A Double Act

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The man stood in the middle of the sunken living room, and I stood on its shore. Upper East Side, mid 1950s, a stranger’s apartment as big as any house I’d ever been in, with pale silk wallpaper and furniture like a hotel lobby, beams in the ceiling, an iron chandelier of the kind you might swing upon in order to save a damsel. A stranger’s friends all around. It turned out that rich people’s parties smelled of whiskey sure as poor people’s. I’d been hired as decoration—I was a decorative young lady in my day—and I wondered who else was as well. The ursine woman with the short black bob that revealed the rolls of fat at the back of her neck? The two matching middle-aged men who somehow looked like infants despite their gray suits, red neckties, black mustaches? I tried to look at shoes, which revealed a lot, I knew, American or foreign, rich or poor, rich long ago or rich now.

No story that you tell about yourself can ever be entirely true. Digby and I were not married then; we’re not married now. Nor famous then, or now. In between we were both. Oh, my dear audience, to whom this is addressed: for the moment he was just a strange man in a sunken living room whose shoes I couldn’t see because his overlong pants hid them to the toe. He wore his blond hair slicked back to show off his trefoil hairline; his light blue gabardine jacket, nipped in at the waist, gave him the look of a kindly, glamorous, criminal pharmacist. The blue of it, I understood without looking, matched the check of my skirt, a stiff borrowed pinafore that smelled, around the waistband, of other people, some of them possibly dead. My shoes were borrowed, too. Only my underpants were my own, blue rayon; they could have used a wash. I’d do that tonight in the bathroom sink. I was slovenly, everyone said so, but I didn’t think it was my fault. Nobody had ever taught me not to be. I looked at other people, other girls, and thought that it would be impossible to be so clean, so attended to: no actual person could be capable of it, even the clean, attended-to girl who stood in front of me. I regarded skyscrapers the same way. Clearly, they were impossible to construct, even though they’d been constructed.

Secretly, I loved the stink and tang of myself. I might have been the most careless person who ever lived. It gave me pleasure not to brush my teeth or wash my face. To put on the same dirty underwear that smelled only of me. I was seventeen years old and believed myself magnificent. The carelessness was part of it: I looked like I was coming from someplace else where I’d had a good time. My hair messy. Everything at a tilt. A kind of shoplifting thrill, though I was never a thief, only a liar—and even then I think it was honest Digby who made me into one.

In the sunken living room, the man I did not yet know was Digby held a pack of cigarettes vertically, like a deck of cards he intended to palm. We hadn’t yet met, and I thought I was the only one who noticed him. Then a woman on the chesterfield sofa asked a question, and he turned to her and smiled and nodded. He snapped out his arms. When he did this, he got larger. The other people on the sofa turned to look.

Insubstantial things in that apartment had built up and thickened so you had to fight to understand: the smoke, the gabble, the sweet clobbering smell of whiskey, the skirts full of crinolines, all the human misdirection. Was the world in black and white when you were little, Grandma? No, but all the smoking sometimes made it seem that way. I concentrated on the man. Everything irised out so I could see him.

“Shall we?” he said to the woman who’d asked the question. She had the sort of beauty that couldn’t overcome her unflattering hairdo, a stiff bob the dull brown of a lunch sack. Her cherry lipstick had a sheen to it; her pale yellow-green dress did, too; all of it cost money. Since coming to New York I saw things mostly in terms of money.

“I’m a skeptic,” said the woman.

“Well,” said the man, “I will let you be the judge.”

He stammered on the “w”s so lightly I wondered if I’d imagined it. His stammer was one of those sounds, like birdcall, that cannot be rendered by the alphabet, no matter how humans try.

He lifted his head to the rest of the room and saw me.

My heart stayed in place, and my stomach, but I felt the bones of my body light up like neon, flickeringly, insistent. Clavicle first, sternum, my ribs in a waterfall and at the same time my head: skull, mandible, lacrimal, stapes. His eyes were dark brown, like the buttons on the buttoned sofa. Love at first sight? Yes, but it always was for me. Nobody had ever returned it before, is what I thought when he looked at me, not my mother or my long-dead father, nor any of my ten brothers and sisters. But this man did, he looked at me and read my mind and transmitted his thought back. Yes, Goldie. Then he turned his attention to the ursine woman, who was standing next to me.

Was it love, or was it hunger, I wondered later. In those days I had a lot of emotions that turned out to be hunger.

“Now then,” the man said. “I need something for a blindfold, and something to write with and on.”

One of the men on the sofa offered up his cloth napkin. A piece of paper and a pen appeared at the back of the room and was handed from person to person till it arrived at the trio and the man in the blue jacket took it. “Who’ll volunteer,” he said to the ursine woman, “to inspect my blindfold.”

“I’ll do it!” she said in a voice of aggressive generosity. The hostess, must be. She walked down the three steps into the living room, using her martini glass like a tightrope walker’s parasol.

“Thank you, Sydney,” the man said, and then he offered his hand to the skeptical woman, who took it and stood up. “Have we met before?”

“No,” she said.

“No, we have not,” said the man, and I wondered whether he was telling the truth. Later I found out that mostly Digby didn’t lie—he just refused to explain—though he didn’t mind other people lying on his behalf, including radio announcers, and me. “Tell me your name.”

“Vita.”

The names of people!

“Vita,” said the man, with that little stammer as his mouth approached the V. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Now, Sydney. We’ve met before. Here. Give this blindfold a good going over.”

Sydney unfurled the napkin to the iron chandelier. With comic timing she draped it across her face, then snatched it off.

“Solid napkin,” she said, returning it to the man.

“Thank you.”

The skeptic put her hand out. “I’d like a look.”

“Would you?” said the man.

He gave her a look of great fondness. All around them the room had gone silent and still. The people on the sofa had arranged themselves in their line like school children, leaned forward to put their drinks on the glass coffee table in front of them, set their hands in their laps, and watched. The people by the window turned. Cigarettes had been snuffed and glasses left empty. Even the musicians who’d been performing in the dining room had stopped and now stood in the doorway, the saxophonist holding his saxophone, the drummer his sticks. The man himself had been transforming from the moment he’d snapped his arms out. Now he was a completely different person than he’d been when I’d first noticed him. The knobs of his wrists were visible from across the room. His face, which had seemed to me ordinary, now looked so sympathetic, so handsome, so rakish and kind at the same time—you would have done anything he asked.

“Well then,” he told the woman. “You must look.”

The woman took the napkin as though it were a breakable object. She held it up to the light, to her face. She nodded and gave it back.

“Vita,” said the man. “I want you to feel very comfortable with all of this. So why don’t you tie the blindfold.” He folded the napkin for her in careful thirds.

Vita went around the back of the man and tied it. Everything had the feeling of a wedding. The whole world would shift by the end of the trick.

“Tighter,” he said lovingly. “Tight as you can.”

When she was done a little point hung down over his nose. “Now stand behind me. Take the paper. Make sure there’s no way I can see. Back up.”

“I’ve backed up.”

“Write down the name of a city.”

“American?”

“Any,” he said munificently. “Anywhere on the globe.”

She brought her knee up for a desk and wrote something down and frowned. Then she said, “Done.”

“Happy with it?”

She nodded.

“Hello, Vita?”

“Oh!” she said. “Yes.”

“You can change it.”

She looked at the piece of paper. “No, that’s fine.”

“All right. Show it to everyone. Don’t let me see.”

I wanted to take Vita’s place. Or, better, remove the man’s blindfold so I could see his eyes again, though now I could appreciate his mouth, his lips which were not pink but ruddy. I had come to the party with my older sister, Etta, and our dance teacher, Natalia St. John, with whom we lived in a railroad flat with four beds and five other dancers. We all had to share. I slept with Natalia St. John, Etta with a damp-eyed girl named Imogene. Somewhere in this grand apartment, Natalia stood magnificent in her old-fashioned Egyptian costume, smoking a cheroot, trying to drum up some money. Somewhere else, Etta was complaining, and Imogene was drunk.

The woman showed us the piece of paper. REKYAVIK.

“Vita,” said the man. He put his hand in the air as though trying to feel the radiating waves off her dress, which was the color of Vaseline glass. “Are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“You’ve chosen your city freely? From your own mind?”

“Yes,” she said, but dubiously.

“Let’s make this easier for me,” said the man. “Everyone in the room: clear your mind. Think of the city name that Vita has written. Just the name. Vita, stay behind me. Don’t let me see. If I can’t read Vita’s mind, I’ll read somebody more credulous.”

He tilted his head to the ceiling, which made everyone else do the same thing, as though to drain their minds like sinks, leaving only the misspelled REKYAVIK. Did they correct it in their heads? Would that make a difference? He hadn’t asked us to close our eyes though nearly everyone did, to join him in the dark. Not me. I wanted to see the trick. I watched his hands move through the air. Plucking out letters. Feeling for a J that never arrived.

No, I thought, as I had all my life. I won’t. I wouldn’t be part of a crowd whose unanimous mind the man read. I wanted him to read my mind. Only mine. Indianapolis, I thought. That’s where I’d come from three months before. Indianapolis, Indianapolis.

The man’s feet stayed on the ground, legs straight, but all other parts of him moved. His hands were out, for balance, or to waft the word closer to his ears. Mildly he said, “Somebody’s playing a trick. I must ask you to think only of the city written on Vita’s piece of paper.”

Indianapolis. Indianapolis.

Then Indianapolis, in the form of my oldest sister Etta, came up behind me and whispered, “We’re going.” We were dressed alike but we shouldn’t have been. We could never hope to resemble each other. Etta, firstborn, was puny and sweet, like a doll from another time which unsettles modern children but is pronounced beautiful by the grown-ups. “Goldie,” she said.

“Ssh,” said the man. “This only works in silence.”

Indianapolis.

Etta shook my elbow. “Goldie,” she said, with authority, because she was Natalia St. John’s assistant.

The man sighed. He squared his shoulders. Then, “It’s a cold place. It’s far away. North of here.”

“Yes—”

“Sh, Vita,” he said. “There’s water. It’s on a harbor. Harbor to—the northwest. Yes. Yes, I think I’ve got it. A wonderful city, so I hear, though I have never been myself. Reykjavik—” His stammer made him pull a face, but he got the word out. “Vita, is that right?”

“Yes,” said Vita, in a terrified, undeserving voice.

The expression on her face was one of stunned joy, the sort that blots out the rest of your personality, that cannot last. Ecstasy. I knew it had to be a trick. It wasn’t her mind that the man had read, but some sign, or a mirror held at the back of the room. Somebody in cahoots. I wanted to feel like Vita, to have my mind read. I wanted to read Vita’s mind.

“You’ll get locked out again,” Etta said to me.

“So I’ll get locked out,” I told her.

“I’m in charge of you.”

“You know you’re not.”

“Suit yourself,” said Etta.

The mindreader was now mopping his brow with his blindfold. His smile was a strange private thing in the crowded living room, aimed inward.

“Read my mind,” called one of the identically dressed men.

“No,” said Sydney, the hostess. “That’s enough of the occult. It’s tiring, isn’t it, darling,” she said to the man. “It’s enough.”

All at once the party assumed its former dimensions, its drunkenness and clamor. One of the men who’d been sitting on the sofa walked behind me, ran his hand across my bottom, and murmured, “Pretty.” I shook him off, appalled, flattered. For a moment I couldn’t find the mindreader in the crowd. I stepped down into the living room. He’d pulled a cigarette from the pack, was lighting it as I went to him.

“Good, it’s you,” he said to me, and smiled, not as dazzlingly as he’d smiled at Vita, but with a lower center of gravity.

I was alarmed to be so close, to realize that he was shorter than me, or perhaps my height, and much older, one long off-center wrinkle between his eyes, as though his right eyebrow did the bulk of the work of his own skepticism, which turned out to be the case.

I knew that to trust him meant that I would find him wonderful; finding him wonderful meant he could trick and wound me. Are you the actual thing you appear to be? I’d trailed after people all my life: Etta, my older brothers, even some of the little ones, my father, Natalia St. John, who in Indianapolis had seemed like a goddess and in New York had been revealed to be a human woman. Some mornings I woke up with Natalia St. John’s bottom pressed against me, a muscular animal looking for comfort. If I didn’t go home tonight I might not be allowed to go home ever. But that could be ok.


You can read the rest of Elizabeth McCracken’s “A Double Act” in our Summer 2021 issue. You can purchase the issue here.