In the first two installments of this post, I introduced Robert Rodriguez, an 80-year-old magician who was the model for a character in my new novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU. He spent 20 years in the Navy, performing classic stage magic shows for heads of state and royalty wherever his ship dropped anchor. In 1973, he retired from the Navy and became a magic teacher at The Magic Shop in La Puente, California.
Robert was sick with leukemia when I met him, but he seemed to fight it with an unconventional medicine: magic. He often attended seven or eight magic clubs every week. It seemed to make him so happy that it prolonged his life. In fact, Robert survived four relapses, and his doctors were astounded, for they said they only rarely saw patients survive two. He lived with leukemia for over 20 years, which is unheard of.
One day, Robert imparted to me the riveting story of how he contracted leukemia. It was the 1950s, and they were testing the atom bomb in the Nevada desert. In those early days, they wanted to see the effect that the bomb had on the human organism, so they ordered soldiers to march into ground zero immediately after the bomb was set off. Robert was one of those soldiers.
Robert came down with leukemia around 1990, and it slowed him down considerably. He looked older than he really was, and in time, struggled to perform the sleights that he used to perform with ease. But strangely, he had the secret that so endeared him to people: In spite of the pain, he was always smiling.
Once, I asked about his early performing career. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Robert would sometimes get hired to perform in traditional Mexican garb, topped by a fancy sombrero.
“In those days, white people wouldn’t let you perform in a regular suit,” he said with a wry smile, “only in a Mexican costume.”
Eventually, I learned of an astounding coincidence: Robert and my mother had been classmates at Garfield High School in East L.A. Truth be told, that made him more of a father figure for me. I even wondered if Robert might cozy up to my mother, who had been widowed, and I might have a new stepfather.
Last year, I was notified of Robert’s death. The leukemia had finally taken him. I went to the funeral, and magicians came from all across Southern California to pay tribute to him. Family showed up, too, including all sorts of people who echoed Robert’s looks. I even have a photograph of some of the magicians who paid their respects.
As a final tribute to this man who became so dear to me, I wrote a passage in my novel about a 100-year-old woman named Anja, who has Robert’s depth and soul:
“Cat noticed a slight accent, but nothing identifiable. Her L’s were a little guttural and her syllables sometimes lasted a touch longer than they should, but other than that, it would easily pass unnoticed. But something else hit her, as well. Whenever Cat compared the younger versions of people with their older counterparts, they usually seemed diminished. The frame was shrunken, the hair dry roasted and faded, the face multigenerational, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, such as Pope Gregory XII was in 1406, according to a history she was currently reading, when a contemporary described him as so emaciated that he looked like ‘only a spirit appearing through skin and bone.’ The moment Anja opened her mouth, however, Cat felt that she had undergone no interior diminishment. It was all there.”
-from What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, only $3.99 to download onto your Kindle