Smoke and Mirrors
by Cheryl Pennington
Hector sauntered down the dimly lit hallway, his dirty shoes grinding grit and mud into the already stained carpet. Looking down at the fading rug he wondered if those swirls started out pink or just faded to the incongruous color they were now. Pale curls against a dull green background. He thought they would be better suited on a sofa. It would at least be better than the ugly piece of crap that sat in his own living room-with the ugly sack of sh..the uglier door suddenly loomed before him.
He rapped his knuckles against the fake wood. Knock, knock, knock…..silence.
He rapped more loudly. Knock, knock, knock!
Nothing. He would have pounded with both fists if he hadn’t heard the muffled sound of feet heading towards the other side of the aqua blue distraction of a door. Again he thought, ‘How fucked up was the dude who put together this hell hole of an apartment building? Was he color blind or just cheap?’
The door swung open quickly and Hector jumped back instinctively.
“Whoa, man, what’s up?” He looked Danny up and down, thinking he resembled the warmed over takeout he had scarfed for breakfast-not more than a hint of what it started out as. Danny’s clothes were wrinkled, his shirt a faded Red Hot Chili Peppers job he had picked up at the Goodwill Store in a moment of irony-he hated those dudes. But his girlfriend at the time loved them; and if Danny was nothing else, he was a slave to love. What was her name again? Patty? Pity? Ratty? Oh yeahhh….Petty, that was it. Or that was what she was. When they broke up he thought his friend had sacrificially burned that shirt, for he was also a bitter asshole when it came to the goodbyes. Beyond the ugly tee, he sported only his boxers.
Danny didn’t answer his friend, but merely left the door standing open, growled and turned to walk back into what passed for a living room in the tiny apartment. It was all his friend could afford now that he was living alone again. Hell, he couldn’t afford this place either; but he had to live somewhere. No going back to his folks’ place. Never again. He was a big boy after all. Just one more thing he had to prove to his old man-even now. Hector knew Danny loved the old bastard but somehow he seemed always angry with him. Hector wished he had folks like Danny’s-always supporting, directing, giving…he couldn’t understand a guy not wanting that kind of love.
“What’ve you been up to here?” Hector was not surprised to see his friend’s laundry piled precariously on the love seat and his shoes piled in a haphazard heap in a dark corner-after all, he didn’t have a proper closet. He was, however, shocked to see a new piece of furniture there beneath the window, the only source of natural light in the place. The sun was finally peaking out, creating a dusty light that filtered across a small fold out table, the kind Hector’s own old man used on poker night. Only this one had no beer stains or cigarette burns in them. Tables could take that kind of shit though.
Danny didn’t answer but simply knelt down and began to arrange things on the table which he had covered with a piece of tattered black felt. Well, it was more like a dull gray at this point, but Hector felt it must have been black once. His friend was attempting rather unsuccessfully to smooth out wrinkles in the cloth that looked more stubborn than his efforts. Hector reached out to give him a hand, but Danny brushed it off, grunting in an agitated way.
“Okay, dude. Just tryin’ to help. What is all this anyway?” No response. “Okay maybe I came at a bad time. I’m just gonna’ go down to Shiner’s for a beer and..”
“Shiners? This early?!” Danny shot back, not even looking up. Next he began putting some things on the table which he pulled out of a red silky-looking sack that lay close to where he knelt. It appeared to still be in good shape-in fact it looked almost new. Odd shapes and colors were spilling out of it, things Hector felt a vague recollection of, like a memory of an old cartoon he might have watched as a kid. What was that show?
“Daaamn…,” he remembered now. Magic! Those are magician’s props. What was that stupid show again? He could never remember the names of things like that. His old man would say it was too much beer. His old man had no room to judge.
“What are you doing here so early?” Danny’s tone was distractedly irritated as he carefully positioned the items on his table. “I..I..have things to do, man. And beer isn’t on the list for breakfast.”
“What you talking, breakfast? Look out your window man. It’s almost noon.” Hector stepped around the table to pull back the faded curtain and bumped it, causing the carefully placed items to topple over. A couple of colored plastic balls rolled to the hardwood floor and bounced once or twice before rolling off under the sofa.
“Jesus, look what you did!” Danny scrambled after the balls as if they were golden turds or something. “Why did you come here Hector? Can’t you see I’m busy?!” He sounded far too angry for this to be about plastic balls, his buddy thought. Still, this was his own doing, so Hector lifted one end of the sofa while the irritated young man on all fours retrieved his balls. This thought tickled Hector and he laughed out loud. He thought Danny would like this connection.
“What the hell is so funny, man? I NEED those balls!” Danny shouted angrily, thinking his friend considered all this a big joke. This made Hector more tickled and he almost dropped the sofa laughing now. But Danny didn’t laugh. Hector realized his friend didn’t laugh much these days. Or try to make anyone else laugh for that matter. And that had been what appealed to Hector most of all in the beginning. Danny was always the comedian in the room and, after all, isn’t that what he did down at Slap ‘n Happy’s every Friday night for open mike? He performed his stand up routine. He was so fucking funny and it killed Hector’s soul to see him losing that. It had been weeks since he’d seen a glimpse of that guy.
“You can put that down now,” Danny shot over his shoulder. Hector realized his friend had returned to organizing the items on his table.
“Dude, what is all this? I mean, you picked a helluva time to start learning magic tricks. I thought we could grab some beers, get some burritos-you know, hang out?”
Danny never looked up, but when he finished organizing his toys, he retreated into the kitchenette and returned shortly, arms loaded with-what the hell? Cartons of cigarettes! This guy never thought about smoking anything non recreational, not for one second. Especially with all that had happened. He must have already opened the ends of a few cartons for now the packs began spilling from them like confetti at the Macy’s parade on turkey day.
“Shit!” Danny exclaimed and once again Hector tried to help his friend by catching the packs still tumbling from his arms. Quickening his steps did no favors for Danny as that only encouraged the spilling. “Shit, shit, shit!” He tossed the cartons onto the floor in front of the magician’s altar and heaved a heavy sigh as he corralled the packs with his foot. He turned around to pick up the stray packs but Hector was right there, his hands cradling the lost cargo which he held out to his friend. Their eyes met for a split second and the look in Danny’s eyes frightened the other. It was both pain-filled and manic at once. Hector swore he saw tiny demons dancing in the shadows of his half dilated pupils, demons with lit cigarettes and…Danny quickly turned around and began opening a pack of the cigarettes.
Danny dropped to his knees in front of his project, aimlessly fumbling with the cellophane wrapping of the pack. These damn things looked so easy to open when his father did it. Every time. Every damned time! How often had he watched his old man lovingly pick up a brand new pack and peel off the little ribbon with the red tip? Ribbons and bows, flowers and funer…he flicked the thing to the floor and started on the paper.
“So….whatcha’ doing with all this stuff?” Hector was truly curious now, while all thoughts of burritos went flying out the dusty window and up over the stinking city. But he remembered the beers. He still wanted those. When he got no response from Danny he turned and went into the little “Barbie” kitchen that was just off the living room. Danny hated it when he used that word to describe his mini kitchen. But it was so true. Half a fridge, only a cooktop and a microwave recessed in the wall. All he needed was a fold out table and chairs. Just like that hand me down toy his little sister got from the Goodwill. Only her version was missing half the legs of the table… Hector had asked if he preferred him to call it a Ken kitchen, but that was no better. Ken. What a pussy. Doll or not. Danny said he’d prefer GI Joe if he didn’t hate the Army so much. Hector opened the fridge. Jesus, this guy must be starving to death! Nothing in there but a couple of eggs, some cheese that he was sure wasn’t supposed to be furry, a swig of some kind of juice in an unmarked bottle and….wait…yep! Pulling open one of the drawers he found an ample supply of brew. Not top of the line stuff, mind you, but it would do to take the edge off. Thinking his friend needed it more than he did, Hector grabbed two. As he backed out of the fridge he knocked over a bowl, spilling some kind of shriveled fruit down onto the tile floor. Oh no, now he had to look at the floor.
Jesus, that color thing again, he thought. Seriously, who goes to all the expense of a tile floor and then goes and does it up in red and black? ‘That’s like blood and death’, he thought as he scooped up the disgusting bits and almost returned them to the bowl he had righted on the fridge shelf. Instead he put the bowl in the sink atop what looked like a week’s worth of cups and glasses, still waiting to be washed. Then he opened the door under the sink to toss out the “fruitrocities.” The smell from that dark hole hit him like fist to the nose. Man, this guy was losing it. He had never known Danny to be a pig. Of course he hadn’t known him all that long. Hector closed the door and turned back to the living room, a beer in each hand, and the scene playing out was something just short of bizarre.
There was Danny, still in his boxers and that red, faded tee; but he now sported a very long black cape and, wonder of wonders, a real life magician’s top hat. In his hand he held a wand. A real, honest-to-goodness life-sized wand, and not the recent Harry Pothead rip-off kind either. This stick looked like the real deal with the authentic white tip and everything. Hector almost dropped the cans he was holding as his mouth fell open, his eyes drawn to the foldout table. Now, along with the magic crap, were some of the cigarettes, all lined up along the front edge like little nicotine soldiers.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, man! What are you doing?” Startled, Danny only glanced at Hector for a moment, his eyes falling briefly on the can of beer he knew was meant for him. But he had more important things to do than drink right then. Hadn’t he drunk enough of that swill the night before? And the night before that? And every single night for the last month? He only thought he had been drinking heavily before that, spending entire weekends trying to blur out the truth, hoping to make it not real. The ugly, inevitable, undeniable truth. Now Danny plucked up one of the cigarettes and tried to place it beneath a yellow, plastic cup. Too long. The cup tipped over.
“Shit!” he grumbled. He snapped the cigarette in two and shoved the jagged pieces inside the cup, then quickly flipped it over. “There!” Mumbling some words Hector could barely comprehend, Danny then waved his wand around in the air a few times, and with a flair he tapped the cup on the bottom.
Hector wasn’t sure why but somewhere deep inside he had the urge to hold his breath and pray-pray that the cup would come up empty. Did he already know this trick? Sure, everyone did. But never had he seen it performed with cigarettes, of all things. And these weren’t cheap old generics either. Why didn’t his friend just buy those ones in the white carton with black writing? You know…Great Value Death Sticks or something like that. These were the real deal. Marlboro reds-filtered. Must have cost him a third of his meager paycheck. Now that he counted, there must have been ten cartons down on the floor.
Danny must not have been too confident with this trick because he repeated the nonsensical phrase and the swirling wand motions before tapping the overturned cup again. Then they both held their breaths until he looked at Hector over his shoulder, a sense of desperation burning in his eyes. He looked back at the cup and snatched it up! Nothing on the table. Hector’s heart skipped several beats. Danny’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open in disbelief. Then he turned the cup over and looked down into it. He seemed to be looking into a bottomless abyss-staring, transfixed, for a moment or two. Then he spewed a string of creative curse words, flinging his wand onto the rug where one end wedged into the frayed threads and the other flipped up to point accusingly at its master. He shoved two fingers into the cup and brought out the cigarette pieces which had become wedged in the cup as he had covered them up. Now they dangled in his trembling fingers, waiting defiantly as he glared at them. After an endless moment or so, he mercilessly ground and twisted the defenseless paper and tobacco while a guttural growl rose from his throat. Bits of tobacco floated down to the rug like brown snowflakes as he tossed the paper remains over his shoulder. He swiped the cup onto the floor and reached over to pull forward another one. He repeated the trick with all three cups and a dozen or more cigarettes, all failing to-what did he want them to do-disappear?
“Beer, dude?” Hector asked absently as he held out one of the cans, now sweating droplets onto the dirty rug. Danny looked at his friend; but Hector felt like he was looking through him at something else. He reached out, though, and took a beer. He bent down, picked up the discarded red cup and popped the tab on his beer. Filling it to the tiny brim he then lifted his cup to the hazy noon light coming through the window and shouted, “To you, old man!” Then he downed the swig of beer in the cup, tossed it back onto the carpet and turned the can up, gulping every last drop in one go. Hector had seen him do this before, but not on a Sunday before he had eaten lunch or had about a half dozen other beers. He was at once impressed and frightened by his friend’s behavior.
“Can I get you another one?” Danny eyed the other beer in Hector’s hand, but the alarmed onlooker felt suddenly protective of his drink. He pulled it closer to his body and turned to go back into Barbie’s kitchen. Continue reading “Smoke and Mirrors/When the Magic Fails”