Alan the Great

May 23, 2008
By Michael Lipkowitz, Buffalo Grove, IL

Beneath the shade of a metal umbrella, Alan Gernstein took a sip from his pink lemonade through a plastic bendy straw. He could see through the window the men breaking apart the ceiling. They were tearing apart his childhood; the room was tumbling into itself, his bed thrown aside, the white stucco walls crumblings. He had traced his fingers across those glossy drawers that got stuck when you tried to open them, and the bedpost he had hit his heel against so many times. They were destroying the ceiling he had gazed at, at all hours of the night as a kid, his view shielded by glossy tears. All those memories, tossed around by these drunk men who probably didn’t even speak english. They were tearing it apart as if it meant nothing.
And what if they found that small bit of blue ribbon, sticking out from beneath his bed? Well, he would deal with that later. For now, he would enjoy his cold drink, watching the sun descend at the end of his stretching metallic backyard. The sky was hazy but the day was warm, warm enough for comfort. Everything was fine in paradise.

The neighbors didn’t understand the metal landscape of his backyard. They were all wealthy; none of them were stranger to certain quirks and tendencies. A fascination with glass fountains, with silver towering roofs, with golden bricks—but metal plants? Metal rocks, metal beach balls? It could just be another ‘bout of the po-mo; they all knew how that went.

But for Alan, it was not about the aesthetics, not about pretentious post-modernism. It was about the idea of illusion—about expecting something and getting something else.

His love for illusion stretched back to his childhood, when he had practiced shuffling cards on the sidewalk. The ground was rough on his knees, leaving dull red imprints whenever he would stand up, so he began to sit in the grass beside the sidewalk, letting the glossy cards slip from hand to hand in a perpetual dance, his butt sinking into the quasi-moist mud.
He would deal them out and do tricks, whether or not anyone was there to witness them. His mom would come out and give him lemonade, worried about dehydration, but somehow he always got by. And when he went inside, after the sun set, he would practice in his bedroom, on the bedsheet that was covered with images of racecars and rocketships. He would wear matching navy blue pajamas and practice late into the night. His mom would come in and tell him it was time to go to bed; she’d smile, slightly worried. But beneath the bed, he had the penlight, gripped tightly between his loose teeth. His mouth, filled with the taste of metal, washing away the lingering lemon juice.
His hands got tired from so much work, but he would never stop. He was completely devoted. Still, each night he would fall asleep, even though he didn’t want to. He would stay up all night practicing, thinking he could push sleep away forever. But it always came down on him surreptitiously; that was why each morning was so disorienting; he’d wake up, on his back, head on his pillow—when had he moved, when had he closed his eyes? He could not recall. Someone must have come in the night—no, no, it had to have been his body. His deceiving body. And that’s when Alan knew his body was an illusion, too.
He kept practicing into his teenage years. The cards weren’t even good anymore; the glossy film over his pack of blue Bicycle cards had quickly dissolved, and the cards were coming apart, with folded corners and jutting construction paper coming from the center. The cards were breaking apart; they were fake, weren’t even real. The ace of spades was ripped in half. Things weren’t the same.
But Alan kept going—it was all worth it for the look on their faces. He never knew when exactly he would whip out the deck—at parties, at rehearsals, before class—but he did whenever he could, always to a chorus of smiles. He would toss them around and shuffle like a pro. There were no seams in his presentation; unlike the cards, his skills never deteriorated. In-between moments, mid-shuffle, he would sneak glances at the beaming smiles on their faces, secretly smiling himself—and they would never notice, their eyes glued to the cards. He knew that to them it looked effortless, the smooth dancing of the cards from hand to hand to hand; they couldn’t see behind his unbroken presentation, couldn’t see behind to the nights and nights of crying over his failure, over his mistakes. A broken shuffle, a fallen card—it was acid, burning into his skin. And each morning he would wake up in a fit, crying, knowing he had fallen asleep again, had gave in to his body once more. Another night of practice, ruined.
They didn’t see any of that; to them, he had woken up one day and realized he was able to perform magic tricks. As if it was innate from birth. Alan supposed that was the nature of magic in general. Like the story his mom had told him of the servant, struck dead as he was trying to silence a wolf, just so the sleeping king could not be disturbed by its howl.
He would be the most successful at parties. In the dark, in the fading neon lights gently hovering over the dirty floor—they could catch his art only in glimpses. And in the stretches of dark was when he would sin—he would lie and scheme and deceive. In those moments he did not know whether he was smiling or not, could not tell if he was keeping up the charade. All he was sure of was the second that the beams of light returned to his poised form, he was together again, beaming, his hands moving slowly and flipping the cards over with such grandeur that the crowd gathered about him would clap with delight. They hooted and howled and screamed, but it didn’t matter because it was drowned out by the pulsing music.
And afterwards, a girl or so would lean closer to his side, whisper in his ear, their hands sliding down the fabric of his clothes. He would smile, laugh—hell if they were funny, hell if they looked good. He was so used to putting up the charade he didn’t even care what he felt anymore, didn’t even care if there was an attraction or not. He just let himself be pulled by their cold hands and cold words towards the dark corners of empty rooms. And in there, there was no light, no consciousness or certainty of what was happening or who he was. He just let himself slip through his own fingers.
His high point was at his high school talent show. Not too much talent had actually turned up; a few auspicious singers, a few crappy dancers. But then Alan got on stage, and suddenly the crowd turned up their heads. And in that moment, Alan Gernstein drifted away, away from the tricks that blended into one another, and the crowd’s faces, the smiles and laughs he could not make out anymore. Alan Gernstein was gone; no, now there was only Alan the Great. With his black cape and starry hat, he would amaze them all, would surprise them all. Beneath the hot lights and their steady gaze, he became the illusion.
As Alan grew older, he found himself pulling out his familiar blue deck of cards less and less. It was always waiting for him beneath his bed, wrapped with the same thin blue ribbon it had been wrapped in when he had received it in his open hands on his sixth birthday. On that day it was treasure, glowing gold. It was loaded with moments just waiting to burst out, potential moments of fame and glory. Everybody would love him, would adore his work, whether or not they even knew him, whether or not they even wanted to know him. But now it appealed to him less and less; Alan Gernstein was tired of magic, tired of the cheesy smiles and ephemeral applause.
Soon Alan graduated from college and found a job at NoviTech, leaving his deck behind him, beneath the bed with the bedsheet covered with rocketships. His job at NoviTech was to detect hackers. They treated him so well, gave him a corner office surrounded by lots of glass and lights and mirrors, all lush and extravagant. But he knew enough about illusions to know it was all for show.
Each day he was assigned a different project, a different offender. He would track them down, follow their cyber trails that they all had tried so hard to cover up. He’d find each one by noon the next day, and they would be jailed within twenty four hours, all the vandals and bandits who had been out there terrorizing NoviTech’s different banks and stores, tearing apart code and hijacking customer accounts. And to him it was easy, effortless; still, NoviTech’s higher ups treated him like gold. The police trusted him so much that they didn’t even bother investigating anymore; he gave the word and the person was arrested, twenty five to life.
They kept his salary inflated enough where he would not complain about the hours they made him work. So he moved to an upper class gated community, bought a four floor mansion with fifty-two rooms. It was all just a game to him—he would order the workers over here, build up this, add this—they were like mice, obeying his every word, sent running by the extension of his finger.
One day, as the workers built skylights into the ceiling of Alan’s bedroom, they found a piece of blue ribbon sticking out from beneath the bed with the rocket ship bedsheets. It was a deck of cards; extremely worn, but still functional. The men scratched the stubble on their chins, holding up the botched ace of spades. It seemed to connect somehow with the framed article on the wall, the one about a talent show.
They called him up; Alan walked up all four flights of stairs, groaning. It seemed so long ago he had been in this room, had lifted up the bedsheet to take out the cards once more. They were excited, eager to see Alan perform for them. He shrugged, settling on showing them the classic Time Shift, just for old time’s sake.
And in that moment when the cards finally passed through his hands once more, he felt new blood rush through him. The world seemed to be bright again. The silver moon shined in through the newly-created skylights, illuminating his blue bedsheets, his red dresser, and the brown stucco wall. Outside he could see it reflecting off the metal umbrellas and plants and rocks. And it all seemed to be shining on him, all towards him.
He slipped the man’s card into his callused hand; his fingers grasped it slowly, his breath that smelt like beer—it was an elementary trick, any grade-schooler could’ve done it. But Alan found himself breathing such life into it—it was all coming back to him, the nights practicing beneath the covers, practicing the smile, the prestige. It was fake, all of it, a lie, but it was so much better than his honest self. Alan Gernstein was boring; but this person, this Alan the Great, this man was the stuff of legends. The way his arms swooped through the air, the way the cards seemed to follow his hands as he shuffled, drifting slowly through the air. Alan Gernstein was no more.
And in that second Alan the Great performed his greatest trick ever. In the air above the skylight there was a blaze of orange fire that eclipsed the silver moon and far overpowered the thin light spilling onto the white stucco ceiling. Orange seemed to illuminate the room, their faces glowing, reflecting its blazing fury. And just as quickly as it had come, it was gone, replaced by a cold solid ball of water that, after remaining suspended for only a moment, dropped downwards with a splash, covering their faces and blinding them momentarily.
As they wiped the water from their wet faces, it dripped from their fingers, into their clothes, into the soft blue carpet. Something was not right, something was different. And then they realized—Alan was not there, was gone, extinguished into the air. They turned over the bed, opened the closet and searched through the pile of clothes in the hamper. But he was gone; not even his footprints remained. Eventually they forgot what they were looking for, forgot whose house they were in. They all filed outside clutching their beer cans tightly, for it was the only thing here that was familiar to them. They stumbled into the street, scoffing at the upscale pretentiousness—fifty-two rooms, fifty-two rooms! Around them stretched extravagant glass towers and wide open atriums, all throughout the neighborhood. The materialism was intoxicating; it all seemed to be for the game, for the show of it. They did not know why, but the air was getting colder by the minute; their beer tasted suspiciously like lemon, and the scent of metal was left lingering in the air.

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