This morning I have come on deck to watch them slowly walk up the gangplank. The majority in pairs and some in groups of four, almost all of them are clad in some variation of tropical print. The cruise line has identified them, processed them, dazed them with an introductory shipboard photograph and blurred their reasoning with a few pre-cruise drink specials. By this evening, as we venture into international waters, the casino will light up and the disco will shake. In two nights, I will stand before them wearing a long-sleeved white silk shirt and faux-leather pants. I will enter illuminated by a single spotlight and exit, three-quarters of an hour later, in a cloud of smoke. In between, I will banter with them good-naturedly, perform card tricks, levitate a silver ball and vanish an assistant. Some will applaud politely while others will hoop and whistle as if at a high school pep-rally. Many will simply shake their heads slowly in a semi-inebriated confoundment.

After my show, while the comedienne begins her routine, I will return to my cabin for a quick shower and change of my perspiration-soaked clothing. I’ll make my way to the casino deck by way of the stairs, to allow the audience time to exit, and sit at the first blackjack table. Some guests will smile or nod as they recognize me. Other passengers will offer to buy me a drink to afford them the opportunity to query about me or the show. Often times they just want to know how I came into my present circumstance.

My mum is from Ceylon and my father from England. I was born and reared in a small town just one hour outside of London. As early as I can recall, like many of my grade school chums, I developed a fascination for the world of theatrical magic. While my friends’ interest waned in our later years, superceded by girls and sports, mine developed into an ambition and later a vocation. I first joined a local magic club in my town then a regional one in London to which my parents would shuttle me for bi-weekly meetings. Unlike school, I was accepted by this motley crew of amateur magicians solely for my love of the field and no mention was made of my ethnicity. Initially I poured over books of illusions but reserved my performances, only for the occasional mirror. Despite an otherwise traditional private school education, my mum’s wish to have a barrister in the family vanished like the proverbial rabbit in a hat. My inclination was to become a professional illusionist.

I left home to attend a private University and chose to study history but each summer I spent deliberating over illusions. I perused dusty books from corners of bookstores, new periodicals and attended workshops on mastering the craft. I read of the past masters and learned of the current popular magicians of Las Vegas. Finally I honed my skills, and earned a few quid, at the campus pub. My limited popularity reached its pinnacle with a booking at an eight-year-old child’s birthday party (the progeny of one of my history professors.)

In the summer of my junior year, I assisted a magician/alcoholic who toured Europe in portable big-tops. On occasions, in between his pub-crawls he would impart a few words on the art of showmanship. When sober, Master Harold had the world at his fingertips. He would charm women with his graceful wit and entertain children with street side tricks. He had been perfecting his act over the last thirty years and as such had a built-in popularity and fan base. Parents would crowd into the tent with their children as their parents had done with them a generation before.

“The wrist and the eyes, Alex.” he would say in a resounding baritone. “These are the two keys. Divert their attention with a glance then smoothly transition to a flawless finish.”
Master Harold had trained with the finest showman and had survived the golden age of the traveling circus. He kept impeccably groomed and eminently presentable unless, of course, he had returned from a night of excess. Harold’s two loves were the sleight of hand and imbibing warm pints. On the opening week of our tour he would take me along to local pubs after the show. Here, we were minor celebrities while we would mingle with the locals who had seen us that afternoon. The pints would flow freely and no currency was ever requested or exchanged. Later in the evening Harold would put on an extemporaneous production of card tricks and minor disappearances to the delight of the crowd. After the first two weeks, I told him that I couldn’t keep up with the daily shows and nightly pub after-show. He nodded and stroked his perfectly groomed magnolia white goatee and replied enigmatically, “Alex, what I do for a living is not mysterious to me anymore. It’s the rest of my life that has been my greatest illusion.”

During the summer prior to my final year at the University, with my future looming ahead of me, I saw a small sign outside student affairs. An American-based cruise line was hiring staff and entertainers for its Caribbean cruises. I secured an interview in London and arrived at the office building accompanied by a small aviary of doves along with a trunk containing my collected illusions. The panel of three initially sat stone-faced but a few smiles broke out by the end of the playing card materialization. My silver ball levitation drew a smattering of applause but it was my final disappearance which sealed a six-month contract headlining a Saturday night show.

Now, four and one-half years later, I live for fifty weeks out of the year in a one-hundred and fifteen square foot cabin populated by only my clothes, books and two impressionist lithographs I purchased from one of our art auctions at sea. On a four-night cruise I have the late Saturday show, and a “six-nighter” features me twice. Excluding rehearsal I have only one hundred actual working hours a year. This relaxed schedule allows countless hours to read, ponder, and scrutinize the undulating ocean.

On shore in Miami or Key West, I will stock up on novels. I have read and re-read countless tomes on the history of magic and biographies of famous magicians. I have slowly worked through a list of classics seasoned only with potboilers or the occasional throwaway spy-thriller. Due to my cramped living space my narrow bookshelf is periodically reorganized leaving me with stacks of paperbacks which I donate to a coffee shop off Duval Street in Key West.

One evening, while reading a novel by Somerset Maugham I was reminded of a young lady I knew only peripherally in England. I really only remembered her red hair and free spirit. In reality, I had forgotten almost everything about her except her name. Knowing I was due for shore leave in the next month, I decided to look her up and attempt to secure a meeting back home.

Remarkably, employing our new shipboard internet café, I was able to track her down. She was still in England, now living in London. Partly out of abject loneliness and partly out of some other need I couldn’t quite recognize, I set out to ring her. With satellite telephone at $6.99 a minute, even a fifty-cent employee discount relegates conversations to a brutal pointedness.

At first I awkwardly jogged her memory as to exactly who I was. When she claimed some familiarity, I told her I would be in England soon for my two-week holiday and I would very much like to catch up with her. Luckily, and with a hint of trepidation, she consented and at our next port in Mexico I bought her a gift. I chose a small hand-carved vase which I had wrapped in month-old shredded Mexican newsprint and sealed neatly in a cardboard box. This cruise seemed interminable but finally we arrived back in the states.
I took the red-eye from Miami International to Heathrow with my eighty-peso treasure securely stowed in the overhead cabin. Mum and Dad picked me up at the airport as they had done annually for my vacation. They still sported the twenty-year old forest green Volvo wagon in which I had grown up. Other than the gray tinge to their temples this scene could have been replayed from my youth when they picked me up outside of my magic club.
After initial pleasantries Dad started in on me.
“So are you going to give this thing up now, Alex?”
“No Dad, I’m doing well. I’m happy.”
This year he sounded more serious than last and I, hopefully, sounded more assured. Mum just looked out the window, deep into the drizzling London morning. Most of the rest of the drive home was silent. I sat back and remembered my childhood. I watched the windshield wipers create than destroy perfect semi-circles of water. I slowly traced with my index finger a scratch in the vinyl seat left by my long deceased Dalmatian, Houdini. Finally, I too sat and watched London sputter to life as we made our escape home.

The next day I borrowed the old wagon for my meeting in London. I was a little uneasy at the prospect of this unrehearsed performance. She worked as the manager of an East end clothing retailer. I entered the store greeted by the smell of wood and just polished brass. She was with a customer and asked me politely to have a seat in an overstuffed red leather chair. I sat her Mexican gift on a matching ottoman in front of me. I watched her slim figure outfitted in a grey pin-stripe pant suit flutter around a customer. She and her tailor wove around their patron strategically placing pins and chalk marks. After her sale was secured she came over to greet me and apologize for the delay. A perfunctory acknowledgement of the vase followed its uncomfortable presentation. In swift order, it quietly replaced her handbag under a register. The handbag was slung over her right shoulder and we were off to lunch.
We walked to a café which she frequented, I would imagine, considering her familiarity with the servers and the menu. She ordered a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich on whole wheat with no crusts. She ate it with the nimble fingers of someone who spends the day rifling through tailored clothing. I told her about my experiences on the ship which she seemed to absorb with interest. I related to her that I have the deepest sleep of my life every night I am aboard. Compared to land, the rolling ocean provides a natural solace. I told her that every time I am on shore it takes about a week to stop stepping up into a lavatory as I am prone to do on board. Mostly silent through lunch, she looked at me curiously as she sipped decaffeinated tea with lemon.
“Why did you call me after so many years, Alex?”
For a moment I thought of telling her of the hundreds of hours at sea I spent reading or musing about nothing. I thought I would mention that I just felt the need to ring someone up once again. Instead I said simply,
“I don’t know really. In the midst of my work week I thought of you and I realized I really had no idea what you might be doing so I took a chance and looked you up.”

She had never married. She had no boyfriend and her managerial duties left the weekends free. Each Sunday she would take the underground to Tottingham Square and meet her sister. They would spend the day drinking tea, sharing fruit tarts and hunting down books they fancied in the dozens of used book stores that line the street.

She was a bit peculiar in appearance. Her nose was straight— neither upturned or sloped, simply straight, lengthy and ending in tiny nostrils through which I couldn’t imagine she acquired enough oxygen to support her metabolic processes. She wore her hair flat and styled like a school girl. Her lips were thin and outlined with a reddish brown hue which she periodically applied from her handbag. I found her comely if not attractive.
“Would you mind if I ring you sometime?”
“From the ship you mean?”
“Yes or perhaps e-mail, we have a new satellite connection.”
“I suppose it would be fine.” she shrugged noncommittally.
Two weeks later I returned to the ship and delved back into my work. The show picked up again and my usual routine began. I attempted to e-mail her once a week and gave her an update as to the mishaps of our ship. A week after I had returned, I encountered a near miss incident with one of my assistants. A torch I was holding in the middle of a performance stubbornly refused to extinguish and grazed her feather headdress. Fortunately her plumage was just as stubborn and did not alight.

A few weeks later I related to her the anecdote behind the heart attack of our shipboard physician. Our doctor was a recently divorced and more recently a retired gentleman who decided that he would escape to the seas to serve out the remainder of his retirement. This moderately obese sixty-seven year old made the ill-fated decision to take up disco dancing at 3 a.m. after a few rounds of cocktails. A helicopter was summoned to the ship and whisked him away to a Miami hospital and it was the last I heard of him.
Her responses were initially terse. I could visualize her typing those short responses with her nimble fingers while sipping her tea with lemon. However, by six months she began to come around and, I believe, grew comfortable with our electronic banter. I drew the courage to ask her if she would like to come out to see my show and to my delight she accepted.

It was the second time in my life that I had butterflies when I performed. My first experience with stage fright was the evening Master Harold and I went to dinner at a pub two hours before a show. He drank the better part of two bottles of wine with his meal and was in no shape to perform. Instead of canceling due to Harold’s periodic “illness” as I was prone to do, I decide to perform in his place. As my mentor recovered from his drunken stupor that evening backstage, I took the audience through my first headlining show. The spotlights on me washed away the audience but I could hear them cheering and applauding with gusto. After the first half-hour, I could feel the natural flow and rhythm of the show. The reaction of the audience became secondary and, at that moment, I knew that this career was my birthright.

That night, on the ship I could see her sitting to the left of the stage, just under the haze of the stage lights. She smiled on occasion and sometimes turned to watch the reaction of the audience. I had arranged for a bottle of champagne to be sent to her table and she had wrapped her dexterous fingers around a flute. She sat prim and attentive with her auburn hair held back with a simple clip. After the show she came backstage and commended me on my performance. She asked me from where I derived my stage name.

I took my name from one of my favorite novels by Sinclair Lewis. After reading it in grade school I knew I would become either a microbiologist or magician. “Arrowsmith the Amazing,” I would yell as I bound down the stairs followed by my cloak and clutching my latest purchase from the magic mail order catalog. Now fifteen years later I am purely “Alex Arrowsmith, 10:30 p.m.”, a footnote in your daily cruise notes. I sit, wedged tightly on the daily activity calendar between shipboard bingo and the guest talent show.

The next morning we sat at a café in Cozumel with little to say to each other. We had endured the perilous taxi ride to the beach only to confront a stilted conversation over conch shell appetizers and unnamed Mexican beer. Back on board, on the night prior to our return to the mainland, she told me that she was in no position to have a boyfriend. After we docked she gave me a quick embrace and thanked me for my “hospitality.” I lost touch with her soon after. I decided that a traveling magician had little necessity for a girlfriend and even less a wife.

My grandmother was admitted to a London hospital about six months later. Mum wired me from home and a steward slipped the message under my door with the same ease of slipping in a vacation-ending invoice the morning of disembarkment. It said plainly, “Alex, your grandmother has taken ill. The doctors expect a full recovery but she would like to see you all the same.” My phone calls were to no avail as my parents had already left for London and the hospital would not give me any information. I took a leave of absence and set off to England.

I had never been very close to my grandmother. Due to my lack of familiarity with her native Sinhalese, our relationship suffered from a language barrier which could not be overcome. Growing up, I was never able to converse with her more than cursorily. She lived in London and I remember visiting her as a child. Her apartment smelled of sweet cumin and basmati rice. I would see her occasionally after magic club meetings and she would prepare a kitchen of Sri Lankan sweets for every visit. I remembered that she would weep silently for a few seconds every time I would leave. Upon our exit, she would walk us out to the front door of her building and watch our car until it was out of sight. A physician I met on a cruise once remarked to me that he would have reason for alarm if a Ceylonese came into his office complaining of pain. He said that they were people of a stock that remained stoic despite unbearable discomfort. My grandmother was cut from the same cloth. As a child it was easy to interpret that stoicism as indifference.
The “full recovery” which my mother described in her message was a ruse on her part. This lingual “sleight-of-hand” allowed me a two week emergency leave. I arrived at the hospital still carrying my bags. After inquiring, I was directed to the intensive care waiting room. My parents sat there waiting for her physician.

He was a small chap, just a few inches over five feet and wore rounded spectacles with dark frames. He had thinning hair and I presumed his age to be in his mid thirties. A five-o-clock shadow shading his rounded cheeks belied his age. He introduced himself at first and we did same. Take-away Chinese food reeked from leaky tin foil parcels filling a waste basket a few feet away. I began to feel the pressure of nausea in my throat as the combination of odors and the impending news took their toll on me.
The doctor sat and wasted little time in warming up his captive audience. “Well, you’ve told me you wanted the whole family together so that we can discuss her diagnosis. I’m sorry to tell you our diagnosis is pancreatic cancer and we do not expect her to live much longer.”

We sat quiet for a few seconds. A bleating pager whisked the doctor out of the room before we could even formulate our first response. Master Harold would have been proud of the doctor I thought. His beeper diversion worked perfectly and he made his exit while his viewers sat dumbfounded.

I called the ship’s administration a few days later and they allowed me a four week leave of absence to attend to my family duties. After much reflection I told my mother and father that I would like to stay with my grandmother in the hospital during her stay. They were relieved that a family member would be able to be with her constantly during this time. Neither could devote twenty four hours a day to her with their work schedule. I spoke to the nurses and they permitted me to have a cot and sleep in the hospital room.

Initially she said very little to me or anyone for that matter. I understood very little conversational Sinhalese but was able to communicate with. She had grown much older that I remembered. Her hair was now almost pure white and her face dark and wrinkled. Her face was gaunt but kind and softened every time she saw me. She would hold my hand sometimes while she rested. Her gold bangles would clink together with any movement of her hands. I could see her fear but she never revealed her discomfort. She was given morphine through her veins but, when asked, would not respond the degree of her pain. The nurses and doctors would have scales and pictures of faces they would use to assess pain but she would look at these items then nod her head side to side and say, “Its ok.”

I knew she was afraid to be alone in the hospital. I remember there were times when I would sit and watch the cardiac monitor above her head for hours. If I believed her to be asleep and I wished to stretch my legs I would rise slowly. Often she would open her eyes and simply say, “Stay” while patting the bed.

On the third day I showed her some card tricks. I began with simple tricks then performed the advanced “Maltese Crosses” trick and the card through the plate with a breakfast dish. With the rhythmic beep of the heart monitor as my metronome, I went through almost every trick I could do with a deck of cards. At first she nodded and patted my hand but soon she had sat up in bed and smiled a bit. Nurses would on occasion join her for few of the tricks when they would enter to quiet a whining IV infuser. Every day I would entertain her with a few more illusions. Eventually, I got to the point where I had to refer to some handbooks to come up with new ideas for tricks. When she slept for a few hours in the afternoon I made my way down to the pediatric ward and entertained a few of the children in the playroom. These children were the most captive audience I had ever seen, they would hang on every move and ask me to repeat the tricks without end.

After about a week I began to tell my grandmother about my life on the ship. This was mostly a one-sided conversation as she would mostly sit and listen. I told her about my show, how I was hired. I told her about the ocean and some of the passengers I remembered. I then told her about my ill-fated “girlfriend”. At the end of the story she looked at me kindly and took my hand.

She related to me a story in her native tongue that I could mostly understand. She told me that when she was a young girl her family owned a beautiful house surrounded by rice fields. Behind the house was a small pond in which she and her sister would swim in the warm summer months. Her parents bought a pair of swans to live on the pond. They bought a male and female who lived behind the home. For three months the birds would swim together as the girls would splash around them at times. The female was killed one day by some area boys who threw stones at the birds. Swans were expensive to replace and my great-grandparents decided to wait to replace the female. The male swan grew increasingly despondent and soon would not lift his neck up to eat. A doctor was summoned and despite his little knowledge of swan physiology could not understand why the swan was ill. The male swan died soon afterward. Her family always believed that the swan died of a broken heart.

We both wept that morning. These were warm tears that enveloped my eyes and rolled down my cheeks without effort. Her tears welled in her kind eyes and found their way through the dark creases of her face. She placed her hand on my forehead and closed her eyes. On the ninth day she died, and in forty-eight hours I returned to the ship.

It has been over a year now. Today, I am watching a new group of passengers’ board with romantic notions of high sea adventure. In two days they will applaud loudly after I vanish in a cloud of theatrical lighting and smoke. Inevitably a gentleman will approach at the casino later that evening and ask me how I can simply disappear, and I will say, as I have said a hundred times before, “Sir, even a ship’s illusionist cannot reveal his secrets.”


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