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Spring 2014

On Magic

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Louis B. Jones

As for magic’s nonexistence in the world, I think I haven’t missed it. Maybe there was—there surely must have been—one afternoon in childhood when (getting out of a sugary Disney movie, emerging into an Illinois parking lot’s dirty old snow) a pang of loss, or of exile, gave me pause. But mostly I’m an uncomplaining citizen of a desolate world. It’s possible I’ve never properly mourned magic’s departure, or grieved it. Because magic: what a wonderful life ingredient to have to forswear, to renounce and call tawdry!

If I’m able to be so peaceful in my disillusionment, the reason must be that I still do believe in magic, deep in the nerves and tissues, where all assumptions lie. Of course I know that the flourish of the playing-cards over the green baize will have seeded one faker in the fifty-two. I know the lady doesn’t really get sawn in half, and, moreover, I wonder if, after the show, she might be faced with the professional dilemma of whether as hired assistant she’d be a bad sport if she declined the invitation to visit the tuxedoed wizard’s dressing room for a drink, or a joint, and for whatever is supposed to ensue. That the great athletes are on steroids, that the spoon didn’t really bend, that the yogis on YouTube aren’t really levitating, that the gentle Galilean didn’t, on the third day, rise again, yes, yes, we all know what to mistrust. But, deep at an unexaminable level of muscle-memory, I still move and behave with a Master-of-the-Universe assurance. I assume the light will go on flooding into my eyes, and I expect that, after the lapse of one moment, another moment will ensue; “time” won’t suddenly peter out, or just default to a white-noise static screen. The pavement as I step off the curb will answer the pressure of my sole. I swing my arm, making a vast presumption of the laws of motion—which I haven’t the slightest understanding of, and which nobody really understands. Those laws are turning out, these days, to be a lot wilder and more disorienting than they appear in Newton’s seventeenth-century sketch. This though such laws extend to govern even unto the universe’s outermost expanding edges, fourteen billion light years out, the rim where “time” hasn’t begun yet and never quite will.

So I swim through everything I don’t understand. My earliest boyhood run-in was my encounter with the Gilbert Chemistry Set. Metal box with two buckle clasps, it opened like a metal book. Or no—the chemistry set wasn’t the first—my first kit of mystery and disillusion came in a lidded cardboard tray of separate compartments, whose top pictured, in an array of revolving bubbles, the little tricks it furnished: there was a deck of tapered cards, a black handkerchief and plastic baton, a hollow nickel that could cache an ordinary nickel in its snug cavity, three nesting boxes (tattooed with corny spiderwebs) whose use I never did ascertain or really care much about, a dollhouse-size wardrobe cabinet and a tiny, shapely girl who rested inside it, a velvet bag with a secret inner pocket (the velvet’s midnight-purple the same sumptuousness as the Seagram’s drawstring bag my father’s whiskey came in), even a false moustache for myself. That kit. How pathetic it was was part of its essence and its raison d’etre and its ultimate role in cosmic evolution. It was marketed under a name like “The Great Jenkins,” or “Astounding Mystery Set.” (The little mustachioed boy on the lid must have been young Jenkins.)

My older sister then, though, she was a magical being: she had her own room, and her own Princess telephone, and a bathing suit that was two-piece, of madras plaid, and a sunlamp, and a pharmacopeia of unguents and balms and fragrances; and even before these acquisitions, she’d had arts, like the ability to print fat letters that floated above the page by the addition of a smudgy shadow under each, and a mastery of drawing rabbits and horses whose snouts thrust forth from the paper three-dimensionally. There came a season of life when she would get home from school and vanish into her room and never again be visible, and even be unavailable for dinner. So on an afternoon I might be alone with my cardboard magic kit (or, later, my totally inconsequential Gilbert Chemistry Set, its Bunsen burner merely a wick in a jar I wasn’t allowed to use, its two pipettes and flask, its eighteen cubical glass jars holding powders and crystals that turned out to be, in any combination, completely inert), alone until the hour of dusk when my father came booming home—there was a two-tone whistle he always an-nounced himself with, in the doorway —and he parked his glamorous briefcase by the door, old cordovan calfskin mellowed, soured, by the air of downtown Chicago, and scarred, with heavy brass latches, the initials “D.E.J.” embossed in a deep goldenness whose tarnish was its seal of value. There was sorcery in a man, too—in a man’s leather wallet, flipped open, where in a deep corner his hand, with an auger’s twist, could produce a dollar infinitely negotiable. Or breast pocket produce a little plastic sabre, saved just for me, that had actually impaled an olive at lunchtime. When he came home, he liked, first, to pain me with the scratch of his five-o’clock bristles on my cheek, and then came the rattle of the louvered shutters, and the jigger and shaker and the silver wand with its red plastic berry on the end, the crunch when his piston forearm pulled up the lever on the ice-tray, to make leap eighteen quartz cubes. Ting the glasses. Clang the gin bottle.



Louis B. Jones is working on a trilogy of short novels—Radiance, Innocence, and Immanence—the first two of which have been published by Counterpoint.
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