After the Magician by Stephanie Milner

Jessie had worked at Meyers Auditorium for six years, by then. When she had started during her fourth year in college (it took five to finish her social sciences degree), she hadn’t planned to stay that long. It had just been a good arrangement. The job paid better than others on campus. She controlled her own schedule because crew members picked which shows they worked. But in any case, she had stayed. She didn’t regret it. She liked how physical the work was. There was equipment to push, pull, and carry. Ladders to clamber up. Other times the job required almost no work at all, and that was good, too. The one-man acts, for example—the visiting lecturers and the comedians. All she needed to set up was a microphone stand and a stool with a water bottle on the seat. Before the show Jessie would inevitably need to stop the speaker from tapping the microphone to see whether it was on (this was bad for the equipment), but after that, the night was easy. She sat offstage during the set, usually for one hour or sometimes two, and browsed the Internet. At the end of a shift the job was done. No long-term projects hanging over her head. It had been easy to stay on after graduating. Easy to move into her co-worker’s second bedroom and simply stay.

The apartment was Amanda’s. Beads hung from the entryway between the living room and kitchen, and their books and movies were stacked on the floor because they had no shelves. It gave the place the look of a dorm room, but like many on the Meyers crew Amanda hadn’t bothered with college. In six years the crew had become Jessie’s social circle. Sometimes at the bar after their shift they told her they needed to get her a man. They were close enough by that time that she found the offers touching, and not offensive. When Jessie moved in, Amanda had said she was glad to get a roommate. She didn’t like living alone, in case her sister who sold meth in Osage County tracked down her address. Amanda had a quick temper. She was sleeping with Parker, another crew member, so he got the brunt of it. Every so often Jessie would hear them screaming at each other in the other bedroom and they’d break up, but about a week later he would come back from the theater with her again, and Jessie would greet them with an unsurprised “hey” as they passed her room on the way to Amanda’s. When all three of them were assigned to the same morning call they stood in a silent arc around the coffee maker, feeling it too early to look at one another. Parker consistently burned his toast and scraped the black part into the sink with a knife, and Amanda would snap at him about ants when he didn’t rinse the specks down the drain.

Meyers was the town’s largest theater both in its stage size and in its seating capacity of eighteen hundred. It wasn’t large by city standards, but it was large enough for central Missouri. They hosted a decent lineup. Touring casts of Broadway musicals came through. So did rock bands, some of them quite famous, which was appealing for a time. There was no telling how any show would go—everything could run smooth as butter, or there would be a fight between singers in the dressing room.

That December, Meyers was in the middle of the holiday series. The university held it annually with a few changes in the lineup. That year they had a boys’ choir from out east instead of the Chinese gymnasts. But A Christmas Carol had come back, as had the ice show of Cinderella (the rink froze overnight with a system of pipes and curbs), and two skaters had been caught having sex under the orchestra pit cover. After that, during The Nutcracker’s three-night run, the nutcracker prop had snapped at the neck, and the girl playing Young Clara had to hold it with two hands so the head didn’t pop off early.

Next up would be the magician. He also had come through Meyers before. He performed with four women who did acrobatics and contortion acts behind him in pink sequined leotards. He wore a silver jumpsuit that sparkled in the stage lights and a black sports coat for the tricks that required him to have sleeves. So many distractions for the audience. Jessie found the act lazy. She had worked at the theater long enough to form opinions on these things.

The crew had known Monday’s call would be busy. They had to load out The Nutcracker equipment and load in the magician the same morning. Ali, resigned Ali, shrugged when posting the schedule. It’s what has to be done, he said. Best for everyone to put their heads down and get through the day. The morning of, there were the usual grumblings about the hour, hangovers, and the cold, but they were carrying so much and pushing so much that they soon got hot, and Jessie and the others tossed their coats in the corner and worked in T-shirts. (They did keep their gloves on; the metal set pieces were freezing.) Naturally the magician’s convoy arrived before they were ready for him, and a glut of semi-trucks amassed at the bay door that led backstage. Soon some workers were rolling road trunks into the theater while others were rolling them out, all of the trunks’ wheels zippering loudly over the washboard-patterned ramps, and there was a collision in the downstairs dressing area as the contortionist girls’ suitcases got mixed in with The Nutcracker crew’s costume racks, and someone’s foot got rolled over by a trunk and there was crying. These things happen.

Finally, The Nutcracker trucks were gone until next year, and the last of the hampers was coming in for the magician. His assistant, though, kept obstructing the flow of the load-in by shoving a clipboard at each crew member and demanding they stop and sign the confidentiality agreement that said, under threat of litigation, they would not divulge any secrets of the magician’s act. The assistant must have been new because Jessie thought she would remember her. She had terrible, stark streaks of red blush on her cheeks and a shade of lipstick that was too orange for her skin.

It wasn’t long before the assistant and Amanda were shouting at each other. Ali tried to defuse the situation and spoke quietly to Amanda, but she brushed past him and stomped out the stage door, yelling, “I don’t work for her! Tell her to handle her own responsibilities!” Ali looked not at all fazed. He told the assistant that Amanda needed to cool off, that she shouldn’t take offense.

The walkout didn’t interrupt setup much. They lowered the hampers through the trapdoor with the hoist. They started bolting together the four platforms where the girls would later pose and twist up their limbs. Six feet above the stage, Jessie hooked a knee and an ankle around the rails while her hands worked a wrench and ratchet. The magician watched the assembling of the set for a few minutes. He wasn’t in costume yet and could have been anybody—knit sweater, receding hairline. He nodded approval like he imagined himself a foreman and went to his dressing room offstage left. He burst right back out.

“Where the hell are my rabbits?” he shouted. “They aren’t here.”

“What rabbits?” Ali asked, speaking for everyone on crew.

The assistant ran up and pointed a finger at Jessie. “I told her to put them in the dressing room.”

Jessie didn’t know what she was talking about and said so.

“You’re supposed to be the only person handling the rabbits,” the magician shouted at the assistant.

“There’s only so much I do at one time, Tom! Do you want your act revealed online?”

Eventually, Ali got out of them that the rabbits (a new addition to the act) were in a wire cage covered with a blanket so they wouldn’t catch a chill. The assistant had asked a female crew member to carry the cage from her car to the magician’s dressing room. By process of elimination that crew member was Amanda. These identity mix-ups weren’t unheard of, the crew blended together with their black shirts and jeans faded at the knees, just as Jessie would have trouble telling the contortionists apart once their leotards were on.

Parker tried to reach Amanda’s cellphone. The setup of the stage and the lighting and the fog machine stopped so everyone could push around crates and trunks to look for the cage. They walked through the tour bus and rolled open the semis’ doors to verify the trailers were empty. A few people sneaked around the corner for a smoke break. Jessie quietly mentioned to Ali the possibility that the cage had gotten caught in The Nutcracker load-out. “Oh, Christ,” he said, sighing, and pulled out his phone to tell the stage manager rabbits might be freezing to death in the trucks en route to Oklahoma. Meanwhile the magician sat cross-legged center stage and shouted that he wasn’t performing without the rabbits, that the audience loved the rabbits, that he could replace anyone on his team except the rabbits. “Do you know,” he shouted, “do you have any clue, how much time it takes to train them?”

The search made its way downstairs, the assistant following and ranting something about ineptitude or inevitability, Jessie wasn’t paying attention. In the ensemble dressing room one of the girls quickly hid a baggie in the folds of a jacket. Since she had at least attempted to hide the drugs, Jessie wouldn’t report her. Another crew member, Monty, was steaming wrinkles out of the girls’ unwashable, reeking costumes while pinching his shirt over his nose. They did not find the cage. She wished rabbits made noise, like cats or dogs. Amanda wasn’t answering Parker’s messages. Jessie told him he should try to find her on foot. He climbed the stairwell, not in much of a hurry.

The assistant was beginning to cry. “I can’t be expected to keep track of everything,” she said. To Jessie that sounded exactly like what an assistant should be expected to do.

She had needed to calm people backstage before. She led the assistant to the bathroom, poorly designed, only two stalls for casts of fifty. The metal towel dispenser as always was empty, so Jessie leaned in a stall and tore a strip of toilet paper off the roll. “Here,” she said. The assistant dabbed at her eyes and her nostrils. “Do you need a minute?”

“No.” She looked in the mirror. “God sakes, I’m a grown woman. It’s just pathetic, a grown woman crying in a bathroom.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jessie said.

“Where is that other girl? What was that, stomping off on the job?”

“It’s just her way.”

“It’s just childish, is what it is.” She turned on the faucet and scooped water to her eyes.

“Well,” Jessie said. “You know theater. It attracts dramatic people.”

The assistant wiped her face with her hands and shook water from her fingers. “He makes me drive with those rabbits, you know. He and the others all get the tour bus, but I have to drive my own car with those rodents in the backseat. Someone has to have a car, you see. Someone has to have a car to go get the takeout order or run to the fabric store when the costumes rip.” The toilet paper had gotten wet on the sink. She picked up the wad anyway and blew her nose. “I suppose this doesn’t matter to you. It won’t affect you at all if those rabbits die.”

“That’s not true,” Jessie said. “I like rabbits enough. They’re cute.”

“Cute. Have you ever owned a rabbit?”

“No.”

“They smell. Hours in the car with that smell. And they kick their little shit pellets all over my backseat.”

“Well, I guess I don’t like the idea of anything being forgotten somewhere and left to die.”

“Where is that other girl?” the assistant said into the mirror, to herself.

“Her name is Amanda.”

“Do you realize how quickly I’ll be out of a job if we don’t find them? We’re only two months into our five-month tour. What will I do if I have to head back to Lincoln early? Everything I own is in storage. I have renters in my house. I’ll have to go back to Lincoln for the holidays and won’t even have my own home as a comfort. But for you this is just another day at work. You want to move me right along and don’t care if you see me ever again.”

“We’ll find the rabbits,” Jessie said and left it at that.

The assistant took a tube of lipstick from her fanny pack and reapplied that terrible shade of orange-red. Her hair was tied back and frizzing, she obviously hadn’t washed it that morning, and between her hair and the lipstick and the badly applied blush, she had the look of a painted corpse. “I don’t need to be kept company,” she said.

“Good,” Jessie said.

They did find the rabbits. Parker later said he tracked down Amanda drinking coffee in the student union. After hearing the situation she said, “We work with children,” and they jogged through the cold back to the theater. Jessie was toeing herself in circles on a stool when the stage door flew open. Amanda came in followed by Parker. She glared at the magician’s assistant, waved her over, and led the way to Ali’s office beside the stairwell. The cage, holding three perfectly calm white rabbits, was in the far corner. Ali’s couch had blocked it from view. Jessie felt a rush of foolishness, like she should have seen the cage the entire time.

“Anything else?” Amanda said.

“I told you the dressing room,” the assistant said.

“You said the office. I did exactly as you asked. You misspoke. Own up to it so we can move the hell on.”

Ali said, “Let’s settle down. Let’s get everything done.”

“You don’t defend us!” Amanda said. “Why do you never defend us?”

Ali brought her into his office while Parker carried the cage to the magician’s dressing room. Jessie heard a masculine shout of glee.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a hurry. They were behind schedule. Amanda, as usual, did cheer up and sang while focusing the stage lights, aiming them so the space beneath the magician’s table was in shadow.

Shortly before the dinner break, Ali called to Jessie. “I hate to ask you to do this,” he said. At his feet was a laundry basket of socks, spanx, and undershirts. “That assistant is saying she doesn’t have time to run to the Laundromat. It’s just easier this way.” He handed her a few singles. Ali was too qualified to be working in the administrative role of a technical director. The crew all knew that. He had wired his office IBM to that national system that used idling computers to process medical data. He said he had needed to broaden his contribution to society, somehow. He had not planned to be working backstage at an unexceptional theater in Missouri.

Jessie picked up the laundry basket. She retrieved the last underthings from the girls downstairs, then knocked on the door to the magician’s dressing room. He was wearing his sparkling jumpsuit now, lying on the floor. The three rabbits leapt onto and around him as he made kissing noises. On the couch one of the contortionists was smoking cloves and stretching a leg behind her head. Jessie made a point not to look at the crotch of her leotard. It was right there. The magician motioned to a pile of socks in the corner. He reached up to take a carrot from the vegetable tray on the makeup chair. He held it in his teeth for a rabbit to nibble.

“So,” Jessie said. “Real-life magic. Made the rabbits vanish and reappear, huh?” She was always so hopelessly awkward around performers.

The magician released the carrot for the rabbit to tug away and looked at Jessie gravely. “This was a serious situation,” he said. The rabbits sniffed at the bits of carrot on his jumpsuit, and the contortionist nodded, both legs behind her head now, her body taking the shape of a tongue of flame.

It had been a serious situation, Jessie considered as she walked the four blocks. This kind of thing did constitute a serious situation. Rush hour had started, such as it was for a college town, a bit of a backup at intersections. Tailpipes smoked. The ice on the asphalt caught and bounced the glare of headlights. It felt nice, being caught in the flow of people and being included in the routine of heading home for the day. She reached the Laundromat with its fogged windows. A woman in a pencil skirt was the only other customer. Jessie fed the singles into the change machine, retrieved the quarters, and bought a lump of detergent from the vending machine. At the washer she unbunched the rolled-up socks and dropped them into the basin. It did not disgust her to handle someone else’s socks; she always got dirty at the theater. Ali hadn’t specified that he wanted her to return between loads, so when the wash was running she sat in one of the plastic chairs to wait, settling back the way she would sink into a tub.

Jessie thought it might be time to move on. In two weeks she would be in Chicago for Christmas, and her parents would again ask, eager for stories, what had happened at the theater lately. She would need to think. The magician would not stand out much from other busy shifts. It was, in fact, just another day at work. She thought it sad that she no longer considered these encounters extraordinary, that she would not think of the magician. And after a few minutes there in the Laundromat, she no longer did. The other woman, in the pencil skirt, was standing at the bench that ran along the front window. She sorted her clothing into piles of lights and darks. She wore clogs, her ankles marked from the straps of pumps she must have worn earlier that day. Just a woman, not much older than Jessie, performing this simple act of stopping to do the wash after work.

Jessie left Meyers Auditorium later, in June. But when reflecting on the decision, it’s the Laundromat she thinks of, how warm it was, how bright and clean with the smell of soap, and the woman putting blouses into the wash who looked at Jessie strangely, seeing that she was watching, and Jessie wanting to tell her, I hope you know all that you have.


Stephanie Milner
Stephanie Milner was a Poe/Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she received her MFA in creative writing. She has edited for the Houston Chronicle and the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. She lives in Portland with her husband.

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