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In the evening Clarence sprawled on the ragged hook rug, facing the cathedral front of the burnished wood Edison, a pillow tucked beneath his chin, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and his useless legs encased in casts, sticking behind him. Eyes shut, he listened to KLZ, the Reynolds Radio Company, and then slowly rotated the dial through the other Denver stations. Sometimes late at night he’d pick up WDAF out of Kansas City or WAAF in Chicago. Everywhere he turned he found wavering voices, scratchy baseball games, foreign speech and strange music. News from overseas. Poland invaded. President Roosevelt. Big bands. The slightest twist of the wooden knob brought new sounds, all so far, far away from his tiny bedroom and the ragged hook rug. He wished he could crawl in among the glowing tubes with their tiny suns suspended in glass cages. They warmed his chilled hands. He’d listen as hard as he could so that he wouldn’t hear his own breathing, so he wouldn’t even think about his breathing. Did that breath hurt? What about the next one? Did the muscles in his chest tighten up just a little that time?

Mom had said, “You’re luckier than some, son. It’s only your legs.”

So far, thought Clarence. So far. No, he didn’t want to think about breathing.

So, he listened to The Shadow, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, and he loved Charlie Chan stories from Five Star Theater, but mostly he listened for Professor Gilded’s Glorious Magical Extravaganza. On the table by the window, the clock ticked to the hour, just as the announcer said, “Now, for your listening pleasure, Denver’s very own radio magician.” Clarence shivered in delight, and waited impatiently through a Pepsodent commercial.

“We return today to disappearance and transference,” said Professor Gilded. “Last session, we talked of coins that moved from one hand to the next, from your hand to a pocket, from a pocket to a purse, or coins that vanished all together.”

Clarence scooted closer to the radio, holding his own coin tight, a gold quarter eagle that felt warm and smooth. Tonight he barely had a headache, so the show was more enjoyable.

“You see, I put a coin in my left hand. I show it to the audience. The coin is there, I assure you. Its edges press against my skin. Everyone has seen it go into my left hand. That is the secret. Everyone must see.”

Clarence pictured Professor Gilded on his tiny radio stage. Once The Denver Post had printed a picture of the professor’s broadcast. Beside him, his top hat rested on a spindly legged table. The audience of ten who were there by the luck of having their names drawn from letters they’d sent the show, leaned forward. Every week Clarence wrote Professor Gilded a letter, but his name had never been drawn.

Last week, Father had patted Clarence’s head. “How would we get you there, Clarence boy? You won’t be going on that journey while you are sick. But write your letters. It’s good your mind is so active.” Then Father drew a long breath through his pipe, and held it in his lungs before releasing a steady gray stream.

Professor Gilded continued, “The coin does not know the trick. That is the trick. The coin does not know. So when the magic happens, the coin has jumped from my left hand to wherever I want it to go.” He paused. A quiet drum rolled in the background as it did before the magic occurred. “Where do you think the coin has appeared this time? It is not in my left hand as you can see.” The audience oohed and then clapped. Clarence squirmed in contentment. He could see Professor Gilded’s empty hand. “Young lady with the fancy hat sitting in the back row. Yes, you. Would you check inside that beautiful red ribbon on the hat?”

A surprised squeal burst from the background. The audience buzzed with startled conversation.

The announcer said, “Ma’am could you describe what happened for our listeners?”

“The coin was inside my hat! Professor Gilded never moved from the stage!” She giggled suddenly. “I’m going to keep this forever.”

Clarence squeezed the quarter eagle, a birthday present. “A ten-year-old deserves real money,” Mother had said as she gave it to him. “It’s a lucky coin, minted the year your father and I were born.” She put her finger on the date, 1910. “You can’t spend it. It’s not legal money anymore.” She leaned close, like a conspirator. “We were supposed to turn all the gold over to the government in 1933, but I held this one for you.” The secret made the coin worth even more. Sometimes he thought of what the two and a half dollars could buy, and it made him feel rich.

Clarence pressed the small coin’s bumpy edges against his skin, clenched it in his fist, turned the hand over, willed the coin to vanish. He scrunched his forehead, focused, tried to believe the quarter eagle was no longer in his grasp. But it was no good, just like wishing he could move his legs was no good. Even getting around on crutches would be better than his plaster jail. New crutches rested against the closet door. Beneath them in a box waited leg braces with long metal bars, heavy leather straps and black buckles. Someday, his mother promised, he would walk in them. The casts, though, were too heavy, and he couldn’t swing his legs to keep himself moving forward. A week ago he’d tried, only to fall face first onto the hardwood floor.

Professor Gilded’s voice broke in. “We do not dabble in the supernatural here. Charlatans claim their magic is real. The coin’s disappearance is an illusion, a trick of perception only, but our perceptions make reality for us all. If you perceive you are cowardly, then illusion becomes the world. If you perceive you are ill, then illness becomes you.”

Clarence’s eyes popped open. He turned the sound up, his own attempts at the trick forgotten. Beneath his casts, his legs ached. He remembered running home down the long muddy lane beside the field, its corn already harvested, the broken stalks lying across each other. He’d run on the weeds beside the lane to keep his shoes dry. Then he stumbled. For a second, he thought he’d stepped in the mud, but he could see the shoe was clean. His right leg dragged again. He slowed to a heavy limp, massaging his thigh through his jeans. What was wrong with his leg? The house had never looked so far away. Too far to call for help. He leaned on the fence and felt his strength fading.

Just as he reached the gate an hour later, Mom came out on the porch to look for him. She ran to him as he fell, her face wet with fear. By morning, the left leg had gone weak too. How far would it stretch? As the doctor poked at him later that day, Clarence made a fist, then unmade it, over and over. Would the paralysis spread? Fist. No fist. Fist. No fist.

Professor Gilded said, “The world’s illusions cloud perceptions. Most fail to recognize reality before them. They believe they are poor, or ugly, or life’s horizons are short. If my assistant will allow me to demonstrate, observe the reality of my four-legged friend.”

The sound of clopping came from the speakers before the announcer said, “Professor Gilded’s beautiful assistant, Sonia, is leading a horse into the studio, a strawberry roan, courtesy of the Phipps Ranch. I have to tell you folks, livestock in a radio studio is not what you see every day.” Chairs scraped across a wooden floor. Someone said, “Give him a bit of room.”

The announcer whispered, “The studio is not large, my friends. Our audience has moved to the back wall. The horse, a gentle one, chosen especially for this demonstration, stands no more than five feet from them. Professor Gilded’s stage gives him a height advantage. He’s removing a large, blue blanket from the chest behind him.”

Clarence turned the sound up again. The big trick always ended the show. First, the small demonstrations. Cards that reordered themselves. Balls that multiplied. Flowers that changed colors. Handkerchiefs that metamorphed into birds. All the while Professor Gilded lectured on magic, on the magic he was doing and the magic in the world, as he built to the finale, something so impressive that his audience clapped and clapped and clapped until the sound faded and the show ended. But he’d never worked with a horse! He couldn’t possibly make a horse vanish from a small studio in front of an attentive audience. Not even Houdini could accomplish such a feat. For a moment, Clarence didn’t think about his legs.

“A beautiful animal, the horse. Much more intelligent than humanity imagines. Please, people, run your hands along the horse’s side. Don’t be shy. Feel his beating heart. Ahh, a true horse fancier, are you? Yes, check his hooves. This is a hale and healthy representative of his breed. Assure yourselves of his reality, for, I promise you, in a moment you will doubt your memories and senses, and, perhaps, you will wonder what other illusions you harbor about the world.”

Outside Clarence’s window, a trolley car rattled by. Every fifteen minutes the trolley clattered, reminding him that his parents had moved from the farm so they were close to Broadway and Denver General Hospital. “We can’t risk him, Thomas,” Mom said. “The doctors warned about the disease migrating into his lungs. We might need Dr. Drinker’s respirator until Clarence becomes strong again.” Father had only nodded, and soon he completed negotiations with their neighbor to lease the land. Within weeks, both parents had found part-time work, which was remarkable. Jobs were hard to come by. Mom cleaned houses while Dad sorted mail. Clarence envisioned the virus like a horrible mold. Its name sounded like a mold, poliomyelitis. The doctors put his legs in casts. Itching during the day was intolerable, but Clarence could force a pencil, or a ruler, or a straightened coat hanger only so far under the plaster. Maybe the virus really reassembled a mold, growing out of sight in the cast’s moist darkness. If the casts came off now, would his legs look human anymore? And that wasn’t the worst. In his blood, he pictured the virus marching toward his lungs, filling them with cauliflower-like lumps of gray and green mold until he couldn’t inhale. Mom called the machine they would put him in “Dr. Drinker’s respirator,” an iron lung, and Porter’s hospital only had one. Iron lung. Iron lung. Nothing sounded more frightening. It made him think of iron crosses and invasions, a German army charging up his arteries’ roads, a blitzkrieg to the heart. But that wasn’t the worst. Close as they lived now, the iron lung would do no good if someone else filled the machine. Clarence was not the only sick child in Denver. An eleven-year-old from Broomfield lay in the machine now. The Post put his picture in the paper yesterday. The caption read, “Young Sean Garrison, completely paralyzed from the neck down, battles for his life against all odds.” But he didn’t look like he was battling in the picture. He looked like he’d lost, and all the weight of that loss, and all the grief, were written in his face.

Professor Gilded said, “Could you hold the edge of the blanket, Sonia? There, stand on the stool so you may reach high enough. Ah, it is a good horse, longing for its stable perhaps, for a fresh pile of hay and a rub down for the evening.”

The announcer’s lowered voice barely leaked from the speakers. “I and the audience cannot see the roan, but we see the blanket’s ends. There is no place to lead the horse. I can hardly describe the tension as we wait for Professor Gilded’s wonder. I’m afraid he has set himself too daunting a task tonight.”

A drum rumbled in the background.

Professor Gilded asked, “Do you believe the horse is still behind the blanket? If I have planted doubt thoroughly enough, then the horse may both be there and not be there. You have no way of telling, unless, of course, you walk around my blanket.” He paused. The drum rolled louder. “Or, I can pull the blanket away.”

A clatter, a scream, then voices in tumult. Another scream.

“I cannot believe what I am witnessing,” gasped the announcer. “Too much. Too much.” A hard click, as if the microphone hit something. “Oh, be glad you cannot see.”

Someone sobbed.

“Professor Gilded holds his blanket over his arm, like a cape. Sonia stands beside him. The horse, the beautiful roan that walked into the studio is gone, but . . . the bones . . . a pile of bones sits on the floor. Horse bones, dry and clean, piled as if flesh and fur disappeared. No muscle. Oh, please, can we have a commercial now?” Another click.

Professor Gilded’s soothing voice said, “An illusion, I assure you. A trick of light and distraction, as all the best magic is.”

“Sonia takes the blanket,” said the announcer’s shaky voice. “He picks up the skull.”

“Alas, Horatio, I knew him well.” Professor Gilded laughed, a long satisfying chuckle. “The magic show is theater in the best tradition. Shakespeare wove illusions too. The bard said, ‘I’ll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion! If thou hast any sound, or use of voice, speak to me, if there be any good thing to be done.’ As you leave the studio you will find the lovely roan on the street, awaiting your inspection.”

The show’s closing musical notes played. Clarence realized he had pressed himself off the floor with his hands so his head was closer to the speaker. His arms trembled with the effort.

The announcer appeared to have recovered composure. “Tonight’s show was brought to you by the kind attention of our sponsors. Be sure to shop for products that support the continued broadcast of Professor Gilded’s Glorious Magical Extravaganza.” The music rose, but Clarence heard the announcer say to someone in the background, so muffled that Clarence wondered if he heard it at all, “What the hell was that?”

Clarence’s bedroom door opened. He twisted to his side to see his mother holding a basin, several towels, and a filled bucket heavy enough to make her lean.

“Show over, son?” She put the towels, bucket and basin next to him on the rug.

“Yes, it was a good one.” He shivered with the thought of bones. Professor Gilded said the horse was outside the studio and that the show was a trick, but how could he fool that many people who stood so close? A horse is not a coin to be hidden in a sleeve or to be gripped by the back of the hand while the audience sees an empty palm. Clarence knew coin tricks and the names of tricks: the gangster spin, the backspin bounce, the knuckle roll, the horizontal waterfall. He could flick a coin into a hidden pocket, make a coin between two cards vanish, pull a coin out of someone’s hair, but they were practiced techniques, not magic. Making a coin disappear just involved making the audience’s eye go to the wrong place. When he did the tricks for his friends, he watched their eyes, and when they looked away from the coin, he had them.

Clarence turned his hand over. Where was his quarter eagle? A red circle showed where he’d held it so tight for so long, but where was it?

“I’m going to need you on your back, Clarence. Help me here.”

She knelt beside him and lifted his right leg over his left as he rolled. Still, despite her care, his casted foot thumped when it hit the floor. “I’m tired of waiting this disease out,” she said. She sat back on her heels. “Are you tired of just waiting?”

Clarence nodded. On his back, he looked for the coin. Perhaps it rolled under the radio. She’d tied her hair into a bun behind her ears, but strays escaped from all sides, touching her cheeks with black threads and sticking to the sweat of her forehead. He rested on his elbows so he could see the casts, smudged now with weeks of dragging around. “What are you thinking?”

Mom took a heavy pair of scissors from the basin, then filled the basin from the bucket. Steam eddied off the surface. “There’s a nurse in Australia who claims that putting children in casts is exactly the wrong thing to do.” She snipped the scissors open and shut a few times. “Your muscles are paralyzed, but they’re not dead, so we’re going to remind them what it feels like to be active.” As she talked, she worked her way down the cast, using both hands to clip through the plaster-stiffened cloth. Clarence wanted to shrink away from the blade as Mom cut past the knee and down the shin. “President Roosevelt himself recovered from polio, and look how far he’s gotten. There.” She pulled the cast apart like a long clam. Clarence’s leg, marked with grime at the thigh and ankle, lay as pale as a fish in the middle. No mold! But it smelled like the root cellar. Clarence wrinkled his nose.

Mom moved to the next one. When she finished, she dipped a towel in the basin, then cupped her hand under his knee and gently lifted. A ripple of pain flashed from his knee to the back of his thigh. Clarence gasped.

“Sorry,” said Mom. She draped the hot towel over his leg. Water pooled in the cast. “The Aussie nurse says that the muscles will respond to stimulation. I’m going to rub the muscles, but I also have to move your leg, son. It might be uncomfortable.” She put one hand under his knee again and the other on the foot. Her serious eyes stared into his. Clarence nodded. Mom pressed the foot toward him while pulling the knee up.

Clarence had read that polio is the cruelest of diseases: it paralyzes but feeling remains. Liquid fire poured down his leg, like the skin would turn inside out. He scrunched his eyes tight. Thigh muscles stretched, moved, tore apart, melted, screamed a thousand tiny voices of death and torment, remade themselves into agony battalions, fought bloody battles, crushed each other with stones, ground salt into their wounds, flailed their backs with rose stems, broke their bones, pulled their fingernails off, stuck each other with rusty pitchforks, then twisted them deeper and deeper.

“There,” said Mom. “That’s one. Four more on this leg before we go to the next.”

In the middle of the night, Clarence lay on his back in bed, his legs’ memory a throbbing reminder of the session Mom said they would go through again in the morning. The clock ticked loudly in the hallway, forever holding tonight’s pain and the inescapable progress to tomorrow’s session.

From the bedroom next door, Mom and Dad argued. “How could an Australian nurse know more than our own doctor?” Dad talked calmly, his voice a steady rumble. “If her system was good, don’t you think doctors here, American doctors, would prescribe it?”

“Sister Kenny has shown results. I don’t have faith in that ‘convalescent serum.’ It doesn’t make sense to pump blood in him from people who have recovered from the disease. That doesn’t work for other diseases.”

Like all of their arguments, they were reasonable with each other, but Clarence still rolled over carefully, helping his left leg to go over his right, biting his lower lip until it stopped moving, then buried his head under the pillow. The sheets smelled of the menthol and petroleum jelly Mom had rubbed into his skin.

A little while later, their voices quieted, then their bedroom door clicked open. Steps creaked in the hallway before his own door opened. Mom padded into the room. Peeking under the pillow, Clarence saw her bare legs beneath her short robe and the thick wool socks she wore as slippers. She rubbed his back gently.

“I’m awake,” Clarence said, sliding the pillow aside.

Mom’s hand stopped. “You should be asleep. Sleep heals.” She kneaded the muscles under his shoulder blade. The motion felt comforting. Clarence sighed. He remembered today’s broadcast. He had wanted to tell Mom about it earlier, but hadn’t had a chance. “Do you think Professor Gilded can really make a horse disappear?”

Mom laughed. “I saw a magic show once. The magician sawed a woman in half, and then he put her back together. He made a table float, so I suppose, but, Clarence, it’s a radio show. He could tell you he was making the state capitol vanish and you wouldn’t know any different.”

“There were people there, ten of them. They saw Professor Gilded turn a real horse into a pile of bones, and then the horse was whole again, outside the studio.”

Mom moved to the other shoulder blade. “They said ten people were there. They could be actors.” She scooted farther up on the bed so she could rub his shoulders. “But maybe it is true, son. Marvelous things happen all the time, miracles, even.”

“Do you think Professor Gilded makes miracles?”

She stopped rubbing again. “You have to believe in miracles. Miracles and hard work. That’s a powerful combination.”

“Does Dad believe in miracles?”

“Well, that’s a good question. He told me once that he believes in Jesus, but he doesn’t believe someone who says he’s talked to him lately.”

Clarence giggled.

She patted his head. “Now, you go to sleep. In the morning we’ll try a little of the hard work and see if we can’t help our miracle along. How do your legs feel?”

“They hurt. They didn’t hurt as much in the casts.”

“I think they’ll feel better soon. Remember, they haven’t moved in a month.” She pushed herself up from the bed. “Oh, I found your birthday quarter eagle in my sock when I put it on.” The coin clicked when she placed it on his nightstand. “I have no idea how it got there, but you better hold onto it. Remember, it’s for luck.” She tucked the covers in so they pulled snug against his chest. “Don’t forget, tomorrow your dad and I will both be at work. Mrs. Bentley from next door will come by to see if you need anything.”

Clarence nodded. In all the times Mom and Dad had been gone together, Mrs. Bentley never dropped in, which was okay because Clarence could listen to the radio as long as he wanted.

After she left, Clarence pulled himself close enough to the nightstand to reach the coin. New aches broke out as his legs shifted, but he gritted his teeth until his fingers found its mellow, round shape. From the light coming in off the street, he examined its soft gold. It fitted neatly into his palm, then vanished into his fist. “Now you see it,” he said in the empty room. “Now you don’t.” He opened the hand where the quarter eagle still sat, but he imagined what it would be like to make it go away. When his hand hid it, the coin was both there and not there. He only had to choose the reality where it wasn’t, and the hand would be empty. How did the coin get into Mom’s sock? What had he been thinking about the coin during Professor Gilded’s show?

He fell asleep thinking about coins appearing out of a lady’s hat, and long red velvet lined black robes, and then, finally, as he slid into the deep darkness, he dreamed of a horse galloping across a field of spring hay, a divine roan with a long tail whipping behind, until it staggered on suddenly weakened legs, trying so hard to stay upright and running. It buckled, whinnying in terror as only a horse can, its eyes wide, its nostrils snorting, before the fur and flesh disappeared. Pathetically, it took one skeletal step, then clattered into a pile of crisp white bones. Green hay poked up between its ribs as the skull rolled a few feet more, the last of its momentum used up. In the dream, Clarence cried until he saw a gold glimmer reflected in the horse’s jaw. It was his quarter eagle clenched between the teeth, catching the sun.

Then, he slept.

In the morning, the massage hurt even worse. Mom bit her lips in as she pushed her thumbs deep into Clarence’s thigh muscles, and she rubbed and bent and twisted and grinded and pinched for weeks until Clarence couldn’t hold his breath any longer. He released his pain in short gasps, concentrating on the radio as she dug her thumbs deep into the back of his thighs. The news reported Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Then a commentator argued America should stay out of the conflict.

“There. Not so bad, was it. Just ten minutes this time,” said Mom. She used the back of her wrists to wipe her eyes. “We’ll have you walking before Christmas.”

When she left, Clarence lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Polio, he realized, had made him a little kid again. He couldn’t see the tops of tables without someone lifting him. He couldn’t reach the upper drawers on the dresser. All he saw when looking up at the window were clouds and the leafy branches. With the casts, he could at least slide himself around the room and even get to the bathroom without help, although it took a gymnastic maneuver that left his arms quivering to get himself onto the toilet.

From the higher vantage point of the bed, he could see most of the tree. Someone yelled to someone else, and their feet pounded on the sidewalk as they ran by. Maybe they were playing tag. Maybe they were throwing a ball back and forth. Clarence couldn’t see enough to tell. Then the trolley rattled down the middle of the street. The trolley stopped at the end of the block and ran all the way to downtown Denver, passing the radio station with its soundstage. Even now, Professor Gilded could be preparing for today’s show.

Clarence rolled onto his side. The crutches and leg braces rested in the shadow next to the window. Professor Gilded’s show began in two hours. By trolley, he could be there in fifteen minutes, if only he could get to the trolley’s stop at the corner.

It took most of an hour to get into his pants. The pant legs folded over and kept twisting, so he had to inch them up his legs. He looked up every time the house creaked, afraid Mrs. Bentley would choose this moment to check on him, sitting on the floor in his underwear. His feet wouldn’t cooperate, and when his toes caught the cloth, sharp pains raced up the back of his legs. By the time he buttoned the top button, perspiration ran into his eyes and dripped from his chin. Getting into the braces took less time, but the leather was stiff and fastening the heavy buckles hurt his fingers. When he finished, he rested on his back. Placing the crutches under his arms while maintaining his balance seemed an impossible task, but there was only fifty minutes until the show started, and his legs felt so much lighter and flexible without the casts that he was sure he could get to the trolley on time.

He clumped through the hallway to the front door. In his left pocket nestled the quarter eagle; in the right, five dimes. He had no idea what the trolley cost. At the door, he rested his hands on the doorknob. For a month he’d been lying or sitting. His head hadn’t been this much higher than his feet for weeks. Every muscle from the hips down tingled and ached. Clarence bit the inside of his mouth and opened the door, clenching the crutches tight under his arms. When he stepped outside, he realized he hadn’t felt the sun on his face since he’d gotten sick.

The trolley man took a dime for the ride after lifting Clarence to a seat. “You hurt your legs, son? Where you going?” He smelled of garlic and cigarettes.

“The KLZ radio studio.” Clarence tried to keep the tremor out of his voice. The half block walk to the trolley stop had been the longest sustained effort of his life. Every crack in the sidewalk, every pebble, every movement threatened to pitch him over. In the house, he’d used a footstool and chair to get himself upright enough for the crutches. There was no way to help himself in the open. He would just have to lay there until someone saved him.

The woman on the seat next to him, holding a basket full of knitting, nodded and smiled. “You’ll need to get off at 15th street. I listen to KLZ all the time.” She glanced at his leg braces. “Must be hard getting around in school. I hope your schoolmates are kind.”

Clarence leaned the crutches against the trolley’s wall, careful to keep them from falling. The trolley lurched into motion, clacking over the tracks toward downtown Denver. Even the jiggling hurt. He focused on the shops passing by the windows and smiled through the pain. The radio station was only fifteen minutes away, now. He fingered the quarter eagle. It’s here and it’s not here, he thought. Only thinking makes it so.

A few minutes later, the trolley passed the hospital. A pair of marble lions, their jaws open, flanked the double door entrance at the top of a flight of stairs. To the left, a wheelchair ramp rose along the side of the building for the crippled. The building’s severe white face rose six stories into the sky punctuated by rows of dark windows. Clarence’s breathing tightened just looking at it. Somewhere inside, Sean Garrison stared at the ceiling, the iron lung squeezing his chest to expel the air, then reversing the pressure so he could inhale. Clarence could almost hear the wheezing sounds. He wondered, how does he itch his nose? He couldn’t move a muscle below his neck. What does he think about? Clarence was glad when they left the hospital behind.

KLZ wasn’t directly on Broadway, it turned out. The conductor lowered Clarence to the sidewalk, clamping his arms to his crutches so he hit the cement ready to go. “The station’s a block that way, son,” he said, pointing. “Watch your step.”

Clarence’s legs quivered beneath him as the trolley rumbled away. The radio station’s sign looked awfully far. He gritted his teeth and leaned forward.

Ten minutes later his arms ached with the effort to keep him upright, but he stood before KLZ’s front door, a heavy metal and glass barrier. In the shadow of the room behind the door, he saw a secretary looking at him, a prim blonde with dark-framed glasses, like a librarian. Before he could brace himself to pull the door open, she was holding it for him.

“My word, child, what are doing here by yourself? Where are your parents?”

“They’re at work. Do you mind if I sit down?” Clarence lowered himself gingerly onto one of the two worn leather chairs in the lobby. He sighed, his eyes closed, as the weight fell from his arms and legs. A ceiling fan creaked through slow revolutions and stirred the smell of furniture polish and old magazines. Across the small receiving area, in the other chair, a balding man wearing a blue bow tie and a white shirt studied a newspaper. He glanced at Clarence, briefly meeting his eyes, then turned a page and returned to his reading. Behind the secretary’s desk, three doors, marked STUDIO 1, STUDIO 2 and SOUND ENGINEER, were closed. Drooping wires high on the wall connected to a bare speaker, playing KLZ’s afternoon news softly, a litany of political reaction to the events in Europe. Polish soldiers were in retreat. British bombers attacked German war ships.

“You look like you could use a glass of water.” The secretary disappeared through the sound stage door.

Sweat soaked the sides of Clarence’s shirt. His legs throbbed from the arch of his feet, where the braces’ metal bar clamped against his shoes, to the grinding spots where the leather upper straps dug into his hips. Even his fingers hurt from squeezing the crutches, and he doubted he could make the one block trip back to the trolley stop, but he was here. He had arrived! He couldn’t keep a smile off his face.

The secretary returned with the water. Clarence rolled the cool glass against his forehead before drinking half of it in one long swallow.

“Is Professor Gilded here?” he asked. “I’d like to meet him.”

“That old fraud?” said the man in the bow tie, putting his newspaper down. He winked at the secretary. “He’s a bore.”

Clarence’s jaw tightened up until he realized the man was teasing. At least he was pretty sure he wasn’t serious.

“Do you know him?” Clarence pulled the quarter eagle out of his pocket. “I’ve been practicing magic.” He did a quick knuckle roll back and forth with the coin.

The bow-tied man put his paper aside. “Can you do a pass under and around?”

Clarence rolled the coin between his fourth and little finger, tucked it under, caught it on his thumb, then brought it around from underneath. “Sure. I learned that one first.”

The man produced a half dollar from a vest pocket, then walked it from finger to finger on his right hand. “Okay, we’ll race. First one to get the coin around their hand ten times wins. It’s a little unfair. My hands are bigger and the coin has farther to go.”

They counted out loud. Clarence was at eight when the man reached ten, flipped the coin into the air, and then watched solemnly as the white feather it had turned into drifted to the floor.

“You’re pretty good for a kid. Can you do a sleeve flick? How about a coin cascade?”

Clarence nodded.

The secretary, who had returned to her desk, laughed. “Don’t get him going. He’ll talk your ear off about magic.” She looked at the clock. “Bob will be here in a couple minutes. You’d better get into the studio.”

The bow-tied man dismissed her comment with a wave. He leaned toward Clarence, his elbows on his knees. “So, why do you want to see Professor Gilded?”

Clarence tried to recall the picture of Gilded from The Denver Post. His hair had been thick and black, almost touching his shoulders, and a moustache hid most of his mouth. Was it possible that the bald, bow-tied man was Professor Gilded? But where was the accent? Clarence imagined Gilded as tall, like a black-cloaked Abraham Lincoln. Who was this guy?

As if reading his mind, the bow-tied man said, “I’m John Albenice, his understudy. You can tell me.”

A couple dressed in their Sunday best pushed through the door. The woman in a floral print dress with her hair pinned up, whose pinched cheeks and pointed chin made her look a little like Clarence’s fourth grade teacher, walked straight to the secretary and said, “We’re here for Professor Gilded’s afternoon performance. We have an invitation.” She put an envelope on the desk. Her husband stood behind her, his hands pushed into his pockets, as if he really didn’t want to be there.

“Of course, studio two, please.” The secretary opened the door for them. Clarence glimpsed a short hallway.

“Will Professor Gilded be here soon?” He raised himself out of the chair to get a last look before the door closed. “He said perception is reality. He said if I perceive that I’m sick, that I am. I wanted to ask him what he meant by that.”

John leaned back in his chair. He idly pulled his bow tie. “Professor Gilded says a lot of things on the air you probably shouldn’t listen to, kid. He’s paid to talk, you know. He’s an entertainer.”

The secretary cleared her throat and looked purposefully at the clock.

“Look, I’ve got to get ready for the show. He just meant that magic happens in your head.” He stood up and started for the studio. “Are you as proficient with cards as you are with coins?”

“I can do a pretty good fan and a table spread, but my hands are too small for a one-hand shuffle. I’ll have to grow into lots of tricks.” He held up his hand like a starfish.

“Huh,” John said. “Have you tried cutting down a deck? Smaller cards might do it.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I hadn’t considered that before. I’ll bet small cards might get a lot of kids interested in sleight of hand.”

“Oh, no,” said the secretary.

The door opened. A gray-headed man carrying a briefcase walked partway into the foyer, and then froze when he saw John.

“I told you to stay the gawd damned hell away from me, freak,” said the man, bringing the briefcase to his chest like a shield.

The secretary stiffened. “Bob, there’s a child in the room.”

Clarence recognized the man’s voice. He introduced and narrated Professor Gilded’s Glorious Magical Extravaganza. He said “hell” on the air at the end of the last show.

John straightened. His voice deepened. “I’m not responsible for your irrational fears. If you can’t separate a trick from reality, then you have the problem, not me.” It was Professor Gilded’s voice, without the accent. He stood in between the two chairs, only a yard from Clarence, and he didn’t look like he was going to move.

Keeping his briefcase between them, the other man scooted along the front windows until he reached the sound engineer’s door. He found the knob without looking away from John. “I’ll announce the show, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Keep your distance. There’s nothing natural about you.” The door slammed behind him.

John shrugged. He looked at Clarence. “Sorry you had to see that. He had difficulty with the horse trick. It . . . disturbed him.”

“Did you . . . I mean, did the professor really make a horse turn into bones?” Clarence’s heart thumped in his throat.

“If you think so, then he did. That’s the perception trick. An audience thought he did. And Bob there . . . well,” he moved toward the studio door. “He believes.”

He stopped at the secretary’s desk. “The only thing I really know about magic, kid, is that if there isn’t some of it in the world, then we live in a dark, dark place. If you’ve got any, you have to share it.”

The secretary reached into her hair. “Hey, what’s this?”

John plucked the object off her palm. He looked at it, genuinely puzzled. “1910 quarter eagle. Isn’t this yours?” He walked back to Clarence, the coin between his fingers. “Nice trick.”

The coin dropped into Clarence’s hand. He hadn’t even realized that John had taken it.

“Nice trick yourself.”

John paused. “I didn’t do anything. How’d you pull it off? Pass it when she gave you the water? No, don’t tell me. A magician never tells. But I like it. Effective illusion. Okay, gotta go. There will be a whole audience here soon, and the stage isn’t ready.” He shook Clarence’s hand. “Somebody’s got to amaze them all.” He laughed, and Clarence thought he’d heard a hint of a European accent in it.

Then, he was gone. Clarence tossed the gold piece from one hand to the other.

The secretary looked at him pityingly. “If there were room in the studio, kid, he’d let you in, but we’re booked for weeks.”

When Clarence stood on the sidewalk outside the radio station, his arms felt completely without strength. Had he used up everything he had to get to the station? He stepped forward, letting most of his weight rest on the crutches, his breath ripping in short gasps against his aching legs. No hike could have ever been longer. He thought about soldiers marching to far off fronts, their courage flitting about them, not knowing if they would make it back, but he kept pushing forward, his braces clicking against the cement. The metal creaked at the knees, and he went steps at a time with his eyes closed.

By the time he reached the trolley stop, he could hardly inhale, and his heart flurried like a trapped bird. Was this the beginning of a new paralysis? He whimpered. Cars passed on Broadway in the afternoon sun, and only after agonizing minutes the trolley trundled into sight.

“Please,” gasped Clarence as the same driver from his ride downtown lifted him into the car, “can you take me to the hospital?”

Every bump jarred his legs. He held the back of his thighs to try to keep them from bouncing, but he couldn’t anticipate the next jolt. His cheek rested against the wooden sill under the window, and tears leaked between his closed eyelids. Finally the trolley stopped.

“Hospital, young man,” said the driver, concern in his voice.

Clarence struggled to get his crutches under his arms.

“No need. I’ve sent someone in to get you a wheelchair.” He placed his hand on Clarence’s shoulder. “You don’t look good.”

A nurse appeared at the trolley door and helped Clarence into the wheelchair.

“I’ll take him to emergency,” said the nurse. “We can evaluate him there.”

“No,” said Clarence. The trolley driver wrung his hands. Passengers crowded at the windows. A little girl holding a book waved at him through the glass. Clarence waved back weakly. “I need to go to the polio ward. I need to get to the iron lung.”

The nurse started pushing him up the sidewalk toward the ramp. “You have polio? Are you experiencing breathing difficulty?” She sounded businesslike.

Clarence relaxed his head against the back of the wheelchair. He rested his hand on the quarter eagle in his pants pocket, its shape a solid comfort. “I’m not sick. I’m visiting. I want to see it.”

“You look sick.” The nurse walked beside him as they rose up the ramp and into the hospital’s entrance way.

“Honest, I’m okay. I think I probably tried to do too much today. My legs hurt a little,” he lied, “but I really want to see the polio ward.”

He rolled into an elevator.

“There’s someone in the iron lung already,” she said.

Lights flicked beside each floor as the elevator went up. Clarence had never been in an elevator before. “I know. Sean Garrison. He was in the paper. How is he doing?”

“You’re really not sick?” She looked down at him doubtfully. “If you’re not, you’re the sorriest looking healthy boy I’ve ever seen.”

“I walked to the trolley all by myself.”

“Hmmm.” The elevator stopped and the doors opened. “I hope you don’t mind if I have a doctor check you anyway, and we need to talk to your parents.”

Forty beds separated by light green curtains filled the polio ward. At some, family members sat by the wan children. Antiseptic smells filled the air.

She wheeled him into a broad hallway, and then into a room where a large steel canister dominated the middle. A compressor whirred under the device, stopped, shifted, then whirred again with a lighter tone. Clarence knew the machine was switching back and forth between exhaling and inhaling. A dark-haired boy lay face up, only his head outside of the iron lung, looking at him blankly through a mirror positioned above his face. Grief lines marked his face. His eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed. Clarence had never seen anyone so sad. A long window in the metal showed his arms and chest, while another showed his legs. Two rubber-lined holes permitted doctors to reach in to rearrange the patient if necessary, but the only way to actually touch him would be to undo the heavy clasps that locked the head end to the rest of the machine.

Clarence pushed the top of the wheels to move closer. “Hi, I’m Clarence.”

In the background, the motor clicked. “I’m sick,” whispered the boy, and Clarence knew that he could only whisper because the power to speak came from the machine compression. He could talk when the iron lung made him exhale. Putting his hand on his own chest, Clarence tried to imagine being inside the canister.

The motor cycled several times. Clarence looked at Sean’s reflection in the mirror. Sean looked back.

“Would you like to see a magic trick?” said Clarence.

The motor whirred.

Sean’s voice was a falling leaf. “No.”

“I’ll show you anyway.” The 1910 quarter eagle came out of Clarence’s pocket. In the sterile hospital light, its gold glowed. He did knuckle rolls for Sean. He did false drops and sleight of hand passes, showing the coin and then vanishing it. He stacked the gold coin with the three dimes he had left, hid them under a tissue, then asked Sean where the coin was, top, bottom or middle. Wherever Sean said it was, when Clarence uncovered the coins, there it was.

Two more nurses came into the room, watching Clarence go through his repertoire. They clapped when the coins reappeared in unexpected places.

“Magic is about perception,” said Clarence, leaning close to Sean. Sitting in his wheelchair, his head was on the same level. “What we perceive is our reality. If you think you are hungry, then you find food. If you think you are cold, you shiver.” Clarence paused. He thought about Professor Gilded on his stage talking to an audience. What happened that night when the horse turned into bones? How did Gilded perceive it? Did the animal shimmer before the flesh dissolved? Clarence flourished the quarter eagle. Sean watched, his eyes dark and intent.

“Now I’ll show you a trick that will amaze you. I don’t even know if I can do it, but I’ll try. Are you ready?”

Sean nodded, mostly with his eyes.

The nurses leaned in.

Clarence clasped the coin in his right hand hard enough that he could feel the ribbed edge marking his palm. He let his thoughts drift from it, so that he was both holding the coin and not holding it. Forced distraction, but to himself, not his audience. He thought about war news and Pepsodent and Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. Instead of the coin, he imagined the Edison’s polished wood tuning knob in his fingers as he slowly turned from station to station, of how delicious the sound tasted late at night when his parents had gone to bed and the search for voices made the time flee. Clarence thought about magic. He thought about “take a card, any card” and “abracadabra” and “there’s nothing up my sleeve.” There were illusions and tricks, and then there was magic. There was a horse that was there and not there. Perception made it real. Perception ruled.

When he opened his hand, the coin was gone.

One of the nurses sighed, disappointed. After all the other tricks Clarence had done, this one must have seemed anticlimactic.

Clarence smiled. He said to Sean, “The coin is gone. Do you know where it is?”

Sean waited until the machine reversed so he could speak. “Is it . . .” The motor clicked. He inhaled. It flipped into the exhalation cycle. “ . . . in my hand?”

“What?” said a nurse. She stepped to the side of the iron lung to look through the window. “Oh, my gosh.” The other two nurses crowded around her. “He’s got it in his hand! How did the coin get in there?”

Clarence touched Sean’s forehead. “A friend of mine told me the world is a dark, dark place, if we see it that way, and if we’ve got any magic, we should share it.”

Sean waited for the machine to give him the air. “Okay.”

“You need to get better. Someone else might need that iron lung.”

“I will.”

Clarence shifted in his wheelchair. One of the braces clanked against the chair’s metal frame, and he realized his legs didn’t hurt as badly as they had on the trolley. He’d barely thought of them while he did the magic. The thought made him happy.

The nurses were still marveling about the coin. Clarence could see it through the window in the paralyzed boy’s hand.

Slowly, Sean’s fingers closed over it.

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