Cup and Balls
It was fall and my brother Aaron was in an Elvis phase. Every Saturday he would wake our sister Jeanie up and she would kneel in front of him on the bed and slick his hair back with Vaseline and paint sideburns down to his chin with magic marker. The three of us armed ourselves with boxes of trash bags and climbed the pull-down staircase to the attic. Mom was a packrat and, in an effort to rid herself of a past that had anything to do with my father, told us to clean the attic or there’d be no Christmas. Every Saturday for months, we stuffed everything from the past—annuals, grocery receipts, magazines, food wrappers—into bags and tossed them out the window into the back yard. When we got to the last garbage bag of the box, Aaron would curl his lip and wave his hands and shake his hips. He would uncurl the last bag, whip it open, and drop the empty box into the bag.
“Abracadabra,” he said.
There is still something beautiful to this: taking the last garbage bag from the box and then immediately dropping the box into the bag. It’s beauty without magic and without philosophy. It’s the beauty of resurrection.
We slept with the windows open in the fall. I woke up one night with the sheets tied around my shoulders like a straightjacket. My hands were bound with zip ties and tape was flattened across my mouth. In the dark of the early morning I could make out Aaron’s empty bed. His marker-stained covers were spread across the floor.
A squirrel sat on the window ledge, spinning an acorn in its paws and staring at the wall. There was something false about him, like he had just rolled up his sleeves and palmed a card but hard as I tried I couldn’t find what it was hiding. The tiny muscles in his jaw pulsed under his fur as his claws made tiny clicking sounds on the acorn shell.
We found Aaron’s pillow outside under the oak tree. The police picked it up with metal tongs and dropped it into a large plastic garbage bag. Underneath my breath—a habit I had for too long—my mouth, still sticky with glue, kept making the same shapes: the squirrel has taken Aaron the squirrel has taken Aaron underneath the leaves.
None of this can I pry apart. It was the same year, during a mandatory school assembly between second and third period, that the principal announced Jeremiah the Great over the gym’s PA system. Jeremiah came out on the basketball floor. His head was shaved clear to the skin, and his bald head shone like a bruise under the yellow lights. A sword dangled from his belt and tapped dully against his knee.
Classical music blurted from the busted out speakers, all crash cymbals and violin. Jeremiah lined up under the basketball goal and took off in a sprint toward half court, leaping at the free throw line and throwing his body into the air and flipping and landing in a perfect, still handstand. He balanced himself on one arm and swayed his hips back and forth as the sword that hung at his belt tipped down and swayed around his head. The music swelled and the bass worked its way into the bleachers and shook me in my guts. He flipped to his feet as the music softened and he slid out his sword. Then Jeremiah extended his leg, waist-high. He pursed his lips and sent out a shot of breath that sprayed perspiration off his brow. He screamed—the red in his face and the lines in his neck!—and slashed off his leg in one clean strike. It plopped onto the floor. He raised his little nub to the air. Out came his foot. Right from his knee, slow; it opened up and birthed out his calf. Jeremiah held his sword out to the side and swayed gently back and forth with his eyes closed. Then the music ended.
My classmates shuffled past each other, through the wooden pew-like rows. I couldn’t make myself move. It was as if I was heavy and formless, a metal cup waiting for someone to pick me up. I watched Jeremiah, who picked up his appendages like a stripper swiping up dollars once her dance is through.
Summer in high school I drove the twenty miles to Jackson, Mississippi, where I worked at Houdini’s, a magic shop with a workshop attached at the back that Jeremiah owned with his wife, Helen. The shop was small, with bookshelves lined with histories, how-to books, and instructional VHS’s. The cash register was set up on top of a glass case filled with every trick you could imagine, each of which I would slide from its plastic sleeve and practice in front of a small mirror hanging on the wall.
Helen spent all day in a tanning bed in the workshop, where Jeremiah made his tricks. Her skin was an orangeish-brown, thick like leather, and she had orange braces that made her look like she had just eaten a handful of acorns.
“Listen to me,” she said one day, walking in through the back door of the shop. I was slicing carrots with a guillotine. “One day you’re going to find a woman. A woman who loves you. And when she tells you that it’s impossible to cut your own head off and live to do it again, you believe her. No matter how bored you are of your own act. No matter that no one’s ever done it. She’ll say it because she loves you.”
I’d turn the lights out, at night, alone, and practice the cups and balls until I fell asleep. The mirror sees three cups positioned rim-down with three balls sitting on each top. The magician tips the cup forward with his right hand until the ball falls off into his left hand, feigns moving the ball from his left to right, blows on his right fist, and shows the ball has disappeared. He lifts the cup and the ball is underneath. The magician goes through all three cups and does the same thing: palm, blow, reveal. This builds repetition, so the mirror starts to build expectation, routine. Then, he varies the trick by stacking each cup with each ball, one on top of the other, and boom, out from the bottom cup, comes the Giant Suppressed Object. Here it comes as if it dying to crawl out. Here it comes as if it has been buried but it is alive.
* * *
Helen and I stood, elbow to elbow, and watched him. It was a highway bar north of town near the reservoir. Bright blue lights lit the stage, and the neon beer signs bled through making purple where they met. Fake wood grain and barely anyone else there. Helen held the rim of the glass against her teeth. The whole room was quiet, like a church before the service, as Jeremiah rid himself of his body parts.
Helen leaned into me. Her fingers latched into the crook of my arm. I could feel her chest against my arm as she fiddled with the fabric of my sleeve. She pushed the tip of her nose into my ear and said, “You know what you’re getting into, right?”
I said, “I don’t think I do.”
“You’ve got it,” she said and ran her nose along the edge of my ear. “It. More than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
“What’s that?” I said and I rubbed my face against her head and her long hair caught above my ear and fell along my neck.
Jeremiah saw us. There was hurt in his eyes while he sawed off his tongue.
One Wednesday in summer, Jeanie called and told me to clear my couch. It was after ten when she arrived, and I could see her cradling her stomach through my apartment peephole. I wanted to take her for a ride, onto the same roads we used to ride as teenagers. I don’t know why it felt important to me, or why it always did at the time. When we were young it was as if riding in the car meant that we could escape our mother and our brother and whatever it was that had happened to him and whatever it was that had happened to us.
“It’s a boy,” she said, as we circled the courthouse, around the square and then onto Highway 51. “I mean they can’t tell yet. But I know.”
Elvis came on the radio. The lights of the town burned out in the rearview and up ahead in the windshield I could see the train tracks. Jeanie snatched my hand from the wheel and pressed my palm against the side of her stomach. Through the seatbelt I pretended I could feel him. “Baby Aaron. Can’t you feel his hips?” she said. “Can’t you feel him shaking?”
“Who’s the father?” I said.
“Baby Aaron,” she said in her baby voice and she dug her fingers into the rubber along the window and said, “Baby Aaron’s escaped the grave.”
Dying doesn’t happen all at once. Hear someone shout a drink order while you pull a stuffed squirrel out of a hat. Lose a canned line and pause, stare off through the spotlight, and notice a man in the audience as he whispers into his lover’s ear. Go for a palm and lose the grip on the card and watch it tumble to the floor. Pull out your last trick, the brass cups, feel them slicken on your sweaty fingers. Hold them tight like someone long lost. See Helen, standing at the bar, flash of light off her braces. Dying happens a little at a time.
Some summer, I was at a birthday party in a fenced-in backyard in Rankin County.
Children ran around the yard, between collapsible tables with blue plastic tablecloths and purple balloons tied to small stone sculptures. The birthday girl was nine years old, and she came up to my hip. I leaned down and held a deck of cards in front of her face and asked her to take one. The children around me had cake-icing frosted around their lips. Parents stood at the edge of the yard, talking and sipping from plastic cups with their names scrawled in permanent marker on the side. The birthday girl took the card. I stood straight to the crowd of children and preached about magic, about letting themselves believe, about how when they grew up the world would make them stop. My suitcase where I kept my tricks was open on the table behind me. As I talked, I noticed the birthday girl spinning the card in her fingers. The whole deck was a stripper deck. One side was tapered, so when I flipped the deck and asked the subject to return the card, I would be able to feel a tiny edge jutting out of the back of the deck. The birthday girl returned the card. I rubbed my finger along the side, but I couldn’t find it.
I cut the deck near the place she slid it in. I showed the jack of diamonds and asked if it was her card. She said no. Children whispered to each other that I wasn’t real. A chubby boy outright screamed it. The semi-circle around me got smaller. Over the fence, I could see the reservoir, and a boat zoomed by dragging someone by a long rope. I backed myself behind the table. No parent’s eye looked up from their drinks. The chubby boy stepped closer, emboldened by all the sugar. “HE’S NOT A REAL MAGICIAN,” he screamed, and they all dove at the case. I slammed the lid down on their fingers. They tried to wriggle it open, but I leaned against the top of it, both hands pressed flat against its lid, until their hands turned purple.
It was November, twenty years after he disappeared through the window, when they found Aaron’s body. A man was out hunting squirrel on the parkland near the Natchez Trace. It hadn’t rained in months, and the swampland where cedars grew was nearly dry. The hunter saw a garbage bag flapping in the breeze, and when he bent down to pick it up saw that it was torn and stained and wrapped over Aaron’s head and taped around his neck.
We had a small funeral in the graveyard by the Piggly Wiggly. Just me and Jeanie and her son, Aaron II, who was three. His casket was tiny. There I was, not tall but grown, younger, and his casket was child-sized. Him, my older brother, and I couldn’t understand—even knowing that he was dead—how his body wouldn’t have grown. Jeanie brought a CD player. Elvis sang ‘American Trilogy’ while we lowered him into the ground and tossed dirt on top of him but time doesn’t really change things. Dirt doesn’t make anything vanish.
It was halfway through February. Jeremiah was gone on the last leg of a ten-city tour. Helen and I were in the workshop. She was leaning over a sewing machine behind a shade in the corner of the room. The shade was old and Asian-looking with light blue lace hanging from the top and little blue Smurf-like cartoons on its curtain. I was sawing through plywood, trying my best to configure a wooden panel where she would stand and I could fake-hurl knives at her face and shoulders. There were thin slits in the wood where knives could pop out, and I was having trouble making the slits the right width.
Across the room, an old telephone hung on the wall. There was a red light above it that flashed when it rang.
It was me who answered it. Jeremiah had been performing on a small carpeted stage at the top-floor bar of a black skyscraper in Chicago, just miles from where he had grown up. He had closed his act by slicing his head off. The policeman’s voice was high-pitched and the way the vowels cut through the phone made my ears ring. He just kept saying, one helluva show one helluva scene, and I couldn’t do anything but stare at his prosthetic limbs that were scattered all across the floor, on sawhorses, on the blood-stained metal table where he would tailor his body.
I stood on the other side of the curtain and I told Helen everything I could. I could see her shadow play itself on the cloth. I went on, about his head rolling around on the floor until someone stopped it with their foot. About his body collapsing and the crowd just sitting there for a full ten minutes, waiting for his head to grow back. About how the police, after questioning and re-questioning everyone, still couldn’t even find his head.
Behind the screen, I saw her shadow pull a long piece of fabric from out of the sewing machine. She held it up by the shoulders, her chin tilted up. “Done,” she said. It was a replica of Elvis’s jumpsuit during his Hawaiian special. Purple silk lined most of the inside and came out at the cuffs where it divided itself into flames. The collar stuck up ear-high. The sequins were designed into a complex pattern on the back. Near the neck, the jewels were arranged into constellations with Orion at the right shoulder and Scorpio on the left. Just below was a giant squirrel in profile with one blue eye. The squirrel held the cups and balls in one hand and a small machete in the other. Below him, toward the waist, was a landscape with rivers and forests. To the right his feet were warring squirrels, each in helmet and shield, formed in lines with archers in the back and swordsmen up front. To the left, a tiny squirrel village was set up next to the river, where peace-time squirrels tended gardens and made love to each other in tiny thatched huts.
“Helen,” I said. “Is he dead? How are we supposed to know if he’s dead or if this was just a trick?”
“We can’t,” she said. She rubbed wax against her teeth and held up the jumpsuit. “It’s a part of us now. It’s what he wanted. It’s what protects us.”
When my name seared through the speakers, the sun had gone down. It was mid-summer, and Helen and I were in Memphis for the Mud Island Talent Competition. The crowd was thick with mosquitoes and hippies. I walked out to the middle of the stage and stared at Priscilla Presley, the celebrity chair on the three-judge panel. Lining the stage was a black cloth with blue and red spotlights shining down like bruises. I struck a pose and fireworks exploded over the Mississippi River. ‘Devil in Disguise’ barked from the speakers. Sparklers ignited from my cuffs. My shadows splayed out from my feet in three different directions on the stage and I thought, yes I am three men in one I have collected everyone that died and have built myself out of them.
Out sauntered Helen in an orange dress. She shook her hips and spun around. I acted jealous and grabbed her by the waist and tossed her into a long tanning bed right in the middle of the stage. I shut the lid and wrapped chains around it. She pretended to struggle as she set the trick. I sawed the box in half with a chainsaw. She moaned as I faked the struggle. The toes of the wooden feet that extended from the foot of the box were curled and painted blue. I pulled the box apart to prove to the audience that I killed her. I cocked my knee and shook my hips in a circle to the music. I waved my arm in a windmill. Helen’s neck hung exposed from the pre-made hole.
I grabbed the back of her head, and I mashed my mouth against hers. Then I wrapped a garbage bag around her head. I grabbed Jeremiah’s machete.
First place was a country singer. Second place was a dance troupe. Third place was a ventriloquist. We won fourth.
Pieces of Jeremiah’s body were strewn across the workshop. I tried them all on. I ironed his tunics and I sharpened his sword. I curled up in bed with his wife. “Show me the trick that makes me believe in tricks again,” she said. “Show me the trick that brings people back.” Tiny squirrels crawled out of her eyelids. I tried to invent the trick that would make her love me. She wanted to believe. She wanted to try to believe.
She saw me once in the mirror trying to wear Jeremiah’s arms and legs. “They don’t fit,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I cleaned your cups and balls.”
Last fall, I put on the suit that Helen made me. The principal called my name: “Now boys and girls, for your viewing pleasure, one of our own, Smelvis!” The children screamed and banged their hands together. They stomped their feet against the wooden bleachers so it sounded like rolling thunder. I marched out and felt large.
In the bleachers, there was a child. There was marker down his cheeks, and his hair was slicked back in a pompadour. He was Aaron. He was Aaron my brother. He was Aaron my nephew.
I said, “I’m going to need a volunteer.” I couldn’t look at his face. “You. Aaron.”
The boy didn’t know his own name. I pointed at him. He came down the steps of the bleachers and took a bow. His face was red, and he wiped his hands on the front of his slacks. I grabbed him under the armpit and led him to my wooden backdrop. There was a human form chalked on the surface. The children whistled and hooted as I strapped his arms with leather. “I’m giving you a gift,” I told him, as I fastened the strap on his forehead against the board. The crowd hushed, and I went to the table in the middle of the floor and picked up the sack that held the throwing knives.
I pinched the blade between my thumb and index finger. My fingers shook. The fans at the top of the building made a deep and pleasant thrum as they sucked out all the bad air.
I flicked my wrist and the knife shot out of my hand, turning circles in the air until the handle clonked against the top of the board and bounced off. It slid across the giant panther on half-court. Aaron’s eyes got big. He stared at the knife, naked and bright as hate. I nodded and smiled.
“This is all under control,” the principal said over the P.A, “This is all an illusion.”
I grabbed the second knife.
Last winter, Jeanie brought the van down. Aaron’s getting that age now. I sat him down on the kitchen floor and I put the cups in front of him. He’s eight years old and his mom gave him a smartphone for Christmas. I did every trick I knew, and after every one, he mashed his fingers against the screen and told me what I did wrong. For my last trick, I reached under the kitchen sink. I pulled out the last garbage bag. I dropped the cups and balls into it. Abracadabra.
Jeanie has a girl now. She calls her Prissy but her name’s Priscilla, and the whole of our lives—our mythologies—have become heavy with all the days we’ve collected, all the lives that have joined ours like rainwater in a metal cup.
About the Writer
Schuyler Dickson once bruised a bunch of children's fingers in his briefcase, but it's okay because he was a child at the time too. And all the other children grew up to be drone operators. Other stories have appeared in New World Writing, [PANK], and a bunch of other places that are pretty easy to find. Shave his initials into your undercut and email a picture to him for a chance to win.