The man in 38B had seen it all. Well, maybe not all, but a lot more, he believed, than human eyes were meant to see.
Nothing could compare to his student years, of course. That was back, way back, when sex was still a novelty, a fad, like the hula-hoop had been when he was a child. When he went off to school, still a teenager, it was suddenly all about love and freedom. It was everywhere. It was uncanny. Even a farm boy from the prairies, with more interest in Houdini than Hendrix, could be initiated. He had a lot to learn, more than most, he supposed, but after a few years he’d seen just about every variation, every permutation. He shook his head at the memory.
And there was the drug scene. Later, in 70s, it took a harder edge, and he wasn’t around to see much of it. Still, even in his time he’d managed to lose himself—he couldn’t say for how long—with friends and strangers, women and men, and their crazy cosmic claims, the filthy mattresses and bizarre rituals, shared with whoever passed through the door. The stomach churning concoctions, said to be from recipes perfected in the Amazon, transported him to worlds of fantastic mystery. It wasn’t anyplace Houdini ever went, he was sure of that, but what he saw was magical. Was it witchcraft? He hadn’t considered the possibility at the time. But he was sure there were many at home who’d reached such a conclusion.
When he wandered back, barely three years after he’d left, his family no longer recognized him, or rather, they saw how little remained of the boy they used to know. He didn’t have the perspective to say how much he’d changed, but one thing was certain, he hadn’t abandoned his childhood fascination with magic. His skills, in fact, had grown considerably with practice; he’d applied himself to little else while ostensibly preparing to be a chemist—that, and the sex and drugs. But his clever tricks utterly failed to impress. On the contrary, as with everything else he said and did on his return, they merely confirmed his parents’ fears that the devil had taken hold of their son. He was a shame, a drop out, a wastrel—and prayer alone could set him back on the righteous path.
They gathered hope and strength from a community of believers. With tearful humility they beseeched the Lord to deliver their son from the evils he had found.
They received His answer during the autumn harvest.
His mother wept at the severity of the Lord’s judgment, and his father was compelled to remind her that their son was home but remained lost. She should not expect the Way to be easy. Judgment came in the form of a registered letter from the Government of the United States. He would be among the final crop of men to serve in a dying war. His sins would be expiated in the jungles of South East Asia.
His unwillingness was vocal and unabashed, and it shamed his family deeply. His mother continued to weep and his father refused to speak. He vanished the night before he was to appear at the recruitment office and men were sent out to find him. He disappeared more than once as a recruit and men were sent out again and again to bring him back. Each time they punished him with greater ruthlessness, threatening to imprison him indefinitely, and hinting darkly at the possibility of shooting him on the spot. At last he submitted, and was eventually flown with a planeload of other young men to a place he never thought existed, to see things he knew without a doubt were not meant for human eyes, real things that he could hear and touch and smell, that threatened to ensnare him as they had ensnared others before him. He wanted to disappear.
His superiors had been warned about his tendency to vanish, and they in turn were careful to warn his fellow recruits. All were especially vigilant. But vigilance, he knew, was largely irrelevant; Houdini was watched by hundreds, even thousands, at the moments he chose to disappear. But his comrades would point occasionally to a man on the ground, whose head had been deflated by a sniper bullet, and say “That’s you, Harry. That’s how you’ll disappear.” And for a long time he didn’t believe he could pull off the trick and survive.
What did the enemy know about magic? He hadn’t considered the question before. But then one afternoon, as the squadron trudged through the muck, he recognized a familiar ploy. It was like a dream; he no longer saw the dilapidated hut with the oxcart in the distance or the terraced hills and their muddy footpaths. He saw a theatre arranged for the sleight of hand, for the misdirection, of the illusionist. While he stopped and admired the spare simplicity of the staging, his comrades continued their patrol. At last the squadron leader approached and demanded to know why he had stopped, but by then the show had begun.
The men at the front of the procession had bunched up where the slippery path descended to a lower terrace, and when someone’s boot found a mine the explosion cut down a dozen of his comrades at a stroke. Then, like magic, the empty fields were no longer empty. The orchestration was masterful and decisive. The air was filled with smoke and screams and flesh and flying metal. It was time at last for a disappearing act.
The action doubtless saved his life.
But he was quickly found, unarmed and unprepared, by an enemy patrol. His hands were bound behind his back with strips of wire and he was packed off to a place inspired by nightmares. He was made to see things that could have destroyed his mind—as the minds of his captors and their many captives were being destroyed. But instead his powers grew to another level. While others starved, he was able to produce food. When others were chosen for interrogation or summary execution, he was overlooked. Locks would open; shackles would be shed in the mud. Over and over he managed to disappear, though only to be found again and transported from one place of dread to another.
Finally, he found a way to disappear from the enemy and not be found until his own army arrived. He was taken to a place where the nightmare was pushed out of sight, beyond a perimeter marked by tripwire and machinegun nests. The army knew nothing of his desertion. They were able to confirm only what they already knew—that his squadron had been destroyed in an ambush. But he told of his capture and the many escapes, and the information turned out to be of strategic value. He was declared a hero, and decorated and promoted for his bravery. His story spread with astonishing swiftness. He became a legend: a witness of the most brutal atrocities, a survivor under the most improbable conditions.
Years had already passed since the news of the squadron’s decimation hit his community, and with his disappearance and presumed death the earlier shame had been forgotten. His parents came to terms with their loss in an austere and moving memorial, and were henceforth treated with the special respect accorded to those who offered their blood to the nation. But with the spectacular news of their son’s survival they were elevated to the status of local celebrities. Excited plans were made for the homecoming.
Following the debriefing, he was put on a plane for Washington. Despite his fame, he was given no particular privilege. He was only one among hundreds of men returning from active duty on an aircraft filled to capacity. As the others spoke animatedly of their experiences, and argued about the first thing they ought do when they got stateside, he sat quietly in his seat and stared at the ocean below, lost in thought.
He wasn’t haunted by his past; he didn’t need to be reminded that he’d suffered less than the many broken men he had encountered in the prison camps. And in his mind the horrors had a distant dream-like quality of a drug-induced hallucination. His thoughts drifted indifferently from memory to memory. But he was troubled nonetheless. He knew he could disappear at will; perhaps no one in history, not even the great Houdini, had developed the ability to vanish with such facility. Yet somehow he had always been discovered, often very quickly. Could it be that he simply wanted to be found, even if it was by an enemy intent on inflicting grievous harm? It was a novel thought.
He looked around. He saw the various openings and hatches, the cockpit door, the emergency exits, and with the calm of a master in full command of his power understood that nothing could contain him against his will. He could vanish, he could make the entire plane vanish, if that was his desire, and never be discovered. The knowledge struck him with the force of an epiphany. And the realization that it was in fact his desire resonated with almost sexual potency.
The welcome committee in Washington was just putting the finishing touches on the official itinerary when it received word that the ceremony would be postponed. No explanation was immediately given, but it was eventually revealed that the transport plane had disappeared over the South Pacific. Few details were offered, and a shocked public suspected a military cover-up. Officials, however, insisted that the plane had simply vanished from radar, without warning and with no prior indication of mechanical problems. Rescue crews dispatched to the area reported no sign of the craft or any of its occupants. All were presumed dead. The tragedy hit the smaller towns with disproportionate force. Planned celebrations turned into heartfelt memorials.
In one rural Iowa town, a statue was raised to a local hero, whose suffering and selflessness, it was vowed, would never be forgotten.