When a man is married to the years – the long, hard, lonely years – and that is his only union in life, he is all too vulnerable to a kind word from a comely face. Indeed, even something as slight as a wink from a short skirt on the street corner can quicken his blood and make him remember dreams he had when he was twenty years younger, dreams of silk and soft pillows and wicked music. Such a man is a piece of paper, a slave to the wind, so easily impaled on a desire that rushes across the synapses of his brain for fear of being discovered.
He is, in short, a man who believes in magic in a small room in his brain where the door is usually, but not always, locked fast.
And Joe Bailey, a nondescript man with a common name likely to show up in most of the phone books in the country, was just such a man. At forty-five, he felt certain that he was old, that he was an autumn leaf that was either falling to the ground on some harbinger wind or that had already landed in the grass and been raked into a decaying pile of summer. Probably the latter, he thought. Joe Bailey: leafmeal.
And what exactly was this bit of leafmeal doing on November the second, wandering down the sidewalk past the barber shop and feed store and a dozen other stores that had no business existing anymore except in Pace, Indiana, which was over a hundred miles from the nearest shopping mall? Well, he was doing nothing, everything, or maybe something that only a leaf can do, which is to be a pawn to the wind and the seasons, surveying death with a solemn disposition and sap dried in its spine.
His survey on this All Souls' Day consisted of the following observation: the life that had streamed past him for forty-five years was, in fact, still streaming. Men older than he were sitting along the walls of Ben Paintís barber shop, discussing fall crops and bad politics and, most likely, the beautiful daughters that Pace had given birth to and who were growing up so very nicely, thank you, and blossoming right before their eyes each day – unbelievable! – in southern Indiana. Joe Bailey thought of these senior high girls sometimes, but such a thought was one of the desires that crept quickly across the synapses of his brain and then holed up in that small room that he kept locked because the magic of perfume and soft skin was dangerous, so very dangerous for a man like him, unmarried, except to the long and lonely years.
And here was another observation: he saw men going in and out of the feed store, carrying sacks – grain, seed, hope aplenty – because you didnít farm unless you dealt in life more than you did in death, and lived in the bosom of spring rather than the old bones of autumn. Yes, these men were streaming in and out of Daw's Feed and Seed with sowing and planting and harvesting rooted in their brains, and their brains were also like clocks, he thought, ticking every second with page-turning hope that one gets from reading The Farmer's Almanac and praying to the rain and the sun, from rising early and eating well.
And in all the other shops, people were also streaming across November's second day, all of these souls illuminated with purpose and relatives and warm homes, marked by destiny to carry on the immense task of keeping life moving in its channel, be it wide or narrow. There were things to do – yes, things! a thousand and one things that may or may not have names of any significance – and Joe Bailey knew of these things as a shopper might know of purchases smiling from behind a glass storefront window.
It was a day for all souls, but Joe Bailey did not know if that included him. He wasn't quite sure whether any spirit still stirred in his leafmeal body, or whether the rare moments when he felt a part of life were merely his brittle bones being handled by the wind.
Either way, moved by spirit or wind, Joe moved down the sidewalk and turned the corner and walked a bit more, halfheartedly, intending to reach his office in the basement of city hall, when his down-turned head thumped into the back of a woman. The woman turned around and frowned at him, but it wasn't a nasty frown as much as a frown that said "quick – look at what I'm looking at, because there's something important going on right now.' And that's what Joe did – he looked. He looked, squinting a little in the bright morning sun, at the half dozen figures that were standing still on the sidewalk, having formed themselves into a nearly perfect circle. And he looked even harder, squinted even narrower, at the figure that was in the middle of these small town citizens that had time to form circles and gawk and be mesmerized, because mesmerized they surely were. And who wouldn't be at the sight of a man levitating, perfectly horizontal and stiff and straight as an ironing board, four feet above the cement? And oh, my God, he thought, this is no trick. There aren't any wires – this is absolutely incredible – how can he do that?
And then the man, still hovering and causing six people to keep the breath tight in their lungs, slowly pivoted upright, his feet slowly acknowledging gravity while his head moved up toward the sky, until he was standing erect, shoes on the ground and a smile on his face.
Applause. Twelve hands belonging to six souls showing approval for this man in an electric blue suit who had thumbed his nose briefly at the weight and pull of the earth.
"Yes," someone uttered. And "wonderful" sighed someone else. "Marvelous, simply marvelous!" cried all.
The man bowed, showing a head of thick black hair where a hat had been a moment before, a hat that was now collecting dollar bills as its owner nodded in gratitude.
"Thank you, my dear ladies and gentleman," came a voice as smooth as leather, a very polished voice, one that articulated and charmed and cajoled.
"Simply marvelous," someone repeated as the six people streamed back into the flow of morning.
Which left nondescript Joe Bailey face-to-face with a suave man with dark hair and an electric blue suit and a hatful of money in his right hand. The man didn"t move, his hat still upturned as if to accept more donations, and Joe saw that his eyes were green, very green. Timidly, Joe pulled out his wallet and began to bend it open, but the man stopped him with his leathery, polished voice.
"No, no, no, not now, good sir," it said, "but another time, most surely there will be another time, another opportunity." And without bothering to remove the money, he placed the black top hat on his head and moved backwards, one step at a time, staring at Joe until he was lost in the morning sun.
Joe squinted. "Hello?" He raised his hands to his brow, covering his eyes, and looked into . . . absolutely nothing. The street magician was gone. There was no electric blue suit standing on Polk Street, no dark hair, no black hat recently come into a fortune.
Ah, but what is real and what is not? Joe Bailey had been squinting, facing the sun, and before that, he had been staring through the window of Ben Paint's barber shop, thinking for a split second of autumn-ripened girls and wondering whether or not he himself really existed anymore, really had a soul. Sometimes life, or even that which passed for life in the mind of a man married to the years, was not to be trusted.
Joe Bailey walked forward to seek out his clerk's job in the basement of city hall.
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