There must have been a hundred kids in Sandra Sommerfield’s backyard, back then on her birthday; everyone from Findley Place it seemed like, and the rest from places I hadn’t even heard of. While I was getting dressed that morning I heard Aunt Beverly saying to Uncle Jim it was a waste of good money, but I just thought it was plain and simple silly. Sandra had turned ten, but you’d think she was the stupid Queen of England the way people were fussing over her. It was making me sick to my stomach. I was only ten then, too, but you didn’t see people acting like that around me.
Of course, that was then–before I learned about my hand.
The way Sandra’s mother set it up, we had to sit on those little wooden chairs that fold up when you’re done with them, and I had to sit on the end in back because of my leg that I had to keep straight sort of. I could have adjusted the brace, I guess, but I didn’t feel like it. Sandra was prancing around in a pink dress and a pink ribbon in her hair, and I almost couldn’t stand it she was acting so bad. So I kept the brace tight and kept my leg out, hoping all the time she would prance by and trip over me so her mother would scold her and I could pretend how bad it hurt.
She didn’t though, so I had to be good, even though I would’ve rather have been back in my room, thinking about . . . things.
Actually, I didn’t mind sitting in back. I could see pretty good, because the yard bunched up into a little hill there before it sloped down to the river, and all the big kids had to sit on the ground in front so the little kids didn’t have to stand up. And way down there at the bottom was the Great and Astounding Albert, doing his tricks in a black suit that made him look like he was going to a wedding.
“Nothing up this sleeve,” he said. “And nothing up this sleeve.” and the next thing you know he had a little bird in his hand or a blown up balloon or flowers or miles and miles and miles of pretty ribbons and streamers.
Mrs. Sommerfield and my aunt were sitting on the ground right behind me, and after awhile I could hear Sandra’s mother whisper, “Oh, dear, do you think he’s having a good time?”
And my aunt said, “Sure he is. Why do you say that, Nancy?”
“Well, he seems so . . . so solemn, I guess. Damn, you don’t think anybody was teasing him, do you? About, well, you know.”
“No, dear, he hasn’t been teased, believe me.” And she sighed like she does when Uncle Jim tickles her in the hall. “He’s just studying, that’s all.”
I didn’t turn around but my aunt was right. Right then, right there in the backyard with the hundred kids and the million trees and all the cake and ice cream in the whole world sitting there on the card table, I decided I wanted to be a magician when I grew up. I couldn’t play ball or anything because of my leg, and my mother always told me that the best person you could be was the person who was nice to other people all the time. Well, the Great and Astounding Albert must have been a nice person, because he was making all of us laugh and clap, and he was giving out pretty things and winking at the girls, so I spent the whole time trying to see how he did it.
Nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve.
Steven, I told myself then, you could really do that if you tried, you really could.
So the minute Aunt Beverly took me home and supper was over, I went into my room and I practiced. I stood in front of the mirror and tried to figure out how the Great and Astounding Albert got all those birds and ribbons and things from his sleeve. It had to be a trick, though, because there’s no such thing as magic, and when I couldn’t do it I almost cried. I almost gave up. But I didn’t. when you have a leg like mine and you can’t be like other people, you don’t give up just because you want to cry. You try and try again, just like my mother told me. Try and try again.
So I did.
I took spoons from the kitchen and sticks from the yard, and I put them up my sleeve and tried to make them drop into my hand just like the magic man did. It never worked. And by the time two weeks were gone I was moping around the house and not eating and just making myself miserable. That was silly, I know, and I should have went ot Uncle Jim right away, but I wasn’t used to him yet.
See, it was raining one night, and my mother and father and three sisters and I, we were coming home from the restaurant where we always go when something good happens at my father’s store. Then all of a sudden there was this tree and a lot of light that hurt my eyes and a lot of darkness that hurt me, too. And the next thing I knew I was in this funny-smelling room, and lots of people in white were standing around, and beverly and Jim were there in the corner.
Beverly was crying. Jim wasn’t smiling.
They told me Mother and Father and Shirley and Beth and Karen had passed away in the accident. That meant they weren’t coming back. I knew that, and it hurt for along time. It still does, at night, when my covers need tucking in and Aunt Beverly tries to do it, but she doesn’t do it the way my mother used to do it and . . . well, it just isn’t the same. I know that because I heard Uncle Jim say that one night when I was supposed to be asleep instead of going to the bathroom.
“Dammit, Bev, I feel sorry fro the boy, you know I do, and Fred was my brother, for God’s sake, so I have an obligation. But that still doesn’t change the fact that you and I hadn’t planned on children, and suddenly we’ve got one ten years old, and a cripple at that. I mean, it just isn’t fair.”
He really isn’t mean, but he doesn’t understand sometimes.
So it was awhile before I told him what I told him what I wanted to do, and after he looked at me funny for a minute he grabbed me up from the floor and took me out to the car. We went right downtown to this gigantic bookstore, and Jim picked out four or five magic books he thought I’d understand.
On the way home he said, “It’s funny, Steven, but there was a time when I wanted to be a magician, too.”
“So why didn’t you?”
He shrugged a little. “I guess I didn’t want it badly enough. See, when you grow up and you have to decide what it is you want to do with your life, you really have to want it badly enough or it isn’t going to work. If you want to be a doctor, you have to raelize there’s an awful lot of school to go through–”
“Boy, I sure wouldn’t want that.”
“–and money and things like that. Or if you want to be a teacher you have different things to learn, or a writer or a–”
“Magic man,” I said, grinning.
“Right,” he said. “A magic man.” then he reached over and touched my leg. “Now you listen to me, pal–this magic stuff is hard work. It takes a long time to get it right, and I don’t want you to give up.”
“Oh, I won’t,” I promised. “I’m going to be the best magic man in the whole world when I grow up.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. Then: “Why, Steven? Why magic?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because it’s nice.”
And it was work. Boy, it was hard work. Some things I couldn’t do because my fingers were too short or I didn’t have the right hidden things and I couldn’t make them or buy them because I hadn’t saved enough. But I got pretty good with cards and the shell trick and the coin trick and things like that. And every night I would show Beverly and Jim a new trick, and they would applaud and ask me how I did it. I never told. I never told them once. You never tell a trick or it isn’t magic anymore.
But I still couldn’t get anything to come out of my sleeve.
Then it was May, and I was sitting out in back, wishing our house was on the river like Sandra’s. I was wearing shorts because it felt good on my leg–though I still couldn’t look at it all pink and shrively like that–and I was trying to get a pebble out of my sleeve without lowering my arm. The kitchen window was right over my head, and it was awhile before I realized they were arguing in there.
“Well, I don’t care,” she said, like she was about to start crying. “I just don’t care.”
“Bev, please be reasonable.” and I could see without seeing him that he was standing with one hand on his hip and the other shoved in his hair, with this look on his face like nobody ever listens to anything he says. “Bev, this is the chance we’ve been waiting for, and we simply cannot take Steven with us.”
“But why not?”
“Dammit, Bev, use your head! Kuwait isn’t London, y’know. It may have tons of money, but it isn’t the kind of place I’d want the boy to grow up in. it’ll be at least a year, and he’s barely hanging in school as it is. God, doesn’t he have enough problems?”
“We could get tutors.”
“We . . .”
I couldn’t hear anymore for awhile, but it didn’t matter. The sun went cold, and the trees seemed like they were covered in ice. I snapped my brace back on and walked out to the street. Sandra and a few others were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk across the way, but when they called to me I didn’t answer. I didn’t feel like it. They only played with me because their mothers told them to. Not all of them, some of them. And it was hard to tell from one day to another which one it was.
So I walked for a couple blocks until I was in front of the luncheonette, looking at the pictures of the sundaes and sodas that are all white from the sun. then this man walked out, and before I knew I grabbed his arm to stop him. It was the Great and Astounding Albert, only he didn’t look so great and astounding without his wedding suit or moustache.
“Mr. Albert,” I said, and then I saw what I was doing so I tried a smile that felt real silly and backed away from him.
He stared down at me from about a mile up, frowning like he thought he should know me but he didn’t. we stood there for a couple of seconds before I told him where I was from and where I saw him, and he smiled and nodded as if he’d guessed it all along. And when I told him I was going to be a magic man when I grew up, he put a hand on my shoulder and took me inside where he lifted me onto a red counter stool, and we each had a double ice cream soda while he told me all the places he’d been and the famous people he’d known, and how all the other magic men used to come see him but now they don’t anymore.
It was the first time I noticed how old he was.
“It’s hard, Steven,” he said, suddenly sad and tired looking. “I’ve lost the knack, it seems, to make grown-ups believe.”
“But it’s all tricks, isn’t it?”
“Sure it is. But the real trick is to make it look like it isn’t a trick, but magic.”
I thought about that for a moment, not really understanding. Then we talked some more, and he reached out and pulled a dollar bill from behind my ear. I brushed a hand through my hair and laughed, before I knew it I was telling him how I couldn’t pull anything out of my sleeve because every time I let my arm down the things would fall out. Well, he looked really serious at me for awhile, and I was afraid I’d said something to make him mad. There were other people coming in and going out and buying the paper and smiling at me like they knew me, but I didn’t pay them any attention because just then the Great and Astounding Albert held up his arm and pulled down the cuff of his jacket and said, “What do you see up there, boy?”
I kind of leaned forward and squinted. “Air.”
He snapped his arm straight out and I ducked, frowned, looked up the sleeve again and said, “Still air.”
Then he made a pass in front of me, slow and gentle, like a snake charming a robin. Slow and gentle before he cupped his hand like there was something in it. I waited, and one by one his fingers opened. “Now what do you see?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Air.”
“And that’s all there ever is, son. Air. Everything else comes from someplace else, and ther’s nothing up my sleeve but air.” he closed his fingers again, blew on them, opened them and said, “What’s there now?”
It was getting awful silly. “Air.”
“See? Now you try it.”
Well, I thought he was kind of crazy being so old, but he told me again so I rubbed my hands together, made the moves as he did as best I could, and pulled air from my sleeve, making the kind of trumpet sound from my lips like they do on television when the elephant disappears. Then Albert laughed and I laughed, and before I knew it I’d made the slow pass in front of the waitress’s face and tucked the air back in my sleeve. She giggled at first and then started to cough, wheeze and gasp for her air back, but I was excited because I suddenly knew what Albert was saying about tricks and magic, and I thanked him politely because my mother always told me to be polite, then I slid off the stool and hurried home as fast as I could.
Sandra and the others were still playing hopscotch, and when they saw me run-hobbling like that they thought something was wrong so they ran across the street. I told them not to worry, though, and before I could stop myself I had shown them my trick.
“Hey, that’s not magic,” Sandra mocked, twisting up her face like she’d eaten something terrible and falling to the sidewalk.
“That’s what you think,” I told her, then ran-hobbled inside and went straight to my room. I practiced. I practiced hard. And after dinner that night I told Beverly and Jim I was going to put on a big show for them.
“Steven, I’m really not in the mood,” Jim said. “I’ve had a bad day.”
“Oh, Jim,” Beverly said. Her eyes weren’t normal; they were all red and swollen, and I knew it was because of the things I’d heard.
“Hey,” I said, “it’s all right, don’t worry. I’m going to be such a great magic man that Uncle Jim can stay home and he can tell his boss to–” And I snapped my fingers in the air.
I thought they would laugh.
Jim only got a funny red in his face, and Beverly started to cry again. Then Jim put his hands around my waist and pulled me in close and said, “Steven, there’s no better boy in the world than you. And I swear, if I ever regretted having you with us I take it all back.” I think he was going to cry, too, but he swallowed hard and didn’t. “But, son, this is the most important part of my career right now. If I make this move and do a good job, I’m going to be the most important man in the office. And when your aunt and I–”
The telephone rang. Beverly went to answer it, but Jim kept on talking. I didn’t hear him though. There was this noise in my head, like the sound of the ocean when you listen to a seashell. I was trying with all my might to know what he was saying to me, but all I got was that I was going to stay at a place called Greenbriar until they came back from the Arabs and that was going to be a very long time. I didn’t like that, and I tried to tell him my magic trick was all we ever needed, but just then Beverly came back.
“What is it, love?” Jim asked, pushing me back a little and getting up.
“That was Nancy.” she looked at me and I looked back and all of a sudden she was on her knees and hugging me, telling me it was going to be all right, dear, and it sometimes happened, and it sure was a along time before I figured pout that Sandra and her friends had gone to where my parents and sisters had gone, that night in the rain.
Beverly thought I was going to feel bad, but I didn’t. Sandra wasn’t a family person. She was the little girl who lived on the other side of Findley Place, and there were a lot of little girls like that around here, so I was sorry for Sandra’s mother instead. But I wasn’t all that sad about it. I just said that if they didn’t want to see my new trick because of Sandra’s mother then that was all right, and Beverly said would I mind waiting a day or so, so I said no, that was okay.
The next day in school the teacher had us all be quiet for a moment for Sandra and Jennie and Eddie and Sissy and Kristy, and then the nurse came in and looked at our tongues and felt our necks and foreheads, and a couple of kids were sent home to their doctors. I was glad I didn’t have to go home, because it was hard for me in scholl some days because I missed a lot whenever I had to go into the hospital for the operations to fix the bones and muscles in my leg.
I did all my work the best way I knew how, got a gold star for my spelling and a silver for arithmetic, and brought the papers home to show Beverly and Jim.
But there was no one in the kitchen, and no one in the backyard, so I decided to go upstairs and practice my new magic. I was almost to my room when I heard the noise down the hall. It sounded like laughing, but the kind of laughing you get because something hurts but not enough to cry. I was scared. I didn’t want anyone to be sick, or go where Mother and Father went, so I ran down there and opened the door.
Jim and Beverly were in the bed. Jim was on top of my aunt, and he was naked. And she was shaking her head all over the pillow and making those laughing noises, and I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there until Beverly opened her eyes and made a squeak, like a mouse. Jim rolled off her and pulled the sheet up to his stomach.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he was mad, real mad. “Explain yourself, Steven. Why were you watching us?”
I tried to think as fast as I could, and the only thing I could think of was the magic. So I started to talk, so fast I couldn’t understand what I was saying. And while I was talking I went over to the bed and winked at Aunt Beverly and made a slow and gentle pass in front of Jim and tucked the air up my sleeve.
“What,” he said, “the hell was that supposed to be?”
I blinked. “Magic.”
He looked at Beverly, but she only shrugged and tried to smile.
When he looked back at me, though, he wasn’t smiling at all. “Steven, I don’t know what to say to you. What you’ve done . . .” he swallowed, and I thought he was going to cry again. He coughed and punched his chest. “You’ve got to learn . . . you’ve got . . .” He frowned, then reached out and pushed me away. I fell back against the wall he pushed me so hard, but I didn’t cry because the next thing I knew he was lying on the floor, his legs all tangled up in the sheets and his face so blue it was almost purple.
Aunt Beverly screamed.
So I screamed, too. But when I crawled away like I was some kind of snake or something, screaming and shrieking and making my head ache. I ran away. I should have stayed there because I had heard the screaming before, at night, in the ran, while the fire came in the car and took my parents away.
I heard footsteps on the stairs a few minutes later. A lot of people running in and out. A doctor came in and checked me over, and it wasn’t until I slipped off the bed and went into the hall that I heard someone say that Uncle Jim was dead. I don’t know what the word was, but it means you don’t have any air left in your lungs.
I looked down at my hand. I looked up and saw Aunt Beverly in her pink bathrobe watching me. Nancy was standing beside her, and she was watching me, too.
“I don’t want Uncle Jim Dead,” I said, feeling the tears and the bump inside my chest.
A policeman came by and another doctor, and they all started talking. And I started thinking. It wasn’t very hard, though, to know what the Great and Astounding Albert had taught me, and I felt so bad that I could barely see through all the crying. I started to walk down the hall, down to Jim’s bedroom, and no one paid any attention to me. Beverly was making little sounds, and the policeman and doctor were talking very quietly, and Mrs. DePaul was somewhere there, so no one saw me when I went into the room.
There was a stretcher on the floor. And two doctors were kneeling by Uncle Jim’s body, looking like they were getting ready to put him on this green plastic stuff that looked like a garbage bag. I didn’t want Jim in a garbage bag. I didn’t want him dead. So when the men turned around I went over there and knelt beside him and took his hand and put it next to my cheek, and I promised him I would never do magic again. Then I took the air from my sleeve and made a slow and gentle pass in front of his face. The doctors yelled at me. Beverly screamed again, and suddenly everyone was jumping around and pushing me away and Jim was sitting up with a nothing look on his face.
A nothing look. Nothing behind his eyes, and spit coming out of his mouth, and he wet himself like a baby while Beverly fell to the floor.
And there was nobody left to take care of me.
They took Aunt Beverly and Uncle Jim away in an ambulance. Then a nice woman in a green dress said she was from the city and would see that I wouldn’t be alone anymore.
And that’s how I came to Greenbriar.
A lot of brick buildings and kids like me who have something wrong with their legs or their arms or they can’t get out of bed, teachers and classrooms and lots of television and special ways to play ball. Every Saturday afternoon they show movies in the little theater. Evry Saturday night and on holidays someone comes to do a show, like cowboy singers and clowns and people with animals . . . and a whole lot of magicians.
On Sunday there’s visitors.
But no one for me. Uncle Jim is in a place like mine, only I don’t think it’s as much fun, and no one will tell me what happened to Aunt Beverly. The kids from my old school don’t come at all, and I’ll bet that’s because their mothers won’t let them.
And maybe it’s wrong, but I don’t care. I have my own little room and I practice every night. And as soon as I’m good enough, I’ll go away. I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to do. See, it isn’t any fun to be the best magic man in the world if nobody wants to see you. So I’m going to this place way down on the other side of the park. I’m going to do slow and gentle passes. Then Shirley and Beth and Karen and Father will come home with me, just like always before that night in the rain.
And Mother, of course, because she was always my friend.
Like Uncle Jim said–if you want it bad enough, you can do it. And I want this very badly. After all, who’s going to stop me?
With nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve . . . but lots and lots of air.