In the Labyrinth of Selves

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 4, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/%5D

There was a Russian oil executive’s son.  Then there was a South African who had something to do with diamond mines.  Then there was a New York investment banker.  It didn’t really matter what they did.  What was important was that they were all loaded.

Evan played the part.  Over weeks, he began to understand the fields that Anthony Hopkins ploughs.  And David Haselhof.  And Donald Trump, too.  Evan had two selves, and he had to keep track of where they were at all times.  It was like they were tethered to each other by elastic.  Sometimes the selves were one person, but at other times, his real self stepped outside and watched the other one play the part.  Sometimes Evan watched it lie.  But the nub of lying was that he had to lie from truth.  Otherwise, suspicion would fester like a sore, and was liable to be fatal.  There’s a beautiful state park in Washington called Deception Pass, a beautiful bridge that stretches over a lovely forest and beach, and whenever he had to deceive, Evan said to himself: I’m driving over Deception Pass again.

IMG_1354.jpg

“Where’d you go to school?” the investment banker asked.

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

“Oh, my kid goes there.  Kid from my first marriage, before I discovered I wasn’t a breeder.  Did you like it?”

Evan stepped outside of himself and watched his other self panic.  He had done the research, but he didn’t want to get into too much detail.

“Hated it.  Hated the teachers, hated the kids.  It would be great if I never ever thought about it again.  Ever.”

That shut him up.  Only gradually did his two selves veer together again.  Hate was great misdirection.

The investment banker loved male strippers, which made the dirty work easy.  Sometimes he disappeared into a bedroom with one.  Over eight straight evenings, John took $2.4 million from the guy, and without protestation.  Evan decided not spend his share.  He was saving for a down payment on a house, but was unclear how he would do that in cash.

Φ

With that kind of green stacked onto the table, John needed a bodyguard, too.  He was a muscled guy with hard eyes who called himself Pancho Villa.

“I know this is a stupid question,” Evan said between games, “but is that your real name?”

“Let me tell you a little piece of wisdom you never learned in college,” Pancho said.  “Never use your real name.”

Drunk 1a

The young Russian brought in his own security, which John told him was an FSB officer.  The mark himself was so impatient that it was easy, but then Evan turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away, at the FSB guy, whose eyes he also met, and so in desperation, he looked out the window.  He began to sweat.  Russian eyes were scary because Evan didn’t know where they were coming from.  They seemed frighteningly unsentimental.  He looked over at John, whose eyes were averted but who was still looking.  Evan thought about what he knew about Russia, that they were an alcoholic society, that they had been ruled for years by gangsters masquerading as communists, and now, gangsters masquerading as democrats, that they had been undergoing a brain drain for years and that natural selection had probably taken its toll.  They were such a corrupt society that they had to deal with loser American millionaires like Mr. Orange Hair.

A long minute passed.  The bodyguard looked away.  Eventually, it became clear that the Russian was drunk.  He had seen something, but he didn’t see, the brain being a funny thing.

I’m thinking too much about my mistakes, Evan thought.

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

It was a challenge that he hadn’t expected, where to store his cash.  Evan wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spending it all.  He had self-control.  He knew that about himself.  After five weeks, he had bought a new car, but it was a two-year-old bargain, an Acura, nothing fancy.  On game nights, he would roll up to the house in some red racecar that he’d picked up from Pancho’s garage, and then afterwards, drive it back to the garage.  As soon as he could after a long game, he would take Kara out and blow a few hundred on a great evening—dinner, dancing, a penthouse room somewhere, sweating on top of her, hands gripping her wrists, iced Champagne in bed after, club sandwiches and Truffle French fries for two, the works.

Φ

One night, John built a game around a Midwestern bakery millionaire’s son.  He was impeccably handsome, like Ryan Reynolds but without the kind eyes.  Evan stared at him for a while from a distance, deconstructed his look, and finally concluded that he wasn’t really gorgeous, after all, that it was mostly just a construct built on expensive tailoring and careful dermatology, like Ivanka.  The guy called over Kara and asked for a Quaalude or two, which John had conveniently stocked up on, and Evan realized it was going to be an easy evening.  There were two other guys at the table who liked to dream big but didn’t have the deep pockets to back them up, classic losers.

Around midnight, during a break in the action, Evan walked up to Baptiste in the other room.

“Rum and Coke, hold the rum,” Evan said.

“Hey listen, she turned me down,” Baptiste said, fixing the drink.

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

Baptiste opened his palm, and there were two pills in it.

“What is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Baptiste said with a grin.

“What is it?”

“Let’s just say I bought it from one of Bill Cosby’s friends.”

David and Angela drunk 1a

Evan’s first self was red-faced and fuming, but his presentation self remained quiet and mildly amused.  Baptiste was cool, too, smiling the widest disgusting smile that had ever been disgustingly smiled.  Evan turned and looked out the window at nothing.  It was nothing, his public self was saying, she was just a silly bitch.

Φ

When the morning dawned, the bakery heir’s cell phone woke him up and he staggered back to the game.  Soon, the table was swimming in a cloud of smoke and their sweaty clothes stank of tobacco.  Kara pushed Sex on the Beaches hard on bakery asshole and he dug himself further and further into the hole.  To amuse himself, Evan rolled a half-dollar on the backs of his fingers.  It seemed like a smart-ass thing to do, something he might have learned from the bad boys at Exeter.

At 9:30 am, the two losers were in the other room with a couple strippers while the bakery boy was passed out on the sofa from too many hookers and Stolichnaya.  Evan looked at the kid’s face.  It was like seeing track marks on him, a face full of affluence and pampering, pink cheeks and perfect hair.  He didn’t feel sorry for him at all.  The kid had never had a day’s struggle in his life, that much was clear.  Growing up, Evan had had to save up for magic, tricks that cost $15 and $20 and each purchase felt like you were sacrificing something for it, a pound of flesh or something, but this guy could have bought Magic City, Inc., with his weekly allowance.  He was pissing it away.  Evan had no sympathy for bladder problems like that.  He didn’t know if it was affluenza or self-destruction or just a urinary infection, but Evan wove these moments into a narrative, like what he was doing was kind of like, not exactly like, but in a way like class warfare, like Karl Marx or FDR or Bernie Sanders.  He was doing a good deed.

Body art 1c

“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

“What about coming back tomorrow night?”  John asked.

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

The other two guys had been eyeing the scion’s cash all night and morning.

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

While bakery scion slept, Evan closed his eyes in one of the bedrooms.  It was a gorgeous high bed with a beautiful bedspread.  It yawned before him.  Four hours later, he woke up to discover that he worked his way under the sheets fully clothed and still wearing shoes.  The sheets were fabulous.

“I never had a son,” he heard John say.

Evan looked up and spotted John in the doorway eyeing him, he didn’t know for how long he had been doing it.  Then he rubbed his eyes and looked at him more closely.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Hate kids.  They steal your life away.  There are a few I’d like to have killed, Jesus.  But even so, it’s nice to have somebody grown who knows what the score is.  Somebody who’s blood.  Somebody who isn’t a fucking round roast.  And somebody who can muck cards, if the occasion arises.  Where’d you learn to do that?”

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

“No denying you got a talent.  You don’t take after your Mom, that’s for sure.  She was devoid of talent, even in the kitchen.  Hell, she could burn water.”

“She’s never been a good cook.”

“Listen, we’re going to do see how deep we can bury this guy, all right?  Wake up and suit up.”

Evan sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes again.  Taking after people was a naval to gaze into.  It was like having a twin, like looking into a mirror and seeing something familiar, or even something that you hated.  It was like Kara and Kendra wrestling with each other.  Evan had John’s knowing grin, but he didn’t know whether that was venality or physiology.  A knowing grin seemed to be an iceberg, with seven-eighths under the water.

Maybe I hold back like that, Evan thought, splashing water onto his face and looking into the mirror.  Or maybe holding back is a reason to go to hell, too.

Φ

When they all knocked off at 3 pm, Evan sidled up to Kara.

“Don’t drink anything that Baptiste gives you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

“Have you taken any drinks from him last night or today?”

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

“What, you want us to babysit your cash?”

“Something like that.”

Evan started walking away, and then it dawned on Kara.

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  Strangely, Pancho Villa wasn’t there to greet him, so he just walked in the front door, saw that the front room was empty, and then walked into the other room to get a Diet Coke at the bar.  He stopped.  Stared at a prop dummy hanging from the ceiling.  One of Baptiste’s practical jokes.  It was hanging from a strong reinforced trestle that held up a heavy curtain.  From the neck.  Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

Evan called John’s cell phone.  He discovered that he was out of breath when he talked.

“Where are you?” Evan finally managed to utter.

“Hardware store.  Why?”

“Listen, you better get to the house fast.  There’s a body hanging behind the bar.”

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

“What the fuck are you doing at the house?”  John finally said.

“We got a game tonight.”

“I texted everybody.  The game’s off.”

“My phone’s been off.”

“I told you never to turn your fucking phone off.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t contradict me.  Get the fuck out of there.  Now.”

John hung up on him.  Evan looked down and stared at the phone.  One self wanted to follow orders, but his other self wanted one last look.  The tension between the two made his heart beat like he was a scared bird or something.

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

It took him a minute or two, but Evan floated over to the bar again.  Looked at the body closely.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t used to seeing bodies dangling next to him.  It was an intense feeling, like his other self, the innocent self that believed everything would be all right, were hanging up there.  Then he looked more closely.  Somehow, something wasn’t right.  He moved behind the body.  Suddenly, he noticed.  The hands were handcuffed behind him.  He drifted back in front to look at the face, which was tilted upwards so far that he couldn’t be sure.  But he knew.

Φ

The newspaper reported that Baptiste’s body had been found in his studio apartment in Henderson.  Death certificate said the same thing.  Inquest revealed that Baptiste had been depressed for years and was taking medication for it, that a pharmacopeia of illicit drugs had been discovered in his apartment, and that he had been selling them to junior high schoolers.  As if.

The games went on, though, no big deal.  Money kept flowing like a dirty river.  Kara kept serving drinks and drugs.  The new bartender had the unlikely name of Boaz von Diebenkorn, a smiley Austrian chap with bad teeth.  After introductions, Evan wandered away, but John caught up with him.

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

Evan looked at John, straight at him, even though he was afraid to, and there was something in his eyes that Evan had seen before but hadn’t correctly identified.  He hadn’t realized how malignant it was.  The first time he had seen it, it was roguish and charming, like Bogie, the lone wolf with a heart of gold, but now, it was like the pretty mask had been torn off and it was a wolf underneath and Evan tried his best to act like a good boy, I won’t tell, I won’t rat, don’t kill me, tethered by a thread above Deception Pass.

“Do I need to ask the question?”  John said in a low voice.

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

John raised his finger sternly in front of Evan’s eyes.  It was as good as waving a hunting knife.

“You.  Don’t.  Steal.  From.  A mark.  The bakery guy was passed out and it was an easy roll, just a few thousand, but that wasn’t Baptiste’s juice, baby, it was mine.”

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 6 is here: ]

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How We Kick Ourselves

[This is chapter 2 of an ongoing work of fiction. Chapter 1 is here.]

At Los Angeles Union Station, Evan boarded the train, and by 10:30, the train was rattling through Ventura and he started his set. Ambitious card. Sybil. Three Fly. Pegasus Page. Trix all have names, just like songs have names, just like hurricanes, just like sins. It’s how we kick ourselves. We give names to things. But Evan had done the trix so many times, thousands of times, even, that he’d gone far beyond the names, it was automatic, it was like his hands were doing the trix and his mouth was saying the patter, but he was hovering above it all, just watching. It was the people’s reactions that interested him.

No way!

Get out!

Don’t tell me!

That is so sick!

Am I being punked here?

I’m going to cry.

At lunch, after two hours of strolling magic, Evan was sitting in the dining car eating a sandwich across from Jazmine, one of the coach attendants, dressed in her smart royal-blue uniform. Lunch was over and the passengers had all vacated the dining car. While Jazzy ate clam chowder and talked casually about a graffiti incident that had just happened at her mosque, Evan was somewhere else entirely, wondering whether this was a thing he wanted to stay in, a relationship with a girl with silky black hair who sings in a country-rock band. Whose twin must be harboring a ginormous rage over the dawg she let into her litter box, although he wasn’t really a dawg, he told himself, he was just in the line of fire, he was just kind of there, he just let it happen. Twins are a whole other dopplefück, he knew that now. It must have roots reaching down to the center of the Earth, holding on with some death grip onto volcanic rock like Beast from Haunted Cave or Beast from Choose Your Dysfunction or something.

Okay, he thought sadly, I’m guilty, too.

That night, Evan collapsed in his cabin. He nestled in, reading a history book about gambling cheats in the 1930s, but it’s like a phenomenon he heard about once. Apparently, when nitrogen is chilled down to 271 degrees below zero, it becomes a liquid with strange properties. It has an incredibly low viscosity, which is the resistance it provides against a surface it’s flowing against, so low, in fact, that it can flow against itself, two streams of liquid nitrogen, one on top and another directly below that, each flowing against the other. His reading was like that, reading about gambling cheats, but beneath that, pondering dopplethängs.

Φ

The next morning, the train was passing through the Cascades. Every time he passed through here, passing by thousands and thousands of pine trees on hillsides of a valley that goes on for an hour or two, his heart suddenly swelled and he believed in God. Then he went back to Vegas and its heartless asphalt streets and he went back to believing in nothing. In the Cascades, the train climbed higher and higher up the hillside while Evan performed tricks for the gawking tourists, when suddenly, a face stood out to him. Evan did a couple tricks for him and then stopped.

“I know you from someplace,” Evan said.

“Don’t think so,” he said.

“Strange. What’s your name?”

“Brundage.”

It stopped him cold.

“That’s my mother’s maiden name.”

Evan looked at him hard. He looked a few years older than his mother, and come to think of it, he seemed to have a family resemblance. He looked at Evan hard. Without thinking, Evan said, “Are you John?”

A grin appeared on his face, and that’s when Evan realized that this guy was his uncle, the one the family lost track of 20 years ago. They heard he got kicked out of Vegas for cheating at cards, and shortly after that, he showed up at their doorstep. His parents put him up for a couple days, and then one day, he disappeared, plus $1800 Mom had stowed in a hidden compartment in the garage. The family never heard from him after that.

“You’re good with cards,” John said.

“Thank you.”

“You gamble?”

“Never.”

“Shame. Why?”

“I don’t like to lose.”

“You don’t have to.”

Φ

That evening over screwdrivers, Evan and John chatted amiably about card games, Chinese face reading, strategic thinking as another name for cheating, stepping on baby stingrays in Tampa Bay, and people you haven’t seen in 30 years and how your memories of them age like soft tomatoes.

“Gimme that deck,” John said, and Evan handed it over.

John started playing with it, and it was an eye opener, like watching chilly water flow over a series of rocks, a deck like the Holy Trinity, many and one at the same time, and it was like he wanted to touch it, jump into it, splash in it, let it wash over his hair, but he knew the water would freeze him to death, so he just watched. John started dealing seconds, which is a way of making people think you’re dealing the top card when you’re not, you’re saving the ace for yourself, it’s a scam that takes years of practice, you’re practicing to be devious.

“This deck is light,” John suddenly said.

It hit Evan, because he recalled the six of clubs that a 15-year-old brat pulled out of the deck and then, in a kind of antisocial act, crumpled up, popped into his mouth, and chewed up, and Evan just smiled weakly while his parents said nothing.

“Fifty-one, am I right?”

And Evan nodded his head in awe.

John ordered Evan another screwdriver that he didn’t need, because that was three now.

While John talked, Evan saw flashes of his mother in him, as if John were a variation on a theme.

If Mom had turned left rather than right.

If Mom had a twinkle in her eye.

If Mom had never loved anyone.

Evan flashed on Kendra saying, All you need to know about someone is the decisions they’ve made.

He also remembered Kara saying, I have a personality disorder. It’s named Kendra.

An hour later, Evan was thinking he had to start wrapping it up for the night when John turned his head in a strange way.

“You know why your mother married your father, don’t you?”

Evan shook his head no.

“Because when she was a kid, she was messed with. Your father had a savior complex. Didn’t help much, of course. You can’t really fix it when you’re messed with.”

Evan asked him what he meant.

“I don’t want to say it any plainer than that.”

Evan’s mind was reeling and it wasn’t just the liquor. It felt like he’d known it all his life, but only now had it swum to the surface.

“I’m 10 years older than your mother. When I was 15, she always wanted to hold my hand. She worshiped me. But I always wanted to be somewhere else.  On the road.  I’m just that kinda guy.”

Liquid nitrogen was flowing through Evan’s head again, on the surface trying to look like he was listening, but below that, pondering the repression that his mother had always conveyed to him somehow, he didn’t know how, that strange, shaken look she had when he first kissed a girl in front of her, his first open display of sexuality, and later, the unexplained hostility she displayed towards him occasionally when she saw him as a man rather than as her son.

“What did you do on the road?” Evan finally managed.

“Learned how to bend a note.”

“Uh, come again?”

“You know that feeling you get when you come up with a winning hand? I mean, an unbeatable hand? Three kings or something? Well, I knew I’d never get that feeling in that dirty little town. That hypocritical little state. Plus, I was tired of cheating Butch Maggart out of his lunch money just to get my blood going. So I hit the road and started doing everything my folks told me to never do.”

Evan glanced at his watch.

“I gotta call this girl before I go to bed,” he said.

“Oh, so that’s it.”

“What?”

“I could see it in your eyes. There was this thing eating at you. I couldn’t tell whether you were bored with our conversation or thinking about a girl.”

“It was a girl.”

“There’s always a reason to leave ‘em, you know. Remember that. Every girl does something that you can blame her for. And if they’re a saint, you just say, ‘You always act like you’re too good for me,’ and that’s it, it’s her fault, that’s your freedom.”

Evan glanced at his watch again. He stood up. He looked into the eyes of this old man who was, strangely, the man in the mirror.

“Where do you live?” Evan asked.

“I’m not really living anywhere right now.”

“Well, I mean, where’s your stuff?”

“You don’t really need stuff, buddy. All you need is money and a way to get it.”

“Yeah, well, I hope I see you again.”

“That’s doubtful,” John said with a grin.

“Well, good luck, then.”

Evan turned to leave.

“Listen,” John said.

Evan turned back. John reached for Evan’s breast pocket and stuffed inside a thick wad of bills, then raised an index finger in front of his nose.

“And if you thank me, I’ll hurt you.”

Evan started to say something, but then stopped.

“I had my reasons for what I did, trust me, John said. I mean, I was going to get hurt, okay?”

Evan looked at John’s face, which was dead serious now.

“There’s interest tacked on, too,” John said.  “Now piss off.”

Φ

John got off the next morning in Klamath Falls. Evan was still in bed in his cabin, leaning his toasty forehead against the chilly window. Evan caught a glimpse of John carrying one duffel bag off the train and into the snowy morning, his breath condensing in the wintry air. He stopped and lit a cigarette. The way he did it, with immense relish and patience despite the cold and snow, Evan realized that he’d been waiting to do that all night. Evan tried to remember this moment, this scarred diamond that he’d never see again.

“Wow,” Evan said out loud.

Evan got up and did his six hours, and that night, he checked into the motel next to the Space Needle and finally called Kara.

“How’s the trip been?”

“Eventful.”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Do you?”

Evan heard flashes of Kendra, as if Kara were a variation on a musical theme.

If Kendra had turned right rather than left.

If little Kendra had always wanted to hold her big brother’s hand.

If Kendra hadn’t had fangs.

Evan had to play it differently. They weren’t photocopies, after all.

“I’m sorry,” Evan said, “I just met somebody on the train.”

There was a conspicuous silence, and then he realized what it sounded like.

“An uncle I never thought I’d see again. We had a long talk last night over too many screwdrivers, and he gave me thirty $100 bills.”

There was a silence, and then Kara said, “Three thousand dollars?”

“Yeah, it’s payback for the sins of yesteryear.”

“What does that mean?”

And then Evan explained the whole thing.

“So you gonna take me out and spend it?”

“Honey, I can’t.”

“No, look, he stole $1800 from them, right? So we just give them the $1800 and don’t tell them about the rest.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t.”

“That’s what your uncle intended.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Then why did he pay you so much? He threw in a little for you.”

“No, that was interest. To take care of inflation.”

Kara sighed.

“You can’t even….”

“No.”

“Not even just a thousand?”

Evan felt his soul was standing on thin ice. Sometimes, he could hear the ice cracking. Evan saw himself as being honest and good. He returned lost wallets. He was teaching magic for free to a kid whose mother just gone on a drug binge and lost the kid to foster care. For three months, he gave lodging to some stranger who had inherited $900,000 from his mother and then spent it all in two months on poker games in the Bellagio.

Now, he had done one bad thing. This whole doppleshït had messed with his sense of who he was.

After they had hung up, Kara breathed wearily. She had never had a sense of being good and pure. She saw herself more in terms of flow and hitting the high note. Trying to be good was just a fucking distraction.

When Evan returned, they flew to New York City for the weekend to see a Broadway play.  It cost a little over a thousand.

[To continue reading, Chapter 3 is here.]

If you like this fiction, you’ll like David’s newly published enovel, What Happens to Us. Download it onto your Kindle for only $3.99. Click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Read excerpts from the novel here:
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/a-moment-of-stunning-and-naked-honesty/
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=272&action=edit
https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/getting-alcoholism/

I Feel Them Still

Image

In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.

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.