The asphalt on the street radiated heat, causing beads of sweat to collect on the Magician’s forehead. It was a summer day in central Tokyo. The sweat dripped onto the flags he was pulling out from his mouth. He stood behind a portable table set up on the street. He had been there for an hour, entertaining audiences that came and went, as he kept pulling out flags one after the other.
Once, he had wanted to be an athleter. He remembered the summer of the first Tokyo Olympics a generation before. It was similarly sweltering. Each afternoon the Magician would run to his neighbor’s house, which was the only home with a television, with a small gang of boys. They kicked off their sandals as they hurried to the television, already surrounded by men cheering and women gossiping. He huddled up to sneak through the adults to the front. With knees tightly pressed together, the Magician looked up into the screen where the female volleyball team ran and hit, ran and hit. Though the court must have been boiling with heat, the rough pixels of the television screen did not betray the sweat and the grind of the players, only their steady receives and attacks. Yes, the Magician remembered now: he wanted to be a volleyball player, not a baseball player. The lean female figures in the screen attracted him in ways that were still unknown to him, the stretch of their arms and the bow of their bodies reaching for a spike magical and dazzling. In that Olympic games the Japanese female volleyball team smashed opponents, winning the finals against the Soviet Union after a grueling game as the nation cheered in front of their respective communal TVs. The team was nicknamed the “Witches of the Orient.”
But did I really want to be a volleyball player? The Magician thought again, as he slipped his hands beneath the table to feel the pigeon that he would soon produce and then make disappear. Sure enough, she was there, safely blinded in a black box that confined her beneath the table. Volleyball, he remembered, became a girl’s sport after the gold medal of the Olympics. TV series and comic series featuring starry-eyed girls playing volleyball attracted girls nationwide, creating a huge surge in the popularity of the sport. But the Magician was never a part of it. Throughout elementary school he remained silent about his attraction, secretly dreaming of volleyball but never actually playing it. Baseball was the sport that he played in the open fields after school.
Baseball was a fine sport, but the Magician never wanted to be a professional like all the other boys. Once in high school, he quit his team and spent most of his time at the library. Sitting alone in the rustic room where dust flew with each touch of a book, the Magician read Dostoyevsky and Stendhal; Mishima and Soseki; he drank them down. He lost his childhood tan from playing baseball, but sunburnt the left side of his face by sitting in the same seat in the library every day. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to be in the future; his only vision was to have a solitary and literary life. So when the time came to go to college, he went where he got in. Magic, the Magician thought as he pulled out the pigeon from the box through his hat on the desk, was nowhere in his life back then. The closest he got to magic was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
But he did like to watch the college volleyball team. It was far from the Olympic team that had captured the eyes of the nation; many of the girls were round, healthy, and happy, and none of the stoic sportsmanship that ruled the court that summer was present in the old, sweaty college gym. Laughter bounced on the walls whenever the girls took a break. The Magician, now a tall, lean young man, liked to read on the stands while the team practiced. The toss of the ball, the yells of the girls, their sweats that the television screen never captured, all amidst the philosophical musings of Virginia Woolf, consumed him. Inhaling the stale air of the gym, he felt that he was in two worlds at once: the carnal reality of his childhood dreams and the spiritual realm of the philosophers. Skipping classes, he sat quietly in the back of the empty stands, reading away as the hours ticked by. A slight change occurred to this daily routine when the Magician’s eyes caught a particular girl in the court. She was the tallest and visibly more serious about the game than the other girls who were there for fun. The arch of her body was like a long, lean bow, and the ball her arm hit pierced the empty spot of the opponent’s court with a straight trajectory. The Magician fell in love. The balance between the two worlds shifted; his gaze would lift off the pages and fall on her. They dated for a while, but the girl dumped him after a few months for not paying enough attention to their relationship. He stopped going to the gym.
The Magician fell into deep despair. In his small apartment, he lay down on his futon and wondered about life. He had never known despair like this; none of the masterpieces of literature had taught him how the wounds of love hurt. After two weeks of solitude, he woke up. He decided that books never taught him anything: only hard-earned experience can. He even felt grateful for his girlfriend, for teaching him this truth.The Magician started to work part time jobs. On Mondays he tended bar; on Tuesdays he built houses in the rapidly expanding suburbs; on Fridays he organized rows of fish at the Tsukiji market. The rest of the week he filled in with one-time gigs.
Out of the myriad jobs that he tried, he most liked being a magician’s assistant. The job came to him unexpectedly, one day, on his way home from another one of his part-time jobs. He spotted a handwritten ad on a utility pole that said, “Looking for assistant to magician. Will teach how to do basic magic.”
When he rang up the number on the ad the next day, an old man answered. The man spoke softly and modestly, and the Magician, who had expected something like a pigeon popping up through the phone, checked the number on the note on the desk. But he was talking to the right man. Hearing that the Magician was interested in the assistant position, the old man’s voice brightened: “You are the first one to call!” he said, “I had almost lost hope. I am making an overseas trip to India next month, and I urgently need someone to work in my place while I am gone.”
The training process was much more arduous than the Magician had anticipated. The Master, who preferred to be called Master Ismail, taught him how to handle cards and control the audience’s attention, step by step, in his old apartment that was cluttered with elephant statues. He was a good teacher; he never got irritated by his pupil’s mistakes, and went over the same tricks again and again until the student perfected it. Except for his weird fascination with India, the Magician liked his master very much and trusted in his skills. Sometimes he was tempted to point out that Ismail is an Islamic name rather than Hindu; but out of love and respect, he never did, and sent his master out having surely mastered the basic magic tricks that he were to perform while the master spent six months traveling “forgotten magical tribes” in India.
Now the Magician had truly become a magician. He worked at the birthday parties of wealthy children, did tricks in the toy sections of department stores, and sometimes performed on the streets to advertise his work. Most of his audiences were children under the age of twelve; they beheld the cards that flew and the pigeons that disappeared in pure wonder, giggling and screaming with joy. As the Magician became more accustomed to his work, he realized he had graduated college. He only noticed this when, receiving an offer to perform at a wedd
ing, he saw that the date conflicted with his graduation ceremony. He didn’t mind too much; the only person from college that he ever really talked to was his volleyball-playing ex-girlfriend, and he did not care to meet her again. He accepted the offer and added a rabbit vanishing trick during the wedding ceremony as a personal celebration of his graduation.
Months came and passed. Master Ismail never came back; the Magician assumed that he had extended his stay in India, possibly having found his retirement destination in one of the magical tribes. The Magician was not in a hurry to hand back his position anyways. He had become a full-time magician upon graduation, expanding his network of customers. He met many people during his work; he congratulated arrivals of newborns, celebrated the coming-of-age of twenty year olds, and pulled out from his hat smiling photos of the deceased. One of the most surprising encounters during this time was with his ex-girlfriend from college. The Magician was asked to perform at a birthday party of a five-year-old boy for a hefty pay, and when he arrived at the doorsteps of a large western style house, she opened the door. The Magician recognized her right away: the quiet smile, the lean build of her body, the seriousness at the edge of her mouth. She did not recognize him, however, and invited him in with welcoming ease. The husband was not present for his son’s birthday party, but had made sure that the house was handsomely decorated by professional party planners, an uncommon practice. The air of restrained passion that she carried with her in college was gone, her eyes now tinged with fatigue. But the Magician was a professional; he was never to speak about personal matters with his client. As he steadily performed his routine, the Magician’s ex-girlfriend watched his tricks with a curious smile, paying more attention to her son’s reactions rather than the show. After he received the pay and left the house, the Magician never saw her again. Such was the way it was with most customers. People came and went, leaving behind traces of memories, a hint of laughter, a sparkle of the eye, but never a permanent connection – except for one serious eyed girl, who eagerly asked to be the Magician’s assistant one summer day, soon after the encounter with his ex-girlfriend. She later became his wife.
Years came and passed. Not much changed for the Magician; he performed his tricks in professional solemnity, visited birthday parties, and celebrated marriages. The venue today was on the street. As the drumroll from the CD speaker rolled, the pigeon vanished under the desk, successfully concluding his finale. The drumroll finished with a dramatic thud. The children, after a beat, clapped in wide-eyed wonder.
Moeko Noda is a senior in Swarthmore College, where she studies Comparative Literature. She is from Tokyo, Japan.
Photo credit: Top hat, magic trick, tap and money purse on black background. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 May 2016.
http://quest.eb.com/search/115_3876433/1/115_3876433/cite. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.