Thu, February 27, 2003
Fear and Consequences
The tree that Gary and I were perched in continued to tilt dizzyingly toward the ground. My heart raced in my chest, threatening to explode out of my sternum altogether, and I was reminded of two things.
One: That I could hardly recall a more confusing or intricate period of my life than the few hours which had just transpired; and Two: A gentle old woman whom I had met on one of my frequent voyages around the Southwest by rail.
(It's so like me to get all distracted in a moment of high stress.)
In my younger days, I lived with my Aunt Hortense in Tempe, not with my parents. It wasn't one of those situations where my parents were separated, or abusive, or anything like that. At the time, my mother worked as a lighting designer for a theater company, and they would send her around the country with various traveling productions. My father worked as her assistant and occasionally picked up other odd jobs in whatever town they happened to be staying in. For me, it was too much traveling for such a young age with school and all. So, I stayed with Hortense, who was actually my mother's aunt, and we had a ball.
When I was twelve, Hortense was seventy-three, and although she was rather set in her ways she was also an extremely gracious hostess and delighted to have a new friend to keep her company. Her second husband, Sal, had passed away about two years earlier and she missed having someone to talk to. We would stay up evenings drinking her sweet limeade and talking while playing dominoes or watching the stars above the quiet desert. Whenever friends would come over, she would bake pies and other desserts to spoil our appetites with, and she always had a dollar or two in her pocket in case we wanted to go to the movies.
My parents would come to visit from time to time, whenever a show they were working would come near enough, and I never wanted for love. We would spend a weekend together hiking or flying homemade kites or just spending time around the house with Hortense. Usually, my father would bring a gift or two, including some special toy that he and the propmaster had constructed just for me. We wrote frequent letters and I hardly ever felt like we lived apart.
Around my fifteenth year, it was decided that I was old enough to ride on the train by myself, and I began traveling to visit my parents when their shows were near enough to allow. As a young man, it was empowering to travel on my own and I spent my time on the train meeting colorful personalities and daydreaming about fantasy adventures.
Each time I got on a train, I imagined another whimsical adventure about faraway lands and experiences. I was seventeen or so and I was on the train on my way to El Paso to see a musical production of "Chinatown" that my parents were participating in. This time, I was fantasizing that I had befriended a giant caterpillar with a glass eye and that he and I had together built a monstrous paper airplane that we were going to fly into outer space. My father had sent me some dehydrated ice cream, so I packed it in my knapsack for the trip. I had also written down a list of astronaut words that I'd looked up in the encyclopedia with Aunt Hortense's help. She also helped me create a vegetable dye with spinach and lemon rinds and we dyed a tube sock to create a caterpillar puppet. I never managed to feel childish about my fantasy trips, I guess because they helped me feel at ease when I was traveling alone and because I didn't have the sort of childhood where things involving the imagination came with a certain "appropriate" age range. By this time, I had a number of regular friends from the train; they were like a second family, and always very supportive.
So, my caterpillar and my astro-desserts and I were on our way to the Lone Star State, and that's when I met Sofia. She was the widow of a railway magnate and had her own luxurious car on the back of the train. She was eighty-seven years old, but she looked great for a fifty-year-old. And not in that revolting face-lift wax-fruit way; she just seemed vivacious and outgoing and young at heart. We met in the dining car when another young passenger's pet ferret knocked over the dessert cart into my lap. I jumped up out of surprise, and in doing so knocked Sofia's cocktail from her hand as she was walking by. Fortunately, she was extremely magnanimous about it and allowed me to buy her another drink and invited me to her table to chat. She talked all about her late husband ("wealthy and insane without having the good sense to keep the two separate"), her stepson ("bird-brained, chicken-legged, and pigeon-toed") and all the animals she kept on her ranch. We had a lot of laughs and she was really charming.
The next day, she invited me back to her car to show me around. How magnificent! It even included a balcony on the back where you could stand and watch the tracks disappear into the distance. We shared lemonade and talked about her first husband (the railway tycoon was number three). Her first husband was a stage craftsman, sort of like what my father does. He worked with Harry Houdini, helping to create the tools he used in his illusions. So, like my folks, he traveled a lot and worked with his hands a lot and had a creative and inquisitive mind. And, also like my folks, I guess all of that led to a rather unique personality.
First of all, despite the fact that his given name was Frank and he'd been called that by everyone his whole life, he began insisting that everyone call him "Magpie." And, although it was his job to help build props for Houdini's illusions, his hobby – trying to find a way to assassinate Houdini on stage – began to play at odds with his profession. The other craftsmen were constantly discovering some elaborate Rube Goldberg-style contraption that Magpie was building into his props so that while they did accomplish Houdini's stated goals, there was a secret switch that also tried to stab him in the eye or set his arms on fire or something. Everyone else on the team insisted that Houdini press charges, or at least fire Magpie, but the escape artist would hear none of it. He insisted that it only added to the challenge and that the others should be as devoted to their craft as Magpie was.
Sofia said she loved him very much and that she enjoyed the traveling show business lifestyle. She had dozens of stories to tell, like the time that Magpie decided he was allergic to water and insisted on bathing in sarsaparilla for months. Or the fact that, at every new town they went to, Magpie was vehemently denying rumors that he had once swum from Boston to Belfast, despite the fact that no one could determine where these rumors could have started other than Magpie himself. She said that she never really stopped loving him, and that when he had left her (he decided that living with a woman he loved so much would only distract from his attempt to make a living selling chess sets he whittled out of pimentos) he instructed her that upon his death she should hold a lavish festival in his honor at the Cape of Good Hope and only invite Turkish royalty and sea otters to the fourteen-course dinner. In order to be sure that she would know of his passing, he had taken to placing an ad in the "Chicago Tribune Classifieds" on the penultimate Sunday of every month with the same message. "Once was for me; twice was for you. The third was for charity; the fourth one was true. Meet at the barn; I'll be in the loft. I left my spare pocketwatch chain in your brother's stovepipe hat and if you don't remind me to get it back from him at the christening of his new yacht, I'll never remember." He never explained why he had chosen that message, but Sofia was meant to know that if it didn't show up in the paper, it was time to throw the party.
I asked her if she really planned to go through with it and she told me, "You know, I ask myself that all the time. Every year I visit a friend in San Diego who works at a marine science center, and he gives me an updated list of otters who are hearty enough to survive the trip but docile enough not to be a problem. Early on, I wouldn't dream of disappointing him in his final wish. I loved him just that much. But then as I grew older and my memories of him began to fade, I realized that it was poppycock. Insanity! Now, I make the trip to San Diego once a year, but I pray that I die before he does."
That seemed an unfortunate way to feel about things and I asked her if Magpie knew how much this request had burdened her. "Yes," she said, "we've talked about it. In fact, I suspect he may already have died, but hired some youngster to keep placing the ad so that I won't have to throw the party. It's really impossible to prove either way, so I try not to think about it." She sat quietly for a few moments and added, "I do miss him though."
As I returned to my seat toward the front of the train, I thought about Sofia and Magpie. I shared some freeze-dried ice cream with my caterpillar puppet and considered how sweet it was for two people who had been apart for so long to be working so hard just to make the other one feel loved.
All of these memories coursed through my mind as Gary and I fell toward the forest floor. He reached out for his little gear box as we were thrown clear of the branches, and started minutely working the gears. Just as our tree was about to smash into another, I found myself resting in a hammock on a beach, with Gary at my side and a young woman of apparently Polynesian descent offering me my choice of finger sandwiches from a large platter she was carrying.
I have to say, it was just the kind of thing the situation called for.