A Short Story by William Jablonsky
Simon Mannheim, world-renowned mentalist, is livid. His show has just ended, and in his hotel room he watches an exposé on cable news decrying his craft as a hoax—timed, no doubt, to follow his recent pay-per-view spectacular. He watches clips of himself explaining that all things are connected, his power a simple matter of harnessing the natural electrochemical energy of the brain and projecting it outward, touching the aura of objects, people, even the very air, and gently pushing until they conform to his will. The segment edits in the phrase “conform to my will” five different times, as if to make him look like a madman. Then, a lengthy narrative on a twenty-year-old University of Minnesota student who was killed attempting Mannheim’s “train trick” just after his St. Paul show.
Mannheim’s abilities, says the investigative journalist, on leave from catching reckless pedophiles, are illusions, easily explainable: the pencil rolled across the table by quiet breath, the spoon bent by a strong thumb, the door opened and closed with fishing line invisible to the camera, the freight train braking with the help of transparent netting.
Mannheim watches and drinks. He knows he should not, as the consequences could be quite grave. Mannheim does not care.
When the host starts comparing him to Rasputin and David Koresh, Mannheim turns off the TV, slams another three fingers of Wild Turkey, peels off his tuxedo in the dark.
All they saw were parlor tricks, he thinks, as he lies atop the comforter in his bikini-briefs and black socks, concentrating on a tiny spider skittering across the ceiling. They didn’t listen to a word I said.
Mannheim calls Marty, his agent, asks why he was not allowed to respond to these charges. Marty tries to assuage him: any publicity is good publicity, it means he’s made it. And that stupid kid would’ve found some other way to take himself out anyway.
The windows begin to rattle.
“You’re fired, Marty,” Mannheim says, and hangs up before Marty can finish shouting, “Go fuck yourself.” He calls the escort service and cancels the call-girl, then lies on the hotel bed in complete silence. He has never felt more alone in his life.
In the morning he makes some calls, fires everyone, cancels the rest of his tour. Then he goes on the Internet, posts something on the social networking sites. It is long and rambling—Marty was the one with the gift for words. The last thing he writes before clicking “Share” is a date and an address, and “Join me.”
He shuts down his laptop, lays his head on the pillow, and for the first time in a week he sleeps easily.
They come—sixty in all, gathered within the dingy white plaster walls of what was once Irving’s Mattress Superstore, in a quiet north-Chicago suburb near the lake. Mannheim bought it two years before, in the hope of one day creating his own auditorium, but the insurance costs were too high. Outside, the ground and everything up to the lakeshore is covered in pristine snow, broken only by the railroad tracks that run in front of the old warehouse. Inside it is cold and dim, the fading sunlight and a pair of generator-powered space heaters providing lukewarm heat.
They are mostly college students or recent graduates, though there are a few silvery heads among them. They sit cross-legged on blankets, tattooed and pierced youngsters next to manicured business-suited men and women old enough to be their parents. An icy draft pricks at their skin, but they do not mind, because he is here.
Mannheim comes downstairs from his quarters in the old manager’s office on the second floor, wire-rimmed spectacles teetering on the edge of his nose. He is neither sleek nor polished: his shaggy reddish-brown hair falls over his eyes, and a coarse, prickly beard obscures his face. In place of his customary tuxedo is a black turtleneck, black chinos, black wingtips, a blue plaid scarf wrapped round his neck and tossed over his left shoulder. The crowd applauds.
Mannheim wanders to the middle of the warehouse floor and sits down.
“Hello,” he says. “Thank you for coming.”
They respond in kind, almost in unison. Just for a moment, he nearly tears up.
He recovers, smiles serenely. “You’re all here because you sense there’s something more than this…” He pinches the flesh of his forearm. “You sense it, but you can’t see it or touch it. Not yet. It took me years to grasp it.” He smiles again. “If you stay, I’ll teach you to sense it, harness it, and use it.”
One young woman in particular, a reed-thin ginger girl named Alison Finkel, weeps at his words as he explains the principles of what he calls “The Miracle”: sensing, touching, moving. This, she instantly decides, is the greatest moment of her life; she is face-to-face with a visionary on the order of Benjamin Franklin, Roentgen, even Einstein.
“I don’t want you to think this will be easy,” Mannheim concludes. “Some of you will get frustrated and leave.” He shoots an accusing glance across the room, and each person instantly resolves that it will be someone else who fails. “But for those who stick it out, the rewards are extraordinary.” He closes his eyes, inhales deeply, and suddenly an intricate web of Christmas lights on wires, strung all along the walls, blinks to life, and the warehouse is cast in brilliant blue and gold.
They gasp. Tears stream from Alison’s eyes.
“Do the train trick!” someone shouts.
Mannheim glares at him. “No more parlor tricks,” he says. “We’re here to learn.” He smiles again. “Let’s begin.”
Despite the space-heaters and cots and blankets, the warehouse is cold, the windows covered in thick frost. Mannheim’s pupils sit cross-legged in heavy moving blankets next to their cots, awaiting the day’s lesson. Two slipped out during the night, their cots conspicuously empty in the middle of the warehouse floor. Their names were Ted and Jamie, Alison thinks, and from overhearing their conversations she could tell they had only come to learn the Jedi mind trick, presumably as a precursor to date-rape. Once she explained to them the difference between telepathy and telekinesis, they left. No one misses them.
There is a black van parked across the street outside, which Alison noticed the night they all arrived—meant to be inconspicuous, she is sure, but as they filed in she noticed a cameraman and a reporter in a long trenchcoat climb out and film something. Their intentions, no doubt, are to further besmirch Mannheim’s honor.
Mannheim, in a long gray Army surplus coat, wanders across the floor carrying an aluminum tea tray in one hand, an apple at its center.
“Let’s start again,” he says. “Before you can even think about moving the apple with your mind, you have to sense it—to be aware of the apple and the space around it, to understand its basic apple-ness.”
Their eyes focus on the Braeburn, pale red with a thin swath of green running down one side. Alison does not know what it means to sense its “appleness,” but she is determined to try.
Five minutes into the exercise, a fat middle-aged man in a yellow cardigan asks, “When are we going to move it?”
Mannheim looks annoyed. “When you understand it,” he says.
After some awkward grumbling and a few unkind stares, the man reddens, sits down. Alison pities him.
“Tell me about the apple,” he says.
“Sweet,” says a young man of about twenty, with thick glasses and unkempt black hair falling over one eye.
“And a little tart,” says an old woman.
Mannheim nods: finally, he thinks, they might be starting to get it. “What else?”
“Firm,” someone else says.
Mannheim nods. “What else?” Alison thinks hard, concentrates so hard on the apple that her forehead hurts, but nothing comes.
“There’s a little worm inside it,” says a girl of nineteen or twenty with a bleached pageboy-cut, wearing a tight black camisole and thin sweatpants despite the cold. Her name is Mandy, and Alison already dislikes her.
Mannheim smiles, closes his eyes tight. “Yes,” he says. “Very good.”
The pupils start to grumble.
“It’s all right,” he says to them. “You just need time and patience.”
Alison is devastated, but resolves that next time she will be the one to sense the worm or whatever. Next time.