel, those hours at his desk trying to coax life from made-up characters. Of course, he wished now he’d spent that time with Juliet, but you were condemned to live life forward and understand it backward.

Robert downed the last of his coffee and stared through the porthole window into the diner’s kitchen. Embarrassment was creeping in around the edges of his consciousness, a deep sense of foolishness at the mania that had carried him here. It was as if he’d sleepwalked somewhere and, waking, couldn’t fathom how he’d come so far.

The waitress tucked the check beneath his plate. Robert took out his wallet and laid a twenty on the bill, then pushed $50 toward Brian, who didn’t look up, engrossed now in labeling city streets. His pen was the fancy kind, with a diamond-shaped nib. Too much trouble, in Robert’s experience, but he understood the appeal of an affectation like that. (Robert’s fingers went to the lapel of his blazer, adjusting the carnation absentmindedly.) And Brian’s lines were beautifully crisp, the ink glistening like oil under the diner’s fluorescents.

The only thing for it was time, that was what everyone said, and the awful thing was that they seemed to be right. Juliet’s sudden illness and death had ripped into him and gone out the other side, and in the months since then he had actually begun to believe that the hole might someday suture itself together again. That eventually there would come a day when he wouldn’t think of her, or would need to look at Juliet’s picture on the mantle to remember the details of her face.

It was at this moment that the video had appeared, unsettling all that healing, forgetting, whatever it was. He had welcomed the tug at his stitches, the invitation to ask questions, to develop wild theories. It was also an invitation to hope.

The waitress came and plucked up the check. She’d be back with his change, she said, and he was too caught up in his thoughts to tell her to keep it.

He had been there when Juliet died, as he’d been there through every phase of her sickening, her radiation treatments and her hair falling out, her resignation and the last days spent in Mercy Hospital at the edge of downtown Pittsburgh in a room overlooking the Monongahela River. At night the still river had reflected, blurrily, the houses stacked on the hillside across the water.

In the hospital, for an unknown stretch of time, some fifteen minutes before she died, Robert had fallen asleep in a chair in the corner of her room, and woke only at the keening of some machine. Her body by then was gaunt, her skin waxy and pallid, and her hair thin. It was not impossible that someone might have rigged up a dummy to look like that, switched it in for Juliet, and secreted her off somewhere, to Quebec or Cleveland or who knew where. A clever designer could put a device — something as simple as an egg timer or a wind-up toy, like one of Edward’s — in the dummy’s chest, a piece of clockwork ticking slower and slower like a heart running through its last beats.

It felt good to imagine that she was out there still, even when this hopeful fantasy turned on him: why had he not heard from her? Or if she had gone through all of this to escape him, why had she not made some move, through her parents, Vincent and Regine, for example, to bring Edward to her?

But Robert could always supply another explanation. She was biding her time, she was testing him. His stories betrayed her memory and the traces of how honestly, how simply she had loved him and loved Edward. Though he woke to them occasionally, comprehending what his mind was up to, he couldn’t stop the thoughts, the stories, from coming.

Cleveland was supposed to solve that. The magician was supposed to help, remembering Juliet’s face or who she was with that day. There might be some clue at the corner where she’d paused to watch the magic act. He would hang his fliers, and if anyone knew anything he’d race back to look for her.

But now he had his answer: the video was too old to contain the living, the delivered Juliet, and there was none of the finality he had longed for. Instead there was another thread, almost too short to pull at.

If the video was three years old, as the magician said, then it was shot after she had moved to Pittsburgh, after they’d been married more than three years. She was two and a half years from the start of her illness, seventeen months from getting pregnant with Edward. When the video captured her in the background, they had just started trying for a baby, a reversal after years of absolute certainty that they did not want children.

All that wasted time that she could have known Edward. She’d barely gotten to meet him, it seemed, before her body began to fail her. Edward would know his mother only from images.

Her job in Pittsburgh called for little travel, and only to Jacksonville and Dallas, the company’s other branches. Never to Cleveland. She’d never set foot in Ohio, not that he knew of.

But Robert had dropped Edward at daycare this morning, and driven here, and would be back in Pittsburgh in time to pick the boy up in the afternoon. A person could take a sick day and sneak away to Cleveland and back quite easily, if they had a reason to.

Robert colored. A sudden sense of impatience overtook him.

“Listen, I’m going to get going.”

The magician was writing something, directions, to the side of the map, and looked up slowly. “I’ll just grab this and head out,” Robert said, coaxing the sheet toward him. He wanted the flier, these images of Juliet, far more than he wanted the map.

Brian’s eyes were half-lidded. As Robert slid the map off the table, the magician looked at it as if he’d never seen it before.

“Thanks again for your help,” Robert said, standing up.

But the magician made no move to stand, and on an impulse, Robert said, “You believe in magic, right? What do I do now? Wait for another sign, or what?”

“Magic?” Brian asked, as if he’d never thought of it before. Was he high, Robert wondered. He hadn’t thought so until just now. He was embarrassed all over again, embarrassed at needing the help of this ridiculous young man.

“Never mind,” Robert said. “I’ll be—”

“All the magician does is create a spectacle,” Brian said. “The magic is in believing.”

Robert nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll have to ruminate on that one. Best of luck to you.” He turned and left the Golden Nugget, the bell tinkling behind him.

At the first trash can he came to, Robert tried to tear the folder in half. It was too thick. He walked on, another half a block, until he came to their silver Volvo station wagon, the car seat in the back.

He climbed in and laid the folder on the passenger seat, the magician’s map on top. Buckling his seat belt, Robert leaned over to read the directions the magician had drawn beside the downtown streets. The lake shore was marked by squiggly lines.

NOT HERE YOUR WIFE IS NOWHERE

ONLY HER BONES IN THE LOAM OF ST. LAURENT

GO HOME GREET YOUR SON

HE IS THE ONLY TRACE LEFT

Robert stared at the words, his mind trying to force them into the category of directions, actionable phrases and commands. As he understood what they said, he colored and his neck and temples grew hot.

He sprang from the car and ran back to the Golden Nugget, clutching the folder and the map, and threw open the door. The waitress was talking to an old man perched on a stool behind the cash register. She looked up at the harsh jangling of the bell.

“Where is that guy I was in here with?”

“He just left, honey. Is there something—”

“Which way did he go?”

She didn’t know. The old man straightened and began to say something, but Robert turned on his heel and went out. Beside the diner, a great tarpaulin flapped like a sail above three stories of scaffolding, men’s voices shouting to one another over the hiss of machines. Robert went through the tunnel beneath the scaffold, lit by weak bulbs in orange plastic cages, and emerged into a burst of light.

The lake glittered under the midday sun, whitecaps forming and dissolving farther out, clouds meeting the green water at the horizon. Thick knots of people clustered along the edge of the lake, seated on park benches and lined up at food trucks. In the center of a grassy plaza was an enormous red stamp, its imprint of the word “FREE” set backwards. Robert pushed the button at a traffic light and waited to cross, searching the crowd for the magician.

He looked again at the map, half-expecting the ink to have disappeared, the words to have changed: a magic trick, or perhaps a brief delusion. But they were still there, still the same, though “TRACE” now was faded, having imprinted itself backwards on his hand. He read the lines again and turned the page over and looked at Juliet.

Robert had been careful to hide from the magician the fact that Juliet was dead, much less the location of her body in St. Laurent Cimetière in Laval, where indeed, as Juliet’s awkward but well-meaning Uncle Simon had explained at the graveside during a pause in the burial, the soil was in fact loamy, fortified with sand and clay so that heavy rains could not sweep the coffins from their resting places.

The light changed, cars slowing and waiting for him to cross to the lake. Robert hesitated.

What had he come to find, he wondered, but a message?

Robert turned and walked back under the scaffolding, past the diner. In the car, Robert buckled his seatbelt and let his head fall back against the hard, plastic headrest and sat that way for some time. He felt a chill along his back, the fever of his unreason leaving him, or some new affliction entering.

Then the chill passed and was replaced by a sudden, wild desire to see his boy, to scoop him up and feel his heft, to smooth the chestnut hair from his brow. This desire was like the return of a hunger after a long illness, ungovernable and welcome. Robert started the car. He could feel in the tips of his fingers how Edward would squirm in his embrace, could smell at the crown of the boy’s head the lavender shampoo that Juliet had bought in such bulk that they were still working their way through it, and would be for some time.

Robert had intended to stop by the corner where Juliet had watched the magician, but when he saw a sun-faded sign for I-80 East, he followed it, and soon found himself climbing a ramp up to the highway.

A quarter mile out on the lake, a tugboat was coming in to shore, pushing a small swell of water before it. It reminded him of Edward’s blue and white bath toy, a friendly tugboat with big cartoon eyes. As he drove, Robert marked the tugboat’s progress and the shifting, shimmering green of the lake’s surface, until the highway angled south and the water disappeared from view.

Adam Reger has published fiction in the New Orleans Review and Cream City Review, among other journals. He lives in Pittsburgh and can be found online at adamjreger.com.