Fiction

The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick

Elizabeth Gilbert

In Hungary, Richard Hoffman's family had been the manufacturers of Hoffman's Rose Water, a product which was used at that time for both cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Hoffman's mother drank the rose water for her indigestion, and his father used it to scent and cool his groin after exercise. The servants rinsed the Hoffman's table linens in a cold bath infused with rose water, such that even the kitchen would be perfumed. The cook mixed a dash of it into her sweetbread batter. For evening events, Budapest ladies wore expensive imported colognes, but Hoffman's Rose Water was a staple product of daytime hygiene for all women, as requisite as soap. Hungarian men could be married for decades without ever realizing that the natural smell of their wives' skin was not, in fact, a refined scent of blooming roses.

Richard Hoffman's father was a perfect gentleman, but his mother slapped the servants. His paternal grandfather had been a drunk and a brawler, and his maternal grandfather had been a Bavarian boar-hunter, trampled to death at the age of ninety by his own horses. After her husband died of consumption, Hoffman's mother transferred the entirety of the family's fortune into the hands of a handsome Russian charlatan named Katanovsky, a common conjurer and a necromancer, who promised Madame Hoffman audiences with the dead. As for Richard Hoffman himself, he moved to America, where he murdered two people.

 

Hoffman immigrated to Pittsburgh during World War II and worked as a busboy for over a decade. He had a terrible, humiliating way of speaking with customers.

“I am from Hungary!” he would bark. “Are you Hungary, too? If you Hungary, you in the right place!”

For years he spoke such garbage, even after he had learned excellent English and could be mistaken for a native-born steelworker. With this ritual degradation he was tipped generously, and saved enough money to buy a popular supper club called the Pharaoh's Palace, featuring a nightly magic act, a comic, and some showgirls. It was a favorite with gamblers and the newly rich.

When Hoffman was in his late forties, he permitted a young man named Ace Douglas to audition for a role as a supporting magician. Ace had no nightclub experience, no professional photos or references, but he had a beautiful voice over the telephone, and Hoffman permitted him an audience.

On the afternoon of the audition, Ace arrived in a tuxedo. His shoes had a wealthy gleam, and he took his cigarettes from a silver case etched with his clean initials. He was a slim, attractive man with fair brown hair. When he was not smiling, he looked like a matinee idol, and when he was smiling he looked like a friendly lifeguard. Either way, he seemed altogether too affable to perform good magic (Hoffman's other magicians cultivated an intentional menace) but his act was wonderful and entertaining, and he was unsullied by the often stupid fashions of magic at the time. Ace didn't claim to be descended from a vampire, for instance, or empowered with secrets from the tomb of Ramses, or kidnapped by gypsies as a child, or raised by missionaries in the mysterious Orient. He didn't even have a female assistant, unlike Hoffman's other magicians, who knew that some bounce in fishnets could save any sloppy act. What's more, Ace had the good sense and class not to call himself the Great anything, or the Magnificent anybody.

On stage, with his smooth hair and white gloves, Ace Douglas had the sexual ease of Sinatra.

An older waitress named Sandra was setting up the cocktail bar at the Pharaoh's Palace on the afternoon of Ace Douglas's audition. She watched the act for a few minutes, then approached Hoffman and whispered in his ear, “At night, when I'm all alone in my bed, I sometimes think about men.”

“I bet you do, Sandra,” said Hoffman.

She was always talking like this. She was a fantastic, dirty woman, and he had actually had sex with her a few times.

She whispered, “And when I get to thinking about men, Hoffman, I think about a man exactly like that.”

“You like him?” Hoffman asked.

“Oh my.”

“You think the ladies will like him?”

“Oh my,” said Sandra, fanning herself daintily. “Heavens, yes.”

Hoffman fired his other two magicians within the hour.

After that, Ace Douglas worked every night that the Pharaoh's Palace was open. He was the highest-paid performer in Pittsburgh. This was not a decade when nice young women generally came to bars unescorted, but the Pharaoh's Palace became a place where nice women—extremely attractive young single nice women—would arrive without dates, with their best girlfriends and with their best dresses to watch the Ace Douglas magic show. And men would come to the Pharaoh's Palace to watch the nice young women and to buy them expensive cocktails.

Hoffman had his own table at the back of the restaurant, and, after the magic show was over, he and Ace Douglas would entertain young ladies there. The girls would blindfold Ace, and then Hoffman would choose an object on the table for identification.

“It's a fork,” Ace would say. “It's a gold cigarette lighter.”

The more suspicious girls would open their purses and seek unusual objects—family photographs, prescription medicine, a traffic ticket—all of which Ace would describe easily. The girls would laugh, and doubt his blindfold, and cover his eyes with their damp hands. They had names like Lettie and Pearl and Siggie and Donna. They all loved dancing, and they all liked to keep their nice fur wraps with them at the table, out of pride. Hoffman would introduce them to eligible or otherwise interested businessmen. Ace Douglas would escort the nice young ladies to the parking lot late at night, listening politely as they spoke up to him, resting his hand reassuringly on the smalls of their backs if they wavered.

And at the end of every evening Hoffman would say sadly, “Me and Ace, we see so many girls come and go . . .”

Ace Douglas could turn a pearl necklace into a white glove, and a cigarette lighter into a candle. He could produce a silk scarf from a lady's hairpin. But his finest trick was in 1959, when he produced his little sister from a convent school and offered her to Richard Hoffman in marriage.

Her name was Angela. She had been a volleyball champion in the convent school, and she had legs like a movie star's legs, and a very pretty laugh. She was ten days pregnant on her wedding day, although she and Hoffman had only known each other for two weeks. Shortly thereafter, Angela had a daughter, and they named her Esther. Throughout the early 1960s, they all prospered happily.

 

Esther turned eight years old, and the Hoffmans celebrated her birthday with a special party at the Pharaoh's Palace. That night, there was a thief sitting in the cocktail lounge.

He didn't look like a thief. He was dressed well enough, and he was served without any trouble. The thief drank a few martinis. Then, in the middle of the magic show, he leapt over the bar, kicked the bartender away, punched the cash register open and ran out of the Pharaoh's Palace with his hands full of tens and twenties.

The customers were screaming, and Hoffman heard it from the kitchen. He chased the thief into the parking lot and caught him by the hair.

“You steal from me?” he yelled. “You fucking steal from me?”

“Back off, pal,” the thief said. The thief's name was George Purcell, and he was drunk.

“You fucking steal from me!” Hoffman yelled.

He shoved George Purcell into the side of a yellow Buick. Some of the customers had come outdoors, and they were watching from the atrium of the restaurant. Ace Douglas came out, too. He walked past the customers, into the parking lot, and he lit a cigarette. Ace Douglas watched as Hoffman lifted the thief by his shirt and threw him against the hood of a Cadillac.

“Back off me!” Purcell said.

“You fucking steal from me?”

“You ripped my shirt!” Purcell cried, aghast. He was looking down at his ripped shirt when Hoffman shoved him into the side of the yellow Buick again.

Ace Douglas said, “Richard? Could you take it easy?” (The Buick was his, and it was new. Hoffman was steadily pounding George Purcell's head into the door.) “Richard? Excuse me? Excuse me, Richard. Please don't damage my car, Richard.”

Hoffman dropped the thief to the ground, and sat on his chest. He caught his breath and then smiled.

“Don't ever,” he explained. “Ever. Don't ever steal from me. Ever.”

Still sitting on Purcell's chest, he picked up the tens and twenties that had fallen on the asphalt, and handed them to Ace Douglas. Then he slid his hand into Purcell's back pocket and pulled out a wallet, which he opened. He took nine dollars from the wallet, because that was exactly all the money he found there. Purcell was indignant.

“That's my money!” he shouted. “You can't take my money!”

Your money?” Hoffman slapped Purcell's head. “Your money? Your fucking money?”

Ace Douglas tapped Hoffman's shoulder lightly and said, “Richard? Excuse me? Let's just wait for the police, okay? How about it, Richard?”

Your money?” Hoffman was slapping Purcell in the face now with the wallet. “You fucking steal from me, you have no money! You fucking steal from me, I own all your money!”

“Aw Jesus,” Purcell said. “Quit it, will ya? Leave me alone, will ya?”

“Let him be,” Ace Douglas said.

Your money? I own all your money!” Hoffman bellowed. “I own you! You fucking steal from me, I own your fucking shoes!”

Hoffman lifted Purcell's leg and pulled off one of his shoes. It was a nice brown leather wing tip. He hit Purcell with it once in the face, then tore off the other shoe. He beat on Purcell a few times with that shoe, until he lost his appetite for it. Then he just sat on Purcell's chest for a while, catching his breath, hugging the shoes and rocking in a very sad way.

“Aw, Jesus,” Purcell groaned. His lip was bleeding.

“Let's get up now, Richard,” Ace suggested.

After some time, Hoffman jumped up off Purcell and walked back into the Pharaoh's Palace, carrying the thief's shoes. His tuxedo was torn in one knee, and his shirt was hanging loose. The customers backed against the walls of the restaurant and let him pass. He went into the kitchen and threw Purcell's shoes into one of the big garbage cans next to the pot-washing sinks. Then he went into his office and shut the door.

The pot washer was a young Cuban fellow named Manuel. He picked George Purcell's brown wing tips out of the garbage can and held one of them up against the bottom of his own foot. It seemed to be a good match, so he took off his own shoes and put on Purcell's. Manuel's shoes had been plastic sandals, and these he threw away, into the big garbage can. A little later, Manuel watched with satisfaction as the chef dumped a vat of cold gravy on top of the sandals, and then he went back to washing pots. He whistled a little song to himself of good luck.

A policeman arrived. He handcuffed George Purcell and brought him into Hoffman's office. Ace Douglas followed them in.

“You want to press charges?” the cop asked.

“No,” Hoffman said. “Forget about it.”

“You don't press charges, I have to let him go.”

“Let him go.”

“This man says you took his shoes.”

“He's a criminal. He came in my restaurant with no shoes.”

“He took my shoes,” Purcell said. His shirt collar was soaked with blood.

“He never had no shoes on. Look at him. No shoes on his feet.”

“You took my money and my goddamn shoes, you animal. Twenty-dollar shoes!”

“Get this stealing man out of my restaurant, please,” Hoffman said.

“Officer?” Ace Douglas said. “Excuse me, but I was here the whole time, and this man never did have any shoes on. He's a derelict, sit.”

“But I'm wearing dress socks!” Purcell shouted. “Look at me! Look at me!”

Hoffman stood up and walked out of his office. The cop followed Hoffman leading George Purcell. Ace Douglas trailed behind. On his way through the restaurant, Hoffman stopped to pick up his daughter, Esther, from her birthday-party table. He carried her out to the parking lot.

“Listen to me now,” he told Purcell. “You ever steal from me again, I'll kill you.”

“Take it easy,” the cop said.

“If I even see you on the street, I'll fucking kill you.”

The cop said, “You want to press charges, pal, you press charges. Otherwise you take it easy.”

“He doesn't like to be robbed,” Ace Douglas explained.

“Animal,” Purcell muttered.

“You see this little girl!” Hoffman asked. “My little girl is eight years old today. If I'm walking on the street with my little girl and I see you, then I will leave her on one side of the street, and I will cross the street and I will kill you in front of my little girl.”

“That's enough,” the cop said. He led George Purcell out of the parking lot and took off his handcuffs.

The cop and the thief walked away together. Hoffman stood on the steps of the Pharaoh's Palace, holding Esther and shouting.

“Right in front of my little girl, you make me kill you? What kind of man are you? Crazy man! You ruin a little girl's life! Terrible man!”

Esther was crying. Ace Douglas took her from Hoffman's arms.

The next week, the thief George Purcell came back to the Pharaoh's Palace. It was noon, and very quiet. The prep cook was making chicken stock, and Manuel the pot washer was cleaning out the dry-goods storage area. Hoffman was in his office ordering vegetables from his wholesaler. Purcell came straight back into the kitchen, sober.

“I want my goddamn shoes!” he yelled, pounding on the office door. “Twenty-dollar shoes!”

Then Richard Hoffman came out of his office and beat George Purcell to death with a meat mallet. Manuel the pot washer tried to hold him back, and Hoffman beat him to death with the meat mallet, too.

 

Esther Hoffman did not grow up to be a natural magician. Her hands were dull. It was no fault of her own, just an unfortunate birth flaw. Otherwise, she was a bright girl.

Her uncle, Ace Douglas, had been the American National Champion Close-Up Magician for three years running. He'd won his titles using no props or tools at all, except a single silver dollar coin. During one competition, he'd vanished and produced the coin for fifteen dizzying minutes without the expert panel of judges ever noticing that the coin spent a lot of time resting openly on Ace Douglas's own knee. He would put it there, where it lay gleaming to be seen if one of the judges had only glanced away for a moment from Ace's hands. But they would never glance away, convinced that he still held a coin before them in his fingers. They were not fools, but they were dupes for his fake takes, his fake drops, his mock passes and a larger cast of impossible moves so deceptive they went entirely unnoticed. Ace Douglas had motions which he himself had never even named. He was a scholar of misdirection. He proscribed skepticism. His fingers were as loose and quick as thoughts.

But Esther Hoffman's magic was sadly pedestrian. She did the Famous Dancing Cane Trick, the Famous Vanishing Milk Trick, and the Famous Chinese Linking Rings Trick. She produced parakeets from light bulbs, and pulled a dove from a burning pan. She performed at birthday parties, and could float a child. She performed at grammar schools, and could cut and restore the neckties of principals. If the principal was a lady, Esther would borrow a ring from the principal's finger, lose it, and then find it in a child's pocket. If the lady principal wore no jewelry, Esther would simply run a sword through the woman's neck while the children in the audience screamed in spasms of rapture.

Simple, artless tricks.

“You're young,” Ace told her. “You'll improve.”

But she did not. Esther made more money teaching flute lessons to little girls than performing magic. She was a fine flutist, and this was maddening to her. Why all this worthless musical skill?

“Your fingers are very quick,” Ace told her. “There's nothing wrong with your fingers. But it's not about quickness, Esther. You don't have to speed through coins.”

“I hate coins.”

“You should handle coins as if they amuse you, Esther. Not as if they frighten you.”

“With coins, it's like I'm wearing oven mitts.”

“Coins are not always easy.”

“I never fool anybody. I can't misdirect.”

“It's not about misdirection, Esther. It's about direction.”

“I don't have hands,” Esther complained. “I have paws.”

It was true that Esther could only fumble coins and cards, and she would never be a deft magician. She had no gift. Also, she hadn't the poise. Esther had seen photographs of her uncle when he was young at the Pharaoh's Palace, leaning against patrician pillars of marble in his tuxedo and cuff links. No form of magic existed which was close-up enough for him. He could sit on a chair surrounded on all sides by the biggest goons of spectators—people who challenged him or grabbed his arm in midpass—and he would borrow some common object and absolutely vanish it. Some goon's car keys in Ace's hand would turn into absolutely nothing. Absolutely gone.

Ace's nightclub act at the Pharaoh's Palace had been a tribute to the most elegant vices. He used coins, cards, dice, champagne flutes, cigarettes—any item which would suggest and encourage drinking, sin, gamesmanship and money. The fluidity of fortune. He could do a whole act of cigarette effects alone, starting with a single cigarette borrowed from a lady in the audience. He would pass it through a coin, and then give the coin—intact—back to the lady. He would tear the cigarette in half and then restore it, swallow it, cough it back up along with six more, duplicate them and duplicate them again until he ended up with lit cigarettes smoking hot between all his fingers and in his mouth, behind his ears, emerging from every pocket—surprised? he was terrified!—and then, with a nod, all the lit cigarettes would vanish except the original. That one cigarette he would transform into a stately pipe, which he would smoke luxuriously during the applause.

Also, Esther had pictures of her father during the same period, when he owned the Pharaoh's Palace. He was handsome in his tuxedo, but with a heavy posture. She had inherited his thick wrists.

When Richard Hoffman got out of prison, he moved in with Ace and Esther. Ace had a tremendous home in the country by then, a tall, yellow Victorian house with a mile of woods behind it and a lawn like a baron's. He had only one neighbor, an elderly woman with a similarly huge Victorian home, just next door. Ace Douglas had made a tidy fortune from magic. He had operated the Pharaoh's Palace from the time that Hoffman was arrested, and with Hoffman's permission had eventually sold it at great profit to a gourmet restaurateur. Esther had been living with Ace since she'd finished high school, and she had a whole floor to herself. Ace's leggy little sister Angela had divorced Hoffman, also with his permission, and had moved to Florida to live with her new husband.

What Hoffman had never permitted was for Esther to visit him in prison, and so it had been fourteen years since they'd seen each other. In prison he had grown even sturdier. He seemed shorter than Ace and Esther remembered, and some weight gained had made him broader. He had also grown a thick beard with elegant red tones. He was easily moved to tears, or at least seemed to be always on the verge of being moved to tears. The first few weeks of living together again were not altogether comfortable for Esther and Hoffman. They had only the briefest conversations, such as this one:

Hoffman asked Esther, “How old are you now?”

“Twenty-two.”

“I've got undershirts older than you.”

Or, in another conversation, Hoffman said, “The fellows I met in prison are the nicest fellows in the world.”

And Esther said, “Actually, Dad, they probably aren't.”

And so on.

In December of that year, Hoffman attended a magic show of Esther's, performed at a local elementary school.

“She's really not very good,” he reported later to Ace.

“I really think she's fine,” Ace said. “She's fine for the kids, and she enjoys herself.”

“She's pretty terrible. Too dramatic.”

“Perhaps.”

“She says, ‘Behold!’ It's terrible, Behold this! Behold that!”

“But they're children,” Ace said. “With children, you need to explain when you're about to do a trick and when you just did one, because they're so excited they don't realize what's going on. They don't even know what a magician is, Richard. They can't tell the difference between when you're doing magic and when you're just standing there.”

“I think she was very nervous.”

“Could be.”

“She says, ‘Behold the Parakeet!’”

“Her parakeet tricks are not bad.”

“It's not dignified,” Hoffman said. “She convinces nobody.”

“It's not meant to be dignified, Richard. It's for the children.”

The next week, Hoffman bought Esther a large white rabbit.

“If you do the tricks for the children, you should have a rabbit,” he told her.

Esther hugged him. She said, “I never had a rabbit.”

Hoffman lifted the rabbit from the cage. It was an unnaturally enormous rabbit.

“Is it pregnant?” Esther asked.

“No, she is not. She is only large.”

“That's an extremely large rabbit for any magic trick,” Ace observed.

Esther said, “They haven't invented the hat big enough to pull that rabbit out of.”

“She actually folds up to a small size,” Hoffman said. He held the rabbit between his hands like it was an accordion and squeezed it into a great white ball.

“She seems to like that,” Ace said, and Esther laughed.

“She doesn't mind it. Her name is Bonnie.” Hoffman held the rabbit forward by the nape of her neck, as though she were a massive kitten. Dangling fully stretched like that, she was bigger than a big raccoon.

“Where'd you get her!” Esther asked.

“From the newspaper!” Hoffman announced, beaming.

Esther liked Bonnie the rabbit more than she liked her trick doves and parakeets, which were attractive enough, but were essentially only pigeons that had been lucky with their looks. Ace liked Bonnie, too. He allowed Bonnie to enjoy the entirety of his large Victorian home, with little regard for Bonnie's pellets, which were small, rocky and inoffensive. She particularly enjoyed sitting in the center of the kitchen table and from that spot would regard Ace, Esther and Hoffman gravely. Bonnie had a feline manner.

“Will she always be this judgmental?” Esther wanted to know.

Bonnie became more canine when she was allowed outdoors. She would sleep on the porch, lying on her side in a patch of sun, and if anyone approached the porch she would look up at that person lazily, in the manner of a bored and trustful dog. At night, she slept with Hoffman. He tended to sleep on his side, curled like a child, and Bonnie would sleep upon him, perched on his highest point, which was generally his hip.

As a performer, however, Bonnie was useless. She was far too large to be handled gracefully on stage, and on the one occasion that Esther did try to produce her from a hat, she hung in the air so sluggishly that the children in the back rows were sure that she was a fake. She appeared to be a huge toy, typical and store bought as their own stuffed animals.

“Bonnie will never be a star,” Hoffman said.

Ace said, “You spoiled her, Richard, the way the magicians have been spoiling their lovely assistants for decades. You spoiled Bonnie by sleeping with her.”

 

That spring, a young lawyer and his wife (who was also a young lawyer) moved into the large Victorian house next door to Ace Douglas's large Victorian house. It all happened very swiftly. The widow who had lived there for decades died in her sleep, and the place was sold within a few weeks. The new neighbors had great ambitions. The husband, whose name was Ronald Wilson, telephoned Ace and asked if there were any problems he should know about in the area, regarding water-drainage patterns or frost heaves. Ronald had plans for a great garden and was interested in building an arbor to extend from the back of the house. His wife, whose name was Ruth-Ann, was running for probate judge of the county. Ronald and Ruth-Ann were tall and had perfect manners. They had no children.

Three days after the Wilsons moved in next door, Bonnie the rabbit disappeared. She was on the porch, and then she was not.

Hoffman searched all afternoon for Bonnie. On Esther's recommendation, he spent that evening walking up and down the road with a flashlight, looking to see if Bonnie had been hit by a car. The next day, he walked through the woods behind the house, calling the rabbit for hours. He left a bowl of cut vegetables outside on the porch with some fresh water. Several times during the night, Hoffman got up to see if Bonnie was on the porch, eating the food. Eventually, he just wrapped himself in blankets and laid down on the porch swing, keeping a vigil beside the vegetables. He slept out there for a week, changing the food every morning and evening to keep the scent fresh.

Esther made a poster with a drawing of Bonnie (which looked very much like a spaniel in her rendering) and a caption reading large rabbit missing. She stapled copies of the poster on telephone poles throughout town and placed a notice in the newspaper. Ace Douglas called the local ASPCA for daily updates. Hoffman wrote a letter to the neighbors, Ronald and Ruth-Ann Wilson, and slid it under their door. The letter described Bonnie's color and weight, gave the date and time of her disappearance, and requested any information on the subject at all. The Wilsons did not call with news, so the next day Hoffman went over to their house and rang the doorbell. Ronald Wilson answered.

“Did you get my letter?” Hoffman asked.

“About the rabbit?” Ronald said. “Have you found him?”

“The rabbit is a girl. And the rabbit belongs to my daughter. She was a gift. Have you seen her?”

“She didn't get in the road, did she?”

“Is Bonnie in your house, Mr. Wilson?”

“Is Bonnie the rabbit's name?”

“Yes.”

“How would Bonnie get in out house?”

“Perhaps you have some broken window in the basement?”

“You think she's in our basement?”

“Have you looked for her in your basement?”

“No.”

“Can I look for her?”

“You want to look for a rabbit in our basement?”

The two men stared at each other for some time. Ronald Wilson was wearing a baseball cap, and he took it off and rubbed the top of his head, which was balding. He put the baseball cap back on.

“Your rabbit is not in our house, Mr. Hoffman,” Wilson said.

“Okay,” Hoffman said. “Okay. Sure.”

Hoffman walked back home. He sat at the kitchen table and waited until Ace and Esther were both in the room to make his announcement.

“They took her,” he said. “The Wilsons took Bonnie.”

 

Hoffman started to build the tower in July. There was a row of oak trees between Ace Douglas's house and the Wilsons' house, and the leaves from these trees blocked Hoffman's view into their home. For several months, he'd been spending his nights watching the Wilson house from the attic window with binoculars, looking for Bonnie inside, but he could not see into the lower-floor rooms for the trees and was frustrated. Ace reassured him that the leaves would be gone by autumn, but Hoffman was afraid that Bonnie would be dead by autumn. This was difficult for him to take. He was no longer allowed to go over to the Wilsons' property and look into the basement windows, since Ruth-Ann Wilson had called the police. He was no longer allowed to write threatening letters. He was no longer allowed to call the Wilsons up on the telephone. He had promised Ace and Esther all of these things.

“He's really harmless,” Esther would tell Ruth-Ann Wilson, although she herself was not sure this was the case.

Ronald Wilson found out somehow that Hoffman had been in prison, and he'd contacted the parole officer, who had, in turn, contacted Hoffman, suggesting that he leave the Wilsons alone.

“If you would only let him search your home for the rabbit,” Ace Douglas had suggested gently to the Wilsons, “this would be over very quickly. Just give him a half hour to look around. It's just that he's concerned that Bonnie is trapped in your basement.”

“Why would we keep his rabbit? Why would we do that?”

Hoffman said to Ace, “Because of the vegetable garden. Think about this. Vegetables, Ace. Naturally, they are against the rabbit.”

“If you would just let him look inside once . . .” Ace repeated.

“We did not move here to let murderers into our home,” Ronald Wilson said.

“He's not a murderer,” Esther protested, somewhat lamely.

“He scares my wife.”

“I don't want to scare your wife,” Hoffman said.

“He's really harmless,” Esther insisted. “Maybe you could buy him a new rabbit.”

“I don't want any new rabbit,” Hoffman said.

“You scare my wife,” Ronald repeated. “We don't owe you any rabbit at all.”

In late spring, Hoffman cut down the smallest oak tree between the two houses. He did it on a Monday afternoon, when the Wilsons were at work, and Esther was performing magic for a Girl Scouts party, and Ace was shopping. He'd purchased a chain saw weeks earlier and had been hiding it. The tree wasn't very big, but it fell at a sharp diagonal across the Wilsons' backyard, narrowly missing their arbor and destroying a substantial corner of the garden.

The police came. After a great deal of negotiating, Ace Douglas was able to prove that the oak tree, while between the two houses, was actually on his property, and it was his right to have it cut down. He offered to pay generously for the damages to the Wilsons. Ronald Wilson came over to the house again that night, but he would not speak until Ace sent Hoffman from the room.

“Do you understand our situation?” he asked.

“I do,” Ace said. “I honestly do.”

The two men sat at the kitchen table across from one another for some time. Ace offered to get Ronald some coffee, which he refused.

“How can you live with him?” Ronald asked.

Ace did not answer this, but got himself some coffee. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk, which he smelled and then poured down the sink. After this, he smelled his cup of coffee, which he poured down the sink as well.

“Is he your boyfriend?” Ronald asked.

“Is Richard my boyfriend? No. He's my very good friend. And he's my brother-in-law.”

“Really,” Ronald said. He was working his wedding band around his finger as though he were screwing it on tight.

“You thought it was a dream come true to buy that nice old house, didn't you?” Ace Douglas asked. He managed to say this in a friendly, sympathetic way.

“Yes, we did.”

“But it's a nightmare, isn't it? Living next to us?”

“Yes, it is.”

Ace Douglas laughed. Ronald Wilson laughed, too, and said, “It's a complete fucking nightmare, actually.”

“I'm very sorry that you wife is afraid of us, Ronald.”

“Well.”

“I truly am.”

“Thank you. It's difficult. She's a bit paranoid sometimes.”

“Well,” Ace said, again in a friendly and sympathetic way. “Imagine that. Paranoid! In this neighborhood?”

The two men laughed again. Meanwhile, in the other room, Esther was talking to her father.

“Why'd you do it, Dad?” she asked. “Such a pretty tree.” He had been weeping.

“Because I am so sad,” he said, finally. “I wanted them to feel it.”

“To feel how sad you were?” she said.

“To feel how sad I am,” he told he. “How sad I am.”

Anyway, in July he started to build the tower.

Ace had an old pickup truck, and Hoffman used this to drive to the municipal dump every afternoon, so that he could look for wood and scrap materials. He built the base of the tower out of pine, reinforced with parts of an old steel bed frame. By the end of July the tower was over ten feet high. He wasn't planning on building a staircase inside, so it was a solid cube.

The Wilsons called the zoning board, who fined Ace Douglas for erecting an unauthorized structure on his property and insisted that the work stop immediately.

“It's only a tree house,” Esther lied to the zoning officer.

“It's a watchtower,” Hoffman corrected. “So that I can see into the neighbor's house.”

The zoning officer gave Hoffman a long, empty look.

“Yes,” Hoffman said. “This truly is a watchtower.”

“Take it down,” said the zoning officer to Esther. “Take it down immediately.”

 

Ace Douglas owned a significant library of antique magic books, including several volumes that Hoffman himself had brought over from Hungary during the Second World War, and that had been old and valuable even then. Hoffman had purchased these rare books from gypsies and dealers across Eastern Europe with the last of his family's money. In the 1950s, he'd given them over to Ace. Some volumes were written in German, some in Russian, some in English.

The collection revealed the secrets of Parlor Magic, or Drawing Room Magic, a popular pursuit of educated gentlemen at the turn of the century. The books spoke not of tricks, but of “diversions”, which were sometimes magical maneuvers but were just as often simple scientific experiments. Often, these diversions involved hypnosis or the appearance of hypnosis. Many tricks required complicated acts of memorization and practice with a trained conspirator hidden among the otherwise susceptible guests. A gentleman might literally use smoke and a mirror to evoke a ghost within the parlor. A gentleman might read a palm or levitate a tea tray. Or, a gentleman might simply demonstrate that an egg could stand on its end, or that magnets could react against one another, or that an electric current could turn a small motorized contrivance.

The books were exquisitely illustrated. Hoffman had given them to Ace Douglas back in the 1950s, because he had hoped for some time to recreate this lost conjury in Pittsburgh. He had hoped to decorate a small area within the Pharaoh's Palace in the manner of a formal upper-middle-class European drawing room, and to dress Ace in spats and kid gloves. Ace did study the books, but he found that there was no way to accurately replicate most of the diversions. The old tricks all called for common household items which were simply not common any more: a box of paraffin, a pinch of snuff, a dab of beeswax, a spittoon, a watch fob, a ball of cork, a sliver of saddle soap, et cetera. Even if such ingredients could be gathered, they would have no meaning to modern spectators. It would be museum magic, resonating to nobody. It would move nobody.

To Hoffman, this was a considerable disappointment. As a very young man he had watched the Russian charlatan and swindling necromancer Katanovsky perform such diversions in his mother's own drawing room. His mother, recently widowed, wore dark gowns dressed with china-blue silk ribbons precisely the same shade as the famous blue vials of Hoffman's Rose Water. Her face was that of a determined regent. His sisters, in childish pinafores, regarded Katanovsky in a pretty stupor of wonder.

Gathered in the drawing room as a family, they had all heard it. Hoffman himself—his eyes stinging from phosphorus smoke—had heard it: the unmistakable voice of his recently dead father, speaking through Katanovksy's own dark mouth. They heard their father's message (in perfectly accentless Hungarian!) of reassurement. A thrilling, intimate call to faith.

And so it was unfortunate for Hoffman that Ace Douglas could not replicate this very diversion. He would've liked to have seen it tried again. It must have been a very simple swindle, although an antique one. Hoffman would've liked to have witnessed the hoax voice of his dead father repeated and explained to him fully and, if necessary, repeated again.

 

On the first day of September, Hoffman woke at dawn and began preparing his truck. Months later, during the court proceedings, the Wilsons' attorney would attempt to show that Hoffman had stockpiled weapons in the bed of the truck, an allegation that Esther and Ace would contest heatedly. Certainly there were tools in the truck—a few shovels, a sledgehammer and an ax—but if these were threatening, they were not so intentionally.

Hoffman had recently purchased several dozen rolls of wide, silvery electrical duct tape, and at dawn he began winding the tape around the body of the truck. He wound long lengths of the tape, and then more tape over the existing tape, and he did this again and again, as armor.

Esther had an early morning flute class to teach, and she got up to eat her cereal. From the kitchen window, she saw her father taping his pickup. The headlights and taillights were already covered and the doors were sealed shut. She went outside.

“Dad?” she said.

And Hoffman said, almost apologetically, “I'm going over there.”

“Not to the Wilsons?”

“I'm going in after Bonnie,” he said.

Esther walked back to the house, feeling shaky. She woke Ace Douglas, who looked from his bedroom window down at Hoffman in the driveway, and he called the police.

“Oh, not the police.” Esther said. “Not the police . . .”

Ace held her in a hug for some time.

“Are you crying?” he asked.

“No,” she lied.

“You're not crying?”

“No, I'm just sad.”

When the duct tape ran out, Hoffman circled the truck a few times and noticed that he had no way to enter it now. He took the sledgehammer from the flatbed and lightly tapped the passenger-side window with it, until the glass was evenly spiderwebbed. Then he gently pushed the window in. The glass crystals landed silently on the seat. He climbed inside, then noticed that he had no keys, so he climbed out of the broken window again and walked into the house where he found his keys on the kitchen table. Esther wanted to go downstairs to talk with him, but Ace Douglas would not let her go. He went down himself, and Esther slid her head under Ace's pillow and cried in a hard, down-low way.

Downstairs, Ace said, “I'm sorry, Richard. But I've called the police.”

“The police?” Hoffman repeated, wounded. “Not the police, Ace.”

“I'm sorry.”

Hoffman was silent for a long time, staring at Ace.

“But I'm going in there after Bonnie,” he said, finally.

“I wish you wouldn't do that.”

“But they have her,” Hoffman said, and he was now crying, as well.

“I don't believe that they do have her, Richard.”

“But they stole her!”

Hoffman took up his keys and climbed back into his taped-up truck, still weeping. He drove over to the Wilsons' home, and circled their house several times. He drove through the corn in the garden. Forward over the corn, then backwards, then forward over the corn again. Ruth-Ann Wilson came running out, and she pulled up some bricks that were lining her footpath and chased after Hoffman, throwing the bricks at his truck and screaming.

Hoffman pulled the truck up to the metal basement doors of the Wilsons' house. He tried to drive right up on them, but his truck didn't have the power, and the wheels sunk into the wet lawn. He honked in long, forlorn foghorn blasts.

When the police arrived, Hoffman would not come out. He would, however, put his hands on the steering wheel to show that he was not armed.

“He doesn't have a gun,” Esther shouted from the porch of Ace Douglas's house.

Two officers circled the truck and examined it. The younger officer tapped on Hoffman's window and asked him to roll it down, but he refused.

“Tell them to bring her outside!” he shouted. “Bring the rabbit and I will come out of the truck! Bring Bonnie! Terrible people!”

The older office cut through the duct tape on the passengerside door with a utility knife. He was able, finally, to open the door, and when he did that, he was able to reach in and drag Hoffman out, both of them cutting their arms over the spilled, sparkling glass of the broken window. Once outside the truck, Hoffman lay on the grass in a limp sprawl, face down. He was handcuffed and taken away in a squad car.

Ace and Esther followed the police to the station, where the officers took Hoffman's belt and his fingerprints. Hoffman was wearing only an undershirt and work pants, and his cell was small, empty and chilly.

Esther asked the older police officer, “May I go home and bring my father back a jacket? Or a blanket? May I please just do that?”

“You may,” said the older police officer, and he patted her arm with a sort of authoritative sympathy. “You may, indeed.”

 

Back home, Esther washed her face and took some aspirin. She called the mother of her flute student and canceled that morning's class. The mother wanted to reschedule, but Esther could only promise to call later. She noticed the milk on the kitchen counter and returned it to the refrigerator. She brushed her teeth. She changed into warmer autumn boots, and she went to the living room closet and found a light wool blanket for her father. She heard a noise.

Esther followed the noise, which was that of a running automobile engine. She went to the window of the living room and parted the curtain. In the Wilsons' driveway was a sturdy white van with grills on the windows. The side of this van was marked with the emblem of the ASPCA. Esther said aloud, “Oh my.”

A man in white coveralls came out of the Wilsons' front door, carrying a large wire cage. Inside the cage was Bonnie.

 

Esther had never been inside the local ASPCA building, and she did not go inside it that day. She parked near the van, which she had followed, and watched as the man in the coveralls opened the back doors and pulled out a cage. This cage held three gray kittens, which he carried into the building, leaving the van doors open.

When the man was safely inside, Esther got out of her car and walked to the back of the van. She found the cage with Bonnie, opened it easily and pulled out the rabbit. Bonnie was much thinner than the last time Esther had seen her, and the rabbit eyed her with an absolutely expressionless gaze of nonrecognition. Esther carried Bonnie to her car and drove back to the police station.

She parked he car and got out, tucking the rabbit under her left arm. She wrapped the light wool blanket she'd brought for her father completely around herself, like a cape. Esther walked briskly into the police station. She passed the older police officer, who was talking to Ace Douglas and Ralph Wilson. She raised her right hand as she walked near the men and said solemnly, “How, palefaces.”

Ace smiled at her, and the older police officer waved her by.

Hoffman's jail cell was at the end of a hallway, and it was poorly lit. Hoffman had not been sleeping well for several weeks, and he was cold and cut. One frame of his glasses had been cracked, and he had been weeping since that morning. He saw Esther approaching, wrapped in that light gray wool blanket, and he saw in her the figure of his mother, who had worn cloaks against the Budapest winters and who had also walked with a particular dignity.

Esther approached the cell, and she reached her hand between the bars toward her father, who rose with a limp to meet that hand. In a half-mad moment, he half-imagined her to be a warm apparition of his mother, and, as he reached for her, she smiled.

Her smile directed his gaze from her hand to her face, and in that instant, Esther pulled her arm back out of the cell, reached into the folds of the blanket around her and gracefully produced the rabbit. She slid Bonnie—slimmer now, of course—through the iron bars and held the rabbit aloft in the cell, exactly where her empty hand had been only a moment before. Such that Hoffman, when he glanced down from Esther's smile, saw a rabbit where before there had simply been no rabbit at all. Like a true enchantment, something appeared from the common air.

“Behold,” said Esther.

Richard Hoffman beheld the silken rabbit and recognized her as Bonnie. He collected her into his square hands. And then, he did also behold his own daughter Esther.

A most gifted young woman.

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