‘The Disappearing Act’ is a short story by Minsoo Kang, professor of history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
U appeared before I as if by magic.
Or so it felt to I, as U suddenly came into his life just when he had resigned himself to a solitary existence. In contrast to the steady success of his career, I’s personal life had been marked by a series of failed relationships that had invariably ended in heartbreaking disasters. So he entered the autumn of his life despairing of the prospect of finding the right person for himself. The waning of physical desire at his age seemed like a blessing as it helped him come to terms with his fate and to concentrate fully on his work that he loved and was becoming lauded for. He was beset with the occasional pangs of loneliness and regret, but they came to him with decreasing frequency and intesnity as time went on.
But then U seemed to materialize out of nowhere, entering his life by chance and then staying to fulfill his abandoned expectation of a relationship that promised to be lasting and meaningful. She was not some figure out of an improbable fantasy, but one who was appropriate for him in all the ways that mattered. She was not glamorous in terms of conventional beauty, but I was surprised by the revival of intense physical desire for her. Their personalities were quite dissimilar but in a way that complimented rather than caused conflict. And there was a certain sense of belonging together that they both felt early in their relationship.
There were, of course, all the normal issues that needed to be worked out between them as they headed toward commitment. His past failures at least taught him how to better navigate through such issues, much of it from painful lessons on what not do. One such lesson was the importance of participating in his partner’s hobby even if it held little interest for him. A girlfriend from when he was still young had tried in vain to involve him in her passion for the tango. As he always found dancing to be a ridiculous activity for himself, he adamantly refused to accompany her to lessons. When the relationship went awry, she left him for a guy who was her dance partner.
In the case of the current relationship, U’s idiosyncratic interest was not a particularly odious thing for him to take part in. But I could not for the life of him understand what she got out of her obsession with old-fashioned magic shows. There were certain illusionists who were well known among enthusiasts whose performances she never missed when they came to town. She had no affinity for younger entertainers with cutting-edge acts, her favorites being older men who went through the same dreary motions of producing a rabbit out of a hat, making his assistant disappear behind a curtain, pulling a handkerchief out of a pocket which turns out to be the first in a long series of multicolored handkerchiefs, and so on, acts that most people have seen a hundred times. It also puzzled I that U, a person of generally serious and rational disposition, reacted to the hackneyed performances with the delighted wonder of a child. And she was a scientist no less, one who spent most of her working hours in a lab conducting experiments, collecting data, and making calculations.
When he questioned her about it, she said something vague about fond memories of going to such shows with her father, a happy respite from the miseries of her childhood that was marked by the abuses of her mentally unstable mother. He was curious to learn more, but he could tell from her tone that she needed to take her own time in revealing details about her troubled background. As per another lesson he had learned from the disasters of past relationships, he did not press her on the issue.
All in all, it was not such a terrible chore for him to accompany her to such performances every once in a while. Besides, it was only fair since she was good enough to indulge him in his guilty pleasure that some would also consider out of character for a well-educated man like himself, namely his affinity for mindless action films of the genre that he called ‘things blew up real good.’ When he got excited over a trailer for a movie about a group of mercenaries on a heist to steal a McGuffin device from a high-tech fortress guarded by deadly robots, she rolled her eyes and muttered “Oh dear God.” But she dutifully accompanied him to the theater full of cheering man-boys. So far be it for him to deny her pleasure when she exclaimed with girlish delight that a certain ‘Oracle O’ was coming to town for a single night’s performance.
As a sign of the general public’s lack of interest, the show was held on a weeknight in a dank basement hall of a music venue that stank of bleach. There were people at only four tables, sipping drinks purchased from the bar upstairs. The elderly Oracle O came out, his short and slim figure clad in a worn tuxedo and a plastic smile fixed on his skeletal head with a thin moustache and gray hair slicked back with glistening gel. He was accompanied by a middle-aged assistant, a fading beauty with the same smile but tired eyes that seemed to speak of a legitimate acting career that had never taken off, forcing her to still follow the old geezer around so she could send money every once in a while to her ungrateful son in college.
And so the performance proceeded with the usual pigeon flying out of a cape, the assistant going into a box and the magician inserting swords through it, the assistant levitating horizontally and the magician running a metal ring across her, and so on, all to applause that was comically desultory except coming from U who displayed genuine delight. I usually took the tedium in stride, but that night he found himself particularly annoyed with it all for some reason. When he looked at his watch for the third time thinking that it must be almost over, he saw that it was not even halfway through which nearly made him cuss out loud. But he held back from expressing his exasperation, reminding himself that in the previous week she had sat through with him the three-hour ‘director’s cut’ of a movie about a police detective with secret superpowers tracking down a group of violent criminals with superpowers.
At some point, he glanced over at the next table where a middle-aged couple was sitting, a thin mousy-looking woman watching the performance with an expression of pained politeness and an obese man with a ruddy face dressed in a tan suit. He apparently had consumed quite a few drinks at the bar before coming down to watch Oracle O. In his inebriated state, he looked downright angry at having to sit through the performance, his brow furrowed deeply beneath a balding pate.
I was amused by the more extreme version of his own annoyance, and he was about to turn his attention back to the stage, when the man suddenly got up and yelled at the magician.
“Hey, why don’t you get some new goddamn acts?”
Oracle O, who was in the process of producing a bouquet of flowers out of a wand, stopped in mid-motion, his rigid smile instantly replaced by a baleful expression that was rather terrifying for the sudden switch.
“Oh yeah?” the magician yelled back. “Why don’t you stop fucking your wife’s sister?”
The mousy woman let out a scream before covering her mouth.
“My sister…” she muttered breathlessly before she jumped up and ran out of the hall.
The husband looked aghast at her departure and then at the magician, looking confused and panicked. He finally ran after the woman. As soon as he was gone, the plastic smile returned to Oracle O’s face and he resumed his act.
The remaining audience sat in tense silence as the magician went through the rest of his routine, as if the scene that they had witnessed was too shocking for them to process right away. At the end of the performance, they gave him a solid but somewhat worried applause, which O and his assistant accepted with due grace before exiting to the side of the stage. The spectators then left the venue quickly, still too taken aback to talk about what they had seen.
I and U also left the venue without a word, mulling over their own confused thoughts. When they reached their parked car, U finally spoke but only to point to an ice cream store across the street, the bright multicolored lights from the place promising flavorful pleasures. They both had a hankering for the treat, so they walked over to the place, entered the spacious establishment and went up to the counter where the numerous available selections were displayed. They tried a few flavors before each of them ordered two scoops of different kinds. After they sat down at a table, they enjoyed the taste of frigid sweetness in silence until they were done with the first scoop. It was then that a thought suddenly occurred to I.
“Goddamn it!” he exclaimed. “That was a setup! That was totally a setup!”
“What? Why do you say that?” U asked, looking up with surprise.
“Think about it. That dull performance. Then the guy yelling at him, and all of a sudden the magician reading his mind. Come on!”
“I didn’t think the performance was dull. He was wonderful. Besides, why would he do that? What purpose would it serve?”
“Well, the audience’s attention perked up after that, didn’t it? Like we were all thinking, whoa, maybe he does have magical powers.”
“So what? I mean, he didn’t make a big deal of it or anything. He didn’t make any kind of deal at all. Just went on with his act.”
“But the whole mood of the place changed after that.”
“Are you saying he faked what we saw just to change the mood?”
“Maybe he did it to get more respect from the audience.”
“But reading minds is not what he does. Getting more respect would make sense if that was part of his act, like guessing what card you are holding.”
“Wait, if he never does mind tricks, why the hell does he call himself Oracle O?”
U pondered the question but could offer no answer.
“But if it was a setup,” I went on after a moment, “it would have been better if he had revealed it at the end. If he had invited the two playing the couple to the stage. Then we would have all laughed and clapped and talked about what a clever trick that was. But he left us hanging at the end, making us go home disturbed.”
“Maybe he can read minds,” U suggested, “but he doesn’t use the power in his performance.”
“Why not? Why wouldn’t he, when that would make him successful?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because when he used it before, there were terrible consequences. People got hurt. Or he doesn’t want the attention that would come if people knew that he was a genuine psychic. So he tries not to use it.”
“But tonight, that guy really pissed him off. So he broke his own rule to humiliate him in public.”
They both gave that some thought.
“You know,” I said, “there is an easy way we could find out if that was a setup or not.”
“We go to his next performance. If the same thing happens again, then we’ll know.”
She considered it seriously.
“No. I don’t want to do that,” she said.
“Because it would be bad either way.”
“What do you mean?”
“If it happens again, then I’d be really disappointed. Look, of course I know that everything he does is illusions. But it’s fun for me because I don’t know how he does it, and I don’t want to know. If I found out that he resorted to a cheap trick like that just to be taken more seriously, I’d be really disappointed. He’s always been one of my favorites, with his style, his mannerisms, his voice. But if it was a setup, I wouldn’t want to see him again.”
“What if it doesn’t happen at the next performance?”
“Then we’d be back where we are now. I actually didn’t like that scene interrupting his performance, but since it happened, I’d rather not know what it was about.”
“You don’t want of find out whether he’s a genuine psychic or a fraud?”
“No, I don’t. That way nothing would change in my regard for him, and I can enjoy his performance next time he comes to town.”
“But don’t tell me you think that he could be an actual psychic? You, a scientist?”
“I’m saying, I don’t want to know. It’s not a matter of whether I believe in psychic or any other kind of supernatural phenomenon. I just don’t think about such things like that. I spend all day dealing with numbers and data. That’s the world I live in. Every once in while, I like to take a break from that and enjoy a little bit of the wonder I had when I was a child. I just don’t want anything to spoil that. Do you understand?”
“All right,” I said. “But don’t you think it’s possible…oh my God!” he exclaimed as he caught sight of something behind U.
She turned around and saw the obese man in a tan suit walk into the store. As they both watched intently, he went to the counter, picked a flavor very quickly, as if he was set in his ways and did not need the time to choose. He presently got his scoops, paid for them, and sat down at a table on the other side of the establishment where he laid into his ice scream.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“I feel so stupid.”
“Because I missed the most obvious explanation.”
“Oracle O, he isn’t psychic. He just knows that guy. Maybe they are neighbors, and he and his wife were obligated for some reason to come to his performance. But he was obviously pissed off about being there. Perhaps he had to because he lost a bet to O in a humiliating manner. So when he had that outburst…”
“Oracle O just said what he knew,” U finished. “Maybe because he saw him sneaking around with his wife’s sister. Or through neighborhood gossip.”
“Yup. I mean, it only looked strange because it happened during a magic performance. If that scene had taken place at a cocktail party or something, it would have been embarrassing, but nobody would have thought that magical powers might be involved.”
She frowned at that.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I don’t know. That makes sense, but it’s also kind of sad.”
“I thought it wasn’t about the reality of psychic powers for you.”
“I know, but…it takes the fun out of it. The fun of not knowing.”
I looked over at the obese man.
“You know what,” he said, “I’m going to go over and ask him.”
“I’ll say that I’m sorry Oracle O did that to him. It was uncalled for, embarrassing him like that in public. Then I’ll ask if he knows him.”
“Just don’t, okay?”
“Are you worried that he’d react badly?”
“What is it?”
“Don’t…please don’t ruin this for me, okay?” she said as tears suddenly came to her eyes, which surprised him. “The whole magic thing…please just leave it alone. It has a special part in my life and…I don’t want to know if he is a psychic, or if he knows those people, or if the whole thing was a setup. I just don’t want to know. Will you let me just have a little magic in my life? Just a little bit. The world is so…so harsh and concrete and inflexible and cruel. I just want this thing that’s always been an escape for me. When my dad would take me out of that awful house with mom screaming and throwing things. We could get away from all that for a while, to a world of wonder and magic and fun. If you go talk to that man and find out what it was really about, I think…I think…I don’t know. I feel like I’d lose that enchantment in the world. And you would lose as well. You would lose something important in your life. I don’t want that to happen to either of us.”
He stared at her, feeling awful. As he watched her wipe her eyes with a napkin, he felt an overwhelming desire to protect her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. If you want me to drop it, then I’ll drop it. It’s not a big deal.”
After she managed to calm down, she began to get up.
“I’m going to go clean up, okay?” she said.
U had to go down a long corridor next to the ice cream counter and then turn into a corner before reaching the bathroom. When she disappeared from his sight, he could hear the loud creaking of the door before it slammed shut.
After I finished the last of his ice scream, he looked up at the man in a tan suit who was still eating without pause. He stared at him as U took her time in the bathroom. It then occurred to him that the man, sitting on the far side of the store, could not be seen from the long corridor. Also, the creaking noise of the bathroom door would give him plenty of warning of U’s impending return. As he did not know how long he had, he quickly got up and walked over to the man. He was immediately struck by the enormous amount of ice cream he had bought, perhaps as many as seven scoops, which disgusted him a bit.
“Hello,” I said to him. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was at the magic show.”
The obese man looked up at him with an impassive expression on his ruddy face.
“I just wanted to say that what the magician did was totally uncalled for,” I told him, keeping his ear open for the bathroom door opening. “That was a lousy thing for him to do, especially in public.”
I paused to gauge his response, but he gave him nothing, just staring at him with unfeeling eyes as if he had spoken in a language that he did not know and did not care to understand.
“So, uhm…” he said, beginning to feel uncomfortable. “Do you know that guy? The magician? Is he an acquaintance of yours?”
The man stared at him for a moment longer before he looked back down and resumed eating his ice cream, consuming it like it was a grim and urgent task he had to complete. I stood around for a moment longer, not knowing what to say next.
“Okay, well, sorry to disturb you,” he finally said to him. “Have a good night.”
I returned to his table, feeling awkward and stupid. He looked down at his cup and saw that the last of his ice cream had melted into a tiny colorful pool. He gazed at the liquid as he waited. And he waited and waited some more.
After an accountable period of time, he suddenly came to himself as if awakening from a dream. He looked around the establishment, at the man sitting at the other end, and then down at his cup, wondering why he was still sitting around. Other than the strange little episode during the performance that still disturbed him a little, it had been a pleasant enough evening. He got to indulge in his idiosyncratic affinity for old-fashioned magic shows, something that he had inherited from his mother. During his unhappy childhood, she had taken him to such performances as a temporary escape from the awful house where his mentally unstable father screamed and threw things at them. An escape to a world of enchantment and wonder, away from the harshness and cruelty of his home life. As an adult, it became a welcome break from all the calculations and experiments of his work at the lab. But now it was time for him to go home and get some sleep so that he can return to the world of science refreshed and clear headed for the important work he was doing that could shed significant light on the nature of reality itself, ascertaining that it was not fixed in a single strand but rather consisted of multiple variants that co-existed at the same time.
As he walked out of the store and headed for his car across the street, he was suddenly overcome with an inexplicable sense of loss. It did not come from the general feeling of loneliness that he had gotten used to in his solitary life, but an impression of having left something behind, something that was precious and meaningful to him. There was also an inexplicable sense of guilt, as if the loss was the result of some transgression he had committed, a violation of a prohibition that led to his ouster from paradise. He considered that it came the remembrance of the times he had gone to magic shows with his now deceased mother, including the deep feeling of melancholy at the end of the performances from the prospect of returning home to his father’s insanity. But he felt certain that there was something else that he could not put a finger on, some other source of sadness that he just could not identify. When he got in his car and sat behind the wheel, he looked back at the lights of the ice cream store where he could see the obese man still sitting at his table, stuffing himself with ice cream. For a reason that he still could not fathom, the sense of loss overwhelmed him to the extent of making him break down in tears.
And so he sat alone in the darkness, weeping for the absence of something that was so very important to him, the presence and the very knowledge of which was suddenly taken away, as if by magic.
The Disappearing Act is an original short story by Minsoo Kang, professor of history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of The Story of Hong Gildong and the author of the book Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: The Korean Hero Hong Gildong in Literature, History, and Culture. He is also the author of the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas.