By Henry F. Mazel
Donovan sat in the audience at the Macambo and watched Alan Wakeling perform the Indian basket trick. Donovan took copious notes, but he was careful no one should see. He had learned to write on a small pad with a thin piece of graphite secreted in his pocket. In the trade he was known as a chooser, and this was not a compliment.
The fashionable Latin-themed Macambo was a club that suited a good chooser. Live macaws, parrots and cockatoos in glass cages lined the walls behind elegantly appointed booths and tables. All that dazzle, the band, and the stage performers themselves helped distract people from catching the chooser in the act of stealing part of someone's routine, which is what a chooser does.
Not that Donovan was a recidivist, mind you, but he desperately needed a new trick or illusion to keep his modest career as a magician afloat. And Alan Wakeling, a master magician, was just the touch that might help Donovan. It was damn hard to get bookings then, and agents were loath to push magic acts, unless they were spectacular, which Donovan's act was not -- by a long shot.
He had almost backed out of going at all. Macambo was a ritzy joint, and Donovan's funds were limited. He could get caught and sink his career even further into the drink. Then there was the issue of the expense of a new illusion you needed people: an assistant, perhaps two; stagehands; lighting people; and maybe even someone who was knowledgeable about optics and geometry. What was he thinking? Donovan was out of his depth.
Still, he stared at the stage, and kept taking notes in the little pocket. He had the odd sensation that as he watched the stage, he himself was being watched. The prickly hairs on the back of his neck stiffened. Donovan just couldn't help himself. He turned around and looked back to the tables behind. Two tables back, near a glass-enclosed cage where a White Cockatoo preened itself in a faux rainforest habitat, sat an old man dressed in a shabby gray suit. He appeared gaunt and his long, thin beard was beyond gray, it had turned a yellowish-white with age. How did they allow such a disheveled old man in such a swank place? But Donovan thought he too didn't belong, although he was relatively confident he carried enough money in his billfold to pay the check. Whether the old codger was focusing on Donovan and his pocket writing the lowly magician couldn't actually tell, so he turned back to the stage and concentrated on the attempt to purloin a piece of Wakeling's act.
Donovan, pardon the pun, had absolutely no illusions concerning his place in the firmament. He knew he was not a great magician and didn't aspire to the lofty heights of a Wakeling, or a Leon Mandrake, or Houdini -- who was less of a magician than a great escape artist. No matter, Donovan just wanted to make a living in show business and as a journeyman conjurer was quite adequate for his needs.
Now, generally, an illusion is not particularly difficult to achieve; it's simply a matter of deception and belief. The phantom cigarette trick Wakeling had opened with, that was easy merely a cylinder of perforated metal inside Wakeling's jacket that held a lit cigarette. With a bit of misdirection the cigarette magically appeared between the lips of the magician as he glided about the stage puffing away. Wakeling then took his bow, which allowed the unseen stagehands to set up for the next bit: The Illusion.
The Indian basket trick. The stuff of legend. This illusion was another matter entirely. It was never clear if anyone had actually done it. Hindu fakirs, it was said, used a wire and strategically placed torches to distract their audience, but Wakeling's stage was evenly lit and there were no wires that Donovan could discern.
Smiling and brushing his fingers against his pencil-thin mustache, Wakeling displayed a wicker basket from which a coiled rope ascended and became rigid. A young female assistant rested her arm on top of the rigid rope as it resumed its ascent, the assistant seemingly levitating on it. Donovan scoured the boards for some gadget or other but couldn't see any. Wakeling could have used compressed air to create the illusion of a coiled rope becoming rigid -- maybe. But what about the levitation? In truth, Donovan had no idea. He just couldn't figure at all how the trick was accomplished. It appeared he was not even a competent chooser.
After an hour, two gin fizzes, and Wakeling's departure from the stage, Donovan found himself listening to a Negro singer. This in itself was unusual, as the Macambo, like other nightspots in Los Angeles during the 1950s, didn't hire Coloreds. Whoever she was, she could sing. Donovan wasn't aware he was witnessing a bit of history; this was the Macambo's first Negro booking. Marilyn Monroe herself had lobbied for the woman onstage, Ella Fitzgerald. What a voice she had, but, perhaps, because of the genuinely magnificent talent behind it, Donovan felt diminished and alone. He had failed to master Wakeling's secrets, and paid dearly for his stay at the club. He left dejected.
Outside, the warm, dense air of Los Angeles didn't help. On top of a looming dysthymia, he felt sleepy -- really sleepy, into the arms of Morpheus sleepy. A deep voice from behind raised him from his torpor, if not his melancholy.
Donovan turned toward the voice, the old bearded man he had spotted at the Mocambo table. "Yes? . . . How do you know who I am?"
The old man, with obvious arthritic effort walked closer. "Gabelli knows all."
"Oh, please, I'm not in the mood. . . . Now, just who are you, again?"
"I'm a man who's created an illusion speaking with a man who desires one, is that not so?"
"Gabelli? You're a magician?"
Donovan sighed. "Look, it's been a long day. What is it you want?"
"Mr. Donovan. Would you like an illusion, or not? I'll be on my way if I've misunderstood your intentions. I don't have to be a mind reader to see you were writing during Wakeling's act. I was a chooser myself at one time. Now, shall I leave?"
Donovan stared at the old man who looked more like a rabbi than an illusionist or magician. He hesitated, he actually broke out in a sweat, a bead of perspiration appeared on his forehead. He took out a handkerchief and patted it away. Donovan was nothing if not fastidious. He folded the handkerchief and placed it back in his jacket pocket. "All right, stay," he said without emotion. "Let's hear about it."
"A good choice. Come with me, my car is a few blocks from here."
"Where exactly are we going?"
"To my place, of course. Do you think I have my illusion in my pocket like your pad and pencil?"
Donovan didn't respond to the dig. He wondered what he was doing here, going off with a perfect stranger in the middle of the night, in a town he really didn't know. He gazed at the old man, a hunched-over shell of a soul, with a beaked nose protruding from a miserably sallow face. At first, back at the club, Donovan thought him imposing, but looking at him now, Donovan pitied him. He was certainly not much of a threat. Yet, there was a certain unease about the encounter. Donovan knew he had to shake things up in some way, had to change the experiment. The real question was, did he want work and was the old man on the level?
"Well, Mr. Donovan, are you in or are you out?"
Gabelli had interrupted his ruminations. At first Donovan didn't hear him, but then it clicked in. ". . . Sure, what the hell, Gabelli, show the way."
Donovan found himself in the passenger seat of Gabelli's 1948 Ford coupe and driving -- swerving would be more accurate -- through the streets of Los Angeles. They lurched left, then right, then left again. The gears ground loudly as Gabelli shifted and pushed down on the clutch with his foot. First through wide boulevards well lit by overhead lights, then through narrow streets illuminated only by a sliver of the April moon. Concrete gave way to blacktop. The old magician slowed and turned into a small alleyway where carmine-red bricked tenements had the feel of cold-water flats on New York's lower east side. The coupe finally jerked to a stop and Gabelli yanked on the hand brake.
"Well, here we are, Donovan."
"It looks like Essex or Hestor Street in New York. Where are we?"
Gabelli paid no attention. "I'm three flights up, c'mon. That's where I first saw your act, you know, in New York, at Danny's Hide-a-Way. You were on the bill as the Amazing Donovan."
Donovan said nothing. He considered what awaited him inside. And, as usual, he wasn't sure whether it was something intriguing he desired, or something ominous he feared. Donovan visibly shuddered. At least now he was wide-awake.
Gabelli pulled out a crooked key and opened an iron outside gate, then another key that unlocked the inside door. They slowly walked up a rasping wooden stairway set against the slanted stone of the ground floor. Gabelli struggled up the three flights, holding onto the banister and gripping the chipped newel caps on each landing to steady himself. By the time they reached the third floor, Gabelli was out of breath, He reached out and put a hand on Donovan's shoulder and rested a moment.
"Are you all right, there, Gabelli?" Donovan asked.
"Fine, fine. There's no worry about me." He pointed down the shabby hallway. "It's just this way."
Inside, the apartment was more distressed than the building itself. A paint job was at least a decade overdue. The main room held an iron bed, a small table with two hard-backed bankers' chairs, and a simple mirror on the wall opposite a window facing the street. Nothing you'd call a home, except an oak bookcase filled with books on magic, and novels in some foreign language. Standing in the corner of Gabelli's hovel were two large wooden boxes with small wheels attached to the bottoms that reminded Donovan of upright coffins. This was the place where Donovan would find his illusion? "Look, Gabelli," he said, "maybe I made a mistake."
"Patience, my friend. Patience." Without turning around, he called out, "Lillian, Lillian?"
She was a stunner all right. A silky redheaded vision. Moving toward him, Donovan felt lightheaded. His knees buckled. Did such beauty exist at all? Maybe this was Gabelli's illusion. Even if Lillian were an apparition, she still took his breath away.
When she came close, the girl, in her mid-twenties, about ten years younger than Donovan, nodded and said something to Donovan that sounded like German. He glanced toward Gabelli. "She welcomes you into our home. Yiddish."
"You understand Yiddish"? he asked Gabelli, finding it hard to take his eyes off Lillian.
"Yes. Of course. To be accurate, Gabelli is for the stage. It's Finkelshtein. Abraham Finkelshtein. The name Gabelli I saved for the act, when I had one." His deep voice had pitched up and the rhythm and cadence of his words had changed. "So, I should use Finkelshtein on the stage? Enough we have problems, my daughter and me."
"In a manner of speaking."
"Here we go again," Donovan said, shaking his head.
Without another word, Gabelli and the girl, her soft hair flowing with a half twist of her head, moved graciously toward the wooden boxes. They brought them to the center of the room. With a grand sweep of his hand, Gabelli opened the cabinet to reveal a plaid wallpapered interior. Lillian did the same with hers, though without the grand flourish.
The girl entered the first cabinet and Gabelli closed the doors behind her. Donovan looked on with a great deal of skepticism because he knew this trick very well. The illusion probably dated back fifty years. This was the Proteus cabinet, where two silver-backed mirrors were hinged to the inside walls of the cabinet. The mirrors could be pushed flat against the sides and remain unnoticed as they were covered with the same wallpaper as the inside of the cabinet. Lillian could secret herself in the back of the cabinet and push the mirrors outward toward the center of the cabinet where they formed a forty-five degree angle. It had to be a perfect forty-five degree angle so the audience would believe the person standing in the wedge behind the mirrors had literally disappeared.
Donovan was disappointed and yawned to show his displeasure. Morpheus, again. "This is your illusion, the Proteus cabinet? Do I look like I just fell off the potato truck?"
"Patience, Donovan, patience. I see you find my partner quite attractive."
"Partner? I thought you said she was your daughter?"
"Partner, daughter, does it make a difference?"
"To me it does," Donovan snapped, surprising himself with the vehemence of his response. He regrouped. "Gabelli, you're stalling, why are you stalling?"
"Just making conversation, my friend, that's all. But you see, you do find her appealing." Gabelli opened the door to the first cabinet to reveal that nothing was inside. "I'm not interested in an old illusion like this," Donovan said. He grabbed the two mirrors and pushed them toward the side of the cabinet where he would find Lillian hiding in the wedge they had created. But she wasn't there.
Donovan turned toward the old magician. "Okay, okay, where is she?"
A tiny smile had overtaken Gabelli's face. He was pleased with himself, as pleased as a sickly old man had any right to be. He hobbled toward the second cabinet and opened the doors. There stood Lillian -- slender thighs, soft warmth, the setting-sun hair partially covering her face in the style of Veronica Lake. She stared at Donovan, perhaps twelve or eighteen inches away. So close he felt her heat.
Lillian's expression was haughty but not condescending, just the self-assurance of beauty and youth. "Well, now how do you like our illusion?" she asked.
"You speak English."
"Of course, I speak English, Mr. Donovan. As well as Yiddish and French, and Italian . . . "
He interrupted. " -- Just plain Donovan will do fine."
"All right --- Donovan." She reached over and playfully stroked his cheek, half-mocking, yet very gently. "You know, Donovan, I'm not sure you're the man for Finkelshtein's illusion. It strikes me you have little imagination."
"Oh, thank you very much for the support," Donovan said, practically breathless. The stroke on his cheek, the way in which Lillian addressed him, excited him to no end. He tried valiantly not to show it. He turned to Gabelli. "If I'm not the one for your illusion, why follow me into the Macambo? You did follow me."
"Lillian and I apparently have a disagreement. For me, and on this you can rely, you are the only one for this trick. But she, frankly, finds you a bit annoying . . . also a little stupid. For this, I'm apologizing."
"You know for people who want me to do this illusion, you're not that encouraging."
"Well, not that annoying," Lillian half-whispered. To Donovan, the low throaty sound was like the song of the Lorelei. She was irresistible. No question, he wanted this illusion . . . and hopefully what came with it.
"What about the stupid part?" Donovan asked Lillian.
Gabelli stepped in. "Who's to say? Simply an exaggeration, an exaggeration my friend, that's all."
Donovan sighed audibly and turned to the old man. "What do you want for the illusion, Gabelli?"
"You can't buy it."
"Donovan, I'll tell you what. You can rent. We'll go on tour, you find the money and the agency. Lillian and I, thirty percent of the bookings we'd like, and you will pay all expenses. Plus you'll reserve for us a compartment on the Super Chief to New York. We know of a small apartment there. That is where we rehearse."
"Is that all? How about my first-born . . . not that I'm having children."
"Lillian, of course, would be your assistant."
"Lillian would tour with us? She would be on stage with me?"
Donovan turned toward the girl and was met by penetrating blue eyes. "Of course, Donovan, I will assist . . . I will assist you. That you can believe."
"So, do we have, Donovan, a deal?"
"How does it work? How does Lillian appear in the second cabinet?"
"You're a renter, not a buyer, that part of the trick, you shouldn't know."
"How can I perform the illusion without understanding how it's done?"
"Simple, very simple. We will be with you, but you must trust, you should give yourself over."
"I don't like it."
"It's not for you to like, it's for you to do. Yes or no?"
He could smell her fragrance, lilac, he thought. He felt the warmth of her body close to him. He remembered her touch. She was too perfect. For a moment, it crossed his mind that Lillian was a conjurer's trick of Finkelshtein's or Gabelli or whoever he was. No, but that couldn't be it. She was real enough to him all right, and since she apparently found him dull-witted, he very much wanted to prove her wrong. ". . . Okay. Agreed," Donovan finally said.
Though he couldn't really hear Gabelli or Lillian's, Donovan's footsteps echoed loudly through the cavernous waiting room of Union Station, reverberating off the travertine marble interior that reached halfway up to the deco lighting fifty feet overhead. Outside, the mixed mission-style facade was striking against a yawning blue sky. Donovan, who carried very little luggage, and Lillian and Finkelshtein, who needed help from a Pullman porter with theirs, made their way across the platform to the sleeping cars. Donovan pushed on to the coach cars ahead. He had been bamboozled into springing for a large compartment for the two all the way from Los Angeles to Chicago, which is as far as the Super Chief traveled. Donovan considered himself lucky it didn't travel all the way to New York, as his bank balance was about as thin as the tread on Gabelli's '48 coupe. At least when they had to change trains in Chicago for New York, the two had agreed to accompany Donovan in coach.
The Super Chief was the luxury liner of transcontinental rail travel. Cagney, Lombard, Garland, Bogart and Bacall, Gable, and Rita Hayworth, who Lillian quite resembled, were among a host of celebrities who had crossed the country on the Chief.
Twenty minutes after Donovan took his seat, the throaty whistle and the belching steam from the head engine signaled they were about to get underway. In coach, you could feel the power of the driving wheel and the connecting rods of the great engine as it slowly picked up speed out of the station and headed east toward Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Kansas City, and eventually Chicago. Donovan pulled at his shirtsleeve, neatly straightening up in his seat, as if being introduced. Pullman porters, all Negro, went from car to car with a small bell melodically announcing "breakfast is suurved in the dining car."
As they ate, Donovan mulled over if he had enough money in his account to mount a show -- that is between furtive glances at Lillian, all cream and fresh strawberries. Well, at least there wasn't a large staff, he thought. Gabelli had told him, 'you don't need many assistants or a crew for this illusion, but you must be precise.'
Four days later, after luncheons and dinners together, cozy conversations and some knowing glances, Lillian had softened toward Donovan. More than softened. The occasional touch, in a way that was soothing, if not erotic, swelled Donovan's fantasies.
The next afternoon the three arrived at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. They splurged and took a checker cab to the lower east side. Of course, it was Donovan doing the splurging, Lillian and Gabelli literally along for the ride, a ride that seemed intent on sucking Donovan dry. More than once he had questioned what he was doing, and what he was doing with this pair, who he found both strange and alluring in a way he could not articulate. This slight bit of introspection was about as far as he could go. Donovan, by nature, was not a particularly reflective man, and the deficiency had certainly impaired him in his career as well as in his occasional romantic forays.
The Checker cab stopped in front of a tenement that looked wholly familiar to Donovan. "Where are we?" He asked the driver.
"Essex and Houston, like you wanted."
"I didn't give you this address."
"Whatever you say, Buddy, the fare's still two dollars and thirty cents."
Donovan glanced at Gabelli and Lillian, who sat still, facing the front seat. "What is happening here? This street looks like the one in L.A."
"Donovan," Gabelli chided, "you should trust and give yourself over. The three of us, on the circuit, we'll make a hit. On this you can rely. Should anything else, Donovan, be important to you? He waited for a response. "No, you see, I thought not."
After an arduous three flight climb, at least for the old magician, Gabelli opened the apartment door. Donovan was stunned and very much unnerved. With just a minor difference here or there, the room appeared a mirror image of the hovel three thousand miles away. "Okay, what is going on? This is the apartment in Los Angeles, I swear."
"Please don't swear," Gabelli said.
"Yes, Donovan, don't swear, Lillian chimed in, albeit in a soothing, tender voice."
"But this is exactly . . . "
" -- Donovan, you should give yourself over. Fairstist?"
"He asked if you understand," Lillian said.
"No, I don't understand. I don't get you two and I don't get this place, and I don't get anything, damn it."
"Don't swear," they said in unison.
Donovan threw up his hands, and sat down heavily in one of the bankers chairs.
For the next two weeks they rehearsed, six, seven, sometimes eight hours a day. Donovan didn't understand how the old man did it, and didn't understand how the illusion was created either. And he was right there. He watched every move and motion the pair made and still couldn't get it. What a chooser.
About three weeks in, more out of fatigue than any faith he placed in the old man, he succumbed. He did give himself over as Gabelli had asked. After several more weeks, their timing was near perfect and the illusion appeared, to Donovan at least, flawless. Lillian was pleased, and even complimented Donovan on his great skill as a magician. Donovan was elated. It became increasingly clear Lillian had feelings for him. The one who was not pleased was Gabelli. He avoided the growing closeness between the two by insisting they needed more time to perfect the act. "Another week," he insisted. After another two, Donovan was fed up.
It was at breakfast on the ninth week, consisting of some rye bread and creamed herring for Gabelli just Earl Grey tea and buttered toast for Donovan and Lillian that he laid down the law. "Let's do this or I'm finished. I'm done, understand?"
Gabelli shrugged and dipped the spitz, the heal of the bread, into the last of the cream sauce. "Okay, okay, so I'm not wedded to more rehearsal if you think you're ready."
"Ready? I don't do anything but walk around, wave my hands and appear in control of the trick, which I am not because I don't know how the trick is done. So I'm very ready, don't you think?"
Lillian smiled at Donovan, held his hand and squeezed. She glanced over at Gabelli, eyebrows raised and her head cocked.
Still chewing away and filled with a new vitality, Gabelli didn't bother to look up. "So, now we'll make a performance," he garbled.
That afternoon Donovan began to call in his favors and markers from the days he had an act. There was an agent in the Brill building, Martin Jaffrey, who Donovan had worked with, and he asked if Jaffrey would kindly come to Essex Street to see the illusion, since the trick required props and bringing them to midtown without hiring a van would be difficult at best.
"You want me to come to Essex Street!?" Jaffrey howled over the phone.
"That's the idea, Martin, yes. Under ordinary circumstances I wouldn't bring up the brunette from three years ago, who your wife thought was with me at Danceland. I was the beard in that one, Martin, a humiliating experience I might add."
"Donovan, you're despicable. You have no ethics."
"This, coming from an agent."
After some haggling and a bit more jaw-boning from Donovan, Jaffrey agreed.
Despite his misgivings, Jaffrey, when he saw what he would later call the Essex Street illusion, was duly impressed. "It has potential, definite potential." He booked them on a tour of the Midwest the very next week.
They opened in Akron to middling reviews. Since they were not the stars on the bill, their act was sandwiched between a smooth jazz singer and the headliner -- comic Jackie Leonard. Leonard occupied the place next to closing, which was the prime slot in the lineup. He was followed by another singer who closed the show. Donovan was disappointed they had not been a bigger hit, but Gabelli was encouraging, telling him they would take time to catch on, 'but no question, success will follow us, on this you can rely.' Donovan wasn't as sanguine. Maybe the build up to the illusion was at fault, he thought. His slight of hand and card manipulation leading up to the Essex Street illusion wasn't particularly inspiring. Again, Gabelli told him not to worry.
From Akron, they moved west on to Columbus, Dublin, Lima, and Dayton. By the time they got to Cincinnati, as Gabelli had predicted, the act had gained some attention. And Donovan felt his slight of hand was improving with each performance, surpassing anything he had done in years. Could his new found abilities be attributed to Gabelli's encouragement, or better still, he imagined, the mere presence of Lillian so close to him? Donovan didn't know, and didn't want to. He took great pride in his new found talent, and felt better than he had in a very long while.
Then, when they crossed into Indiana, the act changed in an extraordinarily unexpected way. During the second show at the Altos Theater in Indianapolis was where it first occurred. As Donovan moved to the second box on stage, hands aloft, to reveal a radiant Lillian, she was not there. The box was completely empty. Donovan's puzzlement quickly turned to panic and he looked toward Gabelli who was ensconced in the first row of the audience. If the old magician had a slight smile on his face, Donovan wasn't aware of it. Gabelli motioned with his finger for Donovan to look behind toward the curtains, where Lillian suddenly had appeared. But not from behind the curtains. She appeared in the middle of the stage, between the curtains and the footlights. Just appeared, from nowhere. Instinctively, Donovan waved his hand and bowed, the audience clapped and a few gasped with surprise. For Donovan, surprise didn't go far enough, he was absolutely astonished.
And backstage he was furious. "How did you do that? I want to know how you did that?!"
Gabelli shrugged. "I'll tell you in Terra Haute."
"Now, you're a comedian, too?" He glanced toward Lillian who looked away.
"Well, maybe not Terra Haute," Gabelli said, "Could be Chicago."
"We're not booked in Chicago."
"At the moment, no, but we will be. On that you can rely."
And they were.
They were the headline act at the Rio Cabana in Chicago, Jackie Leonard having fallen ill in Skokie.
Magical? Magical could never describe it accurately. The act had evolved as though it were a living thing. Lillian now appeared from nothing. Bursts of multicolored stardust floated above the stage and swirled down to the boards to create a solid form that took the shape of a smiling Lillian. Of course, they no longer needed the second box. Gabelli grew stronger still. Yellowish-white hair turned steely gray, his countenance grew younger. And Donovan's card manipulation at the beginning of the act seemed to go far beyond his own limitations. They made the papers, crowds came, the room was full. The story in the Sun Times was picked up by the national papers. The three were a hit. A big hit.
And Donovan, perhaps out of hubris, went along. He kept quiet. Why ruin a good thing, he thought. He was tempted to ask, but didn't. At least not right away. They were held over in Chicago and the night they closed his anxiety and curiosity got the best of him.
They were lounging in the dressing room. Donovan and Lillian held hands, tentatively or romantically depending upon your perspective -- two fingers loosely intertwined. Gabelli sat framed by the bare light bulbs of the makeup mirror. "How is it done?" Donovan asks meekly, staring at Gabelli's reflection through the mirror
Lillian and Gabelli are both silent. She lets go of Donovan's hand.
"How do angels explain?" Lillian finally asks. She is distracted but looking directly at him, hoping for some understanding from Donovan.
And at this moment Donovan does understand, not the actual content of what Lillian has just said that understanding is beyond him -- but the possibility, the realization that Lillian is in love.
"You are an angel," he says like a schoolboy. "You are my angel. I care about you so much."
She stares at him in silence, her face filled with conflicting emotion. Her cheeks, smooth and fair, glow red, either blushing or with anger. Donovan can't tell.
She rushes from the dressing room. Donovan is at a loss. "What just happened?" he asks Gabelli.
"You asked her to be what you are. This, my friend, is not possible."
"You don't expect me to believe this angel nonsense, do you?"
Gabelli lowers his head a moment. "Believe. Don't believe. What is it my business? We merely came to help."
"Help?! You came to help me? You both torment me."
The old man takes him by the shoulders and sits him down "Donovan? When you were twenty-two, in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, maybe you remember? It was this cold night, middle of November, I believe. It began to snow, and the wind it was kicking up awful. Blowing in your face. There on the street was an old man -- maybe a drunk, who can say. He was huddled against a stoop. No coat. The man had no coat, Donovan. But you had a coat, which, I might point out, you gave him. That was a mitzvah, a good deed. These things are all considered, Boychik . So here we are, Lillian and me . . . . Go figure. Who can make sense of it, huh?"
"How do you know all that?" he says. There is a gnawing reflexive pain in the hollow of his stomach. "I just can't figure how you know about my life. Look, Gabelli . . . Finkelshtein, there was no good deed. It's simple. When a kid, I never had a coat like that, so I gave the bum my coat, that's all. It was like I . . . I was giving to myself, you understand? No mitzvahs, okay?"
"So you say. Donovan, my friend, in certain circles, you should understand, it's looked upon differently."
"I'm not even Jewish," he says.
"What, He should make distinctions?"
"Gabelli this is just such a load of --"
" -- Don't swear," Gabelli interrupts, pointing his finger.
"Where did Lillian go, old man?"
"Well, we have to be from somewhere, no?"
"I need to find her."
"Don't. Stay with the act." he says gravely. As Gabelli speaks his steely gray hair begins to turn a hint of the old yellowish-white color. His skin sallows. Now he knows Donovan will leave, yet he persists. "We'll find another girl. Maybe no stardust, but how knows? Okay, so maybe we bring back the second box, We . . . what is it called, simplify. But the act is for you."
"No, it's not, it's for you old man, isn't it? What happens to you when I find Lillian?"
"Nothing good, my friend, nothing good, on that you can rely," he says, his voice becoming distant.
"I . . . I can't live without her, Gabelli."
"Me either," the old man says wryly." He shrugs his slim nettled shoulders. "Then, you'll have to go, won't you? But you and Lillian, this cannot happen. On this . . . on this you can rely."
"You want me to stay so you can save yourself, is that it?"
"For me, it doesn't matter. We go one way, we go the other." But for you, you and Lillian, it can only be tremendous tsoris . . . heartache. Do you see?"
"No, I don't. I know she cares about me. I need to find her."
"Then one will live, and me the other thing."
"Let's get something straight, here. The guilt thing works for the Jews, not for me."
"So brave, so brave you are. No, of course not, it won't work on you. But me, you'll sacrifice?"
Donovan looks directly at Gabelli, frozen in the moment. He shrugs, perhaps with a hint of empathy, and nods imperceptibly in agreement. He moves quickly toward the dressing room door. "It's not what I wanted for any of us. On that, you can rely," he calls out.
In the minutes after Donovan leaves the theater, Gabelli feels winded and rests in the creaking chair opposite the makeup mirror. He is a specter now, and he is done. Two days later, the old man will collapse while Donovan is scouring downtown Minneapolis for Lillian.
He has booked a room at the Dykman Hotel on Sixth and walks the streets searching, hoping to see her. Slender young women with flowing red hair remind him of her. He stops a few, only to be disappointed. He does this day after day, but no Lillian. At Murray's, a popular downtown restaurant, he eats dinner and leafs through the Minneapolis Star. Then he remembers. Trembling, he turns to the entertainment pages. He carefully studies the clubs and theaters. Where else would she be if not the theater or a club?
There are not that many acts in Minneapolis so it will be an easy thing. Naturally it will be easy. Wouldn't it be wonderful if life worked in such a way? Donovan spends another two days checking every club, theater and entertainment venue, and no Lillian. He is drained and tired. Melancholy and Morpheus again.
He plods down Sixth Street, just a block or two away from his hotel when he hears a voice behind him . . . Lillian's voice.
"You're looking for me, of course."
His relief is palpable. He turns toward her, his smile as broad as a Midwest horizon. "Lillian. Of course I'm looking for you."
You wouldn't have found me, you know. That would not be possible."
"You found me," Donovan says. He draws closer. He looks at Lillian as if he is about to caress her cheek and kiss her. And he does. She does not object. Lillian raises her arms and rests them around his shoulders, her fingers intertwined behind his neck, one leg raised ever so gently off the ground. This is their consummation, their moment of tender mercy.
The rule applies: Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if only life worked in such a way? They stay together, of course. They marry. But their life together is not what they, or at least Donovan at his most brooding, might have imagined.
You might call their time together routine, run-of-the-mill, or absent real passion, but that wouldn't be right. It is more than that, and less. Donovan does have pleasant memories, one in particular of her sitting cross-legged on the bed, wet from her shower, calling out to him. But there are few of those.
They buy a house on Chelm Street, number twenty-two, a modest Cape Cod. Soon after the bickering begins. A few small quarrels. Niggling annoyances: The uncleaned strands of red hair left in the bathroom sink; wet towels hanging over porcelain bars. For Lillian, it is the tomato bisque and The Minneapolis Star. The soup, once elegantly consumed by Donovan at the dinner table now sounds maddingly slurped. And then there is his obsessive reading of the newspaper, every word of every story on every page -- starting with the obits. Their infrequent conversations devolve into meaningless froth. The tension, Donovan persuades himself, concerns only their work and past glories.
In a way, it is true. Magic is ephemeral. And fame is fleeting. By the end of the fifties, the clubs have seen better days, and not just in Minneapolis. People have little appetite for tricks and illusions. There is no audience. They both need that audience. Now, absent the throng, there are just the two. And Lillian's brush with love has lanced into something different that only she knows and Donovan is incapable of understanding.
He is reduced to filling in at seamy nightspots, a master of ceremonies introducing desultory girls who dance half-naked for an indifferent crowd. Then there are the celebrations of children. Magic and party hats. Birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs.
Eventually, he succumbs and takes a position selling the new color televisions at Hagen's Appliances. His dreams of love and magic slowly fade.
In the long sunlit days of each passing summer, the breach between them escalates, subtly, insidiously, then unbridled and unrestrained. Lillian is mocking, her behaviors both passive and aggressive. Donovan copes, the only way he knows, with precision laying out his clothes the night before his morning commute. Jacket, neatly pressed pants, white shirt, various ties. On weekends, the lawn is mowed, the shrubs trimmed conscientiously. The unexamined goal is not to think.
Carping is an excuse for her anger, but Donovan is not so clever as to figure out why.
He sits at the couch reading The Star, a paper-thin wall between them. This is the small thing, the match that lights the flame. Stardust exploding into a thousand suns.
"What have you brought me but misery?" she asks, seething.
Donovan lowers the paper, folding it in his lap. He looks to her, bewildered. "Why do you resent me so?" he asks.
"You don't know? You are dim-witted. All this time and you don't know?'
"I don't know, Lillian. Really, darling, I don't know."
"Think, damn you."
"You never swear."
"That was before."
"What have I done to you but love you."
"You feel no accountability for what's happened?"
"What's happened? There's no work for me, no magic, no tricks, no conjuring. How am I responsible for that?"
Lillian stares down at the carpet, her new beige wall-to-wall. She spits. "In all these years, you've never mentioned him. Fineklsthein. Fineklsthein, damn you."
Donovan is not so surprised. He does know. Yet he takes a long while to answer, and when he does, he speaks softly. "Gabelli. That was a long time ago, Lillian."
"No. It was just moments ago. You watched him decay, but you refused to look."
"I did what was right for us, for everyone. The rest was beyond me. I'm not responsible for that."
"Oh, you are. And now, we are all destroyed. About that, you should have no illusions."
Donovan never does comprehend entirely. All he has known is his love for Lillian -- and now the grace of their devotion no longer survives. And why that is he cannot fully capture or appreciate. Yes, they go on for a time. But they exist together simply as past memories. Eventually Lillian will leave him. She must leave. She is with him for the moment, but Donovan will soon be alone.
from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine