About the Author
Victoria Kelly received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, and her M.Phil. in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a US Mitchell Scholar. She is the author of the poetry collection When the Men Go Off to War. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in the anthologies Best American Poetry 2013 and Contemporary American Poetry, as well as Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and North American Review. She lives in Virginia with her husband and daughters.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Mrs. Houdini Chapter 1
Besides the beach, there was no better place to spend a humid Saturday afternoon on Coney Island than inside Vacca’s Theater, where it was cool and dark. There were enough seats to make the place seem popular, but few enough that the stage always looked close, as if it were just on the other side of your living room. Bess had performed there three weeks earlier, right after she’d turned eighteen and joined the Floral Sisters, and the audience had been kind, throwing pink roses onto the stage. She and the girls knew better than to give their real names, which were dull, German names, and there would always be a crowd of eager men waiting by the theater doors afterward, wanting to know if they were really sisters, and was their last name really Floral?
This morning one of the girls had persuaded Bess to come with her. Her real name was Nora but everyone called her Doll, because she had tiny, rose-pink fingernails and eyes like moons. It was going to be a real riot, she said; a magician named Dash had saved her two seats and promised her a good show.
“You know, the other magician’s his brother,” Doll told her as they crossed the street from their boardinghouse onto the fairground. “And he’s unattached as well.”
“Of course he is,” Bess said. “And they’re always brothers.”
Doll rolled her eyes. “No, his real brother.”
“That’s what he told you, at least.” Doll was always giddy with the anticipation of love, always bringing Bess along on dates, and the worst were the dates with other performers. They all made their livings pretending to be something they were not—Bess and Doll included—but it was difficult for the men especially to be both charming and sincere at the same time, when in show business you could really only be one or the other.
Their seats were in the third row, left, and they had a good view of the stage when the two magicians stepped out and announced themselves to the crowd. They spoke loudly, and with authority, but the reception from the audience was merely polite. They were not transported yet; everyone could still hear the bells and laughter of the carnival outside, not quite muffled by the humidity of the afternoon. The women fanned their faces lazily, and no one was quite sure exactly who the Brothers Houdini were, although they billed themselves as “escape artists.”
“Which one’s Dash?” Bess asked, and Doll pointed to the taller of the two, who was tying the other inside a black cloth sack.
She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed, because the one Doll called Harry wasn’t as tall as Dash, or pleased, because Harry was clearly the more athletic of the two, with darker hair and a rounder jaw. She had always liked dark-haired men. In high school, she had come close to losing her way with a waiter who’d kissed her so hard he’d bitten her. Still, she had been charmed by his coal-black hair and the swagger of a hot summer.
Still inside the sack, Harry knelt down in a steamer trunk, which Dash then locked and wrapped with a heavy braided rope. There was no sound or movement from inside the trunk. Dash pulled a curtain around the trunk and himself so that both men were completely obscured from view.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared from behind the curtain, raising his voice to drown out the sounds of the music outside. Doll pressed her palms together in anticipation. “Behold”—he clapped three times—“a miracle!”
The curtain was opened by unseen hands, and there, on the other side, stood Harry, completely free, arms raised triumphantly in the air. The audience murmured and then broke into loud applause.
Bess leaned toward Doll. “That was slick.”
“Wait,” Doll said, grabbing her arm. “I don’t think it’s over yet.”
Harry, his white shirt miraculously undirtied, proceeded to unwind the rope from around the trunk and open the latch. Inside, emerging somehow from the cloth sack, also unrumpled, was Dash.
The audience cheered. “Bravo!” Doll called, getting to her feet. From the stage, Dash noticed them and smiled. Bess was impressed and curious. It had been a matter of only a few minutes since Harry himself had been tied up in that sack. How could he have managed to get himself out, and Dash in, so quickly?
Then, from the back of the theater, a voice broke out. “Youse a bunch of fakers!” someone cried. The crowd parted to reveal a scowling, gray-haired man with his fists in the air. “I know fakers when I sees them, and youse two are some fakers!”
Onstage, Dash and Harry looked at each other. “I beg to differ with you, sir,” Harry said, and the audience laughed.
“What you have here is a fake box, and I’m gonna show this thing up,” the man cried.
“Do it!” someone else called. “Go up there and do it!”
Bess felt sorry for the Houdinis. She wished she could save them. She saw Dash wince, and she looked at Doll. “Those poor boys. He’s ruining their act.” But neither brother seemed the least bit flustered.
The man made his way up to the stage, cheered by the audience, and when he arrived he stood face-to-face with Harry and Dash, his cheeks flaming red.
“I can get myself outta that cheap box,” he announced. “I been doin’ acts for thirty years, and you’re dirtyin’ the stage with your fake tricks.”
“Please,” Harry said, motioning toward the trunk still sitting in the middle of the stage. The audience laughed again, nervously this time.
The man climbed inside the sack and pulled it up to his shoulders and then over his head, still muttering to himself. When he was completely enclosed, Harry tied the sack and helped him kneel down inside the trunk. Dash closed the latch and locked it, then pulled the curtain around the trunk, and Harry and Dash sat down on the edge of the stage to wait, their legs dangling just above the floor.
For the first few minutes everyone was quiet; Bess was not quite sure whether they were rooting for the old man or for the Houdinis; it would make for an unexpected show either way. By the start of the third minute, the crowd began to murmur.
Doll looked at Bess and beamed. “Dash promised a riot, didn’t he? I’ll tell you what, this is wonderful fun. I wonder how long he’ll stay in there.”
Bess wasn’t so sure. By the fifth minute it was becoming apparent that something was wrong. The crowd was restless, and some people were beginning to boo. Harry stood up from his seat at the corner of the stage and held up his hand.
As the voices died down, the muffled cries behind the curtain became louder. Someone on the other side was calling for help. Dash jumped to his feet, and he and Harry yanked the curtain aside to reveal the trunk, still roped shut. Dash sliced the ropes, and together the brothers helped pull the man, still inside the sack, from the confinement of the trunk. He was writhing inside the cloth, and when they untied it and the fabric fell to his feet, he stood for a moment in the middle of the stage, his body damp with perspiration, and then collapsed on the floor.
The crowd cheered.
The brothers had promised to meet them at the stage door a half hour after the show. Doll begged Bess to go back to their room so she could change. “I hate this skirt.” She tugged at the coarse blue fabric. “I should have worn the red.”
“Won’t Anna be mad when she sees you brought me instead of her?”
“Nah.” Doll shrugged. “She’s got a beau of her own tonight anyway.”
Bess smiled, but she knew why Doll had asked her instead of Anna. Of the three of them, Bess was the plainest; she had the smallest bust and the cruelest shape. Anna, on the other hand, with her corn-blond hair and pillowed cheeks, was the principal among them, and always took the middle spot when they sang.
They lived, with most of the other performers, in West Brighton, in a neighborhood nicknamed the Gut. The rough half a dozen blocks were crammed with shanties, beer halls, and cabarets. The three of them lived in a cheap hotel alongside chorus girls who danced in the bars and hustled customers by slipping hydrate of chloral into their drinks and stealing their wallets. It was Bess’s dream to one day earn enough to stay in the Brighton Beach Hotel, with its white veranda and geranium-lined walkways.
In their room, in the tiny aisle between the bunk and the single bed, each with its own tiny brass lamp, Doll leaned into a hand mirror and examined her eyelashes. “I hate it in here,” she said. “It’s so crammed, and there’s hardly any light.”
Bess nodded but couldn’t complain. It was the most independence she’d had, having grown up under first her mother’s constant religious admonitions, then the protective watchfulness of her older sister. And she did not regret leaving her sister’s tiny apartment on Grand Street, where the wealthier townhomes of Bedford were always just within view, their elaborate stonework and silk-draped windows a reminder of what she could never have. When Doll and Anna had asked her to join the singing troupe, she’d had nothing to lose. She had only a year of high school left, and the careers ahead of her were wife, nun, or shopgirl.
Most of the Gut had burned down a decade earlier, but it was still a wicked place to live, and no girl walked alone there at night. They practiced their act instead in the afternoons, in the park adjacent to the Manhattan Beach Hotel. The performance consisted mainly of love ballads for soprano and alto, accompanied by swaying hips and flickering eyelashes. Onstage, they wore feathers in their hair, black ankle boots, and skirts hemmed to their shins. After a half hour of rehearsal, sprawled on the cool hotel grass, they listened to the guests splashing in the saltwater bathhouses next door and plotted how to win a spot in Henderson’s Music Hall, with its polished wood stage, red velvet seats, and gilded balconies. Bess had been in Coney Island for only three weeks, but already she was lulled by the routine of their lazy afternoons, their evenings at the clam bars or the racetrack, the easy and unpoliced flirtation between men and women. None of it seemed scandalous to her. It did not seem like Gomorrah but rather like Eden, the carousels and the ivory sand and the hotels with their burning lights and pastel awnings, the thick, syrupy smell of the confectioners in the lobbies. She could almost forget the hot, baked sidewalks of Grand Street, the raging nightly altercations of the couple who lived on the other side of the apartment wall. When she was onstage with the girls, the evening air drifting through open windows and the piano music echoing behind her, she could imagine herself living this life forever, accountable to no one, her dark hair braided with pink feathers and the sound of her voice carrying, After the ball is over, after the break of morn, after the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone.
Dash met them first, swinging his stage jacket over his shoulder and cracking some joke about Harry primping like a girl. He picked Doll up by the waist and spun her in a quick circle, pressing his mouth against hers. “I was hoping you’d come,” he said.
“Oh, the act was wonderful,” she breathed. “We wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
He turned to Bess. “I’m Dash,” he said, pumping her hand. “My brother and I saw you in your show last weekend.” He nodded at Doll. “I stopped this one on her way out.”
Bess felt her cheeks burning. She hadn’t noticed them. “I usually don’t pay attention to faces,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry. I know that seems rude.”
Dash shrugged. “Nah.”
“Are you two really brothers?” she asked.
“You don’t look much alike.”
“We’re Hungarian,” he said, as if it were an explanation. Bess didn’t press him further, because the one Doll had called Harry had come outside and was striding over to them. His hair was newly brushed and he’d changed his shoes, but while Dash had switched shirts, Harry wore the same clothing she’d seen onstage. She couldn’t see any stains of perspiration on his shirt. She wondered if that, too, was a trick, whether he’d simply changed into an identical shirt to make it seem as if it had all been easy. If so, it had worked; she was impressed.
“Well, that was good fun,” he said, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Now who are these lovely women here?” He spoke with a slight European accent, enunciating each word carefully, as if he were being especially cautious not to give himself away. Bess wondered what he’d make of learning that her real name was heavily German.
She introduced herself as Bess. When she held out her hand, he turned it over and, boldly, kissed the middle of her palm. She snatched it away, surprised and a little scandalized.
“My mother always told me never to shake a woman’s hand,” he said. “It’s disrespectful.”
Doll laughed and reached for Dash’s arm. “You magicians are quite cheeky, aren’t you?”
Bess considered Harry’s bold gesture. She wasn’t sure what to make of him. He was taller than she was, which was easy considering she was still the height of a child, but he had an arrogance about him that unnerved her.
“Are we going to the beach?” Doll asked. “Let’s, please. It’s sweltering out here.”
The sun was going down behind them, but guests were still pouring onto the grounds, and the streetlamps blazed like the white eyes of ghosts. Bess recalled her mother’s shame when she’d left home, but it was worth it, wasn’t it, to be here in the summer lights in this jewel-encrusted palace, a place with more color and life than she’d ever known.
None of the performers spent much of their free time in the fairground, though. The Bowery was always crowded, the food was expensive, and they didn’t get any of it for free. But mostly, there was always the possibility that theatergoers might recognize or accost them. Even worse than that, although no one said it out loud, was the possibility that they would actually be mistaken for the theatergoers themselves, ordinary men and women who ate hot dogs or waited in line for a goat-cart ride or the Switchback dime railroad. And the idea of it—such tedious, immaculate ordinariness—was abhorrent. They had all come to Coney Island to forge extraordinary, resplendent lives under the lights. Perhaps her sister would be content to wait in line, but Bess would not be one of the onlookers anymore.
“To the beach,” Dash agreed and took Doll’s hand, and Harry fell in step behind them. Bess walked beside him, as she had nowhere else to go, but he didn’t speak to her again. She was unsettled by his silence, and slightly insulted. It seemed outside the bounds of common decency. He was young—almost as young as she—and she wondered if he had ever even been with a woman before. Doll—who was an expert in such matters—had explained to her that when men made a show of their confidence it was often to disguise some sexual insecurity.
Finally she gave in and spoke first. “Tell me something.” She lowered her voice so Dash and Doll wouldn’t hear. “You knew that man in the audience was going to challenge you tonight, didn’t you? You knew he’d never be able to get out of that trunk.”
Harry smiled. “Why would you think that?”
“Or maybe it was all made up, and you paid him to get stuck in there so you could look like a hero.” She surprised herself with this. She hadn’t meant to be so brash. But she was stewing in the insult of his silence, and it had brought out another, harsher ...
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