“What is unseen is not necessarily unknown.”
When I was twelve years old, it was a different world.
I suppose most people think that, turning their gazes inward to old times, the long trail of their memories leading them back into territory made unfamiliar with the dust of years. The dust lies so thick in places it changes the shape of what it covers, half-remembered people, places, and events, all mixed together so that you get confused trying to sort them out, don’t even recognize some, probably glad you can’t make out others. But then there are places, the wind blows harder across their shapes, or maybe we visit them more often so the dust doesn’t lie so thick, and the memories sit there waiting for us, no different now than the day they happened, good and bad, momentous occasions and those so trivial you can’t figure out why you remember them.
But I know this is true: When I was twelve years old, kids my age didn’t know as much as they do today. We believed things you couldn’t get by most eight-year-olds now. We were ready to believe almost anything. All we required was that it be true—maybe not so much by the rules of the world around us, but at least by the rules of some intuitive inner logic. It wasn’t ever anything that got talked out. We just believed. In luck. In wishes. In how a thing will happen, if you stick to the right parade of circumstances.
We were willing to believe in magic.
Here’s what you do, Jerry says. You get one of those little pipe tobacco tins and you put stuff in it. Important stuff. A fingernail. Some hair. A scab. Some dirt from a special place. You spit on it and mix it up like a mud pie. Prick your finger and add a drop of blood. Then you wrap it all up in a picture of the thing you like the best.
What if you don’t have a picture of the thing you like the best? I ask.
Doesn’t have to be a real picture, he says. You can just make a drawing of it. Might be even better that way because then it really belongs to you.
So what do you do with it? Rebecca asks.
I can see her so clearly, the red hairs coming loose from her braids, picking at her knee where she scraped it falling off her bike.
You stick it in that tin, Jerry says, and close it up tight. Dig a hole under your porch and bury it deep.
He leans closer to us, eyes serious, has that look he always gets when he’s telling us something we might not believe is true, but he wants us to know that it is.
This means something, he says. You do it right, and you’ll always have that thing you like the best. Nothing will ever take it away.
I don’t know where he heard about it. Read it in a book, or maybe his grandmother told him. She always had the best stories. It doesn’t matter. We knew it was a true magic, and that night each of us snuck out of our house and did it. Buried those tins deep. Made a secret of it to make the magic stronger is how Jerry put it.
I didn’t need the magic to be any stronger. I just needed it to be true. We were best friends, the three of us, and I didn’t want that to ever change. I really believed in magic, and the idea of the tin seemed to be about the best magic kids like us could make.
Rebecca moved away when we were in ninth grade. Jerry died the last year of high school, hit by a drunk driver.
Years later, this all came back to me. I’d returned to have a look at the old neighborhood, but our houses were gone by then. Those acre lots we grew up on had been subdivided, the roads all turned around on themselves and changed until there was nothing left of the neighborhood’s old patterns. They’re identical, these new houses, poured out of the same mold, one after the other, row upon row, street after street.
I got out of the car that day and stood where I thought my house used to be, feeling lost, cut off, no longer connected to my own past. I thought of those tins then and wondered whatever had happened to them. I remembered the drawing I made to put in mine. It was so poorly drawn I’d had to write our names under our faces to make sure the magic knew who I meant.
The weird thing is I never felt betrayed by the magic when Rebecca moved away, or when Jerry died. I just . . . lost it. Forgot about it. It went away, or maybe I did. Even that day, standing there in a neighborhood now occupied by strangers, the memory of those tins was only bittersweet. I smiled, remembering what we’d done, sneaking out so late that night, how we’d believed. The tightness in my chest grew from good moments recalled, mixed up with the sadness of remembering friends I’d lost. Of course those tins couldn’t have kept us together. Life goes on. People move, relationships alter, people die. That’s how the world turns.
There isn’t room for magic in it, though you’d never convince Ted of that.
Ted and I go back a long way. We met during my first year in college, almost twenty years ago, and we still see each other every second day or so. I don’t know why we get along so well unless that old axiom’s true and opposites do attract. Ted’s about the most outgoing person you could meet; opinionated, I’ll be the first to admit, but he also knows how to listen. He’s the sort of person other people naturally gravitate to at a party, collecting odd facts and odder rumors the way a magpie does shiny baubles, then jump-starting conversations with them at a later date as though they were hors d’oeuvres.
I’m not nearly so social an animal. If you pressed me, I’d say I like to pick and choose my friends carefully; the truth is, I usually have no idea what to say to people—especially when I first meet them.
Tonight it’s only the two of us, holding court in The Half Kaffe. I’m drinking espresso, Ted’s got one of those decaf lattés made with skim milk that always has me wonder, what’s the point? If you want to drink coffee that weak, you can find it down the street at Bruno’s Diner for a quarter of the price. But Ted’s gone health-conscious recently. It’s all talk about decaf and jogging and macrobiotic this and holistic that, then he lights up a cigarette. Go figure.
“Who’s that woman?” I ask when he runs out of things to say about this T’ai-chi course he’s just started taking. “The one at the other end of the counter with the long straight hair and the sad eyes?”
I haven’t been able to stop looking at her since we got here. I find her attractive, but not in a way I can easily explain. It’s more the sum of the parts, because individually things are a little askew. She’s tall and angular, eyes almost too wide-set, chin pointed like a cat’s, a Picasso nose, very straight and angled down. She has the sort of features that look gorgeous one moment, then almost homely the next. Her posture’s not great, but then, considering my own, I don’t think I should be making that kind of judgment. Maybe she thinks like I do, that if you slouch a bit, people won’t notice you. Doesn’t usually work.
I suspect she’s waiting for someone since all she’s been doing is sitting there, looking out the window. Hasn’t ordered anything yet. Or maybe it’s because Jonathan’s too caught up with the most recent issue of The Utne Reader to notice her.
I look away from her when I realize that Ted hasn’t answered. I find him giving me a strange look.
“So what’ve you got in that cup besides coffee?” he asks.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He laughs. “I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t see anyone sitting at this counter, male or female. I see you and me and Jonathan.”
I’m sure he’s putting me on. “No, seriously. Who is she?”
And he, I realize, thinks I’m putting him on. He makes an exaggerated show of having a look, taking off nonexistent glasses, cleaning them, putting them back on, looks some more, but his attention isn’t even on the right stool.
“Okay,” he says. “I see her now I think … yes, she’s a princess. Lost a shoe, or a half-dozen feet of hair, or a bag of beans or something. Or maybe turned the wrong key in the wrong lock and got turned out of her bearded husband’s apartment, and now she’s here killing time between periods of sleep just like the rest of us.”
“Enough,” I tell him. “I get the picture.”
He doesn’t see her. And it’s beginning to be obvious to me that Jonathan doesn’t see her, or he’d have taken her order by now. The group at the table behind us, all black jeans and intense conversation, they probably don’t either.
“So what’s this all about?” Ted asks.
He looks half-amused, half-intrigued, still unsure if it’s a joke or something more intriguing, a piece of normal that’s slid off to one side. He has a nose for that sort of thing, from Elvis sightings to nuns impregnated by aliens, and I can almost see it twitching. He doesn’t read the tabloids in line at the supermarket; he buys them. Need I say more?
So when he asks me what it’s all about, he seems the perfect candidate for me to tell because it’s very confusing and way out of my line of experience. I’ve never been prone to hallucinations before, and, besides, I always thought they’d be more … well, surreal, I suppose. Dadaistic. Over the top. This is so ordinary. Just a woman, sitting in a coffee bar, that no one seems to be able to see. Except for me.
“Hello, Andrew,” Ted says, holding the first syllable of my name and drawing it out. “You still with us?”
I nod and give him a smile.
“So are you going to fill me in or what?”
“It’s nothing,” I say. “I was just seeing if you were paying attention.”
He doesn’t believe me for a moment. All I’ve managed to do is pique his curiosity more.
“No, really,” I tell him.
The woman stands up from the counter, distracting me. I wonder why she came in here in the first place since she can’t seem to place an order, but then I think maybe even invisible people need to get out, enjoy a little nightlife, if only vicariously.
Or maybe she’s a ghost.
“Did anybody ever die in here?” I ask Ted.
Ted gives me yet another strange look. He leans across the table.
“You’re getting seriously weird on me,” he says. “What do you want to know that for?”
The woman’s on her way to the door now. Portishead is playing on the cafe’s sound system. “Sour Times.” Lalo Schifrin and Smokey Brooks samples on a bed of scratchy vinyl sounds and a smoldering, low-key Eurobeat. Beth Gibbons singing about how nobody loves her. At one time we both worked at Gypsy Records, and we’re still serious music junkies. It’s one of the reasons we like The Half Kaffe so much; Jonathan has impeccable taste.
I pull a ten from my pocket and drop it on the table.
“I’ll tell you later,” I say as I get up from my stool.
“Andrew,” Ted says. “You can’t just leave me hanging like this.”
She’s out the door, turning left. Through the cafe’s window, I watch her do a little shuffle to one side as a couple almost walk right into her. They can’t see her either. “Sour Times” dissolves into an instrumental, mostly keyboards and a lonesome electric guitar. Ted calls after me. He’s starting to get up, too, but I wave him back. Then I’m out the door, jogging after the woman.
“Excuse me!” I call after her. “Excuse me, miss!”
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I have no idea what I’ll say to her if she stops. But she doesn’t turn. Gives no indication she’s heard me. I catch up to her and touch her lightly on the elbow. I know a moment of surprise when I can feel the fabric of her sleeve instead of some cool mist. I half expected my fingers to go right through her.
“Excuse me,” I say again.
She stops then and looks at me. Up close, her face, those sad eyes … they make my pulse quicken until my heartbeat sounds like a deep bass drum playing a march at double time in my chest.
There’s no surprise in her features. She doesn’t ask how come I can see her and nobody else can. What I do see is a hint of fear in her eyes, which shouldn’t surprise me. A woman alone on the streets always has to be on her guard. I take a step back to ease the fear, feeling guilty and depressed for having put it there.
There are a hundred things I want to ask her. About how she did what she did in The Half Kaffe. How come I can see her when other people can’t. Why she’s not surprised that I can see her. I’d even ask her out for a drink if I had the nerve. But nothing seems appropriate to the moment. Nothing makes sense.
I clear my throat and settle on: “Can you tell me how to get to Battersfield Road?”
The fear recedes in her eyes, but a wariness remains.
“Take a left at the next light,” she tells me, “and just go straight. You can’t miss it.”
I watch her continue on her way. Two women approach her from the other direction, moving aside to give her room when she comes abreast. So does what appears to be a businessman, suit and tie, briefcase in hand, working late, hurrying home. But the couple behind him don’t see her at all; she has to dart to one side, press up against a store window so that they don’t collide.
She’s invisible again.
I follow her progress all the way to the end of the block as she weaves in and out of near collisions with the other pedestrians. Then she’s at the crosswalk, a tall, slouching figure waiting for the light to change. She takes a right where she told me to take a left, and a storefront cuts her from my view.
I almost return to The Half Kaffe, but I don’t feel up to being grilled by Ted. I almost go home, but what am I going to do at home on a Friday night? Instead, I run to the corner where she turned, cross against the light, and almost get hit by a cab. The driver salutes me with one stiff finger and shouts something unintelligible at me, but I’m already past him, on the far curb now I see her ahead of me, almost at the end of the block, and I do something I’ve never done before in my life. I follow a woman I don’t know home.
The building she finally enters is one of those old Crowsea brownstones that hasn’t been renovated into condos yet—five stories, arches of tapered bricks over the windows, multigabled roof. There’d be at least twenty apartments in the place, crammed up one against the other, shoulder to shoulder like commuters jostling in the subway. She could be living in any one of them. She could just be visiting a friend. She uses a key on the front door, but it could belong to anybody.
I know this. Just as I know she’s not about to come walking out again. As I know she’d be able to see me if her window’s facing this way, and she looks out. But I can’t help myself. I stand there on the street, looking at the face of the building as if it’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen.
“She’ll never tell you,” a voice says from behind me, a kid’s voice.
Here’s what it’s like, living in the city. The kid can’t be more than twelve or thirteen. He’s half my size, a scruffy little fellow in baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirt, air-pumped basketball shoes that have seen way better days. His hair is black, short and greasy, face looks as if it hasn’t been washed in weeks, half-moons of dark shadow under darker eyes. I look at him and what do I do? Make sure he’s alone. Try to figure out if he’s carrying a gun or a knife. He’s just a kid, and I’m checking out what possible threat he could pose.
I decide he’s harmless, or at least means me no harm. He looks amused at the way I’ve been eyeing him, cocks his head. I look a little closer. There’s something familiar about him, but I can’t place it. Just the features, not the dirty hair, the grubby skin, the raggedy clothes.
“Who won’t tell me what?” I finally ask.
“The invisible. She won’t be able to tell you how it works. Half of them don’t even know they go invisible. They just figure people treat them that way because that’s all they’re worth. Seriously low self-esteem.”
I shake my head and can’t stop the smile that comes. “So what are you? A psychiatrist?”
He looks back at me with a steadiness and maturity far belying his years and his appearance. There’s a bead of liquid glistening under one nostril. He’s a slight, almost frail figure, swamped in clothes that make him seem even smaller. But he carries himself with an assurance that makes me feel inadequate.
“No,” he says. “Just someone who’s learned to stay visible.”
I’d laugh, but there’s nothing to laugh about. I saw the woman in the café. I followed her home. If there’s a conspiracy at work here, the number of people involved has to be immense, and that doesn’t make sense. No one would go through so much trouble over me—what would be the point? It’s easier to believe she was invisible.
“So how come I could see her?” I ask.
The boy shrugs. “Maybe you’re closer to her than you think.”
I don’t have to ask him what he means. Self-esteem’s never been one of my strong suits.
“Or maybe it’s because you believe,” he adds.
“Believe in what?”
He says the word, and I can see three small tobacco tins, the children burying them in the dirt under their porches. But I shake my head.
“Maybe I did once,” I say. “But I grew out of it. There’s nothing magic here. There’s simply a … a phenomenon that hasn’t been explained.”
The boy grins, and I lose all sense of his age. It’s as if I’ve strayed into folklore, a fairy tale, tapped an innocent on the shoulder and come face-to-face with a fanged nightmare. I feel I should turn my coat inside out or I’ll never find my way back to familiar ground.
“Then explain this,” the boy says around that feral grin.
He doesn’t turn invisible. That’d be too easy, I guess. Instead it’s like a sudden wind comes up, a dust devil, spinning the debris up from the street, candy wrappers, newspapers, things I can’t identify. That vague sense of familiarity that’s been nagging at me vanishes. There’s nothing familiar about this. He’s silhouetted against the swirling litter, then his shape loses definition. For one moment I see his dark eyes and that grin in the middle of a shape that vaguely resembles his, then the dust devil moves, comes apart, and all that’s left is a trail of debris leading up the sidewalk, away from me.
I stare down at the litter, my gaze slowly drifting toward the invisible woman’s building. Explain this?
“I can’t,” I say aloud, but there’s no one there to hear me.
I return to my studio, but I’m too restless to sleep, can’t concentrate enough to work. I stand in front of the painting on my easel and try to make sense out of what I’m seeing. I can’t make sense of the image it once depicted. The colors and values don’t seem to relate to each other anymore, the hard edges have all gone soft, there’s no definition between the background and the foreground.
I work in watercolor, a highly detailed and realistic style that has me laboring on the same piece for weeks before I’m done. This painting started the same as they always do for me, with a buzz, a wild hum in my head that flares down my arms into my fingertips. My first washes go down fast, the bones of light and color building from abstract glazes until the forms appear and, as Sickert said, the painting begins to “talk back” to me. Everything slows down on me then because the orchestration of value and detail I demand of my medium takes time.
This one was almost completed, a cityscape, a south view of the Kickaha River as seen from the Kelly Street Bridge, derelict warehouses running down to the water on one side, the lawns of Butler U. on the other. Tonight I can’t differentiate between the river and the lawn, the edge of the bridge’s railing and the warehouses beyond it. The image that’s supposed to be on the paper is like the woman I followed earlier. It’s taken on a kind of invisibility of its own. I stare at it for a long time, know that if I stay here in front of it, I’ll try to fix it. Know as well that tonight that’s the last thing I should be doing.
So I close the door on it, walk down the stairs from my studio to the street. It’s only a few blocks to The Half Kaffe and still early for a Friday night, but when I get there, Ted’s already gone home. Jonathan’s behind the counter, but then Jonathan is always behind the counter. The servers he has working for him come and go, changing their shifts, changing their jobs, but Jonathan’s always in his place, viewing the world by what he can see from his limited vantage point and through an endless supply of magazines.
He’s flipping through the glossy pages of a British pop magazine when I come in. Miles Davis is on the sound system, a cut from his classic “Kind of Blue,” Evans’s piano sounding almost Debussian, Davis’s trumpet and Coltrane’s tenor contrasting sharply with each other. I order an espresso from Jonathan and take it to the counter by the front window. The night goes about its business on the other side of the pane. I study the passersby, wondering if any of them are invisibles, people only I can see, wonder if there are men and women walking by that I don’t, that are invisible to me.
I find Ted at Bruno’s Diner the next morning, having his usual breakfast of late. Granola with two-percent milk and a freshly squeezed orange juice. All around him are people digging into plates of eggs and bacon, eggs and sausage, western omelets, home fries on the side, toast slathered with butter. But he’s happy. There’s no esoteric music playing at Bruno’s, just a golden oldies station issuing tinnily from a small portable radio behind the counter. The smell of toast and bacon makes my stomach rumble.
“So what happened to you last night?” Ted asks when I slide into his booth.
“Do you believe in magic?” I ask.
Ted pauses with a spoonful of granola halfway to his mouth. “What, like Houdini?” He puts down the spoon and smiles. “Man, I loved that stuff when I was a kid. I wanted to be a magician when I grew up more than just about anything.”
He manages to distract me. Of all the things I can imagine Ted doing, stage magic isn’t one of them.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“I found out how hard it is. And besides, you need dexterity, and you know me, I’m the world’s biggest klutz.”
“But that stuff’s all fake,” I say. Time to get back on track. “I’m talking about real magic.”
“Who says it’s not real?”
“Come on. Everybody knows it’s done with mirrors and smoke. They’re illusions.”
Ted’s not ready to agree. “But that’s a kind of magic on its own, wouldn’t you say?”
I shake my head. “I’m talking about the real stuff.”
“Give me a for instance.”
I don’t want to lose my momentum again—it’s hard enough for me to talk about this in the first place. I just want an answer to the question.
“I know you read all those tabloids,” I say, “and you always let on like you believe the things they print. I want to know if you really do. Believe in them.”
“Maybe we should backtrack a bit here,” he says.
So I explain. I don’t know which is weirder—the story I tell him, or the fact that he takes me seriously when I tell it.
“Okay” he says. “To start with, all that stuff about Elvis and Bigfoot and the like—it’s not what I’d call magic. It’s entertainment. It might be true and it might not. I don’t know. It doesn’t even matter. But magic …”
His voice trails off and he gets a kind of dreamy look on his face.
“There’s a true sense of mystery with magic,” he says. “Like you’re having a meaningful dialogue with something bigger than you—bigger than anything you can imagine. The tabloids are more like gossip. Something like what’s happened to you—that’s the real thing. It reaches into what we’ve all agreed are the workings of the world and stirs them around a little, makes a person sit up and pay attention. Not simply to the experience itself, but to everything around them. That’s why the great stage illusions—I don’t care if it’s a floating woman or someone walking through the Great Wall of China. When they’re done properly, you come away questioning everything. Your eyes are opened to all sorts of possibilities.”
He smiles then. “Of course, usually it doesn’t last. Most people go right back to the reality we’ve all agreed on. Me, I think it’s kind of sad. I like the idea that there’s more to the world than I can see or understand, and I don’t want to ever forget it.”
What he’s saying reminds me of the feeling I got after I first started to do art. Up until then I’d been the perennial computer nerd, spending all my time in front of a screen because that way I didn’t have to take part in any more than the minimum amount of social interaction to get by. Then one day, in my second year at Butler, I was short one course, and for no reason that’s made sense before or since, decided to take life drawing, realized I had an aptitude for it, realized I loved it more than anything I’d ever tried before.
After that, I never looked at anything the same again. I watched light, saw everything through an imaginary frame. Clouds didn’t just mean a storm was coming; they were an ever-changing picture of the sky, a panorama of movement and light that affected everything around them—the landscape, the people in it. I learned to pay attention and realized that once you do, anything you look at is interesting. Everything has its own glow, its own place in the world that’s related to everything else around it. I looked into the connectedness of it all and nothing was the same for me again. I got better at a lot of things. Meeting people. Art. General life skills. Not perfect, but better.
“Have you ever heard of these invisibles?” I ask Ted.
“That’s what the practitioners of voudoun call their deities. Les Invisibles.”
I shake my head. “This kid wasn’t speaking French. It wasn’t like he was talking about that kind of thing at all. He was referring to ordinary people that go invisible because they just aren’t here enough anymore.” I stop and look across the table at Ted. “Christ, what am I saying? None of this is possible.”
Ted nods. “It’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But I know exactly what he’s talking about. You can either trust your senses and accept that there’s more to the world than what you can see, or you can play ostrich. I don’t know what to do.
“You had anything to eat yet?” Ted asks.
“Not since last night.”
I let him order me breakfast, don’t even complain when it’s the same as his own.
“See, the thing is,” he tells me while we’re waiting for my cereal to arrive, “that you’re at the epicenter where two worlds are colliding.”
“So now it’s an earthquake.”
He smiles. “But it’s taking place on an interior landscape.”
“I saw that woman last night—other people couldn’t. That kid turned into a heap of litter right in front of my eyes. It happened here, Ted. In what’s supposed to be the real world. Not in my head.”
“I know. The ‘quake hit you here, but the aftershocks are running through your soul.”
I’d argue with him, except that’s exactly how it feels.
“Why do you think that kid talked to me?” I ask.
I don’t expect Ted to know, but it’s part of what’s been bothering me. Why’d he pick me to approach?
“I don’t know,” Ted says. “Next time you see him you should ask him.”
“I don’t think I want there to be a next time.”
“You might not get a choice.”
Maybe I could pretend to Ted that I didn’t want any further involvement with invisible people and kids that turn into litter, but I couldn’t lie to myself. I went looking for the boy, for the invisible woman, for things and people out of the ordinary.
There was still a pretense involved. I didn’t wander aimlessly, one more lost soul out on the streets, but took a sketchbook and a small paint box, spent my time working on value drawings and color studies, gathering material for future paintings. It’s hard for me to work en plein. I keep wanting to fuss and fiddle too much, getting lost in detail until the light changes, and then I have to come back another day to get the values right.
A lot of those sketching sessions were spent outside the invisible woman’s building, looking for her, expecting the boy to show up. I’d set up my stool, sit there flooding color onto the pages of my sketchbook, work in the detail, too much detail. I don’t see the woman. Wind blows the litter around on the street, but it doesn’t rise up in the shape of a boy and talk to me.
I find myself thinking of fairy tales—not as stories, but as guideposts. Ted and I share a love of them, but for different reasons. He sees them as early versions of the tabloids, records kept of strange encounters, some real, some imagined, all of them entertaining. I think of them more metaphorically. All those dark forests and trials and trouble. They’re the same things we go through in life. Maybe if more of us had the good heart of a Donkeyskin or the youngest son of three, the world would be a better place.
I’m thinking of this in front of the invisible woman’s building on a blustery day. I’ve got the pages of my sketchbook clipped down, but the wind keeps flapping them anyway, making the paint puddle and run. Happy accidents, I’ve heard them called. Well, they’re only happy when you can do something with them, when you don’t work tight, every stroke counting. I’m just starting to clean up the latest of these so-called happy accidents when a ponytailed guy carrying a guitar walks right into me, knocking the sketchbook from my lap. I almost lose the paint box as well.
“Jesus,” he says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you sitting there.” He picks up my sketchbook and hands it over. “I hope I haven’t totally ruined this.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. It’s not, but what would be the point of being unpleasant?
“I’m really sorry.”
I look down at the page I was working on. Now there’s dirt smeared into the happy accident. Fixable it’s not. My gaze lifts to meet his. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “It happens.”
He nods, his relief plain. “I must’ve been dreaming,” he says, “because I just didn’t see you at all.” He hesitates. “If you’re sure it’s okay …”
I watch him leave, think about what he said.
I just didn’t see you.
So now what? I’ve become invisible, too? Then I remember the kid, something he said when I asked why I could see the invisible woman and others couldn’t.
Maybe you’re closer to her than you think.
Invisible. It comes to me, then. The world’s full of invisible people, and our not seeing them’s got nothing to do with magic. The homeless. Winos. Hookers. Junkies. And not only on the street. The housewife. The businessman’s secretary. Visible only when they’re needed for something. The man with AIDS. Famine victims. People displaced by wars or natural disasters. The list is endless, all these people we don’t see because we don’t want to see them. All these people we don’t see because we’re too busy paying attention to ourselves. I’ve felt it myself, my lack of self-confidence and how it translates into my behavior can have people look right through me. Standing in a store, waiting to be served. Sitting in the corner of a couch at a party and I might as well be a pillow.
The kid’s face comes back to mind. I look down at my sketchbook, exchange the page smeared with happy accidents for a new one, draw the kid’s features as I remember them. Now I know why he looked so familiar.
Ted opens his door on the first knock. He’s just got off work and seems surprised to see me. I can smell herb tea steeping, cigarette smoke. Something classical is playing at low volume on the stereo. Piano. Chopin, I think. The preludes.
“Were we doing a movie or something tonight?” Ted asks.
I shake my head. “I was wondering if I could see that old photo album of yours again.”
He studies me for a moment, then steps aside so that I can come in. His apartment’s as cluttered as ever. You can’t turn for fear of knocking over a stack of books, magazines, CDs, cassettes. Right by the door there’s a box of newspapers and tabloids ready to go out for recycling. The one on top has a headline that shouts in bold caps: TEENAGER GIVES BIRTH TO FISH BOY!!
“You don’t have to look at the album,” he tells me. “I’ll ‘fess up.”
Something changes in me when he says those words. I thought I knew him, like I thought I knew the world, but now they’ve both become alien territory. I stand in the center of the room, the furniture crouched around me like junkyard dogs. I have a disorienting static in my ears. I feel as though I’m standing on dangerous ground, stepped into the fairy tale, but Stephen King wrote it.
“How did you do it?” I ask.
Ted gives me a sheepish look. “How first? Not even why?”
I give the sofa a nervous look, but it’s just a sofa. The vertigo is receding. My ears pop, as though I’ve dropped altitude, and I can hear the piano music coming from the speakers on either side of the room. I’m grounded again, but nothing seems the same. I sit down on the sofa, set my stool and sketching equipment on the floor between my feet.
“I don’t know if I can handle why just yet,” I tell him. “I have to know how you did it, how you made a picture of yourself come to life.”
“Magic,” I repeat. “That’s it?”
“It’s not enough?” He takes a seat in the well-worn armchair across from me, leans forward, hands on his knees. “Remember this morning, when I told you about wanting to be an illusionist?”
“I lied. Well, it was partly a lie. I didn’t give up stage magic, I just never got the nerve to go up on a stage and do it.”
“So the kid … he was an illusion?”
Ted smiles. “Let’s say you saw what I wanted you to see.”
“Smoke and mirrors.”
“Something like that.”
“But . . .” I shake my head. He was right earlier. There’s no point in asking for details. Right now, how’s not as important as … “So why?” I ask.
He leans back in the chair. “The invisibles need a spokesperson—someone to remind the rest of the world that they exist. People like that woman you saw in The Half Kaffe last night. If enough people don’t see her, she’s simply going to fade away. She can’t speak up for herself. If she could, she wouldn’t be an invisible. And she’s at the high end of the scale. There are people living on the streets that—”
“I know,” I say, breaking in. “I was just thinking about them this afternoon. But their invisibility is a matter of perception, of people ignoring them. They’re not literally invisible like the woman last night. There’s nothing magic about them.”
“You’re still missing the point,” Ted says. “Magic’s all about perception. Things are the way they are because we’ve agreed that’s the way they are. An act of magic is when we’re convinced we’re experiencing something that doesn’t fit into the conceptual reality we’ve all agreed on.”
“So you’re saying that magic is being tricked into thinking an illusion is real.”
“Or seeing through the illusion, seeing something the way it really is for the first time.”
I shake my head, not quite willing to concede the argument for all that it’s making uncomfortable sense. “Where does your being a spokesperson fit in?” I ask.
“Not me. You.”
“Oh, come on.”
But I can tell he’s completely serious.
“People have to be reminded about the invisibles,” he says, “or they’ll vanish.”
“Okay” I say. “For argument’s sake, let’s accept that as a given. I still don’t see where I come into it.”
“Who’s going to listen to me?” Ted asks. “I try to talk about it, but I’m a booking agent. People’d rather just think I’m a little weird.”
“And they’re not going to think the same of me?”
“No,” he says. “And I’ll tell you why. It’s the difference between art and argument. They’re both used to get a point across, but the artist sets up a situation, and, if he’s good enough, his audience understands his point on their own, through how they assimilate the information he’s given them and the decisions they can then make based on that information. The argument is just someone telling you what you’re supposed to think or feel.”
“Show, don’t tell,” I say, repeating an old axiom appropriate to all the arts.
“Exactly. You’ve got the artistic chops and sensibility to show people, to let them see the invisibles through your art, which will make them see them out there.” He waves a hand toward the window “On the street. In their lives.”
He’s persuasive, I’ll give him that.
“Last night in The Half Kaffe,” I begin.
“I didn’t see the woman you saw,” Ted says. “I didn’t see her until you stopped her down the street.”
“And after? When she went invisible again?”
“I could still see her. You made me see her.”
“That’s something anybody could do,” I tell him.
“But only if they can see the invisibles in the first place,” he says. “And you can’t be everywhere. Your paintings can. Reproductions of them can.”
I give him a look that manages to be both tired and hold all my skepticism with what he’s saying. “You want me to paint portraits of invisible people so that other people can see them.”
“You’re being deliberately obtuse now, aren’t you? You know what I mean.”
I nod. I do know exactly what he means.
“Why bring this all up now?” I ask him. “We’ve known each other for years.”
“Because until you saw the invisible woman, you never would have believed me.”
“How do I know she’s not another illusion—like the boy made of litter that was wearing your twelve-year-old face?”
He’s wrong about that. I do know. I know in that part of me that he was talking about this morning over breakfast, the part that had a meaningful dialogue with something bigger than me, the part that’s willing to accept a momentary glimpse behind the curtain of reality as a valid experience. And I know why he sent the illusion of the boy after me, too. It’s the same reason he didn’t admit to any of this sooner, played the innocent when I came to him with my story of invisible people. It was to give me my own words to describe the experience. To make me think about the invisibles, to let me form my own opinions about what can be readily seen and what’s hidden behind a veil of expectations. Showing, not telling. He’s better than he thinks he is.
I stand in my studio, thinking about that. There’s a board on my easel with a stretched full-sized piece of three-hundred-pound Arches hot-pressed paper on it. I squeeze pigments into the butcher’s tray I use as a palette, pick up a brush. There’s a light pencil sketch on the paper. It’s a cityscape, a street scene. In one corner, there’s a man, sleeping in a doorway, blanketed with newspapers. The buildings and street overwhelm him. He’s a small figure, almost lost. But he’s not invisible.
I hope to keep him that way.
I dip my brush into my water jar, build up a puddle in the middle of the tray. Yellow ochre and alizarin crimson. I’m starting with the features that can be seen between the knit woolen cap he’s wearing and the edge of his newspaper blanket, the gnarled hand that grips the papers, holding them in place. I want him to glow before I add in the buildings, the street, the night that shrouds them.
As I work, I think of the tobacco tins that Rebecca, Jerry, and I buried under our porches all those years ago. Maybe magic doesn’t always work. Maybe it’s like life, things don’t always come through for you. But being disappointed in something doesn’t mean you should give up on it. It doesn’t mean you should stop trying.
I think of the last thing Ted said to me before I left his apartment.
“It goes back to stage magicians,” he told me. “What’s so amazing about them isn’t so much that they can make things disappear, as that they can bring them back.”
I touch the first color to the paper and reach for a taste of that amazement.
© 1996 by Charles De Lint
Originally appeared in David Copperfield’s Beyond Imagination,
edited by David Copperfield & Janet Berliner.
Reprinted by permission of the author.