Christmas Magic
By howard
Published: November 7, 2007

Calistro's day finally came. Faintly hoping it might be his fiancée’s day too, the young man everybody called Professor was the first to glide into the big multi-functional room used for rehabilitation on week days. Today, the gym mats had been rolled up and placed in a corner along with the roped and weighted pulleys. A spotlight printed a full moon on the closed curtains of the stage where patients were often exhibited to medical students, their condition expounded in carefully incomprehensible terms. On Sunday morning a priest performed mass there. On holiday week-ends, as now, the stage sometimes offered live performances, none as prestigious as this one.

For weeks before Christmas, Calistro had been everywhere at once, like a foretaste of his promised marvels. Beneath scotch-taped plastic sprigs of holly, posters all over the place proclaimed his coming. Wherever the patients found themselves--wonderfully vertical in the hydrotherapy pool, or maintained that way by hypertrophied triceps between parallel bars, or seated in the drab corridors down which they pushed or were pushed--they could see the magician's imperious gaze beneath the words: Calistro Bends the Laws of the Universe to His Will!

The young man pushed over to the window. The Rehabilitation Center, a dark-brick five-story building, stood close to the river in a landscape of cracking-units, scrap-heaps and factories, largely disused. On Sundays, when the industrial haze thinned, those patients whose gaze could reach the level of the windows would often watch the tide push in and leak out past rusting freighters awaiting dismantlement. Weather permitting, they could make out the capital's white towers, forty kilometers downstream, and enabled freighters heading for the sea.

No white towers were visible to the faintly nauseous young man. He suspected he was coming down with flu. It was the least of his concerns. His name was William but everybody called him Professor because he was politely distant, his reluctant words carefully chosen and he wore horn-rimmed glasses, generally downcast on fictions about cyborgs, cryonics and machine-negotiated flight from the present into better pasts or futures.

For the moment, though, he was out of science fiction, coping with reality, on the lookout for a particular red sport car. But things beyond the nearby rusting freighters were blanked out with a sullen yellowish fog, like prelude to snow, unheard of at that latitude. Not even the juvenile patients dreamed of a possible white Christmas.

Occasionally a headlight blur quit the freeway and headed for the Center. The car would slowly materialize, sometimes the right color but the wrong model, sometimes the right model but the wrong color. Finally one of them was the right color and model but the wrong woman got out and he reflected that fog would provide Ruth with a good excuse for not coming, even more plausible than migraine the last time and steering problems the time before. Still, she hadn't phoned to call it off. She phoned less and less.

William stared at the stubbornly derelict freighters. The night before, he'd miraculously walked to one of them and boarded her. In a conjunction of miracles, the broken engine returned to life. The ship's flanks shook off rust-flakes as she breasted the tide, leaving junked things and oil-slicked marshes behind them. The vast horizon of the sea was opening up when he woke to darkness and the snores of his room mate, the paraplegic coal-miner. He spent the rest of the night trying to return to the dream.

William paid no attention to sudden thumps and clinks behind the stage curtains, incurious too about the antique Victrola standing on a table to one side of the curtains. He wasn't receptive to illusionists outside of the printed page. He'd chosen their meeting place here simply to make things easier for the two of them. For the few hours of her barely possible visit they'd be seated shoulder to shoulder, not face to face. Although he badly wanted to look at her, that viewpoint necessarily involved her looking at him, a painful operation for both.

He had her image in his mind when he nodded off at 2:13. A babble of voices in the corridor woke him. His head ached badly and he felt dizzy. He noted that she hadn't come to him in dreams either.

By 3:00 the room was full. The patients badly outnumbered the visitors chatting doggedly in their temporary wooden chairs next to the permanent chrome and leather ones. The strange cold and the yellow fog provided a precious topic to parry silence. The women in wheelchairs glittered with costume jewelery. Meticulously made up and coiffed, they wore gay party blouses above their formless slacks. Most of the children were plunged in comic-books. Whenever the door opened, certain patients capable of the movement--William recognized Sue, Johnny, Phil and Mary--turned about in obvious hope of a particular visitor. William sometimes yielded to the temptation and joined them in a distasteful community of publicized distress.

A burly attendant drew the window curtains shut, depriving William of most of the view, already unsatisfactory. All he could see through the inch gap now was one of the rusty freighters hulking against the yellowish fog and a tiny bit of the car park where no red car of any model had come.

The voices hushed as the overhead mercury lamps switched off. The young Activities Director stepped out from behind the green curtains into the spotlight, arms outstretched. Charley had curly gold hair, a winning smile and an enviable build emphasized by a white sweat-shirt. He thanked them for the fine turnout and announced a wonderful last-minute addition to the program, a distinguished artist, famous for over half a century on the music-hall stages of London, stepping out of retirement today just for us, singing the songs that immortalized him, you all know him (Charley paused an instant and glanced at the card in his hand): Harry Lane!

A mummy with a cane tottered from between the closed curtains into the circle of light. He wore a striped jacket of antique cut, a broad flowing cravat, yellow spats on black pointy shoes, a cocky-angled straw hat. In his chalky makeup bright red lips were set in a smile. Charley invited the audience to give him a great big hand, which they did, within the limits of their possibilities.

The old man blew kisses at his audience until the last ripple of applause died away. He collected himself, drew a deep breath and then deflated into bewilderment. Finally, remembering, he walked stiffly to the Victrola with its flaring horn like a giant drab morning-glory. A crackling hiss filled the room and distracted William’s attention from his bit of car park.

A phantom orchestra struck up a jaunty tune. The old man shuffled about and sang in a thin cracked voice that he hadn't got pounds, hadn't got pence, hadn't got hounds, hadn't much sense, but by jimminy, but by crickity, crimminy, jickity, got me a girl, regular pearl, all my own, best I've known, name of Sue, forever true, Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

The tap dance that followed reminded William of a feeble attempt to scrape filth off the would-be dancer’s soles. The children squirmed about restlessly. The creaks of their wheelchairs seemed to come from the old man's joints. He tried to twirl the cane. It clattered to the floor. He bent down to recover it and the straw hat fell off his head, disclosing bumpy baldness between white fringes. The children started laughing. The hat wobbled over the edge of the stage. A visitor recovered it. The old man gratefully took it back and crowned himself at the same cocky angle. The children laughed harder.

Sweat or tears trickled down his rifted cheeks. The adult patients hushed the children. The tinny music stopped. Puffing badly, the old man made it to the Victrola and put on a new disc. The flaring horn evoked a faint memory of a piano.

Back in the spotlight, Harry Lane launched into the next song. He urged the audience to keep smiling, to make December May, to keep smiling for a smile will pay, to chase the gloom away, to keep smiling all the live-long day, not to mope,'cause there's always hope.

Just as he began urging again, the Victrola wound down and the music collapsed. The old man too wound down. He stood there helplessly, slack-armed and blinking. The audience murmured in discomfort.

Charley bounded onto the stage, smiling, and linked his arm under the old man's, thanking him in the name of all present for his fine performance. He overcame Harry Lane's feeble resistance and hustled him out of sight behind the curtains. The audience could hear the old man's pleas and Charley's soothing voice. Finally, the young Activities Director returned to the spotlight. He removed the prompt card from his pocket.

“And now, friends, allow me to introduce a man celebrated in five continents for incredible feats, materializing objects out of nothing…”

A high mocking nasal voice behind the curtains cut him off.

“Fraud. Out of nothing, nothing.”

Confused, Charley lost his place in the card and then resumed.

“Able to defy chains, buried but resurrected…”

Again the scoffing hidden voice:

“Illusion, machinery, mirrors, hoaxes.”

Charley tried to continue with his catalogue of marvels but the voice behind the curtain sabotaged each of the extravagant claims and ended by routing him off the stage. The audience creaked and murmured.

Finally the curtain tugged open.

Calistro stood white-gowned and immobile before a large draped table bearing a black mantelpiece clock, two empty flower-pots and what looked like a fortune-teller’s globe. From the posters the patients recognized the melodramatic shock of white hair above the commanding forehead, the aquiline nose, the masterful chin, the thin-lipped ironic mouth. Ahhh, they exclaimed.

William, seated apart from the others, silently dissented. A comic-book depiction of a Master of the Universe. Now Calistro's druidic white tunic reminded him of an old-time dentifrice ad with a white-gowned dentist, mirror-instrument in hand, earnestly lecturing the pretty girl on the social perils of bad breath.

“Let there be no light,” the magician commanded in the high mocking voice that, seconds before, had disclaimed his vaunted exploits.

He pointed at the spotlight and there was darkness.

The clock started tick-tocking loudly. The fortune-teller's globe began glowing yellow, stronger and stronger, like a private August sun in winter, blinding the spectators. William suspected electronic devices within the pretended table draped to the floor.

Calistro's finger subdued the yellow glare. He turned to the audience. Saffron-hued, they participated marginally in the miracle.

“Hidden wires, they say. Charlatanism, deception, slight of hand. Out of nothing, nothing, they say, but…but… what is this?”

A bouquet of red roses materialized in Calistro’s right hand.

The audience forgot the painful fiasco of the ex music hall star. The real performance had begun.

His attention divided between the sliver of car park and the occasional opening of the door behind him by late visitors, neither giving him satisfaction, William caught glimpses of predictable marvels. They were accompanied by the ironic nasal patter as the prestidigitator’s swift hands contradicted the scepticism of his words.

A white silk scarf turned red then yellow then blue and then vanished.

Juggled balls, too, changed color and vanished.

A brawny volunteer attendant tested a chain. He wrapped it about the magician and padlocked him into paralysis. The fortune teller's globe turned blinding red. Even before they heard the jangle of the chain on the stage the audience knew he'd be free, for he was a professional escape artist. When vision returned, so he was, free, but with a bonus: the chain transformed into a garland of white roses about his feet.

William remained lucid, peripheral to those transfigured faces, parted lips, astonished intakes of breath. Sue, Johnny, Phil, Mary and the others were transported out of themselves; he was even deeper in himself and had almost given up on his slice of car park.

For the seventh time, the rear door opened and a late visitor wound her way in the labyrinth of wheeled stretchers and chairs. An attendant finally got up and locked the door, putting an end to the recurrent disturbance and to the recurrent hope, allowing William to devote his attention wholly to the empty strip of car park.

It remained empty. He drowsed off.

At 4:03 by the tick-tocking mantelpiece clock, William woke, burning with fever, to Calistro. The magician passed his hands above the empty flower pots. The white light of the fortune-teller's globe went out. Five seconds of darkness and light returned on full-bloomed azaleas, one red, one white, occupying the pots.

Calistro was acknowledging the applause when Harry Lane's faint querulous voice started up. Frowning, the magician turned to the left wing of the stage and snapped a few words. The old man's voice broke off.

Calistro resumed with a quick-handed multiplication of coins, enhanced from copper to gold. At one point, a flourish of his arm caused one of the coins to fall, perhaps out of his ample sleeve. It bounced off the stage and rolled under a weighted pulley.

The tick-tocking mantelpiece clock showed 4:26 when the magician held aloft a photograph of a bikinied girl. Paraplegics whistled. He tore her to shreds, placed the fragments on the table, covered them with a shroud of white silk, executed a pass and snatched the shroud away. She was whole again. Paraplegics cheered and whistled.

“And now, my friends…”

The magician’s solemn phrase was broken off by the second intrusion of the old man, now visible to the audience. He blew kisses at them. The children protested. Where was Charley? Why didn’t Calistro magically dematerialize the old man as he did bouquets and scarves instead of negotiating his withdrawal as he was now doing, frowning and pointing at the wing?

Finally the old man tottered off-stage. Calistro returned to his magic. But his authority had been shaken. There were fewer exclamations of wonder as things came and went, came and went. William tried to keep his eyes open but not for the sake of the magician’s tricks.

Indignant sounds from the audience woke him. He glanced down at the sliver of car park, still empty, then looked at the disruption ahead. Strangely abdicating authority, Calistro pretended not to see the old man hobbling toward the center of the stage. The magician began his routine of summoning an object into existence while proclaiming the impossibility of doing it.

The object refused to materialize.

Confidence visibly gone, the magician repeated his formula, reciting again “Out of nothing, nothing” just as the old man started piping the song about Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

Again nothing came out of nothing.

Harry Lane launched into the tap dance. He instantly tripped up on himself, blundered against the table and collapsed into a sitting position, the straw hat shoved over his eyes. The jarred fortune-teller’s globe started pouring out a chaos of colors. The hidden electronics had suffered, William understood. The clock too. The loud tick-tock gathered speed and accelerated. The hands broke into visible movement and swept the dial faster and faster, vanishing into blur. The globe short-circuited into a white glare and died.

They were in darkness.

The furious tick-tock slowed and halted as the globe started flickering. Funereal violet light revealed the two azaleas reduced from opulent bloom to black skeletons. The bikinied girl was in shreds again. The garland of roses on the floor was back to chain.

Calistro stood there, contemplating his wrecked magic, drained of arrogance, slack-armed and blinking, like the old man at the collapse of his first performance.

Finally he broke out of apathy and turned to the stunned audience.

“No!” he cried. “No! Like all things this can be undone, but you must assist me. Our united wills can achieve the thing. Will it!”

He raised his trembling hands towards the dead azaleas.

“Yes, I feel it coming, yes, stronger and stronger, your will coming and uniting with mine.”

A fountain of glittering dust took form above the table as the fortune-teller light struggled out of mortuary violet, gathered strength in yellow and culminated in a sunburst that blinded them for long seconds, during which they heard the rebirth of the clock, not the familiar tick-tock tick-tock but tock-tick tock-tick, like time going backwards, accelerating as before but in reversal.

When vision returned they saw, O!, the last of the glittering dust settling on the azaleas, summoned back from death to glossy green and perfect bloom, settling on the nearly naked girl, whole again, settling on the reborn garland of roses, settling on the inert old man, settling on the wildly toc-ticking clock with its hands whirling counter to future.

The furious toc-tic backwards halted and then resumed as tick-tock forward at the normal petty pace with the hands creeping imperceptibly into the future.

The old man, glittering with dust, rose slowly to his feet as the orchestra started up from the giant morning glory horn of the Victrola, wound up by no visible hand, the scratchy century-old music miraculously updated, quadraphonic in fidelity now.

The old man repeated his earlier routine, enjoining smiles all the live-long day, but back to ancient competence, his body supple, his voice full and true, belying the furrows and wrinkles of his face. His feet blurred as the clock hands had done a minute before. He leaped about the stage with incredible grace, defying gravity, no need for the buoyancy of the hydrotherapy pool. His cane twirled about faster and faster, a blurred propeller reinforcing his limber leaps, it seemed.

Won't he take off, rise and hover above us, levitated like a Tibetan monk? William thought. Then, in the momentum of magic, feverishly thought: if we, co-authors of it all as he says, can achieve a salvage job like that, through pure will power, pulling a stranger out of senility, empowering a humiliated magician, piecing an unknown girl together out of dismemberment, transforming chain-links back to roses, if so, then why not closer things?

So William at 40 Celsius, for the space of a few irrational seconds, saw that great modification, almost real to his burning mind: saw them all halting clock hands and then willing them to backward acceleration, tock-tick, tock-tick, back to the upright time before their definitive identity here in this place next to disaffected factories and derelict freighters, in strictly limited rehabilitation, defined for good by the sniper's bullet, the car-bomb blast, the anti-personnel mine, the burst shale vein, falls from high places; defined by greedy chain saws, the uncalculated side-effects of miracle drugs, the plunge into inviting water, the silver brightness concealing the dark rocks just below; defined by collisions and treacherous winter roads, and here William saw his personal but banal defining thing: on the fast way to see Ruth, coming out of the curve, the bright ice-slick like silver and the looming tree.

With that, he returned to the reality of irreversible time.

The Christmas performance was over. The old man and the magician bowed to applause, bowed to greater than applause, the tribute of exalted faces, some tear-stained as William, peripheral to them again in his lucidity, could observe.

The overhead mercury lamps trembled on, the spotlight switched off. The green curtains began tugging shut when Harry Lane grasped Calistro's arm and pointed past William at the window, the inch gap, and William saw what Harry Lane and Calistro saw. The burly attendant swept aside the curtains on a raging snowstorm, once inconceivable at that latitude, but global weather had undergone so many transformations.

Just before the curtain hid him, Calistro converted his astonishment into an expression of brow-knitted power, raising his wonder-working hands, taking credit for the meteorological quirk.

Out of the swirling white chaos came a deep tremulous sound. A fog-horn? Last night’s dream came back. William couldn't help imagining the pistons of the junked freighter alive again, weaving faster and faster, the flanks of the freighter trembling, throwing off years of rust, now cleaving high-tide offal, bound for the open sea.

The absurd image lasted just a second. Then the swirls of snow parted an instant like ragged stage curtains and there--did he imagine it?-- wasn't that a glimpse of red on the car park below, perhaps the right make and model, and if so wasn't it possible Ruth was just yards from him, waiting outside the locked door?

After all those afternoon miracles wasn't that minor thing possible?

William swung around and imbedded himself in the metallic mass stalled before the closed door. He noticed the coin that had fallen out of the magician’s ample sleeve and rolled under a weighted pulley. In a few hours the cleaning woman would come to tidy up for tomorrow morning's performance of mass. The priest, an irascible white-haired old man, had already complained about the Saturday afternoon disorder. She was sure to see the coin too. Briefly transformed to gold in the magician’s hand, it was back to copper now, hardly worth stooping to. But she was poor. It was predictable that she would kneel and pocket it.

The door opened.

The coin forgotten, William joined Sue, Johnny, Phil and Mary in a community of hope as they pushed or were pushed toward the possible Chrstmas miracle of a desired face materialized out of nothing.

Howard Waldman