Monday, November 12, 2007

Chapter 4

It was considerably warmer than it had been the last couple of days, so I decided to walk. Couple of miles wouldn’t hurt me at all — might even do the circulatory system some good. More good than the taxi ride from the other night.

At least I would have plenty of time to review my notes and cram for the quiz. Unfortunately, my notes were in a state somewhere between incomplete and abysmal. I had written “History of Magic” at the top of the page. Below that, “traced to earliest roots of mankind”; followed by: Salient Points; and then “points all her own, sittin’ way up high”. That was the extent of my notetaking. Not a heck of a lot to study from. I had to wonder if the lecture had indeed been that boring or if my attention had wandered that freely. Had to be a little bit of both, I decided.

Not wanting anyone to observe my utter failure at notetaking, I quickly tore the page from my notebook, crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it in my coat pocket. Not a moment too soon, either; Sheila had just walked in. (Whew! That was close!) Maybe she would let me study from her notes.

“Hi, Sheila. Somehow I managed to leave my notes from Monday night at home.”

You despicable liar!

“Could I do some last minute brushing up from yours?”

“Sure. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch everything he said, but you’re welcome to them if they will help.”


She handed me three sheets of notes in exquisite penmanship. At that moment ‘Old Grouch’ entered the room. Damn! Time to do some heavy cramming. He was speaking even before he reached the lectern.

“Please put away your notes. Take out a three by five card. We are going to have a quiz. Put your name and today’s date in the upper right-hand corner. Any cards with this information in the upper left-hand corner will be marked as ‘Fail — unable to follow directions’.”

I was frantic. I didn’t have a three by five card. No one had ever told me about the stupid three by five cards. But, since I didn’t have a student handbook to refer to, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Wonderful. Two days into this useless class and I’m going to flunk. Absolutely wonderful!

Sheila noticed my distress (probably because of the tears in my eyes) and passed me one of her three by fives.

“Thanks,” I said. “‘Old Grouch’ is too tame a name for him. How about Little Hitler?”

“Sshhh,” she warned.

“Jeez. Any mark in the upper left-hand corner is an immediate fail; anyone not blonde and blue-eyed is an immediate corpse. Makes perfect sense to me.”

“Sshhh,” she cautioned again.

I didn’t have an answer to the first question. Or the second. For that matter, I didn’t have an answer to any of the questions. Except for my name and the date in the upper right-hand corner, I was ready to turn in a blank three by five card when I reconsidered. I thought it would be a good idea to point out that, although I hadn't answered any of the questions, neither had I made any marks in the upper left-hand corner. I felt that entitled me to at least partial credit for being able to follow directions.

“Please pass your cards to the right. When you have all the cards in your row, pass them to the front, putting your stack on top.”

Little Hitler stood at what must have been perfect at ease, with his hands clasped in the small of his back. He neither moved nor spoke until all of the quiz cards had completed their circuitous travels to the front of the room. He snatched the cards from the student offering them to him as a three-year-old will snatch a favored toy from a sibling. I could almost hear the word “Mine!”. After collecting them, he squared the edges by tapping all four on the desk and then placed them on its corner. He promptly forgot about them, scooped up his notes, and proceeded with the lecture he had started on Monday.

“Magic has always been closely associated with prominent world religions, and more so with the cultures spawned by these religions. The Egyptians. The Greeks. The Romans. The Indians. And in more recent times the Catholics…”

Once again, I found it difficult to assimilate the discussion of magic and religion with the intent of becoming an illusionist; it struck me as a senseless waste of my time and money. Magic, defined in such a context, was a fool’s answer to scientifically explainable phenomena. The classical definition also bore little or no relation to illusion or sleight of hand as it was today. I wanted to shout at him, “Get to the point and teach us some real tricks!” Why the long preamble, anyway?

“Did my notes help you at all?” Sheila asked at the conclusion of Old Grouch’s digression.

“I’m afraid not. I drew a total blank. I think it’s some form of psychosis whenever a test is involved. But, I’ll do better on the next one.”

“The written examination you have just completed will be the only written test for this entire course. Future grading will be done solely on the basis of your performance of assigned illusions.”

Had he read my mind?! “Great! I’m off to an absolutely amazing start!”

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine on the illusions,” Sheila offered.

“Maybe. I wish I was that confident,” I said as Sheila and I walked out of the room together. “So tell me — what does the ‘Old Grouch’ teach here at the University?”

“You mean ‘Little Hitler’?” She smiled. “History and sociology. He teaches them the same way, too. In fact, all of his classes are some of the most difficult at school. He never gives any breaks; doesn’t know the meaning of the word.” She put her hand on my arm — a gesture of familiarity with which I was totally unfamiliar. “You would not have believed the History of Civilization class I took with him last semester. We spent the first fourteen weeks covering the various Egyptian dynasties and then rushed through the next four thousand years in three weeks. The final exam was over two hundred questions long, only three of which related to Egypt.”

“Sounds like a philosophy prof I had in college,” I chuckled. “He believed if you could finish his exam in the allotted time that: a) the exam was too short, or b) you as a student obviously didn’t know what you were talking about due to a serious lack of disciplined study time. As far as I know, no one ever completed one, and the best you could hope for on an incomplete exam was a “C”. Jeez, was I ever glad to flunk out of that class! Uuhh, I mean… uh… when that class ended.”

She smiled. “I think I’ve had a couple of classes like that.”

“The only question I remember from one of his tests was ‘define table’. I expounded for three pages that, simply because an object had been assigned the name of someone’s arbitrary choosing, it did not necessarily make that object a member of the class that bore the nomenclature. Then, I went on for four more pages to discuss the characteristics of ‘tableness’. I concluded that similar objects with similar characteristics and or attributes could be placed in the same category if one were willing to accept minor differences.”

“That sounds pretty deep and philosophical,” she said appreciatively. “What did the professor say?”

“He marked me off for the entire question. Nowhere in my eight-page dissertation was there a definition offered for ‘table’. Had there been, I probably would have been marked off for it, anyway.”

“You’re kidding!” she exclaimed in the wonderful voice of hers.

“I’m not. I still remember the words written in red ink on the last page: ‘It is painfully obvious to me, at a glance, that you have spent a disproportionately small amount of time in preparation for this important examination. Had you attended to the discussion we held in this class throughout the entire semester, you would have responded to this question thusly: Owing to the lack of context, no definition can be offered that could not be proven wrong given a more explicit frame of reference (e.g. water table, table of contents)’.”

“That’s terrible!”

“That was my philosophy professor. We called him Ivan.”

“So, why did you sign up for this class, Brent?” she asked.

“Me?” Because I wanted to meet you, I couldn’t say. “My friend roped me into it and the school wouldn’t give me my money back. How about you?”

She looked almost embarrased. “I wanted to take something fun. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, always doing what was expected of me, straight “A’s”, extra credit. And the same thing here for four semesters. I decided it was time for a change. All my other classes this semester are just plain boring. And since they don't offer a course with tickets to go see “Phantom of the Opera”, I thought maybe this would prove to be an adventure of sorts.

“Besides, my grandfather always used to entertain me with magic tricks and I wanted to surprise him. He’s the only family I have and I think that would make him happy. He’s done so much for me, I would like to repay him in some small way if I can.”

We had reached the door at the end of the hall and I somehow ran out of things to say… well, that’s not quite true. There was a whole barrage of things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t manage to form the words. Was I imagining things, or was she waiting for me to continue the conversation?

“See you on Friday,” I managed.

“Good night, Brent,” she smiled as she exited the building.

I stood there replaying the sound of her voice caressing my name (read mesmerized). Realizing I was probably beginning to look like an ass (and not much for caring) I pushed open the door and started down the steps, hoping to catch her. She had vanished like a true magician, and we had only been in class for two days.

Friday for sure.

Nope. Not Friday, either. I chickened out again, but hey, class was only one week old. I still had almost seven full weeks to work up my courage. I hoped that would be enough time. Meanwhile, I resolved to practice my assignment over the weekend. ‘Old Grouch’ (I still hadn’t bothered to find out his real name) had spent the entire class period on Friday showing us several illusions with a deck of playing cards. He even passed out detailed instructions for each trick. That should make these a piece of cake.

I wasted an entire Saturday playing fifty-two card pick-up. Sunday was fifty-one pick-up. I lost the four of spades somewhere. Due to the fact that a particular illusion centered on the four of spades, I felt it prudent to practice another trick.

I really worked at that one. I must have spent five or six hours at Doug and Kim’s playing “pick a card — any card.” I actually pulled it off once. From there it was easy — six times in a row. Maybe this magician stuff was going to be easier than I had thought. I was certain that I would be pulling rabbits out of my hat in no time. I practiced all day Monday. I had Charley picking cards at every opportunity. I only missed twice. Had the right number but the wrong suit. I’d show that Old Grouch. I would have him pick the card and then I would tell him which one it was.

“Here’s mud in your eye, buddy. Just because I’m late the first night doesn’t mean I’m not going to make it. Brent Teller is a survivor.” I walked into class that night feeling more self-confidence than I had since… since… I couldn’t remember when. I almost floated. When the Grouch asked for volunteers to demonstrate their ability with the card tricks my hand was the first one up.

“Mr. Teller?” After finding no one else, he reluctantly called on me.

“Watch this,” I whispered to Sheila and casually strolled to the front of the room.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my deck of fifty-one cards. I laid them face up on his podium, fanned them out briefly for him to look at, then closed the fan. Face down. Shuffle; fan again, face down. “Pick a card — any card. And through the use of my magic I will be able to deduce which card you have selected.”

He regarded me skeptically for a moment, then reached out and removed a card from the center of the deck.

“Okay. Let's see…reshuffle. Fan, face down; close; tap the top card three times. Pass right hand… or is it left? No, right… Pass right hand back and forth over deck. The harmony of the deck has been broken. By concentrating on the song of these cards I am able to discern the missing piece.” I thought the added touch of a little magic-sounding jargon might enhance the rating of my performance. “Yes. Yes! I can hear the discord faintly. I am beginning to make it out… Yes, the first card that I reveal will identify the suit of the one you are holding,” I intoned. I attempted to appear as if I were in deep concentration, then held up the top card. It was a heart.

“Yes, it is becoming clearer to me — I can almost identify the missing card. The next card I reveal will match the number of yours.” I gave that concentrating look again, and pulled the bottom number from the deck and held it aloft. “Seven!” Perfect! This was going better than I had hoped. The seven of hearts was the card this illusion revolved around. “Your card is the seven of hearts!” I pronounced triumphantly, waving the card I was holding around the room like a victory flag.

After only the briefest of hesitation, he said, “Wrong. It is the four of spades. Keep trying, Mr. Teller, and you may succeed, eventually.”

I was so completely flabbergasted at seeing that blasted four of spades appear out of nowhere that, once again, I was playing fifty-two card pick-up. The Old Grouch, with a look that served as a reprimand and a flick of his wrist, had thrown the four of spades onto the pile I had dropped. I scooped up the deck and dejectedly shuffled my way back to my seat, shaking my head in bewilderment. Where did that four of spades come from? How could he have known that that was the card I had lost? I convinced myself, at least partially, there was absolutely no possible way he could have. It had to be just a fluke, a coincidence.

“Who is next?” the professor asked.

Jack Cole jumped to his feet. Jack was about six-foot-four, very broad across the shoulders, dark-haired, and had one of those faces that belong on the cover of GQ; a real Adonis. I instantly hated him.

I know, I know — that’s not fair to Jack. I had never even met him. Nevertheless, that’s how I felt. He breezed through three or four tricks with no mishaps, and sat down to a smattering of applause. Showoff! This was probably his second time through this class. No wonder he could manage those illusions so effortlessly. He had a whole semester to practice.”

“Yeah, right.”

That sarcastic little voice in my head was back.

There were others; none of them as polished as Jack, but none of them as bungling as ol’ Brent, either.

The next week was no better for me. Or the next. We moved from card tricks to cutting strips of paper and putting them back together. Then it was rabbits out of a hat.

I should say the rest of the class proceeded to each of these illusions. I was still trying to find the damn four of spades.

Once more it was Jack who proved to be the star pupil. With the others, you could see exactly how their hands moved; where whatever came from or disappeared to. Not so with Jack. He had mastered every aspect. He was a real showman. Although I still did not like him, he had earned my grudging respect.

On Wednesday of the fourth week of the course, I overhead several of my classmates discussing where they were going to go for a beer after class. Most of them were full-time students at the university and there were no classes the next day. Tonight there was going to be a party.

Someone had asked Sheila if she was going to join them; her reply was in the affirmative. I suddenly felt twice my twenty-four years. Though I was only three or four years older than most of them, to my mind, it represented an interminable gulf between us. I had resigned myself to going home, opening the last bottle of beer in the fridge, and staring morosely at the television when Sheila’s voice pierced the fog in my head.

“Aren’t you coming, Brent?”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t really fit in with the college crowd anymore, and I’ve got to be at work early…”

My imagination was playing tricks on me again. She looked disappointed at my refusal. Could it be that she actually enjoyed my company?

“Well… why not. I’m not old and stuffy yet. Even sounds like it might be fun.”

“Sure it will. You’ll see.”

“So, where are we going?”

“I don’t think that’s been decided yet. You know how these things work; first you have to decide who’s going, then everybody argues for the next five minutes about where to go. Then you have to figure out who’s riding with who and who owes who a drink from the last time. Relax. We’ll probably be another fifteen minutes or so just sorting out all the details.”

I tried to think back to when I was in college. Had it really been that much of an involved process, simply to decide where to go and have a beer? I couldn't remember for sure, but I didn't think so. But then, I didn’t go to college in Chicago. We didn't have an unlimited number of choices. We had two: one place to go watch the college girls, and one place to go shoot pool. Most of the time I opted for the pool hall. I know — you're thinking ‘this guy is strange’. You don’t know the girls I went to college with. There were two standing jokes on campus about the females in attendance there. The answer to the first is ‘the garbage gets taken out once a week’. The answer to the other is ‘the cow’s about fifty pounds heavier’. You can probably figure out the jokes for yourself (a hint: they both started with ‘do you know the difference between…’)

Amidst my reminiscing it seemed that all the details had been ironed out. I mentioned to Sheila that I needed a ride. She was riding with two of her girlfriends and said she was sure I could catch a ride with them. Somehow we all managed to move outside, remember where all the cars were parked, pile in and begin our journey to wherever it was we were going.

The Lights and Libations Lounge had eventually emerged as the unanimous choice. I had never been inside the place, but the mere mention of the name had the power to conjure visions. I imagined mile after mile of glaring, flashing neon signs, drinks with ridiculous names and prices to match, and a rich, young college crowd. Definitely not my kind of place. But, because Sheila was going and I thought it might prove a good opportunity to talk to her, I decided to tag along.

I had guessed correctly about the bar (excuse me; nightclub); glass, brass and no class. The name sprawled across the front of the place in overly large, overly bright green neon. The foyer was worse — pinks, greens, blues, reds, whites; even a ghastly purple. Each one clamored for primary visual attention. One wall held a mural of a tropical beach, complete with neon palm trees and simulated ocean surf. “The HOTTEST Cooler” the slogan proclaimed. Predictably, the words were in a red neon that was chased by orange flames. The optical onslaught was reinforced audibly by the resounding strains of one of the latest new-wave songs. I couldn’t tell you which one — they all sound the same to me.

“Why do they have to play that stuff so loud?” I shouted at one of my companions.

“Yeah! Good crowd tonight! Must be ’cause no classes tomorrow!”.

Realizing that further conversation was a futile effort, I moved with the rest of my group into the main lounge. The change in lighting was excruciating and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim illumination. The others, seemingly having no such trouble, moved on into the large room, nodding to acquaintances and calling out greetings to friends. How they could tell who was where in the gloom, I had no idea. Unless they had assigned seats and then just nodded or waved in the proper direction.

Despite the crowd, the noise, and the impossibility of seeing anything, we managed to find a table. Reconfirmed my theory about assigned seats.

The waitress be-bopped over to our table to take our orders. Beer. Beer. White wine. Rum and Coke. Corona. Screwdriver. Fuzzy navel. Hawaiian vacation.

“And for you?”


“I’m sorry, sir. What was that?”

“Glenfiddich. It's a scotch.”

“Oh, scotch! Why didn't you just say so?”

I don't want just any scotch…” I should have saved the protest. She had already turned and skipped towards the waitress station. I knew it would serve no purpose to try and shout over the combined din of the sound system and everyone else trying to shout louder than said system. Bar rail. Could have been worse, I guess.

After the drinks had arrived and been paid for, I was convinced that I should give up this magician’s madness (and my computer repair job) and apply as a waiter at the Lights and Libations, or buy stock in the place. Twenty-five dollars for the drinks, plus a five dollar tip. I quickly did the math in my head: figure an average of eight dollars in tips per table per hour; each girl has what looks like seven tables; fifty-six bucks an hour multiplied by, say a four-hour shift; equals an astounding two-hundred twenty-four dollars a night. I could work two nights a week, make enough money to pay all the bills, and still have plenty of pocket money left over. My eyes glazed over as I reveled in what I could do with that kind of money. Pool halls, poker, the horse track at Arlington.

And me broke and penniless in a month. Maybe I was better off staying where I was.

“Brent, would you like to dance?” Sheila’s voice helped drive away the last lingering fragments of my daydreaming.

“I’m not sure I can dance to this stuff.”

“Sure you can. Besides, the dance floor here is usually so crowded that all you can do is bounce off the other dancers, anyway.”

I acquiesced. The chance of a dance with her was why I had come in the first place. I even managed to bow her out onto the dance floor.

“Thank you, sir,” she said with a small curtsey and a smile.

She was right. The dance floor was so overpopulated that I didn’t think we could find room, but she slid to her left, sidestepped a couple doing what looked like full contact break dancing, and emerged in an empty spot on the other side. I negotiated my way through the press (not quite as nimbly as she had) and eased into the dance. Rather, I began to bounce and jostle and carom off the rest of the crowd. I felt like the steel ball on a Black Knight pinball machine.

The air was stifling. The music was deafening. Sheila was beautiful. The strobe light blinded me, especially when it prismed from the facets of the disco ball hanging from the ceiling. That relic from the seventies looked extremely incongruous with the other garish, art-deco accoutrements.

“I’ve never heard this song,” I shouted.

“I like it, too.”

Conversation, even in short bursts, was still impossible, so I simply bounced off the couple behind me and smiled at Sheila. I had only begun to find the rhythm when Sheila pointed at the table and mimed a drink. I sure as hell wasn’t going to stand out in the middle of the dance floor by myself, so I followed her back to where we were sitting.

“Whew! That sure was a long song,” I said when the deejay paused to change records.

Sheila giggled. “That was six songs, silly.”

“Six! It all sounded the same to me.”

She smiled again, thinking I was making a joke.

I managed to catch the waitress’s attention and ordered refills through sign language. She must not have studied American Sign Language; instead of the two drinks I wanted, she brought a round for the entire table.

“Comes to twenty-four dollars and fifty cents,” she smiled while double-snapping her bubble gum.

Good God! I wasn’t sure I had enough to cover it. After digging through all my pockets, looking in my wallet twice, and finding a quarter on the floor, I was able to pay for them all. I thought she was going to stand there until I tipped her, but after trying to burn me with the fire in her eyes, she whirled around and deftly stormed off through the crowd.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Sheila said. “They can buy their own drinks.”

“Oh, well, it’s only money,” I answered. Only money! It was the only money I had for the rest of the week. I suddenly found myself trying to remember if I had any spaghetti or popcorn left at home. I didn’t think so. Doug and Kim might find a lost, hungry waif on their doorstep about dinnertime for the next few days. Sure hope they don’t mind.

The music was again drowning out any hope of conversation, so Sheila and I just sat, sipped our drinks, and smiled at each other. Sounds boring, right? Well, I was in heaven. I am easily entertained, and being in the presence of a beauty queen is one of the most enjoyable forms of entertainment I know. Moreover, the less I had to try and make conversation, the more comfortable I was. I didn’t have to worry a great deal about embarrassing myself that way. The others returned from dancing and I was immediately the most popular person at the table.

“Thanks for the drink, Brent,” from Joan.

“Yeah, thanks,” Diana said.

“Cheers!” from Randy.

“Hey, you’re all right, Brent. Even if that card trick won’t work for you.” This from Jack.

I knew it was intended as a joke, but the memories of my utter incompetence on that trick were still painful. I was completely unable to comprehend what had gone wrong, or where that goddamned four of spades had come from at that inopportune moment. I realized I was blushing and tried to hide it.

“Sorry, man. I didn’t know it bothered you so much.”

“Don’t worry about it. I guess I was pretty nervous. Not trying to change the subject, but what happened to the music?”

“They called last call. Time to drink up and go.”

“So soon? I didn't realize it was so late.” The night was over and I didn’t get a slow dance with Sheila.

“Where we goin’ for breakfast?” Jack asked.

There followed the usual debate about where to go, who had the best late night menu, who was driving, who was going with who…

“Brent, you going?” Randy asked.

“No, I think I’m going to go home. You people have it lucky; no classes tomorrow, but some of us have to go to work.”

“Party pooper.”

“Spoil sport.”

“See how you are?”

I enjoyed the ribbing and comraderie. I was part of the gang, even if I couldn’t do a single card trick. It was a pleasant change. I stood up and took my leave.

“Good night, folks. ‘Night, Sheila. Thanks for teaching me how to dance to this stuff.” I waved my hand in the general direction of the dance floor, not wanting to leave just yet, hoping to think of something witty to say to make her smile at me again and coming up empty. But still I stood there.

“It was fun. We’ll have to do it again sometime. Good night, Brent.” She stood up and kissed me on the cheek.

Lights flashed, my head began to spin, and the world tilted slightly. I reached out and put a trembling hand on the chair to steady myself.

“Are you all right?” Sheila asked, her voice full of concern.

“I’m fine. Just stood up too fast. Well, time for me to go. Good night.”

“Drive careful,” she called.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I was taking a cab. I headed for the door, feeling like I was walking on air. Sheila had kissed me! Okay, okay — so it was only a good night peck on the cheek. In my book (and this is my book) that’s well nigh a proposal. I danced my way through the crowd, pushed open the door and stepped outside.

Only then did I realize I was flat broke. Have to call Doug from the pay phone. Collect, of course. At two o’clock in the morning. With absolutely no idea where I was.

Oh boy! This ought to be a barrel of fun!

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