“The Man Behind The Curtain”
Joseph Paul Haines
I once heard someone say that we create our own reality. Even quantum physicists were jumping on board that bandwagon, talking about the nature of thoughts and the impact they had on the physical world. If it’s true, I’ve never seen it.
Or maybe I just don’t want to take credit for the reality I’ve created.
That’s possible. That’s very possible.
You’d think that if that was true though, some events in our life might match our expectations. Me? I was constantly being surprised. No. That’s the wrong word. Disappointed is more accurate.
Only four of us made it, out of eight. Half. Half her children showed up for her funeral. When I heard that she died, I imagined a rainy day. Two score or so mourners stood around her open grave all dressed in black like a coven of dark acolytes gathering round an altar, waiting to sacrifice their troubled memories into the cold earth beside her. Instead, there was a brief ceremony in a small room at the back of the funeral home. Four of her children, the minister, and three old women from her church attended.
I didn’t know the women, so I simply nodded my head when they offered their condolences. I hadn’t seen Mother in about ten years. I lost contact with her and tried to find out where she was, but not too hard. I didn’t want to find her, you see. I just wanted to have looked.
You really don’t want to find your abuser, no matter how much you love them.
My wife, Monica, didn’t want me to come to the funeral. We’d been having problems. They were my fault. When your world is cold and gray, you sometimes do stupid things to try to force the sun out from hiding. In the end, you only make it worse. We needed to spend a lot of time together if we were going to make it work. Instead, I came to the funeral and left her behind. I did it because I hoped that Suzi might be one of those acolytes gathered round Mother’s grave. Had I been able to create my own reality, she would have been.
Suzi created her own reality instead.
In all the years since she left home with only a backpack and a handful of bruises, I’d never tried to find her.
She had the magic, you see, and if I didn’t want to end up in the ground with my mother, I needed to become a magician.
I can only tell you what I saw. It’s up to you to believe it or not.
The last of the snow had melted and only infrequent patches of spring thaw mud left any clue that winter had ever existed. Blades of grass peeked out from barren patches of earth cautiously, like the groundhog, trying not to spook at the sight of their shadows. Honeysuckle from the bush under the dining room window bloomed and filled the house with spring. It was my seventh summer, and school would let out in a month or so. I’d gotten a new bike for Christmas—my first—and it seemed like anything was possible.
It wasn’t a day for tragedy, but it came nonetheless. Suzi sat next to me on the piano bench while I struggled with “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The piano lessons were Suzi’s gift to me when I turned five. She paid for them with the money she earned working behind the counter at a local pizza joint after school in the evenings.
When we moved into the house on West Washington Street we found the old piano sitting in the corner of the dining room. Our landlord’s daughter used to play before she went off to college and instead of paying a mover to ship it to the new house, it was just left there. Mom threatened to make me give up the lessons every so often, saying that the money should be used for the whole family, not so that I could learn some silly skill that I’d never use but every time she brought it up, Suzi stood her ground. She said she’d quit working at all if Mom made me quit. As Suzi did chip in for household expenses, Mom didn’t want to lose what money she did get. Sometimes I’d feel a little guilty about the whole thing. We didn’t have much money since Dad died, and even though I loved my lessons I understood my Mother’s point of view, even at seven.
But Suzi would have none of it. When I brought it up, she’d stoke my hair and say, “That’s very sweet, Davey, but if you don’t go to your lessons, I’ll just be paying Mrs. Parker for nothing and that’d be an even bigger waste.”
So I kept taking lessons. I had to practice while Mom was at work. She didn’t like all the racket. She worked mornings and afternoons at the Congress Street Diner and said after spending all day at work the last thing she wanted to hear was bad piano playing when she came home. So when I heard the front door open, I knew it was time to stop for the day.
Suzi bit her lip and put her hand on my back. “You better go to your room,” she said.
I almost argued, but there was something in her eyes that told me not to. So I took my lesson book with me and went into my bedroom.
I played with my toy garage and Matchbox cars for a while until the shouting started. There was nothing new about the fighting; it happened all the time. Mom and Suzi couldn’t have been more different if they were broccoli and ice cream. They fought almost every day, skipping only the days when they didn’t see each other. Once I listened in, but it made me feel really weird. I started to take Suzi’s side in the argument and I didn’t like the knot it put in my stomach. I loved them both, and I didn’t want to be on anyone’s side.
I just wanted them to stop fighting.
Their voices just kept growing louder so I started singing. I rolled a toy car into the elevator on the garage on cranked the wheel on the side until the elevator stopped at the top floor, the gate popped open, and the car sped down the long, curving ramp to the bottom. I pushed the car back into the elevator for another trip.
The floor shook with a loud thud. Suzi and Mom had stopped yelling.
I shot up and threw open my bedroom door. When I got to the living room, Mom was straddling Suzi, pinning her arms down to the ground.
Suzi screamed. Her cheek sported a bright red mark, just below her left eye. She fought with all her might to push Mom off of her but couldn’t do it. “Stop!” she cried. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
Mom leaned forward and spit on her face. “You’re going to show me some respect, young lady,” she said. Mom didn’t yell, but the tone in her voice scared me even worse than the screaming.
It looked like Suzi was trying to cry, but she couldn’t catch her breath enough to even sob.
I stood there and watched. I couldn’t even speak. I’d seen them fight, but never like this. I wanted to throw up, but instead, I felt warmth fill the front of my pants and slide down my leg.
“No,” Suzi stammered. “This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.”
I glanced down at the floor to the growing puddle of urine at my feet.
And then I got mad.
I grabbed Mom’s arm and pulled with all my might. Mom glanced up, seeing me for the first time, and shoved me away. I stumbled backwards and tripped, slamming my back into the bookcase against the wall. It hurt, but my anger took away most of the pain.
Mom glanced over at me. “Get!” she yelled.
The sight of me sitting against the bookcase snapped Suzi out of it though. “I told you to get off of me, you bitch!” she said through clenched teeth.
Mom let go with her right hand and raised her fist.
And then, Suzi was no longer underneath her. She stood by the front door. Her backpack hung by a strap from her right hand. It was like someone has sucked all the air out of the room. We all stopped breathing—not holding your breath mind you—we just. Stopped. Breathing.
Suzi looked right into my eyes and smiled.
And then, like that, she was gone.
Mom finally managed to get to her feet. She chased Suzi down the street and out of sight.
She never did catch her. Somehow, Suzi had conjured up her magic and gotten free. No matter how bad the world was out there, it couldn’t have been worse for her than here. As far as I know, the two of them never spoke again.
I haven’t touched a piano since.
I spent the day after the funeral helping my sister Kate clear out Mom’s apartment. Kate had dealt with the brunt of dealing with Mom in the last few years. The rest of us kids ignored Mother any way we could, but Mom had moved three blocks away from Kate’s place so she didn’t have much choice. The last time I’d seen Mom, she had been pulling her “I’m so lonely none of you kids ever visit I think I’ll kill myself,” guilt trip. I nodded my head and told her if it was really that bad, I’d buy her the gun myself. Not one of my best moments, but I’d had it at that point.
“Anything here you want?” Kate asked me. “The appliances are going to Jay, but pretty much anything else you can have.
“There’s just a couple of pictures,” I said.
“Nothing else?” she asked. “There’s a bunch of jewelry in the—”
“Just the pictures.”
She looked over at me and nodded her head. “They’re in the scrapbook by the bedroom door.”
The bedroom looked like the storage room for a thrift shop, odds-and-ends that no one would buy filled every available space. The bed had been disassembled and leaned against the far wall, the plastic still intact.
I found the scrapbook right where Kate said it would be. The decoupaged cover hung loose from two removable pins that allowed additional pages to be added and the pages slid around on top of one another like playing cards from a new deck. The pictures attached by a single, folded adhesive strip causing them to bounce around like jack–in–the–box heads atop worn springs. There were pictures of all of us kids: Old band photos, graduation pictures, a newspaper clipping from when we all built a fifteen foot snowman.
But the Superman picture was gone.
I pulled the most recent picture of Suzi I could find—her senior portrait—and walked back into the living room.
Kathy glanced up when I entered the room. “Find it?” she asked.
“It’s gone,” I said. The response was more to myself than to her.
Kathy turned her back. “What’s gone?”
“You know. The picture of me in the Superman shirt jumping off the back stairs.” It was a family joke. We talked about it all the time.
She kept her back to me. “I don’t remember . . .”
“C’mon,” I pleaded. “Suzi bought me that shirt. You know . . .” And then it hit me. “Someone took it.”
She shrugged her shoulders
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s sit down for a minute.” I put my arm around her and walked her to the couch. I pushed the pile of papers to one end and we squeezed onto the other. “Who’s got it?” I asked.
She bit her bottom lip and stared me in the eye.
“It’s very important to me, Kate. That day was special.” I waited for her to say something. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Hey, really,” I said. “Who has it?”
“I can’t tell you,” she said. “I promised.”
I leaned back into the cushion and a broken spring bit into my back. “Who?” I asked.
She took my hand between hers. “Suzi,” she said. “I promised Suzi.”
I jumped up from the couch, tearing my hand from her grasp. “What? When did you talk to Suzi! Where is she? Is she okay? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Stop!” she said, showing me both palms. “I said I promised.”
I shook my head. “Uh-uh. This is one you’re going to break. I haven’t heard from her since the day she left the house. I was going to hire a detective to find her when I left here. If you know where she is—”
“I don’t,” she said. “Not exactly. I sent her the picture two years ago. I tried calling her for the funeral, but she either moved on or changed her number.”
“Damn. I need to see her.”
“Just to get the picture back? Is it really that important?”
“No,” I said, sitting back down next to her. “I need her, Kate. I need to talk to her.”
Kate took a deep breath, pursed her lips, and slowly exhaled through her nose. “She doesn’t want to see you,” she said.
She might as well have hit me. “Why?”
“She didn’t say. Told me it wasn’t really my business.”
Suzi meant everything to me. “You know that picture?” I asked. “Well, it’s more than just a picture.”
She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t laugh,” I said. “But I need to see it. I think I was really flying that day.”
“Just listen, okay?”
“Suzi bought me that shirt. She was always buying me little presents like that but this one was special. We’d been watching the old Superman television show everyday after school. She gave me the shirt, made me put it on, then tied a towel around my neck and took me into the back yard.” I put my arm on the back of the couch and leaned toward Kate. “We played for hours. She pretended to be Lois Lane stuck in another jam and I’d run to her rescue. I remember beating up the bad guys, swinging my fist into empty air, and Suzi’d clap for me and she laughed. She laughed herself silly, Kate.
“And then I climbed up on the porch stairs, hummed a few bars of the theme music and leapt out into the air with my fist outstretched. I did this three or four times, and then Suzi told me to go up higher. So I did. I climbed up higher and higher, my jumps going farther and farther away from the house. I remember it felt like I was really flying. Just when I thought that I’d gone as far as I possibly could with a jump, I’m keep my knees tucked up anyway and I just—swear to God I’m not making this up—I’d just float farther until I got scared and put my feet down. I was landing in the neighbor’s yard, Kate, and I didn’t think anything was strange about that at all.”
Kate raised her eyebrows. “The neighbor’s yard? That was a good fifty feet from the stairs. There’s no way you were—”
“I was. It happened. I’m not making this up. When I got older, I looked at that distance and tried to convince myself it didn’t happen. But no matter how hard I tried, I still remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.” I leaned back in my chair. “I’ve got to see that picture again, Kate. Somehow Suzi made me fly, and I’ve got to figure out if it was real or not.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I could but—”
The ring of my cell phone cut her off. I pulled it from my jacket pocket and checked the caller i.d. It was Monica, my wife.
I flipped open the phone. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she replied. “How’d it go?”
“Weird, like everything else,” I said. “Look, can I call you back? I’m in the middle of something with Kate right now.”
There was along silence on the other end. “Sorry to bother you,” she said.
“No, Monica, it’s just that—”
She hung up. No matter how hard I tried, I always ended up saying the wrong thing. I closed the phone and put it away.
Kate stared at me. She pulled an address book from her purse, tore out a piece of paper and scribbled down what looked like an address. “This is where she was,” she said. “But you’re not going to find any magic there. You should go home to your wife.”
She handed me the slip of paper. I looked down to read the address.
The ink glowed on the paper, bright blue and purple and orange, swirling with a phosphorescence, the letters and numbers bouncing around on the page as if in a celebratory ritual dance. I blinked twice, and it was just black ink after all. The address was in Boston. “I’ll go home when I find Suzi,” I said. “And I think you’re wrong.”
“What?” Kate said.
I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “When I find Suzi, I’ll find magic.”
I’m not sure what I expected to find, but it wasn’t this. The taxi dropped me off in front of the old tenement building and I asked the driver three times if this was the right address before I’d get out of the car. Hunks of plaster were missing from the walls. I tried not to look too closely as I was afraid I’d see bullet holes at their center. Ash gray paint clung to the sides of the three story building, giving it the pallor of the recently dead. I checked the address again, grimaced as I saw it was correct, and pushed through the gated front entrance.
A faded orange and brown couch occupied the center of the lobby, sitting atop a scratched hardwood floor pocked with poorly stained planks of woods to replace those that had broken over time. At the far end, near an elevator with a single wrought–iron gate, sat a single desk that appeared as if it might have come from straight from a third–grade classroom. The black man behind the desk typed on a pitch–black Underwood manual typewriter as big as his chest, his old hands shaking between key–strokes.. The lingering scent of pine cleaner hung in the air, mixed with the musk of unseen mold.
“Hello,” I said, waiting for the old man to look up before continuing. “I’m looking for Susan James.”
“You the police?”
“No, not even close,” I said. “I’m her brother.”
“You don’t say.” The old man smiled, pushed himself up from his seat with a great effort, then leaned across the desk with his hand outstretched. “You Davey?”
“Yeah,” I said, slowly reaching out to take his hand. “How do you know—”
“Ah hell son,” he said. “Suzi talked about you all the time. I’m Bernard.”
“She talked about me all the time?” A chill ran down my spine.
“Yep. All the time, she did. ‘My little man’ this and ‘my little man’ that. A body would’a thought you were her very own.”
I was, or at least might as well have been. “So she lives here then?”
“Used to. Pull up a seat,” Bernard said, sitting back down. “There a folding chair behind the door over there. I hope you’ll forgive me for not getting it myself, but the chemo’s got me feelin’ like whipped mutt. Hell, I bent over right now you could probably find the lash marks on my rear.”
I pulled the chair over beside the desk and sat down. “Sorry to hear that,” I said. “We can talk later if you are too tired.”
Bernard smiled at me. “Nah, I’m okay. It’s a bitch but the doc says we should know if it’s working after just a few more sessions. Says about fifty–fifty, which means he don’t got the slightest clue if it’ll work or not, but the way I figure it, them’s better odds than Vegas so what the hell.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “So very true,” I said.
“So you’re a doctor, huh?” Bernard asked.
That stopped me. “No, where’d you get an idea like that?”
Bernard crossed his arms. “Suzi, of course. We were talking once about the cancer and she said that if ‘my little man Davey were here, he’d be able to fix you.’ Just assumed is all.”
I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure why she would have told you that. I’m sorry if—”
Bernard waved me off. “No, no,” he said. “Just curious is all.”
The sparkle in his eye faded a bit, I think. I wanted to change the subject. “So Suzi moved, huh?”
“Don’t know if I’d say she moved so much as left,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Bernard shrugged. “Just packed up some personal things and was gone. She left her furniture behind, and most of her clothes. She never kept much anyway, but still . . .”
“She didn’t say where she was going?”
He shook his head. “Not to me, she didn’t. Just left a strange note behind.”
Bernard opened the center drawer on his desk, shuffled a few blank forms and produced a folded piece of purple notebook paper. The writing was in silver marker:
Hang tight. I’m off to see the wizard.
I tried to hand back the slip of paper to Bernard, but he just shook his head. “Keep it,” he said, smiling gently.
“Thank you.” I folded up the note and slid it into my jacket pocket. “Is there anyone else she might have told where she was going?” I asked. “A boyfriend maybe?”
“Not unless she suddenly went straight and didn’t tell me about. That would’a been enough to break an old man’s heart.”
I flinched. “Suzi’s gay?”
“No, son,” Bernard said. “She’s a lesbian. Get the term right.”
It clicked. Some of the most heated arguments I’d had with my mother growing up were about this very subject. My mother was obsessed with deriding anything that even hinted at homosexuality. I used to tell her that she’d probably do much better in life if she would start paying attention to who people were instead of who they slept with. But now I understood why she wouldn’t listen. She felt like her daughter had betrayed her. Stupid woman. I wondered if that was why they fought like they did.
“Any girlfriends, then?”
Bernard shook his head. “Not since Nancy left. The two of them were together for years, then one day a couple of years back, they went on a trip and Nancy didn’t come back. Suzi never said anything about it and I cared too much to ask.”
“She was kind’a friendly with the lady who lived next door to her, but not friendly like that if you take my meaning.”
“She still live here?” I asked.
Bernard pulled the paper on which he’d been writing out of the typewriter. He turned the eviction notice to face me. “Not for very much longer, I’m afraid. Suzi used to help her with her rent, but stopped doing that a couple months back. Didn’t have the money anymore. I waited as long as I could but there’s a management company over my head, too.”
“I understand,” I said. “She still in her room?”
Bernard sighed. “Try Damon’s tavern, down the block to the left. Don’t tell her, okay? About the eviction notice?”
“No problem,” I said. “What’s her name?”
“Donna. Donna Price.”
I stood up from the chair. “Thank you, Bernard.”
“Want to repay me?” he asked.
He pushed himself up from the desk. “If you find Suzi, tell her the doctors are saying fifty–fifty.”
“I will,” I promised.
He took my hand, looked me straight in the eye and added, “Down from seventy–thirty.”
Sometimes a place takes on the characteristics of its inhabitants. While the other storefronts on the street had respectable street-level entrances, complete with enticing window displays and overstated signs proclaiming the name of the establishment, to get to Damon’s you had to climb down a set of stairs from street level before you saw the name of the establishment hand–painted in blue letters on the front door. If I hadn’t noticed the smell of stale beer creeping out of the stairwell, I’d have wandered around for hours trying to find it. I tried my best not to identify the stains on the cement stairs as I walked down them. Inside, scuffed dark-stained wood covered every wall. The dingy green hanging lights over each table shone against tabletops covered with too many layers of lacquer. Half the track lights pointing toward the bottles of liquor behind the bar were burnt out and display reminded me of a smile with missing teeth. You could tell it had once been a beautiful place, but now it just reminded me of the pretty girl from high school after two failed marriages and too many years of three pack a day smoking; there wasn’t much left of the girl behind the years.
Like the customers, Damon’s was lost and didn’t really want to be found.
A well-dressed couple occupied one of the booths, drinking what looked like margaritas from rocks glasses while they poured over a Frommer’s guide. Two older men slouched over the bar at one end, while the woman at the other end arranged her collection of beer bottles and shot glasses in neat rows.
I sat down three spots to her right. When she glanced my way, I grinned and said, “Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do.”
She pushed her hair back over her ear and leaned back on the barstool. “Good luck,” she said, slurring the words. She blinked twice; long and slow and gifted me with a half–amused smile.
I ordered a scotch from the bartender and another beer and bump for the lady.
“Uh-oh Charlie, ” she said to the bartender. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a gentleman here.” The bartender stared at me for a moment, scrunching his eyes and shaking his head side-to-side ever so slightly as to hide the gesture. “You got a name?” she asked. “Man buys me a drink and I like to know his name.”
I handed the bartender a twenty and waved off the change. “Name’s Davey.”
She stared at me for a minute—almost an examination—and then looked back down to her empties. “Davey . . .Davey Jones . . .Davey Jones’ locker, gonna drown me in beer and take me down to his locker . . .”
I could tell I didn’t have much time. “And you?” I asked, loud enough to snap her attention back to the conversation.
“Donna,” she said. She rocked in her chair slightly and grabbed the edge of the bar to steady herself.
I had to hurry. “So Donna, I understand you know my sister Suzi.”
I might have well as slapped her. Her eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped. “Oh shit, you’re Davey. Oh God, Oh God . . .”
I leaned in closer. The last thing I needed was for her to make a scene and draw the bartender’s attention. “Yeah, it’s okay,” I whispered. “I just need to know where she went.”
“You have to take me with you,” she said. “Please take me with you. Suzi said I couldn’t come with her. I wasn’t ready. But you can make me ready. You’re Davey.”
“Shh, it’s okay. Take you where?”
“There. The good place. You know.” Tears formed in her eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I can’t take you anywhere. I just need to know where—”
The bartender glanced over from down the bar. I pretended not to notice and said louder than necessary, “You’ve still got half a bottle left,” then gave the bartender an amused shrug. He grabbed an ice bucket and disappeared into the back room. “I can’t take you with me now,” I said. “I have to find Suzi first. But I’ll come back for you if you tell me where she went.”
She stared into my eyes. “Really?”
I hated myself for saying it, but I did. “Really. Just tell me.”
“But I’m ready now,” she said. “I’ll show you.” Donna grabbed her beer bottle and held it between her hands. She closed her eyes for a moment, and just when I thought she might pass out, she opened them again and shoved the bottle at me. “Taste it.”
“No, really, I don’t like—”
I flinched and glanced down the bar, but the bartender hadn’t returned. I took the bottle from her hands and took a sip.
It wasn’t beer.
I don’t know what it was, but there was honey and cardamom and clove in it. I tasted sunflower seed, parsley, licorice. It may have been the best thing I’ve ever had.
“How did you—”
“They wouldn’t let me in,” she said. She hooked her finger on a silver chain around her neck and pulled. A filigree skeleton key on the end of the chain popped out from beneath her blouse. “They said I didn’t have the right key.”
“Who said that?” I asked.
“You know,” she said, getting irritated.
“Right, yeah, well it’s not the right key, but if you give it to me and tell me where Suzi went, I’ll fix it and give it to you when I come back. You don’t just get the right key, you have to earn it.”
She started to hand me the key. “Promise?”
Donna took my hand, slid the key into my palm and closed my fist around it. “Don’t forget me, okay?”
“She went to see the wizard,” she said.
I bit my bottom lip and sighed. “I know that,” I said. “But where?”
She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Where else would someone go to see the wizard?”
“Look, Donna, I need you to tell me.”
She grinned. “Why, the Emerald City of course.”
I caught the next flight to Seattle.
It could have been the altitude. I’ve always felt a little intoxicated when I flew, but it was never quite so pronounced before. I could still taste Donna’s drink on my tongue and a pleasant warmth engulfed every inch of my body.
The flight left around three o’clock and as a result, the plane was only half full. I had an aisle seat near the rear of the plane and there was no one within two rows of me. When the flight attendant passed, I stopped her and ordered a beer.
I’d called Monica from the airport before we left. I didn’t explain it well, but even if I had I doubt she would have understood. Trust is a hard thing to rebuild, and it didn’t help that I was disappearing for days without being able to give her a satisfactory explanation for gallivanting around the county looking for a sister I hadn’t seen in years. From the tone in her voice, I could tell she didn’t believe it was my sister I was looking for.
I couldn’t really say she was wrong. I didn’t know what I was looking for anymore. Did I really believe in magic or was I chasing boyhood fantasies? There were any number of explanations for the things that happened with Suzi when I was young. Even Donna’s drink could have been a trick. It wasn’t exactly like Donna had been a pillar of rationality after all. And here I was, jetting to the other side of the country on her word.
I couldn’t even explain what I was doing to myself. I just knew that I’d tried everything else.
Rational hadn’t worked.
I pulled the key Donna gave me from my pocket. What I had taken for silver was merely plastic. Some of the paint had even chipped off, exposing the dull gray surface below. It was a toy, the kind you’d find in any ninety–nine cent child’s detective kit hanging from a peg in a dollar store.
I slipped it back into my pocket just in time for the flight attendant to drop off my beer.
I waited for her to walk away, raised the glass to my lips and then stopped.
Wrapping both hands around the bottle, I closed my eyes and remembered: Honeysuckle; strains of piano melodies; Suzi sitting next to me on the couch watching old television reruns.
When I opened my eyes, Donna sat in the seat across the aisle. The wrinkles were gone and her skin blossomed with daisies and carnations. Her tussled short hair framed her face like petals on a sunflower and her legs ended in cloven hooves. She raised a platinum gem–encrusted chalice in toast. I lifted my bottle in return and drank.
It was beer.
When I looked back across the aisle, Donna was gone.
And then, from nowhere, the faint taste of honey hit my tongue.
I set the beer down on the fold-down tray, leaned back my seat, and slept.
I’d need my strength when I got to Seattle. I had a wizard to find.
By the time my taxi got to Seattle from the airport, the sun had set and the lights of the skyline were just beginning to glow against the clear evening sky. I’d only seen it before in pictures, but now I understood where the city got its nickname. The buildings glowed a deep, emerald green. I’d been many places in my life, but I don’t think I’d ever been anywhere quite so beautiful.
I checked into a hotel on Capitol Hill at the recommendation of the driver. I told him I was looking for the strangest neighborhood in the city and he drove me straight there without hesitation. He also told me that in addition to any and every type of person imaginable, the neighborhood was also the heart of the gay and lesbian community. It was as good a place to start as any.
I took a quick shower, changed clothes, grabbed Suzi’s graduation picture from my suitcase and started walking down Broadway Avenue. I hadn’t made it a block before I realized two things: I’d never been in a place like this before and my mother would have hated it.
Every telephone pole wore a second skin of fliers espousing everything from raves and concerts to any ideological point-of-view under the stars. The air carried curry and ginger and perfumed incense, pouring out of the little shops huddled together along each block. Men held hands walking down the street without looking over their shoulders. Teens, mostly in black, huddled in the doorways and entrances of eclectic shops and apartment buildings, some just smoking and watching the foot traffic while others actively panhandled. Two girls stood on a street-corner with an old, faded magician’s top-hat held out in front of them while they sang:
If you want us to shut up, spare some change!
If you want us to shut up, spare some change!
If you want us to shut up,
And you think our singing sucks,
If you want us to shut up, spare some change!
One of the girls wore a black leather jacket with a pink tutu, black and white striped stockings and ballerina slippers. Her long black hair was tied off in pigtails from the top of her head. The other had short, spiked blonde hair, wore a black lace evening–dress and combat boots with orange laces. I didn’t even try to count her piercings.
I added a couple ones to their collection, pulled a ten from my wallet and held up Suzi’s picture. “Either of you seen her?” I asked. “Point me in the right direction and the ten is yours.”
Boots looked over at Slippers and said, “The man wants to know if we’ve seen the girl. I think he’s lost.”
“Of course he’s lost,” Slippers replied. “Even though he thinks he knows exactly where he is. Should we help him?”
Boots bit down on her bottom lip. “I don’t know,” she said. “He is offering us money.”
Slippers rolled her eyes. “Must you always think about money?”
“One of us has to,” Boots said. “But I put it to you: Is ten enough to tell him where to find his sister? It’s quite a conundrum, isn’t it?”
I took a step toward them. “How do you know it’s my sister?”
“I want to help him,” Slippers said. “But I’m feeling crowded. Perhaps we should move on?”
“Sorry,” I said, taking a quick step back. “Please, I need to find her.”
Slippers crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “He is kind of cute, for an old guy anyway. And I think it’s sweet that he’s looking for his sister.”
“You don’t think she owes him money or something, do you?” Boots asked.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “I swear.” I pulled another twenty from my wallet and added it to the ten in my hand.
“Now he’s offering us thirty pieces of silver,” Slippers said. “That can’t be a good sign.”
Boots sighed. “You really need to stop reading into things so much,” she said. “I wonder if he knows how to foxtrot?”
“He could learn. But he’ll need his energy. He should probably get a coffee.”
I glanced down the street. The familiar green and white sign of a Starbucks hung from an awning not a block away. I pointed at the sign. “There?” I asked.
Boots chuckled. “Oh he really isn’t in Kansas anymore, is he?” she asked.
“Give him a break,” Slippers said. “He doesn’t know that only tourists go there. He’s probably never even heard of Vivace’s.”
“I think he should pay us now,” Boots said.
I dropped the two bills into their hat and they made a clink, like coins falling on coins.
The two of them turned their back and started to walk away. “I hope he finds her,” Slippers said.
“I hope he knows what’s he’s looking for,” Boots replied.
I found Vivace’s a block further down. Two white lattice-topped steel tables sat in front of the coffee stand on the sidewalk underneath aqua umbrellas. The front of the shop had no door; the two male baristas stood behind a counter that opened right up to street access. Hot steam puffed out from the espresso machine like dragon’s breath, billowing into the crowd of patrons waiting for service. To the right of the counter, separated by a common wall from the shop, a cement hallway reached back into the depths of the building. I peeked down the hallway as I approached and saw lit candles halfway down the passage, sitting on the floor next to the right wall beneath a painted mosaic of an elephant standing on one back leg. The candlelight flickered across the surface of the mosaic, making it look as if the elephant were swaying back in forth in dance.
I waited in line, pulling my jacket tight against the damp evening chill. No one else seemed to mind the temperature, wearing only light jackets at best, short skirts and sleeveless shirts at the worst. I couldn’t have been more obviously a tourist had I tried.
Yet no one paid attention to me. People came and went all around me while I waited in line, but other than avoiding my space, they didn’t so much as glance in my direction. It was as if I wasn’t even there. I was a temporary passing—something to be avoided—like a nondescript car driving through the intersection in front of them; briefly encountered, certainly not remembered.
I reached the front of the line and unfolded Suzi’s picture. “Just a regular coffee,” I said to the barista. His spindly fingers danced over the cash register’s keys as he repeated my order to his companion. “Have you seen this girl?” I asked.
He looked up briefly—just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of his bright gold contact lenses—and said, “No, sorry. I see a lot of people here. I barely remember the regulars.”
“Damn,” I said with a sigh. “Are you sure? A couple of girls down the street said I might find her here.”
He didn’t even look back up. “Sorry,” he said again.
I felt myself being forced to the side by someone behind me, who ordered a soy mocha over my shoulder. I stepped directly in front of the interloper, giving no ground. I felt stupid asking the question, but I didn’t have any other ideas. “One of the girls asked if I knew how to foxtrot. Does that mean anything to you?”
The barista stopped. He looked up at me and said, “Well, if you don’t, you can learn right over there.” He pointed to a spot on the sidewalk just beyond the tables.
“Where?” I asked.
“Near the street,” he said. He handed me my coffee and I stepped out of line, pausing only long enough to add cream to my cup and securing it with a plastic lid. I walked over to the sidewalk where he had pointed. People passed by me in both directions. I scanned the shops on both side of the street looking for a dance studio or a street artist or something that would make sense and came up empty. I dipped my head to take a sip of my coffee when I saw it:
Inlaid in the cobblestones were brass footprints. Numbers were set into each step, with arrows pointing to other steps in succession. Near step number one was a square plate.
Foxtrot Lesson 29.
I smiled, set my coffee down on the sidewalk, and took the first step. Then the second.
Someone brushed by me, almost causing me to loose my balance, but I spun and stepped backwards right onto plate number three. Then four. Invisible soft hands slipped into mine and we turned left with a glide to number five. Strains of “You Make me Feel so Young,” filled my ears. Six. We spun, widdershins. I closed my eyes and breathed in soft perfume. The music grew louder, drowning out the sounds of traffic. Seven, eight, nine. I couldn’t help it: I threw my head back and laughed. It was as if years of hiding to the side, afraid to stick my head out, never were, rushing out of existence with every laugh and turn and spin.
In that moment, life was earnest, not dutiful. It was everything my life to this point wasn’t.
Too soon, the song ended. I opened my eyes.
I was no longer invisible. The customers sitting at the tables stood, applauding, shaking their heads while wide grins stretched their faces.
What could I do? I took a bow.
When I raised my head, I was alone. The street was empty. I turned, looking all around me. Not a single car drove down the street. Chairs around the table sat in their previous pulled–out positions, but with no one in them. Beside the counter, down the hallway, I heard Frank Sinatra still singing, but softer, as if from the single–speaker of a small radio.
I followed it. The Elephant on the mosaic waved his arm, beckoning me closer. When I reached the front of the mosaic, the outline of a door appeared in the wall, along with a keyhole right where a knob should have been. I took Donna’s key from my pocket and slipped it in the lock.
The door opened, and I stepped across the threshold.
I stood in my hotel room and closed the latches on my suitcase. Check-out was at noon and the clock on the nightstand read eleven-thirty. It was time to go home. The foolishness of my dream the night before was just that; the deluded hopes of a man looking for something he could never find. Suzi was gone, and no amount of imagined tastes of honey or flights from the back stairs or evening dances with invisible partners could change that. My troubles were of my own making, and there was no savior out there to help me back on my path. There was no magic.
I picked up the suitcase and turned to go.
Beside the phone, a folded travel brochure sat on the nightstand. On the front was a picture on an elephant, balancing on one foot. The caption read, “Don’t Forget!” I set down my luggage and opened the brochure. Inside it read, “Visit the Seattle Zoo!”
There was no good reason for it, but I picked up the phone and called the front desk. “I’ll be staying another day,” I said.
The pathways between exhibits at the Seattle Zoo are made of yellow brick. Any other day, I might have been amused. But I’d watched too many happy couples swinging their children between outstretched hands today. Too many images of what I didn’t have taunted me. I’d left my cell phone behind in the room. I didn’t want to talk to Monica today. I didn’t want to hear the unspoken accusations. Hurting her was the last thing I’d wanted to do, but I didn’t know if it was possible to fix our relationship anymore. Every time I tried, I just seemed to make matters worse. I’d start off great, and then say something stupid, almost as if I had intentionally tried to sabotage my own efforts. All it ended up doing was hurting Monica even more. I’d hold out the possibility of happiness, then snatch it away again for no good reason.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.
I wandered the exhibits for over two hours, seemingly walking in circles. Just when I thought I’d seen everything there was to see, I spotted a glass enclosure directly ahead in my path. It sat quite a distance from the other exhibits, and as I approached I read the plaque on the front of the structure.
“Butterfly Exhibit,” it read. And then in small letters, at the bottom, “Emerald City Structures.”
A handful of small trees and bushes grew within the enclosure. Everywhere you looked, butterflies of every color bounced in the air or rested on branches. A single bench rested on the grass in the center of the structure, and on it, Suzi sat waiting for me. We were the only people there.
From an initial glance, it appeared that the years had been kind to her but as I approached, I looked into her eyes and saw otherwise.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hey. You’re a hard person to find.” I sat down on the bench next to her. “This is a beautiful place,” I said.
She nodded and looked around. “This is the last place I saw Nancy,” she said. “I thought she might be here, but she’s not.”
“Is she the wizard you came looking for?” I asked.
She snapped her head around to look at me. She squinted her eyes. “No,” she said. “You are.”
“I thought you could help me, but I was wrong,” she said. “A friend of mine from the Elephant Bar told me about last night.”
It all came rushing back: I stepped over the threshold of the doorway and into another world. Inside, ogres conversed with manticores. A single dragon lounged around the outside of the cavernous room, its tail wrapping along the perimeter to rest not far from its head. Fairies danced on currents of air and at the doorway, a tall man with pointed ears stood guard. He put his hand on my chest, shook his head and said, “You’re not ready,” pushing me outside. I fell, but instead of landing on the cement floor, I started from my hotel bed. I was certain it’d been a dream.
“What made you think I was a wizard?” I asked.
“You saved me,” Suzi said. “Mom had me pinned to the floor and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t. You freed me from her.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Suzi,” I said. “I didn’t do anything of the sort. You did it. I came looking for you because you had the magic. You’re the wizard. I convinced myself that it wasn’t true over the years, but I had to find you and find out for certain.”
She shook her head. “They pushed me out, too,” she said. “I thought you could help me pass over. I can’t help Bernard and Donna from this side. I didn’t want to ask you, but I didn’t have a choice.”
“Why here?” I asked.
“This is where Nancy went over. I wanted to go with her, but they wouldn’t let me. I’m so tired of living half-in and half-out of that world.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
Suzi nodded. “I know,” she said. “I hated you for so many years I didn’t even want to ask.”
Sharp pain hit my chest. I felt my eyes begin to tear. “You hated me? Why?”
“You had the magic. I kept waiting for you to come save me. You saved me from Mom, so I thought you’d save me from everything else. When you didn’t . . . well, I thought you just didn’t care.”
I shook my head. Now I understood. Every relationship I’d ever been in I’d ruined. Every woman I’d ever loved I hurt. Now I knew why. “I hated you too,” I said.
“You did? But I loved you and took care of you. I protected you,” she said.
“And then you left me,” I said. “Behind. With her. You could make me fly and get away from Mom, but you left me there.” I thought about Monica, waiting for me at home. “I didn’t want to get hurt like that again, Suzi.”
A single butterfly landed on her arm.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t take you with me.”
“I know. I couldn’t save you.”
She reached in her handbag, pulled out a picture and handed it to me. It was the Superman picture. In it, I was forever suspended in mid-air above the back stairs, my cape flapping in the wind behind me. “You did fly,” she said. “But I had nothing to do with it.”
Another butterfly landed on her shoulder, emerald wings flittering. Suzi glanced down at the butterfly on her arm and smiled. “It’s happening,” she said.
And then, hundreds of butterflies filled the air, landing on every inch of Suzi’s body. I saw her smile one last time before they covered her face, a chromatic silk skin replacing her own. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I always loved you, even when I hated you.”
“Come with me. I don’t want to leave you behind again.”
I shook my head and smiled. “You’re not.”
All at once, the butterflies scattered in every direction, leaving the bench where Suzi had sat empty beside me. I stood up from the bench and stared at the picture. “There’s no place like home,” I said.
I needed to get home to Monica. Maybe I could make things right with her, maybe I couldn’t, but at least now I knew that it wasn’t impossible.
Nothing was impossible.
I’d been to Oz, and it was time for the man behind the curtain to go home.
Ding dong. The wicked witch is dead.
Joseph Paul Haines lives in the midwest somewhere along the banks of Lake Erie. Between drumming—his night job—and working in the real estate industry—his day job—he still finds time to write. His stories have previously appeared in Interzone, Aeon Magazine, and a bunch of other places. You can find him online at journalscape.com/jphaines
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish