The Brownstein Vanish
By Norman Danzig
The phone call came on Sunday evening; there was no hello.
“I’m dying,” Brownstein said. “I want to see you. I’m at NYU Medical Center on the East Side. I’m in room, hey you.” Allan could picture his father yelling across the hospital room. “The old fart in the other bed can’t speak or pretends he can’t. Come see me tomorrow. What day is that?”
“Monday.” Allan said.
“It’ll do you good to get away from being a hot-shot lawyer in that damn white-shoe firm. Be here tomorrow morning at eleven.” The phone went dead.
From his living room, out the large window, eighteen floors below, Allan saw the traffic stalled on the West Side Highway. Across the river, past the darkened Palisades Cliffs, was the early evening expanse of pink and purple sky.
The last time Allan Brownstein had spoken to his father was two years ago, shortly after the traditional seven-day mourning period for his mother. While his father had come back to New York from Las Vegas a month before she died and lived in Queens, he hadn’t bothered to return any of Allan’s calls after the shiva.
Betty, his wife, wanted to know who had called.
“Brownstein, magician extraordinaire, tells me he’s dying. He has summoned me for an audience.” After their most recent estrangement, Allan had begun to refer to his father by their last name, just like everyone else did. “I haven’t seen him since after Mom died. How many messages did I leave for him?”
“He says he’s dying; now’s not the time,” Betty said.
“To what? Say he’s an asshole?”
Brownstein was sitting up in his hospital bed by the window, the curtain drawn around the other bed. Allan figured the other patient wanted to shield himself from his father’s tirades. He pulled the chair from the corner, alongside his father’s bed.
“Thanks for coming.” Brownstein took a deep wheezing breath. “Sitting up, not good. Lower me down.”
Allan found the controls.
“Not that low, up a bit.” His father coughed hard from deep within his chest.
“You sound awful,” Allan said.
“Feel pretty shitty. Hard to talk. Things aren’t good.” Coughing, he leaned forward, gripped the side rails, and coughed up phlegm. When he swallowed it, Allan turned away.
His father lay back on the bed. “Looks like I’ll be with your mother pretty soon.”
“That’s dramatic. Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or just try and gain my sympathy, because guess what—?”
“No games, no drama; I don’t have long. It’s called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis—hardening of the lungs. Probably from all the cocaine and smoking two packs of Camels a day.” He started coughing again.
Allan gritted his teeth with each cough. “I’ll get the nurse.”
“No. Don’t get the goddamn nurse,” Brownstein said when he caught his breath.
“Where’s your oxygen?”
“Don’t want any. This way I keep them on their toes.”
“You won’t take oxygen just to test people? Are you an idiot or a fool?”
Brownstein waved away the comment. The nurse came in. “Would you excuse us, I want to get your dad cleaned up. There’s a room down the hall. I’ll come get you when I’m done.”
While the TV blared in the lounge, Allan was back on Twelfth Street. It was a fall afternoon, he was on his way home from high school, and his mother was screaming from their fourth- floor apartment.
Upstairs, Brownstein was holding her down and yelling at her to calm down. She was kicking and snarling at him.
Through clenched teeth, his mother spat. “The loony bin. That’s when you’ll be happy.”
Brownstein called to Allan, “Help me with her. Hold her while I call an ambulance.”
She kept struggling. “You want me to disappear from your life. I know what you do when you’re not home.” She freed her hands and stuck her middle finger in and out of her other hand in the shape of a circle.
Allan wanted to run, but it was as if he were stuck in the muck at the edge of a lake. Every time he tried to free his feet, the water turned dark and the mud sucked him down.
“She’s out of her mind. Allan, please, she needs help. She’s crazy.”
She broke free, ran to the window, leaned out, and screamed, “Help, help, I’m a prisoner.”
So he had done it: helped Brownstein restrain her until the ambulance came to take her to Bellevue. Then he fled. A few weeks later, all drugged up, his mother was moved to the New York State Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center.
Every other Sunday, until he went to Cornell in the fall, Allan took the train from Grand Central to Wingdale to visit his mother in the psych hospital. For a couple of hours he would sit with her, alternately reading a book and watching her stare off into space. Brownstein was usually away on tours with his magic show and never went to see her.
On those Sundays when they were both home, Allan had little to say to his father, and Brownstein always seemed to be ensconced in building some apparatus for his show. But when Allan asked his father to help him learn a few magic tricks, it was like a rag doll come to life. Brownstein worked with him on card tricks until he could do a one-handed shuffle, a double fan, and produce one card after another from an apparently empty hand.
They laughed a lot, and when they were done, Brownstein took him for a late lunch at the Peacock Café on Bleecker. By the time June came, Allan had started working a crowd at the Robert Burns statue in Central Park, making cards and coins disappear and then reappear from thin air.
The nurse came into the lounge. “He’s resting now. I’ve given him something for the pain. He’ll probably sleep for a while.”
After an hour of making phone calls to his clients and checking his email, Allan knew he needed to go back to see his father.
In his hospital bed, Brownstein stared at the ceiling with his mouth open. His breathing was shallow. The skin on his face looked as if someone had applied pancake makeup. Allan bent over and kissed his father on the forehead. He pulled the chair close to the bed, sat, took his father’s hand and held it.
Brownstein’s voice was a whisper. Allan had to lean towards him to hear. “Try and understand; I thought I was close to making it. I had to stay in Las Vegas.” Allan dropped Brownstein’s hand. “I tried to add a mentalist act to my show. I wanted it to have a Jewish undertone. No one had ever done that before. I even had a three-hundred-year-old Kabbalah book translated; it cost me a lot of money. Someone had told me that it could show you how to summon the dead. It would have been perfect for the act. I don’t know why I believed it.” Brownstein leaned on his elbow. His voice was stronger. “Mr. Mentalstein was a bust. The act was old; I needed something new. Then my luck changed. Siegfried and Roy were performing and I went to see their show three nights in a row. Someone I knew got me backstage and I pitched them this idea I had about vanishing one of their big cats and building a show around it. In six months, I was managing them. Better than that, I finally had time to design other big stage tricks that I sold to some pretty big names.”
“I’m thrilled—you, Siegfried and Roy. Great, how about Mom and me? You were so involved with your career, the only time you came back from ‘Make Believe Land’ was to send Mom upstate.”
“Allan, you’re a grown man with grown children. I would think by now you would understand. What was, was. Doesn’t seem to have hurt you. Mr. Success. Gorgeous wife, two kids smart and talented as anything, and you’re—what do I call you—wealthy? Or just plain rich?”
The nurse came in and checked Brownstein’s vitals. “We’re trying to keep him comfortable. Has the social worker talked to you about moving him to hospice care?”
“That’s what we’re up to?”
She nodded. When she left, Brownstein said, “Allan, listen to me. When the time comes, Rabbi Longfellow—you know the guy who shtupped everything in sight and then at twenty-five became a rabbi—has the instructions for the service and the burial. I’ve arranged everything. Three things you need to know: The service will be at a theater on the Lower East Side that the International Brotherhood of Magicians, where I’m a member, has arranged. The burial is to occur the day after the service. I know this isn’t kosher, but I hate the idea that my friends have to wait until we get back from the cemetery to eat. Most important of all, no matter what happens, you and Betty must not look away from the coffin when the rabbi finishes the eulogy.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Allan, I’m tired. Be a good son and close the curtain on your way out.” With that, Brownstein pulled up the covers and in seconds was snoring.
Later that afternoon, Allan got the news. Maybe I should have forgiven him, Allan thought. It’s over. Both my parents are dead. Now what?
He knew he was supposed to feel sad, but all he felt was a deep exhaustion, as if he had been holding an empty eggshell for years and was afraid to drop it. He called people to invite them to the service. Every time someone said something nice about Brownstein, Allan was surprised.
At the service the next day, Allan was amazed at how many people came. The rabbi called Brownstein one of the great figures in modern magic. Allan smiled, thinking about the summer after his mother was hospitalized, when Brownstein had caught Allan’s magic act in Central Park and told him it was really good.
Then the eulogy was over and the rabbi left the stage. Two young men came out of the wings and stood at opposite ends of the plain pine coffin that was covered with a long prayer shawl. They took the tallis off the coffin; each held one side and stretched the cloth tight, as if it were a flag. This tallis was quite large—four by six—and was beige with black horizontal stripes on each side, and small knots at the edges. They moved in front of the coffin and turned it, so that it was perpendicular to the ground. Their arms moved in unison toward each other, letting the material slacken. They nodded once, and in one motion snapped the tallis taut with a loud crack. The man on the left released the material and, with a flourish, the man on the right gathered it up without any of it touching the ground. With an exaggerated wave, the first man motioned toward the coffin; it was gone.
Allan’s eyes flew open. “Son of a bitch, he made it disappear.”
Next to him, Betty had her hands on her face and her mouth was wide open.
Allan shook his head. “Not bad.” The people around them oohed and aahed. One of his dad’s magician friends, who sat right behind him in the second row, laughed. “Did you see that? Brownstein’s best trick, and it’s when he’s dead.”
The rabbi came out from the wings like the MC of an old vaudeville show. “Wasn’t that incredible, ladies and gentlemen? And I use that term lightly. Remember, old magicians don’t die, they just disappear.
“That’s it for today. The family asks that you join them at their apartment on Riverside Drive, between 84th and 85th Streets, for lots of food and talk about Brownstein. Although Jewish tradition is that the burial should take place today, Brownstein directed the burial to be the day after the funeral service. You know Brownstein, he loved to eat, and he felt people shouldn’t have to wait for a good meal.”
The rabbi pointed at Allan. “The family invites you to join them at Cedar Park Cemetery at
2 p.m. tomorrow. Exactly what they will bury is anyone’s guess.”
Without missing a beat, Allan said to Betty, “That pain in the ass, now I have to find the coffin.”
The rabbi came over. “My sympathies, Allan. Your father was a wonderful man. He loved you very much. I know you’ve been angry with him, but there was a great deal to him.”
Allan pursed his lips. “Yes, Rabbi.”
“He’s a legend in the magic community. There were eight magicians here today, from all over. Was your father a brilliant magician? No, but he designed and built spectacular tricks for each one of those guys.”
“That’s just wonderful, Rabbi, but there’s this tiny problem. I have to find a coffin.”
“You know a great deal about magic. You’ll find it.” The rabbi moved away.
A zaftige middle-aged woman with blond streaks in her hair came over. “My sympathies, Allan. My name is Sylvia Morris. I was a dear friend of your father’s. A wonderful man, just terrific, generous with time, money and, most of all, laughter.”
“You look so familiar. Were you at our house?”
“Never. I met Brownstein before he went to Vegas. I was his assistant—tight-sequined body suit—can you imagine it?” She traced the outline of her body with her hands. With a wave of her arm, and backing up a step, “‘Silvery, slithering, scion of the most powerful family in all of Russia: The great Sylvoro.’ It was very exciting, especially for a small-town girl from Ames, Iowa.”
“That summer when I graduated from Cornell and my father sent me a ticket to travel with the act, I thought you were having an affair with him.” He raised his eyebrows. “Were you?”
She smiled. “I’m glad I came. Hope you can find the box.” She winked at him, and walked away.
People drifted out. Allan said to Betty, “You head home. I’ll be along just as soon as I find the coffin. Alive, I never knew where he was, and now he’s dead, and I still don’t know where the hell he is.”
Nothing, other than the two-foot high bier that the coffin had rested on, was on the stage. The back wall was covered by a thick black curtain; the dark, scuffed oak stage had blue or white marker strips of tape and chalk lines. A speaker’s podium stood off to the side with the American and New York State flags in the corner.
Up on stage, he studied the bier. It was longer and wider than the coffin, but not as tall. There was silvery material on all sides.
He ran his hand along the top of it. Nothing. He pulled away one of the side curtains, lay on the stage, and stuck his head in. Underneath the top was fabric that was tacked up the middle, making a seam the length of the bier. He pulled away the material and revealed a latch. When he touched it, the two pieces of wood that made up the top fell open and hit him on the head. There were hinges on both sides of the bier, so that when the latch was released the coffin would have fallen through. It was simple yet elegant.
With his head still inside the bier, he ran his fingers on the stage floor. There was a tiny space between floorboards that was at least as long as the length of the coffin. He had to get underneath the stage.
Backstage, behind the curtain, was a door that led to a crawl space. Bent over, he made his way, and there, twenty feet away, the coffin rested on a mattress. “Nice try, but I found you.” He tapped the wooden box. It sounded hollow. He lifted a corner of it and felt it was too light for a body to be in it. With a deep breath of the thick air in the passageway, he moved toward the far side of the stage, where he heard voices and saw some light from a partially opened door. There were stairs between the middle two side curtains. Up a flight, he found the two stagehands playing cards on the landing.
One of the guys said, “Hi, Mr. Brownstein. Thanks for coming so soon. I knew you’d figure it out within two hours of the vanish. And that means I just won twenty bucks from Andy.” He pointed at his partner.
“Who the hell are you guys?”
“Magicians. We usually perform during the break at Monday Night Magic. Brownstein called us a week ago, told us what he wanted. We didn’t hesitate.
“It was great; the trick worked beautifully. He designed the whole thing. It took us five days to set it up and get it right. The idea was that at the snap of the tallis, Andy would push a button on a small remote he held in one hand along with the corner of the tallis. That released both sets of trap doors, and the coffin would fall through the bier and the trap door on the stage. We figured the snap of the tallis would distract from any sounds the coffin made when it fell onto the mattress.
“The biggest problem we had was how to bring the doors back up. Brownstein showed us a design for a door hinge that would work at right angles to the floor. The way he explained it, was to picture a window with two panes of glass side to side. Put a latch on the inside. Now turn the window so it faces down, and instead of a pane of glass there’s wood. Release the latch and the wood falls open. We rigged the latches with a wireless remote. That way, the latches on the bier and the stage trap-door opened simultaneously, and the coffin dropped through the bier all the way below the stage. When Andy pressed the remote again, it started a motor on the underside of the stage connected to pulleys with piano wire to pull both trap- doors up. When the doors got to the top, they clicked into the latch. We expected there to be noise coming from the audience, which there was, to hide the sound of the latches. With the wood panels back in place, we walked off the stage.”
“Nicely done,”Allan said. “You guys handled it beautifully. Your timing was terrific. Now where is my father’s body?”
Andy said, “At the funeral home. I’m going to call them to come pick up the coffin. Then the home will put the body back where it belongs and be ready for tomorrow.”
His apartment was filled with people. In the pale yellow living room, the oversize dark red leather sofa and love-seat were crowded with strangers. The hired server had added extra seats that were all taken. The walnut side table was covered with bottles of liquor. Every inch of the dining room table was filled with bagels, cream cheese, smoked whitefish, lox, olives, and hummus that Betty had ordered. People were scooping up food as if they had crossed the desert and found an oasis. Empty spaces in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases held the remains of drinks and paper plates with indistinguishable foods. On another side table was an urn filled with fresh coffee, its aroma filling the room. A few of Brownstein’s childhood friends stood nearby, drinking whiskey and telling tall tales about his father.
Allan poured himself a healthy Johnny Walker Black. As he sipped his scotch, he remembered the summer after his graduation, when his father had sent him that train ticket to join him in the Phipps Old Time Travelling Vaudeville Show in Kansas City. It came after months of silence. He hadn’t hesitated, and when he arrived, Brownstein and his assistant met him at the railroad station.
All summer, Allan earned his keep by setting up and then striking the tent at each stop, mucking out the stalls of the animals, and making sure the star of the Brownstein act, Beulah the elephant, was groomed and fed properly. She was a friendly animal. He liked Beulah, and when he brushed her, he hummed.
Every night he watched Brownstein’s act and studied the one trick he thought was spectacular: making the elephant disappear. Beulah was placed in a large box with a black velvet curtain covering the open side that faced the audience. The box was spun around twice, and the assistant, with one quick move, opened the curtain. The elephant was gone. Brownstein quieted the crowd down. The assistant closed the curtain. Brownstein spun the box around in the opposite direction. Again the assistant pulled the curtain back. The elephant reappeared. The crowd went wild. Allan had no idea how it was done.
After he had watched the trick from the back of the tent for a week, he gave up and asked Brownstein. His father laughed, but brought him back stage to show him the angles and the mirrors that made the trick work. Allan knew he had a lot to learn.
During the day, when he wasn’t mucking out stalls, Allan worked on the vanish. He started to get the timing. After a few days, Brownstein came to watch, and helped him put the finishing touches to the trick. On the Labor Day weekend, the show pulled into Cincinnati for a three-night run. Monday afternoon was the last performance, and Brownstein turned the trick over to Allan.
During that show, he made Beulah disappear. He was a natural and played it to the hilt. The audience clapped and whistled when she vanished, but when the elephant reappeared the crowd went wild. He loved it. It was his first and last stage appearance.
After the show, he walked Beulah back to her truck, and kept replaying the scene and the audience’s reaction in his mind. He imagined taking over the act when his father was too old. In the midst of this dream, Beulah misstepped and her right leg got stuck in a hole. She trumpeted louder than Allan had ever heard her. He patted her head and tried to soothe her. With both hands on the stuck leg, he got her out of the hole, all the while speaking softly to her. Brownstein came running, pushed Allan out of the way, and tended to the injured animal. Then he turned on Allan and punched him in the jaw. Allan went down, crashing into pots, hay bales, and thick metal chains.
“You fucking jerk,” Allan said. “Do you think I would do anything to hurt that elephant?”
In the fall he entered Yale Law School with a busted jaw.
That had happened thirty years ago. Even though it had ended badly, he remembered the applause.
After everyone left, he and Betty sat in the kitchen with glasses of wine. He was tired, but something was bothering him. He kept thinking about the book of Kabbalah his father had had translated. Going to his father’s apartment he knew was crazy, but he had to see that book. Betty just shook her head when he told her.
It was a twenty-minute cab ride to Brownstein’s apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Allan had taken the keys from the hospital the day before. Bookcases lined the far wall in an otherwise spare living room. In the middle of one of the bookcases, he found the translated book of Kabbalah, The Book of the Underworld, Sefer Sitra Acher. The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Jacob Joseph Bershelevsky of Chostochaya, had written it.
He read for an hour until coming to the part on incantations surrounding death. There were three sections: How to Ward Off the Angel of Death; How to Hide Someone So They Can’t be Seen by Satan; and, How to Make Something Disappear. He called Betty and told her he would be late. He read and reread every page. He memorized blessings and whole passages. He continued until he was sure of himself. At midnight, he left the apartment with the book and returned home, wondering what the next day would be like.
At the cemetery, they gathered around the grave as the workers placed the coffin on the ropes over the opening. The rabbi nodded, and they lowered the coffin. Allan whispered each word of three of the four blessings he had learned the night before.
“Blessed be He who has made all mankind and lovingly transmits them through the great cloud and all eternity. Blessed is He who has the power to give wings to all those He chooses to go through the blazing fire. Blessed be He who provides the chariot that has three horses, who have three heads each, and two sets of wings on each side to carry the one He chooses invisibly through the whirlwind everlasting.”
The rabbi motioned for everyone to gather round. He said that Brownstein had lived a full life. He was admired throughout the country and people loved him. Allan read the graveside Mourner’s Kaddish.
Rabbi Longfellow handed him a plastic black wand with a white tip. Allan felt where it had been pre-cut. With both hands holding the ends, he said, “We release you from your earthly magic.” He split the wand and let each piece fall in between the coffin and the earth.
He walked over to the shovel stuck in the pile of earth next to the grave. He grabbed a spade full of earth and said, “Blessed be He who controls the movement of the earth, turns flesh and bone to dust, and makes the dust disappear.” Allan lifted the shovel toward the sky as if it were an offering, and in a long arc he heaved it towards the grave. As the dark rich soil passed the opening of the grave, it slowed down. Just as it was about to hit the pine box, the earth hung in the air. For a moment he could see the bottom of the grave through the coffin. The pine box disappeared, and the earth hit the bottom of the grave. Only the pieces of the wand remained. From deep within his chest he exhaled all at once, “Huh!” He led Betty to their car. “Let’s go home and sit shiva,” and they left behind the sounds of wonder at the grave.