Obviously, none of us had come to escape the world outside, but rather to have it tossed back at us in more easily digested forms, brighter, cleaner, quicker, neater; a spectacle both heartening and melancholy.
Who in life has not seen a woman disappear?
There, on the black, plush stage, women, mysteries of talc and rose petal, vanished. Cream alabaster statues, sculptures of summer lily and fresh rain melted to dreams, and the dreams became empty mirrors even as the magician reached hungrily to seize them.
From cabinets and nests of boxes, from flung sea-nets, shattering like porcelain as the conjurer fired his gun, the women vanished.
Symbolic, I thought. Why do magicians point pistols at lovely assistants, unless through some secret pact with the male subconscious?
“What?” asked my wife.
“You were muttering,” said my wife.
“Sorry.” I searched the program. “Oh! Next comes Miss Quick! The only female pickpocket in the world!”
“That can’t be true,” said my wife quietly.
I looked to see if she was joking. In the dark, her dim mouth seemed to be smiling, but the quality of that smile was lost to me.
The orchestra hummed like a serene flight of bees.
The curtains parted.
There, with no great fanfare, no swirl of cape, no bow, only the most condescending tilt of her head, and the faintest elevation of her left eyebrow, stood Miss Quick.
I thought it was a dog act, when she snapped her fingers.
“Volunteers. All men!”
“Sit down.” My wife pulled at me.
I had risen.
There was a stir. Like so many hounds, a silently baying pack rose and walked (or did they run?) to the snapping of Miss Quick’s colorless fingernails.
It was obvious instantly that Miss Quick was the same woman who had been vanishing all evening.
Budget show, I thought; everyone doubles in brass. I don’t like her.
“What?” asked my wife.
“Am I talking out loud again?”
But really, Miss Quick provoked me. For she looked as if she had gone backstage, shrugged on a rumpled tweed walking suit, one size too large, gravy-spotted and grass-stained, and then purposely rumpled her hair, painted her lipstick askew, and was on the point of exiting the stage door when someone cried, “You’re on!”
So here she was now, in her practical shoes, her nose shiny, her hands in motion but her face immobile, getting it over with.
Feet firmly and resolutely planted, she waited, her hands deep in her lumpy tweed pockets, her mouth cool, as the dumb volunteers dogged it to the stage.
This mixed pack she set right with a few taps, lining them up in a military row.
The audience waited.
“That’s all! Act’s over! Back to your seats!”
Snap! went her plain fingers.
The men, dismayed, sheepishly peering at each other, ambled off. She let them stumble half down the stairs into darkness, then yawned:
“Haven’t you forgotten something?”
Eagerly, they turned.
With a smile like the very driest wine, she lazily unwedged a wallet from one of her pockets. She removed another wallet from within her coat. Followed by a third, a fourth, a fifth! Ten wallets in all!
She held them forth, like biscuits, to good beasts. The men blinked. No, those were not their wallets! They had been onstage for only an instant. She had mingled with them only in passing. It was all a joke. Surely she was offering them brand-new wallets, compliments of the show!
But now the men began feeling themselves, like sculptures finding unseen flaws in old, hastily flung together armatures. Their mouths gaped, their hands grew more frantic, slapping their chest-pockets, digging their pockets.
All the while Miss Quick ignored them to calmly sort their wallets like the morning mail.
It was at this precise moment I noticed the man on the far right end of the line, half on the stage. I lifted my opera glasses. I looked once. I looked twice.
“Well,” I said lightly. “There seems to be a man there who somewhat resembles me.”
“Oh?” said my wife.
I handed her the glasses, casually. “Far right.”
“It’s not like you,” said my wife. “It’s you!”
“Well, almost,” I said modestly.