Edom glanced at Agnes and said uneasily, “Strange."
“No. Charming,” she disagreed. “There's a meaning to it. Everything has a meaning, dear."
An elderly Negro gentleman answered the door. His hair was such a pure white that in contrast to his plum-dark skin, it appeared to glow like a nimbus around his head. With his equally radiant goatee, his kindly features, and his compelling black eyes, he seemed to have stepped out of a movie about a jazz musician who, having died, was on earth once more as someone's angelic guardian.
“Mr. Sepharad?” Agnes asked. “Obadiah Sepharad?"
Glancing at the plump pie in Edom's hands, the gentleman replied to Agnes in a musical yet gravelly voice worthy of Louis Armstrong: “You must be the lady Reverend Collins told me about."
The voice reinforced Edom's image of a bebop celestial being.
Turning his attention to Barty, Obadiah broke into a smile, revealing a gold upper tooth. “Something here is sweeter than that lovely pie. What's the child's name?"
“Bartholomew,” said Agnes.
“Well, of course it is."
Edom observed, amazed, as Agnes chatted up their host, going from Mr. Sepharad to Obadiah, from the doorstep to the living room, the pie delivered and accepted, coffee offered and served, the two of them pleased and easy with each other, all in the time that it would have taken Edom himself to get up the nerve to cross the threshold and to think of something interesting to say about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, in which six thousand had died.
As Obadiah lowered himself into a well-worn armchair, he said to Edom, “Son, don't I know you from somewhere?"
Having settled on the sofa with Agnes and Barty, prepared to serve comfortably in the role of quiet observer, Edom was alarmed to have suddenly become the subject of conversation. He was also alarmed to be called “son,” because in his thirty-six years, the only person ever to have addressed him in that fashion had been his father, dead for a decade yet still a terror in Edom's dreams.
Shaking his head, his coffee cup rattling against the saucer, Edom said, “Uh, no, sir, no, I don't think we've ever met till now."
“Maybe. You sure do look familiar, though."
“I've got one of those faces so ordinary you see it everywhere,” said Edom, and decided to tell the story of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925.
Perhaps his sister intuited what Edom was about to say, because she didn't let him get started.
Somehow, Agnes knew that in his younger days, Obadiah had been a stage magician. Artlessly, she drew him out on the subject.
Professional magic was not a field in which many Negroes could find their way to success. Obadiah was one of a rare brotherhood.
A music tradition was deeply rooted in the Negro community. No similar tradition in magic existed.
“Maybe because we didn't want to be called witches,” said Obadiah with a smile, “and give folks one more reason to hang us."
A pianist or saxophonist could go a long way on his talent and self instruction, but a would-be stage magician eventually needed a mentor to reveal the most closely guarded secrets of illusion and to help him master the skills of deception needed for the highest-level prestidigitation. In a craft practiced almost exclusively by white men, a young man of color had to search for mentoring, especially in 1922, when twenty year-old Obadiah dreamed of being the next Houdini.
Now, Obadiah produced a pack of playing cards as though from a secret pocket in an invisible coat. “Like to see a little something?"
“Yes, please,” Agnes said with evident delight.
Obadiah tossed the pack of cards to Edom, startling him. “Son, you'll have to help me. My fingers have no finesse anymore."
He raised his gnarled hands.
Edom had noticed them earlier. Now he saw they were in worse condition than he'd thought. Enlarged knuckles, fingers not entirely at natural angles to one another. Perhaps Obadiah had rheumatoid arthritis, like Bill Klefton, though a less crippling case.
“Please take the cards from the pack and put them on the coffee table in front of you,” Obadiah directed.
Edom did as asked. Then he cut the deck into two approximately equal stacks when requested to do so.
“Give them one shuffle,” the magician instructed.
Leaning forward from his armchair, white hair as radiant as the wings of cherubim, Obadiah waved one misshapen hand over the deck, never closer than ten inches to the cards. “Now please spread them out in a fan on the table, facedown."
Edom complied, and in the arc of red Bicycle patterns, one card revealed too much white comer, because it was the only one face up.
“You might want to have a look,” Obadiah suggested.
Teasing out the card, Edom saw that it was an ace of diamonds-remarkable in light of Maria Gonzalezs fortune'-telling session last Friday evening. He was more astonished, however, by the name printed in black ink diagonally across the face of the card: BARTHOLOMEW.
Agnes's sharp intake of breath caused Edom to look up from his nephew's name. Pale, she was, her eyes as haunted as old mansions.
WITH BRIGHT BEACH under assault by one miserable flu and by an uncountable variety of common colds, business was brisk this Monday at Damascus Pharmacy.
The customers were in a mood, most of them grumbling about their ailments. Others complained about the dreary weather, the increasing number of kids zooming along sidewalks on these damn new skateboards, the recent tax increases, and the New York Jets paying Joe Namath the kingly sum of $427,000 a year to play football, which some saw as a sign that the country was money-crazy and going to Hell.
Paul Damascus remained busy, filling prescriptions, until he was finally able to take a lunch break at two-thirty.
He usually ate lunch alone in his office. The room was the size of an elevator, but of course didn't go up or down. It went sideways, however, in the sense that herein Paul was transported into wondrous lands of adventure.
A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf was crammed with pulp magazines that had been published throughout the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, before paperback books supplanted them. The All-Story, Mammoth Adventure, Nickel Western, The Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, Spicy Mystery, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, The Shadow, Doc Savage, G-8 and His Battle Aces, Mysterious Wu Fang ...
This was only a fraction of Paul's collection. Thousands of additional issues filled rooms at home.
The magazine covers were colorful, lurid, full of violence and eeriness and the coy sexual suggestiveness of a more innocent time. Most days, he read a story while eating the two pieces of fruit that were his lunch, but sometimes he lost himself in a particularly vivid illustration, daydreaming about far places and great adventures.
Indeed, even the distinct fragrance of pulp paper, yellow with age, was alone sufficient to start him fantasizing.
With his startling combination of a Mediterranean complexion and rust-red hair, his good looks, and his fit physique, Paul had the exotic appearance of a pulp-fiction hero. In particular, he liked to imagine that he might pass for Doc Savage's brother.
Doc was one of his favorites. Crime fighter extraordinaire. The Man of Bronze.
This Monday afternoon, he longed for the escape and solace of half-hour pulp adventure. But he decided that he ought to at last compose the letter he'd been meaning to write for at least ten days.
After using a paring knife to section and core an apple, Paul withdrew a sheet of stationery from his desk and uncapped a fountain pen. His penmanship was old-fashioned — in its neatness, as precise and appealing as fine calligraphy. He wrote: Dear Reverend White ...
He paused, not sure how to proceed. He was not accustomed to writing letters to total strangers.
Finally he began: Greetings on this momentous day. I'm writing to you about an exceptional woman, Agnes Lampion, whose life you have touched without knowing, and whose story may interest you.
THOUGH OTHERS MIGHT see magic in the world, Edom was enthralled only by mechanism: the great destructive machine of nature grinding everything to dust. Yet wonder suddenly bloomed in him at the sight of the ace bearing his nephew's name.
During the preparation of the cards, Barty had fallen asleep in his mother's arms, but with the revelation of his name on the ace, he had awakened again, perhaps because with his head resting on her bosom, he was alarmed by the sudden acceleration of her heartbeat.
“How was that done?” Agnes asked Obadiah.
The old man assumed the solemn and knowing expression of one guarding mysteries, a sphinx without headdress and mane. “If I told you, dear lady, it wouldn't be magic anymore. Merely a trick."
“But you don't understand.” She recounted the extraordinary draw of aces during the fortune-telling session Friday evening.
Out of a sphinx face, Obadiah conjured a smile that lifted the point of his white goatee when he turned his head to look at Edom. “Ah ... so long ago,” he murmured, as though speaking to himself. “So long ago ... but I remember now.” He winked at Edom.
The wink startled and baffled Edom. Oddly, he thought of the mysterious, disembodied, and eternally unwinking eye in the floating pinnacle of the pyramid that was on the back of any one-dollar bill.
In recounting the fortune-telling session, Agnes had not told the magician about the four jacks of spades, only about the aces of diamonds and hearts. She never wore her worries for anyone to see; and though she had made a joke of the appearance of the fourth knave on Friday, Edom knew that it had deeply troubled her.
Either Obadiah intuited Agnes's fear or he was motivated by her kindness to reveal his method, after all. “I'm embarrassed to say what you saw wasn't real magician's work. Crude deception. I chose the ace of diamonds exactly because it represents wealth in fortune-telling, so it's a positive card that people respond well to. The ace with your boy's name was prepared beforehand, inserted face up toward the bottom of the deck, so a middle cut wouldn't reveal it."
“But you didn't know my Barty's name when we came here."
“Oh, yes. When he phoned, Reverend Collins told me all about you and Bartholomew. At the front door, when I asked the boy's name, I already knew it and was just setting up this little trick for you."
Agnes smiled. “How clever."
With a sigh, Obadiah differed: “Not clever. Crude. Before my hands became these great-knuckled lumps, I could have dazzled you."
As a young man, he had performed first in nightclubs catering to Negroes and in theaters like Harlem's Apollo. During World War II, he'd been part of a USO troupe entertaining soldiers throughout the Pacific, later in North Africa, and following D-Day, in Europe.
“After the war, for a while, I was able to get more mainstream work. Racially ... things were changing. But I was getting older, too, and the entertainment business is always looking for someone young, fresh. So I never made it big. Lord, I never even made it medium, but I got along okay. Until ... by the early 1950s, my booking agent found it harder and harder to line up good dates, good clubs."
In addition to delivering a honey-raisin pear pie, Agnes had come to offer Obadiah Sepharad a year's work-not performing magic, but talking about it.
Through her efforts, the Bright Beach Public Library sponsored an amibitious oral-history project financed by two private foundations and by an annual strawberry festival. Local retirees were enlisted to record the stories of their lives, so that their experiences, insights, and knowledge wouldn't be lost to generations yet unborn.
Not incidentally, the project served as a vehicle by which some older citizens, in financial crisis, could receive money in a way that spared their dignity, gave them hope, and repaired their damaged self esteem. Agnes asked Obadiah to enrich the project by accepting a one year grant to record the story of his life with the help of the head librarian.
Clearly touched and intrigued, the magician nevertheless circled the offer in search of reasons to decline, before at last shaking his head sadly. “I doubt that I'm the caliber of person you're looking for, Mrs. Lampion. I wouldn't be entirely a credit to your project."
“Nonsense. What on earth are you talking about?"
Holding up his misshapen hands, knobby knuckles toward Agnes, Obadiah said, “How do you think they became like this?"
“Arthritis?” she ventured.
“Poker.” Keeping his hands high, like a penitent confessing sin at a revival meeting and asking God to wash him clean, Obadiah said, “My specialty was close-up magic. Oh, I pulled a rabbit out of a hat more than once, silk scarves from thin air, doves from silk scarves. But close was my love. Coins, but mostly ... cards."
As he said cards, the magician turned a knowing look toward Edom, eliciting from him a responding frown of puzzlement.
“But I had greater facility with cards than most magicians. I trained with Moses Moon, greatest card mechanic of his generation."
On mechanic, he again glanced meaningfully at Edom, who felt a response was expected. When he opened his mouth, he could think of nothing to say, except that at Sanriku, Japan, on June 15, 1896, a 110 foot-high wave, triggered by an undersea quake, killed 27,100 people, most while they were in prayer at a Shinto festival. Even to Edom, this seemed to be an inappropriate comment, so he said nothing. , “Do you know what a card mechanic does, Mrs. Lampion?"
“Call me Agnes. And I assume card mechanics don't repair cards."
Slowly rotating his raised hands before his eyes, as if he saw them young and supple-fingered, the magician described the amazing manipulations that a master card mechanic could perform. Though he spoke without flash or filigree, he made these feats of skill sound more sorcerous than hares from hats, doves from scarves, and blondes bisected by buzz saws.
Edom listened with the rapt attention of a man whose most daring act had been the purchase of a yellow-and-white Ford Country Squire station wagon.
“When I couldn't get enough nightclub and theater bookings for my magic act anymore ... I turned to gambling."
Sitting forward in his armchair, Obadiah lowered his hands to his knees, and in thoughtful silence, he stared at them.
Then: “I traveled city to city, seeking high-stakes poker games.
They're illegal but not hard to find. I cheated for a living."
He'd never taken too much from any one game. He was a discreet thief, charming his victims with amusing patter. Because he was so ingratiating and seemed only mildly lucky, no one begrudged him his winnings. Soon, he was more flush than he'd ever been as a magician.
“Living high. When I wasn't on the road, I had a fine house here in Bright Beach, not this rental shack I'm in now, but a nice little place with an ocean view. You can guess what went wrong."