The Whole Damn Thing

The other evening at the Magic Castle, I performed for a lovely young couple from Perth, Australia.They had flown into Los Angeles for their honeymoon and were dressed to the nines to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the magical capital of the world.

They were both beaming.  She was a pretty and chatty blonde.  She seemed like the kind of woman who isn’t quite beautiful, but through highlights and makeup, has turned into a fair approximation of it.  Most importantly, though, I could see some intelligence peeking out from behind the mask.  He was on the short side with red cheeks and a good physique.  Peeking out from behind his mask, I caught a bit of an inferiority complex, but he was charming, nonetheless.  I did a couple tricks for them, including a romantic piece of magic that gave them a souvenir.

“This,” I told them, holding up their signed playing card with which I had accomplished the impossible, “will remind you of this moment, 50 years from now, and you’ll say to each other, ‘Honey, remember this? It’s from that time on our honeymoon when we went to that Magic Castle place.’”

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It was so sweet.

“But how did you do it?” the woman asked.

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

“But I just don’t understand.  It was two cards, and now it’s one….”

But then, all in a moment, it all came crashing down.

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

“Just stop talking. You make yourself sound like an idiot.”

It was an extraordinary moment in which I saw everything converging at once: love, marriage, honeymoon, and divorce, the whole damn thing, all in a single moment.

The Looming Question of His Life

[Continued from a previous post]

Calvin wasn’t what you might call a winner.  He had no love in his life.  He was 150 pounds overweight and wore thick Coke-bottle glasses.  Days, he worked as a bean counter for a school district.  During tax season, he took extra work computing other people’s obligations for H & R Block.  As April 15 approached, Cal would come into the restaurant at 5 pm, eat his greasy dinner, make a dent on his pile of other people’s tax forms while watching Porky’s Revenge or Police Academy 4, and then by 9, would be sleeping in his seat at the counter.  Somehow, his fat kept him upright.  Sometimes, he would snore.

“Are you sleeping much?” I once asked Cal.

“What business is it of yours?” he retorted.

I didn’t consider it an offensive question, so I was taken aback.

“Well,” I said, “because you fall asleep in your seat every evening.  I’m just a little worried.”

“It’s tax season!  What do you expect?”

(It turned out that Calvin had a secret, something distressing that isn’t the point here, but will revealed be in the next installment.)

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Over time, despite the ridiculous aspects of Calvin’s personality, I grew to respect him.  Every Friday, I would stroll among the tables and perform closeup magic for those who asked for it–it was my job–but every so often, we would hit a slow patch and I would chat with him.  By 8:30, it usually slowed down to a crawl, and it was then that I would linger with him while he played along with TV Jeopardy.  Watching the show, I was astonished that Cal always beat the television contestants.  Even more alarming, he always beat me.

The moment I realized this, something alarming happened in my head.  I had to rearrange my estimation of him, if only to avoid considering myself his inferior (because obviously, no one is).  The thinking went something like this.

I’m intelligent, but in a different way than he’s intelligent. 

Cal has a kind of left-brain, encyclopedic intelligence, the kind that focuses on names, dates, and details, the kind that ends up as a pathetic bean counter.

I have a kind of right-brain, creative intelligence, the kind that can deal with ambiguities, flow, and chaos, the kind that can grasp two seemingly contradictory thoughts at the same time and not have to reconcile them, the kind that can easily and inevitably win a Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Neurology face 1aUsing that convenient train of thought, I wasn’t inferior to Cal, after all.

But faced with his obvious hyperintelligence, certain other questions sprang to mind.

Why is Cal working as a cog within a wheel?

Why isn’t he rich?

If he’s so smart, why is he so stupid?

When I first performed magic for Cal, he didn’t react the way other people did.  He wasn’t as astonished.

“I respect that move,” he said.

“What move?”

“That double you did.”

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I flinched.  Cal was right, the sleight that I had used to pull off the trick had been a double.  Nobody but another magician would know that, or furthermore, know the technical term for it.

“Years ago, I studied card magic under John Scarne’s son,” he said with a sly grin.

That explained a lot.  John Scarne is a well-known name in magic.  He wrote 28 books on card magic, dice, gambling, and other games, and in fact was the hand double for Paul Newman during his card-manipulation scenes in The Sting. 

Thinking that perhaps I had discovered someone from whom I could learn, I handed Cal the deck.

“Show me something,” I said.

Cal gladly took the deck, and with great flourish, showed me a trick using a sleight called the glide.  My hopes were immediately dashed.  His skill in sleight of hand was rudimentary and embarrassing, and his estimation of those skills, wildly inflated.  There was nothing he had to teach me except arrogance.

But I still humored him.  As a professional magician, I’m not in the business of making people feel bad, quite the opposite.

I walked around for weeks thinking about Calvin and his intelligence.  One day, I finally asked Calvin the elephant-in-the-room question.

“Cal,” I said, “you’re obviously very, very smart.  So I’m asking myself: Why haven’t you gone into business for yourself and made your fortune, or gone into nuclear physics, or developed a new Twitter or Facebook or some other amazing enterprise?  With your brain, you could do it, surely.”

I had peppered the question with high praise, hoping he wouldn’t take it as an insult.  Thankfully, he didn’t.

“My intelligence has always been a gigantic burden to me,” he said.  “It weighs me down.  It hangs around my neck like an albatross.”

It was a moment that I never forgot.  In his face, I didn’t see regret or pain.  Instead, I saw that this was the question he had pondered many, many times, day after day, year after year.  It was the question of his life.

Eventually, I learned about Calvin’s father, and that offered one answer.

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“He abused me both mentally and physically,” Calvin said, using cold, theoretical words that distanced him from what he was describing.  “He insulted me and beat me.  When I grew big enough to fight back, I didn’t, I just left home.  And I never went back.”

When someone offers up a confession like that, you know that he has some insight into what’s happening.  Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to feel it, and that was a shame.  It seemed that in many ways, now at age 40, it was beyond healing.

That, of course, explains Calvin’s inability to capitalize on his intelligence.  Granted, other people from difficult circumstances use their dysfunction to rise above it all–look at Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who both came from alcoholic homes–but that’s not how it worked in Calvin’s case.  Everyone needs support during their formative years.  They deserve a father who doesn’t beat them for arbitrary reasons.  If they get a difficult father, it screws up the machinery, and they end up with voices in their head.  Those voices hold them back, trip them, and sometimes, destroy them.  What Calvin told me, in essence, was that he had those voices.

[To be continued]

The Thunderstorm and His Son

“Oh, don’t act like you’re all hurt,” he said, walking over to the refrigerator and opening it up.  “This isn’t about you, it’s about how disgusting you are.  You get on a diet right now or you’re gone.  And you can take the loser kid with you.”

Noyes turned around to look at Edward, but his son was gone.

“You know, I didn’t marry you for your brains.  It was the looks you used to have.”

Loretta’s nose was still bleeding.  She kept a paper towel pressed against it, walking away from him as he ranted, her head bowed, Noyes following her, gesturing at her, pointing in anger, Loretta every so often tearing off another paper towel and pressing it to her nose.

“…You think I’m going to stay with a woman whose own father thinks she’s an idiot?  And by the way, I happen to agree….”

Edward appeared around the corner.  His eyes were smeared with tears.   His arm was straight at his side, his hand holding his father’s pistol.  For a long moment, nobody moved.  There was mask of pain drawn across Edward’s face like a goat-skin shroud that Loretta had never seen before.  Loretta had dropped her hand, and as a result, her nose was openly bleeding off her top lip, onto her chin, and onto the kitchen floor.

“Edward Andrew, you come here right now,” Loretta said in a firm voice.

Edward did not move.  He was struggling with something within him and his hands were trembling.  He looked up at his father.  Noyes refused to meet his gaze, but instead, walked to the pantry and took out a bottle of tequila.  He took out a shot glass and poured a drink.

“I should have realized,” Noyes said, holding out the drink and taking a step towards him.  “You’ve finally become a man.  Come here, son.”

The gunshot surprised everyone.  Noyes jumped back, then looked around, seeing Edward’s arm now raised and a look of horror splashed across his face.  Loretta had let out something like an abbreviated scream, raising her hand to her mouth.  Blood was still dripping off her chin.  Within a few moments, Noyes realized with astonishment that he hadn’t been hit.

“I think we’re going to need more than just one glass,” Noyes said, grabbing the tequila bottle around the neck.

Noyes walked towards Edward slowly, step by step, a charming smile playing on his lips, all the while saying, “Son…son…son…son…son…son…son….”

When Noyes had nearly reached his son, the boy suddenly raised his arm and jammed the gun against his father’s chest.  The solid thump of it registered like a jolt on his face.  It reminded Noyes of something that had happened to him in Kosovo, but he couldn’t remember exactly what.  For one long moment, their eyes locked: Edward sniveling through his tears, but beneath that, something within him also surging with rage; the father’s face was in calm, taut control, but peeking out from beneath it, the son could every so often detect a flash of what he figured out years later was disgust and disdain.  It was a moment that Edward would think about virtually every day through the years, sometimes during long, insomniac nights throughout his teens, later in his twenties during harrowing moments of frenzied criminality, a gun in his hand, trying to figure out what the expression of a frightened gas station attendant or surprised homeowner meant, and finally at age 32, in tears for the first time in decades, this time on his knees, head buried in the lap of his nearly naked mistress, confessing how that moment so long ago had forever haunted him because, no matter how he turned the details back and forth in his mind, reframing them, casting them in different contexts—sociopath, misogynist, man of action—he had never been able to make sense of it, and “why didn’t it make sense, why can’t I figure out what it means?” and his mistress peering down at his head, brushing her fingers through his thinning hair, answering simply through a drug-induced haze—“Because he loved you so much”—and then passing out.

For those who were interested in my post, “The Thunderstorm That Lived Next Door,” the excerpt above is how I turned the incidents from my childhood into fiction in my recent novel, What Happens to Us (  In fact, the whole novel is a profile of dysfunction as it expresses itself in many forms, from the personal to the political.  Try it out.

The Thunderstorm That Lived Next Door

As a child, we lived next to a jerk.  Big John was a bear of a man with a mousy wife named Bessie and a little boy named Little John.  Think of a man who had to bellow and berate to feel alive.  Think of a mouse about five-foot-nothing and greying hair.  Think of a little boy who was afraid all the time.  Those were the neighbors.

Early on, John made enemies of us.  He built a common fence without asking us or consulting on the design and then demanded that we pay 50%.  My parents refused.  A prodigious silence ensued between our families for the rest of our days in that house, which lasted another 17 years.  We didn’t want to have anything to do with them.  We felt they were below us.

To us kids, John was the grouchy man who lived next door.  When my friends and I were playing in the backyard and the ball went over the fence, they would never throw it back over.   Usually, balls would hit the wall of John’s back house and fall into a 2-foot-wide space between the wall and the back house.  Over the years, a bunch of our balls collected back there.  When I got a little older, I sometimes got brave.  I would make sure John wasn’t looking, and then jump over the fence, quickly retrieve the ball, and then jump back over before their little dachshund could rush me in a frothing, barking frenzy, and shred my ankles and heels.

All through my childhood, though, John provided one special burden in my life: My bedroom window was right next to their kitchen window (in the photograph below, it’s the window on the right at the top).  I could hear every single argument that they had in that room for years and years.

David Groves reading in bed smaller“You’re not a wife, you’re just a mess all the time.”

“Why do you walk around like that, son, you look like a queer!”

“Why is everybody in this house so useless all the time?  Why do I have to do everything myself?”

But quoting individual lines doesn’t do it justice.  When Big John’s bellowing erupted, it was a thunderstorm that raged and crackled and boomed over the span of an hour or two, sometimes all evening.  I remember the word sonuvabitch being used a lot.  Often, I sat in my bedroom and listened to its ugliness, curious about the drama that was unfolding but not wanting to be detected.  There is a voyeuristic interest that arises, after all, when you are secretly privy to other people’s drama.

Looking back, though, I know that hearing such abuse is like secondhand smoke: You don’t have to be smoking it to be affected by it.  First of all, it was unpleasant.  There is something toxic about the sound of a man bellowing and berating those in his own family.  Over a period of hours, it gave me headaches.

And secondly, my personality formed at least partly in reaction to that smoke.  I remember making a pledge to myself during those arguments:

You will never be like Big John’s family. 

Thank God I’ve fulfilled that promise to myself.  I’ve had an aversion to drama, melodrama, and rage all my life.  When the media talks about No-Drama Obama, that’s one of the best things they could say about him, in my book.

Once, a woman told me she got up in the morning and argued with her boyfriend for two hours, went to work, then argued with him for two hours in the evening before going to bed.  It had been going that way for two years.  I shrunk away from her like a hemophiliac from a knife convention.

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There’s a certain kind of contentment that I’ve striven for in my life, even more than passion or achievement.  It’s my version of a buzz.  The contentment that I so crave is created by eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, not allowing myself to get overstressed, being with the right woman, and surrounding myself with the right people.  Brown rice gives me that buzz.  Riding my bicycle for over 45 minutes does, too.  And so does Claire, whose positivity is contagious.  Drama destroys it.

I still remember things about those Big John arguments.  I remember sitting in my bedroom listening to the raging storm next door.  I remember sticking my eye up to catch a glimpse, because I got curious what his raging face looked like.  Sometimes, however, I got caught, although thankfully, there was no punishment for it.

I remember Little John being very quiet when he was young.  But then when he became an adolescent, gaining height, girth, and testosterone, he became a second booming voice.  He was no longer Little John; he had become a thunderstorm of his own.  And I just can’t forget the face of that little tired mouse, tentative and fearful, with a look on her face that said, Oh my God, what have I done? 

I often thought, How much longer can she last?

Astonishingly, in conducting an Internet search for this post, I discovered that Bessie died just last September at age 100.  Thankfully, she outlived her husband John and married a second one.  One can only hope that he was more loving than the first.  My mother says that he died of cancer.  After he was diagnosed, she says, they bought a house with a guarantee that if the owner dies before the mortgage is paid off, the debt is forgiven in full.  He died six months later and they had no problem collecting.

And in that search, I found Bessie’s son Little John, too.  He was arrested in June, 2012, on charges of public intoxication.  I looked closely at the mugshot.  I didn’t recognize him in those tired and reddened eyes, that wild, wet hair, and that downturned mouth.  He looked like someone who’s damaged but doesn’t know he’s damaged.  He looked like that famous arrest mug shot of Nick Nolte.  I was amazed, but not surprised.