Air in the Deck

[This is chapter 10 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To read chapter 9, see here.  To read chapter 1, see here.]

Evan was stabbing a man, but then it turned out to be a goat, and then he wasn’t stabbing it, he was fucking it, and then Father Iturbide was intoning, “Do you take this beast to be your lawfully wedded husband?” because the goat was pregnant now and he was a girl and gossipy old bitches were hissing, “It’s an abomination!” and then he realized that the priest’s words meant he was a girl now, and then he was a snake eating its own tail and it tasted like chicken.

Evan opened his eyes to tubes biting into his veins like leeches and John hovering above him with Apocalypse on his face and he didn’t know whether he was awake or in a nightmare, because John’s was the wrinkled and unhappy face of all his worst imaginings, plus he didn’t want to hear what John might say, he just wanted to know where his own Springfield EMP was, and then he got the idea of running out to the car, wherever it was, and getting it from his trunk, but he didn’t get further than lifting his upper body before a level 10 muscle spasm laid him out like a slaughtered cow so he closed his eyes and let The Raft take him down the River of Chartreuse Pharmaceutical Dreams once again, with arrows shooting at him from the shore, where indigenous warriors jeered at him: Ai, coward!  Aiee, coward!

Jeff Petrell distressed 1a

Days passed.  Leeches were attached and detached.  A shady doctor with platinum-blonde hair and putrid cologne showed up and evaluated Evan’s chart.

“When you fell onto the driveway, you sustained a concussion,” the doctor said.

Then he primped his hair and left.

Machines pumped, breathed, hiccupped, essayed.  Finally, Evan opened his eyes.  Kara, standing next to Evan’s hospital bed, gasped.  He worked to focus on her face.  She began to silently weep.  It had been three days.

Evan turned his head and closed his eyes.  Something within him shrugged and shrank, and he suspected it might be his reason for living.  That reason had always driven him, but it was all tangled up now, like the roots of something, he didn’t know what.  His parents had once been his roots, but the idea of parentage had now been ground into mulch.  His purity had once been a part of his roots, too, but that was mulch, as well.  He wasn’t much in pain, but he also couldn’t move much, either, and soon realized it was the numbing power of the drugs.

“Where am I?” Evan asked.

“In the house,” Kara finally said.

“What house?”

“John’s house.”

“You mean…the gambling house?”

“Yes.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“It’s the basement.”

“Where’s John?”

“Upstairs sleeping.  It’s like three in the morning, honey.”

Kara helped him sit up.  It was an arduous task, slow and painful, but when it was all accomplished, he had a view of his living quarters.  There were no windows.  Across the room was a stairway that led upstairs.  There were paintings stacked against the walls and bronze statuettes scattered about.  He could see a couple of them from his bed.  They looked pretty damn good.  One rang a bell, although he couldn’t remember the name of the painter.

“Did they look in my car?” Evan asked.

“Your car?  No, why?  Do you want me to get something from it?”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s still out there in the driveway, parked sideways.”

“East to west.”

“What?”

Evan closed his eyes to summon the energy to express a more complex thought.  It was like moving iron furniture.

“I parked east to west, not sideways.”

“Why did you park it that way?”

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He tried, but moving this particular iron sofa was too much for him.

“For luck,” he finally said.

Two days later, Evan woke up to John’s red face peering down at him.

“Who the fuck was it?”

Evan’s mind was running on a single rat on a single treadmill.  He felt transparent, as if John’s eyes were looking into his soul trapped in a mayonnaise jar and seeing his intentions and everything ugly about him.  Evan’s hands began to tremble.  His voice was weak.

“What do you mean?”

“Who the fuck got to you?  Was it Zinszer?”

“What?”

“Who beat you up?”

It was an amazing moment in which things turned, like the moment when a spectator sitting across from you realizes that you’ve changed a two into an ace and the whole dynamic has changed, the whole sky is now purple and the highway orange, and many forks in the road are now opening up to you.  Evan had expected that John would know exactly what Evan had been planning.  But now, it became clear that John had misunderstood.

“I—I’m not sure who it was.  It was dark.”

“Man, this ain’t how it’s done,” John said.

“You lose or you lose, that’s it,” Pancho said.

“So tell me the story.  What did he look like?”

So Evan came up with a story, as best he could at a moment’s notice, about who jumped him.  Who beat on his midsection and broke his ribs.  Who muttered, “You took our money, asshole, and now you’re going to pay.”  It sounded corny, but it was the best he had.  When he ran out of lies to tell and began to stammer, he played it like pain.

John looked at Pancho.

“Last time I saw Zinszer, he was looking a little piquéd, don’t you think?” John said, a knowing look on his face.

“Oh yes, piquéd indeed,” Pancho said.

The silence that ensued was unnerving.

“What do you mean?” Evan finally said.

John looked down at him.

“Piquéd is a condition that is immediately fatal,” John said simply.

Sometimes, Evan woke up and nobody was around but the leeches.  Other times, there was a large black nurse named Jolie who fed him.  She was a woman who seemed divorced from her face.  At other times, Kara was in the room.  But there was always one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t sex, it was the other thing.

So one day or night, Evan didn’t know which, he decided that he would find his father and do what he had to do.  He didn’t have his gun, so he would use whatever he found, his hands if he had to.  He struggled to roll over on the bed, the pain baiting him like some schoolyard bully, and then struggled even more mightily to sit up, as if he were rolling a boulder up a hill, and then he was panting hard and it seemed impossible that he would be able to stand, but he punched through the pain with iron fists and finally he was peering across the room to the foot of the stairs, that was his goal, just the foot of the stairs, and he started putting one foot in front of the other and packing the pain away into a backpack, he was walking slowly and painfully on sore feet and achy ankles and pulsating temples and screaming ribs and trying to forget that he was carrying that fucking backpack of pain.

“Oh, Mr. Evan.”

Jolie stood behind him with her fists on her massive hips.  Then she walked over, gently turned him around, and walked Evan back to the bed.

Two days later, Evan tried it again, but Jolie had some kind of sixth sense.  After that, she slapped padded restraints on his wrists and ankles.

“You are such a bad boy,” Jolie said, a shade of disgust in her voice but her face impassive.

Evan had been at the Magic Castle the night they discovered Daryl’s body.  Police cars rolled up en masse, maybe a dozen or more.  They didn’t know if it was a murder or what, so they locked it down, nobody in or out, 490 people in suits and evening gowns locked in this big old Victorian nightclub, most of the shows cancelled, people with $16 drinks in their hands saying, “What the fuck is going on?”  That’s what the padded restraints were like.

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Kara brought a copy of The Hobbit and started reading aloud.  Evan didn’t follow the plot, but liked the sound of her voice.  She always had a lovely voice.  When she reached the end of a section, they would sometimes talk.  About what kind of day it was outside, how searingly hot, which convention was in town, what her band was doing without her now.  Somebody had come up to Kara in a grocery store and mistaken Kara for Kendra.

“Happens sometimes,” Kara said.  “They’re strangers to you, but they talk to you like they know you.  I just listen.  I’ve always liked the idea of passing.  It’s kind of the thrill of a magic trick.  You know?”

“Yeah.”

“Like, the first time you pulled off a magic trick, did it give you a thrill?”

“Yeah, made me misty eyed.”

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

“It is.”

“Like the first time we pulled off a deck switch.”

“I remember.”

“That night, I cried.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.”

“Did you know that birds deceive other birds?”

“Really.”

“Deception is shot through nature.”

Later that afternoon, the conversation veered to childhood.

“I was a quiet child,” Evan said.

“I can see that.”

“I couldn’t engage in smalltalk.”

“I hate to tell you, baby, but that’s still a problem.”

“All right.  Anyway.  At some point, I realized that I would need some attitude to get things in life.  So I started doing these tricks that I read in books, and the tricks had attitude.  So I slipped into those tricks like a jacket.  It was my first attempt at getting a personality.  Then things happened to me and I put on those jackets, too.  And people hurt me, and I put on those jackets.  And gradually, all those jackets became, like, a skin.”

“That’s weird.”

“What?”

“Well, I never put on any jackets.  I’m just me.  Can’t be anything else.”

Evan didn’t say it, but it seemed that from what she said, she had always grasped things, but never the ideas behind things.  He had sensed it, of course, but now it all fell into place.  It made him sad.

Sometimes while Kara was reading, Evan fell asleep.  When Kara saw his eyes close and sleep kick in, she would stop reading and set down the book.  She would smile sometimes, her eyes drifting to the Tramadol on the bedside table.  She had tried that once, and it had been a smooth ride, sleighing through the powder with no bumps, no possibility of wiping out.  Once, she picked up the bottle and shook it.  There were a whole lot of rides in there.  A whole lot of problems solved.

“Jesus help me,” she muttered softly, her eyes closed.

“I have something to confess,” Kara said.

“Okay.”

“Like in a Catholic church.”

“Right.”

“Like a priest listening to what you did.”

“Uh huh.”

But then she didn’t say anything, she just sat staring into space as if something out there was the source of everything bad in the world.  Her face looked puffed up with emotion and red and ready to burst.

“What?” Evan asked.

But her face didn’t burst, it subsided.

“No,” she finally said.

Kara was thinking about the priest she had fucked, and then the blow they had done afterwards.  And the three other times she had gone back.  But fuck it, she thought, I don’t want to spill all my secrets.  It’ll take away all my mystery.  I’m a magician now.

Evan remembered his phone.  He fished it out of  his jacket pocket and went to the web browser.  It had only 3% battery left.  He googled “stolen art,” and there it was on the Houston Chronicle site.  Five months earlier, 11 paintings and 12 sculptures had been stolen from a Houston museum.  A few of them were Rodins, a few others, Rothkos.  They still hadn’t found the thieves.  Then his phone died.

It was an endless cycle, day and night, and then day again and then night again.  But then Evan realized.  It had always been.

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The strip-out false shuffle was a move of unsurpassed beauty, like Beyoncé.  It looked like you were shuffling, but you were really just setting up the deck for cheating.  You knew the location of every single card in the deck.  It was a door opening onto immense possibility.  It made everything that followed it more stunning.

Back when Evan was working on it, though, there had been one last little bit that had

eluded  him.  In doing the move, you have to remember three things.  First, make it look like you’re shuffling fairly.  Second, make the moves look like they’re not even moves.  And third, don’t hesitate, never hesitate.  Relax, be chill, don’t ever pause.  If they see you think, you’re dead.  So he practiced it over and over again, but he ran into trouble on that last little bit.  He had trouble bringing it up to 100%.  So he had asked his mentor, Bodine, the dude with all the moves and every minute slice thereof.

“Why can’t I get it up to 100%?”

Bodine had sat back in his chair in his sunny dining room and sighed.

“You got to get some air into the deck,” Bodine had said.  “Squeeze the deck back, squeeze forward, and that puts some air back into the deck.  Then the cards will strip out like hovercraft.”

Air, that was the thing.  It made the cards slicker, the strip-out reliable.  And that’s what he was trying to do now with John.  Get some air back into the deck.  Sometimes, all the answers to all the questions in the world were contained within a single deck of cards.

Evan thought about John sleeping upstairs.  He thought about climbing the stairs.  Peering into the dark bedroom.  The sound John would make while sleeping.  He thought about standing over John’s body.  He thought about waking him up with a whack to the face.  Maybe he would use the Rodin ballerina.  Maybe it would break his cheekbone.

“I’m your son,” Evan would say.

Evan would have to wait for the look on his face, that was everything.  John would be  holding his bloody face, and then, through the pain, Evan would see the look on his face.

“I’m your what?!”

That look would be payback.  Then, the sound of the gunshot echoing through the bedroom would give him such deep and intense pleasure.

In his hospital bed, Evan turned his head towards Kara.  He suddenly realized what the ancients had meant when they wrote that “the scales fell from his eyes.”  Everything was different now that he had a plan.  He could see clearly.  All that was false was suddenly laid bare.  Jolie and her bogus quietude.  She hated Evan.  All the food they brought him.  Food was bullshit.  All the cash he had pulled in.  Just green stuffing.  Pancho and his silence.  Aka rage.  Sebastian and his bad jokes.  A middle finger to the world.

Only one thing seemed true.  Kara had laid her heart out on a slab for him.

She was staying with him day and night.  She was the only faithful thing in his life.  He could see the vast faithfulness in her eyes.  They were puppydog eyes, trusting everything.  It might also be hurt, and a bad childhood, and being buffeted by the winds of her lack of discipline, but what he was entirely sure of was her fidelity.  So he looked her straight in the eyes like he had never looked at her before, unafraid, all there.

“Honey, I’m going to kill John,” he said flatly.

Kara blinked.  She stared at Evan for a long moment.

“Don’t joke about that,” she finally said.

“I’m not joking.”

“You better be joking.”

“I’m not.”

“Honey, it’s the drugs talking.”

“It’s not the drugs.  I have a gun in the car.”

“That’s ridiculous.  I’m not listening.  I’m going.”

Kara walked out the door and up the back stairway and she was gone.  It was another half-hour before he realized that all the pills were gone, too.

Evan was dead.  Surely Kara would tell John.  He was so stupid, so fucking stupid.  Or, at best, she would never return.  Leave him to rot in his padded-restraint prison, to kill his father himself, an act that was nothing less than a gravestone.  He tried to lift himself up, but his muscle spasm laid him out again.  He was like a rabid dog on a chain.

This must be how Dai Vernon felt when he had that famous accident, Evan thought.  Vernon had been a successful closeup magician in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, and in 1926, had become known as The Man Who Fooled Houdini.  He was a brilliant thinker, perhaps the best of all time.  But by 1932, work had become scarce for everyone and he took a construction job.  He was working high up on scaffolding.  He was carrying a heavy pail in each hand across a wooden plank when it cracked and broke, and he began hurtling through the air.  On the way down, he hit other planks with his arms and hands, the nexus of his art, the focus of all his musculoskeletal accomplishment, destroying all that his life had been about, plunging six floors down and into the icy East River.  When he woke up, he was in the hospital and the doctor was telling him that they wanted to amputate his arms.

That’s how Evan always felt lately, hurtling through the air and hitting things on the way down.

Three hours later, just when the lack of painkillers was starting to whip Evan’s ass, Kara returned.  She stared down at him, her eyes suspicious, as if seeing him for the first time.  She didn’t even say anything, just stood there.

“Why?” she asked.

“You know why.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“It’s what I’ve been silent about for weeks now,” Evan said.  “It’s what came between us.”

“And?”

“Because….”

And then Evan was stuck in his lies again.

“Because he’s a bad man,” he said.  “He’s everything that’s wrong with the world.”

Kara looked at him sideways.

“Or is it because your uncle is your father.”

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Evan looked away, and there was a silence that lasted for about 99 hours.  Kara just staring at him.  Finally, she reached into her purse and took out a knife.  It was one of those big, long knives that you buy at Bed & Bath and that you chop bell peppers with.  The moment foreshortened for Evan, like the way time slows down when you’re in a car crash, the way that each moment breaks down into little eternities that can be examined minutely, like an insect pinned under a microscope, and he realized that this was how he was going to die, restrained to a hospital bed and not really having much hope left, anyway, in fact, part of himself welcoming blackness with open arms, like all of this suffering would finally be over.

“There was something I didn’t say to you earlier,” Kara said.

“What?”

“That sometimes, I want to die.”

Evan opened his eyes and their eyes locked.  They were twins, if just for a moment.

“I love you too much,” she said in a thin voice that was from somewhere far, far away.

Kara moved towards him and he flinched, closing his eyes again.  But when he opened his eyes, his restraints had been cut off and she was holding out Swann’s pistol.

“Let’s do it tonight,” Kara said.

[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]

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