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The Dead Magician

From Chapter Two

If this were a family history of the kind that follows the tortured path of each member of the clan as he or she struggles through the brambles and poison ivy of the American wilderness hoping to find wealth, renown, happiness, or salvation, the years spent by Bodamien pere, mere, et fils in Philadelphia might easily fill a book. If the author were to trace in minute detail and with biographical clairvoyance the influences exerted by father on son, and son on son, and son on mother, and so on, he might fill volumes. But as Gregory is our leitmotiv, and as Gregory was busy going to school, making friends, losing the King's English, and behaving in most respects like the average, unremarkable American kid, a chapter suffices to do justice to that period.

It was, with two resounding exceptions, an uneventful span of years. Adam, who retained his blue-blooded accent, went to high school and decided to become a doctor. Deborah worked for a maritime insurance company and saw her shipboard lover two or three times a week until she, or he, or both of them grew tired of the affair. Alexander spent his days in a park three blocks from their apartment, drinking gin out of a shot glass he carried discreetly wrapped in a large handkerchief and telling a receptive audience of derelicts about the business opportunity he was on the verge of seizing.

Althouh Alexander disdained and maligned the daily horoscope of the paper (how could they possibly be accurate if they ignored the hour of birth?), he turned to that page first every morning and read: "The time is ripe for romance." (Really?) "It may be advantageous to postpone a business trip." (You don't say.) "A family member needs to be reassured." (Who? They seemed to be doing quite well without reassurance on his part.) Alexander also read the horoscopes of Gregory, the fish, Adam, the crab, and Deborah, the virgin. Occasionally the terse remarks informing father, mother, and sons about their quotidian fate added up to a surprisingly coherent pattern that made Alexander wonder briefly whether he was not underestimating the power of printed predictions. His own horoscope's advice to "consult with your family about financial matters" coincided with its admonishment to Adam to "keep spending to a minimum" and with its promise to Deborah that "money arrives from an unexpected source." Only Gregory was left out (or was he?). "An evening spent with a friend has a surprise in store." Read: An evening SPENT with a friend. . . .

Of course it can be argued that such coincidences are neither random events nor the teasing hints of hidden order provided by an otherwise compulsively arcane universe. The simplest explanation for them is that the casters of horoscopes labor to make their fictions coherent. To guarantee some overlap of destinies in families having members of different birth signs, what is needed is an imaginary group on which windfall and calamity can be modeled. Enter the family Zodiac, a benign middle-class patriarchy in which beaming father Leo presides over gentle mother Libra, industrious sons Aries, Taurus and Sagittarius, and rosy-cheeked twins Ada and Ida Gemini. Being the typical family of fiction, the Zodiac clan is not without its more flamboyantly lascivious members, who romp through cellar and attic with throbbing lower parts. Horny Uncle Capricorn, the permanent house guest, lustily comers in the steamy bath nubile daughter Virgo of the amber-tipped breasts. He promises to cup her tender cheeks with his large, moist hands and to give her a ride, clippity-clop, clippity-clop, on Uncle. Alas, she tells him to dock his rubber ducky elsewhere. She pines for cousin Scorpio of the russet sting, who joined the foreign legion and languishes in a fairy-tale palace, hand-fed and massaged by lissome, sloe-eyed houris but unhappily unmanned by a cruel sultan's daughter (the cruel daughter of a sultan as well as the daughter of a cruel sultan). To divine how wet-bottomed Aquarius and Pisces, and homicidal Cancer fit into the domestic scene is left as an exercise; these whimsical digressions get tedious when they are drawn out.

In the New World, Alexander no longer dreamt of being chased by rats and women. But his tendency for hypochondria grew to the point where imaginary illnesses occupied a substantial part of his by now not very substantial mind. A quick stabbing hurt in the side (flatulence, most likely) was immediately diagnosed as the onset of liver cancer. Alexander waited for days with clenched teeth and with his entire nervous system trained on the malignant spot buried under mounds of flesh for the searing pain that would confirm the beginning of the end. Then there was his cardiac condition, ignored by quacks too incompetent to detect murmur and palpitations. A momentary tightness around the chest made him rise from the dinner table in near panic, both hands pressed against his chest. "It's the heart," he whispered and tiptoed into the living room and gingerly lowered himself onto the couch, afraid that any jarring move would make the frayed organ contract with a last violent spasm and burst. Poor Alexander was an ingenious diagnostician. Even the abscessed molar that finally drove him to a dentist, who pulled the tooth without much ado, was a symptom of the tumor hidden deep inside his brain.

It is ironic that although Alexander kept a hysterical vigil over his body for the first signs of terminal illness, he seems to have had no conception or fear of mental debility. Until the day of his collapse, all quavering defenses were anticipating an attack on his mortal clay from terra firma, and no eye was turned to the changeful moon, patron star of the lunatic. Alexander was snatched up, taken away, and clapped into chains before he had any idea about the true face of the enemy.

What Alexander was afraid of—enormously, abjectly, mortally afraid of--was death. . . .

Copyright 1989 Evelin Sullivan