by alan c. baird
H…O…L…L…Y…W…O…O…D… Up in the warm hills, nine billboard-sized letters appear to be a bit out of line, as usual. Although the familiar white sign is noticeably run-down, it’s still the proud calling card of a city built on dreams.
But something seems slightly wrong. Several more letters have been placed after the D: an L, an A, an N and yet another D, to spell out the word “HOLLYWOODLAND.”
An abrupt, soundless flash produces blinding whiteness, which gives way to a confused jumble of lights and darks. Eventually, these formless shapes resolve themselves into a hand-painted sign announcing “The Great Merlinsky,” with old-fashioned flourishes and curlicues.
A tall bespectacled man stands at the sidewalk’s edge, sporting a beat-up fedora and snapping his suspenders. He’s midway through his late-morning street show, and the few dozen people in his audience look up at the Hollywoodland sign in wonder. Their faces have been illuminated by the sudden glare; their pupils are pinpoints.
Merlinsky refuses to be thrown by this interruption, and sets his jaw. “Folks, it’s just another publicity stunt to attract househunters up into those godforsaken hills. Let’s get back down to business. Where’s the ace of spades? Card number one, two or three? Larry, Moe, or Curly? Nixon, Haldemann, or Ehrlichman?” He pauses, scratching his ear and muttering, “Wait a minute, that’s a little ahead of this time, ain’t it?”
Inside the red trolley pulling up to a stop on the boulevard, an athletic-looking teenaged boy peers out the window and notices this impromptu show. As the doors open, he picks up his small suitcase and steps down onto the pavement. Strolling up behind the crowd, he cranes his neck to watch the performance.
Merlinsky points at a woman in the front row. “Madame, may I examine the contents of your handbag?” The woman obliges, and he rummages through her purse–looking up, he offhandedly notices the crowd watching him. “This ain’t part of the act, I just wanted a stick of gum.” He’s disappointed when his search doesn’t pan out, and tosses the handbag back to the woman. “Next time, let’s come prepared, huh?!”
He surveys the crowd, pulls out a deck of cards, and throws them to a bald man in the middle. “Hey, Slick–catch! Separate the red cards from the black. It’s a simple job, so don’t screw it up! In the meantime…” Merlinsky produces a mechanical, expandable/collapsible accordion-like device with a rubber hand attached to the end. He shoots it to the rear of the crowd, hanging it in front of the newly-arrived teenager. “…I need a fresh victim, ah, a new volunteer. You, young man, you in the back. Shake hands!”
The kid is shocked, and, in his confusion, actually shakes hands with the contraption. “Me?!”
“Yeah, you in the six-dollar suit! You just volunteered!”
“Oh, yeah! Get yer fresh face and yer youthful gullibility up here. We’ll see what we can do to corrupt ya. My name’s Harry. What’s yours, and where ya from?”
The crowd parts, and pushes the kid up front. “Jake Timmons, from St. Louis!”
“St. Looey, eh? They’ll stamp your passport down at the corner, after the show.”
The crowd applauds, loving it. Harry sets up a con game on the small table at his side, arranging three huge walnut shells in a row, a few inches apart from each other. “Here we have three garden-variety walnut shells.” He looks up in mock surprise, as people react to their enormous size. “I didn’t say whose garden it was, did I?!” He becomes absorbed in aligning the shells perfectly. “A good friend got these for me. He was a little nuts.” Harry examines one of the shells minutely. “But he parlayed that into some mighty big nuts. And yes, they were hell to crack.”
Harry turns to the bald guy, holding the cards. “Ya got the red ones separated from the black, yet?”
“Now throw out the aces and the queens.”
Harry looks over at Jake. “Lessee here, we need something else for this shell game…aha, here it is.” He pulls a red rubber ball from behind Jake’s ear, bewildering and delighting the teenager. Harry then continues talking to the crowd. “This is an old game. You’ve all seen this one, haven’t ya? The con man–that’s me–tricks the rube…” He makes a small motion with his head. “That’s him–into guessing which shell the ball AIN’T under, with a few fancy moves like this.”
After demonstrating the shell game con, Harry hands the ball to Jake and says, “But this time, it’s a little different, ’cause now you get to Con The Con Man.” He pauses for effect. “I developed this into a radio quiz show, but it didn’t fly–nobody but me ever won.” He steps back, facing away from Jake and the shell-game table. Looking directly at the crowd, he begins talking to Jake. “Okay, take the ball and place it under one of the shells. Make sure you remember which one it’s under.” Harry asks the audience, “Everybody see it?”
They answer, as one. “Yes!”
Still facing the crowd, Harry instructs Jake. “Okay. Now mix ’em up, mix ’em up…not too fast, we don’t wanna lose anybody here.” After the young man scrambles the shells, Harry continues, to the crowd, “Okay, everybody know which one the ball’s under?” They respond with mixed yesses and noes, exasperating the magician. “You guys wanna run a shell game, ya gotta pay attention. Now lissen up, lissen up…” He looks back toward Jake. “If a pig and a half eats a pie and a half in a minute and a half, how long does it take for a talking horse to read the New York Times?” He pauses, but not long enough for Jake to catch up. “Remember where the ball is? Don’t show me.” When he turns back to the crowd, Harry smirks. “I’m tryin’ to confuse him, but he’s doin’ a helluva job on his own.”
Suddenly, another dazzling flash of light illuminates the Hollywoodland sign. Harry clenches his teeth and murmurs, under his breath, “I’m gonna hafta deal with that joker, sooner or later.”
While rubbing his eyes, Jake whispers, “What?”
“Nuthin’, kid, nuthin’.” Harry faces the crowd and speaks to Jake in a louder voice. “Alright, show ’em where the ball is.” His tone becomes sarcastic, because he knows Jake is confused. “If ya gotta lift up all three shells, go ahead, go ahead…okay, show ’em the first one, put it back…show ’em the second one, put it back…show ’em the third one, put it back.”
Harry lets the crowd know he’s losing patience. “Now, one more time, everybody see where the ball is?”
The response is a resounding “YES!”
Turning back to the table and Jake, Harry smiles, and points at the first shell. “Now, it’s got to be under this one…” Then he indicates the second shell. “Or this one…” Finally, he’s pointing at the third shell. “Or this one. Don’tcha just love the suspense?!”
Harry glances out into the audience, looking to harass the bald guy, who’s still holding the deck of cards. “All the aces and queens gone?”
“Then separate the face cards from the number cards.”
The man looks woebegone, but Harry turns back to Jake. “Remember which one the ball was under?”
Jake’s confident. “Yes.”
“Don’t show me. It was this one, right?”
Jake smiles and nods, as Harry lifts the shell, to a smattering of applause. The teenager melts back into the crowd, and Harry points at him. “Whaddaya say we give him a hand, folks, give him a hand!” The audience applauds more vigorously, and Harry pulls a fake rubber hand from his bag. He offers it to Jake, who doesn’t notice. Harry throws the hand over his shoulder, then starts to put the shells back into his bag, one at a time, revealing an identical red ball under each. The applause grows stronger with each shell.
Harry bows, then reaches into the bag to pull out a bowling pin. “Found this in the alley out back.” The crowd groans. “Saved it from a fate worse than death–being hit by a gutter ball.” The groaning continues, mixed with some chuckles.
Harry examines the pin, then remembers the bald guy. “Have you finished separating the face cards from the number cards yet?”
In a long-suffering voice, the man replies, “Yes.”
Harry lets the crowd in on the con. “Kept him busy, didn’t I? He thought I was actually gonna use those cards.” He admonishes the bald guy, “What use is a deck of cards with no aces and queens?” Harry waves the man off, dismissing the idea, then reaches for the bowling pin again.
As Harry glances down the street, he sees something that obviously rattles him, so he lays his fedora on the ground, and begins to pack up his kit. “Folks, I’m sorry, the bowling pin trick will hafta wait ’til the next show, just down the street here, in one hour. If you enjoyed yourselves, you can show your appreciation in a concrete way by droppin’ something in the hat. And I don’t mean pieces of cement!”
The crowd begins to disperse, some tossing coins into the hat, and Jake approaches Harry, saying, “I wish I’d seen more of your show–you’re really good! I’d love to learn how you do all that stuff.”
“Glad ya liked it, kid – maybe we can set up some lessons for ya.” Harry shoots another sidewise look down the street, and redoubles his packing efforts. “Look, Slick, can ya do me a favor?”
“Scoop up the dough in my hat, put it in your pocket, and limp down the street, that way.” Harry points in the opposite direction from the one that has been bothering him.
“I can’t take your money!”
“It’s just temporary, Sport–I’ll catch up with ya later. And if anyone chases ya, run.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, RUN, as in walking very fast. Now take the cash and get going. Remember to do a good limp.”
Jake hesitates, then collects the money, picks up his suitcase, and starts limping down the street. From the other direction, a fat, sweaty policeman bustles up to the con man, wheezing. “Harry, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times; when you’re making a profit, you must get a permit.”
“Finn, I ain’t doing it for the cash–it’s all for charity. See, there’s no dough in my hat. I gave it all to that crippled kid.”
“An accomplice, eh?” The officer wearily heads after Jake, shouting, “Hey, come back here! I want to talk to you!”
Jake looks around, confused, and Harry shouts, “Run, kid, run! He thinks you stole it!”
Jake’s frightened, so he takes off sprinting. Harry finishes packing, and lights out the other way. The cop, seeing he’s been had, starts in one direction, then the other. But running in this heat is clearly a distasteful proposition, so he simply mops his brow and groans in frustration.
Twenty minutes later, Jake shuffles slowly down Vine Street, carrying his suitcase and looking hungrily into restaurant windows. A hooked cane quickly snakes out of an alleyway and around his neck, yanking him off the sidewalk. Much to Jake’s surprise, it’s Harry. “Kid, ya can’t just mosey on down the street like that–ya gotta keep an eye out for that fat butt flatfoot!”
“Sorry, Mr. Merlinsky.”
“Oh, geez. Call me Harry. What didja say your name was?”
“Jake Timmons, sir.”
“Ya gotta loosen up, Jake, if you’re gonna be my accompl…er…apprentice.”
“Ya hafta keep an eye on your wallet, too.” Harry hands the teenager’s billfold back to him.
“How’d you do that? When do I start? Being your apprentice, I mean? Can we eat first? What…”
“One at a time, one at a time, kid. I know a diner right up the street–we can strap on the old feed bag and keep outta sight until Officer Finn goes home for lunch.”
Jake pulls some coins out of his pocket. “Here’s your money.”
“That’ll be your first paycheck–you earned it. Besides, when I dipped yer wallet, a moth flew out.”
“I’m gonna get paid?!”
Harry smiles. “If ya play your cards right, I might even be persuaded to cook ya a hot supper tonight.”
“That’d be swell!”
Staring at the teenager’s suitcase, Harry says, “Ya don’t have a place to stay, do ya?”
“That’s okay, kid, I got a couch you can sleep on.”
“Why are you helping me out like this?”
“Let’s just say I knew you’d step off that trolley today and start helping ME out…now let’s go get some grub.”
Several hours later, two figures trudge up a tree-lined street in the hills. Jake still carries his suitcase, and Harry’s lugging the kit bag. It’s dusk, and they’re both bushed, but Harry’s trying to make conversation. “How long ya plannin’ to stay in town?”
Jake seems troubled. “I…came here to…find my fortune.”
Harry pulls a few dollar bills out of his pocket and looks at them. “We did okay for five shows, but this business won’t make ya rich, kid.”
“Well, I can’t go back to St. Louis.” Jake’s tone carries a certain finality, cutting short Harry’s chatter.
After a short silence, Harry points out a medium-sized stone mansion, vaguely medieval, and horrendously overgrown with vines and weeds. “My little shack is over yonder.”
“You live there?”
“A man’s home is his castle.”
Jake shivers. “That place could be haunted.”
“Nah, the ghosts all left. Couldn’t stand my snoring.”
“It still looks creepy.”
Harry tries some obviously fake sincerity. “But it’s REAL comfy inside!” As they approach the front door, Harry notices a blackened area around the lock, and mumbles, “So… he knows.”
“Oh, nuthin’. C’mere, I wantcha to meet a friend.” Harry motions Jake into a large room whose walls are lined with books, really ancient tomes, from floor to ceiling. A stuffed alligator dangles on thin wires, and the furniture is draped with sheets. At the room’s center, standing on a wooden perch and facing away from Harry and Jake, is a stuffed owl. Or…maybe not. A deep voice booms from that general direction. “Harry, what have you dragged home this time?”
Jake’s unnerved. “Wh-hoo-hoo said that?”
The owl’s head swivels to face Harry, and its beak is moving. “Is he making fun of me?”
Harry leads Jake over to the perch. “Jake, I’d like ya to meet Socrates. He’s older than dirt.”
Jake gasps, “This bird can talk?”
“I was about to ask the same question about you, buster,” Socrates replies. Pausing, the owl’s deep eyes stare pointedly at Harry. “And YOU can lose those wisecracks about my age.”
Harry chuckles. “Sorry, old timer. Wouldja tell Jake the story about that king ya used to hang out with?”
“You mean that snot-nosed kid who got lucky, and yanked a sword out of some stone?”
“That’s the one.”
Jake’s awestruck. “He knew Arthur?”
Socrates fluffs his feathers. “I know all the biggies, kid. Let me tell you about the wizard who introduced me and Artie…”
As Socrates begins to hold forth, Harry slips off into the kitchen.
After dinner, the owl grooms his wings, while sitting on a perch next to the dining table. Harry smokes a cigar with his fedora pushed back, and Jake carefully folds his used napkin, declaring, “You’re quite a cook, Harry.”
Socrates chimes in, “…and my rodent al dente was done to a T. What kind was it?”
“Cellar rat. I fished it outta one of the basement traps.” Harry grimaces.
“I don’t know what it is – but lately those rats have been unusually tender and succulent.”
Harry cuts him off. “OK, if we’re all full–maybe Jake’s ready for one more performance?”
The teenager is still not quite comfortable with the idea of a talking owl, but he’s clearly eager to see what’s next. “We’re going back out on the streets?”
“Nah – I want ya to see the Magic Castle, a private club for magicians. I do gigs over there once in awhile.”
Socrates intones, mysteriously, “That’s where he shows his REAL stuff.”
In the Magic Castle’s “Palace Of Mystery,” curtain cables, lighting equipment and scenic backdrops dominate a small, typical backstage area. The sound of an audience filters through, from the other side of a closed curtain. A confident young woman dashes around with a clipboard, doing last-minute checks on every performance detail. As she turns away from the lighting panel, she bumps into Jake. Surprised at his non-formal attire, she softly whispers, “If you’re going onstage tonight, you’d better get dressed. We’re almost ready to start.”
“Oh, I can’t do that stuff. I’m here with Harry…er, The Great Merlinsky.”
“You’re with him? He’s the best magician I’ve ever seen!”
“And you’ve probably seen quite a lot.”
She gestures around the stage. “Well, yeah–I do some of their setup.”
“Usually. But most of ’em are jerks, and use magic to hide it.” She sniffles, and pulls a handkerchief out of her back pocket. The handkerchief is tied to many others, in all hues of the rainbow. “See? This is the Amazing Crisco’s idea of a joke.”
Jake chuckles, “Well, it IS kind of funny…”
“Not if you’re allergic to this stuff.” She sneezes, and pulls faster on the handkerchiefs–more and more emerge from her pocket, until a fair-sized heap sits on the stage floor. Then she collapses in a sneezing fit.
Jake quickly moves the pile away from her, and unties her real handkerchief from the end. “Here.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you.” She blows her nose, sniffling, and looks at her watch. “Fiddlesticks. I’m running late.” She turns to check the special effects control board. “By the way, my name’s Connie.” As she tests some buttons with one hand, she offers the other to Jake. They shake briefly, before she runs to rearrange a cable.
“And mine’s Jake. Can I help with anything?”
“I think Merlinsky’s using the trap door for his vanishing volunteer tonight. Could you make sure the release is working?”
“Right over there.”
“Ooooooo-kay, I see the door. But I assume there’s a separate release?”
“It’s the black nail upstage.” She points.
Jake tentatively pushes a nail. When the trap door opens, he giggles triumphantly, then closes it again. “Okay, this works. What else?”
“Hmmmm…Crisco will use this cable for levitation…and…I guess that’s about it. Let’s get the emcee and enjoy the show.”
Jake is delighted to be included in Connie’s backstage routine, and wriggles like an eager puppy. He follows her to the dressing rooms.
Forty minutes later, Harry stands on the small stage, winding up his act. He’s in a tuxedo, but still wears his fedora; beside him is a large, person-sized box. “…I need a fresh victim, ah, a new volunteer. Madame, would you be so kind as to give me a hand?”
A beautiful woman in a low-cut evening gown hesitantly steps up to the stage. “How can I help?”
Harry takes a moment to ogle her. “Just by standing there and looking scrumptious.” She’s flattered, and somewhat embarrassed, as the audience snickers. “Actually, I’d like you to stand inside this box for just a moment. What’s your name?”
Harry opens the front door of the box. “Terry, if you’ll just step in here, I’ll have you back in your seat in no time.”
From the wings, Jake watches Harry’s act with rapt attention, but Connie’s fretting. “He’d better maneuver that thing over the trap door before he starts.”
Catching her drift, Jake starts to worry. “Uh-oh, she’s in the box. He can’t move it now.”
“We’d better get the emcee ready to go out there. Merlinsky’s going to embarrass himself.”
“Gosh darn it. His act was going so well.”
Connie prepares the special effects board. “At least I’ll do his smoke.”
Onstage, Harry gestures at the closed box, with Terry inside.
Backstage, Connie flips a switch, and a puff of smoke shoots from the top of the box.
Harry opens it up with a flourish. Every person in the audience simultaneously draws a sharp intake of breath. They’re shocked.
Jake and Connie dread what they’ll see.
Harry turns the box from side to side, showing that… it’s empty.
[This prose adaptation of a screenplay’s opening segment was first
published in 9TimeZones.com–a hardbacksoftcoverwebwap project featured
at the Whitney Biennial.]