There are two types of nurses: the ones who believe in ghosts, and the ones who are lying.
We don’t talk about it much, especially now that the war is over. You can feel it more than see it when we’re together—a collective haunting, invisible guests at the dinner table. The conversations lulls and our gazes drift and we stare at strangers we’ve seen somewhere before. Was it the operating table? A hospital bed? The morgue?
You do this kind of thing for years and eventually everyone becomes a ghost of someone, somewhere. We don’t talk about it much.
But sometimes we get drunk.
“Hand to heart he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.”
The whole table groans. This is Rosie’s ghost story. It’s not a good one. No blood or guts or mystery illnesses. Just a pretty dead boy. And there’s plenty of those to go around these days.
The speakeasy is a whirl of shadowy orange and red. Circular tables like the one we’re sat at now crowd the upper floor, towards the back. Down below the dancefloor is a glittering sweep of bodies and the band presides over them all. The singer’s dark hair shines in the spotlight while she sways along with the suggestive, brassy bounce of horns and snare drums.
“Three years at that hospital and this is still the best she’s got?” Liza says out of the corner of her mouth. I try not to snicker. Rosie doesn’t hear.
“He was so young,” she says, her voice faraway. “But his eyes were old. They were—”
“Crystal blue, right?” Ruth shares a look with Liza.
“Yes! And he—”
Liza interrupts, “Fainted into your arms right there in the hall.” She falls into me, hand to temple in a mock swoon, voice full of drama. “And in that second his heart stopped. He was gone forever.” She closes her eyes, sighs loudly, and lets her tongue loll from her mouth.
Ruth cackles and I smile into my drink, but Rosie’s gaze has gone unfocused out over the crowd, her glass forgotten in her hand. “There wasn’t a thing wrong with him,” she says softly. “Healthy as a horse. His eyes were open the whole time.”
The last time we were all together was in training at St. Joseph’s. None of us really knew what we were doing there. Liza wanted to travel, Ruth was avoiding marriage like the devil himself, and I needed the money. No time like a war to be in the business of bandages.
Rosie is the only one doing it out of the goodness of her heart. Rosie is probably a saint. We all kind of hate her.
This is Liza’s favorite speakeasy and she brought us out tonight because her friend Bobby—you know, who lives downtown?—said there’s this joint with a nightly spiritualist and séances are just all the rage these days. Ruth already said she was coming along so how could Rosie and I bear to miss it? Wouldn’t it be good to have the girls together again? Wouldn’t we have such great stories to tell?
So we rode the awful, rattling train all the way to Sixth Avenue, where the tracks soar over the street and you can see the dance halls and the drugstores where magicians skulk in doorways, peddling their tricks until the owners run them off. I don’t like coming here anymore. I can still remember too well how it was before the war. But here we are in the joint anyway, huddled over our drinks, waiting for someone to fill the silence. It’s time for another ghost story. Ruth offers up.
“I’ll tell you something strange,” she says, and we all lean in, the little orange-shaded lamp on our table making strange shadows on our faces.
She tells us about a woman who used to come into the practice almost every week. She wasn’t very young and she wasn’t very pretty, but she was rich and convinced she was dying of something, so the doc gave her just about whatever she wanted. Ruth never liked her much. She was twitchy like a rabbit, just talking to her put you on edge.
“Then one day she comes in with her eyes gouged out.”
We all gasp. Now this is a good ghost story.
“Bull,” says Liza, grinning with gruesome delight.
“Honest,” Ruth insists. “She just stood there wailing in the doorway, blood all running down her cheeks. The doc had to sedate her before we could really see the damage. Awful. Just two big, gummy holes in her face where her eyes used to be.
“What’d you think happened?” Rosie asks.
“Beats me,” Ruth says. “Cops came and talked to the doc but I never saw her again.” She smiles and absent-mindedly swirls her drink in the glass. “She was a pain alright,” she says, chuckling. “But damn, I’ll never forget that face as long as I live.”
Then Ruth looks up again and freezes.
I follow her gaze over my shoulder to a table where a lonely woman sits with her hands cupped around an empty glass. She’s plain-looking, with silver threads in her mousy hair. She catches us staring and her face twitches with confusion before we all look away again. Ruth shakes her head, downs the rest of her drink. We all do the same.
Out on the dance floor the music flares, a swinging half-time beat. Liza’s face sparks like a candle, “Oh! Ruth, come on! Come dance with me!”
In a second the two of them are up and off, laughing and stumbling in their short skirts, weaving through the tables. They move between the light and shadow of the joint and flash like lightning bugs, until they step down onto the dance floor. For a while I can still spot Liza’s tall figure as she drags Ruth further in, then there’s just a hint of red hair and purple scarf, then there’s nothing. Rosie and I sit in silence.
“He follows me, you know.”
Rosie’s face is a hand’s breadth from mine. We’ve moved to a corner table at the back of the joint and glasses clutter our table. Shadows drape one side of Rosie’s face and the other is illuminated bright orangey-red. The music swirls in my head. Her eyes are wide.
“Just in my dreams at first. That is—I dreamed him, then I saw him out the window. Then he was there in the room with me. Sometimes it’s like he’s everywhere. Am I crazy?”
“Tell me what he looks like again,” I say, because I’ve forgotten who we’re talking about.
Ruth and Liza are still out on the dance floor. I can see them over Rosie’s shoulder, but I’m not watching them. Instead, I’m staring at a boy who looks like one I stitched up last December, a street urchin with a rusty nail in his foot. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen.
With nothing left to do I sent him back out into the cold, barefoot as before. I saw him on a gurney a few days later. This boy in the crowd could be his older brother, his cousin. He catches me staring and smiles, but the expression makes my stomach turn. All I can picture is a blue body and a bloody nail. I look away and I realize Rosie is still talking to me.
She sighs and her eyes dart around the room again. At a table nearby is a girl who I watched die of scarlet fever. She’s sitting with a boy whose broken arm I set just yesterday. I blink again and it’s not them at all. They’re laughing. The band is playing soft and slow and the singer’s smoky voice croons something about me and my shadow. I try to focus on Rosie. She says, “I’m scared, Flo. I’m really scared.”
The boy and girl leave their table hand in hand. Rosie looks at me with her big doe eyes and all I want to do is laugh and say stupid, stupid girl. What nurse is afraid of ghosts these days? But instead I take her hands resting on the table.
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“He looks so real, Flo.”
But suddenly the band goes quiet and the dancers start to holler.
Over the sea of heads I see a tall man step out onto the stage. He has silver-blonde hair and projector-screen blue eyes, and he’s so pale the spotlight makes him look see-through. All of this is offset by his suit, black as pitch and ill-fitting. I can see his bony ankles and wrists. Behind him in the shadows the musicians swan off stage. The singer passes him the mic, then grabs him by the lapel and whispers something close to his ear. He smiles, wide and carnivorous, and then she’s gone. When he turns back to the crowd his smile gets impossibly wider and he spreads his arms in greeting. The dancers cheer again, some raise their glasses. I see a woman who died in labor holding up a glass of champagne. A man with the same empty eyes of a consumption patient leans on her in drunken comradery. I spot Liza’s red hair and Ruth’s purple scarf.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Isaiah Barnes,” he says. “Though you might know me better as the Magician of Sixth Avenue. I’d like to take you on a journey.”
In the dim light of the speakeasy Isaiah’s skin appears soft, flawless. He moves smoothly, but too quickly. He smiles and I can count his teeth from where I’m sitting. Rosie’s grip on my hand has turned to lead. I look over and she’s blanched.
She opens her mouth slightly like a fish. “That’s,” she gasps, “It’s—”
“But before we do that,” Isaiah continues, his tone heavy with implication, “a few tricks to dazzle your senses.”
And all the lights go out.
And Rosie screams.
Isaiah Barnes makes fire from his fingers. Isaiah Barnes makes his eyeballs glow and his tongue, too. He turns the lights off and on with a snap of his fingers and when he sings he sounds like an entire orchestra. He pulls a rabbit and a parakeet from his breast pocket. The rabbit runs into the crowd and vanishes. The parakeet flies a few feet, then drops dead in some girl’s drink. He brings up pretty men and pretty women who I remember from the morgue and asks them is this your card? Is this your card? Is this your card?
It always is.
I watch with eyes wide and try to find the edges of his tricks. Rosie sits beside me in tears. We never seem to run out of gin.
By the time Isaiah turns three of the dancers invisible—their clothes float around the joint and are filled with nothing—I’m entranced. My eyes are stuck on him and the strange way he moves through the air like he weighs less than a normal person, like he’s only half there. Even as Rosie keeps tugging at my arm and saying in this small, soft voice, “God, Flo I need to get out of here. We have to get out of here now,” I don’t want to leave. I know the big finale is coming and I do not want to miss it.
“Now,” Isaiah exclaims, he stands still for a mere second and the whole world stops, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.” He has long since left the mic behind, but I can still hear his voice ringing throughout the room. “I need everyone to join hands in a circle. Quickly now, it’s almost time.”
Rosie moans low like wind in a well. The dancers do as they’re told with their usual raucous laughter, and every single one of them is someone I’ve seen before. As they circle up, I can see the spots where the invisible dancers stand. Ruth is holding hands with one of them. She leans close and then laughs at whatever they whispered in her ear.
“Any volunteers want to show us how it’s done?” Isaiah asks, the eye-glowing trick was so long ago, but the effects still seem to linger on his face. A freckly arm shoots up. It’s Liza.
Isaiah lays a perfect, shadowy hand on the small of her back and leads her to the center of the circle. He asks her some questions to which I cannot hear the answers, but because I know her ghost stories I know what she says anyway.
“Who are you trying to speak to tonight?”
A boy named Allen Alexander. She met him in France and they fell in love.
“How long has he been dead?”
One year, two months, and four days.
“What was he wearing when it happened?”
Just his olive green military trousers. First course of action with bullet wounds is to strip the affected area. He was wearing his green military trousers, his black boots, and his blood.
“Are you ready?”
I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m not sure if Liza does either. The more she and Isaiah stand next to one another the less real they both look. Isaiah has more shadows than he did before and Liza has lost some of her saturation. There’s a shock of white in her hair that I never noticed before, but it suits her. It’s festive.
Then Isaiah has everybody close their eyes, but I keep mine half open. Filtered through my eyelashes the speakeasy looks like a shadow play and I can pretend the whole thing is a dream. The shadow dancers sway a bit as they wait. And wait.
Then Isaiah claps!
Right in front of Liza’s face.
She starts to float, just a hand’s breadth off the ground. Her eyes have gone blank. She stares up at the ceiling with her hands hanging by her sides and her mouth open just slightly, just enough for her to whisper, “My god.”
And for a while everything just stays like that, most of the lights have gone out now and Liza is a picture drawn out in shades of orange and blood. Then from the crowd Ruth shouts, “Me next!”
Now everyone wants to float. Ruth goes through the same process, the same questions. Silence. Swaying. Clap! She floats. Everyone in the circle jostles for their turn and I watch the shadows converge around Isaiah. I turn to Rosie to ask her if he looks familiar but Rosie’s gone. I look back and the crowd is all floating in silence now and Isaiah’s vacant, projector-screen eyes have locked on me across the dead room.
He smiles, and claps.
6 thoughts on “The Magician of Sixth Avenue by Sam Mueller”
The imagery combined with the wonderful give and take of the nurses creates a great flow. Surreal yet centered and extremely well done. Will not forget “gummy holes” anytime soon!
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A ghost story and an anti-war story of a different kind. The magician is a character not easily forgotten. Very nice.
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You can certainly paint a picture!
This is a lesson for anyone who wants to do something descriptive!! Do it this way!
What a cracking painting that end scene would make!
This was excellent!
I felt like I was there!
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A world of shadows…. the world behind the world, the darkness behind the nightclub lights. Isaiah leads them on. The Speakeasy’s like a revival church, the guru conjuring up not god but dreams and nightmares. We can fool ourselves with tricks, to stay in the light, we’re all magicians at times, keeps us on the level, Isaiah pulls back the curtain.
I was drawn right into this. I loved the balance of rich detail with secrecy and shadow to taunt our imaginations.
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