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.
“No! It’s too early to drink, man. What are you thinking…” he began as he took off his hat and placed it carefully-almost lovingly-onto the table. He stepped back a few paces and flung his cape backward over his shoulder with a flair.
“Now..for my next trick!” Danny’s voice deepened for effect.
He did that good, thought Hector. This guy had hidden talents. Hector pulled the tab on his own beer, now sweating in rivulets, and he wiped his hands on his jeans as he sat on the sofa to enjoy the rest of this freaking freak show. Maybe this was part of Danny’s new comedy act, he mused. And he was giving it a trial run with his friend.
They were friends weren’t they? They had only met about six months ago, through an acting class they took together. Hector had only joined as an excuse to be away from his parents. He still lived at home due to his stinking low paying job and the high cost of living. That is if you could call what they did living. Danny, on the other hand, had real talent. Hector knew it. He was funny as hell. When they all got together for a hang out or party, everyone made sure they invited Danny. He was like a walking punch line. And he seemed so happy. Until a few months ago. Hector knew Danny was going places, long before they finished that joke of a class. It sure didn’t help Danny much. If anything he seemed stifled there, unable to draw on his natural ability to make people laugh. Hector just used the lessons to act out his own misery of a life, a life ruled by an alcoholic father and a withdrawn, overworked Mom. The two young men felt drawn to one another by sheer need for intelligent and real conversation. And someone to laugh with.
Hector looked up. Danny was mumbling again, but this time it was a long, strange incantation that made no sense to his friend. But it was effective. Hector was entranced once more by Danny’s movements, the way he held his arm just so with the wand pinched between his forefinger and thumb. He circled it over the hat methodically as he spoke the magical words, his eyes shut tightly and-wait-was that a tear rolling down his cheek? Hector couldn’t be sure. Danny was standing in the dusty light that filtered through the apartment window. It could be sunlight glistening on his skin. Suddenly Hector thought of that lame movie, the one where the vampire’s skin glistened like diamonds or some shit like that. Now that was a stupid movie. As if…. He blinked. No, that was a real tear streaming down this guy’s face and now he realized Danny’s hand was trembling. What was he trying to do?
Hector was suddenly struck with terror although he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he should stop this. Could this be one of those moments like in that tv show he watched reruns of as a kid? What was that damn show? Outer Twilights? Limit Zone? Beyond Recognition? Something like that. It was weird stuff. What if his friend pulled a real life disappearing act from all this pent up whatever it was. He knew Danny had been through a lot of pain, although he couldn’t actually say he empathized; for Danny’s situation was nothing like his own. He would have a whole different feeling if this had been his own major event. What would he tell the guy’s Mom? She couldn’t take another blow. What if the cops blamed him somehow? He quickly glanced down at his beer, then back at Danny who seemed to be working himself up into a feverish magician’s pitch. No way out, he thought. Gotta’ see this one through. So, he began to hope for his friend’s success. Whatever it was he wanted, let him have it. God, he deserved a break if anyone did. Hector held his breath.
Danny tapped the edge of the hat once. He took in a deep, shaky breath and held it. Breathing out he gasped. Tap Two. He took in another breath, turned around on one heel and opened his eyes before a final tap. Three! He held his hand suspended in air, the wand quivering in anticipation. Hector couldn’t breathe. Suddenly the sunlight became very bright as it struck the hat on the table, casting a long shadow along the wall next to Danny. The inside of the hat seemed to glow in the light now. Danny reached inside with one hand and felt around. A wistful smile played at his lips. Hector was really excited now. He had never seen a real magic show before. Maybe this is just what his friend needed to cheer himself up. A little stroll down memory lane, like a kid again.
Danny stopped groping and looked dead at Hector. His face was not happy, not excited like Hector felt. No, his face was awash in melancholy and pain. He withdrew his hand and the confused onlooker expected it to be empty when it came back out of that hat. But it wasn’t empty. When Danny’s hand emerged, his fingers were gripping the furry ears of what looked like a dead animal. Hector jumped, scrambling onto the back of the sofa and gasped. Danny chuckled a bit at his friend’s apparent misunderstanding. Then he pulled the thing slowly to his chest, trying to smooth its worn, smudged fur before clutching it tightly. Hector looked at his face now lit by the afternoon sun and understood fully what this was. This was a childhood toy. This was not a real rabbit coming out of a real magician’s hat. Of course it wouldn’t be. Magic wasn’t real. Didn’t Danny know this? Hadn’t he just wanted to play a bit, have a beer and a good laugh with Hector?
Danny flung the rabbit across the floor and it slid unceremoniously into the mound of yet unopened cigarette packs. The cartons fell like dominoes that sent individual packs sliding between Hectors feet and under the sofa. He looked at Danny in amazement as the young man began to kick the cartons and stomp the cigarettes. Those expensive cigarettes. Danny could eat Greek food for a week with what those things cost him.
“Danny, wait, man. What are you doin..” he began. But Danny shot him a look that said, “Watch it or you’ll be next.”
For thirty minutes Hector watched as Danny wailed and stomped like a kid, demolishing every hint of a cigarette. When he finally stopped, the room reeked of tobacco and sweat. Bits of brown dust hung in the damp air around them. Paper and cellophane were scattered everywhere. Danny crumpled in a heap next to Hector on the sofa, sizing up the damage he had done.
“I know you must think I’m nuts,” he began, hoping to gauge the effect of his tantrum on their friendship.
“It was pretty fucked up, dude,” Hector replied. He took a swig of the now tepid beer. Still it tasted good. He held out the can to Danny. Danny took it, looked at it briefly, then handed it back.
“No, man. It’s time I stopped. I’ll just end up like my old man, only by a different road. Still goes to the same dead end. Dead.”
Danny’s voice cracked on the ‘dead’. He lowered his hands and sobbed quietly. Hector felt uncomfortably tender towards his friend. What should he do? Hug the guy? Instead he got up and slowly started to clean up the mess. He grabbed a nearby empty box and started stuffing it with the remnants of Danny’s wasted pay. He didn’t want to ask the obvious. Not yet.
Danny sniffed and wiped his nose with the end of his cape. Looking at it, he laughed to himself. Then he sobbed again. How many times had he donned a cape, just like this one, only smaller? How many magic sets had he owned with tricks he did for the old man, hoping to impress him, hoping for an encouraging word or a smile? Oh, he’d smile, but that smile was full of other stuff too. Stuff like, “Well, that’s almost perfect, but…” or..”don’t leave that stuff lying on the table after you’re done.” Or “better luck next try, Bud.” And as many times as he’d begged, the old man never came-not once-to see him really perform. He’d been doing it now for about a year at various Karaoke and comedy clubs around town. The magic had enhanced his comedy routine. Maybe it was his old man’s health that stopped him, or maybe it was Danny’s style of jokes. Often family history played into the mix and that made the old man uncomfortable. He knew the truth but he never embraced it.
“I thought that if I could just destroy them all, then I could take it back. You know…I could bring him back,” Danny started. He sniffed and sighed, letting his head fall back against the wall. “I mean magic is what I do…“
Hector was confused. “What are you talking about? You work at Radio Shack. What’s that got to do with magic? Or cigarettes? Or your old man?”
“Nahhh….I know that. But the weekends, man. I do my magic act on the weekends at Happy’s-and other places-when I can get the gig.”
Things were still confusing to Hector, although dawning was creeping slowly into his brain. “You do comedy at those places right? You…you’re a funny guy. Not a magician.” Suddenly he realized he’d never actually been to one of Danny’s shows. It had just seemed so wrong to go trailing after him like a groupie or something. And Danny hadn’t pushed it either. It’s not like the guy oozed confidence. They just hadn’t talked about it, like guys don’t talk about a lot of things. Wow. Magic. Wow, was all he could think.
“But how could making a few cigarettes disappear bring back your old man? Really.” But Hector had lost Danny again. He heard the sobbing and looked up just as Danny headed into Barbie’s kitchen. He told himself to stop it. He’d never call his friend’s kitchen that name again. Hector got up with his box of cigarette waste and followed. Danny was drawing a glass of water from the tap, something he never did if possible. ‘Never know what’s colonizing in there’, he’d always say. Now he stood there with the glass turned up, downing every drop as he tried not to choke on his own snot. He gulped and started spilling his guts.
“I thought that if I could just make them disappear, then I could make it disappear. No more cancer, no more hospitals, no chemo, no last breath. No quiet sobbing from my Mom when she thinks I can’t hear her. No wondering if he ever really knew how much I needed him. How much I valued his advice, his endless advice-his wonderful, smart, never to be heard again advice…” Danny’s voice trailed off as Hector tried to shove the remains of his magic tricks into the stinking garbage. He didn’t know what to say. But he tried.
“And you pulled the bunny out of the hat to honor those memories? All those times you did magic as a kid? Kind of like a blast from the past thing?” Maybe he had a handle on it after all. But Danny looked at him earnestly stricken.
“No, man, no. I was trying to bring him back. It would be my best trick yet. One he couldn’t shrug off or walk away from. Like he walked away from life. We begged the bastard to quit smoking. Guilt talks, having a stroke some years back. Nothing could get between him and those damn death sticks. And so they took him on one final ride.”
Hector wondered if Danny had watched Harry Pothead just one too many times in his younger years. Believing in tricks is one thing, but bringing back the dead? That was just a bit too Stephen King for him to get. What he did get was his friend’s pain. Not that he cared a fuck about his own old man. How ironic it was that they were both tied to misery and cigarettes even if the circumstances were different. And smack in the middle of it were their fathers. Danny’s father committed suicide with the evil little paper bullets and Hector’s…well…he looked down at the pink, round scars running up and down his dark arms. One for every time he pissed off the old man. He’d made it his life’s purpose not to do that anymore.
Hector’s reverie was broken by the sound of crashing as Danny let the glass slip from his fingers. They both watched as it splintered into dozens of shards, mesmerized by the cacophony of sound as the pieces mingled with water droplets seemed to freeze in mid air before they hit the tiles, sliding into places unknown. Time seemed to stand still as they both saw the red and black squares swimming before their tired eyes. Blood and death. That’s what Hector thought. Now Danny saw it too. No more avoiding it. No changing it or side stepping it. It was there as surely as the tiles beneath their bare feet. No magic could bring back that shattered glass any more than his hopes or regrets would bring back his old man.
Hector was sorry he wished it had been his own father who had died instead of his friend’s. But still he wished it.
The sun was coming through the tiny kitchen window now and hit Danny on his neck, warming his body. His old man loved the sunshine. Hated cold, hated germs, feared growing old but apparently not death. He loved fishing. And cars. And work. He always said he hated it, but Danny knew better. His old man was born working and died the same way. It was all he knew.
“What do you say we clean up this mess and go out for some food?” Hector nodded and they knelt down to pick up the glass.
“I’ll get the broom,” Hector said and stood up to go get it.
“Better make it the vacuum,” replied Danny. “Just a broom won’t do it.” He smiled to himself thinking it would surely be himself who would get that stray piece of glass in his foot-now that his Dad wasn’t around to pick it up.
Hector started to sweep as Danny mopped up water.
“Hey, Hector,” said Danny. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. Where did you get those scars on your arms?”
“Maybe we’ll talk about it over our next beer,” Hector said. That would buy him some time to think up a good story.
Smoke and Mirrors….
Copyright Cheryl K Pennington 2021
I welcome comments. If you have any feelings or thoughts. Have you experienced such a loss? You are not alone. Never alone.