The Magicians

By Deb Olin Unferth


Illustration by Matthew Thurber

I

 hated the magicians. There were two of them, and I hated them with everything in me. When I first sat down across from them, I didn’t know who they were. But then they said, “We’re the magicians,” and I remembered them. 

“Oh, I saw you guys last time,” I said. “But you’re not really magicians.” 

“Yes, we are,” they insisted. 

“No, I saw you,” I said. “I saw the whole thing. I read it in the program and I was excited about it, and then I watched and you guys aren’t magicians. You don’t do magic.” 

“Yes we do,” they said. 

“Not real magic.”

“It is,” they said, nodding solemnly, “real magic.” 

“My brother was a magician,” I said. 

Suddenly they looked uncomfortable. 

“Yeah,” I went on, “he was a magician, so I know what a magician is. That’s why I said you guys aren’t magicians.”

“Was?” they said. “Is he not anymore?”

I said, “My brother is dead.”

“Dead?” they said. They looked more uncomfortable. “What was his name?” 

I said his name. 

I shouldn’t have said his name because he didn’t have a magician’s name like they obviously thought he should—I could tell by the looks they gave each other—and I hated them even more.

“Where did he do magic?”

Now I looked uncomfortable. The truth was, when he was alive, he didn’t perform all that much. “He worked in a magic shop,” I said. “He did shows on weekends.” True, sort of true, or not true, at least not that I knew of. We weren’t that close. He may or may not have done magic on weekends. 

But anyway I knew what magic was, and these guys were not it. 

Then they put their hands on the table and said, “We’re meta-magicians, and plus we’re magicians.” 

“All magicians are meta,” I said. “You’re not even meta.” 

“Magicians are ridiculous,” they said. 

“You’re ridiculous,” I said. “You’re a couple of bozos, a couple of clowns.”

 I hoped I had made them very uncomfortable. A while later they did their little act, which consisted of them dressing up like clowns and calling themselves magicians and running around on the stage and finally doing one single trick, a sloppy, uninteresting, obvious one. 

 And that’s pretty much how it went. Until they talked about the elephant room. This was later, at the party, when everyone was listening.

“There was a room that Houdini made for himself,” they said, and they had a picture of it to show. “Houdini called it the elephant room, though no elephant could have fit in it because it was a very small room, unless it was a truly tiny elephant, a baby, perhaps. But really, the door was so small there was no way to get an elephant into that room, not even a baby elephant, and no way to get it out.” 

So Houdini had made the room and called it something that it couldn’t be, but him merely calling it that, its sheer name, made me believe it, made me imagine the elephant in the room, made me see it standing there and also wonder why it wasn’t there. So in a way it was the elephant room. It became the elephant room by magic. The magicians made me see it, so, yes, they were doing magic. But it still didn’t make them magicians. 

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