Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, she couldn’t figure out exactly what, Kara wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

What is it? You can trust me.

I know I can, but…

That’s what I’m here for.

…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.

That’s what love is all about.

I know.

Then why don’t you tell me?

It’s just that—

Is it something about me?

No, it’s just that some things take time to process.

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language. They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888. Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable. That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan. Go on a train trip with him. The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker. Rhythms explained everything. Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him. She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too. She so liked lists.

• Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
• Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
• Not talk about coke ever.

2. If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing. You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much. We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car. Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did. The guy who married Mariah Carey. The guy who married Celine Dion.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought. I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner. But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3. I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church. Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross. She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ. She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness. Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept. Written on a piece of paper. Stored in a vault. Bolted to the bottom of the sea. On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there. He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there. They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am. They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk. The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is. When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.
He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.

Yes. And another one in Paris. And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul. So don’t worry about feeling far from God.

Kara pushed her head into his chest. There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy. She made love to his despair more than anything else. Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts. He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done. His father had indeed done a horrible thing. One day, he discovered what that sin was: him. That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no. Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes. I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan. Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister. She stole Harris. She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry.

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me. I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize. I wish everybody would apologize to me. All the time.

I’m a great apologizer. Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it. I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins. I’ll apologize for the weather. Hey, you want to do some more blow?

4. Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

• Organize papers
• Do delicates
• Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists. She did it because her life was a shambles. She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos. Singing elevated the mess into art. She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word yawning, which meant that every time she opened her mouth to sing, chaos came out.

5. I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend Riley Ann, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip. They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about clothes. One thing they had in common was late paychecks. One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment. Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? Riley Ann asked.

Kara had forgotten that Riley Ann was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.” Why can’t we just be honest? Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you. What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is. I want Evan to talk to me. It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be. All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[To be continued.]

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

Paula and Jesus wedding photo 1a smaller

As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

Paula 11a

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

David Groves age 8

But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

019 (2)

My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

After exercise 7 17 10 a

Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

Kicked out of Vegas

It started with a dim memory from childhood.  I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park.  This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish.  He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

Me around age 7

“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.

It was actually my great-uncle.  I shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, son.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”

“Pleased to meet you, too.”

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

Uncle John around 1934

All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.

A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.

“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.

Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box.  I opened it up.  It contained two new decks of playing cards.

“These are yours,” Uncle John said.  “They’re marked.”

He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.

“Marked?”

“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”

And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs.  Once I understood, I smiled at the deception.  It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning.  It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.

That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.

“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said.  “The only way to win is to cheat.”

That’s when my mother came over.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.

“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said.  “It’s our secret.”

“David, what’s going on?”

“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.

v

Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler.  He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said.  He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating.  He was the proverbial black sheep of the family.  And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  You could sustain bruises.  You could fall down a flight of stairs.  They could make you cry.

Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician.  I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing.  To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.

There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights.  The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not.  There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top.  There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top.  And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.

Formal promo shot

One of my early promotional shots. Notice I’m holding five aces.

Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.

“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.

I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire.  It’s just not ready for prime time.  And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off.  It looks like nothing.   It’s designed to look like nothing.  If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning.  On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights.  The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.

A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal.  The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed.  While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail.  Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsDYNz3iCfY

Vernon lit up.  Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians.  The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world.  If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table.  Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived.  He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.

So Vernon set off on a months-long search.  The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight.  He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.

Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales.  They are exciting.  There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution.  Sometimes, people die.  In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.

When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John.  Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990.  However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her.  I asked my mother about her.

“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said.  “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”

I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate.  She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995.  The trail for my Uncle John went cold.  My mother said that they never had children.  I wondered where the photographs had gone.  I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.

v

Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots.  It became a true obsession.  Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.

“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said.  “Carol Ann is alive.  Here’s her phone number….”

This morning, I called Carol Ann.  She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that.  Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.

“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, I’m not!”

We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice.  We talked about many things.  Their retirement in Hansville, Washington.  My father’s death.  The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments.  My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.

Carol Ann had never met me.  She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close.  That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example.  However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that.  My parents had met her a couple times.  My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty.  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.

As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not.  After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame.  Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish.  Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one.  I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.

Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.

“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler.  He must have been good with cards.”

“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.

And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life.  Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.

“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said.  “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game.  He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner.  Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”

It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though.  Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.

“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said.  “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”

Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD.  It’ll make a great Christmas gift.  By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit.  At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.

What They’re Selling

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father had been a smoker since he was a teenager, and had never been able to stop. For the previous five years, he had been losing weight, so we knew something was wrong. We tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he refused. He eventually died a horrible death from emphysema and lung disease.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My mother sometimes wondered if she was responsible.  Of course my father held the ultimate responsibility, but she painfully asked herself whether she might have done something that would have allowed him to survive.  Three  years before his death, he lost so much weight that we knew something was wrong.  When we brought up going to the doctor, Dad walked away from us.

“Leave it to me,” my mother said.  “I know the right moment to bring it up.”

She tried.  But Dad’s ability to stonewall unexpectedly exceeded my mother’s ability to manipulate him.  We even tried to trick him into going to the doctor a couple times.  My sister asked him to drive her to the doctor, and then go into the examination room with her, and when the doctor came in, he start talking to Dad about his own health.  He just stood up and walked out.

There were many people on Dad’s side.  Mom, sis, and I.  The Surgeon General when he released his report.  Those commercials on television.  And 49% of my father.

On the other side, working against him, were many people, as well.  Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.  All those Carolina farmers.  All those Carolina senators and congressmen.  All those 1950s ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that recommended cigarettes “for your health.”  And 51% of my father.

I sometimes wonder what could have convinced that 1% to defect.

Going through my father’s effects after he died, we discovered lots of literature he had received from the tobacco industry. These expensive four-color booklets talked about smoking as a matter of civil rights. You have a right to enjoy a cigarette, the literature said. Fight for your rights, it said. You have the right to smoke next to people, or in restaurants, or at your job, or wherever the hell you want. Don’t let the politically correct liberals take your rights away from you.  (To see some recent versions of this argument, go here.)

The authors of this literature were co-conspirators with the tobacco industry in killing my father.  In the months after he died, I sometimes unexpectedly began to cry.  Once, while standing in line at the grocery store and seeing a headline that reminded me of him.  Once, while driving down Ohio Avenue under the 405 and hearing a song that reminded me of him.  My thoughts were forever bumping into memories of him.  They still are.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Recently, I saw a news item on one of the companies that used to put together that literature, The Center for Individual Freedom. It’s an organization, you understand, that manufactures lies and sells them to an unsuspecting public. And during that election cycle, they were selling lies in nine congressional districts attacking nine different Democrats:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hidden-donors-20101024,0,5753488.story

These days, they’re attacking the ACA and global warming.  See for yourself.

Family 479

They killed my father.  They’re the 1% in more ways than one.  Don’t fall for what they’re selling now.

The Hieroglyphic Heart

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

After college, I began to study dreams.  Finally, after ripping through all those thousands of pages of UCLA curriculum, I had time for leisurely self-exploration.  I read Man and His Symbols and started keeping a dream journal.  Around 9 am, I would wake up, immediately roll over, grab my spiral-bound journal, and write down whatever I could remember from that ethereal world.

Looking it over during the day, I began to see meanings.  It helped me see my life as something with shape, form, and mysterious depths.  But they were depths that could be plumbed, if I just tried hard enough.  Everything could be deciphered.  After all, I was an adult now.

Neurology face 1a

What I was trying to do, I suppose, was take control of my life.  Supposedly, every person had an unconscious self that made you do things.  It made you lazy or aggressive or mean, even if you didn’t want to be.  It wagged you like a tail, and yes, Hemingway was right, the iceberg of your needs and desires was almost entirely submerged.  All the action was underwater.

I so wanted to decipher those hieroglyphs.  I so wanted to make things better in my life.

One morning at dawn, I awoke from a particularly emotional dream.  I had been talking to my father in a parking lot.  It was in my hometown, and a department store loomed behind us.  But it was the anguish in our conversation that got to me.  Awake in bed, I cried for a bit.

I immediately knew what it meant.

138 (2)

To understand the dream, you have to understand my father.  He had never been a terribly assertive man, and in fact, sometimes seemed to be so self-effacing that he harmed himself.  He wasn’t a coward by any means, but the thing was, he never asked for anything.  When his wife decided the family would go on a Caribbean cruise, he wanted to stay behind to save money.  And he never wanted to spend money on himself, and in fact, basked in his spartan ways.

Smoking seemed the embodiment of that self-effacement.  Taking a drag, he looked so solitary.  It was all he seemed to need, that cigarette, that smoke hovering around the eyes, that heat he breathed into his lungs.

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My father smoking in his favorite chair.

That November, I asked Dad what he wanted for Christmas.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“I am going to get you something,” I said.  “Tell me what you want.”

“Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”

“What, you want me to get you a Shakespeare play?”

“No.  Did you know I haven’t read a novel in 25 years?”

There was always more than a hint of pride in the statement, a sideways slap at the English major who thought he knew more than his father.

“The last novel I read was The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.  Did I tell you that?”

“Yes, many times.”

“You know he couldn’t write unless he was completely drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you ever tried that?”

“No.”

“All right.  So don’t ever buy me a book.”

“Then what should I get you?”

“A carton of cigarettes.”

“Yeah, right.  You know I’m not going to buy you cigarettes.”

We went on like this for ten minutes, round and round, until something perfect came to mind.

“You really like macadamia nuts, don’t you?” I said.

“Okay, if you absolutely have to, you can get me that.”

“A jar of macadamia nuts?”

“Yes.”

“Okay then.”

As an adult, I was starting to appreciate my father in a different way.  Once, he was my hero perched high on a pedestal.  Now, I was learning to hug him, even though it made him feel awkward.

“What does he expect me to do when he does that?” he used to privately ask my mother.

Sometimes I even kissed him on the cheek, which really threw him.  The fact is, I was realizing as an adult in how many different ways that I loved this man.  I so enjoyed wearing a pale green 1950s-style shirt I found in his closet.  I was fascinated about the details of his troubled youth.  I wanted to spend more time with him, although it was sometimes difficult to fit into our busy schedules.

Come Christmas Day, I arrived at my parents’ house early.  With the family sitting in the living room, we casually unwrapped presents, but as always, Dad held back.  He always lingered on the outskirts of the group, like a satellite orbiting a planet.  While we tore open gift after gift, Dad was leaning on a railing, smoking and watching.

“Dad, it’s your turn,” my sister finally said.Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

“Okay.”

Dad picked up my gift first, but looked at it a bit puzzled.  The package was larger than our agreed-upon jar of macadamia nuts.  He tore off the wrapping paper, and what he found inside seemed to disappoint him horribly.

“Oh no….”

“What?” I said, smiling.

“That’s too much, it’s too much.”

I smiled.  It was four jars of macadamia nuts.  In the store, one jar had seemed paltry and ungrateful.  This man had put me through college without requiring that I get a part-time job, as my friends’ parents had required.  He’d coached my Little League team during a year when I was a star.  At age 4, he’d taught me how to run as fast as the wind.  I figured I’d set him up with macadamias for a couple months.

v

Later that day, we had a moment alone while the women in the kitchen were cooking.

“Dad, I want to tell you about a dream I had,” I said.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The author at age 25

“Okay.”

“It was about you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

I recounted the dream, but as I reached the end, my voice was cracking and there were tears in my eyes.

“You were…you were threatening to cut off your own thumbs,” I said.

It was the thumbs that had really gotten to me.  You see, I had discovered a new way of being in the world.  I wanted to tell him that you didn’t have to hide your emotions and kill your own desires, that in this day and age, you could spend money, you could wear colored shirts, you could tell your child that you loved him, you could give him advice, because he would listen.  I was telling him that he didn’t have to hurt himself all the time.

But while there were tears in my eyes, my father was having a whole different experience of the conversation: He was laughing.  In fact, he thought it was ludicrous.

“I was going to cut off my thumbs?!” he said with a grin.

“Yes.”

“David, I’m not going to cut off my own thumbs.”

“No, that’s not what I mean, I know you wouldn’t….”

“…I mean, why would I cut off my own thumbs?”

“I know that, it’s just that….”

But try as I might, I couldn’t quite explain it.  In the end, I had that sense of hopelessness you sometimes get when you try to enlighten a parent.

I changed your diapers, the parent always seems to say with just a slight grin.  I knew you when you didn’t even know how to go potty, so don’t try to tell me anything.

David Groves at Alan Karbelnigs house circa 1981Later that year, though, he did cut off his thumbs, in a manner of speaking.  He was in a dark mood all that autumn because of office politics.  Apparently, Dad’s supervisor had accused him being an alcoholic, which was absolutely ludicrous if you knew my Dad at all.  Perhaps what that supervisor had seen were the effects of a lifetime of smoking.  Or perhaps he was just trying to put his boot on my Dad’s neck, as power players sometimes do.  One day, Dad sauntered up to me with that ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“Don’t be surprised if someday, I just disappear,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Disappear.  Gone.”

There was a quiet anger in his voice.

“Why?”

He took a drag on his cig.

“Because I’m sick of it all.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d just become a hobo riding the rails.”

It sounded to me like someone hurting himself because others had hurt him.  I looked at him with as much love as I could muster.

“Dad, I would really miss you.”

v

It wasn’t long afterwards that I saw my father sitting on the stairs at home with his shirt off.  It was so alarming that I remember it as if it were yesterday.  My father had become frighteningly skinny.  The mesomorphic father who had always been my hero was so thin that I knew he was sick.

“Dad, you’re too skinny,” I said.  “There’s gotta be something wrong with you.  You’ve gotta see a doctor.”

He wouldn’t listen to me that time, either.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

My father at age 21

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58

Thumbs, lungs, cigarettes, hobos, death, it’s all mixed in together now.  He never went to the doctor.  And three years later, he was dead.

Now that I’m older, I realize that it didn’t have to happen that way.  He could have stopped smoking.  He could have reached out to us.  He could have accepted our love.  It could have been easier for him.  The problem was, the person who was telling him to change was his own son.  And who listens to his own son?

Combo David and Donald shot closer

To Kiss a Stranger

The idea of Other is a powerfully frightening one.

Consider the act of kissing someone.  If your significant other kisses you, it makes you smile.  It can lift you to the mountaintop.  Or, if you’ve just been fighting, it can bring you to tears.

Patrice and David kissing NYears Eve 1a smallerBut if a stranger kisses you, the moment might haunt you for years.  It might be considered a crime, either harassment or worse.  Your emotional reaction might be repulsion, panic, or even violence.

In the photo above, my fiancee was kissing me, but there was clearly a subtext.  Perhaps you can see it in my face.  It was New Year’s Eve.  I had decided to break up with her in September, but had forestalled the date because I’m the kind of card player who holds.  On January 4, I would deliver the final news and she would explode, cursing and accusing.  Go ahead, look, you can see that she had already become Other.

Bob Filner, the dethroned mayor of San Diego, has been the Unwanted Other many, many times.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/bob-filner-guilty_n_4101496.html

I’m not saying Bob Filner is excused.  What I’m saying is that it’s no wonder that nations go to war against each other.  Often, it’s just the idea of Other that is offensive.

In my new novel, my main character Cat comes home one night to find a stranger in her apartment holding a gun on her.

Suddenly, he was walking slowly towards her and the calculus began to rapidly shift, and although he was talking, she was not hearing any of it, for his gun was pointed at her now, pinning her to the desk like a straight pin thrust into the thorax of a preserved butterfly.  He took one slow, tiny step after another, until she had recoiled as far back as she could and was leaning back at an extreme angle and she felt the gun barrel against her left ribs and suddenly he was only twelve inches, if that, from her face.  He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the hardwood floor with his toe.

“If you just hadn’t turned your back on the high life, we might’ve made it work.”

His breath smelled of Jack and cigarettes.  His skin was smooth and she was close enough that she could see a spot on his chin that he hadn’t shaved perfectly.  His eyes were languorous and imposing, like dark planets.  The aura that hung about him was of a flooding amorality, like he had kicked down with boots every doorway within him that had stood between him and whatever he wanted, no matter what the thing was that he wanted, and that nothing could stop him now, not the law, not convention, not sentimentality, not anyone else’s will, no matter how strong, not people or protectors, not things or objects or emotion or anything.

“You’re everything bad that’s ever happened to me,” he said in a low, strangely tender tone.

Then, in a moment in which her vision was filled with the blue and black smudge and a smear of bright nighttime headlights and she could actually hear screaming, he leaned over and touched his lips to hers.

Consent.  In the above example, it was clearly not granted.

But in other cases, it’s not so clear.  When I was dating around, one of the most difficult things for me was determining consent.  Of course, it doesn’t do to ask someone.  You have to figure that out for yourself.  In the end, you have to take a risk and just do it.  Every so often, you get a strange reaction.

“You took a big risk there,” Polly told me in January, 1994, when I kissed her in a Mexican restaurant.

Polly had just been put out of her home by the Northridge earthquake and so had I.  She had woken up to the shaking at 4:31 am, and had wanted to run and stand beneath a doorway.  But there was broken glass all over the carpet and she had bare feet.  I had had insomnia that night, and when the building started shaking, I jumped up and stood under a doorway, too.  When I tried to return to the bed, I discovered that the bookcase had fallen onto it.  Had I not jumped up quickly, that bookcase would have fallen onto me.

We had some things in common.  But Polly had a few trap doors, such as a cocaine addiction in her past, or, possibly, she implied, her present.  So it didn’t get far before it ended, and she ultimately became Other to me.

Over the years, I’ve collected in my mind a few offensive acts of Other.  At a strategic moment, I inserted some into my newly published novel, What Happens to Us (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU):

  • “After Dante left, Cat walked downstairs and found a curved oaken semicircle table set against an ancient granite staircase.  She slipped into her spot, a quaint little reading light illuminating her space.  She opened the book at random and read about an incident in 1282 during the time that the Frenchman Charles d’Anjou was ruling Sicily.  On Easter Monday, a French soldier made a lewd comment to an innocent Italian bride during vespers.  Her husband killed the cad, French soldiers retaliated, rioting ensued, and by morning, 2,000 people lay dead.”
  • “In 1712 in New York, a slave named Rose was arrested for speaking to a white woman.  The magistrates gave her 48 lashes at the whipping post and had her tied to a horse cart and dragged around town.  In 1743 in New York, a mob attacked a Jewish funeral, stole the corpse, and gave it a Christian baptism.  In 1689, New York governor Jacob Leisler led an early fight against the English crown, increasing colonist representation in government.  Two years later, soldiers sent by the English crown beheaded him, cut out his heart, and gave it to a woman, who held it aloft and yelled out, “Here is the heart of a traitor!”  Sometimes, it seemed that What Happens to Us was no more than a series of heads on spikes.”

Cover What Happens 1d

I should point out, however, that this novel isn’t just a listing of historical events.  It actually has a compelling story.

To download the new novel, What Happens to Us, for only $3.99, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

A Way of Loving

Some people see magic as little tricks to intended amuse and befuddle.  Other people see it as a way of showing others how smart you are.  The term fooling people is often used.

But I see it so differently.  I see it as a way of eliminating the spaces between people.  I see it as a way of stitching up and connecting.  When it’s done well–and it’s very rare, but it’s what I aspire to–it’s a way of loving.

To see what I’m talking about, take a look at this performance:

The opening minutes of my Jungle Show is also meant to bring people together, as well:

http://bit.ly/oNk196

I was trying to connect, as well, on trip to Kansas in 2005.  Claire and I had been together for four years, and her clan back in her native Kansas was eager to meet me.  The sisters and other relations drove in from all over Kansas and Missouri–Salina, Hayes, Plainville, Pittsburg, Wichita, Kansas City–to get a gander at the new boyfriend.  They all met in Hutchinson, where everybody spent a fun weekend at her sister Becky’s large house.

But my primary focus was the parents.  I had met Claire’s mother a year earlier and it hadn’t gone well.  Although Mom had been more generous of spirit when she was younger, she had become increasingly strict in religious matters over the years.  She had flown out to California and taken an immediate dislike to me.  I didn’t have a respectable job.  I wasn’t Catholic.  I was a liberal.  All those factors seemed to portray me as the sort that you didn’t really want involved with your daughter.

One afternoon in California, we had all sat at a Starbucks, chatting.  Mom was bristling, as all Kansans with a chip on their shoulder do, at “latte culture.”

“Why do people pay $5 for a cup of coffee out here?” she said.  “Back home, you can get a good cup for a dollar, that’s it.”

I was trying to get an idea of what Claire had been like as a child, so I was trying to avoid the political questions and asking about the past.  Mom was stonewalling.  I asked more questions.  Mom still didn’t respond.  She felt that introspection itself was a sin, it seemed.

That’s when I remembered some advice on interviewing technique that had been told to me by one of my early mentors in journalism, KT Maclay.

“If you ask a question and the subject doesn’t answer, ask him again,” she said.  “If he doesn’t answer then, ask him again.  And ask him again and again until he’s so embarrassed that he has to answer it.”

So I did, asking the same question in slightly different ways until I started suggesting answers.

“Was Claire an energetic child?”

“All children are.”

“Was she an inquisitive child?”

“What child isn’t?”

“Was she an innocent child?”

Mom looked straight at me, no smile on her lips.

“She was until she met you.”

It hadn’t been an auspicious start to our relationship, for sure.  But I still had a chance with the other half of that couple.

Claire’s father was an exceedingly quiet man.  He had been a farmer who had come from a line of farmers, spending long hours every day working the land and harvesting wheat and soy.  He had generous instincts.  In many ways, he was the classic humble Kansan.  I was eager to meet him.

IMG_3112a smaller

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All that weekend in 2005, I got to know the whole family.  We had meals together.  We played board games.  They got to know me.  And on Saturday afternoon, 20-year-old Sarah asked the inevitable question.

“When are you going to do some magic?” she asked.

“Whenever you want,” I answered.

“What about now?”

“Sure,” I said.

So I started preparing for a show.  When I was ready, I stood at the head of the dining-room table, looked out at the 30 people gathered around me, and started the show.

But there’s always one.  Little did I know that one of the relatives was so extremely religious that she objected to magic on general principle.  Claire’s Mom had walked into the other room to protest a performance of the devil’s work.  She stood in the living room waiting for others to join her protest.  But when she realized that nobody else was joining her, she sheepishly wandered back in.  Being the only good person in the family can be a lonely job.

My show, as always, was a hit.  Kansans aren’t too hip to express their astonishment, as Californians sometimes are.  The relatives connected with me on both a magical and a personal level.  I was entertaining, I was good at what I did, and I didn’t crack dirty jokes.  There was no downside.

At the end, Sarah was begging to know how the tricks were done, so I started performing a trick called Paper Balls Over the Head, which allows me to legitimately explain how a trick is done.  Another one of my performances of it can be seen here:

I was performing Paper Balls for 4-year-old Madeleine, and she was so excited by the magic that her astonished reaction became a bit of magic in itself.  So I performed the trick again, making a paper ball vanish again in front of her eyes.

Magic show 2005 1c2 smaller

Madeleine, far left.

Each time, she became more excited and the family became more delighted.  So I went a step further, and pulled someone into the secret.  I vanished the paper ball and asked Dad to pull it out of her ear.  As you can see below, I held it up behind Madeleine’s ear so that Dad could be the magician.  To Madeleine, the illusion was perfect.  We performed variations on this trick over and over again.  We must have done it for a full half-hour.

Fred pulling a paper ball out of Madeleine's ear

Dad pulling a paper ball out of Madeleine’s ear

You can see the delight on everyone’s face.

Magic helped make my connection with this family a success.  It was also a great way to connect with Dad, who had nothing caustic or prickly in his personality at all, he was all connection, easy charm, and being at peace with his silence.  Dad rarely said more than a few words when he was around others, but he talked easily with me.  We had shared something and we both knew it.

Over the years, it has been this performance that everyone remembers most of about David from California.

v

Eight years have passed since then.  A couple years ago, something happened.  One day, he was bicycling for exercise, old but robust, and the next, he was dead from brain cancer.  Everyone had loved him so much.  Nobody had anything bad to say about h im.  He was the quietest, most nonjudgmental member of the family.

Last month, I visited Kansas again.  Sarah, the young woman who had originally asked me to do some magic (the blonde in the photo above), was getting married now.  Before the ceremony started, I spotted Madeleine, who had been the excited 4-year-old.  She was now a lovely 12-year-old just starting seventh grade.

“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were four?” I asked.

“No.”

It was a bittersweet moment, because you want to be remembered.  But gradually, the moment began to brighten.  Her face began to change, and gradually, recognition crept into it.  Yes, upon reflection, she did remember the magic.

“Mom, that’s the man who did magic when I was little!” Madeleine whispered excitedly to her mother.

Now, Madeleine had an 8-year-old sister named Riley.  So I concocted a plan to close the circle, as I like to put it.

“Let’s do the same trick that I did for you when you were four,” I said.  “But this time, you’ll help me pull it off.”

In sharing the secret with her, I was stitching up the spaces between us.  We were becoming co-conspirators.  We were becoming partners.  I took Madeleine aside and taught her how to do it.  She was delighted to finally know the secret, and she beamed.  Then I sat down her sister Riley and started performing the trick.

In performance, Riley was befuddled as to where the paper ball had gone.  Then I reached behind her ear.  Madeleine secretly handed me the paper ball.  Voila!  I had pulled the paper ball out of Riley’s ear.

Riley (L), Madeleine (center tall), and me (far right).

Riley (L), Madeleine (center, standing tall), and me (far right).

Madeleine, as you can see, was overjoyed.  And young Riley had something to think about for the next few years, until one day, a man from California comes up to her at a family.

“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were eight?”

And that’s the day I’ll pull Riley in on the secret, too.

The Dark Secret in the Glass-Enclosed Cabinet

During the holidays, I go to a helluva lot of parties.  Clients hire me to perform at corporate parties for employees and their wives.  Fancy parties for celebrities from the A list to the ZZZZZZ list.  Filipino parties in Cerritos in middle-class homes with a roast pig and they say, “Eat, eat!”  Sometimes, clients even fly me into other cities for the parties, and I stand on a lovely stage in San Francisco, New York, or Denver.

Yikes collage h smaller

But four years ago, I was hired to perform magic at a home Christmas party in La Crescenta, and that was the beginning of something.  I was hired to perform four hours of walkaround, strolling magic for an extended family.

If you don’t know what walkaround closeup magic looks like, look at this video:

It seemed like just a regular gig.  It was a sprawling but not gaudy house nestled in the foothills.  The lady of the house, Jane, was an energetic grandmother who lived alone, and I’m still not sure what the story is about her husband, whether he’s dead or disenfranchised, because nobody ever talks about him, even though I do the party every year now and have become a regular fixture of it.  In addition, Jane had hired caterers to provide a nice little spread, a clown to play with the toddlers, a photo booth, and some guy to set up an exciting slot-car racetrack for the grandkids under a tarp on the other side of the swimming pool.

At the party, I performed for this group and that group, eliciting gasps and laughter, which is the service they hire me to provide, gasps and laughter, it’s what I sell, it’s what people buy.

Closeup Wonderground merge 2 smaller

And all the while, I’m marveling at Jane, because you can tell she’s an extraordinary woman.  The energy she gives off sets her apart.  She’s about 65 and has these quick eyes, this airtight mind, and this presence that is equal parts granite and love.  It’s hard to say how I can tell this, but it comes through just by looking at her, that she’s a one-in-a-thousand woman.  As the party progresses, I’m performing magic constantly, but behind my performances, there’s a river of thought running beneath it.  I begin to think that with Jane, I’m in the presence of someone who could accomplish anything, and probably did.  The house is probably worth a couple mil, and I’m thinking her extraordinary character must have had something to do with it.

After a couple hours, I slowed down and chatted with one of Jane’s sons.

“Gee, everybody seems so happy and friendly at this party,” I said.  “My family’s not like this.  There are people not talking to other people, one uncle who hasn’t come to the family party for 15 years because he had a financial disagreement with his brother-in-law over a business deal.  There’s a cousin who brings a woman to our parties that his son was originally dating.  I have a nephew who won’t hug me when he sees me because he’s mad at his father.”

“He’s mad at his father and he doesn’t hug you?”

“It’s crazy.  But you guys seem to have the ideal family.”

“Oh, we have that kind of stuff, too,” he said.  “You just can’t see it, but it’s there.”

Neurology face 1a

It gave me some solace to know that dysfunction isn’t unique to my people, but is the lingua franca of the holidays.

Towards the end of the party, I had elevated Jane to goddess status.  That’s when she filled me in on the history of the party.

“This is the first time I’ve had this party in 11 years,” she said.

“Oh, did you have a magician at the party before?” I said.

“Yes, it was a magician named Mark Furey, and he did it for ten years running.  But apparently, Mark isn’t doing magic anymore.”

Mark, I knew, had gone on to greater success as a screenwriter.  A couple of his movies had been produced, and apparently, all his time was now devoted to manufacturing words for the silver screen.

I interrupted our conversation to perform a little standup show in the living room for the 80 people assembled, and it was a hit.  People came up to me to make the usual comments.

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“How do you do that?”

“That card trick was sick.”

“You are a freak of nature.”

They were the highest of compliments.  I felt rather confident at that point, thinking that I might take over as the magician who performs at this party for another 10 years.  It was a good thing, because Jane had hired me at a pretty good rate of pay.  Finally, as I was packing up, Jane came over to tell me how much she had loved the show.

“Why did you stop having the party for 11 years?” I asked.

It was the wrong question to ask.  Jane’s face fell.  I thought maybe I had stepped into a landmine of dysfunction, perhaps, or maybe something worse.  That’s when Jane led me over to a tall glass-enclosed cabinet filled with photographs.

“My son would have loved your magic,” she said, her voice suddenly becoming somber.  “He passed away 11 years ago.  These are all my pictures and mementos of him.”

And it was, indeed, a shrine to her late son about eight feet high and the width of a grandfather clock.  Here was a photo of her son on the high school swim team, her son on his first day of school, her son’s college diploma.  And while she showed me, I realized exactly why Jane had taken an 11-year hiatus from Christmas parties.  She had been overcome with grief.  She couldn’t be gay and merry.  She had felt like dying.  She had felt that celebrating anything, even Christmas, would betray her son’s memory.

But 11 years had passed and people had convinced her to pull herself out of it.  Now, somehow, she had found it within herself to gather the family at her house again.  She was wearing a red sweater with a reindeer on the front.  She gave out boxes of chocolates as gifts as people left.  She hired a magician again.  As she stood talking about her beloved son at the photograph-filled cabinet, I realized that the grief hadn’t gone away, of course, but it had reduced to a manageable level.

Not only that, but she had realized that she had a choice.  She could be sad in her isolation, or she could step back into life.  Jane had chosen life.  And I was glad to bring a little magic into that life.

Update: Once again this year, I performed at Jane’s party.  Here’s the video of my parlour performance, which followed the walkaround performance.

Adventure on Road X (part 7)

[Continued from a previous post]

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Land is what it’s all about out here in Kansas.  Standing in front of my old family homestead from 1890, that’s all that you see when you turn round and round in 360, is land and an endless horizon.

There’s a road that runs in front of the house, and it’s still just gravel, even today, but was just dirt around 1900, when John H. Groves and his family first moved there.  When wagons rattled along those roads, horse hooves clacking, huge clouds of dirt must have raised behind them, as they do today behind my rental car.  Back then, roads out here didn’t have proper names, and still don’t, it’s still just Road 270.  Look across the road and you see another man’s 40 acres behind a fence.  Look to the right and left and you see the old 80 acres that John and his sons used to till and work, using ploughs and horses and other machinery maintained by his sons Orlando and Frank Elmer Groves.

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At the moment, I was standing there with a ghost.  His name was Preston Taylor, Jr., a third cousin of mine that I had met for the first time just that afternoon.  He had been surrounded by this kind of vastness all his life.  Working as a farm mechanic, he had driven these country roads to the various neighbors for years, making house calls to fix their vehicles.

“We Taylors were one of the few people who came out of the Great Depression better than we went into it,” Preston told me.  “We had all our money in a bank, but then the bank failed.  At first, it seemed like it was going to be a tragedy.  But the bank had some land to pay us back with, so we took that.  That land has paid us back for decades.  We worked it till 1952, when we had a bad crop.  That loss hit my father so hard that from then on, we’ve just rented it out.”

Farms have been central to the greatness that is America.  My girlfriend Claire was born and raised on a farm.  Her grandfather had owned the farm, then handed it down to her own father, Fred.  Claire’s father worked the land diligently, ceaselessly, tirelessly.  He grew wheat, soy, and millet, and raised cattle.  Claire used to walk the pastures and enjoy watching the quail, hares, deer, and other critters.  If you’ve ever seen Claire watch an animal, you know the meaning of the term enjoyment.  She loved that farm, that land, and the critters who called it home, and when Fred became too old to work it a couple years ago and they had to sell it, we took one last visit.

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We walked the pasture.  We stood under the trees.  We mooed at the cattle.  A quail took flight and we heard that lovely flapping of its wings.  We walked the perimeter of that farm, which also consisted of nameless roads like Road X.  We visited the pond where Claire and her sisters had played as children dressed in their little bathing suits.  Visiting it for the last time, Claire’s heart ached.  She said goodbye to the land, because after all, it wasn’t just about the land, it was about the arc of her life.

But they made the best of it, as many American farmers do.  One story illustrates this better than most.  When Claire was 10, she remembers, a sudden hailstorm hit Plainville.  It was raining stones the size of midget golf balls.  She remembers being in the garage with her father, who just watched as the hailstorm destroyed his wheat crop.  There was nothing he could do but watch the destruction of his entire planting season.  After it was all over, Fred hung his head for a while, then just shrugged his shoulders.

“Girls, let’s gather up these hailstones,” he said.  “We might as well make some old-fashioned ice cream while we still have the chance.”

Standing in front of the old Groves homestead, with all those stories running through my veins, I felt a kind of reverence.

“I don’t know if anybody lives there anymore,” he said, looking at the house.  “Last time somebody was living here was the Wamsers, and they drank a lot and squandered away their money.”IMG_3068 bw smaller

So many things had happened in that house.  It was the house where John H. Groves, born 1836, had lived since about 1900.  It was the house that six children had called home.  It was the house that Daisy, a mentally impaired little girl, would live in all her life.  It was the house where Frank had shot himself in the chest one morning in 1920, despondent about his health.  It was the house where Daisy and her caretaker Cy had died so tragically in 1967.

But not all people show sufficient respect.  After Daisy and Cy’s death, the house was looted, Preston told me.

“Some rascals took John H. Groves’ Civil War military uniform,” Preston said.  “They also took a Victrola.  Shame.”

“Can we walk onto the property?” I asked.

I was eager to explore, or, as they call it in Kansas while holding a shotgun, trespass.

“I don’t like to do that kind of thing.”

“Okay.”

So we gawked from a distance.  This was where John H. Groves’ two sons, Orlando and Frank, had worked their mechanical brilliance, according to Preston.

“I’ve saved some of the brothers’ tools and inventions,” Preston said, “and I’m willing to give you a couple.”

Give me?”

“Yes.  You can take them, if you want.”

The gesture made my heart skip a beat.  This blood thing was thicker than I had realized.

There was an antique watchmaker’s staking set, which was lovely and came in a handsome wooden box.  I later checked its worth online and discovered it lists on eBay for over $1500.

Antique watchmaker's staking set

Antique watchmaker’s staking set

There was an old ferrotype camera, which was fascinating because of my father’s and my own interest in photography.  I’ve gone into detail about Dad’s photography in a previous post that has become popular.

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And there was a puzzle that the brothers invented themselves.

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“The trick is, you have to get this ring over that ring,” he said.  “I’ve done it a couple times, but it takes quite a bit of effort to do it, believe me.”

I was searching for connections between the past and the present, and puzzles and magic was a connection.  Musical dexterity and mechanical dexterity was another.  I was looking for connections, because obviously, if we share some DNA, there must be some.  But it all came crashing down when I thought about Preston chucking his whole livelihood because he couldn’t spare the time to take a computer class.  Now that seemed ridiculous.

But it seemed disrespectful to think of him as ridiculous.  The occasion called for respect.  It called for an understanding of the decisions he had made.  After all, he hadn’t questioned my decision to spend 23 years of my life performing little trickie tricks, or spend 18 months with a witchy woman just because she had killer highlights in her hair.

So I looked him straight in the eye and listened.  He was my long-lost cousin.  It was the least he deserved.